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.
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.