Italian novelist Vassalli, appearing for the first time in English, uses ample wit and historical knowledge to provide a Strega Prize-winning glimpse into the early 17th century—in particular, the machinations of church and state in northern Italy against powerless peasants, especially a young girl accused of witchcraft. In the Piedmont's rice-growing region, the folk of Zardino serve many masters: the forces of nature, capricious but life- sustaining; the priest, officious and taxing; and the customs of generations, by which feuds fester and behavior is closely monitored. Hence, when a childless couple brings home a girl from their visit to an orphanage—to a village already teeming with females—tongues wag at the oddity. The girl, Antonia, settles into village life readily at first, but as years pass her transcendent beauty marks her for renewed interest. The village idiot falls in love with her; a painter uses her image to depict the Madonna in a local shrine; she's cast out of church for dancing, however unwillingly, with a passing Protestant soldier; finally, she roams at night to meet her lover, himself a stranger, and is thought by mean-spirited locals to be trysting with the Devil. Denounced as a witch, she is interrogated by the region's Inquisitor, who needs her to validate his profession. As power-struggles surge about her- -between resentful parishioners and their priest, between the Inquisitor and his Bishop, between the Bishop and his archenemy the Pope—Antonia awaits the inevitable day when she is burned, to the delight of thousands of spectators. Scathing as an indictment of self-interested authority and insightful as a foray into the complexities of Counter-Reformation Italian society. But the central figure, portrayed with profound sympathy though she is, remains a cipher, leaving an important face in this historical reenactment largely blank.
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