Most of my readers know that I’m a professional historian…by day; by night (when reading) I fancy myself a roaming travel blogging historian who unravels ancient riddles, solves mysteries, and uncovers the past all while narrowly escaping danger at every turn. As you can guess, my biblio tastes are more prone to flights of fancy than academic history. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good book on the ancient Romans (Mary Beard you’re my queen) or the Medici, but when I want to escape it’s historical fiction I reach for.
Historical fiction can be very good—or very bad. Those that are good have authors who did copious research on the era. They allow us to time travel through their stories. They dress their characters appropriately, set the scene realistically, recount history accurately, and make their book as authentic as possible. They may make small errors—Italians eating tomato sauce before the Columbian Exchange, but they avoid blaring mistakes.
I prefer writers who don’t have their characters talking in some stilted prose they think indicative of the time. Too frequently, those style of books have language generally based on a theatrical portrayal—like Shakespeare—that wouldn’t have necessarily been the common vernacular of the day, so it just doesn’t resonate with me.
Authors of fiction are not held to the same professional scrutiny as academic historians. They can fill gaps in the historical record (and there are chasms at times) in imaginative ways. Those who are good at it make sure they root their stories in accepted versions of history and embellish their narratives in ways that are fantastic, not fantastical.
This blog then is going to focus on the best books of Italian history—mainly fiction. I’ll throw in a few nonfiction history books, but those are going to be few and far between with stories that captured my imagination and took me back in time dominating this list. I hope these writings transport you back in time throughout Italy’s history the same way they have for me. So without further ado let’s time travel …
Some Favorite Authors about Italian History (Fiction or Non)
Mary Beard (non-fiction) In SPQR: a History of Ancient Rome, Beard brings the past to life telling the story of regular Romans, as well as the famous emperors, dictators, and consuls that we’ve grown to know, love, and hate. Beard writes in an accessible manner that appeals to historians and lay people alike. Mary Beard made me fall even more in love with Rome…and I didn’t think that was even possible. This is definitely my favorite non-fiction book about Italian history.
Rhys Bowen (fiction) Bowen has written many fun mystery books involving the British royal family, but in The Tuscan Child she departed from lighthearted escapades to tell the tale of a woman trying to understand her father’s life by traveling to Tuscany where he had found refuge during World War II. The book tells the story of war, love, and betrayal.
Edward Charles (fiction) Stories about the Medici captivate readers. Who hasn’t heard of the famous Italian family? In The House of Medici: Inheritance of Power, Charles tells the story of Cosimo de’ Medici and his mistress—Maddalena. Focusing far more on Maddalena than Cosimo, the novel is richly rooted in Florentine history describing the societal confines for women during that age. The book interested me enough that I immediately turned to its sequel, The House of Medici: Seeds of Decline, which focused on Lucrezia Tornabuoni—mother of Lorenzo the Magnificent and a force to be reckoned with in her own right. With so many Medici books focusing on the men of the family, it is nice to read novels about what the women may have been thinking and feeling.
Sarah Dunant (fiction) Although my favorite is probably The Birth of Venus set in 15th century Florence, Dunant has written several novels of historical fiction…all which I’ve found interesting. In the Company of the Courtesan takes the reader into the live of a Roman prostitute during the 1527 Sack of Rome. Blood and Beauty explores the notorious Borgia family, especially Pope Alexander VI’s daughter, Lucrezia. Dunant takes the story further with In the Name of the Family. Her books are thoughtful examinations of the era with a careful nod towards historical accuracy.
Marina Fiorato (fiction) I read Fiorato’s The Botticelli Secret and couldn’t wait to get my hands on another of her books. Her writing richly bring to life the Renaissance and some of its key figures. In The Botticelli Secret, a prostitute is the protagonist in this tale of intrigue surrounding Sandro Botticelli. I’ve also enjoyed three of Fiorato’s other books—The Glassblower of Murano, The Venetian Bargain, and The Daughter of Siena.
Robert Hellenga (fiction) Nuns, erotic sonnets, and the Florence Flood of 1966, combine together in Sixteen Pleasures. Hellenga’s story will interest those who are interested in the flood and the “Mud Angels” who went to Florence to help restore the art and books damaged by the deluge. The book also touches on gender inequality and controversy within the Catholic Church. I enjoyed its thought-provoking narrative.
Ross King (non-fiction) After earning a PhD in 18th century English literature, King has expanded his area of focus to Renaissance Italy, Impressionist France, and more. Some of King’s books are still on my reading list, but Brunelleschi’s Dome is the gold standard for a tome on how the cupola of Florence’s Duomo was built. In Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling, King shows Michelangelo’s character, as well as his difficulties with Pope Julius II. I look forward to reading Leonardo and the Last Supper next!
Linda Lafferty (fiction) Although I’m generally more of a fan of Renaissance art than the Baroque, I have come to love the painting of Artemisia Gentileschi. A female artist at a time that women were shunned from the field, Gentileschi’s talent was so great that it could not be ignored. Sadly, stories about her are often defined by her rape and subsequent trial. In Fierce Dreamer: a Novel, Lafferty conjectures what Gentileschi’s life would have been like growing up—her dreams, passions, desires, and struggles. Lafferty richly describes Rome as it would have been when Gentileschi lived. She, of course, does examine the rape and trial, but it is a part of Gentileschi’s story…not its defining characteristic. Although fiction, the author definitely researched her subjects, place, and time well.
Mary McCarthy (fiction) If you are planning a trip to Florence, I recommend reading The Stones of Florence first. Although not a travel guide, McCarthy provides valuable insight into Florence’s art, history, character, and culture. Readers will get a feel for the city before they ever step foot on its flagstones.
Laura Morelli (fiction) Art historian and author, Morelli brings Italy’s history alive in her thoughtfully crafted and richly depicted stories. I greatly enjoyed The Gondola Maker and hope to pick up The Painter’s Apprentice, both of which are set in Venice. In her newest novel, The Giant, Morelli focuses on Renaissance Florence and Michelangelo’s David; I’ve purchased it and can’t wait to have time to spend with it.
Stephanie Storey (fiction) Storey has a degree in Fine Arts from Vanderbilt University and studied art history at the doctoral level for a while before earning a MFA in Creative Writing. Two of her books, Oil and Marble and Raphael: Painter in Rome, exhibit both her ability to analyze art (and artists) and her writing skills. Oil and Marble pits Michelangelo against da Vinci and makes one wonder what their relationship was really like in real life. Raphael is presented through the lens of the artist himself. Through these two books I got to know these three Renaissance greats better and Storey’s tales made me respect them even more. Both were good reads.
Do you like to read history or historical fiction books? What era captivates you? Is Italy your “go-to” place or does another strike your fancy? I love to time travel through good books, so please comment below with your favorites. Happy reading! Amy
Link to my blog “15 Best Books About Italy” https://roaminghistorian.com/2020/07/19/15-best-books-about-italy/