Alfredo Dongiovanni Musicista, cerusico e….barbiere

He was born in Zollino on August 24, 1889, and died on July 13, 1968.
Those who knew him swear that he was an imaginative and creative character; an artist few people know today.
His youth coincided with a period when men of culture flourished and distinguished themselves in the town, such as: poets Elia Franich and Agostino Cataldi; mayor poet Luigi Sansò; painter Giulio Pagliano; and historian Ettore Vernole.

Moreover, it was during this period that the artistic-cultural activity of the “Art Amateurs” Association came to the general attention with the election of Elia Franich as President of the Sodality. In those years, the “modern art exhibition” became more and more established, which saw, among others, the participation of artists such as: the Trifance; the Pagliano; the Flora; the Nocera. Dongiovanni, though not an undergraduate, was making a name for himself as a talented composer and musician.

His pentagrammatic output, in fact, has the improbable, having composed a large number of marches, polkas, mazurkas, sacred hymns, patriotic anthems, prayers, and transcriptions of operas for guitar and mandolin. His uniqueness, however, lies in the fact that “Mesciu Alfredu,” as he is fondly remembered, was self-taught. For he was, in fact, a barber by profession, on D’Elia Street, where the Bank of Naples is now based. In those days the barber was the “factotum of the city.” And Dongiovanni practiced it excellently. Hearing about him one gets the feeling that as a waxmaker he was a marvel. “Our artist barber” had developed a lotion, (the recipe, however, has been lost) that when smeared on skin spots (vulgarly called “paddiscene”) made them disappear. Hair loss had no secrets for him either. By mixing certain substances he had managed to cure alopecia.

His daughter Tetta, still living, who was had by his wife Argia Biasco, daughter of Francesco Biasco builder of the Eldorado Theater, now the Schipa Theater, confides that her father used to train some pairs of canaries with the whistle of his mouth. These would leave the cage at the opening of the hall and return at closing time.

But we are interested in the artist. And there arose spontaneous and fruitful understanding between Alfredo Dongiovanni and the poets of the time. Mainly with Elia Franich and Agostino Cataldi. The latter was considered “the poet of all city ceremonies” and of whom, the maestro, set to music, among others, Danza di bambole, Viva il Lavoro, Viva il Re. Of Franich, Dongiovanni composed the “Hero’s Testament” and it was first performed on May 24, 1924 at the unveiling of the war memorial in Gallipoli and “with which he deserved – wrote journalist U. M. in “La Provincia di Lecce – flattering congratulations from H.M. the King, H.M. the Queen Mother and high political and military personalities; from H.E. Mussolini, H.E. Diaz, H.E. Tahon De Revel, the Commander of the Bari Army Corps General Montanari, the Hon. Postiglione”.

The next day the same columnist wrote “Dongiovanni, a young man who arose, from very modest beginnings, developing his own natural endeavor, has reached a remarkable degree of inspiration and technique in the difficult art of sounds, which really succeeds the uncommon example of praise”. Dongiovanni also set to music poetic compositions by other composers, among them Professor Ettore Perrella, better known, under the pseudonym “EPEA”. On the occasion of the closing celebration of the school year of 1923, and precisely on June 29, the patriotic song, “La Bandiera” written and set to music by Perrella himself and set to music by Dongiovanni, which “not a few proofs of heartfelt musical sense has given and gives nevertheless always gaining maximum acclaim”, was performed in the Schipa Theater.

Our composer certainly cherished the friendship and esteem of his “fellow” artists, so much so that he particularly cared for the understanding with the master musicians Gino Metti, Cosimo Pindinelli and Raffaele De Somma, the latter being the author of numerous fine operas and sacred marches. In 1921, in fact, as a seal on the collaboration between Dongiovanni and De Somma, “European Peace”, one of our self-taught composer’s earliest works, was performed for the first time and conducted by the latter. The performance of the march which took place in Brescia’s Social Theater, “captivated the spectators gathering frantic repeated applause”.

Alfredo Dongiovanni, however, did not lack poetic inspiration. It shines through in all its delicacy and incisiveness from the few autographed lines placed on the folder of his memoirs, to “…modest recollection of my ideal that adolescent I advocated, while the arcane harmony of the notes, encircled my soul with a wave of tenderness, caressing my spirit, adorning my memory with a halo of suave light as a vision of love…” signed Alfredo Dongiovanni. An Artist with a capital A, who in addition to being a fertile and original composer was also a valiant player.

A certificate of esteem, the kind that marks you, he received from the great baritone Tito Gobbi, who came to Gallipoli for a concert. “You maestro have talent”, Gobbi sentenced, after hearing him in a mandolin performance, in the “salon”, having gone there to get a haircut. Music Dongiovanni had it in his blood, and in between soaping his hair he would give an essay of his talent together with his students, among them Don Pippi Leopizzi, performing in real concerts.

And precisely in “La Provincia di Lecce” of March 18, 1921, the columnist wrote “Il Dongiovanni also plays delightfully. – Incidentally, it must be said that the instruments (guitar and mandolin) he ordered directly in Santa Venerina in the province of Catania, with the characteristics that he himself indicated in the orders. – In solo guitar”, the journalist continues, “he is so specialized and perfect that his magical instrument can be mistaken for a real orchestra.

He also plays with exquisite grace another uncommon instrument: the sistrum (which he built himself with pieces of glass instead of metal sheets and which he made vibrate with sticks) for which he composed a rich and difficult repertoire with reproductions of works, the melodies of which fascinate the public. Of the genius and valor of this valiant countryman of ours, who synthesizes the highest and noblest contained in the beautiful art, the best success is to be wished, and we are pleased to point him out to unanimous admiration”.

It was, however, on January 22, 1948 at 1:13 p.m. that Alfredo Dongiovanni rose to national notoriety. One of his marches, “Italia Nuova”, composed in 1946 and probably inspired by the political-constitutional turn that took place in Italy with the advent of the Republic, was aired by the radio station, then EIAR, as the opening theme song of a radio program, which would be repeated for five years. The event stimulates the imagination of some of his friends, whom due to paucity of time it has not yet been possible to identify, enough to dedicate a poem to him. “….Mesciaffretu maluratu, intra la ratiu sa ficcatu! Arripete cchiù ddavanda, intra la ratiu c’è la banda” indeed reads one stanza.

For many, many years this, if you will, extravagant but at the same time extraordinary Gallipoli artist remained in oblivion. We are pleased to “point him to unanimous admiration” believing that he deserves to be rediscovered, mainly because he represents a heritage of our city.