10 Great Books to Read Before You Visit Italy

10+1 Great Books About Italy Before You Visit

A collection of books for those mature or senior travellers thinking about taking a small group  tour of Italy. This suggested  list of 10 books on Italy may assist you with your planning and learning about the history and culture of Italy.

1. The Land Where Lemons Grow: The Story of Italy and its Citrus Fruit

by Helena Attlee
Travellers have always been thrilled by the sight of citrus in Italy, where dark leaves and bright fruit seem to charge the landscape, making the trees symbols of a sun-soaked, poetic vision of the country. Citrus also holds a special place in the Italian imagination. In The Land Where Lemons Grow, Helena Attlee sets out to explore its curious past and its enduring resonance in Italian culture.
Building on a life of travel and work in Italy, she undertakes a journey encompassing the sticky streets of Ivrea during the Battle of Oranges, the comfortable gardens of Tuscany’s villas and a magic triangle of land in Sicily, where the best blood oranges in the world grow in the shadow of a volcano. She maps the citron’s long migration from the foothills of the Himalayas to the shores of southern Italy, traces the bitter juice of Seville oranges through ancient Roman and Renaissance cookery books, exposes early manifestations of the Mafia during the nineteenth-century citrus boom, and laments the loss of landscapes shaped by citrus cultivation.
The book is a celebration of the unique qualities of Italy’s citrus fruit, from bergamot that will thrive only on a short stretch of coastline, to Calabria’s Diamante citrons, vital to Jews all over the world during the celebration of Sukkoth. The Land Where Lemons Grow is a heady mixture of travel writing, history, horticulture and art; a unique journey through Italy’s cultural, culinary and political past. Helena Attlee is the author of four books about Italian gardens, and others on the cultural history of gardens around the world. Helena is a Fellow of the Royal Literary Fund and has worked in Italy for nearly 30 years.

2. The Black Prince of Florence: The Spectacular Life and Treacherous World of Alessandro de’ Medici

by Catherine Fletcher
The year is 1531. After years of brutal war and political intrigue, the bastard son of a Medici Duke and a ‘half-negro’ maidservant rides into Florence. Within a year, he rules the city as its Prince. Backed by the Pope and his future father-in-law the Holy Roman Emperor, the nineteen-year-old Alessandro faces down bloody family rivalry and the scheming hostility of Italy’s oligarchs to reassert the Medicis’ faltering grip on the turbulent city-state. Six years later, as he awaits an adulterous liaison, he will be murdered by his cousin in another man’s bed.
From dazzling palaces and Tuscan villas to the treacherous backstreets of Florence and the corridors of papal power, the story of Alessandro’s spectacular rise, magnificent reign and violent demise takes us deep beneath the surface of power in Renaissance Italy – a glamorous but deadly realm of spies, betrayal and vendetta, illicit sex and fabulous displays of wealth, where the colour of one’s skin meant little but the strength of one’s allegiances meant everything.
Odyssey Travellers each year of a collection of educational based small group tours of Italy for mature and senior travellers. Please click here to view the collection of tours of Italy offered. Odyssey also has some travel tips on the tours of Italy, click here to read more

3. The Rise and Fall of the House of Medici.

by Christopher Hibbert
At its height Renaissance Florence was a centre of enormous wealth, power and influence. A republican city-state funded by trade and banking, its often bloody political scene was dominated by rich mercantile families, the most famous of which were the Medici. This enthralling book charts the family’s huge influence on the political, economic and cultural history of Florence. Beginning in the early 1430s with the rise of the dynasty under the near-legendary Cosimo de Medici, it moves through their golden era as patrons of some of the most remarkable artists and architects of the Renaissance, to the era of the Medici Popes and Grand Dukes, Florence’s slide into decay and bankruptcy, and the end, in 1737, of the Medici line.

4. The Roman Forum

by David Watkin
There are few more historic and evocative places in the world. Caesar was cremated there. Charles V and Mussolini rode by it in triumph. There Napoleon celebrated his festival of liberty. In this radical reappraisal David Watkin teaches us to see the Forum with new eyes and helps us to rediscover its rich history. This is as stimulating to the armchair traveller as it is useful as a guide to the Forum itself.
‘With verve, authority and no little humour, Watkin tells the detailed and complex story of this great but mutilated landmark … it is an almost impossible task, superbly done’ Peter Jones, BBC History Magazine
‘In this sprightly volume … the distinguished architectural historian David Watkin charts the shifting fortunes of the site … he has an engagingly romantic feeling for the place… deploying a good deal of sharp wit, he reveals how the relatively recent obsession with recovering the Forum’s classical past has led to much unhappy destruction and much less scarcely happy invention’ Matthew Sturgis, Country Life

5. SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome

by Mary Beard
Ancient Rome matters. Its history of empire, conquest, cruelty and excess is something against which we still judge ourselves. Its myths and stories – from Romulus and Remus to the Rape of Lucretia – still strike a chord with us. And its debates about citizenship, security and the rights of the individual still influence our own debates on civil liberty today.
SPQR is a new look at Roman history from one of the world’s foremost classicists. It explores not only how Rome grew from an insignificant village in central Italy to a power that controlled territory from Spain to Syria, but also how the Romans thought about themselves and their achievements, and why they are still important to us. Covering 1,000 years of history, and casting fresh light on the basics of Roman culture from slavery to running water, as well as exploring democracy, migration, religious controversy, social mobility and exploitation in the larger context of the empire, this is a definitive history of ancient Rome. SPQR is the Romans’ own abbreviation for their state: Senatus Populusque Romanus, ‘the Senate and People of Rome’.

6. The Borgias

by Christopher Hibbert
The name Borgia is synonymous with the corruption, nepotism, and greed that were rife in Renaissance Italy. The powerful, voracious Rodrigo Borgia, better known to history as Pope Alexander VI, was the central figure of the dynasty. Two of his seven papal offspring also rose to power and fame – Lucrezia Borgia and his daughter. It was his daughter’s  husband who was famously murdered by her brother, Cesare. That brother, Cesare, served as the model for Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince.
Notorious for seizing power, wealth, land, and titles through bribery, marriage, and murder, the dynasty’s dramatic rise from its Spanish roots to its occupation of the highest position in Renaissance society forms a gripping tale. Erudite, witty, and always insightful, Hibbert removes the layers of myth around the Borgia family and creates a portrait alive with his superb sense of character and place.

7. The Popes: A History

by John Julius Norwich
John Julius Norwich examines the oldest continuing institution in the world, the catholic church. Tracing the papal line down the centuries from St Peter (traditionally – but by no means historically – the first Pope) to the present. Of the 280-odd holders of the supreme office, some have unquestionably been saints; others have wallowed in unspeakable iniquity. One was said to have been a woman. Her sex being revealed only when she improvidently gave birth to a baby during a papal procession. Almost as shocking was Formosus whose murdered corpse was exhumed, clothed in pontifical vestments, propped up on a throne and subjected to trial. From the glories of Byzantium to the decay of Rome, from the Albigensian Heresy to controversy within the Church today, The Popes is superbly written, witty and revealing.

8. Rome: The Biography of a City

by Christopher Hibbert
This beautifully written, informative study is a portrait, a history and a superb guide book of Rome. It  captures the seductive beauty and the many layered past of the Eternal City that is Rome. It covers 3,000 years of history.  Begining with the city’s quasi-mythical origins, through the Etruscan kings, the opulent glory of classical Rome, the decadence and decay of the Middle Ages and the beauty and corruption of the Renaissance. To finally reach  the heart of Mussolini’s fascist Italy. Exploring the city’s streets and buildings, peopled with popes, gladiators, emperors, noblemen and peasants.  This volume details the turbulent and dramatic history of Rome in all its depravity and grandeur.

9. Florence: The Biography of a City

by Christopher Hibbert
This book is as captivating as the city itself. Hibbert’s gift is weaving political, social and art history into an elegantly readable and marvellously lively whole. The author’s book on Florence will also be at once a history and a guide book. Enhanced by splendid photographs, illustrations and line drawings which will describe all the buildings and treasures of the city of Florence.

10. The Pursuit of Italy: A History of a Land, its Regions and their Peoples

by David Gilmour
Visiting a villa built by Lorenzo de Medici outside Pisa, David Gilmour fell into conversation about the unification of Italy with a distinguished former minister. ‘”You know, Davide,” he said in a low conspiratorial voice, as if uttering a heresy, “Garibaldi did Italy a great disservice. If he had not invaded Sicily and Naples, we in the north would have the richest and most civilized state in Europe.”  After looking cautiously round the room he added in an even lower voice, “Of course to the south we would have a neighbour like Egypt.”‘ Was the elderly Italian right? Was the unification of Italy a mistake?
The Pursuit of Italy traces the whole history of the Italian peninsula. This book is written  in a wonderfully readable style.  The book is full of well-chosen stories and observations from personal experience. It is a book, peopled by many of the great figures of the Italian past. Stories from Cicero and Virgil to Dante and the Medici, from Cavour and Verdi to the controversial political figures of the twentieth century. The book gives a clear-eyed view of the Risorgimento. This was a pivotal event in modern Italian history, debunking the influential myths which have grown up around it.

Gilmour shows that the glory of Italy has always lain in its regions.

Regional Italy  demonstrates  their distinctive art, civic cultures, identities and cuisine. The regions produced the medieval communes and the Renaissance, the Venetian Republic and the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, two of the most civilized states of European history. Their inhabitants identified themselves as Tuscans and Venetians, Sicilians and Lombards, Neapolitans and Genoese. This is where the strength and culture of Italy still comes from, rather than from misconceived and mishandled concepts of nationalism and unity. This wise and enormously engaging book explains the course of Italian history.
Odyssey could not leave this  book of the list either….

11. The Italians

by John Hooper
Italy, sublime and maddening, fascinating yet baffling. Italy is a country of endless paradox and seemingly unanswerable riddles. John Hooper’s marvellously entertaining and perceptive book is the ideal companion for anyone seeking to understand contemporary Italy and the unique character of the Italians. Looking at the facts that lie behind – and often belie – the stereotypes.  Hooper’s  revealing book sheds new light on many aspects of Italian life: football and Freemasonry, sex, symbolism. As well as the reason why Italian has twelve words for a coat hanger, yet none for a hangover.
Odyssey Travellers each year of a collection of educational based small group tours of Italy for mature and senior travellers. Please click here to view the collection of tours of Italy offered. Odyssey also has some travel tips on the tours of Italy, click here to read more

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Statue of Cosimo I of Medici, in front of Palazzo Vecchio, Florence

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