The Myths and History of Red Hair

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Red Hair Italia

This page, perhaps unsurprisingly given the title, is all about red hair in the Italian realm. Most of the information comes courtesy of Emanuela, a red-haired Italian (yes, they have red hair in Italy too :p) who has kindly emailed me all this stuff.

First up some very famous Italians from history that had red hair. We've already mentioned elsewhere on this site that Galileo Galilei, "the father of modern science", had red hair. We've also mentioned the famed violinist and composer Antonio Vivaldi who was likewise red-haired. Vivaldi was nicknamed Il Prete Rosso - "The Red Priest" - because of it. Anyway, we can now add another famous Italian figure to the list - Giuseppe Garibaldi. Garibaldi was the leading figure in the movement that led to the unification of Italy in the 19th Century. He was noted for his red hair which can be seen in the various portraits of him. Interestingly, he can now also be added to the slightly odd list of red-haired revolutionaries that we've talked about elsewhere on here, joining the ranks of Oliver Cromwell, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington among others.

Giuseppe Garibaldi

Another redheaded Italian associated with the unification of Italy was the poet Ugo Foscolo. His gingerish appearance can clearly be seen in his portrait below.

Ugo Foscolo

The dramatist Vittorio Alfieri, a contemporary of Foscolo, and the "founder of Italian tragedy", was also red-haired. Again, his ginger complexion can be seen in the portrait below. Interestingly, both men penned "self-portrait" poems that described their appearance. Foscolo described his hair as "tawny" and Alfieri described his hair as "thinning above the brow, but still rich red".

Vittorio Alfieri

Other noted Italian redheads include the noblewoman Giulia Beccaria, the painter Giovanni Battista di Jacopo, aka Rosso Fiorentino (the "Red Florentine"), and Michele Benso, Count of Cavour - the father of Camillo Benso, who helped unite Italy along with Giuseppe Garibaldi. There are also numerous portraits that show various Italian nobles with red or reddish hair. For example, below is a picture of Maximilian Sforza, son of Ludovico Sforza. In it he looks decidedly red-haired.

Maximilian Sforza

I'll finish this short article with my favourite thing that Emanuela has brought to my attention so far; the short story Rosso Malpelo. This was written by the Italian writer Giovanni Verga and was published in 1878. The story concerns Malpelo, a red-haired child who works in a sand mine. He leads a somewhat solitary life - his father died in a mining accident and the rest of his family have little time for him. He makes friends with a fellow mine-worker nicknamed Frog, so-called because he is lame and walks with a limp. However, this companion also dies after becoming increasingly sickly. It's a sad, but moving tale, and is said to be a commentary on the economic and social conditions endured by the working poor in southern Italy at the time.

Rosso Malpelo page

The name "Rosso Malpelo" translates as "evil red hair", an allusion to the hair colour of the boy in the story and his demonised status. It's also said to allude to the fact that Sicilians believed that red-haired people had an evil and malicious disposition. Something which tallies well with the suspicion that often accompanies red-hair in the traditions of other cultures. Interestingly, the name "Rossi", meaning red, is said to be the most common surname in Italy today - this (along with the seemingly disproportionate number of famous redheads listed above) maybe suggests that red hair was more common in Italy in earlier times than it is now.

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