Submerged in the deepest cavern of Dante’s Inferno stands a fearsone sight: a three-headed Lucifer, the stone-cold heart of darkness. Weeping from six eyes, tears mixing with blood and pus, il demonio (the demon) eternally gnaws the three greatest sinners–Judas, Brutus, and Cassius, traitors of God and Rome—between the rake-like teeth of his rapacious mouths.
The evil forces depicted from Dante’s time to today’s Angels & Demons are indeed brutto come il demonio (ugly as sin), but Italians don’t damn all hell’s creatures. “Il diavolo non è cosi brutto come lo si dipinge,” a classic proverb notes. “The devil is not always as ugly as he is painted.” After all, a buon diavolo is a good egg and a diavoletto just a naughty little fellow. A povero diavolo (poor devil) deserves sympathy—or at least an avvocato del diavolo (a devil’s advocate).
The devil casually makes his way into all sorts of daily conversations in Italy. I was taken aback when a neighbor said that her brother abita a casa del diavolo (lives at the devil’s house), but she meant only that he lives in a remote, God-forsaken part of town. I was similarly stumped when a friend announced that he had un diavolo per capello (a devil for each hair), a colorful way to express extreme irritation. Essere come il diavolo e l’acqua santa (to be like the devil and holy water) indicates incompatibility, like oil and water in English.
Avere il diavolo addosso or il diavolo in corpo (to be full of the devil) isn’t necessarily a bad thing—nor is fare il diavolo a quattro (to do the devil by four), that is, to raise hell or do everything in one’s power to accomplish a goal. A clever person who knows dove il diavolo tiene la coda (where the devil keeps his tail) can saperne una più del diavolo (know one more of them than the devil) and outsmart everyone else, including the devil himself.
However, keep in mind this warning: "La farina del diavolo va tutta in crusca." (The devil’s flour turns all into bran or crust.) In prosaic English, no good comes from ill-gotten gains.) Also remember: “Il diavolo fa le pentole ma non i coperchi.” (The devil makes the pots but not the lids to cover them up.) In other words, the truth will come out and prevail.
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Sayings and Expressions
mandare al diavolo – send to the devil
diavolesco –devilish, a devilish fashion
diavolessa – she devil
diventare un demonio – to become furious, to lose control
il demone del gioco – the gambling habit
“Quando il diavolo ci mette la coda o lo zampino” – when the devil puts his tail or claw in it (things will never work out)
“Parli del diavolo e spuntano le corna” - Speak of the devil and his horns appear.