31 December 2016

Giovanni Michelucci - architect

Designer made mark with railway station and motorway church

Giovanni Michelucci
Giovanni Michelucci 
The architect Giovanni Michelucci, whose major legacies include the Santa Maria Novella railway station in Florence, died on this day in 1990 in his studio just outside the Tuscan city at Fiesole.

Considered by many to be the 'father' of modern Italian architecture, he was only two days away from his 100th birthday.  He was still working and is said to have been inspecting progress on his latest project when he slipped and fell, later suffering a cardiac arrest.

Michelucci, who was born in Pistoia on January 2, 1891, is also remembered for the brilliantly unconventional church of San Giovanni Battista, with its tent-like curved roof, which forms part of a rest area on the Autostrada del Sole as it passes Florence.

The Santa Maria Novella station project for which he first won acclaim came after a collective of young architects known as the Tuscan Group, co-ordinated by Michelucci, beat more than 100 other entries in a national competition in the early 1930s to built a new station behind the church of the same name.

The linear design was loathed by conservatives but loved by modernists, although it could not be said to conform to the style identifiable as Fascist architecture in Italy at the time, which had echoes of classical Roman design, albeit without ornate decoration.

It met with the approval of Fascist leader Mussolini, nonetheless, who approved the design, and it came to be regarded subsequently as a masterpiece of rationalist architecture. The stone of its exterior blended with the historic colours of Florence, yet a spacious entrance hall and gallery with a thermolux and steel roof made it functional and modern.

Santa Maria Novella railway station in Florence
Santa Maria Novella railway station in Florence
The station was built between 1932 and 1935, almost 30 years before Michelucci's second landmark work, which he undertook at the age of 73 after the highways authority commissioned him to design a church that would both honour the memory of those who died in the construction of the motorway and provide a 'parish for tourists', where travellers could break their journeys to worship.

The church, in concrete and stone, is built around a traditional 'cross' floor plan with tent-like vertical elements, rising to a height of 27.5 metres (90 feet), giving it a modern feel. The roof is of copper, oxidised to a blue-green colour on the outside and burnished blond on the inside, with marble, glass and bronze used for other interior features.

Michelucci came from a family which owned a craft iron workshop, which gave him his introduction to design. He graduated from the Higher Institute of Architecture at the Academy of Fine Arts of Florence before teaching at the Institute of Architecture of Florence, where he could later become Dean.

During his military service in the First World War, he built his first architectural work, a chapel for soldiers on the eastern front in Casale Ladra, near Caporetto in what is now Slovenia.

In the early 1920s, Michelucci taught in Rome, the city where he married the painter Eloisa Pacini. He returned to Florence in 1928.

Michelucci's church of San Giovanni Battista
Michelucci's 'motorway' church of San Giovanni Battista
Other important works in Tuscany include a 1936 town plan for Pistoia, the classicist-style Palazzo del Governo in Arezzo the same year and the Borsa Merci in Pistoia (1950).

In Florence, he designed an urban plan for the Sorgane neighbourhood of Florence in 1955) and the Cassa di Risparmio of Florence in 1957.  The Inn of the Red Crawfish at the Pinocchio Park in Collodi (1963) is his, as is the skyscraper in Piazza Matteotti in Livorno (1966).

His biggest disappointments were the rejection of his plans for reconstruction of the Ponte Vecchio area after the Second World War II and for restoring the buildings around Piazza Santa Croce after the 1966 flood.

However, Michelucci did become involved with the reconstruction work necessitated by the Vajont Dam disaster in the mountains above Venice in 1963, in particular the village of Longarone, where he designed a memorial church.

Always an architect who wanted his buildings to benefit the people who used them, in his later years he concentrated almost entirely on what might be deemed social projects, designing churches, schools, hospitals, and prisons. He also devoted time and energy to setting up the Michelucci Foundation to support research into urban planning and modern architecture and to promote his own values and ideals.

Travel tip:

Florence's railway station was opened on February 3, 1848, to serve the railway lines to Pistoia and Pisa. It was initially called Maria Antonia in honour of Princess Maria Antonia of the Two Sicilies but was renamed after the church of Santa Maria Novella after the unification of Italy.  Nowadays, the station is used by 59 million people every year and is one of the busiest in Italy, with high speed lines to Rome and Bologna.

The 11th century cathedral of Fiesole
The 11th century cathedral of Fiesole
Travel tip:

Fiesole, situated in an elevated position about 8km (5 miles) north-east of Florence, has since the 14th century been a popular place to live for wealthy Florentines and even to this day remains the richest municipality in Florence.  Formerly an important Etruscan settlement, it was also a Roman town of note, of which the remains of a theatre and baths are still visible.  Fiesole's cathedral, built in the 11th century, is supposedly built over the site of the martyrdom of St. Romulus.

More reading:

Ulisse Stacchini's architectural legacy to Milan

Pier Luigi Nervi - from football stadiums to churches

How Marcello Piacentini's designs symbolised Fascist ideals

Also on this day:

New Year's Eve - the Festa di San Silvestro

(Picture credits: Motorway church by Luca Aless)


30 December 2016

Titus – Roman Emperor

'Good' ruler who helped victims of Vesuvius eruption

A statue of  Titus unearthed in Herculaneum, which can be found in a Berlin museum
A statue of  Titus unearthed in Herculaneum,
 which can be found in a Berlin museum
The Roman Emperor Titus was born Titus Flavius Vespasianus on this day in AD 39.

He was Emperor from AD 79 to 81 and is remembered for capturing Jerusalem and for completing the Colosseum in Rome.

Two months after his accession, on August 24, AD 79, Mount Vesuvius in Campania began erupting, eventually killing thousands of people around Pompeii and Herculaneum.

Titus appointed officials to coordinate the relief effort, while donating large amounts of money from the imperial treasury to aid the victims. He visited Pompeii twice.

Titus was a member of the Flavian dynasty and succeeded his father Vespasian after his death, becoming the first Roman emperor to come to the throne after his biological father.

Titus was believed to have been born in Rome on December 30, AD 39, the eldest son of Titus Flavius Vespasianus, who was commonly known as Vespasian.

His father had earned prestige as a military commander, taking part in the invasion of Britain in AD 43 under the emperor Claudius.

Titus served under his father in Judea during the first Jewish-Roman war. The campaign came to a brief halt with the death of Emperor Nero in AD 68, which launched Vespasian’s bid for imperial power.

When Vespasian was declared Emperor in July AD 69, Titus was left in charge of ending the Jewish rebellion.  In AD 70 he besieged and captured Jerusalem and the Arch of Titus was built in Rome to commemorate his victory.

The Arch of Titus in Rome, built to commemorate the  victory of Titus in capturing Jerusalem
The Arch of Titus in Rome, built to commemorate the
victory of Titus in capturing Jerusalem
After the death of Vespasian from an infection, Titus succeeded him as Emperor.

Under the rule of his father, he gained notoriety in Rome while serving as prefect of the Praetorian Guard, and for carrying on a controversial relationship with the Jewish queen, Berenice.

There were fears among some Romans that Titus might be another Nero, whose leadership was seen as brutal and corrupt. In fact, his brief reign was considered a triumph by Suetonius and other historians, who saw him as a 'good' emperor and recorded that he was much loved by the population.

Building work on the Flavian amphitheatre, now known as the Colosseum, began in AD 70 under Vespasian and was finally completed in AD 80 under Titus. To inaugurate the amphitheatre, spectacular games, including gladiatorial combat and mock naval battles, were held there, lasting for 100 days.

But after barely two years as Emperor, Titus died of a fever on 13 September AD 81. Historians have speculated about his death and suspicion has fallen on his brother, Domitian, who succeeded him as Emperor and could have poisoned him.

Travel tip:

The Colosseum in the centre of Rome is the largest amphitheatre ever built. Construction began on the oval building in about AD 70 close to the Forum. The amphitheatre was built to hold up to 80,000 spectators and was used for events such as gladiator contests, mock sea battles and executions. Nowadays it has links to the Catholic Church and the Pope always starts his torch-lit Good Friday procession there.

The gladiator barracks: One of the ruins left behind after the eruption of Vesuvius and later uncovered at Pompeii
The gladiator barracks: One of the ruins left behind after the
eruption of Vesuvius and later uncovered at Pompeii
Travel tip:

Mount Vesuvius erupted in AD 79, burying the Roman cities of Pompeii, Herculaneum, Oplontis and Stabiae and killing thousands. An eyewitness account of the eruption has been left behind by a Roman administrator and poet, Pliny the Younger, who described the event in his letters to the historian Tacitus. In the early hours of the morning of 25 August, pyroclastic flows of hot gas and rock began to sweep down the mountain, knocking down all the structures in their path and incinerating or suffocating the people who remained. The remains of about 1500 people have been found at Pompeii and Herculaneum. The excavated ruins of Pompeii, show what daily life was like in a Roman city, down to what was sold in the shops and how people decorated their homes. Tourists can also visit the volcano, which since 1955 has been part of Mount Vesuvius National Park.

More reading:

AD 79: Europe's worst volcanic disaster

Decline and fall: Gibbon's epic work on history of Roman Empire

The 1944 Vesuvius eruption

Also on this day:


29 December 2016

Tullio Levi-Civita – mathematician

Professor from Padua who was admired by Einstein

Tullio Levi-Civita
Tullio Levi-Civita
Tullio Levi-Civita, the mathematician renowned for his work in differential calculus and relativity theory, died on this day in 1941 in Rome.

With the collaboration of Gregorio Ricci-Curbastro, his professor at the University of Padua, Levi-Civita wrote a pioneering work on the calculus of tensors. Albert Einstein is said to have used this work as a resource in the development of the theory of general relativity.

Levi-Civita corresponded with Einstein about his theory of relativity between 1915 and 1917 and the letters he received from Einstein, carefully kept by Levi-Civita, show how much the two men respected each other.

Years later, when asked what he liked best about Italy, Einstein is reputed to have said ‘spaghetti and Levi-Civita.’

The mathematician, who was born into an Italian Jewish family in Padua in 1873, became an instructor at the University of Padua in 1898 after completing his own studies.

He became a professor of rational mechanics there in 1902 and married one of his own students, Libera Trevisani, in 1914.

Albert Einstein: the German physicist held Levi-Civita in high regard
Albert Einstein: the German physicist
held Levi-Civita in high regard
In 1917, having been inspired by Einstein’s theory of general relativity, Levi-Civita made his most important contribution to this branch of mathematics, the introduction of the concept of parallel displacement in general curved spaces.

This concept immediately found many applications and in relativity is the basis of the unified representation of electromagnetic and gravitational fields. In pure mathematics his concept was instrumental in the development of modern differential geometry.

Levi-Civita also worked in the fields of hydrodynamics and engineering. He made great advances in the study of collisions in the three-body problem, which involves the motion of three bodies as they revolve around each other.

His books on these subjects became standard works for mathematicians and his collected works were published in four volumes in 1954.

Levi-Civita was invited by Einstein to visit him in Princeton in America and he lived there for a while in 1936, returning to Italy with war looming.

He was removed from his post at the University of Rome in 1938 by the Fascist regime because of his Jewish origins, having taught there since 1918.

Deprived of his professorship and his membership of all academic societies by the Fascists, Levi-Civita became isolated from the scientific world and in 1941 he died at his apartment in Rome, aged 68.

Travel tip:

The University of Padua, where Levi-Civita studied and later taught, was established in 1222 and is one of the oldest in the world, second in Italy only to the University of Bologna. The main university building, Palazzo del Bò in Via VIII Febbraio in the centre of Padua, used to house the medical faculty. You can take a guided tour to see the pulpit used by Galileo when he taught at the university between 1592 and 1610.

The Caffè  Pedrocchi is an historic meeting place for students and intellectuals in Padua
The Caffè  Pedrocchi is an historic meeting place
for students and intellectuals in Padua
Travel tip:

Right in the centre of Padua, the Caffè Pedrocchi has been a meeting place for business people, students, intellectuals and writers for nearly 200 years. Founded by coffee maker Antonio Pedrocchi in 1831, the caffè was designed in neoclassical style and each side is edged with Corinthian columns. It quickly became a centre for the Risorgimento movement and was popular with students and artists because of its location close to Palazzo del Bò, the main university building. It became known as the caffè without doors, as it was open day and night for people to read, play cards and debate. Caffè Pedrocchi is now a Padua institution and a must-see sight for visitors, who can enjoy coffee, drinks and snacks all day in the elegant surroundings.

More reading:

Also on this day

1966: The birth of footballer Stefano Eranio


28 December 2016

Italy's worst earthquake

Catastrophic tremor of 1908 may have killed up to 200,000

A devastated street in Messina with the remains of the Chiesa delle Anime del Purgatorio in the distance
A devastated street in Messina with the remains of the Chiesa
delle Anime del Purgatorio in the distance
The most destructive earthquake ever to strike Europe brought devastation to the cities of Messina and Reggio Calabria on this day in 1908.

With its epicentre beneath the Strait of Messina, which separates Sicily from the Italian mainland, the quake had a magnitude of 7.1 and caused the ground to shake for between 30 and 40 seconds.

It was enough to cause such catastrophic damage that Messina, on the Sicilian side, and Reggio Calabria, on the mainland side, were almost completely destroyed.

The loss of life was huge because the earthquake happened at 5.21am, when most residents were still in bed.

An unknown number were swept away by the tsunami that struck both cities 10 minutes after the major tremor had stopped, when the sea on both sides of the Strait receded up to 70 metres and then rushed back towards the land, generating three massive waves, each taller than the one that preceded it, up to a height of 12 metres (39 feet).

At least 75,000 people were killed in Messina alone, where 91 per cent of buildings were either destroyed or damaged beyond repair.  The Norman cathedral, which had withstood a series of five quakes in 1783, was reduced this time to a partial shell.

Ruined buildings on the waterfront at Reggio Calabria
Ruined buildings on the waterfront at Reggio Calabria
The death toll amounted to half the population of the city.  Among the dead were the American consul Arthur S Cheney and his wife, Laura.  The French consul and his children were killed, as was Ethel Ogston, the wife of the British Consul, Alfred, who survived.

Notable Italian casualties included both the chief of police and the attorney general of Messina and the operatic tenor Angelo Gamba, who had been in the city to perform in the Giuseppe Verdi opera, Aida, and perished with his family when his hotel collapsed.

In Reggio Calabria almost the whole of the historic centre was destroyed, wiping out much of the city's Greek heritage.  Initial estimates were that around 25,000 people lost their lives, around a quarter of the population, but many more probably died.

The tsunami destroyed the waterfront in both cities, drowning thousands of residents who had sought refuge close to the beach, away from buildings.

Once calm had returned, there were virtually no doctors or hospital facilities to tend the injured, while the bodies of victims buried beneath the rubble were often not recovered until months later, or in some cases not at all.  The final death toll is unknown, with the estimate of 200,000 based on comparing the numbers of residents recorded in census documents before and after the disaster.

Even based on the more conservative estimates, the loss of life was the largest in a single earthquake in Italian history, eclipsing even the Naples earthquake in 1626, which was said to have killed 70,000 people.

In the aftermath of the 1908 event, Europe witnessed one of the first major international rescue operations as Russia and the United States joined European nations in providing assistance.

All lines of communication from the area were cut off and news of the disaster did not reach the rest of Italy until the end of the day, when an Italian naval vessel docked at Nicotera, 80km up the coast from Reggio Calabria, and the captain sent a message via telegraph lines to Giovanni Giolitti, the Italian prime minister.

Rescuers dig through the rubble in Messina
Rescuers dig through the rubble in Messina 
The Italian navy and army responded and began searching, treating the injured, providing food and water, and evacuating refugees.  The rescue effort was then joined by a fleet of Russian warships on the morning of December 29 and the following day British ships started arriving from Malta.

French and German ships followed suit. When news of the disaster reached the United States, where many emigrants from southern Italy had already settled, President Roosevelt offered to help and four ships were dispatched immediately to provide humanitarian aid and provisions.

In the meantime, Giolitti imposed martial law, ordering that all looters be shot. King Victor Emmanuel III and Queen Elena arrived two days after the earthquake to assist the victims and survivors, many of whom had to be relocated to other parts of Sicily or Italy, or took the option of starting a new life in America.

Both cities were rebuilt along the lines of modern urban areas, architect Luigi Borzi designing the new Messina, with the reconstruction of Reggio Calabria placed in the hands of the engineer Pietro De Nava, although as late as the 1950s, some families were still living in the wooden barracks that were erected as temporary housing.

Travel tip:

Messina's cathedral, which still contains the remains of King Conrad, ruler of Germany and Sicily in the 13th century, had to be almost entirely rebuilt following the earthquake, and again in 1943, after a fire triggered by Allied bombings. The original Norman structure can be recognised in the apsidal area and the façade has three late Gothic portals, dating back to the early 15th century. The tympanum dates back to 1468.

Hotels in Messina by Expedia

The Palazzo Spinelli is an example of the Liberty style buildings characteristic of the rebuilt Reggio Calabria
The Palazzo Spinelli is an example of the Liberty style
buildings characteristic of the rebuilt Reggio Calabria
Travel tip:

Reggio Calabria is the oldest city in Calabria, the most important in what became known as Magna Graecia - Great Greece - after settlers began to arrive in the eighth century BC.  Much of its heritage was destroyed in the earthquake and the rebuilt city is notable now for its fine Liberty buildings and its linear plan.  The best of what could be salvaged of the Greek remains can be seen in the National Archaeological Museum of Magna Graecia, housed in Palazzo Piacentini.

Hotels in Reggio Calabria by Hotels.com

More reading:

The devastating Naples earthquake of 1626

How the wrath of Vesuvius wiped Pompei from the map

The Vajont dam - a man-made disaster

Also on this day:


27 December 2016

Terrorist attack at Fiumicino

Horrifying end to Christmas celebrations

The departure hall at Fiumicino in the aftermath of the 1985 attack
The departure hall at Fiumicino in the
aftermath of the 1985 attack
The peace of Italy's festive celebrations was shattered by a devastating terrorist attack on this day in 1985 when Arab gunmen opened fire in the main departure hall at Rome's Leonardo da Vinci-Fiumicino Airport.

The attack, which claimed the lives of 16 people, took place shortly after 9.05am, when the four perpetrators approached the check-in desks of Israel's El Al Airline and the United States carrier Trans World Airlines.

Israeli secret services were aware that an attempt either to hijack a plane or stage an attack on the ground was being planned between December 25 and 31 in Rome and an Israeli security officer became suspicious of the quartet as he watched their movements in the departure hall.

However, when he stepped forward to challenge them, they produced assault rifles and began firing, at the same time throwing grenades.

The Israeli officer was killed and in the ensuing gunfight, involving more Israeli security staff and Italian police, some 12 passengers were fatally wounded.  They included Americans, Mexicans, Greeks, Italians and at least one Algerian.

The entrance to Fiumicino Airport today
The entrance to Fiumicino Airport today
Three of the gunmen were shot dead and a fourth, 18-year-old Ibrahim Khaled, was captured by police.

A simultaneous attack at Vienna International Airport resulted in three more passenger deaths.

The attacks were at first blamed on the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), but its leader, Yasser Arafat, denied the accusations and denounced the strikes.  Responsibility was later claimed by the breakaway PLO faction, the Abu Nidal Organization, in retaliation for the Israeli bombing of PLO headquarters in Tunis three months earlier.

The United States accused Libya, who praised the attacks as "heroic", of funding the terrorists who carried out the attacks. The charge was denied.  Italian secret services blamed Syria and Iran and in 2013 a court in the United States ruled that Syria owed the victims of the attacks $1 billion each in compensation.

Ibrahim Khaled, the only survivor among the Rome attackers, was sentenced in 1988 to 30 years in jail.  Abu Nidal himself was sentenced to life imprisonment in his absence.  Khaled had told investigators that both the Rome and Vienna operations had been carried out by Abu Nidal's guerrilla group and that the attacks had been planned in Damascus with the apparent consent of the Syrian authorities.

The Rome attack took place 12 years after 34 people died at Fiumicino - 30 of them on board a Pan American aircraft on the runway - during another attack by Arab terrorists.

Travel tip:

While best known as the location of Rome's largest international airport, Fiumicino, which is situated at the mouth of the Tiber, about 30km (19 miles) from the centre of the capital, is also a resort town and fishing centre with a population of almost 78,000.  Attractions include the Oasi di Macchiagrande nature reserve, the Museum of Roman Ships and an art museum, the Pianeta Azzurro.

Some parts of Ostia Antica are stunningly well preserved
Some parts of Ostia Antica are stunningly well preserved
Travel tip:

Across the Tiber from Fiumicino, the remains of the ancient Roman city of Ostica Antica, represent an underappreciated gem. Beautifully preserved - more so than the volcano-ravaged Pompei - the site occupies around 10,000 square metres, radiating from a mile-long main street.  There are many houses and apartment blocks, plus warehouses and public buildings, and an impressive amphitheatre.  The city used to be Rome's port but the natural changes in the geography of the coastline over the centuries mean that it is now 3km (2 miles) inland.

More reading:

Kidnap of ex-PM Aldo Moro stuns Italy

Red Brigades seize NATO boss in Verona

Death of a terror suspect that inspired a Dario Fo play

Also on this day:

(Picture credits: Fiumicino Airport by Ra Boe; Ostia Antica by Jean-Pierre Dalbéra; via Wikimedia Commons)


26 December 2016

Beppe Severgnini - journalist and author

Books observing national mores have been best sellers

Journalist Beppe Severgnini: respected commentator and witty observer of his fellow human beings
Journalist Beppe Severgnini: respected commentator
and witty observer of his fellow human beings

The author and journalist Giuseppe Severgnini was born on this day in 1956 in Crema in northern Italy.

Better known as Beppe Severgnini, he is a respected commentator on politics and social affairs, about which he has written for some of the most influential journals and newspapers in Italy and the wider world.

Severgnini is equally well known for his humorous writing, in particular his gently satirical observations of the English and the Americans as well as Italians, about whom he has written many books.

His biggest selling titles include An Italian in America, which has also been published as Hello America. He has also enjoyed success with La Bella Figura: An Insider's Guide to the Italian Mind, Mamma Mia! Berlusconi's Italy Explained for Posterity and Friends Abroad, and An Italian in Britain.

Severgnini is currently a columnist for Corriere della Sera in Italy and the International New York Times in the United States.  A former correspondent for the British journal The Economist, he writes in both Italian and English, having spent a number of years living in London, Washington and New York.

The son of a notary in Crema, Severgnini graduated in law at the University of Pavia.  For a brief period he worked at the European Community headquarters in Brussels before beginning his career in journalism at the age of 27, when he joined the Milan daily newspaper Il Giornale, headed by veteran Italian journalist Indro Montanelli.

It was soon evident he was a talented writer and he became the paper's London correspondent.  Subsequently, during the years of the fall of communism, he became a special correspondent in Eastern Europe, Russia and China.

Beppe Severgnini's books have been bestsellers in Italy, Great Britain and the United States
Beppe Severgnini's books have been bestsellers in
Italy, Great Britain and the United States
When Montanelli set up a new venture, La Voce, Severgnini became its Washington correspondent in 1994 before returning to Italy the following year and beginning his long association with Corriere della Sera, for whom as well as writing opinion pieces he moderates a popular forum, simply called 'Italians', originally aimed at Italian expatriates, which has become one of the most read regular features of the newspaper's website.

Severgnini was Italian correspondent for The Economist between 1996 and 2003 and still writes for the magazine from time to time.  He has also contributed to the Sunday Times and The Financial Times in the UK and occasionally writes about football for Gazzetta dello Sport.

Away from newspapers and books, he has taught at the Walter Tobagi graduate School of Journalism at the University of Milan, been writer in residence at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a visiting fellow at Ca’ Foscari Venezia. 

One of his books, Signori, si cambia: In viaggio sui treni della vita (All Change: Travelling on the Train of Life), has been turned into a play, Life is a Journey, in which he also stars.

The Piazza del Duomo in Severgnini's home town of Crema in Lombardy
The Piazza del Duomo in Severgnini's home
town of Crema in Lombardy
He presents a television show on RAI TRE entitled The Grass is Greener, which compares Italy with other European countries and America.

He was made an Officer of the British Empire (OBE) in 2001 and a Commendatore of the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic in 2011.

A keen supporter of Internazionale and the owner of a 1954 Vespa motor scooter, Severgnini lives near Milan with his wife and their son Antonio.

Travel tip:

The small city of Crema, which sits on the banks of the Serio river about 50km east of Milan, has an attractive historic centre built around the Piazza del Duomo.  Apart from the cathedral itself, which has a tall bell tower completed in 1604, the area includes the Santa Maria della Croce basilica, built around a 35km high circular central structure, the Palazzo Pretorio and the Palazzo Comunale.

The covered bridge over the Ticino river in Pavia was rebuilt after being destroyed in the Second World War
The covered bridge over the Ticino river in Pavia was
rebuilt after being destroyed in the Second World War
Travel tip:

Pavia was once the most important town in northern Italy, the legacy of which is evident in its many fine buildings. These include a cathedral boasting one of the largest domes in Italy, a beautiful Romanesque Basilica, San Michele, and the well preserved Visconti Castle, surrounded by a large moat, which is home to the Civic Museum. The covered bridge across the Ticino River is a faithful reproduction of a 13th-century bridge destroyed during Allied bombing raids in the Second World War.

More reading:


Buy Beppe Severgnini's books from Amazon

(picture credits: main Beppe Severgnini by Davide Schenette; second Beppe Severgnini by Alessio Jacona; Piazza del Duomo by MarkusMark; Bridge at Pavia by Konki; all via Wikimedia Commons)


25 December 2016

Lina Cavalieri – soprano

Christmas Day baby became singing beauty

Lina Cavalieri was described as 'the world's most beautiful woman'
Lina Cavalieri was described as 'the
world's most beautiful woman'
Singer and actress Lina Cavalieri was born Natalina - meaning 'Little Christmas' - Cavalieri on this day in 1874, in Viterbo in Lazio.

During her career she starred opposite Enrico Caruso in operas and earned the title of ‘the world’s most beautiful woman', while many of her female contemporaries tried to attain her hour-glass figure by using tight-laced corsetry.

Raised as one of five children in humble circumstances, she was expected to work to supplement the family income.  To this end, she sold flowers and sang on the streets of Rome.

After a music teacher heard her singing, she was offered some music lessons.  Subsequently, she found work as a café singer and then in theatres in Rome.

Increasingly popular both for her voice and her physical beauty, she made her way from Rome first to Vienna and then Paris where she performed in music halls including the Folies-Bergère and worked with singing coaches to develop her voice.

The progression to opera came in 1900, when she made her debut in Lisbon as Nedda in Pagliacci, by Ruggero Leoncavallo. It was in the same year that she married her first husband, the Russian Prince, Alexandre Bariatinsky, whom she had met in Paris and who had encouraged her to believe she should not be content with working in mere music halls.

The Lisbon audience gave her a difficult time, however, and the production was abandoned after only a few nights, at which point Bariatinsky left her.  Cavalieri returned to Paris and might have given up her operatic ambitions without the encouragement of her sister, Ada, who helped her rebuild her confidence.

Cavalieri starred opposite Enrico Caruso in Paris and New York
Cavalieri starred opposite Enrico Caruso
in Paris and New York
After successes at Teatro San Carlo in Naples, in Warsaw, Ravenna, Palermo and St Petersburg, a breakthrough moment came when in 1905 she starred opposite Caruso in Umberto Giordano’s opera, Fedora, at the Sarah Bernhardt Theatre in Paris.

The performance was so successful they took the production to the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

Cavalieri stayed with the Met for two seasons, performing again with Caruso in 1907 in Giacomo Puccini’s opera Manon Lescaut. She became one of the most photographed stars of the time and women everywhere tried to copy her figure.

She had a brief, second marriage to Robert Winthrop Chanler, an American artist and a member of the Astor and Dudley-Winthrop families.  Married in 1910, the had separated within weeks and were divorced in 1912.

During her career she sang with many famous singers, including the French tenor Lucien Muratore, who became her third husband in 1913.

After retiring from the stage, Cavalieri ran a beauty salon in Paris and wrote an advice column on make-up for a magazine. She also launched her own range of beauty products and perfumes.

A poster for the film 'The World's Most  Beautiful Woman' with Gina Lollobrigida
A poster for the film 'The World's Most
 Beautiful Woman' with Gina Lollobrigida
In 1915 she returned to Italy to make films and then went back to America, where she starred in silent movies, many of which have since been lost.

She moved to Italy again after marrying her fourth husband, the writer Paolo d’Arvanni.

Despite being in her sixties when the Second World War began, she became a volunteer nurse.

Tragically, Cavalieri and her husband were both killed in 1944 after an Allied bombing raid destroyed their home near Florence.

After her death, Cavalieri was painted repeatedly by the Italian artist Piero Fornasetti, who found her face in an old magazine and became obsessed with her, creating hundreds of versions of her image.

In 1955 she was portrayed by Gina Lollobrigida in the film Beautiful but Dangerous, which was alternatively called The World’s Most Beautiful Woman, a French-Italian production directed by Robert Z Leonard.

Travel tip:

Viterbo, where Lina Cavalieri was born, is the largest town in northern Lazio, situated about 80km (50 miles) north of Rome. In the 12th and 13th centuries, with Rome often chaotic as rival families engaged in feuds, Viterbo became a favourite refuge for embattled popes. Much of its most notable architecture, such as the Papal Palace, has echoes of that period. It was bombed heavily during the Second World War but much of its historical centre remained intact and nowadays it is a somewhat overlooked city.

The Villa del Poggio Imperiale outside Florence
The Villa del Poggio Imperiale outside Florence
(picture by Sailko via Wikimedia Commons)
Travel tip:

Lina Cavalieri was killed at her home just outside Florence at Poggio Imperiale, near the imposing neoclassical Villa del Poggio Imperiale, which was once the home of the Grand Dukes of Tuscany. It was seized from the Salviati family by the Medici and was then later given to Napoleon’s sister before becoming a girl’s school. Some of the frescoed state rooms are open to the public by appointment.

More reading:

Giuseppina Strepponi - the inspiration for Donizetti and Verdi

How Ruggero Leoncavallo created one of the world's favourite operas

Renata Tebaldi - soprano with the 'voice of an angel'

Also on this day:

Christmas in Italy


24 December 2016

Francesco Cirio - canning pioneer

Market trader whose name became known worldwide

Francesco Cirio
Francesco Cirio, who pioneered the technique of canning food products to preserve their freshness, was born on this day in 1836 in the town of Nizza Monferrato in what is now Piedmont.

His father was a grain trader and Francesco developed entrepreneurial instincts at an early age.  By the age of 14 he was working at the fruit and vegetable market of Porta Palazzo in Turin.

He soon became aware that there was a demand for fresh Italian produce in London and Paris and set up a company to export fruit and vegetables to other cities in Europe.

At the same time he heard about the work of Nicolas Appert, the French confectioner and chef, whose attempts to find ways to preserve food led him to discover that heat could be used as a method of sterilisation and that foods treated in that way could be sealed in cans and would retain their fresh condition for many months.

The method, which became known as Appertisation, was taken up by Cirio, who set up his first canning factory in Turin in 1856 at the age of 20, concentrating first on peas and then achieving similar success with other vegetables.

A poster from the early part of the 20th century advertising Cirio's most famous product
A poster from the early part of the 20th century
advertising Cirio's most famous product
Within a decade, the Cirio brand was appearing on the shelves of grocery stores all over the world and by 1885 the Societa Anonima di Esportazione Agricola Francesco Cirio, with its headquarters in Turin, had opened subsidiaries in Milan, Naples, Belgrade, Berlin, Brussels, London, Paris and Vienna.

Francesco died in 1900 but his partner, Pietro Signorini, continued the development of the company, which invested in the agricultural development of Southern Italy.  Canned tomatoes became a major part of the business and from the 1920s onwards, the name Cirio became synonymous with Italian tomatoes.

The business continued to thrive through the 20th century before it became engulfed in the financial scandals of the late 1990s. The company was wound up after a number of executives were arrested on fraud charges during the anti-corruption drive in Italy that saw several other of the country's biggest commercial names disappear from the shelves.

However, the Cirio brand lives on as part of the Gruppo Cooperativo Conserve Italia, a cooperative consortium of vegetable producers based in San Lazzaro in Emilia-Romagna.

Travel tip:

Nizza Monferrato, in the province of Asti, grew up around the Abbey of San Giovanni in Lanero in the 13th century.  It passed into the hands of the House of Savoy in 1703 and began to flourish in the 18th century, when it was noted for its silk production.  Interesting buildings include the Palazzo Comunale, the seat of the local government since the 14th century, and the Palazzo Crova, which is a good example of the town houses favoured by the nobility in the 18th century.  The red wine Nizza, a DOCG wine made with Barbera grapes, is produced in just 18 municipalities around the town.

Stalls on the Porta Palazzo market in Turin, where Francesco Cirio worked from the age of 14
Stalls on the Porta Palazzo market in Turin, where
Francesco Cirio worked from the age of 14
Travel tip:

The Porta Palazzo market, located in Piazza della Repubblica in Turin, where Cirio cut his teeth in the fruit and vegetable business, is the largest open air market in Europe with around 800 stalls.  It trades from Monday to Friday and attracts not only customers from the city but from neighbourhoods further afield and many foreign visitors.  There is a strong representation of local producers with more than 100 stalls every day directly selling products from farmers around Turin. The market was renovated in 2006.

More reading:

Michele Ferrero - the man who invented Nutella spread

Piedmont roots of chef and TV presenter Antonio Carluccio

Soave - the classic Italian wine

Also on this day:

Christmas Eve - la Vigilia di Natale

(Picture credit: Porta Palazzo market by Xadhoomx via Wikimedia commons)


23 December 2016

Michele Alboreto - racing driver

Last Italian to go close to Formula One title 

Michele Alboreto is the last Italian to win a Grand Prix in a Ferrari
Michele Alboreto is the last Italian
to win a Grand Prix in a Ferrari
No Italian motor racing driver has won the Formula One world championship since 1953 but Michele Alboreto, who was born on this day in 1956, went as close as anyone.

Racing for Ferrari, Alboreto finished runner-up in 1985, beaten by just 20 points by Alain Prost. Riccardo Patrese finished second in 1992 but the gap between him and champion Nigel Mansell was a massive 52 points after the British driver won nine Grand Prix victories to Patrese's one.

Patrese was never even in the hunt in 1992 after Mansell began the season with five straight wins.By contrast, Alboreto's 1985 duel with Prost could have gone either way until well into the second half of the campaign. Alboreto scored two race wins and four second places to lead by five points after winning race nine of the 16-race series in Germany.

However, a series of disastrous engine failures late in the season wrecked Alboreto's chance to be the first Italian champion since Alberto Ascari in 1953.

Michele Alboreto during his period driving for Tyrrell
Michele Alboreto during
 his period driving for Tyrrell
Prost won the next race in Austria to draw level and after both finished on the podium in the Netherlands the Frenchman led by just three points with five races left.

Next up was the Italian Grand Prix at Monza and never would a home victory have been cheered so loudly had Alboreto been able to finish in front and regain the initiative. As it was, the Ferrari's reliability suddenly disappeared and Alboreto came home last of the 13 drivers to complete the race.

In the final four events, he was forced to retire each time, unable to secure even a single point.

It was a profound disappointment for the Italian, for whom being hired to drive for Ferrari had been the pinnacle of his career.  Ironically, the appointment came after he had openly criticised owner Enzo Ferrari for failing to hire an Italian driver, arguing that both Patrese and Elio de Angelis were perfectly qualified.

Enzo Ferrari's counter argument was that for Italian drivers there was too much emotion attached to driving the iconic red car and that under the weight of patriotic expectation they were too inclined to let passion get the better of professionalism.

Alboreto at the wheel of the Ferrari in which he  finished runner-up to Alain Prost in 1985
Michele Alboreto at the wheel of the Ferrari in which he
finished runner-up to Prost in the 1985 F1 championship
Yet he was impressed enough with Alboreto's performances with Tyrrell, for whom he won two Grand Prix at Caesar's Palace and Detroit, to be persuaded to take a chance.  Alboreto was an intelligent, gracious and companionable man, hugely popular on the circuit, but had few peers for skill and competitiveness.

Alboreto was born in Milan, where his father was a sales representative and his mother worked for the municipal authority. His career in motorsport began in 1976, racing a car he and a number of his friends had built for the Formula Monza series. Two years later Alboreto moved up to Formula Three and began to enjoy considerable success.

He was runner-up in the Italian Formula Three championship in 1979 and in 1980 won the European Formula Three title that Prost had taken in 1979.  This paved the way for his entrance into F1 with Tyrrell.

In his debut season for Ferrari, Alboreto took victory in the third round in Belgium, where he became the first Italian driver to win an F1 Grand Prix for Ferrari since Ludovico Scarfiotti in 1966.  Alboreto finished the 1984 season in fourth place.

After his peak of 1985, however, he never won another race for Ferrari in three seasons, the closest he came being runner-up at Monza to Austrian teammate Gerhard Berger in 1988, an extraordinary result that came days after Enzo Ferrari had died at the age of 90.

Alboreto was driving an Audi R8 when he suffered his fatal crash while testing in Germany
Alboreto was driving an Audi R8 when he suffered his
fatal crash while testing in Germany
The wave of emotion that accompanied the occasion soon faded, however, and Alboreto's drive went to Mansell the following season.

He spent 1989 back with Tyrrell, but thereafter moved from one small team to another, the last of them the low-budget Minardi operation from Faenza, in Emila-Romagna.  From 1995 he concentrated on sports cars, competing in Ferraris, Porsches and then the all-conquering Audi works team.

Victory in the Le Mans 24 Hour race in 1997, sharing the wheel of a Porsche with the Swede Stefan Johansson, was the highlight of his post-Formula One career.

He won the Sebring 12-hour race in an Audi R8 in 2001 and that proved to be his last victory.  Two weeks later, while testing the Audi at Lausitzring, near Dresden, in preparation for another attempt at the Le Mans 24 Hours, he suffered fatal injuries when the car left the track, hit a wall and somersaulted several times.

At the request of his wife, Nadia, he was cremated at the Lambrate cemetery in Milan.  Aged just 44 at the time of his death, he left behind two children, Alice and Noemi, as well as countless friends and admirers.  Alboreto remains the last Italian to have won a Grand Prix for Ferrari.

The Basilica of San Giovanni Battista in Monza
The Basilica of San Giovanni Battista in Monza
Travel tip:

Apart from the motor racing circuit, Monza is notable for its 13th century Basilica of San Giovanni Battista, often known as Monza Cathedral, which contains the famous Corona Ferrea or Iron Crown, bearing precious stones.  According to tradition, the crown was found on Jesus's Cross.  Note also the Villa Reale, built in the neoclassical style by Piermarini at the end of the 18th Century, which has a sumptuous interior and a court theatre.

Hotels in Monza by Hotels.com

Travel tip:

The town of Maranello in Emilia-Romagna, about 18km from Modena, would probably have remained relatively anonymous but for the decision taken in the early 1940s by Enzo Ferrari to relocate there after his factory in Modena suffered from repeated bombing raids in the Second World War.  The town houses the Museo Ferrari, which details the history of the company and has many vintage racing and sports cars on display, and is also the starting point for the annual Italian Marathon, which finishes in nearby Carpi.

Hotels in Maranello by Expedia

More reading:

Vittorio Jano - genius designer behind Italy's Formula One success

Luigi Fagioli - Formula One's oldest winner

How little 'Pinin' Farina became a giant of car design

Also on this day:

1896: The birth of writer Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa

(Picture credits: Ferrari in 1985 by Spurzem; Audi R8 by dro!d; Basilica in Monza by Francescogb; all via Wikimedia Commons)


22 December 2016

Giacomo Manzù – sculptor

Shoemaker’s son who became internationally acclaimed sculptor

Giacomo Manzù, pictured in 1966 at his studio in Ardea, near Rome
Giacomo Manzù, pictured in 1966 at his
studio in Ardea, near Rome
Sculptor Giacomo Manzù was born Giacomo Manzoni on this day in 1908 in Bergamo in Lombardy.

The son of a shoemaker, he taught himself to be a sculptor, helped only by a few evening classes in art, and went on to achieve international acclaim.

Manzoni changed his name to Manzù and started working in wood while he was doing his military service in the Veneto in 1928.

After moving to Milan, he was commissioned by the architect, Giovanni Muzio, to decorate the Chapel of the Sacred Heart Catholic University.

But he achieved national recognition after he exhibited a series of busts at the Triennale di Milano.

The following year he held a personal exhibition with the painter, Aligi Sassu, with whom he shared a studio.

He attracted controversy in 1942 when a series of bronze bas reliefs about the death of Christ were exhibited in Rome. They were criticised by the Fascist Government after they were interpreted as an indictment of Nazi-Fascist violence and Manzù had to go into hiding for a while, fearful of arrest.

Manzu's Monument to the Partisan in his home city of Bergamo
Manzù's Monument to the Partisan in his
home city of Bergamo
Manzù had started teaching at the Accademia di Brera in Milan, but during the war he went back north to live in Clusone, to the north of Bergamo, in Val Seriana. He returned to teach in Milan at the end of the war.

He then moved to Salzburg, where he met his wife, Inge Schabel, who became the model for several of his sculptures.

One of his most striking works is his Monument to the Partisan, which he completed in 1977 and gave to his home city of Bergamo as a gift.

He built an 11-foot high sculpture, Passo di Danza, in Detroit and his last great work was a six-metre tall sculpture in New York in 1989, representing a woman holding a child.

During his long career he also built stage sets for the composer Igor Stravinsky and he eventually designed his tomb in Venice.

A devout Catholic, Manzù was a personal friend of Pope John XXIII, who was also from Bergamo, and he completed some important commissions for the Vatican and St Peter’s Basilica.

While in Rome he lived in Ardea, south of the capital and close to the sea, in a locality that has since been renamed Colle Manzù in his honour.  Ardea has a museum dedicated to his work.

His son, Pio, was a car designer who is credited with the design for the groundbreaking Fiat 127, the 'people's car' of the 1970s, although he never saw the project completed. Pio died tragically young in a road accident at the age of just 30 in 1969.

Manzù died in Ardea in 1991. The New York Times described him in an obituary as ‘one of Italy’s leading sculptors whose work often mixed religious, allegorical and sexual imagery’.

Piazza Vecchia, in Bergamo's Città Alta, has been described as the most beautiful square in Italy
Piazza Vecchia, in Bergamo's Città Alta, has been
described as the most beautiful square in Italy
Travel tip:

Bergamo in Lombardy, where Giacomo Manzù was born, is a fascinating, historic city with two distinct centres. The Città Alta, upper town, is a beautiful, walled city with buildings that date back to medieval times. The elegant Città Bassa, lower town, still has some buildings that date back to the 15th century, but more imposing and elaborate architecture was added in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Hotels in Bergamo by Hotels.com

Travel tip:

Piazza Matteotti, in the Città Bassa in Bergamo, is the site of Manzù’s remarkable work, Monument to the Partisan, which the sculptor dedicated to the Italian partisans who fought against the Germans to liberate their country during the Second World War.

More reading:

21 December 2016

Lorenzo Perosi - priest and composer

Puccini contemporary chose sacred music over opera

Lorenzo Perosi forsook opera in  favour of religious music
Lorenzo Perosi forsook opera in
 favour of religious music
Don Lorenzo Perosi, a brilliant composer of sacred music who was musical director of the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican for almost half a century, was born on this day in 1872 in the city of Tortona in Piedmont.

A devoutly religious man who was ordained as a priest at the age of 22, Perosi was a contemporary of Giacomo Puccini and Pietro Mascagni, both of whom he counted as close friends, but was the only member of the so-called Giovane Scuola of late 19th century and early 20th century composers who did not write opera.

Instead, he concentrated entirely on church music and was particularly noted for his large-scale oratorios, for which he enjoyed international fame.

Unlike Puccini and Mascagni, or others from the Giovane Scuola such as Ruggero LeoncavalloUmberto Giordano and Francesco Cilea, Perosi's work has not endured enough for him to be well known today.

Yet at his peak, which music scholars consider to be the period between his appointment as Maestro of the Choir of St Mark's in Venice in 1894 and a serious mental breakdown suffered in 1907, he was hugely admired by his fellows in the Giovane Scuola and beyond.

Perosi with Arturo Toscanini before the  premiere of his work Mosè in Milan
Perosi with Arturo Toscanini before the
premiere of his work Mosè in Milan 
Arturo Toscanini conducted his work Mosè on the occasion of its premiere at La Scala in Milan in November 1901, his French admirers included Claude Debussy and Jules Massenet and many of the great opera singers on his day were keen to perform in his works, including Enrico Caruso, Mario Sammarco, Carlo Tagliabue and Beniamino Gigli.

Puccini is quoted as saying that "there is more music in Perosi's head than mine and Mascagni's put together".

Perosi is credited with reviving the oratorio as a musical genre. His grand productions for chorus, soloists, and orchestra based on Latin texts were noted for their bringing together of Renaissance harmony, Gregorian chant, and the flamboyant melodies and orchestrations characteristic of the Giovane Scuola. 

Perosi was one of 12 children born into a pious Catholic family in Tortona, only half of whom survived infancy.  His own birth was said to have been difficult and music historians believe it was probably the cause of the mental health problems he suffered in adulthood.

His father, Giuseppe, was choir director at the cathedral in Tortona and his talent for music was shared with his brothers Carlo, who also became a priest, and Marziano, who would later be musical director at the Duomo of Milan.

Listen to the choir of the church of the Beata Vergine in Mandria, near Padua

Lorenzo enrolled at Milan Conservatory, where he began his association with Puccini and Mascagni, after which he took his first professional post as organist at the Abbey of Montecassino.  He spent a year studying in Germany under Franz Xaver Haberl, where he learnt Renaissance polyphony, but declined a permanent teaching position in Germany in favour of a position nearer home as director of sacred music at the Duomo in Imola.

The bust of Lorenzo Perosi in the  gardens at the Pincio in Rome
The bust of Lorenzo Perosi in the
gardens at the Pincio in Rome
From Imola he went to Solesmes Abbey, a Benedictine Monastery in France to study under the Gregorianists Dom André Mocquereau and Dom Joseph Pothier.

The appointment at St Mark's in Venice came in 1894 and brought Perosi under the influence of Cardinal Giuseppe Sarto, the Patriarch of Venice who would go on to be elected as Pope Pius X.  It was Sarto who ordained Perosi to the priesthood but just as importantly encouraged his music and was influential in his appointment in Rome.

Perosi's mental health problems began to manifest themselves in 1906, when doctors felt he was suffering from nervous exhaustion as a consequence of the hours he spent writing music in addition to his duties as a priest.

They became so severe following the deaths of both his parents within the space of a few years that at one stage his brother, Carlo, was nominated legal guardian as some doctors deemed him incurable. In time, however, his condition improved and he returned to a normal life.

He added to an already enormous body of work and the popes Pius XI and Pius XII waived the rules regarding mandatory retirement and retained him as 'maestro perpetuo' into his 80s. By the time his health deteriorated irreversibly he had served under five popes.  He died in Rome in October 1956.

The Duomo of Tortona, where Lorenzo Perosi is  buried along with his brother, Carlo
The Duomo of Tortona, where Lorenzo Perosi is
buried along with his brother, Carlo
Travel tip:

Tortona is an elegant small city of around 27,000 inhabitants in the eastern part of Piedmont, roughly halfway between Milan and the Ligurian coast at Genoa.  It sits on the right bank of the Scrivia river between the plain of Marengo and the foothills of the Ligurian Apennines.  Lorenzo Perosi, along with his brother, Carlo, is buried at the Duomo, where his father was the choir director.  The Duomo has a 19th century neoclassical facade but the building itself dates back to the 16th century.

Travel tip:

The Sistine Chapel choir is one of the oldest religious choirs in the world, consisting today of 20 adult professional singers and 30 unpaid boy choristers.   Its reputation today owes much to Lorenzo Perosi, who raised its artistic level to a level as high as any it had known during his time as Maestro di Cappella and supported Pope Pius X in outlawing the use of boys whose voices were preserved by the barbaric practice of castration. Pius declared that only "whole men" should be allowed to be choristers or priests, and the last of the castrati were in time eased out of the choir.  A bust of Perosi can be found in the gardens on Pincian Hill - the Pincio - in Rome.

More reading:

How Giovanni Gabrieli helped popularity of Venetian Baroque

What made Puccini one of the greatest of opera composers

The genius of Venice's musical priest, Antonio Vivaldi

Also on this day:

1401: Birth of the great Renaissance artist Massacio

(Picture credits: bust by Lalupa; Tortona Duomo by Vincenzo da Tortona; both via Wikimedia Commons)