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Saturday, April 3, 2010

The Voice of Rome: Giuseppe Gioachino Belli

The minute a man becomes a priest,
that priest becomes a man made holy,
and no matter how he may sin, his sin
will fly away from him like a cricket from a net.

We welcome journalist and translator Frederika Randall, our guest blogger for this post. Randall left New York for Milan in 1986 and now lives in Rome. She has written about Italian society, arts, literature, film and culture for the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, and now reports on politics for The Nation and on books for the Italian weekly Internazionale. With a grant from the PEN Translation Fund, she is completing a translation of Luigi Meneghello's Libera Nos a Malo. The translations below are hers.

If you’ve taken the tram up or down viale Trastevere, you’ve probably caught sight of Giuseppe Gioachino Belli. He’s the pensive gent in the top hat looking down from
a white travertine monument, just across Ponte Garibaldi on the Trastevere side of the river. “To their poet” says the inscription on the base, “from the people of Rome.” There’s also some fancy allegorical relief work front and back, courtesy of Belle Epoque sculptor Michele Tripisciano. Once upon a time Trastevere, once one of Rome’s poorest neighborhoods. This little corner was dedicated to Belli in 1910, when a group of poets petitioned mayor Ernesto Nathan to rename the square Piazza G.G. Belli and took up a public collection to pay for the monument.

Despite some attempts to put his poems into English, Belli isn’t very well known outside Italy--even though Pier Paolo Pasolini once called him “the greatest Italian poet.” Significantly, he didn’t say “greatest dialect poet,” the title by which Belli is usually known but one that seems to hedge its bets about whether literature in dialect is really literature. For Belli wrote not in standard Italian but in Romanesco, the lowlife Roman vernacular. Pasolini, poet, master of dialect, and a lover of lowlife Rome himself, knew whereof he spoke.

Giuseppe Gioachino Belli was born in Rome in 1791, just on the cusp of the French revolution. He died in 1863, only a few years before the Italian army defeated the backward, despotic Papal States— a theocratic regime, we’d call it today--and claimed the city of Rome as Italian territory. The seizure of Rome in 1870 was the last, symbolic act in the long unification process of the Risorgimento, a movement with strong secular and progressive currents.
Belli, a subject and employee of Papal Rome, thus lived out his life in a reactionary backwater during the century in which liberté, egalité and fraternité were the battlecries of change across Europe. (Rudolf Wiegmann's 1834 painting at right,looking down the Tevere with St. Peter's in the distance, captures something of that world).

And yet, Belli was nothing if not a man of his times, with all their contradictions. An accountant and later a censor in the Vatican bureaucracy, he belonged to the small Roman middle class, squeezed between the lordly, wealthy ecclesiastical elite, and the abundant masses. He was anything but a man of the people, yet in a wild burst of creativity during the 1820s and 30s he wrote some 2,279 sonnets, all in the rough and ready street language of the Roman populace, Romanesco.

It’s a dialect with a mouthful of consonants and a way of lopping words off after the accented syllable. The Romans say bbuono instead of buono, “good” and they say fà instead of fare, “to do”. Until the mid-20th century, most people in Rome spoke Romanesco, just as most Italians spoke one of the scores of local dialects as their first (and often only) language. Only the literate spoke, and read Italian. Though Belli’s sonnets were composed nearly two hundred years ago, the language still sounds a lot like that spoken on the streets of Rome today. As much as a language, Romanesco is a mode of expression: caustic, vivid, and frequently very vulgar.

Apart from his style and pizzaz as a poet, Belli was an astute observer and early ethnographer, making note, in witty rhyming stanzas, of the political beliefs and religious credences, the social customs and verbal expressions, the hopes and the
fears of the Romans. He “delved into plebeian sentiments as into his id, his other: the dark, misshapen bottom not only of society but of individual consciousness,” said Luigi Meneghello, himself a wonderful dialect writer and a great admirer of Belli. Something of a ventriloquist, Belli sometimes used “the people” as a mouthpiece to say things that otherwise it would be awkward, or even dangerous to say. But he also had an undeniable feeling for the humblest Romans, not unlike the painter (unknown) who depicted Italy's class divide in two rooms of an osteria, above.

Belli had been well-educated by the Jesuits, reading widely as a young man, both the eccelesiastical literature, and great philosophes of his day (Voltaire was a favorite). Although he was fascinated by the new ideas of the Enlightenment, he was also a loyal subject and employee of the papacy. Perhaps the only way he could cope with his divided loyalties and voice his enthusiasm for the liberatory, democratic and anti-clerical ideas coming from France was to put them in the mouths of the Roman proletariat: so Italian critic Pietro Gibellini has suggested.

But when Rome actually put those ideas into practice with the great Risorgimental uprising, the Roman Republic of 1849, Belli was so traumatized that he never wrote a single line of Romanesco again. The sonnets went unpublished in his lifetime. As an old man, he repudiated his Romanesco writings and asked that the sonnets be burned after his death. Luckily, his friend and executor, Bishop Vincenzo Tizzani, chose not to carry out that request.

“I wanted to leave a monument to the Roman plebe,” was how Belli once accounted for those 2,279 sonnets. The plebe: the Roman masses, poor, illiterate, disenfranchised, policed by the papal Carabinieri and kept in line by regular hangings in St. Peter’s Square. Belli gave voice to their pleasures, their misery, their cynicism and their deep fatalism—so deep for example that many, like the poet himself, actually abhorred the Risorgimento and its struggle to free Rome from papal rule, unable to imagine or countenance such momentous change.

In his very best sonnets, the witty, disenchanted voice of Rome’s populace is twined with the poet’s own wit and intellect. His barbs about religious dogmatism, authoritarian rule, about the gulf between society’s haves and its have-nots can sound remarkably fresh in the 21st century. Whether he’s writing about man’s tyranny over the animal kingdom (The Beasts of Earthly Paradise), about the justice meted out to the poor (The Precious Dead), about the hypocrisy of priests (The Priest), or about the Grand Tour’s perverse fascination with the gloomy Roman countryside and its “genuine” farmer’s cheese (The Wasteland), you can hear the hiss of anger, the sting of sarcasm, the snap of vulgarity, as if it were today.

Frederika Randall

For English translations of selected Belli sonnets see: Anthony Burgess, in the appendix to his novel Abba Abba; Harold Norse, The Roman Sonnets of Giuseppe Gioachino Belli; Miller Williams, Sonnets of Giuseppe Belli; Mike Stocks, Sonnets-Giuseppe Gioachino Belli.

 L’amore de li morti

A sto paese tutti li penzieri,
tutte le lòro carità ccristiane
so ppe li morti; e appena more un cane
je si smoveno tutti li bbraghieri.

E ccataletti, e mmoccoli, e incenzieri,
e asperge, e uffizi, e mmusiche, e campane,
e mmesse, e ccatafarchi, e bbonemane,
e indurgenze, e ppitaffi, e ccimiteri!…

E intanto pe li vivi, poveretti!
gabbelle, ghijjottine, passaporti,
mano-reggie, galerre e ccavalletti.

E i vivi poi-poi, bboni o ccattivi,
so cquarche ccosa mejjo de li morti:
non fuss’antro pe cquesto che ssò vvivi.

Sept. 19, 1835

 The Precious Dead

In this town, all the attention,
all the faith, hope and charity,
go to the dead. Just let a dog die
and the whole place springs to life.

The litter, the candles, the incense burners,
the holy water, the matins, the music, the church bells,
the masses, the fancy biers, the gratuities,
the indulgences, the cemeteries, the epitaphs...

And meanwhile for the living—the unlucky—
taxes and customs, identity papers and guillotines,
the “by the authority vested in me”, the prison, the rack.

Yet in the end the living, good or bad,
are still better off than the dead,
for one thing, at least they’re still with us.

--tr. F. Randall

 Er prete
Ar momento c’un omo fa pprete
sto prete è un omo ggià ssantificato;
e cquantunque peccassi, er zu’ peccato
vola via com’un grillo da una rete.

Er dì ssanto a cchi pporta le pianete
è ccome er carcerà cchi è ccarcerato,
come scummunicà un scummunicato,
com’er dì a cquattro ladri “In quanti sete?”

Certe cose la ggente ricamata
nun le capissce, e ffra nnoantri soli
se pò ttrovà la verità sfacciata.

Sortanto da noantri stracciaroli
se sa cchi è un prete. La crasse allevata
pijja sempre li scesci pe ffascioli.

April 3, 1836

 The Priest

The minute a man becomes a priest,
that priest becomes a man made holy,
and no matter how he may sin, his sin
will fly away from him like a cricket from a net.

To say “holy” to him wearing the chasuble
is like putting a man who’s a prisoner in prison,
it’s like excommunicating the excommunicato,
it’s like asking four robbers, “how many are you?”

There are some things that the embroidered ones
can’t understand, and it’s only among us others
that you find the unvarnished truth.

Only we others, the trash pickers,
know what a priest is. The comfortable classes
can’t tell the difference between corn and beans

--tr. F. Randall

 Le bestie der Paradiso terrestre

Primo d’Adamo senza dubbio arcuno
er ceto delle bbestie de llà fòri
fascévano una vita da siggnori
senza dipenne un cazzo da ggnisuno.

Ggnente cucchieri, ggnente cacciatori,
nò mmascelli, nò bbòtte, nò ddiggiuno…
e rriguardo ar parlà, pparlava oggnuno
come parleno adesso li dottori.

Venuto però Adamo a ffà er padrone,
écchete l’archibbusci e la mazzola,
le carozze e ‘r zughillo der bastone.

E quello è stato er primo tempo in cui
l’omo levò a le bbestie la parola
pe pparlà ssolo e avé rraggione lui.

December 19, 1834

 The Beasts of Earthly Paradise

Before there was Adam, heaven knows,
in the animal kingdom up there,
they lived like real gentlemen,
without having to depend fuck-all on man.

No coachmen, no hunters,
no butchers, no beatings, no fish on Fridays…
and as for speaking, they all spoke
as fine as professors talk today.

But when Adam became the boss
there now appeared the gun and mace,
the carriage and the lick of the whip.

And that was when for the first time,
a man disarmed the beasts of speech
so he would always win the case.

--tr. F. Randall

 Er deserto

Dio me ne guardi, Cristo e la Madonna
d'annà ppiù ppe ggiuncata a sto precojjo.
Prima... che posso dì?... pprima me vojjo
fa ccastrà dda un norcino a la Ritonna.

Fà ddiesci mijja e nun vedé una fronna!
Imbatte ammalappena in quarche scojjo!
Dapertutto un zilenzio com'un ojjo,
che ssi strilli nun c'è cchi tt'arisponna!

Dove te vorti una campaggna rasa
come sce sii passata la pianozza
senza manco l'impronta d'una casa!

L'unica cosa sola c'ho trovato
in tutt'er viaggio, è stata una bbarrozza
cor barrozzaro ggiù mmorto ammazzato.

March 26, 1836

 The Wasteland (the Campagna Romana)
God help me, Christ and the Madonna,
may I never go out again to get that cheese from the farmer.
I’d rather…what can I say?…I’d rather
be castrated by a sausage-vendor at the Pantheon.

You do ten miles and never see a tree!
At most you stumble over a few rocks.
And all around, a silence thick as oil,
so if you scream, there’s no one there to hear.

Everywhere you turn, bare, scraped land,
as if the carpenter had passed his plane,
and nowhere, not even the shadow, of a house.

The one and only thing I ever saw
on the whole trip, was an upturned cart,
and lying by its side the driver. Dead.

--tr. F. Randall

[The last image is Paul Flandrin, Campagna Romana (1840); the second-to-last is Adolf Luben (1832-1905), Visitation of the Sick; above that, Henri Regnault (1843-1871), The Old Flea Market in Piazza Montanara]

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