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, 28 June 2017

Pietro Mennea – Olympic sprint champion

200m specialist won gold at Moscow in 1980

Pietro Mennea at his first Olympics in 1972
Pietro Mennea at his first Olympics in 1972
Pietro Mennea, one of only two Italian sprinters to win an Olympic gold, was born on this day in 1952 in the coastal city of Barletta in Apulia.

Mennea won the 200m final at the Moscow Olympics in 1980, depriving Britain's Allan Wells of a sprint double. In doing so, Mennea emulated his compatriot, Livio Berruti 20 years earlier in Rome.

He held the world record at 200m for almost 17 years, from 1979 until 1996.  His time of 19.72 seconds remains the European record.

It would stand as the world record for 16 years, nine months and 11 days, until Michael Johnson ran 19.66 at the US Olympic trials in 1996.

As well as winning his gold medal, outrunning Britain’s Allan Wells in the last 50m, Mennea’s other great Olympic feat was to reach the 200m final at four consecutive Games, the first track athlete to do at any distance. He also won the bronze medal in Munich in 1972, was fourth in 1976 at Montreal and seventh place in Los Angeles in 1984.

At his last Olympics, in 1988, he carried the Italian flag at the opening ceremony.

Famous for his rather frantic running style, Mennea set the 200m record on September 12 1979 at the World University Games in Mexico City, his time surpassing the record of 19.83, set by the American sprinter Tommie Smith on the same track at the 1968 Olympics.

Pietro Mennea gets down to his mark at the start of his duel with Allan Wells (left) in the 1980 Moscow final
Pietro Mennea gets down to his mark at the start of his duel
with Allan Wells (left) in the 1980 Moscow final
Although there were some who questioned the authenticity of the record because of the advantages of lower air resistance at high altitudes, Mennea won plenty of races at low altitudes as well.

Known in Italy as “la freccia del sud”  - “the arrow of the south” – he also won gold at the European Championships in Rome in 1974 and Prague in 1978, where he also took the gold in the 100m.

Mennea was born in Barletta, on the Adriatic coast, the son of a tailor. When he was young, the story goes, he would bet against car owners that he could take on their Alfa Romeos and Porsches over 50 metres and win.

Blessed with such pace, it didn't take him long to make an impact on the track. He was a double Italian champion at 19 in 1971. The 1972 Olympics at Munich, where he won a bronze medal, was his first international championship.

His career was not without controversy. After retiring, Mennea admitted taking supplements of human growth hormone, though he added that it was not illegal at the time.

After retiring from sprinting, Mennea drew on the extensive qualifications he acquired as a student, including degrees in political science, law, physical education and literature.  He had been a student at the University of Bari at the time when Aldo Moro, who had been prime minister of Italy and would be again, was a professor.

Mennea was a politician in later life
Mennea was a politician in later life
He practised as a lawyer and a sports agent, working for some years on behalf of the football team, Salernitana. He was an elected politician, serving from 1999 to 2004 as a member of the European parliament, where he lobbied for independent dope-testing authorities in sport.

Mennea also stood at the 2001 general election is a candidate for the Senate in Barletta-Trani under the centre-left Italy of Values banner but was not elected. In 2002 he was a candidate for mayor of Barletta with the centre-right party Forza Italia, but was defeated in the first round.

He died in 2013 aged only 60 after a battle with cancer. Hundreds of Italian athletics fans filed past his open coffin and the headquarters of the Italian Olympic committee in Rome, where World Cup winner Dino Zoff and Olympic boxing champion Nino Benvenuti were among those who paid their respects.  His funeral took place at the Basilica of Santa Sabina on the Aventine Hill, not far from the Circus Maximus.

The Basilica of Santa Sabina in Rome
The Basilica of Santa Sabina in Rome
Travel tip:

Santa Sabina is perched high above the Tiber river, next to small public park Giardino degli Aranci (Garden of Oranges), which has a scenic terrace overlooking Rome. The oldest extant Roman basilica in Rome, dating back to the fifth century, it preserves its original colonnaded rectangular plan and architectural style, which is said to represent the crossover from a roofed Roman forum to the churches of Christendom.

The Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Barletta
The Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Barletta
Travel tip:

Mennea’s home city of Barletta lies about 60km (37 miles) north of Bari on the Adriatic coast. It is a working port with modern suburbs and an attractive historic centre, where one of the most famous sights is an ancient bronze 'Colossus', thought to be the oldest surviving bronze Roman statue. The identity of the figure the statue represents is not clear but one theory is that it is the Byzantine Emperor Marcian and that the statue’s original home was in Constantinople.  Barletta has a beautiful 12th century cathedral, renovated in the 14th century, the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore.


Tuesday, 27 June 2017

The Ustica Massacre

Mystery plane crash blamed on missile strike

The Itavia Airlines DC9 that crashed off Ustica
The Itavia Airlines DC9 that crashed off Ustica
An Italian commercial flight crashed into the Tyrrhenian Sea between Ponza and Ustica, killing everyone on board on this day in 1980.

The aircraft, a McDonnell Douglas DC9-15 in the service of Itavia Airlines was en route from Bologna to Palermo, flight number IH870. All 77 passengers and the four members of the crew were killed, making this the deadliest aviation incident involving a DC9-15 or 10-15 series.

The disaster became known in the Italian media as the Ustica massacre - Strage di Ustica - because Ustica, off the coast of Sicily, was a small island near the site of the crash.

Many investigations, legal actions and accusations resulted from the tragedy, which continues to be a source of speculation in Italy.

The fragments of the aircraft that were recovered from the sea off Ustica were re-assembled at Pratica di Mare Air Force Base near Rome, where they were examined by several teams of investigators.

The remains of the plane were reassembled at an air base outside Rome
The remains of the plane were reassembled at an
air base outside Rome
In 1989, the Parliamentary Commission on Terrorism issued a statement asserting that “following a military interception action, the DC9 was shot down, the lives of 81 innocent citizens were destroyed by an action properly described as an act of war, real war undeclared, a covert international police action against our country, which violated its borders and rights.”

However, because the perpetrators of this alleged crime remained unidentified, the commission declared the case to be archived.

It was reopened in 2008 after former president Francesco Cossiga attributed the cause to a missile fired from a French Navy aircraft.

After further investigations and court hearings, in 2013, Italy’s top criminal court in Rome ruled that there was clear evidence the flight was brought down by a missile and upheld a ruling made by a court in Palermo in 2011 that Italian radar systems had failed adequately to protect the skies, and therefore Italy must compensate the victims' families.

The Palermo hearing had ordered the Italian government to pay 100 million euros in civil damages to the families of the victims

Several Italian air force personnel were investigated and charged with offences including falsification of documents, perjury and abuse of office after what appeared to be a concerted attempt to cover up what happened – perhaps to save the careers of officers who might be held accountable for radar system failures or, in a more sinister theory, that they shot down the airliner themselves, by mistake, while engaged in a top-secret operation on behalf of NATO.

The remains were moved from Rome to Bologna and put on display at a museum in a large hangar
The remains were moved from Rome to Bologna and put
on display at a museum in a large hangar
The difficulty the investigators and the victims’ relatives had in receiving information has been described as a rubber wall, un muro di gomma.

Alternative theories were that there could have been a bomb in one of the toilets, or that it could have been brought down in error in a failed assassination attempt by NATO on Libya's Colonel Muammar Gadafy.  

French, US and Nato officials all denied military activity in the skies that night.

The bomb theory was favoured by a British investigation team, who suspected a cover-up on the part of the Italian secret services.

One of the British investigators called in to look at the wreckage, Frank Taylor, commented: “We discovered quite clearly that someone had planted a bomb there, but nobody on the legal side, it would appear, believed us and therefore, so as we are aware, there has been no proper search for who did it, why they did it, or anything else”

Travel tip:

In 2007 the Museum for the Memory of Ustica was opened in Bologna and parts of the plane and objects belonging to people on board are on display there.  The museum is in a large hangar off Via di Saliceto.

A view over the town of Ustica on the island of the same name
A view over the town of Ustica on the island of the same name
Travel tip:

Ustica is a small island north of Sicily in the Tyrrhenian sea. There is a regular ferry service from the island to Palermo in Sicily.  The island is actually the tip of an ancient, extinct volcano. The sea around the island is particularly clear and is therefore popular with divers and swimmers.

Monday, 26 June 2017

Alberto Rabagliati - singer and actor

Performer found fame through radio

Alberto Rabagliati won a contest as  a Rudolph Valentino lookalike
Alberto Rabagliati won a contest as
a Rudolph Valentino lookalike
The singer and movie actor Alberto Rabagliati, who became one of the stars of Italian radio in the 1930s and 40s, was born on this day in 1906 in Milan.

His movie career reached a peak in the post-War years, when he had roles in the Humphrey Bogart-Ava Gardner hit Barefoot Contessa and in Montecarlo, starring Marlene Dietrich.

The son of parents who had moved to Milan from the village of Casorzo, near Asti, in Piedmont, Rabagliati’s career in the entertainment business began when he entered a competition in 1927 to find a Rudolph Valentino lookalike.

To his astonishment he won.  The prize was to be taken to Hollywood to audition, so his life changed overnight.  Later he recalled his own wide-eyed incredulity as he sailed across the Atlantic, bound for a new life.  "For someone like me, who had never been beyond Lake Como or Monza Cathedral, finding myself on board a luxury steamer with three cases full of clothes, a few rolls of dollars, gran-duchesses and countesses flirting with me was something extraordinary".

He lived in America for the next four years but never achieved more than modest success and decided to return to Italy. During his time in America, however, he took the opportunity to get to know some new musical genres such as jazz, swing, and ‘scat’ singing, in which the vocalist uses his or her voice to make sounds rather than words, such as the ‘doo wah, doo wah, doo wah, doo wah’ lines repeated in It Don’t Mean a Thing if it Ain’t Got That Swing.

On coming home he was determined he would make a success as a singer and he realised his ambition in some style.

Rabagliati recording one of his radio shows in the 1940s
Rabagliati recording one of his radio shows in the 1940s
After joining a popular band called the Lecuona Cuban Boys, in which he performed with his face painted black, he met the songwriter Giovanni D'Anzi who arranged for him to have an audition with the Italian state radio station, EIAR, in Rome.

Rabagliati soon became a star and by 1941 had his own show, Canta Rabagliati ("Rabagliati sings"). It spurned a string of hits, including Ma l'amore no, Mattinata fiorentina, and Bambina innamorata.  He developed a huge following, mainly among women, and when he appeared on stage he would have hundreds of roses thrown at his feet.

He owned a large American car, which the Italian authorities at one time threatened to confiscate, because the Fascist regime banned all manifestations of foreign culture.

The Fascist leader Benito Mussolini, however, sensed he could use Rabagliati’s popularity to his own advantage and personally intervened to ensure the singer kept his car.  Mussolini persuaded Rabagliati to lend one of his songs to the government’s campaign to persuade Italians to buy into his vision of Fascist family life, adopting Sposi (c'è una casetta piccina) as an anthem for the campaign, celebrating newlyweds in their own "little house".

Rabagliati was lined up to work alongside Raffaella Carrà in a new TV show
Rabagliati was lined up to work alongside
Raffaella Carrà in a new TV show
It is said that Mussolini privately despised Rabagliati’s music, with its heavy American influences, and reputedly flew into a rage one day when he discovered his mistress, Clara Petacci, listening to one of his records, dragging it off the turntable and smashing it.

Rabagliati used his fame as a singer to kick-start his film career and appeared in more than 20 films between 1940 and the mid-1960s, including Barefoot Contessa, Montecarlo, Il vedova (The Widow) and The Christmas That Almost Wasn’t, in which he played Santa Claus.

He began to act on stage too, landing many parts in musical revues and comedies.  It seemed he was about to break into television in a big way, too, making a guest appearance on a new show Milleluci, presented by Mazzini Mina and Rafaella Carrà.

He was so impressive that Mina wanted him to be on the show regularly and he was about to agree a deal on becoming a co-host in March 1974 when he collapsed and died from a cerebral haemorrhage. He was 67.

Rabagliati, who had married Maria Antonietta Tonnini in 1954, was buried at the Cimitero Flaminio in Rome, next to his mother.

The impressive Baroque cathedral at Asti
The impressive Baroque cathedral at Asti
Travel tip:

Asti is one of the most important cities in Piedmont in terms of art and literature, notably as the birthplace of Vittorio Alfieri, the famous 18th century poet and dramatist. The town's historic centre, is charmingly quaint, the highlight of which is the triangular Piazza Alfieri, where the town’s famous Palio horse race is staged.   It has a wealth of palaces, towers and ancient churches, and a magnificent Gothic cathedral.

Travel tip:

The Cimitero Flaminio is in the Rome suburb of Prima Porta, which is so called because of an arch under an aqueduct carrying water across the Via Flaminia, which was considered a gateway into Rome from the north.  The Via Flaminia, which effectively begins at Piazza del Popolo in the centre of Rome, stretches all the way across the Apennines to what is now Rimini on the Adriatic coast.


Sunday, 25 June 2017

Aldo Serena - footballer

Azzurri striker left field in tears after penalty miss

Aldo Serena places the ball on the spot before his fateful penalty kick against Argentina
Aldo Serena places the ball on the spot before
his fateful penalty kick against Argentina
Aldo Serena, one of the two Italian players who most felt the agony of defeat after the Azzurri suffered the pain of losing at the semi-final stage when the football World Cup last took place on home soil, was born on this day in 1960 in Montebelluna, a town in the Veneto.

The match that ended the host nation's participation in the Italia '90 tournament took place in Naples against an Argentina side that included the local hero, Diego Maradona. It was decided on penalties after finishing 1-1 over 120 minutes. 

Italy converted their opening three penalties, as did Argentina.  Then Roberto Donadoni’s shot was saved by the Argentina goalkeeper, Sergio Goycochea.  Up stepped Maradona, who scored, to the delight of many in the crowd who had divided loyalties.

Suddenly, everything was down to Aldo Serena, who could not afford to miss if Italy were to stay alive in a tournament in which they had played football at times that deserved to win.

Serena, the Internazionale striker, had been a fringe player for Italy throughout the tournament, picked only as a substitute, although he had scored in that capacity against Uruguay in the round of 16 – on his 30th birthday.

Roberto Baggio consoles Aldo Serena (left) after  Italy's defeat in the semi-final
Roberto Baggio consoles Aldo Serena (left) after
Italy's defeat in the semi-final
He had said since that he never wanted such responsibility, but Azeglio Vicini, the Italy coach, said there was no choice.  Gianluca Vialli and Giuseppe Giannini, who would have been chosen ahead of Serena, had both been substituted, while Toto Schillaci, who had emerged as Italy’s talisman during the tournament, had finished extra time with a groin injury, which Vicini felt might be too big an impediment. Serena had scored more than 100 goals during his Serie A career. He knew what it took to put the ball in the net.

Yet though hit a firm enough shot Goycochea read his intentions, diving to his left to smother the ball. Unlike Donadoni, who had dropped to his knees, head in hands, Serena remained upright.  Hands on hips, he tipped his head back and looked towards the heavens.  Goycochea ran past him, eager to join his team-mates as they celebrated their passage to the final.

Serena had not done too much wrong throughout the tournament so to be held responsible in some ways for the Azzurri demise was unfair. Twenty-four hours later, it would be the turn of Stuart Pearce and Chris Waddle to be Donadoni and Serena as England were knocked out by West Germany, also on penalties.

Serena with the trophy he won as Serie A's top scorer in 1988-89
Serena with the trophy he won as
Serie A's top scorer in 1988-89
Yet at that moment it must have seemed there was no consolation or comfort available. The hopes of a nation had rested on his shoulders and he had not been able to deliver. No wonder he left the field in tears.

The moment should not have defined his career but it has tended to overshadow his achievements, which were not inconsiderable.  He won the Serie A title no fewer than four times, with Juventus (1985-86), Inter (88-89), and AC Milan (91-92 and 92-93), although his contribution to the two Milan championships was minimal because of injuries.

A powerful, athletic centre forward with good aerial ability and a fierce shot in his left foot, his best years were at Inter, where he was Serie A’s leading scorer in 1988-89 with 22 goals.  Yet fans of the nerazzurri found it hard to forgive him for joining their arch rivals AC Milan under Fabio Capello.

He retired in 1993 as the only player to have played for both Milan clubs and both Turin clubs, having spent part of the 1984-85 season on loan with Torino.  Nowadays he works as a TV pundit.

The church of Santa Maria in Colle in Montebelluna
The church of Santa Maria in Colle
in Montebelluna
Travel tip:

Montebelluna is situated about 22km (14m) northwest of Treviso and about 67km (42m) from Venice on the way to the Valdobbiadene wine growing region famous for prosecco. A pleasant, orderly town, it is best known for its long tradition in the footwear industry, particularly the production of sports footwear, from ski boots to football boots.  There is a museum dedicated to the industry in Vicolo Zuccareda, not far from the church of Santa Maria in Colle. The international sportswear giant Nike has a factory nearby, while another, Fila, has a research facility based at Montebelluna.

Inside the Stadio San Paolo
Inside the Stadio San Paolo
Travel tip:

The football stadium in Naples, where the 1990 semi-final took, place is the Stadio San Paolo, built in the Fuorigrotta neighbourhood on the north side of the city and completed in 1959, more than 10 years after work began.  It is the third largest football ground in Italy with a capacity of 60,240. Diego Maradona played there for SC Napoli between 1984 and 1991, helping the club to the most successful period in their history, in which they won the Serie A title twice, the Coppa Italia and the UEFA Cup. The local council wanted to rename the ground Stadio Diego Maradona but Italian law prohibits the naming of a public building after any person who has not been dead at least 10 years.

Saturday, 24 June 2017

Piero Barone – singer

Young tenor found fame on TV talent show

Piero Barone, one of the stars of the group Il Volo
Piero Barone, one of the stars
of the group Il Volo
Piero Barone, one of the three singers who make up the Italian opera and pop group, Il Volo, was born on this day in 1993 in Naro, a town in the province of Agrigento in Sicily.

Il Volo hit the headlines after winning the Sanremo Music Festival in 2015. They came third when they represented Italy in the Eurovision Song Contest with their hit Grande Amore later that year in Austria and have since acquired growing popularity world wide.

In 2016, the group, together with tenor Placido Domingo, released Notte Magica – A Tribute to the Three Tenors, a live album featuring many of the songs performed by the Three Tenors (Domingo, Luciano Pavarotti and Jose Carreras) for their iconic concert held at the Baths of Caracalla in Rome on the eve of the Italia ’90 World Cup.

Piero’s father, Gaetano Barone, is a mechanic and his mother, Eleonora Ognibene, a housewife.

His musical talent was discovered by his grandfather, Pietro Ognibene, when he was just five years of age. Pietro was a blind musician who had written a song in Sicilian and when Piero sang it for him he was amazed by his voice.

The family helped Piero develop his talent and his grandfather paid for him to have piano lessons. Piero sang at school and in the church choir and even earned money as a wedding singer.

Il Volo performing at the Eurovision Song Contest in 2015
Il Volo performing at the Eurovision Song Contest in 2015
Considered a spinto tenor, a singer who easily reaches high notes but has elements of a baritone, Piero’s voice is powerful and he can sustain notes for a long while.

He had professional singing tuition while he was growing up and won a number of singing festivals in Italy. When he took part in the TV talent show, Ti Lascio Una Canzone, in 2009 he met fellow contestants Ignazio Boschetto and Gianluca Ginoble, with whom he would later form the group, Il Volo.

On the show, Piero sang with them for the first time in a rendition of the famous Neapolitan song, O’ Sole Mio.

Il Volo describe their music as ‘popera’ and sing at venues all over Italy and abroad. They have so far released five CDs, which have been hits all over the world.

Grande Amore was part of an album issued as L'amore si muove - Love moves - in Italy, which reached number one in the Italian album charts.

The view over Naro from the medieval castle
The view over Naro from the medieval castle
Travel tip:

Naro in Sicily, where Piero Barone was born, dates back to Roman times and the remains of catacombs and villas have been found there. The town has a medieval castle, the ruins of a Norman Church and several Baroque buildings. It is famous for the festival held on 18 June every year to remember the patron saint, San Calogero, when a statue of the saint is carried through the streets in a procession. The composer, Achille Campisiano, was born in the town in 1837.

Piazza Santa Croce is one of the most famous squares in Florence
Piazza Santa Croce is one of the most famous
squares in Florence
Travel tip:

Il Volo’s album, Notte Magico – A Tribute to the Three Tenors, was recorded at a live concert held on July 1, 2016 in Piazza Santa Croce in Florence accompanied by the orchestra of the Teatro Massimo di Palermo. The tenor, Placido Domingo, conducted the orchestra for eight pieces and joined with Il Volo to sing Non ti scordar di me. Set in one of the most famous squares in Florence, the concert took place against the backdrop of the 13th century church of Santa Croce, which contains the tombs of many illustrious Florentines, including Michelangelo and Galileo.

Friday, 23 June 2017

Claudio Capone – actor and dubber

The Italian voice of a host of stars

The dubbing professional Claudio Capone  was the Italian voice of many stars
The dubbing professional Claudio Capone
 was the Italian voice of many stars 
Italy lost one of its most famous voices on this day in 2008 with the premature death of Claudio Capone.

The Rome-born actor was working in Scotland when he suffered a stroke. He was admitted to hospital in Perth but despite the best efforts of doctors he died two days later, at the age of only 55.

Although he began his career with the ambitions of any actor to reach the top of his profession, he was offered an opportunity only a few years out of drama school to do some voice-over work and found the flow of work in dubbing to be so consistent he ultimately made it his career.

Unlike some countries, Italian cinema and TV audiences have always preferred to watch imported films and TV shows with dubbed Italian voices rather than subtitles, which meant that a talented dubbing actor was seldom unemployed.

Capone was among the best and it was down to him that many foreign stars became famous in Italy, even though many did not speak a word of Italian.

The biggest example of this was the American actor Ronn Moss, who played the part of fashion magnate Ridge Forrester in the CBS soap opera The Bold and the Beautiful.

Moss, who had enjoyed a successful pop career as a member of a band he formed with friends in Los Angeles, called Player, was by no means an outstanding actor but when in 1990 the Italian station Rai bought the rights to The Bold and the Beautiful, which they repackaged as simply Beautiful, his fame took off – in Italy, at any rate.

The American actor Ronn Moss owed his fame in Italy at least in part to Claudio Capone
The American actor Ronn Moss owed his fame
in Italy at least in part to Claudio Capone
He became a favourite with Italian TV audiences, although his appeal owed as much to Capone as his own good looks or acting ability.

Capone gave him a deep, husky voice that female viewers found irresistible. The show quickly built a following, and when it was bought by Silvio Berlusconi’s Fininvest in 1994 and broadcast on Canale 5, Capone continued in the role.

Moss became a star in Italy, yet when he was a celebrity dancer in the 2010 series of Ballando con le Stelle – the Italian equivalent of America’s Dancing with the Stars and the UK show Strictly Come Dancing – audiences were shocked that his own Italian was so limited he needed the show’s host, Milly Carlucci, to interpret for him.

There was much more to Capone’s career than simply being the voice of Ronn Moss, although he also dubbed his part in an Italian-made Romantic comedy, Christmas in Love, in which Moss appeared as himself.

Indeed, his movie credits read like a cinema who’s who, such was his versatility and ability to tailor his voice for an extraordinary range of diverse parts.

He was the voice of Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker in Star Wars, of Brad Davis as Billy Hayes in Midnight Express, of Stephen Fry as Oscar Wilde in Wilde, of Steve Guttenberg as Carey Mahoney in the Police Academy series and of Martin Sheen as Carruthers Kit in Badlands.

Claudio Capone at work behind a microphone
Claudio Capone at work behind a microphone
Others for whom he was the Italian voice – and this list is by no means comprehensive – included John Travolta, Alan Alda, Richard Dreyfuss, Christopher Walken, Chuck Norris, Michael Douglas, Jeff Bridges, Kyle MacLachlan, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Ralph Fiennes, Willem Dafoe and Michael York.

On the small screen, he dubbed for Don Johnson in Miami Vice and Michael Newman in Baywatch, and – again showing his versatility – for John Nettles as an English detective in Midsomer Murders (shown in Italy as Inspector Barnaby), a sitcom doctor played by Alexander Armstrong in TLC and the English vet in Africa (Stephen Tompkinson) in Wild at Heart, shown as Cuore D’Africa.

In addition to his film and TV drama roles, Capone’s other outstanding success was as the Italian voice of documentaries on the Discovery Channel, and as the narrator of the hit Italian science programme Quark.

He was in Scotland to narrate a documentary programme when he was taken ill.  The older of his two sons, David, also became a voiceover specialist.

Rome's Piazza del Popolo
Rome's Piazza del Popolo
Travel tip:

Claudio Capone’s funeral in Rome attracted many of his fans to pay their respects, with hundreds gathering as his coffin was carried through Piazza del Popolo.  The name of the large square at one end of the Via del Corso, the long, straight thoroughfare stretching north from Piazza Venezia, is often taken to mean the square “of the people”. In fact, many people believe Popolo derives from the Latin populus – poplar – after the trees from which the church of Santa Maria del Popolo is named.

The church of Santa Maria del Popolo
The church of Santa Maria del Popolo
Travel tip:

The Basilica Parrocchiale Santa Maria del Popolo, which can be found on the north side of Piazza del Popolo, is a minor, parish basilica yet contains works by several famous artists, including Raphael, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Caravaggio and Donato Bramante.  There is a tradition of appointing Catholic ministers from around the world as Cardinal Priest of the church. In fact, there has not been an Italian appointment since 1886. The last six Cardinal Priests have included two Spaniards, an American, a Canadian, a Senegalese and the present incumbent, a Pole.

Thursday, 22 June 2017

Galileo Galilei convicted of heresy

'Father of Science' forced to deny that earth revolved around sun

This 1857 painting by Cristiano Benti depicts  Galileo's appearance before the Inquisition
This 1857 painting by Cristiano Benti depicts
Galileo's appearance before the Inquisition
One of the more bizarre episodes in the history of human intellectual advancement took place in Rome on this day in 1633 when Galileo Galilei, the brilliant astronomer, mathematician, philosopher and engineer – often described as ‘the father of science’ - was convicted of heresy.

His crime was to support the view – indeed, to confirm it with scientific proof – that the sun rather than the earth was the centre of the solar system, as had been theorised by the Polish scientist Nicolaus Copernicus in the previous century.

This flew completely in the face of a major plank of orthodox Roman Catholic beliefs, within which the contention that the sun moved around the earth was regarded a fact of scripture that could not be disputed.

Galileo, something of a celebrity in his day who won the patronage of such powerful Italian families as the Medicis and the Barberinis following the discoveries he made with his astronomical telescope, had been essentially under surveillance by the Church since 1609 after publishing details of observations he had made that supported Copernicus’s theory of heliocentrism.

In 1616 the Copernican view was formally declared heretical and the biblical interpretation of creation was reaffirmed, part of which said that “God fixed the Earth upon its foundation, not to be moved forever.”

Pope Urban VIII - Matteo Barberini -  was sympathetic to Galileo
Pope Urban VIII - Matteo Barberini -
was sympathetic to Galileo
Galileo feared arrest but was given permission by Pope Urban VIII, a member of the Barberini faily, to continue his studies into Copernican theory provided his findings drew no definitive conclusions and acknowledged divine omnipotence.

However, when in 1632 Galileo published his Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems – namely that proposed by Copernicus and the traditional view put forward by the second century astronomer Ptolemy – he came down heavily in favour of Copernicus.  He was considered by the Church to have gone a step too far and Urban VIII, fearing for his future in a fiercely political climate, felt compelled to act.

Galileo was summoned to Rome for trial by Inquisition in 1633 and despite the strength of his evidence he was found guilty of heresy and forced to recant his own findings as “abjured, cursed and detested”. He did so with great reluctance but little choice, given that the alternative was to be burned at the stake.

As it was he was sentenced to be imprisoned indefinitely, his Dialogue was banned and the future publication of any of his research was forbidden.  He is said to have muttered the words “E pur, si muove” – “And yet, it moves” – after declaring the earth to be a fixed object, which had it been overheard might have enraged the court still further.

Yet he was again shown some clemency, the sentence of imprisonment being commuted to house arrest the following day, after which he was allowed to live out the remainder of his days at his villa at Arcetri, near Florence.  

He went blind in 1638 and died in 1642 but was able, nonetheless, to reconstruct and summarise the discoveries he had made earlier in his life in Two New Sciences, which was smuggled out of Italy and published in Holland.

The 1630 portrait of Galileo by Peter Paul Rubens resides in a private collection
The 1630 portrait of Galileo by Peter Paul
Rubens resides in a private collection
Of course, Copernicus and Galileo were subsequently proved beyond any doubt to be have been right.  Amazingly, it took the Catholic Church more than 350 years to formally acknowledge their error.

In 1757, Galileo’s Dialogue was removed from the Vatican’s list of banned publications and in 1984 a panel of scientists, theologians and historians, assembled in 1979 to look into the 1633 accusations, published a preliminary report which accepted that Galileo had been wrongfully condemned.

However, it was not until 1992 that the investigation was closed and Galileo was officially vindicated in a statement issued by Cardinal Paul Poupard, head of the investigation, which said: “We today know that Galileo was right in adopting the Copernican astronomical theory.”

Galileo's house in Arcetri, the Villa Gioella
Galileo's house in Arcetri, the
Villa Gioella
Travel tip:

The house to which Galileo returned after his sentence was commuted to house arrest is called Villa Gioella, which he rented. It is situated just three or four kilometres – a couple of miles – from the centre of Florence in the Arcetri hills.  In Galileo’s time it was a farmhouse, surrounded by many acres of land. He lived there with his daughter Celeste, who was a nun in an adjoining monastery.

Travel tip:

The Palace of the Holy Office, the building in Rome to which Galileo would have been summoned for trial in 1633, is what is known as an extraterritorial property of Vatican City, in that it lies outside the confines of the Vatican itself. The palace, originally built in 1514 for Cardinal Lorenzo Pucci and called Palazzo Pucci, is situated south of St. Peter's Basilica near the Petriano Entrance to Vatican City. In 1566–67, the palace was purchased by Pope Pius V and it was converted into the seat of the Holy Office.