Tag Archives: Books

Tuscan Traveler Tales – Restoring Medici Tapestries at the Palazzo Vecchio

Hidden away on the top of the Palazzo Vecchio is the tapestry restoration workshop of the Opificio delle Pietre Dure, the agency that oversees all manner of restoration for Florentine museums and the artistic contents of public buildings.

Tapestry workshop hidden at the base of the tower of the Palazzo Vecchio.

In 1985, the tapestry workshop was charged with restoration of a series of exquisite Renaissance tapestries commissioned by Cosimo de Medici in the 16th century, which were brought together for the first time in 150 years in a 2015 exhibition entitled, Prince of Dreams: The Medici’s Joseph Tapestries by Pontormo and Bronzino.

Restoring 16th century tapestries (Photo: Opificio delle Pietre Dure)

In 1545, Cosimo I, the Grand Duke of Tuscany, commissioned twenty arazzi (tapestries) telling the Old Testament story (Genesis, 37-50) of Giuseppe Ebreo, or Joseph the Jew. The twenty tapestries, stretching a collective 260 feet, adorned the walls of the Sala dei Duecento (Hall of the Two-Hundred) of the Palazzo Vecchio, for over 300 years.

2015 exhibit returns the twenty tapestries to their original site.

In 1882, ten of them were taken to Rome to be exhibited in the Quirinal Palace, the home of the Italian Savoy kings, now the official residence of the President of the Italian Republic, where they remained until the 2015 exhibition.

Joseph takes Simeon hostage (design by Bronzino)

Why the story of Joseph? The tapestries are masterpieces of allegory, explained exhibition curator Louis Godart, whose study found in Cosimo I de’ Medici, a man who felt he had a lot in common with Joseph.

Cosimo was from the “cadet” branch of the Medici family, one that lived outside Florence. He was almost unknown in the city until he came to power in 1537, following the assassination of his cousin, Duke Alessandro de’ Medici.

Joseph escapes from Potiphar’s wife (design by Bronzino)

After establishing his rule, Cosimo sought to affirm his family’s political, economic and cultural primacy in Florence and in Tuscany. He sought important foreign alliances. He married Eleonora of Toledo, the daughter of Don Pedro Álvarez de Toledo, the Spanish viceroy of Naples. He wanted to raise his profile to the level of European royalty like Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain. Commissioning important works of art demonstrated both culture and wealth.

Louis Godart surmises that the story of Joseph is one in which Cosimo saw many parallels to his own life. For example, Cosimo felt he and his family had been “abandoned” by Florence and its citizens, much as Joseph had been sold off and abandoned by his brothers. Cosimo came to power at 17, the same age as Joseph when he is first mentioned in the Bible. Cosimo used skill to acquire power, much as Joseph became powerful by becoming an important and trusted adviser to the Egyptian pharaoh. Cosimo also, in time, forgave many of his enemies among the Florentine nobility, in the same manner as Joseph forgave his brothers.

Joseph and his brothers at a banquet (design by Bronzino)

In the 15th and 16th centuries tapestries were a common feature in European royal courts and the palaces of wealthy nobles. Cosimo sought out two of the best-known Flemish tapestry masters of his time, Jan Rost and Nicolas Karcher. They had already worked in Italy for the courts of the Gonzaga family of Mantua and the Este Dukes of Ferrara. The preparatory drawings were entrusted to Florentine painters Agnolo Bronzino, Jacopo Pontormo and Francesco Salviati. The tapestries, woven with the finest silk and gold thread, were hung in the Sala dei Duecento, the seat of the Tuscan ducal government, in 1545.

Detail of tapestry

There are some secrets in the tapestries. Woven into the top border of many of the wall hangings there is a ram, Cosimo’s ascendant zodiac sign, as well as a symbol of spring and new birth, an allegorical message for Florence under Cosimo’s rule. Also, in a little visual pun, Jan Rost, who soon after his arrival in Florence was nicknamed l’arrosto (the roast), signed the works with a meat skewer instead of with his name.

Restoration workshop for tapestries (Photo: Opificio delle Pietre Dure)

The final result of a decades-long restoration process, started in 1985, and carried out by the Opificio delle Pietre Dure in Florence and the Laboratorio Arazzi del Quirinale in Rome, was completed in 2014. The lengthy and complicated process had to be carried out by artisans at least as skilled as the original tapestries’ makers. Godart observed, “We have the best restoration schools in the world here. Thanks to our great know-how, we can protect our patrimony and teach others.” Italian experts have been called upon by UNESCO to intervene in areas where there are great cultural treasures at risk of war, natural disasters and wear and tear, but where the local skills to protect them are lacking.

Two videos of the tapestry workshop, located at the very top of the Palazzo Vecchio, can be found here (#1) and here (#2) (narration in Italian).

The location of the tapestry workshop plays a fictional role in the second Caterina Falcone mystery – Secret of La Specola – written by Ann Reavis. It is available at Amazon.com, Amazon.com (Kindle), Amazon.co.uk, and Amazon.it .

 

 

 

 

Cats of Italy – Free eBooks

cats-of-italyThe Cats of Italy is a book for four longish short stories written about cats who live in four of the most scenic culturally rich parts of Italy. The stories are written from the viewpoints of the cats. Each story is also a travel guide of the cities and countryside of Italy. The book is a perfect holiday gift for the cat fancier, for those who have a passion for Italy, or for the special person who love both felines and Italian culture and history.

From December 10 through 14, 2016, the individual stories are available for free on Amazon in digital form, good for any Kindle or Kindle apps on phones or tablets. The physical book of the collection is also available on Amazon.

Cats of Florence

Cats of Florence for Kindle 2500 PixelsGuido, a Florentine cat, tells the tale of a dark and stormy night, eerily similar to the night that he was born, but this time he is trapped in a medieval tower. How did he get there? It was a quest.

By answering the appeal for an adventure from Gatone, their plump friend, Guido and his brother Dante cross the terracotta roofs of Florence to visit Dante’s House and Dante’s Church.

Thwarted by a wicked priest and a sticky, smelly boy, the three cats are trapped in a medieval tower while a storm rages outside. Will they ever get home? Therein lies the tale.

Cats of Venice

Cats of Venice for Kindle 2500 PixelsRegina is not feeling the love at home in her roof-top apartment and garden in Venice. A mishap results in a dunking in the canal. Life outside her palazzo would be a catastrophe except for the help offered by two “free” felines, Fosca and Casanova.

The threesome tour Venice, learning about the famous cats of Venetian history. But of course, Regina refuses to listen to her new friends and is captured and imprisoned.

Landing on her feet in an historic regal barge on the Grand Canal, Regina finds there is no place live home.

Cats of Rome

cats-of-rome-for-kindle-2500-pixelsFlavia, Cicero and Rocco are residents of the cat colony living in Largo di Torre Argentina, an ancient temple site in Rome. Where Julius Caesar met his end, the cats of Rome frolic.

A Cat Sanctuary with a feline clinic has been built by the Cat Ladies of Rome at one end of Torre Argentina. Now it is under threat from the bureaucrats who protect the archeological ruins of Rome.

The three cats take action going all the way to the top for support to save their sanctuary. It never hurts to have a friend in high places.

Cats of Calabria

cats-of-calabria-for-kindle-2500-pixelsVanda, Uffa and Pussipu live near the sea in the southernmost region of Italy. Pussipu is the pampered pet in a villa marked by a dark past and a darker present.

Vanda is the loved companion on a farm where the best mozzarella di bufala is made.

Their new best friend is Uffa, who surprisingly smells of licorice. The sights and smells of Calabria infuse their story.

Dreaming of Machiavelli

For some reason I’ve been thinking of Machiavelli lately. Near the end of his life he wrote: “I have never said what I believe or believed what I said. If indeed I do sometimes tell the truth, I hide it behind so many lies that it is hard to find.”

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It is time to revisit this great political thinker’s words again. The father of modern political science, he lived in the perfect time to analyze the republican government of Florence (he worked 13 years for the republic as a counselor and diplomat), which was followed by the Medici tyrants (they fired him, imprisoned and tortured him and the exiled him forever from Florence). The Prince was his response.

Portrait of Machiavelli in his office in the Palazzo Vecchio
Portrait of Machiavelli in his office in the Palazzo Vecchio

With The Prince, written in 1513, Machiavelli tried to ingratiate himself with the new Florentine prince, Lorenzo di Piero de’ Medici. A bit satirical or hypocritical? After all, for the previous 13 years he had declared that a republic was the ideal form of government, not a city-state governed solely by a dictator, a prince.

Of course, Machiavelli never says anywhere in The Prince that he supports the notion of government by a tyrant. Machiavelli’s book is absolutely practical and not at all idealistic. Leaving aside what government is ideal, The Prince takes for granted the presence of an authoritarian ruler, and tries to imagine how such a ruler might achieve power and hold power. If a country is going to be governed by a dictator, particularly a prince new to the job, one who has never tried to govern, Machiavelli has some advice as to how that prince should rule if he wishes to be successful – to win.

Machiavelli's office though the door of Sala dei Gigli in Palazzo Vecchio
Machiavelli’s office though the door of Sala dei Gigli in Palazzo Vecchio

Machiavelli recommends, “one must know how to color one’s actions and be a great liar and deceiver.” He concludes that “… it is a general rule about men, that they are ungrateful, fickle, liars and deceivers, fearful of danger and greedy for gain.” He states that a prince who acts virtuously will soon come to his end in a city-state of people who are not virtuous themselves.

Thus, the successful prince must be dishonest and immoral when it suits him. He states that “…we see from recent experience that those princes have accomplished most who paid little heed to keeping their promises, but who knew how to manipulate the minds of men craftily. In the end, they won out over those who tried to act honestly.”

Statue in the courtyard of the Uffizi
Statue in the courtyard of the Uffizi

To walk in the footsteps of Machiavelli in Florence, first tour the Palazzo Vecchio where he spent many years in service of the Republic. Find the Old Chancellery, a small room through a door of the Sala dei Gigli.. This was Machiavelli’s office when he was Secretary of the Republic. His polychrome bust in terracotta and a portrait  by Santi di Tito are displayed. They both are probably modeled on his death mask. In the center of the room, on the pedestal is the famous Winged Boy with a Dolphin by Verrocchio, brought to this room from the First Courtyard.

In the Uffizi, look for his portrait high on the wall of the first corridor. In the cortile of the Uffizi find a full-sized sculpture of the political philosopher.

Marble Bust in Bargello
Marble Bust in Bargello

Visit the Bargello where Machiavelli also worked and where there is a marble bust of the diplomat by Antonio del Pollaiolo displayed.

Visit the Palazzo Strozzi, the seat of the National Institute of Renaissance Studies, where the Machiavelli-Serristori Foundation conserves ancient volumes of Machiavelli’s extensive writings. The palace of the Strozzi family was a much more welcoming place to Machiavelli due to their hatred of the Medici. Inside there is a painting of Machiavelli by Rosso Fiorentino.

To get the full Machiavelli experience it is necessary to travel to the medieval hamlet of Sant’Andrea in Percussina situated in the Tuscan hills where Machiavelli  went to live and work in exile from his beloved Florence.  A wonderful NYTimes piece In Tuscany, Following the Rise and Fall of Machiavelli tells of the experience.

Machiavelli's Tomb in Santa Croce
Machiavelli’s Tomb in Santa Croce

Finally, return to the city and walk down Via Guicciardini to #18, in the Oltrarno, to find a plaque on the wall of the last place he lived for a short time (allowed to reenter Florence by the Medici) and where he died in 1527.

Did he really believe the end justifies the means? Go to the Basilica of Santa Croce and contemplate that thought beside his tomb.

“Everyone sees what you appear to be, few experience what you really are,” Machiavelli wrote in The Prince. Again, for some reason I’m thinking about Niccolò Machiavelli today.

Tuscan Traveler’s Picks – Nonfiction Books to Read Before You Go To Italy in 2017, Part Two

Instead of relying on internet sites and travel guides to inform your upcoming visit to Italy, get a copy of these histories, essays, cultural musings, and cookbooks to heighten the anticipation for your travels. Guide books are great planning tools, but an in-depth discussion of history and culture and cuisine will result in a richer Italian adventure. These books are set in Rome, Tuscany, Venice, Florence and Sicily. (Please add to the list by commenting on this post and check out last year’s picks.)

legal-holiday-books-624x445Tasting Rome: Fresh Flavors and Forgotten Recipes from an Ancient City by Katie Parla and Kristina Gill

Tasting Rome is a love letter from two Americans to their adopted city, showcasing modern dishes influenced by tradition, as well as the rich culture of their surroundings.

The new book provides a complete picture of a place that many love, but few know completely. In sharing Rome’s celebrated dishes, street food innovations, and forgotten recipes, journalist Katie Parla and photographer Kristina Gill capture its unique character and reveal its truly evolved food culture—a culmination of 2000 years of history.

 

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Their recipes explore the foundations of Roman cuisine and demonstrate how it has transitioned to the variations found today. There are the expected classics (cacio e pepe, pollo alla romana, fiori di zucca); the fascinating, but largely undocumented, Sephardic Jewish cuisine (hraimi con couscous, brodo di pesce, pizzarelle); the authentic and tasty offal (guanciale, simmenthal di coda, insalata di nervetti); and so much more.

Studded with narrative features that capture the city’s history and gorgeous photography that highlights both the food and its hidden city, you’ll feel immediately inspired to start tasting Rome either in the actual city or at home.

A Literary Tour of Italy by Tim Parks

41jtihlzrnl-_sx319_bo1204203200_Tim Parks with his finely observed writings on all aspects of Italian life and customs has now compiled a selection of his best essays on the literature of his adopted country.

From Boccaccio and Machiavelli through to Moravia and Tabucchi, from the Stil Novo to Divisionism, across centuries of history and intellectual movements, these essays give English readers, who love Italy and its culture, a primer on the best writing throughout Italian history.

Kirkus says: “Italian identity, [Parks] concludes, comes from a sense of belonging to groups such as family, friends, region, church, and political party. He often takes issue, therefore, with biographers who fail “to draw on the disciplines of psychology and anthropology” to examine the personal and historical contexts of their subject’s life.”

The author’s deep familiarity with Italian culture informs these intelligent, perceptive essays.

In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri

51wnsrzeh6l-_sx315_bo1204203200_Over the course of four novels and story collections, Jhumpa Lahiri has written about themes of identity, estrangement and belonging. She has received numerous awards, including the Pulitzer Prize; the PEN/Hemingway Award; the Premio Gregor von Rezzori; the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature; and the 2014 National Humanities Medal.

All the while, the Indian-American author has faced these issues herself. Torn between two worlds, she has felt like an outsider in both. The author has spent a lifetime caught in the clash between her parents’ Old World customs and the American culture that has so rewarded her achievements.

She fell in love with Italy and dreamed of immersing herself in its language and culture. It was an infatuation that became an obsession. In the end, Italy proved to be a place to neutralize tensions that had haunted her for decades. Learning it is an act of rebirth, of rebuilding a fractured self and changing course. In Other Words appeals on many levels—as a passion project, cultural document and psychological study. True to the nature of her quest, Lahiri wrote this book in Italian, rough edges and all; it conveys an intimate view of the complicated bonds that exist between language and identity.

Tuscany: A History by Alister Moffat

51sqgmsrvmlIf you travel to the region, you’ll want to take with you Moffat’s Tuscany: A History; and if you read the book first, you’ll want to travel to the region.

Ever since the days of the Grand Tour, Tuscany has cast its spell over world travelers. What is it that makes this exquisite part of Italy so seductive? To answer this question Alistair Moffat embarks on a journey into Tuscany’s past. From the flowering of the Etruscan civilization in the 7th century BC through the rise of the powerful medieval communes of Arezzo, Luca, Pisa and Florence, and the role the area played as the birthplace of the Renaissance, he underlines both the area’s regional uniqueness as well as the vital role it has played in the history of the whole of Italy.

Insightful, readable and imbued with the author’s own enthusiasm for Tuscany, this book includes a wealth of information not found in tourist guides.

City of Fortune: How Venice Ruled the Seas by Roger Crowley

city-of-fortuneThe rise and fall of Venice’s empire is an irresistible story and Roger Crowley, with his rousing descriptive gifts and scholarly attention to detail, is its perfect chronicler.

The New York Times bestselling author charts Venice’s astounding five-hundred-year voyage to the pinnacle of power in an epic story that stands unrivaled for drama, intrigue, and sheer opulent majesty. City of Fortune traces the full arc of the Venetian imperial saga, from the ill-fated Fourth Crusade, which culminates in the sacking of Constantinople in 1204, to the Ottoman-Venetian War of 1499–1503, which sees the Ottoman Turks supplant the Venetians as the preeminent naval power in the Mediterranean.

In between are three centuries of Venetian maritime dominance, during which a tiny city of “lagoon dwellers” grow into the richest place on earth. Drawing on firsthand accounts of pitched sea battles, skillful negotiations, and diplomatic maneuvers, Crowley paints a vivid picture of this avaricious, enterprising people and the bountiful lands that came under their dominion. From the opening of the spice routes to the clash between Christianity and Islam, Venice played a leading role in the defining conflicts of its time—the reverberations of which are still being felt today.

Mozza at Home: More than 150 Crowd-Pleasing Recipes for Relaxed, Family-Style Entertaining by Nancy Silverton

As an award-winning chef and the owner of six busy restaurants across two continents, Nancy Silverton was so consumed by her life in the professional kitchen that for years she almost never cooked at home. With her intense focus on the business of cooking, Nancy had forgotten what made her love to cook in the first place: fabulous ingredients at the height of their season, simple food served family style, and friends and loved ones gathered around the dinner table. Then, on a restorative trip to Italy—with its ripe vegetables, magnificent landscapes, and long summer days—Nancy began to cook for friends and family again, and rediscovered the great pleasures and tastes of cooking and eating at home.

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Now, in Mozza at Home, Nancy shares her renewed passion and provides nineteen menus packed with easy-to-follow recipes that can be prepared in advance and are perfect for entertaining. Organized by meal, each menu provides a main dish along with a complementary selection of appetizers and side dishes.

Whether it’s Marinated Olives and Fresh Pecorino and other appetizers that can be put out while you’re assembling the rest of the meal; simple sides, such as Roasted Carrots and Chickpeas with Cumin Vinaigrette, that are just as delicious served at room temperature as they are warm; or savory main dishes such as the Flattened Chicken Thighs with Charred Lemon Salsa Verde—there is something here for every occasion.

And don’t forget dessert—there’s an entire chapter dedicated to end-of-meal treats such as Devil’s Food Rings with Spiced White Mountain Frosting and Dario’s Olive Oil Cake with Rosemary and Pine Nuts that can be prepared hours before serving so that the host gets to relax during the event, too.

Enjoy this diverse group of books through the winter months and then in the spring head to Italy because everyone should be Italian once in their lives.

Tuscan Traveler’s Picks – Books to Read Before Traveling to Italy in 2017, Part One

Over the winter months, reading from the new crop of fiction set in Italy will heighten the anticipation for your upcoming Italian vacation. Guide books are great planning tools, but novels and short stories add depth, fantasy, historical background and imagination to an Italian adventure. These books are set in Rome, Florence, Venice, Sicily and Naples. (Please add to the list by commenting on this post and check out last year’s picks.)

legal-holiday-books-624x445The Girl from Venice by Martin Cruz Smith

the-girl-from-venice-9781439140239_hrA suspenseful World War II love story set against the beauty, mystery, and danger of occupied 1945 Venice. One night, under a canopy of stars, a fisherman comes across a young woman’s body floating in the lagoon. She is still alive and in trouble. Born to a wealthy Jewish family, she is on the run from the Wehrmacht SS. An act of kindness leads to the world of Partisans, random executions, the arts of forgery and high explosives, Mussolini’s broken promises, the black market and gold, and, everywhere, the enigmatic maze of the Venice Lagoon.

Martin Cruz Smith is the consummate researcher, but he doesn’t bog the break-neck pace of his plot down with blocks of historical fact. By the end of the book, however, you will have an in-depth understanding of life in Venice and northern Italy as the war drew to a close.

Conclave by Robert Harris

In this thriller, the pope has died. Behind the locked doors of the Sistine Chapel, one hundred and eighteen cardinals from all over the globe will cast their votes in the world’s most secretive election. They are holy men. But they have ambition. They have rivals. Over the next seventy-two hours one of them will become the most powerful spiritual figure on Earth.

cb6dqs8w0aalwzzThe classic English mystery novel often involves a locked room. The suspects gather in an enclosed space. They cannot wander out or establish their alibis. They are trapped with each other as social rivalries, hidden love affairs, and old enmities emerge. A conclave of cardinals charged with choosing a new pope after the incumbent dies fits this tradition nicely – one of the largest locked rooms ever. Even the word conclave itself, from the Latin clavis, or key.

Siracusa by Delia Ephron

40293-1An electrifying novel about marriage and deceit follows two couples on vacation in Siracusa, a town on the coast of Sicily, where the secrets they have hidden from one another are exposed and relationships are unraveled. This is a story of two complicated marriages, one vulnerable child, and a trip to Italy that changes each of their lives forever.

Ephron excels at re-creating the atmosphere of Siracusa, with its serpentine streets, rocky outcroppings and “tattered” buildings. Her writing captures the tastes and aromas of the markets and the restaurants, where her characters savor wine, oranges, gelato, figs and spaghetti alla vongole. Ephron delivers a powerful meditation on marriage, friendship, and the meaning of travel. Set on the sun-drenched coast of the Ionian Sea, Siracusa unfolds with the pacing of a psychological thriller and delivers an unexpected final act that none will see coming.

Death at the Duomo by Ann Reavis

Death at the Duomo High Res Front Cover 1500 PIXELSThis page-turner is thrilling mystery set in the Renaissance City.

An explosion rips through the Easter festival in front of the Duomo in Florence, Italy, but no one claims responsibility. The vicitms are not only Florentine, but also visitors from throughout the world. The security forces of Europe and the United States join together to hunt down the killers. Caterina Falcone, a Florentine investigator, and Max Turner, an agent from the U.S. Embassy, team up to find out why an American student was at the cathedral when the bomb exploded. Max hunts a bomber who sows death around the globe. Inspector Falcone believes the identity of the perpetrator can be found close to home. Together they race across Tuscany to stop a killer before more people die.

The Beach at Night by Elena Ferrante

cover_9781609453701_722_600This picture book about a lost doll on an Italian beach is aimed at readers aged 6 to 10, but the famed Elena Ferrante, author of the best-selling Neapolitan novels, doesn’t sugarcoat things for young readers. It is best for the fans of the original Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi, rather than the sugar-coated Disney version. The writing is poetic and evocative, but some parents will find the story too scary for some children. Every fan of Ferrante’s novels should get a copy for their libraries.

Told from the lost doll’s point of view after she is abandoned by her young owner to face nighttime terrors such as the Mean Beach Attendant of Sunset and his friend, the Big Rake. Celina, the doll, has a terrible night, one full of jealousy for the new kitten, Minù, feelings of abandonment and sadness, misadventures at the hands of the beach attendant, and dark dreams. But she will be happily found by Mati, her child, once the sun rises.

The Serpent of Venice by Christopher Moore

theserpentofveniceGreed, revenge, deception, lust, and a giant (but lovable) sea monster combine to create another hilarious and bawdy tale from modern comic genius, Christopher Moore.

What do you get when you stitch Othello, The Merchant of Venice, and “The Cask of Amontillado” together? Well, you get this rollickin’ adventure in which Pocket, the Royal Fool introduced in Moore’s Fool (2009), is lured to Venice, where he thinks he’ll be having a fun time with the beautiful Portia, but where three men (including a guy named Iago) are actually planning to murder him. The upshot is, if you’re the kind of reader who insists Shakespeare is untouchable, then this novel will probably annoy you. On the other hand, if you’re a fan of Moore’s brand of history-mangling humor, you’ll dive right in.

Cats of Italy by Ann Reavis

cats-of-italyThe cats of Italy lead rich and adventuresome lives in this book of four short stories. Cicero and Flavia race to save a cat sanctuary in the center of Rome. Dante and Guido take a friend on a quest that goes awry in a medieval tower. Regina falls into a canal, is rescued by Fosca and Casanova, and becomes queen of the regatta. Vanda and Pussipu love their lives in Calabria, but not all the Southern Italian cats are so lucky.

Cats of Italy is a compilation of four short stories: Cats of Rome, Cats of Florence, Cats of Venice, and Cats of Calabria. These tales will enchant cat lovers, both young and old. Those who are fascinated by Italian history and culture will find the little-known (but true) feline facts in these stories will enhance their next visit to Italy.

Tuscan Traveler’s Picks – Death at the Duomo, 5 questions for the author

Death at the Duomo is the first book, just released, in a new series of mystery/thrillers set in Florence, Italy. The Renaissance City’s fictional murder rate is about to rise, requiring the pairing a young Florentine detective, Caterina Falcone, half American, half Italian, with Max Turner, an agent from the American Embassy. The first novel begins with an explosion outside the Duomo on a festival day.

Death at the Duomo High Res Front Cover 1500 PIXELS

(Most long-time readers of this website know that the author of Death at the Duomo and Tuscan Traveler are one in the same. So this is the semi-strange situation of a self-interview to announce the book’s launch.)

Where did you get the premise for Death at the Duomo?

I love mysteries of all kinds, but especially those set in countries not my own. My favorites are by Donna Leon, Fred Vargas, Jason Goodwin, Daniel Silva and Joseph Kanon. After I had lived in Florence for a few years, I kept discovering places or events that I thought would be perfect for a murder. One was the exhibit of anatomical waxes at the La Specola Museum (the site used in the upcoming Caterina Falcone mystery) and another was Scoppio del Carro (literally, the Explosion of the Cart), the event at the beginning of the first book. With the colorful history of Florence there are unending possibilities for intriguing plots.

Scoppio del Carro (photo by Joe Messina)
Scoppio del Carro (photo by Joe Messina)
Do you prefer to write a novel or a non-fiction book?

I started Tuscan Traveler to keep my writing “up to snuff”. The website provided the basis for my first books, Italian Food Rules and Italian Life Rules, as well as giving me bits of information for my touring clients. I found, however, that it was more fun to incorporate the scenes from Florentine life, information about Tuscan food, and tidbits from historical Florence into a novel. So I gave Caterina Falcone a father who is a chef and restaurant owner. I learned that FBI agents are stationed at most US embassies, but have restrictions placed on how they operate in foreign countries, and Max Turner came to life. I especially enjoy exploring the experiences, good and bad, of foreigners when they encounter the Italian food and life rules, so each of the mysteries will involve tourists and expats in Florence and Tuscany.

Museo La Specola (photo by Daderot)
Museo La Specola (photo by Daderot)
What was the best part about being a writer in Italy?

I have a great group of writing friends who meet two times a year in Matera, a fascinating town in the Basilicata region. In the spring a small group meets for a brainstorming session. Death at the Duomo was born there. In the fall the Women’s Fiction Festival takes place. The second year I went the speakers included experts in forensics, cyber-crime and investigations of international crimes. The third or fourth edition concentrated on food writing. Recent years have been rich with information about indie publishing. Every year, literary agents and editors from major publishing companies are available for pitches from authors and staff panels on what’s new in the world of publishing.

matera-womenAre you going to write a memoir about your sixteen years in Italy?

No. Others have written much better books than I could, ranging from the more standard “under the Tuscan sun” narratives to innovative memoirs, such as Dianne Hale’s two books on language and Mona Lisa.

What are your favorite Italian-theme books?

Besides my own, I would pick any book by Donna Leon, The Tigress of Forli by Elizabeth Lev, any book by Beppe Severgnini, The Venus Fixers by Ilaria Dagnini Brey, any book by Conor Fitzgerald and Medici Money by Tim Parks. Other books that I like can be found here.

Tuscan Traveler’s Tales – Aren’t the Spring Flowers Petaloso?

Spring flowers are much more part of gardens in America and England than in the evergreen Italianate gardens of Tuscany. But now is the time to tour the Bardini Garden of Florence to see the wisteria. It is surely petaloso. Or can we describe it that way? Is petaloso even a word?

Wisteria in the Bardini Gardens (photo by Helen Bayley www.helenbayley.com)
Wisteria in the Bardini Gardens (photo by Helen Bayley www.helenbayley.com)

Early this February, in the small town of Copparo in central Italy, a primary school teacher, Margherita Aurora, was in a bind when one of her students, eight-year-old Matteo, used a made-up word in a written assignment.

Matteo described a flower as “petaloso” (“full of petals”). The word doesn’t exist in the Italian dictionary, but grammatically it makes sense as a combination of “petalo” (“petal”) and the suffix “-oso” (“full of”).

12778956_10153837051207209_2566454051572083941_oMs. Aurora marked the error by writing, “1 errore bello.” (“1 beautiful error”) But as only the best teachers do, she went a step further. She asked her class, “Did Matteo invent a new word? How are words created?”

With his teacher’s help, the students wrote to the Accademia della Crusca—the institution that oversees the use of the Italian language—to ask for their opinion.

imageTo their surprise, Matteo got a supportive reply. “The word you invented is well formed and could be used in the Italian language,” one of the Crusca’s linguistic experts wrote. “It is beautiful and clear.”

But, the linguist added, for a word to officially be part of the Italian language, a large number of people need to use it and understand its meaning. “If you manage to spread your word among many people who start saying ‘What a petaloso flower this is!’, then petaloso will have become a word in Italian.”

12671802_946244235430842_2005625424207388753_oMatteo’s teacher was thrilled by the reply. She wrote,”This is worth more than a thousand Italian lessons” on her Facebook page and shared pictures of the letter.

Cb_tAb1W8AEaoEgThis single act triggered a movement to do exactly what the Crusca had asked: make “petaloso” a widely known and used word.

10351262_1049581841766502_1159479361656688915_nHer original Facebook post has been shared more than 98,000 times. On Twitter #petaloso trended like crazy. Many tweeters used the word in context—demonstrating its wide use and commonly understood meaning, just as Accademia della Crusca had suggested. Italian companies joined the campaign, chefs created petaloso recipes, garden associations supported the idea, designers used it to advertise products, Italy’s prime minister joined the conversation on social media, the the story was reported throughout Europe, and even in the U.S. on NPR.

Life Stranger Than Fiction?

Accademia della Crusca is one of my favorite places. I’ve written about it before on TuscanTraveler.com.

51gW179x4BLImagine my joy when I read at the bottom of the letter from Accademia della Crusca to Matteo, a reference to an American author, Andrew Clements and his book, translated into Italian, Drilla.

The original American title is Frindle. The story is about an American schoolboy, Nick Allen, who likes to liven things up at school. When Nick learns some interesting information about how words are created, he’s got the inspiration for his best plan ever…the frindle. Who says a pen has to be called a pen? Why not call it a frindle? Things begin innocently enough as Nick gets his friends to use the new word. Then other people in town start saying frindle. Soon the school is in an uproar, and Nick has become a local hero. His teacher wants Nick to put an end to all this nonsense, but the funny thing is frindle doesn’t belong to Nick anymore. The new word is spreading across the country, and there’s nothing Nick can do to stop it.

41rY2x-D1-LThe reason the folks at Crusca learned about Frindle/Drilla was because a few years ago I gave the young son of an employee of the Accademia a copy of the Italian translation of this book that I had so enjoyed.

Maria Cristina Torchia at Crusca suggested that Matteo read the book with his teacher and his classmates. “[R]acconta proprio una storia come la tua, la storia di un bambino che inventa una parola e cerca di farla entrare nel vocabolario.”  (“It tells a story just like yours, the story of a child who invents a word and tries to enter it in the dictionary.”)  As petaloso started to trend in Italy, so did Drilla. The Italian publisher wrote to Crusca to thank them for the reference.

I hope that someday I’ll be able to report that petoloso has been officially added to the Italian lexicon.

Tuscan Traveler’s Picks – Novels to Read Before Going to Italy in 2016

Many visitors to Florence in 2016 will either learn for the first time or will remember the Great Flood of Florence, which occurred on November 3, 1966, fifty years ago. Both the nonfiction and fiction lists are sure to include books about the flood and the response of the world to the catastrophe. Tuscan traveler has chosen two books, one and old favorite and one new for this year’s holiday “picks” list.

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Lucrezia Borgia could have used the Renaissance version of Olivia Pope, but she is finally getting a proper revision of her reputation with two recent novels.

Any of the following novels will make great holiday gifts for those going to Italy next year or for for the armchair traveler with a love of all things Italian.

Falling in Love by Donna Leon

51EmmG3EazL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Donna Leon’s Death at La Fenice, the first novel in her beloved Commissario Guido Brunetti series, introduced readers to the glamorous and cutthroat world of opera and one of Italy’s finest living sopranos, Flavia Petrelli—then a suspect in the poisoning of a renowned German conductor. Years after Brunetti cleared her name, Flavia has returned to Venice and La Fenice to sing the lead in Tosca.

Brunetti and his wife, Paola, attend an early performance, and Flavia receives a standing ovation. Back in her dressing room, she finds bouquets of yellow roses—too many roses. An anonymous fan has been showering Flavia with these beautiful gifts in London, St. Petersburg, Amsterdam, and now, Venice, but she no longer feels flattered. And when a talented young Venetian singer who has caught Flavia’s attention is savagely attacked, Brunetti begins to think that Flavia’s fears are justified in ways neither of them imagined. He must enter in the psyche of an obsessive fan before Flavia, or anyone else, comes to harm.

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

51PUTD03R7L._SX317_BO1,204,203,200_A modern masterpiece from one of Italy’s most acclaimed authors, My Brilliant Friend is a rich, intense, and generous-hearted story about two friends, Elena and Lila. Ferrante’s inimitable style lends itself perfectly to a meticulous portrait of these two women that is also the story of a nation and a touching meditation on the nature of friendship. This is the first of four known as the “Neapolitan Quartet.”

The story begins in the 1950s, in a poor but vibrant neighborhood on the outskirts of Naples. Growing up on these tough streets the two girls learn to rely on each other ahead of anyone or anything else. As they grow, as their paths repeatedly diverge and converge, Elena and Lila remain best friends whose respective destinies are reflected and refracted in the other. They are likewise the embodiments of a nation undergoing momentous change. Through the lives of these two women, Ferrante tells the story of a neighborhood, a city, and a country as it is transformed in ways that, in turn, also transform the relationship between her protagonists, the unforgettable Elena and Lila.

Elena Ferrante is the pen-name of an Italian novelist whose true identity is not publicly known. Though heralded as the most important Italian novelist of her generation, she has kept her identity secret since the publication of her first novel in 1992. The fourth book of Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet, The Story of the Lost Child, appeared on the New York Times 10 Best Books of 2015.

The Sixteen Pleasures by Robert Hellenga

51CTmMUboFL._SX330_BO1,204,203,200_With graceful, assured prose, this 1994 novel gives a wry but empathetic view of the human character and an authoritative command of fascinating background detail are among the distinguishing features of this deeply satisfying first novel. Set in Florence after the terrible Arno flood of 1966, it is told partially by narrator Margot Harrington, a 29-year-old American book conservator who has come to Italy as one of the “mud angels” who volunteer in the wake of the disaster.

Margot’s life has been a series of bright promises deflected to dead ends, and she hopes Florence will provide a key to her future. Art restoration expert Dottor Alessandro Postiglione–debonair, middle-aged and married–suggests that Margot lodge at a Carmelite convent whose abbess is his cousin. When the nuns discover a priceless (and proscribed) Renaissance manuscript of 16 erotic poems and drawings, the abbess asks Margot to sell it, secretly, so that the convent will have the funds to resist the overbearing bishop’s efforts to seize its treasured library.

Many strands wind through the rest of the narrative: details about techniques of book and art restoration, observations of convent life refracted through Margot’s Protestant sensibilities and such arcane (and humorous) information as the methods by which a canonical court decides whether a man is truly impotentia coeundi (and thus entitled to an annulment).

The Flood by David Hewson

51ZxgG7pQXL._SX319_BO1,204,203,200_A dazzling Italian mystery, rich in intrigue and dark secrets, from an internationally bestselling crime writer at the height of his powers.

Florence, 1986. A seemingly inexplicable attack on a church fresco of Adam and Eve brings together an unlikely couple: Julia Wellbeloved, an English art student, and Pino Fratelli, a semi-retired detective who longs to be back in the field. Their investigation leads them to the secret society that underpins the city: an elite underworld of excess, violence and desire.

Seeped in the culture of Tuscany’s most mysterious city, The Flood takes the reader on a dazzling journey into the darkness in Florence’s past: the night of the great flood in 1966. Hewson is a favorite of mystery readers who enjoy his series featuring police officers in Rome, led by the young detective and art lover Nic Costa, which began with A Season for the Dead.

The Pope’s Daughter by Dario Fo

51Ef-T3FZ2L._SX316_BO1,204,203,200_Lucrezia Borgia is one of the most vilified figures in modern history. The daughter of a notorious pope, she was twice betrothed before the age of eleven and thrice married—one husband was forced to declare himself impotent and thereby unfit and another was murdered by Lucrezia’s own brother, Cesar Borgia. She is cast in the role of murderess, temptress, incestuous lover, loose woman, femme fatale par excellence.

But there is always more than one version of a story.

Lucrezia Borgia is the only woman in history to serve as the head of the Catholic Church. She successfully administered several of the Renaissance Italy’s most thriving cities, founded one of the world’s first credit unions, and was a generous patron of the arts. She was mother to a prince and to a cardinal. She was a devoted wife to the Prince of Ferrara, and the lover of the poet Pietro Bembo. She was a child of the renaissance and in many ways the world’s first modern woman.

Dario Fo, Nobel laureate and one of Italy’s most beloved writers, reveals Lucrezia’s humanity, her passion for life, her compassion for others, and her skill at navigating around her family’s evildoings. The Borgias are unrivalled for the range and magnitude of their political machinations and opportunism. Fo’s brilliance rests in his rendering their story as a shocking mirror image of the uses and abuses of power in our own time. Lucrezia herself becomes a model for how to survive and rise above those abuses.

Blood and Beauty by Sarah Dunant

UnknownBy the end of the fifteenth century, the beauty and creativity of Italy is matched by its brutality and corruption, nowhere more than in Rome and inside the Church. When Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia buys his way into the papacy as Alexander VI, he is defined not just by his wealth or his passionate love for his illegitimate children, but by his blood: He is a Spanish Pope in a city run by Italians. If the Borgias are to triumph, this charismatic, consummate politician with a huge appetite for life, women, and power must use papacy and family—in particular, his eldest son, Cesare, and his daughter Lucrezia—in order to succeed.

Cesare, with a dazzlingly cold intelligence and an even colder soul, is his greatest—though increasingly unstable—weapon. Later immortalized in Machiavelli’s The Prince, he provides the energy and the muscle. Lucrezia, beloved by both men, is the prime dynastic tool. Twelve years old when the novel opens, hers is a journey through three marriages, and from childish innocence to painful experience, from pawn to political player.

Stripping away the myths around the Borgias, Blood and Beauty is a majestic novel that breathes life into this astonishing family and celebrates the raw power of history itself: compelling, complex and relentless.

The Memory Key by Conor Fitzgerald

Unknown-1The sniper’s bullet doesn’t quite dispatch notorious terrorist Stefania Manfellotto, but the investigation into the attack on the Rome university campus that leaves Manfellotto brain damaged—as well as the subsequent fatal shooting there six months later of witness Sofia Fontana—could finally deal a death blow to the career of Commissioner Alec Blume in Fitzgerald’s cerebral fourth mystery featuring the maverick American expat (after 2012’s The Namesake).

By rights, Blume shouldn’t even be involved in the politically sensitive probe, which falls under the jurisdiction of the rival Carabinieri. But that detail isn’t about to deter him once his old mentor, magistrate Filippo Principe, appeals for help, any more than he would dream of changing his opinion on a road rage homicide just because his lover, Chief Insp. Caterina Mattiola, sees it differently. Blume’s readiness to pursue any leads in an increasingly puzzling case helps make him an outstanding detective, but also, within a society that puts such a premium on personal relationships, a perennial outsider.

Bitter Remedy is Conor Fitzgerald’s most recent Alec Blume novel.

A Beam of Light  by Andrea Camilleri

51doaZBVrfL._SX325_BO1,204,203,200_When Inspector Montalbano falls under the charms of beautiful gallery owner Marian, his longtime relationship with Livia comes under threat. Meanwhile, he is also troubled by a strange dream as three crimes demand his attention: the assault and robbery of a wealthy merchant’s young wife, shady art deals, and a search for arms traffickers that leads him deep into the countryside, where the investigation takes a tragic turn.

Also published in 2015, in Game of Mirrors Inspector Montalbano and his colleagues are stumped when two bombs explode outside empty warehouses—one of which is connected to a big-time drug dealer. Meanwhile, the alluring Liliana Lombardo is trying to seduce the Inspector over red wine and arancini. Between pesky reporters, amorous trysts, and cocaine kingpins, Montalbano feels as if he’s being manipulated on all fronts. That is, until the inspector himself becomes the prime suspect in an unspeakably brutal crime.

More Novels for Those Who Love Italy

In the right side column of this blog, near the top, there is a link to Tuscan Traveler’s Amazon Store. Buying books through the store does not increase the cost of the books to you, but does help to support this blog. The store can also be used to just browse for books about Italy without the need to make a purchase.

Tuscan Traveler welcomes suggestions for books to add to the list.

Fiction Categories: Tuscan Traveler’s Fiction Favorites, Historical Fiction, Mystery & Thriller, Literary Fiction, Romantic Italy, and Italy for Kids & Young Adults.

Tuscan Traveler’s Picks – 6 Questions For Susan Van Allen

Susan Van Allen probably never sleeps. She has written three interesting books that are must-reads especially women traveling to Italy. Her travel stories have been published in many media outlets, including National Public Radio, Town & Country, AFAR, Chicago Daily Herald, several Travelers Tales anthologies, and CNN.com. She makes presentations about Italian travel at such venues as The New York Times Travel Show and Museo Italo-Americano in San Francisco. She has a touring business, which introduces women to the joys of various regions of Italy every spring and fall. She’s also been an actor and a television script-writer.

Susan Van Allen in Florence
Susan Van Allen in Florence

Your book 100 Places in Italy Every Woman Should Go was very popular. Now you’ve published 50 Places in Rome, Florence, & Venice Every Woman Should Go. Did you have a different goal with the second book?

Instead of covering the entire country, the goal with 50 Places is to focus on the major cities—”Italy’s Big Three”. These three spots are often overwhelming, and many travelers arrive with “Must See” lists and then miss out on the fabulous unique spirits of each place. With so many guidebooks covering Rome, Florence, and Venice, 50 Places is for those seeking a more personal approach, as though they’re traveling with advice from a trusty girlfriend. For example, for the major sites, like the Uffizi in Florence, I give readers focus to see the art as glorifications of different aspects of femininity—from the sensual Goddess Venus to the compassionate Madonna—AND add in a Golden Day tip for the perfect place for dinner afterwards. I also steer readers to less crowded places in these popular cities, such as the stunning Palazzo Barberini in Rome, or to immersion experiences, such as maskmaking in Venice, that gives travelers the chance to have a hands-on experience of this beautiful tradition.

I believe you grew up summering at the Jersey Shore. What are some of the major misconceptions Italian-Americans have about Italy?

You’re right—I grew up on the Jersey shore, (West Long Branch, to be exact), surrounded by Italian Americans—including my mother. Her parents, my Nana and Papa, were part of the big wave of immigration from southern Italy in the early 20th century, and like the rest of these early immigrants they brought traditions from their homeland, that created an Italian-American culture. It’s radically different from Italian-Italian—so many Americans are shocked when they arrive in Italy and find it different from what they imagined.

A major misconception is around the food. American travelers are surprised to find no chicken parm on the menus, rarely spaghetti and meatballs served together as it is in America, and that the pizza that is most revered in Italy (from Naples) is not served in sliced pies, but in single servings of whole rounds, with soft centers, and eaten with a knife and fork—so delicious!

50PlacesRomeFlorVenLG1Another misconception is about Italian women. In the movies, we’ve seen all those Italian mammas with loads of children, stirring sauce at the stove. Sure, there are still Nonnas—grandmothers who spend days in the kitchen, but modern Italian women work, the birth rate is low—most have just one child, and husbands share in the cooking and child care.

Then there’s the endless tape about how dangerous the city of Naples is—and many travelers don’t even go to this marvelous city. An expression I grew up hearing was “Va’ a Napoli”—Go to Naples!—which meant: “Go to Hell!”. These days Naples is actually a flourishing city, with a vibrant historical center, amazing archaeological museum, fantastic food, and fabulous, welcoming natives—it’s a place to truly experience the vibrant soul of southern Italy.

It seems to me that your recent book Letters from Italy: Confessions, Adventures, and Advice is even more personal than the other two. What was the impetus for that book?

The impetus came from my beginnings as a writer, when I got the best advice: Write as if you’re writing a letter to a dear friend. I approach all my writing that way, including 100 Places and 50 Places—which are actually a mix of guidebook and travel essay. Letters from Italy brought me the satisfaction of sharing my experiences more completely, and includes essays I’ve written for National Public Radio and Travelers’ Tales anthologies. It’s a collection of nine stories from my travels over the years, ranging from adventures climbing to the top of the island of Stromboli’s volcano, to truffle hunting in Umbria, and the joys of flirting in Rome. I loved including practical advice at the end of each story for places to stay, eat, and shop, as whenever I read other travel stories I’m dying to know the practical details, so I can experience the same things the writer has, and come away with my own take on it.

You share your favorites in 50 Places in Rome, Florence, & Venice Every Woman Should Go. Have you ever been tempted to leave one out – a restaurant, a hotel, a small church or museum – because you don’t want it overrun with tourists? Were you tempted to keep it to yourself?

I’m not the type to keep Italian treasures to myself—I believe abundant Italy has enough for all of us, and am thrilled when I meet readers at my signings or travel shows who’ve taken my advice and discovered for themselves some of Italy’s less-trodden spots. One woman made a whole poster of the great time she had on the island of Ponza for me, another was ecstatic about visiting the Tarot Garden (packed with stunning mosaics) in a less explored province of Tuscany, and often when I’m back in Italy and re-visit my favorite shops, (like Marina e Susanna Sent in Venice—run by two sisters who make gorgeous contemporary glass tableware and jewelry), I’m happy to hear that women have come in and bought beautiful souvenirs, thanks to finding out about their place in my book.

Fresco from the Villa of Mysteries in Pompeii
Fresco from the Villa of Mysteries in Pompeii

You take women on small group tours, custom-designed to experience southern Italy and Florence. Describe one of your favorite experiences from one of these tours.

There are so many favorite experiences from these tours! I love to open the door for women to be in places I’ve fallen in love with and be by their side as they are seeing, tasting, and feeling the spirit of these places for the first time. And then there’s the great bonding that happens among women from such a variety of backgrounds, life experiences and ages. In one short week—from our welcome aperitivo to the farewell dinner—with so many adventures in between, I’m always thrilled to see how friendships are formed that last well beyond the Golden Week.

A favorite experience from a recent week in southern Italy was when we ended our tour of Pompeii in front of the recently restored mural in the Villa of Mysteries—a jaw-dropping painting cycle that shows a woman’s initiation into the Cult of Dionysus. As our guide took us through each panel, she became overwhelmed with the beauty of it and got teary-eyed—so did the women surrounding me—all of us taken in by the deep passion of this creation from thousands of years ago! It’s a memory-of-a-lifetime we will always treasure.

What, in your opinion, is the best advice to give travelers to Italy?

Go ahead and plan with the help of books and online resources, but always be sure to follow your personal desires, your mood day-by-day. This means slowing down, and leaving time for spontaneity. That’s when the Magic of Italian Travel takes over, you’re immersed in the sensual pleasures and wonderful surprises of the Bel Paese, and the trip becomes a soulful, transformational adventure beyond your imaginings. Buon Viaggio!

100 Places in Italy Every Woman Should Go at Amazon.com

50 Places in Rome, Florence and Venice Every Woman Should Go at Amazon.com

Letters from Italy: Confessions, Adventures, and Advice at Amazon.com

Susan Van Allen’s Blog

Susan Van Allen’s Web Site

Tuscan Traveler’s Picks – The Italians by John Hooper

The Book

British-born John Hooper took on the almost impossible task of explaining to the outside world what makes the Italians so unique. Hooper was not living under the Tuscan sun for the last fifteen years, but was reporting from Rome, so his new book, simply entitled The Italians, isn’t a view full of good food, beautiful people and quaint customs. It is a complex, but very readable, analysis of the culture, connecting the historical antecedents with the present day political complexities and economic woes.

That isn’t to say he doesn’t mention the fabulous food (see Chapter 8 “Gnocchi on Thursdays”) or the beautiful people (Chapter 6 “Face Values”) or quaint customs (Chapter 7 “Life as Art” and Chapter 13 “People Who Don’t Dance”) or, of course, the intricacies of Italian soccer (Chapter 14 “Taking Sides”). He, however, intertwines those discussions with a serious analysis of why Italy is having such a hard time joining the international marketplace and can’t play well with its neighbors, thus precluding any significant assistance with major problems like the influx into Italy of Africans fleeing in boats from Tunisia and Libya.

For those of us expats who have lived in Italy for years it is a fun book to read because the organization lend itself to dipping in and out of subjects where we get insight on cultural issues we’ve noticed for ages but never knew the “why” of. For the occasional visitor to Italy, The Italians will describe a fascinating world that is rarely seen on the tourist paths. (Jan Morris’s piece in Literary Review probably captures this best.) For Italians, reading Hooper’s book, I cannot rightly predict the response and leave that for other venues.

The Author

John Hooper was educated at St. Benedict’s School in London and St. Catharine’s College, Cambridge where he studied history. His wanderlust began early when at the age of 18, he travelled to the breakaway state of Biafra to help make a television documentary on the Nigerian civil war.

After graduating, Hooper worked for the BBC, followed by the Independent Radio News and the Daily Telegraph, and eventually became a freelance correspondent for a number of news organisations including the BBC, the Guardian, The Economist and NBC. In 1976, he was appointed by the Guardian as its correspondent in Madrid. Over the next three years, he reported on the end of Portugal’s Carnation Revolution and covered Spain’s eventful transition to democracy following the death of General Franco.

John Hooper in Rome
John Hooper in Rome

Hooper wrote his first book, The Spaniards, which won the 1987 Allen Lane award for a best first work of history or literature. In 2006, a updated version of the book was released, entitled The New Spaniards.

In 1994, he was posted to Rome as Southern Europe Correspondent for the Guardian and subsequently The Observer. Three years later, he brought to light the so-called ‘Ship of Death’ migrant trafficking disaster and was a member of the award-winning Observer team that investigated its aftermath.

After five years of reporting from Berlin and Afghanistan, Hooper returned to Rome as Italy correspondent for The Economist and the Guardian, and in 2012 he was appointed Southern Europe editor of the latter.

Before writing The Italians, Hooper wrote two interesting Kindle Singles: one about Beppe Grillo’s 5Star political party, entitled Alien Landingand second called Fatal Voyage: The Wrecking of the Costa Concordia.

Seven Questions for John Hooper

Luigi Barzini wrote The Italians in 1964, a book that has remained in print and is still quoted today as one of the best books to define the Italian character. Your book, released early this year, has been well-received, and is also titled, The Italians. How has the Italian character changed in the last fifty years? In your opinion, what has been the biggest single influence on the Italian character in that span of time?

First of all, I should say that I didn’t know Italy in 1964. I first visited the country four years later as a teenager. But I spent a couple of months working, first in Rome and then in Tuscany, so I had a glimpse of the after-glow of that extraordinary period of economic growth and social change that so attracted foreigners to Italy in the late 1950s and the early 1960s and which inspired Barzini to write his book for them – a great book, in my opinion, which although some parts are now a bit outdated, nevertheless contains many observations that are as true today as when they were first written. That alone would suggest that the Italian character has not altered very much since 1964. But my impression is that Italians have become more materialistic and less happy and optimistic than they were then.

You are British and live in Rome. What is the biggest benefit of examining and writing about the Italian culture from the viewpoint of someone who has only lived in the country for fifteen years or so? What is the biggest handicap?

Well, I would say that 15 years is actually quite a long time for a foreigner to live in another country. I doubt if most of the books that have been written about Italy have been written by authors with that much experience of it. But having said that, I think that a decade and a half is still a short enough period for one to retain the curiosity and sense of being an outsider that you need to write a book like the Italians, because there comes a point when a foreigner ceases to be a foreigner and becomes one of the locals. At that point, you cease to be much use as a foreign correspondent and you become blind to the idiosyncrasies that you need to be able to see in order to write a book like mine.

The Italians (British Edition)
The Italians (British Edition)

How much extra research did you have to do to write The Italians or did it flow naturally out of the pieces you were writing for the The Guardian, The Observer, and The Economist?

No. Not at all. There is some material in The Italians that derives from my work as a journalist, but my aim was to write a book about all the things that we foreign correspondents do not touch upon. We write about politics and economics – and there is some of that in The Italians – and we write about dramatic events like earthquakes, but we write very little about society and our perceptions of the people who inhabit the countries on which we report, and all of that is at the core of The Italians.

I once hypothesized that Putin and Berlusconi were lounging around a pool one day and Vladimir advised that Silvio should follow his political path by moving from the post of Prime Minister to President and back again as a way to stay in power and out of court. Is this pure fantasy on my part or did Silvio Berlusconi see himself in the Italian presidency once Giorgio Napolitano stepped down? Is this the basis of Berlusconi’s recent “360 degree” turn against Matteo Renzi’s reform plans?

Berlusconi is nothing if not ambitious. I think that he may very well have once dreamed of becoming head of state. But I think that he realised that the sex scandals – Bunga Bunga and all that – made it impossible. On the other hand, I think that he felt that, having given such valuable support to Matteo Renzi’s programme of constitutional and political reform, he was entitled to a say in who would be the next president. In the event, Renzi outwitted him by finding a candidate [Sergio Mattarella] who was acceptable to the vast majority of the lawmakers in his otherwise divided party. That, above all, explains Berlusconi’s hostility since then.

In The Italians, you quoted a judge interviewed after a recent notorious trial: “Our acquittal is the result of the truth that was created in the trial. The real truth will remain unresolved and may even be different.” In a country where it sometimes seems that people spend more time in jail before the guilty verdict is rendered than after, do you see any possibility of judicial reform in the coming decade? Or is that what is needed?

It is certainly what is needed. But whether it will materialise is another matter. Renzi’s emphasis is on the reform of the civil, as distinct from the criminal, justice system. That is because the delays and uncertainties in the civil justice system are a main – possibly the main – obstacle to foreign investment.

How does the declining Italian birthrate and the declining rate of marriages affect what is described in your book as “amoral familism” where “[l]oyalty to the family superseded loyalty to any wider grouping, be it the village, province , region or nation”? Also, will these demographic factors have an affect on Italian mammismo?

One of the points that I make in the book is that, while the nature of the family is changing in Italy, family bonds remain extraordinarily strong. So far at least, I am not seeing a decline in that menefreghismo, that lack of a sense of broader responsibility to the rest of society, in the areas where it has traditionally been most prevalent – that is, very generally speaking, in the south and in the cities. But I think that it will fall away in time. As for mammismo, I’m not sure. Will Italian mothers with only one son be any less attentive and possessive than their mothers who had two or three? I doubt it. On the other hand, mothers with only one son are likely to be mothers who have a job, and who will just not have the same amount of time to devote to their children. So, on the whole, I suspect that mammismo too is destined to a gradual retreat.

In the interviews for the launch of your book, what question have you not been asked that you wish had been? And how would you respond?

That’s a very cunning question! Nobody has asked me if I have any regrets about my time in Italy. And I do: I have not spent as much time as I would like to have done on Italy’s many islands, and in particular on Sardinia.

Links

For more articles on The Italians and John Hooper look here, here, and here.

The Italians is available at Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk, and Amazon.it as well as Penguin.com or at bookstores in the U.S., U.K., and Italy.