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February begins, Italy sings – 72 years of the Sanremo Music Festival

How Sanremo changed the way of doing music, television and entertainment

Domenico Modugno in a shot from the early 1960s. Winner of three editions of the Sanremo Festival, including the one of 1958 with the famous song “Nel blu dipinto di blu”. Photo Archivio Luce - Cinecittà. All rights reserved.
by
Massimo Canario (opens in new window) (Archivio Luce - Cinecittà)

In Italy, the first days of February are the days of “Sanremo”, the Italian Song Festival that “no matter how it goes, it will be a success”. This is a slogan of one of the past editions, which together with the other one “because Sanremo is always Sanremo” summarise its spirit very well.

When the idea of dedicating an event to the Italian song came up, television in Italy did not yet exist: the first edition in 1951 was in fact broadcasted only on radio, and over the years, it marked a success that exceeded the most optimistic expectations of the organisers themselves. You can easily understand why: the Second World War had been over for six years and there was the desire to start having fun and distracting oneself again after a long period marked by grief and destruction.

From the 1960s, but even more from the 1970s on, the Song Festival will become above all a television event. Suffice it to say that it has gone from a single evening to the current five. Basically, from Tuesday to Saturday, the schedule of the first channel of RAI, the Italian public television, is monopolised by the Festival from 8.45 pm until well after midnight, with record ratings, at the level of those usually made by the Italian national football team. And not just for those hours, because many programs aired in those days revolve around the Festival, involving the singers and fueling the controversies. And when it all ends, work begins on the following year's edition.

Pippo Baudo in a photo of the mid 1970s. With thirteen editions, the Sicilian TV presenter actually holds the record of appearances as host for the Festival. Photo Archivio Luce - Cinecittà. All rights reserved.

This festival is undoubtedly the most important Italian singing event that opens, for the winner, the doors of the Eurovision song contest, which, since 1956, represents perhaps the most followed musical event in Europe, and that last year was won by the Italian group Måneskin with the song “Zitti e buoni”, surprisingly triumphant at the Sanremo event.

Thinking back to the last two editions of the festival, someone cannot help but feel a sense of estrangement: in the first week of February 2020, while the world, still partially unaware, was plunging towards the most serious pandemic crisis of recent decades, in Italy, the main topic for a few days was the controversy between two singers who performed at the Sanremo festival. While, in 2021, still in full Covid emergency, the festival takes place anyway but without an audience in the hall.

Songs, triumphs and dramas in 72 years of Sanremo Festival

This year, the singing event celebrates its 72nd edition. As we mentioned above, the first official edition took place in 1951. In the 1952 edition, Nilla Pizzi literally triumphs, singing all three songs classified in the first places.

In the 1950s again, the result of the 1955 competition was singular: with “Buongiorno tristezza” Tullio Pane and Claudio Villa won: the latter, however, only through his recorded voice, being sick at home.

In 1958, Domenico Modugno and Johnny Dorelli triumph with a song that will become very famous all over the world: “Nel blu dipinto di blu”.

The 1960s opened with the victory of Renato Rascel and Tony Dallara, who sang “Romantica”. In 1964, Gigliola Cinquetti triumphs with “Non ho l’età”, who will also win Eurovision, a feat that after her and before the aforementioned Måneskin, will only be achieved by Toto Cotugno in 1990.

During the 1967 edition which took place between 26 and 28 January, a tragic event marked the history of the festival: The suicide in his hotel room of singer Luigi Tenco, who presented the piece “Ciao amore ciao” together with Dalida, an Italian-French singer.

Tenco, who according to one of his many biographers “was an idealist, but also a fragile and vulnerable man [...]. Cultured, possessing a considerable property of language, with such a charm as to catalyze attention every time and yet, strangely, with complexes" wrote in his farewell letter: "I do this not because I'm tired of life (on the contrary), but as an act of protest against an audience that sends ‘Io tu e le rose’ to the final and a commission that selects ‘La Rivoluzione’. I hope it will help clarify someone's ideas ".

Over the years, we still talk about this episode. Many do not want to believe in suicide and a shadow of mystery will continue to hover over what happened in that Sanremo night. Certainly, Tenco was a character ahead of his time and with him, Italy lost one of the most interesting singers of what was called the Genoese school.

Adriano Celentano in a typical pose. The Milanese singer, together with his wife Claudia Mori, won the 1970 edition of the Sanremo Festival. Photo Archivio Luce - Cinecittà. All rights reserved.

1968 is the year of Louis Armstrong at the Festival, of Sergio Endrigo and Roberto Carlo’s victory with “Canzone per te” and of the first of many performances by TV host Pippo Baudo. The decade ends with Bobby Solo and Iva Zanicchi’s victory singing “Zingara”.

But 1969 is also the year that comes after the protests that have filled the squares all over the world. Protests spread out at the Cannes and Venice film festivals and inevitably also arrive in Sanremo, where a counter-festival presented by Dario Fo is organized, where artists that would never have set foot in Sanremo perform, and where, as the newsreel speaker points out, admission is free.

In 1970, Adriano Celentano and Claudia Mori win the festival with the song “Chi non lavora non fa l’amore” (“Who does not work, does not make love”).

The Festival tries to address a younger audience

Vasco Rossi during a performance in 1981. Two years later, with “Vita spericolata”, he brought a breath of fresh air to the Festival, where, however, he ranked second to last. Photo Archivio Luce - Cinecittà. All rights reserved.

In the 1980s, the Sanremo Festival seemed to lose its appeal, especially among the younger generations. It was decided to open the door to singer-songwriters: in 1983 Vasco Rossi made his appearance, with his “Vita spericolata” (“Reckless life”), but the jury will continue to award more traditional songs.

In the 1990s, even from this point of view, the banks broke with the victories of singer-songwriters like Luca Barbarossa, Enrico Ruggeri, La Piccola Orchestra Avion Travel, Roberto Vecchioni to finally arrive at the very young Måneskin after passing, in 2019, from Mahmood, the first Italian singer of second generation to win the Festival.

Fresh air, of course, but that will never completely erase the controversies that the Festival feeds on and will continue to feed in the Italian audience, also because, to conclude with another old slogan, everything makes a show.


This post is part of the editorials of Europeana SUBTITLED, a Europeana Generic Services project including seven major national broadcasters and audiovisual archives from seven European countries.

Under the theme of 'Broadcasting Europe’ our editorials showcase how society has been reflected on the television screen in the past eight decades during times of conflict, restrictive regimes, political change, and peace. To this end, we’re using a diverse range of material from Europeana, with a focus on lesser-known and newly aggregated AV content. For more information about Europeana SUBTITLED, visit this page on Europeana Pro.