The best books for understanding the Italian mindset

The Books I Picked & Why

The Italians

By Luigi Barzini

Book cover of The Italians

Why this book?

Want to know what really makes Italians tick? Why they’re so obsessed with la bella figura? What family means to them? Where the good side of the mindset morphs into the bad? The afia. Corruption. Barzini was the son of a journalist close to Mussolini, but went to high school and university in New York. This book, which he wrote in English in 1965 is as at once hilarious and essential reading.

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Family Lexicon

By Jenny McPhee, Natalia Ginzburg

Book cover of Family Lexicon

Why this book?

Among the greatest family memoirs of all time. Novelist, Natalia Ginzburg (née Levi) grew up in a big family in Turin between the wars. Her Jewish father was a famous and famously irascible scientist, her mother a charmer from the well-to-do bourgeoisie. The last of five, Natalia gives a sparkling picture of the loves, friendships and conflicts between her older brothers and sisters as Fascist Italy drifted toward war. Impossible not to laugh and cry, while at the same time getting a sense of the deeper forces driving Italian life.

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Sea and Sardinia

By D.H. Lawrence

Book cover of Sea and Sardinia

Why this book?

“COMES over one an absolute necessity to move.” Has there ever been a more appropriate opening line to any travel book? D H Lawrence moved to Sicily right after the First World War and from there got the itch to board a ship and visit Sardinia to the north with his wife Frida. He was hoping to find a primitive, pre-modern society, where men were men and women were women. He did indeed find them and was appalled. But delighted too. It’s hard to think of a book with more fun in it, more self-mockery, more pathos, and more poetry. Not to mention the descriptions of Sardinia. To die for.

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Christ Stopped at Eboli: The Story of a Year

By Carlo Levi, Frances Frenaye

Book cover of Christ Stopped at Eboli: The Story of a Year

Why this book?

Like many Italian intellectuals during the Fascist period Carlo Levi, a doctor and painter, was sent into ‘internal exile’ for his criticism of Mussolini. That meant being isolated in some tiny, godforsaken village in the deep south. It was a common saying in Aliano, Basilicata, where Levi was sent, that “Christ stopped at Eboli,” a town some way to the north. The Saviour hadn’t made it this far. Christianity, modernity, even history had passed these people by. Finding himself in great demand as the only qualified doctor for miles, Levi turned his extraordinary experiences in this most backward part of Italy into a treasure for all time. Reading about the drunken priest, the brigands, the malaria, the strange mix of rigid social protocol and sexual promiscuity, the mysticism and superstition, you can’t help being at once both charmed and shocked.

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The Prince

By Niccolò Machiavelli, Tim Parks

Book cover of The Prince

Why this book?

Considered one of the great publishing scandals of all time, The Prince is also a profound, fascinating and surprisingly entertaining read. Removed from political office in Florence in 1512, tortured for crimes he hadn’t committed, Machiavelli withdrew to his country farm and began to set down his thoughts on politics. How does a man have to behave if he wants power? How can he hold on to it once he’s got it? And the great scandal of the book is that, analyzing the exploits of one great leader after another, Machiavelli just tells the truth, straight from the hip: “If you always want to play the good man in a world where most people are not good, you’ll end up badly. Hence, if a ruler wants to survive, he’ll have to learn to stop being good, at least when the occasion demands.” Five hundred years later, the implications of that reflection haunt the corridors of power the world over.

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