I’ve been pining for Italy a lot this week. 10 months have passed since my feet last touched terra italiana, and while my friends are preparing for the Notte Bianca at Campo della Fiera tomorrow night, I am nursing my worsening Carpal Tunnel Syndrome with a new wrist brace and wishing I were dusty and hot under the Umbrian sun wielding a trowel or pick.
To reign in my desire for cold Orvieto Classico and late-night guitar strumming, I decided to share some of my favorite reads based in or about Italy.
A Room With A View: E.M. Forster
Perhaps my all-time favorite book, full of fantastically wise characters, rich scenery and perfect prose. It’s certainly one of the best novels about Italy and its life-changing effects on those who it sweeps up into its pasta-laden arms.
Rather than spoil it with plot summaries, I’ll share some of my favorite quotes and hope it piques your interest enough to read it!
“One doesn’t come to Italy for niceness,” was the retort; “one comes for life.”
“Let us rather love one another, and work and rejoice. I don’t believe in this world sorrow.”
“But Italy worked some marvel in her. It gave her light, and—which he held more precious—it gave her shadow.”
“It is Fate that I am here,” persisted George. “But you can call it Italy if it makes you less unhappy.”
Pro-tip: The movie adaptation is phenomenal and stars a fresh-faced Helena Bonham Carter, Daniel Day-Lewis being the genius he always is, Judi Dench, Maggie Smith and Simon Cowell (whom you may recognize from Shakespeare in Love).
Under the Tuscan Sun: At Home in Italy: Frances Mayes
Full disclosure: the book is really different from the movie. REALLY different. And THANK GOODNESS because I hated the movie adaptation of Under the Tuscan Sun (sorry, Diane Lane! You’re still hot!). Frances Mayes does a lovely job of creating place—here, it’s the stunning town of Cortona, a short train ride away from my beloved Orvieto—and making it a character. She details the funny trials and annoying tribulations of becoming a land-owner in a country so bureaucratically backward as Italy without seeming whiney or unappreciative. Also, recipes!
Etruscan Places: D.H. Lawrence
Honestly, a much better compendium of Etruscan places is by the inimitable George Dennis, an amateur archaeologist who ventured to all the Etruscan sites and documented his travails in Cities and Cemeteries of Etruria. But it’s two volumes long, and as much as I love the Etruscans, you all might not love them as much (BUT YOU SHOULD. THEY ARE AWESOME. Wiki that shiz if you don’t know what I’m talkin’ bout.)
D.H. Lawrence, in his travels through Italy in the early 20th century, narrates his experiences in the lands of the Etruscans, who dominated Italy from about the 9th to the 4th centuries BCE. His writing is brutally honest (read: kinda racist) but an interesting snapshot into Italian country life only a hundred years ago.
The Aeneid: Vergil
“Arma virumque cano,” [I sing of arms and a man] are words any Latin student knows well. Why? Well, they begin the epic poem that establishes the foundation legend of Rome and Vergil’s place among the Epic Poets Hall of Fame.* Out of all the poetry I’ve had to read throughout my education in the classics, I’ve always loved The Aeneid the most. Sure, Aeneas can be kind of a douche (so was Odysseus, IMHO) but oh, the adventure! The glory! The romance! The betrayal! The ekphrasis!
Pro-tip: If you’re not into epic Latin poetry but still want to geek out on classics, try a translation of Livy’s History of Rome.
*This is not a real place, to my knowledge. For the record, it should be.
Monster of Florence: Douglas Preston & Mario Spezi
WARNING: Do NOT read this book before going to bed. This non-fiction work delves into the world of Il Mostro, a serial killer who preyed on young couples in the hills outside Florence for nearly twenty years. The creepiest part? He’s never been caught. Your faith in the Italian justice system and police work will be tried, but the writing is solid and the story captivating—if you like that sort of thing. This book is not for the faint of heart.
Pro-tip: It might interest you to know that Thomas Harris, the brilliant writer of Hannibal, Silence of the Lambs and Red Dragon was influenced by the actions of this serial killer while doing research for the aforementioned books. He even references Il Mostro in Hannibal. (If you’re getting the sense that I have a twisted, morbid side, you’re not off the mark…)
Much Ado About Nothing: William Shakespeare
Merchant of Venice, Romeo & Juliet and Julius Caesar are usually the first to come to mind when one considers an Italian setting. Although all are excellent in their own ways, my favorite of all Shakespeare’s works set in my second home is Much Ado About Nothing, which takes place in Messina. To this day, his Beatrice is one of the greatest female roles of the stage, and Dogberry is an ideal embodiment of the philosophy that there are no small parts, only small actors.
Pro-tip: Don’t have time to read the play? Check out Joss Whedon’s modern rendition of Much Ado, still playing in some theatres. Or, rent the 1993 version directed by Kenneth Branagh. Both excellent.
Angels & Demons: Dan Brown
I have to admit that I adore the twists and turns within Rome’s streets Brown so deftly narrates in his first book starring Robert Langdon. The combination of one of my favorite cities ever (Rome) and one of my favorite artists ever (Bernini) made this book an instant hit with me. Despite its…well…Dan Brownness…
Have more Italian-based literary suggestions? Share in the comments!