While planning your trip to Italy, why don’t find some inspiration from Italian literature? Dante may be daunting, but whatever your literary tastes, we’ve got some recommendations for you – everything from contemporary Italian books to where to find Italian bookstores selling books in English.
Italian literature – classic books by Italian authors
Classic literature: Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy (1320) is not only an Italian classic but also one of the greatest literary works of all time. The language is challenging (even for Italians), but modern translations in English make it more accessible. Boccaccio’s Decameron (1353) is an entertaining collection of short stories told by a group of people fleeing the Black Death; it could provide some literary light relief during the Covid-19 crisis too…
19th-century literature: The two greats of 19th-century Italian literature are Alessandro Manzoni and Giacomo Leopardi. Manzoni’s The Betrothed (1827) is a dense historical novel, “the most widely read work in the Italian language”. If you’re interested in Romanticism and philosophy, try the lyrical poetry of Leopardi. His short works are perhaps a more accessible starting point for Italian poetry than Dante – start with the Canti (1835)
20th-century literature: One of the greatest Italian books of modern times is non-fiction – Carlo Levi’s memoir Christ Stopped at Eboli (1945), which describes hardship and suffering in Basilicata. Elsa Morante’s controversial novel History (1974) explores a different kind of suffering – the lives of a Jewish family in Rome in the aftermath of the Second World War. Morante was married to Alberto Moravia, another key figure in 20-century Italian literature. His best-known works include The Conformist (1947) and Two Women (1957) – dark novels that describe Italians struggling in their search for normality in fascist Rome.
The historical novel The Leopard (1958) by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa chronicles the lives of an aristocratic Sicilian family in the 19th century. Initially dismissed as “unpublishable” by an editor, the novel was published after Lampedusa’s death and is now regarded as a masterpiece. The sumptuous film adaption by Visconti is a must-see.
Italo Calvino’s novels Invisible Cities (1972) and If on winter’s night a traveller (1979) are playful, entertaining literary fiction. Umberto Eco can be a little more heavy-going – he named James Joyce as one of his main influences, after all – but historical mystery The Name of the Rose (1980) enjoyed wide success in Italy and abroad and makes for a rewarding read.
Contemporary literature: The phenomenal success of the enigmatic Elena Ferrante – particularly her Neapolitan novels, including My Brilliant Friend (2012) – has come to define our idea of contemporary Italian books. Ferrante’s novels are essential reading, but she’s one of many excellent modern Italian writers.
Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Montalbano series (1994-2020) are light, enjoyable reads for fans of detective novels. The huge success of Montalbano around the world led to a similarly successful, critically acclaimed TV adaptation starring Luca Zingaretti.
Niccolò Ammaniti is a popular novelist from Rome, best known for I’m Not Scared (2001). His gritty novels, which won him the Premio Strega (the most prestigious Italian literary award), mainly explore family relationships.
If you’re interested in non-fiction and the criminal underworld, start with Gomorrah (2006) by Roberto Saviano. His reporting on the Camorra has forced him to live under police protection, but he continues to be one of the most important figures in Italy for his investigative reporting. You’ll often find his articles in international newspapers too.
Italian bookstores – where to buy English language books in Rome
Many Italian bookstores have a small section dedicated to English language books, but for the best selection, head to a specialist bookstore. Borri Books (Termini station) has a good range, as does the international book chain Feltrinelli (Largo di Torre Argentina 5/A).
When you’re in the historic centre of Rome, check out Anglo-American Book (Via delle Vite 102) near the Spanish Steps and Otherwise (Via del Governo Vecchio 80) near Piazza Navona. Both shops have an excellent range of English language books, including Italian literature in translation. Keep an eye out for regular events such as literary readings and book club meetings.
For second-hand books, cross the Tiber and take a stroll through the picturesque neighbourhood of Trastevere. Here you’ll find the Open Door Bookshop (Via della Lungaretta 23) and the Almost Corner Bookshop (Via del Moro 45) – perfect places to find a literary souvenir from your trip to Rome.