Sangiovese: origins of the enonym (grape name)

Yesterday on the Twitter, Alfonso asked me about the origins of the enonym Sangiovese. (I bet you’re wondering about the significance of the “allegory of music” from an illuminated Renaissance manuscript to the left but more on that below.)

First off, in all of my readings, I have found no one and nowhere that point to sangue di Giove (blood of Jupiter [Zeus]) as a philologically tenable origin of the grape name. This is what philologists call a folkloric etymology, most likely due to the quasi-homonymic (and Romantic) rapport between the enonym and purported etymon (the literal sense of a word according to its origin). While divine blood plays a central role in Christian myth and liturgy (another element that most likely contributes to the folkloric etymology), it is not found in the Roman or Italian cults that honored Jupiter during the vinaliae (wine festivals) of late antiquity. (For the record, blood does play a role in the myth of Zeus, when the “blood from the birth of Zeus begins to boil up” in a “sacred cave of bees… said to be found on Crete.” See this profile of Rhea, who gave birth to the deity.)

Most scholars believe the most plausible etymon to be sangiovannina, a term which denotes an early ripening grape in the dialect of Sarzana, a township that lies on the border of Liguria and Tuscany in northwestern Tuscany. (Hohnerleien-Buchinger, 1996, cited in Vitigni d’Italia, eds. A. Scienza et alia).

It’s also possible that Sangiovese comes from sangiovannese, an ethnonym denoting an inhabitant of San Giovanni Valdarno, a town in the province of Arezzo. (I actually think this is the most likely answer to the conundrum; here’s a link to the Sangiovannese soccer team website.)

Others yet point to the etymon jugalis (Latin yoke), giogo in Italian, possibly derived from a vine training system. (There is a precedent in the enonym Schiava but I believe this an unlikely linguistic kinship.)

In my research last night (conducted in the golden hour, when the day’s toil is through, and Tracie P and I relax before dinner), I came across a wonderful journal devoted to Romagnolo (the dialect of Romagna). It’s called Ludla (click to download the edition I found), or spark in Romagnolo. In it, I found an article on the origin of Sanzves, the Romagnolo inflection of Sangiovese. Here’s where it gets really interesting…

It’s important to remember that the enonym appears for the first time in Tuscany in the 16th century as Sangiogheto (Soderini, 1590) and today, most ampelographers concur that Sangiovgheto or Sangioveto are geographically aligned with Tuscany while Sangiovese is more closely related to Romagna (on the other side of the Apennines).

The author of the Ludla article proposes that Sanzves might be derived (however remotely) from Mons Jovis, a site near the town of Savignano (where the Romagnoli believe the grape to have originated, another possible linguistic kinship), today known as Giovedìa, where Jupiter (Giove, in Italian) was worshiped in late antiquity.

The bottom line? It’s very likely that we will never know the true origin of the enonym. But that’s not important.

The images that adorn this post (allegories of musica and rehtorica) are culled from a Renaissance codex of De Nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii (On the Marriage of Philology and Mercury) by Martianus Capella, a pagan writer of late antiquity whose work formed the basis for the study of the liberal arts in western civilization. Philology is literally the love of words and Mercury is the mythical embodiment of commerce or intelligent pursuit.

While we may never know the etymon of the enonym, the journey of discovery by the way offers rewards all the more satisfying to our intellectual curiosity, emboldening our knowledge and awareness of the world around us.

When we marry the love of words and intelligent pursuit, only good things are bound to happen. The same thing happens when we pair a great bottle of Brunello with a bistecca alla fiorentina (something I hope to do later this week).

Thanks for reading…

20 thoughts on “Sangiovese: origins of the enonym (grape name)

  1. Beautiful post Jeremy. Just curious as to how you begin your research on something like this. I realize you have a PHD in Italian so you obviously have many sources. A post like this would take me a week to write! LOL. How do you do it, boy? And who cooked dinner last night?


  2. @Alfonso thanks for the kind words (and the paronomasia) and for reading! And thanks for reminding me that this one was on my list.

    @Susan over the years, I’ve built a great reference library (Alfonso’s seen it and Tracie P is literally surrounded by it!). Of course, it’s not the first time I’ve spent time thinking about this but the Romagnolo discovery was a new element. Thanks for reading and the overly generous words. Last night’s dinner was my avocado, tomato, and red onion salad, Tracie P’s ragù (stored in the freezer), and my boiled potatoes and sautéed mushrooms in a Riesling and stock reduction. (Tracie P had to work late and I was at home reading about Sangiovese!)

    @Tracie P your beauty is my inspiration… I really mean that… just like Petrarch found intellectual inspiration in contemplating his Laura or Pico della Mirandola in Platonic beauty… :)

  3. In the late-80s some friends of ours bought a house near La Spezia (he was a sculptor and wanted access to Carrara marble) and my family and I spent several summers staying there. The house was in a rustic farm hamlet called Verpiana, the kind of place where women in aprons chase chickens around an old courtyard. There was an alimentari, a barn and scattered Vespas and Fiat 126s in various states of disrepair. One elderly local resident, Guido, used to bring us flasks of his own wine. I’m sure he was completely baffled as to why two English families would vacation there.

    It was a five minute drive down to the small town of Serricciolo (best pizza I ever had) and a bit further to the hustle bustle of Aulla (MS). On days when we didn’t drive to the beach at Marinella or take the boat from Lerici to Portovenere, we’d go to Sarzana. I haven’t been back since ’94 and probably hadn’t thought of that place in as long until I read your post this morning.

  4. Fascinating stuff, Jeremy. This reminds me of old American writing (18th- early 19th century) when spelling was subjective and many words would transform due to whim often within the same document. Of course, these oddities are from only 200-250 years ago. When considering time gaps over 500-1000 years things can really change a lot.

    Who did the illuminations of the manuscript? Judging from the style it looks a lot like someone from the circle of Lippi, perhaps even Botticelli. The figures are the classic Tuscan blonde reminiscent of Simonetta Vespucci (of Birth of Venus and Primavera fame). The slightly clumsy perspective and distorted anatomy fits into that time frame as well.

  5. I just discovered that ex-Fiorentina forward Francesco Baiano played for Sangiovannese from ’02-’06. He and Batistuta made quite a striking duo in the early-90s (Viola fans used to call them “Ba-Ba”). He’s now coach of Sansovino (the team from Monte San Savino — another lovely town). So much nostalgia sparked by today’s post.

  6. Great post. I love the “Golden Hour” too, and I have never heard it called that before. I think it’s a perfect name for it. It’s like a special little gift, an intermezzo if you will. And my friend, it’s one of the things that changes when the kids arrive. It’s still beautiful, if you can submit to the notion that most of the time it will no longer involve quiet, research, personal reading, or anything that happens inside of your own head. The golden hour works with little children too! But it’s different.

  7. Pretty illuminating post. Now, what do I say when people ask me what “Sangiovese” means? It’s not the blood of Jove. Maybe I’ll just say: “the answer is 42!”

    • @Doug thanks for this! The one author of the symposium who addresses the etymology of the grape name also discounts the possibility that it comes from _sangue di Giove_. Mainardi, “wine historian,” speculates (and I agree with her) that it probably comes from a lost Etruscan etymon.

  8. Pingback: » Blog Archive » 7. Sangiovese vs. 10. Malbec

  9. Pingback: Sangiovese Grosso: Italian grape name pronunciation project « Do Bianchi

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