Piano Nobile.

I enjoyed Irina Mashinski’s Facebook post about her love for Nabokov, which began while she was still living in the Soviet Union (“Вообще мой список такой: Лужин, Пнин, Дар, Лолита, Машенька, Подвиг, несколько рассказов из Чорба и вся Весна в Фиальте. И Другие берега. Началось, конечно, с Дара […]”), and one of her commenters, Yefim Somin, linked to his own post about his visit to the Vladimir Nabokov Museum, on what is now once again Bolshaya Morskaya (“Big Maritime”) Street:

I entered the mansion. The museum occupied only part of the first floor raised over the street level, the piano nobile of Nabokov’s memories. Not much remained from the hereditary owners: mostly carved oak doors, and amazingly, oak ceilings to match. Elsewhere, predictable images on the walls and in glass-covered display cases: old floor plans, Lolita, butterflies. The last room in the enfilade was reserved for education. A few old women sitting in chairs scattered over a large hall were intently watching a video of another old woman talking about the house. Nabokov’s sister had returned in the 1950’s, 40 years after fleeing, to see the house and the city, unlike her brother who never did. I stood in the corner, holding back an urge to scream: “Turn around and look at me, I am back too! Not quite 40 years but longer than Ulysses and Rip Van Winkle. Ask me, if you want to know what it feels like!” A fancy of a Rip Van Winkle return apparently gripped Nabokov, too. He described such a time traveler in The Gift. This character left St. Petersburg in 1836 and sailed to Boston, of all places. After years of adventures in the New World he came back to the old one in 1858. Thanks to the absence of the Internet as an information source, this fellow was amply taken advantage of by his friends and relatives. For instance, when asked about Pushkin, they assured him that Pushkin’s new poem had just come out the other day, and indeed, pointed out the great poet to him at a theater performance. Needless to say, the real Pushkin was killed in a duel in 1837. My own images of return for the first ten years after departure came invariably in the form of a nightmare: I am back and cannot leave again for some unclear Kafkaesque reason. Maybe I am late for the plane, maybe something is wrong with my papers, maybe I just forgot the way to the airport, or even worse: I can go, but my son has to stay, and it’s impossible to wrest him away from his keepers. I was apparently not alone: Mikhail Baryshnikov’s film White Nights is his version of just such a dream. There is a World Wide Web now, but even that won’t make you fully prepared for a real-life comeback.

I was pleased at the reference to one of my favorite bits in The Gift (see the first paragraph of this 2012 post), but what prompts me to post is the phrase piano nobile, which I’ve run across now and then and never been sure of. Happily, the OED revised its entry in 2006:


The main storey of a large house, usually on the first floor, containing the principal rooms.
Used esp. with reference to Italian or Italianate (esp. Palladian) buildings, in which the first floor is often higher and more impressive than the adjoining floors.

1715–17 The great pair of Stairs lead up to the Piano Nobile, where is a lofty and spacious Salon of the same Extent as the Hall below.
C. Campbell, Vitruvius Britannicus vol. II. 5/1

1854 A large family that lived in the Piano Nobile of the house inhabited by myself and my young charges (it was the Palazzo Poniatowski at Rome).
W. M. Thackeray, Rose & Ring Prelude p. iii

1888 Its wide front, with a stone balcony from end to end of the piano nobile or most important floor, was architectural enough.
H. James, Aspern Papers i. 12

1990 Taking the steps instead of the elevators to parties held on piani nobili.
Washington Post (Nexis) 25 March f1

2001 The Grand Duke Dimitri Pavlovich has given over the piano nobile of the Dimitri Palace for an Anglo-Russian hospital.
P. P. Read, Alice in Exile (2002) iii. vii. 272

It is, of course, from Italian (piano ‘floor, story’ + nobile ‘noble, great’); it’s interesting to see the varying use of italics, quotes, and plain text (though the only example of the latter is a newspaper story, where you wouldn’t expect to find italics anyway). The entry is a great improvement on the earlier one, which omitted the reference to Italian or Italianate buildings and traced it back only to 1909 (“in Cent. Dict. Suppl., s.v. piano³”).


  1. Previous mentions of “White Nights,” including the dance film mentioned by Somin* and the story by Dostoevsky.

    * I don’t recommend the film, but it’s certainly not the worst movie Baryshnikov was in.

  2. Just out of morbid curiosity, what is the worst movie Baryshnikov was in?

  3. Huh, and there was I thinking that piano nobile was just a fancy-pants way of saying ‘grand piano.’

  4. PlasticPaddy says
  5. From the featured review: “Had I not already know who Mikhail Baryshnikov was, it would have been unbearable but because I wanted to see what he is capable of doing in terms of his ballet dancing, his onscreen presence was good enough.” Now, there’s a review that makes you want to rush right out and see it!

  6. Used for video in the most popular youtube version of “Rien ne va”.

  7. The piano nobile is the Italian word for beletage. Good description in German Wikipedia:

    „Das italienische Piano nobile war in der Regel das erste Obergeschoss, wobei man bei der Zählung auch Tief- und Hochparterre oder ein Mezzanin berücksichtigen muss. Teilweise konnte in Norditalien ein Profanbau auch mehrere Piani nobili aufweisen, die sich nur geringfügig voneinander unterscheiden, wie es beispielsweise beim Palazzo Strozzi in Florenz zu sehen ist.”


    The Belvedere Palace in Vienna has a very striking piano nobile

    Apparently I live on the piano nobilein our Vienna altbau although these days thanks to elevators, and the ability of architects to jam terraces onto old buildings, it is the Dachgeschoss that is the prestige floor.

  8. Nat Shockley says

    The piano nobile is the Italian word for beletage.

    I wonder which came first, the Italian or the French. Google Books has a French example of “étage Noble” from 1673, and an Italian “piano nobile” from 1668. Not very clear.
    I suppose one would need to read the book referenced on that German wikipedia page: Cord Meckseper, Das Piano Nobile. Eine abendländische Raumkategorie, 2010. The title alone suggests the Italian term came first… There is an earlier, shorter version of this work online, but it gives no sources for its statement “Als Terminus scheint [piano nobile] erst um 1600 aufgekommen zu sein.”

  9. Nat Shockley says

    Looks like it must be originally Italian: Google Books gives me “nobil piano” in 1638, in Ritratto di Roma antica by Pompilio Totti.

  10. How did we ever get by without Google Books?

  11. Baryshnikov’s passion project, Dancers, is a really terrible film. The action comedy Company Business is pretty bad too, wasting the talents of Gene Hackman.

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