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Destination Reads: The Best Books to Transport You to Italy

Posted on 18th June 2019 by Mark Skinner

From verdant heartland to sophisticated urban metropolis, Italy is a country of wonderful contradictions. Whether your vision of the country is the vibrant bustle of Rome, the pastoral relaxation of a Tuscan villa or the peerless majesty of Venice, these books will give you an essential flavour of a bucolic landscape and unique culture.

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One of the finest novels of the 20th century, Lampedusa’s tour de force documents the collapse of an old order and the emergence of the new. Set in 1860 and detailing the explosion of revolutionary troops into the opulent world of the Sicilian aristocracy, The Leopard captures a very precise political and cultural moment and succeeds in making it timeless.
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A spry, wickedly affectionate and exhaustively researched field guide to the complex and contrary Italian population. Tackling stereotypes and sacred cows head on, Hooper analyses everything from football to sex and back again in order to make sense of a unique and frequently baffling people.
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The opening novel of Ferrante’s acclaimed Neapolitan Quartet, My Brilliant Friend charts two best friends’ journey into adulthood in post-war Italy with great emotional depth and luminous storytelling.
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A searing account of the author’s exile in remote Eboli in Southern Italy, this memoir is a powerful polemic against fascism and the calculated impoverishment of the peasantry during Mussolini’s regime. Heartrending and angry, yet with a beautifully cultivated sense of time and place, this is a book that deserves to be read.
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The first outing for Camilleri’s maverick detective Salvo Montalbano establishes many of the tropes that have made the series such a hit both on the page and the screen. The wry humour, evocative depiction of the Sicilian underworld and Montalbano’s irascible, yet fundamentally decent, nature are all wrapped up in a suspenseful story of sordid shenanigans and political intrigue.
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A history of Italy told through its relationship to citrus fruit, The Land Where Lemons Grow reveals all manner of tangy trivia and enlightening information. A celebrated gardening writer, Helena Attlee picks her way through the orchard to make fascinating associations with a pithy charm and invigorating zest.
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One of the touchstones of modern European literature, Boccaccio’s bawdy, picaresque epic finds ten Florentines sheltering from the Black Death and passing the time telling stories. Unashamedly earthy and obscene, The Decameron inspired everyone from Chaucer to Shakespeare and stands as a supreme achievement of the Italian imagination.
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With the pace and skill of a thriller writer, Ross King paints a vivid picture of the construction of the Santa Maria del Fiore cathedral in the artistic pomp of Renaissance Florence. At the book’s heart is the grand architect himself, Filippo Brunelleschi, an impossible man driven by ambition, intense personal rivalry and, arguably, genius, to create what has been labelled a ‘wonder of the world’
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The crumbling grandeur of Venice has proved a magnet for the world’s crime writers and Donna Leon is one of the best at conveying the stench of corruption that rises from the city’s canals. The first Commissario Brunetti mystery, Death at la Fenice sets the scene for Leon’s rigorously plotted series perfectly.
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This monolithic history of Ancient Rome spans 1,000 years and practically every facet of Republic and Empire. Mary Beard’s typically accessible text belies monumental research, breathing new life into well-worn myths and challenging accepted orthodoxy on a range of topics. A stupendous achievement.
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Much like Lampedusa’s The Leopard – which Bassani was the first editor to publish – The Garden of the Finzi-Continis charts the erosion of a social class and its lifestyle at the hands of modernity and political upheaval. The languorous, tennis playing days of the Finzi-Continis are rudely interrupted by the onrush to war, as this deceptively slim volume debates themes of race and class with subtl
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Football is woven into the fabric of Italian life like no other sport and Foot’s grandstanding history treats it with the reverence and skepticism that such national obsession deserves. From World Cup glory to the ugly pragmatism of ‘catenaccio,’ Calcio hits the back of the net with every chapter.
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Lucy Honeychurch has her horizons broadened by a stimulating visit to the Pension Bertolini in Forster’s exquisite comedy of manners and hymn to the vitality and creative passion of early 20th century Florence.
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The travel guide as high art, Jan Morris’ extraordinary Venice resonates with every café and canal of this incomparable city. Wide-ranging yet intimate, authoritative yet effortless, personal yet expansive, this is a book to read before, during and after any Venetian visit.
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An erudite exploration of dynastic Rome, Graves’ blood-soaked literary soap opera is one of the liveliest works of historical fiction ever written. As battles are joined and Emperors fall, the misunderstood and underestimated Claudius begins his imperceptible rise to absolute power.
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