When I travel to a foreign country, I like to prolong my eventual arrival. I do that by soaking up words and hence, images during the weeks before I pack the suitcase. And there are no more beautiful words written than those that describe Italy.
It feels like approaching its shores over the water. Seeing the shoreline from afar, keeping my eyes on it as it comes into view. Slow and deliberate, it becomes imprinted in my mind’s eye. I am already enveloped in its beauty before I set foot on the ground.
Here are my recommendations of stories to read that will inspire you, books I recommend to my guests who travel with me to Italy on the Aria Tour.
A Room with a View by E. M. Forster
The movie is pornography for romantics, which is why I would recommend both reading the book and watching the film. This book appears on every ten best list because, like Florence, it is timeless. Nineteenth century British modes of proper behavior encounter Italian sensuality. It will make you fall in love with Florence over and over again.
Brunelleschi’s Dome by Ross King
The quintessential book written about the event that kicked off the Renaissance. If you are going to Florence, the Dome is omnipresent. The story of Brunelleschi, a quirky, paranoid genius and how he managed to use ancient architectural methods in its construction reads like a novel. It is the single most important story to know about Florence. Last Spring, Ross King joined me and my guests for a day. There is nothing like standing in the Cathedral, under the magnificent Dome and listening to Ross King tell the story!
Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling by Ross King
Moving on to Rome, this book, also written by Ross King, examines a slice of Michelangelo’s long and productive life: his years working on the Sistine Ceiling for Pope Julius. Insisting he was not “a painter” did not release him from this gargantuan task, it became a test of wills not only between the artist and the Pope, but internally between Michelangelo’s resistance and his need for perfection. You will want to have read this book before you enter the Chapel and look up!
Italian Days by Barbara Grizzuti Harrison
This book, now thirty years old, will be something you either devour or else put down after the first ten pages. I was acquainted with the late Barbara Grizzuti Harrison, whose ancestral roots are in Sicily. She writes about her travels through the whole country. It is very much stream of consciousness, written sketches of things happening around her and her impressions in that moment. In fact, it feels like an impressionist painting. Some reviews have described her style as “rambling”. I think it is dazzling.
Sprezzatura: 50 Ways Italian Genius Shaped the World by Peter D’Epiro and Mary Desmond Pinkowish
Oh, how I love the name of this book. Sprezzatura is my favorite Italian word. It is the art of doing something really well as if it took no effort at all. The word first appears in 1528 in a book penned by Baldassare Castiglione, “The Book of the Courtier.” While the word has today come to be associated with men’s tailored fashion, it can apply to other categories of Italian genius and this book pays tribute to that. From Leonardo to Machiavelli, this is a fun trip through how Italians think and create.
The House of Medici, its Rise and Fall by Christopher Hibbert
If all you have ever learned about this family is on the Netflix series (a very disappointing effort, in my opinion), you will be much more appalled and enthralled reading this book. A plus is that it’s historically accurate. The Godfather has nothing on the Medici. Read this and understand why we wouldn’t have had the Renaissance happen the way it did without Lorenzo.
The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim
This charming tale about women who escape to Italy from their dreary lives and dreary weather in England, feels as current today as it did when it was written 100 years ago. That’s because women still take off from dreary lives and dreary weather to escape to Italy. This story of how the beauty of Italy (the wisteria!) can transform spirits and even marriages is a treasure. (There is a good film version as well).
Pictures from Italy by Charles Dickens
Written in 1844 when Dickens traveled in Italy for an entire year, this book truly paints pictures. If you love Dickens’ writing style, as so many of us do in David Copperfield and The Tale of Two Cities, you will find his style intact as he describes his encounters with people and places as observer, not tourist. So much about Italy never changes and that is why this book is still readable. Without the distraction of technology, his powers of observation are exquisite. I was especially taken with his visit to the Carrara marble quarries and his shock over the dark and violent side of the mining, later contemplating the beauty of the finished sculptures in studio.
Galileo’s Daughter by Dava Sobel
Beautiful book about the relationship the famous scientist had with his daughter who lived in a nearby convent. On my last trip to Florence, I visited his house and having read the book, it was especially poignant to stand in the place where he once stood, gazing not only at the stars, but at the place where his daughter was writing letters to him.
The Agony and the Ecstasy by Irving Stone
Okay, so maybe the film is a little cheesy, but it’s worth watching if you have read the book first. To my knowledge, it is the only novel written about Michelangelo that describes his trips to the white marble quarries of Carrara, Italy – a place near and dear to my heart. As historical fiction, Stone takes liberties with history and shies away from Michelangelo’s homosexual or asexual proclivities. Nevertheless, it is a marvelous psychological portrayal of the Artist and a thrilling account of the brutality and beauty of the marble mines, how art can live forever.
Let's do ELEVEN!
The Stonecutter's Aria by Carol Faenzi
Well, I include this in my "Best Italy Books" list because it was such a meaningful, personal experience to write about my Italian ancestors. For me it represents all that I hold dear about Italy: art, music, food, and most of all, family. If you'd like to read the opening chapters for free, go to this page and download them.
There are other books I could have included. How about you? What would you tell a friend to read before going to Italy?
What would you tell a friend to #read before going to #Italy ? #amreading #books #travel