laundry blowing in the wind

Spending time with Italians, you realize that so many of their current habits, beliefs, superstitions, and traditions are rooted in the ancient. This is even true when it comes to understanding the weather, particularly the way in which the wind blows.

I had never given much thought to the wind. Having grown up in the the U.S., I had heard of winds from the north, south, east, or west. Winds had directions but rarely had names.

So I was intrigued one afternoon when an Italian colleague began bundling up in anticipation of the tramontana, a gusty, northern wind that blows “across the mountains.” Then I remembered that, a few months before, we had discussed the scirocco, a hot wind from the southeast.

What other directional winds had names? I wondered. Turns out that all of them do. And their names are derived from ancient times.

Origins of the Ancient Winds

The origins of the names Italy’s winds came, like many things, via Ancient Greece. Knowledge of the wind was essential for farmers minding crops and ancient sailors who depended on the directional winds to help power their ships across the Mediterranean. Understanding the winds was not exclusive to the Ancient Greeks, of course. But their geographical point of reference and early interactions with the Italian peninsula gave way to Ancient Romans adopting the Greek system and some of its nomenclature.

Homer cites four winds – Boreas, Eurus, Notos, Zephyrus – in his Odyssey, the epic that takes place in and gave names to many places in Italy. Nearly 500 years later, around 340 BCE, Aristotle wrote about 10 winds in his treatise on meteorology.

Following Homer and Aristotle were other Greek and Roman philosophers, writers, and scientists that studied the winds. Eratosthenes, Vitruvius, Seneca, and Virgil offered eight-, 12-, 24-, and even 32-point wind systems.

During the early Middle Ages, after the decline of the Roman Empire, Emperor Charlemagne devised his own 12-point system, using Germanic names (nordroni, vuestroni, etc.) that we recognize today. Meanwhile, scholars in the Arab World translated Aristotle’s Meteorology to come up with Arabic names for the 12 Greek winds.

Eight Winds of Italy and the Compass Rose

Italy today uses an eight-point compass rose, a system derived from the 13th century when Genoa, Venice, and Pisa were republics and other parts of the Italian peninsula and Sicily were autonomous or otherwise affiliated. The names of the winds borrow from the lingua franca of medieval sailors and cartographers, who were influenced by terms picked up from the wider Mediterranean, including Spain, Portugal, Greece, Northern Africa, and Norman-Arab Sicily.

Here are the names of Italy’s winds:

  • Tramontana (N) – northern wind from over or across the mountains (Alps)
  • Grecale (NE) – also known as Greco, a northeastern wind from the direction of Greece
  • Levante (E) – a wind from the Levant or Middle East
  • Scirocco (SE) – a southeastern wind from Syria
  • Ostro (S) – a hot wind from the south, also called Austro or Mezzogiorno
  • Libeccio or Garbino (SW) – the southwestern wind comes from Libya or the Maghreb
  • Ponente (W) – the western wind, derived from the verb ponere (to set), which is what the sun does in this direction
  • Maestrale (NW) – also known as Mistral (in English) or Maestro, named after the main nautical from Rome when ships sailed toward Sicily and beyond. Sardinia is particularly affected by the Maestrale which blows down from France.

Though most meteorologists and laypeople in Italy use these main terms, they may also use additional names to describe the winds depending on region and dialect. For example, in Emilia-Romagna, the east wind is the Vét de So (vento del sole or wind of the sun) and the Maestrale in Molise is known as the Maiellesa, meaning that it comes from the Majella mountains. The western wind, known sometimes as the diminuitive Ponentino in Rome, goes by a rather charming name in Sardinia – Bentu ‘e Luna, the wind of the moon (Vento della Luna).

By the way, the compass that lists the winds is known as a compass rose or a wind rose. In Italian, it is called rosa dei venti.

Places and Monuments in Italy Associated with the Winds

In my travels and in the research of this post, I have come across several places and monuments that derive from or are inspired by Italy’s winds.

Vatican City has several examples. The center of St. Peter’s Square is a giant compass rose. There are various marble markers around the central fountain that list each of the winds. The Gallery of Maps in the Vatican Museums has Baroque-era frescoes depicting the directional winds. There is also the marble anemoscope, basically an ancient weather vane, in the Vatican Museum collection, though it is unclear whether this object is on display. Many of Italy’s maritime and scientific museums have compass roses and other instruments.

Then, of course, there are places names from Homer’s Odyssey, one of the earliest texts to give names to the winds. Lazio’s Riviera Ulisse, which includes the Pontine Islands and the beach resort San Felice Circeo, are believed to be where Circe seduced Odysseus. Look also to Sicily, particularly the Aeolian Islands, which were named for Aeolus, Homer’s God of the Winds.

I know I am only scratching the surface with this list. So I welcome your other suggestions in the comments.

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