For a bibliophile, one of the challenges (and joys) of any vacation is deciding what reading material to take. Do you bring the most relevant books you can find—travel books about the area you’re visiting, novels set nearby, biographies of famous citizens? Or do you, almost perversely, read something that seems all wrong for the time and place?
Despite a decade in the UK, my experience of Europe is woefully limited. My husband attending an ecology conference in Florence was a perfect excuse for some long-overdue Italian exploring. We started off with a whistle-stop tour of Tuscany, including a couple nights at a 200-year-old farmhouse, and then went on to Florence for a week. Here are some of the books I took along for the journey. No trip to Tuscany in your future? These also work great for the armchair adventurer. All you need is a glass of Chianti.
No book has better captured the contrast between English reticence and foreign exuberance than A Room with a View (1908). The novel sees naïve young Lucy Honeychurch touring Florence and Rome (constantly clutching her beloved Baedeker guidebook) with her busybody cousin and trying to decide between two very different suitors. The two lady travelers insist on finding every tourist’s prize: a hotel “room with a view.”
Our Florence hotel was part of a 16th-century palace complex surrounding a courtyard; the view from our window was of a cobbled street lined by buildings with red tiled roofs, golden plaster walls, and green shutters. Like Lucy, I found myself eschewing super-tourist mode and instead just wandering the city to see what I could find. “The true Italy is only to be found by patient observation,” Forster writes. “The pernicious charm of Italy worked on [Lucy], and, instead of acquiring information, she began to be happy.”
Where Angels Fear to Tread (1905), Forster’s first novel, was published when he was just 26. Lilia Herriton, an English widow in her early thirties, sets out for a year in Italy, against all the warnings of her fussy in-laws. She settles in Monteriano (a thinly veiled San Gimignano), and soon falls in love with Gino Carella, who is not the son of a nobleman, as her telegram home implies, but (gasp!) the son of a dentist. Lilia’s brother-in-law, Philip, sets off for Italy, a country he fell in love with as a young man, to see if he can salvage this disastrous situation.
Although Forster’s familiar themes are nascent here—the clash of two worlds, class snobbery, and the apparent danger of letting passion disrupt ordinary life—the novel does, rather unfortunately, descend into melodrama. Still, if only for Philip’s paean to Italy, it is well worth reading: “don’t, let me beg you, go with that awful tourist idea that Italy’s only a museum of antiquities and art…I do believe that Italy really purifies and ennobles all who visit her.”
More Englishmen abroad
You could choose many a worse travel companion than Charles Dickens. His Pictures from Italy doesn’t have much to say about Tuscany, but it’s a rollicking read nonetheless. (Be sure not to miss his account of climbing onto the rim of Mount Vesuvius.) Another classic European travel narrative is Tobias Smollett’s Travels through France and Italy. “Italy,” he writes, “is the country of hyperbole,” and Smollett’s opinionated dismissal of Siena certainly smacks of that literary technique: “we were indifferently lodged in a house that stunk like a privy, and fared wretchedly at supper.”
Wine and lemons
It may sound rather niche, but I’ve been thoroughly enjoying The Land Where Lemons Grow: The Story of Italy and its Citrus Fruit, by garden historian Helena Attlee. She does a terrific job of blending travel, science, and history—and she even includes some recipes.
There was no more evocative book to read on the ride through Tuscan wine country than The Hills of Chianti, the upcoming memoir by Piero Antinori (coming in September from Rizzoli Ex Libris). His Florentine family has been making wine since 1385; “Wine runs through every part of my life like a red river, linking who I was as a child to my current identity…for as long as I can remember, wine has been associated with pleasure for me.” Quite so, I thought, as I sat on a terrace tasting the local Chianti.
Feature Image and Florence hotel window by Rebecca Foster