Reading takes time but if you have that luxury immersing yourself in a book before or during your journey to Italy can be enlightening. Choosing isn’t easy as thousands have been published on a myriad of topics. The trick is to follow your interests whether they be food, art, sport or history in order to lay the intellectual groundwork of your visit. Hours spent within the pages of a good book will result in greater awareness of the complexities of Italy and help you connect historical, artistic and cultural dots that aren’t always evident to those visitors who fail to read.
The Italians: A Full Length Portrait Featuring Their Manners and Morals | Luigi Barzini
This classic semi-sociological work may be over 50 years old but many of Barzini’s observations still hold true today. He provides detailed portraits of Italians that are often quite hilarious and examines the origins of everyday rituals which have left travelers baffled for generations.
La Bella Figura: A Field Guide to the Italian Mind | Beppe Severgnini
Severignini has made a living out of explaining Italians to the rest of the world. He does it with humor and manages to dissect and explore many of the habits that are uniquely Italian without condescension or over simplification.
That Fine Italian Hand | Paul Hofmann
Sometimes it takes an outsider to decipher what’s going on inside. Hofmann had that perspective along with an abundance of curiosity that helped reveal the paradoxes of his adopted country.
The Sack of Rome | Alexander Stille
Few individuals have influenced modern Italy as much as Silvio Berlusconi and while the world wonders how a billionaire clown could hypnotize a country for nearly three decades Italians have been stuck loving or hating him. Stilles takes an objective look at the consequences of life under a media tycoon and tracks how Italians have evolved under his reign.
Italian Hours | Henry James
Plenty of great writers have been inspired by Italy but few have spent as much time in the country as Henry James. Italian Hours is a collection of essays about Rome and Venice that balance romantic vision with the realities he wasn’t afraid to recount. Even these however cannot overshadow the beauty he describes so vividly.
A Traveller in Rome | H.V. Morton
Morton was the Rick Steves of the 1950s and a pioneer traveler at a time when tourism was still in its infancy. This book is a diary-like account filled with impressions of the Eternal City told in an erudite yet easy to read manner. His insights are focused on how the city should be seen rather than what to see.
Travel guides aren’t meant to be history books and to understand a little or a lot of what happened over the centuries requires something thicker. Even the best books however can only scratch the surface of a country whose past is immense and occasionaly elusive. A good place to start is a period, a personality or even a building. Whatever you choose will likely provide answers and raise new questions at the same time. Don’t be daunted, just read and accept that educated ignorance is impossible to avoid when the subject is Italian history.
Rome From the Ground Up | James H. S. McGregor
A concise study of how Rome evolved through the millennia. Each chapter describes a different epoch and the city’s gradual transformation. The book’s clear prose, color photos, engravings, historical maps, architectural plans and drawings help make sense of Rome.
City of Fortune: How Venice Ruled the Seas | Roger Crowley
A historical page turner recounting Venice’s rise as a naval power and the lasting repercussions trade had on the city. Full of memorable facts that will readily come back to mind as you visit Venice and attempt to puzzle the past together.
Garibaldi Citizen of the World: A Biography | Alfonso Scirocco
Garibaldi is the George Washington of Italy and one of the most extraordinary figures of the 19th century. He was a soldier, politician, farmer and one of the founding fathers of modern Italy who played a vital role in the country’s unification. Every town in Italy has a street or square named after him and his story reads like the best drama except it’s remarkably true.
Brunelleschi’s Dome | Ross King
The Duomo in Florence may appear like a forgone conclusion today but in 1418 building the dome was anything but certain. The story of its completion is a tale of how a Renaissance genius solved the greatest engineering challenge of his day and reinvented architecture while he was at it.
Sprezzatura: 50 Ways Italian Genius Shaped the World | Peter D’Epiro and Mary Desmond Pinkowish
If you think pizza is Italy’s greatest contribution to civilization you need to read this book. Humanity has a lot more to be thankful for and the authors detail how politics, banking, music and many more innovations taken for granted today originated in Italy. It’s evident after a few pages why the world would be a different place without Italian ingenuity and inventiveness.
>Art and Architecture
Lives of the Artists | Giorgio Vasari
Vasari (1511–1574) was a well-known painter and architect but this book is his lasting legacy. It contains short biographies of Italy’s greatest Renaissance artists and traces the development of art and architecture across three centuries. He met the geniuses of his day (Michelangelo included) and infused the pages with the passion he witnessed in workshops and studios around Italy.
Leonardo da Vinci: The Marvelous Works of Nature and Man | Martin Kemp
Leonardo da Vinci is an icon of Western civilization and dwarfs nearly every other historical figure but before he became a cultural idol he was just a man. Kemp takes readers on a revealing journey across Leonardo’s long and improbable life describing the artistic, scientific and technological achievements at various stages of his monumental career.
Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling | Ross King
The behind the scenes story of the Sistine Chapel and how an uncompromising artist and manipulative pontiff created the most famous fresco in history. King’s prose read like fiction but are well documented and paint a colorful picture of the political drama of the time and how the ceiling came to be.
The Architecture of the Italian Renaissance | Peter Murray
A comprehensive illustrated guide to the art and architecture of the Renaissance for readers without any previous knowledge of the subject. Leonardo, Raphael, Michelangelo, Palladio and Brunelleschi are the protagonists of this ambitious work that segues between Rome, Florence and Venice and makes an extraordinary moment in history understandable.
The Genius in the Design: Bernini, Borromini and the Rivalry that Transformed Rome | Jake Morrissey
Competition is good when the competitors are visionary architects eager to outdo one another and guarantee themselves a place in posterity. It’s a Gates vs. Jobs story except the operating system was Baroque and both Bernini and Borromini found ways to break with the past and create a style that’s still visible on the streets of Rome.
The Adventures of Pinocchio | Carlo Collodi | ages 4 and up
Most people are familiar with the story of the wooden puppet who longs to be a boy but like most classics this one deserves to be read and reread. Pinocchio souvenirs abound in Florence, where the author was born, and help transform fiction into the reality kids have adored for over a century.
This is Rome | Miroslav Sasek | ages 7-10
A wonderfully illustrated book that explains the past and present of Rome. Landmarks and everyday life are unveiled in a playful narrative that will keep kids tuned in and build their expectations for the real thing. This is Venice also available by the same author.
Rome Antics | David Macaulay | ages 7-11
The story of Rome as told by a vagabonding pigeon who takes readers on a journey through time. The contrast between old and new is wonderfully told with words and illustrations that will fascinate young minds and prepare their eyes for the cobblestone streets and surprises Rome still has to offer.
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