The start of a new year is a good time to follow the example of the Roman god Janus, whose two faces allowed him to look back to the past and ahead to the future.
As 2022 begins, I recall 2009, the year when LA BELLA LINGUA was published and when I began a blog on the Italian language. Readers around the world embraced my biography of the world’s most lovable language, and it became a New York Times and national best seller. The President of Italy awarded me the great honor of an Italian knighthood for its contribution to promoting the Italian language.
My blog, which has reached more than half a million readers, brought the added delight of hearing from others who share my passion for Italy. But like Janus, I must look toward the future. And so, with a heart overflowing with gratitude for the joys Italy and Italian have brought me, I am ending original posts on my blog. Previous posts will be available at diannehales.com, categorized both by subject and date. I will continue to host the La Bella Lingua group on FACEBOOK and to post on Instagram and Twitter.
L’Idea: So you are not Italian but fell in love with the Italian language. When did that start?
Dianne: I unexpectedly found myself in Italy in 1983, and I knew only one sentence in Italian: “Mi dispiace ma non parlo italiano.” (I’m sorry, but I don’t speak Italian.) I used it constantly, and people replied with such warmth that I yearned to communicate with them. Even when I couldn’t understand exactly what they were saying, I loved the emotions they conveyed and the beauty of the sounds.
I came back to the U.S. determined to study Italian. Every time I returned to Italy, speaking Italian – very slowly at first — helped me forge new friendships. Beyond conversations, I reveled in Italian’s playfulness and musicality and nuances. To this day I find myself smiling when I come across certain words or expressions as I read an Italian article or book .
L’Idea: Is La Bella Lingua: My Love Affair with Italian, the World’s Most Enchanting Language your first book about Italy and the Italian language? What prompted you to write it?
Dianne: I had been studying Italian for several years when my agent Joy Harris and I were talking about my next book project. “You should write about Italy—you light up when you talk about it,” she said.
“I can’t,” I replied. “Everything that can be written about Italy has been written.”
“What about Italian?” she asked. “Does it have a story worth telling?”
I immediately starting researching the history of Italian and discovered its rich, colorful, zesty, fascinating evolution—from the street language of ancient Rome to the Sicilian poets to Dante, Boccaccio, Petrarch, La Crusca…and on and on. I found it irresistible. As a journalist, I know a good story when I see one, and so I took on what turned out to be a daunting challenge: the biography of a language other than my own.
L’Idea: After that, you published Mona Lisa: A Life Discovered. What were the stimuli that brought you to write this book?
Dianne: While I was researching La Bella Lingua, an art curator and professor—Ludovica Sebregondi—in Florence invited me to dinner. When I admired the palazzo where she lived, she casually remarked that the mother of La Gioconda grew up in this very place. I had never thought of Mona Lisa as a real woman—let alone as a daughter and a citizen of Florence.
With the help of local archivists, I traced the life of Lisa Gheradini—from the street where she was born to the houses where she lived as a child to the route she took to her husband’s home on her wedding day. I knelt in the chapel where her family prayed and visited the convent where her daughter took vows as a nun and where Mona Lisa chose to spend her final years and be buried. As I retraced her steps, Renaissance Florence, the city of Leonardo and Michelangelo, came alive to me. It was magical.
L’Idea: La passione italiana, an interesting topic for your next book about Italy, La Passione: How Italy Seduced the World. Could you tell us more about that?
Dianne: After decades of visiting Italy, I began to see a common theme in Italians: a passion that inspired them to pour their time and energy into something they valued. To me, la passione italiana is a primal force that stems from an insatiable hunger to discover and create.
During my quest for Italian passion, I shadowed artisanal makers of chocolate and cheese, joined in Sicily’s Holy Week traditions, celebrated a neighborhood Carnevale in Venice, and explored vineyards, silk mills, movie sets, ceramics studios, movie sets and fashion salons. I wanted to introduce readers to unforgettable personalities brimming with the greatest of Italian passions—for life itself.
L’Idea: A message for our readers?
Dianne: Thank you for sharing your homeland, your mother tongue and your fascinating history and culture with so many foreigners like myself. We can never be true Italians, but your generosity of spirit makes us feel welcome.
Looking ahead, I am pursuing a new passion I developed during the pandemic—for the beautiful, complex and endangered northern California coast where I live. In the last year, I’ve hiked miles of beaches, joined an animal tracking circle on the coastal dunes, sailed offshore to the realm of brooding albatrosses and breaching whales, climbed ocean cliffs with a geologist, monitored harbor seal moms and pups, tallied migrating hawks, trained as a tidal pool docent and shadowed scientists working on a vital frontier of climate change. To learn more about my blue habitat, I’ve enrolled in an intensive University of California course to gain certification as a naturalist. As I begin this new chapter of my professional life, I feel the same excitement that I did when I immersed myself in Italy’s language and culture years ago.
Where will these new adventures lead? Stay tuned! For now, I just want to thank you for your support throughout the years. Like Italy, you will remain in my heart, always.
A special thanks to my daughter Julia, who created the lovely cross-stitched versions of my book covers. Grazie di cuore, carissima!