We have compiled a list of the best Italian books that have left a lasting impact on Italian culture and have been widely celebrated worldwide. These books offer an insight into the rich tapestry of Italian life and society, exploring themes of love, family, politics, and human nature.
These books are enjoyable to read and provide one of the best ways to learn the Italian language if read in Italian. Learning a new language can be challenging, but immersing yourself in Italian literature can make the process fun and engaging.
By reading these books in Italian (ideally side by side with the English translation), you can learn new vocabulary, grammar structures, and cultural references while experiencing the beauty and richness of the Italian language.
17 Best Italian Books You Need to Read to Immerse Yourself in Italian Culture and History
From Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy to Primo Levi’s If This Is a Man, these books are a testament to the literary genius of Italian writers.
They have inspired countless artists and thinkers, and their legacy continues in Italian culture and beyond. Here they are, listed in no particular order.
1. Elena Ferrante – L’amica geniale (My Brilliant Friend)
My Brilliant Friend, the first book in the Neapolitan Novels series, was first published in Italian in 2011.
The book is a coming-of-age story that follows the lives of two young girls, Elena and Lila, who grow up in a poor neighborhood on the outskirts of Naples, Italy, in the 1950s.
Elena is the story’s narrator, a bright and studious girl who admires her friend Lila’s natural intelligence and creativity.
Despite their different personalities and backgrounds, the two girls become inseparable as they navigate the challenges of their adolescence and early adulthood, including poverty, family conflicts, and the strict gender roles of their society.
The book explores themes of friendship, identity, class, and gender, portraying the complexity and richness of Italian culture.
My Brilliant Friend is considered a masterpiece of contemporary Italian literature. The book has been praised for its vivid and realistic depiction of Naples and its inhabitants.
My Brilliant Friend has gained international acclaim and has been translated into over 40 languages, making Ferrante one of the most widely-read Italian authors of the 21st century.
The Neapolitan Novels series, which includes four books in total, has been compared to the works of Elena Ferrante’s literary predecessors, such as Italo Calvino and Elsa Morante, and it has been praised for its exploration of the themes of feminism, politics, and history.
Elena Ferrante is a pseudonymous author, and her true identity remains unknown. The author’s anonymity has become a subject of much speculation and intrigue, contributing to the mystique surrounding the Neapolitan Novels series.
In 2015, HBO announced that it was developing a television series based on the books, further increasing their popularity and cultural significance.
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2. Andrea Camilleri – La forma dell’acqua (The Shape of Water)
“La forma dell’acqua” (The Shape of Water) was first published in Italian in 1994. The book is a detective novel featuring Inspector Salvo Montalbano, a fictional detective who works for the police department in Vigàta, a small town in Sicily.
In this book, Montalbano investigates the murder of a local construction magnate, found dead in his car on a deserted beach. As he unravels the corruption, deceit, and betrayal surrounding the victim’s family and business associates, Montalbano also grapples with his demons and his complicated love life.
The book is characterized by Camilleri’s wry humor, colorful portrayal of Sicilian life and culture, and keen observation of human behavior.
Andrea Camilleri was one of the most popular and influential Italian writers of the 20th century, and his novels have been translated into more than 30 languages.
“La forma dell’acqua” is part of the Inspector Montalbano series, which has become a cultural phenomenon in Italy and abroad, inspiring a successful television adaptation and a devoted fanbase.
The series has been praised for its realistic and nuanced portrayal of Sicilian society and its exploration of justice, morality, and identity themes. The books are also notable for their use of the Sicilian dialect and their blending of regional and national cultural references.
Andrea Camilleri was a prolific writer, playwright, and screenwriter born in Sicily in 1925 and lived to be 93 years old. He began writing the Inspector Montalbano series in his late 60s after a long and varied career in the arts.
Camilleri was known for his political engagement, love of food and wine, and irreverent humor.
He was also a vocal advocate for protecting the Sicilian language and culture, and he used his platform as a writer to raise awareness of social and environmental issues. Camilleri passed away in 2019, leaving behind a rich legacy of literary and cultural contributions.
3. Italo Calvino – Il sentiero dei nidi di ragno (The Path to the Nest of Spiders)
The book, first published in Italian in 1947, is a semi-autobiographical novel set in the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy during World War II. It follows the experiences of Pin, a young boy who grows up in a rural village and becomes involved in the resistance movement against the Fascist regime.
The novel portrays the brutal realities of war and the complex social and political dynamics of a divided Italy. It is characterized by Calvino’s lyrical prose, keen attention to detail, and exploration of themes such as memory, identity, and morality.
The Path to the Nest of Spiders is considered a landmark of post-war Italian literature. It has been praised for its originality, emotional depth, and social and historical relevance.
The book was part of the neorealist movement in Italian literature, which sought to capture everyday life’s reality and give voice to marginalized groups.
The novel has also been recognized for its influence on the development of Calvino’s later works, which include such masterpieces as Invisible Cities and If on a winter’s night a traveler.
Italo Calvino was one of the most innovative and imaginative writers of the 20th century, known for his experimentation with form, genre, and language. He was born in Cuba in 1923 to Italian parents, and he spent most of his life in Italy.
Calvino was a member of the literary group known as the Oulipo, which aimed to create literature through constraints and rules. He was also a respected literary critic and essayist; his works have been translated into dozens of languages.
Calvino died in 1985, leaving a legacy of literary innovation and creative genius.
4. Carlo Levi – Cristo si è fermato a Eboli (Christ Stopped at Eboli)
“Cristo si è fermato a Eboli” (Christ Stopped at Eboli) was first published in Italian in 1945. The book is a memoir of Carlo Levi’s experience of political exile in the southern Italian region of Basilicata, also known as Lucania, during the Fascist regime of Benito Mussolini.
Levi, a Jewish anti-Fascist painter and writer was sent to live in the remote town of Aliano, where he was forced to confront the local peasant population’s poverty, illness, and social isolation.
The book is a powerful account of the author’s encounter with a different culture and way of life, and it explores themes of identity, community, and social justice. The book’s title refers to the idea that the people of Lucania were so neglected and forgotten by the Italian state that even Christ did not reach them.
Christ Stopped at Eboli is widely regarded as a masterpiece of modern Italian literature and has been translated into dozens of languages. The book is notable for its poetic and evocative style, its vivid and sympathetic portrayal of a marginalized community, and its critique of the Fascist regime and the political and social injustices of Italy.
The book has also been recognized for its influence on the development of Italian neorealism, a cultural and artistic movement that aimed to represent reality and the lives of ordinary people.
Carlo Levi was a multifaceted artist and intellectual born in Turin in 1902 and died in Rome in 1975. He was a member of the anti-Fascist resistance and a prominent figure in the Italian cultural scene after World War II. In addition to his literary works, he was also known for his political activism, painting, and social and cultural commentary.
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5. Alessandro Baricco – Seta (Silk)
“Seta” (Silk) was first published in Italian in 1996. The book is a historical novella set in 19th-century France and Japan. It tells the story of Hervé Joncour, a young French merchant who travels to Japan in search of silkworms, which have been decimated by disease in Europe.
In Japan, Joncour falls in love with a mysterious woman named Madame Blanche, who becomes the object of his obsession and desire. The novella is characterized by Baricco’s lyrical style, evocative imagery, symbolism, and exploration of love, loss, and cultural exchange.
Alessandro Baricco is one of the most prominent and innovative voices in contemporary Italian literature, and his works have been translated into dozens of languages. “Seta” is widely regarded as a masterpiece of contemporary Italian literature.
It has been praised for its originality, sensuality, and profound meditation on the nature of love and desire. The book has also been recognized for its cinematic qualities and has inspired various adaptations, including a film by François Girard and a play by André Aciman.
Alessandro Baricco was born in Turin in 1958 and is known for his work as a playwright, essayist, and cultural commentator. He has been a prominent figure in the Italian and international cultural scene since the 1990s and has received numerous literary awards and honors.
Baricco’s other notable works include Novecento (1900), City, and Mr. Gwyn. He is also the founder of Scuola Holden, a creative writing school in Turin that has trained many successful writers and artists.
6. Paolo Giordano – La solitudine dei numeri primi (The Solitude of Prime Numbers)
“La solitudine dei numeri primi” (The Solitude of Prime Numbers) was first published in Italian in 2008. The book is a novel that follows the lives of Alice and Mattia, two emotionally damaged individuals who become best friends in childhood and remain connected throughout their lives.
Alice is a talented skier who suffers a traumatic accident as a child. At the same time, Mattia is a brilliant mathematician who carries the burden of guilt and shame for an accident that occurred in his youth.
The novel explores loneliness, trauma, and the search for meaning and connection in life. It is characterized by Giordano’s psychological insight, lyrical and atmospheric prose, and ability to create empathy and identification with the characters.
The Solitude of Prime Numbers has been praised as a sensitive and nuanced portrayal of the human condition, and it has become a bestseller in Italy and abroad. The novel has been translated into more than 30 languages and is recognized for its universal themes and ability to resonate with readers from different cultures and backgrounds. The book has also been adapted into a successful film by Saverio Costanzo.
Paolo Giordano is a prominent Italian writer and physicist born in Turin in 1982. He achieved literary fame with the publication of The Solitude of Prime Numbers, which won the Strega Prize, Italy’s most prestigious literary award, and was a bestseller in Italy and abroad.
Giordano’s other notable works include The Human Body and Like Family. In addition to his writing career, Giordano is also a respected physicist. He has worked as a researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, and at the International Centre for Theoretical Physics in Trieste.
7. Umberto Eco – Il nome della rosa (The Name of the Rose)
The Name of the Rose was first published in Italian in 1980. It is a historical murder mystery in a medieval Italian monastery. The story follows the Franciscan friar William of Baskerville and his young apprentice Adso of Melk. They are sent to investigate a series of mysterious deaths within the monastery walls.
As they delve deeper into the investigation, they uncover a complex web of religious and political intrigue involving forbidden texts, secret societies, and the struggle for power within the Catholic Church. The novel combines elements of detective fiction, historical fiction, and philosophical treatise, and it is characterized by Eco’s erudition and his playful use of language and intertextuality.
The Name of the Rose is widely regarded as one of the greatest works of contemporary Italian literature and one of the best Italian novels ever published. The book has been translated into over 50 languages.
The novel has been praised for its intricate plot, vivid and realistic portrayal of medieval life, and exploration of the themes of knowledge, power, and religion. The book has also been recognized for its influence on the genre of historical fiction and its contribution to the intellectual debates of the late 20th century.
Umberto Eco was a renowned Italian writer, semiotician, and literary critic known for his interdisciplinary approach and ability to bridge the gap between academia and popular culture. The Name of the Rose was his first novel, and it became an instant bestseller, selling over 10 million copies worldwide.
The book was adapted into a successful film in 1986, starring Sean Connery as William of Baskerville. Eco’s other notable works include Foucault’s Pendulum, The Prague Cemetery, and On Literature.
Umberto Eco was awarded numerous literary prizes throughout his career, and he was a respected voice in the Italian and international cultural scene until he died in 2016.
8. Elsa Morante – La storia (History)
The book, first published in Italian in 1974, is a novel that follows the lives of a Roman family during and after World War II. The family is headed by Ida Ramundo, a widowed schoolteacher left to care for her two children, Useppe and Anna, amid the war.
The novel explores themes of political and social change, the impact of historical events on individual lives, and the struggle for survival and identity in a time of crisis.
History is characterized by Morante’s poetic style, her use of multiple narrators, and her ability to convey the complexity and diversity of human experience.
“La storia” is widely regarded as a masterpiece of contemporary Italian literature, and it has been recognized for its ambitious scope, deep humanity, and political and social relevance.
“La storia” has been translated into more than 20 languages and has been praised for contributing to the developing of feminist and postmodernist literature. The book has also been recognized for its engagement with Italian history and culture and its portrayal of the social and cultural changes that shaped Italy in the 20th century.
Elsa Morante was one of post-war Italy’s most prominent and influential writers and intellectuals. She was born in Rome in 1912 and died in 1985. In addition to her literary works, she was a teacher, a political activist, and a cultural commentator.
Morante’s other notable works include Arturo’s Island and Menzogna e sortilegio (House of Liars). She received numerous literary awards and honors, including the Strega Prize, Italy’s most prestigious literary award.
9. Primo Levi – Se questo è un uomo (If This Is a Man)
“Se questo è un uomo” (If This Is a Man) was first published in Italian in 1947. The book is a memoir of Primo Levi’s experience as a Jewish prisoner in the Auschwitz concentration camp during World War II. Levi, a chemist from Turin, was arrested by the Fascist authorities in 1943 and sent to Auschwitz, where he survived for almost a year before being liberated by the Soviet army in 1945.
The memoir is a powerful and harrowing account of the brutal realities of life in the camp and a meditation on the nature of humanity, morality, and survival in extreme circumstances. It is characterized by Levi’s clarity of style, attention to detail, and unflinching honesty.
If This Is a Man is considered a landmark of Holocaust literature and has been translated into dozens of languages. The book has been recognized for its importance as a testimony of Nazi atrocities and a warning against the dangers of totalitarianism and racism.
The memoir has also been praised for its literary qualities, and it has been compared to the works of such writers as Primo Levi, Elie Wiesel, and Anne Frank. The book symbolizes the resilience and courage of the human spirit in the face of unspeakable horror.
Primo Levi was one of post-war Italy’s most influential and respected writers and intellectuals. He was born in Turin in 1919 and died in 1987. In addition to his literary works, he was also a chemist and a prominent voice in the Italian cultural and political scene.
Levi’s other notable works include The Periodic Table, considered a masterpiece of Italian literature, and The Drowned and the Saved, a collection of essays on the Holocaust.
Levi’s legacy has been celebrated through various cultural initiatives, including the Primo Levi Center in New York and the Primo Levi International Prize.
10. Roberto Saviano – Gomorra (Gomorrah)
“Gomorra” (Gomorrah) was first published in Italian in 2006. The book is a non-fiction investigation of the Camorra, the Neapolitan mafia organization that controls vast criminal networks involved in drug trafficking, extortion, and money laundering. Saviano, a journalist and writer from Naples, spent years researching and infiltrating the Camorra’s operations.
He exposes their brutal methods, infiltration of legitimate businesses, and impact on Italian and global society. The book is characterized by Saviano’s bold and unflinching style, vivid and detailed descriptions of the Camorra’s activities, and his denunciation of the complicity and corruption sustaining their power.
Gomorrah is considered a groundbreaking and controversial work of investigative journalism, and it has become a symbol of the fight against organized crime and corruption in Italy and beyond. The book has been translated into over 50 languages and adapted into a successful film and TV series.
The book has also been recognized for its impact on Italian culture and society and its role in raising awareness of the destructive effects of organized crime on individuals, communities, and institutions.
Roberto Saviano was born in Naples in 1979, and he became a prominent writer and public figure with the publication of Gomorrah. However, his work also made him a target of the Camorra’s retaliation, and he has been living under police protection since 2006.
Saviano’s other notable works include ZeroZeroZero and La paranza dei bambini (Piranhas). In addition to his writing career, he is also a commentator and activist, and he has been involved in various initiatives to promote social justice, human rights, and democracy.
11. Niccolò Ammaniti – Io non ho paura (I’m Not Scared)
The book, first published in Italian in 2001, is a coming-of-age novel that follows the story of a nine-year-old boy named Michele Amitrano, who discovers a dark secret in his small town in southern Italy.
Michele befriends a boy named Filippo, who is being held captive in a hole in the ground, and he must confront his fears and the moral dilemmas that arise from his discovery.
The novel explores themes of childhood innocence, fear, and moral ambiguity. It is characterized by Ammaniti’s spare and evocative style, skillful use of imagery and symbolism, and ability to capture the nuances and complexities of human relationships.
I’m Not Scared has been recognized as one of contemporary Italian literature’s most important and influential novels and translated into more than 40 languages.
The book has been praised for its universal themes and ability to resonate with readers from different cultures and backgrounds. The novel has also been adapted into a successful film by Gabriele Salvatores, which won the Jury Prize at the 2003 Cannes Film Festival.
Niccolò Ammaniti is one of his generation’s most popular and acclaimed Italian writers. He was born in Rome in 1966 and has published numerous novels, short stories, and screenplays.
Ammaniti’s other notable works include Steal You Away and Me and You, which was also adapted into a film by Bernardo Bertolucci. Ammaniti’s work is known for its dark humor, human frailty and vulnerability exploration, and keen insight into contemporary Italy’s social and cultural dynamics.
12. Italo Svevo – La coscienza di Zeno (Zeno’s Conscience)
“La coscienza di Zeno” (Zeno’s Conscience) was first published in Italian in 1923. The book is a modernist novel that follows the inner monologue of Zeno Cosini, a middle-aged businessman from Trieste, who is undergoing psychoanalysis to quit smoking.
Through a series of anecdotes, confessions, and reflections, the main character recounts the events of his life, his relationships with his family and friends, and his struggles with addiction and mortality. The novel is characterized by Svevo’s psychological acuity, irony and humor, and exploration of the themes of self-deception, identity, and the human condition.
Zeno’s Conscience is considered a landmark of modern Italian literature, and it has been recognized for its originality, wit, and insight into the complexities of the human psyche.
The book has been compared to the works of James Joyce and Marcel Proust and has been praised for its contribution to developing the stream-of-consciousness narrative technique.
The novel has also been hailed as a portrayal of Trieste’s cultural and social milieu. This cosmopolitan and multicultural city has been a European history and culture crossroads.
Italo Svevo was the pseudonym of Ettore Schmitz, an Italian writer of Austro-Hungarian and Jewish origin, who was born in Trieste in 1861 and died in 1928. Svevo was a late bloomer as a writer, and he achieved literary recognition only in his late fifties after the publication of Zeno’s Conscience.
Publishers initially rejected the novel, but it was later championed by James Joyce, a friend, and admirer of Svevo’s work. Svevo’s other notable works include Una Vita (A Life) and Senilità (As a Man Grows Older).
13. Dante Alighieri – La Divina Commedia (The Divine Comedy)
Between 1308 and 1320, Dante Alighieri wrote La Divina Commedia (The Divine Comedy), but it was not formally published until the 1470s, after his death.
The Divine Comedy is an epic poem that follows the journey of the poet Dante through Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise, guided by the spirit of the Roman poet Virgil and later by Beatrice, Dante’s idealized love. The poem is divided into three parts, each consisting of 33 cantos.
It is characterized by Dante’s vivid and imaginative descriptions of the afterlife, his exploration of theological and philosophical themes, and his use of allegory and symbolism. The poem has inspired countless artistic and cultural works, becoming a cornerstone of Western literature and culture.
The Divine Comedy is considered one of the greatest works of world literature and the ultimate spiritual travel guide. It has had a profound impact on Italian culture and identity. The poem helped to establish Tuscan Italian as the literary language of Italy, and it has been celebrated for its contribution to the development of the Italian language and culture.
The poem has also been recognized for its universal themes and ability to speak to the human condition across time and space. The Divine Comedy has been translated into dozens of languages and has influenced many writers, artists, and thinkers worldwide. It remains a great book and a great resource to understand and appreciate Italy and Italian culture.
Dante Alighieri was a poet, philosopher, and politician born in Florence in 1265 and died in Ravenna in 1321. He is considered one of the greatest figures of Italian literature and Italian culture and a key player in his time’s political and intellectual scene.
Dante’s other notable works include Vita Nuova (The New Life) and Convivio (The Banquet), and he is also known for his political treatise De Monarchia (On Monarchy).
14. Giovanni Verga – I Malavoglia (The House by the Medlar Tree)
“I Malavoglia” (The House by the Medlar Tree) was first published in Italian in 1881. The book is a novel that tells the story of a Sicilian family, the Malavoglias, who struggle to make a living as fishermen in a changing society. The novel explores themes of family, tradition, social change, and the tension between individual aspirations and collective identity.
The novel is characterized by Verga’s realistic and naturalistic style, attention to detail and local color, and ability to capture the human experience’s complexity and contradictions.
“I Malavoglia” is considered one of the most important and influential novels of Italian literary realism. It has been recognized for its contribution to the development of modern Italian literature.
The novel has also been praised for engaging with Sicilian culture and society and portraying the social and economic changes that shaped Sicily in the late 19th century. The book has been translated into several languages and has inspired numerous artistic and cultural works, including films, operas, and plays.
Giovanni Verga was a writer and playwright born in Sicily in 1840 and died in 1922. He was one of the most prominent figures of Italian literary realism, and his works were influential in developing modern Italian literature. Verga’s other notable works include Cavalleria Rusticana (Rustic Chivalry) and Mastro-Don Gesualdo (Master Don Gesualdo), which have also been adapted into successful operas and films.
15. Giovanni Boccaccio – Il Decameron (The Decameron)
Il Decameron (The Decameron) was first published in Italian between 1351 and 1353. The book is a collection of 100 novellas, or short stories, that are told by ten young people who flee from the plague-ridden city of Florence to a villa in the countryside.
The stories range from bawdy and satirical to tragic and moralistic, offering a panoramic view of medieval Italian society and culture. The book is characterized by Boccaccio’s lively and colorful style, skillful use of irony and humor, and ability to capture the diversity and complexity of the human experience.
The Decameron has profoundly influenced Italian culture and identity and has been celebrated for contributing to developing the Italian language and literature. The book has also been recognized for its universal themes and ability to speak to the human condition across time and space.
Giovanni Boccaccio was a writer, poet, and scholar born in Tuscany in 1313 and died in 1375. He was one of the most prominent figures of Italian literature and humanism, and his works influenced the development of Renaissance culture and thought.
Boccaccio’s other notable works include Il Filostrato (The Love Arrow) and the Trattatello in laude di Dante (Little Treatise in Praise of Dante), which celebrate the legacy of Dante Alighieri.
16. Luigi Pirandello – Il fu Mattia Pascal (The Late Mattia Pascal)
“Il fu Mattia Pascal” (The Late Mattia Pascal) was first published in Italian in 1904. The book is a novel that tells the story of Mattia Pascal, a man who, after a series of misfortunes, decides to fake his death and start a new life.
The novel explores identity, freedom, and the search for meaning in an uncertain and unpredictable world. The novel is characterized by Pirandello’s innovative use of narrative technique, his exploration of the nature of reality and illusion, and his insight into the complexities of human psychology.
“Il fu Mattia Pascal” has been celebrated for developing the modern Italian language and literature. Its influence can be seen in the works of writers and thinkers such as Jorge Luis Borges and Italo Calvino. The book has also been recognized for its universal themes and ability to speak to the human condition across time and space.
Luigi Pirandello was a writer, playwright, and poet born in Sicily in 1867 and died in 1936. He was one of the most prominent figures of Italian modernism, and his works were influential in developing European literature and thought.
Pirandello’s other notable works include Sei personaggi in cerca d’autore (Six Characters in Search of an Author) and Enrico IV (Henry IV), which explore the nature of truth and reality in different ways.
17. Alessandro Manzoni – I Promessi Sposi (The Betrothed)
The book, first published in Italian in 1827, is a historical novel about two young lovers, Renzo and Lucia, separated by a powerful and corrupt nobleman, Don Rodrigo. The novel is set in 17th-century Lombardy during a time of social and political upheaval, and it explores themes of love, faith, justice, and human dignity.
The novel is characterized by Manzoni’s masterful use of language, his attention to historical detail, and his ability to capture the human experience with empathy and insight.
“I Promessi Sposi” is considered one of the greatest works of Italian literature and a cornerstone of Italian culture and identity. The novel has been celebrated for contributing to the development of the modern Italian language and literature and has profoundly impacted Italian culture and society.
The novel has also been recognized for its universal themes and ability to speak to the human condition across time and space. The Betrothed has been translated into numerous languages and has inspired countless artistic and cultural works, including films, operas, and plays.
Alessandro Manzoni was a writer, poet, and patriot born in Milan in 1785 and died in 1873. He was one of the most prominent figures of Italian Romanticism, and his works were influential in developing the modern Italian language and literature.
Manzoni’s other notable works include Inni Sacri (Sacred Hymns) and Adelchi, a tragedy that explores the conflict between the Lombards and the Franks in 8th-century Italy.
Whether you’re an Italian literature enthusiast or a newcomer to the world of Italian books, our list of the best Italian books will take you on an unforgettable journey through the heart of Italy. So, grab a book, pour yourself a cup of coffee (or a glass of wine), and immerse yourself in the beauty and richness of Italian culture.