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.

18 March 2019

18 March

Mount Vesuvius – the 1944 eruption


The last time the volcano was seen to blow its top

Mount Vesuvius, the huge volcano looming over the bay of Naples, erupted on this day in 1944. Vesuvius is the only volcano on mainland Europe to have erupted during the last 100 years and is a constant worry because of its history of explosive eruptions and the large number of people living close by. It is most famous for its eruption in AD 79, which buried the Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum and is believed to have killed thousands of people. There were at least three larger eruptions of Vesuvius before AD 79 and there have been many since, including one in 1631 that buried villages under lava flows and killed about 300 people. The 1944 went on for several days, destroying three villages nearby and about 80 planes belonging to the US Army Air Forces, which were based at an airfield close to Pompeii. Read more...

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The Five Days of Milan


Citizens rebel to drive out ruling Austrians

The Five Days of Milan, one of the most significant episodes of the Risorgimento, began on this day in 1848 as the citizens of Milan rebelled against Austrian rule. More than 400 Milanese citizens were killed and a further 600 wounded but after five days of street battles the Austrian commander, Marshal Josef Radetzky, withdrew his 13,000 troops from the city. The 'Cinque Giornate' uprising sparked the First Italian War of Independence between the Kingdom of Sardinia and the Austrian Empire, which ruled much of northern Italy in the early part of the 19th century and they maintained a harsh regime. The Milan riots followed the imposition of tax increases and the use of soldiers to ensure that everybody paid. Soon after the Milan riots, an insurrection in Venice also succeeded in ejecting Austrian forces. By March 23, Charles Albert of Savoy had declared war on Austria. Read more...

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Bobby Solo - pop singer


Sixties star found fame after Sanremo disqualification

Bobby Solo, who was twice winner of Italy's prestigious Sanremo Festival yet had his biggest hit with a song that was disqualified, was born Roberto Satti on this day in 1945 in Rome. Solo won the contest in 1965 and 1969 but it was the controversy over his 1964 entry that thrust him into the spotlight. The format for the competition, which aims to select the best song rather than the best artist, requires each entry to be sung by two artists, one a native Italian, the other an international guest star. In 1964, Solo was paired with the American singer Frankie Laine but was stricken with a throat problem. Rather than withdraw, he sang the song with the help of a backing track, only to be told afterwards that this was against the rules. The song - Una lacrima sul viso (A Tear on Your Face) - was disqualified but attracted such attention that it became the first record in Italy to sell more than a million copies, setting Solo on the way to a highly successful career. Read more...

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17 March 2019

17 March

Gabriele Ferzetti - actor


Starred in classic Italian films as well as Bond movie

The actor Gabriele Ferzetti, best known to international audiences for his role in the 1969 Bond movie On Her Majesty’s Secret Service but in Italy for the Michelangelo Antonioni classic L’Avventura (1960), was born on this day in 1925 in Rome. Rarely idle, he made more than 160 films and appeared in countless TV dramas and was still working at 85 years old.
His intense performance as Antonioni’s wealthy yet unfulfilled playboy opposite Monica Vitti in L’Avventura was the role that identified him most as an actor of considerable talent, yet he was also memorable as the unscrupulous Morton, the railroad magnate who hobbled around on crutches in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), and as Marc Ange-Draco, the sophisticated Mafia boss who joins forces with James Bond in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, which was George Lazenby’s only outing as 007. Read more…

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Giovanni Trapattoni - football coach


His seven Serie A titles is unequalled achievement

Giovanni Trapattoni, the former Juventus and Internazionale coach who is one of only four coaches to have won the principal league titles of four different European countries, was born on this day in 1939 in Cusano Milanino, a suburb on the northern perimeter of Milan. The most successful club coach in the history of Serie A, he won seven titles, six with Juventus and one with Inter. Trapattoni has also won the German Bundesliga with Bayern Munich, the Portuguese Primeira Liga with Benfica and the Austrian Bundesliga with Red Bull Salzburg. Trapattoni is one of only two coaches to have won all three major European club competitions - the European Cup, the UEFA Cup and the now defunct European Cup-Winners' Cup - and the only one to do it with the same club. Read more…

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Innocenzo Manzetti - inventor


Made prototype telephone 33 years ahead of Bell

The inventor Innocenzo Manzetti, credited by some scientific historians as having been the creator of a forerunner of the telephone many years ahead of his compatriot Antonio Meucci and the Scottish-American Alexander Graham Bell, was born on this day in 1826 in Aosta, in northwest Italy. Manzetti's extraordinary catalogue of inventions included a steam-powered car, a hydraulic water pump, a pendulum watch that would keep going for a whole year and a robot that could play the flute. But he was a man whose creative talents were not allied to business sense.  Like Meucci, a Florentine emigrant to New York who demonstrated a telephone-like device in 1860 - 16 years before Bell was granted the patent - Manzetti did not patent his device and therefore missed out on the fortune that came the way of Bell. Read more…

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Kingdom of Italy proclaimed


First King of Italy calls himself Victor Emmanuel II

The newly-unified Kingdom of Italy was officially proclaimed on this day in 1861 in Turin. The first Italian parliament to meet in the city confirmed Victor Emmanuel as the first King of the new country. It was the monarch's own choice to call himself Victor Emmanuel II, rather than Victor Emmanuel I. This immediately provoked criticism from some factions, who took it as implying that Italy had always been ruled by the House of Savoy.  Victor Emmanuel I, with whom Victor Emmanuel II had ancestral links, had been King of Sardinia - ruled by the Dukes of Savoy - from 1802 until his death in 1824. Victor Emmanuel II had become King of Sardinia in 1849 after his father, Charles Albert, abdicated. The Kingdom of Sardinia is considered to be the legal predecessor to the Kingdom of Italy. Indeed, the new king appointed Count Camillo Benso of Cavour, who had been prime minister of Sardinia-Piedmont, as the first prime minister of the united Italy. Read more...

Gabriele Ferzetti - actor

Starred in classic Italian films as well as Bond movie


Gabriele Ferzetti appeared in more than 160 movies and many TV dramas
Gabriele Ferzetti appeared in more than 160
movies and many TV dramas
The actor Gabriele Ferzetti, best known to international audiences for his role in the 1969 Bond movie On Her Majesty’s Secret Service but in Italy for the Michelangelo Antonioni classic L’Avventura (1960), was born on this day in 1925 in Rome.

Ferzetti, who cut a naturally elegant and debonair appearance, was the go-to actor for handsome, romantic leads in the early part of his career and although he was ultimately eclipsed to some extent by Marcello Mastroianni, he seemed equally content with prominent supporting roles. Rarely idle, he made more than 160 films and appeared in countless TV dramas and was still working at 85 years old.

His intense performance as Antonioni’s wealthy yet unfulfilled playboy opposite Lea Massari and Monica Vitti in L’Avventura was the role that identified him most as an actor of considerable talent. Ferzetti had played a similar character in another Antonioni classic Le amiche (1955).

Outside Italian cinema, he was memorable as the unscrupulous Morton, the railroad magnate who hobbled around on crutches in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), and as Marc Ange-Draco, the sophisticated Mafia boss who joins forces with James Bond in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, which was George Lazenby’s only outing as 007.

With Lea Massari in his most famous role in the  Antonioni classic L'Avventura
With Lea Massari in his most famous role in the
Antonioni classic L'Avventura
Although Ferzetti spoke very good English, his accent was heavily Italian and he was dubbed in both roles.

In Rome, Ferzetti won a scholarship to attend the Silvio d’Amico National Academy of Dramatic Art, although his studies were abruptly cut short when he was expelled for appearing with a professional theatrical troupe.

It did not set him back too severely. After playing the young shepherd Sylvius in Luchino Visconti’s 1948 stage production of As You Like It, he won small roles in several films and quickly worked his way up to becoming a leading man.

The first movie to bring him wide recognition was Mario Soldati’s La provinciale (1953), which was packaged for English-speaking audiences as The Wayward Wife. Despite the nature of the production as a vehicle for the rising star Gina Lollobrigida in the title role, Ferzetti was superb as her bespectacled science professor husband.

Monica Vitti in another scene from L'Avventura
Monica Vitti in another scene from L'Avventura
In the same year he landed the title role in the big-budget production Puccini, directed by Carmine Gallone, in which he portrayed the philandering Italian opera composer from his student days to a man in his 80s. He was Puccini again in House of Ricordi (1954), about the music-publishing house.

Ferzetti was first cast by Antonioni in Le Amiche (The Girl Friends) (1955), which won a Silver Lion at the Venice film festival.

When Antonioni summoned him again for L’Avventura, it ended a five-year period of rather mediocre films that did Ferzetti no favours, so the chance to play his weak and disillusioned character, a failed architect whose lover disappears while they are sharing a sailing trip around Sicily with wealthy friends, could not have come at a more opportune moment. L’Avventura won the jury prize at the Cannes Film Festival.

Ferzetti was acclaimed for his portrayal of the the playboy composer Giacomo Puccini
Ferzetti was acclaimed for his portrayal of the
the playboy composer Giacomo Puccini
His career still had a long time to run but the consensus is that nothing Ferzetti did in subsequent films stood up particularly well next to his performance in L’Avventura, although his Draco, the gentlemanly mafia boss who helps Bond track down his arch-enemy Blofeld, was a memorable character.

Ferzetti was hailed later for his portrayal of a psychiatrist trying to cover up his Nazi past in Liliana Cavani’s controversial The Night Porter (1974), a study of a sadomasochistic relationship between another former Nazi (Dirk Bogarde) and the woman he raped in a concentration camp (Charlotte Rampling).

By the 1990s, Ferzetti was appearing more frequently on television but there were still a few big-screen triumphs to come, notably as the Duke of Venice in Oliver Parker’s Othello and, in 2009, by which time he was 84, as the head of a wealthy Milanese industrial family in Io sono l’amore - I Am Love - directed by Luca Guadagnino.

Married twice and with a daughter, Anna, Ferzetti died in December 2015 at the age of 90.

Parioli's tree-lined boulevards make it one of the most attractive residential areas in Rome
Parioli's tree-lined boulevards make it one of the most
attractive residential areas in Rome
Travel tip:

Rome’s Silvio D’Amico National Academy of Dramatic Art, which has been attended by many aspiring actors, can be found in Via Vincenzo Bellini where it meets Via Guido d’Arezzo in the Parioli district of Rome, between the Villa Borghese gardens and the vast Parco di Villa Ada. It was opened in 1936. D'Amico, a theatre critic and writer who was a friend of Nobel prize winner Luigi Pirandello and French theatre director Jacques Copeau, was appointed Special Commissioner for the reform of the drama school and led the academy for many years.The academy now has university status.  Parioli is regarded as Rome’s most elegant residential area.

Travel tip:

L’Avventura was filmed partly on location in the Aeolian Islands, a cluster of eight small islands in the Tyrrhenian Sea north of Sicily. The best known is undoubtedly Stromboli, an active volcano known as the ‘lighthouse of the Mediterranean’ on account of the molten lava that streams down the side of the visible 3,000ft (914m) of the mountain with every eruption, of which there are many. The largest of the islands is Lipari, which has a population of 12,000 people and is not unlike Capri in appearance, but with a fraction of the tourists. Salina, famed for its capers and sweet Malvasia wine, was used for the movie Il Postino while Panarea, which has a resident population of only 280, has become a fashionable celebrity hang-out. Yachts owned by Giorgio Armani and Roman Abramovich have regularly been spotted in the small harbour.

More reading:

Michelangelo Antonioni - the 'last great' of postwar Italian cinema

How enigmatic beauty Monica Vitti also excelled in comedy roles

Marcello Mastroianni - the film star who immortalised the Trevi Fountain

Also on the day:

1826: The birth of inventor Innocenzo Manzetti

1861: The newly-created Kingdom of Italy is proclaimed in Turin

1939: The birth of football coach Giovanni Trapattoni


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16 March 2019

16 March

Aldo Moro - Italy's tragic former prime minister


Politician kidnapped and murdered by Red Brigades

Italy and the wider world were deeply shocked on this day in 1978 when the former Italian prime minister, Aldo Moro, was kidnapped in a violent ambush that claimed the lives of his five bodyguards. The attack took place on Via Mario Fani, a few minutes from Signor Moro's home in the Monte Mario area of Rome, during the morning rush hour.  Moro, a 61-year-old Christian Democrat politician, was being driven to the Palazzo Montecitorio for a session of the Chamber of Deputies. As Moro’s car paused in traffic, it was blocked in by four Fiat saloons containing Red Brigades terrorists. Moro was pulled from his car while his bodyguards were shot dead. The politician was held captive for 55 days before his body was found in the boot of a Renault car in Rome's historic centre on May 9. Read more...

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Bernardo Bertolucci - film director


Caused outrage with Last Tango in Paris

The controversial filmmaker Bernardo Bertolucci was born on this day in 1940 in Parma. Bertolucci won an Oscar for best director as The Last Emperor picked up an impressive nine Academy Awards in 1988 but tends to be remembered more for the furore that surrounded his 1972 movie Last Tango in Paris, starring Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider, which caused outrage for its portrayal of sexual violence and emotional turmoil and was banned in Italy. Schneider claimed many years later that she felt violated after one particularly graphic scene. The controversy has overshadowed what has otherwise been an outstanding career, Bertolucci’s movies placing him in the company of Federico Fellini, Michelangelo Antonioni, Luchino Visconti and Franco Zeffirelli among the greatest Italian directors. Read more…

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Emilio Lunghi - athlete


Italy's first Olympic medallist 

Emilio Lunghi, a middle-distance runner who was the first to win an Olympic medal in the colours of Italy, was born on this day in 1886 in Genoa. Competing in the 800 metres at the 1908 Olympic Games in London, Lunghi took the silver medal behind the American Mel Sheppard. In a fast-paced final, Lunghi's time was 1 minute 54.2 seconds, which was 1.8 seconds faster than the previous Olympic record buts still 1.4 seconds behind Sheppard. It was the same Olympics at which Lunghi's compatriot Dorando Pietri was controversially disqualified after coming home first in the marathon, when race officials took pity on him after he collapsed from exhaustion after entering the stadium and helped him across the line. Read more…

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15 March 2019

15 March

Cesare Beccaria - jurist and criminologist


Enlightened philosopher seen as father of criminal justice

The jurist and philosopher Cesare Beccaria, who is regarded as one of the greatest thinkers of the so-called Age of Enlightenment in the 18th century, and whose writings had a profound influence on justice systems all over the world, was born on this day in 1738 in Milan. As the author of a treatise On Crimes and Punishments (1764), which was a ground-breaking work in the field of criminal law and the approach to punishing offenders, Beccaria is considered by many academics to be the father of criminal justice.  The treatise condemned the death penalty and torture and outlined five principles for an effective system of criminal justice that still form the bedrock of criminal law in many countries around the world. Read more…

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Salvator Rosa – artist


Exciting Baroque painter inspired others

Salvator Rosa, a fiery and flamboyant character who was a poet and actor as well as an artist, died on this day in 1673 in Rome. One of the least conventional artists of 17th century Italy, he was adopted as a hero by painters of the Romantic movement in the 18th and 19th centuries. He mainly painted landscapes, but also depicted scenes of witchcraft, revealing his interest in the less conventional ideas of his age. These scenes were also sometimes the background for his etchings and the satires he wrote, some of which caused offence to other artists and he notably fell out with the great Roman sculptor and architect Gian Lorenzo Bernini. Read more…

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The murder of Julius Caesar


He came, saw, conquered... and was assassinated

Statesman and soldier Gaius Julius Caesar was murdered on this day in 44 BC in Rome. His death made the Ides of March, the day on the Roman calendar devised by Caesar that corresponds to 15 March, a turning point in Roman history, one of the events that marked the transition from the Roman Republic to the Roman Empire. Caesar’s invasion of Gaul took several years and was the most costly and destructive campaign ever undertaken by a Roman commander. Afterwards, Caesar crossed the Rubicon - a river that formed a northern border of Italy - with a legion of troops, entered Rome illegally, and established himself as a dictator dressed in royal robes. On the Ides of March, Caesar was stabbed to death by a group of rebellious senators led by Marcus Junius Brutus. Read more…

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Giuseppe Mezzofanti - hyperpolyglot


Roman Catholic Cardinal could speak 38 languages

The death occurred in Rome on this day in 1849 of Cardinal Giuseppe Caspar Mezzofanti, a prodigiously talented academic renowned for his command of multiple foreign languages. Defined as a hyperpolyglot - someone who is fluent in six languages or more - Mezzofanti is said to have full command of at least 38. The majority were European, Mediterranean or Middle Eastern languages - mainstream and regional - but he was also said to be fluent in Chinese languages, Russian, plus Hindi and Gujarati. His fame was such that he became something of an international celebrity, although he never actually left Italy, living the early part of his life in his home city of Bologna, before moving to Rome. Visiting dignitaries from all over the world would ask to be introduced to him, ready to be awestruck as he slipped effortlessly into their native tongue. Read more...

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Cesare Beccaria - jurist and criminologist

Enlightened philosopher seen as father of criminal justice


Cesare Beccaria became part of the literary  circle in 18th century Milan
Cesare Beccaria became part of the literary
circle in 18th century Milan
The jurist and philosopher Cesare Beccaria, who is regarded as one of the greatest thinkers of the so-called Age of Enlightenment in the 18th century, and whose writings had a profound influence on justice systems all over the world, was born on this day in 1738 in Milan.

As the author of a treatise On Crimes and Punishments (1764), which was a ground-breaking work in the field of criminal law and the approach to punishing offenders, Beccaria is considered by many academics to be the father of criminal justice.

The treatise, which Beccaria compiled when he was only 26 years old, condemned the death penalty on the grounds that the state does not possess the right to take lives and declared torture to be a barbaric practice with no place in a civilised, measured society.

It outlined five principles for an effective system of criminal justice: that punishment should have had a preventive deterrent function as opposed to being retributive; that punishment should be proportionate to the crime committed; that the probability of punishment should be seen as a more effective deterrent than its severity; that the procedures of criminal convictions should be public; and that to be effective, punishment needed to be prompt.

The reception for his ideas was such that Beccaria, who was somewhat reserved in character, became an international celebrity. He was celebrated in particular in France, where On Crimes and Punishment was published in French in 1766 and was reprinted seven times in six months. English, German, Polish, Spanish, and Dutch translations followed and an American edition was published in 1777.

Beccaria was born in this palace in the Via Brera in central Milan
Beccaria was born in this palace in
the Via Brera in central Milan
Although in many countries the death penalty was not abolished until the late 20th century and is still practised in some parts of the world, in other aspects Beccaria’s treatise exerted significant influence on criminal-law reform throughout western Europe, as well as in Russia, Sweden and the former Habsburg Empire. It also informed legislation in several American states. Founding fathers Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were among those who endorsed his work.

Beccaria was brought up in Milan’s 18th century aristocracy. His father was the Marchese Gian Beccaria Bonesana. They lived in a palace in After attending the Jesuit college at Parma, Beccaria graduated in law from the University of Pavia in 1758.

His primary field of interest was mathematics and economics but he was encouraged by friends to join a literary society, through which be became acquainted with many French and British political philosophers. Much of its discussion focused on reforming the criminal justice system and Beccaria was particularly influenced by the French political philosopher Montesquieu, whose principal work was The Spirit of Laws. 

Nothing Beccaria achieved subsequently came close to the importance of On Crimes and Punishment, although he was to become a prominent economist. In 1768 he accepted the chair in public economy and commerce at the Palatine School in Milan, where his lectures formed the basis of another seminal work, published posthumously under the title Elementi di economia pubblica - Elements of Public Economy - in which he discussed ideas about the division of labour and the relations between food supply and population long before they became common currency.

Giuseppe Grandi's statue of Cesare Beccaria in Piazza Beccaria in Milan
Giuseppe Grandi's statue of Cesare
Beccaria in Piazza Beccaria in Milan
In 1771 he was appointed to the Supreme Economic Council of Milan, where he concerned himself with measures such as monetary reform, labour relations, and public education. A report written by Beccaria is said to have influenced the adoption of the metric system in France.

In his later years, Beccaria was distracted by health and family matters, including property disputes with his two brothers and sister. Although from a philosophical standpoint, he greeted the start of the French Revolution in 1789 with enthusiasm, his horror and dismay at the violence that ensued caused him much sadness and he became withdrawn. He died in 1974 at the age of only 56.

Beccaria was married twice and had five children. Through the first of them, Giulia, he was the grandfather of Alessandro Manzoni, the novelist whose most famous work I promessi sposi - The Betrothed - was one of the first Italian historical novels and is seen as a masterpiece of Italian literature.

Milan's Teatro alla Scala - commonly known as "La Scala" -
was built in the late 18th century
Travel tip:

The cultural golden age experienced by Italy in common with much of Europe in the 18th century included the construction of Milan’s most famous cultural landmark, the theatre and opera house Teatro alla Scala. Built to replace the Teatro Regio Ducale, which was destroyed in a fire, the theatre was designed by the neoclassical architect Giuseppe Piermarini. The initial design was rejected by Count Firmian, the governor of what was then Austrian Lombardy, but a second plan was accepted in 1776 by Empress Maria Theresa. The new theatre was built on the former location of the church of Santa Maria alla Scala, from which the theatre gets its name.

Find the best hotels in Milan with TripAdvisor


The Palatine School is one of the oldest and
most prestigious schools in Milan
Travel tip:

The Palazzo delle Scuole Palatine - the Palace of the Palatine School - is located in Piazza Mercanti, which was Milan’s medieval city centre. It was once the seat of the most prestigious higher schools in the city and many  notable Milanese scholars studied or taught there. The current building dates back to 1644, when it was rebuilt by the architect Carlo Buzzi to replace an older one that had been destroyed in a fire. The school was established in Piazza Mercanti under Giovanni Maria Visconti, the second Visconti Duke of Milan. The building is decorated with several monuments, including a plaque with an epigram by the Roman poet Ausonius celebrating Milan as the "New Rome" of the fourth century, a statue of Saint Augustine by sculptor Pietro Lasagna.

Milan hotels from Hotels.com

More reading:

Cesare Lombroso, the first academic to study the criminal mind

How Alberico Gentili designed the world's first system of jurisprudence

Why I promessi sposi is regarded as the most significant novel in Italian literary history

Also on this day:

44BC: The murder of Julius Caesar

1673: The death of the painter Salvator Rosa

1849: The death of the multilingual cardinal Giuseppe Mezzofanti

(Picture credits: Via Brera palace by Giovanni Dell'Orto;  statue by Vincenzo Paolella; Teatro alla Scala by Jean-Christophe Benoist; Palatine School by MarkusMark; via Wikimedia Commons)

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14 March 2019

14 March

Giangiacomo Feltrinelli – publisher


Accidental death of an aristocratic activist

Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, a leading European publisher and one of Italy’s richest men, died on this day in 1972 after being blown up while trying to ignite a terrorist bomb on an electricity pylon at Segrate near Milan. It was a bizarre end to the life and career of a man who had helped revolutionise Italian book publishing. He became famous for his decision to translate and publish Boris Pasternak’s novel Doctor Zhivago after the manuscript was smuggled out of the Soviet Union, where it had been banned on the grounds of being anti-Soviet. This was an event that shook the Soviet empire and led to Pasternak winning the Nobel Prize for Literature. Feltrinelli also started the first chain of book shops in Italy, which still bear his name. As a lifelong supporters of the political Left, however, he was an advocate of guerrilla activity in Italy on behalf of the working classes. Read more…

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Victor Emmanuel II


The first King to rule over a united Italy

King Victor Emmanuel II was born Vittorio Emanuele Maria Alberto Eugenio Ferdinando Tommaso on this day in 1820 in Turin. He was proclaimed the first King of a united Italy in 1861 by the country’s new Parliament and in 1870 after the French withdrew from Rome he entered the city and set up the new Italian capital there. The Italian people called him Padre della Patria, Father of the Fatherland. It was Victor Emmanuel who in 1852 appointed Camillo Benso, Count of Cavour as Prime Minister of Piedmont-Sardinia and Cavour who masterminded the monarch’s campaign to rule over a united Italy. Victor Emmanuel soon became the symbol of the Risorgimento, the Italian unification movement in the 19th century. He supported Garibaldi’s Expedition of the Thousand in 1860 which resulted in the fall of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies and gave him control over the southern part of the country. Read more…

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Giovanni Schiaparelli - astronomer


Discoveries sparked belief there was life on Mars

The astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli, whose observations in the late 19th century gave rise to decades of popular speculation about possible life on Mars, was born on this day in 1835 in Savigliano, about 60km (37 miles) south of Turin. Schiaparelli worked for more than 40 years at the Brera Observatory in Milan, most of that time as its director. It was in 1877 that he made the observations that were to cause so much excitement, a year notable for a particularly favourable 'opposition' of Mars, when Mars, Earth and the Sun all line up so that Mars and the Sun are on directly opposite sides of Earth, making the surface of Mars easier to see. Schiaparelli was convinced he could see a network of links between his so-called 'seas' which he described as "canali".  Later, notably as a result of the work of another Italian astronomer, Vincenzo Cerulli, astronomers developed a consensus that the "canals" were an optical illusion although the public hung on to the notion of life on Mars until halfway through the 20th century. Read more...

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