First launched in 1951 on the initiative of the Italian public service broadcaster RAI, the Sanremo Music Festival (the renowned Italian song festival) was immediately a great success with the public, who listened on the radio to their favourite singers competing with each other in proposing new songs. In 1954 the event moved onto television, the new medium that had been inaugurated a few weeks earlier. Indeed, television made it into one of the most popular shows of all time and an unmissable appointment for several generations of keen audiences in Italy and abroad: the festival has indeed been watched all over the world for years, providing for many a unique opportunity to take the pulse of the Italian song and of the national tastes.
Although the rules of the competition have changed several times over the years, the festival has remained faithful to its core principle of awarding prizes to brand new songs specially written for the occasion. This format inspired other major festivals, from the Eurovision Song Contest, which was founded in 1956 – a year after Sanremo was broadcast in Eurovision – to the international children’s song festival Zecchino d’Oro, launched in 1959.
The songs created for Sanremo form quite a distinct batch in the cauldron of the Italian songbook, not because of presumed different poetic or musical qualities, but rather because of the importance assigned to them by the public, especially in the early editions and whenever the competition raised themes that went beyond the boundaries of music.
In over sixty years, Sanremo has showcased the various styles in the world of the Italian songbook, suspended between melodic tradition and new genres and sounds. It has also provided a stage for foreign artists to participate in the competition paired with Italian interpreters, like in the edition between 1964 and 1969, for example. If the festival has been the launching pad for many artists (from Modugno to Eros Ramazzotti, from Laura Pausini to Andrea Bocelli), others have viewed it as an “institution” from which to distance themselves, as it is considered a stage for mainstream songs.