20 November 2019

20 November

NEW - Diocletian - Roman emperor


Restored stability but launched cruel purge

A Roman cavalry commander who went under the name of Diocles was proclaimed Emperor on this day in 284.  He was given the full name Gaius Aurelius Valerius Diocletianus Augustus according to official inscriptions. He ruled as Diocletian.  He was sole emperor, albeit initially with a disputed claim to power, until 286, joint-emperor until 293, and co-emperor in a tetrarchy until 305.  Born at Salona, a coastal town in Dalmatia (now Solin in Croatia) into a family of humble status in 244, Diocletian rose to power through his military background.  After climbing through the ranks, he became cavalry commander to the Emperor Carus. After the death of Carus in 283, while on a campaign in Persia, power passed to his two sons, Numerian and Carinus.  When Numerian was allegedly murdered by his Praetorian Prefect, Arrius Aper, in 284, Diocletian was proclaimed as emperor by Numerian’s troops. He took it upon himself to avenge the death of Numerian by killing Aper with his own hands.  At the start, however, Diocletian’s power was restricted to the areas controlled by his army, thought to be Asia Minor and Syria. The remainder of the empire was loyal to Carinus.  Read more…


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Giorgio de Chirico – artist


Founder of the scuola metafisica movement

The artist Giorgio de Chirico, who founded the scuola metafisica (metaphysical school) of Italian art that was a profound influence on the country’s Surrealist movement in the early 20th century, died on this day in 1978 in Rome.  Although De Chirico, who was 90 when he passed away, was active for almost 70 years, it is for the paintings of the first decade of his career, between about 1909 and 1919, that he is best remembered.  It was during this period, his metaphysical phase, that he sought to use his art to express what might be called philosophical musings on the nature of reality, taking familiar scenes, such as town squares, and creating images that might appear in a dream, in which pieces of classical architecture would perhaps be juxtaposed with everyday objects in exaggerated form, the scene moodily atmospheric, with areas of dark shadow and bright light, and maybe a solitary figure.  These works were much admired and enormously influential.  During military service in the First World War he met Carlo Carrà, who would become a leading light in the Futurist movement, and together they formed the pittura metafisica (metaphysical painting) movement.  Read more…

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Emilio Pucci – fashion designer


The heroic, sporting, creative genius behind the Pucci label

Don Emilio Pucci, Marchese di Barsento, who became a top fashion designer and politician, was born on this day in 1914 in Florence.  Pucci was born into one of the oldest families in Florence and lived and worked in the Pucci Palace in Florence for most of his life. His fashion creations were worn by such famous women as Marilyn Monroe, Sophia Loren and Jackie Kennedy.  A keen sportsman who swam, skied, fenced, played tennis and raced cars, Pucci was part of the Italian team at the 1932 Winter Olympics in New York, although he did not compete.  He studied at the University of Milan, the University of Georgia, and Reed College in Oregon, where he designed the clothes for the college skiing team.  Pucci was awarded an MA in social science from Reed, where he was known to be a staunch defender of the Fascist regime in Italy. He was also awarded a doctorate in political science from the University of Florence.  It was his success as a fashion designer that would in time make his name but before that came some wartime experiences that were extraordinary to say the least.  In 1938 Pucci joined the Italian air force and served as a torpedo bomber, rising to the rank of captain and being decorated for valour.  Read more…

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Giampiero Combi - goalkeeper


Juventus stalwart who captained Italy’s 1934 World Cup winners

The footballer Giampiero Combi, who is considered to be one of the best Italian goalkeepers of all time, was born on November 20, 1902 in Turin.  Combi, who spent his entire career with his home-town club Juventus, was Italy’s captain at the 1934 World Cup, which Italy hosted and won, the team coached by Vittorio Pozzo and inspired by the revered Inter Milan striker Giuseppe Meazza defeating Czechoslovakia after extra time in the final of the 16-team tournament.  The achievement in front of excited Italian supporters in Rome capped a marvellous career for Combi, although it came about only by chance.  He had announced that he would retire at the end of the 1933-34 domestic season at the age of 31, having made 40 appearances for the azzurri. But Pozzo had persuaded him to be part of his squad to provide experienced cover for the emerging young Inter star Carlo Ceresoli.  In the event, Ceresoli suffered a broken arm in training a few weeks before the tournament and Combi found himself as the number one. He performed immaculately throughout, conceding only three goals in 510 minutes of football.  Read more…

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Queen Margherita of Savoy


Princess and fashion icon who became Queen of Italy

Margherita Maria Teresa Giovanna of Savoy was born on this day in 1851 in Turin.  The little girl, who was to later become the Queen consort of Italy, was the daughter of Prince Ferdinand Duke of Genoa and Princess Elisabeth of Saxony. She was educated to a high standard and renowned as a charming person with a lively curiosity to learn. A tall, stately blonde, she was not considered a beauty but nonetheless had many admirers.  Having first been suggested to marry Prince Charles of Romania, she instead married her first cousin Umberto, Prince of Piedmont, in April 1868 when she was just 16. The following year she gave birth to Victor Emmanuel, Prince of Naples, who later became King Victor Emmanuel III of Italy. He was to be their only child.  Margherita was crowned Queen of Italy in Naples when Umberto succeeded his father to the throne in January 1878 and she was warmly welcomed by the Neapolitan people.  It was not a particularly good marriage for Margherita. Umberto maintained an affair with a long-term lover, Eugenia Attendolo Bolognini. Read more…


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Diocletian - Roman emperor

Restored stability but launched cruel purge


Diocletian was from a humble family in what is now Solin in Croatia
Diocletian was from a humble family
in what is now Solin in Croatia
A Roman cavalry commander who went under the name of Diocles was proclaimed Emperor on this day in 284.

He was given the full name Gaius Aurelius Valerius Diocletianus Augustus according to official inscriptions. He ruled as Diocletian.

Diocletian was sole emperor, albeit initially with a disputed claim to power, until 286, joint-emperor until 293, and co-emperor in a tetrarchy until 305.

Born at Salona, a coastal town in Dalmatia (now Solin in Croatia) into a family of humble status in 244, Diocletian rose to power through his military background.

After climbing through the ranks, he became cavalry commander to the emperor Carus. After the death of Carus in 283, while on a campaign in Persia, power passed to his two sons, Numerian and Carinus.

When Numerian was allegedly murdered by his Praetorian Prefect, Arrius Aper, in 284, Diocletian was proclaimed as emperor by Numerian’s troops. He took it upon himself to avenge the death of Numerian by killing Aper with his own hands.

At the start, however, Diocletian’s power was restricted to the areas controlled by his army, thought to be Asia Minor and Syria. The remainder of the empire was loyal to Carinus.

Carinus, who Diocletian defeated to win power
Carinus, who Diocletian
defeated to win power
A struggle for outright power ensued, coming to a head at the Battle of the Margus in 285, in which a critical factor is thought to have been the defection of Aristobulus, the Praetorian Prefect of Carinus, to fight on the side of Diocletian. Carinus was subsequently assassinated, leaving Diocletian as sole ruler.

It was not long before Diocletian decided that the empire was too large to be governed by one ruler alone and in 286 he appointed Maximian, a trusted military colleague, as co-emperor. While Diocletian ruled in the east, Maximian was in charge of the west.

In 293 there was a further devolution as Diocletian introduced the Tetrarchy - rule of four - a system under which each emperor appointed a caesar - a junior co-emperor - of his choice, who would take over as emperor in the event of their deaths.  Under the system, each co-emperor ruled over a quarter of the empire. The sharing of power, moreover, ensured that the death of one of the four would not lead to the upheaval that inevitably followed the death of a sole ruler.

These new caesars were Galerius in the east and in the west Constantius Chlorus, who ran Gaul and Britain and was the father of the future Constantine the Great.

An artist's reconstruction of the vast palace Diocletian built for himself in what is now Split in Croatia
An artist's reconstruction of the vast palace Diocletian
built for himself in what is now Split in Croatia
After the so-called Crisis of the Third Century, a period of barbarian invasions, civil wars, peasant rebellions and political instability, Diocletian brought stability. His army secured the empire's borders, while he sought out and eliminated his political rivals within those borders.

He reorganised the military and civil services and established new administrative centres in the four segments of the empire. The government of the empire worked more efficiently, although the creation of new layers of bureaucracy alongside the military campaigns came at a cost, as did the construction of a colossal palace complex in Dalmatia, so vast it today accounts for about half of what is known as the ‘old town’ in Split.  His new tax system was seen as more equitable, but taxes were generally higher.

Diocletian is also known for instigating the Diocletianic Persecution, which was the last and most severe persecution of Christians in the history of the empire.

Although there was a persecution under Nero in around 64AD, for most of the first 250 years of the religion’s history, Christians had mostly been able to live in the Roman Empire in relative peace, go about their business and even attain positions of responsibility.

Christians were frequently made to fight for their lives  against lions during the Diocletianic Persecution
Christians were frequently made to fight for their lives
against lions during the Diocletianic Persecution
The roots of the Diocletianic Persecution are unclear, but it is thought that it was urged by Galerius, a fanatic follower of the traditional Roman religion who wanted to see unity, with no tolerance given to what was seen by some as a foreign, separatist cult who were operating as a state within the state.

In 303, the co-emperors issued a series of edicts rescinding Christians' legal rights and demanding that they comply with traditional religious practices. Later edicts demanded universal sacrifice, ordering all inhabitants to sacrifice to the gods.

Galerius, who succeeded Diocletian in 305, continued the persecution until 311.  It is estimated that between 3,000 and 5,000 Christians were executed over the eight years of the purge, although the objective of annihilating Christianity was not achieved.  The creation of so many martyrs actually strengthened the Christian church.

Diocletian had abdicated in 305, in poor health, retiring to his palace in Split. He spent much of his remaining years gardening, rejecting a suggestion by Maximian that he should return to politics. He died in 313.

The Roman columns in front of the Basilica of San Lorenzo is the best known Roman relic in Milan
The Roman columns in front of the Basilica of San
Lorenzo is the best known Roman relic in Milan
Travel tip:

The capital of the Western Roman Empire, from which Maximian ruled, was Mediolanum, the ancient city where Milan now stands.  It was during Maximian’s reign that the population of Mediolanum grew from around 40,000 to more than 100,000, establishing it as one of the major cities on the Italian peninsula.  Most of the Roman ruins still visible in Milan today are located between Piazza San Sepolcro (near the Duomo) and Corso Magenta.  Among the most well-preserved examples of Roman construction in Milan can be found at the Basilica of San Lorenzo, in front of which is a colonnade of 16 Corinthian columns which were previously part of a second-century pagan temple.  The Basilica of Sant’Ambrogio contains the so-called ‘Tomb of Stilicho’, thought to contain the sarcophagus of Flavius Stilicho, a high-ranking Roman general.

The ruins of the Baths of Diocletian are part of a complex that includes the Basilica of  Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri
The ruins of the Baths of Diocletian are part of a complex that
includes the Basilica of  Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri
Travel tip:

The name of Diocletian is preserved in the Baths of Diocletian in Rome, built between 298 and 306 and the largest of the imperial baths, originally commissioned by Maximian. The baths occupy high-ground on the Viminal hill, the smallest of the seven hills of Rome, near what are today the Piazza della Repubblica and Termini rail station. They served as a bath for residents of the Viminal, Quirinal and Esquiline quarters. The excavation is one of the most accessible in Rome and requires about an hour and a half to look round.

Also on this day:

1851: The birth of Queen Margherita of Savoy

1902: The birth of World Cup-winning goalkeeper Giampiero Combi

1914: The birth of fashion designer Emilio Pucci

1978: The death of artist Giorgio de Chirico


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19 November 2019

19 November

Johnny Dundee – world champion boxer


Sicilian changed his name to sound non-Italian

The boxer Johnny Dundee, who was a child when his family emigrated to the United States, was born in Sciacca, a town on the southwest coast of Sicily, on this day in 1893.  Dundee, regarded by many boxing historians as the first of the great Italian-American fighters, had more than 330 fights in a 22-year career in the ring.  At the peak of his career, in the 1920s, Dundee won both the world featherweight and world junior-lightweight titles.  Dundee’s real name is thought to have been Giuseppe Curreri, although some boxing records have his second name as Carrora.  The large numbers of Italian immigrants arriving in New York at around the turn of the 20th century, few of whom spoke any English, sometimes overwhelmed officers at the city’s processing station on Ellis Island and mistakes in recording details were common.  There are variations, too, in accounts of how old Giuseppe was when his family uprooted him from his childhood home, with some saying he was just five but others suggesting he was nine.  What seems not in dispute is that his family joined other Italian families in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Read more…


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Luigi Beccali - Olympic athlete


Milanese runner brought home Italy's first track gold

Luigi Beccali, the first Italian to win an Olympic gold medal in track and field events, was born on this day in 1907 in Milan.  Although Italy had won gold medals in fencing and gymnastics in previous Games, Beccali's victory in the 1,500 metres at the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles was the first time an Italian had won gold in a running event.  His victory came out of the blue since the field included several runners with top credentials, including New Zealand’s Jack Lovelock and America's Glenn Cunningham.  Beccali had a reputation as a determined competitor but his results were relatively modest next to those of the favourites.  However, in May of 1932 he had posted a mile time of four minutes 11.5 seconds in Milan which was only four tenths of a second slower than Cunningham's time in winning the 1932 National Collegiate Athletics Association championships.  The three heats at Los Angeles were won by Lovelock, Beccali, and Cunningham, who posted the best time of 3:55.8 in winning the first heat.  In the final, Beccali timed his run superbly, working his way through the field to take the lead from Canada's Phil Edwards, who had started to pull away over the last lap, with 100m remaining. Read more…


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Giuseppe Volpi - businessman and politician


Founder of the Venice film festival

Businessman and politician Count Giuseppe Volpi of Misurata was born on this day in 1877 in Venice.  Volpi was responsible for bringing electricity to Venice and the north east of Italy in 1903 and had an influence on the development of Porto Marghera, the industrial complex across the lagoon from Venice.  But, in 1932, as president of the Venice Biennale, Volpi arranged the first Venice Film Festival. It took place between 6 and 21 August on the terrace of the Hotel Excelsior at the Venice Lido.  The first film to be shown at the festival was Rouben Mamoulian’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.  The festival was considered a success and was held again in 1934 from 1 to 20 August, when it involved a competition for the first time.  In 1935 the Film Festival became a yearly event in Venice and the Coppa Volpi (Volpi Cup), an award for actors, was introduced for the first time.  Count Volpi received a personal letter from Walt Disney in 1939 thanking him, as president of the Biennale, for the prize awarded to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs at the film festival. This letter is now in the historical archives of the Biennale.  Read more…


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Pino Rauti – politician and journalist


Writer chronicled the story of Fascism in Italy

Pino Rauti, leader of the neo-fascist Social Idea Movement, was born Giuseppe Umberto Rauti on this day in 1926 in Cardinale in Calabria.  Rauti was to become a leading figure on the far right of Italian politics from 1948 until his death in 2012.  As a young man he had volunteered for the Guardia Nazionale Repubblicana of Benito Mussolini’s Italian Social Republic and he then went on to join the Spanish Foreign Legion.  After his return to Italy, Rauti joined the post-fascist Italian Social Movement (MSI). He became associated with Julius Evola, a leading fascist philosopher, and became editor of his journal, Imperium.  Rauti joined the staff of the Rome-based daily Il Tempo in 1953 and later became the Italian correspondent for the Aginter Press, a fake press agency set up in Portugal in 1966 to combat communism.  In 1954 he established his own group within MSI, the Ordine Nuovo, but he became disillusioned with MSI and his group separated from the party two years later.  Rauti’s name was linked with a number of terror attacks, including the Piazza Fontana bombing in Milan, which caused 17 deaths. Read more…


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18 November 2019

18 November

Gio Ponti - architect and designer


Visionary who shaped more than 100 buildings

Giovanni ‘Gio’ Ponti, one of the most influential architects and designers of the 20th century, was born on this day in 1891 in Milan.  During a career that spanned six decades, Ponti completed more than 100 architectural projects in Italy and abroad and also designed hundreds of pieces of furniture, decorative objects and household items.  As an architect, he made a significant impact on the appearance of his home city. The Pirelli Tower, which for 35 years was Italy’s tallest skyscraper, is the building for which Ponti is most famous, but it is only one of 46 in Milan.  He also designed the Montecatini buildings, the Torre Littoria (now known as the Torre Branca) in Parco Sempione, the San Luca Evangelista church in Via Andrea Maria Ampère, and Monument to the Fallen in Piazza Sant’Ambrogio.  Ponti’s work was by no means confined to Milan, however.  Elsewhere in Italy, he designed the Mathematics Institute at the University of Rome, the Carmelo Monastery in Sanremo, the Villa Donegani in Bordighera, the Gran Madre di Dio Concattedrale in Taranto and the Hotel Parco dei Principi in Sorrento.  Read more…

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Alfonso Ferrero La Marmora - military leader


General who became prime minister of Italy

Alfonso Ferrero La Marmora, a general and statesman who became the sixth prime minister of Italy, was born on this day in 1804 in Turin.  A graduate of the Turin Military Academy, La Marmora went on to play an important part in the Risorgimento, the movement to create a united Italy.  One of his older brothers was Alessandro Ferrero La Marmora, who founded the Italian army’s famous Bersaglieri corps, which entered French-occupied Rome in 1870 through a breach in the wall at Porta Pia and completed the unification of Italy.  Alfonso La Marmora went into the army in 1823 and first distinguished himself in the Italian wars of independence against Austria.  In 1848, La Marmora rescued the Sardinian king, Charles Albert, from Milanese revolutionaries who had resented the king’s armistice with the Austrians. Afterwards he was promoted to general and briefly served as minister of war.  La Marmora suppressed an insurrection at Genoa in 1849 and commanded the Sardinian forces in the Crimean War in 1855.  Later, while serving as minister of war again, he reorganised the Italian army.  He then served as premier of Piedmont, governor of Milan and as the king’s lieutenant in Naples.  Read more…

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Eleonora Gonzaga – Holy Roman Empress


Pious princess who promoted the arts and education

Eleonora Gonzaga, Princess of Mantua, Nevers and Rethel, was born on this day in 1630 in Mantua.  She grew up to marry the Holy Roman Emperor, Ferdinand III, and established a reputation as one of the most educated and virtuous women of her time.  Eleonora became fascinated by religious poetry, founded a literary academy and was a patron of musical theatre.  As Holy Roman Empress she developed the cultural and spiritual life at the Imperial Court in Vienna, continuing the work of her great aunt, also called Eleonora, who had introduced opera to Vienna in the early part of the 17th century.  Vienna subsequently became recognised as the music capital of Europe.  Eleonora was the second child of Charles Gonzaga, Duke of Nevers, who was heir to the Duchy of Mantua, and Maria Gonzaga, who was heiress to the Duchy of Montferrat.  She was given a good education, became fluent in French, Spanish and Italian and learnt about literature, music and art.  Having become interested in poetry, she composed religious and philosophical poems herself.  A marriage was arranged for her with the Holy Roman Emperor, who imposed the condition that the Duchy of Mantua had to remain loyal to the Empire.  Read more…

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St Peter’s Basilica consecrated


Artists helped design magnificent church

The stunning Renaissance Basilica of St Peter in Rome was completed and consecrated on this day in 1626.  Believed to be the largest church in the world, Basilica Papale di San Pietro in Vaticano was built to replace the original fourth century Basilica that had been constructed on what was believed to be the burial site of St Peter.  Bramante, Michelangelo and Bernini were among the many artistic geniuses who contributed to the design of the church, which is considered to be a masterpiece of Renaissance architecture.  Located within Vatican City, the Basilica is approached along Via della Conciliazione and through the vast space of St Peter’s Square.  The magnificent central dome of the Basilica dominates the skyline of Rome and the balcony above the entrance, where the Pope makes appearances, is instantly recognisable because of the many times it has been shown on television.  It is believed that St Peter, one of the disciples of Jesus, was executed in Rome on 13 October, 64 AD during the reign of the Emperor Nero. He was buried close to the place of his martyrdom.  The old St Peter’s Basilica was constructed over the burial site 300 years later.  Read more…


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17 November 2019

17 November

NEW - Premiere of Verdi’s first opera


Oberto, Conte di San Bonifacio performed at La Scala

Giuseppe Verdi’s first opera to be performed made its debut at Teatro alla Scala in Milan on this day in 1839.  Oberto, Conte di San Bonifacio, which Verdi had written over a period of four years, is an opera in two acts. It is thought to have been based on an existing libretto by Antonio Piazza, reworked as a new libretto by Temistocle Solera, an Italian novelist.  Piazza’s libretto had been given to Verdi by Pietro Massini, director of the Società Filarmonica, a choral group to whom he had been introduced by Vincenzo Lavigna, the maestro concertatore at La Scala, of whom Verdi was a private pupil.  It was given the title of Rocester and Verdi was keen to see it produced in Parma, at the opera theatre nearest to his home town of Busseto, where he held the post of maestro di musica of the municipal orchestra.  However, Parma said they had no interest in staging new works and instead an approach was made to Milan. Whether Rocester actually became the basis for Oberto is subject to some disagreement among academics.  Verdi is said to have been invited to meet the La Scala impresario, Bartolomeo Merelli, who had been given good reports of Oberto’s musical quality and offered to put it on during the 1839 season. Read more…

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Bronzino – master of Mannerism


Florentine became Medici court painter

The Mannerist painter Agnolo di Cosimo – better known as Il Bronzino or simply Bronzino – was born on this day in 1503, just outside Florence.  Bronzino is now recognised as the outstanding artist of what has become known as the second wave of Mannerism in the mid-16th century.  His style bears strong influences of Jacopo Pontormo, who was an important figure in the first wave and of  whom Bronzino was a pupil as a young man in Florence.  The Mannerist movement began in around 1520, probably in Florence but possibly in Rome. In the evolution of art it followed the High Renaissance period.  Typical of Mannerist painters is their use of elongated forms and a style influenced by the attention to detail allied to restrained realism that was characteristic of the Renaissance masters Raphael, Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci.  Bronzino became best known for his portraits, which were detailed and stylishly sophisticated, in which the subjects were superbly realistic but also tended to wear stoical, rather haughty expressions.  He also paid particular attention to fabric and clothing, his works often notable for his recreation of textures. Read more…

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Umberto I assassination bid


First attempt to kill the king is foiled

An unsuccessful attempt was made on the life of King Umberto I of Italy on this day in 1878 in Naples.  Umberto was making a tour of the kingdom accompanied by his wife, Queen Margherita, and the Prime Minister, Benedetto Cairoli.  While saluting the crowds in Naples from his carriage, Umberto was attacked by a young man, Giovanni Passannante, who was employed as a cook at the time, but was later described as an anarchist. Passanante jumped on the carriage and attempted to stab the King. Umberto warded off the blow with his sabre but the Prime Minister, who came to his aid, was wounded in the thigh.  This was the first of three attempts on the life of Umberto I, who despite being nicknamed il Buono (the good), lost popularity with his subjects as his reign progressed.  He had won the respect of people because of the way he conducted himself during his military career and as a result of his marriage to Margherita of Savoy and the subsequent birth of their son, who was to become King Victor Emmanuel III.  But Umberto became increasingly unpopular because of his imperialist policies and his harsh ways of dealing with civil unrest.  Read more…

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Calisto Tanzi - disgraced businessman


Man at the centre of the Parmalat scandal 

Calisto Tanzi, the business tycoon jailed for 18 years following the biggest corporate disaster in Italian history, was born on this day in 1938 in Collecchio, a town in Emilia-Romagna, about 13km (8 miles) from the city of Parma.  Tanzi was founder and chief executive of Parmalat, the enormous global food conglomerate that collapsed in 2003 with a staggering €14 billion worth of debt.  Subsequent criminal investigations found that Tanzi, who built the Parmalat empire from the grocery store his father had run in Collecchio, had been misappropriating funds and engaging in fraudulent practices for as much as a decade in order to maintain an appearance of success and prosperity when in fact the business was failing catastrophically.  Of all those hurt by the collapse, the biggest victims were more than 135,000 small investors who had bought bonds in the company, some of them trusting Parmalat with their entire life savings.  Between 2008 and 2010, Tanzi was found guilty by four different courts of fraud, of the fraudulent bankruptcy of Parmalat, the fraudulent bankruptcy of Parmatour, a travel industry subsidiary, and of false accounting at Parma, the football club he owned.  Read more…

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Giovanni Pico della Mirandola – philosopher


Writer of the 'Manifesto of the Renaissance' met an early death

Renaissance nobleman and philosopher, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola died on this day in 1494 in Florence, sparking a murder mystery still not solved more than 500 years later and that led to the exhumation of his body in 2007.  Pico became famous for writing the Oration on the Dignity of Man, which was later dubbed the 'Manifesto of the Renaissance'.  At its heart, the Oration proposed that man is the only species of being to which God assigned no specific place in the chain of being and that man could ascend the chain through the exercise of his intellectual capacity, and for that reason it stresses the importance of the human quest for knowledge.  Renowned for his memory as well as his intellect, he could recite Dante’s Divine Comedy line-by-line backwards and by the time he was 20 he has mastered six languages.  But he made enemies and it his thought that his death at the age of just 31 was the result of poisoning because of concerns that he had become too close to hellfire preacher Girolamo Savonarola, an enemy of Florence's ruling Medici family.  It was Savonarola himself who delivered the funeral oration when Pico was buried at the Convent of San Marco in Florence where he was the Prior.  Read more…

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Premiere of Verdi’s first opera

Oberto, Conte di San Bonifacio performed at La Scala


The title page of the libretto for the opera's debut season in Milan
The title page of the libretto for the
opera's debut staging in Milan
Giuseppe Verdi’s first opera to be performed made its debut at Teatro alla Scala in Milan on this day in 1839.

Oberto, Conte di San Bonifacio, which Verdi had written over a period of four years, is an opera in two acts. It is thought to have been based on an existing libretto by Antonio Piazza, reworked as a new libretto by Temistocle Solera, an Italian novelist.

Piazza’s libretto had been given to Verdi by Pietro Massini, director of the Società Filarmonica, a choral group to whom he had been introduced by Vincenzo Lavigna, the maestro concertatore at La Scala, of whom Verdi was a private pupil.

It was given the title of Rocester and Verdi was keen to see it produced in Parma, at the opera theatre nearest to his home town of Busseto, where he held the post of maestro di musica of the municipal orchestra

However, Parma said they had no interest in staging new works and instead an approach was made to Milan. Whether Rocester actually became the basis for Oberto is subject to some disagreement among academics.

Verdi is said to have been invited to meet the La Scala impresario, Bartolomeo Merelli, who had been given good reports of Oberto’s musical quality and offered to put it on during the 1839 season. It was received well enough on its premiere to be given another 13 additional performances.  Merelli was impressed enough to commission Verdi to write three more operas.

Ignazio Marini was the first to perform the role of Oberto
Ignazio Marini was the first
to perform the role of Oberto
The first of those, Un giorno di regno, a comedy, was a flop, being pulled after only one night. While he was writing it, Verdi’s wife, Margherita, had died of encephalitis, aged only 26, leaving him heartbroken. At one point, it is claimed he vowed never to compose another work, but was persuaded to continue.  In the event, his third opera, originally titled Nabucodonosor and later renamed as Nabucco, was a triumph, setting him on the road to musical immortality.

The action in Oberto, Conte di San Bonifacio, is set in Bassano del Grappa, in the Veneto region of northern Italy, at and around Ezzelino da Romano's castle.

Following a battle fought between Oberto, Count of San Boniface, and the Salinguerra, led by Ezzelino da Romano, the vanquished Oberto retreats to Mantua.

Meanwhile, his daughter Leonora has been seduced and abandoned by Riccardo, Count of Salinguerra, and Riccardo is about to marry Cuniza, Ezzelino's sister. Leonora makes her way to Bassano on Riccardo's wedding day, intent on confronting him.

The opening night cast, under the direction of conductor Eugenio Cavallini, featured the bass Ignazio Marini in the role of Oberto, with soprano Antonietta Marini-Rainieri as Leonora, the English mezzo-soprano Mary Shaw as Cuniza, mezzo-soprano Marietta Sacchi as Cuniza’s confidante, Imelda, and tenor Lorenzo Salvi in the role of Riccardo.

The opera is only occasionally performed today, although in celebration of the Verdi bicentennial, it was staged by La Scala in April/May 2013.

Bassano del Grappa is famous for Andrea Palladio's timber  bridge over the Brenta river, built between 1124 and 1209
Bassano del Grappa is famous for Andrea Palladio's timber
bridge over the Brenta river, built between 1124 and 1209
Travel tip:

Bassano del Grappa, where Oberto is set, is an historic town at the foot of Monte Grappa in the Vicenza province of the Veneto, famous for inventing grappa, a spirit made from the grape skins and stalks left over from wine production, which is popular with Italians as an after dinner drink to aid digestion. A famous sight is the Ponte degli Alpini, a bridge designed by Andrea Palladio. The painter Jacopo Bassano was born in Bassano del Grappa and took his name from the town.

The church of San Michele Arcangelo in Busseto, where Giuseppe Verdi played the organ as a young man
The church of San Michele Arcangelo in Busseto, where
Giuseppe Verdi played the organ as a young man
Travel tip:

Busseto is a town in the province of Parma, about 40km (25 miles) from the city of Parma. Verdi was born in the nearby village of Le Roncole but moved to Busseto in 1824. The area has plenty to offer Verdi fans, who can visit the house where he was born, in 1813, in Le Roncole, the churches of Santa Maria degli Angeli and San Michele Arcangelo, where he played the organ, the Palazzo Orlandi and the Villa Verdi, two of his homes, the Teatro Giuseppe Verdi, which was named in his honour, and the Casa Barezzi, the home of his patron, Antonio Barezzi, which now houses a permanent exhibition of objects and documents related to Verdi and the Barezzi family.

Also on this day:

1494: The death of philosopher Giovanni Pico della Mirandola

1503: The birth of the Mannerist painter Bronzino

1878: Umberto I survives assassination attempt

1938: The birth of disgraced businessman Calisto Tanzi


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16 November 2019

16 November

Tazio Nuvolari – racing driver


Man from Mantua seen as greatest of all time

Tazio Nuvolari, the driver many regard as the greatest in the history not only of Italian motor racing but perhaps of motorsport in general, was born on this day in 1892 in Castel d’Ario, a small town in Lombardy, about 15km (9 miles) east of the historic city of Mantua.  Known for his extraordinary daring as well as for his skill behind the wheel, Nuvolari was the dominant driver of the inter-war years, winning no fewer than 72 major races including 24 Grands Prix.  He was nicknamed Il Mantovano Volante - the Flying Mantuan.  From the start of his career in the 1920s, Nuvolari won more than 150 races all told and would have clocked up more had the Second World War not put motor racing in hibernation.  As it happens, Nuvolari’s last big victory came on September 3, 1939, the day the conflict began, in the Belgrade Grand Prix.  When he died in 1953 from a stroke, aged only 60, his funeral in his adopted home city of Mantua attracted at least 25,000 people.  His coffin was placed on a car chassis pushed by legendary drivers Alberto Ascari, Luigi Villoresi and Juan Manuel Fangio, at the head of a mile-long procession.  Read more…


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Maurizio Margaglio - ice dancer


Multiple champion remembered for famous fall

The ice dancer Maurizio Margaglio, who enjoyed a prolifically successful partnership with Barbara Fusar-Poli from the mid-1990s to the early part of the new century, was born on this day in 1974 in Milan.  Margaglio and Fusar-Poli were national champions of Italy nine times and in 2001 they became the first Italian pair to become World champions, winning in Vancouver ahead of the defending champions Marina Anissina and Gwendal Peizerat of France.  They were European champions the same year, during a remarkable season in which they won every event they entered.  Yet they never won an Olympic title in three attempts, and as well as their successes they are remembered as much for the calamity that befell them at their home Olympics in Turin in 2006. In their first appearance in international competition for four years, Margaglio and Fusar-Poli were in the gold medal position, leading by a full half-point over the Russian favourites and two-time World champions, Tatiana Navka and Roman Kostomorav, after the opening compulsory dance section of the competition.  Yet just seconds away from potentially consolidating their lead in the original dance section, disaster struck.  Read more…


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Sofonisba Anguissola – Renaissance artist


Portrait painter paved the way for other women artists

Painter Sofonisba Anguissola died on this day in 1625 in Palermo at the age of 93.  As a young woman Anguissola had been introduced to Michelangelo in Rome, who had immediately recognised her talent.  She served an apprenticeship with established painters, which set a precedent for women to be accepted as students of art in the 16th century. Her success later in life paved the way for other women to pursue serious careers as artists. Many of her paintings can still be seen in prestigious galleries all over the world.  Anguissola was born in Cremona in Lombardy in 1532 to noble parents who believed they had a connection to the ancient Carthaginians and named their first daughter after the tragic Carthaginian figure, Sophonisba.  All their children were encouraged to cultivate their talents and five of the daughters became painters, but Sofonisba was the most accomplished and became the most famous.  Sofonisba was 14 when she was sent with her younger sister, Elena, to study with Bernardino Campi, a respected portrait and religious painter. When he moved to another city, she continued her education with Bernardino Gatti.  Read more…


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San Giuseppe Moscati - doctor


Remembering the kindness of a brilliant young doctor

Doctor and scientist Giuseppe Moscati was beatified by Pope Paul VI on this day in 1975.  Giuseppe was renowned for his kindness and generosity to his patients and even before his death people talked of ‘miracle’ cures being achieved by him.  He was canonised by Pope John Paul II in 1987 and his feast day is 16 November.  Moscati was born into a big family in Benevento in 1880. His father, a lawyer and magistrate, was active in the church and Giuseppe inherited his piety.  The family later moved to Naples and Giuseppe enrolled in the medical school of the University of Naples in 1897.  On graduating he went to work in a hospital but continued with his brilliant scientific research and attended Mass frequently.  When Vesuvius erupted in 1906 he helped evacuate all the elderly and paralysed patients before the roof collapsed on the hospital under the weight of the ash.  He worked tirelessly to research ways to eradicate cholera in Naples and personally cared for many of the soldiers wounded in the First World War.  He was compassionate to the poor and often gave them money as well as free medical treatment and a prescription.  Read more…


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