15 January 2016

Giambattista De Curtis – songwriter and artist

Talented Neapolitan became captivated with the beauty of Sorrento

Writer, painter and sculptor Giambattista De Curtis died on this day in 1926 in Naples.

De Curtis is famous for the song Torna a Surriento
The bust of Giambattista de Curtis
outside the railway station in Sorrento
A talented poet and playwright, he also wrote the lyrics for many popular songs.

He is perhaps best known for the song Torna a Surriento, although the English words that have now become famous differ from the original verses for the song that he wrote in Neapolitan dialect.

De Curtis is believed to have written the words for Torna a Surriento while on the terrace of the Imperial Hotel Tramontano in 1902, gazing out at the sea whose beauty he was praising.

De Curtis lived for weeks at a time in the hotel and painted frescoes and canvases to decorate the walls for the owner, Guglielmo Tramontano, who was also Mayor of Sorrento at the time.

One theory is that De Curtis was asked to write the song to mark the stay at the hotel of Italian Prime Minister Guiseppe Zanardelli.

But another school of thought is that he had already written the words to accompany the beautiful music written by his brother, Ernesto, a few years earlier and that he revived it for the occasion.

Torna a Surriento has often been performed and recorded with its original words, sung by such great performers as Giuseppe Di Stefano and Luciano Pavarotti.

The opening lines are: Vide’o mare quant’e bello. Spira tanta sentimento. Comme tu, a chi tiene mente .Ca, scetato,’ o faje sunna.

A literal translation of this is: See how beautiful the sea is. It inspires so many feelings. Like you, and he who thinks of you, dream while awake.

But to many people the song has come to mean simply: Come back to Sorrento because it is so beautiful.

De Curtis was born into a noble and talented family in Naples in 1860, the son of a painter and the grandson of a composer.

He loved Neapolitan songs and began collaborating with composer Vincenzo Valente in the 1880s. Their first song A Pacchianella was produced in 1889.

Another song he is remembered for is Duorme Carme, inspired by a girl who lived in Via Fuorimura in Sorrento who told him she liked to spend most of her time sleeping.

De Curtis went to live in the Vomero quarter of Naples in 1916 and continued to write and paint until his death. Ernesto had by then moved to America but was still writing music for his brother’s lyrics. 

A few days after Giambattista passed away on 15 January 1926, a letter from Ernesto arrived at his home. He wrote: “Dear Giambattista, I enclose for you music for the song which you sent me last month. I hope it pleases you.”

The view of Vesuvius from the Imperial Hotel
Tramontano that inspired De Curtis
Travel tip:

In Sorrento there is a bust of Giambattista in the square in front of the railway station that bears the inscription: 'To G Battista de Curtis author of the song Torna a Surriento. Placed by the commune 15 September 1982 .' The Imperial Hotel Tramontano in Via Vittorio Veneto where De Curtis used to stay is also famous as the birthplace of the poet, Torquato Tasso.

Travel tip:

When in Naples,  you can take the funicular railway up the hill to Vomero, where De Curtis lived in his last years, to see fine views over the city and the bay. It is well worth visiting the 14th century Castel Sant’Elmo up there because of the wonderful views you will get from its vantage point.


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