31 May 2016

Tintoretto – painter

Dyer’s son whose work still adorns Venice

Self-portrait by Tintoretto
Tintoretto: this 1548 self-portrait is housed
 in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London
Renaissance artist Tintoretto died on this day in 1594 in Venice.

Known for his boundless energy, the painter was also sometimes referred to as Il Furioso.

His paintings are populated by muscular figures, make bold use of perspective and feature the colours typical of the Venetian school.

Tintoretto was an expert at depicting crowd scenes and mythological subjects and during his successful career received important commissions to produce paintings for the Scuola Grande di San Marco and the Scuolo Grande di San Rocco.

Tintoretto was born Jacopo Comin, the son of a dyer (tintore), which earned him the nickname Tintoretto, meaning 'little dyer'.

He was also sometimes known as Jacopo Robusti as his father had defended the gates of Padua against imperial troops in a way that was described as ‘robust’ at the time.

As a child, Tintoretto daubed on his father’s walls so the dyer took him to the studio of Titian to see if he could be trained as an artist.

Things did not work out and Tintoretto was quickly sent home. Although Tintoretto later claimed to be an admirer of Titian, the famous artist remained distant towards him so Tintoretto studied on his own and practised his technique day and night.

One of Tintoretto’s early pictures, which is still in the Church of the Carmine in Venice, is the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple.

Tintoretto's The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple
The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, one of Tintoretto's
 early works, can be found in the Church of the Carmine
He then painted four subjects from Genesis and, two of these, Adam and Eve and The Death of Abel, are now in the Accademia Museum in Venice.

In 1546 he painted three of his major works, The Worship of the Golden Calf, The Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple and The Last Judgement, for the Church of Madonna dell’Orto in Canareggio.

Then in 1548 he was commissioned for four pictures about the life of St Mark for the Scuola Grande di San MarcoFrom 1565 onwards Tintoretto produced many paintings for the walls and ceilings of the Scuola Grande di San Rocco.

The last important picture painted by Tintoretto was a vast canvas entitled Paradise, which takes up an entire wall of the Great Council Chamber in the Doge’s Palace. A painted sketch of it is also in the Louvre in Paris.

In May 1594, after suffering severe stomach pains and fever, Tintoretto died aged 75 and was buried in the Church of Madonna dell’Orto.

Photo of the Church of the Madonna dell'Orto
The Church of the Madonna dell'Orto in
Venice, where Tintoretto is buried
Travel tip:

The Church of Madonna dell’Orto in Cannaregio, where Tintoretto is buried, is one of the finest Gothic churches in Venice. In his painting, The Adoration of the Golden Calf on the left wall, the figure carrying the calf is said to represent Tintoretto himself.

Travel tip:

Tintoretto lived with his family in a house near the Church of Madonna dell’Orto overlooking the Fondamento dei Mori from 1574 till his death in 1594. He was born, lived and died in Cannaregio and is believed to have left Venice only once in his life.


30 May 2016

Giacomo Matteotti - martyr of freedom

Politician kidnapped and murdered by Fascist thugs

Photo of Giacomo Matteotti
Giacomo Matteotti
A brave and historic speech made in the Italian parliament on this day in 1924 marked the start of a crisis for Benito Mussolini's Fascist government.

The young socialist politician who delivered the speech, denouncing the Fascist victory in the general election held in April of that year as having been won through fraud and violence, was subsequently kidnapped and murdered.

Giacomo Matteotti, the 29-year-old founder and leader of the Unified Socialist Party, accused Mussolini's party of employing thugs to intimidate the public into voting Fascist and said that changes to electoral law were inherently corrupt in that they were framed to make a Mussolini government almost inevitable.

Matteotti, who had already written a controversial book about the Fascists' rise to power, knew the risk he took in making the speech and is said to have told colleagues they should "get ready to hold a wake for me" as they offered him their congratulations.

Less than two weeks later, on June 10, Matteotti was walking along the banks of the River Tiber close to his home in Rome when he was attacked by five or six assailants who beat him up and bundled him into a car.  He tried to escape but was repeatedly stabbed with a sharply pointed carpenter's wood file.

Matteotti's body was not discovered until August 16, buried in a shallow grave near Riano, about 30 kilometres outside Rome, but witnesses identified the car, which was found bloodstained and abandoned a few days after he was taken.  Arrests soon followed, with the kidnap gang revealed to be members of Mussolini's secret police, the Ceka.

There was public outrage at the murder, especially over the implication that Mussolini had ordered it himself, not only on account of the May 30 speech but because Matteotti was thought to have uncovered evidence that an American oil company was funding the Fascists in return for exclusive rights to Italy's oil reserves.

Photo of sign indicating Piazza Giacomo Matteotti in Bergamo
Giacomo Matteotti is commemorated in the name of a
square in Bergamo in Lombardy
Opposition politicians refused to attend the Chamber of Deputies and demanded that the King, Victor Emmanuel III, dismissed Mussolini from power.  But the monarch, anxious not to expose the country to possible civil war and wary, in any case, of the republican leanings of the socialists, declined to do so.

Already under pressure from extremists in his party to abandon all pretence to democracy and impose a dictatorship on the country, Mussolini saw the king's backing as a chance to strengthen his grip.

He made a speech accepting broad responsibility for Matteotti's death as head of the Fascist party while at the same time challenging his opponents to prosecute him if they thought he was directly linked to the crime.

When they failed to do so, he began to introduce laws that would ultimately outlaw any form of opposition to the Fascist regime, marking the start of totalitarian rule.

Three of the kidnappers were jailed, although Victor Emmanuel subsequently granted them amnesty. Retried after the Second World War, the three were sentenced again to 30 years in prison, although in none of the trials could it be proved that they acted on Mussolini's direct orders.

Matteotti's body, meanwhile, had been returned to his home town of Fratta Polesine, just outside Rovigo in the Veneto region, where he had enjoyed a comfortable upbringing in a wealthy family, his interest in left-wing politics taking hold after he had left to study law at the University of Bologna. He is buried in the family crypt.

Façade of the Villa Badoer in Fratta Polesine
Travel tip:

A village of fewer than 3,000 inhabitants, Fratta Polesine is notable for the Villa Badoer, built between 1557 and 1563 by the architect Andrea Palladio for a Venetian nobleman, and the first to feature the temple-like façade that would become Palladio's hallmark.

Travel tip:

Matteotti's memory is preserved in streets and squares named in his honour all over Italy, one example being the Piazza Giacomo Matteotti in in Bergamo, the elegant city north of Milan in Lombardy, where the street sign describes him as Martire della Libertà - martyr of freedom.

More reading:

The death of Mussolini

Victor Emmanuel III abdicates

(Photo of Villa Badoer by Marcok CC BY-SA 3.0)


29 May 2016

Katie Boyle – actress and television presenter

Daughter of Italian Marquis became the face of Eurovision

Photo of Katie Boyle
Katie Boyle, pictured presenting the 1974
Eurovision Song Contest in Brighton
Television personality Katie Boyle was born Caterina Irene Maria Imperiali di Francavilla on this day in 1926 in Florence.

The actress, who became known for her appearances on panel games such as What’s My Line?, and also for presenting the Eurovision Song Contest on the BBC, died in 2018 at the age of 91.

She was the daughter of an Italian Marquis, the Marchese Imperiali di Francavilla, and his English wife, Dorothy Kate Ramsden.

At the age of 20, Caterina moved from Italy to the UK to begin a modelling career and she went on to appear in several 1950s films.

In 1947 she had married Richard Bentinck Boyle, the ninth Earl of Shannon, and although the marriage was dissolved in 1955, she kept the surname, Boyle, throughout her career.

Boyle was an on screen continuity announcer for the BBC in the 1950s and then became a television personality who regularly appeared on panel games and quiz programmes.

She was the presenter of the 1960, 1963, 1968 and 1974 Eurovision Song Contests, impressing viewers with her range of European languages.

Boyle has also worked in the theatre and on radio and has been an agony aunt for the TV Times.

She was later married to Greville Baylis, a racehorse owner, who died in 1976, and Sir Peter Saunders, a theatre impresario, who died in 2002.

Photo of the Ponte Vecchio
The Ponte Vecchio in Florence, one of the city's
most famous sights, was built in 1345
Travel tip:

One of the most famous sights in Boyle’s birthplace of Florence is the Ponte Vecchio, built in 1345 and the oldest bridge remaining in the city. 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, Vasari, to link the Palazzo Vecchio to the Palazzo Pitti, via the Uffizi, allowing the ruling family, the Medici, to move about between their residences without having to walk through the streets.

Travel tip:

Work on the Uffizi in Florence began in 1560 to create a suite of offices (uffici) for the new administration of Cosimo I dè Medici. 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, which was the start of 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.


28 May 2016

The Last Supper goes back on display

Leonardo’s masterpiece put on show again at last

Photo of Leonardo's The Last Supper
Leonardo da Vinci's The Last Supper, as it appears on the wall
 of the refectory of the Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie
After more than 20 years of careful restoration, the world famous wall painting by Leonardo da Vinci, The Last Supper, was put back on display for visitors on this day in 1999.

The masterpiece, which shows the different expressions on the faces of the disciples at the moment Jesus says the words, ‘One of you will betray me’, was finally back where it belonged on the wall of the refectory of the Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan.

Commissioned by Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan, Leonardo began work on The Last Supper (known as Il Cenacolo in Italian) in 1495 and he completed it four years later. He felt traditional fresco painting techniques would not adequately capture the intensity he wanted so he experimented by painting on to dry plaster on the wall of the refectory.

But his new method was not as durable as the traditional one and the painting deteriorated quickly. By as early as 1556, the painting was described by one commentator as ‘ruined’.

Over the ensuing years it suffered from poor restoration techniques, blatant vandalism by French soldiers, having a doorway cut into it to provide a shortcut for the monks, and wartime bomb damage. Sadly, by 1978 only a small part of Leonardo’s original work remained.

A restoration project was mounted to reverse the damage and the refectory was sealed and converted to provide a climate-controlled environment for the painting.

Using the latest techniques, the restoration team slowly removed everything that had been added after Leonardo completed the painting in 1498. Then the areas that couldn’t be repaired were repainted in subdued colours so that they could be distinguished from the original painting.

After more than 20 years of restoration, which was four times longer than it took Leonardo to paint it originally, The Last Supper was again revealed for visitors to marvel at on 28 May, 1999.

The refectory has since remained a protected environment and the number of visitors inside at any one time is carefully restricted.

Photo of the Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie
The Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, where
Leonardo painted The Last Supper between 1495 and 1499
Travel tip:

Santa Maria delle Grazie is a church and Dominican convent in Milan. It is necessary to book in advance to see Leonardo’s masterpiece on the wall of the refectory. Entrance is limited to 25 people at a time for a maximum stay of 15 minutes. For more details visit www.cenacolo.it 

Travel tip:

A portrait of a man in red chalk in the Royal Library, Biblioteca Reale, in Turin is widely accepted to be a self portrait of Leonardo da Vinci, drawn when he was about 60 years of age. The library, on the ground floor of the Royal Palace in Piazzetta Reale, was founded in 1840 to hold the many rare manuscripts collected by members of the House of Savoy over the years.

(Photo of Church exterior by MarkusMark CC BY-SA 3.0)


27 May 2016

Bruno Vespa – television journalist

TV host opened the door to late night political debate

Photo of Bruno Vespa
Television presenter Bruno Vespa
Bruno Vespa, the founding host of the television programme Porta a Porta, was born on this day in 1944 in L’Aquila in Abruzzo.

Vespa, who celebrates his 72nd birthday today, has fronted the late night television talk show, which literally means ‘Door to Door’ in English, since Italy's state broadcaster RAI launched the programme in 1996.

Vespa became a radio announcer with RAI when he was 18 and began hosting the news programme Telegiornale RAI a few years later.  He had begun his career in journalism by writing sports features for the L’Aquila edition of the newspaper, Il Tempo, when he was just 16 years old.

On television, he became well known for interviewing influential world figures just before they became famous, an example being his programme featuring Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, the year before he was elected as Pope John Paul II.

In June 1984, Vespa was official commentator for the live televised broadcast of the state funeral for Enrico Berlinguer, the former leader of the Italian Communist party.

Photo of Matteo Renzi with Bruno Vespa
Italian Prime Minster Matteo Renzi has appeared on
Vespa's Porta a Porta show on a number of occasions
Vespa has won awards for his journalism and television programmes and has also written many books.

Since he began presenting Porta a Porta, much of Italy’s political debate has taken place on the programme. The late night slot on RAI Uno is sometimes referred to sarcastically as ‘the third house’ after the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate.

Travel tip:

L’Aquila, where Bruno Vespa was born, is the capital city of the Abruzzo region. The city is set within medieval walls on a hill and has many fascinating, narrow streets lined with Baroque and Renaissance buildings and churches to explore.

Photo of Piazza Duomo in L'Aquila
The Piazza Duomo in L'Aquila
Travel tip:

RAI, which is short for Radio- televisione Italiana, is Italy’s national public broadcasting company. RAI’s main headquarters are in Viale Giuseppe Mazzini, just north of Vatican City in Rome.

(Photo of Bruno Vespa by Roberto Vicario CC BY-SA 3.0)
(Photo of L'Aquila by Ra Boe CC BY-SA 2.5)


26 May 2016

Napoleon becomes King of Italy

French Emperor places Iron Crown of Lombardy on his own head

Portrait of Napoleon Bonaparte by the Italian artist Andrea Appiani in 1805
Portrait of Napoleon Bonaparte by the Italian
artist Andrea Appiani in 1805
Napoleon Bonaparte was declared King of Italy on this day in 1805 in Milan.

He crowned himself at a ceremony in the Duomo using the Iron Crown of Lombardy.

The title King of Italy signified that Napoleon was the head of the new Kingdom of Italy, which was at that time a vassal state of the French Empire. The area controlled by Napoleon had previously been known as a republic, with Napoleon as its president.

But Napoleon had become the Emperor of France the year before and had decided Italy should become a Kingdom ruled by himself, or a member of his family.

Before the ceremony, the Iron Crown had to be fetched from Monza. The crown consisted of a circlet of gold with a central iron band, which according to legend was beaten out of a nail from Christ’s true cross, found by Saint Helena in the Holy Land. The crown is believed to have been given to the city of Monza in the sixth century.

During his coronation, Napoleon is reported to have picked up the precious relic, announced that God had given it to him, and placed it on his own head.

After the coronation there were celebratory fireworks in Milan and over the next few days there were horse races, public amusements in the streets and parks, and a grand concert and ball.

The new King appointed his stepson, Eugene de Beauharnais, as his viceroy in Italy. De Beauharnais was Josephine’s son from her previous marriage. Napoleon also later gave him the title of Prince of Venice.

The new Kingdom of Italy lasted till 1814 when Napoleon had to abdicate from the thrones of both France and Italy and go into exile on the island of Elba.

Photo of the Milan Duomo
The magnificent Duomo in Milan, where Napoleon
proclaimed himself as King of Italy in 1805
Travel tip:

Construction of the Duomo in Milan began in 1386 using marble brought into the city along the Navigli canals. Although it was consecrated as a Cathedral in 1418, building work was not finally completed until the 19th century when Napoleon had the façade finished before his coronation.

Travel tip:

The Iron Crown of Lombardy is kept in a chapel in the Cathedral of Saint John in Monza, a city about nine miles to the north east of Milan. Monza is now also famous for its Grand Prix motor racing circuit, the Autodromo Nazionale Monza, which hosts the Formula One Italian Grand Prix.


25 May 2016

Enrico Berlinguer - Communist politician

Popular leader turned left-wing party into political force

Photo of Enrico Berlinguer
Enrico Berlinguer
Enrico Berlinguer, who for more than a decade was Western Europe's most powerful and influential Communist politician, was born on this day in 1922 in the Sardinian city of Sassari.

As secretary-general of the Italian Communist Party from March 1972 until his death in 1984, he led the largest Communist movement outside the Eastern Bloc, coming close to winning a general election in 1976.

He achieved popularity by striving to establish the Italian Communists as a political force that was not controlled from Moscow, pledging a commitment to democracy, a parliamentary system, a mixed economy, and Italian membership of the Common Market and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

At its peak, Berlinguer's Westernized brand of Communism appealed to nearly a third of Italian voters.  His policies were adopted by other left-wing parties in Europe under what became known as Eurocommunism. 

As support for the previously dominant Christian Democrats waned in the 1970s, he proposed a ''historic compromise'' with other parties, rejecting the traditional left-wing vision of violent revolution, and declared that the Italian Communists would be happy to enter into a coalition with Christian Democrats and others.

In fact, in the elections of 1976, at a time when Italy faced economic collapse, Berlinguer's Communists came close to winning power in their own right, polling 34 per cent of the vote.  The Christian Democrats prevailed with 38 per cent but needed the support of some groups on the extreme right to do so.

The result sent shock waves across the Atlantic.  Political leaders in America, in particular Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, regarded Italy as a bulwark against the Eastern Bloc and were alarmed that the Italian Communists had been so close to power.

Time Magazine cover
This cover of Time magazine reflected disquiet
 in the United States at Berlinguer's success
Despite his failure to become Prime Minister, Berlinguer remained one of Italy's foremost politicians. The Christian Democrats had to rely on Communist support to pass legislation and Berlinguer was thereby in a position to influence policy.

His party membership grew to 1.7 million and its success in local elections meant the Communists effectively governed nearly half of the Italian population anyway, controlling Rome and many of the major northern cities, including Turin, Milan, Bologna, Florence and Venice.

Berlinguer was born into a middle-class Sardinian family of noble descent yet the politics of his father Mario, a lawyer, leaned heavily towards the left. A socialist deputy and later senator, he was acquainted with a number of Communist leaders, including Antonio Gramsci and Palmiro Togliatti. The latter became Enrico Berlinguer's political mentor.

Having become a Communist Party member in 1943, Berlinguer was put in charge of the Young Communists in his home town of Sassari. He was arrested and jailed in 1944 after taking part in demonstrations against the Fascist regime.

Released after three months, he resumed his role as an organizer of communist youth, first in Milan and then Rome. He became a member of the party’s Central Committee in 1945 and the party executive in 1948.

He was elected to the Italian parliament in 1968, becoming the party's deputy secretary-general a year later and replacing Luigi Longo, an old-style Communist who had become the party leader after Togliatti's death in 1964, as secretary-general in March 1972.

Married with three children and fiercely protective of his private life, Berlinguer died in June 1984 aged only 62, having suffered a stroke while delivering a speech in Padua and never regaining consciousness.

Photo of Piazza d'Italia in Sassari
Sassari's Piazza d'Italia is an example of the city's
elegant neoclassical architecture
Travel tip:

The second largest city in Sardinia, with a population of more than 125,000, Sassari is rich in art, culture and history.  It is well known for beautiful palazzi, the Fountain of the Rosello, and its elegant neoclassical architecture, such as Piazza d'Italia and the Teatro Civico.

Travel tip:

Padua - Padova in Italian - is a city in the Veneto region of northern Italy, best known for the frescoes by Giotto that adorn the Scrovegni Chapel and for the vast 13th-century Basilica of St. Anthony.

(Photo of Piazza d'Italia in Sassari by Gianni Careddu CC BY-SA 4.0)


24 May 2016

Gian Gastone de' Medici – Grand Duke of Tuscany

The last Medici to rule Florence

Portrait of Gian Gastone de' Medici
A portrait of Gian Gastone de' Medici,
the last in a line of Florentine rulers
Gian Gastone de' Medici, the seventh and last Grand Duke of Tuscany, was born on this day in 1671 in the Pitti Palace in Florence.

He was the second son of Grand Duke Cosimo III and Marguerite Louise d’Orleans.

Because his elder brother predeceased him he succeeded his father to the title in 1723.

He had an unhappy arranged marriage and the couple had no children so when he died in 1737 it was the end of 300 years of Medici rule over Florence.

He spent the last few years of his reign confined to bed, looked after by his entourage.

One of his final acts was to order the erection of a statue to Galileo in the Basilica of Santa Croce.

He was buried in the Basilica of San Lorenzo and Francis Stephen of Lorraine succeeded to the title of Grand Duke of Tuscany.

Travel tip:

The Palazzo Pitti, known in English as the Pitti Palace, is on the south side of the River Arno, a short distance from the Ponte Vecchio. It became the main residence of the rulers of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany and is now the largest museum complex in Florence.

Photo of the Museo Galileo
The Museo Galileo in Piazza dei Giudici houses one of the
world's biggest collections of scientific instruments
Travel tip:

There is a museum dedicated to Galileo in Florence, the Museo Galileo in Piazza dei Giudici close to the Uffizi Gallery. It houses one of the biggest collections of scientific instruments in the world in Palazzo Castellani, an 11th century building. The museum is open Mondays to Sundays from 9.30 to 18.00, closing at 13.00 on Tuesdays.

(Photo of the museum courtesy of Museo Galileo CC BY-SA 3.0)

23 May 2016

Girolamo Savonarola executed

Death of the friar who was to inspire best-selling novel by Tom Wolfe

Painting of Girolamo Savonarola
A stark portrait of Savonarola, painted by
Fra Bartolomeo shortly before his death
The hellfire preacher Girolamo Savonarola was hanged and burned on this day in 1498 in Piazza della Signoria in Florence.

By sheer force of personality, Savonarola had convinced rich people to burn their worldly goods in spectacular bonfires in Florence during 1497, but within a year it was Savonarola’s burning corpse that the crowds turned out to see.

Savonarola had become famous for his outspoken sermons against vice and corruption in the Catholic Church in Italy and he encouraged wealthy people to burn their valuable goods, paintings and books in what have become known as ‘bonfires of the vanities.’

This phrase inspired Tom Wolfe to write The Bonfire of the Vanities, a novel about ambition and politics in 1980s New York.

Savonarola was born in 1452 in Ferrara. He became a Dominican friar and entered the convent of Saint Mark in Florence in 1482. He began preaching against corruption and vice and prophesied that a leader would arrive from the north to punish Italy and reform the church.

Painting of the execution of Savonarola in Florence
A depiction of the execution of Savonarola in Piazza della
Signoria in Florence, by an unknown artist
When Emperor Charles VIII invaded from the north many people thought Savonarola’s prediction was being fulfilled. At the height of Savonarola’s success the Medici were driven out of Florence and he became leader of a republican movement in the city.

Savonarola’s sermons against vice in the church attracted the attention of Pope Alexander VI, who excommunicated him after he defied his orders.

Eventually popular opinion also turned against Savonarola and he was arrested. Under torture he confessed he had invented his visions and prophecies and he was condemned to death.

Travel tip:

Ferrara in Emilia-Romagna, where Savonarola was born, was the city of the Este dukes. With its winding cobbled streets, medieval houses and stunning castle, it is well worth visiting.

Travel tip:

You can still see the spot in Piazza della Signoria in Florence where Girolamo Savonarola was executed. The Piazza has been at the heart of Florentine politics since the 14th century and is like an outdoor sculpture gallery, with magnificent statues commemorating major events in the city’s history.

22 May 2016

José João Altafini - footballer who made history

Forward tamed Eusebio to give Italy first European Cup

Photo of Jose Jaoa Altafini
José João Altafini
Supporters of AC Milan took to the streets to celebrate on this day in 1963 after José João Altafini's goals secured an historic victory in the European Cup.

Milan beat Benfica at Wembley Stadium in London to become the first Italian team to win the trophy.

Until then the European Cup had been dominated by Real Madrid, who were champions for five years in a row after the competition was launched in 1955-56, with the great Eusebio's Benfica winning in 1961 and 1962.

At half-time at Wembley in 1963, Milan looked set to provide another near-miss story for Italy, trailing to a Eusebio goal as Benfica closed on a third successive title.

The Rossoneri had lost to Real Madrid five years earlier, 12 months after the Spanish giants brushed aside Fiorentina in the final.

But 24-year-old Altafini, who became one of Serie A’s most prolific all-time goalscorers, refused to be cowed.

He netted in the 58th and 66th minutes, sparking joyous scenes in Milan and starting a period of European dominance for the city, with AC’s rivals Internazionale winning the next two tournaments.

The Milan team that night in London boasted two future Italy managers in Cesare Maldini and Giovanni Trapattoni, as well as the great Gianni Rivera, but Altafini was the star.

His goals had propelled Milan past England’s Ipswich Town and Scotland’s Dundee in earlier rounds and his competition tally of 14 was a record that stood for 51 years until, perhaps fittingly, it was smashed by old foes Real Madrid and their superstar Cristiano Ronaldo.

His five goals against l’Union Luxembourg earlier in the tournament represent a European Cup match record equalled by a mere handful of stars, among them Barcelona's Lionel Messi.

Photo of Jose Joao Altafini
Jose Joao Altafini in his present role as
TV football pundit
Altafini, now 77, is a Brazilian-Italian whose family hailed from Trentino Alto-Adige. European Cup glory earned Milan an Intercontinental Cup clash with Pele’s legendary Santos team, in which Altafini scored again. He was later nominated for two Ballon D'Or awards.

Nowadays, he is Italy’s answer to Sky TV’s Chris Kamara. Just as the British pundit is known for his catchphrase ‘Unbelievable, Jeff’ when describing a dramatic piece of action on the Soccer Saturday show, Altafini typically reacts with “incredible, amici” or “incredible, friends”.

It was Altafini who coined the “Golazzo” goal reaction which was used on Football Italia on Channel 4 in the UK during the 1990s.

Altafini, brought up in a large Italian community in Sao Paulo, is notable for having played for two different nations at the World Cup.

He gained Italian citizenship as a teenager but launched his career at Sao Paulo side Palmeiras. He made his debut for Brazil aged 18 and scored alongside a young Pele as Brazil beat Argentina in winning the Copa Roca in 1957.

Altafini then starred for the South Americans in the following year’s World Cup, but was left out of the team in the final. Four years on, he was barred from playing for Brazil as they refused to pick players based outside the country.

Instead, Altafini played for his adopted home, and that of his antecedents, Italy. He scored five goals in six games for the Azzurri, but was not picked again after the 1962 World Cup in Chile.

During a glittering club career that spanned 24 years and also took in Napoli and Juventus after he left the San Siro, Altafini scored 334 league goals in 653 appearances.

Altafini was revered in Naples, where he scored 97 goals in little more than 200 matches in all competitions, but it is in Milan where Italy’s adopted son had his best days.

He won two Scudetti for the Rossoneri in addition to the European Cup triumph at Wembley.  A.C Milan have gone on to be Italy’s most successful side in Europe, winning the elite competition six more times.

Their tally of seven is yet another record bettered only by Altafini’s old enemy Real Madrid, who have won 10.

Travel tip:

San Siro is easily reached by the new purple M5 metro line. The nearest stations are San Siro Ippodromo and San Siro Stadio, both a short walk from the stadium. From the city centre, take Linea M1 and change at Lotto or Linea M2 and change at Garibaldi.  It takes a little under 20 minutes to get from Piazza Duomo to the stadium.  Travelling to the stadium by tram is still a popular option.  Route number 16 passes close to Piazza Duomo and terminates at the stadium. The journey takes about half an hour.

Photo of Lago di Caldonazzo
Lago di Caldonazzo
Travel tip:

Jose Joao Altafini's mother was born in the town of Caldonazzo in Trentino-Alto Adige, about 20 kilometres from Trento and close to Lago di Caldonazzo, which is the largest lake in the region. A popular centre for watersports such as windsurfing, sailing, diving, swimming and rowing, and also popular with fishermen, the lake is the source of the Brenta river.


21 May 2016

Michelangelo’s Pietà damaged

Work of art deliberately vandalised

Michelangelo’s beautiful Pietà, a marble sculpture of the Virgin Mary with the dead body of Jesus lying across her knees, was damaged by a man wielding a hammer on this day in 1972 in Rome.

Picture of man who attacked Pieta with a hammer
The attacker is dragged away from the statue after
damaging the famous sculpture
A mentally disturbed man walked into St Peter’s Basilica and attacked the sculpture in an act of deliberate vandalism.

He struck it 15 times, removing Mary’s arm at the elbow, knocking off a chunk of her nose and chipping one of her eyelids.

Some of the pieces of marble that flew off were taken by some of the people who were in the church at the time and Mary’s nose had to be reconstructed from a block cut out of her back.

The man who carried out the attack was said to be suffering from a delusion that he was Jesus Christ risen from the dead. He was not charged with any crime but spent two years in a psychiatric hospital.

After the restoration work was completed the sculpture was returned to its place in St Peter’s, just to the right of the entrance, and it is now protected by a bulletproof acrylic glass panel.

Michelangelo carved this sculpture from a single piece of Carrara marble in 1499 when he was only 24 and it is the only work he ever signed.

Travel tip:

St Peter’s Square, Piazza San Pietro, was designed by Bernini to provide a large space where the faithful, from all over the world, could gather together. It is filled to capacity by pilgrims and visitors on Easter Sunday, Christmas Day and other important religious occasions when the Pope appears to address the crowd. These events are televised and watched by viewers all over the world.

Photo of the Basilica of St Peter in Rome
The Basilica of St Peter in Rome
Travel tip:

The stunning Renaissance Basilica of St Peter was completed and consecrated in 1626. Believed to be the largest church in the world, it was built to replace the original fourth century Basilica that had been constructed on what was believed to be the burial site of Saint Peter.


20 May 2016

Pietro Bembo – poet and scholar

Lucrezia’s lover helped with the development of modern Italian

Portrait of Pietro Bembo
Titian's portrait of Pietro Bembo, painted in
around 1540, when the poet was 70 years old
Pietro Bembo, a writer who was influential in the development of the Italian language, was born on this day in 1470 in Venice.

He is probably most remembered for having an affair with Lucrezia Borgia while she was married to the Duke of Ferrara and he was living at the Este Court with them. His love letters to her were described by the English poet, Lord Byron, centuries later, as ‘the prettiest love letters in the world.’

As a boy, Bembo visited Florence with his father where he acquired a love for the Tuscan form of Italian which he was later to use as his literary medium. He later learnt Greek and went to study at the University of Padua.

He spent two years at the Este Court in Ferrara where he wrote poetry that was reminiscent of Boccaccio and Petrarch.

It was when he returned to the court at Ferrara a few years later he had an affair with Lucrezia Borgia, the daughter of Pope Alexander VI, who was at that time the wife of Alfonso I d’Este. The love letters between the pair to which Byron referred are now in the collection of the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan. 

Byron greatly admired them when he saw them there in 1816 and also claimed to have managed to steal part of a lock of Lucrezia’s hair that was on display with them.

Bembo went to live in Urbino where he wrote his most influential work, a prose treatise on writing poetry in Italian, Prose della vulgar lingua. His writing was later to revive interest in the works of Petrarch.

Bembo worked as a historian and librarian in Venice for a time before going to live in Rome, where he took Holy Orders. He was made a Cardinal by Pope Paul III in 1539.

He died in Rome in 1547 at the age of 76.

Photo of The Castello Estense in Ferrara
The Castello Estense in Ferrara, where Bembo was a guest
of Alfonso I d'Este and Lucrezia Borgia
Travel tip:

The Castello Estense in Ferrara, where Lucrezia Borgia lived after her marriage to Alfonso I d’Este and where Pietro Bembo was a guest, is a moated, brick built castle in the centre of the city. It is open to the public every day from 9.30 till 5.30 pm apart from certain times of the year when it is closed on Mondays. For more details and ticket prices visit www.castelloestense.it.

Travel tip:

The Pinacoteca Ambrosiana in Piazza Pio XI in Milan was established in 1618 to house paintings, drawing and statues that had been donated to the Biblioteca Ambrosiana, the library founded in the same building a few years before. In addition to works of art, the museum keeps curiosities such as the gloves Napoleon wore at Waterloo and a lock of Lucrezia Borgia’s hair, in front of which famous poets such as Lord Byron and Gabriele D’Annunzio spent a lot of time drawing inspiration. Pietro Bembo’s letters to Lucrezia are also in the museum’s collection. Visit www.leonardo-ambrosiana.it for more information.


19 May 2016

Michele Placido – actor and director

Role of anti-Mafia police inspector turned actor into a TV star

Photo of Michele Placido and Federica Vincenti
Michele Placido pictured with his wife, Federica Vincenti
Actor and director Michele Placido is celebrating his 70th birthday, having been born on this day in 1946 in Ascoli Satriano in Puglia.

Placido is best known for his portrayal of the character, Corrado Cattani, in the Italian television series, La piovra.

Cattani, a police inspector investigating the Mafia, was the lead character in the first four series of La piovra (meaning The Octopus, a name that referred to the Mafia). It was popular on television in the 1980s and the first three series were shown in the UK on Channel Four.

Placido’s family were originally from Rionero in Vulture in Basilicata and he is a descendant of the folk hero, Carmine Crocco, sometimes also known as Donatello. Crocco had fought in the service of Garibaldi but, after Italian unification, he became disappointed with the new Government and formed his own army to fight on behalf of the deposed King of the Two Sicilies, Francis II.

Placido moved to Rome to study acting and then began working in films. His first success came with his portrayal of soldier Paolo Passeri in Marcia Trionfale in 1976, directed by Marco Bellocchio, a role for which Placido won an award.

Michele Placido in the film, Marcia Trionfale
Placido in a scene from his first movie hit, Marcia Trionfale
He became a popular television actor in 1983 after appearing in the first series of La piovra. He played the part of the police inspector for four series until his character was assassinated.

Afterwards he played the part of Giovanni Falcone, the anti-Mafia crusader, in the 1993 film of the same name directed by Giuseppe Ferrara.

Placido’s daughter from his first marriage, Violante Placido, is an actress. Placido is now married to the actress, Federica Vincenti.

Travel tip

Ascoli Satriano, the birthplace of Michele Placido, is a town in the province of Foggia in Apulia. It was the location of two famous battles in Roman times but came under Norman control in the 11th century. One of the main sights is its 12th century Romanesque Gothic Cathedral.

Travel tip:

Rionero in Vulture, where Placido’s family came from originally, is a town in the province of Potenza in Basilicata, situated on the slopes of Monte Vulture in the middle of lush, green countryside.

More reading:

(Photo of Michele Placido and Federica Vincenti by Elena Torre CC BY-SA 2.0)


18 May 2016

Giovanni Falcone - anti-Mafia crusader

Sicilian lawyer made life's work of taking on Cosa Nostra 

Photo of Giovanni Falcone with Paolo Borsellino
Giovanni Falcone (left), pictured with his fellow anti-Mafia
magistrate Paolo Borsellino. Both were murdered in 1992
Giovanni Falcone, who would become known as an anti-Mafia crusader during his career as a judge and prosecuting magistrate, was born on this day in 1939 in Palermo.

The son of a state clerk, he was raised in a poor district of the Sicilian city. Some of the boys with whom he played football in the street would go on to become Mafiosi but Falcone was determined from an early age that he would not be drawn into their world.

Educated at the local high school, he studied law at Palermo University. In 1966, at the age of 27, he was appointed a judge in Trapani, a crime-ridden port on the west coast of Sicily and began his lifelong quest to defeat the criminal organisation.

In time, Falcone became the Mafia's most feared enemy and by 1987, when he was the chief prosecutor at the so-called 'maxi-trial' in Palermo which convicted 342 members of the so-called Cosa Nostra, the likelihood he would be murdered meant he could not leave home without a heavily armed police escort.

He worked in a bomb-proof bunker underneath the city's law courts. His home was similarly protected and when he travelled between the two it was with a convoy of armoured police cars.

Yet he refused to be cowed, even when a wave of Mafia reprisals led to the deaths of many of his colleagues.  The first was Gaetano Costa, Palermo's chief magistrate, who was murdered shortly after signing 80 arrest warrants for Mafia bosses that Falcone's investigations had linked to mobsters in America.

The assassination of Boris Giuliano, the Head of Police in Palermo, soon followed, after which Falcone was assigned to a select pool of anti-Mafia judges and prosecutors.

In 1982 Carlo Alberto Dalla Chiesa, the carabinieri general who had smashed the Red Brigades, was despatched to Palermo to co-ordinate Rome's anti-Mafia policy. Only 100 days after taking office, he was machine-gunned to death in the street.

Falcone became effective head of the anti-Mafia drive after its co-ordinator, Judge Rocco Chinnici, was blown up by a car bomb in July 1983.

His work led to the dramatic 'maxi-trial' of 1986-87, in which 8,000 pages of evidence, much of it based on information passed on by pentiti - the Mafiosi turned informants - led to the conviction of 342 gang members.

They received sentences totalling 2,665 years in prison, including 19 life sentences, although the success of the operation was much undermined when all bar around 30 of those found guilty were later released on appeal, with doubts expressed over the validity of testimony from informants.

After the 'maxi-trial', Falcone had hoped to be appointed chief prosecutor in Palermo but was denied the opportunity.

Instead, he took a position in Rome with the Ministry of Justice, where he was successful in preparing a decree that overturned the judgment of the Supreme Court to quash so many of the 'maxi-trial' convictions and led to the re-arrest of many Mafia bosses.  In another judgment by the Supreme Court, in January 1992, the original convictions were upheld.

Falcone died four months later, on one of the visits to his home in Palermo he made every week. He was killed when a half-ton of explosives was detonated under a section of the coastal motorway he always used on his way from the airport. His wife, Francesca, died with him, along with three police officers.

The assassination had been ordered by the head of the Corleonesi faction of the Sicilian Mafia, Salvatore "Toto" Riina, who was arrested the following year and jailed for life.  Less than two months after Falcone's death, his friend and close associate in the anti-Mafia fight, the magistrate Paolo Borsellino, was killed by a car bomb in Palermo.

Photo of the Cappelli Palatina in Palermo
Gold mosaics line the ceilings of the Cappella Palatina,
one of Palermo's main tourist attractions 
Travel tip:

Despite its inevitable association with the criminal underworld, Palermo is an attractive tourist destination, a vibrant city with a wealth of history, culture, art, music and food. It has many outstanding restaurants as well as fine examples of Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque churches, palaces and buildings.  Top attractions include the extraordinary Cappella Palatina, featuring Byzantine mosaics decorated with gold leaf and precious stones.

Travel tip:

Sicily's most famous coastal resort is the clifftop town of Taormina, overlooking the Ionian coast. Full of restaurants and shops, with beaches nearby, it is rich in history. The Greek amphitheatre, with its panoramic view of Mount Etna and the coast, is used for concerts and plays, and the town's old streets are enclosed within medieval walls.

(Photo from Cappella Palatinia by Woodguy CC BY-SA 3.0)


17 May 2016

Sandro Botticelli – painter

Renaissance master was forgotten until the 19th century

Botticelli's The Birth of Venus
Botticelli's The Birth of Venus, painted in 1485
Early Renaissance artist Sandro Botticelli died on this day in 1510 in Florence.

Years before his death he had asked to be buried in the Church of Ognissanti in Florence at the feet of a woman for whom it is believed he suffered unrequited love. 

She was Simonetta Vespucci, a married noblewoman, who had died in 1476. She is thought to have been the model for Botticelli’s major work, The Birth of Venus, which was painted years later in 1485, and that she also appeared in many of his other paintings.

After his death, Botticelli was quickly forgotten and his paintings remained in the churches and villas for which they had been created until the late 19th century, when people started to appreciate his work again.

Botticelli was born Alessandro di Mariano di Vanni Filipepi in 1445. He was active during the golden age of painting in Florence under the patronage of Lorenzo de' Medici and Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de' Medici and was for a time apprenticed to both Fra Filippo Lippi and Verrocchio.

In 1481 Botticelli was summoned to Rome by Pope Sixtus IV to paint three frescoes for the Sistine Chapel. Another of his major works, Primavera, was painted just after this in 1482.

In later life Botticelli was influenced by the religious preacher, Savonarola, and his art became deeply devout. The Mystical Nativity, painted in 1500, is an example of this change of style.

After his death he was largely forgotten until the beginning of the 19th century when an English collector bought The Mystical Nativity and took it back home with him. The painting later went on show in Manchester, where it was viewed by a million people, and sparked renewed interest in the artist.

Chiesa di San Salvatore di Ognissanti
Chiesa di San Salvatore di Ognissanti
Travel tip:

Botticelli’s wishes were carried out and his tomb is in the Chiesa di San Salvatore di Ognissanti, a Franciscan church in Borgo Ognissanti in the centre of Florence. Botticelli’s fresco of Saint Augustine, painted in 1480, can be seen on the south wall of the church.

Travel tip:

Many of Botticelli’s works are in the Uffizi gallery in Florence where they are now admired by millions of visitors from all over the world. Work began in 1560 to create a suite of offices (uffici) for the 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. This was the start of one of the 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:

Savonarola and the Bonfire of the Vanities

Why Simonetta Vespucci was hailed as the embodiment of human perfection

The patron of the arts who sponsored Michelangelo and Botticelli