13 December 2019

13 December

Donatello – Renaissance sculptor


Work by prolific artist still on display for all to see

Early Renaissance sculptor Donatello died on this day in Florence in 1466.  Generally acknowledged as the greatest sculptor of the 15th century, Donatello left a legacy of wonderful statues in marble and bronze, some still out in the open and delighting visitors to Italy free of charge today.  He was born Donato di Niccolò di Betto Bardi in Florence in about 1386. He studied classical sculpture, which later influenced his style, and then worked in a goldsmith’s workshop and in the studio of artist Lorenzo Ghiberti.  One of his most famous early works is a statue of David, originally intended for the Cathedral, but which stood instead for many years in Palazzo Vecchio in Florence.  Donatello’s work also shows influences of the architect Filippo Brunelleschi, a friend with whom he often travelled to Rome.  Brunelleschi’s style can be seen in Donatello’s statues of St Mark and St George, executed for the exterior of the Church of Orsanmichele in Florence, which represent the first translation into sculpture of the architect’s laws on perspective.  Donatello was invited to Padua in 1443, where he was to produce one of his greatest works, the bronze equestrian statue of Gattamelata.  Read more…

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Carlo Gozzi – playwright


Noble Venetian who fought to preserve commedia dell’arte

Count Carlo Gozzi, the poet and playwright, was born on this day in 1720 in Venice.  He was a staunch defender of the traditional Italian commedia dell’arte form of drama and his plays were admired throughout Europe.  Commedia dell’arte was a theatrical form that used improvised dialogue and a cast of masked, colourful stock characters such as Arlecchino, Colombina and Pulcinella.  Gozzi was against the dramatic innovations made by writers such as Pietro Chiari and Carlo Goldoni. He attacked Goldoni in a satirical poem and then wrote a play, L’amore delle tre melarance - The Love of Three Oranges - in which he portrayed Goldoni as a magician and Chiari as a wicked fairy.  The play was first performed by commedia dell’arte actors, who had been out of work due to the dwindling interest in the genre following the innovations of Goldoni and Chiari. It was a great success and revived the fortunes of the company of actors.  Having been born into a noble but poor family, Gozzi initially had to go into the army to make a living because his parents could not support him.  Read more…

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Pope Sixtus V


Pontiff who cleaned up and rebuilt Rome and reformed church

Pope Sixtus V, whose five-year reign was one of the most effective of any pontiff in history, was born Felice Peretti on this day in 1521 in Grottammare, a coastal resort in the Marche region that was then part of the Papal States.  Succeeding Pope Gregory XIII in 1585, Sixtus V inherited an administration that was riddled with corruption and a city of Rome that to a large extent fallen into the hands of thieves and criminal gangs.  He responded with a series of measures that brought about profound change with far-reaching consequences for the city and the wider country, making his mark on a scale that few pontiffs had matched before or since.  As well as tackling crime with brutal ruthlessness, he introduced significant reforms in the administration of the Catholic Church and commissioned lavish building projects that changed Rome from a medieval city to one of Baroque grandeur.  The son of a poor farm hand in Grottammare, the future pope entered a monastery when he was nine years old and joined the Order of Friars Minor three years later. His familiarity with adversity made him resourceful and strong.  Read more…

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La Festa di Santa Lucia


Much loved saint was immortalised in song

La festa di Santa Lucia - St Lucy’s Day - will be celebrated all over Italy today.  According to tradition, Santa Lucia comes down from the sky with a cart and a donkey and distributes gifts to all the children who have been good, while all the naughty children receive only a piece of coal.  Santa Lucia is the patron saint of the city of Syracuse in Sicily. Today, a silver statue of the saint containing her relics will be paraded through the streets before being returned to the Cathedral.  In Sicilian folklore there is a legend that a famine ended on Santa Lucia’s feast day when ships loaded with grain entered the harbour.  Santa Lucia is also popular with children in parts of northern Italy. In Bergamo, Brescia, Cremona, Lodi and Mantua in Lombardy, and also parts of the Veneto, Trentino, Friuli and Emilia-Romagna, the children will have been expecting the saint to arrive with presents during the night.  According to tradition she arrives with her donkey and her escort, Castaldo. Children leave coffee for Santa Lucia, a carrot for the donkey and a glass of wine for Castaldo and they believe they must not watch the saint delivering her gifts.  Read more…


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12 December 2019

12 December

NEW - Robert Browning - English poet


Writer who called Italy his ‘university’

Victorian poet and playwright Robert Browning died on this day in 1889 at his son’s home, Ca’ Rezzonico, a palazzo on the Grand Canal in Venice.  Browning was considered one of the most important Victorian poets, who had made contributions to social and political debate through his work, and he was given the honour of being buried in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey.  The poet’s early career had begun promisingly with his work being well received by the critics, but his long poem, Sordello, produced in 1840, was judged to be wilfully obscure and it was to take many years for his reputation to recover.  In 1846 Browning secretly married the poet, Elizabeth Barrett, who was six years older than him and had been living the life of an invalid in her father’s house in London. A few days later they went to live in Italy, leaving their families behind in England forever.  Elizabeth’s poetry became increasingly popular and after the death of Wordsworth in 1850 she was considered as a serious contender to become the next Poet Laureate. However, the position eventually went to Alfred Tennyson.  The Brownings lived in Pisa at first but then moved to Florence. Read more…


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Guglielmo Marconi – inventor and electrical engineer


Message received meant a scientific breakthrough

Guglielmo Marconi received the first transatlantic radio signal using equipment he had invented himself on this day in 1901 in Newfoundland.  Marconi was credited with the invention of radio as a result and shared the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1909 with another scientist, Karl Ferdinand Braun.  The message Marconi received, which was regarded as a great scientific advance, was the letter ‘S’ in Morse Code. It had been sent from a transmission station Marconi had set up in Cornwall, 2,200 miles away.  The inventor was born in Bologna in 1874. His father, Giuseppe Marconi, was a nobleman and landowner from Porretta Terme and his mother was of Scottish and Irish descent.  Marconi was brought up in Bedford in England as a young child but after moving back to Italy he was educated privately and then went to study at the University of Bologna.  While living in the Villa Griffone at Pontecchio near Bologna he began to conduct experiments to create wireless telegraphy.  He went to England to continue his work and by 1897 had transmitted a Morse code signal over a distance of six kilometres. He then sent the world’s first wireless communication over open sea.  Read more…


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Piazza Fontana bombing


Blast at Milan bank killed 17 and wounded 88

Italy found itself the victim of an horrific terrorist attack on this day in 1969 when a bomb blast at a Milan bank left 17 people dead and a further 88 injured.  The bomb exploded at 4.37pm in the headquarters of the Banca Nazionale dell’Agricoltura in Piazza Fontana, just 200m away from the Duomo.  It was caused by a bomb containing about 18lbs of explosives left on the third floor, killing customers and members of staff.  At around the same time, two bombs exploded in Rome, injuring 14 people. Another device, placed in the courtyard of a bank near Teatro alla Scala in Milan, was deactivated by police.  The explosions followed one month after a policeman was killed during a riot of left-wing extremists in Milan and are generally seen as the start of a period of violent social and political unrest in Italy dubbed the Years of Lead.  Over a period of almost 20 years, the Years of Lead resulted in more than 200 deaths, many committed by the left-wing terrorist group Brigate Rosse (the Red Brigades), others by far-right organisations such as Nuclei Armati Rivoluzionari (Armed Revolutionary Groups) and Ordine Nuovo (the New Order).  Read more…


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Lodovico Giustini – composer


Church organist who wrote the first music for piano

Lodovico Giustini, composer and keyboard player, was born on this day in 1685 in Pistoia in Tuscany.  Giustini is the first composer known to write music for the piano and his compositions are considered to be late Baroque and early Classical in style.  Giustini was born in the same year as Bach, Scarlatti and Handel. His father, Francesco Giustini, was a church organist, his uncle, Domenico Giustini, was a composer of sacred music and his great uncle, Francesco Giustini, sang in the Cathedral choir for 50 years.  After the death of his father in 1725, Giustini took his place as organist at the Congregazione dello Spirito Santo in Pistoia, where he began to compose sacred music, mostly cantatas and oratorios.  In 1728 he collaborated with Giovanni Carlo Maria Clari on a set of Lamentations, which were performed later that year.  He was to hold this position for the rest of his life. In addition to playing the organ he also gave performances on the harpsichord, often playing his own music.  Giustini is mainly remembered for his collection of 12 Sonate da cimbalo di piano e forte detto volgarmente di martelletti, 12 sonatas written for the piano.  Read more…


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Susanna Tamaro - bestselling author


Writer’s third published novel was international hit

The writer Susanna Tamaro, whose novel Va' dove ti porta il cuore - published in English as Follow your Heart - was one of the biggest selling Italian novels of the 20th century, was born on this day in 1957 in Trieste.  Va' dove ti porta il cuore - in which the main character, an elderly woman, reflects on her life while writing a long letter to her estranged granddaughter - has sold more than 16 million copies worldwide since it was published in 1994.  Only Umberto Eco’s historical novel Il Nome della Rosa  - The Name of the Rose - has enjoyed bigger sales among books by Italian authors written in the 20th century.  Tamaro has gone on to write more than 25 novels, winning several awards, as well as contributing a column for a number of years in the weekly magazine Famiglia Cristiana and even co-writing a song that reached the final of the Sanremo Music Festival.  Born into a middle-class family in Trieste, Tamaro is a distant relative of the writer Italo Svevo on her mother’s side. Her great-grandfather was the historian Attilio Tamaro.  In 1976, after obtaining a teaching diploma, Tamaro received a scholarship to study at the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia, the Italian school of cinema in Rome.  Read more…


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Robert Browning – English poet

Writer who called Italy his ‘university’


Robert Browning pictured in 1888, about  a year before he died in Venice,  aged 77
Robert Browning pictured in 1888, about
 a year before he died in Venice,  aged 77
Victorian poet and playwright Robert Browning died on this day in 1889 at his son’s home, Ca’ Rezzonico, a palazzo on the Grand Canal in Venice.

Browning was considered one of the most important Victorian poets, who had made contributions to social and political debate through his work, and he was given the honour of being buried in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey.

The poet’s early career had begun promisingly with his work being well received by the critics, but his long poem, Sordello, produced in 1840, was judged to be wilfully obscure and it was to take many years for his reputation to recover.

In 1846 Browning secretly married the poet, Elizabeth Barrett, who was six years older than him and had been living the life of an invalid in her father’s house in London. A few days later they went to live in Italy, leaving their families behind in England forever.

Elizabeth’s poetry became increasingly popular and after the death of Wordsworth in 1850 she was considered as a serious contender to become the next Poet Laureate. However, the position eventually went to Alfred Tennyson.

The Brownings lived in Pisa at first but then moved to Florence, where they lived in an apartment in a 15th century house, Casa Guidi, in the Oltrarno district.

A younger Robert Browning in a portraint by
 Italian painter Michele Gordigiani in 1858
Their only child, Robert Wiedeman Barrett Browning, who they nicknamed Penini, or Pen, was born to them in 1849.

Browning became fascinated with the art and cultural environment of Italy and would in later life describe the country as his ‘University’.

While Elizabeth continued to write and achieved fame through her poetry, Browning’s own work was still being dismissed by other writers and critics.

While in Florence, Browning worked on the poems that would eventually comprise his two-volume Men and Women, for which he is now well known.

But in 1855 when they were first published they made little impact.

When Elizabeth’s health began to deteriorate, the Brownings moved to the Villa Alberti in Siena.

They moved to Rome in 1860, but when Elizabeth’s health became worse they returned to Florence. Elizabeth died in Browning’s arms in June 1861, aged 55. She was buried in a white marble tomb, designed by Frederic, Lord Leighton, in the protestant English Cemetery of Florence.

Now a widower, Browning returned to London with his 12-year-old son, Pen. Through years of hard work he gradually built up his reputation again and became part of the London literary scene.

A portrait of Robert Browning painted by his son, Pen, in aroud 1882
A portrait of Robert Browning painted by
his son, Pen, in aroud 1882
In 1868, after five years of intensive writing, he published The Ring and the Book, his most ambitious project,and considered by some to be his greatest work. The poem was a commercial and critical success and brought him the recognition he had long been hoping for.

In his later years, Browning travelled frequently to Italy, finding peace and inspiration in the small hilltop town of Asolo in the Veneto. However, he never visited Florence again.

After one last visit to Asolo in the summer of 1889, Browning, accompanied by his sister, Sarianna, travelled to Venice to visit Pen and his wife at the end of October.

Pen, who had by then become a successful painter, had recently bought and renovated Ca’ Rezzonico.

Browning would spend the mornings at the Lido, the afternoons visiting his friend, Katharine Bronson, at her residence Ca’ Alvisi, and the evenings at Ca’ Rezzonico with his family.

In December, Browning became unwell and was diagnosed with bronchitis and a weak heart.

On December 12 he received the news that his last volume of poetry, Asolando, had sold out on the same day it was published. Browning knew there was an advertisement for a new edition of Mrs Browning’s poetry on the back of the book.  He told his son he was ‘more than satisfied’ and died a few hours later. He was 77 years old.

The elegant Ca' Rezzonico on the Grand Canal in Venice, which Browning's son, Pen, owned
The elegant Ca' Rezzonico on the Grand Canal
in Venice, which Browning's son, Pen, owned
A private funeral service was held in the sala (dining room) of Ca’ Rezzonico.

At the end of the service, eight pompieri (firemen) in blue uniforms and brass helmets, carried Browning’s body downstairs and on to a municipal barge, which conveyed the poet to the chapel on San Michele, the ‘isle of the dead’.

Two days later, Browning’s manservant escorted the coffin back to London by train.

On 31 December 1889, Browning was conveyed to Westminster Abbey along a route lined by thousands of people for a service, followed by an interment in Poets Corner, where he now lies surrounded by the great names of literature.

Casa Guidi in Florence, which has now been converted into a study centre
Casa Guidi in Florence, which has now
been converted into a study centre
Travel tip:

A plaque marks Casa Guidi, the home of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and her husband Robert Browning in Piazza di San Felice in the Oltrarno district of Florence. The Brownings lived in the piano nobile apartment between 1847 and 1862. The New York Browning Society restored the apartment and then gave it to Eton College to be converted into a study centre. Casa Guidi is open to the public on Monday, Wednesday and Friday afternoons from 3-6pm between April and November.

The main square - Piazza Giuseppe Garibaldi - at Asolo in the Veneto, which Browning made his home
The main square - Piazza Giuseppe Garibaldi - at Asolo in
the Veneto, which Browning made his home
Travel tip:

Robert Browning’s beloved Asolo is a hilltop town in the Veneto region of northern Italy. It is known as ‘the pearl of the province of Treviso’ and also as ‘the city of a hundred horizons’ because of its beautiful views over the countryside and the mountains. Browning published Asolando, a volume of poetry written in the town, in 1889 just before his death. The main road leading into the town is named Via Browning in his honour. One of the main sights is the Castle of Caterina Cornaro, which now houses the Eleonora Duse Theatre.

Also on this day:

1685: The birth of composer Lodovico Giustini

1901: Guglielmo Marconi receives the first transatlantic radio signal

1957: The birth of author Susanna Tamaro

1969: The Piazza Fontana bombing kills 17


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11 December 2019

11 November

Gianni Morandi – actor and pop singer


Veteran entertainer has sold 50 million records 

The singer Gianni Morandi, a Sanremo Festival winner and Eurovision Song Contest contestant who has sold more than 50 million records and had a simultaneous career as a successful TV and film actor, was born on this day in 1944 in a mountain village in Emilia-Romagna.  Morandi, whose longevity has brought comparisons with the British singer Sir Cliff Richard, is still performing today in his 70s. In fact, he had an unlikely hit in 2017 when he teamed up with 23-year-old rapper and web star Fabio Rovazzi.  Morandi, whose pop-ballad style still has a big following, showed his versatility and willingness to indulge in self-mocking humour this year by co-starring with Rovazzi in an electro-pop track and video called Volare that went to No 1 on iTunes Italy and attracted 2.5 million views in less than 24 hours.  He has also appeared in his 11th TV drama series, having a few months earlier seen the release of his 18th movie.  Morandi was born in Monghidoro, now a village of almost 4,000 people that sits on a ridge in the Tuscan-Emilian Apennines some 840m (2,750ft) above sea level, about 41km (25 miles) south of Bologna.   Read more...


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Carlo Ponti – film producer


The man who married Sophia Loren twice

Carlo Ponti, the producer of many iconic Italian films, was born on this day in 1912 in Magenta near Milan.  He studied law at Milan University and, after joining his father’s law firm in Milan, became involved in the film business through negotiating contracts.  His production of Mario Soldati’s Piccolo Mondo Antico about the Italian struggle against the Austrian occupation was his first success in 1940. But he was briefly jailed for allegedly undermining relations with Nazi Germany.  He went on to produce many of the popular and financially successful films of the 1960s and 1970s, such as Vittorio de Sica's Marriage Italian Style, David Lean’s Doctor Zhivago and Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blowup.  But Ponti also became famous for his love affair and two marriages to the film star Sophia Loren, who was born Sofia Villani Scicolone in Pozzuoli near Naples.  Ponti met her while he was judging a beauty contest in which she was competing, was captivated by her looks, and subsequently turned her into a film star and changed her name.  He was already married but he obtained a Mexican divorce in order to marry Sophia, who was more than 20 years younger than him, as divorce was then forbidden in Italy.  Read more...


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Fabrizio Ravanelli - footballer


Juventus star who became a favourite at Middlesbrough

The footballer Fabrizio Ravanelli, who won five trophies with Juventus between 1992 and 1996 before stunning the football world by joining unfashionable Middlesbrough in the English Premier League, was born on this day in 1968 in Perugia.  Playing alongside Gianluca Vialli and Alessandro Del Piero in the Juventus forward line, Ravanelli scored in the 1996 Champions League final as the Turin side beat Ajax in Rome before signing for Middlesbrough just six weeks later.  The ambitious club from the northeast of England paid £7 million (€8.5m) for Ravanelli, a club record fee and at the time the third largest sum paid for any player by an English club.  It was part of a huge spending spree by Middlesbrough, managed by former England captain Bryan Robson, that brought a string of high-profile signings to the club's Riverside Stadium including the Brazilian playmaker Juninho and England international Nick Barmby and another Italian, the Inter defender Gianluca Festa.  Ravanelli made an immediate impact, scoring a hat-trick on his Premier League debut against Liverpool, and ended the season with 31 goals in league and cup matches.  Read more…


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Pope Leo X


Renaissance pope supported art but did not foresee the Reformation

Pope Leo X was born as Giovanni de' Medici, on this day in 1475 in Florence.  The second son of Lorenzo de' Medici - Lorenzo Il Magnifico - who ruled the Florentine Republic, Leo X has gone down in history as one of the leading Renaissance popes, who made Rome a cultural centre during his papacy.  He is also remembered for failing to take the Reformation seriously enough and for excommunicating Martin Luther.  Giovanni was always destined for a religious life and received a good education at his father’s court, where one of his tutors was the philosopher Pico della Mirandolo. Giovanni went on to study theology and canon law at the University of Pisa.  In 1492 he became a member of the Sacred College of Cardinals, but after his father died later that year, he returned to Florence to live with his older brother, Piero.  He was exiled from Florence in 1494 with the rest of his family, accused of betraying the Florentine republic, and spent the next six years travelling throughout northern Europe.  On his return to Italy in 1500 he settled in Rome and on the death of his brother, Piero, he became the head of the Medici family.  Read more…


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10 December 2019

10 December

Amedeo Nazzari - movie star


Sardinian actor seen as the Errol Flynn of Italian cinema

The prolific actor Amedeo Nazzari, who made more than 90 movies and was once one of Italian cinema's biggest box office names, was born on this day in 1907 in Cagliari.  Likened in his prime to the Australian-American star Errol Flynn, with whom he had physical similarities and the same screen presence, Nazzari enjoyed a career spanning five decades.  One of his first major successes, in the title role of the 1938 drama Luciano Serra, Pilot, in which he played a First World War veteran, established him as Italy's leading male star in 1930s and he maintained his popularity in the 40s and 50s.  He is remembered also for his appearance in Federico Fellini's Nights of Cabiria, which won the 1957 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language film.  Towards the end of his career, he featured in Henri Verneuil's 1969 Mafia caper The Sicilian Clan, for which the score was composed by Ennio Morricone.  His last big screen appearance came in 1976 in A Matter of Time, an Italian-American musical fantasy directed by Vincente Minelli and starring his daughter, Liza Minelli.  Nazzari was born Amedeo Carlo Leone Buffa, the son of a pasta manufacturer.  Read more...

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Giuseppe 'Peppino' Prisco - lawyer and football administrator


Vice-president who became Inter Milan icon

The lawyer and football administrator Giuseppe Prisco, who served as a senior figure in the running of the Internazionale football club in Milan for more than half a century, was born on this day in 1921.  Universally known as Peppino, he managed to combine a career in legal practice with a passion for Inter that he would share so publicly he became a symbol of the club whose name was chanted on the terraces.  Born in Milan into a family with its roots in Torre Annunziata, near Naples, he was said to have fallen in love with the nerazzurri at seven years old in 1929, when he witnessed his first derby against AC Milan at Inter’s old stadium, the Campo Virgilio Fossati, between Via Goldoni and Piazza Novelli to the east of the city centre.  His career as a lawyer did not begin until after he had served with the Alpini - the mountain troops of the Italian Army - on the Russian front in the Second World War. He was only 18 when he joined up but reached the rank of lieutenant in the “L’Aquila” battalion of the 9th Alpine Regiment, and as one of only three officers from 53 to return alive from the Russian front was awarded a Silver Medal for Military Valour by the Italian government.  Read more…

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Luigi Pirandello - playwright, poet and novelist


Brilliant writing was born out of ‘chaos’

Sicilian writer Luigi Pirandello died on this day in Rome in 1936.  Famous for his play Six Characters in Search of an Author (Sei Personaggi in Cerca d’Autore), Pirandello was also a prolific writer of novels, short stories and poetry, some of which were written in his native Sicilian dialect.  His plays are often seen as the forerunners of the Theatre of the Absurd dramas of Samuel Beckett and Eugène Ionesco.  Pirandello’s contribution to the theatre was recognised in 1934 when he was awarded the Nobel prize for literature.  Pirandello was literally born in Chaos. The name of the village near Agrigento in Sicily where his mother gave birth to him in 1867 is Caos, the Italian word for ‘chaos’, or in Sicilian, u Càvusu.  He was educated at home and had written his first play by the time he was 12. When his family moved to Palermo, he completed his school education and, after a spell working with his father in the sulphur industry, he registered at the University of Palermo.  He later moved to Rome to complete his studies, which gave him the chance to go to the theatre regularly, and he also studied for a while in Bonn.  Read more…


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Errico Petrella – opera composer


Sicilian whose popularity drew scorn from rivals

The largely forgotten opera composer Errico Petrella, whose popularity in Italy in the 1850s and 1860s was second only to operatic giant Giuseppe Verdi, was born on this day in 1813 in Palermo.  His composed 25 works, mainly comedic or melodramatic in nature, and had a run of successes in the 1850s, when three of  his productions were premiered at Teatro alla Scala in Milan.  However, Petrella attracted the scorn on both Verdi and another contemporary, the German composer Richard Wagner, both of whose careers coincided exactly with Petrella’s, even down to having been born in the same year.  When Il Duca di Scilla had its first performance at La Scala in March 1859, a year on from his hugely successful Jone, which also premiered at the Milan theatre, Wagner’s criticism could have hardly been more unflattering.  Asked his opinion of the work, Wagner said: “It is an unbelievably worthless and incompetent operatic effort by a modern composer whose name I have forgotten.”  Some years earlier, admittedly before Petrella had enjoyed much success at all, Verdi had been similarly scathing in his assessment of the 1951 opera Le Precauzioni.  Read more…


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9 December 2019

9 December

NEW - Baldassare Ferri – singer


Male soprano was admired by the crowned heads of Europe

Castrato singer Baldassare Ferri was born on this day in 1610 in Perugia in the region of Umbria.  He is said to have possessed a beautiful soprano voice that was praised by other musicians and by much of the aristocracy of Europe.  The Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I, who was a great patron of music and himself a composer, is believed to have become so enchanted with Ferri that he had a portrait of the singer hung in his bedroom with the inscription, Baldassare Ferri, Re dei Musici (King of Musicians).  By the age of 11, Ferri was a chorister serving Cardinal Crescenzi in Orvieto. He then studied music in Naples and in Rome, where he was taught by Vincenzo Ugolini of Perugia, who was maestro of the Cappella Giulia.  Prince Wladislaus of Poland then secured Ferri’s services for the court of King Sigismund III at Warsaw, where the singer took part in dramas set to music. He continued to be employed at the court when the prince became King Wladislaus IV Vasa in 1632.  A few years later Ferri moved to Vienna, where he entered the services of the Emperor Ferdinand III and afterwards sang for the Emperor Leopold I.  Read more…

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Sonia Gandhi - Indian politician


Widow of ex-PM Rajiv born in pre-Alps of Veneto

Sonia Gandhi, an Italian who married into a famous political dynasty and became the most powerful woman in India, was born on this day in 1946 in a small town near Vicenza.  In 1965, in a restaurant in Cambridge, England, where she was attending a language school, she met an engineering student from the University of Cambridge. They began dating and three years later were married.  His name was Rajiv Gandhi, the eldest son of the future Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi.  They were married in a Hindu ceremony, Sonia moved into her mother-in-law’s house and from then on lived as an Indian. Rajiv became an airline pilot while Sonia looked after their two children, Rahul and Priyanka.  Everything changed when Indira Gandhi was assassinated by Sikh nationalists in 1984, a year after Sonia had been granted Indian citizenship.  Rajiv had entered politics in 1982 following the death of his brother, Sanjay, in a plane crash and was elected to succeed his mother as prime minister.  Sonia wanted to remain in the background, having developed a passionate interest in preserving India’s artistic treasures. But when Rajiv himself was killed by a suicide bomber in 1991, she was invited to take over as prime minister.  Read more…

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Bruno Ruffo - motorcycle racer


Italy's first world champion on two wheels

Motorcycle racer Bruno Ruffo, winner of the inaugural 250cc World Championship in 1949, was born on this day in 1920 in Colognola ai Colli, a village in the province of Verona.  He shares with Nello Pagani the distinction of being Italy's first world champion motorcyclist, Pagani having won the first world title in the 125cc class in the same year.  Ruffo wanted to race from the age of eight, having become fascinated with the motorcycles and cars that his rather repaired in his workshop.  He was able to drive a car at the age of 10 and was given his first motorcycle by his father as a 16th birthday present.  He entered a race for the first time the following year at Montagnana near Padua and won. The minimum age for participants was 18 and it later transpired he had falsified his identity papers to take part.  The Second World War interrupted his progress.  Drafted into the Italian Army, Ruffo served for 20 months on the Russian front.   After the war, he bought a Moto Guzzi 250, which he raced privately, enjoying considerable success in 1946, when he won nine of the 11 races he entered in the cadet class.  Read more…

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Carlo Azeglio Ciampi - prime minister and president


The politician who took Italy into the euro

The politician and banker, Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, was born on this day in 1920 in Livorno.  He was the 49th Prime Minister of Italy between 1993 and 1994 and the tenth president, in office from 1999 to 2006.  Ciampi studied ancient Greek literature in Pisa, before being called up to do military duty, but in 1943 he refused to stay with the Fascists and took refuge in Abruzzo.
He managed to get to Bari, where he joined the Italian resistance movement.  After the war, he gained a doctorate in law from Pisa University and began working at the Banca d’Italia. He went on to become Governor of the bank and then President of the National Bureau de Change.  Ciampi was the first-non parliamentarian prime minister of Italy for more than 100 years, appointed by the President, Oscar Luigi Scalfaro, to oversee a technical government.  Later, as the treasury minister under Romano Prodi and Massimo d’Alema, Ciampi, a staunch supporter of the EU, adopted the euro currency for Italy.  When he was elected president, he had a broad majority and was only the second president ever to be elected at the first ballot. Read more…

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Teofilo Folengo – poet


Style of writer’s verses took its name from the dumpling

Teofilo Folengo, who is remembered as one of the principal Italian ‘macaronic’ poets, died on this day in 1544 in the monastery of Santa Croce in Campese, a district of Bassano del Grappa in the Veneto.  Folengo published, under the pseudonym Merlin Cocaio, a macaronic narrative poem entitled Baldo, which was a humorous send-up of ancient epic and Renaissance chivalric romance.  Writing in verse that mixed vernacular language with Latin became known as macaronic verse, the word deriving from the Latin macaronicus and the Italian maccarone, which meant dumpling, fare mixed crudely from different ingredients that at the time was regarded as a coarse, peasant food. It is presumed to be the origin of the modern Italian word maccheroni.  Folengo was a runaway Benedictine monk who satirised the monastic life using an invented, comic language that blended Latin with various Italian dialects.  Born Girolamo Folengo in 1491 in Cipada, a village near Mantua, he entered the Benedictine order as a young man taking the name Teofilo. He lived in monasteries in Brescia, Mantua and Padua.  Read more…


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Baldassare Ferri – singer

Male soprano was admired by the crowned heads of Europe


A 19th century engraving depicting Ferri and
fellow castrato Caffariello (Gaetano Majorano)
Castrato singer Baldassare Ferri was born on this day in 1610 in Perugia in the region of Umbria.

He is said to have possessed a beautiful soprano voice that was praised by other musicians and by much of the aristocracy of Europe.

The Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I, who was a great patron of music and himself a composer, is believed to have become so enchanted with Ferri that he had a portrait of the singer hung in his bedroom with the inscription, Baldassare Ferri, Re dei Musici (King of Musicians).

By the age of 11, Ferri was a chorister serving Cardinal Crescenzi in Orvieto. He then studied music in Naples and in Rome, where he was taught by Vincenzo Ugolini of Perugia, who was maestro of the Cappella Giulia.

Prince Wladislaus of Poland then secured Ferri’s services for the court of King Sigismund III at Warsaw, where the singer took part in dramas set to music. He continued to be employed at the court when the prince became King Wladislaus IV Vasa in 1632.

A few years later Ferri moved to Vienna, where he entered the services of the Emperor Ferdinand III and afterwards sang for the Emperor Leopold I.

The Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I was said to be a big fan of Ferri's vocal qualities
The Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I was said
to be a big fan of Ferri's vocal qualities
His voice became famous throughout Europe and he received honours from the aristocrats and royal families of many countries.

He was made a Knight of St Mark of Venice, sonnets were written praising him, and he was once even summoned to Sweden to sing before Queen Christina, who was a great patron of music. Sweden was at war with Poland at the time but a brief armistice is said to have been arranged so that Ferri could pass safely through the battle lines.

The singer returned to live in Italy five years before he died, enjoying a comfortable retirement because of the wealth he had built up. He left 600,000 scudi to charity on his death in 1680.

Ferri was said to have been handsome with a tall figure. Musicians of the period praised the limpid quality of his voice and recorded that his intonation was perfect, his singing was expressive and his length of breath was ‘almost inexhaustible’.

The walled Etruscan city of Perugia enjoys a spectacular setting in the hills of Umbria
The walled Etruscan city of Perugia enjoys a spectacular
setting in the hills of Umbria
Travel tip:

Perugia, the capital city of the region of Umbria, where Baldassare Ferri was born, is built on a hilltop, which makes it a stunning sight. One of the main Etruscan cities of Italy, it is also home to two universities, the ancient Universita degli Studi and the Universita per Stranieri, Foreigners University, for foreign students learning Italian and studying Italian culture. Perugia is the home of the Perugina chocolate company, famous for producing Baci, which literally means kisses, chocolates. The artist Pietro Vanucci, commonly known as Perugino because he lived close to the city, is a well known resident as he became the teacher of Raphael.

The Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta in Orvieto, with its handsome facade of marble, gold and mosaics
The Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta in Orvieto, with
its handsome facade of marble, gold and mosaics
Travel tip:

Orvieto, where Ferri was a chorister at the beginning of his career, is a small city in Umbria, about 77 km south west of Perugia/ It was built on the top of a cliff and is surrounded by defensive walls that were erected by the Etruscans. Orvieto is said to have one of the finest cathedrals in Italy, the Cattedrale di Santa Maria Assunta, where Baldassare Ferri sang as a young chorister. It has a beautiful Romanesque Gothic façade, which was built of black and white marble and inlaid with gold and mosaics.

Also on this day:

1544: The death of poet Teofilo Folengo

1920: The birth of politician Carlo Azeglio Ciampi

1920: The birth of Bruno Ruffo, Italy's first motorcycling world champion

1946: The birth - near Vicenza - of Indian politician Sonia Gandhi


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