14 November 2019

14 November

NEW - Enzo Cucchi - artist


Enjoyed prominence as part of Transavanguardia movement

The artist Enzo Cucchi, who was a prominent member of the Italian Transavanguardia movement, was born on this day in 1949 in Morro d'Alba, a walled town set among hills about 10km (6 miles) inland from the Adriatic and 24km (15 miles) west of Ancona in the Marche region.  The Transavanguardia, which peaked during the 1980s, was part of an international revival of expressionist painting. Other Italians who could be considered part of the movement included Sandro Chia, Francesco Clemente, Nicolo de Maria and Mimmo Paladino.  Cucchi’s most important works include the frescoes of the Chapel of Monte Tamaro near Lugano, designed by the architect Mario Botta, which he painted between 1992 and 1994, and the design of the curtain for the theater La Fenice of Senigallia (1996), not far from Morro d’Alba.  In his early years, although his self-taught skills as a painter attracted praise, Cucchi was more interested in writing poetry. Some of his writing was published by La Nuova Foglio di Macerata, a small publishing house, through whom he met art critic Achille Bonito Oliva, who became an important figure in his career.  It was Oliva who came up with the term transavanguardia.  Read more…

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Carlo Emilio Gadda - writer and novelist


Author who drew comparisons with Levi and Joyce

The essayist and novelist Carlo Emilio Gadda, whose work has been compared with the writings of Primo Levi, James Joyce and Marcel Proust, was born on this day in 1893 in Milan.  His novels and short stories were considered outstanding for his original and innovative style, moving away from the rather staid language of Italian literature in the early 20th century, adding elements of dialect, technical jargon and wordplay.  It has been said that Gadda opted for his experimental style because he thought that only through the use of a fragmentary, incoherent language could he adequately portray what he considered a disintegrated world.  Born into an upper middle-class family living on Via Manzoni in the centre of Milan, Gadda lost his father when he was only a child, after which his mother had to bring up the family on limited means, although she refused to compromise with her lifestyle. His father’s business ineptitude and his mother’s obsession with keeping up appearances would figure strongly in his 1963 novel, La cognizione del dolore, published in English as Acquainted with Grief.  Gadda fought in the First World War as a volunteer with the Alpini and was captured at the Battle of Caporetto.  Read more…


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Aleardo Aleardi - poet and patriot


History-loving writer dreamed of a united Italy

Patriotic poet Aleardo Aleardi was born on this day in 1812 in Verona.  At the height of his success he was hailed as an important figure in the Risorgimento movement and there is now a school named after him in the city of his birth.  Aleardi’s poems are mostly about events in Italian history and his love for his home country, which was under Austrian occupation while he was growing up.  He was originally named Gaetano Maria but changed his name to Aleardi, the surname of his father, Count Giorgio Aleardi, when he started writing.  Aleardi studied law at Padova University but gradually became more interested in poetry, influenced by some of his fellow students who were involved in the romantic Risorgimento movement.  Risorgimento, which means resurgence, was the name for the political and social movement that led to the consolidation of the different states of the Italian peninsula into the single state of the Kingdom of Italy during the 19th century. Most historians agree that the process began in 1815 with the end of Napoleonic rule in Italy and was completed in 1871 when Rome became the capital of the new united Italy.  Read more…


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Giuseppina Strepponi – soprano


Death of the woman who inspired Donizetti and Verdi

Opera singer Giuseppina Strepponi died on this day in 1897 at the village of Sant’Agata in the province of Piacenza in Emilia-Romagna.  She was the second wife of the composer Giuseppe Verdi and is often credited with helping him achieve his first successes, having starred in several of his early operas.  Strepponi was born Clelia Maria Josepha Strepponi in Lodi, a little over 40km south-east of Milan, in 1815.  Her father was the organist at Monza Cathedral and also a composer and he gave her piano lessons when she was very young. At the age of 15 she was enrolled at the Milan Conservatory and she won first prize for singing in her final year.  Strepponi made her professional debut in 1834 at the Teatro Orfeo in Taranto and enjoyed her first success the following spring in Trieste, singing the title role in Rossini’s Matilde di Shabran. She quickly became a celebrity, singing Donizetti, Bellini and Rossini roles all over Italy to great acclaim.  She made her debut at Teatro alla Scala in Milan in 1839 as Leonora in the first production of Giuseppe Verdi’s first opera, Oberto.  Her strong performance was one of the main reasons the opera was received so well.  Read more…


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Maria Cristina of Savoy


Pious princess was beatified by Pope Francis

Princess Maria Cristina Carlotta Giuseppina Gaetana Elisa of Savoy was born on this day in 1812 in Cagliari on the island of Sardinia.  She was the youngest child of King Victor Emmanuel I of Piedmont-Sardinia and his wife Queen Maria Teresa of Austria-Este.  Maria Cristina was described as beautiful, but she was also modest and pious and in 2014 she was beatified by the current Pope, Francis.  As a Savoy princess she had been expected to make an advantageous marriage alliance and when she was just 20 years of age she was married to Ferdinand II of the Two Sicilies, in an attempt to keep southern Italy on friendly terms, at a ceremony in Genoa.  Modest and reserved, she was never comfortable at the royal court in Naples and she was unhappy with Ferdinand. But she was said to be loved by the ordinary people of the Two Sicilies, who were charmed by her beauty and kindness.  She had always been a devout Catholic and her commitment to God and the Church along with her beauty caused people to regard her as an angelic figure.  She gave birth to her only child, who would grow up to become Francis II of the Two Sicilies, in January 1836.  Read more…


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Enzo Cucchi - artist

Enjoyed prominence as part of Transavanguardia movement


Enzo Cucchi devoted himself to poetry before directing his talents towards painting and other art forms
Enzo Cucchi devoted himself to poetry before directing
his talents towards painting and other art forms
The artist Enzo Cucchi, who was a prominent member of the Italian Transavanguardia movement, was born on this day in 1949 in Morro d'Alba, a walled town set among hills about 10km (6 miles) inland from the Adriatic and 24km (15 miles) west of Ancona in the Marche region.

The Transavanguardia, which peaked during the 1980s, was part of an international revival of expressionist painting. Other Italians who could be considered part of the movement included Sandro Chia, Francesco Clemente, Nicolo de Maria and Mimmo Paladino.

Cucchi’s most important works include the frescoes of the Chapel of Monte Tamaro near Lugano, designed by the architect Mario Botta, which he painted between 1992 and 1994, and the design of the curtain for the theater La Fenice of Senigallia (1996), not far from Morro d’Alba.

In his early years, although his self-taught skills as a painter attracted praise, Cucchi was more interested in writing poetry. Some of his writing was published by La Nuova Foglio di Macerata, a small publishing house, through whom he met art critic Achille Bonito Oliva, who became an important figure in his career.  It was Oliva who came up with the term transavanguardia, which literally means “beyond the avant-garde”, to describe the new generation of artists that followed the avant-garde art of the 1960s.

Cucchi's 1996 painting, Paese amato, an example of the neo-expressionism of the Transavanguardia movement
Cucchi's 1996 painting, Paese amato, an example of the
neo-expressionism of the Transavanguardia movement
Cucchi abandoned poetry, at least temporarily, after his frequent visits to Rome in the mid-1970s brought him into contact with Chia, Clemente, Paladino and De Maria and revived his interest in visual arts.

Oliva referred to the Transavanguardia for the first time in Flash Art Magazine in 1979. By the Venice Biennial of 1980 it had entered the lexicon. 

Painters and artists considered to be of the movement were not bound by particular rules or language of expression, but they shared a common preference for figurative art, the representation of real things.

Considered the most visionary of Transavanguardia artists, Cucchi became internationally famous during the ‘80s, when he realised permanent works in four different cities - the Tel Aviv-Jaffa Mosaic for the Museum of Art in Tel Aviv, the monumental ceramic Solco for the Ala Mazzoniana in the Termini Railway Station in Rome, two works in ceramic for the Salvator Rosa Station in the Naples subway, and a mosaic for the courtroom of the new Palace of Justice in Pescara.

Cucchi has made outdoor sculptures for the Brueglinger Park in Basel and the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Humblebaek, Denmark. He created a fountain for the garden of the Museo d’arte contemporanea Luigi Pecci in Prato, the Fontana d‘Italia at York University in Toronto, and a fountain in the main square, Piazza Tarsetti, in Morro d'Alba.

Cucchi's fountain in his home town of Morro d'Alba in Ancona province
Cucchi's fountain in his home town of
Morro d'Alba in Ancona province
He has also worked in the theatre. He has designed costumes and sets for productions at the Rossini Opera Festival in Pesaro, Puccini‘s Tosca at the Teatro dell‘Opera in Rome and Pennisi‘s Funeral of the Moon in Gibellina.

Cucchi's first major Retrospective was held at the Guggenheim Museum in New York in 1986. His works are held in numerous museum collections including the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Tate in London and the Art Institute of Chicago. He lives and works in Rome and Ancona.

The Piazza Tarsetti, main square of Morro d'Alba, where Cucchi grew up before moving to Rome
The Piazza Tarsetti, main square of Morro d'Alba, where
Cucchi grew up before moving to Rome
Travel tip:

The small town of Morro d'Alba, which has a population of about 1,850, has an elevated position offering attractive views and retains a medieval feel, its ancient walls still intact, and within it a network of narrow lanes, piazzas and pretty buildings. Including the Palazzo del Municipio and the Loggia dei Mercanti, which once housed the local market. The town is famous for its red wine - Lacrima di Morro d'Alba - which is produced with a very small territory, and for "vino visciola," an after-dinner drink that infuses the red wine with sour cherries and their syrup.

The 18m high Roman arch of Trajan still stands guard over the harbour at Ancona, which Trajan built during his reign
The 18m high Roman arch of Trajan still stands guard over
the harbour at Ancona, which Trajan built during his reign
Travel tip:

The coastal city of Ancona, where Cucchi has a home and a studio, is a bustling port with a population of almost 102,000. Although the area around the port has an industrial feel, there are some notable beaches nearby and a good deal of history in the older part of the city, bearing witness to its Greek and Roman past. 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. Ancona’s 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.

Also on this day:

1812: The birth of the Blessed Maria Cristina of Savoy

1812: The birth of poet and patriot Aleardo Aleardi

1893: The birth of writer Carlo Emilio Gadda

1893: The death of opera star Giuseppina Strepponi


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13 November 2019

13 November

Gioachino Rossini - composer


Italian composer who found the fast route to wealth and popularity

One of Italy’s most prolific composers, Gioachino Rossini, died on this day in France in 1868.  He wrote 39 operas as well as sacred music, songs and instrumental music. He is perhaps best remembered for, The Barber of Seville (Il Barbiere di Siviglia), and Cinderella (La Cerenterola).  Rossini was born into a musical family living in Pesaro on the Adriatic coast in 1792. During his early years his mother earned her living singing at theatres in the area and he quickly developed musical talent of his own.  He made his first and only appearance on stage as a singer in 1805 but then settled down to learn the cello.  His first opera, The Marriage Contract (La Cambiale di Matrimonio), was staged at Teatro La Fenice opera house in Venice when he was just 18.  In 1813 his operas, Tancredi and L’Italiana in Algeri, were big successes in Venice and he found himself famous at the age of 20.  The Barber of Seville was first produced in Rome in 1816 and was so successful that even Beethoven wrote to congratulate Rossini on it.  The composer became wealthy and in big demand and travelled to Austria, France and England.  Read more…


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Agostina Livia Pietrantoni - saint


Tragic sister’s simple virtue stopped the traffic in the capital

Nun Agostina Livia Pietrantoni died on this day in 1894 in Rome after being attacked by a patient at the hospital where she was working.  Her story touched Romans so deeply that her funeral brought the city to a standstill as thousands of residents lined the streets and knelt before her casket when it passed them.  The November 16 edition of the daily newspaper Il Messaggero reported that a more impressive spectacle had never before been seen in Rome.  ‘From one o’clock in the afternoon, the streets close to Santo Spirito, and all the roads it was believed that the funeral procession would pass, were crowded with people to the point of making the flow of traffic difficult.’  Sister Agostina was beatified by Pope Paul VI in 1972 and canonised by Pope John Paul II in 1999. Her feast day is celebrated each year on November 12.  Sant’Agostina was born Livia Pietrantoni in 1864 in Pozzaglia Sabina to the north east of Rome. She was the second of 11 children born to a poor farmer and his wife.  She started work at the age of seven doing manual labour, carrying heavy sacks of stones and sand for road construction.  Read more…


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Alberto Lattuada – film director


Versatility and eye for talent made him leading figure

A leading figure in the Italian cinema, Alberto Lattuada was born on this day in 1914 in Vaprio d’Adda in Lombardy.  Lattuada was the son of the composer Felice Lattuada, who made him complete his studies as an architect before allowing him to enter the film business.  As a student, Lattuada was a member of the editorial staff of the antifascist publication Camminare and also of Corrente di Vita, an independent newspaper. Corrente di Vita was closed by the Fascist regime just before Italy entered the Second World War. Lattuada, who is said to have detested fascism, helped to organise a screening of a banned anti-war film at about this time, which got him into trouble with the police.  In 1940 Lattuada started his cinema career as a screenwriter and assistant director on Mario Soldati’s Piccolo mondo antico (Old-Fashioned World).  He directed his own first movie, Giacomo l’idealista (Giacomo the Idealist) in 1942.  In 1950 he co-directed Luci del Varietà with Federico Fellini. This was the first film directed by Fellini.  Read more…

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Giovanna of Italy - Tsaritsa of Bulgaria


Daughter of King of Italy who married Tsar Boris III

The girl who would grow up to be Ioanna, Tsarista of Bulgaria, was born Princess Giovanna Elisabetta Antonia Romana Maria of Savoy on this day in 1907 in Rome.  Giovanna’s father was King Victor Emmanuel III, who was Italy’s monarch through two world wars from 1900 until he abdicated in 1946 just as Italy was about to become a republic.  Her mother was Queen Elena of Montenegro.  At the age of 22, Princess Giovanna became Tsarista Ioanna - the last Tsarista - after marrying the Tsar of Bulgaria, Boris III, in the Basilica of St Francis in Assisi.  It was the hope of the Italian royal family that the marriage would strengthen their relationship with the Balkan states.  The marriage lasted until Boris’s death in 1943 at the age of just 49. The Tsar had fallen ill during a trip to Germany to discuss Bulgaria’s role in the Second World War as a member of the Axis bloc and there were suspicions that he was poisoned on the orders of Hitler.  Bulgaria had agreed to join the Axis under the threat of invasion by the Germans, who wanted to use their territory to launch an attack on Greece, and was said to be appalled at Hitler's massacres of Jews. On two occasions he refused orders to deport Bulgarian Jews.  Read more…


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12 November 2019

12 November

Umberto Giordano - opera composer


Death of the musician remembered for Andrea Chenier

Composer Umberto Giordano died on this day in 1948 in Milan at the age of 81.  He is perhaps best remembered for his opera, Andrea Chenier, a dramatic work about liberty and love during the French Revolution, which was based on the real life story of the romantic French poet, André Chenier.  The premiere of the opera was held at Teatro alla Scala in Milan in 1896. At the time, its success propelled Giordano into the front rank of up-and-coming Italian composers alongside Pietro Mascagni, to whom he is often compared, and Giacomo Puccini.  Another of Giordano’s works widely acclaimed by both the public and the critics is the opera Fedora.  This had its premiere in 1898 at the Teatro Lirico in Milan. A rising young tenor, Enrico Caruso, played the role of Fedora’s lover, Loris. The opera was a big success and is still performed today.  Some of Giordano’s later works are less well-known but they have achieved the respect of the critics and music experts and are occasionally revived by opera companies.  Giordano was born in Foggia in Puglia in August 1867. He studied under Paolo Serrao at the Conservatoire of Naples.  Read more…


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Silvio Berlusconi resigns as PM


Financial crisis brings down 'untouchable' premier 

Silvio Berlusconi resigned as Prime Minister of Italy on this day in 2011. A controversial, polarising figure, he had dominated Italian politics for 17 years.  With Italy in the grip of the economic crisis that had brought severe consequences to other parts of the Euro zone, Berlusconi lost his parliamentary majority a few days earlier and promised to resign when austerity measures demanded by Brussels were passed by both houses of the Italian parliament.  The Senate had approved the measures the day before. When the lower house voted 380-26 in favour, Berlusconi was true to his word, meeting president Giorgio Napoletano within two hours to tender his resignation.  His last journey from the Palazzo Chigi to the Palazzo Quirinale, the respective official residences of the prime minister and the president, was not a dignified one.  When he arrived at the Quirinale, he was booed by a large and somewhat hostile crowd that had gathered, entering the building to shouts of 'buffoon' and 'mafioso'.  A gathering of musicians and singers serenaded him with a version of the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel's Messiah.  After the meeting concluded, he left by a side entrance to avoid further barracking.  Read more…


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Giulio Lega – First World War hero


Flying ace survived war to look after health of Italy’s politicians

Credited with five aerial victories during the First World War, the pilot Giulio Lega was born on this day in 1892 in Florence.  After the war he completed his medical studies and embarked on a long career as physician to Italy’s Chamber of Deputies.  Lega had been a medical student when he was accepted by the Italian army for officer training in 1915.  Because he was unusually tall, he became an ‘extended infantryman’ in the Grenadiers. He made his mark with them at the Fourth Battle of the Isonzo, for which he was awarded the War Merit Cross for valour. The following year he won a Bronze Medal for Military Valour in close-quarters combat, which was awarded to him on the battlefield.  Lega volunteered to train as a pilot in 1916 and was sent to Malpensa near Milan. After gaining his licence he was sent on reconnaissance duty during which he earned a Silver Medal for Military Valour. After completing fighter pilot training he joined 76a Squadriglia and went on to fly 46 combat sorties with them.  His first two victories in the air, near Col d’Asiago and over Montello, were shared with two other Italian pilots. During the last Austro-Hungarian offensive he downed a Hansa-Brandenburg C1 over Passagno single-handedly.  Read more…


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Treaty of Rapallo 1920


Agreement solves dispute over former Austrian territory

The Treaty of Rapallo between Italy and the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes was signed on this day in 1920 in Rapallo near Genoa in Liguria.  It was drawn up to solve the dispute over territories formerly controlled by Austria in the upper Adriatic and Dalmatia, which were known as the Austrian Littoral.  There had been tension between Italy and the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes since the end of the First World War when the Austro-Hungarian empire was dissolved.  Italy had claimed the territories assigned to it by the secret London Pact of 1915 between Italy and the Triple Entente.  The Pact, signed on 26 April 2015, stipulated that in the event of victory in the First World War, Italy was to gain territory formerly controlled by Austria in northern Dalmatia.  These territories had a mixed population but Slovenes and Croats accounted for more than half.  The London Pact was nullified by the Treaty of Versailles at the end of the war after pressure from American President Woodrow Wilson. Therefore the objective of the Treaty of Rapallo two years later was to find a compromise.  Read more…


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11 November 2019

11 November

Luca Zingaretti - actor


Found fame as TV detective Inspector Montalbano

The actor Luca Zingaretti, best known for his portrayal of Inspector Montalbano in the TV series based on Andrea Camilleri's crime novels, was born on this day in 1961 in Rome.  The Montalbano mysteries, now into a 10th series, began broadcasting on Italy's RAI network in 1999 and has become a hit in several countries outside Italy, including France, Spain, Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom.  Zingaretti has played the famously maverick Sicilian detective in all 28 feature-length episodes to date, each one based on a novel or short story collection by the Sicilian-born author Camilleri, now in his 92nd year but still writing.  Although he had established himself as a stage actor and had appeared in a number of films, it was the part of Montalbano that established Zingaretti's fame.  Yet he had hoped to become a star on another kind of stage as a professional footballer.  Growing up in the Magliana neighbourhood in the south-west of Rome, he spent as much time as he could out in the streets kicking a ball and played for a number of junior teams.  Read more…

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Andrea Zani – violinist and composer


Musician who ushered in the new classical era

Andrea Teodora Zani, one of the earliest Italian composers to move away from the Baroque style, was born on this day in 1696 in Casalmaggiore in the province of Cremona in Lombardy.  Casalmaggiore, nicknamed ‘the little Venice on the Po’, was a breeding ground for musical talent at this time and Zani was an exact contemporary of Giuseppe Guarneri, the most famous member of the Guarneri family of violin makers in Cremona. He was just a bit younger than the violinist composers, Francesco Maria Veracini, Giuseppe Tartini and Pietro Locatelli.  Zani’s father, an amateur violinist, gave him his first violin lessons and he later received instruction from Giacomo Civeri, a local musician, and Carlo Ricci, who was at the time court musician to the Gonzaga family at their palace in Guastalla.  After Zani played in front of Antonio Caldara, who was Capellmeister for the court of Archduke Ferdinand Charles in nearby Mantua, he was invited to go to Vienna to be a violinist in the service of the Habsburgs.  A lot of Zani’s work has survived in both published and manuscript form, some of it having been recovered from European libraries. His early works show the influence of Antonio Vivaldi. Read more…

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Victor Emmanuel III


Birth of the King who ruled Italy through two world wars

Italy’s longest reigning King, Victor Emmanuel III (Vittorio Emanuele III di Savoia), was born on this day in Naples in 1869.  The only child of King Umberto I and Queen Margherita of Savoy, he was given the title of Prince of Naples. He became King of Italy in 1900 after his father was assassinated in Monza.  During the reign of Victor Emmanuel III, Italy was involved in two world wars and experienced the rise and fall of Fascism.  At the height of his popularity he was nicknamed by the Italians Re soldato (soldier King) and Re vittorioso (victorious King) because of Italy’s success in battle during the First World War. He was also sometimes called sciaboletta (little sabre) as he was only five feet (1.53m) tall.  Italy had remained neutral at the start of the First World War but signed treaties to go into the war on the side of France, Britain and Russia in 1915. Victor Emmanuel III enjoyed popular support as a result of visiting areas in the north affected by the fighting while his wife, Queen Elena, helped the nurses care for the wounded.  But the instability after the First World War led to Mussolini’s rise to power. Read more…

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Germano Mosconi – sports writer and presenter


Short-tempered journalist who became the news

Germano Mosconi, who became a well-known television personality, was born on this day in 1932 in San Bonifacio in the Veneto.  Mosconi became notorious for his short temper and swearing on air and was regarded as a bit of a character on local television. But he became known all over Italy and throughout the world after a video of him someone posted anonymously on the internet went viral.  In the 1980s Mosconi delivered sports reports on Telenuovo in Verona and in 1982 he received the Cesare d’Oro international award for journalistic merit.  But he later became known for his excessive swearing and blaspheming. The anonymous video showed his irate reactions to various problems he encountered while broadcasting, such as people unexpectedly entering the studio, background noises and illegible writing on the news sheets he received.  His use of swear words, blasphemy and insults in both Italian and Venetian dialect and his other humorous antics made the video compulsive viewing all over the world.  Read more…


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10 November 2019

10 November

NEW - Charles Ferdinand - Prince of the Two Sicilies


The heir presumptive whose marriage earned him exile

Charles Ferdinand, the Bourbon Prince of the Two Sicilies and Prince of Capua and heir presumptive to the crown of King Ferdinand II, was born on this day in 1811 in Palermo.  Prince Charles, the second son of King Francis I of the Two Sicilies and Maria Isabella of Spain, gave up his claim to the throne when he married a commoner, after his brother, King Ferdinand II, issued a decree upholding their father’s insistence that blood-royal members of the kingdom did not marry beneath their status.  In 1835, at which time Ferdinand II had not fathered any children and Charles therefore held the status of heir presumptive, Charles met and fell in love with a beautiful Irish woman, Penelope Smyth, who was visiting Naples.  Penelope Smyth was the daughter of Grice Smyth of Ballynatray, County Waterford, and sister of Sir John Rowland Smyth. Ferdinand II forbade their union, in accordance with his father’s wishes, but the lovers would not be parted.  On January 12, 1836 the couple eloped. Two months later, Ferdinand II issued the decree that forbade their marriage but three weeks after that Charles and Penelope reached Gretna Green, the town just over the border between England and Scotland.  Read more...

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Ennio Morricone - film music maestro


Composer who scored some of cinema's greatest soundtracks

Ennio Morricone, who composed some of the most memorable soundtracks in the history of the cinema, was born on this day in 1928 in Rome.  Morricone has written more than 500 film and television scores, winning countless awards.  Best known for his associations with the Italian directors Sergio Leone, Giuseppe Tornatore and Giuliano Montaldo, he has also worked among others with Pier Paolo Pasolini, Brian de Palma, Roland Joffé, Franco Zeffirelli and Quentin Tarantino, whose 2015 Western The Hateful Eight finally won Morricone an Oscar that many considered long overdue.  Among his finest soundtracks are those he wrote for Leone's 'Dollars' trilogy in the 1960s, for the Leone gangster epic Once Upon a Time in America two decades later, for Joffé's The Mission and De Palma's The Untouchables.  He composed the score for Tornatore's hauntingly poignant Cinema Paradiso and for Maddalena, a somewhat obscure 1971 film by the Polish director Jerzy Kawalerowicz that included the acclaimed Come Maddalena and Chi Mai, which later reached number two in the British singles chart after being used for the 1981 TV series The Life and Times of David Lloyd George.  Read more…

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Gaetano Bresci - assassin


Anarchist who gunned down a king

Gaetano Bresci, the man who assassinated the Italian king Umberto I, was born on this day in 1869 in Coiano, a small village near Prato in Tuscany.  He murdered Umberto in Monza, north of Milan, on July 29, 1900, while the monarch was handing out prizes at an athletics event.  Bresci mingled with the crowd but then sprang forward and shot Umberto three or four times with a .32 revolver.  Often unpopular with his subjects despite being nicknamed Il Buono (the good), Umberto had survived two previous attempts on his life, in 1878 and 1897.  Bresci was immediately overpowered and after standing trial in Milan he was given a life sentence of hard labour on Santo Stefano island, a prison notorious for its anarchist and socialist inmates.  He had been closely involved with anarchist groups and had served a brief jail term earlier for anarchist activity but had a motive for killing Umberto.  A silk weaver by profession, he was living in the United States, where he had emigrated in the 1890s and had settled in New Jersey with his Irish-born wife.  Working as a weaver in a mill in Paterson, New Jersey, Bresci and others set about propagating anarchist ideas among the large local Italian immigrant population. Read more…

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Vanessa Ferrari - gymnast


First Italian woman to win a World Championship gold

The gymnast Vanessa Ferrari, who in 2006 became the first Italian female competitor to win a gold medal at the World Championships of artistic gymnastics, was born on this day in 1990, in the town of Orzinuovi in Lombardy.  Ferrari won the all-around gold - consisting of uneven bars, balance beam and floor exercise - at the World Championships in Aarhus in Denmark when she was only 15 years old. It remains the only artistic gymnastics world title to be won by an Italian woman.  Earlier in 2006, Ferrari had picked up her first gold medal of the European Championships at Volos in Greece as Italy won the all-around team event.  Naturally small in stature, Ferrari was inspired to take up gymnastics by watching the sport on television as a child, when the sport was dominated by Russian and Romanian athletes.  With the help of her Bulgarian-born mother, Galya, who made many sacrifices to help her daughter fulfil her ambitions, Ferrari joined the Brixia gym in the city of Brescia. Brixia was co-founded by Enrico Casella, a former rugby player who was technical director of the Italian women’s gymnastics team at the 2004 Olympics in Athens.  Read more…

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Lord Byron in Venice


Romantic English poet finds renewed inspiration

Aristocratic English poet Lord Byron and his friend, John Cam Hobhouse, arrived in Venice for the first time on this day in 1816.  They put up at the Hotel Grande Bretagne on the Grand Canal and embarked on a few days of tourism.  But it was not long before Byron decided to move into an apartment just off the Frezzeria, a street near St Mark's Square, and settled down to enjoy life in the city that was to be his home for the next three years.  Byron has become one of Venice’s legends, perhaps the most famous, or infamous, of all its residents.  Tourists who came afterwards expected to see Venice through his eyes. Even the art critic, John Ruskin, has admitted that on his first visit he had come in search of Byron’s Venice.  Byron once wrote that Venice had always been ‘the greenest island of my imagination’ and he never seems to have been disappointed by it.  He also wrote in a letter to one of his friends that Venice was ‘one of those places that before he saw them he thought he already knew’. He said he appreciated the silence of the Venetian canals and the ‘gloomy gaiety’ of quietly passing gondolas.  Read more…


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Charles Ferdinand - Prince of the Two Sicilies

The heir presumptive whose marriage earned him exile


Charles Ferdinand with his wife, the Irishwoman Penelope Smyth
Charles Ferdinand with his wife, the
Irishwoman Penelope Smyth
Charles Ferdinand, the Bourbon Prince of the Two Sicilies and Prince of Capua and heir presumptive to the crown of King Ferdinand II, was born on this day in 1811 in Palermo.

Prince Charles, the second son of King Francis I of the Two Sicilies and Maria Isabella of Spain, gave up his claim to the throne when he married a commoner, after his brother, King Ferdinand II, issued a decree upholding their father’s insistence that blood-royal members of the kingdom did not marry beneath their status.

In 1835, at which time Ferdinand II had not fathered any children and Charles therefore held the status of heir presumptive, Charles met and fell in love with a beautiful Irish woman, Penelope Smyth, who was visiting Naples.

Penelope Smyth was the daughter of Grice Smyth of Ballynatray, County Waterford, and sister of Sir John Rowland Smyth. Ferdinand II forbade their union, in accordance with his father’s wishes, but the lovers would not be parted.

On January 12, 1836 the couple eloped. Two months later, Ferdinand II issued the decree that forbade their marriage but three weeks after that Charles and Penelope reached Gretna Green, the town just over the border between England and Scotland, a few miles north of Carlisle, where under Scottish law young lovers needed no parental consent to be married, merely to declare their wish to be joined in matrimony in front of witnesses.

Charles's father, Francis I of the Two Sicilies, set the family's roles of marriage
Charles's father, Francis I of the Two Sicilies,
set the family's roles of marriage
Charles sought approval from the Archbishop of Canterbury for a further ceremony at St George's, Hanover Square, in the hope that this would give the marriage legitimacy. However, the Master of the Faculties, Dr John Nicholl, refused to grant the licence on the grounds that the royal succession might be affected by the non-recognition of the marriage in Naples.

Ferdinand II never forgave Charles, who was forced to live for the rest of his life in exile. All his estates were confiscated except the county of Mascali in Sicily, which he had inherited from his father. Mascali provided him with only a small income and his life in London, though without major extravagance, still caused him to run up debts.

His pleas with his brother to be allowed to return to Naples fell on deaf ears, as did requests from the United Kingdom government of Lord Palmerston that the exile be lifted.  Charles eventually moved to Turin, but was pursued constantly by creditors and could not remain in the same place long.

For someone who had been made a vice-admiral at 19 and was a candidate at around that time to be made king of Greece or Belgium, it had been a spectacular fall from grace.

When Ferdinand II died in 1859, the new King Francis II, his nephew, ordered the restoration of Charles's estates. However, before Charles could see any of the funds promised him, the Bourbons were overthrown by Giuseppe Garibaldi and his Piedmontese army.

The king of the new united Italy, Victor Emmanuel II, offered him an allowance. But Charles turned it down, fearing that it would affect his legal claims. He died in Turin in 1862, aged 50.

The town of Mascali was largely destroyed by the eruption of Sicily's volcanic Mount Etna in 1928
The town of Mascali was largely destroyed by the eruption
of Sicily's volcanic Mount Etna in 1928
Travel tip:

The town of Mascali, which can be found on the eastern coastline of the island of Sicily, midway between Messina and Catania, sits in the shadow of Mount Etna. It has suffered as a consequence, needing to be almost completely rebuilt after the volcano erupted in November 1928 and destroyed a significant part of the historic town. Mascali was rebuilt a few years later with an urban checkerboard layout influenced by towns in Sicily dating between the 16th and 18th centuries.  The town’s cathedral, dedicated to the patron saint San Leonardo, was consecrated in 1935.

The extraordinary Byzantine mosaics that decorate the interior of the Cappella Palatina in Palermo
The extraordinary Byzantine mosaics that decorate
the interior of the Cappella Palatina in Palermo
Travel tip:

The Palermo of today, the capital of Sicily, is an attractive tourist destination, a vibrant city with a wealth of history, culture, art, music and food. It has many outstanding restaurants as well as fine examples of Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque churches, palaces and buildings.  Top attractions include the extraordinary Cappella Palatina, featuring Byzantine mosaics decorated with gold leaf and precious stones, and the Teatro Massimo, the largest opera house in Italy and the third biggest in Europe after the Opéra National de Paris and the K. K. Hof-Opernhaus in Vienna.

Also on this day:

1816: The arrival of the English poet Lord Byron in Venice

1869: The birth of Gaetano Bresci, the assassin who killed King Umberto I

1928: The birth of film music composer Ennio Morricone

1990: The birth of world champion gymnast Vanessa Ferrari


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