Following on from a theme from last month, I’ve asked a good friend (and Chain Ganger) Danny Daly to put together a list of films about Italy. The brief was films that would either give a flavour of Italy, celebrate Italy, or intrigue about an aspect of Italy. I’ve undertaken to do the same with some of my favourite books about Italy.
The aim is not that people read and watch all these suggestions and then help us to guide our bike tours in Tuscany and Umbria. The aim is to help people explore Italy a bit more, to fall in love a bit more.
Italy presents brilliant opportunities for the curious. On our bike tours in Tuscany and Umbria we see Etruscan, Roman and Renaissance sites. We pass the hotel in Perugia from which Mussolini’s Fascist party began their ‘March on Rome’, and we cycle through the Val d’Orcia, occupied by the Germans during WWII, brilliantly recorded in Iris Origo’s diary. We also pass the spot where Hannibal and his elephant announced their devastating arrival on the banks of Lake Tresimeno.
History is just one thread. Tuscany and Umbria threw up dozens of Saints – the two Patron Saints of Italy are Saint Catherine of Siena (Tuscany) and St Francis of Assissi (Umbria). My own favourite, Benedict, was an Umbrian, as was St Valentine (allegedly). The Abbeys, Cathedrals and Basilicas are amazing, sad to say they’re beyond anything we have in the UK.
Many of the films and books celebrate food. Food is very important in Italy. Lots of people know there are hundreds of different types of pasta in Italy, but much of the Italian cooking we’re familiar with in the USA, Canada, Australia, the UK, isn’t terribly authentic. Famous chef Antonio Carluccio talks of his horror on discovering the slop we call spaghetti bolognese in the UK (which I love, by the way!).
On a recent visit to Bologna it was explained to me why bolognese sauce is served with tagliatelle and not spaghetti. For starters, tagliatelle is made using egg, and it’s wide and coarse rather than thin and slippery, the better to absorb the sauce. Food matters to the Italian’s, it’s invariably fresh, and you’ll find these themes reflected in any decent list of books and films about Italy.
Italy is famous for art, particularly it’s Renaissance treasures. It’s impossible to understand the world of Michelangelo, Botticelli and da Vinci without at least a peak at the world of the wealthy families like the di Medicis and the Strozzis; medieval banking, how the great Italian banking families set up their banking dynasties to support the transport of tithes through Flanders to Rome.
One of the most intriguing aspects of medieval Italy was the incredible amount of conflict, every town, every city, every region. Today’s landscape was shaped by it – why Siena is so well preserved, why every town is invariably at the top of a hill (important to us cyclists).
You don’t need to watch every film or read every book. This is an eclectic list, I hope you’d enjoy everything on it, and anybody planning to visit Italy will find themselves rewarded for a bit of research into their most extraordinary, scarcely believable history.