A Roman friend recalls the first Valentine she received. A smitten 13-year-old suitor declared that he burned with "amor, che nullo amato amar perdona," a line from canto 5 of Dante's Inferno that describes a love so compelling that it permits no loved one not to love.
Of course, the creators of the original Romance languages can claim the best romantic phrases--especially on Valentine's Day, which traces its origins back more than 2,000 years. On every February 15, the ancient Romans would celebrate a fertility festival called the Lupercalia, highlighted by the sacrifice of a goat in the sacred cave dedicated to Romulus and Remus, the city’s legendary founders. Priests sliced the goat’s hide into strips and dipped them in the sacrificial blood. Boys would run through the streets, gently slapping women with the goatskin strips to enhance their fertility in the coming year.
Later in the day, all the young unmarried women in the city would place their names in a large urn. Rome’s bachelors each selected a name and became that woman’s sexual partner for the year in a sort of trial union that often led to marriage.
As it grew in power in the centuries following the birth of Christ, the Catholic Church abolished this pagan practice. In its stead it created the most romantic of saints’ days on February 14 to honor a martyred Roman priest named Valentino.
Although historical accounts differ, Valentino seems to have served in Rome in the third century A.D., when the Emperor Claudius II outlawed marriage for young men because he believed that bachelors made better soldiers. Valentino, sympathetic to young lovers, defied the decree and continued to perform weddings.
Arrested and tortured, the tender-hearted priest developed a friendship with a young girl—perhaps his jailor’s daughter—who came to visit him. Some say they fell in love; others claim that he cured her blindness. Before being beheaded, the priest sent her a note that he signed, “il tuo Valentino.” Lovers around the world have been using the same phrase ever since.
On Valentine’s Day, which has not been as commercialized in Italy as in the United States, Italian couples celebrate with dinner out, flowers, or the famous Baci Perugina, small, chocolate-covered hazelnuts wrapped with a poetic quote in four languages.
However you celebrate this happy day, I wish you and your sweetheart a buona festa degli innamorati!
Sweet Sayings for Your Valentine
Mi sto innamorando di te -- I’m falling in love with you
Sei l'amore della mia vita -- You are the love of my life
Ti amo da impazzire/morire/alla follia -- I love you to go crazy, to die, to madness
Sono pazzo di te -- I’m crazy about you
Ti adoro -– I adore you
Voglio soltanto te –- I want only you
Sei l'amore della mia vita –- You are the love of my life
Dianne Hales is the author of LA BELLA LINGUA: My Love Affair with Italian, the World's Most Enchanting Language and MONA LISA: A Life Discovered.
Click below to hear a perfect song for lovers: "Ho voglio di te" (I want you):