By Marianna Orsi (University of Manoa, Honolulu)

It’s hard for us to imagine what life was like in a small Italian village in the early 1960s.

There would be only one store – usually selling outdated clothes; one or two grocery stores; a couple of cafés frequented by old men playing cards; a church; a school; a Carabinieri station; maybe a movie theater. People would watch TV at night at the local café, bringing chairs from home to sit in. Only a few villagers have a phone at home, while the rest of them make and receive calls at the village bar or grocery store.

With nothing to do, there were a few clear rules: get a job, get married, pay your bills, respect the elders, no meat on Fridays, and go to church on Sundays. There wouldn’t be many occasions for transgressions: losing money playing cards, getting drunk at a friend’s wedding party, staring a bit too much at someone else’s girlfriend, pestering a woman to dance at a party.

 

Then, one day, off the train steps a beautiful woman, the type which Guido Gozzano would call a “cattiva signorina”: best not to talk to her. The way she dresses, her hairstyle, her makeup, so different from the modest style of the village women, make her all the more noticeable.

 

To the original audience of De André’s 1967 song, the mere word paesino was enough to evoke all that.

 

The song portrays Bocca di rosa’s arrival, the effects of her presence, the reactions of the villagers, and her eventual departure. Bocca di rosa emanates sensuality yet the lyrics do not describe her physically — the author treats her like an ethereal creature, very much in the spirit of the rhetorical and literary tradition of ‘reticence.’ Bocca di rosa is portrayed as a mystical character; like a fairy in chivalric romance, she casts a spell to awaken spring and conjure up love in the village, attracting men like Circe (who enchanted Ulysses’ companions) or Armida (the sorceress in Tasso’s Gerusalemme liberata). The wrath of the village wives, (“l’ira funesta – evoking the sorrow and rage of Achilles), with the help of two officers, armed and ceremonial like knights, successfully banish her; their move represents the arrival of legitimatized power and the return to established order.

 

The song is characterized chiefly by contrasts: the cheerful melody, the fairy-tale tone, and the poetic expressions (the comparison with spring, the emotional farewell with kisses and flowers) clash with more explicit suggestions (“the cuckolded women,” “the bitches,” the “dirty woman” with too many “clients,” “some booking a couple of hours,” etc.), and ironic the religious references (the missionary, the priest, the procession, the Virgin); thus the mocking intent of the song is clear. Indeed, De André ridicules the hypocritical moralism of Catholic conformists (“Even the priest who doesn’t despise…”) that position themselves as defenders of public morality, often accusing the marginalized members of society simply because they “must no longer set a bad example.”