22 June 2024

22 June

Lucrezia Tornabuoni - political adviser

Medici wife one of most powerful women of the Renaissance

Lucrezia Tornabuoni, who became one of the most influential and therefore powerful women in 15th century Italy through family connections and her own political and business acumen, was born on this day in 1427 in Florence.  Connected by birth to the powerful Tornabuoni family on her father’s side and the Guicciardini through her mother, Lucrezia entered a third powerful family when she married Piero di Cosimo de’ Medici.  Yet she was an important figure in her own right, revealing political skill and a talent for diplomacy during her husband’s time as de facto leader of Florence, and when their son, Lorenzo, succeeded him.  She was also a successful property owner, buying houses, shops and farms in and around Pisa and Florence, which she would then lease out. She bought and renovated a hot spring, Bagno a Morba, turning it into a resort and spa for paying guests.  And she enhanced her popularity in Florence by supporting religious convents and working with them to help widows and orphans. She would draw on her own income to provide dowries for women from poor families so that they could marry and use her influence to help family members obtain good positions in the church or government.  Read more…

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Galileo Galilei convicted of heresy

'Father of Science' forced to deny that earth revolves around sun

One of the more bizarre episodes in the history of human intellectual advancement took place in Rome on this day in 1633 when Galileo Galilei, the brilliant astronomer, mathematician, philosopher and engineer – often described as ‘the father of science’ - was convicted of heresy.  His crime was to support the view – indeed, to confirm it with scientific proof – that the sun rather than the earth was the centre of the solar system, as had been theorised by the Polish scientist Nicolaus Copernicus in the previous century.  This flew completely in the face of a major plank of orthodox Roman Catholic beliefs, within which the contention that the sun moved around the earth was regarded as a fact of scripture that could not be disputed.  Galileo, something of a celebrity in his day who won the patronage of such powerful Italian families as the Medici and the Barberini following the discoveries he made with his astronomical telescope, had been essentially under surveillance by the Church since 1609 after publishing details of observations he had made that supported Copernicus’s theory of heliocentrism.  Read more…

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Walter Bonatti - mountaineer

Climber's outstanding career marred by 50-year row

Walter Bonatti, the Italian who some would argue is the greatest alpine mountain climber that ever lived, was born on this day in 1930 in Bergamo in Lombardy.  He was the first to complete some of the most demanding climbs in the Alps and the Himalayas, including the first solo climb in winter of the North face of the Matterhorn.  But those achievements were marred for half a century by the bitter row that sprang from the part he played in the 1954 Italian expedition to conquer K2, the 8,611-metre peak north-east of the Himalayas that is the second highest in the world - behind Mount Everest (8,848 metres) - but is regarded as the more difficult climb.  Incredibly fit and able to survive at high altitudes without oxygen, he was already such an accomplished climber at just 24 years of age that he was chosen to join the expedition, which aimed to succeed where five previous attempts over 52 years had failed.  The row stemmed from the decision taken by expedition leader Ardito Desio as the party neared the summit that the more experienced Lino Lacedelli and Achille Compagnoni should be the climbers to make the final ascent, even though Bonatti was in better physical condition than either.  Read more…

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Book of the Day: The Rise and Fall of the House of Medici, by Christopher Hibbert

At its height. Renaissance Florence was a centre of enormous wealth, power and influence. A republican city-state funded by trade and banking, its often bloody political scene was dominated by rich mercantile families, the most famous of which were the Medici. The Rise and Fall of the House of Medici is an enthralling book that charts the family’s huge influence on the political, economic and cultural history of Florence. Beginning in the early 1430s with the rise of the dynasty under the near-legendary Cosimo de Medici, it moves through their golden era as patrons of some of the most remarkable artists and architects of the Renaissance, to the era of the Medici Popes and Grand Dukes, Florence’s slide into decay and bankruptcy, and the end, in 1737, of the Medici line.

Christopher Hibbert was an English writer, historian and biographer. Probably the most widely-read popular historian of the 20th century, his many books included Benito Mussolini: A Biography, Garibaldi and His Enemies, The Borgias and Their Enemies, and histories of Rome, Venice and Florence. 

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21 June 2024

21 June

Pier Luigi Nervi - architect

Striking designs from football stadiums to churches

The brilliant structural engineer and architect Pier Luigi Nervi was born on this day in 1891 in Sondrio, an Alpine town in northern Lombardy at the heart of the Valtellina.  Nervi made his mark with a number of strikingly original designs at home and abroad and was noted both for his innovative use of reinforced concrete and his multi-dimensional designs, which enabled him to create structures that were both strong and elegant.  His major works in Italy include the Palazzo del Lavoro in Turin, the bell tower of the Chiesa del Sacro Cuore in Florence and the Papal Audience Hall at the Vatican City, as well as a number of important sports facilities.  The Stadio Artemio Franchi (formerly the Stadio Communale) in Florence - home of the Fiorentina football club - was one of his first important projects and he designed several stadia for the Rome Olympics in 1960, including the Stadio Flaminio and the Palazzo dello Sport EUR.  Around the world, the UNESCO headquarters in Paris, the George Washington Bridge Bus Station in New York, the Stock Exchange Tower in Montreal, St Mary's Cathedral in San Francisco and the Italian Embassy in Brasilia are among Nervi's legacy.  Read more…

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Alessandro Cavriani - naval commander

Heroic officer who sacrificed his own life

Naval commander Alessandro Cavriani, who posthumously received Italy’s highest military honour after sacrificing his own life to prevent his ailing ship falling into enemy hands, was born on this day in 1911 in the city of Mantua in Lombardy.  Cavriani, who had risen to the rank of corvette captain in the Italian Royal Navy during World War Two, was lieutenant commander of the destroyer Ugolino Vivaldi soon after Italy had signed the 1943 Armistice with the Allies.  The Vivaldi and her sister ship, the Antonio da Noli, on September 9, were ordered to set sail from Genoa to Civitavecchia, the large port north of Rome, where they were to pick up King Vittorio Emanuele III and his government and take them to La Maddalena in Sardinia, to prevent their being captured by the advancing German army.  That mission was aborted after the king, informed that the Germans had already captured the road from Rome to Civitavecchia, instead fled in the opposite direction, to Pescara on the Adriatic coast. The Vilvaldi and Da Noli were instead sent to join the rest of the Italian fleet off La Maddalena and attack German craft engaged in moving German troops from Sardinia to Corsica.  Read more…

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Paolo Soleri - architect

Italian greatly influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright

The groundbreaking architect and ecologist Paolo Soleri was born on this day in 1919 in Turin.  Soleri is largely remembered for the Arcosanti project, an experiment in urban design in the Arizona desert that was like no other town on the planet, a unique fusion of architecture and ecology.  Originally conceived as providing a completely self-sufficient urban living space for 5,000 people when it began in 1970, only about five per cent of the proposed development was ever completed.  At its peak, Arcosanti’s population barely exceeded 200 yet the buildings Soleri erected in accordance with his vision are still there, rising from the desert as an assortment of concrete blocks, domes and soaring vaults, resembling a cross between the remains of some ancient civilisation and a set from Star Wars.  It has never been abandoned, however, and although Soleri died in 2013 the project is still home to between 50 and 100 of his most ardent disciples, still seeking to live as Soleri envisaged.  Although Soleri grew up in Italy, it was a visit to the United States in 1946 that had the most profound influence on his life.  Read more…

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Pope Paul VI

Pontiff who helped wartime prisoners

Giovanni Battista Enrico Antonio Maria Montini was elected as Pope Paul VI on this day in 1963 in Rome.  He succeeded Pope John XXIII and immediately re-convened the Second Vatican Council which had automatically closed after Pope John’s death.  Pope Paul then implemented its various reforms and as a result had to deal with the conflicting expectations of different Catholic groups.  Following his famous predecessor Saint Ambrose of Milan, Pope Paul named Mary as the Mother of the Church.  He described himself as ‘a humble servant for a suffering humanity’ and demanded changes from the rich in North America and Europe in favour of the poor in the third world.  Pope Paul had been born in Concesio near Brescia in 1897 and was ordained a priest in Brescia in 1920. He took a doctorate in Canon Law in Milan and afterwards studied at various universities, therefore never working as a parish priest.  He had one foreign posting, to the office of the papal nuncio in Poland.  After the outbreak of the Second World War, he created an information office for prisoners of war and refugees, producing more than 11 million replies to enquiries about missing persons.  Read more…

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Book of the Day: The Architecture of Modern Italy: Visions of Utopia, 1900-present, by Terry Kirk

This groundbreaking and authoritative two-volume survey is the first truly comprehensive history of modern Italian architecture and urbanism to appear in any language. Told in lively prose, it recounts more than 250 years of experimentation, creativity, and turmoil that have shaped the landscape of contemporary Italy.  Visions of Utopia, 1900-present tracks the development of Italy's architectural avant-garde through the upheavals of the 20th century. Beginning with the development of Italian art nouveau - stile liberty - and moving through futurism, fascism, rationalism, and on to the creative experimentation of the present day, it explores the work of such pivotal figures as Raimondo dAronco, Antonio SantElia, Adalberto Libera, Giuseppe Terragni, Pier Luigi Nervi, Gio Ponti, Carlo Scarpa, Aldo Rossi, and Renzo Piano. The Architecture of Modern Italy is exhaustively illustrated with rare period images, new photography, maps, drawings, and plans. With Colin Rowe's Italian Architecture of the 16th Century, it provides a nearly complete overview of the history of Italian architecture.

Terry Kirk is a professor of architectural history at the American University of Rome.

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20 June 2024

20 June

Armando Picchi - footballer

Star defender captained ‘La Grande Inter’

The footballer Armando Picchi, who was captain of the Inter-Milan team of the 1960s known as La Grande Inter and one of Italian football’s most accomplished players in the libero position, was born on this day in 1935 in the Tuscan port of Livorno.  Under his captaincy, the Inter side managed by the Argentina-born coach Helenio Herrera won the European Cup twice as well as three Serie A titles and two Intercontinental Cups between 1963 and 1966.  After retiring as a player at 34, Picchi embarked on a coaching career of his own, but after his progress with Varese and hometown club AS Calcio Livorno earned him the chance to take the helm at Juventus his life was cut tragically short in 1971, when he developed an aggressive form of cancer and died just three months after being diagnosed.  Picchi grew up 30km (19 miles) south of Livorno in the coastal resort of Vada.  He had the good fortune to have a brother, Leo, who was already a professional footballer when he was growing up. Leo, 14 years’ his senior, nurtured Armando’s early development and recommended him to Livorno, then playing in Serie C.  Read more…

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Gian Galeazzo Sforza - Duke of Milan

Ruler who never truly held power

Gian Galeazzo Sforza, the third member of the Sforza family to have the title Duke of Milan, was born on this day in 1469 in Abbiategrasso, a town in the Po Valley about 22km (14 miles) north of Milan.  He was the sixth Duke of Milan in all, the title having previously been the property of the Visconti family.  However, Gian Galeazzo had only a short life and never truly held any power, having inherited the Duchy at the age of seven when his father, Galeazzo Maria Sforza, was assassinated in the porch of Basilica di Santo Stefano Maggiore in Milan, on December 26, 1476, where he was attending a celebration for the Festa di San Stefano.  Gian Galeazzo could not legally inherit the Duchy until he reached the age of majority, which in Renaissance times was 14. Until then, Milan would be ruled by his mother, Galeazzo Maria’s widow, Bona of Savoy.  But Gian Galeazzo’s uncle, Ludovico Sforza, had designs on the Duchy as Galeazzo Maria’s brother and the next five years encompassed a bitter struggle for the regency.  With the help of her powerful counsellor, the ducal secretary Cicco Simonetta, Bona managed to repel Ludovico’s first bid to seize power, but not for long.  Read more…

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Luigi de Magistris - politician

Popular and progressive Mayor of Naples

Luigi de Magistris, who was Mayor of Naples for 10 years following a shock win in the 2011 local elections, was born on this day in 1967.  A former public prosecutor with a reputation for standing up against corruption and organised crime, De Magistris was the Member of the European Parliament for Southern Italy between 2009 and 2011, when he ran for Italy of Values, the centre-left party founded by another former magistrate, Antonio di Pietro.  He stood in the 2011 mayoral elections in Naples with the support of minor parties on the left and the right and won in the second round of voting with 65 per cent of the vote, defeating Gianni Lettieri, the candidate for a centre right coalition led by Silvio Berlusconi’s People of Freedom party.  In office, De Magistris faced difficult times because of the city’s precarious financial situation, which at times saw local transport suspended because fuel bills were not paid and rubbish piling up in the streets because of continuing problems with the disposal of domestic refuse that had reached a peak in 2008.  De Magistris claimed year-on-year improvements in refuse collection as one of his success stories.  Read more…

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Giannina Arangi-Lombardi – opera singer

Soprano’s superb voice was captured in early recordings

Soprano Giannina Arangi-Lombardi was born on this day in 1891 in Marigliano near Naples in Campania.  She studied singing at the Conservatory of San Pietro a Majella in Naples and made her debut on the stage in Rome in 1920. Arangi-Lombardi sang mezzo-soprano roles for the next three years at theatres in Rome, Sicily, Parma, Florence and Naples.  She then underwent further study and returned to the stage as what is known as a spinto soprano, a singer who can reach the high notes of the lyric soprano but can also achieve dramatic climaxes with her voice.  Arangi-Lombardi’s second debut, this time as a soprano, was in 1923. The first time she sang the role of Aida in Verdi's opera of the same name the audience was stunned by her voice and her fame quickly spread.  She appeared on stage at Teatro alla Scala in Milan for the first time in 1924 singing Elena in Boito’s Mefistofele. The orchestra for her debut performance was conducted by Arturo Toscanini.  She sang regularly at La Scala until 1930 and appeared at many other opera houses in Europe as well as in South America.  Read more…

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Valerio Evangelisti - novelist

Writer's stories of the Inquisition are bestsellers

The bestselling novelist Valerio Evangelisti, best known for his science fiction, fantasy, historical novels and horror stories, was born in Bologna on this day in 1952.  He is famous in Italy for his series of novels featuring the inquisitor Nicolas Eymerich and for the Magus trilogy, all of which have been translated into many languages.  Eymerich is a real historical character, a member of the order of the Dominicans and of the Spanish Inquisition who was born in 1320 in Girona, Catalonia.  Evangelisti portrays him as a cruel and ruthless man who acts without mercy to protect the Catholic Church against threats of both natural and supernatural origin.  Evangelisti uses the Eymerich novels to investigate the mysterious phenomena in mediaeval Europe that strategically influenced the great historical events of the time, creating a dark and nightmarish picture of the epoch.  The Magus trilogy is a romanticised biography of the famous Middle Ages writer of prophecies, Nostradamus. The three novels, Il presagio (The Omen), L’inganno (The Deceit) and L'abisso (The Abyss) were also bestsellers in Italy.  Read more…

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Book of the Day: Calcio: A History of Italian Football, by John Foot

The first history of Italian football to be written in English, Calcio is a mix of serious analysis and comic storytelling, with vivid descriptions of games, goals, dives, missed penalties, riots and scandals in the richest and toughest league in the world.  Calcio tells the story of Italian football from its origins in the 1890’s to the present day. It takes us through a history of great players and teams, of style, passion and success, but also of violence, cynicism, catenaccio tactics and corruption.

John Foot, whose father, Paul, was a noted investigative journalist, is an English academic and historian specialising in Italy. His other books include Blood and Power: The Rise and Fall of Italian Fascism, The Archipelago: Italy Since 1945, and Pedalare! Pedalare!: A History of Italian Cycling.

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19 June 2024

19 June

Marisa Pavan - actress

Twin sister of tragic star Pier Angeli

The actress Marisa Pavan, whose twin sister Pier Angeli was a Hollywood star in the 1950s and 1960s, was born on this day in 1932 as Maria Luisa Pierangeli in Cagliari, Sardinia.  Pavan’s career ran parallel with that of her sister, who was born 20 minutes before her, but she rejected the re-invention as an ultra-glamorous starlet that Pier Angeli underwent within the Hollywood studio system.  She turned roles down when she felt they did not have enough substance and did not hesitate to sack agents if she felt they were putting her forward for unsuitable parts.  She refused to sign up to any one studio.  Her biggest success was The Rose Tattoo, the 1955 film adaptation of a Tennessee Williams play in which she played the daughter of the central character, played by Anna Magnani - with whom she is pictured - one of postwar Italian cinema’s most respected actresses.  Magnani won an Oscar for Best Actress for her portrayal of a Sicilian widow, with Pavan receiving a nomination for best supporting actress at the Academy Awards and although that award went to someone else she did have the substantial compensation of winning a Golden Globe for the role.  Read more…

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Francesco Moser - Giro d’Italia winner

Only two riders have won more road races

The cycling champion Francesco Moser, winner of the 1984 Giro d’Italia and the 1977 World road racing championship among 273 road victories in his career, was born on this day in 1951 in Pal├╣ di Giovo, a village about 10km (6 miles) north of Trento in northern Italy.  Only the great Belgians Eddy Merckx (525) and Rik Van Looy (379) won more road races than Moser, who was at his peak during the late 1970s and early 1980s.  One of his proudest achievements was to break Merckx’s record for the greatest distance covered in one hour.  He became renowned as a specialist in the so-called Monuments, the five road races among what are generally termed the Classics considered to be the oldest, hardest and most prestigious one-day events in cycling.  Of those events, Moser won the Paris-Roubaix three times, the Giro di Lombardia twice and the Milan-San Remo once.  Moser attributed his cycling prowess to growing up on the family farm in Val di Cembra, working in steep-sided vineyards in an era when most of the work was carried out by hand, rather than machinery.  Family members used bicycles to move around the estate.  Read more…

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Pier Angeli - Hollywood star

Actress hailed for talent and beauty died tragically young

The actress Pier Angeli, a Hollywood star in the 1950s and 60s, was born on this day in 1932 in Cagliari, Sardinia.  She won awards in Italy and in America at the start of her career, when she was likened by some critics to the Swedish-born star Greta Garbo.  Described by the actor Paul Newman as "the most beautiful Italian actress of the century", Angeli was also a fixture in the gossip columns.  Linked romantically with a number of Hollywood's leading male actors, she dated Kirk Douglas and became close to the celebrated 'rebel' James Dean before marrying another star, the Italian-American actor and singer, Vic Damone.  It would be the first of two marriages.  She had a son, Perry, with Damone but they divorced after four years.  A second marriage, to the Italian composer, Armando Trovaioli, produced another son, Andrew, but they also divorced.  Born Anna Maria Pierangeli, the daughter of an architect, she had a twin sister, Maria Luisa, who would also become an actress.  Her mother, Enrica, used to dress the girls to resemble the American child star, Shirley Temple. The family moved to Rome when she was three.  Read more…

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Francesco Baracca – flying ace

Italy’s most successful First World War fighter pilot

Italy’s top fighter pilot of the First World War, Francesco Baracca, died in action on this day in 1918.  He had been flying a strafing mission against Austro-Hungarian ground troops in support of an Italian attack on the Montello Hill, about 17km (11 miles) north of Treviso in the Veneto, on which he was accompanied by a rookie pilot, Tenente Franco Osnago.  They split from one another after being hit by ground fire but a few minutes later, Osnago saw a burning plane falling from the sky.  Witnesses on the ground saw it too. Osnago flew back to his base but Baracca never returned.  Only when the Austro-Hungarian troops were driven back was the wreckage of Baracca’s Spad VII aircraft found in a valley.  His body was discovered a few metres away.  A monument in his memory was later built on the site. Osnago, fellow pilot Ferruccio Ranza and a journalist recovered his body. It was taken back to his home town of Lugo in the province of Ravenna, where a large funeral was held.  It is thought that Barocca was seeking to provide Osnago with cover from above as he swooped on enemy trenches when he was attacked by an Austrian plane.  Read more…

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Book of the Day: Pier Angeli: A Fragile Life, by Jane Allen

"In Pier Angeli, a 19-year-old Italian girl, Hollywood has found an actress who eludes the town's traditional classifications and whose unvarnished beauty and instinctive talent have already caused her to be called 'Little Garbo'" - Theodore Strauss in Collier's, April 1952.  This work is the first full-length biography of actress Anna Maria Pierangeli, from her early life in Italy to her death at the age of 39. She was discovered by Vittorio De Sica and soon after starred in her first film, Domani e troppo tardi (Tomorrow Is Too Late), which began her meteoric rise to fame in Italy. She arrived in Hollywood in 1950 at the age of 18, and the first thing MGM did was change her name to Pier Angeli and predict great things for its newest actress.  Pier Angeli: A Fragile Life covers her seven year career with MGM, her two unhappy marriages to Vic Damone and Armando Trovajoli, her love for her children Perry and Andrew, her brief and stormy relationship with James Dean, her dependent relationships with her mother and such stars as Kirk Douglas, Richard Attenborough and Debbie Reynolds, and the mystery surrounding her death.

Writer and psychologist Jane Allen lives in Bowral, New South Wales, Australia.  She had a varied career in the arts, studying at the Chelsea Polytechnic in London and working in galleries in Sydney for many years. She holds a BA and and MPhil (Psychology) from Sydney University.

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