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.

19 August 2019

19 August

Salomone Rossi - violinist and composer


Leading Jewish musician of the late Renaissance 

The composer and violinist Salomone Rossi, who became a renowned performer at the court of the Gonzagas in Mantua in the late 16th and early 17th centuries and is regarded as the leading Jewish musician of the late Renaissance, is thought to have been born on this day in 1570.  Jews had periodically been the subject of persecution in the Italian peninsula for hundreds of years. At around the time of Rossi’s birth, Pope Pius V expelled all Jews from all but two areas of the papal states and Florence established a ghetto, in which all Jews within the city and the wide Grand Duchy of Tuscany were required to live.  The Mantua of Rossi’s day was much more enlightened than many Italian cities, however. Jews were not only tolerated but they were often allowed to mix freely with non-Jews. The liberal atmosphere allowed Jewish writers, musicians and artists to have an important influence on the culture of the day.  The court of Mantua was not only renowned for its royal luxury but as a centre of artistic excellence. At the end of the 15th century the duchess Isabella d’Este Gonzaga actively sought out the finest musicians in Italy, bringing them to Mantua.  Read more…


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Andrea Palladio - world's favourite architect


Humble stonecutter became his profession's biggest name

Andrea Palladio, the humble stonecutter who became the most influential architect in the history of his profession, died on this day in 1580, aged 71.  The cause of his death is not clear but some accounts say he collapsed while inspecting the construction of the Tempietto Barbaro, a church in Maser, a town in the Veneto not far from Treviso.  He was initially buried in a family vault in the church of Santa Corona in Vicenza, the city in which he spent most of his life, but later re-interred at the civic cemetery, where a chapel was built in his honour.  Examples of Palladio's work can be found all over the region where he lived and in Venice, where he was commissioned to build, among other architectural masterpieces, the Church of San Giorgio Maggiore, the focal point of the view across the lagoon from St Mark's Square through the Piazzetta.  He built a substantial number of villas for wealthy clients across the Veneto region, some of them lining the Brenta Canal that links the lagoon of Venice with Padua. Others such as the Villa Capra, otherwise known as La Rotonda, famous for its symmetrically square design with four six-columned porticoes, can be found in open countryside near Vicenza.  Read more…

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Nanni Moretti –film director


Award winning filmmaker helped shape politics

Giovanni ‘Nanni’ Moretti, film director, producer, screenwriter and actor, was born on this day in 1953 in Brunico in the South Tyrol.  Moretti has been a prominent opponent to Silvio Berlusconi’s governments and policies in Italy. In his 2006 film, Il Caimano, a comedy drama focusing on allegations about Berlusconi’s lifestyle, he played the role of Berlusconi himself.  Moretti’s parents, who were both teachers, were from Rome but he was born while they were on holiday in Trentino-Alto Adige. His father, Luigi Moretti, taught Greek at Sapienza University in Rome.  While growing up Moretti developed a passion for the cinema and water polo. He started making films for a hobby and played in the junior national water polo team in 1970.  His first feature film, Io sono un autarchico - I am Self-sufficient, was released in 1976.  Two years later he wrote, directed and starred in the film Ecce Bombo, which was screened at the Cannes film festival. This is still a cult film for many Italians.   His film Sogni d’Oro won the Silver Lion at the 38th Venice International film festival.   He is perhaps best known for the films Caro Diario - Dear Diary, in 1993 and La stanza del figlio - The Son’s Room, in 2001, which won the Palme D’Or at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival.  Read more…


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Cesare Prandelli – football coach


Led Italy to the final of Euro 2012

The former head coach of the Italian national football team, Cesare Prandelli, was born on this day in 1957 in Orzinuovi, near Brescia.  Under Prandelli’s guidance, the Azzurri finished runners-up in the European Championships final of 2012 and qualified for the finals of the World Cup in Brazil in 2014.  Despite winning a two-year extension to his contract, he quit after Italy’s elimination at the group stage in Brazil, which he considered was the honourable course of action after a very  disappointing tournament in which the Azzurri beat England in their opening match but then lost to Costa Rica and Uruguay.  As a player, Prandelli had been a member of a highly successful Juventus team in the early 1980s, winning Serie A three times and the European Cup in 1985 – albeit on a night overshadowed by tragedy at the Heysel Stadium in Brussels.  After beginning his coaching career as youth team coach with Atalanta in Bergamo, his last club as a player, he twice achieved promotion from Serie B, with Hellas Verona in 1999 and Venezia in 2001.  But it was his achievements in Serie A with Fiorentina that impressed the Italian Football Federation (FIGC).  Read more…


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Nanni Moretti –film director

Award winning filmmaker helped shape politics


Giovanni 'Nanni' Moretti was an outspoken opponent of Silvio Berlusconi's politics
Giovanni 'Nanni' Moretti was an outspoken
opponent of Silvio Berlusconi's politics
Giovanni ‘Nanni’ Moretti, film director, producer, screen writer and actor, was born on this day in 1953 in Brunico in the South Tyrol.

Moretti has been a prominent opponent to Silvio Berlusconi’s governments and policies in Italy. In his 2006 film, Il Caimano, a comedy drama focusing on allegations about Berlusconi’s lifestyle, he played the role of Berlusconi himself.

Moretti’s parents, who were both teachers, were from Rome but he was born while they were on holiday in Trentino-Alto Adige. His father, Luigi Moretti, taught Greek at Sapienza University in Rome.

While growing up Moretti developed a passion for the cinema and water polo. He started making films for a hobby and played in the junior national water polo team in 1970.

His first feature film, Io sono un autarchico - I am Self-sufficient, was released in 1976.

Two years later he wrote, directed and starred in the film Ecce Bombo, which was screened at the Cannes film festival. This is still a cult film for many Italians.

His film Sogni d’Oro won the Silver Lion at the 38th Venice International film festival.

The publicity poster for Moretti's film Il Caimano
The publicity poster for
Moretti's film Il Caimano
He is perhaps best known for the films Caro Diario - Dear Diary, in 1993 and La stanza del figlio - The Son’s Room, in 2001, which won the Palme D’Or at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival.

Moretti used certain actors many times in his films. His father, Luigi, appeared in six of them and the actor Silvio Orlando appeared in five.

His experience playing water polo in the B division of the Italian championship inspired his film Palombella Rossa. Palombella, which literally means little pigeon refers to a type of lob shot.

Known to Italians as a maker of humorous, slightly eccentric films often featuring himself, his most recent role was in the 2015 film Mia Madre - My Mother.

In 2002 Moretti organised street protests against Berlusconi and his 2006 film, Il Caimano, has been credited with influencing the result of the election the same year, which Berlusconi lost.

Brunico, in the Sudtirol province of Trentino-Alto Adige,  is largely a German-speaking town
Brunico, in the Sudtirol province of Trentino-Alto Adige,
is largely a German-speaking town
Travel tip:

Brunico, where Nanni Moretti was born, is a town in the Sudtirol province in the region of Trentino-Alto Adige near the Austrian border. It is known as Bruneck in German and Branecium in Latin. According to the 2011 census 82.47 per cent of the population speak German, 15.24 per cent speak Italian and 2.29 per cent speak Ladin, a Romance language mainly spoken in the Dolomites and the provinces of South Tyrol, Trentino and Belluno. Brunico has a castle dating back to the 13th century. The lovely Church of the Assumption of Mary originated as a small chapel in the 14th century.

The Cinema Nuovo Sacher, in the Trastevere district, is co-owned by Moretti, who lives in Rome
The Cinema Nuovo Sacher, in the Trastevere district, is
co-owned by Moretti, who lives in Rome
Travel tip:

Nanni Moretti still lives in Rome, the city where he grew up, and he is the co-owner of a small cinema, Cinema Nuovo Sacher, which is named after his favourite cake, Sacher Torte. The cinema is housed in a 1930s building that was once a variety theatre in Largo Ascianghi in the Trastevere district.

More reading:

Giuseppe Tornatore, the director behind Cinema Paradiso

The actor dubbed 'Italy's Olivier'

The genius of Michelangelo Antonioni

Also on this day:

1570: The birth of composer and violinist Salomone Rossi

1580: The death of architect Andrea Palladio

1957: The birth of football coach Cesare Prandelli


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18 August 2019

18 August

Antonio Salieri - composer


Maestro of Vienna haunted by Mozart rumours

Antonio Salieri, the Italian composer who in his later years was dogged by rumours that he had murdered Mozart, was born on this day in 1750 in Legnago, in the Veneto.  Salieri was director of Italian opera for the Habsburg court in Vienna from 1774 to 1792 and German-born Mozart believed for many years that “cabals of Italians” were deliberately putting obstacles in the way of his progress, preventing him from staging his operas and blocking his path to prestigious appointments.  In letters to his father, Mozart said that “the only one who counts in (the emperor’s eyes) is Salieri” and voiced his suspicions that Salieri and Lorenzo Da Ponte, the poet and librettist, were in league against him.  Some years after Mozart died in 1791 at the age of just 35, with the cause of death never definitively established, it emerged that the young composer - responsible for some of music’s greatest symphonies, concertos and operas - had told friends in the final weeks of his life that he feared he had been poisoned and suspected again that his Italian rivals were behind it. Salieri was immediately the prime suspect.  Read more…


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Gianni Rivera - footballer and politician


Milan legend served in the Italian Parliament and as MEP

Gianni Rivera,
a footballer regarded as one of Italy's all-time greats, was born on this day in 1943 in Alessandria, a city in Piedmont some 90km east of Turin and a similar distance south-west of Milan.  Rivera played for 19 years for AC Milan, winning an array of trophies that included the Italian championship three times, the Italian Cup four times, two European Cup-Winners' Cups and two European Cups.  He won 63 caps for the Italian national team, playing in four World Cups, including the 1970 tournament in Mexico, when Italy reached the final.  Later in life, he entered politics, sitting in the Chamber of Deputies of the Italian Parliament from 1987 to 2001 and serving as a Member of the European Parliament from 2005 to 2009.  Rivera had a tough upbringing in Alessandria, which suffered heavy bombing during the later stages of the Second World War, with hundreds of residents killed.  His family were not wealthy but Rivera found distraction playing football with his friends in the street and it was obvious at an early age that he had talent.  His father, a railway mechanic, arranged for him to have a trial with the local football club when he was 13 and he was quickly taken on as a youth team player.   Read more...


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Umberto Guidoni - astronaut


First European to step on to the International Space Station

The astronaut Umberto Guidoni, who spent almost 28 days in space on two NASA space shuttle missions, was born on this day in 1954 in Rome.  In April 2001, on the second of those missions, he became the first European astronaut to go on board the International Space Station (SSI).  After retiring as an active astronaut in 2004, Guidoni began a career in politics and was elected to the European Parliament as a member for Central Italy.  Although born in Rome, Guidoni’s family roots are in Acuto, a small hilltown about 80km (50 miles) southeast of the capital, in the area near Frosinone in Lazio known as Ciociaria.  Interested in science and space from a young age, Guidoni attended the Gaio Lucilio lyceum in the San Lorenzo district before graduating with honours in physics specializing in astrophysics at the Sapienza University of Rome in 1978, obtaining a scholarship from the National Committee for Nuclear Energy, based outside Rome in Frascati.  He worked in the Italian Space Agency as well as in the European Space Agency. One of his research projects was the Tethered Satellite System, which was part of the payload of the STS-46 space shuttle mission.  Read more…

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17 August 2019

17 August

Cesare Borgia – condottiero


Renaissance prince turned his back on the Church

Cesare Borgia, the son of Pope Alexander VI, became the first person in history to resign as a Cardinal on this day in 1498 in Rome.  Cesare was originally intended for the Church and had been made a Cardinal at the age of 18 after his father’s election to the Papacy. After the assassination of his brother, Giovanni, who was captain general of the Pope’s military forces, Cesare made an abrupt career change and was put in charge of the Papal States.  His fight to gain power was later the inspiration for Machiavelli’s book The Prince.  Cesare was made Duke of Valentinois by King Louis XII of France and after Louis invaded Italy in 1499, Cesare accompanied him when he entered Milan.  He reinforced his alliance with France by marrying Charlotte d’Albret, the sister of John III of Navarre.  Pope Alexander encouraged Cesare to carve out a state of his own in northern Italy and deposed all his vicars in the Romagna and Marche regions.  Cesare was made condottiero - military leader - in command of the papal army and sent to capture Imola and Forlì.  He returned to Rome in triumph and received the title Papal Gonfalonier from his father.  Read more…


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Pope Benedict XIV


Erudite, gentle, honest man was chosen as a compromise

Prospero Lorenzo Lambertini began his reign as Pope Benedict XIV on this day in 1740 in Rome.  Considered one of the greatest ever Christian scholars, he promoted scientific learning, the baroque arts and the study of the human form.  Benedict XIV also revived interest in the philosophies of Thomas Aquinas, reduced taxation in the Papal States, encouraged agriculture and supported free trade.  As a scholar interested in ancient literature, and who published many ecclesiastical books and documents himself, he laid the groundwork for the present-day Vatican Museum.  Lambertini was born into a noble family in Bologna in 1675. At the age of 13 he started attending the Collegium Clementianum in Rome, where he studied rhetoric, Latin, philosophy and theology. Thomas Aquinas became his favourite author and saint. At the age of 19 he received a doctorate in both ecclesiastical and civil law.  Lambertini was consecrated a bishop in Rome in 1724, was made Bishop of Ancona in 1727 and Cardinal-Priest of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme in 1728.  Following the death of Pope Clement XII, Lambertini was elected pope on the evening of August 17, 1740. Read more…


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Franco Sensi - businessman


Oil tycoon who rescued AS Roma football club

The businessman Francesco ‘Franco’ Sensi, best known as the man who transformed a near-bankrupt AS Roma into a successful football club, died on this day in 2008 in the Gemelli General Hospital in Rome.   He was 88 and had been in ill health for a number of years. He had been the longest-serving president of the Roma club, remaining at the helm for 15 years, and it is generally accepted that the success the team enjoyed during his tenure - a Serie A title, two Coppa Italia triumphs and two in the Supercoppa Italiana - would not have happened but for his astute management.  His death was mourned by tens of thousands of Roma fans who filed past his coffin in the days before the funeral at the Basilica of San Lorenzo al Verano, where a crowd put at around 30,000 turned out to witness the funeral procession.  The then-Roma coach Luciano Spalletti and captain Francesco Totti were among the pallbearers.  Sensi, whose father, Silvio, had helped bring about the formation of AS Roma in 1927 in a merger of three other city teams, grew up supporting the club and followed his father into a business career.  Read more…

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16 August 2019

16 August

Vincenzo Coronelli – globe maker


Friar whose globes of the world were in big demand

Vincenzo Coronelli, a Franciscan friar who was also a celebrated cartographer and globe maker, was born on this day in 1650 in Venice.  He became famous for making finely-crafted globes of the world for the Duke of Parma and Louis XIV of France.  This started a demand for globes from other aristocratic clients to adorn their libraries and some of Coronelli’s creations are still in existence today in private collections.  Coronelli was the fifth child of a Venetian tailor and was accepted as a novice by the Franciscans when he was 15. He was later sent to a college in Rome where he studied theology and astronomy.  He began working as a geographer and was commissioned to produce a set of globes for Ranuccio II Farnese, Duke of Parma. Each finely crafted globe was five feet in diameter.  After one of Louis XIV’s advisers saw the globes, Coronelli was invited to Paris to make a pair of globes for the French King.  The large globes displayed the latest information obtained by French explorers in North America. They are now in the François-Mitterand national library in Paris.  Read more…

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Tonino Delli Colli – cinematographer


Craftsman who shot Life is Beautiful and Italy's first colour film

Antonio (Tonino) Delli Colli, the cinematographer who shot the first Italian film in colour, died on this day in 2005 in Rome.  The last film he made was Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful, shot on location in Arezzo in Tuscany, for which he won his fourth David di Donatello Award for Best Cinematography.  Delli Colli was born in Rome and started work at the city’s Cinecittà studio in 1938, shortly after it opened, when he was just 16.  By the mid 1940s he was working as a cinematographer, or director of photography, who is the person in charge of the camera and light crews working on a film. He was responsible for making artistic and technical decisions related to the image and selected the camera, film stock, lenses and filters. Directors often conveyed to him what was wanted from a scene visually and then allowed him complete latitude to achieve that effect.  Delli Colli was credited as director of photography for the first time in 1943 on Finalmente Si (Finally Yes), directed by László Kish.  In 1952 Delli Colli shot the first Italian film to be made in colour, Totò a colori. He had been reluctant to do it but was given no choice by his bosses.  Read more…

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Umberto Baldini – art restorer


Saved hundreds of artworks damaged by Arno floods

Umberto Baldini, the art historian who helped save hundreds of paintings, sculptures and manuscripts feared to have been damaged beyond repair in the catastrophic flooding in Florence in 1966, died on this day in 2006.  Baldini was working as director of the Gabinetto di Restauro, an office of the municipal authority in Florence charged with supervising restoration projects, when the River Arno broke its banks in the early hours of November 4, 1966.  With the ground already saturated, the combination of two days of torrential rain and storm force winds was too much and dams built to create reservoirs in the upper reaches of the Arno valley were threatened with collapse.  Consequently thousands of cubic metres of water had to be released, gathered pace as it raced downstream and eventually swept into the city at speeds of up to 40mph.  More than 100 people were killed and up to 20,000 in the valley left homeless. At its peak the depth of water in the Santa Croce area of Florence rose to 6.7 metres (22 feet).  Baldini was director of the conservation studios at the Uffizi, the principle art museum in Florence.  Read more…

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15 August 2019

15 August

Francesco Zuccarelli - landscape painter


Tuscan-born artist appealed to English tastes

Francesco Zuccarelli, who was considered to be the most important landscape painter to emerge from Venice in the 18th century, was born on this day in 1702.  Zuccarelli’s picturesque Arcadian landscapes were especially appealing to English buyers, and he was more famous in England even than his contemporary, Canaletto.  His fame in England prompted Zuccarelli to spend two periods of his life there. He settled in London for the first time at the end of 1752 and remained for 10 years, enjoying great success.  After returning to Italy after being elected to the Venetian Academy, he went back to England from 1765 to 1771, during which time he was a founding member of the Royal Academy and became one of George III’s favourite painters.  Born in Pitigliano, a medieval town perched on top of a tufa ridge in southern Tuscany, Zuccarelli received his early training in Florence, where he engraved the frescoes by Andrea del Sarto in SS Annunziata.  Zuccarelli’s father Bartolomeo owned several local vineyards. With considerable income at his disposal, he sent Francesco to Rome at the age of 11 or 12.  Read more…

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Carlo Cipolla - economic historian


Professor famous for treatise on ‘stupidity’

Carlo Maria Cipolla, an economic historian who for many years was a professor at the University of California, Berkeley and taught at several Italian universities, was born on this day in 1922 in Pavia.  He was one of the leading economic historians of the 20th century and wrote more than 20 academic books on economic and social history but also on such diverse subjects as clocks, guns and faith, reason and the plague in 17th century Italy.  Yet it was for his humorous treatise, The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity, that he became famous. The book, written very much tongue in cheek, became a bestseller in Italy after it was published in 1976.  In it, Cipolla produced a graph that divided the human species into four types, each sharing one characteristic of another type.  He proposed that there are (a) bandits, whose actions bring benefits for themselves but losses for others; (b) intelligent people, whose actions bring benefits for themselves and for others; (c) naive or helpless people, whose actions bring benefits for others but who tend to be exploited and therefore incur losses for themselves; and (d) stupid people, whose actions result not only in losses for themselves but for others too.   Read more…

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Gianfranco Ferré - fashion designer


Sought to create clothes for real women 

Gianfranco Ferré, who became one of the biggest names in Italian fashion during the 1980s and 1990s, was born on this day in 1944 in Legnano, a town in Lombardy north-west of Milan, between the city and Lake Maggiore, where in adult life he made his home.  Ferré was regarded as groundbreaking in fashion design in the same way as Chanel and Yves Saint Laurent in that his clothes that were created with real people rather than catwalk models in mind, yet without compromise in terms of aesthetic appeal.  At the peak of his popularity, his clients included Sharon Stone, Elizabeth Taylor, the Queen of Jordan, Paloma Picasso, Sophia Loren and the late Diana, Princess of Wales.   Ferré first trained to be an architect, placing emphasis on the structure of his garments in which strong seams were often a prominent feature. He was once dubbed the Frank Lloyd Wright of fashion, which was taken to be a reference to the powerful horizontals in his designs.  His staff addressed him as "the architect".  He was also well known for inevitably including variations of white dress shirts in his collections, adorned with theatrical cuffs or multiple collars. Read more…

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14 August 2019

14 August

The Martyrs of Otranto


Victims of massacre made saints

More than 800 male inhabitants of the southern Italian city of Otranto were beheaded on this day in 1480 by soldiers of the Ottoman Empire.  Legend has it that these men - 813 in total from the age of 15 upwards - were the only male survivors after Otranto, a port city some 35km (22 miles) southeast of Lecce, was captured by the Ottomans at the end of a 15-day siege.  According to some accounts, a total of 12,000 people were killed and 5,000 mainly women and children were enslaved, including victims from the territories of the Salentine peninsula around the city.  The 813 were supposedly offered clemency in return for their conversion to Islam but all refused, taking their lead from a tailor called Antonio Primaldi, who is said to have proclaimed: "Now it is time for us to fight to save our souls for the Lord. And since he died on the cross for us, it is fitting that we should die for him."  As a consequence of their defiance, the 813 were led to the Hill of Minerva just south of the city and beheaded one by one, Primaldi being the first to be slain.  Otranto was recaptured the following year by Alfonso of Aragon, a condottiero who would later be crowned King of Naples. Read more…


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Pope Pius VII


Compromise candidate elected by conclave-in-exile in Venice

Pope Pius VII was born Barnaba Niccolò Maria Luigi Chiaramonti on this day in 1742 in Cesena in Emilia-Romagna.  He was elected Pope in a conclave that was forced to meet on the island of San Giorgio in Venice in 1799 because Rome was occupied by the French.  He was crowned with a papier mâché version of the Papal tiara in 1800 because the French had seized the original.  It was the last conclave to be held outside Rome.  Chiaramonti was a monk of the order of Saint Benedict as well as being a distinguished theologian. He was granted the title, Servant of God, by Pope Benedict XVI in 2007.  Chiaramonti had joined the order of Saint Benedict at the age of 14. He was later ordained as a priest and went on to teach at Benedictine colleges in Parma and Rome.  After one of his relatives was elected Pope Pius VI, Chiaramonti had a series of promotions that resulted in him becoming a Cardinal.  When the French revolutionary army invaded Italy in 1797, Cardinal Chiaramonti advised people to submit to the newly-created Cisalpine Republic, set up to rule in northern Italy by the French.  Following the death of Pope Pius VI while he was in French captivity, Chiaramonti became the compromise candidate for the papacy after others in the running were unacceptable to the Austrian cardinals.  Read more…


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Giorgio Chiellini - footballer


Juventus star renowned for defensive excellence

The footballer Giorgio Chiellini, renowned as one of the world’s best defenders, was born on this day in 1984 in Pisa.  Chiellini has played for much of his career at Juventus, winning an incredible eight consecutive Serie A titles from 2012 to 2019, as well as numerous other trophies.  He was Serie A Defender of the Year in 2008, 2009 and 2010 and in 2017 was named in Juventus’s Greatest XI of All Time.  He also earned 97 caps for the Italy national team before announcing his retirement from international football in 2017, establishing himself as an automatic choice in a back three or four under five different coaches.  All of Chiellini’s successes so far have been in domestic football.  He was considered too young and inexperienced to be part of Marcello Lippi’s 2006 World Cup squad and hung up his boots with the azzurri without winning a trophy.  He has also missed out so far on success in European club competitions. He missed the 2015 Champions League final, which Juventus lost to Barcelona in Berlin, and finished on the losing side in the 2017 Champions League final, when the Italian champions were thumped 4-0 by Read Madrid in Cardiff.  Read more…


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Enzo Ferrari – car maker


Entrepreneur turned Ferrari into world’s most famous marque

Enzo Ferrari, the founder of the Scuderia Ferrari motor racing team and later the Ferrari sports car factory, died on this day in 1988 at the age of 90.  Known widely as Il Commendatore, he passed away in Maranello, a town in Emilia-Romagna a few kilometres from Modena, where he had a house, the Villa Rosa, literally opposite Ferrari’s headquarters, where he continued to supervise operations almost to his death. He had reportedly been suffering from kidney disease.  Since the first Ferrari racing car was built in 1947 and the Scuderia Ferrari team’s famous prancing stallion symbol has been carried to victory in 228 Formula One Grand Prix races and brought home 15 drivers’ championships and 16 manufacturers’ championship.  Always an exclusive marque, the number of Ferraris produced for road use since the company began to build cars for sale rather than simply to race is in excess of 150,000.  Born Enzo Anselmo Ferrari in 1898 in Modena, he attended his first motor race in Bologna at the age of 10 and developed a passion for fast cars rivalled only by his love of opera.  He endured tragedy in 1916 when both his brother and his father died in a flu epidemic.  Read more…

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The Martyrs of Otranto

Victims of massacre made saints


Details from a painting in Naples Cathedral that depicts the mass beheading of the 813 so-called Martyrs of Otranto by Ottoman invaders in 1480
Details from a painting in Naples Cathedral that depicts the mass beheading
of the 813 so-called Martyrs of Otranto by Ottoman invaders in 1480
More than 800 male inhabitants of the southern Italian city of Otranto were beheaded on this day in 1480 by soldiers of the Ottoman Empire.

Legend has it that these men - 813 in total from the age of 15 upwards - were the only male survivors after Otranto, a port city some 35km (22 miles) southeast of Lecce, was captured by the Ottomans at the end of a 15-day siege.

According to some accounts, a total of 12,000 people were killed and 5,000 mainly women and children were enslaved, including victims from the territories of the Salentine peninsula around the city.

The 813 were supposedly offered clemency in return for their conversion to Islam but all refused, taking their lead from a tailor called Antonio Primaldi, who is said to have proclaimed: "Now it is time for us to fight to save our souls for the Lord. And since he died on the cross for us, it is fitting that we should die for him."

The church of Santa Maria dei Martiri now stands on the hill where the executions are said to have taken place
The church of Santa Maria dei Martiri now stands on
the hill where the executions are said to have taken place
As a consequence of their defiance, the 813 were led to the Hill of Minerva just south of the city and beheaded one by one, Primaldi being the first to be slain.

Otranto was recaptured the following year by Alfonso of Aragon, a condottiero who would later be crowned King of Naples, supported by soldiers from the army of King Matthias Corvinus of Hungary.

The remains of the beheaded men were then collected and their skulls placed in a reliquary in the city's cathedral, the Basilica di Santa Maria Annunziata.

From 1485, some of the martyrs' remains were transferred to Naples and placed under the altar of Our Lady of the Rosary in the church of Santa Caterina a Formiello, the altar that commemorated the final Christian victory over the Ottomans at Lepanto in 1571.

Other relics can be found in Bovino, near the border of Apulia and Campania, at several locations in the Salento peninsula, and also in Naples, Venice and Spain.

The chapel in the Basilica di Santa Maria Annunziata in Otranto, which contained the skulls of the victims
The chapel in the Basilica di Santa Maria Annunziata in
Otranto, which contained the skulls of the victims
A canonical process for the 813 began in began in 1539, which led to their beatification in 1771 by Pope Clement XIV,  the process being confirmed in July 2007 by Pope Benedict XVI, who issued a decree recognising that Primaldo and his fellow townsfolk were killed "out of hatred for their faith".

The martyrs were canonised on May 12, 2013 by Pope Francis, shortly after Pope Benedict XVI had resigned.

The story has become controversial recently with a number of modern historians casting doubt on the circumstances surrounding the massacre, raising questions about whether their canonisation was justified.

Among the most convincing evidence has been put forward by Daniele Palma, a scientist from Calimera, a town on the Salento peninsula, with a fascination for the history of his homeland.

Palma questioned whether a massacre on religious grounds was likely, given that the Ottoman Empire encompassed many countries with different religions with no particular history of persecution.

Daniele Palma's book "The Authentic Story of Otranto in the War against the Turks"
Daniele Palma's book "The Authentic Story
of Otranto in the War against the Turks"
He could find nothing to suggest ceremonial killings of the kind described in the story of the Martyrs were common, the evidence being that the Ottomans were much keener to sell their victims into slavery for lucrative returns.

Based on a trove of coded diplomatic letters held in the state archive of Modena, in Emilia-Romagna, dated during the 1480s, when the Duke of Ferrara was married to the daughter of the King of Naples, Palma believes that the massacre was probably the conclusion of a failed attempt to extract ransom payments from the families of the victims.

Palma found that the Turks had a practice of taking captives from the Salento coast and agreeing to return them to their families in exchange for 300 ducati.

The diplomatic letters that Palma decoded described bank transfers and payment negotiations for freeing various captives in the months following the siege of Otranto.

The men who were killed were likely to have been the ones whose families were too poor to secure their release, in which case the massacre was not an act of religious martyrdom and should not have been hailed as such by the Church.

The ruins of the Castello Aragonese  in Otranto
The ruins of the Castello Aragonese
in Otranto
Travel tip:

Otranto, a town of whitewashed houses nestling around a natural harbour, has become a main tourist destination in Apulia, not least for its nightlife during the summer months. Built around its castle, it was a larger town of considerable prestige before the Ottomans arrived. It never really recovered from the destruction wreaked upon it.  Nowadays, it offers a leisurely pace of life and translucent seas in a picturesque location.  A variety of musical and theatrical events are held in Otranto throughout the summer, usually centred around the castle, including a jazz festival in late July and the annual commemoration of the 800 Martyrs, which takes place on August 13–15. The scene of the massacre is now occupied by the church of Santa Maria dei Martiri on Colle della Minerva.  The town's Castello Aragonese, the ruins of which include a walkway with panoramic views, was built some years after the massacre.

The Chiesa Madre di Calimera, the town in the Grecia Salentina area of Salento. home to Daniele Palma
The Chiesa Madre di Calimera, the town in the Grecia
Salentina area of Salento. home to Daniele Palma
Travel tip:

Calimera, where the scientist and historian Daniele Palma lived, is a small town of 7,296 inhabitants in the Grecìa Salentina area of the Salento peninsula, between Gallipoli and Otranto.  Unusually, the inhabitants of Calimera speak Griko, a Greek dialect, in addition to Italian.  Among things to see is the Chiesa Madre di Calimera, dedicated to the patron Saint Brizio, which dates back to 1689. It is located in Piazza del Sole in the centre of the town.

More reading:

The birth in 1480 of Lucrezia Borgia, the scheming beauty who married for political advantage and was widowed twice

Venice's war against the Ottoman Empire

The Arab conquest of Sicily

Also on this day:

1742: The birth of the future Pope Pius VII

1984: The birth of footballer Giorgio Chiellini

1988: The death of car marker Enzo Ferrari


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13 August 2019

13 August

Aurelio Saffi – republican activist


Politician prominent in Risorgimento movement

The politician Aurelio Saffi, who was a close ally of the republican revolutionary Giuseppe Mazzini during Italy’s move towards unification in the 19th century, was born on this day in 1819 in Forlì.  He was a member of the short-lived Roman Republic of 1849, which was crushed by French troops supporting the temporarily deposed Pope Pius IX, and was involved in the planning of an uprising in Milan in 1853.  Saffi was sentenced to 20 years in jail for his part in the Milan plot but by then had fled to England.  He returned to Italy in 1860 and when the Risorgimento realised its aim with unification Saffi was appointed a deputy in the first parliament of the Kingdom of Italy in 1861.  At the time of Saffi’s birth, Forlì, now part of Emilia-Romagna, was part of the Papal States. He was educated in law in Ferrara, but became politically active in his native city, protesting against the administration of the Papal legates.  He soon became a fervent supporter of Mazzini, whose wish was to see Italy established as an independent republic and saw popular uprisings as part of the route to achieving his goal.  Read more…

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Camillo Olivetti - electrical engineer


Founder of Italy’s first typewriter factory

The electrical engineer Camillo Olivetti, who opened Italy’s first typewriter factory and founded a company that would become a major player in electronic business technology, was born on this day in 1868 in Ivrea in Piedmont.   The Olivetti company that later produced Italy’s first electronic computer was developed by Adriano Olivetti, the oldest of Camillo's five children, but it was his father’s vision and enterprise that laid the foundations for the brand’s success and established the Olivetti name.  Camillo came from a Jewish middle-class background. His father, Salvador Benedetto, was a successful merchant. His mother, Elvira, came from a banking family in Modena but her interests were more cultural. She was fluent in four languages.  Elvira had full care of Camillo after Salvador died when the boy was only one and sent him to boarding school in Milan at a young age.  Although his mother’s fluency in four languages was a help - he learned English early in his life - she understood his inclination to work in electronics.  Read more…

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Salvador Luria – microbiologist


Award winning scientist who advanced medical research

Nobel prize winner Salvador Luria was born on this day as Salvatore Edoardo Luria in 1912 in Turin.  The microbiologist became famous for showing that bacterial resistance to viruses is genetically inherited and he was awarded a Nobel prize in 1969.  He studied in the medical school of the University of Turin and from 1936 to 1937 Luria served in the Italian army as a medical officer. He took classes in radiology at the University of Rome and began to formulate methods of testing genetic theory.  When Mussolini’s regime banned Jews from academic research fellowships, Luria moved to Paris but was forced to move again when the Nazis invaded France in 1940. Fearing for his life, he fled the capital on a bicycle, eventually reaching Marseille, where he received an immigration visa to the United States.  In America he met other scientists with whom he collaborated on experiments.  In 1943 Luria carried out an experiment with the scientist Max Delbruck that demonstrated that mutant bacteria can still bestow viral resistance without the virus being present.  He became chair of Microbiology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  Read more…

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12 August 2019

12 August

Giovanni Gabrieli – composer


Venetian musician inspired spread of the Baroque style

Giovanni Gabrieli, composer and organist, died on this day in 1612 in Venice.  He had been a major influence behind the transition from Renaissance music to the Baroque style in Europe.  Born in Venice between 1554 and 1557, Giovanni grew up studying with his uncle, the composer Andrea Gabrieli, for whom he always had great respect.  He also went to Munich to study with the musicians at the court of Duke Albert V, which had a lasting influence on his composing style.  After his return to Venice he became principal organist at St Mark’s Basilica in 1585. Following the death of his uncle, he took the post of principal composer at St Mark’s as well and spent a lot of time editing his uncle’s music for publication, which would otherwise have been lost.   He took the additional post of organist at the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, which was second only to St Mark’s in prestige at the time.  The English writer Thomas Coryat wrote about musical performances there in his travel memoirs.  Composers from all over Europe came to Venice to study after the publication of Giovanni’s Sacred Symphonies (Sacrae Symphoniae) in 1597.  Read more…


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Luigi Galleani - anarchist


Activist who mainly operated in the United States

Luigi Galleani, an anarchist active in the United States in the early part of the 20th century, was born on this day in 1861 in Vercelli in Piedmont.  Galleani was an advocate of the philosophy of "propaganda of the deed" first proposed by the 19th century Italian revolutionary Carlo Pisacane.  The theory was that violence against specific targets identified as representatives of the capitalist system would be a catalyst for the overthrow of government institutions.  Between 1914 and 1932, Galleani's followers in the United States - known as i Galleanisti - carried out a series of bombings and assassination attempts against institutions and perceived “class enemies.”  The Wall Street bombing of 1920, which resulted in the deaths of 38 people, was blamed on followers of Galleani, who had been deported from the United States to Italy the previous year.  The large following he acquired among Italian-speaking workers both in Italy and the United States stemmed from his brilliant oratory.  He also edited a newspaper, Cronaca Sovversiva - Subversive Chronicle - which he published for 15 years until the United States government closed it down in 1918.  At one point Cronaca Sovversiva had 5,000 subscribers.   Read more…


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Vittorio Sella - mountain photographer


Images still considered among the most beautiful ever made

The photographer Vittorio Sella, who combined mountaineering with taking pictures of some of the world’s most famous and challenging peaks, died on this day in 1943 in his home town of Biella in Piedmont.  Even though Sella took the bulk of his photographs between the late 1870s and the First World War, his images are still regarded as among the most beautiful and dramatic ever taken.  His achievements are all the more remarkable given that his first camera and tripod alone weighed more than 18kg (40lbs) and he exposed his pictures on glass plates weighing almost a kilo (2lbs).  He had to set up makeshift darkrooms on the mountain at first because each shot had to be developed within 10 to 15 minutes.  Sella had exploring and photography in his blood. He was born in 1859 in Biella, in the foothills of the Italian Alps. It was an important area for wool and textiles and his family ran a successful wool factory.   Sella’s father, Giuseppe, was fascinated with the new science of photography A few years before Vittorio’s birth, he published the first major treatise on photography in Italian.  Meanwhile, Sella’s uncle, Quintino Sella, led the first expedition to the top of Monte Viso (or Monviso), the highest mountain in the French-Italian Alps.  Read more…

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Mario Balotelli - footballer


Volatile star of Milan clubs and Manchester City

Controversial footballer Mario Balotelli, who has played for both major Milan clubs in Serie A and for Manchester City and Liverpool in the Premier League in England, was born on this day in 1990 in Palermo.  More recently, he played in Ligue 1 in France with Nice, finishing third behind Monaco and Paris St Germain in the 2016-17 season, helped by 15 goals from the Italian international Balotelli.   Balotelli scored 20 goals in 54 Premier League matches for Manchester City and made the pass from which Sergio Aguero scored City’s dramatic late winning goal against Queen’s Park Rangers on the last day of the 2011-12 season, which gave City the title for the first time since 1968.  He had a difficult relationship with City manager Roberto Mancini, with whom he first worked at Internazionale in Milan, and with Mancini’s successor in charge of the nerazzurri, Jose Mourinho.  His volatile temperament has also brought him more red and yellow cards than he and his managers would have liked.  Yet he still won three Serie A winner’s medals with Inter in addition to his English title and won the Coppa Italia with Inter and the FA Cup with Manchester City.  Read more…

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Luigi Galleani - anarchist

Activist who mainly operated in the United States


Luigi Galleani supported anarchist philosophies from a young age
Luigi Galleani supported anarchist
philosophies from a young age
Luigi Galleani, an anarchist active in the United States in the early part of the 20th century, was born on this day in 1861 in Vercelli in Piedmont.

Galleani was an advocate of the philosophy of "propaganda of the deed" first proposed by the 19th century Italian revolutionary Carlo Pisacane. 

The theory was that violence against specific targets identified as representatives of the capitalist system would be a catalyst for the overthrow of government institutions.

Between 1914 and 1932, Galleani's followers in the United States - known as i Galleanisti - carried out a series of bombings and assassination attempts against institutions and perceived “class enemies.”

The Wall Street bombing of 1920, which resulted in the deaths of 38 people, was blamed on followers of Galleani, who had been deported from the United States to Italy the previous year.

The large following he acquired among Italian-speaking workers both in Italy and the United States stemmed from his brilliant oratory.  He also edited a newspaper, Cronaca Sovversiva - Subversive Chronicle - which he published for 15 years until the United States government closed it down in 1918.  At one point Cronaca Sovversiva had 5,000 subscribers.

Born into a middle-class family in Vercelli, he studied law at the University of Torino but he never graduated. The end of the 19th century was a period of social tensions, marked by the creation of workers’ movements and repressive measures by the state.  Galleani was attracted to anarchist ideology and soon found himself sought by the police in Turin.

The aftermath of the Wall Street bombing of 1920, which was blamed on Galleani's supporters in the United States
The aftermath of the Wall Street bombing of 1920, which
was blamed on Galleani's supporters in the United States
He fled first to France in 1880 and then Switzerland. When he returned to Italy in 1893 he was arrested and sent to prison for three years, found guilty of conspiring against the State. On his release he was exiled to the island of Pantelleria, off the coast of Sicily, where he met he met and married a young widow, Maria Rollo, with whom he had four children.

They escaped Pantelleria in 1900, fleeing to Egypt, which at the time had a large expatriate Italian community. He befriended a number of anarchists but his presence became known to the Egyptian authorities and he was informed that they would soon begin proceedings to extradite him to Italy.

Abruptly, he and Maria left Egypt and went to London. They then emigrated to the United States, arriving in 1901.

Soon after arriving in the US, Galleani attracted attention in radical anarchist circles as a charismatic orator. He settled in Paterson, New Jersey, and became the editor of La Questione Sociale, the leading Italian anarchist periodical in the United States.

The textile mills in Paterson, New Jersey, where Galleani found support among the workforce
The textile mills in Paterson, New Jersey, where
Galleani found support among the workforce
In 1902, during a strike by silk workers at a factory in Paterson of which Galleani had been an agitator, police opened fire on the strikers. Galleani was wounded in the face and later indicted for inciting a riot. He fled to Canada but was expelled.

In time, he settled in Barre, near Vermont, where he found more support among the community of Italian stonemasons. It was there that he founded Cronaca Sovversiva.

It was a result largely of the content of Cronaca Sovversiva, which not only contained articles advocating the overthrow of government but in one issue included bomb-making instructions, that Galleani was deported back to Italy in 1919.

He continued to publish Cronaca Sovversiva but after Benito Mussolini’s Fascists came to power in 1922 he was arrested and sentenced to 14 months in prison. For the second time in his life he was exiled to Pantelleria, then the island of Lipari, and finally to Messina.

Eventually he was allowed to return to the Italian mainland and died in 1931 in the village of Caprigliola, in the area of Tuscany known as Lunigiana, at the age of 70.

Before and after Galleani was deported, America was hit with a wave of bombings blamed on his followers, culminating in the Wall Street attack in 1920, which injured 143 in addition to the 38 deaths. Many other attacks resulted in fatalities.

The Piazza Cavour in Vercelli, where Galleani was born
The Piazza Cavour in Vercelli, where Galleani was born.
Travel tip:

Vercelli, where Galleani was born, is a city of around 46,500 inhabitants some 85km (53 miles) west of Milan and about 75km (46 miles) northeast of Turin. It is reckoned to be built on the site of one of the oldest settlements in Italy, dating back to 600BC, and was home to the world's first publicly-funded university, which was opened in 1228 but folded in 1372. The Basilica of Sant'Andrea is regarded as one of the most beautiful and best-preserved Romanesque buildings in Italy.  Since the 15th century, Vercelli has been at the centre of Italy’s rice production industry, with many of the surrounding fields in the vast Po plain submerged under water during the summer months.

The sighting tower in Caprigliola may be almost 700 years old
The sighting tower in Caprigliola may
be almost 700 years old
Travel tip

The village of Caprigliola sits on a sandstone rock on the left bank of the Magra river in Lunigiana, an area of northwestern Tuscany known for its great beauty that was a favourite of the poet Dante Alighieri, who enjoyed the peace and solitude of the mountain regions.  Long-term Caprigliola residents still use a unique dialect that is a mix of Tuscan, Emilian and Ligurian words.  Caprigliola has a fine example of the circular sighting towers that were once a feature of the Lunigiana landscape between the 11th and 15th centuries. This one, which rises to a height of 28.8m (95ft), may have been built in around 1230. It is not open to the public but can be visited by contacting the parish priest.

More reading:

How anarchist Gino Lucetti tried to assassinate Mussolini

Why anarchist Giuseppe Pinelli inspired a Dario Fo play

Gaetano Bresci - the anarchist who killed Umberto I

Also on this day:

1612: The death of composer Giovanni Gabrieli

1943: The death of mountain photographer Vittorio Sella

1990: The birth of footballer Mario Balotelli


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11 August 2019

11 August

Alfredo Binda - cyclist


Five times Giro winner who was paid not to take part

The five-times Giro d’Italia cycle race winner Alfredo Binda, who once famously accepted a substantial cash payment from the race organisers not to take part, was born on this day in 1902 in the village of Cittiglio, just outside Varese in Lombardy.  The payment was offered because Binda was such a good rider - some say the greatest of all time - that the Gazzetta dello Sport, the daily sports newspaper that invented the race, feared for the future of the event - and their own sales - because of Binda’s dominance.  He had been the overall winner of the coveted pink jersey in 1925, 1927, 1928 and 1929, on one occasion winning 12 of the 15 stages, on another racking up nine stage victories in a row.  Binda, who was perceived as a rather cold and detached competitor, was never particularly popular outside his own circle of fans and his habit of ruthlessly seeing off one hyped-up new challenger after another did nothing to win him new fans.  By 1929 it became clear to the Gazzetta’s bosses that interest in the race was waning. There were fears that another Binda procession in 1930 could mean that the race would have to be discontinued, even that the paper might be forced to close.  Read more…

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Massimiliano Allegri - football coach


Former AC Milan boss has topped Conte's record

Massimiliano Allegri, the man who looked to have taken on one of the toughest acts to follow in football when he succeeded Antonio Conte as head coach of Juventus, was born on this day in 1967 in Livorno.  Conte won the Serie A title three times and the domestic double of Serie A and Coppa Italia twice in his three years as boss of the Turin club.  Allegri took over only in 2014 but quickly exceeded Conte’s record, leading the so-called Old Lady of Italian football to the double in each of his five seasons in charge.  The 2016-17 title was the club’s sixth in a row, setting a Serie A record for the most consecutive Scudetto triumphs, which he subsequently extended to eight.  Allegri was well regarded as a creative midfielder but although there were high spots, such as scoring 12 Serie A goals from midfield in a relegated Pescara side in 1992-923, he enjoyed a fairly modest playing career which was marred by his suspension for a year as one of six players alleged to have conspired in fixing the result of a Coppa Italia tie while with the Serie B club Pistoiese.  In coaching, he followed the customary Italian route of learning his craft in the lower divisions, tasting success for the first time in 2007-08 with the Emilia-Romagna club Sassuolo. Read more…

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Pope Alexander VI


Scheming pontiff married off his children to secure power

Rodrigo Borgia became one of the most controversial popes in history when he took the title of Alexander VI on this day in 1492 in Rome.  He is known to have fathered several illegitimate children with his mistresses and his reign became notorious for corruption and nepotism.  Born in Valencia in Spain, Borgia came to Italy to study law at the University of Bologna. He was ordained a Deacon and then made Cardinal-Deacon after the election of his uncle as Pope Callixtus III. He was then ordained to the priesthood and made Cardinal-Bishop of Albano.  By the time he had served five popes he had acquired considerable influence and wealth and it was rumoured that he was able to buy the largest number of votes to secure the papacy for himself.  He had made himself the first archbishop of Valencia and when he was elected as Pope Alexander VI, following the death of Innocent VIII, his son, Cesare Borgia, inherited the post.  Borgia had many mistresses, but during his long relationship with Vanozza dei Cattanei he had four children that he acknowledged as his own, Cesare, Giovanni, Lucrezia and Goffredo. He had several other children with different mothers.  Read more…

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