Vatican condemns 'profane' faux baptism performance at Italy's Sanremo Festival

The performance drew the ire of Catholic leaders as it was broadcast on public television
The performance drew the ire of Catholic leaders as it was broadcast on public television   -   Copyright  Matteo Rasero/LaPresse/AP
By Tim Gallagher  with AP

The Vatican have decried a “profane” performance at Italy’s Sanremo music festival for featuring a faux baptism.

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, an Italian Catholic bishop, said the singer's “words, attitudes and gestures that are not just offensive to religion, but to human dignity.”

Matteo Rasero/LaPresse
The Sanremo music festival was a forerunner of EurovisionMatteo Rasero/LaPresse

The annual competition is thought to have been the inspiration for the Eurovision Song Contest and last year was won by Måneskin, who went on to victory and stardom in Eurovision.

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 also 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 knelt in prayer on stage at Wembley Stadium in 1992, but led the crowd in praying the "Our Father."

"They don't make transgressors like they used to," Monda concluded.

'Mothers are divine beings'

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 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 this is an excuse or an artifice."

"Every art admits a freedom of expression," Coletta concluded in a statement.

San Remo is an annual, kitsch-filled song festival that dominates RAI television viewership for one week each winter.

Sanremo music festival 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.