The best books about Italy

47 authors have picked their favorite books about Italy and why they recommend each book.

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By Viana LA Place,

Book cover of Verdura: Vegetables Italian Style

I am apt to come back to the kitchen from the garden or the farmers’ market with a large bag of irresistible vegetables that I have no idea what I’m going to do with. More often than not I turn to Viana La Place’s book for a simple and satisfying recipe that uses Italian ingredients with a touch of California thrown in.

Who am I?

As an American living and cooking in Sicily for almost sixty years, I have soaked up Sicilian cuisine and culture both through research and by osmosis, delighting in discovering how the food I was preparing reflected the island’s position in history and geography, a meeting point for almost all the civilizations of the Mediterranean. My first book, a memoir of my life here entitled On Persephone’s Island, was followed by Pomp and Sustenance. Twenty-five Centuries of Sicilian Food, the first book on Sicilian cuisine to be published in English. Six more books on different aspects of Sicilian food and culture, in English or in Italian, have followed.

I wrote...

Sicilian Summer: An Adventure in Cooking with my Grandsons

By Mary Taylor Simeti,

Book cover of Sicilian Summer: An Adventure in Cooking with my Grandsons

What is my book about?

Join me and my four grandsons as we cook the boys’ favorite summer dishes and prepare a birthday dinner for their grandfather. With this book I welcome you once again to the Simeti farm in western Sicily, first described in my earlier book, On Persephone’s Island, and to the dinner table where three generations of my family gather each summer to celebrate our multicultural heritage with good food and great affection. Part memoir, part family recipe collection, part delightful photographic record of an extraordinary experience, it is also a meditation on the role that food can play within the family in bonding, creating memories, and consolidating tradition and identity.

The Italians

By Luigi Barzini,

Book cover of The Italians

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.

Who am I?

Tim Parks moved to Italy in 1981 and is still there today. He has written five bestselling books about the country, brought up three splendid Italian children and translated some of the country’s best-loved authors. There cannot be many foreigners more familiar with the country, its literature, its history and its people.

I wrote...

An Italian Education: The Further Adventures of an Expatriate in Verona

By Tim Parks,

Book cover of An Italian Education: The Further Adventures of an Expatriate in Verona

What is my book about?

An Italian Education does more than any book I know to explain how Italians become Italians. Tim Parks focuses on his own young children in the small village near Verona where he lives, building a fascinating picture of the contemporary Italian family at school, at home, at work, and at play. The result is a delight: at once a family book and a travel book, not quite enamoured with either children or Italy, but always affectionate, always amused, and always amusing.

Christ Stopped at Eboli

By Carlo Levi, Frances Frenaye (translator),

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

This book does not take place in Sicily however, the plights of the inhabitants of a small southern town in Luncania are the same as those Italians in parts of Sicily where even in the ’60s, many families lived in caves. Carlo Levi, a doctor, painter, and writer is sent to Eboli because of his opposition to Mussolini and Italy’s Fascist government. Levi’s book is about the harsh life of its citizens who continued to live according to the traditions and beliefs of their ancestors, including healing by natural methods and black magic and superstitions.   

Who am I?

I grew up in New Orleans around Cajun French and Italians. My father spoke Cajun French, English, and Sicilian. I grew up thinking his Sicilian was Italian mixed with Cajun French. We considered ourselves Italian, never aware that my grandparents, paternal and maternal, emigrated from Sicily and were born just after Sicily became part of Italy (1861). Knowing nothing of Sicily, including the Sicilian spelling of my own surname and my father’s Sicilian first name, I used the computer to contact distant relatives in Sicily, discover records online, and eventually visited Sicily to find actual documents. My research led to my passion and my first book, After Laughing Comes Crying.

I wrote...

Not for Self: A Sicilian Life and Death in Marion

By Joseph L. Cacibauda,

Book cover of Not for Self: A Sicilian Life and Death in Marion

What is my book about?

This is a novel that details the life and death of a Sicilian immigrant, Jake Valenti, who came to the United States and became involved in the social upheavals of the 1920s in Illinois, encountering prohibition, the Ku Klux Klan, corrupt politicians, and law enforcement officers, bootleggers and finally meeting his death in what became known as "bloody Williamson." This is a creative fiction novel based on an actual person. 

The Body Of Il Duce

By Sergio Luzzatto,

Book cover of The Body Of Il Duce: Mussolini's Corpse And The Fortunes Of Italy

Once a dictator dies, his statues might come down and his books might disappear from school curriculums, but his legacy can endure for generations. Mussolini was the man for whom the term “totalitarian” was coined, and he pioneered many of the techniques of domination that other dictators deployed later in the century. When it was all new, a lot of people thought he might be onto something and “Il Duce” even enjoyed the support of such famous figures such as Churchill and Gandhi. The sight of his bullet ridden corpse strung upside down outside an Esso gas station in Milan must have seemed like the ultimate fall from grace, an indelible image of his regime’s failure. But that was not the end of the story, and in this remarkable book, Luzzato explores what happened next — both to Mussolini’s corpse, and to his ideas, as they continued to linger on…

Who am I?

I lived in the former Soviet Union for ten years, primarily in Moscow, the home of many a brutal tyrant. My obsession with dictator literature began after I discovered that Saddam Hussein had written a romance novel, following which I spent many years reading the literary output of all of the 20th century’s most terrible tyrants, from Mussolini to Stalin to the Ayatollah Khomeini. This monumental act of self-torture resulted in my critically acclaimed book The Infernal Library: On Dictators, the Books They Wrote, And Other Catastrophes of Literacy

I wrote...

The Infernal Library

By Daniel Kalder,

Book cover of The Infernal Library

What is my book about?

Since the days of the Roman Empire dictators have written books, but in the twentieth century the phenomenon went into overdrive, and despots inflicted their soul-killing prose upon (literally) captive audiences. They produced theoretical works, spiritual manifestos, poetry, memoirs, and (as I mentioned above) even the occasional romance novel. What do these books reveal about the dictatorial soul? What function did they serve for so many terrible regimes? Did any of these despots have even a smidgen of literary talent? These questions and many others are answered in The Infernal Library.

The Venetian Empire

By Jan Morris,

Book cover of The Venetian Empire: A Sea Voyage

Jan Morris, who writes as elegantly as anyone about Venice, conducts us on a historical cruise through its maritime empire – both a history and a travelogue. It’s a beguiling evocation of the Mediterranean that we all dream of. Venice at one time or another held Constantinople, Crete, Cyprus, the dotted islands of the Aegean and the coast of Dalmatia – an empire of forts, harbours, and naval bases, all badged with Venice’s corporate logo – the winged lion. In Morris’s hands it’s an invitation to sail immediately. Her book on Venice itself is excellent too.

Who am I?

The Mediterranean is in my family’s history. My dad was a naval officer who worked in the sea in peace and war and took us to Malta when I was nine. I was entranced by the island’s history, by an evocative sensory world of sunlight, brilliant seas, and antiquity. I’ve been travelling in this sea ever since, including a spell living in Turkey, and delved deep into its past, its empires, and its maritime activity. I’m the author of three books on the subject: Constantinople: the Last Great Siege, Empires of the Sea, and Venice: City of Fortune.

I wrote...

Empires of the Sea: The Final Battle for the Mediterranean, 1521-1580

By Roger Crowley,

Book cover of Empires of the Sea: The Final Battle for the Mediterranean, 1521-1580

What is my book about?

Empires of the Sea is the history of the great sixteenth-century contest for the Mediterranean between the Ottoman Empire and Christian Europe. It opens with the Ottoman capture of Rhodes in 1521 and concludes with the shattering sea battle at Lepanto half a century later. It’s an epic of military crusading, holy war, piracy, oared galleys, and bloody sieges orchestrated by the two great figures of the age, Suleiman the Magnificent and Charles II of Spain, both vying for a claim to world empire.

A Room with a View

By E.M. Forster,

Book cover of A Room with a View

Young Englishwoman Lucy Honeychurch visits Italy only to find herself among others of her class, all of whom have brought along their prejudices. When a father and son of a lower social class offer her a room with a better view, Lucy’s chaperone is suspicious of possible lurid expectations attached to the offer. The Edwardian moral code, outrageous to a present-day American, presents obstacles Lucy struggles to overcome so she can comfortably befriend the men. Although Forster’s style sometimes left me confused as to who was speaking during dialogues, and the Grecian myth references aren’t in my lexicon, the story is emotionally compelling and the theme of assessing one’s basic cultural beliefs resonates today.

Who am I?

Having been an unrestrained traveler myself, I’m fascinated by how being immersed in other cultures forced me to reconcile with my own basic beliefs about myself and about what it means to be a good person. The farther afield and more untethered I got, the more I had to really dig into myself to find common humanity with people of completely different backgrounds, beliefs, and opinions. Like the main character in Sylvie Denied, each of the young women in the books on my list leaves home seeking truth, inner strength, and spiritual connection as well as the means to be able to hold onto it once they find it.

I wrote...

Sylvie Denied

By Deborah Clark Vance,

Book cover of Sylvie Denied

What is my book about?

Disturbed by the life that’s presented to her, Sylvie leaves a wealthy comfortable home in search of a more authentic life, yearning to find a truth she thinks is out there but that eludes her. Though she doesn't realize it, a traumatic early childhood event churns in the back of her mind, leading her to fall for men with a dark side -- including her husband Enzo. It's the 1970s, with few supports or encouragement for women, so Sylvie relies on her wits to forge her path. As Enzo's behavior turns volatile, Sylvie must find a way to escape with her daughter and claim her place in the world.

Migration, Mobility and Place in Ancient Italy

By Elena Isayev,

Book cover of Migration, Mobility and Place in Ancient Italy

Migration is the great theme of the twenty-first century. Our experience has set historians on a quest to see how new the mass movement of peoples really is. Isayev’s book is one of the first full-length studies of migration in Roman times.

It is enormously wide-ranging, bringing together the evidence of archaeology and of Roman comedy and history with the insights of geographers and sociologists. We see populations transplanted against their will, enslaved prisoners, hostages, and refugees, but also settlers and traders trying to make their fortune, and explorers and travelling scholars. Best of all we explore the ways that Romans thought about this, sometimes encountering chillingly familiar hostility but more often positive views of new arrivals. Romans often thought of themselves as a city of immigrants, and saw their willingness to accept newcomers as one reason for their success. Isayev does a wonderful job of opening up this new…

Who am I?

I am an historian and archaeologist of the Roman world, who has lectured on the subject around the world. This summer I am moving from a position in London to one in Los Angeles. One of the attractions of Roman history is that it is a vast subject spanning three continents and more than a thousand years. There is always something new to discover and a great international community of researchers working together to do just that. It is a huge privilege to be part of that community and to try and communicate some its work to the widest audience possible.

I wrote...

Rome: An Empire's Story

By Greg Woolf,

Book cover of Rome: An Empire's Story

What is my book about?

A decade ago I wrote the first edition of this history of Rome from its foundation to the Arab Conquests that nearly overwhelmed the empire a millennium and a half later. I was travelling a lot in those days, and I wrote whenever and wherever I had a moment. Part of it was drafted in Brazil at the busy university of UNICAMP, and I finished it in beautiful Erfurt in the green heart of Germany. 

This edition was written entirely in lockdown, sitting at my desk in Scotland surrounded by the latest books on Roman history. It has been exciting to see how fast the subject is changing, and I have tried to reflect that in the new text. There is more on the beginning and much more on the end of the story, Roman material culture plays a bigger part, and again and again, new research has made me rethink my views. I hope my readers learn as much from it as I learned rewriting it!

Death of an Englishman

By Magdalen Nabb,

Book cover of Death of an Englishman

This delightful mystery set in Florence not only intrigues the reader with its clever, twist-filled plot but also with its insights into daily life and culture in Italy. The characters are enjoyable and show many humorous and unique facts of Italian life. Nabb knows her Florence and her Italians, and her ability to describe both make a reader wish to accompany her on her next trip!

Who am I?

I spent my first seven years in Spain and Italy, devouring books and Italian food and still speak (or try!) my childhood languages. The Italian language and culture are precious to me—an integral part of my life. Our visits back to Italy, speaking Italian with friends, cooking Italian meals, writing for the Italian Language Foundation's website, and enjoying our community's Italian movie nights maintain my Italian experience. Sadly, I can't be in Italy all the time, but have found some fabulous books that take me right back! Il cuore e italiano—my heart is Italian.

I wrote...

Secrets in Translation

By Margo Sorenson,

Book cover of Secrets in Translation

What is my book about?

In this celebration of Italian life and culture, seventeen-year-old Alessandra returns for the summer to Italy, where she grew up. Pressured by her parents into babysitting a rebellious twelve-year-old—ruining holiday plans with newfound American friends—Alessandra resigns herself to a tedious summer in Positano. Her babysitting gig, however, turns out to be anything but boring! Not only does Alessandra fall for the handsome son of the Bertolucci family, renowned limoncello producers, but when a body mysteriously turns up on the beach, the influence of organized crime in Positano becomes frighteningly real.

As Alessandra is drawn further into a conspiracy, she risks everything to protect herself, her family, and those that she loves—and in the process, she finds herself—and her Italian heart.

The Renaissance in Italy

By Guido Ruggiero,

Book cover of The Renaissance in Italy: A Social and Cultural History of the Rinascimento

This book is a fantastic, broad overview of the Italian Renaissance (or rinascimento, the term Ruggiero prefers and which his subjects would have recognized). The Italian Rinascimento was a period, according to Ruggiero, of vibrant cities, social change, and cultural expression, in which intellectuals, politicians, and artists both looked back to an idealized classical past and forward to uncharted territory.

I love the way this book focuses on issues that preoccupied the people he studies and incorporates topics often absent from works on the Renaissance, including women, sexuality, economics, disease and death, and religion, among others. Even more important, perhaps, is that it is clear, accessible, and engaging, and demonstrates a wealth of knowledge developed over an illustrious career as a historian of early modern Italy.

Who am I?

I teach medieval and early modern European history at Dublin City University, with a particular interest in 16th-18th century Italian history. My own research focuses on the religious, legal, and popular culture of northern Italy, particularly Venice and the Veneto region. I became fascinated with Renaissance Italian history as an undergraduate at the College of William and Mary, and then went on to do a masters and a PhD at Northwestern University. I have taught at Northwestern, the College of William and Mary, the University of Warwick/Warwick in Venice, and the State University of New York at Cortland.

I wrote...

The Bishop's Burden: Reforming the Catholic Church in Early Modern Italy

By Celeste McNamara,

Book cover of The Bishop's Burden: Reforming the Catholic Church in Early Modern Italy

What is my book about?

The Bishop’s Burden examines the reform of the 17th-century Italian diocese of Padua within a framework of European Catholic Renewal, a process that occurred over the 15th-17th centuries. It argues that reforming bishops were forced to be creative and resourceful to accomplish meaningful change, including creating strong diocesan governments, reforming clerical and lay behavior, educating priests and parishioners, and converting non-believers.

The Bishop's Burden helps us understand not only the changes experienced by early modern Catholics, but also how even the most sophisticated plans of central authorities could be frustrated by practical realities, which in turn complicates our understanding of state-building and social control.

Abortion in Early Modern Italy

By John Christopoulos,

Book cover of Abortion in Early Modern Italy

Who would have thought Catholic Italy in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries would have tolerated widespread abortion? John Christopoulos brilliantly shows that, despite the moral proscription and legal prohibition of abortion from church and state leadership, women across the social spectrum from elites to peasants practiced abortion with the tacit or explicit support of key people in their communities. Compelling mini-narratives about individual women’s abortion stories are interwoven with an expert analysis of the legal, religious, and scientific knowledge and attitudes.

Who am I?

Like most people, I find the history of sex and everything associated with it fascinating! It’s often been difficult to document and interpret the complexities about heterosexuality, gender identity, and same-sex desire as well as women’s reproductive health which is intimately (although not exclusively of course) linked to sex. We are in a golden age of fantastic work on so many aspects of the history of sex. Apart from the intrinsic interest of these books, I think they provide such an important context for our very lively and often very intense contemporary legal, political, and cultural debates over sex in all its forms.

I wrote...

Sex in an Old Regime City: Young Workers and Intimacy in France, 1660-1789

By Julie Hardwick,

Book cover of Sex in an Old Regime City: Young Workers and Intimacy in France, 1660-1789

What is my book about?

Our ideas about the long histories of young couples' relationships and women's efforts to manage their reproductive health are often premised on the notion of a powerful sexual double standard. Yet in seventeenth and eighteenth-century France, young workers had the freedom to experiment with intimacy as part of courtships, they routinely had sex before marriage, and their communities were quick to support young women whose beaus refused to marry them when they became pregnant. Young couples were sometimes not ready to get married when they became pregnant. They tried a wide variety of ways to interrupt reproduction, or in our terms to get an abortion, or to move the baby off the scene after its birth.

The voices, pleasures, perils, and reproductive challenges of young couples are vividly captured. Local courts, Catholic clergy, and neighbors, kin, and co-workers all pragmatically supported young couples in these relationship and reproductive struggles.

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