Three Books for Three Different Ways of Seeing Tuscany
Updated: Jan 24
The books in your backpack have the opportunity to colour and complicate the new environments you move through. They’re not just a distraction at a train station or a way to kill time in a crowded hostel. In this new series we’ll be looking at how different books open up new avenues of travel through the same places.
Florentine Politics and Power Through Machiavelli’s The Prince
Machiavelli’s The Prince makes the perfect accompaniment to history of this city, while simply a political treatise, and a short one at that, it epitomises the zeitgeist of Florence in the 17th century. Machiavelli has an almost scientific approach to political domination, which is divorced from and often in conflict with any kind of moral philosophy. He shows the “means justify the ends” approach which the Medici’s employed to turn their family of bankers into de facto royalty and change Florence forever.
The brute reality of the Medici’s power is still plastered all over the city. Their name is on street signs and buildings that have stood almost half a millennium. a walk through the world renown Uffizi Gallery, which houses some of the most important work of the early Renaissance, is littered with their name and more often than not lent from their personal collection. They turned the bridge market Ponte Vechico from stalls of fish mongers to a street of jewellers which served the needs of a plutocratic ruling class. The Medici’s were Popes and tyrants, sometimes both at the same time. Florence became the centre of finance in Europe and Machiavelli’s work explains how the Medici’s made that happen, how they held their power for so long, and the length they would go to in.
If you can, get a copy of The Prince with a half-decent introduction. Machiavelli’s life shows political life in 16th century Florence as well as his philosophy. Having worked against the Medici family and then been tortured and sent into exile once they returned to power, the book is still, astonishingly, dedicated to Lorenzo di Piero de' Medici. Perhaps this is Machiavelli’s honest appraisal of a family who knew the spirit of The Prince even more than him. Perhaps it’s a cunning last-ditch effort to win favour and escape his exile. The latter certainly seems more Machiavellian.
Tuscan Folklore and Medieval life in Italo Calvino’s Italian Folktales
The politics and power struggles which shaped Tuscany as it emerged from the Medieval period are foregrounded in The Prince. Yet, they speak little about the so called Dark Ages, the millennium between the fall of Rome in 500AD and the birth of the Renaissance. Further more, the focus the ruling class, who shaped of the city states that carved up Tuscany, leaves out so much of the population who worked the land and inhabited the rolling hills of Tuscany. Walking between Tuscan medieval towns, along old chalky roads, and up punishing hillsides amongst vineries and grazing cattle, the politics of Italian history seems remote. Seeing Tuscany this way then is perhaps better fed through the tales and folklore of the people who lived here.
Italio Calvino, one of the Italy’s greatest and most experimental 20th century writers, collected the previously orated folk tale into the magnus opus of Italian fairy tales. While not Tuscan-specific, the book’s two hundred follktales are organised by region, so a number of tales from Florence, Siena, Pisa and the small hilltop villages that link the old portas between them. Reading Calvino’s collection reveals a rich Folk history that is often forgotten amongst the ruins of great buildings and the lives of the rulers that built them. Princes, princesses, thieves, heroes, and villains all jostle and cram into this anthology and allow a little insight into the bed time stories, legends and dreams of the townspeople of medieval Tuscany.
Decadence and Detective stories with Marco Vichi’s Death in August
Florence. It’s 1963. Inspector Bordelli is one of the few remaining policeman in the deserted city. The sudden murder of a wealthy woman in the heart of the city sends Bordelli into the spiralling Florentine underworld…
Perhaps an odd choice: a pulpy detective novel set in Florence in the 60’s. But Mario Vichy’s, first book in the Inspector Bordelli series gets to the heart of something Tuscans and Tuscany know very well: guiltless pleasure. Whether its rich beefy ragu with thick whips of tagliatelle pasta, a lounge in the piazza, or the whole ritual of a late afternoon aperitivo, Tuscany is about pleasures. While Death in August may be that for someone, it may not for other. Take it as a place holder and find your equivalent, a bawdy romance, or some favourite biography, or a book with the page corners dog-eared from frequent re-reading. Find something that fits between the warm sun and a chilled Aperol, then get in the former and grab the latter. Settle in and enjoy la dolce far neite!