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.

Monday, 24 July 2017

Giuseppe Di Stefano – tenor

Singer from Sicily who made sweet music with Callas


Giuseppe Di Stefano was one of Italy's greatest tenors
Giuseppe Di Stefano was one of
Italy's greatest tenors
The opera singer Giuseppe Di Stefano, whose beautiful voice led people to refer to him as ‘the true successor to Beniamino Gigli’, was born on this day in 1921 in Motta Sant’Anastasia, a town near Catania in Sicily.

Di Stefano also became known for his many performances and recordings with the soprano, Maria Callas, with whom he had a brief romance.

The only son of a carabinieri officer, who later became a cobbler, and his dressmaker wife, Di Stefano was educated at a Jesuit seminary and for a short while contemplated becoming a priest.

But after serving in the Italian army he took singing lessons from the Swiss tenor, Hugues Cuenod. Di Stefano made his operatic debut in Reggio Emilia in 1946 when he was in his mid-20s, singing the role of Des Grieux in Massenet’s Manon. The following year he made his debut at La Scala in Milan in the same role.

Di Stefano made his debut at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in 1948 as the Duke of Mantua in Verdi’s Rigoletto. After his performance in Manon a month later, a journalist wrote in Musical America that Di Stefano had ‘the rich velvety sound we have seldom heard since the days of Gigli.’

Maria Callas and Giuseppe Di Stefano on stage in Tokyo, at around the time they had a brief affair
Maria Callas and Giuseppe Di Stefano on stage in Tokyo,
at around the time they had a brief affair
He made his Royal Opera House debut in 1961 as Cavaradossi in Tosca.

He was admired for his excellent diction, passionate delivery and the sweetness of his soft singing.

In his Metropolitan Opera radio broadcast of Faust he attacked the high C forte and then softened the sound to a pianissimo. Sir Rudolf Bing, the Met's general manager wrote in his memoirs: ‘I shall never as long as I live forget the beauty of that sound.’

Di Stefano was chosen by EMI to record all the popular Italian operas with Maria Callas. Their 1953 studio recording of Tosca is considered one of the greatest performances in the history of the gramophone.

The two also performed well together on stage from 1951 onwards. He sang with Callas in the famous Visconti production of La Traviata in 1955 at La Scala and the last time they sang together in an opera was in Un ballo in maschera at La Scala in 1957.

In 1973 Di Stefano accompanied Callas on her final recital tour. Critics said they were both losing their voices but they were enthusiastically received everywhere. It was during this tour that the two had a brief romance.

Di Stefano also made recordings with a wealth of other opera stars.

Di Stefano's albums sold millions of copies
Di Stefano's albums sold millions of copies
His final operatic role was as the aged emperor in Turandot in July 1992.

In 2004 Di Stefano suffered a brutal beating by unknown assailants near his home in Diani Beach in Kenya after he was ambushed in his car with his wife, Monika Curth.

The singer was still unconscious a week after the attack and had several operations.

He was flown to Milan and admitted to the San Raffaele clinic where he slipped into a coma.

Eventually he came out of his coma but his health never fully improved and he died at his home in Santa Maria Hoè, between Bergamo and Como, in 2008 at the age of 86.

Luciano Pavarotti said he modelled himself on Di Stefano, who was his idol. He said Di Stefano had ‘the most incredible, open voice you could hear.’ Di Stefano is also said to be the tenor who most inspired José Carreras.

Travel tip:

Motta Sant'Anastasia, with a snow-covered Mount  Etna in the background
Motta Sant'Anastasia, with a snow-covered Mount
Etna in the background
Motta Sant’Anastasia, where Di Stefano was born, is a municipality nine kilometres (5.5 miles) west of Catania, built on a rocky outcrop not far from Mount Etna. It was inhabited by Greeks in the fifth century BC. Roman coins and a Roman mosaic have also been discovered there. The Tower of Motta was built in the 11th century as a defensive structure to protect the area from Saracen invasions.

Travel tip:

Di Stefano performed regularly on the stage of Teatro alla Scala in Milan from 1949 onwards. The theatre was officially inaugurated in 1778 after being built on the site of the former Church of Santa Maria alla Scala to the design of Giuseppe Piermarini. It is across the road from the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, an elegant arcade lined with shops, cafes and restaurants which links Piazza alla Scala with Piazza del Duomo, Milan’s cathedral square. La Scala’s museum displays costumes and memorabilia from the history of opera. The entrance is in Largo Ghiringhelli, just off Piazza alla Scala and it is open every day except Bank Holidays.


Sunday, 23 July 2017

Sergio Mattarella – President of Italy

Anti-Mafia former Christian Democrat is Italy's 12th President


Sergio Mattarella, the 12th President of the Italian Republic
Sergio Mattarella, the 12th President of
the Italian Republic
The first Sicilian to become President of Italy, Sergio Mattarella, was born on this day in 1941 in Palermo.

Mattarella went into politics after the assassination of his brother, Piersanti, by the Mafia in 1980. His brother had been killed while holding the position of President of the Regional Government of Sicily.

Their father, Bernardo Mattarella, was an anti-Fascist, who with other prominent Catholic politicians helped found the Christian Democrat (Democrazia Cristiana) party. They dominated the Italian political scene for almost 50 years, with Bernardo serving as a minister several times. Piersanti Mattarella was also a Christian Democrat politician.

Sergio Mattarella graduated in Law from the Sapienza University of Rome and  a few years later started teaching parliamentary procedure at the University of Palermo.

His parliamentary career began in 1983 when he was elected a member of the Chamber of Deputies in a left-leaning faction of the DC that had supported an agreement with the Italian Communist Party led by Enrico Berlinguer. The following year he was entrusted with cleansing the Sicilian faction of the party from Mafia control by DC Secretary Ciriaco De Mita.


Mattarella's brother, Piersanti, was
killed by the Mafia
In 1985 Mattarella helped a young lawyer, Leoluc Orlando, who had worked alongside his brother, Piersanti, to become Mayor of Palermo.

Mattarella was appointed Minister for Parliamentary Affairs and subsequently Minister of Education.

He stood down from his post, along with other ministers, in 1990 when parliament passed an act liberalising the media sector in Italy, which he saw as a favour to media magnate Silvio Berlusconi.

Mattarella  became director of the Christian Democrat newspaper, Il Popolo, and in 1994 when DC was dissolved following Tangentopoli, he helped form the Italian People’s party.

Mattarella was one of the first supporters of the economist, Romano Prodi, at the head of the centre left coalition known as The Olive Tree.

Two years later he was appointed Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defence in the Government of Massimo D’Alema, the leader of the Democrats of the Left.

Mattarella with his predecessor Giorgio Napoletano
Mattarella with his predecessor Giorgio Napoletano
In 2007 Mattarella was one of the founders of the Democratic Party, a merger of left-wing and centre parties

He was elected to be a Judge of the Constitutional Court in 2011 and served for nearly four years.

His wife, Marisa Chiazzese, the mother of his three children, died in 2012.

Mattarella was elected President of the Italian Republic in 2015, replacing Giorgio Napoletano who had served for nine years.

In December 2016 the Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi announced his resignation following the rejection of his proposals in the 2016 Italian constitutional referendum and Matterella appointed the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Paolo Gentiloni, to be the new head of Government.


The Church of San Cataldo in Palermo with its spherical red domes
The Church of San Cataldo in Palermo with its
spherical red domes
Travel tip:

Palermo, where Mattarella was born and where he taught at the University, is the capital of Sicily, on the northern coast of the island, with a wealth of beautiful architecture, revealing both northern European and Arabian influences. The Church of San Cataldo in Piazza Bellini has a bell tower typical of those in northern France and three spherical, red domes on the roof of Arabic style.

The Courtyard at the Palazzo Quirinale in Rome
The Courtyard at the Palazzo Quirinale in Rome
Travel tip:


President Sergio Mattarella lives in Palazzo Quirinale in Rome at one end of Piazza del Quirinale. This was the summer palace of the popes until 1870 when it became the palace of the Kings of the newly unified Italy. Following the abdication of the last King, it became the official residence of the President of the Republic in 1947.

Saturday, 22 July 2017

Indro Montanelli – journalist

Veteran writer who cast a critical eye on Italian politics and society


Indro Montanelli, in the offices of Corriere della Sera, working
from an improvised chair made from a pile of books
One of the greatest Italian writers and journalists of the 20th century, Indro Montanelli, died on this day in 2001 in Milan.

The previous year he had been named as one of 50 World Press Freedom Heroes by the International Press Institute.

Montanelli had been a witness to many of the major events of the 20th century. He was in Danzig when Hitler rejected the ultimatum from Britain and France in September 1939. He was in the streets of Budapest in 1956 when Soviet tanks rolled in and he was shot in the legs by Red Brigades terrorists on an Italian street in 1977.

Montanelli was born Indro Alessandro Raffaello Scizogene Montanelli in 1909 at Fucecchio near Florence.

He studied for a law degree at the University of Florence in the early 1920s and began his journalistic career by writing for the Fascist newspaper, Il Selvaggio.

Montanelli in Ethiopia in 1936
Montanelli in Ethiopia in 1936
He then worked as a crime reporter for Paris Soir before serving as a volunteer with Italian troops in the Eritrean Battalion in Ethiopia - Abyssinia as it was then - where he wrote war reports which later formed the basis for the first of his 40 books. 

It was a book that honestly conveyed what Montanelli had seen, some of which caused him to change his mind about Benito Mussolini, the Fascist leader. It was a little too honest for the Fascist oligarchy, however, and, after his similarly objective reporting on the Spanish civil war did not meet with Fascist approval, his press accreditation was withdrawn.

Despite this, he continued to write, the Corriere della Sera getting around the ban on his working as a journalist by hiring him as a ‘collaborator’, in which capacity he sent back reports from Scandinavia and the Baltic States, the Balkans and Greece.

After witnessing the disastrous Italian invasion of Greece, Montanelli decided to join the partisan movement against the Fascist regime.

During the Nazi occupation of Italy he was arrested and narrowly avoided being executed. His reprieve was thanks to the intervention of some influential admirers who put pressure on the Germans.

His prison experiences inspired him to write a novel, Il Generale della Rovere, based on his meeting in prison with a German spy posing as an Allied military commander, which was later filmed by Roberto Rossellini and won the Venice Golden Lion in 1959.

Montanelli pictred in Milan in 1992
Montanelli pictred in Milan in 1992
After the war, Montanelli co-edited a magazine called Il Borghese, which tried to cater for what remained of right-wing cultural tastes in a country divided between the Communists and Christian Democrats.

His increasing anger at the Communists was to eventually win the approval of media magnate Silvio Berlusconi, who backed the right-leaning newspaper, Il Giornale, which Montanelli had founded in 1973 after breaking away from Corriere following a change in the paper's political direction.

Montanelli remained as the editor until 1994 when he fell out with Berlusconi after criticising his entry into politics.

The journalist was made a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic in 1995.

It was Gianni Agnelli, then proprietor, who persuaded Montanelli to return to Corriere, where he commented on prominent Italians in editorials and on a letter’s page entitled Montanelli’s Room.

He spent his last years vigorously opposing Silvio Berlusconi’s politics.

Montanelli also wrote a series of successful history books, including one about Rome, which became a regular textbook used in schools.

Towards the end of his life, Montanelli lived in an apartment overlooking Piazza Navona in Rome.

He died at the age of 92 after a prostate cancer operation at a clinic in Milan.

The day after his death, Corriere della Sera published a letter he had written on its front page, ‘Indro Montanelli’s farewell to his readers’.

The journalist had also left instructions for his ashes be placed in an urn above his mother’s tomb at Fucecchio.

The house in Piazza Garibaldi in Fucecchio, near Florence, where Montanelli was born
The house in Piazza Garibaldi in Fucecchio, near
Florence, where Montanelli was born
Travel tip:

Fucecchio, where Indro Montanelli was born, is a municipality  of Florence. One of the major sights in the town is the Abbey of San Salvatore which was built in the upper part of Fucecchio in the 11th century. The town is mentioned frequently in the 1917 opera Gianni Schicchi by Giacomo Puccini.

Travel tip:

Indro Montanelli was among many distinguished Italian writers who worked for Corriere della Sera, a daily newspaper founded in 1876 in Milan. The newspaper’s headquarters have been in the same building in Via Solferino in the centre of Milan since the beginning of the 20th century.

Friday, 21 July 2017

Suso Cecchi D'Amico - screenwriter

Woman who scripted many of Italy's greatest movies


Suso Cecchi D'Amico, pictured in 1999
Suso Cecchi D'Amico, pictured in 1999
Suso Cecchi D’Amico, the most accomplished and sought-after screenwriter in 20th century Italian cinema, was born on this day in 1914 in Rome.

She collaborated on the scripts of more than 100 films in a career spanning 60 years and worked with almost every Italian director of note, particularly the pioneers of neorealism, the movement in which she was a driving force.

The classic films in which she was involved are some of the greatest in cinema history, including  Vittorio De Sica's Bicycle Thieves (1948), William Wyler's Roman Holiday (1953), Mario Monicelli's I Soliti Ignoti (1958), which was released in the United States and Britain as Big Deal on Madonna Street, and Francesco Rosi's Salvatore Giuliano (1962).

She also worked with Michelangelo Antonioni on Le Amiche (The Girlfriends, 1955) and Franco Zeffirelli on Jesus of Nazareth (1977), but she was best known for her professional relationship with Luchino Visconti, for whom she was the major scriptwriter on almost all his films from Bellissima (1951) to The Innocent (1976), including his acclaimed masterpieces Rocco and His Brothers (1960) and Il Gattopardo - The Leopard (1963).

She was born Giovanna Cecchi in Rome. Just after her birth, her father named her Susannah, of which Suso is a Tuscan diminutive. Her mother, Leonetta Pieraccini, was a painter from a theatrical family in Tuscany, while her father, Emilio Cecchi, from Florence, was a journalist and literary critic. They lived for a while in Ariccia, in the Castelli Romani.

Anna Magnani and Luchino Visconti on the set of Bellissima, scripted by Cecchi D'Amico
Anna Magnani and Luchino Visconti on the set
of Bellissima, scripted by Cecchi D'Amico
For a few years in the early 1930s, her father had worked for Mussolini's government, running the state-backed film company, which brought her into contact with many prominent figures from the film industry and the theatre, including Italy's leading theatre critic, Silvio D'Amico, whose son, Fedele, would later become Cecchi’s husband.

Cecchi was educated in Switzerland and then at Cambridge University before her father pulled strings to find her a job in Mussolini's ministry of foreign trade, where she worked for seven years as a secretary and interpreter.

She left when she married, from which point she became known as Cecchi D’Amico, although it would have been difficult for her to continue to work for the Fascist government given Fedele’s politics.

Fedele was a prominent member of the Italian resistance during the Second World War and edited an anti-Fascist newspaper, which meant he had to go into hiding.

After the war, he was in poor health and went to Switzerland for treatment for tuberculosis. With three children to raise, Cecchi D’Amico was obliged to become the breadwinner. She helped her father translating English literary works into Italian, including Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure and Shakespeare plays, which in turn led her into writing scripts for the cinema. She and her father worked together, in fact, on her first film, in 1946.

In 1947 she worked on two films directed by Luigi Zampa -  Vivere in Pace (To Live in Peace) and L'Onorevole Angelina (roughly Angelina: Member of Parliament), the latter starring Anna Magnani, who she had met first during the filming of Roberto Rossellini’s Rome, Open City in 1945, in which she had peripheral involvement, and who became one of her closest friends.

Cecchi D'Amico with her husband, Fedele, in 1943
Cecchi D'Amico with her husband, Fedele, in 1943
In 1948 she was one of several scriptwriters who shared credits with De Sica and Cesare Zavattini on Bicycle Thieves, based on Luigi Bartolini's novel, which followed an impoverished man who searches for his stolen bicycle with his young son. It was Cecchi D’Amico who contributed the moving final scene in which, in a departure from the book’s ending, the man attempts to steal a replacement bicycle but is caught by the crowd and humiliated in front of his son, which leads them, as it happens, to form an even closer bond. She would later work with De Sica on another neorealist masterpiece, Miracle in Milan, in 1951.

She was invited to work on Roman Holiday after Wyler became aware Ben Hecht's original script, about a princess (Audrey Hepburn) who meets an American reporter (Gregory Peck) in Italy, failed to capture the real mood of 1950s Rome.

Cecchi D’Amico made her first film with Visconti in 1951, a satirical look at the film business entitled Bellisima, again starring Magnani. Subsequently she wrote or co-wrote all Visconti's films except two.

She was popular with directors because she was content to make creative suggestions and let them believe the ideas were their own. She had a special relationship, both professionally and in private, with Visconti, who generally conceived the outline of films himself but looked to Cecchi D’Amico for suggestions and advice.

The story of her life, Suso, aired
on Italian TV in 2007
She helped further the careers of many Italian stars. For instance, the comedy Big Deal on Madonna Street made a star of Marcello Mastroianni and gave Gina Lollobrigida her first significant part.

Cecchi D’Amico scripted several projects for Mario Monicelli. Indeed, her last work was on a Monicelli film, The Roses of the Desert (2006), a war movie set in Libya.

Given a lifetime achievement award at the Venice Film Festival in 1995, she explained that had there been more newspapers in the post-War years she might have been a journalist and that the neorealist movement was in essence another way in which she and others could write stories about the Italy they saw around them.

She died in Rome in 2010, having survived her husband by 20 years. Their three children have all made contributions to Italian cultural life - Silvia as a film producer, Caterina in directing the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia film school in Rome, and Masolino as a translator, critic and teacher.

Masolino's daughter, Margherita, interviewed her grandmother for the 1996 book Storie di Cinema (e d'Altro) – Stories About the Cinema (and Other Things), the closest Cecchi D’Amico came to an autobiography.  In 2007, a film about Cecchi D'Amico's life, entitled Suso, featuring conversations with Margherita and directed by the actor Luca Zingaretti was shown on Italian TV.

The Liceo Chateaubriand in Rome
The Liceo Chateaubriand in Rome
Travel tip:

Cecchi D’Amico went to school in Rome at the Liceo Chateaubriand on Via di Villa Ruffo, not far from Piazza del Popolo at the start of the fashionable Flaminio district, a chic residential area but also home to the Auditorium Parco della Musica, a venue designed by Renzo Piano, the Maxxi Museum of Modern Art and the Ponte della Musica, the modern foot and cycle bridge across the Tiber.

A stall at the Porta Portese market
A stall at the Porta Portese market 
Travel tip:

Many of the sights of Rome have been used for movie locations but some are less well known than others.  The exterior shots for Gregory Peck’s apartment in Roman Holiday were filmed in Via Margutta, a street not far from Piazza di Spagna and the Scalinata di Trinita dei Monti, otherwise known as the Spanish Steps, where Federico Fellini once lived.  Many of the scenes in Bicycle Thieves were shot around Porta Portese in Trastevere, which still hosts the largest Sunday market in Rome.


Thursday, 20 July 2017

Giorgio Morandi – painter

The greatest master of still life in the 20th century


Giorgio Morandi pictured in his studio in Bologna in 1953
Giorgio Morandi pictured in
his studio in Bologna in 1953
The artist Giorgio Morandi, who became famous for his atmospheric representations of still life, was born on the day in 1890 in Bologna.

Morandi’s paintings were appreciated for their tonal subtlety in depicting simple subjects, such as vases, bottles, bowls and flowers.

He studied at the Accademia di Belle Arti di Bologna and taught himself to etch by studying books on Rembrandt. Even though he lived his whole life in Bologna, he was deeply influenced by the work of Cézanne, Derain and Picasso.

In 1910 Morandi visited Florence, where the work of Giotto, Masaccio, Piero della Francesca and Paolo Ucello also impressed him.

Morandi was appointed as instructor of drawing for elementary schools in Bologna, a position he held from 1914 until 1929. He joined the army in 1915 but suffered a breakdown and had to be discharged.

During the war his paintings of still life became purer in form, in the manner of Cezanne. After a phase of experimenting with the metaphysical style of painting he began to focus on subtle gradations of hue and tone.

Morandi's 1956 painting Natura morta
Morandi became associated with a Fascist-influenced Futurist group in Bologna and was sympathetic to the Fascist Party in the 1920s, although he also had friendships with anti-Fascist figures, which led to him being arrested briefly.

He took part in the Venice Biennale exhibitions, in the Quadriennale in Rome and also exhibited his work in different cities.

He was professor of etching at Accademia di Belle Arti from 1930 until 1956 and was awarded first prize for painting by the 1948 Venice Biennale.

Morandi lived for most of his adult life in Via Fondazza in Bologna with his three sisters until his death from lung cancer in 1964.

He was buried at the Certosa cemetery in Bologna in the family tomb, which bears a portrait of him executed by his friend, the sculptor Giacomo Manzù.

During his life Morandi completed 1350 oil paintings and 133 etchings. He once explained: ’What interests me most is expressing what’s in nature, in the visible world, that is.’

A 1952 still life from Morandi
A 1952 still life from Morandi
Morandi is perceived as being one of the few Italian artists of his generation to remain detached from contemporary culture and politics and he is now regarded as one of the best modern Italian painters and the greatest master of still life in the 20th century.

His work has been discussed and written about by many art critics. Director Federico Fellini paid tribute to him in La Dolce Vita, which features his paintings, as does Michangelo Antonioni in La Notte.

The novelists Sarah Hall and Don DeLillo and the poet Ivor Cutler have all written about him. Barack Obama chose two oil paintings by Morandi, which are now part of the White House collection.

A Giorgio Morandi museum - the Museo Morandi - which includes a reconstruction of his studio, was opened in 1993 in Bologna.

Many famous photographers took images of him at his house or in his studio and the interior of his house has been filmed. In 2016 the American photographer Joel Meyerowitz published Morandi’s Object, a book containing his photographs of more than 260 objects that the painter had collected during his life.

Morandi's tomb at the Certosa di Bologna
Morandi's tomb at the Certosa di Bologna
Travel tip:

The Certosa di Bologna, where Morandi, is buried is a former Carthusian monastery founded in 1334 and suppressed in 1797, located just outside the walls of the city. In 1801 it became the city’s monumental cemetery and would later be praised by Byron in his writings. In 1869 an Etruscan necropolis was discovered there.

Travel tip:

The Museo Morandi, which displays a large collection of works by the painter, is being temporarily housed in the Museo d’Arte Moderna di Bologna, which is in Via Don Giovanni Minzoni in Bologna.


Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Jacopo Tiepolo - Doge of Venice

Ruler laid down the law and granted land for beautiful churches


Jacopo Tiepolo was Doge of Venice for 20 years
Jacopo Tiepolo was Doge of Venice for 20 years
Jacopo Tiepolo, the Doge who granted the land for the building of Basilica di Santi Giovanni e Paolo and Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, died on this day in 1249 in Venice.

His election as Doge in 1229 had sparked a feud between the Tiepolo and Dandolo families, which led to the rules being changed for future elections. He also produced five books of statutes setting out Venetian law which was to change life in Venice significantly, bringing a raft of civil and economic regulations to which Venetians were obliged to adhere.

Tiepolo, who was also known as Giacomo Tiepolo, had previously served as the first Venetian Duke of Crete and had two terms as podestà – chief administrator - in Constantinople.

He acted as the de facto ruler of the Latin Empire, negotiating treaties with the Egyptians and the Turks.

Tiepolo was elected Doge, a month after his predecessor, Pietro Ziani, abdicated. At the election a stalemate was reached between Tiepolo and his rival, Marino Dandolo, both of them having 20 votes each. The contest was decided by drawing lots, which led to Tiepolo’s victory.

A feud then broke out between the Dandolo, who were an old Venetian aristocratic family, and the Tiepolo, who were seen as ‘new money’.

The Basilica of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari was built on land granted by Doge Jacopo Tiepolo
The Basilica of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari was
built on land granted by Doge Jacopo Tiepolo
In an attempt to prevent a split vote in the future, the number of electors was increased from 40 to 41. Tiepolo also had to sign a promissione, a document limiting his powers.

Tiepolo was married twice and had three children with his first wife and, after her death, two more with his second wife.

Relations between the republic of Venice and the Holy Roman Empire deteriorated during Tiepolo’s reign. Venice joined the Lombard League in 1239 and fought against Ezzelino III da Romano, a feudal lord of the Veneto who was a powerful ally of the Emperor, Frederick II.

One of the Doge’s sons, Pietro Tiepolo, was captured at the Battle of Cortenuova and taken to Frederick II’s castle in Trani, where he was hanged, making relations between the two powers even worse.

Tiepolo abdicated in 1249 and retired to live at his private residence in San Polo in Venice. He died on 19 July and was buried in the Church of San Zanipolo, for which he had given the land during his time as ruler of Venice.

The Doge's Palace was traditionally the seat of the  Government of Venice under the Doge
The Doge's Palace was traditionally the seat of the
Government of Venice under the Doge
Travel tip:

The Doge’s Palace was the seat of the Government of Venice and the home of the Doge from the early days of the republic. For centuries this was the only building in Venice entitled to the name palazzo. The others were merely called Cà, short for Casa. The current palazzo was built in the 12th century in Venetian Gothic style, one side looking out over the lagoon, the other side looking out over the piazzetta, the small square linking the large Piazza San Marco with the waterfront. It opened as a museum in 1923 and is now run by the Fondazione Musei Civici di Venezia.


The Basilica of Santi Giovanni e Paolo, where Jacopo Tiepolo was buried after he died soon after abdicating
The Basilica of Santi Giovanni e Paolo, where Jacopo
Tiepolo was buried after he died soon after abdicating
Travel tip:

The Basilica di Santi Giovanni e Paolo, known in Venice as San Zanipolo, is in the Campo Santi Giovanni e Paolo in the Castello district. The land was donated to the Dominicans by Tiepolo after he dreamt of a flock of white doves flying over it. One of the largest churches in Venice, it has the status of a minor basilica and a total of 25 of Venice’s Doges are buried there.


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Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Gino Bartali - cycling star and secret war hero

Tour de France champion was clandestine courier


Gino Bartali on his way to victory in the 1938 Tour de France
Gino Bartali on his way to victory in the
1938 Tour de France
Gino Bartali, one of three Italian cyclists to have won the Tour de France twice and a three-times winner of the Giro d’Italia, was born on this day in 1914 in the town of Ponte a Ema, just outside Florence.

Bartali’s career straddled the Second World War, his two Tour successes coming in 1938 and 1948, but it is as much for what he did during the years of conflict that he is remembered today.

With the knowledge of only a few people, Bartali repeatedly risked his life smuggling false documents around Italy to help Italian Jews escape being deported to Nazi concentration camps.

He hid the rolled up documents inside the hollow handlebars and frame of his bicycle and explained his frequent long-distance excursions as part of the training schedule he needed to maintain in order to keep himself in peak physical fitness.

In fact, he was carrying documents from secret printing presses to people who needed them in cities as far apart as Florence, Lucca, Genoa, Assisi, and the Vatican in Rome.

Sometimes he would pull a cart that contained a secret compartment in order to smuggle Jewish refugees in person into Switzerland, explaining that hauling a heavy cart was also essential to his training routine.

Bartali resumed his career after the War, winning a second Tour
Bartali resumed his career after
the War, winning a second Tour
He even hid a Jewish family in the cellar of his house in Florence, in the full knowledge that were they to be discovered he would have almost certainly been arrested and sentenced to death.

Bartali, who died in 2000 at the age of 85, never spoke publicly about his secret role and revealed details only gradually to his family in later years. 

They concluded that the motivation for his actions lay in his devout Catholicism and his opposition to the policies being pursued by Benito Mussolini.

In a speech in September 1938, Pope Pius XI had proclaimed that anti-semitism was incompatible with Christianity, yet earlier in the year Mussolini had published his Manifesto on Race, which would lead to Italian Jews been stripped of citizenship, barred from public office and from working in any recognised profession.

When Bartali won the 1938 Tour de France, Mussolini hailed him as a national hero for having provided evidence through his sporting success that Italians too belonged in the ‘master race’ that Mussolini’s murderous ally Adolf Hitler aimed to create.

Bartali was horrified. Determined to distance himself from Mussolini, he refused the invitation to dedicate his triumph to Il Duce.

Mussolini was less than pleased but Bartali’s popularity with the Italian public, who had cheered him to victory in the Giro in 1936 and 1937, dissuaded him from any punitive action.  Bartali’s standing was also helpful on the occasions he was stopped and questioned about his long-distance ‘training’ exercises.

Bartali is said to have been born in rooms above a bar in Ponte a Emo
Bartali is said to have been born in rooms
above a bar in Ponte a Ema
He would allow himself to be interrogated but asked Fascist officials not to dismantle his bike because it was precisely calibrated for optimum performance and to disturb it would jeopardise his future success.

For the early part of the War, the Catholic Church’s position on anti-semitism meant that Italy remained a country in which Jews could take refuge, despite Mussolini’s malign intentions. 

It all changed, however, when Italy surrendered to the Allies in 1943. The German army occupied northern and central parts of the country, setting up a puppet republic with Mussolini in charge, and immediately started rounding up Italian Jews and sending them to concentration camps.

It was at this point that Bartali was asked by the Cardinal of Florence, Archbishop Elia Dalla Costa, to join a secret network offering protection and safe passage to Jews and other endangered people.  His talents were almost tailor-made for him to become a courier.

The work of this network and other organisations and individuals sympathetic to the plight of minorities meant that around 80 per cent Italian-born and refugee Jews living in Italy before World War Two survived.

After the War, Bartali resumed his cycling career and, remarkably, won his second Tour de France in 1948, matching the achievement of Ottavio Bottecchia, who won twice in the 1920s, and setting a standard that Bartali’s rival, Fausto Coppi, would attain when he won in 1949 and 1952.

Bartali's 1948 Tour de France bike on display in the  museum at the church of Madonna del Ghisallo
Bartali's 1948 Tour de France bike on display in the
museum at the church of Madonna del Ghisallo
Again, it was a victory with political significance.  Coinciding with the unrest in Italy in the summer of 1948, when a power struggle was under way between the United States-backed centre-right Christian Democrats and the Italian Communists, Bartali’s victory came at a critical moment for the country, when the attempted assassination of the Communist leader Palmiro Togliatti threatened to push Italy into civil war.

It meant that newspaper headlines were suddenly dominated by the fairytale story of Bartali, who had won the Tour at the age of 24 in 1938 and was winning again at the age of 34.  Commentators believe the distraction changed the mood of the country just enough for tensions to dissipate.

Bartali, who quit racing at the age of 40 after suffering injuries in an accident, had been born into a strictly religious family in Tuscany and his nickname on the circuit was ‘Gino the Pious’.

He was posthumously awarded with the honour Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial and education centre in Jerusalem.

Travel tip:

Bartali’s former home at Via Chiantigiana 177 in Ponte a Ema is now the home of a museum dedicated to his life and success on two wheels.  All Bartali’s medals and trophies are on display in the museum. There is also a room with items relating to many other cyclists and a collection of bicycles from the end of the 19th century to the middle of the 20th century.  The museum is open from Wednesday until Saturday from 9.30am, remaining open until 7pm on Thursday and Friday.

The church of the Madonna del Ghisallo
The church of the Madonna del Ghisallo
Travel tip:

The bike on which Gino Bartali won the 1948 Tour de France can be seen at a fascinating museum within a church on top of a hill overlooking Lake Como in Lombardy. The church of the Madonna del Ghisallo is said to have been commissioned in the 11th century by a local count – Ghisallo – on the spot where he claimed an apparition of the Virgin Mary saved him from an attack by bandits. Soon, the Madonna was adopted as the patroness of local travellers. When, many centuries later, the hill - which offers spectacular views as well as demanding conditions for those on two wheels - became part of the Giro di Lombardia cycle race and, on occasions, the Giro d’Italia, a local priest proposed that the Madonna del Ghisallo be declared the patroness of cyclists and Pope Pius XII duly obliged. This prompted competitive cyclists to donate all manner of memorabilia, including bikes and jerseys, building a collection so large that the church ran out of space to display everything and an overflow building had to be constructed in the grounds. As well as his bike, outside the church there is a bust of Bartali, alongside busts of Fausto Coppi and the five-times Giro d’Italia winner Alfredo Binda.