The Voice of Trastevere

Trilussa (1871 – 1950)


By Canon Jim Foley

Cari amici d’Italia! An earlier notice in these columns drew attention to the programme of study to be provided by La Casa di Dante in Trastevere during 2013.  Those who have the good fortune to attend those lectures will listen to the Italian language at its purest and will leave with their heads in the clouds. However, we now turn to listen to a very different voice from the same region of Rome, Trastevere, spoken in the local dialect known as Romanesco. No better exponent of that voice than Trilussa, alias Carlo Alberto Salustri. After listening to his voice we will soon be brought down to earth again.

Trilussa’s choice of a nom-de-plume almost anticipates his purpose in life. It is composed of the three syllables of his surname in reverse.  He set out, from his earliest years, to reverse the values of society and to stand the world on its head. I would hope, from time to time, to introduce one of his poems as a kind of divertimento in the face of the trials and tribulations of our own times. That appears to have been his purpose in the course of fifty troubled years between two world wars and at a time when he was at the height of his powers as a satirical poet. He made his readership laugh on the other side of their face.

Nobody was safe from his fertile mind. Schooled in the world of journalism, his poems, especially his fables, literally left no stone unturned to allow all manner of creatures to come into the light of day. The smaller and the more grotesque the creature the more powerful the clout it wields. A conservative estimate would list some 140 creatures who take on the pompous world of politics and wealth and champion the lives of those consigned to a darker side of life and to poverty.

Although Trilussa was happy to address learned bodies throughout Italy and further afield and to accept recognition by them of his place in that world, he was much more at home within the confines of Trastevere and the intimacy of the taverns and bistros where he would engage with his friends over a meal.

The classic edition of his poems is something of a menagerie with over 500 of his works lampooning everybody in sight who had an inflated opinion of themselves. To that extent it is overpowering. Like the elixir recommended in the last line of La Ricetta Maggica, Trilussa should really be taken a spoonful at a time or perhaps an animal at a time: cats, dogs, frogs, butterflies, crickets, cicadas, parrots, crocodiles, serpents, hens, melancholic monkeys, cows, bulls, horses, tigers, panthers, geese, tortoises, cuckoos, lions, eagles, centipedes, liberal crows, competitive silk-worms.

There follows one example of Trilussa’s art. His imagination takes us from the impossible dream of discovering ‘the elixir of life’ in some magical concoction to a simple prescription to be taken a spoonful at a time each morning. My translation does nothing for the charming simplicity of the original. Pazienza!

Coraggio amici D’Italia!

Al prossimo incontro del Club 25 Gennaio 2013. Saluti! Don Giacomo.



Rinchiuso in un castello medievale,                Holed up in a medieval castle

er vecchio frate co’ l’occhiali d’oro                  the old friar with his gold-rimmed spectacles

spremeva da le glandole d’un toro                  set about extracting from the glands of a bull

la forza de lo spirito vitale                              the potency of the spirit of life,

per poi mischiallo’, e qui stava er segreto,       ready to be blended, and here lay the secret,

in un decotto d’arnica e d’aceto                      in a brew of arnica and vinegar.


E diceva fra se: Co’ ‘st’invenzione,                 And he said to himself: With this concoction

che mette fine a tutti li malanni,                     which can put an end to all manner of  troubles,

un omo campera piu de cent’anni                    a man could live for more than a hundred years

senza che se misuri la pressione                      without ever having to take his blood-pressure

e se conservera gajardo e tosto                       and he would remain hale and hearty

cor core in pace e co’ la testa a posto.             sound in heart and with his head screwed on.


Detto ch’ebbe cosi, fece una croce,                 Having spoken thus, made a sign of the cross,

quasi volesse benedi er decotto;                     as if he intended to bless the transfusion;

ma a l’improviso intese come un fiotto           but suddenly he heard something of a murmur

d’uno che je chiedeva sottovoce:                    from someone who asked sottovoce:

Se ormai la vita e’ diventata un pianto            if life has now become such a pain

che scopo ciai de fallo campa tanto?              what’s the point of dragging it out any longer?


Devi curaje l’anima. Bisogna                           You must attend to your soul. You need,

che, invece d’esse schiavo com’e  adesso,      rather than to live like a slave as you now do,

ridiventi padrone de se stesso                         to try to get a grip on yourself

e nun aggisca come una carogna;                    and stop behaving like a waster;

pe’ ritrova la strada nun je restate               to return to the straight and narrow there remains

che un mezzo solo e la ricetta e’ questa:          one remedy and the prescription is as follows:


Dignita personale grammi ottanta,                  Personal dignity – eighty grams,

sincerita corretta co’ la menta,                         sincerity –  enhanced with mint,

libberta condensata grammi trenta,                 concentrate of freedom – thirty grams,

estratto depurato d’erba Santa,                       clarified extract of Holy herbs,

bonsenso, tolleranza e strafottinaa                  common sense, toleration, indulgence

(un cucchiaro a diggiuno ogni matina).           (one teaspoonful fasting each morning).

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Dante Aleghieri


The members of St Augustine’s Italian Club will be pleased to learn that La Casa di Dante has recently published the Programme of Lectures on La Divina Commedia for 2012-2013. The lectures will concentrate on the second half of Purgatory this year, from Canto 18-33. Full details are listed after this brief introduction which is included for the benefit of those not yet conversant with the work of this institute.

La Casa di Dante is situated in the fringes of Trastevere, a region of Rome as renowned for its local dialect, as it is for the beautiful church of Santa Maria in Trastevere which stands at its centre. The Tiber flows nearby, skirting the Tiber Island with its medieval church of San Bartolomeo which stands in the shadow of the Synagogue of Rome.

As a preamble, allow me to recall an incident that reputedly took place during the pontificate of Pope John XXIII. He, of course, knew the city well and was aware that opposite the splendid Synagogue there stands what appears to be an inoffensive little church, San Gregorio, which is not usually on the pilgrim itineraries. There is, however, a pugnatius inscription on the façade of this church which catches the eye of the more perceptive polyglot passer-by. It is a quotation in Hebrew and Latin from Isaiah 65.2f. For the sake of the members of the Club I have appended an Italian version and for lesser mortals an English translation:


Isaiah 65.2


Expandi manus meas tota die ad populum incredulum

qui graditur in via non bona post cogntationes suas;

populus, qui ad iracundiam provocat me ante faciem meam semper.


Ho steso la mano tutto il giorno

a un populo rebelle e ricalcitrante

essi andavano per una strada non buona,

sequendo i loro caprici

un populo che mi provocava

continuamente con sfacciataggine.


I spread out my hands all the day

to a rebellious people,

who walk in a way that is not good,

following their own devices;

a people who provoke me

to my face continually.

The anecdote runs that the Pope was less than happy with this relic of the medieval Roman ghetto clearly aimed at the synagogue opposite and he planned to have it removed from the façade of the church as a small but significant expression of his respect for the Jewish community of the city. When news of this reached the Chief Rabbi he is said to have respectfully declined the offer with the remark that the inscription was more of an embarrassment to the Christians than it was to their Jewish neighbours. Se non e vero e ben trovato.

To return to our immediate purpose. The Casa di Dante was built as a monument to Italy’s national poet Dante Alighieri and as a centre for Dante Studies. It was build to look like the kind of house you would expect to find in Florence, the poet’s home town.

Among the many attractions of the Casa di Dante are weekly seminars and recitations of one of the Cantos from the Divina Commedia. A distinguished Dante scholar is invited to speak on the background to the chosen Canto and to offer an interpretation of difficult passages, and there are plenty of those. The lecture begins promptly at 11 am on a Sunday morning and concludes with the recitation of the entire Canto at 12 noon. This takes about another fifteen minutes and is the most memorable part of the exercise. It is music to the ears of all present. There are other attractions.

At the head of these I would place the audience present in the auditorium. The Seminars attract a cross-section of Roman society. Those interested in the study of human nature need look no further than this auditorium. It is, however, well beyond the scope of this notice to pursue this in any detail. For the moment, let me simply say that there were times it appeared to me that some members of the audience had stepped out of the poem to satisfy themselves that the lecturer did them justice.

Then there are the editions of the Divina Commedia in the hands of those present. These vary from miniscule pocket editions held close up against the spectacles of their owners throughout the session, to library editions with handsome leather bindings and brass fittings and print that could be read by an entire bench of bishops.

As you might well expect there are present those who have given their lives to the study of their national poet and have long since formed their unassailable opinions on the proper interpretations of any given passage. Not only are eyebrows raised but voices too and tempers when the exponent of the day ventures an opinion that departs from their own. They do not hesitate to express their strong disapproval.

The details which follow are intended for those who chance to be in Rome on one or other of the days on which the Seminars take place and are happy to find themselves in Purgatory for an hour or so. This year Hell is left behind and there is always Paradise to look forward to.

Programme of Seminars in La Casa di Dante 2012-2013:

Piazza Sidney Sonnino, 5, Rome, Province of Rome, Italy

Phone: 06 5812019

All this year’s seminars deal with Purgatory:

Introduction                                   04 Nov 2012

Canto 18                                          11 Nov

Canto 19                                          18 Nov

Canto 20                                          25 Nov

Canto 21                                          02 Dec

Canto 22                                          09 Dec

Canto 23                                          16 Dec

Dante the exegete                           13 Jan 2013

Canto 24                                          20 Jan

Canto 25                                          27 Jan

Canto 26                                          03 Feb

Canto 27                                          10 Feb

Canto 28                                          17 Feb

Canto 29                                          24 Feb

Canto 30                                          03 Mar

Canto 31                                          10 Mar

Canto 32                                          07 Apr

Canto 33                                          14 Apr

Dante the mathematician               21 Apr