For anyone tempted to identify Italy with the brash showmanship of prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, the ongoing struggle with the mafia and a national obsession with fashion, events this month will have come as a shock. In an extraordinary outpouring of emotion, millions of Italians have spent much of January remembering a singer-songwriter who died 10 years ago but now seems to belong to another age and another country.
Fabrizio de André is widely acknowledged as the finest Italian lyricist and musician of the 20th century, a Genoese hybrid of Leonard Cohen and the French troubadour Georges Brassens. His songs celebrated the marginal lives of prostitutes and gypsies and attacked the hypocrisies of the Catholic Church. As the Berlusconi government cracks down on the Roma communities of Italy, makes life tougher for immigrants generally, and supports the Vatican's hostility to gay marriage, many of his countrymen are realising how much they miss him.
The Italian political left is in disarray and was roundly defeated by Berlusconi in last year's general election, but its supporters have found a cultural rallying point in commemorating the life of a favourite son. A series of high-profile exhibitions and concerts celebrating the singer's life have generated a wildly enthusiastic response, culminating last week in a three-hour tribute to De André, tucked away on one of the least watched of Italy's TV channels. To general astonishment, the programme drew almost eight million viewers, or 30% of total audience share, matching the hyped new series of Big Brother aired the following evening. Three hundred radio stations relayed the De André tribute across Italy at the moment it played one of his best known songs, "Amore che vieni amore che vai" (Love that comes, love that goes ).
"In 25 years in television I have never seen anything like it," said the show's presenter, Fabio Fazio. "It was more like a secular rite than a TV show, after which we got 1,500 emails of thanks and people came up to me in the street with tears in their eyes. Only De André, with his strength, artistry and intellect, could do that."
According to his widow, Dori Ghezzi, who appeared in the television tribute, "the affection for De André seems to be growing in Italy, not declining".Ten years after his death, streets, schools and theatres have been named after De André, while hundreds of books have analysed his portraits of a postwar Italy dominated by the twin faiths of Catholicism and communism. Now, German director Wim Wenders is considering a film and a tribute concert in New York for the singer, who made just a few reluctant live appearances, usually hunched over his guitar with a cigarette burning in an ashtray at his feet.
Born into a rich Genoese family in 1940, De André quickly showed both musical talent and a rebellious streak, paying off his violin teacher to let him skip lessons when he was eight. He dropped out of law school after receiving royalties from a song he sold to the famous Italian pop star Mina. The lyrics told the story of a young orphan forced into prostitution, the first evidence of his lifelong fascination with the low-life characters populating Genoa's back streets. In one tribute to the life of the poor, "Via del Campo", De André famously sang: "Nothing grows on diamonds, flowers grow in the dung."
"Coming from a port town like Genoa, De André knew all about different types coming together, while he himself was a migrant within the worlds of literature and music," said Italian music journalist Giuseppe Cesaro. "On his journey he entered the cultural DNA of Italy."
Although considered a subversive by the Italian police, De André was never drawn into active politics. In the midst of student rioting in 1968 he decided to go his own way and write an album about Jesus, La Buona Novella ("The Good News"), albeit treating Christ as a revolutionary hero "fighting for complete freedom, full of forgiveness". Songs from the album are still played in churches, despite De André's lack of faith. Priests tend to leave out the track in which a thief who is crucified next to Jesus ridicules the Ten Commandments.
There was more drama in 1979 when he and Ghezzi were kidnapped in Sardinia by bandits and held for four months before his father paid the ransom. Undeterred, De André forgave his kidnappers at a later trial, claiming that "they were the real prisoners, not I".
A heavy drinker and smoker, De André succumbed to lung cancer in 1999, with 10,000 turning out for his funeral.
Ten years on, it is his sympathy for outsiders, argues his widow, that makes his work so relevant to contemporary Italy. "Fabrizio saw the challenges of multiculturalism coming," said Ghezzi, who sang a verse in Romany on a track defending gypsy culture on her husband's last album in 1996.
Fabio Fazio added: "Anyone who can clearly address the themes of mercy, freedom and the human condition is precious today in Italy because no one else is doing that. Listening to De André today has more impact than 25 years ago - he is now shining more brightly."
© Tom Kington & The Guardian