Italian Past Perfect Tense

Trapassato Prossimo Italiano

Raining
Avevo chiuso le finestre quando è cominciato a piovere (I had shut the windows when it started to rain).

photography by Jo-Ann Stokes / Moment / Getty Images

The trapassato prossimo in Italian, an indicative compound tense, expresses an action completed in the past and preceding another action in the past. It is, in other words, the past of the past—preceding the passato prossimo.

It is what in English translates to, for example, "The cat had already eaten so it was not hungry." Or, "It had rained so the earth was soaked." Or, "I had never really understood the trapassato prossimo before."

Had eaten, had rained, had understood: those are the trapassato prossimo.

How to Make the Trapassato Prossimo

The trapassato prossimo is made with the imperfetto of the auxiliary verb avere or essere and the past participle of the acting verb. The imperfetto of the auxiliary is what translates to the English had in the sentences above and below:

  • Marco era stanco perché aveva studiato fino a tardi la notte prima. Marco was tired because he had studied until late the night before.
  • Avevo letto il libro ma lo avevo dimenticato. I had read the book but I had forgotten it.
  • La macchina sbandò perché aveva piovuto. The car swerved off the road because it had rained.
  • La ragazza era diventata una signora e non la riconobbero. The girl had become a woman and they didn't recognize her.

This conjugation table has examples of verbs conjugated in the trapassato prossimo: mangiare (transitive, conjugated with avere); lavorare (intransitive but with avere); and crescere and partire (intransitive, with essere).

  Mangiare Lavorare  Crescere  Partire
io avevo mangiato avevo lavorato ero cresciuto/a ero partito/a
tu avevi mangiato avevi lavorato eri cresciuto/a eri partito/a
lui/lei/Lei aveva mangiato aveva lavorato era cresciuto/a era partito/a
noi avevamo mangiato avevamo lavorato eravamo cresciuti/e eravamo partiti/e
voi avevate mangiato avevate lavorato eravate cresciuti/e eravate partiti/e
loro/Loro avevano mangiato avevano lavorato eravano cresciuti/e erano partiti/e

Of course, when conjugating the trapassato prossimo, like any other compound tense, remember the ground rules for choosing your auxiliary verb.

When using essere, the past participle must agree in gender and number with the subject of the verb. Also, in pronominal constructions with direct object pronouns lo, la, le, or li, the past participle must agree with the gender and number of the pronoun and the object it stands for. For example:

  • Gli amici erano venuti, ma non li avevo visti perché quando sono arrivata erano già ripartiti. The friends had come, but I had not seen them because when I arrived they had already left.

Context of the Trapassato Prossimo

Of course, because the trapassato prossimo describes actions in the context of other actions also in the past, it is often found and used with supporting clauses in several different past tenses (but only indicative):

With Other Trapassati Prossimi

  • L'uomo gli aveva chiesto aiuto, ma gli aveva detto di no. The man had asked him for help, but he had said no.
  • La signora era andata a cercare Maria, ma non l'aveva trovata. The woman had gone to look for Maria, she had not found her.
  • Siccome che avevo finito di mangiare, avevo pulito già la cucina. Since I had finished eating, I had already cleaned the kitchen.

With the Passato Prossimo

  • È partito in fretta: lo avevano chiamato a una riunione. He left in a hurry: They had called him to a meeting.
  • Ha cucinato velocemente perché non aveva mangiato da giorni. She cooked quickly because she had not eaten in days.
  • Avevo appena parcheggiato quando l'uomo mi è venuto addosso. I had just parked when the man hit me.

With the Passato Remoto:

  • Quell'estate piovve, ma c'era stato così tanto caldo che non fece differenza. It rained that summer, but it had been so hot it did not make a difference.
  • Marco si arrabbiò perché avevano portato il vino sbagliato. Marco got angry because they had brought the wrong wine.
  • I turisti si snervarono perché il museo era stato chiuso in anticipo. The tourists became unnerved because the museum had been closed early.

With the Imperfetto:

  • Parlavo ma era inutile: il professore aveva già deciso. I was talking, but it was useless: The professor had already made up his mind.
  • Ogni anno a Natale la nonna ci faceva i biscotti se eravamo stati bravi. Every year at Christmas Grandma made us cookies, if we had been good.
  • In primavera, se il tempo era stato bello, i fiori sbocciavano in abbondanza. In spring, if the weather had been pretty, the flowers bloomed plentiful.

With the Presente Storico:

  • Tommasi diventa famoso proprio quando aveva rinunciato alla fama. Tommasi becomes famous right when he had given up on fame.

In this last example, the presente is used for narrative immediacy in the place of the passato remoto.

Subtleties of the Trapassato Prossimo

Sometimes the trapassato prossimo is used in the place of the passato prossimo as a form of politeness (it is called trapassato di modestia or cortesia), though the action is actually happening in real-time, while the speaker is speaking.

  • Ero passata a prendere Lucia. I had come to get Lucia.
  • Le avevo portato dei biscotti. I had brought her some cookies.
  • Ero venuta a parlare con Gianna del suo debito. I had come to talk with Gianna about her debt.

In narratives, the trapassato prossimo can serve a bit like the imperfetto in setting a background to more actions. In fragments, it can be inferred that, afterward, something else happened.

  • Paolo aveva fatto di tutto per salvarla. Paolo had done everything to save her.
  • Quel giorno ero arrivato alle dieci. That day I had arrived at 10 a.m.
  • Quella mattina avevo lasciato la macchina in piazza Venezia. That morning I had left my car in Piazza Venezia.

Of course, the ending is a mystery.

Buono studio!