A big part of what makes a WONDERFEAST on-site art history seminar special is that the learning happens on multiple levels. In addition to steeping ourselves in the history, culture, and art of Naples and the surrounding region of Campania for The City and Campania 2023, we’ll also engage with texts – general audience and scholarly – to enhance our exploration of this fascinating period.
Below is a collection of titles that I thought you might find interesting. Their subject matter is Italy or Naples and ranges from surveys of the idiosyncrasies of the national psyche, to the dark underside of political corruption and the mafia, to histories of the country, and the city of Naples. The titles can be found on Amazon or probably even through your local bookstore or library.
La Bella Figura, Beppe Severgnini. A great place to start for a deliciously tongue-in-cheek exploration of the Italian mind and Italian customs. Deconstructing the myth of la dolce vita, Severgnini instead insists on showing us Italia – warts and all. Fantastically fun, it helps to better understand the only nation ‘capable of producing both Botticelli and Berlusconi.’
A Concise History of Italy, Christopher Duggan. The title is spot-on: Duggan manages to pack a great deal of complicated history into this small volume in the best tradition of British scholarship. Interestingly, since the book’s main topic is Italy, and Italy as a united country didn’t exist between the fall of the Roman empire in the 5th century and the Risorgimento in the 19th century, the chapters on the in-between centuries of fragmentation are rather brief. Nevertheless, Duggan does leave his reader with a solid understanding of the history of this complex and often embattled nation.
In the Shadow of Vesuvius: A Cultural History of Naples, Jordan Lancaster. A small but dense book about the history of this most colorful city. Lancaster’s writing is a great pleasure to read and he gives credit to the numerous Italian and Neapolitan historians he’s delved into for this well-researched book. Not to be missed to get your head around Naples’ rich and largely unfamiliar history.
My Brilliant Friend, Elena Ferrante. What to say about this book and the three others that form the Neapolitan Novels set? They’re engrossing. They are heartrendingly touching and troubling stories about friendship, betrayal, love, poverty, gender-roles, and beauty in post-war Naples. They took the world by storm. There were/still are (ish) debates about the identity of the author. They’ve been made into a film (films?). If you haven’t read them, read this first one, post-haste.
God’s Mountain (Montedidio), Erri de Luca. A quiet, touching little book about a 13 year-old boy who lives in the tightly-packed Neapolitan neighborhood of the book’s title in the 1960s and is about to grow in ways he is only beginning to imagine with the help of a wise girl who lives upstairs and an ancient Jewish cobbler who knows more than he cares to share. A lyrical poem to the bewildering end of childhood in an enveloping city.
The Volcano Lover: A Romance, Susan Sontag. Okay, I’m going to be honest. This one… I dunno. I liked it and I hated it. The descriptions of the 18th century nobility – Neapolitan, English, and European – and their lives of leisure and boredom in the gorgeous palazzi of Naples and Campania countryside: fascinating. Conversely, they’re equally disgusting. Sontag definitely succeeds in painting the mood of this era of decadence and excess. But it’s hard not to feel like she gave the ruling classes more ink than they were worth…
A Venetian Affair: A True Tale of Forbidden Love in the 18th Century, Andrea di Robilant. A fascinating true love story between a scion of a patrician Venetian family and a young English-Venetian woman told through their letters. Di Robilant gives a lively sense of the world inhabited by the two lovers in Venice and throughout Europe.
Also, let’s not forget the joy of films, documentaries, and television shows. The website Culture Trip lists the best films and TV shows to watch before visiting Naples, here. I would excise Eat, Pray, Love (seriously??!! Do we really need to see Julia Roberts chewing on and oohing over pizza in Naples?) and add Paolo Sorrentino’s breathtaking, semi-autobiographical Hand of God and Mario Martone’s very recent Oscar contender, Nostalgia, the latter of which I have yet to watch. Finally, there’s an Italian TV show called The Bastards of Pizzofalcone that’s supposed to be very good as well. Buona visione! (Happy viewing!) I look forward to hearing what you think of the recommendations when we’re together!