Three Sisters – Italian Style

There is no doubt that the essence of a country is formed by the character of the people who inhabit it: how they live, what they eat, what they enjoy and, for me, what writers best express the beating heart of the country.

What books have most revealed that elusive Italian character? It’s very difficult to draw a list of the ten must-read Italian novels. Not only is it a question of personal taste but, more importantly, each region of Italy is virtually a separate country with its own history and customs. Grazia Deledda, for example, expresses superlatively the Sardinian ethos. Giovanni Verga is essential reading for anyone visiting Sicily as is the Count of Lampedusa. Alessandro Manzoni draws his novel ‘The Betrothed’ from the country around Lake Como. Although today Italian writers rely less on regional variations they are still attracted to a particular part of the country (usually where they were born) in very much the same way as Thomas Hardy is associated with Dorset.

What would my list of the ten must-read Italian novels include? For the time being I have enjoyed most insight and pleasure from the following books:

  1. Il Gattopardo (The Leopard) by Giuseppe Tomasi Conte di Lampedusa: an enthralling historical novel about an aristocratic Sicilian family at the time of Italian unification.
  2. Christ stopped at Eboli by Carlo Levi. An evocative account of life in Basilicata – a region at the time hardly touched by modern civilization, hence the title.
  3. The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco. The historical murder mystery par excellence set in a Benedictine monastery in the year 1327
  4. Any Inspector Montalbano book by Andrea Camilleri, the greatest living Italian crime novelist whose setting for his inspector is ….inevitably…Sicily.
  5. La Luna e il Falò (The Moon and the Bonfire) by Cesare Pavese. This is a largely autobiographical novel showing Pavese’s openness towards English and American literature and written in a highly atmospheric and readable style.
  6. Sorelle Materassi (Materassi sisters) by Aldo Palazzeschi. See below for a synopsis of this subtle novel set in inter-war Florence.
  7. The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio. The father of all Italian novelists, his stories have been used as a basis by the likes of Chaucer and Shakespeare.
  8. Lessico Famigliare (Family Sayings) by Natalia Ginzburg. Another autobiographically set novel written in the author’s direct, almost bare, style
  9. Arturo’s Island by Elsa Morante. A highly sensitive bildungsroman set on the island of Procida in the bay of Naples,
  10. If this is a Man by Primo Levi. A harrowing account of an Italian Jewish person’s survival in Auschwitz, an experience he understandably never got over and which eventually led to his suicide in 1987. (‘I actually died in 1943’).

Some of these books have been turned into films or plays. A good example is The Leopard dating from 1963 and starring Burt Lancaster and Claudia Cardinale.  There are films of the Decameron (directed by Pasolini) and The Name of the Rose (starring Sean Connery). There is nothing, however, like reading the original text and, if your Italian is up to it, reading it in the original language to appreciate the full nuances. Again, regarding the complexities of the Italian language, it’s best to start with Pavese’s clear style or Ginzburg’s almost minimalist prose before graduating to the likes of Manzoni.

It was quite a delight to be among the audience last Friday evening of the theatre version of Palazzeschi’s Sorelle Materassi (1934). The plot relates the (mis)adventures of three elderly sisters: Teresa, Carolina e Giselda. Only Giselda married but, thrown out by her husband, has returned, embittered, to the family nest. Teresa and Carolina are expert embroiderers undertaking work for the Florentine aristocracy and the clergy. Doubtlessly they are exploited and are paid more by flattery than by solid earnings. Furthermore, they are obliged, against their moral stance, to embroider knickers and underwear for prostitutes serving high-class customers. In the middle of this secluded domestic life enters Remo, the dashing young son of a fourth, deceased sister. With his airs and graces he captures the affection of his aunts only to extract money from them to finance fast cars, marry an American girl who smokes, wears short skirts and displays all those modernist habits which the ladies dislike. Remo, however, recruits the old dears as his bridesmaids! Remo remains so persuasive that he sucks the sisters’ finances dry until, at the end, they have to mortgage the family home and are left with almost nothing.

This might sound a grim scenario but it is related with the fantastic flair which distinguishes Palazzeschi who espoused futurist trends in his early literature and also flourished as a poet and journalist. The setting is the Florentine district of Coverciano, better known by most as the location of Florence’s great Football museum and Nervi’s pioneering ‘Artemio Franchi’ football stadium opened in 1931 where that prized team, Fiorentina – la Viola, ninth in serie A (Italian first division) classification – train and play their home matches. It’s also the headquarters of the Italian Football Federation. (Equivalent of the F. A. in the UK) and the location for David Bowie’s Glass spider concert there in 1987.

The play’s the thing, however. The credits were as follows:

  • Lucia Poli, Milena Vukovic and Marilù Prati as the three sisters.
  • Adapted from Palazzeschi’s novel by Ugo Chiti,
  • Directed by Geppy Gleijeses

Poli is also a playwright and stage director. She was born in Florence in 1940. Milena Vukovic was born in Rome in 1935 and, beside the stage, has also appeared in many films and on TV. She is best known to the Italian public, however, as Pina, wife of the underdog character Ugo Fantozzi (a sort of Italian Charles Pooter). Marilù Prati hails from Naples and has had an equally distinguished theatrical and cinematographic career.

Having trodden the boards myself in the same theatre as a result of a drama course (see my post at I was able to appreciate even more fully the perfection and professionalism of this great team of actresses (I don’t call them actors but actresses as they are ‘attrici’ in Italian and not ‘attori’ – a stupid reduction of all professions into a neutral sex such as occurs in politically correct UK).

The Teatro Accademico was full but we managed to get tickets in one of the boxes. Normally we just turn up but this was clearly a warning that the theatre season at Bagni di Lucca (which will continue on 10th February with Pirandello’s Il Berretto a Sonagli starring Sebastiano Lo Monaco – unmissable!) is becoming increasingly popular; so booking is clearly required. (See for season’s full details).

The evening was both sad and delightful – there was plenty of space both for hilarity and past recollections. Resignation was ultimately the keyword among the chastened sisters. The audience responded attentively to the acting which received quite a few little applauses before the final triumphant envoy. This was truly another special evening in Bagni di Lucca’s cosy theatre which also had the facility of protecting us from the icy temperatures (minus 8!) stalking around outside.

Here are some photos I took of that evening’s production:

Finally, would you disagree with my choice of reading? What ten Italian novels have you most enjoyed? I’d love to hear your dream list……


7 thoughts on “Three Sisters – Italian Style

  1. Both the Levi books I read some years ago. I might well have read Italian novels in the past but with English Translations we often forget that. Inspector Moltalbano’s TV series were most enjoyable. No doubt the books were even better. This is a very good and informative article, thank you Francis.

  2. Francis, the only Italian novel/story I have read is; ‘Pinocchio’. – Well what would you expect from an 11+ failure!
    Jane and Alfeo.

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