Aglianico ≠ Ellenico?

Does the grape name Aglianico come from ellenico or Hellenic as so many claim? A look at the earliest references leads me to believe that it probably doesn’t. May the philologically curious please read on…

Above: the frontespiece of Giambattista della Porta’s Villae or On Country Houses (Frankfurt, 1592) in the rare books collection at the Brooklyn Botanical Garden.

“As philologist, one sees behind the sacred texts,” wrote Friedrich Nietzsche in The Twilight of the Idols.* While most think of Nietzsche as a philosopher, few remember that his early training was in philology, the (inexact) science of the history and development of language and literature, literally the “love” (Greek philo-) of the “word” (Greek logos).

My philological curiosity recently led me to the Brooklyn Botanical Garden where I hoped to get to the bottom of a a etymological conundrum that has bothered me for a long time: does the grape name Aglianico come from the word ellenico or Hellenic as so many oenophiles claim or does it come from Aleatico (literally, a grape that ripens in July, from the Italian lugliatico or of the month of July) as many Italian philologists believe?

The excellent rare-book collection at the BBG includes a rare copy of Villae (On Country Houses, 1592, Frankfurt), an almanac of farming, vine-tending, and winemaking in sixteenth-century Campania by Giambattista della Porta (1535? – 1615), the great Neapolitan scientist, agriculturist, and viticulturist. Most ampelographers agree that Della Porta’s book was earliest to refer to the Aglianico grape as hellanico or Hellenic (ampelography is the study of grapes, from the Greek ampelos or “vine” and graphê or “writing”).

Above: folio 501 and a detail highlighting the line, “Ergo nostras hellanicas helvcolas [sic] antiquorum dicerem.”

The reference is found in the chapter on grape varieties and wines (folio 501): “Ergo nostras hellanicas helvcolas [sic] antiquorum dicerem.” “Therefore, I would say that the helvola [yellowish] grapes of the ancients are our Hellenic grapes.” He is referring to a passage from the Historia Naturalis (14.29) where Pliny (23 – 79) describes grapes that grow in the shadow of Mt. Vesuvius (it’s not clear that Della Porta and Pliny were describing the grape we know today as Aglianico because both of them refer to it as helvola or yellowish in color).

The earliest known occurrences of the word Aglianico in print occur around the same time as Della Porta’s Villae (Andrea Bacci, De naturali historia vinorum, 1596, and Jean Liébault, L’agriculture et maison rustique, 1586 [I’ve been able to verify the mention in Bacci but — to date — I haven’t been able to get my hands on a copy of Liébault]).

There is no question that the Aglianico grape has been called hellenico, hellanico, and ellenico since the sixteenth century. But is there really a reason to believe that Aglianico comes from ellenico (besides the fact that the words sound somewhat similar)?

It is unlikely that Aglianico comes from ellenico because the the terms Hellenic and ellenico were coined around the same time Aglianico first began to emerge as a grape name.

According to the Grande Dizionario della Lingua Italiana (The [Unabridged] Dictionary of the Italian Language, edited by the great twentieth-century philologist Salvatore Battaglia), ellenico and ellenismo were coined in Italian after the French hellénisme, for which the earliest known reference dates to 1580 in France. It is a term derived from Hellenes (a tribe of ancient Greece) and came into use during the Renaissance to denote the Grecian realm and Grecian culture (according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the earliest occurrence in English is 1609). Pliny and his Roman contemporaries wouldn’t have recognized the word hellenicus because it did not exist in their time (they used graecus).

Della Porta did not claim that Aglianico comes from ellenico. He simply speculated that the grape described by Pliny (helvolas antiquorum, the yellowish grapes of the ancients) was called hellanico (hellanicas nostras, our Hellanico grapes) in his day (i.e., as of 1592).

Does Aglianico come from Aleatico and/or lugliatico? Most Italian etymologic dictionaries report that it does (and my research won’t stop here). What’s clear is that Aglianico and ellenico first appeared at roughly the same time and are related historically but probably not etymologically.

Pardon the pun: when I look “behind the text,” I find it’s not all Greek to me.

Above: the Rare Books reading room at the Brooklyn Botanical Garden. In another lifetime, I worked many nights as a guitar player in a wedding band in the Garden’s atrium, a popular NYC wedding venue.

* The Twilight of the Idols/The Anti-Christ, trans. R.J. Hollindale, New York, Penguin, 1990, p. 175.

5 thoughts on “Aglianico ≠ Ellenico?

  1. My, you’re up early.

    This is all you said it would be. I mentioned that I’ve always thought the Aglianico/Ellenico connection seemed like a folk etymology to me. Aleatico/lugliatico seems much more typical of the way various forms or dialects of Italian transform words, especially in Campania.

    Sorry you won’t be here for our tasting dinner tonight, mainly of Paolo Caciorgna’s wines. Conosci?

    Ciao e buon lavoro.

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