07 January 2017
Stopping in Trastevere to think of
Belli, Rome’s poet of the people
As I was went to cross the Ponte Garibaldi from Trastevere to the former Jewish Ghetto in Rome a few days ago, I almost missed stopping in Piazza Belli.
This is a busy public square, with the mediaeval Palazzo Anguillara towering above the hustle and bustle of a busy traffic junction. On the Thursday afternoon, a blustery wind was blowing up the winter leaves, a woman had slipped on the pavement and her anxious friends were trying flag down the ambulance they had called. In the midst of all this busyness, I was trying to cross the streets, the traffic, the tram lines and the bridge, and in my rush to see the Great Synagogue of Rome and the Jewish Quarter before my visit came to an end, I almost missed stopping to admire the statue of the poet who gives his name to this piazza.
Giuseppe Francesco Antonio Maria Gioachino Raimondo Belli (1791-1863) was an Italian poet, famous for his sonnets in Romanesco, the dialect of Rome. Although the English writer Anthony Burgess Burgess and his Italian wife, Liana Burgess, have translated some of his sonnets into English, Belli remains largely unknown in the English-speaking world.
Burgess uses a rough slang tinged with a Lancastrian accent replicate Belli’s use of the Roman dialect. His translations appear in the novel Abba Abba (1977), which tells of a fictional meeting in Rome between Belli and the English poet John Keats in the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican.
Giuseppe Gioacchino Belli is mainly remembered for his vivid popular poetry in the Roman dialect. He left a collection of 2,279 sonnets, written mainly between 1830 and 1839. They form an invaluable document of life in 19th century Papal Rome and the life of the common people.
He was born in Rome in 1791 into a family belonging to the lower bourgeoisie. Some time after taking up a job in Civitavecchia, Belli’s father died, of either cholera or typhus, and Belli moved back to Rome with his mother and his two brothers.
Straitened circumstances forced the family to take cheap lodgings in Via del Corso. Belli was educated by the Jesuits, reading widely as a young man in both theology and philosophy. He began working as an accountant and set out on his writing career initially composing sonnets in Italian, at the suggestion of his friend the poet Francesco Spada.
In 1816, the budding poet married Maria Conti, a woman of means, and they had a son, Ciro, born in 1824. Belli could now afford to develop his literary talents. He visited central and northern Italy, where he came in contact with literary circles and with Enlightenment and revolutionary thinkers that could not be found in Rome at the time.
In Milan, he came across the rich local tradition of poetry and satire in the local dialect, and the work of Carlo Porta, whose witty vernacular sonnets inspired Belli to write in the local Roman dialect.
Belli’s sonnets are often satirical and anti-clerical. He referred to the cardinals in Rome as ‘dog-robbers,’ and he said Pope Gregory XVI (1831-1846) kept ‘Rome as his personal inn.’
Gregory XVI was one of the most reactionary and politically conservative pontiffs in Church history, opposing even gas street lights and railways. Yet, in the days before collapse of the Papal states and Italian unification, Belli’s political ideas remained largely conservative throughout his life, and during the rebellion of the Roman Republic of 1849 he defended the rights of the Pope.
After his wife died in 1837, Belli's economic situation worsened again. In later years, he lost much of his vitality, and he felt increasingly alienated from the world around him. He once described himself as ‘a dead poet,’ he wrote less and less, and his last sonnet in the Roman dialect was written in 1849.
In his later years, Belli worked as artistic and political censor for the Papal States. Works by William Shakespeare, Giuseppe Verdi and Gioachino Rossini are among those he banned from circulation.
Belli kept his work largely hidden, apart from recitals for literary friends, including the French literary critic Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve (1804-1869) and the Russian writer Nikolai Gogol (1809-1852). Shortly before he died from a stroke in 1863, he asked his friend and executor Vincenzo Tizzani, former Bishop of Termi and a key figure at the first Vatican Council, to burn them.
However, the bishop gave them back to Ciro Belli, who first published a selection of them in 1866, although they were severely edited in order not to offend the taste of the time.
The most striking characteristics of Belli’s sonnets are his overwhelming humour and his sharp, relentless satirising of both common life in Rome and the clerical world that oppressed it, and some of the sonnets show a decided degree of eroticism.
His verse is frequently obscene, reflecting the exuberant vulgarity and acerbic wit of the local people and their language as he seeks to express the mood, experiences and opinions of the Roman working class.
But, while his poems constantly denounce corruption in the Church in Rome and in Papal-rule 19th century Rome, they were ‘never impious.’
His work always deploys an acute technical mastery of rhythm within the difficult formal structures of the Petrarchan sonnet. His sense of realism was rarely matched in modern Europe literature, until the emergence of raw realism with Émile Zola and James Joyce. His barbs about religious dogmatism, authoritarian rule, and the gulf between society’s haves and have-nots sound remarkably fresh in the 21st century. Pier Paolo Pasolini once called him ‘the greatest Italian poet.’
In Part One of Abba Abba by Anthony Burgess, John Keats has various adventures, meeting Belli in the Sistine Chapel, and Pauline Bonaparte, sister of Napoleon, in the Pincio. Part Two consists of about 70 amusingly blasphemous sonnets by Belli, purportedly translated by the fictional Joseph Joachim Wilson, a descendant of the Roman man-of-letters Giovanni Gulielmi, who appears in Part One.
An elaborate passage describes how the Italian Gulielmis were transformed into English Wilsons ‘during a wave of anti-Italian feeling occasioned by alleged ice-cream poisoning in the 1890s in the Lancashire coastal resorts of Blackpool, Cleveleys, Bispham and Fleetwood.’ JJ Wilson is also a thinly disguised John Anthony Burgess Wilson, the author’s full name. ‘Abba Abba’ is the epitaph on Burgess’s marble memorial in Monte Carlo. The phrase refers to Christ’s call on the cross to God the Father. ABBA also refers to the Enclosed Rhyme, commonly used by both Keats and Belli.
Belli’s nephew, the painter Guglielmo Janni, wrote a monumental biography that was published posthumously in 10 volumes in 1967. Belli’s Letters represent some of the finest Italian style of the period.
Belli’s statue by the Belle Epoque sculptor Michele Tripisciano was erected by public subscription in 1913. He is in a top hat and a frock coat, carrying an elegant walking cane and looking pensively at the busy traffic, perhaps no longer recognising the old Rome he knew in the 19th century.
Belli is leaning not on the Ponte Garibildi, which is to his right, but on the Ponte Fabricio, which is behind him, linking the Ghetto with the Tiber Island. This footbridge was built in 62 BC, and is the oldest original bridge over the Tiber still in use.
The poet has a walking stick in his hand. The originally walking stick was a real wooden walking stick, but it was stolen so often as a souvenir, replaced and stolen again that it was finally replaced with an iron-cast walking stick painted in black to imitate ebony.
In the background are typical symbols of popular life in Rome to which Belli dedicated his life and work. Below Belli, two small twin fountains decorate the base of the monument.
Why Tripisciano’s statue was erected at this busy junction in Trastevere remains a mystery. Belli lived in many other parts of Rome, but Trastevere was probably the only part of Rome where Belli he did not have a house and it did not inspire any of his poems.
This little corner was dedicated to Belli in 1910, when a group of poets petitioned mayor Ernesto Nathan to rename the square Piazza GG Belli and began a public collection to pay for the monument.
Perhaps they chose this area because, ever since the Jewish community moved to the other side of the river in the early Middle Ages, Trastevere has been the main working-class district of the capital, and the local people boasted, in the dialect that Belli wrote in, that this is er core de Roma, or ‘the Heart of Rome.’
Nowadays it is a picturesque and artistic quarter where the so called Roma sparita or the ‘disappeared Rome’ of the 17th to 19th centuries can still be glimpsed in the cobbled squares and narrow side streets and alleyways. Today, there are countless craft shops, art shops and art-house cinemas, and at times it seems that every ground floor space is now a restaurant, a pizzeria, a piano-bar, a bookshop or a cosy bar.
‘The Priest’ by GG Belli (translated by Frederika Randall):
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.