The Voice of Trastevere, Trilussa (1871 – 1950) by Canon Jim Foley

The Voice of Trastevere, Trilussa (1871 – 1950) by Canon Jim Foley


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).

*To view this article in a printer-friendly PDF format click here.

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