La Bella Lingua: My Love Affair with Italian, the World's Most Enchanting Language
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“Italians say that someone who acquires a new language ‘possesses’ it. In my case, Italian possesses me. With Italian racing like blood through my veins, I do indeed see with different eyes, hear with different ears, and drink in the world with all my senses…”
A celebration of the language and culture of Italy, La Bella Lingua is the story of how a language shaped a nation, told against the backdrop of one woman’s personal quest to speak fluent Italian.
For anyone who has been to Italy, the fantasy of living the Italian life is powerfully seductive. But to truly become Italian, one must learn the language. This is how Dianne Hales began her journey. In La Bella Lingua, she brings the story of her decades-long experience with the “the world’s most loved and lovable language” together with explorations of Italy’s history, literature, art, music, movies, lifestyle, and food in a true opera amorosa—a labor of her love of Italy.
Throughout her first excursion in Italy—with “non parlo Italiano” as her only Italian phrase—Dianne delighted in the beauty of what she saw but craved comprehension of what she heard. And so she chose to inhabit the language. Over more than twenty-five years she has studied Italian in every way possible: through Berlitz, books, CDs, podcasts, private tutorials and conversation groups, and, most importantly, large blocks of time in Italy. In the process she found that Italian became not just a passion and a pleasure, but a passport into Italy’s storia and its very soul. She offers charming insights into what makes Italian the most emotionally expressive of languages, from how the “pronto” (“Ready!”) Italians say when they answer the telephone conveys a sense of something coming alive, to how even ordinary things such as a towel (asciugamano) or handkerchief (fazzoletto) sound better in Italian.
She invites readers to join her as she traces the evolution of Italian in the zesty graffiti on the walls of Pompeii, in Dante’s incandescent cantos, and in Boccaccio’s bawdy Decameron. She portrays how social graces remain woven into the fabric of Italian: even the chipper “ciao,” which does double duty as “hi” and “bye,” reflects centuries of bella figura. And she exalts the glories of Italy’s food and its rich and often uproarious gastronomic language: Italians deftly describe someone uptight as a baccala (dried cod), a busybody who noses into everything as a prezzemolo (parsley), a worthless or banal movie as a polpettone (large meatball).
Like Dianne, readers of La Bella Lingua will find themselves innamorata, enchanted, by Italian, fascinated by its saga, tantalized by its adventures, addicted to its sound, and ever eager to spend more time in its company.
morning they hear the little door through which they received food being hammered shut. I bit both of my hands in desperate grief, And they, thinking I acted out of hunger, All of a sudden stood straight up and wailed, “Father, the pain for us would be far less If you ate us! You put this wretched flesh Upon us and now you may strip it off!” Canto 33, lines 58–63, www.italianstudies.org/comedy/index.htm Slowly, agonizingly, on the fourth day, the boys begin to starve to death. One collapses at
pasta to herself. This “paste” of flour and water (with an egg thrown in to make a “Sunday pasta”) remains the common denominator at Italian tables. At the Pasta Museum in Rome, tucked into a tiny piazza on the Quirinale Hill, I learned of pasta’s legendary origins: Once upon a time the muse Talia inspired a man named Macareo to construct a metal container with many tiny holes from which long strings of dough emerged as if by magic. He immediately cooked these maccheroni and served them to some
ardore, and ardenza. L’amore, he asserted, stands out as a more active, powerful, stirring sentiment that cannot be described with any other name and that can take on both “nobility and depravity.” The latter may have held particular significance for Tommaseo, a religious man who struggled mightily with his uncontrollable libido. In a personal journal, he recorded his daily fights with temptations of the flesh, along with such details as how many mouthfuls of food he ate every day—from fifty to
youth. The clever con man also persuaded the French government to commission him to organize and run a state lottery, based on the Venetian model. This enterprise proved so lucrative that Casanova lived in splendor, with a luxurious house, servants, horses and carriages, and an estimated twenty mistresses whom he kept in twenty different apartments. A witty conversationalist, Casanova hobnobbed with intellectuals (including Voltaire and the visiting Benjamin Franklin), polished his friend
the Wind, Via col vento (Away with the Wind). In Italy, as everywhere else, Scarlett’s (Rossella in Italian) motto, “Domani è un altro giorno,” became a catchphrase of the day. Since Italians still prefer hearing Italian to reading subtitles in foreign films, dubbing has remained a big business—with big stars of its own. When Luke Skywalker battled Darth Vader in the classic Star Wars films of the late 1970s, the voice Italians heard was not Mark Hamill’s but that of Claudio Capone (1952–2008),