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Libero Bovio (1883-1942)


Together with Ferdinando Russo and Salvatore Di Giacomo, Libero Bovio was at the heart of the great rebirth of Neapolitan dialect poetry and theater at the beginning of the 20th century. His unusual first name—"Libero" (Free)—apparently is traceable to the anti-monarchist sentiments of his father, a philosophy teacher. Father also envisioned a medical career for his son, and though Libero, indeed, entered medical school, he is said to have fainted at the sight of all those cadavers and body parts during his first anatomy lesson. So much for the future Dr. Bovio.

To pursue his passion for dialect poetry and theater, he took odd jobs at newspapers and then went to work in the export office of the National Museum. He then became director of Canzonetta, a small publishing concern dedicated to the music of Naples.

A collection of his dialect comedies appeared in 1923 and his collected poems were published in 1928. He is primarily remembered for his lyrics to some 600 Neapolitan songs, set to the music of the great Neapolitan song writers of his day. Among his best remembered lyrics are Reginella, 'O paese d' 'o sole and, in 1925, the ultimate emigrant tear-jerker, Lacreme napulitane, a song that describes the drama of the immigrant Neapolitan in America, far from home and hearth at Christmas. The opening line of the refrain, "E nce ne costa lacreme st'America a nuie napulitane..." ("How many tears this America has cost us Neapolitans...") set to a keening oriental minor melodic line by Francesco Buongiovanni, are among the best known lyrics in the entire repertoire of the Neapolitan Song.

Bovio's home in Naples was quite a watering-hole for literati of the day. You can even see the manuscript of a song composed by Puccini, himself. The maestro was sitting at Bovio's piano and decided to knock out a tune. He called Bovio over to write Neapolitan lyrics; the manuscript on display bears both the handwritten music by Puccini and Bovio's lyrics.

Stories that circulate about Libero Bovio indicate that he was very well-liked and possessed of humor and good-natured wit. He supposedly had his horse-drawn coach stop one morning so he could alight and answer an urgent call of nature in the shadow of a building. He was approached by a policeman:

"Oh, Don Libero—it's you! You know I have to write you up for that."
"I know. I couldn't hold it. So how much is the fine?"
"Two lire and fifty cents."
"Fine," says Bovio, handing the cop a five-lire note.
"Five? I can't change that."

Bovio looks up at his coach-driver and says, "Get down here and take a leak. Help the officer out."

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