Nonfiction -- Aside from the more scholarly texts, the cornerstone of any traveler's education on this part of the world is Mary McCarthy's Stones of Florence. It is less of a political treatise along the lines of Paul Ginsborg's seminal work, A History of Contemporary Italy: Society and Politics, 1943-1988, and more along the lines of Luigi Barzini's brilliant social commentary, The Italians, but with a focus on Tuscany alone. When you have finished with McCarthy's book, you should at least leaf through the other two. Ginsborg's work is extremely readable, comical at times, and is probably the most oft-quoted history of modern Italy in the English-speaking world. Few other countries have suffered or enjoyed the same foreign examination of their national character and culture, from the works of Shelly, Keats, and D. H. Lawrence, to more pop-culture musings, a la Frances Mayes. If you haven't done so already, you could familiarize yourself with Mayes' Under the Tuscan Sun if only to comprehend the admiration of those who come to Cortona to re-live her bucolic lifestyle, or to understand the disbelief of locals who marvel that the seemingly mundane effort of hiring a plumber can be so fascinating. (The only book with a bigger payout for Tuscany has been Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code, which spawned a cottage industry of mini-museums dedicated to the Leonardo local lore.) The U.K.-born novelist Tim Parks is a little more seasoned in his assessment, and his range of nonfiction topics now extends south of the Po River with Medici Money. It is a fascinating tale about the rise of the family's wealth through pioneer banking methods, their struggle with religious norms, and the way they cleverly amassed power by generating loyalty.
To fill out the historical picture in a couple of less-known Tuscan periods, get hold of Iris Origo's War in Val d'Orcia: 1943-44, a peerless World War II memoir, and Francis Stonor Saunders' Hawkwood: Diabolical Englishman. The latter is more than just the biography of the English mercenary who won himself a frescoed portrait on Florence's Duomo; it's the most comprehensive account of medieval life in pre-Renaissance Tuscany.
Fiction -- You will miss most of the references and inside jokes in Florence if you haven't brushed up on Dante. Butchers quote it at will, the names of the people and places in the Divine Comedy are everywhere from paintings to dessert menus, and, aside from all this, this is the literature that gave a diverse country a language. After the days of Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio and beyond the Aretine artist and writer Giorgio Vasari in the 16th century, you need to dig pretty deep to find any Tuscan literary giants. One exception might be Carlo Collodi, who gave the world a brilliant tale of a wooden boy with a very long nose. The other name you might recognize when traveling there is that of Nobel Prize-winning poet Giosuè Carducci, for whom the town Castagneto Carducci, near Bolgheri, is named. Of more recent vintage, crime writer Michele Giutarri's A Florentine Death and Death in Tuscany take a more sinister look at central Italy.
When asked to think of famous Tuscan filmmakers, two come to mind: Franco Zeffirelli and the inimitable Roberto Benigni. Zeffirelli profiles his native Florence in Tea with Mussolini (1999). It is a story of a group of expat British women during the Fascist era, who take their tea every afternoon at the Uffizi until they are driven off to San Gimignano. For his part, Benigni will be remembered mostly for Life Is Beautiful (1998), a tale of a Tuscan family during the Holocaust. The first half is set in Arezzo, and visitors to the city today can pick out the window on Piazza Grande where the character played by Benigni famously shouts up to Maria for the key. Two other of his pictures are unmistakably Tuscan: Pinocchio (2002), based of course on the mythical marionette born in the town of Collodi, and Il Mostro (1994), a hysterical story of mistaken identity, and a near-parody on the real-life saga of the so-called Monster of Florence. That is the Tuscany of popular Italian film, at least. Countless foreign films use the central Italian countryside as a backdrop, including Hannibal (2001), the sequel to the classic horror film Silence of the Lambs, and most notably, a film version of Frances Mayes' book Under the Tuscan Sun (2003), shot mainly around Cortona and Lake Trasimeno in Umbria. The most famous Florentine backdrop is probably the 1985 classic A Room with a View, based on the E. M. Forster novel. The views of the Arno come from the window of room No. 414 in the Hotel degli Orafi.
Tuscan & Umbrian Music
Florence and Tuscany contributed greatly to the transformation and progress of music in Europe, starting in the 11th century with Guido d'Arezzo, widely regarded as the man who gave the world the musical staff. As a Benedictine monk, he was exposed to his share of Gregorian chants, and devised a way for other monks to learn them quickly; thus it is Guido whom the world can thank for first teaching aspiring musicians their do re mis. Four centuries later, Tuscany produced another pioneer in musical theory, a Pisan named Vincenzo Galilei. While his son Galileo garnered wider fame for his outlandish theories, Vincenzo advanced some heretical notions himself, notably his tolerance of dissonance throughout his pieces and his advancing of the recitative in opera, a simple delivery of the verses nearer to ordinary speech. These and other late Renaissance movements were fostered in a circle of artists and philosophers in Count Giovanni de' Bardi's court, known as the Florentine Camerata. Galilei concerned himself principally with madrigals, a form of singing not in Latin, but in the vernacular, which came into vogue soon after Dante started writing in the local tongue.
Over the years, northern Italian cities such as Cremona, Parma, and Venice punched above their weight in producing highly touted composers, but in 1858 Tuscany put out one of the best of all time: Giacomo Puccini. Born in Lucca, Puccini studied in Milan but returned to a villa in northwestern Tuscany to produce his seminal works: La Bohème, Tosca, Madama Butterfly, and his final composition, Turandot. How many sopranos have pleaded their case in his aria O mio babbino caro (Oh my dear papa) from his opera Gianni Schicchi? How many tenors have brought audiences to tears with Nessun dorma (None shall sleep), an aria from his opera Turandot? (Among them is Andrea Bocelli, the world-renowned Italian tenor who is from Pisa, a short carriage ride away from Puccini's hometown.) The maestro's operas can be heard nightly in Lucca, at a concert series known as Puccini e la sua Lucca, one of a myriad of festivals here dedicated to Italian music. Nearly every city in Tuscany and Umbria has its own international music festival, most notably the Spoleto Festival, Estate Fiesolana, and Umbria Jazz.
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