Are you interested in Rome? Do you like to read? Presumably the answer is “yes” to both questions, given that you’re reading my Rome blog…
This is not a definitive list, just a personal selection of some of the books I’ve read (or want to read) that are set in Rome, or about Rome.
The Aeneid – Virgil (29-19 BC)
Where it all began. I remember hating the Aeneid when I first started studying it at school (in translation, for A-level Classical Civilisation), but it grew on me. Feeling sorry for Dido was the way in. Anyone with an interest in Rome really has to read it, at least for an appreciation of the epic story behind the city’s foundation. It may be fiction, but knowing the Aeneid helps you to understand Rome and the Romans – their sense of importance and belief in ancestry.
La romana – Alberto Moravia (1947)
A dark, somewhat depressing novel about a prostitute in fascist Rome. I read it several years ago and don’t remember it very well, apart from the fact that the characterisation was good, and it was an interesting depiction of working class life in Rome.
The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone – Tennessee Williams (1950)
The story of a American actress who lives a lonely, aimless life in Rome, coming to terms with the end of her career and her aging, as she drifts into an affair with a younger man. The film with Vivien Leigh is better known than the novella, but it’s well worth a read, and interesting to compare with Williams’ plays.
La Storia – Elsa Morante (1974)
A family saga set in San Lorenzo during and after the Second World War, regarded as a modern classic. Elsa Morante was from Rome (there’s a plaque for her in Testaccio) and she was married to Alberto Moravia. I’ve wanted to read this for ages, but it remains on my TBR pile because my Italian is not quite there yet. I’ve read books in Italian, but 500+ pages is a challenge. I’ll get there one day.
Artemisia – Alexandra Lapierre (2001)
A Christmas present in my TBR pile. Apparently this is one of at least two novels about Artemisia Gentileschi (the other is The Passion of Artemisia by Susan Vreeland). I wouldn’t be surprised if there were more, as Gentileschi is the ideal subject for a book – a talented artist who overcame trauma and scandal to forge a remarkable career across Europe. She grew up in Rome – the scene of the infamous rape and subsequent trial – and returned to the city later in her career, after a period in Florence.
Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman – Friedrich Christian Delius (2006)
I think I discovered this gem of a novel entirely by chance, picking it off the shelves in a bookshop. A day in the life of a young, pregnant German woman who walks through Rome in 1943, contemplating the return of her husband. It’s the perfect book for someone who knows Rome well, as you can visualise her exact route, through the streets of Prati, over the Tiber to Piazza del Popolo. The novel takes the form of a single sentence, which sounds daunting, but it works surprisingly well.
Five Quarters – Rachel Roddy (2015)
It’s more than a cookbook – it’s the story of a Roman neighbourhood. Rachel has lived in Testaccio for years and writes beautifully about daily life in the neighbourhood, in the market, piazzas, restaurants and courtyards. The recipes – for Roman dishes from pasta to polpette – often come with a glimpse of local life, just like her Guardian column. The photos are gorgeous too, and make me homesick for Testaccio.
Midnight in the Piazza – Tiffany Parks (2018)
Another one from the TBR pile – an art history mystery by local author Tiffany Parks, one half of The Bittersweet Life podcast. In children’s book Midnight in the Piazza, 13 year old Beatrice witnesses the theft of one of the turtles of the Fontana delle Tartarughe from her bedroom window, and gets drawn into the mysteries of the aristocratic Mattei family. A book for art lovers and anyone who is fascinated by the Jewish Ghetto, in particular the atmospheric Piazza Mattei and Palazzo Mattei di Giove.
Agrippina – Emma Southon (2018)
I’m reading this unusual biography right now and thoroughly enjoying it. Agrippina was the sister of Caligula, wife of Claudius and mother of Nero. She was, and continues to be, defined by her relationships with powerful men, but she was also a fascinating character in her own right. Emma Southon puts together the pieces of the puzzle to assemble a portrait of the Roman empress, from her birth in Cologne to her death (by execution) in southern Italy. As you would expect, Rome is where lots of the action takes place. Memorable scenes so far include the 13 year old Agrippina’s wedding day on the Via Sacra and New Year’s Day in the year 38 AD, when a slave entered the temple of Jupiter on the Capitoline Hill carrying a puppy and a knife, made some terrible predictions, then killed the puppy, then himself. I’m expecting many more memorable scenes before Agrippina meets her violent end…
In Exile – Alexandra Turney (2019)
My book! This is what a NetGalley reviewer said: “Turney deals with the absolutely riveting question “What would happen if Dionysus were re-born in a 20th century Rome where no one believed in him?” in a Tartt-esque novel that is well-written, fast-paced and engrossing; a read ideal to start the new year off.” You can request the e-book from NetGalley, pre-order from various places, or buy it when it comes out on 24 January. Read it now so you can be smug about discovering me early on. (Please, someone – discover me. I want readers!)
I’m aware that this list is lacking in pre-20th century literature, Italian authors and non-fiction. The Culture Trip and An American in Rome have good alternative lists. If you have any recommendations, please comment – I’m always looking for new books to read.