Preghiera Davanti Al Crocifisso

Our newest piece in the catalogue is one I heralded earlier in the year – a setting of a text by St Francis of Assisi, by James Webb. It was written for the girls of Wimbledon High School, and is for piano and unison choir, apart from a division at the very end into two voices. It’s simple and attractive.

The text James chose was St Francis’s Preghiera Davanti Al Crocifisso – Prayer Before The Crucifix. It’s in Italian, and was given its first performance by the Wimbledon girls at the lower basilica in Assisi. The text in full goes like this:


Preghiera Davanti Al Crocifisso

Altissimo glorioso Dio, illumina le tenebre de lo core
mio e damme fede retta, speranza certa e carità perfetta, senno e conoscimento, Signore, che io
faccia lo tuo santo e verace comandamento. Amen.

…and in translation, means this:

O most high, glorious God, enlighten the darkness of my heart. Give me true faith, firm hope and perfect charity, sense and knowledge, that I may do your holy and true will. Amen.

The text as it appears here, though not in the Umbrian dialect of mediaeval Italian that Francis used in his writings, contains one or two anomalies compared with contemporary Italian. The first is the word perfecta. Even if you have no Italian at all, you’ve probably already guessed that the word means perfect, and you’re right. It does. You clever thing. And yet, you owe this insight into the meaning of a word in a language you don’t speak to the fact that this particular word isn’t actually the Italian word for perfect, isn’t what you’d be being taught if you were studying Italian at night school, and isn’t what you’d find in a translating dictionary if you looked up perfect in the English half. What you’d find is perfetto for masculine nouns and perfetta for feminine ones, like the one in the Francis text. Crucially, the C has disappeared, leaving the word just that little bit less guessable than it is with the C still in it.

There’s a whole bunch of Italian words like this. They all come from Latin, and their Latin forms all have -ct- in them. Their English equivalents all have -ct- in them too, but over the centuries, Italian has dropped the -ct- in favour of -tt-. The other one that we find in the Francis text is dricta, or dritta (dritto) in contemporary Italian, which means straight. It’s a bit less obvious what this word equates to in English until you see the Latin that came before it: directus, as in direct. Again, the Latin has -ct-, and so does the English, but the Italian has -tt-.

Other words that go the same way are ottava for octave, latte for milk (think of lactose and lactating), nocturnal (notturno), vittoria (victory, or victoria in Latin) and ettaro (hectare).

A similar process is at work in words which in Italian have -ss- (or just -s- in front of another consonant), but which in Latin have -x-, like crocifisso (crucifix). Latin has -x-, English has -x-, but Italian has -ss-. We see the same in expressive, which, as all musicians know, is espressivo, and in espresso, which, as all coffee drinkers know, is espresso. Both come ultimately from the same Latin word exprimere, which also gives us express (espresso in Italian) and expression (espressione in Italian). Sessanta sixty and sesso sex are other examples.

So, why are there examples in Francis’s Italian which correspond better to the English and Latin forms than they do to contemporary Italian? The answer, simply, is that they were written centuries ago, before the process of change from the Latin forms was complete. These older forms, although they are utterly obsolete in contemporary speech, are still retained in older texts, especially in religious circles, because they lend a certain air of antiquity to the texts in which they appear. It’s a bit like thou and thee in older translations of the Bible, or lines like He imagineth mischief upon his bed – no one talks like that any more, but there’s an odd kind of comfort to be had from hearing religious texts couched in that archaic manner.

I should say before closing that I’m in no way an expert (esperto in Italian, from the Latin expertus) on the minutiae of the history of Italian. If you are, please enlighten us further in the comments.


About Neil Sands

Director of the Chichester Music Press. Astronomer.
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