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How to Talk About the Past in Italian: A Guide to the Passato Remoto 

 February 12, 2020

By  Jessica Maggi

When you are first learning a foreign language that has different past tenses like Italian, it can be easy to get them all mixed up. In this lesson, we will show you how to use the Italian remote past tense (passato remoto), which refers to events far in the past. You will mostly come across it in written Italian.

Despite having plenty of irregular verbs, the passato remoto is nothing to fear and has a musicality that is quintessentially Italian. You’ll like it.

Using the passato remoto

One of the four past tenses of the mood called indicativo, the passato remoto is known in English as the “past historic”. It is used to:

  •  refer to an action that took place and was concluded a long time ago:

L’Italia vinse i mondiali nel 1982 – Italy won the World Cup in 1982

Giuseppe Garibaldi si rifugiò a San Marino nel 1849 – Giuseppe Garibaldi sought refuge in San Marino in 1849
  • talk about an event that you feel as unrelated to the present time either chronologically or emotionally:

La amai tanto, ma ora non la amo più – I used to really love her, but now I don’t anymore

  • describe events in the past that have no connection with the present:

Dante Alighieri nacque a Firenze nel 1265 – Dante Alighieri was born in Florence in 1265 (he is no longer alive)

  • refer to the historical past:

Dante Alighieri nacque a Firenze nel 1265 – Dante Alighieri was born in Florence in 1265 (he is no longer alive)

  • refer to the historical past:

La Prima Guerra Mondiale iniziò nel 1914 – World War I started in 1914

Translated in English as simple past, the passato remoto is widely used in formal and narrative registers. A common stylistic choice in the written language, it is mainly seen in literature, especially in novels, biographies, autobiographies, poetry, fairy tales and fictional writing.

Quando Cenerentola arrivò a palazzo, tutti rimasero a bocca aperta – When Cinderella arrived at the palace, everyone gasped in wonder

Constructing the passato remoto

To form the remote past tense of regular verbs, remove the infinitive ending -are, -ere or -ire and replace it with the personal endings as shown below:

  • for verbs ending in -are, remove the infinitive ending and add -ai, -asti, -ò, -ammo, -aste, -arono:
Cantare(to sing)
Io cantaiI sang
Tu cantastiYou sang
Lui/lei cantòHe/She/It sang
Noi cantammoWe sang
Voi cantasteY’all sang
Loro cantaronoThey sang
  • For verbs ending in -ere, remove the infinitive ending and add -ei, -esti, -é, -emmo, -este, -erono. Many regular verbs ending in -ere, such as temere (to fear), battere (to beat), ricevere (to receive) and vendere (to sell), have an alternative form in the first person singular (-etti), third person singular (-ette), and third person plural (-ettero) forms.
Vendere (to sell)
Io vendei or vendetti
Tu vendesti
Lui/lei vendé or vendette
Noi vendemmo
Voi vendeste
Loro venderono or vendettero

So, both the following sentences are correct:

Rocco vendé la sua auto per pagare i debiti / Rocco vendette la sua auto per pagare i debiti – Rocco sold his car to pay his debts
  • For verbs ending in -ire, remove the infinitive ending and add -ii, -isti, -í, -immo, -iste, -irono:
Sentire(to hear)
Io sentiiI heard
Tu sentistiYou heard
Lui/lei sentìHe/She/It heard
Noi sentimmoWe heard
Voi sentisteY’all heard
Loro sentironoThey heard

They kind of roll off the tongue but are fun to say, don’t you think?

Irregular verbs in the passato remoto

There are plenty of irregular verbs in the passato remoto in Italian, which need to be learnt by heart. Just as in other verb tenses, avere (to have) and essere (to be) have irregular conjugations.

Let’s go over each:

Essere (to be)
Io fuiI was
Tu fostiYou were
Lui/lei fuHe/She/It was
Noi fummoWe were
Voi fosteY’all were
Loro furonoThey were
Avere(to have)
Io ebbiI had
Tu avestiYou had
Lui/lei ebbeHe/She/It had
Noi avemmoWe had
Voi avesteY’all had
Loro ebberoThey had

There are a few tips and rules that can help you learn the irregular verbs in the passato remoto.

The conjugation of the verbs usually changes for the first and third person singular (io and lui/lei) and for the third person plural (loro). Some verbs, such as bere (to drink) and tenere (to keep), double the last consonant of the verb root.

Bere (to drink)
Io bevvi
Tu bevesti
Lui/lei bevve
Noi bevemmo
Voi beveste
Loro bevvero
Tenere (to keep)
Io tenni
Loro tennero
Lui/lei tenne
Noi tenemmo
Tu tenesti
Voi teneste

Irregular verbs whose infinitive ends with -gliere, like togliere (to remove, to take off), -ndere, like scendere (to get off, to descend) and -gere or -ggere, like spargere (to spread) and leggere (to read), usually form the passato remoto by adding the ending -si to the first person singular (io).

Leggere (to read)
Io lessi
Tu leggesti
Lui/lei lesse
Noi leggemmo
Voi leggeste
Loro lessero
Spargere (to spread)
Io sparsi
Tu spargesti
Lui/lei sparse
Noi spargemmo
Voi spargeste
Loro sparsero
Togliere (to remove, to take off)
Io tolsi
Tu togliesti
Lui/lei tolse
Noi togliemmo
Voi toglieste
Loro tolsero
Scendere (to get off, to descend)
Io scesi
Tu scendesti
Lui/lei scese
Noi scendemmo
Voi scendeste
Loro scesero
Chiudere (to close)
Io chiusi
Tu chiudesti
Lui/lei chiuse
Noi chiudemmo
Voi chiudeste
Loro chiusero
Decidere (to decide)
Io decisi
Tu decidesti
Lui/lei decise
Noi decidemmo
Voi decideste
Loro decisero
Prendere (to take)
Io presi
Tu prendesti
Lui/lei prese
Noi prendemmo
Voi prendeste
Essi presero

Here are some other common irregular verbs in the passato remoto.

Fare (to do, to make)
Io feci
Tu facesti
Lui/lei fece
Noi facemmo
Voi faceste
Loro fecero
Dare (to give)
Io diedi
Tu desti
Lui/lei diede
Noi demmo
Voi deste
Loro diedero
Andare (to go)
Io andai
Tu andasti
Lui/lei andò
Noi andammo
Voi andaste
Loro andarono
Stare (to stay, to be)
Io stetti
Tu stesti
Lui/lei stette
Noi stemmo
Voi steste
Loro stettero
Vedere (to see)
Io vidi
Tu vedesti
Lui/lei vide
Noi vedemmo
Voi vedeste
Loro videro
Volere (to want)
Io volli
Tu volesti
Lui/lei volle
Noi volemmo
Voi voleste
Loro vollero
Chiedere (to ask)
Io chiesi
Tu chiedesti
Lui/lei chiese
Noi chiedemmo
Voi chiedeste
Loro chiesero
Venire (to come)
Io venni
Tu venisti
Lui/lei venne
Noi venimmo
Voi veniste
Loro vennero
Dire (to say)
Io dissi
Tu dicesti
Lui/lei disse
Noi dicemmo
Voi diceste
Loro dissero

It is easy to see why so many people from all over the world have such deep love for Italian when you hear the sweet sound of this past tense.

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  • Practice reading and listening with 90+ minutes of audio 
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Which phrases are typically used with the passato remoto?

Here is a list of marker words that are usually used with the remote past tense in Italian:

  • L’anno scorso  – Last year

L’anno scorso Giorgia si mise a dieta e perse 10 chili – Last year Giorgia went on a diet and lost 20 pounds

  • Cinque/dieci/venti anni fa – Five/ten/twenty years ago

Vent’anni fa decisi di lasciare Milano e di trasferirmi in Sicilia – Twenty years ago I decided to leave Milan and move to Sicily

  • Molto tempo fa – A long time ago:

Eugenio morì molto tempo fa – Eugenio died a long time ago

  • Nel … secolo – In the … century

La cattedrale fu costruita nel XVIII secolo – The cathedral was built in the 18th century

What’s the difference between the passato remoto and the passato prossimo?

Unlike in English, in Italian there are several different versions of the past tense. When you approach them, it is crucial to distinguish between the contexts where you have to use one or the other in order to be able to express different concepts.

The passato remoto refers to events far in the past.
Il Brasile vinse i mondiali nel 1970Brazil won the World Cup in 1970 (far-off past)

The passato prossimo refers to recent events.

Sono andato in palestra ieri pomeriggioI went to the gym yesterday afternoon (near past)

In English, you do not distinguish at all between recent or remote past events, as there is no separate past tense.

When does passato prossimo become passato remoto?

That’s a complex question. There is actually not a specific time limit at which the passato remoto kicks in. The distinction depends on the meaning you want to convey.

If the event you are describing happened in the distant past and all its effects are finished, you use the remote past tense.

Luigi Pirandello nacque nel 1867Luigi Pirandello was born in 1867 (the action is far and detached from the present)

If the event you are talking about happened in the past but still has an impact on the present, then you use the passato prossimo in Italian.

L’Euro è entrato in vigore nel 2002Euro was introduced in 2002 (it is still with us)

However, the choice of tense is not always dictated by how long ago an event happened. Most of the time, it is the speaker that chooses how to describe an action. The choice of tense is a choice of the speaker.

The passato remoto emphasizes that the action is finished and far from the present. Using it might mean you intend to convey a sense of distance between the fact you are referring to and the present.

On the contrary, if you use the passato prossimo you express a certain degree of involvement in what you are talking about.

For example:

Mauro e Patrizia si sono sposati quindici anni faMauro and Patrizia got married fifteen years ago

The above conveys the idea that Mauro and Patrizia are still married.

Mauro e Patrizia si sposarono quindici anni faMauro and Patrizia got married fifteen years ago

This sentence conveys the idea that they are no longer married.

Passato remoto in spoken Italian

In the spoken language the remote past tense has been widely replaced by the passato prossimo. In colloquial speech, most native Italian speakers prefer to use the passato prossimo in most cases, even when talking about events that happened a long time ago.

Northern Italians tend to use almost exclusively the passato prossimo, even to refer to historical facts.

The passato remoto is becoming obsolete but it is still spoken pretty widely in Tuscany and in some areas of Italy’s South.

The usage of the passato prossimo and the passato remoto varies considerably among Italian regions. In the North the remote past tense isn’t used at all in spoken everyday language, while the opposite happens in the South, where it is often used to describe fairly recent events. In the far South, especially in Sicily, the remote past tense tends to be over-used.
Ieri andai dal dentistaYesterday I went to the dentist

The above may sound perfectly OK to someone in Sicily, Campania, Apulia, Basilicata and Calabria, but it would sound awkward from someone in the North.

Because of its difficulty and limited utility in speaking, many English speakers who decide to learn Italian skip the passato remoto entirely. Don’t do it, please. The remote past tense is still well worth learning, at least to recognize it in case it comes up, especially if you enjoy reading and writing in Italian.

To sum up...

  • The Italian passato remoto refers to events that took place or were completed in the far-off past.
Giuseppe Garibaldi si stabilì a Caprera nel 1856Giuseppe Garibaldi settled in Caprera in 1856
  • You will come across the passato remoto mostly in written Italian, as it is used for narrative purposes.
  • The passato remoto is equivalent to the English simple past.

Calò il silenzio quando Virginia entrò nella stanza – There was a sudden silence when Virginia came into the room

  • The passato remoto is hardly ever used in spoken Italian, especially in the North, while the Southern parts of Italy (especially Sicily) still use it to a great extent, even to refer to fairly recent events.

Practice as much as you can until you get the hang of this lovely Italian tense.

 FUN AND EFFECTIVE WAY TO LEARN ITALIAN

  • 10 entertaining short stories about everyday themes
  • Practice reading and listening with 90+ minutes of audio 
  • Learn 1,000+ new Italian vocabulary effortlessly!

Jessica Maggi


Jessica is a native Italian speaker, a passionate linguist and a proud Grammar nerd. She has a lifelong passion for English and studied Linguistic and Cultural Mediation at the University of Milan. She currently works as a freelance translator and copywriter.

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