Celestina’s Burnings

Written by Annemarie Schiavi Pedersen
Review by Valerie Adolph

Witch-hunting was common in 15th-century Florence. It could conveniently be combined with another favourite activity—bonfires. Once caught, tried and tortured witches were burned for the entertainment and edification of the people.

Celestina, working in the bakery on the Via Scalia in 1491, hears the Montenina bell ring to signify the death of not one witch but three. She is drawn out into the street despite her grandmother’s protests and encounters a crowd celebrating the arrival of the Reform. It is the youth of Florence gathering into an informal army to seek and destroy witches. Celestina, heartbroken at the death of her father killed because of his association with a witch, joins them intent on killing that witch. But Celestina’s beauty has attracted Rinaldo, a rock cutter longing to be an artist. He believes her to be his muse.

Together they face impossible odds searching for the witch responsible for her father’s death. Rinaldo sees treasured artworks destroyed by the mob. Celestina herself is accused of witchcraft. Venerated figures within the church turn out not to be the virtuous figures they appeared to be. Evil abounds, and the reader becomes very aware that the Italian Renaissance was not all enlightenment.

Pedersen shows deep feeling for both the period and the fate of women accused of witchcraft. Her research into the art and discoveries of 15th-century northern Italy provides a strong foundation for the novel. Also, her narrative skill as she reveals the fear and ignorance of the time provide us with a well-balanced and absorbing read.