“B” Is for “Bello” in the Italian Language

Jan 20, 2014


Boboli fountain


beautiful, lovely, wonderful

“Wow!” “Fantastic!” “Terrific!” “Fabulous!” We couldn’t say enough to praise the magnificent fireworks exploding in the sky to celebrate Porto Ercole's patron saint. I turned to one of our guests, a young Umbrian winemaker, and asked what he thought. He replied with a single word–“Bello!"–and I realized that in these two simple syllables he had said it all.

Italian, la bella lingua, has no greater—or more ubiquitous—compliment. A nice thing is qualcosa di bello. Someone nice is una bella persona, beautiful from the inside out. Italy itself long ago earned the nickname il bel paese (the beautiful country). Beautiful singing—bel canto—took flight here. Italy’s designers clothe il bel mondo, the fashionable world.

Italians prize il bello della vita (the beauty of life) and hope that every venture will finire or chiudere in bellezza (end in style). And they hope, even in the darkest hours, that il bello deve ancora venire (the best is yet to come).The Italian standard of courtesy and style known as bella figura applies even to life’s end. Fare una bella morte means to die a noble or good death.

An art historian in Florence once explained to me that one of the unique traits of Italy’s artists is their ability to find beauty in anything, even a physical defect.

Guarda lo strabismo di Venere!” (Look at the strabismo (lazy or wandering eye) of Botticelli’s Venus),  he said, adding that highest of compliments: “Bellissimo!”” He’s right: Only in Italy would a sign of weariness or weak vision be perceived as a thing of beauty.

All of which was just too bello for the British writer Aldous Huxley, who complained, “From a cornice by Michelangelo to a belpaese cheese or the most horrible dribbling baby, everything is beautiful.”

But as I’ve listened to Italians, I’ve realized that not every “bello” is una bella parola (a kind word). An out-and-out scoundrel, for example, is un mascalzone bell’e buono who might tell tales “delle belle”—real beauts or whoppers, we’d say in English—or try to farsi bello con le penne del pavone (make himself beautiful with the peacock’s feathers—with borrowed finery, that is).

Yet a reverence for beauty (la bellezza) is almost embedded in Italians’ DNA. One day, watching toddlers romp among the sculptures and fountains of Florence’s Boboli Gardens (above), I asked my companion: “Do they even notice the beauty all around them?”

“Certo,” she replied, “Sentono la bellezza.”

The verb she chose—the third-person plural of sentire—goes beyond “seeing” to encompass all the senses. These fortunate children, I realized, were breathing in beauty like air. What could be more bello?

Words and Expressions:

fare la bella vita – to live the high life

belloccio – rather handsome

fa bello – nice weather

Questo è solo per bellezza – this is only for beauty, or decoration

Non è bello quel che è bello, è bello quel che piace - it’s not that which is beautiful that is beautiful; what’s beautiful is what pleases one; in other words, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

This post is part of a series of blogs on some of my favorite Italian words–in alphabetical order.

DIanne Hales is the author of LA BELLA LINGUA: My Love Affair with Italian, the World's Most Enchanting Language and MONA LISA: A Life Discovered.

Click below to listen to Puccini's "Un Bel Di" (A Beautiful Day):

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La Passione
Mona Lisa
La Bella Lingua