When I set out to write this post, the working title was “Is Barbera masculine or feminine?” But like so many instances of the best intentions, the subject quickly changed into something else much more significant in my view.
Many have written about the mention of Barbera and the associated use of the feminine definite article “la” in Giovanni Pascoli’s celebrated poem “A Ciapin” (“[Letter] to Ciapin”).
For Anglophone readers not familiar with Giovanni Pascoli, he was one of the greatest Italian poets, literary scholars, and critical theorists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Today, he’s considered one of the classics and his works are still adored, studied, and widely discussed by Italian laypeople, students, and university professors.
In 1899, he first published what would become one of his most celebrated odes (a metrical genre inspired by his studies of Greek prosody): “A Ciapin” (“To Ciapin”). Here’s the last stanza, together with a literal English rendering.
Serba la tua purpurea barbèra
per quando, un giorno che non è lontano,
tutto ravvolto nella sua bandiera
Save your purple Barbera
For a day not so far off when
Galliano returns all wrapped
In his flag.
The lines are often cited by Italian linguists as an example of a wine name that is feminine not masculine — an anomaly. The overwhelming majority of Italian wine names are masculine: il Brunello, il Barolo, il Taurasi, il Montepluciano d’Abruzzo, etc…
As the often overlooked and under-appreciated Italian wine writer Paolo Monelli wrote in the 1930s, “it’s one of the few wines that are feminine… like la Freisa, l’Albana, la Vernaccia…”
The reason why so many Italian writers have devoted substantive ink to this question is that the average Italian is often perplexed by the notion of a wine name that is feminine in gender.
As the editors of the Corriere della Sera write definitively in this lengthy entry for their online Italian dictionary “il Barbera [masc.] is incorrect; la Barbera [fem.] is correct.
The stanza above from Pascoli — one of the most authoritative voices of the Italian language — is just one of the many erudite sources they quote.
Even though some ampelographers continue to use the masculine definite article when referring to the grape name (il Barbera), most scholars agree that the correct form (for the wine) is feminine.
As I pored over the grammatical notes and reread the ode by Pascoli preparing to write this post, it occurred to me: Yes, the poem is important in as much as it gives us a linguistic anchor in speaking and writing about Barbera but what about the role of Barbera — the grape and wine — in the poem itself?
Pascoli was inspired to write the ode by a letter penned by the renowned Italian soldier Giuseppe Galliano (1846-96) who had fought and died famously in Italy’s first colonial war in Ethiopia (to give you a sense of what a popular figure he was at the time, consider that Galliano liqueur is named after him.
In the letter, Galliano, under siege in Adwa where he would perish (depicted in the engraving), asks a friend to save him a bottle of Barbera “Ciapin” for his (unlikely) return. The conceit makes for a powerful missive and lyric, rich with patriotic fervor and cinematic tension.
A couple of things strike me about the role of the wine.
1) Galliano doesn’t ask for Barolo or Nebbiolo, he asks for Barbera. In other words, the dying man must have considered Barbera to be not only a top wine but also a wine that evoked his homeland.
2) Reading the notes about the poem from the Pascoli archives, I discovered that Pascoli made a mistake: He believed that “Ciapin” was the intended recipient of the poem. In fact, Ciapin was a Barbera designation. In other words, Barbera was such an important wine at the time that it could merit a special label.
I’ll explain the resolution of Pascoli’s confusion and share a complete translation of the poem together with my notes in my next post. Thanks for reading and stay tuned…