Fabrizio De André, popular intellectual

Guendalina Carbonelli   Monash University

I cannot remember the first time I came across Fabrizio. I was a child when like many Italians I started to listen to his songs with my parents and my older siblings. At that age his songs were fairytales to me; as I grew up, however, I realised that his songs had a very provocative component.Fabrizio_De_André2 My academic interest in De André is far more recent, however, and was triggered by the many initiatives that in 2009 were dedicated to the 10th anniversary of his death. The event was celebrated with books, successful tv shows and in particular a touring exhibition which visited Genoa, Rome, Nuoro, Palermo, and Milan between January 2009 and October 2010. 144,000 people went to the exhibition during the first 6 months in Genoa alone and about 150,000 in Nuoro and Rome. Visits by celebrities and politicians helped to boost the wide national response to the exhibition. In 2009 Cristiano De André, Fabrizio’s son and a singer-songwriter himself, started a tour in which he sang his father’s songs. The tour lasted two years and reached an audience of more than 500,000 people. I found all this attention quite unusual, even for a cantautore as popular as De André: I wondered why he was able to generate such a significant level of interest.

In my research I address the issue of De André’s long-lasting and posthumous popularity. His popularity is extraordinary within the Italian musical scene, surpassing that of other singer-songwriters with comparable compositional and songwriting abilities. I believe he has become the cultural hero he is for a series of complex reasons – biographical, social, historical and cultural – that allowed him to surpass his singer-songwriting peers and fulfill the role of the intellectual active in social criticism and engaged in public debate. In particular I argue that De André was a popular intellectual. This definition is not a substitute for public intellectual, which I argue is a pleonasm, since an intellectual must address an audience, must go public, in order to be considered an intellectual. The definition of a popular intellectual refers to a specific category of intellectual to which De André belongs. In this definition, the word “popular” refers to celebrity, to the significance of audience participation, and to popular culture. De André’s social criticism, which he carried out both in his oeuvre and in interviews, allowed him to leave a unique legacy. Thanks to his activity as a singer-songwriter, De André’s challenging stances reached a large proportion of the Italian population, enabling him to contribute to the continuous process of the demolition and reshaping of Italian identity and culture over a period of more than thirty years.


Fabrizio De André
Foto: Guido Harari

The Fondazione Fabrizio De André has played a key role in keeping the singer-songwriter strongly alive in the contemporary imagination. Established in 2001, the Fondazione is a non-profit organization that, as its statute states, operates to allow and promote the study of the oeuvre and writings of Fabrizio De André, to disseminate his ideas and works,  to help improve and promote Genoa’s old city centre and other Mediterranean towns, and to promote cultural, artistic, and welfare initiatives to help the disadvantaged. In 2004, the Fondazione, together with the Università degli Studi di Siena, created the Centro Studi Fabrizio De André, which preserves De André’s manuscripts and (partial) library and makes them available to scholars. The Centro Studi also organizes cultural events such as conferences and seminars.

The Fondazione regularly contributes to the organization or promotion of concerts and events such as the exhibition in 2009. The Fondazione also releases DVDs and publishes books regularly: Ai bordi dell’infinito (2012) is its latest book. ____________images_ai_bordi_dell_infinito_jpg_w_153_h_226It is a collection of writings by a variety of contributors, among whom are writers, artists, priests “di frontiera”, a transsexual and former Member of Parliament, teachers, social workers, academics, convicts, and NGO representatives. The book is organized in four main sections – “L’Altro che fa paura,” “Percorsi di giustizia e di dignità,” “Esprimere il dolore,” “Esprimere la pace,” – and focuses on social justice and initiatives centered on the inclusion of the marginalized in society. Rather that focusing directly on De André’s persona or work, all contributions draw on his ideas and the issues that he addressed during his career, linking them to a variety of social problems, projects, and initiatives in Italy today. In Ai bordi dell’infinito, De André is the “pretext” for talking about those issues that were most dear to him in his oeuvre. In this way, then, De André is still instrumental in raising awareness about particular social issues. Evidently he can no longer play an active role in this process: instead, he has today become the catalyst for raising awareness. In addition to concerts, shows and events that focus on De André as an artist, the Fondazione also pursues a line of initiatives, such as Ai bordi dell’infinito, that highlight his role as an intellectual. In the wake of these recent developments in the approach to the figure of De André, my research tries to tease out and highlight those elements that illustrate how he, as a representative figure in popular culture, has influenced society by assuming the role and function of an intellectual.

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