Discover the traits of seven of the most famous Italian cities through an inconventional means: song lyrics!
When we are tourists and we make a research before leaving for a destination, we usually want to have more than a list of tourists attractions and we hope to find sources that dig deeper and cast a different light on said location. We want to uncover the city’s secrets and get to know its “temperament”. I honestly believe that classic tourist guides are probably the wrong places to look for those kinds of nuances.
So, here you are my take on the matter: have you ever considered trying with song lyrics? Songwriters are not trying to sell you a destination after all and they often have the sensitivity necessary to see beyond the appearances and detect the character of the cities, underlining both the good and the bad about them.
Want to know more about Italian cities? Don’t look any further, I have here for you a list of songs that describe seven of the most famous cities of this country (I’ve also tried to pick different music genres so to meet different tastes ).
TORINO / TURIN
“ISTRICE” (2011) BY SUBSONICA
Subsonica is a group formed by four men from Turin. They’re hardly classifiable within a genre as they basically do electro music using the instruments typical of the rock band.
The guys are really fond of their city and there are references to it in several songs. Most people would argue with me that Il Cielo su Torino (literally “the sky over Turin”) is their most representative song about the Piemontese city, but I honestly think that in this one the references are more comprehensible.
Let’s start from the title: istrice is the elegant term to indicate the porcospino, the porcupine. In the common language it’s used as a metaphor to denote the temperament of a person, who tends to be closed-off and a little bit moody. Turin is indeed often described as a “bashful city”, which inhabitants are not used to manifest their emotions in an open or even theatrical way, like other populations within the country.
“Tra il fiume e i portici / già buio alle sei / cuore selvatico / quanti anni hai […] / nella città che ha il cuore di un istrice / ti cercherò in un traffico d’anime”
“Between the river and the porticoes / it’s already dark at six / wild heart / how old are you? […] / in the city which has the heart of a porcupine / I will look for you in a traffic jam made of souls”
The similarities between the porcupine and Turin are multiple: like the animal, it is shifty and love the hidden and mysterious places. The exoteric history of the city is indeed well-known.
The same Subsonica appear to be “very Turinese” in the way they write about Turin in this song: simple, essential descriptions, without big words.
MILANO / MILAN
“MILANO MILANO” (2002) BY ARTICOLO 31
Articolo 31 used to be a duo and it’s considered the first that brought hip hop to Italy making it a success. Nowadays they’ve allegedly split and J-Ax, the “frontman”, has a solo career. As all the old school hip hop artists, Articolo 31 used also to write lyrics reporting social issues.
In this song “Milano Milano”, despite the fact that the love for their city appears clear, there’s also an honest and throughout depiction of its society and its urban life.
“Il cielo un foglio di rame / per la vivace attività industriale / […] nel tuo veleno che noi respiriamo / ci sono anch’io / […] ci sono immigrati / in edifici occupati / e gli sciuri imboscati dietro sicuri / giardini privati”
“The sky is copper-plated / for the intense industrial activity / […] within the poison that we are breathing / you can also find me / […] there are immigrants / in occupied buildings / and gentlemen hidden behind / secure private gardens”
Milan, often perceived as the most multicultural city in the country, is here described as the industrious reality dreaming big, but still rooted in its humble origins and where poor and rich people coexist.
VENEZIA / VENICE
“VENEZIA” (1981) BY FRANCESCO GUCCINI
Francesco Guccini is one of the most important ballad-singers and intellectuals and he is almost regarded as an iconic figure. His lyrics have been praised for their poetic and literary value and even studied in schools. “Venezia” is contained in an album called “Metropolis”, which is actually some sort of concept album in which he describes various cities, their characteristics, their histories, the lifestyles and all the problems connected with them.
“Venezia”, which was originally not written by him, is a song that is dedicated to a Venetian woman, Stefania, who died when giving birth. There’s the juxtaposition between the woman and the city of Venice, both beautiful but doomed by an awful destiny.
“Venezia è un imbroglio che riempie la testa soltanto di fatalità […] Venezia è la gente che se ne frega! Stefania è un bambino, comprare e smerciare Venezia sarà il suo destino”
“Venice is a fraud that fills your head only with tragedies […] Venice is the people who don’t care! Stefania is her kid, buying and selling off Venice will be his/her destiny”
The songwriter is not kind with his words and the well-known problems of the Serenissima comes out:
“Venezia che muore, Venezia appoggiata sul mare, / la dolce ossessione degli ultimi suoi giorni tristi, / Venezia, la vende ai turisti, / che cercano in mezzo alla gente l’Europa o l’Oriente”
“Venice that is dying, Venice lying on the sea, / the sweet obsession of its last sad days, / is sold by Venice to the tourists, / who look for Europe or the East among the people”
“BOLOGNA” (1981) BY FRANCESCO GUCCINI
Another song taken from Metropolis, this time written by Guccini in person, is Bologna, dedicated to this famous city located in Emilia.
Bologna is represented like a woman: both the love for the city and the coexistence of its controversial characteristics are underlined. Its humble origins are juxtaposed to the current “hedonistic” way of life:
“Bologna è una ricca signora che fu contadina: / benessere, ville, gioielli…e salami in vetrina / […] Bologna è una strana signora, volgare matrona, / Bologna bambina per bene”
“Bologna is a rich woman who was once a farmer: / wellbeing, villas, jewels…and salami in the shop-windows / […] Bologna is a weird lady, vulgar matron / Bologna well-bred child”
1981, the year this song came out, was a peculiar period for Bologna. The year before it suffered a terroristic attack: the train station was bombed and 85 people died. The sorrow was still palpable and Guccini didn’t feel like delving into the subject, and so it just vaguely mentioned it:
“Bologna capace d’amore, / Bologna capace di morte […] / che sa stare in piedi, / per quanto colpita”
“Bologna capable of love, / Bologna capable of death […] / that can stand on its own feet, / despite having being hit”
ROMA / ROME
“L’ETERNITA’ DI ROMA” (2013) BY VIRGINIANA MILLER
Virginiana Miller are a group from Tuscany, whose music is to be inscribed among the alternative rock scene. They are not super famous and you won’t find their songs to be played in the mainstream radio stations, but they surely deserve to be mentioned.
There are many songs dedicated to the capital city, even very famous, but I didn’t want to bring to your attention only “traditional” songs that focus just on the outstanding beauty of the city. Rome is a marvellous yet complex reality that deserves an analysis that doesn’t stop at its appearance: it’s a city where the juxtaposition between sacred and profane is almost a living entity and where a certain sense of powerlessness is ingrained in the way of living of the population, who accept things as they are almost as if they’re doomed and nothing will ever change for the better.
“Vittime e carnefici / demoni e pontefici / polvere su polvere / di polvere di secoli / […] ma ridi che si piagni / tanto te mori uguali / […] che si fai er bene o si fai er male / tanto te mori uguale”
“Victims and executioners / demons and pontiffs / dust over dust / dust of centuries / […] but laugh that if you cry / you’ll end up dying anyway / […] that if you act good or if you act badly / you’ll end up dying anyway”
The themes of the lyrics clearly remind some of those discussed in the movie “The Great Beauty” by Paolo Sorrentino.
NAPOLI / NAPLES
“NAPULE E’ “ (1977) BY PINO DANIELE
The late Pino Daniele was a talented singer and songwriter with a very unique timbre of voice and whose music was very innovative for the times as it was influenced by a wide range of genres: Neapolitan folk music, blues, jazz, funk, pop and Middle Eastern music. Also his lyrics were an interesting mix as he, sometimes, liked to mingle Italian, English and Neapolitan.
This song “Napule è” (literally “Naples is”) was contained in his first album “Terra mia”, which was characterized by Neapolitan traditions and blues sounds. This particular song proved to be one of the most loved ones and it was also sung in Piazza del Plebiscito, Naples’s most famous piazza, by a large gathering of Neapolitan people when Pino died in 2015.
As we all know, Naples is a very complex city, full of contradictions and with undeniable problems. In this song, which lyrics are in Neapolitan, Pino Daniele sings about Naples’s beauty and social injustices in a very melancholic way:
“Napule è tutto nu suonno / e a’ sape tutto o’ munno / ma nun sanno a’ verità / Napule è mille culure / Napule è mille paure / Napule è nu sole amaro / Napule è addore e’ mare / Napule è na’ carta sporca / e nisciuno se ne importa”
“Naples is a dream / and it’s famous throughout the world / but they don’t know the truth / Naples is one thousand colours / Naples is one thousands frights / Naples is a bitter sun / Naples is the smell of the sea / Naples is a stained paper / and nobody cares”
“ESERCITO SILENTE” (2015) BY CARMEN CONSOLI
Carmen Consoli is a Sicilian singer and songwriter that comes from Catania, a city that in the early 90s was an interesting folk rock scene characterized by many independent labels. Nowadays it’s hard to categorize Carmen Consoli within a specific genre, but we can surely underline her unique timbre of voice and talent in song writing.
Being Sicilian, she provided us with a quite severe depiction of the city of Palermo through lyrics which are almost painful to hear for us, given the awful memories they bring us back.
Sadly Palermo is a city under the siege of the mafia and with a population that is often described as complicit, as it’s also implied in the title of the song translatable as “silent army” and in a rhyme “ the stunned looks of the people who have not seen or heard anything ”.
Carmen Consoli in this song, when delving into the topic of the mafia, refers to four heroes (General Dalla Chiesa, Peppino Impastato, Judges Falcone and Borsellino), who lost their lives to fight it and to a State too often being accused for having been absent.
“Come si può credere / che questa città baciata da sole e mare / saprà dimenticare / gli antichi rancori […] / il pianto di madri che mai più riabbracceranno un figlio / lo Stato assai spiacente / che posa una ghirlanda tricolore con su scritto assente”
“How could one believe / that this city kissed by the sun and the sea / will be able to forget / the old resentments / the cry of the mothers that will never hug their son again / the State so sorry / that lay a tricolour wreath with the word “absent” inscribed”