From ottava rima to rap

On the musicality of Tuscan dialect

Michelle Davis
June 9, 2017 - 11:00

Arriving in Florence can be overwhelming if you don’t speak the local language, but if visitors take a step back and enjoy the rare privilege of perceiving language as sound and not as significance, they are in for a treat.

The signature aspirated “c” sound and the absence of diphthongization (“bono” instead of “buono”) are just two of the phonetic characteristics of the Gorgia Toscana (“Tuscan throat”) that define the distinctive musicality of the dialect. I met up with actor, writer and composer David Riondino, who is promoting his new album “Bocca baciata non perde ventura, anzi rinnova come fa la luna”, a musical adaptation of Boccaccio’s Decameron. Riondino avidly follows the musical and poetical evolution of the Florentine language. He is also founder of the Accademia dell’Ottava, a cultural association that preserves and promotes ottava rima, one of Tuscany’s oldest rhyming stanzas adopted by poets Matteo Maria Boiardo and Ludovico Ariosto and much admired by W.B. Yeats. Curious to know more about the ever-changing voice of our city, we tackled the subject while commenting and listening to Florentine rap, folk and improvised poetry matches.

“We are witnessing an ongoing transformation in the Tuscan vocabulary. Where once the literary world presented a predominance of words related to beauty and art, nowadays the lexicon is tied to the new semantics of gastronomy, to the savvy and sophisticated presentation of food and wine. The average Florentine is destined to rent out his home, learn languages and become a sommelier. We are becoming a population of waiters and renters!” Riondino half jokes.

In 1861, the Tuscan dialect became the official language of newly unified Italy due to its similarities with Latin and its geographic centrality, although it was Dante who first kick started this linguistic revolution with his Divine Comedy. Over time, our regional language has also acquired more modern uses and outlets; Florentine rapper Millelemmi is an interesting example. His 2013 album “Cortellaha” brims with witty dialectal distinctiveness.

“Ottava rima singers could be seen as the ancestors of our modern MCs. It would be interesting to combine Florentine rap and the principles of the Camerata de’ Bardi,” Riondino provokes. “Singing in dialect, contemporary songwriters like Bobo Rondelli and Lorenzo Baglioni have managed to leave an interesting mark and muster up a certain fascination. All vernacular speech is well suited to wordplay and kidding around, but Tuscan has the advantage of being understandable by all. Its inflections don’t cloud out the words, unlike Sicilian or northern forms of speech. That’s what makes the Tuscan dialect so national and why our comedians are so popular all over the boot.”

Lorenzo Baglioni

Satire is a distinguishing trait in all Tuscan literary production, as too is a certain surreal element that sees a constant contrast between the city and the countryside, sophistication and rural humor.

“Ottava rima is all about translating the world into verses, and originally it was born out of poverty, out of the peasant’s need to convert the everyday into something poetic, epic, entertaining and beautiful. As a language, Tuscan has a strong, almost brutal physicality to it. Its lyricism is deeply rooted in geometry. Dante bound his verses and rhymes to numerical patterns, hence combining abstract structures to the corporeal element, to blood, violence and sexual innuendos. Just like in our cuisine we fearlessly delve into the innards of our prey. Think of trippa, sanguinaccio and lampredotto! Our literary imagery presents a sort of rustic, in-depth intimacy. It’s something that comes from the Renaissance, a fascination for the body seen as a mechanism that is neither sacralized nor romanticized. Our poets talk about bodily fluids, obscenities and eroticism. Boccaccio once wrote that Dante’s only fault was that he was lustful. Think about it: this is a man who seeks redemption by following a woman into the afterlife. That completely overthrows all Christian principles!”

David Riondino

As Riondino speaks, his poise is both solemn and playful, another characteristic of Tuscany’s frisky spirit.

“Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio had the courage to turn vernacular into literary, and their writings are infused with the vitality of linguistic transformation, an aspect that I wanted to capture in my latest album. I believe the web can play an important role in preserving and promoting a curiosity towards Florence’s specific idiolect. In South America, recently there has been an amazing word-of-mouth activity surrounding the creation of oral poetry and young people have started improvising in décima, a rhyming form similar to ottava rima.

Living languages are inhabited by a centripetal force made up of preservation and transformation. Who knows what future lies ahead for the Tuscan dialect and what can be done to further secure its legacy...What is certain is that it will live on in song and poetry, from Boccaccio to eternity, and that I will always try to aspirate delicately my “Cs”.”

Keep an eye on the Accademia dell'Ottava:


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