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, 22 March 2017

Michele Sindona - fraudster and killer

Failed banker ordered murder of investigating lawyer

Michele Sindona - banker whose empire collapsed
after failure of Franklin National Bank in America
The shadowy banker Michele Sindona, who had links to underworld figures in Italy and America as well as prominent politicians, died in hospital in the Lombardy town of Voghera, 70km (43 miles) south of Milan, on this day in 1986.

His death, attributed to cyanide poisoning, came four days after he had been sentenced to life imprisonment for ordering the killing of a lawyer investigating the collapse of his $450 million financial empire.

His own lawyer claimed he had been murdered but although it was never established beyond doubt, the circumstances of his death, caused by drinking coffee laced with the poison at breakfast in Voghera's maximun-security prison, pointed towards suicide.

During his chequered career, which also saw him sentenced to 25 years' jail in America for fraud following the failure of the Franklin National Bank on Long Island, Sindona had links with Mafia bosses in Sicily and New York, with the illegal Propaganda Due masonic lodge and with the controversial head of the Vatican Bank, the American Archbishop, Paul Marcinkus.

His close ties with another Vatican Bank client, Roberto Calvi, gave rise to theories that both he and Calvi, whose body was found hanging from the underside of Blackfriars Bridge in London in 1980 following the collapse of the Banco Ambrosiano, of which he was president, were killed because they knew too much.

Roberto Calvi
Roberto Calvi
Sindona's political associates included the former Italian prime minister, Giulio Andreotti, who hailed him as the "saviour of the lira" just weeks before the Franklin National Bank went down, with catastrophic consequences for the many banks and financial institutions in Italy that Sindona controlled.

He also enjoyed a friendship with the former American president, Richard Nixon. Ironically, through Italy's giant construction conglomerate, Società Generale Immobiliare, Sindona was the part-owner of the Watergate Building in Washington, which housed the Democratic National Committee office, the bugging of which led to Nixon's resignation and impeachment.

Born in Patti, a town on the northern coast of Sicily some 76km (47 miles) from Messina, the son of a florist, Sindona went to a Jesuit school, where he showed an aptitude for maths and economics. He attended Messina University, where he graduated in law in 1942 and completed a thesis on The Prince, Niccolò Machiavelli's 16th century treatise on political philosophy.

He moved to Milan in 1946 at the age of 26 and opened a tax consultancy business, soon gaining a reputation for his knowledge of tax havens and the export of capital.  He began to build capital and within 15 years had amassed a fortune through his shrewd investments, mainly in the banking sector.

He acquired the Banca Unione di Vaticano with the aid of London's Hambros Bank, then the Banca Privata Italiana.  In due course, he added controlling interests in the Wolff Bank of West Germany, the Finabank and Amincorn Banks of Switzerland, the Banca di Messina in his native Sicily and finally the Franklin National Bank.

Carlo Gambino, the New York Mafia boss
Carlo Gambino, the New
York Mafia boss
His association with the Vatican Bank led to joint investments not only in the banking sector but in a chain of luxury hotels in Europe and a string of companies in the United States, including the Watergate real-estate development in Washington.

At the same time, though, as investigations later revealed, Sindona had become involved with the Cosa Nostra in Sicily and the Gambino crime family in New York, largely in the area of money laundering, and it transpired that a good deal of the capital he was investing to build his empire came from the proceeds of the Gambino family's heroin trafficking.

All of this went on unnoticed, however, until a sudden stock market crash in April 1974 left the Franklin National, the 20th largest bank in the United States, badly exposed.  In what became known as Il Crack Sindona, Franklin National's profits plunged by 98 per cent compared with the previous year, Sindona lost $40 million dollars and the domino effect brought down most of the other banks he had acquired.

Under pressure from the Gambinos to recover their money, Sindona promised to inject new capital up to the sum of $50 million but by October of that year the Franklin Bank had been declared insolvent and Sindona was being investigated for fraud.

Giorgio Ambrosoli - Sindona was jailed for life for arranging the murder of the lawyer appointed to look into his affairs
Giorgio Ambrosoli - Sindona was jailed for life for arranging
the murder of the lawyer appointed to look into his affairs
Meanwhile, in Italy, the Bank of Italy had begun to look into Sindona's activities and ultimately a suspension of his banking empire was ordered and a liquidator, the lawyer Giorgio Ambrosoli, appointed.

Sindona urged Licio Gelli, the self-appointed 'grand master' of Propaganda Due, to use his influence and contacts to call off the process, but to no avail. Sindona is said also to have asked Roberto Calvi to provide the capital to rebuild his empire and, when rebuffed, began to leak information about Calvi's activities to a journalist, whose investigations were central to the ultimate collapse of Banco Ambrosiano.

Meanwhile, it was not long before Ambrosoli was receiving telephone calls offering bribes to facilitate the approval of documents proving that Sindona had acted in good faith, which would have exempted him from criminal proceedings and required the Italian government to use public money to bail out his ailing empire.

Ambrosoli refused all offers, however, and paid the price. On July 12, 1979, arriving home from his office in Milan, he was walking between his car and the door of his apartment when he was approached by three men, one of whom shot him five times in the chest.

Investigations concluded that the killer was an Italian-American, William Arico, who had been commissioned on behalf of Sindona by Roberto Venetucci, a heroin trafficker.

The following month, while awaiting trial in New York over the Franklin National Bank collapse, Sindona defied orders restricting his movement by returning to Sicily, where he threatened Enrico Cuccia, the president of Mediobanca and an opponent of any rescue plan for Sindona's empire, and asked Licio Gelli to put pressure on Giulio Andreotti to intervene, threatening to name five prominent individuals who had profited from illegal currency deals.

None of this worked, however, and on his return to the United States he gave himself up.  After his conviction for fraud relating to the Franklin Bank collapse, he was extradited to Italy and found guilty of ordering the murder of Ambrosoli.

In the days before his death, he repeatedly spoke about his fears of being poisoned. On the day of his poisoning, prison guards noted that he took his coffee from his cell into the bathroom, which he had not done before, and emerged gasping for breath and claiming he had been poisoned. This led investigators to conclude that, on the balance of probability, he had taken his own life.

Patti, the town in Sicily where Sindona was born
Patti, the town in Sicily where Sindona was born
Travel tip:

Situated close to the ruins of the Greek city of Tyndaris (Tindari), the town of Patti, birthplace of Michele Sindona, has an old town characterized by narrow streets, stairways and squares, with the different styles that reflect the area's diverse cultural heritage, having been a settlement for Greek, Roman, Arab, Norman and Spanish people. There is a 12th-century cathedral that underwent reconstruction in the 15th century and again  after the earthquake of 1693.

The remodelled cathedral in the town of Voghera in Lombardy
The remodelled cathedral in the town of Voghera in Lombardy
Travel tip:

Voghera, which has a castle erected by the Visconti family between 1335 and 1372 and an 11th century cathedral later remodelled in Baroque style, is famous for the term 'Casalinga di Voghera' - Voghera housewife - which is often used in the media and political discourse to refer to the average Italian citizen - not particularly well educated or sophisticated but working hard and striving through self-sacrifice to raise a family in the best way possible.  In England, an equivalent but now somewhat archaic phrase is 'the man on the Clapham omnibus', which was once regularly used in courtrooms to represent someone whose hypothetical opinion might determine whether an action was or was not reasonable.

More reading:

Unanswered questions over bizarre death of Roberto Calvi

Carlo Gambino - the Mafia boss who inspired fictional Godfather

Giulio Andreotti - Italy's political survivor

Also on this day:

1837: The birth 'La Castiglione' - countess, model and secret agent


Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Alberto Marvelli - Rimini's Good Samaritan

Heroic deeds helped victims of bombing raids

Alberto Marvelli devoted his life to serving his community
Alberto Marvelli devoted his life to
serving his community
Alberto Marvelli, who came to be seen as a modern day Good Samaritan after risking his life repeatedly to help the victims of devastating air raids in the Second World War, was born on this day in 1918 in Ferrara.

He died in 1946 at the age of only 28 when he was struck by a truck while riding his bicycle but in his short life identified himself to many as a true hero.

He was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 2004.

Marvelli's acts of heroism occurred mainly in Rimini, his adopted home town, which suffered heavy bombing from the Allies due to its proximity to the Gothic or Green Line, a wide belt of German defensive fortifications that ran across the whole peninsula from La Spezia to the Adriatic coast.

As well as giving aid and comfort to the wounded and dying and to those whose homes and possessions had been destroyed, Marvelli also rescued many Rimini citizens from trains destined for concentration camps.

Alberto was the second of six children born to Luigi Marvelli and Maria Mayr. Growing up, he was set a powerful example by his mother, who always kept open house for the poor and regularly gave away food intended for her own family.

In June 1930 the Marvellis moved to Rimini on the Adriatic coast and Alberto, having already embraced the strong values instilled in him by his devoutly Catholic parents, began to attend the Salesian Oratory and Catholic Action group.

Alberto Marvelli was a prominent member of the group Catholic Action, becoming president at the age of 18
Alberto Marvelli was a prominent member of the group
Catholic Action, becoming president at the age of 18
He had a wide social circle - his friends included Federico Fellini, who would go on to become famous as a film director - and enjoyed sport, in particular cycling. Yet he also maintained a strict observance of the rituals of his faith, which included Mass every morning, Holy Communion, and 30 minutes each of meditation and spiritual reading every day.

He was held in such high esteem that he was elected president of Catholic Action for the whole of Italy at the age of just 18.

Marvelli attended Bologna University and graduated in engineering in 1941.  He moved to Turin, where he began working for Fiat, but left after only a few weeks to do military service in Trieste.  In the event, he returned to Rimini after only a few months after he was exempted on account of three of his brothers being already in service

By then he was effectively head of the family following the unexpected death of his father and took a teaching job at a local high school, devoting his spare time to helping the sick and poor on behalf of Catholic Action.

When the bombing of Rimini began in earnest in 1944, ahead of the Battle of Rimini in which the Allies achieved a decisive victory, the Marvelli family moved inland to the village of Vergiano.

German soldiers in Rimini in 1944 before being driven  out by the Allies at the Battle of Rimini
German soldiers in Rimini in 1944 before being driven
out by the Allies at the Battle of Rimini
With each report of new air raids, however, Alberto would insist on taking his bicycle and riding the 8km into Rimini to lend assistance to the clear-up operations, giving no thought to his own safety, often arriving with bombs still dropping.

He bought food, clothing, mattresses and blankets with his own money or money he had collected, using his bicycle to distribute it to those in need. Many times, it is said, he would return to Vergiano having given away his bicycle and even the shoes on his feet.

During the German occupation, he made repeated journeys from Vergiano to the nearby village of Santarcangelo, sneaking past security at the railway station and breaking open the doors of carriages into which Jews and others had been herded for deportation to the concentration camps, saving many lives in the process, at grave risk of his own.

He helped many refugees reach the safety of San Marino by arranging transportation to the nearby republic, which remained neutral during the conflict.  When he was beatified in 2004, San Marino issued some stamps commemorating his life.

Once the war was over, the interim authorities entrusted Marvelli with the allocation of housing. Within a few months, he was appointed to Rimini's town council as an alderman and was put in charge of civil engineering as the city began to rebuild.

He also opened a soup kitchen for the poor and, as co-founder of Italian Workers' Catholic Action, formed a cooperative for construction workers.

Marvelli had not expressed a strong interest in politics previously but he became convinced he could make a difference and joined the Christian Democrats.

San Marino commemorated Marvelli with a set of stamps
San Marino commemorated Marvelli with a set of stamps
He planned to stand in local elections and appeared to have considerable support and respect, even from the Communists, whose ideology he openly criticized. He was seen by all sides as an honest candidate dedicated to the well-being of the community.

Sadly, Marvelli never had the chance to serve.  Cycling to a party meeting on a poorly lit road on the evening of October 5, 1946, the day before polling, he was run over by an army truck and died a few hours later without regaining consciousness.

Voting was under way as news of his death spread throughout the city. Many citizens still voted for him, to express their faith in him and respect for him, and he was posthumously elected. Afterwards, his mother agreed to serve in his place.

He was buried in the Church of Sant' Agostino in Rimini.  The Catholic Church has honoured him by marking October 5 as a feast day in his name.

A square at the end of Viale Tripoli has been renamed Piazza Alberto Marvelli in his honour, while the Alberto Marvelli Foundation set up in his name helps fund projects dedicated to the community including the Alberto Marvelli Institute, a comprehensive school in Rimini.

The Grand Hotel on the seafront at Rimini
The Grand Hotel on the seafront at Rimini
Travel tip:

Rimini's history as a tourist resort began in the mid-19th century with the construction of the Kursaal, a seafront bathing establishment that doubled as a prestigious venue for social events.  It became the symbol of Rimini's Belle Époque, the period of European history before the First World War, which also saw the town's first major hotel, the Grand Hotel, built near the beach.  Its major development as a resort came after the Second World War and the city now has a population close to 150,000.

Travel tip:

Ferrara, the city of Marvelli's birth, is notable for being a combination of Medieval and Renaissance architecture, its history bound up with that of the d'Este family, whose castle has dominated the centre of the city since the late 14th century.  The most significant legacy of the city's thriving status in the Middle Ages is the Cattedrale di San Giorgio, built in the 1100s, which has a facade that blends Romanesque style in the lower section with Gothic in the upper.

More reading:

Agostina Livia Pietrantoni - nurse whose death brought Rome to a standstill

Saint Giustina - the girl from Padua slain for preaching Christianity

Pope John Paul II - first non-Italian to hold office for 455 years

Also on this day:

1858: The death of Benedetta Cambiagio Frassinello - Nun who battled for educational rights for girls


Monday, 20 March 2017

Fulco di Verdura - jeweller

Exclusive brand favoured by stars and royalty

Fulco di Verdura, pictured in around 1939 at the time of launching the Verdura business in New York
Fulco di Verdura, pictured in around 1939 at the time
of launching the Verdura business in New York
The man behind the exclusive jewellery brand Verdura was born Fulco Santostefano della Cerda, Duke of Verdura, on this day in 1898 in Palermo.

Usually known as Fulco di Verdura, he founded the Verdura company in 1939, when he opened a shop on Fifth Avenue in New York and became one of the premier jewellery designers of the 20th century.

Well connected through his own heritage and through his friendship with the songwriter Cole Porter, Verdura found favour with royalty and with movie stars.

Among his clients were the Duchess of Windsor - the former socialite Wallis Simpson - and stars such as Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Rita Hayworth, Katharine Hepburn, Paulette Godard, Millicent Rogers and Marlene Dietrich.

Although Verdura died in 1978, the company lives on and continues to specialise in using large, brightly coloured gemstones.

The Oppenheimer Blue, the most expensive diamond ever sold at auction
The Oppenheimer Blue, the most expensive
diamond ever sold at auction
The most expensive gemstone ever sold at auction, the so-called Oppenheimer Blue diamond, was set in a ring designed by Verdura. It changed hands at Christie's in Geneva for $50.6 million (£34.7 million) in May 2016.

The last to bear the now defunct Sicilian title of Duke of Verdura, Fulco grew up in aristocratic surroundings largely unchanged since the 18th century.  The novel The Leopard, written by his cousin, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, is said to depict his eccentric and artistic family.

However, his family were not so wealthy that he could live a life of leisure and it became clear he would need to find a profession appropriate to his stature in society and lucrative enough to fund the lifestyle he wished to maintain.

He wanted to be an artist but his destiny was shaped by meeting Linda and Cole Porter in Palermo in 1919.  They became friends and it was through the Porters that Di Ventura met Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel in Venice in 1925, when they were both guests at a party hosted by the American couple.

Chanel invited him to Paris, initially as a textile designer, but then asked him to update the settings of jewellery she had been given by a number of former lovers and it became clear where his talents lay. They began an eight-year collaboration when Chanel made him head designer of Chanel jewellery.

Cole Porter became a friend and financial backer of Fulco di Verdura
Cole Porter became a friend and financial
backer of Fulco di Verdura
It was not long after Fulco started working for Chanel that he designed the Maltese Cross Cuffs that are now considered the hallmark of the Verdura brand.

Fulco left Chanel in 1934 and moved to the United States, where Diana Vreeland, a Chanel client based in New York, introduced him to the jeweller Paul Flato, with whom he opened a boutique in Hollywood.

He set up on his own in 1939, opening a small salon called Verdura in New York at 712 Fifth Avenue, with the financial backing of Cole Porter and Vincent Astor. His designs were influenced by both his love of nature as a child in Sicily and his admiration for the art of the Renaissance.

His long list of celebrity clients prompted the New York Times to dub him "America's Crown Jeweller".

In 1941, Di Verdura collaborated with Salvador Dalí on a collection of jewellery designs and in the same year designed “Night and Day” cufflinks for Cole Porter, inspired by the lyrics of the hit song.

He continued to work in the United States until 1973, when he sold his stake in the Verdura business to Joseph Alfano, his business partner, and moved to London, where he would focus on painting. He died there five years later at the age of 80.

Verdura logo
In 1985, Alfano sold the company to Ward Landrigan, a former head of Sotheby's American jewellery department. Landrigan decided to preserve the Verdura aesthetic and made jewellery the same way Fulco had, using many of the same jewellers Fulco used.

Landrigan's son, Nico Landrigan, joined Verdura in 2003, becoming President of the company in 2009.

Today, Verdura continues to appear on the pages of the top fashion magazines and celebrity clients include Sarah Jessica Parker, Brooke Shields, Anne Hathaway and Cameron Diaz.

Most of Fulco's designs were from individual commissions, yet he produced an estimated 5,000 items of jewellery during his lifetime.

Travel tip:

If there is one attraction in Palermo that most visitors would describe as a must-see it is the Palatine Chapel, the royal chapel of the Norman kings of Sicily situated on the ground floor of the Palazzo Reale.  The mosaics of the chapel are of unrivalled elegance, noted for subtle changes in colour and luminance. The mosaics of the transept, dating from the 1140s and attributed to Byzantine artists and include an illustrated scene, along the north wall, of St. John in the desert. The rest of the mosaics, dated to the 1160s or the 1170s, feature Latin rather than Greek inscriptions.

The Palazzo Valguarnera-Gangi in Palermo
The Palazzo Valguarnera-Gangi in Palermo
Travel tip:

Fulco di Verdura was a cousin of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, author of the novel The Leopard, much of which is set in Palermo.  The director Luchino Visconti, who made a film of the book, chose for the magnificent ball at the end of the book the Palazzo Valguarnera-Gangi in Piazza Croce dei Vespri, a palace designed in Baroque style.

More reading:

Guccio Gucci - the lift boy who went from carrying bags to designing them for the rich and famous

Miuccia Prada's journey from the Communist Party to head of family fashion empire

Gianfranco Ferré's quest to make clothes for real women

Also on this day:


Sunday, 19 March 2017

Benito Jacovitti - cartoonist

Multiple comic characters loved by generations 

Benito Jacovitti
Benito Jacovitti

Benito Jacovitti, who would become Italy's most famous cartoonist, was born on this day in 1923 in the Adriatic coastal town of Termoli.

Jacovitti drew for a number of satirical magazines and several newspapers but also produced much work aimed at children and young adults.

His characters became the constant companions of generations of schoolchildren for more than 30 years via the pages of Diario Vitt, the school diary produced by the publishers of the Catholic comic magazine Il Vittorioso, which had a huge readership among teenagers and young adults, and for which Jacovitti drew from 1939 until it closed in 1969.

Jacovitti gave life to such characters as "the three Ps" - Pippo, Pertica and Pallo - as well as Chicchiriccì and Jack Mandolino via their cartoon adventures in Il Vittorioso, introduced Zorry Kid, a parody of Zorro, through a later association with children's journal Il Corriere del Picoli, and the cowboy Cocco Bill, who emerged during his 10-year stint as cartoonist for the daily newspaper, Il Giorno.

Cocco Bill, the character Jacovitti created during his years working for Il Giorno
Cocco Bill, the character Jacovitti created
during his years working for Il Giorno
Born Benito Franco Iacovitti, he was the son of a railway worker.  Both his parents had Albanian origins. His first names stemmed from his father's fascination with the powerful political figures of the time.

Benito showed the first evidence of his artistic talent as a small child. He would draw comic stories on pavements in Termoli at the age of six.  The family moved to Macerata in Marche, where Jacovitti attended art school from the age of 11, and then to Florence, where he enrolled at the Art Institute as a 16-year-old.

It was there that he acquired the nickname lisca di pesce (fishbone) on account of his rather scrawny physique. He adopted the nickname as his signature.

He launched his career with the Florentine satirical magazine Il Brivido, where he decided he preferred his second name to begin with a 'J' rather than an 'I'.  The work with Il Vittorioso came soon afterwards and made him a household name.

Notable for his sense of the absurd, Jacovitti drew figures that inevitably had huge noses and gigantic feet and were sometimes quite grotesque. He has cited Elzie Crisler Segar, creator of Popeye, as one of his influences.

Though he became known for the characters and storylines he invented for his young audience, Jacovitti continued to maintain his skills as a satirist, drawing for the magazine Il Travaso for much of the 1950s under the signature of 'Franz'.

The Pippo cartoons with Il Vittorioso  established Jacovitti's popularity
The Pippo cartoons with Il Vittorioso
established Jacovitti's popularity
During his time with Il Travaso, he collaborated with the film director Federico Fellini on an anti-communist strip that was very popular.

Controversially, he also worked on Kamasultra, a comic book parody of the Hindu adult text the Kamasutra, which in some eyes somewhat tarnished Jacovitti's reputation.

He began to draw for newspapers in the 1950s, first for Quotidiano and, from 1956 to 1966, for Il Giorno, the national daily based in Milan.

Jacovitti's work was published in many other periodicals in Italy and abroad and he had commercial companies queuing up to use his characters in advertising for their products. They appeared in commercials for Eldorado ice cream, Fiorucci salami, Teodoro oils and Fiat cars among others.

During his career, Jacovitti created more than 60 characters and produced around 150 books, making him one of the most prolific and original artists in comic book history.

He was a great admirer of Carlo Collodi, the creator of Pinocchio, and illustrated a number of editions of the famous story during his career.

Awarded the title of Knight Order of Merit of the Italian Republic by the President, Oscar Luigi Scalfaro, in 1994, he died in Rome in 1997 at the age of 74.

Travel tip:

Termoli, once primarily a fishing port but now a popular tourist resort, particularly with Italian families who flock to its sandy beaches, is notable for the Borgo Antico, an historic old town that sits on a promontory surrounded by walls which, on one side, drop into the sea.  An 11th century castle stands guard at the entrance and many of the houses are painted in pastel colours.  The Cathedral of St Mary of the Purification, built in the 12th and 13th centuries, is an example of Apulian Romanesque design. Contained within are the remains of the town's two patron saints, Bassus of Lucera and Timothy.

Macerata hosts the Sferisterio Opera Festival every summer
Macerata hosts the Sferisterio Opera Festival every summer
Travel tip:

The walled city of Macerata in Marche is not among Italy's mainstream tourist destinations yet offers much to charm the visitor with its hill-town characteristics and maze of cobbled streets.  At the heart of the city, in the pretty Piazza della Libertà, is the Loggia dei Mercanti with its two-tier arcades, dating from the Renaissance. There are several beautiful palaces and a university that is among the oldest it Italy, established in 1290.  Each July and August the city hosts the Sferisterio Opera Festival, one of the most important dates on the Italian opera calendar, which is held in the 2,500 seat open-air Arena Sferisterio, a huge neoclassical arena built in the 1820s. Most of the world's great opera singers have performed there, attracted by its perfect acoustics, and it has been credited with staging some of the finest productions in the history of numerous regularly performed works, including Ken Russell's direction of Puccini's La Bohème in 1984.

More reading:

How Carlo Collodi's Pinocchio stories carried hidden meanings

Giacomo Puccini - the opera genius who inherited Verdi's baton

Giovanni Guareschi - satirical magazine editor who created Don Camillo

Also on this day:

1943: The birth of Mario Monti, the technocrat prime minister known as 'Super Mario'

(Picture credit: Sferisterio Festival by Florian Prischl via Wikimedia Commons)


Saturday, 18 March 2017

The Five Days of Milan

Citizens rebel to drive out ruling Austrians

A painting by an unknown artist that shows fighting between Austrian troops and Milanese citizens
A painting by an unknown artist that shows fighting between
Austrian troops and Milanese citizens 
The Five Days of Milan, one of the most significant episodes of the Risorgi- mento, began on this day in 1848 as the citizens of Milan rebel- led against Austrian rule. 

More than 400 Milanese citizens were killed and a further 600 wounded but after five days of street battles the Austrian commander, Marshall Josef Radetzky, withdrew his 13,000 troops from the city.

The 'Cinque Giornate' uprising sparked the First Italian War of Independence between the Kingdom of Sardinia and the Austrian Empire.

Much of northern Italy was under Austrian rule in the early part of the 19th century and they maintained a harsh regime. Elsewhere, governments were introducing social reform, especially in Rome but also in Sicily, Salerno and Naples after riots against the Bourbon King Ferdinand II.

Ferdinand, ruler of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, and Charles Albert (Carlo Alberto) of Savoy, in the Kingdom of Sardinia, adopted a new constitution, limiting the power of the monarchy, and Pope Pius IX in the Papal States followed suit a little later.

Marshall Josef Radetzky and his troops were driven out of Milan
Marshall Josef Radetzky and his troops
were driven out of Milan
The response of the Austrians was to seek a still tighter grip on their territories in Lombardy-Venetia, where they imposed tax increases on the citizens and sent out tax collectors, supported by the army, to ensure that everybody paid.

There was a warning of what lay ahead in January 1848, when Milanese rebels organised a boycott of gambling and of tobacco, which were government monopolies and a major source of revenue.

Fighting broke out between rebels and Austrian soldiers, who ultimately quelled the trouble by charging the crowd with swords and bayonets.

Peace was restored but trouble exploded again in March, when news reached Italy that riots in Vienna were threatening to overthrow the Austrian prime minister, Klemens von Metternich.  An anti-Austrian movement quickly spread through the city and gained widespread support.  The Austrian garrison mobilised in response under the vastly experienced Radetzky, whose tactical astuteness had not diminished, even though he was in his 81st year.

Yet such was the fierce passion among the local people to rid themselves of Austrian rule, with even priests joining the street battles and farmers from the surrounding countryside arriving in numbers to give their support, that the Austrians, weakened after Radetzky had been forced to send some of his troops to Vienna, sought an armistice.

When it was rejected, Radetsky felt obliged to act to minimise his own losses and at the end of the five days, on the evening of March 22, he began a withdrawal to the Quadrilatero, the a four-cornered area between Milan and Venice guarded by fortresses at Verona, Legnano, Mantua and Peschiera del Garda.

There is a statue of Carlo Cattaneo on Via Santa Margherita in central Milan
There is a statue of Carlo Cattaneo on Via
Santa Margherita in central Milan
A provisional government of Milan was formed and presided over by the podestà (mayor), Gabrio Casati, and a council of war under the political writer, Carlo Cattaneo.

The following day, March 23, Charles Albert of Savoy declared war on Austria, launching what became known and the First War of Italian Independence.

As a memorial to the victory of the rebels, the official newspaper of Cattaneo's temporary government was given the name Il 22 marzo (March 22). A monument to the uprising by the sculptor Giuseppe Grandi was built at what is now Porta Vittoria.

Soon after the Milan riots, an insurrection in Venice led by Daniele Manin, a lawyer, also succeeded in ejecting Austrian forces and a new Republic of San Marco was proclaimed.

However, the First War of Italian Independence, which lasted a year, ended in victory for the Austrians, who won decisive battles at Custoza and Novara, resulting in the Kingdom of Lombardy-Venetia being returned to Austrian control.

Piazza Cinque Giornate at Porta Vittoria commemorates the Milan uprising of 1848 in which  400 citizens died
Piazza Cinque Giornate at Porta Vittoria commemorates
the Milan uprising of 1848 in which  400 citizens died
Travel tip:

Formerly known as Porta Tosa, the eastern gate in the old Spanish Walls of Milan, Porta Vittoria was the first strategic position to be taken by the Milanese rebels during the Five Days. It was renamed Porta Vittoria in 1861, when Italian unification was completed. The gate was demolished in the late 19th century and an obelisk designed by Giuseppe Grandi erected in its place and inaugurated on March 18, 1895. The square is now called Piazza Cinque Giornate. Nearby streets and squares are named after heroes and prominent events of the Risorgimento and the Five Days.

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Travel tip:

The significance of Carlo Cattaneo in the history of Milan is commemorated in the Carlo Cattaneo Institute of Higher Education in Piazza Vetra in the historic Corrobbio district, which has Roman origins, to the south-west of the city.  Cattaneo, strongly republican in his politics, was a philosopher and writer and a former member of Carbonari, a network of secret revolutionary groups.  There is a statue of Cattaneo in Via Santa Margherita in central Milan, close to the Duomo and the Galleria.

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More reading:

Why Giuseppe Mazzini was the ideological inspiration for Italian unification

The end of the Venetian Republic

Victor Emmanuel II - first king of the new Kingdom of Italy

Also on this day: 

1944: The last time Vesuvius erupted

(Picture credits: Carlo Cattaneo monument by Giovanni Dall'Orto; Piazza Cinque Giornate by Arbalete; via Wikimedia Commons)


Friday, 17 March 2017

Giovanni Trapattoni - football coach

His seven Serie A titles is unequalled achievement

Giovanni Trapattoni during his time as Juventus coach
Giovanni Trapattoni during his
time as Juventus coach
Giovanni Trapattoni, the former Juventus and Internazionale coach who is one of only four coaches to have won the principal league titles of four different European countries, was born on this day in 1939 in Cusano Milanino, a suburb on the northern perimeter of Milan.

The most successful club coach in the history of Serie A, he won seven titles, six with Juventus and one with Inter.  His nearest challengers in terms of most Italian domestic championships are Fabio Capello and Marcello Lippi, each of whom has five Scudetti to his name.

In addition, Trapattoni has also won the German Bundesliga with Bayern Munich, the Portuguese Primera Liga with Benfica and the Austrian Bundesliga with Red Bull Salzburg, with whom he secured his 10th league title all told in 2007.

Current Manchester United boss Jose Mourinho is among the other three managers to have won titles in four countries.  He has been successful in Portugal, England, Italy and Spain.

Alongside former Bayern Munich coach Udo Lattek, Trapattoni is the only coach to have won all three major European club competitions - the European Cup, the UEFA Cup and the now defunct European Cup-Winners' Cup - and the only one to do it with the same club.  With Juventus, he also won the European Super Cup and the Intercontinental Cup.

During a career in the dugout that spanned four decades, Trapattoni - often referred to as 'Il Trap' or simply 'Trap' -  was in charge at nine different clubs, including five in Italy.  He has also tasted international management twice, with the Italian national side and with the Republic of Ireland.

Trapattoni (right) and his assistant Marco Tardelli on the bench with the Republic of Ireland
Trapattoni (right) and his assistant Marco Tardelli on the
bench with the Republic of Ireland
He built his achievements around a method that combined elements of 'catenaccio' - for many years the defensive foundation of Italy's best teams - and the 'total football' pioneered by the Dutch coach Rinus Michels in the 1970s. His biggest regret was that he could not translate it to success with the Azzurri after he succeeded Dino Zoff as Italy coach in 2000.

Trapattoni's team qualified unbeaten for the 2002 World Cup finals in Japan and South Korea but in the finals were knocked out in the round of 16 in controversial circumstances by the co-hosts, South Korea, when a number of decisions by Ecuadorian referee Byron Moreno went against Italy, leading many Italian commentators and Trapattoni himself to suspect a conspiracy to keep the Koreans in the tournament.

He also led them to the finals of Euro 2004 but the Azzurri this time failed to survive the group stage, their fate sealed when the final group match, between Denmark and Sweden, ended in a draw, which resulted in Italy's elimination. Trapattoni was replaced by Lippi as coach soon afterwards.

Trapattoni entered coaching after a massively successful playing career with AC Milan.

Trapattoni with goalkeeper Fabio Cudicini and coach Nereo Rocco after the 1968 Cup-Winners' Cup Final
Trapattoni with goalkeeper Fabio Cudicini and coach
Nereo Rocco after the 1968 Cup-Winners' Cup Final
A central defender or defensive midfielder in the Milan team in which Gianni Rivera was creative star, Trapattoni won two Serie A titles and two European Cups during his 12 years with the rossoneri, also winning the Cup-Winners' Cup, the European Super Cup and the Intercontinental Cup.

Apart from one season with Varese at the end of his career, he played only for AC Milan. It was there that he began life as a coach, looking after the youth team and, for one season, the senior team before Juventus took him to Turin, where he enjoyed immediate success, leading his new team to the Serie A title in his first year in charge.

After four titles in his first six seasons with Juve, he took the bianconeri to the European Cup final in 1983, where they lost to Hamburg.  Two years later, he won the European Cup, although the victory over reigning champions Liverpool in Brussels was rendered hollow by the crowd violence at the Heysel Stadium, where 39 fans - mainly Italians - were killed when a wall collapsed.

Following a decade with Juve that brought six Serie A titles, two Coppe Italia and all the European glory, Trapattoni moved to Inter, where he won his seventh Serie A crown, then back to Juve, adding the 1993 UEFA Cup to his long list of silverware, before venturing abroad for the first time, with Bayern Munich.

Giovanni Trapattoni
Giovanni Trapattoni
He left Munich after just one season to become coach at Cagliari, where he was sacked for the first time in his career in 1996, before a triumphant second spell in Germany, in which he led Munich to the Bundesliga title in 1997.  Next stop was Fiorentina, whom he took into the Champions League.

After his disappointing four years in charge of the national side, Trapattoni's next five seasons took him to Benfica, Stuttgart and Salzburg.  After winning his ninth and 10th national titles, he returned to international football in slightly unexpected circumstances, taking over as coach of the Republic of Ireland team in 2008.

His biggest achievement with the Irish was qualification for the Euro 2012, hosted by Poland and Ukraine, although in some ways it was small consolation for failing to reach the World Cup finals in 2010, when Ireland earned a play-off against France only to be beaten by a contentious goal from William Gallas in the second leg in Paris after Thierry Henry handled the ball twice in the build-up.

Away from football, Trapattoni, who came from a working class background, has been married for 53 years to Paola. They have two children and a number of grandchildren.

A religious man, he is a follower of the Catholic institution Opus Dei and has been known to sprinkle holy water on the field before a game.  In 2010, he realised a lifetime's ambition by coaching the Vatican City team for a match against an Italian police team.

Travel tip:

Although the history of the town of Cusano goes back to the fourth century, the 20th century brought a change in its character due to the development of the garden city of Milanino, the first to be built in Italy along the lines of those that began to appear in England at the end of the 19th century. With the support of a co-operative movement founded by Luigi Buffoli, Milanino was created to meet the housing needs of the middle class, consisting of elegant villas and cottages, in Art Nouveau and eclectic styles, interspersed with numerous green spaces, which are a particular rarity in the urbanised northern outskirts of Milan. The area became known as Cusano Milanino in 1915.

Milan's stunning Gothic cathedral
Milan's stunning Gothic cathedral
Travel tip:

Milan, where Trapattoni spent almost his entire playing career, is to many a more appropriate city to be the capital of Italy than Rome.  The global capital of fashion and design, it is also home to Italy's stock exchange, a financial hub and a city with a wealth of culture and history. The striking Gothic Duomo di Milano is one of the finest cathedrals in Europe, there are numerous prestigious art galleries and the Santa Maria delle Grazie convent houses Leonardo da Vinci’s mural The Last Supper.  The city has one of the world's most important opera houses in Teatro alla Scala and two of Europe's leading football clubs in AC Milan, for whom Trapattoni played and coached, and Internazionale, where he coached.

More reading:

Marcello Lippi - Italy's 2006 World Cup winning coach

How Gianni Rivera moved from football into politics

Altafini, 1963, and Italy's first taste of European Cup glory

Also on this day:

(Pic credits: Trapattoni and Tardelli from Michael Kranewitter/FIFA; 3rd Trapattoni pic by; Milan Cathedral by Steffen Schmitz; all via Wikimedia Commons)


Thursday, 16 March 2017

Bernardo Bertolucci - film director

Caused outrage with Last Tango in Paris

Bernardo Bertolucci
Bernardo Bertolucci
The controversial film maker Bernardo Bertolucci was born on this day in 1940 in Parma.

Bertolucci won an Oscar for best director as The Last Emperor picked up an impressive nine Academy Awards in 1988 but tends to be remembered more for the furore that surrounded his 1972 movie Last Tango in Paris.

Last Tango in Paris, starring Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider, caused outrage for its portrayal of sexual violence and emotional turmoil and was banned in Italy.

Although the storm died down over time, it blew up again in 2007 when Schneider, who was only 19 when the film was shot, claimed she felt violated after one particularly graphic scene because she had not been told everything that would happen.  Schneider died from cancer in 2011.

The controversy has overshadowed what has otherwise been an outstanding career, his movies placing him in the company of Federico Fellini, Michelangelo Antonioni, Luchino Visconti and Franco Zeffirelli among the greatest Italian directors of all time.

As a young man, Bertolucci wanted to become a poet, inspired by his father, Atillio, who was a poet as well as an art historian.

He moved to Rome to study modern literature at Sapienza University yet it was his father's part-time occupation as a film critic that was to shape his career.

Marlon Brando in a scene from Last Tango in Paris
Marlon Brando in a scene from Last Tango in Paris
He had helped Pier Paolo Pasolini find a publisher for his first novel and Pasolini in turn took on Bernardo as his first assistant when he began his film directing career with Accattone in 1961.  It was not long afterwards that Bertolucci quit university and at the age of 22, in 1962, he directed his first movie, La commare secca, with a screenplay by Pasolini and produced by Tonino Cervi.

Last Tango came 10 years later, by which time Bertolucci was beginning to acquire a reputation as a director of talent, having attracted particular acclaim for his 1970 film, The Conformist, based on a novel by Alberto Moravia.

It was Last Tango that thrust him into the spotlight, however.  Though there was an Oscar nomination, it was overshadowed by the backlash of moral outrage.  The Italian authorities, as well as ordering initially that all copies of the film should be destroyed - an appeal court later allowed three to be saved - launched a prosecution for obscenity against Bertolucci, who was given a four-month suspended jail sentence and a five-year revoking of his civil rights.

Nonetheless, his career moved to another level.  He made his comeback in 1976 with 1900, an epic that ran to five hours and 17 minutes in its uncut version, telling the story of two men from different ends of the social spectrum in Bertolucci's native Emilia-Romagna, set against the background of political turmoil in Italy in the first half of the 20th century.  Boasting a cast that include Robert De Niro, Gérard Depardieu, Donald Sutherland and Burt Lancaster, 1900 was hailed as a masterpiece.

A publicity poster for Bertolucci's acclaimed 1976 epic tale, 1900
A publicity poster for Bertolucci's
acclaimed 1976 epic tale, 1900
More success followed with La Luna and Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man before The Last Emperor, his British-Italian biographical film about Puyi, the last emperor of China before the People's Republic of China imposed communist rule.  The first western feature film for which the producers were authorized to film in the Forbidden City in Beijing, it won nine Academy Awards, including best picture and Bertolucci's best director.   The Last Emperor marked the beginning of his working relationship with the British producer, Jeremy Thomas.

Although hampered by serious back problems that now mean he is increasingly wheelchair-bound, Bertolucci continued to work into his 70s.  In 2007, he received the Golden Lion Award at the Venice Film Festival for his life's work, and in 2011 the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival.

Married to Clare Peploe, a writer who worked on the screenplay of Antonioni's 1970 classic Zabriskie Point, Bertolucci is a former supporter of the Italian Communist Party.  He was awarded a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6925 Hollywood Boulevard in Hollywood, California on November 19, 2013.

Parma's cathedral and octagonal baptistery
Parma's cathedral and octagonal baptistery
Travel tip:

Bertolucci's home city of Parma suffers a little from living in the shadow of Modena and Bologna, both of which have achieved greater fame.  Yet the home of prosciutto di Parma and parmigiano reggiano is an elegantly wealthy city with a virtually car free centre, a host of fine churches - including the Romanesque cathedral and baptistery and the Sanctuary of Santa Maria della Steccata - and some beautiful palaces.

Travel tip

Emilia-Romagna is one of the wealthiest regions in Europe, let alone Italy. Its capital, Bologna, is the home of the University of Bologna, the oldest university in the world, while the region is a major centre for food and car production. It is the home of companies such as Ferrari, Lamborghini, Maserati, Pagani, De Tomaso and Ducati, and a thriving tourist trade based around the popular coastal resorts of Cervia, Cesenatico, Rimini and Riccione.

More reading:

The brilliant legacy of Federico Fellini

How Shakespeare adaptations made Zeffirelli a household name

Why Francesco Rosi can be counted among Italian cinema's greats

Also on this day:

1978: The terrorist kidnapping of former prime minister Aldo Moro


Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Giuseppe Mezzofanti - hyperpolyglot

Roman Catholic Cardinal could speak 38 languages

A portrait of Giuseppe Mezzofanti painted  in around 1838 in Bologna
A portrait of Giuseppe Mezzofanti painted
in around 1838 in Bologna
The death occurred in Rome on this day in 1849 of Cardinal Giuseppe Caspar Mezzofanti, a prodigiously talented academic renowned for his command of multiple foreign languages.

Defined as a hyperpolyglot - someone who is fluent in six languages or more - Mezzofanti is said to have full command of at least 38.

The majority were European, Mediterranean or Middle Eastern languages - mainstream and regional - but he was also said to be fluent in Chinese languages, Russian, plus Hindi and Gujarati.

His fame was such that he became something of an international celebrity, although he never actually left Italy, living the early part of his life in his home city of Bologna, before moving to Rome. 

Visiting dignitaries from all over the world would ask to be introduced to him, ready to be awestruck as he slipped effortlessly into their native tongue.

There is an abundance of stories illustrating his extraordinary gift.  As a boy, working in the workshop in Bologna of his father, Francis, a carpenter, he is said to have overheard from a neighbouring building a priest giving lessons in Latin and Greek and later recalled every word, despite never having seen a Latin or Greek book.

The library at Bologna University is named after Mezzofanti
In another famous anecdote, it is said that Pope Gregory XVI once arranged an audience with Mezzofanti for a group of international students, who asked questions of the Cardinal in their own languages, often speaking over each other, and reacted with amazement as he responded to each student in turn, switching from one language to another with barely a pause.

One of his grimmer duties as a priest was to listen to the confessions of foreign criminals sentenced to death and another story has it that, on a rare occasion when he found himself with no knowledge of the native tongue of two prisoners condemned for piracy, he asked for a stay of execution for the pair and returned the following day able to understand their every word and offer words of consolation in return.

For all his admirers, Mezzofanti has attracted just as many sceptics, particularly in recent years, with some modern experts in linguistics writing off his revered talents as a myth.

It has been argued that 19th-century linguists would have been described as fluent on the strength of their reading and translating, whereas the definition of fluency today requires the ability to communicate orally to a very high standard.

The beautiful Apostolic Library at the University of  Bologna
The beautiful Sistine Hall of the Vatican Library
Mezzofanti's doubters suggest that the nature of exchanges between a Cardinal and foreign dignitaries in his time would have been fairly superficial, consisting of diplomatic formalities and not much more.  They argue that Mezzofanti would rarely have been required to stretch himself beyond basic vocabulary.

Furthermore, they points to studies that suggest no hyperpolyglot can maintain more than seven or eight languages to a high standard at any one time because the limitations of working memory.

However, there is some evidence that hyperpolyglots are biologically or genetically predisposed to be extraordinary feats of language assimilation because the areas of their brain responsible for such skills are more developed than normal.

It has also been suggested that polyglots are better at grasping languages because of an ability to identify patterns in a language based on knowledge gleaned from other languages.

Mezzofanti was certainly a gifted individual with a flair for learning.

He was appointed Professor of Arabic at the University of Bologna at the age of just 24 and was ordained as a priest in the same year.

A map from 1799 showing the area of the  Cisalpine Republic (in green)
A map from 1799 showing the area of the
Cisalpine Republic (in green)
Sacked by the University after refusing to swear allegiance to Napoleon's Cisalpine Republic, he returned after its fall to be assistant librarian of the Institute of Bologna, and soon afterwards was reinstated as professor of Oriental languages and of Greek.

Mezzofanti stayed in that post for the most part until he left Bologna to go to Rome in 1831 as a member of the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith (Congregatio de Propaganda Fide), the Catholic Church's governing body for missionary activities.  In Rome he was created a Cardinal.

In 1833, he succeeded Angelo Mai as Custodian-in-Chief of the Vatican Library. 

Capable of remembering entire texts after one reading, he is said to have been able to spend many more hours in study than the average person because he could get by on only three hours' sleep per night.

He is said to have kept his language skills fresh by aiming to spend at least some time each day thinking in each of his languages.

Travel tip:

Via Malcontenti, where Mezzofanti was born and grew up, is less than a kilometre to the north of the centre of Bologna, and what remains of it runs parallel with the much more modern Via dell'Indipendenza.  It used to begin at Piazza San Pietro, the site of the cathedral of the same name, but the only stretch in existence today runs from Via Marsala to Via Augusto Righi.

One of the oldest documents in the Vatican Library is the Codex Vaticanus, a fourth century text of the Greek bible
One of the oldest documents in the Vatican Library is the
Codex Vaticanus, a fourth century text of the Greek bible
Travel tip:

Formally established in 1475, the Vatican Library, where Mezzofanti worked until his death at the age of 74, it is one of the oldest libraries in the world and contains one of the most significant collections of historical texts. It contains 1.1 million books, as well as 75,000 handwritten codices. A research library for history, law, philosophy, science and theology, the Vatican Library is open to anyone who can document their qualifications and research needs.  In March, 2014, the Vatican Library began the process of digitising its collection of manuscripts to be made available online, which was expected to take at least four years. Restoration of the library between 2007 and 2010 cost £7.5 million.

More reading:

Agostini Richelmy - the Cardinal who fought for Garibaldi

Giovanni Pico della Mirandola - mystery death of Renaissance intellectual

How Vatican Library became a haven for Mussolini opponent Alcide de Gasperi

Also on this day:


Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Giovanni Schiaparelli - astronomer

Discoveries sparked belief there was life on Mars

Giovanni Schiaparelli, in a photograph taken in Milan in the 1870s
Giovanni Schiaparelli, in a photograph taken
in Milan in the 1870s
The astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli, whose observations in the late 19th century gave rise to decades of popular speculation about possible life on Mars, was born on this day in 1835 in Savigliano, about 60km (37 miles) south of Turin.

Schiaparelli worked for more than 40 years at the Brera Observatory in Milan, most of that time as its director.

It was in 1877 that he made the observations that were to cause so much excitement, a year notable for a particularly favourable 'opposition' of Mars, when Mars, Earth and the Sun all line up so that Mars and the Sun are on directly opposite sides of Earth, making the surface of Mars easier to see.

Oppositions occur every two years or so but because the orbit of Mars is more elliptical than Earth's there are points at which it is much closer to the Sun than at others.  An opposition that coincides with one of these points is much rarer, probably taking place only once in a lifetime, if that.

Schiaparelli was deeply fascinated with Mars and knew that this opposition gave him the opportunity of his lifetime to make a detailed survey of the red planet and made every effort to ensure his vision and his senses were as sharp as they could be when he put his eye to the telescope.

Schiaparelli's map of the surface of Mars
Schiaparelli's map of the surface of Mars
In his memoirs, he noted that he avoided "everything which could affect the nervous system, from narcotics to alcohol, and especially... coffee, which I found to be exceedingly prejudicial to the accuracy of observation."

In previous research, Schiaparelli had noted the appearance of 'seas' and 'continents' but during the 1877 opposition he was convinced he could see a network of links between his so-called 'seas' which he described as "canali".

Schiaparelli used the word to indicate "channels" but in the reports of his findings in the English language press, particularly in the United Kingdom and the United States, the word was translated as "canals".

Coming soon after the construction of the Suez Canal, a a major feat of engineering on Earth, the possibility that Mars had a system of such artificially constructed waterways caused a frenzy of excitement, giving rise to much hypothesis and speculation about there being intelligent life on the planet.

Schiaparelli in a lithograph by Achille Beltrame in  the magazine La Domenica del Corriere
Schiaparelli in a lithograph by Achille Beltrame in
 the magazine La Domenica del Corriere
Among the most enthusiastic supporters of this theory was the American astronomer Percival Lowell, who dedicated much of his life and personal fortune to building on Schiaparelli's work, convinced he could prove that life on Mars did exist.

Later, notably as a result of the work of another Italian astronomer, Vincenzo Cerulli, astronomers developed a consensus that the "canals" were an optical illusion, although the public hung on to the notion of life on Mars until halfway through the 20th century. In 1938, a radio adaptation in the United States of the HG Wells novel, The War of the Worlds, which included simulated news bulletins, caused many listeners to believe that an invasion of Earth by Martians was actually taking place.

The canal hypothesis was not finally laid to rest until spaceflights began in the 1960s and telescopes much more powerful than were available to Schiaparelli and his contemporaries confirmed that his canals simply did not exist.

At the time of the discovery, though, Schiaparelli had been convinced what he was seeing was real and produced detailed maps, showing his 'seas', land masses and numerous channels, that created an image of the surface of Mars that resembled the lagoon and islands of Venice.

Schiaparelli's grave at the Monumental Cemetery in Milan
Schiaparelli's grave at the Monumental Cemetery in Milan
Of his channels, he wrote: "It is [as] impossible to doubt their existence as that of the Rhine on the surface of the Earth."

His hypothesis was that Mars was a planet, like Earth, with seasons and that water was produced by the melting of a polar ice cap.  The system of channels, he suggested, carried this water to other parts of the planet, providing irrigation in the absence of rain. Although he felt these were more likely to have developed naturally, he did not rule out the possibility that some were created artificially.

Educated at the University of Turin, Schiaparelli worked at the Pulkovo Observatory near St Petersburg in Russia from 1859 to 1860 before being appointed to the staff of the Brera Observatory. He was also a senator of the Kingdom of Italy. The fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli was his niece.

He died in Milan in 1910 at the age of 75. He is buried at the city's Monumental Cemetery.

The Piazza Santarosa in Savigliano
The Piazza Santarosa in Savigliano
Travel tip:

Savigliano is a town of some 21,000 people with an industrial heritage based around its iron foundries and locomotive works, but also has silk manufacturers and sugar factories. The feature of the historic centre is the picturesque Piazza Santarosa, surrounded by pleasant arcades. Rail enthusiasts might like the Museo Ferroviario Piemontese, in Via Coloira, which has a collection of steam, diesel and electric locomotives. It is open to the public on Saturday and Sunday all year round and also on Thursdays in the summer.  For more details visit

The Brera Observatory in Milan
The Brera Observatory in Milan
Travel tip:

The Brera Observatory can be found at the historic Palazzo Brera in the centre of Milan, established in 1764 by the Jesuit astronomer Ruggero Boscovich.  The Palazzo is also home to the Accademia di Brera, the city's art academy, and its gallery, the Pinacoteca di Brera; the Orto Botanico di Brera, a botanical garden; and the Biblioteca di Brera library. For more information, visit

More reading:

How Niccolò Zucchi designed one of the earliest telescopes

The 16th century cosmologist burned at the stake for challenging orthodox thinking on God and the universe

Why astronomer Galileo Galilei is called the father of modern science

Also on this day:

1820: The birth of future king Victor Emmanuel II