The meaning of the violet

“Ricordi sbocciavan le viole / con le nostre parole / non ci lasceremo mai / mai e poi mai", sang Fabrizio De Andrè in his sublime “La Canzone dell’Amor Perduto” (“The Song of Love Lost, 1966”). “Remember how the violets unfurled to our words. We will never say goodbye, never, never, never.”

It’s a sad, twilight-tinged song, an unusual number in the immortal singer-songwriter’s back catalogue. But these were the words I found myself humming as I walked through the Tuscan countryside, washed out by the long winter, but splashed with the petals of the first violets. Spring is just around the corner.

Blooming as it does in the latter half of February, the violet is considered the first flower to herald the change of seasons. It buds into an ever-so-slightly warmer world, then it flowers, and then it dies away as the heat becomes a little more robust. As De Andrè put it in his song: “And when you find in your hand those flowers, dried out by the sun of a faraway April, then you’ll weep for them.” Love once burned as bright as the violet, only to fade away within a couple of months.

It’s as graceful and fragile as it is intoxicating on the nose. It tends to hide in the shade of other plants: no surprise, therefore, that it has come to represent shyness and frailty, as well as an essential, soul-nourishing beauty, and the ethos of living in the moment. An Italian synonym for the violet, mammola, evokes the idea of a still-suckling baby – the sweetest, most beautiful, most fragile creature imaginable. As for colour, violets are a broad church, ranging from rich purple to lilac, right through to ultramarine blue. The last colour is particular significant, for violets also enjoy an association with the Virgin Mary, and therefore with humility. Indeed Mary and violets share a number of paintings, and viewers may be surprised to see white petals on the flowers. Christian mythology has it that violets were indeed originally white in colour, until the agony that Mary suffered at the sight of the Crucifixion seeped through into her flowers, staining them a bloody hue. Ever since then, the violet has borne connotations of grief and sorrow.

The violet’s qualities do not stop there. Wine enthusiasts will know it as one of the most common aromas in Sangiovese. There is even an old grape variety, Mammolo, that owes its name to the scent of the mammola, which predominates in the vinified liquid.
It is also a dear friend to those familiar with herbal medicine. Grinding the petals produces a wonderful cough medicine; in fact, the violet is widely recognized as a superb expectorant, and is also attributed anti-inflammatory properties.
Being an edible flower, it often appears in the kitchen too, garnishing salads and thickening soups. It always lends a delightful taste, thanks to the heavy presence of mucilage in its leaves. Really, it appeals to all the senses, which is why it stars in the perfume industry as well.

Just as we began this piece with De Andrè’s invocation of the withering flower, so we’ll close it with another quotation from a great Italian singer-songwriter, the Calabrian Rino Gaetano, whose “Sfiorivano le viole” (1976) distils the brief, beautiful, celestial, intense and complete life cycle of the violet, and of love. “You bloomed, the violets bloomed. / The sun beat down on me. / And you took my hand / as I waited”.