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   © Jeff Matthews   entry Sept 2011

Everything is related to Naples
Number 151 in this series. Link to all items here.
 

Shades of Venice & Persia!—and Other Ways to Draw the Blinds


Larry Ray, friend and contributor to this encyclopedia (click on photo), writes with a few questions:
...can you give me the origins and uses in Naples of the words for two main ways of covering doors and windows? ...mettere le persiane for windows, (scuretto, imposta) actual shutters, scuretti, that swing on vertical hinges, or versions with fixed slatted shutters that push out from the bottom and can be held open by a metal bar (now called 'Caribbean shutters' here in USA) ...whole solid shutter hinged horizontally at the top... and chiudere [close] la saracinesca for shops, but also commonly used for windows and also called serranda, tapparella...
This has cost me a few beers and an entire morning at the bar consulting my version of Holmes' Baker Street Irregulars! There are two parts: mechanical and etymological.

I. Mechanical:

My peanut gallery tells me that, mechanically, closures on windows can either
  —(1) open and close on hinges or a slide mechanism;
  —(2) roll up and around some sort of a spool at the top, the saracinesca principle; or
  —(3) close like solid doors.

(Obviously, this excludes 'Venetian blinds', veneziane, used in many places in Italy, I think, to mean what it means in the English-speaking world: a system of narrow, horizontal slats that "pancake" together as they are raised and can be angled to admit more or less light and air. Some languages, such as French, call Venetian blinds "Persian" because early Venetian traders were said to have brought them back from Persia. Having just said "many places in Italy," I now learn from my top-secret Venetian source that in Venice they call "Venetian blinds" persiane. They also call persiane "persiane." (You can see why I have labelled this entry a "work in progress"!)

1.

2.

3.

4.


So, at least in Naples, if they are on the outside, have louvered slats, and open and close on hinges or a slide mechanism they are some sort of persiana. If they are solid door-like closures (not shown above) and meant to keep out light and air, they are called scuri (plural), a word that, appropriately, means dark. On the inside, such solid hinged shutters (photo 1) are called imposte (plural) or scuretti (although a number of persons I talked to had never heard the term scuretti). Thus, anthing except a solid door-like closure on the outside is a persiana, whether recessed in the wall when open and then slid shut (as in photo 2, where the right-hand section is partially closed) or whether they swing out like doors to the outside (photo 3).

In Neapolitan usage, another kind of mechanism is also called a persiana (as long as it is on a home window): a covering made of horizontal slats that rolls up and around some sort of a spool at the top (as in photo 4). If, however, that mechanism is used for a store front at street level, it is called a saracinesca. It is drawn up around and then lowered from a spool by a cord or strap (or even an electrical motor). In standard Italian that kind of roller-shutter is called a serranda; the term saracinesca in standard Italian refers, in fact, to a portcullis (image, below right), the latticed grille or gate used to fortify the entrances to medieval castles. The portcullis was mounted in vertical grooves in castle walls and was raised or lowered by means of chains or ropes attached to an internal winch. The portcullis did not, of course, roll around a spindle at the top, but simply slid up and down. In Naples, then, saracinesca and serranda are synonyms (although if you are really talking about castles and mean portcullis you would say saracinesca). As noted, the saracinesca mechanism at home (photo 4) is called a persiane by most people. The one in photo 4 can be pushed and angled out since it is mounted into an external frame; this one has two positions: the one seen in the photo as well as another position that is flush against the window. (The braces on the side have a joint that you can unlock to fold the frame in flush.)
  
A real saracinesca             
To make it even more complicated (!), anything at home that rolls up and around a spindle should be called a tapparella (including photo 4). (The single strip flexible roller-shade is a tapparella—that thing on a hair-trigger spring release that always slips out of your hand, flies up and goes flappety-flappety-FLAP! and scares the hell out of the cat. That kind of shade almost doesn't exist in Naples, at least not that I have seen.) Part of the confusion comes from the fact that categories are not just mechanical descriptions but are defined by "destination." That is, the thing that rolls down in front of a shop is always a saracinesca (or serranda), but, at home, even if it rolls up and down on a spindle, it is something else. (The saracinesca mounted to shield a store front generally has no strap but is raised and lowered manually by a handle at the bottom of the saracinesca or, these days, by an electrical switch.)



II. Etymological

Question: Persiane, clearly from Persian, but what is the origin of the word being used in Naples/Italy? Arabs in town?

'Persian blind' exists in English, but I only know that because I looked it up. I had never heard it in English. Apparently, it's a translation of the French persiennes; and my OED has this: "[Fr., pl. fem. of adj. persien, Persian.] Outside window-shutters or blinds, made of light laths horizontally fastened in a frame, so as to be movable, like those of Venetian blinds." Various uses from the 1800s are given.

I am pretty sure that the use in Italian—and in Naples—has nothing to do with the presence of Persians or Arabs in Italy, but is some sort of cultural borrowing from French. There are all sorts of things supposed to be "Persian"—carpets, cats, beds, blinds. I think it must be sort of a language affectation. We imagine them to be Persian. Whether they really are is another question. An Iranian might know.

In Italian you also have the term gelosie (plural) (but I haven't heard it much in Naples), from whence we have, via French, jalousie shutters. Sometimes a window, itself, is made of adjustable, parallel wooden or glass slats and may be called a finestra a persiana (Persian window) in Italian (jalousie or louver window in English). (A numer of languages use some form of the word gelosie to mean window shutters: Turkish says jaluzi, and in Northern Croatia they are called Žaluzin). Presumably, the use of "jealousy" here comes from jealously guarding the privacy of the house by looking out between the slats at passers-by, as in:

    "I wonder what that fellow is looking for?" I asked, pointing to a stalwart, plainly-dressed indidual who was walking slowly down the other side of the street, looking anxiously at the numbers. He had a large blue envelope in his hand, and was evidently the bearer of a message.
    "You mean the retired sergeant of Marines," said Sherlock Holmes.
    "How in the world did you deduce that?" I asked.
    "Even across the street I could see a great blue anchor tattooed on the back of the fellow's hand. That smacked of the sea. He had a military carriage, however, and regulation side whiskers. There we have the marine. He was a man of some amount of self-importance and a certain air of command. You must have observed the way in which he held his head and swung his cane. A steady, respectable, middle-aged man, too, on the face of him — all facts which led me to believe that he had been a sergeant."
    "Wonderful!" I ejaculated.
    "Commonplace," said Holmes. 

     —from "The Science of Deduction" in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1892)
     by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (click on photo).

Where was I? Ah, yes...

Question: "...and saracinesca from Saracen? Is that from the rule of Napoli by the same?  What is the origin of this kind of roll-up covering?"
You have to be careful.                     
"Arabs in towns" might account for that type of roller-shutter known in the south as a saracinesca. "Saracen" itself is said to be a corruption of "Syria" and in Italian history has really meant Muslim invader, both Arabs and Ottoman Turks. Then, you have to decide whether we call it a saracinesca because the Arabs invented it. That's possible, but then you are left with the question of why the device is used only when you are talking about the entrance to a building and not about the same thing on a window. That suggests, perhaps, that it was used to keep Saracens out! Maybe it's a functional definition (defined by "destination," as suggested above), as with Saracen towers; the Saracens didn't build them; they were used to watch for Saracens. The saracinesca, as noted, is just a modified portcullis, the old castle draw-gate. The variation being that the Neapolitan saracinesca winds around a spool instead of sliding straight up and down.

Question: Who came up with the idea of a canvas strap raising and lowering a strip of slats...via the Moors in Spain before they were dispatched back to North Africa thence to Napoli by the Spanish rule?

Leonatollah bin Vinci? Beats me! It wouldn't surprise me if that is Arabic, then Moorish and then European. There is a use of "saracenic" in English-language architecture—here, again, the OED—"applied to Islamic architecture in its various forms, or to any features of it. In the 18th and early 19th it was often erroneously applied (after Wren) to 'Gothic' architecture." (Here, there is a use from 1877 of "Saracenic" doorways, though it isn't clear, at least to me, without a sketch, what that might be. If it refers to a roller-shutter that slides down in front of the door, it is a saracinesca or serranda.)

Speaking of blinds, the adjective blindato occurs in Italian, but only by extension does it have anything to do with "blinds" (as in Venetian blinds). In Italian blindato means "armored" (as in mezzo blindato—armored vehicle). There is a place in town that sells safes and strong doors that calls itself the "Blindhouse," though to most English speakers, including me, that suggests "house of the blind" rather than a place where they sell safety doors. By an even more roundabout path, it is probably related to the English blind ("sightless") since the word seems to be from of a very old Aryan root meaning "to darken."

totally irrelevant note:

(pronounced: bai 3 ye4 chuang1) is the Chinese Mandarin phrase for "Venetian blinds." The characters mean "hundred-leaf-window." I thought that maybe since Marco Polo was Venetian, when he went to China maybe he picked up some blinds in Persia on the way out or on the way back and... Alas, no, but "hundred-leaf-window" has its own charm about it.

(Many thanks to Mrs. Wendy Steinberg for that information.)



and furthermore

I can see them on the windows!
What are they called? This is from
the Shahnameh, the Book of Kings,
the national epic poem of Persia.

I may be (or not) closing in on what modern Persians (Iranians) call persiane. (I have found out, for example, that a "mosquito net" is called magas kosh, and one phrasebook with a real sense of humor actually told me how to say My hovercraft is full of eels. Thank you, but not interested. I want persiane.) Although someone has suggested to me that persiane are called "Ayatollas"—from "Ayatollah you to close the blinds," I suspect that someone is just yanking my cord. Now, Alan F. (thank you!) tells me that Venetian blinds in Persian are called kerkeré. (The word for shutters is forthcoming. While I am waiting, I am going to worry about the similarity of kerkeré to Italian carcere and German Kerker (cognates from Latin, carcer) meaning prison and about whether that -é is an enclitic gentive.


Also, I now read that in English there is something called a "Roman" shade: it's a single piece cloth shade divided into horizontal sections along the length by staves or rods. When it is completely extended on the inside of a window, it keeps out light. As you pull it up, it "pleats" together neatly as it rises. It's like having a skinny accordion hanging on your window. No one I know can tell me why it's called "Roman." I've just called a friend in Rome and he said—and I quote—"What are you talking about?"
"You know, the kind that folds up like an accordion."
"You mean plissè shades? It's French; it means "crease" or "fold."
"But we call them Roman shades!" I protested.
"How nice. And when we start a car with a dead battery by pushing the car, then jumping in and popping the clutch in second gear, we call that starting the car 'all'americana.'
"Really?"
"Really. And do you know what we call a fruit salad in Italian?"
"Of course. A macedonia."
"And do you know what they call that same thing in Macedonia?"
"No."
"Fruit salad." Click.
(No, don't click on that. That's the sound of him hanging up. I am going to call him back and point out that he missed a Thomistic distinction: plissè shades fold up from the bottom, like Venetian blinds; "Roman" shades start to fold from the top, thus always leaving a smooth section at the bottom as the shade is drawn up. Touché.) On the other hand, he may have a point: with my informants now reporting from all precints, it may be that the wooden shutters that we call persiane in Italy are called by modern Persians (Iranians) in modern Persian (Farsi), simply, kerkereh choobi. That means...(wait for it)..."wooden shutters." Shades of Macedonia.






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