Sanremo 2020: Ten things to know about Italy’s answer to Eurovision

The 2020 edition of the Sanremo Music Festival kicked off on Tuesday, and it's a hot topic in Italy. Here's our primer on what might just be the country's favourite music festival.

Sanremo 2020: Ten things to know about Italy's answer to Eurovision
People wait in front of the Ariston Theatre in Sanremo, the music festival's main venue. Photo: AFP

Sanremo is a key date in Italy's cultural calendar. In 2020, it runs from Tuesday 4th to Saturday 8th February.

Whether it's entertaining, over-rated, tacky, or exciting really depends on who you ask, but here are some facts about the festival that can't be disputed, so you have some trivia to impress all your Italian friends with.

READ ALSO: Sanremo 2019: Andrea Bocelli's duet with son brings down the house on opening night

It was created to boost Italy's postwar economy

In the late 1940s, Italy's economy was in tatters, and after the fall of Benito Mussolini's fascist regime, the country was searching for a new cultural identity too. In collaboration with broadcaster Rai, the bosses of Sanremo's casino decided an annual song festival would help achieve both aims, and so the festival – then called Festival della Canzone Italiana (Italian Song Festival) was born. The first edition was held in 1951, in the final weekend of January.

Location, location, location

The festival is held in the Ligurian seaside town of Sanremo. Since the town casino's manager was one of the original organizers, that was the initial location, but in 1977 the show moved to the Theatre Ariston as the casino was undergoing renovations. After that, the theatre hosted the festival every year – except for 1990, when Sanremo's flower market had the honour.

Italian actor-director Roberto Benigni arrives at the Ariston Theatre in Sanremo on horseback. Photo: AFP

It was the inspiration for Eurovision…

Yep, Europe's annual festival of all things cheesy, glitzy and Europop took its inspiration from Sanremo. The Eurovision Song Contest kicked off five years after the first Sanremo Festival, and the relationship works both ways – the winning acts at Sanremo usually go on to represent Italy at Eurovision that year. However, they sometimes turn their noses up at the Europe-wide competition, as was the case in 2016 when the runner-up at the festival was asked to step in as the Eurovision entry.

…And it's responsible for 'Volare'

Over the years, the Sanremo Festival has catapulted plenty of singers to international fame, including Andrea Bocelli and Laura Pausini. But perhaps the most famous product of the festival is 'Volare', the 1958 winner and probably the best known Italian song in the globe. But despite its notoriety, few people actually know that the song's real name is actually 'Nel blu dipinto di blu'.

Big artists and newcomers

Those are the two categories in the competition, with established artists and unsigned names, though in the past there have been two extra categories – Groups and Classics. This year there will be 20 artists competing for the big prize, alongside eight newbies. However, for the first 20 years it was held, each song was sung by two different artists, to emphasize that this was a song competition rather than a prize for the best performer.

The song titles from newcomers this year include two titles all Italian-learners will be familiar with: 'Il congiuntivo' (the subjunctive) and 'Come stai' (how are you).

The rules

These days, only one artist sings each song, but it must be a totally original entry which has never been performed in public before. The winner is decided by a jury and online public vote, meaning it has evolved into more of a reality TV show than a festival.

Big names

The festival is a major event, with Italian and international celebrities gracing the red carpet and stage alongside the competitors. Last year, Robbie Williams, Biffy Clyro, Clean Bandit and Ricky Martin all performed at the opening ceremony, and in the past, the festival has hosted Queen, The Village People, Avril Lavigne and Cher. But perhaps the most controversial guest was burlesque dancer Dita von Teese in 2010, when she stripped on stage until her modesty was protected only by $2.5 million worth of diamonds.

High security

The event sees celebrities, Italians and tourists flock to the Ligurian coast, so security is always on high alert. For the past two years, cement blocks have been in place to prevent vehicle access on the seafront area, there will be a huge police presence and surveillance drones in operation.

The flowers

Sanremo is known locally as the 'city of flowers', and it holds a spectacular flower festival at around the same time as the musical extravaganza, usually a little later at the start of March. So while you're watching the show on TV, make sure to look out for the magnificent floral displays.

READ ALSO: Italy puts 200,000 classic Italian songs online for free

A version of this article was first published in February 2017.

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.
For members


La Bella Vita: Exploding myths about Italian food and how to make words smaller

From making sense of Italian grammar to understanding what's seen as 'authentic' Italian food, our weekly newsletter La Bella Vita offers you an essential starting point for eating, talking, drinking and living like an Italian.

La Bella Vita: Exploding myths about Italian food and how to make words smaller

La Bella Vita is our regular look at the real culture of Italy – from language to cuisine, manners to art. This new newsletter will be published weekly and you can receive it directly to your inbox, by going to newsletter preferences in ‘My Account’ or follow the instructions in the newsletter box below.

*If you signed up for La Bella Vita newsletter but did not receive it this week please email [email protected]

Everyone in Italy is talking about Italian food this week. Not unusual, I know. But this time, it’s mainly because the government has announced plans to put Italian food forward for Unesco intangible cultural heritage status. This led many people to ask exactly which dishes would be included in the bid – and how exactly do you define ‘Italian food’, anyway?

One highly influential and controversial contribution to this debate came in the form of an interview published in the Financial Times with Italian food historian Alberto Grandi, who “has dedicated his career to debunking the myths around Italian food”. In it, Grandi made bold claims including that panettone and tiramisù were postwar inventions which relied on industrial processes or ingredients; carbonara is more American than Italian; and pizza was unknown in most parts of Italy before the 1970s.

It’s safe to say these ideas didn’t go down well at all with most Italians. In the below article, reporter Silvia Marchetti explains why the interview caused such a big public outcry and why she believes such claims ignore “millennia of rich food heritage”.

Why claims Italian cuisine is a ‘modern invention’ have angered Italy

Whatever you think of Grandi’s argument that the popular idea of Italian cuisine today is based chiefly on postwar advertising and political propaganda, there’s one thing everyone can probably agree on: there really are an awful lot of misconceptions out there about what constitutes traditional or authentic Italian cuisine.

Here are a few such ideas that you’ve probably encountered, and a look at why they can be safely discarded:

Four myths about ‘traditional’ Italian food you can stop believing

Neapolitan pizza. Is there any truth to claims that pizza was unknown in most of Italy until the 1970s? Photo by Nik Owens on Unsplash

And if you’re in Italy at the moment, have you noticed that things feel a little different lately?

Not only are the days brighter, but once the temperatures rise over 15C towns and cities seem to burst back to life after being (slightly) quieter over winter. Aperitivo hour moves outside, there are more motorini zipping up and down the streets, and there’s a spring-cleaning frenzy as homes are cleaned from top to bottom and wardrobes overhauled in preparation for la bella stagione.

Here are some of the sure-fire signs that spring has arrived in Italy:

Eight signs that spring has arrived in Italy

Easter is coming up and it is of course a very important celebration in overwhelmingly Catholic Italy, marked across the country by countless processions and events, plenty of good food, and hopefully some good weather too. Here’s a rundown of everything to expect during an Italian Easter:

The essential guide to Easter in Italy

One thing that makes Italian such a beautiful – and complicated – language is the large number of different suffixes which tack on to the ending of words and change their meaning. A common type is the diminutive suffix, which is the type of word ending that makes a thing smaller, or maybe cuter (think gattino, libricino, or fiorellino).

But as pretty as they sound, these endings don’t always seem to have much logic behind them. Here’s what you need to know about ‘shrinking’ Italian words.

Etto, ino, ello: How to make Italian words smaller

Remember if you’d like to have this weekly newsletter sent straight to your inbox you can sign up for it via Newsletter preferences in “My Account”.

Is there an aspect of the Italian way of life you’d like to see us write more about on The Local? Please email me at [email protected]