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Italian singer-songwriter Fabrizio De André playing the lute. Genoa, December 1969. (Photo by Walter Mori/Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images)

The story behind Hotel Supramonte

By
Essay | 29 minute read
Fabrizio De André was an Italian icon, anarchist and singer-songwriter when in 1979 he and his future wife were kidnapped on the island they had made their home. A writer, and fan, reflects on how he touched her life

L’Agnata, 1979

The man shifts from one haunch to the other. He has occupied this post, a crack between megalithic rocks, for three days and nights; he has eaten, dozed and pissed here, resisting the urge to defecate. The scent of myrtle, thyme and juniper might cover the stink, but there’d be no avoiding the buzzing flies, high on the sap of summer and on whatever he would leave behind. No, grazie: he’s keeping it in.

Seven hundred metres below, the sea lies in darkness. It is no longer visible from his position on the clavicle of the Limbara mountain, but the observer can still make out the silhouettes of spiky arbutus bushes, holm oaks and granite boulders by the diffuse glow of the moon. The air along the rutted track to the house is honeyed with the scent of swollen figs: musky windfalls from trees twisted by the maestrale winds. He counts the noiseless flares of shooting stars.

Not long now. The reconnaissance has been spot-on. The first car, containing the grandparents and the baby, inched its way down the winding road two hours ago, at sundown: he overheard the grandparents lisping in pretend toddler-voices on the child’s behalf, waving her fat little arm for her out of the open window. Ciao mamma, ciao papa, ci vediamo tra tre giorni.

The sky deepens to bruised purple before three more cars set off, crammed with laughing revellers, each of those rich cretini taking forever to say goodbye, to hoist self plus guitar on board.

Oddío… get a move on, mouths the watching man. Then, silence. Even the cicadas sleep. He sees the lights around the house and gardens go out one by one, until only one room remains illuminated. Just like Hansel’s scraps of bread… he thinks, with an absurd flashback to the pretty young teacher who read the fairy story to the class, the year before he turned seven and his parents banned school because there was no money for shoes.

Now, a few metres away, from behind the pregnant belly of a neighbouring rock, a hoarse whisper. Andiamo. He stands.

Three shadows detach themselves from the boulders and move towards the house.

London, 1972

‘What could a nocturnal, angry young man have done in the late fifties – one of modest culture and a lover of mice, pigeons and heavy drinking, with a craving for social justice; a befriender of career strumpets and a ferocious cantor of politics; an unreliable husband and a musicomane obsessed with anything in print? He would most probably have become a cantautore [singer-songwriter]… That is, in fact, what happened…’ (Fabrizio de André, quoted on his website)

My mother was away on a work trip and it showed: each morning at school, my teacher, lips compressed, undid the lopsided sausages into which my father had arranged my hair and re-combed them into neat regulation plaits. The end to this daily humiliation was almost as joyous to me as the sight of my mother, when after three weeks she finally arrived home with consolation prizes from Milan. One was an LP, entitled Volume 1, by Fabrizio De André.

Released in 1967, the album’s sleeve was not of its era: no trippy-chic, no psychedelia; simply a close-up photo of a young man set in a disc against a white background. To me De André looked old – all adults did – but I was attracted to his fine-featured face with its straight nose, the lips of a libertine (I now see) and the sad, dark eyes of a poet. His skin was pale; his hair fell in a sweep across his forehead.

‘Listen to this,’ my mother said, ‘you’ll like it.’

The needle traced the record’s concentric grooves. I heard a Spanish guitar weave circles, virtuoso spirals. A bass marked time with funereal chords. Then came the vocals: the timbre bleak, but deep and warm and textured. The voice was singing to an unnamed friend (the tu of the song), to a God, and to me. My childish Italian caught only some of the words, but the music – its simple tonal vocabulary both generous and human – transfixed me. I could pick out ‘suicide’, ‘mercy’, happiness’ and ‘God’.

Only years later, as a teenager, was I able to assemble the lyrics and melody into the story the ballad was telling. In ‘Preghiera in Gennaio’ (‘January Prayer’), De André was asking God to find a place in paradise for those who choose to end their lives. He wrote the song one cold January, on the day of a close friend’s funeral.

‘Via Del Campo’, the next track, describes the encounter between a prostitute (in the eponymous street of De André’s native Genoa) and an infatuated customer who proposes marriage to her. The melody is lyrical: the punter, with a Baudelairean nostalgie de la boue, muses, ‘Nothing grows from diamonds/ flowers spring from manure’.

I listened to that album so much that the needle began to skid across the vinyl. Around that time, my adored and childless aunt from Rome started an annual tradition, taking me and my sisters on a month’s holiday by the sea in pensione. Those adolescent summers in 1970s Italy taught me how much catching up I had to do. This was an era in which Italian children sized each other up with a single question: Sei di destra o di sinistra; comunista o fascista? Are you right-wing or left-wing; communist or fascist? For us Londoners, the equivalent tribal affiliations involved pop music, favourite colours or football teams. I soon learnt that De André, whose albums I gradually acquired with my holiday spending money each time I went to Italy, took the side of the comunisti.

Italy was in crisis. These were the ‘years of lead’ – gli anni di piombo – the nation’s citizens caught between the pincers of Red Brigade terrorists at one end of the political spectrum, and neo-Fascists at the other. The status quo, loathed by both sides, was a series of venal centre-right Christian Democrat-led coalitions that had monopolised power for decades. In this deeply politicised and polarised nation, concept albums such as De André’s ‘Storia di un Impiegato’ (‘Story of a White-Collar Worker’) made him an accidental standard-bearer for the left.

The melodies, the musical arrangements and the voice had pulled me in, but the politics inevitably followed suit. My Italian improved as I translated lyrics discussing love, war, social affairs, current and historical events – and Jesus, although my Italian friends told me that both the Vatican and Italian state television had banned certain tracks, pronouncing them blasphemous and obscene. De André’s anti-clericism, loathing as I did the petty tyrannies of my Catholic grammar school, chimed with me.

His songs reassembled the kaleidoscope of our existence in unexpected ways: he celebrated the disenfranchised, the marginalised, rebels – even the lurking footsteps of death. His work was threaded with lyrical descriptions of nature and the elemental forces of our universe. He was unashamedly, unpretentiously intellectual. He examined the opposing philosophies of pacifists, anarchists and imperialists. He drew inspiration from ancient mythology, medieval literature and modern writers – one album was based on Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology, another on The Clouds by Aristophanes. De André’s earliest influence was Georges Brassens, but he admired – and collaborated with – some of my own musical heroes: Bob Dylan (the story goes that disliking live performances, he turned down Dylan’s invitation to tour together) and Leonard Cohen, whose songs he translated and covered.

I am half-Italian, effectively a foreigner both in England (the country of my birth) and Italy (the country of my mother’s). Being a De André fan made me ‘properly Italian’, I kidded myself. But all my first boyfriend from Italy and I had in common, with hindsight, was a shared love of Bowie and De André.

By the mid-seventies, the cantautore, black-sheep son of a wealthy industrialist, had released seven albums. He’d taken a gamble: had dropped out of law school to write poetry and songs. Outwardly at least, it had paid off. He was now an unlikely folk hero, as revered in Italy as any of the internationally known artists he admired. His songs embodied the nation’s existential struggle, one he examined with a forensic, compassionate and frequently comedic eye. In ‘Il Bombarolo’ (‘The Bomber-Man’), he presents the thoughts of a terrorist bomber, off to plant his deadly cargo.

But the swaggering agent of terror becomes a whimpering figure of ridicule. Waiting, exultant, for the bomb he’s just planted outside parliament to detonate, he breaks out weeping in ‘a torrent of vowels’. The cause: ‘her image/ leaning out from every sheet’ of the newspapers on sale in a nearby kiosk. Perhaps il bombarolo’s cartoonish sobs are for a girlfriend who has dumped him because he is a terrorist; maybe he’s furious at sharing the limelight with an erstwhile accomplice who chickened out of planting the bomb – Bonnie and Clyde gone wrong. We are not told. He almost invites pity. The ambiguity is what raises De André above the level of a polemicist. In positing the humanity deep within everyone – terrorist, whore, punter, priest, junkie, emperor or child – he speaks to us all.

L’Agnata, 1979

10 p.m. Dori stretches her arms above her head and yawns: a moment, she reminds herself, to savour her freedom. She abjures her instinct to mourn; unchecked she knows it would sabotage this, their first night alone together. It is to be their firefly-lit carnival: she and Fabrizio will fuck until sunrise, like they haven’t done since November 1977, the dawn of Dori’s obsession with the milk and honey of her newborn’s skin. The baby is now twenty-one months old, Dori’s parents reminded her. They would like their granddaughter, Luvi, to themselves for just three days; she’ll be happy splashing around in the limpid bathwater-warm shallows near the villa they’ve taken at Porto San Paolo. Dori’s thoughts move to Fabrizio: the faraway look she’s caught all afternoon in his eyes, the same – almost confused – gaze of their first time, when he’d told her that her body had transported him to paradise. Catching that gaze today, she almost forgot her houseful of visitors – parents, sister, friends, children – but never Luvi. To revisit paradise with Fabrizio she’s agreed to let the baby go.

She hears footsteps on the terracotta stairs above her first-floor bedroom. Stealthy but unmistakeable, not imagined. And – instantaneous the realisation – it can’t be Fabrizio: because he walks soundlessly, barefoot always, until the autumn chill forces shoes on to his feet. It is a summer night. It is 27 August.

Sardegna

In the summer of 1959, Prince Karim Al Husseini Aga Khan IV, spiritual leader of the Muslim sect of Nizari Ismailis, sailed his yacht past a barren, rocky coastline. He was instantly captivated by the translucent green of the sea; by the hidden coves and jagged granite rocks; by the wind-hunched olive trees and the fine-grained white sand. Between 1961 and 1968 he returned, gradually constructing a summer paradise for himself and like-minded visitors along a twenty-kilometre stretch that he rechristened the Costa Smeralda, after its emerald waters. His discreet hotels were soon frequented by the jet set: Princess Margaret, George Harrison, Brigitte Bardot, Peter Sellers.

In 1968 De André sailed to the Costa Smeralda with his friend the architect Renzo Piano, a fellow Genoese and a keen yachtsman. It was the singer’s first visit to Sardinia, a large under-populated island the size of Wales, lying south of Corsica and west of the Italian mainland.

The island was not then a tourist destination, but much had changed by 2001, when I first flew to Sardinia with my family. The Costa Smeralda, to the north-east, was an area we avoided, aware it was the kind of place where Silvio Berlusconi entertained the Blairs. But even today, large swathes of the island remain untroubled by the attentions of developers, leaving me plenty of room to evoke Proustian memories of my 1970s seaside holidays for my own children: wide beaches, scalding sand underfoot; the cooling buoyancy of the glittering sea; the crack of small rubber balls on wooden rackets; the iced sweetness of watermelon granita; playing-cards; extravagant piles of books; sand sculptures of bosomy mermaids. Illusions of time and space.

Back in 1968, De André instantly succumbed to what he called maldeisardi – the same (figurative) influenza that was to assail me decades later. Neither of us recovered. De André put it well: he said he was ‘annihilated’ by the smisurata bellezza – the immeasurable beauty – of Sardegna. His word smisurata conveys wildness, a wanton boundlessness that is lost in its English translation: think, in the idiom of the day, Anita Ekberg as opposed to Audrey Hepburn. The suggestion of utopia, of the generosity of nature, the island’s bounty of honey, cheeses, olives, vines, livestock and fish, all echo classical descriptions of Atlantis.

Plato’s Socratic dialogues spoke of an idyllic land, surrounded by waters and located beyond the pillars of Hercules in the strait between Sicily and Tunisia; a paradise that was engulfed by a massive tsunami and lost forever. Recent scientific and archaeological analysis suggests that Sardinia could be the site of that lost island civilisation. The Italian name for the island is almost onomatopoeic with its wide vowel sounds: degna, meaning ‘worthy of’ or ‘dignified’, conjures the serenity of the sea’s expanse. The name derives, however, from the Shardana, guards of Ramses II and the first peoples to sail – rather than row – their vessels. They settled in Sardinia and in parts of mainland Italy.

Sardinia was annexed to Italy upon the nation’s ‘unification’ in 1861, but the old partitions of geography and mutual distrust remained. Italians regarded the sardi as rough, criminal elements, a dangerous underclass. (Some still do.) Parents shouted, Sii bravo o ti sbatto in Sardegna! (‘Behave yourself, or I’m dumping you in Sardinia!’), threatened exile to a wild west where naughty children would be at the mercy of bogey-bear natives, savages who celebrate ancient pagan festivals and communicate in rough dialects owing more to Catalan than Italian.

Many Italians saw the island as little more than a dumping ground for the criminal underclass they’d shipped to its penal colonies; outlaws and bandits who terrorised the peasants subsisting in the stony hills with their livestock. To this day Sardinians refer to the Italian mainland as il continente: a place apart. Nor did it help that NATO, exploiting the island’s large surface area, its remoteness and its sparse population, was using (as it still does) parts of Sardinia as a firing-range for testing the more toxic elements of its arsenal, doubtless calculating that the locals were too godforsaken or poverty-stricken to kick up a fuss. When they did, they were ignored. Depleted uranium-tipped missiles were launched with impunity. Reports of lymphatic cancer clusters, of sheep born with two heads and children with deformities went unheeded.

But Sardinians were never serfs; nor did invaders rob them of their pride. One Sardinian uses his blog, sardegnablogger.it, to celebrate his fellow islanders’ undented sense of self, their pride in remaining ‘is merese‘ – masters of their surroundings:

‘Despite the many “masters” historically in control of the Sardinians [and] the “servitude” to which they are subjected by the Italians … the island’s inhabitants have always felt free, [saying] “we live in a paradise”. [In] the natural creases of this jagged and divided island [there is] this Heideggerian sense of belonging to the earth … riches are immaterial: the sheikhs, the rich come and go: their property remains here.’

Initially, De André and Renzo Piano explored the coastline, holidaying around its coves and beaches. But De André was no dilettante: he did nothing by halves. Like his other addictions – music, poetry, nicotine and whisky – Sardinia earned his total commitment and complete immersion. In his diaries, collectively published in 2016 under the title Sotto le ciglia chissà, he followed D. H. Lawrence (who wrote Sea and Sardinia after a brief visit in 1921) in remarking ‘questa gente dignitosa, tenace, shiva‘ (‘this dignified, tenacious, reserved populace – for whom hospitality is a question of honour’).

De André, having acquired a property near the coast, studied Sardinian history. He became fluent enough in the dialect to write songs in it. In his diary, he described life in Sardinia as ‘the pinnacle of all one could wish for: its 24,000 kilometres of forests, countryside and coasts surrounded by a miraculous sea coincide with what I would advise the good Lord to bestow on us by way of Paradise.’

By 1975 De André was planning a definitive move to his paradise. He was thirty-four and his marriage, twelve years earlier, to an inconveniently pregnant Enrica Rignon, a bourgeoise woman eight years his senior, was over. In March 1974 he’d been introduced to Dori Ghezzi at the bar of a Milan recording studio. She was a twenty-eight-year-old folk singer, with the insouciant freshness and long blonde hair of a young Marianne Faithfull. Within weeks they’d become lovers.

A change of scene in which to raise a family with Dori, a new and transformative lifestyle: these became necessities for De André, whose drinking was getting out of control. So was his aversion to the people he met holidaying on the Costa Smeralda; the well-heeled vacationers the excoriates in a song written after one too many whisky-sodden nights in their company, reduced, he rails, to a kind of minstrel required to strum for the entertainment of the other guests.

His song ‘Amico Fragile’ satirises the visitors: their platitudes and tales of ‘renting a chunk of grass … handfuls of ocean and waves and more waves’. He, his voice almost rasps, ‘was more curious than you, I was very much more curious than you.’ And although ‘it never even crossed [my] mind’, he adds, ‘I was very much drunker than you.’

The singer later described his relationship with Sardinia as having two ‘ages’ – the first, an era marked by the untrammelled hedonism of a well-known recording artist: boats, booze, beaches. The second saw him becoming ‘a little more reflective’; it having dawned upon him that it was time for ‘an occupation that was, perhaps, harder,’ because ‘it would not be serious to still be singing for a living at the age of fifty.’

We often yearn to recreate our sunlit childhood idylls for our children, perhaps believing it will counteract certain deficiencies in our own parenting. De André had spent his happiest childhood years with his grandparents in the Piedmontese countryside, a safe distance away from wartime fighting. Now he decided to raise his children on the land; to breed livestock high in the rocky interior of Sardinia. In 1976 his Sardinian friend Paolo Casu showed him L’Agnata, an abandoned property in the Gallura region. In the 2015 documentary film, Faber in Sardegna, directed by Gianfranco Cabiddu, Casu recounted how the first time Fabrizio saw the stazzo – a homestead or rural settlement – ‘he said he wanted to bring up a mattress and sleep there that night’.

‘It was a kind of Fitzcarraldo endeavour,’ added Renzo Piano, who masterminded the renovation of the house and outlying buildings, with 150 hectares of land, that the two singers acquired on the spot. The couple moved to nearby Tempio Pausania while the works were underway. Their daughter, Luvi, was born in the town.

They were pioneer years, according to Dori, who is heard describing the couple’s new life in the film. ‘We moved in before the electricity and the windows were put in; it was very romantic, we lived by candlelight.’ By day, fanned out below them, the emerald sea shimmered. De André devoted himself to agriculture and animal husbandry with the precision he had lent the study of Greek poetry. He devoured books and pamphlets, planted vines and olives, and imported sixty-five russet-skinned Limousine cows, a breed foreign to Sardinia but suited to the high altitude of L’Agnata. ‘We gave each of these French ladies a fitting Gallic name: Pauline, Brigitte, Françoise,’ recalled Dori. ‘The bull, naturallement, was called Napoleon.’

There is footage of De André from this period. His eyes are serene as he draws on his ubiquitous cigarette through soil-blackened fingers. The soundtrack to Faber in Sardegna quotes his diary. In it, he says:

‘This land is where I’ve spent every lira that I’ve managed to save, I work it with my hands and one day I’ll leave it to my children because the rights to their father’s songs won’t amount to much. Even though the terrain here yields so little for so much effort, so that from an economic perspective it’s a complete failure, what you earn for your health and serenity is so great. This place works magic, feeds the soul with so much joy, even as you head for home destroyed by exhaustion. You are fulfilled, there’s no room for anxieties. To live this way is both the simplest and the most profound way of existing on this earth.’

L’Agnata, 1979

Dori goes to the landing where she is confronted with two hooded men, their black eyes glittering through cut-out holes. On the stairs, she sees a third man wearing a balaclava. His rifle points downwards at Fabrizio; he had also heard the footsteps and was heading to investigate.

The men shout instructions. Sturdy shoes, pack extra socks, lie down, faces on the floor. They gag Fabrizio and Dori with pieces of cloth, cover their heads with hoods and tie their hands behind their backs. They lead the couple downstairs, out through the rear entrance of the house, towards their Citroën Diane 6 with its MI numberplate. They shove them, with force, into the backseat. Before starting the ignition, they demand to know the location of the switch for the garden lights: these are extinguished. A Winchester rifle and ammunition are removed from the property along with its owners.

After a muttered conversation about the sufficiency of petrol, the car sets off along main roads and potholed dirt tracks, across the mountains of the interior towards Orune in the province of Nuoro. Dori and Fabrizio sit side by side, each flanked by a bandit. Their spines are straight, rigid with shock. They are silenced by their gags: there are no words of succour, no pleas. Dori takes fleeting comfort from the sweat-soaked odour of the fabric covering her face: she knows that the faint traces of Luvi’s scent in the car would unravel her.

Somewhere between Monti and Alà dei Sardi, the car is abandoned and they are handed to a fourth bandit. Dori’s knees buckle; the rifle’s barrel prods her shoulder blades. ‘Forget Luvi or you’re done,’ she commands herself.

Hotel Supramonte, 1979

– i –

‘Disappearance of the singers De André Fabrizio Cristiano and Ghezzi Dori from their dwelling, annexed to an agri-pastoral enterprise. Reported at 11.30am on 28th August 1979, by Vittoria Manca Idda, age 26 (domestic employed at L’Agnata) and Filippo Mariotti, (farmer employed at L’Agnata). Early indications suggest a kidnap.’ (Records of the Compagnia dei Carabinieri in Tempio)

Dori Ghezzi, interviewed months later by police confirmed that ‘early indications’ had been accurate:

‘Our heads in hoods, we embarked on a trek across a terrain that was alternately steep and level, through bushes and briars. After a rest break we continued for several more hours on even rougher ground. Then they made us stop and “sleep” rough, where we were. In the morning we were forced to walk uphill until nightfall. We were exhausted. After reaching our destination [Sa Linna Sicca, on the slopes of Monte Lerno near Pattada in the northern province of Sassari] they temporarily removed our hoods. We saw the silhouette of a hooded bandit: it was a guard who stayed with us throughout our captivity. Fabrizio nicknamed him “toad” on account of his croaky voice.’

After two false leads (the first involving a supposed political angle; the second involving hoax calls to a press bureau in Turin claiming that the missing hostages had been executed) the carabinieri drew a blank. All Sardinia was roadblocked; dogs and helicopters combed the mountain ranges of the Gallura and Nuoro regions; hundreds of local volunteers searched forests, caves and shepherds’ hideouts.

The islanders saw the betrayal of this sardo adottivo, who had loved and championed their habitat and way of life, as the most shameful of transgressions. Although kidnaps were something of an industry on the island – there were to be 173 between 1966 and 1994, this one was widely considered to have crossed a line.

Two weeks after the couple’s disappearance, the British journalist, Peter Nichols, wrote in The Spectator of the ‘new-style barbarism’ in Sardinia. The island’s traditional banditry was rooted, he explained:

‘In the Barbagia, a zone described as having no entrance and no exit … [an] impenetrable area in the central part … [of an island whose] implacable, rocky heart fascinated Lawrence as perhaps the only place in Europe which had rejected through the centuries everything that Europe means. Phoenicians, Romans, Byzantines and Genoese have been there and left no trace on the minds of the people. They followed their own ways, rejecting the mental processes of their occupiers.’ (Unless, he might have added, you count the piratical Moors, four of whom – blindfolded – decorate the Sardinian flag.)

The De André-Ghezzi abduction, one of a wave of kidnappings that summer, brought Sardinia’s recent rehabilitation to an abrupt halt. As Nichols saw it, ‘Sardinian bandits are no longer colourful but just cruel, no longer sparing the foreigner in acknowledgment of the island’s rules of hospitality, or respecting women and children as outlawry turns into crime on an industrial scale.’

In Faber in Sardegna, De André’s Sardinian friend, Paolo Casu, the man who had originally shown him L’Agnata, describes events twenty-five days after the couple’s disappearance: ‘A letter arrived in Fabrizio’s handwriting saying they’d been kidnapped, and that in ten days I was to put an advert in the newspaper to signal I was ready to negotiate.’ The gang demanded a ransom of 3 billion lire: equivalent to £1,364,123 in sterling and an unimaginable fortune in 1979. (It reflected, in the bandits’ eyes, the value of their celebrity booty: they were holding Italy’s golden musical couple. She, one half of a chart-topping pop duo that had come third in the Eurovision Song Contest four years earlier, he the musical prophet of his generation).

Don Salvatore Vico, the parish priest of Tempio, had baptised Luvi the year before. He had been relieved, he said, that the anti-clerical flavour of De André’s output had belied the singer’s cordiality in person. Now, with another man whose name has never been revealed, he undertook the delicate job of bargaining for the hostages’ lives: ‘The occasions when I went to meet the bandits were truly agonising and exhausting. We’d set off under cover of darkness at 8.30 in the evening and be back by 5 a.m., so no-one could guess what we’d been up to. By day I’d continue my priestly duties,’ said Vico.

The priest’s was a thankless and perilous task: ‘We’d navigate treacherous mountain roads at 50 km/h with dipped headlights. Then, at a certain point, there’d be a piece of cork on the road: we’d been told to snap it in half and shout ‘Milano!’ They’d reply ‘Torino!’, and we’d follow them down a little track. We negotiated spreadeagled on the ground at gunpoint. De André’s father had stipulated the maximum he’d pay … One night they came unarmed, so we bargained flat on our faces, the bandits kneeling on our backs. They weren’t happy with the amount.’

‘I feel like crushing you,’ said one of the bandits.

‘As you wish,’ I replied, ‘but I don’t have the money you’re after.’

‘We gradually got it down to 550 million lire. The whole business had become a ball and chain round their ankles too,’ said the priest.

– ii –

December 1979. An icy wind whistles around the hostages, for whom home is a flimsy tent on the snowy crest of Mount Lerno: an accommodation that Fabrizio has dubbed ‘Hotel Supramonte’. He shuns – for now – the involuntary thought that the name would make a good title for a song; that spark will be rekindled years later.

For the last month or so their blindfolds have been allowed off during daylight hours. The shepherd-guards have given him cigarettes from the outset – Fabrizio would not have survived otherwise. He’s been collecting the miniature match-covers of the wax cerini used to light them, and now has enough for a set of improvised playing cards, with which, chained to a tree, he and Dori while away the hours. Sometimes, for warmth, their guards join them in the small tent.

Dori is very thin. She will not speak of Luvi. Her beauty stabs at Fabrizio.

– iii –

On 20 December 1979, a hooded Dori stumbled down the mountain escorted by two bandits. She confirmed that Fabrizio was alive. The next day, after 117 days in captivity, the kidnappers delivered him to his family’s property in Portobello di Gallura.

Dori (in an interview): ‘That we were together was a positive. If we’d been separated, that would really have been serious. I see it, now, just as something that happened, an experience that ultimately was of some use. We matured, became much closer.’

Fabrizio (in an interview): ‘After a four-month trial cohabitation in a space measuring half a metre, I can confidently say that we make a good couple.’

Dori never spoke publicly of her separation from Luvi, but in footage shot the following year, she clutches at her child as a sick man does at life.

AFTERMATH

Around ten years ago, De André’s backing band, PFM, staged a tribute gig in central Sardinia. It was a decade since the singer’s death, aged fifty-nine, from lung cancer. He’d continued to earn a living through his music well past the age of fifty: perhaps he’d accepted that it was, in the end, a ‘serious occupation’. A crowd of 10,000 had turned out for his funeral in 1999.

My family and I set off in convoy for the concert with Sardinian friends from San Vito: the village in the south-east where I had, by then, put down roots with my husband and children. We too had become sardi adottivi. That evening was when I learned of De André’s love for the island that had similarly beguiled me. The singer whose taped albums had accompanied me everywhere on my Sony Walkman – whose songs had informed my youth – had fallen prey to the same disease as I. ‘C’è chi ha il mal d’Africa: io ho il mal di Sardegna’: ‘Some people catch the Africa virus: I caught the Sardinian strain’, he’d told his diary. To my shame, it was not until that evening that I learnt of a story of forgiveness which, immersed as I was in student life in Edinburgh, I had missed altogether.

My friend Anna told me how De André been kidnapped on the island; of the shame ordinary Sardinians had felt at the perfidy of those responsible; how, after De André senior had paid the ransom, the ten conspirators were caught and locked up for between ten and twenty-six years; how the two singers’ subsequent civil suit was only against the ringleaders, ‘because being comfortably off, they hadn’t needed the money for survival’. How they’d signed an application to the appellate court to reduce the prison sentences given to their shepherd-custodians at ‘Hotel Supramonte’ because, as De André wrote in his journal, they’d treated him and Dori humanely: ‘I never met the bosses who’d ordered the kidnapping, my dealings were with our guardians: two shepherds, two pawns. I forgave them because, having the power to harm us, they chose to treat us well. I’d like those disciples of Cato, those who tell me: “First you should see them hanged, then you can forgive”, to have lived the experience that we did, and to feel what it meant, in such circumstances, to be treated with humanity.’

Fabrizio and Dori were not the only victims: the shepherds too, Dori commented in an interview, ‘had been ransomed, forced, for their survival to hold us hostage … They, in their turn, had been kidnapped.’

The price of survival, concluded De André in his diary, was forgiveness: ‘There are two ways of removing an experience like kidnap from your mind: you either obliterate, physically, those responsible – or you forgive, as if what happened was an oversight or a bad joke. Since the first involves disproportionate time and energy, as well as violence – which is fortunately against my nature – it was inevitable that I’d go for the second, and forgive them all.’

At the PFM gig, I watched a wrinkled sardo with the sun-baked complexion of an Indian. As De André’s bandmates played ‘Hotel Supramonte’, he rubbed away tears with soil-blackened hands; his elderly wife dabbed at her eyes behind her fan.

London 2017: UK premiere of Faber in Sardegna at the Regent Street Cinema

Filippo Mariotti, farmer at L’Agnata, fills the screen, his wide girth framed by almond blossom:

‘Still now, I dream about him once or twice a month. Three times even. Three times a month I dream about Fabrizio. We spent 28 years working together. I promised him that as long as I could keep going, I would never leave him. I never have. [Laughs.]

One evening he sticks his head out of the window and says Fili, Fili come here.

–  Yes, what do you want?
–  What do you think of the clouds Fili?
–  Me? What do I think of the clouds?’

Romana Canneti is grateful to the Fabrizio De André Foundation (www.fabriziodeandre.it) for their permission to cite extracts from Fabrizio de André’s diaries and notes.