A Hairy Subject in the Italian Language

Sep 6, 2010


i capelli (degli uomini) 

hair (men’s) 

Italian men have always wanted to look their best (apparire al meglio). The manly men of ancient Rome were clean-shaven and neatly coiffed—no easy feats in those days.

According to Alberto Angela’s fascinating book, A Day in the Life of Ancient Rome, rich Romans had slaves who served as in-house barbers. Using only water and a razor (rasoio) of bronze or tempered iron shaped like a half moon, il barbiere would shave his master’s beard (barba) every morning. If this weren’t torture enough, he would then use tweezers to pluck out, one by one, every superfluous hair around the eyebrows and on the neck.

Some men used organic-base body waxes. According to the historian Suetonius Julius Caesar underwent depilatory treatments, and the emperor Augustus rubbed scalding-hot walnut shells  on his legs to grow softer hair.

When they shave themselves (farsi la barba or radersi), modern Italian men can enjoy the advantages of shaving cream (crema da barba)  and aftershave (dopobarba). Some prefer to go to un barbiere di fiducia (a trusted barber), who advises them on whether they would look better with regular sideburns (le basette) or longer ones (i basettoni). Many opt for un pizzetto (literally a little piece, or goatee). 

“Barba” appears in places other than on a man’s face. Some jokes have been around so long that they have grown una barba lunga (a long beard).  Anything boring can far venire la barba (make a beard grow). 

Farla in barba a qualcuno (to do it at someone’s beard) means succeeding despite determined opposition or playing a trick on somebody. Servire qualcuno di barba e capelli (literally to serve someone of beard and hair) translates as giving someone what’s coming to him or his comeuppance.

As they became vecchie barbe (old beards), Rome’s rich and powerful men worried more about the hair on their heads than on their faces. If it turned gray, they would dye (tingere) it. If their hair line started to recede, they tried various lotions that promised miraculous regrowth. 

When that didn’t work, many men tried a timeless trick: a comb-over. Julius Caesar (above) combed his hair from back to front to cover his balding pate.

Men who went completely pelato or calvo (bald), sometimes resorted to coloring the skin on their head with lamp-black, Angela reports, to give the impression of black hair from a distance (the length of the Coliseum, perhaps). Others covered  una testa pelata (a bald head) with a parrucchino (toupee or hairpiece). 

Over the centuries Italian men began shaving their heads in the summer months—a custom that fascinated the writer Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) who enjoyed spending time in Italy and tried in vain to master the language. Emulating the Italians, the writer with the trademark mane of white hair became una testa rasata (a shaved head). His Italian showed no noticeable improvement. 

Words and Expressions 

Barbablù -– Bluebeard

che barba! – what a bore!

barbone — hobo, homeless guy   

barboso — boring, tedious

sbarbatello — a pimply adolescent, youthful or inexperienced person

For a delightful ode to i capelli  by a man who says that, without hair, he would be like perfume without a bottle or a door without a handle, click below:

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