My home library is filled with books on Italy, novels, non-fiction, and the inevitable guidebooks, too heavy to carry when I travel but lovely to look at on a rainy day.
My favorite guidebook, of course now totally impractical, is my 1904 Baedeker’s Central Italy. It is easy to imagine Edwardian ladies and gentlemen clutching the book in their gloved hands while touring the recommended sights. It’s fun to look at the maps of Rome – the streets that Mussolini built are of course not there nor is Augustus’ Alter of Peace (the Ara Pacis) because it wasn’t excavated until 1938. The little book also contains travel advice including hotels both “modern palatial and expensive establishments…and old-fashioned inns” along with best places to shop for fans and antiquities. The book notes that the French franc is the currency in use and cautions against accepting old papal coinage. And then there is this deathless advice regarding budgeting for the trip: “When ladies are of the party the expenses are generally greater.” How true!
I also treasure the first English edition of the Michelin Green Guide to Italy, published in 1959. Describing the people of Italy the authors enthuse: “Amid all this beauty the Italian lives and moves with perfect ease. Dark-haired, black-eyed, gesticulating, nimble and passionate, he is all movement and fantasy.” (I wonder what they thought about Italian women?) And for those worried about dining manners, the traveler is advised: “During meals, do not chop up your spaghetti with a knife on the ground that it is too long…”
Two travel narratives have also provided hours of pleasure: Eleanor Clark’s Rome and a Villa, published in 1959, and Elizabeth Bowen’s A Time in Rome, from 1960. Both authors have a genius for description and interpretation of the meaning of the city, its history and art. And it always surprises me that so little has changed over the years. In the same vein Carlo Levi wrote Fleeting Rome, In Search of la Dolce Vita, a series of vignettes of the Rome he knew in the 1950s and an elegant take on Rome, “a city of dreams and illusions,” Levi saw as vanishing under the weight of modernity. He mentions flocks of sheep moving through the city. They were still there in the 1990s near our apartment, and the use of the term dreams and illusions by one reviewer is interesting because that is the epigraph to my novel, City of Illusions which I came across independently.
A pair of novels beyond I Claudius recreate the tenor of ancient Rome: Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar published in 1943, and a footnote, Beloved and God, by Royston Lambert from 1988. The “memoir” is a masterful and elegant take on Emperor Hadrian’s philosophical musings of his life as soldier and statesman, and his relationship with his lover, Antinous. Lambert’s less intellectual narrative recounts about how the fleshy young man with curly hair was turned into a god after his early death by the besotted emperor. His statues are recognizable in many museums.
When it comes to cinema, I gravitate to Italian neo-realism, the black-and-white slices of life favored by post-World War II directors, their rawness a contrast to the later and colorful comedies of Sophia Lauren. The gripping Open City, 1945, directed by Roberto Rossellini and the heartbreaking The Bicycle Thief, Vittorio de Sica, 1948, are justly the most famous. Their depictions of life near the end of the war and shortly thereafter will give any viewer an understanding of Roman life during hard times, and when you visit, an appreciation of modern Rome.
There are two others of this genre that fascinate me: Bitter Rice, 1949, staring Silvana Mangano, directed by Giuseppe de Santis, and a later entry into the canon, Salvatore Giuliano, directed by Francesco Rosi in 1962. Bitter Rice is a thriller with robbery, love and murder set against the backdrop of peasant women working in the rice fields of northern Italy. Salvatore Giuliano, a social and political drama, takes on the story of a Sicilian bandit of the same name who was a Robin Hood and separatist. His murderous gang became mired in the complicated post-war politics of Italy, and whether he was finally done in by one of his own followers or by the Mafia on behalf of right-wing politicians is still unclear. Beyond the unusual camera angles the most stunning scene is Giuliano’s black-clad mother keening. Her screams and gesticulations as she bends over his body could not have changed since the Greek tragedies were written.
I have also enjoyed two modern dramas about Italian politics. Il Divo is a fascinating monologue by a character impersonating Giulio Andreotti who pulled the strings to control Italy for far too long, and the film, Vincere, depicts the early incarnation of Mussolini as a rabble rouser. Did he really have a first wife whom he incarcerated in a mental institution to get rid of her?
Lastly, there’s always Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, 1960, and its modern take on the rich and useless in Rome La Grande Belleza. My husband was sure Fellini made documentaries and I agree.