Italy is a major destination for British and American tourists, and there is no shortage of books for the curious traveller. So my problem in compiling this post was not what to put in, but what to leave out. The choice that follows is just a small selection of books to read before you visit Italy.
Non-Fiction Books About Italy
The history of Italy is central to the history of the western world. The Roman Empire and the Catholic church have influenced the world in countless ways. And the Renaissance – the resurgence of intellectual and artistic endeavour – was at its most dazzling in the country that was to become Italy. The Traveller’s History of Italy (Valerio Lintner, 2003) is an excellent way of making sense of the country’s long and complicated history.
Lonely Planet’s Experience Italy (2018) is an individualistic take on culture, customs and much more (read more in my recent review of Experience Italy). A rather different approach is taken by Tobias Jones in The Dark Heart of Italy (2003, revised 2008), a lively exploration of politics, crime and other less celebrated aspects of Italian culture.
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There are numerous non-fiction books about different parts of italy. A classic of the genre is Frances Mayes’ Under the Tuscan Sun (1996) and the follow-up Bella Tuscany (1999). These tell how the author renovated a house in the Tuscan countryside, and fell in love with the land and its people. (Or you could watch the film version with its sumptuous landscapes.) Another personal favourite is The City of Falling Angels (John Berendt, 2005). Based around the fire that destroyed Venice’s La Fenice opera house in 1996, this book is a quirky account of the city, its characters and its social life.
Novels About Italy
If history is your thing, check out the novels by Sarah Dunant, many of which are set in Renaissance italy. Particularly recommended are Sacred Hearts and The Birth of Venus. Or go further back in time with Robert Harris’ evocative telling of the destruction of Pompeii.
I’m not a great fan of detective fiction myself, but I know others will disagree. Donna Leon‘s detective novels based in Venice are very popular. As are Andrea Camilleri‘s Inspector Montalbano books that take place in Sicily.
It would be remiss of me not to mention Salley Vickers’ beautifully written Miss Garnet’s Angel, a celebration of the art and architecture of Venice. And, if you are heading to Naples, try the novels of Elena Ferrante.
Children’s Books About Italy
If you are travelling with younger members of the family have a look at the Kids’ Travel Guide – Italy & Rome which is full of facts and activities. Or try a bit of language learning with Lonely Planet’s First Words – Italian. If your destination is Rome you can also try City Trails – Rome from Lonely Planet Kids. And there is the Roman mysteries detective series from popular author Caroline Lawrence.
I hope this selection has inspired you. As always, please do let me know if you have a favourite that I have left out.