If you're planning to visit Rome before you die, it pays to prepare for the experience. Here are 10 books and movies to help you understand what you see in the Roman Forum, at the Vatican and on the Piazza Navona.
1. "The Agony and the Ecstasy" (1961, by Irving Stone, and turned into a 1965 film starring Charlton Heston) is about the epic trials and tribulations of Michelangelo dealing with his patron Pope Julius II and painting the Sistine Chapel. It's by the same biographical fiction writer who gave us "Lust for Life" about Vincent Van Gogh.
2. "The Families Who Made Rome" (2005, by Anthony Majanlahti) is one of the latest and most inventive historical guides to the Eternal City. It looks chiefly at five historic districts developed and decorated by Rome's rich first families: Colonna, Della Rovere, Farnese, Borghese and Barberini.
3. "Gladiator"(2000, directed by Ridley Scott) sets the scene for the Colosseum, though the arena in the Oscar-winning film was computer-generated. "Spartacus," 1960, directed by Stanley Kubrick, is another gladiator flick, telling the story of a slave revolt that took place around 73 BC. It won only four Oscars to "Gladiator's" five but has Charles Laughton and Laurence Olivier, not to mention Kirk Douglas as the rebel leader.
4. "I, Claudius" (1934, by Robert Graves) is the fictional autobiography of a Roman emperor who lived through some of the city's most turbulent times. Graves followed up on the book's success with "Claudius the God," 1935. In 1976, both books were made into a compelling BBC miniseries, starring Derek Jacobi as Claudius and Siân Phillips as his bone-chilling grandmother, Livia.
5. "La Dolce Vita" (1960, directed by Federico Fellini) is simply a must-see for Rome-bound visitors. It goes way beyond Anita Ekberg and Marcello Mastroianni taking a bath in the Trevi Fountain. Somehow, the movie gets to the heart of gorgeous, sexy, operatic, always over-ripe Rome.
6. "Memoirs of Hadrian" (1951, by Marguerite Yourcenar) takes the form of a long letter from Emperor Hadrian to his adoptive son and successor, Marcus Aurelius. Painstakingly researched and brilliantly written, it convincingly captures the voice and deepest thoughts of one of Rome's greatest rulers.
7. "Quo Vadis?"(1896, by Henryk Sienkiewicz) is an enduring historical novel set during the persecutions of the early Christians by the Emperor Nero. For it and other works, the author won the 1905 Nobel Prize for literature. Director Mervyn LeRoy brought the book to the big screen with all the Hollywood trappings in 1951. But reading "Quo Vadis?" -- preferably on a bench near the statue of Sienkiewicz in the Villa Borghese -- is still the best way to experience it.
8. "Roman Holiday" (1953, directed by William Wyler) is pure cinematic gelato about a sheltered European princess who falls in love with an American journalist when she escapes from her handlers during a state visit to Rome. In an unforgettable sequence, the star-crossed lovers, played by Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck, ride a scooter past all the great sights of Rome.
9. "Rome, Open City" (1945, directed by Roberto Rossellini) is one of the first and finest works of Italian neo-realism, filmed documentary style on the streets of the Eternal City just after World War II. It stars a raw, war-weary Rome and the incomparable Italian actress Anna Magnani.
10. "That Awful Mess on the Via Merulana"(1957, written by Carlo Emilio Gadda, translated from Italian by William Weaver) is one of the most acclaimed works of modern Italian fiction, though it remained largely unknown to non-Italian-speakers until the publication of Weaver's masterful English translation last year. Set in fascist-era Rome, it is an existential detective novel with characters right out of Plautus. Gadda left it unfinished, but who cares?Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun