I am seven years old, and my arm dangles out of the rolled-down window as my three brothers and I sit in my father’s car. We are driving through Rome and listening to I Successi Degli Anni 70, the compilation CD that defined my childhood and introduced me to Italy’s rich musical history. The music is blaring loud over the stereo, and we are all singing along to the legend Rino Gaetano at the top of our lungs. “Ma il cielo è sempre più blu,” I belt out—the “u” in “blu” drags on so long that my little lungs run out of air, but I keep trying anyway. The volume is so high that the speaker crackles in protest, and I wonder if my family will turn deaf earlier than most, but I can’t imagine it any other way.
Eighteen years later, this song immediately teleports me back to this precise moment, and the memory is so vivid that nostalgia overwhelms me. In other words, Italian music takes me home. And if there’s one thing I know for certain, it is that for the thousands of Italians who, like me, have spent a significant portion of their lives living abroad, these six songs will have the same, undeniably powerful effect.
Music is an integral part of Italian identity and perhaps its best kept secret. The following songs—written and performed by Italy’s legendary cantautori (“singer-songwriters”) of the 60s, 70s and 80s—are songs that all Italian households—whether wealthy, poor, or somewhere in between—know the lyrics to like they know their own names. In many ways, these iconic Italian songs are more than just tracks: they are the country’s timeless and undisputed anthems. They have become the soundtrack for the lives of generations of Italians. They’ve been played on scratchy vinyl, cassette tapes and CD’s, and listened to on all major streaming platforms. These songs have stood the test of time and represent, as the title of this piece suggests, the essence of Italy.
So grab whatever you use to listen to music—be it your headphones, speaker, or laptop—turn up the volume, and let these iconic songs transport you to Italy’s traffic-filled streets, its bustling piazzas, and the sparkling Mediterranean Sea on a hot August day.
Ma Il Cielo è Sempre Più Blu, Rino Gaetano (1975)
It’s been nearly 50 years since Rino Gaetano wrote a song on an 11-chord guitar (the 12th, apparently, had snapped) and conquered the entire nation with his uplifting message: “but the sky is always bluer”. An ode to the banality of life and the many hardships it can bring, Gaetano’s greatest hit takes us through the imperfect lives of ordinary citizens and has become an evergreen of Italian music. Piled with sarcasm, cliché and paradox, the optimistic song reminds us to tilt our heads up towards the sky—under which we are all one and the same—when life gets messy.
When Covid-19 struck Italy at the beginning of 2020, videos of Italian citizens singing this hope-filled hymn from their balconies to boost morale went viral. When Italy won the Euro cup last summer, my eyes filled with tears of joy as I chanted the chorus of this song along with the entire Tuscan town of San Miniato. Rino Gaetano’s witty, satirical lyrics and the tragic road accident that led to his death at 31 have made him somewhat of a martyr in the history of Italian music. Buried in the Eternal City’s Verano cemetery, his tombstone reads: Ma Il Cielo è Sempre Più Blu.
Generale, Francesco De Gregori (1978)
This melancholic track by Francesco De Gregori, nicknamed Il Principe Dei Cantautori (“the prince of singer-songwriters”), is one of the most beloved songs in the history of contemporary Italian music. The popular nickname refers to the unmatched elegance of De Gregori’s lyrics, as well as his reserved and somewhat haughty nature when dealing with the press.
Generale is a sentimental anti-war ballad inspired by both Italy’s collective history and De Gregori’s personal life. It recalls the composer’s time spent serving in the Italian military and remains a perfect example of his lyrical dexterity. The bittersweet Generale tells the story of war-torn hills, a train that carries the sun into the distance and nurses who make love to wounded soldiers. But the enemy is gone, and the meadow is finally still—only silence, pine needles and wild mushrooms remain. A rallying cry for peace, De Gregori’s velvety voice creates a visual so vivid and nostalgic it transports the listener to a far-off place that somehow feels intensely familiar.
Notte Prima Degli Esami, Antonello Venditti (1984)
The Night Before Exams—and what an anxiety-ridden night it can be. This 1984 track by the beloved Roman singer-songwriter Antonello Venditti has become Italy’s soul-stirring, pre-exam anthem and even inspired the heartwarming 2006 film by the same name. Notte Prima Degli Esami refers specifically to the night before la Maturità, the rigorous final-year exams Italian school students are required to take in order to graduate.
The song’s sentimental lyrics are littered with wistful references to Venditti’s youth, whilst also alluding to the tumultuous socio-political atmosphere that engulfed Italy during the 60s. The song opens by describing a nostalgic memory of four young men with a guitar, one of whom is carrying a piano over his shoulder. Like the majestic pine trees of Rome, Venditti sings, life cannot break the boys, and the night is still young. In Venditti’s autobiography, he revealed that these four men are I Giovani del Folkstudio—the legendary musicians Giorgio Lo Cascio, Francesco De Gregori, Ernesto Bassignano and Venditti himself—who used to hang out in the recording studio and discuss the many complexities of life. Notte Prima Degli Esami is a love letter to the uncertainty of youth and the heartbreak, friendship and yearning that inevitably come with it.
Maledetta Primavera, Loretta Goggi (1981)
The classic pop-hit Maledetta Primavera (“Cursed Spring”) was written and composed by Amerigo Cassella and Gaetano ‘Totò Savio, but brought to life by the brilliant singer and TV-personality Loretta Goggi. Performed for the first time at Italy’s renowned Sanremo festival, Goggi did not win, but the song became an international hit that would be translated into countless foreign languages and sell millions of copies worldwide.
The song’s lyrics tell the story of a woman who, after spending a passionate night with her lover, realises with regret that what was meant to be a single evening of fervour has turned into something more. She has mistakenly let her guard down and fallen in love, but the feeling is not mutual—and the dread settles in. “Che imbroglio se per innamorarmi basta un’ora. Che fretta c’era, maledetta primavera?” (“What a swindle if it takes an hour to fall in love. Why did you hurry, damn springtime?”) Goggi curses spring—season of rebirth, rejuvenation and new beginnings—for clouding her judgement and providing her with false hope.
L’Anno Che Verrà, Lucio Dalla (1979)
In 1979, Lucio Dalla, the untouchable icon of Italian music, gifted us “L’Anno Che Verrà”, a reflective, hope-filled song written in the form of a letter to an imaginary friend. Dalla received a clarinet on his 13th birthday and knew then and there that his purpose in life was to create music. While his dishevelled physical appearance and playful, often unfazed facial expression meant that mainstream success did not come easy, the artist eventually earned a reputation as Italy’s adored, mischievous older brother.
“Caro amico ti scrivo, così mi distraggo un po’” (“Dear friend, I write to you to distract myself for a little while”), the song begins. “L’Anno Che Verrà’s” poignant and poetic lyrics refer to the Anni di Piombo, or Years of Lead, the period of Italian social and political turmoil that lasted from the late 1960s until the 1980s, marked by a wave of both far-left and far-right incidents of political terrorism. Dalla alludes to the violence brought on by these uncertain years, while simultaneously delivering what is either an encouraging note for the new year or a cynical message about the establishment and its hypocrisy.
La Canzone Del Sole, Lucio Battisti (1971)
Thanks to Italy’s other, just as legendary Lucio—celebrated for his versatile, yet unmistakable voice and refined story telling—“La Canzone Del Sole” never gets old. The song’s narrator nostalgically remembers a childhood friendship with a young girl. “Le bionde trecce, e gli occhi azzurri e poi, le tue calzette rosse. E l’innocenza sulle gote tue, due arance ancor più rosse.” The children’s friendship is innocent and pure, just like the girl’s blonde braids, red socks and flushed cheeks. But when the friends meet again, the narrator realises that they have both grown up and are barely recognisable to each other. The realisation that his childhood friend is now a grown woman pains him—and reminds us that innocence is almost always replaced by fear.
The name Lucio Battisti in itself has become synonymous with an era of songwriting that revolutionised the course of Italian music. The revered, frizzy-haired singer-songwriter penned some of Italy’s most memorable and arguably romantic tracks, moving an entire nation with songs about love, male fragility, loneliness and desire.
It is a well-researched fact that music and memory are explicitly linked, and that songs from the past can awaken powerful emotions that instantly transport us to a moment in time. Ask any Italian—regardless of age, gender, or region—how they feel about these six iconic songs, and they will confirm their significance. With their sophisticated songwriting, poignant story-telling and thought-provoking commentary on our collective experience, Italian musicians take us home from wherever we are.