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The largest outdoor library in Italy, Palermo | © Livia Hengel
The largest outdoor library in Italy, Palermo | © Livia Hengel
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6 Books To Read Before Visiting Italy

Picture of Livia Hengel
Updated: 31 July 2017
Italy has inspired artists throughout the millennia who have painted its wonders, filmed in its quiet streets, and written books that transmit the sights, sounds and feelings of this much loved country. Channel your wanderlust with these great reads that will prepare you for your next trip to Italy.

Under the Tuscan Sun

Frances Mayes’ 1996 memoir, Under The Tuscan Sun, was a New York Times bestseller for over two years and was adapted into a film of the same name starring Diane Lane. Under The Tuscan Sun recounts the story of a recently divorced writer who travels to Italy to begin a new chapter in her life. She falls in love with an abandoned villa in the Tuscan countryside and decides to purchase the property and restore it, an adventure she relays with vivid imagery and poetic prose. The book is set in Cortona and Mayes excels at conveying the simplicity of daily life in Italy, from its food and traditions to human relationships and comic miscommunications.

Cortona | © Livia Hengel

Eat Pray Love

Another highly successful memoir-turned-film that shines a light on life in Italy is Elizabeth Gilbert’s 2006 Eat, Pray, Love. The book was on The New York Times bestseller list for nearly four years and the film starred Julia Roberts and Javier Bardem. The memoir recounts Elizabeth’s difficult divorce and her subsequent travels through Italy, India and Indonesia on a quest to enjoy life (“Eat”), become spiritually aware (“Pray”) and get a new perspective on romance (“Love”). The first third of the book is dedicated to her time in Rome and Naples and the delicacies she eats, from pizza and pasta to gelato. This book will whet your appetite and inspire you to indulge in tasty treats during your Italian holiday.

Gelato | © Livia Hengel

My Brilliant Friend

Italian author Elena Ferrante’s hit series, The Neapolitan Novels, have swept the literary world by storm. Originally published in Italian, the series became highly successful internationally when they were translated into English, a rarity for Italian authors. The novels are set in Naples and recount the friendship of two women, Elena and Lila, from youth to adulthood as they as they grow up amidst the poverty of Post War Naples and the subsequent political and social changes taking place in Italy during the 60s and 70s. The books cover numerous themes; including class conflict, destiny shaped by one’s social milieu, and envy and competition amongst female friends.

Naples | © Livia Hengel

The Leopard

The Leopard, a novel by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa published in 1958, is considered one of the most important novels in modern Italian literature. The Leopard follows a Sicilian nobleman who lives through the social and political turmoil brought on by civil war in Italy and the subsequent difficulties of Italian unification in the early 1800s. Tomasi himself was the last in line of minor princes in Sicily and wrote the historical novel after the Sicilian island of Lampedusa was bombed by Allied forces in World War II. The novel explores the decline of aristocracy, societal changes and our inevitable morality.

Taormina | © Livia Hengel

La Bella Figura

This light-hearted read by Italian journalist Beppe Severgnini provides a fascinating and enjoyable glimpse into the Italian psyche. The phrase “la bella figura” translates to “make a good impression” (especially in a physical sense) and is one of many central themes of Italian culture that is explored in the book, as Severgnini takes the reader from north to south through the country’s unique traditions. From frustrations such as traffic woes and bureaucracy to the importance of beauty, the beach, and your grandmother’s cooking, La Bella Figura highlights stereotypes and makes key observations about his fellow countrymen that are sure to prepare you for a visit to il bel paese.

Bologna | © Livia Hengel

A Room With A View

E. M. Forster’s iconic 1908 novel, A Room With A View, will make you fall in love with the city of Florence: the Arno River, Santa Croce, Piazza Signoria and Fiesole all feature prominently in the story. The novel is set in Italy and England and is a both a romance and critique of English society at the turn of the century. It follows protagonist Lucy Honeychurch, a young upper middleclass woman who struggles against the social heirarchy of England and experiences a different way of life in Italy – one that is more liberating, with more fluid social boundaries. Forster himself had experienced a similar epiphany during a previous trip to Italy and this served as inspiration for his highly lauded novel.

Florence | © Livia Hengel