21 July 2024

21 July

NEW
- The Battle of Bezzecca

Garibaldi-led force suffers heavy casualties but wins important victory

The Battle of Bezzecca, a significant Italian victory in the push for unification, took place on this day in 1866 on a site approximately 10km (six miles) west of the northern tip of Lake Garda in what is now the Trentino region of northern Italy.  The battle was part of the Third Italian War of Independence as the new Kingdom of Italy, which had been formally proclaimed in 1861, sought to expel the Austrians from Venetia, which along with Papal Rome had remained outside the control of the fledgling nation.  It took place within the wider context of the Austro-Prussian War, a conflict that had begun earlier in the year after a territorial dispute. Italy, sensing an opportunity to annex Venetia and the part of Lombardy still under Austrian rule, had agreed an alliance with Prussia.  The Prussian victory at the Battle of Königgrätz resulted in Austria moving troops from Venetia towards Vienna, leaving their territories in north-eastern Italy vulnerable to attack.  Giuseppe Garibaldi, who had famously led the initial push for Italian unification with his Expedition of the Thousand in 1860 and was now a general in the Royal Italian Army, took arms again. Read more…

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Guglielmo Ferrero - journalist and historian

Nobel prize nominee who opposed Fascism

The historian, journalist and novelist Guglielmo Ferrero, who was most famous for his five-volume opus The Greatness and Decline of Rome, was born on this day in 1871.  The son of a railway engineer, he was born just outside Naples at Portici but his family were from Piedmont and while not travelling he lived much of his adult life in Turin and Florence.  A liberal politically, he was vehemently opposed to any form of dictatorship and his opposition to Mussolini’s Fascists naturally landed him in trouble. He was a signatory to the writer Benedetto Croce's Anti-Fascist Manifesto and when all liberal intellectuals were told to leave Italy in 1925, he refused. Consequently he was placed under house arrest.  It was only after four years, following appeals by officials from the League of Nations and the personal intervention of the King of Belgium, that he was allowed to leave Italy to take up a professorship at the Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva.  Ferrero’s earliest works were in the field of sociology and criminology, inspired by his friendship with Cesare Lombroso, sometimes called the ‘father of modern criminology’.  Read more…

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Suso Cecchi D'Amico - screenwriter

Woman who scripted many of Italy's greatest movies

Suso Cecchi D’Amico, the most accomplished and sought-after screenwriter in 20th century Italian cinema, was born on this day in 1914 in Rome.  She collaborated on the scripts of more than 100 films in a career spanning 60 years and worked with almost every Italian director of note, particularly the pioneers of neorealism, the movement in which she was a driving force.  The classic films in which she was involved are some of the greatest in cinema history, including  Vittorio De Sica's Bicycle Thieves (1948), William Wyler's Roman Holiday (1953), Mario Monicelli's I Soliti Ignoti (1958), which was released in the United States and Britain as Big Deal on Madonna Street, and Francesco Rosi's Salvatore Giuliano (1962).  She also worked with Michelangelo Antonioni on Le Amiche (The Girlfriends, 1955) and Franco Zeffirelli on Jesus of Nazareth (1977), but she was best known for her professional relationship with Luchino Visconti, for whom she was the major scriptwriter on almost all his films from Bellissima (1951) to The Innocent (1976), including his acclaimed masterpieces Rocco and His Brothers (1960) and Il Gattopardo (The Leopard, 1963).  Read more…

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Beppe Grillo - comedian turned activist

Grillo founded populist Five Star Movement 

The comedian turned political activist Beppe Grillo was born on this day in 1948 in Genoa.  Grillo is the founder of the Five Star Movement - Movimento Cinque Stelle - an Italian political party that has enjoyed rapid growth in recent years. It enjoyed one of its first high-profile successes when Virginia Raggi was elected Mayor of Rome in 2016, while Luigi Di Maio, who succeeded Grillo as leader, became Italy’s foreign minister and deputy prime minister between 2018 and 2019.  The party's current president, Giuseppe Conte, was prime minister of Italy from 2018 to 2021. The Five Star Movement - M5S - polled more than 25 per cent of the votes for the Chamber of Deputies at the 2013 elections in Italy, increasing its share to 32.7 per cent in 2018, which made it Italy’s largest party.  At the same time as Raggi won 67 per cent of the vote in Rome, another M5S candidate, Chiara Appendino, was elected Mayor of Turin, beating the Democratic Party candidate into second place.   Grillo launched M5S as a protest group in 2009 but his ability to inspire audiences led to a rapid growth in popularity.  It has positioned itself as anti-corruption, anti-globalisation and pro-transparency. Read more…

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Book of the Day: Garibaldi: Hero of Italian Unification, by Christopher Hibbert

Giuseppe Garibaldi was praised for his military genius, his courage, and his charisma. Known as the "Hero of Two Worlds," Garibaldi's military prowess extended to the Americas, where he played a major role in the Brazilian struggle for independence. During his fight for Italian unification Garibaldi personally led an army of local untrained rebels to victory in Palermo, Naples, and Sicily. His forces suffered from lack of equipment, food, and money, and yet Garibaldi commanded their fierce loyalty. In Hero of Italian Unification, Christopher Hibbert reveals how this iconic figure earned the adulation of not only his fellow Italians, but people across the globe. As well as presenting a vivid account of Garibaldi's successes and misfortunes, the book paints a picture of his personality which, though never unsympathetic, is notable for its realism and candour.

Christopher Hibbert, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and one of the most widely read historians of his time, wrote many highly acclaimed books, including biographies of Disraeli, Edward VII and George VI, The Rise and Fall of the House of Medici, and Cavaliers and Roundheads. 

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The Battle of Bezzecca

Garibaldi-led force suffers heavy casualties but wins important victory

A depiction of the Battle of Bezzecca by the Venetian painter Felice Zennaro
A depiction of the Battle of Bezzecca by the
Venetian painter Felice Zennaro
The Battle of Bezzecca, a significant Italian victory in the push for unification, took place on this day in 1866 on a site approximately 10km (6.2 miles) west of the northern tip of Lake Garda in what is now the Trentino region of northern Italy.

The battle was part of the Third Italian War of Independence as the new Kingdom of Italy, which had been formally proclaimed in 1861, sought to expel the Austrians from Venetia, which along with Papal Rome had remained outside the control of the fledgling nation.

It took place within the wider context of the Austro-Prussian War, a conflict that had begun earlier in the year after a territorial dispute. Italy, sensing an opportunity to annex Venetia and the part of Lombardy still under Austrian rule, had agreed an alliance with Prussia.

The Prussian victory at the Battle of Königgrätz resulted in Austria moving troops from Venetia towards Vienna, leaving their territories in northeastern Italy vulnerable to attack. 

Giuseppe Garibaldi, who had famously led the initial push for Italian unification with his Expedition of the Thousand in 1860 and was now a general in the Royal Italian Army, took arms again as the head of another volunteer army known as the Hunters of the Alps, as the Kingdom of Italy sought to capitalise on this supposed Austrian weakness.

The Hunters of the Alps were under the command of Giusppe Garibaldi
The Hunters of the Alps were under
the command of Giuseppe Garibaldi
The Battle of Bezzecca came about a month after hostilities began as Garibaldi’s army, which initially had consisted of about 38,000 men, came up against 15,000 Austrian regulars under the command of General Baron Franz Kuhn von Kuhnenfeld. 

Despite some setbacks, which had included Garibaldi himself being wounded in an assault on an enemy position, the Hunters of the Alps seized control of strategically important towns, opening two potential routes towards the ultimate goal of capturing the city of Trento.

As Garibaldi’s troops moved towards Riva del Garda, from which they intended to push north towards Trento, the Austrians occupied the town of Bezzecca in Val di Ledro, blocking the route.

Garibaldi, overseeing the battle from a coach because of his injuries, directed his artillery to secure a hill near the town to provide support for an infantry assault, which forced the Austrians to withdraw.

It was an Italian victory, albeit one with heavy casualties. Of the 15,500 deployed by Garibaldi, at least 120 were killed or declared missing presumed killed, a further 450 wounded and, before the Austrian withdrawal, more than 1,000 captured. This compared with only about 100 casualties in total on the Austrian side.

In the event, it was the last battle Garibaldi would need to fight before the Italian objective of bringing Venetia into the new kingdom was achieved.

General Alfonso La Marmora, who  ordered Garibaldi to withdraw
General Alfonso La Marmora, who 
ordered Garibaldi to withdraw
As he prepared to continue the invasion toward Garda, he received orders from General Alfonso La Marmora, commander-in-chief of the Italian army, to abandon Trentino ahead of an impending armistice between Italy and Austria following the cessation of hostilities between Austria and Prussia. 

From the main square of Bezzecca, Giuseppe Garibaldi famously replied with a telegram consisting of just one word: “Obbedisco!" - "I obey!” 

Under the terms of the Treaty of Vienna, which was signed on October 3, 1866, the Iron Crown of Lombardy, which had been in Austria’s possession since the fall of Napoleon Bonaparte in 1815, was returned to the Italian monarchy, while Venetia, consisting of modern Veneto, parts of Friuli and the city of Mantua, was ceded to Italy. 

The annexation of Venetia and Mantua was subject to a plebiscite, allowing the population to express its will. The result was overwhelmingly in favour, with 99.9 percent of participants saying yes to becoming part of the Kingdom of Italy.

The Chiesa di Santi Stefano e Lorenzo houses a memorial to victims of the Battle of Bezzecca
The Chiesa di Santi Stefano e Lorenzo houses
a memorial to victims of the Battle of Bezzecca
Travel tip:

The Bezzecca of today, about 35km (22 miles) southwest of Trento, is a popular holiday destination in unspoilt surroundings, a short distance from Lago di Ledro, one of the most beautiful of the Trentino lakes. It is popular with walkers and cyclists, with many paths and trails to follow through the surrounding countryside. Since 2010, along with Pieve di Ledro, Concei, Molina di Ledro, Tiarno di Sopra and Tiarno di Sotto, it has been part of the new municipality of Ledro. The Battle of Bezzecca is recalled in many street names and buildings, while there is a small museum dedicated to Garibaldi and the Great War. Museum. In Piazza Garibaldi, the Chiesa di Santi Stefano e Lorenzo houses the Bezzecca War Memorial, which commemorates those who died fighting with Garibaldi and local men killed during the Great War. Outside the church, there is a 75 mm Italian cannon and a column donated to Bezzecca by the city of Rome in 1924.

Trento's Piazza Duomo, with the Palazzo Pretorio on the left and the Cattedrale di San Vigilio
Trento's Piazza Duomo, with the Palazzo Pretorio
on the left and the Cattedrale di San Vigilio
Travel tip:

The prosperous modern city of Trento is considered one of the most desirable places to live in Italy for quality of life and employment opportunities. With a population of 117,000, it is situated in an Alpine valley on the Adige river between the northern tip of Lake Garda and the border city of Bolzano, about 95km (59 miles) north of Verona. Settled by the Romans in the first century, it changed hands many times before becoming a major city in the Holy Roman Empire. The Austrians took charge in the 14th century and it remained under their control, with the exception of a spell of French domination in the Napoleonic era until the First World War.  It was notable in the 16th century for hosting the Council of Trent, the ecumenical council of the Catholic Church that gave rise to the resurgence of the church following Protestant Reformation. The 13th century Castello del Buonconsiglio, next to Trento’s city walls, was a military barracks under the Austrians, then a jail, before falling into disrepair.  It was restored after Trento became part of Italy in the 1920s and now houses a museum and art gallery.

Also on this day: 

1871: The birth of writer and historian Guglielmo Ferrero

1914: The birth of screenwriter Suso Cecchi D’Amico

1948: The birth of comedian-turned-activist Beppe Grillo


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20 July 2024

20 July

Death of Marconi

State funeral for engineer who was at first shunned

Guglielmo Marconi, the Italian electrical engineer who is credited with the invention of radio, died on this day in Rome in 1937.  Aged 63, he passed away following a series of heart attacks.  He was granted a state funeral in recognition of the prestige he brought to Italy through his pioneering work. In Great Britain, where he had spent a significant part of his professional life, all BBC and Post Office radio transmitters observed a two-minute silence to coincide with the start of the funeral service in Rome.  Marconi was born in Bologna on April 25, 1874. His father, Giuseppe Marconi, was an Italian country gentleman who was married to Annie Jameson, a member of the Jameson whiskey family from County Wexford in Ireland.  A student of physics and electrical science from an early age, Guglielmo conducted experiments at his father's country estate at Pontecchio, near Bologna, where he succeeded in sending wireless signals between two transmitters a mile and a half apart.  Disappointingly, the initial response to his discovery was sceptical and Marconi's request to the Italian government to help fund further research did not even receive a reply.  As a result, in 1896, he moved to London.  Read more…

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Giovanna Amati - racing driver

Kidnap survivor who drove in Formula One

Racing driver Giovanna Amati, the last female to have been entered for a Formula One Grand Prix, was born on this day in 1959 in Rome.  The story of Amati’s signing for the Brabham F1 team in 1992 was all the more remarkable for the fact that 14 years earlier, as an 18-year-old girl, she had been kidnapped by a ransom gang and held for 75 days in a wooden cage.  Kidnaps happened with alarming frequency in Italy in the 1970s, a period marked by social unrest and acts of violence committed by political extremists, often referred to as the Years of Lead. Young people with rich parents were often the targets and Amati, whose father Giovanni was a wealthy industrialist who owned a chain of cinemas, fitted the bill.  She was snatched outside the family’s villa in Rome in February 1978 and held first in a house only a short distance away and then at a secret location, where she was physically abused and threatened with having her ear cut off while her captors negotiated with her 72-year-old father.  Eventually, Giovanni is said to have paid 800 million lira (about $933,000 dollars), for her release, partly raised from box office receipts from the Star Wars movie playing at his cinemas.  Read more…

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Giorgio Morandi – painter

The greatest master of still life in the 20th century

The artist Giorgio Morandi, who became famous for his atmospheric representations of still life, was born on the day in 1890 in Bologna.  Morandi’s paintings were appreciated for their tonal subtlety in depicting simple subjects, such as vases, bottles, bowls and flowers.  He studied at the Accademia di Belle Arti di Bologna and taught himself to etch by studying books on Rembrandt. Even though he lived his whole life in Bologna, he was deeply influenced by the work of Cézanne, Derain and Picasso.  In 1910 Morandi visited Florence, where the work of Giotto, Masaccio, Piero della Francesca and Paolo Uccello also impressed him.  Morandi was appointed as instructor of drawing for elementary schools in Bologna, a position he held from 1914 until 1929. He joined the army in 1915 but suffered a breakdown and had to be discharged.  During the war his paintings of still life became purer in form, in the manner of Cezanne. After a phase of experimenting with the metaphysical style of painting he began to focus on subtle gradations of hue and tone.  Morandi became associated with a Fascist-influenced Futurist group in Bologna.  Read more…

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Book of the Day: Marconi: The Man Who Networked the World, by Marc Raboy

A little over a century ago, the world went wireless. Cables and all their limiting inefficiencies gave way to a revolutionary means of transmitting news and information almost everywhere, instantaneously. By means of "Hertzian waves," as radio waves were initially known, ships could now make contact with other ships (saving lives, such as on the doomed S.S. Titanic); financial markets could coordinate with other financial markets, establishing the price of commodities and fixing exchange rates; military commanders could connect with the front lines, positioning artillery and directing troop movements. Suddenly and irrevocably, time and space telescoped beyond what had been thought imaginable. Someone had not only imagined this networked world but realized it: Guglielmo Marconi.  Born to an Italian father and an Irish mother, he was in many ways stateless, working his cosmopolitanism to advantage. Through a combination of skill, tenacity, luck, vision, and timing, Marconi popularized - and, more critically, patented - the use of radio waves. Soon after he burst into public view at the age of 22 with a demonstration of his wireless apparatus in London, 1896, he established his Wireless Telegraph & Signal Company and seemed unstoppable. Until his death in 1937, Marconi was at the heart of every major innovation in electronic communication. Based on original research and unpublished archival materials in four countries and several languages, Marconi: The Man Who Networked the World is the first to connect significant parts of Marconi's story, from his early days in Italy, to his groundbreaking experiments and his role in world affairs. Raboy also explores Marconi's relationships  with his wives, mistresses, and children, and examines in unsparing detail the last ten years of the inventor's life, when he returned to Italy and became a pillar of Benito Mussolini's fascist regime. 

Marc Raboy is a writer and emeritus professor in the Department of Art History and Communication Studies at McGill University in Montreal.

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19 July 2024

19 July

The Great Fire of Rome

City devastated by nine-day blaze

Almost two thirds of the ancient city of Rome was destroyed in the Great Fire of Rome, which took hold on this day in 64 AD.  Accounts vary as to whether the blaze began on July 19 or on the evening of July 18. What seems not to be in doubt is that the fire spread uncontrollably for six days, seemed to burn itself out, then reignited and continued for another three days.  Of Rome’s 14 districts at the time, only four were unaffected. In three, nothing remained but ashes and the other seven fared only marginally better, with just a few scorched ruins still standing.  Among the more important buildings in the city, the Temple of Jupiter Stator, the House of the Vestals, and the emperor Nero's palace, the Domus Transitoria were damaged or destroyed, along with the part of the Forum where senators lived and worked.  According to the historian Publius Cornelius Tacitus, who published an account of the fire in his Annals, which covered the period from Tiberius to Nero, the blaze probably began in shops around Rome's chariot stadium, Circus Maximus.  Driven by a strong wind, it quickly spread along the length of the Circus Maximus and into adjoining streets.  Read more…

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Petrarch – Renaissance poet

Writer whose work inspired the modern Italian language

Renaissance scholar and poet Francesco Petrarca died on this day in 1374 at Arquà near Padua, now renamed Arquà Petrarca. Known in English as Petrarch, he is considered to be an important figure in the history of Italian literature.  He is often credited with initiating the 14th century Renaissance, after his rediscovery of Cicero’s letters, and also with being the founder of Humanism.  In the 16th century, the Italian poet Pietro Bembo created the model for the modern Italian language based on Petrarch’s works.  Petrarch was born in Arezzo in Tuscany in 1304. His father was a friend of the poet Dante Alighieri, but he insisted that Petrarch studied law.  The poet was far more interested in writing and in reading Latin literature and considered the time he studied law as wasted years.  Petrarch’s first major work, Africa, about the Roman general, Scipio Africanus, turned him into a celebrity. In 1341 he became the first poet laureate since ancient times and his sonnets were admired and imitated throughout Europe.  Petrarch travelled widely throughout Italy and Europe during his life and once climbed Mount Ventoux near Vaucluse in France just for pleasure, writing about the experience afterwards.  Read more…

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Jacopo Tiepolo - Doge of Venice

Ruler laid down the law and granted land for beautiful churches

Jacopo Tiepolo, the Doge who granted the land for the building of the Basilica di Santi Giovanni e Paolo and the Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, died on this day in 1249 in Venice.  His election as Doge in 1229 had sparked a feud between the Tiepolo and Dandolo families, which led to the rules being changed for future elections. He also produced five books of statutes setting out Venetian law which was to change life in Venice significantly, bringing a raft of civil and economic regulations to which Venetians were obliged to adhere.  Tiepolo, who was also known as Giacomo Tiepolo, had previously served as the first Venetian Duke of Crete and had two terms as podestà – chief administrator - in Constantinople.  He acted as the de facto ruler of the Latin Empire, negotiating treaties with the Egyptians and the Turks.  Tiepolo was elected Doge, a month after his predecessor, Pietro Ziani, abdicated. At the election a stalemate was reached between Tiepolo and his rival, Marino Dandolo, both of them having 20 votes each. The contest was decided by drawing lots, which led to Tiepolo’s victory.  Read more…

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Cesare Cremonini - philosopher

Great thinker famous for Galileo ‘denial’

The philosopher Cesare Cremonini, the contemporary and friend of Galileo Galilei who famously refused to look at the Moon through Galileo’s telescope, died on this day in 1631 in Padua.  Cremonini was considered one of the great thinkers of his time, a passionate advocate of the doctrines of the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle. He was paid a handsome salary by his patron, Alfonso II d’Este, the Duke of Ferrara, and kings and princes regularly sought his counsel.  He struck up a friendship with the poet, Torquato Tasso, while he was studying in Ferrara, and met Galileo in 1550 after he was appointed by the Venetian Republic to the chair of the University of Padua.  The two built a relationship of respect and friendship that endured for many years, despite many differences of opinion, yet in 1610 their divergence of views on one subject created an impasse between them.  It came about when Galileo observed the surface of the Moon through his telescope and proclaimed that he had discovered mountains on the Moon.  But Cremonini said that Aristotle had proved that the Moon could only be a perfect sphere and was having none of Galileo’s claim that it was not, refusing Galileo’s invitation to see for himself.  Read more…

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Book of the Day: Ancient Rome: The Rise and Fall of an Empire, by Simon Baker

Ancient Rome: The Rise and Fall of an Empire is the story of the greatest empire the world has ever known. Simon Baker charts the rise and fall of the world's first superpower, focusing on six momentous turning points that shaped Roman history. Welcome to Rome as you've never seen it before - awesome and splendid, gritty and squalid. From the conquest of the Mediterranean beginning in the third century BC to the destruction of the Roman Empire at the hands of barbarian invaders some seven centuries later, we discover the most critical episodes in Roman history: the spectacular collapse of the 'free' republic, the birth of the age of the 'Caesars', the violent suppression of the strongest rebellion against Roman power, and the bloody civil war that launched Christianity as a world religion.  At the heart of this account are the dynamic, complex but flawed characters of some of the most powerful rulers in history: men such as Pompey the Great, Julius Caesar, Augustus, Nero and Constantine. Putting flesh on the bones of these distant, legendary figures, Simon Baker looks beyond the dusty, toga-clad caricatures and explores their real motivations and ambitions, intrigues and rivalries. The superb narrative, full of energy and imagination, is a brilliant distillation of the latest scholarship and a wonderfully evocative account of Ancient Rome.

Simon Baker read Classics at Oxford University. In 1999 he joined the BBC's award-winning History Unit where he has worked on Timewatch and a wide range of programmes about the classical world. He was the Development Producer on the BBC One series Ancient Rome - The Rise and Fall of an Empire. This is his second book.

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