I first came across the Roman poet Giuseppe Gioachino Belli during nights out in Trastevere, when I used to pass his statue in the piazza dedicated to him on my way home. I was curious to discover the work of this man, so beloved in Rome, so I set out to study his dialect poetry.
Belli (1791-1863) is renowned for thousands of sonnets he wrote in the Romanesco dialect, which paint a vivid picture of day-to-day life in the Italian capital in the 19th century. He grew up in a bourgeois family but when his father died abruptly he moved into cheap housing with his mother and two brothers on Rome’s Via del Corso. Later, however, he married a wealthy lady, Maria Conti, which gave him room to develop his literary talents.
He used satire to comment on life at the time, and funny sketches within his poems often concealed bitter remarks about society and criticism of the Church. Throughout his life he nevertheless remained quite conservative and he defended the pope during the Roman Republic’s rebellion in 1849.
Just before his death in 1863 he actually ordered a friend to burn his sonnets. Fortunately they were preserved by his son Ciro and later published. They make up the largest body of work in Romanesco dialect from the 19th century and are an invaluable record of the lifestyles, proverbs and beliefs of the lower classes of the time. He actually wrote in an introduction to the sonnets:
“I have decided to leave a memorial to the common people of Rome. Within them there is a certain type of originality. And their language, their concepts, character, traditions, customs, practices, beliefs, superstitions, in fact everything related to them, leaves a mark that makes them stand out from any other type of people”.
As his poems are written in such strong dialect, it can be hard to find good translations. But I have found a selection online translated into clear English. Here is a link.
The first one I like, is the “Wholesome Family” which describes a poor Roman family dinner. It gives a lot of insight into the traditions of the time, and the poverty experienced by many in Rome. He mentions the “couple of leaves” of salad and the transparency of the fried food, alluding to its minimal nutritional value, to highlight the limited means of poor people at the time, who nevertheless carried on in good cheer.
The wholesome family
When evening comes on and she sees me dad,
Gran leaves off winden wool, the poor old dear,
And lights a charcoal, sets the table with good cheer
And we sit down to eat a couple of leaves of salad.
At times, frying ourselves up something to eat,
If you then hold it up against the light and peer,
You can see right through it, like rays through an ear:
Chuck in a few nuts, and dinner’s complete.
Then, after that, while Dad, Clemmy and me
Sip wine for an hour or two at a leisurely pace,
Gran tidies the kitchen and puts away the cutlery.
And when the bottom of the winejug’s emptied its red,
With a widdle and a ‘Hail Mary full of grace’,
With the peace a the blessed, we toddle off to bed.
During Belli’s life, the pope still ran Rome, and power was also concentrated in the hands of idle aristocrats and the clergy. His criticism of the social structure of his time comes across in his sonnets. Here’s a famous one, translated in a stronger dialect, in which he ridicules rich and powerful people who claim to be above others because of their titles or family connections:
The Lieders a the Old World (Li Soprani der Monno Vecchio)
Wunce upon a time from his palatial hall a king
Pud an edict out f’ris peoples ut sed: “Hey yu chaps!
I’m me, got it?, an yu lot ain’ wirth a fucken thing,
Ya bunch a slaven arseholes: so shutcha traps.
I get the strait ta bend over, an I straiten up the bent,
I can hock the lottayez f’ra bob or two adda throw:
An if get yez hanged id ain’ crueldy: ’cos, ya know,
Life an properdy’s jus stuff I pud up fa rent.
Anywun on this planet, if he ain’t a King,
Or if he lacks a title like ‘Emp’ra’ or ‘Pope’,
That fellah can’ ever have a say in anything.”
His hangman wen’ out with the edict ta size up folks’ views
N’ grilled ev’rywun as t’w its tenor, fa the inside dope,
N’ t’wa man they all ansered back: “It’s true. Yep, it’s true.”
One of my favourite poems by Belli is “Greed”, below. I think the way it talks about rich people wanting to hoard an ever-increasing amount of wealth, while poorer people make do with very little, holds a lot of relevance for the growing inequalities in society today.
When I watch folks of this world and see how widespread
It is for those, that pile up treasure and put on fat, to chafe
At the bit and grasp for more, the way they hunger for a safe
As broad as the ocean, and so deep, that it’d never touch the seabed,
I say to myself: ah, you herd of blind fools, bank away, bank,
Ruining your days with anxieties, lose night after night of sleep,
Do shady deals and diddle: then what? Old Granpa Time’ll creep
In with his scythe, and slice away at your bundle of plans, hank after hank.
Death’s hidden away, and hunkers inside the clock-tower;
And no one can say: Tomorrow, once more I’ll
Still hear midday ring out like today, at this very same hour.
What’s the poor pilgrim do when he takes on a rough and tough
Journey, knowing he’ll travel but for a little while?
He packs a crust or two of bread, and that’s enough.
A lot of Belli’s sonnets are quite vulgar and some are very sexually explicit, so much so that I’ve had to censor them for Italian Gems. An example I can share is this one below, which appears to compare telling the truth to an attack of diarrhoea:
The truth (La Verità)
The Truth’s jus’ like a run a the Tom Tits,
Ut, when ya feel the urge an id all starts slippen,
Ya got’cha wirk cud out squeezen back the shits,
As ya grimace an strain t’ hold it from drippen.
It’s just like that, if ya gob ain’ plugged real tite,
The truth, ut’s a sacrasanct an a slippery thing,
Spills out, but frum ya mouth n’ not frum ya ring,
Even if ya was a Trappist with a vow da be quiet.
Why shudja shud up, then, after all, or tell a lie,
Whenever inside a ya, the truth’s wot’cha feel?
Nah! In its own time n’ place the truth’ull let fly.
The Almighdy wants our mouths ta be sincere,
An yet men wanna paste’em over with a seal?
Nah! Stick ta the truth, ‘n dudy, always, ‘n ya got nuthen’a fear!
The following sonnet, on beauty, also holds some relevance for our celebrity and looks-obsessed culture. As he mentions how much easy life can be for good-looking people, I started to think about all the talent and intellect of less handsome and even ugly people that is being lost to society:
Bewdy (La Bbellezza)
Wodda great gift frum God bewdy really is!
It orda be c’nsidered bedder’n coin fa the fact
Thad all the welth in the wirld won’ getcha that,
But with it, with bewdy, ya c’n acquire riches.
A church, a cow, an unmarried woman, ain’ sort
Out if they’re ugly, an peeple look down on’em.
An God himself, who’s a founten a wisdumb,
When he chose a muther, wannèd ta pick a good sort.
Bewdy never fin’s a shut door, unlike the ugly or staid.
Ev’rywun makes sheep’s eyes at a sort, an tuns
Only see wot’s rong after excuses a’ been made.
Just look at kittens, dear frien’, they’re apposite.
The finest are raised with care. An the ugly wuns?
The ugly wuns are thrown oud on’a the rubbish tip.
Later in life, Belli stopped producing poetry and his last sonnet in dialect dates to 1849. He actually started working as a censor for the papal government, banning works by authors such as William Shakespeare! He grew to reject his sonnets, denying they reflected his true feelings, hence his call for them to be burned. I wonder what he would think now if he knew how influential they had become!
All sonnets translated by Peter Nicholas Dale. For more see here