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Talking Location With … Tom Benjamin – BOLOGNA

11th May 2022

Tom Benjamin

#TalkingLocationWith … Tom Benjamin, author of Requiem in La Rossa – BOLOGNA (Daniel Leicester #3)

Tom Benjamin’s new Bologna-set novel brings to light the little known yet epic struggle of a convent of 17thCentury nuns to help solve a modern mystery

I might not have been there at all – the tour of Bologna’s International Music Museum and Library was for the members of the International Women’s Forum, whose events by definition are usually *husbands not included” – but considering this was a weekend event, organiser Susanna had permitted us to accompany them.

The Museum itself is fascinating. The porticoes of Bologna might just have received UNESCO World Heritage status, but the city has been a UNESCO City of Music since 2006. The first publicly-funded opera house, Teatro Comunale on Piazza Verdi, was established in 1756, while just up the road in Via Zamboni, there is Italy’s first music school, Conservatorio Giovan Battista Martini, named after the tutor of the young Mozart, who came to study under the maestro and played the organ in the church of San Domenico.

The courtyard of the ex-convent of Santa Cristina

So Bologna has earned its musical chops and we stepped into a room where strange, dark wood instruments stood in glass cases. The guide explained they were created for the nuns of the Convent of Santa Cristina and were designed to recreate the sound of brass instruments the sisters were forbidden from using in fear of outraging public decency.

These were not nuns as we know them – as Professor Craig Monson notes in Nuns Behaving Badly: Tales of Music, Magic, Art and Arson in the Convents of Italy: ‘In seventeenth-century Milan, no fewer than 75 percent of genteel women lived behind convent walls. Their families might contain more nuns than wives.’ Monson said a ‘respectable’ woman only had two options – marriage or the convent – and with family wealth needing to be kept intact, too many dowries drained the family coffers. ‘While one daughter was commonly groomed for the marriage market, the rest were regularly bound over to the cloister.’

The museum guide explained how the convent of Santa Cristina had been famous for its music over the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries but the church had increasingly imposed restrictions: the nuns were forbidden public concerts and to come and go as they pleased, cloistered – a polite form of imprisonment – and finally deprived of their instruments. When they still resisted, they were actually subject to a siege by papal forces. This was why my new Daniel Leicester mystery Requiem in La Rossa begins with a contemporary quote taken from Monson’s Diva’s in the Convent:

Tom Benjamin

Frescoes in Santa Cristina

The porticoes of Bologna have just won UNESCO World Heritage Status

‘Finally the episcopal auditor arrived with his many yeomen to put them to the test. The nuns immediately and with one accord climbed up high and, throwing down tiles and stones, forced his retreat out of range with his squadron. Then, as the bell sounded the alarm and the crowds flocked there, donna Isabetta Vizzana, crucifix in hand, and with her head veiled, made the convent’s case so passionately that she moved her audience to pity and indignation.’ 

Isabetta was the sister of Lucrezia, a composer whose works are still performed but who, because of her privations, produced no further work we know of, and some said descended into mental illness in the years following the siege.

Although my mystery series is set very much in today’s Italy and Requiem revolves around my English detective’s search for a serial killer, living in Bologna it is impossible not to feel as if you are on ‘a stage set for Shakespeare’.

Tom Benjamin

The courtyard of Bologna’s Conservatorio di musica Giovan Battista Martini which also features in Requiem in La Rossa

The centre-piece of Requiem is a performance of Lucrezia Vizzani’s work at the former convent, now a women’s library, and there’s more – I don’t believe it is giving too much away to reveal Requiem in la Rossa seeks to not only resolve a modern mystery but also this past struggle, in the hope of dispensing a little justice that in real life the sisters of Santa Cristina were denied.

One might call it poetic licence; one might even choose to believe it is true.

Requiem in La Rossa is published by Constable on May 5 

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Catch Tom on @tombenjaminsays on both Twitter and Instagram (where you will discover beautiful photos of the city and the publishers have used one of his photos on the cover of the book!)

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