This year marks an extraordinary birthday (un compleanno straordinario): the 500th anniversary of the Vocabolario degli Accademici della Crusca (Vocabulary of the Academy of La Crusca), one of the monuments of Italian cultural and linguistic history (uno dei monumenti della storia linguistica e culturale italiana), published in 1612.
During the 1500s, an unheralded but invaluable invention transformed Italian agriculture: il frullone, a sieve-like device that separated wheat from chaff to produce flour. A group of irreverent Florentine intellectuals, passionately devoted to preserving their language’s più bei fiori (loveliest blooms), decided to become human frulloni and separate the linguistic fior di farina (the flower of the wheat) from the coarse crusca (chaff or bran).
The self-declared Crusconi formed L’Accademia della Crusca (the Academy of the Bran) and took on a lofty mission: creating the first dictionary of officially recognized words in any language. This was no dry academic venture by uptight language police.
The Crusconi playfully gave themselves names related to farming, cooking, and baking, such as Lievito (yeast or leaven), Macinato (milled into flour), Sollo (soft or spongy), and Grattugiato (grated). Each Cruscone also selected a related symbol, such as a sieve or sheaf of wheat, which was embossed in vibrant colors upon a wooden pala, a shovel-like paddle bakers used to slide loaves of bread from an oven.
Despite their jocularity, La Crusca’s founding brothers took their mission seriously. Il Vocabolario defined words rather than listing synonyms and traced their origins and history through prose and poetic citations. Its 960 oversized pages contained only words carefully chosen as “belle, significative e dell’uso nostro” (“beautiful, noteworthy, and of our use,” that is, from Italian authors such as Dante, Petrarca, and Boccaccio).
The Vocabolario so impressed international scholars that France, England, and Germany set to work on similar compendiums. For Italians, La Crusca’s Vocabolario, like Dante’s Divina Commedia, became a “gran libro della nazione” (a great book of the nation).
When I had the privilege of turning the stiff, dry pages of a first edition of the Vocabolario, I was so moved that I became speechless (sono rimasta senza parole). This volume, constructed of words chosen to please the ear, the eye, and the soul, contains Italian’s genome.
No less than the artists laboring in a Renaissance bottega (workshop/studio), the language “bakers” of La Crusca painstakingly created a living work of art: la più bella lingua del mondo (the most beautiful language in the world).
Words and Expressions
parolina, paroletta -- nice word
parolone -- big or long word, pompous-sounding word
parolaio –- a windbag
in poche parole -- in short, in brief
mantenere la parola -– to keep one’s word
mettere una buona parola –- to put in a good word, to recommend
Dianne Hales is the author of LA BELLA LINGUA: My Love Affair with Italian, the World’s Most Enchanting Language.
Click below to hear a lovely ode to la bella lingua italiana: