I am, sadly, not travelling to Italy this winter but I have had two people who are planning trips to Italy ask me for recommended reading. So, if you are planning an Italian vacation sometime in late winter or early spring you may also want to read some novels to get into the mood, and augment the information in the travel books you’ve been pouring through while planning a trip that might take in Florence, Naples and, my favourite of all, Venice!
Prepare for FLORENCE by reading Magdalen Nabb’s Florentine mystery series featuring Marshal Guarnaccia. These books bring Florence alive as Georges Simenon’s Maigret did Paris. In fact, on reading Magdalen Nabb’s first novel, Simenon wrote to her “My dear fellow-writer and friends, it is so good to walk with you through the animated streets of Florence, with its carabinieri, its ordinary people, its little trattorie and even its noisy tourists. It’s all so alive, you can hear the noises, smell, see the morning mist on the fast flowing Arno…:. “.
Brunelleschi’s Dome – The Story of the Great Cathedral of Florence – by Ross King is your non-fiction read for this city. The Cathedral is amazing – and the dome even more so – as is the story of its construction. “For over a century after work on the cathedral began in 1296, the proposed dome was regarded as all but impossible to build because of its enormous size. The greatest architectural puzzle of its age, when finally completed in 1436 the dome was hailed as one of the great wonders of the world”.
South of Sienna and Montepulciano lies La Foce, the estate of the late Iris Origo. One can tour the extensive gardens, and the olive orchards – and even stay the night or longer. We were privileged to have a private tour of the building and grounds the week after a devastating snowstorm in the early spring of 2010. I read the absolutely riveting wartime diaries of Iris Origo – now published as Chill in the Air 1939-1940 and War in Val d’Orcia 1943-1944. There is also an excellent biography of Iris Origo by Caroline Moorehead that is very much worth a read, providing a good history of not only the woman and her time but also life in Tuscany before, during and after the Second World War.
NAPLES has become a literary destination of sorts in the past few years with so many people reading Elena Ferrante’s addictive quartet of Neapolitan novels, beginning with My Brilliant Friend. These books brought the city alive. But, there are a few earlier books that I read long ago that are still a good source of the history and lore of this fascinating city.
The Volcano Lover by Susan Sontag is a fictional biography of sorts – This story of The Cavaliere aka Lord Hamilton, who was the British Ambassador to Naples in the late 1700s, his second wife Emma Hamilton, and her lover, Lord Nelson makes for absorbing reading.
The Bay of Noon by Shirley Hazzard opens with the words “A military plane crashed that winter on Mount Vesuvius”. This is the story of a young woman, Jenny, who begins her adult life as a translator for the American military in Naples a few years after the end of the Second World War.
Lucia – A Venetian Life In the Time of Napoleon – by Andrea Di Robilant tells the story of the author’s ancestor and the time in which she lived, painting a picture of Venice in the late 1700s.
I doubt that anyone spending time in Naples does not also take in a day or more at Pompeii. The novel titled Pompeii by Robert Harris is a real page-turner and perfect airplane reading for a flight to Italy on route to Pompeii and Herculaneum. This novel brings the time and place, and the people who perished, to life.
And, of course VENICE, where your reading starts and ends with the Commissario Guido Brunetti mystery series by Donna Leon. I have read them over and over – once one after the other in bed with flu while in Venice, not feeling too very sorry for myself.
There was a time we travelled quite frequently to Europe, and as often as possible made Venice the arrival or departure point no matter the destination or the time of year. Winter is the best time to be there – after Carnivale – when the hotels and restaurants re-open after the long post Christmas holiday, and the masses of tourists have not yet arrived. Cold weather means no lining up and all the excuse you need to stop often for a cup of coffee with zeppole, or proseco and olives. Snow in Venice is a truly beautiful sight.
The Midwife of Venice by Roberta Rich takes place in 1575. The Jewish Ghetto in Venice is unique in that it is basically unchanged since the 1500s. Roberta Rich wrote about her first visit to Venice in 2007, “We were on a walking tour of the Jewish Ghetto, which if you haven’t seen it for yourself, is like a movie set of narrow, dark buildings and several synagogues, tucked away on a second or third floor, out of view. Walking up the staircases and through musty passages and narrow streets strung with drying laundry, I began to wonder what life must have been for Jews who flocked to the ghetto as one of the few safe havens available at the time.”
The Secret Book of Grazia dei Rossi by Jacqueline Park also tells the absorbing story of a Jewish woman, as she writes in a dairy for her young son. In doing so, she tells us about her life during the tumultuous years of the Italian Renaissance.