Italy seems to exert a romantic attraction on the Anglo-Saxon people from Byron, Shelly, Keats to modern writers like Tim Parks. I too have felt the pull of Italy and it's language, food and people.
This is a little list of some of the books I've read on Italy. From books on Imperial Italy to books on modern Italian politics, it would be difficult to find a country where more ink has been spilled per square kilometer. This web page covers a few books in the vast literature on Italy.
I have always been interested in Imperial Roman history. I have read Tacitus' The Annals of Imperial Rome, Suetonius' Lives of the Twelve Caesars, and Robert Grave's wonderful Claudius novels. With the exception of A Concise History of Italy by Christopher Duggan I had not widely on modern Italy. I started reading travel essays and books on post-Imperial times when I was planning for my visit to Italy during the Spring of 2006. I had such a wonderful time visiting Italy that I plan to return. I read some of the books listed her in preparation for a visit to Rome in the Spring of 2007.
Travel is very expensive and it uses up a big chunk of my available vacation time. For me travel is an investment in broadening my mind and experience. So I try to understand as much as possible about a country and its history before I visit.
A complete history of Italy would consume a library worth of books and would take years to read. As the title suggests, this book provides only a survey of Italian history.
The New Italians by Charles Richards, 1995
I can't imagine writing a book that would attempt to describe the modern United States. The country is so large and so different from region to region: the San Francisco Bay Area to Huntsville Alabama.
Italy is a far smaller country than the United States, both in geographical area and in population. But a book on Italian society can still only provide an impressionist sketch of Italy, which is complex in its own right. The New Italians by Charles Richards is just such an impressionist sketch. The book is well written and engaging, with the exception of the last few chapters which I found dragged.
Richards writes of modern Italy, since the Second World War. He provides an interesting description of Italian attitudes, Italian politics and bureaucracy, which Richards describes as largely dysfunctional. His description of getting anything official done dovetails with the description in A Thousand Days in Venice of Ms. de Blasi and her fiance getting a marriage license (they only succeeded when her fiance lied to the official, telling her that Ms. de Blasi wrote for The New York Times and would write about the difficulties she was having getting marriage license).
After describing the dysfunctional nature of most Italian cities, Richards describes Bologna, a city run by reformed Communists which runs better than most cities in Italy. Bologna (which I'm planning to visit) seems to be a bit like Catalonia: a mix of socialism with an affection of the good things in life and the willingness to work hard for them.
There is a fairly long section on the various Italian Mafias (La Cosa Nostra of Sicily, the Camorra of Naples and the 'ndrangheta of Calabria). Richards covers the Italian Mafia because, like the cocaine cartels in Columbia, the Mafia has infiltrated Italian society, all the way up to some of the Prime Ministers, some allege. Better coverage of the Mafia and the courageous Sicilians who have fought it can be found in Excellent Cadavers by Alexander Stille.
The Dark Heart of Italy by Tobias Jones
Italy has beautiful art, spectacular architecture, wonderful food and a people who, at least in my limited experience, seem to pride themselves in being nice. If Italy also had well organized, efficient government it is possible that the country would be destroyed since we would all move there. Tobias Jones' book The Dark Heart of Italy explains why Italy is a wonderful place to visit but a difficult country in which to live.
Tobias Jones is British and moved to Italy with his ragazza italiana (Italian girl friend), who later became his wife. Jones arrived in Italy without knowing any Italian, but he seems to be one of those people who can pick languages up.
In The Dark Heart of Italy, Tobias Jones discusses Italian life, Italian style, but most of all Italian politics. He describes Italy with Silvio Berlusconi as Prime Minister as a "post democratic" society. Berlusconi is Italy's richest man and he literally owns half of Italy's television stations and news papers. Berlusconi portrays himself as a self-made man of business who worked his way up from a cruise ship singer to his current position of massive wealth. In fact, Berlusconi's business empire has been heavily dependent on the Italian government and government connections. Allegations of corruption have followed Berlusconi for years. Italian prosecutors have alleged that Berlusconi's government connections have been rewarded with bribes. While the United States and the other European countries have tightened corporate reporting laws in an attempt to counter the financial fraud at companies like Enron and Parmalat (an Italian company), Berlusconi pushed through laws for his own benefit that loosened Italian's anti-fraud regulations.
Tobias Jones and many people in Italy feared that with such command of the media, it would be impossible to defeat Berlusconi in an election. Although democracy would still exist in form, in practice it would be smothered under the blanked of Berlusconi's propaganda outlets. Fortunately this prediction turned out to be overly pessimistic, although just barely. By a thin margin Berlusconi lost the election for Prime Minister in 2006.
Brunelleshi's Dome: How a Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture by Ross King
The Cathedral of Florence is commonly referred to as the Duomo. Formally the cathedral is called Santa Maria del Fiore. This cathedral and its spectacular dome is one of the main features of the Florentine skyline. The dome of the cathedral is the largest masonry dome that will probably ever be built (there are much larger domes, but they are built out of ferro-concrete).
Ross King's well written and engaging book recounts the construction of this dome by the architect and artist Filippo Brunelleshi, which started in 1420 and continued beyond Brunelleshi's life, when the cupola was completed. The book recounts what is known about the revolutionary techniques that Brunelleshi used to construct the dome and the political and personal battles that swirled around Brunelleshi during its construction.
The City of Florence: Historical Vistas & Personal Sightings by R.W.B. Lewis, 1995
R.W.B. Lewis was a professor of American Literature at Yale. He died at the age of 84, in 2002. Although Lewis lived in the United States, Florence was a city that he and his family visited for much of his life. Lewis spent some time in Italy growing up. During World War II he was in Italy with the OSS (the forerunner to the CIA). Lewis was on a boat that was sunk by the Germans and he managed to swim to land and evade capture until he reached the allied lines. Lewis was in Florence again after it was captured by the Allies. He returned over the years with his family and wrote one of his books in Florence (a biography of Edith Wharton)
Lewis' The City of Florence is both a biograph of Lewis' experience in Florence and the history of the city. Lewis' historical sketches cover the city from medieval times to modern times (Lewis describes one of the modern floods of the Arno, the river that runs through Florence).
The City of Florence is not a travel guide. Lewis explored Florence in a random fashion, as anyone does when they live in a place. He discusses some of his favorite museums and places to walk, but it would be difficult to plan a trip based on this book. Instead what you get is some of Lewis' feeling for the Florence he loves.
Lewis never does write about exactly why he loves the city. Perhaps he considers it obvious. For example, why Florence and not Siena. Lewis even likes Florence in August, when most Florentine residents flee the city if they can. He does not comment on Florence's notorious traffic and he comments only a little on the struggle to preserve Florence in the face of modern development.
If you are planning on visiting Florence, The City of Florence is probably worth reading to get a feel for the city. Lewis' historical sketches of Florence are engaging and would also be a good preparation for a visit.
A Thousand Days in Venice by Marlena de Blasi, 2002
A Thousand Days in Venice is a true story of a romance and marriage, mostly revolving around Venice.
Ms. de Blasi is a writer and a passionate cook. In A Thousand Days in Venice she writes that she first visited Venice as a result of a writing assignment from a magazine (she was reluctant to leave Rome at the time). Ms. de Blasi has also written two cookbooks on Italian food: Regional Foods of Northern Italy and Regional Foods of Southern Italy.
After her initial reluctance, Ms. de Blasi visited Venice a number of times. On what turns out to be her last visit as a tourist, a Venetian tells her that he has fallen in love with her, on sight. The Venetian turns out to be Fernando, who is a bank manager in Venice. Ms. de Blasi speaks functional italian, but she is not fluent. Fernando's english is probably not even as good as Ms. de Blasi's italian. She and Fernando spend a few hours walking the streets of Venice talking. Fernando saw Ms. de Blasi the year before, walking with a man (who Ms. de Blasi never explains). He is smitten by her and can't forget her. Then he sees her a year later. He is sure that it is Destiny (or in Italian, Fortuna). Their meeting again is not coincidence to Fernando. It is True Love, the bolt out of the blue.
Ms. de Blasi is leaving Venice, but she promises to come back, explaining that if there really is something between them, a few months will not make any difference. In the mean time they can write and talk on the phone. Eighteen days after Ms. de Blasi returns to Saint Louis, Missouri Fernando arrives at her house.
Ms. de Blasi never tells us exactly when Fernando asks her to marry him, but we find her planning to uproot her life and move to Venice. She sells her recently remodeled house and her share in a cafe where she is the chef. She leaves behind her two grown children and all that is familiar to go off an marry Fernando in Venice. Ms. de Blasi is one of those admirable people who is willing to take risks and jump into the unknown.
I'm one of those people who tries to plan things before I do them, as you might guess from these web pages. I can't imagine throwing everything aside and moving to Venice to marry someone I hardly know. To my cynical eye this story has the flavor of a midlife crisis. Fernando has been a functionary in a sinecure job at an Italian bank that his father originally arranged for him. He reaches middle age and feels that his life is draining away. He sees Ms. de Blasi and believes that she and all that she represents will save him.
There are, of course, the usual stories of adjusting to a new culture and place. The difficulty that Fernando and Ms. de Blasi have in obtaining a marriage license is an Italian classic. I bought A Thousand Days in Venice to get a feeling for Venice and I was not disappointed. Ms. de Blasi does not work at a job in Venice and so spends some of her time alone walking around the city and exploring Venice's archives. Some of this experience comes through in the book.
Venice & Food written and illustrated by Sally Spector, Arsenale Editrice, 1998
I purchased this book soon after it came out. I found it at the wonderful Kepler's bookstore in Menlo Park, California, in among the cookbooks. Which makes sense, because, in part Venice & Food is a cookbook. But Venice & Food is two other thing as well: a book about Venice and its history and an art book of Ms. Spector's remarkable drawings of Venice. What is also remarkable about this book is that it is not typeset. The book is entirely written in Ms. Spector's hand printed text and the illustrations are annotated with her script.
Ms. Spector is a wonderful artist and her drawings of Venice are beautiful. The drawings illustrate essays on topics ranging from where Venice gets its fresh water to the history of corn in Europe and Venice. Since this is a cookbook, Ms. Spector also writes about the history of food and cooking in Venice, including a few accounts of modern food. In writing about food and cooking through history, Ms. Spector comments that for the vast majority of people, through most of human history, the concern was not about the sensuality of food, but simply having a full stomach.
The beautiful artwork, the observations about Venice, its history and its food are what make this book a treasure. I am sad to say that I read the book cover to cover and did not find a recipe that I wanted to make. Although I will not be using this as a cookbook, I will always treasure the book for its beauty.
After reading this beautiful book, I wondered what Ms. Spector is current doing. A Google search suggests that Ms. Spector still lives in Venice. I have no idea whether this information is currently correct.
Sally Spector. A professional artist, Sally offers private walking tours, taking her clients off the beaten track to the "secret" Venice that many visitors never see. She has lived in Venice since 1984, where she sells and shows her art, has taught courses in the history of Venetian painting and architecture and also gives private drawing lessons.Address: Cannaregio 3138, 30121 Venezia. Phone: (041) 713-110 Fax: (041) 962-783 (In each case dial 011-39 first from the U.S.)
Venice by James Morris, revised edition, 1983
Cities like Rome and Bologna have been important centers for hundreds or, in Rome's case, thousands of years. Today they are active cities that not only attract tourists, but have modern industry and culture. Venice is the old bones of an imperial power. The palaces, churches and art that exists in Venice are the relics of Venice's past wealth and power. Today Venice exists as a cultural tourist attraction.
In planning to visit Venice, I've worried that it is a sort of cultural Disneyland. A place that exists only for tourists.
When I think about traveling somewhere, I hope that it will be a wonderful experience. So I try to learn as much about a place as possible. Travel essays provide at least one person's view of a place. Venice by James Morris is a rich account of Venice and its history. Reading the book, I felt that I could feel the city through Morris' perspective.
James Morris was one of the early transexuals and became Jan Morris, the noted travel writer. Venice was originally written when Jan was James and she did not change the authorship with later editions. From reading the introduction, I think that this is because in Jan's view James really did write the book. This was an earlier avitar of Jan's and she wishes to honor his perspective.
Jan Morris is a wonderful, lyrical writer. Reading her writing, I feel a bit like I'm walking the canals and experiencing Venice. Reading this book made me much more sure about my decision to visit these old bones of empire.
A History of Venice by John Julius Norwich, Knopf, 1982
Venice and the Byzantine Empire were intertwined for many centuries, until the power of Byzantium waxed, while the power of Venice rose and Venice took part in the sack of Constantinople. In addition to this history of Venice, John Julius Norwich (Lord Norwich) has written a three volume history of the Byzantine Empire.
Venice is a city that is unique in the world. No other city integrates water and land to such an intimate degree. And few other cities have such staggering architectural and artistic riches. For a thousand years Venice was an independent state and for centuries it was an empire. Norwich traces Venician history from its shadowy days when the Island of Torcello was first settled by refugges from the invasions of the Italian peninsula. The history of Venice flows through the reins of the Doges, the elected Dukes of Venice, who ruled for their appointment until their death. Most of the Doges are not memorable. What is more interesting is the rise of Venices commercial and naval power. At times, Venice's power was resisted by forces on the Italian peninsula and on the European continent.
There are times when Norwich's accounts of the more boring Doges gets tedious, but he seems to realize this himself and rushes through the reins of those Doges who had little influence, concentrating on the events that shaped and challenged Venice.
Venice Against the Sea: A City Besiged by John Keahey, 2002
Venice is one of the jewels of humanity. The art, architecture and setting of Venice are unique in the world. Venice is a city built in a lagoon and is one of the few cities in the world where water is part of the fabric of the city (Stockholm is the only other city that comes to mind). Venice's lagoon setting saved the city from invasion for a thousand years. The lagoon contributes to the special "light of Venice", which has been admired by artists for hundreds of years. The lagoon is also the antagonist of Venice's survival. Water threatens Venice with decay and destruction. The buildings in Venice (the Island of Rialto) are built on mud, clay and sand, supported on wooden pilings, which apparently have become fosilized over the centuries. Venice is slowly sinking as a result of natural subsidence and human action (pumping ground water in the Mestre area for industrial use). The lagoon has also been damaged by the dredging of deep water channels that allow oil tankers to approach Mestre. The seas are also rising and weather patterns are changing as a result of global warming.
Venice Against the Sea describes the 1966 flood, which did serious damage to Venice and got international attention, giving birth to several "Save Venice" campaigns. There is wide agreement that a flood like the one in 1966 or worse will happen again. But Venice is being damaged bit by bit as the frequency of minor acqua alta flooding increases.
A high-water record, kept over the past century, shows dramatically how flooding, no matter how minor, has go9ne from the unusual to the commonplace. Water enters St. Mark's Square [Piazza San Marco] at about twenty-seven inches (seventy centimeters) above mean sea level. This is routine, and tourists and residents alike have grown accustomed to seeing water at this level rising through the city's drains into the open area directly in the front of St. Mark's Basilica. At many high tides, water can often be found there quietly lapping against the magnificent colored marbles and granite columns that front the foundation of this impressive church, and tourists must enter by means of elevated walkways.
In one year alone -- 1996 -- there were ninety-nine tides over thirty-one inches (eighty centimeters), including seven storms in which the tidal level was greater than forty-three inches (110 centimeters) and two storms greater than forty-one inches (150 centimeters). That was an exceptional year. Generally St. Mark's Square is flooded fifty times a year, compared with seven times a year in 1990 and twenty times annually during the 1950s. Or, in another context, the minimum high-water mark to flood St. Mark's Square -- twenty-seven inches (seventy centimeters) -- was reached 1,013 times between 1970 and 1979.
At a cost of about $1 billion, tidal gates have been built on the Thames River in London. Without these tidal gates, tidal surge up the Thames could flood the London subway, causing massive damage and loss of life.
The last chapters of Venice Against the Sea describes the political effort to undertake a civil engineering project to save Venice from flooding. This involves constructing tidal gates to block tidal surge from the Adriatic into the lagoon. The project is called MOSE and at the time Venice Against the Sea was written there was only a single experimental tidal gate that had been constructed. The project has since been funded by the Italian government.
Civil engineering project to change the flow of water into Venice's lagoon go back hundreds of years. Ravenna (South of Venice in the Emilia Romanga), the Gothic Roman capital of Norther Italy, was, like Venice built on a lagoon. The Ravenna lagoon was filled in by silt carried by the waterways that fed the lagoon so that today Ravenna is 10 Km from the Adriatic. Venice avoided the fate of Ravenna and kept their water barrier to invasion by diverting the streams and rivers that fed the lagoon. This also reduced the freshwater content of the lagoon so that malaria was not a problem. A fascinating map (shown below) in Venice Against the Sea shows the changes that have been made over the centuries to the Venetian lagoon drainage basin.
I don't know of any other books that discuss the Venice's flooding and the MOSE project. So Venice Against the Sea is worth reading because it summarizes the efforts to save the city. However, much of the book does not directly involve the struggle to save Venice. There is a long section on Venices history and there is a rather rambling discussion on the political battles among those supporting a large civil engineering effort like MOSE and those opposing it. I found myself skimming this section, since the dramatis personae are really only of interest to those close to the battle.
City of the Soul : A Walk in Rome by William Murray
For someone living on the West Coast in the United States, travel to Europe is an expensive luxury. When I think about visiting a place, I try to understand whether I might enjoy the visit before I got. City of the Soul is, as the subtitle suggests, a walk through various Roman neighborhoods. William Murray is the product of a Roman mother and an American father. He spent the early years of his life in Italy, before moving to New York with his mother to escape the Italian fascists. Murray returned after the World War II to study opera. He writes that one summer day he was in his apartment singing and someone yelled "get another profession". Murray writes that he eventually did this, becoming a writer for The New Yorker magazine. He writes of various parts of Rome and the history he saw unfold while he lived there (Murray was in Rome during the rise of the left when communist demonstrations met truncheon wielding policeman).
Rome: A cultural and literary companion by Jonathan Boardman
Jonathan Boardman's Rome: A cultural and literary companion is so much like William Murray's book City of the Soul that after reading one after the other the two books have blurred together in my mind. Boardman was not born in Rome, as Murray was, but went to Rome to study. He eventually became an Anglican Chaplin for the city of Rome. Boardman knows Rome intimately and his book is both a walking tour and a literary tour of the city. I found that Boardman's book was a perfect complement to Murray's.
The Seasons of Rome: A Journal by Paul Hofmann
Paul Hofmann moved to Rome to escape the Nazis when Nazi German annexed his native Austria in 1938. To support himself Hofmann became a journalist, eventually becoming the New York Times Rome Bureau Chief. Hofmann's long residence in Rome has made him a Roman, but he is also a straniero, a foreigner, since he was neither born in Rome or Italy. There is something expatriate about him and he retains the outsiders ability to explain the city he loves to a foreign reader.
The Seasons of Rome as the title suggests is a set of essays that range from chapter length to a couple of pages on Rome during the various seasons. As with any city, season determins what happens in the city, but Hofman also covers the background and gives the reader a general feel for the city and what it's like to live there.
The Seasons of Rome was written in 1997, before the 2000 Jubilee year of the Catholic Church and before Italy converted to the Euro in 2002. Since the book is now almost a decade old, some of it is out of date. But I suspect that much of Rome's character changes slowly, if at all.
My main web page on Italy
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