The best books to inspire a passion for Italy – and Italian

Why am I passionate about this?

Decades ago, I fell madly, gladly, and giddily in love with Italian. This passion inspired La Bella Lingua: My Love Affair with the World’s Most Enchanting Language, which became a New York Times best-seller and won an Italian knighthood for my contributions to promoting Italy’s language. Intrigued by the world’s most famous portrait, I wrote Mona Lisa: A Life Discovered, an Amazon Best Book of the Year, translated into seven languages. My most recent journeys through Italian culture are La Passione: How Italy Seduced the World and  ‘A’ Is for Amore, an e-book written during the pandemic and available free on my website.


I wrote...

Book cover of La Passione: How Italy Seduced the World

What is my book about?

My book is a jubilant exploration of how Italy transformed the Western world’s most vibrant passions—from literature to art, music to movies. Serving as a tour guide, I invite readers along on my adventurous quest for the secrets of la passione. I swim in the playgrounds of mythic gods, shadow artisanal makers of chocolate and cheese, join in Sicily’s Holy Week traditions, celebrate a neighborhood Carnevale in Venice, and explore pagan temples, vineyards, movie sets, and fashion salons. 

A lyrical portrait of a spirit as well as a nation, La Passione appeals to the Italian in all our souls, inspiring us to be as daring as Italy’s gladiators, as eloquent as its poets, as alluring as its beauties, and as irresistible as its lovers.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Divine Comedy

Dianne Hales Why did I love this book?

Long after I began studying Italian, I resisted reading Italy’s greatest poet. His classic book seemed too daunting, too distant, too dull. Then, an Italian teacher gave me the first adaptation of the La Divina Commedia that she had read as a girl: a vintage Italian Walt Disney comic book featuring Mickey Mouse (Topolino in Italian) as Dante with Minnie Mouse as his adored Beatrice.   

I was so intrigued that I bought an English translation of the Divine Comedy—several, although I’m partial to John Ciardi’s. My unanticipated reaction: Wow! Like modern readers ensnared by the wizardly world of Harry Potter, I skidded into a fully imagined alternate world. An action-packed, high-adrenalin, breath-taking, rip-roaring yarn leaped off the pages into vivid, writhing, pulsating life. If you love action-packed tales and also seek insights into the Italian soul, read The Inferno. Purgatorio and Paradiso are optional. 

By Dante Alighieri, C.H. Sisson (translator),

Why should I read it?

6 authors picked The Divine Comedy as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Described variously as the greatest poem of the European Middle Ages and, because of the author's evangelical purpose, the `fifth Gospel', the Divine Comedy is central to the culture of the west. The poem is a spiritual autobiography in the form of a journey - the poet travels from the dark circles of the Inferno, up the mountain of Purgatory, where Virgil, his guide leaves him to encounter Beatrice in the Earthly Paradise. Dante conceived the poem as the
new epic of Christendom, and he creates a world in which reason and faith have transformed moral and social chaos into…


Book cover of Botticelli's Secret: The Lost Drawings and the Rediscovery of the Renaissance

Dianne Hales Why did I love this book?

After writing La Bella Lingua, I thought I had learned many of Florence’s hidden stories. Botticelli’s Secret proved me wrong. Although we‘ve never met, I think of Joseph Luzzi as a kindred soul who shares my passion for Italy's language, art, and literature. With a scholar’s depth and a writer’s deft touch, he re-creates the brilliance and complexity of the Renaissance and traces its impact through the centuries since. At the same time, Luzzi draws us into a layered mystery that crosses centuries and unfolds in ever richer, deeper dimensions. 

If you haven’t visited Florence, you’ll want to explore Botticelli’s and Dante’s hometown. If you have, you’ll want to return to deepen your appreciation of the city where artists and writers re-invented Western civilization.

By Joseph Luzzi,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Botticelli's Secret as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Some 500 years ago, Sandro Botticelli, a painter of humble origin, created work of unearthly beauty. An intimate associate of Florence's unofficial rulers, the Medici, he was commissioned by a member of their family to execute a near-impossible project: to illustrate all 100 cantos of The Divine Comedy by the city's greatest poet, Dante Alighieri. A powerful encounter between poet and artist, sacred and secular, earthly and evanescent, these drawings produced a wealth of stunning images but were never finished. Botticelli declined into poverty and obscurity, and his illustrations went missing for 400 years.

The nineteenth-century rediscovery of Botticelli's Dante…


Book cover of Galileo's Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith, and Love

Dianne Hales Why did I love this book?

While researching Mona Lisa: A Life Discovered, I rented an apartment a few blocks from a house where Galileo lived in Florence. I could stand outside its door every day, but this book transported me inside—not just a building but a family, a home, and an era. 

Dava Sobel’s meticulous research reveals not just new dimensions of Galileo’s life and work as an intrepid scientist but the often hidden realm inhabited by his daughter. Illegitimate and unmarriageable, she entered a convent at age 13 to live in poverty and simplicity. And yet, as her letters demonstrate, Sister Marie Celeste’s soul and spirit soared. The ending—which I dare not spoil—has haunted me since my first reading decades ago.

By Dava Sobel,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked Galileo's Daughter as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Inspired by a long fascination with Galileo, and by the remarkable surviving letters of his daughter Maria Celeste, a cloistered nun, Dava Sobel has crafted a biography that dramatically recolors the personality and accomplishments of a mythic figure whose early-seventeenth-century clash with Catholic doctrine continues to define the schism between science and religion-the man Albert Einstein called "the father of modern physics-indeed of modern science altogether." It is also a stunning portrait of Galileo's daughter, a person hitherto lost to history, described by her father as "a woman of exquisite mind, singular goodness, and most tenderly attached to me."

Moving…


Book cover of Four Seasons in Rome: On Twins, Insomnia, and the Biggest Funeral in the History of the World

Dianne Hales Why did I love this book?

This was the first Anthony Doerr book I read—the literary equivalent of eating dessert first. I’ve since savored his novels, but this irresistible feast of delicious morsels of Italian life lingers in my mind. Doerr doesn’t show you Rome. He invites you to live in it with him—during his sleepless nights, in the company of his twin babies, as a beloved Pope lies dying and the seasons bring new enchantments. 

I can’t say whether I love this book more for the writing or for its tender portrait of Rome. Read it for the double pleasures of exquisitely crafted vignettes and a virtual visit to a city that eternally surprises and seduces visitors.  

By Anthony Doerr,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Four Seasons in Rome as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From the author of the acclaimed Pulitzer Prize-winning #1 New York Times bestseller All the Light We Cannot See and Cloud Cuckoo Land, a "dazzling" (Azar Nafisi, author of Reading Lolita in Tehran) memoir about art and adventures in Rome.

Anthony Doerr has received many awards—from the New York Public Library, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the American Library Association. Then came the Rome Prize, one of the most prestigious awards from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and with it a stipend and a writing studio in Rome for a year. Doerr learned of the award…


Book cover of The Decameron

Dianne Hales Why did I love this book?

During a plague that killed a quarter of Florence’s citizens, Boccaccio crafted an exuberant, entertaining, death-defying work of literature. In this book, seven young women and three young men taking refuge in a country villa swap 100 tales of love, lust, mischief, and treachery. 

I read a translation of The Decameron during a sabbatical in Italy and was swept back in time. In every village, I’d look around a piazza and see characters straight from its pages: wily merchants, corrupt politicians, clever wives, henpecked husbands, bumbling fools. This book still resonates in the 21st century—a tribute to Boccaccio’s skill as a spell-weaver. Some of his stories are shamelessly, laughably bawdy. But all remind us that, even as everything changes, our shared humanity remains the same.

By Giovanni Boccaccio,

Why should I read it?

7 authors picked The Decameron as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In the summer of 1348, as the Black Death ravages their city, ten young Florentines take refuge in the countryside...

Taken from the Greek, meaning 'ten-day event', Boccaccio's Decameron sees his characters amuse themselves by each telling a story a day, for the ten days of their confinement - a hundred stories of love and adventure, life and death, and surprising twists of fate. Less preoccupied with abstract concepts of morality or religion than earthly values, the tales range from the bawdy Peronella, hiding her lover in a tub, to Ser Cepperallo, who, despite his unholy effrontery, becomes a Saint.…


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Ferry to Cooperation Island

By Carol Newman Cronin,

Book cover of Ferry to Cooperation Island

Carol Newman Cronin Author Of Ferry to Cooperation Island

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Author Sailor Olympian Editor New Englander Rum drinker

Carol's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

James Malloy is a ferry captain--or used to be, until he was unceremoniously fired and replaced by a "girl" named Courtney Farris. Now, instead of piloting Brenton Island’s daily lifeline to the glitzy docks of Newport, Rhode Island, James spends his days beached, bitter, and bored.

When he discovers a plan for a private golf course on wilderness sacred to his dying best friend, James is determined to stop such "improvements." But despite Brenton's nickname as "Cooperation Island," he's used to working solo. To keep historic trees and ocean shoreline open to all, he'll have to learn to cooperate with other islanders--including Captain Courtney, who might just morph from irritant to irresistible once James learns a secret that's been kept from him for years.

Ferry to Cooperation Island

By Carol Newman Cronin,

What is this book about?

Loner James Malloy is a ferry captain-or used to be, until he was unceremoniously fired and replaced by a girl named Courtney Farris. Now, instead of piloting Brenton Island's daily lifeline to the glitzy docks of Newport, Rhode Island, James spends his days beached, bitter, and bored.

When he discovers a private golf course staked out across wilderness sacred to his dying best friend, a Narragansett Indian, James is determined to stop such "improvements." But despite Brenton's nickname as "Cooperation Island," he's used to working solo. To keep rocky bluffs, historic trees, and ocean shoreline open to all, he'll have…


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