Head to Italy, follow in the footsteps of these literary luminaries and be inspired, says Jemma Slingo.
Italy is a testament to artistic endeavour. Its cities burst with churches, statues, frescoes, museums and galleries; its countryside is the setting for the most painted landscapes in the Western world. The country has also inspired some of literature’s most atmospheric novels.
Henry James’s Rome
In the 19th century, wealthy Americans flocked to Rome to bask in sophistication and culture. The author Henry James was one such visitor, and he was so captivated by the Eternal City that he made it the setting of his 1879 novella, Daisy Miller.
Much of the novel – a tale of doomed courtship – takes place on the slopes of the Palatine and among the ruins of the Roman forum. This is an enchanting part of the city, says Lee Marshall in The Daily Telegraph. “Dodge around the back of Palazzo dei Senatori for a panoramic view of the Forum. Then head across Piazza Venezia to the Antica Birreria Peroni, a vintage Roman-style bierkeller, where crowds of appreciative locals and tourists pack in to dine on filling carb and meat fare, washed down with draught Peroni.”
The tragic climax of the novel occurs nearby in the Colosseum, a site which – however crowded – is worth braving the crowds for. “Half circus, half sports arena, Rome’s most famous classical ruin is unmissable – especially now that they have extended the visitor route to the underfloor passageways through which gladiators and wild beasts made their entrances.”
If the throng proves too daunting, then head to nearby San Clemente (Via Labicana 95), one of Rome’s “most worthwhile but least publicised sightseeing treats”. This “historical layer-cake descends from a street-level medieval and early-Renaissance church, with frescoes by Masolino, via a fourth-century early Christian church to the basement remains of a second-century insula (apartment block), complete with shrine to Mithras
EM Forster’s Florence
“Florence positively brims with museums, galleries and medieval churches, each one packed to the rafters with priceless works from the Renaissance masters,” says Nicky Swallow in The Daily Telegraph. It’s also the setting of EM Forster’s A Room with a View, which tells the story of Lucy Honeychurch and her formidable chaperone, Miss Bartlett, on their first visit to the city.
To follow in the well-heeled footsteps of Forster’s duo, head first to Santa Croce, a large Franciscan church about 800 metres south-east of the Duomo. “Many of Florence’s most notable citizens are buried in the huge medieval Church of Santa Croce, including Michelangelo, Machiavelli, Ugolino della Gherardesca (who famously ate brains in The Divine Comedy) and Galileo. But don’t neglect the magnificent frescoes; the ones in the Peruzzi and Bardi chapels are by Giotto, while the Baroncelli and Castellani chapels were decorated by Taddeo and Agnolo Gaddi respectively.”
Then make your way to Piazza della Signoria, a “wide square dominated by the medieval town hall of Palazzo Vecchio, packed with artworks glorifying the Medici dynasty”. The piazza contains the statue of Perseus holding the severed head of Medusa, and is the backdrop of the murder scene in A Room with a View.
Elena Ferrante’s Naples
My Brilliant Friend, a new TV drama series on HBO based on the novels by Elena Ferrante, has put Naples back on the map. Long viewed as run-down and war-scarred, the coastal city is experiencing a revival following the success of the series.
“The neighbourhood that most closely matches the district where young Lenu and Lila meet is Rione Luzzatti, behind the main train station in Naples,” says Danielle Oteri in The Independent. “Originally conceived as affordable housing for railway workers in the 1920s, it developed in the 1950s, a period which is described in the book when Lila marries Stefano, a local tyrant.”
Waterfront Chiaia is the other district at the centre of the novels, specifically Piazza dei Martiri, where Lila opens her shoe salon. Then and now, this is “an elegant neighbourhood for shopping, strolling and people-watching”. “Sit down outside at Gran Caffe La Caffettiera next to the carved lions for a caffé macchiato or Campari Spritz. Or try the gelato at Fantasia Gelato, which Neapolitans will tell you is their favourite.”
The street art in Naples is also striking, says Sophia Seymour in The Guardian. A new mural inspired by a TV series was installed in Rione Luzzatti in 2017, on the walls of a fascist-era public library. It joins murals by famous artists such as Banksy and Dutch-Neapolitan Jorit Agoch, which can be found all over the city, emblazoned on the walls of housing projects and 18th-century buildings.