Reading Italy

Italy may be the most European of countries. Rome was the capital of an empire that encircled the most faraway corners of the continent. Italy gave us the Renaissance and the foundations of modern western culture. It was in Rome where the signing of the European Union’s founding treaty happened. Italy, a peninsula that immediately distinguishes itself from its characteristic shape.  

Many people while visiting Italy for the first time and not, may just be content to visit its museums, to vacationing in the quiet medieval streets of Umbria and cultured Tuscany or to have the three big Rome, Florence, Venice done with, and then leave it at that. Yet there are parts of Italy and aspects of its society that are exotic and unfamiliar. Some literature may give some useful insight to understand more, not just about its culture, but also why and how some things happened, or why some of its magnificent churches and buildings came to fruition. 


There are some books that would make a visit to Italy more worthwhile.  Besides some books now-famous such as Elena Ferrante’s Novels about Neapolitan life, with her well-tuned stories of two street-smart girls growing up in Naples she(he), give fascinating insights into an often violent and repressive culture.

Or the many books by Camilleri; such as “Death in Sicily: the First Three Novels of the Inspector Montalbano Series.” Camilleri’s fictional’s character is known for his sagacity, sense of humor and his loveable, impenitent use of Sicilian dialect. ” Death in Sicily ” collects the first three installments of Montalbano’s saga, “The Shape of Water,” originally published in 1994, “The Terracotta Dog,” (1996) and “The Snack Thief” (1996). Camilleri gave us good portraiture of Sicilian life, and ultimately also Italian life. 

Four Books Worth Reading

“The Leopard” by Tommasi di Lampedusa

The ‘Leopard‘ of the title is Don Fabrizio, patriarch of the family, a measured, middle-aged Prince. He ponders the fleeting nature of life, the nobility’s loss of power to Garibaldi’s revolution, and muses melancholically on the way the nobility have squandered that power. Luchino Visconti made the novel famous with the 1963 Italian epic period drama film, starring Claudia Cardinale, Alain Delon, and Burt Lancaster.

When Visconti was told by producers that they needed to cast a star in order to help to ensure that they’d earn enough money to justify the big-budget, the director’s first choice was one of the Soviet Union’s preeminent actors, Nikolai Cherkasov. Learning that Cherkasov was in no condition, Twentieth Century Fox stipulated that the star should be either Gregory Peck, Anthony Quinn, Spencer Tracy or Burt Lancaster. The producers chose Hollywood star Burt Lancaster without consulting Visconti, which insulted the director and caused tension on the set; but Visconti and Lancaster ended up working well together, and their resulting friendship lasted the rest of their lives.

The Palazzo or Villa Salina, in reality, is Villa Lampedusa, in San Lorenzo Colli (outside Palermo), the plain where the aristocracy of the eighteenth century in Palermo built its own residences.

Perhaps the most impressive is Palazzo Valguarnera-Gangi, where the famous ball takes place. Today, while the famous Baroque ballroom may be hired for events, the rest of the house is still used as a private residence.


Located at Piazza Croce Dei Vespri 6, 90133, Palermo, Sicily,  it is possible to visit this baroque residence. 

A Literary Tour of Italy by Tim Parks

Collected Essays on Italian Writers 

Tim Parks, an English ex-pat in Italy, is a novelist who wrote extensively on Italy’s life. However, Tim Parks also contributes with essays, introductions to translations, and book reviews, most often to the New York Review of Books. 

This book has 23 entries (below a list of my favorite ones); Park starts with Dante’s Inferno and introduces the reader to the life of the poet, and the circumstances that brought him to conceive the book in the first place. While noting Dante’s undying love for Beatrice, he also points out that she conveniently dies very early and still quite young. 

Parks takes us chronologically forward, past Boccaccio and Machiavelli, to explore writers from the past two centuries who deal with loss and selfishness, isolation and pleasure. 

A Literary Tour of Italy is a proficient guide to Italy.

  • Dante: Hell and Back
  • Giovanni Boccaccio: Famous Women
  • Niccolò Machiavelli: True Scandal
  • Giacomo Leopardi: Surviving Giacomo
  • Carlo Emilio Gadda: Che pasticcio!
  • Curzio Malaparte: The Horrors of War
  • Ignazio Silone: After the Earthquake
  • Dino Buzzati: The Enchanted Fort
  • Elsa Morante: The Dark in the Piazza
  • Giorgio Bassani: The Garden of the Finzi-Continis


Sprezzatura: 50 Ways Italian Genius Shaped the World by Peter D’Epiro and Mary Desmond Pinkowish 

A collection of the 50 great Italian cultural achievements that have significantly influenced Western civilization, including Castiglione from whom they borrowed the title (a bit misleading in current italian), ”Sprezzatura.” 

From the Roman calendar and the creator of the modern orchestra (Claudio Monteverdi) to the beginnings of ballet and the creator of modern political science (Niccolò Machiavelli), Sprezzatura highlights 50 great Italian cultural achievements in a series of essays in chronological order, each a concise discussion of important contribution Italy has made to the world. 


A Day in the Life of Ancient Rome: Daily Life, Mysteries, and Curiosities by Alberto Angela 

A Day in the Life of Ancient Rome can be taken essentially as a written TV documentary, which in fact Angela conducts weekly for the RAI. 

This rather unassuming TV presenter is the son of Italian TV announcer Piero Angela. A writer and anthropologist Alberto accompanied his father in his trips ever since he was a child, something that allowed him to learn many European languages and to acquire a cosmopolitan culture. He studied at multiple American universities, where he took courses of specialization from Harvard, Columbia, and UCLA and further focused on paleontology and paleoanthropology.

Alberto Angela conducts ”Ulisse” a  very successful TV monographic show dedicated to history, art, and culture.

Not all books by Alberto Angela are translated in English yet. I  hope his latest book called ”Meraviglie” (Wonders), would soon be available. 




Posted by

I lived the most part of my life in Washington DC, now in Italy getting to know again my country. Plenty of surprises, for good and bad, and lots of nostalgia for DC.

3 thoughts on “Reading Italy

  1. Thanks for providing such an interesting perspective through literature. Americans often miss out on the “real” Italy, choosing the Rome – Venice – Florence hustle tour and that’s a shame. When our friends in the states visit us, they always return with at least two books about our local history, culture and art. Even in the “boonies” we have so many great books about our area.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s