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.

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La Bella Vita: Free Italian museum tickets, Sanremo, and real spaghetti carbonara

From seeing Italy's best sights for free to avoiding crimes against Italian food, new weekly newsletter La Bella Vita offers you an essential starting point for eating, talking, drinking and living like an Italian.

La Bella Vita: Free Italian museum tickets, Sanremo, and real spaghetti carbonara

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.

The cold weather and grey skies mean February is the month when I’m most tempted to stay at home and keep warm, preferably with an Italian hot chocolate. But it’s a shame to stay in when there’s so much to do and see in Italy, even at this time of year.

Carnival season officially kicks off this weekend, bringing much-needed colour and joy to towns and cities across Italy at what would otherwise be a pretty dull time of year. The most famous Carnival of all is of course in Venice, and this year’s edition promises a return to its former grand scale after three years of limited celebrations.

If you’re thinking of attending this year, here’s our quick guide to the events and what to expect:

Venice Carnival: What to expect if you’re attending in 2023

A masked reveller wearing a traditional carnival costume In St Mark's Square, Venice

The 2023 Venice Carnival will start with a floating parade down the Grand Canal on February 4th. Photo by Andrea PATTARO / AFP

Another reason to get out and about this weekend is Domenica al Museo or ‘free museum Sundays’, when museums and other sites open their doors ticket-free on the first Sunday of every month.

As admission to major historical monuments and museums in Italy often costs upwards of €15 per person, there are big savings to be made and the free Sundays scheme is understandably popular among both tourists and residents.

Free entry applies to hundreds of state-run museums, archaeological parks and monuments, including world-famous sites like the Colosseum, Pompeii, Florence’s Galleria dell’Accademia, the Reggia di Caserta and Trieste’s Miramare Castle. See further details in our article:

What you need to know about Italy’s free museum Sundays

There is however at least one good reason to stay in and watch some Italian TV: The Sanremo Music Festival returns on Tuesday, February 7th, and it will likely be the main topic of conversation all week.

If you’re a fan of Eurovision, you’re pretty much guaranteed to love it. But some people don’t find the appeal of the show immediately obvious, to put it mildly.

So what is it about the festival that pulls together an entire nation, regardless of whether they fall into the ‘love it’ or ‘hate it’ camp? We looked at just why this 73-year-old song contest is such an Italian institution.

Why is the Sanremo music festival so important to Italians?

In the latest international Italian food controversy, Italian media reacted with anger and dismay this week to a recipe published in the New York Times for ‘tomato carbonara’, which recommended adding tomato sugo along with the eggs, and replacing pork cheek and pecorino with bacon and parmesan – an adaptation which was described as “provocative”, “disgusting”, and a “declaration of war”.

For anyone who doesn’t want to traumatise their Italian dinner guests or risk sparking a diplomatic incident, here’s the classic recipe plus a look at the rules to follow when making a real Roman-style carbonara:

The ten unbreakable rules for making real pasta carbonara

However, you might be surprised to hear that adding cream – or tomato – to your carbonara recipe isn’t actually the worst food crime you could commit according to Italians.

From fruity pizza toppings to spaghetti bolognese, an international study revealed which of the most common international ‘adaptations’ are seen as most and least offensive.

RANKED: The 11 worst food crimes you can commit according to Italians

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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]