Books about Italy: A Reading List for Florence

Ah, so you’re going to Italy — to Florence — the jewel of the Italian Renaissance. Here is my reading list for Florence, and whether you’re looking for nonfiction and history, a book written by a famous Florentine, or you’re looking for the best novels set in Italy, you’ll find something here.

Duomo in Florence to inspire books about Italy.

Ah, so you’re going to Italy — to Florence — the jewel of the Italian Renaissance.

Perhaps you have just booked your trip, but have months to while away before you board your plane. Perhaps you are packing as we speak, and simply need a great book to take with you. Perhaps you have just returned from Florence, and want to keep this wonderful city close to your heart.

Here is my reading list for Florence, and whether you’re looking for nonfiction and history, a book written by a famous Florentine, or you’re looking for the best novels set in Italy, you’ll find something here.

This is a list of twenty-one books that will immerse you in Florence. You’ll find Nonfiction (History & Travel Journals) first, followed by Fiction, and finally Books by Famous Florentines. Everything is listed in alphabetical order by title.

Nonfiction Reading List for Florence

Nonfiction – History
 Book/Author/Date Amazon Rating

Dante A Life

R.W.B. Lewis, 2009 Review by Wendy Smith: “History, literature, love, and religion come together in this graceful biography of the world’s most revered and influential poet. R.W.B. Lewis, who won a Pulitzer Prize for Edith Wharton, displays the same intelligent understanding here of the complex interplay of inner and outer forces that shape an artist. His lucid account of political and literary conflict in 13th-century Florence (subject of another Lewis book, The City of Florence) illuminates the context in which Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) came of age, fell in love with the unattainable Beatrice Portinari, forged the “sweet new style” that transformed Italian literature, and embroiled himself in factional disputes he would angrily renounce after his exile from Florence in 1302.”

Death in Florence : The Medici, Savonarola, and the Battle for the Soul of a Renaissance City

Paul Strathern, 2016

Pegasus Books: “By the end of the fifteenth century, Florence was well established as the home of the Renaissance. As generous patrons to the likes of Botticelli and Michelangelo, the ruling Medici embodied the progressive humanist spirit of the age, and in Lorenzo de’ Medici (Lorenzo the Magnificent) they possessed a diplomat capable of guarding the militarily weak city in a climate of constantly shifting allegiances between the major Italian powers.

However, in the form of Savonarola, an unprepossessing provincial monk, Lorenzo found his nemesis. Filled with Old Testament fury and prophecies of doom, Savonarola’s sermons reverberated among a disenfranchised population, who preferred medieval Biblical certainties to the philosophical interrogations and intoxicating surface glitter of the Renaissance.Was this a simple clash of wills between a benign ruler and religious fanatic? Between secular pluralism and repressive extremism? In an exhilaratingly rich and deeply researched story, Paul Strathern reveals the paradoxes, self-doubts, and political compromises that made the battle for the soul of the Renaissance city one of the most complex and important moments in Western history.”


Galileo’s Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith and Love

Dava Sobel, 2009

Bloomsbury Press: “Inspired by a long fascination with Galileo, and by the remarkable surviving letters of his daughter Maria Celeste, a cloistered nun, Dava Sobel has crafted a biography that dramatically recolors the personality and accomplishments of a mythic figure whose early-seventeenth-century clash with Catholic doctrine continues to define the schism between science and religion-the man Albert Einstein called “the father of modern physics-indeed of modern science altogether.” It is also a stunning portrait of Galileo’s daughter, a person hitherto lost to history, described by her father as “a woman of exquisite mind, singular goodness, and most tenderly attached to me.”

“Moving between Galileo’s grand public life and Maria Celeste’s sequestered world, Sobel illuminates the Florence of the Medicis and the papal court in Rome during the pivotal era when humanity’s perception of its place in the cosmos was about to be overturned. During that same time, while the bubonic plague wreaked its terrible devastation and the Thirty Years’ War tipped fortunes across Europe, Galileo sought to reconcile the Heaven he revered as a good Catholic with the heavens he revealed through his telescope. Filled with human drama and scientific adventure, Galileo’s Daughter is an unforgettable story.”

La Bella Figura : A Field Guide to the Italian Mind,

Beppe Severgnini, 2005

A wonderfully funny read! — Ann

Random House: “Join the bestselling author of Ciao, America! on a lively tour of modern Italy that takes you behind the seductive face it puts on for visitors—la bella figura—and highlights its maddening, paradoxical true self.

You won’t need luggage for this hypothetical and hilarious trip into the hearts and minds of Beppe Severgnini’s fellow Italians. In fact, Beppe would prefer if you left behind the baggage his crafty and elegant countrymen have smuggled into your subconscious. To get to his Italia, you’ll need to forget about your idealized notions of Italy. Although La Bella Figura will take you to legendary cities and scenic regions, your real destinations are the places where Italians are at their best, worst, and most authentic:

The highway: in America, a red light has only one possible interpretation—Stop! An Italian red light doesn’t warn or order you as much as provide an invitation for reflection.

The airport: where Italians prove that one of their virtues (an appreciation for beauty) is really a vice. Who cares if the beautiful girls hawking cell phones in airport kiosks stick you with an outdated model? That’s the price of gazing upon perfection.

The small town: which demonstrates the Italian genius for pleasant living: “a congenial barber . . . a well-stocked newsstand . . . professionally made coffee and a proper pizza; bell towers we can recognize in the distance, and people with a kind word and a smile for everyone.”


Magnifico : The Brilliant Life and Times of Lorenzo de Medici

Miles Unger, 2009

 “This portrait of the ‘uncrowned ruler of Florence’ does great justice to this most intriguing of all Renaissance princes. Unger’s diligent scholarship combines with an impelling narrative to give a full-bodied flavor of the splendors as well as the horrors of Lorenzo’s remarkable reign.” — Ross King, author of Brunelleschi’s Dome and Machiavelli

“Highly absorbing . . . provides a mesmerizing microscope for viewing the entire Italian Renaissance. . . . Magnifico is a wonderful feast for lovers of Renaissance history and art.”
—Chuck Leddy, The Boston Globe


Michelangelo: A Life in Six Masterpieces

Miles Unger, 2014

“Unger insightfully guides readers through both Michelangelo’s life and the culture and history of the times. . . . [He] displays keen, humane judgments in interpreting Michelangelo’s life by focusing on his motives and talent. The artist’s life was complicated, but Unger finds a narrative path that keeps the reader on course for an enlightened biography.” (David Hendricks San Antonio Express)“This may be the one indispensable guide for encountering the artist on his home turf. There are hundreds of books about Michelangelo di Lodovico di Buonarroti Simone, his art and his times. But few bring it all together in such an entertaining and enlightening whole.” (Bill Marvel Dallas Morning News)

“Part biography, part art analysis and thoroughly tantalizing. By focusing on six works, presented in chronological order, Unger presents a portrait of the artist that gives a panoramic view of Michelangelo’s life but also focuses keenly on putting the artwork itself in context, giving readers the whys and wherefores that provide a rich, provocative understanding.” (Catherine Mallette The Star-Telegram (Fort Worth))


Saving Italy: The Race to Rescue a Nation’s Treasures from the Nazis

Robert Edsel, 2014

From the author of the #1 New York Times bestseller The Monuments Men

“Saving Italy is an astonishing account of a little known American effort to save Italy’s vast store of priceless monuments and art during World War II. While American warriors were fighting the length of the country, other Americans were courageously working alongside to preserve the irreplaceable best of Italy’s culture. Read it and be proud of those who were on their own front lines of a cruel war.” –Tom Brokaw”A suspenseful tale worthy of an Indiana

Jones plot. He pulls you into a dangerous web of intrigue in which the Vatican, top German SS generals, American OSS operatives and Italian officials are entwined in top-secret negotiations to end the war. A must read for any WWII history enthusiast.” –Gordon H. Nick Mueller, President/CEO, The National WWII Museum

Older Travel Writing

Italian BackgroundsEdith Wharton, 1905
Amazon: “Probably one of the most insightful and different of the collection of works written throughout the 19th and early 20th century called travel writings, Italian Backgrounds was one of two books Edith Wharton wrote as a passionate love letter to the country that both she and her husband loved so dearly.What sets this book apart is how far Wharton and her husband, Edward, travel off the beaten path. When her contemporaries were content to explore the well worn paths and streets of Rome, Wharton pushed deep into the Italian countryside, finding exquisite vistas, buildings, and works of art that the rest of her ilk would not discover for decades.

Intimate, intelligent, witty, and thoroughly engaging on every level, Italian Backgrounds is a must for Wharton lovers.

Edith Wharton(1862-1937) was born into a distinguished New York family and was educated privately in the United States and abroad. Among her best-known work is Ethan Frome (1911), which is considered her greatest tragic story, he House of Mirth (1905), and The Age of Innocence (1920), for which she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize.”

The Stones of FlorenceMary McCarthy, 1959
Amazon: “Renowned for her sharp literary style, essayist and fiction writer Mary McCarthy offers a unique history of Florence, from its inception to the dominant role it came to play in the world of art, architecture, and Italian culture, that captures the brilliant Florentine spirit and revisits the legendary figures—Dante, Michelangelo, Machiavelli, and others—who exemplify it so iconically. Her most cherished sights and experiences color this timeless, graceful portrait of a city that’s as famous as it is alluring.””Mary McCarthy (1912–1989) was an American literary critic and author of more than two dozen books including the 1963 New York Times bestseller The Group.

Born in Seattle, McCarthy studied at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York, and graduated in 1933. After moving to New York City, McCarthy became known for her incisive writing as a contributor to publications such as the Nation, the New Republic, and the New York Review of Books. Her debut novel, The Company She Keeps (1942), initiated her ascent to become one of the most celebrated writers of her generation, a reputation bolstered by the publication of her autobiography Memories of a Catholic Girlhood in 1957, as well as that of her now-classic novel The Group.”

Fiction Reading List for Florence

Perhaps you’re looking for novels set in Italy, that will help you time travel to the Renaissance period. This list of eight novels set in Florence includes both historical fiction, and books set in the early and mid 20th century. For many readers, novels that take place in Italy are the perfect way to get in the mood for a great trip.

 Book/Author/Date Amazon Rating
Novels set in Italy - the Agony and the Ecstasy

The Agony and the Ecstasy

Irving Stone, 1961

Berkley Press: “From the tumult of life, his brilliant work made a grasp for heaven unmatched in half a millennium. Now, in a special edition celebrating the 500th anniversary of Michelangelo’s David, Irving Stone’s towering triumph: The Agony and the Ecsatasy.””It might not be too far-fetched to say that calling The Agony and the Ecstasy a ‘biographical novel’ is as inadequate a description as calling the Sistine Chapel ceiling a large religious mural . . . . The book is a living, pulsating thing with all the pageantry, the brilliance, and the drama of life.” — Los Angeles Examiner
Italy books - the birth of Venus

The Birth of Venus

Sarah Dunant, 2004

From Publisher’s Weekly: “In this arresting tale of art, love and betrayal in 15th-century Florence, the daughter of a wealthy cloth merchant seeks the freedom of marriage in order to paint, but finds that she may have bought her liberty at the cost of love and true fulfillment. Alessandra, 16, is tall, sharp-tongued and dauntingly clever. At first reluctant to agree to an arranged marriage, she changes her mind when she meets elegant 48-year-old Cristoforo, who is well-versed in art and literature. He promises to give her all the freedom she wants-and she finds out why on her wedding night.

Her disappointment and frustration are soon overshadowed by the growing cloud of madness and violence hanging over Florence, nourished by the sermons of the fanatically pious Savonarola.As the wealthy purge their palazzos of “low” art and luxuries, Alessandra gives in to the dangerous attraction that draws her to a tormented young artist commissioned to paint her family’s chapel. With details as rich as the brocade textiles that built Alessandra’s family fortune, Dunant (Mapping the Edge; Transgressions; etc.) masterfully recreates Florence in the age of the original bonfire of the vanities. The novel moves to its climax as Savonarola’s reign draws to a bloody close, with the final few chapters describing Alessandra’s fate and hinting at the identity of her artist lover. While the story is rushed at the end, the author has a genius for peppering her narrative with little-known facts, and the deadpan dialogue lends a staccato verve to the swift-moving plot. Forget Baedecker and Vasari’s Lives of the Artists. Dunant’s vivid, gripping novel gives fresh life to a captivating age of glorious art and political turmoil.”

Books about Italy - Brunelleschi's Dome

Brunelleschi’s Dome

Ross King, 2000

Filippo Brunelleschi’s design for the dome of the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence remains one of the most towering achievements of Renaissance architecture. Completed in 1436, the dome remains a remarkable feat of design and engineering. Its span of more than 140 feet exceeds St Paul’s in London and St Peter’s in Rome, and even outdoes the Capitol in Washington, D.C., making it the largest dome ever constructed using bricks and mortar. The story of its creation and its brilliant but “hot-tempered” creator is told in Ross King’s delightful Brunelleschi’s Dome.”Both dome and architect offer King plenty of rich material.

The story of the dome goes back to 1296, when work began on the cathedral, but it was only in 1420, when Brunelleschi won a competition over his bitter rival Lorenzo Ghiberti to design the daunting cupola, that work began in earnest. King weaves an engrossing tale from the political intrigue, personal jealousies, dramatic setbacks, and sheer inventive brilliance that led to the paranoid Filippo, “who was so proud of his inventions and so fearful of plagiarism,” finally seeing his dome completed only months before his death. King argues that it was Brunelleschi’s improvised brilliance in solving the problem of suspending the enormous cupola in bricks and mortar (painstakingly detailed with precise illustrations) that led him to “succeed in performing an engineering feat whose structural daring was without parallel.” He tells a compelling, informed story, ranging from discussions of the construction of the bricks, mortar, and marble that made up the dome, to its subsequent use as a scientific instrument by the Florentine astronomer Paolo Toscanelli.” –Jerry Brotton,

Novels set in Italy - A gift for the Magus

A Gift for the Magus

Linda Proud, 2012

The Historical Novel Society: “A Gift for the Magus is a stand alone prequel to Linda’s wonderful Botticelli trilogy (also available from Godstow Press), in that the young Sandro Botticelli appears as apprentice to the main protagonist, Fra Filippo Lippi. Lippi is conventionally devout for his time but, given to the Carmelite order as a young child, he is deeply flawed as a friar, being altogether too human in his desires. He loves food, drink and gambling; he enjoys women; and is frequently in trouble. He is fallible and gullible, but so extremely likeable that it is impossible not to have empathy with him while he also struggles with procrastination and the desire to be perfect in his painting.

Lippi was the favourite painter of Cosimo de’ Medici; first citizen of Florence, founder of a dynasty, banker, patron of the arts, re-founder of the Platonic Academy, astute and ruthless politician and the magus of the title. But Cosimo is also a human being, with his own desires and fears and the relationship between the two men is deep and extremely well drawn. Lippi’s scandalous relationship with the nun, Lucrezia, defies the conventional belief that ‘to be a good painter you must be a good man’. But what is the nature of goodness? Is anything in the lives of human beings ever that straightforward?

This is really excellent writing with characters who live real lives with humour and self-reflection. There are some lovely images that fit so well with the whole ethos of the story. It will inspire you to look at the art and discover more about the minds of the great Renaissance thinkers, and you will want to read the trilogy that follows. I cannot recommend it more highly—this is a most excellent read!”

The Light in the Piazza and Other Italian Tales
Elizabeth Spencer, 1960

Amazon: “In The Light in the Piazza (a novella which has become both Spencer’s signature piece and a Hollywood film) a stranger from North Carolina, traveling with her beautiful daughter, encounters the intoxicating beauty of sunlit Florence and discovers a deep conflict in the moral dilemma it presents. “I think this work has great charm,” Spencer has said, “and it probably is the real thing, a work written under great compulsion, while I was under the spell of Italy. But it took me, all told, about a month to write.”

In Knights and Dragons (another novella and a companion piece to The Light in the Piazza) an American woman in Rome and Venice struggles for release from her husband’s sinister control over her. Spencer sets this tale in the cold and wintry dark and here portrays the other face of Italy. In “The Cousins,” “The Pincian Gate,” “The White Azalea,” and “The Visit,” Spencer shows the exceptional artistry that has merited acclaim for her as one of America’s first-class writers of the short story.”

Light in the Piazza was made into a musical and won the Tony for Best Musical in 2005.

Books set in Italy - the passion of artemisia


The Passion of Artemisia: A Novel

Susan Vreeland, 2002

Amazon Review: “Like her bestselling debut, Girl in Hyacinth Blue, Susan Vreeland’s second novel, The Passion of Artemisia, traces a particular painting through time: in this case, the post-Renaissance painter Artemisia Gentileschi’s violent masterpiece, “Judith.” Although the novel purports to cover the life of the painter, the painting serves as a touchstone, foreshadowing Artemisia’s rape by Agostino Tassi, an assistant in her father’s painting studio in Rome; the well-documented (and humiliating) trial that followed; the early days of her hastily arranged marriage; and her eventual triumph as the first woman elected to the Accademia dell’ Arte in Florence.

Although Vreeland makes a bit free with her characters (which she admits in her introduction), attributing some decidedly modern attitudes to people who would not have thought that way at the time, her book is beautifully researched and rich with casual detail of clothing, interiors, and street life. She deftly works history and politics into the background of her canvas, keeping her focus on Artemisia and her family. Beyond the paintings Artemisia left behind, Vreeland’s vision may be as close as we can come to understanding the anger and ambition that kept this talented woman at the doors of the Accademia, demanding entrance, in a time when respectable women rarely left their homes.” –Regina Marler

A Room with a View
E.M. Forster, 1908

Bantam: “This Edwardian social comedy explores love and prim propriety among an eccentric cast of characters assembled in an Italian pensione and in a corner of Surrey, England.A charming young Englishwoman, Lucy Honeychurch, faints into the arms of a fellow Britisher when she witnesses a murder in a Florentine piazza. Attracted to this man, George Emerson—who is entirely unsuitable and whose father just may be a Socialist—Lucy is soon at war with the snobbery of her class and her own conflicting desires. Back in England, she is courted by a more acceptable, if stifling, suitor and soon realizes she must make a startling decision that will decide the course of her future: she is forced to choose between convention and passion.

The enduring delight of this tale of romantic intrigue is rooted in Forster’s colorful characters, including outrageous spinsters, pompous clergymen, and outspoken patriots. Written in 1908, A Room with a View is one of E. M. Forster’s earliest and most celebrated works.”

A Tabernacle for the SunLinda Proud, 2005
Amazon Review: “A Tabernacle for the Sun is a novel set in the Florence of Lorenzo de’ Medici and is the first part of The Botticelli Trilogy. Freedom – is it Florence without the Medici, or a condition of the soul? This is the question facing Tommaso de’ Maffei, an apprentice scribe who cannot forgive Lorenzo for sacking his native city of Volterra. But if he would join the Platonic Academy and take the journey of the soul, he must reconcile himself to Lorenzo. Meanwhile his family draws him into a conspiracy against the Medici. To avoid the turmoil, both inner and outer, he takes refuge in the painter’s workshop where his friend, Filippino, is an apprentice.This book draws the reader into the Renaissance, to walk the streets of Florence, meet its famous men, loiter awhile in Botticelli’s workshop and see one of the world’s greatest paintings grow from first sketches through to finished panel, even as daggers are drawn and blood begins to spill.

Since its first publication in 1997, A Tabernacle for the Sun has met rapturous response from readers and reviewers and has become a classic travel companion for anyone going to Tuscany, as recommended by Lonely Planet guide to Florence and Tuscany. ‘The historical detail … is exemplary and [it’s] a cracking good read.'”

Why aren’t Dan Brown’s books listed? I don’t like them. While the mystery and drama are fun, the historical inaccuracies and fabrications get under my skin, and I just can’t. I will, and do, watch the films. Hey, I love Tom Hanks, and the scenery, and somehow the complete fiction annoys me less than when I read the novels. If you love them, I’m thrilled for you, and by all means enjoy them — and put them on your list.  They simply don’t go on mine.

Books by Famous Florentines

If you’re going to be in this lovely city, I heartily recommend delving into these four classics. Even if you don’t read all of each one — simply reading several of the tales from the Decameron, parts of the Divine Comedy, and picking and choosing a few artists from Vasari — these works are classics for a reason. I re-read parts of the Divine Comedy a couple of years ago, and thoroughly enjoyed it.

 Book/Author/Year  Amazon Rating

The Decameron

Giovanni Boccacio (Wayne Rebhorn, translator), 1353, 2013

From Publishers Weekly: “In time for Giovanni Boccaccio’s 700th birthday, . . . a strikingly modern translation of Boccaccio’s medieval Italian classic. Fleeing Florence and the plague of 1348, 10 young men and women retreat to a country estate, surrounded by meadows and marvelous gardens, where they spend their days in leisure while the Black Death ravages the city.

To fill their time, and affirm life in the face of death, they tell stories: on each of 10 days, every character spins a tale on a theme. Thus, there are 100 stories in total, which range in tone from tragic to triumphant and from pious to bawdy, and which serve as monuments to the rich medieval life and society that the plague was to fundamentally alter. Rebhorn’s translation is eminently readable and devoid of the stilted, antiquated speech associated with the classics.  The Decameron affords a fascinating view into the lost world of late-medieval Italy, and the variety and volume of tales offers us a refuge and relief from the tragedies that haunt our own world.”

The Divine Comedy

Dante Alighieri (Robin Kirkpatrick, translator), 1320, 2013

A stunning 3-in-1 deluxe edition of one of the great works of Western literature

An epic masterpiece and a foundational work of the Western canon, The Divine Comedy describes Dante’s descent into Hell with Virgil as his guide; his ascent of Mount Purgatory and reunion with his dead love, Beatrice; and, finally, his arrival in Heaven. Examining questions of faith, desire, and enlightenment and furnished with semiautobiographical details, Dante’s poem is a brilliantly nuanced and moving allegory of human redemption. This acclaimed blank verse translation is published here for the first time in a one-volume edition.

(Amazon mistakenly says this is the Mandelbaum translation — it is not, it is Kirkpatrick’s).


The Lives of the Artists

Giorgio Vasari (Julia Conway Bondanella, translator), 1550, 2008

From Oxford World Classics: “These biographies of the great quattrocento artists have long been considered among the most important of contemporary sources on Italian Renaissance art. Vasari, who invented the term “Renaissance,” was the first to outline the influential theory of Renaissance art that traces a progression through Giotto, Brunelleschi, and finally the titanic figures of Michaelangelo, Da Vinci, and Raphael.This new translation, specially commissioned for the Oxford World’s Classics series, contains thirty-six of the most important lives. Fully annotated and with a brand new package, Lives of the Artists is an invaluable classic to add to your collection.” Note: while Vasari was not born in Florence, he is Tuscan, and certainly thought the world revolved around Florence. 🙂

The Prince

Niccolo Machiavelli (Peter Bondanella, Translator), 1532, 1992

 Dover: “As a young Florentine envoy to the courts of France and the Italian principalities, Niccolò Machiavelli (1469–1527) was able to observe firsthand the lives of people strongly united under one powerful ruler. His fascination with that political rarity and his intense desire to see the Medici family assume a similar role in Italy provided the foundation for his “primer for princes.” In this classic guide to acquiring and maintaining political power, Machiavelli used a rational approach to advise prospective rulers, developing logical arguments and alternatives for a number of potential problems, among them governing hereditary monarchies, dealing with colonies and the treatment of conquered peoples.

Refreshing in its directness, yet often disturbing in its cold practicality, The Prince sets down a frighteningly pragmatic formula for political fortune. Starkly relevant to the political upheavals of the 20th century, this calculating prescription for power remains today, nearly 500 years after it was written, a timely and startling lesson in the practice of autocratic rule that continues to be much read and studied by students, scholars and general readers as well.”

Well, I hope twenty-one books is enough to keep you busy for awhile. I’ve read Magnifico, Brunelleschi’s Dome, The Agony and the Ecstasy, A Room with a View, the Decameron, the Divine Comedy, the Prince — and parts of Vasari’s Lives of the Artists, and the rest of these are on my reading list. As I write this, I am in Florence, and I’m currently working on two of these books: Michelangelo: A Life in Six Masterpieces and The Birth of Venus — both of which I am greatly enjoying.

If you have books you’d like to see added to the list — please feel free to share them in the comments below!

(Quick jump back up the page:  Nonfiction (History & Travel Journals), Fiction.)

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Visiting New Orleans? Six Ideas for What to Bring Home.

If you want cheap, mass produced Mardi Gras masks or just another t-shirt, walk one block down Bourbon Street in either direction, and you’ll be set. On the other hand, if you are looking for the best souvenirs in New Orleans – you want something truly special to remember your visit, here are some things that will make you think about the Crescent City every time you see them.[…]

St. Louis Cathedral in early morning fog.
St. Louis Cathedral in early morning fog. Photograph, Ann Fisher

If you want cheap, mass produced Mardi Gras masks or just another t-shirt, walk one block down Bourbon Street in either direction, and you’ll be set.

New Orleans is a unique city, so it just follows that you’ll want something special to remember your visit. Here are souvenirs that will make you think about the Crescent City every time you see them.

Faulkner House Books sign
Faulkner House Books in Pirate’s Alley has a great collection of books. I bring home at least one every time I visit New Orleans. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

Faulkner House Books

This is one of my favorite small bookstores in the whole country. It’s tucked next to the St. Louis Cathedral on Pirate’s Alley, in the house where William Faulkner lived during his time in New Orleans.

The thing that makes this bookstore special is a curated selection of books, often in particularly nice editions.

What do I mean when I say this? Any of the classics — works by Faulkner, Austen, Hemingway, Cather, Dickens — pick your author — are available in multiple editions. Too often these great novels are available in the cheapest editions: nasty paper, poorly printed, with almost no white space — you know what I’m talking about. Inexpensive books — so that at least a student can afford to read them for a class. But these are NOT the editions I want in my personal library.

Faulkner House does a great job of finding and stocking classics in editions that are such a pleasure to hold, to read. They have both new books and collectible used books. I also always find they have a wonderful selection of new fiction, as well as poetry, and essays. Of course the store keeps a full selection of Faulkner’s work, in both new editions and valuable first editions.

You’ll find their web site here: Faulkner House Books: A Sanctuary for Fine Literature.

My daughter Catherine browsing a selection of books at Faulkner House.
My daughter Catherine browsing a selection of books at Faulkner House.
Photograph of a book of New Orleans sketches by William Faulkner
One of my favorite things to do in New Orleans: buy a book from Faulkner House, then go have a coffee or a drink, read, watch people, and write.

Excerpt from Sketches of New Orleans by William Faulkner:

The Tourist -NEW ORLEANS.

A courtesan, not old and yet no longer young, who shuns the sunlight that the illusion of her former glory be preserved. The mirrors in her house are dim and the frames are tarnished; all her house is dim and beautiful with age. She reclines gracefully upon a dull brocaded chaise-longue, there is the scent of incense about her, and her draperies are arranged in formal folds. She lives in an atmosphere of a bygone and more gracious age.

And those whom she receives are few in number, and they come to her through an eternal twilight. She does not talk much herself, yet she seems to dominate the conversation, which is low-toned but never dull, artificial but not brilliant. And those who are not of the elect must stand forever without her portals.

New Orleans . . . a courtesan whose hold is strong upon the mature, to whose charm the young must respond. And all who leave her, seeking the virgin’s un-brown, ungold hair and her blanched and icy breast where no lover has died, return to her when she smiles across her languid fan . . . New Orleans.

Jose Balli necklace, sterling silver and freshwater pearls
My souvenir from New Orleans on the last visit – a Jose Balli necklace, sterling silver and freshwater pearls. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

Jose Balli Jewelry

I love this jewelry collection!

Jeweler Jose Balli uses the lost wax method to create his intricate pieces – inventive designs inspired by themes unique to New Orleans and southern Louisiana. This is lovely work in sterling silver at fair prices.

You’ll find little crabs in a variety of forms, alligators that loop themselves over sterling silver chains, and pendants of stylized Spanish moss. It was difficult to pick just one piece. I finally chose the Oyster Heart pearl necklace — the thing that first caught my eye when I was walking along Chartres Street.

Tiny sterling silver crabs in a variety of designs.
Tiny sterling silver crabs in a variety of designs. Jose Balli Jewelry on Chartres Street in the French Quarter. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

Initially, Balli “worked in a metal fabrication shop just out of high school, shaping and welding custom equipment for the oil industry. One day, while waiting for a machine to cut through an enormous pipe, he passed time by carving a tiny alligator from a scrap of soapstone. Coworkers encouraged him to take up art seriously and, thus, began Jose’s 27-year career creating Bayou State designs with a naturalistic appeal.”

When we were in New Orleans the last time with good friends from Houston — all of us came away with jewelry from Balli.

I’ll definitely return to his shop at 621 Chartres Street the next time I’m in NOLA.

Jose Balli's shop on Chartres Street in the French Quarter, just steps away from Jackson Square.
Jose Balli’s shop on Chartres Street in the French Quarter, just steps away from Jackson Square.
Hove Parfumeur Sign
Hove Parfumeur is truly a New Orleans original. The family-owned business has been making perfumes since 1931. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

Hové Parfumeur

I’ve shopped at Hové for years. Readers who have followed my blog may remember my story of Clint Bolton, the old journalist who lived in the Quarter (To Miss New Orleans). Clint took me into the Hové shop in 1979 — to buy his wife’s favorite perfume — Tea Olive. I can still see Pat Bolton anytime I smell the fragrance.

Mrs. Alvin Hovey-King started Hové in 1931. She learned the craft of making perfume from her French Creole mother, and as the wife of a Navy Commander, she traveled the world. Her travels afforded her the opportunity to study perfumes in different countries, and her knowledge of making perfume grew.

What started as a hobby grew into a small business, and when the Crash of 1929 ruined the retired Commander’s business, Mrs. Hovey-King opened Hové at 529 Royal Street. The family lived in the apartment over the shop. While Hové has moved several times, it is still owned by the family. It is now located at 434 Chartres.

Hové continues to make all of their classic fragrances, including Tea Olive and Vetivert, but they’ve added many new fragrances in the last twenty years that have greater appeal to modern sensibilities.

Interior of the Hové shop in New Orleans.
The Hové shop on Chartres street.

The fence around Jackson Square

Fleur d’Orleans

Jan Fenner and Thomas Laird have created a collection of jewelry inspired by things unique to New Orleans, such as church murals, the cast iron fence surrounding Jackson Square, and architectural details of buildings in both the Quarter and business district.

The silver pendant to the left is a great example of Fenner’s work. I brought home a pair of earrings of the same design, and have loved wearing them. I also purchased fleur de lis earrings for my sister and my daughter, each different. I think there are more variations of the fleur de lis in this jewelry collection than I’ve seen anywhere.

Fenner and Laird lived in Nepal for a long time, and Jan worked with women there to use their native textiles to create products for sale. Jan talked at length about how much difference it makes when women are able to take control of their finances because they are generating income.

Fleur D'Orleans specializes in sterling jewelry and handmade cards.In addition to the jewelry, you will find textiles from Nepal and hand-printed cards on beautifully textured paper. It’s a treat to visit Fleur d’Orleans just to visit with Jan Fenner, so much so that I went back to the shop twice.

They have two locations, one at 3701A Magazine Street, New Orleans, and then the French Quarter store, which is on the corner of Chartres and Madison Street — half a block from Jackson Square.

Visit the Fleur D’Orleans website for a great overview of what they have to offer, or to place an order online.Sterling silver jewelry collection inspired cast iron and

Save up to $500 when you book your flight +hotel!

Louisiana Loom Works

Ronda Rose has been weaving rugs in the French Quarter since 1997.

Her narrow store on Chartres Street holds three looms, six cats, and the loveliest rag rugs I’ve seen.

Louisiana Loom Works

A Loom Works cat sits ready to greet visitors.

Traditionally, rag rugs were made from worn clothes and sheets, and were a way to get additional use out of fabric. Ronda uses only new material – cotton and cotton blend fabrics, and all of her rugs are made on the premises in her French Quarter shop.

She has many colors and sizes of rug available for immediate purchase, but most of her business is making custom rugs. Send Ronda paint chips, photographs, or fabric swatches and she will work with you to create a rug uniquely suited to your room and decor.

It takes approximately ten to twelve weeks for a custom rug order. Louisiana Loom Works is located at 616 Chartres Street. Hours of operation: 11am- 6pm (Closed Wednesday), Phone: (504) 566-7788

Visit Louisiana Loom Works online.

Stating the obvious here: if you are allergic to cats, you should avoid this shop since the kitties rule the roost :-).

Black cat lounging on a loom
Loom cat in charge. Photograph, Ann Fisher.
Freret Street at Napoleon Avenue for the monthly street fair. Pronounced FUR-ette street.
Freret Street at Napoleon Avenue for the monthly street fair. Pronounced FUR-ette street.

Freret Street Market

If you are lucky enough to be in NOLA on the first Saturday of the month, consider checking out the truly local Freret Street Market. It’s a combination of great music, food booths, booths selling local art and crafts, and flea market offerings. Definitely a place to find the some of the coolest New Orleans souvenirs. Depending on the day, there may also be a local restaurant sharing their food.

Okay, you French speakers out there . . . leave your high-class accent at home. Locals pronounce the word Freret like this: FUR-ette.

Don’t you be sayin’ it like Frere-ay. Ain’t no one gonna know WHAT you talkin’ ’bout.

The Freret Street Market does NOT happen during the steamy summer months of June, July, and August. Any New Orleanian called tell you why. ‘Cause it’s too darn hot! What, are you crazy, baby? Get inside in dat air-conditionin.’

People dancing to live music at the Freret Street Market.
Getting down at the Freret Street Market.

Freret Street Finds: The Cat Nap Company — Purses made from an old albums — front side is the album cover, and the back side is the vinyl LP. No worries — no viable vinyl was killed in the making of this product. Only scratched albums are used.

So, it’s not the first Saturday of the month and you want to find the Cat Nap Company? Go to the Cat Nap Company Facebook page or email to place an order.

The Cat Nap Company sells jewelry designed by owner Pam Kirkland Garvin, along with purses made from old albums.

Watercolor of the Carousel bar by artist

My favorite find at the market was artist Nurhan Gokturk — I fell in love with his watercolor, pen and ink work of the Carousel Bar at the Monteleone Hotel. It is a special New Orleans landmark, and his delicate rendition has great movement. You can find Gokturk’s work at Pop City at 3118 Magazine street anytime, or visit the Gokturk web site.

Incidentally, one of Gokturk’s works hangs on the wall at The Spotted Cat, one of the coolest music venues in New Orleans. The Spotted Cat is located at 623 Frenchman Street in the Faubourg Marigny.

So, there you have it. Some ideas for must-have souvenirs from New Orleans that you can also feel good about — created by local people, and not mass-marketed junk from Bourbon Street. And dat’s a good thing :-).

Carousel Bar by Nurthan Gokturk.

This article was originally published in April 2016 – this newest version has been updated with three more shops and ideas for folks traveling to New Orleans in 2017.

Ann in Castolon in Big Bend National Park. Photograph, Jim Stevens

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Of Paper and Books and Ink

In an age where everything is increasingly digital, why do we love paper so?

It’s the delicate scrollwork of a printed design. The fragrance of a leather book. The way a thick sheet of paper folds under your hand, pushing back up at your fingers . . .

Florentine paper framing our room with a view.
Florentine paper framing our room with a view. Photograph and digital imaging work, Ann Fisher.

What do I bring home from Florence? Paper, gloves, and wine.

Florence is famous for two kinds of paper designs: the printed variety, inspired by traditional Renaissance patterns, and carta marmorizzala — handmade, marbled paper.

Florentine paper history: travelers first brought marbled paper, “Turkish paper” or ebru (art of the clouds) to Florence in the 16th century, and it was not long before local artisans began producing it. Florence is now one of the few places in Europe still making hand-marbled paper. Giulio Giannini e Figlio, founded in 1856 and located across from the Pitti Palace, is the oldest marbled paper maker in the city.

In Venice, I found a shop with leather books, journals, Murano glass writing pens, all hand tooled. The quality of the work, really breathtaking. I brought a small journal back for a friend, and one for myself. The books were so very beautiful, I doubt he has used his. I know I have not. It’s a thing to remember, that when a notebook is so special, one hesitates to mark in it . . . it defies rough drafts. It asks for Shakespeare. Who can live up to that?

My mother says that my family has always had the book disease. In college, I would go hungry to buy a book I wanted.

Fine paper and books bring pleasure to those who love them.

Independent booksellers are jewel-like. They offer a curated selection of books — it is as much about what is not there as it is about what is there. Which edition of a classic book did they choose? How are things displayed? What volumes are next to one another? These bookstores offer the serendipity of finding things we might never see otherwise.

Faulkner House Bookstore, New Orleans.
Catherine browsing in the Faulkner House Bookstore in New Orleans. Photograph by Ann Fisher.

The Faulkner House Bookstore is one such favorite. Shakespeare & Company in Paris. Front Street Books in Alpine, Texas.

My book disease is a problem as I downsize my life. My daughter has one more year in high school, and rather than rattle around in a large house for another year, we are moving into a condominium. I may not be retired yet, but downsizing my life so that I can travel more is an appealing idea. But going from a 3500 square foot house to a 1400 square foot condo presents challenges – downsizing many possessions, but not with choosing which furniture to take.

It’s the books.

Who comes? What goes?

Yes, I use the Kindle app on my iPad, but the books we choose to live with say something about us. And the physicality of being in the room with books is most definitely not the same as having the collection digitally. Library you say? Well, if I were better at returning things, perhaps.

Even with the downsizing move looming, my daughter Catherine and I brought home another half-dozen books from the Faulkner House Bookstore when we were in New Orleans. She picked up a lovely edition of Pride and Prejudice. You’ll see the the same Canterbury Classics design for Persuasion to the left.

Edition of Jane Austen's Persuasion with quotes on the cover,
The Canterbury Classics editions of Jane Austen’s books appealed to my daughter. Now Catherine is reading her first Austen. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

My husband Drew loved American history — particularly biographies of the presidents. When I look at his shelves of books — at Doris Kearnes Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, and Gore Vidal’s Lincoln, I can see him.

Books tell stories about various points in my life. The group of art history books and a collection of Edith Wharton remind me of my college years. Percy Shelley brings to mind the crazy, deconstructionist professor ranting in front of the class. I see the yellowing paperback of A Moveable Feast, and all of a sudden I am at Shakespeare and Company when I was seventeen. George Whitman sold me that book.

What to let go of? It’s not so easy.

Drew’s brother Eddy has worked on his own library with these criteria, choosing particularly good editions of books, gradually getting rid of poor paperback copies. I think that’s going to my strategy for culling down collection: creating an elemental collection of editions of the books I want to live with, using digital editions of books when it makes sense, and selling books back to the second-hand bookstore.

I leave for Italy in two weeks, and I will inevitably come home with more paper. I use Florentine stationery for notes at work, birthday greetings, small thank-yous, and the notepads for lists and thoughts. The sensuality of the thick, creamy paper with the delicate designs pleases me. I will go visit the man of the leather books in Venice. I promise to share . . .

Florentine paper narrow


Outside of Shakespeare and Company, December 2012.
Outside of Shakespeare and Company, December 2012. Photograph by Drew Dennard.

Ann in Castolon in Big Bend National Park. Photograph, Jim Stevens

Thank you for visiting! 

I’m writing and traveling full-time now, and if you like my work, please subscribe to my blog via email.





I’m happy you’re here — for other articles on life and travel, browse the home page:



Additional Information on paper:

McDonnell, Sharon. “The Magic Of Marbled Paper.” National Geographic Traveler 28.2 (2011): 29. Hospitality & Tourism Complete. Web. 15 Apr. 2016.

Lumsden, Susan. “Marbled Paper from Florence.” The New York Times 13 December 1987