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Books on Rome

Robert Barrett

I love to read, and I love Rome. Each trip, I take far too many books to Italy with me, and I am always glad that I do. Everything (good) that I read helps me decipher the many layers of Rome. I probably care for art and architecture far more than the usual tourist; I sell art books for a living, and art has always been one of the lodestones of my life. I like food all too well, but I am no foodie, and I don't drink at all. I am not a determined shopper. I always stay in rental apartments, so I have absolutely no advice for hotel-seekers. With these limitations in minds, I offer this very provisional list of books, hoping that any reader so inclined will be sure to tell me about any of the many wonderful books on Rome I have not included.

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Some of these books are scarce and/or out of print; copies can often be obtained on the web, through Amazon, www.half.com or www.bookfinder.com.

With a broad selection like this, it seemed to me that it might be handy to mark books I have found especially helpful or interesting; they are marked by stars, thus:

First off, let me mention four books, all very different, each of which I have found invaluable. Each is very different, none is really just a guide or a history, and I can't imagine my Rome without them.

-- ROME FROM THE GROUND UP, by James H. S. McGregor. I can't really have a favorite book on Rome, can I? No, but ... well, this comes close. In three hundred pages of clean, muscular prose, McGregor has done the almost impossible task of pulling the glories of this city together in a neat, readable, incredibly well informed study. He takes us through the history of Rome as reflected through its physical presence, as he briskly describes with a wonderful eye what we can still see around us, and how we can place these wonders into a coherent sense of the city. Only once or twice does he seem to fall into the 'and then there is this ... " kind of laundry-list. Only when you have finished the book and read his endnotes, do you see that he has also laid out his story geographically, so that with a good map and some patience, you can follow his trail of discovery. Very good, albeit very small, illustrations.

-- CITY SECRETS ROME. This elegant little clothbound volume isn't really a guidebook per se; rather, it is a collection of one or two sentence recommendations by writers, artists, architects, and academics on a single sight or part of Rome that has resonated with them. Very much worth consulting, as some fascinating place might be just around the corner.

-- The current Anglican rector of Rome, the Rev. Jonathan Boardman, has written a wonderful meditation on Rome, in the "Cities of the Imagination" series, called ROME: A CULTURAL AND LITERARY COMPANION. This is one of my favorite books on Rome, a neatly written combination of observation, history, and a few waspish opinions. Highly recommended.

-- THE GEOMETRY OF LOVE by Margaret Visser. I don't quite know where to place this sui generis title. The book is devoted (and I choose the word carefully) to a single Roman church, Sant'Agnese fuori le Mura, out on the via Nomentana. It is an appealing mixture of religion, history, architectural observation, and sociology that illuminates what a single church has been, and is, in the fabric of Rome. Once you read this book, every church in Rome seems a little easier to "read," and when you visit Sant'Agnese, which you should, it is like meeting up with an old friend. I press this book on anyone who plans to see Rome in any depth.

Guidebooks

I don't have much use for the average general guidebook for Rome, Fodor's, Frommer's, Rick Steves, etc. I have looked over and/or bought over twenty of them, and I pass: they are too superficial, and they always give me the feeling that I shouldn't spend too much time in any one place, that I should hurry along, that I have sixteen more countries to see in a fortnight. Rome is a city to be strolled through and savored, which fits perfectly with the Slow Traveler way.

These are the two guidebooks that I find indispensable for exploring Rome:

-- MICHELIN GREEN GUIDE TO ROME. Slim, easy to use, this is the one guidebook that I always have with me as I explore. It is particularly good for finding out which painting is in what chapel. The little maps for each section are fantastically detailed, and the depth of knowledge is impressive. A new edition just came out; it has an easier-to-read typeface and seems to have the same wealth of information in the same basic alphabetical order.

-- THE COMPANION GUIDE TO ROME, by Georgina Masson. My favorite guidebook ever, I suppose. Masson lived in Rome for years, and she was able to do what seems almost impossible: apply a sense of coherence to a city as historically and topographically unruly as Rome. She is a graceful and clear writer, and she has the facts at her fingertips. The latest edition (2004) has done away with her almost hilariously ambitious program of two long walks a day, for fourteen days, but has kept her logical view of what is really an illogical city. I have older editions of the book, which can be found fairly easily on the net, and they are really almost as useful as the newest edition. The maps are detailed, but a little hard to read, and the illustrations are mainly some of Masson's own evocative black and white studies of Rome. This is a book to be read before you travel to Rome, to consult as you plan your day's itinerary, and to savor after you return.

Other Guidebooks

Of the wide array of general guidebooks to Rome, several do stand out from the pack:

-- KEY TO ROME, by Frederick and Vanessa Vreeland. Brand-new, and published by the Getty Museum, which is unusual. Packed full of facts gathered by two very enthusiastic Rome fanatics. Lots of exclamation marks! The book is the same size as the Michelin, but is cluttered in design and not very well organized. A bit like Rome, I guess. Divided into four sections, Ancient Rome, Christian, Renaissance, and, charmingly, Shopping and the Grand Tour. The shopping suggestions are high-end and very thorough. I like this book, but would have a hard time using it as my main guidebook to Rome, due to the rather scatter-shot layout and complete lack of organization. Tons of good illustrations, so-so maps. Nice floor plans of churches.

-- EYEWITNESS GUIDE TO ROME. Slick and heavy, the book is loaded with useful information. Probably one of the best guides for the first-time visitor. There are too many color photographs for my taste; I like to be surprised by what I see. But all in all, a very good guidebook.

-- BLUE GUIDE ROME, by Alta Macadam. The jury is still out. I just got a copy of the new edition, and on first inspection, it looks good. Clear, fairly extensive, with opinions, nicely laid out. It doesn't seem to me to be as deeply thorough as earlier editions I have glanced at; Jim Zurer mentioned on the message board that he thinks the Blue Guides in general are becoming less detailed and comprehensive, and are becoming more geared towards the casual traveler than the obsessive. But sometimes, one does want to know about every painting in every church, and I do still feel a need for a guidebook like that. I will be getting older versions and comparing them in situ, and I will report back.

-- THE CADOGAN GUIDE TO ROME. Well-written, helpful, clear, with some good restaurant suggestions.

-- ROME IN DETAIL is the newish kid on the block. Rather idiosyncratic, with essays by various writers on out-of-the-way sights and neighborhoods, this book opened up new areas of Rome for me to explore. A few minor errors I discovered will, I hope, be corrected in future editions. The maps printed in an olde-worlde style, like period engravings, are handsome, I guess, but difficult to follow when you're on foot. I used this guide again last year in Rome, and I became quite fond of its quirks.

-- TIME OUT ROME. Brisk, funny, particularly good for the budget traveler.

-- KNOPF GUIDE: ROME is especially good on the art and culture of Rome. Heavily illustrated. My edition is over ten years old, but I see that there is a 2005 edition.

-- A new guidebook is Elizabeth Speller's GRANTA CITY GUIDE: ROME. This is a fun book, organized around ten walks that take in many of the better known and some less well-known sights. She is a breezy writer. Not the only book a first-time visitor should have, but quite a satisfactory survey. Very good on the feel of different neighborhoods, and she makes me want to do the Appian Way. Certainly a bit idiosyncratic: no mention of the Doria-Pamphilj Gallery, but a long riff on the Wax Museum. Read it with a highlighter in hand: she has the pleasing habit of mentioning the best neighborhood restaurants in passing. On the other hand, the restaurant list at the end of the book is next to useless; it doesn't even include all the restaurants she has mentioned in the text, and they are listed neither alphabetically nor geographically. The hand-drawn maps go little beyond being cute. She peppers the text with quotations about Rome, many of them unfamiliar to me.

Specialized Guides

-- THE FAMILIES WHO MADE ROME, A HISTORY AND A GUIDE, by Anthony Majanlahti. A brilliant idea, brilliantly carried out. We have all puzzled over the tombs, monuments, palazzi, and chapels of various popes, one from this family, one from that, that crowd Rome. Now we have a neat and fun way to sort out the various threads. The author gives brief histories of seven of the most important families of Rome and then sets up a doable itinerary for each family's monuments. A fabulous way to see Rome anew. Very well written, well illustrated, too. One of my favorites. Thanks to Tony Polzer for suggesting this one to me.

-- ROME: AN OXFORD ARCHAEOLOGICAL GUIDE, by Amanda Claridge, is a superb survey of the remains of Rome from 800 b.c. to a.d. 600. Lots of great plans, a handy glossary, a very good list of museums, just enough historical information: this is a necessary guide for those especially interested in classic Rome.

-- THE CHRISTIAN'S GUIDE TO ROME, by S.G.A. Luff, seems to be as useful to the non-believer as to the devout. Lots of good religious lore about the churches, sketchy maps. I will be checking this one out in the field on my next trip.

-- In the same vein, there is A GUIDE TO THE CHURCHES OF ROME, by Mary Sharp. An alphabetical and annotated list of 156 churches. Great floor plans of many churches. The author is a believer, and she has lots of cool details about which pope did what, which religious order ran what church when, and who's buried where. Not so good on the art, and she has no eye at all for Borromini. Six lines on San Carlino, and no mention of Sant' Ivo at all! Good maps. Useful lists of saints, relics, and popes. I read this like collection of very short stories, and I loved it. It will be with me on every trip to Rome from now on.

-- A LITERARY COMPANION TO ROME, by John Varriano, is organized around ten walking tours, but the book is really just as valuable to the armchair tourist with some familiarity with Rome. Chock full of observations from everyone from Hans Christian Anderson and Goethe to Byron to Virginia Woolf about what seems to be almost everybody's favorite city. And the few who don't like Rome are worth reading as well.

-- If Varriano is a guide with quotations, Susan Cahill's THE SMILES OF ROME is a collection of quotes (some quite extensive) with short notes about sites that relate, sometimes, to her literary selections. Lots of good and unusual selections are mixed with swaths of Freud and Ss. Peter and Paul, which are less interesting. Her notes on sightseeing are, pardon the expression, pedestrian. I hate the title.

-- MUSEUMS OF ROME, put out by the Municipality of Rome Tourist Board; free, I think, or very cheap, at any tourist stand. Good write-ups on over 75 museums in Rome, with hours, cost, web sites, and bus lines. Very handy.

-- INSIGHT GUIDE SHOPPING IN ROME. Lots of useful addresses and hours.

-- ROME SHOP EAT SLEEP. From Holland, with interesting shopping and restaurant suggestions. Physically, the book is overproduced - heavy plastic cover, spiral binding, lots of blank pages and useless cardboard section dividers. This would have made a perfect 10- or 12-page printout, keeping all the information, and losing the glossy production values.

-- CITY STYLE: ROME, from Thames & Hudson, is slick and superficial; the usual assortment of high-end shops and restaurants, plus a few obvious tourist must-sees. No hours/days open, and no phone numbers. And they use the word "source" as a verb.

-- THE CIVILIZED SHOPPER'S GUIDE TO ROME, by Pamela Keech and Margaret A. Brucia, is a tiny paperback packed full of information on unusual stores, organized by neighborhoods; good restaurant and caffe suggestions, as well.

-- TIME OUT ROME: EATING AND DRINKING. Thorough listing of the old stand-bys as well as newer and more out-of-the way hot-spots.

-- EATING AND DRINKING IN ITALY, by Andy Herbach and Michael Dillon. Not much more than an extensive (63) page glossary of food terms that can stump the non-Italian when the menu is pored over.

-- CAFE LIFE ROME, by Joe Wolff. An illustrated discussion of some of the most famous caffes in Rome, with a little bit on their history, a little bit on their present ambience. I love this book, as I spend lots of time in caffes, and there are more than a few lousy ones around, so it is helpful to have a list of reliable, old-fashioned standbys in various neighborhoods.

-- LITTLE-KNOWN MUSEUMS IN AND AROUND ROME by Rachel Kaplan. Well-worth having a look at. 30 museums are discussed, from repositories of carriages through the ages to olive oil. A fun book and useful book.

-- LITTLE BLACK BOOK ROME, by Erica Firpo and Christel Brenting, is a slim booklet with lots of good restaurant, caffe, and shopping ideas.

Maps

I carry three maps with me:

-- ROME THE RED MAP. Simple, one-sided, laminated, clear, not overly burdened with detail, yet it seems to have almost all the streets I ever need in the historic center of Rome.

-- STREETWISE ROME. Also laminated, with more streets than the Red Map, but a little harder to read. Handy Metro map.

-- ROMA METRO-BUS, by Ed. Lozzi. Big, unwieldy, and too small a scale to be of much help in central Rome, this is essential for the bus and tram routes and the list of major sights and streets and what bus lines pass them by. Vital if you are relying on public transport. Can be picked up at newsstands in Rome.

Art and Architecture Books

As the old Irish joke goes, ".and that's when the trouble really began." First of all, let me admit my utter fascination with Roman art and at the same time confess that I have much to learn about it. Can't wait. These are some of the books that have helped me on what looks to be a wonderfully endless journey. I have not included many high-octane works of art criticism that would be of little interest to the traveler.

-- For a general introduction to the whole span of Roman art and architecture, you just can't beat Judith Anne Testa's ROME IS LOVE SPELLED BACKWARDS: Enjoying Art and Architecture in the Eternal City. What an awful title for such a good book! I cannot believe that her editors, at a university press no less, let her get away with it. So ignore the sappiness of the name and read what is to me a brisk, lucid, and very readable introduction to the artistic wonders of Rome. Highly recommended.

Art Books

-- DOMUS: WALL PAINTING IN THE ROMAN HOUSE, by Donatella Mazzoleni, is a gorgeous book from the Getty, full of beautiful color photographs of wall paintings from various Roman houses and villas. Fabulously produced, and expensive, at $150.00, but very much worth it if you are captivated by Roman 2-dimensional art.

-- THE ART OF RENAISSANCE ROME 1400-1600 by Loren Partridge is fascinating, well illustrated, and concise, with beautiful color illustrations.

-- For the Baroque, there is Rudolph Wittkower's exceptionally good ART AND ARCHITECTURE IN ITALY 1600-1750. Yale has brought his original book, first published in 1958, out in three gorgeous paperback volumes, updated and filled with rich illustrations. The three volumes cover the early, high, and late Baroque eras. I love these books.

-- The publisher George Braziller has a series called "The Great Fresco Cycles of the Renaissance," one cycle per elegant volume. The Roman ones are:

  • ANNIBALE CARRACCI: The Farnese Gallery by Charles Dempsey
  • RAPHAEL: The Stanza della Segnatura by James Beck
  • MICHELANGELO: The Sistine Chapel Ceiling by Loren Partridge

Perfection. Just enough information about the iconography and history of the cycles, and very good illustrations of the entire works and relevant details. I wouldn't have been half as rapturous about the Farnese freschi if I hadn't known what they were about.

Individual Artists

On individual artists, there are huge and expensive monographs on just about everyone. Check your local library or independent bookstore if you are besotted by any one particular painter, sculptor, or architect. Here are good books on two particular favorites:

-- BERNINI by Howard Hibbard. Hundreds of b+w illustrations and well-written descriptions of Bernini's sculpture and architecture. I think he's a little better on the sculpture than the structures, but all in all, it's the best read on Bernini I've come across; there are lots of big picture books, of course, but I prefer some meat on the bones.

-- CARAVAGGIO, by Catherine Puglisi is the best affordable book on the artist. There is a $95.00 volume by John Speke, with a CD-ROM of all of Caravaggio's work, but I haven't bought it yet; I am quite happy with the Puglisi. It reads well, and the pictures are clear and generous. Of interest, is CARAVAGGIO, by the novelist Francine Prose. Good, sharp essay on his life, better on the biography than the paintings. Anyway, seeing Caravaggio's paintings in Rome is what will knock your socks off, not reading about him. Off the subject, sort of, but fascinating, is Jonathan Harr's THE LOST PAINTING, about the discovery of a missing Caravaggio in Dublin, of all places.

Architecture Books

-- THE ARCHITECTURE OF THE ITALIAN RENAISSANCE by Peter Murray is a good introduction to the built environment of the time, even though he wanders (fruitfully and necessarily) away from Rome. 156 b+w illustrations.

-- THE ARCHITECTURE OF ROME by Stefan Grundman is frustrating and rather dry but ultimately rewarding. The book is terse and organized strictly in chronological order, but the facts are there. B+w illustrations, small, and not enough of them. This book is a favorite of architects touring Rome.

-- I suspected that a book called ROMAN MORNINGS by the late British arch-snob and indefagitible diarist James Lees-Milne would be a prime example of "loiterature." I was wrong. Pleasingly, it is instead a very well-thought out study of eight Roman landmarks: the Pantheon, Santa Constanza, Santa Maria in Cosmedin, il Tempietto, Palazzo Pietro Massimo alle Collone, Sant' Andrea al Quirinale, San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane, and the Trevi Fountain. Each little essay is an almost perfect example of what good architectural history and description can do: make us love the buildings we know more, and make us want to see them again and to seek out any that we haven't yet come across. Highly recommended.

-- RUINS OF ANCIENT ROME: The Drawings of French Architects Who Won the Prix de Rome 1786-1924, by Roberto Cassanelli, et al. The Getty has produced this big, slipcased beauty, full of wonders. The lucky architects who won the Prix de Rome didn't just get to live in the Villa Medici; they also were amazingly talented artists who drew and painted beautifully. Their studies of the ruins of Rome are stunning, especially their recreations of what they thought classical Rome might have looked like; they might be wrong, but this is what Rome should have looked like.

-- EDIFICES DE ROME MODERNE, by Paul Letarouilly, is stunning. Don't let the title fool you: "moderne" to Letarouilly, was the Renaissance. This fanatic spent thirty-five years drawing and having engraved plans, sections, and elevations of every Renaissance building in Rome, along with perspectives and large-scale details. Princeton Architectural Press reissued the original three volumes in one black-bound, elegant book. It has recently been remaindered, so do try to search out a copy. You will be amazed by the beauty of his drawings and the precision of the engravings.

-- A fairly interesting recent title is THE GENIUS IN THE DESIGN: BERNINI, BORROMINI, AND THE RIVALRY THAT TRANSFORMED ROME, by Jake Morrissey. This is a good, fast survey of the two geniuses who made baroque Rome what it is. A little like Brunelleschi's Dome, but the writing is a bit flat, and without lots of pictures (which the book lacks) or a memory of the buildings and (Bernini's sculpture) and one might wonder what all the fuss is about.

-- A better snapshot of the baroque era is the spy Anthony Blunt's ROMAN BAROQUE. This is a very snappy overview of the baroque period, clearly written, taken it appears from Blunt's more expansive work on the period. It explains just what makes the buildings of the baroque in Rome so memorable. I read it with a copy of the Michelin Green Guide in hand, marking sights to be seen. Illustrated with nothing but very cool period engravings.

-- BORROMINI, also by the spy Anthony Blunt. Very clear, jargon-free, by someone who obviously loved his Borromini and had all the facts at his fingertips. So-so illustrations; I found a used copy of LA ROMA DEL BORROMINI by Paolo Marconi on a stall in the Piazza della Repubblica, and it has the most fantastic, rich b+w photographs of all of Borromini's work: a perfect pendant to Blunt.

-- PALAZZI AND VILLA OF ROME, by Montanaro and Fasolo, published in Italy, is a small book showing 56 of the greatest Roman palaces, with a brief description and color photographs for all.

-- I am always looking up in the churches of Rome, awed by the ceiling frescoes and beautiful domes. A stonemason friend of mine made sure that I began to look down at the beautiful pavements that grace so many of my favorite churches. And there is a very good book on the inlaid porphyry and marble floors that so impress me: COSMATESQUE ORNAMENT: FLAT POLYCHROME GEOMETRIC PATTERNS IN ARCHITECTURE, by Paloma Pajares-Ayuela. Quite a mouthful. Anyway, it is a riveting and very beautiful study of those floors, many of which date from the 12th and 13th century, and has great color pictures, as well as notes on history and technique, and a handy list of Cosmatesque sites in Rome, and elsewhere (including Westminster Abbey!)

-- When I am not looking at individual buildings (or their floors), I am always stunned by the sheer physical beauty of the streetscape of Rome. Much of the allure is due to the warm colors Roman buildings bear. And there is a book on just this subject. THE COLOURS OF ROME, by Bente Lange, is part science, part art, and full of interest and beauty. Published by the Danish Architectural Press, this is a difficult and expensive book to obtain.

-- Speaking of expensive, I have never spent as much money on a book as I did on ANCIENT CHURCHES OF ROME, From the Fourth to the Seventh Centuries, by Hugo Brandenburg. Worth every euro: published in Belgium, this big, heavy paperback (!) has the most beautiful color photographs of the early basilicas and churches imaginable, especially the mosaics. Fantastic to read in conjunction with Krautheimer. I love this book.

-- Princeton Architectural Press has brought out a very useful and very beautiful 2-volume set called THE ARCHITECTURE OF MODERN ITALY, by Terry Kirk. The first volume covers the years from 1750 to 1900, and volume two brings us up to the present. Very well written, this work is comprehensive, well illustrated, and full of interest; each carefully thought-out chapter is a considered essay on one aspect of modernism in the Italian built environment.

-- Borden W. Painter has done a good job filling a notable gap in the non-specialist literature by writing MUSSOLINI'S ROME: REBUILDING THE ETERNAL CITY. I am fascinated by the Duce's contributions (and vandalism) to Rome, and this book puts Mussolini's town-planning designs in context with his general fascist "ideals." Borden sometimes seems to have a lot more sympathy for Mussolini that is really comfortable to read, but this, I hope, is just his way of emphasizing an aspect of Rome that has been ignored. He is not really an architectural critic, so his book is most useful as a guide to the events that made fascist Rome possible, and as a vademecum for the interested tourist to search out these buildings and decide for him- or herself their architectural qualities, or lack thereof. Lousy map, and the fascinating illustrations are not well reproduced.

Individual Buildings

-- THE PANTHEON by William L. MacDonald is a model analysis of this archetypical temple; he discusses its influence on later architecture, as well as delivering an absorbing account of the building's history and structure.

-- THE COLOSSEUM by Keith Hopkins and Mary Beard is a snappy history of the social and architectural history of the giant amphitheater. Only a few b+w illustrations, but the authors make sense out of a very confusing site. When one confronts the massive ruins, it is hard, sometimes, to remember just how grotesque were the events that took place within the stone oval; Hopkins and Beard remind us of the horrors, as well as the grandeur.

-- THE COLOSSEUM, by Filippo Coarelli, et al., is a swank production put out by the Getty. While Hopkins and Beard is more a meditation on the Colosseum, this one is a lavish picture book. Wonderful color photographs, as well as learned texts and helpful illustrations both archival and new.

-- ST. PETER'S, another title by James Lees-Milne, is a comprehensive, well-illustrated, and very readable guide to the history and wonders of the basilica.

.and a street

-- REGARDING THE BORGO PIO: An Architectural View of a Renaissance Street in Rome, by Martha Sutherland, has become one of my most favorite books. Slim, this nicely produced volume features Sutherland's accurate and lovely sketches, plus measured drawings of every building on either side of the street, along with a list of what tenants occupied the ground floor of every building as of 1992, along with a brief history of the area and the street. There is a pleasing obsessiveness about the whole project.

"Loiterature:" Memoirs of Rome

Many writers have spent their time in Rome and left their memories for us; I am partial to the term I read, "loiterature," for this kind of belles-lettristic study of a city. I have lots more of these to read, but the best of the bunch I have read by far is

-- A TRAVELLER IN ROME, by H.V. Morton. He is the perfect literary companion, relaxed, curious, a good writer who wears his knowledge lightly. There is a welcome new paperback edition of this classic.

-- ROME AND A VILLA by Eleanor Clark is another favorite. In more meditative essays than a study of Rome, she tackles such topics as Hadrian's Villa, the fountains of Rome, the poet Belli, among others. A beautiful stylist.

-- A TIME IN ROME by Elizabeth Bowen let me down. It's good, but somehow a little thin and flat, like the title. And I love her novels so much.

-- Also a disappointment is Kate Simon's ROME: PLACES AND PLEASURES. She made her name with her book "New York: Places and Pleasures," but I don't think her heart was in this sequel, or in Rome, really.

-- One of the better books in what I call the "Look, Ma, I Live In Italy!" stakes, is Alan Epstein's AS THE ROMANS DO. Most of these books, are, alas, patronizing or superficial, or both (hello, Frances Mayes!). Epstein avoids these pitfalls: he is totally in love with Rome, and he avoids most of the sweeping generalities that often mar this kind of writing.

-- One book that really irritates me is Luigi Barzani's THE ITALIANS. He gets away with huge generalities about the Italian character merely because he is Italian, and therefore is seen to be an expert on all things Italian. Ugh. But many others love this book, now forty years old, so I am probably wrong.

-- On the other hand, and slightly off-topic, ITALIAN NEIGHBORS, by Tim Parks, is fabulous. He is a wonderful novelist and critic, and he turns his genius to a book about living in Verona. I wish I could read a book this rich and evocative about Rome.

-- Paul Hoffman, the long-time Rome correspondent for the New York Times, wrote much about his favorite city. Two good collections of his thoughts are ROME: THE SWEET TEMPESTIOUS LIFE, and, even better, THE SEASONS OF ROME. I could read Hoffman all day; knowing, kind, and quizzical; he makes one feel a part of his Rome.

-- A lovely look at Rome is found in Carlo Levi's FLEETING ROME, which bears the unfortunate and inaccurate subtitle "In Search of La Dolce Vita." Levi, best known for his unforgettable "Christ Stopped at Eboli," loved Rome; he wrote these 33 "letters from Rome" for a northern Italian newspaper over a ten-year period in the'50s and '60s. Wonderful stuff, marred only by a silly sludge of academic endnotes that aren't at all necessary.

To be Avoided

Three real dogs of the genre, to be avoided:

-- HIDDEN ROME by Frank J. Korn. He reads as if he were forced to write this shallow, uninteresting, badly composed survey of Roman life. It's like a book written for not particularly bright children.

-- Also awful is CITY OF THE SOUL: A WALK IN ROME by William Murray. Nothing more than a tired cut-and-paste job of his earlier and much more interesting memoirs. Title notwithstanding, a particularly soulless and bloodless effort.

-- NOTES FROM A ROMAN TERRACE, by Joan Marble. The best thing about this book is the title. Not very insightful, after years spent in Rome. The only thing this book inspired in me was a severe case of the Ninth Deadly Sin: real estate lust.

History

-- A good history of Rome is ROME: BIOGRAPHY OF A CITY by Christopher Hibbert. Well-organized and cleanly written, this is a useful introduction.

-- For a wider scope, which is nice to get the broader picture of the entire country, I recommend THE OXFORD HISTORY OF ITALY, edited by George Holmes.

-- THE SEVEN HILLS OF ROME: A GEOLOGICAL TOUR OF THE ETERNAL CITY, by Grant Heiken, et al., is yet another way to look at Rome, this time literally from the ground up. This is a fairly detailed study of the hills and rocks and building materials that make up the Roman world, uniting the study of Rome as a built environment to the underlying geographical and geological landscape.

-- CONSTANTINE AND ROME, by R. Ross Holloway, is a readable, learned account of Rome under the first Christian emperor. Very strong on the architecture and archaeology, with a detailed examination of the Arch of Constantine.

-- ROME: Profile of a City, 312-1308 by Richard Krautheimer. Wow. I am addicted to this book. It is pretty dense and sometimes difficult reading, but utterly rewarding. I am slowly absorbing the fascinating history of the rise of the Church as seen through its buildings, and this book is the best I have read on the subject. Totally recommended for those in for the long haul of Roman artistic triumph.

-- SAINTS AND SINNERS, by Eamon Duffy, is a very well written history of the papacy. He has all the facts down pat, and is never boring, and he makes sense of the complicated history of the papacy for those of us who are amateurs, religiously and historically. Do be sure to get an earlier edition of this book, the 1997 (pb 1999) from Yale; the new Yale Nota Bene edition has unfortunately jettisoned most of the fabulous illustrations the illuminated the original. Easily found on the web.

-- THE BAD POPES by Russell (E. R.) Chamberlin is a good read. My, but these were particularly bad popes. He starts with the thoroughly corrupt Theophylact dynasty of the 10th and 11th century, and goes up through everyone's favs, the Borgias, ending with the two Medici loser popes of the 16th century. One is filled with admiration that any institution could survive with criminals like these fellows in charge. Chamberlin writes in an odd but very suitable rotund style, like a low-rent Gibbon.

-- I have never understood the Sack of Rome. Now I do, after reading E. R. Chamberlin's SACK OF ROME. How the glittering city of the popes and Michelangelo could fall to a pillaging, raping mob of foreign soldiers? Chamberlin lays out the astoundingly complicated political, religious, and military situation in the early 16th century, then takes us all the way through the horrible desecration of Rome. The real villain is the dithering Medici pope, Clement VII. What a story; this is popular history at its best.

-- In that handy, little, and inexpensive Abrams "Discoveries" series, there is a great find, THE SEARCH FOR ANCIENT ROME, by Claude Moatti. This is sort of a history of the history of Rome, how the city was remembered, forgotten, and rediscovered over the centuries. Absorbing on the archaeological finds and how they influenced artists and writers. Great illustrations and a good selection of apt excerpts from the literature.

-- THE LAST STUARTS, by James Lees-Milne, is a ramble down a lost byway of Roman (and British) history: the sad spectacle the cursed Stuart monarch and their descendants made of their lives after the "glorious revolution" of 1688 installed the Protestant William and Mary on the throne of Great Britain, driving the Catholic Stuarts into exile, mainly in Rome. Sort of the rear-view mirror view of such British legends such as the '45, Bonnie Prince Charlie, the King Over Water, seen from the greatly reduced perch, in Italy, where the Stuarts finally landed. The last of the line, the Duke of York, Prince Henry, was made a cardinal before be was even a priest, and would have been King Henry the Ninth.

-- THE KIDNAPPING OF EDGARDO MORTARA, by David I. Kertzer, is a frightening story of religion gone wrong. A six-year-old Jewish boy was kidnapped from his parents, because the Christian family maid claimed she had baptized him. The Inquisition spirited the boy off to Rome, where he was converted to Catholicism, under the watchful eye of the Pope himself. This happened in 1858, not 1358.

-- PRISONER OF THE VATICAN, also by David I. Kertzer, is the interesting story of how, when Italy was unified under the House of Savoy in 1870, and the papal lands were lost, the popes retreated inside the walls of the Vatican, not to emerge until the signing of the Lateran Treaty in 1929. This immuration didn't stop them from scheming to reclaim their lands.

-- I am reading two books at once by R.J.B. Bosworth. In 2002, he brought out his biography of il Duce, MUSSOLINI. Comprehensive and very well written. And in 2006 he has followed this with a sort of companion volume: MUSSOLINI'S ITALY: LIFE UNDER THE FASCIST DICTATORSHIP, 191501945. Pretty heavy sledding, but so far, worthwhile.

-- A brief, smart book was just translated into English, dealing with Mussolini and his influence in Italian life: THE BODY OF IL DUCE: MUSSOLINI'S CORPSE AND THE FORTUNES OF ITALY, by Sergio Luzzatto, a professor at the University of Turin. He looks at the presence of Mussolini's actual physical body, in life and in death, in fact and in fascist and resistance legend, from the time when Mussolini's sheer physicality seemed to echo his dream (nightmare?) of a new, strong Italy, to the ignominy of his execution, the desecration of his corpse, and the wanderings of his corporeal and political being after his death. The same, slightly sick fascination with the remains haunts the story of the peregrinations of the Perons' bodies. Fascinating stuff.

-- Paul Ginsborg has written the essential English-language history of modern Italy, in two volumes: A HISTORY OF CONTEMPORARY ITALY, 1943-1980, and ITALY AND ITS DISCONTENTS, 1980-2001. Profoundly researched, this isn't the most elegant writing, and the books are deeply pessimistic, but, boy, does he know his subject.

-- THE DARK HEART OF ITALY by Tobias Jones is a scathing yet somehow sympathetic study of the modern Italian state. He hasn't one nice thing to say about Berlusconi. I like this book for its hardly contained anger, and for the insights into recent Italian history about which I know almost nothing.

War, Resistance, and Liberation

My fascination with the story of Rome in World War II, the occupation, the resistance, and, finally, the liberation, continues unabated.

-- THE BATTLE FOR ROME: The Germans, the Allies, the Partisans, and the Pope, September 1943 - June 1944, by Robert Katz. I give the full title to give you the scope of the book, although it doesn't begin to capture the heart-in-the-throat excitement of this sad, scary, yet ultimately triumphant story of liberation. The best introduction to the subject, by an author who has written much on the period.

-- The great tragedy of the Occupation of Rome was the massacre of 335 civilians at the Fosse Ardeatine. Alessandro Portelli has produced the final word, I suppose, on this sad episode, with his THE ORDER HAS BEEN CARRIED OUT: HISTORY, MEMORY, AND MEANING OF A NAZI MASSACRE IN ROME. Using hundreds of interviews with survivors, he has pieced together a story that is at once depressing and uplifting. One is shaken by reading it.

-- Raleigh Trevelyan was a 21-year-old British officer at the invasion at Anzio, and he slogged through to Rome and it's liberation. He has combined his story with lots of very good research to produce a riveting book, ROME '44: THE BATTLE FOR THE ETERNAL CITY.

-- BENEVOLENCE AND BETRAYAL: FIVE ITALIAN JEWISH FAMILIES UNDER FASCISM, by Alexander Stille, is a sobering look at fate of five families under Mussolini. Some blindly went along with fascism, some fought it to their deaths. By seeing the struggles of each family so well researched and so movingly told, we can extrapolate to a wider, and sobering, view of Italy under fascism.

-- On the quiet via Tasso, around the corner from St. John Lateran, is the Museo Storico della Liberazione di Roma. It is a non-descript building, but it was once the headquarters for the SS and the Gestapo in Rome. The prisoners kept there, many of whom died in the Ardeatine Caves, carved graffiti on their cell walls, which have been preserved. They have been photographed and transcribed in a moving book called DESPERATE INSCRIPTIONS: GRAFFITI FROM THE NAZI PRIZON IN ROME, 1943-1944. This book is marred only by the goofy typeface in which it is set, frivolous and inappropriate.

Oldies but Goodies

-- Rodolfo Lanciani was one of the pre-eminent scholars of ancient Rome at the turn of the 20th century. Of his many books, I have read and enjoyed WANDERINGS THROUGH ANCIENT ROMAN CHURCHES; I have a recent reprint, and the quality of the reproductions is dismal. I have been dipping into his PAGAN AND CHRISTIAN ROME on Bill Thayer's website, and I will soon get my own copy; it's fascinating. Lanciani's THE RUINS AND EXCAVATIONS OF ANCIENT ROME is authoritative and amazingly detailed, although some of his scholarship may have been superceded. The Oxford Guide is much easier to follow on the ground, but Lanciani is still the gold standard.

-- WALKS IN ROME by Augustus Hare is a fanatically detailed guide to the Rome of another day, first published in, I think, in 1874. I have the 20th edition, from 1913, bought on the web for a few dollars. Hare certainly saw everything; it's fascinating to compare what he saw and thought to the Rome of today's visitor. He had the usual prejudices of his day: he didn't care at all for the Roman Catholic Church or the Baroque.

-- I have begun to collect other old guidebooks to Rome, starting with HANDBOOK TO ROME AND ITS ENVIRONS, London, Ward-Lock, around 1919. I have my eyes open to try and get an old Baedeker guide, and I really want to find Murray's Handbook, first published in the 1840s.

Water in Rome

-- If Paris is the city of light, Rome must be the city of water. Even the most casual traveler is soon caught up by the magic of the fountains of Rome. And there is a wonderful book on this very subject, H.V. Morton's FOUNTAINS OF ROME. Shamefully, this book has been allowed to go out of print, but it can be picked up on the web. Clearly written, packed with beautiful photographs, this book is a classic of informed travel writing. Morton follows the aqueducts from their Roman origins, through their revival by the Renaissance popes, down to today. He rather brilliantly organizes his discussion of the various fountains by the water that they carry. One nice chapter on obelisks, another on Villa d'Este. Highly recommended.

And this got me off on a quest:

-- A neat survey is the GUIDE TO THE AQUEDUCTS OF ANCIENT ROME; Peter Aicher gives a nice brief history of the Roman water system, and also then provides a very good guide to the ruins today. Well-illustrated in b+w, including some of Thomas Ashby's beautiful drawings from his 1935 magnum opus, THE AQUEDUCTS OF ANCIENT ROME, a copy of which I have yet to score.

-- The major source from antiquity is DE AQUAEDUCTU URBIS ROMAE, available in a Loeb Classical Library version, by Frontinus, a senator who was the head of the aqueducts under the emperor Nerva. A translation and explication is to be found in Harry B. Evans' WATER DISTRIBUTION IN ANCIENT ROME: THE EVIDENCE OF FRONTINUS. Academic, but cool.

-- I then found on a used-book table a facsimile, with very swell engravings, of Raffaello Fabretti's (1618-1700) DE AQUIS ET AQUAEDUCTIBUS VETERIS ROMAE. Luckily for me, good old Harry B. Evans has translated and annotated this source book as well, in his recent AQUEDUCT HUNTING IN THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY.

A Bridge Book

-- I have to learn Italian. I have the most wonderful book on the Tiber and it's bridges, and all I can do is stare at the fantastic photographs: IL TEVERE E SUOI PONTI, by Giorgio Morelli, of the Associazione Amici del Tevere. I seem to be collecting, almost by accident, old prints of the bridges of Rome, and this book is sort of my crib sheet.

Coin Books

If you get caught up in the rich topic of Roman coins, here are two books to get you started:

-- ANCIENT COIN COLLECTING III: THE ROMAN WORLD, by Wayne G. Sayles

-- ROMAN COINS AND THEIR VALUES, by David R. Sear.


Robert works in publishing and bookselling in Santa Monica, CA, between yearly trips to Italy. Robert and Deb are writing a guidebook - Churches of Rome.

Thanks to Deb and Jerry Jacobs for sharing great times in Rome with me, as well as a stack of Rome books.

© Robert Barrett, 2004 (updated 2006)

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