31 March 2016

Bianca Maria Visconti – Duchess of Milan

Ruler fought alongside her troops to defend her territory

Portrait of Bianca Maria Visconti painted in 1460
Bianca Maria Visconti

Bianca Maria Visconti, the daughter of Filippo Maria Visconti, Duke of Milan, was born on this day in 1425 near Settimo Pavese in Lombardy.

A strong character, her surviving letters showed she was able to run Milan efficiently after becoming Duchess and even supposedly donned a suit of armour and rode with her troops into battle, earning herself the nickname, Warrior Woman.

Bianca Maria was the illegitimate daughter of the Duke of Milan, and was sent to live with her mother in comfortable conditions in a castle where she received a good education.

At the age of six she was betrothed for political reasons to the condottiero, Francesco I Sforza, who was 24 years older than her.

Despite the political situation changing many times over the years, Bianca Maria and Francesco Sforza did get married in 1441 when she was 16. The wedding took place in Cremona, which was listed as part of her dowry. The celebrations lasted several days and included a banquet, tournaments, a palio and a huge cake made in the shape of the city’s Torrazzo, the bell tower.

Bianca Maria quickly proved her skills in administration and diplomacy and at the age of 17 was named Regent of the Marche.

Il Torrazzo, 112 metres high, is the tallest bell tower in Italy
Il Torrazzo, the tallest bell tower in Italy

After the death of her father, Bianca Maria and Francesco set off for Milan with their armies and Francesco spent three years trying to reconquer the cities that had declared independence from Milan after Filippo Maria Visconti’s death.

In 1448, while Francesco was away fighting in Pavia, the Venetians attacked Cremona and it is claimed Bianca Maria put on a suit of armour and went with her troops to defend the city.

When Bianca and Francesco were welcomed to Milan as the new duke and duchess they refused to travel in the triumphal wagon and instead chose to ride to the Duomo on horseback.

With Francesco constantly occupied with his army, Bianca Maria devoted herself to the administration of the Duchy and to public works.

After the death of Francesco, Bianca Maria moved back to live in Cremona. She was in the process of returning to Milan to attend her son’s marriage when she fell ill. She died in Cremona a few months later at the age of 43 and was buried in the Duomo in Milan alongside her husband.

Travel tip:

Cremona has the tallest bell tower in Italy, il Torrazzo, which measures more than 112 metres in height. The city is also famous for producing torrone, a type of nougat. It is thought this concoction, of almonds, honey and egg whites, was first created in the shape of il Torrazzo to mark the marriage of Bianca Maria to Francesco in 1441. To sample the many different types of torrone now made, visit Negozio Sperlari in Via Solferino in the centre of the city.

The Museo Stradivariano in Cremona is dedicated to Stradivari
The Museo Stradivariano in Cremona is
dedicated to the violin maker Stradivari

Travel tip:

Cremona is also famous as the birthplace of Antonio Stradivari, who is considered to be the greatest ever violin maker. He is believed to have produced more than 1,100 instruments, some of which have achieved millions of pounds when sold at auction in modern times. There is a Museo Stradivariano in Cremona in Via Ugolani Dati, housed in the elegant rooms of a former palace. Visitors can see more than 700 relics from Stradivari’s workshop, which date back to the 17th and 18th centuries.


30 March 2016

The Sicilian Vespers

How the French lost control of the island they were ruling

Painting of the Sicilian Vespers by Domenico Morelli
Women fleeing from the violent uprising
known as the Sicilian Vespers, as depicted
by the artist Domenico Morelli
As the citizens of Palermo walked to vespers - evening prayers - in the church of Santo Spirito on this day in 1282, a French soldier grossly insulted a pretty young Sicilian woman.

The girl’s enraged fiancé immediately drew his dagger and stabbed the soldier through the heart.

The violence was contagious and the local people exploded in fury against the French occupying forces. More than 200 French soldiers were killed at the outset and the violence spread to other parts of Sicily the next day resulting in a full-scale rebellion against French rule.

This bloody event, which led to Charles of Anjou losing control of Sicily, became known in history as the Sicilian Vespers.

King Charles was detested for his cold-blooded cruelty and his officials had made the lives of the ordinary Sicilians miserable.

After he was overthrown, Sicily enjoyed almost a century of independence.

There have been different versions given of the events that led to the rebellion against the French and it is not known exactly how the uprising started.

But to many Italians the story of the Sicilian Vespers has always been inspirational and Guiseppe Verdi even created an opera about it in 1855.

The 12th century Chiesa dello Spirito Santo in Palermo
(Photo: Enzian44 CC BY-SA 3.0)
Travel tip:

The 12th century Church of the Holy Spirit (Chiesa dello Spirito Santo), where the violence known as the Sicilian Vespers exploded, used to be in a park outside the city walls but it is now part of the Sant’Orsola cemetery in Palermo.

Travel tip:

The Teatro Regio in Parma was the setting in 1855 for the premiere of Verdi’s five-act opera, I Vespri Siciliani, which was loosely based on the story of the Sicilian Vespers. The theatre had been built with a 1,400 seat auditorium and inaugurated in 1829. It now honours Verdi, who was born at nearby Busseto, with a festival every October. 

29 March 2016

Terence Hill – actor

Film star progressed from playing cowboys to become a popular parish priest

Terence Hill was born as Mario Girotti on this day in 1939 in Venice.

He became an actor as a child and went on to have many starring roles in films, particularly spaghetti westerns.

Don Matteo has been a long-running show on Italian television with Terence Hill in the starring role
Terence Hill (left), born Mario Girotti, in his most famous
role as the parish priest Don Matteo

It was when he began acting in that genre that he changed his name to Terence Hill at the suggestion of one of his producers, who told him that Italian-made westerns were better received in English-speaking countries if the names in the credits sounded American. 

He is said to have settled on Hill after the first name of his German-born mother, Hildegard, and Terence after the name of a Roman poet and playwright he admired.

Terence Hill later became a household name in Italy as the actor who played the lead character in the long-running television series, Don Matteo.

Hill lived in Germany as a child but then his family moved to Rome, the capital of Italy’s film industry. When he was 12 years old, Hill was spotted by director Dino Risi and given a part in Vacanze col gangster, an adventure movie in which five youngsters help a dangerous gangster escape from prison.

Other film parts quickly followed and at the height of his popularity, Hill was said to be among the highest-paid actors in Italy.

Hill had a leading role in Visconti's The Leopard
Hill had a leading role in Il Gattopardo
(The Leopard) under his real name
His most famous films are They Call Me Trinity and My Name is Nobody, in which he appeared with Henry Fonda. Another of his films, Django, Prepare a coffin was featured at the 64th Venice film festival in 2007.

Hill also had a major role in Luchino Visconti’s film, The Leopard along with Burt Lancaster, Claudia Cardinale and Alain Delon, in which he was listed in the cast under his real name.

Since 2000, on Italian television, Hill has portrayed Don Matteo, an inspirational parish priest who assists the Carabinieri to solve crimes that affect his community in Gubbio.

Hill received an international ‘Outstanding Actor of the Year’ award for this role at the 42nd Monte Carlo television festival.
The next episode of Series 10 of Don Matteo will be shown on Thursday, 31 March at 21.20 Italian time on Rai Uno.

The Piazza della Signoria is at the heart of Gubbio
The Piazza della Signoria in Gubbio
(Photo: Lisa1963 (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Travel tip:

Gubbio in Umbria, where Don Matteo is filmed, is a small medieval town perched on the lower slopes of Mount Ingino in the Apennines. Via della Repubblica, the main street, leads to Piazza della Signoria where there is a magnificent 14th century palace, Palazzo dei Consoli, which houses the Tavole Eugubine, bronze tablets written in an ancient Umbrian language. From the square there are wonderful views over the town and surrounding countryside.

Travel tip:

Cinecittà in Rome, the hub of the Italian film industry, is a large studio complex to the south of the city, built during the fascist era under the personal direction of Benito Mussolini and his son, Vittorio. The studios were bombed by the Allies in the Second World War but were rebuilt and used again in the 1950s for large productions, such as Ben Hur. These days a range of productions, from television drama to music videos, are filmed there and it has its own dedicated Metro stop.


28 March 2016

Alberto Grimaldi - film producer

Spaghetti Western trilogy gave Naples producer his big break

Alberto Grimaldi was born in Naples in 1925
Alberto Grimaldi
Film producer Alberto Grimaldi, who celebrates his 91st birthday today, boasts an extraordinary list of credits that includes Last Tango in Paris, The Canterbury Tales, Man of La Mancha, Fellini's Casanova, 1900, Ginger and Fred and Gangs of New York.

Born in Naples on this day in 1925, Grimaldi trained as a lawyer and it was in that capacity that he initially found work in the cinema industry in the 1950s.

However, he could see the money-making potential in production and in the early 1960s set up his own company, Produzioni Europee Associate (PEA).

His first three productions, cashing in on the popularity in Italy of westerns, enjoyed some success but it was a meeting with Sergio Leone, the Italian director, that earned him his big break.

Leone, whose first venture into the western genre, A Fistful of Dollars, had been an unexpected hit both for him and the young American actor, Clint Eastwood, was busy planning the sequel when a dispute arose with his producers over the cost of the movie.

Grimaldi was listed as a producer of the 2002 movie directed by Martin Scorsese
Movie poster advertising Scorsese's
epic Gangs of New York
As it happened, Grimaldi's first production, The Shadow of Zorro, had been filmed, like A Fistful of Dollars, on location in Spain.  Leone knew of Grimaldi's legal background and initially sought his advice on settling the dispute.  Ultimately, they agreed to collaborate and the Leone classics, For a Few Dollars More and The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, also starring Eastwood, were PEA productions.

Both were considerable box office hits and established Grimaldi's name, opening many doors.

By the 1970s, Grimaldi was in a position to produce movies by many of Italy's top directors, including Federico Fellini, Bernardo Bertolucci, and Pier Paolo Pasolini, as well as supporting the artistic aspirations of other Italian directors, such as Gillo Pontecorvo, Elio Petri and Francesco Rosi.

He became more selective in his projects in the 1980s, notably turning down the chance to work with Leone again on Once Upon a Time in America. After producing Fellini's comedy drama Ginger and Fred, a 1986 film about two Italian impersonators of the American dance movie legends, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, it was 16 years before his name was attached to the $100 million Martin Scorcese epic, Gangs of New York, which was released in 2002.  By then Grimaldi was aged 77.

Grimaldi was aged 10 in 1935
Via Partenope in 1935
Travel tip:

Grimaldi's home city of Naples has changed little in his lifetime.  The black and white postcard image shows the Via Partenope, bordering the waterfront in the Santa Lucia district of the city, in 1935, when Grimaldi was a 10-year-old boy.  It is scarcely different today, 81 years on.

A view of Naples from Castel Sant'Elmo
Over the rooftops of Naples towards Mergellina and
Posillipo, as seen from Castel Sant'Elmo
Travel tip:

Visitors to Naples who crave a more peaceful side to the city away from the chaos of the Spaccanapoli or the Spanish Quarter should venture north from Piazza del Plebiscito and the Royal Palace on to the long promenade of Via Francesco Caracciolo towards Mergellina and the residential quarter of Posillipo, the traditional home of the more wealthy Neapolitans.

More reading:


27 March 2016

Gianluigi Lentini - footballer with world record price tag

AC Milan outbid Juventus for Torino star

Gianluigi Lentini began his career with Torino
Gianluigi Lentini in his early days with Torino
Gianluigi Lentini, born on this day in 1969, was for four years the world's most expensive footballer.

A winger with Torino known for outstanding dribbling skills, crossing accuracy and lightning pace, Lentini was the subject of a fierce bidding war between Torino's city neighbours, Juventus, and defending Serie A champions AC Milan in the summer of 1992 which ended with Milan paying a fee of around £13 million for the 23-year-old star.

It was the second time in the space of a few weeks that Milan had paid a world record sum for a player, having signed the French striker Jean-Pierre Papin from Marseille for £10 million.

At a time when the Italian league was awash with cash, the Papin record itself had been eclipsed a short while before the Lentini deal was agreed when Juventus paid Sampdoria £12 million for striker Gianluca Vialli.

The Lentini record would remain until Newcastle United forked out £15 million for the Blackburn and England striker Alan Shearer in 1996.

Born in Carmagnola, a small town around 30 kilometres (18 miles) south of Turin, Lentini made his Serie A debut for Torino as a 17-year-old and in a struggling team did not make a notably impressive start.

He was sent out on loan to Ancona, newly promoted to Serie B, for the 1988-89 season and the experience did wonders for his game. He returned to Torino a smarter player and physically stronger. His parent club had been relegated in his absence but Lentini made an immediate impact on his return, scoring six goals and contributing numerous assists as Torino were promoted back to Serie A at the first attempt.

As Lentini continued to shine, Torino prospered, finishing fifth in their first season back in the top flight and then third in 1991-92, their highest position since winning the Serie A title in 1975-76. They also reached the final of the UEFA Cup.

Fabio Capello was coach when Gianluigi Lentini joined AC Milan
Fabio Capello
The big-money move to Milan came that summer and Lentini enjoyed a successful debut season, scoring seven goals as Fabio Capello's team retained the championship and reached the final of the European Cup.

But a year after joining Milan, and by then a regular in the Italian national team, Lentini's world was shattered when, on the way home from a pre-season tournament in Genoa, he lost control of his Porsche 911 on a bend near the small town of Villafranca d'Asti, just east of Turin.

The high performance sports car overturned in a ditch and burst into flames.  Lentini was thrown clear but sustained severe head injuries and might have died had he not been found by a passing lorry driver, who immediately called for an ambulance.

He recovered enough to resume his football career but suffered blurred vision and memory problems and was never the same player subsequently and struggled to keep a regular place in the Milan team. He won a Champions League medal in 1994 as Milan crushed Barcelona 4-0 in the final but remained on the bench throughout.

Nonetheless, after leaving Milan to join Atalanta in 1996, Lentini refused to allow the disappointment to crush his spirit. He told friends he felt lucky to have survived his accident and played on, remarkably, until he was in his 40s.  He rejoined Torino in 1997 and enjoyed another season in Serie A after helping them win promotion in 1999, then played for a number of lower division teams before hanging up his boots.  He dropped even to the fifth tier of Italian football to play for Canelli, a town in Piemonte of just 10,000 inhabitants, for whom he scored 37 goals in 74 games, and finished in the sixth tier, playing for his home town club in Carmagnola.

Lentini's 19-year-old son, Nicholas, plays for the Serie D side Sporting Bellinzago as a goalkeeper.

Looking towards the Palazzo Reale from the Piazza Castello
The Piazza Castello in the centre of Turin, looking
 towards the Palazzo Reale
Travel tip:

Although Turin is regarded as an industrial city, sometimes dubbed the Detroit of Italy because of the number of major motor manufacturers based there, it has a rich history as the former capital of the Duchy of Savoy and some outstanding baroque architecture.  At the heart of the city in Piazza Castello can be found four impressive buildings - the Palazzo Reale, the former seat of the Savoy royal family, the Palazzo Madama, which hosted the Savoy senate and briefly, after Italian unification, the Italian senate, the former Teatro Regio di Torino and the Biblioteca Reale (Royal Library), which hosts Leonardo da Vinci's self-portrait.

Travel tip:

Torino's stadium, the Stadio Olimpico, was known as the Stadio Municipale Benito Mussolini after it was opened in 1933, being renamed Stadio Comunale after World War II and acquiring its current identity after being chosen to host the opening and closing ceremonies at the Winter Olympics in 2006.  It is situated around four kilometres south of the centre of Turin in the Santa Rita district. It was home to Torino and city rivals Juventus from 1963 until 1990, when both clubs moved to the new Stadio delle Alpi, and has been home again to Torino since 2006.  Stadium tours can be booked and a Torino tourist card also gives access to the Olympic Museum situated in the stadium.

Easter in Italy

Easter - La Pasqua in Italian - is a festive holiday throughout Italy and Easter Sunday is marked with religious parades and celebrations in many towns and cities.  Often large crowds assemble for processions that involve statues of Jesus or Mary carried along the streets.  Chocolate eggs are exchanged as in other countries and the main meal of the day often features lamb. 

More reading on football:


26 March 2016

Guccio Gucci – fashion designer

The man whose name inspired the interlocking G logo

Guccio Gucci was inspired by the wealthy clients he encountered when working at the Savoy Hotel in London
Guccio Gucci
The founder of the House of Gucci, Guccio Gucci, was born on this day in 1881 in Florence.

In the early 1900s Gucci worked as a lift boy at the Savoy Hotel in London, where he was inspired by the elegance of the wealthy people who stayed there and their smart luggage.

On his return to Florence he started making his own line of leather travel bags and accessories and in the 1920s he opened a small leather and equestrian shop in Via della Vigna Nuova.  Some of his skills were inherited from his father, Gabriello, who was a leather craftsman from San Miniato, near Pisa.

Gucci later added handbags to his line and relocated to a bigger shop. He was fascinated with horses and his handbags featured clasps and fasteners resembling horse bits and stirrups. He gained a reputation for hiring the best craftsmen he could to work on his products.

In 1938, encouraged by his son, Aldo, he expanded his business to Rome. When raw materials became scarce during the war he used materials such as hemp and linen to make his bags, but still trimmed them with metal resembling horse bits and stirrups.

Gucci bag in vintage design featuring the interlocking G logo
A Gucci bag in vintage design featuring leather
and fabric and the familiar interlocking G logo
The Gucci label later became famous for certain key products, such as a bag with bamboo handles and a pair of classic loafers.  

Gucci and his wife, Aida Calvelli, had six children and four of their sons, Aldo, Vasco, Ugo and Rodolfo later joined the business.

In 1951 Gucci opened a store in Milan. His preference was for keeping the business relatively small and limiting it to Italy. But his sons had more ambitious ideas and two years later expanded overseas by opening a store in Manhattan.

Gucci died in Milan in 1953, just two weeks after the New York store launched. After his death his sons continued to expand the business, opening boutiques in London and Paris.

In addition to the interlocking Gs, the House of Gucci also featured products displaying Gucci's 'knight logo', a coat of arms with a knight in full armour carrying two suitcases or bags at the centre. The coat of arms was based on an inherited ancestral coat of arms, which the family claimed the right to use after the Kingdom of Italy had transitioned into the Italian Republic.

Via de' Tornabuoni, which is Florence's most elegant shopping street
Via de' Tornabuoni, which is Florence's
most elegant shopping street
Travel tip:

Although the first Gucci shop in Florence was in Via della Vigna Nuova, their flagship store is now in nearby Via de' Tornabuoni, the city’s most elegant shopping street, where it sits alongside the other top couturiers and jewellers. The street also has some fashionable cafes where smart shoppers can pause for refreshment.

Florence hotels by Booking.com

The Gucci store in Milan is at the heart of the fashion district
The Gucci store in Milan can be found
in fashionable Via Montenapoleone 

Travel tip:

Milan’s Gucci store is right in the heart of the fashion district in Via Montenapoleone, which is a short walk from the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II. It is one of the four sides of the quadrilateral which makes up Milan’s fashion district. The other three sides are Via Manzoni, Via della Spiga and Via Sant’Andrea.

25 March 2016

Good Friday – Venerdi Santo

Roman amphitheatre the starting point for remembering the crucifixion

The Colisseum in Rome is a focal point for Easter celebrations
The Colosseum is a focal point for
Easter celebrations in Rome

Good Friday (Venerdi Santo) is a day for prayer in Italy. It is not a Bank Holiday and the shops, bars and restaurants still open as normal, but many people visit a church during the day or attend one of the services held for the holy event.

In Rome there is a Papal Mass in St Peter’s Basilica and in the evening the ritual of the Stations of the Cross, or Via Crucis, is enacted near the Colosseum. The stations of the cross are 14 steps commemorating the events of the last day of Jesus on earth.

The stations of the Via Crucis were placed at the Colosseum in 1744 by Pope Benedict XIV and the bronze cross in the Colosseum was erected in 2000, the Jubilee year.

Lit torches illuminates the sky as the stations of the cross are described in several languages.

At the end the Pope gives a blessing. It is a very moving and popular procession and a big crowd usually attends the ceremony.

Huge dome completes Cathedral in Florence

It was on this day in 1436 that the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence was consecrated by Pope Eugene IV. 

Building work on Il Duomo di Firenze, as the Cathedral is usually called, had begun in 1296 but the construction was only completed when the huge dome designed by Filippo Brunelleschi was finally put in place in 1436.

Brunelleschi's dome dominates the Florence skyline
Brunelleschi's dome dominates the Florence skyline

The dome remained the largest in the world until others were constructed using new materials that had been developed for building in modern times.

But Brunelleschi’s dome, the first in history to be built without a wooden supporting frame, is still the largest brick dome ever constructed.

Travel tip:

The Colosseum in the centre of Rome is the largest amphitheatre ever built. Construction began on the oval building in 72 AD close to the Forum. The ampitheatre 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.

Travel tip:

The Cathedral complex in Piazza del Duomo in Florence also includes the Baptistery and Campanile, which was designed by Giotto. Along with the Duomo, they are part of the UNESCO World Heritage site designated in the historic centre of the city. The Duomo is still one of Italy’s largest churches.


24 March 2016

Dario Fo – writer and actor

Prolific playwright put the spotlight on corruption

Playwright and all round entertainer Dario Fo celebrates his 90th birthday today. He was born in Leggiuno Sangiano in the Province of Varese in Lombardy on this day in 1926.

His plays have been widely performed and translated into many different languages. He is perhaps most well known for Accidental Death of an Anarchist and Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1997.

Dario Fo pictured in 1985 at the Venice Film Festival
Dario Fo
(Photo: Gorupdebesanez CC BY-SA 3.0)

Fo’s early work is peppered with criticisms of the corruption, crime, and racism that affected life in Italy at the time. He later moved on to ridicule Forza Italia and Silvio Berlusconi and more recently his targets have included the banks and big business.

He was brought up near the shores of Lago Maggiore but moved to Milan to study. During the war he served with several branches of the forces before deserting. He returned to Milan to study architecture but gave it up to paint and work in small theatres presenting improvised monologues.

In the 1950s Fo worked in radio and on stage performing his own work. He met and later married actress Franca Rame and they had a son, Jacopo, who also became a writer.

They moved to Rome, where Fo worked as a screenwriter, and for a while they lived next door to Roberto Rossellini and Ingrid Bergman.

When Fo and Rame returned to Milan they formed a theatre company and performed Fo’s plays at the Teatro Odeon in the city. His play Archangels Don’t Play Pinball was the first to bring them national and international fame.

Fo wrote and directed a popular television variety show, Canzonissima, but after one episode referenced the dangerous conditions faced by workers on building sites, it was censored. Fo and Rame walked out and were banned from Italian television for 14 years.

The writer has performed his most celebrated solo piece, Mistero Buffo, all over the world since he first introduced it in 1969, presenting it as though he is a travelling player in medieval times. The material he included relating to the life and times of Christ has been denounced as blasphemous by the Vatican.

Fo and Rame formed a theatre company operating outside the state system for which Fo wrote Accidental Death of an Anarchist, a play first performed in 1970 about the so-called 'accidental' fall from the window of a Milan police station of a man being questioned about a bomb attack on a bank.

Rame was subjected to a savage physical attack by fascists believed to be working on the orders of high-ranking Carabinieri officials, but she returned to the stage after two months to perform new anti-fascist monologues.

In 1974 Fo’s comedy Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay, about a consumer backlash against high prices, was first performed. Fo and Rame were later blocked from appearing in a festival of Italian Theatre in America. Fo’s play The First Miracle of the Infant Jesus was performed on television in 1987 but was condemned as blasphemous by the Vatican.

In the 1990s his plays addressed themes such as AIDS, the Gulf War and the economic scandal, Tangentopoli. More recently he ran, unsuccessfully, to be Mayor of Milan.

Fo continues to write and campaign about political and social issues and has also produced five novels. His wife, Franca Rame, died in Milan in 2013 at the age of 83.

UPDATE: Sadly, Dario Fo died a few months after this article was originally published. He contracted a serious respiratory illness and passed away in Milan in October, 2016, aged 90.
The Hermitage is at Dario Fo's home town of Leggiuno
The Hermitage of Santa Caterina del Sasso at Leggiuno
(Photo: Mattana CC BY-SA 3.0)
Travel tip:

Leggiuno Sangiano, where Dario Fo was born, is close to the shores of Lago Maggiore in the province of Varese in Lombardy. The area is famous for the Hermitage of Santa Caterina del Sasso, a Roman Catholic monastery perched on a rocky ridge overlooking the lake, which dates back to the 14th century. It can be reached by boat or on foot by climbing down a winding stairway and was declared a national monument in 1914. The hermitage is a short distance from Reno di Leggiuno, which has a marina and a number of hotels.

Travel tip:

Milan, where Dario Fo lived for many years, has a wealth of theatres with a long tradition of staging a variety of entertainment. In north west Milan, Teatro Dal Verme in San Giovanni sul Muro opened in 1872, the Piccolo Teatro in Via Rivoli opened in 1947, the Teatro dell’Arte in Viale Alemagna was redesigned in 1960 and Teatro Litta next to Palazzo Litta in Corso Magenta is believed to be the oldest theatre in the city. The famous La Scala has a fascinating museum that displays costumes and memorabilia from the history of the theatre. The entrance is in Largo Ghiringhelli, just off Piazza Scala. It is open every day except the Italian Bank Holidays and a few days in December. Opening hours are from 9.00 to 12.30 and 1.30 to 5.30 pm.

23 March 2016

Benito Mussolini and the founding of the Italian Fascists

Milan rally in 1919 launched the National Fascist Party

Mussolini launched his fascist movement in Milan in 1919
Benito Mussolini pictured
in around 1914
Italy's notorious dictator Benito Mussolini officially formed what would become known as the National Fascist Party on this day in 1919 at a rally in Milan's Piazza San Sepolcro.

A war veteran and former socialist activist who had moved towards a more nationalist political stance, Mussolini initially drew his followers together as the Fasci Italiani di Combattimento (Italian Combat Group).

This group evolved into the Partito Nazionale Fascista (PNF) two years later, sweeping to power in 1922 when King Victor Emmanuel III, fearing civil war after 30,000 of Mussolini's supporters, the Blackshirts, marched on Rome, asked Mussolini to form a government.

Born the son of a blacksmith in Predappio, in Emilia-Romagna, Mussolini had been an active socialist, first in Switzerland, where he had moved as a 19-year-old to seek work and avoid military service, and again when he returned to Italy.  He became a leading figure in the Italian Socialist Party (PSI) and edited the left-wing newspaper Avanti.

But he was expelled by the PSI because of his opposition to the party's neutral stance on the First World War, in which he saw intervention as an opportunity to further the revolutionary aims of the left, particularly by overthrowing the Habsburg monarchies in Germany and Austria-Hungary.

He began to lose faith in orthodox socialism, believing that national identity had become more important than class struggle in forging the kind of society that was central to his vision, one in which the removal of class divides was still key but which also recognised culture, tradition, language and race.

Italy in the early 20th century was a unified country but still a long way from unity in political terms, with an appetite for revolution still rife, particularly among those who disagreed with the monarchy. Different groups went under the name of fasci, the plural form of the word fascio, meaning bundle or sheaf, that had become a symbol of strength through unity.

After his shift away from conventional socialism, Mussolini became prominent in the Fasci d'Azione Rivoluzionaria - Revolutionary Action Group -- whose followers were the first to refer to themselves as Fascisti (Fascists).

Mussolini's political activity was curtailed when he signed up for the Italian Army but resumed on his return following wounds suffered when a mortar bomb accidentally exploded in a trench.  He relaunched FAR as Fasci Italiani di Combattimento -- Italian Combat Group -- attracting support among war veterans and a variety of malcontents at the Milan rally in 1919, which he had promoted via his new newspaper, Il Popolo d'Italia.

The group began with around 200 members and grew rapidly, Mussolini promoting a vision of Italy as a global power on a level with its Roman past while at the same time being a nation without social divisions.  They encountered violent opposition from communists, socialists and anarchists but Mussolini's attitude was to meet force with force.  Soon, squads of his followers, armed and wearing the black shirts that had become their uniform, began patrolling the streets to keep order.

Mussolini held a rally in 1919 in the square in front of the church
Piazza San Sepolcro in Milan, looking
across to the church of the same name
It was a sign of things to come.  Although Mussolini retained many socialist principles, he believed authoritarian dictatorship was essential to effective government.  Once in office, he introduced changes to electoral law and by 1928 the PNF was effectively the only legally permitted political party.  He remained in power until 1943, at which point World War Two had left Italy on its knees and the Grand Council of Fascism finally threw him out.

Travel tip:

The Piazza San Sepolcro, where Mussolini staged the 1919 rally that led to the formation of his Fasci Italiani di Combattimento, is situated in central Milan, not far from the Duomo and immediately adjacent to the Biblioteca Ambrosiana, which houses thousands of historic manuscripts and dates back to 1609.  The Ambrosiana's Sala Fredericiana reading room was open to the public at that time, which makes it the second oldest public library in Europe, after the Bodleian at Oxford.

The Mussolini crypt can be found within the cemetery at Predappio
The entrance to the Mussolini
mausoleum in Predappio
Travel tip:

Predappio, where Mussolini was born in 1883, is a small town in Emilia-Romagna situated around 18 kilometres south of Forli.  The former dictator was buried in a family mausoleum in a cemetery just outside the town, which has become a tourist attraction, albeit a somewhat macabre one. Controversially, Predappio has also been adopted as a pilgrimage site for neofascists, with some shops openly selling neofascist memorabilia.


22 March 2016

'La Castiglione' – model and secret agent

Beautiful woman helped the cause of Italian unification

This portrait of Virginia Oldoini was painted in 1862 by Michele Gordigiani
Virginia Oldoini, captured in a
portrait painted in 1862
Virginia Oldoini, who became known as La Castiglione, was born on this day in 1837 in Florence.

She became the mistress of the Emperor Napoleon III of France and also made an important contribution to the early development of photography.

She was born Virginia Oldoini to parents who were part of the Tuscan nobility, but originally came from La Spezia in Liguria. At the age of 17 she married the Count of Castiglione, who was 12 years older than her, and they had one son, Giorgio.

Her cousin was Camillo, Count of Cavour, who was the prime minister to Victor Emmanuel II, the King of Sardinia, later to become the first King of a united Italy.

When the Countess travelled with her husband to Paris in 1855, Cavour asked her to plead the cause of Italian unity with Napoleon III.

Considered to be the most beautiful woman of her day, she became Napoleon III’s mistress and her husband demanded a separation. During her relationship with Napoleon III she influenced Franco-Italian political relations, mingled with European nobility and met Otto von Bismarck.

She became known both for her beauty and elaborate clothes, such as a Queen of Hearts costume she wore and was later photographed in.

When she returned to Italy she lived with her son at the Villa Gloria in Turin for a while, rejecting her husband’s appeals to her to resume their life together.

Virginia Oldoini was Napoleon III's mistress
Napoleon III of France: Oldoini became
his mistress after they met in Paris
But even though her relationship with Napoleon III was over she eventually chose to return to France, where she lived for the rest of her life, forming liaisons with aristocrats, financiers and politicians while cultivating the image of a mysterious femme fatale. In 1871 she met Bismarck and explained to him how the German occupation of Paris wouldn’t be in his interests. She must have been persuasive because Paris was spared

She began sitting as a model for photographers and later directed Pierre–Louis Pierson to take hundreds of photographs of important moments of her life, wearing elaborate outfits such as the Queen of Hearts dress.

Some of the photographs showed her in risqué poses for the time, for example with her legs bare.

It was the Countess who decided on the expressive content of the images and chose the camera angles

She died in Paris in 1899 at the age of 62. Her biography, La Divine Comtesse, was written after her death by Robert de Montesquiou. It was published in 1913 with a preface by Gabriele d’Annunzio.

Her life featured in a 1942 Italian film, The Countess of Castiglione and a 1954 Italian-French film, La Contessa di Castiglione.

Travel tip:

The Castello san Giorgio has recently been restored
The restored Castello San Giorgio is
among the attrractions of La Spezia
La Spezia, where the Countess of Castiglione’s family were originally from, is an important city in Ligura, second only to Genoa. It is a point of departure for visiting Lerici, Portovenere and the Cinque Terre by boat. The recently-restored Castle of San Giorgio, the 13th century Church of Our Lady of the Assumption and a number of Art Nouveau villas are all worth visiting.

Travel tip:

Turin, where the Countess lived for a while on her return to Italy, has many buildings with royal connections to see. Piazza Castello, with the royal palace, royal library and Palazzo Madama, which used to house the Italian senate, is at the heart of royal Turin.