Donatella Rettore’s “Splendido Splendente” broke into mainstream Italy’s consciousness in 1979. It was dancey but definitely not disco, and it owed something to ska but had a sound that was unheard of on Italian radio. Rettore’s delivery was straightforwardly pop: a light soprano voice with a few embellishments but nothing too fancy that might distract from the lyrics. The title itself was part of the allure of this strangely alien song: Splendido splendente—Splendid Sparkling—was pure optical poetry, a prismatic, hypnotic coupling of words that immediately brought to mind the glittery stickers Italian kids of the late ’70s were rabidly collecting. They were called Super Stickers and you bought them at newsstands without knowing what you were going to find inside the packet: a sparkling pseudo-Warholian Marilyn Monroe? Or a velvety sticker with Mick Jagger’s face? “Splendido Splendente” was just such an unknown quantity and it hit you like a glitter cannon before you heard the first note.
Donatella Rettore—who performed under her authoritative-sounding surname, meaning “Rector”—was born in Castelfranco Veneto, not far from Venice, in 1953. After singing in a few local bands she moved to Rome, and in 1974 opened for Lucio Dalla, one of the iconic Italian singer-songwriters of the ’70s. Her first two solo albums didn’t chart, but she enjoyed runaway success in Germany and Switzerland with the Abba-soundalike single “Laiolà.” She recorded a few other interesting songs, but remained mostly unknown in Italy; so when “Splendido Splendente” appeared, it sounded like something from a future we now know all too well.
Even the papers say it
And I believe it blindly
A powerful anesthetic
And you’ll have a new face
Thanks to a perfect scalpel”
At the time, plastic surgery was starting to enter the lexicon of the Italian public. Famous for his work reconstructing the face of F1 driver Niki Lauda after the 1976 crash that nearly killed him, Brazilian plastic surgeon Ivo Pitanguy became an international celebrity, and Italians began to fantasize about the eternal youth evoked by stars like Joan Collins and Marina Doria, the Swiss champion water-skiing wife of Vittorio Emanuele di Savoia, son of the disgraced last king of Italy. Rettore taps into this new Italian obsession with a song that is superficially self-mocking and light-hearted.
“Splendido Splendente” is a post-human song before post-human was even a thing. Through the metaphor of plastic surgery, Rettore imagines a future humanity with perfect features and “pelle trasparente come un uovo di serpente” (“skin as transparent as a serpent’s egg”), smiling eternally in a state of blissful sedation. After this shiny (splendente) scalpel has worked its magic on her face, slicing it open and magically rearranging her features, she chirps that she “will smile eternally,” an eerie cross between Frankenstein’s monster and the Joker. Vanity, narcissism, money to spend, and the ultimate luxury—looking exactly like everyone else: it was the ’80s dream in a nutshell. But Rettore takes things even further:
“We’ll see how I turn out
An ageless man or woman
Without sex, resplendent vanity growing
For the rest of my life”
Rettore foresees cyber-transfeminism in the verses of a pop song: gender is the first thing that this glittering surgical ritual will erase. Gender is something that can be reinvented through technology and revolutionary practice. This peroxide blonde from Castelfranco Veneto had sniffed the scent of the 1977 sexual revolution in the air: just two years before, Italian philosopher and theorist Mario Mieli had published his “Elements of a Gay Critique,” where he had theorized a Marxist path to sexual liberation and a universal transexualism. Everyone is potentially trans, he said; it’s the capitalistic system that squeezes our sexuality and gender into tiny boxes. Mieli died in 1983, but his ideas lived on in the struggle of many gay, lesbian, and trans Italians who, especially in the years between 1977 and 1981, made their bold and uncompromising entrance into the sleepy, mostly Catholic, and often sex-phobic landscape of Italian politics. Not even the most advanced minds in the communist and socialist parties could get their heads around the ideas driving this colorful and brash new crowd. These turbulent years, which trans activist Porpora Marcasciano vividly describes in her memoir, “L’aurora delle trans cattive” (“The Dawn of the Evil Trans Women”).
Androgyny was everywhere in mainstream Italian entertainment of the late ’70s, though. It might not have been an openly “gay” thing, but it was nonetheless a groundbreaking aesthetic moment in pop culture. With a flamboyant stage persona that mixed glam rock with an Italian sensibility for a good tearjerker, pop singer-songwriter Renato Zero was a star of prime-time family programming; polysexual pop star Ivan Cattaneo, one of the few openly gay artists in late ’70s Italy, created a sort of androgynous rockabilly persona and electro-punk cabaret act that Sigue Sigue Sputnik would have died for; and Amanda Lear, the muse of surrealist artist Salvador Dalí and cover girl of Roxy Music’s albums, was on TV all the time, hinting—before Lady Gaga was even born—that she might or might not have a vagina. Lear also was the main attraction of a TV show called Stryx featuring BDSM burlesque acts and winks to occultism and satanism, six episodes of which were transmitted in 1978 on RETE 2, the second of the country’s public television channels—all in the guise of “varietà,” that quintessentially Italian family entertainment built around elaborate dance numbers and comedy slots. But this TV queerness was all apolitical: it was simply brash, titillating entertainment. The discourse about queer and trans identities and LGBT rights was intense in Italy, but it was happening in a parallel universe, far away from the mainstream.
Mainstream Italian pop music in the late ’70s and very early ’80s was a very diverse landscape: classic singer-songwriters like Claudio Baglioni, Francesco De Gregori, and Antonello Venditti coexisted in the same mediasphere of futuristic, camp innovators as Rettore, Miguel Bosé and Anna Oxa. Italo disco, too, was flexing its muscles, and sexy pop-rock singers like Loredana Berté were experimenting with TV shenanigans international stars like Madonna would later exploit in larger markets. In the mid ’80s, the development of the music video as a promotional tool sanitized things dramatically: Italian pop started losing its DIY post-punk edge to pursue a less adventurous and more family-friendly approach, and the growing success of Silvio Berlusconi’s commercial TV stations had a huge impact on the progressive bleaching of the Italian pop aesthetic. Not that things stopped being sexual—Berlusconi’s idea of television was actually hypersexualized—but it was always gender-conforming and heteronormative. Basically, everything that was daring and experimental on Italian TV was turned into cheap entertainment for straight men.
Rettore’s “Splendido Splendente” is just a fun song. But like all good pop songs, it encapsulates a whole world and an entire culture. Rettore was reacting to the end of the androgynous and revolutionary ’70s and the beginning of an even more androgynous but mostly apolitical and greedier age. She doesn’t pontificate or over analyze. She just smiles as the anesthetic starts rushing through her veins.
Daniele Cassandro was born in Rome in 1970. After living for about a year in Austin (before Austin was cool), graduating in art history, and working in a record store, he became a journalist, starting out on the official weekly magazine of the Italian version of reality show Big Brother before moving on to more serious business as staff writer at teen pop magazine Kiss Me! In 2007, he moved from Rome to Milan to work at GQ and launch the Italian edition of Wired magazine, where he curated the Play section for five years. He’s now in charge of the special issues of Italian current affairs magazine Internazionale, and writes about music, art, and theater.