Sky High in the Italian Language

Oct 7, 2016

Alps from air (1)

Il cielo

The sky

Over the centuries artists such as Leonardo and Titian have tried to capture the radiant Italian sky on canvas. Its colors range from lightish blue (azzurrognolo, azzurrino, celestino) to clear blue (azzurro) to bright blue (blu) to a truly heavenly blue (celeste) to dark, deep blue (turchino). 

At sunset (tramonto) the sky may erupt in a dazzling Technicolor display of gold (oro), pink (rosa), scarlet (rosso scarlatto), orange (arancione), flame red (rosso fuoco) and bronze (bronzo).  At night you can lie a cielo aperto  (under the open sky) and marvel at the cielo stellato (star-studded sky).  

In Italy the summer sun often blazes from a cielo senza nuvole (cloudless sky). Some days bring no more than a nuvola passeggera (passing cloud); others, a banco di nuvole (mass of clouds).  Over the inland mountains in the afternoon the sky may darken to grigio (gray) under a nuvolone carico di pioggia (black storm cloud).   As if someone shouted  “Apriti cielo!” (literally, Open the heavens, although it translates as Good heavens!), all hell breaks loose, with a sudden acquazzone (cloudburst) and fulmini (lightning) crackling across il cielo.

If you're lost in thought, you may have your testa fra le nuvole (head in the clouds).  Something may be ne’ in cielo ne’ in terra  (neither in heaven or earth, or utter nonsense), but it can be tempting to attaccarsi alle funi in cielo (cling to the ropes in the sky, or go to any length to prove a point).

If il ciel me ne guardi (heaven forbid), something bad happens, the unexpected news could make you cadere dalle nuvole (fall from the clouds). You might try to muovere cielo e terra (move heaven and earth) to cope. Volesse il cielo (if the heavens wish) and things go well, you may be so thrilled that you feel that you could camminare sulle nuvole (walk on little clouds – or air) or even toccare il cielo con un dito (touch heaven with a finger).

An Italian song perfectly captures the sensation of soaring into the sky: the infectiously hummable “Volare”  (“To Fly”). The English lyrics are different than the original Italian ones, which describe a dreamer with hands and face painted blue swept away by the wind to fly “nel ciel infinito” (in the infinite sky).

Here is a translation of the chorus:

Volare, oh oh

Cantare, oh oh oh oh

Nel blu dipinto di blu

Felice di stare lassu'.

Flying, oh oh

Singing, oh oh oh oh

In the blue. painted blue

Happy to stay up there.

Words and Expressions

Cielo a peccorele, acqua a catinelle  — fleecy clouds one day, buckets of rain the next

Portare al settimo cielo — carry to the seventh heaven or praise to the skies

Essere nelle nuvole — to be in the clouds, daydream

Per amor del cielo — for love of heaven

Dianne Hales is the author of MONA LISA: A Life Discovered and the New York Times best-selling La Bella Lingua: My Love Affair with Italian, the World's Most Enchanting Language.

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