Yesterday, for the first time in 16 months, we saw a play. But this one had a fresh perspective: it was done al fresco.
Ontario is still easing out of its Covid lockdown, so indoor theatre is out – and so (for a few days yet) is indoor dining. But it’s warm enough that we can do these usually indoor activities outdoors, in the warm summer air. Al fresco. So to speak.
Al fresco: in the fresh air, right? Fresh and clean and clear, constantly refreshed by currents and so relatively free of the accumulated exhalations of indoor atmosphere? Well, yes, but there’s fresh and then there’s fresh. And that’s the ironic part. Well, it’s one of two ironic parts.
Fresco, you see (also fresca in the feminine), is Italian for ‘fresh’ (as in ‘fresh plaster’ in the kind of mural called a fresco), but it generally carries a sense of ‘cool’. If you dine al fresco, it’s in the fresh air, yes, but in particular in the cool (or cooler) air. That doesn’t mean that al fresco dining in Italy (or elsewhere) is only said to be such when the outdoors is cooler than the indoors, but there is that tone to it.
And, indeed, if we had made the phrase in English, in the fresh (as in “We’re dining in the fresh today” – sounds entirely plausibly English, doesn’t it?), there would also be something of that sense, because even though we use fresh more to mean ‘not cooked’ and ‘not stale or rotten’, we are still aware of the ‘cool’ sense – “A bit fresh out today, isn’t it?” But we don’t put it that way because, for one thing, we got the phrase from Italian, and for another, we like the Italian sound of it. “Would you like to dine in the fresh?” sounds like PG Wodehouse or EM Forster; “Would you like to dine al fresco?” sounds… inviting, really.
That, however, is the second ironic part. Perhaps you have noticed that fresh and fresco seem like they could be related. They are, but not because fresh comes from fresco. No, both words trace back to Proto-Germanic *friskaz; Medieval Latin acquired it as friscus through contact in Lombardy. And *friskaz meant… ‘fresh’ and ‘unsalted’. In other words, fresh as in fresh water, and fresh as in unpreserved food. The ‘cool’ sense followed on thereafter.
All of that, following through to the present (including the borrowing of al fresco into English in the early 1700s), means that we can have go from an air conditioned house onto a patio to eat bacon and other cured and salted meats, as well as cheese and cooked foods, in warm (even very warm) air, and it will be dining al fresco.
We can also go see a performance of an old farce in warm air, likewise al fresco. But you know what? It was refreshing.