I am trying to understand the libretto of the opera Norma by Felice Romani (music by Vincenzo Bellini).

Norma is the Celtic / Gallic high priestess, who has had a love affair and 2 children with the enemy - a Roman proconsul. This made her not act in the best interest of her people as a religious leader, plus she betrayed her vows of chastity. Both lovers get executed by Gauls at the end of the opera.

Before her death, Norma asks her father to take care of the children. But what exactly does she want him to do? Does she want him to raise the kids himself and protect them from Roman military? Or does she want him to send Clotilde (her servant) to Rome or Roman camp with the children? The words are like this:

"Clotilde ha i figli miei.

Tu li raccogli, e ai barbari

Gl'invola insiem con lei."

I assume, she refers to Romans as Barbarians, although, theoretically, she could mean her own people.

What is the meaning of the quoted sentences, the way a native Italian would understand them?

  • 1
    You might want to mention that the author of the libretto, and hence of the lines you're interested in, is Felice Romani, who adapted it from the tragedy Norma, ou L'infanticide by Alexandre Soumet.
    – DaG
    May 18, 2022 at 9:02
  • I am glad to find a kindred spirit, who knows this stuff. However, do you think this information is helpful for answering my question, or for better compliance with the rules of the forum ?
    – Biologist
    May 18, 2022 at 10:09
  • Norma in the french play by Soumet kills her children. I have read the play. Nothing helpful in there.
    – Biologist
    May 18, 2022 at 11:03
  • 1
    I believe that, when mentioning a text, even more so to study or analyse it, it's good practice to mention its author, both on general principle and because in some cases it might be helpful (for instance, the author might hail from a specific part of Italy with linguistic peculiarities – not that I believe this is the case here). I'm writing an actual answer, anyhow!
    – DaG
    May 18, 2022 at 14:06

2 Answers 2


I'd translate that as: “Clotilde has my children. Collect them, and take them away from the barbarians together with her”.

(This is just a “service” translation, not a literary one.)

Note that involare qualcosa a qualcuno means “to take away something from someone”, so the barbari are the people the children have to be taken away from, and hence, I'd say, the Gauls. It's not specified where they are to be brought.

A small note on barbari. To the Greeks, a bàrbaros was any person who couldn't speak Greek. The Romans redefined barbarus as non-Roman too, and this is the root meaning still in Italian; the meanings of “cruel”, “uncouth” etc. are later (but relevant here too, of course). To quote Treccani dictionary:

Straniero, nel senso in cui i Greci e i Romani dicevano barbaro chiunque non fosse greco o romano, e nel senso in cui il Rinascimento opponeva il concetto di barbaro a quello della romanità e della classicità

  • Thank you. I am very surprised, she calls her own people "barbarians". She is very apologetic about her betrayal, and by a peculiar plot-twist, it was she who made a public confession and ordered her own execution 5 minutes ago. Her father is also a Gaul, she needs all his good will now, wouldn't the word "barbarians" be undiplomatic ? Or did she mean by "barbari" any cruel people in general ? The librettist uses the word "barbara" as meaning "cruel" in another opera (Il Pirata). But in Norma, where we have 2 different cultures, I would expect it to mean an uncivilised foreigner ?
    – Biologist
    May 18, 2022 at 17:30
  • Btw, the system does not let me upvote you as a new user, but I am very thankful.
    – Biologist
    May 18, 2022 at 17:43
  • 1
    @Biologist I've added a small remark on barbari. It seems almost like, having known personally Roman culture and people, Norma is come to the conclusion that that is a civilised people, not theirs.
    – DaG
    May 19, 2022 at 11:20
  • Norma's lover, the Roman proconsul Pollione, was a disappointment. He wanted to flee to Rome with another Gallic girl, Adalgisa, and abandon Norma with the kids. However, the kids really needed to get to Rome. They were raised in secret, knowing only 3 adults and hiding constantly. Norma should not idealise Romans after this. But I have seen your interpretation mentioned in one booklet. (And also the opposite ones in other booklets :-) ) Thanks !
    – Biologist
    May 19, 2022 at 13:27
  • 1
    Thank you, @Biologist, for encouraging me to go back to this libretto and its minutiae!
    – DaG
    May 19, 2022 at 16:21

Having re-read the libretto I think Norma uses barbari as a synonim for angry mob. The Gauls are horrified by her deed and want to burn her and Pollione alive, she's afraid they may want to take revange on their children, too. If you are familiar with old opera librettos you must have noticed how often barbaro/barbara is used with the meaning of cruel/merciless person (oh, il barbaro! Non passarvi, o barbara...). That's the first possibility I can think of. Barbari because they are an angry, enfuriated, bloodthirsty mob. That she's calling actual barbarians barbari is just a coincidence!

  • Yes, that "barbara" in Lucia di Lammermoor is very notable.
    – Biologist
    May 19, 2022 at 18:54
  • The crowd is still surprisingly restrained at the time Norma starts telling her father about the kids. Whatever mildly hostile things they said before, like "Empia", her father said it with them. As for the fire, it was Norma who ordered the preparation of the pyre. Rather, she fears the later reactions she correctly anticipated, and standard Gallic procedures. Maybe she thinks her own people are barbaric :-) At the same time, it seems like she shared their values once and somewhat returned to them in the finale. Only she wants the kids spared.
    – Biologist
    May 20, 2022 at 4:02
  • What I meant to say is, using it as the synonym to the future angry mob almost fits. What somewhat does not fit is, that 2 cultures exist in this opera and Pollione repeatedly uses "barbari" as Barbarians in the root meaning. But hey, it's opera :-) Maybe my expectations on termonological consistency is misplaced here :-)
    – Biologist
    May 20, 2022 at 6:45

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