The English literary love affair with Italy has spanned centuries, but writers are at last looking further than vineyards and frescos. Jasper Rees reveals a sharp-eyed new realism
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The Independent Culture
On a Monday afternoon in October 1819, Shelley stepped out of his rented palazzo, a stone's throw from Santa Maria Novella in Florence, and marched westwards along the Arno. He was smarting from a personal attack he'd just come across in the April edition of the Quarterly. Black clouds fulminated in sympathy overhead while a strong wind blew from the coast where, nearly three years later, he would meet his death. In the wooded Cascine gardens that flank the river, dead leaves swirled about him as he mapped out "Ode to the West Wind" in his head, then trooped home to commit it to paper. A fountain dedicated to the poet commemorates this literary landmark. The gardens still accommodate streams of visitors, but nowadays they're drawn by the city's transsexual hookers, mostly fur- stoled Brazilians, who line the through road and haggle over tariffs with kerb-crawling family men.

The poet's Cascine you can read about in the relevant tomes. The prostitute's Cascine is as yet unvisited by our literature, because the English weakness for Italy is strictly selective. In his mighty new Florence: A Portrait, Michael Levey stops briefly to acknowledge the modern sexual sensibility now touring the city: Michelangelo's David, he says with perhaps the trace of a smirk, is "openly treated as a gay icon". But this book is an Anglo-Saxon appreciation of the old school, a lapidary tome lacing worshipful scholarship with sardonic wit that has the satisfying smack of finality about it.

With Levey as guide, we're not marooned solely in the Renaissance. His tour of Trecento Florence includes a wonderfully impatient put-down of Guelph-Ghibelline factionalism ("like the fight of Tweedledum and Tweedledee"). And long after the great painters have gone and the Medici Grand Dukes have begun their placidly debauched reign, he goes to the trouble of bringing vast swathes of long-ignored Florentine baroque into our line of sight. After this, you feel, anyone else planning to write a history of Florentine achievements in painting, sculpture, architecture, literature and society would do better to look elsewhere.

Looking elsewhere, however, is not something the English are very good at: we have always cherry-picked the bits of Italy that please us. In the old days it was Grand Tourists buying Botticelli altar-pieces on the cheap from needy frati. In these more democratic times, anyone can get their panforte from Tesco and terracotta tiles from Homebase. The one Italian product which is only now finding an English market is the dirty reality on the ground. In the words of William Ward, one of our few unblinkered commentators on modern Italy, "Although no country is better loved by the English than Italy, we are desperately short of good, up-to-date literature about the place."

Of course, there's no shortage of out-of-date literature, a lot of it undeniably delicious. The visit of Brideshead's Charles and Sebastian to Venice is spent "drowning in honey, stingless": mingling with WASPs, in other words, and avoiding wops, and that was pretty much par for the course. Italophile literature depopulates the thing it loves. Mounting Giotto's campanile to gaze westwards, the 20-year-old Ruskin speaks for every travelling aesthete with tunnel vision when he admires "30 miles of most lovely plain, but a great deal cut up by the white houses". In our literary infatuation with Italy, you can't see the people for the purple, and the present is obscured in the long shadow of the past. While Elizabeth Barrett fretted over the future of unified Italy from her sofa in Casa Guidi, her husband left not a single word on the turbulence around him, but hurled himself deep into Florentine history peopled by painters and musicians. A century and a half on, which Browning version is more often read?

There's a perfectly good excuse for this. The instinct of most northerners encountering the south is to seek out and take solace from an Italy of the imagination, an Italy of the senses, about which we naturally have more feelings than thoughts. Plop a buttoned-up English writer in a gondola or an olive grove, and he (and it usually is a he) will emote his socks off till it's time to take the plane, train or horse-drawn carriage back home. Some never returned, of course, and some never intended to: Smollett, Keats, Shelley, Clough, Landor, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Harold Acton and most recently, John Pope-Hennessy, were among those writers who died in Italy.

The first English travellers to hit Italy in numbers were literally escapists - refugees from the Civil War. And that set the tone: although subsequent English settlers frequently opted for Italy because living in comfort was cheaper than at home, the vast body of Anglo-Italian literature was committed to paper by people on holiday. Forster wrote A Room With A View in a rented house in Poggibonsi. Sea and Sardinia, one of three carefully evocative books about Italy by D H Lawrence, was harvested from a mere six days on the island. The youngish Henry James became a proper novelist in a room overlooking Piazza Santa Maria Novella.

Towards the end of Roderick Hudson, the fruit of that confinement, James's characters loll on a hillside by Lake Como. The author, charged with possession of a pair of rose-tinted spectacles, happily pleads guilty. "It was all consummately picturesque; it was the Italy that we know from the steel engravings in old keepsakes and annuals, from the vignettes on music-sheets and the drop-curtains at theatres; an Italy that we can never confess ourselves - in spite of our own changes and of Italy's - that we have ceased to believe." It was, in short, the Italy we know from English literature.

One early and prominent emigrant was Sir John Hawkwood, a tanner's son from Essex, a mercenary who married the Duke of Milan's daughter in the late 14th century. He fetched up fighting for Florence, which granted him a posthumous portrait by Uccello in the Duomo and an estate near Cortona, quite close to where Germaine Greer, another formidable combatant, would later settle. But since Hawkwood's death in 1394, we have invaded Italy armed with pens rather than swords, on a mission to capture not land but landscape. Even Martin Amis brought back a chunk of Italian stone in his linguistic baggage: he named Money's maternal porn star Caduta Massi, after the roadsign that warns of falling rocks.

The peninsula was an indispensable cog in the wheel of our literature. Nowadays the source of sun-dried tomatoes, Italy is where we once went for our stories. Imagine Chaucer without Petrarch and Boccaccio. Delete Italy from Shakespeare and you've lost ten of the plays. So present is Italy in our literature that Ann Radcliffe was able to set down in The Mysteries of Udolpho a dense description of its beetling topography without enduring the inconvenience of an actual visit. Keats delivered his best writing on Italy - a poem that might make you think twice when you next buy a pot of basil - before he had set foot in it.

The sound of the English writer struck dumb by Italy is an occasional treat. The first sight of Piazza San Marco temporarily silenced even Dickens, as he prepared to send his pen where so many had been before: "I never saw the thing before that I should be afraid to describe. But to tell what Venice is, I feel to be an impossibility." He had a go anyway, at some length, as many would afterwards - most notably and successfully, Mary McCarthy and Jan Morris.

Italy has been unified for well over a century, though this doesn't excuse the habit of taking one part of the peninsula and forcing it to stand for the whole. While the Second World War encouraged our writers to mingle with actual Italians - Norman Lewis in Naples, Eric Newby in the Apennines - the publishing industry continues to exploit the English appetite for all things Tuscan (and, these days, Umbrian). See Matthew Spender's Within Tuscany, an agreeable stroll round the Tuscan character. Or A Valley In Italy, which finds Lisa St Aubin de Tern generously sharing with us the travails of restoring her Umbrian castello. In Summer's Lease, John Mortimer renders the villa holiday in fiction: his fruity old hack who files his column from Tuscany is an admission that literary admiration for the region is old hat. But it's an old hat that sells.

However, a slow palace coup is taking place in the annals of Anglo-Italian writing, and English writers are starting to scrape for copy beyond the fresco and the vineyard. This literary glasnost started with Michael Dibdin's likeably cynical series of crime novels, in which his detective, a Venetian fatalist called Aurelio Zen, digs into the rotten core of the country's political and judicial system. Dibdin's word for an endemically corrupt society is a "ratking": a ratking is a tangle of tails that inextricably binds every rat to the pack. In plots of swirling baroque, Zen's almost impossible task in each case is to nail the guilty party while acting on the bidding of party-political superiors who might have ordered other results.

Zen's fifth outing will be with us in the autumn. Dibdin initially thought of calling it New Town, after Neapolis, the Greek name of the city where it's set. But he settled for Cosi Fan Tutti, after the excuse that Italians of all ranks give for bribery, tax evasion and sundry other venal sins that oil the wheels of society.

Dibdin is concerned to get past what he calls "the spray-on exotic tourist attraction stuff ... there are people for whom Italy is the Renaissance and beautiful churches and nice food, even though they're maybe expatriates who've lived there forever. But if you're there for more than, say, a year or two and you're not completely out of it, you read the papers and talk to Italian friends about what's happening, and you quite quickly realise that Italy is a complex society which functions just as well as our own, but which functions in a different way, and that a lot of people's received ideas about the place are actually completely wrong."

A similar argument was most starkly brought before a British readership in 1990 by William Ward's groundbreaking Getting It Right In Italy, the fruit of long residence in Rome. Despite the wave of books by able journalists who have drifted through the country during the recent political purge, it remains the most clear-sighted and thoughtful evaluation of an Italy in which Italians live, rather than one Italophiles visit. Ward describes it as "the book that I wished I'd had when I went to live in Italy. I was irritated by the other books, which were obfuscating, patronising and old-fashioned, and didn't tell you what the real Italy was about." Somewhere between a manual and a bible, it explains how Italians run their country, their homes, their media, their businesses, their tax affairs, their families and, yes, their sex lives.

The final player in the revisionist Anglo-Italian triumvirate is Tim Parks, who went to live outside Verona at the age of 25, "to underachieve in peace". When Parks arrived (in 1981, two years after Ward, one after Dibdin), he took a vow of literary silence, never to write about Italy. His subsequent career as a novelist thus found him steering away from explicitly Italian themes. Of an early success like Family Planning, about a family afflicted by schizophrenia, he says: "Although that story arose out of Italy I set it in England because I knew that if I set it in Italy people would just want details about Italy." More recently, Shear gives vent to an obsession with stones and masonry, an interest nursed by dull days spent translating the bimonthly rag of the Italian quarrying industry.

Eventually, though, Parks was asked to come clean about Italy. An escapist reverie in the style of Peter Mayle was requested. Parks read A Year In Provence and got back to them. "I said, 'If you've read my novels you must appreciate that I wouldn't do this kind of thing. Not from a snob point of view: it's just I know the country too well to rave about it.' They said, 'Oh no, we're sure you can do it.' So I wrote a couple of chapters and they said, 'No you're right: you can't do it.' They actually said it doesn't reinforce those stereotypes which make people dream of moving to Tuscany. I thought, you bet it doesn't."

The book he eventually wrote, Italian Neighbours, refreshingly contrives to omit the words "Capulet" and "Aida" from its slow raking shot across the locality, despite the proximity of the balcony and the Arena. Parks has now supplemented this rambling account of what is to be an Italian with a second even more parochial book, An Italian Education, inspired by the birth of his half-Italian children, about how you actually grow up to become an Italian. It's reasonably safe to say that there is more information - most of it riveting - about the pleasurable but by no means blandly idyllic business of coming from Italy than in any other book in the English language. And maybe the Italian language too.

A reliable measure of the worth of this new English vision of Italy is its reception by Italians, who suffer from a pathological interest in other countries' estimation of them. All the Zen books are published by Mondadori, but there would be no point in an Italian edition of Ward's manual, which is aimed strictly at the outsider. Nonetheless it was reviewed in, of all places, La Gazzetta dello Sport, which rather witlessly chose to home in on the detailed sections about the gay scene and transsexual prostitution (see Shelley, above). Other newspapers thrilled to the book's gloves-off analysis of the stagnant political system. "Not long after it came out, I saw it being quoted by serious news journalists, who used it as a cudgel to criticise the status quo." And Ward is now the London correspondent of Il Foglio, a four-page daily comment sheet aimed at Italy's opinion-forming elite. As for Parks, Italian Neighbours sold more copies in Italy than here, and won a prize for literature on Veneto culture.

Reviewing it from her Umbrian eyrie, Lisa St Aubin de Tern marvellously claimed Parks didn't know much about living in Italy. Its successor should knock that one on the head. An Italian Education closes with a 100-page account of a day on the beach in Pescara, an Adriatic resort which has eluded other English scribes in pursuit of Forsterian epiphanies. In a beautifully paced performance, Parks lays out the ebbing, flowing Italy, a place of inexplicable contrasts that somehow works like clockwork - the deadly speed of the cars on the lungomare and the sloth of the long afternoon, the canonisation of the family and the tumbling birth rate, the self-belief imbibed with mamma's milk and the national thirst for foreign approval. The author's children are growing up as Italians, and he has carefully explained to his compatriots what that means. The education is all ours.

'Florence: A Portrait' by Michael Levey is published by Jonathan Cape at pounds 25

'An Italian Education' by Tim Parks is published tomorrow by Secker at pounds 15.99

'Getting It Right in Italy' by William Ward, Bloomsbury pounds 12.99.

Michael Dibdin's 'Cosi Fan Tutti' will be published by Faber in September.