A country with a long democratic tradition, founded on the principles of federalism, from the very beginning respectful of its ethnic groups and minorities, Switzerland is well known as a multilingual nation. For many centuries, besides many languages from Europe and beyond, four languages have been spoken there - German, French, Italian, and Romansch (some also add, as a fifth language, the Scwytzerdüsch, that is, the Swiss-German dialect (for others the "fifth language" is now English) - which have their own history, traditions, and cultural referents (Germany and Austria, France, Italy) and above all, although with very different in size, their own geography. The Romansch is spoken in a few regions of the Canton of Graubünden; French in the western part of the Swiss Confederation, the French-Provençal one; Italian in the Canton Ticino and other valleys of the Graubünden (Mesolcina and Calanca, Bregaglia, Poschiavo), that is - the term has more of a cultural than juridical value - in "Italian Switzerland," a region which, being separated by the Alps from the rest of Switzerland, is historically, but also climatically and culturally (one only need to think of architecture or religious art), open toward the south of Europe .
In reality, the territorial distinction inevitably satisfies the point of view of the political and institutional world, much less that of sociolinguists, because, for example, the migratory phenomena have made it possible for the Italian language - which in Zurich's or Basel's work yards and factories is also the lingua franca used by foreigners (but in Zurich, Basel and other German-speaking cities one family in ten speaks Italian at home - to be used more outside than inside its institutional borders. More than half of Italian speakers, in short (and they are for the most part workers coming from Italy), do not live in Italian Switzerland, but in the German or French section. The same, although in much lower numerical terms, can be said of the Romansch speakers. What not infrequently causes discussions about the Swiss linguistic policy is that, by defending the "principle of territoriality" (i.e., by supporting minority languages in particular, Italian in Italian Switzerland and Romansch in the Romansch area), it turns a deaf ear to the needs and the problems of Italian-speaking minorities living outside Ticino and the valleys of Italian Graubünden. In other words, the logical consequence would be to speak of "Italian Switzerland," meaning above all a subalpine linguistic geography, and of "Italian-language Switzerland," referring to a sociolinguistic situation that concerns the whole national territory.
The condition of those who live in Italian Switzerland - and most of the time have a Swiss passport - means at any rate having to deal with two realities, often very different from each other: the country's, Switzerland, to which they belong politically (today French, German, and English are studied in schools), even if the "Ticinese" may feel "Ticinese" first and Swiss second; and the nation's, Italy, to which they often feel tied linguistically and culturally. This relationship varies in its dynamics, being subject to influences and conditionings of a political, historical, ideological nature. One need only think of the epoch - the beginning of the twentieth century - in which there was a pervasive fear of a progressive and irreversible germanization of the country (through a strong immigration of German-speaking Swiss, thanks to the Saint Gotthard tunnel and the new railroad line; or of the Mussolin years, when the equation Italy=fascism contributed to create a climate of suspicions, hostility and misunderstanding toward "italianness."
In all Italian Switzerland, and this is no doubt a differentiating factor, there have existed (and in part, being a marginal geolinguistic region, they are still currently spoken, especially in non-urban areas) Lombard-Alpine dialects that have created and still continue to cultivate cultural relationships, beyond the common linguistic substratum, especially with Piedmont and Lombardy. Questions of a political nature and in particular the desire to sidestep censorship in Austria and Lombardy have even led, during the course of the nineteenth century, many Italian authors to publish their books in Ticinese presses. Among them there is also the Milanese Carlo Porta, whose Milanese poems went through no less than twelve editions in Switzerland between 1826 and 1840. For more than a century the Port'ss success with his readers gave rise to a vernacular and "bosino" tradition in Ticino: widespread but unfortunately mediocre (for lack of the right cultural stimuli) and reduced to a repetitive and empty occasional exercise.
At least until the second decade of this century in Italian Switzerland there has been no dialect poet who really knew how to escape the trap of drab mediocrity, who in short knew how to take his distances from the "Lombard provincials," as Pasolini wrote, finally transforming the language of reality into the language of poetry. But even in the twenties and thirties the dialect muse still moves between late Scapigliatura and local sketch. New developments, which are important for their linguistic and cultural characteristics, have come instead from the field of Positivistic philology - the name of Carlo Savioni will suffice - and from the dialectological and lexicographic studies that lead to the undertaking of the Vocabolario dei dialetti della Svizzera italiana at the start of the century.
It may not be by chance that the first interesting author, far removed from the tired nineteenth-century versification, which nevertheless continues to be cultivated with great zeal and very few convincing results, is a friend and correspondent of Salvioni. He is Emilio Zanini (1866-1922), and he wrote in the Alpine vernacular of the Maggia valley ( a valley that in the preceding decades, like other mountain regions of Ticino, had seen most of its men emigrate first to Australia, then to the west of the United States). His verses, characterized by a crude and at time violent realism, are often grounded in popular oral tradition, but they also are able to translate the Dantean episode of Count Ugolino in the rustic and archaic speech of Cavergno.
But there was a lag of several decades with respect to Italian poetry, and the first convincing poetry in dialect did not appear until the war years. Convincing in the sense of being finally in step with contemporary Italian and European culture of the time. It may not be by chance that the first really new collection, Garbiröö (1942), was the work of a poet - Giovanni Bianconi - that until that time had practiced the art of xylograpy, modeling it, after a period of study in Germany, on German expressionism. Garbiröö are the grape clusters ripened after the harvest. They are late-coming, then, in the late fall season, like Bianconi's poems (and it is somewhat symptomatic that in the beginning poetry in dialect was the work of mature men: this is true of Bianconi and Alina Borioli; but it is also true of Canonica, Orelli, Scamara).
Fundamental and stimulating was the presence of many Italian exiles and political refugees. Thanks to their tutelage (one need only recall Gianfranco Contini's teaching at Freiburg), their contributions to newspapers (Contini reviews Pasolini's Poesie a Casarsa in the Corriere del Ticino in 1943), their reading circles, and their lectures the cultural scene was suddenly modernized. Eugenio Montale published Finisterre in Lugano in 1943 as well, at the time of his difficult relationship with fascist Italy and, the following year, Umberto Saba published Ultime cose. But if poetry and prose in Italian seemed to draw immediate benefit from the vigor of these new voices, at the threshold of the forties (even without thinking of poets like Tessa and Giotti, whom Bianconi knew anyway) Switzerland dialect clock continued to tick measurably slower.
These were years in which some Ticinese scholars unfortunately continued to confuse poetry with folklore, but the impetus was too strong not to be felt by someone. The rapid change of the country, its economy, its social structures, and its urban landscape, became reasons for reflection and for nostalgia as well, and for violent criticism. Thus reality, after the epoch of the idyll, began to be explored in its slow and hard - and at times painful - transition from an agricultural society to a pre-industrial one (until the middle of the twentieth century, while Swiss-German capital began to circulate, invested in building speculation and the exploitation of hydroelectric power plants, the Ticino remained a region divided between agriculture and tourism).
But it was the very idea of dialect - also as a consequence of an educational policy that tended to privilege the Italian language and to fight with any didactic means the "dialect weed" - that continued to be associated to that of a rural civilization somewhat easygoing and farcical, familiar and good-natured, or to feelings of vague melancholy for the lost motherland and the good times of yore.
Culture and reading (besides the Lombard tradition, he is an admirer of the Triestino poet Virgilio Giotti), perhaps even the connection between xylography and poetry, allowed Giovanni Bianconi instead to follow new paths, no doubt not as wide or safe as those of some of his colleagues in other regions of Italy, but at least more dignified, modern, and clearly drawn that those previously suggested. The interest in dialects seemed to increase rapidly, also with the complicity of radio ("Radio Monteceneri"), which regularly aired readings of dialect texts, especially during the war, in the name of the "spiritual defense of the nation"; and thanks to a literary contest organized in Lugano by the journal Cantonetto (between 1955 and 1962), which for the first time could present new and finally interesting authors and promote their activity. The anthology that came out of it (E quel'aqua in Lumbardia, 1957) intended "to give an idea of the new poets of dialect Italian Switzerland," and it still remains an interesting reference for the authors of the time.
Among the winners there was Pino Bernasconi (the Lugano publisher of the poems of Saba and Montale, who called Bernasconi's (1904-1993) verses, following the path of a certain poetry in Italian that looked to Ungaretti and Montale, "anything but dialectal, rather subtly elegiac in spirit"). There was Alina Borioli (1887-1965), author of a cantare or chant, both epic and archaic, Ava Giuana, made of traumatic memories, oneiric cadences, oracular sounds, visionary madness; Giulietta Martelli Tamoni (1890-1975), born in Argentina, another daughter of Swiss-Italian emigrants; Sergio Maspoli (1920-1987), a playwright, who loved to regress into popular and somewhat picaresque characters (La botega da nümm matt "The shop of Us Madmen", is the title of his only book of poetry); and Giovanni Orelli and Ugo Canonica. They are all, or almost, poets who would become known in the following years, even if at times they went their own way: Maspoli with dialect comedy, Orelli with the novel, Canonica with Italian poetry and linguistic experimentation.
In short, except for Bianconi, who continued to publish in his old age, the most interesting dialect work of Italian Switzerland came after the war, namely in the publication of a few collections between the sixties and the next decade (by Bernasconi, Borioli, Martelli Tamoni, Maspoli, and Canonica; taken with fiction, Orelli would publish his book of dialect poetry only much later).
Later, the most noteworthy innovations were tied to the names of Ugo Canonica, Fernando Grignola, and Gabriele Alberto Quadri, and the production intensifiedin the eighties, concurrent with the success of neodialect poets in Italy. In 1981 came Canonica's I ligolèghi; the following year Bernasconi's Umbri che viàgian; in 1983 Grignola's La mamma granda da tücc; in 1985 Quadri's Ra scherpa fòra di scaff; in 1986 Canonica's To ví and Orelli's Sant'Antoni ddai padü; the following year Grignola's La pagina striàda (and in 1989 dialect was included among the Italian poems of Orelli's Spiracoli). In the following decade there was alsod Elio Scamara who, with his poetry written in the dialect of the Verzasca valley, was perhaps the happiest and most interesting surprise of the nineties.
In reality, as shown by the anthology edited by Grignola (Le radici ostinate. Poeti dialettali della Svizzera italiana, 1995), the poetic landscape in dialect in Italian Switzerland numbers various other names and several collections. One fact stands out: if the geolinguistic marginality of Italian Switzerland, and the nature of its vernaculars, more conservative than elsewhere, allows dialect to be still spoken by many young people (especially in the valleys; but all the poets in this anthology are dialect-speaking, although they use Italian in the practice of their everyday profession), poetry in dialect does not seem to be embraced by the new generation, if the youngest authors (like Quadri) are now fifty years old. And then, beyond the names just mentioned, dialect poetry generally is not able to avoid - in this it is far removed from the best work in Italy - the usual traits of lyric-elegiac interiorization, plaintive gnomic tones, and the representation of a popular idyllic and theatrically exemplary ethos. The best poets (some of them are present in dialect anthologies published in Italy) are in short those who, leaving behind an almost exhausted tradition, can come face to face with the stimulating experiences of their best counterparts in Italy.
Among the most recent and interesting things that deserve mention (reminiscent of analogous experiments carried out by Pasolini, Pierro, Giacomini, and others) are the "translations' in Ticinese dialect from ancient Provençal by Quadri (whose last collection is titled Bestiarum criviaschese), and those from Villon and Orelli. One should add that this practice is widespread among the best poets - the philological-lexical research and the study of jargons and marginal languages which, by constantly nourishing dialect with new lymphs, tend to rescue it from every day use in order to bring out both its phonic potential and its deepest social and psychological significance (the petèl of childhood, the magic of adolescence, the individual and collective unconscious).
But it is difficult to find general themes and directions, outside a common, subliminal tension before the idea of man's progressive alienation, victim of a civilization seen as contemptuous of dignity and forgetful of history, and for a widespread taste for marginal times and places. The needs are too different, the motivations and inspiration too inconsistent. Nevertheless, at least a few similarities with Italian neodialect poetry can be identified. There are no examples in Italian Switzerland of an aristocratic use of dialect, like Noventa's, but it is legitimate to find, for example, analogies and echoes in the modalities: the inwardness of Marin and Grignola (to whom the Ticinese poet often refers explicitly); the resentment and "political" urging of Pedretti, Loi, Giacomini, and the indignatio of Quadri, Orelli, Grignola himself; the frequent incursions into rustic life and Pasolini's idea of dialect as a "temporal category" preceding industrialization; the reversions - especially in Canonica, Orelli, and Scamara - into the mythical and transgressive territory of childhood, and Zanzotto's return to a dialect-uterus ("where there is no writing[...]or grammar ").
What counts most, however, is overcoming the old dichotomy Italian-dialect and the notion of the latter's ancillary status with respect to the former.
It is difficult to foresee the future of poetry in dialect in Italian Switzerland, whether because dialects, despite a fair staying power, are undergoing a constant erosion (it is now a matter of a few generations), or above all whether because of the lack of a "dialectal" culture that does not confuse the literary aand critical utilization of dialect with the improvisation and banalization of its use. Some examples of new usage (new for the local tradition, not for other regions of Italy) can be found in songwriting. But there dialect is above all and merely the transcription of everyday life, maybe even somewhat easygoing (the same old commonplaces), and is thus often far removed from poetry. At any rate, the Swiss-Italian minority has other accounts to settle with its own languages. For this reason also, the possibility of discourse today is rather limited and paradoxically even a bit elitist, if not overly so.
Anthologies and Dictionaries
G. Bonalumi, R. Martinoni, and P.V. Mengaldo, eds., Cento anni di poesia nella Svizzera italiana, Locarno: Dadò, 1997.
F. Fontana, Antologia meneghina, Bellinzona: Colombi, 1900; Milan: Libreria Editrice, 1915
A.m. Zendralli, Pagine grigionitaliane. Raccolta di scritti in prosa e in versi (16-20 secolo), Poschiavo: Menghini, 1956-57.
AA.VV., E quel'aqua in Lumbardia. Poeti dialettali ticinesi, Lugano: Cantonetto, 1957.
P. Gibelllini, La poesia dialettale del '900 in Lombardia, in L'Adda ha buona voce. Studi di letteratura lombarda dal Sette al Novecento, Rome: Bulzoni, 1884, pp.13-145 (particularly pp. 61-67).
F. Medici, Giovane poesia ticinese. Un bilancio, L'Almanacco 4 (1985), 86-91 (especially pp. 88-89).
A. Nessi, Rabbia di vento. Un ritratto della Svizzera italiana attraverso scritti e testimonianze, Bellinzona: Casagrande, 1986.
G. Orelli, Svizzera italiana, Brescia: La Scuola, 1986.
F. Brevini, Le parole perdute. Dialetti e poesia nel nostro secolo, Turin: Einaudi, 1990.
R. Martinoni, Svizzera italiana: poesia dialettale, in Dizionario delle letterature svizzere, Locarno: Dadò, 1991, pp. 229-31.
F. Grignola, Le radici ostinate. Poeti dialettali della Svizzera italiana, Locarno: Dadò, 1995.
0. Lurati, Il dialetto: dalla realtà a lingua della poesia, Folclore svizzero 86/1
(1996), pp. 8-10.
R. Martinoni, Cinque dialettali (Canonica, Grignola, Orelli, Quadri, Scamara), in AA. VV., Poesia nella Svizzera italiana, Bloc Notes 34 (1996), pp. 153-76.
A. Nessi, Scrittori ticinesi, edited by R. Martinoni and C. Caverzasio Tanzi, Locarno: Dadò, 1997.
G. Bonalumi, R. Martinoni, P.V. Mengaldo, Cento anni di poesia nella Svizzera italiana, Locarno: Dadò, 1997.
A. and M. Stauble, Scrittori del Grigioni italiano. Antologia letteraria, Locarno: Pro Grigioni italiano-Dadò, 1998.