What to Read Before You Travel to the Eternal City
There’s such a massive amount of history to take in when you visit Rome, Italy, its helpful to do a little reading—fiction and non-fiction before your trip to get a sense of the place.
One of my favorite non-fiction books about life in modern Rome is Anthony Doerr’s Four Seasons in Rome: On Twins, Insomnia, and the Biggest Funeral in the History of the World. Doerr wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel All the Light We Cannot See. But, before that he enjoyed a a year-long fellowship at the American Academy in Rome which he chronicles in this book and his descriptions of life there are wonderful. You’ll wish he (and you) could stay longer.
Quite different from Doerr’s book, Rome inspired several authors to write about women who go astray in the city. They offer a sense of history along with little tours of Rome’s sites and winding streets. For example, Daisy Miller by Henry James follows Daisy’s exploits as she scandalizes American society living in Rome in the late 1800s. You may visit the real-world places she goes with a “dangerous” Italian gentleman ending, fatefully, with their trip to the Colosseum.
In Tennessee Williams’s novella The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone, the story centers on an aging actress who is struggling to come to terms with the death of her husband, the loss of her good looks and a life that is rudderless. Perhaps a gigolo will make her feel better. Williams spend a great deal of time in Rome and his descriptions of the city shine.
The Woman of Rome, Alberto Moravia’s 1949 novel, is a classic tale of a young woman who becomes a prostitute in the time of Mussolini’s fascist regime. Further back in time, Colleen McCullough, author of the Thorn Birds offers a seven-volume fictional account of early Rome called the Masters of Rome series. It starts with The First Man in Rome.
Irving Stone’s The Agony and the Ecstasy isn’t necessarily historically accurate but it offers a view of Michelangelo’s struggle to paint the Sistine Chapel. Also popular, Dan Brown’s Angels & Demons, is a wildly fictional page-turner about a secret society and a time bomb in the Vatican. You can even take an Angels & Demons tour to see the sites mentioned in the book.