To look at the world through the eyes of genius
this is a rare gift, and one which mostly occurs in artists.
It did occur in Chris Cappell, the stage-name of Christian Cappelluti, who was born in Rome on 17th August 1975, and grew up in the EUR district, but when the time came for him to go to university, decided to settle in the USA, the place where he would have wanted to spend the rest of his life. That life, however, was cut short in the summer of 1998, during a holiday in Scotland (a country which had a great fascination for him), as a result of a very uncommon form of food allergy.
Christian lived an unusually luminour range of experiences in his short life: exceptionally brilliant in his studies, he won a “summa cum laude” degree; exceptionally thoughtful and attentive to his friends, and for that reason extremely popular; so rich in musical talent that he was in effect a genius; he proved capable of winning the esteem of artists who were already famous and applauded all over the world, such as Mina, the great singer who had no difficulty in spotting in him “a special elegance of thought and in his way of expressing it”, as she herself wrote in a letter addressed to his parents as soon as she learned of his death.
Since his childhood, Christian always had an extremely explorative and lively temperament, so that he was described as “the tempest”. He was always joking or playing tricks, and yet his nature showed itself to be unusually sensitive and gentle; this is what emerges clearly from his childhood diary, which he began to keep in 1983. It’s here that we find the most tender expressions of his feelings for his first childhood sweetheart, little Valentina, and observations full of humour, but also affection, about his father, mother, grandmother and his school friends.
The diary was kept up until half way through January 1984. A few weeks earlier, at Christmas, Christian had been given a present by his parents which would have a profound effect on his whole life – a guitar, to which he gave the name “Katy”. Some years later, he was to recall the episode in these words:
“It’s Christmas Day 1983. I’m eight years old, I’m sitting on the sofa in the living room of my parents’ apartment. I’m holding Katy in my arms. I must look quite dumb, while I sit there and stroke her neck with my little fingers, in the embarrassed way a child has. The main reason for my discomfort is that Katy’s arrival has been completely unexpected. Five minutes earlier, I would never have imagined doing what I’m doing at the moment – trying out my first guitar”.
“I still don’t understand why my mother and father chose a guitar as my Christmas present. Maybe because they didn’t know what to give me, and wanted to try to be a bit original. And they were, really: but the sad truth is that I would probably have appreciated more a “normal” present, something like a puppet or a toy or a bicycle…”.
So like any other child, Christian is more troubled than enthused by the idea that he has to learn how to play a musical instrument; however, he soon discovers that this new form of learning is something he really loves, to such a point that he leaps ahead even before he reaches his teens, to the realisation that playing has become his favourite pastime – partly because he has discovered that he can find the notes of any song just by listening to it carefully.
Along with his passion for music, Christian also pursued another interest which was to be vital to his future, the study of English. His father Franco says:
“He was so taken with the lifestyle of the USA that I used to tease him by comparing him to the American in Alberto Sordi’s film”.
And his mother, Adriana, remembers:
“Without any pushing on our part, even when he was a little boy Christian used to buy audiovisual courses in English, and spent hours studying and practising”.
The outcome? When he moved to a US college at 19 to do his degree in Business Studies, his knowledge and pronunciation of English was to prove so perfect that it deceived other students at Wake Forest University, who couldn’t believe that their fellow-student came from Italy and wasn’t a homegrown American like them.
To return to the happy relationship between Christian and his music. At the end of the eighties, his third music instructor Joe was giving him lessons; Joe was born and grew up in Argentina, but he was of Italian origin. At the same time Christian realised that composing music excited him particularly. Let’s take a look at these thoughts, which are linked to that period of his life:
“Every time an interesting idea comes into my head, like an original melody, or a fine progression of chords, I take my portable taperecorder, and record myself while I’m playing and singing. Initially I used to find my recordings interesting, but more recently they no longer satisfy me: when I listen to my music in my head, I hear several instruments playing! I’m sure that the music I compose would be far better with a bass, a piano and also with drums. Maybe I should ask Ivano, Maurizio and my other friends if they’d like to form a musical band”.
This intention was the spring which set Christian off on the chosen activity of the rest of his life: that of a singer.
From his teens onward, Christian’s life was a whirlwind of happenings, both in the private sphere and in his artistic career.
Usually, one expects an artist to tend to leave aside his academic studies, but in Christian’s case, it wasn’t like that; in fact the contrary is true. A distinguished record which led to his graduating with top marks in barely three years (with a study scholarship as a reward) was interwoven with a more and more intense search for an individual space in the most ruthless musical scene in the world, that of the USA. Christian felt at home in America. It almost seemed as if his real roots were there rather than in Italy. Mina‘s son, Massimiliano Pani, says:
“Christian felt himself to be ready-made for the American market, and it was in America that he wanted to win success”.
However, before he succeeded in getting a contract out of one of the most influential figures in the US musical world, Owen Sloane, only a few months before his premature death, Christian also made his entry into the Italian musical world, working alongside Mina on the CD “Pappa di latte”, which came out in 1995 (an experience which led to a close friendship between the two), and with the group The Pooh on one of their tours. Christian accompanied this famous group when he was only eighteen, in 1993.
There’s a leitmotiv in Chris Cappell’s short but brief artistic journey: the link between his musical inspiration and the sentiments which linked him to female figures. His first love was called Costanza, a little girl who’d only just left primary school, who attracted his emotions because of her appearance (she had blond hair and blue eyes) when he’d just entered the troubled years of adolescence. Then it was the turn of Stefania, who figured a lot in his dreams during his last years in high-school. After that came the turn of Federica to play the role of “musical muse” – they met a few months after Chris enrolled in Wake Forest University University, and she is the “lemon girl” who gives the title to one of his songs. With Federica he began an adult love affair, which found its natural outlet in their living together.
His first two loves coincide with the years of junior and senior high school, when Christian came to the attention of his teachers because of his really uncommon intelligence. At the end of the 1980s he was enrolled by his parents in the Scientific High School of the Istituto “Massimo”, one of the most prestigious private schools in the capital. His literature teacher called him “an attentive and exploratory student, anxious to discover those great little mysteries which lie behind the verses of poets.” The deep relationship of esteem and affection between Christian and this teacher, Paola Filonzi, had a particularly happy outcome in the final exams of Summer 1994, when Christian chose a literary theme centered on a text by Manzoni about the unity of language.
Christian’s analysis was so rich in cultural reference and orginal thinking that it was chosen as one of the best compositions of that year and was published as such by the Ministry of Education.
His love for Federica, on the other hand, was the accompaniment to his university years. In Wake Forest University too, there was great progress and success, including the Wall Street Journal Study Scholarship, and a “Summa cum laude” degree (obtained a year ahead of the normal time for the course). But what strikes one most is the aura of esteem and even admiration with which his professors surrounded him. Witness to this can be found in a letter which the joint President of the University, William S Hamilton, addressed to his parents as soon as he heard the news of his death.
“You must understand that despite the fact that Christian’s life was so brief, it was full of meaning, far more satisfying than the life of someone who lives for a hundred years. He enriched my life with his original ideas, and also that of hundreds of our students“
The great gift of being able to apply himself to his studies almost without strain or tiredness may also explain Christian’s extraordinary fertility in the field of music. When he was already an adult, and was analyzing the sources of his inspiration, he noted that it was an unpredictable and uncontrollable matter, and he observed:
“This strange ability that I have, when it’s set in motion in a creative way, is the basic method by which my inspiration communicates with me: without any forewarning, when I least expect it, the verse or the refrain of a song which I’ve never heard in my life appears in my head. The part of the song which my inspiration has brought me is always fully arranged, and complete with the words, and usually it’s not all that difficult for me to develop a whole song from that fragment”.
This natural gift for music-making, however, didn’t mean that he didn’t dedicate himself to musical studies as well. When he was only 16, in the summer of 1991, he chose the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston, USA, to follow the summer session of musical courses, with excellent final marks. And his friend Marta was careful to point out that “musical language for Christian represented a language of election, even in its religious dimension. In fact, during the whole high school period, one important part of his school activity was devoted to the composition and playing of sacred music, which accompanied the celebration of Mass, with a preference for American Gospel Music, of which he was a passionate admirer”.
Basically, for Christian as for all artists, music-making was a form of self-expression. It was no coincidence that his last songs are almost prophetic, in the sense that a strong yearning for a world beyond this world, a life beyond death emerges from them.
And so we reach the last stage of Christian’s existence. While on the one hand there is the sad break-up with Federica, on the other hand there is an unrelenting urge to carve out a space for himself on the musical horizon. The wish was backed up by a strong element of enthusiasm, as Massimiliano Pani remembers:
“His was a sunny, enthusiastic personality, and in him talent was combined with a maturity way beyond his biological age.
The last two years of his life led Christian to pursue with determination and commitment his objective of producing recordings intended for a wide public. This was also the period of his new (and last) love; Antonella, a university student who was at his side during his last hours, in a hospital in Scotland.
Christian’s death, as unexpected as it was sudden, was due to a strange and terrible sickness which struck him in the summer of 1998, immediately after consuming a drink based on tomato-juice, bought in a natural food store. His parents were only just in time to reach him while he was still alive, after hours of travel, fraught with anxiety, but their return began a mourning which was against nature itself. Today Christian lies buried beneath a cross surrounded by grass, in the cemetery at Anzio.