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Go to: Guidebooks | The Bike | Packing your bike | Your Body: getting ready for the trip | Life in Italy | Bike Friendly Hotels

One of the most common questions I'm asked is, "What should I read before going to Italy?" The recommendations below are based upon my own reading, and my personal feeling that each culture has an innate feel and flavor that can best be appreciated by reading their own writers. I'll limit myself to three books. Below my list is the list Heather and Larry of CycleItalia Tours sent me.

1. I Promessi Sposi (The Betrothed) by Alessandro Manzoni. This is the finest novel written in Italian and is a masterpiece. All Italians know it, and most adore it. In fact, there was a time, 100 years ago, when all educated people in the western world read this superb book.

One time I was sitting around a table with the Mondonicos and several Americans. We began discussing the book and I mentioned that the story centered on 17th century characters in the area of Lake Como.

"Lecco!" Antonio Mondonico instantly corrected.

This magnificent book is so dear to the hearts of Italians that even as slight an error as mine is instantly recognized. The emotions, the plot, the characters of this book are authentically Italian.

Give yourself some time. Larry of CycleItalia believes in the "Slow-Food" movement as a tool to humanize our industrial existence. I'm a "Slow Book" believer. This is a big, rambling 19th century book, my favorite kind. Sit down, get comfortable and imagine yourself in the Lombardy of the 1600's as Renzo and Lucia try to find happiness. They encounter, among other obstacles, the plague, heartless bravos, and the powerful "Unnamed". The Penguin paperback translation is excellent.

Carol's note: This book might make more sense to you if you read it after returning from Italy. Its strong Italian flavor will seem a bit unusual to an American unfamiliar with Italian culture. When you get home, it will all make sense.

2. The Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini. Instead of reading a dry history of the Renaissance, read the exciting story of one the period's greatest artists, in his own words. Once again, this is one of the world's masterworks. You can immerse yourself in the world of power, art, and glory.

In Florence, there is a beautiful bronze "Perseus" cast by Cellini. You'll feel an entirely different set of emotions when you see Perseus (or any other monumental masterwork) after reading the story of its creation in Cellini's autobiography. Beware Cellini's ego, however. As authentic a sense of the era as that book gives, the world of the renaissance did not center around Cellini. The actual history is quite distorted. Read it for the flavor.

3. Plutarch's Lives. What Italy has become is a result of what the Ancient Romans did. Plutarch assembled parallel lives of important ancient Greeks and Romans so that he could contrast and compare them, and draw important moral lessons.

The writings of the ancient world have a different feel and flavor, and Plutarch is the easiest and most accessible of the ancient authors. While I believe that the entire giant 2-volume work will give you great pleasure, once again Penguin has made it easy by breaking the work into several separate volumes of Greek and Romans. I think the "Makers of Rome" volume is the most useful. It starts with the stern Romans of the early Republic and goes to the final fits of the Roman Civil wars with a life of Mark Antony. Plutarch's life of Coriolanus (yes, Shakespeare read Plutarch as well) is a superb psychological study and gives a real insight into the near ferocious mentality of the early Romans and an understanding of why they came to rule the western world.

The ancient world was a very different place. It was different not just in technology. That's the superficial difference. So many of the basic assumptions of the ancient world regarding individual worth, economics, and religion, among others were profoundly different from our own. When Herodotus traveled to Egypt and learned about the Egyptian gods, he explained how these particular gods were the equivelent of the various Greek gods. A modern traveler could never do the same when explaining modern foreign religious beliefs. The world changed and by understanding the ancients we can begin to gain an understanding of how we became what we are

You'll find Plutarch a genial, friendly guide in beginning to gain this understanding. If you get the bug reading the single Penguin paperback, get the big two-volume set with the parallel Greek and Roman lives. Once again, it's not perfect history. Our modern standards of historical accuracy are much more demanding than the ancient's. Yet, the toppled marble columns and deserted amphitheaters you'll see everywhere in Italy will be far more meaningful to you after spending time with this learned and wise man.

At the bookstore: while you are at the bookstore buying this immortal literature, give yourself a treat. Stop by the history section and grab the first volume of Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and read the first couple of paragraphs. This is writing at its best; magisterial, beautiful, and powerful.

A quick list of other possibilities:

Boccaccio: The Decameron. Boccaccio's 14th century compilation of short stories told by a group of people fleeing the plague is sheer fun. Take it in small bites. Read a story or two and then come back for more later. But don't leave this book around for the kiddies to see. Some of the stories are a bit ribald.

Castiglione: The Book of the Courtier. This 16th century book by a sensitive, cultured man details in dialogue form the ideal resident of a nobleman's court.

Vasari: The Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculpters and Architects. The story of the Rennaisance greats by a man that was almost good enough to be one himself. This book is the major source of much of what we know about some of the great artists of this great epoch. Go ahead and get an abridged version.

Ariosto: Orlando Furioso. This huge, epic Italian poem is available in a prose English translation which I reccomend since the music of Italian poetry is impossible to translate anyway. A continuation of the stories of the knights of Charlemagne (such as The Song of Roland), this book is very Italian, refusing to take its subject matter too seriously. When a knight has saved the lady, and tries to claim his reward, she gives up and leaves while he takes forever trying to remove his suit of armour. It's funny, well-written, and a pleasure to read. Sit back, and take your time. This one will take a while.

Pliny the Younger: Letters. Time has preserved some of the correspondence of the Younger Pliny. Despite the differences between the ancient world and today, the similarities jump out. Writing about his house, Pliny's note could be a letter from a friend writing about a house built yesterday.

Heather's list:

The Agony and the Ecstasy, by Irving Stone

Desiring Italy, a collection of short stories edited by Susan Cahill

Larry's list:

The Italians, by Luigi Barzini.

Italian Education by Tim Parks

Italian Neighbors, also by Tim Parks

More travel chapters:

Guidebooks | The Bike | Packing your bike | Your Body: getting ready for the trip | Life in Italy | Bike Friendly Hotels