23 May 2024

23 May

Girolamo Savonarola executed

Death of the friar who was to inspire best-selling novel by Tom Wolfe

The hellfire preacher Girolamo Savonarola was hanged and burned on this day in 1498 in Piazza della Signoria in Florence.  By sheer force of personality, Savonarola had convinced rich people to burn their worldly goods in spectacular bonfires in Florence during 1497, but within a year it was Savonarola’s burning corpse that the crowds turned out to see.  Savonarola had become famous for his outspoken sermons against vice and corruption in the Catholic Church in Italy and he encouraged wealthy people to burn their valuable goods, paintings and books in what have become known as ‘bonfires of the vanities.’  This phrase inspired Tom Wolfe to write The Bonfire of the Vanities, a novel about ambition and politics in 1980s New York.  Savonarola was born in 1452 in Ferrara. He became a Dominican friar and entered the convent of Saint Mark in Florence in 1482. He began preaching against corruption and vice and prophesied that a leader would arrive from the north to punish Italy and reform the church.  When Emperor Charles VIII invaded from the north many people thought Savonarola’s prediction was being fulfilled.  Read more…


Ferdinando II de’ Medici – Grand Duke of Tuscany

Technology fan who supported scientist Galileo

Inventor and patron of science Ferdinando II de’ Medici died on this day in 1670 in Florence.  Like his grandmother, the dowager Grand Duchess Christina, Ferdinando II was a loyal friend to Galileo and he welcomed the scientist back to Florence after the prison sentence imposed on him for ‘vehement suspicion of heresy’ was commuted to house arrest.  Ferdinando II was reputed to be obsessed with new technology and had hygrometers, barometers, thermometers and telescopes installed at his home in the Pitti Palace.  He has also been credited with the invention of the sealed glass thermometer in 1654.  Ferdinando II was born in 1610, the eldest son of Cosimo II de’ Medici and Maria Maddalena of Austria.  He became Grand Duke of Tuscany in 1621 when he was just 10 years old after the death of his father.  His mother, Maddalena, and paternal grandmother, Christina, acted as joint regents for him. Christina is said to have been the power behind the throne until her death in 1636.  Ferdinando II was patron and friend to Galileo, who dedicated his work, Dialogue Concerning the two Chief World Systems, to him.  Read more…


Giuseppe Parini – writer

Satirist avenged bad treatment though his poetry

Poet and satirist Giuseppe Parini was born on this day in 1729 in Bosisio in Lombardy.  A writer associated with the Age of Enlightenment in Europe, he is remembered for his series of Horatian odes and for Il giorno - The Day - a satirical poem in four books about the selfishness and superficiality of the aristocracy in Milan.  The son of a silk trader, Parini was sent to Milan to study under the religious order, the Barnabites. In 1752 his first volume of verse introduced him to literary circles and the following year he joined the Milanese Accademia dei Trasformati - Academy of the Transformed - which was located at the Palazzo Imbonati in the Porta Nuova district.  He was ordained a priest in 1754 - a condition of a legacy made to him by a great aunt - and entered the household of Duke Gabrio Serbelloni at Tremezzo on Lake Como to be tutor to his eldest son.  Parini was unhappy there and felt he was badly treated, but he twice got his revenge on his employer through his writing. In 1757 he wrote his Dialogo sopra la nobilità, a discussion between the corpse of a nobleman and the corpse of a poet about the true nature of nobility.   Read more…


Sergio Gonella - football referee

First Italian to referee a World Cup final

Sergio Gonella, the first Italian football referee to take charge of a World Cup final, was born on this day in 1933 in Asti, a city in Piedmont best known for its wine production.  Gonella was appointed to officiate in the 1978 final between the Netherlands and the hosts Argentina in Buenos Aires and although he was criticised by many journalists and football historians for what they perceived as a weak performance lacking authority, few matches in the history of the competition can have presented a tougher challenge.  Against a backcloth of political turmoil in a country that had suffered a military coup only two years earlier and where opponents of the regime were routinely kidnapped and tortured, or simply disappeared, this was Argentina’s chance to build prestige by winning the biggest sporting event in the world, outside the Olympics.  Rumours of subterfuge surrounded most of Argentina’s matches and when the final arrived the atmosphere in the stadium was as intimidating as anything Gonella would have experienced in his whole 13-year professional career.  The match began with an unprecedented delay, caused first by the Argentine team’s deliberate late arrival on the field. Read more…


Book of the Day: The Burning of the Vanities: Savonarola and the Borgia Pope, by Desmond Seward

'The city will no longer be a place of flowers, but an abode of robbery, of evil doing, of bloodshed.' This is the dramatic story of Girolamo Savonarola, the visionary friar who terrified Renaissance Florence by his uncannily accurate prophecies of doom - especially of a new barbarian invasion from Charles VIII - and denounced Lorenzo the Magnificent as a tyrant and the Borgia Alexander VI as an unworthy pope. He became virtual ruler of Florence, restoring republican government, and burning 'profane art' in public bonfires, most notably in the famous 'Bonfire of the Vanities' in 1497. The years when he dominated the city are among the most dramatic and tragic in Florentine history, and his supporters included: Michelangelo, Botticelli and Machiavelli. But, in the end, Alexander VI turned the Florentines against Savonarola and destroyed him. They stormed his friary, and after a mockery of a trial during which he was tortured and condemned as a heretic, he went to the stake. In The Burning of the Vanities, Desmond Seward tells the extraordinary story of the man who, even after his death, became a cult figure.

Desmond Seward was born in Paris and educated at Cambridge University. He is the author of numerous books, including biographies of Henry IV of France, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Marie Antoinette, Empress Eugenie and Napoleon's Family.

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22 May 2024

22 May

Trevi Fountain inaugurated

Famous fountain now helps raise money for the poor

Rome’s iconic Trevi Fountain - Fontana di Trevi - was officially opened by Pope Clement XIII on this day in 1762.  Standing at more than 26m (85ft) high and 49m (161ft) wide it is the largest Baroque fountain in Rome and probably the most famous fountain in the world.  It has featured in films such as La dolce vita and Three Coins in the Fountain.  For more than 400 years a fountain served Rome at the junction of three roads, tre vie, using water from one of Ancient Rome’s aqueducts.  In 1629 Pope Urban VIII asked Gian Lorenzo Bernini to draw up possible renovations but the project was abandoned when the pope died.  In 1730 Pope Clement XII organised a contest to design a new fountain. The Florentine Alessandro Galilei originally won but there was such an outcry in Rome that the commission was eventually awarded to a Roman, Nicola Salvi.  Work on the fountain began in 1732 but Salvi died in 1751 when it was only half finished. Made from Travertine stone quarried in Tivoli near Rome, the fountain was completed by Giuseppe Pannini, with Oceanus (god of all water), designed by Pietro Bracci, set in the central niche.  Read more…


José João Altafini - footballer who made history

Forward tamed Eusebio to give Italy first European Cup

Supporters of AC Milan took to the streets to celebrate on this day in 1963 after José João Altafini's goals secured an historic victory in the European Cup.  Milan beat Benfica at Wembley Stadium in London to become the first Italian team to win the trophy.  Until then the European Cup had been dominated by Real Madrid, who were champions for five years in a row after the competition was launched in 1955-56, with the great Eusebio's Benfica winning in 1961 and 1962.  At half-time at Wembley in 1963, Milan looked set to provide another near-miss story for Italy, trailing to a Eusebio goal as Benfica closed on a third successive title.  The rossoneri had lost to Real Madrid five years earlier, 12 months after the Spanish giants brushed aside Fiorentina in the final.  But 24-year-old Altafini, who became one of Serie A’s most prolific all-time goalscorers, refused to be cowed.  He netted in the 58th and 66th minutes, sparking joyous scenes in Milan and starting a period of European dominance for the city, with AC’s rivals Internazionale winning the next two tournaments.  The Milan team that night in London boasted two future Italy managers in Cesare Maldini and Giovanni Trapattoni, as well as the great Gianni Rivera, but Altafini was the star.  Read more…


Giulia Grisi - operatic soprano

Officer’s daughter became a star on three continents

The opera singer Giulia Grisi, one of the leading sopranos of the 19th century, was born on this day in 1811 in Milan.  Renowned for the smooth sweetness of her voice, Grisi sang to full houses in Europe, the United States and South America during a career spanning 30 years in which composers such as Vincenzo Bellini and Gaetano Donizetti created roles especially for her.  These included Elvira in Bellini’s final opera, I puritani, in which Grisi appeared alongside the great tenor Giovanni Battista Rubini, the bass Luigi Lablache and the baritone Antonio Tamburini when the work premiered in Paris in 1835.  The opera was such a success that whenever the four singers performed together subsequently they were known as the “Puritani quartet”.  Grisi was also the first soprano cast in the role of Adalgisa in Bellini’s Norma in Milan in 1831, playing opposite Giuditta Pasta in the title role.  Donizetti wrote the parts of Norina and Ernesto in his 1843 work Don Pasquale for Grisi and her future husband, the tenor Giovanni Matteo De Candia, usually known by his stage name of Giovanni Mario. Lablache and Tamburini again starred with her in the Paris premiere.  Read more…


Book of the Day: Rome Through the Mist: Walks Among the Fountains of the Eternal City, by Joe Gartman with photographs by Patricia Gartman

Join Joe Gartman, culture columnist for Italia! Magazine, on a journey among 80 of Rome's celebrated fountains, and find a more intimate way of experiencing the Eternal City. On foot with book in hand, or simply in imagination, each chapter of Rome Through the Mist takes readers on a vivid walk, enhanced with colourful, revealing photographs of Roman life. Every fountain in Rome tells a story and every story is about Rome: her history, her legends, and her extraordinary people - poets and popes, artists and models, architects and emperors, saints and sinners. Every street, piazza, wall and garden that contains a fountain has a past worth knowing. Discover the paths in this book, with 15 different turn-by-turn walking tours, 17 maps, and 181 full-color photos. Journey from Trevi's torrents to the Naiad's naughty nymphs and from the quiet basins in Piazza San Simeone to Bernini's mighty Four Rivers in Piazza Navona; or perhaps find a secret fountain where tourists rarely go, and listen to the voices of the waters.

For nine years, as Italia! Magazine’s “resident historian and storyteller”, Joe Gartman has written a column called “Fast Culture” as well as many articles on travel, art, and history.  His work also appears in the Italia! Guides series, German Life Magazine, and online at italytravelandlife.com.  A librarian and teacher by profession, Patricia Gartman found a new vocation when she began to publish photos to illustrate Joe’s magazine articles.

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21 May 2024

21 May

Propaganda Due suspects named

Italy horrified as list reveals alleged members of ‘secret state’ 

Ordinary Italians were stunned and the country’s elite rocked to the core on this day in 1981 when a list was made public of alleged members of Propaganda Due, a secret Masonic lodge which sought to run the country as a ‘state within the state’.  A staggering 962 names were on the list, including 44 members of parliament, three of whom were cabinet ministers, 49 bankers, numerous industrialists, a number of newspaper editors and other high-profile journalists, the heads of all three of Italy’s secret services and more than 200 military and police officers, including 12 generals of the Carabinieri, five of the Guardia di Finanza, 22 of the army and four from the air force.  The existence of the illegal, underground lodge, known as P2, had been rumoured for several years but there had been little concrete evidence until magistrates investigating the collapse of the Banco Ambrosiano in Milan raided the home in Tuscany of Licio Gelli, the former Fascist financier who turned out to be the Grandmaster.  The list of alleged members, which was made public by Prime Minister Arnaldo Forlani on the advice of the prosecuting team, was found among paperwork seized in the raid.  Read more…


Pandolfo Petrucci – ruler of Siena

Ruthless tyrant who encouraged art

Pandolfo Petrucci, who during his time ruling Siena was one of the most powerful men in Italy, died on this day in 1512 in San Quirico d’Orcia in Tuscany.  Although he had been a tyrannical ruler, Petrucci had also done a great deal to increase the artistic splendour of his native city.  Petrucci was born into an aristocratic family in Siena in 1452. He had to go into exile in 1483 for being a member of the Noveschi political faction, which had fallen out of favour with the rulers of Siena.  After he returned to Siena in 1487, he began to take advantage of the struggles between the different political factions.  He married Aurelia Borghese, who was the daughter of Niccolò Borghese, an important figure in Siena at the time. After entering public office himself, Petrucci acquired so much authority and wealth that he became the ruling despot of Siena with the title of signore - lord.  His rapid rise to power alienated his father-in-law, who conspired with other influential citizens in Siena to assassinate him. However, Petrucci uncovered the plot and in 1500 had Borghese murdered. This act terrified his other enemies, which left Petrucci in complete control.  Read more…


Angelo Bruno - Mafia boss

Sicilian head of Philadelphia mob known as 'the Gentle Don'

Angelo Bruno, a mobster who ran the Philadelphia Mafia for two decades, was born Angelo Annaloro in Villalba, in the province of Caltanissetta, in Sicily, on this day in 1910.  Bruno was known as “the Gentle Don” because he preferred to solve problems and consolidate his power through non-violent means, such as bribery, and commissioned murders only as a last resort.  The son of a grocer, he emigrated to the United States in his teens and settled in Philadelphia. He became a close associate of New York crime family boss Carlo Gambino. Bruno dropped the name Annaloro and replaced it with his paternal grandmother's maiden name, Bruno.  Bruno’s dislike of violence was not driven by any compassion for his fellow man.  During his early days in Philadelphia, he worked for a series of bosses and did not shirk the tasks he had to perform in order to rise through the ranks, which included carrying out killings himself.  But in 1959, when he succeeded Joseph Ida as boss of the Philadelphia crime family, he decided it was in his interests and those of his criminal organisation to operate in a way that avoided attracting unwanted attention.  Read more…


Michelangelo’s Pietà damaged

Work of art deliberately vandalised

Michelangelo’s beautiful Pietà, a marble sculpture of the Virgin Mary with the dead body of Jesus lying across her knees, was damaged by a man wielding a hammer on this day in 1972 in Rome.  A mentally disturbed man walked into St Peter’s Basilica and attacked the sculpture in an act of deliberate vandalism.  He struck it 15 times, removing Mary’s arm at the elbow, knocking off a chunk of her nose and chipping one of her eyelids.  Some of the pieces of marble that flew off were taken by some of the people who were in the church at the time and Mary’s nose had to be reconstructed from a block cut out of her back.  The man who carried out the attack was said to be suffering from a delusion that he was Jesus Christ risen from the dead. He was not charged with any crime but spent two years in a psychiatric hospital.  After the restoration work was completed the sculpture was returned to its place in St Peter’s, just to the right of the entrance, and it is now protected by a bulletproof acrylic glass panel.  Michelangelo carved this sculpture from a single piece of Carrara marble in 1499 when he was only 24 and it is the only work he ever signed.  Read more…


Book of the Day: The Brotherhood: The Explosive Exposé of the Secret World of the Freemasons, by Stephen Knight, with an introduction by Martin Short

A classic and highly controversial exposé of the secret world of the Freemasons reissued with a new introduction by Martin Short, author of ‘Inside the Brotherhood’.  The Freemasons have long fascinated outsiders. This secret and exclusive society remains a mystery to the many excluded from its ranks. One would never know if a father or brother was a member due to the mandatory vow of secrecy.  In this classic, controversial exposé, Stephen Knight talks to the men on the inside – those who have broken their vow of secrecy to reveal the darker side of the ‘brotherhood’. Do they influence the law? Is the KGB involved? And is there a secret group of Masons running the country today, perhaps influencing every move we make?  Fully updated, The Brotherhood is the unmissable, true story of an ancient and mysterious collective operating in our midst.

Stephen Knight, who died in 1985, was a British journalist and author. He is best remembered for the books Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution and The Brotherhood .  Martin Short is a writer and TV documentary producer, whose book on the Freemasons, Inside the Brotherhood, sold more than 100,000 copies and spawned a six-part ITV documentary series.

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20 May 2024

20 May

Pietro Bembo – poet and scholar

Lucrezia Borgia’s lover helped with the development of modern Italian

Pietro Bembo, a writer who was influential in the development of the Italian language, was born on this day in 1470 in Venice.  He is probably most remembered for having an affair with Lucrezia Borgia while she was married to the Duke of Ferrara and he was living at the Este Court with them. His love letters to her were described by the English poet, Lord Byron, centuries later, as ‘the prettiest love letters in the world.’  As a boy, Bembo visited Florence with his father where he acquired a love for the Tuscan form of Italian which he was later to use as his literary medium. He later learnt Greek and went to study at the University of Padua.  He spent two years at the Este Court in Ferrara where he wrote poetry that was reminiscent of Boccaccio and Petrarch.  It was when he returned to the court at Ferrara a few years later that he had an affair with Lucrezia Borgia, the daughter of Pope Alexander VI, who was at that time the wife of Alfonso I d’Este. The love letters between the pair to which Byron referred are now in the collection of the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan.  Byron greatly admired them when he saw them there in 1816.  Read more…


Ondina Valla - ground-breaking athlete

Italy’s first female Olympic champion

Trebisonda ‘Ondina’ Valla, the first Italian woman to win an Olympic gold medal, was born on this day in 1916 in Bologna.  Known as Ondina reputedly after a journalist misspelled her unusual name, Valla won the 80m at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, where she also set a world record time in the semi-final.  The victory established Valla as an icon for Italy’s Fascist regime and as a heroine for Italian girls with sporting ambitions, her success breaking new ground for women in the face of considerable opposition to female participation in sport.  The Catholic Church’s attitude was that sport was not compatible with the standards of morality, modesty and domesticity they expected of women, while the view of Italy’s medical profession was that women should take only basic physical exercise if they wanted to maintain the level of health required for motherhood.  Benito Mussolini initially saw women as occupying a traditional role in the society he envisaged for the fascist ideal, supporting their husbands and caring for their children within the family unit.  But he seized upon Valla’s success as a political opportunity, keen to portray her as an example of Italian Fascism’s dynamism and the potential for Italians to make their mark internationally.  Read more...


Prolific painter left a rich legacy of religious canvases

Late Renaissance painter Giovanni Paolo Cavagna, who became famous for his religious scenes, died on this day in 1627 in his native city of Bergamo.  Cavagna was mainly active in Bergamo and Brescia, another historic city in the Lombardy region, for most of his career, although he is believed to have spent some time training in Venice in the studio of Titian. The artist was born in Borgo di San Leonardo in Bergamo’s Città Bassa in about 1550. The painter Cristoforo Baschenis Il Vecchio is believed to have taken him as an apprentice from the age of 12. Cavagna is also thought to have spent time as a pupil of the famous Bergamo portrait painter Giovanni Battista Moroni.  Cavagna’s work can still be seen in many churches in Bergamo and villages in the surrounding area. In the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Bergamo’s Città Alta there are paintings by him of the Assumption of the Virgin, the Nativity, and Esther and Ahasuerus.  In the Church of Santa Spirito in Bergamo’s Città Bassa, there are his paintings of Santa Lucia and the Crucifixion with Saints. He painted a Coronation of the Virgin for the Church of San Giovanni Battista in the province of Casnigo. Read more…


Albano Carrisi - singer

Performer best known as Al Bano has sold 165 million records

The singer Albano Carrisi, better known as Al Bano, was born on this day in 1943 in Cellino San Marco, a town in Puglia about 30km (19 miles) from Lecce.  He enjoyed considerable success as a solo artist in the late 1960s but became more famous still in Italy and across mainland Europe for his collaboration with the American singer Romina Power – daughter of the actor Tyrone Power.  They met during the shooting of a film - one of several, mainly romantic comedies and a vehicle for his songs, in which he starred during the 1970s.  They not only formed a professional partnership but were married for almost 30 years.  They twice performed as Italy’s entry for the Eurovision Song Contest, finishing seventh on both occasions, and appeared several times at Italy’s prestigious Sanremo Music Festival, winning the top prize in 1984.  They divorced in 1999 but reunited on a professional basis in 2013 and when they performed at the Arena di Verona in 2015 before a sell-out crowd of 11,000 the show was broadcast by the Italian TV network Rai and shown in seven other countries, with a combined audience estimated at 51 million.  Read more…


Gabriele Muccino - film director

Enjoyed box office success in US after partnering with Will Smith

The film director Gabriele Muccino, whose best-known work so far has been the Oscar-nominated 2006 Will Smith movie The Pursuit of Happyness, was born on this day in 1967 in Rome.  He is the older brother of the actor, Silvio Muccino.  Muccino, who also directed Smith in Seven Pounds (2008), spent several years in Hollywood following his success in Italy with L’ultimo bacio (The Last Kiss), which won him a David Di Donatello award as Best Director and for Best Screenplay.  His most recent work has been in Italy, with his latest film, Gli anni più belli (The Most Beautiful Years) released in February 2020.  The son of Luigi Muccino, an executive at the state television company Rai, and painter and costume designer Antonella Cappuccio, Gabriele enrolled at Rome’s Sapienza University to study literature, but was already fascinated with the cinema. Indeed, he abandoned his studies soon after he began them, choosing instead to attend Rome’s renowned Centro sperimentale di cinematografia, where he worked unpaid as a director’s assistant, working with the highly-regarded Pupi Avati and Marco Risi.  Read more…


Hieronymus Fabricius - anatomist and surgeon

Research pioneer known as “Father of Embryology”

The pioneering anatomist and physiologist known in academic history as Hieronymus Fabricius, whose Italian name was Girolamo Fabrizio, was born on this day in 1537 in Acquapendente, in Lazio.  Fabrizio, who designed the first permanent theatre for public anatomical dissections, advanced the knowledge of the make-up of the human body in many areas, including the digestive system, the eyes and ears, and the veins.  But his most significant discoveries were in embryology.  He investigated the foetal development of many animals and humans and produced the first detailed description of the placenta. For this he became known as the "Father of Embryology".  Fabrizio spent most of his life at the University of Padua, where he was a student under the guidance of Gabriele Falloppio, who discovered the tube connecting the ovaries with the uterus that became known as the Fallopian tube.  He succeeded Falloppio as chair of surgery and anatomy, holding the post from 1562 to 1613 and building a reputation that attracted students from all of Europe.  Among his pupils were the English anatomist William Harvey, as well as Giulio Casseri and Adriaan van den Spiegel, both of whom went on to become significant anatomists.  Read more…


Book of the Day: Pietro Bembo: A Life in Laurels and Scarlet, by Marco Faini

Pietro Bembo was both witness and participant at the centre of the Italian Renaissance. A celebrated writer, an antiquarian, a man of exquisite taste, and a lover of women and beauty, he was to win both the laurels of a poet and the scarlet robes of a Cardinal. Born in Venice, he travelled to and resided in nearly all the Italian courts, from Lorenzo il Magnifico’s Florence to Ferrara, Urbino and Rome. As Latin secretary to Pope Leo X and a lover of Lucrezia Borgia, with whom he exchanged passionate letters in great secrecy, he was an intimate of both the Medicis and the Borgias. His public writing set the style of Italian literary language, and his appreciations of Dante and Petrarch were influential across the whole of Europe. A patron and friend of many of the most refined artists of the Renaissance, from Raphael to Cellini, Bembo also lived through an age of scientific enquiry — as a boy, he was fascinated with the volcanic processes of Mount Etna — and the dawn of print culture, in which he also played a role as one of the first contemporary writers to be printed in movable type.  A Life in Laurels and Scarlet, commissioned by the Fondation Barbier-Mueller pour l’étude de la poésie italienne de la Renaissance, aims to recapture, for a general readership, Bembo’s unique experience during the most glorious and tormented years of the Italian Renaissance.

Marco Faini is Assistant Professor of Italian at the University at Buffalo (SUNY). He is the co-editor of A Companion to Pietro Aretino (with Paola Ugolini) and the author of Standing at the Crossroads. Stories of Doubt in Renaissance Italy.

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