25 February 2020

25 February

Enrico Caruso – opera singer


Tenor's voice still regarded as greatest of all time 

Operatic tenor Enrico Caruso was born on this day in 1873 in Naples.  Believed by many opera experts to be the greatest tenor of all time, Caruso had a brilliant 25-year singing career, appearing at many of the major opera houses in Europe and America.  He made more than 200 recordings of his beautiful voice, some made as early as 1902.  Caruso was born in Via San Giovanello agli Ottocalli in Naples and baptised the next day in the nearby church of San Giovanni e Paolo.  At the age of 11 he was apprenticed to a mechanical engineer and also worked alongside his father in a factory.  At the same time he was singing in his church choir and was told his voice showed enough promise for him to consider becoming a professional singer.  Until she died in 1888, he was encouraged by his mother. To earn money, he started to work as a street singer in Naples, progressing to singing Neapolitan songs as entertainment in cafes. Having decided to become an opera singer, Caruso took singing lessons, keeping up with them even during his compulsory military service.  He made his stage debut in 1895 at the Teatro Nuovo in Naples.  Read more...

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Alberto Sordi - actor


Comic genius who appeared in 190 films

Alberto Sordi, remembered by lovers of Italian cinema as one of its most outstanding comedy actors, died on this day in 2003 in Rome, the city of his birth.  He was 82 and had suffered a heart attack.  Italy reacted with an outpouring of grief and the decision was taken for his body to lie in state at Rome's town hall, the Campidoglio.  Streams of his fans took the opportunity to file past his coffin and when his funeral took place at the Basilica of San Giovanni in Laterano it was estimated that the crowds outside the church and in nearby streets numbered one million people.  Only the funeral of Pope John Paul II, who died two years later, is thought to have attracted a bigger crowd.  Sordi was the Italian voice of Oliver Hardy in the early days of his career, when he worked on the dubbing of the Laurel and Hardy movies.  He made the first of his 190 films in 1937 but it was not until the 1950s that he found international fame.  He appeared in two movies directed by Federico Fellini - The White Sheik and I vitelloni.  In the latter, he played an oafish layabout, something of a simpleton but an effeminate and vulnerable character to whom audiences responded with warmth and affection due to Sordi's interpretation.  Read more…

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Carlo Goldoni – playwright


Greatest Venetian dramatist whose work still entertains audiences today

Carlo Goldoni, the author of The Servant of Two Masters, one of Italy’s most famous and best-loved plays, was born on this day in 1707 in Venice.  Goldoni became a prolific dramatist who reinvigorated the commedia dell’arte dramatic form by replacing its masked, stock figures with more realistic characters. He produced tightly constructed plots with a new spirit of spontaneity and is considered the founder of Italian realistic comedy.  The son of a physician, Goldoni read comedies from his father’s library when he was young and ran away from his school at Rimini with a company of strolling players when he was just 14.  Later, while studying at the papal college in Pavia, Goldoni read comedies by Plautus, Terence and Aristophanes and learnt French so he could read plays by Molière.  He was eventually expelled for writing a satire about the ladies of Pavia and was sent to study law.  Although he practiced law in Venice and Pisa and held diplomatic appointments, his real passion was writing plays for the theatres in Venice.  In 1748 he began writing for the Teatro Sant’Angelo company and dispensed with masked characters altogether for his play, La Pamela, a serious drama based on Samuel Richardson’s novel.  Read more…

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Giovanni Battista Morgagni - anatomist


The father of modern pathological anatomy

Anatomist Giovanni Battista Morgagni, who is credited with turning pathology into a science, was born on this day in 1682 in Forlì in Emilia-Romagna.  Morgagni was professor of Anatomy at the University of Padua for 56 years and taught thousands of medical students during his time there.  He was sent by his parents to study philosophy and medicine at the University of Bologna when he was 18 and he graduated as a doctor from both faculties.  In 1706 he published his work, Adversaria Anatomica, which was to be the first volume of a series and helped him become known throughout Europe as an accurate anatomist.  He succeeded to the chair of theoretical medicine at the University of Padua in 1712 and was to teach medicine there until his death in 1771.  Morgagni was promoted to the chair of anatomy after his first three years in Padua, following in the footsteps of many illustrious scholars. He brought out five more volumes of his Adversaria Anatomica during his early years in Padua.  In 1761, when he was nearly 80, he brought out the work that was to make pathological anatomy into a science – De Sedibus et causis morborum per anotomem indagatis (Of the seats and cause of diseases investigated through anatomy). Read more…


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24 February 2020

24 February

Cesare “Caesar” Cardini – restaurateur


Italian emigrant who invented Caesar salad

The restaurateur who history credits with inventing the Caesar salad was born on this day in 1896 in Baveno, a small town on the shore of Lake Maggiore.  Cesare Cardini was one of a large family, with four brothers and two sisters.  In common with many Italians in the early part of the 20th century, his brothers Nereo, Alessandro and Gaudenzio emigrated to the United States, hoping there would be more opportunities to make a living.  Nereo is said to have opened a small hotel in Santa Cruz, California, south of San Francisco, while Alessandro and Guadenzio went to Mexico City.  Cesare left Italy for America in 1913. Records indicate he disembarked at Ellis Island, New York on May 1, having endured the transatlantic voyage as a steerage passenger, sleeping in a cargo hold equipped with dozens of bunk beds, which was the cheapest way to travel but came with few comforts.  He is thought then to have returned to Italy for a few years, working in restaurants in Milan, but ventured back to the United States in 1919.  This time he settled, first in Sacramento, then in San Diego, on the Pacific Ocean and close to the border with Mexico.  Read more…


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Bettino Craxi - prime minister


The Socialist who broke the grip of the Christian Democrats

Bettino Craxi, the politician who in 1983 became the first member of the Italian Socialist Party (PSI) to be appointed prime minister, was born on this day in 1934 in Milan.  He was not the first socialist to hold the office - Ivanoe Bonomi had been prime minister for six months in 1920 on an Italian Reformist Socialist Party ticket and succeeded Marshal Pietro Badoglio as leader of the war-torn nation’s post-Mussolini government in 1944. However, Craxi broke the hold of the Christian Democrats, who had been in power continuously since the first postwar elections in 1946.  Craxi was a moderniser who moved his party away from traditional forms of socialism in a way that was replicated elsewhere in Europe, such as in Britain under the New Labour prime minister Tony Blair. Craxi replaced the party’s hammer-and-sickle symbol with a red carnation.  His reputation was ultimately wrecked by a corruption scandal, but during his tenure as prime minister, Italy became the fifth largest industrial nation and gained entry into the G7 Group.  His fiscal policies saw him clash with the powerful trade unions over the abolition of the wage-price escalator.  Read more…


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L’Orfeo – an early opera


The lasting appeal of Monteverdi’s first attempt at opera

L’Orfeo by Claudio Monteverdi, the earliest opera still being regularly staged, had its first performance on this day in 1607 in Mantua.  Two letters, both dated 23 February, 1607, refer to the opera due to be performed the next day in the Ducal Palace as part of the annual carnival in Mantua in Lombardy.  In one of them a palace official writes: ‘… it should be most unusual as all the actors are to sing their parts.’  Francesco Gonzaga, the brother of the Duke, wrote in a letter dated 1 March, 1607, that the performance had been to the ‘great satisfaction of all who heard it.’  L’Orfeo, or La favola d’Orfeo as it is sometimes called, is based on the Greek legend of Orpheus. It tells the story of the hero’s descent to Hades and his unsuccessful attempt to bring his dead bride, Eurydice, back to the living world.  While it is recognised that L’Orfeo is not the first opera, it is the earliest opera that is still regularly performed in theatres today and it established the basic form that European opera was to take for the next 300 years.  The composer, Claudio Monteverdi, was born in Cremona in Lombardy in 1567.  Read more…

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Sandro Pertini - popular president


Man of the people who fought Fascism

Sandro Pertini, the respected and well-liked socialist politician who served as Italy's President between 1978 and 1985, died on this day in 1990, aged 93.  Pertini, a staunch opponent of Fascism who was twice imprisoned by Mussolini and again by the Nazis, passed away at the apartment near the Trevi Fountain in Rome that he shared with his wife, Carla.  After his death was announced, a large crowd gathered in the street near his apartment, with some of his supporters in tears.  Francesco Cossiga, who had succeeded him as President, visited the apartment to offer condolences to Pertini's widow, 30 years his junior.  They had met towards the end of the Second World War, when they were both fighting with the Italian resistance movement.  Pertini's popularity stemmed both from his strong sense of morality and his unwavering good humour.  He had the charm and wit to win over most people he met and was blessed with the common touch.  He would make a point whenever it was possible of appearing in person to greet parties of schoolchildren visiting the presidential palace, sometimes joined the staff for lunch and endeared himself to the nation with his passionate support for Italy's football team at the 1982 World Cup.  Read more…


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23 February 2020

23 February

NEWCorrado Cagli - painter


Jewish artist who fought in World War II as a US soldier

The painter Corrado Cagli, one of the outstanding figures in the New Roman school that emerged in the early part of the 20th century, was born in Ancona on this day in 1910.  He moved with his family to Rome in 1915 at the age of five and by the age of 17 had created his first significant work, a mural painted on a building in Via Sistina, the street that links Piazza Barberini with the Spanish Steps in the historic centre of the city.  Another mural followed the following year he painted another mural inside a palazzo on the Via del Vantaggio, not far from Piazza del Popolo.  In 1932, he held his first personal exhibition at Rome’s Galleria d’Arte Moderna.  At this stage, despite being both Jewish and gay, Cagli had the support of the Fascist government, who commissioned him and others to produce mosaics and murals for public buildings.  Although he would go on to experiment in Neo-Cubist style and metaphysical styles, the aim of the Scuola Romana he sought to establish with fellow artists such as Giuseppe Capogrossi and Emanuele Cavalli was to reaffirm the principles of classical and Renaissance art.  Read more...


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Gentile Bellini - Renaissance painter


Bellini family were Venice's leading 15th century artists

Gentile Bellini, a member of Venice's leading family of painters in the 15th century, died in Venice on this day in 1507.  He was believed to be in his late 70s, although the exact date of his birth was not recorded.  The son of Jacopo Bellini, who had been a pioneer in the use of oil paint in art, he was the brother of Giovanni Bellini and the brother-in-law of Andrea Mantegna.  Together, they were the founding family of the Venetian school of Renaissance art.  Although history tends to place Gentile in their shadow, he was considered in his time to be one of the greatest living painters in Venice and from 1454 he was the official portrait artist for the Doges of Venice.  He also served Venice as a cultural ambassador in Constantinople, where he was sent to work for Sultan Mehmed II as part of a peace settlement between Venice and Turkey.  Gentile learned painting in his father's studio.  Once established, he had no shortage of commissions, for portraits, views of the city, and for large paintings for public buildings, often characterised by multiple figures.  He was one of the artists hired by the Scuola Grande di San Giovanni Evangelista to paint a 10-painting cycle known as the The Miracle of the Relics of the Cross.   Read more…


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John Keats – poet


Writer spent his final days in the Eternal City

English Romantic poet John Keats died on this day in Rome in 1821.  He had been a published writer for five years and had written some of his greatest work before leaving England.  Ode to a Nightingale, one of his most famous poems, was written in the spring of 1819 while he was sitting under a plum tree in an English garden.  Keats was just starting to be appreciated by the literary critics when tuberculosis took hold of him and he was advised by doctors to move to a warmer climate.  He arrived in Rome with his friend, Joseph Severn, in November 1820 after a long, gruelling journey.  Another friend had found them rooms in a house in Piazza di Spagna in the centre of Rome and they went past the Colosseum as they made their way there.  Keats slept in a room overlooking the Piazza and could hear the sound of the fountain outside, which may have inspired the words he later asked to be put on his tombstone.  To begin with he was well enough to go for walks along the Via del Corso and he enjoyed sitting on the Spanish Steps, but he was advised by his doctor against visiting the city’s main attractions.  Read more…


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Giovanni Battista de Rossi - Archaeologist


Excavations unearthed massive Catacomb of St Callixtus

Giovanni Battista de Rossi, the archaeologist who revealed the whereabouts of lost Christian catacombs beneath Rome, was born on this day in 1822 in the Italian capital.  De Rossi’s most famous discovery – or rediscovery, to be accurate – of the Catacomb of St Callixtus, thought to have been created in the 2nd century by the future Pope Callixtus I, at that time a deacon of Rome, under the direction of Pope Zephyrinus, established him as the greatest archaeologist of the 19th century.  The vast underground cemetery, located beneath the Appian Way about 7km (4.3 miles) south of the centre of Rome, is estimated to have covered an area of 15 hectares on five levels, with around 20km (12.5 miles) of passageways.  It may have contained up to half a million corpses, including those of 16 popes and 50 Christian martyrs, from Pope Anicetus, who died in 166, to Damasus I, who was pontiff until 384. Nine of the popes were buried in a papal crypt.  The complex steadily fell into disuse thereafter and the most important relics were removed over the centuries and relocated to churches around Rome.   Read more…


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Corrado Cagli - painter

Jewish artist who fought in World War II as a US soldier


Corrado Cagli, pictured in his studio in Rome in around 1969
Corrado Cagli, pictured in his studio in Rome
in around 1969
The painter Corrado Cagli, one of the outstanding figures in the New Roman school that emerged in the early part of the 20th century, was born in Ancona on this day in 1910. 

He moved with his family to Rome in 1915 at the age of five and by the age of 17 had created his first significant work, a mural painted on a building in Via Sistina, the street that links Piazza Barberini with the Spanish Steps in the historic centre of the city.

Another mural followed the following year he painted another mural inside a palazzo on the Via del Vantaggio, not far from Piazza del Popolo.  In 1932, he held his first personal exhibition at Rome’s Galleria d’Arte Moderna.

At this stage, despite being both Jewish and gay, Cagli had the support of the Fascist government, who commissioned him and others to produce mosaics and murals for public buildings.

Although he would go on to experiment in neo-Cubist style and metaphysical styles, the aim of the Scuola Romana he sought to establish with fellow artists such as Giuseppe Capogrossi and Emanuele Cavalli was to reaffirm the principles of classical and Renaissance art.

However, in 1938, when the Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini stepped up his persecution of Jews and other minorities, Cagli sought refuge in Paris and later fled to New York.

A detail from Cagli's 1936 painting, The Battle of San Martino, the final battle of the Second Italian War of Independence
A detail from Cagli's 1936 painting, The Battle of San Martino,
the final battle of the Second Italian War of Independence
Not knowing when or if he might return to Italy, Cagli became an American  citizen, even enlisting in the US Army. He went back to Europe as a soldier, taking part in the 1944 Normandy landings and seeing frontline combat fought in Belgium and Germany.

In fact, in an episode in his tour of duty that would have a profound effect on his life, he was part of a battalion that liberated Jewish prisoners from the Buchenwald concentration camp, near Weimar, in 1945. While he was there, Cagli made a series of dramatic drawings.

In 1948, Cagli finally returned to Rome to take up permanent residence again. At that time, he began to experiment in various abstract and non-figurative techniques, including metaphysical and neo-Cubist.

The recipient in 1946 of a Guggenheim award, in 1954 he was recognised with a Marzotto award, made by the Marzotto fashion company in Valdagno, in the Veneto between 1951 and 1968 to artists and thinkers who contributed to the cultural rebirth of Italy after the war.

In later life, he was the official banner painter for the Palio di Siena, the twice-yearly horse race around Siena’s Piazza del Campo, for which he had a particular fascination.

Corrado’s younger sister, Ebe, was a writer who also moved to the United States to escape Mussolini’s race laws.  She married an academic, Abraham Seidenberg, and did not return to Italy.

Cagli died in Rome in 1976.

Ancona's Cathedral of San Ciriaco, which occupies an elevated position on the site of a former acropolis
Ancona's Cathedral of San Ciriaco, which occupies an
elevated position on the site of a former acropolis
Travel tip:

Ancona, where Cagli lived until he was five years old, is a bustling port with a population of almost 102,000, situated on the Adriatic coast in the Marche region. Although the area around the port has an industrial feel, there are some notable beaches nearby of which the Passetto is the best known.  There is a good deal of history in the older part of the city,  some of it bearing witness to its Greek and Roman past, as well as the Cathedral of San Ciriaco, which has mixed Romanesque-Byzantine and Gothic elements, and stands on a hill on the site of the former acropolis of the Greek city.  The 18m-high Arch of Trajan, built in honour of the emperor who built the city’s harbour, is regarded as one of the finest Roman monuments in the Marche region. The harbour contains the Lazzaretto, a pentagonal building constructed on an artificial island in the 18th century as a quarantine station designed to protect the city from diseases carried by infected travellers.

Siena's beautiful Piazza del Campo, where the Palio di Siena horse race is staged on tow dates every summer
Siena's beautiful Piazza del Campo, where the Palio di Siena
horse race is staged on tow dates every summer
Travel tip:

The shell-shaped Piazza del Campo, established in the 13th century as an open marketplace on a sloping site between the three communities that eventually merged to form Siena, is regarded as one of Europe's finest medieval squares, looked over by the Palazzo Pubblico and the Torre del Mangia.  The red brick paving, fanning out from the centre in nine sections, was put down in 1349.  The Palio, which features 10 horses, each representing one of Siena's 17 contrade, or wards, ridden bareback by riders wearing the colours of the contrada they represent, was first contested in 1656 and is now staged on July 2 and August 16 each year.

Also on this day:

1507: The death of Renaissance painter Gentile Bellini

1821: The death of English Romantic poet John Keats

1822: The birth of archaeologist Giovanni Battista de Rossi


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22 February 2020

22 February

Mario Pavesi – entrepreneur


Biscuit maker who gave Italian motorists the Autogrill

Italy lost one of its most important postwar entrepreneurs when Mario Pavesi died on this day in 1990.  Pavesi, originally from the town of Cilavegna in the province of Pavia in Lombardy, not only founded the Pavesi brand, famous for Pavesini and Ringo biscuits among other lines, but also set up Italy’s first motorway service areas under the name of Autogrill.  Always a forward-thinking businessman, Pavesi foresaw the growing influence American ideas would have on Italy during the rebuilding process in the wake of the Second World War and the way that Italians would embrace road travel once the country developed its own motorway network.  He was one of the first Italian entrepreneurs to take full advantage of advertising opportunities in the press, radio, cinema and later television.  Born in 1909 into a family of bakers, Pavesi moved to Novara in 1934, opening a pastry shop in Corso Cavour, where he sold a range of cakes and confectionery and served coffee. During the next few years, until Italy became embroiled in the war, he expanded the business in several ways.  Read more…


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Enrico Piaggio - industrialist


Former aircraft manufacturer famed for Italy's iconic Vespa motor scooter

Enrico Piaggio, born on this day in 1905 in the Pegli area of Genoa, was destined to be an industrialist, although he cannot have envisaged the way in which his company would become a world leader.  Charged with rebuilding the business after Allied bombers destroyed the company's major factories during World War II, Enrico Piaggio decided to switch from manufacturing aircraft to building motorcycles, an initiative from which emerged one of Italy's most famous symbols, the Vespa scooter.  The original Piaggio business, set up by his father, Rinaldo in 1884, in the Sestri Ponente district of Genoa, provided fittings for luxury ships built in the thriving port. As the business grew, Rinaldo moved into building locomotives and rolling stock for the railways, diversifying again with the outbreak of World War I, when the company began producing aircraft.  In 1917 the company bought a new plant in Pisa and in 1921 another in nearby Pontedera, which became a major centre for the production of aircraft engines and is still the headquarters of Piaggio today.   Aeroplanes remained the focus of the business, which Enrico and his brother, Armando, inherited with the death of their father in 1938.  Read more…


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Giulietta Masina - actress


Married to Fellini and excelled in his films

The actress Giulietta Masina, who was married for 50 years to the film director Federico Fellini, was born on this day in 1921 in San Giorgio di Piano, a small town in Emilia-Romagna, about 20km (12 miles) north of Bologna.  She appeared in 22 films, six of them directed by her husband, who gave her the lead female role opposition Anthony Quinn in La Strada (1954) and enabled her to win international acclaim when he cast her as a prostitute in the 1957 film Nights of Cabiria, which built on a small role she had played in an earlier Fellini movie, The White Sheik.  Masina's performance in what was a controversial film at the time earned her best actress awards at the film festivals of Cannes and San Sebastián and from the Italian National Syndicate of Film Journalists (SNGCI).  Both La Strada and Nights of Cabiria won Oscars for best foreign film at the Academy Awards.  Masina also won best actress in the David di Donatello awards for the title role in Fellini's Juliet of the Spirits (1965) and a second SNGCI best actress award for his 1986 film Ginger and Fred.  Although born in northern Italy, one of four children, her parents sent her to live with a widowed aunt in Via Lutezia in the Parioli area of Rome.  Read more...


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Renato Dulbecco - Nobel Prize-winning physiologist


Research led to major breakthrough in knowledge of cancer

Renato Dulbecco, a physiologist who shared the 1975 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his role in drawing a link between genetic mutations and cancer, was born on this day in 1914 in Catanzaro in Calabria.  Through a series of experiments that began in the late 1950s after he had emigrated to the United States, Dulbecco and two colleagues showed that certain viruses could insert their own genes into infected cells and trigger uncontrolled cell growth, a hallmark of cancer.  Their findings transformed the course of cancer research, laying the groundwork for the linking of several viruses to human cancers, including the human papilloma virus, which is responsible for most cervical cancers.  The discovery also provided the first tangible evidence that cancer was caused by genetic mutations, a breakthrough that changed the way scientists thought about cancer and the effects of carcinogens such as tobacco smoke.  Dulbecco, who shared the Nobel Prize with California Institute of Technology (Caltech) colleagues Howard Temin and David Baltimore, then examined how viruses use DNA to store their genetic information.  Read more…


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21 February 2020

21 February


NEWRaimondo Montecuccoli – military leader


Brilliant tactician outwitted his opponents

Raimondo, Count of Montecuccoli, a soldier, strategist and military reformer who served the Hapsburgs with distinction during the Thirty Years’ War, was born on this day in 1609 in Pavullo nel Frignano in the Duchy of Modena and Reggio.  As well as being Count of Montecuccoli, Raimondo also became a Prince of the Holy Roman Empire and the Duke of Melfi in the Kingdom of Naples.  He was born in the Castle of Montecuccolo in Pavullo nel Frignano near Modena and at the age of 16 began serving as a soldier under the command of his uncle, Count Ernest Montecuccoli, who was a General in the Austrian army.  After four years of active service in Germany and the Low Countries, Raimondo became a Captain of Infantry.  He was wounded at the storming of new Brandenburg and at the first Battle of Breitenfeld, where he was captured by Swedish soldiers.  After being wounded again at Lutzen in 1632 he was made a major in his uncle’s regiment. He then became a lieutenant–colonel of cavalry.  At the storming of Kaiserslauten in 1635 he led a brilliant charge and was rewarded by being made a colonel.  Read more…


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Domenico Ghirardelli – chocolatier


Built famous US business with skills learned in Genoa

The chocolatier Domenico Ghirardelli, founder of the Ghirardelli Chocolate Company in San Francisco, was born on this day in 1817 in a village just outside Rapallo in Liguria.  Also known as Domingo, Ghirardelli arrived in San Francisco in 1849 during the rapid expansion years of the Gold Rush, having spent the previous 10 years or so in Peru, where he had run a successful confectionary business.  After making money as a merchant, initially ferrying supplies to prospectors in the gold fields, he set up his first chocolate factory in 1852, drawing on the skills he acquired as an apprentice in Genoa.  By the end of the century, the Ghirardelli Chocolate Company was one of the city’s most successful businesses, with a prestige headquarters on North Point Street, a short distance from Fisherman’s Wharf, in a group of buildings that became known as Ghirardelli Square.  The son of a spice importer, Ghirardelli was born in the village of Santa Anna, just outside Rapallo, about 25km (16 miles) along the Ligurian coast from Genoa, in the direction of La Spezia to the southeast.  His father wanted him to have a trade and once he had reached his teens sent him to be an apprentice at a confectioner in Genoa.  Read more…


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Giuseppe Abbati - painter and revolutionary


Early death robbed Italian art of bright new talent

Italy lost a great artistic talent tragically young when the painter and patriot Giuseppe Abbati died on this day in 1868.  Only 32 years old, Abbati passed away in the hospital of Santa Maria Nuova in Florence, having contracted rabies as a result of being bitten by a dog.  Abbati was a leading figure in the Macchiaioli movement, a school of painting advanced by a small group of artists who began to meet at the Caffè Michelangiolo in Florence in the late 1850s.  The group, in which Giovanni Fattori, Silvestro Lega and Cristiano Banti were other prominent members, were also for the most part revolutionaries, many of whom had taken part in the uprisings that occurred at different places in the still-to-be-united Italian peninsula in 1848.  Abbati, born in Naples, had joined Giuseppe Garibaldi's Expedition of the Thousand, losing his right eye in the Battle of the Volturno in 1860, when around 24,000 partisans were confronted by a 50,000-strong Bourbon army at Capua, north of Naples.  The son of Vincenzo Abbati, also a painter, Abbati was taken to live in Florence when he was six and to Venice before he was 10.  Read more…


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Death of Pope Julius II


Pope who commissioned Michelangelo for Sistine Chapel

Pope Julius II, who was nicknamed ‘the Warrior Pope’, died on this day in 1513 in Rome.  As well as conducting military campaigns during his papacy he was responsible for the destruction and rebuilding of St Peter’s Basilica and commissioning Michelangelo to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.  He is also remembered by students of British history as being the Pope who gave Henry VIII dispensation to marry Catherine of Aragon, his brother’s widow.  Born Giuliano della Rovere, he was the nephew of Francesco della Rovere, who became Pope Sixtus IV.  His uncle sent him to be educated by the Franciscans and he was made a Bishop soon after his Uncle became Pope.  He later became Cardinal Priest of San Pietro in Vincoli in Rome and was very influential in the College of Cardinals.  One of his major rivals was Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia, who was elected Pope Alexander VI in 1492. After accusing him of corruption, Della Rovere retreated from Rome until Alexander died in 1503.  He was succeeded by Pope Pius III who died less than a month after becoming Pope and Della Rovere was finally elected as Pope Julius II in November 1503.  Read more…


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Raimondo Montecuccoli – military commander

Brilliant tactician who outwitted his opponents


Raimondo Montecuccoli, depicted in this 1650 engraving, was a renowned military strategist
Raimondo Montecuccoli, depicted in this 1650
engraving, was a renowned military strategist
Raimondo, Count of Montecuccoli, a soldier, strategist and military reformer who served the Hapsburgs with distinction during the Thirty Years’ War, was born on this day in 1609 in Pavullo nel Frignano, in what was then the Duchy of Modena and Reggio.

As well as being Count of Montecuccoli, Raimondo also became a Prince of the Holy Roman Empire and the Duke of Melfi in the Kingdom of Naples.

He was born in the Castello di Montecuccolo and at the age of 16 began serving as a soldier under the command of his uncle, Count Ernest Montecuccoli, who was a general in the Austrian army.

After four years of active service in Germany and the Low Countries, Raimondo became a captain of infantry.

He was wounded at the storming of New Brandenburg and at the first Battle of Breitenfeld, where he was captured by Swedish soldiers.  After being wounded again at Lutzen in 1632 he was made a major in his uncle’s regiment. He then became a lieutenant–colonel of cavalry.

At the storming of Kaiserslauten in 1635 he led a brilliant charge and was rewarded by being made a colonel.

In 1639 he was taken prisoner by the Swedes during the Battle of Chemnitz and held for two and a half years, but he used the time during his captivity to study military science, geometry, history and architecture.

Montecuccoli returned to Italy in 1642 to fight for Modena in the First War of Castro
Montecuccoli returned to Italy in 1642 to fight
for Modena in the First War of Castro 
After returning to Italy in 1642, Raimondo commanded mercenaries loyal to the Duke of Modena during the First War of Castro.

He served in Hungary, Austria and Bohemia, winning himself the rank of General of Cavalry and his rearguard action at the battle of Zusmarshausen rescued the imperial forces from a disastrous defeat.

In 1657 Raimondo married Countess Margarethe de Dietrichstein. Soon afterwards he was ordered by the Emperor to take part in an expedition against the Swedes and the Cossacks. During this conflict he was promoted to commanding officer of the division.

Between 1661 and 1664 he defended Austria against the Turks and although he had inferior numbers he defeated them so comprehensively they agreed to a 20-year truce. He was hailed as the saviour of Christendom.

As president of the Hofkriegsrat - the supreme imperial war council - in 1668, Raimondo introduced a lighter musket and reduced the numbers of infantry pikemen while increasing the amount of soldiers armed with firearms.

When the Franco-Dutch war broke out he took command of the imperial forces against the armies of Louis XIV and in 1673 he completely outmanoeuvred his rival, the French commander Turenne, before capturing Bonn and joining his army with that of William III, the prince of Orange in what was to have been his last campaign before retiring.

Montecuccoli retired from the battlefield in 1676 and died four years later at the age of 71
Montecuccoli retired from the battlefield in 1676
and died four years later at the age of 71
However, the successes of Turenne in 1674 and 1675 as the conflict continued brought Raimondo out of retirement to fight against him in the Rhine valley. After Turenne was killed, Raimondo invaded Alsace and after winning the siege of Phillipsburg he retired from active service for good.

He spent his retirement working in military administration in Vienna. In 1679 he was made a Prince of the Holy Roman Empire and he was awarded the Dukedom of Melfi by the King of Spain. Raimondo died in an accident in 1680, at the age of 71.

Raimondo Montecuccoli was considered to be a brilliant military theorist and his, Memorie della guerra, published in 1703, profoundly influenced warfare afterwards.  His most important work, Dell’arte militare has been reprinted many times.

In 1934 the Italian navy launched the Raimondo Montecuccoli, a light cruiser named in his honour, which served throughout World War II.

The Castello di Montecuccolo, where Montecuccoli was born more than 400 years ago, can be found at Pavullo nel Frignano
The Castello di Montecuccolo, where Montecuccoli was born
more than 400 years ago, can be found at Pavullo nel Frignano
Travel tip:

The Castello di Montecuccolo where Raimondo Montecuccoli was born, still stands in Pavullo nel Frignano, 42km (26 miles) south of Modena. It was built in the 11th century as a watchtower to protect the area and in the 12th century a fortified house was added to it. New buildings were added over the centuries and in the 15th century the Church of San Lorenzo was built at a lower level than the castle.

The facade of Modena's Duomo, in the city's central Piazza Grande
The facade of Modena's Duomo, in the
city's central Piazza Grande
Travel tip:

The Duchy of Modena and Reggio was an Italian state from 1452 to 1858. The Ducal Palace in Modena, which was built in the 17th century but not completed until the reign of Francis V in the 19th century, now houses a military museum and library. Modena has become famous for the production of sports cars, including Ferrari and Lamborghini, for its balsamic vinegar and as the birthplace of opera singers Luciano Pavarotti and Mirella Freni.

More reading:

Footballer Luca Toni - Pavullo nel Frignano's other favourite son

The Modena news vendor who founded the Panini football stickers empire

How Luciano Pavarotti became one of opera history's greatest tenors

Also on this day:

1513: The death of the pope who commissioned Michelangelo for the Sistine Chapel 

1817: The birth of chocolatier Domenico Ghirardelli

1868: The death of painter and revolutionary Giuseppe Abbati


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