Not everyone can travel to Italy every year, or be in Italy whenever they want – so, for some, the next best thing is reading about Italy. Immersing oneself in a book about Italian culture or set in an Italian city can offer a delightful temporary escape – not to mention planning ammunition for a trip.
With that in mind, here are some of my personal favorite books either about Italy or set in Italy, along with some other highly-recommended books that I haven’t yet had time to devour. As always, I welcome your comments and input.
What Italy-related books do you love?
Are there Italy books you read over and over again?
Have you ever used a book about Italy to help construct an Italy trip?
Let me know in the comments!
I have to admit that most of the Italy-related reading I’ve done over the years is of the non-fiction variety, so my personal favorites aren’t as robust in the escapist category. I’ll have to work on that, no?
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- Aurelio Zen mysteries (Michael Dibdin) – This series of mysteries is something of a tour of Italy. Each book is set in a different Italian city, and Dibdin masterfully weaves the personality of the place as well as Italian cultural notes into every story. Ratking is the first book, and if you’re anything like me you’ll be addicted instantly. Buy Ratking on Amazon; see Michael Dibdin’s author page on Amazon
- The Dark Heart of Italy (Tobias Jones) – This is one of my favorite Italy-related books ever, despite its somber overtones. Yes, this is an historic book about Italy’s checkered (recent) past, and deals with what kind of country could give rise to a leader like Berlusconi, but it’s not all doom-and-gloom. In fact, Jones spends the end of the book talking about why he loves Italy despite its flaws. A great read if you think you’re ready for the flipside of the “Tuscan sun.” Buy The Dark Heart of Italy on Amazon
- A Season With Verona (Tim Parks) – Admittedly, enjoying this book requires at least a familiarity with soccer and/or an interest in the game, but what I especially love about this book are the insights into Italian culture that come when Parks follows his Italian team around the country, going to every game they play that year. Buy A Season With Verona on Amazon
- An Irreverent Curiosity (David Farley) – This was one of my favorite reads from 2010, and an unexpected delight at that. Farley spends a year living in a strange hilltop town near Rome where the “church’s strangest relic” – the holy foreskin of Jesus – was once kept before it disappeared. His quest becomes yours, and he even teaches you history along the way in building the story. Buy An Irreverent Curiosity on Amazon
- The Agony & the Ecstasy (Irving Stone) – This classic historic novel about Michelangelo is a great way to absorb history without feeling like you’ll be bored by it. It’s a huge book, but the format makes it easier to digest than sitting in a classroom would. Buy The Agony & the Ecstasy on Amazon
- Brunelleschi’s Dome (Ross King) – This is a great book about the construction of the Duomo’s dome in Florence, and will give you new appreciation for the building itself when you visit. King also wrote a book about Michelangelo painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Buy Brunelleschi’s Dome on Amazon
- Venice Observed (Mary McCarthy) – I have a thing for Venice (you know this by now), but it’s a city that’s sort of difficult to describe without devolving into sappy or overused cliches. That’s what makes this book especially great – it’s an honest, critical, and loving look at a city McCarthy called home. Originally published in 1956, it stands the test of time beautifully. Buy Venice Observed on Amazon
- A Room With a View (EM Forster) – Another classic, this EM Forster novel was published in 1908 and although it won’t necessarily paint an accurate modern picture of Florence, it’ll have you wistfully imagining the turn-of-the-century city when you wander its streets. Buy A Room With a View on Amazon
- The City of Falling Angels (John Berendt) – You may know the author’s more famous book, “Midnight in the Garden of Good & Evil,” but his second book, “The City of Falling Angels,” is all about Venice. In fact, it’s about the fire that destroyed La Fenice (Venice’s opera house) in 1996, the investigation that followed, and the rebuilding of the new theatre. As in Berendt’s first book, the characters – who are real-life people in the city – are sometimes too good to be believed. Buy The City of Falling Angels on Amazon
- Pomodoro!: A History of the Tomato in Italy (David Gentilcore) – Many of us now associate the tomato with Italian cuisine, assuming it has always been so. Gentilcore takes us back through the history of the introduction of the tomato to Italy, which happened fairly recently in the grand scheme of things, and traces it back and forth across the Atlantic. Buy Pomodoro on Amazon
Italy Books Often Recommended (that I Haven’t Read Yet)
These books come highly recommended by other Italophiles, including friends of mine, but I haven’t yet read them. And yes, I know. The first one on the list is a doozy.
- Under the Tuscan Sun (Frances Mayes) – Buy Under the Tuscan Sun on Amazon
- The Leopard (Giuseppe De Lampedusa) – Buy The Leopard on Amazon
- The Italians (Luigi Barzini) – Buy The Italians on Amazon
- My Cousin the Saint (Justin Catanoso) – Buy My Cousin the Saint on Amazon
- A Thousand Days in Venice (Marlena De Blasi) – Buy A Thousand Days in Venice on Amazon
- Guido Brunetti mysteries (Donna Leon) – Buy Death at La Fenice on Amazon; see Donna Leon’s author page on Amazon
- Death in Venice (Thomas Mann) – Buy Death in Venice on Amazon
- Too Much Tuscan Sun (Dario Castagno) – Buy Too Much Tuscan Sun on Amazon
- Extra Virginity (Tom Mueller) – Buy Extra Virginity on Amazon
- Beyond the Pasta (Mark Leslie) – Buy Beyond the Pasta on Amazon
Italy Books for Would-Be Expats
In addition to “The Dark Heart of Italy” (listed above), I’d also recommend people who are contemplating a move to Italy take a look at these books at your library or local bookstore. There are similarities between them, so this will give you a chance to browse through them before buying the one you like best. One thing to look for is the publication date – make sure you’re getting one that was either published or updated recently, so the most current legal information is included. I’ve listed the most current publication date I could find of each of the pertinent titles.
- Culture Shock! Italy – Buy Culture Shock! Italy on Amazon
- Living & Working in Italy (2011) – Buy Living & Working in Italy on Amazon
- Living Abroad in Italy (2008) – Buy Living Abroad in Italy on Amazon
- Living & Working in Italy (2007) – Buy Living & Working in Italy on Amazon
- Living, Studying, & Working in Italy (2003) – Buy Living, Studying, & Working in Italy on Amazon
Italy Book Reviews & Book Articles on WhyGo Italy
- Here’s a list of the book reviews I’ve done on WhyGo Italy
- Here’s the “books” section of my list of Italy gift ideas
- Here’s an article about some of the writers who have lived in Rome over the years
Other Italy Book Recommendation Lists
- This thread on the Fodors message boards about books set in Italy is outstanding, but it’s daunting because it goes on forever. One user has tried to compile all the suggestions into periodically updated lists in her posts, but even those become too cumbersome to read. In other words, read through the thread until you can’t handle it anymore – and no matter how long that is, you’ll have a long list of books to take to your library.
- This list of books on Food Lover’s Odyssey has plenty of food-related Italy books on it, but they’re not all about food. There are also quite a few I’d never heard of before.
- This site seems to list books set in Italy from some kind of database. I’ve no idea of its accuracy, and of course there aren’t any reviews to accompany the listings, but if it’s a specific city or part of Italy you’re keen on reading about, this might be a good resource to check.
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photo by pppspics