SANREMO FOR DUMMIES: a Beginner’s Guide to the Sanremo Music Festival

Are you a foreigner who knows nothing about the most important event in Italian history since the fall of the Roman Empire? Are you an Italian who never watched Sanremo and is now willing to repent? Or are you a Sanremo stan who just needs a refresher on the most culturally significant events of the past editions?

Whoever you are, this brief but comprehensive historical essay will turn you into a Sanremo graduate summa cum Baude1. We will revisit five events that happened during the week of Sanremo (commonly referred to as the “Holy Week” – at least by myself), and that forever changed the course of history, for better or for worse.

1This is a really clever pun involving the most popular host of the Festival, His Royal Highness Pippo Baudo, who currently holds the record for most editions of Sanremo hosted, with 13.

What is Sanremo?

The Sanremo Music Festival was established in 1951 as a radio-only program, and is today the most successful televised event in Italy. Every year, it reaches a share of 50% with peaks of 60%, meaning that, during the Holy Week, at least one person watching television out of two is watching Sanremo.

During the Holy Week, Sanremo takes over all channels: every single newscast and talk show is dedicated to interviews and opinions about the Festival, and even social networks are dominated by Sanremo talk. For the next several months, the songs from Sanremo are everywhere: on the radio, on magazines, and in your head. It’s the Super Bowl of Italian music, but better in every aspect.

Despite being first and foremost a Music Festival, Sanremo is so much more: it’s a cultural and social phenomenon that shapes the whole year. And the five most relevant moment, the events that set the course of Italian history, are all here.

2010: Principe-gate

(The audience starts booing right from the beginning, but the orchestra’s riot starts at around 5:50)

Emanuele Filiberto di Savoia is a member of the House of Savoy, the royal house that reigned over Italy until 1946, when the monarchy was abolished. The Italian constitution prohibited all male members of the Savoy house from entering or staying on Italian territory, meaning that Emanuele Filiberto grew as an exile. In 2002, the exile was lifted, and Emanuele Filiberto returned to Italy.

While at first Italians were more or less indifferent to him, he announced that he would be seeking 260 million euros in damages due to the exile, which tanked his image. He then tried to redeem himself by taking part in several Italian TV shows, among which Dancing with the Stars 2009, in which he placed first with 75% of the popular vote.

The following year he took part in the Sanremo Music Festival, along with Italian singer Pupo and opera singer Luca Canonici, singing a song he himself co-wrote. The song, titled “Italy my love”, was about Emanuele Filiberto’s love for his country despite the exile. Unfortunately, the song was eliminated in the very first round, probably because it wasn’t really good. However, the song managed to get back into the competition thanks to repêchage.

During the finale, while the host Antonella Clerici was announcing the artists that didn’t make it to the podium, the orchestra realised that Emanuele Filiberto’s song, after being eliminated and then, had made it to the podium, whereas other songs, despite being more well-written and well-received by the public, were not. The orchestra then riotted, booing loudly and throwing their music scores on stage.

This sudden rise to the podium of a song that was eliminated in the first round raised concerns over the legitimacy of the popular vote system, which was changed in the following Sanremo festivals.

2012: Belen Rodríguez’s butterfly tattoo

Belen Rodríguez is the Italian Kim Kardashian: she became a B-list celebrity thanks to a particular video, and since then she’s been famous for being famous. In 2011, she was announced as one of the hosts of Sanremo.

But this memorable moment happened in 2012, when she once more walked down the famous Sanremo stairs. Her gown featured a particularly high slit that revealed a butterfly tattoo.

This moment sparked a huge debate on appropriateness of the dress for the solemnity of the Festival, also in light of the early time slot during which it was being broadcast. Even now, Belen’s butterfly is still being referenced from time to time.

2019: Ultimo-gate

(Ultimo’s outburst starts at around 1:40)

At the 2019 festival, Ultimo placed second behind Mahmood, against all bookmakers’ predictions that expected him to win. Visibly upset about not winning, at the final press release he threw a tantrum against the journalists.

After claiming that he was happy for Mahmood’s win, he referred to him as “the guy”. The reporters scolded him for not referring to Mahmood with his name, which he may have done on purpose (or maybe he genuinely forgot his name), and for his attitude in general.

Regardless, he then attacked the journalists, affirming that they have only one week to feel important and that they always pick on him for no reason. In any case, Ultimo’s career didn’t suffer from this minor scandal, and he’s currently doing well for himself.

Funnily enough, Ultimo is a contestant in the 2023 festival, and Mahmood will also be present as the winner of last year’s edition.

2020: Bugo-gate

(The video can’t be embedded, click on it to watch it)

Bugo and Morgan were running together at the 2020 festival. During the third night artists had to perform covers of popular Italian songs from the past, and their performance was a triumph of dissonance and incoherent amateur singing. Apparently, Bugo didn’t like Morgan’s arrangement of the cover, which was confusing according to him. This reportedly led to behind-the-scenes fights with the orchestra and among the artists themselves.

On the following night, when they were called on stage for their performance, Morgan arrived earlier than Bugo, who arrived only a few seconds later. After the intro, Morgan started singing different lyrics than the official ones, referencing someone’s “arrogance”, “bad manners” and “blunder from the previous night”. Bugo stormed off stage and the performance was interrupted by the host, while Morgan was feigning ignorance and asking “What happened? Where’s Bugo?”.

The artists were disqualified from the festival due to the lyrics change, which is prohibited according to the rules. Bugo later sued Morgan for 240 thousand euros in damages.

2021: Orietta Berti being an icon

In 2021, 70-ish-year-old Italian Singer Orietta Berti was involved in a series of events that made her an icon to the general public, making her already consolidated popularity as an established singer skyrocket.

On the night before the beginning of the Festival, she was reportedly chased by three Police cars for violating the curfew, which was one of the measures in place in Italy during the health crisis. She was let go after telling the Police officers that she was just trying on her outfits for the next days at a nearby tailor’s shop.

During the festival, she revealed that she flooded her hotel room after placing a bunch of flowers in the bidet and forgetting to turn the faucet off, letting the water flow freely. She also mispronounced Italian band Måneskin’s name as “naziskin”, and some time after the festival she admitted that she didn’t like the song she sang.

She is a danger to society and it’s glorious.

What can we expect in 2023?

Every year, history repeats: Sanremo is always full of scandals and unexpected events. In the past, some of the most notable happenings have ranged from accusations of plagiarism to people threatening to jump on stage from the ceiling. Hopefully, this edition will bring many moments we’ll be able to include in future lists.

And now that you acquired this fundamental knowledge, you’re ready to go back into the world a better person, and live a more fulfilling life. From now on, don’t forget to tune in for Sanremo!

By Mauro Fragale