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.

31 May 2019

31 May

Tintoretto - painter


Dyer’s son whose work still adorns Venice

Renaissance artist Tintoretto died on this day in 1594 in Venice.  Known for his boundless energy, the painter was also sometimes referred to as Il Furioso.  His paintings are populated by muscular figures, make bold use of perspective and feature the colours typical of the Venetian school.  Tintoretto was an expert at depicting crowd scenes and mythological subjects and during his successful career received important commissions to produce paintings for the Scuola Grande di San Marco and the Scuolo Grande di San Rocco.  Tintoretto was born Jacopo Comin, the son of a dyer (tintore), which earned him the nickname Tintoretto, meaning 'little dyer'.   As a child, he daubed on his father’s walls so the dyer took him to the studio of Titian to see if he could be trained as an artist.  Things did not work out and Tintoretto was quickly sent home. Instead, he studied on his own and practised his technique day and night.  One of Tintoretto’s early pictures, which is still in the Church of the Carmine in Venice, is the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple. Read more…

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Andrew Grima - royal jeweller


Rome-born craftsman favoured by the Queen of England

The jewellery designer Andrew Grima, whose clients included the British Royal Family, was born on this day in 1921 in Rome.  Grima, whose flamboyant use of dramatically large, rough-cut stones and brilliant innovative designs revolutionised modern British jewellery, achieved an enviable status among his contemporaries.  After the Duke of Edinburgh had given the Queen a brooch of carved rubies and diamonds designed by Grima as a gift, he was awarded a Royal Warrant and rapidly became the jeweller of choice for London’s high society, as well as celebrities and film stars from around the world.  He won 13 De Beers Diamonds International Awards, which is more than any other jeweller, and examples of his work are kept by the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths.  When a private collection of Grima pieces was sold at auction by Bonhams in London in September 2017, some 93 lots realised a total of more than £7.6 million (€8.6m), with one pear-shaped blue diamond alone making £2.685m (€3.034m).  Grima studied mechanical engineering at Nottingham University and his move into the jewellery business came purely by chance.  Read more…

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Angelo Moriondo - espresso machine pioneer


Bar and hotel owner invented way to make coffee faster

Angelo Moriondo, the man credited with inventing the world’s first espresso coffee machine, died on this day in 1914 in Marentino, a town in Piedmont, about 20km (12 miles) east of Turin.  Moriondo, who was 62 when he passed away, was the owner of the Grand-Hotel Ligure in Turin’s Piazza Carlo Felice and the American Bar in the former Galleria Nazionale on Via Roma.  He came up with the idea of a coffee machine essentially in the hope of gaining an edge over his competition at a time when coffee was a hugely popular beverage across Europe and in Italy in particular, but which still depended on brewing methods that required the customer to wait five minutes or more to be able to raise a cup to his mouth.  Moriondo figured that if he could find a way to make multiple cups of coffee simultaneously he would be able to serve more customers more quickly.  Experts say that his invention was undoubtedly the first to use water and pressurised steam to accelerate the coffee-making process and it was therefore reasonable to declare it to be the world’s first espresso machine.  Read more…

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30 May 2019

30 May

General Giulio Douhet - military strategist


Army commander was one of first to see potential of air power

The Italian Army general Giulio Douhet, who saw the military potential in aircraft long before others did, was born in Caserta, north of Naples, on this day in 1869.  With the arrival of airships and then fixed-wing aircraft in Italy, Douhet recognized the military potential of the new technology. He advocated the creation of a separate air arm commanded by airmen rather than by commanders on the ground. From 1912 to 1915 Douhet served as commander of the Aeronautical Battalion, Italy’s first aviation unit.  Largely because of Douhet, the three-engine Caproni bomber - designed by the young aircraft engineer Gianni Caproni - was ready for use by the time Italy entered the First World War.  His severe criticism of Italy’s conduct of the war, however, resulted in his court-martial and imprisonment. Only after a review of Italy’s catastrophic defeat in 1917 in the Battle of Caporetto was it decided that his criticisms had been justified and his conviction reversed.  Read more...

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Giacomo Matteotti - martyr of freedom


Politician kidnapped and murdered by Fascist thugs

A brave and historic speech made in the Italian parliament on this day in 1924 marked the start of a crisis for Benito Mussolini's Fascist government.  The young socialist politician who delivered the speech, denouncing the Fascist victory in the general election held in April of that year as having been won through fraud and violence, was Giacomo Matteotti, the 29-year-old founder and leader of the Unified Socialist Party. He accused Mussolini's party of employing thugs to intimidate the public into voting Fascist and said that changes to electoral law were inherently corrupt in that they were framed to make a Mussolini government almost inevitable.  Less than two weeks later, on June 10, Matteotti was walking along the banks of the River Tiber close to his home in Rome when he was attacked by five or six assailants who beat him up and bundled him into a car.  His body was not discovered until August 16, buried in a shallow grave about 30 kilometres outside Rome. Read more…

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Andrea Verga - anatomist and neurologist


Professor among founding fathers of Italian psychiatry

The anatomist and neurologist Andrea Verga, who was one of the first Italian doctors to carry out serious research into mental illness, was born on this day in 1811 in Treviglio in Lombardy.  Verga’s career was notable for his pioneering study of the criminally insane, for some of the first research into acrophobia - the fear of heights - which was a condition from which he suffered, and for the earliest known experiments in the therapeutic use of cannabis.  For a number of years, he held the post of Professor of Psychiatry at the Ospedale Maggiore in Milan. He also founded, in conjunction with another physician, Serafino Biffi, the Italian Archives for Nervous Disease and Mental Illness, a periodical in which research findings could be shared and discussed.  Verga was also the first to identify an anomaly of the brain that occurs in only one in six people, which became known as ‘Verga’s ventricle’. Read more…

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Giovanni Gentile – philosopher


The principal intellectual spokesman for fascism

Giovanni Gentile, a major figure in Italian idealist philosophy, was born on this day in 1875 in Castelvetrano in Sicily.  Known as ‘the philosopher of Fascism’, Gentile was the ghostwriter of part of Benito Mussolini’s The Doctrine of Fascism in 1932. His own ‘actual idealism’ was strongly influenced by the German philosopher, Georg Hegel.  Gentile's rejection of individualism and acceptance of collectivism helped him justify the totalitarian element of Fascism.  Gentile was Minister of Education in the Fascist government of Italy from October 1922 to July 1924 carrying out wide reforms, which had a lasting impact on Italian education.  He was a member of the Fascist Grand Council between 1925 and 1929.  In 1944 a group of anti-Fascist partisans shot Gentile dead as he returned from the prefecture in Florence. Read more…

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General Giulio Douhet - military strategist

Army commander was one of first to see potential of air power


Giulio Douhet aroused opposition with his strident criticisms of Italy's army
Giulio Douhet aroused opposition with
his strident criticisms of Italy's army
The Italian Army general Giulio Douhet, who saw the military potential in aircraft long before others did, was born in Caserta, north of Naples, on this day in 1869.

With the arrival of airships and then fixed-wing aircraft in Italy, Douhet recognized the military potential of the new technology. He advocated the creation of a separate air arm commanded by airmen rather than by commanders on the ground. From 1912 to 1915 Douhet served as commander of the Aeronautical Battalion, Italy’s first aviation unit.

Largely because of Douhet, the three-engine Caproni bomber - designed by the young aircraft engineer Gianni Caproni - was ready for use by the time Italy entered the First World War.

His severe criticism of Italy’s conduct of the war, however, resulted in his court-martial and imprisonment. Only after a review of Italy’s catastrophic defeat in 1917 in the Battle of Caporetto was it decided that his criticisms had been justified and his conviction reversed.

Born into a family of Savoyard exiles who had migrated to Campania after the cession of Savoy to France, Douhet attended the Military Academy of Modena and was commissioned into the artillery of the Italian Army in 1882. He studied science and engineering at the Polytechnic of Turin.

In 1911, Italy went to war against the Ottoman Empire for control of Libya. It was the first conflict in which aircraft operated in reconnaissance, transport, spotting and limited bombing roles.

The wide-winged Caproni CA36 bomber was deployed as part of Douhet's strategy for winning control of the air
The wide-winged Caproni CA36 bomber was deployed as
part of Douhet's strategy for winning control of the air
In 1912 Douhet assumed command of the Italian aviation battalion at Turin, where he wrote a set of Rules for the Use of Airplanes in War (Regole per l'uso degli aeroplani in guerra).

But Douhet's preaching on air power made him enemies among his fellow senior officers, some of whom branded him too radical. After an incident in which he allegedly ordered the construction of Caproni bombers without authorization, he was stripped of his position and exiled to the infantry.

At the start of the First World War, Douhet called for Italy to focus on building their air power, telling military leaders and politicians that command of the air would render enemy troops harmless. When Italy did enter the war in 1915, he was outspoken in his criticisms of the army, branding them “incompetent and unprepared”. He proposed a force of 500 bombers, dropping 125 tons of bombs on the Austrian enemy every day.

However, his relentless criticisms provoked anger and resentment among his superiors and government officials. A court-martial found him guilty and he was imprisoned for one year.

Douhet's book, The Command of the Air, informed the strategy of the major powers
Douhet's book, The Command of the Air,
informed the strategy of the major powers
Douhet’s confinement did not deter him. He continued to write about air power from his cell, proposing a massive Allied fleet of aircraft. Soon after the disastrous Battle of Caporetto, which saw Italy’s 2nd Army routed by Austro-Hungarian forces with the loss of 40,000 troops dead or wounded and 265,000 captured, it was accepted that Douhet’s criticisms should not have been rejected. He was released, then recalled to service in 1918, when he was appointed head of the Italian Central Aeronautic Bureau.

He was fully exonerated by a 1920 enquiry and promoted to general in 1921. He retired from military service soon afterwards, however.

Douhet’s most noted book is Il dominio dell’aria - The Command of the Air - which led to strategic air power becoming an accepted part of military thinking. The US Army Air Corps had a translation of Il dominio dell’aria made by the mid-1920s and controversial though his ideas originally seemed to be, many were adopted by the major powers during the Second World War.

Some of his arguments have not been borne out. He 1928 he claimed that dropping 300 tons of bombs on the most important cities would end a war in less than a month, yet during the Second World War, the Allies dropped more than 2.5 million tons of bombs on Europe without bringing the conflict to an end.

More than 70 years on, however, some of his concepts continue to underpin air power.

A supporter of Mussolini, Douhet was appointed commissioner of aviation when the Fascists assumed power but what was essentially a bureaucrat's job did not suit him and he soon quit to continue writing. He died from a heart attack in Rome in 1930.

The incredible two-mile long watercourse that stretches down towards the northern facade of the Royal Palace
The incredible two-mile long watercourse that stretches down
towards the northern facade of the Royal Palace
Travel tip:

Caserta’s is best known for its former Royal Palace - the Reggia di Caserta - which is one of the largest palaces in Europe, built to rival the palace of Versailles outside Paris, which was the principal residence of the French royal family until the French Revolution of 1789. Constructed for the Bourbon kings of Naples, it was the largest palace and one of the largest buildings erected in Europe during the 18th century and has been described as "the swan song of the spectacular art of the Baroque”.


Turin's Royal Military Academy, which was destroyed in the Second World War, was near the Royal Palace (above)
Turin's Royal Military Academy, which was destroyed in the
Second World War, was near the Royal Palace (above)
Travel tip:

Turin has a strong military tradition. The Royal Military Academy in Turin was the oldest military academy in the world, dating back to the 17th century. It was created by Duke Carlo Emanuele II of Savoy, who had the idea of creating an institute to train members of the ruling class and army officers in military strategy.  It was inaugurated on January 1, 1678, which predates the Royal Academy at Woolwich in Britain by 42 years and the Russian Academy in Petersburg, by 45 years. The court architect Amedeo di Castellamonte designed the building, work on which began in 1675. Unfortunately, the building was almost totally destroyed in 1943, during Allied air attacks.

More reading:

Why Luigi Cadorna was blamed for Caporetto defeat

The Neapolitan general who led Italian troops to decisive World War One victory

Pietro Badoglio, the controversial general who turned against Mussolini

Also on this day: 

1811: The birth of neurologist Andrea Verga, one of first to study mental illness

1875: The birth of Fascist intellectual Giovanni Gentile

1924: The murder of socialist politician Giacomo Matteotti


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29 May 2019

29 May

Michele Schirru - would-be assassin


Anarchist executed for plotting to kill Mussolini

The Sardinian-born anarchist Michele Schirru was executed by firing squad in Rome on this day in 1931.  Schirru, a former socialist revolutionary who had emigrated to the United States, had been arrested on suspicion of plotting to assassinate the Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini.  Seized at a hotel in Rome in February 1931, having arrived in the capital about three weeks earlier, he was tried by the Special Fascist Court and after he had loudly declared his hatred of both Fascism and communism was found guilty.  A death sentence was handed down at a further hearing on May 28 and the execution was carried out at first light the following day at the Casal Forte Braschi barracks on the western outskirts of Rome, where 24 Sardinian soldiers had answered the call to volunteer for the firing squad.  Schirru died screaming ‘long live anarchy, long live freedom, down with Fascism’. Read more…


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Franca Rame – actress, writer and politician


Artistic collaborator and wife of Dario Fo

The actress and writer Franca Rame, much of whose work was done in collaboration with her husband, the Nobel Prize-winning actor, playwright and satirist Dario Fo, died in Milan on this day in 2013 at the age of 83.  One of Italy's most admired and respected stage performers, her contribution to Dario Fo’s work was such that his 1997 Nobel prize for literature probably should have been a joint award. In the event, on receipt of the award, Fo announced he was sharing it with his wife.  Rame was also a left-wing militant. A member of the Italian Communist Party from 1967, she was elected to the Italian senate in 2006 under the banner of the Italy of Values party, a centre-left anti-corruption grouping led by Antonio di Pietro, the former prosecutor who had led the Mani Pulite (“Clean Hands”) corruption investigation in the 1990s.  Later she was an independent member of the Communist Refoundation Party.  Her politics made her enemies, however.  In 1973, she was kidnapped at gunpoint on a Milan street by a group of neo-Fascist men who raped and tortured her. Read more…


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Katie Boyle – actress and television presenter


Daughter of Italian Marquis became the face of Eurovision

Television personality Katie Boyle was born Caterina Irene Maria Imperiali di Francavilla on this day in 1926 in Florence.  The actress, who became known for her appearances on panel games such as What’s My Line?, and also for presenting the Eurovision Song Contest on the BBC, was the daughter of an Italian marquis, the Marchese Imperiali di Francavilla, and his English wife, Dorothy Kate Ramsden.  At the age of 20, Caterina moved from Italy to the UK to begin a modelling career and she went on to appear in several 1950s films.  In 1947 she had married Richard Bentinck Boyle, the ninth Earl of Shannon, and although the marriage was dissolved in 1955, she kept the surname, Boyle, throughout her career.  Boyle was an on screen continuity announcer for the BBC in the 1950s and then became a television personality who regularly appeared on panel games and quiz programmes.  She was the presenter of the 1960, 1963, 1968 and 1974 Eurovision Song Contests. Read more...

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28 May 2019

28 May

Geminiano Giacomelli – composer


Farnese duke encouraged musician to develop his talent

One of the most popular composers of opera in the early 18th century in Italy, Geminiano Giacomelli was born on this day in 1692 at Colorno near Parma.  From 1724, when his opera Ipermestra was first performed, up to his death in 1740, Giacomelli composed 19 operas.  His best known work was Cesare in Egitto, Caesar in Egypt, which he produced in 1735. As a young child he had studied singing, counterpoint and the harpsichord with Giovanni Maria Capelli, organist and composer at the Farnese court and maestro di cappella at the cathedral in Parma.  After moving to Piacenza, Giacomelli became maestro di cappella in the ducal parish of San Fermo. In 1719 he became maestro di cappella to the Farnese court and also at the Chiesa della Madonna della Steccata.  Duke Francesco Farnese became Giacomelli’s protector and made him maestro di cappella for life at the church of San Giovanni in Piacenza, although he ultimately moved to the Basilica della Santa Casa in Loreto in Le Marche. Read more…

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Caravaggio and a death in Campo Marzio


Hot-tempered artist killed man in Rome in row over a woman

The brilliant late Renaissance artist Caravaggio committed the murder that would cause him to spend the remainder of his life on the run on this day in 1606.  Renowned for his fiery temperament and history of violent acts as well as for the extraordinary qualities of his paintings, Caravaggio is said to have killed Ranuccio Tomassoni, described in some history books as a ‘wealthy scoundrel’, in the Campo Marzio district of central Rome, not far from the Piazza Monte D'Oro.  The incident led to Caravaggio being condemned to death by order of the incumbent pope, Paul V, and then fleeing the city, first to Naples, eventually landing in Malta.  It was thought that the two had a row over a game of tennis and that the dispute escalated into a brawl, during which Caravaggio drew a sword and fatally wounded his rival. However, English art historian Andrew Graham-Dixon claims Caravaggio killed Tomassoni in a botched attempt to castrate him.  Read more…

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The Last Supper goes back on display


Leonardo’s masterpiece put on show again at last

After more than 20 years of careful restoration, the world famous wall painting by Leonardo da Vinci, The Last Supper, was put back on display for visitors on this day in 1999. The masterpiece, which shows the different expressions on the faces of the disciples at the moment Jesus says the words, ‘One of you will betray me’, was finally back where it belonged on the wall of the refectory of the Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan. Commissioned by Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan, Leonardo began work on The Last Supper (known as Il Cenacolo in Italian) in 1495 and he completed it four years later. But he used a new technique that was not as durable as traditional ones and as early as 1556 the painting was described by one commentator as ‘ruined’. Over subsequent years it suffered all kinds of damage and by 1978 only a small part of Leonardo’s original work remained. But a restoration project was mounted to reverse the damage and the refectory was sealed and converted to provide a climate-controlled environment for the painting.  Read more...

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Leandro Jayarajah - cricketer


Father was a pioneer of game in Italy

Leandro Jayarajah, captain and head coach of Roma Capannelle Cricket Club, was born on this day in 1987 in Rome.  His father, Francis Alphonsus Jayarajah, usually known as Alfonso, is a Sri Lankan national who founded what became the Capannelle club in 1978 and was one of the pioneers of organised cricket in Italy.  Alfonso was co-founder in 1980 of the Federazione Cricket Italiana, under whose auspices an Italian cricket championship has been played since 1983.  Capannelle, which takes its name from the racecourse in Rome, the Ippodromo Capannelle, where the club plays its home matches, have been Serie A champions on five occasions, most recently under Leandro’s leadership in 2013.  The club began life as the Commonwealth Wandering Giants Cricket Club, changing its name when the chance to use the green space in the middle of the racecourse as a permanent home presented itself in 1983.  Leandro, a right-handed batsman who bowls off spin and occasionally keeps wicket has followed his father into international cricket as a member of the Italy team. He has also played club cricket in England and Australia. Read more...

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Geminiano Giacomelli – composer

Farnese duke encouraged musician to develop his talent


Geminiano Giacomelli composed 19 operas over the course of his career
Geminiano Giacomelli composed 19
operas over the course of his career
One of the most popular composers of opera in the early 18th century in Italy, Geminiano Giacomelli (sometimes known as Jacomelli) was born on this day in 1692 at Colorno near Parma.

From 1724, when his opera Ipermestra was performed for the first time, up to his death in 1740, Giacomelli composed 19 operas.

His best known work was Cesare in Egitto - Caesar in Egypt - which he produced in 1735.

As a young child he had studied singing, counterpoint and the harpsichord with Giovanni Maria Capelli, organist and composer at the Farnese court and maestro di cappella at the cathedral in Parma.

The cover page of Giacomelli's first opera, Ipermestra
The cover page of Giacomelli's
first opera, Ipermestra
After moving to Piacenza, Giacomelli became maestro di cappella in the ducal parish of San Fermo. In 1719 he became maestro di cappella to the Farnese court and also at the Chiesa della Madonna della Steccata. He wrote sacred music, including eight psalm settings for tenor and bass and some concertos with continuo.

Duke Francesco Farnese became Giacomelli’s protector and made him maestro di cappella for life at the church of San Giovanni in Piacenza with an annual salary.

He also allowed him time off to work on his operas. In 1728 Giacomelli composed Scipione in Cartagine nuova for the Teatro Ducale and the following year, Lucio Papirio dittatore for the visit of Rinaldo d’Este, Duke of Modena.

In 1738 Giacomelli became maestro di cappella at the Basilica della Santa Casa in Loreto in Le Marche. Giacomelli died in Loreto in January 1740.

Mochi's statue of Alexander Farnese in Piacenza
Mochi's statue of Alexander
Farnese in Piacenza
Travel tip:

Piacenza, where Geminiano Giacomelli worked for the Duke of Parma, is a city in the Emilia-Romagna region of northern Italy. The main square in Piacenza is named Piazza Cavalli because of its two bronze equestrian monuments featuring Alexander Farnese, Duke of Parma and his son Ranuccio I Farnese, Duke of Parma, who succeeded him. The statues are masterpieces by the sculptor Francesco Mochi.  The city is situated between the River Po and the Apennines, between Bologna and Milan. It has many fine churches and old palaces. Piacenza Cathedral was built in 1122 and is a good example of northern Italian Romanesque architecture.

The Basilica della Santa Casa in Loreto, where Giacomelli was maestro di cappella until his death in 1740
The Basilica della Santa Casa in Loreto, where Giacomelli
was maestro di cappella until his death in 1740
Travel tip:

Loreto in Le Marche, where Giacomelli worked until his death, is a hill town, about 5km (3 miles) inland from the Adriatic coast, about 25km (16 miles) south of Ancona. The Basilica della Santa Casa, where he was maestro di cappella, is a beautiful, late Gothic structure containing works of art by Luca Signorelli and Lorenzo Lotto. The town is easily identified from a distance away by the dome of the basilica, which stands taller than anything else in the area. It takes its name from the rustic stone cottage that once occupied its site - and indeed is preserved inside the structure of the cathedral - which was said to be the place of refuge to which angels brought the Madonna as a safe haven after the Saracens had invaded the Holy Land.

More reading:

Francesca Cuzzoni, 18th century soprano with a fiery temper

Ranucio Farnese and a deadly feud

The genius of Alessandro Scarlatti

Also on this day:

1606: Caravaggio and the fight that left a man dead

1987: The birth of Italian cricketer Leandro Jayarajah

1999: Da Vinci's The Last Supper goes on display after restoration


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27 May 2019

27 May

Giuseppe Tornatore - writer and director


Oscar winner for Cinema Paradiso

The screenwriter and director Giuseppe Tornatore, the creator of the Oscar-winning classic movie Cinema Paradiso, was born on this day in 1956 in Bagheria, a small town a few kilometres along the coast from the Sicilian capital Palermo.  Known as Nuovo Cinema Paradiso in Italy, Tornatore’s best-known work won the award for Best Foreign Language Film at the 62nd Academy Awards following its release in 1988.  The movie, written by Tornatore, tells the story of Salvatore, a successful film director based in Rome who returns to his native Sicily after hearing of the death of the man who kindled his love of the cinema, the projectionist at the picture house in his local village, who became a father figure to him after his own father was killed on wartime national service.  The movie,  starring Salvatore Cascio and Philippe Noiret, is accompanied by a wonderful soundtrack by the composer Ennio Morricone, whose haunting theme captures the beautiful poignancy of the movie.  Read more…

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Lucrezia Crivelli – lady in waiting


Mystery of the beautiful woman in painting by Leonardo

Lucrezia Crivelli, mistress of Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan, who was for a long time believed to be the subject of a painting by Leonardo da Vinci, died on this day in 1508 in Canneto sull’Oglio in Lombardy.  Crivelli served as a lady in waiting to Ludovico Sforza’s wife, Beatrice d’Este, from 1475 until Beatrice’s death in 1497.  She also became the Duke’s mistress and gave birth to his son, Giovanni Paolo, who went on to become the first Marquess of Caravaggio and a celebrated condottiero.  Crivelli lived for many years in the Castello of Canneto near Mantua under the protection of Isabella d’Este, the elder sister of Beatrice, until her death in 1508.  Coincidentally, her former lover, Ludovico Sforza, is believed to have died on the same day in 1508 while being kept prisoner in the dungeons of the castle of Loches in Touraine in France, having been captured by the French during the Italian Wars.  It was never proved, but it was assumed for many years that Crivelli may have been the subject of Leonardo da Vinci’s painting La belle Ferronnière, which is displayed in the Louvre in Paris.  Read more… 

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Bruno Vespa – television journalist


TV host opened the door to late night political debate

Bruno Vespa, the founding host of the television programme Porta a Porta, was born on this day in 1944 in L’Aquila in Abruzzo.  Vespa has fronted the late night television debate show, which literally means ‘Door to Door’ in English, since Italy's state broadcaster RAI launched the programme in 1996.  Vespa became a radio announcer with RAI when he was 18 and began hosting the news programme Telegiornale RAI a few years later.  He had begun his career in journalism by writing sports features for the L’Aquila edition of the newspaper, Il Tempo, when he was just 16 years old.  On television, he became well known for interviewing influential world figures just before they became famous, an example being his programme featuring Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, the year before he was elected as Pope John Paul II.  In June 1984, Vespa was official commentator for the live televised broadcast of the state funeral for Enrico Berlinguer, the former leader of the Italian Communist party.  Vespa has won awards for his journalism and television programmes and has also written many books.  Read more…

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26 May 2019

26 May

Napoleon becomes King of Italy


French Emperor places Iron Crown of Lombardy on his own head

Napoleon Bonaparte was declared King of Italy on this day in 1805 in Milan.  He crowned himself at a ceremony in the Duomo using the Iron Crown of Lombardy.  The title King of Italy signified that Napoleon was the head of the new Kingdom of Italy, which was at that time a vassal state of the French Empire. The area controlled by Napoleon had previously been known as a republic, with Napoleon as its president.  But Napoleon had become the Emperor of France the year before and had decided Italy should become a Kingdom ruled by himself, or a member of his family.  Before the ceremony, the Iron Crown had to be fetched from Monza. The crown consisted of a circlet of gold with a central iron band, which according to legend was beaten out of a nail from Christ’s true cross, found by Saint Helena in the Holy Land. During his coronation, Napoleon is reported to have picked up the precious relic, announced that God had given it to him, and placed it on his own head.  Read more…

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Alberto Ascari - racing driver


F1 champion killed amid eerie echoes of father's death

Racing driver Alberto Ascari, who was twice Formula One champion, died on this day in 1955 in an accident at the Monza racing circuit in Lombardy, just north of Milan.  A hugely popular driver, his death shocked Italy and motor racing fans in particular.  What many found particularly chilling was a series of uncanny parallels with the death of his father, Antonio Ascari, who was also a racing driver, 30 years previously.  Alberto had gone to Monza to watch his friend, Eugenio Castellotti, test a Ferrari 750 Monza sports car, which they were to co-drive the car in the 1000 km Monza race.  Contracted to Lancia at the time, although he had been given dispensation to drive for Ferrari in the race, Ascari was not supposed to test drive the car, yet he could not resist trying a few laps, even though he was dressed in a jacket and tie. When he emerged from a fast curve on the third lap, however, the car inexplicably skidded, turned on its nose and somersaulted twice. Ascari was thrown out of the car and pronounced dead at the scene.  Read more…

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Luca Toni - World Cup winner


Striker one of stars of 2006 triumph in Germany

The footballer Luca Toni, who played an important role in Italy’s achievement in winning the soccer World Cup in Germany in 2006, was born on this day in 1977 in the small town of Pavullo nel Frignano in Emilia-Romagna.  Toni scored twice in Italy’s 3-0 victory over Ukraine in the quarter-finals before starting as the Azzurri’s main striker in both the semi-final triumph over the hosts and the final against France, in which they eventually prevailed on penalties. Toni hit the bar with one header and saw another disallowed for offside in the final.  The goals were among 16 he scored in 47 appearances for the national team but it was his remarkable club career that makes him stand out in the history of Italian football.  An old-fashioned centre-forward, between his debut for his local club, Modena, in 1994 and his retirement in 2016 following his final season with Hellas Verona, Toni found the net 322 times in club football, which makes him the fourth most prolific goalscorer among all Italian players.  Read more…

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25 May 2019

25 May

Gaetano Scirea - footballer


Multiple champion who died tragically young

The World Cup-winning footballer Gaetano Scirea, one of the most accomplished players in the history of the game, was born on this day in 1953 in the town of Cernusco sul Naviglio in Lombardy.  Scirea was a key member of the Italy team that won the 1982 World Cup in Spain and enjoyed huge success also in club football.  In a career spent mostly with Juventus, he won every medal available to a club player in Italy. During his time there, the Turin club won the scudetto - the popular name for the Serie A championship - seven times and the Coppa Italia twice.  He also won the UEFA Cup, the European Cup-Winners’ Cup, the European Cup (forerunner of the Champions League), the UEFA Super Cup and the Intercontinental Cup.  Scirea retired in 1988 but continued to work for Juventus. Tragically, while visiting Poland in 1989 to make a scouting report on an upcoming opponent in a UEFA Cup match, the car he was travelling in collided head-on with a truck in heavy rain and he was killed, along with two fellow passengers.  Read more…

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Padre Pio – Saint


Capuchin friar is claimed to have cured cancer

Padre Pio, who has become one of the world’s most famous and popular saints, was born on this day in 1887 in Pietrelcina in Campania.  He was well-known for exhibiting stigmata, marks corresponding to the crucifixion wounds of Jesus, constantly making him the subject of controversy. Padre Pio said that at five years old he decided to dedicate his life to God and as a youth he reported experiencing heavenly visions and ecstasies. At the age of 15 he was admitted to the novitiate of the Capuchin Order, taking the name of Fra Pio, in honour of Pope Pius I.  In 1910 he was ordained a priest and moved to a friary in San Giovanni Rotondo in Foggia. In 1918 he exhibited stigmata for the first time while hearing a confession. This was to continue until his death 50 years later, although critics have accused him of faking the marks. Pilgrims from all over the world visited him and many later claimed they had been healed by him. It is claimed that Karol Wojtyla, the future Pope John Paul II, invited him to pray for a cancer victim, who went into spontaneous remission. Read more…

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Stefano Baldini - Olympic marathon champion


Won gold medal over historic course in Athens

Stefano Baldini, the marathon runner who was Olympic champion in Athens in 2004 and twice won the European marathon title, as born on this day in 1971 in Castelnovo di Sotto, about 14km (nine miles) north-west of the city of Reggio Emilia.  Although Baldini’s class was not doubted, his Olympic gold was slightly tarnished by an incident seven kilometres from the finish when a spectator broke through the barriers and attacked the Brazilian runner, Vanderlei de Lima, who was leading the field.  The spectator was wrestled off de Lima by another spectator but the incident cost the Brazilian 15 to 20 seconds and much momentum. He was passed subsequently by Baldini and finished third.  Baldini finished the race, which followed the historic route from Marathon to Athens, in two hours 10 minutes and 55 seconds, although this was not the fastest time of his career.  His best was the 2:07:56 he clocked at the 1997 London Marathon, when he finished second, in what is still the fastest time by an Italian over the marathon distance.  Read more…

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Enrico Berlinguer - Communist politician


Popular leader turned left-wing party into political force

Enrico Berlinguer, who for more than a decade was Western Europe's most powerful and influential Communist politician, was born on this day in 1922 in the Sardinian city of Sassari.  As secretary-general of the Italian Communist Party from March 1972 until his death in 1984, he led the largest Communist movement outside the Eastern Bloc, coming close to winning a general election in 1976.  He strove to establish the Italian Communists as a political force that was not controlled from Moscow, pledging a commitment to democracy, a parliamentary system, a mixed economy, and Italian membership of the Common Market and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.  At its peak, Berlinguer's Westernized brand of Communism appealed to nearly a third of Italian voters.  In the elections of 1976, at a time when Italy faced economic collapse, Berlinguer's party came close to winning power in their own right, polling 34 per cent of the vote.  The Christian Democrats, who had governed Italy since the end of the Second World War, narrowly prevailed with 38 per cent. Read more…

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Gaetano Scirea - footballer

Multiple champion who died tragically young


Gaetano Scirea made 78 appearances for the Italian national team
Gaetano Scirea made 78 appearances
for the Italian national team
The World Cup-winning footballer Gaetano Scirea, one of the most accomplished players in the history of the game, was born on this day in 1953 in the town of Cernusco sul Naviglio in Lombardy.

Scirea, who became an outstanding performer in the so-called libero role, was a key member of the Italy team that won the 1982 World Cup in Spain and enjoyed huge success also in club football.

In a career spent mostly with Juventus, he won every medal that was available to a club player in Italy, some several times over.

During his time there, the Turin club won the scudetto - the popular name for the Serie A championship - seven times and the Coppa Italia twice.

He also won the UEFA Cup, the European Cup-Winners’ Cup, the European Cup (forerunner of the Champions League), the UEFA Super Cup and the Intercontinental Cup.

Scirea retired in 1988 but continued to work for Juventus. Tragically, while visiting Poland in 1989 to make a scouting report on an upcoming opponent in a UEFA Cup match, the car he was travelling in collided head-on with a truck in heavy rain and he was killed, along with two fellow passengers.  Their deaths were caused by the explosion of several cans containing petrol, which drivers in Poland habitually carried because of frequent fuel shortages.

Gaetano Scirea spent most of his playing career with Juventus
Gaetano Scirea spent most of his
playing career with Juventus
He was just 36 years old. Thousands of supporters and many major figures from the Italian football world gathered for his funeral, after which his body was buried at the cemetery in Morsasco, in Piedmont, between Alessandria and Genoa, the home village of his widow, Mariella.

From a family of Sicilian origin, Scirea’s home town was on the northern outskirts of Milan, yet it was in Bergamo, 40km (25 miles) away, that he began his career with Atalanta, making his debut in Serie A at the age of 18.

He remained with Atalanta for two seasons, before Juventus moved to take him to Turin at the age of 21. He would stay there until the end of his playing career, making 397 appearances in Serie A, scoring 24 goals.

A midfield player with Atalanta, Scirea was turned into a sweeper at Juventus, a position at the time that was seen primarily as defensive. It was when the great coach Giovanni Trapattoni arrived in Turin that he was given the role in which he was to excel.

Trapattoni felt Scirea had more to offer than simply to defend. While he had Claudio Gentile as his hard man at the back, he gave Scirea the licence to roam into midfield, to make passes, set up attacks. Elegant and composed, and with the ability to anticipate the direction of play, he made the role of libero his own.

Scirea is one of only a handful of footballers to have won every club competition in which he played
Scirea is one of only a handful of footballers to have won
every club competition in which he played
In contrast to the ruthless Gentile, who played at the limits of what was legal, Scirea was renowned for fair play and sportsmanship. He was sent off and only occasionally cautioned. He was a natural leader, captaining both Juventus and the Italian national side.

His leadership qualities were never needed more than at the Heysel Stadium in Brussels in May 1985, when the European Cup final between Juventus and Liverpool became a scene of tragedy as an outbreak of crowd violence culminated in the collapse of a wall within the stadium, which was in a poor state of repair. Some 39 spectators died, mainly Italians. The match went ahead, but only after Scirea and his fellow captain, Liverpool’s Phil Neal, had addressed the supporters directly to ask for calm.

Juventus’s 1-0 win was a hollow victory in the circumstances, yet remains on Scirea’s record, which makes him one of only nine players in the history of the European football that won all three major UEFA football competitions.

Scirea made his debut for the Italy national team in December 1975 and quickly became an irreplaceable component of the team managed by Enzo Bearzot, playing in three World Cups and one European Championship (in 1980, when Italy finished fourth as tournament hosts).

Pipe smoking coach Enzo Bearzot  made Scirea a fixture in his team
Pipe smoking coach Enzo Bearzot
made Scirea a fixture in his team
Alongside clubmates Gentile, goalkeeper Dino Zoff and Antonio Cabrini, plus Inter Milan’s Giuseppe Bergomi and Fulvio Collovati, he was part of the defensive backbone of the strongest Azzurri side of the post-war period.

Scirea was one of Italy’s best players at the 1978 World Cup in Argentina, where the Azzurri finished in fourth place. At the 1982 World Cup, after a quiet start in the first round group stage, Italy beat Argentina and then Brazil in the second round, later overcoming Poland 2–0 in the semi-final before the 3-1 victory over West Germany in the final saw Scirea and his teammates earn a place in World Cup history.

He bowed out after the 1986 World Cup, in which an Italian team in the throes of rebuilding lost to France in the second round. This was to be Scirea's last match for Italy, having won 78 caps.

Scirea’s death had a huge impact on his club and country. Among the steps taken to honour his name was the creation of an award given to players deemed to have had an exemplary career, while part of the Juventus Stadium is called the Curva Scirea. Bearzot, his former international manager, proposed that his No 6 shirt be retired by both the Azzurri and Juventus.

After his death, his widow, Mariella, had a career in politics, serving two terms in the Chamber of Deputies as an elected member, first under a Forza Italia ticket, then as a member of the Democratic Union for Europe. His son, Riccardo, works for Juventus on their technical staff as head of match analysis.

Cernusco sul Naviglio takes its name from the Naviglio Martesana canal, linking it with Milan
Cernusco sul Naviglio takes its name from the Naviglio
Martesana canal, linking it with Milan
Travel tip:

About 16km (10 miles) from the centre of Milan, Scirea’s home town Cernusco sul Naviglio is an elegant town rich in art and history and known for its majestic villas. It is located on the Naviglio Martesana canal.  Its attractions include the Sanctuary of Santa Maria Addolorata, the Italian Gardens of Via Cavour and the 18th century Villa Alari. One of the features of the Piazza Unità d'Italia, the main square, is a mulberry tree reputed to be 130 years old.

The village of Morsasco sits on a hill between Alessandria in Piedmont and Genoa on the coast
The village of Morsasco sits on a hill between
Alessandria in Piedmont and Genoa on the coast
Travel tip:

The village of Morsasco is best known for its castle, which rises majestically above the neighbouring houses and linked by a small paved lane to the 16th-century parish church dedicated to San Bartolomeo. The castle, mentioned in records from the 13th century, has passed through the hands of the Del Bosco, Malaspina, Lodron, Gonzaga, Centurione Scotto and Pallavicino families.  A lot of the original building’s military characteristics have been removed and it is now a refined noble residence, with grand halls and beautiful rooms as the result of 18th-century expansions.

More reading:

How 'Trap' became the most successful coach in the history of Serie A

The pipe-smoking genius who turned the Azzurri into world champions

Franco Baresi: AC Milan star voted 'player of the century'

Also on this day:

1887: The birth of controversial saint Padre Pio

1922: The birth of Communist politician Enrico Berlinguer

1971: The birth of Olympic marathon champion Stefano Baldini



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24 May 2019

24 May

Simone Rugiati - celebrity chef


Popular presenter found fame early in career

The chef and TV presenter Simone Rugiati was born on this day in 1981 in Santa Croce sull’ Arno, midway between Pisa and Florence in Tuscany.  He became a famous face on TV in Italy with a seven-year run on the hit cookery show La Prova del Cuoco - the Test of the Cook - a hugely popular daytime programme on Rai Uno based on the BBC show Ready Steady Cook, fronted by Antonella Clerici.  Rugiati has also presented numerous programmes on the satellite TV food channel Gambero Rosso and since 2010 he has been the face of Cuochi e Fiamme  - Cooks and Flames - a cookery contest on the La7 network in which two non-professional chefs cook the same dish and see their efforts marked by a panel of judges.  He has also taken part in reality TV shows, including the 2010 edition of L’Isola dei Famosi, an Italian version of the American show Survivor.  Rugiati reached the semi-final of another reality show, Pechino Express.  Read more...

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Charles Emmanuel IV – King of Sardinia


Monarch who was descended from Charles I of England

Charles Emmanuel IV, who was King of Sardinia from 1796 until he abdicated in 1802 and might once have had a claim to the throne of England, was born on this day in 1751 in Turin.  Born Carlo Emanuele Ferdinando Maria di Savoia, he was the eldest son of Victor Amadeus III, King of Sardinia, and of his wife Infanta Maria Antonia Ferdinanda of Spain. From his birth he was known as the Prince of Piedmont.  In 1775, he married Marie Clotilde of France, the daughter of Louis, Dauphin of France, and Princess Marie-Josèphe of Saxony, and sister of King Louis XVI of France.  Although it was essentially a political marriage over which they had little choice, the couple became devoted to one another.  With the death of his father in October 1796, Charles Emmanuel inherited the throne of Sardinia, a kingdom that included not only the island of Sardinia, but also the whole of Piedmont and other parts of north-west Italy.  Read more...

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Gian Gastone de' Medici – Grand Duke of Tuscany


The last Medici to rule Florence

Gian Gastone de' Medici, the seventh and last Grand Duke of Tuscany, was born on this day in 1671 in the Pitti Palace in Florence.  He was the second son of Grand Duke Cosimo III and Marguerite Louise d’Orleans.  Because his elder brother predeceased him he succeeded his father to the title in 1723.  He had an unhappy arranged marriage and the couple had no children so when he died in 1737 it was the end of 300 years of Medici rule over Florence.  He spent the last few years of his reign confined to bed, looked after by his entourage.  One of his final acts was to order the erection of a statue to Galileo in the Basilica of Santa Croce.  Read more…

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23 May 2019

23 May

Giuseppe Parini – writer


Satirist avenged bad treatment though his poetry

Poet and satirist Giuseppe Parini was born on this day in 1729 in Bosisio in Lombardy.  A writer associated the Age of Enlightenment in Europe, he is remembered for his series of Horatian odes and for Il giorno - The Day - a satirical poem in four books about the selfishness and superficiality of the aristocracy in Milan.  In 1752 his first volume of verse introduced him to literary circles and in 1754 he was ordained a priest in 1754 - a condition of a legacy made to him by a great aunt - and entered the household of Duke Gabrio Serbelloni at Tremezzo on Lake Como to be tutor to his eldest son.  Parini was unhappy there and felt badly treated, but he twice got his revenge on his employer through his writing. In 1757 he wrote his Dialogo sopra la nobilità, a discussion between the corpse of a nobleman and the corpse of a poet about the true nature of nobility. Later, his masterpiece, the satirical poem, Il Giorno, contained ironic instructions to a young nobleman about the best ways to spend his days. Read more...

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Sergio Gonella - football referee


First Italian to referee a World Cup final

Sergio Gonella, the first Italian football referee to take charge of a World Cup final, was born on this day in 1933 in Asti, in Piedmont. Gonella was appointed to officiate in the 1978 final between the Netherlands and the hosts Argentina in Buenos Aires and although he was criticised by many journalists and football historians for what they perceived as a weak performance lacking authority, few matches in the history of the competition can have presented a tougher challenge.  Against a backcloth of political turmoil in a country which had suffered a military coup only two years earlier and where opponents of the regime were routinely kidnapped and tortured, or simply disappeared, the final was played in an atmosphere as intimidating as anything Gonella would have experienced in his whole 13-year professional career.  Read more…

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Ferdinando II de’ Medici – Grand Duke of Tuscany


Technology fan who supported scientist Galileo

Inventor and patron of science Ferdinando II de’ Medici died on this day in 1670 in Florence.  Like his grandmother, the dowager Grand Duchess Christina, Ferdinando II was a loyal friend to Galileo and he welcomed the scientist back to Florence after the prison sentence imposed on him for ‘vehement suspicion of heresy’ was commuted to house arrest.  Ferdinando II was reputed to be obsessed with new technology and had hygrometers, barometers, thermometers and telescopes installed at his home in the Pitti Palace.  He has also been credited with the invention of the sealed glass thermometer in 1654.  Ferdinando II was born in 1610, the eldest son of Cosimo II de’ Medici and Maria Maddalena of Austria.  He became Grand Duke of Tuscany in 1621 when he was just 10 years old after the death of his father.  His mother, Maddalena, and paternal grandmother, Christina, acted as joint regents for him. Christina is said to have been the power behind the throne until her death in 1636.  Read more…

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Girolamo Savonarola executed


Death of the friar who was to inspire best-selling novel by Tom Wolfe

The hellfire preacher Girolamo Savonarola was hanged and burned on this day in 1498 in Piazza della Signoria in Florence.  By sheer force of personality, Savonarola had convinced rich people to burn their worldly goods in spectacular bonfires in Florence during 1497, but within a year it was Savonarola’s burning corpse that the crowds turned out to see.  Savonarola had become famous for his outspoken sermons against vice and corruption in the Catholic Church in Italy and he encouraged wealthy people to burn their valuable goods, paintings and books in what have became known as ‘bonfires of the vanities.’  This phrase inspired Tom Wolfe to write The Bonfire of the Vanities, a novel about ambition and politics in 1980s New York.  Savonarola was born in 1452 in Ferrara. He became a Dominican friar and entered the convent of Saint Mark in Florence in 1482, when he began preaching against corruption and vice. Read more…

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