In telling the tale of Celestina’s Burnings, a Florentine jongleur, or minstrel, might wax poetic about our heroine and muse being virtuous and fair, with hair the color of summer and smelling like almonds. Or he might give his audience a hero to root for—Rinaldo, he of the chiseled physique and noble acts of bravery, not to mention Celestina’s true love. Or perhaps, the entertainer would go to the dark side, eliciting boos and hisses when captivating the crowd with the separate accounts of Zola and Fra Brucker and their wicked, deceitful, and immoral acts. No matter whom he starts with, the minstrel’s colorful story would eventually wind its way through accusations of witchcraft, a disastrous case of mistaken identity, a dungeon and the divinity found there, before ending with a wedding and a gift from the pope.
Author Annemarie Schiavi Pedersen takes on the subject of witch hunts and the societal mania that caused so many innocent women to be burned at the stake in her fifteenth-century-based novel, Celestina’s Burnings. She succeeds to a decent degree by using Celestina’s friendship with Zola as a microcosm of what can happen when you combine personal agendas with religious fervor and the fear of God. The author has an unfortunate tendency, however, to juvenilize the emotions of her characters. As opposed to using subtler inflections to create tension, every high is oh-so-high and every low is the depths of despair. It creates a rollercoaster ride for the reader that at times can be hard to stomach. On a positive note, she beautifully entwines some of Italy’s most famous people into the story, doing so cleverly and seamlessly. But her best writing comes through the words of Genève, who at first glance appears to be just another wronged woman awaiting a farcical trial and deadly sentencing. Then it becomes clear that she may be something else entirely. All in all, Celestina’s Burnings is a delightful romp through Renaissance Italy that, while it could be much more, at the end will still have you on the edge of your seat and as though you were sitting in the audience watching our minstrel act out the final words of his story.