When you think of the Italian short story — better known to italianisti studying this tradition as the “novella” — you might think of Niccolò Ammaniti (Fango, 1996), Italo Calvino (Cosmicomiche, 1965) or even reach as far back as Giovanni Boccaccio (Decameron, 1353), novelliere per eccellenza. The Italian novella tradition is rich and varied, but often studied at extremities: the early modern and post-modern novella. There is a whole world to be explored in between.
Antonfrancesco Grazzini, born in Staggia Senese, began his adult life working as an apothecary in Florence and writing whenever he could. Eventually, this latter occupation superseded his former, and Grazzini dedicated himself entirely to growing the network of like-minded intellectuals he helped create: L’Accademia degli Umidi (later, Fiorentina). He is known mostly, perhaps, for his plays (six in total, all heavily indebted to — or facets of, depending on how you look at it — the Commedia dell’arte tradition). But he was also a prolific poet and, more importantly to our purposes, a gifted novelliere.
Like Boccaccio, he set out to write a cornice narrative — that is, one in which a brigade of storytellers each recounts one themed tale per day over a course of habitual meetings — in three parts. Only the first two were ever completed and published, but neither has been updated or studied significantly since the late 1700s, when the Italian novella once again grew in popularity, especially in the North and following the success of writers like Gaspari Gozzano and the much earlier Pietro Aretino. Yet Grazzini’s short stories, published as Le Cene (The Dinner Parties) contain a wealth of information about Renaissance Florence under Lorenzo and Alessandro De’ Medici.
As part of a new online course in development aimed at high-end intermediate students of Italian (B2 level), 3E will be adapting Grazzini’s stories for learners of Italian as a foreign language and using them to teach (or refresh) the more complicated aspects of Italian grammar.
In this first, sample lesson, we use Cena I.iii to tackle three bulky points that baffle almost all students: 1) il passato remoto (the remote past), 2) il gerundio presente e passato (the present and past gerund), and 3) il participio passato (the stand-alone past participle).
First, let’s take a look at each point from a theoretical point of view, then we’ll look at them in context.
PRESENTAZIONE DELLA GRAMMATICA
- Il Passato Remoto
Il passato remoto is a difficult verb tense for students to wrap their heads around, because there isn’t anything like it in English. It is used like the passé simple is in French: to talk about events that occurred in the remote past or events of a rather historical nature. It often helps to think of it as a verb tense that replaces the passato prossimo (passé composé) in texts that deal with events of a more historical (or remote) nature. It can be used in collaboration with the imperfetto (imperfect) in telling a story.
Once you understand when and how to use it, however, the passato remoto is relatively straight-foward. Its verb endings follow no pattern seen in other, more frequently used verb tenses, and there are so many exceptions even within conjugations of the three verb groups that often, I recommend simply committing the declination of major verbs to memory.
Here is what the conjugation of regular verbs in each group looks like:
Let’s see if you get the hang of it:
Antonfracesco Grazzini nacque a Staggia Senese il 22 marzo, 1503. Di buona famiglia, lavorò per diverso tempo come farmacista a Firenze, poi diventò scrittore e fondatore dell’Accademia degli Umidi (più tardi fiorentina) e dell’Accademia della Crusca).
Do you see how easy it would be to replace the verbs in bold with either the passato prossimo or present without severely altering their meaning?
2. Il gerundio presente e passato
You are likely very familiar with the present gerund (gerundio presente), which tells us what someone is doing at the time the interlocutor is asking.
Cosa stai facendo? (What are you doing?)
Sto scrivendo. Sto dormendo. Sto mangiando. (I am eating. I am sleeping. I am eating.)
As you can see, the present gerund is formed using the verb ‘stare’ conjugated in the Indicative present, and ‘endo’ or ‘ando’ at the end of the main verb (equivalent to ‘ing’ in English gerunds).
The gerundio passato (past gerund) works a little differently, but retains the same main characteristics. To form the past gerund, we must use a helper verb (as always, either ‘avere’ — to have — or ‘essere’ — to be) plus the past participle of our main verb.
Avendo dormito bene, ero pronta per l’esame.
Essendo rientrata tardi la notte prima, non ho dormito bene e non ero pronta all’esame.
In the past gerund, the gerund ending is applied to the helper verb (avendo, essendo), not to the main verb. The same structure is noticeable in English.
Having slept well, I was ready for the exam.
Having gotten back home late the night before, I slept poorly and was not ready for the exam.
So you might deduce that the past gerund is used, then, both to order activities and to create links of cause and effect between them. First, I slept well, then I was ready for the exam. I was ready for the exam because I slept well.
3. Il participio passato
We know what the past participle looks like. We’ve seen it used in the passato prossimo with our helper verbs (essere and avere). We’ve also seen it used in the passive voice. But, versatile as it is, it can also be used to replace the past gerund. A sentence like:
Avendo mangiato la cena, gli uomini tornarono a casa
can be written using only the past participle in the place of the past gerundive:
Mangiata la cena, gli uomini tornarono a casa.
It is important to notice that here, the past participle agrees in gender and in number with the thing it describes. Let’s try a few more examples.
Finita la lezione, i ragazzi uscirono dall’aula. –> f, sg.
Completati i compiti, fecero una pausa. –> m, pl.
Chiuso il libro, chiusero anche gli occhi. –> m, sg.
Pulite le scarpe, se le misero. –> f, pl.
You can often flip the word order without significantly changing the meaning of the sentence:
La lezione finita, i ragazzi uscirono dall’aula.
I compiti completati, fecero una pausa.
GRAMMATICA NEL CONTESTO
Read the short story (Cena I.iii) available for download below. Then follow the prompts underneath it:
1 – Identificate tutti i verbi al passato remoto e i loro soggetti.
2 – Identificate tutti i gerundi e i loro soggetti.
3 – Identificate tutti i participi passati usati per indicare un’azione compiuta prima di un’altra.
Let’s put your Italian into practice now. First, try to summarize Grazzini’s short story in no more than seven sentences, using each of the above grammatical structures at least once. Then write to email@example.com to book your individual consultation with a 3E teacher and discuss the novella you just read. Here are a few things to think about:
Domande di riflessione
1. Come potete descrivere il rapporto tra Neri Chiaramontesi e lo Scheggia?
2. In questo racconto, sono presenti almeno due o tre generazioni: la generazione dello Scheggia, quella dello zio e della madre di Neri Chiaramontesi e quella degli studenti del Grechetto. Com’è il rapporto fra queste generazioni? Come le potete caratterizzare?
3. Qual è “la morale della favola” secondo voi?
4. Come categorizzate il comportamento del Monaco e del Pilucca a livello morale e etico? Sbagliano ad aiutare il loro amico, lo Scheggia, o fanno bene a rivendicarsi dalle sberle prese nel passato da Neri Chiaramontesi?
5. Cosa pensate della reazione del pubblico generale nel racconto (quelli presenti alla bottega e quelli alla scuola di scherma)? Che importanza ha questa reazione? Qual è il commento sociale, se c’è, associato al loro comportamento?
To enrol for our class on the Italian Renaissance novella, send a message to firstname.lastname@example.org. Buon lavoro e a presto!