Giulio Variboba (1724-1788), known in Albanian as Jul Variboba, is the first Arbëresh poet of real talent and is regarded by many Albanians as the first genuine poet in all of Albanian literature.
Variboba was born in San Giorgio Albanese (Alb. Mbuzati) in the province of Cosenza to a family originally from the Mallakastra region of southern Albania. He studied at the Corsini seminary in San Benedetto Ullano, a centre of learning and training for the Byzantine Greek priesthood. This seminary, founded in 1732 by Pope Clement XII, had an impact on the cultural advancement of the Arbëresh of Calabria in the eighteenth century similar to that of the Greek seminary of Palermo for the Arbëresh of Sicily. Variboba, one of its first students, was ordained as a priest in 1749 and returned to his native San Giorgio to assist his elderly father Giovanni, archpriest of the parish. Even during his studies at the Corsini seminary, Variboba had shown a definite preference for the Latin (Catholic) rite over the traditional Byzantine Greek rite in the Arbëresh church. In later years, his polemic support for a transition to the Latin rite made him quite unpopular with both his parish and with the local church hierarchy in Rossano, in particular after his direct appeal to the Pope. He was eventually forced into exile, initially to Campania and Naples, and in 1761 settled in Rome where he spent the rest of his days.
Despite the turmoil of these years, Variboba must have known moments of tranquillity, too, for it was soon after his arrival in Rome that his long lyric poem Ghiella e Shën Mëriis Virghiër, Rome 1762 (The life of the Virgin Mary), was published, the only Arbëresh book printed in the eighteenth century. This loosely-structured poem of 4,717 lines, written entirely in the dialect of San Giorgio Albanese and loaded with much Calabrian Italian vocabulary, is devoted to the life of the Virgin Mary from her birth to the Assumption. Though from the poet’s own life history and his uncompromising and polemic attitude to church rites, one might be led to expect verse of intense spiritual contemplation, the Ghiella evinces more of a light-hearted, earthy ballad tone, using Variboba’s native Calabria as a background for the nativity and transforming the devout characters of the New Testament into hearty eighteenth-century Calabrian peasants. Variboba is unique in early Albanian literature, both in his clear and simple poetic sensitivities and in the variety of his rhythmic expression, though the quality of his verse does vary considerably. The strength of ‘The life of the Virgin Mary,’ interspersed as it is with folk songs, lies indeed in its realistic and down-to-earth style, often pervaded with humour and naivety, and in the fresh local colour of its imagery.