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, 31 May 2017

Angelo Moriondo - espresso machine pioneer

Bar and hotel owner invented way to make coffee faster


Angelo Moriondo owned a hotel and a prestigious  bar in the centre of Turin
Angelo Moriondo owned a hotel and a prestigious
bar in the centre of Turin
Angelo Moriondo, the man credited with inventing the world’s first espresso coffee machine, died on this day in 1914 in Marentino, a town in Piedmont, about 20km (12 miles) east of Turin.

Moriondo, who was 62 when he passed away, was the owner of the Grand-Hotel Ligure in Turin’s Piazza Carlo Felice and the American Bar in the former Galleria Nazionale on Via Roma.

He came up with the idea of a coffee machine essentially in the hope of gaining an edge over his competition at a time when coffee was a hugely popular beverage across Europe and in Italy in particular, but which still depended on brewing methods that required the customer to wait five minutes or more to be able to raise a cup to his mouth.

Moriondo figured that if he could find a way to make multiple cups of coffee simultaneously he would be able to serve more customers more quickly. He hoped that word would then get round in Turin’s commercial district that his bars were the ones to go if the pressures of business did not allow time for leisurely breaks.

The design for his machine for which Moriondo  was granted a patent in 1884
The design for his machine for which Moriondo
was granted a patent in 1884
He never contemplated industrial-scale production of his invention, his ambitions never extending beyond the needs of his own businesses and, unlike later espresso machines, his device was not designed for making individual cups.

But experts say that his invention was undoubtedly the first to use water and pressurised steam to accelerate the coffee-making process and it was therefore reasonable to declare it to be the world’s first espresso machine.

Moriondo was delighted with it but missed a fantastic opportunity to become the person whose name is synonymous with coffee machines.

He presented his invention at the General Expo of Turin in 1884, where it was awarded the bronze medal.  It was awarded a patent for a period of six years on May 16, 1884 under the title of "New steam machinery for the economic and instantaneous confection of coffee beverage, method ‘A. Moriondo’."

The machine consisted of a large boiler that pushed heated water through a large bed of coffee grounds, with a second boiler producing steam that would flash the bed of coffee and complete the brew.

One of Desiderio Pavoni's early espresso machines
One of Desiderio Pavoni's early espresso machines
Conceiving and creating this matchine was an unprecedented achievement. Yet Moriondo did nothing to commercialise the idea and it was left to two others, the Milanese duo Luigi Bezzerra and Desiderio Pavoni, to tweak his method and repackage it for the market place.

Moriondo limited himself to the construction of a few hand-built, machines which he jealously kept under lock and key at one house or another, convinced that advertising them was a bad idea.

Within a couple of years, Bezzerra and Pavoni had developed a machine that could produce up to 1,000 cups an hour, brewing an individual shot of espresso.

Moriondo made a comfortable living from his business ventures, following in the family’s footsteps as an entrepreneur, but could have been both wealthier and more famous had he seen the potential in what he had created.

The Via Roma in modern Turin
The Via Roma in modern Turin
Travel tip:

Turin was once the capital of Italy and its shopping streets reflect its former prestige, with 18km (11 miles) of arcades. A key shopping area is around Via Roma.  As well as the high street names, shops feature specialists in chocolate, fashion, and antiquarian books and records.

Travel tip:

The small town of Marentino really consists of three ancient villages – Marentino, Avuglione and Vernone. It is well known for its locally produced honey.  Marentino is built on a hill with the church of Maria Vergine, which has a baroque façade and a substantial bell tower, at its pinnacle. An interesting feature of the town is the number of houses whose walls are decorated with colourful murals, the result of a project in 2005 involving 20 artists from all over Italy.






Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Giovanni Gentile – philosopher

The principal intellectual spokesman for fascism


Giovanni Gentile wrote part of The Doctrine of Fascism for Benito Mussolini
Giovanni Gentile wrote part of The Doctrine
of Fascism for Benito Mussolini
Giovanni Gentile, a major figure in Italian idealist philosophy, was born on this day in 1875 in Castelvetrano in Sicily.

Known as ‘the philosopher of Fascism’, Gentile was the ghostwriter of part of Benito Mussolini’s The Doctrine of Fascism in 1932. His own ‘actual idealism’ was strongly influenced by the German philosopher, Georg Hegel.

Gentile's rejection of individualism and acceptance of collectivism helped him justify the totalitarian element of Fascism.

After a series of university appointments, Gentile became professor of the history of philosophy at the University of Rome in 1917.

While writing The Philosophy of Marx – La filosophia di Marx – a Hegelian examination of Karl Marx’s ideas, he met writer and philosopher Benedetto Croce. The two men became friends and co-editors of the periodical La Critica until 1924, when a lasting disagreement occurred over Gentile’s embrace of Fascism.

Gentile was Minister of Education in the Fascist government of Italy from October 1922 to July 1924 carrying out wide reforms, which had a lasting impact on Italian education.

In 1925 he served as president of two commissions on constitutional reform, helping to lay the foundations of the Fascist corporate state.

Gentile is buried in the Basilica of Santa Croce in Florence
Gentile is buried in the Basilica of Santa Croce in Florence
After acting as president of the Supreme Council of Public Education and as a member of the Fascist Grand Council between 1925 and 1929, he saw his political influence steadily decline.

His most important achievement was the Enciclopedia Italiana, which he began to plan in 1925 and edited until 1943 and he also wrote prolifically on the subjects of philosophy and education.

After the fall of Benito Mussolini in 1943, Gentile supported the Fascist Social Republic established by the Germans at Salò. He served as president of the Academy of Italy, Italy’s foremost intellectual institution, until his death.

In 1944 a group of anti-Fascist partisans shot Gentile dead as he returned from the prefecture in Florence. Ironically he had been there arguing for the release from prison of anti-Fascist intellectuals.

The church of Santa Maria Assunta, also known as the Chiesa Madre - mother church - in Castelvetrano
The church of Santa Maria Assunta, also known as the
Chiesa Madre - mother church - in Castelvetrano
Travel tip:

Castelvetrano, the birthplace of Giovanni Gentile, is in the province of Trapani in Sicily. It is first mentioned in historical records dating from the 12th century. The Church of St John, which is just outside the city walls, was founded in 1412. The mother church, Chiesa Madre, which dates back to the 16th century, is in the town’s main square, Piazza Tagliavia. The remains of Selinunte, an ancient Greek city, are just outside the city, on a site overlooking the sea.

The Basilica of Santa Croce in Florence
The Basilica of Santa Croce in Florence
Travel tip:

Gentile was living and working in Florence when he was shot dead by anti-Fascists on 15 April, 1944. He is buried in the church of Santa Croce beside the remains of Galileo and Machiavelli. The Basilica of Santa Croce is the principal Franciscan Church in Florence and is the burial place of some of the most illustrious Italians. It is also known to Italians as the Temple of the Italian Glories.

More reading:


Why Luigi Einaudi signed the Manifesto of the Anti-Fascist Intellectuals 

Benito Mussolini and the Founding of the Italian Fascists

How the Republic of Salò was Mussolini's last stand

Also on this day:


1924: The anti-Fascist speech that cost a socialist politician his life






Monday, 29 May 2017

Franca Rame – actress, writer and politician

Artistic collaborator and wife of Dario Fo


Franca Rame in a publicity shot from a brief but unsuccessful movie career
Franca Rame in a publicity shot from a
brief but unsuccessful movie career
The actress and writer Franca Rame, much of whose work was done in collaboration with her husband, the Nobel Prize-winning actor, playwright and satirist Dario Fo, died in Milan on this day in 2013 at the age of 83.

One of Italy's most admired and respected stage performers, her contribution to Dario Fo’s work was such that his 1997 Nobel prize for literature probably should have been a joint award. In the event, on receipt of the award, Fo announced he was sharing it with his wife.

Rame was also a left-wing militant. A member of the Italian Communist Party from 1967, she was elected to the Italian senate in 2006 under the banner of the Italy of Values party, a centre-left anti-corruption grouping led by Antonio di Pietro, the former prosecutor who had led the Mani Pulite (“Clean Hands”) corruption investigation in the 1990s.

Later she was an independent member of the Communist Refoundation Party.  Her political views often heavily influenced her writing, in which her targets tended to be the Italian government and the Roman Catholic Church.  She was also an outspoken champion of women’s rights.

Her politics made her some enemies, however.  In 1973, she was kidnapped at gunpoint on a Milan street by a group of neo-Fascist men who raped and tortured her. When she was released, the group said it was revenge against her and Fo for their political activism.

Franca Rame in 1952, when she began her relationship with Dario Fo after they met through work
Franca Rame in 1952, when she began her relationship
with Dario Fo after they met through work
Born in Parabiago, a town of almost 30,000 people in the north-western quarter of the Milan metropolitan area, Rame was the daughter of an actor and a militant socialist father and a strict Catholic mother. She was almost born on the stage, appearing in a performance with her mother when she was only eight days old.

At the age of 18, and with the photogenic looks of a 1950s blonde bombshell, she began a theatre career in Milan. She met Dario Fo when they were members of the same company. Fo was smitten from an early stage and to his surprise and delight the attraction was mutual. They married in 1954 and their son Jacopo, now himself a writer, was born in 1955.

Rame had a brief but only modestly successful movie career before switching her focus to the theatre. As a professional partnership, she and Fo's first hit, Gli Arcangeli non Giacano a Flipper – Archangels Don’t Play Pinball – played at the Odeon theatre in Milan in 1959, where they were subsequently invited to write and perform a new play every year. 

Subsequent successes included Isabella, Tre Caravelle e un Cacciaballe – Isabella, Three Sailing Ships and a Con Man – set in Spain in the early years of the inquisition, in which Rame played Queen Isabella.

Dario Fo with Franca Rame and their son Jacopo
Dario Fo with Franca Rame and their son Jacopo
In time, however, they gave up commercial theatre in favour of forming co-operative groups and in 1970 founded their own militant theatre group, La Comune, based at the Palazzina Liberty, an abandoned pavilion. It was there that Rame starred in Fo’s acclaimed Non Si Paga! Non Si Paga! (Can’t Pay? Won’t Pay!) and that she wrote and performed in a one-woman show Tutta Casa, Letto e Chiesa (It’s All Bed, Board and Church).

Their relationship was turbulent at times and at one stage she announced their separation. Yet they patched up their differences and even sent themselves up in a play, Coppia Aperta (The Open Couple).

Rame and Fo were particularly despairing of Italy’s support for Silvio Berlusconi when the country shifted to the right in the 1990s, even more when he was granted a return to power in 2001. Their play L’Anomalo Bicefalo (The Two Headed Anomaly), a satire about a political rally in Sicily which features an assassination attempt on Berlusconi and the Russian leader Vladimir Putin, infuriated Berlusconi when Rame’s performance in a comic scene as his wife, Veronica, was praised by Veronica herself.

Her opposition to Berlusconi was part of her motivation for joining forces with Di Pietro, for whom Berlusconi’s scorn had been undisguised during the Mani Pulite trials, prior to her election to the senate.

Rame is buried at the Monumental Cemetery in Milan.

The Prepositurale church in Parabiago
The Prepositurale church in Parabiago
Travel tip:

Parabiago grew as an industrial centre in the 1960s, when its footwear industry, established in the late 19th century, enjoyed a boom. It became known as The City of the Shoe. Notable churches include the Prepositurale church dedicated to saints Gervasio and Protasio, built in 1610 on the orders of the Bishop of Milan, San Carlo Borromeo. The neoclassical façade, added between 1780 and 1781, was designed by Giuseppe Piermarini. Parabiago is also home to Villa Maggi-Corvini , or simply Villa Corvini, located at the beginning of the historic Via Santa Maria. The villa is part of the Parco Corvini municipal park, which is open to the public.

The Palazzina Liberty used to be the cafeteria-restaurant at the Verziere market in Milan
The Palazzina Liberty used to be the cafeteria-restaurant
at the Verziere market in Milan
Travel tip:

The Palazzina Liberty in Milan’s Parco Vittorio Formentano, on the eastern side of the city centre, was built in 1908 to house the cafeteria-restaurant in the Verziere fruit and vegetable market but fell into disuse when the market moved to a different location. Dario Fo took it over in the 1970s and in 1980 it became home to Milan’s civic orchestra before being renovated in 1992 and opened as a cultural and recreational facility for the city, hosting orchestral concerts, film festivals and poetry events among other things.


Sunday, 28 May 2017

Leandro Jayarajah - cricketer

Father was a pioneer of game in Italy


Leandro Jayarajah
Leandro Jayarajah
Leandro Jayarajah, the captain and head coach of Roma Capannelle Cricket Club, was born on this day in 1987 in Rome.

His father, Francis Alphonsus Jayarajah, usually known as Alfonso, is a Sri Lankan national who founded what became the Capannelle club in 1978 and was one of the pioneers of organised cricket in Italy.

Alfonso was co-founder in 1980 of the Federazione Cricket Italiana, under whose auspices an Italian cricket championship has been played since 1983.

Capannelle, which takes its name from the racecourse in Rome, the Ippodromo Capannelle, where the club plays its home matches, have been Serie A champions on five occasions, most recently under Leandro’s leadership in 2013. 

The club began life as the Commonwealth Wandering Giants Cricket Club, changing its name when the chance to use the green space in the middle of the racecourse as a permanent home presented itself in 1983.

Alfonso Jayarajah, founder of Roma Capannelle Cricket Club
Alfonso Jayarajah, founder of Roma
Capannelle Cricket Club
Leandro, a right-handed batsman who bowls off spin and occasionally keeps wicket has followed his father into international cricket as a member of the Italy team, which is currently 28th in the world rankings. In club cricket he made a top score of 80 not out during Capannelle's 2013 title-winning season. He has also played club cricket in England and Australia.

His Italian mother, Franca Maria Beranger, who died in 2015, was president of Capannelle from 1988 to 2014, having helped her husband with the running of the club since its inception.

Leandro – nicknamed Mati – made his debut for Italy in 2010 and, as a qualified coach, is part of the national team’s coaching staff, looking after specifically the Under-17s.

His father arrived in Italy in 1968 to study at the Sapienza University of Rome and remained in the city, working for the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. He played for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission Cricket Club against British and Australian Embassies in 1975 for what was dubbed the Rome Ashes.

He became captain of the Italian national cricket team in 1984 and was the first captain to lead the cricketing Azzurri on an international tour when they visited England the same year.

Cricket did not capture the imagination of Italians the same way that football did when British traders introduced the game in the early years of the 20th century but was revived in the 1960s when embassy teams began to play each other.

Recently, the popularity of the game has been boosted by immigrants from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, with more Italians taking up the game than at any stage.

The six teams in Serie A must have a quota of Italians but teams made up entirely of foreign-born players are allowed in the lower divisions.

Leandro is a delegate for Lazio on Italy’s national Olympic committee. A graduate in political science, away from cricket  he is a property manager.

Rome's Ippodromo Capannelle, home of the Derby Italiano
Rome's Ippodromo Capannelle, home of the Derby Italiano
Travel tip:

The Ippodromo Capannelle first staged horse racing in 1881 and was rebuilt in 1926 to a design by Paolo Vietti Violi, the notable architect whose speciality was race tracks. Capannelle was among more than 33 circuits he designed, including tracks in Asia, South America and Africa. Situated about 15km (9 miles) south-east of Rome city centre close to Via Appia, it is currently the home of three Group 1 flat races – the Premio Presidente della Repubblica, the Premio Lydia Tesio and the Premio Roma. The track also hosts the most valuable flat race in Italy, the Derby Italiano.


The Baths of Caracalla in Rome
The Baths of Caracalla in Rome
Travel tip:

The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Stations, where Leandro’s father, Alphonso worked after arriving in Rome from Sri Lanka, is a modern building on the busy Via delle Terme di Caracalla, which links the Circus Maximus with the Baths of Caracalla, two of the city’s foremost Roman ruins. The Baths of Caracalla were thermal baths built  between AD 211/212 and 216/217, during the reigns of emperors Septimius Severus and Caracalla. A year-round tourist attraction, the ruins have been the venue for a number of music concerts, notably including the historic Three Tenors concert, featuring Luciano Pavarotti, José  Carreras and Plácido Domingo, staged during the 1990 World Cup finals, hosted by Italy.




Saturday, 27 May 2017

Lucrezia Crivelli – lady in waiting

Mystery of the beautiful woman in painting by Leonardo


For many years, it was assumed the woman in Da Vinci's La belle Ferronnière was Sforza's mistress, Lucrezia Crivelli
For many years, it was assumed the woman
in Da Vinci's La belle Ferronnière was
Sforza's mistress, Lucrezia Crivelli
Lucrezia Crivelli, mistress of Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan, who was for a long time believed to be the subject of a painting by Leonardo da Vinci, died on this day in 1508 in Canneto sull’Oglio in Lombardy.

Crivelli served as a lady in waiting to Ludovico Sforza’s wife, Beatrice d’Este, from 1475 until Beatrice’s death in 1497.

She also became the Duke’s mistress and gave birth to his son, Giovanni Paolo, who went on to become the first Marquess of Caravaggio and a celebrated condottiero.

Crivelli lived for many years in the Castello of Canneto near Mantua under the protection of Isabella d’Este, the elder sister of Beatrice, until her death in 1508.

Coincidentally, her former lover, Ludovico Sforza, is believed to have died on the same day in 1508 while being kept prisoner in the dungeons of the castle of Loches in Touraine in France, having been captured by the French during the Italian Wars.

It was never proved, but it was assumed for many years that Crivelli may have been the subject of Leonardo da Vinci’s painting La belle Ferronnière, which is displayed in the Louvre in Paris. Another theory was that either Beatrice d’Este or Isabella of Aragon could have been the subject.

It is now thought LucreziaCrivelli was the subject of Da Vinci's Profile of a Young Lady
It is now thought LucreziaCrivelli was the subject
of Da Vinci's Profile of a Young Lady
It was originally believed to be Crivelli because da Vinci had painted another of Ludovico Sforza’s mistresses, Cecilia Gallerani, in his painting Lady with an Ermine.

Eventually the theory was disproved when a painting of Lucrezia Crivelli, also by da Vinci and which had been kept by her family for centuries, was put on display in Germany in 1995. The woman in this painting, Profile of a Young Lady, is thought not to be the same woman who featured in La belle Ferronnière.

The real Crivelli painting has been examined by the man who restored The Last Supper, Pinin Barcillon Brambilla, who found some pigments to be the same as those of the Milanese mural.

The Castello Sforzesco in Milan
The Castello Sforzesco in Milan
Travel tip

One of the main sights in Milan is the impressive Sforza castle, Castello Sforzesco, built in the 15th century by Francesco Sforza, Duke of Milan. After Ludovico Sforza became Duke of Milan in 1494 he commissioned Leonardo da Vinci to fresco several rooms. The castle now houses some of the city’s museums and art galleries. For more information visit www.milanocastello.it

Travel tip

Canneto sull’Oglio, where Lucrezia Crivelli died, is in the province of Mantua in Lombardy, about 100 km (62 miles)  south of Milan. It is home to the restaurant Dal Pescatore, which has three Michelin stars. Run by the Santini family, the restaurant is famous for its pumpkin-stuffed tortelli.





Friday, 26 May 2017

Alberto Ascari - racing driver

F1 champion killed amid eerie echoes of father's death


Alberto Ascari (centre), pictured a few weeks before his fatal crash with his friends Luigi Villoresi (left), Eugenio  Castellotti (right) and the famous engineer Vittorio Jano.
Alberto Ascari (centre), pictured a few weeks before his fatal
crash with his friends Luigi Villoresi (left), Eugenio
 Castellotti (right) and the famous engineer Vittorio Jano.
Racing driver Alberto Ascari, who was twice Formula One champion, died on this day in 1955 in an accident at the Monza racing circuit in Lombardy, just north of Milan.

A hugely popular driver, his death shocked Italy and motor racing fans in particular. 

What many found particularly chilling was a series of uncanny parallels with the death of his father, Antonio Ascari, who was also a racing driver, 30 years previously.

Alberto had gone to Monza to watch his friend, Eugenio Castellotti, test a Ferrari 750 Monza sports car, which they were to co-drive the car in the 1000 km Monza race.

Contracted to Lancia at the time, although he had been given dispensation to drive for Ferrari in the race, Ascari was not supposed to test drive the car, yet he could not resist trying a few laps, even though he was dressed in a jacket and tie, in part to ensure he had not lost his nerve after a serious accident a few days earlier.

Ascari on the cover of a magazine in  Argentina, where he was very popular
Ascari on the cover of a magazine in
Argentina, where he was very popular
When he emerged from a fast curve on the third lap, however, the car inexplicably skidded, turned on its nose and somersaulted twice. Ascari was wearing Castellotti’s white helmet but he suffered multiple injuries nonetheless when he was thrown out of the car and survived for only a few minutes, pronounced dead at the scene.

There were several eerie similarities between the deaths of Alberto and his father.

Alberto Ascari died on May 26, 1955, at the age of 36, the same age as his father, Antonio, who was killed in the French Grand Prix, on July 26, 1925. Alberto was only four days older than his father had been.

That both should die on the 26th of the month at the same age was a strange coincidence, yet it did not end there.

Even more weirdly, both were killed four days after surviving serious accidents, Antonio having crashed while practising ahead of the Grand Prix in which he died, Alberto having lost control of his car during the Monaco Grand Prix and gone into the harbour.

Both suffered fatal crashes at the exit of fast left-hand corners, both had won 13 championship Grand Prix events and both left behind a wife and two children.

Alberto’s accident occurred on the Curva del Vialone, one of the Monza track's most challenging high-speed corners. The corner was renamed in his honour but has subsequently been replaced with a chicane, now called Variante Ascari.

He was laid to rest next to the grave of his father in the Cimitero Monumentale in Milan. His death was considered to be a factor in the withdrawal of Lancia from motor racing in 1955, just three days after his funeral, although it was also a fact that the company was in financial trouble.

Ascari, in his Lancia, chases the legendary Argentina Juan Manuel Fangio, in a Mercedes, in a 1954 race
Ascari, in his Lancia, chases the legendary Argentina Juan
Manuel Fangio, in a Mercedes, in a 1954 race
Born in Milan, Alberto was only seven when he lost his father yet was not put off his desire to become a racing driver.

He was one of the best drivers around when Formula One launched in 1950, with a string of victories in Grand Prix events over 1948 and 1949. His success continued in 1950, although his nine race wins did not include any in the inaugural Formula One series, won by another Italian, Giuseppe Farina.

The 1951 season brought seven more victories and this time two of them counted as he finished second to the legendary Argentinian Juan Manuel Fangio.

He went one better and won the drivers’ championship in 1952, winning the final six rounds after Fangio dropped out midway through the season, and defended his title successfully in 1953.

After his death, a street in Rome was named in his honour, while both the Autodromo Nazionale Monza and Autodromo Oscar Alfredo Gálvez in Buenos Aires, which staged the Argentine Grand Prix between 1953 and 1998, have chicanes named after him.

Monza' s Duomo, the striking Basilica of San  Giovanni Battista
Monza's Duomo, the striking Basilica of San
 Giovanni Battista
Travel tip:

Apart from the motor racing circuit, Monza is notable for its 13th century Basilica of San Giovanni Battista, often known as Monza Cathedral, which contains the famous Corona Ferrea or Iron Crown, bearing precious stones.  According to tradition, the crown was found on Jesus's Cross.  Note also the Villa Reale, built in the neoclassical style by Piermarini at the end of the 18th Century, which has a sumptuous interior and a court theatre.

Travel tip:

The Cimitero Monumentale is one of the two largest cemeteries in Milan, the other one being the Cimitero Maggiore. Designed by the architect Carlo Maciachini (1818–1899), it was planned to consolidate a number of small cemeteries that used to be scattered around the city into a single location.  It can be found in the northern part of the city, adjacent to Chinatown and Porta Volta.  As well as Ascari and his father, it is the resting place of the tenor Franco Corelli, the conductor Arturo Toscanini, the poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti – who founded the futurist movement - the novelist and writer Alessandro Manzoni, and the founder of AC Milan football club, the Englishman Herbert Kilpin.






Thursday, 25 May 2017

Stefano Baldini - Olympic marathon champion

Won gold medal over historic course in Athens


Stefano Baldini, Italy's fastest marathon runner to date
Stefano Baldini, Italy's fastest
marathon runner to date
Stefano Baldini, the marathon runner who was Olympic champion in Athens in 2004 and twice won the European marathon title, as born on this day in 1971 in Castelnovo di Sotto, about 14km (nine miles) north-west of the city of Reggio Emilia.

Although Baldini’s class was not doubted, his Olympic gold was slightly tarnished by an incident seven kilometres from the finish when a spectator broke through the barriers and attacked the Brazilian runner, Vanderlei de Lima, who was leading the field.

The spectator, an Irishman called Conelius Horan who had disrupted the British Grand Prix motor race the previous year, was wrestled off de Lima by another spectator but the incident cost the Brazilian 15 to 20 seconds and much momentum. He was passed subsequently by Baldini and finished third.

Baldini finished the race, which followed the historic route from Marathon to Athens, in two hours 10 minutes and 55 seconds, although this was not the fastest time of his career.

His best was the 2:07:56 he clocked at the 1997 London Marathon, when he finished second, in what is still the fastest time by an Italian over the marathon distance.

Baldini comes from a family of 11 children, among whom he has two brothers who were distance runners, Marco once achieving a time of 2:16:32 in the marathon. Throughout his career he has run in the colours of the Calcestruzzi Corradini Rubiera club, based in the town of Rubiera, midway between Reggio Emilia and Modena.

Stefano Baldini (left) passes the Brazilian Vanderlei de Lima on the way to winning the 2004 Olympic marathon in Athens
Stefano Baldini (left) passes the Brazilian Vanderlei de Lima
on the way to winning the 2004 Olympic marathon in Athens
He began racing over long distances even as a teenager. Initially his specialities were the 5,000m and 10,000m and he was 24 before he took on his first marathon, when he finished sixth in the Venice Marathon in 2:11:01.

Before winning his Olympic gold in Athens had already taken part in the marathon in Sydney in 2000, having competed at 5,000m and 10,000m at the Atlanta Games in 1996, making the semi-finals in the former.

He took the gold medal in the half-marathon at the World championships in 1996 in Palma de Mallorca.

His first important marathon victory came at the European championships in 1998 in Budapest.  He won the Rome Marathon in the same year.

Baldini won a second European gold eight years later in Gothenburg. His best performances over the marathon distance in the World championships came in Edmonton in 2001 and Paris in 2003, taking the bronze medal on each occasion.

Stefano Baldini in action in the  New York marathon
Stefano Baldini in action in the
New York marathon
He went to Beijing in 2008 to defend his Olympic title but after finishing 12th he announced his retirement, having the same year competed in his ninth London Marathon, in which he also came home 12th.  By then Baldini was 37, although he did attempt a comeback in 2010 before announcing that he would be giving up for good and concentrating on his work with the Italian Athletics Federation.

In 2014, by which time he had become established as the technical director for youth athletics in Italy, Baldino took part in a charity event to mark the 10th anniversary of his Athens victory, which made him the second Italian, after Gelindo Bordin, to win an Olympic marathon gold.

Married to the former 400m runner Virna de Angeli, he lives today in Rubiera with his wife and three children, Alessia, Laura and Lorenzo.

The Via Appia forms Rubiera's porticoed main street
The Via Appia forms Rubiera's porticoed main street
Travel tip:

The town of Rubiera was established in around 1200 when a castle was built to protect the city of Modena. It sits alongside the Secchia river and flanks the Via Appia. The castle became a prison at the time the town was owned by the Este family. It was sold at auction in 1873, half becoming private property and half taken on by the municipal authorities.  Today very little remains of the original structure.  The town itself is characterised by streets lined with porticoes.  Notable buildings include the 15th century Palazzo Sacrati and the art nouveau Teatro Herberia.

Travel tip:

Castelnovo di Sotto, a community of around 8,000 people in the Po Valley, is famous as the home of one of Italy’s most ancient carnivals, dating back to the 16th century, and the birthplace of Luigi Melegari, one of the founders of the Young Italy movement alongside Giuseppe Mazzini and an important figure in the Risorgimento.




Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Charles Emmanuel IV – King of Sardinia

Monarch who was descended from Charles I of England


Court painter Domenico Duprà's portrait of Charles Emmanuel IV
Court painter Domenico Duprà's portrait of
Charles Emmanuel IV
Charles Emmanuel IV, who was King of Sardinia from 1796 until he abdicated in 1802 and might once have had a claim to the throne of England, was born on this day in 1751 in Turin.

Born Carlo Emanuele Ferdinando Maria di Savoia, he was the eldest son of Victor Amadeus III, King of Sardinia, and of his wife Infanta Maria Antonia Ferdinanda of Spain. From his birth he was known as the Prince of Piedmont.

In 1775, he married Marie Clotilde of France, the daughter of Louis, Dauphin of France, and Princess Marie-Josèphe of Saxony, and sister of King Louis XVI of France.

Although it was essentially a political marriage over which they had little choice, the couple became devoted to one another.

With the death of his father in October 1796, Charles Emmanuel inherited the throne of Sardinia, a kingdom that included not only the island of Sardinia, but also the whole of Piedmont and other parts of north-west Italy.

He took on a difficult political situation along with the throne, only months after his father had signed the disadvantageous Treaty of Paris with the French Republic following the four-year War of the First Coalition, in which Napoleon’s army prevailed. The treaty ceded the Duchy of Savoy and the County of Nice and gave the French army free passage through Piedmont to attack other parts of Italy.

The death of his wife Marie Clothilde was trigger for Charles Emmanuel's abdication
The death of his wife Marie Clothilde was
trigger for Charles Emmanuel's abdication
In December 1798, the French under General Barthèlemy Joubert occupied Turin and forced Charles Emmanuel to surrender all his territories on the Italian mainland and to withdraw to Sardinia.

After an unsuccessful attempt to regain Piedmont the following year, he and his wife went to live in Rome and in Naples as guests of the wealthy Colonna family.

It was the death in 1802 of Marie Clothilde that changed things for Charles Emmanuel, who was so grief-stricken he decided to abdicate in favour of his brother Victor Emmanuel. They had no children.

He retained the title of King but stepped away from responsibility and spent his life in Rome and in the nearby town of Frascati.

In Frascati he was a frequent guest of his cousin, Henry Benedict Stuart, Cardinal Duke of York and the last member of the Royal House of Stuart.

Charles was actually descended from Henrietta Anne Stuart, the youngest daughter of King Charles I of England and Scotland, whereas Henry Benedict Stuart was descended from James II, who was the second son of Charles I.

When Henry died in 1807, Charles Emmanuel became the senior heir-general of Charles I, although there is no evidence that he attempted to make a public claim to the title of King of England or Scotland.

The Palazzo Colonna in Rome, where Charles Emmanuel died
The Palazzo Colonna in Rome, where Charles Emmanuel died
In fact, he appeared to have little interest in power. In 1815 at the age of 64, he took simple vows in the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits). Although he was never ordained to the priesthood, he spent much of the rest of his life at the Jesuit novitiate in Rome.

He died at the Palazzo Colonna in Rome in October 1819 and is buried in the Church of Sant'Andrea al Quirinale.

Travel tip:

Sardinia is a large island off the coast of Italy in the Mediterranean Sea. It has sandy beaches and a mountainous landscape. The southern city of Cagliari, from where Charles’s successor, Victor Emmanuel I, ruled, has a modern industrial area but also a medieval quarter called Castello, which has narrow streets, fine palaces and a 13th century Cathedral and is a fascinating part of the city to explore.

The Cattedrale di San Pietro Apostolo in Frascati
The Cattedrale di San Pietro Apostolo in Frascati
Travel tip:

Frascati, an ancient city 20km (miles) south-east of Rome in the Alban Hills, is notable for the Cattedrale di San Pietro Apostolo, which contains the tombstone of Charles Edward Stuart – Henry Benedict’s brother – who was also known as Bonnie Prince Charlie or the Young Pretender. Although his body was moved to St Peter’s in Rome, to be laid to rest with his mother and father, his heart was left in Frascati in a small urn under the floor below his monument.

More reading:


Victor Emmanuel I - the King who created the Carabinieri


Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Sergio Gonella - football referee

First Italian to referee a World Cup final


Sergio Gonella was the first Italian to referee a World Cup final
Sergio Gonella was the first Italian to
referee a World Cup final
Sergio Gonella, the first Italian football referee to take charge of a World Cup final, was born on this day in 1933 in Asti, a city in Piedmont best known for its wine production.

Gonella was appointed to officiate in the 1978 final between the Netherlands and the hosts Argentina in Buenos Aires and although he was criticised by many journalists and football historians for what they perceived as a weak performance lacking authority, few matches in the history of the competition can have presented a tougher challenge.

Against a backcloth of political turmoil in a country which had suffered a military coup only two years earlier and where opponents of the regime were routinely kidnapped and tortured, or simply disappeared, this was Argentina’s chance to build prestige by winning the biggest sporting event in the world, outside the Olympics.

Rumours of subterfuge surrounded most of Argentina’s matches and when the final arrived the atmosphere in the stadium was as intimidating as anything Gonella would have experienced in his whole 13-year professional career.

The match began with an unprecedented delay, caused first by the Argentine team’s deliberate late arrival on the field, an arrogant tactic designed to unsettle the brilliantly talented Dutch team, and then by the Argentine captain, Daniel Passarella, objecting to the plaster cast on the arm of Dutch defender René van de Kerkhof.

Sergio Gonella with the Dutch player Rene van der Kerkhof and the offending plaster cast
Sergio Gonella with the Dutch player Rene van der
Kerkhof and the offending plaster cast
Van de Kerkhof had worn the cast all through the tournament with no complaints but Passarella said it was potentially dangerous and Gonella ordered that it be removed, at which the Dutch players threatened to walk off en masse.  Eventually a compromise was reached whereby Van de Kerkhof taped some foam rubber over the top of the cast.

The match eventually kicked off nine minutes later than scheduled. Once play began the tackles flew in, with neither sign showing much restraint, and Gonella was never really in control. What’s more, in the partisan atmosphere, he appeared almost always gave the benefit of any doubt to Argentina, who ran out 3-1 winners after extra time.

Years later he defended his performance, answering accusations that he was party to some sort of conspiracy to ensure that Argentina won by pointing out that with the scores at 1-1 and only seconds remaining of the 90 minutes, Rob Rensenbrink of the Netherlands rolled a shot against a post and Argentina were therefore only millimetres away from losing the game.

Gonella, a banker by profession, began to officiate in Serie A matches in 1965 at the age of 32, immediately identifying himself as a no-nonsense arbiter by awarding seven penalties in his first seven matches.

He was generally seen as an impartial disciplinarian and had been a referee at the top level in domestic football for only seven seasons when he was given his first major international assignment, in charge of the final of the European Under-21 championships.

Sergio Gonella in a recent TV interview
Sergio Gonella in a recent TV interview
In 1976 he was the man with the whistle in the senior European championship final between Czechoslovakia and West Germany in Belgrade and when he was given the 1978 World Cup final he became one of only two men to take charge of both these prestigious matches.

In domestic football he won the Giovanni Mauro prize for the season’s best referee in Italian football in 1972 and in 1974 he officiated in the Coppa Italia final between Bologna and Palermo.

He quit refereeing after the 1978 final.  Referees were part time in that era and Gonella said he wished to have the opportunity to take his summer holidays with his family rather than with a whistle round his neck at a football tournament.  He had officiated in 175 Serie A matches.

Gonella remained in football, however, as a designator of match referees in Serie A and was president of the Italian Referees’ Association from 1998 until 2000.

For a while during his career he lived in La Spezia before returning to Asti province, specifically the village of Calliano, about 14km (nine miles) north-east of the city of Asti and about 45km (28 miles) east of Turin.

He was inducted to Italian football’s Hall of Fame in 2013. Two other Italians have refereed the World Cup final – Pierluigi Collina in 2002 and Nicola Rizzoli in 2014.

The Torre dei Comentini
Travel tip:

Asti is a city of around 75,000 people situated in the plain of the Tanaro river about 55km (34 miles) east of Turin. Many of his most important historical buildings are from the 12th and 13th centuries, when Asti grew to be the most powerful city in Piedmont when there was a fashion for building towers as symbols of power and prestige, hence Asti acquiring the nickname of the ‘city of 100 towers.’ There were thought to be 120 at one stage, of which several remain, including the Torre dei Comentini and the Torre de Regibus. Notable churches include the Romanesque-Gothic Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta and the Collegiata di San Secondo. Every September the city hosts the Palio di Asti, less famous than the Palio di Siena but the oldest in Italy, now staged in the triangular Piazza Alfieri.

The hilltop village of Calliano
Travel tip:

Calliano is a pretty village built on a hill between two valleys characterised by a network of streets spiralling down from the church of Santissimo Nome di Maria, right at the very top of the hill and visible from the surrounding area.  Calliano is also known for its local pasta dish, agnolotti d’asino – pasta envelopes similar to ravioli, stuffed with donkey meat.


Monday, 22 May 2017

Trevi Fountain inaugurated

Famous fountain now helps raise money for the poor


The Trevi Fountain was opened by Pope Clement XIII
The Trevi Fountain was opened by Pope Clement XIII
Rome’s iconic Trevi Fountain, Fontana di Trevi, was officially opened by Pope Clement XIII on this day in 1762.

Standing at more than 26 metres high and 49 metres wide it is the largest Baroque fountain in Rome and probably the most famous fountain in the world.

It has featured in films such as La Dolce Vita and Three Coins in the Fountain.

For more than 400 years a fountain served Rome at the junction of three roads, tre vie, using water from one of Ancient Rome’s aqueducts.

In 1629 Pope Urban VIII asked Gian Lorenzo Bernini to draw up possible renovations but the project was abandoned when the pope died.

In 1730 Pope Clement XII organised a contest to design a new fountain. The Florentine Alessandro Galilei originally won but there was such an outcry in Rome that the commission was eventually awarded to a Roman, Nicola Salvi.

Marcello Mastroianni and Anita Ekberg in the  fountain scene in Fellini's La Dolce Vita
Marcello Mastroianni and Anita Ekberg in the
fountain scene in Fellini's La Dolce Vita
Work on the fountain began in 1732 but Salvi died in 1751 when it was only half finished. Made from Travertine stone quarried in Tivoli near Rome, the fountain was completed by Giuseppe Pannini, with Oceanus (god of all water), designed by Pietro Bracci, set in the central niche.

Coins are traditionally thrown into the fountain using the right hand over the left shoulder. This was the theme of the 1954 film Three Coins in the Fountain and the award-winning song of that name.

An estimated 3000 euros are now thrown into the fountain each day and the money is used to subsidise a supermarket for needy people in Rome.

Travel tip:

One of Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s most spectacular works in Rome is the fountain of the Four Rivers, Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi, in Piazza Navona, with four marble figures symbolising the four major rivers of the world. It was designed in 1651 for Pope Innocent X.

The Fontana del Tritone in Piazza Barberini
The Fontana del Tritone in Piazza Barberini
Travel tip:

The Fountain of the Tritons, Fontana del Tritone, in Piazza Barberini in Rome was designed and built by Bernini near the entrance to Palazzo Barberini, the home of Pope Urban VIII’s family.



Sunday, 21 May 2017

Angelo Bruno - Mafia boss

Sicilian head of Philadelphia mob known as 'the Gentle Don'


Angelo Bruno was the head of the  Philadelphia crime family for 20 years
Angelo Bruno was the head of the
Philadelphia crime family for 20 years
Angelo Bruno, a mobster who ran the Philadelphia Mafia for two decades, was born Angelo Annaloro in Villalba, in the province of Caltanissetta, in Sicily, on this day in 1910.

Bruno was known as “the Gentle Don” because he preferred to solve problems and consolidate his power through non-violent means, such as bribery, and commissioned murders only as a last resort.

The son of a grocer, he emigrated to the United States in his teens and settled in Philadelphia. He became a close associate of New York crime family boss Carlo Gambino. Bruno dropped the name Annaloro and replaced it with his paternal grandmother's maiden name, Bruno.

Bruno’s dislike of violence was not driven by any compassion for his fellow man.  During his early days in Philadelphia, he worked for a series of bosses and did not shirk the tasks he had to perform in order to be rise through the ranks, which included carrying out killings himself.

But in 1959, when he succeeded Joseph Ida as boss of the Philadelphia crime family, he decided it was in his interests and those of his criminal organisation to operate in a way that avoided attracting unwanted attention.

Bruno's strategic policy of avoiding violence  earned him the nickname 'the Gentle Don'
Bruno's strategic policy of avoiding violence
earned him the nickname 'the Gentle Don'
In other cities, the tendency of Mafia families to embark on campaigns of violence to strengthen their powerbase inevitably resulted in the authorities cracking down on mob activity.

Bruno, whose longest time in prison was two years after he refused to testify before a grand jury, reasoned that keeping his operations relatively low key was the best way to achieve success.

Therefore, he preferred to remove obstacles to his progress by bribery rather than murder, and was able to operate for two decades with only minimal interference from law enforcement officers.

However, it was his old-school methods that ultimately proved his downfall.

Under Bruno’s rule, involvement of the Philadelphia family in narcotics trafficking was off-limits. He insisted that the family maintained its focus on more traditional Cosa Nostra operations, such as bookmaking, prostitution and loansharking.

However, by allowing other gangs, notably members of the Gambino family, to distribute heroin in Philadelphia in return for a share of the proceeds, he attracted opposition from inside the family from individuals who felt they were missing out on an opportunity to make big profits.

Meanwhile, as Atlantic City, traditionally part of the Philadelphia empire, grew as a gambling centre, Bruno allowed Gambino gangs to take a slice of that lucrative market, too.

How the Philadelphia Daily News announced Bruno's murder in 1980
How the Philadelphia Daily News
announced Bruno's murder in 1980
Several factions within the Philadelphia crime family began to conspire against Bruno, who was murdered on March 12, 1980, as he returned to his home in South Philadelphia after going out to dinner. He was killed in his car by an assailant who shot him in the back of the head.

There were several suspects, three of whom were themselves found dead within weeks of Bruno’s murder.  Antonio Caponigro, Bruno’s consigliere – advisor – and who was believed to have ordered the execution of his boss, was murdered before police were able to track him down, as were Frank Sindone and John Simone, the Mafiosi suspected of carrying out the killing.

Bruno's driver, John Stanfa, who escaped with only minor injuries, was also a suspect in the murder. He was not killed but would eventually be sentenced to eight years in jail for refusing to testify during the trials.

The turnout for Bruno’s funeral in Philadelphia was substantial. The procession involved more than 100 cars and about 1,000 people turned up at the Holy Cross Cemetery for the service.

Travel tip:

Villalba, a town of around 1,800 inhabitants, is known as the città bianca – white city - because of the large number of white houses. It is situated in a hilly inland area of western Sicily some 98km (61 miles) south-east of Palermo and 51km (32 miles) north of Caltanissetta.  The town grew in size in the 18th century, which saw the building of its two main churches, the Chiesa Madre and the Chiesa della Conciliazione and the palace of Nicolò Palmieri Morillo, also built during the 18th century, who owned much of the land.

The church of San Sebastiano in the city of Caltanissetta
The church of San Sebastiano in the
city of Caltanissetta
Travel tip:

The city of Caltanissetta has a population of more than 80,000 and despite being in an area of volcanic activity – notably the mud volcanoes of the so-called Hill of the Volcanoes  a short distance outside the city – has many notable and well preserved buildings.  The Cathedral of Santa Maria La Nova, built over the late 16th and early 17th centuries, has a Renaissance style that is unusual in the area and contains frescoes by the Flemish painter Guglielmo Borremans.  In front of the cathedral on Piazza Garibaldi is the church of San Sebastiano, built in the 16th century as a gesture of thanks to San Sebastian for deliverance from the plague.  Formerly a major centre for sulphur mining, the town now is famous for the production of the liqueur Amaro Averna.


More reading:



Did Carlo Gambino inspire Mario Puzo to write The Godfather?