Giuseppe Gioachino Belli
(1791 - 1863)


G.G.Belli is considered the most traditional roman dialect poet. Between 1824 and 1846 he wrote 2279 sonnets, each of which is a faithful picture of what Rome was like in the early nineteenth century. The very first words in his introduction are "I have decided to leave a monument of what the common people of Rome are today...". But his opinions about the social structure of his time were strongly critical. In those times the pope still ruled the city; a few idle aristocrats and a rather arrogant clergy represented the high class, whose social power had already lost any historical or moral justification. On the opposite end of Rome's society were the common people, the mob, fanatical and superstitious, whose only entertainments were the frequent sumptuous public celebrations held to hail and glorify the leading class, and the even more frequent public executions (one of the executioners, Giovan Battista Bugatti known as Mastro Titta, even became a famous roman character).
Belli wrote: "Our common people have no art: no art of speaking, nor poetical, just as any common people never had. Everything springs spontaneously from their own nature, always alive and strong, because left free to develop non-artificial qualities...". He was an intellectual, maybe a moralist, as well, and with his sonnets he tried to point out the inconsistency of the decadent society of his time, in a vain attempt to see this centuries-old condition change. His sharp satire gave life to a great number of humorous and witty sketches, though sometimes concealing bitter remarks about life and human condition. Some of the sonnets have biblical themes, where all characters act, think, speak as roman people. He also wrote a number of essays in Italian, but the "Sonnets" are the only work for which he is remembered. In his late years, though, Belli rejected them declaring that they were "full of blameworthy words and thoughts", refusing to recognize them as his own feelings; "...there is a box full of writings in verse. They shall have to be burned!" he wrote in his will.
A collection of his "Roman Sonnets" was first published over 20 years after his death. Several others were found during the following years (some were unfinished), and the first complete edition was published almost one century later, in 1952. Much of their vigour depends on the use of roman dialect: a play on words or a typical expression is quite unique. For this reason they have never been kept in great consideration by "official" literature.
So far, English translations have been made by Eleonore Clark, William Carlos Williams, Harold Norse, Anthony Burgess, Peter Nicholas Dale, and Belli's work has been translated into many other languages. Each sonnet contains a short story, an anecdote of everyday's life; the main elements of the sketch quickly unwind in the opening verses, while the last ones lead to a brilliant conclusion, often ironical or comical, sometimes lyrical or even philosophical.

The Sonnets have a simple structure: two quatrains and two tercets; in most cases rhymes follow the scheme: A B B A - A B B A - C D C - D C D, but sometimes: A B A B - A B A B - C D C - D C D




Giuseppe Gioachino Belli

by Peter Dale


 2002 - 2024