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, 19 September 2017

Umberto Bossi - politician

Fiery leader of separatist Lega Nord

Umberto Bossi founded Lega Nord in 1991
Umberto Bossi founded Lega Nord in 1991
Controversial politician Umberto Bossi was born on this day in 1941 in the town of Cassano Magnago in Lombardy.

Until 2012, Bossi was leader of Lega Nord (Northern League), a political party whose goal was to achieve autonomy for northern Italy and establish a new independent state, to be called Padania.

With his distinctive, gravelly voice and penchant for fiery, sometimes provocative rhetoric, Bossi won a place in the Senate in 1987 representing his original party, Lega Lombarda. He was dismissed as an eccentric by some in the political mainstream but under his charismatic leadership Lega Nord became a force almost overnight.

Launched as Alleanza Nord in 1989, bringing together a number of regional parties including Bossi’s own Lega Lombarda, it was renamed Lega Nord in 1991 and fought the 1992 general election with stunning results.

With an impressive 8.7% of the vote, Lega Nord went into the new parliament with 56 deputies and 26 senators, making it the fourth largest party in Italy.

By 1996 that share had risen to 10% and Bossi had become a major figure in Italian politics.

Three times he was Silvio Berlusconi’s key ally, helping the former prime minister win power in 1994, 2001 and 2008 - and lose it in the first instance, when his withdrawal of support for Berlusconi’s centre-right Forza Italia-led coalition brought about the government's collapse.

Bossi had a reputation for provocative speeches
Bossi had a reputation for provocative speeches
Despite that, Bossi served in the next two Berlusconi governments as a minister. In time, he accepted that a secession from Italy was an unrealistic ambition, but he continued to press for greater autonomy for the northern regions and extracted promises from Berlusconi in return for his support.

He was Minister for Institutional Reforms and Devolution from 2001 to 2004 and Minister of Federal Reforms from 2008 to 2011.

Bossi may well have become an even bigger figure on the Italian political stage had he not suffered a serious stroke in 2004, a setback from which he ultimately recovered but which cost him considerable momentum.  Shortly before the illness, he had become a member of the European Parliament.

He resigned as general secretary in 2012, having become embroiled in a financial scandal, with accusations levelled at him by prosecutors that he misappropriated funds directed to Lega Nord through the Italian tax system.

Bossi had become interested in politics while at the University of Pavia, where he studied medicine, through a meeting with Bruno Salvadori, leader of the centre-left Valdostan Union party.  During this time he also had a brief flirtation with a music career, performing as a singer-songwriter under the name of Donato.

Advancing years and the effects of a stroke did not stop Bossi campaigning
Advancing years and the effects of a stroke
did not stop Bossi campaigning
His own political motivations were quite narrow, driven by the perception that the rich north is burdened with subsidising the poorer south.  In 1982, the autonomist Lega Lombarda was born.  Lega Nord emerged from alliances made with similar movements in Veneto and Piedmont, driven by calls to break away from Rome and build a new country called Padania.

Most of Bossi’s firebrand speeches at the time depicted the south of Italy and the capital, Rome – which he dubbed ‘Roma ladrona’ or ‘thieving Rome’ – as a black hole of corruption and waste, relentlessly eating up the taxes of hard-working, decent northerners. He and his fellow Lega Nord politicians brazenly pandered to the pockets of old-fashioned contempt for southerners that still existed in the north of the country.

Apart from southerners, targets for Bossi’s ire included the European Union, which he once described as a "the Soviet Union of the West”, while his outspoken comments on homosexuality and immigration provoked at times fierce reactions.

Married with four children, Bossi voluntarily stepped down as leader during the 2012 investigation, claiming he was doing so “for the good of the party”.  He was immediately made Lega Nord’s honorary president.

Lega Nord supporters gathered in Venice as Bossi made his 1996 'declaration of independence' from a floating pontoon
Lega Nord supporters gathered in Venice as Bossi made his
1996 'declaration of independence' from a floating pontoon
Travel tip:

Despite the sense of theatre attached to as Umberto Bossi’s symbolic ‘declaration of independence’ for Padania at a rally of green-shirted supporters in Venice in 1996, the ‘country’ of Padania has never existed as anything other than a geographical or socio-economic term to describe the area that encompasses Val Padana – the Po Valley.  There is some evidence also that Padanian was a term once used to group languages spoken by population groups north of a line linking La Spezia in Liguria with Rimini on the Adriatic coast.  Bossi’s Lega Nord tended to define Padania as a broad area of northern Italy consisting of Veneto, Emilia-Romagna, Lombardy, Piedmont and Liguria.

A view over the rooftops of Cassano Magnago
A view over the rooftops of Cassano Magnago
Travel tip:

Bossi’s home town of Cassano Magnago is situated about 20km (12 miles) south of Varese in Lombardy, adjoining the city of Gallarate and close to the Valle del Ticino national park.  The area is said to have been populated since around 500BC and there is evidence that it held a strategic position and was the scene of a battle during the Roman conquest of Milan in 225BC. Apart from being Bossi’s birthplace, it is the home of the 18th century sculptor Giovanni Battista Maino and the two-times Giro d’Italia winner Ivan Basso.

Monday, 18 September 2017

Francesca Caccini – singer and composer

Court musician composed oldest surviving opera by a woman

Francesca Caccini pictured in a  cameo discovered in Pistoia
Francesca Caccini pictured in a
cameo discovered in Pistoia
Prolific composer and talented singer Francesca Caccini was born on this day in 1587 in Florence.

Sometime referred to by the nickname La Cecchina, she composed what is widely considered to be the oldest surviving opera by a woman composer, La Liberazione di Ruggiero, which was adapted from the epic poem, Orlando Furioso by Ludovico Ariosto.

Caccini was the daughter of the composer and musician, Giulio Caccini, and she received her early musical training from him. Like her father, she regularly sang at the Medici court.

She was part of an ensemble of singers referred to as le donne di Giulio Romano, which included her sister, Settimia, and other unnamed pupils.

After her sister married and moved to Mantua, the ensemble broke up, but Caccini continued to serve the court as a teacher, singer and composer, where she was popular because of her musical virtuosity.

She is believed to have been a quick and prolific composer but sadly very little of her music has survived. She was considered equal at the time to Jacopo Peri and Marco da Gagliano, who were also working for the court.

Caccini was considered a rival to Jacopo Peri
Caccini was considered a rival to Jacopo Peri
Caccini married a fellow singer, Giovanni Battista Signorina, in 1607 and they had a daughter, Margherita.

She wrote music for comedies written by Michelangelo Buonarotti the Younger, a great nephew of the artist of the same name, and in 1618 she published her own collection of 36 songs and duets.

In 1625 Caccini composed all the music for the opera, La liberazione di Ruggiero dall’isola d’Alcina, which was performed for the visiting crown prince of Poland at the Villa Poggio Imperiale in Florence in 1625.

The prince, Ladislaus Sigismondo, later Wladyslaw IV, was so pleased with it he asked for it to be performed again in Warsaw in 1628.

After her first husband died in 1626, Caccini arranged to marry again the following year to Tommaso Raffaelli, a nobleman from Lucca. She bore him a son and as the wife of a nobleman she turned down at least one request to perform as a singer. But once she was widowed again she tried to return to the service of the Medici.

By 1634 she was back in Florence serving as a music teacher and composing and performing music and entertainment for the women’s court.

All her music, apart from La Liberazione di Ruggiero, and a few excerpts from her other works, have been lost. But her surviving scores showed she took care over the notation of her music, focusing attention on the rhythmic placement of syllables and words.

She left the Medici court in 1637 and it is not clear when she died, but the guardianship of her son passed to his uncle, Girolamo Raffaelli, in 1645.

Caccini’s opera, La Liberazione di Ruggiero, has since been performed in Cologne, Ferrara, Stockholm and Minneapolis.

Palazzo Pitti as seen from the palace's gardens
Palazzo Pitti as seen from the palace's gardens
Travel tip:

Francesca Caccini would have spent plenty of time in Palazzo Pitti in Florence teaching or performing music. The palace is on the south side of the River Arno, a short distance from the Ponte Vecchio. Palazzo Pitti was originally the home of Luca Pitti, a Florentine banker. It was bought by the Medici family in 1549, after which it became the chief residence of the ruling family of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany.

The Villa del Poggio Imperiale is about 4.5km (2.8 miles) outside Florence, to the south
The Villa del Poggio Imperiale is about 4.5km (2.8 miles)
outside Florence, to the south
Travel tip:

The first performance of Caccini’s opera, La liberazione di Ruggiero, was given at the imposing neoclassical Villa del Poggio Imperiale, just outside Florence. It was once one of the homes of the Grand Dukes of Tuscany, having been seized from the Salviati family by the Medici. It was later given to Napoleon’s sister as a residence during French rule, before becoming a girl’s school. Some of the frescoed state rooms are open to the public by appointment.

Sunday, 17 September 2017

Maria Luisa of Savoy

Girl from Turin ruled Spain while a teenager

Maria Luisa was little more than a child when she was married to Philip V of Spain
Maria Luisa was little more than a child
when she was married to Philip V of Spain
Maria Luisa of Savoy, who grew up to become a queen consort of Spain with a lot of influence over her husband, King Philip V, was born on this day in 1688 at the Royal Palace in Turin.

She was the daughter of Victor Amadeus II, Duke of Savoy, and his French wife, Anne Marie d’Orleans.

Philip V of Spain wanted to maintain his ties with Victor Amadeus II and therefore asked for Maria Luisa’s hand in marriage. She was wed by proxy to Philip V in 1701 when she was still only 13.

Maria Luisa was escorted to Nice and from there sailed to Antibes en route to Barcelona. The official marriage took place in November of the same year.

Maria Luisa was both beautiful and intelligent and Phillip V was deeply in love with her right from the start.

In 1702 when Philip V left Spain to fight in the War of the Spanish Succession, Maria Luisa acted as Regent in his absence.

Philip was soon captivated by his young bride's beauty
Philip was soon captivated by his
young bride's beauty
She was praised as an effective ruler despite being only 14 years old. She gave audiences to ambassadors, worked for hours with ministers, and prevented Savoy from joining the enemy. She inspired people to make donations towards the war effort and her leadership was admired throughout Spain.

Maria Luisa gave birth to her first child, Infante Luis Felipe in 1701. She gave birth to three more children, but only two of them survived infancy.

After becoming ill with tuberculosis, Maria Luisa died in 1714 at the age of 25. She was buried at San Lorenzo de El Escorial.

Philip V married again only a few months after her death. As all three of her children died without issue, Maria Luisa had no descendants.

Turin's Palazzo Reale on sunny Piazza Castello
Turin's Palazzo Reale on sunny Piazza Castello
Travel tip:

The Royal Palace of Turin, the Palazzo Reale, where Maria Luisa was born, was built by Emmanuel Philibert, who was Duke of Savoy from 1528 to 1580.  He chose the location in Piazza Castello because it had an open and sunny position. In 1946 the building became the property of the state and in 1997 it became a Unesco World Heritage Site.

Filippo Juvarra's façade of Palazzo Madama
Filippo Juvarra's façade of Palazzo Madama
Travel tip:

Another beautiful building in Piazza Castello, is Palazzo Madama, which housed the Italian Senate during the period Turin was the capital of Italy. In 1637, Christine Marie of France, the regent for Charles Emmanuel II, chose it as her personal residence and refurbished the inner apartments. Another regent, Marie Jeanne of Savoy, lived in the palace 60 years later and invited many artists to decorate the building. She was known as Madama Reale, conferring upon it the nickname of Palazza Madama.

Saturday, 16 September 2017

Sir Antony Panizzi - revolutionary librarian

Political refugee knighted by Queen Victoria

Panizzi was a friend of the British Lord Chancellor, Henry Broughton
Panizzi was a friend of the British Lord
Chancellor, Henry Broughton
Sir Anthony Panizzi, who as Principal Librarian at the British Museum was knighted by Queen Victoria, was a former Italian revolutionary, born Antonio Genesio Maria Panizzi in Brescello in what is now Reggio Emilia, on this day in 1797.

A law graduate from the University of Parma, Panizzi began his working life as a civil servant, attaining the position of Inspector of Public Schools in his home town.

At the same time he was a member of the Carbonari, the network of secret societies set up across Italy in the early part of the 19th century, whose aim was to overthrow the repressive regimes of the Kingdoms of Naples and Sardinia, the Papal States and the Duchy of Modena and bring about the unification of Italy as a republic or a constitutional monarchy.

He was party to a number of attempted uprisings but was forced to flee the country in 1822, having been tipped off that he was to be arrested and would face trial as a subversive.

Panizzi found a haven in Switzerland, but after publishing a book that attacked the Duchy of Modena, of which Brescello was then part, he was sentenced to death in absentia by a court in Modena.

Threatened with expulsion from Switzerland, with Modena pressing the Swiss government to allow his arrest, he fled again, which is how he came to arrive in England in 1823.

Almost destitute by the time he reached London, he met a fellow revolutionary, the poet Ugo Foscolo, who was exiled in England, who gave him a letter of recommendation that enabled him to find work in Liverpool as a teacher of Italian.

Sir Anthony Panizzi was the subject of a caricature in Vanity Fair magazine
Sir Anthony Panizzi was the subject
of a caricature in Vanity Fair magazine
The job made him only a meagre living, but while in Liverpool he was befriended by Henry Broughton, a lawyer and politician who was destined for high office.  When Broughton became Lord Chancellor in 1830, he remembered Panizzi and smoothed the way for him to be appointed Professor of Italian at the newly-formed University of London (now University College, London).

Soon afterwards Panizzi obtained the post of Extra-Assistant Keeper of Books at the British Museum library and in time worked his way through the levels of administration at the museum to be Assistant Librarian (1831–37), Keeper of Printed Books (1837–56) and finally Principal Librarian (1856–66).

His appointment in that role met with some opposition, partly because, despite being a British subject since 1832, he was seen as unsuitable on account of his non-British heritage.  There were also stories that he had been so poor in his early days in London he had resorted to hawking items on the street in order to feed himself.

Yet Panizzi had impressed the hierarchy at the British Museum during his tenure as Keeper of Printed Books, when he increased the library’s stock from 235,000 to 540,000 books, making it at the time the largest library in the world.  

Although he ceased to be involved directly in the Risorgimento movement in Italy, he continued to further the cause of Italian liberty through his friendships with influential Liberal statesmen in England, including two prime ministers in Lord Palmerston and William Ewart Gladstone, whom he took to Naples to see for himself the inhumane conditions in which political prisoners were kept.

Panizzi met the exiled poet Ugo Foscolo in London
Panizzi met the exiled poet Ugo
Foscolo in London
He could, in fact, have taken an active role in Italian politics after unification, but declined invitations from Giuseppe Garibaldi and Count Camillo Benso di Cavour, the first prime minister of the united Italy, to serve as a senator or as a member of the Council of Public Instruction.

Instead, he remained in London, where he was knighted in 1869, three years after retiring, for his extraordinary services to the British Museum library.

His achievements covered a diverse range, from devising a new system for cataloguing books using the 91 Rules code, from which the current ISBD (International Standard Bibliographic Description) system evolved, to designing a shelf support – the ‘Panizzi pin’ – to stop wooden book shelves from wobbling.

Panizzi died in London in 1879 and was buried in the Kensal Green Catholic Cemetery.

The British Museum library became simply the British Library in 1973, although it continued to be housed in the museum’s buildings on Great Russell Street in Bloomsbury until moving to a new purpose-built facility on Euston Road in 1997.

The British Library has a staff meeting room called the Panizzi Room and the former Principal Librarian is remembered in the annual Panizzi Lectures.

Piazza Matteotti and the church of Santa Maria Nascente
Piazza Matteotti and the church of Santa Maria Nascente
Travel tip:

The small town of Brescello is about 25km (16mls) northwest of Reggio Emilia, on the south bank of the Po river. It has a pleasant central square, the Piazza Matteotti, dominated by the parish church of Santa Maria Nascente.  Brescello makes a good deal of its association with the Don Camillo novels of author Giovannino Guareschi, having been chosen as the setting for a series of films made in the 1950s and 1960s about a local priest, Don Camillo, and his constant run-ins with Peppone, the communist mayor, in what was meant to be a typical small town in rural Italy in the years after the Second World War.  There is a museum dedicated to the two characters, while visitors to the church of Santa Maria Nascente can see the crucifix that appeared in the films to speak to Don Camillo.  

Piazza Prampolini is an attractive square in Reggio Emilia
Piazza Prampolini is an attractive square in Reggio Emilia
Travel tip:

Positioned between Parma and Modena along the path of the Roman road known as the Via Emilia, the city of Reggio Emilia is often missed out on the tourist trail but the wealth of attractive squares within the hexagonal lay-out of the old city are well worth a traveller’s time. The city – or, at least, the surrounding province – is thought to be the home of Italy's world famous hard cheese, Parmigiano Reggiano, and is also credited with being the area of Italy from which the country adopted the tricolore as the national flag, with evidence that a short-lived 18th century republic, the Repubblica Cispadana, had a flag of red, white and green. 

Friday, 15 September 2017

The first free public school in Europe

Frascati sees groundbreaking development in education

José de Calasanz arrived in Rome from his native Aragon in 1592
José de Calasanz arrived in Rome from
his native Aragon in 1592
The first free public school in Europe opened its doors to children on this day in 1616 in Frascati, a town in Lazio just a few kilometres from Rome.

The school was founded by a Spanish Catholic priest, José de Calasanz, who was originally from Aragon but who moved to Rome in 1592 at the age of 35.

Calasanz had a passion for education and in particular made it his life’s work to set up schools for children who did not have the benefit of coming from wealthy families.

Previously, schools existed only for the children of noble families or for those studying for the priesthood. Calasanz established Pious Schools and a religious order responsible for running them, who became known as the Piarists.

Calasanz had been a priest for 10 years when he decided to go to Rome in the hope of furthering his ecclesiastical career.  He soon became involved with helping neglected and homeless children via the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine.

He would gather up poor children on the streets and take them to schools, only to find that the teachers, who were not well paid, would not accept them unless Calasanz provided them with extra money.

Calasanz, who was a well-educated man, responded by setting up the first Pious School in the centre of Rome in 1600, so that homeless, orphaned and neglected children had somewhere to go and could be provided with a basic education.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart owed his early education to a Pious School
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart owed his early
education to a Pious School
An annual contribution from Pope Clement VIII helped fund the project, which grew so quickly that it was not long before Calasanz was helping around 1,000 of Rome’s most deprived children.

He rented a house nears the church of Sant'Andrea della Valle in central Rome, where he founded the Order of the Pious Schools or Piarists. He wrote a document setting out the principles of his educational philosophy, with regulations for teachers and for students.

The Frascati school differed from others he had set up in that it was open to all children, not only those he rescued from poverty on the streets.  It was also open to children who were not orphaned or neglected, but who came from poor families and would not otherwise have had the chance to receive a formal education.

It is therefore recognised as the first free public primary school in Europe.

The Piarists spread the concept of free primary education and as well as setting up many more schools across Europe encouraged many states to follow their lead.

Francisco Goya, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Franz Schubert, Gregor Mendel and Victor Hugo all owed their early education to Piarist Schools.

The church of San Giuseppe Calasanzio in Milan
The church of San Giuseppe Calasanzio in Milan
Calasanz died in 1648 at the age of 90, his legacy tarnished, unfortunately, by clashes with powerful senior figures in the Catholic Church over his support for the heliocentric theories that landed Galileo Galilei in trouble, and also over the behaviour of some clerics involved in the Piarist Schools.  As a result, Calasanz was removed as senior general of the Order.

However, eight years after his death, Pope Alexander VII cleared his name and that of the Pious Schools.  In 1748 he was beatified by Pope Benedict XIV and canonised by Pope Clement XIII in 1767.

In 1948, Pope Pius XII declared Saint Joseph of Calasanz the patron of Christian popular schools.

A number of churches have been dedicated to Saint Joseph, including the modern Chiesa di San Giuseppe Calasanzio in via Don Carlo Gnocchi, in the San Siro district of Milan, which was designed by the architect Carlo Bevilacqua and completed in 1965.

The Villa Aldobrandi in Frascati
The Villa Aldobrandi in Frascati
Travel tip:

Situated just 21km (13 miles) from the centre of Rome, Frascati offers visitors to the region an alternative to staying in the capital that is more peaceful and relaxed.  One of the towns that make up the Castelli Romani, it is perched on a hill to the southeast of Rome, offering fine views across the city as well as cleaner air. It was popular with the wealthy from Roman times to the Renaissance, and remains a draw for Romans today, although thankfully with bars and restaurants to suit all pockets.  In its heyday there were many grand villas and it was unfortunate that the town’s strategic position made it a target for bombing during the Second World War, with many buildings destroyed. The Villa Aldobrandi, which overlooks one of the main piazzas, is one that remains, with extensive gardens open to the public.

The Basilica of Sant'Andrea della Valle
The Basilica of Sant'Andrea della Valle
Travel tip:

The Basilica of Sant’Andrea della Valle, situated in the heart of historic Rome where Corso del Rinascimento meets Corso Vittorio Emanuele II, is as famous for having been an important setting in the Puccini opera Tosca as it is for its baroque art and architecture. The first act is set inside the 17th-century baroque church, whose dome is the third largest in the city after the Pantheon and St. Peter's. Like the façade, the dome was designed by Carlo Maderno.  The humanist popes from Siena, Pius II and Pius III, are both buried inside.

Thursday, 14 September 2017

Renzo Piano – architect

Designer of innovative buildings is now an Italian senator

Renzo Piano was born into a family of builders
Renzo Piano was born into a family of builders
Award-winning architect Renzo Piano was born on this day in 1937 in Genoa.

Piano is well-known for his high-tech designs for public spaces and is particularly famous for the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, which he worked on in collaboration with the British architect, Richard Rogers.

Among the many awards and prizes Piano has received for his work are the Japan Art Association’s Praemium Imperiale prize for architecture in 1995, the Pritker Architecture Prize in 1998 and the American Institute of Architects Gold Medal in 2008.

Piano was born into a family of builders and graduated from the Polytechnic in Milan in 1964. He completed his first building, the IPE factory in Genoa, in 1968 with a roof of steel and reinforced polyester.

He worked with a variety of architects, including his father, Carlo Piano, until he established a partnership with Rogers, which lasted from 1971-1977.

The Shard in London is one of Piano's landmark buildings
The Shard in London is one of
Piano's landmark buildings
They made the Centre Georges Pompidou look like an urban machine with their innovative design and it immediately gained the attention of the international architectural community.

In Italy, Piano designed a new look for the old port of Genoa to transform it from a rundown industrial area into a cultural centre and tourist attraction. Other important commissions in Italy were the San Nicola Stadium in Bari, started in 1987 and completed in time for the 1990 football World Cup, and the Auditorium Parco della Musica, built between 1994 and 2002 in Rome.

One of his most celebrated 21st century projects, notable for its green architecture, was a new building for the California Academy of Science in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, which was completed in 2008.

Piano converted a massive Fiat factory in Turin into a convention centre and venue for the city’s trade fair. His design for the Shard in London made it the tallest building in western Europe when it was completed in 2012 and it now towers above the historical skyline of London.

In 2013 Piano was appointed Senator for Life in the Italian Senate by President Giorgio Napolitano.

Piano currently lives in Paris with his wife, Milly. They have four children.

Piano's harbour development in his native Genoa
Piano's harbour development in his native Genoa
Travel tip:

The old harbour in Genoa, porto antico, is the ancient part of the port which served the city when the main access to it was from the sea. Renzo Piano redeveloped the area for public access, restoring the historic buildings and creating new landmarks such as the Aquarium and the Bolla (Sphere).

The 'armadillo shells' of the Auditorium Parco della Musica
The 'armadillo shells' of the Auditorium Parco della Musica
Travel tip:

The Parco della Musica in Rome is a complex of music venues located in the part of Rome that hosted the 1960 summer Olympics. Piano designed it to have three theatres, covered with what New York Times critic Sam Lubell described as 'weathered, armadillo-like steel shells', and an outdoor theatre set in a park. During construction, excavations uncovered the foundations of a villa and an oil press dating from the sixth century BC. Piano adjusted his design to accommodate the archaeological remains and included a small museum to house the artefacts that were discovered.

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Saverio Bettinelli – writer

Jesuit scholar and poet was unimpressed with Dante

Saverio Bettinelli saw only limited merit in Dante's Divine Comedy
Saverio Bettinelli saw only limited
merit in Dante's Divine Comedy
Poet and literary critic Saverio Bettinelli, who had the temerity to criticise Dante in his writing, died at the age of 90 on this day in 1808 in Mantua.

Bettinelli had entered the Jesuit Order at the age of 20 and went on to become known as a dramatist, poet and literary critic, who also taught Rhetoric in various Italian cities.

In 1758 he travelled through Italy and Germany and met the French writers Voltaire and Rousseau.

Bettinelli taught literature from 1739 to 1744 at Brescia, where he formed an academy with other scholars. He became a professor of Rhetoric in Venice and was made superintendent of the College of Nobles at Parma in 1751, where he was in charge of the study of poetry and history and theatrical entertainment.

After travelling to Germany, Strasbourg and Nancy, he returned to Italy, taking with him two young relatives of the Prince of Hohenlohe, who had entrusted him with their education. He took the eldest of his pupils with him to France, where he wrote his famous Lettere dieci di Virgilio agli Arcadi, which were published in Venice.

He also wrote a collection of poems, Versi sciolti, and some tragedies for the Jesuit theatre.

The cover page for the first of 24 volumes of Bettinelli's complete works
The cover page for the first of 24 volumes
of Bettinelli's complete works 
In 1757 he wrote a series of letters addressed to Virgil, in which he criticised the Divine Comedy by Dante Aljghieri. He stated: ‘Among the erudite books, only certain parts from the Divine Comedy should be included, and these would form no more than five cantos.’ Voltaire praised his opinions but Bettinelli made enemies among Italians as a result of what he had written.

In 1758 he was sent by King Stanislaw, Duke of Lorraine to visit Voltaire on a business matter.

Afterwards he went to live in Modena where he became a professor of Rhetoric again. In 1773 after the suppression of the Jesuit Order, he returned to live in his home town of Mantua. Then a siege of the city by the French caused him to move to Verona.

In 1797 he returned to Mantua, where despite his age, he remained energetic and capable. He published a complete edition of his works, which ran to 24 volumes, in 1799 in Venice.

Bettinelli died on 13 September 1808 in Mantua having reached the age of 90.

Detail from Andrea Mantegna's frescoes in the Camera degli Sposi in Mantua's Palazzo Ducale
Detail from Andrea Mantegna's frescoes in the Camera
degli Sposi in Mantua's Palazzo Ducale
Travel tip:

Mantua is an atmospheric old city in Lombardy, to the south east 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 Gonzaga and his family. The beautiful backgrounds of imaginary cities and ruins reflect Mantegna’s love of classical architecture.

Paolo Monti's 1972 photograph of the Basilica
Paolo Monti's 1972 photograph of the Basilica
Travel tip:

The 15th century Basilica of Sant’Andrea in Mantua, which houses the artist Andrea Mantegna’s tomb, is in Piazza Mantegna. Mantegna was buried in the first chapel on the left, which contains a picture of the Holy Family and John the Baptist that had been painted by him. The church was originally built to accommodate the large number of pilgrims who came to Mantua to see a precious relic, an ampoule containing what were believed to be drops of Christ’s blood mixed with earth. This was claimed to have been collected at the site of his crucifixion by a Roman soldier.