Shades of Venice
& Persia! —and Other Ways to
Draw the Blinds
friend and contributor to this encyclopedia (at this link), writes with a few
...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,
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
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.
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
—(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
"persiane." (You can see why I have labelled this
entry a "work in progress"!)
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
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).
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
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.)
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.)
Question: Persiane, clearly from Persian, but what is the
origin of the word being used in Naples/Italy? Arabs in
'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:
Where was I? Ah, yes...
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
"You mean the retired sergeant of Marines," said
"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
by Sir Arthur
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?"
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.
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?
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
of blinds, the
occurs in Italian, but only by extension does it have
anything to do with "blinds" (as in Venetian blinds). In
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."
(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.)
I can see them on the windows!
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)
and about whether that -é
is an enclitic gentive.
What are they called? This is from
the Book of Kings,
the national epic poem of Persia.
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?"
(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
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.
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. And do you know what we call a fruit salad in
"Of course. A macedonia."
"And do you
know what they call that same thing in Macedonia?"
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