Art, Travel & Life in Italy & Europe

Italy makes a good backdrop for historical fiction

The past decade has seen a spate of art historical fiction set in Italy, some of it well researched, some juicy, some pretty awful. Here is the shortlist of ten readable books set in Italy, with a historical or art historical element (any time period). They are listed in no particular order.


1) Sarah Dunant: In the Company of the Courtesan describes the imagined history of a set of lascivious images known as “i modi”, which are brough to Venice by a courtesan escaping the Sack of Rome.

2) Sarah Dunant’s The Birth of Venus: A Novel is actually quite historically accurate in its details of Savonarolian Florence, although its female heroine is rather modern in her outlook.

3) The Ruby Ring by Diane Haeger is a “historical” romance about the love affair between Raphael and his peasant “model”.

4) The Rule of Four: Students discover a text that really exists (Hypnerotomachia Poliphili), and dumb it down for us to read.

5) The Sixteen Pleasures by Robert Hellenga: a mud angel book restorer (Florence after the great Flood of 1966) comes upon a book of erotic engravings and sonnets, and has an affair.

6) Any book in the Iain Pears series with Flavia di Stefano of Rome’s Art Squad (for mystery lovers- written by an art hisorian): Books by Pears

7) The SECRET BOOK OF GRAZIA DEI ROSSI: It’s been a while since I’ve read this one but I remember being enchanted by it as an undergraduate, as it addresses Jews in Mantova and Isabella d’Este.

8) Donna Leon, Death at La Fenice: A Commissario Guido Brunetti Mystery (also in the same series, Blood From a Stone, Doctored Evidence, Uniform Justice, and soon to be published Dressed for Death).

9) The Passion of Artemisia by Susan Vreeland is surprisingly well researched and presents a relatively balanced impression of the artist’s life.

10) Umberto Eco’s murder mystery set in a 14th c Italian monastery: The Name of the Rose

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By: arttrav

Alexandra Korey aka ArtTrav is a Florence-based art historian and arts marketing consultant.