I’ve traveled to many places in Europe but Italy, sadly, had never been on my agenda; I’ve just never gotten that far south. My domain has been Scandinavia and northern Europe, but as I’m starting to be exposed to new ideas and fresh faces, new places happily follow.
A plethora of historical fiction is set in Italy, and from my research, most of it comprises three fascinating periods in Italian history: ancient Rome, the Renaissance, and the world wars. I am drawn to the following picks because of the added human dimension to historical events and personages, like the destruction of Pompeii, various Roman emperors, the incredible amount of artistic talent unleashed in such a small country, later tales of royalty and decadence, and the civilization and climate of various areas of the country. Historical fiction is my mode of learning about history and culture, and if I were to plan a visit to Italy, I would busily prepare myself by reading theses highly recommended adventures through time and place:
The First Man in Rome by Colleen McCullough: A towering saga of great events and mortal frailties, it is peopled with a vast, and vivid cast of unforgettable men and women — soldiers and senators, mistresses and wives, kings and commoners — combined in a richly embroidered human tapestry to bring a remarkable era to bold and breathtaking life. (Goodreads)
I, Claudius by Robert Graves: Historical novel set in 1st-century-AD Rome, published in 1934. The book is written as an autobiographical memoir by Roman emperor Claudius. Physically weak, afflicted with stammering, and inclined to drool, Claudius is an embarrassment to his family and is shunted to the background of imperial affairs. The benefits of his seeming ineffectuality are twofold: he becomes a scholar and historian, and he is spared the worst cruelties inflicted on the imperial family by its own members during the reigns of Augustus, Tiberius, and Caligula. (Goodreads) The television series is fantastic, too.
Pompeii by Robert Harris set in the ancient doomed city, tells of a young man’s rescue attempt.(Goodreads)
The Agony and the Ecstasy by Irving Stone: Fictional depiction of Michelangelo (Goodreads), with insights into the Medici family and the culture of Italy. (Goodreads)
The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant: turbulent 15th-century Florence, a time when the lavish city, steeped in years of Medici family luxury, is suddenly besieged by plague, threat of invasion, and the righteous wrath of a fundamentalist monk. (Goodreads)
The Confessions of Catherine de Medici by C.W. Gortner: An absolutely fabulous historical novel told from the point of view of Catherine de Medici, one of the most maligned women in history. The parts dealing with her childhood are set in Italy; the rest in France. (Goodreads)
The Leopard by Giuseppe di Lampedusa: A sweeping saga of Sicilian society during Italian unification in the 19th century. Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s tumultuous portrait of royal life in Sicily during Italy’s unification and transition was originally rejected by publishing houses and finally released in 1958, after his death. It’s now considered one of the greatest works of Italian literature. (Goodreads)
A Room with a View by E.M. Forster: E.M. Forster’s 1908 novel offers a glimpse of mysterious and romantic 19th-century Italy. (Goodreads)
For history buffs, I have recently been made aware of an app designed especially for families traveling to Italy (by an awesome father-son team ), designed to teach history while having a good time. The website is Gumshoe Tours http://www.gumshoetours.com/home.html, and the creators have completed tours of both Rome and Assisi, with hopefully more to come. There is also an attached “Life in Italy” blog by one of the creators, an American who has lived in the country for some time.
So read and play, and tell me all about it when you return!