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Your #1 Guide to the Italian Past Tense

If you are reading this article, you’re likely tired of Italian present tenses and want to step up your game by learning how to describe events that happened in the past. Well, you’ve come to the ultimate guide to the Italian past tense!

In this overview, you will learn the most common past tenses in Italian. You will find plenty of real-life examples and verb conjugations to help you commit everything you learn to memory.

Let’s get started!

How many past tenses are there in Italian?

Italian is known for having a complex verb system, so it’s not surprising that there are quite a few different types of Italian past tenses. These tenses are:

  • passato prossimo (present perfect)
  • imperfetto (imperfect)
  • passato remoto (preterite)
  • trapassato prossimo (past perfect)
  • trapassato remoto (past preterite)
  • condizionale passato (past conditional)
  • congiuntivo passato (past subjunctive)
  • congiuntivo imperfetto (imperfect subjunctive)
  • congiuntivo trapassato (past perfect subjunctive)

This can be a little… overwhelming!

At the end of the day, however, you can get by with just 3 of these tenses:

  • passato prossimo
  • imperfetto
  • passato remoto

This is because many of the verb tenses mentioned above are less common in everyday language. Trapassato remoto, for example, is only ever used in novels, and it’s still a rare find even in the written language.

That said, let’s dive right away into the most common Italian past tense of all, the passato prossimo!

The most common Italian past tense: Passato prossimo

As I said, the passato prossimo is a very common verb tense in Italian, so you need to know how it works if you want to tell your Italian friends about that amazing vacation you just had in Rome.

The passato prossimo is roughly equivalent to the present perfect and past simple tenses. It’s used to describe events that happened in the past, regardless of whether or not the action that began in the past still has a connection to the present.

  • Siamo appena partiti.
    We have just left.
  • Ho preparato una torta.
    I have baked a cake.

This common Italian past tense is a compound tense. This means that it’s made up of two verbs: a helper verb in the present tense, also called an auxiliary verb, and the past participle of the main verb.

First of all, let’s review the present tense conjugations of the two possible helper verbs you can use, avere (to have) and essere (to be).

Italian past tense helper verbs: Conjugations

avere essere
io ho io sono
tu hai tu sei
lui/lei ha lui/lei è
noi abbiamo noi siamo
voi avete voi siete
loro hanno loro sono

Examples of passato prossimo:

  • Hanno aperto la porta.
    They opened the door.
  • Hai comprato il latte?
    Did you buy the milk?
  • Sono stato dal medico stamattina.
    I went to the doctor this morning.
  • Siete riusciti a risolvere il problema?
    Were you able to solve the problem?

When do you use essere or avere in the Italian past tense?

How do you know which helper verb to use? For example, which Italian verbs take essere? It’s quite easy to tell:

  • transitive verbs use avere
  • intransitive verbs, reflexive verbs and movement verbs use essere

A transitive verb is a verb that can take a direct object.

  • Ho bevuto un bicchiere d’acqua.
    I drank a glass of water.
  • Laura ha piegato una camicia.
    Laura has folded a shirt.

An intransitive verb is a verb that doesn’t take a direct object.

  • La riunione è iniziata alle 15.
    The meeting started at 3 p.m.
  • Sono nato il 3 aprile.
    I was born on April 3.

A reflexive verb in Italian ends in -rsi in the infinitive mood, so it’s very easy to recognize. Examples of reflexive verbs are lavarsi and alzarsi.

  • Il gatto si è lavato.
    The cat cleaned itself.
  • Il papà si è alzato all’alba.
    Dad got (himself) up at dawn.

Finally, movement verbs are verbs that imply movement such as scendere (to get down), arrivare (to arrive), or scappare (to flee).

  • Sono sceso al piano terra.
    I have gone down to the first floor.
  • Siamo appena arrivati all’aeroporto.
    We have just arrived at the airport.
  • Il ladro è scappato.
    The thief has escaped.

How do you get the past participle of an Italian verb?

Our Italian past tense wouldn’t be complete without a past participle. It’s the most important element in our sentence because it describes the main action!

To get the past participle of regular verbs all you have to do is remove the -are, -ere or -ire endings from the infinitive verb and replace them with either –ato, -uto or -ito.

infinitive verb root verb past participle
fermare ferm- fermato
cadere cad- caduto
finire fin- finito


  • Ho fermato un taxi.
    I have stopped a taxi.
  • Laura è caduta dalla bicicletta.
    Laura fell off her bicycle.
  • Ho finito di fare i compiti.
    I have finished my homework.

I know what you’re thinking. Why is the past participle caduta instead of caduto as seen in the table above?

Well, I lied. There’s another rule that defines how the Italian past tense works: past participles that use essere as a helper verb must match the gender and number of the subject.

Laura is a feminine first name in Italian, so the subject is female and is only one person. We’ll say caduta because that’s the feminine singular form of caduto. For the sake of completeness, here are all the possible forms of caduto:

singular plural
masculine caduto caduti
feminine caduta cadute

Other examples:

  • Siamo andati al ristorante.
    We went to the restaurant.
  • Le mie sorelle sono partite per Londra.
    My sisters left for London.

Irregular past participles in Italian

Some past participles are completely irregular and you will need to learn them by heart if you want natives to understand you when you use a compound past tense in Italian.

Examples of irregular past participles in Italian are:

chiesto asked
bevuto drunk
letto read
scritto written
venuto come
rotto broken
messo put


  • Dove hai messo i tuoi occhiali?
    Where have you put your glasses?
  • Ho scritto tre romanzi gialli.
    I’ve written three crime novels.
  • Quanti libri avete letto questo mese?
    How many books have you read this month?

The second most common Italian past tense: Imperfetto

The imperfetto tense is almost as common as the passato prossimo. It is used to talk about repetitive actions, events that happened in a “hazy” past and to set a scene (it’s very common in novels along with passato remoto). It is also used to talk about past events that happened simultaneously.

The imperfetto is roughly equivalent to either the English past progressive (I was… -ing) tense or the past simple tense.


  • Quando ero bambino, mi piaceva molto correre.
    When I was a kid, I loved to run.
  • Andavo spesso al parco giochi.
    I used to go to the playground a lot.
  • La mamma leggeva mentre il papà scriveva.
    Mom was reading while Dad was writing.

This Italian past tense is very easy to conjugate because it is not a compound tense (it uses endings instead) and irregular conjugations are rare.

Regular conjugations of the imperfetto tense

To conjugate any regular verb in the imperfetto past tense, take the stem of the verb (remove -are, -ere or -ire) and add the necessary ending, as shown in the table below.

lavor-are corr-ere costru-ire
io… lavoravo correvo costruivo
tu… lavoravi correvi costruivi
lui/lei… lavorava correva costruiva
noi… lavoravamo correvamo costruivamo
voi… lavoravate correvate costruivate
loro… lavoravano correvano costruivano

Other examples:

  • Luca mangiava una mela.
    Luca was eating an apple.
  • La neve cadeva sul prato.
    Snow was falling on the meadow.
  • Il leone ruggiva nella savana.
    The lion roared in the savannah.

Irregular conjugations of the imperfetto tense

As I said in one of the previous paragraphs, there are very few verbs that are irregular in the imperfetto tense. More precisely, their stems are irregular. These are:

  • essere (er-)
  • dire (dic-)
  • fare (fac-)
  • bere (bev-)
  • verbs ending in –urre (-duc-)
essere dire fare bere tradurre
io… ero dicevo facevo bevevo traducevo
tu… eri dicevi facevi bevevi traducevi
lui/lei… era diceva faceva beveva traduceva
noi… eravamo dicevamo facevamo bevevamo traducevamo
voi… eravate dicevate facevate bevevate traducevate
loro… erano dicevano facevano bevevano traducevano

The third most common Italian past tense: Passato remoto

The passato remoto, “remote past”, is mainly used in novels, but you can still hear it sometimes in southern Italy, where it lives on in colloquial speech. So why is it such an important tense, so much so that it deserves a place on our list?

The passato remoto is very, very common in literature. The vast majority of Italian novels use the passato remoto tense in conjunction with the imperfetto.


  • Il bambino prese la palla.
    The kid took the ball.
  • Mangiai una mela.
    I ate an apple.
  • La bottiglia cadde per terra.
    The bottle fell to the ground.

Irregular conjugations of the passato remoto tense

Unfortunately, many verbs in this tense are irregular and you will have to learn them by heart. The easiest and most effortless way to do this is to read lots of books in Italian (especially if you read them aloud)!

Common irregular verbs are essere (to be), avere (to have), fare (to do) and leggere (to read). Let’s look at their conjugations in the table below.

essere avere fare leggere
io… fui ebbi feci lessi
tu… fosti avesti facesti leggesti
lui/lei… fu ebbe fece lesse
noi… fummo avemmo facemmo leggemmo
voi… foste aveste faceste leggeste
loro… furono ebbero fecero lessero


  • Gli ospiti non furono contenti.
    The guests weren’t happy.
  • Luca ebbe solo un attimo per controllare il testo.
    Luca had only a moment to check the text.
  • Facemmo un bel pupazzo di neve.
    We made a nice snowman.
  • La maestra lesse il libro ad alta voce.
    The teacher read the book aloud.

Regular conjugations of the passato remoto tense

To conjugate any regular verb in the passato remoto past tense, take the stem of the verb (again, remove -are, -ere or -ire) and add the ending, as shown in the table below.

lavor-are cred-ere mor-ire
io… lavorai credetti/credei morii
tu… lavorasti credesti moristi
lui/lei… lavorò credette/credé morì
noi… lavorammo credemmo morimmo
voi… lavoraste credeste moriste
loro… lavorarono credettero/crederono morirono


  • Lavorammo per tutto il giorno.
    We worked all day long.
  • I ragazzi credettero di aver visto un fantasma.
  • The boys thought they had seen a ghost.
  • L’uomo morì a 86 anni.
    The man died at the age of 86.

There are two possible conjugations for many verbs ending in -ere in the first person singular (io), third person singular (lui, lei) and third person plural (loro). You can use either one, but if you ever read books in Italian, you will see that the first one is more common than the other.

I hope you found this tour of the Italian past tense useful!

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2 thoughts on “Your #1 Guide to the Italian Past Tense”

  1. Very well explained. Good charts with verb endings highlighted which helps the learner see how the tenses are formed. Good example senteces for each tense.

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