Take a literary tour of Italy with these brilliant novels

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Photo: Helder Da Rocha
07:00 CEST+02:00
A phrasebook or traditional guidebook may equip you with enough knowledge to order food or track down the tourist hotspots, but in order to really get under the skin of Italy, the best place to start is reading novels by Italian authors.

Elena Ferrante’s 'Neapolitan novels' - a series of four books documenting the lifelong friendship of two women in a changing Italy - have had a startling impact on tourism in the city, formerly passed over in favour of Venice or Rome, or dismissed by tourists as too dirty or dangerous.

With the books translated into numerous languages and a TV series in the works, ‘Ferrante fever’ is sweeping not just Italy but the world.

Inspired by Ferrante's vivid descriptions, many people are now just as eager to explore the working class neighbourhoods depicted in her fiction as they are to see the city's impressive churches and art. 

While Ferrante's true identity remains a mystery - she argues that books "have no need of their authors" - the Naples depicted in her novels is definitely real, making the series a must-read for anyone seeking an authentic taste of Italy.

Here are five brilliant Italian novels, all of which are available in English and most of which have also been adapted into films, to help you get to know the country a little better.

1. Elena Ferrante - My brilliant friend (Naples)

The first of the four-part series begins the story of the friendship between Elena and Raffaella (Lila), as Elena finds out her friend has gone missing. She recalls their childhood together in the poor suburbs of Naples during the economically difficult postwar period. The series follows their friendship in a changing Italy, as their own lives set off down different paths but remain intertwined.

In Naples, you can visit many of the locations depicted in the novel and see how the differences between the old and new, rich and poor neighbourhoods are still visible.

2. Alessandro Manzoni - The Betrothed (Milan)

Photo: Second edition cover for I Promessi Sposi (The Betrothed). Francesco Gonin. 

Manzoni's classic is hailed as 'the first Italian novel' and several of its characters and quotations have become part of the Italian vocabulary; 'Perpetua', the name of the local priest's servant, is now a byword for a busybody. The novel tracks the fate of a peasant couple, Renzo and Lucia, who have to flee their hometown after a local tyrant takes an interest in Lucia.

At its heart it is a love story, so enduring that Pope Francis recommended all engaged couples read it before getting married, but it also tells the story of 17th century Milan and Italy - Spanish rule, the Thirty Years’ War, famine and the plague - through the eyes of ordinary people, who play their part in key historical moments. Most Italians will have studied the novel at school and many will be able to recite one of its most famous passages, "Farewell mountains" or "Addio, monti", which details the beauty of the Lombard landscape as protagonist Renzo leaves his (unnamed) village.

3. Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa - The Leopard (Sicily)

Il Gattopardo (The Leopard) second edition cover.

Tomasi documents the decline of the island's aristocracy in his widely praised historical novel, set in the Risorgimento period leading to the unification of Italy. He was in a good position to tell this story, being the last in a line of Sicilian princes himself, and the novel is largely based on the life of his great-grandfather. The novel follows the decadent Prince Fabrizio Salina and his family as they struggle to cope with the inevitable coming change.

The 'leopard' from the title actually refers to a different wild cat, now extinct in Europe and a symbol on the Di Lampedusa coat of arms - a symbol for the dying aristocracy, while Sicily's arid landscape may be seen as an allegory for the mindset of the nobility, unsuited to growth or renewal.

4. Carlo Levi - Christ Stopped at Eboli (Basilicata)

Carlo Levi was an artist, activist and doctor, exiled to Lucania (now Basilicata) for opposing Fascism in the 1930s. This novel is a memoir of his exile, but it is more about the people of the village he stayed in than about himself. The title refers to a local saying, used to show how southerners felt they had been neglected by Christianity, change and morality. As an educated northerner, Bassani is an outsider, but his depictions of the villagers are sympathetic.

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He describes the characters, setting and the local superstitions and rituals in detail but with a poetic touch. Levi's descriptions of poverty - and the closing section which focuses on his political musings on the state's neglect of the south - are so powerful that the book helped propel the Italian government to consider the 'Southern Problem'.

5. Giorgio Bassani - The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (Ferrara)

This story of the early years of Fascism in Italy, and specifically in the northern city of Ferrara, is told by an unnamed narrator, who as a child builds up a friendship with the children of a wealthy Jewish family. Though the garden in the title doesn't exist, if you visit Ferrara you'll be able to visit the Jewish museum, the synagogues in the novel as well as see plaques to members of the Finzi-Magrini family who partially inspired Bassani.

Ferrara was one of the first Italian cities to welcome Jews and allow them to practice their faith in Renaissance times, but most of Ferrara's Jews were deported to German concentration camps during the war; only one returned and the formerly thriving Jewish community remains small today. Bassani's novel has been called a 'novel of Ferrara' and it is firmly rooted in the city, telling the story of the narrator's childhood and unrequited desire for Micol Finzi-Contini against the background of Fascism.

Bonus: Italo Calvino - Italian Folktales

OK, it's not a novel, but this collection of 200 Italian fables and tales is a perfect introduction to Italy for children and adults alike. Each story is accompanied with a note explaining its origin, and you'll be able to trace themes; for example, many of the Venetian tales feature water and extravagant court scenes, while the tales from southern Italy often reveal influences from Greek mythology. You might also be able to spot the origins of certain Italian proverbs or sayings.

Calvino travelled round the country collecting the tales, translating them from local dialects and focussing on the native variants rather than those imported from abroad, so while some of the titles or plots may be familiar to you, there's a distinctive Italian flavour. If you go on to read more of Calvino's work - he is one of Italy's most highly regarded and diverse writers - you'll see how his study of folklore inspired his later novels.

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