A 100-year-old Rap

A 100-year-old Rap

By Giuliano Gaia

All the ingredients are present: the ghetto, avoided by the police; the prostitute, young and beautiful and destined for a terrible end; the dirty cop; and the public revolt through angry verse. Except it is not Los Angeles. It’s Milano, and the year is 1913.

THE GHETTO

The story begins in the most wretched and disreputable neighbourhood of Milan: Piazza Vetra.

Piazza Vetra as it is today

The Vetra: a lump of dark alleys, dirty courtyards where reigns the underworld, the kids ragged, drunks unrecoverable, women aged quickly from poverty, and in world’s oldest drug: paid sex, here it is at the lowest level.

Vetraschi Alley, no longer existing today, with San Lorenzo in the background

The brothels here are the worst, the prostitutes the poorest. Here they burned witches of the 17th century, whose ghosts are rumoured to still haunt their fiery graves on foggy nights.

Surrounding the dark heart of the Vetra,  the city grows turbulent: the glow of electric lights, the launch of futurism, the elegant attire of Liberty, the celebration of the 1906 World Expo, and the preparation of the global tragedy of the Great War.

None of this enters the dark alleys of the Vetra. Not even the police enter here, nor respectable folk, if not in secret to satisfy their most private and shameful desires.

THE YOUNG PROSTITUTE

Her name is Elvira Andressi, but everyone knows her as the Rosetta (the little Rose) of the Vetra. She tried her luck as a performer, singing in small theaters and taverns, but was unable to make a living from it. So she is left to hang around the Colonnetta, in front of San Lorenzo Church.

The only existing photo of The Rosetta of the Vetra

Here is the only remaining photo of her, sensual but not brazen. A photo that suspends her in eternal youth, an unenviable immortality of those who are killed so young in life.

THE DIRTY COP

He is a plain clothes policeman, the most hated profession. A profession lacking the dignity of the Royal Carabinieri, respected for their elegant uniforms and their military decorum. Instead the policeman often works undercover, frequenting the worst of taverns and alleyways, in order to keep watch, make acquaintances with the unsavoury, and exercising a power as limited as it is arrogant.

One of these policemen, hanging in the Vetra, sees the beautiful Rosetta and wants her, but she refuses him; having promised herself that she would go with anyone, but never a cop.

Rejected, the policeman insults her and then hits her with the butt of his rifle. The Rosetta falls to the ground, dead, on the dirty sidewalks of Vetraschi Alley, yet another young woman broken by a man unable to handle rejection.

THE REVOLT

The news ignited the neighbourhood. The ghetto unites itself in its grief for the girl killed by the police. The underworld organises the funeral, a grand funeral. And while we do not know if justice was ever served to the murdering cop, we do know justice was certainly offered by the people of the Vetra through a song of protest, rhymes tightly spun, a very true and real 100-year-old rap.

LA CANZONE DELLA ROSETTA

Il tredici di agosto,

in una notte scura,

commisero un delitto

gli agenti di questura.

Hanno ammazzato un angelo:

di nome la Rosetta.

Era di piazza Vetra,

battea la Colonnetta.

Chi ha ucciso la Rosetta

non è della Ligera: [malavita milanese Ndr]

forse viene da Napoli,

è della Mano Nera [camorra Ndr].

Rosetta, mia Rosetta,

dal mondo sei sparita,

lasciando in gran dolore

tutta la malavita.

Tutta la malavita

era vestita in nero:

per ‘compagnar Rosetta,

Rosetta al cimitero.

Le sue compagne, tutte,

eran vestite in bianco:

per ‘compagnar Rosetta,

Rosetta al camposanto.

Si sente pianger forte

in questa brutta sera:

piange la piazza Vetra

e piange la Ligera.

Oh, guardia calabrese:

per te sarà finita;

perché te l’ha giurata

tutta la malavita.

Dormi, Rosetta: dormi

Giù nella fredda terra;

a chi t’ha pugnalato,

noi gli farem la guerra;

a chi t’ha pugnalato

noi gli farem la guerra.

THE SONG OF THE ROSETTA

The thirteenth of August,

on a dark night,

the officers of the law

they committed a crime.

They killed an angel:

known as Rosetta.

She came from piazza Vetra,

she frequented the Colonnetta.

Who killed Rosetta

not the Ligera: [Milan crime syndicate]

perhaps someone from Naples,

from the Mano Nera [mafia Ndr].

Rosetta, my Rosetta,

taken from this world,

leaving a great ache

to all of the underworld.

All of the underworld

was dressed in black:

to accompany Rosetta,

Rosetta to the cemetery.

Her companions, all of them,

were dressed in white:

to accompany Rosetta,

Rosetta to the graveyard.

the weeping is loud

on this horrible eve:

 piazza Vetra cries

as does the Ligera.

Oh, Calabrian guard:

it is over for you;

because you have offended

all of the underworld.

Sleep, Rosetta: sleep

Down in the cold earth;

to who hath stabbed you,

we will make war;

to who hath stabbed you

we will make war.

____________

The song has it all: the united anger of the ghetto, the shadow of the mob, the promise of revenge. This was sung through the seventies in the taverns of the Ticenese neighborhood, keeping the memory of the Rosetta alive in the streets where her life was taken.

The Vetra ghetto no longer exists. Far too miserable and central to keep alive. First with the entrance of Fascism, then the bombings and post war speculation which destroyed those streets and turned them into a park where elegant ladies bring their dogs which leave behind less elegant elements.

And the memory of the Rosetta becoming more distant until it disappears altogether, vanishing like the ghosts of the witches burned in Piazza Vetra.

Perhaps it is time that a rapper takes up the song again, unearthing the anger of the old Vetra ghetto, because although years have passed, poverty, prostitution and violence still remain. They’ve only been pushed to the outskirts.

Giuliano Gaia