Or, to say it better: 13 classic books every Italian SHOULD have read when in school.
Let’s be honest: how many of you have read all the classics that have been assigned to you, when you were a student? Well, I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be a liar and I can easily tell you that I haven’t. I was a good student and have always loved reading, but some of the assigned reads stayed on my desk almost untouched.
However, no matter if I read them thoroughly or just skimmed through them, there are some books that are a staple of my education – as in the education of every Italian. These are books that have been taught us in various stages throughout middle and high school and which are frequently referenced to in our culture.
Even if we weren’t good students or hated school, those books are part of our lives – just like pizza and pasta. We may not have read them, but we all know what they are about and who wrote them because they undoubtedly are the most important classics in our literature.
Therefore, I thought it may be interesting for you – if you are studying in Italian or are just interested in the culture – to know about them. Reading some of them can be quite challenging, but you can read their plots and their themes, just like many Italians did!
Let’s discover these staples of Italian literature then, which I’ll list here below in chronological order.
La Divina Commedia – Dante Alighieri
Undoubtedly the most important Italian book of all times, La Divina Commedia is one of the masterpieces of world literature. Supposedly written between 1306 and 1321 by Dante Alighieri, the book tells the story of the journey the writer is able to take in the afterlife. Divina Commedia is divided into three parts, called cantiche: l’Inferno, il Purgatorio and il Paradiso (Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise). Each cantica is then divided into 33 canti.
In the journey throughout all stages of the afterlife, Dante is accompanied by the poet Virgilio and then, when he gets to Paradise, by Beatrice, the lady he was in love with. During this journey, Dante meets a lot of important historical characters and divine figures. The book is important for its philosophical and historical themes and for being written in the Florentine dialect, which was established as the Italian language also thanks to the great success of the Divina Commedia.
Decameron – Giovanni Boccaccio
Another very important Medieval work of art is the Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio, a collection of short stories told by a group of young people, seven girls and three men, who are forced to stay away from Florence for ten days, in order to avoid the terrible black plague that was haunting the area at the time.
While secluded in the countryside, the guys spend their time singing, dancing and telling each other stories. More precisely, they decide to tell each other a story every day, except on Friday and Saturday. Those stories are usually funny and quite erotic, causing the book to be sentenced as immoral many times throughout history.
Written somewhere between 1349 and 1353, Decameron is one of the most important literary works of the 14th century in Europe and it had a deep influence on many other writers of the time.
Il Principe – Niccolò Machiavelli
In 1513, Niccolò Machiavelli wrote Il Principe, which is an essay about politics where the writer describes the characteristics of principalities and the methods to conquer and maintain them. It is a very popular essay, which cannot be classified under a specific literary genre, that led its author to be considered the founder of the modern political sciences.
A very interesting figure, Machiavelli was what was then called a “uomo universale” (universal man), someone who had many different talents and excelled in various fields – just like Leonardo Da Vinci. From Machiavelli comes the Italian term machiavellico, which is an adjective that describes someone who is smart and witty but also quite unscrupulous.
Orlando Furioso – Ludovico Ariosto
Then comes a love story. It’s the Orlando Furioso by Ludovico Ariosto, a poem written in 1516 that tells the story of Orlando and Angelica. Those are the two main characters of the poem: Orlando is a Christian knight, while Angelica is a beautiful young lady who is the object of the love of many knights.
The knights, Orlando and Rolando in particular, fight for her love but they can’t conquer her heart: at the end, she’ll marry the Muslim Medardo, driving Orlando mad. Love is actually just one of the themes of the poem, there is also the war between Muslims and Christians which sees the Christians win at the end. The Orlando Furioso is the first Italian poem specifically conceived to be printed and it had an incredible success from the very beginning of its publishing.
Ultime lettere di Jacopo Ortis – Ugo Foscolo
Inspired by Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, Ultime lettere di Jacopo Ortis is the first epistolary novel in Italian literature. Published in 1802, the book is a collection of the letters that the main character, Jacopo Ortis, sent to his friend Lorenzo Alderani, who published them after the suicide of Jacopo. The story is invented but takes inspiration from a real event – the suicide of the student Gerolamo Ortis in 1796.
The book is a perfect example of Romanticism in literature. As a matter of fact, all its themes are quintessentially Romantic: the suicide as a choice of freedom, the importance of the concept of homeland, the conflict between the intellectuals and society, nature seen as a character in itself, and the great importance given to passion in life.
I promessi sposi – Alessandro Manzoni
Together with La Divina Commedia, I promessi sposi is probably the most important book in Italian literature. Undoubtedly, these two are the most popular ones, the books every Italian has read or studied in his life. I am sure you will not find a single Italian who doesn’t know what La Divina Commedia or I promessi sposi are. I hope so, at least!
The novel was first published in 1827 and then, in its final version, between 1840 and 1842. Set between 1628 and 1630 in Lombardy, it tells the story of Renzo and Lucia, a young couple who wants to get married but can’t because of the will of the lord of their town, Don Rodrigo. The couple is forced to separate and flee, facing all sorts of events and adventures, after which the two guys meet again and are finally able to marry.
The book is important because it is the first historical novel in Italian literature. The plot is set in the 17th century, which is carefully described by the author, giving history a great importance as a theme in the novel. Another very important theme is that of Catholicism and Divine Providence, which plays a great role in the plot. The book is also essential because it was written in everyday Italian, influencing the definition of the modern Italian language.
Le mie prigioni – Silvio Pellico
Published only ten years before the final version of I promessi sposi, Le mie prigioni describes the imprisonment of the author, Silvio Pellico, who was held prisoner for participating in the Carbonari riots in Milan. The book covers a period of ten years, from 1820 to 1830, during which Silvio Pellico was imprisoned first in Venice and then in Brno.
The book was incredibly popular when it was published and is probably the most read book in the 19th century in Europe. Le mie prigioni is an important literary work because, describing the harsh condition of Austrian prisons, damaged the image of Austria and caused intellectuals to support the Risorgimento in Italy.
Cuore – Edmondo De Amicis
A completely different book from the ones mentioned before, Cuore was published in 1886. Intended for young readers, the book is written a diary kept by Enrico Bottini, who writes about his life and that of his fellow pupils in the school year 1881-1882.
The book is therefore set during the years of the Union of Italy and has the clear goal of teaching young readers the values of Italy at the time: love for the homeland, respect for the elders and authorities, the importance of sacrifice, heroism, obedience and so on.
The students portrayed in the book came from all over Italy, giving great importance to the concept of unity. The book was a huge success when it was published.
I Malavoglia – Giovanni Verga
I Malavoglia is undoubtedly the most famous novel by Giovanni Verga and one of the most popular Italian books in general. Published in 1881, it tells the story of a family of fishermen who live in Aci Trezza, a little Sicilian village near Catania. The family has a very difficult life and has to experience many sorrows and losses.
As a matter of fact, the book is a symbol of pessimism: everything bad happens and is written in the most depressing way possible. The themes which make this novel so important in Italian literature are the search of improving one’s life, the importance of family and of the household, and the role of money and economy in the life of a family
Il fu Mattia Pascal – Luigi Pirandello
This is the first book written by the Nobel prize winner Luigi Pirandello. It was first published in installments, then as a single volume in 1904. The book tells the story of Mattia Pascal, a librarian who has a boring and unsatisfying job. One day, he read the newspapers and realizes that everybody thinks he’s dead, so he decides to start and new life and disappear.
The plot seems very simple but actually a lot of things happen in the book, with lots of twist and turns. The book is incredibly rich and enjoyable and makes a very interesting read, with a very deep and thoughtful meaning.
La coscienza di Zeno – Italo Svevo
Here comes another masterpiece of Italian literature. Published in 1923, La coscienza di Zeno tells the story of Zeno Corsini: it is actually an analysis that the main character makes of himself.
Zeno Corsini is a very rich man and lives a very lazy life. He has a complex relationship with his father, whom he is always in contrast with. The book shows the inadequacy of Zeno to the world around him: he feels sick and unsuitable, but at the end of the book he’ll realize that it’s not him who is ill yet the society where he lives.
Il deserto dei Tartari – Dino Buzzati
I have guiltily read this book only recently and I absolutely loved it. Once again, it is a true masterpiece and a very enjoyable and interesting read. It is a very powerful book about the uselessness of war too.
Published in 1940, the book gave its author, Dino Buzzati, a huge success. Set in an imaginary place on the borders of the Italian kingdom, it tells the story of Giovanni Drogo, a soldier who becomes an officer and is sent to Fortezza Bastiani. There, he will have to defend its country from a possible attack of the Tartars, which never seem to arrive. I don’t want to tell you more about the plot because I would definitely recommend you to read it and I don’t want to spoil the plot.
Il Gattopardo – Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa
I still remember when my Italian teacher in high school lent me this book, telling me that I should absolutely read it as it was a real masterpiece. The book was part of the curriculum, but it was not a mandatory read yet she wanted me to read it as she was sure I would enjoy it. She wasn’t wrong: Il Gattopardo in one of the best books I have read in my life.
The book was published in 1958, one year after the death of its author, who has never been able to find a publisher in his life. Sadly for the writer, the book was an incredible success, it won the prestigious literary prize called Premio Strega, and we could say it was the first best-seller in Italian history. The book was then made into a movie, with Burt Lancaster and Claudia Cardinale, which gave it even more fame and success.
Il Gattopardo tells the story of Fabrizio, prince of Salina and known as Il Gattopardo. He is a testimony of the decay of House of Bourbon, due to the landing of the Garibaldi troops on the island and the beginning of the unification of Italy. The novel is famous for the line: “se vogliamo che tutto rimanga com’è, bisogna che tutto cambi” (if we want things to remain as they are, it is important that everything changes).
Have you read some of these books? What do you think of them?
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