Books About Italy I’m Compulsively Reading (and Re-Reading)

No matter where I am in the world, I have a shelf devoted to books about Italy. Which may be why, although I started out this post planning to write a gift guide — something I do every couple of years — I found that everything that came to mind to include was… a book.

While that partly speaks to the fact that I’m a nerd bookworm, it also speaks to something else: whether you’re interested in fiction or memoir, food or art, ancient history or World War II, there are a number of compulsively-readable books about Italy out there these days.

What is my bar for “compulsively readable”? In the last three years, I’ve gone through two transatlantic moves. Each time, I’ve had to winnow down my library. Most of the books on this list are ones that I found myself re-buying after my last move. That’s how much I couldn’t live without them.

So. Here are the books about Italy I’ve sometimes bought not once, but twice — and the person on your gift-giving list (other than you!) who might like them best.

The best book about Italy for the one on your list… who, faced with a table of magazines at the doctor’s office, always reaches for the New Yorker.

Haven’t heard of Elena Ferrante? First, crawl out from under your rock. Second, run, don’t walk, to your nearest bookstore to pick up the first novel in her “Neapolitan quartet”: My Brilliant Friend.

The series pins down human emotions, flaws and foibles with such searing precision, it’s sometimes almost excruciating to read. On the surface, it’s about two girls who grow up together in the shadows of a working-class neighborhood in postwar Naples. And if you love Italy, especially the south or bella Napoli, it will give you a raw, intense look at a people and culture that tend to be stereotyped, not examined.

Why take a day trip from Rome to Naples?

And yet, as in any true masterpiece, so many of the observations Ferrante makes apply far beyond the backstreets of Naples. For example…

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The Pyramid in Rome: Restored, Clean and Now Open

The pyramid of Rome, also called Pyramid of Cestius

Did you know there’s a pyramid in Rome? Neither do most people. And not only is there a pyramid, but it’s a pretty legit — and ancient — pyramid: dating back to 12BC, it was the over-the-top burial tomb of Caius Cestius, a Roman praetor with a thing for Egyptian style.

At 120ft (36m) tall, with a base of 97ft (29.5m) on each side, the Pyramid of Cestius is pretty hard to miss. It’s been largely overlooked for years, though, for a few reasons. For one, it’s located in Testaccio — a neighborhood that, while very much in the center of Rome, is just off the beaten tourist track. That’s changing, thanks to recent trends like the gamut of food tours that now run through the area. But the quarter remains less trodden than, say, the streets around Piazza Navona.

Not to mention that Rome’s pyramid was in bad shape. Once gleaming, white marble, it had become so dirty that, by the time I first laid eyes on it in 2009, it was a sooty, dark brown-gray. It was so bad that, having just scoured five years of photographs to see if I could find proof for you, it turns out I don’t have a single one — probably because, in all the dozens of times I walked past, it was so grimy I hadn’t felt moved to take a picture.

And finally, except for the occasional “extraordinary opening”, the pyramid was closed to visitors.

That’s all changed.

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Can Rome’s Ancient World Be Saved? My Video with BBC Travel

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In July, I filmed my first video for BBC Travel: It’s about how Rome’s ruins are at risk — and what’s being done (or not) to save them. The video is part of what we hope will be a series called Dissolving History, about cultural heritage under threat around the world. You can watch Dissolving History: Rome here.

Cultural heritage (a decidedly unexciting term for what I think is one of the most exciting things around — the one way we can really get up close and personal with our own history!) is a topic close to my heart. I first covered how Italy’s heritage was underfunded five years ago. Since then, I’ve written about UNESCO’s intangible cultural heritage for National Geographic Traveler and Italy’s stolen works of art for the BBC.

But even when I’m not writing about cultural heritage directly, I’m writing about it somehow. It’s rare that I write a travel story — or take a trip at all — without somehow touching on the destination’s monuments and museums, its artifacts and archaeology. And I have a feeling it’s the same for most of you.

So it’s an important topic. And a surprisingly fun one. Check out the video for more.

And here are some behind-the-scenes shots, if you’d like to see…

Biblioteca Casatense, Dissolving Heritage Rome

I was fortunate enough to get an interview with Italy’s Minister of Cultural Heritage Dario Franceschini. Here, I’m debriefing with his aides after the interview.

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Why the Domus Aurea Tour is a Must-Do (Updated for 2017!)

Domus Aurea tour

For years, you were out of luck if you wanted to take a tour of the Domus Aurea tour — i.e. the famed “Golden House” of Nero. But in 2014, it reopened to the public (on guided tours only)… and the visit just keeps getting better and better. (More in my update at the bottom of the post).

I haven’t seen this much excitement over a site’s opening since the Colosseum’s underground was unveiled back in 2010. And you know what? Having toured both, the excitement over the Domus Aurea may be even more merited.

(PS: Don’t miss my article on the Domus Aurea in the Globe & Mail!).

First, the basics. Emperor Nero built his palace back in 64AD. (Yes, he’s the “fiddled while Rome burned” guy; although that’s an urban legend, you can’t deny his, erm, ingeniousness in using the land conveniently cleared by the fire for his dream palace). The property, which included open gardens and pastures as well as rooms and galleries, stretched all the way from the Palatine Hill to the Esquiline. Some scholars place it at 300 acres.

And let’s just say that the term “Golden House” doesn’t even begin to describe the property’s dazzle and opulence. “The vestibule of the house was so big it contained a colossal statue 120 feet high, the image of Nero; and it was so extensive that it had three colonnades a mile long. There was a lake too, in fact a sea, surrounded with buildings as big as cities,” Suetonius wrote. (Nota bene: The Colosseum later was built on the site of that lake). “Behind it were villas with fields, vineyards and pastures, woods filled with all kinds of wild and domestic animals. In the rest of the house everything was coated with gold and adorned with gems and shells. The dining-rooms had fretted ceilings made of ivory, with panels that turned and shed flowers and perfumes on those below. The main banquet hall was circular and constantly revolved day and night, like the heavens. He had baths supplied with sea water and sulphur water.”

In other words: Nero would have killed on MTV’s Cribs.

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Rome’s Underground, Beyond the Catacombs

San Nicola underground

Anywhere you go in Rome, you're walking on a buried, ancient world. Beneath your feet lie the remnants of the city that ruled an empire: temples and streets, villas and churches, monuments and tombs. And while we've all heard of the catacombs, there are many, many other underground sights in the city that are every bit as fascinating. If not more so.

I wrote about seven of my favorite hidden, yet accessible places for an underground Rome fix for the Globe and Mail, online here.

(Update,December 2014: After I wrote that piece, one of the coolest, and longest-awaited, underground sites in Rome opened: the Domus Aurea, or Nero's Golden House. Find out more about the Domus Aurea, and how to get there, here!).

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“Caligula: 1400 Days of Terror” Comes to Italy

Caligula copy
"Caligula: 1400 Days of Terror," a documentary I was one of the "storytellers" for, aired in the U.S. on Oct. 9—and now, it's coming to Italy.

It airs on Italy's History Channel on Sunday, Oct. 28 at 9pm. (If you miss it, it airs in Italy again on Monday, Nov. 19 at 9pm). If you're in Italy, tune in to hear me and other friends in Rome, including Katie Parla and Darius Arya, share the latest theories behind one of history's most notorious wackos!

You can get a preview of the show (in English) here.

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The History Channel’s “Caligula: 1400 Days of Terror” Premieres in the U.S.

Caligula copy
Rumor has it he made his horse a consul, his palace a brothel, and his sisters his, erm, “girlfriends.” Two thousand years later, the jury’s still out on how crazy Emperor Caligula really was.But one thing’s for certain: He was, and remains, a fascinating character.

That’s why I was thrilled to be a host/”story-teller” for the History Channel’s 2-hour documentary on the Roman emperor, produced by North South Productions. And, having premiered in Australia and New Zealand, the documentary is finally coming out in the U.S.

So mark your calendars: The U.S. premiere date for “Caligula: 1400 Days of Terror” is Tuesday, Oct. 9 at 9pm. Tune in to hear me and other friends in Rome, including Katie Parla and Darius Arya, share the latest theories behind this still-mysterious figure!

Update, Oct. 4: The preview has just been put online! You can get a glimpse of the show here.

Update, Nov. 5: You can now buy the documentary for instant download from Amazon for $2.99; get it here.

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Correct Your Tour Guide: Two Major Misconceptions About Ancient Romans

Bikini girls mosaic Sicily

These 4th-century Roman mosaics, located in the Villa Romana del Casale of Sicily, show women throwing a discus, running, even lifting weights—and because one woman looks like she’s being crowned victor, may show an actual athletic competition

Over the years, I have heard a lot of misconceptions about ancient Rome. From guidebooks. From tourists. Even from (some) tour guides.

My favorite might be what I spotted in the Fodor’s Rome guidebook: The holes in the Colosseum come from the fact that it was shelled by Nazis. WTF? That’s just false. Thankfully, this year I was, for the first time, an updater for Fodor’s… so it’s one error you won’t see in the 2012 edition.

Still, lots of other misconceptions are hanging around—and way harder to correct. Here are two that I find most irritating, and what the truth is behind them.

Major misconception #1: Ancient Romans had very short lives, and if you made it to 35, you were old 

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard this: “The life expectancy of the average Roman was 35.” What people, including many tour guides, usually draw from this is that 30- and 40-something Romans must have been very venerable indeed.

Here’s the problem. Aside from the fact that the data is terrible, this 35-year life expectancy is the average. Meaning it factors in the ancient world’s very high child mortality rate: Up to half of all Roman kids died before the age of 10. If you did reach 10, you could expect to live into your 40s or 50s, at least. Then there’s all the Roman men who died in military service… and the women who died in childbirth.

If you jumped through those hoops and survived your teens, 20s, and 30s, you’d have no reason to think you wouldn’t lead a nice, long life. In fact, those who reached the age of 60 would, on average, die after their 70th birthdays.

Antinous in the Naples archaeological museum

No, not everyone was this age, and looked like this, in ancient Rome (although a girl can dream!)

So someone at 35 wouldn’t have been seen as an “old person.” “From around the first century B.C. onwards, the age of 60 or 65 was commonly mentioned as the threshold of old age,” writes Karen Cokayne in “Experiencing Old Age in Ancient Rome.” That’s also when you got out of previous public obligations, like jury duty (yay!).

In other words: In the ancient world, child mortality sucked. But if they survived their childhood, childbirth, and military service, Romans could expect to live as long as we do today.

Major misconception #2: Ancient Roman women had, like, no rights whatsoever

House of Vestal Virgins

The House of the Vestal Virgins, in the Roman forum

Let me make one thing clear: In no way would I rather be an ancient Roman woman than an American/Italian one (although, as a huge history nerd, making the trade for the chance to see the empire in its glory would be tempting…). But I might rather be a woman in ancient Rome than, I don’t know, a 21st-century woman in some other countries in the world.

Here’s the bad news: Ancient Roman women were citizens, but they couldn’t vote or hold political office. (Like America less than 100 years ago). And, technically, their father held patria potestas, or ultimate life-and-death power, over them until they died. (Eek!).

Still, some other things might surprise you. Ancient Roman women:

  • could own property, engage in business, and loan money
  • served as some of the empire’s most important priests (think: the Vestal Virgins, who weren’t under their father’s technical authority and who, thanks to those vows of chastity, didn’t have the usual obligation to marry and raise children)
  • had the legal right to split their father’s property, 50-50, with their brothers
  • fought as gladiators (a rare occurrence, but it did happen!)
  • went to public primary schools, and either received the same education as, or learned alongside, the boys
  • worked out in gyms and may have participated in athletic contests (see the photo at top!)

In other words: Men and women were hardly equal in ancient Roman society. But, compared to other ancient societies—and even to some modern ones—Roman women had it pretty well.

Intrigued? Here’s some further reading:

Daily Life in the Roman City: Rome, Pompeii, and Ostia, a close look at the inner workings of urban Roman life

Ancient Rome: The Autobiography, an entertaining look at what it would have been like to live in ancient Roman times

Roman Women (Cambridge Introduction to Roman Civilization), a great, comprehensive, and easy-to-read overview of women’s roles in ancient Roman society

Rome’s Vestal Virgins, a thorough, and fascinating, look at the cult of Rome’s most powerful priestesses

Roman Women, a collection of essays about Roman women who were active in politics, theater, culture, and religion

Experiencing Old Age in Ancient Rome, on how Romans experienced and dealt with aging

Also: Rome’s most cutting-edge ancient site, 11 etiquette mistakes not to make at an Italian meal and can Rome’s ancient world be saved? (my 2016 video with the BBC).

If you liked this post, you’ll love The Revealed Rome Handbook: Tips and Tricks for Exploring the Eternal City, available for purchase on Amazon or through my site here! I’m also free for one-on-one consulting sessions to help plan your Italy trip.

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