And speaking of Italy:

In preparation for my stay in Italy this semester, I read, a few months ago, Alessandro Manzoni's extraordinary novel "The Betrothed" ("I Promessi Sposi"). [In English, alas -- my Italian is getting good, but it's not that good ...] It's the great 19th-century Italian novel -- every schoolchild reads it, everybody knows it inside and out, and people refer to it with some frequency (among other things, Manzoni's decision to write it using the Tuscan dialect helped to establish that as the modern Italian language). It's a remarkable book -- I can't recommend it highly enough. [I read the Penguin edition, translated by Bruce Penman; while I can't speak for the fidelity of the translation, the English prose was supple and very powerful]. Manzoni's descriptions of life in the 17th century -- the plague sweeping through the country, bread riots in Milan, the relationship between peasants and the Church and local and distant royalty -- are simply overpowering; I don't think I will ever be able to think about those subjects, or a dozen others touched upon in the book, without recalling his descriptions. It's a little bit like he was writing the Dickensian novel before Dickens was Dickens. Very few Americans have ever heard of it, let along read it; but if your taste runs to things like, say, "Great Expectations," or George Eliot's "Middlemarch," or Hardy's "Return of the Native," you will thank me for pointing you in this direction.