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.

Wednesday, 25 April 2018

Leon Battista Alberti - Renaissance polymath

Architect with multiple artistic talents

Leon Battista Alberti contributed to many aspects of Renaissance cultural development
Leon Battista Alberti contributed to many aspects
of Renaissance cultural development
The polymath Leon Battista Alberti, who was one of the 15th century’s most significant architects but possessed an intellect that was much more wide ranging, died on this day in 1472 in Rome.

In his 68 years, Alberti became well known for his work on palaces and churches in Florence, Rimini and Mantua in particular, but he also made major contributions to the study of mathematics, astronomy, language and cryptography, wrote poetry in Latin and works of philosophy and was ordained as a priest.

He was one of those multi-talented figures of his era, along with Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and, a little later, Galileo Galilei, for whom the description Renaissance Man was coined.

Alberti was born in Genoa in 1404, although his family were wealthy Florentine bankers. It just happened that at the time of his birth his father, Lorenzo, was in exile, having been expelled by the powerful Albizzi family.  Leon and his brother, Carlo, were born out of wedlock, the product of their father’s relationship with a Bolognese widow, but as Lorenzo’s only offspring they were given a privileged upbringing.

Lorenzo would be allowed to return to Florence in 1428, by which time Leon - at the time known simply as Battista - had been educated in Padua, Venice and Bologna before taking holy orders in Rome.

The facade of the church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence was designed by Alberti
The facade of the church of Santa Maria Novella in
Florence was designed by Alberti
His great intellect soon became apparent. As a young man at school, he had written a comedy in Latin that for a while was taken to be the lost work of a Roman playwright. In 1435 he began his famous work Della pittura (On pictures), a groundbreaking study in which he analysed the nature of painting and explored the elements of perspective, composition and colour.

His first major architectural commission was for the facade of the Rucellai Palace in Florence in 1446, followed in 1450 by a commission to transform the Gothic church of San Francesco in Rimini into a memorial chapel, which became known as the Tempio Malatestiano.

In Florence, he famously designed the upper parts of the white marble facade for the Dominican church of Santa Maria Novella.

He is also credited with the Piazza Pio II, and its surrounding buildings, in the Tuscan village of Pienza, and both the church of San Sebastiano and the Basilica of Sant’Andrea in Mantua.

A page from Alberti's Della pittura shows his grasp of perspective and his ideas for how to use it in paintings
A page from Alberti's Della pittura shows his grasp
of perspective and his ideas for how to use it in paintings
In 1452, Alberti completed De re aedificatoria, a treatise on architecture, using as its basis the work of Vitruvius and influenced by the archaeological remains of Rome that had fascinated him while he was studying for the priesthood.

In the field of philosophy, Alberti’s treatise Della famiglia established his reputation as an ethical thinker. He wrote the text in accessible language, rather than Latin. Based largely on the classical works of Cicero and Seneca, and addressed the day-to-day concerns of a bourgeois society, tackling such topics as the fickleness of fortune, meeting adversity and prosperity, husbandry, friendship and family, education and obligation to the common good.

Alberti’s important contribution to cryptography came with his invention of the first polyalphabetic cipher, which became known as the Alberti cipher, and his Cipher Disk, which consisted of two concentric disks, the outer one carrying capital letters and numbers, the inner one lower case letters, attached by a common pin.

Although clearly he made a scholarly contribution to the understanding of art, he produced very few paintings or sculptures in his own right. Giorgio Vasari, the artist whose Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects is considered the first history of art, described Alberti as an artist who “concentrated on writing rather than applied work”.

The Basilica of Sant'Andrea in Mantua
The Basilica of Sant'Andrea in Mantua
Travel tip:

The Basilica of Sant'Andrea, which looms over the Piazza Mantegna in Mantua, is considered one of the major works of 15th-century Renaissance architecture in Northern Italy. Commissioned by Ludovico III Gonzaga, the church was begun in 1472 according to designs by Alberti on the site of a Benedictine monastery. Although it was 328 years before it was finished, with changes that altered Alberti's design, the church is still considered to be one of Alberti's most complete works.

The hill town of Pienza is a UNESCO World Heritage Site
The hill town of Pienza is a UNESCO World Heritage Site
Travel tip:

Pienza, a town in the province of Siena between Montepulciano and Montalcino, is described as the "touchstone of Renaissance urbanism." The whole of the centre was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996. The trapezoidal Piazza Pio II is defined by four buildings, the Palazzo Piccolomini, the Duomo, the Palazzo Vescovile and the Palazzo Comunale.

More reading:

The unparalleled genius of Leonardo da Vinci

La Pietà - Michelangelo's masterpiece

Brunelleschi and the incredible dome of Florence's Duomo

Also on this day:

The Festa della Liberazione

1973: The death of World War One flying ace Ferruccio Ranza


Tuesday, 24 April 2018

Giuseppe Panza - art collector

Businessman amassed more than 2,500 pieces

Giuseppe Panza collected more than 2,500 works of art between the 1950s and 1980s
Giuseppe Panza collected more than 2,500 works of art
between the 1950s and 1980s
The art collector Giuseppe Panza di Biumo, whose fascination with postwar art, particularly American, led him to build up one of the world’s most important collections, died on this day in 2010 in Milan.

A businessman who succeeded his father in making money from wine and property, Panza acquired more than 2,500 pieces in his lifetime, many of which he sold or donated to museums and art galleries.

Some he parted with for millions of dollars, although he always insisted that his motivation was never financial gain but the love of art.

Approximately 10 per cent of his collection remains in the 18th-century Villa Menafoglio Litta, his family home at Varese, north of Milan, where he created 50,000 square feet (4,600 sq m) of exhibition space.

He had an astute eye for talent, often identifying unknown artists who would go on to become collectible long before their works commanded premium prices.

For example, he anticipated the popularity of Minimalism in the 1960s, snapping up works by Donald Judd and Dan Flavin well before their careers had really taken off.

Panza's collection was one of the  largest assembled
Panza's collection was one of the
largest assembled
Born in 1923 in Milan, Panza had a comfortable background. His father, Ernesto, was a wine distributor who invested in real estate and who in 1940 was given the title of count, which Giuseppe inherited, by King Vittorio Emanuele III.

He began reading books about art as an adolescent recovering from illness but it would be some years before he had the chance to develop his knowledge.  In the meantime, he fled wartime Italy for Switzerland in 1943, fearing that his misfortune to be living in the north of the country would lead to him being conscripted to fight on behalf of the Fascists and the Germans against the partisans in what already appeared to him to be a losing cause.

On his return to Italy after lying low in Lucerne, he enrolled at the University of Milan to study law, but never practised. Instead, he joined his father in the family business, although with no great enthusiasm. However, it was on a business trip to the United States in 1954 that he bought his first paintings and set forth on what would become a lifetime’s obsession.

With his wife, Rosa Giovanna Magnifico, he began a collection that included some work by European artists but which focussed primarily on the American artists who had captured his imagination. He bought his first work by the abstract expressionist Frank Kline, entitled Buttress, for $500. Years later, it was part of a collection of 80 works he sold for $11 million to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles.

Panza paid $500 for Frank Kline's Buttress, which he later sold as part of a $11 million collection
Panza paid $500 for Frank Kline's Buttress, which he later
sold as part of a $11 million collection
He and Rosa were among the first patrons of Pop art, Minimalist and Conceptual Art, collecting works by Robert Rauschenberg, Roy Lichtenstein, Brice Marden and Robert Morris among others.

They brought their paintings back to their home in Corso Porta Romana in Milan, originally intending to stop at 100 but finding themselves unable to resist the lure of finding new works by new artists.

By the 1980s, Panza began to dismantle the collection.  His intention at first was to sell to Italian museums and galleries so that the pleasures he had derived from from assembling it over 25 years and more could be shared with his fellow Italians, but Italian institutions were not wealthy and there were few takers.

Instead, many works went back to America.  In addition to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, he struck a deal with the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, which acquired, as part of a $30 million package, more than 300 Minimalist sculptures and paintings in the 1990s.

The Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art also have substantial Giuseppe Panza collections.

Nearer home, he donated more than 200 works to the Lugano Cantonal Art Museum in Italian-speaking southern Switzerland and gave the Villa Menafoglio Litta to the Fondo Ambiente Italiano, the Italian equivalent of the National Trust.

He was survived by Rosa Giovanna and their children, Alessandro, Maria Giussepina, Federico, Giovanni, Giulio and Maria Luisa.

The Porta Romana in Milan stands on the site of one of the original Roman gates into the city
The Porta Romana in Milan stands on the site of one
of the original Roman gates into the city
Travel tip:

The Corso Porta Romana in Milan runs from the remains of the Porta Romana, one of the city’s traditional gateways, to Piazza Giuseppe Missori, in the city centre, a short distance from Piazza del Duomo. The visible remains of the gateway dates back to the 16th century Spanish walls, although there was a corresponding gate in the Roman walls. Indeed, Porta Romana was the first and the main imperial entrance to the city and the starting point of the road leading to Rome.

Piazza Monte Grappa in Varese
Piazza Monte Grappa in Varese
Travel tip:

Varese is a city in Lombardy, 55km north of Milan and close to Lake Maggiore. It is rich in castles, villas and gardens, many connected with the Borromeo family, who were from the area. Lake Varese is 8.5km long, set in low rolling hills just below Varese. Many visitors to the city are drawn to the Sacro Monte di Varese (the Sacred Hill of Varese), which features a picturesque walk passing 14 monuments and chapels, eventually reaching the monastery of Santa Maria del Monte.

More reading:

Giorgio de Chirico's scuola metafisica

The Futurist art of Carlo Carrà

Flaminio Bertoni - sculptor from Varese who turned his talents to car design

Also on this day:

1859: The birth of coffee maker Luigi Lavazza

1966: The birth of footballer Alessandro Costacurta


Monday, 23 April 2018

Gianandrea Noseda - conductor

Milanese musician has achieved worldwide acclaim

Gianandrea Noseda is one of the most able conductors of his generation
Gianandrea Noseda is one of the most
able conductors of his generation
Gianandrea Noseda, who is recognised as one of the leading orchestra conductors of his generation, was born on this day in 1964 in Milan.

He holds the title of Cavaliere Ufficiale al Merito della Repubblica Italiana for his contribution to the artistic life of Italy.

Noseda studied piano and composition in Milan and began studying conducting at the age of 27.

He made his debut as a conductor in 1994 with the Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi. He won the Cadaques International Conducting Competition for young conductors in Spain the same year.

In 1997 he became principal guest conductor at the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg and during his time there became fluent in Russian.

In 2002 he became principal conductor of the BBC Philharmonic and in this role led live performances in Manchester of Beethoven’s nine symphonies. In 2006 his title was changed to chief conductor.

Noseda has been music director at the  Teatro Regio in Turin since 2007
Noseda has been music director at the
Teatro Regio in Turin since 2007
The London Symphony Orchestra announced the appointment of Noseda as its new principal guest conductor in 2016.

Noseda has been Music Director of the Teatro Regio Torino since 2007, taking their orchestra to the Edinburgh Festival in 2017. He has also conducted the orchestra of the Teatro Regio Torino for the recording of a number of opera albums, featuring celebrated singers such as Rolando Villazon.

The conductor celebrates his 54th birthday today and at the end of May he will lead the Met Orchestra at Carnegie Hall for the first time. He will conduct the orchestra in Mozart’s Violin Concerto No 5 and Mahler’s Symphony No 5.

He met his Sicilian-born wife, Lucia, at the Milan Conservatory when they were both students. They have a home on the western shore of Lake Maggiore.

The Naviglio Grande is a colourful and lively stretch of Milan's canal system
The Naviglio Grande is a colourful and lively stretch of
Milan's canal system
Travel tip:

The Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi, where Noseda made his debut as a conductor, was founded in 1993 and is now based at the Auditorium di Milano Fondazione Cariplo in Largo Gustav Mahler close to the city’s Navigli district.  The auditorium was inaugurated in 1999 and quickly became one of the most important cultural venues in the city.  Navigli is the name of the triangle bounded by the Naviglio Grande and the Naviglio Pavese canals in the southwestern quadrant of the city, an area that is popular with young Milanese and boasts many attractive bars and restaurants.

The modern auditorium at the Teatro Regio of today
The modern auditorium at the Teatro Regio of today
Travel tip:

The Teatro Regio Torino, where Noseda has been musical director, is in Piazza Castello close to the Palazzo Reale in the centre of Turin. The Teatro Regio has had something of a chequered history. Inaugurated in 1740, it was closed by royal decree in 1792 then reopened with the French occupation of Turin during the early 19th century, first as the Teatro Nazionale and then the Teatro Imperiale before its original name was reinstated with the fall of Napoleon in 1814. It endured several financial crises in the late 1800s but limped into the 20th century only to be burnt down in a catastrophic fire in 1936. It remained dark for 37 years until reopening in 1973.

More reading:

How American TC made Arturo Toscanini a star

Riccardo Muti still going strong at almost 77

The conductor who helped make Maria Callas a star

Also on this day:

1857: The birth of opera composer Ruggero Leoncavallo

1939: The birth of Mafia boss Stefano Bontade


Sunday, 22 April 2018

Fiorenza Cossotto - operatic mezzo-soprano

Career overshadowed by story of ‘row’ with Maria Callas

Fiorenza Cossotto is considered among the finest mezzo-sopranos of the 20th century
Fiorenza Cossotto is considered among the
finest mezzo-sopranos of the 20th century
Fiorenza Cossotto, a singer considered one of the greatest mezzo-sopranos of the 20th century, was born on this day in 1935 in Crescentino in Piedmont.

Cossotto was hailed for her interpretations of the major mezzo and contralto roles from mid-19th-century Italian operas, particularly those of Giuseppe Verdi such as Aida, Il trovatore and Don Carlos, but also Gaetano Donizetti, Amilcare Ponchielli, Vincenzo Bellini and the other important composers of the day.

Yet she is often remembered for a supposed spat with Maria Callas that led the Greek-American soprano to walk off the stage during her final performance at the Opéra in Paris of her signature role in Bellini’s Norma in 1965.

The incident in question took place immediately after Callas, as Norma, and Cossotto, as Adalgisa, had joined in their duet ‘Mira, o Norma’.

Callas, by that stage a little below her prime, was notoriously temperamental and within moments onlookers were imagining a row, theorising that Cossotto had tried to sabotage Callas’s performance by holding her own high notes longer and singing over Callas.

It did not help that Franco Zeffirelli, whose production it was, and at least one other member of the cast, would not deny that this had happened.

Cossotto led a long and highly successful career
Cossotto led a long and highly
successful career
Cossotto herself, now entering her 84th year, insists that the story is a fabrication concocted “to enrich books and articles” and that she was trying only to help Callas, who was unwell with a cold but felt obliged to sing because Aristotle Onassis, the Greek shipping tycoon with whom she shared her life, had brought with him his entire entourage to witness the performance.

In interviews many years later she said that when Callas tried to sing the high ‘C’ required of her in the piece no sound came out. She said: “I thought it was better I sing my ‘A’ calmly so people won't notice, just in case. Instead, they started to say, 'Look, she sings when the other one doesn't sing anymore!'”

Cossotto also claims that Callas, whom she counted as a friend, not only asked for her in person to be Adalgisa to her Norma in the production but, during the performance, asked her not to leave the theatre after her involvement ended so that they could take the curtain calls together, something she would not have done had the two been at odds.

As a girl, Cossotto attended the Turin Academy of Music and studied with Mercedes Llopart. She made her operatic debut in the world premiere of Poulenc's Dialogues of the Carmelites in 1957 at La Scala in Milan. Her part was so small he had only one line to deliver.

Maria Callas: Cossotto denied that the two fell out, insisting they were good friends
Maria Callas: Cossotto denied that the two
fell out, insisting they were good friends
Her international debut came at the 1958 Wexford Festival as Giovanna Seymour in Donizetti's Anna Bolena and she performed at Covent Garden for the first time in 1959 as Neris in Luigi Cherubini's Médée, with Callas in the title role.

Cossotto began to attract wide acclaim following her 1962 performance of the lead in Donizetti’s La favorita at La Scala. She made her American debut in the same role in 1964 at the Lyric Opera of Chicago and as Amneris at the Metropolitan Opera in 1968.

In two spells at the Met, in 1967–68 and 1988–89, Cossotto gave 148 performances.

During her career, she was Adalgisa alongside the Normas of Callas, Joan Sutherland, Montserrat Caballé, Leyla Gencer, Elinor Ross and Elena Souliotis, although she said she drew more satisfaction from singing Amneris in Aida and Azucena in Il trovatore.

Cossotto was married to the Italian bass Ivo Vinco until they divorced after more than 40 years together.  They had a son, Roberto.

She celebrated her 70th birthday in 2005 by appearing in Giacomo Puccini’s one-act opera Suor Angelica at the Théâtre Royal in Liège, Belgium.  Since retiring as a performer, she has accepted a number of invitations to teach.

She still lives in Crescentino, as does her son and his family.  Ivo Vinco died in 2014.

Crescentino, with the rice fields in the distance
Crescentino, with the rice fields in the distance
Travel tip:

Crescentino is a village in the province of Vercelli in Piedmont, located about 35km (22 miles) northeast of Turin and about 30km (19 miles) southwest of Vercelli.  Some of the village was destroyed during the Second World War when houses were set on fire by German troops as part of an ongoing conflict with Italian partisans. After the war the area prospered through rice production in the Po Valley.  The main square, Piazza Vische, contains a 13th century church and the 31m Civic Tower. On the outskirts of the village is the Sanctuary of the Madonna del Palazzo.

The Piazza Cavour in Vercelli
The Piazza Cavour in Vercelli
Travel tip:

The rice fields of the Po Valley form the largest rice production area in the whole of Europe, mainly centred on the province of Vercelli, between Milan and Turin, in which the town of Vercelli is surrounded in the summer months by submerged paddy fields, for which water is supplied by a canal from the Po River.  Rice has been grown in the area since the 15th century.

More reading:

The diva who came to blows with a rival on stage

How Franco Zeffirelli bestrode the opera and the cinema

Verdi: When Italy mourned the loss of a national icon

Also on this day:

1891: The birth of racing car engine designer Vittorio Jano

2006: The death of actress Alida Valli


Saturday, 21 April 2018

Silvana Mangano - actress

Star who married the producer Dino De Laurentiis

Silvana Mangano worked as a model before breaking into the cinema
Silvana Mangano worked as a model before
breaking into the film industry
The actress Silvana Mangano, who was decried as a mere sex symbol and later hailed as a fine character actress during a quite restricted career, was born on this day in 1930 in Rome.

She found fame through Giuseppe De Santis’s neorealist film Bitter Rice, in which she played a female worker in the rice fields in the Po Valley who becomes involved with a petty criminal Walter, played by Vittorio Gassman.

Mangano’s character was a sensual, lustful young woman and the actress, a former beauty queen, carried it off so well she was hailed by one critic as “Ingrid Bergmann with a Latin disposition” and likened also to the American glamour queen Rita Hayworth.

She went on to work with many of Italy's leading directors, including Alberto Lattuada, Vittorio De Sica, Pier Paolo Pasolini and Luchino Visconti, but she made only 30 films, in part because she preferred to spend time with her family but also because Dino De Laurentiis, the producer of Bitter Rice who soon became her husband, controlled her career.

It is said that she was offered the important part of Maddalena in Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita but that De Laurentiis prevented her from taking it, the role instead going to the French actress Anouk Aimée.

The daughter of a Sicilian railway worker and his English wife, Ivy Webb, who was from Croydon, Mangano grew up in difficult circumstances in wartime Rome.  After the conflict was over her family lived effectively in poverty but she was determined to make something of herself and paid for seven years of dance lessons by earning money as a model.

Mangano's character in the 1951 film Anna was a dancer who gives up nightclubs to take holy orders
Mangano's character in the 1951 film Anna was a dancer who
gives up nightclubs to take holy orders
Beauty pageants were an established route into the growing film industry.  Mangano won the Miss Rome competition in 1946 and entered Miss Italia the following year, against an extraordinary field that included Lucia Bosé, Gina Lollobrigida, Eleonora Rossi Drago and Gianna Maria Canale, all of whom would become stars.

Mangano did not win but attracted attention.  She had a brief affair with Marcello Mastroianni, then an upcoming actor, and had a number of small parts, in Italy and in France.

Bitter Rice provided her with her big break in 1949, although with a certain irony she was almost rejected by De Santis as too glamorous after she turned up for the audition dressed to kill and heavily made up.  It was only after bumping into De Santis later on the Via Veneto, having removed her make-up, which she seldom wore off screen anyway, and with her hair wet from the rain, that she won the part.

After Bitter Rice, it took a long time for Mangano to shake off he image as sex symbol but between the 50s and the 70s she gradually acquired a reputation for delivering solid acting performance in strong character roles.

Mangano's breakthrough came in the  neorealist movie Bitter Rice
Mangano's breakthrough came in the
neorealist movie Bitter Rice 
Her notable successes included Lattuada’s Anna (1951), in which she played a dancer who abandons the nightlife to become a nun, and the The Gold of Naples (1954), directed by Vittorio De Sica, in which she took the part of a prostitute, Teresa.

Later she played opposite Vittorio Gassman again in Robert Rossen’s Mambo (1955), portrayed a bourgeois mother in Pasolini’s Theorem (1968) and was the mother of Tadzio in Visconti’s Death in Venice (1971).

She won several Italian film industry awards, including three David di Donatellos, two Silver Ribbons and one Nastro d’Argento (Gold Ribbon) for best actress in Death in Venice.

Mangano and De Laurentiis married in 1949 and the couple had four children: Veronica, Raffaella, Francesca, and Federico. Raffaella went on to to be a film producer herself. Federico died in an plane crash in 1981.

Veronica’s daughter, Giada De Laurentiis, who moved to California after her parents divorced, became the host of Everyday Italian and Giada at Home on the Food Network TV channel, as well as the founder of GDL Foods and the owner of two restaurants in Las Vegas,

Mangano and Dino De Laurantiis separated in 1983, at around the same time Mangano began to suffer from ill health.  Afflicted by insomnia and bouts of depression, she was discovered to have a tumour close to her stomach, between her lungs.

She left Italy to live in Spain.  A year after her divorce from De Laurentiis she underwent surgery in Madrid in December 1989 but was left in a coma and died two weeks later, the cause of death recorded as lung cancer,

Streets in the Vallerano neighbourhood are named after actors, actresses and writers
Streets in the Vallerano neighbourhood are named after
actors, actresses and writers
Travel tip:

Mangano has a road named after her in the Vallerano neighbourhood of suburban Rome, about 16km (10 miles) south of the centre of the city in the direction of the Pontine marshes and adjoining an area of nature reserves. The area is primarily residential, its broad streets named after performing artists Italian and foreign, including many movie stars, as well as journalists and publishers.

The Villa Oplontis at Torre Annunziata
The Villa Oplontis at Torre Annunziata
Travel tip:

Mangano’s husband, Dino De Laurentiis, was born in Torre Annunziata, a former small city now absorbed into the greater Naples metropolitan area. Close to Mount Vesuvius, it was destroyed in the eruption of 79 AD and was rebuilt over the ruins. Its name derives from a watch tower - torre - built to warn people of imminent Saracen raids and a chapel consecrated to the Annunziata (Virgin Mary). It became a centre for pasta production in the early 19th century. The Villa Poppaea, also known as Villa Oplontis, believed to be owned by Nero, was discovered about 10 metres below ground level just outside the town and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

More reading:

How Dino De Laurentiis made Italian cinema famous

The genius of Federico Fellini

Luchino Visconti, the aristocrat of Italian cinema

Also on this day:

753BC: The birth of Rome

1574: The death of Cosimo I de' Medici


Friday, 20 April 2018

Sant’Agnese of Montepulciano

Miraculous life and death of young nun

A traditional image of Sant'Agnese
A traditional image of Sant'Agnese
Dominican prioress Agnese Segni, who was reputed to have performed miracles, died on this day in 1317 in Montepulciano in Tuscany.

She was canonised by Pope Benedict XIII in 1726 and her feast day is celebrated every April 20 on the anniversary of her death.

Agnese was born into the noble Segni family in Gracciano, a frazione - parish - of Montepulciano.

At the age of nine she convinced her parents to allow her to enter a Franciscan sisterhood. She had to have the permission of the pope to be accepted into this life at such a young age, which normally would not be allowed under church law.

After a few years she was one of a group of nuns sent to start a new monastery near Orvieto. When she was just 20 years old she was chosen to be abbess of the community.

She gained a reputation for performing miracles, curing people of their ailments just by her presence. She was reported to have multiplied loaves, creating many from a few on several occasions.

The tomb of Sant'Agnes in the church of  Sant'Agnese in Montepulciano
The tomb of Sant'Agnes in the church of
Sant'Agnese in Montepulciano
In 1306 she was recalled to head the monastery in Montepulciano and she started to build a church, Santa Maria Novella, to honour Mary, the mother of Jesus, as she felt she had been commanded to do in a vision.

She was also inspired to lead her nuns to embrace the Rule of St Augustine as members of the Dominican order.

When her health began to decline she was recommended to visit the thermal springs at nearby Chianciano Terme to take a cure but she received no benefit from the springs and was carried back to the monastery on a stretcher. She died in 1317 at the age of 49.

When her body had to be moved years later, it was found to be incorrupt, having not decayed, and her tomb became a site for pilgrims.

Michelozzo's Palazzo Comunale
Michelozzo's Palazzo Comunale 
Travel tip:

Montepulciano is a medieval hill town some 70km (43 miles) southeast of  Siena, known worldwide for its wine. Connoisseurs consider Montepulciano’s Vino Nobile to be one of the best wines produced in Italy. Among the important buildings in the town are the Palazzo Comunale, designed by Michelozzo, the favoured Medici architect, in the tradition of the Palazzo della Signoria in Florence, and the Duomo, dedicated to Santa Maria Assunta, which contains a huge triptych, Assumption of the Virgin, by Taddeo di Bartolo.

A panorama of Chianciano Vecchia
A panorama of Chianciano Vecchia
Travel tip:

Situated a little over 10km (6 miles) from Montepulciano, the town of Chianciano Terme has two parts. Chianciano Vecchia (Old Chianciano) is situated on top of a hill, entered via the elegant Porta Rivellini, and is quite distinct from the modern community, which has grown around the thermal springs. It is considered among the finest health resorts in Italy with attractive parks, many hotels and a range of therapeutic waters said to be beneficial for the liver, the kidneys, the urinary tract and even for respiratory problem.

More reading:

Why thousands take to the streets of Catania to celebrate Saint Agatha of Sicily

The wisdom of Saint Thomas Aquinas, Dominican philosopher

The First World War nurse who was made a saint

Also on this day:

1949: The birth of former prime minister Massimo D'Alema

1951: The death of Ivanoe Bonomi, statesman who helped Italy's transition to peace after World War Two


Thursday, 19 April 2018

Sara Simeoni - high jumper

Held world record and won Olympic gold

Sara Simeoni won the Olympic gold medal in 1980 in Moscow
Sara Simeoni won the Olympic gold
medal in 1980 in Moscow
The high jumper Sara Simeoni, who is regarded as one of Italy’s greatest female athletes, was born on this day in 1953 in Rivoli Veronese, a village about 20km (12 miles) northwest of Verona.

Only the second woman to clear two metres, she won the gold medal in her event at the Moscow Olympics of 1980, setting a Games record in the process.

The Moscow Games was boycotted by 66 countries in protest at the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, yet Simeoni, who competed under the Olympic flag after Italy left the issue of participation up to individual athletes, still deserved applause as the only winner in the women’s track and field programme not from an Eastern Bloc country.

She confessed later that she suffered a panic attack just before the final in the Lenin Stadium and was physically sick, but then reminded herself that she was the world record holder and eventually beat the Polish jumper Urszula Kielan with a leap of 1.97m, an Olympic record.

A great friend of the late Pietro Mennea, another 1980 Olympic champion from who she drew inspiration, she had won the silver medal in Montreal in 1976 and did so again in Los Angeles in 1984.

Simeoni won nine other major international championships, including the European indoor title four times, and after clearing 2.01m in Brescia in 1978 held the Italian high jump record for 29 years.

Simeoni wanted to be a dancer but was told she was too tall
Simeoni wanted to be a dancer but was
told she was too tall
An advocate for the Fosbury Flop style of high jumping, in which the jumper approaches the bar on a curving run and jumps head first and legs last, with the back facing downwards, Simeoni took up athletics first of all as a way to spend time with her friends outside school.

She had wanted to be a dancer, but at 1.78m (5ft 10ins) and with size 41 shoes (UK equivalent size 8), she was physically better suited to other pursuits. When she began to practise the high jump aged 13, it was clear she had talent. She won the Italian national championships for the first time in 1970 and defended the title successfully for 10 years in a row before being beaten by Sandra Dini in 1981. Simeoni regained her crown in 1982 and had won it 14 times when she retired in 1986. She was also 10 times Italian indoor champion, as well as the national pentathlon champion in 1972.

Her first major international competition was the European outdoor championships in 1971 and she was sixth at the Munich Olympics in 1972 before winning her first medal, the bronze, at the Universiade in Moscow the following year.

Simeoni’s first gold medal at a major games came at the 1975 Mediterranean Games in Algiers, which she followed with Olympic silver in 1976, when she was beaten by the East German Rosie Ackermann, who would become one of her fiercest rivals.

In 1977, she began an extraordinary run of successes that brought her nine gold medals in the space of five seasons and established her as one of Italy’s greatest athletes, male or female.

Simeoni in 2013 at the funeral of her friend, the Italian sprint champion Pietro Mennea
Simeoni in 2013 at the funeral of her friend, the
Italian sprint champion Pietro Mennea
In that period, Simeoni was European indoor champion four times, won gold at the Universiade twice and took the Mediterranean title for a second time as well as becoming European outdoor champion in 1978 and fulfilling her Olympic dream in 1980.

Winning the European title in Prague in August 1978, she matched the world record mark of 2.01m she had set in Brescia only a few weeks earlier.

He silver medal at the 1984 Olympics was considered a personal triumph, even though she was beaten by West Germany’s Ulrike Meyfarth in the final.  Simeoni had struggled with tendon injuries over the preceding two years and was not expected to do particularly well.  The Italian Olympic Committee, recognising her career achievements, asked her to carry the Italian flag at the opening ceremony.

Once she began competing, however, the instincts that had enabled her to win so many medals kicked in and she pushed Meyfarth all the way, clearing two metres for the first time in six years.

Simeoni married her coach, Ermino Azzaro, and they have a son, Roberto, who is also a high jumper.

Since giving up competition, Simeoni has been a teacher at a middle school in Garda, on the lake of the same name, as well as an ambassador for young people and women’s rights.

A view over Rivoli Veronese
A view over Rivoli Veronese
Travel tip:

Rivoli Veronese, a village on a hill on the banks of the Adige river, is famous as the scene of the Battle of Rivoli in January 1797, in which Napoleon inflicted a decisive defeat upon the Austrians. The famous Paris street Rue de Rivoli, which extends from Place de la Concorde almost to Place de la Bastille, 3.8km (2.4 miles) to the southeast, passing the Jardin des Tuileries and the Louvre.   In military history, the area has always been seen as a formidable obstacle.

The waterfront at Garda on Lake Garda
The waterfront at Garda on Lake Garda
Travel tip:

The popular resort of Garda is one of the main resorts on the southern end of the lake that bears its name. Garda shows traces of habitation over many centuries, from the Venetian merchants' villas to rock etchings in the hills above the town.  Santa Maria Assunta, the parish church, originally dates from the 6th-7th century but was not completed until 1764. A rebuilding project in 1530 was abandoned due to lack of funds.

More reading:

Pietro Mennea - the Italian won became one of the world's best sprinters

The long-distance feats of Alberto Cova

How Raimondo d'Inzeo competed in eight consecutive Olympics

Also on this day:

1798: The death of the brilliant Venetian painter Canaletto

1937: The birth of chef Antonio Carluccio