It’s National Reading Month (who knew?) so it seems a good time to share a collection of my favorite books set in Italy. I’m a big fan of historical fiction. And, as you can see, I have been going through a slightly obsessive Renaissance phase. I also like reading travel fiction because it provides me with an escape – especially since we haven’t traveled in a while – and gives me ideas for travel destinations. I never would have visited the Dordogne Region of France if I didn’t read a book about a woman who moved and bought a house there.
Here are some of my favorites.
Pompeii by Robert Harris – A thriller, describing the events leading up to the volcanic explosion. If you’ve visited Pompeii, you’ll love reading this book.Brunelleschi’s Dome by Ross King – This is a painstakingly detailed account of the amazing design and engineering of Filippo Brunelleschi. A visit to the Duomo in Florence will never be the same (if you can get through the details).
Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling by Ross King – It’s hard to believe the work that goes into creating frescoes, let alone the two most important examples in the Sistine Chapel. The book also lets you in on the politics behind it all.
A House in Sicily by Daphne Phelps – When I visited Sicily about 10 years ago, it felt undiscovered and untouched by too much tourism. I hope it still is. This book is set in Taormina near Mt. Etna, a gorgeous place worth visiting.
The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant – Set in Florence during the period of fanatical monk Savonarola and the Bonfire of the Vanities, the main character pursues a young painter and his art.
Cleopatra by Stacy Schiff – Not set entirely in Italy (although in the book Cleopatra does go to Rome), I’m including it because I just finished it and was fascinated to learn more about this period and one of history’s most important women leaders. I like that it makes a case for debunking many of the myths surrounding her.
The Secret Book of Grazia Dei Rossi by Jaqueline Park – One of the few books I know of about Italian Jews. And set in one of my favorite cities – Mantova.
The Sixteen Pleasures by Robert Hellenga – This is a story set in Florence in the 1960s when “Mud Angels” – foreigners -came there to save the city’s art after the Arno flooded. Fantastic and an easy read. Some of my favorite quotes come from this book’s 29-year-old main character.
I, Claudius Novels by Robert Graves – If you want to dive into the early years of the Roman Empire and those crazy emperors, these books provide the full picture and are delightful to read.
D. H Lawrence and Italy by D.H Lawrence – What I liked about this collection of stories is that he describes many of the places he visited in the 1920s much like they are today. His descriptions of Lake Garda where we lived and the lemon structures (limonaia) covering the mountain slopes are exactly as I remember.
Mediterranean Summer by David Shalleck – Full of recipes and adventures from a chef cooking for a billionaire family aboard a yacht off the coast of Italy. The author is now based in San Francisco and can be hired for private culinary events.
Fortune is a River by Roger D. Masters – Describes Da Vinci and Machiavelli’s dreams and ambitions to build a system of canals that would extend the Arno River to the sea.
The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman – this isn’t a travel or historical fiction, but I’m including it because it’s a book about expats working at an English language newspaper in Rome. I met the author, a former journalist, when I attended a reading for his book. It’s one of the best books I’ve read recently – I personally enjoyed his writing and the themes he explores in the book.
So happy reading and enjoy the trip.