31 December 2015

Festa di San Silvestro – Feast of Saint Sylvester

Celebrating with a meal of pork and lentils for a prosperous New Year

New Year’s Eve in Italy is known as the Festa di San Silvestro in memory of Pope Sylvester I who died on this day in 335 in Rome.

People gather in squares all over Italy to celebrate the arrival of the new year.
New Year celebrations in Rome
Photo: Zabbo (CC BY-SA 3.0)
It is not a public holiday in Italy but it is a festive time everywhere, with firework displays, concerts and parties.

One custom still followed in some parts of Italy is throwing your old things out of the window at midnight to symbolise your readiness to accept the New Year.

The bars and restaurants are busy with residents and visitors enjoying drinks and meals before seeing in the New Year in the main square when the bells ring at midnight.

Popular menu items include cotechino (Italian sausage), zampone (stuffed pig’s trotter) and lenticchie (lentils).

Pork is said to represent the fullness or richness of life, while lentils are supposed to symbolise wealth or money. Many Italians believe the coming year could bring prosperity if these foods are eaten on New Year’s Eve.

The President of the Republic delivers an end of year message from the Quirinale in Rome, which is shown on most Italian television channels during the evening. There are live concerts in the open air in many squares throughout Italy, some of which are televised.

Sylvester I was pope from 314 until his death in 335, an important time in the history of the Catholic Church.

Some of Rome’s great churches, the Basilica of St John Lateran, the Basilica of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem and the old St Peter’s Basilica, were founded during his pontificate.

The Basilica of San Silvestro in Via del Gambero in Rome
The Basilica of San Silvestro
in Via del Gambero in Rome
Travel tip:

San Silvestro in Capite, the Basilica of Saint Sylvester, is a church in Rome dedicated to Pope Sylvester I. It is in Piazza San Silvestro on the corner of Via del Gambero and Via delle Mercede, on the other side of the Tiber from St Peter’s. Dating from the eighth century, it was bestowed on English Catholics by Pope Leo XIII in 1890. It is now known as ‘The National Church in Rome of Great Britain’ and mass is regularly celebrated in English there.

The southern Italian hill town of Matera in Basilicata
hosts the 2015 New Year's Eve convert on Rai Uno
Photo: Giuseppe Rinaldi (CC BY 2.5)
Travel tip:

Piazza Vittorio Veneto in Matera in the southern region of Basilicata will be the location for the New Year’s Eve concert, ‘L’Anno Che Verrà’ (‘The Coming Year’), which will be shown live on the Italian TV channel Rai Uno from 21.00 tonight (31 December, 2015.) The historic city of Matera is to be the European capital of culture in 2019.


30 December 2015

Galeazzo Alessi – architect

Brilliant designer left legacy of beautiful palaces and churches

Italian architect Galeazzo Alessi, who designed some of the most impressive buildings in Genoa and Assisi, died on this day in 1572.
Galeazzo Alessi designed the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli in 1568
The Basilica of Santa Maria degli
Angeli in Assisi, designed by Alessi
Photo: Lahiri Cappello (CC BY 2.0)

Born in Perugia in 1512, Alessi studied drawing for both civil and military architecture and developed great enthusiasm for ancient architecture, although he was also later influenced by Michelangelo.

He became known throughout Europe for his distinctive style and towards the end of his career was commissioned to design churches and palaces in France, Germany, Belgium and Spain.

A lot of his work can still be seen in Perugia and Assisi, where, in collaboration with another architect, Alessi designed the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli in 1568.

In Genoa he designed some of the beautiful palaces with ornate decoration that have now been listed as Unesco world heritage sites and he was involved in planning the lay-out of the streets and the restoration of the city walls.

Alessi died at the age of 60 in Perugia before the designs that he had drawn up for El Escorial, the residence of the King of Spain, could be carried out.

Travel tip:

Perugia, Alessi’s home town, is the capital city of the region of Umbria and one of the main Etruscan cities of Italy. A stunning sight on a hilltop, Perugia is also home to two universities, the 14th century University of Perugia and another University that has been established for foreign students learning Italian.

Perugia's hilltop location affords stunning
views over the Umbrian countryside
Photo: Zorro2212 (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Travel tip:

For Assisi, Alessi designed the Basilica di Santa Maria degli Angeli in 1568 in collaboration with the architect Giacomo Barozzi da Vignola. It has an ornate and imposing façade and encloses a small ninth century church, the Porziuncola, a sacred place, where the young Francis of Assisi renounced the world to go and live among the poor and start the Franciscan movement.  


29 December 2015

Stefano Eranio – footballer

Fast forward made his mark in England’s Premier League

Italy international footballer Stefano Eranio was born on this day in 1966 in Genoa, the main city of Liguria.

Eranio played for Genoa, AC Milan and Derby County
Stefano Eranio

He represented his country 20 times between 1990 and 1997 but is most remembered for his playing career with AC Milan and Genoa.

A midfield player or wing-back, Eranio had brilliant technique, good pace and the ability to make attacking runs.

Towards the end of his career he played in the English Premier League for Derby County and was made an official ‘Derby Legend’ in 2006.

Eranio began his career with Genoa in 1984.  He played for them for eight seasons before moving to A C Milan in 1992.

At Milan he won three league titles, three Italian Super Cups and played in two Champions League finals.

Eranio’s first international goal was against the Netherlands in 1992 when Italy won the match 3-2. In 1997 he played his last game for Italy, helping them beat Moldova 3–0.

When he moved to Derby County in the Midlands of England, Eranio quickly became a favourite with the fans as part of an exciting team that included another Italian player, Francesco Baiano.

Eranio is credited with scoring the first goal in a competitive match at Derby's Pride Park Stadium after they moved from the Baseball Ground in 1997. But when the manager, Jim Smith, was fired in 2001, Eranio left too.

He retired in 2003 after spending a season as a player and assistant manager with Serie C2 side, Pro Sesto.

After giving up playing, he became part of the AC Milan youth coaching staff.

He is still regarded as one of the greatest players ever to play for Derby County .

Travel tip:

Liguria in northwest Italy is known as the Italian Riviera. It runs along a section of the Mediterranean coastline between France and Tuscany and is dotted with pretty seaside villages, with houses painted in different pastel colours.

The port city of Genoa is the sixth largest
city in Italy. Photo: Steven Lek (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Travel tip:

Genoa, the capital of Liguria, is the sixth largest city in Italy and has earned the nickname of La Superba because of its proud history as a major port. Part of the old town was inscribed on the World Heritage List in 2006 because of the wealth of beautiful 16th century palaces.  


28 December 2015

Death of Victor Emmanuel III

King loses his life after just 18 months in exile 

Victor Emmanuel III, Italy’s longest reigning King, died on this day in 1947.
Victor Emanuel III was also known as the soldier king
Victor Emmanuel III in full military
regalia, pictured in the 1920s

The previous year he had abdicated his throne in favour of his son, King Umberto II.

Victor Emmanuel III had been hoping this would strengthen support for the monarchy in advance of the referendum asking the country if they wanted to abolish it.

Earlier in his reign he had been popular with the people and respected for his military success, but opinion changed after the Second World War.

Vittorio Emanuele III di Savoia was born in Naples in 1869. The only child of King Umberto I and Queen Margherita of Savoy, he was given the title of Prince of Naples.

He became King of Italy in 1900 after his father was assassinated in Monza.

At the height of his popularity he was nicknamed by the Italians Re soldato (soldier King) and Re vittorioso (victorious King) because of Italy’s success in battle during the First World War. He was also called sciaboletta (little sabre) as he was only five feet (1.53m) tall.

Italy had remained neutral at the start of the First World War but signed treaties to go into the war on the side of France, Britain and Russia in 1915. Victor Emanuel III enjoyed support after he visited areas in the north affected by the fighting and his wife, Queen Elena, was seen helping  the nurses care for the wounded.

But the instability after the First World War led to Mussolini’s rise to power. Victor Emmanuel III was later to claim that it was fear of a civil war that stopped him moving against Mussolini right at the start. But his apparent weakness had dire consequences for the country.

He dismissed Mussolini and had him arrested in 1943. To try to save the monarchy, Victor Emmanuel III transferred powers to his son, Umberto, and formally abdicated in 1946.

Victor Emmanuel III went into exile in Alexandria in Egypt, where he died one and a half years later.

Travel tip:
The National Library in Naples, Biblioteca Nazionale Vittorio Emanuele III in Piazza Plebiscito, is one of the most important libraries in Italy with more than two million books, manuscripts and parchments. It is open daily from 8.30 to 7.30 pm, but closed on Sundays.
The Biblioteca Nazionale Vittorio Emanuele III is in Piazza Plebiscito
Piazza Plebiscito in Naples, home of the
Biblioteca Nazionale Vittorio Emanuele III
Travel tip:
When in Naples, try an authentic Pizza Margherita, named after the mother of Victor Emmanuel III, Queen Margherita. It is claimed that the pizza, with its tomato, basil and mozzarella topping, was created to represent the Italian flag and named after Queen Margherita in 1889 by a Neapolitan pizza maker, Raffaele Esposito.

27 December 2015

Pope John Paul II’s prison visit

Pope came face to face with his would be killer

Pope John Paul II visited Rebibbia prison on the outskirts of Rome on this day in 1983 to forgive formally the man who had tried to assassinate him.
Pope John Paul II survived an assassination attempt in 1981
Pope John Paul II

Two years previously the Pope had been shot and critically wounded in St Peter’s Square by Mehmet Ali Agca, a Turkish member of a fascist group known as Grey Wolves.

John Paul II had been rushed unconscious to hospital with bullet wounds to the abdomen, colon and small intestine and had to have five hours of surgery to repair the damage.

Agca was caught and restrained by bystanders until the police arrived. He was tried and sentenced to life imprisonment.

John Paul II visited Agca on 27 December 1983 in prison in Rebibbia, a suburb on the north eastern edge of Rome.

They spoke privately for about 20 minutes and afterwards the Pope said he had pardoned his would be killer.

Agca had previously escaped from a Turkish prison where he had been serving a sentence for murdering a journalist. He was deported to Turkey at the end of his jail sentence in Italy and went on to serve another ten years in prison.

On 27 December 2014, 33 years after the shooting, Agca came to the Vatican in Rome to lay white roses on Pope John Paul II’s tomb.

Pope John Paul II had died in April 2005 at the age of 84 in his private rooms in the Vatican.  He had been taken ill in February of the same year and underwent a tracheotomy. He was released from hospital but in late March developed an infection that turned into septic shock, a severe condition from which he never recovered.

St Peter's was the scene of an attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II in Rome
The scene of the attempted assassination of
John Paul II in St Peter's Square, Rome

Travel tip:

St Peter’s Square in front of the Basilica was designed by Bernini to provide a large space where the faithful, from all over the world, could gather together. It is filled with pilgrims and visitors to Rome on Easter Sunday, Christmas Day and other important occasions when the Pope appears to address the crowd.

Travel tip:

Pope John Paul II’s tomb is on the north side of an area called the Vatican Grottoes, less than 100 feet from the tomb of Saint Peter. The grottoes are beneath the floor of St Peter’s Basilica and house the tombs of many dead popes.


26 December 2015

Santo Stefano - Boxing Day

Feast of Santo Stefano in Italy

Italians enjoy another day relaxing with their families on the feast of Santo Stefano, which is a public holiday in Italy.

The statue can be found in the Chiesa di Santo Stefano
The statue of Santo Stefano in the
 church of the same name in Assisi

It is traditional to visit loved ones and friends that you didn't see the day before to take presents and gifts of food.

Lunch will be less formal but still consist of several courses and each area of Italy will have its own specialities.

The day remembers Santo Stefano, traditionally thought of as the first Christian martyr, who lived during the first century  BC.

He aroused enmity with his christian teachings in Jerusalem. Accused of blasphemy, he was tried and sentenced to death. Eventually he was stoned to death by an angry crowd. 

The day is celebrated in different ways across Italy.  In some towns there are processions, in others there are re-enactments of the nativity. It is also a tradition in some areas to visit nativity scenes in local churches and leave donations.

The Sicilian town of Ragusa stages an annual presepe vivente (live nativity scene) which attracts many visitors. 
Ragusa stages an annual presepe vivente, which attracts many visitors
The Sicilian hill town of Ragusa offers
spectacular views

Travel tip:

The Baroque town of Ragusa in south-eastern Sicily is one of the island's most picturesque towns, with spectacular views.  It is built on a wide limestone hill between two valleys and has become a location regularly used for Sicilian detective drama Il Commissario Montalbano (Inspector Montalbano). 


25 December 2015

Natale – Christmas Day

Celebrating Christmas the Italian way


Christmas Day in Italy is very much a family feast just as in other parts of the world.

After la Vigilia di Natale (Christmas Eve), when traditionally a fish meal is consumed and the adults go to midnight mass, Natale (Christmas Day) is a time for feasting.
Panettone, the traditional end to the
Christmas Day meal in Italy

While the children open their presents, the adults savour a glass of good Prosecco or uncork a special vintage bottle while they prepare the festive table.

Friends and relatives who drop in with presents or to exchange good wishes will be offered a glass of wine and nuts, biscuits or torrone (a type of nougat from Cremona).

Antipasti is likely to include Parma ham or Bresaola, served with preserved mushrooms, olives or pickled vegetables.

Stuffed pasta is usually served as a first course, either in the shape of ravioli or tortellini, which are said to have been offered as Christmas gifts to priests and monks during the 12th century. In the south a baked pasta dish is often served.

For the main course, turkey or capon is likely to be served in the north of Italy, with potatoes and vegetables as side dishes. Veal, beef and chicken can be served in the south.

The traditional end to the meal is almost always Panettone, served warm accompanied by a glass of sparkling wine or Prosecco. 

Salute e Buon Natale from Italy On This Day!

Travel tip:

Cremona in Lombardia is famous for producing confectionery. Negozio Sperlari in Via Solferino specialises in the city’s famous torrone (nougat). The concoction of almonds, honey and egg whites was created in the city to mark the marriage of Bianca Maria Visconti to Francesco Sforza in 1441, when Cremona was given to the bride as part of her dowry.

Travel tip:

Milan, the main city in Lombardia, is believed to be where Panettone originated.  It is said to have been concoted by a Milanese baker, Antonio (Toni), to impress his girlfriend at Christmas time in the 15th century. The result was so successful that ‘Pane de Toni’ has become a regular feature of the Christmas season all over Italy and now even abroad.


24 December 2015

Vigilia di Natale – Christmas Eve

Feasting on fish the night before Christmas

The day before Christmas, la Vigilia di Natale, is also referred to as ‘the feast of the seven fishes’ in Italy.

Tradtionally fish is served in Italy on Christmas Eve
La Vigilia di Natale, captured in a painting
from around 1905

It is a tradition that no meat is served on Christmas Eve, but families in many areas will follow the tradition of serving seven fish courses for the evening meal.

Afterwards, many people will go to midnight mass to celebrate the coming of Christ and, in Rome, some will head to St Peter’s Square.

Fish dishes regularly served at the beginning of the meal include baccalà  (salt cod) and frutti di mare (shellfish). In Naples, a popular dish to start the meal is broccoli fried with frutti di mare. 

For the pasta course, lasagne with anchovies is popular in the north, while vermicelli with clams (vongole) is often served in the south.'

There are traditionally seven different fish dishes, representing the seven sacraments, on the menu on Christmas Eve, but in some households there could be even more.

In some areas of southern Italy, in the midnight between 24 and 25 December it is customary for families to stage a procession, at home, led by a candle-bearer followed by the youngest family member carrying a figurine of the baby Jesus, with the rest of the family members following. This procession ends with the placing of the “baby” in the cradle of the family nativity scene.

Travel tip:

To eat the freshest fish in Venice, look for a restaurant in the area of Campo della Pescheria, where the city’s fish market is located. It is now a vibrant area with plenty of bars and restaurants. You could sample a small portion of baccalà in true Venetian style, standing up at the counter of one of the bars, washing it down with a glass of good, local Prosecco.
Borgo Marinara is renowned for fish restaurants
The Borgo Marinara area of Naples is renowned for
seafood restaurants overlooking the harbour

Travel tip:

In Naples, try some of the fresh fish on the menu at one of the restaurants in the Borgo Marinaro area of the city where you can eat looking out at the bay and at Vesuvius. All types of seafood, cod, whiting, swordfish and lobster are readily available and will be cooked for you with expertise.


23 December 2015

Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa – writer

Sicilian prince whose novel achieved recognition after his death

The Sicilian writer, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, was born on this day in 1896 in Palermo in Sicily.

Tomasi's only novel, The Leopard, became the best selling novel in the history of Italian literature
Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa
He became the last Prince of Lampedusa after the death of his father and his only novel, Il Gattopardo (The Leopard), was published in 1958 after his death, soon becoming recognised as a great work of Italian literature.

The novel, which is set in his native Sicily during the Risorgimento, won the Strega prize in 1959 for him posthumously.
After starting to study jurisprudence at university in Rome he was drafted into the army in 1915.

He fought in the battle of Caporetto and was taken prisoner by The Austro-Hungarian army. He was held in a prisoner of war camp for a while in Hungary but eventually managed to escape and return to Italy.

Giuseppe inherited his father’s title in 1934 and eventually settled down to write his novel. He completed Il Gattopardo in 1956, but it was rejected by the first two publishers he submitted it to.

Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa died in Rome in 1957 at the age of 60. His novel was published a year after his death. It became the best selling novel in Italian history and was made into a film in 1963 by the director Lucchino Visconti.

The novel is celebrated at the Museo del Gattorpardo in the town of Santa Margherita di Belice, in the Sicilian province of Agrigento, where Tomasi had a palace.

Travel tip:

Palermo, the birthplace of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, is the capital city of Sicily, the biggest Italian island, which is situated at the toe of the peninsula of Italy out in the Mediterranean Sea.

Rabbit Beach has been described as among the best beaches in the world for the quality of its sand and its clear water.
Rabbit Beach in Lampedusa is said to be among
the finest beaches in the world
Photo: Figiu (CC BY 3.0)

Travel tip:

Lampedusa, home to about 6,000 people is an island situated 205 kilometres (127 miles) south-west of Sicily. The southernmost part of Italy, it is part of the Sicilian province of Agrigento but is actually just 113 kilometres (70 miles) off the cost of Tunisia.  Rabbit Beach, on the south side of the island, is renowned as one of the finest beaches in the world, combining soft white sand with crystal clear water.


22 December 2015

Giacomo Puccini – opera composer

Musical genius who took the baton from Verdi

Giacomo Puccini, one of the greatest composers of Italian opera, was born on this day in 1858 in Lucca in Tuscany.

This photograph of Puccini was taken in America in 1908
Giacomo Puccini, pictured in
New York in 1908
He had his first success with his opera, Manon Lescaut, just after the premiere of Verdi’s last opera, Falstaff. Manon Lescaut was a triumph with both the public and the critics, and he was hailed as a worthy successor to Verdi.
Puccini was born into a musical family who encouraged him to study music as a child while he was growing up in Lucca.

He moved to Milan to continue his studies at the Milan Conservatory, where he was able to study under the guidance of the composer, Amilcare Ponchielli.

He wrote an orchestral piece that impressed Ponchielli and his other teachers when it was first performed at a student concert. Ponchielli then suggested that Puccini’s next work might be an opera.

Watch Andrea Bocelli sing Puccini's Nessun Dorma in London in 2012

Puccini’s first attempt at opera was successful enough for it to be purchased by a firm of music publishers and after some revisions it was performed at La Scala in Milan.

But when his next opera, Edgar, was first performed at La Scala it was not so well received.

After some revisions it was performed again in Lucca where it was more popular.

But his next opera, Manon Lescaut, was a triumph when it was first performed in Turin in 1893.

His next three operas, La Boheme, Tosca and Madam Butterfly, were also big successes and are still regularly performed today.

His final opera, Turandot, was still not completed when he died, but Puccini was able to leave the world with the amazing aria, Nessun Dorma.

Puccini died in Brussels in 1924 after unsuccessful treatment for throat cancer. When news of his death reached Rome during a performance of La Boheme, the opera was immediately stopped and the orchestra played Chopin’s Funeral March to the saddened audience.

Puccini’s body was buried inside a mausoleum built after his death in his villa at Torre del Lago in Tuscany.

More opera -- Domenico Cimarosa, father of comic opera, born 17 December, 1749

Travel tip:

You can still visit Puccini’s birthplace in Corte San Lorenzo in Lucca . The house is now a museum containing many of the composer’s furniture, personal items and letters. For more information visit www.fondazionegiacomopuccini.it 

Puccini restored a house at Torre del Lago as a family home
The statue of Giacomo Puccini at Torre del Lago,
where he made his home
Photo: Sailko (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Travel tip:

Puccini restored a house at Torre del Lago to live in after he became successful. He is buried along with members of his family in a mausoleum built at the house. For more information visit www.giacomopuccini.it


21 December 2015

Masaccio – Renaissance artist

Innovative painter had brief but brilliant career 

The 15th century artist Masaccio was born on this day in 1401 in Tuscany.
The Trinity by Masaccio was one of the first paintings to convey perspective.
Masaccio's painting
The Trinity

He is now judged to have been the first truly great painter of the early Renaissance in Italy because of his skill at painting lifelike figures and his use of perspective.

Christened Tommaso di Ser Giovanni di Simone, the artist came into the world in a small town near Arezzo, which is now known as San Giovanni Valdarno.

Little is known about his early life but it is likely he would have moved to Florence to be apprenticed to an established artist while still young.

The first evidence of him definitely being in the city was when he joined the painters’ guild in Florence in 1422.

The name Masaccio derives from Maso, a shortened form of his first name, Tommaso. Maso has become Masaccio, meaning ‘clumsy or messy Maso’. But it may just have been given to him to distinguish him from his contemporary, Masolino Da Panicale.

Massaccio’s earliest known work is the San Giovenale Triptych painted in 1422, which is now in a museum near Florence . He went on to produce a wealth of wonderful paintings over the next six years.

While in Florence, Masaccio studied the works of Giotto and became friends with Brunelleschi and Donatello. He also travelled to Rome with Masolino, where he became influenced by ancient Roman and Greek art.

One of his major works is The Trinity, a fresco produced for the Church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence in 1427 in which he conveys a depth of space, with the interior of a chapel cleverly painted behind the figure of Christ on the Cross.

Masaccio died in Rome in 1428 in mysterious circumstances. He was just 26 years of age. There was a story that he had been poisoned by a jealous artist but nothing certain is known about the cause of his death.

His fellow artists regarded it as a great loss because Masaccio had been the first to use techniques to translate into painting a sense of the three dimensions. He was to have a profound influence on other artists who came after him.

Travel tip:

Arezzo, near where Masaccio was born, is an interesting town in eastern Tuscany that has become famous because of another artist, Piero della Francesco. The 13th century church of San Francesco contains Piero della Francesco’s frescoes, The Legend of the True Cross, painted between 1452 and 1466 and now considered to be one of Italy’s greatest fresco cycles.
The Basilica of Santa Maria Novella is home to Masaccio's fresco The Trinity
The Basilica of Santa Maria Novella

Travel tip:

The gothic Basilica of Santa Maria Novella in Piazza di Santa Maria Novella in the western part of Florence contains some of the most important works of art in the city. A highlight is Masaccio’s pioneering work, The Trinity, which is a masterpiece of perspective and portraiture.


20 December 2015

Francesco Bentivegna – military leader

Patriotic baron executed in what was to become mafia heartland

Baron Francesco Bentivegna, a Sicilian patriot, died on this day at Mezzojuso in Sicily in 1856.

Bentivegna led revolts against the Bourbon rulers of the island in the mid 19th century and became renowned for his bravery.
Corleone, made famous by The Godfather movies, is the birthplace of Sicilian patriot Francesco Bentivegna
Corleone, perched in the mountains above Palermo,
is the birthplace of Francesco Bentivegna
Photo: Michael Urso (CC BY-SA 2.0 DE)

He was born in Corleone near Palermo and it is believed his parents originally intended him for the church.

But after leading his first revolt against the Bourbons in 1848 in Palermo he was appointed military governor of the Corleone district as a reward.

Within 16 months the Bourbon soldiers had reoccupied Palermo and offered all the rebels an amnesty if they pledged loyalty to their French rulers.

Bentivegna refused and again attempted to launch a coup, which was unsuccessful. Afterwards he had to live as a wanted fugitive, while continuing to try to organise revolutionaries.

He was arrested in 1853 but released in 1856, after which he began to plan a full-scale uprising against the occupying forces.

The Baron was betrayed by one of his compatriots and arrested. He was sentenced to death and executed by a firing squad on 20 December 1856 . His body was thrown into a communal ossuary but later secretly removed.

After Sicily had been liberated by Garibaldi, Bentivegna’s body was taken to Corleone. It was wrapped in the Italian flag and entombed in his local church.
Hill towns are typical of Sicily's rugged landscape
Sicily's rugged landscape is dotted with hill towns,
such as Ragusa (pictured here) in the south-east

Travel tip:

Sicily is the largest island in the Mediterranean, just off the toe of Italy’s boot. The ancient ruins, diverse architecture and distinctive cuisine enjoyed by visitors are all testament to the island’s colourful history. Watching over the island is Mount Etna, a volcano that is still active.

Travel tip:

Corleone, the town of Francesco Bentivegna’s birth, is a commune of Palermo, Sicily’s capital city. Several real life Mafia bosses have come from Corleone and it is also the fictional birthplace of some of the characters in Mario Puzo’s novel about the mafia, The Godfather. There is now a street named Via Francesco Bentivegna in Corleone.

19 December 2015

Italo Svevo – writer

Author who became the main character in someone else’s novel

The novelist Italo Svevo was born Aron Ettore Schmitz on this day in 1861 in Trieste, which was then part of the Austrian Empire.
The Italian coastal town was home to James Joyce and Italo Svevo
The harbour at Trieste

Schmitz took on the pseudonym, Italo Svevo, after writing his novel La Coscienza di Zeno, Zeno’s Concience.

The novelist himself then became the inspiration for a fictional protagonist in a book by someone else. James Joyce, who was working in Trieste at the time, modelled the main character in Ulysses, Leopold Bloom, on his friend Svevo.

Svevo’s own novel, which revealed his deep interest in the theories of Sigmund Freud, received little interest at the time and might have sunk without trace if it had not been for the encouragement of Joyce, who regarded him as a neglected writer. Joyce helped Svevo get the novel translated into French and, after the translated version was highly praised, the Italian critics discovered it.

Svevo always spoke Italian as a second language because he usually spoke the dialect of Trieste where his novel is set and the story never looks outside the narrow confines of Trieste.

In the novel the main character seeks psychoanalysis to discover why he is addicted to nicotine and each time he declares he has smoked the ‘ultima sigaretta’  he starts to smoke again.

Svevo, like his character, smoked all his life. After being involved in a serious car accident in 1928 he was taken to hospital. As he neared death he asked for a cigarette. When it was refused, Svevo said: “That really would have been the last cigarette.” He died later that afternoon, at the age of 66.

Travel tip:

Trieste is the main city of the region of Friuli Venezia Giulia and lies close to the Slovenian border.

It was once the main seaport of the Austro-Hungarian empire and is a fascinating mix of styles, with the seafront, canals and imposing squares reminiscent of Venice, and the coffee houses and architecture showing the Austrian influence dating from the era of Hapsburg domination.
The museum commemorates two writers who helped put Trieste on the map.
The Joyce e Svevo museum in Trieste

Travel tip:

Find out why the Irish writer James Joyce enjoyed living in Trieste for so many years by visiting the Museo Joyce e Svevo in Via Madonna del Mare at number 13.

Created in 1997 by Italo Svevo’s daughter, the museum provides the opportunity to study the work of both writers through their manuscripts, photographs, books and letters.


18 December 2015

Antonio Stradivari – violin maker

Craftsman from Cremona produced the world’s best stringed instruments

The man who produced violins worth millions, Antonio Stradivari, died at the age of 93 on this day in Cremona in 1737.

Stradivari was an ordinary man who worked as a luthier, a maker of stringed instruments, but experts now consider him to be the greatest ever in his field.
Cremona is the birthplace of the world's greatest violin maker, Antonio Stradivari.
A street violinist in Cremona,
home of Antonio Stradivari

He is believed to have produced more than 1,100 instruments, often referred to as 'Stradivarius' violins.  About 650 of them are still in existence today and in the last few years some of his violins and violas have achieved millions of pounds at auction.

The Stradivari family date back to the 12th century in Cremona and it is believed Antonio was born there in 1644.

It is thought he was apprenticed to the violin maker Nicolò Amati. The label on the oldest violin still in existence, known to have been made by Stradivari, bears the date 1666.

He had enough money to buy a house for himself and his family in Cremona by 1680. He used the attic as a workshop and kept producing better and better instruments until his reputation spread beyond Cremona.

In 1688 a Venetian banker ordered a set of instruments to present to King James II of England, though what happened to them still remains a mystery.

In the 1690s Stradivari’s style changed and he started to use a darker varnish and different methods to achieve even better results. The high quality of the instruments he produced between 1700 and 1720 have made experts call this his golden period.

Some of his instruments are still played by violinists today and many of the top orchestras have, what are now referred to as ‘Strads’, in their collections.

In 2011 a violin made by Stradivari in 1721, which had been discovered still in pristine condition, sold in London for £9.8 million, the equivalent of 14.1 million dollars.

Antonio Stradivari died on 18 December 1737 and was buried in his local church of San Domenico in Cremona.

Il Torrazzo, Cremona's famous bell tower,
at 112 metres is the tallest in Italy
Travel tip:

Cremona is famous for having the tallest bell tower in Italy, il Torrazzo, which measures more than 112 metres in height. As well as violins, Cremona is also famous for producing confectionery. Negozio Sperlari in Via Solferino specialises in the city’s famous torrone (nougat). The concoction of almonds, honey and egg whites was created in the city to mark the marriage of Bianca Maria Visconti to Francesco Sforza in 1441, when Cremona was given to the bride as part of her dowry.

Travel tip:

There is a Museo Stradivariano in Cremona in Via Ugolani Dati. The collection of items in the museum is housed in the elegant rooms of a former palace. Visitors can see how the contralto viola was constructed in accordance with the classical traditions of Cremona, view instruments commemorating Italian violin makers in the 19th and early 20th centuries and look at more than 700 relics from Stradivari’s workshop.