Italian culture and history: 12 of the best novels set in Italy to inspire your next trip
- WTI Magazine #140 Jun 18, 2021
They may be memoirs, essays or fantasy novels: books are always a medicine for the soul, a magic and a distraction. What’s more, they allow us to travel, taking us with them to familiar places and places we don’t know yet. To enjoy a journey through known and lesser known destinations in Italy, we have selected these twelve books, to let you travel with your imagination.
Don’t move - Margareth Mazzantini
A contemporary novel by Margareth Mazzantini, Don’t move tells the story of Timoteo, a surgeon who relives the memories of his past addictive love affair with Italia. In the background is the Molise region and is idyllic countryside. The movie Don’t move (2004) featuring Penelope Cruz is based on the novel.
Quote: “Life is a storeroom filled with boxes, some empty, some misplaced forever. We’re what remains, what we’ve grabbed hold of”.
I'm Not Scared - Niccolò Ammaniti
Written by Niccolò Ammaniti in 2001, I’m not scared is a best-selling fiction novel set in 1978 in an imaginary village in southern Italy – Acqua Traverse – where 9-year-old Michele finds out a secret he doesn’t dare to tell anyone: the son of a wealthy family has been kidnapped. Niccolò Ammaniti's story of childhood innocence inspired director Gabriele Salvatores for his 2003 film of the same name.
Quote: “Stop all this talk about monsters, Michele. Monsters don’t exist. It’s men you should be afraid of, not monsters”.
The Leopard - Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa
One of the most famous Italian novels worldwide, published in 1958, this historical novel by Tomasi di Lampedusa chronicles the story of a declining noble family in Sicily during the Italian unification period. An evocation of a lost world, in the background are the changes in Sicilian rural life and society. The novel served as the basis for Luchino Visconti's classic 1963 film.
Quote: “The rains had come, the rains had gone, and the sun was back on its throne like an absolute monarch kept off it for a week by his subjects’ barricades, and now reigning once again, choleric but under constitutional restraint. The heat braced without burning, the light domineered but let colors live; from the soil cautiously sprouted clover and mint, and on faces appeared diffident hopes”.
Under the Tuscan Sun - Frances Meyes
A memoir by American writer Frances Mayes, Under the Tuscan Sun tells about Frances’ decision to buy and renovate an abandoned villa in Tuscany to immerse in the local culture. An expert traveler and food traveler, the author also invites readers to discover the flavors of the rustic Tuscan cooking (the book includes several pages of recipes).
Quote: “My idea of heaven still is to drive the gravel farm roads of Umbria and Tuscany, very pleasantly lost”.
The Gondola Maker - Laura Morelli
Written by American art historian and travel writer Laura Morelli, this award-winning historical fiction is set in the XV century in fascinating Venice. The focus is on the Vianellos, one of the best-known families for the manufacturing of gondolas. The story combines love, forgiveness and redemption through love for art.
Quote: “In Venice, things are not always as they first appear. I contemplate this observation from my post on the aft deck of one of Master Fumagalli’s gondolas, taking in the panorama of bridges, domes, bell towers, and quaysides of my native city. I row into the neck of the Grand Canal, and, one by one, the reflection of each colorful façade appears, only to dissipate into wavering, shimmering shards under my oar”.
Christ Stopped at Eboli - Carlo Levi
In 1935 Carlo Levi – doctor, writer and painter – is sent in exile in a desolate village in southern Italy because of his opposition to Italy's Fascist government. During his one-year confinement in the region of Lucania (nowadays Basilicata), he has the opportunity to experience the beauty of the harsh surroundings and the authenticity of its inhabitants, living the same life of their ancestors.
Quote: “The greatest travelers have not gone beyond the limits of their own world; they have trodden the paths of their own souls, of good and evil, of morality and redemption”.
The Enchanted April - Elizabeth von Arnim
Written in 1922 by English novelist Elisabeth von Arnim, this novel follows the story of four independent English women who rent a medieval castle on the Italian Riviera and leave for a holiday. The four characters experience tensions and conflicts but find rejuvenation in the quiet beauty of the environs.
Quote: “All the radiance of April in Italy lay gathered together at her feet. The sun poured in on her. The sea lay asleep in it, hardly stirring. Across the bay the lovely mountains, exquisitely different in color, were asleep too in the light; and underneath her window, at the bottom of the flower-starred grass slope from which the wall of castle rose up, was a great cypress, cutting through the delicate blues and violets and rose-colors of the mountains and the sea like a great black sword”.
Pompeii - Robert Harris
Robert Harris mingles fiction and history to recreate a luxurious world on the brink of destruction: it’s the late summer of the year 79 AD, Rome’s rich citizens are resting in their villas when ominous warnings started. The novel retraces the eruption of Mount Vesuvius on 24 August 79 AD that destroyed Pompeii and its surroundings, through the point of view of four different characters: a young engineer, a teen-age girl, a corrupt tycoon and an elderly scientist.
Quote: “What was leadership, after all, but the blind choice of one route over another and the confident pretense that the decision was based on reason?”.
Beneath a Scarlet Sky - Mark Sullivan
Based on a true story, Beneath a Scarlet Sky is an epic tale of a young man’s extraordinary courage and resilience during the Nazi occupation in Italy. When his house in Milan is razed to the ground by the Allied Bombs, Pino Lella joins an organization that helps Jew escape in the Alps and falls for Anna, a widow. His parents, worried about him, force him to enlist in the German army.
Quote: “How do you find happiness?” Anna paused, then said, “You start by looking right around you for the blessings you have”.
When in Rome - Penelope Green
At the age of 28, Penelope Green has a perfect job and a comfortable life in Sidney but makes up her mind to quit everything to chase her lifelong dream: moving to Italy. In this funny travel memoir (a trilogy also including See Naples and Die and Girl by Sea), the author plunges in Rome with no job, no friends, nowhere to live and no knowledge of Italian (but makes up for it soon).
Quote: “This is a small tale about what happened when I abandoned everything – career, apartment, family and friends – to chase a romantic dream I was praying might change my life for the better. Even if I had no idea what would make me happy”.
The Talented Mr. Ripley - Patricia Highsmith
A 1955 psychological thriller novel by Patricia Highsmith, The Talented Mr. Ripley focuses on Tom Ripley, an American young man who is hired by Mr. Greenleaf, a wealthy industrial, to bring back his errant son, Dickie, from Italy. Ripley's fascination for Dickie’s lifestyle soon leads him to decide to take his place.
Quote: "He liked the fact that Venice had no cars. It made the city human. The streets were like veins, he thought, and the people were the blood, circulating everywhere".
The Ghosts Of Italy - Angela Paolantonio
Born in New York, Angela Paolantonio has roots planted deep in southern Italy: that’s the reason why, after celebrating Thanksgiving in Rome, alone, she sets out a journey to the remote village of her ghost ancestors, in the territory of Irpinia, in the Apennine Mountains. Her journey becomes an opportunity to discover the spirit of her family and the memories that seemed to be forever lost.
Quote: “I really didn't know I was searching for anything till I got here. Then I realized what I was missing and what it meant”.