USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘Italy’
Old age
Proverbs

Italian Proverb: “Old Age is Trouble”

Is there something of a proverb that comes to mind from home?

J.A. – “La vecchia e una rogne; ma si non l’arrive, e una veregogna.” (Italian)

Translates to: Old age is trouble; but if you don’t get there, it’s a shame.

J.A. – “My parents’ people were farmers in Italy.  This saying has a fatalistic humor that resonates with me.  I feel closer to people I never knew hearing the clever play on words in the original Italian.”

 

This being a dark proverb, it brings to my mind the mortality of those I’m close with.  I got stuck for a few minutes on the first half of that sentence; “old age is trouble.”  What does that mean?  Are you going to die?  Is disease coming for you?  It’s interesting – this person thought of the proverb as an example of “fatalistic humor.”  I’d disagree with that, actually.  I’d argue that it’s a blatantly depressing proverb, explaining that any life is better than death.  The inevitability of what’s coming for you may be frightening, but – hey, at least you’re alive.

Legends

Brunelleschi and The Egg

BACKGROUND:

There is an old architecture legend about famed Italian architect Filippo Brunelleschi trying to convince the city of Florence that he was the most qualified to build the Cathedral of Florence. The story goes that after being rejected due to his long absence in Germany, Brunelleschi attempted to show that not only did he have the artistic eye, but also the wit and intelligence to solve any problem. To do this, Brunelleschi handed each of the chosen architects an egg and asked them to stand it up on its end and have it stay there. After none of the architects were able to do it, Brunelleschi crushes one end, creating a surface that can be stood up on the table. According to the legend, this is what convinced the city that he was truly the smartest of the bunch.

INTERVIEW:

My interview with my source, T, is as follows:

T: So when Brunelleschi was telling his idea to the city, he literally didn’t tell them anything he was going to do. He’s like, “Guys, I know how to do this, I know you have this problem, I’m going to build your building” and they’re like “uhh… you were gone for like 10 years, we don’t even know if you’re capable of this.” And he’s like “You’re gonna give me the job and here’s why.” So he gives them all eggs and says “Make the egg stand on its end. If one of you can do it then you don’t have to hire me.” And none of them could do it so he walks up to the table and says, “You want me to show you why I have more knowledge than you?” and he smashes the end of the egg on the table so it stands up on its end. They gave him the job.

MY THOUGHTS:

I think this is a very clever legend. In all honesty the likelihood of this display of intelligence being the only driving factor behind Brunelleschi being hired is highly unlikely. The story, however, is a great way of conveying just how dedicated and clever Brunelleschi actually was, regardless of whether this event actually took place or not.

Folk Beliefs
Signs

Phallic Symbolism on Homes in Pompeii

The informant, a 66-year-old American woman (my grandmother), has frequently traveled to Italy for the past several decades. During a celebration for my mother’s birthday, I pulled my grandmother aside and asked her if any particular Italian traditions or beliefs have stood out to her over the course of her travels, and she laughed.

“Oh my, you’re in for a treat. In Pompeii, the buildings were preserved in ash. After they had been dug out, many of the doors had carvings over them that were perfectly preserved. On more than one house, large penises are carved on the door. This would signify that it was a fertile home and would help whoever lived there to continue to have children and ensure success for a family. I’ve also heard that it was a way of bragging. Hey, if I had a large penis to brag about I’d probably do the same thing.”

Since these carvings would have been made in a pre-Christian era, they preceded the more familiar carving of a fish over one’s door, which Christians would use as a symbol to signify that their home was a safe place of worship. It is interesting to consider that in the cultural context of Pompeii thousands of years ago, representations of basic human anatomy were appropriate for placement in the extremely intimate barrier to one’s home–at the liminal divide between public and private. In America today, it goes without saying that a homeowner’s association would be less than pleased at the sight of a penis carved on someone’s porch. Perhaps this change has arisen because in the contemporary United States we no longer view having a fertile home and being able to sustain a family as an extraordinary accomplishment worth bragging about, instead we see it as something rather ordinary, but thousands of years ago during the Roman period it may have been looked upon as much more of an accomplishment worth bragging about to be able to provide for one’s family and maintain a fertile home.

Earth cycle
Folk Beliefs
Protection

You Should Never Go Into the Sea in a Month with an ‘R’

Informant: “I don’t remember how to say it in Italian now, but I remember the saying translates to ‘You should never go into the sea in a month with an “R”‘. I remember learning this when I was studying in Florence my Junior year of college, I was in Florence from January to June, but right in the middle, right around March, so spring break time, I went down to Sicily with a bunch of my friends. And it was a lot warmer than in Florence, but it wasn’t super warm, and so all of my friends wanted to go in the ocean, and my relative really had a hard time with that [laughs] because they were like ‘oh no, you can’t go into the ocean, it’s march’, and I said ‘So what if it’s march?’ and they said ‘you can’t, it’s a month with an r.’ And it was sort of a big deal. And I think the origin of this comes from, you know Sicily is an island, and in the past when a lot of people were poor, they didn’t go to school, and they didn’t know how to swim, and maybe it’s different now, but in the past most Sicilians didn’t know how to swim. And so if you go into the ocean when it’s cold, you might get a cramp or something, and you’re more likely to drown, plus in those months it’s colder, so if you think about it, January is cold, March, April… And May is warm, so that’s ok, and June, July, August. And September is starts getting cooler, and October, November, December. My friends ended up swimming anyways, but my relatives thought they were crazy…”

Collector [a few weeks after initial interview]: I was reading the transcript of my interview with you, when I realized that the Italian word for January, ‘Gennaio’, does not have an ‘R’ in it, despite this being one of the months you mentioned. How does this impact your opinion of this saying?

Informant: [short silence, then laughs] “Wow, you’re right! I can’t believe I never thought of that! Wow… that’s weird, I guess I had just always thought about it in English. Is that the only one? Wait… [Informant lists off all the months in Italian]. Yeah, so I guess that’s the only one that doesn’t work. All the other months that have ‘R’s in English also have ‘R’s in Italian except that one… Its so strange because I know when I was first told this, the person who told it to me said it in Italian. I guess maybe they just thought that they didn’t need to worry about January because it’s always so cold in January that no one would want to swim.”

Informant is a retired math teacher, and a mother of three. Her parents moved to the United States for the Italian island of Sicily, and she was born in the United States and grew up in Los Angeles. She still keeps in touch with her Sicilian relatives, and will periodically visit them.

Collector Analysis: Sicilians, living in a geographical area completely surrounded by water, would of course have a body of folklore concerned with when it is safe to go into the ocean, and when it is not. This saying serves as a mnemonic device to help remember when it is ok to swim in the ocean, and when it is unsafe to do so. For this reason, I would imagine that this originated more as a way to keep children safe from drowning in the ocean during the colder months in the winter as well as the late fall and early spring. Of course, this does not apply to anyone going out on the ocean, as most Sicilians would need to go out on the ocean year-round to support their livelihoods.

Customs
Earth cycle
Folk Beliefs
Holidays
Legends
Myths
Narrative

La Befana

Informant: “So in Italy, there’s two things, so there’s La Befana, which is ‘The Witch’, kind of, I don’t remember exactly what it translates to, but it’s whatever the witch is. And then there’s Babbo Natale, and what that means is father Christmas. And so in northern Italy, this is kind of funny, in northern Italy the word Babbo, it’s kind of like saying daddy, but in the south part of Italy, it doesn’t mean daddy, it means like an idiot [laughs]. But that’s like saying ‘dad’ in northern Italy. So Babbo Natale, maybe that’s in the south now too, but mostly it was in the north, you know. And in the south, mostly they had La Befana. So the story was that on January 6th, which was the Epiphany, and they sort of matched it up so the kids in Sicily, they would get presents not from Babbo Natale, and they got presents not on Christmas day, but on January 6th which was when the three kings brought their gifts to Jesus. So La Befana would go around and she would give presents. So the story was that when the three Kings were going to Jerusalem to find the newborn baby Jesus, they stopped at La Befana’s house in order to ask for directions. When they left, they asked her to join them, but she said that she couldn’t because she had too much housework to do, but once they left she immediately knew she made the wrong decision, so she grabbed a bunch of small treats and went out looking for them, but she couldn’t find them, so she gave treats to every child she came across in hopes that one of them was the baby Jesus. So every year on the eve of the Epiphany, she goes out in search of Christ, and gives treats to all of the good children that she comes across. Though when [my sisters and I] were growing up, our parents wanted us to be American, so we didn’t have La Befana, we had Santa Claus [laughs].

Informant is a retired math teacher, and a mother of three. Her parents moved to the United States for the Italian island of Sicily, and she was born in the United States and grew up in Los Angeles. She still keeps in touch with her Sicilian relatives, and will periodically visit them.

Collector Analysis: This is an interesting variant on the Santa Claus story, or rather the ‘mysterious Christmas gift giver’ narrative. It almost seems like it has aspects of an urban legend scary story, as it almost seems like La Befana is ‘cursed to wander the Earth every year on the anniversary of [some event] because of the mistake she made’ which, in any other context, would seem exactly like the ending to some scary campfire story. However, she does it for benevolent reasons, so it’s all ok. It’s also curious to see how the informant’s parents tried to suppress her practicing of this particular bit of folklore in order to “Americanize” her and her siblings. It is also strange how an entity with as non malevolent of intentions as giving gifts to good children is given a name with such a negative connotation as ‘The Witch’.

Customs
Earth cycle
Foodways
Holidays

Feast of the Seven Fishes (La Vigilia)

Informant: “In Sicily, well in other places in Italy sometimes too, but really in Sicily, on the Eve of the big holidays, so like Christmas Eve and New Years Eve, you’re supposed to eat fish, but in particular on Christmas eve. It was called the Feast of the Seven Fishes, though I actually think in Sicily they called it La Vigilia, for The Vigil. The real tradition is that you’re supposed to make seven types of seafood. So in Sicily, my mom and dad they always did this, so they would start cooking a few days before Christmas Eve. When we were growing up in Los Angeles, we would go down to Redondo Beach and my mom would buy all these fishes very similar to the fishes they would have in Sicily, so she would make calamari, like deep fried calamari. Oh, and one of the things she would buy is called baccala, which is like a dry, salted cod. I’ve actually seen it in some Italian places in St. Paul, they sell it in what looks like a big bucket, and it looks like just dried fish, and so you have to soak it in water overnight, and then you have to drain the water, and then you have to soak it again, and so basically you’re reconstituting the fish. And I think a lot of times people in Sicily have that one because there are a lot of poor people, and that kind of fish was really cheap. And so [my mother] would do that whole thing day after day after day, and then she would make this sauce that she would put this fish in like this tomato sauce, and then she would bake it. So she did baccala, she did calamari, she always did octopus salad. She would never make the kind of fishes that [my family has] like salmon, I never had salmon growing up. She would make these things called sand dabs, they looked like a kind of flatfish and she’d fry them, and anchovies and sardines, and she’d make this pasta with fennel and tuna sometimes… But she had enough fish to feed an army, when there were only six of us, but that’s very typical though in Sicily…What other fish did she make… oh, eel! She would always make eel. And I would have continued this tradition, except that [my children] don’t eat as much fish, that’s why I sort of incorporated it into [my family's traditions], that’s why we always have fish on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve, so some years I would make stuffed salmon with crab and so on, but I found that [my family] just really liked crab, so that’s why we always have crab, and I figured, that was close enough.”

Collector: Was the exact number of fishes significant?

Informant: “Well, so it was feast of the seven fishes, though sometime we’d do nine, eleven, thirteen, but it’s always an odd number. I’m not really sure why, but it was supposed to have something to do with luck, like you’re never supposed to do an even number. As for fish, I guess with Sicily being an island, it was really easy for people to just go out and catch fish, and so that’s why they had fish.”

Informant is a retired math teacher, and a mother of three. Her parents moved to the United States for the Italian island of Sicily, and she was born in the United States and grew up in Los Angeles. She still keeps in touch with her Sicilian relatives, and will periodically visit them.

Collector Analysis: This particular piece of folklore is interesting in that it shows how certain folk traditions can evolve when they are practiced in different contexts, in this case, how the amount and type of fish eaten changed when the informant was celebrating this tradition in different locations and with different people, and yet the tradition is still in many ways the same despite these changes. Also curious is the fact that in Sicilian culture, the number 13 is considered lucky, while the number 12 is considered unlucky, which is the opposite of many other European cultures.

Customs
Earth cycle
Folk Beliefs
general
Legends
Rituals, festivals, holidays

La Befana

The legend: “In Italy theres this old woman called La Befana who has magical powers and she gives children gifts on January 5th. If you’re nice you get gifts but if you’re mean you get coal. January 5th is the Epiphany Day, I don’t know what it is but it’s some type of like God revelation or something.”

The informant is half-Italian (mom) and half-German (dad) and grew up in Belgium. She moved to the United States at 11 years old, and now resides in Canada where she attends a university. She heard this legend growing up from her mom and Nonna (her grandmother). I asked her if she ever believed in La Befana’s existence, and she said that she “did at one point because once Nonna brought it up and I was scared of her because she’s a scary old woman witch.” La Befana sounds like other gift-giving figures around the Winter Solstice, such as Santa Claus, Sinterklaas, etc. January 5th is just around Christmas, so it matches with other Winter Solstice celebrations. People already celebrated the Winter Solstice, before Christianity made it a Christian holiday, so it makes sense for Italy to have its own version of the celebration. It’s also just after New Year’s Day, which means that Epiphany Day also represents a celebration of new beginnings; good children can celebrate the past year by receiving gifts and going forward into the next year being good again. Bad children can reflect on their bad decisions in the past year in order to strive for better in the coming year. Although La Befana can be a benevolent figure, she is presented as an old witch, which scares children into being “good,” reflected by the informant’s fear of the witch.

general

Pasta on Sundays

The informant is a 50 year old woman. She is married, the mother of 3, and currently living in New Jersey. Her mother is Sicilian, and she told me about a weekly, Italian tradition that she partook in growing up.

This informant first remembers this tradition starting when she was in kindergarden. It consists of the informant, her 2 sisters, mother and father all eating a large pasta dish together every Sunday.  They would always eat at noon, right after coming home from church.  It was a special sauce made by the informant’s mom.  Her mom would always make the sauce the day before in preparation. The 3 daughters would help with setting the table. They would always say a prayer before eating.  This lunch was the main meal of the day.  Dinner later would consist of meatball sandwiches made with the leftover food from lunch. The informant described it as an “Italian thing.” She said that usually Italians would do a full, 5 course meal with antipasto, spaghetti and other foods and have a full day of eating. She said that her and her family adapted it, though, to only do the pasta part. She started remembering this tradition when she was in kindergarden, and it continued until she moved out of the house for college, so she participated for around 17 years.

My analysis: There is obviously no mandated law in Italy that everyone must eat pasta on Sundays, yet I have a number of Italian friends who do so.  Sunday is highly regarded as a holy day because in the bible, it was on the 7th day that God rested after creating the world.  This tradition most likely stems from people resting and eating on Sundays. Italy has always been a heavily Christian country, so the practice of relaxing and eating on sundays most likely started as a biblical practice that has now lost its religious aspect and is simply a remnant of the original practice. Italy is also known for its pasta, so it makes sense that the food being consumed is centered around a pasta dish.

Foodways
Holidays

Seven Fish Dinner

I gathered this piece from my friend who comes from a very Italian family. Her parents family’s are both from Naples, her mom’s side is from Mirabella and her dad’s side is from Benevento. Even though her parents weren’t born in Italy, Italian culture is still very important in their family, and keeping up traditions such as this Christmas Eve dinner are very important to her parents, especially her father.

“I come from a very Italian background. My paternal grandmother was born in Italy and then came here, so my father is first-generation. My mother’s grandparents were from Italy…so they come from a very traditional Italian background. And one tradition that we’ve always followed in my family is that on Christmas Eve you are supposed to have the “Seven Fish Dinner” which means that you should be having seven different types of fish for your Christmas Eve meal. Every year my family would invite all of our family and friends over and my dad would spend about two or three days slaving away in the kitchen to cook all these different things which included lobster, probably cooked multiple ways, clams, shrimp…scungilli salad, which is octopus salad, a type of fish which I am not remembering what it’s called…and other things that I can’t remember.”

Q: So is this something your parents got from their parents?

“Yeah, it’s an Italian tradition. My family is not the only one’s that ever done it or heard of it. I know my dad keeps a lot of his Italian heritage in memory of his grandparents who he spent a lot of time with….’This is what my grandparents did so this how we’re going to do’ kind of a thing”

Food folklore tends to revolve around family and family traditions, and this is no exception. The informant learned about this through participating in a family tradition, which was kept by her parents in order to honor their Italian grandparents. Participating in the tradition becomes a way to keep the tradition alive and maintain the culture.

Customs
Foodways
Game
general

Sardinian Pig Finger Game

“It is something that you do with children, with the fingers on one hand and uh, the thumb is the pig. And the other fingers are, ‘one killed the pig’, ‘the other one umm well after you kill the pig you have to pass it on the fire to burn the…the hair, its kind of a strong hair, and then finally the ring finger ate it. But then little pinky who told everyone, you know, spilled the beans, and then he didn’t get any. In Sardinia it goes like that, touching the finger. (The informant repeated this little rhyme in Sardinian). And this is in Sardinian which is the language of the island of Sardinia and the variety that I speak, not very well, but the one that I uhh learned through my maternal grandparents is the variety called Locudorese that is in the north. So I remember my grandmother, Antonina, um you know, playing with us and doing this thing. And it is very Sardinian because you know, that’s what people used to do when propane was scare, was to fatten the pig, typically around Christmas umm they killed it and of course they didn’t throw away anything because they made, you know, prosciutto, sausage, the ears, the feet, everything was used. And umm so this is the process. The fact that after you kill it, you know, the pig has this kind of this strong hair that you have to burn so you pass the pieces of meat on a fire. And it gives off a terrible smell, like when you accidentally burn your nails, because it is basically that same kind of substance. But you have to do it otherwise you can’t eat the meat.”

As the informant stated, he learned this game from his grandmother as a young child. The game relates to the traditional cooking in the region of Sardinia where he grew up. Folklore is born from culture, and eating is very important to a culture, so it makes sense that there are children games that deal with food and eating. The informant placed a lot of  importance on the process of burning the hair. Possibly this is because he remembers the distinct smell and the unique process, or because it is a foreign idea to me, as the collector, so he spent extra time on it. He also said later that the reason that the pinky-finger didn’t get any meat was because he spilled the beans about the feast, and when people hear about someone cooking pig in the village, that person has to share. This demonstrates the community ties of a small village such as the one where the informant grew up. They would share meals because such luxuries (like pig) were rare.  He says that this was a game he played when he was very young. It allowed him to bond with his grandmother, reaffirm his local cultural traditions, and partake in childhood games. Playing with the fingers instead of the toes allows the game to continue into later childhood, because it is less weird for someone to touch your fingers than your toes.

This little finger game reminds me of a similar game we play with babies and children. The version I remember goes, “This little piggy went to market, this little piggy stayed home, this little piggy had roast beef, this little piggy had none, and this little piggy went wee wee wee all the way home”. And instead of touching the fingers, starting with the thumb, you touch the toes, starting with the big toe. This game reminds me of playing with children and making them giggle. The pinky seems to be a funny finger/toe, always getting into trouble or doing something silly. The game also helps children connect with their bodies, which they need to do in the early stages of life. I think it’s interesting that the Sardinian version talks about cooking pigs, while the version I know talks about buying beef at the market. It reflects the difference in culture, because here we rarely cook our food from scratch, while that is more common in rural Sardinia. It should also be noted that the informant said the Sardinian version, but I didn’t want to attempt to spell (or misspell) his words phoenetiallay. However, I included his  translations.

[geolocation]