Villas and “Villains”

Villain = noun

a cruelly malicious person who is involved in or devoted to wickedness or crime; scoundrel.

While in Italian the meaning is a little less categorical:

Villano / vil·là · no / = adjective and masculine noun

1. masculine noun = Rude and ignorant person: “è un villano fatto e finito (he is a “villano” shod and dressed)”

2. adjective = Rough, rude, crude.

The Origin of the Word

In reality, at the beginning–and still up to the nineteenth century–villano could also be used in a neutral sense, as synonym of ‘peasant‘, then the derogatory meaning took over, and today the term means nothing more than “crude, rude, suburban.”

In every age, man has been tireless in inventing inclusion and exclusion criteria, aimed at establishing an ‘we‘ and a ‘them‘ on a geographical basis (north-south, east-west), of lineage (noble and plebeians, ‘pure’ and ‘impure’ races), of religion (faithful) and so on discriminating.  

Among the most relevant and lasting divisions there is undoubtedly that between citizens and inhabitants of the countryside, and the history of words like peasant, leaves no doubt about the judgment of each other.

Villano too, of course, belongs to the same semantic field, yet it seems less transparent in its obvious derivation from the villa: since the latter is an elegant, prestigious house, what will the peasants ever have to do with it? 

A villa is a country residence, where those who could afford it went to recover from the hardships of city life or from the summer heat. 

The rustic villa, on the other hand, farther from the city, was a farm permanently inhabited by the servants who cultivated the land, and in the Middle Ages these villas became self-sufficient agricultural estates and generally fortified, whose inhabitants, often serfs, were called villani or villagers.

It is not difficult to understand how in the late Middle Ages, in a era of city and trade rebirth, citizens looked with contempt on those who had remained yoked to the hard work of the fields, extraneous to the ferments of social and cultural renewal that galvanized urban centers. 

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I lived the most part of my life in Washington DC, now in Italy getting to know again my country. Plenty of surprises, for good and bad, and lots of nostalgia for DC.

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