Italy Prep Reviews by Evelyn C. Leeper

Italy Prep Reviews by Evelyn C. Leeper

All reviews copyright 2010 Evelyn C. Leeper.

As preparation for our trip to Italy, I read a lot of the books on the suggested reading list provided by Road Scholar (formerly Exploritas, formerly Elderhostel)--well, actually by Trinity College (Connecticut), who does the educational part of the tour. The complete list had 49 books on it--presumably we were not expected to read all of them. And since all the books seem to cover the Renaissance or later (except for one historical novel by Colleen McCullough), if someone wanted to do any reading on the Etruscans or the Roman Empire, that would make the list even longer.

So I used a highly refined system to decide which to read: I decided to read all the books I had or my library had and if I still had the time and inclination after those, all the ones I could get through inter-library loan. So to some extent I was reading a random selection of books, but I have to say it did not impress me. There were only a couple of straightforward histories (none available in my library), but a lot of books about the "feel" of Italy and about Renaissance artwork.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 11/05/2010]

I started with THE DARK HEART OF ITALY by Tobias Jones (ISBN 978-0-98547-700-1), a book about politics and corruption in post- War Italy (more specifically, Italy of the last couple of decades). This seemed like an interesting topic, but Jones has such an opaque Writing style that I had to give up. I think he is trying to be poetic, but that did not mix well with the complicated topic, and a full chapter on the world of soccer did not help. (Was it supposed to be another example of corruption? A metaphor? If I understood soccer it might have made more sense.)

To order The Dark Heart of Italy from, click here.

ITALIAN DAYS by Barbara Grizzuti Harrison:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 11/05/2010]

ITALIAN DAYS by Barbara Grizzuti Harrison (ISBN 1-55584-311-5) is divided in eight chapters, each about a different city or region. I had decided to read just the Venice, Florence, and Rome chapters, since those were the cities we were going to visit. This was easier to follow than the Jones. However, her description of the Venetian Ghetto gave me pause: "No Italian's death goes unmarked; here, in the Ghetto, death notices posted on walls bear not the Cross but the Star of David; and there are plaques to commemorate the lives and deaths of Israeli martyrs." Given that this comes right after quoting a plaque in remembrance of the Jews deported to Nazi concentration camps, I suspect Harrison meant Jewish martyrs, not Israeli ones. Maybe this doesn't seem like a major error, but it tends to make one suspicious of all her other statements. And ultimately, I decided that while the Jones was interesting but impossible to read, this was easier to read, but uninteresting.

To order Italian Days from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 11/05/2010]

At last in BRUNELLESCHI'S DOME: HOW A RENAISSANCE GENIUS REDISCOVERED ARCHITECTURE by Ross King (ISBN 978-0-8027-1366-7) I found a book both interesting and readable. Filippo Brunelleschi built the dome of Santa Maria del Fiore (Il Duomo) in Florence, Italy. (Note that Brunelleschi did not actually design the dome; that was done by Arnolfo di Cambio, although Brunelleschi made several changes to the design.) This is the largest masonry dome in the world (143 feet in diameter, beginning at 170 feet above the floor of the cathedral and with a final height of 295 feet, or 375 feet including the lantern). St. Peter's in Rome is ten feet narrower, St. Paul's in London is thirty feet narrower, and the Capitol dome in Washington is only two-thirds as wide. Yes, the Astrodome is larger, but its building materials are completely different from those of Il Duomo. Nervi's Palazzo dello Sport is about 200 feet across but made of reinforced concrete and supported by flying buttresses. The Duomo's 463 steps to the lantern still remain for tourists to climb.

Brunelleschi's challenges were not just how to support the dome during construction (he decided against the traditional central vaulting, probably because the height would have made that impossible), but also how to lift the bricks and marble blocks up to the dome, and how to move them into place with the precision needed.

To order Brunelleschi's Dome from, click here.

DEAD LAGOON by Michael Dibdin:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 11/05/2010]

DEAD LAGOON by Michael Dibdin (ISBN 978-0-679-43349-1) is a mystery novel set in Venice. I'm sure it does a wonderful job of evoking the city for people who are familiar with the city, but for people who are unfamiliar with Venice it is merely confusing.

To order Dead Lagoon from, click here.

A VENETIAN AFFAIR by Andrea di Robilant:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 11/05/2010]

A VENETIAN AFFAIR by Andrea di Robilant (ISBN 978-0-375-41181-X) was catalogued as fiction by my library, but is actually non- fiction--the history of a love affair between Andrea Memmo and Giustiniana Wynne in the 18th century. This book is based on letters found in the de Robilant family attic in Venice. It is well-written, but I have to ask, "Why should I care about these people?" Shakespeare did a better job making me care about a fictional couple in Verona than di Robilant did about a real couple.

To order A Venetian Affair from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 11/05/2010]

Finally in THE WORLD OF VENICE by Jan Morris (ISBN 978-0-15-698356- 7) I found an overview book that actually gave a readable overview, describing Venice in all its aspects.

To order The World of Venice from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 11/05/2010]

I listened to CITY OF FALLING ANGELS by John Berendt (read by Holter Graham) (ISBN 0-739-30878-5) rather than reading it, because our library had the audiobook but not the regular book. It is about Venice, but focused around the story of the fire that destroyed the Venice Opera House in 1996. Berendt's previous book was MIDNIGHT IN THE GARDEN OF GOOD AND EVIL, and this is similar in that it focuses on the interesting, if not bizarre, people who populate the city in question while at the same time covering the investigation of a crime. That Berendt decided to write about Venice and went there before the fire makes the similarity even more eerie.

To order City of Falling Angels from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 11/05/2010]

Somewhere around here I realized that most of what I had been able to find was about Venice, even though we were spending only about a quarter of the trip there. The next book, MOTHER TONGUE: AN AMERICAN LIFE IN ITALY by Wallis Wilde-Menozzi (ISBN 978-0-86547- 501-4), wasn't about Italy, but rather about Parma. We were not even going to Parma, and after reading pages and pages about the author's pet cats, I decided I could skip this one.

To order Mother Tongue from, click here.

Is it me, I found myself asking, or is it the selection? In college, syllabi made sense, the books were readable, and it all seemed to click. Here some of the books seem only peripherally connected to our itinerary, and with many of the other books I feel like a middle-schooler dropped into a graduate level course on the experimental novel. I'm not used to having so many books that are hard to read--not in the sense of not being able to understand the words or even the sentences, but in the sense of feeling like there is no worthwhile content in them.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 11/12/2010]

In browsing the shelves for the books on the list, I ran across other books that seemed worth reading. For example, THE GHETTO OF VENICE: A HISTORY by Riccardo Calimani (translated by Katherine Silberblatt Wolfthal) (ISBN-10 0-87131-484-3) seemed important to read, and its was indeed a very thorough history of the Ghetto, starting in 1152 (well before its actual establishment in 1516) and continuing past its dissolution in 1797 up through World War II. It is heavily researched (the bibliography lists 400 sources!), but even so, I caught at least one error: Calimani refers to the Mourner's Kaddish as supreme Hebrew poetry, when it fact it is Aramaic. Still, it is a very comprehensive history of the Jews in Venice, so obviously it would be of interest to Jews planning on visiting Venice.

To order The Ghetto of Venice from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 11/12/2010]

MUSSOLINI'S ROMAN EMPIRE by Denis Mack Smith (ISBN-10 0-670-49652- 9) was also not on the list, but I saw it on the shelf and thought it looked like it covered an aspect of Italy that the list overlooked. As I noted, all the books seem to cover the Renaissance or later, but they also seemed to skip a large chunk between, say, Napoleon and the present. There was one book about the World War II period, but it was MUSSOLINI'S ROME: REBUILDING THE ETERNAL CITY, which sounds like it is about Fascist architecture. MUSSOLINI'S ROMAN EMPIRE covers the foreign policy of Italy from 1922 until 1945, and there are a lot of lessons to be learned even now. Mussolini's approach was all form and no substance:

"Churchill's technique was quite different when he offered people toils, tears, and bloodshed. Mussolini rather preferred to keep the appearance of normality and whenever possible make the war seem painless and easy. Hence he made no order for general mobilisation, and newspapers were told to play down the fact of casualties. He admitted that this was no way to win a war, but thought that the major need was to keep up morale. Some Italians, on the other hand, were shocked to find so little disturbance of ordinary civilian life, and after being preached at for so long about the superb discipline and idealism of war, were disillusioned to learn of far more serious and dedicated attitudes adopted in other belligerent countries. But fascism continued to think it a matter for boasting that so little was demanded from Italians and that there was no general mobilisation. To put this differently, resources were considered to be less usefully spent in war production than in fuelling the great propaganda industry which was trying to convince ordinary citizens that all was well."

To order Mussolini's Roman Empire from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 11/12/2010]

Back to the list: DARK WATER: FLOOD AND REDEMPTION IN THE CITY OF MASTERPIECES by Robert Clark (ISBN 9780-7679-2648-5) is about the 1966 flood in Florence. Yes, Florence--when one talks about flooding in Italy, Venice is the city that comes to mind, but on November 4, 1966, the Arno massively overflowed its banks, covering almost all of the center of Florence, with the Santa Croce neighborhood being under twenty feet of water. While in the Uffizi Museum they managed to move all the art to floors over the water (ten feet in that area), thousands of other works were not as fortunate. Clark tells the story of the recovery and restoration of some of those works, centering his attention on Cimabue's "Crocifisso" (a painting on wood). I guess my knowledge of Italian art is deficient, because I had never heard of this and still am not sure why it is so important. I did learn that it is the center of controversy because of the method of restoration, which some say ruined it.

Clark writes about the problem of raising money for art restoration. While it might make sense to spend the funds to restore (or at least stabilize) less well-known works whose need is more urgent, it is almost impossible to raise funds unless the works targeted are well-known works by well-known artists. But there were those who worked on less publicized projects. Clark's book is also about the "angeli del fango" ("mud angels")--people who just showed up and went to work. One that got very little notice was Luciano Camerino, a survivor of Auschwitz. "[On] November 6 he'd dropped everything and gone north [from his home in Rome] to Florence. He'd heard there was a synagogue in Via Farina that held some 120 priceless scrolls of the Law plus fifteenth-, sixteenth-, and seventeenth-century commentaries--fifteen thousand volumes--of inestimable scholarly and antiquarian value. Camerino arrived late that day and worked largely alone and almost continuously for the next seventy-two hours. The only way to save the 120 scrolls of the Law was to unroll each one--all 130 to 165 feet of it--and drape it over chairs, up and down the aisles, like drying pasta. He labored without food or rest or joy, as they'd labored in the camps. But he was saving the Word, the Law, and the Prophets. After the third day, he raised his palm to his forehead, staggered, and fell dead, of cardiac arrest it was said afterward. The flaw in the heart--his or the world's--that had been tracking him since 1943 had found him."

To order Dark Water from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 11/12/2010]

WHEN IN ROME: A JOURNAL OF LIFE IN VATICAN CITY by Robert J. Hutchinson (ISBN 978-0-385-48647-7) is, according to one of the blurbs, "a witty, delightfully disrespectable travelogue through the Vatican." Here are two samples:

"Over the years, various systems analysts and business consultants have studied the Vatican's organizational structure and concluded that it is one of the most efficiently run operations on earth--a conclusion that only causes incredulity, if not hysterical shrieks of laughter, from the jaded Vatican press corps and anyone else who has spent any time at all in curial offices."


"The mentality, rampant throughout Italy, is pretty much: Why get a fax machine when carrier pigeons have done such a magnificent job all these centuries?"

(My only complaint has nothing to do with the book, but rather with its former owner, who seemed to be on a massive underlining campaign, and at times avoided underlining an entire page only by skipping the conjunctions, prepositions, and articles, while underlining almost every noun, verb, adjective, and adverb. How useful could this possibly be?)

To order When in Rome from, click here.



[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 11/12/2010]

Having found this book interesting, I returned to "off-list" reading with some of Hutchinson source works: PETER'S KINGDOM: INSIDE THE PAPAL CITY by Jerrold M. Packard (ISBN 0-684-18430-3) and O VATICAN!: A SLIGHTLY WICKED VIEW OF THE HOLY SEE by Paul Hoffman (ISBN 0-86553-101-3). I skimmed through these, because to a great extent Hutchinson had covered the main details of the history of the Pope, the Papal States, and the Vatican. There were some anecdotes in these, and PETER'S KINGDOM had a more thorough discussion of the Vatican banking scandals of the 1970s and 1980s, but they are somewhat outdated. I realize that's an odd thing to say about books about a 2000-year-old institution, but O VATICAN! was published in 1984 and PETER'S KINGDOM in 1985 and both are heavily weighted towards describing the Vatican as it was then. (WHEN IN ROME was published in 1998.) O VATICAN!, in particular, is full of biographies and anecdotes of the people then in positions in the Holy See. And of course they both pre-date the current abuse scandals shaking the Catholic Church. Unless you're extremely interested in the Vatican, one of these three would be sufficient.

To order Peter's Kingdom from, click here.

To order O Vatican! from, click here.

ITALIAN JOURNEY by J. W. von Goethe:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 11/19/2010]

I read the first half of ITALIAN JOURNEY by J. W. von Goethe (in SELECTED WORKS) (ISBN 0-375-41044-9) since that covered the areas we were visiting. Goethe may have traveled to Italy over two hundred years ago, but some things have not changed. Goethe talks about picking up bits of Roman mosaics as souvenirs (!), and complains about other tourists. But he was so eager to get to Rome that he apparently spent only a few hours in Florence, a decision that seems insane given Florence's history of art.

To order Selected Works from, click here.

We also listened to The Teaching Company's course, "The History of Ancient Rome", and so I read several books in conjunction with that. This course covers the period from the earliest inhabitants of Italy to 476 C.E., the date traditionally given as the date of the "fall" of the (Western) Roman Empire. (The Eastern Roman Empire, a.k.a. the Byzantine Empire, based at Constantinople/Byzantium, lasted until 1453.)


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 11/19/2010]

THE CIVILIZATION OF ROME by Donald R. Dudley (no ISBN) wasn't on the Teaching Company course recommended list, but it seemed to go well as an adjunct, and we had it already. But I also read a lot of primary sources, all in the Penguin editions.

To order The Civilization of Rome from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 11/19/2010]

THE EARLY HISTORY OF ROME by Livy (translated by Aubrey de Selincourt) (ISBN 0-14-044104-2) is listed in the Teaching Company's materials as "Recommended Reading". (We don't actually read all the "Recommended Reading" for the courses we take, in part because many are not easily available at reasonable prices.) This covered the period from the founding of Rome to right before the First Punic War (264 B.C.E.), and it was far more readable and engaging that a lot of the modern books on the Road Scholar list. One thing one discovers reading it is that some things never change. The patricians fought against every attempt to give the plebians more power and also complained about all the taxes they had to pay. The plebians complained that they had to do all the fighting ("rich man's war, poor man's fight"), and how they had no relief from debt slavery when they were conscripted. (They would be conscripted and have to go off to fight, so could not work their farms to pay their debts; then when they returned, their creditors seized them as slaves.) When at one point the Senate decided to pay the army, those who had previously served complained that they hadn't been paid, and now their taxes were going to pay other people. (This sounds like the problems of Social Security in reverse--people now complain if any cut-backs are made, they will have paid taxes that won't benefit themselves.)

To order The Early History of Rome from, click here.

MAKERS OF ROME by Plutarch:


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 11/19/2010]

MAKERS OF ROME (ISBN 978-0-14-044158-1) and FALL OF THE ROMAN REPUBLIC (ISBN 978-0-14-044934-1) by Plutarch (both translated by Rex Warner) are two volumes of the Penguin set of selections from Plutarch's LIVES divided by topic. Again, many of the anecdotes seem very contemporary.

To order Makers of Rome from, click here.

To order Fall of the Roman Republic from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 11/19/2010]

THE RISE OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE by Polybius (translated by Ian Scott- Kilvert) (ISBN 978-0-14-044362-2) covers 220 B.C.E. to 146 B.C.E. Since Polybius died in 118 B.C.E., what he is calling the Roman Empire clearly is distinct from "Imperial Rome", the time of the emperors covered by Suetonius, Tacitus, and Gibbon.

To order The Rise of the Roman Republic from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 11/19/2010]

THE TWELVE CAESARS by Suetonius (ISBN 978-0-14-045516-8) was the basis for Robert Graves's (and hence the BBC'S) I, CLAUDIUS and covers the period from 100 B.C.E. to 96 C.E. (The "Twelve Caesars" are Julius Caesar, Augustus, Tiberius, Gaius (Caligula), Claudius, Nero, Galba, Otho, Vitellius, Vespasian, Titus, and Domitian.) And in fact, Robert Graves did the Penguin translation. This is probably the most popular of the classical works, because Suetonius was much more like, say, "People" magazine in the sorts of stories he tells than are the other authors. (Or maybe it is that there just are many more such stories about the emperors than about the various consuls of the Roman Republic.)

To order The Twelve Caesars from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 11/19/2010]

THE ANNALS OF IMPERIAL ROME by Tacitus (translated by Michael Grant) (ISBN 978-0-14-044060-7) covers an even shorter period, from 14 C.E. to 68 C.E. Unfortunately, I ran out of time before getting to this, but I mention it for completeness' sake.

To order The Annals of Imperial Rome from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 11/19/2010]

THE DECLINE AND FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE by Edward Gibbon (abridged, ISBN 978-0-14-043764-5) covers a much longer period, 98 C.E. to 1453 C.E., but I concentrated only on the first part, through 476 C.E. Again, a lot of what was going on then seems similar to what is going on now. For example, Gibbon says of Julian the Apostate, "He extended to all the inhabitants of the Roman world, the benefits of a free and equal toleration; and the only hardship which he inflicted on the Christians, was to deprive them of the power of tormenting their fellow-subjects, whom they stigmatised with the odious titles of idolaters and heretics," and, "As soon as the emnity of Julian deprived the clergy of the privileges which had been conferred by the favour of Constantine, they complained of the most cruel oppression; and the free toleration of idolaters and heretics was a subject of grief and scandal to the orthodox party." The latter particularly sounds familiar, as I hear various people complaining that their inability to have their religion's prayers led by teachers in public schools constitutes oppression.

However, Gibbon also falls prey to bias when he says, "According a principle, pregnant with mischief and oppression, the emperor [Julian] transferred, to the pontiffs of his own religion, the management of the liberal allowances from the public revenue, which had been granted to the church by the piety of Constantine and his sons." When the Christians got public money, it was piety; when the pagans got it, it was mischief and oppression.

To order The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire from, click here.

Well, that about wraps it up for Italy for books. I also listened to Teaching Company courses on Ancient Rome and the Italian Renaissance and a UC Berkeley course on Ancient Rome, and watched a Teaching Company course on Michelangelo. (Yes, maybe I did go a little overboard for a two-week trip.) I have to say I will be happy to be able to spend more time on other topics now. Go to Evelyn Leeper's home page.