Nisa: 12 Points!

Taratapunt-ti-e - NISA
Taratapunt-ti-e, Storia d’un valzer’ (illustrated by Nisa). An Italian version of the ‘Ta-ra-ra Boom-de-ay‘ world hit (Edizione Curci, 1933).

Nisa was a talented illustrator of children’s books and designer of sheet music covers (a.o. for the publishers Edizioni Curci and Bixio). Our collection holds a dozen or so Nisa covers, mostly in the typical Italian art-deco style of the Thirties.

'Maria la O'
‘Maria la O’ and ‘Primo Amore’, two songs illustrated by Nisa (s.d.)
'Yava Nera'
‘Yava Nera’ and ‘Canta Bandoneon’, illustrated by Nisa (1932 and 1931)
Photo arrangements by Nisa for the film music
Photo arrangements by Nisa for the film music songs ‘Torna, Piccina!‘ (from the 1936 film ‘Vivere’) and ‘Son Come Tu mi Vuoi‘ (from the 1934 film ‘Il Caso Haller’).

It took us some time to discover that Nisa was a nom de plume for Nicola Salerno (1910-1969), a lyricist born in Naples. During four decades, from the Thirties until the Sixties, Nisa put his mark on Neapolitan music.

NISA - Nicola Salerno portrait
Nicola Salerno (Nisa) in 1938.

He was the writer of many songs, some of them became big hits even out of Italy. One of these songs (Tu vuò fa’ l’americano) was resampled in an Australian version and became a world-wide success in 2010. To experience once again the nervous electronic beats of ‘We No Speak Americano’, have a peek here. Or, you can enjoy the original boogie-woogie version by the cheery Renato Carosone.  (Earworm alert!)


The aficionados of the Eurovision song festival will remember the 1964 winning song ‘Non ho l’età’ (previously also the winner of the Festival di Sanremo). The song is about a girl not being old enough to go out with someone for love and romance. Nisa gave words to this eternal tristesse and longing of the youth:

          Non ho l’età,
          [I’m not old enough]
          Non ho l’età per amarti
          [I’m not old enough to love you]
          Non ho l’età per uscire sola con te
          [I’m not old enough to go out alone with you]

          E non avrei, non avrei nulla da dirti
          [And I wouldn’t have, I wouldn’t have anything to say]
          Perchè tu sai molte più cose di me
          [Because you know many more things than me]

          Lascia ch’io viva un amore romantico
          [Let me live a romantic love]
          Nell’attesa che venga quel giorno
          [While I’m waiting for that day to come]
          Ma ora no
[But not now]

The then 16-year-old Gigliola Cinquetti won with historic high scores. The original footage of her performance in Copenhagen was lost, but we have to thank a certain Dave (‘1947dave’s channel’ on YouTube) for editing original stills and video from her 1 minute reprise on top of the original radio broadcast. It gives a pretty good idea of the girl’s triumph in far-away Denmark…

Nisa’s oeuvre of songs spans from 1937 to 1967, so tells us the Italian Wikipedia. Strangely the fascist marching song L’Italia ha vinto (to celebrate the victory over Ethiopia in 1936) is omitted in his authorship list on l’Encyclopedia Libera.

Nisa as a soldier
Nicola Salerno in uniform (possibly during his military service in Africa?)

A stain on our song writer’s reputation? Or a one-time faute de parcours? It makes us wonder how much sympathy the then 26-year old Nisa had for the fascist regime. Mussolini was then already an outspoken supporter of Franco and Hitler, and would two year later enact racist and anti-Semitic laws.

'O Sarracino', (music: Carosone - Lyrics: Nisa), illustrator unknown. Edizioni EDIR, Milano, 1958.
‘O Sarracino’, illustrator unknown. Edizioni EDIR, Milano, 1958.

In 1958 Nisa and his composer companion Renato Carosone again scored a major hit with a song about a cool Casanova. We pluck the following lyric translation from the net:


You can find many versions of the song, but we have a soft spot for the fast pace of Rocco Granata (yes, Marina…) and Buscemi.

Visconti, a Scented Story

cipria copy
Cipria‘ by Lao Schor and Marf, published by A. & G. Carisch & C° in 1931, illustrated by Bonfanti.

The ‘Cipria’ slow fox-trot sheet music is publicity for a perfumed face powder sold by Cipria is the Italian word for face powder., after the initials of its founder Count Giuseppe Visconti di Modrone, was one of the largest perfume houses during the twenties and thirties in Italy.

Count Giuseppe Visconti di Modrone

Giuseppe belonged to the Visconti dynasty, that combined one of the oldest Italian aristocratic families with a great Milanese industrial empire. Although Giuseppe was openly bisexual, he married the elegant daughter of a pharmaceutical and cosmetics industrialist, Carla Erba. The couple got seven children, one of whom would become the famous film director Luchino Visconti (Death in Venice, The Damned, The Leopard, …). The family owned some marvellous palaces which would eventually be used by Visconti in his films to recreate the splendour of his own childhood.

Carla Erba, wife of Giuseppe and mother of Luchino Visconti

Giuseppe and Carla belonged to the circle of King Vittorio Emanuele III and his wife Queen Helena. Giuseppe even became gentleman-in-waiting to the queen and some say he became her lover. Apparently also Carla had extra marital relations. The Visconti couple was said to live apart. The composers Toscanini and Puccini were their friends, but also the music editor Ricordi and the novelist Gabriele D’Annunzio.

Giuseppe Visconti was a person with eclectic interests. Noblesse oblige: he became patron of the arts, was on the board of directors of the Scala, and managed several theatres. He himself was an amateur actor and liked to put on make up and dress as a woman. The Viscontis enjoyed a private theatre not only in their Milanese palazzo but also in their monumental villa near Lake Como.

In the middle Giuseppe Visconti performing in his home theatre.

In the first years of the 20th century the romantic Giuseppe Visconti created from some hovels and old stables surrounding a castle falling into ruin, a complete and totally faked but charming medieval village. This place called Grazzano Visconti, near Milan, can still be visited today.

The neo-medieval village, Grazzano Visconti, created by the father of Luchino Visconti.

Giuseppe also was director of Inter Milan and an entrepreneur. Asked by his father in law, Giuseppe started to create perfumes. He was so taken by mixing fragrances that he started his own firm: After the March on Rome in 1922 by which Mussolini came to power in Italy, industrialists felt optimistic to become leaders in their speciality. So did It wanted to create a new perfume representative of the revolutionary times. To this end they held one of the first nation-wide marketing researches in Italy. The survey took months and as a result created a new fragrance. The writer and family friend Gabriele d’Annuncio tried the perfume and named it Giacinto innamorato, after its main component: the scent of hyacinths.

The brand name Giacinto innamorato is of course also noticeable on the ‘Cipria’ sheet music cover, as is the typical signature.


The perfume flacons were packaged and designed in beautiful art-deco style with a lot of rich gold ink.

postkaart giacinto
Giacinto Innamorato perfumed postcard.

With the help of an intensive publicity campaign Giacinto Innamorato soon became known in the whole country. Before long there would follow other well-known fragrances. stopped its activity in 1970.

giacinto innamorato kaartje
Another Giacinto Innamorato perfumed card.
tumblr_nirxh0m4ue1qdtsn5o1_1280 perfume shop, Milan 1955

We’ll end this post with an extract from Luchino Visconti’s last film I’Innocente (1976) based on a novel by family friend Gabriele d’Anniunzio. Although Luchino Visconti had Marxist principles, no one was in a better position than him to portrait the elegance and lavishness of the Italian aristocracy as well as their decadence and irresponsibility. The sumptuous costumes and settings were a second nature to him.

Gustave Charpentier’s Grisette: Mimi Pinson

mimi pinson
Mimi Pinson‘, waltz by J. Tixhon, illustrated by Cartier, published by L’Art Belge in 1921.

‘Mademoiselle Mimi Pinson: Profil de grisette’ is a novelette written by Alfred de Musset (1810-1857). A grisette is a coquettish young working woman employed as a seamstress, milliner’s assistant or shop helper. The word refers to the cheap grey (gris in French) fabric of the dresses these women originally wore.

Whistler’s Parisian lover Fumette (nickname for Héloise), a grisette, 1858.

In mid-19th century literature, the grisette became associated with the poor artistic and student subculture in the Latin Quarter: the Parisian bohemia. She is in her late teens or early twenties, living on her own in Paris, supporting herself by work. She is sexually independent, changing lovers frequently and of course posing for artists. She is the artists’ muse. She is frank and honest and subversive to mainstream bourgeois values. The grisette archetype was embodied by Fantine in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables and by Mimi in La Bohème (see the stage photo and Metlicovitz’ illustrated sheet music cover in a previous post) from Puccini.

Griseta‘, tango by Enrique Delfino published by Salabert in 1926, illustrated by Roger de Valerio.

Gustave Charpentier (1860-1956) resurrected Mimi Pinson at the turn of the century. Charpentier was a composer of humble social backgrounds who became an idealistic socialist. He made a fortune with his opera Louise, a love story between grisette Louise and the young artist Julien. Listen to Renee Fleming’s captivating rendering of the aria Depuis le jour.

The success of the opera Louise provided the means for Charpentier’s charitable work. In 1900 he established the Parisian social project l’Oeuvre de Mimi Pinson named after Alfred de Musset’s heroine seamstress. Originally l’Oeuvre intended to give working-class girls the possibility to attend a theatre or an opera at least once a year. In 1902 it became the thriving Conservatoire Populaire Mimi Pinson.

conservatoire mimi pinson - le petit journal
‘Le conservatoire de Mimi Pinson’, front cover illustration of Le Petit Journal (1902).

The music school was sponsored by the piano manufacturing firm Pleyel and the music publisher Enoch. It provided free tuition by professionals for working women in Paris. Within three months Charpentier claimed 2.000 students. The classes were attended by women ranging from 15 years old to middle age, all of them unmarried. Charpentier saw the chanson populaire as a moral tool to educate the masses. The worker-students were taught elementary music, song, piano, harp, dance and pantomime.

Gustave Charpentier, third on the left at a Mimi Pinson singing lesson.

Charpentier’s students performed all over France mostly in the service of a worthy cause. In all their spectacles, there was always a pantomime present in order to celebrate the ‘People’s Muse’ Mimi Pinson, represented by a local female labourer elected by her co-workers.

‘Mimi Pinson’ by Gabriel Allier, published by Philippo (Paris, sd).

Although the Conservatoire Populaire Mimi Pinson was very successful many were opposed to it and warned that this artistic liberation might upset the social order. The young female workers should marry, do their appropriate work and make their hard-working husbands happy. Or as one paternalistic critic put it: “The theatre is encumbered enough with the untalented… without making these nice little girls drop their needles”.

pinson verpleegster
Le Coeur de Mimi-Pinson‘, song by Charles Simore, published by the artist in 1916.

During the First World War many of the Mimi Pinsons became symbols of feminine self sacrifice. They joined the war effort as workers and were trained to become nurses. The Conservatoire Populaire Mimi Pinson became an auxiliary to the Red Cross.

Postcard: exhibition of cockades made by Mimi Pinson.

Other Mimi Pinsons made patriotic tricolour rosettes or cockades for charity from 1915 to 1920. These were exposed and sold for the benefit of the soldiers. The exhibitions were sponsored and supported by the major fashion houses and shops in Paris. Their female personnel also actively participated in the making and presentation of the cockades.

La Cocarde de Mimi Pinson‘ by Henri Goublier, published by Edition Universelle, Paris.

Henri Goublier recounted this social and patriotic work of the Mimi Pinsons into the war-related operetta La Cocarde de Mimi Pinson (The cockade of Mimi Pinson). The first act, set in a textile manufacture in Paris, shows female workers producing cockades, the blue-white-red national symbols, as “love gifts” for the soldiers at the front.

In 1919 the majority of the Mimi Pinsons, being regularly informed about their rights as labourers, joined the call for women’s suffrage.

Mimi-Pinson-CPA-ebayDuring the first quarter of the 20th century Mimi Pinson was a popular symbol in France. She was represented living in an attic room with her animal friend a finch (pinson is the French word for a common finch). Clérice used the same symbolism to illustrate the cover of Chansons de L’ Aiguille (Songs of the Needle) composed by André Fijan and dedicated to Gustave Charpentier and his opera Louise.

Chansons de l'aiguille (sheet music / partition musicale illustrée)
Chansons de l’aiguille‘, composed by André Fijan and illustrated by Clérice Frères (Ricordi & Cie, Paris, 1903).

In 1958 Mimi Pinson got a new but short-lived reappearance with a film of the same name by Robert Darène.

mimi-pinson affice

For further reading: Gustave Charpentier and the Conservatoire Populaire de Mimi Pinson by Mary Ellen Poole.