Some books to read before going to Italy

Some books to read before going to Italy

Having some background knowledge about Italy and its heritage before you arrive will enhance your enjoyment of the visit.  Blow are some books that would be a useful start.


For general reading on Italy you might like to try the following.  The standard history of modern Italy is written by Paul Ginsborg, A History of Contemporary Italy, 1943 – 1988 and Italy and Its Discontents, 1980 - 2000, while Italy: A Short History by Harry Hearder is probably the best single volume survey of Italian history.  David Gilmour’s recent In Pursuit of Italy is a very readable personal interpretation of Italian history.

Luigi Barzini’s The Italians is the best-known portrait of the Italian people although the recently published Bella Figura, a field guide to the Italian mind, a very amusing ironic look at contemporary Italy written by a Milanese journalist Beppe Severgnini, has also had great success. 

The classic book on Italian cooking is Elizabeth David’s Italian Food, first published in 1954 but there have been many more since then, including several by Marcella Hazan, which tend to have a northern Italian emphasis.  For wine, Hugh Johnson’s Wine Companion and Burton Anderson’s Wine Atlas of Italy are the two standards.  Anderson also produced a very good small guide The Mitchell Beazley Pocket Guide to Italian Wines.


Rough Guide to Piemonte and the Valle d’Aosta (I find the Rough Guide series a good combination of practical advice and cultura/historical background) or National Geographic Piedmont and North-west Italy; Tim Jepson.  Blue Guide, Northern Italy: From the Alps to the Adriatic by our own Paul Blanchard is an excellent guide that gives a thorough overview of the art, architecture and history of northern Italy (Paul also leads the Hidden Italy Garden tour of Tuscany in May); Autumn in Piedmont: Food and Travels in Italy’s Northwest by Manuela Darling-Gassner is a very good glossy travelogue focusing on the food and traditions of the region.

Piedmont has produced some fine writers.  My favourite is Primo Levi, an industrial chemist from Turin.  A kind of Italian David Malouf, Levi wrote simply and with great insight.  His most famous work is If this a Man that recalls his terrible experiences in Auschwitz but my favourite is his wonderful memoir The Periodic Table, a series of essays recalling his life before and after WW II. 

Other famous works from this period include A Private Affair by Beppe Fenoglio, who was a partisan in the Alba district (a highly regarded novellla set in Piedmont in 1943 as Italy surrenders to the Allied Forces) and Partigiano Johnny (or Johnny the Partisan in English) is probably the most important Italian novel of this period – a film based on the book was made in 2000.  The final section of the last day’s walk back into Alba follows a trail dedicated to Fenolgio.  Cesare Pavese’s The Moon and the Bonfires.  Cesare Pavese was a kind of Italian JD Salinger, still much loved by young Italians, who fled to the Alba district from the bombing of Turin.  Pavese’s last novel, The Moon and the Bonfires, published shortly before his premature death in 1950, evokes post-Mussolini Italy.  The book is also set in the Alba district.


Some classic accounts of travelling in Venice and northern Italy include The Stones of Venice by the Victorian writer John Ruskin, Twilight in Italy  by DH Lawrence, A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway (a semi-autobiographical novel set during WW I  in Milan and the lakes) and A Traveller in Italy  by HV Morton (written in the 1930s and 40s).  All are a little dated but insightful and charming. 

More contemporary books on Venice include Venice by James Morris (and the recently updated World of Venice by Jan Morris – same author, different sex) and the very beefy A History of Venice by John Julius Norwich.  Less earnest recent works include City of Falling Angels by John Berent (based around the recent fire that destroy Venice’s opera house), A Thousand Days in Venice by Marlena de Blasi and A Venetian Affair by Andrea di Robilant (two romances set in Venice, the former modern and the latter based on an illicite romance the author discovered rifling through family papers from the 17th century). 

Cinque Terre and the Italian Riviera:

There is not a lot of information available in English (or Italian, for that matter) on the Cinque Terre, apart from what is to be found in the general guide books on northern Italy.  The official tourist website for the Cinque Terre is quite useful and has both Italian and English versions as does the Tourist Consortium website for Levanto,  and Portovenere and La Spezia

There is little available in English written specifically about the Cinque Terre area, however, a number of excellent books are available which are set in the general area.  These include A Tuscan Cildhood by Kinta Beevor (set just south of the border with Liguria) and Love and War in the Appenines by Eric Newby (set in the mountains behind). 

Probably the best general guide to the Italian Riviera is the Cadogan guide Italian Riviera by Dana Facaros and the DK Eyewitness Travel Guide Italian RivieraFood Wine: Italian Riviera Genoa by David Downie is a very good overview of the area’s culinary treats, while Extra Virgin: Amongst the Olive Groves of Liguria by Annie Hawes is a personal recollection of life and love in the hills behind the coast.  Two novels set in wartime Liguria are Last Train from Liguria by Christine Dwyer Hickie and From Liguria with Love: Capture, Imprisonment and Escape in Wartime Italy by MP Ross.  Portofino is a cheesy novel by Frank Schaeffer recalling life as an ex-pat in the 1960s.


Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron (written in the 14th century) is a wonderful collection of tales told by a group of Florentines refugees hold up in a Tuscan villa and garden to avoid the plague.  Alta Macadam’s Blue Guide Tuscany and Blue Guide Florence are the most comprehensive guides in English. 

Italian Villas and Their Gardens by Edith Warton is a classic and important book, first published in 1904.  Sophie Bajard and Raffaello Bencini’s Villas and Gardens of Tuscany is the classic coffee-table book on Tuscan villas and gardens with excellent photography by Raffaello Bencini. 

The Italian City Republics by Daniel Waley is an excellent introduction to the formative years (late medieval period onwards) of the region.  Siena was the dominant political and cultural force in southern Tuscany.  Judith Hook’s Siena.  A City and its History gives a excellent overview of this extraordinary city in its prime, from its emergence as an independent city-state in the 11th century to its defeat by the Florentines in the 16th century. 

Iris Origo’s War in the Val d’Orcia is an English woman’s account of the Second World War in the region.  In recent times there have been many personal accounts of foreigners resident in southern Tuscany.  The most famous is Under the Tuscan Sun by Frances Maye.  A more substantial and interesting read is Isabel Dusi’s detailed portrait of the life and traditions of Montalcino Vanilla Beans and Brodo and Bel Vino.


The Ancient Shore, Dispatches from Naples, Shirley Hazzard.  Australian author Shirley Hazzard lyrically and lovingly meditates on the city's present and past, encountering along the way the ghosts of great writers in this brief anthology, which also includes a celebrated New Yorker essay by her husband Francis Steegmuller;  Greene on Capri, A Memoir - slices of literary hobnobbing mixed with generous descriptions of the Italian island. This memoir is ultimately about the author's friendship with Graham Greene, but there's plenty of commentary of Capri's history and culture for those seeking a flavor of the place.

Pompeii: A Novel by Robert Harris.  In this fine historical by British novelist Harris, an upstanding Roman engineer rushes to repair an aqueduct in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius, which, in A.D. 79, is getting ready to blow its top;  Christ Stopped at Eboli: The Story of a Year,  This brilliant book is an account of Carlo Levi's banishment to a remote village in southern Italy for his opposition to Fascism in 1935.


Two classic accounts of travelling in Sicily are The Golden Honeycomb by Vincent Cronin and A Traveller in Southern Sicily by HV Morton.  Both are a little dated but insightful and charming. 

Two more contemporary books are The Mattanza: Love and Death on the Sea of Sicily by Theresa Maggio, an account of life in a fishing community on a small Sicilian island, and Midnight in Sicily by Peter Robb, which is a rather dense but fascinating look at Sicilian art, food, politics and Mafia. 

While on the subject of the Mafia, Giovanni Falcone’s book Men of Honor is a brief but riveting insight into the machinations of criminal underworld in Sicily, written by the judge who was murdered in 1992.  Norman Lewis’ The Honoured Society is the most famous recent account of the Cosa Nostra.

Sicily has produced a lot of good modern writers, including two Nobel laureates: the playwright Pirandello and the poet Quasimodo.  Apart from Guiseppe di Lampedusa’s wonderful book The Leopard (which was also made into a very good film) on the decline of the island’s aristocracy, the most celebrated modern writer is probably Leonardo Sciascia who sparsely written stories and short novels capture the mystery and danger of Sicily.  His best-known books are The Day of the Owl and The Sicilian Uncles

Gesualdo Bufalino, who died recently, published his first book when he was sixties.  His best-known books are The Plague Sowers and The Night’s Lies. Dacia Maraini was born in Florence to a Sicilian mother.  Her book The Silent Duchess, the tale of a noble family set in the eighteenth century, was one of the most popular novels in Italy in recent times.

Andrea Camilleri, though, is probably Sicily’s most popular contemporary writer.  His numerous books on the adventures of Detective Montalbano are available in English (eg The Shape of Water and the Terra Cotta Dog) as is the charming TV series, which has lots of wonderful settings in Sicily.


Between Salt Water and Holy Water by Italian historian Tomaso Astarita is an insightful account of southern Italian history.  The Middle Ages under the Norman kings when pilgrims, crusaders and traders from all over Europe streamed into Puglia to set sail from its eastern ports was probably the region’s period of greatest splendour and adventure.  John Julius Norwich’s imposing tome The Normans in the South and The Kingdom in the Sun are very readable historys of this period. 

Frederick II, Medieval Emperor by David Abulafia is a biography of Puglia’s most beloved king, who was also the dominant personality of his age in Europe.  Castel del Monte, Geometric Marvel of the Middle Ages by Heinz Cotze is a detailed study of Frederick’s enigmatic castle that dominates northern Puglia.  By the Ionian Sea: Rambles in Southern Italy  by George Gissing is a charming, but difficult to find, record of a 19th century Englishman’s encounters with Calabria and Puglia.

Casa Rossa by Francesca Marciano is a vivid novel following the lives of a mother, daughter, and granddaughter from Puglia over the course of the 20th century, opening as the narrator prepares to sell Casa Rossa, the family farm.  Head Over Heel: Seduced by southern Italy.  After falling in love with la bella Daniela, Chris Harrison uproots his life in Australia to follow her to her small hometown on the coast of Puglia and live a dolce vita – a cheesy tale of amore, Italian style.

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