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Book Review
Vivaldi's Virgins: A Novel by Barbara Quick
Posted on November 11, 2011 by Marcia Applegate

The life of Anna Maria dal Violin, an engrossing story set in the 18th century.

This fascinating, unusual and beautifully written tale describes the life of a young woman, Anna Maria, who early in life becomes a ward of the Pieta, a foundling "home" in 18th-century Venice run by the sisters of a religious order. Anna Maria is known in the convent as Anna Maria Dal Violin, because the girls of the Pieta were not allowed to know their real last names, and Anna Maria was an exceptionally gifted violinist...

The story of Vivaldi's Virgins is told through the eyes and pen of Anna Maria, who writes voluminous letters to the mother she can only dream about...Read the full review for Barbara's historical novel on Marcia Applegate's blog


"Literary critics are notorious for finding hidden meanings in the most transparent works of literature, so I'll be the first to admit that I might be off base here. But I think that there is at least an unintentional message in VIVALDI'S VIRGINS: if you have enough talent and discipline, you can get away with a whole lot. If you have talent, you're able to distinguish yourself from the common lot, and that's a good start. If you have enough of it, some people will look up to you while others will be jealous of you, and you can find ways to use this to your advantage. You can be eccentric, or more than that, if you have talent. Then there's discipline, which is the ability to outwork others, harness your talent and make it work for you. Discipline by itself is worth cultivating on its own merits, of course, but discipline accompanied by talent can work wonders. (Talent without discipline just makes people envious of you, and that's not going to help you out much.) Having both is a rare combination; most people recognize that and want to help you. And it's so rare that --- generally speaking --- people are willing to forgive you when you go astray, which means you can get away with a lot of things that most others can't. The narrator of VIVALDI'S VIRGINS is Anna Maria dal Violin, and her last name is not an accident. Anna Maria, a real person who lived in Venice in the early 18th century, was an orphan whose home was a training ground for musicians. She and her cohorts were brought up as musicians, playing sacred music for the souls of the dead and the enlightenment of the living. As the novel opens, Anna Maria is still a child, though her skill at the violin has earned her a place as the student of Antonio Vivaldi. For those who don't know a great deal of classical music, Vivaldi's name is little more than half of a free-association exercise --- you say "Vivaldi," I say "The Four Seasons." But Vivaldi is more than the answer to a trivia question for Anna Maria; he is her teacher, the "Red Priest" who is trusted to teach music to the virgin girls of the Ospedale della Pieta, one of the only men in their cloistered world. Anna Maria (who tells the story both from her perspective as an adult and through the letters she wrote as a child) is talented and works hard at her craft. But she desires above all else to experience that which she does not know --- the love of her long-lost mother, the excitement of Venice's Carnival, the temptation of the opera, and the balls, silks and masks of Venetian society. This leads her, time and again, to sneak out of the foundling's home and into the larger world --- and because talent and discipline won't get you out of everything each and every time, it leads her into trouble as well. If the story sounds somewhat slight, the talent behind it is formidable. Author Barbara Quick brings a sharp, artistic eye to the proceedings, describing the subtle details of Venetian fashion and society down to the last pearl on the hem of the dress to the last drops of blood in the aristocratic bloodline. Quick is animated by a deep love of and appreciation for the lost past of Venice and the city's rich romantic heritage. It is her talent in bringing the insular world of the Ospedale della Pieta alive that keeps the story going, and it is her disciplined historic research that keeps the reader enthralled. With that combination you can get away with a good deal, but you can also produce a lot --- in this case, a fine novel like VIVALDI'S VIRGINS." ---Reviewed by Curtis Edmonds, who writes the "Northbound" blog at

From an omnibus review in The Houston Chronicle by Robert Cremins:

"Barbara Quick's debut novel Vivaldi's Virgins is "in the tradition of" a very different kind of book, namely Tracy Chevalier's Girl With a Pearl Earring. In many ways Quick's story is a genuine successor to that art-inspired historical novel..."

From poet Karren Alenier in Scene4:

"If you love Italy, specifically Venice; classical music, especially Baroque and the compositions of Antonio Vivaldi; prose that reads like music; and a story based on historical fact that solves a mystery, you will be ecstatic to open the cover of Vivaldi's Virgins." [read the rest of this review]

From Malena Watrous for the San Francisco Chronicle, Front Page of the Book Review:

"Barbara Quick did all the research she could, traveling to Venice and scouring its historical archives, even learning Italian. But the composer left little behind aside from his musical scores, so she ended up listening to his music for clues to his emotional life, and using her imagination to fill in the blanks....[A] novel in the tradition of Tracy Chevalier's best-selling "Girl With a Pearl Earring," [...] "Vivaldi's Virgins" is less a mystery than a romance. The subject of this romance is not a love story between a man and a woman, or even between a mother and daughter, but about music itself - the act of artistic creation. Quick's descriptions of Anna Maria's violin playing soar off the page, evoking Vivaldi's own compositions."

From Library Journal

“…Quick… finely details the different aspects and classes of Venetian society, especially delving into the lives of the women of the Pietà. The rich tapestry of Venice unfolds before us so that we can take in all the decadence and excitement of la Serenissima in its last great era. Recommended for all fiction collections.”

From Publishers Weekly

“…Anna Maria's strong spirit shines throughout, whether stealing into the Jewish ghetto to learn about her parents, struggling to master Vivaldi's grueling violin passages or doing penance for her independent nature. Quick creates a hauntingly authentic setting rife with cruel punishments and brief moments of grand rewards. Anna Maria's quest to discover her identity is the centerpiece, though readers may find it less intriguing than the other story lines (among them Vivaldi's relationship with renowned young singer Anna Girò).” (July)

From Kirkus Reviews

“An intriguing glimpse at the decadence, debauchery and prudery of Baroque-era Venice.”

From School Library Journal (Adult books recommended for high school students)

“The 18th-century world of Venice and famed composer Antonio Vivaldi come to life in this novel. The story depicts the imagined life of the real Anna Maria dal Violin, an orphan at the Ospedale della Pietà who was his renowned pupil. Through Anna Maria's eyes, Quick introduces readers to the dazzling world of Venetian society, but she does not flinch from portraying the darker side of a city in decline. Anna Maria experiences a life of ambiguity. As an orphan living a cloistered and regimented existence, she wants desperately to uncover the mystery of her mother's true identity. As she blossoms into a young woman and an amazing talent, her private pain drives her to risk all in order to discover who she really is and where she came from. Like Tracy Chevalier's Girl with a Pearl Earring (HarperCollins, 1999), this book has great appeal, especially for teenage girls; it also offers much to those readers interested in the composer and his influence on Venetian society in the early 1700s.”—Catherine Gilbride, Farifax County Public Library, VA.

From Booklist

“Quick has chosen a fascinating backdrop. Her novel shimmers with details about music and Venice in the early 1700s, as well as life within the Pietà .... This is a good readalike to match with Girl with a Pearl Earring (2001) and The Birth of Venus (2004).”

From Sarah Dunant, author of In the Company of the Courtesan and The Birth of Venus

"Lovingly researched and lovingly written - a captivating and poignant novel."

From Elizabeth Rosner, author of Blue Nude and The Speed of Light

"Richly imagined and lyrically composed, Vivaldi's Virgins is a sublime feast for the senses. On this compelling journey behind the cloister walls and inside the intrigue of eighteenth-century Venice, readers will be serenaded, seduced, inspired, and moved."

From Stephanie Cowell, author of Marrying Mozart

"The Ospedale della Pieta in early 18th century Venice was a home for foundling girls, the most musical of whom were trained as orchestra members or singers. Strictly cloistered from the world, they performed for the cream of Venice in their church while remaining hidden from view. The adolescent girls, who long for knowledge of their parents, discover friendship, desperate crushes, young sensuality, and the depths of music. The great composer Vivaldi wrote some of his most gorgeous music for them and taught them and the portrait the author draws of him is vivid and unforgettable.

Fourteen-year-old Anna Maria is his prize violin student. Encouraged by one of the nuns to write longing letters to the mother whose name she does not even know, she dares to break the strict rules to find her heritage and meet with a young man. As her three closest friends each in turn escape the sexless confines of the Ospedale where music is the only sensuality allowed, she too becomes more desperate and daring, riding out masked at night in a gondola for music and for love.

The writing evokes Venice and the love of music and the longing of young girls so beautifully! I read some passages with tears in my eyes. At one point when music may be lost to Anna Maria forever, it was so poignant I had to put the book down a few times. Like a previous reviewer, I marked many passages to read again. Some sentences I had to reread several times before going on. They were truly music."

From Merrimon Crawford, avid reader and owner of Merrimon Books

“…This novel will appeal to a wide range of readers: those craving something of literary beauty, Vivaldi and classical music lovers, women wanting to experience history through the eyes of the women who lived it but for whom history rarely relates their story, and anyone wanting to peek into the lesser known history of Venice or music. Although a reader need no knowledge of these literary traditions to enjoy this novel, the thoroughness of the author's research heightens the reading pleasure…Vivaldi's Virgins is a five-star read… The historical detail is well researched and the fictional imagination is breathtaking. The poetic language of each sentence is exquisite. Although I am a fast reader, I found myself reading slowly, creeping actually, but pausing on each page to savor its beauty and poetic prose. It has been 17 years since my graduate studies in literature and I thought I had finally conquered my terrible habit of writing in my books. After reading ten pages of Barbara Quick's Vivaldi's Virgins, I broke down and wrote in the book and continued to the end, rereading each line as I underlined. There is a multitude of passages so beautiful that I want to reread them several times.” Read more from this reviewer

From ck2s Kwips and Kritiques

"You don't have to be a fan of this period of history to appreciate VIVALDI'S VIRGINS. Barbara Quick's breathtaking prose immediately captivates as the voice of Anna Maria shines through. Seen through her eyes, Venetian society takes on a whole new outlook. From the various prejudices against the Jews to the restrictions against women to the sheer politics of the time, VIVALDI'S VIRGINS is an intimate portrait of a society in which music flourished. Barbara Quick's lilting prose paints a picture so exquisite that the ending comes far too quickly." Read the rest of this review.

From reader Kay James on the Romance Readers at Heart web site

"Have you ever read a book that you truly, truly hated to see end? I know you must have. That's exactly how I felt about VIVALDI'S VIRGINS by Barbara Quick. I hated to feel the pages dwindling in my hands, hated knowing the adventure would soon be over. This book was that excellent. Set in Venice in the 1700s, this is a rich, lush tale of love, a hauntingly sweet journey of discovery that is filled with unexpected revelations at every turn. Anna Maria was abandoned as an infant, and has longed to know who she is and where she's from. She's one of the talented musicians who is taught by Antonio Vivaldi, but without roots, Anna Maria seems untethered. Through a series of events that take her outside the cloistered walls she's accustomed to, she learns not only where she comes from, but where she's going.

"Venice is portrayed so beautifully, it is a character in its own right in this novel. The mysteries of Carnival season, undying devotion of musicians to the notes and the red-headed maestro, make this story leap from the page. I felt my heart lurch every time Anna Maria was chastised, and felt it sing when she found success on the path to self-discovery. This is a complex tale, one that I was completely absorbed by. Lovers of Italian history will especially adore this novel, but anyone with a longing to "see" a time long past and feel the hopes and dreams of someone who's been abandoned will enjoy this. Barbara Quick has written a beautiful story, one that I know I'll read over and over again."

From Anna, bookseller at the Book Clinic, Inc. in Nebraska City

“I have to tell you how much I loved this book! Historical Fiction is one of my favorite venues and this one reminds me of Girl with a Pearl Earring, set to music. There needs to be a sequel.”

From the Bookcrossing web site

“…readers will be enthralled by Anna Marie’s quest to just know who her mom was… With a delightful final twisting coda, Barbara Quick provides a superb biographical fiction story as Vivaldi is showcased through the life of a real student of the Four Seasons composer.” —Harriet Klausner (gave the book a rating of 10 out of 10)

From Lynn Ehlen of the North Dakota State University Bookstore

“I just finished reading an advance copy of Barbara Quick's Vivaldi's Virgins and I thought it was fabulous. I love novels that are historically based and this one was so clear and vivid about that time period. I thought it was very well written and I especially liked how she told the story both in Anna Marie's narrative and through the letters she wrote and received. I couldn't put the book down until I was finished with it - much to my husband's dismay because I spent the majority of this weekend reading!! I will definitely recommend this book to others here at our bookstore!! Excellent book!!!”

From “First Look” reader Amy (Petaluma, CA)

"Although Vivaldi's Virgins will draw inevitable comparisons to works by Tracy Chevalier and Sarah Dunant, the plot breaks new ground by offering a glimpse into the cloistered world of Venice's musical virgins and their connection to Antonio Vivaldi. I was expecting Quick's novel to be the standard 'artist-finding-muse' fare but was pleasantly surprised to find the focus on one young girl's search for identity and meaning in a male-dominated world. Anna Maria's quest to find the truth about her parentage is very moving and provides a wonderful structure to the story. The exploration of the roles of women in this time period also offers the reader interesting insights into the struggles facing these Venetian women.…Vivaldi's Virgins offers a quick and entertaining read for those who enjoy historical fiction."

From “First Look” reader Beth (Scottsdale, AZ)

"… This book was compelling and kept me reading late into the night until the very end."

From “First Look” reader C-L (Winthrop, ME)

"Barbara Quick's Vivaldi's Virgins opens a time capsule into the complex society of early eighteenth-century Venice, years when Vivaldi, the 'red priest,' taught music to select orphan girls in the Ospedale della Pietà. The picture she paints, and the genealogical mystery she invents, are entrancing, transporting the reader into another mind-set; another culture. The picture she paints brings the music and the composer to life, and gives new insight into how, and why, the masterpieces were created, carrying the reader along on a mysterious magic carpet, its strands woven with letters to the protagonist's unknown mother. The author obviously did detailed research into the music and mores of the era. In all but one detail, that is. On page 67 she mentions Russian nesting dolls, referring to them as if they were made in the 18th century, when they were invented in the late 19th century, expressly as a tourist souvenir, around Zagorsk (Sergiev Posad). This took me completely out of the book, wondering about other possible errors. This said, Vivaldi's Virgins is engrossing and worthwhile, and a real page-turner."

From “First Look” reader Mary (Elgin, IL)

"What a wonderful book. From page one, I was enthralled and did not want to put this book down. I loved the way the author mixed the narrative with the letter writing to her mother. I was transported back in time to period that is usually portrayed as romantic and beautiful. You have that in this book, but you also have some of the darker non-beautiful aspects of life during that time. This author mixed the two beautifully. This is a book that I am fully recommending to my friends and family. My sister is an English teacher and I know she shall truly enjoy this book. Thank you for allowing me to preview this wonderful book."

From “First Look” reader Tamara (Matamoras, PA)

"I enjoyed this book very much. I especially liked the narrative style and was quite pleased with the author's engaging and authentic foray into historical fiction."

From “First Look” reader Gabrielle (Syracuse, NY)

"This is a wonderful escape book. The story telling is vibrant and lyrical. I love the mixing of historical fact with the fictional fantasies of the author's imagination. I wish that I could have been listening to Vivaldi while reading it, but Barbara Quick's descriptions of the emotions and human reactions were more than enough to create the atmosphere in my own imagination. Thank you for writing and publishing this book it has been a wonderful lunch-hour escape from the every day doldrums of work. Would be perfect for beach-side reading as well."

From “First Look” reader Katherine (Hodges, SC)

"Vivaldi's Virgins was simply a wonderful read! Barbara Quick's writing flows with wonderful detail as she tells of the passion and inner spirit of the young girl, Anna Maria, in the cloistered life she leads in Venice in the early 1700's, as she searches for the identity of her mother who abandoned her to be raised in a foundling home. Anna Maria, at a very young age, is found to have a special gift of playing the violin and through her instrument and the inspiration of maestro and composer Antonio Vivaldi she pours out her heart through that instrument. Life is not easy for this young girl and she risks time and again what few privileges she has to follow her heart and keep her spirit alive. This book is rich with flowing detail that can almost be felt as well as read...much as a melody Anna Maria might play. Bravo!"

From “First Look” reader Bill (Ogunquit, ME)

"Barbara Quick's page-turner, Vivaldi's Virgins, is a novel of mystery and intrigue set in 18th century Venice during the waning years of the Republic. Anna Maria, abandoned by her mother at the famed Venetian orphanage that became Vivaldi's proving ground, struggles to understand her past, her musical genius, and her destiny. Told through letters written when she was 14, on the edge of womanhood, and her accounts in her early 40s, a woman who has found wholeness in her self, Anna Marie tells of her drive to find her true mother, her selection by Vivaldi as his protégée at the orphanage, her betrayals by envious girls and nuns, her frustration by the prison like-orphanage, and her own impatience. Quick's uses the young Anna Marie to raise questions in her letters … that all of us have asked as we stand at the door of adulthood: Who are our real parents? How can we nurture what we love to do? How can we find happiness? And Quick uses the mature Anna Marie to tell us from a more knowledgeable and wiser distance this voyage of discovery of her past, of the growth of her talents, and of her final realization of wholeness. Vivaldi's Virgins creates an 18th century Venice sparkling with love amid a masked six-month Carnival, bejeweled with the greatest musicians of the age: Handel, Scarlatti, and of course Vivaldi , Anna Marie's musical father, and the prodigies of this famous girls' orphanage, tutored by Vivaldi himself, and given his music as their musical inspiration. Barbara Quick's Vivaldi's Virgins is an extraordinary contribution to our understanding of a school, now lost, where girls, often abandoned by their families, could realize their genius, nurtured by one of our greatest composers. Vivaldi's Virgins is also a window on ourselves, on our own journey to understanding what we have been given, how we have used our gifts, and how they have brought us to where we are now."

From “First Look” reader Selma (Philadelphia, PA)

"… This is an extraordinary book; I have not read anything like it in a very long time. It is passionate, sympathetic, creative and entertaining ...I was touched by the personality of each character; they all seemed unique in propelling the story forward. I would like to read the book a second time and provide another review. I thoroughly enjoyed the read and applaud the Author. Thank you for the opportunity."

To read more reviews of Barbara’s novels and read (and listen to) interviews with the author, click here.

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