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Read Up on Italy: 7 Great Books about Florence, Venice, and Rome

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Reading Up on Italy

7 Great Books on Florence, Venice, and Rome

Summertime is here and with it, the classic summer holiday abroad.  If Italy is in your plans, it’s time to start reading up on your destination.  These are my picks for engrossing reads that will inform and entertain, as you immerse yourself into the fascinating history, culture, and food of Florence, Venice, and Rome?

Florence: City of Artists, Bankers, and Politicians

Reading up on Italy: 7 Great books on Florence Venice and Rome

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 Lives of the Artists by Giorgio Vasari

Vasari’s contemporary account of the quattrocento  art scene in Florence has stood the test of time as an invaluable resource for anyone embarking on a study of the Renaissance artists from Cimabue to Titian. No serious student of art history should visit Florence without a copy as it remains the best guidebook to the  Uffizi Gallery, which Vasari helped to design.  Lives of the Artists is renowned for its mix of witty chat and scholarly facts in a style all Vasari’s own, which echoes down the centuries in this engaging account of the backgrounds, apprenticeships, personal lives, and achievements of great artists such as Giotto, Michelangelo, Raphael, Leonardo da Vinci, and others.   

The House of Medici:  Its Rise and Fall by Christopher Hibbert

The lives of talented and flamboyant Medici family come alive in Christopher Hibbert’s excellent account of the web of money, power, and influence this Renaissance dynasty wielded in Florence and ultimately all over Italy by this powerful family.  Hibbert’s history reads almost like a thriller with plenty of colorful detail about daily life in Renaissance Florence, as we meet and get to know the major Medici protagonists such as the patriarch Cosimo, his worthy successor, Lorenzo Il Magnifico, the wily Catherine de Medici who became Queen of France, and Pope Leo X, who famously quipped on his election: “God has given us the papacy, let us enjoy it!” 

This is a must-read book for travelers embarking on an exploration of the rich history of Florence.

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Venice: La Serenissima

Reading Up on Italy: 7 Great Reads on Florence, Venice, and Rome

Photo by Jennifer Eremeeva

Venice, by Jan Morris

This is the travel book that makes travel writers grind their teeth!  A fascinating plunge into one of the world’s most fascinating cities.  Morris seems to be haphazard about her methodology, but what emerges is an unforgettable look at the history, culture, and mood of Venice, as well as a delightful exploration as to what makes the Venetians tick.  Essential reading for even an afternoon’s visit to Serenissima.  Don’t leave home without it.  Jan Morris discussed her love of Venice and the book in this book club meeting with The Guardian in April of 2015.

Venice, A New History by Thomas Madden 

The history of La Serenissima is brought to colorful  life in this exciting history of the enigmatic city that grew from an obscure backwater settled by Attila the Hun in 450 CE to an independent maritime powerhouse and playground for the rich and famous.   Madden is a prolific academic author with a passion for Italian history that makes this an eminently readable history of this unique city.

POLPO:  A Venetian Cookbook (Of  Sorts) by Russell Norman

Russell Norman’s Polpo restaurants in central London have long been favorites for their authentic yet informal Venetian specialties.  His eponymous cookbook offers a delightful and delicious look at Venice’s signature cuisine, featuring beautiful pictures, exquisite binding, and 120 mouthwatering but easy-to-execute recipes from Venice. Polpo is an excellent primer to the culinary canon of Venice and a must-read for gourmands preparing for a trip to La Serenissima!

Visit the Polpo Restaurants in their London Locations:

Polpo Soho (41 Beak Street)

Polpo Covent Garden (6 Maiden Lane)

Polpo Chelsea (81 Duke of York Square)

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Rome: The Eternal City





Reading up on Russia: 7 Great Books on Florence, Venice, and Rome

Photo Credit:  Jennifer Eremeeva





Absolute Monarchs: A History of the Papacy by John Julius Norwich 

The late and much-lamented Viscount Norwich, a prolific writer of histories as diverse and complex as The Middle Sea and A Short History of Byzantium (which is anything but) comes by his loquacity honestly.  He is the son of the prominent diplomat and politician Duff Cooper and his wife Lady Diana Cooper, herself a noted diarist and socialite.  In Absolute Monarchs, the complex two-thousand-year history of the papacy is a riveting blend of political and religious history that traces the development of the throne of St. Peter into both a sacred and secular power.  The book also provides a fascinating look at the personalities of the popes themselves from St. Peter to Benedict.  


SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard

The classical world has been abuzz since the publication in late 2015 of Mary Beard’s authoritative and unapologetic look at the history of ancient Rome.  Beard traces the development of the city from an obscure backwater to an unchallenged and unrivaled empire stretching across Europe, North Africa and into the Middle East.  A Cambridge classics professor, Beard brings fresh insight to established sources and challenges our assumptions from earlier foundation texts such as Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of Ancient Rome about how the Romans achieved all they did and what daily life was like in ancient Rome.  I find Mary Beard incredibly addictive and you will too, so go on a jag with some of her other books, including Women in Power, Confronting the Classics, Laughter in Ancient Rome, Pompei, and from the exciting Civilization Series, How Do We Look: The Eye of Faith.

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Notes from the Author:

Thank you very much for stopping by!  I hope you found these suggestions interesting, and I would love to hear your favorite reading on Italy.  This list only skims the surface!

A version of this post was originally written for Alexander +  Roberts, a leading American Tour Operator in conjunction with their Italy by Rail itinerary.  I really enjoy my role as their in-house travel blogger!

Please note that this post contains affiliate links.  Clicking on the links in this post does not obligate you to buy anything, but any purchases you do make will result in a small commission to me, which I use to support my work as a freelance writer.  I only list products and services I personally endorse.

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