“Ho visto un re” (By Carlo Testa, University of British Columbia)

“Ho visto un re” opens with a bizarre apostrophe to the singer by the listening “people’s assembly” asking to tell the story (“Dai conta su!”). A modern equivalent of the poor folk’s Gramscian “organic intellectual,” the fictional storyteller appears aloof, reluctant: (“Mi? no, mi ?”) One wonders as to the cause of his hesitation, until it becomes clear that he can. Alas, only express himself by using the standardized artistic vehicle of literary Italian. Because the vox populi (the peasants later to appear in person at the end of the text) speaks—or, rather, interjects—at this stage only in a rudimentary series of dialectal expressions, the storyteller’s usage of the hegemonic literary language creates an ideological cleavage which obstructs

communication. But the initial uneasiness of this relationship pays off elsewhere, as the singer is able to convey this artistic expression of local peasant marginalization to the Italianophone public: us, the listeners.


The ballad unfolds. The King, whom the narrator has seen, is unhappy—he even goes as far as crying—because the Emperor who is above him has taken away one of his thirty-two castles. The Bishop, too, was in tears, because the Cardinal above him

relieved him of one of his thirty-two abbeys. Presumably nearby, the Rich Man is in the same predicament: Bishop, King, and Emperor have all half-ruined him, taking away three houses and a high-rise among the thirty-two he owned. But—and this is the text’s very point—all that is only half of the story. Spurred on in his endeavor by the interjections of the vilàn the storyteller, true intellectual of the peasant class that he is, has not omitted to mention details that are revealing in terms of class relations: for example, when the Bishop is consumed by spite, he does not bite his own fingers—he bites the sexton’s. Class Conflict is thus highly visible in the text throughout.


The last strophe is the one that proceeds to shed full light on the contrast between haves and have-nots. Here, the (unexplained) scourge of class warfare is to befall Europe’s archetypal poor folk: the peasants themselves. (Maybe the circumstance needed no explanation at all: the song was, after all, published in 1969——the year that ushered in the politically most conflictual period in modern Italian history). When the strophe begins, the listening peasants do not even recognize themselves in the mirror Enzo Jannacci is holding up to them: the singer says ‘Vist un vilàn’, and is immediately told to explain the word. This he does, in literary language and with a grotesquely lofty accent: ‘Un contadino!’ Thereby, mainstream discourse mockingly endows the vilàn, previously deprived of self-awareness, with some sort of identity—if only the, in Marxian terms, alienated one of normalized, law-abiding (qua language-abiding) peasants barely able to mumble along.


Since the peasants from now on ”exist” as a class because they are aware of being one, the concluding strophe can finally depict their plight to its full extent. With concerted efforts, the Bishop, the King, the Rich Man, the Emperor, ‘even the Cardinal’ (but not the sexton, whose status as a victim is thereby confirmed), have ‘half ruined’ the peasant too. How? By taking away from him


La casa, II cascinale.

La mucca. Il violino

La scatola con gli scacchi.

La radio a transistor.

I dischi di Little Tony.

La moglie […]

Un figlio militare,

Gli hanno ammazzato unche il maiale.


The house. The farm.

The cow. The violin.

The box with the chess.

The transistor radio.

The records by Little Tony.‘

His wife [. . .]

A son of his was drafted [into the military].

They killed his pig too.


To which, unsurprisingly, the peasant chorus responds with its usual streak of all comprehensive humanity: ‘pover pursell‘: ‘poor pig.”


What, then, does the peasant do—does he, too, cry? Far from it. He . . . giggles (‘ridacchiava’). Embarrassed moment of silence in the song. The gist of the parable becomes evident when the storyteller contrasts the King’s, the Bishop’s, and the Rich Man’s self- righteous behavior with the generous (selfless perhaps?) peasants: he is not ‘crazy,‘ as the chorus for a moment suspects.



Na! Il fatto è che noi villàn…

(No! the thing is,we paesants…)



Noi villàn

(We peasants…)



E sempre alégri bisogna stare

che il nostro piangere gli male al re,

Fa male: al ricco e al cardinale,

diventan tristi se noi piangiam.


(Always happy we have to be,

‘Cause our own crying would hurt the King,

Would hurt the Cardinal and the Rich Man,

It saddens them to see us cry.)


Then, festively, enthusiastically, in a frenzied Rossinian crescendo, the chorus joins in to sing: ‘Always happy we have to be, / ‘Cause our own crying would hurt the King,‘ etc., ad libitum. The storyteller and his community have finally bridged the Chasm of separate identities; they have, quite literally, found a common voice, a common political statement—if only a mocking and derisive one. Their language somehow straddles the establishment’s norm and the anti-norm of the marginalized: they sing in literary Italian—the storyteller has arguably extended to

his peers his own literate status and raised them to the articulate level which alone assures a space in mainstream cultural history. Revealingly, in doing so his speech, too, has lost the monoglossical ring it previously had.8 The adjective ”happy” is

pronounced ‘alegri,’ with the Milanese form ”alegher” as its substratum, and ”perché” is shortened to ‘che.’ At the same time, the peasants, previously re-christened ‘contadini’ by force, have now reverted to their true identity: ‘Noi vilàn’ is the way they define themselves twice in the tutti that closes the song and offers tangible proof of their recovery of self-awareness. The Standoff between fine mutually incompatible languages of two Opposed cultures is only resolved when the one-voiced utterance of artificial convention is adapted to include and accommodate

the needs of diverse speakers. Having been filtered through the voice of the Other, language has now transferred polyphony from an external dialog of different sources to the internal dialogism of a single one—the single one of storyteller and chorus.

From: Testa, Carlo, ‘The Dialectics of Dialect: Enzo Jannacci and Existentialism’, Canadian Journal of Italian Studies 52 (1996), pp. 19-40. Entire article available on Prof. Testa’s Acedemia.edu profile