I’ve been studying Italian on and off since high school. At the time, the choice was simple: I had no electives to speak of, so I rebelled against the cultural cachet of learning Spanish and the business sense of learning French, and went with a language which was personally important. It’s the language of my ancestors, after all, but it was also a language associated with the country, of the three, that I most wanted to visit. It was, above all, a language comparatively few people learned. It was literally a class I could take purely for my own desire to learn it, and I believe that is why I excelled: it was chosen as a freedom, instead of being just a language requirement forced upon me. Of course, the reality is that I am still studying it. Picking up a second language is hard, if imminently doable, and requires a real excitement and passion for the language to get the most out of it. What began as an act of autonomy had to be sustained in some other way.
To me, the thing that kept me hooked was the media. In high school Italian, we would watch films about once per quarter, and I was always excited for these periods. Not just because it meant no “real” work, but because the Italian films seemed so different in spirit and structure than American ones. Later on, in an early course on Italian literature in translation, the styles of Calvino, Pirandello, Svevo, et cetera, captured my imagination in a similar way. Consider the fact that, if you’re reading this in an English speaking country, especially if you’re in America, you’ve probably grown up as the dominant culture. If you’ve been abroad, you’ve probably seen the same movies on display at theaters, and heard the same music in shops and restaurants. We export mass quantities of our own entertainment commodities, and yet we import very little, especially if it’s not in our language. Meanwhile, however, there are hundreds of little worlds chugging away creating their own art. India’s Bollywood alone rivals our own film industry, despite very little crossover into our own consciousness. Once you start learning the language of another country, you start learning its history and, perhaps more indelibly, its culture. Whole new worlds open up for exploration.
For our purposes, it is important to realize that Italy has its own Songbook, so to speak. We perhaps have an idea of this through our own Standard singers. Dean Martin made a living in part off Americanizing Italian songs, and there are plenty of accordion-and-mandolin-laced melodies that bring the listener back to the old world, from the familiar strains of the Tarantella to Louis Prima shouting “Oh, mama, zooma zooma baccala” (which translates, meaningfully, to “Oh mom, zoom zoom salt-cod”). For every overblown “Mambo Italiano,” however, there is a softer side—something not written for Olive Garden to play so to seem authentic, but a song created like any English song (but in Italian). And just like, for example, “Fly Me to the Moon” the songs become regular additions to the fabric of the local music consciousness, whether we hear them or not. It’s all stuff that is almost insultingly obvious when you write it out, but also all stuff that we rarely think of. Being exposed to the avenues through which to seek out music, film, and literature in Italian made learning the language that much more important to me, but it also began exposing me to art I might never have found otherwise.
“Il Cielo in Una Stanza” is almost certainly a part of this other set of Standards. Written by Gino Paoli, and recorded by artists from Mina, one of Italy’s most loved singers, to Mike Patton, best known for being the vaguely insane man fronting Faith No More and Mr. Bungle, it certainly has the scope to fit right into the latest jazz vocal CD, whether it was an undiscovered collection of Sinatra outtakes or the latest from Michael Bublé. While Patton’s version is surprisingly good, my favorite will always be the one I heard first by Franco Battiato, laid out with all the frivolous orchestration and smooth, nonthreatening vocals that make standards like this so universal. Perhaps it’s just because this one got into my ear first, but while that adult contemporary style can really bland up so many songs, here the tranquility is welcome, if not necessary. There might not be a better way to sing the ideas in this song. Consider the introductory lyrics, which almost form a quite lovely haiku when translated:
When you’re here with me
This room no longer has walls,
But trees… infinite trees.
It’s standard Standard territory, where love conquers and purifies all, and yet it never feels too cheesy. Maybe it’s the allure of the new language. Maybe it’s that the music is too lovely for the words to even matter. I’d like to think, dear listeners, that its specialness is clear no matter what language we speak. I suppose you’ll have to tell me. If nothing else, I think we can all appreciate the Charlie Chaplin “dance” sequence in the middle of this video. Fan videos, like standards, are not regularly my thing either, but mixing a visual Standard with a musical one makes the whole thing a bit more poignant than usual.
This song is also the first I’ve ever learned, memorized, in Italian. It’s a bit of a landmark to be able to hold a full set of lyrics in your head in a new language, no matter how tenuously. I find it appropriate that a song so well known a thousand miles away should be the first I also know well, that I can add my interpretation just like hundreds have before me and hundreds will after. It becomes one more bit of culture I’m holding on to, and one more touchstone of a world very similar to my own, but with such a wealth new of things to teach me.
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