Literature: The Classics & Beyond

The passion for empire building spilled over into the development of forms of Roman literature that would affect every literary development in the Western world for the next 2,000 years.

The first true Latin poet was Livius Andronicus (ca. 284-204 B.C.), a Greek slave who translated Homer's Odyssey into Latin, but abandoned the poetic rhythms of ancient Greek in favor of Latin's Saturnian rhythm. Quintus Ennius (239-169 B.C.) was the father of Roman epic literature; his Annales is permeated with a sense of the divine mission of Rome to civilize the world. Quintus's bitter rival was M. Porcius Cato the Censor (234-149 B.C.), who passionately rejected Rome's dependence on Hellenistic models in favor of a distinctly Latin literary form.

Part of the appeal of Latin literature was in the comedies performed in front of vast audiences. The Latin cadences and rhythms of Plautus (254-184 B.C.) were wholly original, and C. Lucilius (c. 180-102 B.C.) is credited as the first satirist, developing a deliberately casual, sometimes lacerating, method of revealing the shortcomings and foibles of individuals and groups of people (statesmen, poets, gourmands, and the like).

Latin prose and oratory reached their perfect form with the cadences of Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 B.C.). A successful and popular general and politician, he is credited with the development of the terms and principles of oratory, which are still used by debating societies everywhere. His speeches and letters are triumphs of diplomacy, and his public policies are credited with binding Rome together during some of its most wrenching civil wars.

Poetry also flourished. The works of Catullus (84-54 B.C.), primarily concerned with the immediacy and strength of his own emotions, presented romantic passion in startlingly vivid ways. Banned by some of the English Victorians, Catullus's works continue to shock anyone who bothers to translate them.

One of the Roman republic's most respected historians was Livy, whose saga of early Rome is more or less the accepted version. Julius Caesar himself (perhaps the most pivotal -- and biased -- eyewitness to the events he recorded) wrote accounts of his military exploits in Gaul and his transformation of the Roman republic into a dictatorship. Military and political genius combines with literary savvy in his De Bello Gallica (Gallic Wars) and De Bello Civili (Civil War).

Ancient Roman literature reached its most evocative peak during the Golden Age of Augustus (42 B.C.-A.D. 17). Virgil's (70-19 B.C.) The Aeneid, a 12-volume Roman creation myth linking Rome to the demolished city of Troy, has been judged equal to the epics of Homer.

Horace (Quintus Horatius Flaccus; 63-8 B.C.) became a master of satire, as well as the epic "Roman Odes," whose grandeur of style competes with Virgil. Frequently used as an educational text for princes and kings during the Renaissance 1,500 years later, Horace's works often reveal the anxiety he felt about the centralization of unlimited power in Rome after the end of the Republic. Many centuries later some of the themes of Horace were embraced during the Enlightenment of 17th-century Europe, and were even used as ideological buttresses for the tenets that led to the French Revolution.

Ovid (43 B.C.-A.D. 17), master of the elegy, had an ability to write prose that reflected the traumas and priorities of his own life and emotional involvements. Avoiding references to politics (the growing power of the emperors was becoming increasingly repressive), the elegy grew into a superb form of lyric verse focused on such tenets as love, wit, beauty, pleasure, and amusement. Important works that are read thousands of years later for their charm and mastery of Latin include Metamorphoses and The Art of Love.

Between A.D. 17 and 170 Roman literature was stifled by a growing fear of such autocrats as Tiberius, Claudius, Nero, and Caligula. An exception is the work of the great Stoic writer Lucius Annaeus Seneca (4 B.C.-A.D. 65), whose work commented directly and sometimes satirically on events of his time and advocated self-sufficiency, moderation, and emotional control.

For several hundred years after the collapse of the Roman Empire very little was written of any enduring merit in Rome. The exceptions include Christian Latin-language writings from such apologists and theologians as St. Jerome (A.D. 340-420) and St. Augustine (354-430), whose works helped bridge the gap to the beginning of the Middle Ages.

From this time onward literature in Rome parallels the development of Italian literature in general. Medieval Italian literature was represented by religious poetry, secular lyric poetry, and sonnets. Although associated with Florence, and not Rome, Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) broke the monotony of a thousand-year literary silence with the difficult-to-translate terza rima of The Divine Comedy. Called the first masterpiece in Italian -- to the detriment of Rome, the Tuscan dialect in which he wrote gradually became accepted as the purest form of Italian -- it places Dante, rivaled only by medieval Italian-language poets Petrarch and Boccaccio, in firm control as the founder of both the Italian language and Italian literature.

Rome, however, continued to pulsate with its own distinctive dialect and preoccupations. The imbroglios of the city's power politics during the 1400s and 1500s, and the mores of its ruling aristocracy, were recorded in The Courtier, by Baldassare Castiglione (1478-1529), still read as a source of insight into customs, habits, and ambitions during the Renaissance.

From 1600 to around 1850, as the reins of international power and creativity shifted from Italy, literature took a second tier to such other art forms as music, opera, and architecture. The publication of Alessandro Manzoni's (1785-1873) romantic epic I Promessi Sposi (the Betrothed) in 1827 signaled the birth of the modern Italian novel.

During the 19th century, Rome's literary voice found its most provocative spokesperson in Giuseppe Gioacchino Belli (1792-1863), who wrote more than 2,000 satirical sonnets (I Sonetti Romaneschi, published 1886-96) in Roman dialect rather than academic Italian. A statue in his honor decorates Piazza Belli in Trastevere.

General Interest & History

Presenting a "warts and all" view of the Italian character, Luigi Barzini's The Italians should almost be required reading for anyone contemplating a trip to Rome. It's lively, fun, and not at all academic.

Edward Gibbon's 1776 The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is published in six volumes, but Penguin issues a manageable abridgement. This work has been hailed as one of the greatest histories ever written. No one has ever captured the saga of the glory that was Rome the way Gibbon did.

One of the best books on the long history of the papacy -- detailing its excesses, triumphs, defeats, and most vivid characters -- is Michael Walsh's An Illustrated History of the Popes: Saint Peter to John Paul II.

In the 20th century, the most fascinating period in Italian history was the rise and fall of fascism, as detailed in countless works. One of the best biographies of Il Duce is Denis M. Smith's Mussolini: A Biography. Another subject that's always engrossing is the Mafia, which is detailed, godfathers and all, in Pino Arlacchi's Mafia Business: The Mafia Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.

William Murray's The Last Italian: Portrait of a People is his second volume of essays on his favorite subject -- Italy, its warm people, and its astonishing civilization. The New York Times called it "a lover's keen, observant diary of his affair."

Once Upon a Time in Italy: The Vita Italiana of an American Journalist, by Jack Casserly, is the entertaining and affectionate memoir of a former bureau chief in Rome from 1957 to 1964. He captures the spirit of Italia sparita (bygone Italy) with such celebrity cameos as Maria Callas and the American expatriate singer Bricktop.

Art & Architecture

From the Colosseum to Michelangelo, T. W. Potter provides one of the best accounts of the art and architecture of Rome in Roman Italy, which is also illustrated. Another good book on the same subject is Roman Art and Architecture, by Mortimer Wheeler.

The Sistine Chapel: A Glorious Restoration, by Michael Hirst and others, uses nearly 300 color photographs to illustrate the lengthy and painstaking restoration of Michelangelo's 16th-century frescoes in the Vatican.

Giorgio Vasari's Lives of the Artists Vols. I and II is a collection of biographies of the great artists from Cimabue up to Vasari's 16th-century contemporaries. It's an interesting read, full of anecdotes and Vasari's theories on art practice. For a more modern art history take, the indispensable tome is Frederick Hartt's History of Italian Renaissance Art. For an easier and more colorful introduction, get Michael Levey's Early Renaissance and High Renaissance.

Fiction & Biography

No one does it better than John Hersey in his Pulitzer Prize-winning A Bell for Adano, a frequently reprinted classic. It's a well-written and disturbing story of the American invasion of Italy.

One of the best-known Italian writers published in England is Alberto Moravia, born in 1907. His neorealistic novels are immensely entertaining and are read around the world. Notable works include Roman Tales, The Woman of Rome, and The Conformist.

For the wildly entertaining books on ancient Rome, detailing its most flamboyant personalities and excesses, read I, Claudius and Claudius the God, both by Robert Graves. Borrowing from the histories of Tacitus and Suetonius, the series begins at the end of the Emperor Augustus's reign and ends with the death of Claudius in the 1st century A.D. In 1998, the Modern Library placed I, Claudius at no. 14 on its list of the 100 finest English-language novels published last century.

Colleen McCullough's "Masters of Rome" series is rich, fascinating, and historically detailed, bringing to vivid life such greats as Gaius Marius (The First Man in Rome), Lucius Cornelius Sulla (The Grass Crown), and Julius Caesar (Fortune's Favorites and Caesar's Women).

Michelangelo: a Biography, by George Bull, is a well-written scholarly take on the life of the artist, penned by a Renaissance expert and one of the most respected translators of Italian classic literature.

Irving Stone's The Agony and the Ecstasy, filmed with Charlton Heston playing Michelangelo, is the easiest to read and the most pop version of the life of this great artist. Heston viewed it as his greatest role and never ceased trying to keep Michelangelo from coming out of the closet.

Many other writers have tried to capture the peculiar nature of Italy. Notable works include Italo Calvino's The Baron in the Trees, Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose, E. M. Forster's Where Angels Fear to Tread and A Room with a View, Henry James's The Aspern Papers, Giuseppe di Lampedusa's The Leopard, Carlo Levi's Christ Stopped at Eboli, Susan Sontag's The Volcano Lover, and Mark Helprin's underappreciated masterwork, A Soldier of the Great War.


Italian films have never regained the glory they enjoyed in the postwar era. Roberto Rossellini's Rome, Open City (1946) influenced Hollywood's films noirof the late 1940s and Vittorio De Sica's Bicycle Thief (1948) achieved world renown.

The late 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), Roma (1972), and The City of Women (1980). La Dolce Vita (1961) helped to define an era.

Marxist, homosexual, and practicing Catholic, Pier Paolo Pasolini was the most controversial of Roman 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. His 1900 is an epic spanning 20th-century Italian history and politics.

Michelangelo Antonioni swept across the screens of the world with his films of psychological anguish, including La Notte (1961), L'Avventura (1964), and The Red Desert (1964).

Mediterraneo, directed by Gabriele Salvatores, was a whimsical comedy that won an Oscar for best foreign-language film in 1991. It tells the story of eight Italian soldiers stranded on a Greek island in World War II.

Giuseppe Tornatore, who achieved such fame with Cinema Paradiso, which won the Academy Award for best foreign-language film of 1989, directed one of three vignettes in the 1992 film Especially on Sunday. The Taviani brothers, Paolo and Vittorio, both directors, created a stir in 1994 with the release of their film Fiorile.

Caro Diario (1994), starring and directed by Nanni Moretti, is a three-part traipse through modern-day Italy. Moretti, a cult figure in Italy, is noted for his prickly personality, quirky sense of humor, and deadpan tone.

The Flight of the Innocent (1995) is one of the finest films to come out of Italy in recent times -- and one that quickly gained an international audience. The director, Carlo Carlei, takes us inside the world of a 10-year-old boy fleeing for his life. It's one of the best depictions ever of a child alone who must improvise and cope with a world he doesn't understand.

Although directors more than stars have dominated Italian cinema, three actors have emerged to gain worldwide fame, including Marcello Mastroianni, star of such hits as La Dolce Vita (1961), and Sophia Loren, whose best film is considered Two Women (1961). Mastroianni was Fellini's favorite male actor and he starred him once again in 8 1/2. Anna Magnani not only starred in Italian films but also made many American films as well, including The Rose Tattoo (1955), with Burt Lancaster, and The Fugitive Kind (1960), with Marlon Brando.

Many 20th-century film classics with Roman backgrounds are available in DVD, including Roman Holiday (1953), starring Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn. Basically a travelogue of Rome, Three Coins in the Fountain (1954) launched the tradition of tossing coins in the Trevi Fountain.

Rome came in for attention in the hit TV series Rome (2005-07), a saga centering on the last years of the reign of Julius Caesar and the founding of the empire. The series combined historical figures with equally compelling fictional side characters.

Other films that showcase the looks of Italy remarkably well (they'll put you in the mood for travel) include Eat, Pray, Love (2010); Much Ado About Nothing (1993); The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999); Under the Tuscan Sun (2003); Angels & Demons (2009); and in a class all its own the wonderfully evocative Cinema Paradiso (1988).


Medieval & Renaissance Music -- An excellent collection of the late Renaissance's sonatas, canzonettas, and madrigals, played on original Renaissance instruments, is entitled Music from the Time of Guido Reni. (Guido Reni, born 1575 and died 1642, was a Renaissance painter who probably caused more public discord because of his philandering and political intrigues than any other in Italian history. He was eventually exiled from Rome in 1622.) This particular collection of works by this artist's musical contemporaries was recorded by the Aurora Ensemble.

Orchestral & Operatic Works -- The best way for most novices to begin an appreciation of opera is to hear an assemblage of great moments of opera accumulated onto one record. A good example contains works by the most evocative and dramatic singer who ever hit a high "C" on the operatic stage, Maria Callas. La Voce: Historic Recordings of the Great Diva brings together "La Callas'" spectacular arias from Lucia di Lammermoor, La Traviata, Norma, and The Barber of Seville.

Recordings of complete and unedited operas are even more rewarding. Excellent examples include the following: Bellini's Norma, featuring the divine and legendary Maria Callas, accompanied by the orchestra and the chorus of Milan's La Scala, is one of the world's great operatic events; Tullio Serafin conducts. Giuseppe Verdi's genius can be appreciated through Nabucco, performed with Plácido Domingo by the Rydl Choir and Orchestra of the Dutch National Opera, conducted by Giuseppe Sinopoli. Also insightful for the vocal techniques of Verdi, his Complete Songs is recorded by Renata Scotto (soprano) and Paolo Washington (bass), accompanied by Vincenzo Scalera (piano). Rossini's great opera Il Barbiere di Siviglia and Puccini's Tosca, both recorded in their complete versions by the Turin Opera Orchestra and Chorus, are both conducted by Bruno Campanella.

And no compendium of Italian opera would be complete without including the immortal tenor Luciano Pavarotti, whose interpretations of Verdi's idealistic heroes have become almost definitive. His La Traviata is particularly memorable and passionate.

The music of Rome continues to enjoy brisk sales, and recordings are available on such sites as An unusual offering is "Synaulia -- Music from Ancient Rome," Vol. 1, devoted to wind instruments. "Night in Rome" features music played by the London Philharmonic, and another DVD audio, also called "Night in Rome," stars Italian musicians. "Rome: A Musical Journey" takes you on a musical tour of Rome in DVD. "Respighi: Pines of Rome/Roman Festivals" is an audio CD featuring such conductors as Leonard Bernstein.

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.