The Italian Passato Remoto

The remote past is widely used for more than literature

Funes Dolomites, Italy

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The passato remoto is a simple tense of the indicative mode that is used for the narration of events in the past that have concluded and from which the speaker has acquired distance, temporal or psychological or both.

In fact, while the passato remoto gives the sense of remoteness and can be used for remote events, it is not grammatically accurate to think of it solely that way: You can use this Latin-derived past to describe something that happened a couple of weeks ago or ten years ago, depending on your vantage point.

Montalbano Loves the Passato Remoto

In terms of personal day-to-day narration, the passato remoto is increasingly losing ground to the more common passato prossimo, and particularly in the regions of northern and central Italy, and particularly in speaking, the passato prossimo dominates (is abused, as one Italian grammarian puts it). It is a matter of longstanding custom, habit, and ear: For anything other than ancient history or things from relatively long ago, the passato remoto sounds odd.

Yet, this most perfect past tense is widely used both in speaking and in writing in the South. If you are a fan of Andrea Camilleri's Detective Montalbano and a student of Italian, you most likely have noticed the passato remoto sprinkled throughout the dialogue and used for the narration of events that happened as recently as that morning. And when Montalbano calls, his colleagues often answer, "Commissario, che fu? Che successe?" What happened?

That is noteworthy for its regional peculiarity, not common elsewhere in Italy. More generally, though, the passato remoto is used very much in written Italian, in newspapers as well as high literature, and very much in fables, lending stories staying power through time. You will find it in history books, and used by students when telling of things that happened long ago.

  • I soldati si strinsero intorno al generale. The soldiers tightened around the general.
  • Michelangelo nacque nel 1475. Michelangelo was born in 1475.

And you should use it in speaking, when appropriate.

How to Conjugate a Regular Passato Remoto

Follow the table below for the endings of the passato remoto in regular verbs in -are, -ere, -ire and verbs with the infix -isco.

  Parlare
(to speak)
Vendere
(to sell)
Dormire
(to sleep)
Finire
(to finish)
io parl-ai vend-etti/ei dorm-ii fin-ii
tu parl-asti vend-esti dorm-isti fin-isti
lui, lei, Lei parl-ò vend-ette/-è dorm-ì fin-ì
noi  parl-ammo vend-emmo dorm-immo fin-immo
voi parl-aste vend-este dorm-iste fin-iste
loro parl-arono vend-ettero/
erono
dorm-irono fin-irono

Irregular Verbs in the Passato Remoto

Many verbs, particularly in the second conjugation, have an irregular passato remoto (which can, alone, suffice for the verb to be dubbed irregular, though mostly if they have an irregular passato remoto, they also have an irregular participio passato).

As examples, in the table below are the passato remoto conjugations of some common irregular verbs, one of each conjugation. Note that the entire conjugation is not irregular: just some of the persons. Also note the double endings in some persons.

  Dare
(to give)
Vedere
(to see)
Dire
(to tell/say)
io diedi/detti vidi dissi
tu desti  vedesti  dicesti
lui, lei, Lei  diede/dette vide disse
noi  demmo vedemmo  dicemmo
voi deste vedeste diceste
loro, Loro diedero/dettero videro dissero 

How to Use the Passato Remoto

Some examples:

  • Quell'estate dormii benissimo in montagna, a casa tua. That summer I slept very well, up in the mountains, at your house.
  • Quell'anno i ragazzi non finirono i compiti in tempo e il professore li bocciò. That year the kids didn't finish their homework on time and the teacher flunked them.
  • Durante il nostro ultimo viaggio in Italia, vedemmo una bellissima mostra a Roma e comprammo un quadro. During our last trip to Italy, we saw a beautiful show in Rome and we bought a painting.

Passato Remoto or Passato Prossimo?

In using the passato remoto in day-to-day personal narrative (non-historical), keep in mind the timing of the event, but also the bearing on or relevance to the present: If the action or actions have been digested and set aside, as some Italian grammarians like to put it, the passato remoto is the right tense; if their effect is still felt, the passato prossimo should be used.

For example:

  • I soldati romani compierono molte illustri imprese. Roman soldiers carried out many illustrious feats.

Passato remoto. But:

  • I romani ci hanno tramandato una incredibile civiltà. The Romans bequeathed us a tremendous civilization.

Passato prossimo. More examples with our sample verbs above:

  • Vendemmo la macchina qualche tempo fa. We sold the car some time ago.

Done, period. You can use the passato remoto. But, if you are saying that you sold the car and you regret it because now you are on foot, you would want to use the passato prossimo: Abbiamo venduto la macchina l'anno scorso e ancora siamo a piedi.

The dividing point can be fine, and, in truth, there is a good amount of disagreement among Italian grammarians on the use of the passato remoto, some joking that grammar (and many other things) would benefit if North and South could find a reasonable compromise (though there is much gray area in between).

That said, if you are talking about an event from reasonably long ago and that is concluded in every way, go with the passato remoto.

Other Verb Constructions With the Passato Remoto

The passato remoto is often used in constructions with other tenses such as the trapassato prossimo or the imperfetto, and it is always used to accompany the trapassato remoto.

  • Maria aveva ricevuto il pacco qualche tempo prima, ma lo mise nell'armadio e se ne dimenticò. Maria had received the package some time earlier, but she had put in the closet and forgotten about it.
  • Appena che lo ebbi visto, scappai. As soon as I saw him, I ran away.

And of course, passato remoto with passato remoto:

  • Lo vidi e lo salutai. I saw him and I said hello.

You can also use the passato remoto to create contemporaneity of actions with the imperfetto.

  • Lo vidi mentre cenava da Nilo. I saw him while he was dining at Nilo's.
  • Mi telefonò che partiva per l'Africa. He called me when he was leaving for Africa.
  • Ci incontrammo che prendevamo il treno. We met while we were catching a train.

Buono studio!