For centuries the Italian peninsula was a patchwork of hundreds of dialects, often as different from one another as French from Spanish or English from Italian. Sailors from Genoa couldn’t understand—or be understood by—merchants from Venice or farmers from Friuli. Florentines living in il centro, the historic heart of the city, couldn’t speak the dialect of San Frediano on the other side of the Arno.
This year the Settimana della lingua italiana nel mondo (week of the Italian language in the world), from October 18 to 23, celebrates “Dante, l’Italiano.“ It is a fitting tribute during the 700th commemoration of the poet’s death in 1321.
Every October the United States celebrates Italian heritage month—with good reason. More than a mere country, Italy embodies a culture that has transformed art and architecture, language and music, food and fashion. Imagine painting without Leonardo. Sculpture without Michelangelo. Literature without Dante. No Verdi choruses or Puccini arias. No Fellini films, Ferrari roar, Valentino red. Tables bereft of pasta, pizza and a Sicilian cake so divine that its bakers swore it could make the dead breathe again.
Olives have been cultivated throughout the Mediterranean for thousands of years, even before written language was invented. In Salento, the region in the far south “heel” of Italy’s boot, this “liquid gold” often comes from ancestral trees over 400 years old. I contend (without prejudice, of course) that we make the finest oil from the finest olive trees.
In Italy every season— la primavera (spring), l’estate (summer), l’autunno (autumn), l’inverno (winter) — has a different feel and focus. L’autunno is when farmers reap what they have sown.
My relationship with Italy was sadly dysfunctional because of the food. When postal employees refused to sell me stamps because They. Must. Weigh. Each. Letter. Of. Each. Word. before I sealed the envelope, I was enraged. But all it took was a cup of cappuccino and I loved them again. A cloud of milk sprinkled with sugar and swirled into perfectly roasted coffee made every cup a short but memorable visit to heaven. Why be mad?