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favorite fiction set in Italy, or non-fiction about Italy

I know there is a whole topic devoted to books and movies in the general section, but it doesn't get much traffic.

I would like advice about good books to read about Italian history (modern or older, political insights particularly welcome) and fiction that gives a flavor of different cities or locales (particularly mysteries). Sadly, I am limited to reading in english. This trip includes Florence, the Cinque Terre and Lucca, so suggestions including Florence or Tuscany would be great.

My suggestions for fellow travelers:

* Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling by Ross King
* Galileo's Daughter by Dava and David Sobel. Both are easy to read and provide lots of interesting background information (though the papacy comes off badly, if that is likely to bother you).

* The Miracle of Castel di Sangro by Joe McGinnis, an absolute must if you even like soccer a little bit. It's a true story about a team from a tiny town that gets elevated to Serie B, the second tier of Italian soccer, and the crazy players, fans and sketchy owner.

Posted by
792 posts

movie? "The Talented Mr.Ripley" ...great plot and fabulous Italian scenery

Posted by
6118 posts

Definitely the Donna Leon mystery series set in Venice. They are like a tour guide to the neighborhoods of Venice and extremely fun reads to boot.

"Under The Tuscan Sun" by Frances Mayes - I liked the book much better than the movie.

Posted by
3308 posts

These aren't the most creative suggestions but Dan Brown's mysteries are fun and very accurate when it comes to the locations in Italy he uses - I can picture his stories as they unfold since I've been to most of the places he uses! The two I like most are Inferno and Angels & Demons.

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7737 posts

I have to disagree with the reference to Dan Brown's books as "very accurate when it comes to the locations in Italy he uses." He's actually pretty notorious for getting that kind of thing wrong. Just do a Google search for Dan Brown errors to see what I mean.

Here are some examples from "Angels and Demons":

  • Bernini's Fountain of the Four Rivers is described as "A flawless tribute to water [which] glorified the four major rivers of the Old World - The Nile, Ganges, Danube, and Rio Plata." The Rio de la Plata is in the New World, between Argentina and Uruguay.
  • According to the book, St Peter's Basilica is in the Vatican Museums. In fact it is outside the museums.
  • Sant'Agnese in Agone, a basilica church in Rome, is described as being on the east side of the Piazza Navona. It is actually on the west side.
  • The Pantheon is said to be to the north of the Piazza della Rotunda. It is to the south.
  • Brown says that "The Church of Santa Maria del Popolo stood ... on the southeast corner of the piazza" and describes a character "[ascending] the main portico to the church's sole wooden door." The church he mentions is on the northeast corner of the square. It does not have a portico.
Posted by
1326 posts

I'll second the suggestion of Beautiful Ruins, although it is set largely in a fictional place (Porto Vergogna) which is inspired by an actual place (Monterosso al Mare, in the Cinque Terre).

Of course, A Room with a View is the definitive novel set in Florence. The action in the second half of the novel moves to England.

You can search in for "novels set in Italy." Also in Wikipedia.

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2901 posts

As a mystery addict, I recommend the following:

Michael Dibdin's Aurelio Zen series. Zen is an honest cop, and for that reason he keeps getting transferred to different assignments. Plenty of local color as he moves around the country.

Andrea Camilleri's series set in Sicily, featuring Inspector Montalbano. Also a terrific TV series, if you can get MHZ.

Ian Pears' art history mysteries.

Posted by
5215 posts

Rachel this is a great book about Venice: No Vulgar Hotel by Judith Martin. Non-fiction, a good dose of history, architecture and commentary on people. Italian Ways and La Bella Figura, whose authors I can't recall.

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11613 posts

Just finished reading The Tigress of Forli, about Caterina Sforza de' Medici, and decided to go to Forli. By Elizabeth Lev, art historian living in Roma.

Posted by
28 posts

Thank you all for the wonderful suggestions. Not enough time to read/watch them all before I leave, but will definitely pick up a few for the plane ride. I so appreciate the wisdom and willingness to share of the people on this forum.

Posted by
7124 posts

I Am Love - the 2009 Tilda Swinton movie set in the lavish world of a wealthy Milanese merchant family.

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3343 posts

The Monster of Florence by Douglas Preston with Mario Spezi. Grand Central Publishing, 2009. Nonfiction true crime story about a serial killer, and a totally out of control criminal justice system. Has an afterword about the Amanda Knox case.

The New Orleans Times-Picayune said, "One of the most fascinating criminal cases in recent well as a chilling story of what happens when a writer becomes identified with a murder investigation in the eyes of the authorities."

I couldn't put it down.

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9 posts

I would agree with Lo's recommendation for "The Monster of Florence." I enjoyed reading "The Lost Battles" by Jonathan Jones. The book details the intense artistic competition during the Renaissance focusing on the aging Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo. Countless references to Florence and the entire Tuscan region. I was surprised to learn of the decision making process of how sculptures and other various works of art were placed in Florence. Also, the impact of Michelangelo on military planning during battles of the region. Definitely a book for non-fiction readers as historical material could be dry for some readers.

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1133 posts

I enjoyed Incontinent on the Continent, by Jane Christmas. Its about the author's trip to Italy with her elderly mother.

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3343 posts

Of course the authors of the Monster of Florence are biased. They both experienced the heavy hand of the authorities while researching this book about the serial killer who murdered 16 young lovers.

By the way, Mario Spezi is a well-known Italian journalist who has covered several of the most significant criminal cases in Italy. He seems to be the one who had the most repercussions from his investigations into the crime(s). This is a June, 2006 interview with him from the Florentine, an English news magazine in Florence. A Google search will find many more results for him.

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1168 posts

How about the mystery series about Commissiario Brunetti written by Donna Leon set in Venice. Some books were made into films which are sometimes shown on PBS but the series was filmed by a German company so all the actors speak in German, a little disconcerting at first. The books, however, are in English!

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72 posts

Two non fiction books I really enjoyed are The City of Falling Angels (set in Venice) and Saving Italy (set during WWII). Excellent books.

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7737 posts

If you want some insight into Italians generally and some Italian history, I would suggest two books by Tim Parks, an Englishman who has lived in Italy for many years. They are "Italian Neighbors" and "Italian Education."

I enjoy the various mysteries mentioned above (Pears, Dibdin and Leone), in that order, as far as the quality of the writing goes.

A fun yet somewhat trashy read is "The Agony and the Ecstasy" about Michelangelo. Even though it completely avoids the fact that Michelangelo was gay, it's still fun to read about the background behind a lot of his sculptures, paintings and other works. (The story behind the Doni Tondo, for example, is a kick.)

There's also "In the Company of the Courtesan," by Sarah Dunant, set in 16th century Venice.

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2901 posts

In a more serious vein, two novels, came to my mind, which showcase two very different slices of pre-WWII Italian society: The Garden of the Finzi Continis (Ferrara) and Christ Stopped at Eboli (Matera).

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8293 posts

I agree with Michael ( above) as to books by Tim Parks.

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792 posts

A second vote for Montalbano. My library system has the DVDs with subtitles along with the newest series called the Young Montalbano. Since reading the books, pasta alla norma has become one of my favorite eggplant recipes.

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16 posts

I love historical fiction set in Italy and highly recommend:
Leonardo's Swans by Karen Essex
The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant
In the Company of a Courtesan by Sarah Dunant
The Passion of Artemesia by Susan Vreeland
The Gondola Maker by Laura Morelli
The Sixteen Pleasures by Robert Hellenga

Also love the author Anthony Capella and his humor about food & Italy in both books: The Food of Love (set in Rome) and The Wedding Officer (set in Naples at the end of WWII)

For mystery set in Italy, I love the books of David Hewson. My favorite so far is The Cemetery of Secrets (aka Lucifer's Shadow) set in Venice. He also has a series of novels set in Rome with the main detective being Nic Costa. I'm working my way through all of them, but some of my favorites from that series so far include: The Fallen Angel, City of Fear, The Sacred Cut.

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715 posts

Non-fiction. I loved Sicilian Lives by Danilo Dolci.