Elena Ferrante’s Naples, Umberto Eco’s medieval mysteries, EM Forster’s Tuscany … Italy comes alive through these great books
Long before Covid-19, there were always bad things in the press about Italy: corruption, mafia, bureaucracy. But, whenever I went, life seemed to work out even so. People may be poor but they still sit in the sun, drink and chat; music and culture are a birthright; the right seems in the ascendant but on the ground it feels blessed with far-seeing idealists – it has almost four times as much land under organic cultivation as the UK, for example. For now, my remedy to the withdrawal symptoms I feel is to visit via the written word. Many writers have set books in Italy – I was sorry to leave out Martin Amis’s The Pregnant Widow (Calabria), and Ali Smith’s How to be Both (Ferrara) – but here are my top 10 romanze italiane.
Montalbano moment … Ragusa, Sicily. Photograph: Jan Wlodarczyk/Alamy
The Other End of the Line by Andrea Camilleri
I can’t leave out my beloved Sicily, and of course that has to mean Inspector Montalbano. The stories are known to many in the UK from the TV adaptations, with their soaring aerial shots of Ragusa and other delectable spots in the island’s south-east, so why not spend longer in that southern sunshine with one of Andrea Camilleri’s books? An eccentric cast of characters keep things light-hearted, and there’s joy also in the detective’s food obsession: you can almost taste the red wine and fried arancini. But this is Sicily, so darkness lurks: mafia, people trafficking, drugs, racism. It’s hard to pick one novel but this one, dealing with a boatful of refugees, has the distinction of having angered rightwing leader Matteo Salvini with its pro-migrant message.
My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
It’s been done on stage and TV, but Elena Ferrante’s tale (the first in her Neapolitan tetralogy) of poverty, amici and mafiosi in 20th-century Naples is still best savoured in book form (though I appear to be alone in finding Anne Goldstein’s translation clunky). Readers might picture Lenù and Lila growing up amid narrow streets picturesquely hung with laundry, but in fact the book’s unnamed “neighbourhood” is not the historic centre but Rione Luzzatti, a blocky Fascist-era suburb beyond the main railway station. From here, readers follow the heroines as they mount expeditions through the tunnel and along the stradone to the central Mercato district, wealthy Vomero and, fatefully, the beaches of beautiful Ischia.
The 2017 Oscar-winning film by Luca Guadagnino is a reasonably accurate rendering of this tender coming-of-age novel, but to keep costs down, the director filmed in locations close to his Lombardy home – and deprived fans of some gorgeous views. The book is set on the coast near the French border – and the shimmering Ligurian Sea is almost a character in its own right. You feel the sting of hot gravel on bare legs as the young protagonists (Elio and Oliver) cycle to sun-drenched sandy coves, the shock of an ice-cold drink in a shady garden. An important setting is “Monet’s Berm” – a secluded cliff ledge claimed by Elio to be the spot from which the impressionist painted his View of Bordighera (the postcard poignantly hanging in Oliver’s study decades later).
A Room with a View by EM Forster
Forster’s 1908 novel captures the joy of escaping chilly Blighty for exuberant Italy. Ingénue Lucy Honeychurch’s experiences in Florence are (speeding Fiats and noisy Vespas apart) little-changed: the impressive Duomo with its shadowy interior, the banks of the Arno where she strolls with George Emerson. And the views are at their most glorious from hillside Fiesole, where Lucy falls on to a terrace covered with violets and into the arms of her husband to be. After a second half set mostly in Surrey, the book happily whisks us back to Florence, where a honeymooning Lucy gazes out of Pension Bertolini’s window – at a certain view.
Head further back to the Florence of the Medicis with this absorbing story of spirited Alessandra making her way in a city becoming “locked down” by the zeal of fundamentalist cleric Girolamo Savonarola. Dunant details the rivalries, politics and drama inside the family palazzo – in a newly wealthy neighbourhood east of the Duomo whose inhabitants can run to “torches in great iron baskets to light latecomers home”. But in the pursuit of love and art, the heroine, unusually for a young woman, also gets to roam the city in all its splendour, cruelty, summer heat and … plague.
Trieste had barely appeared on Britons’ city-break radar before this millennium, but I lived there for a time as a student, and was delighted to find this novel mostly set in the limestone hills north of the city. The dramatic first-world-war tale of the love between an American ambulance driver and a British nurse takes us from Friuli to hospital in Milan, back to the front and on to an action-movie escape via the currents of the Tagliamento River near Udine, before an emotional finale in Switzerland. That the Mussolini regime banned the book is further recommendation.
It sounds as appealing today as it did when this book was published in 1922: “To those who appreciate wistaria and sunshine. Small Italian medieval castle on the shores of the Mediterranean to be let furnished for the month of April.” The women tempted to shrug off wet and dreary Britain are older than Lucy Honeychurch, and struggling. “It would really be being unselfish to go away and be happy for a little,” says one, “because we would come back so much nicer.” Be carried along by the sensual descriptions of the castle, gardens and olive groves leading down to the sea: “The sun blazed on scarlet geraniums, bushes of them, and nasturtiums in great heaps, and marigolds so brilliant that they seemed to be burning … all outdoing each other in bright, fierce colour.”
The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco
If you’ve driven from Turin towards the western Alps, you may have spotted an imposing mountaintop complex, the Sacra di San Michele. This was the Benedictine monastery that inspired Umberto Eco’s first novel (published in 1980 and later filmed with Sean Connery and Christian Slater), though for me it also brings to mind famous Pomposa abbey near Ferrara and a hundred other medieval piles. The bestselling writer and academic brilliantly conveys carvings and frescoes through the way they blow the mind of young novice Adso. This mix of history and mystery is a readable way in to Eco’s writings on love, learning and the search for meaning, while also evoking the ancient worlds and dramatic scenery that Italy does so well.
Acqua Alta by Donna Leon
With bodies discovered in canals, piazzas and even La Fenice opera house, the Venice of Commissario Guido Brunetti has, a bit like Inspector Morse’s Oxford, an astonishingly high rate of intriguing murders. Donna Leon’s 29 detective novels are all set in, or near, the city she lived in for decades and have a passionate fan base everywhere except Italy (they have never been translated into Italian). Lovers of La Serenissima at its less-touristy will like this story that unfolds in grim February weather, with acqua alta (floods) in the city (as happened last autumn). With food even more important than life and death in Italy, the book opens evocatively with opera singer Flavia in her kitchen chopping onions, garlic, tomatoes and “two fat-bottomed aubergines”.
Ratking by Michael Dibdin
Umbria was being called the new Tuscany 20 years ago, but its arty, walled capital, Perugia, is still underrated, despite budget flights to San Francesco d’Assisi airport. Bestselling crime writer Dibdin transplanted himself to the city as a university English teacher in the 1980s and in this, his first Aurelio Zen novel, the Venetian detective is unexpectedly posted to the city known for “chocolates, Etruscans, that fat painter, radios and gramophones, the University for Foreigners, sportswear”. I could recommend all of Dibdin’s 11 complex, satirical and sometimes surreal Zen books, as each is set in a different part of Italy: Vendetta in wonderful Sardinia, say, or A Long Finish among the vineyards of Piedmont.
(Source: The Guardian)