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.

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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20 September 2019

20 September

Sophia Loren – actress


Glamorous star one of just three Italian Oscar winners

The actress Sophia Loren, who came to be regarded as one of the world’s most beautiful women and is the most famous name in Italian cinema history, was born on this day in 1934 in Rome.  In a career spanning more than 60 years, Loren appeared in almost 90 films made for the big screen and several others for television.  Although she was often picked for her looks and box-office appeal, she proved her acting talent by winning an Oscar for her role in Vittorio De Sica’s gritty 1960 drama Two Women, released in Italy as La Ciociara.  In doing so she became one of only three Italians to win the Academy Award for Best Actor or Actress and the first of either sex to win the award for an Italian-language film. She followed Anna Magnani, who had won in 1955 for The Rose Tattoo, as the second Italian Oscar winner.  Loren stayed away from the awards ceremony in 1961 on the grounds that she the suspense of waiting to learn whether she had won was something she would rather suffer in private but she was there in person to accept an honorary Oscar in 1991, recognising her career achievements.  Read more…


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Capture of Rome


Troops enter the capital in final act of unification

Crack infantry soldiers from Piedmont entered Rome and completed the unification of Italy on this day in 1870.  Rome had remained under French control even after the first Italian parliament had proclaimed Victor Emmanuel of Savoy the King of Italy in 1861.  The Italian parliament had declared Rome the capital of the new Kingdom of Italy even though it had not yet taken control of the city.  A French garrison had remained in Rome on the orders of Napoleon III of France in support of Pope Pius IX.  But after the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war, Napoleon III had to withdraw many of his troops. Italian soldiers from the Bersaglieri regiments in Piedmont led by General Raffaele Cadorna seized their chance and after a brief bombardment were able to enter Rome through a breach in the Aurelian Walls near Porta Pia.  King Victor Emmanuel II was then able to take up residence in the Quirinale Palace and Italy was declared officially united.  The date of 20 September, which marked the end of the Risorgimento, the long process of Italian unification, is commemorated in practically every town in Italy with a street named Via XX Settembre.  Read more...

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Election of Pope Clement VII


Appointment that sparked split in Catholic Church

The election of Robert of Geneva as Pope Clement VII by a group of disaffected French cardinals, prompting the split in the Roman Catholic Church that became known as the Western Schism or the Great Schism, took place on this day in 1378.  The extraordinary division in the hierarchy of the church, which saw two and ultimately three rival popes each claiming to the rightful leader, each with his own court and following, was not resolved until 1417.  It was prompted by the election in Rome of Urban VI as the successor to Gregory XI, who had returned the papal court to Rome from Avignon, where it had been based for almost 70 years after an earlier dispute.  The election of Cardinal Bartolomeo Prignano as Urban VI followed rioting by angry Roman citizens demanding a Roman be made pope. Prignano, the former Archbishop of Bari was not a Roman - he was born in Itri, near Formia in southern Lazio - but was seen as the closest to it among those seen as suitable candidates.  His appointment was not well received, however, by some of the powerful French cardinals who had moved from Avignon to Rome, who claimed the election should be declared invalid because it was made under fear of civil unrest. Read more…

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19 September 2019

19 September

Umberto Bossi - politician


Fiery leader of separatist Lega Nord

Controversial politician Umberto Bossi was born on this day in 1941 in the town of Cassano Magnago in Lombardy.  Until 2012, Bossi was leader of Lega Nord (Northern League), a political party whose goal was to achieve autonomy for northern Italy and establish a new independent state, to be called Padania.  With his distinctive, gravelly voice and penchant for fiery, sometimes provocative rhetoric, Bossi won a place in the Senate in 1987 representing his original party, Lega Lombarda. He was dismissed as an eccentric by some in the political mainstream but under his charismatic leadership Lega Nord became a force almost overnight.  Launched as Alleanza Nord in 1989, bringing together a number of regional parties including Bossi’s own Lega Lombarda, it was renamed Lega Nord in 1991 and fought the 1992 general election with stunning results.  With an impressive 8.7% of the vote, Lega Nord went into the new parliament with 56 deputies and 26 senators, making it the fourth largest party in Italy.  By 1996 that share had risen to 10% and Bossi had become a major figure in Italian politics.  Read more…

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Giuseppe Saragat – fifth President of Italy


Socialist politician opposed Fascism and Communism

Giuseppe Saragat, who was President of the Italian Republic from 1964 to 1971, was born on this day in 1898 in Turin.  As a Socialist politician, he was exiled from Italy by the Fascists in 1926.  When he returned to Italy in 1943 to join the partisans, he was arrested and imprisoned by the Nazi forces occupying Rome, but he managed to escape and resume clandestine activity within the Italian Socialist Party.  Saragat was born to Sardinian parents living in Turin and he graduated from the University of Turin in economics and commerce. He joined the Socialist party in 1922.  During his years in exile he did various jobs in Austria and France.  After returning to Italy, he was minister without portfolio in the first post-liberation cabinet of Ivanoe Bonomi in 1944.  He was sent as ambassador to Paris between 1945 and 1946 and was then elected president of the Constitutional Assembly that drafted postwar Italy’s new constitution.  At the Socialist Party Congress in 1947, Saragat opposed the idea of unity with the Communist Party and led those who walked out to form the Socialist Party of Italian Workers (PSLI).  Read more…

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Italo Calvino – writer


One of 20th century Italy's most important authors

Novelist and journalist Italo Calvino died on this day in 1985 in Siena in Tuscany.  Calvino was regarded as one of the most important Italian writers of fiction of the 20th century.  His best known works are the Our Ancestors trilogy, written in the 1950s, the Cosmicomics collection of short stories, published in 1965, and the novels Invisible Cities, published in 1972, and If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller, published in 1979.  Both of Calvino’s parents were Italian, but he was born in Santiago de Las Vegas, a suburb of Havana in Cuba, in 1923, where his father, Mario, an agronomist and botanist, was conducting scientific experiments. Calvino’s mother, Eva, was also a botanist and a university professor. It is believed she gave Calvino the first name of Italo to remind him of his heritage.  Calvino and his parents left Cuba for Italy in 1925 and settled permanently in Sanremo in Liguria, where his father’s family had an ancestral home at San Giovanni Battista.  Encouraged by his mother, he joined the Italian Resistance during the later stages of the Second World War, having gone into hiding rather than sign up for military service in Mussolini's Italian Social Republic. Read more…

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Festival of San Gennaro


Worldwide celebrations for patron saint of Naples

Local worshippers, civic dignitaries and visitors meet together in the Duomo in Naples every year on this day to remember the martyrdom of the patron saint of the city, San Gennaro.  Each year a service is held to enable the congregation to witness the dried blood of the saint, which is kept in a glass phial, miraculously turn to liquid.  The practice of gathering blood to be kept as a relic was common at the time of the decapitation of San Gennaro in 305.  The ritual of praying for the miracle of liquefaction of the blood on the anniversary of his death dates back to the 13th century.  Gennaro is said to have been the Bishop of Benevento and was martyred during the Great Persecution led by the Roman Emperor Diocletian for trying to protect other Christians.  His decapitation is believed to have taken place in Pozzuoli but his remains were transferred to Naples in the 15th century to be housed in the Duomo.  The festival of the saint’s martyrdom is celebrated each year by Neapolitan communities all over the world and the recurrence of the miracle in Naples is televised and reported in newspapers.  Read more…


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Italo Calvino – writer

One of 20th century Italy's most important authors



Italo Calvino was born in Cuba in 1923 but moved to Sanremo with his Italian-born parents in 1925
Italo Calvino was born in Cuba in 1923 but moved
to Sanremo with his Italian-born parents in 1925
Novelist and journalist Italo Calvino died on this day in 1985 in Siena in Tuscany.

Calvino was regarded as one of the most important Italian writers of fiction of the 20th century.  His best known works are the Our Ancestors trilogy, written in the 1950s, the Cosmicomics collection of short stories, published in 1965, and the novels, Invisible Cities, published in 1972 and If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller, published in 1979.

Both of Calvino’s parents were Italian, but he was born in Santiago de Las Vegas, a suburb of Havana in Cuba, in 1923, where his father, Mario, an agronomist and botanist, was conducting scientific experiments. Calvino’s mother, Eva, was also a botanist and a university professor. It is believed she gave Calvino the first name of Italo to remind him of his heritage.

Calvino and his parents left Cuba for Italy in 1925 and settled permanently in Sanremo in Liguria, where his father’s family had an ancestral home at San Giovanni Battista.

His family held the science subjects in greater esteem than the arts and Calvino, a prolific reader of stories as a child, is said to have ‘reluctantly’ studied agriculture.

Encouraged by his mother, he joined the Italian Resistance during the later stages of the Second World War, having gone into hiding rather than sign up for military service in Mussolini's Italian Social Republic. Using the battle name of Santiago, Calvino joined the Garibaldi Brigades, a clandestine Communist group. He became a member of the Italian Communist Party, although he would leave it in 1957 following the Soviet invasion of Hungary,

Calvino's first novel was published in 1947, inspired by his time with the Italian Resistance
Calvino's first novel was published in 1947,
inspired by his time with the Italian Resistance
After the war he settled in Turin and gained a degree in Literature while working for the Communist periodical L’Unità and the Einaudi publishing house, where he came into contact with Cesare Pavese, Natalia Ginzburg, Norberto Bobbio and other left-wing intellectuals and writers.  From 1959 to 1966 Calvino co-edited the left-wing magazine Il Menabò di Letteratura.

Calvino’s first novel was inspired by his time in the Italian Resistance. Il sentiero dei nidi di ragno - The path to the nest of spiders - published in 1947, sold more than 5000 copies and won the Premio Riccione prize.

He began writing fantasy and allegory in the 1950s. Il visconte dimezzato - the Cloven Viscount - was published in 1952, Il barone rampante - The baron in the Trees - in 1957 and Il cavaliere inesistente - the Nonexistent Knight - in 1959. These stories were to bring him international acclaim.

In an interview, Calvino once said that the scenery around his family home in Sanremo continued to pop out in his books.

In 1962 Calvino married Argentinian translator Esther Judith Singer in Havana. During the trip to Cuba he visited his birthplace and was introduced to Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara. 

Before meeting Singer he had had an affair with Italian actress Elsa De Giorgi, a married, older woman, which caused something of a scandal.

Calvino's tomb in the village cemetery at Castiglione della Pescaia in Tuscany
Calvino's tomb in the village cemetery at
Castiglione della Pescaia in Tuscany
Calvino and his wife settled in Rome, where their daughter, Giovanna, was born.  Later, they would move to Castiglione della Pescaia on the Tuscan coast. He was inspired by the beauty of the area and his last full length novel, Palomar,  published in 1983, is set in the village.

In later life, Calvino visited Mexico, Japan and the US, where he gave a series of lectures in different American towns.  During the summer of 1985, Calvino prepared a series of texts on literature to be delivered at Harvard University in the autumn.

But in early September he was admitted to the ancient hospital of Santa Maria della Scala in Siena where he died on 19 September of a cerebral haemorrhage, aged 61.  His lecture notes were published posthumously in Italian in 1988. They were published in English in 1993 as Six Memos for the Next Millennium.

At the time of his death he was the most translated contemporary Italian writer.  He is buried at the cemetery in Castiglione della Pescaia.


The seaside resort of Sanremo was one of Italy's earliest destinations for foreign tourists
The seaside resort of Sanremo was one of Italy's earliest
destinations for foreign tourists
Travel tip:

Sanremo is an historic Italian holiday destination that was one of the first to benefit when the phenomenon of tourism began to take hold in the mid-18th century, albeit primarily among the wealthy. Several grand hotels were established and the Emperor Nicholas II of Russia was among the European royals who took holidays there. The Swedish chemist Alfred Nobel, founder of the Nobel Prize, made it his permanent home. The Italian Riviera resort is also famous as the home of the Sanremo Music Festival, the prestigious song contest that has been held every year since 1951 and which has launched the careers of many stars.

Piazza Castello is at the heart of royal Turin, the city in Piedmont where Calvino lived after the Second World War
Piazza Castello is at the heart of royal Turin, the city in
Piedmont where Calvino lived after the Second World War
Travel tip:

Turin, where Calvino settled after his wartime experiences, is the capital city of the region of Piedmont in the north of Italy. It is an important business centre, particularly for the car industry, and has a rich history linked with the Savoy Kings of Italy. Piazza Castello, with the royal palace, royal library and Palazzo Madama, which used to house the Italian senate, is at the heart of royal Turin. Turin Cathedral was built between 1491 and 1498 in Piazza San Giovanni in Turin. The Chapel of the Holy Shroud, where the Turin Shroud is kept, was added in 1668. Some members of the House of Savoy are buried in the cathedral while others are buried in the Basilica di Superga on the outskirts of the city.

More reading:

How Cesare Pavese introduced the great American writers to Fascist Italy

The philosophy of Norberto Bobbio

Giuseppina Tuissa, heroine of the Garibaldi Brigades

Also on this day:

1898: The birth of Giuseppe Saragat, Italy's fifth president

1941: The birth of Umberto Bossi, fiery former leader of Lega Nord

The Festival of San Gennaro


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18 September 2019

18 September

Rossano Brazzi - Hollywood star


Actor quit as a lawyer for career on the big screen

The movie actor Rossano Brazzi, whose credits include The Barefoot Contessa, Three Coins in the Fountain and South Pacific, was born on this day in 1916 in Bologna.  Brazzi gave up a promising career as a lawyer in order to act and went on to appear in more than 200 films, more often than not cast as a handsome heartbreaker or romantic aristocrat.  He was at his peak in the 50s and 60s but continued to accept parts until the late 80s. His last major role was as Father DeCarlo in Omen III: The Final Conflict in 1981.  Brazzi's family moved to Florence when he was aged four. His father Adelmo, a shoemaker, opened a leather factory in which Rossano, his brother Oscar and his sister, Franca, would all eventually work.  Adelmo had ambitions for Rossano, however, helping him win a place at the University of Florence, where he obtained a law degree, and then sending him to Rome to work in the legal practice of a family friend.  But Rossano had become involved in a drama group at university and looked for opportunities to continue acting.  Eventually, he was approached by a film director and when he was offered a part in a film in 1939 he quit his job. Read more…

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Francesca Caccini – singer and composer


Court musician composed oldest surviving opera by a woman

Prolific composer and talented singer Francesca Caccini was born on this day in 1587 in Florence.  Sometimes referred to by the nickname La Cecchina, she composed what is widely considered to be the oldest surviving opera by a woman composer, La Liberazione di Ruggiero, which was adapted from the epic poem, Orlando Furioso by Ludovico Ariosto.  Caccini was the daughter of the composer and musician, Giulio Caccini, and she received her early musical training from him. Like her father, she regularly sang at the Medici court.  She was part of an ensemble of singers referred to as le donne di Giulio Romano, which included her sister, Settimia, and other unnamed pupils.  After her sister married and moved to Mantua, the ensemble broke up, but Caccini continued to serve the court as a teacher, singer and composer, where she was popular because of her musical virtuosity.  She is believed to have been a quick and prolific composer but sadly very little of her music has survived. She was considered equal at the time to Jacopo Peri and Marco da Gagliano, who were also working for the court.  Read more…

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Alberto Franchetti - opera composer


Caruso sang his arias on first commercial record in 1902

The opera composer Alberto Franchetti, some of whose works were performed by the great tenor Enrico Caruso for his first commercial recording, was born on this day in 1860 in Turin.  Caruso had been taken with Franchetti’s opera, Germania, when he sang the male lead role in the opera’s premiere at Teatro alla Scala in Milan in March 1902.  A month later, Caruso famously made his first recording on a phonograph in a Milan hotel room and chose a number of arias from Germania and critics noted that he sang the aria Ah vieni qui… No, non chiuder gli occhi with a particular sweetness of voice.  A friend and rival of Giacomo Puccini, Franchetti had a style said to have been influenced by the German composers Wagner and Meyerbeer. He was sometimes described as the "Meyerbeer of modern Italy."  Despite the exposure the success of Germania and the association with Caruso brought him, Franchetti’s operas slipped quite quickly into obscurity.  Blame for that can be levelled at least in part at the Fascist Racial Laws of 1938, which made life and work very difficult for Italy's Jewish population.  Read more…


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17 September 2019

17 September

Reinhold Messner - mountaineer


Climber from Dolomites who conquered Everest

Reinhold Messner, the Italian mountaineer who was the first climber to reach the summit of Mount Everest without supplemental oxygen and the first to reach the peak on a solo climb, was born on this day in 1944 in Bressanone, a town in Italy's most northerly region of Alto Adige, which is also known as South Tyrol.  Messner was also the first man to ascend every one of the world's 14 peaks that rise to more than 8,000 metres (26,000 ft) above sea level.  His 1976 ascent of Everest with the Austrian climber Peter Habeler defied numerous doctors and other specialists in the effects of altitude who insisted that scaling the world's highest mountain without extra oxygen was not possible.  Born only 45km from Italy's border with Austria, Messner grew up speaking German and Italian and has also become fluent in English.  His father, Josef, introduced him to climbing and took him to his first summit at the age of five. He soon became familiar with all the peaks of the Dolomites.   From a family of 10 children - nine of them boys - Messner shared his passion for adventure with brothers Günther and Hubert, with whom he would later cross the Arctic.  Read more…


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Ranuccio II Farnese – Duke of Parma


Feuding with the Popes led to the destruction of a city

Ranuccio II Farnese, who angered Innocent X so much that the Pope had part of his territory razed to the ground, was born on this day in 1630 in Parma.  Ranuccio II was the eldest son of Odoardo Farnese, the fifth sovereign duke of Parma, and his wife, Margherita de’ Medici.  Odoardo died while Ranuccio was still a minor and, although he succeeded him as Duke of Parma, he had to rule for the first two years of his reign under the regency of both his uncle, Francesco Maria Farnese, and his mother.  The House of Farnese had been founded by Ranuccio’s paternal ancestor, Alessandro Farnese, who became Pope Paul III. The Farnese family had been ruling Parma and Piacenza ever since Paul III gave it to his illegitimate son, Pier Luigi Farnese. He also made Pier Luigi the Duke of Castro.  While Odoardo had been Duke of Parma he had become involved in a power struggle with Pope Urban VIII, who was a member of the Barberini family. The Barberini family were keen to acquire Castro, which was north of Rome in the Papal States.  When Odoardo found himself unable to pay his debts, Urban VIII responded to the creditors’ pleas for help, by sending troops to occupy Castro.  Read more…


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Maria Luisa of Savoy


Girl from Turin ruled Spain while a teenager

Maria Luisa of Savoy, who grew up to become a queen consort of Spain with a lot of influence over her husband, King Philip V, was born on this day in 1688 at the Royal Palace in Turin.  She was the daughter of Victor Amadeus II, Duke of Savoy, and his French wife, Anne Marie d’Orleans.  Philip V of Spain wanted to maintain his ties with Victor Amadeus II and therefore asked for Maria Luisa’s hand in marriage. She was wed by proxy to Philip V in 1701 when she was still only 13.  Maria Luisa was escorted to Nice and from there sailed to Antibes en route to Barcelona. The official marriage took place in November of the same year.  Maria Luisa was both beautiful and intelligent and Phillip V was deeply in love with her right from the start.  In 1702 when Philip V left Spain to fight in the War of the Spanish Succession, Maria Luisa acted as Regent in his absence.  She was praised as an effective ruler despite being only 14 years old. She gave audiences to ambassadors, worked for hours with ministers, and prevented Savoy from joining the enemy. She inspired people to make donations towards the war effort and her leadership was admired throughout Spain.  Read more…


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16 September 2019

16 September

Paolo di Lauro - Camorra boss


Capture of mobster struck at heart of Naples underworld

Italy's war against organised crime achieved one of its biggest victories on this day in 2005 when the powerful Camorra boss Paolo di Lauro was arrested.  In a 6am raid, Carabinieri officers surrounded a building in the notorious Secondigliano district of Naples and entered the modest apartment in which Di Lauro was living with a female companion.  The 52-year-old gang boss did not resist arrest, possibly believing any charges against him would not be made to stick.  However, at a subsequent trial he was convicted and sentenced to 30 years' imprisonment for drug trafficking and other crimes and remains in jail.  Di Lauro's conviction was significant because it removed the man who had been at the head of one of the most lucrative criminal networks in all of Italy for more than 20 years and yet managed to maintain such a low profile that police at times suspected he was dead.  At its peak, the Di Lauro clan presided over an organisation that imported and distributed cocaine and heroin said to be worth around €200 million per year.  The clan essentially controlled the run-down northern suburbs of Naples, making money also from real estate, counterfeit high-end fashion and prostitution.  Read more…


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Alessandro Fortis - politician


Revolutionary who became Prime Minister

Alessandro Fortis, a controversial politician who was also Italy’s first Jewish prime minister, was born on this day in 1841 in Forlì in Emilia-Romagna.  Fortis led the government from March 1905 to February 1906. A republican follower of Giuseppe Mazzini and a volunteer in the army of Giuseppe Garibaldi, he was politically of the Historical Left but in time managed to alienate both sides of the divide with his policies.  He attracted the harshest criticism for his decision to nationalise the railways, one of his personal political goals, which was naturally opposed by the conservatives on the Right but simultaneously upset his erstwhile supporters on the Left, because the move had the effect of heading off a strike by rail workers. By placing the network in state control, Fortis turned all railway employees into civil servants, who were not allowed to strike under the law.  Some politicians also felt the compensation given to the private companies who previously ran the railways was far too generous and suspected Fortis of corruption.  His foreign policies, meanwhile, upset politicians and voters on both sides. Read more…


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Sir Antony Panizzi - revolutionary librarian


Political refugee knighted by Queen Victoria

Sir Anthony Panizzi, who as Principal Librarian at the British Museum was knighted by Queen Victoria, was a former Italian revolutionary, born Antonio Genesio Maria Panizzi in Brescello in what is now Reggio Emilia, on this day in 1797.  A law graduate from the University of Parma, Panizzi began his working life as a civil servant, attaining the position of Inspector of Public Schools in his home town.  At the same time he was a member of the Carbonari, the network of secret societies set up across Italy in the early part of the 19th century, whose aim was to overthrow the repressive regimes of the Kingdoms of Naples and Sardinia, the Papal States and the Duchy of Modena and bring about the unification of Italy as a republic or a constitutional monarchy.  He was party to a number of attempted uprisings but was forced to flee the country in 1822, having been tipped off that he was to be arrested and would face trial as a subversive.  Panizzi found a haven in Switzerland, but after publishing a book that attacked the Duchy of Modena, of which Brescello was then part, he was sentenced to death in absentia by a court in Modena.  Read more…


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15 September 2019

15 September

The first free public school in Europe


Frascati sees groundbreaking development in education

The first free public school in Europe opened its doors to children on this day in 1616 in Frascati, a town in Lazio just a few kilometres from Rome.  The school was founded by a Spanish Catholic priest, José de Calasanz, who was originally from Aragon but who moved to Rome in 1592 at the age of 35.  Calasanz had a passion for education and in particular made it his life’s work to set up schools for children who did not have the benefit of coming from wealthy families.  Previously, schools existed only for the children of noble families or for those studying for the priesthood. Calasanz established Pious Schools and a religious order responsible for running them, who became known as the Piarists.  Calasanz had been a priest for 10 years when he decided to go to Rome in the hope of furthering his ecclesiastical career.  He soon became involved with helping neglected and homeless children via the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine.  He would gather up poor children on the streets and take them to schools, only to find that the teachers, who were not well paid, would not accept them unless Calasanz provided them with extra money.  Read more…


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Fausto Coppi - cycling great


Multiple title-winner who died tragically young

The cycling champion Fausto Coppi, who won the Giro d’Italia five times and the Tour de France twice as well as numerous other races, was born on this day in 1919 in Castellania, a village in Piedmont about 37km (23 miles) southeast of Alessandria.  Although hugely successful and lauded for his talent and mental strength, Coppi was a controversial character. His rivalry with his fellow Italian rider Gino Bartali divided the nation, while he offended many in what was still a socially conservative country by abandoning his wife to live with another woman who was also married.  Fausto, who openly admitted to taking performance enhancing drugs, which were then legal, died in 1960 at the age of just 40 following a trip to Burkina Faso in West Africa. The cause of death officially was malaria but a story has circulated in more recent years that he was poisoned in an act of revenge.  The fourth in a family of five children, Coppi had poor health as he grew up and would skip school in order to amuse himself riding a rusty bicycle he found in a cellar. He left at the age of 13 to work in a butcher’s shop in Novi Ligure, a town about 20km (12 miles) from his home village in Piedmont.  Read more…


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Ettore Bugatti - car designer


Name that became a trademark for luxury and high performance

The car designer and manufacturer Ettore Bugatti was born in Milan on this day in 1881.  The company Bugatti launched in 1909 became associated with luxury and exclusivity while also enjoying considerable success in motor racing.  When the glamorous Principality of Monaco launched its famous Grand Prix in 1929, the inaugural race was won by a Bugatti.  Although Bugatti cars were manufactured for the most part in a factory in Alsace, on the border of France and Germany, their stylish designs reflected the company’s Italian heritage and Bugatti cars are seen as part of Italy’s traditional success in producing desirable high-performance cars.  The story of Bugatti as a purely family business ended in 1956, and the company closed altogether in 1963.  The name did not die, however, and Bugatti cars are currently produced by Volkswagen.  Ettore came from an artistic family in Milan. His father, Carlo Bugatti, was a successful designer of Italian Art Nouveau furniture and jewelry, while his paternal grandfather, Giovanni Luigi Bugatti, had been an architect and sculptor.  His younger brother, Rembrandt Bugatti, became well known for his animal sculpture.  Read more…

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Umberto II - last King of Italy


Brief reign was followed by long exile

The last King of Italy, Umberto II, was born on this day in 1904 in Racconigi in Piedmont.  Umberto reigned over Italy from 9 May 1946 to 12 June 1946 and was therefore nicknamed the May King - Re di Maggio.  When Umberto Nicola Tommaso Giovanni Maria di Savoia was born at the Castle of Racconigi he became heir apparent to the Italian throne as the only son and third child of King Victor Emmanuel III of Italy and his wife Queen Elena of Montenegro.   He was given the title of Prince of Piedmont.  Umberto married Marie Jose of Belgium in Rome in 1930 and they had four children.  He became de facto head of state in 1944 when his father, Victor Emmanuel III, transferred his powers to him in an attempt to repair the monarchy’s image after the fall of Benito Mussolini’s regime.  Victor Emmanuel III abdicated his throne in favour of Umberto in 1946 ahead of a referendum on the abolition of the monarchy in the hope that his exit and a new King might give a boost to the popularity of the monarchy.  However, after the referendum, Italy was declared a republic and Umberto had to live out the rest of his life in exile in Portugal.  Read more…


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Fausto Coppi - cycling great

Multiple title-winner who died tragically young


Fausto Coppi pictured after winning his second Tour de France in 1952
Fausto Coppi pictured after winning his
second Tour de France in 1952
The cycling champion Fausto Coppi, who won the Giro d’Italia five times and the Tour de France twice as well as numerous other races, was born on this day in 1919 in Castellania, a village in Piedmont about 37km (23 miles) southeast of Alessandria.

Although hugely successful and lauded for his talent and mental strength, Coppi was a controversial character. His rivalry with his fellow Italian rider Gino Bartali divided the nation, while he offended many in what was still a socially conservative country by abandoning his wife to live with another woman.

Fausto, who openly admitted to taking performance enhancing drugs, which were then legal, died in 1960 at the age of just 40 following a trip to Burkina Faso in West Africa. The cause of death officially was malaria but a story has circulated in more recent years that he was poisoned in an act of revenge.

The fourth in a family of five children, Coppi had poor health as he grew up and would skip school in order to amuse himself riding a rusty bicycle he found in a cellar. He left at the age of 13 to work in a butcher’s shop in Novi Ligure, a town about 20km (12 miles) from his home village in Piedmont.

There were many cyclists among the shop’s clientele and it was they who sparked Coppi’s interest in racing. His uncle, a merchant seaman who was also called Fausto, clubbed together with Coppi’s father, Domenico, to have a manufacturer in Genoa build him a racing bike, made to his measurements. The cost was 600 lire, a considerable sum at the time.

Coppi (right) with his great rival Gino Bartali (centre) at the  Giro d'Italia of 1940, which Coppi won in controversial fashion
Coppi (right) with his great rival Gino Bartali (centre) at the
Giro d'Italia of 1940, which Coppi won in controversial fashion
He won the first race he entered, at the age of 15, and at 19 won one of the races counting towards the Italian championship by a distance of seven minutes, establishing himself as a rider of considerable talent and potential.

His professional career was almost entirely defined by his often bitter rivalry with Bartali, who was the established star of Italian cycling when Coppi came on the scene, having won the Giro in 1936 and 1937 and the Tour de France in 1938.

It began in 1940, when Coppi was hired by the Legnano team to help Bartali win the Giro again.  After Bartali suffered an early fall and struggled to stay with the peloton, a plan was devised in which Coppi would make an escape, leading the race at a punishing pace to tire the other contenders before dropping out and allowing Bartali to take charge.

Coppi is said to have agreed to the plan on the basis that he was unsure if he was in good enough physical condition to win the gruelling, 21-day race. Yet in the event he made his escape and never relinquished his lead, claiming afterwards that he felt stronger than he had anticipated and that, given that no one chased him, it was a chance to win the Giro that was too good to miss.  Bartali, predictably, was furious and never lost his sense of indignation.

Once Coppi had the lead in a race, he  was often not caught
Once Coppi had the lead in a race, he
was often not caught
All their subsequent meetings, therefore, became intense personal duels, in which both at times cared less about winning titles than beating each other, sometimes landing themselves in trouble with the national federation as a result. Following the world championships in the Netherlands in 1948, they were both suspended for three months for refusing to help one another, to the detriment of the Italian team.

The rivalry caused a sharp split among Italian cycling fans, too, and was seen by some commentators to represent the divides in the country. Bartali was seen as insular, conservative and religious, taking time to pray while he competed, and had the support of traditionalists, mainly in the south (although he was from Florence); Coppi, willing to be innovative with his training and diet, and to challenge convention in his private life, was seen as the more cosmopolitan, modern Italian, and as such became the hero of the economically ambitious urban north.

Coppi was the most successful, partly because he was prepared to travel in search of victories, winning prestigious races in France and Belgium and elsewhere, while Bartali preferred to stay close to home, although they each won the Tour de France twice. Coppi, however, took five Giro d’Italia titles to Bartali’s two.

The Second World War interrupted their rivalry.  Coppi spent much of the war as a prisoner, having been captured by the British while fighting in northern Africa. Bartali, famously, risked his life by acting as a clandestine courier involved in helping Italian Jews escape from being deported to Nazi concentration camps.

Coppi with Giulia Occhini, with whom he had an extra- marital affair that caused a national scandal in Italy
Coppi with Giulia Occhini, with whom he had an extra-
marital affair that caused a national scandal in Italy
Coppi was particularly dominant after the war, although Bartali did win the Tour de France in 1948, a remarkable 10 years after his first triumph. In other races, it was notable that once Coppi established a lead it was rare that he was caught.

Famous for his so-called innovative thinking in what he ate and drank in order to maximise his ability in the saddle, Coppi admitted he used supplements that would subsequently be banned, including amphetamines. Bartali became obsessed with what Coppi was taking during races, even sneaking into his rival’s hotel rooms to examine the contents of his waste bin, reasoning that if he could not accuse Coppi of cheating, since the use of pharmaceutical aids was not against the rules, he could at least anticipate how he was planning to ride.

Any opprobrium relating to his drug use, however, paled alongside the reaction to the news that broke in 1954 about Coppi’s private life and his relationship with Giulia Occhini, which caused a huge scandal in Italy and alienated many of his supporters.

Both he and Occhini were married, she the mother of two young children with her husband, who had been one of Coppi’s most passionate fans. At the time, adultery was still a criminal offence in Italy and eventually Coppi and his lover were arrested and put on trial for adultery, receiving suspended jail sentences. Later they married and had a child together, but the legitimacy of neither the marriage nor their son was recognised by the Italian authorities.

The monument to Fausto Coppi at Passo Pordoi, a  mountain pass on the route of the Giro d'Italia
The monument to Fausto Coppi at Passo Pordoi, a
mountain pass on the route of the Giro d'Italia
Coppi continued to race until, in 1960, following an invitation to race in Burkina Faso, he returned to Italy unwell.  He was diagnosed at first with hepatitis, then yellow fever and typhoid fever.  By the time it was concluded he had malaria it was too late for successful treatment and he died in Tortona, where he and Giulia shared an apartment.

In 2002, a report in the Italian newspaper Corriere dello Sport claimed that a French Benedictine priest working in Burkina Faso had been told while listening to a confession that Coppi had actually been poisoned in revenge for the death of an Ivory Coast rider he had forced off the road during a race in the country two years earlier.  Requests were submitted to exhume his body and but they were declined.

Coppi’s honour has been rebuilt in recent years.   A bonus prize in the Giro, the Cima Coppi, is now awarded to the first rider to reach the course’s highest summit, while the village of his birth was renamed Castellania Coppi by the Piedmont regional council in 2019.  Numerous monuments to Coppi have been created, including one on the route of the Giro d'Italia at Passo Pordoi in the Dolomites,

The Palazzo delle Piane, one of several historic palaces in the Piedmont town of Novi Ligure
The Palazzo delle Piane, one of several historic palaces
in the Piedmont town of Novi Ligure
Travel tip:

In the 17th and 18th centuries, the town of Novi Ligure, where Coppi was introduced to the world of cycling, was a renowned resort for rich Genoese families, whose numerous noble palaces adorn the historical centre. These include Palazzo Negroni, Palazzo Durazzo and Palazzo Delle Piane, situated in Piazza Delle Piane.  Novi has retained part of its walls, erected in 1447 and partly demolished in the 19th century, together with the tower of the Castle.  There is a museum, the Museo dei Campionissimi, devoted to Coppi and another famous cyclist, Costante Girardengo.  The town is now a centre for the production of chocolate, notably the Novi brand.

The Piazza del Duomo in Tortona, the city in which Coppi lived at the end of his career
The Piazza del Duomo in Tortona, the city in which Coppi
lived at the end of his career
Travel tip:

Tortona is an elegant small city of around 27,000 inhabitants in the eastern part of Piedmont, roughly halfway between Milan and the Ligurian coast at Genoa.  It sits on the right bank of the Scrivia river between the plain of Marengo and the foothills of the Ligurian Apennines.  Lorenzo Perosi, along with his brother, Carlo, is buried at the Duomo, where his father was the choir director.  The Duomo has a 19th century neoclassical facade but the building itself dates back to the 16th century.

More reading:

Gino Bartali: The story of a secret war hero

Fiorenzo Magni, the last link with cycling's golden age

The tragedy of Marco Pantani

Also on this day:

1616: The first free public school opens in Frascati

1881: The birth of car manufacturer Ettore Bugatti

1904: The birth of Umberto II, the last king of Italy


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14 September 2019

14 September

Dante Alighieri – poet


Famous son of Florence remains in exile

Dante Alighieri, an important poet during the late Middle Ages, died on this day in 1321 in Ravenna in Emilia-Romagna.  Dante’s Divine Comedy is considered to be the greatest literary work written in Italian and has been acclaimed all over the world.  In the 13th century most poetry was written in Latin, but Dante wrote in the Tuscan dialect, which made his work more accessible to ordinary people.  Writers who came later, such as Petrarch and Boccaccio, followed this trend.  Therefore Dante can be said to have played an instrumental role in establishing the national language of Italy.  His depictions of Hell, Purgatory and Heaven in the Divine Comedy later influenced the works of John Milton, Geoffrey Chaucer and Lord Alfred Tennyson, among many others.  Dante was also the first poet to use the interlocking three-line rhyme scheme, terza rima.  Dante was born around 1265 in Florence into a family loyal to the Guelphs. By the time he was 12 he had been promised in marriage to Gemma di Manetto Donati, the daughter of a member of a powerful, local family.  He had already fallen in love with Beatrice Portinari, whom he first met when he was only nine.  Read more…


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Renzo Piano – architect


Designer of innovative buildings is now an Italian senator

Award-winning architect Renzo Piano was born on this day in 1937 in Genoa.  Piano is well-known for his high-tech designs for public spaces and is particularly famous for the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, which he worked on in collaboration with the British architect, Richard Rogers, and for The Shard in London.  Among the many awards and prizes Piano has received for his work are the Japan Art Association’s Praemium Imperiale prize for architecture in 1995, the Pritker Architecture Prize in 1998 and the American Institute of Architects Gold Medal in 2008.  Piano was born into a family of builders and graduated from the Polytechnic in Milan in 1964. He completed his first building, the IPE factory in Genoa, in 1968 with a roof of steel and reinforced polyester.  He worked with a variety of architects, including his father, Carlo Piano, until he established a partnership with Rogers, which lasted from 1971-1977.  They made the Centre Georges Pompidou look like an urban machine with their innovative design and it immediately gained the attention of the international architectural community.  Read more…


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Tiziano Terzani - journalist


Asia correspondent who covered wars in Vietnam and Cambodia

The journalist and author Tiziano Terzani, who spent much of his working life in China, Japan and Southeast Asia and whose writing received critical acclaim both in his native Italy and elsewhere, was born on this day in 1938 in Florence.  He worked for more than 30 years for the German news magazine Der Spiegel, who took him on as Asia Correspondent in 1971, based in Singapore.  Although he wrote for other publications, including the Italian newspapers Corriere della Sera and La Repubblica, it was Der Spiegel who allowed him the freedom he craved. To a large extent he created his own news agenda but in doing so offered a unique slant on the major stories.  He was one of only a handful of western journalists who remained in Vietnam after the liberation of Saigon by the Viet Cong in 1975 and two years later, despite threats to his life, he reported from Phnom Penh in Cambodia after its capture by the Khmer Rouge.  He lived at different times in Beijing, Tokyo, Singapore, Hong Kong, Bangkok and New Delhi. His stay in China came to an end when he was arrested and expelled in 1984 for "counter-revolutionary activities".  Read more…

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13 September 2019

13 September

Andrea Mantegna – painter


Genius led the way with his use of perspective

The painter Andrea Mantegna died on this day in 1506 in Mantua.  He had become famous for his religious paintings, such as St Sebastian, which is now in the Louvre in Paris, and The Agony in the Garden, which is now in the National Gallery in London.  But his frescoes for the Bridal Chamber (Camera degli Sposi) at the Palazzo Ducale in Mantua - Mantova in Italian - were to influence many artists who followed him because of his innovative use of perspective.  Mantegna studied Roman antiquities for inspiration and was also an eminent engraver.  He was born near Padua - Padova - in about 1431 and apprenticed by the age of 11 to the painter, Francesco Squarcione, who had a fascination for ancient art and encouraged him to study fragments of Roman sculptures.  Mantegna was one of a large group of painters entrusted with decorating the Ovetari Chapel in the Church of the Eremitani in Padua.  Much of his work was lost when the Allied forces bombed Padua in 1944, but other early work by Mantegna can be seen in the Basilica of Sant’Antonio and in the Church of Santa Giustina in Padua.  Read more…


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Saverio Bettinelli – writer


Jesuit scholar and poet was unimpressed with Dante

Poet and literary critic Saverio Bettinelli, who had the temerity to criticise Dante in his writing, died at the age of 90 on this day in 1808 in Mantua.  Bettinelli had entered the Jesuit Order at the age of 20 and went on to become known as a dramatist, poet and literary critic, who also taught Rhetoric in various Italian cities.  In 1758 he travelled through Italy and Germany and met the French writers Voltaire and Rousseau.  Bettinelli taught literature from 1739 to 1744 at Brescia, where he formed an academy with other scholars. He became a professor of Rhetoric in Venice and was made superintendent of the College of Nobles at Parma in 1751, where he was in charge of the study of poetry and history and theatrical entertainment.  After travelling to Germany, Strasbourg and Nancy, he returned to Italy, taking with him two young relatives of the Prince of Hohenlohe, who had entrusted him with their education. He took the eldest of his pupils with him to France, where he wrote his famous Lettere dieci di Virgilio agli Arcadi, which were published in Venice.  He also wrote a collection of poems, Versi sciolti, and some tragedies for the Jesuit theatre.  Read more…


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Girolamo Frescobaldi – composer


Organist was a ‘father of Italian music’

Girolamo Alessandro Frescobaldi, one of the first great masters of organ composition, was born on this day in 1583 in Ferrara.  Frescobaldi is famous for his instrumental works, many of which are compositions for the keyboard, but his canzone are of historical importance for the part they played in the development of pieces for small instrumental ensembles and he was to have a strong influence on the German Baroque school.  Frescobaldi began his career as organist at the church of Santa Maria in Trastevere in Rome in 1607. He travelled to the Netherlands the same year and published his first work, a book of madrigals, in Antwerp.  In 1608 he became the organist at St Peter’s Basilica in Rome and, except for a few years when he was court organist in Florence, he worked at St Peter’s until his death.  Frescobaldi published 12 fantasie that are notable for their contrapuntal mastery.  In a collection of music published in 1626 he provides valuable information about performing his work. He writes in the preface: ‘Should the player find it tedious to play a piece right through he may choose such sections as he pleases provided only that he ends in the main key.’   Read more…

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