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.

Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Bartolommeo Bandinelli - Renaissance sculptor

Career scarred by petty jealousies

Bartolommeo Bandinelli - a self-portrait
Bartolommeo Bandinelli - a self-portrait
The sculptor Bartolommeo Bandinelli, a contemporary and rival of Michelangelo and Benvenuto Cellini in Renaissance Italy, was born on this day in 1473 in Florence.

He left his mark on Florence in the shape of the monumental statue of Hercules and Cacus in the Piazza della Signoria and his statues of Adam and Eve, originally created for the Duomo but today housed in the Museo Nazionale del Bargello.

Also known as Baccio Bandinelli and Bartolommeo Brandini, he was skilled in small sculptures but became known and disliked for his antagonistic manner with other artists and his particular hatred of Michelangelo, of whom he was bitterly jealous.

Giorgio Vasari, the artist and sculptor who was the first to compile a written history of art and artists, and who was a student in Bandinelli’s workshop, recalled an occasion when Bandinelli was so enraged by the excitement that ensued when a Michelangelo drawing was uncovered in the Palazzo Vecchio that, as soon as an opportunity arose, he tore it up.

Where Michelangelo was revered for everything he did, Bandinelli’s critics said he lacked the skills required to tackle large sculptures.

Bandinelli's Hercules and Cacus
Bandinelli's Hercules and Cacus
This only drove him to want to prove them wrong, and to this end it is thought that he persuaded the ruling Medici family to give him the commission for the statue of Hercules and Cacus – originally intended for Michelangelo, who was busy working on the Medici Chapel.

Yet when the work was unveiled in 1534 it attracted ridicule, in particular from Cellini.   Where Michelangelo, whose David already stood in the Piazza, had a gift for imbuing his creations with a sense of realism and drama, Bandinelli’s figures - in the eyes of his critics at least – lacked character and authenticity.

Much more favourably received were his bronze copy of the ancient Greek statue Laocoon and his Sons, his tombs of the Medici popes Leo X and Clement VII in Rome and his Monument to Giovanni delle Bande Nere, the Medici condottiero (professional soldier).

Bandinelli was the son of a prominent Florentine goldsmith. As a boy, he was apprenticed under Giovanni Francesco Rustici, a sculptor friend of Leonardo da Vinci.

Later in his career, he was a leader in the group of Florentine Mannerists who were inspired by the revived interest in Donatello.

Some of his works in terracotta were hailed as masterpieces and some of his drawings have been difficult to establish as not being by Michelangelo.

Bandinelli's Pietà in the Basilica della Santissima Annunziata
Bandinelli's Pietà in the Basilica della Santissima Annunziata
Yet he continued to attract scorn whenever he took on a large project, his Pietà in the Basilica della Santissima Annunziata being another example.  Bandinelli began work on it only after he heard about Michelangelo’s similar commission in Rome.

It was completed in 1559 and again brought unfavourable comments from other artists, some of whom said that it lacked refinement, his figures appearing somewhat awkward and oddly positioned compared with the grace and beauty of Michelangelo’s work.

The other complaint against Bandinelli, voiced by Vasari, was that he accepted commissions too hastily and failed to complete many of them, although there are enough examples of his work in museums and galleries to refute that claim.

However, Vasari’s detailed Lives of the Artists also gives praise where it was due and acknowledges Bandinelli was a sculptor of merit, and in recent years his talent has been better appreciated, culminating in the first exhibition devoted to his work alone, in the Bargello museum in Florence.

Cellini's Perseus with the Head of Medusa
Cellini's Perseus with the Head of Medusa
Travel tip:

Florence’s Piazza della Signoria, situated right in the heart of the city, close to the Duomo and the Uffizi Gallery, is an open-air museum of Renaissance art, featuring a series of important sculptures, the most famous of which are Giambologna’s The Rape of the Sabine Women and his Equestrian Monument of Cosimo I, Cellini’s Perseus with the Head of Medusa (next to The Rape of the Sabine Women in the Loggia dei Lanzi), Bandinelli’s Hercules and Cacus, the Medici Lions by Fancelli and Vacca, The Fountain of Neptune by Bartolemeo Ammannati, copes of Donatello’s Judith and Holofernes and Il Marzocco (the Lion), and the copy of Michelangelo’s David, at the entrance to the Palazzo Vecchio.

The Bargello in Via del Proconsolo
The Bargello in Via del Proconsolo
Travel tip:

More Renaissance sculptures can be appreciated in the Museo Nazionale del Bargello - the Bargello National Museum - situated just a short distance from Piazza della Signoria in Via del Proconsolo, in a fortified 13th century building that was once a prison. The museum houses masterpieces by Michelangelo, Donatello, Cellini, Giambologna, Vincenzo Gemito, Jacopo Sansovino, Gianlorenzo Bernini and many works by the Della Robbia family.

Monday, 16 October 2017

Dorando Pietri - marathon runner

Athlete who made his fortune from famous disqualification

Dorando Pietri with the silver cup presented to him by Queen Alexandra
Dorando Pietri with the silver cup
presented to him by Queen Alexandra
The athlete Dorando Pietri, who found fame and fortune after being disqualified in the 1908 Olympic marathon, was born on this day in 1885 in Mandrio, a hamlet near Carpi, in Emilia-Romagna.

In an extraordinary finish to the 1908 race in London, staged on an exceptionally warm July day, Pietri entered the White City Stadium in first place, urged on by a crowd of more than 75,000 who were there to witness the finish, only for his legs to buckle beneath him.

He was helped to his feet by two officials only to fall down four more times before he crossed the finish line.  Each time, officials hauled him to his feet and walked alongside him, urging him on and ready to catch him if he fell.  The final 350 yards (320m) of the event accounted for 10 minutes of the two hours, 54 minutes and 46 seconds recorded as his official time.

Eventually, a second athlete entered the stadium, the American Johnny Hayes, but Pietri had staggered over the line before he could complete the final lap.

The American team was already unpopular with the British crowd, partly because of a row about a flag at the opening ceremony. They lost even more support after they lodged an objection to the result. 

Pietri, a small man of 5ft 2ins who looked younger than his 22 years, was hailed for his pluckiness by the White City crowd, who felt he deserved the gold medal.  But the Games organisers were obliged to uphold the American complaint, on the grounds that the Italian had received assistance.

Pietri races ahead of the field in the 2008 Olympic Marathon
Pietri races ahead of the field in
the 2008 Olympic Marathon
The outrage at this decision extended even as far as the British Royal Family.  Queen Alexandra had taken a particular interest in the race, even arranging for the start line, originally set for a street outside Windsor Castle, to be moved inside the castle grounds so that her children could watch. This extended the distance to 26 miles 385 yards, which has remained the official distance for marathons ever since.

Inside the stadium, with the finishing line placed directly in front of the Royal Box, Queen Alexandra is said to have been so thrilled to see Pietri stagger across the line and be acclaimed the winner that she joined the applause of the crowd by banging her umbrella on the floor of the box.

When she learned he had been disqualified, the story goes that she was so disappointed on his behalf that she insisted his efforts be recognised and arranged for a silver and gilt cup to be inscribed, which she presented to him during the closing ceremony.

This gesture caught the public imagination to such a degree that the Daily Mail began a fund for him, which the celebrated author Arthur Conan Doyle, who had been commissioned by the newspaper to write a report of the race, launched by donating five pounds.

The Mail told its readers that money raised would help Pietri, a pastry chef by trade, to open a bakery in Carpi. In the event, the appeal realised £300, which in 1908 was a sum comparable with more than £28,000 today.

Pietri is helped across the line at the finish of the race
Pietri is helped across the line at the finish of the race
With that money and his subsequent earnings as a professional – he was invited to compete in lucrative races all over the world, including a 22-race tour of the United States – he was able eventually to open an hotel.

Apart from making his fortune, cashing in on celebrity status that extended even to having a song written about him by Irving Berlin, Pietri was able to use his American tour to remove any doubt that he was a worthy winner in London.

In a rematch staged over 262 laps of a special track built at Madison Square Garden in New York in November, 2008, in front of a 20,000 crowd, Pietri defeated Johnny Hayes, repeating the win four months later.  In all the Italian won 17 of the 22 races on the tour.

Pietri retired from competition in 1911, after a career lasting just seven years, which had been interrupted by two years of national service.

Sadly, the Grand Hotel Dorando in Carpi was not a success and in time was closed, after which Pietri moved to the Ligurian resort of San Remo, where he ran a taxi business until he died in 1942, having suffered a heart attack.

The Piazza Martiri is Italy's third largest square
The Piazza Martiri is Italy's third largest square
Travel tip:

Carpi, situated 18km (11 miles) north of Modena in the Padana plain, became a wealthy town during the era of industrial development in Italy as a centre for textiles and mechanical engineering. Its historic centre, which features a town hall housed in a former castle, is based around the Renaissance square, the Piazza Martiri, the third largest square in Italy. Italy’s national marathon has finished in Carpi in 1988 in honour of Dorando Pietri, who is also commemorated with a bronze statue by the sculptor Bernardino Morsani, erected in 2008 on the 100th anniversary of the London Olympic marathon, at the junction of Via Ugo da Carpi and Via Cattani, about 2.5km (1.5 miles) from the centre of the town.

Luxury yachts in the harbour at San Remo
Luxury yachts in the harbour at San Remo
Travel tip:

San Remo, the main resort along Liguria’s Riviera dei Fiori – Riviera of Flowers – is a town steeped in old-fashioned grandeur with echoes of its heyday as a health resort in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with broad streets lined with palm trees and luxury villas.  The harbour is still filled with expensive yachts and the casinos attract wealthy clientele. San Remo also has an old town of narrow streets and alleyways and is famous as the home of an annual pop music contest, the Sanremo Festival, where winning is still a considerable career advantage for up-and-coming Italian performers.

Sunday, 15 October 2017

Angelo Schiavio - footballer

Scored goal that won Italy's first World Cup

Angelo Schiavio played all his club football with Bologna
Angelo Schiavio played all his club
football with Bologna
Angelo Schiavio, the hero of the Italian football team’s first World Cup victory in 1934, was born on this day in 1905 in Bologna.

The centre forward, a prolific goalscorer for his home-town club in Serie A, scored the winning goal in the final against Czechoslovakia to hand victory to the Azzurri in the 16-team tournament, of which the Italians were hosts.

In the final at the Stadio Flaminio in Rome, the Azzurri had gone behind to a goal by the Czech winger Antonin Puc with 19 minutes remaining, but equalised 10 minutes later through Raimundo Orsi, the Argentina-born forward from Juventus, taking the match into extra time.

Schiavio struck the decisive goal, driven home with his right foot from a pass by Enrique Guaita, another Argentine – one of 12 to represent Italy and Argentina in the days before playing for more than one nation was outlawed.

It was his fourth goal of the tournament, sparking massive celebrations in Rome and across Italy, albeit in a mood of triumph hijacked by Benito Mussolini and his Fascist regime.

Rumours circulated, almost inevitably, that match officials had been bribed to make decisions favouring the Italians, much to the frustration of coach Vittorio Pozzo, athough he was able to validate the victory four years later when the Azzurri retained the trophy in France.

Schiavio hailed from a large family – he was the eighth child – who had originated in Gorla, a tiny hamlet in the hills above Lake Como, close to the villages of Zelbio, Valeso and Erno.

Schiavio's goal beats the Czech 'keeper in the 1934 final
Schiavio's goal beats the Czech 'keeper in the 1934 final
They had run a silk mill before moving to Bologna a year before Angelo was born to start a business selling clothing and underwear made from wool, under the name of Schiavio-Stoppani.

Their first store, opened in 1919, was located on the corner of Via Clavature and Via dei Toschi, right in the historic centre of the city.  The business would grow, expanding into sports equipment, and continued to trade as a family enterprise until the early part of the 20th century.

Angelo Schiavio played an active part in the business himself once his career was over.

As a player, renowned for his power and pace as a centre forward, with excellent dribbling skills and a fierce shot, he made 348 appearances for Bologna between 1922 and 1938, scoring 242 goals, having made his debut against Juventus in January 1923, at the age of just 17. By the end of his first half-season he had scored six goals.

He helped Bologna win the scudetto – the Italian Serie A title – for the first time in their history in 1924-25, winning three more championships in the rossoblu shirt.

Schiavio’s career goals tally remains the highest by any Bologna player and the fourth highest among all Italians. Only Silvio Piola, Giuseppe Meazza and, from the modern era, Francesco Totti have scored more goals over their careers.

Schiavio in the
national colours
For the Azzurri, he struck 15 goals in 21 appearances, scoring twice on his debut against Yugoslavia in Padua in 1925. He twice scored hat-tricks for the national team, the first time in an incredible 11-3 victory over Egypt in the third-place match at the 1928 Olympics in the Netherlands, the second in the opening match of the 1934 World Cup, when Italy thrashed the United States 7-1.

The final was his last international appearance, although he would play on in club football until 1938.

As a coach, he was twice part of a technical committee at Bologna and served the national team in a similar capacity between 1953 and 1958, before leaving football and devoting himself to the family business.

He died in 1990 at the age of 84 and is buried in the Monumental Cemetery of Certosa in Bologna.

Lake Como has an abundance of picturesque lakeside towns and villages
Lake Como has an abundance of picturesque lakeside
towns and villages
Travel tip:

Zelbio, Valeso and Erno are picturesque small villages nestling in the tree-lined hills that descend gently towards the shore of the western branch of Lake Como, about 50km (31 miles) north of Milan, about 25km (16 miles) from Como itself and a similar distance from Bellagio.  The best way to appreciate the beauty of the area is to take one of the ferry services that link the lakeside towns.

Piazza Maggiore in the centre of Bologna
Piazza Maggiore in the centre of Bologna
Travel tip:

The Schiavo-Stoppani store, on the corner of Via Clavature and Via dei Toschi, was in a prime location in the centre of Bologna, only a few metres from the historic heart of the city in Piazza Maggiore.  Via Clavature is an interesting, narrow street lined with fruit and vegetable stores and has several bars and restaurants.

Saturday, 14 October 2017

Alessandro Safina – singer

Tenor who has blended opera and rock

Alessandro Safina has become a household name in Italy after several successful albums
Alessandro Safina has become a household name
in Italy after several successful albums
Alessandro Safina, a singer trained in opera who has expanded the so-called ‘crossover’ pop-opera genre to include rock influences, was born on this day in 1963 in Siena.

A household name in Italy, the tenor is less well known outside his own country but has recorded duets with international stars such as Sarah Brightman, South Korean soprano Sumi Jo, Rod Stewart, former Pretenders singer Chrissie Hynde, Scottish actor and singer Ewan McGregor and the superstar Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli.

Safina’s biggest album to date is Insieme a Te, which has sold more than 700,000 copies.

It was written in collaboration with the Italian pianist and composer Romano Musumarra, who helped realise Safina’s ambition of creating soulful rock-inspired music for the tenor voice.  He first performed songs from the album at the Olympia theatre in Paris in 1999.

Safina was born into an opera-loving family and earned money to pay for singing lessons by working in his father’s stationery business.  Set on becoming a professional singer from the age of nine, he began attending a music academy at 12 and was accepted for a place at the Luigi Cherubini Conservatory in Florence at 17.

In 1989, he won the a competition – the Concorso Lirico Internazionale in Mantova, Italy – and made his opera debut the following year, appearing alongside soprano Katia Ricciarelli as Rodolfo in Puccini's La bohème.

Safina made his operatic debut in 1990 singing alongside the soprano Katia Ricciarelli
Safina made his operatic debut in 1990 singing
alongside the soprano Katia Ricciarelli
Professionally, Safina’s singing remained focussed on the classic tenor operatic roles for much of the 1990s. Privately, his musical tastes were much less confined. He was late to discover rock music, but once he had he became a fan of such bands as U2, Genesis, Depeche Mode and even punk outfit The Clash.

His collaboration with Musumarra led to his debut album, simply called Alessandro Safina, in 2001, from which the single Luna became a hit. After he had performed the song live in The Netherlands, it reached number one in the Dutch singles charts and remained there for 14 weeks.

This success sparked numerous engagements over the coming years, including a duet singing Elton John’s Your Song with Ewan McGregor for the score of Moulin Rouge, an appearance in front of Queen Elizabeth at the 73rd Royal Variety Performance in London (singing Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s Music of the Night) and another rendition of Your Song, this time with Elton John, for the Sport Relief fund-raising campaign.

He made his acting debut in the role of the painter Mario Cavaradossi in a film based on Puccini’s Tosca and sang a duet with Rod Stewart on the latter’s album, As Time Goes By.

His links with South Korea began after he performed at the opening ceremony of the 2002 football World Cup.

Safina’s second album, Insieme a Te, consolidated his position as a star of the crossover genre, featuring his duet with Chrissie Hynde as well as Lloyd Webber’s classic Music of the Night.

In more recent years, Safina has recorded a duet with the British soprano Sarah Brightman for her album, Symphony, performed "O Sole Mio" with Andrea Bocelli.  He recorded his fifth album, Dedicated, in 2014.

The Palio di Siena delivers spectacular thrills
The Palio di Siena delivers spectacular thrills 
Travel tip:

The city of Siena is famous for its twice-yearly horse race, Il Palio, which brings massive crowds both to watch the spectacular action as the horses, ridden bareback by colourfully adorned jockeys from 10 of the city’s contrade (wards), career around a track that follows the perimeter of Piazza del Campo.  Generally speaking, the race takes place on July 2, when it is contested as the Palio di Provenzano, in honour of the Madonna of Provenzano, and on August 16, when it is named the Palio dell'Assunta, in honour of the Assumption of Mary.

The Piazza del Campo is shaped like a scallop shell
The Piazza del Campo is shaped like a scallop shell
Travel tip:

The Piazza del Campo is the heart of Siena’s medieval centre, one of the largest and most beautiful squares in Italy, shaped a little like a scallop shell, with a gentle slope towards the imposing Palazzo Pubblico.  From the square, some 11 narrow streets and alleyways radiate outwards into the city, which has a sense of charm and mystery that visitors find beguiling.

Friday, 13 October 2017

Claudius - Roman emperor

Suspicious death of leader who conquered Britain

Claudius - as depicted in a marble bust at the  National Archaeological Museum in Naples
Claudius - as depicted in a marble bust at the
 National Archaeological Museum in Naples
The Roman emperor Claudius, whose reign was notable among other things for turning Britain into a province of the Empire, died on this day in 54 AD.

It is a widely held view that he was murdered, by poisoning, on the orders of his scheming fourth wife, Julia Agrippina, the mother of his successor, Nero, in one of the power struggles that at the time were ever present.

It is thought he ingested some poisonous mushrooms that his taster, the eunuch Halotus, had assured him were safe to eat, either at an official banquet on the evening of October 12 or at his first meal of the following day.

When Claudius began to show signs of distress, one version of the story is that his physician, Xenophon, pushed a feather into his throat, ostensibly to make him vomit, but actually to ensure that he did not recover by administering more poison, with which he had coated the feather.

There have been arguments that the poisoning story was nonsense and that, at 63, Claudius died from natural causes related to ageing. Yet Agrippina - sometimes referred to as Agrippina the Younger - seemed to have had a clear motive.

Beautiful and ambitious, she had seduced Claudius into marriage even though their coupling was against the law – he was her uncle – and even though after surviving one plot against him by his third wife, Valeria Messalina, Claudius had vowed never to marry again.

He had the Senate pass a special decree to authorise his union with Agrippina and was sufficiently besotted with her to trust there would be no repeat of Messalina’s attempt, with her lover, Gaius Silius, to instigate a coup.

Agrippina the Younger, mother of Nero, who is thought to have ordered Claudius's murder
Agrippina the Younger, mother of Nero, who
is thought to have ordered Claudius's murder
Agrippina was no innocent, however.  Her real motive was to persuade Claudius that Nero – otherwise known as Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, one of the last male descendants of Augustus – was a better choice to succeed him than his own, younger son Britannicus, whom he had fathered with Messalina.

Claudius duly adopted Nero as his own and promised him the hand of his daughter, Octavia, in marriage.   As Britannicus grew up, though, there were suggestions that he might be reinstated as the emperor’s heir, which is thought to have been the reason Agrippina decided to take action.

She was determined that Nero would be proclaimed emperor while he was still young, with her acting as guardian, so that she could influence the way he ran the empire. The move backfired spectacularly when, as soon as he was old enough to govern in his own right, he had her murdered.

Claudius had been an unlikely emperor.  As a child and adolescent, he suffered from a number of physical ailments including tremors, a stammer, a limp, and foaming at the mouth. Historians have speculated that he may have had Tourette’s syndrome.

Even his own family mocked his afflictions. His mother described him as a “monstrosity” and Caligula - his nephew and predecessor as emperor – was relentlessly cruel to him.

Over time his handicaps eased and he had ambitions of a political career. But he was passed over time and again for public office and eventually took to filling his days with drinking, womanising and gambling, although he was intellectual enough in sober moments to spend long hours immersed in books, expanding his knowledge.

Later in life, he would produce many volumes of history, on Carthage, the Etruscans and the Roman Republic.

Lawrence Alma-Tadema's 1867 painting shows Claudius pleading for his life with the Praetorian Guard
Lawrence Alma-Tadema's 1867 painting shows Claudius
pleading for his life with the Praetorian Guard
Things changed when Caligula ascended to power at the age of 25 and, suddenly vulnerable when confronted with responsibility, turned to Claudius, then 46, to act as his consul.

In the event, Caligula was murdered by his own supposed protectors, the Praetorian Guard, in a sudden but seemingly long-planned coup in 41 AD.  Claudius is said to have cowered behind a curtain while the bloody deed was taking place and expected himself to be slain.

Instead, when he was discovered by soldiers, he was saluted as the new emperor and taken to a place of safety to prepare for office.

It took a substantial pay rise to ensure the support of the Praetorian Guard going forward but once installed Claudius proved a clever and effective leader.

Domestically, he improved the judicial system, encouraged urbanisation, revived several old religious festivals, organised a spectacular Secular Games and ordered the construction of a new port at Ostia.

But by far his most eyecatching achievements were in foreign policy, where he annexed several territories in Africa and Asia and succeeded where others before him had failed in launching and completing the conquest of Britain.

Assembling a force of 40,000 soldiers and accompanying war elephants, he targeted the tribal stronghold at what is now Colchester and captured their leader, Caratacus. 

He made a personal visit to Britain during the invasion and remained for 16 days before returning to a hero’s welcome in Rome.

The ruins of the Forum in Rome
The ruins of the Forum in Rome
A triumphal arch on the Via Flaminia was built in his honour, and he was hailed him as the man who “brought barbarian peoples beyond Ocean for the first time under Rome’s sway.”

Travel tip:

For a fine view across the ruins of ancient Rome towards the Colosseum in the distance, head for Michelangelo’s Piazza del Campidoglio, next to the Palazzo Nuovo and Capitoline musuems, where there is a balcony that looks out across the ancient city.

Travel tip:

From the time of Augustus, who ruled from 27 BC to 14 AD, Roman emperors traditionally lived in an imperial palace atop the Palatine Hill, the central hill among the seven hills of ancient Rome.  The remains visible today are of at least three  palaces, built next to one another over the years, in which Augustus, Tiberius and Domitian lived.  The word ‘palace’ – palazzo in Italian – derives from the name of the hill.

Thursday, 12 October 2017

Piero della Francesca - Renaissance painter

Mathematician famous for exploring perspective

Della Francesca's assumed self- portrait in his Ressurrection
Della Francesca's assumed self-
portrait in his Ressurrection
Piero della Francesca, recognised as one of the greatest painters of the early Renaissance, died on this day in 1492 in what was then Borgo Santo Sepolcro, near Arezzo.

He was thought to have been around 77 years old – his exact birth date is not known – and it has been popularly theorised that he was blind in the later years of his life, although evidence to support the claim is sketchy.

Della Francesca’s work was characterised by his exploration of perspective and geometric form, which was hardly surprising since in his own time he was as famous among his peers as a mathematician and geometer as well as an artist.

He came to be recognized in the 20th century as having made a major contribution to the Renaissance.

His fresco cycle The History – or Legend – of the True Cross in the Basilica of San Francesco in Arezzo, painted between 1452 and 1466, and his diptych – two-panelled – portraits of Federico da Montefeltro and Battista Sforza - the Dukes of Urbino, dated at between 1465 and 1472, which can be seen in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, are among his best-known works.

Detail from Della Francesca's stunning History of the True Cross fresco cycle in the Basilica of San Francesco in Arezzo
Detail from Della Francesca's stunning History of the True
fresco cycle in the Basilica of San Francesco in Arezzo
He had been born in Borgo Santo Sepolcro – now known as Sansepolcro – in around 1415, into a fairly prosperous family. His father, Benedetto dei Franceschi, is thought to have been a wool and leather merchant, while his mother was the daughter of another wool merchant.  They saw to it that Piero had a good education. At that time, he was known as Piero di Benedetto dei Franceschi.

He may have learned his trade from one of several Sienese artists working in the town as he was growing up.  It is known that he was an associate in Florence of Domenico Veneziano, with whom he worked in 1439 on frescoes in the church of Sant’Egidio for the hospital of Santa Maria Nuova. He also knew Fra' Angelico, who introduced him to other leading masters of the time, including Masaccio and Brunelleschi.

In 1442 he returned to Santo Sepolcro, where he was commissioned for an altarpiece in the church of the Misericordia, which showed the influence of Masaccio and also Donatello and highlighted the deliberation with which he worked. The altarpiece was not completed until 1462.

Della Francesca's diptych of the Dukes of Urbino
Della Francesca's diptych of the Dukes of Urbino
In 1449 he executed several frescoes in the Castello Estense and the church of Sant'Andrea of Ferrara and, during a period in Rimini, working for the condottiero Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta, he painted the fresco of St. Sigismund and Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta in the Tempio Malatestiano, as well as Sigismondo's portrait.

In 1452 Della Francesca was called to Arezzo to replace Bicci di Lorenzo in painting the frescoes of the Basilica of San Francesco. The History of the True Cross cycle is generally considered not only to be among his masterworks but of Renaissance painting in general.

Experts say that “the simplicity and clarity of structure, controlled use of perspective, and aura of serenity (in The History of the True Cross) are all typical of Piero’s art at its best.”

Painted at the same time as the Arezzo cycle are a fine depiction of Mary Magdalene in Arezzo cathedral, the Resurrection in the Palazzo Comunale at Sansepolcro, which features a self-portrait of the artist, and his Madonna del parto in the chapel of the cemetery at Monterchi.

The Flagellation of Christ aroused controversy
The Flagellation of Christ aroused controversy
In 1454 he signed a contract for the multi-panelled polyptych of Saint Augustine in the church of Sant'Agostino in Sansepolcro. The central panel was lost and the four wing panels, with representations of Saints, are in different places around the world.

However, The Baptism of Christ, which was executed around 1460 for the high altar of the church of the Priory of San Giovanni Battista at Sansepolcro, is in The National Gallery in London.

During his time working in Urbino, in the service of Count Federico III da Montefeltro, in addition to his famous diptych, Della Francesca also painted The Flagellation of Christ, which became one of the most famous and controversial pictures of the early Renaissance, with Christ pictured in the background as three unidentified figures dominate the foreground.

Della Francesca was much less active in his declining years, with little evidence that he painted much at all, yet 16th century artist and historian Giorgio Vasari's contention that he was blind in his 60s does not tally with his completion in his final decade of a geometrical treatise dedicated to Guidobaldo da Montefeltro, son and heir of Duke Federico, written in his own handwriting, and another on perspective in painting.

He passed away in his own house in Santo Sepolcro on the same day that Christopher Columbus made landfall in The Bahamas, believing he had reached Asia.

The Duomo in Sansepolcro
The Duomo in Sansepolcro
Travel tip:

Sansepolcro is a town of 16,000 inhabitants situated about 38km (24 miles) northeast of Arezzo in the east of Tuscany, close to the borders with Umbria and Marche. The historic centre is entirely surrounded with fortified walls, built in the early part of the 16th century. The centre of the town is the Piazza Torre di Berta, named after the 13th-century tower of the same name, off which can be found the impressive Palazzi Pichi and Giovagnoli and the 14th-century cathedral, dedicated to St John the Evangelist.  As well as being the place in which Piero della Francesca was born and died, it is also the home of Buitoni pasta.

Arezzo's sharply sloping Piazza Grande
Arezzo's sharply sloping Piazza Grande
Travel tip:

Arezzo is one of the wealthiest cities in Tuscany. Situated at the confluence of four valleys - Tiberina, Casentino, Valdarno and Valdichiana – its medieval centre suffered massive damage during the Second World War but still has enough monuments, churches and museums to be a worthwhile stopover on tourist itineraries. In addition to the Basilica di San Francesco and the Piero della Francesca cycle, sights to take in include central square Piazza Grande, with its sloping pavement in red brick, the Medici Fortress, the Cathedral of San Donato and a Roman amphitheatre.

Wednesday, 11 October 2017

Pierre-Napoleon Bonaparte – adventurer

Colourful life of Italian-born prince

Pierre-Napoleon Bonaparte, nephew of the Emperor
Pierre-Napoleon Bonaparte, nephew of the Emperor
Prince Pierre-Napoleon Bonaparte, a nephew of the Emperor Napoleon, was born on this day in 1815 in Rome.

He was to become notorious for shooting dead a journalist after his family was criticised in a newspaper article.

Bonaparte was the son of Napoleon’s brother, Lucien, and his second wife, Alexandrine de Bleschamp. He grew up with his nine siblings on the family estate at Canino, about 40 kilometres north of Rome.

The young Bonaparte helped to keep bandits at bay, spending a lot of time with the local shepherds who were armed and had dogs to protect them.

He set out on a career of adventure, joining bands of insurgents in the Romagna region as a teenager.

In 1831 he spent time in prison for a minor offence and was banished from the Papal States.

He went to the United States to join his uncle, Joseph Bonaparte, in New Jersey. He spent some time in New York before going to serve in the army of the President of Columbia. At the age of 17 he became the President’s aide and was given the rank of Commander.

Bonaparte returned to the family estate at Canino where he enjoyed hunting with his brothers. One day they caught a well-known bandit and one of his brothers wounded him.

They delivered the bandit to the police, who instead of being grateful tried to arrest them. Bonaparte lashed out with his hunting knife and killed a young officer.

The ruins of the Bonaparte mansion at Luzipeo in Corsica
The ruins of the Bonaparte mansion at Luzipeo in Corsica
He was condemned to death, but after serving nine months in prison, he was released after an intervention by the Pope, on the condition that he left Canino.

He travelled to the US, Britain and Corfu, from where he sailed to Albania with friends. He was set upon by bandits and managed to fight them off but was then asked to leave Corfu.

After the revolution of 1848 he returned to France and was elected to the National Assembly as deputy for Corsica, declaring himself a republican.

But after his cousin Louis became Napoleon III, he accepted the title of Prince, losing the support of the Republicans.

In 1853 he married Justine Eleonore Ruffin, the daughter of a Parisian workman. They had two children, Prince Roland Napoleon Bonaparte in 1858 and Princess Jeannne Bonaparte in 1861.

Napoleon III, now on the throne of France, did not approve of the marriage and so the family went to live in Calinzana in Corsica.

Bonaparte shot and killed a journalist but was acquitted of murder
Bonaparte shot and killed a journalist
but was acquitted of murder
They set up house at Grotta Niella near Calvi but then had a mansion built at Luzipeo. The ruins of it still stand on a hill overlooking the bay of Crovani. The last time it was occupied was during World War II by the Italian army.

In 1869 a dispute broke out between two Corsican newspapers, the radical La Revanche and the loyalist L’Avenir de la Corse.

After La Revanche criticised the Emperor Napoleon, L’Avenir published a letter by Prince Pierre Bonaparte calling the staff of La Revanche ‘cowards and traitors’.

Paschal Grousset, the editor of La Marsellaise, supported La Revanche and was offended by the Prince’s words.

The Prince wrote to the founder of the newspaper, Henri Rochefort, claiming he was upholding the good name of his family and giving him his address.

Grousset sent Victor Noir and Ulrich de Fonvielle as his seconds to fix the terms of a duel and present him with a letter.

The Prince said he would fight Rochefort, another nobleman, but not deal with his menials. According to Fonvielle, after Noir replied to him, the Prince slapped his face and shot him dead.

According to the Prince, Noir took umbrage at being called a menial and struck him first, whereupon he drew his revolver and shot the journalist. This version was accepted by the court.

Prince Pierre Bonaparte died in 1881 at Versailles and was interred in the Cimitière des Gonards there.

Canino sits on a hillside in the Province of Viterbo
Canino sits on a hillside in the Province of Viterbo
Travel tip:

Canino, where Prince Pierre-Napoleon Bonaparte grew up, is to the north of Rome in the province of Viterbo and dates back to Etruscan times. Lucien Bonaparte, Pierre’s father, was made Prince of Canino by Pope Pius VII and there is a Palazzo Bonaparte in the town.

A square in the centre of Calinzana
A square in the centre of Calinzana
Travel tip:

Corsica was part of the Republic of Genoa for centuries, until in 1768 it was ceded to the French. This was a year before the birth of Napoleon Bonaparte in the capital city of Ajaccio. Under French rule, the Corsican language, which is closely related to standard Italian, declined. But during the first half of the 19th century the people of Corsica still identified with Italian culture. Children were sent to Pisa to study, official acts were written in Italian and books were printed in Italian. Calinzana (known as Calenzana in French), where Prince Pierre Napoleon went to live, is on the northwest coast of the island. The ruins of his mansion can still be seen on a hill overlooking the coast. It is remembered that it was thanks to his generosity that the people of Calinzana could enjoy the benefits of freely available drinking water. There is a square named after him with a bust of the prince.