Escape to Italy with our Summer Reading List
With the long days of summer and the prospect of travel imminently upon us, it’s time for TTG’s annual summer reading list. We consider this public service equally relevant whether you’re about to spend many hours on a long flight to Italy, or whether you are staying put this summer and yearning for an escape through a good book (or something in between). Whatever the case may be, we’ve got you covered.
Last summer we recommended Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan series. If you haven’t had a chance to dive into Ferrante’s dark, beautiful, tragic and captivating world of 1950s working class Naples, whether or not you caught the great HBO version a few months ago, it’s not too late. You can stop reading this now and immediately pick up My Brilliant Friend, the first in the four-book series and one of the most surprising and frank chronicles of female friendship I’ve ever encountered.
But if you’re all caught up on your Ferrante, I have another outstanding series to recommend. If you’ve followed along with our blog over the years, you may recall that I’ve recommended Sarah Dunant’s work before. Dunant is a British spy novelist who, after a midlife crisis involving an extended stay in Florence (to which I can whole-heartedly relate), turned decidedly and passionately to historical fiction. Though Florence was the locale that sparked her new creative path, only the first book in her Renaissance trilogy takes place in Florence. The three stories are unrelated and can be read in any order.
I read the first book, The Birth of Venus, when I stayed in Florence for a summer many years ago. I was taking a painting class and was immersed in the art and history of the city at the time, and this book spoke to me on a deep level. However, Dunant’s storytelling gift will captivate you whether or not you’ve been to Italy. (But fair warning- You’ll want to book your trip immediately).
The Birth of Venus is set in 15th century Florence during the height of the Renaissance, and is told from the perspective of a wealthy teenaged girl with an all-consuming and dangerous desire to create art. Dunant’s second book in the trilogy, In the Company of the Courtesan, moves us to Renaissance-era Venice and paints a world of glamour, violence and corruption centered around a high end prostitute of unmatched beauty and her unscrupulous pimp. Their scandalous story will have you questioning your notions of good and evil. I can’t decide which of the two books I enjoyed more. Though I’m partial to Florence, the Venetian story seems to double down on Dunant’s masterful storytelling and character development. I’ll spare you further details because I have written a past blog post about those books here.
I recently finished reading the third book in this trilogy, which takes us to yet another location and another set of characters in Renaissance-era Italy. In Sacred Hearts, Dunant gives us a glimpse of life inside the thick walls of a (fictional) Benedictine convent located in Ferrara, near Bologna. This story takes place around the time of the Council of Trent in the mid 1500s, when the leaders of the Catholic Church convened to formalize and codify the religion’s practices. At the time of the story, the Council had just released a rushed and cruel reform of convents. Though the changes took time to implement, and depended somewhat on the politics of the particular city, eventually convent life became much more severe and lacking in personal freedom. Walls became higher, drapes thicker in the churches such that the nuns could never be seen, and visitation with friends and relatives all but ceased. Inspectors searched nuns’ quarters for books, musical instruments, furniture and such prohibited luxuries. By the turn of the 16th century, dowry inflation drove almost half of Italian noblewomen into the prison of these convents.
From other books I’ve read and research I’ve done, I know that the convent was where an Italian daughter was placed, as young as 11 or 12, when she could not be matched into the right marriage. Perhaps she was the second daughter of a family that could afford only one dowry. Or perhaps she had a disfigurement or some other issue that rendered her off the marriage market. Heaven forbid there should be a woman at loose ends in society.
It is against this backdrop that Dunant’s story takes place. It opens with a very young woman being brought to the convent of Santa Caterina in Ferrara under cover of night, where the sisters endure another long night with the familiar sounds of anguish and despair. The clever sister in charge of the infirmary helps the novice get through the night, but this is only the beginning of a tortuous journey for them both. Sacred Hearts is at its core a love story, and a story about friendship, jealousy and hope. And woven into its fabric is the complex tension between religious devotion and duty, versus the human urge to live free. Dunant’s empathy for the plight of these women is palpable. In reading the words, I occasionally had to look up from the book and catch my breath, as I was so sucked into the restricted, claustrophobic feeling of convent life.
Dunant is a gifted storyteller, and her brilliance is in her ability to place the reader squarely in the shoes of her characters, feeling every moment of joy, stab of pain and twinge of regret in the most personal, poignant way. Even though these characters occupy a world that is centuries gone, I find myself relating to them as though they are my contemporaries. Dunant is expert at weaving familiar emotions of grief and longing, even modern themes like feminism, into the tapestry of a world that no longer exists. There’s nothing like getting lost in a story. Dunant’s stories will take you there and back, but stay with you. Like me, you may find yourself recommending them multiple times over the years.