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, 22 September 2017

Carlo Ubbiali - motorcycle world champion

Racer from Bergamo won nine GP titles

Carlo Ubbiali, who preceded Giacomo Agostini and Valentino Rossi as Italy’s first great motorcycling world champion, was born on this day in 1929 in Bergamo.

Ubbiali, racing a bike equipped with subsequently outlawed 'dustbin' fairing, in action at his peak in the 1950s
Ubbiali, racing a bike equipped with subsequently outlawed
'dustbin' fairing, in action at his peak in the 1950s
Between 1951 and 1960, he won nine Grand Prix titles, in the 250cc and 125cc categories, setting a record for the most world championships that was equalled by Britain’s Mike Hailwood in 1967 but not surpassed until Agostini won the 10th of his 15 world titles in 1971.

At 88, Ubbiali is the second oldest surviving Grand Prix champion after Britain’s Cecil Sandford, who was his teammate in the 1950s. Ubbiali’s compatriot Agostini, who came from nearby Lovere, in Bergamo province, is 75.

Ubbiali won a total of 39 Grand Prix races, all bar two of them for the MV Agusta team.  Three times – in 1956, 1959 and 1960 – he was world champion in 125cc and 250cc classes, and on no fewer than five occasions, including both categories in 1956, he won the title with the maximum number of points possible under the scoring system.

He was also a five-times winner at the prestigious Isle of Man TT festival and six-times Italian champion.

Even at the age of 71, pictured here riding in a MV Agusta reunion event, Ubbiali had not lost his skills
Even at the age of 71, pictured here riding in a MV Agusta
reunion event, Ubbiali had not lost his skills
Unlike many of his contemporaries in a sport that was even more dangerous in his era than it is today, Ubbiali retired in 1960 without ever having suffered a major crash.

During his active years, motorcycle Grand Prix races claimed 34 fatalities in competition. He had just lost his brother, Maurizio, and was also planning a wedding when he decided to call time, reasoning that motorcycle racing was not a suitable career for a prospective husband and father.

Ubbiali was familiar with bikes from an early age, thanks to his father, who sold and maintained motorcycles from his workshop/showroom in Bergamo.

He competed for the first time in the Coppa di Bergamo in 1946, alongside brothers Maurizio and Franco, and won, although it was a triumph tainted by tragedy.  Following the post-race celebrations, two family friends were killed in an accident on their way home.

Ubbiali’s relationship with MV Agusta began in 1948, when his father obtained the rights to sell the bikes from his showroom. The company – Meccanica Verghera Agusta – was a new and ambitious enterprise set up in a small town northwest of Milan, as a postwar offshoot of the Agusta aviation company.

Carlo Ubbiali, pictured in 2010
Carlo Ubbiali, pictured in 2010
Invited to take part in some trial races for MV Agusta, Ubbiali impressed enough that, after finishing second in a race to mark the re-opening of the Monza circuit – badly damaged during the Second World War – he earned a place on their team in the inaugural GP world championship in 1949, making his debut in the Swiss GP

In the same year he won the gold medal at the prestigious International Six-Day Time Trial, on that occasion held in Wales.

Soon in demand, he accepted an offer to ride for FB-Mondial, which was the most successful manufacturer at the time and after scoring his first race victory in the Ulster GP of 1950 Ubbiali was crowned 125cc world champion for the first time in 1951, winning a five-race series.  It was a reflection of how Italy dominated motorcycle racing at the time that 12 of the 17 riders who took part were Italian.

Beaten to the 1952 title by Sandford, he accepted MV Agusta’s offer to join the Englishman in their garage the following year, beginning a relationship with the team that would yield eight world titles in six seasons between 1955 and 1960.

Ubbiali’s racing style earned him the nickname “The Fox” on the basis that he was a cunning tactician, content to bide his time in a race while he studied the behaviour and tactics of his opponents, before attacking in the final stages.

In an era that was much less politically correct than today, he was also known as Il Cinesino - “The Little Chinaman” – on account of nothing more than his physical appearance, quite small and with almond shaped eyes.

Nine times a winner of what was then called the Nations Grand Prix on his home circuit at Monza, he finished his career there by winning in both the 125cc and 250cc categories, which gave him the title in both classes for the second year running.

After his retirement, he took over the running of his father’s business in Bergamo and continued to attend motorcycle events in consultancy roles.  He was also instrumental, through his friendship with Count Domenico Agusta, the company’s co-owner, in securing a place for a then 21-year-old Agostini on the MV Agusta team,

Ubbiali was indicted into the MotoGP Hall of Fame in 2001.

Bergamo's Piazza Vecchia is a beautiful square
Travel tip:

Bergamo, situated 40km (25 miles) northeast of Milan, is in a way two cities in one.  Its historic heart, perched on a ridge, is the Città Alta, which boasts many examples of magnificent architecture of the 12th century onwards; spreading out below is the vast expanse of the Città Bassa, more modern but with an elegance of its own.  The old, upper city is surrounded by impressively forbidding walls, built by the Venetians in the 16th century and granted UNESCO Heritage Site status in 2017. The Città Alta, with the beautiful Piazza Vecchia at its core, is small and can be explored easily on foot; the Città Bassa and suburbs cover a broad area of around 500,000 residents.

Motorcycles on display at Museo Agusto
Motorcycles on display at Museo Agusto
Travel tip:

Examples of MV Agusta’s historic motorcycles can be seen at the fascinating Museo Agusta at the company’s original headquarters in Cascina Costa, a district of Samarate, about 45km (28 miles) northwest of Milan. Agusta was formerly a aviation company manufacturing helicopters and continued to do so until it disappeared in a merger in 2000. The motorcycle manufacturing offshoot is now based in Varese.  The museum is open on Tuesday and Wednesday afternoons and both in the morning and afternoon on Saturday and Sunday, with an entrance fee of just €2.50 (€1.50 concessions).

Thursday, 21 September 2017

Maurizio Cattelan - conceptual artist

Controversial work softened by irreverent humour

Maurizio Cattelan once said that he aimed to be "as  open and as incomprehensible as possible."
Maurizio Cattelan once said that he aimed to be "as
open and as incomprehensible as possible."
The conceptual artist Maurizio Cattelan, known for the dark humour and irreverence of much of his work, was born on this day in 1960 in Padua.

Cattelan, probably best known for his controversial waxwork sculptures of Pope John Paul II and Adolf Hitler, has been described at different times as a satirist, a prankster, a subversive and a poet, although it seems to have been his aim to defy any attempt at categorisation.

His works are often interpreted as critiques of the art world and of society in general and while death and mortality are recurring themes there is more willingness among modern audiences to see how even tragic circumstances can give rise to comedic absurdities.

Although some of his work has provoked outrage, more viewers have been enthralled than angered by what he has presented, and some of his creations have changed hands for millions of dollars.

Cattelan has said that his memories of growing up in Padua are of economic hardship, punishments at school and a series of unfulfilling menial jobs.  His artistic skills were entirely self-taught. He was designing and making wooden furniture in Forlì, in Emilia-Romagna, when he began his first experiments with sculpture and conceptual art.

Cattelan's controversial waxwork of Pope John Paul II felled by a meteorite
Cattelan's controversial waxwork of Pope John
Paul II felled by a meteorite
At the start, he set out to produce work that expressed his own insecurities and anxiety about not succeeding. What was meant to be his first solo exhibition in 1989, for example, consisted simply of a sign hanging from the locked door of the gallery with the words Torno subito or “Be right back,” while his contribution to a group exhibition was a ‘rope’ from a window made of bed sheets knotted together, signifying a hurried escape from his obligations.

On another occasion, in Amsterdam, again to create a metaphor for fear of failure, he stole the entire contents of another artist’s show from a neighbouring gallery to pass off as his own, although he was forced to return it under threat of arrest.

He used taxidermy in several notable creations in the 1990s, including The Ballad of Trotsky (1996) and Novecento (1997), both of which consisted of an embalmed horse suspended from the ceiling, its neck bent downwards and its hooves stretched out as if reaching for the floor, widely interpreted as symbolic of energy destined to find no outlet.

Cattelan sold the Ballad of Trotsky for $5,000 (€4,200). In 2004, it changed hands for $2.1 million (€1.7 million).

Cattelan's work is often humorous, as in this sculpture of himself
 peering at paintings by Dutch masters from a hole in the floor 
At the Venice Biennale in 1997 he assembled 200 taxidermied pigeons perched on the air conditioning pipes in the Italian pavilion, with droppings spattered on the floor below, in an exhibit entitled Turisti.

Towards the end of the 1990s he turned to waxwork and caused considerable controversy with La Nona Ora – “The Ninth Hour” – which depicted a prone Pope John Paul II, dressed in his robes and clutching the Papal Cross, having been felled by a lump of meteoric rock that has crashed through a skylight.

The sculpture provoked a lively debate as to its meaning but met with hostility when it went on display at the Zacheta Gallery of Contemporary Art in Warsaw – in John Paul II’s home country – where two members of the Polish parliament not only raised a petition, signed by 90 members, calling for the dismissal of the gallery’s director, but physically removed the rock and tried to stand the figure upright.

Nonetheless, Christie’s sold the piece for $886,000 (€745,000) in 2001. When a second version was auctioned by Phillips, de Pury & Company in 2004, it fetched $3 million (€2.52 million).

Cattelan's model of Hitler as a schoolboy kneeling
in prayer, on display in an alley in Warsaw
Similarly, not everyone appreciated his 2001 sculpture Him, in which a head clearly that of Hitler was mounted on the body of a schoolboy kneeling in prayer. The sculpture was frequently displayed at the end of a long hallway or at the opposite end of a white room, turned away from the viewer, so as to maximise the sense of surprise or shock when they advanced close enough to recognise the face.

Other waxwork sculptures included one of himself, or at least his head, created for a museum in Rotterdam, in which he is seen peering up through a hole in the floor at an exhibition of 17th century Dutch masters.

After the September 11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center in New York, Cattelan sculpted Frank and Jamie (2002), in which two New York City policemen are turned upside down and propped against a wall in a posture that has been seen to convey the unfamiliar sense of vulnerability that permeated the United States in the wake of the terrorist outrage.

Cattelan, who today earns at least $200,000 (€168,000) for every new piece, claims there is no difference between his more recent work and his older pieces, but that he used to be “treated as an idiot” where now he is appreciated. He claims he doesn't know what his work means, but says his aim is to be “as open and as incomprehensible as possible.”

The artist, who divides his time between homes in Milan and New York, announced his retirement after a 2011 retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, where his work was displayed hanging from the ceiling of the rotunda as if wilfully and randomly discarded.

He came out of retirement for another show at the Guggenheim in 2016, in which one exhibit was a fully functioning toilet in 18-carat gold.

Giotto's frescoes in the Scrovegni Chapel are one of the major attractions for visitors to Padua
Giotto's frescoes in the Scrovegni Chapel are one of the
major attractions for visitors to Padua
Travel tip:

Padua, where Cattelan was born, is city of some 210,000 people in the Veneto, about 40 minutes from Venice by train. It has much to see for the visitor, with the frescoes by Giotto that illuminate the Scrovegni Chapel undoubtedly the biggest attraction, so much so that booking ahead is now almost essential. Well worth a visit too are the substantial Basilica di Sant’Antonio – known in English as St Anthony of Padua – and the Abbazia di Santa Giustina, both close to the beautiful elliptical open space, Prato della Valle, which was once the site of a Roman amphitheatre.  The city has a large student population yet on the whole Padua is a fairly quiet city, a good base for exploring the area and a better-value alternative to staying Venice.

Piazza Aurelio Saffi is at the heart of the city of Forlì
Piazza Aurelio Saffi is at the heart of the city of Forlì
Travel tip:

Founded by the Romans 200 years before Christ as Forum Livii, Forlì is located between Faenza and Cesena in the eastern part of the Po Valley, no more than 30-35km (18-22 miles) from the Adriatic coast. The centrepiece of the town is Piazza Aurelio Saffi, which features notable buildings from different eras: the Romanesque Basilica of San Mercuriale with its 12th century bell tower, the 14th century Palazzo Comunale and Torre Civica clock tower, the 15th century Palazzo del Podestà and 20th century Palazzo delle Poste, an example of architecture of the Fascist era, also evident in the buildings of Viale della Libertà and Piazzale della Vittoria. Forlì’s older history is represented in the palaces along Corso Garibaldi and Via Maroncelli.

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Sophia Loren – actress

Glamorous star one of just three Italian Oscar winners

Sophia Loren, aged 19 in this picture, captivated audiences from the start of her career
Sophia Loren, aged 19 in this picture, captivated
audiences from the start of her career
The actress Sophia Loren, who came to be regarded as one of the world’s most beautiful women and is the most famous name in Italian cinema history, was born on this day in 1934 in Rome.

In a career spanning more than 60 years, Loren appeared in almost 90 films made for the big screen and several others for television.  Although she was often picked for her looks and box-office appeal, she proved her acting talent by winning an Oscar for her role in Vittorio De Sica’s gritty 1960 drama Two Women, released in Italy as La Ciociara.

In doing so she became one of only three Italians to win the Academy Award for Best Actor or Actress and the first of either sex to win the award for an Italian-language film. She followed Anna Magnani, who had won in 1955 for The Rose Tattoo, as the second Italian Oscar winner.

Loren stayed away from the awards ceremony in 1961 on the grounds that she the suspense of waiting to learn whether she had won was something she would rather suffer in private but she was there in person to accept an honorary Oscar in 1991, recognising her career achievements.

She also attended the 1993 Oscars to present an honorary award to the director Federico Fellini, and the 1999 ceremony to present the Academy Award for Best Actor to her compatriot Roberto Benigni, the first Italian male to win the award, for Life is Beautiful.

Loren, aged 52, photographed by the English  photographer Allan Warren in Los Angeles
Loren, aged 52, photographed by the English
photographer Allan Warren in Los Angeles
Loren was born Sofia Costanza Brigida Villani Scicolone at the Clinica Regina Margherita in Rome. Her father, Riccardo Scicolone, was a construction engineer of distant noble descent and her mother, Romilda Villani, a piano teacher.

Scicolone was already married, however, and ultimately abandoned Villani, who left Rome with Sofia and her younger sister, Maria, to live with their grandmother in Pozzuoli, a port town just outside Naples, which is why Loren came to think of herself as Neapolitan rather than Roman.

Growing up in Pozzuoli in wartime was dangerous, the port coming under frequent attack from Allied bombers.  After Sofia was wounded by shrapnel while running to a shelter, the family moved to a safer location with relatives in Naples.

After the war, they returned to Pozzuoli, where Villani’s mother opened a bar, in which Romilda played the piano and her daughters waited on tables.  The bar became popular with America servicemen in particular.

It was after reaching the final of the Miss Italia beauty pageant in 1950 that Loren was encouraged to take acting lessons by Carlo Ponti, a film producer who was one of the judges.

Loren won an Oscar for her role in the 1960 film Two Women
Loren won an Oscar for her role in the
1960 film Two Women
She and Ponti would later marry, despite there being 22 years between them, remaining together from 1957 until his death in 2007 at the age of 94.

Although Ponti obtained a divorce from his wife, Giuliana, in Mexico so that he could marry Loren, the divorce was not recognised in Italy and the marriage had to be annulled so Ponti would not face arrest for bigamy.

They married again in 1966, but only after Giuliana had agreed that all three should become citizens of France so that she and Ponti could be divorced in the French courts, allowing Loren to marry her ex-husband in a civil ceremony.

Loren began her acting career as Sofia Lazzaro, changing her screen name to Sophia Loren in 1952. Her breakthrough role came in De Sica’s 1954 anthology The Gold of Naples, filmed as a series of episodes from Neapolitan life.

In the same year she filmed the first of 11 movies in which she starred with Marcello Mastroianni, the best known of which were the romantic comedy-dramas Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (1963) and Marriage, Italian Style (1964), both directed by De Sica, and Robert Altman’s Prêt-à-Porter (1994).

Loren enjoyed a successful career in the United States, too, signing a contract with Paramount Studios and appearing in a series of Hollywood films opposite such major stars as Cary Grant (Houseboat, 1968), Clark Gable (It Started in Naples, 1960), Frank Sinatra (The Pride and the Passion, 1957, also with Grant), Alan Ladd (Boy on a Dolphin, 1957), William Holden (The Key, 1958), and Paul Newman (Lady L, 1965).

Loren and Marcello Mastroianni starred  together in 11 films
Loren and Marcello Mastroianni starred
together in 11 films
Because she was 1.75m (5ft 9ins) tall – even taller with heels and her hair stacked up – some actors were reluctant to star opposite her. In fact, so that she did not appear to tower over the notably small Alan Ladd in Boy on a Dolphin she filmed some scenes standing in a trench.

Loren had a brief affair with Cary Grant while filming The Pride and the Passion but ultimately rejected him in favour of Ponti. Later she resisted the advances of Peter Sellars, who starred with her in The Millionairess (1960) and recorded a single, Goodness Gracious Me, with her that reached number four in the UK charts.

Among her numerous awards were five Golden Globes, eight Bambi Awards and 10 David di Donatellos – Italy’s own ‘Oscars’ – six as best actress.

Her success with Two Women, which won her eight awards, including a BAFTA, a David di Donatello, a Nastro d’Argento and a Cannes Film Festival award, came after she rejected her original casting and insisted on playing the older of the two women of the title – the mother – after it was assumed she would take the role of the more glamorous daughter.

She and Ponti had two children – Carlo Jr, now an orchestra conductor, and Eduardo, a film director – after Loren suffered two miscarriages, which prompted doctors to order her to spend almost her entire subsequent pregnancies resting in bed.  They have four grandchildren.

Chosen by Empire magazine at number 25 in a list of the 100 Sexiest Stars in film history, Loren posed in lingerie for the 2007 Pirelli Calendar at the age of 72.  Asked how she had kept her voluptuous figure, she famously remarked: "Everything you see, I owe to spaghetti."

The tree-lined Viale Regina Margherita in the area of Rome where Loren was born
The tree-lined Viale Regina Margherita in
the area of Rome where Loren was born
Travel tip:

Viale Regina Margherita, the area in which Loren was born in the charity ward of a hospital, is a long boulevard in the Rome suburbs to the northeast of the city centre, linking the neighborhoods of Trieste, Salario and Nomentano. It ends at Piazza Sassari, near the Polyclinic Umberto I and Sapienza University.  The boulevard has many pretty buildings and villas built in the period between 1910 and 1917, designed mainly by Pio Piacentini and his son, Marcello.

Travel tip:

Once one of the busiest ports on the Mediterranean, much bigger in its heyday than neighbouring Naples, Pozzuoli is less important now but remains a centre for commercial shipping, fishing and tourism with a population of around 80,000 people.  The relics of an enormous Roman amphitheatre attract many visitors – it was supposedly the arena in which the patron saint of Naples, San Gennaro, survived being thrown to the lions – as does nearby Solfatara, the shallow crater of a dormant volcano characterised by numerous fumaroles and bubbling mud pools.

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

Umberto Bossi - politician

Fiery leader of separatist Lega Nord

Umberto Bossi founded Lega Nord in 1991
Umberto Bossi founded Lega Nord in 1991
Controversial politician Umberto Bossi was born on this day in 1941 in the town of Cassano Magnago in Lombardy.

Until 2012, Bossi was leader of Lega Nord (Northern League), a political party whose goal was to achieve autonomy for northern Italy and establish a new independent state, to be called Padania.

With his distinctive, gravelly voice and penchant for fiery, sometimes provocative rhetoric, Bossi won a place in the Senate in 1987 representing his original party, Lega Lombarda. He was dismissed as an eccentric by some in the political mainstream but under his charismatic leadership Lega Nord became a force almost overnight.

Launched as Alleanza Nord in 1989, bringing together a number of regional parties including Bossi’s own Lega Lombarda, it was renamed Lega Nord in 1991 and fought the 1992 general election with stunning results.

With an impressive 8.7% of the vote, Lega Nord went into the new parliament with 56 deputies and 26 senators, making it the fourth largest party in Italy.

By 1996 that share had risen to 10% and Bossi had become a major figure in Italian politics.

Three times he was Silvio Berlusconi’s key ally, helping the former prime minister win power in 1994, 2001 and 2008 - and lose it in the first instance, when his withdrawal of support for Berlusconi’s centre-right Forza Italia-led coalition brought about the government's collapse.

Bossi had a reputation for provocative speeches
Bossi had a reputation for provocative speeches
Despite that, Bossi served in the next two Berlusconi governments as a minister. In time, he accepted that a secession from Italy was an unrealistic ambition, but he continued to press for greater autonomy for the northern regions and extracted promises from Berlusconi in return for his support.

He was Minister for Institutional Reforms and Devolution from 2001 to 2004 and Minister of Federal Reforms from 2008 to 2011.

Bossi may well have become an even bigger figure on the Italian political stage had he not suffered a serious stroke in 2004, a setback from which he ultimately recovered but which cost him considerable momentum.  Shortly before the illness, he had become a member of the European Parliament.

He resigned as general secretary in 2012, having become embroiled in a financial scandal, with accusations levelled at him by prosecutors that he misappropriated funds directed to Lega Nord through the Italian tax system.

Bossi had become interested in politics while at the University of Pavia, where he studied medicine, through a meeting with Bruno Salvadori, leader of the centre-left Valdostan Union party.  During this time he also had a brief flirtation with a music career, performing as a singer-songwriter under the name of Donato.

Advancing years and the effects of a stroke did not stop Bossi campaigning
Advancing years and the effects of a stroke
did not stop Bossi campaigning
His own political motivations were quite narrow, driven by the perception that the rich north is burdened with subsidising the poorer south.  In 1982, the autonomist Lega Lombarda was born.  Lega Nord emerged from alliances made with similar movements in Veneto and Piedmont, driven by calls to break away from Rome and build a new country called Padania.

Most of Bossi’s firebrand speeches at the time depicted the south of Italy and the capital, Rome – which he dubbed ‘Roma ladrona’ or ‘thieving Rome’ – as a black hole of corruption and waste, relentlessly eating up the taxes of hard-working, decent northerners. He and his fellow Lega Nord politicians brazenly pandered to the pockets of old-fashioned contempt for southerners that still existed in the north of the country.

Apart from southerners, targets for Bossi’s ire included the European Union, which he once described as a "the Soviet Union of the West”, while his outspoken comments on homosexuality and immigration provoked at times fierce reactions.

Married with four children, Bossi voluntarily stepped down as leader during the 2012 investigation, claiming he was doing so “for the good of the party”.  He was immediately made Lega Nord’s honorary president.

Lega Nord supporters gathered in Venice as Bossi made his 1996 'declaration of independence' from a floating pontoon
Lega Nord supporters gathered in Venice as Bossi made his
1996 'declaration of independence' from a floating pontoon
Travel tip:

Despite the sense of theatre attached to as Umberto Bossi’s symbolic ‘declaration of independence’ for Padania at a rally of green-shirted supporters in Venice in 1996, the ‘country’ of Padania has never existed as anything other than a geographical or socio-economic term to describe the area that encompasses Val Padana – the Po Valley.  There is some evidence also that Padanian was a term once used to group languages spoken by population groups north of a line linking La Spezia in Liguria with Rimini on the Adriatic coast.  Bossi’s Lega Nord tended to define Padania as a broad area of northern Italy consisting of Veneto, Emilia-Romagna, Lombardy, Piedmont and Liguria.

A view over the rooftops of Cassano Magnago
A view over the rooftops of Cassano Magnago
Travel tip:

Bossi’s home town of Cassano Magnago is situated about 20km (12 miles) south of Varese in Lombardy, adjoining the city of Gallarate and close to the Valle del Ticino national park.  The area is said to have been populated since around 500BC and there is evidence that it held a strategic position and was the scene of a battle during the Roman conquest of Milan in 225BC. Apart from being Bossi’s birthplace, it is the home of the 18th century sculptor Giovanni Battista Maino and the two-times Giro d’Italia winner Ivan Basso.

Monday, 18 September 2017

Francesca Caccini – singer and composer

Court musician composed oldest surviving opera by a woman

Francesca Caccini pictured in a  cameo discovered in Pistoia
Francesca Caccini pictured in a
cameo discovered in Pistoia
Prolific composer and talented singer Francesca Caccini was born on this day in 1587 in Florence.

Sometime referred to by the nickname La Cecchina, she composed what is widely considered to be the oldest surviving opera by a woman composer, La Liberazione di Ruggiero, which was adapted from the epic poem, Orlando Furioso by Ludovico Ariosto.

Caccini was the daughter of the composer and musician, Giulio Caccini, and she received her early musical training from him. Like her father, she regularly sang at the Medici court.

She was part of an ensemble of singers referred to as le donne di Giulio Romano, which included her sister, Settimia, and other unnamed pupils.

After her sister married and moved to Mantua, the ensemble broke up, but Caccini continued to serve the court as a teacher, singer and composer, where she was popular because of her musical virtuosity.

She is believed to have been a quick and prolific composer but sadly very little of her music has survived. She was considered equal at the time to Jacopo Peri and Marco da Gagliano, who were also working for the court.

Caccini was considered a rival to Jacopo Peri
Caccini was considered a rival to Jacopo Peri
Caccini married a fellow singer, Giovanni Battista Signorina, in 1607 and they had a daughter, Margherita.

She wrote music for comedies written by Michelangelo Buonarotti the Younger, a great nephew of the artist of the same name, and in 1618 she published her own collection of 36 songs and duets.

In 1625 Caccini composed all the music for the opera, La liberazione di Ruggiero dall’isola d’Alcina, which was performed for the visiting crown prince of Poland at the Villa Poggio Imperiale in Florence in 1625.

The prince, Ladislaus Sigismondo, later Wladyslaw IV, was so pleased with it he asked for it to be performed again in Warsaw in 1628.

After her first husband died in 1626, Caccini arranged to marry again the following year to Tommaso Raffaelli, a nobleman from Lucca. She bore him a son and as the wife of a nobleman she turned down at least one request to perform as a singer. But once she was widowed again she tried to return to the service of the Medici.

By 1634 she was back in Florence serving as a music teacher and composing and performing music and entertainment for the women’s court.

All her music, apart from La Liberazione di Ruggiero, and a few excerpts from her other works, have been lost. But her surviving scores showed she took care over the notation of her music, focusing attention on the rhythmic placement of syllables and words.

She left the Medici court in 1637 and it is not clear when she died, but the guardianship of her son passed to his uncle, Girolamo Raffaelli, in 1645.

Caccini’s opera, La Liberazione di Ruggiero, has since been performed in Cologne, Ferrara, Stockholm and Minneapolis.

Palazzo Pitti as seen from the palace's gardens
Palazzo Pitti as seen from the palace's gardens
Travel tip:

Francesca Caccini would have spent plenty of time in Palazzo Pitti in Florence teaching or performing music. The palace is on the south side of the River Arno, a short distance from the Ponte Vecchio. Palazzo Pitti was originally the home of Luca Pitti, a Florentine banker. It was bought by the Medici family in 1549, after which it became the chief residence of the ruling family of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany.

The Villa del Poggio Imperiale is about 4.5km (2.8 miles) outside Florence, to the south
The Villa del Poggio Imperiale is about 4.5km (2.8 miles)
outside Florence, to the south
Travel tip:

The first performance of Caccini’s opera, La liberazione di Ruggiero, was given at the imposing neoclassical Villa del Poggio Imperiale, just outside Florence. It was once one of the homes of the Grand Dukes of Tuscany, having been seized from the Salviati family by the Medici. It was later given to Napoleon’s sister as a residence during French rule, before becoming a girl’s school. Some of the frescoed state rooms are open to the public by appointment.

Sunday, 17 September 2017

Maria Luisa of Savoy

Girl from Turin ruled Spain while a teenager

Maria Luisa was little more than a child when she was married to Philip V of Spain
Maria Luisa was little more than a child
when she was married to Philip V of Spain
Maria Luisa of Savoy, who grew up to become a queen consort of Spain with a lot of influence over her husband, King Philip V, was born on this day in 1688 at the Royal Palace in Turin.

She was the daughter of Victor Amadeus II, Duke of Savoy, and his French wife, Anne Marie d’Orleans.

Philip V of Spain wanted to maintain his ties with Victor Amadeus II and therefore asked for Maria Luisa’s hand in marriage. She was wed by proxy to Philip V in 1701 when she was still only 13.

Maria Luisa was escorted to Nice and from there sailed to Antibes en route to Barcelona. The official marriage took place in November of the same year.

Maria Luisa was both beautiful and intelligent and Phillip V was deeply in love with her right from the start.

In 1702 when Philip V left Spain to fight in the War of the Spanish Succession, Maria Luisa acted as Regent in his absence.

Philip was soon captivated by his young bride's beauty
Philip was soon captivated by his
young bride's beauty
She was praised as an effective ruler despite being only 14 years old. She gave audiences to ambassadors, worked for hours with ministers, and prevented Savoy from joining the enemy. She inspired people to make donations towards the war effort and her leadership was admired throughout Spain.

Maria Luisa gave birth to her first child, Infante Luis Felipe in 1701. She gave birth to three more children, but only two of them survived infancy.

After becoming ill with tuberculosis, Maria Luisa died in 1714 at the age of 25. She was buried at San Lorenzo de El Escorial.

Philip V married again only a few months after her death. As all three of her children died without issue, Maria Luisa had no descendants.

Turin's Palazzo Reale on sunny Piazza Castello
Turin's Palazzo Reale on sunny Piazza Castello
Travel tip:

The Royal Palace of Turin, the Palazzo Reale, where Maria Luisa was born, was built by Emmanuel Philibert, who was Duke of Savoy from 1528 to 1580.  He chose the location in Piazza Castello because it had an open and sunny position. In 1946 the building became the property of the state and in 1997 it became a Unesco World Heritage Site.

Filippo Juvarra's façade of Palazzo Madama
Filippo Juvarra's façade of Palazzo Madama
Travel tip:

Another beautiful building in Piazza Castello, is Palazzo Madama, which housed the Italian Senate during the period Turin was the capital of Italy. In 1637, Christine Marie of France, the regent for Charles Emmanuel II, chose it as her personal residence and refurbished the inner apartments. Another regent, Marie Jeanne of Savoy, lived in the palace 60 years later and invited many artists to decorate the building. She was known as Madama Reale, conferring upon it the nickname of Palazza Madama.

Saturday, 16 September 2017

Sir Antony Panizzi - revolutionary librarian

Political refugee knighted by Queen Victoria

Panizzi was a friend of the British Lord Chancellor, Henry Broughton
Panizzi was a friend of the British Lord
Chancellor, Henry Broughton
Sir Anthony Panizzi, who as Principal Librarian at the British Museum was knighted by Queen Victoria, was a former Italian revolutionary, born Antonio Genesio Maria Panizzi in Brescello in what is now Reggio Emilia, on this day in 1797.

A law graduate from the University of Parma, Panizzi began his working life as a civil servant, attaining the position of Inspector of Public Schools in his home town.

At the same time he was a member of the Carbonari, the network of secret societies set up across Italy in the early part of the 19th century, whose aim was to overthrow the repressive regimes of the Kingdoms of Naples and Sardinia, the Papal States and the Duchy of Modena and bring about the unification of Italy as a republic or a constitutional monarchy.

He was party to a number of attempted uprisings but was forced to flee the country in 1822, having been tipped off that he was to be arrested and would face trial as a subversive.

Panizzi found a haven in Switzerland, but after publishing a book that attacked the Duchy of Modena, of which Brescello was then part, he was sentenced to death in absentia by a court in Modena.

Threatened with expulsion from Switzerland, with Modena pressing the Swiss government to allow his arrest, he fled again, which is how he came to arrive in England in 1823.

Almost destitute by the time he reached London, he met a fellow revolutionary, the poet Ugo Foscolo, who was exiled in England, who gave him a letter of recommendation that enabled him to find work in Liverpool as a teacher of Italian.

Sir Anthony Panizzi was the subject of a caricature in Vanity Fair magazine
Sir Anthony Panizzi was the subject
of a caricature in Vanity Fair magazine
The job made him only a meagre living, but while in Liverpool he was befriended by Henry Broughton, a lawyer and politician who was destined for high office.  When Broughton became Lord Chancellor in 1830, he remembered Panizzi and smoothed the way for him to be appointed Professor of Italian at the newly-formed University of London (now University College, London).

Soon afterwards Panizzi obtained the post of Extra-Assistant Keeper of Books at the British Museum library and in time worked his way through the levels of administration at the museum to be Assistant Librarian (1831–37), Keeper of Printed Books (1837–56) and finally Principal Librarian (1856–66).

His appointment in that role met with some opposition, partly because, despite being a British subject since 1832, he was seen as unsuitable on account of his non-British heritage.  There were also stories that he had been so poor in his early days in London he had resorted to hawking items on the street in order to feed himself.

Yet Panizzi had impressed the hierarchy at the British Museum during his tenure as Keeper of Printed Books, when he increased the library’s stock from 235,000 to 540,000 books, making it at the time the largest library in the world.  

Although he ceased to be involved directly in the Risorgimento movement in Italy, he continued to further the cause of Italian liberty through his friendships with influential Liberal statesmen in England, including two prime ministers in Lord Palmerston and William Ewart Gladstone, whom he took to Naples to see for himself the inhumane conditions in which political prisoners were kept.

Panizzi met the exiled poet Ugo Foscolo in London
Panizzi met the exiled poet Ugo
Foscolo in London
He could, in fact, have taken an active role in Italian politics after unification, but declined invitations from Giuseppe Garibaldi and Count Camillo Benso di Cavour, the first prime minister of the united Italy, to serve as a senator or as a member of the Council of Public Instruction.

Instead, he remained in London, where he was knighted in 1869, three years after retiring, for his extraordinary services to the British Museum library.

His achievements covered a diverse range, from devising a new system for cataloguing books using the 91 Rules code, from which the current ISBD (International Standard Bibliographic Description) system evolved, to designing a shelf support – the ‘Panizzi pin’ – to stop wooden book shelves from wobbling.

Panizzi died in London in 1879 and was buried in the Kensal Green Catholic Cemetery.

The British Museum library became simply the British Library in 1973, although it continued to be housed in the museum’s buildings on Great Russell Street in Bloomsbury until moving to a new purpose-built facility on Euston Road in 1997.

The British Library has a staff meeting room called the Panizzi Room and the former Principal Librarian is remembered in the annual Panizzi Lectures.

Piazza Matteotti and the church of Santa Maria Nascente
Piazza Matteotti and the church of Santa Maria Nascente
Travel tip:

The small town of Brescello is about 25km (16mls) northwest of Reggio Emilia, on the south bank of the Po river. It has a pleasant central square, the Piazza Matteotti, dominated by the parish church of Santa Maria Nascente.  Brescello makes a good deal of its association with the Don Camillo novels of author Giovannino Guareschi, having been chosen as the setting for a series of films made in the 1950s and 1960s about a local priest, Don Camillo, and his constant run-ins with Peppone, the communist mayor, in what was meant to be a typical small town in rural Italy in the years after the Second World War.  There is a museum dedicated to the two characters, while visitors to the church of Santa Maria Nascente can see the crucifix that appeared in the films to speak to Don Camillo.  

Piazza Prampolini is an attractive square in Reggio Emilia
Piazza Prampolini is an attractive square in Reggio Emilia
Travel tip:

Positioned between Parma and Modena along the path of the Roman road known as the Via Emilia, the city of Reggio Emilia is often missed out on the tourist trail but the wealth of attractive squares within the hexagonal lay-out of the old city are well worth a traveller’s time. The city – or, at least, the surrounding province – is thought to be the home of Italy's world famous hard cheese, Parmigiano Reggiano, and is also credited with being the area of Italy from which the country adopted the tricolore as the national flag, with evidence that a short-lived 18th century republic, the Repubblica Cispadana, had a flag of red, white and green.