Being crazy about Italy it’s inevitable that we should be crazy about books about Italy. And lucky for all Italophiles there’s no shortage in that department. From historical fictions set in Ancient Rome to contemporary Italian life, books about Italy are sure to be flooding the bookshelves of your nearest bookshop. Before you head off on your trip to Italy, pick up a title or two.If you’re really serious you would start with Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. But if you’re not into pedantry then skip to the dramas like Robert Graves’s I, Claudius or The Twelve Caesars by Suetonius. These are rollicking accounts of the Emperors’ lives, which were as fascinating and as backstabbing as any character in a soap opera. There’s no shortage of historical fiction about Ancient Rome, whether you’re into steamy imperial romances or histories brought to life by super-believable characters.
Moving up through the eras, come the classics that swung Italian literature into the spotlight of the Middle Ages. Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio are the three big names. Reading one of these authors is the best way to understand what life was like on the peninsula during that misunderstood time. Even if you don’t get around to reading Dante’s Divine Comedy, Petrarch’s poems, or Boccaccio’s Decameron, know that these illustrious writers are thought to be responsible for the evolution to the modern Italian language. If that’s the case, their words still ring through the streets today.Even if it’s not possible to skip all those five hundred or more years between then and recent centuries, where books in Italy are concerned, we can take some liberty. One of the best and most influential of all travel books about journeying to and through Italy was by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. He wrote Journey to Italy during and after his two year trip that began in 1786. Those were the years of the Grand Tour, and Goethe was on a hunt for Winkleman’s art like none other. Goethe was above all a curious man, and his descriptions of the north to the south of the country are full of the tiny revelations only visible to such a man.
In the years to follow Goethe came the Romantics: John Keats, Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley and his wife Mary Shelley. Lord Byron’s narrative poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage and Percy Bysshe Shelley’s tragedy The Cenci are both set in Italy. The later depicts the thrilling drama of the Cenci family, whose paterfamilias was found murdered one morning and all the family was persecuted, especially the daughter Beatrice who was beheaded near Castel San’Angelo in Rome. Supposedly Shelley wrote this after seeing the so-called portrait of Beatrice by Guido Reni.
Next the English Victorians began swarming down to Italy to escape the cloudy winter weather and rain and to take shelter under the sun and among the relatively easy-going Italians. Robert Browning and his wife Elizabeth Barrett Browning lived in Italy for most of their married lives. Both of them derived lots of literary inspiration from the inspiring country to no wonder. The Brownings were in good company as George Eliot was also a frequent visitor and included a visit to Rome in her opus Middlemarch. Just that short bit is a wonderful eye into how Italy was visited back then.
Then came the likes of Henry James, Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, and E. M. Forster. The first three have immortalized their visit in travel books, while the last is most famous for his Room with a View set in Florence. It’s a short and spirited account of what Italy can do to those who are open enough for it to work its magic, which of course, in Edwardian England, meant marriage. Though lucky Lucy does her best to try and avoid the issue.
And now we’ve come to the twentieth century where there’s so many books to be read that are set in Italy or are by Italians. After World War II a burst of literature flew on the scene by some of the best of Italian writers. Their books depicts life under Fascism and are very valuable accounts of how the country has changed, even in the most recent years. The trio that we read the most are Alberto Moravia, Elsa Morante, and Carlo Emilio Gadda. Out of this same group, but slightly later, came Pier Paolo Pasolini, one of Italy’s foremost thinkers of this last century. He was a super-combo poet, writer, essayist, and director. Wherever you find your entertainment, he’s sure to have created something.The amount non-Italians writing in or about Italy is stupendous. One of our favorite authors of more recent years is Amara Lakhous, whose comedies pinpoint contemporary Italian issues with humor and light-heartedness. Clash of Civilizations over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio is a murder mystery that winds through lives of immigrants, both from within Italy and without, who are living in Rome. If you’re looking for a page-turning read, pick up When We Were Romans by Matthew Kneale before jumping on the plane. Young Lawrence’s perspectives about his spontaneous trip to Italy can be a great accompaniment to your own.
Are there any books about Italy and Italian life and experience that tickle your literary fancy?