Italian Authors and Italian Themes

A photo I took in Florence many years ago.

Those of us who’ve visited Italy have very fond memories of our sojourns there. We also have fond memories of various novels by Italian authors, and by non-Italian authors who set some of their books in Italy.

I’m currently reading Irving Stone’s terrific biographical novel The Agony and the Ecstasy, which stars not only the brilliant sculptor/artist Michelangelo but also the vividly depicted city of Florence. While readers know from the start that Michelangelo is destined for greatness, the 1961 novel is still fascinating and suspenseful as we see his path to creative mastery, learn about his personality, sympathize with his setbacks, etc. One can tell that the American author spent a lot of time in Italy researching the book before writing it.

Now let’s turn to some excellent Italian writers. Among those I’ve read are Elsa Morante, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, Umberto Eco, Italo Calvino, and Elena Ferrante.

Morante’s History is a gripping tale of a mostly ill-fated family — living in Rome during World War II — that includes the beleaguered Ida and her very charismatic young son Useppe.

Lampedusa’s posthumously published novel The Leopard — about the aristocracy’s decline in 19th-century Italy and more — is a book with prose worthy of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.

Eco’s The Name of the Rose is a mesmerizing murder mystery set in a 14th-century monastery. But another Eco novel, Foucault’s Pendulum, is a hard-to-read book that gave me a headache. 

Calvino? I’ve read his quirky Marcovaldo, starring an at-times bumbling dreamer. It’s one of those novels-comprised-of-interconnected-short-stories a la Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford, Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, and Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio.

I’ve also tried one Elena Ferrante novel — her interesting The Lost Daughter, made into a 2021 film.

Then there’s of course Dante Alighieri’s 14th-century Divine Comedy. I hope to read that epic poem one of these days.

Back to non-Italian writers…

American/British novelist Henry James placed some of his work in Italy — including the intriguing The Aspern Papers (Venice) and the so-so Daisy Miller (Rome).

French author Stendhal featured an Italian nobleman in The Charterhouse of Parma

English writer Anthony Burgess’ The Kingdom of the Wicked includes the volcanic disaster that befell Pompeii.

American author Martin Cruz Smith, known for Gorky Park and its sequels, left his Russian milieu at times to write stand-alone novels such as The Girl from Venice.

Speaking of Italy’s beautiful city of canals — a place I’ve been fortunate to visit twice — there’s also Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, the only other work named in this post I haven’t read yet.

Any authors and literary works you’d like to mention that fit this theme?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com every Thursday. The latest piece — about a rent control agreement, a major redevelopment project, and the possible reopening of a century-old movie theater — is here.

109 thoughts on “Italian Authors and Italian Themes

  1. Great post, as usual, Dave! I love Italy; the culture, the food, the scenery, the eternity. I’m reading My Brilliant Friend now, after having watched the Italian tv series on HBO. It does suck you in. Some years ago I read Ferrante’s Troubling Love, which I found interesting in a good way.

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  2. Two books I’ve read by Daphne Du’Maurier, post movies, which were set in Italy, yet somewhat briefly were Don’t Look Now and My Cousin Rachel. Actually, make that 3 as I believe Rebecca begins with Max DeWinter meeting and marrying his second wife, the narrator, in Italy. And now that I’m thinking of books based on movies with Italy as the locale, I have to mention Three Coins In A Fountain (based on the novel Coins In A Fountain by John Hermes) and I think Roman Holiday, is based on a novel as well.. Seems Italy is certainly the place for love and romance. Of course, as per usual, the books are always better, athough I must confess after watching Laurence Olivier play Max DeWinter I can’t imagine him “not” looking like Olivier *sigh* That indeed is a wonderful pic Dave. I have lately been posting some pics of my brother, who recently passed away, taken from our days as kids growing up in the 50’s and all of them have that same pinkish hue. Wonder if is the film rather than the camera. I must say I like it since it gave everything a nostalgic feel, looking at the world through rose-colored glasses and all that. Great post, thanx. Susi

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  3. Yikes! Gorky Park, and The Agony and Ecstasy the movies, I have seen. I’m out of the loop on the rest… except for some of the Divine Comedy. I had a book of plate prints from said book. I loaned it to someone and they died a couple of weeks later. Never saw the book again. Must be worth some $ now. It was a very old book, back then, and in great shape.
    How about…”The Merchant of Venice”?

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    • Thank you, Resa!

      I never saw the “Gorky Park” movie, but did love the novel and its sequels. I’d love to see “The Agony and the Ecstasy” film at some point.

      An excellent mention of “The Merchant of Venice”!

      Sorry about the loss of those plate prints. That’s a real shame. 😦

      Like

  4. I know I’ve written in previously on some of the authors you have listed– Stendhal, Lampedusa, Morante– and on 2 you have not: Donna Leone and Andrea Camilleri, each authors of well-conceived and engagingly written detective series, set in Venice and Sicily respectively.

    I read Dante’s “Inferno” in a farmhouse in Tennessee, unheated, uninsulated and without running water, where a fellow band member his sister and her boyfriend and I had moved in 1971, part of a contemporary phenomenon loose among the youth of that year– back to the land. Had a wood cook-stove, and hauled water up to the house across a creek in the trunk of our beater of a car.

    So broke that we were literally fishing for our supper some days– there were trout in the stream that ran among the foot of the property– and one of our baits was canned corn. I remember being most sparing in my employment of that corn, so that, if fish weren’t biting, we might still eat the remaining corn for supper. In one of nature’s ironies, the creekbed was home to watercress, fresh and peppery, but little watercress sandwiches, upscale though they might be, put no meat on the bone.

    We did have electricity, so I wasn’t reading by the fire like Honest Abe, and I did contrive to beat back the chill of early spring nights by employing a Persian rug as a blanket, but aside from the literal isolation from the world at large, I also felt isolated by my interests, unshared by my fellow faux-farmers.

    Dante convinced me, eventually, that I had more business at college than in rural Tennessee. But memories of that little period of time still comes back to me from time to time, in some force– a little hungry. a little chilly, but more than a little sleepy, in the middle of nowhere, awake in the dark and in the riot of sound made by whippoorwills and frogs.

    O Sun! who healest all troubled vision,
    Thou makest so glad when thou resolvest me,
    That to doubt is not less grateful than to know!–
    Dante, Inferno, Canto 11

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    • Thank you, jhNY!

      Loved the comment — eloquent and evocative — and how you associate reading Dante with memories of your very interesting life in the early ’70s. You painted an excellent picture of a particular time and place. Glad you had electricity, at least. 🙂 Yes, trying a “back to the land” lifestyle can make many a person long for college life.

      Like

    • Thank you, Endless Weekend!

      “The Name of the Rose” IS quite a read. As for “Foucault’s Pendulum,” your thoughts about it could of course differ from mine — but there are countless other novels out there to read instead… 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

        • Thank you, Endless Weekend! 🙂 I’m not sure I’ve ever read a novel quite like “The Name of the Rose” (a detective story set centuries ago) but a book with some mystery that partly takes place at around the same time is Daphne du Maurier’s excellent time-travel novel “The House on the Strand.”

          Liked by 1 person

          • Thank you very much for the recommendation, I’ll check it out! Beyond being a (n excellent) detective story, The Name of the Rose deals with some hefty (and personal) themes that are probably easier for us to digest from the safe distance of many centuries ago, just like they often are from the safe distance of centuries in the future or aliens or mythical creatures, as in many favorite sci fi and fantasy books.

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  5. Hi Dave, I popped back to let you know which books I can think of that are set in Italy, contain scenes set in Italy or are written by Italians. Obviously, I have read Divine Comedy recently, and that was one of the most impactful books I’ve ever read. Simply incredible! Another book set in Italy is Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, which is my tied favourite Hemingway, together with The Old Man and the Sea. What Katy Did Next by Susan Coolidge has significant parts set in Italy (Rome and Venice) and, finally, The Cask of Amontillado by Poe is also set in Italy during the carnival season.

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  6. Hi Dave,

    Your post makes me realise how limited my Italian reading is. I’ve kind of read Dante’s Inferno but I must confess that I didn’t really get it. And of course, I read a translation, and have no idea how that compares to the original. But I can put a tick against it on my list.

    The only other book that comes to mind is Anne Rice’s Cry to Heaven which is set in Italy and about the castrati in the 1700s. Well, a tiny bit about the castrati. It’s also about love and hate and music and revenge and sex and all the other good things in life.

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    • HI Susan, Did you read the whole of Dante’s Divine Comedy or just Inferno? I have recently read it and it was a bit of process. First I listened to a BBC dramatised and condensed version of the book to get the basic story line into my head. Then I read it one chapter a day, doing a bit of research on each canto as I went along. It was a very interesting journey. I was stunned by Dante’s incredible imagination and mind. My research helped me identify the political satire in the book which I sort of saw, but didn’t understand completely. It’s a bit like attending a pantomime in another country where you don’t know all the political and social nuances.

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  7. Of the authors you mentioned the only one I have read is Umberto Eco: The Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum. I liked them both, except the latter was like navigating a “rococo” painting. Lots of wandering detail.

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  8. It is a beautiful photo, Dave, perhaps made more so by the passage of time. I guess it is fixed now, digitally! Some works here I haven’t read, so thanks for that and to everyone else for their suggestions. I was going to mention the Decameron, which I read some while back when I had better eyes. I have good memories but not specific ones. I loved Ferrante’s novels in the sequence beginning with My Brilliant Friend – the characters, though you feel you know them intimately, keep giving you surprises as does the writing itself. I read another from her but it didn’t bring the same satisfaction. I’d like to read one of the Inspector Montalbano novels by Andrea Camilleri to see if I like it as much as the TV series. Thanks!

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    • Thank you, Maria, for the kind words about the photo! 🙂 It must indeed have faded quite a bit, but I decided not to try adjusting it digitally before positing.

      Thanks, also, for the various book mentions! I had sort of mixed feelings about Elena Ferrante’s “The Lost Daughter,” though I did find it interesting, as mentioned in the post. Sounds like “My Brilliant Friend” was better; excellent description of it by you! Getting surprised by writing and by characters can be a wonderful thing.

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  9. Kind of a long list, but here goes. Classics: Machiavelli’s “Prince” and the romantic poet Leopardi. Modern writers: Primo Levi, Georgio Bassani, Andrea Bajani, whose recent novel “If You Kept a Record of Sins” is a heartbreaking masterpiece. Many people like Natalia Ginzburg, but I can’ warm up to her. British novels set in Italy don’t forget E.M. Forster (“A Room with a View, etc). Mystery writers Donna Leon (Venice), Andrea Camilleri (Sicily) and Magdalena Nabb (Florence).

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  10. The novels of Elena Ferrante on life in Naples, which I have never read, have been in the news for a number of years due to the unknown identity of the author. There have been a number of theories but the real author has not yet been identified.

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  11. Interesting post, Dave. Im surprised there aren’t more works set in Italy that come to mind, because it’s such an inspirational place! The Leopard sounds interesting, thanks for mentioning. There is, of course, the Decameron set in Florence during the plague. I bought it a few months ago but couldn’t read it. I mean, I LITERALLY couldn’t read it. Despite it being a very thick book, the print is too small for me to read even with reading glasses. Now I know why people buy the 2-volume version. 🙂

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    • Thank you, Donna!

      Great mention of “The Decameron,” which I haven’t read. Definitely a way-back work. I share your dismay when print is THAT small; seems senseless. Glad there’s a two-volume option.

      “The Leopard” was one of those cases where publishers rejected the novel when the author was alive despite it being so beautifully written. Then it’s published posthumously and becomes one of the best-selling novels in Italy’s history, with the author not being around to enjoy that. 😦

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  12. I am delighted that you enjoyed “The Agony and the Ecstasy” Dave. I find that history is best remembered through stories – this one was brilliant!

    I have on my TBR stack of books, “The Lives of the Artists” by Giorgio Vasari that discuss Michelangelo as well as da Vinci, Raphael etc. Which brings me to what has been in my mind for the last few weeks: the idea of translation.

    To me, translating is a most difficult task because words carry ideas that nuance interpretation. In many cases there is simply no direct translation. As you know I am currently reading War & Peace, which has many translations. I also want to embark on perilous journey with Dante Alighieri, which was prompted by Robbie Cheadle. Paul Andruss suggested the translation by Dorothy L Sayers. Imagine my excitement when I found her three books. I understand that she believed The Devine Comedy to be her most important work. It is certainly a divergence from her Lord Peter Whimsy books.

    Let me know when you decide to read The Divine Comedy!!

    I couldn’t help myself – I had to end with a quote so this one is from Dorothy L Sayers:

    “Paradoxical as it may seem, to believe in youth is to look backward; to look forward we must believe in age.”

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    • Thank you, Rebecca!

      I agree — getting history through good historical fiction is a wonderful way to learn about the past while enjoying a compelling story. The best of both worlds. 🙂

      “The Lives of the Artists” sounds amazing!

      I enjoyed reading your thoughts on translation. Yes, it can be a not-easy and fraught thing. I had heard that Dorothy L. Sayers was a great translator in addition to being a great fiction writer (I’ve read her “Strong Poison” and “Gaudy Night” mysteries). That’s a tremendous quote of hers you cited!

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    • Ah very nice quote Rebecca, Dante is a journey that requires effort and dedication. You will see my comment to Susan about how I approached reading Dante. I was worth the effort and I am doing a summary post. I’ve just fallen off the wagon over the past three weeks due to the sneaking covid beast.

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    • Translation is a thorny topic to consider at length, as I have been doing in my slow slog through “Eugene Onegin”. I have the Falen, the Elkin, the Nabokov, the Hofstadter and the Johnston before me, as well as Nabokov’s copiously informative notes– and had I found one available, I would have Deutsch’s too.

      It feels as if every one gets at something– the essence, possibly, though by occasionally different means, including interposition– without quite conveying exactly or exhausting the source, though here I’m guessing, having no Russian. I’m hoping that once I’ve read everything through, I will have a composite to consider from all angles, as fleshed out by all the translations.

      Nabokov claimed that a better translation than his ugly and supposedly literal one is impossible, and I suppose he might be literally correct, but he seems in a way to be missing an ironic point– this work would not exist in its present form, or even its poetic voice were it not for the model and inspiration of Byron– not Byron as we read him, but rather, Byron as had been translated into French by the time of EO’s creation, since Pushkin knew nearly no English. Nonetheless, without poor translations of Byron into French, we might never have “Onegin” to read.

      Much as, despite a near-universal agreement among translators today, that her translation of Turgenev’s “A Sportsman’s Sketches” is sub-par, it is Constance Garnett’s translation that Hemingway read, without which we might not have had Nick Adams.

      Like I wrote above, a thorny topic, and I have barely scratched its thorny surface(s).

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      • I’m with you on that, jhNY. I have been doing some research on the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke. Again, translation adds complexity. It is a thorny topic and I have just made on scratch on its thorny surface!

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  13. I’ll mention Enchanted April again as well as Light in the Piazza. I admit I haven’t read the novel Enchanted April but I’ve watched the movie multiple times! Totally exquisite!

    I have read Light in the Piazza as well as watched the 1962 movie version. Compelling and a little disturbing.

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    • Thank you, lulabelle! Two “Enchanted April” mentions help make it a keeper on my to-read list. 🙂

      I saw “Light in the Piazza” on Broadway a number of years ago. A great production, but I agree that the compelling plot line is rather disturbing.

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  14. I always love to go back to Italy, its cities, culture and the Italians, even though these last two years we only managed twice to go to the lovely Piemonte and Cesare Pavese.
    I remember very well the fascintating “The Agony and the Ecstasy” by Irving Stone, which also made as go to several monuments! I’ve read Marcovaldo, but not “The Lost Daughter”, I’m sorry Dave:) Your exciting post takes me back to Venise and Miss Garnet’s Angel by Salley Vicker, where this lady , who has always lived a cautous life, goes onto an exciting adventure. Thank you very much and all the best.

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    • Aw… He was amazing. Such detail. So glad you’re enjoying it although it is not be any manner of means a ‘modern’ book. Totally agree re Eco. I think we’ve said a few words on old Foucault and his bloody awful pendulum. SO there,I shan’t say them again. It might be there are those out there whose fav book it is. So books set in italy or by Italian authors. There’s Bread and Wine by the controversial Ignazio Silone, the ‘world famous book about Italy under the Fascists according to the cover of the edition sitting on a shelf here. But maybe not much remembered now. And I read Robert Harris’s Pompeii many years ago centred round the town’s failing water supply actually if i remember correctly. Anyway always nice to see a post about a country and the literature of that country be it by native authors or books set there.

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      • Thank you, Shehanne!

        I’m also impressed with the level of detail in “The Agony and the Ecstasy.” Irving Stone obviously did his homework, and did it on-site. If anything, he might get a bit too detailed here and there — for instance, giving every minute detail of the sculpting process, naming every street Michelangelo walked on during his strolls, and describing everything as the artist dissected corpses. But I mostly liked that level of detail. And, yes, quite an old-fashioned book in its way.

        “Foucault’s Pendulum” — ugh. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

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