How a Song About 44 Cats Captured the Hearts of Millions of Italians and Became a Classic
1968 wasn’t exactly a stellar year in Italian domestic politics. Similar to other places in Europe, Italy experienced waves of protest, violent rioting, and massive strikes that would trigger the dark Years of Lead soon after.
for: Italics Magazine
Photo: Jerry Wang.
From the Battle of Valle Giulia in March to protesters throwing rotten eggs at the attendees of La Scala’s opening night in December, the country seethed with an undercurrent of strife. In these circumstances, it is not entirely surprising that a children’s song about self-governing cats captured the imagination of Italians of all ages.
The Zecchino d’Oro had been established in 1959 by the Ligurian Cino Tortorella, a TV presenter who saw the need for an international festival celebrating the best in music for children. Modeled after the Sanremo Music Festival, Tortorella struggled to find a permanent broadcasting location until he stumbled upon L’Antoniano, an institute run by Franciscan monks in Bologna. The brothers proved to be very helpful when it came to training young hopefuls in the budding competition, and introduced Tortorella to Mariele Ventre, a choir director whom he would collaborate with for the next three decades.
Quarantaquattro gatti, or “44 Cats,” was composed by a 44-year-old music teacher named Giuseppe Casarini. Inspired by the Roman cats and cat ladies he had observed on a family visit, he wrote the lyrics to the song in about two weeks. The music came much easier, coalescing around a tarantella theme in only 15 minutes. After the song was entered into competition and accepted, Cino Tortorella set about auditioning children to bring the tune to life. He had his talent scouts fan out across Italy, and one made it all the way to the ski resort of Forni di Sopra, in Friuli Venezia-Giulia. A little girl named Barbara Ferigo attended the open audition along with her cousins, and she was picked to make the trip to Bologna. According to Ferigo, her parents were not happy about the news, and it was her grandmother who eventually traveled with her to the Zecchino d’Oro.