Italy background reading: non-fiction

From modern society to ancient history: an Italy reading list

From biographical accounts to heavy academic tomes, there is a wealth of background reading to heighten the reader’s knowledge and understanding of Italy. From ancient to modern times, here’s a selection of the best Italy non-fiction.

An Italian Education – Tim Parks

An Italian Education

What is modern Italy really like? How does Italian culture work? Englishman Tim Parks, a resident of the Veneto, watches his own children grow up as Italians, and reflects on the formative influences that shape their generation. A very honest and fascinating look at the real Italy and its citizens. Read more below.

Book locations to visit:
> Pescara – In this unexciting seaside town, where sunbeds in regimented rows line the beach, Parks reflects on the conformity of Italian society.

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The Twelve Caesars – Suetonius (translated by Robert Graves)

The Twelve Caesars

This spicy classic is a scandalous, riveting and highly entertaining account of the lives of the first emperors of Rome, complete with eye-witness accounts and plenty of speculation. Full of highly-coloured anecdotes about the Caesars, their appearances, preferences, egotism and epic misbehaviour, the book brings Imperial Rome to life and is absolutely essential reading for anyone with an interest in ancient Rome.

Book locations to visit:
> Rome – Rome’s ruins are brought to life by the vivid tales in this book. Visit the Domus Aurea, Nero’s Golden Palace, and the Palatine hill, home of Rome’s rulers and nobles.

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ROME: The Biography of a City – Christopher Hibbert

Rome: Biography of a City

Amazingly, Christopher Hibbert manages to cram the entire history of Rome into one readable book. Rome: The Biography of a City steams through the kings, the republicans, the emperors, the Goths, the popes, the pilgrims, the artists and the fascists in a mesmeric crash-course in Roman history. Although a subject so large doesn’t allow for detailed analysis of every era, Hibbert succeeds in transmitting a phenomenal amount of knowledge. Most readers will come to the book with existing interests – Ancient Rome, the Renaissance, perhaps – but this book puts each period in context, and makes you aware of just how much happened inbetween the most celebrated centuries.

One of the most fascinating things about Rome as a city is the way that different periods have built on top of each other, the juxtuposition of different ages. Hibbert puts the capital into context, and gives the visitor an invaluable understanding of the continuity of Rome’s ongoing story. It’s also a great starting point for more detailed studies; and will fill the reader with the urge to learn more about the colourful characters who make an appearance.

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Extra Virgin - Annie Hawes

Extra Virgin – Annie Hawes

Extra Virgin is a funny and warm account of the English author’s experiences as she settles into a small hillside village in Liguria, and learns about local customs, personalities and olive-growing.

Our review of Extra Virgin

Book locations to visit:
> Liguria – As you trek through the olive groves or relax on the Riviera beaches, you’ll have a much better idea of the busy life under way in the hills.

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Under the Tuscan Sun - Frances Mayes

Under the Tuscan Sun – Frances Mayes

One of the best-selling books about Italy in recent years, Under the Tuscan Sun is set in Cortona, and is a new tourist attraction for the town. A whimsical personal account, it gives little insight into local society or people, but is strong on atmosphere and cuisine. American Frances Mayes bought a holiday home here with her partner and, amid much ‘philosophical’ musing, renovated the property and cooked a lot of meals. Many people have enjoyed this portrayal of the good life; a recent film was based loosely on the book, and the local tourist board is beginning to capitalise on the association. It’s not one of our favourite books about Italy, but it’s certainly of interest if you plan to visit the Cortona area.

Book locations to visit:
> Cortona – See those marvellous views over the Val di Chiana with your own eyes.

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Book reviews

An Italian Education – Tim Parks

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> Italy background reading

An Italian Education

Tim Parks is by far the best writer about the expat experience in Italy. This lapsed Englishman moved to Italy a couple of decades ago, and has delved deep into the Italian experience. His books about Italy are about the real Italy, not charming accounts of renovating a farmhouse and amusing encounters with quaint locals, but studies of the things that really matter. Everyday life, everyday people, village life, housebuying, bringing up children, following the local football team.

In An Italian Education, Parks writes intelligently and amusingly about Italian family life, and the creation of Italians. Watching his own children grow up, Parks gains first-hand insight into Italian nurseries, schools and family rituals. Is it true that the Italian family revolves around the ‘mamma’? Do parents really support their children into their thirties? Through his experiences and observations of friends and in-laws, Parks constructs a thorough picture of the complexities of modern Italian family life.

The book opens in Pescara, where the Parks family, like so many Italian families, take to the beach every summer. The author remembers nostalgically the adventurous rainy holidays of his youth in Britain, where expeditions and explorations where the order of the day. In Pescara, every day is the same – beach, sea, sun. Surveying the regimented rows of orderly sunbeds, Parks reflects ‘In Italy, people are remarkable above all for their conformity’.

From everday encounters with friends, insurance salesmen, teachers, Parks extracts valuable insights about Italy and the Italians. Many of his observations will bring a rueful smile of recognition to the lips of other expats. For those who have never had the fortune/misfortune of facing the vagaries of Italian society, this book provides a thorough sociological introduction to the country. From the apparently superficial (making signs to ward off bad luck) to the underlying influences (the fascist past, religious traditions), Parks succeeds in describing and explaining the workings of society on a human level.

The author attempts to convince his children that, despite what they have learned at school, his daughter can do whatever she wants in life; his father-in-law complains that he is expected to subsidise his grown sons. Parks doesn’t shy away from the facets of Italian society which are most alien to the British experience. He places these in context to draw a vivid picture of contemporary Italy, from the beach establishments of Pescara to the fishing streams of the Veneto.

Reading the book as an similar expat (terrible expression), it’s the (perceived) implicit criticisms which are strongest in the book. But Parks’s affection for Italy is never in doubt. He draws the country as it is, without illusion, but for all its faults, it is still the place he thinks best for his children. For the more idealistic reader, the charming pictures of village life, of chickens running about and of the strong multi-generational families may be the most resonant features of An Italian Education.

Whatever your interest in Italian society, this is a highly-recommended book to read.

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Extra Virgin – Annie HawesExtra-Virgin - Annie Hawes

Extra Virgin sounds at first like another of those ‘moving to Italy’ idylls. Several years ago, Annie Hawes and her sister bought a ruined cottage high on the Ligurian mountainside. Learning about olive- and vegetable-growing, they ‘adjust’ their property to make it habitable and get to know their fellow San Pietro residents.

However, Hawes is not just another good-lifer with a patronising view of ‘quaint’ locals. Like Tim Parks, she provides an honest and believable view of Italian life. Her Italy is not always nice, not always sunny, not always welcoming, rustic or charming. Unlike many ex-pats, Hawes begins with a knowledge of the language, and the ability and willingness to communicate and bond with the Ligurians. Her slow learning processes and errors are familiar to many of us who have begun to (or tried to) integrate ourselves into this complex and at times bizarre society.

Extra Virgin is especially good on the rules and conventions blithely ignored by so many foreigners (and by the Hawes sisters, until they learn their lesson). Living in fear of a ‘colpo di freddo’, appalled at the girls’ unseasonal bathing, the area’s residents are not entirely welcoming or understanding. So, as befits the newcomer, Hawes and her sister begin to unravel the rules governing life here. The correct order to eat their food and drink their wine (Hawes includes a funny digression on Italian alcohol intake – which is all for ‘digestive’ purposes, naturally). The correct dates for sunbathing on the beach. The graduations between beach and inland attire.

Hawes and her sister have other sources of income, and don’t spend the whole year in Liguria; the book paints a realistic side to the ‘settling in Italy and living off the land’ picture.This book was recommended to us by many other foreigners residing in Italy, and even along Hawes’s own stretch of Ligurian coast, as a funny antidote to the more dreamy views of Italy. Having read it until three in the morning, at times mopping our eyes with laughter, we are now taking on the mantle and recommending it to all of our Italy- and UK-based friends.

> Extra Virgin: Amongst the Olive Groves of Liguria– from

> Ripe for the Picking – the sequel to Extra Virgin.

> Journey to the South – taking a trip to Calabria.

> Also available as Kindle editions

War in Val d’Orcia: An Italian War Diary, 1943-1944 – Iris Origo

War in Val d’Orcia is a remarkable wartime memoir and makes a great read for visitors to Tuscany, those with an interest in Italy’s twentieth-century history, and anyone looking for an insight into human courage and behaviour in extreme circumstances.

“We live on a large farm in southern Tuscany…”

Iris Cutting was a wealthy Anglo-American who married an Italian aristocrat, Antonio Origo in 1924. Together they bought a vast estate in Tuscany and set to work to improve large tracts of farmland and the lives of the farmers and peasants who were largely dependent upon them.

This book is the diary Iris kept during the Second World War. It begins as Italy’s support for Mussolini was wavering, the country’s future was in the balance, and Iris was expecting a baby. The domestic life of La Foce, their estate, had to be maintained for the sake of family and large numbers of dependents, including child evacuees and British prisoners-of-war. As Italy changed sides and the country found itself effectively at war on every front – bombed by the Allies, pillaged by the now-enemy Germans and riven by warring Italian factions – Iris and Antonio’s helpless concern at the wider picture had to be set aside as they dealt with the immediate problems at hand. Iris’s memoir recounts the everyday concerns of her life, and wider events as reported on the radio, or learned from friends, contacts and passing soldiers.

The book captures a world which is now vanished, of a kind of benevolent paternalism shown here at its best. These aristocratic landowners took responsibility for their farmworkers, peasants and pretty much anyone who asked for help. Although they had their own personal safety to worry about – particularly given Iris’s nationality – along with the safety of their two small daughters, their home and their possessions, this did not stand in the way of helping all of those in need, from local farmers to wandering refugees, escaped prisoners and runaways from both sides of the conflict. Food and clothing were scarce and the couple saw it as their duty to provide for everyone in need; from hiding provisions from the occupying Germans to offering their own boots to escaped prisoners. Iris would meet English POWs in the woods and assist them with their plans, while her husband, who spoke German, was negotiating with occupying German forces in attempts to spare the local population.

“…No-one can feel certain that he will be safe tomorrow”

Although War in Val d’Orcia was published primarily as a first-hand account of a confusing, turbulent and terrible time in Tuscany, it is also a chronicle of humanity, of kindness and of survival. The book is simply and elegantly written, without much additional commentary to embellish the powerful narrative. Iris’s matter-of-fact accounts and her understatement give great poignancy to the memoir. She and her husband were never ignorant of the risks they were running and the possible worst-case-scenario consequences of their actions. Iris kept this memoir hidden as she was writing it, for fear it should be discovered by German troops. I am sure many readers will, like myself, have been left asking themselves what they would do when faced with the choices of the Origo family.

The book contains some terrible incidental details – the vindictiveness of local fascists, two-way reprisals between the opposing Italian factions, rapes of women and children by German and Moroccan soldiers, the shooting of partisans and of the innocent. It is a disturbing expose of memories which have largely been tidied away in Italy of this time of betrayal, revenge and hardship. Around Italy you will find memorials to dead soldiers, to partisans and to victims of reprisals. But the war, getting further away each year, is not a subject on which Italians tend to dwell. Iris’s diary vividly evokes this confusing time in a way that only a blow-by-blow account could. Despite the dark times, though, the overriding impression is of stoicism, of quiet, practical courage, of lives saved as well as lives lost, and of people helping each other to survive.

If you are interested in the war, in Italy’s history, or getting a sense for what has formed the Tuscany you see today, this is an important book to read. Moving, fascinating and inspiring, it is a book for understanding Italy and for bearing witness to the better aspects of humanity.

> War in Val D’Orcia: An Italian War Diary, 1943-1944– from

> Also available as a Kindle edition to take on holiday with you:
War in Val D’Orcia: An Italian War Diary, 1943-1944 – Kindle

War in Val d’Orcia is published by Allison & Busby.

Places to visit

La Foce, the estate of the Origo family, is in southern Tuscany, near Chianciano Terme, south-east of Siena. There are holiday villas to let on the estate. The garden is open to the public on Wednesday afternoons and on the first weekend of the month between April and November.
> La Foce
> More accommodation in the Val d’Orcia

Further reading and viewing

> Francesco’s Italy: Top To Toe [DVD] – In the BBC series ‘Francesco’s Italy’ Francesco da Mosto pays a brief visit to La Foce and meets Benedetta, the daughter of Iris and Antonio.

> Iris Origo: Marchesa of Val D’Orcia by Caroline Moorehead – A biography of Iris Origo.

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