Who here is dreaming of traveling to Italy? *waves hand dramatically* Gimme some of ‘La Dolce Vita’; the sweet life with smooth sunsets, romantic culture, lemons as big as your head, and the most delicious food you can imagine. Oh, take me back to the rolling hills of Tuscany! The cliffs of Cinque Terre! The weaving cobbled streets of Assisi! For centuries, Italy has fed our lofty ideals of the perfect holidays, highlighted in every travel guide you can imagine. The oldest travel guide in the world dates back to 1486. It features beautifully detailed illustrations of Venice, often one of the top destinations on everyone’s list. But you don’t need a travel guide to inspire your daydreams. There are plenty of books set in Italy to stoke your passion and whisk you away.
Before we start, I want to share a fantastic series of five articles featured on Public Books: Black Italy. The first is Reimagining Italy Through Black Women’s Eyes by Guilia Riccò. She highlighted what I also noted about authors of books set in Italy: They are predominantly white. Not only are the authors predominantly white, but there is an unbelievable number of romance books set in Italy that feature a white woman seeking romance and falling in love with a stereotyped Italian man. Historic fiction in Italy usually involves the Church. And criminal fiction set in Italy keeps connecting with the Mafia.
Italy is situated in the heart of the Mediterranean Sea, creating a hub for travelers to stop and share their stories from around the world. Diversity is as much a part of Italy’s storytelling as Roman Mythology and Renaissance Art. We need to see this represented in both our creators and their stories. Otherwise, our books are not truly set in Italy; just the mythos created by travel agencies and tour operators.
A Nation Filled with Memories
From Scratch: A Memoir of Love, Sicily, and Finding Home by Tembi Locke
From Scratch is a bittersweet memoir of three summers Locke spends in Sicily with her daughter, after the death of her husband. Locke, who is American, met her husband in Florence. His family initially would not accept a multicultural marriage (especially with Locke being both Black and an actress). After years of living happily in L.A. with their daughter, they eventually reconcile with his family just as he starts his battle with cancer. There are stories he shared with her, stories his family shares now, and fresh new experiences Locke shares with her daughter. Overall, it paints a beautiful picture of Sicily as a land filled with traditions, history, and hope for the future.
Diary of a Tuscan Bookshop: A Memoir by Alba Donati
Donati knows how captivating the Italian countryside can be. She moved back to her home village of Lucignana (near Lucca, Tuscany) to open ‘Bookshop on the Hill’. It was her ‘hill change’ and soon became a literary destination. Was it easy? No. Was she wooed by her nostalgic Italian village? Absolutely. Was it worth it? Undeniably so! If you are a lover of books, bookstores, and some literary charm, Donati’s memoir is the perfect enticement to buy that ticket to Lucca (and then hire a Vespa).
The Light of Italy: The Life and Times of Federico da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino by Dr. Jane Stevenson
If you love Italy for the Renaissance, take a step back in time to Urbino: a model Renaissance city. Dr. Stevenson has researched the history of Urbino’s most famous Duke, from condottiere to politician and nobleman. Federico created one of the most celebrated libraries in Italy outside of Rome and was the driving force behind the Renaissance, arguably the most culturally significant time in Italian history.
The Land Where Lemons Grow: The Story of Italy and its Citrus Fruit by Helena Attlee
This is less memoir / more nonfiction book and will encourage you to travel to Italy just to see the lemon groves! It’s a unique combination of food and travel, following the history of lemons and how it has seeded within the character of Italy. Attlee paints a glorious picture of Italy’s love with citrus; from the Battle of Oranges in Ivrea to the early days of the Mafia amongst the lemon groves near Palermo. Paired best with a chilled limoncello.
Fictional Memoirs a Little Close to Home
My Brilliant Friend (#1 in The Neapolitan Novels) by Elena Ferrante
This is the first book in a series of four, written under the pseudonym Elena Ferrante. It claims to be a work of fiction, but with a level of hyperreal scrutiny that borders on autobiographical. It follows two friends growing up on the impoverished outskirts of Naples in the 1950s and 1960s. This is not a clean and friendly telling; this is Naples in all of its dirty and grimy glory. Ferrante is brutally honest yet captivating with a book set so deep in Italy, you will feel like you have lived there yourself.
A Literary Escape to Italy
How It All Blew Up by Arvin Ahmadi
It is amazing how many books set in Italy feature characters running away from their lives to Italy. I love the place, but it is not going to solve your issues with the wave of a gelato. Amir discovers this the hard way. Amir is Iranian, gay, and does not feel comfortable with his conservative parents. So, he runs away…to Italy. He replaces his fear of coming out to his family with staying out all night in the heart of Rome. But life has a way of catching up with you, and Amir must face it all — in the confines of an airport interrogation room. This is a story that touches on the very real fears of LGBTQI+ youth and how hard it can be to find a safe place to discover your sexuality.
The Little Italian Hotel by Phaedra Patrick
What better way to escape your broken life than to run away with four strangers? Ginny Splinter, a professional relationship expert, has just been handed divorce papers on their 30th wedding anniversary. Her reaction: she takes off for Italy with four heartbroken listeners to share their stories and bond together on a holiday of healing. It’s a lighthearted adventure as they explore Italy, looking for anything the country can offer to heal their wounded souls. Set across multiple locations in Italy, The Little Italian Hotel doesn’t offer a quick fix to everyone, but it definitely shows how good travel can be for our weary souls.
Love and Gelato by Jenna Evans Welch
Despite everything I said above about the lack of diversity for books set in Italy, there are times when we simply want a sweet light scoop of gelato. This is a book exactly like that, while still hitting some important feels in the world of YA novels. Friendship, family, and love feature high on the list. It starts with Lina, reeling from the death of her mother and the sudden expectation to travel to Italy for the summer to meet her absent dad, Howard. The only real guidance she has is her mother’s journal. As Lina’s mother takes her on a nostalgic tour through Florence, she slowly reveals her secrets and her favourite patisseries (both are equally important).
Historical Fiction Books Set in Italy
The Color Line by Igiaba Scego
In 1887, Lafanu Brown is ready to share her history with her fiancé; about her Native American mother, her African-Haitian father, and how she escaped the American Civil War to somehow become an artist. In 2019, Afro-Italian curator Leila is preparing an exhibit to combine the artwork of Lafanu Brown with the work of young migrants. As the story weaves these two characters together, Scego creates a whole new tour of Rome. The powerful story highlights a history of whitewashing and colonialism, revealing the ugly side behind some of Italy’s most stunning tourist sites.
The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco, English version translated by William Weaver
Possibly the most famous of books set in Italy. You have mystery and history, sectarian politics, heresy, and a Benedictine monastery in northern Italy. Bonus points for the labyrinthine abbey library because it’s a library and a labyrinth. Unfortunately, it is a fictional place though inspired by the real Sacra di San Michele (St Michael’s Abbey) in Piedmont. Set in the 14th century, the death of an illuminator sparks an investigation into the power of the Church and the books it holds most dear.
Oliva Denaro by Viola Ardone
Trigger warning: contains details of domestic violence and rape.
This is not an easy book to read, but it is a hard truth-telling of Sicilian Italy in the 1960s. The titular character is a 15-year-old girl, growing up in a system of female oppression where rape is legal if followed by ‘reparative marriage’. Oliva rebels and fights for her right to choose, even with great social consequences for her family. The historical setting of 1960s Sicily is perfect, especially with the systemic abuse from the Church and State against women.
The Lost Boy of Bologna by Francesca Scanacapra
Bologna is one of the most underrated cities in Italy, possibly the world. Sure, it’s famous for its pasta sauce (which, traditionally, is delicious). However, there is far more character, history, and beauty found in the city. As heartbreaking as the story can be, The Lost Boy of Bologna captures the soul of Bologna on every page. Rinaldo Scamorza becomes an unwitting tour guide, sharing his life story and using his intimate knowledge of the city to survive. As he scampers across the streets and piazzas, Bologna becomes another character in the story. You’ll never look at Bolognese porticos in the same way again.
The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio, edited by G.H. McWilliam
Nothing captures the experience of Florence during The Plague as a captive audience trying to distract itself from The Plague. The Decameron is a collection of novellas by the 14th century Italian author Boccaccio. They are presented under the guise of a story of 10 people sheltering in a secluded villa outside Florence during the Bubonic Plague. It’s a slice-of-life storytelling depicting the adventures and misadventures of the time. Life, love, fortune, and debauchery. It’s hilarious and insightful, and I so wish I had read this during COVID Lockdowns.
In Praise of Disobedience: Clare of Assisi by Dacia Maraini, translated by Jane Tylus
The small village of Assisi is dominated by the Basilica di San Francesco d’Assisi (The Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi). Few tourists even realise there is a second Basilica: that of Santa Chiara/St Clare, a follower of St Francis and founder of the Order of Poor Ladies. Prompted by a letter from a young Sicilian girl, Maraini dives into the history of St Clare to flesh out her story and explore the cultural circumstances. The title refers to St Clare’s disobedience to her family, refusing to marry and choosing to become a nun. Both Clares become the personification of disobedience against social rules that do not support women.
The Betrothed by Alessandro Manzoni, translated by Bruce Penman
First published in 1827, The Betrothed is one of those books often featured on Italian High School reading lists and yet never truly appreciated until we are much older. It presents as a romance, but it is far more socio-commentary, painting the landscape of Lombardy during the Spanish occupation in the 1620s. Renzo and Lucia (the betrothed couple) are thwarted by the jealous Don Rodrigo, forcing them to flee and subsequently separate. Under the threat of plague, famine, and imprisonment, the lovers strive to find each other again, learning harsh lessons about trust and society’s power over our most vulnerable.
The Passion by Jeanette Winterson
This is hard to categorise beyond its historical setting in Italy; more specifically Venice during the Napoleonic Wars. Our two main characters are Henri, a French soldier following Napoleon across Europe, and Villanelle, the daughter of a Venetian boatman sold into prostitution by her husband. This is not a love story, but rather a story about passion. How passion drives us, leads us, and carves out pieces of your soul only to hand it back to you wrapped in ribbon. Italians are thought of as passionate people, and Winterson’s characters personify this so very well.
So Many Romance Books Set in Italy
It is easy to start with Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare’s most famous play set in the Italian city of Verona. Tourists flock to Juliet’s Balcony every year, hoping for some blessing in their love-life; preferably without a tragic end. And yes: you can, in fact, write a letter to ‘Juliet’ for advice. The movie, Letters to Juliet, is fictional but based on the very real Juliet Club and its Secretaries to Juliet (you can learn more about it here). It’s also not the first to inspire romantic holidays in Italy.
In Wild Lemon Groves by Selina Kray
“Will wine-soaked Amalfi nights and long walks through lemon groves work their magic on Seb’s wounded soul?” Sorry, but I had to include this direct quote from the blurb because it was the clincher for me to read this! In his long-standing grief for the loss of his husband (Henry), Seb travels to Amalfi for a trip they had originally planned together. Andrea is the chauffeur (and all-around good guy) willing to guide him. It’s a beautiful hurt/comfort romance novel, as much a love letter to the Amalfi Coast as it is to the characters.
To Italy With Love and Other Stories (Anthology) by Fiona Zedde
Only the first story is set in Italy, but it is glorious. ‘To Italy With Love’ centres on Iris, who travels to the Amalfi Coast for a friend’s destination wedding. When she meets Chrisanne, Iris feels challenged and aroused. It’s easy to be caught up in the romance of the Amalfi Coast, but this story shows that hot sex isn’t always enough to make a relationship work. In fact, that’s pretty much the soul of all three stories. And it’s told really, really well.
Oh, Serafina!: A Fable of Ecology, Lunacy, and Love by Giuseppe Berto, translated by Gregory Conti
This is one of those charming fable stories you would never have picked up if it wasn’t for someone recommending it. And yet, it is a delicate novel clearly intended for a screenplay, from the detailed scenes and marvelous environments. Augusto’s perfect world revolves around talking with the birds in the garden and making love to his beautiful wife, Palmira. Unfortunately, Palmira is more interested in his money and locking him away in an asylum. When Augusto meets Serafina, he discovers a like-minded soul who cares for nature as much as he does. Sure, it’s a romance, but Berto’s writing style makes it an ode to the natural beauty of Lombardy.
That Summer in Puglia by Valeria Vescina
Thirty years after he fled from Italy, Tommaso is discovered by a young private investigator, Will. In an effort to convince Will to ‘forget about him’, Tomasso shares his story — his love and his reason for running away. It is a formidable story, given its depth through Tomasso’s recollection of Puglia. Vescina paints Tomasso’s experiences with sensual words that transport you directly to the region. This is no contemporary romance. It is a nostalgic love wrapped in an atmosphere of history and warmth. Every arched alleyway is a moment of romance, every focaccia is a kiss.
The Mystery of Italy
Acqua Alta by Donna Leon
It translates to “rising waters”, the flooding of Venice during torrential rain. Not the best time to see Venice nor the best time to solve a murder mystery. This case revolves around art fraud and social division, which are all the best bits for any books set in Italy. However, Leon ties it in with the collective experience of ‘Acqua Alta’ and makes the annual event to be part of the story itself. It’s tempting to fly off and visit Venice during the off-season just to see it in action.
The Other End of the Line by Andrea Camilleri, translated by Stephen Sartarelli
On one hand, you have Leon and her Brunetti series. On the other hand, you have Camilleri and Inspector Montalbano. These two authors are the best for mystery books set in Italy. This time, Camilleri takes us to Sicily during a wave of refugees arriving at the port. Amongst the chaos at the port, a master seamstress is found dead — stabbed with her own scissors. The violent mystery is finely woven with the ongoing social crisis. However, Camilleri always balances the seriousness with affection for his characters. It is through Montalbano that we develop a deep and passionate love for Italian food, especially Sicilian cuisine. I can almost taste the arancini…
If your Italian is better than mine (*mi dispiace*), you might be interested in Leah’s list of 11 Exciting Italian Books in Translation here. And if the travel bug has hit, check out our How-To for the Best Travel Guides.
Whether it’s the food, the language, the history, or the romance, Italy is the perfect backdrop for any story. For years, it has inspired writers to create fantastic books set in Italy. And it will continue to do so for many more. As I said, it is not as good as the real deal, but it may tide us over until the next time we look at air tickets. Buon viaggio!