Books have played a large role in my relationship with Florence, Italy and I wanted to share my some of my personal favorites. Here are ten books to read before coming to Florence, while you’re in Florence, if you miss Florence, or if you always wanted to go to Florence.
1. Saving Italy, Robert M. Edsel, 2013. By the author of the popular (and adapted for the big screen by Mr. Italy-loving George Clooney himself) Monuments Men. Saving Italy narrows his focus in this compelling read. He looks at the repercussions of war in a new way and pays respect to the unsung heroes who protected and saved Italy’s greatest artistic treasures during World War II.
2. Brunelleschi’s Dome, Ross King, 2000. The title pretty much says it all. Filippo Brunelleschi, the celebrated designer and engineer, spent the better part of his life working on the dome of the cathedral of Florence. Today, it remains the largest masonry dome ever built and the crowing jewel of Florence. Ross King deftly tells the story of how Brunelleschi accomplished such a feat without modern technology nearly 600 years ago.
3. Galileo’s Daughter, Dava Sobel, 1999. This fascinating book includes letters that were written by (you guessed it) Galileo’s daughter. Suor Maria Celeste was a nun who regularly corresponded with her father, the “father of modern science, physics, and observational astronomy.” Her letters bring Galileo’s accomplishments, challenges, and struggles between science and religion to life.
4. Michelangelo: The Complete Sculpture, Painting, Architecture, William Wallace, 1998. If you want a conversation starter and a big beautiful coffee table book to impress your friends with, this is it. The quality and detail of the images are exquisite, especially of the Sistine Chapel. This is a pricey and scholarly examination of one of the world’s most celebrated artists that is worth every penny.
5. Under the Tuscan Sun, Frances Mayes, 1996. In all honesty, I read this in Italian many years ago and before the movie was made. I have since seen the movie many times (a consequence of leading long bus trips with young, primarily female students). It is a memoir that gives a sense of life in Italy, particularly in Tuscany. The author, an American divorcee who moves to Italy and restores an Italian villa, also includes recipes in her personal tale.
6. The Agony and the Ecstasy, Irving Stone, 1961. This historical novel covers nearly Michelangelo’s entire life. What I love most about this book is the sense that you are walking beside him or looking over his shoulder the whole time. There are other more academic books on Michelangelo, but arguably none as engaging or entertaining. Also, the book is MUCH better than the movie, which is abbreviated (as often happens with movie adaptations) and stars Charlton Heston as Michelangelo.
7. The Stones of Florence, Mary McCarthy, 1959. As a tribute to Florence, this book leaves no stone unturned. Pun intended. The author weaves Florentine culture, history, art, and architecture into a personal (and sometimes sentimental) portrait of the city. She explored the inventiveness of the city’s most accomplished figures, namely Dante, Machiavelli, Michelangelo, and Leonardo da Vinci.
8. A Room with a View, E. M. Forester, 1908. Often ranked one of the top 100 English novels of the 20th century, this humorous tale of romance is set in Italy and England. The first part takes place in Florence and Rome. Universal themes of growing up, true love, and societal expectations are found throughout the book. You can still visit and even stay at the “room with a view” in Florence that was featured in the 1985 film adaptation. Hotel degli Orafi, located at Lungarno Archibusieri 4.
9. The Decameron, Giovanni Boccaccio, 1350’s. This is clever storytelling at its finest. You may think that a Medieval allegory set during the Black Death may not be your thing, but you’d be wrong. Dead wrong. Pun intended again. In the book, people are essentially telling stories to distract themselves from the horrors of the plague. There are 100 witty and entertaining tales full of life lessons told by ten young men and women.
10. The Divine Comedy, Dante Alighieri, c. 1308-1321. Divided into three main texts, The Divine Comedy is undeniably one of the greatest works of world literature. Therefore, it is going to take some serious patience or at least some really good footnotes to get through this mother of all epic poems. Impressively combining religion, politics, science, art, historical figures, imagination, and romance, it is dark and beautiful.
Bonus Read– The poetry of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. She was a pre-eminent poet of the Victorian era, fueled by her own great love story. She and Robert Browning secretly married, absconded to Paris for their honeymoon, and then settled in Italy where they remained until her death. She is buried in the Protestant English Cemetery in Florence. In 1845, the year she met her future husband, she wrote the poem which begins “How do I love thee, let me count the ways.” They endure as some of the most romantic and often quoted lines of poetry. I recommend Sonnets of the Portuguese, a collection of her love sonnets first published in 1850.