By Bill Marsano. An old Italian pastime is the compiling of lists of the 'cento citta'--the hundred most appealing Italian cities and towns. Candidates should be small enough for intimacy but big enough to afford urban pleasures. They needn't be sunk in wilderness but countryside should certainly be at hand. Agreeable climate? Another plus. The lists are always highly personal and endlessly debatable, and here's Paolo Lazzarin, journalist and photographer, with his own nominations. He outdoes tradition by selecting 101 towns, all, per the subtitle, beautiful and small.
And all in all, he does a pretty good job; certainly this book will help the Italy-lorn struggle through a long winter of discontent with being too far from the Blessed Peninsula. And, as Jane Austen wrote, or should have, "It is a truth universally acknowledged that staring at pictures of Italy never did a body any harm." The photos are the principal part and appeal of the book; this is not a survey course ("Italy: From the Etruscans to Berlusconi"). There is an abundance of them but I could wish more were better and/or better chosen.
Some do not illustrate, others do not evoke, and still others are well-worn tourist-office images. For example, here you'll get no hint of what Riva del Garda actually looks like, and still less of Faenza, which is represented only by its famous ceramics. In San Remo, must we see the casino--again? The entry for Valenza has an extended caption about a nature reserve sitting beside a large and ordinary shot of a palazzo's interior staircase.
As for the writing, the best I can say is that it avoids the customary excesses; Italians are too often overwhelmed by patrimony and resort to cheerleading in prose form. On the other hand, Lazzarin is mechanical, unspired. It's hard to believe that he's really at one with all these places, even, occasionally, that he has the facts. Shall Trento really be called a hamlet? Is Triora really "perched above the sea"? (I distinctly recall its being a 10-mile drive inland.) Shouldn't Lazzarin admit that the Cinque Terre's hill paths are terminally overrun by vapid Rick Steves tourists? And there's an overall lack of sophistication: Siena's Piazza del Campo, Lazzarin confides, "was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995." Believe me, gentle reader, the designation is irrelevant to Siena, that living masterpiece. Its sole value is to validate the pack of overpaid, underworked artsy UN bureaucrats who awarded it. (And still one wonders: 1995? What on earth took them so long?)
Still, still--you could do worse. Lazzarin has found his way to plenty of places most Americans have never heard of or have merely passed by: Triora, Ortona (no T, no C; just plain Ortona), Cividale, Sondrio, Anagni and others, and with this book in your lap and some wine at hand, you'll have a good enough time visiting them, and perhaps be inspired to check ticket prices online. If that should happen, then your next step is to get some of the Cadogan Guides to Italy and to Italian regions; they are written by Dana Facaros and Michael Pauls, and they are much the best I've run into. Lucky you: They're all available fromn Amazon, too.--Bill Marsano is a professional writer and editor who has won several awards for his articles. He visits Italy several times a year.