Questions and answers

I have added this page as a sort of Question and Answers page – initially these will just be responses to questions already asked about Florence but I hope it will develop as new and varied questions come along. ….so fire away?

Getting a new phone in Italy

This is not difficult as the City is rather full of phone shops at reasonable prices. If spending any time in Italy and calling overseas it is always worth buying an Italian pay as you go SIM card – if not a cheap phone to put it in? NB If travelling with YallaDog I do have a spare cheap phone that I lend out to my customers in this situation.

One key point to remember about Italian phones is to not only keep the receipt but also – very importantly – to keep the box with all the purchase details in it.

In the event of theft or loss you will need to provide all this information and it is simplest to just take the box back to the shop!

Claribel asked – What did Catherine de Medici do?

Beyond the simple – and somewhat unfair- response of “Poison people!” – I replied with this:-

Catherine de Medici – 1519- 1589

The daughter of Lorenzo, Duke of Urbino and Madeleine de la Tour d’Auvergne is much reviled by history as she was implicated in sanctioning (instigating even!) the massacre of thousands of Protestants on St Bartholomew’s day 24 Aug 1572 – just after the marriage of her daughter Margot to the Protestant Henry of Navarre.

Like most high born women of her time Catherine was married off for political reasons when aged only 14 to one of the sons of King Francis I of France – when the first son died ( in suspicious circumstances) and her husband thus became Henry II of France she was reviled as a useless barren Italian bankers daughter and she was even suspected of killing off the rightful heir! (poisoning was much in vogue at the time and her Italian assistants the Rougeri Brothers and her perfumer Rene Bianco were known to be particularly good at it!)

Her marriage got off to a bad start as her husband was already deeply in love with his mistress, Diane de Poitiers, who very much ruled the King and his household – even to the extent of telling him when he should go and bed his wife as it was time he produced another heir!

Catherine had 10 children – after the death of her beloved Henry II she took over as Regent and under her Regency 3 of them became King of France:-

  • Francis II, who was married to – and doted on – Mary Queen of Scots, and died aged 16
  • Charles IX, who was pretty crazy and died aged 14
  • Henry III – who enjoyed dressing up and wearing jewellery  and died aged 15.

An unfortunate brood but nonetheless another of Catherine’s claims to fame was marrying one King of France and begetting three more – plus her daughter Elizabeth married Phillip II and became Queen of Spain! – however clearly none of them were very healthy – physically or emotionally sane and the last one died the same year as she did, 1589 – paradoxically leaving her one time son in law – the Protestant Henry of Navarre – the option of becoming King Henry IV of France if he renounced his religion – He is claimed to have said “Paris is worth a Mass!” and become a Catholic.

After divorcing Catherine’s daughter Marguerite – known as La Reine Margot – Henry went on to marry Catherine’s niece Marie de Medici and the famous Rubens paintings of her “reign” ( she also became Regent for under age sons) bedeck the Louvre!

That is the nutshell version – Catherine was quite a woman -determined and intelligent if not attractive – and fiercely loving despite not being much loved!

Before visiting Florence from America this year Merle asked for a reading list – she didn’t have time to read them all but here are some suggestions

My reading list – here are some suggestions


Florence – biography of a City – Christopher Hibbert
The Rise and Fall of the House of Medici – Christopher Hibbert
The Medici – Godfathers of the Renaissance – Paul Strathern
Medici Money – Tim Parks
Florence and the Medici – J.R Hale
Catherine de’Medici – R.J.Knecht
Benvenuti Cellini – Autobiography

The Medici giraffe by Marina Belozerskaya (2006)

Death in Florence: the Medici, Savonarola etc
by Paul Strathern
Bad Popes – Russell Chamberlin

Death of a Duchess – life and tragic death of Isabella de Medici

Is this a Man?/The Truce – Primo Levi

The original works of the Italian Renaissance

The Decameron – Boccaccio
The Divine Comedy – Dante Aligheri
The Prince – Niccolo Machiavelli

The Book of the Courtier – Baldesar Castiglione

Autobiography – Benvenuto Cellini

On Art – Alberti

Art Books

Understanding Italian Renaissance Painting

On Beauty and/or On Ugliness by Umberto Eco

The Florentine Painters of the Renaissance by Bernard Berenson

Historical novels

Catherine De Medici novels

Madame Serpent – Jean Plaidy –
The Italian Woman – Jean Plaidy
Queen Jezebel – Jean Plaidy
The Devils Queen – Jean Kalogridis

I, Mona Lisa – Jean Kalogridis – Medici

Lucrezia Borgia
Madonna of the Seven Hills – Jean Plaidy – Lucrezia Borgia’s early life
Light on Lucrezia – Jean Plaidy – Lucrezia and Cesare Borgia

The Borgia Bride – Jean Kalogridis – Sanchia of Aragon and sometime friend Lurezia Borgia


Renaissance – and Nuns

The Birth of Venus – Sarah Dunant  – a young girl and a painter in Renaissance Florence

Sacred Hearts – Sarah Dunant – A very reluctant Nun and her hope of escape

Galileo’s Daughters – Dava Sobel – more history than novel – taken from the letters between Galileo and his eldest daughter who accepted her fate – his youngest daughter never recovered from the horror of finding herself in a Convent after privileged early life in the Medici Court

Renaissance romps The Botticelli Secret – Marina Fiorato
The Painters Daughter (Alessandra Lippi) – Caroline Street La Fond – the imagined life of the daughter of Fra Filippo Lippi and ex Nun Lucretia Buti

The Italian – Mrs Radcliffe

His Last Duchess – Gabriele Klimm – Duke of Ferrara and the disappearance of his wife, the daughter of Grand Duke Cosimo and Eleanor of Toledo

The Passion of Artemesia – Susan Vreeland – the story of Artemisia Gentileschi

More up to date novels set in Florence

Felony – Emma Tennant – story of Henry James and “Fennimore” Cooper and inside story of the plot for the Aspern Papers.

Those Barren Leaves – Aldous Huxley – mocking the pretensions of the Anglo-American exiles in Florence

WW2 – Italian Partisans 

Villa Triste – Lucrezia Grindle – unputdownable story of a Florentine family in WW2 and a present day voyage of discovery of their history.

Tuscan Rose – Belinda Alexander – an orphan girl’s discovery of her true identity

Set in 20/21st Century

Mapping the Edge – Sarah Dunant
The Death of a Mafia Don – Michele Giuttari
A Death in Tuscany – Michele Giuttari
A Death in Florence – Michel Giuttari

A Death in Calabria – Michel Giuttari  – okay he is not very original when it comes to book titles

The Faces of Angels – Lucretia Grindle

A party in San Niccolo – Christabel Kent


The Lost Battles – between Leonardo and Michelangelo when competing to paint the walls of the Great Hall in the Palazzo Vecchio. – Jonathan Jones

The Book of the Courtier  – Baldesar Castiglione

Magnifico: The Brilliant Life and Violent Times of Lorenzo de Medici  – Miles J. Unger

Renaissance Woman – Gaia Servadaio

The Merchant of Prato – Iris Origo – daily life in a medieval Italian City reconstructed from his bills and letters!

War in Val D’Orchia – Iris Origo’s war diaries – simply brilliant day to day account of an English woman married to an Italian Marchese whose home was subject to requisitioning from the Germans – in power or in retreat, and requests for support from escaping prisoners of war, fleeing Jews and the partisans living in the woods on their property – marvellous

Iris Origo – a life – Caroline Moorhead

Images and Shadows – autobiography of Iris Origo

Is this a Man?/The Truce – Primo Levi

Christ Stopped at Eboli – Carlo Levi

Italy’s Sorrow – James Holland

Monte Cassino – Matthew Parker

The force of Destiny – Christopher Duggan

The Monster of Florence – Mario Spezia and Douglas Newton

The Dark Heart of Italy – Tobias Jones

Italian Hours – Henry James

Gli Italiani – Beppe Severigni

Gli Inglese – Beppe Severigni

Innocents Abroad – Mark Twain


Historical Italian DVD’s – not many of these are a bundle of laughs – but
they are excellent and important films about Italian social history.

Obsessione – 1942 – Luchino Visconti – the original adaptation of the
Postman always Rings Twice – equally full of sexual tension.

Shoeshine – 1946 – Vittorio de Sica filmed using non-professional actors
depicting real stories of stuggle in post-war Rome. Two boys shine the
shoes of American troops and dream of a better life.

The Bicycle Thieves – 1948 – Vittorio de Sica a film of a man’s desperate attempt to work and
to survive in Italy’s post war depression.

Umberto D – Vittorio de Sica – 1952 – a retired civil servant tries to
maintain his dignity – and his faithful dog – on a tiny pension against the odds mounting against him – (oh so sad)

NB – Andreotti – when Minister of culture tried to ban Vittorio di Sica films because they gave a bad impression of post war Italy – ie Neo-Realism showed things as they were- bleak indeed!)  .

Roman Holiday – William Wyler – 1953 – romantic comedy – still one of the best – with Gregory Peck as gorgeous American journalist and Audrey Hepburn as beautiful “rebel for a day” princess.

Le Ragazze di San Frediano – Valerio Zurlini – 1954 – 5 girls of this part
of Florence take their revenge on Bob – who tried to court them all at the
same time! This film has recently been remade and serialised for Italian

Marriage Italian Style – Carlo Ponti – starring Sophia Loren – billed as a comedy!

Porta a Bacione a Firenze – Camillo Mastrocinque – 1955 – born in America
of a Florentine family – Simonetta comes to Florence to recuperate after a
serious illness.

Era Notte a Roma – 1960 – Roberto Rossellini – the months after Italy
changed sides Rome is abandoned by the Nazis and liberated by the Allies –
3 escaped allied prisoners of war hide out with a beautiful woman.

La Dolce Vita – 1960 – Federico Fellini – things lighten up a bit as Rome
finally begins to blossom economically after the privations of the
post-war years – and the bright young things caper in the fountains!
La Strada – Fellini’s wife, Guilietta Masina, in her most famous role as the tragic child sold as an assistant to fairground wrestler Anthony Quinn.

Boccaccio 70 – 1969 four directors, de Sica, Fellini, Monicelli and
Visconti tell stories of love, sex and misunderstandings.

Roma – 1972 – Federico Fellini – a lavish autobiographical tribute to the
Eternal City

NoveCento – Bernardo Bertolucci – 1976 rise of fascism and demise of huge
family cooperative farms across the century. Starring incredibly young and almost unrecognisable Gerard  Depardieu, Robert de Niro and Donald Sutherland

Nuovo Paradiso – Giuseppe Tornatore – directors cut – 1979 – a film lover
returns to a changed Sicily and the threatened closure of his beloved

Christ stopped at Eboli – Francesco Rosi – 1979 – true story of
anti-facist intellectual Carlo Levi’s exile to this remote southern
Italian village.

A Room with a View – James Ivory – 1986 – film of the book which sums up
the English love of Florence and the consequences thereof as well as
showing the social tensions of the pre WW1 years.
A TV production made by Nicholas Renton in 2007 is also worth a watch. The different ending is closer to Forster original concept in a short story
written after the first world war.

Where Angels Fear to Tread – another adaptation of a Forster novel – watch it and weep for the foolish English clinging to their sense of “propriety”

Malena – Guiseppe Tornatore – 1989 – the story of a beautiful woman
misunderstood by small town minds during WW2 and the rites of passage of the small boy with the bravery to rescue her

Mediterraneo – Gabriele Salvatores 1992 – a bitter sweet comedy of Italian soldiers lost and abandoned on a Greek Island – also finding a nuovo

Pane e Tulipani – 1999 – Silvio Soldini – a breakaway housewife discovers
a new life – finally a comedy!

Caravaggio – Derek Jarman – graphic biography with Sean Bean as homosexual murderous painter

A Portrait of a Lady – Jane Campion – 1996 – Henry James’s novel displays
the exiled American at its worst with his portrayal of the dark hearted
Gilbert Osmond amongst his treasures in his rented palazzo in Florence –
this film through John Malkovich – captures his malevolence.

La Vita e Bella – 1999 – swooped a string of awards for director and actor
Roberto Benigni as the fanciful Jewish waiter who cheered his family
throughout the misery of a concentration camp.

Tea with Mussolini – Franco Zefferelli – 1999 – cultured but crazy Anglo
Americans in Florence before and during the second world war – one of my  favourite films of all time – which is just as well as so many of my
guests want to watch it!

Luther – Eric Till – 2003 not set in Italy but useful understanding as to
why Luther was directing his ire against Giovanni de’ Medici aka Pope Leo
X for selling indulgences to raise money to wage wars hold parties and
generally “enjoy the Papacy”!

Il Divo – Paulo Sorrentino – 2008 – the story of Guido Andreotti and his
influence over Italian politics over 4 decades.

Clearly this list is not exhaustive but a knowledge of these films is a
good background to Italian history and culture.

Garden Books
Paradise of Exiles – The Anglo-American Gardens of Florence – Katie Campbell

Edith Wharton’s Italian Gardens – a classic of garden history re-interpreted