TOP 500 REVIEWERon 10 March 2010
This book accompanies the TV series, and the book's four chapters mirror the four episodes. In his preface, Francesco tells us that this tour of his country is also for him a personal journey. The book adopts the same format as his wonderful book on his home city of Venice. The photographs, mostly but not all by John Parker, are often superb with some spreading across two pages.
But before looking at what's covered, a glance at the map at the start of the journey shows us several lacunae. Thus there are gaps to the east and north of Venice; the Italian Alps are skipped (except the lakes); and Genoa is missing (but one could hardly expect a Venetian to say anything good about the enemy). As we move south, the spaces become larger, especially on the Adriatic side (no Rimini, no Bari). Calabria too is empty, save as a stepping stone to Sicily. Sardinia, meanwhile, is not even on the map.
This gives some idea of what's missing, but you cannot include everything. And in the first chapter - `Leaving the Lagoon', Francesco perhaps tries to include too much, with the result that we have a somewhat superficial coverage: Padua, Vicenza, Verona, Ferrara, Bologna, Mantua - each is given a page or a small number of paragraphs in which Francesco expatiates on a single aspect or work of art to be found there, before moving on to the next city. It's as if the whole of southern England is covered by saying one thing about Plymouth, Exeter, Bristol, Southampton, Chichester, and Brighton. There are some exceptions, such as Milan, where (amongst other things) we learn that it was an Englishman "who founded AC Milan as `Milan Cricket & Football Club'. It is in his honour that the club has always kept the English spelling of its name."
As in his Venice book, extra information is provided by additional words set in boxes separate from the main flow of the text: thus we have details about the Brenta Canal, da Vinci's `Last Supper', Dante, and even the mystery surrounding the correspondence between Churchill and Mussolini. There are also the occasional personal reflections and anecdotes about his family's history in the text, which reflect the personal nature of his journey. These are more prominent towards the end of the book when we explore Palermo, and Francesco's maternal ancestry.
As with the TV series, one hankered after a slower and fuller journey; twelve or sixteen episodes instead of just four. But as a personal introduction to the towns, landscapes, and treasures of Italy, Francesco is very good company. (I note, though, that the text is copyrighted to both Francesco and his wife Jane.) And the stories from the places he visits tell us as much about the Italian character as the places themselves: witty, cruel, generous, proud, creative - in a word, contradictory. Francesco is surprisingly self-effacing, pointing out (for instance) that "Italian men are romantic, to be sure, but it's hard to tell which they love best, their women or their cars."
The stories he has to tell are often related to England and the English. For instance, the second chapter - `Heading for the Hills' - includes references to Byron, Shelley, Dickens and some lesser-known personalities such as Iris Cutting and John Temple Leader. One feels that the author would do good to present a series on `Francesco's England'. Chapter three is titled `Touring the Heartland', which in this instance is Rome, Rome, Rome, and the lives of artists, popes, and emperors (and scientists) that lived there. We also briefly but commendably visit parts of the Italian heel and sole, parts rarely visited by tourists. By the time we reach the far south, the number of large cities has dropped considerably, leaving more time to describe physical features and small towns.
The writing has a few errors that should have been picked up by the editors: Nelson is buried in St Paul's rather than Westminster Abbey, and I wondered at the statement that, "After the fall of the Empire, Sicily was ruled successively by the Ostrogoths, the Phoenicians, the Byzantines, the Arabs, ..." Unfortunately, I am not too sure I would like to rely on Francesco for directions. On the very first page, he tells us he is heading from Venice to Padua by going south, and he crosses the Apennines from west to east to reach the Ligurian Sea! Nevertheless I learned a lot about Italy, and much that was totally new, from the north, such as the ferocity of Duke Bernabo Visconti of Milan, to the south and the Sicilian background to the writer Luigi Pirandello. I am thankful to this book for the most enjoyable and colourful, if concise of journeys.