30 September 2019

30 September

Monica Bellucci - actress and model


Movie actress who is face of Dolce & Gabbana

The actress and model Monica Bellucci, who has appeared in more than 60 films in a career than began in 1990, was born on this day in 1964 in Città di Castello in Umbria.  Bellucci, who is associated with Dolce & Gabbana and Dior perfumes, began modelling to help fund her studies at the University of Perugia, where she was enrolled at the Faculty of Law with ambitions of a career in the legal profession.  But she was quickly brought to the attention of the major model agencies in Milan and soon realised she had the potential to follow a much different career.  Bellucci, whose father Pasquale worked for a transport company, soon began to attract big-name clients in Paris and New York as well as Italy, but decided not long into her modelling career that she would take acting lessons.  She claimed to have been inspired by watching the Italian female movie icons Claudia Cardinale and Sophia Loren and gained her first part in a TV miniseries directed by the veteran director Dino Risi in 1990.  The following year she made her big screen debut with a leading role in the film La raffa, directed by Francesco Laudadio.  Read more…


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Angelo Cerica - Carabinieri general


First job was to arrest Mussolini

General Angelo Cerica, the police commander tasked with arresting the Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini after he was deposed as party leader in 1943, was born on this day in 1885 in Alatri, in the Ciociaria region of Lazio, about 90km (56 miles) south of Rome.  Mussolini was arrested on July 25 as he left his regular meeting with the King, Vittorio Emanuele III, the day after the Fascist Grand Council had voted to remove him from power.  The monarch had informed him that General Pietro Badoglio, former chief of staff of the Italian army, would be replacing him as prime minister.  Cerica had been appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Carabinieri, Italy’s paramilitary second police force, only two days previously, succeeding General Azolino Hazon, who had been killed in a bombing raid.  He was hand-picked for the job by General Vittorio Ambrosio, who was party to secret plot among Carabinieri officers to depose Mussolini irrespective of the Grand Council vote.  They wanted a commander who would not oppose the anti-Mussolini faction and would carry out the arrest.  Cerica, in fact, shared their view of il Duce, blaming him for leading Italy into a ruinous alliance with Germany in the Second World War.  Read more…


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Girolamo Mercuriale - physician


Doctor went from hero to villain and back again

Girolamo Mercuriale, who is believed to have written the first book about sports medicine and one of the first books about the benefits of physical exercise, was born on this day in 1530 in Forlì.  He published his most famous book, De Arte Gymnastica, in 1569 in Venice, having studied Greek and Roman medical literature and learnt about the attitude of athletes in ancient times to diet, exercise and hygiene.  Girolamo was the son of a doctor, Giovanni Mercuriale, and he was sent to Bologna, Padua and Venice to study medicine. After receiving his doctorate in philosophy and medicine in 1555 in Venice he went to Rome on a political mission, where he had access to many of the important libraries housing classical manuscripts.  His book is believed to the first to explain the principles of physical therapy, now known as physiotherapy and the first to suggest that exercise can be helpful, or harmful, depending on its use, duration and intensity.  But Mercuriale’s reputation suffered badly after he was considered to have failed to identify an outbreak of plague in Venice between 1576 and 1577.  Read more…


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Pierina Legnani - ballerina


Italian dancer who conquered St Petersburg

The ballerina Pierina Legnani, considered by many ballet historians to be one of the greatest dancers in history, was born on this day in 1863 in Milan.  Legnani's legacy was the 32-turn fouetté en tournant in which the dancer essentially spins on the point of one foot for 32 revolutions while maintaining perfect balance.  No ballerina had completed 32 turns before Legnani, who is said to have tried it out at the Alhambra Theatre in London before introducing the move to the wider world in 1893 on her debut at the Imperial Ballet in St Petersburg in Russia, where she was performing in the title role of Cinderella.  It came in the final act on the night of the premiere and her perfection of technique and execution caused a sensation, with many critics hailing her as the supreme ballerina of her generation.  Her feat set a new standard for future ballerinas as a yardstick of strength and technique. A sequence of 32 fouetté turns was later choreographed into the Black Swan solo in Act Three of Swan Lake, of which it continues to be a feature.  Jealous rivals criticised Legnani for what they saw as showing off. The truth was that many feared that were they challenged to match her they would fall short.  Read more…


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Girolamo Mercuriale – physician

Doctor went from hero to villain and back again



Girolamo Mercuriale was a student of Greek and Roman medical literature
Girolamo Mercuriale was a student of
Greek and Roman medical literature
Girolamo Mercuriale, who is believed to have written the first book about sports medicine and one of the first books about the benefits of physical exercise, was born on this day in 1530 in Forlì.

He published his most famous book, De Arte Gymnastica, in 1569 in Venice, having studied Greek and Roman medical literature and learnt about the attitude of athletes in ancient times to diet, exercise and hygiene.

Girolamo was the son of a doctor, Giovanni Mercuriale, and he was sent to Bologna, Padua and Venice to study medicine. After receiving his doctorate in philosophy and medicine in 1555 in Venice he went to Rome on a political mission, where he had access to many of the important libraries housing classical manuscripts.

His book is believed to the first to explain the principles of physical therapy, now known as physiotherapy and the first to suggest that exercise can be helpful, or harmful, depending on its use, duration and intensity.

He became famous and was offered the chair of practical medicine at Padua in 1569, where he studied the works of Hippocrates, which gave him the material to write the first scientific tracts on skin disease, and women’s and children’s diseases.

Mercuriale had to rebuild his reputation after failing to identify a plague outbreak
Mercuriale had to rebuild his reputation
after failing to identify a plague outbreak
In 1573 he was called to Vienna to treat the Holy Roman Emperor, Maximilian II, who, out of gratitude, made Mercuriale an imperial count palatine. However, despite the treatment the Holy Roman Emperor received from Mercuriale, he died three years later.

On Mercuriale’s return to Italy he was made a professor at the University of Padua by the Venetian Senate.

But Mercuriale’s reputation suffered badly after he was considered to have mishandled the outbreak of plague in Venice between 1576 and 1577.

He was asked to head a team of medical professionals to advise the city about dealing with the disease. Mercuriale maintained the disease affecting Venice could not possibly be plague and argued against quarantining. He travelled between infected and safe houses treating people who were suffering, but within a month the death toll had risen sharply.

Eventually the Senate ordered Mercuriale to be quarantined himself, believing that his questionable methods were responsible for the spread of the plague, which eventually claimed the lives of 50,000 Venetians.

Mercuriale managed to salvage his reputation with the 1577 publication of De Pestilentia, his treatise about plague.

He went on to teach at the University of Bologna until he was offered a record salary of 1,800 gold crowns by Ferdinando de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, to move to Pisa to increase the reputation of the university there.

Mercuriale returned to live in Forlì in 1606, where he died a few months later, aged 76.

Piazza Aurelio Saffi in the northern Italian city of Forli,
where Girolamo Mercuriale was born in the northern city
Travel tip:

Forlì in the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy, where Girolamo Mercuriale was born and died, is a historic city with some beautiful medieval buildings. In the main square, Piazza Aurelio Saffi, there is a statue of the Italian politician the square is named after, who was an important figure in the Risorgimento movement. The Abbey of San Mercuriale and the Church of San Domenico, which overlook the square, are both well preserved medieval buildings.

The pulpit at the University of Padua from which Galileo delivered lectures during his time at the university
The lectern at the University of Padua from which Galileo
delivered lectures during his time at the university
Travel tip:

The University of Padua, where Girolamo Mercuriale taught for many years, was established in 1222 and is one of the oldest in the world, second in Italy only to the University of Bologna. The main university building, Palazzo del Bò in Via VIII Febbraio in the centre of Padua, used to house the medical faculty. You can take a guided tour to see the lectern used by Galileo when he taught at the university between 1592 and 1610, just after Mercuriale’s time there.

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29 September 2019

29 September

Silvio Berlusconi - entrepreneur and politician


Businessman now barred from office but still leading his party

Silvio Berlusconi, who has served as Prime Minister of Italy in four Governments, was born on this day in 1936 in Milan.  Head of a large media empire and owner of the football club AC Milan, Berlusconi was Prime Minister for a total of nine years, making him the longest-serving post-war Prime Minister and the third longest-serving since Italian unification.  Berlusconi was the eldest of three children born to a bank employee and his wife and, after completing his secondary school education, he studied Law at the Università Statale in Milan, graduating with honours in 1961.  While at University he played the double bass in a group and occasionally performed as a cruise ship crooner. In later life he was to co-write both AC Milan’s and Forza Italia’s anthems and, in collaboration with Mariano Apicella, a Neapolitan singer and musician, he wrote the lyrics for two albums of Neapolitan-style songs, which Apicella put to music.  In the late 1960s, Berlusconi’s company, Edilnord, built 4,000 residential apartments in a new 'town' he called Milano Due and he was able to use the profits to fund his future businesses.  Read more…


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Enrico Fermi – nuclear physicist


Scientist from Rome who created world’s first nuclear reactor

Enrico Fermi, who has been called the architect of the nuclear age and even the father of the atomic bomb, was born on this day in 1901 in Rome.  Fermi, who won a Nobel Prize in 1938, created the world’s first nuclear reactor, the so-called Chicago Pile-1, after he had settled in the United States, and also worked on the Manhattan Project, which was the code name for the secret US research project aimed at developing nuclear weapons in the Second World War.  The third child of Alberto Fermi, an official in Italy’s Ministry of Railways, and Ida de Gattis, a school teacher, Fermi took an interest in science from an early age, inspired by a book about physics he had discovered in the local market in Campo de’ Fiori in Rome, written in Latin by a Jesuit priest in about 1840.  He read avidly as he was growing up, conducting many experiments. After high school, he was granted a place at the prestigious Scuola Normale Superiore, part of the University of Pisa, where it became clear the depth of knowledge he had already acquired was greater than that of many of his professors. It was not long before they began asking him to organise seminars in quantum physics. Read more…


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Silvio Piola - footballer


Modest star who remains Italy’s great goalscorer

Silvio Piola, a forward whose career tally of 364 goals between 1930 and 1954 remains the most scored by any professional player in the history of football in Italy, was born on this day in 1913 in Robbio Lomellina, a small town about 50km (31 miles) southwest of Milan.  Of those goals, 274 were scored in Serie A and 30 for the Italian national team, with whom he was a World Cup winner in 1938, scoring twice in the final against Hungary.  No other player has scored so many goals in the top flight of Italian football and only two others - Gigi Riva and Giuseppe Meazza - have scored more while wearing the azzurri shirt.  Other records still held by Piola include all-time highest Serie A goalscorer for three different clubs - his hometown club Pro Vercelli, Lazio, and Novara - and one of only two players to have scored six goals in a single match.  Until recently, Piola held a unique double record of being both the youngest player to score two goals in a Serie A match and the oldest, having scored twice for Pro Vercelli in a 5-4 win away to Alessandria in 1931 when he was 17 years and 104 days and twice for Novara against Lazio in a match in 1953, at the age of 39 years and 127 days.  Read more…


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28 September 2019

28 September

Marcello Mastroianni – actor


Film star who immortalised the Trevi Fountain


Marcello Vincenzo Domenico Mastroianni, who grew up to star in some of the most iconic Italian films of the 20th century, was born on this day in 1924 in Fontana Liri, in the province of Frosinone in Lazio.  At the age of 14, Marcello Mastroianni made his screen debut as an extra in a 1939 film called Marionette.  His career was interrupted by the Second World War, during which he was interned in a German prison camp until he managed to escape and go into hiding in Venice.  He made several minor film appearances after the war until he landed his first big role in Atto d’accusa, directed by Giacomo Gentilomo, in 1951.  Ten years later, Mastroianni had become an international celebrity, having starred in Federico Fellini’s La dolce vita opposite Anita Ekberg. He played a disillusioned tabloid journalist who spends his days and nights exploring Rome’s high society. The film is most famous for the scene in which Ekberg's character, Sylvia, wades into the Trevi Fountain.  Mastroianni followed this with a starring role in Fellini’s 8½  - Otto e mezzo - in which he played a film director who suffers from creative block while making a movie.  Read more…

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Filippo Illuminato - partisan


Teenager who gave his life for his city

The partisan fighter Filippo Illuminato died on this day in 1943 in Naples.  He was among more than 300 Italians killed in an uprising known as the Quattro giornate di Napoli - the Four Days of Naples - which successfully liberated the city from occupying Nazi forces ahead of the arrival of the first Allied forces in the city on 1 October.  Illuminato’s memory has been celebrated in a number of ways in the southern Italian city, honoured because he was only 13 years old when he was killed by German gunfire in a street battle in the famous Piazza Trieste e Trento, just a few steps from the Royal Palace. His last act had been to blow up a German armoured car.  Born into a poor family, Illuminato was working as an apprentice mechanic when he decided to join the uprising, which was sparked by a brutal crackdown imposed by the Nazis in response to the Italian government’s decision to surrender to the Allies, confirmed in the signing of the Armistice of Cassabile on 3 September on the island of Sicily.  The German forces, which had numbered 20,000, had responded to the news by banning all assemblies and introducing a curfew. Read more…

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Pietro Badoglio - soldier and politician


Controversial general who turned against Mussolini

Marshal Pietro Badoglio, who was a general in the Italian Army in both World Wars and became Italy’s wartime prime minister after the fall of Mussolini, was born on this day in 1871 in the village of Grazzano Monferrato in Piedmont.  He was Mussolini’s Chief of Staff between 1925 and 1940, although his relationship with the Fascist dictator was fractious.  Indeed, he ultimately played a key part in Mussolini’s downfall in 1943, encouraging the Fascist Grand Council to remove him as leader and advising King Victor Emmanuel III in the lead-up to Mussolini’s arrest and imprisonment in July of that year, after which he was named as head of an emergency government.  It was Badoglio who then conducted the secret negotiations with the Allies that led to an armistice being signed barely five weeks later.  However, historians are divided over whether he should be seen as an heroic figure, in part because of his role in the disastrous defeat for Italian forces at the Battle of Caporetto in the First World War, at a cost of 10,000 Italian deaths and 30,000 more wounded.  Badoglio hailed from a middle-class background. His father, Mario, was a small landowner. Read more…

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Pope John Paul I


Sudden end to the reign of ‘The Smiling Pope’

John Paul I died on this day in 1978 in Rome, having served for just 33 days as Pope.  His reign is one of the shortest in Papal history and resulted in the most recent ‘Year of Three Popes’, which hadn’t happened since 1605.  John Paul I was also the most recent Pope to be born in Italy, his death ending the succession of Italian pontiffs that started with Clement VII in 1523.  Pope John Paul I was born Albino Luciani in 1912 in a small town then known as Forno di Canale, in the province of Belluno in the Veneto. The son of a bricklayer, he decided to become a priest when he was just ten years old and was educated first at the seminary in Feltre and then in Belluno.  After Luciani was ordained, he taught for a while at the seminary in Belluno before going to Rome to work on a Doctorate in Sacred Theology.  He was appointed Bishop of Vittorio Veneto by Pope John XXIII in 1958. The next Pope, Paul VI, made him Patriarch of Venice in 1969 and then Cardinal Priest of San Marco in 1973.  After the death of Pope Paul VI in August 1978, Luciani was elected Pope in the fourth ballot of the papal conclave. He accepted his election but prophesied that his reign would be a short one.  Read more…


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Filippo Illuminato - partisan

Teenager who gave his life for his city


The young partisan Filippo Illuminato, killed at the age of 13
The young partisan Filippo Illuminato,
killed at the age of 13
The partisan fighter Filippo Illuminato died on this day in 1943 in Naples.

He was among more than 300 Italians killed in an uprising known as the Quattro giornate di Napoli - the Four Days of Naples - which successfully liberated the city from occupying Nazi forces ahead of the arrival of the first Allied forces in the city on 1 October.

Illuminato’s memory has been marked in a number of ways in the southern Italian city, honoured because he was only 13 years old when he was killed by German gunfire in a street battle in the famous Piazza Trieste e Trento, just a few steps from the Royal Palace. His last act had been to blow up a German armoured car.

Born into a poor family, Illuminato was working as an apprentice mechanic when he decided to join the uprising, which was sparked by a brutal crackdown imposed by the Nazis in response to the Italian government’s decision to surrender to the Allies, confirmed in the signing of the Armistice of Cassabile on 3 September on the island of Sicily.

The German forces, which had numbered 20,000, had responded to the news by banning all assemblies and introducing a curfew. Thousands of Italian soldiers and citizens were rounded up and deported, bound for labour camps in the north of the country.

Citizens who remained in the city were warned that any insurrection would be punished by execution and the destruction of the homes of each individual offender. The wounding or killing of any German soldier would be avenged with the deaths of 100 Neapolitans.  Word spread that the Germans had been instructed to "reduce Naples to cinders and mud" before they retreated from the Allied invasion.

Neapolitans welcome the arrival of Allied troops in the city following the four-day uprising
Neapolitans welcome the arrival of Allied troops in the city
following the four-day uprising
After a number of sporadic incidents, a more consolidated rebellion began on 26 September, when around 500 citizens, their stock of weapons and ammunition bolstered by a raid on a German munitions store in the Vomero quarter a few days earlier, attacked German soldiers who had rounded up 8,000 Neapolitans for deportation.  A number of further insurgencies occurred in other parts of the city later in the day, including the capture of a German weapons depot in Castel Sant’Elmo.

Illuminato had by this stage taken up arms with other members of his family and friends. The German forces knew they had a full-scale insurrection on their hands and street battles broke out as the resistance fighters were sought out.  It was during one such battle that Illuminato was killed - but only after an act of personal bravery that would posthumously be recognised by the awarding of the Gold Medal of Military Valour, Italy's highest award for gallantry.

Fighting with a group of partisans in the heart of the city, he became separated as other men sought cover from a German patrol. Yet he courageously advanced on a German armoured car that was moving from Piazza Trieste e Trento into Via Toledo, which was then known as Via Roma.

The main post office in Naples was destroyed by the German occupiers before they withdrew
The main post office in Naples was destroyed by the
German occupiers before they withdrew
Illuminato destroyed one vehicle with a grenade and continued to advance despite the German patrol opening fire, managing to throw another grenade before he fell under a hail of bullets.

Over the following two days, the Germans began to withdraw, aware that the advancing Allied forces were only a few kilometres away to the south. By the time American and British soldiers arrived, no Nazis remained in the city.

Although there were three times as many deaths among partisans and civilians as there were among the German forces, the uprising was hailed as a victory because it played a part in the decision of the Nazi command not to mount a defence of Naples against the invading Allies, and thwarted Hitler’s instructions to his army to leave the city in ruins in their wake.

Nazi troops did torch the State Archives of Naples, which destroyed many historical documents, and blew up the main post office, but quit without bringing about the wholesale destruction Hitler had wanted.

Illuminato became a symbol of the Four Days. His memory is preserved in the city in a number of ways, including a street name - the Via Filippo Illuminato in the Fuorigrotta district - and a high school in the Mugnano district.

The Piazza Trieste e Trento, where Filippo Illuminato was gunned down in 1943, as it looks today
The Piazza Trieste e Trento, where Filippo Illuminato was
gunned down in 1943, as it looks today
Travel tip:

The Piazza Trieste e Trento is a much smaller space than the vast Piazza del Plebiscito it adjoins, but is nonetheless an important square at the convergence of the Via Toledo, Via Chiaia and the Via San Carlo. Around its perimeter can be found the Teatro San Carlo, a wing of the Royal Palace, the Palazzo Zapata, the Galleria Umberto I and the Caffè Gambrinus.  The square acquired its current name in 1919 in celebration of the Italian victory in the First World War.

The Via Toledo in Naples - known as Via Roma until 1980 - is one of the main commercial streets in the centre of the city
The Via Toledo in Naples - known as Via Roma until 1980 - is
one of the main commercial streets in the centre of the city
Travel tip:

Via Toledo is a busy street in Naples, linking Piazza Dante with Piazza Trieste e Trento. One of the most important shopping streets in the city, it is almost 1.2 km (0.75 miles) long. Created by Spanish viceroy Pedro Álvarez de Toledo, 2nd Marquis of Villafranca in 1536, it was designed by Ferdinando Manlio, an Italian architect.  It was called Via Roma between 1870 to 1980 to celebrate the Italian unification.  The Metro station Toledo, which can also be found on the street, is one of the city’s more unlikely must-see places. One of a number of so-called ‘art stations’ on the line linking Piazza Garibaldi and Piscinola, Toledo is famous for its breathtaking escalator descent through a vast mosaic by the Spanish architect Oscar Tusquets Blanca known as the Crater de Luz – the crater of light – which creates the impression of daylight streaming into a volcanic crater.


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27 September 2019

27 September

Grazia Deledda - Nobel Prize winner


First Italian woman to be honoured

The novelist Grazia Deledda, who was the first of only two Italian women to be made a Nobel laureate when she won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1926, was born on this day in 1871 in the city of Nuoro in Sardinia.  A prolific writer from the age of 13, she published around 50 novels or story collections over the course of her career, most of them drawing on her own experience of life in the rugged Sardinian countryside.  The Nobel prize was awarded "for her idealistically inspired writings which with plastic clarity picture the life on her native island and with depth and sympathy deal with human problems in general."  Deledda’s success came at the 11th time of asking, having been first nominated in 1913. The successful nomination came from Henrik Schuck, a literature historian at the Swedish Academy.  Born into a middle-class family - her father, Giovanni, was in her own words a “well-to-do landowner” - Deledda drew inspiration for her characters from the stream of friends and business acquaintances her father insisted must stay at their home whenever they were in Nuoro.  She was not allowed to attend school beyond the age of 11. Read more…


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Jovanotti - musician


Former rapper important figure in Italian pop culture

The singer-songwriter Lorenzo Cherubini – better known as Jovanotti – was born on this day in 1966 in Rome.  Famous in his early days as Italy’s first rap star, Jovanotti has evolved into one of Italian pop music’s most significant figures, his work progressing from hip hop to funk and introducing ska and other strands of world music to Italian audiences, his increasingly sophisticated compositions even showing classical influences.  He has come to match Ligabue in terms of the ability to attract massive audiences, while his international record sales in the mid-90s were on a par with Eros Ramazzotti and Laura Pausini.  Since his recording debut in 1988 he has sold more than seven million albums.  Although born in Rome, Cherubini came from a Tuscan family and spent much of his childhood and adolescence in Cortona in the province of Arezzo, where he now has a home.  He began to work as a DJ at venues in and around Cortona, mainly playing dance music and hip hop, which at the time was scarcely known in Italy. After finishing high school he went back to Rome because he felt he had a better chance of launching a musical career via the capital’s club scene.  Read more…


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Gracie Fields - actress and singer


English-born performer who made Capri her home 

The English actress, singer and comedian Gracie Fields died on this day in 1979 at her home on Capri, the island on the south side of the Gulf of Naples.  The 81-year-old former forces sweetheart had been in hospital following a bout of pneumonia but appeared to be regaining her health.  The previous day she had walked with her husband, Boris, to the post office on the island to collect her mail.  Some English newspapers reported that Gracie had died in the arms of her husband but that version of events was later corrected. It is now accepted that Boris had already left La Canzone del Mare, the singer's original Capri home overlooking the island's landmark Faraglioni rocks, to work on the central heating at a second property they had bought in Anacapri, on the opposite side of the island, and that Gracie was with her housekeeper, Irena, when she passed away suddenly.  Fields, born Grace Stansfield in Rochdale, England, in 1898, had visited Capri for the first time in the late 1920s or early 30s, with two artists she had befriended in London.  Read more…


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26 September 2019

26 September

Enzo Bearzot - World Cup-winning coach


Led Italy to 1982 triumph in Spain

Enzo Bearzot, the pipe-smoking coach who plotted Italy’s victory at the 1982 World Cup in Spain and at the same time changed the way the national team traditionally played, was born on September 26, 1927 in the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region of northwest Italy.   Italy had a reputation for ultra-defensive and sometimes cynical football but in 44 years had won only one major competition, the 1968 European championships, a much lower-key affair than the current four-yearly Euros, which Italy hosted.  But Bearzot, who was an admirer of the so-called ‘total football’ philosophy advanced by the Dutch coach Rinus Michels, with which the Netherlands national team reached two World Cup finals in the 1970s, albeit without winning.  Italy did not impress at the start of their Spain adventure, recording three fairly lacklustre draws in their group matches, and were expected to be eliminated in the second group phase when they were obliged to play Argentina, the holders, and a Brazil side brimming with brilliant players.  Bearzot and the team attracted scathing criticism in the Italian press.  Read more…


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St Francis Basilica struck by earthquake


Historic artworks damaged in double tremor

The historic Basilica of Saint Francis in Assisi suffered serious damage on this day in 1997 when two earthquakes struck in the central Apennines.  The quakes claimed 11 lives in the Assisi area and forced the evacuation of 70 per cent of buildings in the Umbrian town, at least temporarily, because of safety fears.  Many homes were condemned as unsafe for occupation and residents had to be housed in makeshift accommodation.  The event also caused considerable damage to frescoes painted in the 13th century by Giotto and to other important works by Cimabue, Pietro Lorenzetti and Simone Martini.  The first quake, measuring 5.5 on the Richter Scale, struck shortly after 2.30am and was felt as far away as Rome, some 170km (44 miles) to the south.  A series of smaller tremors kept residents on edge through the night. Yet the biggest quake, measured at 5.7 initially but later revised upwards to 6.1, was still to come. With tragic consequences, it occurred at 11.43am just as a party of Franciscan monks, journalists, town officials and experts from the Ministry of Culture had decided to venture inside the basilica to inspect the damage.  Read more…


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Anna Magnani - Oscar-winning film star


Roman one of only three Italians to land best actor award

Anna Magnani, who found fame for her performance in Roberto Rossellini's neorealist classic movie Rome, Open City and went on to become one of only three Italian actors to win an Academy Award, died on this day in Rome in 1973.  She had been suffering from pancreatic cancer and her death at the age of just 65 shocked her fans and close friends.  Rossellini, with whom she had a tempestuous affair before he ditched her for the Swedish actress, Ingrid Bergman, was at her bedside along with her son, Luca.  The American playwright Tennessee Williams, who wrote the part of Serafina in his play The Rose Tattoo specifically with Magnani in mind, was so devastated he could not bring himself to attend her funeral.  Instead he sent 20 dozen roses to signify the bond they developed while working together.  When Williams was in Rome they would meet for cocktails on the roof-top terrace of her home, overlooking the city, always at eight o'clock - "alle venti" in Italy, where times are generally expressed according to the 24-hour clock.  They would sign off letters and telegrams to one another with the words "Ci vediamo alle venti" or "See you at eight."  Read more…


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25 September 2019

25 September

Zucchero Fornaciari – singer


Sweet success for writer and performer

The singer/songwriter now known simply as Zucchero was born Adelmo Fornaciari on this day in 1955 in Roncocesi, a small village near Reggio Emilia.  In a career lasting more than 30 years, he has sold more than 50 million records and has become popular all over the world.  He is hailed as ‘the father of the Italian blues’, having introduced blues music to Italy, and he has won many awards for his music. He has also been given the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic.  As a young boy, Zucchero lived in the Tuscan seaside resort of Forte dei Marmi, where he sang in the choir and learned to play the organ at his local church.  He became fond of soul music and began to write his own songs and play the tenor saxophone. He started playing in bands while studying veterinary medicine but gave up his studies to follow his dream of becoming a singer.  He took the stage name of Zucchero, the Italian word for sugar, which was a nickname one of his teachers had given him.  Zucchero took part in the Sanremo song contest for the second time in 1985 and although his song ‘Donne’ did not win, it went on to become a hit single.  Read more…


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Nino Cerruti - fashion designer


Turn of fate led to a life in haute couture 

The fashion designer Nino Cerruti, who used the family textile business as the platform on which to build one of the most famous names in haute couture, was born on this day in 1930 in Biella in northern Piedmont.  At its peak, the Cerruti became synonymous with Hollywood glitz and the movie industry, both as the favourite label of many top stars and the supplier of clothing ranges for a string of box office hits.  Yet Cerruti might have lived a very different life had fate not intervened. Although Lanificio Fratelli Cerruti - the textile mills set up by his grandfather, Antonio, and his great uncles, Stefano and Quintino - had been the family firm since 1881, Nino wanted to be a journalist.  But when his father, Silvio, who had taken over the running of the business from Antonio, died prematurely, Nino was almost obligated to take over, even though he was only 20 years old.   However, despite the sacrifice of his ambitions and his studies, Cerruti threw himself into developing the business. He saw the potential in repositioning Cerruti as a fashion label and invested in a modernisation plan for the family weaving workshops in Biella as well as acquiring two further factories in Milan.  Read more…


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Agostino Bassi – biologist


Scientist who rescued the silk industry in Italy

Bacteriologist Agostino Bassi, who was the first to expound the parasitic theory of infection, was born on this day in 1773 at Mairago near Lodi in Lombardy.  He developed his theory by studying silkworms, which helped him discover that many diseases are caused by micro organisms.  This was 10 years in advance of the work of Louis Pasteur.  In 1807 Bassi began an investigation into the silkworm disease mal de segno, also known as muscardine, which was causing serious economic losses in Italy and France.  After 25 years of research and carrying out various experiments, Bassi was able to demonstrate that the disease was contagious and was caused by a microscopic parasitic fungus.  He concluded that the organism, at the time named botrytis paradoxa, but now known as beauvaria bassiana in his honour, was transmitted among the worms by contact and by infected food.  These findings enabled Bassi to rescue the economically important silk industry in Italy by recommending using disinfectants, separating the rows of feeding caterpillars and keeping farms clean.  Read more…


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24 September 2019

24 September

Riccardo Illy - businessman


Grandson of Illy coffee company founder became firm’s chairman

Riccardo Illy, whose paternal grandfather, Hungarian-born Francesco Illy, founded the world-famous illy coffee company, was born on this day in 1955 in Trieste.  Illy is president of Gruppo illy and former chairman of illycaffè. Under his leadership, the company expanded to include Domori chocolate, Dammann Frères teas, Agrimontana - which makes fruit preserves, jams and confectionery -  and Mastrojanni, a winery located in the Montalcino region of southern Tuscany.  It also holds a stake in Grom, a chain of premium ice cream parlours.  The company now has a presence in 140 countries and as well as coffee shops the company also operates ice cream stores in Italy, as well as in New York, Malibu, Los Angeles, Paris, Dubai, Osaka, and Jakarta.  Although the company’s roots are in Trieste, where Francesco opened for business in 1933, Gruppo illy Spa is based in Rome.  Riccardo’s first job was as a skiing instructor at the Piancavallo resort in the Dolomites and a sailing instructor at Monfalcone, near Trieste. He married the food and wine journalist Rossana Bettini, with whom he had a daughter, Daria.  He joined the family firm illycaffè in 1977. Read more…

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Maria Pia of Bourbon-Parma - exiled princess


Vote for republic forced King's daughter to leave

Princess Maria Pia of Bourbon-Parma was born into the Italian royal family on this day in 1934, the grand-daughter of King Victor Emmanuel III.  Her father, Umberto of Savoy, would himself become King on her grandfather’s abdication but reigned for just 34 days in 1946 before Italy voted to become a republic and the royals were effectively thrown out of the country.  Italians could not forgive Victor Emmanuel III for not doing enough to limit the power of the Fascists and for approving Benito Mussolini’s anti-semitic race laws. The constitution of the new republic decreed that no male member of the House of Savoy could set foot in Italy ever again.  It meant that Princess Maria Pia, the eldest of Umberto’s four children, had to leave Italy immediately along with her brother and two sisters and all the other members of the family, bringing to an abrupt end the life she had known until that moment.  Born in Naples, where the Villa Rosebery, once the property of the British prime minister, the Earl of Rosebery, had been renamed Villa Maria Pia by her doting father, the 11-year-old princess was removed to Cascais in Portugal.  Read more…


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Marco Tardelli - footballer


Joyous celebration is lasting image of Italy's 1982 World Cup win

Marco Tardelli, the footballer whose ecstatic celebration after scoring a goal in the final became one of the abiding images of Italy's victory in the 1982 World Cup, was born on this day in 1954.  The midfield player, who spent much of his club career with one of the best Juventus teams of all time, ran to the Italian bench after his goal against West Germany gave the Azzurri a 2-0 lead, clenching both fists in front of his chest, tears flowing as he shook his head from side to side and repeatedly shouted "Gol! Gol!" in what became known as the Tardelli Scream.  Italy went on to complete a 3-1 win over the Germans in the Santiago Bernabéu Stadium in Madrid with Paolo Rossi and Antonio Altobelli scoring Italy's other goals.  Tardelli, who was part of Italy's squad for three World Cups, had earlier scored against Argentina in the second group phase.  Tardelli later said that he felt he "was born with that scream inside me" and its release was sparked by the sheer joy at realising a dream he had nurtured since he was a child, of scoring in the final of a World Cup.  It meant that when he retired as a player in 1988 he could look back on winning international football's greatest prize as well as every competition in which he participated in club football.  Read more…


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23 September 2019

23 September

Paolo Rossi - World Cup hero


Goalscorer who bounced back from two-year ban

The footballer Paolo Rossi, whose goals steered Italy to World Cup glory in 1982, was born on this day in 1956 in Prato in Tuscany.  At the peak of his career in club football, in which his best years were with Juventus and Vicenza, Rossi scored almost 100 Serie A and Serie B goals in seven seasons.  Yet for many, his exploits with the Italian national team define his career. In 48 appearances he scored 20 goals, including six in the 1982 finals in Spain, when he won the Golden Boot as the tournament’s top scorer and the Golden Ball as the best player.  In 1982 he also won the Ballon D’Or, the prestigious award given to the player of the season across all the European leagues, following in the footsteps of Omar Sivori and Gianni Rivera to become the third Italian player to win the vote, in which company he has since been joined by Roberto Baggio and Fabio Cannavaro.  His success story is all the more remarkable for the fact that he scaled so many personal peaks after being banned from football for two years in a match-fixing scandal, although he denied the accusations levelled at him.  Read more…

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Augustus - the first Emperor of Rome


Great nephew of Julius Caesar became powerful leader

Augustus, who history recognises as the first Emperor of Rome, was born Gaius Octavius on this day in 63 BC in Rome.  He was to lead Rome’s transformation from republic to empire during the stormy years following the assassination of his great-uncle and adoptive father Julius Caesar, the dictator of the Roman Republic.  The son of a senator and governor in the Roman Republic, Octavius was related to Caesar through his mother, Atai, who was Caesar’s niece. The young Octavius was raised in part by his grandmother Julia Caesaris - Caesar’s sister - in what is now Velletri, about 40km (25 miles) southeast of Rome.  Octavius was only 17 when he learned of his great uncle’s death, although he had begun to wear the toga - a symbol of manhood - at 16 and fought alongside Caesar in Hispania (Spain), where his bravery prompted Caesar to name him in his will as his heir and successor.  When Caesar died, his allies rallied around Octavius - now known as Octavian - against Mark Antony, his rival for power, and troops loyal to Octavian defeated Antony’s army in northern Italy. However, the future emperor stepped back from seeking to eliminate Mark Antony, preferring that they formed an alliance.  Read more…

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Mussolini's last stand


Deposed dictator proclaims Republic of Salò 

In what would prove the final chapter of his political career - and his life - Benito Mussolini proclaimed the creation of the Italian Social Republic on this day in 1943.  The establishment of this new state with the Fascist dictator as its leader was announced just 11 days after German special forces freed Mussolini from house arrest in the Apennine mountains.  Although Mussolini was said to be in failing health and had hoped to slip quietly into the shadows after his escape, Hitler's compassion for his Italian ally - whose rescue had been on the direct orders of the Fuhrer - did not extend to giving him an easy route into retirement.  Faced with an Allied advance along the Italian peninsula that was gathering momentum, he put Mussolini in charge of the area of northern and central Italy that was under German army control following the Grand Fascist Council's overthrow of the dictator.  Although the area was renamed the Italian Social Republic - also known as the Republic of Salò after the town on the shores of Lake Garda where Mussolini's new government was headquartered - it was essentially a puppet German state.  Read more…

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Francesco Barberini – Cardinal


Patron of the arts sympathised with Galileo

Francesco Barberini, a cardinal who as Grand Inquisitor of the Roman Inquisition refused to condemn the scientist Galileo Galilei as a heretic, was born on this day in 1597 in Florence.  As a cardinal working within the Vatican administration, Barberini also became an important patron of literature and the arts.  The son of Carlo Barberini and Costanza Magalotti, Francesco was assisted by Galileo during his studies at the University of Pisa. The scientist was also a family friend. Francesco graduated in canon and civil law at the age of 25 in 1623.  Later that year, his uncle, Maffeo Barberini, who had been recently elected as Pope Urban VIII, made him a cardinal and sent him to be papal legate to Avignon.  He was sent to Paris as a special legate to negotiate with Cardinal Richelieu and then to Spain as a papal legate, but both his missions were unsuccessful.  From 1633 until his death more than 40 years later, Barberini was the Grand Inquisitor of the Roman Inquisition. He was part of the Inquisition tribunal investigating Galileo after the publication of writings supporting the arguments put forward by the German scientist Nicolaus Copernicus that the sun and not the earth was the centre of the universe.  Read more…


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Augustus - the first Emperor of Rome

Great nephew of Julius Caesar became powerful leader


A statue of Augustus by an unknown sculptor, in the Vatican Museum in Rome
A statue of Augustus by an unknown
sculptor, in the Vatican Museum in Rome
Augustus, who history recognises as the first Emperor of Rome, was born Gaius Octavius on this day in 63 BC in Rome.

He was to lead Rome’s transformation from republic to empire during the stormy years following the assassination of his great-uncle and adoptive father Julius Caesar, the dictator of the Roman Republic.

The son of a senator and governor in the Roman Republic, Octavius was related to Caesar through his mother, Atai, who was Caesar’s niece. The young Octavius was raised in part by his grandmother Julia Caesaris - Caesar’s sister - in what is now Velletri, about 40km (25 miles) southeast of Rome.

Octavius was only 17 when he learned of his great uncle’s death, although he had begun to wear the toga - a symbol of manhood - at 16 and fought alongside Caesar in Hispania (Spain), where his bravery prompted Caesar to name him in his will as his heir and successor.

When Caesar died, his allies rallied around Octavius - now known as Octavian - against Mark Antony, his rival for power, and troops loyal to Octavian defeated Antony’s army in northern Italy. However, the future emperor stepped back from seeking to eliminate Mark Antony, preferring that they formed an alliance.

In 43 BC, Octavian, Antony and Marcus Aemilus Lepidus established the Second Triumvirate. They divided Rome’s territories between them, with Antony given the East, Lepidus Africa and Octavian the West. In 41 BC, Antony began his famous romantic and political alliance with Cleopatra, the queen of Egypt.

The Battle of Actium, as depicted by the 17th century Flemish painter Laureys a Castro
The Battle of Actium, as depicted by the 17th century
Flemish painter Laureys a Castro
A decree of the Senate forced Antony to marry Octavian’s sister Octavia Minor, but his affair with Cleopatra continued. In 32 BC he divorced Octavia, at which Octavian declared war on Cleopatra.

The conflict culminated the following year in the naval Battle of Actium, in which Octavian’s fleet, under his admiral Agrippa, defeated Antony’s ships. Cleopatra sent her navy in support of her lover before the two fled, returning to Egypt, where both in turn committed suicide.

With Lepidus already ousted from the Triumvirate some years earlier, Octavian was now Rome’s undisputed ruler.

It was expected he would follow Caesar's example and make himself dictator, but instead, in 27 BC, Octavian founded the Roman Principate, a monarchy-type system of government, the head of which held power for life. He took the name Augustus, meaning 'lofty' or 'serene'.

He controlled all aspects of the Roman state, with the army under his direct command.  The victory at Actium had enabled him to seize Cleopatra’s assets, which he used to pay his soldiers handsomely, securing their loyalty.  To keep the Senate and ruling classes onside, he kept some of the laws of the Roman Republic intact, while he won over the people by embarking on a large programme of reconstruction and social reform, which saw the city of Rome transformed with impressive new buildings.

Frescoes adorning the walls of what is accepted to have been the villa Augustus built for himself on Rome's Palatine Hill
Frescoes adorning the walls of what is accepted to have been the villa
Augustus built for himself on Rome's Palatine Hill
By creating a standing army, Augustus initiated an era of relative peace known as the Pax Romana, during which Rome avoided large-scale conflict for more than 200 years, although there were numerous smaller wars on the Empire's frontiers in a campaign of expansion designed to push back ‘barbarian’ enemies.

At home, Augustus reformed taxation, developed networks of roads, created official police and fire-fighting services for Rome and established the Praetorian Guard.

Augustus died in 14 AD. He had been married three times, first to Mark Antony’s stepdaughter Clodia Pulchra, then to Scribonia, who bore his only child, Julia the Elder. He divorced in 39 BC to marry Livia Drusilla, who had two sons, Tiberius and Drusus.

He had Tiberius briefly marry his daughter, after which, in the absence of a male blood heir, he adopted Tiberius as son and successor, his nephew Marcellus and his grandsons Gaius and Lucius having pre-deceased him.

His remains were buried in a mausoleum, the ruins of which are in the Piazza Augusto Imperatore in the Campo Marzio district of Rome, near the Tiber river.

The Corso della Repubblica in the centre of Velletri, the town outside Rome where Augustus's family lived
The Corso della Repubblica in the centre of Velletri, the
town outside Rome where Augustus's family lived
Travel tip:

Velletri, from which Augustus’s family originated, is a town of around 50,000 inhabitants outside Rome in the Alban Hills. It has a fourth century cathedral, the Cathedral of San Clemente, which was originally built over the ruins of a pagan temple, but was rebuilt in the 17th century and given a Renaissance-style portal.  Once a popular place for Rome's wealthiest to build their country villas, the town suffered extensive damage during bombing raids in the Second World War, although the cathedral survived.  In the 15th century, Velletri had the dubious claim to fame of being the host to what is believed to have been the world's first pawnshop.

Roman remains at Largo di Torre Argentina in the heart of Rome, where Julius Caesar is said to have been slain
Roman remains at Largo di Torre Argentina in the heart of
Rome, where Julius Caesar is said to have been slain
Travel tip:

The place where Julius Caesar was killed is in a square in Rome called Largo di Torre Argentina in the Campo de’ Fiori area of the city and there are still remains from the period there. During demolition work in 1927, a marble statue was found and excavations brought to light a holy area with four temples and part of a theatre, next to which was the Curia Pompeia where Caesar was stabbed.

More reading:

The murder of Julius Caesar

The assassination of Caligula by the Praetorian Guard

The death of Nero

Also on this day:

1597: The birth of Francesco Barberini, the inquistor who refused to condemn Galileo

1943: Mussolini proclaims his Italian Social Republic

1956: The birth of World Cup hero Paolo Rossi


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22 September 2019

22 September

Roberto Saviano - writer and journalist


Author of ‘Gomorrah’ who lives under police protection

The author and journalist Roberto Saviano, whose 2006 book Gomorrah exposed the inner workings of the Camorra organised crime syndicate in his home city of Naples, was born on this day in 1979.  Gomorrah was an international bestseller that was turned into a film and inspired a TV series, bringing Saviano fame and wealth.  However, within six months of the book’s publication, Saviano had received so many threats to his life from within the Camorra that the decision was taken on the advice of former prime minister Giuliano Amato to place him under police protection.  Some 12 years later, he remains under 24-hour police guard.  He travels only in one of two bullet-proof cars, lives either in police barracks or obscure hotels and is encouraged never to remain in the same place for more than a few days. His protection team includes seven bodyguards.  Saviano has written three more books including a collection of his essays and Zero, Zero, Zero - an exposé of the cocaine trade. His latest, published this week, is called The Piranhas. Whereas Gomorrah and Zero, Zero, Zero were non-fiction, The Piranhas is a novel, though one set in Naples with the Camorra at the centre of the story.  Read more…


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Andrea Bocelli - tenor


Singer has perfect voice for either opera or pop

Tenor Andrea Bocelli was born on this day in 1958 in La Sterza, a hamlet or frazione of Lajatico in Tuscany.  Bocelli, who is blind, had poor eyesight from birth and was diagnosed with congenital glaucoma, but he lost his sight completely at the age of 12 after an accident while playing football.  He always loved music and started to learn the piano at the age of six. But after hearing a recording by opera singer Franco Corelli, he set his heart on becoming a tenor.  Bocelli won his first singing competition in Viareggio with ‘O sole mio’ at the age of 14.  He has since sold 150 million records worldwide and performed for four US presidents, three Popes and the British Royal family. His voice has been acclaimed by critics as perfect for either opera or pop.  Bocelli originally studied law and spent one year working as a lawyer, but in 1992 the great Italian tenor Luciano Pavarotti heard a recording of his unique voice performing Italian rock and pop artist Zucchero’s song Miserere and helped his career take off.  He sang Miserere with Zucchero during a European tour and performed it at the Sanremo song festival, where he won the newcomer’s section with the highest ever number of votes. Read more…

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Carlo Ubbiali - motorcycle world champion


Racer from Bergamo won nine GP titles

Carlo Ubbiali, who preceded Giacomo Agostini and Valentino Rossi as Italy’s first great motorcycling world champion, was born on this day in 1929 in Bergamo.  Between 1951 and 1960, he won nine Grand Prix titles, in the 250cc and 125cc categories, setting a record for the most world championships that was equalled by Britain’s Mike Hailwood in 1967 but not surpassed until Agostini won the 10th of his 15 world titles in 1971.  Ubbiali is the second oldest surviving Grand Prix champion after Britain’s Cecil Sandford, who was his teammate in the 1950s. Ubbiali’s compatriot Agostini, who came from nearby Lovere, in Bergamo province, is 75.  Ubbiali won a total of 39 Grand Prix races, all bar two of them for the MV Agusta team.  Three times – in 1956, 1959 and 1960 – he was world champion in 125cc and 250cc classes, and on no fewer than five occasions, including both categories in 1956, he won the title with the maximum number of points possible under the scoring system.  He was also a five-times winner at the prestigious Isle of Man TT festival and six-times Italian champion.  Read more…


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21 September 2019

21 September

Cigoli – painter and architect


First artist to paint a realistic moon

The artist Cigoli was born Lodovico Cardi on this day in 1559 near San Miniato in Tuscany.  He became a close friend of Galileo Galilei, who is said to have regarded him as the greatest painter of his time. They wrote to each other regularly and Galileo practised his drawing while Cigoli enjoyed making astronomical observances.  Cigoli painted a fresco in the dome of the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome depicting the Madonna standing upon a pock-marked lunar orb, exactly as it had been seen by Galileo through his telescope.  This is the first example still in existence of Galileo’s discovery about the surface of the moon being portrayed in art. The moon is shown just as Galileo had drawn it in his astronomical treatise, Sidereus Nuncius, which published the results of Galileo’s early observations of the imperfect and mountainous moon.  Until Cigoli’s fresco, the moon in pictures of the Virgin had always been represented by artists as spherical and smooth.  Lodovico Cardi was born at Villa Castelvecchio di Cigoli, and was therefore commonly known as Cigoli.  He trained as an artist in Florence under the Mannerist painter Alessandro Allori. Read more…


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Giacomo Quarenghi - architect


Neoclassicist famous for his work in St Petersburg

The architect Giacomo Quarenghi, best known for his work in Russia, and in St Petersburg in particular, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, was born on this day in 1744 in Rota d’Imagna, a village in Lombardy about 25km (16 miles) northwest of Bergamo.  His extensive work in St Petersburg between 1782 and 1816, which followed an invitation from the Empress Catherine II (Catherine the Great), included the Hermitage Theatre, one of the first buildings in Russia in the Palladian style, the Bourse and the State Bank, St. George’s Hall in the Winter Palace, several bridges on the Neva river, and a number of academic buildings including the Academy of Sciences, on the University Embankment.  He was also responsible for the reconstruction of some buildings around Red Square in Moscow in neo-Palladian style.  Quarenghi’s simple yet imposing neoclassical buildings, which often featured an elegant central portico with pillars and pediment, are responsible for much of St Petersburg’s stately elegance.  As a young man, Quarenghi was allowed to study painting in Bergamo despite his parents’ hopes that he would follow for a career in law or the church.  Read more…


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Maurizio Cattelan - conceptual artist


Controversial work softened by irreverent humour

The conceptual artist Maurizio Cattelan, known for the dark humour and irreverence of much of his work, was born on this day in 1960 in Padua.  Cattelan, probably best known for his controversial waxwork sculptures of Pope John Paul II and Adolf Hitler, has been described at different times as a satirist, a prankster, a subversive and a poet, although it seems to have been his aim to defy any attempt at categorisation.  His works are often interpreted as critiques of the art world and of society in general and while death and mortality are recurring themes there is more willingness among modern audiences to see how even tragic circumstances can give rise to comedic absurdities.  Although some of his work has provoked outrage, more viewers have been enthralled than angered by what he has presented, and some of his creations have changed hands for millions of dollars.  Cattelan has said that his memories of growing up in Padua are of economic hardship, punishments at school and a series of unfulfilling menial jobs.  His artistic skills were entirely self-taught. He was designing and making wooden furniture in Forlì, in Emilia-Romagna, when he began his first experiments with sculpture and conceptual art.  Read more…


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