Monday, October 22, 2007

Within a lovely grotto of salami – Giuseppe Gioachino Belli

Belli (1791-1863) was a Roman poet of the early 19th century. His subject was Rome, its corrupt Popes and Cardinals, its coutesans, its daily life. He was a satirist, in a long Roman tradition:

The Coffee-house Philosopher

Human beings in ths world are the same
As coffee-beans before the espresso machine:
First one, and then another, a steady stream,
All of ‘em going alike to one sure fate.

Often they change places, and often the big bean
Presses against and crushes the little bean,
And they all crowd each other at the entrance gate
Of iron that grinds them down into a powder.

And so in this way men live, soft or hard,
Mixed together by the hand of God
That stirs them round and round and round in circles;

And, gently or roughly, everyone moves, draws breath
Without ever understanding why and falls
Down to the bottom through the throat of death.

It’s hard for me to imagine what Rome was like at this time, directly ruled by the Pope, administered by Cardinals, policed by the Papal police. Repressive, backwards, a mix of palaces, hovels, and ancient ruins, teeming year round with religious and artistic tourists. Belli gives us a glimpse of this world:

The Gravediggers

Yaaa! whadaya mean, business? nobody’s dying:
A bit o’ bad air, and it’s gone already:
Everyone’s so attached to this stinking life…
Go, follow the gravedigger’s trade with love – who’s grateful?

O my poor black smock! there, growing mouldy.
An’ if things go on like this here, and the Lord
Don’t inspire some of those smart quacks
- The gravedigging profession is washed up!

The one swell year we had was in ‘Seventeen.
Then, in this square, it was really the good life
The dead filling up the carts like falling snow!

Well, that’s enough; who knows…? Yesterday Joe
Said a gravedigger friend had written him
That there’s a ray of hope from this cholera.

Belli wrote in all sorts of forms, but it’s his sonnets that have gotten the most attention, I think because they are generally about more universal scenes or ideas. Some of them are comical retellings of the stories of Noah or Abraham or Mary and Martha. Some are attacks on the Pope or some lecherous Cardinal. The two “Saint Strumpet of Piazza Montanara” sonnets are brilliant, about a true Christian, but highly obscene. But the depictions of ordinary life are the best, I think. Here’s Rome at Easter:

Tour of the Delicatessens

Of all the delicatessens where they put on
Great shows for the Easter of the Egg,
That of Biascio at the Pantheon
Is the best in Rome this year. There’s big

Columns of round cheeses, that would be
A hundred, to reckon low, support an alcove
Embroidered with sausages, and you should see
The animals in fancy forms! Above,

Among others, way up, there’s a Moses of lamb
Holding a club in the air just like a cop,
On the peak of a tall mountain of ham;

And under him, to get your appetite up,
There’s a Christ and a Madonna made of pastry
Within a lovely grotto of salami.

Belli was a dialect (Romansesco) writer, which adds one more obstacle to translation, as if there were not enough already. These translations are all by Harold Norse, a young Beat poet. On the back cover of my book, he actually says “This keeps me free from schools (beat or square)”, but only a Beat would say that. Norse is an interesting guy in his own right, and has recently (in his old age) gotten some attention as an important gay poet. I recently read someone criticize Norse as having translated Belli into Brooklynese. Well, that’s one solution to the dialect problem. And look at the sophisticated off-rhymes in “The Coffee-house Philosopher” – same/machine/stream, hard/God, circles/falls. He’s does rhyme “bean” with “bean”, which is less sophisticated. If someone has done better with Belli, I’d love to read him.


  1. I have only just seen this old post, so I hope you find this comment. Anthony Burgess did versions of a group of Belli's Biblical sonnets, which he translated into a kind of Mancunian - they form part of his novel ABBA ABBA, in which Belli is also a character. The Scottish poet Robert Garioch did some Belli sonnets into Scots. And there has recently been a new volume of translations in parallel with the original Romanesco by Mike Stocks. All are worth reading - I especially like Garioch and have a soft spot for Burgess as his versions introduced me to Belli long ago. If you know all this stuff by now, apologies, and hope you enjoyed these other versions.

  2. No, this is wodnerful, thanks. I hope to revisit Belli, soon, soonish, and I knew of several other translations, but not one of these.

    I've been enjoying English Bulidings quite a lot recently, by the way.