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Quintessentially Italian: Books on Italy


Reviewed by Richard West

    In the past few weeks, two just-published short books have extended my Italian book collection closer to the J's: a celebration of things quintessentially Italian and an ode to Venice.

Italianissimo: The Quintessential Guide to What Italians Do Best
is a charmingly designed small-square book photo facing opposite text page, not surprising since co-author Louise Fili is a well-known New York graphic designer. Subjects range widely from balsamic vinegar (and where to buy it in Modena, the omphalos of b. v.'s), gelato, the Italian family, olive oil, la passeggiata (the promenade), shoes, the dicer, Italian women and men, the Fiat 500, etc.
    Why does red underwear appear in shop windows near il Capodanno, New Year's? To thwart the evil eye and (naturally) the tighter worn, the more effective its powers for bringing luck in the new year. Where can you find five floors of Italian movie memorabilia? In Turin's Il Museo Nazionale del Cinema (www.museonazionaledelcinema.org). Why don't you put money on a bed? The superstitious believe it will go to pay a doctor's bill.

Who is the saint for dentists? St. Apollonia. I've often wondered the significance of the ferro, that curved comb-esque piece of flat metal on a gondola's prow. It seems the six teeth-like protrusions denote Venice's six neighborhoods while the single opposite-side tooth represents Giudecca Island. These fascinations and many more are found under appropriate chapter headings.
    Who doubts Giuseppe Saragat's witticism: "Gli italiani guadagnano netto, ma vivono lordo: Italians earn net, but they live gross."

Italianissimo: The Quintessential Guide to What Italians Do Best

In Venice Is a Fish: A Sensual Guide
poet-novelist Tiziano Scarpa is referring to the shape, its mouth gaped toward the mainland, its tail of Santa Elena pointing out in the Adriatic. And the senses indeed, chapters titled "feet," "legs," "heart," "hands," etc., with appropriate text: "Venice is never flat, it's a continuous unevenness, all lumps, bumps, hump-backed bulges, dips, dents, depressions"in "legs."
    Naturally my copy of "mouth" (no idea why the ee cummings-esque lower cases) has the most underlines, making note of luscious ice creams, olives all'Ascolana, rice arancini, squares of mortadella, you get the idea. And a very useful colloquialism after a mention of chilled white wine: "Andiamo a prendere un'ombra," let's go take the shade, implying:"Let's go where the drinking's done."After reading "mouth" surely you'll make that Italian sign for hunger: the right hand parallel to the ground, moving back and forth toward the waist's right side.
     The cleverest chapter is "eyes" in which Scarpa laments that "the poor Venetian eyes absorb aesthetic radioactivity, otherwise known as pulchroractivity. Not for nothing have the Venetians always been called Serenissimi: which is to say morbidly calm, stupefied sleepwalkers." Why? Because of their daily exposure to divine beauty. Thus that's why a visitor sees all the restorers' scaffolding . That's why the restorations take so long. Mystery solved.Venice Is a Fish: A Sensual Guide " Tiziano Scarpa (Gotham Books, $17.50, 153 pgs.).

Here are a few other selections enhancing all things Italian:

Falling Palace: A Romance of Naples
by Don Hofstadter (Vintage paper, $13.95, 272 pgs.), a hymn to modern Naples, warts and all, along with Hofstadter's infatuation and fascination with the mysterious Benedetta.
Naples '44: A World War II Diary of Occupied Italy
by Norman Lewis (Pantheon, $7.95, 206 pgs.), the late English travel writer's diaristic account of devastated Naples toward the end of World War II. A modern classic.
Sprezzatura: 50 Ways Italian Genius Shaped the World
by Peter D' Epiro and Mary Desmond Pinkowish (Anchor Books, $14, 396 pgs.). The title meaning "the art of effortless mastery" that the authors apply to Italian genius from the Roman calendar to la moda italiana," the art of apparel. The parent of "Italianissimo."
The Other Venice: Secrets of the City (Reaktion Books – Topographics)
by Predrag Matvejevic (Reaktion Books, $25, 112 pgs.) where you'll explore little-known back streets, hidden gardens and piazzas, a fantastic bakery on the island of Burano, the city's best map shop near San Toma, a tiny graveyard for dogs, and many more secrets of the world's most unique city. 

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