The Passive Voice in Italian: Another Way of Looking at Verbs

Learn how to make and use la forma passiva in Italian

Rome skyline at sunset with Tiber river and St. Peter's Basilica, Italy
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When we are learning to write in English, we are warned to steer clear of the passive voice as if it were a bad habit. We are told to use verbs in active constructions, which are, well, more active: they give our writing a more powerful tone.

But in Italian, the passive voice is used frequently and in a multiplicity of ways, and not without reason. In fact, the passive voice not only changes the dynamic between the elements of a sentence, subtly altering nuance in the meaning but sometimes enables constructions and creates tones that are entirely new, shifting the focus of the action from the doer to the action itself.

Because it is widely used, it's important for the Italian-language learner to know how to recognize it, to conjugate it, and, one hopes, also to appreciate it.

La Voce Passiva: What It Is and Why Use It?

At its most basic, in Italian as in English, the passive construction reverses subject and object of an action:

  • The dog ate the sandwich: the sandwich was eaten by the dog.
  • The mysterious bear took the little girl: the little girl was taken by the mysterious bear.
  • Poverty killed the man: the man was killed by poverty.

Depending on the context, that reversal puts more emphasis on the subject who is carrying out the verb, to clarify agency or responsibility and place it squarely on someone or something: The painting was painted by that lovely young man in the red coat.

Conversely, passive construction also can serve the purpose of moving the emphasis away from the doer and more on the action itself and its weight. For example: The bodies were laid to rest under the trees; the village was burned to the ground in one night.

Here we don't even know who the doer is, and that is half of the beauty of the passive construction.

How to Make a Verb Passive in Italian

A verb is made passive (this can be done only with transitive verbs) by reversing the subject and the object, then by putting the main verb into the past participle preceded by the verb essere. Essere is conjugated in the same tense of the verb when active. The agent or doer, called the complemento d'agente, is introduced by the preposition da.

Let's look at the transformation in several tenses:

  • Noi serviamo la cena. We serve the dinner.
  • La cena è servita da noi. The dinner is served by us.
  • Noi abbiamo servito la cena. We served the dinner.
  • La cena è stata servita da noi. The dinner was served by us.

In the imperfetto:

  • Noi servivamo sempre la cena. We always served the dinner.
  • La cena era servita sempre da noi. The dinner was always served by us.

In the passato remoto:

  • Servimmo sempre la cena. We always served the dinner.
  • La cena fu sempre servita da noi. The dinner was always served by us.

In the futuro:

  • Noi serviremo sempre la cena. We will always serve dinner.
  • La cena sarà sempre servita da noi. Dinner will always be served by us.
  • Voleva che noi servissimo la cena. She wanted us to serve the dinner.
  • Voleva che la cena fosse servita da noi. She wanted the dinner to be served by us.

And in the condizionale passato:

  • Noi avremmo servito la cena se ci fossimo stati. We would have served the dinner had we been there.
  • La cena sarebbe stata servita servita da noi se ci fossimo stati. The dinner would have been served by us had we been there.

It's helpful to review the entire conjugation of a verb in the passive voice with the essere in every tense. But this suffices to see that, when used like this, the passive voice gives more prominence to the doer of the action.

Passive Without Spoken Agent

However, simple passive sentences can leave the doer unmentioned, too, leaving only the action itself, without concern for who did what:

  • La cena fu servita al tramonto. Dinner was served at sunset.
  • La casa è stata costruita male. The house was poorly built.
  • Il tuo vestito è stato buttato per sbaglio. Your dress was thrown out by mistake.
  • La torta fu mangiata in un minuto. The cake was eaten in one minute.
  • Il bambino era felice di essere stato accettato. The little boy was happy to have been accepted.
  • La donna fu tanto amata nella sua vita. The woman was very loved in her life.

Passive Impersonal: One, You, Everyone, Us All

Because of its Latin derivation, the passive in Italian is also used in other less identifiable constructions: Among them is the impersonal passivante voice, which is widely used in Italian and most convenient. It is a good way to explain rules, customs, or general behavior without assigning fault or responsibility or singling out individual behavior. The agent is one, everyone, or us all: the people. There is really no perfect translation in English that has the same tone, sometimes easy, sometimes more formal.

In this formula, you use the passive particle si (the same as the reflexive pronoun si but with an entirely different function) and conjugate your verb in the third person singular or plural (depending on if the subject is singular or plural) of the tense you need. There is always an object in the si passivante.

Let's look:

  • In questo negozio non si vendono sigarette. In this store, cigarettes are not sold.
  • Da qui si può vedere il mare. From here one/we can see the sea (or the sea can be seen).
  • In Italia non si parla molto svedese. In Italy, Swedish is not much spoken.
  • Come si fa ad aprire questo portone? How does one/how do you open this door?
  • In Italia si mangia molta pasta. In Italy, we/everyone/people eat a lot of pasta.
  • Si dice che il villaggio fu distrutto. It is said that the town was destroyed.
  • Non si capisce bene cosa sia successo. It is not clear what happened.

With this and other passive constructions, one can speak about something being done poorly or wrongly or badly without necessarily pointing the finger, assigning responsibility (or taking credit), or generally getting involved. It is also a good way to voice opinion or tell a story while leaving everyone (including yourself) out of it, adding a bit of mystery, suspense, or doubt.

  • Si sentirono delle grida. Screams were heard.
  • In paese non si seppe chi era stato. In town, no one knew/it was not known who had done it.
  • Quando fu vista per strada tardi si pensò subito a male. When she was seen on the street late at night, people/one/everyone immediately thought bad things.
  • Si pensa che sia stato lui. It is thought to have been him.

Passive Venire + Past Participle

Sometimes in passive constructions in the present or the future, the auxiliary essere is substituted by the verb venire to give the sentence a semblance of formality, for example in the case of rules, procedures, or court orders. The sense is that of "shall" in English.

  • Il bambino verrà affidato al nonno. The child shall be placed in the care of his grandfather.
  • Queste leggi verranno ubbidite da tutti senza eccezioni. These laws shall be obeyed without exceptions.

Passive with Andare + Past Participle

Andare is used a bit in the same way as venire in passive constructions—to express orders, rules, and procedures: a "must" in English.

  • Le leggi vanno rispettate. The laws must be respected.
  • I compiti vanno fatti. The homework must be done.
  • La bambina va portata a casa di sua mamma. The child must be taken home to her mother.
  • Le porte vanno chiuse alle ore 19:00. The doors must be closed at 7 p.m.

Andare is also used in passive constructions to express loss or destruction without assigning blame or when the culprit is unknown:

  • Le lettere andarono perse nel naufragio. The letters got lost in the shipwreck.
  • Nell'incendio andò distrutto tutto. Everything was destroyed in the fire.

Passive with Dovere, Potere, and Volere + Past Participle

In passive voice constructions with the helping verbs dovere (to have to), potere (to be able to), and volere (to want), the helping verb goes before the passive auxuliary essere and the past participle:

  • Non voglio essere portata in ospedale. I don't want to be taken to the hospital.
  • Voglio che il bambino sia trovato subito! I want the child to be found immediately!
  • I bambini devono essere stati portati a casa. The children must have been taken home.
  • Il cane può essere stato adottato. The dog could have been adopted.

Dovere is used with passive voice in rules, orders, and ways of doing things:

  • Il grano deve essere piantato prima di primavera. The wheat must be planted before spring.
  • Le multe devono essere pagate prima di venerdì. The fines must be paid before Friday.