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.

Thursday, 27 April 2017

Popes John XXIII and John Paul II made saints

Crowd of 800,000 in St Peter's Square for joint canonisation


The Basilica of St Peter, in readiness for the joint-canonisation of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II in 2014
The Basilica of St Peter, in readiness for the joint-canonisation
of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II in 2014
Pope Francis declared Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II as saints at a ceremony during Mass in Rome’s St Peter’s Square on this day in 2014.

Hundreds of thousands of people from around the world converged on the Vatican to attend the ceremony, which celebrated two popes recognised as giants of the Catholic Church in the 20th century.

There was scarcely room to move in St Peter's Square, the Via della Conciliazione and the adjoining streets.  The crowd, probably the biggest since John Paul II’s beatification three years earlier, was estimated at around 800,000, of which by far the largest contingent had made the pilgrimage from John Paul’s native Poland to see their most famous compatriot become a saint.  Thousands of red and white Polish flags filled the square.

In his homily, Pope Francis said Saints John XXIII and JohnPaul II were “priests, bishops and popes of the 20th century. They lived through the tragic events of that century, but they were not overwhelmed by them. For them God was more powerful, faith was more powerful”.

He added that the two popes had “co-operated with the Holy Spirit in renewing and updating” the Catholic Church.

Pope Francis delivers his homily to the crowd in the square
Pope Francis delivers his homily to the crowd in the square
Among those attending this morning’s Mass was Pope Emeritus, Benedict XVI, who in 2013 had become the first pope to resign in 600 years.

Among the foreign dignitaries present, which included 19 heads of state and 25 heads of government, was the former Polish president, Lech Walesa, who had been a key figure in the fall of communism as leader of the Soviet bloc’s first independent trade union, Solidarity.

Italy was represented by the prime minister, Matteo Renzi, the president, Giorgio Napolitano, and his wife, first lady Clio Maria Bittoni.

Other world leaders present included Spain’s King Juan Carlos I and Queen Sofia, the French prime minister Manuel Valls, and the controversial Zimbabwean president, Robert Mugabe.

St Peter’s Basilica was opened to allow pilgrims visit the tombs of both new saints, which rest in crypts inside the building.

Both John XXIII, who was in office from 1958 to 1963 and called the modernising Second Vatican Council, and John Paul II, who reigned for nearly 27 years, played leading roles on the world stage.

Every space in St Peter's Square was taken
Every space in St Peter's Square was taken
John XXIII, born Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli in Sotto il Monte, near Bergamo, in 1881, was known as the “Good Pope” because of his friendly, open personality. He died before the Second Vatican Council ended its work in 1965 but his initiative had set off a significant upheaval in church teaching, ending the use of Latin at Mass, introducing modern music and opening the way for challenges to Vatican authority.

John Paul, born Karol Józef Wojtyła in Wadowice in 1920, was widely credited with helping to bring down communist rule in eastern Europe and hastening the end of the Cold War.

As pope he continued with reform but tightened central control, condemned theological renegades and preached a strict line on social issues such as sexual freedom. Although a charismatic character, he was criticised by some for being too conservative.

Pope John Paul II was idolised by many Catholics
Pope John Paul II was idolised by many Catholics
However, he was able to inspire adoration from many Catholics, as was witnessed when the crowd at his funeral in 2005 joined in a spontaneous chant of “santo subito”, urging that he be made a saint immediately. Although that did not happen, he was honoured with the fastest declaration of sainthood in modern history.

Among those less enamoured with his canonisation were a group who claimed to have been the victims of sexual abuse by priests, who felt John Paul II did not do enough to tackle the problem, particularly with regard to the controversial Mexican founder of the Legion of Christ, Father Marcial Maciel Degollado, whom John Paul’s successor, Benedict XVI, removed from active ministry soon after beginning his papacy.  The group staged a rooftop vigil nearby.

Both canonisations had involved adaptation of the strict rules governing declaration of a saint, which normally involve the attestation of at least two miracles.

In the case of John Paul II, Benedict XVI had waived the customary five-year waiting period before the preliminaries to sainthood can begin, while Francis ruled that only one miracle was needed to declare John a saint.

The Via della Conciliazione at night
The Via della Conciliazione at night
Travel tip:

The Via della Conciliazione, in the rione (district) of Borgo, is the street that connects St Peter's Square to Castel Sant'Angelo on the western bank of the Tiber river. Bordered by shops, historical and religious buildings including the churches of Santa Maria in Traspontina and Santo Spirito in Sassia, it was built between 1936 and 1950 to fulfil Mussolini’s vision of a grand thoroughfare into the square but attracted much controversy because of the destruction of an area known as the ‘spina’ – spine – of Borgo and the forced displacement of hundreds of residents to locations on the outskirts of the city.

Find a Rome hotel with Hotels.com

The village of Sotto il Monte Giovanni XXXIII
The village of Sotto il Monte Giovanni XXXIII
Travel tip:

Now renamed Sotto il Monte Giovanni XXIII, Pope John’s birthplace was originally a small farming community to the west of Bergamo. It has seen much change as a result of Angelo Roncalli’s elevation to the papacy and subsequent sainthood, attracting many tourists. The house where he was born is in the hamlet of Brusicco and the summer residence at Camaitino that he used when he was a cardinal is now a history museum dedicated to him.  Also worth visiting nearby, on the slopes of Monte Canto, is the Romanesque Fontanella Abbey, dating back to the 11th century.

Sotto il Monte hotels from Expedia

More reading:


How Karol Wojytla became the first non-Italian pope for 455 years

The farmer's son who went on to become the 'good pope'

The consecration of St Peter's Basilica

Also on this day:





Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Samantha Cristoforetti - astronaut

Record-breaker spent almost 200 days in space


Samantha Cristoforetti in full spacesuit for her official ESA portrait
Samantha Cristoforetti in full spacesuit for
her official ESA portrait
Italy’s first female astronaut, Samantha Cristoforetti, was born on this day in 1977 in Milan.

A captain in the Italian Air Force, in which she is a pilot and engineer, Cristoforetti holds the world record for the longest space flight by a woman, which she set as a crew member on the European Space Agency’s Futura mission to the International Space Station in 2014.

Cristoforetti and her two fellow astronauts, the Russian Anton Shkaplerov and the American Terry Virts, left Kazakhstan in a Soyuz spacecraft on November 23, 2014 and returned on June 11, 2015, having spent 199 days and 16 hours in space – four days longer than the previous record for a female astronaut, held by the American NASA astronaut Sunita Williams.

The mission was supposed to have ended a month earlier but had to be extended after a Russian supply freighter failed to reach the ISS. The extra time also allowed Cristoforetti to set a record for the longest time in space by a European astronaut of either gender.

While Williams was hailed as the first person to complete a marathon in space when she ran 26 miles and 385 yards on the ISS’s on-board treadmill at the same time as the 2007 Boston Marathon was taking place on earth, Cristoforetti can proudly claim to be the first person to have brewed an espresso coffee in space using a machine sent to the crew as a gift.

Cristoforetti celebrated her 28th birthday in space with crewmates Anton Shkaplerov (left) and Terry Virts
Cristoforetti celebrated her 38th birthday in space with
crewmates Anton Shkaplerov (left) and Terry Virts
Although born in Milan, Cristoforetti spent her childhood in Malè, a small town in an Alpine valley - Val di Sole – in Trentino.

Her interest in space began in childhood and was cemented at the age of 18, when she participated in a United States foreign exchange programme and attended Space Camp.

After going to college in Bolzano and Trento, she graduated from the Technical University of Munich with a degree in mechanical engineering.  She attended a French space institute – the École nationale supérieure de l'aéronautique et de l'espace in Toulouse – and the Mendeleev Russian University of Chemistry and Technology in Moscow.

Returning to Italy and pursuing her career with the Italian Air Force, she graduated in aeronautics sciences at the Accademia Aeronautica in Pozzuoli, near Naples, and became one of the first Italian women to be a lieutenant and fighter pilot, since when she has also completed NATO flight training.

Cristoferotti's photographs included this amazing view of the Italian peninsula at night
Cristoforetti's photographs included this amazing
view of the Italian peninsula at night
Cristoforetti, who described her time in space as “a magical experience”, was selected from among 7,000 applicants to the European Space Agency astronaut programme in 2009 and had been training for three years when it was announced she had been chosen for the 2014 mission.

The mission involved maintenance work on the Space Station as well as almost continuous programme of scientific experiments.  Cristoforetti did not take part in any space walks but was responsible for the safety of her two colleagues while they were outside the ship.  Communications were never a problem as she speaks five languages – Italian, German, English, Russian and French.

Cristoforetti, in the 'cupola' of the Space Station,  savours the first espresso brewed in space
Cristoforetti, in the 'cupola' of the Space Station,
savours the first espresso brewed in space
In addition to the work, Cristoforetti tweeted many photographs to her 900,000 Twitter followers, both of her and her crewmates inside the Space Station and of views of the earth.  She took part in a series of videos to illustrate life in space in zero gravity, including hair-cutting, ‘showering’ and cooking - and brewing espresso, which was made possible by the specially designed ISSpresso machine, created by the coffee maker Lavazza and the engineering firm Argotec and sent to the crew as a gift on the April 2015 supply freighter.

A month after returning to earth, Cristoforetti was awarded the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic by Sergio Mattarella, the Italian president. The Order of Merit is the senior order of knighthood, the highest ranking honour of the republic.

A beautiful wintry scene of the Noce river near Malè
A beautiful wintry scene of the Noce river near Malè 
Travel tip:

The town of Malè can be found on a plateau in the Val di Sole valley, sitting alongside the valley’s main river, the Noce.  The administrative and cultural centre of the valley, Malè has a civic museum, and a parish church dating back to the 16th century and an ancient sawmill and smithy, Marinelli del Pondasio, a rare preserved example of a hydraulic smithy. Nearby is the Stelvio National Park the Adamello Brenta Nature Park. Malè is a centre for alpine sports, including hiking, climbing and rafting during the summer, and is a short distance from the ski areas of Marilleva-Folgarida and Madonna di Campiglio.

Find the best hotels in Malè with TripAdvisor

Nisida, former home of the Accademia Aeronautica
Nisida, former home of the Accademia Aeronautica
Travel tip:

The Accademia Aeronautica, the academy of the Italian Air Force, can be found at a purpose-built facility on a hill overlooking the port town of Pozzuoli, on the northern shore of the Bay of Naples, having previously been housed in the grand surroundings of the Royal Palace in Caserta, just to the north of Naples, and then on the island of Nisida, near the Marechiaro district of Naples, which is linked to the mainland by a causeway.

Pozzuoli hotels from Expedia

More reading:


Aviation pioneer Enea Bossi and the first human-powered flight

How Camillo Castiglioni recognised the potential of aeroplanes

The ground-breaking academic who paved way for women in science


Also on this day:



1925: The birth of the man who invented Nutella spread


(Picture credit: Wintry scene by Giogio Galeotti via Wikimedia Commons)

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Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Ferruccio Ranza - World War One flying ace

Fighter pilot survived 57 aerial dogfights


Ferruccio Ranza in the cockpit of a Nieuport fighter plane
Ferruccio Ranza in the cockpit of a Nieuport fighter plane
Ferruccio Ranza, a World War One pilot who survived 465 combat sorties and scored 17 verified victories, died on this day in 1973 in Bologna, at the age of 80.

Ranza, who also saw service in the Second World War, when he rose to the rank of Brigadier General, was jointly the seventh most successful of Italy’s aviators in the 1914-18 conflict, and would be placed third if his eight unconfirmed victories had been proven.  In all, he engaged with enemy aeroplanes in 57 dogfights.

The most successful Italian flying ace from the First World War was Francesco Barraca, who chalked up 34 verified victories before he was killed in action in 1918.  Ranza served alongside Barraca in the 91st Fighter Squadron of the Italian air force, the so-called ‘squadron of aces’.

Ranza was born in Fiorenzuolo d’Arda, a medium-sized town in the province of Piacenza in what is now Emilia-Romagna, in 1892. Both his parents, Paolo and Maria, were teachers. 

  Ferruccio Ranza, second left, with other member of the 91st Squadron, including Francesco Barraca (far right)
Ferruccio Ranza, second left, with other member of the 91st
Squadron, including Francesco Barraca (far right)
After attending the Istituto Tecnico ‘Romagnosi’ in Piacenza, he joined the Italian army in December 1913. He was a second lieutenant in the 1st Regiment of Engineers when the First World War began in 1914.

Italy had been part of the Triple Alliance at that time, along with Germany and Austria-Hungary, but delayed entering the conflict and by the time it did, in April 1915, it was on the side of the Triple Entente, with Russia, France and Britain, having been promised territorial gains in the Adriatic Sea region.

Ranza attended the flying school at Venaria Reale, just outside Turin. His first assignment, in October 1915, was to fly reconnaissance missions with the 43rd Squadron. He won a Bronze award of the Medal for Military Valor for carrying out an artillery spotting mission under heavy fire.

His success in aerial warfare began when he mastered the French-built Nieuport fighters and joined 77th Squadron in June 1916, scoring his first success after only five days when he downed a Hansa-Brandenburg CI, an aircraft designed by Ernst Heinkel, who would provide much of the Luftwaffe’s air power during the Second World War.

A scale model of the Nieuport 11 in which Ranza scored many of his victories after joining the 91st Squadron
A scale model of the Nieuport 11 in which Ranza scored
many of his victories after joining the 91st Squadron
In November 2016, Fulco Ruffo di Calabria was removed from command of 77th Squadron because of combat fatigue and Ranza was appointed to succeed him in command.

He was transferred to the crack 91st Squadron under the command of Francesco Barraca in May 2017, achieving his first kill the following month when he downed a two-seater armed reconnaissance plane in the skies above Barco, a small town near Vicenza in what is now the Veneto.

Ranza remained with the 91st until the end of the war, by which time he had won three Silver awards of the Medal for Military Valor, the Serbian Order of the Star of Karađorđe, four war crosses (two Italian, one French, one Belgian), and the Military Order of Savoy.

Even after the war had finished, with Italy counting a heavy cost in lives lost and economic consequences, Ranza continued his military career, seeing service in Africa and Albania as Mussolini pursued an aggressive foreign policy. 

Ferruccio Ranzo in 1944
Ferruccio Ranzo in 1944
When Italy entered World War Two, Ranza was in charge of Italy’s air force in Albania, providing support for Italy’s campaign in Greece.  He had an escape in 1941 when, flying a transport plane, he was attacked by an Italian fighter who mistook him for an enemy. Ranza’s plane was hit and badly damaged but he managed to crash land and avoided serious injury.

By 1943, as the Allied invasion of Italy began, he was the commander of Italy’s airforce in the south of the peninsula, based in Bari, and after Mussolini’s overthrow was able to persuade the Allied command to allow Italian planes to contribute to the nation’s liberation by flying missions against the Germans.

Ranza retired in 1945 and was living in Bologna at the time of his death.  His body was returned to Fiorenzuolo d’Arda for burial in the family chapel at the town’s cemetery.

Travel tip:

Fiorenzuola d’Arda is a town of about 15,000 inhabitants situated about halfway between Piacenza and Parma in the plain of the Po Valley, in the Emilia-Romagna province. The Arda river flows through the town before joining the Po. It is a pleasant town built, at the centre of which, on Piazza Molinari, is the Collegiate Church of San Fiorenzo, the construction of which began in the 13th century.

Fiorenzuola hotels from Expedia

The Royal Palace, Reggia di Venaria Reale
The Royal Palace, Reggia di Venaria Reale
Travel tip:

Venaria Reale is a town, on the north-west edge of the Turin metropolitan area, of historical significance for the presence of the Reggia di Venaria Reale, a palace of the Royal House of Savoy, which was designed and built from 1675 by Amedeo di Castellamonte, having been commissioned by duke Charles Emmanuel II as a base for his hunting expeditions in the countryside north of Turin. The town’s historic centre was also designed by Di Castellamonte to provide an appropriate backdrop to the palace.

Find the right Venaria Reale hotel with TripAdvisor


More reading:


How Armando Diaz led decision World War One victory at Vittorio Veneto

Enea Bossi and the pedal-powered aeroplane

The Calabrian veteran who survived two world wars

Also on this day:




Monday, 24 April 2017

Luigi Lavazza - coffee maker

From a grocery store in Turin to Italy's market leader


Luigi Lavazza - former peasant farmer and humble shop worker who built a dynasty
Luigi Lavazza - former peasant farmer and
humble shop worker who built a dynasty
Luigi Lavazza, the Turin grocer who founded the Lavazza Coffee Company, was born on this day in 1859 in the small town of Murisengo in Piedmont. 

He had lived as a peasant farmer in Murisengo but times were hard and after a couple of poor harvests he decided to abandon the countryside and head for the city, moving to Turin and finding work as a shop assistant.

The Lavazza brand began when Luigi had saved enough money to by his own shop in Via San Tommaso, in the centre of Turin, in 1895.  He sold groceries and provisions and where other stores simply sold coffee beans, he had a workshop in the rear of the store where he experimented by grinding the beans and mixing them into different blends according to the tastes of his customers.

He travelled to Brazil to improve his knowledge of coffee and his blends became an important part of the business, after which he moved into wholesale as well as retail as a coffee merchant.  When the first automatic roasting machines went into production in the 1920s, he was one of the first in Italy to buy one.

The economic climate in Italy improved after the First World War, Turin in particular enjoying prosperity after Fiat opened its factory in Lingotto.

Luigi Lavazza's original Turin grocery shop
Luigi Lavazza's original Turin grocery shop
Luigi Lavazza S.p.A. was formed in 1927, with its headquarters in Corso Giulio Cesare, to the north of the city. Luigi, his wife Emilia, and children Mario, Pericle and Giuseppe set up the company, with share capital of 1,500,000 lire. They bought a fleet of vans and trucks and began to sell all groceries all over Turin province.

The coffee side of the company’s business stalled in the 1930s after the League of Nations imposed economic sanctions against Italy, a consequence of the Mussolini regime’s aggression towards Abyssinia.  Coffee beans was one of the commodities that could not be exported to Italy.

Production did not resume in earnest until after the Second World War, when the company was effectively relaunched as a coffee specialist.  Luigi has retired in 1936 but in the hands of his sons the business boomed. They commissioned the design of branded Lavazza packaging, introducing the distinctive logo with the large middle ‘A’. As well as paper packaging, the company introduced vacuum packed tins to preserve their product's freshness.

Lavazza's familiar silver and  red packaging
Lavazza's familiar silver and
red packaging
In 1950, the first Lavazza television commercial was aired with the slogan “Lavazza – paradiso in tazza” – “Lavazza – heaven in a cup”.

Luigi Lavazza died in 1949 at the age of 90 and did not witness the huge expansion that took place in the 1950s and 1960s. The company’s new headquarters in Corso Novara - on the north-western outskirts of the city began to produce 40,000kg of coffee per day, outstripping other Italian coffee producers, and in 1965 Lavazza opened Europe’s largest roasting plant in Settimo Torinese, from which the company’s Qualità Rossa blend was introduced in 1971.

Today, run by the fourth generation of the Lavazza family, the company is the seventh largest coffee roaster in the world and the retail market leader in Italy with more than 47 per cent of sales, employing 2700 staff in six production sites, four in Italy and two abroad, and sells coffee in more than 90 countries.

Travel tip:

Luigi Lavazza’s original store in Via San Tommaso is now a coffee shop and restaurant, aptly called San Tommaso 10 Lavazza. The café’s coffee corner is the place in which to taste the company’s major blends, while the restaurant at the rear, offering modern Italian dishes, almost doubles as a museum, with displays of photographs tracing the history of the company. Via San Tommaso is in the heart of Turin’s commercial centre, a short walk from the elegant grandeur of Piazza Castello.

Find a hotel in Turin with Hotels.com


Murisengo is in the hills to the east of Turin
Murisengo is in the hills to the east of Turin
Travel tip:

Murisengo, where Luigi Lavazza was born and grew up in the farming community, has a population of under 1,500 today but used to be much larger and was a thriving spa town in the 1700s, when visitors came to take the sulphurous waters from the Fontana Pirenta, which supposedly could cure gastric disorders and treat skin conditions.  The village, in the hills to the east of Turin at 338m (1,100ft) above sea level, also has the remains of a castle that originated in the early 13th century.

Look for Murisengo accommodation with TripAdvisor

More reading:


Michele Ferrero - the man who invented Nutella

How fruit farmer Karl Zuegg made a fortune from jam

Francesco Cirio - market trader who pioneered food canning

Also on this day:


1966: The birth of AC Milan footballer Alessandro Costacurta




Sunday, 23 April 2017

Stefano Bontade - Mafia supremo

Well-connected Cosa Nostra boss had links to ex-premier Andreotti


Stefano Bontade, head of  major crime family in Palermo
Stefano Bontade, head of  major
crime family in Palermo
Stefano Bontade, one of the most powerful and well connected figures in the Sicilian Mafia in the 1960s and 1970s, was born on this day in 1939 in Palermo, where he was murdered exactly 42 years later in a birthday execution that sparked a two-year war between the island’s rival clans.

Known as Il Falco – the Falcon – he was said to have close links with a number of important politicians on Sicily and with the former Italian prime minister Giulio Andreotti.

He was strongly suspected of being a key figure in the 1962 murder of Enrico Mattei, the president of Italy’s state-owned oil and gas conglomerate ENI, and in the bogus kidnapping of Michele Sindona, the disgraced banker who used the Vatican Bank to launder the proceeds of Cosa Nostra heroin trafficking.

Born into a Mafia family, Bontade controlled the Villagrazia area in the south-west of Palermo and became head of the Santa Maria di Gesù crime family at the age of 25 when his father, Francesco Paolo Bontade, a major Cosa Nostra boss known as Don Paolino, stepped down in failing health.

He was banished to the mainland, specifically Qualiano in Campania, following his arrest in 1972 after Pietro Scaglione, the chief prosecutor of Palermo, had been murdered.  A sustained crackdown on Mafia activity following the Ciaculli Massacre of 1963 had achieved significant progress in cutting off the organisation’s income streams but, ironically, the banishment of bosses in Bontade’s generation backfired on the authorities.

Along with others, Bontade made new contacts with Mafiosi on the mainland and their involvement in cigarette smuggling and heroin trafficking enabled them to rebuild their powerbase in Sicily.  Bontade became part of a network involved with the processing and trafficking of heroin from Turkey to the streets of cities in the United States, where it was distributed by the Gambino family.

Gambino family boss Carlo Gambino
Gambino family boss Carlo Gambino
Bontade’s links with Cosa Nostra figures in the US were seemingly behind his alleged organising of the Mattei killing, supposedly requested by a Sicilian-born Mafioso from Philadelphia because Mattei’s policies threatened the profitability of the United States oil industry, in which the American Mafia had vested interests.

Later, the Gambino family enlisted his help in a scheme proposed by Sindona to recover a Cosa Nostra fortune that had been lost when the Franklin National Bank in Long Island, which Sindona controlled and through which much of the laundered heroin proceeds were laundered, collapsed in 1974.

Sindona was in the US awaiting trail on fraud charges connected with the collapse, while being also wanted in Italy in connection with the murder of a police superintendent and a lawyer who were investigating of his failed Banca Privata Italiana.

In what appeared to be a kidnap, he was smuggled out of the US and back to Sicily, where he attempted to blackmail former political allies, including Andreotti, in return for the re-establishment of his banking empire and the recovery of Mafia money.   The plot failed and Sindona was returned to America, where he died in prison, apparently through poisoning, shortly after he was convicted for the murder of the Sicilian lawyer, Giorgio Ambrosoli.

Three times PM Giulio Andreotti
Three times PM Giulio Andreotti
Bontade, a freemason, cultivated a network of connections that included Christian Democrat politicians in Sicily, through whom links could be traced right to the top of Italian politics and to Andreotti, who was prime minister twice in the 1970s and again from 1989-92.

Andreotti is said to have appealed directly to Bontade in a bid to prevent the murder of Christian Democrat politician Piersanti Mattarella, who became a target after promising to smash the Mafia’s public contracts racket on Sicily. According to the evidence of a Mafia pentito, Francesco Marino Mannoia, Bontade threatened Andreotti with wiping out all of his party’s representatives in Sicily unless his demands were met and the Mattarella killing went ahead.

Bontade’s own death in 1981 came after Salvatore Riina, the most powerful figure in the Corleonesi clan from inland Sicily, formed a secret alliance with the Palermo mafioso and Bontade adversary Michele Greco with the aim of seizing control of the heroin trafficking operation.  Riina and Bontade were supposed to be allies as members of the Sicilian Mafia Commission, on which Greco eventually replaced a Bontade ally, Gaetano Badalamenti.

Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino
Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino
Riina and Greco organised the killing of many of Bontade’s friends and associates and tipped off police to arrest others, especially those involved directly with the trafficking network.  Bontade himself was murdered as he drove home from a party to celebrate his 42nd birthday, the execution carried out with a Kalashnikov machine gun by Pino Greco, Michele's nephew and a favoured Riina hitman.

Subsequently, two Bontade allies, Tommaso Buscetta and Salvatore Contorno, became pentiti, and it was largely their evidence that enabled the anti-Mafia magistrates, Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino to convict 360 Cosa Nostra members in the mid-1980s in the so-called Maxi Trial. Those sent to jail included Greco and Riina, although Riina later exacted revenge by ordering the murders of both Falcone and Borsellino in 1992.

The convent of  San Benedetto il Moro
The convent of  San Benedetto il Moro
Travel tip:

Santa Maria de Gesù, which gave its name to the area of Palermo Bontade controlled at the height of his powers, is actually a village at the foot of Monte Grifone, the 832m (2,730ft) peak that forms part of the Monti di Palermo chain and was once home to a colony of griffon vultures. Panoramic views of the city can be obtained from the Convent of San Benedetto il Moro, the patron saint of Palermo, who died at Santa Maria de Gesù in 1589. In the highest part of town is the tree of San Benedetto, a 500-year-old cypress that according to legend was planted by the saint himself.

Palermo hotels from Hotels.com



The golden mosaics of the Cappella Palatina
The golden mosaics of the Cappella Palatina
Travel tip:

By common consensus, if there is one attraction visitors to Palermo should not miss it is the Cappella Palatina, the extraordinary chapel that occupies the middle level of the three-tiered loggia of the Palazzo dei Normanni in Piazza Indipendenza. Almost every inch of the inside of the chapel is decorated with gold mosaics and inlaid precious stones. The chapel was built by Roger II, the King of Sicily, who hired Byzantine Greek artisans to work on the project in about 1140. The marble floor and walls reflect Islamic influences.

Find a popular hotel in Palermo with TripAdvisor

More reading:


How Giulio Andreotti, the great survivor, spent 45 years in government

The anti-Mafia crusade of Giovanni Falcone

A life of corruption and fraud: the failed banker Michele Sindona

Also on this day:

1857: The birth of opera composer Ruggero Leoncavallo




Saturday, 22 April 2017

Alida Valli - actress

Scandal dogged star admired by Mussolini


The actress Alida Valli was the object of Mussolini's admiration
The actress Alida Valli was the object of
Mussolini's admiration
The actress Alida Valli, who was once described by Benito Mussolini as the most beautiful woman in the world after Greta Garbo, died on this day in 2006 at the age of 84.

One of the biggest stars in Italian cinema in the late 1930s and 40s, when she starred in numerous romantic dramas and comedies, she was best known outside Italy for playing Anna Schmidt, the actress girlfriend of Harry Lime in Carol Reed’s Oscar-winning 1949 classic The Third Man.

She was cast in the role by the producer David O Selznick, who shared the Fascist leader’s appreciation for her looks, and who billed her simply as Valli, hoping it would create for her a Garboesque enigmatic allure.  Later, however, she complained that having one name made her “feel silly”.

Valli was born in Pola, Istria, then part of Italy (now Pula, Croatia), in 1921. She was christened Baroness Alida Maria Laura Altenburger von Marckenstein-Frauenberg, on account of a noble line to her paternal grandfather, Baron Luigi Altenburger, an Austrian-Italian from Trento and a descendant of the Counts d’Arco.

Her father was a journalist and professor. The family moved to Como when she was young but her father died when she was a teenager, after which she and her mother moved to Rome, where she enrolled at the capital's new film school, Centro Sperimentale.

She had no expectations of making a career in movies but the Centro's teachers recognised her talent. The name Alida Valli was invented for her, and in 1937 she made five films, each one more successful than the last. Consequently, her salary went up with each production. When she realised her earnings could support her whole family, she decided that it was a career worth taking seriously.

Alida Valli with Joseph Cotten in The Third Man
After a number of comedies and costume dramas, she won acclaim for more serious roles in Picolo mondo antico (1941) and We the Living (1942). The latter saw her star opposite Rossano Brazzi as tragic lovers in post-revolutionary St Petersburg, which pleased the Fascist regime because it seemed to convey an anti-communist message.

She felt uncomfortable about being linked with the Mussolini regime, however, especially when an anonymous letter to the United States embassy in Rome stalled her application for a visa to work in the US. The letter accused her of Fascist sympathies and being romantically involved with Hitler's propanganda chief Joseph Goebbels. The visa was granted, but only after Selznick's lawyers had disproved the allegations.

After Alida returned to Europe, she moved into more serious roles in films such as Luchino Visconti's Senso (1954) and Michelangelo Antonioni's Il Grido (1957), which had won her praise and confirmed that her beauty was underpinned with genuine acting ability.

Her success was overshadowed, however, by her relationship with Piero Piccioni, the son of Italy’s foreign minister, Attilio Piccioni, who was implicated in a sex and drugs scandal – the so-called Montesi scandal -  that emerged following the discovery of a young woman’s body on a beach near Ostia Antica, the old Roman resort, in 1953.

Piccioni was acquitted of any culpability in the woman’s death after Valli confirmed that she and Piccioni were together in Amalfi, 200 miles away, at the time, staying in a villa as guests of Carlo Ponti.  Valli had by then separated from her husband, Oscar De Mejo.

Valli with Stewart Granger in Luchino Visconti's Senso
During the next decade Alida struggled to rebuild her film career and turned to working more in theatre and television, before her reputation was re-established with parts in such films as Pier Paolo Pasolini's Oedipus Rex (1967) and Bernardo Bertolucci's The Spider's Strategem (1970), 1900 (1976) and La Luna (1979).

Valli encountered tragedy in her personal life when her lover as a young actress, the fighter pilot Carlo Cugnasca, was killed in action over Africa. In 1944, Alida married De Mejo, a jazz pianist, with whom she had a son, Carlo, in 1945, by which time Alida had been offered a Hollywood contract.  They had another son, Larry, but parted after eight years.

Valli's death at her home in Rome was announced by the office of the mayor of Rome, Walter Veltroni. The Italian president, CarloAzeglio Ciampi, described her passing as “a great loss for the cinema, the theatre and Italian culture.”

The 15th century facade of Como's Duomo
The 15th century facade of Como's Duomo
Travel tip:

Como, where Valli grew up, can be found at the southern tip of the eastern branch of Lake Como. It is a pleasant town with an impressive cathedral in the historical centre, the construction of which spanned almost 350 years, which is why it combines features from different architectural areas, including Gothic and Renaissance. The façade was built in 1457, its characteristic rose window and a portal flanked by Renaissance statues of Pliny the Elder and Pliny the Younger, both of whom were from Como. This Duomo replaced the earlier 10th-century cathedral, San Fedele.

Como hotels from Expedia

Travel tip:

The Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia can be found off Via Tuscolana to the south of Rome, nextdoor to the Cinecittà studio complex. It is the oldest film school in Western Europe, founded in 1935 during the Mussolini era by his head of cinema, Luigi Freddi. It is still financed by the Italian government to provide training, research and experimentation in the field of cinema.  Apart from Alida Valli, other actors and actresses to have emerged from the school include Claudia Cardinale, Domenico Modugno and Francesca Neri. Directors among the alumni include Michelangelo Antonioni, Giuseppe De Santis and Luigi Zampa.

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Friday, 21 April 2017

The birth of Rome

City said to have been founded on April 21, 753BC


Nicolas Mignard's 1654 painting shows Faustulus  bringing home Romulus and Remus to his wife
Nicolas Mignard's 1654 painting shows Faustulus
bringing home Romulus and Remus to his wife
Three days of celebrations begin in Rome today to mark the annual Natale di Roma Festival, which commemorates the founding of the city 2,770 years ago.

The traditional celebrations take place largely in the large open public space of Circus Maximus, which hosts many historical re-enactments, and where Sunday’s main event – a costumed parade around the city, featuring more than 2,000 gladiators, senators, vestal virgins and priestesses – begins and ends, departing at 11.15am.

City museums offer free entry today and many of the city’s restaurants have special Natale di Roma menus.  After dark, many public places will be lit up, torches will illuminate the Aventine Hill, and firework displays will take place by the Tiber river.

According to legend, Romulus and his twin brother, Remus, founded Rome on the site where they were suckled by a she-wolf as orphaned infants.

They were said to be the sons of Rhea Silvia, the daughter of King Numitor of Alba Longa, a city located in the nearby Alban Hills southeast of what would become Rome.

Before they were born, Numitor was deposed by his younger brother Amulius, who murdered his existing son and forced Rhea to become a vestal virgin so that she would not give birth to rival claimants to his title.

The 2016 Festival: Actors dressed as gladiators
gather at Circus Maximus ready to march on Rome
The legend has it that Rhea was nonetheless impregnated by the war god Mars and gave birth to Romulus and Remus, whom Amulius immediately ordered to be put to death by drowning in the Tiber.

Yet they did not die.  There are different explanations as to what happened next, but somehow the baby boys ended up on the shore of the river at the foot of the Palatine Hill – either because they were washed up there or because Amulius’s men took pity on them and left them at the side of the river instead of throwing them into the water.

It was there, according to the legend, that they were discovered by the she-wolf, who suckled them until they were found by a shepherd called Faustulus.

Brought up by Faustulus and his wife, the twins later became leaders of a band of shepherd warriors. When they learned who they really were they went to Alba Longa, where they killed Amulius and restored their grandfather, Numitor, to power.

They decided to found a city on the site where they had been saved as infants, only for the story to take a bizarre twist when an argument between them turned into a fight and Remus was killed. 

Women dressed as Vestal Virgins are part of the day's fun
Again there are different explanations for the argument. One is that it stemmed simply from their failure to agree on the exact location of their new city. Another says that a site was agreed, but that when Romulus ploughed a furrow around the Palatine Hill to mark where the walls of the city would be, Remus mocked his ‘wall’ by jumping over it, at which point Romulus struck him with such ferocity he fell to the ground, dead.

When work commenced on building the city, named Rome in his honour, Romulus divided the early population into three tribes, giving each an area of the city – a tribune – in which to live.  He chose 100 men from leading families to form a senate.  He called these men the patres – or city fathers – and their descendants became known as patricians, forming one half of the Roman class system.  The other class – which comprised servants, freedmen, the fugitives to whom Romulus offered asylum, and others – became known as plebians, or plebs for short.

The lack of women compared with men among the early population caused a problem for Romulus, which he tried to solve in a way that was always likely to end badly.  He invited the people of cities near Rome to attend a festival, promising games and entertainment, but had secretly instructed his soldiers at a given signal to kidnap women of marriageable age.

Most of those seized happened to be from the Sabine tribe. Naturally, the Sabine men were not pleased and war ensued, a settlement reached only when Romulus agreed to share Rome with the Sabine king, Titus Tatius, an arrangement that lasted until Tatius was killed in a riot.

The city then returned to the sole rule of Romulus, who went on to reign for 37 years until his death in 717BC, apparently during a violent storm.  Witnesses claimed to have seen him picked up by a whirlwind, which led to the idea that he had been plucked from the earth and changed into Quirinus, the god of the Roman state.

Circus Maximus is the largest public open space in Rome
Travel tip:

The Circus Maximus – or Circo Massimo in Italian - is an open space south of the Forum and south-west of the Colosseum, in the valley between the Aventine Hill and the Palatine Hill, that was the site of an ancient Roman chariot racing stadium. It was the first and largest stadium in ancient Rome and its later Empire, measuring 621 m (2,037 ft) in length and 118 m (387 ft) in width, and capable of holding more than 150,000 spectators. Nowadays it is a public park often used for open-air music events and mass gatherings, such as took place after Italy won the 2006 World Cup in Germany, when thousands of Romans turned out to see the players show off their trophy on a stage in the park.

Rome hotels from Hotels.com

The papal residence opens on to a normal square in Castel Gandolfo
The papal residence opens on to a normal
square in Castel Gandolfo
Travel tip:

The Alban Hills – or Colli Albani – is an area of volcanic terrain just 20km (12 miles) south-east of Rome, which comprises the Albano and Nemi lakes and the towns of the Castelli Romani, so-called because each originally had a castle. They include Frascati, Albano Laziale, Rocca di Papa and Castel Gandolfo, the traditional summer residence of the pope.

Rome hotels from Expedia

More reading:


How emperor Trajan balanced military expansion with progressive social policies

Emperor Titus and the relief effort for victims of 79AD Vesuvius eruption

Moment that inspired Gibbon's epic history of the Roman Empire


Also on this day:


1574: The death of Cosimo I de' Medici