28 February 2024

28 February

Pietro Ottoboni - patron of music and art

Venetian cardinal spent fortune on composers and painters

Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni, who is remembered as the biggest sponsor of the arts and music in particular in Rome in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, died on 29 February, 1740 in Rome.  Despite a somewhat licentious lifestyle that reportedly saw him father between 60 and 70 children, Ottoboni, whose great uncle was Pope Alexander VIII, was considered a candidate to succeed Pope Clement XII as pontiff following the death of the latter on 6 February.  However, he developed a fever during the conclave and had to withdraw. He died three weeks later.  Born into a noble Venetian family, Ottoboni was the last person to hold the office of Cardinal-nephew, a tradition dating back to the Middle Ages that allowed a pontiff to appoint members of his own family to key positions. The practice was abolished by Alexander VIII’s successor, Pope Innocent XII, in 1692.  Ottoboni was also made vice-chancellor of the Holy Church of Rome, a position he held until his death, which gave him an annual income that would have been the equivalent today of almost £5 million (€5.79m).  Although he had several positions of responsibility, including superintendent general of the affairs of the Apostolic See, and governor of the cities of Fermo and Tivoli, he was an unashamed seeker of sensual pleasure.  Read more...

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Domenico Agusta - entrepreneur 

Sicilian count who founded MV Agusta motorcycle company

Count Domenico Agusta, who founded the all-conquering MV Agusta motorcycle company in 1945, was born on this day in 1907 in Palermo.  Originally set up as a means of keeping the family’s aeronautical company in business after aircraft production in Italy was banned as part of the post World War II peace treaty with the Allies, MV Agusta became such a giant of motorcycle racing that their bikes claimed 38 MotoGP world titles in the space of 22 years as well as 34 victories in the prestigious Isle of Man Tourist Trophy.  MV Agusta made world champions of eight different riders, including two of the greatest Italians in motorcycle racing history, Giacomo Agostini and Carlo Ubbiali. Agostini won 13 of his record 15 world titles riding for MV Agusta.  Domenico Agusta was the son of Giovanni Agusta and hailed from a Sicilian family with aristocratic roots.  Both father and son exercised their right to use the title of count.  Agusta senior designed and built his first aeroplane in 1907, the year of Domenico’s birth.  After serving as a volunteer in the Italo-Turkish War of 1911-12, Giovanni moved the family north, where he believed there would be greater opportunities to develop his aviation business.  They settled in Cascina Costa, a village near the Lombardy town of Samarate, close to where the aeronautical pioneer Gianni Caproni had established an airfield on the site of what is now Milan Malpensa international airport. Read more…

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Karl Zuegg - jam and juice maker

Businessman turned family farm into international company

Karl Zuegg, the businessman who turned his family's fruit-farming expertise into one of Italy's major producers of jams and juices, was born on this day in 1915 in Lana, a town in what is now the autonomous province of Bolzano in Trentino-Alto Adige.  His grandparents, Maria and Ernst August Zuech - they changed their name to Zuegg in 1903 - had been cultivating fruit on their farm since 1860, when Lana was part of South Tyrol in what was then Austria-Hungary.  They traded at local markets and began exporting.  Zuegg and the company's other major brand names, Skipper and Fruttaviva, are among the most recognisable in the fruit products market in Italy and it is largely through Karl's hard work and enterprise.  He was managing director of the company from 1940 to 1986, during which time Zuegg became the first drinks manufacturer in Italy to make use of the ground-breaking Tetrapak packaging invented in Sweden, which allowed drinks to be sold in lightweight cardboard cartons rather than traditional glass bottles.  The family business had begun to experiment with jams in 1917 when austerity measures in Italy were biting hard and there was a need to preserve food.  Read more…

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Dino Zoff – footballer

Long career of a record-breaking goalkeeper

Dino Zoff, the oldest footballer to be part of a World Cup winning team, was born on this day in 1942.  Zoff was captain of the Italian national team in the final of the World Cup in Spain in 1982 at the age of 40 years, four months and 13 days.  He also won the award for best goalkeeper of the tournament, in which he kept two clean sheets and made a number of important saves.  Zoff was born in Mariano del Friuli in Friuli-Venezia Giulia. He had trials with Inter-Milan and Juventus at the age of 14 but was rejected because of his lack of height.  Having grown considerably, he made his Seria A debut with Udinese in 1961. He then moved to Mantua, where he spent four seasons, and Napoli, where he spent five seasons.  Zoff made his international debut during Euro 68 and was number two goalkeeper in the 1970 World Cup.  From 1972 onwards he was Italy’s number one goalkeeper.  He signed for Juventus in 1972 and during his 11 years with the club won the Serie A championship six times, the Coppa Italia twice and the UEFA Cup once.  When Zoff retired he held the record for being the oldest Serie A player at the age of 41 and for the most Serie A appearances, having played 570 matches.  Read more…

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Gabriele Rossetti - poet and revolutionary

Academic fled to England after exile from Naples

The poet and academic Gabriele Rossetti, who was a key figure in a revolutionary secret society in 19th century Italy known as the Carbonari, was born on this day in 1783 in the city of Vasto in Abruzzo.  A Dante scholar known for his detailed and sometimes controversial interpretations of The Divine Comedy and other works, Rossetti’s own poetry was of a patriotic nature and regularly contained commentaries on contemporary politics, often in support of the growing number of popular uprisings in the early 19th century.  He became a member of the Carbonari, an informal collective of secret revolutionary societies across Italy that was active between 1800 and 1831, promoting the creation of a liberal, unified Italy. He came into contact with them after moving to Naples to study at the city's prestigious university.  Similar to masonic lodges in that they had used secret signals so that fellow members could recognise them and even a coded language, the Carbonari were founded in Naples, where their membership included military officers, nobility and priests as well as ordinary citizens.  Read more…

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Mario Andretti – racing driver

American champion was born and grew up in Italy

Mario Andretti, who won the 1978 Formula One World Championship driving as an American, was born on this day in 1940 in Montona, about 35km (22 miles) south of Trieste in what was then Istria in the Kingdom of Italy.  Andretti’s career was notable for his versatility. He is the only driver in motor racing history to have won an Indianapolis 500, a Daytona 500 and an F1 world title, and one of only two to have won races in F1, Indy Car, NASCAR and the World Sportscar Championship. He is the last American to have won an F1 Grand Prix.  He clinched the 1978 F1 title at the Italian Grand Prix at Monza in September, the 14th of the 16 rounds, having led the standings by 12 points going into the race.  He crossed the line first and even though he was demoted to sixth place – the result of a one-minute penalty for going too soon at a restart – it was enough to mean he could not be caught.  His celebrations were muted, however, after his close friend, the Swedish driver Ronnie Petersen, died from complications to injuries he suffered in a crash on the first lap.  Andretti’s early years in Italy were fraught with difficulties.  Read more…

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Book of the Day: An Elephant in Rome: Bernini, The Pope and The Making of the Eternal City, by Loyd Grossman

By 1650, the spiritual and political power of the Catholic Church was shattered. Thanks to the twin blows of the Protestant Reformation and the Thirty Years War, Rome, celebrated both as the Eternal City and Caput Mundi (the head of the world) had lost its pre-eminent place in Europe. Then a new Pope, Alexander VII, fired with religious zeal, political guile and a mania for building, determined to restore the prestige of his church by making Rome the must-visit destination for Europe's intellectual, political and cultural elite. To help him do so, he enlisted the talents of Gian Lorenzo Bernini, already celebrated as the most important living artist: no mean feat in the age of Rubens, Rembrandt and Velazquez.  Together, Alexander VII and Bernini made the greatest artistic double act in history, inventing the concept of soft power and the bucket list destination. Bernini and Alexander's creation of Baroque Rome as a city more beautiful and grander than since the days of the Emperor Augustus continues to delight and attract.  Loyd Grossman’s An Elephant in Rome is a beautifully produced book about the 17th century development of baroque Rome, with Italian sculptor Bernini very much at the centre of its redevelopment

Loyd Grosman is an American-British author, broadcaster, musician, businessman and cultural campaigner, the presenter at times of television programmes including MasterChef  (1990 to 2000) and Through the Keyhole (1987 to 2003). He has qualifications in history, economic history and the history of art from Boston University, the London School of Economics and Magdalen College, Cambridge. He is the author of nine books.

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27 February 2024

27 February

NEW - Chiara Iezzi - singer and actress

One half of Paola e Chiara

The actress and singer Chiara Iezzi, who with sister Paola forms half of the top-selling Paola e Chiara pop duo, was born on this day in 1973 in Milan.  The sisters performed together for seven years between 1996 and 2013, selling more than five million records, before breaking up, Chiara deciding to focus increasingly on acting and enjoying some success in the United States.  The duo were reunited in 2023, when they took part in the Sanremo Music Festival for the sixth time, having made their debut at the celebrated Italian song contest 26 years earlier.  Interested in music, acting and fashion since she was in her teens, Chiara  graduated in fashion design, simultaneously taking acting lessons, but it was music that initially provided her with a career.  After seeing her perform in jazz and funk groups, in 1994 the record producer and television presenter Claudio Cecchetto hired her together with Paola to join singer Max Pezzali as backing vocalists in a group called 883, who were popular in Milan in the 1990s.  Two years later, the sisters began to perform as Paola e Chiara, signing a recording contract with Sony Music Italia.  Read more… 

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Simone Di Pasquale – dancer

Ballroom talent has been springboard for business success

Ballroom dancer and television celebrity Simone Di Pasquale was born on this day in 1978.  In 2005, he became a household name after he started to appear regularly on Italian television in Ballando con le Stelle - the equivalent of the US show Dancing with the Stars and Britain’s Strictly Come Dancing. The show, presented by Milly Carlucci, was broadcast every Saturday evening on the tv channel Rai Uno.  Pasquale has also appeared in numerous other television programmes, on stage in musical theatre and as an actor in a television drama.  Born in Rome, Di Pasquale learnt ballroom dancing at a young age and took part in competitions.  In 2000 he paired up with the dancer Natalia Titova, who also later became a celebrity because of Ballando con le Stelle. The couple were engaged from 1998 to 2005.  They took first place in the competition Rising Stars UK in 2004.  In the first season of Ballando con le Stelle, Di Pasquale partnered the Italian actress Hoara Borselli and the couple won the competition. He has taken part in each successive series since.  Di Pasquale has appeared as a guest on numerous programmes on Italian television.  Read more…

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Franco Moschino - fashion designer

Made clothes with sense of humour

The fashion designer Franco Moschino, founder of the Moschino fashion label, was born on this day in 1950 in Abbiategrasso, a town about 24km (15 miles) southwest of Milan.  Moschino became famous for his innovative and irreverent designs, which injected humour into high fashion.  For example, he created a miniskirt in quilted denim with plastic fried eggs decorating the hemline, a jacket studded with bottle tops and a suit covered with cutlery. He designed a dress that resembled a shopping bag and a ball gown made from black plastic bin bags.  Other designs carried messages mocking his own industry, such as a jacket with the motif ‘Waist of Money’ printed round the waistband, another in cashmere with ‘Expensive Jacket’ emblazoned across the back and a shirt with the words ‘I’m Full of Shirt’.  Moschino’s first collections focussed on casual clothes and jeans, but he eventually branched out into lingerie, eveningwear, shoes, menswear and perfumes.  As a young man, Moschino was encouraged to believe that his destiny lay in taking over his father’s iron foundry but his only interest in the plant lay in the layers of dust that clung to the walls, in which he would make drawings.  Read more…

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Mirella Freni – opera singer

Good advice from Gigli helped soprano have long career

Singer Mirella Freni was born Mirella Fregni on this day in 1935 in Modena in Emilia-Romagna.  Freni’s grandmother, Valentina Bartolomasi, had been a leading soprano in Italy from 1910 until 1927, specialising in Wagner roles. By coincidence, her mother worked alongside the mother of tenor Luciano Pavarotti in a tobacco factory in Modena.  Freni was obviously musically gifted and sang an opera aria in a radio competition when she was just ten years old.  One of the judges was the tenor Beniamino Gigli, who advised her to give up singing until she was older to protect her voice.  Freni took his advice and resumed singing when she was 17, making her operatic debut at the Teatro Municipale in Modena at the age of 20 in Bizet’s Carmen.  Her international debut came at Glyndebourne in Franco Zeffirelli’s staging of Gaetano Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore.  In the 1960 season at Glyndebourne she sang comic roles from Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro and Don Giovanni.  Freni made her Covent Garden debut in 1961, her La Scala debut in 1963 and her Metropolitan Opera debut in 1965.  She started singing the heavier Verdi roles in the 1970s.  Read more…

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Italy's appeal for help with Leaning Tower

Fears of collapse prompted summit of engineers

The Italian government finally admitted that it needed help to save the Leaning Tower of Pisa from collapsing on this day in 1964.  There had been numerous attempts to arrest the movement of the tower, which had begun to tilt five years after construction began in 1173.  One side of the tower started to sink after engineers added a second floor in 1178, when the mistake of setting a foundation just three metres deep in weak, unstable soil became clear. Construction was halted.  In fact, in part because of a series of military conflicts, it did not resume for 100 years.  Additions were made to the building over the next 100 years, culminating in the completion of the bell chamber in 1372. Nothing more was done until the 19th century, when an ill-considered plan to dig a path around the base in 1838 resulted in a new increase in the tilt.  Ironically, the tower might have been deliberately destroyed in the Second World War when advancing American soldiers were ordered to blow up any tall building that might have been used by German snipers, regardless of its historical importance.  Thankfully, a German withdrawal before the Americans reached Pisa made it unnecessary.  Read more…

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Book of the Day: Italian Cultural Studies: An Introduction, edited by David Forgacs and Robert Lumley

An illustrated introduction to the study of modern Italian culture containing 19 chapters by specialists in the field of language, politics, religious, ethnic, and gender identities, the mass media, cultural policy, and stars. Adopting a unique and accessible interdisciplinary focus, Italian Cultural Studies: An Introduction presents a variety of new perspectives on modern Italian culture. Each of the four parts explore diverse aspects of culture in Italy. 'Geographies' questions received notions of the Italian nation, the family, the 'South' and corruption; it also looks at anthropological approaches to culture and at Italy's linguistic pluralism. 'Identities' examines gender, religion, politics, and ethnicity as a means with which people define themselves and others. 'Media' explores the press, literature, television, and cinema. 'Culture and Society' brings together historical analyses of cultural policy, stars and style, and popular music. Each part is followed by sample analyses of visual materials and includes guidance on further reading. A chronology of political and cultural events since 1900 is also provided. Italian Cultural Studies: An Introduction is intended for students, teachers, and general readers of modern Italian culture.

David Forgacs holds the Guido and Mariuccia Zerilli-Marimò Chair of Contemporary Italian Studies at New York University. He has written extensively about the history of Italian culture, politics and the cinema. Robert Lumley is emeritus professor of arts and humanities at University College London (UCL). 

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Chiara Iezzi - singer and actress

One half of popular duo Paola e Chiara

Chiara Iezzi has enjoyed success both as a singer and in tv and film roles
Chiara Iezzi has enjoyed success both
as a singer and in tv and film roles
The actress and singer Chiara Iezzi, who with sister Paola forms half of the top-selling Paola e Chiara pop duo, was born on this day in 1973 in Milan.

The sisters performed together for seven years between 1996 and 2013, selling more than five million records, before breaking up, Chiara deciding to focus increasingly on acting and enjoying some success in the United States.

The duo were reunited in 2023, when they took part in the Sanremo Music Festival for the sixth time, having made their debut at the celebrated Italian song contest 26 years earlier.

Interested in music, acting and fashion since she was in her teens, Chiara graduated in fashion design, simultaneously taking acting lessons, but it was music that initially provided her with a career.

After seeing her perform in jazz and funk groups, in 1994 the record producer and television presenter Claudio Cecchetto hired her together with Paola to join singer Max Pezzali as backing vocalists in a group called 883, who were popular in Milan in the 1990s.

Paola (left) and Chiara with the trophy they won at the Sanremo Music Festival in 1997
Paola (left) and Chiara with the trophy they won
at the Sanremo Music Festival in 1997
Two years later, the sisters began to perform as Paola e Chiara, signing a recording contract with Sony Music Italia. Aged 21 and 22 respectively, they made their debut at the 1996 edition of Sanremo Giovani - a special contest for young artists, held separately from the main event - making the final with their song, In viaggio.

The following year, they entered Sanremo proper, performing the song Amici come prima, with which they won the New Proposals category.

The song featured on their debut studio album for Sony, Ciriamo Bambine, which would be the first of eight studio albums. They also released three collections of hits and 35 singles, the most successful of which was Vamos a bailar (Esta vida nueva), sung in Spanish and released in 2000.

Performing Vamos a bailar, which featured on their album Television, they won two song contests, Festivalbar and Un disco per l'estate. The single contributed substantially to their more than five million records sold.

Alongside her career with Paola, Chiara released a number of singles and EPs as a solo performer before turning her attention increasingly to acting, her ambitions not at all harmed by being invited in 2010 to collaborate on the soundtrack of the film Maledimiele, directed by Marco Pozzi, for which she sang the main theme, L'altra parte di me. 

Chiara Iezzi starred in the Disney Channel  television series Alex & Co in 2015
Chiara Iezzi starred in the Disney Channel 
television series Alex & Co in 2015
It prompted her to resume her study of acting, for which she spent increasing amounts of time in America, attending seminars in New York and Los Angeles. After the break-up of the Paola e Chiara partnership, she announced her intention to limit her singing career to projects connected to the film industry.

She had a number of successes in acting, notably playing the role of Victoria Williams in the 2015 TV series Alex & Co, produced by Disney Channel.

In 2016, she landed a role in the film Il ragazzo della Giudecca (The Boy from the Giudecca), directed by Alfonso Bergamo and starring Giancarlo Giannini and Franco Nero, and in 2017 was picked for Louis Nero's film The Broken Key alongside Rutger Hauer, William Baldwin, Geraldine Chaplin and Michael Madsen.

The possibility that she and her sister might reform their partnership arose in 2022. Chiara appeared at a DJ set hosted by her sister, for whom deejaying had become the focus of her career, and they surprised the audience by performing a number of their songs together. The clip of their performance was downloaded so many times it became a viral hit, after which they agreed to make an appearance as guests at a concert in Bibione, on the Adriatic coast of the Veneto, which was part of a Max Pezzali tour, and alongside Jovanotti at Fermo, further down the Adriatic in Marche. 

They were so well received by the audiences that talk of a Paola e Chiara revival soon gathered pace. In December of the same year it was announced that they would participate in the 2023 edition of the Sanremo Festival, their first appearance there for 15 years.

Their song, Furore, finished only 17th, yet was a hit nonetheless, prompting them to embark on a first tour in 12 years and to release their first album since 2015, a reworked collection of their best work entitled Per Sempre (Forever).

The duo returned to Sanremo in 2024 as guests, reprising Furore on the third evening and performing alongside veteran entrants Ricchi e Poveri on the fourth evening, as well as presenting some of the accompanying broadcasts as national TV channel Rai dedicated hours of airtime to the festival and peripheral activities.

Bibione's wide expanse of golden, sandy beach makes it an attraction for thousands of tourists
Bibione's wide expanse of golden, sandy beach
makes it an attraction for thousands of tourists
Travel tip:

Bibione, where Paola e Chiara reunited alongside former professional partner Max Pezzali at a 2022 concert, is a seaside resort in the Veneto region of northern Italy, about 50km (31 miles) from Venice as the crow flies, although about twice that distance by road. It is a popular destination for tourists from Germany, Austria, Czech Republic, and Slovakia, as well as Italy, who enjoy its golden sand beach, pine wood, and water park. The area used to be uninhabited marshland until land reclamation work began in the early part of the 20th century and it was not until the 1950s that the first holiday accommodation was built. Nowadays, in the summer months, Bibione can offer up to 100,000 beds for tourists, yet in the winter is largely deserted, with many shops and beach facilities closed.

Stay in Bibione with Booking.com


Fermo sits atop the Sabulo hill, the cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta in Cielo at its highest point
Fermo sits atop the Sabulo hill, the cathedral of
Santa Maria Assunta in Cielo at its highest point
Travel tip:

Fermo, where Paola e Chaira performed at a Jovanotti concert in 2022, is a charming and lively town in the Marche region, with a population of about 37,000. It is located on a hill, the Sabulo, some 319m (1,050ft) above sea level, about 7km (4.34 miles) inland from the Adriatic resort of Porto San Giorgio. A former Roman colony, it was owned by a succession of prince-bishops and powerful families, including the Visconti and Sforza, before becoming part of the Papal States in 1550, all of whom contributed to its impressive monuments, buildings and fortifications. The Roman cisterns, the 13th century cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta in Cielo, the Palazzo dei Priori, built between the 13th and 16th centuries, the Pinacoteca Civica and the Teatro dell’Aquila are among its noteworthy attractions. The town hosts diverse cultural events, from an August palio (horse race) and festival of mediaeval games, the Cavalcata dell’Assunta, to an annual film festival.  The town is also famed for its culinary specialities, which include a type of lasagna with meat sauce, olives, and cheese, called vincisgrassi, a fish soup with tomatoes, saffron, and vinegar known as brodetto, and frustingo, a cake made with dried fruits, nuts, honey, and chocolate.

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More reading:

The history of the Sanremo Music Festival

The singer whose Sanremo disqualification produced his biggest hit

The tenor who became known as ‘the King of Sanremo’

Also on this day:

1950: The birth of fashion designer Franco Moschino

1935: The birth of opera singer Mirella Freni

1964: Italy appeals for help to save Pisa’s leaning tower

1978: The birth of dancer Simone Di Pasquale

(Picture credits: Bibione beach by Tiesse; Fermo skyline by Daniele Pieroni; via Wikimedia Commons)


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26 February 2024

26 February

Angelo Mangiarotti - architect and designer

Iconic glass church among legacy to city of Milan 

Angelo Mangiarotti, regarded by his peers as one of the greats of modern Italian architecture and design, was born on this day in 1921 in Milan.  Many notable examples of his work in urban design can be found in his home city, including the Repubblica and Venezia underground stations, the iconic glass church of Nostra Signora della Misericordia in the Baranzate suburb and several unique residential properties, including the distinctive Casa a tre cilindri - composed of a trio of cylindrical blocks - in Via Gavirate in the San Siro district of the city.  He also worked extensively in furniture design with major companies such as Vistosi, Fontana Arte, Danese, Artemide, Skipper and the kitchen producer Snaidero.  Mangiarotti graduated from the Architecture School of the Politecnico di Milano in 1948. He moved to the United States in 1953 and worked in Chicago as a visiting professor for the Illinois Institute of Technology. While in Illinois, he met internationally renowned architects Frank Lloyd Wright, Walter Gropius, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Konrad Wachsmann, all of whom were substantial influences.  Read more…

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Napoleon escapes from Elba

Emperor leaves idyllic island to face his Waterloo

French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte escaped from the Italian island of Elba, where he had been living in exile, on this day in 1815.  Less than a year before he had arrived in Elba, an island dotted with attractive hills and scenic bays, following his unconditional abdication from the throne of France.  Several countries had formed an alliance to fight Napoleon’s army and had chosen to send him to live in exile on the small Mediterranean island about 10km (6 miles) off the Tuscan coast.  They gave Napoleon sovereignty over the island and he was allowed to keep a small personal army to guard him. He soon set about developing the iron mines and brought in modern agricultural methods to improve the quality of life of the islanders.  But he began to be worried about being banished still further from France. He had heard through his supporters that the French Government were beginning to question having to pay him an annual salary.  He had also been told that many European ministers felt Elba was too close to France for comfort.  Napoleon also missed his wife, Marie-Louise, who he believed his captors were preventing from joining him.  Read more…

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Dante Ferretti – set designer

Three-times Oscar winner worked with Fellini and Scorsese

Dante Ferretti, who in more than half a century in movie production design has been nominated for 10 Academy Awards and won three, was born on this day in 1943 in the city of Macerata, in the Marche region of central Italy.  Ferretti, who works in partnership with his wife, the set decorator Francesca Lo Schiavo, won two of his Oscars for films directed by Martin Scorsese, with whom he has enjoyed a collaboration that began 25 years ago this year.  Nominated for his first film with Scorsese, The Age of Innocence (1993) and subsequently for Kundun (1998) and Gangs of New York (2003), he was successful with The Aviator (2005) and Hugo Cabret (2012).  Both Oscars, for Best Scenography, were shared with Lo Schiavo, with whom he also shared an Oscar for Tim Burton’s 2008 film Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.  Ferretti also enjoyed long collaborations with Federico Fellini and Pier Paolo Pasolini, and worked with a string of other major directors, including Elio Petri, Ettore Scola, Franco Zeffirelli, Jean-Jacques Annaud, Terry Gilliam, Anthony Minghella, Brian de Palma, Julie Taymor and Kenneth Branagh.  Read more…

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Emanuele Severino - philosopher

Thinker famous for theories on eternity and being

The contemporary philosopher Emanuele Severino, who died in January 2020, was born on this day in 1929 in Brescia, in northern Italy.  Severino is regarded by many as one of Italy’s greatest thinkers of the modern era, yet came into conflict with the Catholic Church, so much that the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, the body that once stood in judgment of those it deemed as heretics, banished him from the Church in 1969 on the basis that his beliefs were not compatible with Christianity.  The basis for their action was his belief in “the eternity of all being”, which essentially denies the existence of God as a creator.  Severino believed that the ancient Greek theory of all things coming from nothing and returning to nothing after being granted temporary existence was flawed, and that the Greek sense of becoming was an error. He contended that the idea that an entity can move from ‘being’ to ‘non-being’ and vice-versa was absurd.  He argued that everything is eternal, not only all people and all things, but every moment of life, every feeling, every aspect of reality, and that nothing becomes or ceases to be.  Read more…

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

This groundbreaking and authoritative 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 twentieth 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 d'Aronco, Antonio Sant'Elia, 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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25 February 2024

25 February

Benedetto Croce – philosopher and historian

Prolific writer opposed the Fascists and supported democracy

Benedetto Croce, one of the most important figures in Italian life and culture in the first half of the 20th century, was born on this day in 1866 in Pescasseroli in the region of Abruzzo.  Croce was an idealist philosopher, historian and erudite literary scholar whose approach to literature influenced future generations of writers and literary critics. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature 16 times.  He became a Senator in 1910 and was Minister for Education from 1920 to 1921 in the last pre-Fascist government of the so-called Giolitti era. He is also remembered for his major contribution to the rebirth of Italian democracy after World War II.  Croce was born into a wealthy family and raised in a strict Catholic environment.  However, from the age of 16 he gave up Catholicism and developed a personal philosophy of spiritual life.  In 1883, while he was still a teenager, he was on holiday with his family on the island of Ischia when an earthquake struck Casamicciola and destroyed the house they were staying in. His mother, father and sister were all killed, but although he was buried for a long time, he managed to survive.  Read more…

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Enea Salmeggia – artist

Painter was dubbed the Raphael of Bergamo

Prolific painter Enea Salmeggia, who was active during the late Renaissance period and left a rich legacy of art in northern Italy, died on this day in 1626 in Bergamo in the region of Lombardy.  Salmeggia, also known as Il Talpino, or Salmezza, went to Rome as a young man, where he studied the works of Raphael. His style has often been likened to that of Raphael and he has even been called the Bergamo Raphael by some art lovers. A drawing formerly attributed to Raphael, now in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, of two figures seated with some architectural studies, has subsequently been ascribed to Enea Salmeggia.  The artist was born at Salmezza, a frazione of Nembro, a comune - municipality - in the province of Bergamo, between 1565 and 1570. It is known that he grew up in Borgo San Leonardo in Bergamo, where his father, Antonio, was a tailor.  He learnt the art of painting from other Bergamo painters and is also believed to have studied under the Bergamo artist Simone Peterzano in Milan. Caravaggio was one of Peterzano’s most famous pupils and it has been suggested that Salmeggia could have been studying with Peterzano at the same time as Caravaggio.  Read more…

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Carlo Goldoni – playwright

Greatest Venetian dramatist whose work still entertains audiences today

Carlo Goldoni, the author of The Servant of Two Masters, one of Italy’s most famous and best-loved plays, was born on this day in 1707 in Venice.  Goldoni became a prolific dramatist who reinvigorated the commedia dell’arte dramatic form by replacing its masked, stock figures with more realistic characters. He produced tightly constructed plots with a new spirit of spontaneity and is considered the founder of Italian realistic comedy.  The son of a physician, Goldoni read comedies from his father’s library when he was young and ran away from his school at Rimini with a company of strolling players when he was just 14.  Later, while studying at the papal college in Pavia, Goldoni read comedies by Plautus, Terence and Aristophanes and learnt French so he could read plays by Molière.  He was eventually expelled for writing a satire about the ladies of Pavia and was sent to study law.  Although he practised law in Venice and Pisa and held diplomatic appointments, his real passion was writing plays for the theatres in Venice.  In 1748 he began writing for the Teatro Sant’Angelo company and dispensed with masked characters altogether for his play, La Pamela, a serious drama based on Samuel Richardson’s novel.  Read more…

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Alberto Sordi - actor

Comic genius who appeared in 190 films

Alberto Sordi, remembered by lovers of Italian cinema as one of its most outstanding comedy actors, died on this day in 2003 in Rome, the city of his birth.  He was 82 and had suffered a heart attack.  Italy reacted with an outpouring of grief and the decision was taken for his body to lie in state at Rome's town hall, the Campidoglio.  Streams of his fans took the opportunity to file past his coffin and when his funeral took place at the Basilica of San Giovanni in Laterano it was estimated that the crowds outside the church and in nearby streets numbered one million people.  Only the funeral of Pope John Paul II, who died two years later, is thought to have attracted a bigger crowd.  Sordi was the Italian voice of Oliver Hardy in the early days of his career, when he worked on the dubbing of the Laurel and Hardy movies.  He made the first of his 190 films in 1937 but it was not until the 1950s that he found international fame.  He appeared in two movies directed by Federico Fellini - The White Sheik and I vitelloni.  In the latter, he played an oafish layabout, something of a simpleton but an effeminate and vulnerable character to whom audiences responded with warmth and affection due to Sordi's interpretation.  Read more…

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Enrico Caruso – opera singer

Tenor's voice still regarded as greatest of all time 

Operatic tenor Enrico Caruso was born on this day in 1873 in Naples.  Believed by many opera experts to be the greatest tenor of all time, Caruso had a brilliant 25-year singing career, appearing at many of the major opera houses in Europe and America.  He made more than 200 recordings of his beautiful voice, some made as early as 1902.  Caruso was born in Via San Giovanello agli Ottocalli in Naples and baptised the next day in the nearby church of San Giovanni e Paolo.  At the age of 11 he was apprenticed to a mechanical engineer and also worked alongside his father in a factory.  At the same time he was singing in his church choir and was told his voice showed enough promise for him to consider becoming a professional singer.  Until she died in 1888, he was encouraged by his mother. To earn money, he started to work as a street singer in Naples, progressing to singing Neapolitan songs as entertainment in cafes. Having decided to become an opera singer, Caruso took singing lessons, keeping up with them even during his compulsory military service.  He made his stage debut in 1895 at the Teatro Nuovo in Naples.  Read more...

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The father of modern pathological anatomy

Anatomist Giovanni Battista Morgagni, who is credited with turning pathology into a science, was born on this day in 1682 in Forlì in Emilia-Romagna.  Morgagni was professor of anatomy at the University of Padua for 56 years and taught thousands of medical students during his time there.  He was sent by his parents to study philosophy and medicine at the University of Bologna when he was 18 and he graduated as a doctor from both faculties.  In 1706 he published his work, Adversaria anatomica, which was to be the first volume of a series and helped him become known throughout Europe as an accurate anatomist.  He succeeded to the chair of theoretical medicine at the University of Padua in 1712 and was to teach medicine there until his death in 1771.  Morgagni was promoted to the chair of anatomy after his first three years in Padua, following in the footsteps of many illustrious scholars. He brought out five more volumes of his Adversaria anatomica during his early years in Padua.  In 1761, when he was nearly 80, he brought out the work that was to make pathological anatomy into a science – De Sedibus et causis morborum per anotomem indagatis (Of the seats and cause of diseases investigated through anatomy). Read more…

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Book of the Day: Benedetto Croce and the Birth of the Italian Republic, 1943-1952, by Fabio Rizi

As president of the Italian Liberal Party, Benedetto Croce was one of the most influential intellectuals involved in Italian public affairs after the fall of Mussolini. Placing Croce at the centre of historical events between 1943 and 1952, this book details his participation in Italy’s political life, and his major contributions to the rebirth of Italian democracy.  Drawing on a great amount of primary material, including Croce’s political speeches, correspondences, diaries, and official documents from post-war Italy, Benedetto Croce and the Birth of the Italian Republic illuminates the dynamic and progressive nature of Croce’s liberalism and the shortcomings of the old Liberal leaders. Providing a year-by-year account of Croce’s initiatives, author Fabio Rizi fills the gap in Croce’s biography, covering aspects of his public life often neglected, misinterpreted, or altogether ignored, and restores his standing among the founding fathers of modern Italy.

Fabio Fernando Rizi was born in Italy and received his Ph.D. from York University. He was President of the Dante Society of Toronto for several years, and worked for the Toronto Public Library until his retirement.

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24 February 2024

24 February

Sandro Pertini - popular president

Man of the people who fought Fascism

Sandro Pertini, the respected and well-liked socialist politician who served as Italy's President between 1978 and 1985, died on this day in 1990, aged 93.  Pertini, a staunch opponent of Fascism who was twice imprisoned by Mussolini and again by the Nazis, passed away at the apartment near the Trevi Fountain in Rome that he shared with his wife, Carla.  After his death was announced, a large crowd gathered in the street near his apartment, with some of his supporters in tears.  Francesco Cossiga, who had succeeded him as President, visited the apartment to offer condolences to Pertini's widow, 30 years his junior.  They had met towards the end of the Second World War, when they were both fighting with the Italian resistance movement.  Pertini's popularity stemmed both from his strong sense of morality and his unwavering good humour.  He had the charm and wit to win over most people he met and was blessed with the common touch.  He would make a point whenever it was possible of appearing in person to greet parties of schoolchildren visiting the presidential palace, sometimes joining the staff for lunch and endearing himself to the nation with his passionate support for Italy's football team at the 1982 World Cup.  Read more…

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Renata Scotto - soprano and opera director

Singer who stood in for Callas became an international star

Opera singer Renata Scotto, who was one of the leading sopranos in the world at the height of her career, was born on this day in 1934 in Savona in Liguria.  Admired for her musicality and acting ability, Scotto was one of the most popular singers during the bel canto revival of the 1960s, performing throughout Italy, and in the UK, America, Russia, Japan, Spain, France and Germany.  She sang opposite great tenors such as Mario del Monaco, Alfredo Kraus and Luciano Pavarotti.  Scotto made her stage debut on Christmas Eve 1952 at the age of 18 as Violetta in Giuseppe Verdi’s La traviata, singing to a sold-out house in Savona, her home town. The next day she made her official debut at the Teatro Nuovo in Milan as Violetta. Shortly afterwards, she performed in Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly in Savona.  In 1953 she appeared at Teatro alla Scala in Milan as Walter in Alfredo Catalani's La Wally alongside Renata Tebaldi and Mario del Monaco and, on the opening night, was called back for 15 curtain calls.  At the Edinburgh Festival in 1957 she stood in for Maria Callas, who had refused to appear saying she was ill, as Amina in La Scala’s production of Vincenzo Bellini’s La sonnambula. Read more…

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Cesare “Caesar” Cardini – restaurateur

Italian emigrant who invented Caesar salad

The restaurateur who history credits with inventing the Caesar salad was born on this day in 1896 in Baveno, a small town on the shore of Lake Maggiore.  Cesare Cardini was one of a large family, with four brothers and two sisters.  In common with many Italians in the early part of the 20th century, his brothers Nereo, Alessandro and Gaudenzio emigrated to the United States, hoping there would be more opportunities to make a living.  Nereo is said to have opened a small hotel in Santa Cruz, California, south of San Francisco, while Alessandro and Guadenzio went to Mexico City.  Cesare left Italy for America in 1913. Records indicate he disembarked at Ellis Island, New York on May 1, having endured the transatlantic voyage as a steerage passenger, sleeping in a cargo hold equipped with dozens of bunk beds, which was the cheapest way to travel but came with few comforts.  He is thought then to have returned to Italy for a few years, working in restaurants in Milan, but ventured back to the United States in 1919.  This time he settled, first in Sacramento, then in San Diego, on the Pacific Ocean and close to the border with Mexico.  Read more…

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Bettino Craxi - prime minister

The Socialist who broke the grip of the Christian Democrats

Bettino Craxi, the politician who in 1983 became the first member of the Italian Socialist Party (PSI) to be appointed prime minister, was born on this day in 1934 in Milan.  He was not the first socialist to hold the office - Ivanoe Bonomi had been prime minister for six months in 1920 on an Italian Reformist Socialist Party ticket and succeeded Marshal Pietro Badoglio as leader of the war-torn nation’s post-Mussolini government in 1944. However, Craxi broke the hold of the Christian Democrats, who had been in power continuously since the first postwar elections in 1946.  Craxi was a moderniser who moved his party away from traditional forms of socialism in a way that was replicated elsewhere in Europe, such as in Britain under the New Labour prime minister Tony Blair. Craxi replaced the party’s hammer-and-sickle symbol with a red carnation.  His reputation was ultimately wrecked by a corruption scandal, but during his tenure as prime minister, Italy became the fifth largest industrial nation and gained entry into the G7 Group.  His fiscal policies saw him clash with the powerful trade unions over the abolition of the wage-price escalator.  Read more…

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L’Orfeo – an early opera

The lasting appeal of Monteverdi’s first attempt at opera

L’Orfeo by Claudio Monteverdi, the earliest opera still being regularly staged, had its first performance on this day in 1607 in Mantua.  Two letters, both dated 23 February, 1607, refer to the opera due to be performed the next day in the Ducal Palace as part of the annual carnival in Mantua in Lombardy.  In one of them a palace official writes: ‘… it should be most unusual as all the actors are to sing their parts.’  Francesco Gonzaga, the brother of the Duke, wrote in a letter dated 1 March, 1607, that the performance had been to the ‘great satisfaction of all who heard it.’  L’Orfeo, or La favola d’Orfeo as it is sometimes called, is based on the Greek legend of Orpheus. It tells the story of the hero’s descent to Hades and his unsuccessful attempt to bring his dead bride, Eurydice, back to the living world.  While it is recognised that L’Orfeo is not the first opera, it is the earliest opera that is still regularly performed in theatres today and it established the basic form that European opera was to take for the next 300 years.  The composer, Claudio Monteverdi, was born in Cremona in Lombardy in 1567.  Read more…

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Book of the Day: The Oxford Handbook of Italian Politics, edited by Erik Jones and Gianfranco Pasquino

The Oxford Handbook of Italian Politics provides a comprehensive look at the political life of one of Europe's most exciting and turbulent democracies.  Under the hegemonic influence of Christian Democracy in the early post-World War II decades, Italy went through a period of rapid growth and political transformation. In part this resulted in tumult and a crisis of governability; however, it also gave rise to innovation in the form of Eurocommunism and new forms of political accommodation. The great strength of Italy lay in its constitution; its great weakness lay in certain legacies of the past. Organised crime - popularly but not exclusively associated with the mafia - is one example. A self-contained and well entrenched 'caste' of political and economic elites is another. These weaknesses became apparent in the breakdown of political order in the late 1980s and early 1990s. This ushered in a combination of populist political mobilization and experimentation with electoral systems design, and the result has been more evolutionary than transformative. Italian politics today is different from what it was during the immediate post-World War II period, but it still shows many of the influences of the past.

Erik Jones is Professor of European Studies and Director of European and Eurasian Studies at the Paul H Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. Gianfranco Pasquino is the James Anderson Senior Adjunct Professor at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, and was Professor of Political Science at the University of Bologna until 2012. He was twice a member of the Italian Senate (1983-1992: 1994-1996).

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23 February 2024

23 February

NEW - Manfredo Fanti - military general

Risorgimento hero who founded Royal Italian Army

The Italian general Manfredo Fanti, a key figure in the Italian Wars of Independence in the mid-19th century and the founder of the Royal Italian Army, was born on this day in 1806 in Carpi, a town about 20km (13 miles) northwest of Modena in what is now Emilia-Romagna.  Although he ultimately had a disagreement with Giuseppe Garibaldi, the figurehead of the Italian Unification movement, Fanti is still regarded as one of the heroes of the Risorgimento, as a result of the military victories he engineered against the Austrians in the second war of independence, which liberated Lombardy from foreign control, and in the final push for unification in 1860.  Between the second and third wars of independence, after he had been appointed Minister of War in the Cavour government, Fanti organised the absorption of the army of the League of Central Italy into the Royal Sardinian Army, which he was later able to decree would take the name of the Royal Italian Army.  He also played a key role in the final push for unification.  As Garibaldi was leading his Expedition of the Thousand in the conquest of Sicily, Fanti led the simultaneous campaign in central Italy. Read more…

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Giovanni Battista de Rossi - archaeologist

Excavations unearthed massive Catacomb of St Callixtus

Giovanni Battista de Rossi, the archaeologist who revealed the whereabouts of lost Christian catacombs beneath Rome, was born on this day in 1822 in the Italian capital.  De Rossi’s most famous discovery – or rediscovery, to be accurate – of the Catacomb of St Callixtus, thought to have been created in the 2nd century by the future Pope Callixtus I, at that time a deacon of Rome, under the direction of Pope Zephyrinus, established him as the greatest archaeologist of the 19th century.  The vast underground cemetery, located beneath the Appian Way about 7km (4.3 miles) south of the centre of Rome, is estimated to have covered an area of 15 hectares on five levels, with around 20km (12.5 miles) of passageways.  It may have contained up to half a million corpses, including those of 16 popes and 50 Christian martyrs, from Pope Anicetus, who died in 166, to Damasus I, who was pontiff until 384. Nine of the popes were buried in a papal crypt.  The complex steadily fell into disuse thereafter and the most important relics were removed over the centuries and relocated to churches around Rome.  Read more…

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Gentile Bellini - Renaissance painter

Bellini family were Venice's leading 15th century artists

Gentile Bellini, a member of Venice's leading family of painters in the 15th century, died in Venice on this day in 1507.  He was believed to be in his late 70s, although the exact date of his birth was not recorded.  The son of Jacopo Bellini, who had been a pioneer in the use of oil paint in art, he was the brother of Giovanni Bellini and the brother-in-law of Andrea Mantegna.  Together, they were the founding family of the Venetian school of Renaissance art.  Although history tends to place Gentile in their shadow, he was considered in his time to be one of the greatest living painters in Venice and from 1454 he was the official portrait artist for the Doges of Venice.  He also served Venice as a cultural ambassador in Constantinople, where he was sent to work for Sultan Mehmed II as part of a peace settlement between Venice and Turkey.  Gentile learned painting in his father's studio.  Once established, he had no shortage of commissions, for portraits, views of the city, and for large paintings for public buildings, often characterised by multiple figures.  He was one of the artists hired by the Scuola Grande di San Giovanni Evangelista to paint a 10-painting cycle known as The Miracle of the Relics of the Cross.   Read more…

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Emanuele Notarbartolo - banker and politician

First major figure to be assassinated by Mafia

The banker and politician Emanuele Notarbartolo, whose determination to end corrupt banking practices in Sicily in the late 19th century would cost him his life, was born on this day in 1834 in Palermo.  Notarbartolo served as a conservative Mayor of Palermo from 1873 to 1876 and director of the Banco di Sicilia from 1876 to 1890.  He saved the bank from going bust by stamping down on the practice of doling out large and effectively unsecured loans to favoured individuals but in doing so made many enemies.  Having survived being kidnapped in 1882, Notarbartolo was stabbed to death in his first-class compartment on a train just outside Palermo, his body thrown out of the carriage on to the track side.  Although ultimately they were set free as the legal process broke down, Raffaele Palizzolo, a rival politician with Mafia connections as well as a fellow member of the Banco di Sicilia board, and a boss of the Villabate mafia clan, Giuseppe Fontana, were identified as being responsible for his death. Each was sentenced to 30 years in prison.  Murders involving members of the Cosa Nostra were commonplace but the victims were generally other mafiosi or associates.  Read more…

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John Keats – poet

Writer spent his final days in the Eternal City

English Romantic poet John Keats died on this day in Rome in 1821.  He had been a published writer for five years and had written some of his greatest work before leaving England.  Ode to a Nightingale, one of his most famous poems, was written in the spring of 1819 while he was sitting under a plum tree in an English garden.  Keats was just starting to be appreciated by the literary critics when tuberculosis took hold of him and he was advised by doctors to move to a warmer climate.  He arrived in Rome with his friend, Joseph Severn, in November 1820 after a long, gruelling journey.  Another friend had found them rooms in a house in Piazza di Spagna in the centre of Rome and they went past the Colosseum as they made their way there.  Keats slept in a room overlooking the Piazza and could hear the sound of the fountain outside, which may have inspired the words he later asked to be put on his tombstone.  To begin with he was well enough to go for walks along the Via del Corso and he enjoyed sitting on the Spanish Steps, but he was advised by his doctor against visiting the city’s main attractions.  Read more…

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Corrado Cagli - painter

Jewish artist who fought in World War II as a US soldier

The painter Corrado Cagli, one of the outstanding figures in the New Roman school that emerged in the early part of the 20th century, was born in Ancona on this day in 1910.  He moved with his family to Rome in 1915 at the age of five and by the age of 17 had created his first significant work, a mural painted on a building in Via Sistina, the street that links Piazza Barberini with the Spanish Steps in the historic centre of the city.  The following year he painted another mural inside a palazzo on the Via del Vantaggio, not far from Piazza del Popolo.  In 1932, he held his first personal exhibition at Rome’s Galleria d’Arte Moderna.  At this stage, despite being both Jewish and gay, Cagli had the support of the Fascist government, who commissioned him and others to produce mosaics and murals for public buildings.  Although he would go on to experiment in Neo-Cubist style and metaphysical styles, the aim of the Scuola Romana he sought to establish with fellow artists such as Giuseppe Capogrossi and Emanuele Cavalli was to reaffirm the principles of classical and Renaissance art.  Read more…

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Book of the Day: Risorgimento: The History of Italy from Napoleon to Nation-State, by Lucy Riall

The Risorgimento is considered to be the defining moment in Italy's history, the period where Italy became a nation and entered the modern world. Lucy Riall provides a provocative and pioneering examination of the historical debates surrounding this complex and controversial period, incorporating new research on national identity.  Well-written and articulately analysed, Risorgimento: The History of Italy from Napoleon to Nation-State offers readers an engaging and invaluable introduction to a complex and determinative component of Italian history, offering an outstanding synthesis of historical narrative and historical interpretation for those interested in the origins and trajectory of contemporary Italy.

Lucy Riall is an Irish historian. She was a professor of history at Birkbeck, University of London, and is currently a professor in the Department of History and Civilisation at the European University Institute in Florence. She has written or edited several books on Italian history. 

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