Let us take a look at these three Italian past tenses in contrast, since it is sometimes really difficult for English speakers to know when to use one or the other.
First of all, let us group the passato prossimo and the passato remoto together, because their difference is just in the point in time they refer to, not in the quality of the action they express.
The kind of action the passato prossimo and the passato remoto express is a completed action which occurred at some point in the past. Whereas the passato prossimo is mainly used in conversation to refer to recent or less recent past actions, the passato remoto is used instead for remote past actions. In addition, the passato remoto is the only tense used in fiction.
Un’ora fa ha chiamato Maria.
Maria called an hour ago.
Mercoledì scorso sono andato al cinema con Francesco.
Last Wednesday I went to the cinema with Francesco.
Il mese scorso siamo andati in vacanza alle Barbados.
Last month we went to Barbados on holiday.
Tre anni fa prenotammo una stanza d’albergo vicino al mare.
Three years ago we reserved a hotel room near the sea.
Nel 1946 l’Italia diventò una Repubblica.
In 1946 Italy became a Republic.
(From a novel:) Laura si svegliò di soprassalto e guardò l’orologio.
Laura woke up with a start and took a look at her watch.
There is much debate among Italians about how remote an action has to be to require a passato remoto. There are two factors to consider: a regional one and an emotional one.
Regarding regional differences, people in Northern Italy tend to prefer the passato prossimo, even for actions that took place long ago. They would rather say (see example above):
Tre anni fa abbiamo prenotato una stanza d’albergo vicino al mare
Three years ago we booked a hotel room near the sea.
In the South, it is the other way round: many Neapolitans and Sicilians would rather say (see examples above):
Il mese scorso andammo in vacanza alle Barbados.
Last month we went on vacation to Barbados.
Mercoledì scorso andai al cinema con Francesco.
Last Wednesday I went to the movies with Francesco.
The emotional factor refers to the emotional proximity felt by the speaker relating a past action, which means that the past action is felt to still have an impact on the present regardless of how remote in the past it actually is. In this case, the passato prossimo would rather be used. For example, one would not normally use the passato remoto in sentences like:
Sono nato in un piccolo paesino della Sicilia. (The speaker is obviously still alive)
I was born in a small village in Sicily.
Ci siamo sposati nell’agosto del 1980. (They are still married)
We got married in August 1980.
Now let us now consider how the IMPERFETTO works. It has got at least three main functions:
1) DESCRIPTION OF A PAST SITUATION:
Ero un ragazzo introverso: parlavo poco e passavo il tempo leggendo romanzi d’avventura.
I was an introverted boy: I spoke little and spent my time reading adventure novels.
Nel 1990 vivevamo in Francia.
In 1990 we lived in France.
La nostra casa si trovava su una collina, e poco sotto iniziava una strada che portava al mare, da cui si poteva vedere un isolotto vulcanico.
Our house was located on a hill, and just below began a road that led to the sea, from where one could see a volcanic holm.
2) REPEATED OR HABITUAL PAST ACTION:
Da bambino, andavo in montagna tutti gli anni.
When I was a child, I used to go to the mountains every year.
Quando tornavo a casa, mi aspettava sempre dietro la porta per farmi uno scherzo.
When I used to return home, she used to always wait behind the door in order to play a trick on me.
3) DURATIVE PAST ACTION (that is, actions where the stress in on duration):
Mi fissava con rabbia.
He was staring at me with anger.
Ieri Paolo, mentre studiava, ascoltava la musica. (parallel durative actions, often introduced by time subordinators such as “mentre”; see below)
Yesterday Paolo, while he was studying, listened to music.
Now let us finally see the passato remoto/passato prossimo tenses in contrast to the imperfetto.
I said that the passato prossimo/passato remoto group refers to completed actions that took place at some point in the past. In contrast, the imperfetto focuses on the duration of an action rather than on its completeness (which is irrelevant here). This contrast is particularly evident when the tenses are used in combination, as in the following examples:
- passato prossimo/passato remoto + passato prossimo/passato remoto
(= A series of completed past actions, one following the other in temporal succession)
Sono tornato a casa e l’ho chiamata. (with the passato prossimo)
I came back home and I called her.
Prima accesi la TV e poi mi misi a letto. (with the passato remoto)
First I turned on the TV and then got into bed.
Graphically speaking, we can see each passato prossimo/passato remoto action as a single vertical arrow (the point in time) hitting the time line. So, the first example could be represented as follows:
- imperfetto + imperfetto
(= Parallel durative actions)
Mentre ascoltava la radio, fumava una canna.
While he was listening to the radio, he was smoking a joint.
Graphically speaking, these actions in the imperfetto can be seen as two parallel horizontal segments along the time line. So, the example could be represented as follows:
- imperfetto + passato prossimo/passato remoto
Mentre parlavo con Maria, è squillato il telefono.
While I was talking to Maria, the telephone rang.
Anna passava per quella strada proprio nell’istante in cui l’auto esplose.
Anna was going by that street just at that moment when the car exploded.
Finally, we can combine the above symbols in the following representation of the first example: