Italian Preterite Perfect Tense: Trapassato Remoto

The trapassato remoto is an aid to storytelling

Learn the complex trapassato remoto tense
Learn the complex trapassato remoto tense. Plume Creative Creative, Illustration by Tom Howey.

You’ve learned about the passato remoto, which is a tense often used in literature or to talk about events that happened long ago.

  • Mia nonna crebbe a Parigi durante la guerra. My grandmother grew up in Paris during the war.
  • L'ultima volta che lo vidi eravamo bambini. The last time I saw him we were children.

Now, we are going to take one step further back in time, into the trapassato remoto: a tense used almost uniquely in literature, to describe something that happened right before the action for which you use the passato remoto, a long time ago.

How to Make the Trapassato Remoto

Known in English as the preterite perfect, it’s a compound tense formed with the passato remoto of the auxiliary verb avere or essere and the past participle of the acting verb. So, the only thing different from the passato prossimo is that instead of using the present tense for the auxiliary, you are using the passato remoto for the auxiliary.

Let's refresh our memory on the passato remoto of avere and essere:

Passato Remoto of Avere: Preterite Tense To Have
io ebbi
tu avesti
lui/lei/Lei ebbe
noi avemmo
voi aveste
loro ebbero
Passato Remoto of Essere: Preterite Tense To Be
io fui
tu fosti
lui/lei/Lei fu
noi fummo
voi foste
loro furono

Now, let's couple our auxiliaries with some past participles—depending on whether they are transitive or intransitive—to get a sense of what this trapassato remoto looks like:

Trapassato Remoto Mangiare & Crescere: Preterite Perfect To Eat & To Grow Up
io ebbi mangiato io fui cresciuto/a
tu avesti mangiato tu fosti cresciuto/a
lui/lei/Lei ebbe mangiato lui/lei/Lei fu cresciuto/a
noi avemmo mangiato noi fummo cresciuti/e
voi aveste mangiato voi foste cresciuti/e
loro ebbero mangiato loro furono cresciuti/e

A Past Right Before the Past

In English, those verbs translate to had eaten and had grown up (before something else happened). For example:

  • They had eaten the apple as soon as the train had left the station.
  • He had grown up before the war had started.

In Italian, that preceding action requires the trapassato remoto:

  • Dopo che la porta fu chiusa cominciò lo spettacolo. After the door had closed, the show began.
  • Quando ebbero finito di mangiare salirono sulla carretta e se ne andarono. After they had finished, they got on the buggy and left.
  • Non appena l'ebbero seppellito fecero una festa. As soon as they had buried him they had a party.
  • Solo dopo che fummo partiti la nonna si sedette. Only after we had gotten on the road Grandma sat down.

As you can see, the action that happens before in the trapassato remoto can only be in the dependent clause, not the principal clause. In other words, you can't make a single-clause sentence with the trapassato prossimo; it wouldn't make any sense.

And because the trapassato remoto describes an action that happens immediately before the other action in the passato remoto, it is introduced by dopo che (after that), quando (when), appena (as soon as).

A few more examples:

  • Appena ebbi saputo la verità gliela dissi. As soon as I had learned the truth I told him.
  • Quando ebbe finito di lavorare tornò a casa. When they had finished working they went home.
  • Quando ebbero ricevuto la notizia partirono. After they had received the news they took off.

When to Use the Trapassato Remoto

Keep in mind that because this tense is used in storytelling and in literature—in historical novels, for example—it comes in a narrative context; one would assume that the sentences above lead to something else, a yarn, also in the remote past. You almost never use it unless you are telling a story from long, long ago.

  • Fu dopo che la nonna ebbe visto la foto del nonno che si innamorò. It was after Grandma had seen Grandpa's picture that she fell in love.

In telling a story, more commonly people would say:

  • Fu dopo che la nonna vide la foto del nonno che si innamorò.

That's staight-up passato remoto, translated in English as:

  • It was after Grandma saw Grandpa's picture that she fell in love.

In English, the difference is not so great. But in writing in Italian, and depending on the context, the trapassato remoto adds a sophisticated layering to the sequence of action. And it's a nuance that you, the sophisticated learner, will want to be able to discern.

As Always, Agreement

Remember that with all intrasivite verbs, such as verbs of movement or reflexive verbs—any verb using essere as their auxiliary—just like the passato prossimo, the participle has to agree in gender and number with the subject.

For example:

  • Dopo che le ragazze furono salite sull’autobus, si sedettero. After the girls got on the bus, they sat down.
  • Dopo che furono cresciute in campagna, le ragazze si trovarono male in città. After having grown up in the country, the girls adapted poorly to the city.

The past participles salite and cresciute end in an -e because the subject is feminine plural.