In this second article on Italian humour, I’d like to treat an aspect that’s characteristic of young (and some less young) people: goliardery.
This term, seemingly derived from ancient French, has several acceptations. Firstly, it refers to the pleasure-seeking, lighthearted and irreverent spirit of university students. Later, it’s been called “goliardic spirit” a similar playfulness that is sometimes found in the adult sphere. It’s mainly the latter that I want to talk about, but in order to do that I must first touch upon the world of students.
Italian Goliards are, in a sense, the ancestors of American college Fraternities and Sororities. Besides their organization and rules (that may vary based on university towns), each group of Goliards has rituals concerning freshmen as well as feasts, games and songs. Those, together with the frequent use of costumes, watchwards and fantasy names, express a lively irreverence towards values and institutions of the adult world.
Both in the pranks and in goliardic songs are found witty puns, often with a sexual undertone, the desecration of high culture, blasphemy, the subversion of social hierarchy. All that with a cheerful spirit that invites most of all to enjoy life and young peers’ company.
Such a spirit was translated into humour also by many adults, artists or not. Here I am only going to make some of the best examples of goliardery in Italian pop culture.
In this regard, a very important personality is Renzo Arbore: a musician, presenter, author and much more. His comic inventiveness expressed itself in his art (professedly inspired by his experience of university goliardery) and in his ability to coordinate many talents (among which Roberto Benigni, whom he launched in his show “L’altra domenica”). His career developed from radio programs like “Alto gradimento” then evolved in the 80s with very successful TV shows like “Quelli della notte” and “Indietro tutta“.
It wouldn’t be easy for a foreigner to understand every cultural and linguistic hint contained in his programs, but he and the artists he could gather created absurd characters, sharp and paradoxical wordplay, screwball satire and a surreal playfulness. This combination of elements, also musical, was so original that some underrated it, but today many people miss its clever lightheartedness.
Another bedrock of Italian goliardery is represented by the film “Amici miei” and by its sequels (“Amici miei – Atto II°” and “Amici miei – Atto III°”). This trilogy originated from an idea by Pietro Germi, but was directed by Mario Monicelli then by Nanni Loy, who casted extraordinary actors.
The films are about a group of men whose bond is based on friendship and on a common reluctance to growing up. In order to excape from family life, duties and boredom, they organize aimless jaunts they call “zingarate”. During their playful nomadism, they pull surreal pranks on anyone they find along the way. Furthermore, to escape troublesome situations and to confuse enemies, they often speak in a way that seems almost reasonable, but is actually nonsensical. They name such a hilarious expedient “supercazzola”. Even before the most tragic life events those friends don’t lose their ability to laugh at anyone and anything.
The humour of these stories is based – in a sense – on the immaturity and cynicism of a group of presumed adults, whose behaviours are dangerously similar to those of pathological narcissists. Nevertheless, for how much critical thinking is to be used, these films are undeniably genius, and it’s impossible not to be amused by their irreverent humour. Their huge success made them stay part of Italian collective imagination even after all these years.
I hope that you found these examples and reflections interesting and that I helped you understanding something more about my culture. See you in the next article on Italian humour.