30 June 2016

First Martyrs' Day

Nero blamed Christians for his own crimes

Henryk Siemiradzki's painting shows trussed up Christian captives about to be torched in Rome in AD64
Henryk Siemiradzki's painting shows trussed up Christian
captives about to be torched in Rome in AD64
Christians martyred in Rome during the reign of Nero in AD 64 are remembered every year on this day in Italy.

The Catholic Church celebrates the lives of the many men and women put to death by Nero, who are now known as i Primi Martiri, first martyrs of the Church of Rome, with a feast day every year on 30 June.

In the summer of AD 64, Rome was devastated by fire. The unpopular emperor Nero, who wanted to enlarge his palace, was suspected of setting fire to the city himself but he accused the early Christians then living in Rome and had them executed.

Some were fed to wild animals, some crucified, while others were burnt to death to illuminate the sky and provide evening entertainment.

The feast of the First Martyrs came into the Church calendar in 1969 as a general celebration day for the early Roman martyrs. It falls the day after the feast day of Saints Peter and Paul, the patron saints of Rome.

Part of a fresco from Nero's Domus Aurea in Rome, which can be found in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford
Part of a fresco from Nero's Domus Aurea in Rome, which
can be found in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford
Travel tip:

After the fires had cleared the existing buildings away, Nero had an elaborate villa, his Golden House (Domus Aurea), built a short walk away from the Colosseum on Palatine Hill in Rome. Construction took place between AD 64 and the Emperor’s suicide in AD 68. The site of the villa in Viale Domus Aurea can be visited during a guided tour to view the restoration works. 

Travel tip:

There is a permanent memorial to the First Martyrs in Piazza di Protomartiri Romani, which is close to the Basilica of Saint Peter inside Vatican City in Rome.


29 June 2016

Elizabeth Barrett Browning dies in Florence

Romantic poet produced some of her best work after fleeing to Italy

Hungarian artist Károly Brocky's portrait of  Elizabeth  Barrett Browning
Hungarian artist Károly Brocky's portrait of
 Elizabeth  Barrett Browning
English poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning died on this day in 1861 in Florence.

She had spent 15 years living in Italy with her husband, the poet Robert Browning, after being disinherited by her father who disapproved of their marriage.

The Brownings’ home in Florence, Casa Guidi, is now a memorial to the two poets.

Their only child, Robert Weidemann Barrett Browning, who became known as Pen, was born there in 1849.

Barrett Browning was one of the most prominent English poets of the Victorian era and was popular in both Britain and the United States during her lifetime.

From about the age of 15 she had suffered health problems and therefore lived a quiet life in her father’s house, concentrating on her writing.

A volume of her poems, published in 1844, inspired another writer, Robert Browning, to send her a letter praising her work.

He was eventually introduced to her by a mutual acquaintance and their legendary courtship began in secret.

They were married in 1846 and, after she had continued to live in her father’s home for a week, they fled to Italy. They settled in Florence, where they continued to write, inspired by art, the Tuscan landscape, and their contact with other writers and artists living there.

A plaque above the door of the Casa Guidi in Piazza San  Felice recalls that Elizabeth Barrett Browning lived there
A plaque above the door of the Casa Guidi in Piazza San
 Felice recalls that Elizabeth Barrett Browning lived there
Barrett Browning wrote Casa Guidi Windows in 1851, giving her personal impressions of political events in Italy.

The poets also spent some time living in Siena, where Barrett Browning continued to write poetry expressing her sympathy with the Italian struggle for independence from foreign rule.

When her health began to deteriorate, they moved back to Florence. Barrett Browning died in her husband’s arms on 29 June, 1861 at the age of 55. She is buried in the Protestant English Cemetery in Florence.

Travel tip:

A plaque marks Casa Guidi, the home of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and her husband Robert in Piazza di San Felice in the Oltrarno district of Florence.  The house in Piazza San Felice, close to the Pitti Palace, now houses a museum dedicated to the lives of the literary couple.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning's tomb in the Protestant English Cemetery in Florence
Elizabeth Barrett Browning's tomb in the
Protestant English Cemetery in Florence
Travel tip:

Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s tomb, which was designed by Frederic, Lord Leighton, is frequently visited by her admirers in the picturesque setting of the English Cemetery in Piazzale Donatello in Florence.

(Photo of Casa Guidi plaque by Robert Greenham CC BY-SA 3.0)


28 June 2016

Giovanni della Casa - advocate of good manners

Bishop and poet remembered for his manual on etiquette

A portrait of Giovanni della Casa by the artist Jacopo Pontorno
A portrait of Giovanni della Casa by the
artist Jacopo Pontorno
Giovanni della Casa, the Tuscan bishop whose witty book on behaviour in polite society became a handbook for generations long after he had passed away, was born on this day in 1503 in Borgo San Lorenzo, 30 kilometres north-east of Florence.

Born into a wealthy family, Della Casa was educated in Bologna and followed his friend, the scholar and poet Pietro Bembo, into the church.

He became Archbishop of Benevento in 1544 and was nominated by Pope Paul III as Papal nuncio to Venice. Disappointed at not having been elevated to Cardinal, however, he retired to a life of writing and reading.

At some point between 1551 and 1555, living at an abbey near Treviso, he wrote Galateo: The Rules of Polite Behaviour, a witty treatise on good manners intended for the amusement of a favourite nephew.  He thought it would be regarded as frivolous compared with other books he had written. Little did he know it would become one of the most celebrated books on etiquette in European history.

Published in Venice in 1558, it is considered one of the three great books on Italian conduct, alongside Baldassare Castiglione's Il Cortegiano, which discusses the qualities required of a 16th century courtier, and Niccolo Machiavelli's Il Principe (The Prince), which was less about manners than about political pragmatism and achieving objectives.

Della Casa's work goes into considerable detail in describing how to behave without causing offence to others, particularly in the areas of eating, drinking and personal hygiene.

He advised that tearing food apart with the hands and with hunting knifes was vulgar, as a result of which Italians began using dainty forks some two centuries before other European countries. He also cautioned that sniffing another person's wine should be avoided for fear of something unpleasant falling out of one's nose.

Reprints of Della Casa's book, such as this 2013 edition, still sell today
Reprints of Della Casa's book, such as this
2013 edition, still sell today
It was not good form, in his opinion, to spit, yawn or scratch and he cautioned that handwashing should take place in private because, if done in public, those witness to it risked their minds being drawn to thoughts of the bodily functions that might have necessitated it.

One should dress, he proposed, in clothes that conformed to prevailing custom and were reflective of social status and in conversation one should seek to interest all parties present with words that were 'orderly and well-expressed'.

His guidance in other areas could apply to the modern world.  It was not good manners, he said, to brag about one's children, or to sing off key.  Grooming in public was uncouth and making jokes at the expense of the disabled was unacceptable. And even in an age that could not have imagined telephones, let alone mobile ones, it was rude, he counselled, to read one's mail in company.

However, taking someone to task over their social shortcomings was also considered out of order, unless somehow you could be complimentary at the same time.  In short, he advised that people should be pleasant, appropriate and polite in all but the most extreme circumstances.

A Latin scholar, Della Casa is thought to have named the book in honour of Galeazzo Florimonte, a bishop and man of letters from whom he took his own inspiration.  The title entered the Italian language and for a time people who were impolite or crude were said to 'not know the Galateo.'

Della Casa died in Rome in 1556, aged 53. Modern editions of Galateo are still being reprinted today.

Travel tip:

Borgo San Lorenzo is the largest of nine towns and villages that make up the Mugello, a green hilly area overlooking the Sieve valley.  The Medici family have their roots in the Mugello, as does the artist, Giotto, the most important Italian painter of the 14th century.  Its Romanesque Church of San Lorenzo has a belltower dated at 1263. The medieval Palazzo del Podestà was rebuilt in the 1919 earthquake.

Photo of the ruins of the Abbey of Sant'Eustachio near Treviso
The ruins of the Abbey of Sant'Eustachio near Treviso
Travel tip:

Little remains now of the Abbey of Sant'Eustachio, the Benedictine monastery of the early 11th century where Della Casa is thought to have been staying when he wrote Galateo.  Situated close to the small town of Nervesa della Battaglia, about 20km from Treviso in the Veneto, it had already been abandoned when it suffered substantial damage during the Battle of the Piave River during the First World War.

(Photo of the Abbey of Sant'Eustachio by Franco CC BY-SA 2.0)

More reading:

Cosimo II de' Medici - patron of Galileo

Pietro Bembo - poet and scholar who was Lucrezia Borgia's lover


27 June 2016

Giorgio Vasari - the first art historian

Artist and architect who chronicled lives of Old Masters

Portrait of Giorgio Vasari
Portrait of Giorgio Vasari
Giorgio Vasari, whose 16th century book on the lives of Renaissance artists led to him being described as the world's first art historian, died on this day in 1574 in Florence.

Born in Arezzo in 1511, Vasari was a brilliant artist and architect who worked for the Medici family in Florence and Rome and amassed a considerable fortune in his career.

But he is remembered as much for Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, from Cimabue to Our Times, a collection of biographies of all the great artists of his lifetime.

The six-part work is remembered as the first important book on art history.  Had it not been written, much less would be known of the lives of Cimabue, Giotto, Donatello, Botticelli, Da Vinci, Giorgione, Raphael, Boccaccio and Michelangelo among many others from the generation known as the Old Masters.

Vasari, who is believed to have been the first to describe the period of his lifetime as the Renaissance, also went into much detail in discussing the techniques employed by the great artists.  It is partly for that reason that the book is regarded by contemporary art historians as "the most influential single text for the history of Renaissance art".

Photo of Vasari wall paintings
Vasari's wall paintings in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence
In his own career, Vasari became friends with Michelangelo and studied the works of Raphael.  His frescoes in the Palazzo della Cancelleria in Rome and his wall and ceiling paintings in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence gained him much admiration.

As an architect, he designed the loggia of the Palazzo degli Uffizi in Florence and the Vasari Corridor, which connects the Uffizi with the Medici residence at the Palazzo Pitti on the other side of the Arno river.

He also renovated the medieval Florentine churches of Santa Maria Novella and Santa Croce. In Santa Croce, he was responsible for the painting of The Adoration of the Magi which was commissioned by Pope Pius V in 1566 and has been recently restored.

The wealth he acquired enabled him to build a fine house in Arezzo, which now houses a museum dedicated to his life and work.

Travel tip:

The town of Arezzo in eastern Tuscany, where Vasari was born, was famous because of another artist, Piero della Francesco. The 13th century church of San Francesco contains Piero della Francesco’s frescoes, The Legend of the True Cross, painted between 1452 and 1466 and now considered to be one of Italy’s greatest fresco cycles.

Photo of the Uffizi
The Galleria at the Uffizi, looking towards
Vasari's loggia, which opens on to the Arno
Travel tip:

The Uffizi complex on which Vasari worked from 1560 onwards was built to accommodate the offices of the Florentine magistrates, hence the name uffizi (offices). Cosimo I de' Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, who commissioned the building, planned to display prime art works of the Medici collections in the complex.  Over the years, more sections of the palace were recruited to exhibit paintings and sculpture collected or commissioned by the Medici.  In 1765 it was officially opened to the public as an art gallery.

(Photo of Uffizi by Samuli Lintula CC BY-SA 3.0)


26 June 2016

Paolo Maldini - football great

Milan defender's record-breaking career spanned 25 years

Photo of Paolo Maldini
Paolo Maldini
Paolo Maldini, the AC Milan defender who won the European Cup and Champions League more times than any other player in the modern era, celebrates his 48th birthday today, having been born on this day in 1968 in Milan.

A Milan player for the whole of his 25-year professional career - plus six years as a youth player before that - Maldini won Europe's biggest club prize five times. Only Francisco Gento, a member of the all-conquering Real Madrid side of the 1950s and 60s, has more winner's medals.

Maldini also won seven Serie A championships plus one Coppa Italia and five Supercoppa Italiana titles in domestic competition, as well as five European Super Cups, two Intercontinental Cups and a World Club Cup.

Only in international football did trophies elude him, although he played on the losing side in the finals of both the World Cup, in 1994, and the European Championships, in 2000.

His European Cup/Champions League triumphs came under the management of Arrigo Sacchi (1989 and 1990), Fabio Capello (1994) and Carlo Ancelotti (2003 and 2007).

The 1994 victory by 4-0 against Barcelona was described as one of the greatest team performances of all time.  Under Capello, Maldini was also part of the Milan team that went unbeaten through the whole of the 1991-92 season, setting an Italian record of 58 games without defeat.

Maldini, who made his senior Milan debut as a 16-year-old in 1985, holds the record for most appearances for the club at 902 in all competitions. No player in history has made more appearances in Serie A (647) or in UEFA club competitions (174).

Following his retirement after the 2008–09 season, Milan retired the number three shirt in his honour. He was 40 years and 339 days old when he made his last appearance against Roma at the club's home stadium at San Siro in May 2009.  Only his teammate Alessandro 'Billy' Costacurta (41 years 25 days) and the former Sampdoria stalwart Pietro Vierchowod (41 years 10 days) were older among outfield players in Serie A history.

His international career brought him 126 caps, a  number surpassed only by Gianluigi Buffon and Fabio Cannavaro, and 74 appearances as captain, which was a record until Cannavaro, the 2006 World Cup-winning captain, overtook him on the way to a new mark of 79 appearances as skipper.

A player known not only for his proficiency as a defender but for his composure on the ball, Maldini is part of a football dynasty.

His father, Cesare, who died earlier this year at the age of 84, also played for AC Milan and Italy and had a successful coaching career that included two spells at San Siro, as well as periods in charge of the Italy Under-21 team, winning three European Under-21 championships, and the senior national team.

Now his eldest son, Christian, has worn the captain's armband for AC Milan's Under-19 team.  Paolo's younger son, Daniel, is also training in the Milan youth system.

Although Cesare was born in Trieste, he was living in Milan when Paolo was born.  Married since 1994 to Adriana Fossa, a Venezuelan former model, he guards his private life zealously and among only a few details he has revealed about his life away from the pitch he once told a reporter he owned 100 pairs of jeans.

Photo of Trieste's Piazza dell'Unità d'Italia
The waterfront Piazza dell'Unità d'Italia in Trieste
Travel tip:

Trieste, the main city of the region of Friuli Venezia Giulia, lies close to the Slovenian border.  Once the main seaport of the Austro-Hungarian empire, it has a mix of styles, with the seafront, canals and imposing squares reminiscent of Venice, and the coffee houses and architecture showing the Austrian influence dating from the era of Hapsburg domination.

Travel tip:

Although AC Milan play at the Stadio Giuseppe Meazza in the San Siro district of Milan, the club's administrative headquarters is about three kilometres away in Via Aldo Rossi in the Portello district, accessible from the centre of Milan via Linea 1 on the metro, getting off at the QT8 station.  Visitors can enjoy the Mondo Milan Museum, which charts the 117-year history of the club, which was founded in 1899 by two Englishmen, Alfred Edwards and Herbert Kilpin.

(Photo of Paolo Maldini by Yelena Rybakova for Soccer.ru CC BY-SA 3.0)


25 June 2016

Elena Cornaro Piscopia – philosopher

First woman to graduate from a university

Portrait of Elena Cornaro Piscopia
An 18th century portrait of Elena Cornaro
Piscopia, which is owned by Biblioteca
 Ambrosiana in Milan
Elena Cornaro Piscopia became the first woman to receive an academic degree from a university on this day in 1678, it is believed, in Padua.

She was awarded her degree in philosophy at a special ceremony in the Duomo in Padua in the presence of dignitaries from the University of Padua and guests from other Italian universities.

Piscopia was born in a palazzo in Venice in 1646. Her father had an important post at St Mark’s and he was entitled to accommodation in St Mark’s Square.

On the advice of a priest who was a family friend, she was taught Latin and Greek when she was a young child. She was proficient in both languages by the time she was seven. She then went on to master other languages as well as mathematics, philosophy and theology.

Photo of Padua Duomo
The Duomo in Padua, where Elena Cornaro Piscopia received
her degree in a special ceremony in 1678
Her tutor wanted her to study for a degree in theology at Padua University but the Bishop of Padua refused to allow it because she was female, although he allowed her to study philosophy instead.

On the day of her degree ceremony Piscopia demonstrated her brilliance in front of the specially invited audience by explaining difficult passages from Aristotle in faultless Latin.

She received congratulations from the distinguished audience and the laurel wreath was placed on her head.

Piscopia died in 1685 in Padua and her academic writings were published a few years later.

Travel tip:

The University of Padua, established in 1222, is one of the oldest in the world. The main building is Palazzo del Bò in Via 8 Febbraio in the centre of the city. The building used to house the medical faculty and it is possible to take a guided tour of the building and see the lectern used by Galileo when he taught there between 1592 and 1610. 

Photo of the Basilica of St Anthony in Padua
The Basilica of St Anthony in Padua
Travel tip:

The city of Padua - or Padova - in the Veneto region of northern Italy is best known for the frescoes by Giotto that adorn the Scrovegni Chapel and for the vast 13th-century Basilica of St. Anthony, notable for its Byzantine-style domes. The old part of the town has arcaded streets and many cafes. 


24 June 2016

Battle of Solferino

Suffering of soldiers led to the founding of the Red Cross

Painting by Carlo Bossoli of the Battle of Solferino
A scene from the Battle of Solferino painted by the
Swiss-born Italian artist Carlo Bossoli
The Battle of Solferino took place on this day in 1859 south of Lake Garda between Milan and Verona.

It was the last battle in world history where all the armies were under the personal command of their monarchs.

The French army under Napoleon III was allied with the Sardinian army commanded by Victor Emmanuel II. Together, they were victorious against the Austrian army led by Emperor Franz Joseph I.

The battle lasted more than nine hours and resulted in thousands of deaths on both sides.

The Austrians were forced to retreat and it was a crucial step towards the eventual unification of Italy under an Italian King.

Jean-Henri Dunant, a Swiss businessman, toured the battlefield afterwards and was horrified by what he saw, joining in with the efforts of local people to care for the injured.

Greatly moved by the suffering of the thousands of wounded and dying soldiers, he wrote a book about what he had seen and set about establishing the International Red Cross.

This battle is also referred to as the Battle of Solferino and San Martino as there was fighting near both of the towns.

Travel tip:

Solferino is in the province of Mantua about ten kilometres south of Lake Garda. A chapel, the Cappella Ossuaria, behind the Church of San Pietro in Solferino, contains the remains of about 7000 soldiers. There is also a museum with weapons and memorabilia from the battle.

Photo of the harbour at Desenzano del Garda
The harbour at Desenzano del Garda
Travel tip:

San Martino della Battaglia, where the Austrians took a pounding from Victor Emanuel II’s troops, is close to the lovely resort of Desenzano del Garda, at the foot of Lake Garda. Desenzano is a good base for a holiday as a boat service links it with other pretty resorts on the lake, such as Sirmione, Bardolino and Peschiera.


23 June 2016

Francesca Schiavone – tennis player

First Italian woman to win a Grand Slam

Photo of Francesca Schiavone
Francesca Schiavone
French Open tennis winner Francesca Schiavone was born on this day in 1980 in Milan.

When she won her title at Roland Garros in 2010 she became the first Italian woman to win a Grand Slam event in singles. She was the runner-up in the French Open final the following year.

To date she is also the last one-handed backhand player to win a Grand Slam title on the women’s tour.

Schiavone has won six titles on the WTA tour and has also been the runner up in events 11 times.

Her highest career ranking is World Number Four, which she achieved in January 2011.

She has helped Italy win the Federation Cup in 2006, 2009 and 2010 and she has had the most wins for the Italian team.

She also appeared in the women’s doubles final at the 2008 French Open.

At the 2016 French Open in May it was mistakenly announced that Schiavone was retiring from tennis after she was defeated in the first round of the competition.

She denied it at the press conference after her match, saying: “I will announce when I want to stop.”

Schiavone celebrates her 36th birthday today and is due to compete in the first round at Wimbledon next week.

Photo of the Milan duomo
Milan's magnificent Duomo
Travel tip:

Milan, where Schiavone was born and still lives, is the main city of Lombardy in the north of Italy, famous for its magnificent Duomo (Cathedral), Il Cenacolo, the famous wall painting by Leonardo da Vinci of Christ’s Last Supper, and the 15th century Sforza Castle.

Travel tip:

Milan is also the main industrial, commercial and financial centre of Italy. The business district is home to the Borsa Italiana (stock exchange) and the headquarters of the main national banks. The Borsa is located in Palazzo Mezzanotte in Piazza Affari (Business Square).

More reading:

Is Sara Errani Italy's best tennis player of all time?


22 June 2016

Walter Bonatti - mountaineer

Climber's outstanding career marred by 50-year row

Photo of Walter Bonatti
Walter Bonatti, pictured in 1964
Walter Bonatti, the Italian who some would argue is the greatest alpine mountain climber that ever lived, was born on this day in 1930 in Bergamo in Lombardy.

He was the first to complete some of the most demanding climbs in the Alps and the Himalayas, including the first solo climb in winter of the North face of the Matterhorn.

But those achievements were marred for half a century by the bitter row that sprang from the part he played in the 1954 Italian expedition to conquer K2, the 8,611-metre peak north-east of the Himalayas that is the second highest in the world - behind Mount Everest (8,848 metres) - but is regarded as the more difficult climb.

Incredibly fit and able to survive at high altitudes without oxygen, he was already such an accomplished climber at just 24 years of age that he was chosen to join the expedition, which aimed to succeed where five previous attempts over 52 years had failed.

The row stemmed from the decision taken by expedition leader Ardito Desio as the party neared the summit that the more experienced Lino Lacedelli and Achille Compagnoni should be the climbers to make the final ascent, even though Bonatti was in better physical condition than either.  Compagnoni was 39 years old.

Bonatti and the Pakistani climber Amir Mehdi were charged with following behind with oxygen supplies to be delivered to the final base camp, but when they reached the point agreed they found that Lacedelli and Compagnoni had placed the camp at a higher location.

By then it was almost nightfall and too dangerous for Bonatti and Mehdi to reach the relocated final base camp or return to the penultimate one.  He and Mehdi were forced to spend the night in the open, without tents or sleeping bags, at temperatures of minus 50 degrees Celsius.  They survived, setting a record for the highest open bivouac (8,100 metres) but Mehdi lost all his toes to frostbite and spent eight months in hospital.

Photo of K2 mountain in the Himalayas
The imposing K2 mountain in the Himalayas
The following day, as they made their way back down the mountain, Lacedelli and Compagnoni collected the oxygen cylinders and reached the summit.  They were acclaimed as national heroes.

A furious Bonatti accused them of deliberately moving the base camp so that he would not be able to join them in climbing to the summit.  They denied this, insisting the location originally agreed had been too dangerous, counter-accusing Bonatti of using some of their oxygen, which ran out close to the summit.

Bonatti was blamed for Mehdi's plight and for years he was vilified by a substantial part of the Italian climbing community, who preferred to protect the reputation of Lacedelli and Compagnoni and not discredit their triumph.

It was not until 2004, when Lacedelli admitted in a book about the expedition that Bonatti's account was correct, that his name was cleared.  Lacedelli and Compagnoni knew that had he been given the chance, Bonatti would have completed the ascent without the need for supplemental oxygen and his achievement would have overshadowed theirs, so they moved the base camp in an attempt to deter him.

Photo of the Matterhorn
The east and north faces of the Matterhorn
The son of a fabric merchant, Bonatti grew up near Monza in the vast Po Valley. During the war years he spent part of his time with relatives in Gazzaniga, in Bergamo province, and his first climbing experiences were in the mountains close to Bergamo, specifically the Grigne range above Lecco. An adventurer by nature, he took on serious climbs from the age of 18 upwards. His achievements were all the more worthy for the fact that he had a poorly paid job in a steel mill and could not afford expensive equipment.

After the K2 row he found it hard to trust other climbers and set about achieving records on his own.

Among his triumphs were a solo climb of a new route on the south-west pillar of the Aiguille du Dru in the Mont Blanc massif in August 1955, the first ascent of Gasherbrum IV in the Himalayas in 1958 and in 1965 the first solo climb in winter of the North face of the Matterhorn.

Immediately after his solo climb on the Matterhorn, Bonatti announced his retirement from professional climbing at the age of 35 and after only 17 years.

Subsequently, he wrote many mountaineering books and travelled the world as a journalist for the Italian magazine Epoca. 

In his later years, married to the actress Rossana Podestà, he lived in a house above the mountain village of Dubino, close to Lake Como.

He died in 2011 in Rome, where he was being treated for pancreatic cancer.

Travel tip:

Dubino is just a few kilometres from the northern tip of Lake Como in an area of alpine terrain close to the border of Italy and Switzerland.  The area is notable for its spectacular scenery, for speciality foods such as bresaola (cured beef) and bitto, a cheese made from the milk of cows that feed in high alpine meadows.

Photo of Monza cathedral
The marble facade of the Duomo at Monza
Travel tip:

Monza is a city of around 120,000 inhabitants in the Po Valley.  It is best known for its Formula One motor racing circuit but has many notable buildings, including a Romanesque-Gothic style cathedral with a black and-white marble arcaded façade erected in the mid-14th century.

(Photo of K2 by Svy123 CC BY-SA 3.0)
(Photo of the Matterhorn by Camptocamp.org CC BY-SA 3.0)
(Photo of Monza Cathedral by Francescogb CC BY-SA 3.0)


21 June 2016

Pier Luigi Nervi - architect

Striking designs from football stadiums to churches

Photo of Pier Luigi Nervi
The architect Pier Luigi Nervi

The brilliant structural engineer and architect Pier Luigi Nervi was born on this day in 1891 in Sondrio, an Alpine town in northern Lombardy at the heart of the Valtellina.

Nervi made his mark with a number of strikingly original designs at home and abroad and was noted both for his innovative use of reinforced concrete and his multi-dimensional designs, which enabled him to create structures that were both strong and elegant.

His major works in Italy include the Palazzo del Lavoro in Turin, the bell tower of the Chiesa del Sacro Cuore in Florence and the Papal Audience Hall at the Vatican City, as well as a number of important sports facilities.

The Stadio Artemio Franchi (formerly the Stadio Communale) in Florence - home of the Fiorentina football club - was one of his first important projects and he designed several stadia for the Rome Olympics in 1960, including the Stadio Flaminio and the Palazzo dello Sport EUR.

Around the world, the UNESCO headquarters in Paris, the George Washington Bridge Bus Station in New York, the Stock Exchange Tower in Montreal, St Mary's Cathedral in San Francisco and the Italian Embassy in Brasilia are among Nervi's legacy.

The son of a postmaster, Nervi graduated from the School of Civil Engineering in Bologna in 1913.

Photo of the Stadio Artemio Franchi
The Stadio Artemio Franchi in Florence
After serving in the Italian army's Corps of Engineering in the First World War, Nervi established his own firm in Rome in 1923. His first all-concrete building was the Augusteo Cinema-Theatre on the Vomero hill in Naples, built in 1927.

It was the stadium in Florence that established his reputation. Opened in 1931, it was built entirely of reinforced concrete and featured a 70-metre (230 feet) tower and a ground-breaking cantilevered roof over the main grandstand.

In 1932 Nervi and a cousin in Rome formed the contracting firm of Nervi and Bartoli and in 1935 they were commissioned to build aircraft hangars for the Italian air force after Nervi's designs won a national competition.

Between 1935 and 1941 he built eight hangars in Orbetello and Torre del Lago in Tuscany and Orvieto in Umbria and was said to be distraught when all eight were blown up by the retreating German army in 1944.

Having worked with a team of architects and engineers on the UNESCO building in Paris, Nervi returned to Italy to work alongside Gio Ponti in helping to create the country's first skyscraper office building, the distinctively tapered 32-storey Pirelli Tower in Milan, which stood at 127 metres (417 feet) and remained the tallest building in Italy from 1958 until 1995.

It was the first of four skyscapers Nervi helped designed around the world.  He was also involved with the 190-metre 48-storey Stock Exchange Building in Montreal and worked with the Australian architect Harry Seidler on the Australia Square Tower and the MLC Centre in Sydney.

Photo of the dome of the Cathedral of St Mary
The dome of Nervi's Cathedral of St Mary in San Francisco
Nervi's design for the George Washington Bridge Bus Station in Manhattan, famous for the butterfly-like wings of concrete that make up its roof, helped him acquire fame in America, where in 1964 he was awarded that country's highest architectural accolade, the Gold Medal of the American Institute of Architects.

His work in the United States also included the Cathedral of St Mary of the Assumption in San Francisco, notable for its distinctive multi-dimensional dome. Religious buildings to which he contributed in Italy include the concrete bell tower, reminiscent of a pithead or perhaps the framework for a helter-skelter, of the Sacro Cuore church in Florence, and the vast, 10,000-capacity Papal Audience Hall at the Vatican, with its undulating roof.

Nervi's sons, Antonio, a structural engineer, and Mario, an architect, followed him into the family business as he began to wind down his workload.  Alongside his work, he was a professor of engineering at Rome University from 1946 to 1961 and at Harvard from 1961 to 1962.

He died in Rome in 1979 aged 87.

Photo of Sondrio
A panorama of the Alpine town of Sondrio
Travel tip:

Sondrio is a small town of around 22,000 people, a base for skiing in the Alps during the winter but famous also for its terraced vineyards producing notable wines such as Sassella and Grumello.  Built on what was originally the site of a Roman military camp, Sondrio is one of the main towns in the Valtellina, a valley that was once an important pass between Italy and Germany.  At the heart of the town is the charming Piazza Garibaldi.

Travel tip:

Two examples of Nervi's work, the Stadio Flaminio and the Palazzetto dello Sport, can be found next to one another in the Flaminio district of Rome, around seven kilometres from the centre.  The Stadio Flaminio has traditionally been the home of the Italian rugby team and is currently undergoing refurbishment.

More reading:

How Marco Zanuso put Italy at the forefront of style

The man behind the Royal Palace in Caserta


20 June 2016

Giannina Arangi-Lombardi – opera singer

Soprano’s superb voice was captured in early recordings

Photo of Giannina Arangi-Lombardi
Giannina Arangi-Lombardi
Soprano Giannina Arangi-Lombardi was born on this day in 1891 in Marigliano near Naples in Campania.

She studied singing at the Conservatory of San Pietro a Majella in Naples and made her debut on the stage in Rome in 1920. Arangi-Lombardi sang mezzo-soprano roles for the next three years at theatres in Rome, Sicily, Parma, Florence and Naples.

She then underwent further study and returned to the stage as what is known as a spinto soprano, a singer who can reach the high notes of the lyric soprano but can also achieve dramatic climaxes with her voice.

Arangi-Lombardi’s second debut, this time as a soprano, was in 1923. The first time she sang the role of Aida in Verdi's opera of the same name the audience was stunned by her voice and her fame quickly spread.

She appeared on stage at Teatro alla Scala in Milan for the first time in 1924 singing Elena in Boito’s Mefistofele. The orchestra for her debut performance was conducted by Arturo Toscanini.

She sang regularly at La Scala until 1930 and appeared at many other opera houses in Europe as well as in South America.

She took part in Dame Nellie Melba’s farewell tour of Australia in 1928, when she sang the title role in the Australian premiere of Puccini’s Turandot.

After retiring from the stage in 1938 Arangi-Lombardi taught at the music conservatory in Milan and then later became director of the music conservatory in Ankara in Turkey.

Arangi-Lombardi died in Milan in 1951 a few weeks after celebrating her 60th birthday.

Her voice can still be heard today in the recordings she made of full length operas between 1929 and 1931.

Photo of Teatro alla Scala
Teatro alla Scala in Milan
Travel tip:

La Scala in Milan, where Arangi-Lombardi appeared regularly, has a fascinating museum that displays costumes and memorabilia from the history of opera. The entrance is in Largo Ghiringhelli, just off Piazza Scala. It is open every day except the Italian Bank Holidays and for a few days when it is closed in December. Opening hours are from 9.00 to 12.30 and 1.30 to 5.30 pm.

Travel tip: 

Milan’s Conservatory of Music (Conservatorio di Musica ‘Giuseppe Verdi’) is in Via Conservatorio, just off Via Pietro Mascagni, behind the Duomo and just a short walk from Teatro alla Scala. 

Read more:

Cecilia Bartoli renowned for interpretations of Rossini and Mozart


19 June 2016

Pier Angeli - Hollywood star

Actress hailed for talent and beauty died tragically young

Photo of Pier Angeli
Anna Maria Pierangeli, the actress who
 became known as Pier Angeli
The actress Pier Angeli, a Hollywood star in the 1950s and 60s, was born on this day in 1932 in Cagliari, Sardinia.

She won awards in Italy and in America at the start of her career, when she was likened by some critics to the Swedish-born star Greta Garbo.

Described by the actor Paul Newman as "the most beautiful Italian actress of the century", Angeli was also a fixture in the gossip columns.  Linked romantically with a number of Hollywood's leading male actors, she dated Kirk Douglas and became close to the celebrated 'rebel' James Dean before marrying another star, the Italian-American actor and singer, Vic Damone.

It would be the first of two marriages.  She had a son, Perry, with Damone but they divorced after four years.  A second marriage, to the Italian composer, Armando Trovaioli, produced another son, Andrew, but they also divorced.

Born Anna Maria Pierangeli, the daughter of an architect, she had a twin sister, Maria Luisa, who would also become an actress.  Her mother, Enrica, used to dress the girls to resemble the American child star, Shirley Temple. The family moved to Rome when she was three.

Her mother wasted little time in enrolling the girls for stage school as soon as they were old enough and Anna Maria was only 16 when she enjoyed the big break that would shape her career.  Hanging out on the fashionable Via Veneto, she was spotted by the Italian actor, Vittorio de Sica, and recommended for a role in his upcoming film, Domani e Troppo Tardi (Tomorrow is Too Late).

Playing the part of Marisa in a tale of two star-crossed adolescent lovers, she won the Best Actress award from the Italian National Syndicate of Film Journalists.  Soon, Hollywood beckoned.

Again, she was a hit from the start, winning a Golden Globe for Most Promising Female Newcomer for her MGM debut movie Teresa, in which she played the title role and which saw Rod Steiger and John Ericson also make their debuts.  Renamed Pier Angeli by the MGM producer Arthur Loew, it was her performance in this film - much of it shot on location in Rome - that brought comparisons with Greta Garbo.

Photo of James Dean
James Dean, the American actor with whom
Pier Angeli had a relationship
As offers of parts began to flow, so the gossip columnists began to follow Pier Angeli's every move. She was linked with numerous actors, including Marlon Brando, before settling into a year-long relationship with Kirk Douglas after they met while filming The Story of Three Loves.

Douglas was more than 15 years older than Angeli, however, and though they become engaged they eventually broke up, despite a number of attempted reconciliations.

Angeli met James Dean while making The Silver Chalice, in which Paul Newman made his screen debut.  Newman was visited on set by Dean, another young American who was simultaneously filming his debut movie, East of Eden.  The pretty young Italian actress caught his eye and they hit it off immediately.

By now, Angeli's family had moved to California and though she and Dean became inseparable, her mother disapproved of the relationship, preferring the charming Damone, whom Angeli has dated before and had the advantage - in her mother's eyes - of being a Catholic from a New York Italian family.

It is said that Angeli would have married Dean had he proposed, but he was reluctant to commit. He was still inclined to act on impulses. When he announced, suddenly, that he was going to New York and did not return for two weeks, her mother persuaded Pier that he was unreliable and she terminated their relationship.  Soon afterwards, she accepted a proposal from Damone.

In the best melodramatic tradition of screen romances, Dean is said to have sat outside on his motorcycle while the wedding was taking place in a church in Beverley Hills, speeding away noisily as the couple emerged.  Later, after the failure of her second marriage, Angeli confessed that Dean, who would be killed in a road accident a year later, had been the true love of her life.

With painful irony, Angeli would win plaudits in 1956 for Somebody Up There Likes Me, playing the wife of Paul Newman, who took the role of the prize fighter Rocky Graziano that had originally been earmarked for Dean.

Her career at the top was not over.  In 1960 she was nominated for a BAFTA as best foreign actress for her performance alongside Richard Attenborough in the British film The Angry Silence and starred with Stewart Granger in the Biblical epic Sodom and Gomorrah.

Pier Angeli died in 1971 in tragic circumstances at the age of just 39, in an apartment belonging to her former acting coach in Beverley Hills. She had been receiving treatment for a stomach disorder but her death was from an overdose of barbiturates.

Travel tip:

Sardinia's fascinating capital, Cagliari, combines fragments of the past – spanning Carthaginian, Roman, Byzantine, Spanish and Italian eras – with 21st-century cosmopolitanism.  Visitors should concentrate first on the Castello district, the medieval heart of the city built on top of a hill with a view of the Gulf of Cagliari. Built from local white limestone, most of the city walls remain intact and include two towers that survive from the early 14th century.

Photo of the Westin Excelsior Hotel on the Via Veneto in Rome
The Westin Excelsior Hotel on Rome's Via Veneto
Travel tip: 

Rome's Via Vittorio Veneto, commonly known as the Via Veneto, is one of the capital's most famous, elegant and expensive streets. The street is named after the 1918 Battle of Vittorio Veneto, a decisive Italian victory of World War I, and immortalised by Federico Fellini's 1960 film La Dolce Vita, which celebrated its heyday in the '50s and '60s when its bars and restaurants attracted Hollywood stars and jet set personalities.  Some of Rome's most renowned cafés and five star hotels, such as Café de Paris, Harry's Bar, the Regina Hotel Baglioni and the Westin Excelsior are located in Via Veneto.

More reading:

Roberto Rossellini - pioneer of neo-realism

Federico Fellini - great 20th century filmmaker

Rudolph Valentino - tragic star of silent movies

(Photo of Via Veneto by Gobbler CC BY-SA 3.0)


18 June 2016

Fabio Capello - leading football manager

Veteran Champions League winner with five Serie A titles 

Photo of Fabio Capello
Fabio Capello
Fabio Capello, one of European club football's most successful managers, celebrates his 70th birthday today.

The winner of five Serie A titles as a coach and four as a player, plus two La Liga titles as manager of Real Madrid, and the Champions League with AC Milan, Capello was born in San Canzian d'Isonzo, close to the border of Italy and Slovenia, on this day in 1946.

At the time, San Canzian d'Isonzo was in an area occupied by Allied forces after the end of the Second World War.

His uncle, Mario Tortul, who was from the same village near Trieste, had been a professional footballer, playing in Serie A with Sampdoria, Triestina and Padova and making one appearance for the Italian national team.

Capello began his playing career at the Ferrara-based SPAL club and went on to represent Roma, Juventus and AC Milan.  A midfielder with an eye for goal, he was a Serie A champion three times with Juventus and once with Milan, also winning the Coppa Italia with Roma and Milan.

He represented Italy 32 times, playing at the 1974 World Cup finals in West Germany.  He regards scoring the only goal against England in 1973 as Italy won at Wembley for the first time in their history as the highlight of his international career.

He would later return to England to coach the national team, leading them to the World Cup finals in South Africa in 2010.

After his retirement as a player, Capello coached Milan's youth teams, bringing through the likes of Paolo Maldini and Alessandro Costacurta.  He began to work with the senior side in 1987 as assistant to the Swede Nils Liedholm and took over as temporary head coach for the last six games of the 1986-87 season when Liedholm left.

He was passed over in favour of Arrigo Sacchi when Milan appointed their next permanent head coach and succeeded Sacchi in 1991, inheriting a team that had been double European Cup winners under Sacchi but taking them to a new level of excellence.

Photo of Fabio Capello
Fabio Capello during his second spell as Real Madrid boss
Milan won four Serie A titles in five years, setting an Italian League record by remaining unbeaten for 58 matches between May 1991 and March 1993, which included the whole of the 1991-92 season.

At times his squad included stars from all around the world, including Maldini, the Dutch trio of Marco van Basten, Ruud Gullit and Frank Rijkaard, the Montenegrin Dejan Savicevic, Croatia's Zvonimir Boban, the former Torino winger Gianluigi Lentini, for whom he paid a then world record fee of £15 million, the Frenchman Marcel Desailly and the Dane Brian Laudrup.

Milan's 4-0 defeat of Johan Cruyff's Barcelona in the 1994 Champions League final with goals from Daniele Massaro (two), Savicevic and Desailly is regarded as one of the greatest performances in the history of European competition.  Milan were also twice beaten finalists under Capello

His reputation firmly established, Capello went on to coach Real Madrid twice, winning Spain's La Liga title in 1996-97 and again a decade later.  In between, he led Roma to the Serie A championship in 2000-01 and would have two more Serie A titles on his CV had his 2004-05 and 2005-06 triumphs with Juventus not been declared null and void because of the club's links to a match-fixing scandal, which prompted Capello to resign.

He achieved a personal ambition to manage one of football's major national teams when he was appointed as England head coach in December 2007 but his record thus far in international football has been unimpressive alongside his club career.

England qualified for the World Cup finals in 2010 under Capello but performed poorly in South Africa and although he led them through a successful qualification campaign for the 2012 European Championship, Capello resigned before the finals after John Terry was stripped of the captaincy against his wishes.

He subsequently coached Russia but was sacked in July 2015 after three years in charge, a period that encompassed more disappointment at a World Cup finals when Russia were knocked out at the group stage in 2014.  He has not worked since and claims he turned down an offer to succeed Antonio Conte as Italy's head coach.

Away from football, Capello is a collector of fine art and has acquired a collection of paintings valued at around £10 million.  SA devout Catholic, he prays twice a day and has been married for 40 years to his wife Laura, whom he met on a bus as a teenager.  They have two sons, Pier Filippo and Eduardo.

Travel tip:

Gorizia, about 25 kilometres from San Canzian d'Isonzo, is a fascinating town that straddles the border of Italy and Slovenia. It was the subject of a territorial dispute between Italy and Yugoslavia at the end of the Second World War and when boundaries were drawn up in 1947 it was agreed that Gorizia would remain Italian and a new town of Nova Gorica would be built on the Yugoslav side. The town is notable for a fine castle, parts of which date back to the 13th century.

Photo of a square in Trieste
Trieste's town hall is on the imposing Piazza Unità, which is
the largest seafront square in Italy
Travel tip:

Trieste, once the fourth largest city of the Austro-Hungarian empire, has a diverse culture that recognises its multi-ethnic population, which comprises mainly Italians and Slovenians but also a significant number of Serbians, Croatians and Romanians. Its main sights include the 15th century Castel San Giusto and the majestic Piazza Unità d'Italia, the largest seafront square in Europe.

More reading:

Arrigo Sacchi - AC Milan manager's tactics revolutionised Italian football

Gianluigi Lentini: the world's most expensive footballer

The founding of Internazionale

(First photo of Fabio Capello by soccer.run CC BY-SA 3.0) 
(Photo of Trieste town hall by Twice25 and Rinina25 CC BY-SA 2.5)


17 June 2016

Sergio Marchionne - business leader

Man who saved Fiat divides opinions in Italy

Photo of Sergio Marchionne
Sergio Marchionne became chief
executive of Fiat in 2004
Controversial business leader Sergio Marchionne was born on this day in 1952 in the city of Chieti in the Abruzzo region of Italy.

The 64-year-old chief executive of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles is credited with saving the iconic Italian motor manufacturer from potential extinction in 2004, when Fiat was on the verge of being taken into the ownership of the banks that were keeping it afloat.

It had suffered cumulative losses of more than $8 billion over the previous two years and a strategic alliance with General Motors had failed. Its share of the European car market had shrunk to an historic low of just 5.8 per cent.

Yet after the little known Marchionne was appointed chief executive at the company's Turin headquarters it took him only just over a year to bring Fiat back into profit.

When Fiat opened a new assembly line at the Mirafiori plant outside Turin in 2006, Marchionne was hailed as a hero.  The inauguration celebrations were attended by politicians of all parties and trade union leaders.  Soon, the new Fiat 500 was launched, tapping into Italian nostalgia by reprising the name that was synonymous with the optimistic years of the 1950s and 60s.

But Marchionne, who had left Italy when he was 14 and learned his business skills in Canada and Switzerland, in time antagonised the more hard-line unions with the changes he introduced to working conditions.

His popularity was not helped when ambitious plans for a 20 billion euro five-year investment in Fiat in Italy, which would have given jobs back to most of the workers laid off during the crisis years, were abandoned. Marchionne blamed the collapse of the European car market.

His standing dipped further in 2014 when he merged Fiat with Chrysler, the American company he had rescued from bankruptcy in 2009, and Fiat became a subsidiary of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, a multi-national company with its administrative headquarters in London.

Photo of old and new Fiat 500s
A 1966 Fiat 500 with its modern incarnation, built
 after Marchionne relaunched the model in 2006
The new company had more employees in North America and Mexico (34 per cent) than in Italy (29 per cent) and apart from fears over jobs for Italians, there was opposition from traditionalists to the idea of Fiat losing its Italian identity.

The company, founded by Giovanni Agnelli in 1899 and always based in Turin, is seen as an Italian institution, an important part of the country's industrial heritage.

Marchionne prefers to describe the company as having many bases, with factories and offices in Canada, India, Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, Poland and China as well as Italy and the United States. He spends much of his time flying between them.

His global outlook might owe something to his own multi-national heritage.  His mother hailed from Istria, the peninsula in Croatia that used to belong to Italy, and met his father, from Abruzzo, when the latter was serving in Istria as a carabiniere officer.

They moved to Chieti in 1945 and decided to relocate to Canada in 1966, joining relatives in Toronto. Marchionne has degrees in philosophy, commerce and law, is qualified as an accountant and a barrister, holds dual Canadian and Italian citizenship and is fluent in Italian and English.

Before joining Fiat he was chief executive of a company in Switzerland, where he has a home.  He has a passion for fast cars -- he is also chief executive of Ferrari -- and classical music but has managed largely to keep his private life out of the public gaze.  His wife and two sons live in Switzerland.

UPDATE: Marchionne died in Zurich in July 2018 at the age of 66.

Photo of Gothic Church in Chieti
The Gothic Cathedral in Chieti
Travel tip:

Chieti is among the most historic Italian cities, supposedly founded in 1181BC by the Homeric Greek hero Achilles and was named Theate in honour of his mother, Thetis. Among its main sights are a Gothic Cathedral, rebuilt after earthquake damage in the 18th century on the sight of a church that dates back to the 11th century.

Travel tip:

The former Fiat plant in the Lingotto district of Turin was once the largest car factory in the world, built to a linear design by the Futurist architect Giacomo Matte Trucco and featuring a rooftop test track made famous in the Michael Caine movie, The Italian Job. 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.

More reading:

Vittorio Jano - motor racing engineer who helped put Ferrari on the map

Enrico Piaggio - man behind the iconic Vespa

Daniela Riccardi - leading Italian businesswoman

(Photo of Sergio Marchionne by Ricardo Stuckert CC BY-SA 3.0 br)
(Photo of Fiat 500s by dave_7 CC BY-SA 2.0)
(Photo of Cathedral in Chieti by Raboe001 CC BY-SA 2.5)