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I'm reading a biography of Giuseppe Verdi, and there's a decade and a half long part of his life that is referred to as his "years in the galleys".

I've tried to find the exact meaning and history of this idiom, but keep drawing blanks. It's possible this is a direct translation of an Italian idiom that is not commonly used in English, as Verdi himself said it ("anni di galera") regarding this part of his life. Could anyone shed some light on this?

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Why wouldn't it be meant literally? – Matt E. Эллен Feb 7 '14 at 12:18
@MattЭллен: because as far as I know, there are no records of Verdi having been convicted to the galleys at any point? :) – oerkelens Feb 7 '14 at 12:24
@oerkelens a galley is also the kitchen of a ship. But thanks, I don't know anything about him. – Matt E. Эллен Feb 7 '14 at 12:25
Ah, overlooked that meaning :) But although working in a kitchen is hard work, I doubt it was the ship's kitchen he was conjuring up with this simile :) – oerkelens Feb 7 '14 at 12:27
up vote 6 down vote accepted

He referred to those years in that way himself:

Quote from Yahoo answers - mainly because it was the first hit on google for verdi galley years.

Because he wrote 17 operas over 11 years. He hadn't finished one, and another one was underway.
• Nabucco (1842)
• I Lombardi alla prima crociata (1843)
• Ernani (1844)
• I due Foscari (1844)
• Giovanna d'Arco (1845)
• Alzira (1845)
• Attila (1846)
• Macbeth (1847)
• I masnadieri (1847)
• Jérusalem (1847) remake of I Lombardi alla prima crociata
• Il corsaro (1848)
• La battaglia di Legnano (1849)
• Luisa Miller (1849)
• Stiffelio (1850)
• Rigoletto (1851)
• Il trovatore (1853)
• La traviata (1853)
Verdi had a bizarre way of calling things. For instance, he called the first issue of a libretto ‘the forrest’ because he expected to cut and trim it furiously. So, he referred to those busy years as the galley years (anni da galera, in italian).

A galley is a ship on which prisoners or slaves are made to row. This was at several places and times in history a common punishment. For the victim it meant working very hard almost without rest.

Verdi referred to these 11 years as years during which he felt he was working as hard as a galley slave.

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Thanks, and how on Earth did I miss that on Google?! EDIT: In my defence, I Googled "years in the galleys", thinking it was a well known idiom, and not just something Verdi made up. – Marcus L Feb 7 '14 at 12:34
Props for answering your own question :P Google skills are at least part luck :) – oerkelens Feb 7 '14 at 12:50

Think of the miserable convict Jean Valjean, condemned to row ceaselessly in the galleys for year after year and you will understand the demanding punishment that Verdi was trying to evoke. A bit over the top, perhaps, but Verdi composed one opera after another in his early career (1842-1859) and sometimes worked on two or three at a time, composing, revising and producing to satisfy the public's unquenchable appetite.

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Verdi himself used this idiom in a letter to Countess Clara Maffei:

A period of hard work – producing 14 operas in all – followed in the fifteen years after 1843, right up through the composition of Un ballo in maschera, a period which Verdi was to describe as his "years in the galleys" in a letter to Countess Clara Maffei: "From Nabucco, you may say, I have never had one hour of peace. Sixteen years in the galleys".


This implies a life of unrelenting work, such as sailors might endure in the Navy.

There's a note in the Wikipedia article:

Philip Gossett, "Giuseppe Verdi and the Italian Risorgimento", Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 156, No. 3, September 2012: Gossett notes: "Yet Verdi's only use of the expression is in a letter of 1858 to his Milanese friend Clarina Maffei, where it refers to all his operas through Un ballo in maschera: it laments the social circumstances in which Italian composers worked in the mid-nineteenth century, rather than judging aesthetic value."

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