Ten Favorite Books on Italy

Many a times I am asked to suggest books on “Italy” and often find myself confused because it is impossible to mention just one book. Seriously the choices are plenty (not to mention fantastic) which is why it is really tough to pick just one book out of the universe. There are books on travel in Italy, it’s art and culture, amazing history and the list goes on. Today I have come up with a list of top 10 books based in Italy that can introduce you to Italy or Italian authors in general. I hope they set the pace for anyone wanting to read more on the country:

Buon Divertimento! 🙂

1. Inspector Montalbano Series by Andrea Camilleri:
Crime and delicious food mixed with Camilleri’s writing will give you the Inspector Montalbano series. His dry humour will make you fall in love with the region. Known to be one of the greatest Italian writers of the 21st century, Camilleri’s alter ego i.e. Montalbano has been translated worldwide in over 10 languages. I have read a dozen of his translated works and also seen the TV series that propelled me to visit Sicily. (Read my post for The Local Italy here.) This is one series of books in Italy that you should read. A lot of people find his stories repetitive but that is the case with most of the writers I’d say.
Region: Sicily.

2. La Bella Lingua by Dianne Hales:
For those of you who have been following my blog since a long time know that I am learning Italian. I regularly do a series on Charming Italian Words and many words come from this beautifully researched book by Dianne Hales. This isn’t just a language book for her story which could easily be mine. La Bella Lingua which means the beautiful language includes phrases and history of the Italian language. It offers a lot more than just words and I cannot recommend it enough to anyone learning or curious about Italian. It also includes a great chapter on Dante and is a perfect book to read on Italy.
Region: Italy.

3. Four Seasons in Rome by Anthony Doerr:
I have already gushed a little about this book before over here and that defines my love for Rome. Four Seasons in Rome is lyrical and poetic and is the author’s personal account of his struggles in the eternal city. Oh Rome!! This book made me fall in love with the city yet again and whether one has visited or not, Doerr’s writing weaves a certain magic that will make you take that trip to the city!
Region: Rome, Lazio

4. The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa:
The Leopard was one of my first few reads on Sicily but it was nothing like I expected. Documenting Italy during the period of its unification or risorgimento, this book talks about class and traditions among the noblemen of Sicily. It is history and a bit of everything -politics, drama, aristocracy and power. A must read that easily makes it be one of the top 10 books on Italian Literature, The Leopard is also made into a movie.
Region: Sicily

5. Brunelleschi’s Dome by Ross King:
Did you see the movie Inferno?? Can’t stop thinking about the beautiful dome below?? You are not alone! Ross King’s book on Filippo Brunelleschi, the mastermind behind this dome, will make you fall in love with Florence. The book is intriguing and historical with a lot of engineering details. I enjoyed the story of the paranoid Italian goldsmith who is now one of the most famous names in the field of European architecture. His dome is not only the subject of many photographs but it is also what defines Florence as a city. Ross King’s book highlights the hardships that he had to endure in the times of plagues and wars and is definitely worth a read.
Region: Florence, Tuscany

6. Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere by Jan Morris:
I love Trieste and have always pointed out how underrated that port city is. It seems I am not alone in that thought as Jan Morris agrees with me 😉 Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere was recommended to me by an Italian lady in a quaint bookcafe of Trieste. How coincidental! It is about the city’s troubled past and its moods and changeability. It is a book like no other because it portrays Trieste as a person more than a city. Morris who seems to be very attached to this city entwines humour and nostalgia. It would make perfect sense to visit the town of Trieste and then read the book but then again you could always read the book and then visit Trieste and understand its “nowhereness”. Another great book on Italy!
Region: Trieste, Friuli Venezia Giulia

7. In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri:
Jhumpa Lahiri could easily be writing my very own account of learning the Italian language. Honestly, I didn’t know what to expect of this book when it first came but it completely took me by surprise. I devoured the book and recommended it to many Italophilies who in turn loved it. In Other Words is an honest account of her learning Italian and her story of living in Rome. Every time I read the book I find something new. As Lahiri says “When you live without your own language you feel weightless and, at the same time, overloaded. Your breathe another type of air, at a different altitude”. So true!
Region: Rome, Lazio.

8. The Neopolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante:
You might have heard of The Neopolitan Series possibly everywhere online these days because people are trying to find out who “Elena Ferrante” is. But that is not why I read it. It started as curiosity and got me hooked to read the very gritty account of two friends and their life in Naples. It highlights Italian crime, politics, history and complex relationships in the most fierce and raw way you can imagine. Ferrante’s words are bold, effortless yet one that would make you cry. This book changed me in many ways and is a must read on Italy, especially for women.
Region: Naples, Campagnia; Pisa, Tuscany; Florence, Tuscany; Milan, Lombardia

9. The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco:
My very first book on Italy that has also been made into a successful movie, The Name of the Rose is a murder mystery set in the hills of Piemonte. It takes place in the Saint Michael’s Abbey which Umberto Eco had once visited in his life and chose to add it as a backdrop to his book. Since I don’t want to add spoilers and give away the story, I’d suggest to pick this book before starting anything else on Italy or Italian authors from this list.
Region: Piemonte

10. Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino:
How can one list books on Italian Literature and not mention the genius Calvino?? That would be blasphemy! Invisible Cities is Calvino’s account of the travels and dialogues of Marco Polo and Kubail Khan. The book describes different cities with careful attention and imagination and includes city signs, prophetic warnings and human despair. It is a very hypnotic book and one that is not easy to read either but take it slowly and imagine the world of Calvino with all its eccentricity.
Region: Venice, Veneto

I’d love to hear more books and “Italy specific” recommendations. Have you read any of these??

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99 thoughts on “Ten Favorite Books on Italy

  1. A great reading list to be sure, Ishita. Thank you for putting all of these great books together with your reviews I have read several but I have new recommendations, thanks to you

  2. I bought one already (La bella lingua) and have another on the list (Lahiri), all thanks to you. 🙂 And I’ve recently read the entire Neapolitan series by Ferrante. It’s truly mind-blowing, and for everybody who has moved to Italy as I have, a bit revealing as well.

  3. Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere is fabulous, and I just picked up The Leopard in a charity bookshop (50p!) so I’m glad it’s on your list. For light travel writing, I loved Vroom by the Sea, by Peter Moore. For deeper (read: more depressing) reading, Primo Levi’s “The Periodic Table” and “If This Is A Man” are both must-reads.

    1. Primo Levi’s books might belong to the “depressing” sphere but they are a must, especially If This is a Man. Once you read it, you won’t be the same anymore.

    2. There are so many light reads that I haven’t included in this post but will do in a separate post. Thank you so much. I am checking If This is a Man.

      1. I’m working on a translation of one of his other books (a collection of essays/articles) at the moment, so I’m going through biographies/interviews he conducted etc…. Fascinating man, and not many, if any, better 1st hand chroniclers of Holocaust history.

  4. Great list! I’ve read most of them. Am reading “In Other Words” now. If you haven’t read “The Sixteen Pleasures,” you should. It’s a fictional telling of the Florence flood in 1966 and the “mud angels” who came to help.. It’s one of my favorites.

  5. Just added everything to the TBR. Particularly Camilleri. I’ve been seeing hus books around and kept wondering where I’d heard of him. Now I remember. Haha. Great post as always!

  6. What a great idea this is. I love Doerr’s memoir. Have read all the Ferrante Neopolitan novels, and The Leopard. Can’t wait to read Larihi’s memoir, and you’ve given me some other great suggestions!

  7. Such a wonderful book list. I am familiar with most and will definitely check out the others. I would humbly like to add my historical novel: “Bridge of Sighs and Dreams.” World War II Nazi-occupied Rome sets the stage for this drama based on real people and events. It is a story of betrayal, dignity, and purpose that highlights the brutality toward Italian citizens under both Mussolini’s Fascist regime and the Nazi occupation. My research included interviews throughout Italy in addition to translating documents and publications. The discovery of personal letters and journals augmented my study. The consistent manifestation of hope, scribbled across those abandoned pieces of paper, afforded a valuable glimpse into the Italian sentiment during this horrific period. I have not altered facts to fit my fiction; instead, I utilized truth to enhance my characters and their story. You can read more about the novel and Amazon reviews by clicking on “Fiction” on my WordPress site home page. I would be happy to hear any reader feedback. Saluti!

    1. Grazie Pamela. I have your book on my TBR since ages but never got around to reading it. I would love to read it and am sure many of the followers would too. Thanks for sharing it sounds molto interesting. xo

  8. Hi Ishita, it’s Kelly from Instagram! I haven’t read any of these books yet, but I think this is pretty much my reading list from here on out lol!

  9. Some very interesting choices here, well done Ishita, you deserve honorary citizenship! Being a Piedmontese I’d like to suggest another couple of titles that, to me, are good testimonials of my beloved region. La luna e i falò, by Cesare Pavese, is one. Una questione privata, by Beppe Fenoglio, is another and, finally, Marcovaldo by Italo Calvino, possibly the one of the bunch I’m the most attached to. There used to be a great podcast/audiobook on Marcovaldo, narrated by a chap with a splendid Turin Piedmontese accent, the one that’s now almost completely disappeared… Nostalgia!
    Thanks for being so interested in our country!
    Fabrizio

    1. Grazie mille Fabrizio.. I wish I got citizenship for being passionate about Italy 😛 I am learning Italian and these titles that you suggested are new to me. I doubt I will find their English version. Also, I have read and loved Marcovaldo. I am sure the narration must have been splendid. PS- not yet been to Piedmont but dreaming 🙂

      1. Hi there Ishita. I do think you’ll find Fenoglio translated in English, a bit less sure for Pavese, even though you’ll find him in French if you know that language.

  10. Great list. I’ve read several on it and appreciate the other recommendations. I enjoyed Under the Tuscan Sun by Frances Mayes and would highly recommend A Kiss From Maddalena by Christopher Castellani.

  11. Great list Ishita. Italia-related books are one of my favourite things! I’ve read quite a few of them. I’ll have to read Andrea Camilleri. I was going to buy one of the books in Italia, but I bought the first 2 of Elena Ferrante’s novels in Italian. Now I’m torn whether I want to read them now or read book no 3 in English. I also went to a writers conference so came back with quite a few good books. I loved the Sixteen Pleasures and My Cousin the Saint. I also recommend Carlo Levi’s Cristo si e Fermato ad Eboli. I’ve read it twice in both English and Italiano. Yes it is a real shame that ‘Elena Ferrante’s’ privacy was not respected! Ciao, Cristina

    1. You must read Camilleri. I’m a fan of Sicily even more so because of him.. happy reading Ferrante no 3 first. I can understand the dilemma of what book to start. I just started with Munro’s short stories today. Thank you for your great recos.. ciao ciao!

  12. Hi Ishita
    I recently read Padre padrone, the book on which the famous film was based. A masterpiece in my opinion!
    And may I be so bold as to suggest my about to be published “Living in Italy: the Real Deal – How to survive the Good Life”.
    The creative non-fiction book contains sixty short stories about my adventures as a Dutch expat who moved to Italy in 2008 to start a bed and breakfast. It is the translation of the Dutch original that met with considerable success (sold 3000 copies) and had very positive readers’ reviews. It is published through Babelcube and contains 280 pages, 67.000 words.
    Author bio:
    Stef Smulders was born in The Netherlands in 1960 and moved with husband Nico and their dog to Italy in 2008 to start bed-and-breakfast Villa I Due Padroni in the beautiful wine region Oltrepò Pavese south of Milan. In 2014 he published his first volume of short, anecdotical stories (in Dutch) about daily life among the Italians entitled “Italiaanse Toestanden”. It was well received by readers, leading to a second volume of witty anecdotes. A third volume is to be published spring 2017.
    Book summary:
    In 2008 the author emigrated to Italy, bringing husband and dog along, to start Bed & Breakfast Villa I Due Padroni. But a lot of hurdles had to be taken before the first guests could be accommodated. In 2014 Stef reported about his adventures in buying and reconstructing the house, obtaining a tax number and a bank account, registering at the commune and at the national health service, importing their car and a range of other things that lead to a myriad of bureaucratic troubles. These problems were always resolved in a truly Italian fashion, leading to raised Dutch eyebrows and hilarious scenes. As a reader you will encounter a range of characteristic Italians, from sympathetic to villainous, from moving to shameless. Real Italians of flesh and blood, sometimes cliché, somtimes surprisingly original. But always worth encountering.
    Goodreads page:
    https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/32572055-living-in-italy
    Have a look at my presentation page as well with fragments and a sneak preview if you like:
    http://italiaanse-toestanden.duepadroni.it/index-UK.html
    I could send you the epub or pdf if you want to.
    Hope to hear from you
    Cari saluti
    Stef

    1. Ciao Stef! Call it a strange coincidence or meant to be (if you believe in these sort of things) but someone on my Instagram page recommended your book to me yesterday! Freaky, no? I am intrigued to read of your experiences and know how Italy was to you and Nico. It is very nice of you to message me here. I have seen your presentation as well as the book online. I was always a paperback person but off late started using the technology to make reading cheaper on the pocket and easy! Could you email me a PDF of your book?? I will look for the paperback online on Amazon India. Grazie mille, Stef. Buonasera da India.

      1. Wow, che coinzidenza! Good to hear that instagram works! I am still waiting for Amazon to publish my book, it takes ages! I will send the pdf if I can find your email address on the site. Ciao, Stef

      2. That was me! Glad to bring you two lovely Italophiles together.
        As for books on Italy — agree with you Ishita about di Lampedusa, Calvino and Camilleri. Afraid we part ways on Ferrante — I only finished My Brilliant Friend because it was for a reading group. Love Ignazio Silone, Primo Levi, Giorgio Bassani and my new favourite Antonio Tabucchi.
        As for authors who are Italophiles — Midnight in Sicily by Peter Robb is brilliant (particularly for good background on the Mafia); ditto Blood Washes Blood by Frank Viviano; Robb also wrote a biography on Caravaggio. Then just about anything by Tim Parks — fiction and non fiction. And finally for something that turns the whole ‘Under the Tuscan Sun’, ‘Eat Pray Love’ genre on its head there are three novels by James Hamilton-Patterson, starting with ‘Cooking with Fernet Branca’.

        1. Thank you Kathy!! I am glad you mentioned him 🙂 I am making a new post of more favorites from Italy and a few you mentioned are already on it 😉 So many more to read. Adding to my goodreads. are you on that portal??

    2. Sorry for enterfering, but, as an Italian, I was impressed by your story. Did you really leave your country to open a B&B in the reign of impossible bureaucracy? Wow, you are a hero FOR REAL. Hands down.

  13. Thank you so much for your recommendations. Having just spent another two weeks in the Veneto it’s like my second home.
    Also, I have been wanting to publish a post about books I like, but have been stymied by not having a vision of its organization. Now your post is a beautiful frame work.
    Thanks again.
    Richard on Dauntless

      1. I usually stay with friends in Budoia, a small town at the base of the Dolomiti and Piancavallo.
        Using Budoia as my base, I visit my friends also in Pordenone, Codroipo (UD), Farra di Soligo (TV) & Treviso.
        I love driving the Pedemontana.
        My next post well be about Italia and friendship.
        Richard

  14. Ishita, what a fantastic post, thank you! Thanks to you, I have added many new titles to my wish list! I couldn’t agree with you more about Dianne Hales’ La Bella Lingua — it’s a must read for Italophiles! It was the first book I read that made me feel validated in my intense love of Italian and Italy. It really encouraged me to keep going on my journey! Brunelleschi’s Dome — amazing read, I love how it put me right in the action of Renaissance Florence. Leonardo and the Last Supper, also by Ross King, is a fantastic read too. As for Anthony Doerr, I am looking forward to reading Four Seasons in Rome. Did you read his All The Light We Cannot See? It is incredible (although not set in Italy but in WWII Germany & France). Happy reading, writing and studying Italian! xo

    1. You are so kind cara. Im glad you enjoyed 🙂 nice to know you have read some of these books. I agree with you on La Bella Lingua. I haven’t read All the Light …. On my list 😉

      1. Ps Looks like you are reading some of my posts. I will send you an email that I recently received from the school I went to. Just for your info

  15. Thanks — Grazie! Have read many light ones and a few of these. I look forward to reading more. Thanks for putting this list together. As you know, I took the plunge and bought a small farm here and do not regret it. These books Will be a good way to enrich the experience.

  16. Good picks! I’m thinking of going to Trieste, myself. I loved The Name of the Rose (and Piemonte’s Sacra di San Michele is what inspired Umberto Eco, together with the Castel del Monte in Puglia), and Italo Calvino’s work is great too.

    1. I missed replying Diana. Just wanted to say how wonderful it was to meet you 🙂 Hope you are settled in the States now.. Did you visit Trieste??

  17. I just wrote a post about Italian books that I want to read, and then I found this list. I’d love to hear your thoughts on any of the other books on my list if you’ve read them. You have given me a few extra books to add.

  18. You need to add Baudolino by Umberto Eco too. It’s another brilliant master piece of his! Philosophical meanings and history interwoven in one. Between Polenta talks and the real meaning of unicorns, I just couldn’t stop reading it. I compare it with the style to one hundred years of solitude from Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

  19. I think apart from Eat Pray Love, I have not read any book on Italy. An unfair question, but which one of these books would you recommend if you had to recommend just one book from this list for an introduction to Italy. Just by the title – Seasons in Rome looks tempting.

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