12 Must-Read Books Set in Italy
Updated: Nov 4, 2021
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When I first started this blog, it was my intention to publish lots of these "books to read before visiting" different places lists. Reading books set in places I'm traveling to helps me connect to the places in a really unique way, and high quality lists of this sort can be difficult to find on the vast internet sphere.
Ideally, I like to read as many relevant books as possible before visiting a country or new destination. This gives a double benefit:
I find new places to explore from the locations in the books, and
I feel a more personal connection while there. I arrive with a better understanding of some of the history and perspectives of that location’s residents.
I've been working on this list of books set in Italy for the last six months and still don't fully feel ready to publish it (there are still so many other books to read and consider, after all!).
Still, I've immensely enjoyed reading so many books set in Italy in the past year. During this time of limited travel opportunities and a serious personal longing to return to Europe, it's been an enjoyable catharsis to transport myself somewhere I love so much, the country of Italy.
What follows is a list of what I've found to be some of the best books set in Italy. I recommend reading as many of these as you can before your Italian vacation, though you can certainly read them after the fact as well and reminisce about your time there.
I have arranged these Italy book recommendations by location starting from Northern Italy to Southern Italy, including some books set in Sicily.
This organizational structure not only allows you to select books based on what part of Italy you will be visiting, but it's also a nod of acknowledgement to the vast cultural and historical differences between Northern and Southern Italy, not to mention the many, many subcultures, dialects, and cuisines across the country and its islands.
I've tried to include a mixture of contemporary and classic here, as well as incorporating not just travelogues from English-speakers and expats but also a good number of books written by Italian authors. Due to personal preference, this list is primarily composed of novels and memoirs set in Italy.
So while I've made it clear this is far from an exhaustive list (and I reserve the right to one day post a Part 2, 3, however many it takes), I hope you find a few titles on this list to read before visiting Italy.
Even if you don't have an Italy trip on the horizon, pick up one of these books set in Italy and engage in a little armchair travel to this beautiful country.
Skip ahead to:
Books set in Cinque Terre
Books set in Florence
Books set in Rome
You can shop my full list of books to read before visiting Italy and also support indie bookstores at Bookshop.org.
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Books set in Cinque Terre
Cinque Terre is a collection of five charming, colorful towns built into the cliffs on the western coast of Italy overlooking the Liguarian sea. Literally translated, Cinque Terre means "five lands." I was lucky enough to spend a few days here in 2019, and it was one of my favorite places I visited in Italy.
Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter
Beautiful Ruins takes place in 1962 in Porto Vergogna, the fictional sixth and relatively unvisited town next to Cinque Terre. It's a beautifully told story centering around the lives of a young Italian man with a dream, an American actress with a secret, and a World War II veteran who just wants to write and forget.
All in all, it's a captivating story that's well-written and a great read to get you in the mood for visiting Cinque Terre. Of all the books on the list, this might be one of the most enjoyable fiction books set in Italy that I read.
Books set in Florence
Located in Italy's Tuscany region, Florence is famous for its red-shingled roofs and of course the large central church, the Duomo, featuring a famous Renaissance-era dome was designed by Brunelleschi. It's also famous as the birthplace of the Italian Renaissance, nurturing such historical figures as Leonardo DaVinci, Botticelli, Michelangelo, Machiavelli, Ghiberti, Brunelleschi, and more.
While Florence's main industry is now tourism, it's still a well-preserved historic city dripping with romance, history, and art. Read on to find my recommendations for novels set in Florence.
A Room With a View by E.M. Forster
Published in 1908, A Room With a View is your classic Edwardian-era tale of the wealthy white English nationals taking their "Grand Tour" of Europe. It is set primarily in Florence, Italy, where the main character, Miss Lucy Honeychurch, seeks novelty and adventure, tired of her dull life and chaperone.
This book is a quick read, and a good one. You've got your classic boy-meets-girl narrative, a very shocking and possibly reputation-ruining kiss (VERY scandalous, so I thought I'd include a mature content warning, 😉), murder, and lots of architecture and art. What more could you want from a period novel of the sort?
What I love about A Room With a View is that it's very grounded in the scenery of Florence, the city Florence was before its primary industry became tourism. You'll want to read this before visiting Florence and mark all the beautiful places mentioned so you can be sure to appreciate them in person.
The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant
The Birth of Venus is a page turner of a story, immersing you deep in the Florence Renaissance of the late 15th century. The heroine, Alessandra Cecchi, is easy to root for. She's the passionate, strong-willed daughter of a wealthy textile merchant, and she has big dreams to become a painter like the Renaissance painters she admires.
But the political tide is shifting in Florence after the death of Lorenzo de Medici, affecting not just Alessandra's plans, but her family's wealth and influence, and the political structure of the entire city. A monk and extremist, Savonarola, is gaining traction as a religious zealot who claims that art is not a glorification of God, as was previously believed, but an act of blasphemy. Under his influence, Florence is becoming an increasingly polarized and turbulent place.
After reading several books written by Italian authors, it was pretty obvious to me this was written by an English writer. Its themes and characters read distinctly English/American, but this didn't lessen my enjoyment of the novel. It's fast-paced, exciting, and full of heart.
Overall, it's a great choice for a novel set in Italy. It's sure to get you connected to the history of Florence and its most famous Renaissance artists.
Books set in Rome
Talk about a city that needs no introduction! Rome is the capital of Italy and the birthplace of Western civilization. It's an enormous, sprawling city, where old is mixed with new. Walking around Rome, you're all but guaranteed to stumble on some ruin from thousands of years ago, right next to some modern convenience store or trattoria.
I only got to spend a few days in Rome in 2019, but it was a city I immediately knew I'd need to return to and spend much, much more time exploring. Here are some books set in Rome that I loved.
The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone by Tennessee Williams
Not for the prudish or the faint of heart, The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone is a novella by Tennessee Williams that tells the story of Mrs. Stone, a recently retired American actress who is uncertain what to do with herself now that her husband has died and her own beauty has faded. She finds herself drifting through life in Rome, where she has taken a private apartment overlooking the famous Spanish Steps. In Rome, she seeks out the company of new friends and takes on a young Roman escort to help her escape her own reality.
It's an odd story, perhaps, but it is undeniably grounded in the scenery of Rome, and in particular, of the famous Spanish Steps. If you're not prudish, it's a great read before visiting Rome.
She Seduced Me: A Love Affair With Rome by Mark Tedesco
This is a collection of essays by a former seminary student who has lived and studied in Rome, and now continues to visit each year, discovering its lesser known sites and diving deep into its culture and residents. I found it to be a really interesting, quick read, and I marked several places that I want to visit on my next trip to Rome (and which I'm kicking myself I didn't get to see the first time around).
Reading this before your visit to Rome will allow you to see the city with fresh eyes, and remind you to do some exploring of your own and not limit yourself to just the common Rome sightseeing bucket list.
Note: I received a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review
I, Claudius by Robert Graves
I, Claudius is a book for the history lover! It's historical fiction written as the diary of Roman emperor Tiberius Claudius Nero (aka Claudius), recounting the history of his twisted royal family and his own rather unexpected and unconventional rise to become Emperor of Rome.
Be warned: something I wasn't aware of before delving into this book is that even at nearly 500 pages, this is part one of two novels. As such, *SPOILER ALERT* Claudius doesn't actually become emperor until the last couple of pages. You'll have to pick up the sequel, Claudius the God, to read about his actual rule. I, Claudius focuses primarily on the rules of the three emperors before him, namely Augustus, Tiberius, and Caligula.
One tip: I recommend printing out a copy of the Julio-Claudian family tree, as it rivals the Olympians in complexity (and everyone seems to have the same name!). I used one as my book mark and also annotated it throughout the novel to keep track of who's whom.
You're likely to find I, Claudius on other lists of the best books set in Italy, but it definitely deserves its place there.
Books set in Naples
Naples is Italy's third largest city, with approximately a million residents. It's the capital city of the Campania region, about 188 km south of Rome, and located under the shadow of Mt. Vesuvius. Naples is famous as the birthplace of pizza and Neapolitan ice cream. It has a reputation as one of Italy's grittiest cities, with its local pride, dialect, and also plenty of gang activity.
Here are some great books set in Naples.
My Brilliant Friend series by Elena Ferrante
This quatrain book series by the unknown Italian author who goes by the pen name "Elena Ferrante" has gotten a lot of buzz in the last few years, but rightly so. To say the writing is rich, emotional, and stirring is to undersell it. The four books of the My Brilliant Friend series cover the friendship between two young Italian girls growing up in a turbulent neighborhood of Naples in the 1950s. You'll follow their friendship from childhood through adolescence and into the phases of adulthood, through all the growings together and fallings apart. It's believed to be at least semi-autobiographical, which may explain the writer's reluctance to reveal her true identity.
HBO has even started making it into a series, but, as always, start with the books. You won't regret them. It's a fan
The Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante
I couldn't help including another by this remarkable author. Elena Ferrante, whomever she is, has become the international voice of Naples in recent years. Her latest, The Lying Life of Adults, again transports the reader to the gritty beauty of Naples life.
Elena Ferrante writes some of the best novels set in Italy, hands down.
You'll be plunged into the secret lives of the Trada family, as told through the eyes of Giovanna, the family's teenage daughter on the cusp of womanhood. This book portrays the most inspiring as well as the ugliest aspects of human nature, no matter where you live or where you're from. It's so thoroughly a novel for the novel lover, and it will connect you to Naples in a way that just a day trip to Naples never can.
For those reasons, I included this book on the list of my top reads from 2020.
God's Mountain by Erri De Luca
This short novel is not nearly as well-known in the English-speaking world as Elena Ferrante's, but it should be. God's Mountain by Italian author Erri De Luca is quietly, simply, stunning. As with so many Italian novels I'm finding, you can't let the slow pace or lack of action fool you. This tiny novella carries a palpable heartbeat of life, love, imagination, longing, and sadness.
For a reader who can appreciate subtlety, this is one of my top recommendations of novels set in Italy.
Books set in Pompeii
I've been fascinated by the town of Pompeii ever since I can remember. Once a thriving Roman trade town, it was famously destroyed in the year 79 AD when the eruption of nearby Mount Vesuvius buried it in 20 ft of ash. Pompeii is an archaeologist's dream destination; the volcanic ash managed to preserve so much of the city, its remains give precious insight into ancient Roman life.
Tourists can take guided tours of Pompeii, but even spending a whole day here, you will only see a small fraction of the fascinating ancient city. Plus, it's still an active dig site, as about a third of the city is still waiting to be unburied and explored.
A Day of Fire: a Novel of Pompeii, by various authors
A Day of Fire is a novel unlike any other I've read!
In this novel, seven different authors who write in various genres each contributed one chapter. Every chapter centers around a different character affected by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius and the burial of Pompeii. In a way, it is a short story collection, but the characters in each story intersect and influence each other's lives in small, significant ways.
Not surprisingly, I enjoyed some writers' chapters more than others, but I love the overall idea and impact of this novel. It brings to life the ancient city of Pompeii without overly romanticizing or removing the less-than-palatable parts of Pompeii's history, like the prolific business of sex trafficking.
While there are so many worthwhile nonfiction accounts of Pompeii, for the fiction and historical fiction lovers I think this book is a great introduction to the city of Pompeii for anyone going to visit the ruins.
Books set in Sicily
Sicily is a roughly 1,000-sq mile island off the southern coast of Italy that's famous for its beautiful beaches, charming mountainside villages, well-preserved archaeological sites, and Sicilian cuisine. It's a semi-autonomous region of Italy that has its own unique culture, history, and dialect with all the attending local pride from its denizens.
Here are a couple captivating books that are set in Sicily.
The Silent Duchess by Dacia Maraini
The Silent Duchess by Italian female author Dacia Maraini won the Premio Campiello award when it was published (the Italian equivalent of the National Book Award). It tells the story of an 18th century Sicilian noblewoman, Marianna Ucria, who grows up both deaf and mute after suffering childhood trauma. As a teenager, she is forced to marry her own elderly uncle. Lonely and silent, Marianna must create a life for herself and her children that feels worthy of living.
The novel is another quiet one, as was Marianna's life. Though she is deaf and mute, she is a rich and complex character who manages to find and honor her own voice.
This is definitely a book that historical fiction lovers and novel lovers in general should read before visiting Sicily.
From Scratch: A Memoir of Love, Sicily, and Finding Home by Tembi Locke
From Scratch is a memoir written by Black American actress Tembi Locke, telling her story of falling in love with a chef from Sicily. It's a story of love, loss, finding common ground, and of course, lots and lots of Sicilian food (yes, recipes included!). It's a quick read, and one to transport you to Sicily through the eyes of an outsider who's intimately acquainted with the ways of the island and the Sicilian families who have proudly lived there for centuries.
I also included this book in a list of books to read by contemporary Black authors.
Again, while certainly not comprehensive, I think this is a great starting point for books set in Italy to read before your next trip there.
I haven't yet read any books set in Milan or Venice, not to mention many of the other regions in Italy. Let me know in the comments, what should I read and include in a follow-up list?
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