4 March 2024

4 March

- Alfonso Bialetti – engineer

The genius behind one of the most quintessentially Italian style symbols

Alfonso Bialetti, who became famous for designing the aluminium Moka Express coffee maker, died on this day in 1970 in Omegna in Piedmont.  Originally designed in 1933, the Moka Express has been a style icon since the 1950s, and it remains a famous symbol of the Italian way of life to this day.  Bialetti was born in 1888 in Montebuglio, a district of the Casale Corte Cerro municipality in Cusio, Piedmont. As a young man, he is said to have alternated between assisting his father, who sold branding irons, and working as an apprentice in small workshops.  He emigrated to France while he was still young and became a foundry worker, acquiring metalworking skills by working for a decade in the French metal industry.  In 1918 he returned to Montebuglio, opened a foundry in nearby Crusinallo and began making metal products. This became the foundation of Alfonso Bialetti & Company.  He came up with the brilliant idea of the Moka Express, which was to revolutionise the process of making coffee in the home, using a process by which hot water in the pot’s lower chamber is forced by the pressure of steam to percolate through a funnel containing coffee grounds.  Read more…


Giorgio Bassani - writer and novelist

Best-known work reflected plight of wealthy Jewish Italians in 1930s

Giorgio Bassani, rated by many critics as alongside the likes of Cesare Pavese, Elsa Morante and Alberto Moravia among the great postwar Italian novelists, was born on this day in 1916 in Bologna.  Bassani’s best-known work, his 1962 novel Il giardino dei finzi-contini - The Garden of the Finzi-Continis - was turned into an Oscar-winning movie by the director Vittorio De Sica.  Like much of his fiction, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis is semi-autobiographical, drawing on his upbringing as a member of an upper middle-class Jewish family in Ferrara, the city in Emilia-Romagna, during the rise of Mussolini’s Fascists and the onset of World War Two.  Bassani, who was the editor of a number of literary journals and a respected screenplay writer, had already achieved recognition for his work through his Cinque storie ferraresi - Five Stories of Ferrara - which won the prestigious Strega Prize in 1956.  But it was The Garden of the Finzi-Continis that won him international acclaim. The novel was part of a series that expanded on the same theme in presenting a picture of the world during the author's formative years, against a background of state-promoted antisemitism.  Read more…


Lucio Dalla - musician

Cantautore inspired by the great Caruso

The singer/songwriter Lucio Dalla was born on this day in 1943 in Bologna. Dalla is most famous for composing the song, Caruso, in 1986 after staying in the suite the great tenor Enrico Caruso used to occupy overlooking the sea at the Grand Hotel Excelsior Vittoria in Sorrento.  Dalla started playing the clarinet when he was young and joined the Rheno Dixieland Band in Bologna along with the future film director, Pupi Avati.  Avati was later to say that his film Ma quando arrivano le ragazze? was inspired by his friendship with Dalla.  In the 1960s the band won first prize in the traditional jazz band category at a festival in Antibes. After hearing Dalla’s voice, his fellow cantautore - the Italian word for singer/songwriter - Gino Paoli suggested he try for a solo career as a soul singer, but his first single was a failure.  Dalla had a hit with 4 Marzo 1943, originally entitled Gesù bambino, but which was changed to the singer’s birth date so as not to cause offence.  In the 1970s Dalla started a collaboration with the Bolognese poet Roberto Roversi, who wrote the lyrics for three of his albums.  Read more…


Birth of the Italian Constitution

Celebrations in Turin for historic Statute

The Albertine Statute - Statuto Albertino - which later became the Constitution of the Kingdom of Italy, was approved by Charles Albert, King of Sardinia, on this day in 1848 in Turin.  The Constitution was to last 100 years, until its abolition in 1948 when the Constitution of the new Italian republic came into effect.  The Statute was based on the French Charter of 1830. It ensured citizens were equal before the law and gave them limited rights of assembly and the right to a free press.  However, it gave voting rights to less than three per cent of the population.  The Statute established the three classic branches of government: the executive, which meant the king, the legislative, divided between the royally appointed Senate and an elected Chamber of Deputies, and a judiciary, also appointed by the king.  Originally, it was the king who possessed the widest powers, as he controlled foreign policy and had the prerogative of nominating and dismissing ministers of state.  In practice, the Statute was gradually modified to weaken the king’s power. The ministers of state became responsible to the parliament and the office of prime minister, not provided for in the Constitution, became prominent.  Read more…


Antonio Vivaldi – Baroque composer

The success and the sadness in the life of musical priest 

Violinist, teacher, composer and cleric Antonio Lucio Vivaldi was born on this day in Venice in 1678.  Widely recognised as one of the greatest Baroque composers, he had an enormous influence on music throughout Europe during his own lifetime.  His best-known work is a series of beautiful violin concertos called The Four Seasons.  Vivaldi was a prolific composer who enjoyed a lot of success when his career was at its height.  As well as instrumental concertos he composed many sacred choral works and more than 40 operas.  Vivaldi’s father taught him to play the violin when he was very young and he became a brilliant performer. At the age of 15 he began studying to be a priest and he was ordained at the age of 25. He soon became nicknamed ‘Il Prete Rosso’, the red priest, because of his red hair.  He became master of violin at the Ospedale della Pietà, an orphanage in Venice, and composed most of his works while working there during the next 30 years.  The orphaned girls received a musical education and the most talented pupils stayed on to become members of the Ospedale’s orchestra or choir. Vivaldi wrote concertos, cantatas and sacred vocal music for them to perform.  Read more…


Book of the Day: Coffee: A Global History, by Jonathan Morris

Coffee is a global beverage: it is grown commercially on four continents, and consumed enthusiastically in all seven. There is even an Italian espresso machine on the International Space Station. Coffee's journey has taken it from the forests of Ethiopia to the fincas of Latin America, from Ottoman coffee houses to 'Third Wave' cafes, and from the simple coffee pot to the capsule machine. In Coffee: A Global History, Jonathan Morris explains how the world acquired a taste for coffee, yet why coffee tastes so different throughout the world. Morris discusses who drank coffee, as well as why and where, how it was prepared and what it tasted like. He identifies the regions and ways in which coffee was grown, who worked the farms and who owned them, and how the beans were processed, traded and transported. He also analyses the businesses behind coffee - the brokers, roasters and machine manufacturers - and dissects the geopolitics linking producers to consumers. Written in an engaging style, and featuring wonderful recipes, stories and facts, this book will fascinate foodies, food historians and the many people who regard the humble coffee bean as a staple of modern life.

Jonathan Morris is Research Professor at the University of Hertfordshire. He is a historian of consumption and consumer societies, co-editor of Coffee: The Comprehensive Guide to the Bean, the Beverage and the Industry (2013), and a judge for the Speciality Coffee Association's Best Product in Show awards.

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Alfonso Bialetti – engineer

The genius behind one of the most quintessentially Italian style symbols

Alfonso Bialetti (right) pictured in his workshop at his Crusinallo foundry in the 1920s
Alfonso Bialetti (right) pictured in his workshop
at his Crusinallo foundry in the 1930s
Alfonso Bialetti, who became famous for designing the aluminium Moka Express coffee maker, died on this day in 1970 in Omegna in Piedmont.

Originally designed in 1933, the Moka Express has been a style icon since the 1950s, and it remains a famous symbol of the Italian way of life to this day.

Bialetti was born in 1888 in Montebuglio, a district of the Casale Corte Cerro municipality in Cusio, Piedmont. As a young man, he is said to have alternated between assisting his father, who sold branding irons, and working as an apprentice in small workshops.

He emigrated to France while he was still young and became a foundry worker, acquiring metalworking skills by working for a decade in the French metal industry.

In 1918 he returned to Montebuglio, opened a foundry in nearby Crusinallo and began making metal products. This became the foundation of Alfonso Bialetti & Company.

Moka pots made today have the same design and still carry the L'omino con i baffi logo
Moka pots made today have the same design
and still carry the L'omino con i baffi logo

He came up with the brilliant idea of the Moka Express, which was to revolutionise the process of making coffee in the home.  The process by which hot water in the pot’s lower chamber is forced by the pressure of steam to percolate through a funnel containing coffee grounds is said to have been influenced by Bialetti’s observations of a washing machine used by his wife.

The name given to his invention was inspired by the city of Mokha in Yemen, one of the world’s leading centres for coffee production.

The Moka’s classic design, with its eight-faceted metallic body, is still manufactured by the Bialetti company today and it has become the world’s most famous coffee pot. The use of aluminium was a new idea at the time because it was not a metal that was traditionally used for domestic purposes.

The design transformed the Bialetti company into a leading Italian coffee machine designer and manufacturer.

At the start, Bialetti sold the Moka coffee pot only at local markets, but many millions of Moka coffee pots were to be sold throughout the world during the years to follow. The Moka express was small, cheap to produce, and easy to use, and made it possible for many more people to brew good coffee in their own homes.

When Alfonso Bialetti’s son, Renato, took over the business, he initiated a big marketing campaign to boost the profile of the Moka coffee pot and to ensure the popularity of the Bialetti brand in the face of many copy-cat products coming on to the market. 

Key to that campaign was the introduction of a Moka ‘trademark’ on every Bialetti coffee pot in the form of a cartoon caricature - L'omino con i baffi - the little man with the moustache - his right arm raised with finger outstretched as if summoning a waiter, based on a humorous doodle of Renato drawn by Paul Campani, an Italian cartoonist.

Alfonso Bialetti was the grandfather of Alberto Alessi, president of Alessi Spa, the famous Italian design house.

In 2007, Bialetti’s company was listed on the online stock market of the Italian stock exchange.

Montebuglio sits on a hillside a short distance from the picturesque Lago d'Orta
Montebuglio sits on a hillside a short distance
from the picturesque Lago d'Orta
Travel tip: 

Montebuglio, where Alfonso Bialetti was born, is a tiny village occupying a hillside location overlooking the valley of the Strona river in Piedmont, a short distance from Lago d’Orta, one of the smaller lakes of the Italian ‘lake district’ but no less picturesque than its better-known neighbour, Lago Maggiore, which lies a few kilometres to the east, the other side of Monte Falò.  Montebuglio is a parish of the municipality of Casale Corte Cerro, located 15km (nine miles) from Verbania, 50km (31 miles) from the Swiss town of Locarno and 100km (62 miles) northwest of Milan.  The popular Lake Maggiore resorts of Baveno and Stresa are within a short distance of Casale Corte Cerro. The largely wooded countryside around the area is crossed by a dense network of paths, by which walkers are able to reach vantage points on the steep, mountainous slopes from which, in clear weather, it is possible to enjoy a view that includes the Orta, Maggiore, Varese, Monate and Comabbio lakes. 

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Omegna is a beautiful and lively town on the north side of Lake Maggiore's neighbour, Lake Orta
Omegna is a beautiful and lively town on the north
side of Lake Maggiore's neighbour, Lake Orta
Travel tip: 

Omegna, where Bialetti spent the final years of his life and where the Alessi company still has its headquarters, is a lively town on the north side of Lake Orta, an area of outstanding natural beauty where tree-lined mountains meet the shimmering water of the lake. Omegna’s civilisation dates back to the Bronze Age, with settlements subsequently established there by the Ligures - a tribe from Greece - the Celts and Romans. Omegna, which is popular in the summer months, when it hosts many festivals and concerts, is sometimes referred to as the Riviera di San Giulio, named after an early Christian saint buried on an island in Lake Orta.  Among places to visit are a museum of the town’s history, the Romanesque church of Sant’Ambrogio and the Porta della Valle, sometimes called Porta Romana, one of five ancient protective gates still standing. 

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More reading:

The Turin bar and hotel owner who invented the espresso machine 

The former peasant farmer who founded the Lavazza coffee company

The opening of Venice’s historic Caffè Florian

Also on March 4:

1678: The birth of composer Antonio Vivaldi

1848: The first Italian Constitution is approved by the King of Sardinia

1916: The birth of writer and novelist Giorgio Bassani

1943: The birth of singer-songwriter Lucio Dalla

(Picture credits: Montebuglio by Bart292CCC; Omegna by Fabio Pocci; via Wikimedia Commons)


3 March 2024

3 March

Charles Ponzi - fraudster

Name forever linked with investment scam

The swindler Charles Ponzi, whose notorious fraudulent investment scheme in 1920s America led his name to be immortalised in the lexicon of financial crimes, was born Carlo Ponzi in the town of Lugo di Romagna on this day in 1882.  Ponzi, who emigrated to the United States in 1903 but arrived there almost penniless, had been in prison twice - once for theft and a second time for smuggling Italian immigrants illegally into the US from Canada - when he came up with his scheme.  Always on the lookout for ways to make a fast buck, Ponzi identified a way to make profits through exploiting the worldwide market in international postal reply coupons.  This was not his scheme, simply the starting point.  These coupons, which allowed a correspondent in one country to pay for the cost of return postage from another country, were sold at a universal cover price but variations in exchange rates meant that a coupon bought in one country might be worth more in another.  Coupons bought in Italy, for example, could be exchanged for stamps in the US that could then be sold for several times more than the dollar-equivalent cost of the coupon in Italy.  Read more…


The Balvano Disaster

Italy’s worst but little known train tragedy

The Italian railway network suffered its worst accident on this day in 1944 when more than 600 passengers died from carbon monoxide poisoning after a train stopped in a tunnel just outside the small town of Balvano, on the border of Basilicata and Campania about 90km (56 miles) east of Salerno.  Yet, despite the death toll being perhaps nine times that of the country’s worst peacetime rail disaster, few Italians were aware that it had happened until author and historian Gianluca Barneschi wrote a book about it in 2014.  Because the tragedy took place during the final stages of the Second World War, when much of southern Italy was a battleground between German and Allied forces, it resonated as a news story for only a short time, the victims essentially added to Italy’s overall count of civilian casualties during the conflict, which is put at more than 150,000.  However, there was no military involvement in the disaster, which was purely an accident, albeit one that was in part caused by the circumstances of the time.  Barneschi discovered details in classified documents at Britain’s National Archives office in Kew, London.  Read more…


Borgia pope’s ally used his power to benefit Milan

Ascanio Maria Sforza Visconti, who became a skilled diplomat and a Cardinal of the Catholic Church, was born on this day in 1455 in Cremona in Lombardy.  He played a major part in the election of Rodrigo Borgia as Pope Alexander VI in the papal conclave of 1492 and served as Vice-Chancellor of the Holy Roman Church from 1492 until 1505.  Ascanio was the son of Francesco Sforza, Duke of Milan, and Bianca Maria Visconti. Two of his brothers, Galeazzo Maria Sforza and Ludovico Sforza, became Dukes of Milan, as did his nephew, Gian Galeazzo Sforza.  At the age of ten, Ascanio was named commendatory abbot of Chiaravalle and he was promised the red hat of a cardinal when he was in his teens. He was appointed Bishop of Pavia in 1479.  Pope Sixtus IV created him cardinal deacon of SS Vito e Modesto in March 1484. Pope Sixtus died in August before Ascanio’s formal ceremony of investiture had taken place and some of the cardinals objected to him participating in the conclave to elect the next pope.  Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia intervened on his behalf and Ascanio was received with all the rights of a cardinal. The conclave elected Giovanni Battista Cybo as Pope Innocent VIII.  Read more...


Teatro Olimpico – Vicenza

Renaissance theatre still stages plays and concerts

The Teatro Olimpico in Vicenza , originally designed by Andrea Palladio, was inaugurated on this day in 1585.  A performance of Oedipus the King by Sophocles was given for its opening and the original scenery, which was meant to represent the streets of Thebes, has miraculously survived to this day.  The theatre was the last piece of architecture designed by Andrea Palladio and it was not completed until after his death.  The Teatro Olimpico is one of three Renaissance theatres remaining in existence and since 1994 it has been listed by Unesco as a World Heritage Site.  In 1579 Palladio was asked to produce a design for a permanent theatre in Vicenza and he decided to base it on the designs of Roman theatres he had studied.  After his death, only six months into the project, the architect Vincenzo Scamozzi was called in to complete it.  Scamozzi is credited with fulfilling Palladio's wish to use perspective in the design, creating the impression that the streets visible through the archways stretched into the distance.  The theatre is still used for plays and musical performance, but audiences are limited to 400 for conservation reasons.  Read more…


Sebastiano Venier – Doge of Venice

Victorious naval commander briefly ruled La Serenissima

Sebastiano Venier, who successfully commanded the Venetian contingent at the Battle of Lepanto, died on this day in 1578 in Venice.  He had been Doge of Venice for less than a year when fire badly damaged the Doge’s Palace. He died soon afterwards, supposedly as a result of the distress it had caused him.  Venier was born in Venice around 1496, the son of Moisè Venier and Elena Donà. He was descended from Pietro Venier, who governed Cerigo, one of the main Ionian islands off the coast of Greece, which was also known as Kythira.  Venier worked as a lawyer, although he had no formal qualifications, and he went on to become an administrator for the Government of the Republic of Venice. He was married to Cecilia Contarini, who bore him two sons and a daughter.  Venier was listed as procurator of St Mark’s in 1570, but by December of the same year, he was capitano generale da mar, the Admiral of the Venetian fleet, in the new war against the Ottoman Turks.  As the commander of the Venetian contingent at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571, he helped the Christian League decisively defeat the Turks.  Read more…


Nicola Porpora – composer and teacher

Tutor of celebrated opera singers died in poverty

Nicola Porpora, who composed more than 60 operas and was a brilliant singing teacher in Italy, died on this day in 1768 in Naples.  Among his many pupils were poet and librettist Pietro Metastasio, composers Johann Adolph Hasse and Joseph Haydn and the celebrated castrati, Farinelli (Carlo Broschi) and Caffarelli (Gaetano Majorano).  Porpora’s most important teaching post was in Venice at the Ospedale degli Incurabili, where there was a music school for girls, in which he taught between 1726 and 1733.  He then went to London as chief composer to the Opera of the Nobility, a company that had been formed in opposition to Royal composer George Frideric Handel’s opera company.  The composer had been born Nicola Antonio Giacinto Porpora in 1686 in Naples.  He graduated from the music conservatory, Poveri di Gesù Cristo, and his first opera, Agrippina, was a success at the Neapolitan court in 1708. His second opera, Berenice, was performed in Rome.  To support himself financially while composing, Porpora worked as maestro di cappella for aristocratic patrons and also taught singing.  Read more…


Book of the Day: A Century of Swindles: Ponzi Schemes, Con Men, and Fraudsters, by Railey Jane Savage

From the Gilded Age through to World War Two, America was rife with ne'er-do-wells on a never-ending search for the next big score. Between 1850 and 1950 lawlessness melded with ingenuity, fueled by optimism and ruthlessness: America was dangerous, buzzing, and where opportunity came to take flight. The perfect conditions for swindlers. The gall and gumption of their hustles strain credulity. Fake diamond fields? War with Canada? Sir Francis Drake's unclaimed fortune? Apparently, all was fair in the quest for something-for-nothing. The scammers in this volume range from the undeniably unscrupulous, to the ill and ill-advised. Fans of clever schemes and schadenfreude alike will be entertained by A Century of Swindles, which charts the rise and fall of some of America's greatest swindlers.

Railey Jane Savage lives and works in Ithaca, New York, where her abiding love for history's forgotten moments - swindles, or otherwise - grows against the dramatic background of the Finger Lakes. With an English degree from Smith College, she splits her time between writing and editing.

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2 March 2024

2 March

Vittorio Pozzo - double World Cup winner

Manager led Azzurri to victory in 1934 and 1938

Vittorio Pozzo, the most successful manager in the history of Italy's national football team, was born on this day in 1886 in Turin.  Under Pozzo's guidance, the Azzurri won the FIFA World Cups of 1934 and 1938 as well as the Olympic football tournament in 1936. He also led them to the Central European International Cup, the forerunner of the European championships, in 1931 and 1935. No other coach in football history has won the World Cup twice.  Pozzo managed some outstanding players, such as Internazionale's Giuseppe Meazza and the Juventus defender Pietro Rava, but his reputation was tarnished by the success of his team coinciding with the Fascist regime's tight grip on power. Italy's success on the football field was exploited ruthlessly as a propaganda vehicle.  While not a Fascist himself, Pozzo upset many opponents of Mussolini across Europe at the 1938 World Cup in France when his players gave the so-called 'Roman' salute - the extended right-arm salute adopted by the Fascists - during the playing of the Italian anthem.  Read more…


Pope Pius XII

Pope elected on 63rd birthday to lead the church during the war

Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli was elected Pope and took the name of Pius XII on this day in 1939, his 63rd birthday.  A pre-war critic of the Nazis, Pius XII expressed dismay at the invasion of Poland by Germany later that year.  But the Vatican remained officially neutral during the Second World War and Pius XII was later criticised by some people for his perceived silence over the fate of the Jews.  Pope Pius XII was born Eugenio Maria Giuseppe Giovanni Pacelli on March 2, 1876 in Rome.  His family had a history of links with the papacy and he was educated at a school that had formerly been the Collegio Romano, a Jesuit College in Rome.  He went on to study theology and became ordained as a priest.  He was appointed nuncio to Bavaria in 1917 and tried to convey the papal initiative to end the First World War to the German authorities without success. After the war he worked to try to alleviate distress in Germany and to build diplomatic relations between the Vatican and the Soviet Union.  He was made a Cardinal priest in 1929 and elected Pope on March 2, 1939.   When war broke out again he had to follow the strict Vatican policy of neutrality.  Read more…


Pietro Novelli – painter and architect

Sicilian great who was killed in Palermo riot

Pietro Novelli, recognised as the most important artist in 17th century Sicily, was born on this day in 1603 in Monreale, a town about 10km (6 miles) from Palermo.  A prolific painter, his works can be seen in many churches and galleries in Sicily, in particular in Palermo.  There are good examples of his work outside the city, too, for example at Piana degli Albanesi, about 30km (19 miles) from Palermo, where he painted a fresco cycle in the cathedral of San Demetrio Megalomartire and another fresco, entitled Annunciation, in the church of Santissima Annunziata.  At his peak, wealthy and aristocratic members of Sicilian society, as well as monasteries and churches, competed to be in possession of a Novelli work.  His father, also called Pietro, was a respected artist who also worked with mosaics and Pietro initially worked in his father’s workshop in Monreale.  A great student of art who travelled extensively, among his major influences were Caravaggio, whose work in Sicily he studied, particularly his Adoration of the Shepherds, which was commissioned for the Capuchin Franciscans and was painted in Messina for the Church of Santa Maria degli Angeli.  Read more…


Book of the Day: Winning at All Costs: A Scandalous History of Italian Soccer, by John Foot

The 2006 World Cup final between Italy and France was a down-and-dirty game, marred by French superstar Zidane's head-butting of Italian defender Materazzi. But viewers were also exposed to the poetry, force, and excellence of the Italian game as operatic as Verdi and as cunning as Machiavelli, it seemed to open a window into the Italian soul. John Foot's epic history shows what makes Italian soccer so unique. Mixing serious analysis and comic storytelling, Foot describes its humble origins in northern Italy in the 1890s to its present day incarnation where soccer is the national civic religion. A story that is reminiscent of Gangs of New York and A Clockwork Orange, Foot shows how the Italian game, like its political culture , has been overshadowed by big business, violence, conspiracy, and tragedy, how demagogues like Benito Mussolini and Silvio Berlusconi have used the game to further their own political ambitions. But Winning at All Costs also celebrates the sweet moments , the four World Cup victories, the success of Juventus, Inter Milan, AC Milan, the role soccer played in the resistance to Nazism, and the great managers and players who show that Italian soccer is as irresistible as Italy itself.

John Foot graduated from Oxford University with a degree in philosophy, politics and economics in 1986 and gained his doctorate from Cambridge University, submitting a thesis on the socialist movements in Milan between 1914 and 1921. He has lectured at a number of universities and is currently Professor of Modern Italian History at the University of Bristol. He has written a number of books on Italian politics, history and sport.

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1 March 2024

1 March

Luigi Vanvitelli – architect

Neapolitan genius drew up a grand design for his royal client

The most famous Italian architect of the 18th century, Luigi Vanvitelli, died on this day in 1773 in Caserta in Campania.  The huge Royal Palace he designed for the Bourbon kings of Naples in Caserta is considered one of the greatest triumphs of the Baroque style of architecture in Italy.  Vanvitelli was born Lodewijk van Wittel in Naples in 1700, the son of a Dutch painter of landscapes, Caspar van Wittel. His father later also took up the Italian surname Vanvitelli.  Luigi Vanvitelli was trained as an architect by Nicola Salvi and worked with him on lengthening the façade of Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s Palazzo Chigi-Odelscalchi in Rome and on the construction of the Trevi Fountain.  Following his notable successes with the facade of the Basilica di San Giovanni in Laterano (1732) and the facade of Palazzo Poli, behind the Trevi Fountain, Pope Clement XII sent Vanvitelli to the Marche to build some papal projects.   At Ancona in 1732, he directed construction of the Lazzaretto, a large pentagonal building built as an isolation unit to protect against contagious diseases arriving on ships. Later it was used as a military hospital or as barracks.  Read more…


Cesare Danova - movie actor

Acclaim came late for Bergamo-born star

The actor Cesare Danova, who appeared in more than 300 films and TV shows over the course of a 45-year career, was born Cesare Deitinger on this day in 1926 in the Lombardy city of Bergamo.  The son of an Austrian father and an Italian mother, he adopted Danova as his professional name after meeting the film producer, Dino De Laurentiis, in Rome.  De Laurentiis gave him a screen test and was so impressed he immediately cast Danova in the 1947 movie The Captain's Daughter, playing alongside Amedeo Nazzari and Vittorio Gassman.  So began a career that was to see Danova star opposite Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in Joseph L Mankiewicz's 1963 hit Cleopatra, opposite Elvis Presley and Ann-Margaret in Viva Las Vegas (1964), alongside Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel in Martin Scorsese's cult movie Mean Streets (1973) and as part of a star-studded cast in National Lampoon's Animal House (1978).  In his later years, Danova became a familiar figure on TV screens in America, making appearances in almost all the popular drama series of the 1980s, including Charlie's Angels, Murder, She Wrote, Falcon Crest and Hart to Hart.  Read more…


Giovanni Dupré - sculptor

Work helped end the dominance of Neoclassicism

Giovanni Dupré, who came to be seen as one of the most important figures in 19th century Italian sculpture, was born on this day in 1817 in Siena. Like his contemporary, Lorenzo Bartolini, Dupré went back to the Renaissance for inspiration and his success helped Italian sculpture move on from the dominance of Antonio Canova, whose brilliant work in the Neoclassicist style had spawned a generation of imitators.  Dupré did much of his work in Florence and Siena, his greatest piece generally judged to be the Pietà he carved between 1860 and 1865 for the family tomb of the Marchese Bichi-Ruspoli in the cemetery of the Misericordia in Siena.  Although his family were of French descent, they were long established in Tuscany when Giovanni was born. The street in the Contrada Capitana dell'Onda where the family lived, a few steps away from Piazza del Campo, subsequently saw its name changed to Via Giovanni Dupré.  As a young man working in the workshops of his father and of another sculptor, Paolo Sani, he became familiar with the work of Renaissance sculptors, carving copies of the great works. Read more…


Gastone Nencini - cycling champion

Lion of Mugello won both Tour de France and Giro d’Italia

Gastone Nencini, sometimes described as Italy’s forgotten cycling champion, and certainly one of its least heralded, was born on this day in 1930 in Barberino di Mugello, a town in the Tuscan Apennines, about 38km (24 miles) north of Florence.  Nencini won the 1957 Giro d’Italia and the 1960 Tour de France, putting him in the company of only seven Italians to have won the greatest of cycling’s endurance tests.   He followed Ottavio Bottecchia, Gino Bartali and Fausto Coppi and preceded Felice Gimondi, Marco Pantani and the most recent winner, 2014 champion Vincenzo Nibali.  Yet often even cycling fans asked to name the seven Italian champions sometimes forget Nencini, despite his courage and resilience earning him the nickname The Lion of Mugello.  This may be in part because he died very young, a month short of his 50th birthday, after developing a rare disease of the lymphatic system.  Others, in particular members of his family, believe it was his maverick nature, his refusal to comply with the sport’s etiquette, that damaged his reputation.  In his era, some claim, there were unwritten rules in cycling.  Read more…


Pietro Canonica - sculptor

Artist in demand from European royalty

The sculptor Pietro Canonica, who was also a proficient painter and an accomplished musician but who found himself most in demand to create busts, statues and portraits for the royal courts of Europe, was born on this day in 1869 in Moncalieri in Piedmont.  Canonica’s ability to create realism in his work, bringing marble sculptures almost to life, resulted in an endless stream of commissions, taking him from Buckingham Palace in London to the courts of Paris, Vienna, Brussels and St Petersburg.  He was highly skilled in equestrian statuary and after the First World War was commissioned to create many monuments to the fallen, which can be seen in squares around Italy to this day.  Canonica’s mastery of Naturalism and Realism were the qualities that set him apart, exemplified nowhere with such stunning effect as in his 1909 work L'abisso - The Abyss - which depicts Paolo and Francesca, the ill-fated lovers from Dante’s Inferno, locked in their eternal punishment, clinging desperately to one another with fear in their eyes, her fingers digging into his back as the vortex in which they are trapped drags them towards their fate.  Read more…


Book of the Day: The Bourbons of Naples (1734-1825), by Harold Acton 

Naples is one of Europe's most fascinating cities and the ruling dynasty which left its mark more than any other was that of the Bourbons, who arrived in 1734 and were only displaced by the Unification of Italy in 1870. Before that time Naples was the largest of the Italian kingdoms and, with Pompeii and Vesuvius as its main attractions, it drew hundreds of aristocratic travellers and visitors in the 18th century. The city also attracted the armies of revolutionary France and the royal family escaped to Sicily thanks to Admiral Nelson. The Bourbons of Naples was welcomed as a masterpiece at the time of first publication in 1956, and was chosen by Sir Osbert Sitwell as his book of the year. Sir Harold Acton (1904-1994) - famous aesthete and historian - brings 18th-century Naples vividly to life, with unforgettable characters such as Lady Hamilton and Nelson, royal eccentrics and plenty of court intrigue. The Times described the book as: 'An elaborate comedy of manners played out over 700 pages.' 

Harold Acton (1904-1994) was a writer, scholar and aesthete who listed as his principal recreation 'hunting the philistines'. From the balcony of his Oxford rooms he famously declaimed passages from The Waste Land through a megaphone.He wrote in many different mediums, publishing nearly thirty books, with his poetry and fiction being markedly less successful than his other works.

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29 February 2024

Alessandro Striggio - composer and diplomat

Medici musician who invented the madrigal comedy

The score of Striggio's best known work was missing for 281 years
The score of Striggio's best known
work was missing for 281 years
The Renaissance composer Alessandro Striggio, famous as the inventor of the madrigal comedy, once thought to be the forerunner of opera, died on this day in 1592 in Mantua (Mantova), the town of his birth.

Although there is no accurate record of his age, it is thought he was born in 1536 or 1537, which would have put him in his mid-50s at the time of his death. 

Striggio spent much of his career in the employment of the Medici family in Florence, for whom he also served as a diplomat, undertaking visits to Munich, Vienna and London among other places on their behalf. 

He produced his best work while working for the Medici, composing madrigals, dramatic music, and intermedi - musical interludes - to be played between acts in theatrical performances.

Striggio’s best known composition is his Il cicalamento delle donne al bucato e la caccia (The gossip of the women at the laundry),  an innovative piece that combined music and words to tell a story, without acting. This was an example of what became known as the madrigal comedy, comprising a series of 15 humorous madrigals that together tell a story in words and music.

Perhaps his greatest achievements, though, were his choral works, including his motet Ecce beatam lucem, a feat of polyphony that included 40 independent voices, and his still more impressive Mass, Missa sopra Ecco sì beato giorno, which also featured 40 different voice parts and a final movement for 60 voices, which is thought to be the only piece of 60-part counterpoint in the history of Western Music.

Cosimo I de' Medici sent Striggio on a diplomatic mission to Vienna
Cosimo I de' Medici sent Striggio on
a diplomatic mission to Vienna
Although Striggio was born into an aristocratic family in Mantua, there is only sparse knowledge of his early life there. He possibly moved to Florence in his late teens or early 20s. He started work for Cosimo I de' Medici, Duke of Florence, on 1 March 1559 as a musician, eventually to replace Francesco Corteccia as the principal musician to the Medici court.

In the 1560s, he visited Venice and produced two books of madrigals influenced by the musical styles he encountered there.

Music was central to the Medici’s use of Striggio in a diplomatic role. Cosimo I craved the title of Archduke or Grand Duke, which within the hierarchy of the Holy Roman Empire was a rank below Emperor but a notch above Duke and equivalent to a King.

He ordered Striggio to travel to Vienna in the winter of 1566-67, sending his principal musician on a perilous journey through the Brenner Pass in order to meet Emperor Maximilian II and present Cosimo’s case for the Medici to be granted a royal title.

Striggio’s grand opus, Missa sopra Ecco sì beato giorno, was to be part of the presentation, underlining Cosimo’s commitment to the Catholic faith. Striggio was also charged with convincing Maximilian II that the Medici could support him both financially and militarily.

Unfortunately, Striggio reached Vienna only to find he needed to journey a further 140km (87 miles) north to Brno, where Maximilian had removed himself for the winter months. He presented the Emperor with a copy of the Mass, although he had too few musicians or singers with him in Brno for the piece to be performed.

The English composer Thomas Tallis is said to have been inspired by Striggio
The English composer Thomas Tallis is
said to have been inspired by Striggio
Instead, as Striggio continued his travels, it was performed in full before the courts of Munich and Paris, to great acclaim, before Vienna.  The Medici were granted the right to be headed by a Grand Duke two years later but it took almost 10 years for it to be given approval by the Emperor, although Cosimo I went by the title from 1569 until his death in 1574.

Striggio went on to visit England, having much respect for the work of musicians in the royal court there. He is said to have met Queen Elizabeth I and the composer Thomas Tallis, who had served in the courts of four monarchs - Henry VIII, Edward VI and Mary I, as well as Elizabeth I - and is considered one of England’s greatest composers, particularly of choral music. His own 40-voice motet, Spem in alium, is thought to have been inspired by his meeting with Striggio.

Striggio returned to Florence, where he became friends with Vincenzo Galilei, the lutenist and composer whose son was the astronomer and scientist, Galileo Galilei.

During the 1580s, Striggio began an association with the Este court in Ferrara, which at the time was at the forefront of musical composition in Italy. In 1586, he moved back to his home city, Mantua, although he would continue to compose music for the Medici at least until 1589.

Although the idea of Striggio’s madrigal comedy being the forerunner of opera is no longer widely held, the composer has a connection with the roots of opera in that his son, also called Alessandro, wrote the libretto of Claudio Monteverdi's L'Orfeo, one of the earliest works to fit the conventional definition of an opera.

As a footnote, the score of Striggio’s Missa sopra Ecco sì beato giorno was declared lost in 1726 but was rediscovered in 2007 by a musicologist from the University of California, Berkeley in the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris, where it had resided for most of the intervening years, unnoticed because it had reportedly been recorded in an inventory of manuscripts as being a four-part Mass by a composer called Strusco.

The Ducal Palace is one of many highlights of the atmospheric city of Striggio's home city
The Ducal Palace is one of many highlights of
the atmospheric city of Striggio's home city
Travel tip:

Mantua is an atmospheric old city in Lombardy, to the southeast of Milan, famous for its Renaissance Palazzo Ducale, the seat of the Gonzaga family between 1328 and 1707. In the Renaissance heart of Mantua is Piazza Mantegna, where the 15th century Basilica of Sant’Andrea houses the tomb of the artist, Andrea Mantegna. The church was originally built to accommodate the large number of pilgrims who came to Mantua to see a precious relic, an ampoule containing what were believed to be drops of Christ’s blood mixed with earth. This was claimed to have been collected at the site of his crucifixion by a Roman soldier.  In nearby Piazze delle Erbe is the Chiesa di San Lorenzo, another masterpiece of Renaissance architecture. Its elegant facade and interior are adorned with beautiful artwork and sculptures.  In the same square, the Torre dell’Orologio Astronomico - the Astronomical Clock Tower - displays lunar cycles as well as the time. Installed in 1473, the clock has failed twice but was restored in 1989.

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Palazzo Vecchio was at one time Cosimo I's home
Palazzo Vecchio was at
one time Cosimo I's home
Travel tip:

Florence’s imposing Palazzo Vecchio, formerly Palazzo della Signoria, a cubical building of four storeys made of solid rusticated stonework, crowned with projecting crenellated battlements and a clock tower rising to 94m (308ft), became home of Duke Cosimo I de' Medici moved his official seat from the Medici palazzo in via Larga in May 1540. When Cosimo later removed to Palazzo Pitti, he officially renamed his former palace the Palazzo Vecchio, the "Old Palace", although the adjacent town square, the Piazza della Signoria, still bears the original name. Cosimo commissioned the painter and architect Giorgio Vasari to build an above-ground walkway, the Vasari corridor, from the Palazzo Vecchio, through the Uffizi, over the Ponte Vecchio to the Palazzo Pitti. Cosimo I also moved the seat of government to the Uffizi, which translated literally, simply means ‘offices’. Today, of course, the Uffizi, is known the world over for its collection of art treasures.

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More reading:

Gonzaga court violinist Salomone Rossi, the leading Jewish musician of the Renaissance

Cosimo II de' Medici, patron of Galileo

Claudio Monteverdi, the Baroque composer who wrote the first real opera

Also on this day

1792: The birth of composer Gioachino Rossini

(Picture credit: Palazzo Vecchio by Geobia via Wikimedia Commons)

(Paintings: Portrait of Cosimo I de' Medici, Bronzino, Art Gallery of New South Wales)


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...


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…


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…


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…


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…


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…


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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