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.

17 June 2019

17 June

Saint Joseph of Copertino 

Flying friar now protects aviators

Saint Joseph, a Franciscan friar who became famous for his miraculous levitation, was born Giuseppe Maria Desa on this day in 1603 in Copertino, a village in Puglia that was then part of the Kingdom of Naples.  Joseph was canonised in 1767, more than 100 years after his death, by Pope Clement XIII and he is now the patron saint for astronauts and aviation.  Joseph’s father, Felice Desa, had died before his birth leaving large debts. After the family home was seized to settle what was owed, his mother, Francesca Panara, was forced to give birth to him in a stable.  Joseph experienced ecstatic visions as a child at school. When he was scorned by other children he had outbursts of anger.  He was apprenticed to a shoemaker but when he applied to join the Franciscan friars he was rejected because of his lack of education.  He was accepted in 1620 as a lay brother by the Capuchin friars only to be dismissed because his constant ecstasies made him unfit to carry out his required duties.  Read more...


Rinaldo ‘Dindo’ Capello - endurance racing driver

Three times winner of the Le Mans 24 Hours 

Rinaldo ‘Dindo’ Capello, one of Italy’s most successful endurance racing drivers, was born on this day in 1964 in Asti, in Piedmont.  During a period between 1997 and 2008 in which there was an Italian winning driver in all bar two years, Capello won the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the most prestigious endurance race on the calendar, three times.  Only Emanuele Pirro, his sometimes Audi teammate and rival during that period, has more victories in the race among Italian drivers, with five. Pirro won in 2000, 2001, 2002, 2006 and 2007, Capello in 2003, 2004 and 2008.  Capello’s career record also includes two championship wins in the American Le Mans Series and five victories in the 12 Hours of Sebring. He is also record holder for most wins at Petit Le Mans, the race run annually at Atlanta, Georgia to Le Mans rules, with five.  Alongside teammates Tom Kristensen and Allan McNish, he was regarded as the quiet man of the all-conquering Audi sports car team, although his contribution was every bit as impressive.  Read more…


Sergio Marchionne - business leader

Man who saved Fiat divides opinions in Italy

Controversial business leader Sergio Marchionne was born on this day in 1952 in the city of Chieti in the Abruzzo region of Italy.  The former chief executive of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles is credited with saving the iconic Italian motor manufacturer from potential extinction in 2004, when Fiat was on the verge of being taken into the ownership of the banks that were keeping it afloat.  It had suffered cumulative losses of more than $8 billion over the previous two years and a strategic alliance with General Motors had failed. Its share of the European car market had shrunk to an historic low of just 5.8 per cent.  Yet after the little-known Marchionne was appointed chief executive at the company's Turin headquarters it took him only just over a year to bring Fiat back into profit.  When Fiat opened a new assembly line at the Mirafiori plant outside Turin in 2006, Marchionne was hailed as a hero.  Soon, the new Fiat 500 was launched, tapping into Italian nostalgia by reprising the name that was synonymous with the optimistic years of the 1950s and 60s.  But Marchionne in time antagonised the more hard-line unions with the changes he introduced to working conditions.  Read more…


Raffaella Carrà - entertainer and TV presenter

Much-loved star with long and varied career

Raffaella Carrà, the singer, dancer, television presenter and actress often simply known as la Carrà or Raffaella, was born in Bologna on this day in 1943.  Carrà has become a familiar face on Italian TV screens as the host of many variety shows and, more recently, as a judge on the talent show The Voice of Italy.  She has also enjoyed a recording career spanning 45 years and was a film actress for the best part of 25 years, having made her debut at the age of nine.  Her best-known screen role outside Italy was alongside Frank Sinatra in the hit American wartime drama, Von Ryan’s Express.  Carrà was born Raffaella Maria Roberta Pelloni. Shew grew up in the Adriatic resort of Bellaria-Igea Marina, just north of Rimini, where her father ran a bar and her maternal grandfather an ice cream parlour.  At the age of eight, she won a place at the National Dance Academy in Rome. Read more…


Saint Joseph of Copertino

Flying friar now protects aviators

Painter Ludovico Mazzanti's 18th century  depiction of Saint Joseph levitating
Painter Ludovico Mazzanti's 18th century
depiction of Saint Joseph levitating
Saint Joseph, a Franciscan friar who became famous for his miraculous levitation, was born Giuseppe Maria Desa on this day in 1603 in Copertino, a village in Puglia that was then part of the Kingdom of Naples.

Joseph was canonised in 1767, more than 100 years after his death, by Pope Clement XIII and he is now the patron saint for astronauts and aviation.

Joseph’s father, Felice Desa, had died before his birth leaving large debts. After the family home was seized to settle what was owed, his mother, Francesca Panara, was forced to give birth to him in a stable.

Joseph experienced ecstatic visions as a child at school. When he was scorned by other children he had outbursts of anger.

He was apprenticed to a shoemaker but when he applied to join the Franciscan friars he was rejected because of his lack of education.

He was accepted in 1620 as a lay brother by the Capuchin friars only to be dismissed because his constant ecstasies made him unfit to carry out his required duties.

Forced to return home he pleaded with the Franciscan friars near Copertino to be allowed to work in their stables.  After several years he was admitted to the Order and he was ordained a priest in 1628.

The Basilica of San Giuseppe da Copertino in Piazza Gallo was dedicated to St Joseph
The Basilica of San Giuseppe da Copertino
in Piazza Gallo was dedicated to St Joseph
He began to experience more ecstasies and it was claimed he began to levitate while participating in Mass, remaining suspended in the air for some time. He gained a reputation for holiness among ordinary people but was considered disruptive by the Church authorities, who found that even piercing his flesh or burning him with candles would have no effect on him while he was levitating. He was eventually confined to a small cell and forbidden to join in any public gatherings.

Joseph was denounced to the Inquisition because flying and levitation were then considered to be a type of witchcraft.

On the Inquisition’s orders, he was transferred from one friary to another to be kept under observation. He lived under a strict regime, eating solid food only twice a week.

In 1657 he was at last allowed to return to live in a religious community and was sent to a friary in Osimo in Le Marche, then part of the Papal States, where he died six years later at the age of 60.

Joseph was beatified in 1753 and made a Saint in 1767.

People sceptical about the reports of Saint Joseph’s levitating or seeming to become airborne have suggested he was either a very agile man who leapt into the air or was perhaps suffering convulsions as a result of consuming bread made from infected grain, which was common centuries ago.

Nevertheless, many pilgrims now visit Joseph’s tomb to pay their respects at the Basilica of Saint Joseph of Copertino in Piazza Gallo in Osimo.

Copertino Castle, built in 1540, has tapered ramparts in each of its four corners
Copertino Castle, built in 1540, has tapered ramparts in
each of its four corners 
Travel tip: 

Copertino, where Saint Joseph was born, is a town in the province of Lecce in the Puglia region of south east Italy. Red and rosé DOC wines are made in the area around the town. Copertino Castle, built in 1540 on the site of an older fortress, is one of the biggest fortifications in the entire region. It has a distinctive design, built on a quadrangle plan with a tapered rampart at each of the four corners. There is also a sanctuary dedicated to Saint Joseph in the town.

The main square in Osimo, the town in Le Marche where Saint Joseph died in 1663
The main square in Osimo, the town in Le Marche where
Saint Joseph died in 1663
Travel tip:

One of the main sights in Osimo, where Saint Joseph died, is the Basilica of San Giuseppe da Copertino, which was founded as a church dedicated to Saint Francis but was later rededicated and refurbished to house Saint Joseph’s relics.  There is also a restored Romanesque-Gothic church has a portal with sculptures of the 13th century. A town of more than 35,000 inhabitants, Osimo is located approximately 15km (9 miles) south of the port city of Ancona and the Adriatic Sea.

Also on this day:

1691: The birth of painter Giovanni Paolo Panini

1952: The birth of Sergio Marchionne, businessman 

1964: The birth of racing driver Rinaldo 'Dindo' Capello


16 June 2019

16 June

Pietro Bracci - sculptor

Artist best known for Oceanus statue at Trevi Fountain

The sculptor Pietro Bracci, who left his mark on the architectural landscape of Rome with the colossal six-metre high statue Oceanus that towers over the Trevi Fountain, was born on this day in 1700 in Rome.  The monumental figure is shown standing on a chariot, in the form of a shell, pulled by two winged horses flanked by two tritons. Bracci worked from sketches by Giovanni Battista Maini, who died before he could execute the project.  He also completed work on the fountain itself, built in front of Luigi Vanvitelli’s Palazzo Poli. This was started by Bracci’s close friend Nicola Salvi, who had been commissioned by Pope Clement XII to realize plans drawn up by Gian Lorenzo Bernini that had been shelved in the previous century. Salvi died in 1751, before he could complete the work. Giuseppe Pannini was also involved for a while before Bracci took over in 1761.  The work confirmed Bracci as a major talent of his time in the field of sculpture, one of the greatest of the late Baroque period, continuing in the tradition established by Bernini in the previous century that gave the city of Rome so many wonderful monuments.  Read more...


Giacomo Agostini - world motorcycle champion

Lovere legend clocked up 122 Grand Prix wins

Giacomo Agostini, 15 times Grand Prix world motorcycling champion, was born on this day in 1942 in Brescia. Agostini moved with his family to the lakeside town of Lovere when he was 13. In 2016, his career was commemorated with a month-long exhibition at the Accademia Tadini, which overlooks the picturesque Lago d'Iseo.  The exhibition marked the 50th anniversary of Agostini's first world championship in 1966.  Riding for the Italian MV Agusta team, Agostini won the 500cc class seven times in a row from 1966 to 1972 and the 350cc class seven times in succession from 1968 to 1974, adding a further 500cc title on a Yamaha in 1975.  His total of 122 Grand Prix wins from 1965 to 1976 is the highest by any rider in the history of the sport, although his fellow Italian, Valentino Rossi, is now not far behind on 115.  Agostini, considered perhaps the greatest motorcycle racer of all time, was at the peak of his powers between 1967 and 1970. Between 1968 and 1970, he won every race in which he competed in 350cc and 500cc classes, equalling Mike Hailwood's record for most wins in a single year in 1970 when he was first in 19 races.  Read more…


Mario Rigoni Stern – author

Brave soldier became a bestselling novelist

The novelist Mario Rigoni Stern, who was a veteran of World War II, died on this day in 2008 in Asiago in the Veneto region.  His first novel, Il sergente della neve - The Sergeant in the snow - was published in 1953. It drew upon his experiences as a sergeant major in the Alpine corps during the disastrous retreat from Russia in the Second World War. It became a best seller and was translated into English and Spanish.  Rigoni Stern had been a sergeant commanding a platoon in Mussolini’s army in the Soviet Union during the retreat of the Italians in the winter of 1942.  His book was inspired by how he succeeded in leading 70 survivors on foot from the Ukraine into what was then White Russia - now part of Belarus - and back to Italy.  In 1953 he sent the manuscript of his book to the Einaudi publishing house. They agreed to publish it but said they didn’t think he had a future as a writer.  They were proved wrong. One of more than a dozen novels and collections of short stories he would go on to publish, it won the Viareggio Prize for best debut novel and went on to sell more than a million copies.  Read more…


15 June 2019

15 June

Lisa del Giocondo – the Mona Lisa

Florentine wife and mother who became a global icon

Merchant’s wife Lisa del Giocondo, who has been identified as the model for the Mona Lisa, was born on this day in 1479 in Florence.  Her enigmatic beauty was immortalised by Leonardo da Vinci in the early part of the 16th century when he painted her portrait, a major work of art known as the Mona Lisa, which is now in the Louvre in Paris.  The painting, sometimes known as La Gioconda, has become a global icon that has been used in other works of art, illustrations and advertising. The face of the Mona Lisa belongs to a woman who was born as Lisa Gherardini into a well-off Tuscan family. When she was still in her teens she was married to Francesco di Bartolomeo di Zanobi del Giocondo, a successful cloth and silk merchant. In 1503 it is thought Leonardo da Vinci started work on her portrait. In the painting, Leonardo portrays Lisa as a faithful wife, who is dressed fashionably to demonstrate her financial status.  The word 'Mona' in the title of the painting is a contraction 'Ma donna', a form of address similar to Madam or Ma'am or 'my lady' in English.  In Italian it is often spelled Monna.  Read more…


Carlo Cattaneo - philosopher and writer

Intellectual who became a key figure in Milan uprising

Carlo Cattaneo, the philosopher and political writer who emerged as a leader in the so-called Five Days of Milan, the 1848 rebellion against the harsh rule of Austria, was born on this day in 1801 in Milan.  An influential figure in academic and intellectual circles in Milan, whose ideas helped shape the Risorgimento, Cattaneo was fundamentally against violence as a means to achieve change.  Yet when large-scale rioting broke out in the city in March 1848 he joined other intellectuals bringing organisation to the insurrection and succeeded in driving out Austrian’s occupying army, at least temporarily.  The uprising happened against a backcloth of social reform in other parts of the peninsula, in Rome and further south in Salerno, Naples and Sicily.  By contrast, the Austrians, who ruled most of northern Italy, sought to strengthen their grip by imposing harsh tax increases on the citizens and sent out tax collectors, supported by the army, to ensure that everybody paid.  Read more…


Hugo Pratt – comic book creator

Talented writer and artist travelled widely

The creator of the comic book character, Corto Maltese, was born Hugo Eugenio Pratt on this day in 1927 in Rimini.  Pratt became a famous comic book writer and artist and was renowned for combining strong storytelling with extensive historical research.  His most famous character, Corto Maltese, came into being when he started a magazine with Florenzo Ivaldi.  Pratt spent most of his childhood in Venice with his parents, Rolando Pratt and Evelina Genero. His paternal grandfather, Joseph Pratt, was English and Hugo Pratt was related to the actor, Boris Karloff, who was born William Henry Pratt.  Hugo Pratt moved to Ethiopia with his mother in the late 1930s to join his father, who was working there following the conquest of the country by Benito Mussolini.  Pratt’s father was later captured by British troops and died from disease while he was a prisoner of war.  Pratt and his mother were interned in a prison camp where he would regularly buy comics from the guards.  After the war, Pratt returned to Venice where he organised entertainment for the Allied troops. He later joined what became known as ‘the Venice group’ with other Italian cartoonists, including Alberto Ongaro and Mario Faustinelli.  Read more…


14 June 2019

14 June

Giacomo Leopardi – poet and philosopher

The tragic life of a brilliant Italian writer

One of Italy’s greatest 19th century writers, Giacomo Leopardi, died on this day in 1837 in Naples.  A brilliant scholar and philosopher, Leopardi led an unhappy life in Recanati in the Papal States, blighted by poor health, but he left as a legacy his superb lyric poetry.  By the age of 16, Leopardi had independently mastered Greek, Latin and several modern languages and had translated many classical works. Plagued  by ill health, he was forced to suspend his studies and, saddened by an apparent lack of concern from his parents, he poured out his feelings in poems such as the visionary work, Appressamento della morte - Approach of Death - written in 1816 in terza rima, in imitation of Petrarch and Dante.  The death from consumption of the young daughter of his father’s coachman inspired perhaps his greatest lyric poem, A Silvia.  His frustrated love for a Florentine beauty, Fanny Targioni-Tozzetti, led him to write some of his saddest poetry.  After many years’ travelling, Leopardi finally settled in Naples in 1833, where he wrote the long poem, Ginestra.  He died there in 1837 during a cholera epidemic.  Read more…


Battle of Marengo

Napoleon works up an appetite driving out the Austrians

Napoleon was victorious in battle against the Austrians on this day in 1800 in an area near the village of Marengo, about five kilometres south of Alessandria in Piedmont.  A chicken dish named after the battle, Pollo alla Marengo, keeps the event alive by continuing to appear on restaurant menus and in cookery books.  It was an important victory for Napoleon, who effectively drove the Austrians out of Italy by forcing them to retreat.  Initially French forces had been overpowered by the Austrians and had been pushed back a few miles. The Austrians thought they had won and retired to Alessandria.  But the French received reinforcements and launched a surprise counter-attack, forcing the Austrians to retreat and to have to subsequently sign an armistice.  This sealed a political victory for Napoleon and helped him secure his grip on power.  There are various stories about the origin of the chicken dish named after the battle. Some say Napoleon ate it after his victory, while others say a restaurant chef in Paris invented it and named it after the battle in Napoleon’s honour.  Read more…


Salvatore Quasimodo - Nobel Prize winner

Civil engineer wrote poetry in his spare time

Salvatore Quasimodo, one of six Italians to have won a Nobel Prize in Literature, died on this day in 1968 in Naples.  The former civil engineer, who was working for the Italian government in Reggio Calabria when he published his first collection of poems and won the coveted and historic Nobel Prize in 1959, suffered a cerebral haemorrhage in Amalfi, in Campania, where he had gone to preside over a poetry prize.  He was taken by car to Naples but died in hospital a few hours later, at the age of 66.  The committee of the Swedish Academy, who meet to decide each year’s Nobel laureates, cited Quasimodo’s “lyrical poetics, which with ardent classicism expresses the tragic experiences of the life of our times".  The formative experiences that shaped his literary life began after the family moved from Modica, the small city in the province of Ragusa in Sicily, where Salvatore was born in 1901, to Messina, at the tip of the island closest to the mainland, which had been almost destroyed in the devastating earthquake of December 1908.  Read more…


13 June 2019

13 June

Saint Anthony of Padua

Pilgrims honour the saint famous for his miracles

The feast of Saint Anthony of Padua (Sant’Antonio da Padova) will be celebrated  by thousands of pilgrims visiting the northern Italian city today.  Special services will be held in the Basilica di Sant’Antonio and a statue of the saint will be carried through the streets of Padua.  Anthony was born in Portugal where he became a Catholic priest and a friar of the Franciscan order. He died on 13 June, 1231 in Padova and was declared a saint by the Vatican a year after his death, which is considered a remarkably short space of time.  Anthony is one of the most loved of all the saints and his name is regularly invoked by Italians to help them recover lost items. It is estimated that about five million pilgrims visit the Basilica every year in order to file past and touch the tomb of the Franciscan monk, who became famous for his miracles, particularly relating to lost people or things.  The magnificent basilica in Piazza del Santo is an architectural masterpiece created between the 13th and 14th centuries, but it was later enriched with works of art by masters such as Titian, Tiepolo and the sculptor Donatello.  Read more…


Giovanni Antonio Magini – astronomer and cartographer

Scientist laboured to produce a comprehensive atlas of Italy

Giovanni Antonio Magini, who dedicated his life to producing a detailed atlas of Italy, was born on this day in 1555 in Padua.  He also devised his own planetary theory consisting of 11 rotating spheres and invented calculating devices to help him work on the geometry of the sphere.  Magini was born in Padua and went to study philosophy in Bologna, receiving his doctorate in 1579. He then dedicated himself to astronomy and in 1582 wrote his Ephemerides coelestium motuum, a major treatise on the subject, which was translated into Italian the following year.  In 1588 Magini joined in the competition for the chair of mathematics at Bologna University and was chosen over Galileo because he was older and had more moderate views. He held the position for the rest of his life.  But his greatest achievement was the preparation of his atlas, entitled Italia, or the Atlante geografico d’Italia, which was printed posthumously by Magini’s son in 1620.  Although Italy as a state has existed only since 1861, the name Italia, referring to the southern part of the peninsula, may go back to the ancient Greeks. Magini’s atlas set out to include maps of every Italian region with exact names and historical notes.  Read more…


Pope's would-be killer pardoned

Turkish gunman 'freed' but immediately detained

Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, Italy’s president, signed the order granting an official pardon to Pope John Paul II’s would-be assassin, Mehmet Ali Agca, on this day in 2000.  The Turkish gunman had spent 19 years in jail after wounding the pontiff in St Peter’s Square in Rome in May 1981 but John Paul II, who had forgiven Agca from his hospital bed and visited him in prison in 1983, had been pressing the Italian government to show clemency and allow him to return to Turkey.  However, at the same time as granting him his freedom under the Italian judicial system, Ciampi also signed Agca’s extradition papers at the request of the Turkish authorities, who required him to serve the outstanding nine years of a 10-year jail sentence after being convicted in his absence of the murder of a Turkish journalist in 1978.  He was handed over to Turkish police, who escorted him onto a military flight to Istanbul airport.  At the time, a Vatican statement described the Pope as "very happy" about the pardon and said that John Paul II’s satisfaction was all the greater for the pardon being carried out during the Roman Catholic Church's Holy Year, the theme of which was pardon and forgiveness.  Read more…


12 June 2019

12 June

Charles Emmanuel II - Duke of Savoy

Ruler who was notorious for massacre of Protestant minority

Charles Emmanuel II, who was Duke of Savoy for almost his whole life, died on this day in 1675 in Turin.  His rule was notorious for his persecution of the Valdesi – a Christian Protestant movement widely known as the Waldenses that originate in 12th century France, whose base was on the Franco-Italian border.  In 1655, he launched an attack on the Valdesi that turned into a massacre so brutal that it sent shockwaves around Europe and prompted the English poet, John Milton, to write the sonnet On the Late Massacre in Piedmont.  The British political leader Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of the Commonwealth, proposed to send the British Navy if the massacre and subsequent attacks were not halted, and raised funds for helping the Waldensians.  More positively, Charles Emmanuel II was responsible for improving commerce and creating wealth in the Duchy. He was a driver in developing the port of Nice and building a road through the Alps towards France.  Read more…


Nick Gentile - mafioso

Sicilian mobster defied code of silence by publishing memoirs

The mafioso Nicola Gentile, known in the United States as Nick, who became notorious for publishing a book of memoirs that revealed the inner workings of the American Mafia as well as secrets of the Sicilian underworld, was born on this day in 1885 in Siculiana, a small town on the south coast of the Sicily, in the province of Agrigento.  Gentile’s book, Vita di Capomafia, which he wrote in conjunction with a journalist, was published in 1963 and provided much assistance to the American authorities in their fight against organized crime.  As a result Gentile was sentenced to death by the mafia council in Sicily for having broken the code of omertà, a vow of silence to which all mafiosi are expected to adhere to protect their criminal activities.  Siculiana, in fact, was a mafia stronghold, where the code was usually enforced with particular rigour.  Yet the mobsters from the city of Catania who were tasked with carrying out the sentence declined to do so, for reasons that have not been explained. In the event, Gentile died in Siculiana in 1966 of natural causes. Read more…


Margherita Hack – astrophysicist

TV personality made science more popular

Writer and astrophysicist Margherita Hack was born on this day in 1922 in Florence.  She studied stars by analysing the different kinds of radiation they emitted and frequently appeared on television to explain new findings in astronomy and physics.  Hack, whose father, Roberto Hack, was of Swiss origin, graduated in physics from the University of Florence in 1945. She worked at the Brera Astronomical Observatory just outside Milan and then became a professor at the University of Trieste.  She spent more than 20 years as director of the observatory in Trieste, the first woman in Italy to hold such a position. Under her leadership, the observatory became one of the foremost research centres in Italy.  Hack wrote many scientific papers and books, winning awards for her research. Her television appearances helped make science more popular with ordinary people.  Read more…