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, 17 October 2018

Giovanni Matteo Mario - operatic tenor

Disgraced nobleman became the toast of London and Paris


Giovanni Matteo Mario became a singer  after fleeing to France
Giovanni Matteo Mario became a singer
after fleeing to France
The operatic tenor Giovanni Matteo Mario, a Sardinian nobleman who deserted from the army and began singing only to earn a living after fleeing to Paris, was born on this day in 1810 in Cagliari.

He was baptised Giovanni Matteo de Candia, born into an aristocratic family belonging to Savoyard-Sardinian nobility. Some of his relatives were members of the Royal Court of Turin. His father, Don Stefano de Candia of Alghero, held the rank of general in the Royal Sardinian Army and was aide-de-camp to the Savoy king Charles Felix of Sardinia.

He became Giovanni Mario or Mario de Candia only after he had begun his stage career at the age of 28. He was entitled to call himself Cavaliere (Knight), Nobile (Nobleman) and Don (Sir) in accordance with his inherited titles, yet on his first professional contract, he signed himself simply ‘Mario’ out of respect for his father, who considered singing a lowly career.

Although he was one of the most celebrated tenors of the 18th century, Italy never heard Mario sing. Instead, the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in London and the Théâtre Italien in Paris witnessed most of his triumphs.

He often sang with his lifelong partner, the soprano Giulia Grisi, with whom he lived in Paris and London before Mario bought a villa just outside Florence in around 1849.

An illustration showing Giulia Grisi and
Giovanni Mario in Bellini's I puritani
The young De Candia was expected to have a military career. From the age of 12 he attended the Military College of Turin, where his fellow students included the future prime minister of Italy, Camillo Benso di Cavour When he was transferred to Genoa at the age of 19 with the rank of second lieutenant, however, he met the young revolutionaries Giuseppe Mazzini and Jacopo Ruffini and became sympathetic to the republican ideals.

It was not long before his military career abruptly ended. Some stories suggest De Candia was expelled from the army on suspicion of subversive activity, others that he deserted in fear of arrest. Either way, having left Genoa in a fishing boat, he landed in Marseille before moving on to Paris, where he found a growing community of Italian political refugees.

He was drawn towards the city’s musical and literary culture, meeting among others the composers Chopin, Liszt, Rossini and Bellini, as well as the writers Balzac, George Sand, and Dumas father and son.

Yet he was penniless and needed to make a living. He tried giving riding and fencing lessons and at one time attempted to join the British army.

Mario in the role of Don Giovanni in Mozart's opera of the same name
Mario in the role of Don Giovanni in
Mozart's opera of the same name
The chance to sing on stage came after the German composer Giacomo Meyerbeer heard him entertaining friends and persuaded him to take lessons. He made his debut at the Opéra in November 1838 as the hero of Meyerbeer's Robert le diable. He wrote to his mother to explain that he was calling himself Mario and promised he would never perform in Italy.

Mario quickly became a star in demand. In 1839 he made a triumphant debut in London as Gennaro in Gaetano Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia opposite Grisi, and made his debut at the Théâtre-Italien in Paris as Nemorino in Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore. For the next 30 years he sang all the important romantic leads in Paris and London, also appearing in St. Petersburg (Russia), New York City, and Madrid.

Nemorino and Gennaro were among his most admired roles, along with Ernesto in Donizetti's Don Pasquale - a part written for him. Later he was acclaimed for his Almaviva in Rossini’s Barbiere di Siviglia, which he sang more than 100 times in London.

In 1871 he gave his farewell performance as Fernando in Donizetti’s La favorita at Covent Garden in London.

Grisi and Mario married in the late 1840s and, after an amnesty was extended to many sentenced for political crimes, removing Mario’s fear he would be arrested, they returned to Italy to live at the Villa Salviati outside Florence, where they brought up six daughters and regularly entertained guests, including many of the central figures of the Italian Risorgimento, with whom Mario had formed lasting friendships.

The revolutionary activist Giuseppe Mazzini was a lifelong friend of Giovanni Mario
The revolutionary activist Giuseppe Mazzini
was a lifelong friend of Giovanni Mario
In fact, in 1850 Mario had organised a concert to help Italian political refugees following the failed 1848 uprisings. He and Grisi gave shelter to the Venetian patriot Daniele Manin during his exile to Paris and for a time Mazzini co-ordinated his revolutionary activities from Mulgrave House, their home in London. It was there that one of their daughters - Cecilia De Candia - later recalled her parents entertaining several hundred red-shirted English Garibaldians in their garden, giving their voices to patriotic songs.

Tragically, Grisi died in 1869 after the train on which she was travelling to St Petersburg suffered an accident passing through Germany. Mario sold Villa Salviati shortly afterwards.

Following his Covent Garden farewell, Mario embarked on a brief concert tour of the United States before retiring to Rome. A man of extravagant habits, he soon found his fortunes in decline. Friends organised a benefit concert for him in London, which raised enough money - about £4,000 - to provide him with a pension.

He died in Rome in 1883 and was buried in the family mortuary chapel that he had arranged to be built in the Bonaria cemetery in Cagliari. Later a street in Castello - the historic old quarter of the Sardinian capital - was named after him.

Cagliari's medieval old town, Castello
Cagliari's medieval old town, Castello
Travel tip:

Cagliari’s charming historic centre, known as Castello, where Mario bought a house for his mother, is notable for its limestone buildings, which prompted DH Lawrence, whose first view of the city was from the sea as ‘a confusion of domes, palaces and ornamental facades seemingly piled on top of one another’, to call it 'the white Jerusalem'.  This hilltop citadel, once home to the city's aristocracy, is Cagliari’s most iconic image. Inside its walls, the university, cathedral and several museums and palaces - plus many bars and restaurants - are squeezed into a network of narrow alleys.

The Villa Salviati, just outside Florence, was Mario's  home for more than 20 years
The Villa Salviati, just outside Florence, was Mario's
home for more than 20 years
Travel tip:

The Villa Salviati, Mario and Grisi’s spectacular home in Florence, was built on the site of the Castle of Montegonzi about 7km (4.5 miles) north of the centre of the city, by Cardinal Alamanno Salviati, who in turn gave it to Jacopo Salviati, the son-in-law of Lorenzo de’ Medici (Lorenzo the Magnificent). It changed hands a number of times before being purchased by Mario from an Englishman, Arturo Vansittard.  In 2000 it was bought by the Italian government and now houses the historical archives of the European Union.

(Photo credits: Castello by Martin Kraft; Villa Salviati by Sailko)

More reading:

Giulia Grisi - the officer's daughter who became a star on three continents

Mazzini and the drive for Unification

How Donizetti grew up in a Bergamo basement

Also on this day:

1473: The birth of sculptor Bartolommeo Bandinelli

1797: Venice loses its independence


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Tuesday, 16 October 2018

Dino Buzzati - author

Novelist likened to Camus whose short stories remain popular


Dino Buzzati was a journalist, author and painter in an extraordinary career
Dino Buzzati was a journalist, author and
painter in an extraordinary career
The multi-talented author Dino Buzzati, whose output included five novels, several theatre and radio plays, a children’s novel, five opera libretti, some poetry, a comic book in which he also drew the illustrations, and several books of short stories, was born on this day in 1906 in Belluno.

Buzzati’s most famous novel, Il deserto dei Tartari (1940), titled The Tartar Steppe in the English translation, saw Buzzati compared to Albert Camus and Franz Kafka as a work of existentialist style, but it is for his short stories that he still wins acclaim.

A new collection entitled Catastrophe and Other Stories, which showcases Buzzati’s talent for weaving nightmarish fantasy into ordinary situations, was published earlier this year.

Buzzati, who worked as journalist for the whole of his adult life and also painted prolifically, was the second of four children born to Giulio Cesare Buzzati, a distinguished professor of international law, and Alba Mantovani, a veterinarian born in Venice.

The family’s main home was in Milan but they had a summer villa in San Pellegrino, a village just outside Belluno in the foothills of the Dolomites, which was where Dino was born.

Dino Buzzati, pictured in his studio, was almost as prolific as a painter as he was a writer
Dino Buzzati, pictured in his studio, was almost as
prolific as a painter as he was a writer
After studying at high school in the Brera district of Milan, Buzzati enrolled in the law faculty at the University of Milan in respect for his father, who had died when he was only 14. After graduating, he joined the Milan newspaper Corriere della Sera, beginning a relationship that would be maintained until his death in 1972.

At different times he was a war correspondent, embedded with the Italian navy, editor, essayist, foreign correspondent, crime reporter and art critic.

He began to write fiction in the early 1930s with two novels set in the mountains, inspired by the landscapes around Belluno. Barnabò delle montagne (Barnabus of the Mountains, 1933) and Il segreto del bosco vecchio (The Secret of the Ancient Wood, 1935), both of which were made into films in the 1990s, introduced the Kafkaesque surrealism, symbolism, and absurdity that was a characteristic of all his writing.

Buzzati pictured near the offices of Corriere della Sera on Via Solferino in Milan
Buzzati pictured near the offices of Corriere
della Sera
on Via Solferino in Milan
The novel generally considered his finest, Il deserto dei Tartari, a tale of garrison troops at a frontier military post, poised in expectancy for an enemy who never comes and unable to go forward or retreat, drew comparisons with Camus’s philosophical essay The Myth of Sysyphus.

The novel was turned into a movie in 1976 under the direction of Valerio Zurlini and starring Vittorio Gassman and Giuliano Gemma, with a soundtrack by Ennio Morricone.

Buzzati’s collections of short stories include Sessanta racconti (Sixty Tales, 1958), while other novels include Il grande ritratto (Larger Than Life, 1960), a science fiction novel, and Un amore (A Love Affair, 1963). 

Of his plays, which were hugely popular, the most important is Un caso clinico (A Clinical Case, 1953), a Kafkaesque horror story in which medical specialists and machinery freakishly kill a perfectly healthy man. His children’s novel, La famosa invasione degli orsi in Sicilia (The Bears' Famous Invasion of Sicily, 1945) is still a favourite today.

Buzzati’s paintings ranged from his early landscapes, depicting his beloved mountains, to the Italian black comic art and the pop art that dominated his work in the 1960s.  His most famous painting is probably his Piazza del Duomo (1952), in which Milan cathedral’s distinctive grid of pinnacles and spires becomes a jagged Dolomite mountain, surrounded by green pastures.

He was also a devotee of the opera, writing the libretto for four operas for which the music was composed by his friend, Luciano Chailly.  Away from his extraordinary productivity in words and pictures, he would spend every September in the mountains around Belluno, climbing difficult routes in the company of mountain guides.

Buzzati, who did not marry until he was almost 60 years old, died in 1972 after developing pancreatic cancer. His ashes were scattered on Croda di Lago, a mountain in the Dolomites near Cortina d’Ampezzo.

Piazza dei Martiri is one of the central squares in the beautiful town of Belluno in northern Veneto
Piazza dei Martiri is one of the central squares in the
beautiful town of Belluno in northern Veneto
Travel tip:

Belluno, in the Veneto region, is a beautiful town in the Dolomites, situated just over 100km (62 miles) north of Venice, more than 325km (200 miles) from Milan. It occupies an elevated position above the Piave river surrounded by rocky slopes and dense woods that make for an outstanding scenic background. The architecture of the historic centre has echoes of the town's Roman and medieval past. Around the picturesque Piazza Duomo can be found several fine buildings, such as the Palazzo dei Rettori, the Cathedral of Belluno and Palazzo dei Giuristi, which contains the Civic Museum.

The Villa Buzzati is now available for guests to stay in  bed and breakfast accommodation
The Villa Buzzati is now available for guests to stay in
bed and breakfast accommodation
Travel tip:

Visitors to Belluno can stay at Buzzati’s family villa in Via Visome, about 4km (2.5 miles) from the centre of the town. It is managed by Valentina Morassutti, whose grandmother was Dino Buzzati’s sister.  The Villa Buzzati has two rooms that are available all year round for guests wishing to stay on a bed and breakfast basis. On the first Sunday of each month from April to October, Morassutti can arrange small-group visits to the Villa and the places that were dear to Buzzati.

More reading:

Why Alberto Moravia is remembered as a major literary figure

The brilliance of Strega Prize winning novelist Corrado Alvaro

What made Vittorio Gassman one of Italy's finest actors

Also on this day:

1885: The birth of athlete Dorando Pietri, famous for being disqualified

1978: The election of Pope John Paul II


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Monday, 15 October 2018

Roberto Vittori – astronaut

High-flying Colonel contributed to space research


Roberto Vittori has taken part in three space flights including the last by Space Shuttle Endeavour
Roberto Vittori has taken part in three space flights,
including the last by Space Shuttle Endeavour
Roberto Vittori, the last non-American to fly on board the US Space Shuttle, was born on this day in 1964 in Viterbo.

An Italian air force officer, Vittori was selected by the European Space Agency to be part of their Astronaut Corps and has participated in three space flights.

In 2011 Vittori was on board the Space Shuttle that travelled to the International Space Station to install the AMS-02 cosmic ray detector to examine dark matter and the origin of the Universe.

Vittori had to grapple the six-tonne AMS-02 with the Space Shuttle’s robotic arm and move it to the station for installation. This was to be the final flight of Space Shuttle Endeavour.

He is one of five Italians to have visited the International Space Station. The others are Umberto Guidoni, who was the first European to set foot on board when he flew on Space Shuttle Endeavour in 2001, Paolo Nespoli, who visited as recently as 2017 and at 61 is the European Space Agency’s oldest active astronaut, Luca Parmitano and Samantha Cristoforetti, the first Italian woman in space.

Vittori, right, met up with fellow Italian astronaut Paolo Nespoli
after arriving at the International Space Station in 2011
Nespoli, who has participated in three International Space Station missions, was coming to the end of a 159-day stay when Vittori visited.

Vittori graduated from the Italian Air Force Academy in 1989 with a degree in Aeronautical Science and afterwards flew with the Italian air force from a base in Piacenza.

After completing his basic training with the US Air Force in 1990, Vittori graduated from the US Navy Test Pilot School in 1995. He also graduated from the Nato Defence College Senior Course in 2006 and completed a Masters degree in Physics in 2007.

Vittori, left, with some of his fellow crew members after the Endeavour arrived at the International Space Station
Vittori, left, with some of his fellow crew members after
the Endeavour arrived at the International Space Station
In 2002, he flew to the International Space Station on board a Russian Soyuz craft and worked alongside the resident crew overseeing scientific experiments. The mission successfully delivered a new lifeboat for use in the event of an on board emergency.

In 2005, again part of a Soyuz mission, he became the first European to visit the Space Station twice when he went to conduct experiments in upper limb fatigue and the germination of herbaceous plant seeds for possible space nutrition.

After Space Shuttle Columbia was lost in 2003, Vittori served on the accident investigation team.

Now a Colonel in the Italian Air Force, Vittori has logged nearly 2000 miles in more than 40 different aircraft. He is married to Valeria Nardi, who comes from Città di Castello in the province of Perugia, and they have three children.

He was made Commendatore della Repubblica by Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, the then President of the Italian Republic, in 2005.

The impressive Palazzo dei Papi is among many  well-preserved medieval buildings in Viterbo
The impressive Palazzo dei Papi is among many
well-preserved medieval buildings in Viterbo
Travel tip:

Viterbo, where Roberto Vittori was born, is the largest town in northern Lazio, situated about 80km (50 miles) north of Rome. It is regarded as one of the best preserved medieval towns in Italy, with many buildings in the San Pellegrino quarter featuring external staircases. The town’s impressive Palazzo dei Papi, was used as the papal palace for about 20 years during the 13th century. Completed in about 1266, the palace has a large audience hall, which connects with a loggia raised above street level by a barrel vault.

The Piazza Cavalli in Piacenza is so called because of its two bronze equestrian statues by Francesco Mochi
The Piazza Cavalli in Piacenza is so called because of
its two bronze equestrian statues by Francesco Mochi
Travel tip:

Piacenza, where Roberto Vittori was based with the Italian air force after qualifying as a pilot, is a city in the Emilia-Romagna region of northern Italy. The main square in Piacenza is named Piazza Cavalli because of its two bronze equestrian monuments featuring Alexander Farnese, Duke of Parma and his son Ranuccio I Farnese, Duke of Parma, who succeeded him. The statues are masterpieces by the sculptor Francesco Mochi.

More reading:

Samantha Cristoforetti - Italy's record-breaking first woman in space

How astronaut Umberto Guidoni launched a career in politics

Giovanni Schiaparelli and 'canals on the moon'

Also on this day:

1764: Edward Gibbon's moment of inspiration

1905: The birth of footballer Angelo Schiavio, whose goal won Italy's first World Cup


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Sunday, 14 October 2018

Alesso Baldovinetti - painter

One of first to paint realistic landscapes


A self-portrait of Alesso Baldovinetti from a fragment of damaged fresco, now in the Accademia Carrara in Bergamo
A self-portrait of Alesso Baldovinetti from a fragment of
damaged fresco, now in the Accademia Carrara in Bergamo
The early Renaissance painter Alesso Baldovinetti, whose great fresco of the Annunciation in the cloister of the Basilica of the Santissima Annunziata in Florence is still intact, was born on this day in 1425 in Florence.

Baldovinetti was among a group described as scientific realists and naturalists in art which included Andrea del Castagno, Paolo Uccello and Domenico Veneziano. Influenced by Uccello’s use of visual perspective, he had a particular eye for detail and his views of the Arno river in his Nativity and Madonna are regarded as among Europe’s earliest paintings of accurately reproduced landscapes.

Veneziano’s influence is reflected in the pervasive light of his earliest surviving works, and he was also greatly influenced by Fra Angelico. Historians believe that in the 1460s Baldovinetti was the finest painter in Florence, although some argue that he did not fulfil all his initial promise.

Born into the family of a wealthy Florentine merchant, Baldovinetti rejected the chance to follow his father’s trade in favour of art.

Baldovinetti's Nativity in the Basilica of Santissimi Annunziata in Florence with the Arno river in the background
Baldovinetti's Nativity in the Basilica of Santissimi Annunziata
in Florence with the Arno river in the background
In 1448, he became a member of the Accademia di San Luca in Rome. It is thought that he assisted with decorations in the church of Sant’ Egidio in Trastevere, with Veneziano and del Castagno, with whom he later collaborated on the frescoes in the Santa Maria Nuova in Florence.

Apart from his frescoes in the Annunziata basilica in Florence, other surviving works include those done for the chapel decorations in the Basilica of San Miniato al Monte, also in his home city.  It is regrettable that he did not help some of his work by using a mixture of yolk of egg and liquid varnish - his own invention - to protect his paintings from damp, but which in the event caused them to deteriorate more quickly.

Baldovinetti worked on several pieces for the church of Santa Trinita, where he painted an altarpiece of the Virgin Mary and child with the saints Gualberto and Benedetto, which is now in the Academy of Florence.

Baldovinetti's Annunziation
Baldovinetti's Annunziation
During this period, Baldovinetti also gained a reputation as one of the best mosaic workers of the day, earning praise for his restoration of the mosaics at the San Miniato.

Two of his works are in the Uffizi Gallery, including an Annunciation and Madonna and Child with Saints. The National Gallery in London has a Portrait of a Lady in Yellow that for centuries was wrongly attributed to Piero della Francesca, while there is a Madonna and Child in the Louvre in Paris.

Among Baldovinetti’s own pupils was Domenico Ghirlandaio, who went on to become a major figure in the so-called "third generation" of the Florentine Renaissance, a contemporary of Verrocchio and Sandro Botticelli.

Baldovinetti died in August 1499 at the age of 73 and was buried in the Basilica of San Lorenzo.

The facade of the Basilica della Santissima Annunziata in the San Marco district of Florence
The facade of the Basilica della Santissima Annunziata
in the San Marco district of Florence
Travel tip:

The Basilica della Santissima Annunziata is in the Piazza della Santissima Annunziata in the San Marco district of Florence. The church was founded in 1250 and rebuilt by Michelozzo between 1444 and 1481. Frescoes by Andrea del Sarto can be seen in the atrium of the church. Newly wed couples traditionally visit the church to present a bouquet of flowers to a painting of the Virgin by a 13th century monk, where they pray for a long and fruitful marriage.

The church of Santa Trinita, where Balodovinetti worked on a number of pieces
The church of Santa Trinita, where Balodovinetti
worked on a number of pieces
Travel tip:

The church of Santa Trinita, which overlooks the square of the same name, can easily be reached by walking down the elegant Via de' Tornabuoni towards the Arno. Standing near the Santa Trinita bridge, it was founded in the middle of the 11th century. Originally built in a simple Romanesque style, it was later was enlarged and restored following Gothic lines. The church’s Sassetti Chapel contains 15th-century frescoes by Domenico Ghirlandaio.

More reading:

The humble friar who became one of the greatest artists of the 15th century

Why the talent of Sandro Botticelli was forgotten for four centuries

How Piero della Francesca applied geometry and maths to his work

Also on this day:

1628: The death of painter Palma Giovane

1963: The birth of singer Alessandro Safina


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Saturday, 13 October 2018

Piero Dusio - sportsman and entrepreneur

His Cisitalia company revolutionised automobile design


The Cisitalia 202 set new standards in sports car design that changed the way automobiles looked
The Cisitalia 202 set new standards in sports car design
that changed the way automobiles looked
The footballer, racing driver and businessman Piero Dusio was born on this day in 1899 in Scurzolengo, a village in the hills above Asti, in Piedmont.

Dusio made his fortune in textiles but it is for his postwar venture into car production that he is most remembered. Dusio’s Cisitalia firm survived for less than 20 years before going bankrupt in the mid-1960s but in its short life produced a revolutionary car - the Cisitalia 202 - that was a gamechanger for the whole automobile industry.

Dusio played football for the Turin club Juventus, joining the club at 17 years old, and was there for seven years before a knee injury forced him to retire at the age of only 24, having made 15 appearances for the senior team, four of them in Serie A matches.

Piero Dusio was a former footballer who made his fortune in textiles
Piero Dusio was a former footballer
who made his fortune in textiles
He kept his connection with the club and from 1942 to 1948 was Juventus president. In the short term, though, he was forced to find a new career. He took a job with a Swiss-backed textile firm in Turin as a salesman. He took to the job immediately and made an instant impression on his new employers, selling more fabric in his first week than his predecessor had in a year.  Within a short time he had been placed in charge of sales for the whole of Italy.

In 1926, at the age of 27, Dusio opened his own textile company, producing Italy's first oil cloth.

By the 1930s he had a portfolio of business interests that included banking, tennis racket manufacture and racing bicycles. In the textile business he branched out into uniforms and casual clothing. He made his fortune after landing a contract with Mussolini to supply military uniforms for the Italian army. Demand for his waterproof canvas products also soared.

His personal wealth enabled him to indulge his passion for motor racing. He bought himself a Maserati and regularly raced. He finished sixth in the Italian Grand Prix of 1937 and won his class in the Mille Miglia in 1937 driving a 500cc SIATA Sport.

In 1938 he finished third overall in the Mille Miglia and won the Stelvio hillclimb. War then intervened but once it had finished Dusio was eager to resume his career in the cockpit.

The Cisitalia D46 was the first car to be produced by Piero Dusio's new company
The Cisitalia D46 was the first car to be produced
by Piero Dusio's new company
Yet Italy’s economy was on the floor at that stage with most of its industry destroyed. Dusio realised that it might be unrealistic to expect the expensive sport of motor racing to pick up exactly where it left off.

With that in mind, he created his new company - the Consorzio Industriale Sportivo Italia, Cisitalia for short - with a plan to produce a single-seater racing car cheap enough to tempt the amateur.  He commissioned the Fiat engineer, Dante Giacosa, famous for the Fiat 500 Topolino to design it and soon the Cisitalia D46 was born.

Dusio's dream of a one-model series featuring only the D46 came to nothing, but the car scored multiple successes, particularly in the hands of drivers as talented as the brilliant Tazio Nuvolari, winner of 24 Grands Prix in the pre-Formula One era.

He overstretched himself somewhat with his next project, paying a fortune to extract the legendary German engineer Ferdinando Porsche - a Nazi party member - from a French prison. Porsche’s innovative but complex mid-engined Cisitalia 360 was a triumph of engineering but ultimately proved too expensive for Dusio to support.

Battista 'Pinin' Farina is said to have made his reputation with his work on the 202
Battista 'Pinin' Farina is said to have made
his reputation with his work on the 202
Yet Dusio was not done.  In 1945, he took on another Fiat man, their young head of aviation, Giovanni Savonuzzi, with the idea of building a two-seater commercial coupé based on the D46.  Their project was taken up by Battista ‘Pinin’ Farina, who came up with the Cisitalia 202 Coupé.

The car was not a commercial success. It was priced higher than rival cars from Jaguar and Porsche that offered better performance. In the end, fewer than 200 were built.

Yet its design - the one that made Farina’s reputation, although it closely followed Savonuzzi’s preliminary sketches - is credited with changing the way cars look, setting an entirely new standard - a template for the way sports cars look even today.

Whereas road cars traditionally had been a collection of elements - cabin, hood, grill, fenders, headlights etc - with no real thought for aerodynamics, at least until the late 1930s, the Cisitalia 202 was a single unit. The headlights and the grill were perfectly aligned elements of the hood, the wheels were entirely inside the body, removing the need for separate fenders, and the cabin tapered in a smooth line to the rear.

Savonuzzi had applied to his sketches all he had learned about airflow in his aviation work and Farina had put his ideas into practice. The result was a beautiful design that was likened to a sculpture.  When the Museum of Modern Art in New York became the first museum to exhibit automobiles as examples of functional design, the 202 was the first vehicle to enter their collection.

For all that, Dusio could not sell enough cars to rescue his ailing company and the only way he could continue his career was to accept an offer of support from the government of Argentina to set up in car production in Buenos Aires, where he would remain until his death in 1975 at the age of 76.

Cisitalia continued to be run by his son, Carlo Dusio, but was made bankrupt in 1965.

The cathedral in Asti dates back to the 11th century
The cathedral in Asti dates back to the 11th century
Travel tip:

The village of Scurzolengo is just over 15km (9 miles) northeast of Asti, a city of just over 75,000 inhabitants about 55 km (34 miles) east of Turin. The city enjoyed many years of prosperity in the 13th century when it occupied a strategic position on trade routes between Turin, Milan, and Genoa. The area between the centre and the cathedral is rich in medieval palaces and merchants’ houses, the owners of which would often compete with their neighbours to build the tallest towers. Asti was once known as the City of 100 Towers, although in fact there were 120, of which a number remain, including the Torre Comentina, the octagonal Torre de Regibus and Torre Troyana.

The strikingly modern Museo Nazionale dell' Automobile is a major tourist attraction in Turin
The strikingly modern Museo Nazionale dell' Automobile
is a major tourist attraction in Turin
Travel tip:

With a long history in motor vehicle design and manufacturing - Fiat, Lancia, Iveco, Pininfarina, Bertone, Giugiaro, Ghia and Cisitalia were all founded in the city - it is hardly surprising that Turin is home to Italy’s most important automobile museum, the Museo Nazionale dell’Automobile (also known as MAUTO).  Opened in 1960 and dedicated to Giovanni Agnelli, founder of FIAT, the museum’s building and permanent exhibition were completely renovated in 2011. The MAUTO, in  Corso Unità d'Italia, is today one of Turin’s most popular tourist attractions.

More reading:

Was Tazio Nuvolari the greatest driver of them all?

The 'smallest brother' who became a giant of the car industry

The brilliance of engineer Vittorio Jano

Also on this day:

54AD: The suspicious death of the emperor Claudius

1815: The execution of Napoleon's military strategist Joachim Murat


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Friday, 12 October 2018

Gillo Pontecorvo - film director

Most famous film was banned in France


Gillo Pontecorvo was a journalist before being inspired to make a career as a film director
Gillo Pontecorvo was a journalist before being inspired
to make a career as a film director
The film director Gillo Pontecorvo, whose best known film, La battaglia di Algeri (The Battle of Algiers) won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 1966 and was nominated for three Academy Awards, died on this day in 2006 in Rome, aged 86.

A former journalist who had been an Italian Resistance volunteer and a member of the Italian Communist Party, Pontecorvo had been in declining health for some years, although he continued to make documentary films and commercials until shortly before his death.

Although it was made a decade or so after the peak years of the movement, La battaglia di Algeri is in the tradition of Italian neorealism, with newsreel style footage and mainly non-professional actors.

Pontecorvo also won acclaim for his 1960 film Kapò, set in a Second World War concentration camp, and Burn! (1969) - titled Queimada in Italy - which was about the creation of a so-called banana republic on the fictitious Caribbean island of Queimada, starring Marlon Brando and loosely based on the failed slave revolution in Guadeloupe.

A poster for the US release of the film La battaglia di algeri
A poster for the US release of the
film La battaglia di algeri
Kapò, which was also was nominated for an Oscar, won a Italian National Syndicate of Film Journalists Silver Ribbon award for Didi Perego as best supporting actress, and the Mar del Plata Film Festival award for Susan Strasberg for best actress.

La battaglia di Algeri, which focussed on the Algerian War of Independence against the occupying French, caused great controversy in France, where it was banned for five years after the government objected to its sympathetic treatment of the Algerian rebels. Its co-star and joint producer, Saadi Yacef, was one of the leaders of the Algerian Liberation Front.

Pontecorvo was born in November 1919, in Pisa, into a high-achieving family. His father, Massimo, owned three textile factories employing more than 1,000 people. His eldest brother among seven siblings, Guido, later became an eminent geneticist, his second brother, Paolo, an engineer who worked on radar during the Second World War II and his third brother, Bruno, a renowned nuclear physicist.

Gillo enrolled at the University of Pisa to study chemistry but dropped out, taking the decision when Mussolini’s race laws came into force in 1938 to follow Bruno in fleeing to Paris, where he found work as a journalist.

When the German Army closed in on Paris, in June 1940, Pontecorvo and Bruno, along with their cousin Emilio Sereni, their friend, the future Nobel Prize-winning microbiologist Salvador Luria, and Pontecorvo’s future wife, Henrietta, fled the city on bicycles.

Marlon Brando played the lead character in Pontecorvo's film Burn!
Marlon Brando played the lead character
in Pontecorvo's film Burn!
Pontecorvo reached St Tropez, where he earned money by drawing on his talent as a tennis player, providing lessons for rich residents.

By 1941, he had secretly joined the Italian Communist Party, and began to make regular trips to Italy to help organize anti-Fascist partisans.  Going by the pseudonym Barnaba, he spent the summer of 1943 working for his party’s underground newspaper, L'Unità, in Milan. From there he moved to Turin, where he began to organise factory workers.

After the war, he returned to Paris as the representative of Italy in the Youth World Federation and the Communist-backed World Federation of Democratic Youth.  Although his political philosophy remained Marxist, he broke his ties with the Communist party in 1956 after the Soviet intervention to suppress the Hungarian Revolution.

By then, his career as a filmmaker was established.  Although for many years an enthusiast for the cinema, it was after seeing Roberto Rossellini’s film, Paisà, that he gave up journalism and, using his own money and a 16mm camera, began to shoot political documentaries.

In 1957 he directed his first full-length film, La grande strada azzurra (The Wide Blue Road), which explored the life of a fisherman and his family facing hard times on a small island off the Dalmatian coast of Italy. The film won a prize at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival.

Pontecorvo was director of the Venice Film Festival
Pontecorvo was director of
the Venice Film Festival 
Pontecorvo’s output was relatively small, largely because he spent months and sometimes years in research as he sought to produce authentic portrayals of events.

His last full-length feature film was Ogro (1979), which was inspired by the car bomb murder by ETA terrorists of Carrerro Blanco, the prime minister of Spain under Franco in 1973.  The film brought Pontecorvo his second David di Donatello award for Best Director, which he had also won for Burn! (Queimada).

Director of the Venice Film Festival from 1992 to 1994, Pontecorvo was married twice. His second wife, Teresa Ricci, bore him three sons - Ludovico, Marco and Simone.  Marco Pontecorvo followed his father’s footstep and became a filmmaker.

The Campo dei Miracoli in Pisa, with the baptistery in the foreground and the Leaning Tower beyond the cathedral
The Campo dei Miracoli in Pisa, with the baptistery in the
foreground and the Leaning Tower beyond the cathedral
Travel tip:

Pisa used to be one of Italy’s major maritime powers, rivalling Genoa and Venice, until silt deposits from the Arno river gradually changed the landscape and ultimately cut the city off from the sea in the 15th century. Nowadays, almost 15km (9 miles) inland, it is a university city renowned for its art and architectural treasures with a 10.5km (7 miles) circuit of 12th century walls. The Campo dei Miracoli, formerly known as Piazza del Duomo, located at the northwestern end of the city, contains the cathedral (Duomo), baptistery and famously the tilting campanile known as the Leaning Tower of Pisa, all built in black and white marble between the 11th and 14th centuries.

Giorgio Vasari's Palazzo della Carovana used to be the headquarters of a Medici military order
Giorgio Vasari's Palazzo della Carovana used to be the
headquarters of a Medici military order
Travel tip:

In the centre of Pisa, the elegant Piazza dei Cavalieri is dominated by Palazzo della Carovana, built and lavishly decorated by Giorgio Vasari between 1562 and 1564. Originally the headquarters of the Knights of St. Stephen, a Roman Catholic dynastic military order founded in 1561 by Cosimo I de' Medici, first Grand Duke of Tuscany, it is now the main building of the Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa, one of three universities in Pisa, the others being the University of Pisa and the Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna.

More reading:

How Roberto Rossellini changed Italian cinema

Francesco Rosi - master of neorealism

The brilliance of Oscar-winner Vittorio de Sica

Also on this day:

1492: The death of Renaissance painter Piero della Francesca

1935: The birth of tenor Luciano Pavarotti


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Thursday, 11 October 2018

Anita Cerquetti – soprano

Performer with a powerful voice had brief moment in the spotlight


Anita Cerquetti commuted between Naples and Rome to perform on alternate nights
Anita Cerquetti commuted between Naples and Rome
to perform on alternate nights
Anita Cerquetti, the singer whose remarkable voice received widespread praise when she stood in for a temperamental Maria Callas in Rome, died on this day in 2014 in Perugia.

Cerquetti had been singing the title role in Vincenzo Bellinis Norma at Teatro San Carlo in Naples in 1958 when Callas, who had been singing the same part in Rome, walked out after the first act on the opening night.

Despite Callas claiming that her voice was troubling her, the incident, in front of Italian President Giovanni Gronchi, created a major scandal.

Fortunately the performances in Rome and Naples were on alternate days and so for several weeks Cerquetti travelled back and forth between the two opera houses, which were 225km (140 miles) apart. The achievement left her exhausted and three years later she retired from singing and her magnificent voice was heard no more.

Cerquetti was born in Montecosaro near Macerata in the Marche. She studied the violin, but after a music professor heard her singing at a wedding she was persuaded to switch to vocal studies. After just one year she made her debut singing Aida in Spoleto in 1951.

A publicity shot of Anita Cerquetti  taken in the 1950s
A publicity shot of Anita Cerquetti
taken in the 1950s
She sang all over Italy and made her debut at La Scala in 1958 as Abigaille in Nabucco. She also sang on RAI in a variety of roles.  She had sung in the United States at the Lyric Opera of Chicago in 1955, as Amelia in Un ballo in maschera opposite Jussi Björling, under Tullio Serafin, but returned infrequently.

When she replaced Callas at the Rome Opera House, it meant she had to commute between the two cities for several weeks. It was thought the effort affected her health because shortly afterwards she started withdrawing from stage appearances until she retired completely in 1961 at just 30 years of age.

Cerquetti was due to have made her debut at the Royal Opera House in London in the title role of Aida in July 1958, but withdrew following an appendectomy the month before and was replaced by Leontyne Price, so she was never heard at Covent Garden.

Her final appearance was in a concert in Amsterdam in 1961.

She made two recordings for Decca, including a complete version of Amilcare Ponchielli’s La Gioconda with Mario Del Monaco, and many of her live performances were recorded and have now been issued on CD.

Cerquetti was married to the baritone Edo Feretti with whom she had one daughter. After her retirement she went to live in Rome. Her husband predeceased her and the soprano died in Perugia from cardiovascular disease at the age of 83.

The hilltop town of Montecosaro in Marche
The hilltop town of Montecosaro in Marche
Travel tip:

Montecosaro, where Anita Cerquetti was born in 1931, is a hilltop town in Marche, about 35km (22 miles) southeast of Ancona and about 15km (9 miles)east of Macerata. Just outside the town is the Abbazia di Santa Maria a Pie’ di Chienti, also known as the Santissima Annunziata. Documents refer to an abbey being there in 936 but the Romanesque stone building that can be seen on the site today was built in 1125.

The Teatro San Carlo is close to the centre of  Naples, near Piazza Plebiscito
The Teatro San Carlo is close to the centre of
Naples, near Piazza Plebiscito
Travel tip:

Teatro di San Carlo in Naples, where Cerquetti was singing when she got the call asking her to replace Callas, is in Via San Carlo close to Piazza Plebiscito, the main square in Naples. The theatre was designed by Giovanni Antonio Medrano for the Bourbon King of Naples, Charles I, and opened in 1737, some 41 years before La Scala and 55 years before La Fenice. San Carlo is now believed to be one of the oldest, if not the oldest, remaining opera houses in the world. Both Gaetano Donizetti and Gioachino Rossini served as artistic directors at San Carlo and the world premieres of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor and Rossini’s Mosè were performed there.

More reading:

The mezzo-soprano at the centre of an on-stage spat with Maria Callas

The short but eventful career of Norma composer Vincenzo Bellini

When fire engulfed the Teatro San Carlo

Also on this day:

1815: The birth of controversial Prince Pierre-Napoleon Bonaparte

1896: The birth of Neapolitan songwriter Cesare Andrea Bixio


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