Two of my favorite things: travel and books. So there’s nothing better than a book set in a place to which I plan to travel. As soon as I learned we were headed to Italy last fall, I started building my Italy-themed library.
A most helpful source was a nicely curated thread I found on Fodors.com. Other resources include the Books Set In web site and Slow Travel. Because of the rule of too-many-books-too-little-time, I wasn’t able to read as much Italy-themed literature as I would have liked, but I’m still working on it. It turns out that reading about a place after you’ve been there can be just as satisfying as before the journey.
The choices ranged from history to literature to biography to thriller. And I found that in the case of Italy, history is sometimes the greatest thriller of all. Here’s the list, in no particular order:
La Bella Lingua: My Love Affair with Italian, the World’s Most Enchanting Language by Dianne Hales, published 2009, Broadway Books. Non-fiction, Memoir. 320 pages. 4 STARS
A loving and lighthearted introduction to Italy, its people and its language, plus a really terrific mini-synopsis of Dante’s Divine Comedy and some interesting insights into Italian slang. The popular Italian nickname for Americans is “culoni”. Read the book to find out what it means!
City of Fortune: How Venice Ruled the Seas by Roger Crowley, Published 2012, Random House. 464 pages. Non-fiction, History. 3 STARS
I can’t imagine a more thorough survey of the fascinating history of Venice. “Neither East nor West”, ruled by an “amoral trading mentality” with no land at all but “living like seabirds” the Venetians built a glittering trade empire “where wealth flowed like a fountain” until the “inexorable advance of the Turks” resulted in a failure for Venice at the Battle of Zonchio in 1499 and Vasco di Gama’s trade route triumph in the same year rendered “the whole business model of the Venetian state..at a stroke, obsolete.” Not the easiest read, but a worthwhile read.
I, Claudius: From the Autobiography of Tiberius Claudius Born 10 B.C. Murdered and Deified A.D. 54 by Robert Graves, published 1934, Arthur Barker. 472 pages. Fiction. 5 STARS
Deservedly on Modern Library’s list of 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century, this is a book of fiction posing as a memoir that reads like a thriller. It crackles with all the drama and celebrity of the Roman Empire: Julius Caesar, Cleopatra, Mark Antony, Caesar Augustus, Tiberius and Caligula. Intrigue, debauchery and plenty of poison abound. A contemporary aside: read this book and you will fully understand why Tony Soprano’s mother is named “Livia”.
The City of Falling Angels by John Berendt (audiobook narrated by Holter Graham), published 2005, Penguin Group. 414 pages. Non-fiction. 3.5 STARS
It didn’t make the same kind of splash as Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil but in essence, this book reveals the glories and underbelly of Venice in the same way Berendt peeled back the veneer of Savannah. The crime this time is the burning of the Fenice Opera House. The players range from Italian nobility to a family known for producing generations of master glass-blowers to Henry James, Ezra Pound and a cavalcade of American socialites. According to Berendt, the “key to understanding Venetians is rhythm; the rhythm of the lagoon…the tides, the waves.” And, he cautions,”Everyone in Venice is acting”.
Brunelleschi’s Dome: How a Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture by Ross King, Penguin Books, 20001, 184 pages. Non-fiction, Biography, History. 3.5 STARS
Everything you could possibly want to know about the design and construction of the magnificent Il Duomo di Firenze. We were delighted to see the statue of Filippo Brunelleschi admiring his creation in the Piazza del Duomo.
Angels & Demons by Dan Brown, Pocket Books, 2000. 496 pages. Fiction, Thriller. 3 STARS
Don’t be alarmed by the length of the book; it’s a page-turning fast read. Try not to balk at the loose ends, made-up science or general incredulousness of the plot, just enjoy the romp through Rome and an inside tour of the Vatican. A must for Illuminati believers.
The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje (audiobook narrated by Ralph Fiennes), McClelland & Steward, 1992. 305 pages. Fiction. 1992 Booker Prize. 4 STARS
The exquisite cadence of Ondaatje’s prose combined with Fiennes’ (who also starred in the film) restrained narration transported me alternately to the Libyan desert and to a villa in Tuscany in the waning days of WWII. The landscape and the characters are equally battle-scarred. A hauntingly beautiful listen.
Roma: The Novel of Ancient Rome by Steven Saylor, St. Martin’s Press, 2007. 555 pages. Historical Fiction. 3.5 STARS
An ambitious and encompassing appraisal of Roma from its origins as a salt-trading post and culminating in the building of the Pantheon in 1 B.C. Employing the tried-and-true device of following the same family through succeeding generations (think Edward Rutherfurd) the book is a bit thin on character depth and development but covers all the important bases of early Roman history.
The Passion of Artemisia by Susan Vreeland, Penguin Books, 2001. 352 pages. Historical Fiction, Art. 3 STARS
When Artemisia Gentileschi’s painting of Judith Slaying Holofernes at came into view at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, I was glad I had read this book. Gentileschi (1593-1653) was the most prominent female painter in early modern Europe. Her life story was by turns horrific and remarkable and takes the reader from Rome to Naples, Florence, (where she was reportedly friends with Galileo) and Venice.
Where Angels Fear to Tread by E. M. Forster, William Blackwood and Sons, 1905. 153 pages. Fiction. 3.5 STARS
Not quite at the level of Forster’s Room with a View which is an absolute must-read before visiting Italy!) the setting of this novel is Tuscany, most probably Siena. The plot is a bit unnerving and the prose a bit archaic, but Forster is always a gratifying read. One of his characters sweeping and entertaining declarations might also describe the book’s plot: “The Italians are essentially dramatic; they look on death and love as spectacles.”
Galileo’s Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith and Love by Dava Sobel, Walker & Company, 1999. 368 pages. Non-fiction, Historical Memoir, 1999 Los Angeles Times Book Prize. 3.5 STARS
Sobel unearthed 124 letters that Galileo’s illegitimate daughter and nun, Suor Maria Celeste sent to her father from the San Matteo Convent of the Poor Clares in Florence between the years 1623 and 1634. The letters are largely focused on quotidian details but Sobel imbues them with the historical record of Galileo’s life and paints a rich portrait of 17th century science and culture.
The Marble Faun by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ticknor and Fields, 1860, 412 pages.
I struggled with the plot, but the book is worth reading for its Roman setting alone. Hawthorne’s 19th-century appraisal of the statuary of the Capitoline Museum (from whence the book’s title) and the maze of Rome’s catacombs holds up well, and nothing has changed much since he remarked of the city: “her narrow, crooked, intricate streets, so uncomfortably paved with little squares of lava that to tread over them is a penitential pilgrimage…” Tourist behavior hasn’t changed much either: According to Hawthorne, “If any reveller overstepped the mark, it was sure to be no Roman, but an Englishman or an American…”
A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway (audiobook, narrated by John Slattery) Scribner, 1929. 332 pages. 3.5 STARS
The setting is WWI Italy – frequently the environs of Milan – and Switzerland. Not my favorite Hemingway, and while I am a big fan of John (Mad Men‘s Roger!) Slattery, he didn’t embody my image of protagonist Frederic Henry. Catharine Barkley was just a little too deferential for my taste but I guess that’s how Hemingway liked his heroines. Still, this is the book where Hemingway writes “the world breaks everyone, and afterward many are strong at the broken places.” and that alone makes it a reverential read.
Four Seasons in Rome: On Twins, Insomnia and the Biggest Funeral in History of the World By Anthony Doerr, Scribner, 2007. 224 pages. Non-fiction, Memoir. 3 STARS
Partly a travelogue, partly a memoir, and partly a witty testament to the early travails of parenting. Doerr and his family, including infant twins, lived in Rome while he was writing All the Light We Cannot See. How the man managed to write this book and that one is a marvel to the reader – and, seemingly, to the author. Set largely in Trastevere, where the author spends much of his time reading Pliny the Elder’s Natural History after sleepless nights with wailing infants. He remarks: “Watching teething babies is like watching over a thermonuclear reactor—it is best done in shifts, by well-rested people.”
Leonardo by Martin Kemp, Oxford University Press, 2004. 274 pages. Non-fiction, Biography. 3 STARS
A bit scholarly, but a slim enough volume that even a plebeian like myself could enjoy. Kemp places Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) in the context of his times, where he was known more as an event coordinator, engineer and architect than the great painter and polymath he is regarded today. He staged court festivals and weddings and conjured ways to tame the River Arno. It was, apparently, in his spare time he painted the Madonna of the Yarnwinder, The Last Supper and the Mona Lisa.
The Innocents Abroad by Mark Twain, American Publishing Company, 1869. 439 pages. Non-fiction, Travelogue. 5 STARS
One of my favorite reads of the year. As part of his grand tour, Twain travels to Rome, Milan, Lake Como (which, in his estimation, doesn’t hold a candle to Lake Tahoe), Naples and Pompeii and has witty things to say about all of them. Never mind that his book was written in the 19th century – Twain, and tourism, are timeless.
The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, Feltrinelli, 1958. 240 pages. Fiction. 4 STARS
I haven’t quite finished “Il Gattopardo” but so far it lives up to its reputation as one of the most important novels in modern Italian literature. Set in 1860 Palermo, the book traces the fortunes and misfortunes of an aristocratic Italian family grappling with change as Garibaldi and his “thousand” sweep through Italy during the Risorgimento.
This, of course, just scratches the surface of books set in beautiful Italy. Please feel free to suggest your own favorites!