This post goes out to those of you who are learning Italian in Rome, or know Italian, or know Roman dialect, or any combination of these things.
If you’ve been reading my blog for any length of time, then you’ll know that my main passion is for Roman culture and Roman dialect. Truly, I might be the only American in Rome who has the “Febbre da Cavallo” theme song as their cell phone ring tone. If you even know what that means, then this post is for you.
When I first moved here and started learning Italian, everyone—and I mean EVERYONE and THEIR MAMMA—kept telling me, “For the LOVE OF GOD, though, DON’T learn Italian from the Romans! Dear God NO! It’s so… so… so… VULGAR!” And I swear to you, I didn’t get what that meant.
Did it mean they say lotsa swears?
It did. But that isn’t exactly “it” because it’s not like they swear only in Rome. Although, as an aside, truly the way that Romans creatively swear is another reason to love them. I’ve had Romans ask me lots of times, “Hey Shell, how do you say [insert Italian and/or Roman swear word] in English?” and I’ll be like, “F…” or “Sh…” or what, like the other 2 or 3 four-letter words we use? Then they ask another word, and I say THE SAME EXACT word in English. And so they repeat it as if I didn’t understand correctly. Sample dialogue: No, no, not “fottiti” or “cazzo in culo”, no, it’s different, this time we just want to know simply “vatteneafanculo” and I’m like, ok, still though, it’s pretty much the same ol’ F word for us, more or less. We don’t get so incredibly descriptive, especially when it comes to parts of the male and female anatomy, for goodness sake! I’m like, you guys are just a lot more creative than we are, when it comes to being vulgar.
But my point being… the “vulgarity” of Roman dialect doesn’t quite lie in simple swear words or talking dirty. No; it’s something more, something almost intangible, something hard to articulate. I tried to get Romans who were familiar with the US to compare it for me to some US accent.
“Is it like the Texas accent? Is it like a Southern accent? Like an accent that people use to imply idiocy?” (no offense to Southerners, of course. Think George W. Bush).
“No, that’s not really it, either,” they’d say.
Long story short, the closest I’ve ever come to a comparison is a hard NYC accent or—and more than once I’ve been told this—specifically Brooklyn. I know nothing about NYC or Brooklyn so this doesn’t mean more to me than something remotely akin to The Sopranos.
In any case, once you learn what a Roman accent sounds like, and the peculiarities that make it uniquely Roman, you can finally start to really understand the Roman sense of humor and view on life. (Which I’ve also touched on recently in this post about Roman sonnets). Which brings me to the title of this post: la mandrakata.
I’d already been living here in Rome for years and spoke pretty decent Italian by the time I started wondering what the hell the “mandrakata” really was. I mean, I’d always hear it. They’d always be like, “What a mandrakata!” and I never gave it much thought, just like I didn’t give much thought to why every Roman guy I had met said “cesso” instead of “bagno” for bathroom, and then I came to find out it meant “shitter” after I asked my poor MIL the first time I met her “Excuse me ma’am but where’s your shitter located?” (My friends have heard this one a million times, but it’s a classic.) So the elusive mandrakata would always be nominated when it came to something that was … how can I put this… some context in which something was super cool and kind of a rip off, like when you got away with something or pulled a really cool trick on someone. It’s hard to explain but that’s about as good as I can do.
So if you, too, like me, are a student of Roman culture and dialect and ever wondered where the hell this phrase came from, I’m here to enlighten you. It comes from the movie “Febbre da Cavallo,” which, in and of itself is a study in Roman culture. There are many other movies we could go on about—Alberto Sordi, Carlo Verdone—but today I want to go here: Gigi Proietti. I LOVE THIS MOVIE. I can’t explain to you why, anymore than I can explain to you why I love Roman culture in general.
So here, in all its You Tube glory, is one classic example of the mandrakata. Gigi Proietti, the main character, is called Mandrake (mahn-DRAH-kay), and thus, he gives birth to the so-called “Mandrake maneuver” or the mandrakata, which is basically some kind of scam to either avoid paying for something because you have no money from losing it all on bets, or a scam to get more money for betting on horses, or just a way to pull a practical joke on someone you can’t stand, like the butcher in this clip, who they call Manzotin which is like the Italian version of Spam.
I love this scene. Few movies can make me smile even when I’ve had the shittiest of days, but honestly this scene never fails to make me laugh. Either that makes me completely abnormal, or almost Roman at heart—or perhaps a mixture of both.