Can you imagine painting without Leonardo, opera without Verdi, fashion without Armani, food without the signature tastes of pasta, gelato, and pizza? The first universities, first banks, first public libraries? All Italian.
New York Times bestselling author Dianne Hales attributes these landmark achievements to la passione italiana, a primal force that stems from an insatiable hunger to discover and create; to love and live with every fiber of one's being. This fierce drive, millennia in the making, blazes to life in the Sistine Chapel, surges through a Puccini aria, deepens a vintage Brunello, and rumbles in a gleaming Ferrari engine.
Our ideal tour guide, Hales sweeps readers along on her adventurous quest for the secrets of la passione. She swims in the playgrounds of mythic gods, shadows artisanal makers of chocolate and cheese, joins in Sicily’s Holy Week traditions, celebrates a neighborhood Carnevale in Venice, and explores pagan temples, vineyards, silk mills, movie sets, crafts studios, and fashion salons. She introduces us, through sumptuous prose, to unforgettable Italians, historical and contemporary, all brimming with the greatest of Italian passions—for life itself.
A lyrical portrait of a spirit as well as a nation, La Passione appeals to the Italian in all our souls, inspiring us to be as daring as Italy’s gladiators, as eloquent as its poets, as alluring as its beauties, and as irresistible as its lovers.
Praise for La Passione
“[An] effervescent love letter to all things Italian.”—Newsday
“In this sweeping account of la passione italiana from ancient to modern times, Dianne Hales shows once again why she is one the world’s foremost guides to the riches of Italian culture. Every page resonates with the author’s love for Italy and her joy in sharing its remarkable discoveries and exquisite pleasures with her readers.” —Joseph Luzzi, author of My Two Italies and In a Dark Wood
“Hales takes us on an enriching and delightful journey, filled with fascinating characters, scintillating sensual details, and an authentic connection to the ever-inspiring Italian heart and soul that has given the world boundless pleasures.” —Susan Van Allen, author of 100 Places in Italy Every Woman Should Go
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About the Author
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la passione italiana
Imagine a world without Italy: Painting without Leonardo. Sculpture without Michelangelo. Literature without Dante. No Verdi choruses or Puccini arias. No Fellini films or Ferrari roar. Heavens uncharted, vines unplanted, tables bereft of pasta, pizza, and a Sicilian cake so divine that its bakers swore it could make the dead breathe again.
Western civilization would surely have sprouted elsewhere, but the planet would have been a paler place, a rainbow stripped of its most vibrant hues: Raphael’s luminous blue, Valentino’s luscious red, espresso’s inky black. More than a country, Italy embodies a culture that has transformed art and architecture, language and music, food and fashion.
Its borders contain more of UNESCO’s designated cultural treasures than any other nation. Its inhabitants created the first universities, banks, public libraries, and law and medical schools; mapped the moon (in 1651); split the atom; produced the first modern histories, satires, sonnets, and travelogues; invented the first working compass, battery, barometer, microscope, radio, and thermometer; garnered twenty Nobel Prizes; and bestowed upon the world the eternal gift of music.
Humanity, Mussolini bragged, is indebted to Italy and its people “for the majority of its accomplishments.” For once, he wasn’t exaggerating.
But why Italy? How did a scrawny peninsula smaller than California, home to less than 1 percent of the world’s population, leave such an outsize imprint on Western culture? Why did geniuses sprout like wildflowers through thirty centuries of history? What sparked endless innovations and inspired a multitude of masterpieces? Was it a miracle? Serendipity? Luck? Destiny?
After decades of up-close but admittedly unscientific observation, I credit la passione italiana. This fierce drive, three millennia in the making, stems from an insatiable hunger to explore, discover, create, pursue beauty, feel deeply, love and live with every fiber of one’s being. It blazes to life in the Sistine Chapel, surges through a Rossini aria, preens in Bulgari jewels, deepens a vintage Brunello, spices a tangy penne all’arrabbiata (pasta with an “angry” sauce seasoned with chile peppers).
Of course, passion can bloom anywhere. Think of France, with its culinary cathedrals; Spain, with its torrid bullfights; Argentina, with its sultry tango; half the globe, inflamed with soccer fever. In every country, individuals of every age, race, and nationality devote endless hours to microbrewing, gaming, extreme sports, gardening, digital dating. Yet these pursuits strike me, as poets have said of love anywhere else, as mere imitations.
How could it be otherwise? The original was made in Italy.
The word passione dates back to ancient Rome. Newly minted Christians in the first century AD, constructing a vocabulary for their fledgling religion, chose the term passio for the agony that Jesus endured to redeem a world of sinners. Etymologists trace its roots to the Latin passus, past participle of pati (to suffer). The martyrs who died for their faith also endured una passione that cleansed, fortified, and transformed them, an agony leading to rebirth. Healers appropriated the word for various maladies, such as “passion of the liver”a diagnosis that conjures an organ engorged with rage.
The medieval wordsmith Dante, father of the Italian language, recognized romantic love as una passione so compelling that it could not be resisted. While he damned pursuers of dark passionsfrom lust to gluttony to greedin his Inferno, he also denounced the passionless. “Drearies,” he called them, unworthy of heaven and unwanted even in hell, “whining wraiths who never truly lived at all, the lukewarm, who are as hateful to God as to his enemies” (from Thomas Cahill’s translation).
The Renaissance extended the definition of la passione to an all-consuming dedication to a worthy pursuit, most often beauty in its infinite variety. Its passionate artists and artisans unleashed the greatest creative flowering the world had ever seen. A few centuries later the Romantics yearned to become impassioned and quiver with the intensity of their ardor. Jurists blamed “crimes of passion” on high-octane emotions that exploded into acts of unspeakable violence.
Although modern English-language dictionaries acknowledge the religious roots of “passion,” they define it as a state or an outburst of strong emotion, intense sexual love, or deep desire or enthusiasm. La passione italiana is all theseand much more.
The Dizionario affettivo della lingua italiana (Emotional Dictionary of the Italian Language) describes la passione as a flammable materialvolatile and dangerous. When it possesses you, it causes infinitesimal, voracious particles to pulsate in the blood. You risk burning like a torch, flaming bright, and then disintegrating into embers. When you are inside la passione, nothing else can enter your mind. When it flees, you search desperately for more.
Passion—and passion alone—lifts us above the ordinary. Without passion, there would be no literature, no art, no music, no romance, perhaps none of the wonders Italians have wrought. Beyond sentiment or emotion, la passione italiana qualifies as a primal force of nature that cannot be ignored or denied.
“When a passion chooses you, there’s nothing else you can do,” says a friend whose family produces wine and olive oil in Umbria. “Whatever happens in your life, that fire inside you is always burning. You need to follow it. It’s like betraying yourself if you try not to, and the price for betraying yourself is very, very high.”
La passione italiana dates back to a time before time when a geologic frenzy carved a boot in the middle of the Mediterranean. Convulsing and colliding, tectonic plates thrust an ancient seabed so high that tiny crustaceans were trapped and fossilized in the Italian Alps. Lava seething within the earth boiled and bubbled to form a chain of volcanic cones stretching from central Italy to what would become the island of Sicily.
Even today the Italian earth trembles. The Apennines, running like a spine through the peninsula, still undulate, sometimes with devastating consequences. Europe’s only active volcanoes—Vesuvius, Stromboli, and Etna—rumble and spew.
Eons of natural sculpting formed a countryside that Renaissance artists considered the most magnificent of masterpieces, a mosaic of wind-blasted rocks, hills pleated with valleys, and mountains cresting into boundless blue. In the splendid Val d’Orcia, a plaque pays tribute to Italy’s first artists: the contadini (farmworkers) who tilled fields, terraced hills, and left behind rows of slender green cypresses climbing to crenellated towers silhouetted like paper cutouts pasted on an azure sky.
The symbiosis between the land and its people forms a bond as strong as blood—and older than Italy itself. At Selinunte, an ancient Greek settlement on Sicily’s western coast, my guide—a tiny, ponytailed dynamo named Pina—presses my palm against the sun-warmed column of a temple built five hundred years before the birth of Christ.
“You can feel the passion of the people who built this place,” she says. “It’s in the stones!” In Florence, a street artist tells me to breathe deeply and inhale the heady oxygen that stimulated the genius of Renaissance masters. A Venetian glassblower talks of the water flowing like blood through the veins of an improbable city that seems spun out of fantasy. An olive grower in Campania gently sifts a fistful of soil through his fingers as he describes the land that nurtured the souls of his forefathers.
On a shuttle in Chianti, our driver suddenly pulls to the side of the road. I step out to view a titanic sunset not so much painted as carved, great cloud masses of deep rose, purple, and mauve, coupling and uncoupling as golden rays silhouette their shoulders.
“Sentite!” he commands, exhorting us not just to look but to take in this heavenly spectacle with every sense. And I do, lingering before this twilight tango until the darkness deepens into night.
“What mysterious emptiness in their souls is filled by merely standing on Italian soil?” the Italian writer Luigi Barzini mused in his classic The Italians. Perhaps the answer lies, at least in part, in the skies above and the earth below.
Italy’s history matches the drama of its geography. In the course of three thousand years, everything that could happen to a people or a country has happened in Italy. Against all odds, a feisty band of misfits raised a new city on the Tiber and conquered the known world. Vesuvius erupted. Barbarians pillaged. The seemingly invincible Roman Empire crumbled. City-states warred. Plagues ravaged. Foreign armies invaded.
Unified in the nineteenth century, Italy faced yet more turmoil in the twentieth. Fascism strutted into power. World War II claimed hundreds of thousands of Italian lives and devastated cities and countryside. In its wake, governments rose and toppled. Terrorists bloodied the streets. Crises and corruption battered the economy.
Time and again la passione saved Italy. A passion for power and glory propelled the ancient Romans to defeat the most ferocious armies of their day. A passion for a new faith and its promise of eternal life sustained the early Christians through horrific persecutions. After the silence of the Dark Ages, a passion for the people’s vernacular inspired poets to craft a lyrical new language.
When the Black Death decimated Italy in the Middle Ages, its people, responding with life-affirming exuberance, embraced worldly passionssex, food, drink, songas the best possible antidotes. In the Renaissance, Italy’s passion for classical works spread like a rich dye through all of Europe. A passion for freedom brought the people of Italy’s regions together into a single nation in 1861. More recently a passion for contemporary art formsmovies, cars, fashionrevived the spirit of a country shattered by oppression and war.
Living on the brink of catastrophe, Italians have borne witness to every possible experience and have responded with every tremor of emotion. Yet after each calamity, Italy has flickered back to lifenot despite these upheavals but because of the resilience forged by them. Its people learned fully and deeply what it means to be humancreatures of body, mind, and soul, rooted in the past but seizing the present and reimagining the future.
The italians whose passions shaped Western culture lived and loved as intensely as they pursued power, adventure, or acclaim. Julius Caesar, as the historian Will Durant commented, never “let his victories in the field outnumber his conquests in love.” Before his triumphant return to Rome, his troops riotously sang out, “Husbands, guard your wives. We bring you the bald adulterer!”
“Let’s live and love!” entreated Catullus, the first Roman writer to translate erotic passion into poetry. His florid verses to a woman who ultimately spurned him remain a literary milestone. Ovid, author of the monumental Metamorphoses, continued the tradition as a self-acclaimed “professor of love” offering randy advice for would-be seducers.
In the Middle Ages, the three crowns of Italian letters—Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio—raised romantic passion to a new height. Smitten since childhood by an untouchable beauty named Beatrice, Dante journeyed from hell to heaven in his Divine Comedy on a quest for “the love that moves the universe.” Petrarch spent a lifetime polishing 366 verses—a leap year’s worth of tributes to his idealized Laura—to express the unrequited “love for which there was no cure.” Boccaccio captured passion’s earthier side in his rollicking Decameron, tales of often-ribald vitality told by a “merry brigade” of young Florentines seeking refuge from the plague in a Tuscan villa.
In their lust for beauty, Renaissance artists infused everything they touched with full-hearted zest and unabashed sensuality. Michelangelo carved a Bacchus so sinuously suggestive that a contemporary sniped, “Buonarroti could not have sinned more with a chisel.” Donatello’s David, the first freestanding nude since ancient times, preened in knee-high boots an art critic described as “pornographic.” Raphael and Caravaggio portrayed Madonnas with the features of their mistresses. Titian painted naked beauties so voluptuous that simply gazing upon them seemed an occasion of sin.
In the most quintessentially Italian of arts, emotions billowed into operatic anthems. “Passion! Passion!” Giuseppe Verdi thundered to his librettists. “Never mind which, just passion!” Giacomo Puccini, his life as tempestuous as his music, transported listeners, as a musicologist put it, “into that place where erotic passion, sensuality, tenderness, pathos, and despair meet and fuse.”
Enzo Ferrari, whose brand embodies speed, power, and glamour, viewed his passion for cars as “a kind of love, which I can only describe in almost a sensual or sexual way.” In his autobiography, Giorgio Armani, who revolutionized modern dress, described the surge of adrenaline he gets from designing as “better than any hallucination or artificial high . . . a kind of orgasm, a passion, a moment of dialogue with myself.”
But la passione isn’t a prerogative only of the privileged. In casual conversations, Italians from all sorts of backgrounds spontaneously describe passions they can’t resist. A psychologist who treats terminal cancer patients tangoes in competitions from Rome to Buenos Aires and beyond. The owner of a stationery store paints huge abstract canvases in his backroom studio. A scriptwriter with scores of movies to her credit rhapsodizes about olive oils from different regions of Italy—which she can differentiate with a single sniff.
In a country awash in tangible delights, anyone can see, hear, touch, caress, sip, smell, and bite into la passione italiana. Even everyday foods sizzle with its erotic electricity. A plebeian ham sandwich vamps into “a panino sinning with a slice of prosciutto.” A Neapolitan vegetable soup becomes maritata (married) when a cook adds meat. Markets in Calabria sell peperoncini, the spicy peppers nicknamed diavolicci (“little devils” in dialect), as “nature’s Viagra.” According to culinary lore, coffee- and chocolate-laced tiramisù (literally, “pick-me-up”) revived prostitutes—and their depleted client—in Venice.
On the shelves of a grocery in the seaside village of Orbetello, I find espresso flavors named for Italian artists, including Michelangelo, Leonardo, and Botticelli, tantalizingly described as robust, aromatic, intense, satisfyingalong with a decaffeinated Tiziano (Titian) for those “who don’t want to give up pleasure in any moment of the day.” Swept away, I buy all four—only to discover that I can’t use any in the Swiss espresso maker in our rented villa.
In an Italian kitchen, passion surpasses any other essential ingredient. “Call it seduction, lust if you will,” observed Marcella Hazan, the beloved champion of authentic Italian cooking in the United States. “To cook without this abandonment is to produce food that ends hunger yet does not satisfy.”
La passione italiana flows from shops and kitchens into fields, groves, and vineyards. Waves of golden wheat sway languidly in the summer breeze. Just-picked peaches seem to bleed juice. Fire-red tomatoes radiate light. A winemaker in Lazio invites engaged couples to help in the annual harvest to instill the intensity of their love into his grapes. Others serenade vines with ballads or pick grapes by the light of a full moon.
Years ago, in an impromptu interview on Dante, one of his great passions, the director and actor Roberto Benigni explained the great poet’s genius to me as the ability to make a miracle of language out of anything, even the lowest, basest parts of life—“pipi e merda” (urine and excrement), he offered as examples. Whatever form it takes, la passione italiana shares this magical alchemy, transforming the ordinary into the extraordinary, the banal into the beautiful, food into feasts, sounds into songs, moments into movies.