Dante Maffia

For centuries, approximately since the Renaissance, everything written in dialect in the Latium region is related to Rome; generally the poets who have expressed themselves in the dialect of Rieti or Viterbo or of some small town like Bagnoregio Alatri have been imitators, more eager to pattern themselves after Peresio, Berneri or Belli than to develop their own style. Today things have changed or are changing, due in part to the frenzy of the dialect vogue, but also to the small towns' rediscovery of the historical, cultural and linguistic patrimony of their past. We are thus witnessing an apparently rather paradoxical phenomenon: the more restricted dialect speech becomes, the greater the blossoming of dialect poets, who are not only storehouses of philology or folklore, but expressive worlds often of considerable quality.
Having to choose some texts for a small Twentieth -Century anthology of Latium, it is not possible to take into account (and it would be interesting to delve into the linguistic spirituality of idioms such as the one from Tolfa, almost totally feminine in gender) experiences outside of Rome.
Rome now has over four million inhabitants, the areas still tied to dialect remain Trastevere and Testaccio, but a new vernacular is being born based on the slangy "romanesco" of the suburbs and outskirts; this combines with the "generic" speech of immigrants who have become citizens of the capital and have acquired the cadence of the Roman dialect. It was fated to happen, because a metropolis like Rome, with the strength of its history, lures the out-of-towner and lets him have a taste of its linguistic expressiveness, which mixes with the monuments, the works of art, tradition. One becomes a Roman with a certain ease, and the engagement takes place (or had taken place in the classroom when one reads a little Trilussa and Belli) naturally, also because in the bars, on the busses, in the lines at the post office, at the bank or municipal delegations, people are not reserved and quiet, but talk, complain, shout, tell stories. What is happening is somewhat similar to what used to happen at the time of the great conquests of the Roman Empire: then it was the slaves and the artists who came to Rome and when they spoke (Piero Bargellini in his History of Italian Literature compiles an amusing inventory of anecdotes related to this) they mangled sentences, thereby creating the premises for the birth of the Italian language (Da mihi illum panem: da mi il pane).
The phenomenon this time concerns the other regional idioms that interact among themselves and with the Roman dialect, thus creating a new romanesco, just as effective, even though it's very different from the one used by Belli, for example. This has somewhat authorized the dialect of Mauro Marè, who lives on innovations and inventions as he looks for poetry through a language fashioned by him and capable of realizing the thing in the sound.
This premise was necessary because a dialect, spoken by millions of people and with a considerable written tradition behind it, does not have the same problems and significance of a dialect spoken by a few hundred people and without a written tradition in its past. Not to mention that Rome is the Capital of Italy, the fate of the country and the spiritual fate of Christianity are decided there; it is the crossroads of the events (seat of both Parliament and Senate) which must necessarily reflect upon those who are interested in dialect poetry and above all its practitioners.
It is very well known that all poetry in Roman dialect in the second half of the Nineteenth Century developed under the direct influence of Gioacchino Belli; the great master, with his more than two thousand sonnets, is the legitimate, unquestioned predecessor, indispensable source not only for everything concerning language, but also everything concerning themes and even contents. Filippo Chiappini and Luigi Feretti, for example, move slavishly within Belli's poetry and not only do they not make a secret of their affiliation, they go so far as to exhibit it, with that easy insistence that demands attention in the name of a tradition within which one is sure to find at least the legitimacy of being heard. Clearly, the latter show the keen preoccupation typical of the vaudevillians, of the variety artist who yearns for applause and doesn't care about the rest.
Gaetano Mariani has written that they "live in the shadow of Belli's words; they go into the streets,... they listen to the people, speak in their tongue, they see them move, love, suffer; but they listen to them and see them with Belli in their ears and in their soul, as a guide but also as a constant burden."
Different from the poetry of Ferretti and Chiappini or even opposed to it is that of Augusto Marini, who looks to political and economic news as fodder for his verses. So simple sketches are replaced by satirical and polemical comments that strike at the government and its Ministers, the Cardinals, the officials. At times Marini's verses, who does not stray far from the usual trite and vapid themes, finds a genuine parodistic vein which, however, gets soon diluted in the ritual of images and in the standard repertory of scenes that never approach Belli's human and poetic sensibility. It is clear that the aforementioned poets lack the participation and adherence to the world they are representing and evoking, and they lack the conviction that poetry must be something other than descriptivity tout-court.
They don't even have that generic disenchantment (non-committal, for some critics) shown later by Trilussa as he crossed the broken doors of fairy-tales, which are only able to impose an original and acceptable form when they become cutting and mocking.
To find some kind of poetic certainty again, not devoid of energy and quality, one has to wait for the first compositions by Gigi Zanazzo, who is directly connected to Belli's vein (perhaps without neglecting even Ferretti's and Chiappini's experiences) and from it he draws the inspiration to capture the small realities of everyday Roman world. Zanazzo understands the necessity of going beyond Belli while starting with him, and to explore the spaces left empty or unexpressed by his great predecessor. His expressive energy is thus enhanced by it, because it doesn't adjust easily to the meter of imitation and it must therefore follow a totally personal groove, making an effort to find poetic motifs applicable to the suggestions. Zanazzo carefully avoids dwelling on whatever he feels to be extraneous and above all avoids attracting the reader's attention with recurrent exclamations: he tempers the subjects in a warm, goodnatured mimicry of spoken speech until he touches the chords of recitative which, unlike the one exhibited and chosen by Pascarella and Trilussa, in Zanazzo is inherent to poetry, as an attitude that is beyond the scope of true recitation, but gives it substance with words and images.
At this point one should broach the particular question of the relationship existing among dialect poets of the same linguistic area and not between dialect poets and poets writing in Italian; maybe up to Marini, to limit ourselves to Rome, the affiliations had taken place almost exclusively on the trunk of the Roman dialect, but he opens a fresh new chapter, with which he contributes to the development of Italian poetry. This is an era dominated by the teaching of Giosuè Carducci, a necessary point of reference. The seething spirit of the Risorgimento is still burning and vigilant, and everything extolling heroism, patriotic virtues and similar subjects is enthusiastically accepted. Dialect poets do not want to lag behind and feel oldfashioned with their discourses that bring to life town sketches, that endlessly portray the oleography of the village, so they adapt to the themes advanced by Italian poetry and of course look to the bard of the Terza Italia. In the first place Cesare Pascarella who, even though he remains in the atmosphere and spirit of Trastevere, is able nevertheless to break away from that sticky crepuscular tone and reach high and lofty notes, bringing "into history Belli's ahistorical world," as Franco Brevini writes. This happens because the poet, while in a certain sense withdrawing into the type of anti-Risorgimento
invectives with which Carducci had attacked false and deceitful trophies, does not let himself go, does not yield to anticlerical invectives or political parroting with trite formulas or worn-out archetypes. There is an interview with Ugo Ojetti that clarifies Pascarella's poetic attitude and gives us the key to his writing: "The spoken language of the Roman people is not a dialect in the sense the popular languages of Milan, Venice or Naples are called dialects. It is the selfsame Italian language pronounced differently. And add to these purely phonetic differences the great superiority of our dialectal language over Italian. It is more proper because it is more concrete, because it has not been used by sublime minds for many centuries for metaphysical speculations and every word gives immediately the idea of the thing it represents, without having other representations weaken that certainty." Pascarella speaks of "dialectal language...more proper and more concrete than italian," that is, he insists on the possibility (certainty, in his case) that the Roman dialect can contain in the sounds the precise idea of the thing uttered by virtue also of the fact that it still has not been weakened, contaminated or rendered vague by tradition. The question here becomes interesting and lays the foundation for the ideas that Loi and Giacomini have been advancing for some years. Which means that Pascarella, whatever the achievements of his poetry, had clear in his mind what was happening in that never really clarified relationship between dialect and language. These theoretical statements are even more striking because they were made by a poet in odor of high style and adopted by Carducci the critic. Should not the opposite have happened? Or was it enough for Carducci to simply look at the themes Pascarella dealt with?
Carducci had understood that for Pascarella dialect had not been a mere expedient and therefore he introduced him to readers with that fervor that at the time contributed to erasing so many of the misunderstandings and fears stemming from the Unification of Italy.
In order to show that Roman dialect (but also any other dialect) could attain results equal to if not better than those achieved in Italian, Pascarella attempted the long poem with Storia nostra [Our History], which was intended to trace events beginning with the foundation of Rome. "If Belli had used that dialect solely to introduce the Roman people 'to speak of themselves in his naked, coarse and even bawdy tongue,' Pascarella needed it to sing the glory of a nation: anthithetical attitudes that place the two poets on different paths, even if historically both are Romantic positions. But Pascarella's attempt is to be underscored even more if one considers that at the time in other regions the epic poem was only something to be translated, so they looked to the Comedy, the Jerusalem, the Orlando, the Aeneid, a chapter still to be studied both as a phenomenon and as the dialect's attitude with respect to the classics.
Totally ignoring history, Trilussa would make one think of a type of poetry harking back to Belli; instead Spagnoletti explains very well its remote roots: "in the sentiments expressed by Trilussa everything appears clear and explicit, according to the tradition of Eighteenth Century poetry: love of honesty is almost always absent, a certain dose of programmatic cynicism, the refusal of all 'exaggerations,' including demagogy and dictatorship, and the reduction of human values to a bourgeois scale." We have come down a step, we are outside a strictly plebeian reality, but also far removed from Pascarella's commoner. In Trilussa everything takes on the appearance of discoloration, of a remnant; it's as if we were at the Porta Portese market and rummaged through new and old or imitation old knick-knacks, as if objects and animals, people and things, sentiments and virtues underwent a marrow removal and became, to give an example suited to the present, like Mac Donald's fast food. The poet does not have the conviction of what he says and relates, his supermarket is somewhat playful and impudent, somewhat moralistic and disrespectful, and has all the appearance of ending up in tavern chatter. Claudio Rendina writes: "the hedonistic society of late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Century exalted Trilussa, poet and character; he was the symbol of an era and of the middle class. And that's how he expressed himself up to La gente [The People] in 1927. But during the twenty years of Fascist rule he did not lose his popularity: he became instead the source of impetus for the banter going around the peninsula, in non-committal terms, and therefore tolerated by the regime. His voice became confirmed not as of a school or party,' but the cicada capable of facing a 'chameleon / blacker than coal."
Steering dialect towarsds "an arrangement of dialect" Trilussa breaks that flow of tradition that, if with contradictions and rejections, was advancing with poetic intent.; he does not renew and does not betray, but has the idea of having animals speak in his apologues and in his fables, so that it became a veritable fashion after him, with dozens of versifiers imitating him, lacking nonetheless his composed and engaging inventiveness. He however falls back on "a type of satire that does not help us very much in understanding the man, but only a small slice of society."
After Pascarella, Zanazzo and Trilussa, Roman dialect poets are numberless, but almost always moving within worn-out formulas not far removed from the usual sketches and from the vignettes to which theater has also contributed, above all Petrolini's. One can say at any rate that, contrary to other regions and other metropolis, there is no perceptible lag with respect to schools and trends or teachings of Italian poetry: the "Crepuscolari" immediately find a willing audience, as do the Futurists, the "Rondisti," the "Ermetici," the Neorealists.
It would be interesting to see where the reasons for such a direct correlative come from, and it would also be interesting to investigate why nearly the whole prolific output in Roman dialect (as in the Neapolitan as well, where the exceptions are few, such as Serrao, Sovente and Di Natale) almost completely lacks the note of a feeling or color which is not oleographic. The hypotheses are perhaps referable to the use of language in Belli, that is intimidating and makes his disciples revolve around themselves (The case of Corazzini dialect poems are an exception).
It is probable that Mario dell'Arco, raised in the cult of all preceding and contemporary Roman dialect poetry (he was born in 1905, Pascarella died in 1940 and Trilussa in 1950), saw more than one motif lacking in the tradition (such as sentiment itself) and had the complete vision of a repetition of recurrent topos only apparently varied. The virginity of dialect, mentioned by the author of Villa Glori, capable of decanting the profound sense of history and to radically transcribe facts, has at least suffered a laceration: the capital's dialect mulls over stale reflections of a world fallen into disuse. The various poets are no longer even the famous notaries of transformations of Balzachian memory, they come to terms with rhymes, wink at rhetoric, at coarseness. Dell'Arco feels the need, since Taja ch'è rosso [Cut that It's Red], of 1946, to purify the stale air being breathed. That is why he rejects the frequently baroque and plodding commentaries of the last decades and entrusts himself to the suggestions of the heart, yet never allowing them absolute freedom, dell'Arco language being vigilant and even rigorously calibrated. A scrupulous scholar, but with a manly and open crepuscular soul, he has in any case proved he can handle even more traditional subjects, such as The Sack of Rome and The Rape of the Sabine Women, realizing works that legitimately follow the line of Italian poetry, but correcting it with the mischievousness comparable to that of the early Palazzeschi. The results, even though noteworthy, remain nevertheless in the confines of an effort that comes to terms with the near and not so near past.
The true novelty is ushered in by Mauro Marè who, after his 1977 debut with Ossi di pèrsica [Peach Stones], (with a preface by Giuseppe d'Arrigo), gradually finds a personal and original direction that utilizes Roman dialect in an experimental way, but without disavowing the patrimony of tradition. But the poet makes the patrimony's eyes spin, its hair stand on end, its teeth fall off. Already the poetic attitude found in Cicci de sellero, [Celery Heart] 1979, is different from that of a few years before; one can see that he is fascinated by spoken speech, but more for what it offers in the deformations of a stuttering ideal or of a schoolchild who bungles language than of a man of the people who looks to the middle class when he speaks. The subsequent collection, Er mantello e la rota [The Cloak and the Cape], all centered on circumstances that look to Belli as he thoughtfully considers life and human destiny, introduces the poet's new hell whose center is Rome and whose outskirts are the other side of a Rome advancing from the remote shores of a universal desert. Marè writes in Sìllabe e stelle [Syllables and Stars], "Streets of Rome, alleyways: / I often come to visit you. / My heart on my sleeve, / I look for hand-me-down myselves." Mario Lunetta has observed that for Marè "it is not enough to relate, to represent with sorrowful wit the scenes of a Arazzo Romano [Roman Tapestry] that in any case remained a fiction to be subjected to words of praise or scorn: from him it has become indispensable to look for contaminastion." This contamination takes place in Célinian fashion first in Verso novunque [Verse Nowhere] and then in Controcore [Counterheart] which take us inside a disorientating dimension of precariousness, even linguistic. But in this disorientation there is no estrangement, rather the opposite, with that lucid analysis of the world that crumbles and gets stranded on the neurotic possibilities of the inhuman disarray of a race toward nothingness. In this poetry there is all the muriatic acid of a civilization whose rhythm is constantly thrown off by the need of a relationship with life that Marè pursues in plenitude and enchantment and that puts him ill at ease primarily for the senses that appear and disappear, offer themselves and combine with other senses. It's as if Marè were making a Dantean journey, no longer through the realms of good and evil, but through the dissonance of syllables, through the jungle of phonemes that crash with one another and get angry and expect to take the place of being. This state of inhumanity of words leads the poet to fuse with sounds and so he merges with his song and becomes its victim and executioner.
No more rituals to follow, sights to immortalize, characters of a memorable Rome, full or half-tone portraits of a reality to be defended by memory, now the poet needs to find himself and place us outside the circuit of what we could call traditional semantics, and for this reason he pursues the dark key to the mystery that will reveal to us the meaning of the symbols and perhaps will give us the opening onto the infinite.
Marè, with his neologisms, with his expressive richness, shows clearly, as if it were still necessary, that real poetry can be entrusted to any language, and often invents its own language to protect itself from contamination, maybe by an act of contamination.
We are now peering into the future of Roman dialect poetry which, had we taken into consideration the myriad poets that have blossomed recently, would have taken us too far from the analysis of its development and would have led us astray. It was our intent to follow the course of Belli's seed and see how it was transformed into something other than itself; the rest is academia, exercises, a few whims not to be considered, in order to prevent too many incrustations from covering the trail and the voice made flesh ner nerbo e ner vverbo (in sinew and word), to paraphrase the poet.


1cf., to have an idea, Frammenti di luce, poesie folkloristiche, ed. Circolo Poetico-Culturale "Bartolomeo Battilocchio", Civitavecchia, s.d., and, by Ettore Pierrettori, La Tòrfa dal Barsòlo Poesia in dialetto tolfetano, Turin: Gruppo Editoriale Forma, 1982.
2Piero Bargellini, Pian de' Giullari, vol. I, Florence: Vallecchi, 1946.
3Gaetano Mariani, "Pascarella nella letteratura Romantico-Verista", in Ottocento Romantico e Verista, Naples: Gianni Editore, 1972, p. 531.
4Franco Brevini, in Introduction to Cesare Pascarella, La scoperta dell'America e altri sonetti, Milan: Mondadori, 1992.
5Ugo Ojetti, in Alla scoperta dei letterati, new edition ed. by Pietro Pancrazi, Florence: Sansoni, 1946, p 239.
7Gaetano Mariani writes in Ottocento Romantico e Verista, op. cit., p. 561: "I don't believe that to explain Carducci's enthusiastic opinion of Pascarella and the friendship between the two poets it is enough to insist on the epic of Villa Glori, on the type of poetry that Carducci dreamed of doing and did not do, on the undeniable liking the author of the Giambi always showed for whoever took an interest in patriotic poetry and literature. At the root of Carducci's judgment lies the consciousness of a master who feels he has a firm disciple among the dialect poets of Rome, a man who saw life and history (history above all) as he himself saw it, as he himself interpreted it: a clash of passions against the flabbiness of Romantic sentimentalism".
8Gaetano Mariani, idem, p. 540.
9Giacinto Spagnoletti-Cesare Vivaldi, Poesia dialettale dal Rinascimento a oggi, vol. II, Milan: Garzanti, 1991, p. 698.
10Claudio Rendina, Introduzione a Trilussa, Poesie, Rome: Newton Compton, 1992, p. 13.
11Giacinto Spagnoletti-Cesare Vivaldi, op. cit., p.698.
12Mario Lunetta, Introduzione a Sillabe e stelle, di Mauro Marè, Rome 1986.


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Poesia romanesca, a cura di M. Dell'Arco, Milano 1962.
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Prosa e poesia romanesca dalle origini a Trilussa, edited by M. Escobar, Bologna 1975.
Cento anni di poesia Romanesca, edited by F. Possenti, 2 vols., Rome 1966.


M. Aurigemma, "Da Pascarella a Dell'Arco: il romanesco letterario," in La letteratura dialettale in Italia, edited by P. Mazzamuto, Palermo 1984
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