National Finals Explained — Sanremo

The neon sign to the Ariston Theatre, where the Sanremo Music Festival has been held since the 1970s.

For over sixty years, Eurovision has provided entertainment and music from across the continent, sparking interest in different cultures and artists. However, it wasn’t the first of its kind in terms of musical festivals. 

After World War II, a seaside town in Italy was trying to get its holding after the war devastated their economy, Nobody came over to travel, nor to collect the flowers because of destroyed roads and railway. To help revitalize it, Pierro Busetti, the administrator of Sanremo Casino; along with Guilio Razzi, the conductor of the RAI orchestra, worked together to come up with a  festival featuring some of Italy’s best unreleased music. 

Between January 29 and 31, 1951, the first Sanremo Festival was held, with three singers—Nilla Pizzi, Duo Fasano and Achille Togliani–performing all twenty songs submitted for the show. Since the initial focus was on the songwriter, rather than the singer, early Sanremo editions would have two artists perform the same song with different arrangements; it would only be in 1972 when each artist would sing only one song. 

A very familiar Eurovision winner, sung by Patricia Carli. In the beginning, Sanremo songs would be shared between different artists.

To Eurovision fans, Sanremo is the grandfather of the contest they all know and love but can easily be dismissed as another national selection. In Italy, Sanremo is akin to a national institution, with millions of Italians gathering around the TV to watch this multi-hour spectacle. Generations of Italians absorb their own memories of the festival, whether it’s the songs themselves, the international singers coming over to perform, or something crazy such as the orchestra protesting the results through tossing their music sheets. 

Yes, the orchestra actually did rise up and walk out. In 2010, “Ricomincio da qui” by Malika Ayene didn’t make it to the next round, and so the orchestra, who contributed to the voting at that time, protested.

Knowing this, as well as bracing for several hours of music and comedy, how does one get their toes wet in this affair? 


The hype begins as early as December, when the names of who gets to compete are released to the public. They’re usually a mix of newer talent and more established names; meant to appeal to everyone across generations. Another set of singers, called the Newcomers, would compete in Sanremo Giovani, which took place in December. The top six would join the Big Names in the main competition, albeit with a different song. 

The teasing doesn’t stop there, however. Titles are then released, along with the lyrics to the songs. Journalists would get the opportunity to listen to these songs and give commentary on what they’re like, but it would only be on the first night of the competition when everybody gets their first listen to the songs. 

Each night consists of several hours of music, intervals, and banter between the hosts. Sanremo is also notable for still using live music, including an orchestra. While Sanremo moved towards playback in the 1980s, protests made that policy revert in 1990. 

  • Night One: The first half of the singers perform and will be judged by a jury of press, radio, and TV experts. 
  • Night Two: The second half of the singers perform and will also be judged by a jury of professionals. By this point, we have an initial ranking of all 28 artists. 
  • Night Three: All the artists perform their songs and are judged by a demoscopic jury of 300 Italian music fans through a separate app and the televote, both who share half the vote. At this point, the rankings should change quite a bit—don’t be surprised about this!  
  • Night Four: each contestant would sing a cover of a popular Italian song, or a medley of them. Originally, it would’ve been between the 1960s and 1980s, but has since expanded to the 1990s. The artist can choose another artist to duet with or go for it on their own. Another ranking is then tabulated, but with 33% from the demoscopic jury, 33% from the press jury, and 34% from the televote. 
  • Night Five: The artists would perform their songs one last time, then judged with 33% from the demoscopic jury, 33% from the press jury, and 34% from the televote. The previous nights’ votes would be tabulated, then averaged for a final ranking. Originally, the top three would be pulled out and voted on again to determine the winner, but starting this year, the top five would go through to this superfinal.  

However, the winner of Sanremo doesn’t automatically go to Eurovision. Before the festival, they must decide on whether they will accept the offer to represent their country. Should they decide not to, RAI will choose another representative for Italy amongst the remaining artists. 

Notable Songs:

Mia Martini — Almeno tu nell’universo (1989)

Eurovision fans know Mia Martini best through her second entry “Rapsodia” in 1992, which showcased her hoarse vocals in a classical Italian ballad. This came three years after her great comeback in the Italian music scene, with this similarly thoughtful song.

Despite coming in ninth in the Big Names section in the contest, it became a hit, and evolved into an Italian classic which still gets covered. Mia also received the Critics’ Prize for it (which is given to the best song by the press), which was named for her after she died in 1995.

Jalisse — Fiumi di Parole (1997)

A relatively new duo when they competed in 1997, Jalisse surprised everybody by winning Sanremo with the song “Fiumi di Parole”. They were part of the Newcomer’s section in 1996 with the song “Liberami”; their sixth-place finish there allowed them to compete in the Big Names group the following year.

Their participation in that year’s participation in Eurovision is also notable in that it was the first time since 1972 (with Nicola di Bari’s I giorni dell’arcobaleno) that the winning Sanremo song would also represent Italy on Europe’s biggest stage.

Despite coming in fourth there, Jalisse didn’t see much success in Italy, and have constantly gotten rejected from Sanremo since. However, Fiumi di Parole remains a timeless classic, and has held up in fans’ minds from around the world.

Elisa – Luce (Tramonti a Nord-Est) (2001)

While Italy was on their fourteen-year hiatus from Eurovision, Sanremo still continued on, as a festival showcasing the best of Italian music. And one song exemplified that.

Elisa released her debut album, Pipes and Flowers, in 1997, entirely in English. Luce was originally written as such as “Come Speak To Me“, but to compete in Sanremo, songs had to be in Italian. So Zucchero, a famous Italian singer-songwriter, wrote the Italian lyrics, and it got submitted to the 2001 edition.

She won against Giorgia, who was the favorite with the song “Di Sole e D’azzuro“. Both songs would become hits within Italy, and they are set to duet with Luce in the 2023 edition! (Giorgia is competing again this year, whereas Elisa came in second last year with the song “O Forse se Tu”)

Pinguini Tattici Nucleari — Ringo Starr (2020)

Italian music is frequently stereotyped for being slow, operatic, and classical-influenced. And while many songs like that are successful, recently, songs spanning different genres made their way into the festival.

Pinguini Tattici Nucleari are amongst those–originally from Bergamo, they had released three albums before they debuted in Sanremo in 2020. Their song, “Ringo Starr”, strives to praise the people they believe are shafted towards the sidelines. Littered with references to pop culture phenomena, they tell a compelling story with a fun melody.

It ended up placing third at the festival, but it launched Pinguini Tattici Nucleari into the limelight, with millions of Spotify streams after the show. This transitioned over to mainstream success; the band recently had a number one hit with the song “Ricordi“.

Madame — Voce (2021)

Hip hop and trap are amongst the most common genres in music today; in Italy, artists like Sfera Ebbasta and Dark Polo Gang helped make this genre more mainstream. Madame is another rising voice amongst this crowd–debuting at 16 years old, she started to get fame when her song Sciccherie got recognition on the internet.

When she debuted on the Sanremo stage in 2021 with Voce, she became the first female rapper to grace Ariston. She placed eighth overall, but received the award for the best written lyrics, and saw her self-titled debut album top the Italian charts.

With her unique voice and gender-bending aesthetics, Madame will compete again in 2023, singing “Il bene nel Male”.

Sanremo will take place over 7-11 February, with the final night taking place on Saturday the 11th.

Published by Elda Mengisto

Frequent writer, aspiring scholar, occasional fencer. I'm a lover of all things beautiful and light.

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