The continuation of an author’s love affair with Italy.
“Italy chose me,” writes Hales (Mona Lisa: A Life Discovered, 2014, etc.) at the beginning of her latest book about the country she loves. Thirty years ago, after she gave a talk in Gstaad, Switzerland, “I impetuously switched trains and headed south to a sun-kissed country I’d never visited.” It’s been love through rose-colored glasses ever since. This installment is not so much a travelogue as a survey course of the great achievements that have precipitated what Hales calls “una passione italiana,” a passion that can “take you beyond yourself and outlast you.” Although she mentions some of the places she has seen—e.g., a trip to “the last traditional textile maker in Venice,” a visit to Piedmont vineyards—most of the book consists of capsule histories of the warriors, literary figures, painters (including the Renaissance’s “two blinding supernovas,” da Vinci and Michelangelo), foods, wines, films, and more that have helped this “scrawny peninsula smaller than California…leave such an outsize imprint on Western culture.” The author’s tone can be breathless. When she alights at a train station, “I longed for more eyes to see, more ears to listen, more neurons to process the sensations bombarding me.” When she eats handmade chocolates, delectable flavors “cascade into my mouth. Every taste bud thrills to attention. Waves of delight ripple along my tongue.” Italy’s greatest achievements are indeed extraordinary, but one wonders what some readers will think of the contention that Italian food is “arguably everybody’s favorite” or the author’s unsubstantiated claim that Italian cucina “has dethroned haughty French cuisine.” Nonetheless, the narrative is an enjoyable read with memorable passages, as when Hales calls thrice-married Ovid “a prototypical advice columnist” whose “urbane manual for seduction, Ars amatoria,” offered advice on such topics as how ladies could enhance their flat breasts and fake their orgasms.
A pleasant if highly selective tour led by a genial guide.