(Carate Brianza, 1943 – )
By Luca Bertoloni, University of Pavia
Within the Italian songwriting scene, a leading role undoubtedly belongs to Roberto Vecchioni, whom many scholars consider as one of the founding fathers of the Italian canzone d’autore (Talanca 2017: 206-210). In fact, from a chronological point of view, Vecchioni is the last founding father of the genre to make his debut as a singer-songwriter, since, during his beginnings in the late sixties (when Fabrizio De André and Francesco Guccini had already released their debut albums, and were making their way into the musical world with songs such as “Bocca di rosa”, “La canzone di Marinella”, “Noi non ci saremo” and “Auschwitz”), Vecchioni was working as a lyricist for other singers, especially women (Gigliola Cinquetti, Iva Zanicchi or Ornella Vanoni), or for musical bands: Nuovi Angeli, for whom he wrote the hit “Donna felicità” (1972) or Homo Sapiens, for whom he wrote “Oh! Mary Lou” (1974) with Renato Pareti. It wasn’t until the early seventies that Vecchioni published the first album written and performed entirely by himself. The tunes of this album, titled Parabola (1971), were sometimes co-written with other artists, such as Andrea Lo Vecchio, with whom Roberto Vecchioni had already collaborated at the end of the sixties, and with whom he would pen the music of some of his important hits. Parabola also contains “Luci a San Siro”, one of his signature songs to this day.
Architecture of an Atypical Singer-Songwriter
Vecchioni arrived at the canzone d’autore after a rather singular professional path, which would characterize all his production, his thought and his poetics: after graduating in Classical Literature, he worked as a teaching assistant of History of Religions at the university for a short while, then took a position as a teacher of Latin and Greek in a Liceo classico, a prestigious type of high school in Italy. Despite the success of his songs, as early as the seventies, the Milanese singer-songwriter would continue in the profession of teacher alongside that of performer and songwriter, and for this reason he would earn the nickname of “professor” in the field, which stuck with him throughout his career, even after he ceased teaching.
In the seventies, his songwriting was completely centered on Vecchioni-the-man (with all his history and with the characteristics he brought with him), to which Vecchioni-the-artist tried in every way to adhere by interspersing his lyrics with cultural references. This practice, which would soon become a specific trait of his style, started even before the post-modern climate that shaped the genre of popular song at end of the Eighties and, above all, the beginning of the Nineties, with frequent use of quotations. The use of high-brow cultural references was not a superficial attempt to pay homage to elite culture, nor a mere a display of knowledge, but rather corresponded to a precise idea of culture, one that should not be available just to the few, but should be shared with many, nay, everyone. For Vecchioni, the song-form is therefore a short, popular, and immediate tool to convey “high” content, canceling out the difference between high culture and low culture, and embodying the broadest cultural aspect of pop. For this reason, Vecchioni always embodied two souls in the course of his career: that of the teacher imbued with classical culture, with the need to divulge it as much as possible, and that of the pop singer, intended not in a diminishing way, but in its original meaning of “popular.”
This explains Vecchioni’s attempts, especially at the inception of his career, to pursue success even in venues that were anything but prestigious for a musician who wished to be recognized as a man of culture: in 1973 he composed a song for the Sanremo Festival, considered at the time the emblem of the commercial song (as opposed to the nascent singer-songwriter genre); in the same year he took part in Canzonissima, and in 1974 in Un disco per l’estate; in 1975, instead, he penned some children’s songs, including the theme song of the cartoon “Barbapapà”. In parallel, he began to develop all the traits that would characterize his poetics: Il re non si diverte (The King is not Amused), 1973, the first album entirely composed by Vecchioni, is an unsuccessful attempt to mix theater-song, a genre that was made popular by Giorgio Gaber, and the narrative concept album, brought to Italy by Fabrizio De André and Claudio Baglioni between the sixties and the beginning of the seventies. However, it is in the next album— Ipertensione (1975)—that the main elements of Vecchioni’s poetics begin to emerge. These include: a strong autobiographical tendency to recount intimate details of his personal and relational life and family dynamics (“Irene”); references to historical figures, used as metaphors of the self (Marco Polo in “Canzone per Laura”, or Dante in “Alighieri”); the centrality of poetic art, indeed, of poiesis, and of the relationship between haughty intellectuals and popularizers (“I poeti”); the theme of the double (“Canzonenozac”); the search for allegory (“Pesci nelle orecchie” [“Fish in my Ears”]) and more. However, Ipertensione did not reach its hoped-for success, unlike the subsequent Elisir, 1976, in which the professor abandons the spoken word style (significant in the previous album and again in the last phase of his career) to shift towards new sounds of American provenance: thanks to a greater musicality, Elisir obtains some success, and Vecchioni begins to score some hits that will become “classics”, on the wake of themes with which he previously experimented (“Figlia” and “Velasquez,” always included in live performances).
“Samarcanda” and a New Popularity.
By 1977, Vecchioni is therefore an established singer-songwriter, and his reputation in the world of songwriting is linked both to his leftist political militancy, and to the cultural references present in his songs, which are so popular with a young audience who wish to fill their “yearning for poetry” with the lyrics of songwriters, since they found the texts of contemporary poets not “real” enough, unable to touch people’s interior lives, or to represent the modern society (Lorenzo Coveri, Lorenzo Renzi, Pier Vincenzo Mengaldo, Paolo Giovannetti above all; see Coveri 1996). In that year, Vecchioni finally manages to reach the so-called “general public” with a song that will become his signature in the collective imagination: “Samarcanda.” The eponymous album teems with diverse musical suggestions ranging from the medieval introduction of the title track, featuring Angelo Branduardi, to the progressive rock of the final track of the album, “L’ultimo spettacolo” (“The Last Show”), which immediately becomes an icon of his production because it combines a very personal autobiography (the quarrel with his wife Irene, leading to their separation) with various references to high-brow culture—in this case to classical culture (the lyrics in fact open with the description of a Phoenician ship). Vecchioni harmoniously mixes contemporary, realistic traits—such as the train platform or Muratti cigarettes—with classical elements (a sort of “reminiscence” of his classical education; see Ciabattoni 2016: 27-35) such as the Greek aoidos (bard) or the Phoenician ship. Vecchioni reached the general public especially with the album’s title track, “Samarcanda”. It is a catchy and only apparently simple song, whose engaging and original refrain immediately embedded itself in the collective memory of the Italian public, in particular of children, since the lyrics sound a bit like a fairy tale in which a “Lady in Black” is the protagonist. In fact, as Vecchioni would explain on several occasions, the song is tragic, and the Lady in Black is Death, who mocks man, and then delivers his doom.
Vecchioni’s success, combining high-brow culture and pop references, culminated in 1977, curiously just one year after the notorious “trial” of Francesco De Gregori. During a 1974 concert at Milan’s Palalido, the Roman songwriter was accused by his own fans of being “a false leftist,” and by critics of using falsely poetic expressions to display an elite level of culture which he did not possess. Vecchioni was shocked by this episode and commented on it in “Vaudeville”, with a strong polemical vein towards what happened at the Palalido (“E spararono al cantautore / in una notte di gioventù / gli spararono per amore / per non farlo cantare più” [“And they shot the singer-songwriter / in a youthful night / they shot him out of love / so that he would never sing again”) and in full accordance with his idea of song as a tool to spread culture.
Success did not inebriate the Milanese singer-songwriter, who continued undaunted from the cornerstones of his poetics, producing a series of albums one after the other in which the biographical experiences (his arrest and stay in prison, waiting to be tried for possession and drug dealing, the marriage with his wife Daria, the birth of other children, his experience as a teacher in schools) are welded with references to high-brow culture, which range from cinema (prominent in Hollywood Hollywood, 1982, featuring different fields and genres from Ejzenstejn to Fellini) to literature (“Dentro gli occhi” [“Inside My Eyes”] is inspired by a short story by Jorge Luis Borges, once again on the theme of the double; “Gaston and Astolfo”, 1985, mixing references to Ludovico Ariosto’s sixteenth-century epic poem Orlando furioso [The Frenzy of Orlando* or to “Per amore mio—gli ultimi giorni di Sancho Panza” [“For My Own Sake—The Last Days of Sancho Panza”], 1991); and from theater (“Nel Regno di Napoli,” 1986 references three works by Eduardo De Filippo: “Misery and nobility”, “The gold of Naples”, “The voices from within”—the Neapolitan soul of Vecchioni, on his father’s side, often emerges in his songs) to classical culture (“Alessandro e il mare,” 1989).
A Renewed Youth
A second and more important turning point in Vecchioni’s career dates to the nineties, when he makes a lasting impression on the collective imagination, which would lead him to be the “professor” who today, in the second decade of the 2000s, everyone knows. The turning point can be identified as 1992, when the Milanese singer-songwriter won the Festivalbar with “Voglio una donna” (“I Want a Woman”), a catchy song with an American sound, which stirred some controversies for some of its misogynistic lines (“Prendila te / quella col cervello / che si innamori di te / la capitana Nemo” [“You take / the one with the brain / who falls in love with you, / a Lady Captain Nemo”) and was later included in Camper, the professor’s first live album. On several occasions Vecchioni explained that it was a figure of speech, aimed at emphasizing feminine beauty, and not at emphasizing machismo; on the other hand, female beauty is a topos of Vecchioni’s work, at least from “Figlia” (1976) to “Ma tu” (2018). The next album of original songs, Blumun (1993), thus enjoyed great commercial success, even if no single track shows the driving force of “Voglio una donna”.
Il cielo capovolto (The Sky Upside Down,1995) is perhaps the best result of all Vecchioni’s 1990s production, as well as one of his most successful albums ever. Musical influences range from symphonic to Bruce Springsteen, and the lyrics go from elegiac to colloquial and slang. Vecchioni sings a long elegy of love “dedicated to women” (Jachia 2018: 112), playing with some of his privileged models including Giacomo Leopardi, invoked only in the title of “L’ultimo canto di Saffo” (which is the title of both Leopardi’s poem and Vecchioni’s song), Fernando Pessoa, Henri Bergson, Borges once again, and Greek poetess Sappho. From the latter, the record’s long reflection on love unfolds, moving from autobiography (as in the first track “Le mie ragazze” [“My girls”]) and from a mix of seriousness and irony (“Il tuo culo e il tuo cuore” [“Your ass and your heart”] is a great example, featuring—in its own very peculiar way, femininity as regarded by a man). In Il cielo capovolto, Vecchioni places a definitive signature on his poetics, which will focus more and more on writing “love letters” (“Lettere d’amore“). The love letter form in fact characterizes a good part of Vecchioni’s later lyrics, from “Celia de la Serna”, in which the singer-songwriter identifies himself with Che Guevara‘s mother, to “Quest’uomo” [“This man”], a father’s letter to his children. Vecchioni once again takes off his hat as professor and singer to wear that of a father who “aspetta solo che voi torniate / e tutto il resto è un puttanaio di puttanate” (“just waits for you to come back / and everything else is a nonsense of nonsense”), from “La Stazione di Zima”, a heartbreaking “love letter” to a God who is far away with a plea to allow humans to enjoy humanity to the fullest, to “Sogna ragazzo sogna” (“Dream, Boy, Dream”), in which, paraphrasing the Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet, Vecchioni pens a long love letter on the beauty of life to his students, taking the opportunity to abandon definitively his activity as high school teacher. The tendency to write more and more personal songs continues through his first album of the twenty-first century, Il lanciatore di coltelli (The Knife Thrower, 2002), featuring a new song dedicated to children (“Figlio, figlio,figlio”) in which stands out Vecchioni’s ability to create syncretic lyrics that exploit a metaphorical figuralism, both simple and strongly evocative:
Chi ti insegnerà a guardare il cielo
fino a rimanere senza respiro?
A guardare un quadro per ore e ore
fino a avere i brividi dentro il cuore
che aldilà del torto e la ragione
contano soltanto le persone
che non basta premere un bottone
(Who will teach you to look at the sky
until you run out of breath?
to look at a painting for hours and hours
until you get chills in your heart,
that beyond right and wrong
only people count,
that it is not enough to press a button
for an emotion).
And “Viola d’inverno” (“Winter Violet), a “letter” of grand elegy in the face of death in which the quotidian, insignificant actions of everyday life take on a greater meaning thanks to love:
E allora penserò
che niente ha avuto senso
se non averti amata, amata
in così poco tempo.
(And then I will think
that nothing has made sense
except having loved you, loved you
in such a short time).
In the two following albums, the theme of pain enters Vecchioni’s poetics in dramatic fashion. Pain transfigures him during the purifying journey he made in Africa (“Rotary Club of Malindi”), providing an opportunity to discuss the frailty of man and the injustices of the world, the loss of his mother (“Dimentica una cosa al giorno” [“Forget One Thing Every Day”) and friends (“Amico mio”), and, above all, the illness of his son, which will lead him to write one of the most intense and most successful songs of his repertoire, “Le rose blu”. Pain will lead Vecchioni to elaborate a new relationship with God, and to overcome inner difficulties that will lead him to move away from the present time (with the album Non appartengo più [I Don’t Belong Anymore], 2012, in which he will speak firsthand about the pain of his illness in “Ho conosciuto il dolore” [“I Know Pain”]). He seems finally to have reached peace in the latest collection of his songs, L’infinito (2018).
Between Writing and Sanremo
In the nineties, in addition to his songwriting production, Vecchioni also stands out among songwriters for his third job: writing. First of all, he contributes the preface to the first great editorial collection of academic writings on the song-form, influenced by cultural studies and nascent popular music studies (Coveri 1996). His role is fundamental as, first, he coined the label of canzone d’arte (“art song”), trying to ennoble the song-form based on what occurred similarly, a few decades earlier, with cinema, and inaugurating a sort of Renaissance of song studies.
Furthermore, he made his debut as a prose writer: after two sporadic cases in the Eighties and Nineties, his activity intensified with his first novel, Le canzoni non le portano le cicogne (Songs are not Brought by Storks, 2002, followed by Il libraio di Selinunte (The Bookseller of Selinunte, 2004). From this moment on, Vecchioni would experience fiction as a new field in which to carry out his own poetics, since many of the issues addressed in the albums and songs go hand in hand with those of the novels and short stories. At the same time, he began to work as a popularizer of the song-form in academic contexts: after holding workshops and full courses in different Italian universities, in 2006 he landed at the University of Pavia, where he taught a course titled “Forme di poesia in musica” until 2020, addressing the history of the song and a variety of specific topics from year to year.
Meanwhile, the difficult album Di rabbia e di stelle (On Anger and Stars, 2007) had distanced him from his fanbase, but in 2011 he reached the highest peak of fame thanks to the victory at the Sanremo Festival with “Chiamami ancora amore” (“Call Me Love Again”), a song considered by many to be one of his “minor” ones, but perfectly aligned with his poetics and current production. Vecchioni managed to bring together (perhaps definitively) the spirit of the old songwriter and the pop spirit of Sanremo, inviting a rethinking of these now outdated categories. Thanks to the Festival, Vecchioni achieves an even greater popular success, appearing frequently on television and in newspapers, then also participating as a guest in films and TV series.
In the meantime, having turned seventy, he opted for a minimalist sound, surrounding himself with only (a few) acoustic instruments, and turning towards a performance style that is more recited than sung. As in theatrical performances, this style emphasizes the lyrical content of the songs performed both live and in the studio, in a manner that touches not just the poetic text, but the melodies. This turning point makes Vecchioni even more of a “singer-songwriter” than he had been in the past. Five years after Io non appartengo più, in which he had claimed to feel almost “defeated”, both as a man of culture and as a human being, he completed the greatest concept album of his career, L’infinito. The starting point is, once again, a classic of world literature, Leopardi’s famous idyll “L’infinito”: the album combines all the singer-songwriter’s favorite themes, from the centrality of the word and poetry to the importance of classical culture, from literary cultural references and more (we find, among others, Alex Zanardi, Pope Francis, Mario Capanna and Italo Calvino, whose important novel he paraphrases in “Una notte, un viaggiatore” [“One Night, a Traveller”]), to the power of life, which always wins over everything and everyone. The symbol of this work is “Ti insegnerò a volare” (“I Will Teach You to Fly,” 2020), a single release that made the headlines also because it featured the musical return of Francesco Guccini, who had retired from the stage a few years earlier. In “Ti insegnerò a volare” Alex Zanardi is portrayed as a vital emblem on par with Homer’s Ulysses, a song of overflowing strength.
Vecchioni represented the cultured side of the Italian songwriting, peppering his lyrics with literary references, but his major stylistic traits include: 1) the re-elaboration within the song-form of literary archetypes and stories; 2) the use of the song-form as a vehicle for cultural discourse; 3) casting the song as a sort of personal diary (whence the tendency toward autobiography). Vecchioni the man and Vecchioni the singer-songwriter, although different, are tightly connected through his artistic production, which represents one of the richest, most coherent and profound repertories in the entire history of Italian songwriting.
Capasso, Ernesto. Roberto Vecchioni. Miti e parole di un lanciatore di coltelli. Roma: Arcana, 2011.
Ciabattoni, Francesco. La citazione è sintomo d’amore. Cantautori italiani e memoria letteraria, Roma, Carocci, 2016.
Coveri, Lorenzo (a cura di). Parole in musica. Lingua e poesia nella canzone d’autore italiana: saggi critici e antologia di testi di cantautori italiani, Novara, Interlinea, 1996.
Jachia, Paolo. Roberto Vecchioni da San Siro all’Infinito. Cinquant’anni di album e canzoni (1968-2018), Milano, Ancora, 2019.
Talanca, Paolo. Il canone dei cantautori italiani. La letteratura della canzone d’autore e le scuole dell’età, Lanciano, Carabba, 2017.