At Italy On This Day you will read about events and festivals, about important moments in history, and about the people who have made Italy the country it is today, and where they came from. Italy is a country rich in art and music, fashion and design, food and wine, sporting achievement and political diversity. Italy On This Day provides fascinating insights to help you enjoy it all the more.

Wednesday, 13 December 2017

La Festa di Santa Lucia

Much loved saint was immortalised in song

Fireworks over the harbour at Syracuse during
celebrations of the Festa di Santa Lucia
La festa di Santa Lucia - St Lucy’s Day - will be celebrated all over Italy today.

According to tradition, Santa Lucia comes down from the sky with a cart and a donkey and distributes gifts to all the children who have been good, while all the naughty children receive only a piece of coal.

Santa Lucia is the patron saint of the city of Syracuse in Sicily. Today, a silver statue of the saint containing her relics will be paraded through the streets before being returned to the Cathedral.

In Sicilian folklore there is a legend that a famine ended on Santa Lucia’s feast day when ships loaded with grain entered the harbour.

Santa Lucia is also popular with children in parts of northern Italy. In Bergamo, Brescia, Cremona, Lodi and Mantua in Lombardy, and also parts of the Veneto, Trentino, Friuli and Emilia-Romagna, the children will have been expecting the saint to arrive with presents during the night.

A silver statue of Santa Lucia is borne through the  streets of Syracuse on December 13 each year
A silver statue of Santa Lucia is borne through the
streets of Syracuse on December 13 each year
According to tradition she arrives with her donkey and her escort, Castaldo. Children leave coffee for Santa Lucia, a carrot for the donkey and a glass of wine for Castaldo and they believe they must not watch the saint delivering her gifts.

Santa Lucia is believed to have been a third century Christian woman who took food to other Christians hiding in the catacombs in Rome. She wore a candle-lit wreath on her head to light her way in order to leave her hands free to carry as much food to them as possible. It is believed she died as a martyr on 13 December 304 AD.

An inscription dating from the fourth century was found in Syracuse mentioning the Festa di Santa Lucia. There it is believed she was a Sicilian noble woman who was killed for refusing to renounce her Christian beliefs.

Children in Bergamo leave letters for Santa Lucia in the way British children write to Santa Claus
Children in Bergamo leave letters for Santa Lucia
in the way British children write to Santa Claus 
Travel tip:

A pre-Christmas tradition for children in Bergamo is to visit the church of the Madonna dello Spasimo in the Città Bassa, lower town, with letters detailing what they would like to receive for Christmas. The Church of San Spasimo, in Via XX Settembre at the hub of the shopping area, is also known locally as the church of Santa Lucia because the local children lay letters containing their Christmas wish lists next to the altar containing the statue of the Blessed Virgin of Spasimo, also known as Santa Lucia. 

The Castel dell'Ovo and the harbour at Santa Lucia in Naples
The Castel dell'Ovo and the harbour at Santa Lucia in Naples
Travel tip:

An area in the centre of Naples, between the Royal Palace and Borgo Marinari, the site of the Castel dell’Ovo, is known as Santa Lucia. The first settlement there was established by the Greeks, but nowadays the area is known for good hotels, fish restaurants and sailing clubs. The famous Neapolitan song, Santa Lucia, was about a boatman issuing an invitation to go out in his boat to enjoy the cool of the evening. The song made the picturesque waterfront district of Naples famous when it was recorded at the beginning of the 20th century by Enrico Caruso, an opera singer from Naples.

Tuesday, 12 December 2017

Piazza Fontana bombing

Blast at Milan bank killed 17 and wounded 88

The office and counter area inside the Banca Nazionale dell'Agricoltura in Milan after the explosion
The office and counter area inside the Banca Nazionale
dell'Agricoltura in Milan after the explosion
Italy found itself the victim of an horrific terrorist attack on this day in 1969 when a bomb blast at a Milan bank left 17 people dead and a further 88 injured.

The bomb exploded at 4.37pm in the headquarters of the Banca Nazionale dell’Agricoltura in Piazza Fontana, just 200m away from the Duomo.  It was caused by a bomb containing about 18lbs of explosives left on the third floor, killing customers and members of staff.

At around the same time, two bombs exploded in Rome, injuring 14 people. Another device, placed in the courtyard of a bank near Teatro alla Scala in Milan, was deactivated by police.

The explosions followed one month after a policeman was killed during a riot of left-wing extremists in Milan and are generally seen as the start of a period of violent social and political unrest in Italy dubbed the Years of Lead.

Over a period of almost 20 years, the Years of Lead resulted in more than 200 deaths, many committed by the left-wing terrorist group Brigate Rosse (the Red Brigades), others by far-right organisations such as Nuclei Armati Rivoluzionari (Armed Revolutionary Groups) and Ordine Nuovo (the New Order).

The plaque outside the bank commemorating the victims of the bomb
The plaque outside the bank commemorating
the victims of the bomb
Many of the victims died as a result of targeted assassinations, often aimed at policemen, business leaders, members of the judiciary. The highest profile individual killing was of the former prime minister, Aldo Moro, murdered after being kidnapped in Rome and held captive for 54 days.

Others were killed indiscriminately in large-scale bombings, such as Piazza Fontana and the Bologna railway station massacre in 1980, which claimed the lives of 85 travellers when a huge bomb hidden in a suitcase exploded in a crowded waiting room.

Decades of investigations into the Piazza Fontana bombing led to a total of 4,000 arrests, three trials and sentences of life imprisonment for six alleged terrorists, all of which were subsequently quashed.

The acquittals of three neo-fascists in the third trial were announced in 2004, almost 35 years after the bombing took place, and meant that those who carried it out were never conclusively identified.

As a result, the conspiracy theories that surround the incident and much of the Years of Lead have persisted.

On the face of it, the Years of Lead was a struggle for supremacy between the ideologies of the left, represented in the mainstream by the Italian Communist Party, and those of the right, who did not have mainstream representation but were propagated by neo-fascist far-right organisations such as Ordine Nuovo and the Italian Social Movement.

Giuseppe Pinelli, a railway worker, who died while being held by police
Giuseppe Pinelli, a railway worker, who
died while being held by police
But it was suspected that forces on both sides were being manipulated by western secret service agents as part of the so-called “strategy of tension”, designed primarily to ensure that the Italian Communist Party’s growing popularity in post-War Italy went only so far, and that they were never allowed to take power.

In the case of the Piazza Fontana bombing, the theory is that Ordine Nuovo members were responsible but wanted it to appear that it was the work of left-wing extremists committed to the overthrow of the majority Christian Democratic party and were supported in this aim by agents of the US Central Intelligence Agency.

This theory was backed up by an investigation in 2000 by the left-leaning Olive Tree coalition, which concluded that that US intelligence agents were informed in advance of the bombing but did nothing to stop it, and that clandestine payments were made to Pino Rauti, the founder of Ordine Nuovo, via a US Embassy press officer.

Furthermore, in a newspaper interview in 2000, Paolo Emilio Taviani, the Christian Democrat co-founder of the secret NATO anti-communist force codenamed Gladio, which stayed behind in Italy after the Allies had withdrawn at the end of the Second World War, said that Italian secret services were also aware of the planned bombing in Milan but that rather than send agents to prevent it, they instead despatched another agent, whose mission was to spread stories blaming left-wing anarchists for the attack.

Indeed, in addition to a plaque on the wall of the Banca Nazionale dell’Agricoltura building that lists the names of the victims of the bomb, there are memorials in Piazza Fontana to the anarchist, Giuseppe Pinelli, who was arrested as part of a sweep of known anarchists in the wake of the bombing and died when he fell from a fourth floor window of Milan’s main police station, supposedly as a result of feeling faint during questioning and needing to take some air.

Pinelli’s fate inspired the satirist and playwright Dario Fo to write his famous play, Accidental Death of an Anarchist.

One of the memorials to Pinelli in Piazza Fontana, placed by Milan city council
One of the memorials to Pinelli in Piazza
Fontana, placed by Milan city council
Travel tip:

Piazza Fontana is literally just a few metres from the back of Milan’s Duomo, accessed via Via Carlo Maria Martini.  There are two simple memorials mourning the death of Giuseppe Pinelli placed on a lawn opposite the Banca Nazionale dell’Agricoltura, in front of a police building (although not the one in which he died). One was placed by students and anarchist friends of Pinelli, the other by Milan city council. Only the former refers to him being killed; the other simply says that he “died tragically.”

Travel tip:

On the other side of Piazza Fontana from the Pinelli memorials is Milan’s 16th-century Archbishop's Palace, partly modified with neoclassical additions in the 18th century, which is the official residence of the Archbishop of Milan. The palace owes its grandeur to archbishop Carlo Borromeo, who wanted to live permanently in the palace and commissioned Pellegrino Tibaldi to undertake a reconstruction project in 1585. The façade owes its appearance to Giuseppe Piermarini, who restored the palace in 1784.

Monday, 11 December 2017

Gianni Morandi – actor and pop singer

Veteran entertainer has sold 50 million records 

Gianni Morandi has been in the music  business for 55 years
Gianni Morandi has been in the music
business for 55 years
The singer Gianni Morandi, a Sanremo Festival winner and Eurovision Song Contest contestant who has sold more than 50 million records and had a simultaneous career as a successful TV and film actor, was born on this day in 1944 in a mountain village in Emilia-Romagna.

Morandi, whose longevity has brought comparisons with the British singer Sir Cliff Richard, is still performing today at the age of 73. In fact, he had an unlikely hit this year when he teamed up with 23-year-old rapper and web star Fabio Rovazzi.

Morandi, whose pop-ballad style still has a big following, showed his versatility and willingness to indulge in self-mocking humour this year by co-starring with Rovazzi in an electro-pop track and video called Volare that went to No 1 on iTunes Italy and attracted 2.5 million views in less than 24 hours.

He has also appeared in his 11th TV drama series, having a few months earlier seen the release of his 18th movie.

His birthday is being marked today with a late-evening special on Italy’s Canale 5 television station called Amore d’Autore, which celebrates the public and private life of one of Italy’s best-loved entertainers.

Morandi on stage in 2016: He still performs regularly
Morandi on stage in 2016: He still
performs regularly
Morandi was born in Monghidoro, now a village of almost 4,000 people that sits on a ridge in the Tuscan-Emilian Apennines some 840m (2,750ft) above sea level, about 41km (25 miles) south of Bologna.

As a young man he sold drinks and confectionary at his local cinema and worked as an assistant in the workshop of his father, Renato, a cobbler.  Renato was an active member of the Italian Communist Party and Morandi recalls that part of his daily routine was to read aloud passages from Karl Marx’s Das Kapital and reports from the party newspaper L’Unità.

But they were also a family who sang to entertain themselves and it was when his father arranged for him to sing at family festivals sponsored by L’Unità that Morandi enjoyed his first commercial success, collecting a princely 1,000 lire as his appearance fee.

In 1958, his rendition of Domenico Modugno’s Sanremo winner Nel blu dipinto di blu – more commonly known as Volare – earned him a place at a singing school in Bologna and after winning good reviews at a number of festivals he released his first single in 1962, with backing from Ennio Morricone’s orchestra.

With a recording contract from RCA, he had a juke-box hit and his first chart success later in the same year before releasing his first album in 1963. 

Throughout the 60s, he was a star of the Italian pop scene. His 1964 single In ginocchio da te (Kneeling before you) was at the top of the Italian singles charts for 17 weeks, selling more than one million copies, and was followed by several more number one successes.

Morandi performing at the Eurovision Song Contest in Amsterdam in 1970
Morandi performing at the Eurovision Song
Contest in Amsterdam in 1970
He courted controversy while at the early peak of his fame by recording a protest song against the Vietnam War which the television networks refused to promote yet which still reached number one in the chart.

Ironically, his career was then interrupted by compulsory national service.

When he returned to civilian life, he was chosen to participate for Italy in the 1970 Eurovision Song Contest in Amsterdam, in which he finished eighth behind the young Irish singer Dana’s entry All Kinds of Everything, but thereafter his career went into a decline.

He enjoyed a revival in the 1980s, started by his success as an actor in TV dramas, and by 1987, when he won the Sanremo Festival with Si può dare di più, he was again popular and an album recorded with his friend, the singer-songwriter Lucio Dalla, was very well received.

Since then, Morandi has become something of an icon in the entertainment world in Italy. His concert tours, often marathon affairs lasting more than a year and packing in hundreds of dates, would sell out months in advance, and he has fronted many TV shows.

In 2013, his two Gianni Morandi – Live concerts at the Arena di Verona were broadcast live on Canale 5 with an average audience of 6 million.  Cher and Ennio Morricone were among the artists who made guest appearances.

Morandi (right) in one of his earliest TV dramas, in 1966
Morandi (right) in one of his earliest TV dramas, in 1966
Morandi has been married twice – for the first time, from 1966 to 1979, to Laura Efrikian, the daughter of an Armenian conductor, with whom he had three children: Serena (1967), who sadly died after only a few hours, Marianna (1969) and Marco (1974). He has five grandchildren.

In November, 2004 he married Anna Dan, his partner of 10 years and the mother of his son, Pietro, and the couple moved into a renovated house in the regional park of Gessi Bolognesi and Calanchi dell'Abbadessa.

Morandi owes his enduring physical fitness to a passion for marathon running. He has raced in 10 marathons, including New York (twice), Berlin, London, Paris, Milan and Bologna.

Away from the entertainment business, he is a lifelong fan of Bologna Football Club, which he helped saved from bankruptcy in 2010 before being appointed honorary president later in the same year, a position he held until the club was sold to an American consortium in 2014.

The Chiostro della Cisterna in Monghidoro
The Chiostro della Cisterna in Monghidoro
Travel tip:

Occupying a ridge between two river valleys, Monghidoro has historically been a place of strategic importance going back to the time of the Ostrogoths and Lombards in the eighth and ninth centuries and remained so in the Second World War, when it was liberated from the Germans by Allied forces in October 1944. Because of the challenging nature of nearby terrain, it was also a stopping-off place for travellers seeking a passage between the Po Valley and central Italy. Notable sights include the Chiostro della Cisterna, an elegant cloister in the centre of the village that is all that remains of a 16th century Olivetan monastery. The cultural heart of the village, in the summer it hosts concerts, plays and exhibitions.  The elegant Piazza Armaciotto De Ramazzotti has a romantic atmosphere created by lanterns, which take the place of street lights.

Typical scenery in the Gessi Bolognesi and Calanchi dell'Abbadessa regional park near Bologna
Typical scenery in the Gessi Bolognesi and Calanchi
dell'Abbadessa regional park near Bologna
Travel tip:

The Gessi Bolognesi and Calanchi dell'Abbadessa regional park, situated just outside the city of Bologna to the southeast, is an area of striking natural beauty characterised by a series of gypsum outcrops creating a landscape of cliffs, caves, rocky hillsides, enclosed basins, chalky ridges and hidden valleys interspersed with rich greenery.  The area has been subjected to intensive mining over the centuries but all activity ceased in the 1970s and the area is now popular with walkers and caving enthusiasts.

Sunday, 10 December 2017

Errico Petrella – opera composer

Sicilian whose popularity drew scorn from rivals

Errico Petrella's operas enjoyed great popularity in Italy in the 1850s and 1860s
Errico Petrella's operas enjoyed great popularity
in Italy in the 1850s and 1860s
The largely forgotten opera composer Errico Petrella, whose popularity in Italy in the 1850s and 1860s was second only to operatic giant Giuseppe Verdi, was born on this day in 1813 in Palermo.

His composed 25 works, mainly comedic or melodramatic in nature, and had a run of successes in the 1850s, when three of  his productions were premiered at Teatro alla Scala in Milan.

However, Petrella attracted the scorn on both Verdi and another contemporary, the German composer Richard Wagner, both of whose careers coincided exactly with Petrella’s, even down to having been born in the same year.

When Il Duca di Scilla had its first performance at La Scala in March 1859, a year on from his hugely successful Jone, which also premiered at the Milan theatre, Wagner’s criticism could have hardly been more unflattering.

Asked his opinion of the work, Wagner said: “It is an unbelievably worthless and incompetent operatic effort by a modern composer whose name I have forgotten.”

Some years earlier, admittedly before Petrella had enjoyed much success at all, Verdi had been similarly scathing in his assessment of the 1951 opera Le Precauzioni, set against the background of the Venice Carnival, which made its debut at the Teatro Nuovo in Naples.

Verdi claimed that Petrella 'did not know music' despite his popularity
Verdi claimed that Petrella 'did not
know music' despite his popularity
He wrote: “Petrella does not know music, and his masterpiece, Le Precauzioni, may please the orrechianti [people who love opera but cannot read music] for its several brilliant violin melodies, but as a work of art, it cannot stand up either to the great works or even operas like Crispino, Follia a Roma etc., etc [the latter being comic operas written by the Neapolitan Ricci brothers].”

Verdi was less rude than Wagner, but his words were equally damaging. Opera historians suspect that Verdi’s quarrel was with Petrella’s conception of opera, which had a lot in common with the Neapolitan school in general in that it was less demanding of the singers.

In fact, although born in Palermo, Petrella was effectively a Neapolitan himself, his father having been a naval officer from Naples who was based in Sicily.

Petrella attended the Naples Conservatory and his style almost certainly owed much to his teacher, the conservatory’s director, Nicolo Zingarelli, whose advice was to think first of the audience rather than trying to impress other composers.

Zingarelli told him: “If you sing in your compositions, rest assured that your music will be found pleasing. If you amass harmonies, double counterpoint, fugues, canons, notes, contranotes etc. instead, the musical world may applaud you after half a century or it may not; but the audience will certainly disapprove of you. They want melodies, melodies, always melodies.”

The libretto from Petrella's most famous work, Jone, published in 1858
The libretto from Petrella's most
famous work, Jone, published in 1858
Even though there was no argument about Verdi’s primacy among the composers of the day, there were clear signs of jealousy on the part of the northern Italian of his southern rival. Verdi even expressed his annoyance that Petrella wrote to Alessandro Manzoni seeking permission to write an opera based on the novel I promessi sposi and received a flattering letter in response.

However, Petrella’s Jone – set against the background of the eruption of Vesuvius that buried Pompeii - was so popular it was produced as many as 600 times, compared with no more than 60 for Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra, which premiered only a year earlier.

Petrella had needed to wait a long time to find success after making his theatre debut in 1929.

It was not until he had written half a dozen works to only modest acclaim that he began to attract attention. Il carnevale di Venezia, which had its premier at the Teatro Nuovo in Naples in May, 1851, is seen as the opera that put him on the map.

He followed this with Elena di Tolosa, which made its debut at the Teatro Fondo in August 1852, Marco Visconti (San Carlo, Naples, 1854), L'assedio di Leida (La Scala, 1856) and then Jone (La Scala, 1858), the premier of which was a major event in the operatic world, drawing appreciative audiences in Milan and beyond.

It became a regularly performed opera in Italy and remained so well into the 20th century, with productions around the world in venues as far flung as Melbourne, Calcutta, Jakarta, Santiago, Lima, Manila and Tbilisi.  His most critical reviews still derided his unashamed attempts to court popularity rather than treat opera as high art, but had to concede that he could write a good tune.

Petrella suffered from diabetes in later life and died in financial hardship in Genoa in 1877, aged 64.  Despite his outspoken comments, Verdi is said to have felt sorry for the plight of his fellow musician and sent him some money, although reputedly it did not arrive until after he had passed away.

His body was returned to Palermo, where he is buried in the church of San Domenico.

The impressive facade of the church of San Domenico,  the second most important church in Palermo
The impressive facade of the church of San Domenico,
the second most important church in Palermo
Travel tip:

The church of San Domenico in Piazza San Domenico is the second most important church in Palermo after the cathedral. Completed in 1770 on the site of previous churches built in the Middle Ages and the early Renaissance period.  The current church was designed by Andrea Cirrincione, who conceived the magnificent baroque façade, which was completed in 1726, with the bell tower added later. In 1853 it was declared the “pantheon of illustrious Sicilians” and contains the tombs of many of the island’s most notable figures, including the artist Pietro Novelli, the Risorgimento protagonist Francesco Crispi, the politician and revolutionary Ruggero Settimo and the anti-Mafia judge Giovanni Falcone.

Via Errico Petrella in Milan
Via Errico Petrella in Milan
Travel tip:

The memory of Errico Petrella is preserved in Milan in the name of a street linking Via Luigi Settembrini and Corso Buenos Aires in a residential area a few blocks from the central station. There is also a street in Turin that takes his name while there is a Teatro Errico Petrella in the pretty hill town of Longiano in Emilia-Romagna, situated about 30km (19 miles) southeast of Forlì.

Saturday, 9 December 2017

Sonia Gandhi - Indian politician

Widow of ex-PM Rajiv born in pre-Alps of Veneto

Sonia Gandhi overcame her reluctance to become a major figure in Indian politics
Sonia Gandhi overcame her reluctance to become
a major figure in Indian politics
Sonia Gandhi, an Italian who married into a famous political dynasty and became the most powerful woman in India, was born on this day in 1946 in a small town near Vicenza.

In 1965, in a restaurant in Cambridge, England, where she was attending a language school, she met an engineering student from the University of Cambridge. They began dating and three years later were married.

His name was Rajiv Gandhi, the eldest son of the future Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi.  They were married in a Hindu ceremony, Sonia moved into her mother-in-law’s house and from then on lived as an Indian. Rajiv became an airline pilot while Sonia looked after their two children, Rahul and Priyanka.

Everything changed when Indira Gandhi was assassinated by Sikh nationalists in 1984, a year after Sonia had been granted Indian citizenship.  Rajiv had entered politics in 1982 following the death of his brother, Sanjay, in a plane crash and was elected to succeed his mother as prime minister.

Sonia wanted to remain in the background, having developed a passionate interest in preserving India’s artistic treasures. Inevitably she became more involved, campaigning on her husband’s behalf, and when Rajiv himself was killed by a suicide bomber in 1991, she was invited to take over as prime minister.

Sonia Gandhi at a meeting with the former US president Bill Clinton
Sonia Gandhi at a meeting with the former US
president Bill Clinton
She declined but then watched her husband’s Indian National Congress Party lose its way over the next few years and was urged to help revive its flagging fortunes. She joined the party in 1997. Within a year she was leader of the opposition in the Indian Parliament and in 2004 won the general election.

Amid controversy over whether a foreigner should be allowed to assume the highest office in the country, she opted not to become prime minister, nominating Manmohan Singh to hold the title instead, a move that was accepted by her political opponents.

Nonetheless, as chair of the 15-party governing coalition, named the United Progressive Alliance, that was charged with running the country, she was the most powerful woman in Indian politics and therefore one of the most powerful women in the world.

How different her life might have been had she not met the young Rajiv Gandhi on that evening in 1965.

The house in Lusiana where Sonia Gandhi was born in 1946
The house in Lusiana where Sonia
Gandhi was born in 1946
Born in Lusiana, a town in the Veneto about 20km (12 miles) north of Vicenza, her birth name was Edvige Antonia Albina Maino.  She spent her early years in the Contrada Maini – the Maini quarter – which historically was dominated by people from the Maino family, many of whom spoke a Germanic language called Cimbro.

It was her father, Stefano, who began to call her Sonia. A fervent supporter of Benito Mussolini’s Fascist party, he had fought in Russia alongside the Axis forces during the Second World War and was taken prisoner, but was grateful for the kindness of three Russian women who helped him after he was released.  One was named Sonia, the others Anouchka and Nadia, and he used their names as nicknames for his own three daughters.

When Sonia was nine, the family moved to Orbassano, a town near Turin, where her father started a small business.  He built his family a two-storey villa, with tall iron gates, that remains the family home even today.

He was a strict catholic and sent Sonia and her sisters to a convent, where they were boarders. Sonia was remembered as a lively student who took part in theatre activities and sang.

Later, she attended a Berlitz language school in Turin, eager to learn good English, a command of which was regarded as essential for any Italian with ambition. It was becoming the norm for wealthier Italian parents to send their children to study in England, hence Sonia’s arrival in Cambridge in January, 1965.

She did not care much for English weather nor the food, and the only cuisine resembling Italian that she could find in Cambridge at the time was at the Varsity Restaurant, whose owner was Greek-Cypriot. It was where she met Rajiv.  Some accounts of her life say she took temporary work there as a waitress while studying, although it is not clear whether she was waiting on tables or simply there as a diner on the night she met Rajiv.

Rajiv Gandhi (left) with his mother Indira and brother Sanjay as a young man in India
Rajiv Gandhi (left) with his mother Indira and brother
Sanjay as a young man in India
Although she was a beautiful girl, never short of male attention, and comfortably off, too, thanks to her father’s generous allowance, it was only after meeting Rajiv that she felt her time in Cambridge became bearable. Rajiv was wealthy but Indians were not allowed to take much money out of the country and he therefore had to live a humble life. He took a part-time job in a supermarket while not studying. 

Sonia met Indira Gandhi in London and it was plain to her that her relationship with Rajiv met with his mother’s approval. But her own parents had reservations about the idea of her marrying a non-Italian, never mind one from a country so far removed from Italy as India, even though Stefano thought Rajiv was sincere and was impressed by his determination to support her by becoming a commercial pilot.

He forbade Sonia to travel to India until she was 18 and even then said he would give their relationship his blessing only after they had lived apart for a year, hoping it might cool.  It did not, and they were married in 1968.

Although her life from then was in India, Sonia returned to Italy from time to time but did so discreetly. When she won the 2004 election, the media descended on Orbassano.  Her father had passed away some years earlier but her mother and sisters still lived in the town. They declined all interviews, however, their reluctance explained by the mayor of Orbassano, who told reporters that they had been upset by the tragedies that had beset the Gandhi family and asked to be left in peace.

Lusiana nestles in the picturesque hills of the northern Veneto in the shadow of the Alps
Lusiana nestles in the picturesque hills of the northern
Veneto in the shadow of the Alps
Travel tip:

Lusiana is a town of slightly more than 2,500 inhabitants in the picturesque pre-Alps of northern Veneto, about 20km (12 miles) north of Vicenza and about the same distance west of Bassano del Grappa. It is located about 750m (2,450ft) above sea level on the Asiago or Sette Comuni plateau. It is a centre for tourism both in summer and winter. The church of Santa Caterina in the nearby village of the same name contains an altarpiece by the artist Jacopo Bassano.

Piazza Umberto I in Orbassano
Piazza Umberto I in Orbassano
Travel tip:

The town of Orbassano is in an area about 20km southwest of Turin that was deforested in Roman times. It grew from a village to a town in the 19th century when a railway line from Turin and a textile factory was opened, although it remained a relatively small municipality until the 1960s, when its development as an industrial centre saw the population double to around 16,000 in the space of a decade, largely due to Fiat opening a plant at nearby Rivalta. The town, with a pretty central square, Piazza Umberto I, has continued to grow and is earmarked  for a direct metro link to the centre of Turin. A road out of Orbassano is named Via Rajiv Gandhi.

Friday, 8 December 2017

Johann Maria Farina - perfumier

Emigrant to Germany who invented Eau di Cologne

Johann Maria Farina gave his new  fragrance the name Eau di Cologne
Johann Maria Farina gave his new
fragrance the name Eau di Cologne
Johann Maria Farina, the Italian perfumier said to have created the world’s first Eau di Cologne, was born on this day in 1685 in the small town of Santa Maria Maggiore in Piedmont.

Farina’s family were masters in the art of distilling alcohol to carry fragrances, which involves different techniques to those used to distil alcohol to drink.

The method was developed in northern Africa, exported to Sicily and then on to the Italian mainland.  Farina’s antecedents brought it with them to Piedmont, where his grandmother established the family workshop in Santa Maria Maggiore, which is located about 130km (81 miles) northeast of Turin, not far from the border with Switzerland.

In his early 20s, Farina emigrated to Germany. Taking the name Johann Maria Farina - his given Italian name was Giovanni - he initially worked for an uncle who had moved to Cologne (Köln) some years earlier.

Feeling homesick, Farina began to dabble in experiments using the distilling techniques he had inherited. 

One day in 1708 he excitedly wrote a letter to his brother, Giovanni Battista Farina, exclaiming that he had produced a scent so pleasing to his nostrils that it was almost dreamlike in its qualities.

He wrote: “I have made a perfume reminiscent of an Italian spring morning, accompanied by a gentle freshness, where the scents of wild narcissus combine with sweet orange blossoms. The fragrance is refreshing and stimulative for my senses and imagination.”

Giovanni Paolo Feminis asked Farina to market his Aqua Mirabilis
Giovanni Paolo Feminis asked Farina to
market his Aqua Mirabilis
There have been suggestions that the recipe was not actually his but belonged to another product, Aqua Mirabilis, a medicinal mix that was the creation of Giovanni Paolo Feminis, a friend of the Farina family from Santa Maria Maggiore, which Farina had offered to market in Cologne.

Whatever the true story – and it is possible Farina used his distilling skills to give the formula his own twist - Farina was taken with the fragrance and gave it the name “Eau di Cologne” in honour of his adopted city.

In the summer of 1709, Giovanni Battista Farina arrived in Cologne, registered as a new resident at Cologne town hall, under the name of Johann Baptist Farina, and in August 1 of the same year signed a 12-year contract to rent a building opposite the Julichplatz in the street now known as Unter Goldschmeid.

With his brother-in-law, Franz Balthasar Borgnis, he founded Farina & Compagnie, which evolved into Gebrüder Farina & Compagnie - Farina Brothers and Co – after Johann Maria and another brother, Carlo Girolamo, joined the board.

The company is still operating more than 300 years later, from the same premises at the corner of Obenmarspforten, with the red tulip logo that was adopted at the very start.  It is the world’s oldest perfume factory. The current owners are the eighth generation of Giovanni’s family.

The perfume was originally sold in long, slender bottles called rosali
The perfume was originally sold in long,
slender bottles called rosali
The business initially sold a wide range of luxury items, such as lace, handkerchiefs, silk stockings, wigs, feathers, tobacco boxes, sealing wax and face powder.  After some wobbles at the start, resulting in the departures of Carlo Girolamo and Giovanni Battista’s brother-in-law and a renaming of the company to Fratelli Farina (Farina Brothers), business began to grow.

It was after the death of Giovanni Battista in 1924 that Johann Maria’s perfume became its focus.

In those days, when personal hygiene standards were a long way removed from those of today, it was normal for women and men to douse themselves liberally in scent and, once word of it spread, Farina’s fragrance became a sensation.

The exact recipe was a closely-guarded secret, naturally, and remains so. It contained a blend of the oils of many citrus fruits and flower essences, but most noticeable was the scent of Bergamot, the exotic citrus the size and shape of an orange with the colour of lime, grown in particular areas of southern Italy, Turkey and southern France.

The company was renamed again, this time simply as Johann Maria Farina, which has remained unchanged since.

From a small start – the first delivery of Eau di Cologne was for just 12 bottles in 1716 – Farina’s list of customers expanded rapidly. Between 1730 and 1739, around 3,700 of its distinctive long, slender bottles – named rosali - were delivered.

The company's Eau di Cologne - Acqua di Colonia - as packaged today
The company's Eau di Cologne - Acqua di
Colonia - as packaged today
Vitally, the fragrance soon became a royal and imperial favourite.  Frederick William I of Prussia, Clemens August of Bavaria, Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI, Maria Theresa of Austria and Louis XV of France were all taken with the unique scent and by 1740 it was being sold in cities all over Europe.

It was the favoured perfume of royal families through the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. Diana, Princess of Wales, enjoyed its delicate notes and deliveries were regularly made to her home in London. 

Other fans over the centuries included the composers Mozart and Beethoven, British prime minister Benjamin Disraeli, the writers Mark Twain and Oscar Wilde, the Indian prime minister Indira Gandi and the actresses Marlene Dietrich and Romy Schneider.

Other manufacturers attempted to copy Farina’s formula, some with greater success than others.  The most famous imitation is undoubtedly 4711, named after its location at Glockengasse No. 4711.

The French fragrance manufacturer Roger & Gallet produces a fragrance called Johann Maria Farina, having bought the rights to Eau de Cologne extra vieille when Jean Marie Joseph Farina, a grand grand nephew of Johann, sold the company’s Paris store in 1806.

Johann Maria Farina died in Cologne in 1766.

A wall plaque identifies Farina's birthplace in Santa Maria Maggiore
A wall plaque identifies Farina's
birthplace in Santa Maria Maggiore 
Travel tip:

Visitors to Santa Maria Maggiore, a small town of around 1,200 residents 25km (16 miles) north of Verbania, can look round the Casa del Profumo in Piazza Risorgimento, a new museum set up to celebrate the lives of both Giovanni Paolo Feminis and Johann Maria Farina. The museum has developed a relationship with the perfume museum at the original Farina headquarters in Cologne.

Verbania is the largest town on Lake Maggiore
Verbania is the largest town on Lake Maggiore
Travel tip:

Verbania is the largest town on Lake Maggiore, with a population of a little more than 30,000.  It was formed in 1939 by the merger of three smaller towns – Intra, Pallanza and Suna.  Pallanza, the middle of the three, has a pretty harbour. Attractions include the Villa Taranto, which has a magnificent botanical garden, and the Isolino di San Giovanni, a small islet separated from the mainland by a stretch of water no more than 15 metres wide, which was for many years the home of the great conductor and musical director, Arturo Toscanini.

Thursday, 7 December 2017

Azzone Visconti - ruler of Milan

Nobleman who used family power to bring prosperity to the city

Azzone Visconti's rule saw Milan prosper and expand in the early 14th century
Azzone Visconti's rule saw Milan prosper and
expand in the early 14th century
Azzone Visconti, a nobleman sometimes described as the founder of the state of Milan and who brought prosperity to the city in the 14th century, was born on this day in 1302 in Ferrara.

The Visconti family ruled Lombardy and Milan from 1277 to 1457 before the family line ended and, after a brief period as a republic, the Sforza family took control.

Azzone was the son of Galeazzo I Visconti and Beatrice d’Este, the daughter of the Marquis of Ferrara.

Galeazzo was descendant from Ottone Visconti, who had first taken control of Milan for the family in 1277, when he was made Archbishop of Milan by Pope Urban IV but found himself opposed by the Della Torre family, who had expected Martino della Torre to be given the title.

Ottone was barred from entering the city until he defeated Napoleone della Torre in a battle and, apart from a brief period in which forces loyal to Guido della Torre drove out Galeazzo’s father, Matteo, the Visconti family held power for the next 170 years.

Ambrogio Ficino's 1590 painting of the apparition  of St Ambrose at the Battle of Parabiago
Ambrogio Ficino's 1590 painting of the apparition
 of St Ambrose at the Battle of Parabiago
A crisis faced the Visconti rule in 1328 when Louis IV, the Holy Roman Emperor – known in Italian as Ludovico il Bavaro – had Galeazzo and other members of the family arrested following the death of Galeazzo’s younger brother, Stefano, in a suspected assassination.  Azzone’s uncle, Marco, was said to have betrayed Galeazzo by passing on information that implicated his brother at the heart of the plot.

Ludovico confiscated the Visconti territories, handing control of the smaller cities in Lombardy to local families. It proved the end of Galeazzo, who died later in the year.  On their release, Azzone was involved in a power struggle with Marco for control of Milan.

Azzone gained the upper hand when, with the help of another uncle, he raised the sum of 60,000 florins which he paid Ludovico for the title of Imperial Vicar of Milan, which effectively made him the ruler of the city.  When Marco was killed soon afterwards, Azzone was named as the chief suspect, although he was never prosecuted.

This development angered Pope John XXII, who excommunicated Azzone. As a solution, Azzone was forced to submit to the Pope and renounce his Imperial Vicariate, reaching a compromise under which he retained political power under the title of Lord of Milan.

Azzone’s rule lasted only nine years until his death in 1339 from gout, but during that time he enhanced the wealth and power of the city.

By joining the League of Castelbaldo, he brought the Lombardy cities of Bergamo, Novara, Cremona, Como, Lodi, Piacenza and Brescia back under the rule of Milan, establishing the city’s predominance in the region.

The bell tower of the church of San Gottardo in Corte in Milan
The bell tower of the church of San
Gottardo in Corte in Milan
He also defeated a plot to unseat him by his uncle, Lodrisio, who escaped a crackdown that saw several accomplices arrested and locked up un prison in the Castle of Monza but suffered defeat in the Battle of Parabiago, where a Milanese army led by another uncle, Luchino, was said to have been facing defeat but was saved by the divine intervention in the form of an apparition of St Ambrose on horseback, which caused the enemy army to flee.

Away from the battlefield, Azzone Visconti is credited with beginning an artistic renewal of Milan.

He rebuilt the Palazzo del Broletto Vecchio, opposite the Duomo, formerly the municipal seat, as Visconti palace - later the Royal Palace - and moved the town hall to the Palazzo della Ragione.

Azzone commissioned the Cremonese architect Francesco Pecorari to construct the church of San Gottardo in Corte, with an octagonal bell tower, which remains today, that was probably inspired by the drawings Giotto made for the bell tower of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence.

He hired Giotto himself to execute a number of frescoes in the Visconti palace, although none remain today.  His commitment to the architectural embellishment of Milan continued under his successors, notably with work beginning on the magnificent Duomo in 1386 under the rule of Gian Galeazzo Visconti.

Azzone was also credited with rebuilding the city of Lecco, at the southern end of the eastern fork of Lago di Como, known as Lago di Lecco. The city had been destroyed by his grandfather, Matteo, in 1296.

The monumental tomb of Azzone Visconti
The monumental tomb of Azzone Visconti
Travel tip:

The church of San Gottardo in Corte can be found in Via Francesco Pecorari, just a few yards from the Duomo. Built as a ducal chapel, it was originally dedicated to the Blessed Virgin but Azzone, who had gout, later changed the dedication to St. Gotthard of Hildesheim, patron of those with gout. The interior has been partially restored but in the original church part of the a fresco of the Crucifixion, thought to have been painted by a pupil of Giotto remains, along with the monumental tomb sculpted for Azzone by the Pisan sculptor Giovanni di Balduccio.

The Palazzo della Ragione in Piazza Mercanti
The Palazzo della Ragione in Piazza Mercanti
Travel tip:

The Palazzo della Ragione (Palace of Reason), which Azzone established as Milan’s town hall, is located in Piazza Mercanti, just off Piazza del Duomo, facing the Loggia degli Osii. It also served as a judicial seat. Built between 1228 and 1233 for the podestà (chief magistrate) of Milan, Oldrado da Tresseno. It maintained a central role in the administrative and public life of the city Milan until 1773, when it was enlarged to accommodate legal archives.  Between 1866 and 1870, the building hosted the headquarters of the Banca Popolare di Milano, a major Milanese bank, but returned to its function as house of legal archives until 1970.