Antonello Venditti

Laura Zambianchi (The University of Central Lancashire )

Antonello Venditti, born on 8 March, 1949, in Rome, is the author and interpreter of songs whose themes range from social denunciation to a more intimate and personal reflection. Along with other cantautori of his generation, such as Francesco De Gregori, he debuted on the Italian music scene at the beginning of the seventies and belongs to the so-called Scuola Romana, which grew up around the Folkstudio, an “alternative” musical nightclub located in the Trastevere district of Rome. The seventies were extremely difficult years in Italy, marked by strong social tensions and a serious political crisis.

The events that have characterized “Il Bel Paese” since then have played an important part in guiding Venditti’s thematic choices and his success, as we will see in this brief excursus dedicated to the most significant and memorable passages of this “people’s intellectual,” as Venditti defines himself, an expression that seems more effective than cantautore, a term often imprecise and used as an equivalent of “great artist” (does the role of songwriter necessarily make one a great artist?). Let us leave aside the age-old debate on the term singer-songwriter, and remember that, for better or for worse, Venditti is actually and fully a cantautore, as he has always authored his own lyrics and his music, as well as the performer of his own songs. Let us consider two songs from his early days, composed when Antonello was a merely teenager: “Sora Rosa” and “Roma Capoccia“. The earlier, with an anagram in the title, is written in Roman dialect and deals with social issues such as achievement, injustice, and poverty. The song is part of the album Theorius Campus (1972), the collaborative debut album of Venditti and De Gregori. The LP was dominated and swept up (much to the chagrin of De Gregori, who would achieve a large public success with Rimmel, 1975) precisely by “Roma capoccia“, written by a young Venditti who nevertheless had already fully mastered his expressive means, especially his extraordinary and intense voice, one of the most beautiful of the Italian singing scene. Peppered with terms in the Roman vernacular, “Roma capoccia” immediately launched Antonello into stardom not only in Rome, but nationally and even internationally: from the north to the south of the peninsula, it is difficult to find someone unfamiliar with the verses “Quanto sei bella Roma quanno piove / Quanto sei grande Roma quand’è er tramonto…” (“How beautiful you are, Rome, is when it’s raining…./ How grand are you, Rome, when it’s sunset”).

While it is obviously impossible to offer here a chronological list of Venditti’s entire repertoire (more than 300 songs during almost fifty years of his career), we can at least point out the most significant themes of his songs, placing them, as far as possible, in their musical and social contexts. We can start with a reference to the 1975 song “Compagno di scuola,” and in particular to the verses

Compagno di scuola, compagno di niente
ti sei salvato dal fumo delle barricate?
Compagno di scuola, compagno
per niente ti sei salvato o sei entrato in banca pure tu?

(Old schoolmate, my friend of nothing
did you save yourself from the smoke of the barricades?
Old schoolmate, no comrade at all!
did you save yourself at all or did you go into banking too?)

in which Venditti—punning on the double meaning of the word compagno (schoolmate, but also comrade, especially someone who shares the same political beliefs and ideals of the Italian left)—talks about the protests he joined during his revolutionary youth, and the later abandonment of those ideals ​​in the name of disengagement (and, I add, of a conformism that came to prevail in Italy. It should be noted, however, that Venditti, perhaps a bit paradoxically, continued to proclaim himself a communist and a Christian). “Giulio Cesare” (Venditti e segreti, 1986), refers to that political and social context. The song is titled after the name of the Liceo classico which the singer-songwriter attended in Rome around the time of the “epic” Sessantotto (1968), a Sessantotto which Venditti defined as “still long to come and too short to forget” (“Compagno di scuola”):

Eravamo trentaquattro quelli della terza E
tutti belli ed eleganti tranne me
Era l’anno dei mondiali quelli del ’66
la Regina d’Inghilterra era Pelè […]

Eravamo trentaquattro e adesso non ci siamo più
e seduto in questo banco ci sei tu
Era l’anno dei mondiali quelli dell’86
Paolo Rossi era un ragazzo come noi…

(We were thirty-four in my senior class
all handsome and elegant except me
It was the year of the soccer world cup, 1966
the Queen of England was Pele [ …]

We were thirty-four and now we aren’t anymore
and you are now sitting at that desk
It was the year of soccer world cup, 1986
Paolo Rossi was a boy just like us …)

If, for the vast majority of Italians, the name “Paolo Rossi” evokes Pablito, the hero of Italy’s triumph in the 1982 soccer world championship, Venditti instead explained that he meant to remember a student who died in the clashes between students and police in Rome in 1966. Not a national star, therefore, but a young man attending La Sapienza University in Rome and a militant of the Socialist Youth. This specific reflection offers the opportunity to point out that the Roman songwriter’s favorite themes are not limited to social and political commitment, but extend to everyday stories of love and friendship, the school years and the chronicles of a “normal” existence, universal dreams and failures, etc. in passages that have accompanied (and still accompany) the lives of generations of Italians. I remember, for example—and to get down on a personal level—”Amici mai” (“Tu per me sei sempre l’unica, straordinaria normalissima / vicina e irragiungibile, inafferabile, incomprensibile” [“You’re still the only one, extraordinary and normal / close and unreachable, inaccessible, incomprehensible”]) from the album Benvenuti in paradiso (1991). The lyrics of this song were penned on my SMEMORANDA (the school diary of my high school days) by several hands, as a seal on the epilogue of a “sentimental tragedy.” Similarly, also hand scribbled in my diaries as a “student born in 1979,” were the first lines of “Ricordati di me” (“Ricordati di me / questa sera che non hai da fare / e tutta la città / è allagata da questo temporale” [“Remember me / tonight when you are not busy / and the whole city / is flooded by this storm”]; In questo mondo di ladri, 1988). Along with these lines were the refrain of “Ci vorrebbe un amico” (1984):

Ci vorrebbe un amico
per poterti dimenticare
ci vorrebbe un amico
per dimenticare il male

ci vorrebbe un amico
qui per sempre al mio fianco
ci vorrebbe un amico
nel dolore e nel rimpianto.

(I would need just a friend,
to be able to forget
I would need just a friend,
to forget all my pain

I would need just a friend,
ever here by my side.
I would need just a friend,
In my sorrow and regret)

Also from 1984 is another Venditti evergreen: “Notte prima degli esami,” a song that has become since then, and forever more, a symbol of the highschool final exams, a national rite of passage every year for generations of young Italians. The Roman artist is also famous for the Italian remake of “Don’t Dream It’s Over,” a song by New Zealander Neil Finn and performed by the Australian band Crowded House. The Italian title is “Alta marea,” and raise your hand (I turn to my compatriots) if you have never sung (out of tune, in my case) the verses

Lo so lo sai, la mente vola
fuori dal tempo e si ritrova sola
senza più corpo né prigioniera
Nasce l’aurora tu sei dentro di me
come l’alta marea
che riappare e scompare portandoti via

(I know you know, the mind flies
out of time, and it finds itself alone
without a body and no longer a prisoner
The dawn is breaking
you are inside me
like the high tide
that ebbs and flows, taking you away)

Among the diverse themes of Venditti’s songbook are teen pregnancy (“Sara, sono le sette e tu devi andare a scuola / Oh, Sara, prendi tutti i libri ed accendi il motorino / E poi attenta, ricordati che aspetti un bambino” [“Sara, it’s seven o’clock and you have to go to school / Oh, Sara, take all the books and get on the scooter / And then be careful, remember that you are expecting a child”; “Sara,” Sotto il segno dei pesci, 1978), drugs (“Lilly,” Lilly, 1975), religion (“A Cristo,” Quando verrà Natale, 1974), and prostitution. I would like specifically to dwell on the theme of prostitution, addressed in the song “Strada” from 1976 (“questa maledetta strada che tutto inghiotte” [“this cursed road that swallows everything”]), which contains a quote by Cesare Pavese, the Italian writer who committed suicide in 1950, taken from his intellectual diary entitled Il mestiere di vivere (The Business of Living) and where we find this interesting pastiche:

Il mestiere di vivere,  il coraggio di vivere
e l’amore per vivere, un minuto di più

(The business of living, the courage to live
and the love for living, one minute more.)

After all, Venditti is not new to literary quotations: for example, the famous line “Amor ch’a nullo amato amar perdona” Dante’s Inferno 5 is refashioned, in the aforementioned “Ci vorrebbe un amico”, as

E se amor che a nullo amato, amore
amore mio perdona
in questa notte fredda mi basta una parola.

(And if love that no one who is loved
absolves from loving you,
in this cold night, you know, I only need one word)

It is difficult to transcribe these lines without humming them, and this is precisely one of the prerogatives of Venditti’s songwriting force: to give voice to the emotions of everyday life in a form that, if not highly artistic, is certainly highly memorable.

For a more comprehensive overview, it is important, finally, to point out the link between this cantautore and soccer. It is perhaps universally known that Venditti is a great fan of the Roma soccer team and that he composed “Grazie Roma,” an “anthem” dedicated to this athletic team. More precisely, the song, released in 1983, was written for the victory of the second Scudetto of Rome and is regularly broadcast over the loudspeakers of the Olympic Stadium while Giallorossi supporters sing along at the top of their voices. Venditti’s lyrics continue to inspire emotions, passions, memories, complaints, even as they invite personal reflections in an ever original spirit. Venditti’s semi-autobiographical book titled—almost an aprosdoketon!— L’importante è che tu sia infelice (The Important Thing is that you are Unhappy, Mondadori, 2009), which evokes what must have been a sort of a family curse which Antonello always tried to break. In this light, these verses which he wrote and sang are perhaps emblematic of his view of life:

Che fantastica storia è la vita.
E quando pensi che sia finita,
è proprio allora che comincia la salita.
Che fantastica storia è la vita.

(What a fantastic story life is.
And when you think it’s over,
that’s when the climb begins.
What a fantastic story life is.)

Translated songs: