In part 1 we looked at the conjugation of the passato remoto (historical past). Today we are going to look at the different ways in which it is used:
In historical writing:
Il passato remoto is, of course, commonly used when writing biographies or recounting historical events, e.g. Caravaggio nacque nel 1573 (Caravaggio was born in 1573); l’Italia fu unificata ne 1861 (Italy was unified in 1861).
In formal writing:
Il passato remoto is the traditional tense used in novels, short stories, legends, fairy tales, and so on due to the sense of remoteness and detachment that it conveys, and for this reason it is mostly used in the third person singular or plural, e.g. Quando i Sette Nani tornarono a casa dal lavoro, trovarono Biancaneve riversa sul pavimento (When the Seven Dwarfs returned home from work, they found Snow White fallen to the floor). Il capomastro, preoccupato per i continui ritardi, decise di fare un patto col diavolo (The master builder, concerned about the interminable delays, decided to make a pact with the devil), from La leggenda del Ponte del Diavolo.
Passato Remoto or Passato Prossimo?
In novels and formal writing the two tenses are often used side by side. Il passato remoto is used in the general formal description, while il passato prossimo is used in the direct speech to give a sense of colloquialism and informality. Here is a short excerpt from “Quando s’è capito il gioco” (When the game has been understood), a short story by Luigi Pirandello. I’ve highlighted the passato remoto in blue, and the passato prossimo in purple: Non potè seguitare; si coprì furiosamente il volto con le mani e ruppe in un pianto stridulo, convulso, d’onta, di ribrezzo, di rabbia. “Oh Dio” fece Memmo. “Ma quando è stato? Chi ha potuto osare?” (She couldn’t carry on; she furiously covered her face with her hands and broke into a high pitched, convulsed cry, of shame, of disgust, of rage. “Oh God” Memmo said. “But when did it happen? Who would have dared?”)
Passato Remoto and spoken Italian:
In the North of Italy il passato remoto is very rarely used, the main past tense being il passato prossimo. In the South, on the other hand, especially in Sicily, il passato remoto is widely used. When we jokingly try to imitate a Sicilian, we always make sure we use the passato remoto, e.g. “Che fu?” (What’s happened?). In Toscana and Central Italy il passato remoto is commonly used alongside the passato prossimo. Due to its sense of detachment and, as the name suggests, remoteness, we prefer it to the passato prossimo when recounting a long gone event which we wish to imbue with a feeling of history or fairy tale, a bit like storytelling, e.g. Quando ebbi il morbillo, passai tutta la convalescenza a letto a leggere, e così mi venne una brutta infiammazione agli occhi (When I had the measles, I spent my whole convalescence reading in bed, and so I got a nasty inflammation of the eyes). We stick with the passato prossimo for normal every day conversation, e.g. la settimana scorsa ho avuto l’influenza, e mi sento ancora molto debole (last week I had the flu, and I still feel weak).
Passato Remoto and Imperfetto:
The passato prossimo is interchangeable with the passato remoto, e.g. mentre cenavo è suonato il telefono (passato prossimo: the telephone rang while I was eating dinner), is interchangeable with: mentre cenavo suonò il telefono (passato remoto: the telephone rang while I was eating dinner). This is not the case, however, for the imperfetto because the imperfetto describes an on going action or event, (e.g. il telefono suonava = the telephone was ringing) rather than one that took place at a particular point in time (è suonato il telefono = the telephone rang).