Italy: Recommended Books and Movies

By Rick Steves

To learn more about Italy past and present, check out a few of these books and films.

Books: Nonfiction

  • Absolute Monarchs (John Julius Norwich, 2011). This warts-and-all illustrated guide to the most significant popes in history is a readable bestseller.
  • Ancient Rome: The Rise and Fall of an Empire (Simon Baker, 2007). Baker chronicles the rise and demise of the great Roman Empire and its powerful leaders.
  • The Architecture of the Italian Renaissance (Peter Murray, 1969). Heavily illustrated, this classic presents the architectural life of Italy from the 13th through the 16th century.
  • La Bella Figura: A Field Guide to the Italian Mind (Beppe Severgnini, 2005). Severgnini strips down the idealized vision of Italy to reveal its more authentic self--at its best and its worst.
  • Christ Stopped at Eboli: The Story of a Year (Carlo Levi, 1945). Levi recounts the harsh yet beautiful existence he found in exile to a remote region of southern Italy during Mussolini's reign.
  • City: A Story of Roman Planning and Construction (David Macaulay, 1974). Macaulay’s illustrated book about the Eternal City will please both kids and adults.
  • A Concise History of Italy (Christopher Duggan, 1994). Duggan's history starts with the fall of Rome but zooms in on the political difficulties of unified Italy over the last two centuries.
  • Delizia!: The Epic History of the Italians and Their Food (John Dickie, 2007). History buffs and foodies alike will enjoy this vibrant exploration of Italy's famed cuisine.
  • Desiring Italy (Susan Cahill, 1997). In this anthology, 28 women writers offer a mix of fiction, memoirs, and essays about the complexity and allure of Italy.
  • Eat, Pray, Love (Elizabeth Gilbert, 2006). Gilbert undertakes a stirring journey of self-discovery through Italy, India, and Indonesia (also a 2010 movie with Julia Roberts).
  • Excellent Cadavers: The Mafia and the Death of the First Italian Republic (Alexander Stille, 1995). This true account of Sicilian Mafia assassinations in the 1990s is as much thriller as it is history.
  • A History of Venice (John Julius Norwich, 1977). English Lord Norwich's engaging account spans more than a century, from Venice's fifth-century origins to the arrival of Napoleon.
  • The House of Medici (Christopher Hibbert, 1974). Florence's first family of the Renaissance included power-hungry bankers, merchants, popes, art patrons--and two queens of France.
  • Italian Days (Barbara Grizzuti Harrison, 1989). Harrison’s appealing travel essays about Italy's varied regions cover everything from architecture to food to history.
  • Italian Neighbors (Tim Parks, 1992). Park describes an Englishman’s humorous and sometimes difficult attempt to live as a local in a small Italian town.
  • Italian Renaissance Art (Laurie Schneider Adams, 2001). In one of the definitive works on this pivotal period, Adams focuses on the most important and innovative artists and their best works.
  • The Italians (John Hooper, 2015). A veteran English correspondent in Italy probes the fascinating paradoxes of contemporary Italian life.
  • Italy for the Gourmet Traveler (Fred Plotkin, 1996). Plotkin, who's been described as an expert on everything Italian, shares his knowledge of Italy’s culinary world in this food/travel guide.
  • The Lives of the Artists (Giorgio Vasari, 1550). The man who invented the term "Renaissance" offers anecdote-filled biographies of his era's greatest artists, some of whom he knew personally.
  • Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling (Ross King, 2003). The story behind the Sistine Chapel includes Michelangelo's technical difficulties, personality conflicts, and money troubles.
  • Midnight in Sicily (Peter Robb, 1996). Robb offers a good general history of Sicily, covering its decadent pleasures and its literature, politics, art, and crimes.
  • The Prince (Niccolò Machiavelli, 1532). The original "how-to" for gaining and maintaining political power, still chillingly relevant after 500 years.
  • Saints & Sinners (Eamon Duffy, 1997). Everything you always wanted to know about the popes, but were afraid to ask.
  • The Secrets of Rome: Love and Death in the Eternal City (Corrado Augias, 2005). Augias takes readers back through 27 centuries of Roman history, secrets, and conspiracies.
  • A Small Place in Italy (Eric Newby, 1994). A young American couple tries to renovate a Tuscan farmhouse in the late 1960s.
  • The Stones of Florence (Mary McCarthy, 1956). McCarthy applies wit and keen observation to produce a quirky, impressionistic investigation of Florence and its history.
  • Travelers’ Tales Italy (Anne Calcagno, 2001). Calcagno’s guide is an excellent compilation of travel writing, including pieces by Tim Parks, Patricia Hampl, Mary Taylor Simeti, and many others.
  • Under the Tuscan Sun (Frances Mayes, 1996). Mayes' bestseller describes living la dolce vita in the Tuscan countryside (and is better than the movie of the same name).
  • Venice Observed (Mary McCarthy, 1963). This snappy and engaging memoir details the Venetian ethos through the eyes of a sharply critical writer.
  • The Venetian Empire: A Sea Voyage (Jan Morris, 1990). Morris brings a maritime empire to life in this book that illustrates the city’s place on a larger historical canvas.

Books: Fiction

  • The Agony and the Ecstasy (Irving Stone, 1958). Stone fictionalizes Michelangelo’s struggle to paint the Sistine Chapel (also a 1965 movie starring Charlton Heston).
  • The Aspern Papers and Other Stories (Henry James, 1894). An American editor travels to Venice in search of letters written to his mistress. Other James works about Italy include Italian Hours and Daisy Miller.
  • Beautiful Ruins (Jess Walter, 2012). This comedic romance, which follows an Italian innkeeper's search for lost love over 50 years, is the perfect beach read for the Cinque Terre.
  • A Bell for Adano (John Hersey, 1944). Hersey’s novel about an American major overseeing a town in WWII Sicily won him the Pulitzer Prize in 1945.
  • Birth of Venus (Sarah Dunant, 2003). Dunant follows the life of a Florentine girl who develops feelings for the boy hired to paint the walls of the family’s chapel.
  • The Day of the Owl (Leonardo Sciascia, 1961). This classic murder mystery set in a mid-20th century Sicilian village is a fascinating window into the Mafia.
  • Death at La Fenice (Donna Leon, 1992). This chilling Venetian mystery and the others in Leon's Commissario Brunetti series reveal more about "real" Italy than many memoirs do.
  • Death in the Mountains: The True Story of a Tuscan Murder (Lisa Clifford, 2008). This fictionalized account of an unsolved murder reveals the hardship of early-20th-century Tuscan farming life.
  • Death in Venice and Other Tales (Thomas Mann, 1912). The centerpiece of this collection is an eloquent classic that explores obsession, beauty, and death in plague-ridden Venice (also a 1971 film).
  • The Decameron (Giovanni Boccaccio, 1348). Boccaccio’s collection of 100 hilarious, often bawdy tales is a masterpiece of Italian literature and inspired Chaucer, Keats, and Shakespeare.
  • Divine Comedy (Dante Alighieri, 1321). Dante's epic poem--a journey through hell, purgatory, and paradise--is one of the world’s greatest works of literature.
  • The First Man in Rome (Colleen McCullough, 1990). The author of The Thorn Birds describes the early days of the Roman Republic, in the first of a bestselling series of historical fiction.
  • Galileo’s Daughter (Dava Sobel, 1999). Sobel’s historical memoir centers on Galileo’s correspondence with his oldest daughter and confidante.
  • I, Claudius (Robert Graves, 1934). This brilliant history of ancient Rome is told by Claudius, the family's laughingstock who becomes emperor himself. The sequel is Claudius the God (1935).
  • I'm Not Scared (Niccolò Ammaniti, 2001). A boy stumbles on a terrible secret in an abandoned farmhouse in this thriller set in the 1970s Italian South.
  • Invisible Cities (Italo Calvino, 1972). Marco Polo tells Kublai Khan about his many travels through the Mongol Empire in this novel by the master of Italian modernism.
  • Italian Journey (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, 1786). In his 18th-century collection of writings, Goethe describes his travels to Rome, Sicily, and Naples.
  • The Leopard (Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, 1957). Sicilian aristocrats see their world slipping away during the turmoil of the Risorgimento (also a 1963 movie starring Burt Lancaster).
  • The Light in the Piazza (Elizabeth Spencer, 1960). A mother and daughter are intoxicated by the beauty of 1950s Florence (also a 1962 movie and an award-winning Broadway musical).
  • Lucrezia Borgia (Maria Bellonci, 1939). In this historically based tale of court intrigue, a daughter of Pope Alexander VI navigates passions, plots, and controversy in Renaissance Rome.
  • That Awful Mess on the Via Merulana (Carlo Emilio Gadda, 1957). This detective story about a murder and a burglary in an apartment building in central Rome shines a harsh light on fascist Italy.
  • The Merchant of Venice (William Shakespeare, 1598). In addition to Merchant, other Shakespearean plays set in Italy include Romeo and Juliet (Verona), Much Ado About Nothing (Sicily), The Two Gentlemen of Verona, and The Taming of the Shrew (Padua).
  • The Passion of Artemisia (Susan Vreeland, 2001). This novel is based on the life of Artemisia Gentileschi, one of the rare female post-Renaissance artists who gained fame in her own time.
  • Pompeii (Robert Harris, 2003). The engineer responsible for Pompeii’s aqueducts has a bad feeling about Mount Vesuvius in this historical novel.
  • A Room with a View (E. M. Forster, 1908). A young Englishwoman visiting Florence finds a socially unsuitable replacement for her snobby fiancé (also a 1985 movie starring Helena Bonham Carter).
  • The Sixteen Pleasures (Robert Hellenga, 1994). Set during the 1966 floods in Florence, a young student discovers an erotic manuscript banned by the pope and lost for centuries.
  • A Soldier of the Great War (Mark Helprin, 1991). A young Roman lawyer falls in love with an art student, but World War I rips them apart.
  • A Thread of Grace (Mary Doria Russell, 2004). This historical novel fictionalizes the story of how more than 43,000 Jews were saved by Italian citizens during World War II.

Movies

  • 1900 (1976). Bernardo Bertolucci’s epic tale of early-20th-century Italy follows the relationship between two young men--one rich (Robert De Niro), one poor (Gérard Depardieu).
  • Ben-Hur (1959). At the height of the Roman Empire, a Jewish prince is enslaved by a friend, and later seeks revenge in a stunning chariot race (the film won a record 11 Oscars).
  • The Best of Youth (2003). Beginning in the turbulent 1960s, this award-winning miniseries follows the dramatic ups and downs in the lives of two brothers over four decades.
  • Bicycle Thieves (1948). A poor man looks for his stolen bicycle in busy Rome in this inspirational classic of Italian Neorealism.
  • Caterina in the Big City (2003). A teenager whose family moves to Rome from a small town is the focus of this bitter comedy about the crisis of contemporary Italian society.
  • Cinema Paradiso (1988). This Oscar-winning drama about a friendship between a film projectionist and a little boy is a compelling portrayal of post-WWII Sicily and a tribute to movies everywhere.
  • La Dolce Vita (1960). Director Federico Fellini tells a series of stories that capture the hedonistic days of early 1960s Rome.
  • Enchanted April (1991). Filmed in Portofino, this languid film follows an all-star British cast as they fall in love, discuss relationships, eat well, and take naps in the sun.
  • The First Beautiful Thing (2010). A man returns to his hometown in Tuscany to aid his dying mother, a woman determined to live life to the fullest while being a good parent to her children.
  • Gladiator (2000). An enslaved Roman general (Russell Crowe) fights his way back to freedom in Ridley Scott’s Oscar winner.
  • The Godfather (1969). Francis Ford Coppola's famous film and its two sequels portray the multigenerational saga of a Sicilian family at the center of organized crime in New York.
  • Golden Door (2006). Poor Sicilian immigrants give up everything for a passage to America, but find a less-than-enthusiastic welcome at Ellis Island.
  • Gomorrah (2008). This mob drama, which reveals details about the Camorra (Neapolitan mafia), is not for the faint of heart.
  • The Great Beauty (2013). This thoughtful movie, named best foreign film at the 2014 Academy Awards, showcases Rome in all of its decadence and splendor.
  • The Italian Job (1969). This classic English film features a crew of thieves attempting a high-stakes gold heist in Turin under the nose of the Mafia.
  • Life Is Beautiful (1997). In this tragicomic winner of three Oscars, a Jewish man from Tuscany finds imaginative ways to protect his son from the truth after they arrive at a Nazi concentration camp.
  • Il Postino (1994). Poet Pablo Neruda befriends his Italian postman, who uses a newfound love for Italian poetry to woo a local beauty.
  • Marriage Italian Style (1964). A young Neapolitan prostitute (Sophia Loren) begins a lifelong on-again, off-again relationship with a cynical businessman in this Academy Award-nominated comedy.
  • Mid-August Lunch (2008). A broke Roman bachelor gets more than he bargained for when he agrees to take care of an elderly lady during a summer holiday to pay off a debt.
  • Quo Vadis (1951). A Roman general falls in love with a Christian hostage in this epic that includes the burning of Rome, the crucifixion of St. Peter, and the madness of Nero.
  • Rome (2005–2007). This BBC/HBO miniseries focusing on Julius Caesar and Augustus intertwines the perspectives of aristocratic and ordinary Romans during the transition from republic to empire.
  • Roman Holiday (1953). Audrey Hepburn plays a princess who escapes her royal minders, falls for an American newspaperman (Gregory Peck), and discovers Rome on the back of his scooter.
  • Spartacus (1960). In this epic directed by Stanley Kubrick a gladiator (Kirk Douglas) leads a slave revolt in the last days of the Roman Republic.
  • A Special Day (1977). On the day of Hitler's visit to Rome, the wife of a militant fascist (Sophia Loren) has a fateful meeting with a persecuted journalist (Marcello Mastroianni).
  • Tea with Mussolini (1999). Franco Zeffirelli's look at pre-war Florence involves proper English ladies, a rich American Jew, and the son of a local businessman--all caught in the rise of fascism.
  • The Wings of the Dove (1997). Based on the Henry James novel, this romantic drama is a tale of desire that takes full advantage of its Venetian locale.