When I lived in Rome, it was my first time living in Italy full-time and it was really challenging. There was so much to learn about Italy, not just how to live there, but what the hell people were actually talking about. I hardly got any of the cultural and historical references that came up in conversations and films and I was always asking questions like ‘why’ and ‘how’. Like who was Aldo Moro and why was he assassinated?·
(This is a long and interesting story, but the very short version is that Aldo Moro, Italian prime minister during the 70s, was kidnapped by the Italian anarchist group Le Brigate Rosse for ransom and then killed and left in the trunk of car in the centre of Rome.)
After a while (and it really should have been much sooner), it occurred to me that I could read about this stuff and find out for myself. There are so many books out there in English about contemporary Italian history written by historians and journalists. I really don’t know why it took me so long to start reading them, but I have been reading these books ever since.
Here are two books to start with:
A History of Contemporary Italy: Society and Politics 1943-1980 by Paul Ginsborg:
This is a dry and dense read written by British historian Paul Ginsborg who has been Professor of contemporary European history at the University of Florence since 1992. It’s a historical analysis of post-war Italy and includes charts, data and statistics. This book will give you all the information you need about the post-war economic boom, the movement of southern workers to the north, left wing politics and the working class movement, the 50 year run of the Christian Democrat party, the ‘anni di piombo’ and the Red Brigades, and more.
It’s a bit of slog to get through, but well worth the read and gives a complete overview of what happened in the country after the war. This was the first book I read about Italy and it blew my end. I understood so many more cultural and historical references and suddenly the names of the streets in Rome had meaning. For example, viale Palmiro Togliatti, a main thoroughfare that cuts through Rome north and south is named after the leader of the Communist Party who helped put together a new Italian government at the end of WWII. This is a significant thing to know about because it helps explain Italy’s relationship with communism and how it helped shape the fabric of the Italian left. Italian communist leaders were respected enough to have streets named after them.
You can follow up this book with his sequel Italy and its discontents: family, civil society, state, 1980-2001. This book will continue its exploration of history during these two decades through the lens of the Italian family and the role it played in the further development of the country. It covers major events such as Tangentopoli that caused the downfall of the Christian Democrat Party, the rise of Silvio Berlusconi, and mafia and corruption.
The Italians by John Hooper:
For something with more of a narrative structure and less heady, try 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 Luigi Barzini’s book, The Italians digs deep into Italian culture, history and religion to try to dismantle stereotypes and explain why Italy is the way it is today. It’s a fun and very perceptive read written by someone who has lived in Italy for decades. There is still an historical perspective, but Hooper uses facts to explain things like why there’s no word in Italian for hangover (but 12 words for coat hanger), the connections between football and the freemasons, changing attitudes to sex, the north and south divide, and why Italians are reluctant to use a dishwasher.
You can read about some other Italy history and culture books in a previous post I’ve written.
And I also recommend some other books that I’ve read since that last post including:
- Midnight in Sicily by Peter Robb – about the mafia, corruption and the Manipulite campaign run by prosecutor Antonio di Pietro. It’s written in a fun narrative style in the first person. Excellent read and gives you plenty of background of a time that is often referenced in films and TV programmes today. Read this book and then watch Il Divo and The mafia kills only in summer (La mafia uccide solo nell’estate).
- The Sack of Rome by Alexandre Stille – about the rise of Berlusconi from his beginnings as a property developer to his multiple runs as Italy’s prime minister. This book explains the role television played in shaping Italy during the 1980s from the government to family life. Read this and then watch the TV series 1992 and 1993. fd
- Two Kitchens by Rachel Roddy – another cookbook by my favourite food writer who lives in Rome. This book consists of recipes that are cooked in her home kitchens in Rome and in Gela, Sicily where Roddy’s partner Vincenzo is from. Its sections are organised by ingredients (such as chickpeas, grapes, ricotta, and fish) instead of types of dishes so you get a more literary and deeper sense of ingredients and the role they play in Roman and Sicilian meals.
This post is written
as part of the dolcevitabloggers linkup, hosted by Jasmine of Questa Dolce Vita, Kelly of Italian at Heart and Kristie of Mamma Prada the 3rd Sunday of every
month. Click #dolcevitabloggers
to read blog posts by other participants