By Marianna Orsi
In 1960, a shy and yet unknown Gino Paoli performed Il cielo in una stanza for a producer, who ruled that it would never be a hit. Paoli thanked him and left, but lyricist Mogol asked Mina to record the song, and Il cielo in una stanza became an instant hit. Paoli’s masterpiece is a love song in line with the intimate tones of the Scuola genovese, and, at least at first glance, with the canzone d’evasione, so dominant at that time. It describes an ethereal, incorporeal, spiritual love. The fact that a woman performed it only reinforced this idea; as Paoli stated, women at that time, whether performers or characters, were perceived as ethereal creatures incapable of taking an active role in romantic relationships.
Indeed, the lyrics avoid direct descriptions of the lovers – according to the rhetorical figure of reticence, common in the Italian literary tradition – focusing instead on the environment, and on the overwhelming power of love to tear down walls and take lovers to another dimension.
Paoli’s intentions, however, were quite different, and this divergent undercurrent made Il cielo in una stanza a revolutionary song.
Paoli refused to adopt the style of the 1950s Italian canzonetta with its artificial language comprised of apocope, assonance, stereotypical rhymes (cuor, amor, dolor…), instead choosing a simple and authentic style. He avoided depicting the places normally portrayed by the commercial canzonetta – exotic beaches and idyllic locales always described with trite expressions (blossoming gardens, starry skyes…) – substituting them with more realistic and familiar spaces (a beach in Liguria, a small café, a small house in the harbor area of Genoa). Similarly, he replaced love consecrated by marriage with an ephemeral, extramarital but ecstatic love. The room mentioned in the song, as the purple ceiling might suggest, is in fact a brothel room, complete with a ceiling mirror. Before Italy’s Merlin Law prohibited prostitution in 1958, in fact, the country housed more than five hundred licensed brothels. Genoa was famous for its red light district, located in the little alleys (carrugi) around the harbor, as we hear in some songs by Fabrizio De André, such as “Via del Campo.” As teenagers, Paoli and his friends often spent time in those case chiuse, chatting and playing chess with the signorine, lacking money to buy their services.
Speaking of Il cielo in una stanza, Paoli states: “At the beginning […] it was mistaken for a sort of mystical, even Catholic love, untied from reality, with no physical elements. But I had started from the opposite idea: […] the physical act of love […] is a sort of mass […], that can break open the ceiling and making you see the sky […] projecting you into a higher reality […]. [It is] a human sacrifice so extraordinary that it can open any door, any roof, to transform an ugly brothel room into a cathedral with trees that reach to the sky. It is the only moment in which a man is no longer himself, but goes out of himself exploding in the universe” (from Ornella Vanoni, Gino Paoli, Enrico de Angelis, Noi due, una lunga storia, Milano, Mondadori, 2004, pp. 55-57; my translation). The accordion mentioned in the lyrics, Paoli explained, is the one he played at his grandfather Gino’s wedding: “that song is the celebration of a rite, something sacred like making love. The reference to a wedding was therefore appropriate” (http://www.ginopaoli.it/ginopaoli/biografia.asp; my translation). For Paoli love is not a politically disengaged theme; on the contrary, it is his peculiar form of political impegno: through his vision of love Paoli opposes the dominant morality, the angelic vision of woman, seen only as wife-mother-beloved object, describing unconventional love and promoting gender equality.