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A Few Guidebooks for Roman Travelers

Carol H. Johnson

Imagine a guidebook to Rome that could have the power to evoke the grandeur of its Empire and the tribulations of the earliest Christians out of the strange backdrop of Rome's churches and its overpowering yet desolate ruins. A certain Benedict, a canon of St. Peter's in 1143, wrote just such a book, "The Marvels of Rome". Travelers now of course would like something more up to date.


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To begin with, you have to consider several basic questions.

1. How long are you able to stay? If you only have two days, and they are the first days you are off the airplane, you probably will not be up to 12 hours daily of marching through everything at once.

2. If this your first trip abroad or to Italy, you will definitely need a guidebook that explains many of the small complications of everyday life.

3. How long can you tromp around on your feet through ruins, museums, palaces, churches and over cobblestones before keeling over? (It is a frequent failing on my part to try to pack too much into a day's itinerary.)

4. Do you remember sufficient Roman, Italian and European history to help you understand what you are seeing or will you, as most of us do, need a little help?

5. How much detail about pagan or Christian symbols and myths do you need or want?

6. Are you reasonably adept at imagining what a pile of broken down looking rubble might have looked like when it was an edifice sixty feet high, covered in marble and festooned with statues?

7. Do you know any foreign language or even just fifty words of Italian?

Now I am probably making this sound as if unless you have at least two doctoral degrees you should not bother to come, which is not my intention at all. I am presuming that readers of this website want to do more than dash past places whose names you can barely rattle off later on. For myself, I want a guidebook that can help me decide how to best use my time, to perhaps entice me into someplace I may not have known about or had thought I'd be interested in. I also would like information that helps me to understand what buildings were intended for, why statues were erected to particular entities, what people were hoping for when they donated the funds for artworks in churches. I also look for books about specific places, specific epochs to try to understand them better.

The idea is to find at least one guidebook, probably two or more if you will be in Rome for more than just a few days, helps you discover more about the Roman stones, streets and people. There are good guidebooks with a great deal of practical advice for novice travelers or the first time visitors to Italy, but I'm not reviewing them here. For a guidebook small enough carry in a pocket, easy to use getting around for a few days, and packed with a good introduction to Rome, I suggest the Touring Club of Italy's (TCI) "Rome and the Vatican" book. Its 240 pages include 35 pages of excellent maps at the rear. There is a brief historical background section, and the information about Rome is organized into geographical sections. There are 20 suggested routes laid out, all starting from the Piazza Venezia, which is a logical way of organizing things. There are the obligatory listings of some restaurants and hotels near the rear. (You may have to find it as a used book. See end of this piece for specifics about the books mentioned.)

My husband and I have spent the last seven Octobers in Rome, and have outgrown the TCI Guide. The maps are still quite useful (and available as a single entity), and I sometimes refer to this book when I want to quickly look something up when I am back here in the States.

One guidebook we will wear out before we outgrow it is the "Oxford Archaeological Guide to Rome". After seven month-long trips' of use, the spine is beginning to tire. The book's 150 illustrations of site maps, architectural line drawings and black & white photos clarify complex buildings and ruins. Author Amanda Claridge spent 14 years in Rome as Assistant Director of the British School there. Her well-written text clearly explains historical, symbolic and architectural features, with keywords in bold type to make referring back to things easier. The book is organized into specific areas, which has made it easy to use while wandering around. The only shortcoming of this Oxford book is that it necessarily limits itself to the period from 800 B.C. to 600 A.D., which does leave a gap to our present day. The book is not heavy, despite its 464 pages, which include some 60 pages of historical introduction and glossary; 26 pages of an excellent index bring up the rear of the book.

If someone has never been to Rome, or is a little weak at recalling the general threads of Roman history, a guidebook with more pictures than these two might be a better introduction. If you can bring some images into your mind, it can begin to provide a framework to support some of the trends and tides of history.

Both the Getty Museum and the Metropolitan Museum have very fine bookstores, with many "background" titles available online if your local bookseller has only a limited selection. Books on the everyday life of ancient Romans can help bring some worn stones to life. They both have a good selection of books, often on a single topic or aspect of the Roman's art, myths, history of art and of politics. (See web notes at end of this piece.)

One small background book I bought at the Met years ago is part of Abrams' Discoveries series. "The Search for Ancient Rome" covers the unveiling of Rome's ancient past through the centuries. The earliest digging was often done for personal gain; the book speaks in more detail about the excavations and "discoveries" since the age of Napoleon. There are two physical sections to the book, the front with color photos supporting the text, the rear section called "Documents" with smaller number of black and white photos and engravings with more detailed text excerpted from historical authors. It is a nice introduction to the ruins and the many stories of Rome spread over 204 pages in a book not much taller than my hand. It would be easy to carry with one, but I think it is probably better for pre and post trip reference than for on the spot quick answers to "what is that" questions.

Did you doze off a bit during catechism classes as a child? Or were you not brought up in a household where the saints were closely revered? If you are curious as to which saint is which, I suggest taking along a small paperback guide by George Ferguson, "Signs & Symbols in Christian Art". This book is useful throughout Europe, and seems to have more of the "Italian" saints than do some other books. The initial chapters explain some of the meanings of animals, insects, plants, earth and sky and the human body in Christian art. The Old Testament chapter could have been longer, for most of what I knew about the Old Testament came from Cinemascope movies. There are chapters on John the Baptist, the Virgin Mary, and, of course, a longer chapter on the life of Jesus Christ. The Saints' chapter lists them alphabetically, with thumbnail sketches of their lives and with details of their usual signs or attributes. Altar pictures sometimes have the names of the saints shown in old Latin lettering, and not very often with English translations. There is a helpful index at the rear of this 194 page little book. A section in the center has middling quality black & white photos of religious art. After the first time we took this book with us, we removed this section to save weight. After years' of use, we have largely outgrown this book, too, wanting much more information than it contains, but it was a very helpful introduction for several years.

I know many people begin to roll their eyes at "all those holy pictures" that one finds in Italy. Not to be too obvious about it, but Italy is a Roman Catholic country, and what you see is the result of a good 1200 years or more of surviving artworks. These works were donated as an expression of hopes, fears, needs, and desires; these works are an expression of people trying to find a way for themselves in a confusing world. Please do not take personal offense; I hope to merely encourage others to try to understand these, and then roll your eyes if necessary.

It helps me to know a bit about various saints and to have some idea of why certain pictures were chosen to aid worshippers in their devotions. Did you know that pictures of a handsome young man, nearly naked, usually tied to a stake or a tree, and shot through with arrows were put up in hopes of warding off the Plague? The earliest stages of the plague were thought to feel as if one were being shot through with arrows, so an appeal was made to St. Sebastian, who was martyred by arrows, for help and protection. Think back to the rapid run of fears that accompanied the first major wave of news of the AIDS epidemic. This is not so different from the types of fears facing people hundreds of years ago. There are patron saints for all types of problems, all types of workers, all types of illnesses. For skeptics such as myself there is even St. Thomas the doubter.

Rome was for centuries a place of pilgrimage to seek the remission of sins, to hope for miraculous healing, and for enjoying oneself either through partying or by walking in the places where people who had actually known Jesus lived and died. I believe Rome is one geographic focal point where much of Western Civilization has left traces of its moving forces and ideals in its many splendors. Endless plates of gnocchi or of tagliatelli con funghi porcini must be included in my personal list of reasons to go on pilgrimage to Rome. May you enjoy your visit to Rome in the company of a good guidebook.

Italian proverb: "Non v' maggior ladro d'un cattivo libro." - "There is no thief like a bad book."

Book List

All of these are in paperback.

Touring Club of Italy, publisher, "Rome and the Vatican"
(My edition ISBN 1-885254-61-X 9 is from 1997 and cost $17. This ISBN number brings up something else on Amazon.com.) There is a newer edition, from 1999, with a different cover with the ISBN 07-49520167, brought out by AA Publishing.) It is a tall pocket size, nearly 9 x 4 3/4 inches.

Oxford Archaeological Guides series: Rome. Oxford University Press, 1998.
ISBN 019-288-003-9, by Amanda Claridge. (Visit www.oup.com but don't pull down on the U.S. tab for country - it seems easier to find this book through the UK tab. U.S. bookstores also sell this book.) This is 8 1/2 x 5 1/2 inches, just over an inch thick, and will fit into most handbags.

"Discoveries: Search for Ancient Rome", by Claude Moatti, published by Harry N. Abrams. Inc. It is available through Amazon.com where some pages are viewable. It is barely 5 x 7 inches and the ISBN is 0810928396.

"Signs & Symbols in Christian Art", by George Ferguson, Oxford University Press, has been reprinted many times since 1977. ISBN 0-19-501432-4. Sized at 5 1/2 x 8 inches, it is very easy to carry.

"The Knopf Guide to Rome", Alfred A. Knopf publisher, ISBN 0679750673, with 560 pages in a tall pocket sized paperback. It does have lovely pictures, at the expense of in depth text. However, pictures can be worth many hundreds of words.

Enjoy your trip!


www.getty.edu/bookstore/: Getty Museum bookstore

www.metmuseum.org/store/: Metropolitan Museum bookstore

www.britishmuseum.co.uk: The British Museum store

If you want to "brush up" on your artworks, all three of these have home pages with links to many pieces in their collections. It is astonishing how much art from Italy (and ancient Greece) is outside its place of origin.

Visit www.italiantourism.com for the English language site of the Italian National Tourist Office. They have several pages of practical information, well laid out and covering the basics. There are links to info on the euro, but some text on some pages still refers to things in the old Italian lira. The advice is still good. When the lira was converted into Euros, the ratio was approximately 2,000 lire to one euro (which then was one U.S. dollar).

My husband is a retired professor, and we are able to travel to Italy twice each year now. We spend May on the border of Umbria & Tuscany at Castiglione del Lago, and October in Roma.

© Carol H. Johnson, 2004

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