Italy in Books - The Dark Heart of Italy, by Tobias Jones

The Dark Heart of Italy, coming in at 253 pages, concisely describes an Englishman's view of the contradictions and deep historical divisions that riddle and confuse the heart of Italy. First published in 2003, it is part-autobiography, part history lesson, and part politicial dissection. For such a short book, it packs in a great deal of information and history. It's not a book about art, or upping sticks and living the country life in Italy. It's about trying to understand the fabric of life in a country in a young country with a long memory. I genuinely think this book should be compulsive reading for any expat, wannabe expat, or someone with a 'more than passing' interest in Italy, or indeed politics.

"I realized that it was, as Pirandello wrote, impossible to distinguish fantasy from reality. The words history and story are the same in Italian (storia). Unless it's defined, or given a definite article, storia could be a tale from true life or simply make-believe."

The ten chapters of the book introduce various aspects of Italian culture, starting with the language, touching on calcio (and the inevitable comment on match-fixing and double-dealings), the impact of the Church on society, and finally, the bulk of the book, on Mani Pulite, or 'clean hands', and the rise of one Silvio Berlusconi. Tobias Jones attempts to place these events in a historical context.

What comes over throughout the book is the fascination and love that Tobias Jones has for his adopted country. I know it sounds strange. He lays bare the moral bankruptcy throughout the Italian political system, blames it on a wider corrupt society, even blames it on ambiguities in the Italian language itself, but it still comes across like a lover chiding his beloved over their cute idiosyncrasies.

Looking at other reviews on Amazon and the wider internet, it's obvious this book divides opinion. Inevitably, this is owing to the author giving his opinion on a country, its politics, and its people. This is always a divisive thing to do. Depending on your politics, and your personal experience and opinion of Italy, you'll either understand and agree with a lot of what Tobias Jones writes, or you'll find him arrogant, biased and unfair in his views.

However, for me, approaching the book naively many years ago, I enjoyed it. It worked as a primer for Italian culture and politics and allowed me to hit the ground running when talking politics with Italians or watching historical movies (such as the excellent Romanzo Criminale). For that reason alone, I urge you to put aside your personal politics and opinions of Italy and read this book.

The Dark Heart of Italy by Tobias Jones is published by Faber and is available in all good bookshops and on Amazon.


  1. We both read this back in 2003 before we lived here and found it very helpful background reading in preparation for our move.

  2. My mother has been complaining that Italy has taken such a beating this year with all that has happened. Italy has always been hailed for its romanticism but it does have a dark side too. What country doesn't?

    By the way, I tagged you on my Essentially Italian blog:
    Feel free to participate or not. Hope you have fun answering the questions if you do!

  3. This book sits on my coffee table and is often referred to in moments of confusion at the Italian 'system'. It's a fantastic book, and I agree that it should be read by every expat thinking about moving to Italy. It gives you a wider understanding of why, they do the things they do, here in Italy. It's a raw look into Italian politics, culture and of course, the dark side of Italy.

    1. Thanks for your comment. I totally agree, it should be read by anyone thinking of moving to Italy. It's a truly excellent book.

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  6. Very interesting "inside" picture of Italy written by British journalist. Lots about Berlusconi, if you are interested!

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