In a country blessed with exquisite cities, few would argue that Rome – addictive, charming, exasperating – towers above all. In the 18th century, historians and Grand Tourists stampeded in from northern Europe, and Rome also proved irresistible for the English Romantics: John Keats, Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Shelley. The American author Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote his classic The Marble Faun after two years in Rome, using a sculpture in the Capitoline Museums as the hook to explore his thoughts on art.
Venice has also proved a beguiling backdrop for authors. Once again, Byron and Shelley were ever-presents, while Henry James set The Wings of the Dove in the lagoon city in the 1880s.
Herman Melville, author of Moby Dick, was also enraptured. Passing through, he wrote in his diary: "Rather be in Venice on rainy day than in any other capital on fine one." Ernest Hemingway's maudlin Across the River and into the Trees was set in Venice..
Perhaps the archetypal Venetian fiction is Thomas Mann's Der Tod in Venedig ("Death in Venice"), in which the city itself seems to be conspiring to crush the last remaining life out of the main character, Aschenbach.
Through the years of the Grand Tour, Florence was also in vogue, with the French (Stendahl, Germaine de Stael) outnumbered by the English and Americans. Byron popped up again, as did the Shelleys – Mary gave birth to Percy's son here, naming him Percy Florence Shelley. In 1847, Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning came to Florence for many years. Elizabeth died here in 1861.
In 1868-69, Dostoevsky washed up in Florence, debt-ridden and without a word of Italian but smitten by the city he called "Paradise". The year he left, Henry James showed up, a stay that inspired The Portrait of A Lady.
Then there's Trieste, another great Italian city that proved irresistible to foreign writers, notably James Joyce. He was poor and unpublished and did much of his writing in Trieste's atmospheric fin de siècle cafés and bars, allowing the surrounding street theatre to trigger his imagination.
THE JOURNEY TODAY
You arrive in Rome, and you know it is a contradictory place. You recall reading about Byron, who described Rome as the city of his soul even though he'd only been there briefly. Keats, too, was smitten, coming here in 1821 and hoping that his ill health would be cured, only to die of tuberculosis in his lodgings at the foot of the Spanish Steps. Still, you don't hold that failure against the city – you know it's going to save your soul.
You look around you but the city centre overwhelms, with 3,000 years of ad hoc development snaking all around. There seems little order to the patchwork urban quilt of ruins, mansions and piazzas, so you just follow your nose.
"Keats," you say to a gregarious local who stops to ask you if you need help. "Shelley..." "Ah," she replies, pointing east, and you're on your way. Following the local's rudimentary directions, you're sure you'll get lost, but that, you realise, is half the charm.
Somehow, after going round in what seems like endless circles, you reach the Piazza di Spagna – and the fabled Spanish Steps. In the 1700s, this Roman zone of intensity was beloved by the English on the Grand Tour, and the steps were built to connect the piazza with the eminent people living above it. The area became a meeting point for Rome's most desirable men and women, who gathered hoping to be chosen as artists' models, but today all you see are Roman teenagers flirting theatrically with each other.
Next to the Spanish Steps, you spy the Keats- Shelley House, where Keats died, age 25. He'd hoped the Italian climate would improve his health. Thankfully, you don't have tuberculosis as he did. Look around at the vibrant scenes surrounding you, and already you're feeling better.
Extract taken from Great Journeys, published by Lonely Planet (£29.99). Readers can buy a copy for £25 including UK P&P by going to shop.lonelyplanet.com and using the code INDEPENDENT
See the grandeur of St Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican Museum. n In Rome, imagine the roar of the crowd at the Colosseum, and peer at the heavens through the Pantheon’s oculus. n Enjoy a vaporetto (water bus) ride down the Grand Canal in Venice, then head to Giudecca for a romantic dinner with waterfront views. n Explore artisans’ studios in Santa Croce, Venice. n Savour a coffee in one of the historic cafés in the Piazza della Repubblica, Florence. n Visit the masterpiece-packed Uffizi in Florence. n Admire the sunset from the Ponte Vecchio, Florence.