I had heard about the Italian poet Trilussa while living in Rome, his hometown, and had spent several evenings sitting by the fountain in the square named after him. But it was a cafe owner in Urbino who introduced me to his Roman dialect poems properly and encouraged me to explore them in more depth.
I had just been to admire the views of Urbino from the Albornoz fortress when I stopped into the Pasticceria Cartolari for a coffee. It was a quiet time of the afternoon and I noticed that the owner was reading a book of Trilussa’s poems. I told him I lived in Rome and asked about his interest for the poet. His eyes lit up as he described Trilussa as a literary genius and excellent political satirist whose social commentary on the Fascist period in Italy still held relevance today. He started rustling through the pages of the book so that he could read me his favourites.
The one he was most keen to show me, and that I remember most, was called “Numbers”, a dialogue between the numbers One and Zero, which Trilussa wrote in 1944. It’s a critique of dictatorship, with the number “One” representing a dictator and “Zero” representing a person who supports a dictator. Here’s the Italian version and my attempt to translate it as I could not find any full translations on the web:
Conterò poco, è vero:
– diceva l’Uno ar Zero –
ma tu che vali? Gnente: propio gnente.
Sia ne l’azzione come ner pensiero
rimani un coso voto e inconcrudente.
lo, invece, se me metto a capofila
de cinque zeri tale e quale a te,
lo sai quanto divento? Centomila.
È questione de nummeri. A un dipresso
è quello che succede ar dittatore
che cresce de potenza e de valore
più so’ li zeri che je vanno appresso.
I am worth little it is true
— said One to Zero
But what are you worth? Nothing, absolutely nothing.
Both in action and in thought,
you remain an empty and ineffectual thing.
Meanwhile if I put myself in front
of five zeros like you
Do you know what I become? One hundred thousand.
It’s a question of numbers. That is roughly
what happens to a dictator
who grows in power and value
with the more zeros that follow him.
Trilussa is comparing a person who supports a dictator to a “zero” in moral and intellectual terms. And he is trying to show perhaps that though dictators may feel powerful and validated by the support of a lot of people, in reality all those followers could be considered worthless.
I was so struck by this poem, and the interesting discussion I had with the cafe owner, that when I returned to Rome I started to do some more research into Trilussa. His real name was actually Carlo Alberto Salustri. Trilussa was an anagram of his surname that he used to sign his poems. I discovered that though he was a successfully published poet in the 1920s and 30s, he avoided highbrow intellectual circles and preferred to hang out in the streets and pubs of central Rome and Trastevere for inspiration. I liked the sound of his down-to-earth attitude.
He accompanied some of his poems with sketches, which reflect the lively scenes he would have seen around town.
I read that he refused to join the Italian Fascist party in the 1920s, defining himself as a non-fascist. He used his poems to comment on political and moral issues. Having come from a poor background, his favourite targets were the wealthy classes as well as corrupt politicians and Fascist regimes. Considering the growing wealth inequality we are experiencing at the moment, I felt his poems also have a lot to teach us in modern times.
The next time I was in Trastevere, I passed by his monument in Piazza Trilussa and took some photos.
I also read the poem inscribed on the stone, which seemed to highlight the importance of freedom of speech, albeit in a funny and slightly vulgar way. Later I looked for a translation:
In the Shade of a Hay Rick
I read my paper, back propped against the hay
Here comes a hog, so I look up and say,
“Goodbye, Pig!” And then across the grass
here comes a donkey; I say, “Goodbye, ass!”
No way of telling if they’ve understood.
Whether they have or not, it does me good
to call things what they are without the dread
of having to go to jail for what I’ve said.
(From Giove e le bestie, 1932, Translated by John Du Val)
Later when I was reading through some of his work, I came across his study of Statistics, which I felt held particular relevance today. He highlights how inaccurate and misleading these figures can be, and how they often fail to show the big picture:
« Sai ched’è la statistica? È ‘na cosa
che serve pe fà un conto in generale
de la gente che nasce, che sta male,
che more, che va in carcere e che spósa.
Ma pè me la statistica curiosa
è dove c’entra la percentuale,
pè via che, lì, la media è sempre eguale
puro co’ la persona bisognosa.
Me spiego: da li conti che se fanno
seconno le statistiche d’adesso
risurta che te tocca un pollo all’anno:
e, se nun entra nelle spese tue,
t’entra ne la statistica lo stesso
perch’è c’è un antro che ne magna due. »
Do you know what statistics is? It’s a thing
that’s used to make a general count
of people who are born, get ill,
who die, go to prison and get married.
But for me the peculiar thing about statistics
is the issue of percentages,
because there the average is always the same
even when someone has nothing.
Let me explain: from the calculations made
according to current statistics
it appears that you eat one chicken per year
and even if you can’t afford to buy a chicken
you are included in the statistics anyway
because someone somewhere is eating two.
I liked this one because it reminded me of ongoing problems in countries that are recovering from the great recession. While statistics show that certain economies are rebounding quite strongly, if you look more closely you can see that a lot of this growth is focused in big cities and in the financial and property sectors. Meanwhile people in other regions are not benefiting in the slightest and are still suffering the effects of the crisis, including unemployment and cuts to benefits and necessary social support.
Trilussa used a softer dialect than some of his contemporaries, which meant his poems were more accessible, helping to boost his popularity. He liked to use animal characters to convey his message, describing cats, monkeys, pigs and mice in awkward situations as he aimed to mimic human defects. I’ll leave you for now with a sweet poem I liked about a turtle. Hope you also have time to explore Trilussa’s poetry and find your own favourites!
Mentre una notte se n’annava a spasso,
la vecchia tartaruga fece er passo più lungo
de la gamba e cascò giù
cò la casa vortata sottoinsù.
Un rospo je strillò: “Scema che sei!
Queste sò scappatelle che costeno la pelle…
_ lo sò rispose lei_ ma prima de morì,
vedo le stelle.
While out walking one night,
the old turtle overstepped
and fell down
with her shell turned upside down.
A toad shouted at her “how stupid you are!
these are escapades that cost you your life…
I know, the turtle replied. But before I die,
I’ll see the stars.