This article originally appeared in forbes.com. Click here to read the complete post.
by Irene Levine
Most travelers who visit Italy return changed in some way, either subtly embracing one or more aspects of Italian culture (perhaps food or style) or more fundamentally, by re-thinking their approach to life.
Dianne Hales’ just-released book, La Passione: How Italy Seduced the World (Crown Archetype, 2019), masterfully examines the multitude of reasons why so many people fall in love with Italy and the Italian lifestyle. In this book, she weaves a rich tapestry of legends and historical references coupled with interviews and first-person experiences to explain this phenomenon. She focuses on some of the most seductive aspects of Italian culture: its history, food and wine, art, music, cinema, cars and fashion and style.
Dianne previously authored two other seminal books about Italian life: La Bella Lingua, a New York Times bestseller and Mona Lisa: A Life Discovered, which was named an Amazon best book of the year and translated into six languages. Prior to this Italian trilogy, she authored more than forty trade and textbooks on a variety of topics.
Forbes.com spoke to Dianne about her latest book and solicited her advice for travelers bound for Italy:
Can you briefly explain what you mean by La Passione?
Dianne Hales: English speakers think of passion as an intense feeling. La passione italiana is much, much more. Almost 2000 years ago, the early Christians in Rome fashioned the word passio from the Latin for “suffer” to describe the torture and crucifixion of Jesus. Over the centuries Italian wordsmiths expanded its meaning to irresistible romantic love or any single-minded pursuit that combines challenge and rebirth. La passione italiana can transform the ordinary into the extraordinary, the banal into the beautiful, food into feasts, sounds into songs, moments into movies.
Thanks to this fierce drive to discover and create, a scrawny peninsula smaller than California has touched every aspect of Western culture, blazing to life in the Sistine Chapel, surging through a Verdi chorus, preening in Valentino red, deepening a vintage Brunello, spicing a tangy penne all’arrabbiata. The world would be a far paler place without it.
When did you realize that you had been seduced by Italian culture? How did it happen?
DH: Italians talk about being struck by un colpo di fulmine (a lightning bolt) when they fall head over heels in love. That happened on my first trip to Italy—an unplanned detour after I gave a talk in Switzerland. I never expected to swoon for a country where I knew no one and could not speak the language, but I did.
Italy seduced me, as it has millions of visitors. Michelangelo’s David set the synapses in my brain on fire. Puccini’s arias stirred my soul. With a bite into homemade pasta in a silky sauce, taste buds I never knew existed sprang to life. My ears overflowed with sounds—choirs, Vespas, street musicians, children laughing. I knew I was a goner the moment I left—and immediately started thinking about when I could return.
How did your two prior books lead to this one?
DH: I so wanted to communicate with the Italians I had met that I immersed myself in Italian and became enraptured by the music in its words. When my agent suggested I write a book on Italian “because you light up when you talk about it,” I discovered its wonderful backstory—full of poets, princes and a rowdy group of young Florentines who compiled the first dictionary, made up of what they considered “the most beautiful flowers” in the “vulgar” or common language.
While in Florence, I became friends with an art historian who lived in the palazzo where Mona Lisa’s mother grew up. I was so taken by the notion of Leonardo’s muse as an actual Renaissance woman that I set out to reconstruct her story in Mona Lisa: A Life Discovered. At a reading for that book, a man asked, “So are you done with Italy?” The question struck me as absurd. Italy wasn’t done with me.
In a sense, La Passione is also a tour guide to Italy. Can you offer any suggestions on how first-timers should approach travel to Italy if they only have a week or two abroad?
DH: Pick a passion and a place. Since Italy offers everything, focus on what attracts you and make that your starting point: Florence for Renaissance art, Piedmont for wine, Sicily for ancient ruins (and Inspector Montalbano), Rome for, well, Rome. Because of Italy’s rich history, every town offers a range of other treasures for you to explore.
If you can visit only a major city or two, I recommend hiring a local, English-speaking guide (check the Internet) who can provide an overview and background. Then download or carry a map, and explore an intriguing neighborhood on foot—ideally early in the day or later in the evening when you can feel yourself walking back in time.
For those who have already been to Italy’s iconic cities one or more times, what do you suggest next?
DH: Choose a region that appeals to you—mountains or seaside, city or hill town—and make yourself at home. Rentals are available in every price range (always read reviews and fine print carefully). Go to markets, restaurants, parks, and festivals. You’ll soon start living by a new rhythm, savoring your interactions with locals and enjoying Italy’s greatest gift: its way of life.
How should travelers prepare for a trip to Italy? Is it necessary? How much knowledge of the Italian language is essential for most leisure travelers?
DH: Open your senses. Open your mind. Above all, open your heart.
Learn enough Italian to be polite (please, thank you, etc.) and handle necessities (e.g. where is…my hotel, a bathroom, etc.). Listen to online conversation lessons (my personal favorite: ItalyMadeEasy.com). Stream Italian videos (available online with English subtitles) to accustom your ear to Italian sounds. Download a translation app, and don’t hesitate to use it.
I’d also recommend my books. La Bella Lingua doesn’t teach grammar or vocabulary but you’ll learn (painlessly, I promise) why Italians cherish their language. La Passione taps into something deeper—the zest for living that makes every trip to Italy memorable.
Is there one city (or region) in Italy to which you always yearn to return? If so, why?
DH: In 1990 my husband and I arrived at Il Pellicano, then a rustic inn by the sea in Porto Ercole. “I want to come back here every year for the rest of my life,” I declared. And we have—staying at least a few nights at what is now a world-class luxury resort and then renting places nearby. I’ve written drafts of my three Italian books in hillside houses overlooking the Tuscan coast. We also share food and laughter with friends, go swimming and boating, and delight in dolce far niente — the sweetness of doing nothing.
Is your relationship with Italy monogamous? Where else do you travel for pleasure?
DH: I’ve been married 40 years so I may be monogamous by nature. However, my husband and have had flings with other European countries, New Zealand, Australia, the South Pacific. Most recently we’ve loved exploring the San Juan Islands in the Northwest. And since we live in Bodega Bay, we have the magnificent California coast in our front yard and the Wine Country in our backyard for quick getaways.
How do you cope with re-entry after leaving the place you love so much? How do you manage to bring a little bit of Italy back home with you?
DH: That’s the true gift of la passione italiana: it becomes part of you. In many ways, we live an Italian lifestyle in the U.S. We eat Italian dishes, drink espresso and Prosecco, and listen to Italian opera. But more importantly, we’ve absorbed its deeper lessons: Appreciate your senses. Cultivate compassion. Hold family and friends close. Choose the bello over the brutto. Love without limits. Let the human spirit soar.
What could be more seductive than that?