Does anyone have a clue about the origin of the saying: "Donna barbuta, sempre piaciuta" and what its real meaning is?
Probably this has more a joking, sarcastic valence rather than that of an ancient wisdom. I'm not sure this proverb could comfort a woman affected by hirsutism. However there are many Italian proverbs that have the purpose of decreasing the "defects" of other people we may refer. These are part of a vulgar language used in certain contexts where people know each other intimately and they talk about other people. You may hear this between boys talking of others girls. You may also hear:
Donna nana, tutta tana.
Donna pelosa, donna virtuosa.
Donna vecchia donna proverbiosa.
Brutta 'e faccia e bòna 'e core. (Brutta di faccia ma buona dentro.)
Donna prudente è una gioia eccellente.
Donna ridarella, o santa o puttanella.
And finally for the men:
Uomo di panza uomo di sostanza
As stated @Bakuriu the proverb more close to it is "Donna baffuta sempre piaciuta" and I think that even in this case the meaning is the same: "barbuta" may refer to feelers.
There are other three hypothesis that should be taken in account, I start with the less likely:
- Maybe, but this has remote probability, "donna barbuta" could indicate an old woman. Modest facial hair in old women is normal.
- Link with the past. In fact in ancient time the beard was an important attribute for men. In many religions the beard is a link with the divine (e.g. judaism or islam) and in the classical Greek culture the beard was a mandatory attribute for men. Maybe an echo from the past may have contributed to the assumption that bearded humans were more attractive.
- Maybe "donna barbuta" is simply used instead of "hairy woman" something similar to "Donna pelosa donna virtuosa". In fact few would use it if it only referred to a woman with a real beard. Hirsutim is not so common. This is an extract from Encyclopaedia Britannica: Or, A Dictionary of Arts, Sciences, and …, Volume 3, showing that women with a beard were not so common:
and those who were at the carnival at Venice in 1726 saw a female dancer astonish the spectators no more by her talent than by her chin covered with a black bushy beard.
The last hypothesis opens an interesting debate over the stereotype of the "hairy Italian woman" and how Italians treat this topic. In other languages there are lots of proverbs referring to "hairy women" but they always have negative connotations:
« God protect us from hairy women and beardless men. » (Muslim)
« A hairy man's rich, a hairy wife's a bitch. » (USA)
The user El Caudillo made an amazing work - I am copying and pasting some here:
« A woman with a beard is of wicked kind. » (Dutch)
« When a family is going to ruin, a beard grows on the face of the eldest daughter-in-law. » [a bad presage] (Koran)
« A bearded woman, God help us! » (Portuguese, Brazil)
« May God spare me from a bearded, old woman. » (Spanish, Argentina)
I add a Greek saying:
« A stout bearded woman always bears something malicious. »
In conclusion, in all these cases (I'm not sure however if it is the right thing to do with this proverb) we should take in account that the beard could be read figuratively as an attribute indicating a woman with a strong influence within the family, notion that is expressed in Italian as "donna con i pantaloni" ("woman with trousers"). "beard" was in the past, like "pantaloni", an attribute indicating the status and the role of men within the family.
It's probably just a proverb used to comfort some woman that does have "a problem" with excessive facial hair. Note that some people use a slightly different version: donna baffuta, sempre piaciuta, which seems to support this view, since that's usually where some women might have "excessive facial hair". The wiktionary gives this explanation and I cannot think of anything else.
However saying it is surely poor taste.