No matter where I am in the world, I have a shelf devoted to books about Italy. Which may be why, although I started out this post planning to write a gift guide — something I do everycouple of years — I found that everything that came to mind to include was… a book.
While that partly speaks to the fact that I’m a nerd bookworm, it also speaks to something else: whether you’re interested in fiction or memoir, food or art, ancient history or World War II, there are a number of compulsively-readable books about Italy out there these days.
What is my bar for “compulsively readable”? In the last three years, I’ve gone through two transatlantic moves. Each time, I’ve had to winnow down my library. Most of the books on this list are ones that I found myself re-buying after my last move. That’s how much I couldn’t live without them.
So. Here are the books about Italy I’ve sometimes bought not once, but twice — and the person on your gift-giving list (other than you!) who might like them best.
The best book about Italy for the one on your list… who, faced with a table of magazines at the doctor’s office, always reaches for the New Yorker.
Haven’t heard of Elena Ferrante? First, crawl out from under your rock. Second, run, don’t walk, to your nearest bookstore to pick up the first novel in her “Neapolitan quartet”: My Brilliant Friend.
The series pins down human emotions, flaws and foibles with such searing precision, it’s sometimes almost excruciating to read. On the surface, it’s about two girls who grow up together in the shadows of a working-class neighborhood in postwar Naples. And if you love Italy, especially the south or bella Napoli, it will give you a raw, intense look at a people and culture that tend to be stereotyped, not examined.
And yet, as in any true masterpiece, so many of the observations Ferrante makes apply far beyond the backstreets of Naples. For example…
It’s probably the most-overlooked museo nazionale Romano — but for a history buff, or someone simply trying to wrap their head around Rome’s many, many years of evolution, the Crypta Balbi deserves a stop.
The museum’s big claim to fame is that it stands on remains of the Theater of Balbus (13 B.C.), and you can still go down and see the ruins, today hidden beneath the modern museum (above). While that’s cool — and, after such neat underground experiences as the columbarium of Pomponio Hylas or the Mithraic temple beneath the Circus Maximus, I’m aware I might be a bit jaded biased — it wasn’t, for me, the best part of the Crypta Balbi. Particularly as the signs for the underground section were rudimentary and confusing, making it near-impossible for anyone but an archaeologist to be able to figure out what was what.
So why go to the Crypta Balbi?
In all honesty, because it’s the first museum I’ve found that lays out what the historical center of Rome looked like in ancient times, in the Middle Ages, and through to today. With accompanying artifacts.
No, it’s not with cutting-edge technology. But those maps and pictures? They’re pretty darn helpful. Now, when I walk past the Largo Argentina or by the Theater of Marcellus, I have a much, much clearer image in my mind of what not just particular buildings, but whole neighborhoods, would have looked like. (Below, the Crypta Balbi area in the late-antique and medieval periods).
The artifacts in the museum, meanwhile, are actually much more extensive than I’d expected, with artifacts like the Forma Urbis Romae, a 60-by-45-foot marble map of the city that Emperor Septimius Severus mounted in the Forum to help 3rd-century visitors to the city. (Today, obviously, only fragments remain. But it’s still cool to see).
Despite its treasures, the Crypta Balbi isn’t a particularly large museum. And that’s kind of nice. It means you can easily see the underground, look at all the artifacts, and wrap your mind around ancient Rome in about an hour and a half. And, after a day at the Vatican or an afternoon at the Palazzo Massimo, don’t discount the merit of not being exhausted after a museum trip.
The Crypta Balbi is open daily from 9am to 7:45pm, except Mondays. The ticket (€7 full, €3.50 reduced) is valid for three days at not only the Crypta Balbi, but also the Palazzo Massimo, Palazzo Altemps, and Baths of Diocletian. It’s located at Via delle Botteghe Oscure 31. Here’s a map of Crypta Balbi’s location.
So you're coming to Rome… but you don't know much (or maybe at all!) about its history or art or sites, and the idea of digging into that thick old Rough Guide you've got is less appealing than gelato in a snowstorm. What do you do?
Crack the books — the fun ones, that is.
Really. There are fun books about Rome that you can actually (gasp!) learn from. And even if you don't remember the ins and outs of what you read by the time you get here, hopefully all that educational entertainment will have done something every bit as important: made you excited to see the forum, the Vatican, or whatever it is that you only originally put on your list because, well, it sounded important.
A caveat: I'm only recommending books here that I've read. And I know I'm missing lots of great ones. So, have you read an excellent book or novel about Rome? Put it in the comments!
Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling, Ross King. I still haven't read The Agony and the Ecstasy (I know, I know)… but I have to say that, for me, it'll be hard to beat King's version of the Michelangelo-versus-the-pope knockdown. King is the guy who wrote Brunelleschi's Dome — also a recommendation, if you're heading to Florence. And he has a knack for narrative that will have you hanging on every twist and turn in the Sistine Chapel saga.
Cleopatra: A Life, Stacy Schiff. This brand-new take on the woman history loves to hate wasn't quite as groundbreaking as it promised to be. After all, it's hard to completely reset someone's reputation when the only surviving sources about them come from their enemies. Even so, Schiff gets pretty close, trying to shine a light through the sources' (fortunately predictable) biases to illuminate who the real woman would have been. But all that aside, Cleopatra is, on its own, an addictive biography. You know how it all ends, but you can't help turning the page for more, more, more of this confident, extraordinary, anything-but-promiscuous woman Schiff paints for us. Plus, while most of the book deals with Alexandria, its section on what Rome would have looked like to Cleopatra on her visit (in brief: a backwater) is pretty entertaining.
Basilica: The Splendor and the Scandal: Building St. Peter's, R. A. Scott. She's been slammed for some historical inaccuracies, but there's no denying that Scott's a storyteller. And deserves major kudos for telling the sweeping 200-year history of St. Peter's Basilica with both page-turning speed and colorful details (Michelangelo didn't just "make his escape"; he made it "wrapped in a lavendar cloak the color of dusk, riding headlong against a sharp north wind"). The enormity of the basilica, and its history, here comes compact (less than 300 quick-read pages). That's a downside if you plan to be the next big St. Peter's Basilica expert… but a positive if you don't want your head to hurt.
Caesar: Life of a Colossus, Adrian Goldsworthy. He's the most famous Roman to have lived, and Goldsworthy does him justice. In this fat (632-page) but readable biography, he delves into the man behind the myth, from the stand-up to Sulla that got the 18-year-old banished from Rome right up to the world-rocking murder… with all of the juicy betrayals, affairs and shenanigans in between. Better yet is Goldsworthy's deftness in contextualizing Caesar and exposing the Republic's "rot". Be warned, there's a lot of detail here, and it might be little much for anyone who's not already drawn to the Roman Republic or Caesar himself. But for geeks like me those who want a real grasp on the guy who changed it all, it's just right.
Rome: The Biography of a City, Christopher Hibbert. For those who want the whole history, told in a relatively comprehensive and non-textbook kind of way, this is the big daddy. Hibbert's book takes you right through from 753 B.C. to the 20th century. It's hefty, but readable — although this is one I wouldn't go for until you're already pretty interested in the city. It also comes with a handy section on the history of individual sites in Rome, even the more minor.
The Smiles of Rome: A Literary Companion for Readers and Travelers, Susan Cahill. If you want something that you can pick up, put down, pick up, put down, look no further. This anthology of works by writers who lived in, or visited, Rome — from Ovid to Fellini, Henry James to John Updike — is full of by turns poignant, cutting, and witty impressions of the city. At the end of each piece, there are suggestions for a walk you can take that incorporates the sites written about.
From now until April 17, Italy's state-run museums and sites are free. (Yay!) In Rome, that includes the Colosseum, Forum, Palazzo Massimo, Galleria Borghese (where you can find Raphael's beautiful "Entombment," above) and Baths of Caracalla… to name a few. Take advantage!
[Update, Nov. 18: It's also free on its opening day on Friday and is open from 10am-7pm. Very cool!]
Opening on Friday, Nov. 19, the exhibit boasts more than 400 different pieces from the ancient Roman and Chinese empires. It's the first time the two empires have been compared in an exhibit, and it's about time: both empires were extraordinarily influential, as well as contemporaries, with their heights from about the 3rd centuries B.C. to 4th century A.D.
It's bound to be a fascinating game of compare-and-contrast. As soon as I see it, I'll report back. In the meantime, if you can, go yourself.
The exhibit is at the Palazzo Venezia from Nov. 19 daily until Jan.9, except for Mondays, Dec. 25 and Jan. 1. It's open from 8:30am-9:30pm daily. Entrance to the exhibit is at Via del Plebiscito 19; for a map, click here.
It's not every day that you see China's ancient, famous terracotta warriors from Xi'an in the also-ancient, also-famous Roman forum.
Now you can.
From now until January 9, 2011, Rome is hosting the exhibit "The Two Empires: the Eagle and the Dragon." Held in the Curia, or the ancient senate house in Rome's forum, the exhibit is the first to explicitly compare China's empire with Rome's.
But it's just a taste of what else Italy (and China) have planned.
The parallels between the countries' histories are certainly there. Both were extraordinarily sophisticated, militaristic empires. Both unified dozens of warring territories under the same political and economic systems. And both influenced all of history; just as modern-day Europe and the United States owe a great debt to the ancient Romans, so, too, do the modern-day Chinese owe the Qin and Han dynasties. (Those dynasties ruled China from the 3rd century B.C. to the 4th century A.D., a timeline that, too, parallels the height of the Roman empire).
And the artifacts that Rome's gotten ahold of for the exhibit are pretty fantastic. Most striking are, of course, the terracotta warriors, here on one of their rare trips away from Xi'an, China. More than 8,000 of them, each one different and detailed, were sculpted around 210 B.C. for Emperor Qinshihuang's tomb. Eight (plus a horse) are now in the Curia (pictured above). Seeing them in the same space as first-century Roman marble statues is striking — no less because of how much the two cultures shared in terms of their sophistication and technical skill alone.
While neat, the exhibit is far from thorough. It's just a teaser. And that's the whole idea. It's a preview of a bigger exhibit coming to Palazzo Venezia in November, which will boast 450 different Italian and Chinese pieces.
It also launches a long-term collaboration and cultural exchange with China, kicked off by Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao's visit to Rome on October 7. That collaboration includes the participation of Italy's ministry of culture in China's new National Museum in Beijing, with a wing focused on Italian culture — and a reciprocal space for a state museum of Chinese culture in Palazzo Venezia.
The exhibit at the Curia is open from 8:30am-6:30pm until October 24, from 8:30am-4:30pm afterward. Entrance is included in your forum/Colosseum/Palatine ticket. For more information (in Italian), click here.
The only way to do that is to visit Istanbul, founded as Constantinople — the new capital of the ancient Roman empire — in 330 A.D.
When people say the Roman empire "fell" in the 5th century, they're wrong. The eastern half soldiered on. It was later dubbed the "Byzantine empire" by historians who wanted to make a nice, clean break for the timeline… but those living in Constantinople at the time would have considered themselves Romans.
Constantinople continued as the empire's capital for nearly another millennium. And many traces of the city's Roman past still remain. Both the Hagia Sofia and basilica cistern, two must-see sites, were built in the 6th century by Emperor Justinian, who wanted to bring the Roman empire back to its former greatness and reconquer the western half. Then there's the hippodrome built under Emperor Septimius Severus in the 3rd century, and Constantine's inaugural column of 330, and the classical sarcophagi, mosaics and other artifacts of the Archaeological Museum.
In a sense, Istanbul is Rome, its successor and its heir. I'll be traveling through Turkey for the next week, and as I go, I'll be posting about what to do, see and eat. Please enjoy this brief break from the eternal city. I'm sure I will!
Ostia Antica, the ancient town just 20 miles from Rome, might not have the dramatic past of its Vesuvius-vanquished neighbors to the south. But if your interest is in getting a feel for the daily lives of the Romans, not the notoriety of a particular disaster, then head to Ostia Antica.
Before being abandoned in the 9th century, the ancient Roman city had 50,000 inhabitants. Today, the vast site is chock-full
of the remnants of houses, restaurants, and bars. There’s even a hotel. It’s still two stories tall — and you’re still allowed to climb the ancient stairs to the second floor.
Like other high-quality ancient sites, if Ostia gives you one thing, it’s the sense of how little times have really changed. Not only could visitors to town stay in a hotel (with the more expensive, seaside-view rooms those on the higher floors), but they could walk across the street for a tipple at the bar and restaurant. Here’s an image of that bar, left, complete with the marble shelving for various bottles and, above it, a fresco depicting exactly what the restaurant served — an ancient predecessor to the current menus with photos you see in Rome today. (Although, avoid those).
And you can get a sense of ancient advertising. Take this shop, its floor a black-and-white mosaic of fish and seafood. What was this shop? The fish-monger, of course.
You can get to Ostia by taking the Metro, line B, to Piramide, then following the signs to the Roma-Lido station. From there, you can get the train to Ostia Antica, using the same metro ticket. For a map, click here.