07 January 2017

Stopping in Trastevere to think of
Belli, Rome’s poet of the people

Giuseppe Gioachino Belli’s statue in Piazza Belli in Trastevere (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Patrick Comerford

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.

A quiet corner in Trastevere, close to in Piazza Belli (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

‘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.

A part of the Epiphany celebrations
in Columbia Theological Seminary

‘The Adoration by the Magi ... an Ethiopian artist’s impression’ … a photograph used at Epiphany in Columbia Theological Seminary (Photograph; Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Sarah Flynn Erickson is the Director of the Center for Lifelong Learning at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia.

Last night [6 January 2017], she used my photograph of ‘The Adoration by the Magi ... an Ethiopian artist’s impression’ as a projected image during the Epiphany Eucharist and celebrations in the chapel at Columbia Theological Seminary. Meanwhile, in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, I was serving as deacon at the Epiphany Eucharist at which Archbishop Michael Jackson presided.

The Epiphany Eucharist in Columbia Theological Seminary was planned by Linzmarie Bason, Corie Cox, Sarah Erickson, Israel Galindo, Alison Riviere and Debra Weir. One of the Scriptural responses at that service included a Response in Poetry through the poem ‘25. XII. 1993’ by Joseph Brodsky, translated from the Russian by Richard Wilbur:

For a miracle, take one shepherd’s sheepskin, throw
In a pinch of now, a grain of long ago,
And a handful of tomorrow. Add by eye
A little bit of ground, a piece of sky,
And it will happen. For miracles, gravitating
To earth, know just where people will be waiting,
And eagerly will find the right address
And tenant, even in a wilderness.
Or, if you're leaving home, switch on a new
Four-pointed star in Heaven as you do,
To light a vacant world with steady blaze
And follow you forever with its gaze.

From the time of its founding in Lexington, Georgia, in 1828, Columbia Theological Seminary has been committed to training people for church leadership.

Since then, Columbia has nurtured, and has been nurtured by, the Presbyterian Church in the South. This connection continues to be a cherished tradition. While Columbia now enjoys an outstanding national and international reputation, it also faithfully upholds its historic covenants with the Synods of Living Waters and South Atlantic.

The seminary takes its name from its first permanent location in 1830 in Columbia, South Carolina. This became the first location of the seminary, and the school became popularly known as Columbia Theological Seminary, a name that was formally accepted in 1925.

Between 1925 and 1930, the seminary president, Richard T. Gillespie, provided leadership that led to the development of the present facilities on a 57-acre campus in Decatur, Georgia.

Columbia’s Center for Lifelong Learning provides non-degree courses and events, offering opportunities to learn with and from others for faithful discipleship. The modules are biblically and theologically grounded, with a practical focus to help participants identify and address specific, real-life needs.

Visiting Rome’s Great Synagogue and
the oldest Jewish community in Europe

The Great Synagogue of Rome was built in the 1870s after Italian Unification (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Patrick Comerford

During my visit to Rome this week, I crossed the Tiber at Ponte Garibaldi, from Trastevere, which was once a vital centre of Jewish life, to Lungotevere dei Cenci to visit the former Jewish ghetto, the Great Synagogue of Rome, and Rome’s Jewish Museum.

The Jewish community in Rome is said to be the oldest in Europe and also one the oldest continuous Jewish settlements in the world, dating back to the first century BC.

With Italian unification in 1870, King Victor Emanuel, dismantled the ghettoes and gave Jews full citizenship. With the collapse of the Papal States, Jews were fully integrated into Italian society, becoming became professors, generals, admirals and politicians.

Luigi Luzzatti (1841-1927), who was the Italian prime minister in 1910-1911, was one of the world's first Jewish heads of government who had not converted to Christianity. Another Jew, Ernesto Nathan, was Mayor of Rome from 1907 to 1913.

Both Mussolini’s biographer, Margharita Sarfatti, and his Minister of Finance, Guido Jung, were Jews, and about 48,000 Jews were living in Italy in 1931.

However, by 1939, up to 4,000 Jews had been baptised, and several thousand other Jews chose to emigrate, leaving 35,000 Jews in Italy. The Nazis began deporting Rome’s Jews from the ghetto on 16 October 1943.

The Nazi war criminal Erich Priebke was convicted for crimes against humanity, including the massacre at the Ardeatine Caves outside Rome, where 335 civilians, mostly Jews, were slaughtered in cold blood.

About 8,000 Italian Jews perished in the Holocaust, but about 80 per cent of the Italian Jews survived World War II.

A plaque at the Great Synagogue remembers some Jewish members of the Italian resistance (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Today, a diverse community of 15,000 Jews lives in Rome. Since 1987, the Jewish community has special legal rights that allow Jews to abstain from work on the Sabbath and to observe Jewish holidays.

There are at least 13 synagogues in Rome. The continual presence of a Jewish community in Rome for more than 2,000 years has created a distinctive tradition of prayer – comparable to the Sephardic or Ashkenazi traditions – called the Nusach Italki or Italian rite. The nusach has its own order of prayer and tunes.

A number of synagogues in Rome, including the Great Synagogue, follow the Nusach tradition. The Italian chief rabbi officiates at the Great Synagogue of Rome and heads the Italian rabbinical council.

Most synagogues in Italy are Sephardic, and three of the 13 synagogues – Itlaki, Sephardic and Ashkenazi – are located under the same roof at Via Balbo 33. There is also a special synagogue for the Libyan Jews who moved to Rome after the Six-Day War in 1967.

A Menorah outside the Great Synagogue of Rome (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

In 161 BC, Jason ben Eleazar and Eupolemus ben Johanan came to Rome as the envoys of Judah Maccabee. Other delegations were sent by the Hasmonean rulers in 150 and 139 BC.

After the Romans invaded Judea in 63 BC, Jewish prisoners of war were taken back to Rome as slaves, Jewish delegates came to Rome on diplomatic missions and Jewish merchants travelled to Rome on business. Many of these Jews stayed in Rome stayed and the Jewish population grew quickly.

Julius Caesar had positive attitudes to the Jews and encouraged them to settle throughout the Roman Empire. When Caesar was killed by Brutus in 44 BC, Roman Jews spent day and night at his tomb, weeping over his death.

Later, two synagogues were founded by slaves who had been freed by Agrippa in 12 BC and by Augustus in 14 AD. The synagogue of Ostia Antica is among the oldest in Europe and one of the oldest in the world.

Kosher burgers – including vegetarian burgers – on sale in a kosher café in the former ghetto (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Jews were exiled from Rome twice, in 19 AD and again in 49-50 AD. But those exiles may not have been enforced fully or lasted a long time.

During the Roman-Jewish wars in Palestine in 66-73 and 132-135, Jewish prisoners were taken to Rome as slaves, and some Jewish Roman families say they can trace their place in Rome back to this period. An important Jewish relic is the Arch of Titus, opposite the Roman Forum, built in 70 AD after his Judean victory. It shows the triumphal parade with the Temple vessels carried aloft, including a menorah.

In 212, Caracella granted the Jews the privilege of becoming Roman citizens. They included shopkeepers, craftsman, peddlers, poets, physicians and actors. At the time, there were 12 synagogues in Rome, although none of those synagogues has been preserved.

Constantine the Great (306-336) enacted laws limiting the rights of Jews as citizens. Jewish synagogues were destroyed by Christian mobs in 387-388 and in 493-526. But there was a revival in Hebrew studies in Rome, centred on a local yeshiva, Metivta de Mata Romi. Well-known scholars who contributed to Jewish learning included Rabbi Kalonymus ben Moses, Rabbi Jacob ‘Gaon’ and Rabbi Nathan ben Jehil, who compiled a Talmudic dictionary.

From the 1200s to the mid-1400s, the treatment of the Jews varied from one Pope to the next. Pope Boniface IX (1389-1404) had a succession of personal physicians who were Jewish and recognised the rights of Jews as citizens. On the other hand, Eugenius IV (1431-47) passed anti-Jewish legislation in the Council of Constance. The Jews of Rome prospered in the climate of the Renaissance and became merchants, traders, bankers and artisans.

Pope Alexander VI (1492-1503) imposed a special tax on the Jews of Rome. But the Medici Popes, Leo X (1513-1521) and Clement VII (1523-1534), treated the Jews well, and Leo X did not force Jews to wear the special badges forced on them since the 12th century.

However, Pope Paul IV decreed in 1555 that all Jews must be segregated into their own quarters or ghettoes. They were forbidden to leave their homes at night, and were forced to wear a distinctive yellow hat.

A display in a shop window in the former ghetto (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

More than 4,700 Jews lived in the seven-acre ghetto on the banks of the Tiber, opposite Travestere. Raids of the ghetto were common, and every Saturday a number of Jews were forced to leave the ghetto and listen to sermons in local churches.

After Italian unification, the Great Synagogue of Rome on Longotevere Cenci was built from 1874-1904 after the emancipation of the Jews following Italian unification. It has a unique Persian and Babylonian architectural design that contrasts with the rest of the city, which uses an ornamental baroque style.

Over 2,000 years, the Jewish community of Rome has left many interesting records and artefacts ever found in Europe. Many of these archaeological finds are on display in the newly renovated Jewish museum inside the Great Synagogue, the Museo Ebraico di Roma, which documents and narrates the history of Rome’s Jewish community.

There are kosher cafés throughout the former ghetto (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Nearby, the place where Jews were sent for deportation during the German occupation can be seen in the piazza between Portico d’Ottavia and Tempo Maggiaore.

A plaque on one of the buildings reads: ‘On October 16 1943, here began the merciless rout of the Jews. The few who escaped murder and many others, in solidarity, pray for love and peace from mankind and pardon and hope from God.’

The Museo Ebraico di Roma tells the story of a 2,000-year-old community (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)