In this Youtube video Paolo Pietrangeli sings his classic song of rebellion Contessa across the forty or so years since he wrote it.
It was one of the great hymns of the movement of workers and students that erupted in 1968-69 and was to shake Italian society for the next ten years.
He wrote it in May 1966 during the occupation of Rome University caused by the murder of a student, Paolo Rossi by fascists.
The inspiration for the lyrics was the overheard conversation of an old bourgeois lady in a Roman cafe in which she talked about the occupation of the university (and the presumed orgies that were going on there) and a strike by workers at a small factory in the city where the boss, one Aldo, had called the police on the striking workers who were picketing.
The first two verses are about the strike and describe how the workers wanted a rise and cried out against their exploitation.
The second verse describes how the police arrive, which causes them to scream yet louder, but the place ends up covered in blood.
The chorus is what stands out and makes the song such a classic song of rebellion and resistance.
Comrades, from the fields and from the factories,
Take your sickle, carry your hammer.
Go on to the streets, use these to fight.
Go on to the streets, turn over the system.
(a bit of a free translation. See below for the full lyrics in Italian).
The song was to gain new prominence in the 1990s as a new generation came into struggle Berlusconi, neo-liberalism and war.
Ironically there was also an attempt to sanitiese the song. It was covered by the Italian group Modena City Ramblers. They wrote to Paolo Pietrangeli in 2006 saying that they thought the chorus was too violent and should be changed, as it gave the wrong message to young people.
He replied that he didn’t agree that this was the case, and that it was a song of rebellion, but that he had always maintained that the song was without copyright and that he would not prevent them from changing it if they so wished.
He later wrote in Liberazione that he disagreed with what they had done and that he rejected this patronising attitude towards the audience.
He also wrote the classic Italian protest song Valle Giulia about the battle of Valle Giulia when the students of Rome University first clashed with the police in 1968 (outside of the architecture faculty!)
In the seventies he went on to have a career in film directing White and Black a film about neo-fascism and Pigs with Wings.
He also helped produce Flesh for Frankenstein and Blood for Dracula in the 1970s. Films which fit into a genre now often called exploitation, but which were at the time amongst a wave of Italian horror films which often had a radical political subtext.
In the 1980s he had a career in television. In 1996 he stood for parliament for Rifonadzione Comunista. In 2001 he produced a documentary film about the Genova protests “Genova. Per noi.”
“Che roba contessa, all’industria di Aldo
han fatto uno sciopero quei quattro ignoranti;
volevano avere i salari aumentati,
gridavano, pensi, di esser sfruttati.
E quando è arrivata la polizia
quei pazzi straccioni han gridato più forte,
di sangue han sporcato il cortile e le porte,
chissa quanto tempo ci vorrà per pulire…”.
Compagni, dai campi e dalle officine
prendete la falce, portate il martello,
scendete giù in piazza, picchiate con quello,
scendete giù in piazza, affossate il sistema.
Voi gente per bene che pace cercate,
la pace per far quello che voi volete,
ma se questo è il prezzo vogliamo la guerra,
vogliamo vedervi finir sotto terra,
ma se questo è il prezzo lo abbiamo pagato,
nessuno piu al mondo dev’essere sfruttato.
“Sapesse, mia cara che cosa mi ha detto
un caro parente, dell’occupazione
che quella gentaglia rinchiusa lì dentro
di libero amore facea professione…
Del resto, mia cara, di che si stupisce?
anche l’operaio vuole il figlio dottore
e pensi che ambiente che può venir fuori:
non c’è più morale, contessa…”
Se il vento fischiava ora fischia più forte
le idee di rivolta non sono mai morte;
se c’è chi lo afferma non state a sentire,
è uno che vuole soltanto tradire;
se c’è chi lo afferma sputategli addosso,
la bandiera rossa ha gettato in un fosso.
Voi gente per bene che pace cercate…