Even if it didn’t have a very specific, idiomatic meaning in Venetian, the word ombra, the Italian word for shadow or shade, would have a special connection to Venice. The presence of the lagoon, like a great mirror, reflects the light in extraordinary ways, creating an exquisitely unique shadowplay on the city’s buildings.
However, as I said, the word ombra in Venetian, has a very different meaning. It means a drink, or aperitif, usually, but not necessarily, alcoholic. The meaning is said to come from the fact that, as evidenced by Canaletto’s paintings, there used to be stalls selling wine at the foot of the Campanile di San Marco. It’s said that in the ferocious heat of July and August, the stallholders would move round the base of the bell tower, following the shadow as the sun moved across the sky.
The word is still used widely today in its usual form, or in the diminutive, ombreta. The phrase, andar a ombra, means to go on a bar crawl. The traditional ombra was a glass of malvasia wine, or more recently, prosecco. However, since the Venetian drink apérol spritz took the world by storm the shadow is just as likely to be orange.
So next time you’re in Venice, don’t forget to have an ombra accompanied, as is usual, by some cichéti: but that’s another post.
What’s your favourite ombra or place to have one in Venice? I’d love to hear your experiences in the comments.