A face is a face in English. You wash it in the morning, put a smile on it throughout the day, and display it along with your friends’ on Facebook. In Italian a face can be una faccia, un viso, or un volto. It’s taken me years to realize they are not interchangeable.
La faccia, with its eyes (gli occhi), nose (il naso), and mouth (la bocca), is what you see in the mirror. In a country that prizes la bella figura above all, salvare la faccia (saving face) is always important. Italians appreciate un bel faccione, a jolly good-humored face, and say “Viva la faccia!” (long live the face) to wish someone well or take hats off to him.
But faccia can also imply impudence. Someone with una faccia di bronzo is brazen; una faccia tosta is cheeky. A person who non guarda in faccia nessuno (doesn’t look anyone in the face) shows disrespect to all and might even dare to ridere in faccia tua (laugh in your face).
Viso refers to a more public face. When you have a one-on-one conversation, you speak faccia a faccia (face to face) but you may or may not talk a viso aperto (frankly or with an open face). If you welcome an idea or proposition, you could far buon viso (give a good face). If not ,you might at least try to fare buon viso a cattiva sorte (put a good face on bad things or make the best of a situation). If you just have to grin and bear it, you would far buon viso a cattivo gioco (put a good face on a bad game).
While everyone has a faccia and viso, I’m not so sure we’re all worthy of un volto, a word that implies a spiritual, mystical, even mysterious appearance. I didn’t fully grasp this distinction until I saw my friend Ludovica Sebregondi’s elegant art book, Volti di Cristo (Faces of Christ), a limited-edition, 5,000-euro, oversized volume with artistic reproductions so precious that readers are advised to wear gloves when turning the pages.
No wonder Italians chuckled when I asked if I had a sbaffo sul mio volto (smudge on my countenance), a notion so preposterous that it merits yet another word for face in Italian: faccina, the perky and ubiquitous ☺.
Here is a very brief musical tribute to a faccia di gomma (rubber face):
Sayings and Expressons
in faccia – in one’s face
voltare faccia – turn face or change one’s opinion
cambiare faccia – do an about-face
faccione – large face
faccia di tolla – someone that disregards everyone and everything.