Carlo Porta, poet who defended Milan’s dispossessed

Carlo Porta gave the Milanese voice in their native tongue, fiercely rejecting the popular notion that good writing could only be done in Italian.

Portrait of Carlo Porta - an Italian poet who wrote in Milanese dialect.
Portrait of Carlo Porta - an Italian poet who wrote in Milanese dialect. Credit: Lebrecht Music & Arts / Alamy Stock Photo

For the first time in over 50 years, a new translation of The Betrothed recently appeared in English bookshops. One of the most influential novels in Italian history, Alessandro Manzoni’s 1827 masterpiece would mould the language of Dante for the next two centuries, bequeathing along the way speakers with countless famous expressions. Ironically, though, this paragon of literary Italian would have been very different without Carlo Porta – a fellow Milanese, who wrote almost entirely in dialect. More than that, Porta inadvertently helped spark the nationalist flame that made The Betrothed so popular, even as he immortalised his native city with empathy and charm.

Carlo Porta was not a writer by trade. Born in 1775, he worked as a bureaucrat under both the Napoleonic and Austrian administrations, Milan’s homegrown dukes having been expelled centuries earlier. Yet, if pen-pushing paid his way, Porta’s real love was poetry. A wordsmith all his life, he recalled scribbling away at his desk, only to be interrupted by troops of ‘good and noble clergymen’ demanding payment for some benefice. The sardonic tone hints at Porta’s essential worldview: sceptical, pragmatic, liberal. These same Enlightenment values, absorbed in salons and through friendships with revolutionaries like Ugo Foscolo, can be traced in his writing. In one poem, Porta lampoons the ignorance of the clergy by claiming that out of a monastery of over 90 friars, only one had ever ventured into the library. In another, he imagines the Archangel Michael as a cheesemonger.

Not that Porta focused only on religion. Probably inspired by people he encountered as an administrator, much of his work chronicles the roughhouse lives of his fellow Milanese. There were about 135,000 of them by 1800, on the brink of modernity, but still squeezed inside the old medieval walls. As children of the French Revolution, they would have been familiar with the comings and goings of predatory foreign armies. Riots and lynchings were not unknown. Grand neoclassical piles – La Scala opened in 1778 – jostled for space with taverns and garrets and industrial canals. Porta invoked these contradictions astutely, skipping nimbly from the complacent aristocracy to the poor who served them. One memorable example is called ‘Epitaph for a Lady Marchioness’s Dog’:

Here’s a dog that drowned in fat

it scoffed too many treats

all you poor who pass, be gay:

you’ll never die this way.

Porta also considered the plight of Milan’s underclass in more detail. His masterpiece is La Ninetta del Verzee. Recounting the plight of a former fish seller – the Verzee was Milan’s ancient market – Porta carries Ninetta from a misguided romance to extortion and prostitution. Much of the poem’s power stems from Porta’s stark dialogue. Like his friend Stendhal, he avoided romanticising his working class subjects, instead evoking their tales in blunt, earthy language. As Ninetta amiably rebukes a punter near the start of her story: ‘You do know, you old sod, that you haven’t come to screw me for a month?’ But crassness never overwhelms the author’s compassion. After she’s threatened by her boyfriend, Porta follows Ninetta to the edge of despair. ‘As you can see,’ she cries, ‘the world is just so shitty!’

Through it all, Porta gave the Milanese voice in their native tongue, fiercely rejecting the popular notion that good writing could only be done in Italian. And why not? Linguistically closer to French, the dialect is plump with the words of invaders: Spanish, German, even Gothic. Like other north Italian vernaculars, it tends to drop final vowels, while speakers round their mouths and flatten their tongues to make a nasal, bovine sound. The result is hearty – cassoeula in consonants – but Porta’s poetry would be inconceivable without it. Nor did he simply use Milanese to mimic his illiterate characters. A local patriot, he was disappointed when Napoleon’s expulsion in 1814 didn’t lead to renewed Milanese independence. To put it differently, Porta used his dialect as a form of cultural pride, easy enough when it looked and sounded so different from regular Italian. A typically ribald example comes from a poem wryly entitled Richness of Milanese Vocabulary.

Here’s the Milanese original:

Oh quanti parentell han tiraa in pee

per nominà i cojon! Gh’han ditt sonaj,

toder, granej, quattordes sold, badee,

zeri, testicol, ròsc, ball, baravaj.

Even when rendered in language accessible to other Italians, the language is acutely strange:

Oh a quanti titoli hanno fatto appello

per i coglioni! Li han detti sonagli,

nòccioli, cedri, coralli, corbelli,

zeri, quattordici soldi, frattaglie.

Readers of a fragile disposition may wish to skip these next lines:

Oh how many terms we’ve got

for bollocks! They’re known as rattles,

balls, cedars, baskets, coral,

zeroes, hazelnuts, fourteen sous, offal.

With verses like that, Porta’s place in the hearts of Milan’s vulgarians is assured. It would be wrong, however, to judge his work as mere filth. As one expert later put it, his sympathetic portrayal of waifs like Ninetta made him one of the writers to become ‘our Gogol, our Dickens, our Balzac’. Certainly, that’s reflected by Porta’s popularity among generations of Milanese. The actress and director Franca Valeri, and the playwright Dario Fo, are just two of the luminaries to have recited his poems. Elide Suligoj, a singer-songwriter, reimagined his rhymes in song, even as his stories have been adapted for the theatre. In 2021, celebrating the bicentenary of his death, Porta’s Milanese translation of The Divine Comedy was also republished. Predictably, the writer has gained the attention of modern political separatists, attracted by his lively brand of Lombard particularism.

Porta is less famous outside Milan. His indifference to nationalism was awkward in the age of Garibaldi, and his incomprehensible spelling limited his appeal in Naples or Venice. The first complete Italian translation of Porta’s poetry only appeared in 1907, some nine decades after his death. It therefore says much about the quality of his work that Porta nonetheless left a mark on arguably the greatest nationalist writer Italy ever produced.

Keen to unite the peninsula’s patchwork of regional dialects, Alessandro Manzoni published The Betrothed in formal Italian: he so adored Dante’s elegant Tuscan that he compared his own writing to washing his ‘rags in the waters of the Arno’. But his masterpiece endures as much for the power of its setpieces as for its handsome language. More to the point, many of these scenes are undistilled Porta. In one celebrated passage, Manzoni’s hero visits a Milanese osteria – and promptly gets drunk. Manzoni brilliantly describes the frantic card games and seedy patrons; after his protagonist downs three glasses of wine, Manzoni dryly informs his readers that ‘I’m afraid we’ll lose count’ of the rest. You can almost imagine Ninetta sidling up for a cup. No wonder Pietro Gibellini, a respected literary critic, has argued that Porta’s ‘grubbier but more truthful world opened the road to Manzoni’s great novel’.

Beyond specific moments, you can spot parallels to Porta elsewhere in Manzoni’s work, unsurprising when you recall that the two men were close, and that the normally shy novelist loved declaiming Porta’s poems to his family. Anticlericalism – though not irreligion – is one. Political radicalism is another. Throughout The Betrothed, Manzoni criticises the Spanish, the city’s overlords when the novel is set in the 17th century. The Spanish, critics agree, are stand-ins for the Austrians who ruled Milan in Manzoni’s own time. It presumably helped that both in the 1620s – and two centuries later – the city was occupied by different branches of the same Habsburg dynasty.

Though he was careful not to draw these connections explicitly, Manzoni later made his nationalist feelings clear. As a senator in the 1860s, for instance, he voted to make Victor Emmanuel II the first king of Italy. Such sentiments would have bewildered Porta. He once conceded that Milan was a squalid place with ‘unhealthy air’ – but was never interested in sinking his beloved town into some wider political unit. Yet like Manzoni, Porta was happy throwing stones at the city’s foreign masters. He bid farewell to Napoleon by calling the French executioners, and was investigated by the Austrian police for possibly writing a subversive poem. Porta also levelled his pen at elites in general: Goddamn Ballbreaker Politicians is the characteristic title of one 1815 work.

There is an irony here. Though Porta railed against his superiors in pursuit of a free Milan, Manzoni and the Risorgimento channelled that same energy to replace one set of chains for another. Whether they were forged in Vienna or Rome, Porta would likely not have cared. Nor would he have been pleased with the decline of his native dialect. For while his friend’s novel soon became the pre-eminent text of modern Italian – and modern Italy – the milanes that helped inspire it would, ironically, flounder. Between working class migrants from southern Italy, and more recent arrivals from abroad, barely two per cent of locals today speak Porta’s language fluently. Many young people, for their part, consider the dialect too brash to use comfortably. ‘When you speak Milanese in public,’ one dialect teacher said in 2016, ‘people look at you as if you’re being rude.’ That, at least, should be familiar to Porta.

Whatever the fate of his dialect, tributes to the poet remain. One of the most touching is a statue on the old site of the Verzee, forever home to Ninetta the fishseller. Another is a eulogy by Tommaso Grossi, a fellow dialect poet who composed On the Death of Carlo Porta after his friend succumbed to gout in 1821. ‘Is he dead? Really dead?’ Grossi asks. ‘What does this vast word mean, which inspires so much fear?’ My favourite memorial to Carlo Porta is far less dramatic. In pungent Milanese, its author gently mocks Porta for hiding deep thoughtfulness behind crude, untutored words:

A fool who’d look smart

will always seem the fool;

but a wit who plays dumb

can get in trouble too!

A fine sentiment – but what’s really striking is who expressed it. Far from being the work of some Milanese exceptionalist, these lines were composed by Alessandro Manzoni, the only time he ever wrote poetry in dialect. That the founder of contemporary Italian should have been the person to truly grasp at the soul of Carlo Porta, and that he should have done so in Milanese, is yet another irony. This time though, I suspect the poet enjoyed it.


Andrea Valentino