10 April 2021

10 April

NEW
- Nilde Iotti – politician

The best President of the Republic that Italy never had

Leonilde Iotti, who was later known as Nilde Iotti and became Italy’s most important and respected female politician, was born on this day in 1920 in Reggio Emilia.  She was both the first female president of the Chamber of Deputies of the Italian parliament and the longest serving, occupying the position from 1979 to 1992.   Her father, Egidio, was a socialist trade unionist but he died when she was a teenager. Thanks to a scholarship, she was able to attend the Catholic University of Milan. She graduated in 1942 and joined the National Fascist Party, which she was obliged to do in order to become a teacher.  Iotti was an underground member of the Italian Communist Party (PCI) and during World War II she was an active member of the Resistance movement setting up and leading women’s defence groups.  After the war, Iotti was elected to the Constituent Assembly and was one of the 75 members who drafted the Constitution in 1946.  It was at this time that she started her relationship with the PCI leader, Palmiro Togliatti, who was 27 years older than her. They stayed together until his death in 1964.  To begin with their relationship was kept secret but, after an attempt on his life in 1948, it became public knowledge.  Read more...

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The Moby Prince disaster

Tragic toll of collision between ferry and tanker

The worst maritime catastrophe to occur in Italian waters in peacetime took place on this day in 1991 when a car ferry collided with an oil tanker near the harbour entrance at Livorno on the coast of Tuscany.  The collision sparked a fire that claimed the lives of 140 passengers and crew and left only one survivor.  The vessels involved were the MV Moby Prince, a car ferry en route from Livorno to Olbia, the coastal city in north-east Sardinia, and the 330-metres long oil tanker, Agip Abruzzo.  The ferry departed Livorno shortly after 22.00 for a journey scheduled to last eight and a half hours but had been under way for only a few minutes when it struck the Agip Abruzzo, which was at anchor near the harbour mouth.  The ferry’s prow sliced into one of the Agip Abruzzo's tanks, which contained 2,700 tonnes of crude oil.  The impact caused some oil to spill into the sea and a large amount to be sprayed over the ferry.  A fire broke out, which set light to the oil both on the surface of the water and on the ferry itself.  Within moments, the Moby Prince was engulfed in flames.  Although the loss of life was so tragically large the toll might have been much worse.  Read more…

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Giovanni Aldini - physicist

Professor thought to given Mary Shelley the idea for Frankenstein

The physicist and professor Giovanni Aldini, whose experiment in trying to bring life to a human corpse is thought to have inspired Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein, was born on this day in 1762 in Bologna.  The nephew of Luigi Galvani, who discovered the phenomenon that became known as galvanism, one of Aldini’s goals in life was to build on his uncle’s work in the field of bioelectricity.   Galvani’s discovery that the limbs of a dead frog could be made to move by the stimulation of electricity sparked an intellectual argument with his rival physicist Alessandro Volta that he found uncomfortable. When he was then removed from his academic and public positions after Bologna became part of the French Cisalpine Republic in the late 18th century, Galvani was unable to progress his experiments as he would have liked.  Aldini essentially picked up his uncle’s mantle and was determined to discover whether the effect of an electrical impulse on the body of a frog could be reproduced in a human being.  His most famous experiment came in 1803, when he was given permission to test his electrical equipment on the corpse of George Forster shortly after he had been hanged at Newgate Prison in London.  Read more…

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Jacopo Mazzoni – philosopher

Brilliant scholar could recite long passages from Dante

Jacopo Mazzoni, a University professor with a phenomenal memory who was a friend of Galileo Galilei, died on this day in 1598 in Ferrara in Emilia-Romagna.  Mazzoni, also sometimes referred to as Giacomo Mazzoni, was regarded as one of the most eminent scholars of his period. His excellent powers of recall made him adept at recalling passages from Dante, Lucretius, Virgil and other writers during his regular debates with prominent academics. He relished taking part in memory contests, which he usually won.  Mazzoni was born in Cesena in Emilia-Romagna in 1548 and was educated at Bologna in Hebrew, Greek, Latin, rhetoric and poetics. He later attended the University of Padua where he studied philosophy and jurisprudence.  He became an authority on ancient languages and philology and promoted the scientific study of the Italian language.  Although Mazzoni wrote a major work on philosophy, he became well known for his works on literary criticism, in particular for his writing in defence of Dante’s Divine Comedy - Discorso in Difesa Della Commedia della Divina Poeta Dante - published in 1572.  Read more…

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From Rome to the North Pole

Aeronautical history launched from Ciampino airport

On this day in 1926, an airship took off from Ciampino airport in Rome on the first leg of what would be an historic journey culminating in the first flight over the North Pole.  The expedition was the brainchild of the Norwegian polar explorer and expedition leader Roald Amundsen, but the pilot was the airship's designer, aeronautical engineer Umberto Nobile, who had an Italian crew.  They were joined in the project by millionaire American explorer Lincoln Ellsworth who, along with the Aero Club of Norway, financed the trip which was known as the Amundsen-Ellsworth 1926 Transpolar Flight.  Nobile - born in Lauro, near Avellino in Campania - designed the 160metres long craft on behalf of the Italian State Airship factory, who sold it to Ellsworth for $75,000.  Amundsen named the airship Norge, which means Norway in his native tongue.  The first leg of the flight north was due to have left Rome on 6 April but was delayed due to strong winds until the 10th.  The first stop-off point was at the Pulham Airship Station in England, from where it took off again for Oslo on 12 April. Three days later Nobile, Amundsen, Ellsworth and the crew flew on to Gatchina, near Leningrad, the journey taking 17 hours because of dense fog.  Read more…

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Agostino Bertani – physician and politician

Compassionate doctor was Garibaldi’s friend and strategist

Agostino Bertani, who worked with Giuseppe Mazzini and Giuseppe Garibaldi to liberate Italy, died on this day in 1886 in Rome.  He had been a surgeon in Garibaldi’s corps in the Austro-Sardinian War of 1859 and personally treated Garibaldi’s wounds after the military leader lost the Battle of Aspromonte in 1862.  Bertani became a hero to the Italian people for his work organising ambulances and medical services during Garibaldi’s campaigns and he became a close friend and strategist to the military leader.  Born in Milan in 1812, Bertani's family had many friends with liberal ideals and his mother took part in anti-Austrian conspiracies.  At the age of 23, Bertani graduated from the faculty of medicine at the Borromeo College in Pavia and became an assistant to the professor of surgery there.  He took part in the 1848 uprising in Milan and directed a military hospital for Italian casualties. He organised an ambulance service for soldiers defending Rome in 1849 and distinguished himself by his service in Genoa with Mazzini during the cholera epidemic of 1854.  In 1860 Bertani was one of the strategists who planned the attack on Sicily and Naples known as the Expedition of the Thousand.  Read more…


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Nilde Iotti – politician

'The best President of the Republic that Italy never had'

Iotti was the first woman to be elected president of the Chamber of Deputies
Iotti was the first woman to be elected
president of the Chamber of Deputies
Leonilde Iotti, who was later known as Nilde Iotti and became Italy’s most important and respected female politician, was born on this day in 1920 in Reggio Emilia.

She was both the first female president of the Chamber of Deputies of the Italian parliament and the longest serving, occupying the position from 1979 to 1992. 

One of the 75 politicians who drafted the Italian Constitution, she was a member of the Italian Communist Party (PCI) and its successor, the Democratic Party of the Left (PDS) for all of her political career.

Iotti's father, Egidio, was a socialist trade unionist but he died when she was a teenager. Thanks to a scholarship, she was able to attend the Catholic University of Milan. She graduated in 1942 and joined the National Fascist Party, which she was obliged to do in order to become a teacher.

At the same time, she was an underground member of the PCI and during World War II she was an active member of the Resistance movement setting up and leading women’s defence groups.

After the war, Iotti was elected to the Constituent Assembly and was one of the 75 members who drafted the Constitution in 1946.

It was at this time that she started her relationship with the PCI leader, Palmiro Togliatti, who was 27 years older than her. They stayed together until his death in 1964.

Iotti with Palmiro Togliatti, with whom she shared her life for many years, pictured in Russia
Iotti with Palmiro Togliatti, with whom she shared
her life for many years, pictured in Russia
To begin with their relationship was kept secret but, after an attempt on his life in 1948, it became public knowledge. Togliatti was shot three times near Palazzo Montecitorio, the seat of the Italian Chamber of Deputies in Rome. He was seriously wounded and for several days it was not certain that he would survive. He eventually recovered and was able to continue as head of the party until his death.

The Italian people and members of the PCI were opposed to their relationship because Togliatti was married with a son, but the couple remained committed to each other and eventually adopted a child together, Marisa Malagoli, the daughter of a worker killed during a demonstration.

In 1948 Iotti became a member of the Chamber of Deputies and in June 1979 she was elected president, in which position she was also Speaker of the House, gaining re-election in 1983 and 1987 for an unbroken tenure of 13 years.

In 1956 she became a member of the central committee of the PCI and became an integral part of the party leadership. She focused her activity on the relevance of the female role in the workplace and on civil rights. She was particularly involved in the campaign for the 1974 divorce referendum.

Iotti (right) with Marisa Maligola, the orphan she and Togliatti adopted as a daughter
Iotti (right) with Marisa Maligola, the orphan she
and Togliatti adopted as a daughter 
In 1991 she supported the transformation of the PCI to the PDS and became a leading member of the renamed party. She was elected to the Chamber of Deputies again in the 1992, 1994 and 1996 elections.

Her name was mentioned in connection with the role of President of the Republic but she was never chosen. She has been widely spoken of as the best President of the Republic that Italy never had.

When Iotti retired in November 1999 due to ill health she had served continuously in the Italian parliament for 53 years.

Nilde Iotti died in Rome in December 1999. Before her state funeral, an all-women guard of honour stood by her coffin in the hall of the Chamber of Deputies where she had spent so much of her life. She was buried in the Cimitero del Verano, next to her lover, Togliatti, which had been her last wish.

The Basilica di San Prospero overlooks an elegant square in Reggio Emilia
The Basilica di San Prospero overlooks
an elegant square in Reggio Emilia
Travel tip:

Reggio Emilia, where Nilde Iotti was born, is an ancient walled city in the region of Emilia-Romagna, 28km (17 miles) southeast of Parma and 32km (20 miles) northwest of Modena. It is the birthplace of the poet, Ludovico Ariosto, and there is a statue of him in the centre of the city and you can see the villa the poet was born in near the municipal building. You can also see a villa outside the town, Il Mauriziano, where Ariosto spent time while he was governing the city on behalf of the Dukes of Ferrara.  Raggio Emilia is believed to have given Italy its tricolore national flag. There are historical records that suggest that a short-lived 18th century republic, the Repubblica Cispadana, had a flag of red, white and green that was decreed in Reggio Emilia in 1797. Notable buildings in the city include the Basilica della Ghiara and the 10th century Basilica di San Prospero, which overlooks the elegant Piazza of the same name.

The Palazzo Montecitorio has housed the Italian Chamber of Deputies since 1918
The Palazzo Montecitorio has housed the Italian
Chamber of Deputies since 1918
Travel tip:

Palazzo Montecitorio in Rome is the seat of the Italian Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of the Italian Parliament. The building was originally designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini for Ludovico Ludovisi, the nephew of Pope Gregory XV. Following Italian unification, the palace was chosen as the seat of the Chamber of Deputies in 1871 but the building proved inadequate for their needs, with poor acoustics and a tendency to become overheated in summer and inhospitably cold in winter. After extensive renovations had been carried out, with many Stile Liberty touches introduced by the architect Ernesto Basile, the chamber returned to the palace in 1918.

Also on this day:

1598: The death of philosopher Jacopo Mazzoni

1762: The birth of physicist Giovanni Aldini

1886: The death of physician and politician Agostino Bertani

1892: An Italian airship completes the first flight over the North Pole

1991: The Moby Prince disaster

(Basilica di San Prospero picture by Paola da Reggio via Wikimedia Commons)


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9 April 2021

9 April

Gian Maria Volonté – actor

Brilliant talent who played ‘spaghetti western’ parts for fun

Gian Maria Volonté, recognised as one of the finest character actors Italy has produced, was born on this day in 1933 in Milan.  Trained at the Silvio D’Amico National Academy of the Dramatic Arts in Rome, Volonté became famous outside Italy for playing the villain to Clint Eastwood’s hero in two movies in Sergio Leone’s western trilogy that were part of a genre dubbed the ‘spaghetti westerns’.  However, he insisted he accepted the chance to appear in A Fistful of Dollars (1964) – in which he appeared under the pseudonym John Wells - and For a Few Dollars More (1964) simply to earn some money and did not regard the parts of Ramon and El Indio as serious.  In Italy, it was for the much heavier roles given to him by respected directors such as Elio Petri and Francesco Rosi that he won huge critical acclaim.  A person known for a tempestuous private life, he was very strong playing complex and neurotic characters, while his left-wing political leanings attracted him to roles in which he had to portray individuals from real life.  He was a particular favourite of Rosi, the neo-realist director who directed him in five movies.  Read more…

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Patty Pravo - pop singer of enduring fame


Venetian artist's career has spanned 50 years

The pop singer Patty Pravo was born Nicoletta Strambelli on this day in 1948. Her career spans more than 50 years since she took her first steps on the road to fame with the release of her first single, Ragazzo Triste.  Pravo has recorded 27 albums and 52 singles, selling more than 110 million records, making her the third biggest selling Italian artist of all time.  Her album, Eccomi, was released in February 2016 following her ninth appearance at the Sanremo Music Festival, and she promoted the album with a tour of Italy. Born in Venice, she grew up in an intellectual environment. Family friends included Cardinal Angelo Roncalli - the future Pope John XXIII - the actor Cesco Baseggio, the soprano Toti dal Monte and the American poet Ezra Pound, who lived in Venice and would take the young Nicoletta for walks and buy her ice cream.  She would spend time too at the house of Peggy Guggenheim, the American socialite and art collector.  Read more…

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Treaty of Lodi

When the battles stopped (briefly) in northern Italy

The Treaty of Lodi, which brought peace between rival states in the north of Italy for 40 years, was signed on this day in 1454 at Lodi in Lombardy.  Also known as the Peace of Lodi, it established a balance of power among Venice, Milan, Naples, Florence and the Papal States.  Venice had been faced with a threat to its commercial empire from the Ottoman Turks and was eager for peace and Francesco Sforza, who had been proclaimed Duke by the people of Milan, was also keen for an end to the costly battles.  By the terms of the peace, Sforza was recognised as ruler of Milan and Venice regained its territory in northern Italy, including Bergamo and Brescia in Lombardy.  The treaty was signed at the Convent of San Domenico in Via Tito Fanfulla in Lodi, where a plaque today marks the building, no longer a convent.  Milan’s allies, Florence, Mantua and Genoa, and Venice’s allies, Naples, Savoy and Montferrat, had no choice but to agree.  A 25-year mutual defensive pact was agreed to maintain existing boundaries and an Italian league, Lega Italica, was set up.  The states promised to defend one another in the event of an attack.  Read more…


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8 April 2021

8 April

Lorenzo the Magnificent - Renaissance ruler

Patron of the arts who sponsored Michelangelo and Botticelli

Lorenzo de’ Medici, the ruler of Florence usually known as Lorenzo the Magnificent, died on this day in 1492 in the Medici villa at Careggi, just to the north of the city.  He was only 43 and is thought to have developed gangrene as a result of an inherited genetic condition.  He had survived an assassination attempt 14 years earlier in what became known as the Pazzi Conspiracy, in which his brother, Giuliano, was killed.  The grandson of Cosimo de’ Medici, Lorenzo was a strict ruler but history has judged him as a benevolent despot, whose reign coincided with a period of stability and peace in relations between the Italian states.  He helped maintain the Peace of Lodi, a treaty agreed in 1454 between Milan, Naples and Florence which was signed by his grandfather.  However, he is most remembered as an enthusiastic patron of Renaissance culture, providing support for poets, scholars and artists, notably Michelangelo and Botticelli.  He contributed more than anyone to the flowering of Florentine genius during the second half of the 15th century.  Read more…

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Federico Caprilli - equestrian pioneer

Study of horses revolutionised jumping techniques

Federico Caprilli, the Italian cavalry officer who revolutionised the way horse riders jump fences, was born on this day in 1868 in Livorno.  One of four children born to Enrico Caprilli and his wife, Elvira, Federico was bent on an army career from an early age. He enrolled as a cadet at military college in Florence at 13 years old, subsequently transferring to Rome and then Modena. He had no riding experience at the start, and when he graduated with the rank of lieutenant, though an excellent gymnast and proficient fencer, his horsemanship was marked as ‘poor’.  Nonetheless, he was assigned to the Royal Piedmont cavalry regiment, where his job, at a time when the introduction of weapons such as the Gatling Gun was negating any battlefield advantage a soldier had from being mounted, was to train horses for new combat roles, such as springing surprise attacks in difficult terrain.  It was there that he observed the way horses jumped obstacles and concluded that conventional beliefs about the way a horse should be ridden over jumps were entirely wrong.  Until Caprilli came along, it was accepted that the rider should use long stirrups and approach a fence leaning back in the saddle.  Read more…

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Gaetano Donizetti - operatic genius

The day the music died

A prolific composer of operas in the first half of the 19th century, Gaetano Donizetti died on this day in 1848 in Bergamo in Lombardy.  Donizetti had returned to his native city after a brilliant international career to spend his last days in the Palazzo Scotti in the Città Alta, the upper town.  By then seriously ill, he was looked after by friends in the gracious surroundings of the palazzo until his death. His tomb is in the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, where it is marked by a white, marble monument.  Donizetti has since become acknowledged as the greatest composer of lyrical opera of all time. He was a major influence on Verdi, Puccini and other composers who came after him.  His best and most famous operas are considered to be Lucia di Lammermoor, Don Pasquale and L’elisir d’amore.  In Via Sentierone in Bergamo’s lower town there is an elaborate white marble monument to the composer next to Teatro Donizetti, which was renamed in his honour in 1897 on the centenary of his birth.  Donizetti’s casa natale (birthplace), is in Borgo Canale just outside the walls of the upper town. It has now been declared a national monument and is open free to visitors every weekend.  Read more…

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Renzo De Felice - historian

Mussolini biographer whose views on Fascism aroused anger

The controversial historian Renzo De Felice, best known for his 6,000-word four-volume biography of Benito Mussolini, was born on this day in 1929 in Rieti, the northernmost city in Lazio.  Although De Felice was Jewish and his other major work described in detail the persecution of Jews in Italy under Mussolini’s rule, he sparked considerable anger by arguing that the postwar world view of Fascism should be revised to recognise that the ideology in itself was not inherently evil.  De Felice contended that fascism as a political movement in Italy was not the same as Fascism as a regime, arguing that the former was a revolutionary middle-class ideology that had its roots in the progressive thinking of the Age of Enlightenment.  He argued that the ideology was effectively hijacked by Mussolini to provide the superstructure for his dictatorship and personal ambition and that fascism itself, as distinct from Mussolini’s interpretation, was a valid political concept, not just something to be demonized and dismissed in simplistic terms.  It was an argument that was respected by many intellectuals, even some who were staunchly anti-Fascist.  Read more…


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7 April 2021

7 April

Giovanni Battista Rubini - opera singer

Tenor was as famous in his day as Caruso

Giovanni Battista Rubini, born on this day in 1794, was a tenor as famous in his day as Enrico Caruso would be almost a century later, his voice having contributed to the popularity of opera composers Vincenzo Bellini and Gaetano Donizetti.   He was the first 19th-century non-castrati singer to become a major international star after two centuries in which audiences and composers were obsessed with the castrati.  Rubini's exceptionally high voice could match the coloratura of the castrati and he effectively launched the era of the bel canto tenor, which signalled the end of the dominance of the castrati.  Rubini was just 12 when he was taken on as a violinist and chorister at the Riccardi Theatre in Bergamo, not far from his home town of Romano di Lombardia. He was 20 when he made his professional debut in Pietro Generali’s Le lagrime d’una vedova at Pavia in 1814, then sang for 10 years in Naples in the smaller, comic opera houses.  Famed for a voice capable of reaching beyond the range of conventional tenors, particularly in the higher registers, in 1825 he sang the leading roles in Gioachino Rossini’s La Cenerentola, Otello, and La donna del lago in Paris.  Read more…

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Marco Delvecchio - footballer

Striker who became TV dance show star

The former Roma and Italy striker Marco Delvecchio, who launched a new career in television after finishing runner-up in the Italian equivalent of Strictly Come Dancing, was born on this day in 1973 in Milan.  Delvecchio scored 83 goals in exactly 300 appearances for Roma, where he was part of the side that won the Scudetto in 2000-01 and where he became a huge favourite with fans of the giallorossi because of his penchant for scoring against city rivals Lazio.  His record of nine goals in the Rome derby between 2002 and 2009 was the best by any player in the club’s history until that mark was overtaken by the Roma great Francesco Totti, whose career tally against Lazio was 11.  Delvecchio’s talents were somewhat underappreciated at international level. He made 22 appearances for the azzurri and the first of his four goals was in the final of Euro 2000 against France, although he finished on the losing side. Yet after being favoured by Dino Zoff, he was not so popular with Zoff’s successor as head coach, Giovanni Trapattoni, who took him to the 2002 World Cup but did not give him a game, and omitted him from his squad for the 2004 Euros.  Read more…

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Domenico Dragonetti - musician

Venetian was best double bass player in Europe

The composer and musician Domenico Dragonetti  - Europe's finest double bass virtuoso - was born on this day in 1763 in Venice.  Apart from the fame his talent brought him, Dragonetti is remembered as the musician who opened the eyes of Ludwig van Beethoven and other composers to the potential of the double bass.  They met in Vienna in 1799 and experts believe it was Dragonetti’s influence that led Beethoven to include passages for double bass in his Fifth Symphony.   From 1794 onwards until his death in 1846 at the age of 83, Dragonetti lived in London but it was in Venice that he established his reputation.  The son of a barber who was also a musician, Domenico Carlo Maria Dragonetti taught himself to play the guitar and the double bass as a child using his father’s instruments.  It was not long before word of his precocious ability spread and he was sent to the Ducal Palace of San Marco for tuition from Michele Berini, who was widely respected as the best double bass player in Venice.  Berini declared after only 11 lessons that there was nothing more he could teach the young Dragonetti.  Read more…


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6 April 2021

6 April

NEW
- The L’Aquila Earthquake

Shock measuring 6.3 magnitude killed more than 300

The central Italy region of Abruzzo suffered a major disaster on this day in 2009 when an earthquake with a magnitude of 6.3 caused extensive damage and considerable loss of life in the city of L’Aquila and surrounding villages.  The main shock struck at 3.32am, when many of the victims would have been asleep, although there had been two smaller tremors the day before in an area with a long history of seismic turbulence, giving rise to speculation that a major quake was imminent.  The epicentre was only a little outside L’Aquila, a city with a population of about 70,000, damaging up to 11,000 buildings in the 13th century city.  A total of 309 people lost their lives and such was the scale of devastation that up to 65,000 people were left homeless in the city and neighbouring villages.  It was the deadliest earthquake to hit Italy since the Irpinia quake in Campania killed almost 2,500 people in 1980.  The dead in L’Aquila, a university city, included 55 students killed when their halls of residence collapsed.  The 309 victims were of 11 different nationalities, including Italians.  The main shock was felt 92 km (57 miles) away in the Italian capital, Rome.  Read more…

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Maurizio and Giorgio Damilano – race walkers

Maurizio won Olympic gold in Moscow

Twins Maurizio and Giorgio Damilano, both former race walkers, were born on this day in 1957 in Scarnafigi in the province of Cuneo in Piedmont.  Maurizio won the gold medal at the 1980 Moscow Olympics in the 20km race walk, while his brother, Giorgio, finished 11th.  In sympathy with the American-led boycott of the Moscow Games following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Italian athletes competed under the Olympic flag rather than the Italian tricolore.  Damilano was one of eight Italians to win gold medals in Moscow.  Giorgio was less successful than Maurizio, but did win the 20km race walk at the 1979 Italian Athletics Championships.  Maurizio was also the 1987 and 1991 World Champion in the 20km race walk. He had 60 caps for representing the national team between 1977 and 1992. He was supported through much of his career by the Italian car manufacturer, Fiat.  He also achieved a world record for the 30km race walk in 1992 with a time of 2:01:44.1, which he set in Cuneo.  Maurizio won two more Olympic medals, picking up the bronze medal for the 20km race walk at both the 1984 Games in Los Angeles and the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea.  Read more...

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Raphael - Renaissance painter and architect

Precocious genius from Urbino famous for Vatican frescoes

The Renaissance painter and architect commonly known as Raphael was born Raffaello Sanzio in Urbino, in the Marche region of Italy, on this day in 1483.  Raphael is regarded as one of the masters of the Renaissance, along with Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci.  He was more prolific than Da Vinci and, some argue, more versatile than Michelangelo, and was certainly influenced by both.  The young Raphael was taught to paint by his father, Giovanni Santi, who was a painter for the Duke of Urbino, Federigo da Montefeltro, but his talents surpassed those of his father, who died when he was just 11 years old.  He was soon considered one of Urbino's finest painters and was commissioned to paint for a church in a neighbouring town while still a teenager.  In 1500, Raphael moved to Perugia in Umbria to become assistant to Pietro Vannunci, otherwise known as Perugino, absorbing considerable knowledge of his master's technique and incorporating it in his own style.  From 1504 onwards, Raphael spent a good deal of his time in Florence, studying the works of Fra Bartolommeo, Da Vinci, Michelangelo and Masaccio.  Read more…

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Sergio Franchi – tenor

Budding opera star became popular for singing romantic ballads

The tenor and actor Sergio Franchi was born Sergio Franci Galli on this day in 1926 in Codogno in the province of Lodi in northern Italy.  Franchi earned recognition as a performer in Britain in the 1960s and subsequently went to America where he became such a success he was once invited by John F Kennedy to sing the US national anthem at a rally.  Franchi was born to a Neapolitan father and a Ligurian mother who were living in Codogno in the Lombardy region. As a child he sang with his father who played the piano and guitar.  When he was 16, Franchi formed a band to earn extra money and went on to sing with a male group in jazz clubs.  Franchi’s father was a successful businessman but he lost all his assets during the German occupation of Italy in World War II.  After the war a family friend suggested to Franchi’s father that he should emigrate to South Africa where there were more opportunities for work. The whole family moved to Johannesburg in 1947.  Franchi worked initially for his father but also began singing in informal concerts. His voice soon attracted attention and he was offered roles in musicals.  Read more…

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Pier Giorgio Frassati – social activist

Brave Catholic has inspired youth of the world

Pier Giorgio Frassati, who was dedicated to social justice issues and spent his brief life helping the poor, was born on this day in 1901 in Turin.  He was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1990, who dubbed him ‘the Man of the Eight Beatitudes,’ alluding to a passage in the Gospel According to Matthew.  Frassati’s father, Alfredo, owned the newspaper La Stampa, and his mother Adelaide, was a painter, whose works were purchased by King Victor Emmanuel III.  Although he was from a wealthy background, even as a child Frassati showed compassion for the poor. He was educated at a school run by Jesuits and grew up to become dedicated to social action as a means of combating inequalities.  He was an ardent opponent of Fascism and was arrested in Rome for protesting with the Young Catholic Workers Congress, continuing to hold his banner aloft while being attacked by the police.  One night a group of Fascists broke into his family’s home to attack him and his father, but Frassati fought them off single-handedly and chased them away down the street.  He joined Catholic Action in 1919 and later became a member of the Third Order of Saint Dominic.  Read more…


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The L’Aquila Earthquake

Shock measuring 6.3 magnitude killed more than 300

Scenes of devastation confronted rescue workers after the quake
Scenes of devastation confronted
rescue workers after the quake
The central Italy region of Abruzzo suffered a major disaster on this day in 2009 when an earthquake with a magnitude of 6.3 caused extensive damage and considerable loss of life in the city of L’Aquila and surrounding villages.

The main shock struck at 3.32am, when many of the victims would have been asleep, although there had been two smaller tremors the day before in an area with a long history of seismic turbulence, giving rise to speculation that a major quake was imminent.

The epicentre was only a little outside L’Aquila, a city with a population of about 70,000, damaging up to 11,000 buildings in the 13th century city.  A total of 309 people lost their lives and such was the scale of devastation that up to 65,000 people were left homeless in the city and neighbouring villages.

It was the deadliest earthquake to hit Italy since the Irpinia quake in Campania killed almost 2,500 people in 1980.

The dead in L’Aquila, a university city, included 55 students killed when their halls of residence collapsed.  The 309 victims were of 11 different nationalities, including Italians.  The main shock was felt 92 km (57 miles) away in the Italian capital, Rome.

Many of L'Aquila's medieval buildings were badly damaged, including the Basilica of Saint Bernardino of Siena, the city’s largest Renaissance church, and the Basilica di Santa Maria di Collemaggio, while the dome of the 18th-century church of Anime Sante in Piazza Duomo collapsed. Porta Napoli, the oldest gate to the city, was completely destroyed.

A wrecked local government building near the centre of L'Aquila
A wrecked local government building
near the centre of L'Aquila
The collapse of the cupola of the 18th-century Baroque church of St Augustine - previously destroyed in a 1703 earthquake - damaged L'Aquila's state archives. 

But it was not only the city’s historical centre that suffered. Many of L'Aquila's modern buildings - even those thought to be earthquake-proof - were not able to withstand the shaking, including a dormitory at the University of L'Aquila that collapsed, and a new wing of the city’s main hospital, built only nine years earlier.  Shoddy construction was blamed, leaving the city much more vulnerable than it should have been, in the opinion of some experts.

Yet those held to account in the inquiries that followed were not building contractors but six scientists and a government official - members of a government commission for risk assessment - who were placed on trial for manslaughter on the grounds that they had not properly communicated the increased risk following the smaller tremors that preceded the 6 April quake. 

In October 2012,  a court found that the seven individuals were indeed guilty of manslaughter and each was handed a six-year prison sentence, although those convictions were overturned on appeal two years later.

The church of Anime Sante, the dome of which collapsed, undergoing reconstruction in 2011
The church of Anime Sante, the dome of which
collapsed, undergoing reconstruction in 2011
Of the vast number of residents left homeless, some 40,000 people were accommodated in tented camps and a further 10,000 were housed in hotels on the coast. 

Prime minister Silvio Berlusconi pledged to rehouse all of the homeless and provide ample funds to rebuild the city, yet reconstruction work was slow, mired in political wrangling, bureaucracy and corruption.  The tented camps remained in place for far longer than planned and even 10 years on, some 2,000 families were still living in prefabricated, temporary accommodation.

Many of the damaged houses in the historic centre of the city are still unrepaired yet some residents moved back into them anyway. Parts of the centre are beginning to look as they did before the quake, after meticulously reconstruction of many historic buildings, although others remain clad in scaffolding and some areas still resemble buildings sites, with cranes towering above the rooftops. 

The Basilica di Santa Maria di Collemaggio,  with its distinctive pink and white facade
The Basilica di Santa Maria di Collemaggio, 
with its distinctive pink and white facade
Travel tip:

The capital of the Abruzzo region, L’Aquila was built in the 13th century on a hill within the valley of the Aterno river. Its construction was started by Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor, and completed by his son, Conrad IV of Germany. It was destroyed by Conrad’s brother, Manfred in 1259, but rebuilt by Charles I of Anjou, who surrounded it with walls.  Many of the buildings that attracted visitors to the city before 2009 have been restored, including the 12th century Basilica di Santa Maria di Collemaggio, with its distinctive exterior of alternating pink and white stone blocks, and the 15th century Basilica of San Bernardino, which reopened in 2015 after six years of restoration work that cost around €40 million.

L'Aquila's elegant Piazza del Duomo, the heart of the city, as it looked in 2007
L'Aquila's elegant Piazza del Duomo, the heart
of the city, as it looked in 2007
Travel tip:

Apart from its religious buildings, L’Aquila is attractive for its maze of narrow streets, lined with Baroque and Renaissance buildings, and its elegant squares. As home to the University of L'Aquila, it has a lively atmosphere and many cultural attractions, including a symphony orchestra, a fine-arts academy, a state conservatory, a film institute and a repertory theatre. Situated in a valley in the Apennines in the shadow of the Gran Sasso massif, it is also close to a number of ski resorts. 

Also on this day:

1483: The birth of painter and architect Raphael

1901: The birth of social activist Pier Giorgio Frassati

1926: The birth of tenor and actor Sergio Franchi

1957: The birth of race-walking twins Maurizio and Giorgio Damilano

(Picture credits: rescuers by University College London; local government office by TheWiz83; church of Anime Sante and Piazza del Duomo by RaeBo; Basilica by Stemonitis; all via Wikimedia Commons)


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