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Hagiography of Raffaella Carrà

“Renaissance and modern art are united in one person. A star is born.”

“It’s so beautiful to make love from Trieste going south” sings Raffaella Carrà. The year is 1978. Incidentally, abortion has just become legal in Italy. “My life is a roulette, you know my numbers / My body is a carpet where you will fall asleep”… The lyrics carry on, describing a free and independent woman, exalting free love everywhere in campagna e in città (“in the countryside and in the city”). In the video opening the TV programme Ma che sera, Carrà sings and dances around many miniature Italian landmarks, popping out from behind Milan’s Duomo, resting for a while on the Temple of Concordia in Agrigento, finally lying down in St Peter’s Square. “There’s no hatred nor war when there’s Love in the bedroom” she keeps singing, towering over the whole Country. 

Tanti Auguri (Best Wishes) was a smashing hit. Over the years it’s become one of Carrà’s indisputable evergreen, somewhat of an unofficial national anthem, and the definite hymn of the gay community.

Impeccable blonde bob (first worn in 1970 and almost identical ever since, more or less voluminous according to the fashion of the decade – Anna Wintour go away!); the signature header move (“A sign of freedom from hairspray, from superfluity, from rigidity”); the core palette of white, black, and red costumes, adorned by waterfalls of sequins, barrages of rhinestones, and swirls of feathers that would have made Liberace’s looks as sober as an IRS employee’s… La Carrà – with the definite article, as Italians affectionately refer to her – was a national treasure. 

Unapologetically pop, she reinvented the variety show on Italian TV, featuring Broadway-inspired singing and dancing sequences, spruced up by hints at Latin dance and imagery. Think Carmen Miranda, with less fruit. 

Born Raffaella Maria Roberta Pelloni in 1943, she started her career as an actress working on some Italian peplum films of questionable quality. I dare you to read their titles without smirking: Fury of the Pagans (1960), Atlas in the Land of the Cyclops (1961), Mole Man Against the Son of Hercules (1961), Ulysses Against the Son of Hercules (1962).

She eventually lands a contract with 20th Century Fox, starring in the World War II film Von Ryan’s Express (1965) next to Frank Sinatra. Rumour has it that he pursues her. She isn’t that convinced, and in the meantime starts singing and dancing on Italian TV.  

Upon meeting her, theatre director Dante Guardamagna, an art-enthusiast, has the idea of associating her first name, which reminded him of Raphael, with the surname of painter Carlo Carrà. Renaissance and modern art are united in one person. A star is born. 

The 1970s inscribe Carrà in the social imagination of Italians. 

She’s the first to bare her belly button on camera, with consequent criticism from the Vatican and the broader Catholic culture that dominates the scene.

In 1971 her playful song Tuca Tuca becomes a major hit, mostly because in the annexed dance she and a male dancer touch each other from head to toe. The national TV censors the choreography deemed too bold and provocative. Acclaimed actor Alberto Sordi saves the day, performing the dance with Carrà in such a hilarious and cheeky way that eventually controversies are overcome and Tuca Tuca becomes a popular phenomenon. 

The sketch is, to date, one of the best in the history of Italian TV.  

In the same period Carrà moves to Spain, doing television and releasing records in Spanish. Her popularity quickly extends to South America, turning her into a global sensation. 

The 1976 single A far l’amore comincia tu reconfirms Carrà as an erotic icon.

“If he takes you onto an empty bed / Give him back that emptiness / Make him see it’s not a game / Make him understand what you want” sings Raffaella in a tight flared jumpsuit, with a deep cut that leaves her entire back naked. 

The song is an international success, selling over 20 million copies and becoming her best-selling and best-known single of the soubrette in the world. It gets translated in several languages, most notably in the UK with the title Do it Do it again.

It’s so timeless that almost 40 years later French DJ Bob Sinclar remixes it in his single Far l’amore, which is then used in a scene of Paolo Sorrentino’s Academy award-winning film The Great Beauty (2013). 

In the 1980s Raffaella’s public persona shifts from sex symbol into a more maternal character. In 1984 she renews her contract with the national TV for an exorbitant figure. “Immoral and disgraceful” then Prime Minister Bettino Craxi comments, he never joins her fan club. If you ask me, she was worth her weight in gold. 

In the TV show Pronto, Raffaella? (Hello, Raffaella?) broadcast around noon and therefore mostly appreciated by housewives and seniors Carrà interacts with the live audience through several telephone games. The public understands Raffaella is there for them, one of them, just a phone call away. It’s the beginning of a metamorphosis that culminates in the 1990s.

In 1995 Raffaella presents a new programme, Carràmba! Che sorpresa (Carràmba! What a surprise!), which was aired on Italian TV for 8 editions, becoming her most popular show ever. 

In the broadcast, Carrà directly involves her audience and guests with surprises and unexpected encounters with loved ones (typically relatives and friends) they hadn’t seen for a long time. Fans are introduced to their favourite actor, singer, footballer; wives announce live to their husbands they’re expecting; generations of emigrants are re-united after decades. Carràmba! Che sorpresa tells very common stories of struggling Italians who decided to or had no other choice than to try their luck somewhere else. Many ended up in South America, where Raffaella is conveniently revered: Argentina, of course, Brasil, Venezuela, but also the U.S.A., Australia, and Canada (often pronounced Canadà, the old-fashion Italian way).   

It’s a show of good sentiments made for a still tech-naïve society, before the advent of mobile phones, emails, and low-cost flights. 

Surrounded by a postmodern scenography plastered by mirrors and spotlights, Raffaella moves around the audience, up and down the stairs. She stops by someone, invites them to sit together on a sofa on the main stage, starting to tell detailed stories about their lives. 

“You are the only one, out of seven siblings, that stayed in Italy, isn’t that right?” she asks an old lady with few teeth in her mouth and a grey shawl on her shoulders. 

“So, all your siblings are now scattered around the world, isn’t it so?”, Raffaella over-articulates every word she pronounces in her distinctive way. 

“Yes, yes” the old lady replies sheepishly, visibly surprised and confused. 

“And you haven’t seen one of them in particular for 40 years… It’s your brother Giuseppe, who lives in Canada, right?” Raffaella continues. 

“You haven’t been able to see Giuseppe all these years because he is afraid of flying, isn’t he?” she rubs it in. 

“Yes, yes. I’m afraid of flying too” confesses the old lady.

“Well, I’ll tell you something…” 

Sense of anticipation in the air.

“…between the fear of flying and the love for her sister…”

Emphatic pause. Eyes are already getting misty. 

“…Mr. Giuseppe has decided to come to see you, and after 40 years, HE’S HERE!” Raffaella screams in excitement. 

The camera cuts to an old man, all cleaned up. 

Schmaltzy tune with humming voices, flutes, and trills in the background. 

After 40 years, the two siblings are finally reunited. They hug each other: sounds of microphones squashed, inaudible audio, broken voices. Lots of shoulders at the viewers to increase the sense of reality of the scene, like in a fresco by Giotto. And then tears, tears, and tears. “But these are tears of happiness!” Raffaella wants to clarify. 

Everyone watches, crying. It’s impossible not to. 

The popularity of Carràmba! Che sorpresa is so wide that the word carrambata becomes part of the Italian dictionary, indicating an “unexpected encounter with one or more people with whom one had lost contact”.

Eternally smiling, perpetually kind, Raffaella is there, ready to help anyone in need. Our Lady of Tenderness, Our Lady of Consolation, Our Lady of Prompt Succor, Our Mother of Perpetual Help, Star of the Sea, Mother of Sorrows, Queen of Families, Mediatrix of all Graces.

Combining sensuality with affability, over five decades she managed to appeal to every Italian, across generations: from teenagers to housewives, from gay activists to middle-aged men, unifying them all, “from Trieste going south”.