The word “zucchetto” is the diminutive of “gourd, pumpkin”, in Italian “zucca”, term that figuratively and playfully can indicate the head. The “zucchetto” is the small round skullcap worn by Roman Catholic ecclesiastic: even if you’ve ever heard about it, probably you noticed it during the recent visit of Pope Francis in Israel. It is so similar to the Jewish kippah that sometimes they look almost identical, but their significance and their usage are completely different.
The Catholic “zucchetto” (used also by higher Anglican clergy) was adopted in the Early Middle Ages and had a mere practical origin. Its purpose was to cover the tonsure of the clerics, who had short haircuts and shaved the crown of the head, and to protect them from the terrible cold in the unheated churches and monasteries. With the time that cap acquired the role of identifying ecclesiastical rank by the color of the zucchetto. Only the pope is entitled to wear the white, while the red indicate cardinals and the amaranth patriarchs, archbishops and bishops. The lower clergy can use only the black cap, though it has fallen out of use. So, unlike in the Jewish world the “zucchetto” is not a religious custom and doesn’t indicate a specific attitude toward the Divinity.
But to complicate matters, in Italy “zucchetto” and kippah are almost identical. Some experts say that the skullcap of the clergy has always a small stem on the top (just like the small gourd…) and it’s always lined. But so are many Italian kippot, especially those used during the High Holidays. And to make things even more confusing, Italian Jews often refer to the kippah as “zucchetto”: it’s more polite to avoid a Hebrew word with people that couldn’t understand it, don’t you agree?