I know y’all thought I was really cool. Like Johnny Depp, that guy from House, Two-Face from Batman kinda cool*. However, in reality I’m about as cool as Lucy Ricardo in a chocolate factory. So…. just go ahead and throw that notion in the crapper.
* This is who Google lists as the top 3 search results for “cool famous people”. However, if you Google “coolest people ever,” Chuck Norris gets his own category.
While most people my age are discussing “nipple butter” (I really hope that’s something that goes on and not comes out of), managing their 401K, or using words like “mortgage” and “escrow” on a daily basis (I own a house and still have no idea what these words mean, but I think they’re related to home-ownership), I’m literally shutting myself in a closet on my lunch break to eat peanut butter & jelly sandwiches and read my books undisturbed. Seriously, a closet. Don’t feel bad for me; I have friends, promise. I also have an Amazon addiction I should really see someone about. Does Amazon sell therapy services? Hmm… I. Can’t. Stop.
Almost three years ago I left Italy and returned to the siesta-free land of fried chicken and massive, absolutely ginormous cups of coffee. Though I came home a couple thousand dollars worth of shit lighter, my interest in Italian history had grown larger than my appetite for tiramisu. Italy had never been a place I was very interested in visiting but spending so much time there changed it all for me. Back in America I found myself parched with the most intense thirst for everything Italian, and I’m not just talking about Chianti and cappuccino. I wanted to learn all I could about Italy, the Renaissance, and why all the sculptures have such teeny weenies. I soon acquired a stack of books on the subjects and when I found out I’d be returning to Italy this year I picked them all up again for a refresher. I can’t even imagine how many books are out there on these topics (surprisingly few on teeny weenies though) but I imagine it’s slightly more than a butt-load.
I will just introduce you to five of my favorites.
Ross King, Boy Wonder
…or at least that’s what I would call him if he wasn’t 53 years old.
Before visiting Florence, Italy, I knew basically nothing about this city other than sometimes the busses go there, sometimes they don’t. My art-teacher-friend joined me and told me about some golden doors, a competition, and something about a big dome that obviously went in one ear and out the other while I was drinking water from the pipe on the street. Now, I can’t imagine a time before I knew everything there is to know about Lorenzo Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise and Filippo Brunelleschi’s Duomo. I was interested in cheese, mainly.
What solidified my love for Florence was our first night there when we made the 4-hour trek from Ponte Vecchio to Piazzale Michelangelo. This is an absolute must-do, if not THE must-do activity in Florence. Full disclosure: Piazzale Michelangelo is quite easy to get to from all the main parts of Florence and you don’t need to take the longest way possible around the entire city through residents’ backyards. Don’t ask.
It is from Piazzale Michelangelo that you can really appreciate what Florence is all about and I was hooked. Once home, a quick search for books (on Amazon!) on Renaissance Florence led me to one called Brunelleschi’s Dome by Ross King. This quickly became one of my favorite books of all time, right behind Jurassic Park. Ross King is a literary genius – informative, entertaining and funny at the same time – and the amount of research he must do in order to summarize hundreds of years of spotty information is more baffling than Donald Trump thinking he has a chance at the Presidency. I can barely get through a Wikipedia entry. Do you need to be a certain level of nerd to appreciate his works? I’d say… it wouldn’t hurt, but not necessarily.
He describes in detail how one of the still biggest and most complicated domes in history came to be and the struggles encountered over the almost 200 years of this cathedral’s construction, and in terms that this architecture-idiot can understand. Illustrators are underrated. But don’t let the title fool you, this book doesn’t just describe the construction of a massive cathedral dome; it also gives you a detailed look into Italian life during this period in time which is where the humor comes in. If you are at all interested in Renaissance culture, politics, characters, or wine consumption, give this book a read. If you want to know how much I enjoyed this, talk to my husband who was forced to endure all the arm punches and the many late night exclamations of, “Oh my God! Listen to this!…..”
What we learn:
- Heavy wine consumption helps immensely with daunting construction projects.
- We have it really, really easy living in the 21st century. Like, realllly easy. Thank your lucky stars.
- Good things also come in very large packages. This is not a teeny weeny reference.
I guess after reading the reviews I should let you know that this book is best suited for those over the age of 15.
MICHELANGELO AND THE POPE’S CEILING
After finishing that gem I returned to Amazon and bought another Ross King book, Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling. This one obviously tells the story of Michelangelo Buonarroti, one of the most respected artists of all time, and his painting of the Sistine Chapel in Rome, Italy. This one goes not only into intricate detail on the painting itself (even into the process of making the paints which I find stupidly entertaining) but also into the somewhat tortured life of Michelangelo. We are (or at least should be) familiar with his most famous works, but probably not so much about him as a person which I find just as colorful. This book explores Michelangelo’s life and work during the early 16th century, his contention with Pope Julius II, and his rivalry with another favorite artist of mine, Raphael. As with Brunelleschi’s Dome, this book will give you a glimpse into life in Rome (and often Florence) from 1508-1512 in an entertaining manner that’s right on par with an episode of Rick Steves’ Europe.
What we learn:
- Even the most genius of all geniuses have crappy bosses.
- Try new things even if you don’t want to; you may just be one of the best in history at it.
- If you write letters to your deadbeat family members they could potentially be published 500 years from now so use your insults wisely. Actually, just use more insults in general.
LEONARDO AND THE LAST SUPPER
It wasn’t until just recently that I saw Ross King had written another book about one of my favorite people in history called Leonardo and the Last Supper. I never made it to Milan while in Italy and have never seen Leonardo da Vinci’s “Last Supper” in person but I hope to some day as I now legit know everything there is to know about it. Da Vinci has always fascinated me and I don’t believe there has ever been or ever will be a brain like his on this planet. Maybe Coruscant, but not Earth. This book kept me in a constant state of awe, much like an episode of the show Brain Games on the National Geographic Channel. At one point I tried to keep a record of all the awesome crap I learned about Leonardo but I gave up on that because there was just too much.
As with other Ross King books, this painting alone is not the sole focus. The politics of Milan, Venice and Florence, Leo’s various other artistic and scientific endeavors, shapes!, and his affinity for pink velvet tights are all touched on throughout. I even learned enough Jesus info to bump up my chances on Jeopardy!
Leonardo da Vinci is everywhere in Italy. Like, everywhere y’all. Dude got around. You’ll be happy to have learned so much about him before arriving so you can upstage your tour guide and her stick with the sparkly gold ribbon on top.
What we learn:
- Sometimes you go to work to make war machines but it’s your art that ends up changing the world.
- It’s perfectly acceptable to be left-handed… now…
- Finish what you start or people will talk shit about you all over town.
“Don’t canonize me too soon. I’m perfectly capable of fathering a child.” -Francis of Assisi, just wanting to put that out there
This biography of St. Francis of Assisi written by Omer Englebert basically runs through Francis’s entire life, from a partying, privileged youth to an old, old man of 44. And that was just perfect for me. I will be traveling to Assisi, Italy for the first time this week and wanted to learn as much as I could about its most famous resident. I’ve heard of St. Francis of Assisi before, obviously, but I knew nothing of what he was really all about, like how he makes being dirt poor seem just a little less shitty for instance. Assisi is basically a day-trip destination where most of your time in Italy will not be spent so learning about it beforehand could be beneficial if you’re a nerd like me. Which you probably are if you’ve read this far. Thanks for that!
What we learn:
- Poverty is really awesome. Like, the most awesome thing ever. Who needs food, clothing, or shelter anyway?
- Magical shit will happen if you pray in large groups in the forest.
- Being whipped and beaten is a much-desired thing to be begged for. This may not be news to everyone.
“The hottest places in Hell are reserved for those who maintain their neutrality in times of great moral crisis… and also who don’t read books.”
-Dante Alighieri …OK, you caught me – I added that last part. But seriously though, people should read more books.
Now, I love to learn as evidenced in the many paragraphs above and also my extensive college transcripts and student loan totals, but I also love a really good fictional page-turner. I prefer actual paper in my hands so I don’t know what you call it when you use an E-reader. A real screen-swiper? A real button-clicker? What is this age we live in!!
That aside, Dan Brown just gets it done for me. His books are the perfect combination of non-stop, pants-shitting action and nerdy historical information. His latest, Inferno, is no different. This story takes place in Florence and – spoiler alert! – Venice, Italy. The main character visits just about every renowned site in both cities and gives you the breakdown of their history and significance. Having visited these places before I was already slightly familiar but having read this I have acquired a whole new batch of information to take with me and hopefully not forget in the plane’s seat-back pocket. Also, since you were probably too busy being chased or verbally accosted while in Venice to learn anything, worry not! You will learn much interesting stuff from Dan Brown. (I really tried to come up with a more interesting sentence than that last one, but I’m at the airport and I’ve already had a scare thinking my cell phone and passport were stolen so just let me have this one dammit!)
Also, the illustrated edition was just released and I would highly recommend it. I have the regular version and practically stayed online looking up monuments and works of art to get a better picture (any picture really) of what I was supposed to be imagining. The illustrated edition includes color photographs of just about everything described in the book. So, ya know… score one for the nerds!
UPDATE: Check out my full post on exploring Florence, Italy through the mind of Dan Brown & Robert Langon: Finding Florence // Dan Brown’s Inferno
…or better yet, watch the movie.
My last recommendation actually comes from the friend I am traveling to Italy with. I have not read Dan Brown’s Angels & Demons but I have seen the movie tons of times. The story takes place in Rome and more specifically, Vatican City. At one point, the main character goes on, well, we can call it a scavenger hunt of sorts that takes the reader/watcher all around Rome. I feel it’s a great introduction to some main sites in Rome and, as usual, is full of history. Also, it’s super fun to point and be like, “OOH! I saw that in that movie!” (x 100). I’m pretty sure it goes the same for the book.
WHAT BOOKS DO YOU READ BEFORE TRAVELING TO ITALY? LET ME KNOW BELOW!
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