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.

Sunday, 15 July 2018

Guido Crepax - cartoonist

Erotic character Valentina captured spirit of 1960s Italy

Erotic imagery was central to the success of Crepax's most famous character, Valentina
Erotic imagery was central to the success of Crepax's
most famous character, Valentina
The cartoonist Guido Crepax, whose character Valentina became a heroine of the 1960s generation in Italy and beyond, was born on this day in 1933 in Milan.

Valentina first appeared in May 1965 as a secondary character in another cartoon, the photographer girlfriend of an art critic and amateur sleuth.

But the sinuous, sensual female depicted by Crepax, her hair cut in a glossy bob, soon acquired fans both male and female.

In an era when Italian society was beginning to experience a sense of sexual liberation for the first time, Valentina’s eroticism naturally attracted a legion of male fans. But her assertive individuality struck a chord with many modern Italian women, too, even if her readiness to shed her clothes caused outrage among others.

Soon, Valentina left behind her fictional boyfriend and starred in a series of her own adventures, which Crepax continued to produce for three decades. She was outspoken in her left-wing political views, while her uninhibited fantasies increasingly reflected the world of dreams and psychoanalysis that fascinated her creator.  Her style even influenced the Milan fashion world.

Guido Crepax created his most  famous character in 1965
Guido Crepax created his most
famous character in 1965
Crepax was born Guido Crepas, the son of Gilberto Crepas, a musician from Venice who had moved to Milan to play at Teatro alla Scala, where he eventually became first cellist under the direction of Arturo Toscanini

The family home in Milan was virtually destroyed during a bombing raid in the Second World War but Guido survived to study architecture at Milan University. He graduated in 1958, by which time he had already begun  working as a graphic artist with some success.

His design work included advertising posters, record sleeves - among them Domenico Modugno's hit Nel blu, dipinto di blu (aka Volare) - and magazine and book covers.

His publicity campaign for Shell Oil won him the Palme d'Or for advertising in 1957. The following year he began a long-running collaboration with Tempo Medico, the first Italian medical journal, for which he designed every cover for 22 years.

Then came his first experience of drawing cartoons, with which he had been involved only two years when Valentina appeared for the first time in Linus magazine, in a series in which the main character was her boyfriend Philip Rembrandt, an art critic in his day job who led a double life as the crime fighter Neutron, helped by having the power to freeze people with a penetrating gaze.

Crepax created a back story for Valentina that in many ways reflected his own.

Guido Crepax designed the sleeve for Domenico  Modugno's hit, Nel blu, dipinto di blu
Guido Crepax designed the sleeve for Domenico
 Modugno's hit, Nel blu, dipinto di blu
He named her Valentina Rosselli after the resistance heroes Nello and Carlo Rosselli, whose courage he admired. He gave her an address in Milan's Via De Amicis, where he lived, and filled her apartment with the books that he and his intellectual circle were inspired and informed by.

She was modelled, in part, on the silent movie actress Louise Brooks, who favoured the archetypal ‘flapper’ look with the short bob, and on Crepax's own wife, Luisa.

Valentina was far from Crepax’s only character. He created several other female heroines, such as Belinda, Bianca and Anita, for whom the inspiration was Anita Ekberg, the star of Federico Fellinis La Dolce Vita.

He also drew cartoons based on works of literature, such as Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the scandalous novels of the Marquis de Sade, the Gothic novels of Edgar Allan Poe and Franz Kafka’s The Trial.

None, however, brought him the acclaim of Valentina, who was published in France, Brazil, Spain, Germany, Japan, the United States, Finland and Greece as well as Italy.

Valentina was twice adapted for the screen: in the 1973 Franco-Italian production Baba Yaga, and as a television series, starring the American actor Demetra Hampton. Both were a disappointment for her author.

A long-time sufferer from multiple sclerosis, Crepax died in Milan in 2003, at the age of 69.

Via Edmondo de Amicis, where Guido Crepax lived
Via Edmondo de Amicis, where Guido Crepax lived
Travel tip:

The Via Edmondo de Amicis, where Crepax lived and where he placed the fictional apartment of his comic book heroine Valentina, is in central Milan, between the Carrobbio and San Vittore neighbourhoods to the southwest of the city centre. A pleasant urban boulevard, it is a short distance from the Basilica of Sant’Ambrogio, one of the most ancient churches in the city, the original structure of which was built in the 4th century. The Baroque church that stands there today was completed in the 11th century.

The Teatro alla Scala, where Crepax's father was a musician, has become of the world's premier opera houses
The Teatro alla Scala, where Crepax's father was a musician,
has become of the world's premier opera houses
Travel tip:

The Teatro alla Scala - usually referred to by its abbreviated name La Scala - was built in the late 18th century as a replacement for the Teatro Regio Ducale, which was destroyed in a fire in 1776.  The project was financed by some 90 wealthy Milanese and built on the site of the church of Santa Maria alla Scala, from which it takes its name. The theatre has come to be regarded as the premier opera venue in Italy and one of the most important venues for opera and ballet in the world, with ambitious young singers and dancers from every corner of the globe clamouring for places at La Scala Theatre Academy.

More reading:

Hugo Pratt - the Rimini-born artist behind the adventurer Corto Maltese

How Franco Bonvicini's characters mocked the Nazis

The cinematic legacy of Fellini

Also on this day:

1823: Ancient Roman basilica badly damaged by fire

1850: The birth of Frances Xavier Cabrini - America's first saint


Saturday, 14 July 2018

Camillus de Lellis - saint

Reformed gambler who became devoted to caring for sick

Camillus de Lellis, depicted in a French church, was a reformed gambler
Camillus de Lellis, depicted in a French
church, was a reformed gambler
Camillo de Lellis, a gambler and streetfighter who reformed his life and eventually set up a religious order to tend the wounds of soldiers on the battlefield, died on this day in 1614 in Rome.

He was made Saint Camillus de Lellis by Pope Benedict XIV in 1746. Nowadays he is recognised as the patron saint of the sick, hospitals, nurses and physicians. Sometimes his assistance is also invoked by individuals with gambling problems.

The Order of Clerks Regular, Ministers of the Infirm (M.I), better known as the Camillians, is seen as the original Red Cross on account of an incident during the Battle of Canizza in 1601, when a tent containing all of the Camillians’ equipment and supplies was destroyed in a fire.

Among the ashes, the red cross from the back of a religious habit belonging to one of the Camillians was found to have survived. It became known as the Red Cross of Camillus.

The Order’s activities eventually extended to caring for the sick generally, particularly during outbreaks of Bubonic plague. They established a presence in hospitals in Naples and Milan and in time the Camillians ran hospitals of their own.

Images of Saint Camillus often show him caring for the sick
Images of Saint Camillus often
show him caring for the sick
It was on an inspection tour of hospitals around Italy that he fell ill and died. He had suffered periods of illness most of his adult life, mainly on account of a leg wound suffered while serving in the Venetian army, which he had joined as a young man.

Born in 1550 in Bucchianico, a small town in Abruzzo, about 30km (19 miles) inland from what is now the coastal resort of Pescara, De Lellis had a difficult upbringing. His father, an officer in both the Neapolitan and French armies, was seldom at home, and his mother found his violent tempers hard to control.

After she died in 1562 he was looked after by relatives but received little affection and his violent nature led him into many street fights. He was tall for his age and at the age of 16 he decided to follow his father’s lead and take up military service.

Fighting for Venice in a war against the Turks provided him with an outlet for his aggression, but not for his parallel fixation, with gambling. On his discharge from the Venetian army at the age of 25 he had nothing, having gambled away his savings, the weapons he owned and virtually every other possession, save for the shirt on his back.

He travelled south to Manfredonia, on the coast of Apulia, 35km (22 miles) north of Foggia, where he was taken on as a labourer at a Capuchin friary. His temper still frequently got the better of him, and he continued to gamble, but the guardian of the friary eventually persuaded him to mend his ways.

The church of St Mary Magdalene in Rome
The church of St Mary Magdalene in Rome
De Lellis hoped to become a friar himself but was denied admission to the order of Capuchin friars because of his leg wound, which was deemed incurable. He decided to move to Rome, where he entered the San Giacomo Hospital, which cared for incurable diseases, at first as a patient, and then as a carer.

Feeling that the care given to the sick in the hospital was generally inadequate, he invited a group of pious men to express their faith by caring for patients at the hospital and determined that he would establish his own religious community in order to follow what he now felt was his calling in life. To do so, he took up seminary studies so that he could seek Holy Orders and was ordained as a priest in 1584.

Thus he was able to establish the Camillians, who were granted the status of Congregation in 1586 and as an Order in 1591, assigned to the church of St Mary Magdalene in Rome, where his remains were entombed after his death. 

His name is today honoured around the world in churches, hospitals, care facilities and charitable groups.

Church of San Camillo de Lellis in Rome
Travel tip:

The church of San Camillo de Lellis is on Via Sallustiana in Rome, a short distance from Via Vittorio Veneto. It was built under Pope Pius X, with construction under the architect Tullio Passarelli beginning in 1906. It was consecrated and made a parochial church in 1910. In 1965, Pope Paul VI elevated the church to the status of minor basilica. 

The hilltop town of Bucchianico in Abruzzo
The hilltop town of Bucchianico in Abruzzo
Travel tip:

Bucchianico, where De Lellis was born, is typical of many charming small towns in the Abruzzo region. Located on top of a hill, it offers offers a beautiful panorama that stretches from the mountain peaks of the Majella to the coast line of the Adriatic Sea. Not well known among tourists, it is a medieval town that represents an ideal retreat from the chaos and traffic associated with bigger, bustling urban centers of the area. It is well known for the annual celebrations of the Festa dei Banderesi, a historical commemoration of the victory against the Invasion of Teate, a nearby city today known as Chieti.

More reading:

Alberto Marvelli - the Good Samaritan of wartime Rimini

Why Padre Pio is one of the most popular saints in history

The nurse who was made a saint after being stabbed to death by a patient

Also in this day:

1902: The dramatic collapse of St Mark's Campanile

1948: The leader of Italy's Communists shot and wounded in Rome


Friday, 13 July 2018

Tommaso Buscetta - Mafia ‘pentito’

Sicilian gangster’s testimony put hundreds behind bars

Buscetta's testimony led to hundreds of Mafia-related arrests
Buscetta's testimony led to hundreds
of Mafia-related arrests
The Sicilian mobster Tommaso Buscetta, who was the first major Mafia figure to break the code of omertá and pass details of organised criminal activity to the authorities, was born on this day in 1928 in Palermo.

His evidence to the celebrated anti-Mafia judge Giovanni Falcone paved the way for the so-called Maxi Trial, a process lasting six years that led to the conviction and jailing of 350 mafiosi.

Buscetta’s testimony in the Pizza Connection Trial in New York State at around the same time in the mid-1980s led to the conviction of several hundred more mobsters both in Italy and the United States, including the powerful Sicilian Mafia boss Gaetano Badalamenti.

Arguably the most shocking information he passed on to the authorities concerned Italy’s three-times former prime minister, the late Giulio Andreotti, whose links with the Cosa Nostra he exposed shortly after Falcone was murdered in May 1992, killed by a massive bomb placed under the motorway linking Palermo with the city’s international airport.

Buscetta arriving at the court in Palermo during the Maxi Trial
Buscetta arriving at the court in
Palermo during the Maxi Trial
Andreotti was found guilty of complicity in the Mafia assassination of a journalist and sentenced to 24 years in jail, although he never went to prison and was acquitted after a number of appeals. His links with the Mafia were considered proven, although by the time that verdict was reached too much time had elapsed under Italian law and the judgment was cancelled.

The route to Buscetta becoming the Mafia’s first ‘pentito’ began in Palermo, where he was the youngest of 17 children fathered by a poorly-paid worker in a glass factory.

He followed the usual route out of poverty by becoming involved with crime. He was only 17 when he joined the mob in 1945. In the years that followed he became a fully-fledged member of the Porta Nuova Family, mainly working in cigarette smuggling.

Buscetta was part of the  Mafia from a young age
Buscetta was part of the
Mafia from a young age
In 1963 Buscetta fled to the United States, shortly after the Ciaculli Massacre, which was part of an internal Mafia conflict known as the First Mafia War. His connections enabled him to join the Gambino crime family in New York, who gave him a front of legitimacy in a pizza business. In 1968, he was convicted in his absence of double murder by an Italian court.

Two years later he was arrested by police in New York who were aware of his conviction but released after Italian authorities failed to request his extradition.  After his later arrest in Brazil, however, he was returned to Italy and began his life sentence.

Eight years later, on day release from prison, he escaped and went back to Brazil, desperate to escape the so-called Second Mafia War, fearing for his life after several of his allies and family members had been eliminated by the ruthless boss, Toto Riina, including his close associate and friend, Stefano Bontade. It was Riina who arranged the murder of Falcone, as well as that of his fellow magistrate, Paolo Borsellino.

When Buscetta was arrested and sent back to Italy again he was so fearful of Riina that he attempted to kill himself in prison before deciding he would seek revenge on Riina by other means. He asked to talk to Falcone, and began his life as an informant - a ‘pentito’.

The judge Giovanni Falcone, to whom Buscetta disclosed his secrets
The judge Giovanni Falcone, to whom
Buscetta disclosed his secrets
The irony was that Buscetta was never more than a footsoldier in the Mafia hierarchy, yet always seemed to have a glamorous girlfriend and dressed as if he was wealthy. He became well connected both in Sicily and the United States.

He was therefore able to provide information about the structure, the recruitment techniques and the functions of the Cosa Nostra, providing the authorities with an understanding of the Mafia phenomenon about which they could previously only speculate.

He was the first to reveal the existence and the inner workings of the Cupola - the Mafia commission that governed the organisation and ordered the elimination of its erring members.

Buscetta’s reward was to be given special police protection, a generous income and a new identity in the United States, where he died in 2000 at the age of 71.

There are now several hundred Mafia turncoats helping Italian justice to fight organised crime.

Palermo's imposing monumental arch at Porta Nuova
Palermo's imposing monumental
arch at Porta Nuova
Travel tip:

One might imagine that an area that lends its name to a Mafia family to be poor and down at heel but the Porta Nuova is anything but. A giant monumental arch built in the 15th century and rebuilt in the 16th century, it opens into what was the Cassaro, the city’s most ancient street, which runs from the Norman Palace next to the Villa Bonanno park in a straight course right down to the harbour. The street has been renamed Via Vittorio Emanuele but many local people still refer to it as Cassaro.

The magnificent Teatro Massimo is seen as a symbol of Palermo's rebellion against the grip of the Mafia
The magnificent Teatro Massimo is seen as a symbol of
Palermo's rebellion against the grip of the Mafia
Travel tip:

Palermo’s Renaissance-style Teatro Massimo, opened in 1897, has become a symbol of the city’s fight back against the grip of the Mafia. The largest opera house in Italy and the third biggest in Europe after the Opéra National de Paris and the K. K. Hof-Opernhaus in Vienna, originally designed with an auditorium for 3,000 people, it was closed for supposedly minor refurbishments in 1974. But at a time when local government was at its most corrupt and when the Mafia controlled almost everything in the city there was little money in the public purse and the theatre, which once attracted all the great stars from the opera world, would remain dark for 23 years. However, after the Falcone murder, the city turned against the mob as never before and the reopening in 1997, with a concert by the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by the esteemed maestro Claudio Abbado, was seen as a motif for Palermo’s rebirth. 

More reading:

The anti-Mafia crusade of Giovanni Falcone

Stefano Bontade - Mafia boss with close ties to ex-PM Giulio Andreotti

How Carlo Gambino became one of the world's most powerful crime bosses

Also on this day:

1478: The birth of Giulio d'Este di Ferrara, nobleman who spent half his life in jail

1814: The founding of the Carabinieri military police force


Thursday, 12 July 2018

Agostino Codazzi - soldier and map-maker

Italian who mapped first route for Panama Canal

Agostino Codazzi became a national hero in Venezuela after fighting for Napoleon
Agostino Codazzi became a national hero
in Venezuela after fighting for Napoleon
Agostino Codazzi, a soldier, scientist, geographer and cartographer who became a national hero in Venezuela and plotted the route for the Panama Canal on behalf of the British government, was born on this day in 1793 in the town of Lugo in Emilia-Romagna.

When the canal was eventually built by United States engineers, they followed the precise route that Codazzi had recommended, although the Italian has not been credited in the history of the project.

Known in Latin America as Agustín Codazzi, he was born Giovanni Battista Agostino Codazzi.

As a young man, he was excited about the French Revolution and the idea of the ruling classes being overthrown by the people in pursuit of a more equitable society.  After attending the Scuola di Artiglieria military academy in Pavia, he joined Napoleon’s army and served with them until the Napoleonic empire collapsed in 1815.

It was then that he decided to travel further afield, finally settling in Venezuela, where he offered his military knowledge to another revolutionary, Simón Bolívar - known as El Libertador - who played a leading role in the establishment of Venezuela, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Panama as sovereign states, independent of Spanish rule.

Codazzi produced extensive and detailed maps of Venezuela
Codazzi produced extensive and detailed maps of Venezuela
Apart from military duties, in which he was elevated to the rank of colonel, he gave Venezuela the benefit of his expertise in geography and cartography, mapping the the borders between Venezuela, Colombia and Ecuador.

His creation of an Atlas of Venezuela led to him being awarded the Legion of Honor by the King of France in 1842, on behalf of the French Academy of Science.

Venezuela, on whose behalf he quelled many revolts during the establishment of the republic, honoured him with citizenship, and the president, José Antonio Páez, made him Governor of Barinas, a region of southwestern Venezuela.

The monument to Codazzi in Colonia Tovar
The monument to Codazzi
in Colonia Tovar
When a military insurrection led to the fall of Páez, Codazzi fled to Colombia, where he continued his geographic and mapping activity and took on military duties for the Colombian government.  In was in 1852, commissioned by the British government, that he studied the geography of Panama and outlined the route he felt would be most suitable for a canal through the territory.

Codazzi died of malaria in February 1859 in the small town of Espíritu Santo in the Colombian mountains, which was subsequently renamed Aldea Codazzi.

Venezuela honored the memory of Agustín Codazzi by placing his remains inside the National Pantheon of Venezuela in 1942, which is reserved for those considered national heroes.

He is also honoured with a monument in Colonia Tovar, a small German settlement in the Venezuelan central mountains that he helped establish and which still exists today.

The Este Castle in Lugo di Romagna
The Este Castle in Lugo di Romagna
Travel tip:

Lugo di Romagna is a town of 32,000 people about 30km (19 miles) west of Ravenna and 18km (8 miles) north of Faenza in Emilia-Romagna. It was overrun by Napoleonic forces while Codazzi was a child. Its most famous monument, the Rocca Estense (Este Castle), was partially rebuilt during the French occupation. The interior houses portraits of famous lughesi and a lunette attributed to Mino da Fiesole. Also of note is the 19th century covered market hall known as Il Paviglione and the restored 18th century Teatro Rossini. Apart from Codazzi, famous lughesi include the First World War fighter pilot Francesco Baracca.

The Duomo and Baptistery in Parma, one of several great medieval cities in Emilia-Romagna
The Duomo and Baptistery in Parma, one of several great
medieval cities in Emilia-Romagna
Travel tip:

The Emilia-Romagna region in northern Italy, which borders Apennine mountains to the south and the Po river in the north, has something for everyone, from its wealth of medieval cities, such as Parma, Modena, Reggio Emilia, Ferrara and Ravenna, to lively seaside resorts such as Rimini, Riccione and Cattolica. The capital, Bologna, is a vibrant city with an 11th-century university, and arched porticoes lining the streets and squares of its medieval centre. The area is famed for its gastronomy, producing many of Italy’s most famous foods, such as grana parmigiano cheese, balsamic vinegar and prosciutto di parma.

More reading:

The first comprehensive map of Italy

When Napoleon became King of Italy

The story of Lugo's famed flying ace Francesco Baracca

Also on this day:

1664: The death of Stefano della Bella, sketch-maker to the Medici

1884: The birth of tragic artist Amadeo Modigliani


Wednesday, 11 July 2018

Giuseppe Arcimboldo – painter

Portraits were considered unique in the history of art

Giuseppe Arcimboldo's portrait, in fruit and  vegetables, of Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II
Giuseppe Arcimboldo's portrait, in fruit and
vegetables, of Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II
The artist Giuseppe Arcimboldo, who created imaginative portrait heads made up entirely of objects such as fruit, vegetables, flowers and fish, died on this day in 1593 in Milan.

Unique at the time, Arcimboldo’s work was greatly admired in the 20th century by artists such as Salvador Dali and his fellow Surrealist painters.

Giuseppe’s father, Biagio Arcimboldo, was also an artist and Giuseppe followed in his footsteps designing stained glass and frescoes for churches.

Arcimboldo (sometimes also known as Arcimboldi) at first painted entirely in the style of the time. His beautiful fresco of the Tree of Jesse can still be seen in the Duomo of Monza.

But in 1562 he abruptly changed his style after moving to Prague to become court painter to the erudite King Rudolph II.

Giuseppe Arcimboldo's self-portrait, now
in the National Gallery in Prague
He began to create human heads, which could be considered as portraits, made up of pieces of fruit and vegetable and other objects, which were chosen for the meaning attributed to the image.

Arcimboldo also painted settings for the court theatre in Prague and he became an expert in illusionist trickery. His paintings contained allegorical meanings, puns and jokes that were appreciated by his contemporaries, but were lost upon later audiences.

His eccentric vision is epitomised in his portraits of Summer and Winter in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.

In his painting of The Librarian, painted in about 1566, he was criticising wealthy people who collected books just to own them rather than to read them.

By using everyday objects such as the curtains that created individual study rooms in a library and the animal tails that were used as dusters, it was both a portrait and a still life painting at the same time. It is now in a museum in Stockholm.

Given the Renaissance fascination with puzzles, riddles and the bizarre, it is thought Arcimboldo was catering to the tastes of his time.

Arcimboldo's 1566 painting, The Librarian
Arcimboldo's 1566 painting, The Librarian
His portrait of Rudolph II was taken from the King’s castle in Prague by an invading Swedish army in 1648 and, along with other pieces of Arcimboldo’s work, is now in Sweden. Some of his work has since been completely lost, but Arcimboldo’s remaining paintings in Italy can be found in galleries in Cremona, Brescia and Florence.

The artist came back to live in Milan after retiring from working at the royal court and leaving Prague. He died in his home city in 1593.

It was not until 1885 that an art critic published a monograph on Arcimboldo’s role as a portrait painter.

With the arrival of surrealism in the 20th century, many articles and books were published referring to his work.

Arcimboldo-style fruit people have appeared in books, films and video games subsequently. There is a series of audiobooks with a portrait of William Shakespeare made out of books, similar to Arcimboldo’s Librarian, being used as the logo for the front cover.

Arcimboldo designed stained glass windows for the Milan Duomo
Travel tip:

Milan, where Giuseppe Arcimboldo was born and died, is the capital city of Lombardy. Arcimboldo worked on the Duomo with his father when he was a young man, designing pictures for the stained glass windows, including the one depicting Santa Caterina d’Alessandria. Construction of the Duomo, in Piazza Duomo in the centre of Milan, began in 1386, but the building took almost six centuries to complete. It is the largest church in Italy and the third largest church in the world.

The Pinacoteca Tosio Martinengo in Brescia
The Pinacoteca Tosio Martinengo in Brescia
Travel tip:

Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s painting of Spring, painted in 1580, can be seen in the collection of the Pinacoteca Tosio Martinengo in Brescia in Lombardy. The gallery in Piazza Moretto in the centre of the town has paintings by many other artists from the region, dating from the 13th to the 18th centuries.

More reading:

Giorgio de Chirico, Surrealist artist who founded the scuola metafisica

Simonetta Vespucci, the Renaissance beauty every artist wanted to paint

The Futurist art of Luigi Russolo

Also on this day:

1934: The death of fashion designer Giorgio Armani

1576: The death by strangulation of Medici wife Eleonora di Garzia di Toledo


Tuesday, 10 July 2018

Calogero Vizzini - Mafia chieftain

‘Man of Honour’ installed as Mayor by Allies

Calogero Vizzini used his power to solve problems and settle disputes
Calogero Vizzini used his power to solve
problems and settle disputes
The Sicilian Mafia boss Calogero Vizzini, known as Don Calò, died on this day in 1954 in Villalba, a small town in the centre of the island about 100km (62 miles) southeast of the capital, Palermo.

He was 76 and had been in declining health. He was in an ambulance that was taking him home from a clinic in Palermo and was just entering the town when he passed away.

His funeral was attended by thousands of peasants dressed in black and a number of politicians as well as priests played active roles in the service. One of his pallbearers was Don Francesco Paolo Bontade, a powerful mafioso from Palermo.

Although he had a criminal past, Don Calò acquired the reputation as an old-fashioned ‘man of honour’, whose position became that of community leader, a man to whom people looked to settle disputes and to maintain order and peace through his power.

In rural Sicily, such figures commanded much greater respect than politicians or policemen, many of whom were corrupt.

In his own words, in a newspaper interview in 1949, his view of the world was that “in every society there has to be a category of people who straighten things out when situations get complicated.

Like many traditional Mafia figures, Vizzini dressed like a peasant
Like many traditional Mafia figures,
Vizzini dressed like a peasant
“Usually they are functionaries of the state. Where the state is not present, or where it does not have sufficient force, this is done by private individuals."

His position in this regard was legitimised after the Second World War when the US military government of the occupied territories was looking to ensure the defeated Fascists did not retain any vestige of power on the island.

The Americans wanted positions in a restructured local government on the island to be given to known opponents of Fascism.

Vizzini had once supported Mussolini and had even attended a dinner with the future dictator in Milan in 1922 but turned against him when the Fascists sent Cesare Mori, the so-called Iron Prefect, to Sicily on a mission to destroy the Mafia.

He, and other mafiosi, who would have been almost wiped out but for the Allied invasion, had joined the movement for an independent Sicily and were therefore seen as fitting the bill by the Americans, who installed Vizzini as Mayor of his home town.

For many years, the story has been told that Mafia figures were handed key political positions in return for facilitating the Allied landings but many historians dismiss this as a myth.

A scene from Vizzini's funeral in July 1954
A much more likely scenario is that the Mafia were seen as an important block not only on any  resurgence in Fascism but against the growing support on the mainland for communism.  Where the Mafia leaders had rebelled against Fascism, they were never likely to support the Italian Communists.

Whatever the truth,  Don Calò had moved from a life of crime - his ‘charge sheet’ included scores of murders, attempted murders, robberies, thefts and extortions - to one in which local people revered him as a bastion of law and order and a protector of his community.

He had run protection rackets, smuggled livestock, controlled flour mills and sulphur mining, ‘acquired’ considerable land from aristocratic absentee landlords, and operated a huge black market business during the Second World War selling goods stolen from warehouses and army bases.

Yet after his death a notice was pinned on the door of the church where his funeral mass would take place. It read: "Humble with the humble. Great with the great. He showed with words and deeds that his Mafia was not criminal. It stood for respect for the law, defence of all rights, greatness of character: it was love."

he Chiesa Madre di San Giuseppe on the main square in Vizzini's home town of Villalba
The Chiesa Madre di San Giuseppe on the main square
in Vizzini's home town of Villalba
Travel tip:

Villalba is a town with a population of a little less than 2,000 in the province of Caltanissetta, about 51km (32 miles) northwest of the town of the same name and 68km (42 miles) inland from Agrigento.  The name of the village has has Spanish origins, meaning "the white city" because of town's white houses. Villalba is known for the production of cereals, grapes, vegetables, tomatoes, and lentils. The Sagra del Pomodoro (tomato festival) is held in August each year.  Important churches include the Chiesa Madre, built in 1700, and the Chiesa della Concezione, erected in 1795, preserving a statue by artist Filippo Quattrocchi.

The Greek Temple of Concordia is one of the attractions in the Valley of the Temples outside Agrigento
The Greek Temple of Concordia is one of the attractions in
the Valley of the Temples outside Agrigento
Travel tip:

Agrigento, a city of 55,000 inhabitants on the southern coast of Sicily, is built on the site of an ancient Greek city. It is regularly visited by tourists, largely for the ruins of the Greek city Akragas, a UNESCO World Heritage Site generally known as the Valley of the Temples and, at 1,300 hectares, the largest archaeological site in the world.  The site features a series of temples, the most impressive of which is the Temple of Concordia, one of the largest and best preserved Doric temples in the world, with 13 rows of six columns, each 6m (20ft) high, still virtually intact.

More reading:

Cesare Mori - Mussolini's fabled Mafia buster

How Charles 'Lucky' Luciano played a part in the Allied invasion of Sicily

Politics, the Mafia and a Labour Day massacre

Also on this day:

138AD - The death of the Roman emperor Hadrian

1897: The birth of former NATO secretary-general Manlio Brosio


Monday, 9 July 2018

Ottorino Respighi – violinist and composer

Talented Bolognese brought a Russian flavour to Italian music

Ottorino Respighi brought a Russian flavour to 20th century Italian music
Ottorino Respighi brought a Russian flavour
to 20th century Italian music
The musician Ottorino Respighi was born on this day in 1879 in an apartment inside Palazzo Fantuzzi in the centre of Bologna.

As a composer, Respighi is remembered for bringing Russian orchestral colour and some of Richard Strauss’s harmonic techniques into Italian music.

He is perhaps best known for his three orchestral tone poems Fountains of Rome, Pines of Rome and Roman Festivals, but he also wrote several operas.

Respighi was born into a musical family and learnt to play the piano and violin at an early age.

He studied the violin and viola with Federico Sarti at the Liceo Musicale in Bologna and then went to St Petersburg to be the principal violinist in the orchestra of the Imperial Theatre. While he was there he studied with Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov and acquired an interest in orchestral composition.

One of Respighi’s piano concertos was performed at Bologna in 1902 and an orchestral piece by him was played at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York the same year.

Respighi played one of his own piano concertos in New York in 1925
Respighi played one of his own piano
concertos in New York in 1925
His operas brought him more recognition and in 1913 he was appointed as professor of composition at the prestigious St Cecilia Academy in Rome, a post he held for the rest of his life.

Respighi’s Roman compositions, written between 1916 and 1928, sought to reflect the sensual, decadent climate of the city depicted by Gabriele D’Annunzio in his poetry.

The composer was also interested in 16th and 17th century Italian music, which he transcribed for orchestra from compositions written for old instruments, such as the lute.

In 1919 Respighi married one of his pupils, Elsa Olivieri-Sangiacomo, who was a singer and composer.

He performed in New York for the first time in 1925, playing one of his own piano concertos at Carnegie Hall.

Respighi continued to go on tour and to compose music until his health deteriorated in 1936. He died that year at the age of 56 in Rome. A year after his death his remains were moved to his birthplace, Bologna and reinterred at the city’s expense at the Certosa di Bologna.

The Palazzo Fantuzzi in Bologna, where Respighi was born
The Palazzo Fantuzzi in Bologna, where Respighi was born
Travel tip:

The Palazzo Fantuzzi, where Resphigi was born, is a Renaissance-style palace in Via San Vitale, close to the Church of Santi Vitale e Agricola. It is also known as Palazzo degli Elefanti because of the sculpted, elephant decorations on the façade. The Palace was designed in 1517 by Andrea da Formigine. Part of the palace is now used for art exhibitions.

Before the move to the Parco della Musica,  the Academy was in Campo Marzio
Before the move to the Parco della Musica,
the Academy was in Campo Marzio
Travel tip:

The St Cecilia Academy - Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia - where Respighi taught and also met his wife, is one of the oldest musical academies in the world. It was founded in Rome by Pope Sixtus V in 1585 at the Church of Santa Maria ad Martires, better known as the Pantheon. Over the centuries, many famous composers and musicians have been members of the Academy, which lists opera singers Beniamino Gigli and Cecilia Bartoli among its alumni. Since 2005 the Academy’s headquarters have been at the Parco della Musica in Rome, which was designed by the architect Renzo Piano.

More reading:

The powerful voice of mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli

The poetry and politics of Gabriele D'Annunzio

Anselmo Colzani, Italian star of the New York Met

Also on this day:

1950: The birth of tennis star Adriano Panatta 

2006: Italy win their fourth World Cup by beating France