Fundamental Italy:  Rome and Naples


Guidebooks to Rome:  You cannot do better than Georgina Masson's Companion Guide to Rome, published many decades ago and updated in this century (!).  Likewise, Kate Simon's Rome:  Places and Pleasures is pleasingly old-fashioned, but then so too is Rome.  And if you like dusty old guidebooks, as I certainly do, see if you can get ahold of H. V. Morton's A Traveller in Rome, the very book that got me stuck on this city when I first visited more than 40 years ago.  If you're looking for something more up-to-date and concise, I think the Dorling Kindersley's Eyewitness guidebooks are quite good, even if they lack the voice of the author.

***Pompeii by Robert Harris.  This exciting tale of love and corruption within the public waterworks takes place in and around the Bay of Naples during the eruption of Vesuvius.  Very good archeology and a great story.

For further reading on life in Ancient Rome, try A Day in the Life of Ancient Rome by tv host and history popularizer Alberto Angela, translated by Gregory Conti.  It reads like a box of chocolates:  fun, consumable, slightly addictive but not terribly substantial.  Right up my alley!  Also recommended to me though I have not read it is 24 Hours in Ancient Rome by Phillip Matayszak, a book that takes a similarly anecdotal approach to history.  

The Fires of Vesuvius by Mary Beard.  Beard is a highly respected Classicist at Cambridge.  This book, however, she has written for non-academic audiences.  It is fascinating, light-hearted, and the perfect non-fiction bookend to Harris’s Pompeii.

 ***Naples ’44 by Norman Lewis is a remarkable account of the year the writer was stationed in Naples at the end of the war. 

Andrew Graham-Dixon’s biography of Caravaggio, Caravaggio, A Life Sacred and Profane, is terrific.  And a perfect introduction to the string of Caraggio’s paintings we’ll be seeing in Rome and Naples.

**I Claudius by Robert Graves.  You simply cannot beat this rip-roaring portrait of the Emperor Augustus, his wife, his descendants, and their lives of both rigor and excess.  It provides a delightful entry into the world of the Roman Empire.  The television miniseries is terrific, even after all these years.

Gomorrah by Robert Saviano.  This gruesome chronicle of organized crime in and around Naples propelled journalist Saviano to fame and fortune but also made him a hunted man.  The Sicilian Mafia seems tame by comparison.

Ingrid Rowland’s excellent From Pompeii:  The afterlife of a Roman Town examines what Pompeii has meant to us over time.  Who visited, how, why, and what they took away with them.  A proto-history of sorts. 

Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend.  The first in a trilogy, this is a novel about growing up in Naples, where organized crime and corruption are subtly woven into everyday life.  I found it fascinating and raced through all three books in the trilogy.

***The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt.  This book seems to make it onto every one of my booklists.  It’s the story of how an Ancient manuscript uncovered in the early 1400s brought about the Renaissance.  Or such is Greenblatt’s very bold thesis.  It is a wonderful read that takes you from Classical Greece and Rome and right through to Thomas Jefferson.  For me it is fundamental.



Gladiator, of course, with Russel Crowe as a gladiator and our own Nancy as one of the Talking Heads.

Ben Hur, of course.  The 1959 version with Charlton Heston in the lead and William Wyler directing.

Spartacus, of course.  With Kirk Douglas in the lead and Stanley Kubrick directing.

I Claudius, the tv mini series.  It holds up wonderfully.

I could go on and on.  But I do love Hollywood's many takes on Ancient Rome.  Even the much maligned Cleopatra with Burton and Taylor.

Roman Holiday is one of the best films ever.  Full stop.  With an enchanting Audrey Hepburn and a suitably gawkish Gregory Peck, it holds up beautifully in every possible way and is pure pleasure, start to finish.