Franco Battiato

(Jonia, Catania, 1945 – Milo, 2021)

By Jan Gaggetta (Université de Fribourg)

“I would divide my production so far into three phases.”
Battiato himself, in a recent documentary film (Temporary Road, 2018 [1]), separated his long and prolific musical career into three phases, different in duration and, above all, in the type of music produced. The first period (1967-69) followed the “departure from Sicily”: a very young Battiato decided to leave his native island to move to Milan, where he recorded a 45 record of simple songs—of which he was not always the author—with typical sounds of the sixties. The second period (1971-78) comprised most of the ’70s, when Battiato adopted “a different musical genre,” both electronic and experimental, establishing a clear break with previous recordings. The third period (1979-2020) began at the end of that decade and continues until today, marking his “belonging to the music of communication”: Battiato has established himself as a true singer-songwriter.


If the latter phase is by far the best known and most appreciated, the second appears to be the most varied and complex, so much so that what Battiato produced in those years seems, at times, unclassifiable and even incomprehensible. Between 1971 and 1978 Battiato produced exactly eight records, nearly one every year: the first four (FetusPollutionSulle corde di Aries [On the Strings of Aries], Clic, 1971-74) can be defined as electronic experimentation, while the following ones (M.elle le “Gladiator”BattiatoJuke boxL’Egitto prima delle sabbie [Egypt before the Sands], 1975-78) are more cultured experimentation: while Battiato in the years up to 1974 experimented to a large extent through the use of the synthesizer—an electronic instrument that can generate musical notes from various instruments, sounds, noises—from 1975 onward the piano had become a fundamental element to produce conceptual music, together with the technique of “collage” (the assembly of heterogeneous musical and sound fragments). But let us proceed in order.

“Electronic” music, the origins of life: Fetus.
Battiato purchased a VCS3 analog synthesizer in 1969. This was a decisive event: as one of the first musicians to own one in Europe (Pink Floyd also had a VCS3), he began research on a sound that would make him a precursor of electronic music in Italy. The first result, which the author himself considered still unripe, is the album Fetus (1971). Battiato in the ’70s made surprising innovations not only in terms of the musical content: the cover of the record caused a scandal because it portrays a human fetus, lying on a sheet of parchment paper. Fetus is dedicated to the English writer Aldous Huxley, author of Brave New World (1932), a dystopian novel on eugenics and psychological manipulation of individuals and society. The music, centered on the VCS3 synthesizer, is an electronic progressive rock, while the futuristic lyrics tell—in a nutshell—the conception and birth of a life in a mechanical and loveless world. Even the language of the lyrics is aimed at experimentation, pushed towards unusual frontiers: Battiato concludes a piece, “Phenomenology”, singing (but really screaming) the two mathematical functions:

x1= a.(sin(ωt))


which, together, express the helical structure of DNA. This is relevant in a record about human birth, but absolutely unusual for the language of the song. This is certainly an extreme case, and yet in Fetus there are also traces of technical and scientific language: the record observes and describes life (also) from a biological and mechanical point of view. The English lyrics of “Energy,” a decidedly well-crafted song, abandons technical language in favor of existential reflection

Ho avuto molte donne in vita mia
e in ogni camera ho lasciato qualche mia energia
quanti figli dell’amore ho sprecato io
racchiusi in quattro mura ormai saranno spazzatura

Se un figlio si accorgesse che per caso
è nato fra migliaia di occasioni
capirebbe tutti i sogni che la vita dà
con gioia ne vivrebbe tutte quante le illusioni.

Quante lacrime ho strappato senza mai piangerci su
quante angosce ho provocato per godere un po’ di più
quante frasi false ho detto quante strane verità
per fare sul mio metro questa personalità.

[I have had many women in my life
and in every room I left some of my energy
how many love children have I squandered
locked within four walls now they are probably garbage.

If a child noticed that by chance
it was born among thousands of other occasions
it would understand all the dreams that life gives
it would live with joy all its illusions.

How many tears have I caused without ever crying over it
how much heartache I have caused for just a little more enjoyment
how many false statements have I made how many strange truths
to construct my personality on my own measure.]

The central stanza expresses the absolute randomness and gratuitousness of life, while the final, bitter stanza denounces the falsity of this human relationship, the pain it caused and the lies which the narrator told to pursue pleasure and construct a personality. Despite the eccentricity, the lyrics of this period are marked by an existential restlessness that will never abandon Battiato and which seems to forebode the spiritual exploration that manifests itself in his songwriting production.

Pollution and organic life.
Battiato’s second LP, Pollution (1972), follows in the musical footsteps of Fetus, continuing the experimentation with electronic progressive rock. The main instrument, both in the execution and in the creation of the songs, remains the VCS3 synthesizer. The lyrics, too, display a continuity with the previous album: Pollution is (also) a reflection on the origin and meaning of life, this time not just human but the entire organic dimension, along with the intrusion of machines, mechanical man-made devices, with their unpleasant and negative consequences: pollution, to be precise. Some residues of technical languages remain, as in the case of “Pollution” which employs terms from thermodynamics:

La portata di un condotto
è il volume liquido
che passa in una sua sezione
nell’unità di tempo:
e si ottiene moltiplicando
la sezione perpendicolare
per la velocità che avrai del liquido.

[The mass flow rate
is the liquid volume
which passes through one of its sections
per unit of time:
and is obtained by multiplying
the cross-section
by the liquid’s speed.]

I believe that these lines invite a twofold interpretation of the album and the song title, Pollution: it certainly indicates the pollution produced by machines, but it could also be a true pollution, as described here: an ejaculation in line with the discourse advanced by Fetus; a physiological act equally and indeed more fraught with consequences, not always happy (think of the “squandered love children who now are probably garbage” of “Energia”).

Battiato quotes, here and there, bits of classical music—as he had done in Fetus—for example, in the beautiful finale of “Beta”, when Battiato recites, over background music from the main theme of the “Moldava” by Czech composer Bedřich Smetana (1874), the sentences

Dentro di me vivono la mia identica vita
dei microrganismi che non sanno
di appartenere al mio corpo.
Io a quale corpo appartengo?

[Inside me, microorganisms are living
a life identical to my own
they do not know they belong to my body.
Which body do I belong to?]

The “Moldava” is part of a cycle of symphonic poems by Bedřich Smetana, entitled Ma Vlast (My Homeland), which describes the course of the homonymous river, from the merging of its streams at the source to its impetuous flow in the woods of Bohemia down to its flow through the city of Prague. Battiato quotes the main theme of Smetana’s symphonic poem, and a voice over speaks the lines above: in the first sentence he affirms the existence of lives, namely microorganisms, in his own body; in the second he poses an existential question. The quotation from Smetana’s symphonic poem is relevant, it seems to me, for two reasons: both cases discuss individual elements that merge into a larger entity (and with it a broadening of perspective); and it is nationalist romantic music, which proudly describes a homeland, an entity greater than the individual, in accordance with the sense of ‘belonging’ (a certain irony by Battiato towards nationalism cannot be ruled out: he is interested in higher matters, less contingent, less historically determined).

Childhood and the East: Sulle corde di Aries.
In his third LP, Sulle corde di Aries (1973), Battiato breaks away from the rhythm of his previous production, heavily influenced by progressive rock, and an ethnic beat takes over. The melodies of the song look towards the East, and the tracks on the whole are more airy, free, not anchored to the song-form that characterized (despite their experimentalism) Fetus and Pollution. The electronics of the previous records coexist, in addition to ethnic hints, with jazz. In the themes, as well as in the language of the texts, there is a further shift: the meaning of childhood is revealed and historical-political events appear. However, thanks to the relaxed musical atmosphere, both are treated with a nostalgic and almost timeless gaze. “Sequences and frequencies”, the first track, is a suite over fifteen minutes in length which focuses on childhood, contemplation, and a sense of estrangement:

La maestra in estate ci dava ripetizione nel suo cortile
io stavo sempre seduto sopra un muretto a guardare il mare
ogni tanto passava una nave, ogni tanto passava una nave.
E le sere d’inverno restavo rinchiuso in casa ad ammuffire
fuori il rumore dei tuoni rimpiccioliva la mia candela
al mattino improvviso il sereno mi portava un profumo di terra.

[The teacher in the summer gave us private lessons in her courtyard
I was always seated on a low wall looking at the sea
every now and then a ship passed, every now and then a ship passed.
And on winter evenings I was locked up in the house to gather dust
outside the sound of thunder dwarfed my candle
in the morning the clear sky brought me a scent of earth.]

“Air of revolution,” while telling a collective story—with hints of colonialism and war—maintains a broad, meta-historical gaze, ending, as so often in the Battiato of the early seventies, with a pessimistic consideration:

Passa il tempo, sembra che non cambi niente
questa mia generazione vuole nuovi valori
e ho già sentito aria di rivoluzione
ho già sentito gridare chi andrà alla fucilazione.

[Time passes, it seems that nothing changes
this generation of mine wants new values
and I have already felt an air of revolution
I have already heard the cries of those who are going to be executed.]

However, in these years personal and collective themes, and the adherence to a language more typical for song, clearly emerge: Battiato distances himself from the impersonal reflection on life and the scientific technicalities that characterized his previous records. In his live performances of the following decades, the Sicilian songwriter would, however, still perform “Sequences and Frequencies” and “Air of Revolution”, a sign that he still considered them valid songs.

A transitional LP
Clic (1974) is a transitional record. The previous musical trends continue: the use of the synthesizer for electronic music (as in “Proprietad prohibida” [“Forbidden Property”], a masterwork of Battiato’s electronic sound), the rarefaction and relaxation of sounds (“I cancelli della memoria” [“The Gates of Memory”] and “Nel cantiere di un’infanzia” [Inside the Construction of a Childhood”]) with disquieting results, and the adoption of Eastern vocal and instrumental melodies (“No U Turn”). At the same time, among the instruments used, emerges the piano (“The market of the Gods”, “Rien ne va plus: andante!”), which will be fundamental in the following years, and above all Battiato begins to try his hand at collage, constructing pieces (again “Il mercato degli Dèi”, “Rien ne va plus: andante!” and “Ethika for Ethica”) in which he juxtaposes short piano bits, sounds, voice-overs, melodic riffs, choirs. “No U Turn” is the only track on the album with (apparently delusional) lyrics; from here on, in the following four discs, Battiato will devote himself exclusively to sound and musical exploration, penning no lyrics until his songwriting phase.

Per conoscere me e le mie verità
io ho combattuto fantasmi di angosce con perdite di io
per distruggere vecchie realtà
ho galleggiato su mari di irrazionalità
ho dormito per non morire
buttando i miei miti di carta su cieli di schizofrenia.

[In order to knows myself and my truths
I have fought ghosts of anguish with losses of myself
to destroy old realities
I have floated on seas of irrationality
I slept not to die
throwing my paper myths on skies of schizophrenia.]

The collage explodes: M.elle le “Gladiator.
As previously mentioned, a new period begins in 1975. Battiato sets aside the experimentations with the VCS3 to focus, on the one hand, on sound collage, and on the other, on minimalist piano performances. M.elle le “Gladiator” (1975) constitutes the most daring use of collage. “Goutez et comparez”, the first track of the record, assembles morse code, spoken word, Eastern songs, metallic noises, vocalizations, microphone tests, declaimed verses, bell sounds, a storm, fragments of pop songs, classical music, engines, operatic voices, screams, the voice of Battiato himself, excerpts from the news, recordings of Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s voice, organ music, and more. This disconcerting operation sounds like a mockery or a challenge to the listener (and the critic) who must find rhythm, melody and harmony among the mass of sounds [2]. At this stage, the sound is more important than the music. Battiato has reached his maximum provocation, but, perhaps, we can look at the experiment with perspective toward the future and see a relationship between these diverse sounds and musical collages and the literary technique called “cut-up”, also used in some songs of the 80s.

“Orient effects”, the final track, is an organ improvisation recorded live in the Monreale Cathedral  (Palermo). Here, too, the music borders on sound and noise. One could quote Battiato’s statement from Pollicelli’s documentary mentioned above: “These things were really unacceptable, because I didn’t make any preparations, I only made improvised music; and after improvising for maybe three quarters of an hour I opened my eyes and didn’t even know where I was anymore.” In this case Battiato was referring to his live performances, during festivals and concerts, in the early ’70s: but the statement seems apropos to describe the estrangement of the improvisation in “Orient effects”.

“Cultivated” music
Battiato (1977) and L’Egitto prima delle sabbie (1978) are two similar albums that convey a precise, minimalist compositional and musical idea. “Za,” occupying the A side of Battiato, is composed of a single piano chord, only slightly varied for the twenty minutes of the piece; this chord, played percussively, produces an effect of resonances that overlap and disappear. Battiato stated that this song “requires listening that I would define as meta-analytic, in favor of an a-temporal non-spatiality” [3]; and in fact it induces us to reflect on the meaning of the psychological duration of listening (time seems to expand, take up space). “Caffè table music,” on side B, continues the experiment with collage, here limited to voices (words, vocalizations, poems, conversations, voices speaking in Sicilian dialect), sounds, animal noises, and piano riffs. One has a stronger sense of coherence than in previous attempts. “L’Egitto prima delle sabbie,” the opening track of the eponymous album (1978), consists of a single repeated musical scale, similar to the formula of “Za”; the scale is played at different intervals, with a similar effect of temporal relaxation, and with the resonances that create a different sound each time (variation is produced by the execution of the identical scale). The setting is still minimalist, and one could say that the track is a musical reflection on time and variation.

I consider this period, which includes Egypt before the Sands, the highest in my production. […] In it, I managed to make music that was essential and of a certain purity. These results were due as well to the instrument I used: the piano with its world of resonances. [4]

Conclusion. Battiato’s models and future experiences.
To orient ourselves within Battiato’s complex experimental production of the ’70s, we have implicitly identified three directions which he followed: electronic music, inaugurated by the purchase of the VCS3 synthesizer; collage, based on montaging music and sound material; and minimalist music performed on the piano. In brief, Battiato’s experiments involve models of influence that should at least be mentioned: for electronic music, the contemporary German music scene, and especially his friend Karlheinz Stockhausen; for collage, the work of John Cage; for minimalism, the experiences of the Americans Steve Reich, Terry Riley, and Philip Glass. Battiato carefully incorporated innovations coming from abroad, and helped to circulate them in Italy. In Pulcini’s book-length interview, Tecnica mista su tappeto, Battiato speaks openly about his influences and his debt to foreign composers, sometimes highlighting his innovations on their work. As for the use of collage and Cage’s model, he states that “I did not have the ideological attitude that Cage had. The sounds I put together were not philosophical in nature, but simply sonorous. Cage theorizes the disappearance of the composer and lets the world resonate randomly. I was trying to give a musical sense to my records.” His ‘sonorous’ rather than ‘philosophical’ intention and his empirical research are confirmed in the comparison with the minimalists: the Sicilian musician says that “there is a fundamental motive that binds me to Steve Reich, Terry Riley, Philip Glass and other minimalists. We are musicians, not theorists, and we live for sound […] for them, it is the pleasure of sound and its composition that are born first, not theory.” Trying to understand Battiato’s musical and sound experience during the ’70s is fundamental, in perspective, to assessing his later production as a songwriter of the ’80s and beyond. Electronic experimentation would leave a significant mark in the arrangements of records such as La voce del padrone [The Voice of the Boss] (1981); the musical collage technique seems to herald that of the cut-up technique by which Battiato would write some of his most famous lyrics; and the minimalist experience is undoubtedly a trademark of the search for purity that would guide, in a different way, his life and his later work.

[1] Temporary Road. (una) Vita di Franco Battiato, a dialogue with Giuseppe Pollicelli (with DVD), Milan: La nave di Teseo, 2018.

[2]  Juke Box (1977) is, in this way, similar to M.elle le “Gladiator”. The only reference to that record, which I will not analyze in depth, is due to the fact that its songs were originally intended to be the soundtrack of a TV show on Filippo Brunelleschi, but they were rejected and subsequently released in the form of the 1977 album.

[3] The entry for “discografia leggera” on Battiato’s official website provides a short introductory note for each record.

[4]           Franco Battiato, Tecnica mista su tappetoconversazioni autobiografiche with F. Pulcini, EDT, Torino, 1992, p. 28.


“Let us not forget that prisons too are interesting: not when you are forced into them by some institution, but when you decide that one room is the universe.”[1]

In the late 1970s, Franco Battiato abandoned the electronic experimentation and the cultured avant-garde that had marked his musical activity, in order to venture into the world of pop music, which until then he had carefully avoided (except for his very first recordings, a handful of 45s, in the late 1960s). He left the four walls in which he had voluntarily confined himself—and not only figuratively: he would say he spent months locked in a room, alone with his synthesizer—to address a wide audience. He brought with him a remarkable wealth of musical experience, as well as his spiritual quests, which began in the 1970s, and his impressions from numerous world travels, especially in the East. The thematization of his inner journey and travels in the East, combined with the frequent re-emergence of childhood and adolescence—evoked in nostalgic, almost mythical tones—would breathe new life into Battiato’s songs; combining everything with an ironic, immediately recognizable style, Battiato’s new manner was successful with both the public and with critics, reaching its peak in the very early 1980s.

Pieni gli alberghi a Tunisi
per le vacanze estive
a volte un temporale
non ci faceva uscire
un uomo di una certa età
mi offriva spesso sigarette turche ma
spero che ritorni presto l’era del cinghiale bianco
spero che ritorni presto l’era del cinghiale bianco.

(The hotels are full in Tunis
for the summer holidays
sometimes a storm
wouldn’t let us out
a man of a certain age
often offered me Turkish cigarettes but
I hope the era of the white boar returns soon.)

(“L’era del cinghiale bianco,” 1979)

Battiato as a songwriter debuts with these few verses, in “L’era del cinghiale bianco” (“The Era of the White Boar”), title track of the eponymous album (1979). The album features notable musicians, and one of them, Giusto Pio, would be an indispensable companion for Battiato; their collaboration would extend for decades and give birth to the Sicilian artist’s best-known songs.[2] The album contains songs that are exemplary of what was to become Battiato’s artistic journey: childhood memories (“Stranizza d’amuri,” with lyrics in Sicilian dialect), eastern influences (“L’era del cinghiale bianco,” “Strade dell’Est”), and esoteric suggestions (“Il Re del mondo”) are blended together in an ironic and often self-ironic spirit. The esotericism employed in “The King of the World,” for example, was brought about by the reflections of René Guénon (author of a book of the same name, Le Roi du Monde, 1927); however, the French thinker is quoted in the defamatory “Magic Shop,” where Battiato takes issue with a spiritualism reduced to superficiality, a victim of consumerism.[3] The lyrics comprise, in their mockery of spiritual and religious manifestations (debased by ignorance or obedience to the latest fad), the esotericism of the French scholar:

C’è chi parte con un raga della sera
e finisce per cantare “La paloma”
e giorni di digiuno e di silenzio
per fare i cori nelle messe tipo Amanda Lear


E più si cresce e più mestieri nuovi
gli artisti pop i manifesti ai muri
i mantra e gli hare hare a mille lire
l’esoterismo di René Guénon.

(Some start out with a raga in the evening
and end up singing “La paloma”
and days of fasting and silence
to do choirs during mass like Amanda Lear

And the more one grows, the more new trades
pop artists posters on the walls
mantras and “hare hare” for a thousand liras
the esotericism of René Guénon.)

(“Magic shop,” 1981)

It is not always an easy feat to grasp Battiato’s self-irony, and the artist did indeed receive, in his career, some criticism for the style of his lyrics. Detractors frequently accused him of an unnecessary display of high culture, and of pursuing an uncontrolled and intellectualized citationism. However, precisely in that technique of writing and composition, which we could loosely define as “postmodern,” lies a relevant stylistic feature of Battiato: that ironic, desecrating effect that sometimes follows should not be ignored.[4] One could speak of a cultural and geographical nomadism in Battiato’s songs, originating both from his biographical experience as a traveler and from his spiritual and cultural interests, which flow into the lyrics in an attempt at synthesis.

The singer-songwriter’s second album, Patriots (1980), continues in the vein of the previous one and adds a new element, the ethical-political song. Writing in the delicate period of the years of lead and state massacres, Battiato lets indignation shine through and launches an invective in his own way: “up patriots to arms / engagez-vous” he sings in the refrain of the title track, with a mixture of foreign languages, to state immediately afterwards with the effect of a détournement that “la musica contemporanea / mi butta giù” (“contemporary music / knocks me down”[5]). He continues to pursue systematically the mixing of images ranging from West to East. Significant, in this sense, is the opening line of “Venezia-Istanbul”: “Venezia mi ricorda istintivamente Istanbul” (“Venice instinctively reminds me of Istanbul”), which displays an instinctive and personal process of association that broadens the geographical and cultural perspective). The song results in a condemnation of violence, in all its historically changing determinations:

e penso a come cambia in fretta la morale
un tempo si uccidevano i cristiani
e poi questi ultimi con la scusa
delle streghe ammazzavano i pagani.

(and I think of how quickly morals change
once upon a time they killed Christians
and later the latter killed the pagans
with the excuse of them being witches.)

(“Venezia-Istanbul,” 1980)

Battiato ventures as far as the geography of early twentieth-century Russia on this album, in his most famous song, “Nevsky Prospect” (the name of the famous main street that runs through St. Petersburg). The lyrics proceed by evocation, through unconnected snapshots, and not by narrative (a distinctive trait of Battiato): short sequences juxtaposed with each other outline scenes of everyday life in which notable protagonists, such as the Stravinski-Nijinski couple, break into the fresco of an unlikely Russia.

Tommaso Labranca, a Lombard intellectual sui generis, devotes a few pages in his book Chaltron Hescon (1998) to this very song, observing its non-truthfulness and asserting that Battiato “naively” collects a series of clichés.[6] The criticism is merciless but intelligent: denouncing some apparent limitations of Battiato’s writing, Labranca highlights a stylistic trait. What he says may be a shared opinion: but in the singer-songwriter’s lyrics, the suppression of logical and narrative links between images or sequences, the construction of a deconstructed dreamlike atmosphere, and the improbable appearances of eccentric characters constitute precisely his style, and above all, they are supported by a precise intention. Battiato has often and lucidly stated that he has delved into pop music (also) to communicate to a wide audience and to suggest unusual cultural cues. Such is the case with “Nevsky Prospect,” where the lyrics ends with the verse “and my master taught me how difficult it is to find the dawn within the dusk,” in which emerges the figure of the philosopher and mystic Georges Ivanovič  Gourdjeff—Battiato’s teacher, active in St. Petersburg at the turn of the century—along with one of his teachings.

Gourdjeff is a fundamental reference for the singer-songwriter, one who will return elsewhere, as in the subsequent La voce del padrone (1981), an album that consecrates Battiato by becoming the first in the history of Italian song to exceed one million copies sold. The song in which the Armenian thinker surfaces once again is “Centro di gravità permanente” (“Center of Permanent Gravity”), this time through a precise quotation. In the refrain, Battiato states that he is searching for a stability of judgment, for a firm and conscious perspective on the world:

Cerco un centro di gravità permanente
che non mi faccia mai cambiare idea sulle cose e sulla gente

(I seek a permanent center of gravity
that never makes me change my mind about things and people)

(“Centro di gravità permanente” 1981)

The expression and concept come from Gourdjeff.[7] Despite its apparent lightness and disengagement, the song is masterfully written: the melody of the refrain alternates, initially, between only two notes—at a pitch interval—producing an effect of tentative instability and uncertainty. In addition, the accents of the verses (as happens elsewhere in Battiato: but here the phenomenon is particularly extensive, almost systematic) fall on syllables that do not normally accept, in the Italian language, a strong accent: hence we hear Battiato singing “bretoné, macedonì, véstiti, éntrare, dinàstia” and so on. These unusual shifts of accent contribute to the unbalance, the instability of the song (as if they were a linguistic symptom that refers to the fundamental theme of the song).

La voce del padrone (1981) contains seven other tracks, which continue on the paths already undertaken by Battiato, and foreshadow subsequent ones. The lyrics of “Summer on a solitary beach,” Battiato’s debut song, are composed of memories from his adolescence:

Passammo l’estate su una spiaggia solitaria
e l’eco ci arrivava di un cinema all’aperto

(We spent the summer on a solitary beach
and the echo of an open-air cinema came to us),

memories immersed into a Mediterranean, almost metaphysical atmosphere:

e nel pomeriggio quando il sole ci nutriva
di tanto in tanto un grido copriva le distante
e l’aria delle cose diventava irreale

(and in the afternoon when the sun nourished us
from time to time a cry covered the distance
and the air of things became unreal)

culminating in a desire for escape:

mare mare mare voglio annegare
portami lontano a naufragare
via via via da queste sponde
portami lontano sulle onde.

(sea sea sea I want to drown
take me far away to be shipwrecked
away from these shores
take me far away on the waves).

(“Summer on a solitary beach,” 1981)

“Bandiera bianca”(“White Flag”) gives a nod to popular songs (Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man”) and takes on the tones of a critique of mores (“per fortuna il mio razzismo non mi fa guardare / quei programmi demenziali con tribune elettorali”—“luckily my racism keeps me from watching / those demented TV shows with political debates”) and of political invective (“quante squallide figure che attraversano il paese / com’è misera la vita negli abusi di potere”—“how many sleazy figures roam the country, / how miserable life is in the abuses of power”). In the song “Gli uccelli” (“The Birds”), a lyrical élan springs a reflection from the contemplation of flight on the laws that govern the world (“voli imprevedibili ed ascese velocissime / traiettorie impercettibili / codici di geometrie esistenziali”—“unpredictable flights and very fast ascents / imperceptible trajectories / codes of existential geometries”). In “Cuccurucucu” adolescent memories converge again (“le serenate all’istituto magistrale”—“the serenades at the teachers’ training institute”), imaginary journeys of eastern populations (“profughi afghani / che dal confine si spostano nell’Iran”—“Afghan refugees / moving from the border into Iran”), sensual descriptions, literary quotations (“l’ira funesta […] cantami o diva”—“The menacing wrath […] sing, o goddess”), pop quotations (“le mille bolle blu”—“the thousand blue bubbles”). “Segnali di vita” (“Life Signs”) retrieves thematic elements from previous songs (“the life signs in the backyards echo the outdoor cinema”), while “the celestial mechanism” traces the birds’ movements and foreshadows the cosmic opening of the 1985 album Mondi lontanissimi (“lo spazio cosmico si sta ingrandendo / e le galassie si allontanano / ti accorgi di come vola bassa la mia mente”—“cosmic space is getting bigger / and galaxies are getting farther apart / you realize how low my mind flies”). “Sentimento nuevo” concludes the album lightly, between sensuality and eroticism evoked through the typical geographical and cultural nomadism:

i desideri mitici di prostitute libiche
il senso del possesso che fu pre-alessandrino […]
lo shivaismo tantrico di stile dionisiaco
la lotta pornografica dei greci e dei latini
la tua pelle come un’oasi del deserto ancora mi cattura
ed è bellissimo perdersi in quest’incantesimo
è bellissimo perdersi in quest’incantesimo.

(the mythical desires of Libyan prostitutes
the sense of possession that was pre-Alexandrine […]
the Dionysian-style tantric Shivaism
the pornographic struggle of the Greeks and Latins
your skin like a desert oasis still captures me
And it is beautiful to get lost in this spell
it is beautiful to get lost in this spell.)

(“Sentimento nuevo,” 1985)

The following albums of the 1980s remain at good levels. L’arca di Noè (1982) takes on somber and at times apocalyptic tones, although the famous “Voglio vederti danzare” (“I Want to See You Dance”) concludes the album with a light tone. “The title of the album alludes to the possibility of safety for those who possess elective affinities and find themselves walking the same path to escape the danger of a new flood.”[8] Battiato’s style is unmistakable, and his writing technique remains the same, as seen in “Radio Varsavia”:

e i commercianti punici
prendevano sentieri di montagna
per evitare i doganieri
ed arrivare in Abissinia,

(and Punic traders
took mountain paths
to avoid the customs officers
and get to Abyssinia)

(“Radio Varsavia,” 1982)

In this album there is an “authorial” novelty: some of the lyrics were written by Tommaso Tramonti, pseudonym of Henri Thomasson, a disciple of Gourdjeff, who later published books with the publishing house L’Ottava, founded by Battiato himself.

Orizzonti perduti (1983) maintains the previous dark tone, taking an almost decadent stance—“we return to living like barbarians” in “Tramonto occidentale” (“Western Sunset”), a title that is as meaningful as ever—which is diluted at times into scenes of everyday inertia:

Le domeniche pomeriggio d’estate
zone depresse
donne sotto i pergolati
a chiacchierare e a ripararsi un po’ dal sole
uomini seduti fuori dai caffè

(Summer Sunday afternoons
depressed areas
women under arbors
chatting and taking some shelter from the sun
men sitting outside cafes)

(“Zone depresse,” 1983)

Battiato seems to be waiting for an event, a turning point, especially an existential one (“non servono più eccitanti o ideologie / ci vuole un’altra vita”—“no more need for excitants or ideologies / it takes another life”; “Un’altra vita”). There is no shortage of the usual childhood memories (“mi regali ancora timide erezioni / guardavo di nascosto i saggi ginnici nel tuo collegio”—“you still give me shy erections / I used to secretly watch gymnastics recitals in your boarding school”; “Zone depresse”) and criticism of pop music (“e quanti cantanti musicisti arrabbiati / che farebbero meglio a smettere di fumare” —“and how many angry musician singers / who would do better to quit smoking”; “La musica è stanca”) but there are fewer excursions into exotic territories and cultures. There is also a musical change in the arrangements: guitar, bass, and drums disappear to make way for electronic instruments. The most enduring song is undoubtedly “La stagione dell’amore,” one of the Sicilian singer-songwriter’s rare love songs.

With Mondi lontanissimi (1985), Battiato’s gaze extends into outer space. The album mentions, across the board, new technologies and their influences on our lives (“mi son comprato un personal computer / ma il cuore soffre un poco di aritmia”—“I bought myself a personal computer / but my heart suffers from a slight arrhythmia”). Of particular note are “I treni di Tozeur,” which was presented as a duo with Alice at the Eurovision Song Contest by a dazed and amused Battiato, and “No time no space.” The latter song is representative of the entire album, with the usual overlapping of peoples and epochs (“parlami dell’esistenza / di mondi lontanissimi / di civiltà sepolte / di continenti alla deriva”—“tell about the existence of far-away worlds / of  by-gone civilizations / of drifting continents”), this time with an almost sci-fi key (“seguimmo per istinto / le scie delle comete / come avanguardie / di un altro sistema solare”—“we followed by instinct / the trails of comets / as vanguards / of another solar system”).[9]

Fisiognomica (1988) is the most coherent and convincing album since La voce del padrone. Battiato places firm emphasis on his spiritual aspects: and his apparently feeble, subdued intonation seems an executive reflection of that recollection.  The title-track refers to the para-scientific discipline or art of divination, which aims to guess an individual’s inner qualities from her or his facial features: the refrain resolves a list of different inclinations, inferred from facial features and gestures, into the realization of the relative insignificance of individual life and the impossibility of knowing its origin (“credimi siamo niente / dei miseri ruscelli senza fonte”—“believe me, we are nothing / but miserable streams without a spring”). “E ti vengo a cercare” (“And I come looking for you”) meaningfully combines spirituality and sensuality (“un rapimento mistico e sensuale / m’imprigiona a te / dovrei cambiare l’oggetto dei miei desideria / non accontentarmi di piccole gioie quotidiane / fare come l’eremita / che rinuncia a sé”—“a mystical and sensual rapture / binds me to you / I should change the object of my desire / not to be contented with small daily joys / and be like a hermit / who renounces himself”): Battiato is wont to harmonize opposites or to reconcile different tensions and traditions. Finally, despite the fact that the lyrics are written by his friend Juri Camisasca, the song “Nomadi” stands out as a manifesto of the Sicilian singer-songwriter, in his rabid spiritual quest: among the “nomads who seek the corners of tranquility / in the mists of the north and in the turmoil of civilizations,” we could also inscribe Battiato’s name.

The next two albums are tough listening, as they tend to be in line with the preceding production, but even more heterogeneous. Indeed, the B-side of Come un cammello in una grondaia (1991) includes songs written by others, such as a German Liederer and a French song arranged by the Romantic composer Berlioz. On the A-side, comprised entirely of previously unreleased songs, the polemical “Povera patria” (“schiacciata dagli abusi di potere”—“Poor Homeland,” “crushed by the abuses of power”) stands out, reminiscent in some verses of “Bandiera bianca” and outlining a bleak and squalid present for Italy (“nel fango affonda lo stivale dei maiali”—“in the mud sinks the pigs’ boot”), as well as the delicate final invocation, “L’ombra della luce” (“Difendimi / dalle forze contrarie / la notte nel sonno quando non sono cosciente / quando il mio percorso si fa incerto / e non mi abbandonare mai / non mi abbandonare mai”—“Defend me / from opposing forces / at night when I sleep and am unconscious / when my path becomes uncertain / and never forsake me / never forsake me”). The title of the following Café de la paix (1993) refers, once again, to Gourdjeff, who used to frequent a café of the same name in his Parisian years. The album’s songs are all written entirely by Battiato, for the last time: from here on, the singer-songwriter will only compose the music, assigning the writing of the lyrics to essayist and philosopher Manlio Sgalambro.

Sgalambro was born in Lentini, Sicily, in 1924; he finished Law School and published for years in philosophical journals. Only in his later years did he decide to organize his thoughts into a systematic work, drafting the manuscript of La morte del sole (The Death of the Sun) and sending it to Adelphi publishing house. His debut book was published in 1982, after the manuscript had been forgotten on a desk for a couple of years: it was Adelphi director Roberto Calasso who took an interest in the work, telling Sgalambro that “that book was not mature, it was rotten.”[10] Calasso’s efficacious expression hit the mark: the Sicilian writer adopted an extreme nihilism in his books, his existential vision was drastic and fatal, the style decisive and ruthless (similar to that of the Romanian Émil Cioran), while always maintaining a privileged space for irony.

The Battiato-Sgalambro duo created three albums in the 1990s: the first test case was L’ombrello e la macchina da cucire (1995). Sgalambro’s writing, while giving a personal and defined imprint to the lyrics of the songs, adopts on some occasions expressive methods typical of Battiato, and takes on motifs and themes which the singer-songwriter had already touched upon on his own: “Moto browniano” or “Brownian motion”—a syntagma used in physics to designate the random motion of particles, discovered by the Scottish botanist Brown in the nineteenth century—relates asyndetically different materials dispersed in space (and time): (“particelle di polline / pulviscolo londinese / un frammento della Sfinge”—“pollen particles / London dust / a fragment of the Sphinx”). However, novelties that can be traced back to the philosopher’s reflections manifest themselves on the album, as in the track (“Breve invito a rinviare il suicidio”—“Brief Invitation to Postpone Suicide”).

L’imboscata (1996) begins with a fragment from Heraclitus: Sgalambro himself reads from the Greek philosopher in the debut song “Di passaggio,” “The living and the dead are the same reality, just as those who are awake and those who are asleep, those who are young and those who are old: the ones change into the others, and again those others change into the former.” The disc contains one of the most notable, and well-known, tracks of Battiato’s production, “La cura,” an anomalous love song whose lyrics, this time, were penned by both Sicilians:

Tesserò i tuoi capelli come trame di un canto
conosco le leggi del mondo e te ne farò dono
supererò le correnti gravitazionali| lo spazio e la luce per non farti invecchiare
ti salverò da ogni malinconia perché sei un essere speciale
ed io avrò cura di te.

(I will weave your hair like the chords of a song.
I know the laws of the world, and I will gift them to you.
I will overcome the gravitational currents,
space and light to keep you from getting old.
I will save you from all melancholy.
Because you are a special being
and I will take care of you
I will, I will take care of you.)

(“La cura,” 1996)

Gommalacca (1998) affirms, with various ups and downs, the unusual Battiato-Sgalambro songwriting and composition duo. From here on, the Sicilian singer-songwriter—in the shoes of the musician-performer in this final phase of his career—will alternate between albums created with Sgalambro (Ferro battuto 2001, Dieci stratagemmi 2004, Il vuoto 2007, Apriti sesamo 2012), collections of covers ranging from Italian singer-songwriting to French chansons, via English and American songs (Fleurs 1999, Fleurs 3 2002, Fleurs 2 2008)[11], composite albums with old songs rearranged, along with a few unreleased tracks (“Inneres Auge” 2009, “Torneremo ancora” 2019), and an unexpected return to early 1970s electronic music (Joe Patti’s experimental group 2014).

[1] Franco Battiato, interview, 1998, available at

[2] The two would be songwriters for other performers: they edited the arrangements for the Milanese Giorgio Gaber’s musical theater show, Polli d’allevamento (1978, an important juncture in the Milanese singer-songwriter’s career); they wrote songs and entire albums for Giuni Russo, Alice (winner of the 1981 Sanremo Festival with “Per Elisa” written by the Battiato-Pio duo) and Milva (her version of “Alexanderplatz” was famous). Other collaborators on the album L’era del cinghiale bianco include, at least, Alberto Radius, guitarist and owner of the recording studio, and Tullio De Piscopo, a jazz-influenced Neapolitan drummer (the two would accompany him on subsequent productions).

[3] “René Guénon wrote a book called The King of the World. But many other religious scholars are also concerned that our planet is ruled by dark forces. The king of the world is just that: a force that secretly determines the fate of the planet. Like an invisible puppeteer who is the cause of our pain and who holds our hearts captive” (Franco Battiato, Mixed Technique on Carpet. Autobiographical Conversations with Franco Pulcini, EDT, Turin, 1992, 32).

[4] The “cut-up,” characteristic of some of his lyrics, is certainly related on a musical level to the experiments he made in the 1970s, of sound collages: there is a significant formal continuity.

[5] Battiato will say that the album’s title came from a trip he made to England, where he happened to notice a poster with the words “Up Patriots to Arms”: a case, not unique, in which an impromptu detail becomes central to a song or record.

[6] Tommaso Labranca, Chaltron Hescon, Einaudi, Torino, 1998, pp. 93-100.

[7] In all likelihood from In Search of the Miraculous, edited by P. D. Ouspensky, a student of Gourdjeff and his popularizer, which Battiato claims to have read in the late 1970s. Here is one of the two passages mentioning the permanent center of gravity, possessed by the man who succeeds in harmonizing the three fundamental centers of gravity according to Gourdjeff (physical center, emotional center, intellectual center): “As has been explained before, there are many qualities which men attribute to themselves, which in reality can belong only to people of a higher degree of development and of a higher degree of evolution than man number one, number two, and number three. Individuality, a single and permanent I, consciousness, will, the ability to do, a state of inner freedom, all these are qualities which ordinary man does not possess. To the same category belongs the idea of good and evil, the very existence of which is connected with a permanent aim, with a permanent direction and a permanent center of gravity.” (Petr D. Ouspensky, In Search of the Miraculous, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1949, p. 159).

[8] Battiato in Tecnica mista su tappeto cit. p. 47.

[9] Also representative is the song’s video clip, which visually condenses typical Battiato stylistic features: the singer-songwriter appears dressed in typically western style—a shirt and a tie—equipped with headphones and a microphone, and then sits on an oriental carpet, while surrounded by exotic percussion players, a synthesizer, and a small orchestra conducted by Giusto Pio. During the refrain, a screen is framed behind Battiato’s back, on which the dance of the dervishes (mentioned in the song “Voglio vederti danzare”) is projected. In the finale, Battiato gets up, puts on his jacket, and leaves.

[10] The anecdote and citation are offered by Sgalambro in “Manlio Sgalambro, l’ultima intervista”, Panorama, 6/3/2014, available online at

[11] Dedicated, as is clear from the title, to his friend Fleur Jaeggy, Swiss-born poetess and wife of Adelphi publisher Roberto Calasso.

Translated songs: