Saturday, March 29, 2008

Books to read to prepare for a trip to Italy

Colosseum at dusk.

I thought this list might be of interest to people who are seeking books to read before a trip to Italy (or during, or aftter...). I read voraciously and the below are books on my bookshelf. To make up for the sparse text, I've peppered this blog with photos I've taken in Italy. 

Enjoy the list! Do leave a comment if you liked any of the below books or have others to recommend. Most of the below are non-fiction books, but, I would love to read some fiction books/stories about Italy. If you have any to recommend, I'd love to hear about it.

Miss Garnet's Angel by Sally Vickers – oh such a treat! I highly recommend reading this before you leave and visiting some of the spots the author highlights. It's a fiction book and quite enjoyable, it gives you a real sense of place. (...older English lady leaves England after the death of her friend to start a new life in Venice...). Mom and I visited the church that was the subject of her story. It is utterly beautiful. I'll have to find a photo of the ceiling and post it later.

Meanwhile, the below I took not too far from the Rialto bridge.

Time Out for Venice, Florence/Tuscany and Rome, and the Top Ten DK guidebooks for Venice, Tuscany, Rome. For Tuscany I recommend the Reid Bramblett one. Time Out is my favorite guidebook series and I like Top Ten to carry around day to day.

Collected Traveler for Venice and for Italy, both by Barrie Kerper. I love this author and her approach. She collects her favorite essays about certain areas and each chapter is devoted to a certain theme - for instance history, people, food. The book has a very "stop and smell the roses" approach and it's evident she has a serious book habit as each chapter, each essay, has an editorial afterwards in which she describes her favorite books about that given topic.

Venice for Pleasure by JG Links. The ultimate take-along walking tour book written by a devotee of Venice. While I always recommend taking a guided walking (or in Venice, boating) tour while visiting a destination, this is a great substitute or add-on to your experience. There are several photos as well as prints/artwork throughout the book, and many I had never seen before. For instance, there is a photo of the aftermath of the Campanile collapse in 1902. What a pile of sad rubble.

Below is Venice as viewed from the Campanile on Isola San Giorgio.

A Valley in Italy by Lisa St. Aubin de Teran – wacky Englishwoman raises family in a formerly-ruined castle Umbria. Charms village in the process.

Italian Days by Barbara Grizzuti Harrison This book received the highest recommendation by Barrie Kerper, above. I didn't finish it, and it's on the waiting list for my attention again.

Ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

Out of this Century: Confessions of an Art Addict by (and about) Peggy Guggenheim. If you want to see how the other half lives. Talk about the roaring 20s. Her life story, and the stories about the lives of the expats in the '20s and '30s, are what make us all (well, me anyway) have such romantic notions of chucking it all and moving to Europe. There's that little detail about either being an heiress or having latent artistic talent – must put that on the list of Things to Do.

World of Venice by Jan Morris. I bought this several years ago before my first trip to Venice and re-read a few chapters before each subsequent one. A must-buy before you visit Venice. even though it was written in the 50s, it's just as timely as it was then.

A Traveler in Rome by HV Morton. My absolute favorite book, to date, about Rome. A must-read. No question about it.

The above photo shows Fleurs de Lis in Florence.

The Stones of Florence by Mary McCarthy. A delightful book about the history of Florence. I'd recommend this as a take-along if you have room. (edit - I dropped this in the bathtub one night while reading it and needless to say have not finished it).

Witness to Hope by George Weigel. This is about Pope John Paul II. I think it must weigh five pounds. On the to-read list. My Mom bought it for me for Christmas the first year I went to Rome. (update - it still sits collecting dust).

Below are some books bought in Florence after the fabulous walking tour I took:

April Blood by Lauro Martinesi. This is about the Pazzi conspiracy - and do you know Pazzi now stands for "crazy" in Italian? If you knew the story you would understand why!

The above photo was taken in Assisi and has nothing to do with Brunelleschi.

Brunelleschi's Dome by Ross King. If you like how-to books, this one is for you.

Medici Money by Tim Parks. God what a slog. I set it aside. "Quicken" for Medicis. blech. It's a shame because I really like Tim Parks' books otherwise. I've since seen this book referenced in other books about the Medicis so maybe I will give it another go.

Another take along book to Rome: Oxford Archaeological Guide to Rome. One of my guides on the walking tour of the Colosseum highly recommended this book. I walked around the Forum with it, too. If you cannot have a guide, this is the next best thing.

I bought a book on the Colosseum while visiting it – and I recommend getting one there, they are fairly comprehensive. They also have photos and diagrams which are a plus.

The Agony and the Ecstasy, Irving Stone. It's a masterpiece. Must-read before a trip to Florence and Rome. Even though MB died over 400 years ago, I still cried at the end when he died (SPOILER ALERT. haha).  One of the things I particularly enjoyed when reading this book is adding to my "mental timeline" of history.  The more I have read about the Middle Ages/the Renaissance the more fascinating I find it.  Think about this:  while Michelangelo was waxing poetic with stone, Columbus was busily discovering the New World.  King Henry VIII was a wee bairn in 1492 and turned the WORLD on its head a scant 40 years later, if that.  Contemporaries!  That kind of stuff lights my fires. 

The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon. Are you kidding? Waiting for attention.

Naples '44 by Norman Lewis. Not read yet.

The Rubicon by Tom Holland. ditto.

I am currently reading A Soldier of the Great War by Mark Helprin. This is set mostly in the Dolomites during WWI. As you may know, much of north-eastern Italy was Austria prior to WWI. This is a moving, well written and fantastical story about one soldier's experiences during wartime. The photo above I took in the Dolomites.

While in Pienza, I bought the book War in the Val d'Orcia by Iris Origo. It is her gripping diary written during WWII while on their farm/estate in Tuscany. That part of Tuscany was no man's land, and when Italy capitulated the Germans took over. Iris and her family took in orphans (or children whose parents could not take care of them during wartime), they sheltered partisans, they lived in danger on a constant basis. Iris buried her diary after each entry. As I read this I was very impressed with her on-the-spot knowledge of the war efforts and politics behind it all, for they had radio access if that.

The photo below was taken from a balloon over the abbey of Sant'Anna in Camprena, which was in the movie the English Patient (set during that time).

The Lady in the Palazzo by Marlene de Blasi. I was late to discover the charms of her writing. Over this past New Years I traveled with my friends Anne, Kirk, and Jill to Orvieto for the Orvieto Jazz Festival and they raved about her books. She actually lives in a Palazzo that is within view of the magnificent Duomo in Orvieto. She moved to Italy in mid-life and fell in love with "the Venetian", which romance apparently was the subject of her book 1000 days in Venice. She then moved on to Tuscany for 1000 days, and then they settled in Orvieto and spent a very long time (1000 days anyone? anyone?) renovating their Palazzo. Her writing is quirky and charming and as a bonus you get recipes at the end, as well as some teasers within the story itself. I burn with jealousy over people who can just "whip up a gourmet meal" on a whim. Below is a photo I took in Orvieto when we arrived late December 2007.


pjdscott said...

Some super photos here! I thought your French pics were so evocative and well composed.

Incidentally, found you through SlowTravel talk.

Anne and Kirk said...

Lots of our favorites here too.
When I get home I'll add a few more that you might enjoy.
Loved the photos - especially that Orvieto lane!

Sophia Khan said...

I am also a fan of Mary McCarthy's "The Stones of Florence." She speaks of the city in a quite honest and blunt manner and at the same time is very insightful. I managed to purchase an earlier hardcover edition of this book at Strand in NYC, and the black and white photographs compliment the text very well. She has also written on Venice, which I have not gotten to as of yet. Thanks for the list-will be referring to it for future reads:)

BaileyZimmerman said...

Great list....I love so many of these!!
I'm starting to add books to my Venice blog. I must have over 100 books that are about, or set in Venice.

Mary Twiss Connolly said...

Beth, this is exactly what I was looking for! Thank you so much. I've bookmarked this page and will, at the very least, start with The Agony and the Ecstasy.

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