Free Thinking!

Alongside Giuseppe Gioachinno Belli, whom I’ve written about a couple of times, another great romanesco poet is Carlo Alberto Salustri (1871-1950) who wrote under the anagram Trilussa. From the time he was eighteen years old, until his death at the age of 79, Trilussa published poems in the Roman dialect in newspapers, almanacs, and volumes of collected works.

Trilussa, Collezione del Fondo Nunes Vais, Public Domain

Trilussa’s poems often took the form of Aesop-like fables, with animals standing in for types of people. Unlike Aesop, however, these fables most often offered cynical or jaded lessons, based on Trilussa’s scathing critiques of human nature, specifically as it was expressed in Italian political life. There is a small piazza named for Trilussa in Trastevere, just as one crosses the Ponte Sisto. A bronze statue of the poet sits on one side, alongside a plaque with one of his more well-known sonnets, “Al Ombra” (“In the Shade”).

Piazza Trilussa, Trastevere. Photo: Pierfelice, Creative Commons License

Recently, and for a lot of reasons, I’ve been thinking about Trilussa’s poem, La libbertà de pensiero (“Freedom of Thought”) which he wrote in 1922, the same year that the Fascists seized control of Italy. The poem recounts a fable about a white cat and a black cat.

Un Gatto bianco, ch’era presidente 
der circolo der Libbero Pensiero
sentì che un Gatto nero,
libbero pensatore come lui,
je faceva la critica
riguardo a la politica
ch’era contraria a li principi sui.
“Giacché nun badi a li fattacci tui,
– je disse er Gatto bianco inviperito -,
rassegnerai le proprie dimissione
e uscirai da le file der partito:
che qui la poi pensà libberamente
come te pare a te, ma a condizzione
che t’associ a l’idee der presidente
e a le proposte de la commissione!”
– “E’ vero, ho torto, ho aggito malamente…” –
Rispose er Gatto nero.
E pe’ restà ner Libbero Pensiero
da quela vorta nun pensò più gnente.

Here’s my translation:

A white cat, who was president
of the Free Thought Society,
heard about a black cat, 
another free-thinker, who held
opposing ideas and criticized his politics.
“Since you can’t watch your damn mouth,”
said the enraged white cat,
“You’ll be relieved of your duties 
and leave the ranks of the party. 
Anyone here can freely think whatever he likes, 
so long as he agrees with the ideas
of the president and the leadership!”
“It’s true,” said the black cat. “
I’m wrong. I’ve behaved badly.”
And so, to stay in the Free Thought Society,
He never thought about anything again. 

So much of our discourse today revolves around the ideas of free speech, policed speech, and the role of authority in regulating speech. In my own field of higher ed, college campuses–including mine–have become fraught places where multiple intersections of interests and ideologies clash, all waving the banner of free thinking. Almost a hundred years after this poem was written, we find ourselves in the roles of either the white or black cat, depending on the space we are in.

N.B., a great introduction to Trilussa’s poetry, with elegant English translations is John Duval’s Tales of Trilussa.

Here, Priests Run Everything

All over Rome you’ll find the letters “SPQR” emblazoned on everything from taxis to trashcans, drinking fountains to sewer covers. It’s an abbreviation for Senatus Populusque Romanus (“The Senate and People of Rome”) and seems to originate in imperial Roman coinage and inscriptions. Sarah Bond has an essential piece about the polyvalence of “SPQR” through the centuries, including its appropriation by modern white supremacists.

What I’m thinking about today, in light of the state of the Catholic Church as an institution, is the sonnet entitled, “SPQR” by the Roman poet Giuseppe Gioachino Belli (1791-1863; full text and translation at the end of this post). Belli lived in Rome when the Church was also the ruling authority in the city. He wrote scores of sonnets in the vivid Roman dialect (I’ve blogged about him already) and he was not afraid to use his poems to challenge ecclesiastical abuse and hypocrisy.

One such poem is, “SPQR.” Here, Belli “remembers” his schoolboy days, where he would see the letters everywhere in Rome and wonder what they stood for. So, like any good Catholic, he asks his teacher/priest (Fr. Fulgentius). The priest rather brusquely tells the boy:

Ste lettre vonno dì, ssor zomarone,
Soli preti qui rreggneno: e ssilenzio

These letters mean, you giant dumbass,
“Here the priests run everything.” Now shut up.

Soli Preti Qui Reggneno”—SPQR—literally, “Here only priests rule.” This is the world Belli lived in, but it’s also part of the world that Catholics have grown up in. Clericalism—the idea that “Father knows best,” that priests are inherently or supernaturally holier/better than laypeople, that they are above the rules and accountability that govern the rest of us— is ingrained into many Catholics since childhood, especially those from immigrant communities in the United States. And many priests believe it too, carrying themselves as if they were better than their lay brothers and sisters. This is what lies at the heart of the sexual abuse crisis in the Church, because sexual violence is fundamentally about power. Clerical power has been fed by the privilege and deference given to clergy by lay Catholics, and is the cause of obfuscation and silence embraced by the clergy to protect their status, no matter the harm done to the laity. I’m not alone in thinking this. 

As Belli’s sonnet makes clear (and as I learned from my mother, herself an immigrant to the US from Rome), laypeople have long known that hypocrisy exists among the clergy. But we are at a moment now in the life of the US Catholic Church in which many Catholics will no longer put up with it,  because now we see how clericalism has permitted and subsequently hidden irreparable harm done to children.

The question facing those Catholics contemplating their ongoing participation in the institutional Church is whether the Tradition—the Christian faith and its practices that have been handed down through the centuries—can continue to exist and be passed on in an institution that is so clearly rotten from the inside out.

When the Roman Emperor Constantine built the great basilicas of St. Peter’s and St. Paul’s in Rome, he destroyed two large cemeteries in order to create a foundation for these new buildings. Metaphorically, the clerical nature of the institutional Church is a cemetery: a city of the dead that needs to be razed in order for a new building, a new place of worship, to rise in its place. Whether any of us in the Church have the will to undertake that vast labor is what will define Catholicism from this moment forward.

Quell’esse, pe, ccu, erre, inarberate
Sur portone de guasi oggni palazzo,
Quelle sò cquattro lettere der cazzo,
Che nun vonno dì ggnente, compitate.
M’aricordo però cche dda regazzo,
Cuanno leggevo a fforza de frustate,
Me le trovavo sempre appiccicate
Drent’in dell’abbeccé ttutte in un mazzo.
Un giorno arfine me te venne l’estro
De dimannanne un po’ la spiegazzione
A ddon Furgenzio ch’era er mi’ maestro.
Ecco che mm’arispose don Furgenzio:
“Ste lettre vonno dì, ssor zomarone,
Soli preti qui rreggneno: e ssilenzio.”

Roma, 4 maggio 1833

That SPQR on the door
Of almost every building,
Those four fucking letters,
They don’t spell anything.
But I remember when I was a boy,
And had to read or get thrashed,
I always found them together, like the ABC’s.
Finally, one day the desire came over me
To ask Don Fulgentius, my teacher, for an explanation.
Here’s the answer Don Fulgentius gave me,
“These letters mean, you giant dumbass,
‘Here the priests run everything.’ Now shut up.”

Rome, May 4, 1833

Coffee and the Life of the Mind

As Markman Ellis notes in his excellent history of the coffee house, almost since their first appearance in the west they have been places for people to gather and talk about ideas.

The Italian poet, Giuseppe Gioachino Belli ( 1791-1863) has written one of my favorite ruminations on coffee and life. His sonnet, Er Caffettiere Fisolofo (The Philosopher Barista) is, like all his sonnets, written in the vibrant and earthy Roman dialect the locals call “romanaccio.” Here it is with my rather wooden translation:

G. G. Belli (fotgrafo ignoto forse Giacomo Caneva) – Silvio Negro, “Nuovo album romano”, Vicenza, Neri Pozza editore, 1964, foto n° 9., Public Domain,

Er Caffettiere Fisolofo (The Philosopher Barista)
Guiseppe Gioachino Belli
Rome 1833

L’ommini de sto monno sò l’istesso,
Che vaghi de caffè ner macinino,
C’uno prima, uno doppo, e un’antro appresso,
Tutti quanti però vanno a un distino.
Spesso muteno sito, e caccia spesso,
Er vago grosso er vago piccinino,
E ss’incarzeno tutti in zu l’ingresso,
Der ferro che li sfraggne in porverino.
E l’ommini accusì viveno ar monno,
Misticati pe mano de la sorte,
Che sse li gira tutti in tonno in tonno.
E movennose oggnuno, o ppiano, o fforte,
Senza capillo mai caleno a fonno,
Pe cascà ne la gola de la morte.

People in this world are like
coffee beans in a grinder.
One comes first, another follows, then another after that,
but they all go the same fate.
They often change places, often the big bean
trades spots with the little one,
but they all crowd into the opening
of the blade that grinds them into dust.
And this is how people live in the world,
thrown together by the hand of fate,
which spins them round and round.
Each of them moving, slow or fast,
until, without ever knowing, they descend,
to drop into the jaws of death.

Belli is referring to the old hand-turned coffee grinders, which are making a comeback. His vivid imagery of the beans whirling around and slowing descending to their annihilation, and comparison of this with life, is in itself pretty powerful. Expressed in the robust doubled consonants and long vowels of romanaccio, the poem is sublime. My Mother was a Roman and I grew up hearing her and other relatives speaking the dialect. It still contains quite a few loanwords from Latin.

The actor Maurizio Mosetti has recordings of Belli’s sonnets that you can download here.

Here is Mosetti in a traditional carnival mask reciting the sonnet, which is then set to music by the Roman musician Andriana Bono.

So, next time you’re enjoying a strong espresso, think of the beans that were ground to make it. Think of the whirling, random chaos that is life, and remember:

A uno a uno se n’annamo tutti.
One by one we’ll all be going away.