Tomb of Anthony Burgess (source: Wikipedia)
While only about a tenth of Giuseppe Gioacchino Belli’s 2,279 Romanesco sonnets seem to be in print in English, ample compensation for this paucity can be found in the richness of the approaches and supplemental material of what is available in English. Several translations have been made into dialect: by Peter Dale into Strine, an Australian dialect; Harold Norse into Brooklynese; William Neill and Richard Garioch into Scots. Others - Mike Stocks, Eleanor Clark, and former U.S. poet laureate Miller Williams – may hew more closely to standard English, but the diversity of directions they take in translating Belli’s eruptive language makes them all worth reading. Williams’ book, Sonnets of Giuseppe Belli, includes the Romanesco originals on facing pages as does Stocks’ Sonnets: Guiseppe Gioacchino Belli which also provides an invaluable biographical sketch of Belli, a useful bibliography, a few illustrations, and even, generously, a selection of Garioch’s translations into Scots. Norse’s small book, The Roman Sonnets of Guiseppe Gioachino Belli, has a cover design by collage/mail artist Ray Johnson and supplies readers with both an appreciative preface by William Carlos Williams and a rich, illuminating essay by Alberto Moravia, who situates Belli’s work in its Italian historical and literary context, noting that, “If one thinks of Belli as the contemporary, or practically so, of the first Romantic generation and of the first naturalists, one can gauge what an extraordinary phenomenon his poetry was.” A noticeable quality in some of this material is a palpably heavier weight given by a few of these translators and essayists to Belli’s religious irreverence and street cred, with one referring to the “diabolic” nature of his language and another praising him as a poet of “blasphemy.” One translator who seems to make a more rounded assessment of Belli’s range, talent and significance is Eleanor Clark, in a remarkably rich chapter in her equally rich book, Rome and a Villa (incidentally, why this book doesn’t routinely show up on lists of great travel writing in English is beyond me; a chapter on Rome’s fountains alone gives a flavor of the Roman street possibly unmatched by any writer since Belli himself). Clark puts forth a compelling argument, one she acknowledges possesses a whiff of hyperbole but that she affirms nonetheless, for Belli as one of the great writers not just of Italy and of his time, but of all places and all times. Clark includes in her essay a number of her own translations along with their Romanesco originals and - a tremendous service none of the other translators seems to have considered - a guide to the pronunciation and idiosyncrasies of Romanesco (though another guide to Romanesco – as well as a good number of Belli’s sonnets - appears on Andrea Pollett’s Virtual Roma site). While at first glance the dialect may strike one as almost indecipherable, Clark demonstrates the relative ease with which those with a basic knowledge of Italian can approach it - the chief difficulty in translation being not the dialect itself but approximation of Belli’s fiery energy and radically shifting tone. Clark’s guide allows even those not fluent in Italian the possibility of hearing the essential musicality of Belli’s sonnets. Those perhaps too timid to try their Italian aloud can alternately turn to YouTube to hear a variety of readers, including actor Vittorio Gassman, read from Belli, or can try out Maurizio Mosetti’s Italian site, which includes some of Peter Dale’s sonnets with links to audio files for a few versions in Romanesco.
Though Clark perhaps succeeds in taking the fullest measure of Belli, her essay still misses being the most singular of these contributions, an honor that must certainly go to Anthony Burgess’ short novel ABBA ABBA. Taking Alberto Moravia’s comment about the extraordinary nature of Belli’s work in contrast to his Romantic contemporaries and literalizing it to spectacular effect, Burgess folds his own translations of 71 of Belli’s sonnets inside an ingenious fictional account in which the author invents a brief meeting in Rome in 1821 between Belli, the most realist of early 19th century poets, who finds “God in cabbage patches and beer-stains on a tavern table,” and English Romantic John Keats – that poet of “nature, romance, fairyland, heartache, the classical world as seen in a rainy English garden.” Though the imagined encounter takes place quickly – a collision of poetic souls beneath Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes that provokes questions concerning the purpose and practice of art and poetry – the repercussions reach far.
ABBA ABBA derives its resonant title from three sources: the rhyme scheme of the initial octave of the Petrarchan sonnet form; Christ’s last words on the cross (“Father, father” or “Abba, Abba” in Aramaic); and Burgess’ own initials (the words in fact appear on Burgess’ tomb). Burgess weaves all three significances into his novel, most obviously by including Belli’s sonnets and a couple by Keats, but also by presenting a moving portrait of Keats dying of consumption while living above Rome’s Spanish Steps and, finally, by a self-reflexive and fiendishly clever Nabokovian coda (readers are cautioned to note that what appears to be an appendix actually carries the title: “Two”).
In ABBA ABBA Burgess revels in language, playing Keats’ ethereal lyricism against the street smart linguistic wantonness of Belli’s Romanesco, and both against mortality. The degree to which Burgess celebrates language is clear from his freely dragging in other impressive linguistic displays - from Shakespeare to Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy to the sermons of Jeremy Taylor – in order to supplement the lyrical conversations and feverish monologues he invents for the dying Keats and the tart, incisive repartee he summons for Belli. He even has Keats make an awkward effort to translate a notorious sonnet by Belli containing myriad Romanesco slang words for penis (“What would the Edinburgh Review say of this? Would Leigh Hunt print it in the Examiner and go to jail again on behalf of Free Speech?”), while on Belli’s side Burgess places a coy appreciation of Keats’ famous sonnet on Mrs. Reynolds’ cat, perhaps the closest the English poet ever came to Belli’s insistence that the sonnet be brought “low,” dethroned from its “Petrarchan coronation.” Nor does Burgess stop with English; a few sample lines of Carlo Porta’s translation of Dante into Milanese dialect make it into the novel, as does an evident relish on Burgess’ part in revealing attributes in English poetry that derive from Italian and/or dialect - for example, having Keats discover, via John Florio’s first Italian-English dictionary, A Worlde of Wordes, a clue to Shakespeare’s own dialect: “and now it flashed on him where the joke was in Falstaff’s words: ‘reasons are as plentiful as blackberries.’ Of course: raisins.” The second part of the novel takes the form of an afterward, offering a brief biography of and essay on Belli that, like Clark’s, underscores the strikingly original, lively, vernacular quality of Belli’s work and stressing his kinship with Gogol and influence on Joyce’s Ulysses. The translations – selected entirely from Belli’s religiously-themed sonnets – follow the brief, clever coda to which I’ve alluded above. The result of this short, ingenious and audacious exercise (a mere 85 pages excepting the sonnets) is a tour-de-force, a rapturous example of the literary novel about literature and a terrific feat of conjuring, via imagination, Moravia’s observation.
All told, the approaches of Burgess and other translators to Belli’s work can only amplify one’s enthusiasm for this exceptional Roman poet. About all that’s needed now is publication of a full English translation of all the sonnets. As Eleanor Clark points out, each sonnet by itself tells a story, but the cumulative effect of reading them together provides an extraordinary portrait of 19th century Rome. The welcome diversity of approaches taken so far by translators suggests, however, that the sumptuous feast of a complete collection might well benefit from having more than a few cooks. In the meantime, what’s here already in English is more than enough to whet one’s appetite.