Quite a few novels have been written about the fate of infants left at the door of Venice’s Ospedale della Pieta (Pity), an organization renowned for its music and training of child prodigies, offering those unfortunates useful lives dedicated to prayer and the praise of God through music. Three-year-old Maddelina and her baby sister, Chiaretta, are no exception, the abandoned girls branded, as are all other newcomers, with a small p, educated in the proper manner for women lacking dowries in 1701 Venice.
The sisters are inseparable as the years pass, until Maddelina reaches puberty and is moved into quarters with older girls. The Ospedale is sponsored by a community of wealthy citizens who also support a number of composers and virtuosos - in this case don Vivaldi, a master violinist and composer. Vivaldi discovers in young Maddelina an emerging talent on the violin. Chiaretta’s gift is her voice, a powerful soprano that will open the doors of opportunity as she grows to maturity.
The students are rigorously controlled in the Pieta. As they reach the age of eighteen, they may either marry, assuming an appropriate offer has been extended, or join a convent. With either choice, futures are secure. In rare cases, particular individuals may remain at the Ospedale as instructors for incoming students. It is this path that Maddelina chooses, unable to bear a separation from Vivaldi, who has defined her time at the Pieta, her days either bearable or unbearable depending on his mood or length of disappearance.
Reaching majority, once a young woman has left she may never again perform in public, a terrible decision for a talented young woman to make. Long dreaming of marriage and children, Chiaretta is conflicted. She has yearned for her freedom, but singing is a great joy, a terrible price to pay for marriage. She understands that to break this contract with the Pieta has grave consequences.
While Chiaretta does choose marriage, Maddelina pursues a more sheltered existence. Her on-and-off relationship with the composer Vivaldi has been a double-edged sword for the violinist. Deeply attached to the man who has championed her talent, the frequent absences of an explosive personality bring an increasingly disturbing chaos to her orderly days.
As the lives of these two sisters evolve, the author explores the limitations of their few choices and the paths of each in seeking happiness, or at least fulfillment. The restrictions placed on such women by a society that proscribes strict roles for those in the Ospedale’s care are painfully clear, their alternatives severely constricted by virtue of their years spent in that particular confinement.
All either sister can do is accommodate the few freedoms allowed to those of their class, individual talent a unique determinant. For example, Chiaretta’s life is the fuller of the two, a successful figure in Venetian society who loves her husband and bears four children. Maddelina’s quieter, more emotionally tragic years are parsed in her involvement with Vivaldi, who is the center of her world and her music.
The mystery of the girls’ mother’s identity is never resolved, though much hinted at throughout the novel, a shared keepsake of particular note. Nevertheless, the bond between the two sisters remains inviolate, shared memories and childish dreams their strongest link to the past and the present.