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.

18 March 2019

18 March

Mount Vesuvius – the 1944 eruption


The last time the volcano was seen to blow its top

Mount Vesuvius, the huge volcano looming over the bay of Naples, erupted on this day in 1944. Vesuvius is the only volcano on mainland Europe to have erupted during the last 100 years and is a constant worry because of its history of explosive eruptions and the large number of people living close by. It is most famous for its eruption in AD 79, which buried the Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum and is believed to have killed thousands of people. There were at least three larger eruptions of Vesuvius before AD 79 and there have been many since, including one in 1631 that buried villages under lava flows and killed about 300 people. The 1944 went on for several days, destroying three villages nearby and about 80 planes belonging to the US Army Air Forces, which were based at an airfield close to Pompeii. Read more...

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The Five Days of Milan


Citizens rebel to drive out ruling Austrians

The Five Days of Milan, one of the most significant episodes of the Risorgimento, began on this day in 1848 as the citizens of Milan rebelled 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, Marshal 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, which ruled much of northern Italy in the early part of the 19th century and they maintained a harsh regime. The Milan riots followed the imposition of tax increases and the use of soldiers to ensure that everybody paid. Soon after the Milan riots, an insurrection in Venice also succeeded in ejecting Austrian forces. By March 23, Charles Albert of Savoy had declared war on Austria. Read more...

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Bobby Solo - pop singer


Sixties star found fame after Sanremo disqualification

Bobby Solo, who was twice winner of Italy's prestigious Sanremo Festival yet had his biggest hit with a song that was disqualified, was born Roberto Satti on this day in 1945 in Rome. Solo won the contest in 1965 and 1969 but it was the controversy over his 1964 entry that thrust him into the spotlight. The format for the competition, which aims to select the best song rather than the best artist, requires each entry to be sung by two artists, one a native Italian, the other an international guest star. In 1964, Solo was paired with the American singer Frankie Laine but was stricken with a throat problem. Rather than withdraw, he sang the song with the help of a backing track, only to be told afterwards that this was against the rules. The song - Una lacrima sul viso (A Tear on Your Face) - was disqualified but attracted such attention that it became the first record in Italy to sell more than a million copies, setting Solo on the way to a highly successful career. Read more...

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17 March 2019

17 March

Gabriele Ferzetti - actor


Starred in classic Italian films as well as Bond movie

The actor Gabriele Ferzetti, best known to international audiences for his role in the 1969 Bond movie On Her Majesty’s Secret Service but in Italy for the Michelangelo Antonioni classic L’Avventura (1960), was born on this day in 1925 in Rome. Rarely idle, he made more than 160 films and appeared in countless TV dramas and was still working at 85 years old.
His intense performance as Antonioni’s wealthy yet unfulfilled playboy opposite Monica Vitti in L’Avventura was the role that identified him most as an actor of considerable talent, yet he was also memorable as the unscrupulous Morton, the railroad magnate who hobbled around on crutches in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), and as Marc Ange-Draco, the sophisticated Mafia boss who joins forces with James Bond in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, which was George Lazenby’s only outing as 007. Read more…

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Giovanni Trapattoni - football coach


His seven Serie A titles is unequalled achievement

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. Trapattoni has also won the German Bundesliga with Bayern Munich, the Portuguese Primeira Liga with Benfica and the Austrian Bundesliga with Red Bull Salzburg. Trapattoni is one of only two coaches 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. Read more…

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Innocenzo Manzetti - inventor


Made prototype telephone 33 years ahead of Bell

The inventor Innocenzo Manzetti, credited by some scientific historians as having been the creator of a forerunner of the telephone many years ahead of his compatriot Antonio Meucci and the Scottish-American Alexander Graham Bell, was born on this day in 1826 in Aosta, in northwest Italy. Manzetti's extraordinary catalogue of inventions included a steam-powered car, a hydraulic water pump, a pendulum watch that would keep going for a whole year and a robot that could play the flute. But he was a man whose creative talents were not allied to business sense.  Like Meucci, a Florentine emigrant to New York who demonstrated a telephone-like device in 1860 - 16 years before Bell was granted the patent - Manzetti did not patent his device and therefore missed out on the fortune that came the way of Bell. Read more…

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Kingdom of Italy proclaimed


First King of Italy calls himself Victor Emmanuel II

The newly-unified Kingdom of Italy was officially proclaimed on this day in 1861 in Turin. The first Italian parliament to meet in the city confirmed Victor Emmanuel as the first King of the new country. It was the monarch's own choice to call himself Victor Emmanuel II, rather than Victor Emmanuel I. This immediately provoked criticism from some factions, who took it as implying that Italy had always been ruled by the House of Savoy.  Victor Emmanuel I, with whom Victor Emmanuel II had ancestral links, had been King of Sardinia - ruled by the Dukes of Savoy - from 1802 until his death in 1824. Victor Emmanuel II had become King of Sardinia in 1849 after his father, Charles Albert, abdicated. The Kingdom of Sardinia is considered to be the legal predecessor to the Kingdom of Italy. Indeed, the new king appointed Count Camillo Benso of Cavour, who had been prime minister of Sardinia-Piedmont, as the first prime minister of the united Italy. Read more...

Gabriele Ferzetti - actor

Starred in classic Italian films as well as Bond movie


Gabriele Ferzetti appeared in more than 160 movies and many TV dramas
Gabriele Ferzetti appeared in more than 160
movies and many TV dramas
The actor Gabriele Ferzetti, best known to international audiences for his role in the 1969 Bond movie On Her Majesty’s Secret Service but in Italy for the Michelangelo Antonioni classic L’Avventura (1960), was born on this day in 1925 in Rome.

Ferzetti, who cut a naturally elegant and debonair appearance, was the go-to actor for handsome, romantic leads in the early part of his career and although he was ultimately eclipsed to some extent by Marcello Mastroianni, he seemed equally content with prominent supporting roles. Rarely idle, he made more than 160 films and appeared in countless TV dramas and was still working at 85 years old.

His intense performance as Antonioni’s wealthy yet unfulfilled playboy opposite Lea Massari and Monica Vitti in L’Avventura was the role that identified him most as an actor of considerable talent. Ferzetti had played a similar character in another Antonioni classic Le amiche (1955).

Outside Italian cinema, he was memorable as the unscrupulous Morton, the railroad magnate who hobbled around on crutches in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), and as Marc Ange-Draco, the sophisticated Mafia boss who joins forces with James Bond in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, which was George Lazenby’s only outing as 007.

With Lea Massari in his most famous role in the  Antonioni classic L'Avventura
With Lea Massari in his most famous role in the
Antonioni classic L'Avventura
Although Ferzetti spoke very good English, his accent was heavily Italian and he was dubbed in both roles.

In Rome, Ferzetti won a scholarship to attend the Silvio d’Amico National Academy of Dramatic Art, although his studies were abruptly cut short when he was expelled for appearing with a professional theatrical troupe.

It did not set him back too severely. After playing the young shepherd Sylvius in Luchino Visconti’s 1948 stage production of As You Like It, he won small roles in several films and quickly worked his way up to becoming a leading man.

The first movie to bring him wide recognition was Mario Soldati’s La provinciale (1953), which was packaged for English-speaking audiences as The Wayward Wife. Despite the nature of the production as a vehicle for the rising star Gina Lollobrigida in the title role, Ferzetti was superb as her bespectacled science professor husband.

Monica Vitti in another scene from L'Avventura
Monica Vitti in another scene from L'Avventura
In the same year he landed the title role in the big-budget production Puccini, directed by Carmine Gallone, in which he portrayed the philandering Italian opera composer from his student days to a man in his 80s. He was Puccini again in House of Ricordi (1954), about the music-publishing house.

Ferzetti was first cast by Antonioni in Le Amiche (The Girl Friends) (1955), which won a Silver Lion at the Venice film festival.

When Antonioni summoned him again for L’Avventura, it ended a five-year period of rather mediocre films that did Ferzetti no favours, so the chance to play his weak and disillusioned character, a failed architect whose lover disappears while they are sharing a sailing trip around Sicily with wealthy friends, could not have come at a more opportune moment. L’Avventura won the jury prize at the Cannes Film Festival.

Ferzetti was acclaimed for his portrayal of the the playboy composer Giacomo Puccini
Ferzetti was acclaimed for his portrayal of the
the playboy composer Giacomo Puccini
His career still had a long time to run but the consensus is that nothing Ferzetti did in subsequent films stood up particularly well next to his performance in L’Avventura, although his Draco, the gentlemanly mafia boss who helps Bond track down his arch-enemy Blofeld, was a memorable character.

Ferzetti was hailed later for his portrayal of a psychiatrist trying to cover up his Nazi past in Liliana Cavani’s controversial The Night Porter (1974), a study of a sadomasochistic relationship between another former Nazi (Dirk Bogarde) and the woman he raped in a concentration camp (Charlotte Rampling).

By the 1990s, Ferzetti was appearing more frequently on television but there were still a few big-screen triumphs to come, notably as the Duke of Venice in Oliver Parker’s Othello and, in 2009, by which time he was 84, as the head of a wealthy Milanese industrial family in Io sono l’amore - I Am Love - directed by Luca Guadagnino.

Married twice and with a daughter, Anna, Ferzetti died in December 2015 at the age of 90.

Parioli's tree-lined boulevards make it one of the most attractive residential areas in Rome
Parioli's tree-lined boulevards make it one of the most
attractive residential areas in Rome
Travel tip:

Rome’s Silvio D’Amico National Academy of Dramatic Art, which has been attended by many aspiring actors, can be found in Via Vincenzo Bellini where it meets Via Guido d’Arezzo in the Parioli district of Rome, between the Villa Borghese gardens and the vast Parco di Villa Ada. It was opened in 1936. D'Amico, a theatre critic and writer who was a friend of Nobel prize winner Luigi Pirandello and French theatre director Jacques Copeau, was appointed Special Commissioner for the reform of the drama school and led the academy for many years.The academy now has university status.  Parioli is regarded as Rome’s most elegant residential area.

Travel tip:

L’Avventura was filmed partly on location in the Aeolian Islands, a cluster of eight small islands in the Tyrrhenian Sea north of Sicily. The best known is undoubtedly Stromboli, an active volcano known as the ‘lighthouse of the Mediterranean’ on account of the molten lava that streams down the side of the visible 3,000ft (914m) of the mountain with every eruption, of which there are many. The largest of the islands is Lipari, which has a population of 12,000 people and is not unlike Capri in appearance, but with a fraction of the tourists. Salina, famed for its capers and sweet Malvasia wine, was used for the movie Il Postino while Panarea, which has a resident population of only 280, has become a fashionable celebrity hang-out. Yachts owned by Giorgio Armani and Roman Abramovich have regularly been spotted in the small harbour.

More reading:

Michelangelo Antonioni - the 'last great' of postwar Italian cinema

How enigmatic beauty Monica Vitti also excelled in comedy roles

Marcello Mastroianni - the film star who immortalised the Trevi Fountain

Also on the day:

1826: The birth of inventor Innocenzo Manzetti

1861: The newly-created Kingdom of Italy is proclaimed in Turin

1939: The birth of football coach Giovanni Trapattoni


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16 March 2019

16 March

Aldo Moro - Italy's tragic former prime minister


Politician kidnapped and murdered by Red Brigades

Italy and the wider world were deeply shocked on this day in 1978 when the former Italian prime minister, Aldo Moro, was kidnapped in a violent ambush that claimed the lives of his five bodyguards. The attack took place on Via Mario Fani, a few minutes from Signor Moro's home in the Monte Mario area of Rome, during the morning rush hour.  Moro, a 61-year-old Christian Democrat politician, was being driven to the Palazzo Montecitorio for a session of the Chamber of Deputies. As Moro’s car paused in traffic, it was blocked in by four Fiat saloons containing Red Brigades terrorists. Moro was pulled from his car while his bodyguards were shot dead. The politician was held captive for 55 days before his body was found in the boot of a Renault car in Rome's historic centre on May 9. Read more...

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Bernardo Bertolucci - film director


Caused outrage with Last Tango in Paris

The controversial filmmaker 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, starring Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider, which caused outrage for its portrayal of sexual violence and emotional turmoil and was banned in Italy. Schneider claimed many years later that she felt violated after one particularly graphic scene. The controversy has overshadowed what has otherwise been an outstanding career, Bertolucci’s movies placing him in the company of Federico Fellini, Michelangelo Antonioni, Luchino Visconti and Franco Zeffirelli among the greatest Italian directors. Read more…

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Emilio Lunghi - athlete


Italy's first Olympic medallist 

Emilio Lunghi, a middle-distance runner who was the first to win an Olympic medal in the colours of Italy, was born on this day in 1886 in Genoa. Competing in the 800 metres at the 1908 Olympic Games in London, Lunghi took the silver medal behind the American Mel Sheppard. In a fast-paced final, Lunghi's time was 1 minute 54.2 seconds, which was 1.8 seconds faster than the previous Olympic record buts still 1.4 seconds behind Sheppard. It was the same Olympics at which Lunghi's compatriot Dorando Pietri was controversially disqualified after coming home first in the marathon, when race officials took pity on him after he collapsed from exhaustion after entering the stadium and helped him across the line. Read more…

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15 March 2019

15 March

Cesare Beccaria - jurist and criminologist


Enlightened philosopher seen as father of criminal justice

The jurist and philosopher Cesare Beccaria, who is regarded as one of the greatest thinkers of the so-called Age of Enlightenment in the 18th century, and whose writings had a profound influence on justice systems all over the world, was born on this day in 1738 in Milan. As the author of a treatise On Crimes and Punishments (1764), which was a ground-breaking work in the field of criminal law and the approach to punishing offenders, Beccaria is considered by many academics to be the father of criminal justice.  The treatise condemned the death penalty and torture and outlined five principles for an effective system of criminal justice that still form the bedrock of criminal law in many countries around the world. Read more…

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Salvator Rosa – artist


Exciting Baroque painter inspired others

Salvator Rosa, a fiery and flamboyant character who was a poet and actor as well as an artist, died on this day in 1673 in Rome. One of the least conventional artists of 17th century Italy, he was adopted as a hero by painters of the Romantic movement in the 18th and 19th centuries. He mainly painted landscapes, but also depicted scenes of witchcraft, revealing his interest in the less conventional ideas of his age. These scenes were also sometimes the background for his etchings and the satires he wrote, some of which caused offence to other artists and he notably fell out with the great Roman sculptor and architect Gian Lorenzo Bernini. Read more…

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The murder of Julius Caesar


He came, saw, conquered... and was assassinated

Statesman and soldier Gaius Julius Caesar was murdered on this day in 44 BC in Rome. His death made the Ides of March, the day on the Roman calendar devised by Caesar that corresponds to 15 March, a turning point in Roman history, one of the events that marked the transition from the Roman Republic to the Roman Empire. Caesar’s invasion of Gaul took several years and was the most costly and destructive campaign ever undertaken by a Roman commander. Afterwards, Caesar crossed the Rubicon - a river that formed a northern border of Italy - with a legion of troops, entered Rome illegally, and established himself as a dictator dressed in royal robes. On the Ides of March, Caesar was stabbed to death by a group of rebellious senators led by Marcus Junius Brutus. Read more…

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Giuseppe Mezzofanti - hyperpolyglot


Roman Catholic Cardinal could speak 38 languages

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. Read more...

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Cesare Beccaria - jurist and criminologist

Enlightened philosopher seen as father of criminal justice


Cesare Beccaria became part of the literary  circle in 18th century Milan
Cesare Beccaria became part of the literary
circle in 18th century Milan
The jurist and philosopher Cesare Beccaria, who is regarded as one of the greatest thinkers of the so-called Age of Enlightenment in the 18th century, and whose writings had a profound influence on justice systems all over the world, was born on this day in 1738 in Milan.

As the author of a treatise On Crimes and Punishments (1764), which was a ground-breaking work in the field of criminal law and the approach to punishing offenders, Beccaria is considered by many academics to be the father of criminal justice.

The treatise, which Beccaria compiled when he was only 26 years old, condemned the death penalty on the grounds that the state does not possess the right to take lives and declared torture to be a barbaric practice with no place in a civilised, measured society.

It outlined five principles for an effective system of criminal justice: that punishment should have had a preventive deterrent function as opposed to being retributive; that punishment should be proportionate to the crime committed; that the probability of punishment should be seen as a more effective deterrent than its severity; that the procedures of criminal convictions should be public; and that to be effective, punishment needed to be prompt.

The reception for his ideas was such that Beccaria, who was somewhat reserved in character, became an international celebrity. He was celebrated in particular in France, where On Crimes and Punishment was published in French in 1766 and was reprinted seven times in six months. English, German, Polish, Spanish, and Dutch translations followed and an American edition was published in 1777.

Beccaria was born in this palace in the Via Brera in central Milan
Beccaria was born in this palace in
the Via Brera in central Milan
Although in many countries the death penalty was not abolished until the late 20th century and is still practised in some parts of the world, in other aspects Beccaria’s treatise exerted significant influence on criminal-law reform throughout western Europe, as well as in Russia, Sweden and the former Habsburg Empire. It also informed legislation in several American states. Founding fathers Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were among those who endorsed his work.

Beccaria was brought up in Milan’s 18th century aristocracy. His father was the Marchese Gian Beccaria Bonesana. They lived in a palace in After attending the Jesuit college at Parma, Beccaria graduated in law from the University of Pavia in 1758.

His primary field of interest was mathematics and economics but he was encouraged by friends to join a literary society, through which be became acquainted with many French and British political philosophers. Much of its discussion focused on reforming the criminal justice system and Beccaria was particularly influenced by the French political philosopher Montesquieu, whose principal work was The Spirit of Laws. 

Nothing Beccaria achieved subsequently came close to the importance of On Crimes and Punishment, although he was to become a prominent economist. In 1768 he accepted the chair in public economy and commerce at the Palatine School in Milan, where his lectures formed the basis of another seminal work, published posthumously under the title Elementi di economia pubblica - Elements of Public Economy - in which he discussed ideas about the division of labour and the relations between food supply and population long before they became common currency.

Giuseppe Grandi's statue of Cesare Beccaria in Piazza Beccaria in Milan
Giuseppe Grandi's statue of Cesare
Beccaria in Piazza Beccaria in Milan
In 1771 he was appointed to the Supreme Economic Council of Milan, where he concerned himself with measures such as monetary reform, labour relations, and public education. A report written by Beccaria is said to have influenced the adoption of the metric system in France.

In his later years, Beccaria was distracted by health and family matters, including property disputes with his two brothers and sister. Although from a philosophical standpoint, he greeted the start of the French Revolution in 1789 with enthusiasm, his horror and dismay at the violence that ensued caused him much sadness and he became withdrawn. He died in 1974 at the age of only 56.

Beccaria was married twice and had five children. Through the first of them, Giulia, he was the grandfather of Alessandro Manzoni, the novelist whose most famous work I promessi sposi - The Betrothed - was one of the first Italian historical novels and is seen as a masterpiece of Italian literature.

Milan's Teatro alla Scala - commonly known as "La Scala" -
was built in the late 18th century
Travel tip:

The cultural golden age experienced by Italy in common with much of Europe in the 18th century included the construction of Milan’s most famous cultural landmark, the theatre and opera house Teatro alla Scala. Built to replace the Teatro Regio Ducale, which was destroyed in a fire, the theatre was designed by the neoclassical architect Giuseppe Piermarini. The initial design was rejected by Count Firmian, the governor of what was then Austrian Lombardy, but a second plan was accepted in 1776 by Empress Maria Theresa. The new theatre was built on the former location of the church of Santa Maria alla Scala, from which the theatre gets its name.

Find the best hotels in Milan with TripAdvisor


The Palatine School is one of the oldest and
most prestigious schools in Milan
Travel tip:

The Palazzo delle Scuole Palatine - the Palace of the Palatine School - is located in Piazza Mercanti, which was Milan’s medieval city centre. It was once the seat of the most prestigious higher schools in the city and many  notable Milanese scholars studied or taught there. The current building dates back to 1644, when it was rebuilt by the architect Carlo Buzzi to replace an older one that had been destroyed in a fire. The school was established in Piazza Mercanti under Giovanni Maria Visconti, the second Visconti Duke of Milan. The building is decorated with several monuments, including a plaque with an epigram by the Roman poet Ausonius celebrating Milan as the "New Rome" of the fourth century, a statue of Saint Augustine by sculptor Pietro Lasagna.

Milan hotels from Hotels.com

More reading:

Cesare Lombroso, the first academic to study the criminal mind

How Alberico Gentili designed the world's first system of jurisprudence

Why I promessi sposi is regarded as the most significant novel in Italian literary history

Also on this day:

44BC: The murder of Julius Caesar

1673: The death of the painter Salvator Rosa

1849: The death of the multilingual cardinal Giuseppe Mezzofanti

(Picture credits: Via Brera palace by Giovanni Dell'Orto;  statue by Vincenzo Paolella; Teatro alla Scala by Jean-Christophe Benoist; Palatine School by MarkusMark; via Wikimedia Commons)

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14 March 2019

14 March

Giangiacomo Feltrinelli – publisher


Accidental death of an aristocratic activist

Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, a leading European publisher and one of Italy’s richest men, died on this day in 1972 after being blown up while trying to ignite a terrorist bomb on an electricity pylon at Segrate near Milan. It was a bizarre end to the life and career of a man who had helped revolutionise Italian book publishing. He became famous for his decision to translate and publish Boris Pasternak’s novel Doctor Zhivago after the manuscript was smuggled out of the Soviet Union, where it had been banned on the grounds of being anti-Soviet. This was an event that shook the Soviet empire and led to Pasternak winning the Nobel Prize for Literature. Feltrinelli also started the first chain of book shops in Italy, which still bear his name. As a lifelong supporters of the political Left, however, he was an advocate of guerrilla activity in Italy on behalf of the working classes. Read more…

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Victor Emmanuel II


The first King to rule over a united Italy

King Victor Emmanuel II was born Vittorio Emanuele Maria Alberto Eugenio Ferdinando Tommaso on this day in 1820 in Turin. He was proclaimed the first King of a united Italy in 1861 by the country’s new Parliament and in 1870 after the French withdrew from Rome he entered the city and set up the new Italian capital there. The Italian people called him Padre della Patria, Father of the Fatherland. It was Victor Emmanuel who in 1852 appointed Camillo Benso, Count of Cavour as Prime Minister of Piedmont-Sardinia and Cavour who masterminded the monarch’s campaign to rule over a united Italy. Victor Emmanuel soon became the symbol of the Risorgimento, the Italian unification movement in the 19th century. He supported Garibaldi’s Expedition of the Thousand in 1860 which resulted in the fall of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies and gave him control over the southern part of the country. Read more…

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Giovanni Schiaparelli - astronomer


Discoveries sparked belief there was life on Mars

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. Schiaparelli was convinced he could see a network of links between his so-called 'seas' which he described as "canali".  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. Read more...

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13 March 2019

13 March

Bruno Conti - World Cup winner


Roma star was key figure for Azzurri in 1982 victory

The former footballer - now coach - Bruno Conti, who played a starring role as Italy won the World Cup in Spain in 1982, was born on this day in 1955 in Nettuno, a seaside resort south of Rome. A winger with extravagant skills, Conti became an increasingly influential figure as the Azzurri campaign in 1982 gathered momentum after a slow start. He scored Italy’s goal against Peru in the first group stage, before playing superbly as the Azzurri upset the odds in the second group stage by knocking out Argentina and Brazil. As Italy beat West Germany 3-1 in the final, the AS Roma star was one of the men of the match, playing a part in two of the three goals after earlier winning a penalty. Read more…

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Corrado Gaipa – actor and voice dubber


From The Godfather to voice of Alec Guinness

The respected character actor and voice dubber Corrado Gaipa was born on this day in 1925 in Palermo. His versatility as a voice actor brought him considerable work at a time when Italian cinema audiences much preferred to watch dubbed versions of mainstream English-language films rather than hear the original soundtrack with subtitles. Gaipa’s voice replaced that of Alec Guinness as Obi-Wan Kenobi in the original Star Wars trilogy.  He was also heard dubbing Spencer Tracy in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Burt Lancaster in The Leopard, Telly Savalas in The Dirty Dozen and Lee J Cobb in The Exorcist. As an actor in his own right, he worked with many leading directors in Italian cinema, including Francesco Rosi and Vittorio Gassman. His most famous role was probably that of Don Tommasino in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather. Read more...

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Ligabue - record-breaking rock star


Musician and writer once dubbed 'Italy's Springsteen'

Rock musician Luciano Ligabue - known simply as Ligabue - was born on this day in 1960. Once dubbed ‘Italy’s Springsteen’, he has been hugely successful in his own country but has never managed to achieve true international recognition. Yet such is his popularity in Italy that a Ligabue concert held on a stage erected on Reggio Emilia's airfield in 2005 attracted an audience of 180,000, a European record for a paid-for event headlined by a single artist. He has played before audiences of more than 110,000 at the Giuseppe Meazza football stadium in Milan -- the home of Internazionale and AC Milan -- and has twice repeated the so-called Campovolo event in Reggio Emilia. In September 2015, a concert to celebrate Ligabue's 25 years in the music business sold 150,000 tickets, setting another record as the most lucrative single music concert in Italian history, with proceeds of around €7 million. Read more...

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Flavia Cacace - dancer


Star of Strictly Come Dancing famous for Argentine Tango

The dancer Flavia Cacace, who found fame through the British hit television show, Strictly Come Dancing, was born on this day in 1980 in Naples. She and professional partner Vincent Simone, who is from Puglia, performed on the show for seven seasons from 2006 to 2012. The show, which has been mimicked in more than 50 countries across the world, including Italy and the United States, pairs celebrities with professional dancers, combining Latin and ballroom dances in a competition lasting several months. Cacace, who was runner-up in 2007 with British actor Matt d'Angelo, left the show as champion in 2012 after she and the British Olympic gymnast Louis Smith won the final, which was watched by an estimated 13.35 million viewers. Read more…

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Bruno Conti - World Cup winner

Roma star was key figure for Azzurri in 1982 victory


Bruno Conti played almost 400 times for Roma over 18 years
Bruno Conti played almost 400 times
for Roma over 18 years
The former footballer - now coach - Bruno Conti, who played a starring role as Italy won the World Cup in Spain in 1982, was born on this day in 1955 in Nettuno, a seaside resort south of Rome.

A winger with extravagant skills, Conti became an increasingly influential figure as the Azzurri campaign in 1982 gathered momentum after a slow start.

He scored Italy’s goal against Peru in the first group stage, a fine shot into the top right-hand corner from 20 yards (18m), although as a team Italy were not at their best and failed to win any of their opening three matches, scraping into the second group phase only by virtue of having scored more goals from Cameroon, who finished with the same number of points.

But the second phase saw a transformation as Italy defied the odds to beat the holders Argentina and the multi-talented Brazil team of Socrates, Zico and Falcao who had started the tournament as hot favourites.

Although the striker Paolo Rossi ultimately took the headlines with his hat-trick against Brazil, Conti played superbly in both matches, his runs and turns posing problems repeatedly for the opposition defence.

The Italy team which won the 1982 World Cup in Spain, upsetting the odds by knocking out Argentina and Brazil
The Italy team which won the 1982 World Cup in Spain,
upsetting the odds by knocking out Argentina and Brazil
Italy defeated Poland in the semi-final before putting together another superb performance to beat West Germany 3-1 in the final in Madrid, after which Conti was proclaimed as man of the match by the great Brazilian Pele, who thought he had been the best player of the tournament.

In the final, he won a penalty in the first half, which Antonio Cabrini failed to convert, played a part in Marco Tardelli’s goal - the second of the Azzurri three, all in the second half - and created the third for Alessandro Altobelli when his run led a storming counter-attack.

Throughout the tournament, Conti had been given the nickname Mara-Zico by his fans, who said that he had the skills of both Argentina’s Diego Maradona and Brazil’s Zico.

Conti took a while to be accepted because of his small stature
Conti took a while to be accepted
because of his small stature
His more familiar nickname, coined by his supporters at home, was ‘Mayor of Rome’, which was a reflection of his loyalty to AS Roma, the club he joined as a boy and for whom he still works today, as head of the youth development section.

The son of a bricklayer and one of seven children, Bruno excelled at baseball as well as football as a child but grew up as a Roma fan, following the example of his father, Andrea, who declared himself to be “the happiest man in the world” when his boy became a Roma player.

After shining with Roma’s youth teams, he made his senior debut in Serie A at the age of just 18.

His career with the giallorossi was not always plain sailing.  Because of his small stature - he is only 5ft 7ins (1.69m) tall - there were doubts about whether he was physically strong enough. He was selected for the first team only a handful of times in his first two seasons before being sent away to play for Genoa in Serie B, on loan, winning his first medal as the Ligurian team won the Serie B title.

The experience helped him nail a place in the Roma team for the 1976-77 season, although not firmly enough not be sent out on loan to Genoa for a second time.

Bruno Conti is now in charge of AS Roma's youth development programmes
Bruno Conti is now in charge of AS Roma's
youth development programmes
However, when he came back, Roma had recently appointed Nils Liedholm as their manager and Conti became an integral part of the Swede’s team. The winger thrived with the confidence shown in him and his consistently outstanding form not only made him a favourite with the Roma fans, helping them win the Coppa Italia in consecutive seasons, but a player the national coach Enzo Bearzot identified as integral to his plans for the World Cup in Spain.

Returning to domestic football after Italy’s triumph, he helped Roma win the 1982-83 scudetto - their first domestic title for more than 40 years - and reach the final of the European Cup the following year.

By coincidence, the Stadio Olimpico - the stadium Roma share with SS Lazio - had been chosen to host the final that year. Hopes of a giallorossi victory on home soil were dashed, however, when Roma were unable to beat opponents Liverpool in either normal or extra time and the trophy was decided on a penalty shoot-out, won by the English team with Conti, who had been one of Roma’s better players, being one of the unfortunate ones who missed his kick.

In total, Conti made almost 400 appearances in a Roma shirt and 47 for the azzurri, playing also in the 1986 World Cup finals, when Italy were knocked out in the round of 16. When he retired from playing in 1991 he remained with Roma on the coaching staff, including a stint as first-team coach in the 2004-05 season, during which the team reached the Coppa Italia final.

Conti and his wife Laura have two sons Daniele and Andrea, who are both professional footballers. Inducted into the AS Roma Hall of Fame in 2012, he is regarded by fans as one of the club’s all-time greats.

The beach at Nettuno, Conti's home town, with the historic 500-year-old Forte Sangallo in the foreground
The beach at Nettuno, Conti's home town, with the
historic 500-year-old Forte Sangallo in the foreground
Travel tip:

Nettuno is a resort town on the coast of Lazio, about 68km (42 miles) southwest of Rome, almost adjoining the port of Anzio, where Allied forces famously landed in 1944 during the invasion that precipitated the end of the Second World War in Italy. Nettuno itself has a large harbour for private boats, plus a well-preserved historic centre, the Borgo Medievale, with charming streets and small squares, and the Forte Sangallo, a castle built in 1503 by Renaissance architect Antonio da Sangallo the Elder on behalf of the Borgia pope Alexander VI.

The Stadio Olimpico in Rome has hosted four finals of the European Cup and Champions League
The Stadio Olimpico in Rome has hosted four finals of
the European Cup and Champions League
Travel tip:

Rome's Stadio Olimpico - the Olympic Stadium - was built between 1928 and 1938 as part of the Foro Mussolini (now Foro Italico), a sports complex Mussolini hoped would enable Rome to host the 1944 Olympics had they taken place.  Originally named Stadio dei Cipressi and later Stadio dei Centomila, it was renamed when Rome won the bidding process for the 1960 Games, pipping the Swiss city of Lausanne.  Rebuilt for the 1990 football World Cup, in which it hosted the final, it has also hosted four European Cup and Champions League finals.

More reading:

How the pipe-smoking Enzo Bearzot plotted Italy's unlikely triumph in the 1982 World Cup

Marco Tardelli - immortalised for that celebration

Francesco Graziani - the other Roma player who missed his penalty against Liverpool

Also on this day:

1925: The birth of Godfather actor Corrado Gaipa

1960: The birth of rock star Luciano Ligabue

1980: The birth of dancer Flavia Cacace


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12 March 2019

12 March

Gianni Agnelli - business giant


Head of Fiat more powerful than politicians

The businessman Gianni Agnelli, who controlled the Italian car giant Fiat for 40 years until his death in 2003, was born on this day in 1921 in Turin. Under his guidance, Fiat - Fabbrica Italiana di Automobili Torino, founded by his grandfather, Giovanni Agnelli, in 1899 - became so huge in the 1990s that literally every other car on Italy's roads was produced in one of their factories. The company diversified into newspapers and publishing, insurance companies, food manufacture, engineering and construction with such success that at one time Agnelli controlled more than a quarter of the companies on the Milan stock exchange. With a personal fortune estimated at between $2 billion and $5 billion, he became one of the most influential figures in Italy, arguably more powerful than any politician.  Read more…

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Gabriele D’Annunzio – writer and patriot


Military hero influenced Mussolini with his distinctive style

Poet, playwright and political leader Gabriele D’Annunzio was born on this day in 1863 in Pescara in Abruzzo. He is considered to be the leading writer in Italy of the late 19th and early 20th centuries as well as being a military hero and a political activist. Some of his ideas and actions were believed to have influenced Italian Fascism and the style of the dictator, Benito Mussolini. His first poetry was published when he was just 16 and the novels that made him famous came out in his twenties. His extravagant lifestyle once meant he had to flee to France because of his debts but he returned when Italy entered the First World War, lost an eye in combat while serving with the air force and in 1919 to popular acclaim took about 300 supporters to claim the port of Fiume - now in Croatia and which the Allies were proposing to incorporate into the new state of Yugoslavia - on behalf of Italy. Read more…

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Pietro Andrea Mattioli – doctor


The first botanist to describe the tomato

Doctor and naturalist Pietro Andrea Mattioli was born on this day in 1501 in Siena. As the author of an illustrated work on botany, Mattioli provided the first documented example of an early variety of tomato that was being grown and eaten in Europe. He is also believed to have described the first case of cat allergy, when one of his patients was so sensitive to cats that if he went into a room where there was a cat he would react with agitation, sweating and pallor. After receiving his medical degree at the University of Padua in 1523, he practised his profession in Siena, Rome, Trento and Gorizia. Later, he became the personal physician to Ferdinand II, Archduke of Austria, in Prague and to Maximilian II, Holy Roman Emperor, in Vienna. Read more…

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11 March 2019

11 March

Franco Basaglia - psychiatrist


Work led to closure of mental hospitals by law

The psychiatrist Franco Basaglia, whose work ultimately led to changes in the law that resulted in the closure and dismantling of Italy’s notorious psychiatric hospitals, was born on this day in 1924 in Venice. As the founder of the Democratic Psychiatry movement and the main proponent of Law 180 - Italy's Mental Health Act of 1978 - which abolished mental hospitals, he is considered to be the most influential Italian psychiatrist of the 20th century. His Law 180 - also known as Basaglia’s Law - was passed in the Italian parliament after Basaglia had convinced law makers that many psychiatric patients could be treated in the community rather than be detained in barbaric institutions. It had a worldwide impact as other countries took up the Italian model and reformed their own way of dealing with the mentally ill. Read more...

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Torquato Tasso – poet


Troubled Renaissance writer came back to Sorrento

Torquato Tasso, who has come to be regarded as the greatest Italian poet of the Renaissance, was born on this day in 1544 in Sorrento. Tasso’s most famous work was his epic poem La Gerusalemme liberata (Jerusalem Delivered) in which he gives an imaginative account of the battles between Christians and Muslims at the end of the first crusade during the siege of Jerusalem. He was one of the most widely read poets in Europe and his work was later to prove inspirational for other writers who followed him, in particular the English poets Spencer and Byron. The house where Tasso was born is in Sorrento’s historic centre and now forms part of the Imperial Hotel Tramontano, where the words for the beautiful song, Torna a Surriento, were written by Giambattista De Curtis in 1902. Read more…

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Rigoletto debuts at La Fenice


Verdi opera staged after battle with censors

Giuseppe Verdi's opera Rigoletto was performed for the first time on this day in 1851 in Venice. It enjoyed a triumphant first night at La Fenice opera house, where the reaction of the audience was particularly gratifying for the composer and his librettist, Francesco Maria Piave, after a long-running battle to satisfy the censors. Northern Italy was controlled by the Austrian Empire at the time and a strict censorship process applied to all public performances. Verdi had to make substantial changes to his narrative, based on a play by Victor Hugo's play, Le roi s'amuse, which depicted King Francis I of France as a licentious womaniser and was banned after just one night when it had premiered in Paris, in order to be granted the Austrians’ approval. Read more…

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Sidney Sonnino – politician


Minister who pushed Italy to switch sides in World War One

Sidney Sonnino, the politician who was Italy’s influential Minister of Foreign Affairs during the First World War, was born on this day in 1847 in Pisa. Sonnino led two short-lived governments in the early 1900s but it was as Foreign Affairs Minister in 1914 that he made his mark on Italian history, advising prime minister Antonio Salandra to side with the Entente powers – France, Great Britain and Russia – in the First World War, abandoning its Triple Alliance partnership with Germany and Austria-Hungary. His motives were entirely driven by self-interest. A committed irredentist who saw the war as an opportunity to expand Italy's borders by reclaiming former territory, he reasoned that Austria-Hungary was unlikely to give back parts of Italy it had seized previously. Read more…

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Franco Basaglia - psychiatrist

Work led to closure of mental hospitals by law


Franco Basaglia was destined for an academic career until the University of Padua deemed him too unconventional
Franco Basaglia was destined for an academic career until
the University of Padua deemed him too unconventional
The psychiatrist Franco Basaglia, whose work ultimately led to changes in the law that resulted in the closure and dismantling of Italy’s notorious psychiatric hospitals, was born on this day in 1924 in Venice.

As the founder of the Democratic Psychiatry movement and the main proponent of Law 180 - Italy's Mental Health Act of 1978 - which abolished mental hospitals, he is considered to be the most influential Italian psychiatrist of the 20th century.

His Law 180 - also known as Basaglia’s Law - had worldwide impact as other countries took up the Italian model and reformed their own way of dealing with the mentally ill.

Basaglia was born to a well-off family in the San Polo sestiere of Venice. He became an anti-Fascist in his teens and during the Second World War was an active member of the resistance in the city, to the extent that in December 1944, he was arrested and spent six months inside Venice’s grim Santa Maria Maggiore prison, being released only when the city was liberated in April of the following year.

He graduated in medicine and surgery from the University of Padua in 1949 and seemed destined for an academic career but after qualifying as a doctor in the field of ‘nervous and mental diseases’ and becoming an assistant professor he was deemed too unconventional for the tastes of the university hierarchy and told he should seek a career elsewhere.

Basaglia believed mental hospitals merely  reinforced the health problems of patients
Basaglia believed mental hospitals merely
reinforced the health problems of patients
As a result, Basaglia had to look for work and when he was appointed director of the provincial asylum in Gorizia, close to the border with Yugoslavia in northeastern Italy.

It was a grim job. Gorizia, 140km (87 miles) from Venice, was like a remote outpost and psychiatrists at the time regarded it as a sign of failure if they were forced to work in asylums. But Basaglia felt he had no choice.

In his studies he had already become convinced that the conventional methods for handling psychiatric patients needed to change and the post at Gorizia offered him the chance to put his ideas into practice.

On his first day in charge, he refused to sign the permits for the restraint of prisoners. He had soon introduced a requirement that doctors did not wear white coats and instead mingled freely with patients. Locked wards were opened, and the use of shackles and straitjackets was quickly outlawed.

He felt the traditional institutional response to psychiatric patients in distress, which revolved around physical abuse, forced restraint and appalling ‘punishments’, did nothing except reinforce the presumed ‘insanity’ of the victims.

Although he faced opposition from the older staff, he gradually replaced them with doctors he felt shared his views. Amid the tide of radical thinking that was sweeping Italy in the late 1960s, he published a book, L’istituzione negata - The Institution Denied - describing the methods being employed at Gorizia. It became a bestseller and a TV documentary based on the book made him famous.

Basaglia believed strongly in the rehabilitation of the victims of mental illness sufferers in the community
Basaglia believed strongly in the rehabilitation of the
victims of mental illness sufferers in the community
Occasionally, his determination to rehabilitate patients had tragic consequences. On at least two occasions, individuals he had allowed out of confinement committed murders. Basaglia was tried for manslaughter in both instances, and both times was cleared of the charge.

Basaglia left Gorizia in 1969, after which he a brief period in charge of the asylum in Colorno, near Parma, and six months in New York where he worked in a psychiatric hospital in Brooklyn. In 1971, he returned to Italy to be director of the San Giovanni psychiatric hospital in Trieste.

By then, other psychiatrists in Italy were putting Basaglia’s methods into practice and his ideas were acquiring political support. He repeated at the Trieste institution many of the measures that had proved successful in Gorizia, with the addition of such steps as launching co-operatives so that patients who were considered well enough could be re-integrated into the world of work. In 1977 he announced that the San Giovanni hospital was to close.

Soon afterwards, politicians successfully argued that a programme of closure should begin at psychiatric hospitals across the country.

Franca Ongaro continued Basaglia's work after his death
Franca Ongaro continued Basaglia's
work after his death
The Italian Parliament approved Law 180 on May 13, 1978, initiating the gradual dismantling of psychiatric hospitals, a process completed over the following 20 years.

In their place was to be a decentralised community service of treating and rehabilitating mental patients and preventing mental illness and promoting comprehensive treatment, particularly through services outside a hospital network. The emphasis in mental health moved from protecting society towards meeting the needs of patients.

Basaglia was described as a charismatic figure, so enthused about his work he would stay up all night talking with anyone who could match his intellectual stamina. He was also a heavy smoker. Sadly, by the time Basaglia’s Law came into force, he was suffering the effects of the brain tumour that would kill him.

He returned to San Polo, where he died in 1980 at the age of only 56. His wife, Franca Ongaro, who had worked with him on many of his books and essays, continued to work on his behalf after his death to ensure Basaglia’s Law was fully implemented.

The Basilica Maria Gloriosa dei Frari is one of the most notable churches in the San Polo sestiere of Venice
The Basilica Maria Gloriosa dei Frari is one of the
most notable churches in the San Polo sestiere of Venice
Travel tip:

San Polo, the smallest of the six Venice sestieri, is a vibrant district on the west side of the Grand Canal connected to the eastern side by the Rialto Bridge. The main sights include the Rialto Market, the 15th century Gothic church of San Polo and the imposing Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, usually just called the Frari, built in brick in the Venetian Gothic style and containing monuments to distinguished Venetians buried in the church, including a number of Doges and the painter Titian, who painted two large and important altarpieces that can be seen inside, the Assumption of the Virgin on the high altar and the Pesaro Madonna. where stalls sell fish, fruit and vegetables. The canalside Erbaria area has become a fashionable meeting place for aperitifs and cicchetti - the small snacks that are a kind of Venetian tapas.

The Piazza della Vittoria is the central square in the town of Gorizia, on the Italian border with Slovenia
The Piazza della Vittoria is the central square in the
town of Gorizia, on the Italian border with Slovenia
Travel tip:

Gorizia has the look of an historic Italian town but it has changed hands several times during its history, which is not surprising given its geographical location.  It sits literally on the border with Slovenia and, in fact, is part of a metropolitan area shared by the two countries, the section on the Slovenian side being now known as Nova Gorica. It has German, Slovenian, Friulian and Venetian influences, which can be experienced in particular in the local cuisine.

More reading:

Roberto Assagioli - the psychiatrist locked up by Mussolini

Cesare Lombroso, the father of modern criminology

The 1848 revolt in Padua, when students joined citizens in armed uprising

Also on this day:

1544: The birth of the poet Torquato Tasso

1847: The birth of wartime politician Sidney Sonnino

1851: Verdi's Rigoletto performed for first time


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