My book, Daughter of Venice, by Donna Jo Napoli takes place in the year 1592 and is a fictional story about Donata, a fourteen-year-old girl born to a noble family in Venice. Donata lives in her family’s palazzo on Venice’s Grand Canal with eleven brothers and sisters. Although she lives a life of wealthy priviledge, she is as captured as a wild animal in a cage because of the strict social norms and etiquette of Venetian upper-class society. Donata hates being constrained and not being allowed to leave her palazzo. She longs to see the beauty of Venice as her three older brothers do. She is also doomed for a future of containment as only one son and one daughter from noble families are allowed to marry. Because she is not the oldest, Donata knows that a life in the convent awaits her. Determined to experience Venice, she formulates an intricate plan to escape the palazzo. She and her younger sisters conspire and steal some of her brother’s old clothes and Donata dresses as a boy and explores the city freely, having her twin sister Laura cover for her around the house.
Donata runs into trouble however when she accidently steps on a sharp piece of wood in the Jewish Ghetto and injures her foot. Luckily a young Jewish man named Noé comes to her rescue. He takes her back to his house in the Ghetto and removes the splinter. He gives her a pair of shoes in return for her working off the debt in a printer’s workshop. This becomes Donata’s routine; working as a copyist in the morning with Noé while Laura does Donata’s chores and pretends to be her. In the afternoons, both Laura and Donata are asked to join their older brothers in their tutorials, where they learn Venetian, Latin, and Greek; and about various subjects such as science and philosophy.
Donata continues to work each day in the Ghetto, is inquisitive, and becomes close to Noé as they discuss their religions and societies. Noé however still believes that Donata is a boy, but has guessed that she is from a wealthy family and is trying to escape the suffocating life. Donata tells Noé that her name is Donato instead. To complicate things, Noé asks Donata to pretend that she is a girl while she works at the copyist because boys must pay fees to work in the copyist’s guild. So Donata is a girl pretending to be a boy pretending to be a girl. On top of this, Donata starts to develop feelings for Noé even though he has no idea that she is a girl, and a Catholic one at that; Noé would never be able to marry her because he is Jewish.
Back at home in the palazzo, Donata’s father has big announcements. Antonio, the third oldest son is chosen to marry, which is unique because the eldest son is usually chosen. Also the eldest sister Andriana has been chosen to marry. However her father has a surprise: Andriana’s fiancé surprisingly did not want as large of a dowry as her father expected, allowing enough finances for a second daughter to marry. There is much apprehension as the next daughter will be one of the twins, either Donata or Laura. Father announces that he has chosen Donata because of her diligent work around the house as of late, and because of her excellence in her studying during her tutorials. Donata is astounded because she has always wanted to marry, but now feels guilty because Laura is actually the diligent one. Donata now also has feelings for Noé and cannot imagine marrying anyone else.
Donata comes up with a risky plan to allow Laura to marry – a scandal. Donata writes an anonymous denunciation about herself putting it in the bocca di leone for the Council to read. Her denunciation says that she has converted to Judaism. She knows that this will create a scandal so that the next sister in the family will be the one to wed. The scandal works and Laura is instead chosen to marry. Donata reveals herself to Noé who is surprised but still values Donata’s friendship. Donata thinks that she is doomed for the convent, however her family finds a way to save her through her studies. Although it is extremely rare, some women had been accepted to the University of Padua, where Donata’s older brothers attend classes. Her tutor highly recommends her and reports about her great intelligent and diligence in her studies, and she is accepted.
I really loved this book. Although it is a fictional novel that is written for younger ages (teenagers), that is also what makes it a very enjoyable read. The author provides a note at the end explaining her research and that the story is based off of a historical figure, Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia, the first woman ever to be awarded a doctoral degree in Philosophy from the University of Padua in 1678. To my knowledge all of the Napoli’s descriptions have been historically accurate. She adds in historical facts every so often into the dialogue, especially about the Jews living in Venice. At one point when Donata and Noé are discussing, he asks if she knew about the degree passed in 1516 which required the Jews to move to the Ghetto, and explains how the buildings had to be built taller, with more floors to house all of the Jews. Napoli also offers common Venice ideologies and perceptions of Venice. For example, Donata’s brother reminds Donata that “to be Venetian is to be practical”.
I greatly enjoyed the book and I feel that I learned an interesting first-hand perspective of a young girl living in Venice in 1592. Being female, I easily related to the character of Donata. I feel even more connected, and intrigued, to the city of Venice after reading this book. The underlying themes within the story definitely relate to the myths of Venice the Free as well as Venice the Rich. Donata’s undying determination for independence and freedom, as well as the abundance of wealth within her family demonstrate these two themes. I felt the struggles she had to face in ancient Venetian society of having to choose between marriage or life in the convent. This was an excellent read in anticipation of our travel to Venice, and I would recommend it to anyone who is looking for an easy, entertaining read that has a lot of interesting historical significance.
Napoli, Donna Jo. Daughter of Venice. New York: Random House, 2002. Print.