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.

Friday, 24 March 2017

Luigi Einaudi - politician and winemaker

Composer's grandfather was President of the Republic

Luigi Einaudi was President of the Italian Republic from 1948 to 1955
Luigi Einaudi was President of the Italian
Republic from 1948 to 1955
The politician, economist, journalist and winemaker Luigi Einaudi was born on this day in 1874 in Carrù, in the province of Cuneo in what is now Piedmont.

Einaudi, who is the grandfather of the musician and composer Ludovico Einaudi and the father of publisher Giulio Einaudi, was elected President of the new Italian Republic between 1948 and 1955, the second person to occupy the post.

He was actively involved with politics from his university days, when he supported socialist movements.  For a decade he edited a socialist magazine but later took a more conservative position.

After being appointed to the Senate of the Kingdom of Italy in 1919, in the days when the upper house of the Italian parliament was a non-elected body, he was one of the signatories in forming the Italian Liberal Party (PLI).

The PLI initially joined forces with the Italian Fascists and it was through their support that Mussolini was able to win the 1924 general election with an absolute majority.

Einaudi had been both a journalist and an academic since graduating in law from Turin University in 1895.

The musician and composer Ludovico Einaudi
The musician and composer Ludovico Einaudi
He became a professor at Turin University as well as the Polytechnic of Turin and the Bocconi University in Milan. He wrote on economic matters for the Turin daily La Stampa before moving to Corriere della Sera in Milan in 1903.

At first broadly supportive of some elements of Fascist policy, he became distrustful of Mussolini's plans for constitutional reform and when the socialist politician Giacomo Matteotti was murdered in 1924, with suspicion falling on gangsters recruited to Mussolini's secret police, he distanced himself from the Fascists.

In 1925, he was among the signatories of the Manifesto of the Anti-Fascist Intellectuals, written by the writer and philosopher Benedetto Croce. In the same year he resigned from Corriere della Sera after the Fascists removed the editor, Luigi Albertini.  His positions at the Bocconi University and Turin Polytechnic were taken from him but he retained his professorship at Turin University's law school, signing an oath of allegiance to Fascism rather that let the chair be occupied by a Fascist.

In the Senate, he voted against Mussolini's war in Ethiopia in 1935 and against proposed racial laws in 1938.  When Mussolini was deposed and arrested in 1943, he was appointed Rector of Turin University but when the Germans freed the dictator from house arrest and installed him as head of a new Italian Socialist Republic he fled Italy to Switzerland, where he was granted asylum.

Alcide de Gasperi, in whose governments Einaudi occupied several offices
Alcide de Gasperi
On his return he was made Governer of the Bank of Italy and became part of Italy's governing National Council prior to the formation of the Republic, in which he served its first prime minister, Alcide de Gasperi, in several ministerial positions, including deputy premier, before his election as President.  He was the first to hold that office to reside at the Palazzo Quirinale.

Einaudi entered the winemaking business in 1897 at the age of 23 when he acquired an 18th century farmhouse called San Giacomo outside Dogliani, his mother's home town, about 10km (six miles) from Carrù, which came with a ruined chapel and about 15 hectares of vines.

The farm began bottling Dolcetto di Dogliani under the label Poderi Einaudi (Einaudi Estates), with Luigi attending the harvest every year, despite his numerous commitments.

Although Luigi died in 1961 at the age of 87, the business remained in the family and now extends across 145 hectares, mainly in Dogliani but with some in Barolo.  The current owner is Matteo Sardagna, Luigi's great grandson and Ludovico's cousin.

The University of Turin now has an Einaudi Campus named in his honour.

Dogliani's church of Santi Quirico e Paolo
Dogliani's church of
Santi Quirico e Paolo
Travel tip:

Dogliani, where there has been a settlement since pre-Roman times, is a town of some 4,500 inhabitants about 60km (37 miles) southeast of Turin. As well as being the home of the red wine Dolcetto di Dogliani, it is famous for the annual tradition of Presepio Vivente, in which around 350 people take part in a living nativity scene in the medieval streets.  The town is also notable for the magnificent parish church of Santi Quirico and Paolo, designed by Giovanni Battista Schellino.

  A typical hamlet in the picturesque Langhe area of  Piedmont
A typical hamlet in the picturesque Langhe area of  Piedmont
Travel tip:

Like Dogliani, the similarly sized Carrù is one of the towns of the Langhe, a picturesque area of hills to the south and east of the Tanaro river famous for wines, cheeses and truffles, in particular the white truffles of Alba.  The wines produced in the region include Barbera, Barbaresco, Barolo, Dolcetto and the Langhe Nebbiolo.  Carrù hosts the Sagra dell'Uva (fair of the grape) each year.  The town's castle, now a bank, is said to be haunted by La dama blu (the blue lady), the wife of one of the counts of Carrù, who was killed by an arrow fired by a murderer who was never caught.

More reading:

Alcide de Gasperi - the prime minister who rebuilt Italy

The distinctive and beautiful music of Ludovico Einaudi

Why Giaocomo Matteotti was called a 'martyr of freedom'

Also on this day:

1926: The birth of actor and writer Dario Fo

(Picture credits: Ludovico Einaudi by Joergens; Church in Dogliani by Luigi.tuby; Langhe hamlet by M^3)


Thursday, 23 March 2017

Ugo Tognazzi - comic actor

Achieved international fame through La Cage aux Folles

Ugo Tognazzi became known for playing suave bon viveurs in Commedia all'Italiana
Ugo Tognazzi became known for playing
suave bon viveurs in Commedia all'Italiana
Ugo Tognazzi, the actor who achieved international fame in the film La Cage aux Folles, was born on this day in 1922 in Cremona.

Renowned for his wide repertoire in portraying comic characters, Tognazzi made more than 62 films and worked with many of Italy's top directors.

Along with Vittorio Gassman, Alberto Sordi and Nino Manfredi, Tognazzi was regarded as one of the four top stars of Commedia all'Italiana - comedy the Italian way - in the 1960s and 1970s.

In 1981 he won the award for best actor at the Cannes International Film Festival for his role in Bernardo Bertolucci's Tragedia di un Uomo Ridicolo (The Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man).

His work was widely acclaimed in Italy, but it was not until he was cast in the role of homosexual cabaret owner Renato Baldi in the French director Édouard Molinaro's 1979 movie La Cage Aux Folles that he became known outside Italy.   The film became in its time the most successful foreign language film ever released in the United States, with box office receipts of more than $20 million.

A publicity poster from the French film La Cage aux Folles in which Tognazzi starred
A publicity poster from the French film La
Cage aux Folles in which Tognazzi starred
The film spawned two sequels in which Tognazzi reprieved the role of the mincing Baldi, who in the story was the joint owner of a night club in St Tropez that specialised in drag acts.

The son of an insurance agent, Tognazzi left school at 14 to help supplement the family income, taking a job as an accountancy clerk in the Negroni salami factory in his home town.  His father had wanted him to become a musician, his mother a priest.

Although he had made his stage debut as a four-year-old child in a charity show at the Teatro Donizetti in Bergamo, he had no thoughts of an acting career until he began participating in amateur dramatics via Negroni's recreational club.

During his military service with the Navy, he became involved with putting on entertainment for his fellow sailors.  After the Second World War, he moved to Milan in search of opportunities in theatre and found work with a number of companies, but it was after he landed his first film role in 1950, in I cadetti di Guascogna, directed by Mario Mattoli.  that his career began to take off.

The following year he met his fellow comic actor Raimondo Vianello, and their collaboration led them to form a successful comedy duo for the fledgling RAI television network.  Their show Un Due Tre (One Two Three) became famous for its wry satire and was among the first to be censored on Italian television.  It ran from 1954 to 1960.

Ugo Tognazzi as Il Commissario Pepe in Ettore Scola's  1969 film of the same name
Ugo Tognazzi as Il Commissario Pepe in Ettore Scola's
1969 film of the same name 
After his first major big screen success in Il Federale (The Fascist), a 1961 film by Luciano Salce, Tognazzi became one of the leading performers of Commedia all'Italiana. 

Excelling as bon vivants, adulterous husbands and other suave individuals, he made many films with the writer-director  Marco Ferreri.  He also worked with Mario Monicelli, Carlo Lizzani, Dino Risi, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Ettore Scola and Pupi Avati among others.

Risi's Marcia su Roma (The March on Rome) brought him praise but it was with Ferreri that he enjoyed sustained success. Together they made films that included Una Storia Moderna: L'Ape Regina (also called The Conjugal Bed) in 1963, La Donna Scimmia (The Ape Woman) in 1964, Marcia Nuziale (Wedding March) in 1966, L'Udienza (The Audience) in 1971 and La Grande Bouffe in 1973.

As well as La Cage Aux Folles, in which he surprised critics by accepting a role so different from his usual range, he appeared before wider film audiences after Roger Vadim cast Tognazzi as Mark Hand, the Catchman, opposite Jane Fonda in Barbarella (1968).

He had children by three women - the Irish dancer Pat O'Hara, with whom he had a son, Ricky, the Norwegian actress Margarete Robsahm, the mother of his second son, Thomas Robsahm, and Franca Bettoia, an actress, with whom he settled in Velletri, near Rome, after their marriage in 1972.  They had a son, Gianmarco, and a daughter, Maria Sole.  All of his children followed him into the movie business.

Tognazzi, a passionate supporter of AC Milan and a lover of food who also put his name to a number of recipe books, died in 1990 after suffering a brain hemorrhage.

The Duomo and Baptistery in the centre of Cremona
The Duomo and Baptistery in the centre of Cremona
Travel tip:

Cremona, well known for its tradition of violin making, is a prosperous city in Lombardy with a wealth of fine medieval architecture, much of it concentrated around the Piazza del Comune, including the cathedral, finished in 1107 and rebuilt in 1190 after suffering damage in an earthquake, which includes impressive frescoes - the Storie di Cristo - by Pordenone.  A chapel inside the Duomo contains what is said to be a thorn from Jesus's crown of thorns.

Compare Cremona hotels with TripAdvisor

The Corso della Repubblica in Velletri is typical of the  narrow streets in the town near Rome where Tognazzi died
The Corso della Repubblica in Velletri is typical of the
narrow streets in the town near Rome where Tognazzi died
Travel tip:

Velletri, a town of 50,000 inhabitants, lies just southeast of the Castelli Romani to the south of Rome.  It was once a popular place for Rome's wealthiest to build their country villas.  It suffered considerable damage soon after the Allied landing at Anzio during the Second World War after the advancing army met resistance from German forces in and around the town.  Many monuments were beyond repair, sadly, but the town remains an attractive alternative to staying in the capital and the towns of the Colli Albani are close by, including Castel Gandolfo, the summer residence of the Pope.

Velletri hotels from

More reading:

The comic genius of Alberto Sordi

Cesare Danova - from medical school to Mean Streets

Was Otto e mezzo (8½) Fellini's finest work?

Also on this day:

1919: The founding of Mussolini's Fascist Party

(Picture credits: Cremona cathedral by Jakub Halun; Velletri street by Deblu68; via Wikimedia Commons)


Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Michele Sindona - fraudster and killer

Failed banker ordered murder of investigating lawyer

Michele Sindona - banker whose empire collapsed
after failure of Franklin National Bank in America
The shadowy banker Michele Sindona, who had links to underworld figures in Italy and America as well as prominent politicians, died in hospital in the Lombardy town of Voghera, 70km (43 miles) south of Milan, on this day in 1986.

His death, attributed to cyanide poisoning, came four days after he had been sentenced to life imprisonment for ordering the killing of a lawyer investigating the collapse of his $450 million financial empire.

His own lawyer claimed he had been murdered but although it was never established beyond doubt, the circumstances of his death, caused by drinking coffee laced with the poison at breakfast in Voghera's maximun-security prison, pointed towards suicide.

During his chequered career, which also saw him sentenced to 25 years' jail in America for fraud following the failure of the Franklin National Bank on Long Island, Sindona had links with Mafia bosses in Sicily and New York, with the illegal Propaganda Due masonic lodge and with the controversial head of the Vatican Bank, the American Archbishop, Paul Marcinkus.

His close ties with another Vatican Bank client, Roberto Calvi, gave rise to theories that both he and Calvi, whose body was found hanging from the underside of Blackfriars Bridge in London in 1980 following the collapse of the Banco Ambrosiano, of which he was president, were killed because they knew too much.

Roberto Calvi
Roberto Calvi
Sindona's political associates included the former Italian prime minister, Giulio Andreotti, who hailed him as the "saviour of the lira" just weeks before the Franklin National Bank went down, with catastrophic consequences for the many banks and financial institutions in Italy that Sindona controlled.

He also enjoyed a friendship with the former American president, Richard Nixon. Ironically, through Italy's giant construction conglomerate, Società Generale Immobiliare, Sindona was the part-owner of the Watergate Building in Washington, which housed the Democratic National Committee office, the bugging of which led to Nixon's resignation and impeachment.

Born in Patti, a town on the northern coast of Sicily some 76km (47 miles) from Messina, the son of a florist, Sindona went to a Jesuit school, where he showed an aptitude for maths and economics. He attended Messina University, where he graduated in law in 1942 and completed a thesis on The Prince, Niccolò Machiavelli's 16th century treatise on political philosophy.

He moved to Milan in 1946 at the age of 26 and opened a tax consultancy business, soon gaining a reputation for his knowledge of tax havens and the export of capital.  He began to build capital and within 15 years had amassed a fortune through his shrewd investments, mainly in the banking sector.

He acquired the Banca Unione di Vaticano with the aid of London's Hambros Bank, then the Banca Privata Italiana.  In due course, he added controlling interests in the Wolff Bank of West Germany, the Finabank and Amincorn Banks of Switzerland, the Banca di Messina in his native Sicily and finally the Franklin National Bank.

Carlo Gambino, the New York Mafia boss
Carlo Gambino, the New
York Mafia boss
His association with the Vatican Bank led to joint investments not only in the banking sector but in a chain of luxury hotels in Europe and a string of companies in the United States, including the Watergate real-estate development in Washington.

At the same time, though, as investigations later revealed, Sindona had become involved with the Cosa Nostra in Sicily and the Gambino crime family in New York, largely in the area of money laundering, and it transpired that a good deal of the capital he was investing to build his empire came from the proceeds of the Gambino family's heroin trafficking.

All of this went on unnoticed, however, until a sudden stock market crash in April 1974 left the Franklin National, the 20th largest bank in the United States, badly exposed.  In what became known as Il Crack Sindona, Franklin National's profits plunged by 98 per cent compared with the previous year, Sindona lost $40 million dollars and the domino effect brought down most of the other banks he had acquired.

Under pressure from the Gambinos to recover their money, Sindona promised to inject new capital up to the sum of $50 million but by October of that year the Franklin Bank had been declared insolvent and Sindona was being investigated for fraud.

Giorgio Ambrosoli - Sindona was jailed for life for arranging the murder of the lawyer appointed to look into his affairs
Giorgio Ambrosoli - Sindona was jailed for life for arranging
the murder of the lawyer appointed to look into his affairs
Meanwhile, in Italy, the Bank of Italy had begun to look into Sindona's activities and ultimately a suspension of his banking empire was ordered and a liquidator, the lawyer Giorgio Ambrosoli, appointed.

Sindona urged Licio Gelli, the self-appointed 'grand master' of Propaganda Due, to use his influence and contacts to call off the process, but to no avail. Sindona is said also to have asked Roberto Calvi to provide the capital to rebuild his empire and, when rebuffed, began to leak information about Calvi's activities to a journalist, whose investigations were central to the ultimate collapse of Banco Ambrosiano.

Meanwhile, it was not long before Ambrosoli was receiving telephone calls offering bribes to facilitate the approval of documents proving that Sindona had acted in good faith, which would have exempted him from criminal proceedings and required the Italian government to use public money to bail out his ailing empire.

Ambrosoli refused all offers, however, and paid the price. On July 12, 1979, arriving home from his office in Milan, he was walking between his car and the door of his apartment when he was approached by three men, one of whom shot him five times in the chest.

Investigations concluded that the killer was an Italian-American, William Arico, who had been commissioned on behalf of Sindona by Roberto Venetucci, a heroin trafficker.

The following month, while awaiting trial in New York over the Franklin National Bank collapse, Sindona defied orders restricting his movement by returning to Sicily, where he threatened Enrico Cuccia, the president of Mediobanca and an opponent of any rescue plan for Sindona's empire, and asked Licio Gelli to put pressure on Giulio Andreotti to intervene, threatening to name five prominent individuals who had profited from illegal currency deals.

None of this worked, however, and on his return to the United States he gave himself up.  After his conviction for fraud relating to the Franklin Bank collapse, he was extradited to Italy and found guilty of ordering the murder of Ambrosoli.

In the days before his death, he repeatedly spoke about his fears of being poisoned. On the day of his poisoning, prison guards noted that he took his coffee from his cell into the bathroom, which he had not done before, and emerged gasping for breath and claiming he had been poisoned. This led investigators to conclude that, on the balance of probability, he had taken his own life.

Patti, the town in Sicily where Sindona was born
Patti, the town in Sicily where Sindona was born
Travel tip:

Situated close to the ruins of the Greek city of Tyndaris (Tindari), the town of Patti, birthplace of Michele Sindona, has an old town characterized by narrow streets, stairways and squares, with the different styles that reflect the area's diverse cultural heritage, having been a settlement for Greek, Roman, Arab, Norman and Spanish people. There is a 12th-century cathedral that underwent reconstruction in the 15th century and again  after the earthquake of 1693.

The remodelled cathedral in the town of Voghera in Lombardy
The remodelled cathedral in the town of Voghera in Lombardy
Travel tip:

Voghera, which has a castle erected by the Visconti family between 1335 and 1372 and an 11th century cathedral later remodelled in Baroque style, is famous for the term 'Casalinga di Voghera' - Voghera housewife - which is often used in the media and political discourse to refer to the average Italian citizen - not particularly well educated or sophisticated but working hard and striving through self-sacrifice to raise a family in the best way possible.  In England, an equivalent but now somewhat archaic phrase is 'the man on the Clapham omnibus', which was once regularly used in courtrooms to represent someone whose hypothetical opinion might determine whether an action was or was not reasonable.

More reading:

Unanswered questions over bizarre death of Roberto Calvi

Carlo Gambino - the Mafia boss who inspired fictional Godfather

Giulio Andreotti - Italy's political survivor

Also on this day:

1837: The birth 'La Castiglione' - countess, model and secret agent


Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Alberto Marvelli - Rimini's Good Samaritan

Heroic deeds helped victims of bombing raids

Alberto Marvelli devoted his life to serving his community
Alberto Marvelli devoted his life to
serving his community
Alberto Marvelli, who came to be seen as a modern day Good Samaritan after risking his life repeatedly to help the victims of devastating air raids in the Second World War, was born on this day in 1918 in Ferrara.

He died in 1946 at the age of only 28 when he was struck by a truck while riding his bicycle but in his short life identified himself to many as a true hero.

He was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 2004.

Marvelli's acts of heroism occurred mainly in Rimini, his adopted home town, which suffered heavy bombing from the Allies due to its proximity to the Gothic or Green Line, a wide belt of German defensive fortifications that ran across the whole peninsula from La Spezia to the Adriatic coast.

As well as giving aid and comfort to the wounded and dying and to those whose homes and possessions had been destroyed, Marvelli also rescued many Rimini citizens from trains destined for concentration camps.

Alberto was the second of six children born to Luigi Marvelli and Maria Mayr. Growing up, he was set a powerful example by his mother, who always kept open house for the poor and regularly gave away food intended for her own family.

In June 1930 the Marvellis moved to Rimini on the Adriatic coast and Alberto, having already embraced the strong values instilled in him by his devoutly Catholic parents, began to attend the Salesian Oratory and Catholic Action group.

Alberto Marvelli was a prominent member of the group Catholic Action, becoming president at the age of 18
Alberto Marvelli was a prominent member of the group
Catholic Action, becoming president at the age of 18
He had a wide social circle - his friends included Federico Fellini, who would go on to become famous as a film director - and enjoyed sport, in particular cycling. Yet he also maintained a strict observance of the rituals of his faith, which included Mass every morning, Holy Communion, and 30 minutes each of meditation and spiritual reading every day.

He was held in such high esteem that he was elected president of Catholic Action for the whole of Italy at the age of just 18.

Marvelli attended Bologna University and graduated in engineering in 1941.  He moved to Turin, where he began working for Fiat, but left after only a few weeks to do military service in Trieste.  In the event, he returned to Rimini after only a few months after he was exempted on account of three of his brothers being already in service

By then he was effectively head of the family following the unexpected death of his father and took a teaching job at a local high school, devoting his spare time to helping the sick and poor on behalf of Catholic Action.

When the bombing of Rimini began in earnest in 1944, ahead of the Battle of Rimini in which the Allies achieved a decisive victory, the Marvelli family moved inland to the village of Vergiano.

German soldiers in Rimini in 1944 before being driven  out by the Allies at the Battle of Rimini
German soldiers in Rimini in 1944 before being driven
out by the Allies at the Battle of Rimini
With each report of new air raids, however, Alberto would insist on taking his bicycle and riding the 8km into Rimini to lend assistance to the clear-up operations, giving no thought to his own safety, often arriving with bombs still dropping.

He bought food, clothing, mattresses and blankets with his own money or money he had collected, using his bicycle to distribute it to those in need. Many times, it is said, he would return to Vergiano having given away his bicycle and even the shoes on his feet.

During the German occupation, he made repeated journeys from Vergiano to the nearby village of Santarcangelo, sneaking past security at the railway station and breaking open the doors of carriages into which Jews and others had been herded for deportation to the concentration camps, saving many lives in the process, at grave risk of his own.

He helped many refugees reach the safety of San Marino by arranging transportation to the nearby republic, which remained neutral during the conflict.  When he was beatified in 2004, San Marino issued some stamps commemorating his life.

Once the war was over, the interim authorities entrusted Marvelli with the allocation of housing. Within a few months, he was appointed to Rimini's town council as an alderman and was put in charge of civil engineering as the city began to rebuild.

He also opened a soup kitchen for the poor and, as co-founder of Italian Workers' Catholic Action, formed a cooperative for construction workers.

Marvelli had not expressed a strong interest in politics previously but he became convinced he could make a difference and joined the Christian Democrats.

San Marino commemorated Marvelli with a set of stamps
San Marino commemorated Marvelli with a set of stamps
He planned to stand in local elections and appeared to have considerable support and respect, even from the Communists, whose ideology he openly criticized. He was seen by all sides as an honest candidate dedicated to the well-being of the community.

Sadly, Marvelli never had the chance to serve.  Cycling to a party meeting on a poorly lit road on the evening of October 5, 1946, the day before polling, he was run over by an army truck and died a few hours later without regaining consciousness.

Voting was under way as news of his death spread throughout the city. Many citizens still voted for him, to express their faith in him and respect for him, and he was posthumously elected. Afterwards, his mother agreed to serve in his place.

He was buried in the Church of Sant' Agostino in Rimini.  The Catholic Church has honoured him by marking October 5 as a feast day in his name.

A square at the end of Viale Tripoli has been renamed Piazza Alberto Marvelli in his honour, while the Alberto Marvelli Foundation set up in his name helps fund projects dedicated to the community including the Alberto Marvelli Institute, a comprehensive school in Rimini.

The Grand Hotel on the seafront at Rimini
The Grand Hotel on the seafront at Rimini
Travel tip:

Rimini's history as a tourist resort began in the mid-19th century with the construction of the Kursaal, a seafront bathing establishment that doubled as a prestigious venue for social events.  It became the symbol of Rimini's Belle Époque, the period of European history before the First World War, which also saw the town's first major hotel, the Grand Hotel, built near the beach.  Its major development as a resort came after the Second World War and the city now has a population close to 150,000.

Travel tip:

Ferrara, the city of Marvelli's birth, is notable for being a combination of Medieval and Renaissance architecture, its history bound up with that of the d'Este family, whose castle has dominated the centre of the city since the late 14th century.  The most significant legacy of the city's thriving status in the Middle Ages is the Cattedrale di San Giorgio, built in the 1100s, which has a facade that blends Romanesque style in the lower section with Gothic in the upper.

More reading:

Agostina Livia Pietrantoni - nurse whose death brought Rome to a standstill

Saint Giustina - the girl from Padua slain for preaching Christianity

Pope John Paul II - first non-Italian to hold office for 455 years

Also on this day:

1858: The death of Benedetta Cambiagio Frassinello - Nun who battled for educational rights for girls


Monday, 20 March 2017

Fulco di Verdura - jeweller

Exclusive brand favoured by stars and royalty

Fulco di Verdura, pictured in around 1939 at the time of launching the Verdura business in New York
Fulco di Verdura, pictured in around 1939 at the time
of launching the Verdura business in New York
The man behind the exclusive jewellery brand Verdura was born Fulco Santostefano della Cerda, Duke of Verdura, on this day in 1898 in Palermo.

Usually known as Fulco di Verdura, he founded the Verdura company in 1939, when he opened a shop on Fifth Avenue in New York and became one of the premier jewellery designers of the 20th century.

Well connected through his own heritage and through his friendship with the songwriter Cole Porter, Verdura found favour with royalty and with movie stars.

Among his clients were the Duchess of Windsor - the former socialite Wallis Simpson - and stars such as Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Rita Hayworth, Katharine Hepburn, Paulette Godard, Millicent Rogers and Marlene Dietrich.

Although Verdura died in 1978, the company lives on and continues to specialise in using large, brightly coloured gemstones.

The Oppenheimer Blue, the most expensive diamond ever sold at auction
The Oppenheimer Blue, the most expensive
diamond ever sold at auction
The most expensive gemstone ever sold at auction, the so-called Oppenheimer Blue diamond, was set in a ring designed by Verdura. It changed hands at Christie's in Geneva for $50.6 million (£34.7 million) in May 2016.

The last to bear the now defunct Sicilian title of Duke of Verdura, Fulco grew up in aristocratic surroundings largely unchanged since the 18th century.  The novel The Leopard, written by his cousin, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, is said to depict his eccentric and artistic family.

However, his family were not so wealthy that he could live a life of leisure and it became clear he would need to find a profession appropriate to his stature in society and lucrative enough to fund the lifestyle he wished to maintain.

He wanted to be an artist but his destiny was shaped by meeting Linda and Cole Porter in Palermo in 1919.  They became friends and it was through the Porters that Di Ventura met Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel in Venice in 1925, when they were both guests at a party hosted by the American couple.

Chanel invited him to Paris, initially as a textile designer, but then asked him to update the settings of jewellery she had been given by a number of former lovers and it became clear where his talents lay. They began an eight-year collaboration when Chanel made him head designer of Chanel jewellery.

Cole Porter became a friend and financial backer of Fulco di Verdura
Cole Porter became a friend and financial
backer of Fulco di Verdura
It was not long after Fulco started working for Chanel that he designed the Maltese Cross Cuffs that are now considered the hallmark of the Verdura brand.

Fulco left Chanel in 1934 and moved to the United States, where Diana Vreeland, a Chanel client based in New York, introduced him to the jeweller Paul Flato, with whom he opened a boutique in Hollywood.

He set up on his own in 1939, opening a small salon called Verdura in New York at 712 Fifth Avenue, with the financial backing of Cole Porter and Vincent Astor. His designs were influenced by both his love of nature as a child in Sicily and his admiration for the art of the Renaissance.

His long list of celebrity clients prompted the New York Times to dub him "America's Crown Jeweller".

In 1941, Di Verdura collaborated with Salvador Dalí on a collection of jewellery designs and in the same year designed “Night and Day” cufflinks for Cole Porter, inspired by the lyrics of the hit song.

He continued to work in the United States until 1973, when he sold his stake in the Verdura business to Joseph Alfano, his business partner, and moved to London, where he would focus on painting. He died there five years later at the age of 80.

Verdura logo
In 1985, Alfano sold the company to Ward Landrigan, a former head of Sotheby's American jewellery department. Landrigan decided to preserve the Verdura aesthetic and made jewellery the same way Fulco had, using many of the same jewellers Fulco used.

Landrigan's son, Nico Landrigan, joined Verdura in 2003, becoming President of the company in 2009.

Today, Verdura continues to appear on the pages of the top fashion magazines and celebrity clients include Sarah Jessica Parker, Brooke Shields, Anne Hathaway and Cameron Diaz.

Most of Fulco's designs were from individual commissions, yet he produced an estimated 5,000 items of jewellery during his lifetime.

Travel tip:

If there is one attraction in Palermo that most visitors would describe as a must-see it is the Palatine Chapel, the royal chapel of the Norman kings of Sicily situated on the ground floor of the Palazzo Reale.  The mosaics of the chapel are of unrivalled elegance, noted for subtle changes in colour and luminance. The mosaics of the transept, dating from the 1140s and attributed to Byzantine artists and include an illustrated scene, along the north wall, of St. John in the desert. The rest of the mosaics, dated to the 1160s or the 1170s, feature Latin rather than Greek inscriptions.

The Palazzo Valguarnera-Gangi in Palermo
The Palazzo Valguarnera-Gangi in Palermo
Travel tip:

Fulco di Verdura was a cousin of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, author of the novel The Leopard, much of which is set in Palermo.  The director Luchino Visconti, who made a film of the book, chose for the magnificent ball at the end of the book the Palazzo Valguarnera-Gangi in Piazza Croce dei Vespri, a palace designed in Baroque style.

More reading:

Guccio Gucci - the lift boy who went from carrying bags to designing them for the rich and famous

Miuccia Prada's journey from the Communist Party to head of family fashion empire

Gianfranco Ferré's quest to make clothes for real women

Also on this day:


Sunday, 19 March 2017

Benito Jacovitti - cartoonist

Multiple comic characters loved by generations 

Benito Jacovitti
Benito Jacovitti

Benito Jacovitti, who would become Italy's most famous cartoonist, was born on this day in 1923 in the Adriatic coastal town of Termoli.

Jacovitti drew for a number of satirical magazines and several newspapers but also produced much work aimed at children and young adults.

His characters became the constant companions of generations of schoolchildren for more than 30 years via the pages of Diario Vitt, the school diary produced by the publishers of the Catholic comic magazine Il Vittorioso, which had a huge readership among teenagers and young adults, and for which Jacovitti drew from 1939 until it closed in 1969.

Jacovitti gave life to such characters as "the three Ps" - Pippo, Pertica and Pallo - as well as Chicchiriccì and Jack Mandolino via their cartoon adventures in Il Vittorioso, introduced Zorry Kid, a parody of Zorro, through a later association with children's journal Il Corriere del Picoli, and the cowboy Cocco Bill, who emerged during his 10-year stint as cartoonist for the daily newspaper, Il Giorno.

Cocco Bill, the character Jacovitti created during his years working for Il Giorno
Cocco Bill, the character Jacovitti created
during his years working for Il Giorno
Born Benito Franco Iacovitti, he was the son of a railway worker.  Both his parents had Albanian origins. His first names stemmed from his father's fascination with the powerful political figures of the time.

Benito showed the first evidence of his artistic talent as a small child. He would draw comic stories on pavements in Termoli at the age of six.  The family moved to Macerata in Marche, where Jacovitti attended art school from the age of 11, and then to Florence, where he enrolled at the Art Institute as a 16-year-old.

It was there that he acquired the nickname lisca di pesce (fishbone) on account of his rather scrawny physique. He adopted the nickname as his signature.

He launched his career with the Florentine satirical magazine Il Brivido, where he decided he preferred his second name to begin with a 'J' rather than an 'I'.  The work with Il Vittorioso came soon afterwards and made him a household name.

Notable for his sense of the absurd, Jacovitti drew figures that inevitably had huge noses and gigantic feet and were sometimes quite grotesque. He has cited Elzie Crisler Segar, creator of Popeye, as one of his influences.

Though he became known for the characters and storylines he invented for his young audience, Jacovitti continued to maintain his skills as a satirist, drawing for the magazine Il Travaso for much of the 1950s under the signature of 'Franz'.

The Pippo cartoons with Il Vittorioso  established Jacovitti's popularity
The Pippo cartoons with Il Vittorioso
established Jacovitti's popularity
During his time with Il Travaso, he collaborated with the film director Federico Fellini on an anti-communist strip that was very popular.

Controversially, he also worked on Kamasultra, a comic book parody of the Hindu adult text the Kamasutra, which in some eyes somewhat tarnished Jacovitti's reputation.

He began to draw for newspapers in the 1950s, first for Quotidiano and, from 1956 to 1966, for Il Giorno, the national daily based in Milan.

Jacovitti's work was published in many other periodicals in Italy and abroad and he had commercial companies queuing up to use his characters in advertising for their products. They appeared in commercials for Eldorado ice cream, Fiorucci salami, Teodoro oils and Fiat cars among others.

During his career, Jacovitti created more than 60 characters and produced around 150 books, making him one of the most prolific and original artists in comic book history.

He was a great admirer of Carlo Collodi, the creator of Pinocchio, and illustrated a number of editions of the famous story during his career.

Awarded the title of Knight Order of Merit of the Italian Republic by the President, Oscar Luigi Scalfaro, in 1994, he died in Rome in 1997 at the age of 74.

Travel tip:

Termoli, once primarily a fishing port but now a popular tourist resort, particularly with Italian families who flock to its sandy beaches, is notable for the Borgo Antico, an historic old town that sits on a promontory surrounded by walls which, on one side, drop into the sea.  An 11th century castle stands guard at the entrance and many of the houses are painted in pastel colours.  The Cathedral of St Mary of the Purification, built in the 12th and 13th centuries, is an example of Apulian Romanesque design. Contained within are the remains of the town's two patron saints, Bassus of Lucera and Timothy.

Macerata hosts the Sferisterio Opera Festival every summer
Macerata hosts the Sferisterio Opera Festival every summer
Travel tip:

The walled city of Macerata in Marche is not among Italy's mainstream tourist destinations yet offers much to charm the visitor with its hill-town characteristics and maze of cobbled streets.  At the heart of the city, in the pretty Piazza della Libertà, is the Loggia dei Mercanti with its two-tier arcades, dating from the Renaissance. There are several beautiful palaces and a university that is among the oldest it Italy, established in 1290.  Each July and August the city hosts the Sferisterio Opera Festival, one of the most important dates on the Italian opera calendar, which is held in the 2,500 seat open-air Arena Sferisterio, a huge neoclassical arena built in the 1820s. Most of the world's great opera singers have performed there, attracted by its perfect acoustics, and it has been credited with staging some of the finest productions in the history of numerous regularly performed works, including Ken Russell's direction of Puccini's La Bohème in 1984.

More reading:

How Carlo Collodi's Pinocchio stories carried hidden meanings

Giacomo Puccini - the opera genius who inherited Verdi's baton

Giovanni Guareschi - satirical magazine editor who created Don Camillo

Also on this day:

1943: The birth of Mario Monti, the technocrat prime minister known as 'Super Mario'

(Picture credit: Sferisterio Festival by Florian Prischl via Wikimedia Commons)


Saturday, 18 March 2017

The Five Days of Milan

Citizens rebel to drive out ruling Austrians

A painting by an unknown artist that shows fighting between Austrian troops and Milanese citizens
A painting by an unknown artist that shows fighting between
Austrian troops and Milanese citizens 
The Five Days of Milan, one of the most significant episodes of the Risorgi- mento, began on this day in 1848 as the citizens of Milan rebel- led against Austrian rule. 

More than 400 Milanese citizens were killed and a further 600 wounded but after five days of street battles the Austrian commander, Marshall Josef Radetzky, withdrew his 13,000 troops from the city.

The 'Cinque Giornate' uprising sparked the First Italian War of Independence between the Kingdom of Sardinia and the Austrian Empire.

Much of northern Italy was under Austrian rule in the early part of the 19th century and they maintained a harsh regime. Elsewhere, governments were introducing social reform, especially in Rome but also in Sicily, Salerno and Naples after riots against the Bourbon King Ferdinand II.

Ferdinand, ruler of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, and Charles Albert (Carlo Alberto) of Savoy, in the Kingdom of Sardinia, adopted a new constitution, limiting the power of the monarchy, and Pope Pius IX in the Papal States followed suit a little later.

Marshall Josef Radetzky and his troops were driven out of Milan
Marshall Josef Radetzky and his troops
were driven out of Milan
The response of the Austrians was to seek a still tighter grip on their territories in Lombardy-Venetia, where they imposed tax increases on the citizens and sent out tax collectors, supported by the army, to ensure that everybody paid.

There was a warning of what lay ahead in January 1848, when Milanese rebels organised a boycott of gambling and of tobacco, which were government monopolies and a major source of revenue.

Fighting broke out between rebels and Austrian soldiers, who ultimately quelled the trouble by charging the crowd with swords and bayonets.

Peace was restored but trouble exploded again in March, when news reached Italy that riots in Vienna were threatening to overthrow the Austrian prime minister, Klemens von Metternich.  An anti-Austrian movement quickly spread through the city and gained widespread support.  The Austrian garrison mobilised in response under the vastly experienced Radetzky, whose tactical astuteness had not diminished, even though he was in his 81st year.

Yet such was the fierce passion among the local people to rid themselves of Austrian rule, with even priests joining the street battles and farmers from the surrounding countryside arriving in numbers to give their support, that the Austrians, weakened after Radetzky had been forced to send some of his troops to Vienna, sought an armistice.

When it was rejected, Radetsky felt obliged to act to minimise his own losses and at the end of the five days, on the evening of March 22, he began a withdrawal to the Quadrilatero, the a four-cornered area between Milan and Venice guarded by fortresses at Verona, Legnano, Mantua and Peschiera del Garda.

There is a statue of Carlo Cattaneo on Via Santa Margherita in central Milan
There is a statue of Carlo Cattaneo on Via
Santa Margherita in central Milan
A provisional government of Milan was formed and presided over by the podestà (mayor), Gabrio Casati, and a council of war under the political writer, Carlo Cattaneo.

The following day, March 23, Charles Albert of Savoy declared war on Austria, launching what became known and the First War of Italian Independence.

As a memorial to the victory of the rebels, the official newspaper of Cattaneo's temporary government was given the name Il 22 marzo (March 22). A monument to the uprising by the sculptor Giuseppe Grandi was built at what is now Porta Vittoria.

Soon after the Milan riots, an insurrection in Venice led by Daniele Manin, a lawyer, also succeeded in ejecting Austrian forces and a new Republic of San Marco was proclaimed.

However, the First War of Italian Independence, which lasted a year, ended in victory for the Austrians, who won decisive battles at Custoza and Novara, resulting in the Kingdom of Lombardy-Venetia being returned to Austrian control.

Piazza Cinque Giornate at Porta Vittoria commemorates the Milan uprising of 1848 in which  400 citizens died
Piazza Cinque Giornate at Porta Vittoria commemorates
the Milan uprising of 1848 in which  400 citizens died
Travel tip:

Formerly known as Porta Tosa, the eastern gate in the old Spanish Walls of Milan, Porta Vittoria was the first strategic position to be taken by the Milanese rebels during the Five Days. It was renamed Porta Vittoria in 1861, when Italian unification was completed. The gate was demolished in the late 19th century and an obelisk designed by Giuseppe Grandi erected in its place and inaugurated on March 18, 1895. The square is now called Piazza Cinque Giornate. Nearby streets and squares are named after heroes and prominent events of the Risorgimento and the Five Days.

Find a hotel in Milan with TripAdvisor

Travel tip:

The significance of Carlo Cattaneo in the history of Milan is commemorated in the Carlo Cattaneo Institute of Higher Education in Piazza Vetra in the historic Corrobbio district, which has Roman origins, to the south-west of the city.  Cattaneo, strongly republican in his politics, was a philosopher and writer and a former member of Carbonari, a network of secret revolutionary groups.  There is a statue of Cattaneo in Via Santa Margherita in central Milan, close to the Duomo and the Galleria.

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More reading:

Why Giuseppe Mazzini was the ideological inspiration for Italian unification

The end of the Venetian Republic

Victor Emmanuel II - first king of the new Kingdom of Italy

Also on this day: 

1944: The last time Vesuvius erupted

(Picture credits: Carlo Cattaneo monument by Giovanni Dall'Orto; Piazza Cinque Giornate by Arbalete; via Wikimedia Commons)