31 March 2019

31 March

Dante Giacosa - auto engineer


Designer known as ‘the father of the Cinquecento'

The automobile engineer Dante Giacosa, who worked for the Italian car maker Fiat for almost half a century and designed the iconic Fiat 500 - the Cinquecento - in all its incarnations as well as numerous other classic models, died on this day in 1996 at the age of 91. Giacosa was the lead design engineer for Fiat from 1946 to 1970. As such, he was head of all Fiat car projects during that time and the direction of the company’s output was effectively entirely down to him. In addition to his success with the Cinquecento, Giacosa’s Fiat 128, launched in 1969, became the template adopted by virtually every other manufacturer in the world for front-wheel drive cars. Read more…

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Franco Bonvicini – comic book artist


Comic artist became famous for satirising the Nazis

Franco Bonvicini, who signed his comic strips Bonvi, was born on this day in 1941 in either Parma or Modena in Emilia-Romagna. The correct birthplace is unknown. According to the artist, his mother registered him in both places to obtain double the usual amount of food stamps for rations. After a brief spell working in advertising, Bonvi made his debut in the comic strip world for the Rome newspaper Paese Sera with his creation Sturmtruppen in 1968. This series satirising the German army and the Nazis was a big hit and was published in various periodicals over the years. It was also translated for publication in other countries. Read more...

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Pope Benedict XIV


Bologna cardinal seen as great intellectual leader

Prospero Lorenzo Lambertini, who would in his later years become Pope Benedict XIV, was born on this day in 1675 in Bologna. Lambertini was a man of considerable intellect, considered one of the most erudite men of his time and arguably the greatest scholar of all the popes. He promoted scientific learning, the baroque arts, the reinvigoration of the philosophy of Saint Thomas Aquinas and the study of the human form. He was Bishop of Ancona at the age of 52, Archbishop of Bologna at 56 and Pope at 65 but at no time did he consider his elevation to these posts an honour upon which to congratulate himself.  He saw them as the opportunity to do good and tackled each job with zeal and energy. Read more…

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Bianca Maria Visconti – Duchess of Milan


Ruler fought alongside her troops to defend her territory

Bianca Maria Visconti, the daughter of Filippo Maria Visconti, Duke of Milan, was born on this day in 1425 near Settimo Pavese in Lombardy. A strong character, her surviving letters showed she was able to run Milan efficiently after becoming Duchess and even supposedly donned a suit of armour and rode with her troops into battle, earning herself the nickname, Warrior Woman. Bianca Maria was the illegitimate daughter of the Duke of Milan, and was sent to live with her mother in comfortable conditions in a castle where she received a good education. At the age of six she was betrothed for political reasons to the condottiero, Francesco I Sforza, who was 24 years older than her. They eventually married when she was 16, after which Bianca Maria quickly proved her skills in administration and diplomacy. Read more...

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Dante Giacosa - auto engineer

Dante Giacosa worked for Fiat automobiles for almost half a century
Dante Giacosa worked for Fiat automobiles
for almost half a century

Designer known as ‘the father of the Cinquecento'


The automobile engineer Dante Giacosa, who worked for the Italian car maker Fiat for almost half a century and designed the iconic Fiat 500 - the Cinquecento - in all its incarnations as well as numerous other classic models, died on this day in 1996 at the age of 91.

Giacosa was the lead design engineer for Fiat from 1946 to 1970. As such, he was head of all Fiat car projects during that time and the direction of the company’s output was effectively entirely down to him.

In addition to his success with the Cinquecento, Giacosa’s Fiat 128, launched in 1969, became the template adopted by virtually every other manufacturer in the world for front-wheel drive cars.

His Fiat 124, meanwhile, was exported to the Soviet Union and repackaged as the Zhiguli, known in the West as the Lada, which introduced Soviet society of the 1970s to the then-bourgeois concept of private car ownership.

Born in Rome, where his father was undertaking military service, Giacosa's family roots were in Neive in southern Piedmont. He studied engineering at the Polytechnic University of Turin.

Dante Giacosa, standing between the familiar shape of the Nuovo Cinquecento and the original 'Topolino'
Dante Giacosa, standing between the familiar shape of the
Nuovo Cinquecento and the original 'Topolino'
After completing his compulsory military service he joined Fiat in 1928, at first working on military vehicles and then in the aero engine division. The director of the aero engine division was Tranquillo Zerbi, designer of Grand Prix cars for Fiat, from whom Giacosa learned the basics of car design.

In 1929, Senator Giovanni Agnelli, co-founder of the Fiat company (and grandfather of Gianni), asked his engineers to design an economy car that would sell for 5,000 lire.

There was an emphasis on producing economical small cars in all the industrialised European countries. Giacosa's new 500cc vehicle, originally called the Zero A, appeared for the first time in 1934 and was immediately hailed as a triumph of engineering subtlety.

The vehicle was only just over three metres (10 feet) in length, yet Giacosa had managed to squeeze in a four-cylinder engine and space for two adults and two children. The radiator was squeezed in behind the engine for compactness, which allowed a sharply sloping nose.

Giacosa's Fiat 600 was a bigger version of the Fiat 500 but with space for four adults and some luggage
Giacosa's Fiat 600 was a bigger version of the Fiat 500 but
with space for four adults and some luggage
The whole looked not unlike a clockwork mouse and enthusiastic buyers nicknamed it il Topolino after Mickey Mouse. Nonetheless, with independent suspension, the car out-handled many larger contemporaries.

During the Second World War, Giacosa returned to working on aero engines but also began planning a post-war range of economy cars.

However, in the financial chaos that followed, the Topolino was priced at 720,000 lire when Fiat resumed its production in 1945, a long way from Agnelli’s dream. The best that ordinary Italians could aspire to at the time was a bicycle or, later, perhaps a Vespa or Lambretta scooter.

But the needs of Italians changed with the baby boom of the early 1950s, by which time they had more disposable income. What they wanted was a family car, bigger and more comfortable than the Topolino, and Giacosa met that need by designing the Fiat 600.

Giacosa's Cisitalia D46 racing car, which he designed for the entrepreneur and racing driver Piero Dusio
Giacosa's Cisitalia D46 racing car, which he designed for
the entrepreneur and racing driver Piero Dusio
Although it cost 580,000 lire when it went on sale in 1955, it became more affordable through the new concept of credit payments. Though still compact, the rear-engined car had space for four passengers, while a stretch version went into regular use as a taxi.

However, as the narrow streets of Italian cities became busier, smaller cars such as the old Topolino that could whisk through traffic and park in a small spot, came back into vogue. Giacosa met that need by designing a new Cinquecento - the familiar Nuovo 500 - based on the rear-engined pattern of the 600, with seats for four adults, an open roof and a top speed of 100kph (60mph). It was an immediate hit, selling 3.7 million models before production stopped in 1973.

In addition to his mass production cars for Fiat, Giacosa also worked on behalf of the entrepreneur Piero Dusio and his Consorzio Industriale Sportivo Italia company to design a single-seater racing car cheap known as the Cisitalia D46. The car scored multiple successes in competition, particularly in the hands of drivers as talented as the brilliant Tazio Nuvolari, winner of 24 Grands Prix in the pre-Formula One era.

Fiat's extraordinary motor production plant at Lingotto, a  few kilometres from the centre of Turin
Fiat's extraordinary motor production plant at Lingotto, a
few kilometres from the centre of Turin
Travel tip:

The former Fiat plant in the Lingotto district of Turin was once the largest car factory in the world, built to a linear design by the Futurist architect Giacomo Matte Trucco and featuring a rooftop test track made famous in the Michael Caine movie, The Italian Job. Redesigned by the award-winning contemporary architect Renzo Piano, it now houses concert halls, a theatre, a convention centre, shopping arcades and a hotel, as well as the Automotive Engineering faculty of the Polytechnic University of Turin. The former Mirafiori plant, situated about 3km (2 miles) from the Lingotto facility, is now the Mirafiori Motor Village, where new models from the Fiat, Alfa Romeo, Lancia and Jeep ranges can be test driven on the plant's former test track.

The village of Neive in Piedmont is at the heart of an important wine production area
The village of Neive in Piedmont is at the heart of an
important wine production area
Travel tip:

Neive, from which Giacosa’s family originated, is a large village in the Cuneo province of Piedmont region, about 12km (7 miles) north of the larger town of Alba and 70km (44 miles) southeast of Turin. It is best known as the centre of a wine producing region but more recently has enjoyed a boom in agritourism among visitors wishing to experience a rural Italian village. The centre of the village is the charming narrow Piazza Italia and the most important landmark the 13th century Torre Comunale dell’Orologio, the tallest building in the village. The village is beautifully presented and listed as one of the Borghi Più Belli d’Italia - the most beautiful small towns of Italy. The Baroque Chiesa Di San Pietro is one of the most important churches, with several beautiful art works by artists of the region. The notable wines produced in the area include Barbaresco, Barbera, Dolcetto d’Alba and the sweet dessert white wine Moscato d’Asti.

More reading:

How Fiat boss Gianni Agnelli became more powerful than politicians

Giovanni Agnelli and the 'horseless carriage' that launched Italy's biggest automobile company

How little 'Pinin' Farina became the biggest name in Italian car design

Also on this day:

1425: The birth of Bianca Maria Visconti - Duchess of Milan

1675: The birth of intellectual leader Pope Benedict XIV

1941: The birth of comic book artist Franco Bonvicini

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30 March 2019

30 March

Fortunato Depero - artist


Futurist who designed iconic Campari bottle

The Futurist painter, sculptor and graphic artist Fortunato Depero, who left a famous mark on Italian culture by designing the conical bottle in which Campari Soda is still sold today, was born on this day in 1892 in the Trentino region. Depero had a wide breadth of artistic talent, which encompassed painting, sculpture, architecture and graphic design. He designed magazine covers for the New Yorker, Vogue and Vanity Fair among others, created stage sets and costumes for the theatre, made sculptures and paintings and some consider his masterpiece to be the trade fair pavilion he designed for the 1927 Monza Biennale Internazionale delle Arti Decorative, which had giant block letters for walls. Yet it is the distinctive Campari bottle that has endured longest of all his creations. Read more...

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The Sicilian Vespers


How the French lost control of the island they were ruling

As the citizens of Palermo walked to vespers - evening prayer - in the church of Santo Spirito on this day in 1282, a French soldier grossly insulted a pretty young Sicilian woman. The girl’s enraged fiancé immediately drew his dagger and stabbed the soldier through the heart. The violence was contagious and the local people exploded in fury against the French occupying forces. More than 200 French soldiers were killed at the outset and the violence spread to other parts of Sicily the next day resulting in a full-scale rebellion against French rule. This bloody event, which led to Charles of Anjou losing control of Sicily, became known in history as the Sicilian Vespers. Read more…

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Ignazio Gardella – architect


Modernist who created Venetian classic

The engineer and architect Ignazio Gardella, considered one of the great talents of modern urban design in Italy, was born on this day in 1905 in Milan. He represented the fourth generation in a family of architects and his destiny was determined at an early age. He graduated in civil engineering in Milan in 1931 and architecture in Venice in 1949. Gardella designed numerous buildings during an active career that spanned almost six decades, including the Antituberculosis Dispensary in Alessandria, which is considered one of the purest examples of Italian Rationalism, and the Casa alle Zattere on the Giudecca Canal in Venice, in which he blended modernism with classical style in a way that has been heralded as genius. Read more…

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29 March 2019

29 March

Castruccio Castracani - condottiero


Mercenary soldier who ruled Lucca

Castruccio Castracani, a condottiero who ruled his home city of Lucca from 1316 to 1328, was born on this day in 1281. His relatively short life - he died at the age of 47 - was taken up with a series of battles, some fought on behalf of others, but latterly for his own ends in the conflict between the Guelphs and the Ghibellines that dominated medieval Italy as part of the power struggle between the Papacy and the Holy Roman Empire. Castruccio's story inspired a biography by Niccolò Machiavelli and later a novel by Mary Shelley. Born Castruccio Castracani degli Antelminelli, he was from a Ghibelline family. He was proclaimed Duke of Lucca soon afterward masterminding a battlefield victory that saw the Guelphs driven out of the city. Read more…

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Terence Hill – actor


Film star progressed from playing cowboys to become a popular parish priest

Terence Hill was born as Mario Girotti on this day in 1939 in Venice. He became an actor as a child and went on to have many starring roles in films, particularly spaghetti westerns. He took up the stage name Terence Hill after it was suggested as a publicity stunt by the producers of one of his films. It is said he had to pick from a list of names and chose one with his mother’s initials. Terence Hill later became a household name in Italy as the actor who played the lead character in the long-running television series, Don Matteo. Hill was given a part in an adventure film directed by Dino Risi when he was just 12 years old. At the height of his popularity, Hill was said to be among the highest-paid actors in Italy. Read more…

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Enea Bossi - aviation pioneer


Claimed first pedal-powered flight in 1936

Enea Bossi, the aviator credited - albeit disputedly - with building the world's first human-powered aeroplane, was born on this day in 1888 in Milan. It was claimed that in 1936 Bossi's Pedaliante aircraft flew for approximately 300 feet (91.4m) under pedal power alone. Piloted by Emilio Casco, a robustly built major in the Italian army and an experienced cyclist, the Pedaliante - or pedal glider - is said to have taken off and covered the distance while remaining a few feet off the ground, although in the absence of independent verification it is not counted as the first authenticated human-powered flight, which did not take place until 1961 in Southampton, England. The following year, as Bossi attempted to win a competition in Italy offering a prize of 100,000 lire for a successful human-powered flight, Casco succeeded in completing the required 1km (0.62 miles) distance at a height of 30 feet (9m) off the ground. Read more…

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Francesco Faà di Bruno - advocate for poor


Entered priesthood after appeal to pope

The blessed Francesco Faà di Bruno, a talented academic from a wealthy family who devoted much energy to helping the poor, disadvantaged and elderly, was born on this day in 1825 near Alessandria in Piedmont. A supporter of Italian unification, he was wounded while serving in the Piedmontese Army during the First Italian War of Independence. After leaving the army and becoming Professor of Mathematics at the University of Turin he began to devote time and money to helping the poor and disadvantaged.  He first provided food for the poor during the icy cold Turin winters and later founded the Society of Saint Zita for maids and domestic servants, later expanding it to include unmarried mothers. He helped establish hospitals and boarding houses for the elderly, poor and disabled At the age of 51 he became a priest. He was beatified 100 years after his death by Pope John Paul II. Read more...

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Castruccio Castracani - condottiero

Castruccio Castracani was a career soldier who ruled Lucca for 12 years
Castruccio Castracani was a career
soldier who ruled Lucca for 12 years

Mercenary soldier who ruled Lucca 


Castruccio Castracani, a condottiero who ruled his home city of Lucca from 1316 to 1328, was born on this day in 1281.

His relatively short life - he died at the age of 47 - was taken up with a series of battles, some fought on behalf of others, but latterly for his own ends in the conflict between the Guelphs and the Ghibellines that dominated medieval Italy as part of the power struggle between the Papacy and the Holy Roman Empire.

Castruccio's story inspired a biography by Niccolò Machiavelli and later a novel by Mary Shelley.

Born Castruccio Castracani degli Antelminelli, he was from a Ghibelline family and therefore a supporter of the Holy Roman Emperor in opposition to the Guelphs. He was exiled from Lucca at an early age with his parents and others by the Guelphs, then in the ascendancy.

Orphaned at 19, he lived initially in Pisa before moving to England, where he lived for some years and displayed a skill in the use of weapons that earned him victory in some tournaments and won the favour of King Edward I.

A scene from the important Battle of Montecatini in 1315, in which Castruccio masterminded a Ghibelline victory
A scene from the important Battle of Montecatini in 1315,
in which Castruccio masterminded a Ghibelline victory
However, after committing a murder, even though it was for reasons of honour, he was forced to leave England and went to France.

There he served as a condottiero - a kind of mercenary military leader - under Philip of France in Flanders. As commander of the cavalry, he distinguished himself in the clash of Arras and in the defence of Thérouanne in the Flanders War.

After a few years he returned to Italy, where he stayed in Verona and Venice. Later, he fought for the Visconti in Lombardy, and in 1313 under the Ghibelline chief, Uguccione della Faggiuola, Lord of Pisa.

When the German king Henry VII entered Italy to be crowned Holy Roman Emperor, Castruccio supported him alongside Uguccione and in 1314 led the Ghibelline forces back to Lucca, over which Uguccione was given power.

He fought as commander of a part of the Ghibelline army at the Battle of Montecatini in 1315, in which, with the help of the emperor's soldiers, he was the main architect of the victory over the Florentine Guelph League.

A drawing of Castruccio, kept at the  Biblioteca Statale in Lucca
A drawing of Castruccio, kept at the
Biblioteca Statale in Lucca
A rivalry developed between the two leaders, however, which at one point saw Castruccio imprisoned by Uguccione, pending execution. However, following a popular uprising in Lucca and Pisa, Uguccione had to flee, Castruccio was freed and in 1316 acclaimed Captain General of the city of Lucca.

In 1320 the emperor Frederick III appointed Castruccio imperial vicar of Lucca, Versilia, and Lunigiana. When the emperor Louis IV entered Italy to be crowned in Rome, Castruccio became one of his most active advisors.

In 1325 he defeated the Florentines at Altopascio, and was appointed by the emperor Duke of Lucca, Pistoia, Volterra and Luni. Two years later he captured Pisa, of which he was also made imperial vicar. He was by now one of the most powerful men in Italy.

Louis appointed him Count of Latran, Duke of Lucca, in 1324 with rights of succession for his heirs, and a senator of Rome.

But, subsequently, his relations with Louis became less friendly and he was afterwards excommunicated by Pope John XXII in the interests of the Guelphs.

The title page from Mary Shelley's novel, published in 1923
The title page from Mary Shelley's
novel, published in 1923
Castruccio died in Lucca on September 3, 1328, stricken with a sudden malarial fever as he prepared to take up arms against Florence. His left his empire disorganized and easy prey for the Florentines, who soon recaptured most of his holdings.

The story of Castruccio is said to have inspired Machiavelli, who published his biography, entitled La vita di Castruccio Castracani da Lucca, in 1520.

Three centuries later, the English writer Mary Shelley published a novel, in 1823, called Valperga: The Life and Adventures of Castruccio, Prince of Lucca, in which the condottiere’s armies threaten the fictional fortress of Valperga, governed by Countess Euthanasia, the woman he loves, who faces a dilemma over whether to choose him or political liberty.

It was taken at the time to be a love story but was later recognised as a sophisticated commentary on the right of autonomously governed communities to political liberty in the face of imperialistic encroachment.

More than four kilometres of walls, upon which work began in 1513, surround the city of Lucca
More than four kilometres of walls, upon which work
began in 1513, surround the city of Lucca
Travel tip:

Lucca is situated in western Tuscany, just 30km (19 miles) inland from Viareggio on the coast and barely 20km (12 miles) from Pisa, with its international airport.  It is often overlooked by travellers to the area in favour of Pisa’s Leaning Tower and the art treasures of Florence, 80km (50 miles) to the east, yet has much to recommend within its majestic walls, where visitors can stroll along narrow cobbled streets into a number of beautiful squares, with lots of cafes and restaurants for those content to soak up the ambiance, but also a wealth of churches, museums and galleries for those seeking a fix of history and culture.   The Renaissance walls, still intact, are an attraction in their own right, providing a complete 4.2km (2.6 miles) circuit of the city popular with walkers and cyclists.

Hotels in Lucca from Hotels.com

The Rocca Ariostesca at Castelnuovo di Garfagnana in Tuscany, about 50km (31 miles) north of Lucca
The Rocca Ariostesca at Castelnuovo di Garfagnana in
Tuscany, about 50km (31 miles) north of Lucca 
Travel tip:

Today, there remain many historical relics, especially fortifications and castles, that are linked with Castruccio Castracani. These include the Rocca Ariostesca at Castelnuovo di Garfagnana in the Lunigiana area, which Castruccio had substantially enlarged in the early 14th century, the fortress at Serravalle Pistoiese, the fortress of Sarzanello, near Sarzana, the Tower and Arch of Castruccio Castracani at Montopoli in Val d’Arno and the Rocca Arrighina, named after his son Arrigo, in Pietrasanta. The Augusta Fortress he built in Lucca in 1322, which had 29 towers and four access gates, with one side attached to the city walls, was demolished in 1370 on the orders of the Council of Elders. The Palazzo degli Anziani was built in its place.

More reading:

Federico da Montefeltro - the art-loving condottiero

Giovanni dalle Bande Nere, last of the great condottieri

How the Battle of Meloria sparked the decline of Pisa

Also on this day:

1825: The birth of the blessed Francesco Faà di Bruno, advocate for poor

1888: The birth of aviation pioneer Enea Bossi

1939: The birth of actor Terence Hill, star of hit TV show Don Matteo

(Picture credit: Rocca Ariostesca by Sailko; via Wikimedia Commons)


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28 March 2019

28 March

Alberto Grimaldi - film producer


Spaghetti western trilogy gave Naples producer his big break

Film producer Alberto Grimaldi, who boasts an extraordinary list of credits that includes Last Tango in Paris, The Canterbury Tales, Man of La Mancha, Fellini's Casanova, 1900, Ginger and Fred and Gangs of New York, was born on this day in 1925 in Naples. Grimaldi trained as a lawyer and it was in that capacity that he initially found work in the cinema industry in the 1950s. In the early 1960s he set up his own company, Produzioni Europee Associate (PEA), and it was a meeting with Sergio Leone, the Italian director, that earned him his big break.  Leone, whose first venture into the western genre, A Fistful of Dollars, had been an unexpected hit both for him and the young American actor, Clint Eastwood, sought Grimaldi’s legal advice when a dispute arose with his producers over the cost of a sequel and ended up sacking them in favour of Grimaldi’s PEA. Read more...

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Fra Bartolommeo - Renaissance great


Friar rated equal of Michelangelo, Raphael and Leonardo

Fra Bartolommeo, the Renaissance artist recognised as one of the greatest religious painters, was born on this day in 1472 in Savignano di Vaiano, in Tuscany. Also known as Baccio della Porta, a nickname he acquired because when he lived in Florence his lodgings were near what is now the Porta Romana, Bartolommeo created works that chart the development of artistic styles and fashion in Florence, from the earthly realism of the 15th century to the grandeur of High Renaissance in the 16th century. His most famous works include Annunciation, Vision of St Bernard, Madonna and Child with Saints, the Holy Family, the Mystic Marriage of St Catherine, God the Father with SS Catherine of Siena and Mary Magdalene and Madonna della Misericordia. Read more...

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Anselmo Colzani - opera star


Baritone who had 16 seasons at the New York Met

Anselmo Colzani, an operatic baritone who was a fixture at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in the 1960s and 1970s, as well as La Scala in his home country, was born on this day in 1918 in Budrio, a town not far from Bologna. His stage career continued until 1980, when he made his final stage appearance in one of his signature roles as Scarpia in Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca. Although his repertoire was much wider, his reputation became strongly associated with the works of Puccini and Giuseppe Verdi, with Jack Rance in Puccini's Fanciulla del West and the title role of Verdi's Falstaff, as well a Amonasro in Aida and Iago in Otello among his most famous roles. Colzani’s association with the Met began in March 1960. Read more...

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27 March 2019

27 March

Joe Sentieri - singer and actor


Career remembered for international hit song

The singer, songwriter and actor Joe Sentieri, who released seven albums and around 100 singles over the course of a career spanning more than a quarter of a century, died on this day in 2007 in the Adriatic coastal city of Pescara. Although he enjoyed considerable success in his own right, he tends to be remembered most for his association with an Italian song that became an international hit after it was translated into English. Sentieri’s 1961 song Uno dei tanti - One of the Many - was given English lyrics by the American record producers Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller and repackaged as I (Who Have Nothing). A hit first for the American soul and R&B star Ben E King, it was covered with huge success by the British artists Tom Jones and later Shirley Bassey. The Jones version reached No 14 in the Billboard Hot 100 chart, while Bassey’s climbed to No 6 in the UK singles chart. Read more...

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Alessandro La Marmora - military general


Founder of Italy's famed Bersaglieri corps

The general who founded the Italian army's famous Bersaglieri corps, Alessandro La Marmora, was born on this day in 1799 in Turin. One of four children in his family who grew up to serve as generals, La Marmora came up with the idea for the Bersaglieri in 1836. He envisaged a mobile elite corps similar to the French chasseurs and Austrian jägers, trained to a high physical level and all crack marksmen, who should act as scouts, providing screen for the main army, operate as skirmishers and use their sharpshooting skills to weaken the flanks of the enemy during a battle.  From this proposal emerged the Bersaglieri, soldiers who were trained to be bold, carrying out their duties with patriotic fervour. Famously, it was Bersaglieri soldiers - identifiable by the plume of feathers that adorns their headgear - who stormed Rome's Porta Pia gate in 1870 as the unification of Italy was completed with the defeat of the Papal States. Read more…

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Gianluigi Lentini - footballer with world record price tag


AC Milan outbid Juventus for Torino star

Gianluigi Lentini, born on this day in 1969, was for four years the world's most expensive footballer. A winger with Torino known for outstanding dribbling skills, crossing accuracy and lightning pace, Lentini was the subject of a fierce bidding war between Torino's city neighbours, Juventus, and defending Serie A champions AC Milan in the summer of 1992 which ended with Milan paying a fee of around £13 million for the 23-year-old star. It was the second time in the space of a few weeks that Milan had paid a world record sum for a player, having signed the French striker Jean-Pierre Papin from Marseille for £10 million. At a time when the Italian league was awash with cash, the Papin record had then been eclipsed when Juventus paid Sampdoria £12 million for striker Gianluca Vialli. The Lentini record would remain until Newcastle United forked out £15 million for the Blackburn and England striker Alan Shearer in 1996. Read more...

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Luca Zaia - politician


Popular president of Veneto tipped as future PM

The politician Luca Zaia, who was spoken of as a possible candidate to be Italy’s prime minister following the 2018 elections, was born on this day in 1968 in Conegliano, in the Veneto.  Zaia, who has been president of the Veneto region since 2010, received an approval rating of 56 per cent in a poll to find the most popular regional governor, the highest rating of any of Italy’s regional presidents.  A member of the Lega party, formerly Lega Nord (Northern League), he was suggested by some commentators as a dark horse for the position of President of the Council of Ministers - the official title of Italy’s prime minister - after the March 1 election of last year produced no overall winner.  Before successfully standing to be Veneto’s president, he had served in national government as Minister of Agriculture under Silvio Berlusconi. Read more...

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Joe Sentieri - singer and actor

Joe Sentieri began his career on ocean liners in the 1950s, soon becoming popular with holiday-makers
Joe Sentieri began his career on ocean liners in the 1950s,
soon becoming popular with holiday-makers

Career remembered for international hit song


The singer, songwriter and actor Joe Sentieri, who released seven albums and around 100 singles over the course of a career spanning more than a quarter of a century, died on this day in 2007 in the Adriatic coastal city of Pescara.

Although he enjoyed considerable success in his own right, he tends to be remembered most for his association with an Italian song that became an international hit after it was translated into English.

Sentieri’s 1961 song Uno dei tanti - One of the Many - was given English lyrics by the American producing partners Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller and repackaged as I (Who Have Nothing).

Sentieri enjoyed a number of hits in Italy but is best known for a song that brought success for others
Sentieri enjoyed a number of hits in Italy but is best
known for a song that brought success for others
A hit first for the American soul and R&B star Ben E King, it was covered with considerable success by the British artists Tom Jones and later Shirley Bassey. The Jones version reached No 14 in the Billboard Hot 100 chart, while Bassey’s climbed to No 6 in the UK singles chart in 1963 and became a staple of her concert repertoire.

Countless other cover versions were released over time, by performers as diverse as Petula Clark and Joe Cocker, Katherine Jenkins and Gladys Knight.  The song has also featured in the hit US television series, The Sopranos.

Sentieri was born Rino Luigi Sentieri in Genoa in March 1925. He grew up in a working-class neighbourhood in the port area and was sent out to work at a young age, going into the mountains above the city where there were opencast coal mines, loading bags of coal on to a truck to be sold by his father.

His musical talent emerged after he was given a mandolin as a present and taught himself to play. He learned the accordion, too, and helped supplement the family income by busking. He also developed a good singing voice, and in the early 1950s began to find work on the cruise ships and transatlantic liners that regularly sailed from Genoa to the Americas.

Sentieri with Wilma De Angelis at the 1960 Festival di San Remo
Sentieri with Wilma De Angelis at the 1960
Festival di San Remo
Modelling himself on Elvis Presley with a touch of Little Richard thrown in, he became a very popular performer, especially in South America and in New York, where he would stay for long periods. He ended each performance with a trademark jump, apparently the legacy of a show he gave during a particularly rough voyage, when right at the end of his closing number the ship rolled suddenly and he instinctively jumped to stop himself falling.

Back in Italy he made his debut on dry land in 1956 as a singer of the orchestra of Corrado Bezzi, with whom he also recorded some 78rpm records for the Italian RCA label, under the name of Rino Sentieri.

His career accelerated after he took part in the Festival of Musichiere at the Arena di Verona in 1959, with a song written by Domenico Modugno, who also provided him with the winning entry - Piove (ciao ciao bambina) - at the prestigious Canzonissima song contest of the same year, by which time he had decided on Joe as a stage name.

As well as making numerous records, Sentieri was also chosen to sing the theme song for the 1960 Olympic Games of Rome, entitled Welcome To Rome, and gained a number of parts in movies, including a couple for the director Damiano Damiani, one of which - La moglie più bella (The Most Beautiful Wife) - featured the screen debut at 14 of the future star Ornella Muti.

He decided to end his career in the 1980s so that he could devote more time to his love of painting, a hobby he had maintained since childhood. He and his partner, Dora, moved to Pescara, where he would exhibit from time to time. He accepted some invitations to sing or appear on television and actually released a collection of Genovese songs in 1996, although he preferred a quiet life.

He ended his days in considerably reduced circumstances compared with peak of his career, mainly as a result of bad luck with his investments. He spent 40 million lire on some land at Rapallo which was then compulsorily purchased by the government for 16 million, saw his record shop go bust and had his fingers burnt on another property investment, in a country club outside Genoa.

As a result, he was left to live on little more than a €700-a-month state pension, before premier Silvio Berlusconi decided he should benefit to the tune of an extra €1,000 per month as a result of the Becchalli Law, which allows governments to provide special help to “illustrious citizens” who have fallen on hard times.

Sentieri died in a clinic in Pescara a few weeks after suffering a stroke, at the age of 82.

Gabriele D'Annunzio's childhood home in Pescara contains a museum dedicated to his life
Gabriele D'Annunzio's childhood home in
Pescara contains a museum dedicated to his life 
Travel tip:

Pescara, a city of almost 120,000 people on the Adriatic in the Abruzzo region, is known for its 10 miles of clean, sandy beaches, yet is only 50km (31 miles) from the Gran Sasso mountain range, the snow-capped peaks of which are visible even from the coast on a clear winter’s day. The city is the birthplace of the poet, patriot and military leader, Gabriele D’Annunzio. His childhood home, the Casa Natale di Gabriele D’Annunzio, which can be found in the historic centre of the city on the south side of the Fiume Pescara, which bisects the city, houses a museum about his life and works. The Museo delle Genti d'Abruzzo has exhibitions on regional industries like ceramics and olive oil. Pieces by Miró and Picasso are on view at the Vittoria Colonna Museum of Modern Art.

The Piazza de Ferrari in the centre of Genoa is always a hub of lively activity
The Piazza de Ferrari in the centre of Genoa is
always a hub of lively activity
Travel tip:

The port city of Genoa, known in Italy as Genova, is the capital of the Liguria region. It has a rich history as a powerful trading centre with considerable wealth built on its shipyards and steelworks, but also boasts many fine buildings, many of which have been restored to their original splendour.  The Doge's Palace, the 16th century Royal Palace and the Romanesque-Renaissance style San Lorenzo Cathedral are just three examples.  The area around the restored harbour area offers a maze of fascinating alleys and squares, enhanced recently by the work of Genoa architect Renzo Piano, and a landmark aquarium, the largest in Italy.

More reading:

Patty Pravo - the '60s star still performing today

Italy's biggest-selling recording artist of all time

How Domenico Modugno wrote the iconic Italian ballad Volare

Also on this day:

1799: The birth of Alessandro La Marmora, founder of Italy's Bersaglieri corps

1968: The birth of popular politician Luca Zaia

1969: The birth of Gianluigi Lentini, once the world's most expensive footballer


(Picture credit: D'Annunzio house by Rae Bo; Fountain by Roberta de roberto; via Wikimedia Commons) 

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26 March 2019

26 March

Guccio Gucci – fashion designer


The man whose name inspired the interlocking G logo

The founder of the House of Gucci, Guccio Gucci, was born on this day in 1881 in Florence. In the early 1900s Gucci worked as a lift boy at the Savoy Hotel in London, where he was inspired by the elegance of the wealthy people who stayed there and their smart luggage. On his return to Florence he started making his own line of leather travel bags and accessories and in the 1920s he opened a small leather and equestrian shop in Via della Vigna Nuova. Gucci later added handbags to his line and relocated to a bigger shop. He was fascinated with horses and his handbags featured clasps and fasteners resembling horse bits and stirrups. He gained a reputation for hiring the best craftsmen he could to work on his products. In 1938 he expanded his business to Rome, in 1951 he opened a store in Milan and two years later expanded overseas by opening a store in Manhattan, establishing Gucci as a worldwide brand. Read more...

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Elio de Angelis - racing driver


The 'last gentleman racer' of Formula One

The Formula One motor racing driver Elio de Angelis was born on this day in 1958 in Rome. His record of winning two Grands Prix from 108 career starts in F1 may not look impressive but he was regarded as a talented driver among his peers, holding down a place with Lotus for six consecutive seasons alongside of such talents as Nigel Mansell and Ayrton Senna, both future world champions. He had his best seasons in 1984 and 1985, which encompassed seven of his nine career podium finishes and in which he finished third and fifth respectively in the drivers' championship standings. Seen as “the last of the gentleman racers”, tragically he was killed in testing the following year, having left Lotus for Brabham in frustration after perceiving that Senna was being given more favourable treatment. Read more…

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Lella Lombardi - racing driver


Only woman to win points in Formula One

Maria Grazia “Lella” Lombardi, the only female driver to finish in a points position in a Formula One world championship motor race, was born on this day in 1941 in Frugarolo, near Alessandria in Piedmont. She finished out of the points in 11 of the 12 world championship rounds which she started between 1974 and 1976 but finished sixth in the 1975 Spanish Grand Prix, a race marred by the tragic deaths of five spectators after the car being driven by the German driver Rolf Stommelen went out of control and somersaulted over a barrier into the crowd. The race was halted four laps later when it became known there had been fatalities. At that moment, Lombardi’s March-Ford was in sixth position, albeit two laps between race leader Jochen Mass. Read more…

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25 March 2019

25 March

Tina Anselmi - ground-breaking politician


Former partisan became Italy’s first female cabinet minister

The politician Tina Anselmi, who made history in 1976 as the first woman to hold a ministerial position in an Italian government and later broke new ground again when she was appointed to chair the public inquiry into the infamous Propaganda Due masonic lodge, was born on this day in 1927 in Castelfranco Veneto. A former Second World War partisan, Anselmi served as Minister for Labour and Social Security and then Minister for Health under prime minister Giulio Andreotti. In 1981, she became the first woman to lead a public inquiry in Italy when she was asked to head the commission looking into the clandestine P2 masonic lodge, an illegal association of prominent journalists, members of parliament, industrialists, and military leaders suspected of involvement in many scandals in pursuit of an ultra-right agenda. Read more…

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Mina - pop star


Italy’s all-time top selling female artist

The pop singer Anna Maria Mazzini, better known simply as Mina, was born on this day in 1940 in the Lombardy city of Busto Arzisio. Since her debut single in 1958, Mina has sold well in excess of 150 million records, which makes her the top-selling female performer in Italian music history. Only her fellow 60s star Adriano Celentano can boast larger figures. The pair worked together on one of Italy’s biggest-selling albums of all-time in 1998, selling 2.365 million copies. Mina, who attracted opprobrium for wearing short skirts, heavy make-up and openly smoking at a time when the Catholic Church still set strict moral codes, also enjoys an iconic status in the history of female emancipation in Italy as a result of the sensational ban imposed on her by the state television station RAI in 1963. Read more…

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Francesco I - Grand Duke of Tuscany


Florentine ruler at heart of Medici murder mystery

Francesco I, the Medici Grand Duke whose death at the age of 46 became the subject of a murder mystery still unsolved 430 years later, was born on this day in 1541 in Florence. The second to be given the title Grand Duke of Tuscany, Francesco was the son of Cosimo I de' Medici, the first to hold the title, and Eleonor of Toledo. He continued his father's patronage of the arts, supporting artists and building the Medici Theatre as well as founding the Accademia della Crusca and the Uffizi Gallery, but - like his father - he was often a despotic leader.  He and his second wife, his former mistress, Bianca Cappello, died just 12 hours apart in October 1587, at the Medici family villa in Poggio a Caiano.  The death certificates stated malaria as the cause, but it has been widely speculated since that the couple was poisoned, possibly by Francesco's brother, Ferdinando. Read more…

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Tina Anselmi - ground-breaking politician

Former partisan became Italy’s first female cabinet minister


Tina Anselmi was the first Italian woman to hold a position inside an Italian cabinet
Tina Anselmi was the first Italian woman to
hold a position inside an Italian cabinet
The politician Tina Anselmi, who made history in 1976 as the first woman to hold a ministerial position in an Italian government and later broke new ground again when she was appointed to chair the public inquiry into the infamous Propaganda Due masonic lodge, was born on this day in 1927 in Castelfranco Veneto.

Anselmi was chosen as Minister for Labour and Social Security and then Minister for Health in the government led by Giulio Andreotti from 1976 to 1979.

In 1981, she became the first woman to lead a public inquiry in Italy when she was asked to head the commission looking into the clandestine and illegal P2 masonic lodge, which had among its members prominent journalists, members of parliament, industrialists, and military leaders and was suspected of involvement in many scandals in pursuit of an ultra-right agenda.

Anselmi’s political views were heavily influenced by her upbringing in the Veneto during the years of Mussolini and war. She was from a comfortable background - her father was a pharmacist in Castelfranco Veneto, while her mother ran an osteria with her grandmother - but became aware of the threat to freedom posed by the Fascist system when he father was persecuted by Mussolini’s supporters for expressing socialist views.

 The Via dei Martiri in Bassano del Grappa celebrates the memory of the massacred partisans
The Via dei Martiri in Bassano del Grappa
celebrates the memory of the massacred partisans
The defining moment came in 1944, by which time she had finished high school in Castelfranco and was attending a Teaching Institute in nearby Bassano del Grappa. On September 26 of that year, aged 17, she and her fellow pupils were summoned to the town’s main square to witness the hanging of 31 young partisans, many of them not much older than her, by soldiers of the occupying German army.

The executions were intended to strike fear into anyone thinking of joining the growing resistance movement. On Anselmi, it had the opposite effect.

Under the nom de guerre Gabriella, she became a courier for the partisans, making journeys by bicycle of up to 70 miles (113km) a day on behalf of the Cesare Battisti brigade - named after the Italian patriot hanged by the Austrians in 1916 - smuggling weapons and ammunition and delivering messages.

It was extremely dangerous work. Her commander had told her that if she were caught, the best she could hope for was that she would be killed at once.

The experience made her understand what democracy meant and she resolved to spend her life defending the values it enshrined and the rights of the individual, especially those of women.

When the Second World War had ended, she studied literature at the Catholic University of Milan and became a primary school teacher. She held positions in Christian trade unions, including the primary teachers' union from 1948-55.

Anselmi chaired the inquiry into the illegal P2 masonic lodge
Anselmi chaired the inquiry into
the illegal P2 masonic lodge
Her career in politics began in earnest in 1959. Unlike other partisans drawn towards communism, Anselmi had joined the Christian Democracy Party at the end of the war and in 1959 she became a member of the party’s national council as head of youth programmes.

Re-elected five times as a deputy for the Venice-Treviso district, Anselmi served three times as under-secretary to the Department of Work and Social Services, and in 1976 she became the first woman to be a member of an Italian cabinet.

She is best known for having been the main proposer of Italian laws on equal opportunities. She passed a bill which recognised fathers as primary caregivers for their children and supported legislation on gender parity in employment conditions. She played a significant role in the introduction of Italy's National Health Service.

Throughout her career, Anselmi earned respect as a straight-talking campaigner, but also as a politician whose first thought was for her responsibility to the public, rather than the direction of her career.

When she was appointed to lead the P2 enquiry, it soon became clear that she had every intention of disturbing the established order and with so many high-profile and well-connected individuals under suspicion she found herself variously followed, threatened - dynamite was found at her house in Rome - and spied on as part of several attempts to warn her off.

Yet after four years and almost 500 sessions, the inquiry reported in 1984 and concluded that P2’s network of power represented a clear threat to democracy. It was a triumph for Anselmi, although much to her frustration and disappointment, her proposed reforms were left to gather dust.

In the broader picture, however, the work of Anselmi’s commission was an important part of the process of exposing corruption in the Italian political system, which would reach a conclusion a decade later with the dismantling of both the Christian Democrats and the Italian Socialist Party, along with the Social Democrats and the Liberals, with new groups emerging in their place.

After her retirement, Anselmi was mooted as a potential candidate for the presidency of Italy, although ill health counted against her. She died in Castelfranco in 2016 at the age of 89.

Travel tip:

Bassano del Grappa is an historic town at the foot of Monte Grappa in the Vicenza province of the Veneto, famous for inventing grappa, a spirit made from the grape skins and stalks left over from wine production, which is popular with Italians as an after dinner drink to aid digestion. The town’s main attraction is the Ponte degli Alpini, also known as the Ponte Vecchio, a bridge across the Brenta river designed in 1569 by Andrea Palladio. It has been rebuilt several times after being damaged or destroyed by wars but always to the original design. The painter Jacopo Bassano was born in Bassano del Grappa and took his name from the town.

The walls of Castelfranco Veneto have been providing protection for the old city since 1211
The walls of Castelfranco Veneto have been providing
protection for the old city since 1211
Travel tip:

Castelfranco Veneto, a small town midway between Treviso and Vicenza in the Veneto region, is notable for its fortified old city, which lies at the centre of the town surrounded by high walls and a moat. Inside are a number of streets and the old city’s Duomo, which contains an altarpiece by the town’s most famous son, the High Renaissance artist Giorgione, thought to have been painted between 1503 and 1504. Next to the Duomo is the Casa Giorgione, thought to have been the artist’s home, which is now a museum.

More reading:

How Giulio Andreotti became the great political survivor

Which names were on the P2 list?

Cesare Battisti - the patriot who fought to reclaim Trentino from Austrian rule

Also on this day:

1541: The birth of Francesco I, the Florentine ruler at the heart of a Medici murder mystery

1940: The birth of pop singer Mina, Italy's all-time best-selling female recording artist


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24 March 2019

24 March

Guido Menasci - poet, librettist and biographer


Respected writer and historian who found fame from an opera

The writer Guido Menasci, who is best known as a co-author of the libretto for composer Pietro Mascagni’s successful opera Cavalleria rusticana but was also a respected historian, was born on this day in 1867 in the Tuscan port of Livorno. Menasci, a law graduate from the University of Pisa and briefly a prosecutor at the Court of Appeal in Lucca, wrote for a number of literary magazines in Italy and beyond and produced a biography of the German poet and playwright Johann Wolfgang Goethe that is considered a definitive work. Alongside fellow librettist Giovanni Targioni-Tozzetti, he collaborated with Mascagni on a number of operas, the most famous of which by some way was Cavalleria rusticana, which was performed for the first time in 1890, at the Teatro Costanzi in Rome. Read more...

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Dario Fo – writer and actor


Prolific playwright put the spotlight on corruption

Playwright and entertainer Dario Fo was born in Leggiuno Sangiano in Lombardy on this day in 1926. His plays have been widely performed and translated into many different languages. He is perhaps most well known for Accidental Death of an Anarchist and Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1997. Fo’s early work is peppered with criticisms of the corruption, crime, and racism that affected life in Italy at the time. He later moved on to ridicule Forza Italia and Silvio Berlusconi. The writer’s most celebrated solo piece, Mistero Buffo, which he presented as though he were a travelling player in medieval times, was denounced as blasphemous by the Vatican because of material relating to the life and times of Christ. He wrote Accidental Death of an Anarchist, a play first performed in 1970, after the so-called 'accidental' fall from the window of a Milan police station of a man being questioned about a bomb attack on a bank. Read more...

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Luigi Einaudi - politician and winemaker


Composer's grandfather was President of the Republic

The politician and winemaker Luigi Einaudi was born on this day in 1874 in Carrù, in what is now Piedmont. Einaudi, who is the grandfather of the musician and composer Ludovico Einaudi and the father of publisher Giulio Einaudi, was President of the new Italian Republic between 1948 and 1955, the second person to occupy the post. Initially a socialist, in 1919 he became co-founder of the Italian Liberal Party (PLI), which helped Mussolini win the 1924 general election. But after the socialist politician Giacomo Matteotti was murdered in 1924, Einaudi distanced himself from the Fascists and was among the signatories of the 1925 Manifesto of the Anti-Fascist Intellectuals. Einaudi became part of Italy's governing National Council prior to the formation of the Republic in 1946, in which he served in several ministerial positions before his election as President.  He entered the wine business in 1897 at the age of 23 when he acquired an 18th century farmhouse called San Giacomo outside Dogliani, his mother's home town. Read more…

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Mimmo Jodice - photographer


Camera work with shades of metaphysical art

Domenico ‘Mimmo’ Jodice, who has been a major influence on artistic photography in Italy for half a century, was born on this day in 1934 in Naples. Jodice, who was professor of photography at the Accademia di Belle Arti di Napoli from 1969 to 1996, is best known for his atmospheric photographs of urban scenes, especially in his home city. Often these pictures reflected his fascination with how Italian cities habitually mix the present and the future with echoes of the past in their urban landscapes, with the incongruous juxtapositions of ancient and modern that were characteristic of metaphysical art occurring naturally as part of urban evolution. His books Vedute di Napoli (Views of Naples) and Lost in Seeing: Dreams and Visions of Italy have been international bestsellers and he has exhibited his work all over the world. Read more…

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