Elena Ferrante has taken the literary world by storm. The Italian novelist—who writes under a pseudonym—is a mystery to her readers, but the places where she sets her books don't need to be. Discover the backdrops to Ferrante's best-selling, four-volume Neapolitan novels series, which concluded with The Story of the Lost Child this past September.
Italian novelist Elena Ferrante has sold millions of books without ever showing her face. Her enormously popular Neapolitan novels, a four-book series that follows the lifelong friendship of two women from Naples, are famous for their honesty and vivacity—Ferrante's stories feel like real life. Though the mystery writer publishes under a pseudonym, the places in her Neapolitans novels are easily identifiable. You may not be able to find her characters walking around these locales, but you can still imagine them at your side. Here, explore six of Ferrante's settings in a story of your own making.
Both main characters, Elena Greco and Lina Cerullo, were born in a poor corner of Naples, a neighborhood called Rione Luzzatti. Visit the church Elena and Lina grew up attending, Parrocchia Sacra Famiglia, and peek into the tunnel through which both girls try to walk to the sea, located where the railroad runs above Via Emanuele Gianturco, a street running south from the neighborhood. Six kilometers to the west, linger in the Piazza Martiri, the location of the Solara shoe shop, which Lina reinvents as a trendy salon and stocks with shoes of her own design. This fashionable square (really a triangle) is dominated by a 19th-century monument to Neapolitans who died in anti-monarchy uprisings and 18th-century palazzi (palaces). Prada, Gucci, and Ferragamo all have shops in this area. So, if you can't try on one of Lina's shoes, these designers offer the next best thing. Before you leave the city, sample some of Elena and Lina's favorite Neapolitan specialties—sfogliatelle (a flaky, filled pastry) at Antico Forno delle Sfogliatelle Calde Fratelli Attanasio and, of course, fresh pizza from ovens across the city
First Elena, and then Lina, vacation on this beautiful island, located just across the Gulf of Naples. An hour-long traghetto (ferry) ride from downtown Naples, Ischia feels like a world apart from the millenia-old city. Elena's first stay takes her to a guesthouse (one also shared by her childhood crush's family, the Sarratores) in Barano, on the island's southern coast, a short walk from the beach at Maronti, an area surrounded by thermal pools. Her second trip, accompanying Lina to the island, brings both characters to a rented house above Citara beach. And when the lovestruck teenagers visit Nino Sarratore (the aforementioned crush) and his school friend, they go to Forio, one of Ischia's larger towns on the island's northwest coast. Though Ferrante's characters spend their summers here reading and discussing books, planning or avoiding romantic intrigue, and doing lots of sunbathing and swimming—the island has a lot more than that to offer. Make like Elena and Nino on one ill-fated date: hike to the top of Ischia's Monte Epomeo and see the Bay of Naples spread before you.
Elena escapes the poverty and violence of her Neapolitan neighborhood when she is admitted to the University of Pisa. It's her first trip into northern Italy and an education in things both academic and—more crucially—social. As she collects one and then another upper-class boyfriend, Elena tries to absorb the mannerisms of Italy's upper echelon, with mixed success. Pisa, though most Americans know it for the Leaning Tower, is a university town. Founded in 1343, the University of Pisa is now home to nearly 60,000 students. Take a stroll through the University's Botanic Garden (Europe's oldest), founded in 1544 by Cosimo Medici, and explore the city's burgeoning food scene. And when you do visit the Leaning Tower, located in Pisa's Piazza del Duomo, don't miss the beautiful medieval baptistry next door or the ornate, open-air Camposanto Monumentale to the north.
Elena, much to her family's displeasure, marries the dull son of famous Milanese academics in a civil ceremony. She and her new husband, Pietro, settle in Florence. The apartment that Pietro chooses for them near Santa Maria del Carmine, in the Oltrarno district of the city south of the river, is dingy and "in terrible condition." But Elena's new mother-in-law sweeps in to move the couple to an enormous, light-filled apartment near San Niccolò, just under two kilometers to the east. Their new neighborhood is dominated by the 14th-century Porta San Niccolò, a three-story gate in Florence's old city wall. Though Elena finds her hands full with a husband and children and her own literary career, there's plenty to do for those less busy. The nearby Spaggia Sull'Arno provides a riverside beach and recreation area, and the Giardino delle Rose is a perfect pitstop on the way up or down from Piazzale Michelangelo's spectacular view of the city.
Milan is Pietro's home town. Elena finds herself visiting the city regularly to meet with her in-laws, checking in with her publisher, and staying with her activist sister-in-law, Mariarosa, whose apartment features a rotating cast of Italy's intellectual left. Mariarosa lives near the 11th-century Basicila di Sant'Ambrogio, in the very center of the historic city. (Da Vinci's "Last Supper" is an eight minute walk away; La Scala, twenty.) A kilometer and a half to the west is the Libreria Internazionale Hoepli, Italy's largest bookstore. Elena gives her first ever reading in Milan, and though Ferrante never mentions the particular bookstore, Hoepli is a good substitute.
Turin is where the Neapolitan novels open and close. Elena—a successful author now in her sixties—reflects on her long friendship with Lila from her home there. The details are sparse: Elena and her labrador live in an apartment; she and her dog visit the city's Parco Valentino, on the west bank of the Po River, every morning. It's worth exploring the park, located in the center of Turin. Inside is the 17th-century Castello del Valentino, a beautiful French-style palace that now houses the Polytechnic University of Turin's architecture department. While Turin isn't as popular a destination as Florence or Milan, it has it's own particular charms. Settle in with a hot glass of bicerin, Turin's own traditional coffee and chocolate concoction.