Many readers of A Month of Italy have asked me for a suggested reading list. “Of
course,” I answer, “all of my other books, for starters.” But I also offer the following
works that have not only taught me much about Italy, travel, and the world, but
have also provided hours of dreamy entertainment and introspection. This list is
not exhaustive (after all, I want you to have time to read all my other books, too!),
but it is representative of some of the best of what’s out there on the topics of
Italy, vacationing, escaping, and Mediterranean culture.
A Year in Provence
This is a wildly popular book about an ex-advertising exec who finds the simple life in southern France. Mayle is a master at depicting characters and countryside in a dreamy, inspiring way. When it comes to any discussion about the art of vacation, this book must be included. Mayle has also written several follow-up books and light-hearted novels in the same setting, including one that inspired my all-time favorite movie A Good Year.
Basilica: The Splendor and the Scandal: Building St. Peter's
R. A. Scotti
I never realized what a fascinating and controversial history hid behind the beautiful building that stands as the centerpiece of Vatican City. This book was extremely enjoyable for me because it delivered exactly the kind of history I like best: a sweeping narrative full of antagonists and protagonists and every other kind of “gonist.” I would recommend that everyone read this book before touring St. Peter’s.
Brunelleschi's Dome: How a Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture
This is my favorite book by Ross King, partly because he introduced me to a new hero “Pippo” Brunelleschi. This book depicts the adventure of an architectural genius who pulls off the impossible right in front of jeering critics who were saying it couldn’t be done. I especially love how King gives credit to Brunelleschi for many inventions erroneously credited to Leonardo da Vinci. Don’t go to Florence without reading this book first!
This book shares the same title as one of my more popular spiritual audio CDs, and I suppose that’s why it first caught my eye. It is an interesting history book that chronicles the disastrous flood of Florence in 1966 and follows the heroic efforts at art restoration that followed. If you don’t love art, history, and Florence, however, this book is not for you. I loved it.
I know of no other book in the genre of “expat moves to Italy and makes it home” that does a better job of beginning with a view to the Italian culture from the outside and ends with showing that same culture from the inside. Hawes and her sister manage to downright become Italian (or should I say Lugani?) by the end of the book. The subtle transformation is as fascinating as the characters in their town.
This is a unique work that follows the tangled trail and checkered integrity of the production of olive oil. With a predominant focus on the Mediterranean region, mostly in Italy, Mueller interviews the high and low in the mysterious food chain that often appears more like a Mafia shakedown. You will never trust the label on a bottle of “extra virgin” olive oil again.
Head over Heel: Seduced by Southern Italy
This is a bit of a long book that I wish was a little bit longer. Chris Harrison is an Australian that fell in love with an Italian when he met her in a bar in Ireland. How’s that for a travel story? I cackled out loud several times reading this book and related to all of his observations about southern Italy. However, what struck me the most was the skill with which Harrison crafts creative sentences. My favorite is, “The official speed limit is 90 but most cruise at 130. We did the same, only because it’s less dangerous to accompany missiles than obstruct them.”
This is a warm and funny book highlighting the true-life characters this expat encounters as he moves into an apartment complex in Verona, Italy. It is an excellent observation of the “Italian culture” (if there is such a neat and tidy thing).
Italianissimo: The Quintessential Guide to What Italians Do Best
Louise Fili and Lise Apatoff
This is a cute little picture book with each page dedicated to one high-level topic of Italian culture. It is an excellent shortcut to much of what we discovered on our journey the hard (or fun?) way.
Italy, a Love Story
Edited by Camille Cusumano
I read this book on an airplane one afternoon and fell in love with one of its short stories entitled “The Opera Singer’s House.” Always on the search for anecdotes and illustrations to help me in my public speeches, I quickly incorporated part of that particular story into my keynote address that evening. There are many such entertaining little short pieces in this book, and a few bad ones.
La Bella Lingua
This is a well-written history of the Italian language, country, and culture. Hales has stuffed this little book full of Italian facts and insights, some of which were so good I had to quote them in my own book. My favorite part is when Hales is told by the president of the Societa Dante Alighieri in Florence, “Ah, signora, you are learning the Italian secret!”
“And what’s that?”
“Our greatest art: the art of living.”
Living in a Foreign Language
Actor Michael Tucker (L.A. Law) tells with perfect deadpan humor the story of his and his wife’s accidental move to and restoration of an old rustico (worker’s cottage) in Umbria, Italy. This book is full of rich characters and situational humor. One of my dreams is to visit the Tuckers and partake in the kind of pizza party he describes in the book. Hey, I can dream, can’t I?
Living La Dolce Vita
Raeleen D’Agostino Mautner
This is a success book that utilizes aspects of the Italian lifestyle (there I am using that term again) as illustrations to teach one how to live a better life. Parts of this book I absolutely love, like how the author uses the term “The Art of Vacation.” (I almost couldn’t believe it when I saw that!) My favorite sentence from the book is, “Living for the future is like refusing to accept the time you have now.”
King does an excellent job bringing to life the widely misunderstood and often jeered author of The Prince. This is an excellent read for travelers who wish to dig deeper into Florence’s fascinating past.
This is an in-depth biography of one of the world’s all-time greatest artistic geniuses. Since Michelangelo is one of my favorites, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I find that trips to art museums and monuments are always that much more interesting if one has read about them previously. It’s always the “back story” that makes the end product so interesting.
Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling
King does an excellent job of following the complex relationship between Michelangelo and the popes who wanted to hire/exploit him. This book reads almost like an action movie as the story behind the masterpiece is revealed. I loved it.
Neither Here nor There
Bill Bryson deserves his acclaim as one of the foremost travel writers of our day. In this particular book, Bryson wanders Europe alone and hilariously reflects back upon memories of a similar trip with a dead-beat college friend decades before. It is obvious from these pages that he, like I, prefers Italy most!
Never Trust a Thin Cook: And Other Lessons from Italy's Culinary Capital
This is a cute little volume full of insight and culinary delight by a Canadian who lived in Italy for a few years. My favorite quote from the book is, “The word safe doesn’t really exist in Italian. Sicuro is just ‘secure.’”
Passion on the Vine
This is an interesting romp told by an American wine buyer of Italian descent. Esposito’s job throughout the book is to scour the countryside of Italy and find good wines for his customers back in North America. This format delivers to the reader many interesting characters I would call “Rascals” (see my book by the same name for more explanation), who teach their heroic, sometimes quirky, but always excellent life lessons by using the tending of vineyards as an illustration. This is another book that inspired an entire keynote speech I gave one evening on the topic of intentional excellence.
Sprezzatura: 50 Ways Italian Genius Shaped the World
Peter D’Epiro and Mary Desmond Pinkowish
An encyclopedic collection of the impressive contributions Italy and Italians have made to world culture throughout history. I was reminded of some, surprised by others, and instructed by them all. It is impossible to read this book and not be at least a little in awe at the sizable impact made by one tiny little peninsula.
That Summer in Sicily
Marlena de Blasi
There are four books by de Blasi about her life and times in Italy. I love all of them, but I list this one because it’s the first of her works I ever read and it inspired the story about Brasini that I have told in speech after speech. People always ask me where I got that story, and I happily refer them to de Blasi’s book. De Blasi’s writing is rich in human relationships and warmth, and Italy serves mostly as a backdrop. If you love people and Italy, you will fall in love with de Blasi’s work!
The Feud That Sparked the Renaissance
Paul Robert Walker
A captivating history of a competition between two geniuses—from art to history to rivalry to politics to intrigue—this book has it all. One of my favorite historical figures is Brunelleschi. I rooted for him on every page.
The Hills of Tuscany
Okay, I’ll admit it right off the top: Ferenc Máté is my favorite author when it comes to “escapism” writing about Italy. All three of his books on the subject are entertaining, dream-inspiring, and excellent. His easy style and unassuming observations are as warm as can be. We visited his home, and his son Peter, who took time with our children and gave us a very nice tour of the grounds, was an instant friend. Someday, I hope to visit the Máté Vineyard winery during the vendemmia (harvest).
The House of Medici
It is almost impossible to tour Tuscany without running into the legacy of the prolific Medici family, especially once you learn to recognize their coat of arms. In this well-written history, the multi-generational business and banking dynasty is fully exposed. I enjoyed learning about both its heroes and villains. Reading this book makes Florence and the birth of the Renaissance make much more sense.
The Olive Farm
The English actress Carol Drinkwater tells of her spontaneous life change involving an attachment to a man who is nearly a stranger and moving into a land that is even stranger. Drinkwater brings the south of France alive with honest discourse about the struggles and challenges of living in a different culture. By the end of the book, you can’t help but cheer for them to finally succeed in making their heap a home.
The Reluctant Tuscan
This is a delightful true story about an overworked Hollywood scriptwriter whose artistic wife cons him into a massive Tuscan villa restoration project. At times hilarious and always charming, Doran’s reluctance is actually enticing. As a reader, I found myself actually cheering for Italy’s many charms to win Doran over. This is a perfect “escapism” read that also has some meaningful life lessons regarding the “rat race” and the price we pay.
The Renaissance: A Short History
Paul Johnson is an excellent historian, and this book is a quick, easy, yet accurate primer on one of history’s most exciting periods. I would recommend it to anyone traveling to Florence, especially.
Too Much Tuscan Sun
This book began as a self-published sensation, and it’s easy to see why. A native of Siena who just happens to have spent much of his childhood in England, Castagno tells the story of how he stumbled across success by becoming a Tuscan tour guide. With his Anglo perspective and Italian depth of experience, Castagno relates funny and warm stories about his quirky customers, all the while capturing the essence of the Tuscan attraction to so many of us. Castagno has also written a couple follow-ups to this success, and they are very good as well.
Under the Tuscan Sun
This is the wildly successful book that inspired the movie. I’ll just cut right to the chase on this one: I hate the movie but love the book. Two times, I’ve tried to watch the movie and had to turn it off. However, the book is so dreamy, so adventurous, so warm, that even someone like me, who can’t tell a kitchen from a pantry, was able to get through all the food preparation descriptions and flower arranging without even fatiguing one bit. There are several follow-up volumes to this book, and I like them all. I think I particularly value the exact descriptions Mayes gives to places I have frequented and also fallen in love with. One of my dreams is to ride motorcycles around Cortona with Ed Mayes.