The Rose of the Winds
In tenth grade—a little while ago—we students were required to take a wonderful History course called something like “The Origins of Western Civilization.” Great stuff! Sumer, Egypt, Greece, the Etruscans, the Roman Empire, Norse Mythology, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Age of Enlightenment. You name it.
Probably thanks to that course, I still get a kick out of finding traces of the Ancient World in modern life. (I guess it’s no accident I’ve chosen to live in Siena, a city that hasn’t changed much since the 1300s.) The English days of the week remind me just how Nordic the Anglo-Saxon culture is, paying tribute to deities like Týr, Odin, Thor, and Freya. The Italian days keep Roman gods alive: Mars, Mercury, Jove, Venus...
Then there’s the vocabulary of weather. Can you imagine living someplace where every wind has a name? Back in New England, a nickname marked a certain kind of storm—a Nor’easter—but that’s about the only American meteorological moniker that comes to mind.
In Italy, the major winds find their collocation on what’s known as la Rosa dei Venti— the Rose of the Winds.
The first wind I learned about when I came here years ago was the Tramontana, a frigid blast blowing down from “the other side of the mountains,” from the heart of the Alps. Brrr!
The centrality of the Mediterranean is made clear, name after name. The Libeccio comes in from Libya, the Grecale from Greece. But where is the hub serving as reference point to the Rose of the Winds?
It depends. Homer gave Grecocentric names to the winds in The Odyssey. Many scholars place the Hellenic epicenter on the gorgeous island of Zakynthos. Medieval maps revolve around the Maritime Republic of Amalfi. Whatever the case, the winds all whisper and roar with the breath of what the Romans called Mare Nostrum, Our Sea.
When first getting a feel for Italian culture, I recognized some wind names from memes that had made their way into popular American culture. Years ago a bestselling novel bore the title Mistral’s Daughter, citing the French word for the same wind the Italians call the Maestrale, arriving from the Northwest.
A few years before that, Volkswagen launched a sporty car with an exotic-sounding name: Scirocco. A heavy-winged wind, prevalent especially in March or in November. Warmish, humid, unpleasant. No doubt it starts out as a hot and dry desert breeze, but then it absorbs far too much moisture as it sweeps across the Mediterranean. Reaching Italy, the wind puts people in a nasty mood, especially folks who describe themselves as meteopatici. I used to laugh off the notion that human beings could be meteopathic, until I noticed how the sticky-aired Scirocco did its work on me, shortening my patience, heightening my readiness to snarl.
Like all winds, even the Scirocco has its magical side. Next time it blows in and causes what Southern Italians call “Blood Rain,” run your hand over your car afterward and your fingertips will be powdered with beautiful golden dust. That’s desert sand you’re touching, transported all the way from the wind’s native home—the Sahara, far across the sea.
Creative Writing Teacher