“Per le farfalle?” (For the butterflies?) I asked when the owners of the villa we were renting explained why they had planted a field of lavender in front of the house. The sweet-smelling flowers would attract exquisite yellow butterflies, they explained, and create a lovely sight that would make passers-by smile. They were right, but the very word farfalla has always been enough to make me smile.
Gli entomologi (entymologists or bug scientists) distinguish between a farfalla and a falena (moth). Although both belong to the order Lepidoptera, farfalle prefer il giorno (day) and falene, la notte (night).
As an Italian encyclopedia explains, una farfalla also makes a spectacular metamorphosis from un bruco (caterpillar) to a beautiful flying insect with “quattro grandi ali vivacemente colorate” (four big, brightly colored wings). Butterflies gracefully "chiudono le ali a libro in posizione di riposo" (close their wings like a book in a position of rest).
As charming as butterflies may be, le farfalle have more to do than sfarfallare or sfarfalleggiare (flutter about). They may show up on an Italian dinner table in dishes such as lepre con farfalle (hare with bowtie-shaped pasta).
A farfallino, literally a small butterfly, also serves as a name for an empty-headed person–or a bow-tie. A farfallone, a big butterfly, describes a huge blunder as well as someone superficial or flirty who is “incostante in amore” (inconstant in love).
In La Vispa Teresa, an Italian children’s classic rhyme, a little girl catches a butterfly who begs her to be set free. “Living and fluttering around I don’t do any harm,” it implores. “You are hurting me instead, squeezing my wings! Please let me free, I’m God’s creature too!’ The girl, regretting what she’s done to the butterfly, opens her hands and lets la farfarlla fly away.
The most famous Italian farfalla did not fare as well. The tragic heroine of Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly is cruelly seduced and betrayed by Pinkerton, an American naval officer who turns out to be a faithless farfallone. The first time I saw the opera I remained dry-eyed until the very end, when Butterfly blindfolds her little boy before taking her own life.
As I came to understand the words — and anticipate the plot — my heart started to break ever earlier in the opera. Now I rarely get as far as the couple’s love duet at the end of act one, when Pinkerton concedes, “Un pò di vero c'è” –there’s some truth in Butterfly’s fear that an American who catches a butterfly pierces its heart with a pin. I wanted to cry out to the naive farfalla to fly away while she could.
On our last visit an Italian friend presented me with a bouquet of flowers, topped by a delicate silk butterfly. "Sei la mia farfalla" (You are my butterfly), she said, "writing words that fly higher and higher" — and, I hope, that make people smile.
Words and Expressions
avere le farfalle nello stomaco – butterflies in the stomach (an English idiom that Italian has adopted)
stile a farfalla – butterfly stroke (swimming)
acchiappafarfalle – butterfly net
ignudo bruco – literally a naked caterpillar, extremely poor
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 this beautiful duet from Madama Butterfly: