Tag Archives: Italy

Bocca Della Verità

Context: B is a 22 year old University student who grew up in California. B moved to Italy roughly four years ago where he is actively pursuing a degree in archeology. His classwork often has him interacting with artifacts and ancient sites. This account was collected over a phone call. 

B: “In terms of folklore I’ve encountered in Rome, I really love the Bocca della Verità (mouth of truth) and it’s said that in the olden days if you put your hand in the mouth and said a lie then it would bite your hand off. Outside of that you have your typical ‘Julius Caesar haunts this area and emperor Nero haunts that area’ but those are less accredited, and are all across Italy.”

Analysis: The legacy of Caesar and Nero can still be seen across Italy, throughout the folk claiming their spirits reside in iconic locations, like the Colosseum or the Vatican circus. Also the legend of the Bocca Della Verità lets us know that truth was considered a very important aspect of at least ancient roman culture, as a lie is worth losing a hand over. 

Crows and Falling Pictures

Background: My informant is a 52-year-old with Italian heritage. Both his mother and father are from Mola di Bari, a seaside town in Southern Italy. The informant was born in Toronto, Canada and moved to Santa Monica, California at a young age. While he was not born or raised in Italy, the strong Italian roots in his family meant that Italian culture and tradition was still very prevalent in his household. The informant is also my father.

Context: During a car ride, I asked my father about interesting Italian folklore he knew about while growing up in an Italian family.

Main Piece: “My mom said, in Italy, whenever a picture fell over on its own, unprompted, or black crows started to appear outside, it was an omen for something bad that was boing to happen or something bad had already happened that had not been communicated. The folklore is a picture literally just falls over unprompted or falls off a wall, or if you are outside and you see a bunch of black crows and ravens congregating outside your house, it’s an omen.

Interpretation: I was not surprised to learn that seeing crows outside of you house is a terrible omen in Italian culture, because I was previously aware that crows are seen as symbols of bad luck. However, what did interest me was the pictures falling down. Perhaps this is attributed to Christianity and the belief of the underworld. Perhaps, when a picture falls down, it is a sign of the underworld calling to someone or something and this is why it is seen as a terrible omen. If you ever hang up a picture in Italy, make sure it is well secured!

The paradigm of Italian hand-gestures

Main piece:


P.S.: It happened to me countless times, when abroad or speaking with non-Italians citizens, to receive this gesture, articulated in senseless ways, as an answer to my “I am Italian”, and…I don’t know, it has always been for me quite funny, but irritating at the same time.

My informant was born in Belgium from Italian immigrants and spent the first years of his life in Mons, before moving to Italy. Even after his transferring, he continued to visit many times his native country, and he had occasion of traveling and visiting a lot of world’s countries both for business and pleasure during his lifetime. 


My informant talked about this piece -and then ‘performed’ it- in his living room.  


I believe it is quite known that Italians gesticulate a lot with their hands while speaking, so much that they are told to ‘speak with their hands’. Many are, indeed, the natural hand and body gestures people from Italy use while communicating, and they represents, for the most part, a genuine and unconscious means of expression. 
This particular piece my informant presents probably is the most famous one, which is often erroneously practiced by non-Italian speakers without acknowledging its real significance. As a matter of fact, this particular hand-gesture is the most-commonly used one to imitate and make fun of Italians, and it’s usually accompanied by nonsense exclamations like “pizza, pasta and mafia”. In reality, this gesture expresses and signifies concepts like “what are you saying?”, “who?”, “when”, so it is basically used to physically ‘supplement’ questions.


Main piece:


Transliteration in Italian: omarello, omino, ometto

Transliteration in English: little man

Translation: old man who is retired 

M.P.: This is a typical Bolognese expression, which indicates those old men who are like retired and spend their time looking at construction sites. In the common imaginary they are portrayed in their typical pose, with crossed hands behind their backs.

[gets up laughing and mimics the physical pose]

And yes, this word actually entered the slang of the city because it is sometimes used also as a…a sort of joking insult. Like if someone…I don’t know…If someone acts like an old man, or stops in front of building sites, or repeatedly walks with his hand crossed behind his back, friends will make fun of him saying things like “Do not act like an ummarell”. 


My informant is a 23 years old girl who was born in Bologna, Italy, and who is now getting her master degree in archaeology and Egyptology at the city’s university, and who got her bachelor degree in anthropology and oriental studies 2 years ago always at Bologna’s Alma Mater Studiorum. She does’t recall the exact place and time in which she learnt this word, and neither she remember the first source from which she heard this term, she just knows it is a fundamental part of her “folk-culture”, as she herself defined it.


I myself use a lot this word and my informant mentioned this piece while we were chatting at a restaurant in the city center of Bologna.


Something I have always found quite intriguing is the great amount of dialects present in the Italian peninsula. Every region has its own peculiar and proper dialectal speech, and while in some places, especially small towns, they are still spoken -particularly by the older generations-, in bigger cities, dialects have been transformed into slang and adapted to the official language, that is, Italian. In fact, every main city of every Italian region -there are 20 regions in Italy- has words that are typical to that city -or the surrounding area- only. In the majority of cases, these words are not used or even understood by people who do not belong to that community. 

Furthermore, these words tend to evolve from generation to generation, so it happens that only peer groups understand what is being said or meant through that term. 

In these ways, they can be said to perfectly reflect folklore’s definition of “multiplicity and variation”.

Ummarell, precisely, is one of these folk-terms as, deriving from the Emilian dialect, it’s used by people inside the colloquial lingo to represent not only the old retired men who stop at every building site they encounter -as the original meaning implies-, but also all those people who act in this way. 

It becomes an informal way of making fun of a person who act as an old man, or that has the same behavior of old retired man. In this way, a sort of generational division is created, as the youth makes fun of peers pejoratively associating it with the elderly. 

Additionally, it is also used to indicate those who are nosy and who, not having much to do in their spare-time, do useless stuff like watching construction sites and giving unrequested advices to the ones who are working.

Tutti i nodi vengono al pettine

Main piece:

“Tutti i nodi vengono al pettine”


Tutti: All

i nodi: knots

vengono: come

al pettine: to the comb

Translation: All the knots come to the comb, meaning that the truth will always come out in the end and that all the bad actions or lies one commits or tells will eventually be unmasked and punished.


My informant is a 57 years old woman, born in Bologna from Italian parents. She has been told this words since she was a child and they made up much of her upbringing and education, which both had a particular emphasis on the importance of caring for the other and treating him or her as “you would treat yourself”.


My informant -my mother- has always repeated these words to me since I was really young, and when I asked her if she had some proverbs she wanted to tell me for tis collection project, she immediately brought this one up. We were having breakfast in the informant’s house.


This proverb wants to be both a teaching and a warning, a philosophical approach to the evil received and, at the same time, an educational indication that should be respected.

On on side, indeed, the proverb serves as a sort of eschatological or, better, karmic ‘prophecy’ for actions committed. I often received this proverb as a reassurance when lamenting for injustices or wrongdoings received, so as to say that those who act badly or give negative energies to others will, in the end, receive their share of punishment. 

On the other hand, this saying also serves as an advice, which basically invites you to always think twice before doing something, especially if this something involves other people as well. 

Even if my general interpretation and understanding of this proverb was mostly related to what I have just explained, as my informant pointed out, the proverb can also be interpreted with a meaning related to truth: no matter how many lies are told or how many obstacle will be placed in its course, truth will always find its way to be revealed. 

I believe this proverb to be quite representative of Italian values and principles, which have been, in time, greatly influenced by Catholicism and Christian doctrine. As a matter of fact, this proverb encompasses both the care one should have towards the other and, simultaneously, the conception of Final Judgment, which are two of the main pillars of the Roman Church.