Reading List courtesy Rick Steves’ Europe
Reviews/descriptions courtesy

The Prince; Florentine Histories — Niccolo Machiavelli
Do the ends justify the means? As a leader is it better to be loved or feared? The Prince is a study of power and ethics, Machiavelli examines these ideas and others at time when the Italian States were almost constantly at war. “The Prince” is a study of how to achieve and hold power – at a time when power was continuously shifting Machaiavelli suggested that a leader should do anything to get and hold on to power. As extreme and drastic as Machiavellian ideas may seem they are still widely discussed and more often then not implemented.

The City of Florence — R.W.B. Lewis
With the same grace and scholarship that marked his recent Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Edith Wharton, Lewis takes us into the heart of the city where he and his wife have lived off and on for 50 years. Their experiences in Florence come alive in his descriptions of the places they have rented, their friends, their explorations and their reflections. The author also shows off the city with quotes from Henry James, T.S. Eliot, the Brownings, Bocaccio, Dante and other writers and artists who have been similarly touched by its ambience. While he was working on the book, Lewis informs us, “even a simple bus ride into the center carries me past strong historical and personal associations… [that] we know we have seen before… [yet] we look at as though for the first time.” His fresh view of the city on the Arno makes this a treasurable guide. Illustrations not seen by PW.– we know we have seen before… [yet] we look at as though for the first time.” His fresh view of the city on the Arno makes this a treasurable guide.

Florence: A Portrait — Michael Levey
The usual tourist group’s stay in Florence begins with the Duomo, runs through the paintings in the Uffizi, includes a visit to Michaelangelo’s “David” and ends with a parade through a handful of churches. But the visitor who first reads Sir Michael Levey’s portrait of the city will find rewards off that well-worn track. The city, a self-styled “new Athens” supported a wealth of artists, sculptors, humanists, and scholars, not to mention more than its share of wealthy individuals, who taken together, helped turn Florence into one of the world’s great provincial outposts. Layering telling details, little-known facts and carefully explained social and intellectual history, Levey weaves a dense tale of this charming city, from the Middle Ages to the Quattrocento, through the Renaissance and on up to the early years of this century.

The Stones of Florence — Mary McCarthy
It becomes evident from the first page of The Stones of Florence that Mary McCarthy loves her subject. Yet hers is the steady love of a long acquaintance, an affection that has deepened from mere infatuation to a steady, clear-eyed regard. In this witty tribute to Florence, Mary McCarthy explores the city’s past and present, in the process offering up a tour that covers everything from a description of oil painting to the remarkable history behind Florence’s many towers. The Stones of Florence is ideal for reading on the plane ride to Italy, but it’s also perfect for armchair travelers, art lovers, and students of the Renaissance.

Brunelleschi’s Dome — Ross King
Walker was the hardcover publisher of Dava Sobel’s sleeper smash, Longitude, and Mark Kurlansky’s steady-seller Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World. This brief, secondary source-based account is clearly aimed at the same lay science-cum-adventure readership. British novelist King (previously unpublished in the U.S.) compiles an elementary introduction to the story of how and why Renaissance Italian architect Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446) designed and oversaw the construction of the enormous dome of Florence’s Santa Maria del Fiore cathedralAdesigning its curves so that they needed no supporting framework during construction: a major Renaissance architectural innovation. Illustrated with 26 b&w period prints, the book contains 19 chapters, some very brief. Although the result is fast moving and accessible, King overdoes the simplicity to the point that the book appears unwittingly as if it was intended for young adults. (Donatello, Leonardo and Michelangelo, for example, “took a dim view of marriage and women.”) This book feels miles away from its actual characters, lacking the kind of dramatic flourish that would bring it fully to life. Despite direct quotes from letters and period accounts, the “would have,” “may have” and “must have” sentences pile up. Still, the focus on the dome, its attendant social and architectural problems, and the solutions improvised by Brunelleschi provide enough inherent tension to carry readers along.

The Architecture of the Italian Renaissance — Peter Murray
This classic guide appears in paperback to appeal to new audiences, revising the prior edition and providing over two hundred illustrations along with its history of Italy’s Renaissance revolution. A recommended basic for any studying the Italian Renaissance.

Lives of the Artists — Giorgio Vasari
Giorgio Vasari (1511-74) was born during one of the greatesteras of art, and five centuries later his work gives readers acontemporary window on the Renaissance. In these excerpts from hismassive work, LIVES OF THE PAINTERS, SCULPTORS AND ARCHITECTS, Vasarinot only describes the artists’ major works, but shares personalreflections about the men themselves. Narrator Neville Jason, who alsohas chosen and abridged the selections, is skillful with the Italianand clearly shares Vasari’s ear for entertaining anecdotes. This ismost obvious in the substantial sections on Brunelleschi andMichelangelo, although some of the selections–there are 40 in all,some only five or six minutes–are too brief to be engaging.

Italian Renaissance Art – Laurie Adams
Adams has produced a near-perfect introduction to the people, places, and events of the Italian Renaissance. Beginning with late-Byzantine-era iconography, the text follows Italian art as it transforms from a highly religious activity into a very human one, and culminates with a focus on the multitalented genius of da Vinci, Raphael, and Michelangelo. Unlike many overview books on the Italian Renaissance, which focus mainly on the well-known artists and centers of production, this book also includes discussion of influential yet lesser-known artists and cities of the period. Understandably, Adams places most of her attention on painting. Yet she gives a fair and thorough treatment of architecture and sculpture. The side boxes are helpful and provide further information about the religious figures, ideas, and historical events that directly influenced the era, such as Dante and the black death. Adams takes great care in explaining the architectural context of certain paintings. This, along with numerous superb photographs, adds incalculable value to the understanding of the Italian Renaissance.

The House of Medici; Florence: The Biography of a City — Christopher Hibbert
It was a dynasty with more wealth, passion, and power than the houses of Windsor, Kennedy, and Rockefeller combined. It shaped all of Europe and controlled politics, scientists, artists, and even popes, for three hundred years. It was the house of Medici, patrons of Botticelli, Michelangelo and Galileo, benefactors who turned Florence into a global power center, and then lost it all.
The House of Medici picks up where Barbara Tuchman’s Hibbert delves into the lives of the Medici family, whose legacy of increasing self-indulgence and sexual dalliance eventually led to its self-destruction. With twenty-four pages of black-and-white illustrations, this timeless saga is one of Quill’s strongest-selling paperbacks.

Fortune Is a River — Roger Masters
Providing a remarkable window on the birth of the modern age, this meticulous study examines the little-known collaboration of Leonardo da Vinci and Niccol? Machiavelli. The two worked together in Florence between 1503 and 1506, where Machiavelli, the Florentine republic’s second chancellor, enlisted LeonardoAthen military architect and engineer to warlord Cesare BorgiaAin a grandiose scheme to redirect the Arno River’s course and make Florence a seaport. Machiavelli’s strategic goal was to deprive Florence’s bitter rival Pisa of water from the Arno, which flowed through that city. Beyond this, Leonardo envisioned a transformation of the Arno valley into an irrigated flood-control system that would generate wealth and security for Tuscany. Leonardo and Machiavelli also collaborated on the renovation of a fortress and other military projects, yet most of their joint projectsAincluding the ill-conceived scheme to divert the ArnoAwere failures. Nevertheless, through parallel biographies of his two famed protagonists, Masters, a Dartmouth professor of government, presents architect-inventor Leonardo as a visionary who sought a rational society based on science, while Machiavelli is defended here for his realistic worldview that stressed the inevitability of selfishness and conflict. This surprising dual portrait is beautifully illustrated with Leonardo’s architectural and engineering drawings, urban-planning sketches and maps.

The Hills of Tuscany — Ferenc Máté
A sensuous valentine to author Ferenc Máté’s adopted homeland, The Hills of Tuscany brims with lush descriptions of golden dales, scrumptious meals, rich wines, and friendly natives. After years of nomadic roaming from Central America to Canada, Máté (a writer) and his wife, Candace (a painter), visit Tuscany and impulsively decide that this is where they will settle down. A year later they return and begin the hunt for their dream house. As the likeable Mátés (they’re funny and suitably grateful for the chance to live in one of the world’s garden spots) troll the countryside with a series of colorful Tuscan middlemen, it’s impossible not to become emotionally involved in their quest. And when they finally discover the perfect abode–La Marinaia, a tastefully renovated stone farmhouse set amid scenery that Ferenc describes as “like being in the middle of a painting”–you’re thrilled right along with them. Subsequent chapters follow the Mátés’ growing friendship with their neighbors, who not only help rototill the garden but also reveal where to find porcini mushrooms and truffles in the nearby woods. All in all, reading The Hills of Tuscany is the next best thing to quitting your job, climbing on a plane, and finding your own Tuscan dream house.

A Tuscan Childhood — Kinta Beevor
What could be more romantic than living in an ancient fortress, dining in its rooftop garden, and sleeping under the stars? English artists and intellectuals like the author’s parents (painter Aubrey Waterfield and journalist Lina Duff Gordon) have traditionally adored the Italian countryside, and their daughter’s enchanting memoir describes the happy haven they found near the Tuscan town of Aulla. Kinta was only 5 in 1916 when she made her first trip by pony trap up the steep road to their hilltop abode, and neither exile to English boarding school nor the Second World War could keep her away for long. Famous friends like Bernard Berenson and D.H. Lawrence make cameo appearances, but the real stars are the earthy, dignified Tuscan peasants who worked for her family. Through them, the author immersed herself in the timeless rhythms of rural existence. The text’s highlights include a vivid account of vendemmia, the grape harvest, and the glories of Italian cuisine. Anyone who can read her descriptions of the local polenta, zuppa di verdura, and other meticulously prepared dishes without feeling a rumble in the stomach truly has no interest in food. Though Beevor’s final chapters note the changes that have come to Tuscany in the postwar era, her recollections pay loving tribute to a way of life that truly seems eternal.

A Small Place in Italy — Eric Newby
In 1967 Eric and Wanda Newby fulfilled a long-cherished dream when they bought a run-down farmhouse in northern Tuscany, in the foothills of the Italian Alps. They were the first foreigners to live in the region. A Small Place in Italy describes how the house was restored with the help of their neighbors, a colorful cast of characters who quickly befriended the Newbys.
With his characteristic wry humor and sharp eye for the quirks of human nature, Eric Newby paints an unforgettable picture of rural Italy and its people. The rhythms and rituals of country life – harvesting grapes, making wine, hunting for wild mushrooms – are lovingly evoked, along with the storybook landscapes and changing seasons. At the center of his memoir is the farmhouse itself, which from unpromising beginnings – tileless roof, long-abandoned septic tank and mice the size of small cats was gradually restored.

Under the Tuscan Sun — Frances Mayes
In this memoir of her buying, renovating, and living in an abandoned villa in Tuscany, Frances Mayes reveals the sensual pleasure she found living in rural Italy, and the generous spirit she brought with her. She revels in the sunlight and the color, the long view of her valley, the warm homey architecture, the languor of the slow paced days, the vigor of working her garden, and the intimacy of her dealings with the locals. Cooking, gardening, tiling and painting are never chores, but skills to be learned, arts to be practiced, and above all to be enjoyed. At the same time Mayes brings a literary and intellectual mind to bear on the experience, adding depth to this account of her enticing rural idyll.

A Room With a View — E. M. Forster
Published in 1908, A Room with A View is one of E. M. Forster’s most celebrated works. Forster explores love among a cast of eccentric characters gathered in an Italian pension and in a corner of Surrey, England. Caught up in a world of social snobbery, Lucy Honeychurch must make a decision that will decide the course of her future: She is forced to choose between convention and passion.

The Passion of Artemisia — Susan Vreeland
Like her bestselling debut, Girl in Hyacinth Blue, Susan Vreeland’s second novel, The Passion of Artemisia, traces a particular painting through time: in this case, the post-Renaissance painter Artemisia Gentileschi’s violent masterpiece, “Judith.” Although the novel purports to cover the life of the painter, the painting serves as a touchstone, foreshadowing Artemisia’s rape by Agostino Tassi, an assistant in her father’s painting studio in Rome; the well-documented (and humiliating) trial that followed; the early days of her hastily arranged marriage; and her eventual triumph as the first woman elected to the Accademia dell’ Arte in Florence. Although Vreeland makes a bit free with her characters (which she admits in her introduction), attributing some decidedly modern attitudes to people who would not have thought that way at the time, her book is beautifully researched and rich with casual detail of clothing, interiors, and street life. She deftly works history and politics into the background of her canvas, keeping her focus on Artemisia and her family. Beyond the paintings Artemisia left behind, Vreeland’s vision may be as close as we can come to understanding the anger and ambition that kept this talented woman at the doors of the Accademia, demanding entrance, in a time when respectable women rarely left their homes.

The Sixteen Pleasures — Robert Hellenga
In 1966, 29-year-old Margot Harrington heads off to Florence, intent on doing her bit to protect its precious books from the great floods–and equally intent on adventure. Serendipity, in the shape of the man she’ll fall in love with, leads her to an abbey run by the most knowing of abbesses and work on its library begins. One day a nun comes upon a shockingly pornographic volume, bound with a prayer book. It turns out to be Aretino’s lost erotic sonnets, accompanied by some rather anatomical engravings. Since the pope had ordered all copies of the Sixteen Pleasures burned, it could be worth a fortune and keep the convent autonomous. The abbess asks Margot to take care of the book and check into its worth: “We have to be cunning as serpents and innocent as doves,” she warns.
Soon our heroine finds her identity increasingly “tangled up” with the volume and with Dottor Postiglione, a man with an instinct for happiness–but also one for self-preservation. Margot enjoys the secrecy and the craft (the chapters in which she rebinds the folios are among the book’s finest). Much of the book’s pleasure stems from Robert Hellenga’s easy knowledge, which extends to Italian complexities. Where else would you learn that, in cases of impotence, legal depositions are insufficient: “Modern couples often take the precaution of sending postcards to each other from the time of their engagement, leaving the message space blank so that it can be filled in later if the couple wishes to establish grounds for an annulment.” Luckily, however, there are also shops that sell old postcards, “along with the appropriate writing instruments and inks.”

Though The Sixteen Pleasures is initially in the tradition of American innocent goes abroad to encounter European experience, Hellenga’s depth (and lightness) of characterization and description lift it high above its genre. And what better book than one about loving and loving books?

Birth of Venus — Sarah Dunant
Sarah Dunant’s gorgeous and mesmerizing novel, Birth of Venus, draws readers into a turbulent 15th-century Florence, a time when the lavish city, steeped in years of Medici family luxury, is suddenly besieged by plague, threat of invasion, and the righteous wrath of a fundamentalist monk. Dunant masterfully blends fact and fiction, seamlessly interweaving Florentine history with the coming-of-age story of a spirited 14-year-old girl. As Florence struggles in Savonarola’s grip, a serial killer stalks the streets, the French invaders creep closer, and young Alessandra Cecchi must surrender her “childish” dreams and navigate her way into womanhood. Readers are quickly seduced by the simplicity of her unconventional passions that are more artistic than domestic:

Dancing is one of the many things I should be good at that I am not. Unlike my sister. Plautilla can move across the floor like water and sing a stave of music like a song bird, while I, who can translate both Latin and Greek faster than she or my brothers can read it, have club feet on the dance floor and a voice like a crow. Though I swear if I were to paint the scale I could do it in a flash: shining gold leaf for the top notes falling through ochres and reds into hot purple and deepest blue.
Alessandra’s story, though central, is only one part of this multi-faceted and complex historical novel. Dunant paints a fascinating array of women onto her dark canvas, each representing the various fates of early Renaissance women: Alessandra’s lovely (if simple) sister Plautilla is interested only in marrying rich and presiding over a household; the brave Erila, Alessandra’s North African servant (and willing accomplice) has such a frank understanding of the limitations of her sex that she often escapes them; and Signora Cecchi, Alessandra’s beautiful but weary mother tries to encourage yet temper the passions of her wayward daughter.

A luminous and lush novel, The Birth of Venus, at its heart, is a mysterious and sensual story with razor-sharp teeth. Like Alessandra, Dunant has a painter’s eye–her writing is rich and evocative, luxuriating in colors and textures of the city, the people, and the art of 15th-century Florence. Reminiscent of Tracy Chevalier’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, but with sensual splashes of color and the occasional thrill of fear, Dunant’s novel is both exciting and enchanting.

Galileo’s Daughter — Dava Sobel
Everyone knows that Galileo Galilei dropped cannonballs off the leaning tower of Pisa, developed the first reliable telescope, and was convicted by the Inquisition for holding a heretical belief–that the earth revolved around the sun. But did you know he had a daughter? In Galileo’s Daughter, Dava Sobel (author of the bestselling Longitude) tells the story of the famous scientist and his illegitimate daughter, Sister Maria Celeste. Sobel bases her book on 124 surviving letters to the scientist from the nun, whom Galileo described as “a woman of exquisite mind, singular goodness, and tenderly attached to me.” Their loving correspondence revealed much about their world: the agonies of the bubonic plague, the hardships of monastic life, even Galileo’s occasional forgetfulness (“The little basket, which I sent you recently with several pastries, is not mine, and therefore I wish you to return it to me”).
While Galileo tangled with the Church, Maria Celeste–whose adopted name was a tribute to her father’s fascination with the heavens–provided moral and emotional support with her frequent letters, approving of his work because she knew the depth of his faith. As Sobel notes, “It is difficult today … to see the Earth at the center of the Universe. Yet that is where Galileo found it.” With her fluid prose and graceful turn of phrase, Sobel breathes life into Galileo, his daughter, and the earth-centered world in which they lived.

A Rich Full Death — Michael Dibdin
The cast of Dibdin’s mid-19th-century literary puzzler features a Beatrice, an Isabel, an Elizabeth and even an Edith, but its true heroine is Florence, the Italian city where the twisting tale plays out. In letters to an old friend in America, expat Robert Booth narrates his adventures in Florence with other American and English exiles, including Robert Browning and his invalid wife, Elizabeth Barrett, and Isabel Allen and her wealthy husband. Booth, whose dreams of literary fame have faded as surely as his once passionate love for Isabel, teams up with Browning to investigate a series of six cryptic murders that occur in the expat community, turning the “paradise of exiles” into a miniature hell. As their pursuit of the killer leads them through a maze of social and political circles, the two men’s relationship shifts, for they discover that they are both attracted to the same Italian servant. Dibdin’s lively dialogue and period prose complement his vigorous characters. The novel relies heavily on allusions to Dante’s Inferno, and, though it lacks hair-raising suspense, its many subtle clues and plot reversals are engrossing. The author of the Aurelio Zen mysteries displays a sure-handed command of literature, history and humor in this intricate, literate period piece. Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.

Death of an Englishman — Magdalen Nabb
“A coupe de maitre as we say in French…It is one of the tastiest books I have read for years.”–Georges Simenon

“Magdalen Nabb is so good she’s awesome.”–Philadelphia Inquirer

“Neatly plotted and well written. It is a more than sparkling debut.”–Times Literary Supplement

The Dante Game — Jane Langton
In another of her civilized, literary mysteries, Langton ( Emily Dickinson Is Dead ) sends professor Homer Kelly, previously at work in New England academic and historical settings, to teach at an American school in a crumbling villa in Florence, Italy. With characteristic wit (and pen-and-ink illustrations), Langton creates a love song to the architectural and cultural richness of Florence as she centers her plot around the pope’s visit to a Florentine cathedral. When the villa’s adulterous chambermaid and gardener are killed and a ravishingly beautiful student goes missing, Kelly is drawn into a case with ramifications reaching far beyond the concerns of the school’s students and staff. One of the latter, a professor of Dante who has a criminal record in Massachusetts, finds that the literary scavenger hunt–“the Dante game”–he has devised for his class is being used to implicate the Americans in crimes occurring all over the city. The game elegantly ties together a mystery that transports readers to a passionate, sun-drenched world where classical statues turn a blind eye on murders perpetrated at their feet. Copyright 1991
Reed Business Information, Inc.

Bella Donna — Barbara Cherne
It’s summer 1494 in Florence, and the wife of a prominent man is found dead in her courtyard in Bella Donna: A Renaissance Mystery Novel by Barbara Cherne (Looking Glass). Bella, sister-in-law to the widowed man, is presumed guilty, but Giuditta, the family’s cook and the accused’s friend, follows a trail of intricate familial betrayals to prove Bella’s innocence. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

The Agony and the Ecstasy — Irving Stone
Celebrating the 500th anniversary of Michelangelo’s David, New American Library releases a special edition of Irving Stone’s classic biographical novel-in which both the artist and the man are brought to life in full. A masterpiece in its own right, this novel offers a compelling portrait of Michelangelo’s dangerous, impassioned loves, and the God-driven fury from which he wrested the greatest art the world has ever known.

The Light in the Piazza — Elizabeth Spencer
While touring Italy in 1953, beautiful young Clara Johnson falls in love with an Italian man, over the objections of her mother, who knows a secret about her daughter that could spoil the couple’s happiness.

The Decameron — Giovanni Boccaccio
Set against the background of the Black Death of 1348, the hundred linked tales in Boccaccio’s masterpiece are peopled by nobles, knights, nuns, doctors, lawyers, students, artists, peasants, pilgrims, servants, spendthrifts, thieves, gamblers, police-and lovers, both faithful and faithless.