(#2 in my Verano Monumental Cemetery series)
One of my first film experiences when I moved to Italy was Il Marchese del Grillo (The Marquis of Grillo, 1981) based on the life of Marchese Onofrio del Grillo. The year is 1809. The French have gone and Pope Pius II intends to use his “temporal power” in full. Marchese del Grillo is a Roman nobleman at the Pope’s court. He enjoys playing fastidious pranks without any kind of self-discipline because, as an aristocrat, he feels he’s entitled to do whatever he wants. One evening Marchese del Grillo is playing cards with a group of criminals. The situation degenerates. Everyone is arrested save for the Marchese because, as he says to the others, “Io sò io, e voi non siete un cazzo” (literally “I am who I am, and you are f…..g nothing”). The line comes from Giuseppe Gioachino Belli’s sonnet Li soprani der monno vecchio (The Sovrans of the Old World, 1831) and reflects how Italy was divided into the Haves and the Have Nots.
Belli was born in 1791 to an unsmiling father and a mother who loved luxury she couldn’t afford. His father was very severe that he once punished the young Belli by locking him in a dark room for 3 days.
After his parents’ death, Belli went to live with an uncle. In 1815 he married Maria Conti, an older woman with money, and they lived together near the Trevi Fountain (Piazza Poli). Her money gave him the possibility to travel and see just how retro Rome was for the times and, with this newly found info, he began to write sonnets non-stop. Progress in Rome, under the influence of the Popes and their “temporal power”, was stifled.
Marriage didn’t keep him from flirting with Marchesa Vincenza Roberti (he called her Cencia). She was much younger than Belli and romantic. Obsessively, Belli began writing her letters that, often, were in the form of erotic sonnets.
But then his wife Maria died and he learned that she was not as wealthy as he’d thought. His lack of money made him feel sick and he became a hypochondriac. Depressed and forced to look for a job, the intensity of his writing mellowed out.
In the Roman neighborhood of Trastevere, there’s a monument to Belli, the poet who wanted his poems to be un monumento alla plebe di Roma (a monument to the plebs of Rome). To manifest their appreciation, the plebs of Trastevere took up a collection to pay for the monument.
The monument shows Belli standing on Ponte Fabricio next to a herma (erme quandrifront). A herma is a rectangular post with a four headed bust. The term “herma” comes from the god Hermes and herma posts were meant to serve as a marker to protect spaces. In ancient Greek times, hermae had erect penises meant to be rubbed for good luck.
Some of his poems were quite naughty but Belli was at his best when he observed and described the people of Rome. Writing in Romanesco, Roman dialect, he was the voice of Rome, a city intoxicated by decadence.
Belli’s Rome was a city in a state of existential crisis and, thanks to Papal rule, had no memory of their grandeur. The real barbarians, said Proust, are not those who never knew grandeur but those who knew it in the past but are unable to recognize it in the present.
In Belli’s poem “ER CAFFETTIERE FISOLOFO” (THE PHILOSOPHIZING BARMAN ) he says men are like coffee beans in a grinder—it doesn’t matter if one is ahead or behind, all the beans move in the same direction. All are pushed towards the grinding blade thus all are transforms into powder. And this is how men live in the world. The constant motion of fate eventually pushes all of them into the throat of death.
Belli made several jabs at the papacy in his writings including Pope Leo II.
Pope Leo ruled the Papal States from 1823-29. He liked ruling so much that he made one rule after the other. For example, Pope Leo kept the people illiterate and prohibited any kind of Bible societies just to make sure that only his interprestion of the scriptures was available to the masses. He also required all Roman citizens to study Catholic catechism regardless as to their religious background. The Jews were also subjected to his rule mania. They were forced to live in the ghetto and even locked in at night. And if that wasn’t enough, he also prohibited vaccinations thus provoking a small-pox epidemic.
Obviously, Pope Leo made many people mad. And since the concept of Free Speech didn’t exist, many secret societies started to form. One of the most popular was that of the Carbonari who conspired for the unification of Italy. The Pope went out of his way to persecute them.
They were called carbonari (charcoal burners) because they often held their secret meetings in the basement where the charcoal was kept. To become a member, as with the mafia and masons, initiation rituals were required.
Two members o the carbonari (Montari and Targhini) were condemned of treason, and, without proof, (you can see a plaque dedicated to them in Piaza del Popolo).
His real name was Giovanni Battista Bugatti but he was known as Mastro Titta. Officially his occupation was that of an umbrella painter and souvenir seller but his real job was cutting off people’s heads. He worked for the Popes as “Master of Justice”. For over 65 years (1796-1864) he killed for the Church executing over 500 people.
The executions were generally held in Piazza del Popolo so there was enough room for all the people who wanted to see. Mastro Titta wore a red robe so he could be seen from a distance. And, before the execution, he enjoyed giving snuff to those he was about to kill.
In 1845, Charles Dickens was in Rome talking a stroll when he happened to come across one of Mastro Titta’s executions. He later wrote about it in Pictures of Italy describing it as ugly and disgusting. Dickens also commented on how Mastro Titta held up the decapitated head for everyone to see then cleaned his blade and went home.
Lord Byron witnessed three of these executions and claimed to be shocked by them although it’s difficult to imagine Bryon being shocked by anything. He wrote a friend carefully describing the harshness of the scene—the priests wearing masks, the blindfolded prisoners, the sound of the falling axe, and the blood that squirted everywhere.
Mastro Titta referred to his executions as “justices” and the prisoners as “patients”. Before the French invention of the guillotine, an axe was used. The axe and blood stained robe can be seen at Rome’s Crime Museum.
Short and fat but, earning a good salary, Mastro Titta was always well dressed when not wearing his robe. Before cutting someone’s head off, he went to confession and took communion. Finally, too tired to hold a blade, Mastro Titta retired at the age of 85.
Giuseppe Gioachino Belli is buried at the Verano Monumental Cemetery (Altopiano Pincetto, riquadro 49)… Campo Verano grave locater
. IL MONUMENTO A GIUSEPPE GIOACCHINO BELLI E LE CASE IN CUI ABITO ’