30 April 2016

Pope Pius V - Saint

Pontiff dismissed jester and clamped down on heretics

Painting of Pope Saint Pius V
Saint Pius V: a painting by El Greco
The feast day of Saint Pius V is celebrated every year on this day, the day before the anniversary of his death in 1572 in Rome.

Saint Pius V, who became Pope in 1566, is remembered chiefly for his role in the Counter Reformation, the period of Catholic resurgence following the Protestant Reformation.

He excommunicated Queen Elizabeth I of England for heresy and for persecuting English Catholics and he formed the Holy League, an alliance of Catholic states against the Turks.

Saint Pius V was born Antonio Ghislieri in Bosco, now Bosco Marengo, in Piedmont. At the age of 14 he entered the Dominican Order, taking the name of Michele. He was ordained at Genoa in 1528 and then sent to Pavia to lecture. 

He became a bishop under Pope Pius IV but after opposing the pontiff was dismissed. After the death of Pius IV, Ghislieri was elected Pope Pius V in 1566. His first act on becoming Pope was to dismiss the court jester and no Pope has had one since.

Protestantism had by then conquered many parts of Europe and Pius V was determined to prevent it getting into Italy. He therefore took a personal interest in the activities of the Inquisition in Rome and appeared to be unmoved by the cruelty practiced.

After his death in 1572, Pius V was buried in the Vatican despite having asked to be buried in Bosco.

He was canonised by Pope Clement XI in 1712.  Cardinal John Henry Newman later explained his severity as necessary for the time. He wrote about Pius V: “He was a soldier of Christ in a time of insurrection and rebellion, when in a spiritual sense, martial law was proclaimed.”

Photo of church in Bosco Marengo
The parish church in Bosco Marengo with a monument
to Pope Saint Pius V in the foreground
Travel tip:

Bosco Marengo is a town in the province of Alessandria in Piedmont, southeast of Turin and Alessandria. The 16th century church of Santa Croce in the town was commissioned by Pope Pius V in the year of his election to the papacy to house his tomb and it now contains a marble monument to the pope.

Travel tip:

In 1698 the body of Pope Pius V was transferred to a tomb in the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Piazza del Esquilino in Rome, not far from the Termini railway station. The front of the tomb has a bronze lid engraved with a likeness of the Pope which was designed to be lifted down to allow pilgrims to view the saint’s remains.

(Photo of church in Bosco Marengo by Davide Papalini CC BY-SA 3.0)


29 April 2016

Sara Errani -- tennis champion

Five-times Grand Slam doubles winner reached No 5 in singles

Photo of Sara Errani
Sara Errani is arguably Italy's most
successful tennis player
Tennis star Sara Errani, who was born in Bologna on this day in 1987, celebrates her 29th birthday as arguably the most successful Italian tennis player of all time.

She and partner Roberta Vinci's career record of five Grand Slam doubles titles is unparalleled.  No other Italian combination has won more than one Grand Slam title and no Italian singles player has won more than two.

Nicola Pietrangeli, who was ranked the No 3 men's singles player at his peak, won the French Open championship in 1959 and 1960 and was runner-up in Paris on two other occasions, as well as winning the men's doubles at the French in 1959, with fellow Italian Orlando Sirola.

But Errani and Vinci have won on all surfaces, achieving a career Grand Slam in 2014 when they triumphed in the women's doubles at Wimbledon, having already won the French and US titles in 2012 and the Australian in both 2013 and 2014.  They are only the fifth pairing in tennis history to complete a career Grand Slam.

Errani also achieved a world ranking of No 5 in singles in 2013, having been runner-up to Maria Sharapova in the 2012 French Open as well as winning five WTA singles titles in the space of 12 months.

Among Italian women players, only Francesca Schiavone has achieved a higher singles ranking, reaching No 4 after winning the 2010 French Open.

Errani and Vinci, who also won five WTA doubles titles, have since ended their partnership, Errani deciding to focus on singles, having dropped out of the top 10 in 2014.  In February this year she won her ninth career singles title, defeating the Czech player Barbora Strycova 6-0, 6-2 in the final of the Dubai Championships.

Photo of Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci
Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci won five Grand Slam titles
As a young girl, Errani showed talent in several sports, including swimming, football and athletics. But after she was picked to represent Italy in a tennis tournament in France at the age of just 12, her parents, fruit and vegetable trader Giorgio and pharmacist Fulvia, found the money to send her to the renowned Nick Bolletieri Academy in Florida.

She was the youngest ever to stay at the facility without her parents and, unable to speak any English, admitted she was so lonely she cried every day.  Yet, knowing the sacrifice her family had made, she stayed for 10 months.

On returning to Italy, she showed the benefit of Bolletieri's tuition and was Italy's No 1 at 18 years and under before she turned 16. Yet her talent was undervalued at home and it was only after moving to Spain that she was given the support necessary to fulfil her potential.

She won her first WTA tournament in Palermo in July 2008, picking up a second two weeks later in Slovenia, after which she pointedly dedicated her success to "all the Italians who never believed in me as a tennis player and said I would never go anywhere."

Though born in Bologna, Errani grew up in Massa Lombarda, in the province of Ravenna, where she still lives.

Travel tip:

Bologna has a reputation as the gastronomic capital of Italy, the city that invented tortellini and mortadella and gave the world the meat sauce (ragù) known as bolognese, which is authentically served with tagliatelle rather than spaghetti.  The best shops to buy fresh food in Bologna can be found in the Quadrilatero, an area adjoining Piazza Maggiore, bordered to the north by Via Francesco Rizzoli, to the south by Via Luigi Carlo Farini and to the east by Via Castiglione. It has a market that has occupied the same location since Medieval times.

Bologna hotels from Expedia.co.uk

Photo of Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna
The interior of the Basilica di San
Vitale is notable for beautiful mosaics
Travel tip:

No visit to Ravenna would be complete without taking in the stunning art of the octagonal Basilica di San Vitale, which dates back to the sixth century and contains some of the finest examples of Byzantine mosaics in the world, particularly those decorating the ceilings of the choir and apse. There are more mosaics in the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, across the courtyard from the Basilica.

More reading:

How Roberta Vinci reached a US Open singles final

Francesca Schiavone - the first Italian woman to win a Grand Slam tournament

The rise to number one of Camila Giorgi

Also on this day:

1675: The birth of painter Giovanni Antonio Pellegrini

1945: Brazilian troops liberate town of Fornovo di Taro


28 April 2016

The death of Benito Mussolini

Fascist dictator captured and killed on shores of Lake Como

Photo of cross marking place Mussolini was killed
A small cross bearing Mussolini's name marks the spot in
Giulino di Mezzegra where his execution was carried out
Benito Mussolini, the dictator who ruled Italy for 21 years until he was deposed in 1943, was killed by Italian partisans on this day in 1945, at the village of Giulino di Mezzegra on the shore of Lake Como.

The 61-year-old leader of the National Fascist Party had been captured the previous day in the town of Dongo, further up the lake, as he attempted to reach Switzerland along with his mistress, Claretta Petacci, and a number of Fascist officials.  With Nazi Germany on the brink of defeat, Mussolini had been planning to board a plane in Switzerland in order to fly to Spain.

Mussolini was said to have donned a Luftwaffe helmet and overcoat in the hope that he would not be recognised but the disguise did not work.

Fearing that the Germans would try to free him, as they had two years earlier when Italy's King Victor Emmanuel III placed him under house arrest in mountainous Abruzzo, the partisans hid Mussolini and the others in a remote farmhouse.

The following morning, along the coast of the lake at Mezzegra, their captives were stood against a wall and shot dead. The executions were said to have been carried out by a partisan who went under the name of Colonnello Valerio.  A communist politician, Walter Audisio, later claimed he was Colonnello Valerio.

From Mezzegra the bodies were taken in a van to Milan, where they were dumped in what used to be called Piazzale Loreto, a square with symbolic significance.  Later renamed Piazza Quindici Martiri, it had been the place at which Fascist militia had displayed the bodies of 15 murdered Italian partisans a year earlier.

Photo of bodies of Mussolini, Petacci and others
The bodies of Mussolini, his mistress and others were
hung upside down in a square in Milan
Famously, after being kicked, beaten and spat upon by a mob of angry Milanese citizens, the bodies of Mussolini, Petacci and others were hung upside down from the roof of an Esso petrol station.

American troops removed the bodies later in the day and they were transferred to the city mortuary. Mussolini's corpse was buried in an unmarked grave in a Milan cemetery only to be stolen by fanatics claiming allegiance to the Fascist cause.

Once the authorities recovered the body, its location was kept secret for more than a decade. Eventually, in 1957, prime minister Adone Zoli arranged for it to be returned to Mussolini's birthplace in Predappio, just outside Forlì in Emilia-Romagna, where it remains today, buried in the family crypt at a cemetery just outside the town.

Mussolini's attempted escape to Switzerland was his last desperate act. After he was liberated by the Germans in 1943, he had been placed in charge of an area of northern Italy that became known as the Republic of Salò, with its administrative base in the town on Lake Garda of that name. He decided to flee when it became clear that the Allied invasion of the Italian peninsula from the south would not be halted.

He had been told that the Germans were preparing to surrender. Indeed, two days after Mussolini was killed, Adolf Hitler committed suicide in his bunker in Berlin.

Photo of the town of Dongo in Northern Italy
The town of Dongo is situated in a picturesque
location on the shore of Lake Como
Travel tip:

Dongo is one of many picturesque towns along the shore of Lake Como, with a number of hotels, restaurants and shops.  It is very popular during the summer months and also attracts walkers, who can explore nearby mountain villages on foot. Dongo has a small harbour adjoining the town's main square, where one can find the Palazzo Manzi, built in 1803 and now Dongo's town hall.  The ground floor houses the Museum of the End of the War, refurbished in 2014, dedicated to the partisans and in particular to the capture of Mussolini.

Travel tip:

Predappio, a modest rural town about 18 kilometres south of Forlì, has become a site of pilgrimage for neo-Fascists from Italy and other parts of Europe.  Although some residents would prefer not to be reminded of its association with such a dark period in Italian history, there are echoes of the Fascist era in a number of buildings constructed in characteristic style after a landslide in 1924, when the national government wanted Predappio to be celebrated as Il Duce's birthplace.  Tacky Fascist souvenirs are still sold in some shops despite previous moves to ban them.  In 2014, the local mayor announced plans for a museum dedicated to the history of Fascism, not to celebrate the Mussolini era but as a place of reflection.

More reading:

(Photo of Dongo by BKLuis CC BY-SA 3.0)
(Photo of cross in Mezzegra by Johnnyb11 CC BY-SA 3.0)


27 April 2016

Antonio Gramsci - left-wing intellectual

Communist leader Mussolini could not gag

Photo of Antonio Gramsci
Antonio Gramsci
Antonio Gramsci, one of the more remarkable intellectuals of left-wing Italian politics in the early 20th century, died on this day in 1937 in Rome, aged only 46.

A founding member and ultimately leader of the Italian Communist Party (PCI), he was arrested by Benito Mussolini's Fascist regime in November 1926 and sentenced to 20 years' imprisonment.   In failing health, he was granted his release after a campaign by friends and supporters but died without leaving the clinic in which he spent his final two years.

The conditions he encountered in jail led him to develop high blood pressure, angina, tuberculosis and acute gastric disorders.  Yet he found sufficient energy while imprisoned  to study the social and political history of Italy in extensive detail and to record his thoughts and theories in notebooks and around 500 letters to friends and supporters.

Many of his propositions heavily influenced the political strategy of communist parties in the West after the Second World War following the publication of his Prison Notebooks.

Gramsci was born in January 1891 in the small town of Ales, in a mountainous inland part of Sardinia about 70 kilometres north of Cagliari. His father, originally from Gaeta in Lazio, was a local government official who was himself imprisoned after being found guilty of embezzlement in 1898.

Despite his family falling into poverty without his father's income, Gramsci excelled at school, eventually winning a scholarship to the University of Turin, where he studied linguistics.  Turin was becoming industrialised at the time, with the Fiat and Lancia factories recruiting workers from poorer regions.  As trade unions became established, Gramsci became politically active, joining the Italian Socialist Party (PSI) in late 1913.

His health was already a concern.  His growth was stunted, apparently the result of being dropped as a child, and living on a poor diet in damp, unheated lodgings in Turin left him with respiratory problems.  Yet on leaving university he moved into journalism and pursued his career with vigour, becoming one of the most influential left-wing writers, hugely admired by those on his side of the political divide but regarded as a dangerous figure by those with leanings to the right.

Photo of Antonio Gramsci's grave
Antonio Gramsci is buried in the
Protestant Cemetery in Rome
In 1921 he left the PSI to join the Communists and spent a year and a half living in Moscow, where he had travelled as a representative of his new party.  It was in Moscow that he met and married Julka Schucht, a violinist and member of the Russian Communist Party. They had two sons, Delio, who died in 1981, and Giuliano, who was born in 1926 and still lives in Moscow.

Meanwhile, the Fascist advance in Italy was gathering strength and Gramsci, outspoken in his opposition to Mussolini, returned to Italy with the intention of rallying the forces of the left in a united front.  In 1924, by then recognised as head of the PCI, he was elected to parliament as a deputy for the Veneto.

Mussolini's strategy with political opponents was to intimidate them and many members of the PCI were arrested.  Gramsci escaped at first through political immunity but after the Fascists introduced new laws in 1926 he also was arrested.

At his trial, the Fascist prosecutor's attitude to Gramsci was clear. "For twenty years we must stop this brain from functioning," he said.  It was somewhat ironic, then, that while Gramsci's mental faculties never faltered, it was his body that failed him.

He was moved from prison in Turi, near Bari, to a clinic in Rome in 1935. When the campaign for his freedom succeeded, his intention was to return to his native Sardinia.  He was due to be released on 21 April, 1937, but was too ill to make the journey and died a few days later from cerebral hemorrhage.

Picture of Law and Political Science faculty at the University of Turin
The striking Campus Luigi Einaudi was designed for the
University of Turin by Foster + Partners
Travel tip:

Although the University of Bologna predates it by more than 300 years, the University of Turin, founded in 1404, is one of the oldest universities in Europe.  Situated within walking distance of the centre of the city, the university's older buildings off Via Po date back to the 18th century. They contrast with the ultra-modern faculty of Law and Political Science at the Campus Luigi Einaudi on Lungo Dora Siena, designed by Foster + Partners, the firm headed by Lord Norman Foster.

Travel tip:

Cagliari, the capital of Sardinia, was Italy's Capital of Culture for 2015. The city contains fragments of a history spanning Carthaginian, Roman, Byzantine and Spanish eras.  The most popular sights include the Basilica of Our Lady of Bonaria and the Cathedral of Santa Maria.

(Picture of Gramsci's grave by Piero Montesacro CC BY-SA 3.0)


26 April 2016

Michele Ferrero - the man who invented Nutella

Hazelnut spread that became a worldwide favourite

Photo of Nutella and bread spread with Nutella
Nutella served with crusty bread is a popular snack
in Italy and around the world
The man who invented the global commercial phenomenon that is Nutella spread was born on this day in 1925.

Michele Ferrero, who died in 2015 aged 89, owned the Italian chocolate manufacturer Ferrero SpA, the second largest confectionery producer in Europe after Nestlé.

He was the richest individual in Italy, listed by the Bloomberg Billionaires index in 2014 as the 20th richest person in the world.  The wealth of Michele and his family was put at $20.4 billion, around 14.9 billion euros.

Ferrero is famous for such brands as Ferrero Rocher, Mon Cheri, Kinder and Tic Tacs.  But, it could be argued, none of those names would probably exist had it not been for Nutella.

The chocolate and hazelnut spread came into being after Michele, who was born in the small town of Dogliani in Piedmont, inherited the Ferrero company from his father, Pietro, who died in 1949 only three years after setting up in business from his bakery in nearby Alba.

Photo of Michele Ferrero
Michele Ferrero became the richest man in Italy
With high taxes on cocoa beans making conventional chocolate expensive to make, Pietro had managed to build the business by producing a solid confectionery bar that combined Gianduja, a traditional Piedmontese hazelnut paste, with about 20 per cent chocolate.

A creamy, spreadable version was produced in 1951 under the name 'Supercrema' but it was after Michele decided to add palm oil to the recipe that the product really took off.  Renamed Nutella, and sold in a jar, it rolled off the production line at the factory in Alba for the first time on 20 April 1964.

Nutella was instantly popular and remains so more than 50 years later. Ferrero now produces 365,000 tons of Nutella every year in 11 factories around the world, with its biggest markets in Germany, France and Italy.

The 50th anniversary of Nutella's invention was commemorated with a stamp issued by Poste Italiane in 2014.  One fan of the product instigated World Nutella Day, which is celebrated by devotees on 5 February each year.

Building on Nutella's success, Ferrero created the Ferrero Rocher pralines, Kinder bars and Kinder Eggs and a host of other brands. What had begun as a small provincial chocolate factory turned into Italy's most valuable privately-owned company with sales of around 8 billion euros ($9 billion), selling its products in 53 countries.

Michele had a reputation for maintaining good working conditions for Ferrero's 22,000 employees. A fervent Catholic, he had a Madonna placed in every factory and office belonging to the company.

He eventually made his home in Monte Carlo but commuted to Alba by helicopter every day, playing an active role in creating new products until only a few years before his death.

Giovanni Ferrero, the youngest of Michele's two sons, is now the company's Chief Executive.  His brother, Pietro, was unfortunately killed in a cycling accident in South Africa in 2011.

Photo of the Duomo at Alba in Piedmont
Alba's Romaneque Duomo
Travel tip:

Alba, situated about 65 kilometres south-east of Turin, is a beautiful town famed for the production of white truffle, peaches and elegant wines, including Barbera and Barolo.  The town dates back to Roman times and has been fought over through history by Hungary, France, Spain and Austria among others.  Its partisans won a Gold Medal for Military Valour during the Second World War after liberating the town from Mussolini's Fascists.  Notable buildings include the Romanesque Duomo, built in the 12th century, restructured in the 15th century and further restored in the 19th century.

Travel tip:

Michele Ferrero's home town, about a half-hour drive from Alba to the south-west, Dogliani nestles among vineyards and woods of hazel trees.  Wine production plays an important role in the town's economy, in particular the Dolcetto di Dogliani red, which is made only from Dolcetto grapes grown within a small, clearly defined area, of which the yield is strictly controlled to maintain the wine's high value.  The late 19th century church of San Quirico e Paolo is impressive.  Visitors to the area before Christmas can witness the town's Presepio Vivente, in which local people enact the nativity scene on the nights of 23 and 24 December.

(Photo of Nutella by A Kniesel CC BY-SA 3.0)
(Photo of Duomo in Alba by Pippo-B CC BY-SA 3.0)


25 April 2016

Festa della Liberazione

Date of radio broadcast chosen for annual celebration

Photo of Liberation Day celebration
Gatherings such as this one in Seregno in Lombardy
celebrate the role of the partisans in driving out the Nazis
Today is an official Bank Holiday in Italy as the whole country joins together to celebrate the anniversary of the end of the fascist regime with la Festa della Liberazione.

Every year on this day, the end of the Nazi occupation of Italy is commemorated with parades and parties and many public buildings are closed.

The Festa della Liberazione (Liberation Day) marks the day when Allied troops were finally able to liberate Italy. 

The date for the national holiday was chosen in 1946. It was decided to hold the Festa on 25 April, the date the news of the liberation was officially announced to the country on the radio.

The marches and events held throughout the day provide an opportunity for Italians to remember their fallen soldiers, in particular the partisans of the Italian resistance who fought the Nazis, as well as Mussolini’s troops, throughout the second world war. A ceremony will be held at the war memorial in each city and town.

But when the official part is over it is also a festive occasion for many Italians, who have a day off work, and will enjoy the food festivals, open air concerts and parties taking place.

Travel tip:

When in Rome, a focal point for celebrating Liberation Day is the Quirinale. The impressive Palazzo del Quirinale, at one end of Piazza del Quirinale, was the summer palace of the popes until 1870 when it became the palace of the Kings of the newly unified Italy. Since 1947 it has been the official residence of the President of the Republic of Italy.

Photo of Bergamo monument
The monument to the partisans in Piazza
Matteotti in Bergamo
Travel tip:

In Bergamo, in northern Italy, the citizens gather each year at the Torre dei Caduti in Piazza Vittorio Veneto in the lower town. In nearby Piazza Matteotti there is a striking monument dedicated to the partisans, which was created by Bergamo sculptor Giacomo Manzù, who presented the work of art to his home town as a gift in 1977. 

(Photo of Seregno commemoration by Paul Barker Hemings CC BY-SA 2.0)


24 April 2016

Alessandro Costacurta - champion of football longevity

AC Milan defender played in Serie A until 41 years old

Photo of AC Milan after 2003 Champions League win
Alessandro Costacurta, on the far right, celebrates winning
the 2003 Champions League with his AC Milan teammates
As former Italy and AC Milan defender Alessandro Costacurta celebrates his 50th birthday today, it is remarkable to recall that he retired from football only nine years ago, still playing at the highest level.

Costacurta, born on this day in 1966 in the town of Orago, near Varese, retired in May 2007, 25 days after his 41st birthday, having played more than 660 matches for AC Milan over the course of 21 seasons.  He is the oldest outfield player to appear in a Serie A match.

Milan lost his final game 3-2 at home to Udinese but Costacurta marked the occasion with a goal, from the penalty spot.  It was only his third goal in 458 Serie A appearances for the rossoneri, but made him Serie A's oldest goalscorer.

He could look back on a career laden with honours, including seven Serie A titles and five European Cups, two in its traditional knock-out format and three more after the inception of the Champions League.  He also won 59 caps for Italy and was a member of the team that finished runners-up in the 1994 World Cup in the United States, although he had to sit out the final because of suspension.

Costacurta made his Milan debut in the Coppa Italia in 1986 before being sent away to gain experience with Monza in Serie C.  His first Serie A appearance came for Milan in October 1987 in a 1-0 win at Hellas-Verona.

Photo of Arrigo Sacchi
Arrigo Sacchi
A defender blessed with positional awareness and tactical intelligence, he was technically gifted and a fierce competitor. He and Franco Baresi were at the heart of a formidable defence assembled by his first manager, Arrigo Sacchi, complemented by the brilliant full backs, Mauro Tassotti and Paolo Maldini.  They formed the best back line in football in the late 1980s and early 90s, enabling Sacchi and his successor, Fabio Capello, to dominate both at home and in Europe, winning five domestic titles and three European Cups between them.

Capello left for Real Madrid after the 1995-96 season but Milan were champions of Italy again three years later under Alberto Zaccheroni.

Milan's fortunes dipped somewhat after that and financial problems began to bite, to the extent that club president Adriano Galliani made it known that the size of the first-team squad would have to be trimmed at the end of the 2001-02 season.  Costacurta was out of contract and with his old boss, Arrigo Sacchi, keen to sign him for Parma, it seemed he would be leaving at the age of 36.

However, with the Milan squad lacking experienced defenders, Galliani relented at the 11th hour and offered Costacurta a new contract.  Under Carlo Ancelotti, he picked up his fourth European Cup winner's medal as Milan beat Juventus on penalties in an all-Italian Champions League final at Old Trafford, Manchester in May 2003.

After retiring as a player, with a fifth Champions League medal to his name, Costacurta at first remained at San Siro as a coach. He then had a brief but unsuccessful spell as a manager himself with Mantova in Serie B.  Married to a former Miss Italia, Martina Colombari, with whom he has a son, Achille, he now works as a pundit on Italian television.

Throughout his career, Costacurta was more often known as Billy than Alessandro.  He is believed to have acquired the nickname as an AC Milan youth player, when he also enjoyed playing basketball.  Milan's basketball team, Olimpia Milano, was at the time sponsored by a soft drinks company that sold products under the trade name Billy.

Photo of a chapel on Sacro Monte di Varese
One of the 14 chapels on the Sacro Monte di Varese
Travel tip:

Varese, which sits above the lake of the same name, is an elegant Lombardy city characterised by a number of fine villas and castles, often enclosed within beautiful gardens.  It is also home of the Sacro Monte di Varese, literally the Sacred Mount of Varese, which offers both spectacular views of the lake and surrounding countryside and the chance to follow the so-called Rosary Path, a 2.5 kilometre trail to the summit that takes in 14 beautiful chapels built in the 17th century, each dedicated to an event in the lives of Jesus and Mary.  At the top is the picturesque village of Santa Maria del Monte, from which it is possible on a clear day even to pick out Lake Maggiore to the north and the city of Milan to the south.

Travel tip:

Home for AC Milan is the Stadio Giuseppe Meazza, better known after its location in the San Siro district of Milan.  Opened in 1926, it had an initial capacity of around 35,000 but was extended over time to hold 100,000 spectators by the mid-1950s, with the addition of a second tier.  This was cut back to 80,000 for safety reasons in the 1980s but increased again for the 1990 World Cup, when a third tier and a roof was added, supported by the 11 cylindrical towers that made the stadium instantly recognisable today. Since 1947, the stadium has been the shared home of both AC Milan and Internazionale.  It hosted six games at the 1990 World Cup and has staged three European Cup finals, in 1965, 1970 and 2001. It has been chosen as the venue for the 2016 Champions League Final.

More reading:

Marcello Lippi - World Cup winning coach

Arrigo Sacchi - revolutionary coach who transformed AC Milan

(Photo of Milan's Champions League celebrations by Soccer Illustrated CC BY-SA 3.0)
(Photo of Sacro Monte di Varese by Torsade de Pointes CC 1.0)


23 April 2016

Ruggero Leoncavallo – opera composer

Writer and musician created one of the most popular operas of all time

Photo of Ruggero Leoncavallo
Ruggero Leoncavallo
Ruggero Leoncavallo, the composer of the opera, Pagliacci, was born on this day in 1857 in Naples.

Pagliacci - which means 'clowns' - is one of the most popular operas ever written and is still regularly performed all over the world.

Leoncavallo also wrote the song, Mattinata, often performed by Enrico Caruso and still recorded by today’s tenors.

Leoncavallo was the son of a judge and moved with his father from Naples to live in the town of Montalto Uffugo in Calabria when he was a child.

He later returned to Naples to be educated and then studied literature at the University of Bologna under the poet Giosuè Carducci.

Leoncavallo initially worked as a piano teacher in Egypt but then moved to Paris where he found work as an accompanist for artists singing in cafes.

He then moved to Milan where he taught the piano and started to compose operas.

After the success of Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana, Leoncavallo produced his own verismo work, Pagliacci. Verismo was a post-romantic operatic tradition, often featuring true stories about the lives of poor people.

Listen to the great Enrico Caruso perform Vesti la guibba from Pagliacci

Leoncavallo claimed he had derived the plot for Pagliacci from a real-life murder trial in Montalto Uffugo, over which his father had presided.

Photo of Teatro dal Verme
The Teatro dal Verme in Milan staged the first
performance if Pagliacci in May 1892
Pagliacci was an immediate success after its premiere at the Teatro Dal Verme in Milan in May 1892.

The most famous aria, Vesti la giubba, which has been translated as ‘On with the motley’, was recorded by Caruso in 1902. He recorded it again in 1904 and 1907 and it is claimed to be the first record to sell a million copies.

Leoncavallo went on to compose other operas and operettas, writing the words himself as well as creating the music.

After he wrote Mattinata, he accompanied Caruso at the piano when the tenor recorded the song in 1904.

Although Leoncavallo’s other operas are now hardly ever performed, arias from them are sometimes included in collections recorded by contemporary singers.

Leoncavallo died in 1919 in Montecatini Terme in Tuscany, where he had a villa. His funeral was attended by Mascagni and Giacomo Puccini.

The composer was buried at a cemetery near Florence but his body was later exhumed and moved by his descendants to Brissago in Switzerland, where he had also owned a residence.

Travel tip:

Teatro Dal Verme, where Pagliacci was premiered, was built in 1872 in Via San Giovanni sul Muro in north west Milan. The theatre was used for performances of plays and operas during the 19th and 20th centuries but is now mainly used for concerts, exhibitions and conferences.

Photo of Leoncavallo's villa
Leoncavallo's villa in Montecatini Terme
Travel tip:

Montecatini Terme in Tuscany, where Leoncavallo had a villa, is a spa town in the province of Pistoia, dotted with formal gardens and with a variety of architectural styles on display because of the different spa establishments. Its heyday was the early part of the 20th century, when restaurants, theatres, nightclubs and a casino were built here and many celebrities visited. As well as Leoncavallo, the town welcomed the composers, Giuseppe Verdi and Mascagni, and the tenor, Beniamino Gigli.

(Picture credits: Teatro dal Verme by MarkusMark; Leoncavallo's villa by Pivari.com; via Wikimedia Commons) 

More reading: 

22 April 2016

Vittorio Jano - motor racing engineer

Genius behind the success of Alfa Romeo, Lancia and Ferrari

Photo of Vittorio Jano
Vittorio Jano
Born on this day in 1891, Vittorio Jano was among the greatest engine designers in motor racing history. 

Jano's engines powered cars for Fiat, Alfa Romeo, Lancia and Ferrari during a career that spanned four decades, winning numerous Grand Prix races.  The legendary Argentinian Juan Manuel Fangio won the fourth of his five Formula One world championships in Jano's Lancia-Ferrari D50, in 1956.

Almost 30 years earlier, Jano's Alfa Romeo P2 won the very first Grand Prix world championship in 1925, while its successor, the P3, scored a staggering 46 race wins between 1932 and 1935.

He worked for Ferrari from the mid-50s onwards, where his greatest legacy was the V-8 Dino engine, which was the staple of Ferrari cars on the track and the road between 1966 and 2004.

Jano's parents were from Hungary, but settled in Italy, where his father worked as a mechanical engineer in Turin.  He was born in the small town of San Giorgio Canavese in Piedmont, about 35 kilometres north of Turin, and was originally called Viktor János.

Following his father into engineering, he joined Fiat at the age of just 20 and by 1921 was head of the design team.  Two years later, partly on the recommendation of Enzo Ferrari, then a young driver, he was hired by Milan-based Alfa Romeo, who were keen to raise their profile by becoming a successful name on the track.

They almost doubled his salary from 1800 lire per year with Fiat to 3500 lire per year but it was money well spent.  Jano's P2 car won its debut race in 1924, driven by Antonio Ascari, and gave the company the Grand Prix world championship the following year.

Its successor, the P3, was the first genuine single-seat racing car in Grand Prix racing.  Like the P2, it made a successful first appearance on the track, winning the 1932 Italian Grand Prix in the hands of the great Italian driver Tazio Nuvolari.  By this time Jano was effectively working for Ferrari.  Enzo had switched roles from driver to team manager and his Scuderia Ferrari had become Alfa Romeo's works team, taking over the racing operation completely when the parent company hit financial troubles in 1933.

Photo of Alberto Ascari in the Lancia D50
Alberto Ascari pictured in the Lancia-Ferrari D50
But before he became a Ferrari employee, Jano returned to Turin in 1937 to join Lancia as chief development engineer. Jano was involved in making aircraft engines during World War II but returned to building cars, launching the successful D24 road racing car and then the D50 Formula One car, again for the Scuderia Ferrari team.

He moved to Ferrari in 1955 after Lancia, stunned by the death at 36 of their main driver, Alberto Ascari, during a test session at Monza, stepped away from racing. Ironically, Alberto's father, Antonio, had died at the wheel of Jano's Alfa Romeo P2 during the French Grand Prix of 1925, also aged 36.

Ferrari took over Lancia’s Grand Prix operations and Jano moved to their headquarters at Maranello, just outside Modena in Emilia-Romagna.

At Ferrari, Jano began working on a V-6 engine for Formula Two cars with Enzo’s son, Dino. Tragically, Dino died in 1956, struck down with muscular dystrophy, a year before the engine's debut.

The V-6 Dino engine was a commercial success, used in many of Ferrari's road-going vehicles before it was superseded in the mid-1960s by the V-8 version, which would eventually become the staple for Ferrari's luxury sports car range, from the 308 GTB produced under the original Dino badge in 1973 to the Berlinettas and Spiders in the 1990s, phased out only after the Modena 360 was discontinued in 2004.

Jano died in 1965, a month short of his 74th birthday, from self-inflicted gunshot wounds after being diagnosed with cancer.

Aerial photo of Lingotto factory
Fiat's extraordinary Lingotto factory in Turin, complete
with its famous rooftop test track
Travel tip:

It was during Vittorio Jano's time at Fiat that the company was building its iconic factory in the Lingotto district of Turin, famous for a production line that progressed upwards through its five floors, with completed cars emerging on to a then-unique steeply banked test track at rooftop level. At the time the largest car factory in the world, built to a starkly linear design by the Futurist architect Giacomo Matte Trucco, it was closed in 1982 but reopened in 1989. Redesigned by the award-winning contemporary architect Renzo Piano, it now houses concert halls, a theatre, a convention centre, shopping arcades and a hotel, as well as the Automotive Engineering faculty of the Polytechnic University of Turin.  The rooftop track, which featured in the Michael Caine movie, The Italian Job, has been preserved and can still be visited today.

Travel tip:

The town of Maranello, 18 km from Modena, has been the home of the Ferrari car factory since the early 1940s, when Enzo Ferrari moved production from the Scuderia Ferrari Garage and Factory in Modena.  Visitors can sample the rich history of the company at the Museo Ferrari, which not only includes many impressive exhibits but interactive features such as Formula One simulators and an opportunity to take part in a pit lane tyre change, plus the chance to be photographed at the wheel of a Ferrari car.  For more information visit www.museomaranello.ferrari.com

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21 April 2016

Cosimo I de' Medici

The grand designs of a powerful archduke

Portrait of Cosimo I, Grand Duke of Tuscany
This 1545 portrait of  Cosimo I by Agnolo
 Bronzino is owned by the Art Gallery
of New South Wales
The second duke of Florence and first grand duke of Tuscany, Cosimo I, died on this day in 1574 at the Villa di Castello near Florence.

Cosimo had proved to be both shrewd and unscrupulous, bringing Florence under his despotic control and increasing its territories.

He was the first to have the idea of uniting all public services in a single building. He commissioned the Uffizi, which meant Offices, a beautiful building that is now an art gallery in the centre of Florence.

Cosimo was the great-great-grandson of Lorenzo the Elder, whose brother was Cosimo the Elder but played no part in politics until he heard of the assassination of his distant cousin, Alessandro.

He immediately travelled to Florence and was elected head of the republic in 1537 with the approval of the city’s senate, assembly and council.

He also had the support of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V. The Emperor’s general defeated an army raised against Cosimo, who then had the principal rebels beheaded in public in Florence.

Cosimo began to style himself as a duke and sidelined the other Government bodies in the city.  As the Emperor’s protégée, he remained safe from the hostility of Pope Paul II and King Francis I of France.

Photo of the Ponte Vecchio
The gallery over the Ponte Vecchio was added by Cosimo I
to link the Palazzo Vecchio with the Pitti Palace
Cosimo launched an attack on Siena in 1554 and after a long siege the city capitulated to his troops. Having brought many other parts of Tuscany under his control, Cosimo then turned his attention to improving Florence.

He had the interior of Palazzo Vecchio redecorated and adopted the Pitti Palace as his residence, overseeing the design of the Boboli Gardens. He also had the gallery over the Ponte Vecchio built to enable him to move from one palace to the other easily.

Cosimo was deeply affected when his wife, two of his sons and two of his daughters all died within a few years of each other.

In 1564 he handed over the Government of the city to his eldest son, Francis. In 1569 Pope Pius V conferred the title of Grand Duke of Tuscany on Cosimo.

He retired to live at his country residence, the Villa di Castello, where he died in 1574.

Travel tip:

The Ponte Vecchio was built in 1345 and is the oldest bridge remaining in Florence. The medieval workshops inhabited by butchers and blacksmiths were eventually given to goldsmiths and are still inhabited by jewellers today. The private corridor over the shops was designed by the architect, Giorgio Vasari, to link the Palazzo Vecchio to the Palazzo Pitti, via the Uffizi, allowing the Medici to move about between their residences without having to walk through the streets.

Photo inside the Uffizi Gallery
The building that now houses the Uffizi Gallery was
originally designed to house a suite of offices
Travel tip:

Work on the Uffizi began in 1560 in order to create a suite of offices (uffici) for the new administration of Cosimo I. The architect, Vasari, created a wall of windows on the upper storey and from about 1580, the Medici began to use this well-lit space to display their art treasures, starting one of the oldest and most famous art galleries in the world. The present day Uffizi Gallery, in Piazzale degli Uffizi, is open from 8.15 am to 6.50 pm from Tuesday to Sunday.

More reading:

Piero di Cosimo - Florentine artist with works in the Uffizi

Niccolò Machiavelli, brilliant but ruthless statesman who served the Medici family


(Uffizi picture is by Petar Milosevic CC BY-SA 4.0)

20 April 2016

Massimo D’Alema – former prime minister

Journalist and politician first Communist to lead Italy

Massimo D'Alema was the first Communist Party member to be Prime Minister of Italy
Massimo D'Alema

Massimo D’Alema, who was prime minister of Italy from 1998 to 2000, was born on this day in 1949 in Rome.

He was the first prime minister in the history of Italy, and the first leader of any of the NATO countries, to have been a Communist Party member.

After studying Philosophy at the University of Pisa, D’Alema became a journalist by profession. He joined the Italian Young Communists’ Federation in 1963, becoming its general secretary in 1975.
D’Alema became a member of the Italian Communist Party (PCI), part of which, in 1991, gave origin to the Democratic Party of the Left (PDS), and, in 1998, to the Democrats of the Left (DS).

D’Alema has also served as the chief editor of the daily newspaper, L’Unità, the official newspaper of the Communist Party.

In October 1998, D’Alema became prime minister of Italy, as the leader of the Olive Tree centre left coalition.

While his party was making the transition to becoming the Democratic Party of the Left, D’Alema stressed the importance of the party’s roots in Marxism with the aim of creating a modern, European, social-democratic party.

He was appointed deputy prime minister and minister of foreign affairs by Prime Minister Romano Prodi in 2006 and subsequently became president of a political foundation for Italian Europeans and president of the Foundation for European Progressive Studies.

Travel tip:

Palazzo Chigi, the official residence in Rome of the Prime Minister of Italy, was occupied by D’Alema between 1998 and 2000. It is a 16th century palace in Piazza Colonna, just off Via del Corso and close to the Pantheon.

The Duomo and Leaning Tower in Pisa's Piazza dei Miracoli
Travel tip:

Massimo D’Alema is one of several Italian prime ministers to have attended the University of Pisa. Situated in Lungarno Pacinotti in the centre of Pisa, close to the Duomo and the famous Leaning Tower, the university was founded in 1343 by an edict of Pope Clement VI and is the tenth oldest in Italy.

More reading:

Alcide de Gasperi - Prime Minister who rebuilt war-torn Italy

The tragedy of Aldo Moro


(Massimo D'Alema photo by WeEnterWinter CC BY-SA 3.0)
(Pisa photo by José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro CC BY-SA 3.0)

19 April 2016

Antonio Carluccio - chef and restaurateur

TV personality and author began his career as a wine merchant

The chef, restaurateur and author Antonio Carluccio was born on this day in 1937 in Vietri-sul-Mare in Campania. 

An instantly recognisable figure due to his many television appearances, Carluccio moved to London in 1975 and built up a successful chain of restaurants bearing his name.  He wrote 21 books about Italian food, as well as his autobiography, A Recipe for Life, which was published in 2012.

Although born in Vietri, a seaside town between Amalfi and Salerno famous for ceramics, Carluccio spent most of his childhood in the north, in Borgofranco d'Ivrea in Piedmont.  His father was a station master and his earliest memories are of running home from the station where his father worked to warn his mother that the last train of the day had left and that it was time to begin cooking the evening meal.

Antonio Carluccio
(Photo: Andrew Hendo)
Carluccio would join his father in foraging for mushrooms and wild rocket in the mountainous countryside near their home and it was from those outings that his interest in food began to develop, yet his career would at first revolve around wine.  Having moved to Austria to study languages, he settled in Germany and between 1962 and 1975 was a wine merchant based in Hamburg.

The wine business then took him to London, where he specialised in importing Italian wines.  He was already acknowledged among friends as a talented cook and he was persuaded by his partner and future wife, Priscilla Conran, to enter a cookery competition promoted by a national newspaper, in which he finished second.

Carluccio and Priscilla married in 1980, after which his new brother-in-law, the designer and entrepreneur Terence Conran, made him manager of his Neal Street Restaurant in Covent Garden, which launched him on his new career.

Carluccio's logo
He bought Neal Street in 1989 and, two years later, opened a deli next door, called simply Carluccio's. The shop expanded into a mail order business and, in 1998, with Priscilla providing the business brains, he opened the first Carluccio's Caffè.  It was the first step in building a nationwide chain of restaurants, which they eventually sold for around £90 million in 2010.  He now works for the company, which has more than 80 branches in the United Kingdom alone, as a consultant.

Carluccio's television career began in 1983, when he made his first appearance in the BBC2 show Food and Drink, talking about Mediterranean food.  At the same time he was asked to write his first book, An Invitation to Italian Cooking, and soon became a familiar face as the number of cooking programmes on TV soared.  He hosted several of his own series and shared the spotlight with his former assistant at Neal Street, Gennaro Contaldo, in the hugely popular Two Greedy Italians. By coincidence, Contaldo was born in Minori, less than 20 kilometres along the Amalfi Coast from Carluccio's home town of Vietri-sul-Mare.

Carluccio was generally seen as a jolly figure with a zest for life, yet endured difficult times. Although his parents did their best to shield him, he admitted that some of his experiences growing up in wartime Italy were not pleasant. He suffered a family tragedy aged 23 when his younger brother, Enrico, 10 years' his junior, drowned while swimming in a lake. Carluccio was divorced from Priscilla Conran in 2008 and revealed in his autobiography that he had waged a long battle against depression.

In 1988, Carluccio was honoured in Italy by being made Commendatore dell'Ordine al Merito della Repubblica Italiana, the equivalent to a knighthood in Britain, where in 2007 he was made an OBE.

Carluccio died in November 2017 at the age of 80 following a fall at home.

Photo of Church in Vietri-sul-Mare
The majolica-clad dome of the Church of St John
the Baptist in Vietri-sul-Mare, Carluccio's birthplace
Travel tip:

Vietri-sul-Mare, which is situated just 12 kilometres from Salerno in Campania, is the first or last town on the Amalfi Coast, depending on the starting point.  It is sometimes described as the first of the 13 pearls of the Amalfi Coast. A port and resort town of Etruscan origins, it has been famous for the production of ceramics since the 15th century. The Church of St. John the Baptist, built in the 17th century in late Neapolitan Renaissance style, has an eyecatching dome covered with majolica tiles.

Travel tip:

Borgofranca d'Ivrea is a village of 3,700 inhabitants situated just north of Ivrea in Piedmont, a town with a population of 23,000 people notable for its 14th century castle, a square structure that originally had a round tower in each corner, one of which was destroyed by an explosion in 1676 after lightning struck an ammunition store.  There is also a cathedral, parts of which date back to the fourth century, that now has an elegant neo-classical faҫade added in the 19th century.

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