Garbo and sprezzatura

Before deciding what Italy is all about, foreigners would do well to learn about two almost untranslatable Italian words. One is garbo, which dictionaries translate as meaning either “grace” or “courtesy.” But that only hints at its connotations. Certainly, a man or woman with garbo is one who behaves elegantly.

But it is also a quality essential to any kind of decision maker in Italy: it is the one needed to keep your options open without appearing to be indecisive, the quality required to impart unwelcome news in a way that is not too hurtful, but also the one needed to keep face as you imperceptibly shift your position.

The other quintessentially Italian noun is sprezzatura, which was coined by Baldassare Castiglione in Il cortegiano, a manual for early sixteenth-century courtiers. His book makes clear that life at court was no soft option. Renaissance courtiers were expected to speak eloquently, think clearly and have not just extensive learning but also the accomplishments of a warrior and athlete. Sprezzatura was the key to how all this should be presented to the world: with a studied insouciance, as if it had all come naturally, even if it was the result of long nights spent reading by candlelight and exhausting days spent

Hooper, John. The Italians (p. 188). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Expressing the future in the past.

I don’t often bore you with my language studies, but this one is too great a concept not to post!


Did you know that you use the imperfect subjunctive, or the congiuntivo imperfetto in italiano, to express the future in the past?

Per esempio: Mi faceva piacere che tu mi invitassi alla tua festa (I was pleased that you invited me to your party).

Well, now you know!

You’re welcome.  Di niente!  Now, go out in the world and conquer with your new Italian language weapon!

How Italian works.

Ha ha!  I can’t help you here.  I have no idea how Italian works.  I’ve been studying it for a long time and I am still almost completely clueless!

But, I persevere.

I thought I’d share with you on this sunny Sunday afternoon, something about how Italian is explained to me on a daily basis by my Italian teachers and textbook.  It’s extremely confusing.  Maybe its just me.

OK, so Intermediate Level, book 1.  We shall discuss how to decide to use which of 2 auxiliary verbs when forming the past tense.  That sounds simple enough.  Ready?


My book explains that

  1. some verbs use (or “take” in Italian) only AVERE (to have)

2. Some verbs use only ESSERE (to be)

3. Some verbs use both interchangeably

4. Reflexive verbs always use ESSERE

But then the fun stuff starts:

5. The passive form in the past tense is created using ESSERE even when the verb normally takes AVERE

6. Some verbs use AVERE when transitive and ESSERE when intransitive

Here my textbook veers off the complicated path to remind us what a TRANSITIVE Verb is, and what INTRANSITIVI VERBI are like.  I won’t bore you with the details since I barely grasp the concept anyhow.


Then my textbook goes back to the complicated path and reminds:

  1. The first group of verbs only uses AVERE**

**But remember, all transitive verb use ESSERE when

a. passive or

b. reflexive


2. The 2nd group uses ESSERE

3. The 3rd group uses either ESSERE or AVERE

4. The 4th group uses AVERE when transitive and ESSERE when intransitive

5. The 5th group involves the “verbi modali” which is 3 verbs: POTERE (to be able to); VOLERE (to want to); and DOVERE (to have to).

You’ll be relieved to know that the 3 modal verbs always use AVERE

except: when making the past tense, then you use whatever auxiliary verb the infinitive of the verb you are using normally takes.

So, for example, you might normally say Loro non sono rimasti. But if you want to use a model verb to give nuance to your phrase, then you might say Loro non sono voluti (see that! the normal past participle is voluto, but you needed to change it to plural male or voluti) rimanere.

So, to recap, you could happily say Loro non sono rimasti (they didn’t stay), but if you want to say They didn’t want to stay, then you have to make some adjustments.  In that case you would say, Loro non sono voluti rimanere (they didn’t want to stay).

My advice is just to skip the subject and accept that they didn’t stay but you have no idea what their motive was.




Aprile in italia

Aprile, apriletto, un dì freddo un dì caldetto” –(April, oh April, one day you’re cold, the next you’re warm.)


The weather has been all over the place lately, exactly like it is supposed to be in April! Sunny and almost hot and then windy, rainy and cold.  Infatti, Aprile is quite notorious and has a pretty wild reputation in Italy. There are an astounding number of old Italian proverbs devoted to this wily month:

Aprile e Maggio son la chiave di tutto l’anno (April and May are the keys to the whole year).


And then: Aprile fa il fiore e maggio si ha il colore (April brings the flower and May the color.)


One I really like is: Aprile carciofaio, maggio ciliegiaio. (In April, artichoke. In May, cherries.)


April rains are their own category of proverbs. To wit:

*Aprile piovoso, maggio ventoso, anno fruttuoso” — Rainy April, windy May, fruitful year.

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*L’acqua d’aprile, il bue ingrassa, il porco uccide, e la pecora se ne ride” — The water of April, the ox grows fat, the pig dies, and the sheep laughs.



*Quando tuona d’Aprile buon segno per il barile’ — When it thunders in April, it’s a good sign for the barrel (of wine).


And the weather can be a guide to men as well:  “Gli uomini sono aprile quando fanno all’amore, dicembre quando hanno sposato.“– (Men are like April when they flirt/court; like December once they are married.)

Hang on, May is almost here!

Paradise: a walled garden.

Villa Gamberaia in Settignano is truly a paradise for me.  But what on earth (ha ha, get it?) do I mean by “paradise?”


I mean a walled garden where tranquility is found.  A refuge. A place to restore.

In fact, the word “paradise” entered the English language from the French paradis, inherited from the Latin paradisus, from the Greek parádeisos (παράδεισος).  The Greeks borrowed the word from an Old Iranian paridayda meaning “walled enclosure.” By 500 BCE, the Old Iranian word had been adopted as Assyrian pardesu or “domain.”

In general, “paradise” was first used to indicate the expansive walled gardens of the First Persian Empire. The garden is constantly used as a symbol for paradise, with shade and water as its ideal elements.  ‘Gardens under which rivers flow’ is a frequently used expression for the bliss. The four main rivers of paradise are traditionally thought to be , one of water, one of milk, one of wine and one of purified honey.

This is the origin of the quartered garden, which were divided by means of four water-channels and all contained within a private, walled enclosure.


With or without masses of blooming flowers, Villa Gamberaia is paradise to me.  Even without literal rivers of milk and honey. :-))  Quiet and birdsong is enough.


The great, big world of citrus…

Think of it: every time you go to the fruit section of the grocery store, you are offered so many choices of citrus that it’s mind-boggling.


And there are often new varieties you never heard about before: Cara cara oranges; Meyer lemons; blood oranges.

It is astounding to think that the whole smorgasbord began with 4 humble taxa: the four core ancestral citrus taxa are


1.  citron (C. medica)




2.  pummelo (C. maxima)



3.  mandarine (C. reticulata)



4.  papeda (C. micrantha)



For a thousand years the citron (a kind of lemon) was the only kind of citrus fruit in Europe, nor did not lose its monopoly over the Italian peninsula until Arabic invaders brought lemons and sour oranges to Sicily.

Today, authorities agree that all citrus species are native to Southeast Asia, where they are found wild and in an uncultivated form. The citron had begun its journey to Calabria by migrating slowly into China and across India. The climate it encountered outside Assam was so much hotter, drier and more challenging that it couldn’t survive without human help, but what possible appeal could it make to a farmer?

-Would you choose to eat its fruit? Not really.

-Was its wood good for burning? Not very.

-Was it useful for building? Not at all.

-Could anyone find shade beneath its branches? Certainly not.

-Did it at least live for a long time? No.

So it was a practical failure, and yet…

…there was something miraculous about it that could not be ignored. It had an almost supernatural ability to bear a full cargo of beautiful flowers and enormous golden fruit simultaneously throughout the year.

Everything about it was scented – its pale waxy flowers, its dark green leaves, its fruit and even the wood itself – and like a glamorous woman, it was constantly surrounded by a miasma of perfumed air.

Finally, the fruit seemed eternal, neither rotting nor falling from the tree.

Although it had no obvious practical use, the tree’s mysterious habits gave it a powerful and peculiar appeal, so that people seem always to have felt compelled to cultivate it, imbue it with symbolic significance, paint its portrait and include it in ancient stories.

The citron spread gradually from India into Persia, its fruit stowed deep inside the saddlebags of merchants moving along the caravan routes that ran from the Punjab in upper India through Afghanistan to Persia and Mesopotamia (between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in Iraq), or flashing gold among the cargoes of boats carried on monsoon winds from the west coast of India to Oman, before being taken overland to Iraq and then Iran.

And, citrons travelled well: they were slow to decay and their seeds were protected by the fruit’s enormous carapace of pith and peel.

The trees were fully acclimatized in Persia and Media (north-west Iran) by the fourth century BC, when Alexander the Great came storming through with his armies and a vast retinue of scientific experts. The scientists were commissioned by Alexander to record every aspect of the flora and fauna, geography, people, mineral deposits and infrastructure of the regions they passed through in the wake of his armies. 3 They were on the lookout for useful trees or crops that might be

Much of the above is taken, with my edits and additions from Wikipedia, from: Attlee, Helena (2015-01-05). The Land Where Lemons Grow: The Story of Italy and Its Citrus Fruit (Kindle Locations 2687-2695). Countryman Press. Kindle Edition.