Italian Lessons


Life Events: Nascere, Vivere, Morire

In a recent lesson we talked about some of the verbs in the inscription on a stone plaque in Valsinni, Basilicata. We discussed some verbs in the passato remoto. In this lesson we’ll focus on the verbs nascere (to be born), vivere (to live), and morire (to die), which also appear in the inscription. 

Questo castello che vide nascere,
vivere e morire la poetessa Isabella Morra...
This castle, which saw the birth,
the life, and the death of the poet Isabella Morra...
Captions 1-4, Basilicata Turistica: Non me ne voglio andare - Part 3 of 3

It’s interesting to note that in Italian, being born is expressed with the active verb nascere, whereas English requires the passive voice of the verb “to bear”: Someone is, or was, born. The only way to make being born active is to use a phrase like “to come into being.”

In Italian history books, the third person remote past of the (intransitive) verb nascere (to come into being, to be born) is used quite often: nacque (he/she/it was born).

The Valsinni inscription could have just as easily read:

Qui nacquevisse, e morì la poetessa Isabella Morra (Here the poet Isabella Morrawas bornlived and died).


The remote past of the irregular verb vivere (to live) might be familiar to opera lovers. Vissi d’arte (I lived for [my] art), from Puccini’s Tosca, is one of the most famous opera arias of all. In fact, the aria is a great source of verbs in the passato remoto.

Vissi d’arte, vissi d’amore,
non feci mai male ad anima viva!
I lived for art, I lived for love,
I never did any harm to a living soul!


Morire is also an irregular verb.

Floria Tosca muore alla fine dell’opera.
Floria Tosca dies at the end of the opera.
Isabella Morra morì a Valsinni.
Isabella Morra died in Valsinni.


What’s interesting about the verb morire (to die) is that, as with many verbs, the past participle morto (died) is the same as the adjective morto (dead). You need to pay close attention to the context to know which it is. 

Isabella è morta diversi secoli fa.
Isabella died several centuries ago.
È morta da diversi secoli.
She has been dead for several centuries.


On a lighter note, in a recent video about Beauty and the Beast, there is another life event where English requires the passive voice, while Italian uses the active: il matrimonio (marriage). 

Belle e il principe si sposarono nel giardino di rose.
Beauty and the Prince were married in the rose garden.
Caption 66, Ti racconto una fiaba: La Bella e la Bestia - Part 2 of 2


In this case, the si is not reflexive, but reciprocal. Beauty and the Beast marry each other. See Marika’s video about reflexive and reciprocal verbs.


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When Is an Adjective Not an Adjective?

In Italian, as in English, there are past participles that are also adjectives.

Let's take the example of verbs rompere (to break) and vendere (to sell), which are both transitive verbs (verbs that take a direct object), and take avere as an auxiliary verb.

In the first example, we have the masculine noun il vaso (the vase). The adjective and the past participle are identical: rotto.

Hai rotto il vaso (you broke the vase or, you've broken the vase). 
L'hai rotto (you broke it, or you've broken it).
Ora è rotto (now it's broken).

In the next example, la casa (the house) is feminine, so the ending of venduto/vendutawill change when we use a pronoun in place of la casa, and when we use it as an adjective, which has to agree with the noun casa (feminine in this case).

Hai venduto la casa (you sold your house). 
L'hai venduta (you sold it, or you've sold it).
È venduta (it's sold).

The verbs in the above examples take avere (to have) as a helping verb. When we have a verb that takes essere (to be) as a helping verb, like morire (to die), it can cause confusion, because the participle and the adjective look totally identical, including the verb essere (to be), but their function, and consequently their translation, are in fact slightly different.

In this week's episode of Commissario Manara, someone, as usual, has died, and is therefore dead. In English there are two distinct words, but in Italian the word is the same. 

In the first example below, morto (dead) is an adjective:

È morto da almeno tre giorni.
He's been dead at least three days.
Caption 19, Il Commissario Manara 1: Vendemmia tardiva - Ep 2 - Part 11 of 17

But morto is also the participio passato (past participle) of the (irregular) verb morire.

Allora come è morto
So how did he die
Caption 2,  Il Commissario Manara 1: Sogni di Vetro - Ep 7 - Part 2 of 18

The context will help you determine which translation to use, but it can be a bit ambiguous.


To add a bit of confusion, morto can also be used as a noun: il morto (the dead man, the dead person). In this case, there will be an article.

Le posso spiegare tutto, però non subito perché c'è un morto che ci aspetta.
I can explain everything to you, but not right now because there's a dead man waiting for us.
Caption 5, Il Commissario Manara 1 - Vendemmia tardiva - Ep 2 - Part 11 of 17

In the case of morto as a noun, it tends to be masculine, but if we know the dead person is a woman, it's correct to say una morta, or if there are multiple dead people, i morti


La morte (death) is not a pleasant subject, but it's important to know how to talk about it. Unfortunately, it's a word that's used too often oggigiorno (these days).


Further practice:
Do a Yabla search of morto, and try to determine whether it's an adjective, a participle, or a noun.  Let the context help you.


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Ways to talk about death in Italian


Many of those who subscribe to Yabla Italian have enjoyed the TV series Commissario Manara. In the first season, Luca Manara had a romantic relationship with Lara, a fellow police investigator. It just so happened that she had an aunt who was very kind and sociable, and would often contribute in her special way to solving a case, along with her dog, Brigadiere. The character was Zia Caterina.


Valeria Valeri, the actress who played Zia Caterina, passed away just a week ago, at the ripe old age of 97, and so we remember her here.


As a matter of fact, Commissario Manara was one of her last TV performances.


Zia Caterina was a character along the lines of Jessica Fletcher in Murder She Wrote. Caterina was always wearing outlandish earrings, funny straw hats and always had a smile on her face. She had a dog that was a good investigator too.


Speaking of Murder She Wrote, did you know the Italian version of Murder She Wrote was called La Signora in Giallo? Read about the special meaning of giallo in Italian.


In Italian, there’s a tradition of calling someone Zia (aunt) or Zio (uncle) without their name attached.

Solo tu potevi salvarci zia...

Only you could have saved us, Aunt...

Caption 6, Il Commissario Manara - S1EP5 - Il Raggio Verde - Part 14

 Play Caption


Note that Italians don't capitalize affectionate names like zia, zio, signora.


Let's now take the opportunity of Valeri's passing to talk about how Italians talk about death. It's never easy, and it's not a happy subject, but sometimes knowing how to talk about death can save you from saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. Here is what the headlines have been saying about Valeria Valeri's death.

Purtroppo è venuta a mancare Valeria Valeri.
Sadly, Valeria Valeri has come to be missing.


It’s an elegant and indirect way to say someone has died, and the verb mancare is often used in this sense.


We also use mancare to miss someone, but this verb works in a completely different way from the English verb "to miss." More about that here.


A 97 anni, dopo una vita spesa in palcoscenico, si è spenta ieri a Roma Valeria Valeri, una grande attrice e una grande voce del teatro italiano ...
At ninety-seven years, after a life on the stage, Valeria Valeri died in Rome. She was a great actress and one of the great voices of Italian theater.

Si è spenta.
Spegnere means "to turn off."
Her light went out.
She stopped living.

È morta Valeria Valeri.
Valeria Valeri died.
Valeria Valeri is dead.


Morire is the classical, literal word for “to die.”


Let’s not forget that morto/morta can be either the past participle, as in "she has died," or it can be an adjective, as in "she is dead." More about that here.


One more way to say someone died is to say they are gone, or they have gone. They have taken their leave.

Valeria Valeri se ne andata.
Valeria Valeri has left. Valeria Valeri is gone.

Ci mancherà.
We will miss her


Most will agree that Zia Caterina was a great addition to the cast of Manara, and that knowing she is gone for good is a little sad, although she lived to be almost a hundred!


Thanks for reading!

Don't forget to send your questions and topic suggestions to


A presto!


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The passato remoto in Basilicata

The following passage was inscribed on a stone plaque in the city of Valsinni, in the Basilicata region. The plaque introduces this week's video about Basilicata, and merits a few words.

Questo castello che vide nascere, vivere e morire la poetessa Isabella Morradal De Gubernatis tolta dall'oblio, fu visitato nel 1928  da Benedetto Croce che ne illustrò la storia.
This castle, which saw the birth, life, and death of the poet Isabella Morra, lifted from oblivion by De Gubernatis, was visited in 1928 by Benedetto Croce who illustrated its history.
Captions 1-4, Basilicata Turistica: Non me ne voglio andare - Part 3 of 3

Grammatically speaking, and despite its archaic language, the plaque is a good example of when to use the passato remoto (remote past tense), and indeed describes events that took place well in the past.


We have the verb vedere (to see), whose third person passato remoto is vide.


Next, we have an example of the passive voice made up of the verb essere (to be) in the third person singular remote past: fu, plus visitato (past participle of the verb visitare [to visit]). It's visitato, not visitata or visitati, because we are talking about un castello (a castle), a masculine noun. It was visited by Benedetto Croce who has given his name to streets in many Italian cities.


The last verb in the inscription is illustrò, passato remoto of illustrare (to illustrate, to depict). Croce was a philosopher and historian, and sometimes a politician, but he was not an artist, so we can infer that he described with words, rather than with design, the history of the city he visited in 1928.


On the other hand it must have been Angelo de Gubernatis who saved, or took away (tolto) Isabella Morra from oblivion, since he was responsible for publishing some reference works about Italian literature and poetry, and evidently included her name among poets.

The verb togliere is used here in its past participle tolto. Once again, this is an example of the passive voice, but the verb essere (to be) is omitted, and this time the past participle has a feminine ending, tolta, because it refers to Isabella. For more on participles and their agreement in gender and number with the subject of a passive sentence, see this article.


Tragic stories aside, this three-part video about the Basilicata region of Italy has sparked the interest of many who would love to be able to visit this beautiful region. See more Yabla videos about Basilicata here.  


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