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, 21 May 2018

Propaganda Due suspects named

Italy horrified as list reveals alleged members of ‘secret state’ 

Licio Gelli's home was raided by investigators
Licio Gelli's home was raided
by investigators
Ordinary Italians were stunned and the country’s elite rocked to the core on this day in 1981 when a list was made public of alleged members of Propaganda Due, a secret Masonic lodge which sought to run the country as a ‘state within the state’.

A staggering 962 names were on the list, including 44 members of parliament, three of whom were cabinet ministers, 49 bankers, numerous industrialists, a number of newspaper editors and other high-profile journalists, the heads of all three of Italy’s secret services and more than 200 military and police officers, including 12 generals of the Carabinieri, five of the Guardia di Finanza, 22 of the army and four from the air force.

The existence of the illegal, underground lodge, known as P2 had been rumoured for several years but there had been little concrete evidence until magistrates investigating the collapse of the Banco Ambrosiano in Milan raided the home in Tuscany of Licio Gelli, the former Fascist financier who turned out to be the Grandmaster.

The list of alleged members, which was made public by Prime Minister Arnaldo Forlani on the advice of the prosecuting team, was found among paperwork seized in the raid.

Arnaldo Forlani's government collapsed in the wake of the P2 scandal
Arnaldo Forlani's government collapsed
in the wake of the P2 scandal
The names included Roberto Calvi, the former head of the Banco Ambrosiano who would be found dead in London the following year, Admiral Giovanni Torrisi, the Chief of the Defence Staff of Italy, and the future prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, who had yet to enter politics but was already on his way to becoming Italy’s most powerful media tycoon.

The lodge was headed by Gelli, who had the title "Maestro venerabile".

Another major name on the list was Adolfo Sarti, the Minister of Justice, who resigned a couple of days after the list was published, triggering the collapse of Forlani’s ruling coalition and their resignation en masse.

The prosecuting magistrates told Forlani there was evidence that Gelli had constructed “a very real state within the state,'' using blackmail, favours, promises of advancement and bribes.

Their report described P2 as “a secret sect that has combined business and politics with the intention of destroying the constitutional order of the country and of transforming the parliamentary system into a presidential system.”

Banker Roberto Calvi, a member of P2, was found hanging beneath Blackfriars Bridge in London
Banker Roberto Calvi, a member of P2, was found
hanging beneath Blackfriars Bridge in London
It added that Gelli's strategy had been “to bring under his control a large number of powerful and highly-placed persons and thus to break down, for the first time in Italian history, the separation between political, administrative, military and economic spheres.''

Exactly how much power P2 wielded has been debated in all the years since it was exposed, although one undeniable coup was achieved when Gelli took control of Corriere della Sera, one of Italy’s leading newspapers.

The paper, edited by Piero Ottone, had run into financial trouble and was finding it difficult to obtain loans because the banks were not impressed by Ottone’s outspoken opposition to the powerful Christian Democratic Party, the dominant force in Italian politics. Gelli stepped in to arrange a cash injection from the Vatican Bank. Ottone was fired, P2 member Franco Di Bella was appointed in his place and the paper's editorial line shifted to the right.

In 1980 the paper published a long interview with Gelli conducted by the television talk show host Maurizio Costanzo, another whose name was on the list.  Gelli told Costanzo he was in favour of rewriting the Italian constitution towards a Gaullist presidential system.

In the same year, there were suspicions that P2 members were involved in the bombing of Bologna railway station and the spreading of false stories seeking to undermine the Italian Communist Party in one of its biggest strongholds. In fact, Gelli and the deputy director of Italy's military intelligence service, SISMI, Pietro Musumeci were arrested for attempting to mislead the police investigation into the massacre, which killed 85 people, wounded more than 200 and was eventually blamed on a far-right terrorist group.

P2 members were certainly involved in the collapse of Banco Ambrosiano, one of Milan's principal banks - owned in part by the Vatican Bank, and of the Franklin National Bank in New York, owned by a Calvi associate and P2 member, Michele Sindona, who was suspected of facilitating a Mafia money-laundering network involving the Banco Ambrosiano and the Vatican Bank.

Calvi, convicted of illegal money exports in 1980 but released from prison pending an appeal, was found hanging beneath Blackfriars Bridge in London in 1982. Sindona, who was tried and found guilty of organising the murder of one of the Banco Ambrosiano scandal investigators, died in prison after being poisoned.

Arezzo's beautiful Piazza Grande is at the heart of the major Tuscan city
Arezzo's beautiful Piazza Grande is at the heart of the
major Tuscan city
Travel tip:

Arezzo, where Licio Gelli lived, 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 fresco 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.

The neoclassical main grandstand at the Arena Civica sports stadium in central Milan
The neoclassical main grandstand at the Arena Civica
sports stadium in central Milan
Travel tip:

One of Milan’s often overlooked attractions is the Arena Civica, which was opened in 1807 in the city's Parco Sempione, behind the Castello Sforzesco. It is one of Milan's main examples of neoclassical architecture, an elliptical amphitheatre commissioned by Napoleon Bonaparte soon after he became King of Italy in 1805.  Napoleon wanted it to be Milan's equivalent of the Colosseum in Rome, although there are Greek influences too. The first event to be staged there, fittingly, was a chariot race.  It was adapted for football in the early part of the 20th century and was the home of Internazionale until the move to San Siro in 1947. Nowadays it is renamed Arena Gianni Brera in honour of one of Italy's most influential sports journalists.

More reading:

How Roberto Calvi, the financier known as 'God's Banker', met a mysterious death

Michele Sindona - shady banker with links to Mafia and P2

Maurizio Costanzo - record-breaking broadcaster

Also on this day:

1910: The birth in Sicily of Philadelphia gang boss Angelo Bruno

1972: Attacker damages Michelangelo masterpiece


Sunday, 20 May 2018

Hieronymus Fabricius - anatomist and surgeon

Research pioneer known as “Father of Embryology”

Girolamo Fabrizio spent much of his academic life at the University of Padua
Girolamo Fabrizio spent much of his academic
life at the University of Padua
The pioneering anatomist and physiologist known in academic history as Hieronymus Fabricius, whose Italian name was Girolamo Fabrizio, was born on this day in 1537 in Acquapendente, in Lazio.

Fabrizio, who designed the first permanent theatre for public anatomical dissections, advanced the knowledge of the make-up of the human body in many areas, including the digestive system, the eyes and ears, and the veins.

But his most significant discoveries were in embryology.  He investigated the foetal development of many animals and humans and produced the first detailed description of the placenta. For this he became known as the "Father of Embryology".

Fabrizio spent most of his life at the University of Padua, where he was a student under the guidance of Gabriele Falloppio, who discovered the tube connecting the ovaries with the uterus that became known as the Fallopian tube.

He succeeded Falloppio as chair of surgery and anatomy, holding the post from 1562 to 1613 and building a reputation that attracted students from all of Europe.

Among his pupils were the English anatomist William Harvey, as well as Giulio Casseri and Adriaan van den Spiegel, both of whom went on to become significant anatomists in Italy. Indeed, both also occupied the chair of surgery and anatomy at the University of Padua.

The Teatro Anatomico at the University of Padua was designed by Girolamo Fabrizio
The Teatro Anatomico at the University of Padua was
designed by Girolamo Fabrizio
Fabrizio’s dissections of animals enabled him to make discoveries about the formation of the fetus, the structure of the esophagus, stomach and intestines, and the workings of the eye, the ear, and the larynx. He was the first to note that the pupil of the eye changes in size.

He was the first to identify the membranous folds that he called "valves" in the interior of veins, which are now understood to prevent retrograde flow of blood within them.

Fabrizio also described the cerebral fissure separating the temporal lobe from the frontal lobe of the brain, although it is only recently that he has been credited with the discovery.

The statue of Girolamo Fabrizio in his home town of Acquapendente
The statue of Girolamo Fabrizio in
his home town of Acquapendente
He was a practising surgeon as well as an anatomist. Extraordinarily, the technique he invented to perform a tracheotomy is very similar to the procedure used in the operation today.

Fabrizio never actually performed such an operation himself, but in his writing he described using a vertical incision and a tracheostomy tube, a short, straight cannula to which he added wings to prevent the tube from disappearing into the trachea.

The technique may have been used for the first time by the surgeon Marco Aurelio Severino during a diptheria epidemic in Naples in 1610.

Fabrizio died in Padua in 1619 at the age of 82. There is a monument to him in his home town of Acquapendente.

The castle at Torre Alfina, near Acquapendente
The castle at Torre Alfina, near Acquapendente
Travel tip:

Acquapendente is a medieval town in northern Lazio, about 140km (87 miles) north of Rome, just under 30km (18 miles) west of Orvieto. It takes its name - literally translated as ‘hanging water’ - from the small waterfalls that flow into the Paglia river. Among the main sights is the Duomo di Acquapendente, which developed from a former Benedictine monastery, developed in the 12th century. A short distance from Acquapendente is he castle of Torre Alfina, the central tower of which was built by the Lombard king Desiderius.

Palazzo Bo, the historic home of the University of Padua
Palazzo Bo, the historic home of the University of Padua
Travel tip:

The founding of the University of Padua is officially recorded to have taken place in 1222 but this was actually the first time it was mentioned in an historical document, which means it is certainly older. It was formed when a large group of students and professors left the University of Bologna in search of more academic freedom. The first subjects to be taught were law and theology.

Also on this day:

1470: The birth of the poet Pietro Bembo, lover of Lucrezia Borgia

1943: The birth of the veteran singer Al Bano


Saturday, 19 May 2018

Vittorio Orlando - politician

Prime minister humiliated at First World War peace talks

Vittorio Orlando's reputation lay in
tatters following Paris peace talks
Vittorio Emanuele Orlando, the Italian prime minister best known for being humiliated by his supposed allies at the Paris peace talks following the First World War, was born on this day in 1860 in Palermo.

Elected to the Chamber of Deputies for the first time in 1897, Orlando had held a number of positions in government and became prime minister in 1917 following Italy’s disastrous defeat to the Austro-Hungarian army at Caporetto, which saw 40,000 Italian soldiers killed or wounded and 265,000 captured. The government of Orlando’s predecessor, Paolo Boselli, collapsed as a result.

Orlando, who had been a supporter of Italy’s entry into the war on the side of the Allies, rebuilt shattered Italian morale and the military victory at Vittorio Veneto, which ended the war on the Italian front and contributed to the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian empire, saw him hailed as Italy’s ‘premier of victory’.

However, his reputation was left in tatters when he and Sidney Sonnino, his half-Welsh foreign secretary, when to Paris to participate in peace talks but left humiliated after the territorial gains they were promised in return for entering the war on the side of Britain, France and the United States were not delivered.

Orlando’s ability to negotiate was not helped by his complete lack of English, while his bargaining position was undermined also by disagreements with Sonnino over what they wanted. As a result, Orlando was no match for US president Woodrow Wilson, British premier David Lloyd George and French prime minister Georges Clemenceau.

Orlando, second left, with Lloyd George, Clemenceau, and Woodrow Wilson at the Paris peace talks
Orlando, second left, with Lloyd George, Clemenceau,
and Woodrow Wilson at the Paris peace talks
He failed to secure either of Italy’s main objectives at the peace talks, namely control of the Dalmatian peninsula and the annexation of the coastal city of Rijeka, known in Italian as Fiume, suffered a nervous collapse, for which he was mocked by Clemenceau in particular, and stormed out of the talks before their conclusion.

Orlando resigned as prime minister just days before the Treaty of Versailles to which he was supposed to have been a signatory.  Years later he spoke of his pride at having nothing to do with what was finally agreed but at the time he was seen as a failure.

The damage to national morale and pride was considerable.  Some historians believe Orlando’s humiliation was a key factor in Mussolini being able to harness so much public support and sweep to power.

Orlando’s backing for Mussolini - at the start of the Fascist regime, at least - enabled him to cling to his political career and in 1919 he was elected president of the Chamber of Deputies.  But he could not countenance the murder by the Fascists of the socialist politician Giacomo Matteotti in 1924 and quit politics in 1925.

He returned in 1944 after the fall of Mussolini and became speaker of the Chamber of Deputies. But he failed in his bid to be elected president of the Italian Republic in 1948, defeated in the vote by Luigi Einaudi.  He died four years later.

Sidney Sonnino disagreed with Orlando's approach to the talks
Sidney Sonnino disagreed with
Orlando's approach to the talks
The son of a Sicilian gentleman landowner, Orlando was a controversial figure even before the debacle of Paris.  Highly intelligent - he wrote extensively on legal and judicial issues - he was dogged throughout his career by accusations that had connections with the Sicilian Mafia.

His association with the mobster Frank Coppola, who was deported back to Sicily in 1948 after a criminal career in the United States, did not help, nor did a speech he made in the Italian senate in 1925 in response to rumours doing the rounds, in which he teased his audience by speaking about the Sicilian origins of the word mafia to mean a person of loyalty, honour, compassion and generosity of spirit and declaring himself “a proud mafioso”.

The Mafia pentito - state witness - Tommaso Buscetta once claimed in court that Orlando genuinely was a member of the Sicilian Mafia, although he was never investigated.

Looking across Partinico towards the Gulf of Castellammare
Looking across Partinico towards the Gulf of Castellammare
Travel tip:

Partinico, the town which Orlando represented when he was elected to the Italian parliament in 1897, is situated about 37km (23 miles) west of Palermo, on the way to Castellammare del Golfo. Home to almost 32,000 people today, it has long held political significance and was a stopover for Giuseppe Garibaldi during his march on Palermo.

The Duomo of Serravalle at Vittorio Veneto
The Duomo of Serravalle at Vittorio Veneto
Travel tip:

Vittorio Veneto is a town of some 28,000 people in the Province of Treviso, in Veneto, situated between the Piave and Livenza rivers at the foot of the mountain region known as the Prealpi.  It was formed from the joining of the communities of Serravalle and Ceneda in 1866 and named Vittorio in honour of Victor Emmanuel II.  The Veneto suffix was added in 1923 to commemorate the decisive battle.

Also on this day:

1946: The birth of actor Michele Placido

1979: The birth of Italian football great Andrea Pirlo


Friday, 18 May 2018

Domenico di Pace Beccafumi – artist

Painter from Siena experimented with rich colour 

Beccafumi's Madonna with Child, St Jerome and the Infant St John is notable for its almost luminous colours
Beccafumi's Madonna with Child, St Jerome and the Infant
St John
is notable for its almost luminous colours
Considered one of the last true representatives of the Sienese school of painting, Domenico di Pace Beccafumi died on this day in 1551 in Siena.

He is remembered for his direction of the paving of the Duomo - cathedral - of Siena between 1517 and 1544, when he made ingenious improvements to the technical processes employed for this task, which in the end took more than 150 years to complete.

Domenico was born in Montaperti near Siena in about 1486. His father, Giacomo di Pace, worked on the estate of Lorenzo Beccafumi, whose surname he eventually took.

Seeing his talent for drawing, Lorenzo had taken an interest in him and recommended that he learn painting from the Sienese artist, Mechero.

In 1509 Di Pace Beccafumi travelled to Rome for a short period, where he learnt from artists working on the Vatican.

Back in Siena, he painted religious pieces for churches and was only mildly influenced by the trends dominating the neighbouring Florentine school.

Domenico Beccafumi: a self-portrait
Domenico Beccafumi: a self-portrait
He designed scenes from the Old Testament to decorate the floor of the cathedral and also painted frescoes for Palazzo Pubblico in the city.

Di Pace Beccafumi is renowned for his use of rich, almost luminous colours. One of his paintings, which was rediscovered only in 1983, is Madonna with Child, St Jerome and the Infant St John. It shows Mary wearing a blue robe lined with an almost iridescent pale green. The painting is now in a collection in Madrid.

Siena had been an artistic rival of Florence, but wars and natural disasters had caused a decline by the 15th century. Stylistically, Beccafumi was the last in a long line of Sienese artists to use intense colour to express emotion and passion in his paintings.

The main altar of the Duomo di Siena and Beccafumi's mosaic floor
The main altar of the Duomo di Siena
and Beccafumi's mosaic floor
Travel tip:

Siena’s Duomo, was designed and completed between 1215 and 1263 on the site of an earlier structure. It has a beautiful façade built in Tuscan Romanesque style using polychrome marble. Inside, its inlaid marble mosaic floor is one of the most ornate of its kind in Italy and covers the whole floor of the cathedral. The uncovered floor can be seen for only a few weeks each year, usually including September. The rest of the year it is kept covered, with only a few panels on display at a time. Half of the 13 Scenes from the life of Elijah in the transept of the cathedral were designed by Domenico Beccafumi, as well as Moses Striking Water on the Rock and Moses on Mount Sinai. His final contribution to the floor was The Sacrifice of Isaac, completed in 1547, which is in front of the main altar.

A monument to the Battle of Montaperti
A monument to the Battle of Montaperti
Travel tip:

Montaperti, where Di Pace Beccafumi was born, is part of the comune (municipality) of Castelnuovo Berardenga in the province of Siena. Since 1932 it has been included in the Chianti wine production area. The famous Battle of Montaperti fought between Guelphs and Ghibellines took place there on September 4, 1260.

Also on this day:

1892: The birth of Metropolitan Opera star Ezio Pinza

1939: The birth of murdered anti-Mafia magistrate Giovanni Falcone


Thursday, 17 May 2018

Federico II Gonzaga – Duke of Mantua

Ruler received a valuable education at the papal court

Federico Gonzaga, aged about 10, painted by Francesco Francia
Federico Gonzaga, aged about 10, painted
by Francesco Francia
Federico Gonzaga, who became the ruler of Mantua and Montferrat, was born on this day in 1500 in Mantua.

He spent his childhood living as a political hostage, first at the court of Pope Julius II in Rome and then at the court of Francis I of France.

It wasn’t perhaps an ideal start in life, but historians believe the political, social and cultural education he received in the company of popes, cardinals, and kings helped shape him as a future ruler.

Federico was the son of Francesco II Gonzaga and Isabella d’Este. His godfather was Cesare Borgia, Machiavelli’s model for the ideal Renaissance Prince.

His father, Francesco, was captured by the Venetians during battle and held hostage for several months. While he was absent, his wife, Isabella, ruled Mantua.

Francesco managed to secure his own release only by agreeing to send his son, Federico, to be a hostage at the papal court.

After the death of Pope Julius II in 1513, Federico was sent to the court of the new King of France, Francis I, where he became a favourite, as he had interests in common with the King.

Titian's 1525 portrait of Federico as an adult can be seen at the Prado museum in Madrid
Titian's 1525 portrait of Federico as an adult
can be seen at the Prado museum in Madrid
After the death of his father in 1519, Federico returned to rule Mantua and established Isabella Boschetti as his mistress there.

He was later created Duke of Mantua by the Emperor Charles V and did not intervene when the Imperial Troops passed through his territory in 1527 on their way to lay siege to Rome.

He married Margaret of Montferrat in 1531 and when the last male heir to Montferrat died, Federico became Marquess of Montferrat, a title his descendants held until the 18th century.

He commissioned Palazzo Te to be built as a summer palace just outside Mantua.

Federico had long suffered from syphilis and died of the disease in 1540.

His son, Francesco, briefly held the title of Duke of Mantua before dying while still a teenager. His second son, Guglielmo, became Duke of Mantua and Marquess of Montferrat and carried on the line.

The Palazzo Ducale was the seat of the Gonzaga family
The Palazzo Ducale was the seat of the Gonzaga family
Travel tip:

Mantua is an atmospheric old city in Lombardy, to the southeast of Milan, famous for its Renaissance Palazzo Ducale, the seat of the Gonzaga family between 1328 and 1707. The Camera degli Sposi is decorated with frescoes by Andrea Mantegna, depicting the life of Ludovico III Gonzaga and his family, who ruled Mantua for 34 years in the 15th century. The beautiful backgrounds of imaginary cities and ruins reflect Mantegna’s love of classical architecture.

The Palazzo Te was designed for Federico as a summer residence just outside the walls of Mantua
The Palazzo Te was designed for Federico as a summer
residence just outside the walls of Mantua
Travel tip:

Palazzo Te, designed for Federico as a summer residence, is a fine example of the Mannerist school of architecture and is the masterpiece of the architect Giulio Romano. The name for the palace came about because the location chosen had been the site of the Gonzaga family stables at Isola del Te on the edge of the marshes just outside Mantua’s city walls. After the building was completed a team of plasterers, carvers and painters worked on the interior for ten years until all the rooms were decorated with beautiful frescoes.

Also on this day:

1510: The death of Renaissance artist Sandro Botticelli

1963: The birth of motorcycle world champion Luca Cadalora


Wednesday, 16 May 2018

Mario Monicelli - film director

Life’s work put him among greats of Commedia all’Italiana

Mario Monicelli directed his first film in 1949, which also  marked the start of his successful relationship with Totò
Mario Monicelli directed his first film in 1949, which also
marked the start of his successful relationship with Totò
Mario Monicelli, the director who became known as ‘the father of Commedia all’Italiana’ and was nominated for an Oscar six times, was born on this day in 1915 in Viareggio.

He made more than 70 films, working into his 90s.  He helped advance the careers of actors such as Vittorio Gassman, Marcello Mastroianni and Claudia Cardinale, and forged successful associations with the great comic actors Totò and Alberto Sordi.

Commedia all’Italiana was notable for combining the traditional elements of comedy with social commentary, often addressing some of the most controversial issues of the times and making fun of any organisation, the Catholic Church in particular, perceived to have an earnest sense of self-importance.

The genre’s stories were often heavily laced with sadness and Monicelli’s work won praise for his particular sensitivity to the miseries and joys of Italian life and the foibles of ordinary Italians. He claimed the lack of a happy ending actually defined Italian humour and that themes drawn from poverty, hunger, misery, old age, sickness, and death were the ones that most appealed to the Italian love of tragi-comedy.

Monicelli continued to direct films into his 90s
Monicelli continued to direct films
into his 90s
He was part of a golden generation of Italian directors including Luchino Visconti, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Bernardo Bertolucci, Dino Risi and Luigi Comencini, and many of his films were hailed as masterpieces, including the caper comedy I soliti ignoti (1958), which was packaged for American audiences as Big Deal on Madonna Street, the satire La grande guerra (The Great War, 1959), which won him Venice's Golden Lion award, and the bitter-sweet drama I compagni (The Comrades, 1963), also known as The Organizer.

Monicelli was the son of a noted journalist, Tommaso Monicelli, and had two older brothers, one a writer and translator, the other a journalist. He attended the universities of Pisa and Milan, where he studied literature and philosophy, and after graduation became became a film critic and amateur film-maker. At the age of just 20 he made a feature-length film, I ragazzi della via Paal, which won an amateur prize at the Venice Film Festival  in 1935.

He spent 12 years as scriptwriter and assistant director, collaborating on some of the most celebrated Italian films of the 1940s, including Giuseppe De Santis’s Riso Amaro (Bitter Rice, 1949).

Monicelli’s debut as a director came in a collaboration with Steno (real name Stefanio Vanzina) on Totò cerca casa (Totò looks for a house, 1949), the first of several popular films the pair made starring Totò over the next four years, including Guardie e Ladri (Cops and Robbers, 1951) and Totò e i Re di Roma (1952). 

Toto cerca casa was typical of the genre, a farce set against the background of Italy’s desperate housing shortage. Guardie e Ladri caused controversy because it was about the friendship between a thief and a policeman, two men from similar backgrounds sharing similar problems, a concept considered so revolutionary that Monicelli had to appear personally before the sensors before it could be released.

Alberto Sordi (left) and Vittorio Gassman in a scene
from the tragic Italian movie Monicelli continued to direct films
into his 90s
Toto e Carolina (1955), which depicted a young suicidal girl being helped by Communists, was actually banned for a year and a half, and was ultimately granted a certificate only after Monicelli had made 34 cuts.

I soliti ignoti, sometimes called Italian cinema's first true Commedia all'Italiana film, was his first hit. Starring Totò, it gave early comedy roles to Mastroianni, Gassman and Cardinale. Despite the lack of a happy ending, it was a success both in the United Kingdom, where it was titled Persons Unknown, and in the US, where it was also turned into a Broadway musical.

Next came Monicelli’s bravest and possibly most controversial film, the funny but poignant La grande guerra, a scathing satire of the First World War with Sordi and Gassman as peasants thrust into the bewildering world of battle, which opponents claimed would defile the memory of the 600,000 Italians who died in the conflict but once released was seen as a triumph, a film that at last dared to say that so many men, poor men who were badly dressed, badly fed, ignorant and illiterate, had gone to fight a war that had little to do with them and was ultimately pointless.  The film won the Golden Lion award at Venice, and, like I soliti ignoti, was nominated for an Oscar as best foreign film.

Toto and Aldo Frizi worked together in numerous films. Here,
they enjoyed several hundred
I Compagni brought his second Oscar nomination and in 1968 came a third, for La Ragazza con la pistola (Girl with the Gun), which starred Monica Vitti as a girl who travels from Sicily to London intending to murder her unfaithful lover.

Amici miei (My Dear Friends, 1975), a tale of ageing friends who play jokes on one another to camouflage the realities of disillusionment, loneliness and failure, proved one of his greatest hits, breaking records in Italy and France. The following year he won his final Oscar nomination, for another Mastroianni hit, Casanova '70. 

His last feature film was Le rose del deserto (Rose of the Desert, 2006), the story of a group of soldiers in Libya during the Second World War, which he directed at the age of 91. Yet he had still not finished working, in 2008 directing a documentary entitled Monti, about his adopted neighbourhood in Rome.

A lifetime supporter of left-wing parties, he remained politically active until late in life, in 2009 calling on students to protest against the government's proposals to cut the culture budget. He described Italy's then prime minister Silvio Berlusconi as “a philistine” and "a modern tyrant".

Monicelli’s father, Tommaso, had committed suicide and when he was diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer in 2010, he decided he would end his life the same way, dramatically jumping from a window on the fifth floor of the San Giovanni Addolorata Hospital in Rome.

Italy's President Giorgio Napolitano said Monicelli would be "remembered by millions of Italians for the way he moved them, for how he made them laugh, and reflect."

Viareggio's Grand Hotel is a throwback to its heydey
Viareggio's Grand Hotel is a throwback to its heydey
Travel tip:

Viareggio, the seaside resort in Tuscany in which Monicelli was born, has an air of faded grandeur, its seafront notable for the Art Nouveau architecture that reminds visitors of the town's heyday in the 1920s and '30s. Thanks to its wide, sandy beaches, however, the resort remains hugely popular, especially with Italians. In addition, it boasts a colourful Carnevale, featuring a wonderful parade of elaborate and often outrageous floats, that is second only to the Venice carnival among Italy’s Mardi Gras celebrations.

Via dei Serpenti, looking towards the Colosseum
Via dei Serpenti, looking towards the Colosseum
Travel tip:

One of Rome's oldest and most charming residential neighbourhoods, Monti retains a bohemian flavour with chic cafes and street food and alternative fashion shops. Occupying the area between the Quirinal Hill and the Colosseum, in Roman times the area was home to craftsmen but also to prostitutes and good-for-nothings and was hidden from the more refined areas of the city by a large wall. Nowadays, it is popular with architects, screenwriters and other creative types as one of Rome’s most fashionable central areas.  Monicelli’s former home in Via dei Serpenti is marked with a plaque.

Also on this day:

1945: The birth of business tycoon and former Inter chairman Massimo Moratti

1974: The birth of top-selling singer-songwriter Laura Pausini


Tuesday, 15 May 2018

Pippo Barzizza - band leader

Musician was an Italian pioneer of jazz and swing 

Pippo Barzizza became known in Italy as the 'king of jazz' in the 1930s
Pippo Barzizza became known in Italy as the
'king of jazz' in the 1930s
The musician and bandleader Giuseppe ‘Pippo’ Barzizza, who helped popularise jazz and swing music in Italy during a long and successful career, was born on this day in 1902 in Genoa.

Barzizza was active in music for eight decades but was probably at the peak of his popularity in the 1930s and 40s, when he led the Blue Star and Cetra orchestras.

He continued to be a major figure in popular music until the 1960s and thereafter regularly came out of retirement to show that his talents had not waned.  He died at his home in Sanremo in 1994, just a few weeks before his 93rd birthday.

As well as arranging the music of others, Barzizza wrote more than 200 songs of his own in his lifetime, and helped advance the careers of such singers as Alberto Rabagliati, Otello Boccaccini, Norma Bruni, Maria Jottini and Silvana Fioresi among others.

In addition to his skills as a writer, conductor and orchestra leader, Barzizza was an accomplished player of a range of instruments, including violin, piano, saxophone, banjo and accordion.

A child prodigy on the violin, Barzizza was able to play a Mozart symphony almost before he could read. He listened to his father’s records - in those days phonographic cylinders - and had an enthusiasm for classical music and opera.

Barzizza, third from the right, with members of his famous Blue Star orchestra
Barzizza, third from the right, with members of his
famous Blue Star orchestra
He continued to study music through secondary school and college, while at the same time obtaining high level qualifications as an engineer. By then he had acquired an increasing fund of musical knowledge and was at home on the piano or in the brass section as on the violin. While not studying, he was lead violinist at the Teatro Politeama in Genoa and played music to accompany the silent movies at the cinema near his home.

Living in Genoa meant there were opportunities to play not only in theatres but on cruise ships and ocean liners and it was when he sailed to New York that he first heard jazz and swing music.

In 1922 he joined the orchestra of Armando di Piramo, a famous conductor and arranger of the day, and though his career was immediately interrupted by national service he put his time in the Italian Army to good use by founding a military orchestra. After he was demobbed, he settled in Milan.

There he made his first recording, on the saxophone, and began to write music both for Di Piramo and others. In 1925 came the foundation of the Blue Star orchestra, which was to make him famous. Composed of musicians Barzizza had hand picked, applying exacting standards for their musical proficiency, Blue Star made their debut at the Sempioncino variety theatre in Milan in July 1925.

Alberto Rabagliati, the singer Barzizza turned into a major star
Alberto Rabagliati, the singer Barzizza
turned into a major star
By the early 1930s, Barzizza was already considered the "king of Italian jazz", his arrangements combining American swing with the traditions of Italian popular songs. He and Rabagliati, a young vocalist who was his discovery, were in the vanguard of a surging revival in Italian music in the 1930s and 40s.

Their fame accelerated by the popularity of radio in Italy, Blue Star toured in France and Switzerland and even Constantinople, generating financial rewards for Barzizza that enabled him to buy an apartment in the upmarket Pegli neighbourhood of Genoa for his parents and a smart Fiat car for himself.

After Blue Star broke up, Barzizza spent several years mainly in the recording studios. Then, in 1936, came an invitation from the state radio broadcaster EIAR - forerunner of RAI - to conduct the Cetra Orchestra, based in Turin, which soon became known as the best Italian jazz orchestra.

EIAR headquarters suffered serious damage during bombing in the Second World War, forcing the orchestra to move to Florence, but they were back in Turin by the end of 1943, although EIAR had been commandeered by the Germans.

After the war, Cetra’s activity continued and Barzizza began also to compose film soundtracks, working with great comic actor Totò among others. In 1948 he composed the soundtrack for Fifa e Arena, starring Totò and his own actress daughter, Isa Barzizza. The song Paquito Lindo, taken from the film, set a sales record for 78 rpm recordings.

Barzizza with his daughter, Isa, who would become a movie actress, and son Renzo, a future director and producer
Barzizza with his daughter, Isa, who would become a movie
actress, and son Renzo, a future director and producer
In 1951 he moved to Rome, the Cetra Orchestra ended and until 1954 he conducted The Modern Orchestra, with 50 musicians, whose number included a young Ennio Morricone.

Over the next few years Barzizza worked in London and Paris as well as Rome, while spending more time with his wife, Tatina, in Sanremo, where they had settled.

He continued to enjoy success. Indeed, while working with a line-up of 36 musicians in Rome in the 1960s he felt he produced some of the best work of his career, helping him overcome two losses in his personal life when the death of his father in December 1959 was followed only a few months later by a road accident that killed his son-in-law, Isa's husband, the screenwriter and director Carlo Alberto Chiesa. 

As the years began to take their toll on his own health, Barzizza nonetheless continued to work in a studio he built at his home, doing some recording but largely teaching.  He died at the age of 92 in 1994.

The resort of Sanremo, with the harbour in the foreground
The resort of Sanremo, with the harbour in the foreground
Travel tip:

Sanremo in Liguria, the Italian Riviera resort that is famous as the home of the Sanremo Festival, is a historic Italian holiday destination that was one of the first to benefit when the phenomenon of tourism began to take hold in the mid-18th century, albeit primarily among the wealthy. Several grand hotels were established and the Emperor Nicholas II of Russia was among the European royals who took holidays there. The Swedish chemist Alfred Nobel, founder of the Nobel Prize, made it his permanent home.

The promenade at Pegli, an upmarket area of Genoa
The promenade at Pegli, an upmarket area of Genoa
Travel tip:

Pegli is still a mainly residential area of Genoa but boasts a lively seafront promenade and a number of hotels. There are good links by road, rail and boat to the central area of Genoa, a bustling commercial city built around its busy port, but which offers many historic attractions, the most notable of which is probably the Cathedral of San Lorenzo, with its striking black slate and white marble exterior, originally built in the sixth century.