By- Claudia Quesito
The main tenses used to talk about the past are passato prossimo (present perfect), imperfetto (imperfect), and passato remoto (past absolute). Passato prossimo and passato remoto translate literally as “close past” and “remote past,” but their use in contemporary Italian has little to do with how recent in time the corresponding events and situations were. Passato remoto is commonly used in Southern Italy, and not necessarily to talk about things that happened long before.
In Northern Italy you hardly ever hear it; people normally just use it in novels and history textbooks. To keep things simple, you can get away with passato prossimo and imperfetto only. If you’re feeling adventurous, passato remoto can replace passato prossimo, but never imperfetto.
Not sure which one to use? Here’s a cheat sheet: Use passato prossimo when talking about completed actions: Ieri abbiamo mangiato tre pizze. (Yesterday we ate three pizzas.) or to talk about actions that happened once or a certain number of times, as in Due anni fa siamo andati a Parigi. (Two years ago we went to Paris.) or Siamo andati a Parigi nel 2013 e nel 2015. (We went to Paris in 2013 and 2015.). Use imperfetto to talk about repeated or habitual actions, like Andavamo a Parigi tutte le estati. (We used to go to Paris every summer.); to describe people or things, as in Sonia era timida. (Sonia was shy.) or La casa era grande. (The house was big.); and to state time, date, season, or weather in the past, as in Era il 2 luglio, era mezzogiorno e faceva caldo. (It was July 2, it was midday, and it was hot.).
Be careful with two common verbs, sapere and conoscere, however, whose meanings change in the imperfetto and the passato prossimo. In the imperfetto, sapere means “to have known a fact,” as in Lui sapeva la verità. (He knew the truth.); while in the passato prossimo, it means “to have found out something,” as in Lui ha saputo la verità. (He found out the truth.). As for conoscere, in the imperfetto it means “to have been familiar with a person or thing,” as in Da giovane conoscevo molte persone. (When I was young I knew many people.); while in the passato prossimo it means “to have met someone for the first time,” as in Ieri ho conosciuto sua moglie. (Yesterday I met his wife.).