What books should I read about historical Rome and Venice?
August 24, 2009 11:27 AM   Subscribe

I'm looking for books about Italy, specifically Rome and Venice, and also books set in Rome and/or Venice. What would you recommend?

When I was in Paris in 2007, I was reading The Three Musketeers by Dumas at the same time. It was pretty cool to be reading about the musketeers playing tennis 4 blocks from where my hotel was, and it made the experience much richer. So now that I'm going to Rome and Venice, I'd like to do the same while there -- reading something during downtimes set in the city I'm visiting, set in the cities heyday. Since this is a downtime sort of read, I'd like it to focus on the entertainment aspect over the educational aspect.

And when I was thinking about how to find that sort of book, I realized that I have more general french cultural knowledge through studies and Dumas and Hugo so I'd be a good idea to get a more historical educational book about the realities of Rome while the empire was there, and history after that probably up to the Rennaisance, so a book or two about Roman and Venetian history that I can finish before my trip (Sep 18) would be helpful too.
posted by garlic to Society & Culture (20 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
The Agony and the Ecstasy, about the life of Michelangelo, made Florence come alive for me. It of course also talks about his time in Rome and the painting of the Sistine Chapel.
posted by runningwithscissors at 11:35 AM on August 24, 2009

Venice, by Jan Morris.
posted by gyusan at 11:35 AM on August 24, 2009

If you're going to Florence at all (or even if you're not), you should read E.M. Forster's A Room with a View, the first half of which is about Edwardian English tourism in Italy. Also Forster is amazing.

If you want to read some Roman lit, read Cicero's letters or Horace's or Ovid's poetry (especially Ovid's Ars Amatoria). You can visit some of the Roman sites they mention, plus get a really vivid picture of Roman culture at (arguably) its height.
posted by oinopaponton at 11:35 AM on August 24, 2009

Best answer: you could follow the adventures of marcus didius falco
posted by Think_Long at 11:40 AM on August 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

Some of the action from Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell takes place in Venice.
posted by Aizkolari at 11:44 AM on August 24, 2009

When I was last in Italy (mostly Tuscany), I was reading Inferno and The Decameron, but I'm a lit geek like that. For a totally mindless, stupid read about Rome, Dan Brown's Angels and Demons might actually be the way to go (can't believe I just recommended that, but hey, it IS entertaining).
posted by pised at 11:58 AM on August 24, 2009

It is set in the present day, but I found City of Fallen Angels to be a really interesting picture of Venice and its residents.

For straight up history, you might try A History of Venice by John Julius Norwich. I have not read this one in particular but I did read his A short History of Byzantium, and I found his style very readable.
posted by DrGirlfriend at 12:08 PM on August 24, 2009

Not history per se, but still...
Death In Venice
Casanova's Memoirs
posted by foxy_hedgehog at 12:18 PM on August 24, 2009

Best answer: A bit more lightweight, perhaps, but Donna Leon's Brunetti crime novels are set in Venice, and often use the city as an important part of the story (the author lives in Venice herself, so it's far from Elizabeth George-style exotism...)
posted by effbot at 12:20 PM on August 24, 2009

For books set in Venice, try these:

posted by TheRaven at 12:25 PM on August 24, 2009

One of my favorite books - The Marble Faun - takes place in Rome, and according to one of the reviewers on Amazon, "The Marble Faun was the premiere 19th Century travel guide to Rome and should be for the 21st century traveler. This book will lead you around the ancient city without skipping any of the awe-inspiring sights. For travelers after The Marble Faun's publication in 1860, the novel was a necessary item for their European escapades. Masterfully constructing his story around four distinct characters, Miriam, Hilda, Kenyon, and Donatello, Hawthorne takes the reader on an adventure which holds as much intrigue as the splendid landmarks these travelers encounter in their own journeys."
posted by swilkerson at 12:26 PM on August 24, 2009

The Thief Lord is wonderful, but a bit of a quick read since it's a children's book. (I found myself wishing that it lasted longer.)
posted by corey flood at 1:14 PM on August 24, 2009

Jeanette Winterson's The Passion [extract here] is my favourite fiction about Venice. It also takes in other places, but Venice is really the star of the book.
posted by Pallas Athena at 1:41 PM on August 24, 2009

Best answer: Steven Saylor's Roma Sub Rosa series (there are currently twelve books. Skip the "characters" section on that Wiki page, as it contains spoilers) and his novel Roma. Very richly detailed, historically accurate, and overall just good reads.
posted by cmgonzalez at 1:58 PM on August 24, 2009

Rome only:

If you can find a copy of Vittorio Sermonti's Racconti Romani/Roman Tales, that's some old, post-WWII short stories set in and around Rome. And if you read Latin, some of the shops in Vatican City have the Breviarium Urbis Romae Antiquae, a guidebook-style guide to the city (Rione/Regio by Rione/Regio) composed of excerpts from Classical (and medieval) authors. It's really great and charming -- if you read Latin. If you want something in print and translated into English, I really enjoyed the recently-published Stories from the City of God by Pasolini: a collection of short stories/essays originally published in newspapers; much the same feel as Racconti Romani -- sometimes I misremember which book was the source of some story or other.
posted by xueexueg at 4:32 PM on August 24, 2009


I came here to recommend Hawthorne's The Marble Faun, but swilkerson beat me to it.

I took a class on expatriate writers in Rome, and we actually essentially did a "Marble Faun" walking tour. That was some years ago, so I don't exactly recall the details, but I remember plenty of "oh, wow, it's just like it is in the book!" moments.

My other recommendations would be Tobias Smollett's Travels Through France and Italy -- obviously you'd only be looking for the letters on Italy (although the entire collection is enjoyable -- Smollett is a snark-filled delight); certain chapters from Mark Twain's Innocents Abroad; and perhaps Edith Wharton's "Roman Fever" if you feel the urge to spend a lazy afternoon with a glass of wine, gazing out over the Forum.


Seconding foxy_hedgehog's recommendation of Death in Venice, and adding Hawthorne's The Aspern Papers.
posted by paisley sheep at 6:49 PM on August 24, 2009

Please read The Thief Lord. It's really fantastic book.
posted by kylej at 8:13 PM on August 24, 2009

This is more toward the "education" side than the "entertainment" side, but you might be interested in "The Families Who Made Rome". It's a history book, but fairly unique in that it focuses on the stories of the leading families of old Rome and how they were each responsible for the building of various neighborhoods. And it talks about which of those buildings still remain. So you can visit most famous buildings in Rome and read all the juicy - even gory - details of the days when those buildings were new.
posted by dnash at 7:24 AM on August 25, 2009

Stones of Venice by John Ruskin. There are many lovely passages on Venice. The linked version is abridged and good for taking on a trip, or you can also find online versions.
posted by of strange foe at 8:58 AM on August 25, 2009

Obviously this is too late for your trip, for any archives searchers, Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities is a truly incredible book about Venice and Marco Polo and, more broadly, travel and the nature of communities. Highly recommended.
posted by nicoleincanada at 11:58 AM on March 15, 2010

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