The Red Moon in the Italian Language

Jan 21, 2019

La luna rossa

The red moon

“Che fai tu, luna, in ciel, dimmi, che fai?” the writer Giacomo Leopardi (1798 –1837) asked in one of his most famous poems. “What are you doing, moon, in the sky, tell me, what are you doing?”  On a frigid night in January, the answer was clear: La luna piena (the full moon) was putting on a dazzling celestial show.

Un’eclissi lunare totale (a total lunar eclipse) occurs only when the sun, earth and moon are aligned exactly, or very closely so, with the earth in the middle. As the moon passes behind it, the earth blocks the sun's rays, and the moon disappears from the sky. In an eclissi parziale (partial eclipse), part of the moon remains illuminated.

The January eclipse, visible over North America, was un raro fenomeno ottico (a rare optical phenomenon) because it occurred during a "super" moon that appeared larger than usual from earth.  From our home on the California coast,  we watched as the moon faded into blackness. Ever so slowly, thanks to the refraction of the rays of the sun (la rifrazione dei raggi solari), a red moon (luna rossa, a classic Italian sight) emerged. 

In Italian as in English, “eclipse” doubles as a verb as well as a noun, and “eclissare” generally translates as “to obscure or outshine another person.” But Italians also use the verb reflexively with a different twist of meaning: “Mi eclisso,” for instance, means “I disappear” or “I vanish.”

La luna — which can be nuova (new), crescente (waxing) or calante (waning) — doesn’t just appear in the night sky. Someone with extravagant wishes may chiedere la luna (asks for the moon). Italians refer to a fetus as being ancora nel mondo della luna (still in the world of the moon, or not yet born).

Some folks are so absentminded or detached from reality that they seem to vivere nel mondo della luna (live in the world of the moon) while others are so cranky that they avere la luna storta (have the crooked moon). In these hard times more people find themselves struggling to sbarcare il lunario (make ends meet).

An Italian lunatico may be temperamental but isn’t necessarily as wacky as an English lunatic. But do watch out for anyone who tries to fare vedere la luna nel pozzo (make you see the moon in a well). He’s just stringing you along. And you certainly don’t want to end up doing as dogs often do during an eclipse: abbaiare alla luna (barking at the moon—or exerting yourself in vain).

Words and Expressions

Luna Rossa — the name of the Italian sailing team that competes in international races such as the America’s Cup

Lunario –- almanac

Lunarista –- almanac maker, weather predictor

Luna park –- amusement park

Luna di miele –- honeymoon

La-passione-pressDianne Hales is the author of LA BELLA LINGUA: My Love Affair with Italian, the World's Most Enchanting LanguageMONA LISA: A Life Discovered and the upcoming LA PASSIONE: How Italy Seduced the World. For more information, visit her new website:

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