5 May 2021

Giovanni Gaeta - composer and songwriter

Post Office worker whose songs became famous

Giovanni Gaeta, aka E A Mario, pictured in his studio in Naples in around 1955
Giovanni Gaeta, aka E A Mario, pictured in his
studio in Naples in around 1955
The poet, composer and lyricist Giovanni Gaeta, whose classic Neapolitan songs brought him fame under his pseudonym E A Mario, was born on this day in 1884 in Naples.

Gaeta’s compositions as E A Mario, such as Santa Lucia luntana and Balocchi e profumi, were performed by some of the world’s greatest voices, from Enrico Caruso to Luciano Pavarotti, and became staples in the repertoire of Neapolitan song specialists such as Peppino di Capri, Mario Abbate and Bruno Venturini.

He was also responsible for La canzone del Piave - the Song of the Piave - which he wrote to commemorate the bravery of Italian soldiers in repelling an attempt by the Austrian imperial army to inflict a decisive victory on the Piave front in northeast Italy in 1918, a show of resistance that hastened the end of the First World War.

The song became one of Italy’s most famous patriotic songs and was briefly adopted as the country’s national anthem.

The verses of E A Mario's most famous patriotic song
The verses of E A Mario's most
famous patriotic song
Yet Gaeta’s talent never made him wealthy.  In need of money to care for his sick wife, Adelina, he sold the rights to all his songs to a Milan publishing house, thereafter receiving very little of the royalties they generated. 

Although he had many volumes of poetry published, for most of his life he remained an employee of the Naples office of the Royal Italian Post Office, where he had been taken on at a young age.

Gaeta’s family, originally from Pellezano, near Salerno, lived in an area of central Naples called Borgo Sant’Antonio Abate. His father, Michele, ran a barber’s shop, the small rooms attached to which served as home to Giovanni and nine other members of the family.

Always an avid reader, as a young man he became friends with the Naples poet and playwright, Eduardo Scarpetta, father of Eduardo, Peppino and Titina De Filippo, who would become celebrated figures in Neapolitan theatre and literary circles. 

His interest in music was in part down to a careless client of his father’s shop, who left a mandolin on a chair and never returned to collect it. Gaeta taught himself how to play the instrument, learned how to read music in the pages of a magazine and was soon composing melodies.

Although he took a job with the Post Office at their Naples offices in the nearby Monteoliveto area, his poetry introduced him to other opportunities, once such followed a meeting with Alessandro Sacheri, journalist and editor-in-chief of the Genoa newspaper Il Lavoro, who was impressed enough with Gaeta’s work to invite him to write for the publication under the pen name Ermes.

General Armando Diaz sent E A  Mario a telegraph thanking him for the song
General Armando Diaz sent E A  Mario
a telegraph thanking him for the song
The pseudonym under which he wrote his songs apparently took its ‘E’ from Ermes and its ‘A’ from Alessandro, while Mario is thought to refer to Mario Clarvy, the Polish editor of a literary magazine that published his work.

He penned the verses and music for La canzone del Piave immediately after the so-called Battle of the Solstice in June 1918, when the Italian army overpowered the Austrian forces at the front along the Piave river.  The words of the song expressed the anger and bitterness felt after defeat at the Battle of Caporetto in the autumn of the previous year as well as pride in their victory by the Piave.

The song, also known as La leggenda del Piave, made such an impact that General Armando Diaz, commander-in-chief of the Italian army, sent Mario a telegraph to let him know that the song had helped the war effort by giving courage to his troops for the battles ahead.

When Italy became a republic at the end of the Second World War and sought a new national anthem to replace the Marcia Reale (Royal March), La canzone del Piave was initially chosen to fulfil the function, although after a national debate that also considered Giuseppe Verdi’s chorus Va, pensiero from the opera Nabucco, Goffredo Mamelmi’s Il canto degli Italiani, popularly known by its opening line, Fratelli d’Italia, was the song officially adopted.

Under his real name and as E A Mario, Gaeta wrote more than 2,000 songs, providing the music to many of them.  In 1922, he was awarded the Commenda della Corona - the Order of the Crown of Italy - by King Victor Emmanuel III, who presented him with the medal in person after listening to his song.

Still living in rented accommodation, in Viale Elena (now Viale Antonio Gramsci), a short distance from the Mergellina waterfront, Gaeta died in 1961 at the of 77, having been nursed by his daughters, Delia, Italia and Bruna. He had survived his wife by only a few months.  The house is marked by a plaque.

Another plaque, bearing the first lines of Santa Lucia luntana, the song he wrote in 1919 dedicated to the many Neapolitans who emigrated, mainly to the Americas, can be seen in Borgo Marinaro, the harbour area adjacent to the Santa Lucia district, which was often the last sight of the city recalled by emigrants at the start of their long voyage.

Clothes drying across the street are a  common sight in Sant'Antonio Abate
Clothes drying across the street are a 
common sight in Sant'Antonio Abate
Travel tip:

The Borgo Sant’Antonio Abate, where Gaeta grew up, is a typically lively, traditional Naples district, fanning out from the Gothic church of San Giovanni a Carbonara, bordered by the Via Foria, Via Carbonara and Corso Giuseppe Garibaldi. with its marble mausoleum and vibrant, 15th-century frescoes. Alleys strung with drying clothes are a common sight, with plenty of pizzerie and as well as pasticerie selling the local specialty dessert, rum baba.  The Teatro Totò, named after the comic actor born in nearby Rione Sanità, can also be found in the district.

Borgo Marinaro is dominated by the 12th century Norman fortress Castel dell'Ovo
Borgo Marinaro is dominated by the 12th century
Norman fortress Castel dell'Ovo
Travel tip:

Borgo Marinaro is a rocky islet attached to Borgo Santa Lucia by a causeway, close to Palazzo Reale and Piazza del Plebiscito in the heart of Naples. The site of the 12th century Castel dell’Ovo, built by the Normans and historically a key fortress in the defence of Naples and Campania, the area today comprises a harbour for both fishing boats and expensive yachts, surrounded by bars and restaurants that make it a popular destination for tourists and locals after dark. It was also the point at which the Greeks first settled the city in the seventh century BC. 

Also on this day:

1432: The execution in Venice of renowned condottiero Francesco Bussone da Carmagnola

1860: The launch of Garibaldi’s Expedition of the Thousand

1972: The Montagna Longa air crash

1998: Campania mudslides kill 161

(Picture credit: Clothes across Naples street Orna Wachman via Pixabay) 


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