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.

Monday, 19 February 2018

Massimo Troisi – actor, writer and director

Tragic star died hours after completing finest work

Troisi was only 41 when he died in 1994, hours after finishing Il Postino
Troisi was only 41 when he died in 1994,
hours after finishing Il Postino
Massimo Troisi, the comic actor, writer and director who suffered a fatal heart attack in 1994 only 12 hours after shooting finished on his greatest movie, was born on this day in 1953 in a suburb of Naples.

Troisi co-directed and starred in Il Postino, which won an Oscar for best soundtrack after being nominated in five categories, the most nominations in Academy Award history for an Italian film.

He also wrote much of the screenplay for the movie, based on a novel, Burning Patience, by the Chilean author Antonio Skármeta, which tells the story of a Chilean poet exiled on an Italian island and his friendship with a postman whose round consists only of the poet’s isolated house.

Plagued by heart problems for much of his life, the result of several bouts of rheumatic fever when he was a child, Troisi was told just before shooting was due to begin that he needed an urgent transplant operation.

However, he was so committed to the project, a joint enterprise with his friend, the British director Michael Radford, he decided to postpone his surgery.  He was so ill that he collapsed on set on the third day but recovered to continue, shooting many of his location scenes in one take, with a body double used for any shots that required physical activity, and invariably unable to last for more than an hour before succumbing to exhaustion.

Yet he completed the movie, for which the location shots were shared between the islands of Pantelleria and Salina – off Sicily - and Procida, in the Bay of Naples, and then travelled from Naples to his sister’s house in Ostia, outside Rome. He had tickets booked on a plane to London, where he was due to receive a new heart at the famous Harefield Hospital the following day.  Sadly, he had a cardiac arrest during the night and never woke from sleep.

Massimo Troisi (left) and Lello Arena in the staircase scene from Troisi's second film, Scusate il ritardo
Massimo Troisi (left) and Lello Arena in the staircase
scene from Troisi's second film, Scusate il ritardo
Troisi, who had a successful career as a comedian on radio and television before turning to film, wrote and directed six movies, in which he also starred, and acted in half a dozen others.

Born in San Giorgio a Cremano, a town in the foothills of Mount Vesuvius about 6km (3.75 miles) south of central Naples, he grew up in a large house in Via Cavalli di Bronzo, which his mother and father, a railway engineer, and their six children shared with his mother’s parents and seven other members of the extended family.

He suffered his first brush with rheumatic fever, common among poor children in Naples at the time, when he was very young and had to travel to the United States for heart surgery when he was 23, by which time he was already well known on the Naples cabaret circuit as part of a comic trio he had formed with two childhood friends.

Their success led to their own radio show and then to regular appearances on prime television shows such as the popular Luna Park.  Troisi’s talent was compared to his boyhood idols from the tradition of Neapolitan comedy, Totò and Eduardo and Peppino De Filippo.

Troisi is one of only seven actors to be  nominated posthumously for an Oscar
Troisi is one of only seven actors to be
nominated posthumously for an Oscar
After the trio broke up in the late seventies, Troisi turned to film, winning critical appraisal and box office success with his first venture, Ricomincio da tre (I start again from three), in 1981.

Due to his fears that his second effort would not be as good as his first, it was two years before he made another movie, but Scusate il Ritardo (Sorry for the delay) was just as well received.  Like his first film, it focussed on the troublesome love life of the Neapolitan lead character, drawing on his own life experiences, told with sometimes surreal humour. 

It featured dialogues between Troisi’s character, Vincenzo, and his friend Tonino, played by his childhood friend Lello Arena, that were so memorable that the Via Mariconda stairs in the Chiaia district of Naples, where they were filmed, have recently been renamed the Scale Massimo Troisi in his honour.  Arena received a David di Donatello award for Best Supporting Actor.

Troisi had more success starring opposite Roberto Benigni in Non ci resta che piangere (Nothing to do but cry), about two friends accidentally transported in time to the 15th century, where they meet Leonardo da Vinci and attempt to stop Christopher Columbus discovering America.

Troisi starred in several films directed by Ettore Scola before teaming up with Radford for Il Postino, which they wrote together in just three weeks in a hotel room in Santa Monica, outside Los Angeles.  It was his first American studio production and ensured he found fame outside Italy, as many thought his talent deserved, and he was nominated posthumously for Best Actor at the Academy Awards, one of only seven actors to be given that distinction.

The Villa Vannucchi at San Giorgio a Cremano  has extensive monumental gardens
The Villa Vannucchi at San Giorgio a Cremano
has extensive monumental gardens
Travel tip:

Now a densely populated suburb of the Naples metropolis, San Giorgio a Cremano enjoyed his heyday in the 18th and 19th centuries, when as one of the five towns first encountered by travellers heading south from Naples, along with Portici, Ercolano, Torre del Greco and Torre Annunziata, it became a popular resort with wealthy and aristocratic families, whose sumptuous summer residences became known as the Ville Vesuviane (Vesuvian Villas).

The picturesque harbour and historic centre of Procida
The picturesque harbour and historic centre of Procida
Travel tip:

Procida is a small but heavily populated island between the Naples mainland and its much larger and better-known neighbour Ischia, characterised by its narrow streets and colourful harbourside houses. Its lack of tourists compared with Ischia and particularly Capri give it a much more authentic feel and Michael Radford is not the only movie director to appreciate its value as a location.  In 1999, Anthony Minghella brought members of a star-studded cast including Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow and Jude Law to the island to film several scenes from The Talented Mr Ripley.


Sunday, 18 February 2018

Blessed Fra Angelico – painter

Talented Friar became patron of Catholic artists

A detail from a Luca Signorelli fresco in Orvieto cathedral, thought to represent Fra Angelico
A detail from a Luca Signorelli fresco in Orvieto
cathedral, thought to represent Fra Angelico
The early Renaissance painter who became known as Fra Angelico died on this day in 1455 in Rome.

Fra Angelico is regarded as one of the greatest painters of the 15th century, whose works reflected his serene religious attitude.

He painted many altarpieces and frescoes for the Church and Priory of San Marco in Florence where he lived for about nine years.

In 1982, more than 500 years after his death, Fra Angelico was beatified by Pope John Paul II in recognition of the holiness of his life. In 1984, Pope John Paul II declared him ‘patron of Catholic artists’.

The artist was born Guido di Pietro at Rupecanina near Fiesole, just outside Florence, towards the end of the 14th century.

The earliest recorded document concerning him dates from 1417 when he joined a religious confraternity at the Carmine Church and it reveals that he was already a painter.

The first record of him as a Friar is dated 1423 and shows him to have been a member of the Dominican order.

The San Marco altarpiece in Florence is one of Fra Angelico's most famous works
The San Marco altarpiece in Florence is one of Fra
Angelico's most famous works
It is believed his first paintings were an altarpiece and a painted screen for the Carthusian Monastery in Florence, but these no longer exist.

Between 1418 and 1436 he lived at the convent of Fiesole where he painted frescoes and an altarpiece. A predella - platform - of the altarpiece is now in the National Gallery in London.

In 1439, while living at the convent of San Marco in Florence, he completed one of his most famous works, the San Marco altarpiece, which was unusual for its time as it showed the saints grouped in a natural way as if they were able to talk to each other. Paintings such as this became known as Sacred Conversations and were later executed by many other artists, including Bellini, Perugino and Raphael.

In 1445 Fra Angelico was summoned to Rome to paint the frescoes of the Chapel of the Holy Sacrament at St Peter’s. He moved to Orvieto in 1447 to paint works for the Cathedral and then went back to Rome to design frescoes for Pope Nicholas V, which were probably later painted by his assistants.

Fra Angelico returned to live in his old convent in Fiesole in 1449, but must have eventually gone back to Rome to do more work for the Vatican. He died in a Dominican Convent there in 1455 and was buried in the Church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva.

Piazza Giotto is the central square of Vicchio
Piazza Giotto is the central square of Vicchio
Travel tip:

Rupecanina, where Fra Angelico was born, is a hamlet of Vicchio, a town about 25 km (16 miles) north east of Florence. Many other Italian painters came from the area, including Giotto, who was believed to have been born in Colle di Vespignano, another hamlet of Vicchio, in about 1270.

The Church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome
The Church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome
Travel tip:

Fra Angelico’s tomb, which was the work of Isaia da Pisa, is in the Church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome because the artist died in the adjoining convent. He had painted a fresco in the cloister there, which has not survived.  The important Dominican Church is in Piazza Minerva, close to the Pantheon, and was built directly over an ancient temple. The church was consecrated in 1370 and the façade was designed by Carlo Maderno.

Also on this day:

Saturday, 17 February 2018

Raffaele ‘Raf’ Vallone – actor

Movie star who had four careers

Raffaele Vallone, pictured in a scene from the Giuseppe de Santis neo-realist movie Bitter Rice
Raffaele Vallone, pictured in a scene from the Giuseppe
de Santis neo-realist movie Bitter Rice
Raffaele Vallone, the stage and screen actor who was born on this day in 1916 in Tropea, Calabria, was remarkable for having embarked on three starkly different career paths even before he made his acting debut.

Usually known as Raf, he grew up from the age of two in Turin, where his father, an ambitious young lawyer, had relocated to set up a legal practice.  A natural athlete, he was a fine footballer – so good, in fact, that at the age of 14 he was snapped up by Torino FC, who made him an apprentice professional.

Compared with the average working man, he was handsomely paid as a footballer, and he won a medal as part of the Torino team crowned Coppa Italia winners in 1936.  Yet he quickly became bored with football and enrolled at Turin University, where he studied Law and Philosophy with a view to joining his father’s firm.

Ultimately, he baulked at the idea of becoming a lawyer, too, and instead joined the staff of the left-wing daily newspaper L’Unità, where he rose quickly to be head of the culture pages, at the same time establishing himself as a drama and film critic for the Turin daily La Stampa.

It was in his capacity as a journalist that he was invited to meet Giuseppe De Santis, the film director, who wanted him to help with background information for a new film in the growing neo-realist genre called Bitter Rice, about a woman working in the rice fields in the Po Valley.

Vallone in his days as a young footballer with Torino FC
Vallone in his days as a young footballer
with Torino FC
This was a time when, partly out of budget restrictions, partly out of a desire to cast real people rather than rely solely on established stars, directors were weighing up everyone they met as a potential actor.

De Santis was immediately impressed with Vallone, who had served with the anti-Fascist resistance during the Second World War, both for his depth of knowledge but also for the passion of his views, particularly on the subject of exploitation of workers.

The director also noted Vallone’s physical stature and his rough-hewn features and decided he would be perfect for the role of a soldier from peasant roots, competing with Vittorio Gassman for the love of another relative unknown, Silvana Mangano. In fact, not only was Vallone an educated man, his mother was descended from nobility, which only illustrates how appearances can be deceptive.

The film, made in 1949, was a box office hit, commercially one of the biggest successes of the neo-realist era.  Unlike some of the unknowns plucked from real life, discarded after one movie, Vallone went on to enjoy a successful career.

He worked again with De Santis in 1950 in  Non c'e Pace tra gli Ulivi (There’s No Peace Among the Olive Trees), playing a shepherd who antagonised local Mafiosi, and in Rome 11 O'Clock (1952), based on a true story of a rickety staircase that collapsed under a queue of unemployed girls hoping for a job interview.

Raf Vallone (left) in a scene from Il Cammino della Speranza, in which he starred with his future wife, Elena Varzi (right)
Raf Vallone (left) in a scene from Il Cammino della Speranza,
in which he starred with his future wife, Elena Varzi (right)
In Pietro Germi’s Il Cammino della Speranza (The Road to Hope, 1951) Vallone starred alongside Elena Varzi, whom he later married and with whom he had three children.

The popularity of neo-realist films declined as Italy’s shattered post-War economy began to recover, when audiences decided they no longer wished to be reminded of the hard times they had left behind. For a while, Vallone’s career stalled.

Ever eager to try different things, however, Vallone now set his sights on the stage.  He travelled to Paris and London, where he was inspired in particular by Peter Brook’s production of the Arthur Miller play A View From the Bridge, in which he felt the role of the Italian-American longshoreman Eddie Carbone, tormented by a sexual fixation with a niece, was made for him.

He had the chance to play the character when Brook took the play on tour to Paris. Vallone’s performances at the Theatre Antoine, where the play ran for 550 nights, were frequently received with ovations from the audience, and earned him the same part in Sidney Lumet’s 1961 film version of the play, which he shot in both English and French.

That movie helped cement Vallone’s popularity with American movie-going audiences.  During that time he also gave well received supporting roles in Vittorio De Sica’s Two Women (1960) and Anthony Mann’s El Cid (1961), both co-starring Sophia Loren. Other actresses he co-starred with on included Gina Lollobrigida, Anna Magnani, Melina Mercouri and Simone Signoret.

In his later years, Vallone tended to play only cameos, such as in The Italian Job (1969) and The Godfather Part III (1990). He also directed for the stage, even trying his hand at opera with a production of Bellini’s Norma, with Renata Scotto in the lead role.

Tropea in Calabria enjoys a spectacular cliff-top location
Tropea in Calabria enjoys a spectacular cliff-top location
Travel tip:

Tropea, where Vallone was born, is for obvious reasons not a resort that attracts many holidaymakers other than Italians. Situated on the western coast of Calabria, the region that occupies the toe and the instep of the Italian peninsula, it is more than 400km (250 miles) south of Naples and though relatively close to Sicily – Messina is just 112km (70 miles) away – it tends to be a place flown over en route.  Yet it has much to recommend it, from its beautiful soft sandy beaches to the spectacular cliff-top setting of its historic old town, with its maze of narrow streets and sleepy southern Italian feel.  On a stretch of scenic coastline known as the Costa degli Dei – the Coast of the Gods – it is regarded by some regular visitors as one of Italy’s hidden gems.

Submerged rice fields are a feature of the countryside around Vercelli in the Po Valley
Submerged rice fields are a feature of the countryside
around Vercelli in the Po Valley
Travel tip:

The rice fields of the Po Valley represent the largest rice production area in the whole of Europe.  The Po Valley, or Po Plain, is vast, stretching about 650km (400 miles) from the Western Alps to the Adriatic Sea, bordered by the Alps to the north and the Apennines to the south, with an area of 46,000 sq km (18,000 sq mi).  Rice production is mainly centred on the province of Vercelli, between Milan and Turin, in which the town of Vercelli is surrounded in the summer months by submerged paddy fields, for which water is supplied by a canal from the Po River.  Rice has been grown in the area since the 15th century.

Friday, 16 February 2018

Edda Dell’Orso – vocalist

Soprano was wordless voice of Morricone soundtracks

Edda Dell'Orso has enjoyed a long career in the Italian cinema
Edda Dell'Orso has enjoyed a long career
in the Italian cinema
The singer Edda Dell’Orso, best known for the extraordinary range of wordless vocals that have featured in many of composer Ennio Morricone’s brilliant film soundtracks from the 1960s onwards, was born on this day in 1935 in Genoa.

Her collaboration with Morricone began when he was contracted in 1964 to provide the musical score for A Fistful of Dollars, the first of Sergio Leone’s so-called Spaghetti Western trilogy that was to make Clint Eastwood an international star.

Leone’s producers could only offer Morricone a small budget, which meant his access to a full orchestra was limited, forcing him to improvise and create sound effects in different ways. One idea he had was to replace instruments with human voices, which is where Dell’Orso, a distinctive soprano, came into her own.

Born Edda Sabatini, she had pursued her musical interests with the support of her father who, while not musical himself, could see that she had potential as a pianist.

The quality of her voice became clear when she enrolled at the National Academy of Santa Cecilia, the renowned music school in Rome, where she graduated in 1956 in singing and piano and met her future husband, Giacomo.

Dell'Orso was 29 when she began her long association with Ennio Morricone
Dell'Orso was 29 when she began her long
association with Ennio Morricone
At the time, there was work to be had in Rome’s recording studios, providing backing vocals for TV and film productions, as well as recording artists.  Working for the composer Franco Potenza, Dell’Orso once performed with Frank Sinatra during a visit to Rome by the American singer, whose family originated in Sicily.

In the early 1960s, she joined I Cantori Moderni (The Modern Choristers), a choral group run by the composer Alessandro Alessandroni, a lifelong friend of Morricone and the man to whom he turned when he needed to be imaginative in his soundtrack for Leone.

It was Alessandroni’s musicians who provided the whistling and the twanging guitar in the scores for all of the Dollars trilogy. On hearing Dell’Orso, the group’s solo soprano, Morricone realised, he said later, that he had "an extraordinary voice at my disposal".

As Dell’Orso recalled in a recent interview, it was hardly glamorous work.  Rather than turning up on set and rubbing shoulders with the stars, she would report to the studio, and after one quick read of the musical score be required to either sing with the orchestra in the hall or step into a booth, wearing headphones, to sing along with a recording.

Often, she would be at the studio all day, recording several pieces for different composers of different soundtracks. Although she would keep notes in her diary of which film and which maestro she had performed for, there were so many that she found it difficult to keep track.  Moreover, the singers had no way of knowing if a piece would be used and sometimes did not find out until a movie was released.

Listen to Dell'Orso's voice on the Ecstasy of Gold by Ennio Morricone

Nonetheless, it was the making of her.  Capable of infusing her voice with high drama, playful humour or haunting poignancy, she was called upon time and again, not only by Morricone but many other composers, including Bruno Nicolai, Piero Piccioni, Luis Bacalov and Roberto Pregadio.

In all, she worked on the soundtracks of around 60 films, for which Morricone was the lead composer in more than 30, from the Dollars trilogy to, in more recent times, Giuseppe Tornatore’s 2013 romantic mystery La migliore offerta (The Best Offer), which was entitled Deception when released in the UK.

Despite rarely being asked to sing words, many albums of Dell’Orso’s music have been released and even in her 80s she is still performing.  She lives in Rome with Giacomo, to whom she has been married for 57 years.

The facade of the Palazzo Ducale in Genoa
The facade of the Palazzo Ducale in Genoa
Travel tip:

Genoa, Dell’Orso’s home city, is the most westerly port city in the Italian mainland, situated just 177km (110 miles) from the French border.  Clinging to the coastline between the Mediterranean and the sharply rising northwestern Apennines, its metropolitan area stretches for about 30km (19 miles) from east to west, although the centre is relatively compact, comprising the centro storico (historic centre) and the Porto Antico.  Worth visiting are the Palazzo Ducale, on Piazza Matteotti, and the 12th century Cattedrale di San Lorenzo, handsomely fashioned from black granite and white marble.

The entrance to the Cinecittà complex in Rome
Travel tip:

The heart of the Italian film industry is Cinecittà, the studio complex on Via Tuscolana, about 10km (6 miles) southeast of the centre of Rome.  Built in the Fascist era as Benito Mussolini tried to revive the at-the-time flagging Italian movie business, it is the largest studio complex in Europe.  In the 1950s, nowhere outside Hollywood produced more movies. Scenes from Roman Holiday, Beat the Devil, The Barefoot Contessa and Ben-Hur were all shot there during the 1950s, and the studios became closely associated with the director Federico Fellini.  More recently, the complex has provided sets representing the interiors of both St Peter’s Basilica and the Sistine Chapel for a 2016 TV series, The Young Pope.

Thursday, 15 February 2018

Totò – comic actor

50 years on, remembered still as Italy’s funniest performer

Antonio De Curtis - Totò - in a scene from his first film, shot in 1937 and called Fermo con le mani (Hands off me!)
Antonio De Curtis - Totò - in a scene from his first film, shot
in 1937 and called Fermo con le mani (Hands off me!)
The comic actor Antonio De Curtis, universally known as Totò and still winning polls as the most popular Italian comedian of all time a half-century after his death, was born on this day in 1898 in Naples.

Totò had a distinguished career in theatre, wrote poetry and sang, but is best remembered for the 97 films in which he appeared between 1937 and his death in 1967, many of which were made simply as a platform for his inimitable talent.

Although he worked in dramatic roles for some of Italy’s most respected directors, it was for his comedy that he was most appreciated.

His characters were typically eccentric, his acting style sometimes almost extravagantly expressive both physically and vocally.  In his humour, he drew on his body and his face to maximum effect but also possessed an inherent sense of timing in the way he delivered his lines. Often, at the peak of his screen career with his characters so well defined, he would dispense with much of his script and simply adlib, giving free rein to the cynicism and irreverence that came naturally.

Such was his popularity that after his death from a heart attack at the age of 69 he was given funerals both in Rome, where he lived, and in his native Naples.  The crowd that witnessed his funeral procession in his home city was conservatively estimated at 250,000.

The movie poster for Guardie e ladri (Cops and Robbers), which Toto felt was his best film
The movie poster for Guardie e ladri (Cops and
Robbers), which Totò felt was his best film
Born in Rione Sanità, a poor neighbourhood in the northern part of Naples near Capodimonte hill, he was the illegitimate son of a Neapolitan marquis, Giuseppe di Curtis, and Anna Clemente, a Sicilian woman with whom his father had an affair. The marquis wanted nothing to do with the woman's baby and refused to acknowledge Totò’s existence until his son was 37 years old.

By then, bitter at having been neglected by his real father, Totò had persuaded another marquis, Francesco Gagliardo Focas, to adopt him.  As a result, Totò inherited an extraordinary list of titles, which meant he could call himself Duke of Macedonia and Illyria, Prince of Constantinople, Cilicia, Thessaly, Pontus, Moldavia, Dardania and Peloponnesus, Count of Cyprus and Epirus, Count and Duke of Drivasto and Durazzo, although none had any real meaning and became just another source of jokes.

During his schooldays, it soon became apparent that his mother’s hopes that he would become a priest would come to nothing.  Totò spent much of his time seeking to amuse his classmates with his jokes and funny faces.  It was during his time at school that he acquired his misshapen nose, thought to have been the result of an incident in a boxing match.

By the time he was 15 he was appearing in small theatres in Naples under the stage name Clement, his act inspired by the comedy of his boyhood hero, the Neapolitan variety and café-concert actor Gustavo De Marco.

He volunteered to serve in the Italian army in the First World War, although when he was about to be sent to the French front, where so many soldiers died, he was so terrified by the warnings of homosexuality rife in the trenches that he feigned an epileptic fit and was discharged.

Toto with Franca Faldini, the girl he regarded as the true love of his life
Totò with Franca Faldini, the girl he regarded as the
true love of his life
Returning to civilian life, he continued to seek opportunities to perform, although often the pay was poor and it was only his love of the theatre that kept him going. 

In 1922, he moved to Rome and it was there, on the recommendation of a friendly hairdresser who had a number of clients in positions to give him work, that he was given the opportunity to perform at the Teatro Sala Umberto, a prestigious variety theatre.  At the end of his debut performance, full of the touches that would become his trademarks, he left the stage to an ovation and returned for several encores.

Groomed to resemble a kind of comic Valentino, Totò took advantage of his popularity with female admirers by having a number of relationships. He had a particularly intense affair with a beautiful dancer, Liliana Castagnola, that was to end in tragedy. Jealous of the attention she received from other men, Totò decided to leave Rome to fulfil a contract he was offered in Padua, only to discover Liliana dead in her hotel room the following day from an overdose of sleeping pills, having recorded her heartbreak in a letter he found next to her body.

Totò was so stricken with grief and remorse that he arranged for Liliana to be buried in Naples in the family tomb, next to his mother and father, so that he would one day they would be reunited. When his wife, Diana Rogliani, gave birth to a girl three years later, in 1933, he insisted she be called Liliana.

It was not a lasting marriage. He filed for divorce in Hungary – it was outlawed in Italy – and they continued to live together only for the sake of their daughter.

Totò began a relationship with the actress Silvana Pampanini, who he met on the set of his first film in 1937, but it was with Franca Faldini, a beauty he saw on the cover of the magazine Oggi in 1951, that he eventually found what he claimed was his true love. Again it was a liaison scarred by tragedy. Shortly after they were married, in 1954, Franca gave birth to a son, Massenzio, who survived only a few hours.

Toto's death in 1967 was front page news
Totò's death in 1967 was front page news
His films, many of which had his name in the title, earned him considerable wealth but he never gave up his stage performances and when his sight began to fail in his latter years it was thought that his decades of exposure to harsh theatre spotlights were a contributing factor.

He also composed poetry and songs, one of which, Malafemmena (Wayward Woman) is considered a classic of Neapolitan popular music.

Totò was buried at the Cimitero Del Pianto in the Poggioreale quarter of Naples, next to his parents, his son Massenzio and his beloved Liliana.

His films are still shown from time to time on Italian television and sell in DVD form.  His daughter has campaigned for the original family home at Via Santa Maria Antesaecula, number 109, to be turned into a museum.

Dusk in the Rione Sanità district of Naples, where Totò grew up in the early years of the 20th century
Dusk in the Rione Sanità district of Naples, where Totò
grew up in the early years of the 20th century
Travel tip:

The Rione Sanità district of Naples, where Totò was born, was once home to some of the richest families in Naples, as the presence of some fine palaces is a reminder, but in more recent years has become a notorious slum area, with high unemployment and a dominant Camorra presence.  Its air of faded grandeur has attracted writers and film makers to use it as a backdrop. The director Vittorio De Sica, for example, used it as the setting for his neorealist film, The Gold of Naples (1954), in which Totò had a role, and for the comedy Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (1963), starring Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni.

The Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Moderna is close to where
Totò settled in a well-to-do part of Rome

Travel tip:

Totò’s home in Rome was in Via dei Monti Parioli, in a leafy, upmarket residential area between the Pincio and Flaminio quarters. The area is home to several museums and art galleries clustered around the Via delle Belle Arte, including the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna (National Museum of Modern Art) in the magnificent neoclassical Palazzo delle Belle Arte (Palace of Fine Arts), designed by Cesare Bazzani and built between 1911 and 1915. The gallery houses some 1,100 paintings and sculptures of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Wednesday, 14 February 2018

Valentina Vezzali – fencer

Police officer is Italy’s most successful female athlete

Valentina Vezzali won nine Olympic medals, including six golds, making her one of fencing's all-time greats
Valentina Vezzali won nine Olympic medals, including six
golds, making her one of fencing's all-time greats
The fencer Valentina Vezzali, whose three Olympic and six World Championship individual gold medals make her Italy’s most decorated female athlete of all time, was born on this day in 1974 in the town of Iesi in Marche.

The 44-year-old police officer, who also sits in the Italian Chamber of Deputies as a representative for Marche, retired from competition after the 2016 World Championships.

Her haul of six Olympics golds in total – three individual and three from the team event – has not been bettered by any Italian athlete, male or female.

Two other Italian fencers from different eras – Edoardo Mangiarotti and Nedo Nadi – also finished their careers with six golds. Fencing has far and away been Italy’s most successful Olympic discipline, accruing 49 gold medals and 125 medals in total, more than twice the number for any other sport.

Alongside the German shooter Ralf Schumann, the Slovak slalom canoeist Michal Martikán and the Japanese judo player Ryoko Tani, Vezzali is one of only four athletes in the history of the Summer Olympics to have won five medals in the same individual event.

Valentina Vezzali sits in the Italian Chamber of Deputies
Valentina Vezzali sits in the
Italian Chamber of Deputies
She is married to the former professional footballer Domenico Giugliano, with whom she has two sons, 12-year-old Pietro and four-year-old Andrea, who was born in May 2013. A few months earlier, Valentina having won her final Olympic gold in the team event at London 2012, where she was also the Italian flag bearer at the opening ceremony.

Born into a family originally from Emilia-Romagna – her father was from Correggio and her mother from Quattro Castella – she grew up in Iesi in the province of Ancona and took up fencing when she was just six years old.

By the time she made her Olympic debut at the Atlanta Games of 1996, Vezzali had already achieved an impressive collection of medals, including a string of golds in junior European and World Championships and her first senior gold, in the team event at the 1995 World Championships.

Her Olympic success story began immediately with team gold and individual silver in Atlanta.  She achieved double gold at the Sydney Games of 2000, defending her individual title successfully in Athens in 2004 and Beijing in 2008, which made her the only fencer in Olympic history to win individual gold at three consecutive Games.

In addition her nine Olympic medals won, including a silver and two bronze, at the World Championships Vezzali won 15 gold medals (6 individual and 9 teams), five silver and four bronze, plus 13 European championship golds, four silver and four bronze.

Vezzali with her team gold medal at the  2014 World Championships
Vezzali with her team gold medal at the
2014 World Championships
Vezzali won fencing’s World Cup 11 times, running up a record 67 match victories. She also numbered two golds at the Mediterranean Games, four at the Universiade and 20 Italian titles (11 individual and 9 teams).  The Italian sports newspaper, Gazzetta dello Sport, made her their Italian sportswoman of the year on six occasions.

Since joining the Polizia di Stato – the municipal police force - in which she has risen to the rank of superintendent, Vezzali has competed for the Fiamme Oro, the police sports team.

She had hoped to compete in a sixth Olympics in Rio di Janeiro in 2016 but failed to qualify for the individual competition, while the Games on this occasion did not include a team event.

A celebrity in Italy – she participated in the 2009 series of Ballando con le Stelle (Dancing with the Stars), the Italian version of the hit UK show Strictly Come Dancing – she launched her political career with the 2013 general election, winning a seat in the Chamber of Deputies.

Campaigning on issues that included sport and physical education, health and nutrition and women’s rights, she was elected under the banner of Scelta Civica (Civic Choice), the centrist party founded by former prime minister Mario Monti, although she has since distanced herself from the party over their decision to support Silvio Berlusconi’s more right-leaning Forza Italia at this year’s elections.

The Palazzo Pianetti is one of a number of impressive palaces in Iesi
The Palazzo Pianetti in Iesi
Travel tip:

Situated about 20km (12 miles) inland from the Adriatic coast, Vezzali’s home town of Iesi is impressive for the massive walls that surround its medieval centre, which is built on Roman foundations on a ridge overlooking the valley of the Esino river. The centre of the town is the attractive Piazza Federico II, where a regular market is held, and there are a number of interesting palaces, towers and churches, including a Romanesque-Gothic cathedral.

A porticoed street in Correggio
A porticoed street in Correggio
Travel tip:

The small town of Correggio, where Vezzali’s family originated, can be found in the Po valley, about 20km (12 miles) northeast of Reggio Emilia.  An interesting town full of history, it is thought to have developed around an 11th century castle. Although the original walls were demolished as the town expanded, much of the medieval centre remains. The town was the home of the Renaissance artist Antonio Allegri, also known as Correggio, to whom a monument was created by the sculptor Vincenzo Vela in Piazza Quirino.

Tuesday, 13 February 2018

Benvenuto Cellini – sculptor and goldsmith

Creator of the famous Perseus bronze had a dark history

Cellini's bronze of Perseus and the Head of Medusa in Piazza della Signoria in Florence
Cellini's bronze of Perseus with the Head of
in Piazza della Signoria in Florence
The colourful life of the Renaissance artist Benvenuto Cellini ended on this day in 1571 with his death in Florence at the age of 70.

A contemporary of Michelangelo, the Mannerist Cellini was most famous for his bronze sculpture of Perseus with the Head of Madusa, which still stands where it was erected in 1554 in the Loggia dei Lanzi of the Piazza della Signoria in Florence, and for the table sculpture in gold he created as a salieri - salt cellar - for Francis I of France.

The Cellini Salt Cellar, as it is generally known, measuring 26cm (10ins) by 33.5cm (13.2ins), is now kept at the Kunsthistoriches Museum in Vienna, with an insurance value of $60 million.

His works apart, Cellini was also known for an eventful personal life, in which his violent behaviour frequently landed him in trouble. He killed at least two people while working in Rome as a young man and claims also to have shot dead Charles III, Duke of Bourbon, during the 1527 Siege of Rome by mutinous soldiers of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V.

Cellini was also imprisoned for alleged embezzlement of the gems from the tiara of Pope Clement VII, famously escaping from jail at the Castel Sant’Angelo by climbing down a rope of knotted bedsheets, and for immorality.

He was a self-confessed bisexual, being found guilty of sodomy on a number of occasions.  One such charge, brought following accusations made by a male apprentice in his Florence workshop, led to a prison sentence of four years, commuted to house arrest following the intervention of the Medici family.

Cellini's extraordinary salt cellar in gold is insured for a value of $60 million
Cellini's extraordinary salt cellar in gold is insured
for a value of $60 million
Much of this is known because Cellini documented his life in an autobiography, the first by a significant Renaissance figure, in which he shared the details of his racy exploits. 

Cellini was apprenticed as a metalworker in the studio of the Florentine goldsmith Andrea di Sandro Marcone. He might have stayed in Florence had he not twice had to leave to escape the consequences of his violent behaviour.

After fleeing to Rome, he worked for the bishop of Salamanca, Sigismondo Chigi, and Pope Clement VII, which is how he came to participate on the side of the pontiff in defending Rome against the imperial forces in 1527, where he claimed not only to have killed Charles III of Bourbon but also to have shot, possibly fatally, the Prince of Orange, Philibert of Chalon.

Having survived the sack of Rome, he returned to Florence and in 1528 worked in Mantua, making a seal for Cardinal Gonzaga, which is now the property of the city’s Episcopal Archives.  Back in Rome, he then executed several works in gold for Clement VII, although apart from two medals made in 1534, which can be seen at the Uffizi in Florence, none survive.

His violent ways continued. After his brother, Cecchino, had killed a corporal of the Roman Watch and in turn received fatal wounds from the gun of another soldier, Cellini meted out his own justice by murdering his brother’s killer. He later murdered another man, this time a rival goldsmith.

A portrait bust of Cellini by Raffaello Romanelli  can be found on Florence's Ponte Vecchio
A portrait bust of Cellini by Raffaello Romanelli
 can be found on Florence's Ponte Vecchio
Amazingly, he was absolved by Clement VII’s successor, Pope Paul III, but the following year, having wounded a notary, he fled from Rome and settled back in Florence.

He made his first visit to France as a guest of Francis I in 1538. It was two years later that he arrived at Fontainebleau, carrying with him an unfinished salieri, which he had originally offered to Cardinal Ippolito d’Este of Ferrara, and which he now completed in gold for the French king. The piece, which has the figures of a man and a women symbolising the sea and the Earth, and in which tiny models of a ship and a temple were intended to be receptacles for the condiments, is the only surviving fully authenticated Cellini work in precious metal. Modelled by hand rather than cast, it has been dubbed the Mona Lisa of small sculptures.

While in France, Cellini modelled and cast his first large-scale work, a large bronze lunette of the Nymph of Fontainebleau for the entrance to the Louvre.

He left Paris to return to Florence in 1545, at which point he was welcomed by Cosimo de’ Medici and entrusted with the commissions for the bronze Perseus in the Loggia dei Lanzi, and for a colossal bust of the Grand Duke of Tuscany, now at the Bargello museum, a short distance away.

Cellini’s other late works include his marble figures of Apollo and Hyacinth (1546) and of Narcissus (1546–47), which are also in the Bargello, as is a small relief of a greyhound made as a trial cast for the Perseus (1545).

There is a statue of Cellini in the  Piazzale degli Uffizi
There is a statue of Cellini in the
Piazzale degli Uffizi
After the unveiling of the Perseus, he began work on a marble crucifix originally intended for his own tomb in the Florence church of Santissima Annunziata, but now in the church of the royal monastery of the Escorial in Spain.

He began to write his autobiography in 1558 and completed it in 1562, dictating the text to an assistant in his workshop.

First printed in Italy in 1728, the book was translated into English in 1771. Composed in colloquial language, it is enormously valuable in providing a first-hand account of life in Clement VII’s Rome, the Paris of Francis I, and the Florence of Cosimo de’ Medici.

Michelangelo's David (left) and Bartolommeo Bandinelli's Hercules and Cacus in Florence's Piazza della Signoria
Michelangelo's David (left) and Bartolommeo Bandinelli's
Hercules and Cacus in Florence's Piazza della Signoria
Travel tip:

Florence’s Piazza della Signoria, situated right in the heart of the city, close to the Duomo and the Uffizi Gallery, is home to a series of important sculptures, including Giambologna’s The Rape of the Sabine Women and his Equestrian Monument of Cosimo I, Baccio Bandinelli’s Hercules and Cacus, the Medici Lions by Fancelli and Vacca, The Fountain of Neptune by Bartolemeo Ammannati, copies of Donatello’s Judith and Holofernes and Il Marzocco (the Lion), and the copy of Michelangelo’s David, at the entrance to the Palazzo Vecchio.

The Palazzo del Bargello in Via del Proconsolo is home to many masterpieces
The Palazzo del Bargello in Via del Proconsolo
is home to many masterpieces
Travel tip:

As well as works by Cellini, other great Renaissance sculptures can be appreciated in the Museo Nazionale del Bargello - the Bargello National Museum - situated just a short distance from Piazza della Signoria in Via del Proconsolo. The museum houses masterpieces by Michelangelo, Donatello, Giambologna, Vincenzo Gemito, Jacopo Sansovino, Gianlorenzo Bernini and many works by the Della Robbia family.