~ Language and Poetry ~
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Giuseppe Gioachino Belli
(1791 - 1863)

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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).
Belli wrote:
« 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...»
This was still his opinion when, at the age of 70, he wrote about Roman dialect: «...it is not Rome's own tongue, but that of its rough and blunderous people », referring to it in terms of « bare, mean and also rude language », yet observing: «...these are the people, and it is them who I copy ».
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). stamps issued for the bicentennary of Belli's birth (below left) and
for the centennary (above) and 150th year (below right) of his death

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.

Belli in his old age
A large majority of sonnets tell short stories, anecdotes of everyday's life; the main elements of the sketch quickly unwind in the first eight verses, while the last six lead to a brilliant conclusion, very often acting as an ironic punchline, but seldom in a rather lyrical tone, or expressing philosophical considerations.
Almost all of them bear the date on which they were composed and, at least up to 1833, their handwritten originals are signed Peppe er tosto ("Giuseppe the tough") or Er medemo ("the same").

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.

More 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.
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.

Vigolo's version

  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.
Cagli's version

  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.

The 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
but sometimes:
A B A B - A B A B - C D C - D C D
and in the sonnets belonging to the second half of the work, the tercets are related only by the rhyme of the central verse:
A B A B - A B A B - C D C - E D E
Some of Belli's sonnets are caudate, i.e. the fourteen standard verses are followed by a 'tail' of one or more extra tercets that include a septenary verse (shorter than the others by four syllables), which rhymes with the previous one, and two hendecasillables that rhyme with each other, according to the following scheme:
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.