The Queen of Flowers

Although it has been famously proclaimed that “a rose is a rose is a rose”, things are a bit more complicated when it comes to the Italian rosa.

There is the rosa dei venti.  

No matter how gifted a translator is – there is no way ‘compass’ captures the same feeling as ‘rose of the winds’. Map of the gardens of La Foce in south-eastern Tuscany.

This rosa is a lot less common than you might expect.  I had to go through dozens of photos of maps before I came across these two.  Perhaps there doesn’t seem to be much point in knowing which way is north when you’re trying to find your way in the medieval centres of Tuscany’s hilltop towns.

Historic centre of Montepulciano

Historic centre of Montepulciano

Then there are the ‘big’ roses – the rosoni on the façades of so many Italian churches.  As I explained in the post on Boboli Gardens, to express the idea of ‘bigness’ you can add ‘one’ (oh-nay) onto the end of a word.  What I didn’t mention then, because the word in question – il viottolo – was masculine to start with, was that adding one to the end of a feminine word engenders (couldn’t resist!) a sex change. And so a small, delicate rosa becomes a big, masculine rosone.

Il Duomo, Florence

Rosone on the façade of the Duomo in Florence

Santa Chiara, Cortona

Santa Chiara, Cortona

Lecce, Puglia

An extravagant, baroque rosone in Lecce, Puglia

A simple rosone in Taormina, Sicily

A simple rosone in Taormina, Sicily

And then of course there is the “woody perennial of the genus Rosa” that I was off to see one afternoon.  Over 6500 of them.  In the Roseto Fineschi, the biggest private collection of roses in Italy, possibly in the world.

Damigiani at the entrance to Roseto Fineschi. Only in Italy would you find a display of oversized wine jugs at the entrance to a garden.

Damigiani. Where else in the world would you find a row of oversized wine jugs at the entrance to a garden?

It was founded in 1967 as a non-profit organization by Gianfranco Fineschi, a professor in the Faculty of Medicine at the Cattolico University in Rome.  His goal was to “preserve a scientific collection of living material”.

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First time visitors are urged to consult the blue signs for general information about the rose garden and the history of the rose, purple for the history of the earliest hybrids, green for botanical roses, antique roses and modern roses, and red for information about modern hybridizers.

It was all so nicely laid out and so compelling was the deep affection for the rose, described as “unique in the world for its beauty, richness and variety”  (although the thought crossed my mind that specialists of other flowers – orchid enthusiasts, for example – might have a thing or two to say about that).  I felt almost guilty as I  wandered, very unscientifically, through the garden.



Gardeners at the end of the day.


I’ve seen roses climbing up all sorts of things – but olive trees?!



For a while I was just mesmerized by the overall effect.  Then I started zoning in on individual flowers.




Even though these close-ups give away my preference for the “rosey” hues, there were quite a few beauties that didn’t fall into neat colour categories.  They got me thinking about how we see colours.

I have a purse I am very fond of.  With time, I have come to really appreciate its brilliant design.  But the reason I bought it was because of its colour – a beautiful shade of periwinkle.   Yet over the years, I don’t know how many people, perfect strangers, on the elevator, in the line-up at the grocery store, have commented on my beautiful ‘purple’ bag.   I didn’t get the sense these people were colour blind.  More that they didn’t organize the colour spectrum the same way I did.


Beautiful. But what colour is it?

The most striking example of differing perceptions I ever encountered was during a session with a  student in the literacy program run by the Toronto Public Library.  I apologized to my student – he was probably in his forties – for the childish content of the exercise book we had been given to work with.  Blame it on insufficient funding.  In any event, learning to read as an adult – even admitting that you can’t read – is of course very stressful.  And as long as a student is feeling stressed and self-conscious, there isn’t going to be a lot of learning going on.  Humour – even corny humour – helps ease the stress. 

So we decided to take a ‘jaundiced’ (that wasn’t one of the words) approach.  Sentences like “The cat is black” were boring, but got a pass.    Others, like “The dog is blue”,  got what was coming to them.  And then we came to “The sun is yellow.”  My learner guffawed.  I looked at him.  “What’s so funny about that one?”  He laughed some more.  “A yellow sun – that’s ridiculous!”  I didn’t know what to make of this.  We had been meeting for some time.  He struck me as intelligent, alert and well-spoken.  I looked at him some more.  He looked at me.  Then he said, because it was clear to him that even though I knew how to read, I obviously didn’t have a clue about the colour of the sun, “It’s not yellow – it’s white!”  I looked at him in disbelief. 

It took me a while, but eventually I got it.  Apart from sunrise and sunset, the sun IS white.  So why is it – remember all those cheery suns we drew in elementary school – that we always coloured it yellow?

The sun setting over the Bay of Naples is definitely white.

Even as the sun starts to set over the Bay of Naples, it is still more white than yellow.

This got me wondering how much the culture and language we’re brought up in might affect the way we perceive colours.  Did the fact that my student was from Sierra Leon have something to do with his white sun?  Then I started thinking about colours in Italian.  Un giallo (yellow) is a murder mystery.  Maybe yellow wasn’t the best place to start.  What about blue?


Along the coastline of Puglia, the “heel” of Italy.

If a survey were done to determine Italians’ favourite colour, I wouldn’t be surprised if blue came out on top. “Volare!”, one of the most famous Italian pop songs in North America (and one of the most disliked Italian pop songs in Italy…) begins with “Nel blu dipinto in blu” (“In the blue painted in blue” – some things just don’t translate.)  It’s a love affair that comes in many shades – blu chiaro (light blue), blu scuro (dark blue),  azzurro – also the name of Italy’s national soccer team, celeste (celestial?)  You cannot “have the blues” in Italian, but you can be giù – joo (down).

Blu scuro.  From this angle the waters surrounding the Aeolian Islands, off the north-east coast of Sicily appear dark blue.

Blu scuro. From this angle the waters surrounding the Aeolian Islands, off the north-east coast of Sicily appear dark blue.

Verde smeraldo.  From a different angle the waters are emerald green.

Verde smeraldo. From a different angle the waters are emerald green.

Arancione o rosso?  Our captain dives down bring us one of the many sea creatures.  Only for a quick look.(And is careful to to show us (red or orange?

Arancione o rosso? (Orange or red?) Our captain dove into the water and came back up with a starfish.
We were allowed a quick look before he returned it safely to the water.

For a long time I used this as my desk top background.

For a long time I used this as my desk-top background.

Then, of course, there is the issue we looked at a couple of posts ago about vino rosso being made from uve nere (black grapes).

Poster in the Donnafugata Winery in Marsala, Sicily.

Poster in the Donnafugata Winery in Marsala, Sicily.  I wonder what sixth generation Ferdinando thinks of this.

There was lots more to see and lots more to think about, but if I didn’t leave soon, I wouldn’t make it to the next garden before closing time.

Has that cat been keeping an eye on me all this time?