Top 6 books that try to explain Italy
23 October 2016
I remember back in early 2008 when I was working in an art warehouse in the midst of an industrial wasteland in Newark, New Jersey, I would get through the day by reading all the news I could about Italy online. I mostly read John Hooper’s articles for The Guardian reading about the April general elections and Berlusconi running again for prime minister, the rubbish crisis in Naples, Alitalia on the brink of bankruptcy and the circus surrounding the Amanda Knox trial in Perugia.
During that time, I was preparing to move to London to study for a masters degree and I remember asking myself why I was obsessed with reading about what was happening in Italy. And I asked myself the question even though I knew it was because I was preparing myself to move to Italy. London was just the first step, what I really wanted was to move to Italy and stay there forever. (In hindsight, I could have taken a more direct route by doing a masters in Rome, but I was compelled to take a more poetic, meandering journey which, as you know, hasn’t stopped yet. Going directly to Italy was too obvious.)
Anyway, I did, I moved to London, then to Rome and then back to London again where I’ve been for the past 5 years plotting a way to go back and stay back. And in the meantime, I’ve been continuing my Italian education, talking, writing and reading in Italian, watching movies, listening to podcasts, and going back to Italy any chance I can get to hang out with family and in-laws.
First hand experience with Italian culture and learning from friends and family is important, but I’ve found that reading books about Italy, especially those written by writers who want to untangle the mysterious, chaotic and paradoxical Italian culture, helps me enormously. I’ve found that these books have explained a lot of my upbringing and have helped clear the murkiness I felt whenever I asked questions about Italy to my parents and they couldn’t really answer.
So here is a list of books that I recommend for those that are planning to move to Italy, those that want to understand their heritage, and for those that just love Italy and want something that goes deeper than the dolce-vita-let’s-buy-a-ruin-in-tuscany-and-renovate-it-and-look-at-the-view-and-be-seduced-and-get-down-to-our-basic-instincts. (Although I love those books, too).
In no order:
- A History of Contemporary Italy: Society and Politics 1943-1980 by Paul Ginsburg: This is a completely thorough historical analysis of post-war Italy replete with appendices with charts and data. I read this while I was living in Rome and it completely opened my mind. Suddenly the names of the streets had meaning like viale Palmiro Togliatti that cuts through Rome north via south. (The street’s named after the leader of the Communist Party who helped put together a new government at the end of WWII. Pretty cool that the Italians would name a street after a Communist leader. You wouldn’t see that in the States.) This book has helped me pick up on tons of cultural and historical references that are found in films and song lyrics. It helped me place stories told to me by family, friends and acquaintances within a historical context. It’s a dense read, but very worth it and will ease a sense of isolation if you’re living in Italy.
- An Italian Education by Tim Parks: Tim Parks is a British writer and translator that has been living in Italy since 1981. His books about Italy are witty, educational, and endearing and he has that great British self-deprecating humour. In this one, he writes about his children going to school and growing up in Italy, but by the time you reach the end you realise that he’s really writing about his own education and how his children who are more Italian than English are teaching him what it is to be Italian
- The Italians by Luigi Barzini: This book came out in 1964 by the Italian journalist and has been in print ever since. Even though it’s outdated in parts and spends a bit too long chronicling the views foreigners had on Italy from the Renaissance through to the 19th century, it really tries to understand the psyche of Italians and how they try to make the dull facts of life beautiful and ceremonial while hiding the ugly and the tragic from public view. (Is that why so many things are unsaid and unshared in my family and we carry the agony and difficult things alone in our guts?
- The Italians by John Hooper: Hooper is the Italian correspondent for The Economist and a former foreign correspondent at The Guardian covering Italy and Spain. Taking the title of Barzini’s book, The Italians is a fun and perceptive look at contemporary Italian culture and Hooper dismantles a lot of the stereotypes and uses facts to explain parts of Italian life like their reluctance to use a dishwasher, changing attitudes to sex, corruption and the mafia, and why there’s not word in Italian for hangover.
- Five Quarters by Rachel Roddy (also known as A Kitchen in Rome in the US): This is a cookbook that I have to throw in here because she tells stories about her life in Rome using food. Rachel Roddy is a former actor and present British food writer that lives in Rome with her partner and son. I devour her weekly column in The Guardian and I love this cookbook. Her recipes are simple and while I’m aware of already and have made a lot of the recipes that she writes, the stories that go along with them, such as stealing lemons from a tree that hangs over the wall or a particular lazy morning at home in her flat, make Rome come to life and I can feel it like I’m back there again. She makes connections with the people in her neighbourhood, the market vendors, restaurant chefs and shop-owners and you can feel what it’s like to be part of the city, not just as an ex-pat who is observing life from the outside. She’s my favourite food writer.
- La Bella Figura by Beppe Severgnini: I’ve seen this book everywhere in bookshops across Italy and in the UK. When I was living in Rome, I saw this book in the English section every time I went to La Feltrinelli in Largo Argentina and I never ever picked it up to read the back of the cover. The cover looked stupid and it took me 7 years to finally read it and damn, it would have made things better for me when I was in Rome. It’s similar to The Italians by Barzini in that it seeks to explain to foreigners things such as the theatrical spirit of life in Italy, the Italians relationship to the traffic light, the importance of the beach, and the furnishings of a typical apartment. La Bella Figura is funnier than Barzini’s The Italians and gives a modern view of what life in Italy is like today. You can read more of Severgnini’s work in The New York Times. He also has a regular column in Il Corriere della Sera called Italians written for Italians abroad.
Here’s a list of other non-fiction books and memoirs about Italy that I’ve read. I’ve put a star next to the ones that I particularly liked.
*The Land Where Lemons Grow – Helena Atlee (about the history of lemon groves in Italy)
*La Bella Lingua – Dianne Hales (about the Italian language)
Head over Heel – Chris Harrison (about living in Puglia)
Italian Hours – Henry James
*In Other Words – Jhumpa Lahiri (about learning Italian, written in Italy and translated into English)
Under the Tuscan Sun – Frances Mayes (living in Tuscany)
The Stones of Florence and Venice Observed – Mary McCarthy
Italian Neighbours – Tim Parks (living outside Verona)
*Italian Ways – Tim Parks (about traveling through Italy by train)
*Midnight in Sicily – Peter Robb (about Sicily, the history of the mafia, and the political climate from the 1970s to 90s)
Reflections in Blue Water – Alan Ross (living on the Italian islands)
*My Italians – Roberto Saviano (series of essays about various aspects of Italian society, translated in English)
Bitter Almonds – Mary Taylor Simeti and Maria Grammatico (about the story of Maria Grammatico and her pastry shop)
Only in Naples – Katherine Wilson (about living in Naples)
Me and Venice: A Work in Progress
7 October 2015
As I looked down on Venice descending into Marco Polo airport, I didn’t get the surge of joy that I usually get when I see the rolling hills and tall cypress trees flying into Rome or Naples. The Venetian islands looked like hibernating frogs packed into the swampy laguna and I thought that this is not a place of depth.
Venice is a slippery city and not an easy one to fall in love with. I can partially understand the negative comments that people make about the city. That it’s damp and smelly and overrun by tourists and lacking in local vitality. That its beauty is a backdrop to the wealthy tourists desperate to relive some Hollywood glamour in the fancy hotels on the Grand Canal.
Some people say it’s the type of place that you can see once and feel like you never need to go back. But I’ve been here several times now and I’m married to a man from Venice and while I’ve not given up on this place, our love for each other is still a work in progress.
It’s futile to resist the superficiality, the philistine beauty, the duplicity of reality and reflection in Venice. What I do when I come here is relive over and over every moment that has happened to everyone else that has come here before me. Henry James said that ‘there is nothing left to discover or describe and originality of attitude is completely impossible.’ I have to make amends with the fact that there is no difference between me and the Russian stepping off his yacht to visit the Biennale and the group of Japanese tourists holding up a selfie stick and making the peace sign.
‘And there is no use pretending that the tourist Venice is not the real Venice, which is possible with other cities – Rome or Florence or Naples,’ says Mary McCarthy. ‘The tourist Venice is Venice: the gondolas, the sunsets, the changing light, Florians, Quadri’s, Torcello, Harry’s Bar, Murano, Burano, the pigeons, the glass beads, the vaporetto. Venice is a folding picture-postcard of itself.’
So Venice is constantly imitating itself, it is acting out what everyone expects it to be. How do you build a relationship with a city that is one giant mirror reflecting back images and perceptions tha the inhabitants and visitors have in their head? How do you create a connection with a place like that?
I thought about this last week in Venice as I walked with Paola, my mother-in-law, and Davide and I tried to keep my solar plexus open so I could feel something about the city. I asked to see the map, wanting to picture myself where I was walking, but none of us had remembered to bring it. ‘I’m your map,’ Paola said proudly. ‘Where do you want to go?’
We crossed from the bus station at Piazzale Roma to the Ponte della Constituzione and walked past the train station. Then we turned left and threw ourselves into the alleys and tiny canals towards Canareggio and the Jewish Ghetto. This was a residential area and at 10 am on a Sunday morning, the alleys and canals were quiet. Every now and then I got a smell of laundry detergent or floor cleaner and I pictured the people inside slowly getting the house ready for Sunday lunch. A radio played old Italian pop-songs and there was a slight breeze to the overcast day.
We passed by a funeral parlour with the elderly funeral director sitting at the threshold on a straw-woven chair surrounded by cages of green parrots that filled the street with their tweets and squawks. A man sleepily rowed his boat down the canal. A woman wearing white framed sunglasses smoked a cigarette in the empty church courtyard while mass was going on inside. A chef wearing a floppy white hat sat in front of his restaurant shelling large scungilli.
What did I make of these cinematic images, of McCarthy’s ‘picture-postcard moments’? It was difficult for me to get a sense of context or history, to place myself in some sort of scene. These were not mysterious things to me, they didn’t show me how Venice fit into the chaotic fabric of Italy.
They say there is no hidden Venice, there is no authenticity, but something caught my eye. I kept seeing these red metal things along the canals and I finally pointed one out. Me and Davide stopped to discuss it. Is it a place to put out your cigarette or an extra boat tie for when the tide comes in and covers the sidewalk? Paola told us it was a fire hydrant.
A fire hydrant? My mind flooded with unanswerable questions. What would a fire in Venice look like? Why would you need fire hydrants if there is water all around? How big are the fireboats? What if the water is high and they can’t get under one of the bridges?
I needed to research this and when I got home I found out that the fire hydrants in Venice were only placed in the late 1990s. Why did they wait so long? I kept reading and I found out about a terrible fire that occurred in 1996.
Fire is a serious matter in Venice. For all of the ornate stone facades of the palazzi in Venice, most of the buildings are made of wood and a fire, especially on a windy night, could spread if it’s not contained quickly. And even if the city is sitting on water, fighting a fire is extremely difficult in Venice. Fire fighters can’t mount their ladders from the boat, they need firm ground and often there’s not a lot of space to construct them since the buildings are densely packed next to one another. The boats that are needed to navigate the canals can’t carry a large amount of heavy equipment. And as I had thought of earlier, if the high tide has come in, the boats can’t pass under the bridges.
What a nightmare of a city holding onto existence by a string.
In the beginning of 1996, the beloved and world-renowned opera house La Fenice, the theatre where operas by Rossini, Bellini and Verdi had made their world premier was completely destroyed by fire.
On the night of 29 January just before 9 pm, smoke was seen rising from the building. Fire fighters acted fast because the opera house was located in one of the oldest parts of the city in a crowded square. The fireboats rushed to the fire, but the canals surrounding the opera house had been recently drained for dredging and restoration works, so they couldn’t get enough water. At that time, there were no fire hydrants, so fire fighters had to connect their hoses to canals farther away. The distance didn’t allow for effective water pressure. A helicopter carried water in from the lagoon and dumped it onto the fire, but it couldn’t save the building. Within 20 minutes, the walls started to collapse and the only thing to do was the let the opera house burn in on itself in order to keep the fire from spreading.
Mystery surrounded the cause of the fire and the investigation lasted years. Finally two electricians doing work at La Fenice were charged with arson in March 2001. They had apparently set the fire in order to avoid paying a penalty for delaying a contractual deadline. Some people were not satisfied with the answer and there have been speculations that the fire was mafia related. You can read an excellent article about it here.
La Fenice, meaning phoenix in Italian, eventually rose up again from its ashes and reopened in 2003. While the fire of 1996 was devastating, La Fenice seems to be following a historical tradition of enduring fires and living up to its name, having been rebuilt twice before in 1774 and 1886 after a fire.
That squat red fire hydrant revealed to me a vulnerable Venice with a heart under the surface, a city that endures even as it dies. It takes guts to keep on existing and I think that me and Venice have become a litte bit closer, a little more intimate, building a relationship slowly, brick by brick.
Tips For Travelling Alone
21 September 2015
When I was a teenager, I would daydream about travelling alone. It was ultimate sign of ball-busting independence: Going to bars and restaurants alone and talking to strangers, taking risks, making friends along the way, lounging in a park and sketching in my notebook, and spending countless hours of wandering and walking and looking.
Growing up in New York in a tight-knit Italian family where there was always someone to help you or do it for you (whether that’s cooking, washing the clothes, choosing friends, or how to wear your hair), I knew that in order for me to learn how to be on my own and have a cool life the way I dreamed it to be, I needed to go far enough away so that when things got difficult I wasn’t tempted to go back home. I dreamed that one day I could be the type of person that could travel alone, to go to strange places and try to speak their language, to be free and mobile with just a backpack on my back. Hah! When I went away to college, I chose one that was nearby and by the end of the first semester, I had left the dorm and moved back home. I was so angry with myself! But then I got the chance to spend a year abroad at Oxford for my junior year, I knew that was my chance!
It was a difficult year since it was my first time away, but I pushed myself and by the end of the year I had gotten enough confidence in myself to spend the summer travelling on my own. I went to Paris, Amsterdam, Florence, and Athens and after that I spent most of my 20s travelling and living on my own in different countries and learning languages.
Travelling solo is a great way to learn about yourself and even if you’re scared about being lonely or put into uncomfortable situations, do it! The great thing about travelling alone is that the cultural differences will have a greater impact on you as you experience them on your own and you’ll be able to notice more subtleties and nuances and learn more about yourself along the way.
Tips on Travelling Solo:
- PACK LIGHTLY: Bring as little clothes as possible. (Easy to do in the summer). Wear a backpack or push around a little trolley. You’re on your own so you won’t be able to leave your bag with a friend while you run to the toilet or check out the newsagent while you’re waiting for the train. Don’t worry about not packing enough underwear to last you the trip. Do your laundry in the laundromats.
I’ve always liked doing my laundry in strange cities, it made me feel like I was part of place and it was a great place to people watch. Just bring a book.
- MAKE SURE WHICH HOTELS OR HOSTELS ARE OPEN LATE: If you arrive late in a city and you haven’t booked a place to stay, make sure you know which places are open. You don’t want to be searching alone late at night for a place to sleep.
- BE SAFE: I don’t mean to sound like your mom and don’t avoid visiting a place on your own just because it seems dangerous (Naples, Mexico City, Bangkok). But you can set a few rules for yourself to keep yourself out of harms way, while still enjoying your freedom to travel.
- Trust your instinct. I once took a self defense class and the instructor said that of all the stories she’s heard from people who have gotten mugged, raped, and assaulted happened because they didn’t follow their instinct. So, if going down that alley feels wrong, even if it’s in the middle of the day and there are people all around, listen to yourself. Don’t do it.
- Stay in open and public spaces, especially at night. Use your judgment. When I lived in Mexico City, I never ventured out alone in the city after 10 pm, even if there were people around. That said, if you’re in Rome hanging out in the piazza that’s full of people at 12:30 at night is a pretty good place to be.
- Walk with confidence and purpose, like you own the place. When I was 21, I spent 4 months living in Florence. In the beginning, I was shy and I got lots of unwanted attention from men on the street. I kept my head down and walked quickly, but some would follow me or shout after me. But as I got used to the place and started to feel more comfortable, I started to look at the annoying men in the eye. If they said hello, I brightly and exuberantly said hello back, which made them run away.
- Moderate your drinking. By all means have a glass of wine or two, but make sure you keep your wits about with you, so you can travel home safely. And if you need to, spend the money on a cab home.
- Keep your wallet close to you. Carry cash and cards in separate places. Keep copies of your passport. If you sit down at an internet café or a restaurant, make sure your bag stays on your lap or next to you. Even better keep a small cross-body bag on you at all time with your most important things. I once made the mistake of putting my bag under my chair and when I got up to leave, it wasn’t there anymore.
- EAT, EAT, EAT: I love taking myself out to dinner with a notebook and trying new foods. But it can also get tiring always eating alone. If you’re uncomfortable eating alone, you can get some nice picnic foods and sit in a park. It’s also cheaper. Also, travelling alone doesn’t mean you’re always alone and it’s easy to make friends along the way. And if that’s difficult for you, too, you can also check out this website Invite for a Bite http://inviteforabite.com/. You can organize or join a meet-up group for a meal in whatever city you are visiting. It’s a great way to both travel solo and have some company.
- DOCUMENT: Take photos and keep a notebook. Selfies are great, but also take snapshots as little souvenirs and reminders not made for social media. Keeping a notebook is a great way to remember and place to paste all those ticket stubs, maps, and flyers that you’ve collected.
- KEEP AN OPEN MIND: Say yes to meeting someone and travelling together on a whim, take a chance on a taking part in a guided tour that you know nothing about, push your boundaries and go on that diving exhibition even though you’re afraid of sharks (maybe).
That’s what’s great about travelling. You allow yourself to be open and vulnerable and you can get some great experiences from it. Of course, you follow your instincts and say no when it feels bad and you’ll know when to say no.
- CARRY A DICTIONARY: Make an effort to learn a few words in the language. Even if it’s just please and thank you. Natives will admire you for making the effort and it’s a great way to break down some barriers
- TAKE YOUR TIME: Even if you prepare yourself beforehand, there are going to be long queues, flight, bus and train delays, and cancellations at the last minute. Relax and try to take it for what it is, you’re on holiday and no one is expecting you to be anywhere. Put on your headphones and open your book and sit back and wait.
- YOU DON’T HAVE TO BE ALONE: If you get tired of being alone, don’t beat yourself up for it. Join a tour group for a day trip, look up online for a an expat-meetup group in the city, linger over breakfast in the hotel and talk to some other guests, pick your head up from your book and look around the room. If you’re feeling lonely, don’t beat yourself up for it, but realize that you have the advantage of meeting people because you’re travelling solo.
- DO YOUR OWN THING: There’s no right or wrong way to travel. If you feel like crossing off every item listed in your guideback, go for it. If you want to sit next to the Acropolis finishing your Danielle Steele novel, that’s great! No one’s testing you on this shit, it’s all about you and your stories.
Gaspara Stampa, Female Renaissance Poet
14 September 2015
I found this ceramic plate a few years ago at a charity shop in Tufness Park. The back of it is stamped and says that it comes from the Guerrieri workshop on the Murano island in Venice.
The phrase “Vivere ardendo e non sentire il male” can be roughly translated as “To live in flames and never feel the pain.”
It’s like what I talked about yesterday. I’ve been looking at this phrase for years now, using the plate to put my rings on it while I wash the dishes in the kitchen, and it never occurred to me that it could come from something.
So finally I looked it up and yes it comes from a poem, written during the Renaissance by Gaspara Stampa, “Amor mi ha fatto tal ch’io vivo in foco“. (Love has made me such that live in fire).
I hadn’t heard of her before, but Gaspara Stampa is considered to be one of the greatest female poets of the Renaissance. She lived in Venice in the 1500s and she was educated in literature, art and music. Her family hosted salons in their homes and had regular visitors of artists, writers and musicians. She shunned society’s constraints and lived quite freely as an educated woman with lots of lovers.
I’ve been having this poem staring me in the face all this time! And what’s more it’s written by a Venetian courtesan poet, considered to be one of the greatest poets during the Renaissance. Can you believe it?
Here’s the poem in Italian:
Amor m’ha fatto tal ch’io vivo in foco,
qual nova salamandra al mondo, e quale
l’altro di lei non men strano animale,
che vive e spira nel medesimo loco.
Le mie delizie son tutte e il mio gioco
vivere ardendo e non sentire il male,
e non curar ch’ei che m’induce a tale
abbia di me pietà molto né poco.
I’m still trying to understand the old-fashioned Italian myself. But I like the part where the phrase comes from:
Love has made me such that I live in fire,
Like a second salamander in this world
Or like the phoenix that lives and dies in the same place.
All my delights and my game
Are to live in flames and never feel the pain
And never care if he who leads me to this,
Pities me little or much.
I feel like I’m full of all these ideas right now, of poems and writing, of Venice, of Italy, and of all these possibilities that life offers if you can ignore the self-doubt and what society says you can and can’t do. Of course, if you’re wealthy and educated, life is a lot easier, but this woman is still great inspiration. From this poem, she’s a woman who doesn’t back down because she’s been jilted in love and continues to fan the flames of her passion and personality.
My Love For Italian Ceramics and Its History
13 September 2015
You know that feeling when you finally notice something that you’ve been looking at or seeing for years and years and you realize that it is the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen? It’s kind of a cliché, but why is it? Why did it take you all that time to notice it?
That’s how I feel about Italian ceramics. I grew up with pieces at home and seeing them at them at all of my relatives homes in Italy and the US. I passed by countless shops in and around Napoli and it was just something familiar and passé, souvenirs hocked to the tourists.
This past year, it suddenly hit me how beautiful they are. Travelling to Venice to visit my in-laws, I noticed ceramics in their homes too, all these plates and jugs and bowls full of colours and patterns that seem to have absorbed all of that Mediterranean sun and gleam it back out inside the home.
What was wrong with me all these years? These are the most beautiful things in the world and I want to cradle them like babies. Lots of places sell cheaper pieces like souvenirs, which are still incredibly beautiful in my opinion, and I’ve found lots of them in the charity shop for a pound or two.
But it made me wonder, being blind to these beautiful things surrounding me all these years, why were ceramics so popular in Italy? Why did they start making them?
The Italian pottery that we see all over Italy is called maoilica, a tin-glazed earthenware that makes the pottery gleam with colours that never fade. This type of pottery making originated in Mespotamia during the 9th century and the process travelled along the major trade routes. It made its way to Italy via Spain (specifically via Majorca hence the word maoilica) during the 12th century.
During the Renaissance improvements were made to the kilns and glazing process. New colours, in addition to the original purple and green, like orange, blue and yellow were used and the hand-painted pottery was elevated to an art form. The noble, wealthy families commissioned these pieces. Jugs, dinner plates, platters, vases, and tiles were all put into use and on display. The decorative patterns and colours taken from the Islamic and Spanish pottery soon turned into an Italian style of using mythical and biblical narratives and figures with ornate and colourful decorative patters against a gleaming white background.
And the noble families even changed their eating habits because of the maoilica craze. Where before they engaged in family style eating, all eating off of the same platter, meals began to be served on beautiful individual plates.
I’ve only touched on the top layer of the history of pottery in Italy and I haven’t even mentioned the towns throughout Italy that were famous for making these these works — Deruta in Umbria, Montelupo in Tuscany, Vietri in Campania, Grottaglia in Puglia, and Monreale in Sicily. There is so much more to read and learn about and I’m only getting started. I know that following the history of these works also entails following the development of Italy as a country. From looking at one beautiful object, I can uncover a whole story and as well as the history of the development of Italy as a country. It’s incredible.
If you can’t make a trip to Italy right away, there are lots of places to buy maoilica online.