Italian Language Blog

Un cappuccino per favore Posted by on Apr 10, 2009 in Culture, Italian Language

‘Un cappuccino per favore’ is probably one of the most common phrases learnt by tourists visiting Italy, yet as with many things Italian a cappuccino isn’t always what you think it is. To the tourist a cappuccino is nothing more than a fancy cup of coffee with foam on top, but how many realize that a cappuccino is also a monk!

In the early 1500’s the Franciscan monk Matteo di Bassi of Urbino formed the austere order of cupuchin monks, so named because of the pyramidal hood which they wore as part of their habit. The word cappuccio means hood in Italian, and when we add the diminutive ending ‘-ino’ it becomes cappuccino, or ‘little hood’, hence the name of this order of monks who are still extant today: ‘I cappuccini’.

So what’s that got to do with a fancy cup of coffee I hear you ask. Well it’s difficult to give a definitive answer as myths and legends abound, but the most likely reason that the name of a monk’s hood was given to cappuccino coffee is, rather boringly, due to it’s color, which is similar to the milky brown color of the habit worn by the cappuccini monks. A more romantic legend however, has it that the invention of cappuccino coffee was due to Marco d’Aviano, a wandering preacher for the cappuccino order. In 1683 D’Aviano was sent to Vienna by the Pope to unite Christians in the face of the huge invading Ottoman army. D’Aviano is credited with rallying the disparate groups of Catholics and Protestants on the eve of the Battle of Vienna, an act which was crucial to halting the advance of Turkish soldiers into Europe. According to the legend the fleeing Turks left behind them sacks of coffee which the Viennese diluted with cream and honey as they found it too strong for their taste. The resulting milky brown beverage, being similar in color to the cappuccini’s robes was duly named cappuccino in honor of Marco D’Aviano’s order.

My neighbor recently told me an amusing true story which illustrates the possible confusion that can arise when two apparently diverse things share the same name. In Italy during the early 80’s there was a monk cantautore (singer songwriter) called Padre Giuseppe Cionfoli  who became famous with the song ‘Solo Grazie’, which he performed at the 1982 Sanremmo music festival. My neighbor’s young daughters were big fans of Padre Cionfoli, so that when they heard he was to visit their home town for a few days they were desperate to try and meet him in person. Rumor had it that during his visit Cionfoli, being a monk, would be staying ai cappuccini (with the cappuccini). Not knowing about the order of Cappuccini monks who lived at the local monastery the two girls interpreted this news as meaning that Cionfoli would be staying at the local bar because they had often heard their parents saying that they were going to ‘Il bar in piazza per i cappuccini’ (to the bar in the piazza for their cappuccini). After many long and anxious hours of hanging around outside the bar the two disappointed girls trudged home to confront their parents. ‘Ma Padre Cionfoli non c’era al bar!’ (but Padre Cionfoli wasn’t there at the bar!) they accused indignantly. You can imagine the amusement that the daughter’s little misunderstanding caused their parents!

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  1. Bonny:

    I loved the stories illustrating the origin of cappuccino/i. I think the last example is the funniest!

    ‘Il bar’ would be another good word to clarify. It was one that puzzeled me for a long time until my first trip to Italy. Il bar in Italy is not like a bar here in N. America.

    Buona Pasqua!

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