Robert Rodi’s Favorite Books About Italy

shelved under Travel & Places

As the title of my new book makes clear, I spent seven seasons in the Tuscan city of Siena, learning the remarkable ways of its ancient, proud, and very clannish people, whose neighborhoods—called contrade—are like very small sovereign states (and often equally combative). But my travels to and from Siena also brought me through many other Italian cities, equally singular, and increased my appetite to understand them all... a lifetime's work, certainly, but hey, what a lifetime! Here are some of the books I've found the most insightful—and delightful.


The Italians

by Luigi Barzini

An Italian-American politician and writer and the son of a fascist journalist, Barzini published The Italians in 1964... but this graceful, powerful, and exhaustive treatise remains the most eloquent account available of the Italian national character, the intervening half-century having barely dated its content at all. Though I do have to wonder what Barzini, who died in 1984 and whose explanation of Mussolini's appeal to the Italian people is uncannily astute, would have made of the brutal, farcical, and epic-length rule of Silvio Berlusconi.


That Fine Italian Hand

by Paul Hofmann

Not that Luigi Barzini (see above) needed an update; but this 1991 book by a former New York Times Rome bureau chief is an American's take on the character of Italian society at the fin de siècle, particularly the concept of "arrangiarsi"—making things work by a combination of perseverance, resourcefulness, and outright deceit. It's not the most flattering portrait, but it is an affectionate one, and well worth reading.


La Bella Figura: A Field Guide to the Italian Mind

by Beppe Severgnini

Severgnini is a beloved Italian journalist and humorist, and this book is sort of like the stand-up comedy version of Luigi Barzini's (see above). Nothing here will come as a surprise to Italy lovers—Severginini riffs on the natives' obsession with cell phones, and on the craziness of their government—but we laugh anyway, the way we always will at, say, jokes about mothers-in-law. But those who aren't familiar with the Italian way of life will in fact learn something here, as well.


The Reluctant Tuscan: How I Discovered My Inner Italian

by Phil Doran

A Hollywood burnout quits the show-business rat race and starts over in a 300-year-old farmhouse in rural Tuscany. The irony of this very sweet, funny, and surprising memoir is that it would make a terrific movie. But as it stands, it's an outstanding literary fix for those of us Italophiles who want to live vicariously through someone who's actually transplanted himself from here to there.


Italian Neighbors

by Tim Parks

We've had several accounts of Americans transplanted in Italy (see the above); Parks is British, and for some reason that makes his attempts to insinuate himself into the rural Italian life of Montecchio, near Verona, all the funnier: his British practicality and reserve are always bumping up against the natives' noisy theatricality. As a dog lover (my last book, Dogged Pursuit, was about the canine agility circuit) I especially sympathized with Parks' shock at the Veronese's cavalier—even cruel—treatment of man's best friend. I'm going to do my best to believe it's a strictly regional phenomenon.


An Osteria In Chianti

by Dario Castagno

The paradox of the Chianti region of Tuscany is that while its landscapes are among the most beautiful on the planet, the land itself is unyielding and unforgiving, and the people who work it are consequently among the toughest you'll ever meet. Dario Castagno (one of the central figures in my book Seven Seasons In Siena) has devoted much of his life to understanding these people, and in this novel he has created a hero, Ultimo Gori, who is the archetypal chiantigiano, whose life spans a literally tumultuous century. Sprawling, powerful, and lyrical, this is a wonderful novel; through it you'll come to understand the real strength and beauty of the Chianti region.


La Terra in Piazza: An Interpretation of the Palio of Siena

by Alessandro Falassi, Alan Dundes

My book Seven Seasons In Siena is anchored—as is all social and cultural life in Siena itself—by the Palio, the centuries-old bareback horse race held in the city's central piazza each summer, on both July 2 and August 16. It's a thrilling, colorful, and often violent spectacle to see for the first time—but it takes on much more beauty and urgency when you begin to pierce its seemingly endless layers of legend and tradition, immerse yourself in its rivalries and alliances, and attune yourself to all the varied strands of meaning that contribute to this greatest of all Sienese creations. La Terra in Piazza, written in 1974, is the only book you'll ever need on that score; it's an exhaustive study, filled with pageantry, politics, song, and story. I couldn't have written my own book without it.


Rome: A Cultural, Visual, and Personal History

by Robert Hughes

This new and sweeping narrative by the esteemed Australian art historian tells the story of the Italian people as refracted through the epochal history of its greatest city—the one that galvanized the peninsula and has remained, more or less continually, its temporal and spiritual capital. Hughes has a scathingly low opinion of the current state of Italian society, which he says now revolves solely around the impassioned civic religion of calcio (soccer). He might change his mind if he ever saw a Palio. Even so, his book is a smart, addictive, and hugely enlightening read.