~ Language and Poetry ~
- 5 -
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Giuseppe Gioachino Belli (full name: Giuseppe Francesco Antonio Maria Gioachino Raimondo Belli) is considered the most traditional and influential among roman dialect authors, the one whose language style is credited as the most genuine and fully mature, although he also wrote verses in Italian.
Between 1828 and 1846 he composed over 2,200 sonnets, each of which is a faithful picture of what Rome was like in the early 19th century, seen through the eyes of a commoner.
The very first words of his introduction leave no doubt about his literary intentions: « I have decided to leave a monument featuring what the common people of Rome are today...».
|His opinion about the social structure of his time was strongly critical.
In those days the pope still ruled the city as a king; a few idle aristocrats and a rather arrogant clergy represented the high class, whose social power had already lost any historical or moral justification. At the opposite end of Rome's social ranking were the common people, the mob, fanatical and superstitious, whose only entertainments were the frequent sumptuous public celebrations held to hail and glorify the leading class, and the even more frequent public executions (one of the executioners even became a famous roman character, see Curious and Unusual, page 9).
« Our common people have no art: no art of speaking, nor poetical, just as any common people never had. Everything springs spontaneously from their own nature, always alive and strong, because let free to develop non-artificial qualities...»
Such snobbish haughtiness towards society, and his pessimistic view of human life, into which his bitter satire sinks its roots, can be explained by his long and at times troubled life, during which he survived both his younger brothers and a sister, then his wife, a daughter, a daughter-in-law and even a number of grand-children.
|Having lost both his parents while rather young, in his teens Belli stopped attending a regular school, but kept studying on his own, as an autodidact. After having lived for a short time with an uncle and an aunt, who treated him somewhat roughly, he got his first job as accountant, but later on he also worked as a private tutor and a public clerk, changing his residence several times. A few minor compositions in verse date back to these years. Meanwhile, still very young, Belli came in touch with the academic literary world, and in 1812 he was one of the co-founders of the Accademia Tiberina; by this time, he started signing his works with the double name, Giuseppe Gioachino. Four years later, aged 25, he married a wealthy widow from the noble Conti family, settling with her in Palazzo Poli (the building on whose side, half a century earlier, the Fountain of Trevi had been built). During the following years he travelled to several Italian cities, including Milan, which he first visited in 1827. There he learnt about the poems in Milanese dialect by Carlo Porta; it was likely this discovery that made him develop the project of writing his own verses in dialect.
← Palazzo Poli
|Belli also came in touch with writer and playright Nikolai Gogol', whom he met with already since the Russian author's first stay in Rome (1837-39), and to whom he read some of his verses.
His health, though, was not very good, nor was his financial situation, having quit his job in 1826 and not having worked again up to 1841. He suffered from a number of physical problems, including a nervous breakdown that struck him after his wife's death when, covered with debts, he had to sell his own furniture and radically change his lifestyle.
|During his mature years, Belli was also deeply touched by the changes in Rome's society. When in 1849 Pius IX fled to Gaeta following the uprising of the the people, and the short-living Roman Republic was declared, the poet had already abandoned his critical attitude towards papacy: «...the people around me have changed so much that it seems as if I had turned into a stranger in Rome, or as if I were no longer living in Rome. » (1850).||
Mostly written before turning a conservative, his verses point out the inconsistency of the decadent society of his time. But when such centuries-old condition really started changing, Belli's ideas too were no longer the same!
the monument built thanks to a
public subscription, bearing the this dedication:
|His sonnets give life to humorous, witty sketches which, through the lens of a scorching satire, reveals Belli's bitter and pessimistic attitude towards life and human condition. At the same time, his verses and especially his footnotes provide us with a wealth of interesting information about everyday's life in Rome in the early 1800s.
Some of the sonnets have biblical themes; their characters act, think, speak as Roman people would do.
It should not surprise that, despite the works he wrote in prose and in verse using the standard Italian language, Belli is only remembered for his Sonnets.
Initially, the poet may have likely born in mind the idea of publishing his collection of poems, because for a certain time he kept count of his sonnets rather carefully, yet without numbering them. The manuscript bears the generic title Poesie Romanesche ("Roman dialect poems") but it is believed that he may have later on changed it into 996 (a number which he sometimes used as a signature, resembling in shape his own initials 'ggb').
In his maturity, though, having embraced a conservative position, Belli desowned his sonnets, declaring that they were « full of blameworthy words and thoughts », which he refused to recognize as his own feelings.
He died in 1863 of a sudden stroke; «...there is a box full of manuscripts in verse. They shall have to be burned! » he had written in his will. Luckily, his wish was disregarded.
|Since 1839, editor Salvucci had already started publishing some collections of Belli's verses in Italian. His sonnets in dialect were first printed only after his death, between 1865 and 1866, under the supervision of his son Ciro, also with a partly altered text, in order to pass the th Papal States' strict censorship. The work, entitled Poesie inedite ("Unpublished Poems") included further compositions in Italian.
After 1870, having the censorship been lifted with the fall of the pope's rule, further anthologies more respectful of the original verses could be published; meanwhile, some other sonnets were found (a few of which had remained unfinished).
The first complete edition was issued no sooner than 1952, almost one century later, published by Mondadori, under the supervision of poet and writer Giorgio Vigolo.
the title page of the first edition →
|Much of the vigour of Belli's sonnets depends on the use of the roman dialect, bold, outspoken, sometimes almost brutal; in any other language, a play on words or an idiomatic expression would not be the same, not even in Italian. For this reason the Sonnets have never been kept in great consideration by the 'official' literature. Nevertheless, due to the size of the collection, they stand as one of the largest Italian works of poetry.
Giuseppe Gioachino Belli's birthplace,
in via dei Redentoristi 13
So far, English translations of a limited number of sonnets have been made by Eleonore Clark, Harold Norse, Anthony Burgess and Michael Sullivan, who tackled the extreme difficulty of using a matching language, metrics and rhymes by often rendering a rather loose version of the original text. Australian-born poet Peter Nicholas Dale has recently translated Belli's verses according to a broad accent of his native country known as Strine. The ones provided in these pages have no poetical purpose, but are strictly consistent with the verses in Roman dialect.
LANGUAGEMore than his predecessors, Belli endeavoured to put in written language the very sounds of Roman dialect, stressing their deviation from standard Italian by means of a specific spelling: « To present the Roman sentences as they still come out of the Romans' mouth, without any ornament, any alteration, (...) in short, to extract a rule from a case, and a grammar from the common use, this is my purpose. »
These are the main phonetic variations and how they are spelt in Belli's verses.
- Some consonants within a word are doubled, especially b, z and the cluster gi- (others are doubled quite seldom), e.g. libbertà (for libertà, "freedom"), ribbellione (for ribellione, "revolt") , giudizzio (for giudizio, "judgement"), giustizzia (for giustizia, "justice"), raggione (for ragione, "reason"), rifuggio (for rifugio, "refuge"), etc.
- Also at the beginning of a word, consonants (especially b) are quite often doubled when they follow a vocal, e.g. la bbellezza (for la bellezza, "beauty"), Le Cchiese de Roma (for Le Chiese di Roma, "the churches of Rome", the title of a sonnet), e ppeggio (for e peggio, "and worse"), a ttutti (for a tutti, "to everyone"), etc. ;
- The cluster sc- followed by the vowels e or i, when doubled, is spelt ssc-, e.g. pessce (for pesce, "fish"), le scciabbole (for le sciabole, "the sabres"), etc.;
- The cluster gn-, when doubled, is spelt ggn-, e.g. raggno (for ragno, "spider"), compaggnia (for compagnia, "company"), etc.;
- At the beginning of a word, the sound qu- is doubled as cq-, e.g. co cquelli (for con quelli, "with those"), tal'e cquale (for tale e quale, "just the same"), etc.
- When qu- is not doubled, instead, its graphic rendition is often cu-, which reflects the less guttural pronunciation of this sound by Romans, for instamce: Pascua (for Pasqua, "Easter"), cuest'anno (for quest'anno, "this year"), etc.
- When the emphatic particle ci comes before the verb avere ("to have") in expressions such as ci ho ("I have"), ci hai ("you have", ci hanno ("they have"), etc. it melds with the verb voice: ciò, ciai, cianno, etc., without any risk of mistaking the demonstrative pronoun ciò ("this"), as Romans never use this word.
- The pronunciation of the cluster ce, as well as that of ci, sounds extremely smoothened, being graphically rendered as sce and sci, respectively, e.g. piascere (for piacere, "pleasure"), scena (for cena, "dinner"), mediscina (for medicina, "medicine"), etc.; once again, there is no risk of mistaking the word with similar ones: e.g. pesce (for pece, "tar") can be told from pessce (for pesce, "fish") thanks to the doubled consonant.
- When a consonant is followed by an s + any vowel, often the s is spelt z (always pronounced ts), e.g. er ziggnore (for "il signore", "the gentleman"), conzijjo (for consiglio, "advice" or "council"), etc.
- The sound of the cluster gli is always rendered as j (always pronounced as y), and more often as jj (pronounced yy), when the doubling of the sound takes place, e.g. je disse (for both gli disse and le disse, "he/she told him/her"), imbrojjo (for imbroglio, "swindle") mojje (for moglie, "wife"), fijji (for figli, "children"), etc.
- The same change sometimes takes place also for the clusters -lia- and -lie- when they carry the stress of the word, as the Romans pronounce them respectively -jja- and -jje-, e.g. itajjano (for italiano, "Italian"), cannejjere (for candeliere, "candlestick"), etc.
- When the letter m comes before the letter b, the latter is often turned into an m itself, thus being doubled, e.g. gamma (for gamba, "leg"), novemmre (for novembre, "November"), etc.
- The same change sometimes takes place when the letters l or n come before the letter d, e.g. callo (for caldo, "hot" or "heat"), cuanno (for quando, "when"), etc.
- In some words, the vowel o pronounced with a narrow sound turns into u, e.g. curre (for correre, "to run"), Giuvanni (for Giovanni, "John"), etc.
- Sometimes, semi-diphthongs (i.e. two consecutive vowels that belong to different syllables) are split by inserting an extra letter v, e.g. pavura (for paura. "fear"), Pavolo (for Paolo, "Paul"), etc.
Belli was a perfectionist in spelling the Roman dialect, so that for many years he tried to improve the graphic rendering of its pronunciation; but, on the other hand, this led to some spelling differences between his early compositions and the following ones. In the 152 edition, Giorgio Vigolo standardized the different spellings according to the late verses. In 1965 a further complete edition was edited by Bruno Cagli, a musicologist who was also a scholar in Roman culture; for the sake of an easier reading, he slightly simplified the spelling, by dropping some double consonants, by retrieving the full use of the letter q, by replacing the spelling of the sce and sci sounds with ordinary ce and ci, respectively, as well as other minor changes. The following quatrain (from the famous sonnet Er giorno der giudizzio) shows a comparison of the two versions; the differences are highlighted in red.
Cuattro angioloni co le tromme in bocca
se metteranno uno pe cantone
a ssonà: poi co ttanto de voscione
cominceranno a ddì: ffora a cchi ttocca.
Quattro angioloni co le tromme in bocca
se metteranno uno pe cantone
a ssonà: poi co ttanto de vocione
cominceranno a dì: « Fora a chi ttocca ».
Four huge angels blowing trumpets
will stand one in each corner,
playing; then in a thundering voice
they will start calling: who's next?
The small anthology of sonnets in this website is presented according to Vigolo's version.
STRUCTUREThe sonnet is a type of composition that has been used by Italian poets since the 1200s. In its classical form it comprises fourteen endecasillabic verses (i.e. lines of eleven syllables each), arranged into two quatrains, followed by two tercets; in most cases, the rhyme pattern is the following:
A B B A - A B B A - C D C - D C D - D7 E E - E7 F F - ...
|The small anthology presented in these pages includes both some of the most renowned sonnets and some less-known ones, together with a parallel translation in English (the loss of rhyme and metrics is unavoidable); they are divided by subject into the following sections, in each of which they are listed chronologically, according to their date of composition.|
PRIESTS, FRIARS, POPES
AND THE CHURCH OF ROME