Italian Lessons


Custodire and Its Relatives

Most of us have dealt with custodians at one time or another. They’re the ones who take care of a place, like a school, church, or museum. And while custode is a good bet for the equivalent of any kind of “guardian,” there are other words that are more specific.


When referring to someone as a “custodian,” Italians often do use il custode, especially in the realm of museums and such places, and may even use custode to refer to the more prestigious role of “curator.” The curator of a museum is often called il direttore. In the following example, it’s impossible to know the professional level of the custode in question.

Il custode del museo mi mostra due carrozze restaurate di recente...

The curator of the museum shows me two carriages, recently restored...

Caption 27, Dottor Pitrè - e le sue storie - Part 1

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In referring to custodians, Italian also uses il guardiano (the guardian), or in schools, ilbidello or la bidella (the janitor) in addition to custode. In a Catholic church, on the other hand, a word similar to “sexton” or “sacristan” is used: il sagrestano or il sacrestano.


“Custody” in English often refers to divorce settlements. But when a parent is given custody of a child, then Italian employs l’affidamento, from the verb affidare (to entrust).


Suspects or criminals can be “taken into custody.” In this case, detenere is the verb meaning “to take into custody.” Once taken into custody they’re in detenzione. A prisoner is also known as un detenuto. “Detention” at school, after all, is a form of punishment, and “imprisons” the student after school hours.


So, we need only stretch our imagination very slightly to understand what custodire means.


In this week’s episode about Giuseppe Pitrè and Sicilian traditions, a couple of variations of custodire are used. Custodire is often used to refer to conserving or taking care of something. In Pitrè’s case, we’re talking about stories and traditions.


Il modo migliore di custodire la tradizione è quello di saperla adattare continuamente.

The best way to preserve tradition is to know how to adapt it, continually.

Caption 26, Dottor Pitrè - e le sue storie - Part 6

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Il dato positivo di Pitrè è che, in fondo, ama questo popolo a cui dà voce, da cui raccoglie racconti, testimonianze e in qualche modo le vuole custodire, le vuole salvaguardare.

The positive fact about Pitrè is that, deep down, he loves this populace to which he gives a voice, whose stories and remembrances he gathers, and somehow he wants to conserve them, he wants to safeguard them.

Captions 30-32, Dottor Pitrè - e le sue storie - Part 6

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The person who does the conserving can be called il custode (the custodian), as in the following example.

Ora, credo che Pitrè sia uno dei custodi della tradizione.

Now, I believe that Pitrè is one of the custodians of the tradition.

Caption 23, Dottor Pitrè - e le sue storie - Part 6

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We can talk about conserving physical objects, too. Custodire is a verb often used in conjunction with works of art in museums, castles, and churches.

Nell'Auditorium comunale di Norcia, ... è custodita, invece, la bellissima pala d'altare.

In the Municipal Auditorium of Norcia, ... is housed, instead, the very beautiful altarpiece.

Captions 12-14, Itinerari Della Bellezza - Umbria - Part 3

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Someone who owns a musical instrument, or some other kind of precious or fragile object, will usually keep it in una custodia (a case).


Custodire and “custody,” with their various derivatives, stem from the Latin custos, meaning “the guard.” So it all makes a certain amount of sense, doesn’t it?


It’s interesting how a word in Latin or other ancient language evolves to mean different things in different languages. Finding the connections can be fun, all the time remembering that there may be a few false friends waiting around the corner.


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Caption 23, 32, 31, 30, 26

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