Before I ever visited Italy in person (and fell completely in love with it), I traveled there through books. The history, of course, called to me, but so did the idea of drinking wine under the Tuscan sun. Various authors brought to life Rome, Florence, Venice, Naples, and countless other cities. They painted such a beautiful picture of the culture that I had to see it myself. When I did, I was utterly smitten—the writers had not let me down.
Extraordinarily, Italy was even better than those novels had alluded. Ever since I tasted la dolce vita, I’ve had a sweet tooth—only a pandemic can keep me away from my beloved Italia.
Perhaps you would like to read what spurred such wanderlust in me? Maybe you’re looking for a Roman holiday without leaving home? Here are some of my favorite books about Italy. There are far more than those listed, and I’m quite sure I’ll regret leaving one out as soon as I publish, but these are a few of the best books that brought Italy to life for me. They’re in alphabetical order by author (it was hard enough to pick who to include in this first round—let alone rank them) and cover various genres from creative nonfiction to mystery to cultural exposé. Despite their diversity, they all uncover the bel paese (beautiful country)…warts and all.
Noticeably missing from this list are books about history or historical fiction. Since I’m a historian, you can imagine I’m pretty partial to these genres. I’m reserving most titles in those categories for another blog post though.
I hope these books about Italy transport you there in the magical way that they have me. So without further ado…
Fifteen of My Favorite Authors or Books About Italy
Dan Brown—Angels and Demons, Inferno
After reading Da Vinci Code, I became immediately enthralled with the main character, Robert Langdon. Through his Harvard professor, Brown made academics thrilling and exciting. With Angels and Demons, Brown transported Langdon to Rome and the Vatican to save the papacy from an old foe—the Illuminati. Although the plot kept one reading along, the description of Bernini’s art and churches around the city were what completely captured my attention.
Inferno uses Italy’s (perhaps the world’s) most famous poet, Dante Alighieri, and the city of Florence as the backdrop for the start of this thriller. Reading about Langdon racing around the city made me travel there, explore the gardens, churches, and buildings portrayed in the novel, and write a guide to the locations in the books: https://roaminghistorian.com/2016/10/23/dan-brown-inferno-florence/.
Marlena de Blasi—A Thousand Days in Venice, A Thousand Days in Tuscany, The Lady in the Palazzo
Expat Marlena de Blasi writes a love story about Italy and her beloved Fernando in these three books. She also vividly describes Venice, San Casciano dei Bagni, and Orvieto while exploring the cultures and people of each place.
Anthony Doerr—Four Seasons in Rome: On Twins, Insomnia, and the Biggest Funeral in the History of the World
The recipient of the Rome Prize (I’m totally jealous), Doerr was awarded a stipend and a writing studio in Rome for a year by the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Out of his time there, he wrote this tome of Roman life, the death of John Paul II, and how Rome’s past and present intersect on a daily basis to create the natural flow of The Eternal City.
Elena Ferrante—My Brilliant Friend series
Ferrante’s story of the complicated relationship between two childhood friends is interesting, but it was her description of gritty Naples that I found compelling and her revelation of life for average Neapolitans that was masterful.
Elizabeth Gilbert—Eat, Pray, Love
Although her novel of self-awakening spanned Italy, India, and Indonesia, the journey started in Rome. Gilbert introduces us to the love by Italians for their cuisine, their culture, their past, and their present. She shows the reader the passion that is Italy, which made me want to have my own exploration there. Gilbert’s description did not let me down.
Michele Guittari—A Florentine Death and the rest of the Michele Ferrara series
Drawing on his past experience as head of the Florence Police Force, Guittari develops a series of mystery novels with Michele Ferrara as the lead investigator. The books richly describe Florence’s pretty outside and uncover its darker side.
Dianne Hales—La Bella Lingua: My Love Affair with Italian, the World’s Most Enchanting Language, Mona Lisa: a Life Discovered, La Passione: How Italy Seduced the World
The three books I’ve read by Dianne Hales have enchanted me. I loved La Bella Lingua so much that I’ve read it several times over. As the subtitle states, it is Hales’ love story to the Italian language. Her love story to Italy though comes in La Passione where she shows how Italy has seduced the world (it certainly has me)—through art, movies, food, writing, history, architecture, fashion, and more. Her book on Mona Lisa is able to tell a story that is part-memoir and part-biography. By freeing herself from the confines of academic history, Hales allows readers to explore a potential narrative for the life of the woman starring in Da Vinci’s most famous painting.
David Hewson—The Flood, and the Nic Costa series like The Seventh Sacrament or The Sacred Cut
Hewson’s books are a little darker than most on this list with murder a recurrent theme. The Flood is an exciting mystery set in Florence in the 1980s, but at its heart is the flood of 1966 that devastated the city. I’m particularly drawn to the books revolving around Detective Nic Costa—most of which take place in Rome. I enjoy the way Hewson develops a mystery while revealing the darker side of the Eternal City.
John Hooper—The Italians
Hooper was a foreign correspondent based in Rome who, therefore, had the ability to be an outsider on the inside. His observations of Italians are witty and perceptive. Many books on Italy show the reader the place, but Hooper reveals the people.
Donna Leon—Commissario Brunetti series, Death at La Fenice
Completely by accident, I read the first book in the series, Death at La Fenice, before all the others. And from that first mystery, I was hooked on Commissario Guido Brunetti and Leon’s depiction of Venice and its social issues—the good, the bad, and the ugly. Brunetti is a deep character; he is an investigator married to a very wealthy academic. Guido consistently fights not to be defined by his wife’s wealth. The insight into the couple’s philosophical moments at home are an endearing feature in Leon’s books. Brunetti is portrayed as a man who deeply values his wife’s intellect, although he is quite clever in his own right. Throughout the series, Leon has developed Brunetti and the family’s dynamics into an impressive performance.
Frances Mayes—Under the Tuscan Sun, Bella Tuscany, Every Day in Tuscany, Meet Me in the Piazza
In Under the Tuscan Sun, Mayes brought Tuscany to America and enchanted us with stories of small-town life, the ups and downs of Italian renovation, and how Italy can restore one’s soul. I think it was this book, more than the others, that colored my perception of Italy with sunflower-colored glasses. In her subsequent books, Mayes carries on her love story with Tuscany and reveals more of village life to her readers. Each book takes us more deeply into the heritage and culture of the people.
Ferenc Máté—The Hills of Tuscany: a New Life in an Old Land
This memoir tells of Ferenc and his wife’s time living near Montepulciano. Like Frances Mayes and many others, the couple decide to restore a Tuscan home. In his telling, Máté shares about seasonal rituals and daily life. The book reminded me of the importance of neighbors, traditions, friendship, and living life to its fullest.
Robert Rodi—Seven Seasons in Siena: My Quixotic Quest for Acceptance Among Tuscany’s Proudest People
Rodi seems a lot like me—a Midwesterner who has a “thing” for Tuscany and desperately seeks inclusion and an authentic experience there. Seven Seasons tells of Rodi’s quest to belong to one of Siena’s contrade (districts). Each contrada of Siena has its own insignia, colors, and alliances. The contrade square off in a horse race (palio) twice a year. Rodi’s accounting tells of his seasonal sojourns to Siena to see the race and root on his adopted contrada. The books provide appreciation and insight into this uniquely Sienese tradition. It also shows the trials of being torn between two countries—the one of one’s birth and the one of one’s heart.
Beppe Severgnini—La Bella Figura: a Field Guide to the Italian Mind
An Italian journalist, Beppe irreverently and humorously points out the idiosyncrasies of the Italian people. For years, he has explained the American mind to Italians, but in La Bella Figura he turned the lens on his fellow citizens. Although lighthearted, Beppe shows the complexities of Italians and reveals to readers some of the unspoken rules of the culture, as well as the notion of making a bella figura (good figure)—a concept that underscores Italian character.
Jenna Evans Welch—Love and Gelato
Based on the cover’s pastel colors and crude depictions of gelato, I thought this was going to be a silly, fluffy book. But I was in the mood for an easy read, so I purchased it. The novel was deeper than I expected—delightedly so. Welch’s main character is a teen who has to spend a summer in Tuscany. The book ends up being a journey of self-discovery set amid the place I hope to some-day call home. In all, Welch’s descriptive writing of Florence and its heart-warming story caused this book to make the cut.
This, my friends, is not even close to being a complete list of favorite books about Italy that I’ve enjoyed. I’ve saved some titles of books set in Italy and related to Italian history for future blogs (and to spare you, my readers, from an exhaustive accounting. Do you like to read books about Italy? I’m still interested to hear what you have to say. Even if you think I’ve already read it (or know I have), please comment below with your favorites. Happy reading!
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Link to my blog “Time Travel with Italian History Books” https://roaminghistorian.com/2020/08/02/time-travel-italian-history-books/