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
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
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."