Gifts for Culture Vultures, History Nerds, and Art Lovers… with an Italian Twist

Looking for the perfect gift for that culture vulture in your life—someone who's loves history, art, engineering, cinema… or even opera? Here are some top gift ideas, with an Italian twist!

There are options here for those who live in Italy and those who don't, so whether you're an expat or an Italy-lover abroad, give them all a read. (This is part of a series of holiday gift guides!).

Gifts for ancient history buffs

Book gift for ItalophilesYou can't "get" ancient Rome without understanding Caesar. So give the aspiring Roman historian in your life Caesar: Life of a Colossus, possibly the most-comprehensive-yet-still-readable biography published of the Big Guy written in the last couple of decades. 

You don't have to be particularly interested in ancient history to be curious about Cleopatra—minx, stateswoman, and strategist. Stacy Schiff's new, compusively-readable biography Cleopatra: A Life balances juicy stories with a modern take.

One of the most dramatic stories in ancient history has to be the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius of 79 A.D. The documentary
Pompeii: The Last Day brings it to life with hair-raising dramatizations (and, of course, some history).

It's not all factual, but the BBC/HBO series Rome got a lot of things right, including the colorful, gritty atmosphere of Rome in the 1st century B.C. It's also a well-done, dramatic miniseries, one that will keep any ancient history buff addicted for hours. 

Ideas for art, architecture, and engineering lovers 

This art supply store in Florence dates back to 1342—and (this is even more amazing) it still sells paints, papers, and other supplies with formulas dating back to the Renaissance. Whether the artist in your life would like parchment skins for illumination and calligraphy, handmade paper for watercolor and sketching, or Renaissance-era paint pigments (lapis lazuli, anyone), Zecchi has it all. And you can both order items, and pay, online—and have them shipped abroad. Check out the Zecchi store online here.

Art programs in Italy

Children at one of Arte al Sole's programs; photo courtesy of Arte al Sole

If you're lucky enough to live in Italy, and if the art-lover in your life happens to be a child, then check out some of the fantastic programs offered by Arte al Sole. On Dec. 17 through 21, at St. Andrew's Church in Rome, they're running holiday workshops, in English, that take kids (aged 5-13) on an exploration of how Rome has celebrated the holidays, from antiquity up to today. They cost €40 for a one-day workshop or €70 for a two-day workshop; contact Shannon at or +39 3402140897. Other cool options, and gift ideas, for kids include summer sessions, like five days at the casale of Fontanelle where kids learn about glassblowing, weaving, and more.

Make your own mosaic

Give the gift of mosaic-making, using traditional Byzantine techniques!

Okay, this is a fun one. If you know someone who
loves the ancient art of mosaic, you can give them a mosaic kit to make their own… shipped from a mosaic workshop in Ravenna (the world capital of mosaic!). Small mosaic kits (making mosaics that are about 6 inches by 6.5 inches) are just €16, medium mosaics (about 7 inches by 9 inches) are €23, and large mosaics (8 by 10 inches) like this one, right, a reproduction of a mosaic at the Piazza Armerina in Sicily, start from €30. (There are lots of more modern patterns, as well). And yes, the owner has confirmed that she can ship abroad, including to the U.S.

Know someone who's fascinated by Leonardo da Vinci? You've got lots of interesting gift options. Ross King, the writer behind Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling and Brunelleschi's Dome: How a Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture—both of them must-reads for any lover of art or architecture—just wrote his latest: Leonardo and the Last Supper. It's gotten predictably excellent reviews, and sounds great. Otherwise, I'm itching to watch Da Vinci & Mysteries of the Renaissance, which has Emmy- and Golden Globe-award-winning episodes on Da Vinci, Copernicus, Kepler, Michelangelo, and more.

If your Leo lover is more of an engineer type, giving a model kit of one of da 
VinciVinci's designs—like his paddle boat, armored car and aerial screw (the helicopter's precursor)—is a fun option. (Seriously, check out how cool that is to the left!).

If you have a serious art history buff, then you can't go wrong with a gorgeous book like History of Italian Renaissance Artwhich looks pretty even on a coffee table.

Gifts for movie buffs

No classic film or Rome lover's movie collection is complete without Roman Holiday (clip shown above), the 1953 film starring the gamine Audrey Hepburn and dashing Gregory Peck. The same goes for La Dolce Vita, the Fellini movie that put the Trevi Fountain—and Anita Ekberg—forever in the international imagination.

Other musts for movie buffs: The Bicycle Thief (a 1948 film consistently rated as one of the best movies of all time), Il Postino (the Academy Award-winning 1995 film), and Cinema Paradiso(the gorgeous 1988 film that won the Best Foreign Language Oscar). Oh, not to mention Life is Beautifulthat heart-wrenching yet somehow-uplifting Roberto Benigni film that won the Cannes Grand Prize and the Oscar for best foreign language film.  

Il divoAnd while Italy's film industry might not be what it used to be, the country is still producing some top-quality movies. Keep the movie-lover in your life up-to-date with the best international films with, say, Il Divo, Paolo Sorrentino's acclaimed drama that's been described as "The 'Godfather' meets 'Nixon.'" Or Gomorrah, the disturbing, gritty, and all-too-true 2008 smash hit on the Mafia's hold on Italy. Or Mid-August Lunch (Pranzo di Ferragosto), a sweet, funny 2010 film from one of the writers of Gomorrah. Or Nanni Moretti's famous The Son's Room, which won Best Picture in Cannes in 2001. 

And the list goes on!

Ideas for opera aficionados 

If the opera buff in your life can't get to La Scala… then seeing Verdi's La Traviata Special Edition in Blu-Ray, a top-quality recording of the entire opera, performed on stage, at La Scala in 2007, is the next best thing. Or if you think they'd rather be at the Arena of Verona, there's the 2011 Blu-Ray DVD recording of Puccini's Tosca, filmed of a production at the atmospheric, ancient theater. At less than $10 a pop, they're way cheaper than actually attending these operas (even closer to home!)—not that your gift recipient has to know that.

Another great option is Tutto Verdi Highlights, which includes arias from some 20 Verdi operas, all performed by the Teatro Regio di Parma.

Obviously, a CD of Italian opera can never go wrong. Especially if it's Pavarotti

Weep, Shudder, Die is a funny, accessible intro to understanding, and loving, opera; Ticket to the Opera is a super-comprehensive guide to 100 of opera's most famous works, with recommended recordings.

If you just want to go with the opera-ticket route, then check out the hundreds of opera listings, all over the world, on StubHub

Liked this gift guide? Make sure to check out my gift guide for food and wine lovers and my spotlight on gifts from the anti-Mafia organization Libera Terra!

Continue Reading