Love truly is lovelier in Italy. “Anywhere else,” the nineteenth-century French writer known as Stendhal observed, “it is only a bad copy.” Only in Italy can love’s colpo di fulmine (lightning bolt) set off spasimi (spasms) of infatuation of such Richter-scale force that they transform love-struck suitors into spasimanti, corteggiatori, innamorati, pretendenti, or, if almost fatally stricken, cascamorti. In English a heart breaks just like a dish, but a lovesick Italian soul claims a word of its own—spezzare—when it shatters into bits. It’s no wonder that pop singer Tiziano Ferro croons of love making him so imbranato (slang for clumsy or awkward) that he’s like a silly little dumpling .
Yet despite their romantic reputation, Italians reserve “ti amo” (I love you) only for the loves of their lives. English-speakers love everyone and everything with the same wanton word—a lack of precision (and imagination) that confused a friend when she moved here from Italy. “People were always telling me they loved my hair, my eyes, my spaghetti alla carbonara,” she explains. “How could it feel special when a man said he loved me?”
Italian parents and children as well as boyfriends and girlfriends express affection with “Ti voglio bene,” which translates literally into “I want you well,” but conveys an entire universe of best wishes: “I want the best for you.” “I want all good things for you.” “I want what you want because I care so much for you.” This phrase echoes in the lyrics of hundreds of love songs. Smitten teenagers end their text messages with TVTB for “ti voglio tanto bene” (I love you so much).
Like many foreigners, I couldn’t quite comprehend the meaning of ti voglio bene–until I developed long-term relationships with Italians. Over the years I came to care–and care deeply—about our extended “family” at the villa we rent every summer, the Romans who welcomed me into their home like a sorellina (little sister) and the friends who shared so many happy times with us. The first time one of them said “ti voglio bene,” I felt loved in a new and wonderful way.
Sayings and Expressions
colpo di fulmine — lightning bolt of instant infatuation
essere innamorato di – to be in love with
amare una donna alla follia—to love a woman to distraction
“amor, che nullo amato amar perdona” — one of the most famous lines from Dante’s Divine Comedy (Canto V, 100); it describes a love so powerful that it permits no loved one not to love.