Fun Word: Intaglio

L’UNIVERSO – The fun word today is intaglio. I came across it in a book called Prince of Foxes by Samuel Shellabarger. PoF is a rather obscure historical fiction novel that’s somewhat in the vein of works by Rafael Sabatini or CS Forester. Scaramouche and Beat to Quarters come to mind.

Published in 1947, the book tells the story of the major life adventure of a man by the name of Andrea Orsini. It is set in the late 15th- and early 16th-century around the time of Cesare Borgia’s conquest of Romagna, and it features lots of interesting incidental elements that were a part of life five hundred years ago.

Set in Italy, it also has lots of unique Italian elements. When it comes to historical fiction, I normally end up reading books set in England or the Americas, so the Italian flavor was refreshing and sometimes fairly bewildering. I found myself looking up words just to make sure I knew what was going on.

It is just such a baffling word that I have chosen to highlight: intaglio. I found it in the following passage from page 71 of the Avon Books paperback edition (published in 1973):

Orsini, turning away, applied several drops of essence to his hair. Then, deciding for Saint George, he pinned the medal on his cap and slipped a couple of rings on his fingers, including a large intaglio for the thumb with the Orsini arms.

So, remember how I just said PoF has an Italian flavor? Well, this word actually just IS a full-fledged Italian language word that’s been adopted into English. According to Google Translate, intaglio as used in Italian would be the same as a carving (n) in English. However, the English word intaglio has a slightly more specific meaning.

My little red Webster’s II dictionary says that an intaglio is “an engraved figure or design depressed below the surface of a hard metal or stone.”

So, having that specific definition in mind, it becomes apparent that Orsini slipped on a thumb ring that featured a depressed engraving of the Orsini arms. Can you picture it? It would be something like this:

This is an intaglio ring.

Neat, huh?

So yeah, that’s a quick overview of intaglio. However, here’s the Oxford English Dictionary page for the word in case you’re craving even more lexiconical knowledge:

One very interesting thing the OED shows is the contrast between an intaglio and a cameo. A cameo apparently features a design engraved in relief (meaning it rises from a flat background) versus a depressed design as found in an intaglio. Cool stuff! Here’s a cameo ring for comparison:

This is a cameo ring.

In the end, this isn’t a word that’s likely to find much application, but at least we can all know what it means if we ever happen to come across it in the future. RANDOM IMPORTANT NOTE: in Italian, the “g” in the word is silent.

Okay, that’s it for intaglio! Please leave a comment using this great word!!

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