29 February 2016

Gioachino Rossini – opera composer

The amazing talent of composer Rossini

Étienne Carjat's 1865 photographic portrait  of Gioachino Rossini
Étienne Carjat's 1865 photographic portrait
of Gioachino Rossini
One of Italy’s most prolific composers, Gioachino Rossini, was born on this day in 1792 in Pesaro in Le Marche.

He wrote 39 operas as well as sacred music, songs and instrumental music. He is perhaps best remembered for, The Barber of Seville (Il Barbiere di Siviglia), and Cinderella (La Cerenterola).

Rossini was born into a musical family and during his early years his father played the trumpet in bands and his mother earned her living singing at theatres in the area.

He quickly developed musical talent of his own and made his first appearance on stage as a singer in 1805 before settling down to learn several musical instruments and become an accompanist and then a conductor.

Rossini’s first opera, The Marriage Contract (La Cambiale di Matrimonio), was staged in Venice when he was just 18.

In 1813 his operas, Tancredi and L’Italiana in Algeri, were big successes and he found himself famous at the age of 20.

Listen to the overture from Rossini's opera William Tell, as performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra

The Barber of Seville was first produced in Rome in 1816 and went on to be so successful that it is claimed even Beethoven wrote to congratulate Rossini on it.

The composer became wealthy and in big demand and travelled to Austria , France and England. In 1824 he accepted the post of musical director at a theatre in Paris and wrote Guillaume Tell (William Tell) during his time there.

Rossini came back to live quietly in Italy for about ten years, but returned to France in 1855, where he died at the age of 76 from pneumonia at his country house in Passy.

He was initially buried in Paris but because of his enormous popularity in Italy, his remains were moved to the Basilica di Santa Croce in Florence at the request of the Italian Government in 1887.

Travel tip:

Pesaro is a beautiful, traditional seaside resort on the Adriatic coast renowned for its sandy beach. Rossini’s birthplace, at Via Rossini 34, is now a museum dedicated to the composer and there is also a theatre named after him. A Rossini opera festival is held in Pesaro every summer.

Rossini's Barber of Seville premiered at the Teatro Argentina in 1816
The Teatro Argentina in Rome, where Rossini's
Barber of Seville premiered in 1816
Travel tip:

The premiere of Rossini’s famous opera, The Barber of Seville, was held at Teatro Argentina in Rome in February 1816. It was jeered by the supporters of a rival composer on the first night but the second performance was a success and the opera quickly became popular in England and America. It has been regularly performed over the last 200 years and remains a favourite with both singers and audiences. Teatro Argentina, in Largo di Torre Argentina in the centre of Rome, was built in 1731 over the spot where Julius Caesar was assassinated.

More reading:

How advice from Gigli prolonged soprano's career

Enrico Caruso: the greatest tenor of all time


28 February 2016

Dino Zoff – footballer

Long career of a record-breaking goalkeeper

Dino Zoff, back row, left, with the Italian national team at the 1982 World Cup finals
Dino Zoff, back row, left, with the Italian national
team at the 1982 World Cup finals 
Dino Zoff, the oldest footballer to be part of a World Cup winning team, was born on this day in 1942.

Zoff was captain of the Italian national team in the final of the World Cup in Spain in 1982 at the age of 40 years, four months and 13 days.

He also won the award for best goalkeeper of the tournament, in which he kept two clean sheets and made a number of important saves.

Zoff was born in Mariano del Friuli in Friuli-Venezia Giulia. He had trials with Inter-Milan and Juventus at the age of 14 but was rejected because of his lack of height.

Having grown considerably, he made his Seria A debut with Udinese in 1961. He then moved to Mantua, where he spent four seasons, and Napoli, where he spent five seasons.

Zoff made his international debut during Euro 68 and was number two goalkeeper in the 1970 World Cup.  From 1972 onwards he was Italy’s number one goalkeeper.

He signed for Juventus in 1972 and during his 11 years with the club won the Serie A championship six times, the Coppa Italia twice and the UEFA Cup once.

Zoff (left), with teammate Franco Causio and team coach Enzo
 Bearzot (smoking pipe), accompanying Italy's state  president,
Sandro Pertini, as they fly back to Italy with the 1982 World Cup 
When Zoff retired he held the record for being the oldest Serie A player at the age of 41 and for the most Serie A appearances, having played 570 matches.

He was head coach at Juventus and Lazio, winning the UEFA Cup and the Coppa Italia with the former, and was then appointed to lead the Italian national team. He coached a young squad to finish second in Euro 2000 and was voted World Soccer Manager of the Year.

He was named the third greatest goalkeeper of the 20th century by the International Federation of Football History and Statistics, behind Lev Yashin and Gordon Banks.

In 2014, Zoff published his autobiography Dura Solo un Attimo la Gloria, 'Glory Lasts Only a Moment'.

The Chiesa di San Gottardo is the parish church of Mariano del Friuli
The Chiesa di San Gottardo is the
parish church of Mariano del Friuli
Travel tip:

Mariano del Friuli, where Dino Zoff was born, is a small town to the west of Gorizia in Friuli-Venezia Giulia, about 30km (19 miles) southeast of Udine and close to the medieval town of Cormons and the border with Slovenia. Many residents still speak friulano goriziano, a variant of the Friulian dialect, alongside modern Italian. The town's parish church, the 19th century Chiesa di San Gottardo, has an altarpiece painted by the Gorizia painter Giuseppe Tominz.

The Juventus Stadium in Turin
Photo: Juve2015 (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Travel tip:

Juventus stadium is in Corso Galileo Ferraris in Turin. To visit the club’s museum and tour the stadium, even getting the chance to look inside the dressing rooms, you can book a ticket at www.juventus.com 

More reading:

Gianluigi Buffon: Record-breaking goalkeeper still at top

Toto Schillaci: Italy's 1990 World Cup hero

How Enzo Bearzot plotted Italy's 1982 World Cup triumph

Also on this day:

1915: The birth of businessman Karl Zuegg, famous for jams and juices

1940: The birth of racing driver Mario Andretti

Selected books:

The Story of the World Cup, by Brian Glanville

(Picture credits: Chiesa di San Gottardo by Marchetto da Trieste; Juventus Stadium by Juve2015; via Wikimedia Commons)


27 February 2016

Mirella Freni – opera singer

Good advice from Gigli helped soprano have long career

Mirella Freni starred at the world's major opera houses
Mirella Freni, pictured in 1970
Singer Mirella Freni was born Mirella Fregni on this day in 1935 in Modena in Emilia-Romagna .

Freni’s grandmother, Valentina Bartolomasi, had been a leading soprano in Italy from 1910 until 1927, specialising in Wagner roles. By coincidence, her mother worked alongside the mother of tenor Luciano Pavarotti in a tobacco factory in Modena.

Freni was obviously musically gifted and sang an opera aria in a radio competition when she was just ten years old.

One of the judges was the tenor Beniamino Gigli, who advised her to give up singing until she was older to protect her voice.

Freni took his advice and resumed singing when she was 17, making her operatic debut at the Teatro Municipale in Modena at the age of 20 in Bizet’s Carmen.

Her international debut came at Glyndebourne in Franco Zeffirelli’s staging of Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore.

In the 1960 season at Glyndebourne she sang comic roles from Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro and Don Giovanni.

Listen to Mirella Freni performing "Un bel di vedremo" from Madame Butterfly

Freni made her Covent Garden debut in 1961, her La Scala debut in 1963 and her Metropolitan Opera debut in 1965.

She started singing the heavier Verdi roles in the 1970s but she always refused roles for which she thought she was unsuited, or that might overtax her voice, which contributed to her longevity as a singer.

The soprano starred in a 1975 film of Madame Butterfly opposite Placido Domingo.

In 1978 she married Nicolai Ghiaurov, a leading operatic bass. Together they established the Centro Universale del Bel Canto in Vignola, near Modena in 2002, where they began giving master classes. Freni continued this work after his death in 2004.

She celebrated her 50th anniversary on the operatic stage in 2005 at the age of 70 at the Met in New York before retiring.

Modena's 11th century Duomo is a Unesco world heritage site
Modena's 11th century Duomo
Travel tip:

Modena is an historic city in Emilia Romagna with a magnificent main square, Piazza Grande, which has an 11th century Duomo dedicated to San Geminiano, and is now a Unesco world heritage site. The city’s opera house was renamed Teatro Communale Luciano Pavarotti in 2007 after the great tenor. Modena is also famous for its balsamic vinegar, Aceto Balsamico di Modena.

Hotels in Modena from Booking.com

Travel Tip:

South of Modena is the city of Vignola, where Freni and Ghiaurov established their Centro Universale del Bel Canto. Famous for its cherry trees and the abundant fruit they produce, Vignola has one of the best preserved castles in the region, the Rocca di Vignola, founded in the eighth century but rebuilt and turned into a residence for a wealthy family in the 13th century. The city was also the birthplace of the brilliant architect Giacomo Barozzi da Vignola in 1507.

(Picture credit: Modena Cathedral by Icco80 via Wikimedia Commons)

26 February 2016

Napoleon escapes from Elba

Emperor leaves idyllic island to face his Waterloo

The French painter Joseph Baume's 1836 picture of  Napoleon about to depart from Elba for mainland France
The French painter Joseph Baume's 1836 picture of
Napoleon about to depart from Elba for mainland France
French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte escaped from the Italian island of Elba, where he had been living in exile, on this day in 1815.

Less than a year before, he had arrived in Elba, an island dotted with attractive hills and scenic bays, following his unconditional abdication from the throne of France.

Several countries had formed an alliance to fight Napoleon’s army and had chosen to send him to live in exile on the small Mediterranean island about 10km (6 miles) off the Tuscan coast.

They gave Napoleon sovereignty over the island and he was allowed to keep a small personal army to guard him. He soon set about developing the iron mines and brought in modern agricultural methods to improve the quality of life of the islanders.

But he began to be worried about being banished still further from France. He had heard through his supporters that the French Government were beginning to question having to pay him an annual salary.

Villa San Martino was Napoleon's country house on Elba
Napoleon's country house on Elba, the Villa San Martino
He had also been told that many European ministers felt Elba was too close to France for comfort.

Napoleon also missed his wife, Marie-Louise, who he believed his captors were preventing from joining him, and he was worried about being moved again to somewhere even more remote.

On the evening of February 26, 1815 Napoleon and a few hundred loyal soldiers boarded small boats and sailed to a tiny fishing village near Cannes, from where they marched north to Paris.

Napoleon seized power again and governed for a period now referred to as 'The Hundred Days,' but his final defeat at the Battle of Waterloo was less than four months away.

The picturesque port of Portoferraio is the arrival point for visitors to the island of Elba
The picturesque port of Portoferraio is the arrival
point for visitors to the island of Elba
Travel tip:

Elba is now a popular destination with holidaymakers who arrive by ferry at Portoferraio, which has an old port and a modern seafront with hotels. The west coast of the island has sandy beaches but the east coast is more rugged with high cliffs. Inland there are olive groves and vineyards producing Elba DOC. You can visit Napoleon’s two residences, Palazzina Naopleonica, a modest house built around two windmills in Portoferraio and Villa San Martino, his country house, which is further inland at San Martino and is decorated inside with Egyptian-style frescoes.

Hotels in Portoferraio from Booking.com

Piombino is the mainland point of departure for Piombino
The port of Piombino, the nearest mainland town to Elba
Travel tip:

Piombino is the point on the mainland closest to Elba, from where ferries run back and forth at frequent intervals during the day. The town is on the end of the Masoncello peninsula between the Ligurian and Tyrennian seas. It has an historic centre dating back to when it was a port used by the Etruscans. The main Etruscan city in the area, Populonia, is now a frazione (hamlet) of Piombino. It still has some Etruscan ruins to see and the Museo Etrusco Gasparri, which has important bronze and terracotta works.

25 February 2016

Enrico Caruso – opera singer

 Tenor's voice still regarded as greatest of all time 

Enrico Caruso sang in a choir while working  as an apprentice to a mechanical engineer
Enrico Caruso sang in a choir while working
as an apprentice to a mechanical engineer
Operatic tenor Enrico Caruso was born on this day in 1873 in Naples.

Believed by many opera experts to be the greatest tenor of all time, Caruso had a brilliant 25-year singing career, appearing at many of the major opera houses in Europe and America.

He made more than 200 recordings of his beautiful voice, some made as early as 1902.

Caruso was born in Via San Giovanello agli Ottocalli in Naples and baptised the next day in the nearby church of San Giovanni e Paolo.

At the age of 11 he was apprenticed to a mechanical engineer and also worked alongside his father in a factory.

At the same time he was singing in his church choir and was told his voice showed enough promise for him to consider becoming a professional singer.

Until she died in 1888, he was encouraged by his mother. To earn money, he started to work as a street singer in Naples, progressing to singing Neapolitan songs as entertainment in cafes. Having decided to become an opera singer, Caruso took singing lessons, keeping up with them even during his compulsory military service.

He made his stage debut in 1895 at the Teatro Nuovo in Naples in Domenico Morelli’s L’amico Francesco, having been recommended by a musician who had heard him sing.

Listen to Enrico Caruso singing La Donne e Mobile from Verdi's Rigoletto

Caruso went on to perform at other theatres throughout Italy and was given a contract to sing at the prestigious Teatro alla Scala in Milan in 1900. On his debut on December 26 of that year, he sang Rodolfo from Puccini’s La Bohème, conducted by Arturo Toscanini.

The following year he appeared in Monte Carlo, Warsaw, Buenos Aires and before the Tsar of Russia in St Petersburg.

Caruso took part in a grand concert at La Scala organised by Toscanini in 1901 to mark the death of Giuseppe Verdi.

Caruso made his debut at the Metropolitan Opera in Rigoletto in 1903
Caruso in his role as the Duke in Rigoletto, in which
 he made his debut at the Met in New York in 1903
A month later he was engaged to make his first group of recordings for a gramophone company using a hotel room in Milan. The recordings quickly became bestsellers and Caruso’s fame spread.

He travelled to New York in 1903 to take up a contract with the Metroplitan Opera, making his debut in Verdi's Rigoletto in November.

A few months later Caruso began his association with the Victor Talking Machine Company.

His 1904 recording of Vesti la giubba, the moving aria from Ruggero Leoncavallo's opera Pagliacci was the first recording ever to sell a million copies.

He made 863 appearances at the Met, attracting a substantial following from among New York’s Italian immigrants.

He continued to release recordings until close to his death in 1921. Caruso’s voice extended up to high D-flat in its prime and grew in power and weight as he became older. His singing can still be enjoyed by people today as his original recordings have been remastered and issued as CDs and digital downloads.

The singer’s health began to deteriorate in 1920 and he returned to Naples to recuperate. He was planning to go to a clinic in Rome in August 1921, and was staying overnight at the Albergo Vesuvio in Naples on the way, when his condition worsened and he died, aged 48.

The King of Italy, Victor Emmanuel III, opened the Royal Basilica of San Francesco di Paola, for his funeral, which was attended by thousands of people.

The distinctive Basilica of San Francesco di Paolo, overlooks Piazza del Plebiscito in the centre of Naples
The distinctive Basilica of San Francesco di Paolo, overlooks
Piazza del Plebiscito in the centre of Naples
Travel tip:

The Basilica of San Francesco di Paola is on the west side of Piazza del Plebiscito, the main square in Naples . Originally the building had been planned as a tribute to Napoleon but after the Bourbons were restored to the throne of Naples, Ferdinand I made it into a church and dedicated it to San Francesco di Paola. It is similar in design to the Pantheon in Rome with a portico resting on columns and a high dome in the middle. Caruso’s body was taken through the streets of Naples in a horse-drawn hearse and he lay in state before his funeral so that people could pay their respects.

Find a hotel in Naples with Tripadvisor

Caruso loved the resort of Sorrento and the Grand Hotel Excelsior Vittoria
Caruso on the balcony of the Grand Hotel
Excelsior Vittoria in Sorrento
Travel tip:

Caruso loved the resort of Sorrento and his stay at the Grand Hotel Excelsior Vittoria in July 1921 is recognised by a plaque at the entrance gate to the hotel, which is just off Piazza Tasso, the main square in Sorrento. The photograph of Caruso in front of the view from the Excelsior Vittoria’s terrace was one of the last images taken of the tenor. The hotel later furnished Suite Caruso with the piano and writing desk used by the opera singer during his visit. The suite inspired the song ‘Caruso’ to be written by Italian pop singer Lucio Dalla in the late 1980s while he was staying at the Excelsior Vittoria.

Sorrento hotels from Booking.com

More reading:

How a chance opportunity set Arturo Toscanini on the path to fame

Guiseppe Verdi: Italy mourns the loss of a national symbol

Franco Corelli - the 'prince of tenors'

Also on this day:

1682: The birth of anatomist Giovanni Battista Morgagni, 'father' of pathology

1707: The birth of playwright Carlo Goldoni

2003: The death of comic actor Alberto Sordi

Selected books:

Enrico Caruso: His Life and Death, by Dorothy Caruso


24 February 2016

L’Orfeo – an early opera

The lasting appeal of Monteverdi’s first attempt at opera

This bust of Monteverdi can be found in the John Paul II public gardens
A bust of Claudio Monteverdi in the
Pope John Paul II gardens in Cremona
L’Orfeo by Claudio Monteverdi, the earliest opera still being regularly staged, had its first performance on this day in 1607 in Mantua.

Two letters, both dated 23 February, 1607, refer to the opera due to be performed the next day in the Ducal Palace as part of the annual carnival in Mantua in Lombardy.

In one of them a palace official writes: ‘… it should be most unusual as all the actors are to sing their parts.’

Francesco Gonzaga, the brother of the Duke, wrote in a letter dated 1 March, 1607, that the performance had been to the ‘great satisfaction of all who heard it.’

L’Orfeo, or La favola d’Orfeo as it is sometimes called, is based on the Greek legend of Orpheus. It tells the story of the hero’s descent to Hades and his unsuccessful attempt to bring his dead bride, Eurydice, back to the living world.

While it is recognised that L'Orfeo is not the first opera, it is the earliest opera that is still regularly performed in theatres today and it established the basic form that European opera was to take for the next 300 years.

The composer, Claudio Monteverdi, was born in Cremona in Lombardy in 1567 and studied under the maestro di cappella at the cathedral in the city.

He managed to secure a position as a viola player at Vincenzo Gonzaga’s court in Mantua and went on to become master of music there in 1601.

In the early 17th century, the intermedio, the music played between the acts of a play, was evolving into the form of a complete musical drama or opera.

Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo was the first fully developed example of this. The libretto had been written by Alessandro Striggio and the singers were accompanied by an orchestra of about 40 musical instruments.

It was staged again in Mantua and then possibly in other towns in Italy before the score was published by Monteverdi in 1609. There is evidence that the opera was also performed in Salzburg, Geneva and Paris from 1614 onwards.

But after Monteverdi’s death the opera was forgotten until a 19th century revival led to other performances. Nowadays, Monteverdi is acknowledged as the first great opera composer.

A performance in Paris in 1911 gave L’Orfeo particular prominence and it has since been regularly included in the repertoire of opera houses.

In 2007, the 400th anniversary of the opera was celebrated with performances all over the world and new recordings of it were issued.

Monteverdi studied music at Cremona's Duomo
The Duomo in Cremona, where
Monteverdi studied music
Travel tip:

Cremona’s Duomo, where Monteverdi studied music, is an important example of Romanesque architecture dating from the 12th century. The facade with its large rose window was probably added in the 13th century. Linked to the cathedral by a loggia is the Torrazzo, the tallest bell tower in Italy and the third largest in the world, standing at 112.7 metres. Work began on the Torrazzo in the eighth century and the spire was completed in 1309.

Hotels in Cremona by Bookings.com

Travel tip:

Mantua is an atmospheric old city, to the south east of Milan, famous for its Renaissance Palazzo Ducale, the seat of the Gonzaga family, which has a famous room, Camera degli Sposi, decorated with frescoes by Andrea Mantegna.  It is not known for certain, but the premiere of L’Orfeo may have taken place in the Galleria dei Fiumi, which has the dimensions to accommodate a stage and orchestra and space for a small audience.

Also on this day:

23 February 2016

John Keats – poet

Writer spent his final days in the Eternal City

This portrait of Keats by William Hilton is housed in the National Portrait Gallery in London
The portrait of Keats by William Hilton, which is
housed in the National Portrait Gallery in London
English Romantic poet John Keats died on this day in Rome in 1821.

He had been a published writer for five years and had written some of his greatest work before leaving England.

Ode to a Nightingale, one of his most famous poems, was written in the spring of 1819 while he was sitting under a plum tree in an English garden.

Keats was just starting to be appreciated by the literary critics when tuberculosis took hold of him and he was advised by doctors to move to a warmer climate.

He arrived in Rome with his friend, Joseph Severn, in November 1820 after a long, gruelling journey.

Another friend had found them rooms in a house in Piazza di Spagna in the centre of Rome and they went past the Colosseum as they made their way there.

Keats slept in a room overlooking the Piazza and could hear the sound of the fountain outside, which may have inspired the words he later asked to be put on his tombstone.

To begin with he was well enough to go for walks along the Via del Corso and he enjoyed sitting on the Spanish Steps, but he was advised by his doctor against visiting the city’s main attractions.

The house in Rome where Keats lived,
at the foot of the Spanish Steps. 

Keats insisted that Severn visited the Vatican Galleries and the Colosseum and that he entertained him with descriptions of them when he returned.

At the end of November he wrote in a letter to a friend: “I have an habitual feeling of my real life being past, and that I am leading a posthumous existence.”

By December his condition had worsened and the doctor treated him by taking blood from him and keeping him on a virtual starvation diet.

In early January his health improved and Keats was able to go outside again and enjoy the warmth of the sunlight.

But by February his health had deteriorated further and he was confined to bed. On Friday, February 23 he asked his friend to lift him up because he knew he was dying. For hours, the devoted Severn held him in his arms until the poet passed away. He was just 25 years of age.

On Monday, February 26 Keats was taken to the Protestant Cemetery in Rome where he was buried. The Reverend Mr Wolff conducted the service and, according to the poet’s wishes, daisies were planted over his grave.

Two years later, Severn supervised the placing of a tombstone on the grave bearing the words: ‘This grave contains all that was mortal of a young English poet who on his deathbed, in the bitterness of his heart at the malicious power of his enemies, desired these words to be engraved on his tombstone: HERE LIES ONE WHOSE NAME WAS WRIT IN WATER.’

Travel tip:

Piazza di Spagna is at the bottom of the Spanish Steps in Rome. The Fontana della Barcaccia that Keats could hear in his room was sculpted by Pietro Bernini and his son Gian Lorenzo Bernini. At the bottom of the Spanish Steps to the right is the house where Keats lived, which is now a museum, the Keats-Shelley Memorial House, commemorating the Romantic poets John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley.

Hotels in Rome by Booking.com

The Colosseum bathed in evening sunlight

Travel tip:

The Colosseum, which Keats passed on the way to his lodgings, is one of the most famous sights in Rome. Forbidden by his doctor to visit the main attractions in the city, Keats sent his friend Severn to have a look round and asked him to tell him all about it when he returned. He described it as: “superb in its stupendous size and rugged grandeur of outline.” The first century arena could seat more than 50,000 bloodthirsty spectators who revelled in the spectacle of gladiators fighting to the death. These days the ruins are floodlit at night creating another magnificent spectacle in Rome.

More reading:

Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley drowns at sea

Lord Byron in Venice

Pietro Bembo - the poet who was Lucrezia Borgia's lover

Also on this day:


John Keats: A New Life, by Nicholas Roe

Selected Poems (Macmillan Collector's Library)

(Picture credits: Keats's House by Gabriele di Donfrancesco; Spanish Steps by Benreis at wikivoyage; Colosseum by Andreas Tille; all via Wikimedia Commons) 

22 February 2016

Enrico Piaggio - industrialist

Former aircraft manufacturer famed for Italy's iconic Vespa motor scooter

The Vespa is still among the most popular scooters in the world
The Vespa is still among the most
popular scooters in the world
Enrico Piaggio, born on this day in 1905 in the Pegli area of Genoa, was destined to be an industrialist, although he cannot have envisaged the way in which his company would become a world leader.

Charged with rebuilding the family business after Allied bombers destroyed the company's major factories during World War II, Enrico Piaggio decided to switch from manufacturing aircraft to building motorcycles, an initiative from which emerged one of Italy's most famous symbols, the Vespa scooter.

The original Piaggio business, set up by his father, Rinaldo in 1884, in the Sestri Ponente district of Genoa, provided fittings for luxury ships built in the thriving port. As the business grew, Rinaldo moved into building locomotives and rolling stock for the railways, diversifying again with the outbreak of World War I, when the company began producing aircraft.

In 1917 the company bought a new plant in Pisa and in 1921 another in nearby Pontedera, which became a major centre for the production of aircraft engines and is still the headquarters of Piaggio today.   Aeroplanes remained the focus of the business, which Enrico and his brother, Armando, inherited with the death of their father in 1938, and the Pisa and Pontedera plants again became important production centres with the outbreak of World War II.

But their vital role in the manufacture of war planes made them a major target for Allied bombing and both were flattened during sustained raids on August 31, 1943.

Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn rode around Rome on  a Vespa motor scooter in the 1953 film, Roman Holiday
Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn rode around Rome on
 a Vespa motor scooter in the 1953 film, Roman Holiday

Italy suffered enormous damage to its cities and the country's efforts to get back on its feet after the War ended were hampered in particular by the terrible state of the roads.  It was this that prompted Enrico, who had responsibility for rebuilding the Pisa and Pontedera factories, to take the bold decision to switch from producing aircraft to motorcycles.

He had been impressed by the agility of the tiny American-built military motorcycles that were dropped by parachute to be used by Allied troops on the ground as they fought against the Germans in Milan and Turin and asked his designers to come up with something similar for civilian use.

It was Corradino D'Ascanio, an aeronautical engineer, whose design ultimately met with his approval. As it happened, D'Ascanio was no fan of motorcycles, which he thought were dirty and difficult both to ride and to maintain, so he set about eliminating all the elements he disliked.

His prototype featured small wheels, a large, well-padded seat, a completely enclosed engine and a tall shield at the front, protecting the rider's clothes from dust and mud.  Crucially, he moved the engine from its traditional central position, which required the rider to straddle the machine when mounting, to a position alongside the rear wheel.  This created a gap between the handlebars and the seat that facilitated easy, step-through mounting even for skirt-wearing women.

D'Ascanio (left) and Piaggio with the machine that made both their names
D'Ascanio (left) and Piaggio with the machine
that made both their names
Enrico looked at the distinctive body shape, listened to the buzz of the engine, and immediately commented that it reminded him of una vespa, a wasp.  The name stuck, and an icon was born.

The Vespa was immediately popular.  In the first year of production, in 1946, Piaggio produced just under 2,500 machines. By June 1956, one million Vespas had rolled off the production line.

As Italy embraced the freedom and optimism that came with peace, the Vespa became a symbol of the nation, almost a fashion accessory for handsome men and beautiful girls, its image as likely to adorn the cover of a style journal as a motorcycle magazine.

Its popularity spread around the world, particularly after Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck rode around Rome on one in the 1953 film, Roman Holiday.  As well as Italy, Piaggio found another huge market for the machine in Britain, where it became the conveyance of choice for the style-conscious Mod movement in the 1960s.

Enrico Piaggio, who lost a kidney when he suffered gunshot wounds in Florence in 1943, died in 1965, aged only 60. The company had by then passed into the control of the FIAT empire and has changed hands several times since but remains a major player in the motorcycle industry, with an annual turnover in the region of €1,200 million.

Travel tip:

The seafront at Pegli, near Genoa, the largely residential area where Enrico Piaggio was born
The seafront at Pegli, near Genoa, the largely
residential area where Enrico Piaggio was born

Pegli, where Enrico Piaggio was born, is a mainly residential area of Genoa but boasts a lively seafront promenade and a number of hotels. There are good links by road, rail and boat to the central area of Genoa, which is a city founded on its status as a busy port, but which offers many historic attractions, the most notable of which is probably the Cathedral of San Lorenzo, with its striking black slate and white marble exterior, originally built in the sixth century.

The Piaggio Museum has examples of railway engines and aircraft as well as the Vespa scooter
The Piaggio Museum has examples of railway
engines and aircraft as well as the Vespa scooter
Travel tip:

The town of Pontedera in Tuscany, situated about 30km from Pisa in the direction of Florence, is home to the Piaggio Museum, which was opened in 2000 and occupies 3,000 square metres of the complex where Piaggio started production in the 1920s. Visitors can see examples of Piaggio railway engines and aircraft as well as a large area devoted to the Vespa motor scooter, which celebrates its 70th anniversary in 2016.  For more information, visit www.museopiaggio.it.

21 February 2016

Death of Pope Julius II

Pope who commissioned Michelangelo for Sistine Chapel

Raphael's portrait of Pope Julius II, which is housed in the National Gallery in London
Raphael's portrait of Pope Julius II, which
is housed in the National Gallery in London
Pope Julius II, who was nicknamed ‘the Warrior Pope’, died on this day in 1513 in Rome.

As well as conducting military campaigns during his papacy he was responsible for the destruction and rebuilding of St Peter’s Basilica and commissioning Michelangelo to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

He is also remembered by students of British history as being the Pope who gave Henry VIII dispensation to marry Catherine of Aragon, his brother’s widow.

Born Giuliano della Rovere, he was the nephew of Francesco della Rovere, who became Pope Sixtus IV.

His uncle sent him to be educated by the Franciscans and he was made a Bishop soon after his Uncle became Pope.

He later became Cardinal Priest of San Pietro in Vincoli in Rome and was very influential in the College of Cardinals.

One of his major rivals was Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia, who was elected Pope Alexander VI in 1492. After accusing him of corruption, Della Rovere retreated from Rome until Alexander died in 1503.

He was succeeded by Pope Pius III who died less than a month after becoming Pope and Della Rovere was finally elected as Pope Julius II in November 1503.
Julius II commissioned Michelangelo to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel
Julius II commissioned Michelangelo to paint
the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel

Julius ordered all traces of the Borgias to be removed or covered up and their apartments remained sealed till the 19th century.

He fought to rid the Romagna of the Republic of Venice and freed Perugia and Bologna from the despots that were ruling them.

He also founded the Swiss Guard to provide a constant supply of soldiers to protect the Pope.

Julius joined in the Italian Wars in league with France and Spain to take territory back from Venice but his allies later switched sides and little was gained from his efforts.

Julius II remained Pope for nine years until he died of fever in 1513.

When Henry VIII later asked for his marriage to Catherine of Aragon to be annulled so that he could marry Anne Boleyn, he claimed that Pope Julius II should never have issued the dispensation to allow him to marry his sister in law. But the Pope at the time, Clement VII, refused to annul the marriage so Henry VIII divorced the Catholic Church instead, leading to the English Reformation.

During his time as Pope, Julius II had ordered the old St Peter’s Basilica to be demolished and commissioned the building of the new church that was to replace it. He was also a patron of Bramante, Raphael and Michelangelo.

The remains of Pope Julius II lie with those of his uncle, Pope Sixtus IV, under the floor in St Peter’s Basilica.

The chains said to have bound St Peter are on display in the Church of San Pietro in Vincoli
The chains said to have bound St Peter are on
display in the Church of San Pietro in Vincoli
Travel tip:

The Church of San Pietro in Vincoli, St Peter in Chains, near the Colosseum in Rome, was the church where Julius was Cardinal. The Church is a shrine for the chains that are believed to have bound St Peter during his imprisonment. It is also the home of Michelangelo’s famous statue of Moses, completed in 1515. This was originally intended to be part of a funeral monument for Pope Julius II, but his remains were interred in St Peter’s Basilica instead.

Travel tip:

The Sistine Chapel is in the Apostolic Palace, where the Pope lives, in Vatican City. The chapel takes its name from Pope Sixtus IV, the uncle of Pope Julius II, who had it restored during his papacy. Between 1508 and 1512 Michelangelo painted the ceiling at the request of Pope Julius II. His amazing masterpiece, created by the artist lying on his back, depicts scenes from Genesis in bright colours that are easily visible from the floor and cover more than 400 square metres.

More reading: 

Alexander VI, the scheming Borgia pope

The death of Michelangelo

The precocious genius of Raphael

Also on this day: