Sebastiano Vassalli: La chimera (The Chimera)


The latest addition to my website is Sebastiano Vassalli‘s La chimera (The Chimera). Set in Italy at the end of the sixteenth and beginning of the seventeenth century, this is a novel about witchcraft or, rather, it isn’t, it is about a young woman accused of witchcraft for the very simple crimes of a) being pretty and b) having a boyfriend outside the village where she lives. Antonia Spagnolini is a foundling, left in a church as was the custom at that time. She is taken to an orphanage run by the church where she grows up. At that time, the Bishop of Novara, Carlo Bascapè, was having a crusade against corruption and sins of the flesh. As a result, people were reluctant to adopt pretty girl orphans – Antonia was the prettiest in the orphanage – for fear of being accused of sexual depravity so, for a long time, she was not adopted. Finally she was adopted by a couple who lived in the long since disappeared village of Zardino, a small hamlet in the Po valley. She did not fit in very well. She found the people too coarse and they found her too pretty. When she grew up, she remained very pretty and several of the young men fell for her. However, she picked an itinerant worker. Soon there was talk about her. People said she caused animals to fall ill and children to be struck dumb. Crops died when she walked by and she was ‘seen’ conducting witches’ sabbaths. The local priest, a zealot who did not like Antonia’s independent spirit, reported her to the Inquisition in Novara and she was arrested and tried for witchcraft. Vassalli makes it clear that he finds the church authorities and local people to be total hypocrites in this matter, while Antonia is an innocent, free spirit, who did not conform to the standards of the time and paid the price for it. In addition to the story, Vassalli gives us a wonderful portrait of church politics at the time and what life was like for the ordinary person. Though long since out of print in English, the book has been translated and is not too difficult to find.

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