In the gleaming kitchen of her culinary academy in Florence, I  once asked an architect-turned-chef-turned-restaurateur about the passions that had  changed her life: How did she know that she was choosing the right one to follow?

“Ah, signora, we do not choose our passion,” she said. “Passion chooses us.”

I understood. Italy chose me.

Decades ago, shivering in a frigid Swiss station after a talk in Gstaad, I impetuously switched trains and headed south to a sun-kissed country I’d never visited. I had no reservations, no itinerary, no inkling of what I might discover. The last thing I expected was to fall in love—but I did.

Day by day, sometimes hour by hour, Italy seduced me with tastes, sounds, scents, and sensations I’d never encountered before.   Of course, countless others have swooned for its food, wine, incomparable art, or breathtaking scenery.  I fell for the Italians. With scarcely a shred of their language, I yearned to communicate with these intriguing strangers — “more marvelous than the land,” as the British author E. M. Forster aptly said.

After I returned to the United States, I immersed myself in Italian classes, movies, and conversation groups. My linguistic infatuation eventually inspired a book: La Bella Lingua: My Love Affair with Italian, the World’s Most Enchanting Language. Kindred Italophiles embraced my labor of love, which garnered a spot on the New York Times bestseller list and won for me the great honor of an Italian knighthood.

Yet even after La Bella Lingua’s success, Italy didn’t loosen its grip on me. I became captivated by the real woman immortalized by Leonardo in his most famous portrait  —and wrote Mona Lisa: A Life Discovered.

“So are you done with Italy?” asked a man at one of my readings.

“God, no!” I replied.  The very notion seemed unthinkable—and impossible. Italy wasn’t done with me. Without realizing exactly how, I became appassionata,a word that dates back to the fourteenth century and translates as “taken by passion.” I didn’t fight this sweet seduction. I indulged it, embraced it, delighted in it.

When I described my quasi obsession to a sophisticated Roman, she pegged it immediately as una passione italiana. “There are two types,” she said with the seen-done-tried-that worldliness of the Eternal City. “There is the passion that you take to bed, but beyond children, what does it get you? Then there are the passions that create something, that take you beyond yourself and outlast you.”

I chose to pursue the latter. Searching for la passione italiana became my passion. I pursued its trail north to the Dolomites and south to Sicily, from Sardinia’s rugged western coast to Venice’s labyrinth of canals. I trekked through pagan temples, ancient ruins, medieval chapels, glass furnaces, silk mills, fashion salons, restaurants, workshops, studios, concert halls, street markets, vineyards, wine cellars, olive groves, movie sets, and museums of every ilk. Yet what intrigued me most were the passionate Italians—famous, unknown, legendary, actual, historical, contemporary—that I encountered along the way.

You will meet many of these men and women in my new book. They are, in fact,  the reasons why I wrote LA PASSIONE: How Italy Seduced the World I hope you find their stories as irresistible as I did.

Dianne Hales is the author of LA BELLA LINGUA: My Love Affair with Italian, the World’s Most Enchanting Language, MONA LISA: A Life Discovered and the La-passione-presssoon-to-be-published LA PASSIONE: How Italy  Seduced the World. For more information on her books and upcoming events, visit her website: www.diannehales.com.

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