~ Language and Poetry ~
- 4 -

Giuseppe Berneri
(1637 - c.1700)

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Meo Patacca, subtitled Roma in feste ne i Trionfi di Vienna ("Rome's celebrations during Vienna's victories", 1695), is a mock-heroical poem that celebrates the people of Rome, providing a detailed cross section of everyday's life by the end of the 17th century. But while the main character, after which the work was named, is still alive in the city's folk tradition, the name of the author is obscure to most Romans.

Giuseppe Berneri was born in Rome; he was both a poet and a playwriter, and a member of several literary academies of his time, among which the Accademia degli Infecondi, mentioned in the front page of his work (below).
He wrote poems, allegorical plays and religious plays, but among his titles only Meo Patacca is remembered. No portrait of the author has been left, as well. But the great appreciation for the popular hero, the quick-tempered Meo (short for Bartolomeo), who is a commoner himself, yet represents a virtuous example of both valour and morality, gives reason for such a long-lasting fame.
Nevertheless, in the past decades very few editions of this poem have been published. Nowadays, Berneri's masterwork is confined among the minor titles of underground literature, an occasional find on second-hand bookstalls.
The websites that feature verses from this poem are few,, but Virtual Roma is the only one where over one third of the original 1245 octaves can be read, with a parallel translation, and a synopsis of the plot.

Using as a literary pretext a historical fact, Meo Patacca tells the adventures of a young brave, a commoner clever in handling weapons, with a high sense of honour, who serves his community by doing good deeds and fighting abuses. The situations that unwind along the story are often comical. In this, Berneri had been undoubtly inspired by the famous poem La secchia rapita ("The Rape of the Pail", 1622) by Alessandro Tassoni, from Modena. Furthermore, only seven years earlier, in 1688, another Roman author, Giovanni Camillo Peresio, had published Il maggio romanesco ("The Greasy Pole in Rome"), a mock-heroic poem almost twin to Meo Patacca both in language and structure, albeit set in the 1300s.

In learning that Vienna has been set under siege, Meo gathers the best braves in Rome, and forms a small army for lending help to the Christian city. But shortly before they set off, the news that Vienna's own troops managed to free the city from the Turks reaches Rome, so the money raised for the expedition is spent on public celebrations, which last several days.
In the background, the love story of Meo with his mistress Nuccia counterpoints the main events of the plot.
All the characters are modelled on the typical common people of Rome; some of the situations described are indeed very amusing, and speckled with witty remarks by Berneri, who enjoys playing the part of the storyteller, often adding his own comments, from time to time indulging in the description of Rome's famous sites, which are the fascinating setting of the whole story.
Furthermore, the poem provides a wealth of information about the way of life in the late 17th century Rome: how commoners dressed, how an average house was furnished, which greetings were used, and many more.
But Berneri's poem also testifies the fanatical atmosphere of Rome under the centuries-old papal rule: the hero's mission can be read as a mini-crusade, based on the religious perspective of an army of infidels attacking a Christian city.

In the last Canto this feeling ends up in shere intolerance when, triggered by a trivial pretext, the mob attacks the local Jewish community, accused of having sympathized for the Turks. This, as well as other excesses, are criticized by the same Berneri.

Meo Patacca is also unvaluable source of historical documentation concerning Rome's public celebrations: almost the whole second half of the work describes in detail how pageants were set up, how the different kinds of fireworks were made, how they were operated and what was their effect, and also how wild the mob could turn in taking part to the revelries (an occasion for the low-class people to give vent to their miserable condition). During these happenings, it was not uncommon for a passer-by to be injured or killed.

The siege of Vienna that inspired the poem is a true historical fact. On July 14, 1683, the Ottoman vizier Kara Mustafa Pasha (whose name is found in the text as Bassà, corrupted according to the dialect) set Vienna under siege, for 60 days. The city would have fallen to the Turks, had pope Innocent XI not called on the king of Poland John III Sobieski, whose intervention proved successful. As the Ottomans withdrew, the Austrian army entered Hungary, and took Buda.
Berneri's work was first published twelve years later, in 1695.

No less than 100 years elapsed before a second edition was printed, but this time it was decorated with 52 tables, drawn by the renowned Roman engraver Bartolomeo Pinelli (the illustrations shown in this page come from his series).

This is another interesting feature of Meo Patacca. Berneri blended the outdated Italian spoken in the 1600s with Rome's own dialect, which by those times had already developed a character of its own; the result is probably a simplified form of the language spoken in the streets, but this may be clearly understood considering that Meo Patacca is one of the earliest literary works fully composed in a non-official or non-literary language, not because of the author's lack of knowledge of Italian, but as a corageous attempt of lowering the level of speech, so that the common people too may have understood.

In the preface, the author instructs the readers about the language, what can be considered one of the earliest samples of dialect grammar:

«May you not be displeased, Dear Reader, about my warning you that the Roman language is not (as some believe) considerably different from that spoken by the common people of Rome, except for some words and idioms, invented by the Romans at their whim, often with a rather appropriate etymology, which sound very nicely. But the said language consists mainly of the repetition of a same word within a period, which gives strength to the speech, acting almost as an example: La vuoi finì la vuoi? ["Will you stop it, will you?"] and similar ones. It also consists of some truncated words, i.e. verbs in the infinitive, which are pronounced sedè, camminà, parlà, instead of sedere, camminare, parlare ["to sit, to walk, to talk"], and sometimes some articles too, for instance, instead of saying nel viaggio ["along the journey"], they say in tel viaggio, often shortnening also words, saying sta tu bravura instead of questa tua bravura [this skill of yours"]. Therefore, who reads, if heard by others, should imitate as much as possible the pronunciation of the Romans (...)
If during the reading you will find barbarisms and discrepancies, do not blame the Author's inattention, but only the properties of this language, which sometimes requires such incorrectness; (...)

Berneri uses an "H" of Latin origin before every verb voice of avere ("to have"), which is spelt havere (in his archaic Italian) or havé (in dialect), whereas in modern Italian only very few verb voices maintained this opening letter. The same archaic "H" is found before some nouns such as homo (for uomo, "man"), hora (for ora, "hour", horto (for orto, "orchard"), and so on.
Conversely, several words which in Italian are normally spelt with an "H", in Berneri's text drop it: occi (for occhi, "eyes"), ciamare (for chiamare, "to call, to name"), and so on. These changes are no longer found in modern Roman dialect. Interestingly, a few words are clearly derived from Spanish: having the south of Italy been for a long time under the Spanish rule, this influence evidently filtered through the dialect spoken in Naples, from where it partly affected Rome's own, as well.
An example of such Spanish influence may be the use of the definite article el (which the Spanish, in turn, had inherited from the Arabs during the Middle Ages); in Rome, the sound of this article was roughened into er. Then, during the 20th century, Rome's dialect somewhat softened its sound, and in several modern texts the article returned to the original spelling el.
Another example is the use of the verb buscare for "to seek": the meaning of this verb ("to look for" in Spanish), in Rome changed into "to obtain, to get", i.e. not the original action, but the result of the search.
Instead, a sign that such Spanish terms filtered through Naples is the use of the words fornire (instead of finire, "to finish"), nisciuno (instead of nessuno, "nobody, no one"), and others, still in use in the dialect spoken in Naples, but no longer in Rome's own.

The repetition of the first part of the sentence is also rather frequent, as stated by the same Berneri, which gives more emphasis to the speech; this feature was still found in Roman dialect in the early 1900s, particularly in the works of Giggi Zanazzo.

Berneri's use of punctuation marks is somewhat whimsical, aiming to reproduce the same pauses of the typical Roman speech (as the author says in his introductory notes); from time to time, the spelling of some words changes from one form to another: chalche → calche ("some"), or ajuto → aiuto ("help"), etc.

Also for many prepositions, more than one form is used, sometimes according to whom is the speaker (i.e. the different characters or the narrator): per → pe', di → de, con → co', and so on.

Also some typical Jewish-Roman terms are found in the last Canto, whose first half is set in the Jewish ghetto (see also the appendix).

Among the many dialect terms, some of them are now difficult to understand; during a time length of over 300 years some words turned obsolete, but for an average Roman-speaking reader the poem is still clear enough to read.
Furthermore, being an early attempt of writing a whole work in dialect, Berneri added several explicative notes; unlike Il maggio romanesco by Peresio, in which a reference glossary is found at the end of the poem, in Meo Patacca they were printed side by side to each octave, for an easier understanding.

In the anthology featured in these pages, the spelling used is partly that of the 1966 edition published by Bartolomeo Rossetti. Compared to the original, the starting letter of many nouns has been changed from capital (uppercase) to small (lowercase). Direct speech is shown by means of guillemets « », and its breaks are enclosed within dashes, instead of brackets. Most of the old spelling, accented vowels and punctuation marks, which in the original edition are redundant and not always homogeneous, are maintained, except where they may raise doubts to the reader; in particular, truncated monosyllables such as fa' (for fare), pe' (for per), su' (for suo or sua), 'sto and 'sta (for questo and questa), etc., are spelt with an apostrophe, whereas in the late 1600s edition always accented vowels were used, i.e. , , stò, stà, etc. (except capital ones, e.g. E' for È, simply because capital accented letters were not available to the printer).
This is a sample octave (II, 75) in both versions; differences are highlighted in red (see the relevant page for the translation).

original edition of 1695

Quietati (Dice) Nuccia, perche hai Torto,
A' fà con Mè tante frollosarìe,
Vuoi sol della Partenza il Disconforto,
E gnente penzi alle Vittorie mie,
E non sai, ch‘alla Guerra Io farò 'l Morto,
E buscherò delle Galantarie?
Sappi, che i Turchi, (à Mè già par d'haverle)
A' iosa ne i Turbanti hanno le Perle.
in this anthology

« Quietati, - dice, - Nuccia, perché hai torto,
À fa' con mè tante frollosarìe.
Vuoi sol della partenza il disconforto,
E gnente penzi alle vittorie mie,
E non sai, ch'alla guerra io farò 'l morto,
E buscherò delle galantarie?
Sappi, che i Turchi, (à mè già par d'haverle),
À iosa ne i turbanti hanno le perle ».

Meo Patacca is written in octaves of hendecasyllabic verses (i.e. verses of eleven syllables), a well-established type of stanza that had been used since the 1300s by major Italian poets, such as Giovanni Boccaccio, Matteo Maria Boiardo, Ludovico Ariosto and Torquato Tasso. Different rhyme schemes are known for octaves; the one more commonly used (including Berneri's poem), known as Tuscan octave, is A B A B A B C C.
The poem is divided into twelve Cantos, each of which is introduced by an extra octave (Argomento, i.e. "subject"), which briefly summarizes in verse the facts included. The opening of the first Canto is shown above, from the first edition of 1695.

Meo Patacca


APPENDIX - Meo Patacca's setting