Italy made its return to the Eurovision Song Contest in 2011, and the Contest is better for it. As the Italian Eurovision renaissance enters its second decade, we look at the relationship between the Sanremo Festival and Italy’s Eurovision fortunes.
Just as we wistfully recall hugs, holidays, and the banality of our pre-COVID19 lives, so too do we recall Italy’s contributions to the Eurovision in the golden era. One of the original debutants in 1956, RAI sent a song nearly every year until 1993. Through that period Italy:
- Won twice (1964 and 1990)
- Gave the Contest its first major global hit (Domenico Modugno’s Nel blu dipinto di blu in 1958)
- Finished last only once (also Modugno, Dio, come ti amo in 1966)
Italy returned to the Contest briefly in 1997. That year’s Sanremo winners Jalisse took Fiumi di parole to a respectable fourth place, but RAI did not come back in 1998. It would be almost 15 years before Italy’s return.
To be fair, I can see why Italy left. RAI often sent highly regarded musicians, whom would then find themselves somewhat ignored by juries. Italian entries that became massive hits lost to more forgettable
schlager songs. Sanremo, in its various formats, has worked really well on its own: why should RAI invest in another contest that does not seem to appreciate Italian music?
And…there was that small issue of a populist Prime Minister who owned much of the private television market and endeavoured to skew RAI along similar Eurosceptic lines from the mid 1990s onwards. That arguably also had an impact.
In 2010 RAI indicated their intention to return to the 2011 Eurovision, though plans for their local X Factor franchise to become their national selection eventually shifted to some sort of tie-in with the Sanremo Festival.
Rather than the winner of Sanremo earning the right to go to Dusseldorf, instead a committee in attendance at Sanremo 2011 were to “invite” one of the competing artists. That invite was extended to Raphael Gualazzi, winner of the newcomers section; it was agreed shortly thereafter that Follia d’amore would be Italy’s returning entry, but with a mix of Italian and English lyrics.
In Dusseldorf Gualazzi finished second, in a year where the points awarded by each delegation were based on a combined jury and televote score. However, the split voting revealed that while Italy had handily won the jury vote, Follia d’amore only placed 11th with the public.
In subsequent years—except 2014—Sanremo was the venue through which Italy’s entry was selected, which resulted in consistently strong results. In 2014 RAI went with an internal selection of Emma Marrone, one of their biggest stars. Her proposal of La mia città was accepted by RAI. In Copenhagen Marrone only managed 33 points and 21st place. In terms of selection method and performance, the 2014 entry was very much an outlier for Italy.
From 2015 onwards Sanremo has again been RAI’s selection venue, with the winner of the big section usually being given right of first refusal. Here’s Italy’s results, since returning 10 years ago:
|2011||Follia d’amore||Raphael Gualazzi||2||189|
|2012||L’Amore è femmina (Out of Love)||Nina Zilli||9||101|
|2014||La mia città||Emma Marrone||21||33|
|2015||Grande Amore||Il Volo||3||292|
|2016||No Degree of Separation||Francesca Michielin||16||124|
|2017||Occidentali’s Karma||Francesco Gabbani||6||334|
|2018||Non mi avete fatto niente||Ermal Meta and Fabrizio Mora||3||308|
|2021||Zitti 3 buoni||Manėskin||Pending||Pending|
Seven top 10 results, including four in the top three makes Italy by far the most consistent performing Big Five delegation—and, arguably, one of the most consistent level of performance of any delegations this century. With only one entry having been in the bottom five it is safe to assume that most of these entries would have qualified in their own right from a semi-final, given their rankings.
It is also worth noting that the 2012 and 2016 Italian entries did not win Sanremo. Zilli was selected as one of that year’s competing Sanremo artists, but the song was internally selected (Per sempre had finished 7th at Sanremo). Michielin finished second in Sanremo and reworked her entry for the Eurovision (translating the title Nessun grado di separazione to its English equivalent and adding an English chorus).
So how had Italy done consistently well? The answer lies in a wee town on the Ligurian Mediterranean coast.
Like the Eurovision, how entries have been scored at Sanremo has varied over time. Components of the scoring have included:
- Demoscopic jury
- Musicians and singers jury
- Press room jury
- Public vote
The demoscopic jury is a group purposively assembled based on polling data to reflect key demographics of Italian society. The orchestra and press juries are, literally, the orchestra musicians and accredited press that year.
In some years different juries only vote once; in some years multiple times. The public vote is important most nights in recent years. But the weightings assigned each components have varied. There is also a super final on the last night, with the top three ranked entries scored again.
These super final scores are a combination of juries and public vote. It is worth noting that in most years, the winner of Sanremo has topped the super final public vote. Soldi is an exception: Mahmood’s massive jury support (64%) offset being a distant third in the public vote (21%). Regardless, Soldi topped the Italian charts for several weeks, unlike the other two super finalists from 2019.
It all sounds very complicated, doesn’t it? And with the combinations and aggregations changing from year to year, Italy probably should not expect consistently strong results—but they usually get one. But how?
What Sanremo does is require an entry to survive a gauntlet of different methods to assess quality. You need to impress the professionals. You need public support. You even need support from the orchestra, in most years. Until you get to the super final you merely need to have enough momentum to be ahead of everything else on offer. To win the super final you need the highest aggregate score compared to the other two super finalists.
The danger of this method is ending up with three pleasant, safe, unremarkable super finalists, which has not yet happened. As well, because it’s not a single vote (televote or jury) super final, you can’t win Sanremo without either massively winning one component or doing better than the other two entries overall. Both the multi-day format and the multiple scoring components make it difficult to win without appealing to more than one sort of voter.
Why does has Italy done well since returning? Sanremo and its rigorous scoring system.
Why hasn’t Italy yet won, since returning? Perhaps also, Sanremo and its rigorous scoring system, which does not mirror how Eurovision scores are calculated. It’s close, but arguably the multiple “non-public” components under-weight the televote value.
But having a rigorous selection mechanism seems to be what works well for Italy.
There is one risk that comes from transferring a successful Sanremo entry to the Eurovision stage: time. Sanremo does not have a three minute rule; in fact every winner between 2011 and 2021 exceeded three minutes. The chop can make or break an entry’s Eurovision fortunes.
Only two entries were 3:15 or shorter when they competed at Sanremo: Soldi and Zitti e buoni. Of the remaining, the time stamp from Sanremo ranged from 3:28 for Non mi avete fatto niente to 3:41 for L’Essenziale. Occidentali’s Karma seemed to survive the chop worst, falling from the overwhelming favourite to sixth place.
Zitti e buoni has already survived the chop, managed to be at or near the top of the televotes, and built momentum with juries at Sanremo. As of today they are now the favourites to win the 2021 Eurovision Song Contest.