“Of course, you are Italian,” a Roman friend insisted years ago, “You have something more important than blood: la passione.”
I accepted the compliment without fully comprehending its significance. Passion, I assumed, can bloom anywhere. Think of France, with its culinary cathedrals; Spain, with its bullfights; Argentina, with its tango—not to mention the millions of soulmate seekers pursuing passion online. Yet these quests now strike me as mere imitations. How could it be otherwise? The original, including the word itself, was made in Italy.
In the first century AD, newly minted Christians, 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), inspired by the sacrifice of Christ and the first martyrs. Healers appropriated the word for maladies such as “passion of the liver”—a diagnosis that conjures an organ engorged with rage.
Medieval writers—Dante foremost among them— recognized romantic love as una passione so compelling that it could not be resisted. The Renaissance extended the definition of la passione to any all-consuming quest, most often for beauty in its infinite variety. Romantics idealized the irresistible intensity of such ardor, even when it exploded into “crimes of passion.”
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 these—and much more.
The Dizionario Affettivo della Lingua Italiana (Emotional Dictionary of the Italian Language) describes la passione as a flammable material—volatile 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 qualifies as a primal force of nature that cannot be ignored or denied.
You will find more about this fierce drive to explore, discover, create, pursue beauty, feel deeply, and love and live with every fiber of one’s being in my new book, LA PASSIONE:How Italy Seduced the World.
Dianne Hales is also the author of LA BELLA LINGUA: My Love Affair with Italian,the World’s Most Enchanting Language and MONA LISA: A Life Discovered. For more information, visit diannehales.com.