Italy is one of the most beautiful countries in the world, and its contributions to the world are endless, and two new books highlight its wonders: La Passione by Dianne Hales, and Arturo’s Island by Elsa Morante.
La Passione: How Italy Seduced The World
By Dionne Hales
Crown Archetype; hardcover, $26.00; eBook, $12.99
How did Italy, a peninsula smaller than California leave such an imprint on the culture of the world? Everyone knows the paintings of Leonardo and Michelangelo, the choruses of Verdi, the literature of Dante, and for the fashion-conscious, Valentino red.
Dianne Hales credits la passione italiana, the primal force that she believes stems from an insatiable hunger to discover and create; to love and live with every fiber of one’s being.
Dianne herself if a self-described appassionata, a woman “taken by passion,” who was first seduced by Italy’s tastes, sounds, scents, and sensations over thirty years ago. She has since written several books on the country and been knighted by the President of Italy for her writing, making her an ideal tour guide in her new book, La Passione: How Italy Seduced the World.
Hales explores Italy’s history, people, spirit, and unrivaled cultural impact and she goes on a quest for the secrets of la passione as she swims in the playgrounds of mythic gods, shadows artisanal makers of chocolate and cheese, joins in Sicily’s Holy Week traditions, celebrates a neighborhood Carnevale in Venice, and explores pagan temples, vineyards, silk roads, movie sets, crafts studios, and fashion salons.
Readers are introduced to unforgettable Italians, both historical and contemporary, and all of it is brimming with the greatest of Italian passions for life itself.
“At first, Italy’s symphony of chaos had simply swept over me,” Hades writes. “Every time I emerged from a train station – in Milan, Florence, Venice, Rome – I longed for more eyes to see, more ears to listen, more neurons to process the sensations bombarding me. As I returned year after year, Italy tugged me deeper into its explosive energy. Passion poured into my soul like a river.
“Dianne – wife, mother, journalist, serious and sensible – morphed into Diana, dancing barefoot under the Tuscan moon and delighting in everything from fresh-fried fiori di zucca (zucchini flowers) to tart and tingly limoncello. 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 sensation. I indulged it, embraced it, delighted in it…
“La Passione, a portrait more of a spirit than a nation, reflects my experiences as an outsider, an explorer, and an unabashed donna sedotta. This phrase literally translates as a ‘seduced woman’ and usually refers to someone who’s been led astray. You could say that Italy has had its way with me, but I’ve been a willing, enthusiastic partner.
“Italians, born to the peal of church bells and the bite of pasta al dente (literally, “to the tooth”), inhabit a more complex and confounding country than the one I’ve come to love. But my perspective enables me to notice what they may take for granted. In Parma, at the end of an interview with a young man named Stefano in – off all places – his family’s prosciutto processing plant, my guide, who had been listening from a few feet away, walked over and hugged me. A bit taken aback by this unexpected gesture, I looked at him quizzically.
“‘La nostra bellezza!’ (Our beauty!), he exclaimed. ‘You have seen what we cannot see because we live inside it. The things we Italians do – yes, it’s work, but you realize that what gives it meaning is passion. You didn’t ask Stefano what he does but what it means to him. And maybe for the first time in his life, he recognized that what he feels for this place, this work, is passion.'”
Arturo’s Island: A Novel
By Elsa Morante; translated by Ann Goldstein
Liveright Publishing; hardcover, 384 pages; $27.95
Elsa Morante has long been considered one of Italy’s greatest post-war novelists, and she will earn new readers with this extraordinary rendering of her classic work, Arturo’s Island, by Ann Goldstein, the acclaimed translator of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet.
In her lifetime, Morante (1912-1985) explored through fiction themes of longing, loneliness, and the destructive repercussions of intense love and passion. Her novels taught Elena Ferrante “what literature can be,” who called Morante an “unsurpassable” genius who inspired modern literary stylists from John Banville to Rivka Galchen.
Just as Ferrante evoked the harsh underbelly of postwar Naples through the perspectives of two young women, Morante, nearly a half century earlier, used the lens of youth to expose the brutality of the fraught coastal landscape.
In Arturo’s Island, Morante tells a story through the eyes of Arturo Gerace, a fourteen-year old boy living mostly alone in his family’s estate on Procida, a desolated island that lies off the coast of Naples in Southern Italy.
Arturo spends his days among the rocky beaches, meandering in the island’s sleepy town, or ferociously reading stories of heroic exploits and violent war in his family’s dilapidated monastery-turned-mansion. With his mother passed, Arturo idealizes his cold and distant father, who often leaves Arturo for unexplained and sometimes months-long adventures on the mainland.
The treasured state of idyllic, peaceful existence that Arturo created is shattered with the arrival of Nunziatella, his father’s sixteen-year-old bride. Morante uses her iridescently perceptive prose to unfold Arturo’s deeply painful process of maturation.
Whether it’s falling in obsessive love with his stepmother or confronting an acute sense of abandonment and betrayal from his aloof father, Arturo’s devastating and beautiful story, with is poignant treatment of the frustrations and complexities of male adolescence and sexuality, illuminates the universal experience of a paradise lost.
Morante first published Arturo’s Island in 1957 to international acclaim, and was honored with Italy’s most prestigious literary award, the Strega Prize.