ROME — The Vatican and an Italian Catholic bishop on Wednesday protested a performance at Italy’s Sanremo music festival that featured a “profane” faux baptism on stage, lamenting in particular that it was broadcast on public television.
On the opening night of the annual song contest, a tattooed, bare-chested and barefoot singer named Achille Lauro gyrated and grabbed his crotch as he sang “Domenica” (“Sunday”), backed up by singers from the Harlem Gospel Choir. He finished by kneeling on stage, hands clasped in front of him as if in prayer, and poured water from a bowl over his forehead.
Sanremo Bishop Antonio Suetta said the performance contained “words, attitudes and gestures that are not just offensive to religion, but to human dignity.”
In a statement, Suetta said he considered not saying anything, knowing that his protest would only draw attention to the performance. But he said he also felt he couldn’t stay silent because Italy’s RAI state television had allowed images that “mocked and profaned the sacred signs of the Catholic faith by evoking the gesture of Baptism in a dull and desecrating context.”
“I believed it necessary to once again denounce how the public service cannot and must not allow such situations, hoping again that someone intervenes at an institutional level,” he wrote.
The editor of the Vatican newspaper, for his part, penned a short letter in Wednesday’s edition of L’Osservatore Romano mocking the “transgression at all cost” impulse of the performance.
“Never in history has there been a more transgressive message than that of the Gospel,” editor Andrea Monda wrote, recalling that the “great rock artist” David Bowie had once kneeled in prayer on stage — Wembly Stadium in 1992 — but led the crowd in praying the “Our Father.”
“They don’t make transgressors like they used to,” Monda concluded.
Lauro said in comments on his Instagram feed, which has 1.7 million followers, that he wanted to give his opening night performance at Sanremo to his mother as a birthday present.
“Mothers are divine beings, they give us life everyday, today in a new beginning, I give you my baptism,” he wrote in a post that had over 2,000 comments.
RAI said it had no intention of creating transgression and said it regretted that that Church authorities had viewed the gesture “as an affront to the sacrament of baptism.”
The head of RAI Uno, Stefano Coletta, noted that Lauro himself had said his gesture was “actually a message to his mother, and I don’t think that his is an excuse or an artifice.”
“Every art admits a freedom of expression,” Coletta concluded in a statement.
Sanremo is the annual, kitsch-filled song festival that dominates RAI television viewership for one week each winter.
Legend has it that the Eurovision song contest got its inspiration from Italy’s Sanremo, which began in 1951 as a post-war effort to boost Italian culture and the economy of the Ligurian coastal city that has housed it ever since.
Perhaps best known for having launched the likes of Andrea Boccelli and one of Italy’s most famous songs “Nel blu, dipinto di blu” — popularly known as “Volare” — the Sanremo festival usually picks Italy’s official selection for the Eurovision contest.
Last year, the Sanremo victors, the Rome glam rock band Maneskin, went onto win the Eurovision contest. They have gone onto to international stardom, opening for the Rolling Stones in Las Vegas and appearing on The Tonight Show and Saturday Night Live in recent months.