General & History -- Luigi Barzini's The Italians should almost be required reading for anyone contemplating a trip to Italy. It's hailed as the liveliest analysis yet of the Italian character.
Mary Beard's excellent book SPQR (2015) is packed with insight on the rise of Ancient Rome. Edward Gibbon's 1776 The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire has been noted as one of the greatest histories ever written; the original is 6 volumes long, but Penguin publishes an excellent abridged version.
Christopher Hibbert’s The Rise and Fall of the House of Medici is the most readable detailed account of the Italian Renaissance.
Art & Architecture -- One of the best accounts of the Renaissance is Peter Murray's The Architecture of the Italian Renaissance (Schocken). The same subject is covered by Frederick N. Hartt in his History of Italian Renaissance Painting.
Giorgio Vasari's The Lives of the Most Eminent Italian Architects, Painters, and Sculptors was published in 1550, and it remains the definitive work on Renaissance artists -- by one who knew many of them personally -- from Cimabue to Michelangelo. Penguin Classics issues a paperback abridged version called Lives of the Artists.
Fiction & Biography -- Writers have tried to capture the peculiar nature of Italy in such notable works as Thomas Mann's Death in Venice (1912) and E. M. Forster's A Room with a View (1908). Fred M. Stewart spins a lively tale in Century (1981), tracing the saga of several generations of an Italian family. And the Inspector Montalbano series from author Andrea Camilleri bring Sicily to life in addictive fashion (15 of the 18 books in this series have now been translated into English).
Among the best modern Italian novels available in English translations are Alessandro Manzoni's The Betrothed (1827), Alberto Moravia's The Conformist (1951), Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa's The Leopard (1958), Elsa Morante's History: A Novel (1974), Italo Calvino's If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler (1979), Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose (1980) and Foucault’s Pendulum (1988), Niccolo Ammaniti's I’m Not Scared (2001), and Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan Novels (2012–15).
Michelangelo's life was novelized (and later made into a movie) by Irving Stone in The Agony and the Ecstasy (1961), which also offers an insight into the Florentine politics of the day. For an insightful portrait of Venice, pick up The City of Falling Angels (2006) by John Berendt, the author of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.
Italian films have never regained the glory enjoyed in the postwar era. The golden oldies are still the best.
Roberto Rossellini's Rome, Open City (1946) influenced Hollywood's films noir of the late 1940s. Set in a poor section of occupied Rome, the film tells the story of a partisan priest and a Communist who aid the resistance.
The Leopard (1963), set in Sicily, gained a world audience for Luchino Visconti and was the first major Italian film made in color.
Federico Fellini burst into Italian cinema with his highly individual style, beginning with La Strada (1954) and going on to such classics as Juliet of the Spirits (1965), Amarcord (1974), and The City of Women (1980). La Dolce Vita (1961) helped to define an era.
Vittorio de Sica's 1970 classic The Garden of the Finzi-Continis depicts a wealthy Italian Jewish family's life in Ferrara during the rise of Mussolini.
Marxist, homosexual, and practicing Catholic, Pier Paolo Pasolini was the most controversial of Italian filmmakers until his mysterious murder in 1975. Explicit sex scenes in Decameron (1971) made it a world box-office hit. Bernardo Bertolucci, once an assistant to Pasolini, achieved fame with such films as The Conformist (1970), based on the novel by Moravia.
Thje 1953 film Roman Holiday, starring Gregory Peck and a Audrey Hepburn, is a delightful tour of the sights of modern Rome. The 1985 Merchant-Ivory adaptation of Room With a View was beautifully shot in Florence. Director Anthony Minghella's The English Patient (1996), starring Ralph Fiennes, used many small towns in Tuscany for its setting. Minghella also directed The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999), with its wonderful scenes of the Amalfi Coast. Cher, impersonating Peggy Guggenheim, appeared in Tea with Mussolini (1999), a semiautobiographical tale from the early life of director Franco Zeffirelli; it is set in Florence and San Gimignano. Frances Mayes's Under the Tuscan Sun (2003), directed by Audrey Wells, was as light as a gentle glass of wine and just as enjoyable.
Russell Crowe won an Oscar for his appearance in Ridley Scott's Gladiator (2000), set in the days of the Roman Empire. Matera, Italy, served as the backdrop for the crucifixion in Mel Gibson's controversial The Passion of the Christ (2004). The 2009 film New Moon, the second installment in the Twilight saga, was partly set in the Tuscan hill town of Volterra (though it was actually shot in Montepulciano and Siena). Lucas Guadagnino''s 2017 film Call Me By Your Name, a coming-of-age story of an American professor's son summering in Italy, was shot in Crema, in Lombardy. On the subject of romances, Under the Tuscan Sun (2003) was a lousy movie based on Frances Mayes' delightful memoir, but it is recommendable just for the glorious vistas of Tuscany.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.