The Very Best Business

by Giuseppe Gioachino Belli (1791-1863)
translated from Romanesco by Joseph S. Salemi

First I was a gardener (a disaster),
Then a bookseller. I made even less.
So did I change my business plan? Oh yes—
I turned and became an upper-crust whoremaster.

In this, I tell you, I make out quite well—
I don’t simply earn; I rake it in.
A third of the Sacred College comes to sin—
They want the merchandise I have to sell.

I serve Monsignors, and high-ranking Abbots;
The married and the widowed and the single.
And everyone’s as pleased as rutting rabbits.

I’m fair. When clients leave, their purses jingle.
My guys are rich and titled, with clean habits,
My ladies cute and svelte, to make you tingle.



Original Romanesco

La Ppiú Mmejj’ Arte

Da principio fascevo l’ortolano:
Male. Me messe a ffà er libbraro: peggio.
Risòrze allora de mutà mmaneggio,
E mme diede ar mestiere der ruffiano.

In questo, te confesso da cristiano,
Nun zolo sce guadaggno, ma ssaccheggio:
E un terzo ar meno der Zagro-Colleggio
Vonno la marcanzía da le mi’ mano.

Io sservo Monziggnori, io Padr’ Abbati,
Io maritate, io vedove, io zitelle…
E ll’ho ttutti oggnisempre contentati.

Perch’io sò onesto e nun tiro a la pelle,
L’ommini mii sò rricchi e intitolati,
E le mi’ donne pulitucce e bbelle.

—Vol. 2, poem 1306


A Brief Note

The ruffiano or sexual procurer was always a feature of Roman life, and in this particular instance Belli imagines one who is successful and happy in the higher end of the trade. His clientele includes members of the College of Cardinals as well as other clerics, but he also provides services to women who want anonymous sexual satisfaction, whether they are married, widowed, or old maids. There is an ambiguity in the sonnet’s penultimate line, where the speaker says that “his men” are rich and titled. This could mean that the male prostitutes whom he provides for female customers are high-class persons, or that high-class males make up his clientele. The same holds for the last line, where the speaker refers to “my women” as being very clean and beautiful. This may mean the girls who work for him, or the ladies who patronize his establishment. In either case, the pimp is proud of the persons whom he deals with. This kind of slightly sarcastic ambiguity is typical of Belli.


Some Vocabulary Items

libbraro: standard Italian libraio.
ruffiano: a procurer for sexual encounters, a pandar or a pimp.
da cristiano: as a Christian, in the general sense of “in all honesty.”
Zagro-Colleggio: the College of Cardinals.
Monziggnori… Padr’ Abbati: monsignors and father abbots, clergymen of high rank.
maritate, vedove, zitelle: these nouns are all in the feminine, so they must be read as “wives, widows, and spinsters.”
oggnisempre: standard Italian ognora.
nun tiro a la pelle: I don’t pull at the skin, in the general sense of “I don’t overcharge them.”



Joseph S. Salemi has published five books of poetry, and his poems, translations and scholarly articles have appeared in over one hundred publications world-wide.  He is the editor of the literary magazine TRINACRIA and writes for Expansive Poetry On-line. He teaches in the Department of Humanities at New York University and in the Department of Classical Languages at Hunter College.

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12 Responses

  1. Paul Buchheit

    Pleasingly provocative, Joe. Your fluid conversion to a rhyming English sonnet is impressive.

  2. Tiree MacGregor

    Very ably done, Dr. Salemi. Of the many virtues, I find the faithful attention to the tone (or what I take it to be) and the rhyme scheme of the original of particular note.

    • Joseph S. Salemi

      To Paul and Tiree — many thanks for your kind words. I should mention that I translated this sonnet (and the other two by Belli that have been posted here at the SCP) in iambic pentameter blank verse some years ago, but I decided to re-do the translations taking into account Belli’s rhyme scheme. It was a long and difficult task.

      • Tiree MacGregor

        “It was a long and difficult task”: I should imagine so, failure to imitate well original rhyme schemes, intentions, and effects to be found everywhere in poetic translations.

  3. Yael

    A very entertaining historical snippet and a great translation too, thank you.

  4. Brian A Yapko

    A very tightly-crafted translation, Joseph, of a ribald but entertaining slice of 19th Century Roman life. I can see the painstaking craft you invested in bringing this work to life and successfully making it appear effortless. The speaker’s matter-of-factness concerning a host of shocking details is particularly modern. It’s discouraging to contemplate the fact that modern society hasn’t improved much. If at all.

    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Many thanks, Brian. Belli was interested in depicting the seamier side of Roman city life, and he wanted to show it by using the dialect of the lower classes, speaking in their own manner and about the less-than-edifying subjects that are always a part of slum dwelling. He had been deeply impressed during a visit to Milan, where he read some of the Milanese dialectal poetry being written at that time, and when he returned to Rome he decided to attempt the same thing for his own city.

      I have never understood why literary critics have not realized that what Belli was doing was in many ways parallel to what a writer like Wordsworth wanted to do — namely, to employ a non-literary idiom to reinvigorate his nation’s poetry. And the same is true for Blake in some degree; he wanted to bring the subject matter of English poetry down from ethereal heights to a more common level.

      In Italy the task was more difficult, since standard Italian (Tuscan) had never been the speech of anyone except an educated minority. England had a well-established standard that went back to Caxton, the King James Bible, and the works of influential writers like Milton and Samuel Johnson. Wordsworth and Blake could change diction and style, but that was not possible in Italy where the restrictions of literary Tuscan were carved in stone. All one could do to give the less educated people a voice was to write in their dialects.

  5. C.B. Anderson

    Being a whoremaster and being a translator are both tough jobs, but somebody has to do them. You have finessed the translation, written a fine poem, or both, and I am a better person for having read it — one can never get enough literature.

    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Many thanks, James. The whoremaster whom Belli depicts is probably fictional, but if you want to read about a really corrupt whoremaster, go to the Counter-Currents Publishing website and read the article by Mark Gullick that is titled “Collateral Damage: the United Kingdom’s Lockdown Files.”

      In it, Gullick recounts how the honest British journalist Isabel Oakeshott revealed to the Daily Telegraph the hideous truth about Matt Hancock, the conscienceless scumbag who was the UK’s Secretary of State for Health and Social Care during the Covid hysteria. It’s a horrifying story of high-level lying and murder.

      Of course Oakeshott is being excoriated by mainstream media in the UK for letting the truth come out. Matt Hancock is clearly the pimp, while the great mass of British “journalists” are his paid-up whores-on-retainer. They’ll do anything to support the Deep State.

  6. Monika Cooper

    Masterly and delicious translation on a yucky theme, that I wish were not so relevant today. But here we are.


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