If I were about to leave on an Italian excursion, the first thing I'd tuck into my bag would be William Murray's exuberant collection of writings about his adopted homeland. He takes his title from Lord Byron (''Italia! O Italia! thou who has/ The fatal gift of beauty''), and there's lovely poetry throughout.
A staff writer for The New Yorker and author of that magazine's ''Letters from Italy,'' Murray is half Italian by birth and 100 percent Roman by choice. Ever since his first voyage to Italy in the spring of 1947 as an aspiring young opera singer, he's been returning for months at a time to mingle with and write about the people he's come to know so intimately.
In a style reminiscent of the timeless reportage of 50 years of European current events by The New Yorker's celebrated Janet Flanner, Murray paints a broad social canvas. He writes with affectionate irony of the 1960s and the effects of Italy's ''il boom'' - from fantastic traffic jams in Rome to television programs modeled on the Ed Sullivan Show. With the 1970s comes an unprecedented divorce law and accompanying ''decadent modern concepts concerning the rights of individuals - even women. . . .'' Toward the end of the decade, in 1978, there's the kidnapping and brutal murder of Aldo Moro, leader of the Christian Democratic Party, by the Red Brigades. ''The outrage expressed by many citizens,'' Murray notes, ''arose out of a conviction that the tragedy was an offense against the traditional loyalties of most Italians as well as against common humanity.''
According to one of the many scholars cited in this book, loyalty to family is the only fundamental institution in Italy - a ''spontaneous creation of the national genius.'' As he explores the ties that bind, in travels to Milan, Tuscany, and Naples, Murray comes up with consistently entertaining and penetrating portraits of the country's well-known stars and just as brightly shining unknowns. There's Anna Magnani, head flung back and hands planted on her hips, ''letting loose a torrent of mirth that came surging up from some ultimate awareness of the world's follies.'' And there's the stocky stone mason, a self-proclaimed ''builder of monuments,'' who arrives one rainy afternoon to fix the leaking roof in Murray's rooftop studio and stays on to become a permanent, if somewhat quixotic, fixture in his life.
Italy, Murray avers, is a cornucopia for journalists. His readers should delight in the lively repast of memorable faces and voices he's served up here.