Above: an “ombra” of wine, a small glass shared in company.
Most believe that the Venetian word for a small glass of wine, ombra (literally shadow or shade in Italian and Venetian), comes from the fact that wine vendors used to park their stands in the shade during summer months.
“To keep their wines cool, they would move their stands following the shade of the bell tower,” wrote Durante and Turato in their 1975 etymological dictionary of Veneto and Italian.
They were referring to the famous bell tower in Piazza San Marco, St. Mark’s Campanile (pronounced KAHM-pah-NEE-leh).
But there is no definitive etymon (origin) for the common expression. And philologists have no evidence to support this claim. None of the many etymological dictionaries that I possess in my ample library even address its origin. And while there are many instances on the internets where writers evoke this folkloric etymology (including me), it’s unlikely that it’s correct, however appealing it may be.
In my research today, I discovered that the expression ombra de vin (small glass of wine) doesn’t begin to appear in enogastronomic literature until the 1970s. One of the earliest mentions (if not the earliest) is a reference to the popular Milan wine bar N’ombra de vin, which opened in the mid-1970s. Its presence undoubtedly bolstered the popularity of the expression outside Venice.
Some will remember Chino Ermarcora’s 1935 Vino all’ombra (wine in the shade), his “sentimental guide to the osterie [taverns] of Friuli, Trieste, and Istria.”
Its cover illustration depicts two men resting in the shadow of a tree with a jug of wine.
It’s only natural that we associate wine and shade for the obvious reasons.
But it’s important to keep in mind that ombra had a very distinct meaning in Venetian and Veneto: trifle, mere nothing, or minimal quantity. It’s meaning and usage are well documented in Venetian philology.
And the expression gnanca per ombra (slavishly, not even by shadow, akin to the Italian neanche per sogno, which we can translate loosely as not in my wildest dreams) was widely used as early as the eighteenth century, when it appeared countless times in the works of the hugely popular dramatist Carlo Goldoni, for example.
The locution is addressed in nearly every Venetian etymologic dictionary that I’ve been able to consult, including Giuseppe Boerio’s landmark dictionary, first published in 1827. It does not have an entry ombra de vin.
At least one Italian blogger agrees with me that trifle is a more probable explanation.
Why would the wine vendors move their stalls as the shadow cast by the bell tower moved? Why wouldn’t they simply park them in the shade to begin with?
In fact, Piazza San Marco is lined with porticos that offer protection from the sun (below).
Philology is an inexact science and rarely delivers definitive results. But look at all the fun we’ve had researching! I won’t end my quest here and will report back as soon as my work sheds new light on this conundrum (forgive the pun).
Keep in mind: the question of what wine you pour into your ombra is a much more important one…
Image via Christian Ostrosky’s Flickr.