By Rick Steves
To learn more about Italy past and present, check out a few of these books and films.
For the classics of Italian history, look to Machiavelli’s The Prince and Florentine Histories. Written in the 18th century, Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is the landmark history of ancient Rome.
Travelers’ Tales Italy (Calcagno) is an excellent compilation of travel writing. Susan Cahill collected travelogues by female authors in Desiring Italy. In Italian Days, Barbara Grizzuti Harrison crafts travel essays on destinations ranging from Milan to Naples.
Italian Neighbors (Parks) describes life as an Englishman in a small Italian town, while The Italians (Barzini), written by an Italian, sheds light on the national character of this fascinating country.
Florence history buffs would enjoy reading the story of the Renaissance city’s first family, The House of Medici (Hibbert). Brunelleschi’s Dome (King) describes the trials involved with building Florence’s magnificent Duomo. Under the Tuscan Sun was a bestseller for Frances Mayes (and is better than the movie of the same name).
Out of Paul Hofmann’s multiple books about Italy, The Seasons of Rome is the favorite among readers. Elizabeth Gilbert’s eloquent Eat, Pray, Love describes her time in Rome (in the “Eat” section). David Macaulay’s illustrated books about the Eternal City — Rome Antics and City: A Story of Roman Planning and Construction — please both kids and adults.
For a solid overview of Venice, try A History of Venice (Norwich). Mary McCarthy’s Venice Observed is a well-written memoir. In The City of Falling Angels, John Berendt tells the real-life mystery of the La Fenice Opera House fire.
For a true story about the Sicilian Mafia, consider Excellent Cadavers (Stille). Midnight in Sicily (Robb) offers a good general history of the Mob. In the memoir Christ Stopped at Eboli: The Story of a Year, Carlo Levi describes his banishment to southern Italy.
Pomp and Sustenance: Twenty-Five Centuries of Sicilian Food (Simeti) is both a cookbook and an historical overview. Foodies also like Italy for the Gourmet Traveler (Plotkin) and The Marling Menu-Master for Italy.
Fans of classical literature will want to read Dante’s Divine Comedy and Boccaccio’s Decameron. Among the Shakespeare plays set in Italy are Romeo and Juliet (Verona), The Merchant of Venice, Much Ado About Nothing (Sicily), The Two Gentlemen of Verona, and The Taming of the Shrew (Padua).
In his 18th-century collection of writings titled Italian Journey, Goethe describes his travels to Rome, Sicily, and Naples. Henry James often wrote stories with an Italian theme, and three recommended books — The Wings of the Dove, Italian Hours, and The Aspern Papers and Other Stories — use Venice as their backdrop. Another classic tale is Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice.
For historical fiction that brings ancient Rome to life, try The First Man in Rome (McCullough) and I, Claudius (Graves). Pompeii (Harris), set in the ancient doomed city, tells of a young man’s rescue attempt. The Agony and the Ecstasy (Stone) recounts Michelangelo’s struggle to paint the Sistine Chapel (and later became a Charlton Heston movie).
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, great European writers fell in love with Florence. Two great books from this time are George Eliot’s Romola and E. M. Forster’s A Room with a View. Modern novels with Florence as the setting include The Passion of Artemisia (Vreeland), The Sixteen Pleasures (Hellenga), Birth of Venus (Dunant), and Galileo’s Daughter (Sobel).
If Venice is on your itinerary, consider reading Invisible Cities (Calvino), in which "Marco Polo" tells of fantastical cities that may simply be facets of Venice; The Passion (Winterson), a magical realist tale of love; and In the Company of the Courtesan (Dunant), a chronicle of romantic intrigue in Renaissance Venice.
Regarded as one of the most important works of Italian literature, The Leopard (di Lampedusa) describes Sicilian life during the Risorgimento. A Bell for Adano, set in Sicily, won John Hersey the Pulitzer Prize in 1945. A Soldier of the Great War (Helprin) — which takes place partially in the Italian Alps and partially in Sicily — is a brutal tale set in World War I. A Thread of Grace (Russell) follows a group of Jews trying to find a safe haven in WWII Italy.
One of the best (and bestselling) murder mysteries is Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, set in a 14th-century Italian monastery. Mystery fans should also consider the books by Michael Dibdin, including Ratking (set in Umbria) and Cabal (Rome), A Full Rich Death (Florence), and Dead Lagoon (Venice). Dan Brown, the author of The Da Vinci Code, used Rome as the backdrop for his earlier murder mystery, Angels and Demons. Two Florentine-based mysteries are The Dante Game (Langton) and Bella Donna (Cherne). Donna Leon’s detective stories often take place in Venice; Death at La Fenice is one of her most popular.
Roberto Rossellini’s Open City(1945) and Vittorio de Sica’s Bicycle Thieves(1949), both classics of Italian Neorealism, continue to inspire audiences today.
In Roman Holiday (1953), Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck sightsee the city on his scooter. Two campy, big-budget Hollywood flicks bring ancient Rome to life: Ben-Hur (1959) and Spartacus (1960). In La Dolce Vita (1961), Fellini captures the Roman character, while Gladiator (2000) was a crowd-pleaser and an Academy Award winner.
1900 (1977) is Bernardo Bertolucci’s epic tale of life under fascism; it stars Robert De Niro and Gérard Depardieu.
A Room with a View (1986), a close adaptation of the classic novel, captures Florence’s appeal to turn-of-the-century English travelers. The Oscar-winning Life Is Beautiful (1997) has sections set in a Tuscan town.
Cinema Paradiso (1990), about a film projectionist and a little boy in post-WWII Sicily, won the Oscar for Best Foreign Picture. In Enchanted April (1991), filmed in Portofino, an all-star British cast falls in love, discusses relationships, eats well, and takes naps in the sun. Ciao, Professore! (1994) shows the influence of a grade-school teacher in Southern Italy. In Il Postino (1995), poet Pablo Neruda befriends his Italian postman.
In Bread and Tulips (2000), a harassed Italian housewife discovers beauty, love, and her true self in Venice. For an adrenaline-laced chase scene through Venice’s canals, see The Italian Job (2003). The 2006 James Bond film Casino Royale has several scenes set in Venice and on Lake Como.
The warmhearted epic Best of Youth (2003), a story of two brothers, takes place in across many scenic Italian locations and gives you a good feel for the last several decades of Italian history. Nuovomondo (2006, also called The Golden Door) tells the story of Sicilian immigrants leaving home for Ellis Island.
Gorgeous Italian backdrops star in two 2010 movies: Letters to Juliet, shot in Verona and Siena; and the film adaptation of Eat, Pray, Love, with scenes in Naples and Rome.