Book Notes: An Interview with Carmela Martino, Author of Playing by Heart



Set in 18th-century Milan, Playing by Heart is a symphony of romance and faith with an undercurrent of social commentary. Will Maria and Emilia’s father sacrifice their futures on the altar of his own ambitions to join the noble class? Carmela Martino’s new novel for teen readers explores family ties, vocations, and discernment of the best ways to use God-given gifts. Cue up some Vivaldi or Pachelbel and settle in for an intriguing tale.

It was my pleasure to interview author Carmela Martino about her novel.

Q: Your previous novel was set in the twentieth century. Did you find that you prefer writing historical fiction?

Actually, since my first novel, Rosa, Sola, is for readers ten and up, the twentieth-century is historical fiction for those readers. And I confess, it was much easier to write a story set during my own lifetime than two centuries earlier. For Rosa, Sola, I still had to research some of the setting details, such as the popular songs of the time, for the sake of accuracy. But much of that novel was based on my own memories. As much as I enjoy reading historical fiction, when it comes to writing, I prefer a time period I can recall. Getting the details right is so much easier.

Q: What was your biggest challenge in writing a novel set in the eighteenth century?

I had so many challenges, but the biggest was probably finding primary documents describing what life was like specifically in Milan in the early 1700s. Most of the material I found was about life in England or France, or even Venice. But Venice was a republic at that time, with a way of life significantly different from that in the Duchy of Milan, which was under Hapsburg rule. Even when I did find documents about Milan, they were typically written in Italian. I grew up with my parents speaking Italian but I didn’t study it in school, so I have difficulty reading it. To add to the challenge, the Italian documents I found were sometimes riddled with archaic words no longer in use, so they weren’t even in my Italian-English dictionary. And, like old documents in English, the fonts were often difficult to read. For example, a lower-case s looked like a lower-case f without the crossbar.

One of my greatest research finds was an account by someone who had witnessed Archduchess Maria Theresa’s visit to Milan in 1739. I don’t even recall how I’d found it, but it was included in a document that had been scanned into the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale. I was able to download the document onto my computer and print out the pertinent pages. It was like striking gold! I probably spent several hours translating the pages. It was well worth it. The document gave me wonderful details that I incorporated into my novel, such as the description of the crowds that lined the streets waiting to greet the archduchess and how the welcome ceremony had to be moved indoors because of the rain.

Q: What was the most surprising thing you learned while researching for this novel?

I learned SO much about many different subjects: the Enlightenment, noble titles, art, music, the history of musical instruments, Italian history, women’s education, etc. One of the most surprising things was learning of the holy relic housed in the Cathedral of Milan that is purported to be one of the nails used to crucify Christ. I had no idea the relic existed. In 1576, Saint Charles Borromeo, who was archbishop of Milan at the time, carried the relic in procession during an outbreak of the plague, instituting an annual tradition. Originally, the Ritual of the Holy Nail was conducted every year on May third, the Feast of the Finding of the Holy Cross in the old liturgical calendar. (There’s a scene in my novel where Archduchess Maria Theresa participates in the ceremony during her visit to Milan.) The Ritual of the Nail is still conducted annually in Milan, though it’s been moved to September 14, the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. There are numerous videos on YouTube depicting the event—they were a great aid in my research. Here’s a brief one narrated in English:

And this one’s a bit longer, but narrated in Italian:

Q: Were the characters based on historical figures?

Yes, both my main character, Emilia, and her older sister, Maria, are inspired by two sisters who were well-known in 18th-century Milan. We have more information about the woman who inspired the character of Maria Salvini. Her name was Maria Gaetana Agnesi. She was a child prodigy, fluent in seven languages by age eleven. By age fourteen she was solving difficult geometry problems. She went on to write an acclaimed math textbook.

My main character, Emilia Salivini, is loosely based on Maria Gaetana’s younger sister, Maria Teresa Agnesi, who was one of the first Italian women to compose a serious opera. Their father, Pietro Agnesi, held salons in their home where he had the two sisters perform to impress his guests. Maria Gaetana hated all the attention, though, and felt called to help the sick and poor. Around age 18, she asked her father’s permission to join an order of nuns known for their work with the poor. But Pietro Agnesirefused. Her sister, composer Maria Teresa, wished to marry a poor nobleman, but their father refused her as well. It wasn’t until after Pietro Agnesi’s death in 1752 that his daughters could finally live lives of their own choosing. By then, Maria was nearly 34 years old. She quickly traded her inheritance for a small annual stipend and devoted the rest of her life to helping the poor.

Maria Teresa married Pietro Antonio Pinottini three months after her father’s death. By then, she was 31 years old. Little is known of her later life, except that she and her husband struggled financially. Unfortunately, most of her compositions were lost, but there’s recently been renewed interest in her and her music. You can find YouTube videos of her compositions, such as this one:

You can read more about the Agnesi sisters at this website I created:

I changed the sisters’ names in the novel because their story is heavily fictionalized. However, real historical figures do occasionally appear in Playing by Heart. I mentioned above how I incorporated the visit of Archduchess Maria Theresa, who would later become Empress, into the story. My characters also meet General Otto Ferdinand von Traun, interim governor of Milan at the time. Whenever possible, I tried to incorporate real people and events to try to add to the story’s authenticity.

Q: Are you a musician? You seem to know a lot about music. Who is your favorite composer?

I wouldn’t call myself a musician but I’ve always loved music. When I was six, we moved into a house that had an old upright piano in the basement. I used to pick out simple tunes on it, like “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” I longed to study piano, but that wasn’t one of the instruments my Catholic elementary school offered for instruction. Instead, I studied the clarinet. I played clarinet in high school marching band and orchestra, but haven’t touched it in decades. I’ve always enjoyed singing, too, and sang in our church choir in junior high and then again in college. I used to make up my own songs, though I never wrote them down. In a way, writing Emilia’s story allowed me to indulge my fantasy of being a keyboard musician and composer.

Regarding my favorite composers, I enjoy Vivaldi and Mozart and often have their music playing in the background while I’m writing. (I really wanted to mention Mozart’s trip to Milan in my novel, but that didn’t take place till later in the 18th-century.) While working on Playing by Heart, though, I wanted to surround myself with music my main character would have known and played. So I created a Pandora station of baroque music that included the works of Sammartini, Pachelbel, and Rameau. In the novel, Emilia plays works by the last two composers.

Q: What’s next for you?

I’d really like to write a companion/sequel to Playing by Heart featuring Emilia’s younger sister Isabella as the main character. Right now, though, I’m working on a short story set in the same time and place as Playing by Heart that I plan to submit to an anthology.

Celebrate the Launch of Playing by Heart!

"Book notes & interview with Carmela Martino: Playing by Heart" by Barb Szyszkiewicz (

Author Carmela Martino with the first copies of “Playing by Heart.” Courtesy of Carmela Martino. All rights reserved.

Beginning tomorrowOct. 6, Carmela will be celebrating the release of Playing by Heart with a blog tour. You’re invited to visit her website for links to all the tour stops and enter for a chance to win a copy of the novel.

Carmela also plans a Facebook Launch Party on Tuesday, Oct. 17, 7-9 p.m. Central Time, where readers can win not only copies of Playing by Heart but other great books and prizes. Sign up to join the party!

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Copyright 2017 Barb Szyszkiewicz, OFS
Your purchase of the resources mentioned here through Amazon affiliate links benefits the author of this article.


About Author

Barb Szyszkiewicz is a wife, mom of 3 young adults, and a Secular Franciscan. She is editor at Barb enjoys writing, cooking, and reading, and is a music minister at her parish and an avid Notre Dame football and basketball fan. Find her blog at FranciscanMom and her family’s favorite recipes with nutrition information for diabetics at Cook and Count.


  1. Thank you for posting this lovely interview. I’m almost finished reading Ms. Martino’s beautiful book, and as a professional musician was wanting to know if any of the novel was based on historical fact. Now I know, and it makes the story even better!

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