31 July 2016

Antonio Conte - football coach

Southern Italian roots of the new boss of Chelsea

Antonio Conte, the Italian coach who is Chelsea's new manager
Antonio Conte, the Italian coach who
is Chelsea's new manager

Antonio Conte, the coach who led Italy to the quarter-finals of Euro 2016 and is now first team manager at Chelsea in the English Premier League, celebrates his 47th birthday today.

Formerly a hugely successful player and manager with Juventus, Conte was born on this day in 1969 in Lecce, the Puglian city almost at the tip of the heel of Italy.

As a midfield player for Juventus, he won five Serie A titles and a Champions League. He also played in the European Championships and the World Cup for the Italy national team.

After returning to the Turin club as head coach, he won the Serie A title in each of his three seasons in charge before succeeding Cesare Prandelli as Italy's head coach.

Conte hails from a close-knit family in which his parents, Cosimino and Ada, imposed strict rules, although as a child Antonio was allowed to spend many hours playing football and tennis in the street with his brothers, Gianluca and Daniele.

He began to play organised football with Juventina Lecce, an amateur team coached by his father, but it was not long before US Lecce, the local professional club, recognised his potential and offered him an opportunity.   Juventina received compensation of 200,000 lire - the equivalent of about €300 or £250 in today's money - plus eight new footballs.

Conte quickly moved up through the Under-15s and Under-20s teams and made his senior debut aged just 16 in 1986 after Lecce had won promotion to Serie A for the first time in their history.

Antonio Conte's played his first senior football for his home town club, US Lecce
Antonio Conte's played his first senior football
for his home town club, US Lecce
They were relegated after just one year and Conte's career was interrupted by a broken tibia in his left leg but he fought back, as did Lecce under coach Carlo Mazzone, returning to the top flight and finishing a respectable ninth in 1988-89, the season in which Conte scored his first Serie A goal.

The move north to Juventus came about in 1991 when coach Giovanni Trapattoni identified him as a prime target and the club paid Lecce seven billion lire, which would translate to a fee of around €6.1 million or £5.2 million today.

He remained with the bianconeri for 13 seasons, playing under just three coaches - Trapattoni, Marcello Lippi (twice) and Carlo Ancelotti - often as captain, usually in a central midfield role.  He was called up by Arrigo Sacchi to represent Italy in the 1994 World Cup in the United States, in which the azzurri finished runners-up to Brazil, and by Dino Zoff for the 2000 European Championships, in which they again reached the final, although Conte could not play because of injury.

As a coach, Conte had unsuccessful stints with Arezzo, Bari and Atalanta before winning promotion to Serie A with Siena in 2010-11, joining Juventus in 2011.  Regarded as a highly talented tactician and an astute man-manager, the only area in which he has yet to make a real impact as a coach is in the Champions League.

He has been married since 2013 to Elisabetta, although they have been a couple since 2004.  They met by chance at a bar in Corso Vinzaglio in central Turin where Conte was having coffee with one of his neighbours, who happened to be her father.

Travel tip:

Lecce, renowned for the extravagance of its Baroque architecture, is sometimes nicknamed the Florence of the South but has far fewer tourists, mainly because it is almost at the bottom of the heel of Italy and difficult to reach.  The ruins of a Roman amphitheatre are preserved in the city centre but most of the buildings are 17th century in origin, including the sumptuous Basilica di Santa Croce.

The Palazzo Madama in Turin's Piazza Castello
The Palazzo Madama in Turin's Piazza Castello
Travel tip:

Turin, the city of Juventus, is the capital of the region of Piedmont in the north of Italy. It has had a rich history linked with the Savoy Kings of Italy and there are many impressive Renaissance, Baroque and Rococo buildings in the centre, notably around Piazza Castello, where visitors can find the Royal Palace and the Palazzo Madama, which used to house the Italian senate.

More reading:

Marcello Lippi - World Cup winning coach

How Arrigo Sacchi changed Italian football

Dino Zoff - the World Cup's oldest winner

(Photo of Antonio Conte by Nicola Genati CC BY-SA 3.0)
(Photo of Palazzo Madama by Geobia CC BY-SA 4.0)


30 July 2016

Naples earthquake of 1626

Devastating tremor and tsunami killed 70,000

A 17th century painting  shows the 1631 eruption of Vesuvius  that followed just five years after the 1626 Naples earthquake
A 17th century painting shows the 1631 eruption of
Vesuvius just five years after the 1626 earthquake

The region around Naples, one of the most physically unstable areas of high population in the world with a long history of volcanic activity and earthquakes, suffered one of its more devastating events on this day in 1626.

An earthquake that it has been estimated would register around seven on the modern Richter scale struck the city and the surrounding area.

Its epicentre was about 50km out to sea, beyond the Bay of Naples and the island of Capri to the south, but the shock waves were strong enough to cause the collapse of many buildings in the city and the destruction of more than 30 small towns and villages.

A tsunami followed, in which according to some reports the sea receded by more than three kilometres (two miles) before rushing back with enormous force, towering waves engulfing the coastline.

In total, it is thought that approximately 70,000 people were killed by the quake itself and the tsunami.

Naples at the time was a thriving city, still under Spanish rule.  It had a population of around 300,000, which made it the largest port city in Europe and the second largest of all European cities apart from Paris, which had about half a million inhabitants.

It was enjoying a golden age in expansion, particularly at the more expensive end of the property market, with many luxury estates springing up in the Chiaia district to the north of the city.

Construction of the Royal Palace, the masterpiece of the late Renaissance architect Domenico Fontana, was almost complete.  Overlooking the Bay, the palace would for many years be the main residence of the Bourbon kings.

A typical fumarole at Solfatara in the Campi Flegrei just outside Naples
A typical fumarole at Solfatara in the
Campi Flegrei just outside Naples
However, bordered to the south by Vesuvius and to the north by the steaming, bubbling Campi Flegrei (Phlegraean Fields), the city was under constant threat from seismic activity.  In Naples alone, between 10,000 and 20,000 people were thought to have been killed on July 30, 1626.

Indeed, the 1626 quake came during one of several periods punctuated by deadly events.  There had been three earthquakes in one year in 1622, sparking a wave of activity that was perhaps behind the substantial eruption of Vesuvius that took place in 1631. It was the first of any consequence for four centuries, resulting in the deaths of between 3,000 and 6,000 people.

Another earthquake in 1693 claimed the lives of 90,000 in the wider region.  Earthquakes and eruptions were so frequent in the next century that 110,000 people were killed in one 75-year stretch between 1783 and 1857, equating to 1,500 every year.

There has not been an eruption of Vesuvius since 1944 and the last major earthquake to hit the region was in 1980, when a tremor measuring 7.2 on the Richter scale took place in the province of Avellino, its epicentre 85km east of Naples, with a death toll of 2,914.

Nowadays some three million people live in and around Naples and although the last few decades have been calm, seismologists say there is little reason to be complacent.

The façade of the Royal Palace in the centre of Naples
Travel tip:

Work began on the construction of the Royal Palace in Naples in the early 17th century.  The main part of the building, including the façade that opens on to the Piazza del Plebiscito, was completed by 1620 and additions were made over time, including the connecting Teatro San Carlo, the famous Naples opera house, which was opened in 1737.

Travel tip:

For a less strenuous volcanic experience than climbing Vesuvius, the volcanic crater Solfatara, just outside Pozzuoli, is a worthwhile alternative. Part of the vast Campi Flegrei, a volcanic area with a four-mile diameter, Solfatara is fascinating for its active emissions of volcanic ash that form piles of yellow tuff rocks and for the fumaroles releasing sulphorous steam.


29 July 2016

The birth of Benito Mussolini

Future dictator inspired by his father's politics

Mussolini saw the First World War as an opportunity for Italy
Mussolini saw the First World War
as an opportunity for Italy
Benito Mussolini, who would become Italy's notorious Fascist dictator during the 1920s, was born on this day in 1883 in a small town in Emilia-Romagna known then as Dovia di Predappio, about 17km south of the city of Forlì.

His father, Alessandro, worked as a blacksmith while his mother, Rosa was a devout Catholic schoolteacher.  Benito was the eldest of his parents' three children. He would later have a brother, Arnaldo, and a sister, Edvige.

It could be said that Alessandro's political leanings influenced his son from birth.  Benito was named after the Mexican reformist President, Benito Juárez, while his middle names - Andrea and Amilcare - were those of the Italian socialists Andrea Costa and Amilcare Cipriani.

Working in his father's smithy as a boy growing up, Mussolini would listen to Alessandro's admiration for the protagonists of the Italian unification movement, such as the nationalist Giuseppe Mazzini, and the military leader Giuseppe Garibaldi. But he also heard him speak with approval about the socialist thinker Carlo Pisacane and anarchist revolutionaries such as Carlo Cafiero and Mikhail Bakunin.

Alessandro's view would leave a lasting impression and, one way or another, shape the direction his son would eventually follow, although initially Benito saw himself as a traditional socialist.

Sent away to boarding school, Mussolini qualified as a schoolteacher but did not take up the profession, instead moving to Switzerland in order to avoid national service.  It was there that he first became politically active.

Mussolini in familiar pose as the military dictator
Mussolini in familiar pose as the
military dictator
He studied the ideas of the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, the sociologist Vilfredo Pareto, and the syndicalist Georges Sorel, who advocated the violent overthrow of capitalism and liberal democracy. He also found much that he approved of in the writings of the Marxist Charles Péguy.

Mussolini was twice expelled from Switzerland, once after being arrested in Berne for trying to foment a general strike and violent uprising, the second time for falsifying his papers in order to return.  He did in time manage to secure a legal way back into the country and studied at the University of Lausanne before taking advantage of an amnesty granted to those who had evaded national service and returning to Italy.

A condition of the amnesty was that he joined the army but once his two-year stint was complete in 1906 he became a leading figure in the Italian Socialist Party (PSI).

In the years that followed he would edit the left-wing newspaper Avanti and spend five months in jail following a riot he had helped organise in protest at Italy's invasion of Libya, which he denounced as "imperialist".

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

By then, continuing to be influenced by his father's belief in nationalism and by Nietzsche's views on the merits of elitism, he began to lose faith in orthodox socialism, believing that national identity had become more important than class struggle in forging the kind of society that was central to his vision.

He now envisaged a brand of socialism in which the removal of class divides was still key but which also depended on strong, decisive leadership and which recognised culture, tradition, language and race as elements of a nation's identity that should be protected.  It was the beginnings of what would become known as Fascism.

Travel tip:

Predappio's embarrassment at being turned into a place of pilgrimage for neo-Fascists has been addressed by the town's Mayor, who has finally forged an agreement that the former regional headquarters of Mussolini's party, a dilapidated three-storey building in the centre of the town, is renovated as a musuem, not to pay homage to the former dictator - whose remains are buried in the local cemetery - but as a place of education and reflection.  The museum is due to open in 2019.

The Abbey of San Mercuriale dominates Piazza Aurelio Saffi in Forlì
The Abbey of San Mercuriale dominates
Piazza Aurelio Saffi in Forlì
Travel tip:

The main square in Forlì, Piazza Aurelio Saffi, is named after the politician Aurelio Saffi, a radical republican who was a fervent supporter of the nationalist revolutionary Giuseppe Mazzini, one of the driving forces behind the Risorgimento and the unification of Italy in the 19th century.  There is a statue of Saffi in the square, which is dominated by the 12th-century Abbey of San Mercuriale and its 75-metre bell tower, one of the tallest in Italy.

More reading:

The death of Mussolini at the hands of the partisans

How Mussolini's Fascists came into being

Giuseppe Mazzini - hero of the Risorgimento


28 July 2016

Riccardo Muti - conductor

Celebrated maestro shows no sign of slowing down

Riccardo Muti
Riccardo Muti
The brilliant conductor and musical director Riccardo Muti celebrates his 75th birthday today.

Since 2010, Muti has been conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra while retaining his directorship of the Luigi Cherubini Youth Orchestra, a training ensemble for talent from Italian and other European music schools, based in Ravenna and Piacenza, which he founded in 2005.

Previously, Muti held posts at the Maggio Musicale in Florence, the Philharmonia Orchestra in London, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Teatro alla Scala in Milan and the Salzburg Whitsun Festival.

He was named principal conductor and music director for the Maggio Musicale when he was only 28 and stayed there 12 years.  He was at La Scala for 19 years from 1986 to 2005, his tenure ending amid rancour following a conflict with the theatre's general manager, Carlo Fontana.

Muti was born on this day in 1941 in Naples, although his childhood years were spent largely in the Puglian port city of Molfetta, near Bari. He entered the world in Naples, he says, at the insistence of his mother, Gilda, herself a Neapolitan, who travelled across the peninsula by train in the later stages of each of her five pregnancies in order that her children would also grow up as Neapolitans.  In his case, the trials of the journey had the extra dimension of it being wartime.

His father, Domenico, was considered the musical member of the family, possessed of a beautiful tenor voice but a doctor by profession.  He insisted his children - all boys - had a musical education and Riccardo, despite looking on enviously at his friends playing outside while he practised the violin, revealed his talent as early as seven years old.

Muti studied piano at the Conservatory of San Pietro a Majella in Naples, where he also studied philosophy.  He learned the art of conducting at the Giuseppe Verdi Conservatory in Milan.  His influences included the Italian composer Nino Rota, who would become most famous for his movie scores, the conductor Antonino Votto, who was principal assistant to Arturo Toscanini at La Scala, and the Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter.

The young Muti at the Guido Cantelli competition in Milan in 1967, which he won
The young Muti at the Guido Cantelli competition in
Milan in 1967, which he won
His career took off after he had won the Guido Cantelli Conducting Competition in Milan in 1967. Two years later, as well as accepting the role of musical director at Maggio Musicale, Muti married Cristina Mazzavillani, a young soprano he met at the Giuseppe Verdi Conservatory.

The couple exchanged vows at a tiny church in Ravenna, Mazzavillani's home town in Emilia-Romagna, with Rota and Richter among the witnesses.  Some 47 years on, they still regard Ravenna as their main home.  They have three children, sons Domenico and Francesco and a daughter, Chiara, a former model and actress who has also directed in the theatre.  Cristina is artistic director at the annual Ravenna Festival.

A prolific recording artist who has worked with most of the world's leading orchestras and many of the most famous opera singers, Muti is particularly associated with the music of Giuseppe Verdi.

It was during a performance, celebrating the 150th anniversary of Italian unification, of Verdi's Nabucco at Rome's Teatro dell'Opera in 2011, that Muti showed his political colours, interrupting proceedings to launch into a passionate speech denouncing severe cuts to arts funding announced by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who was in the audience.

Muti had timed his outburst to follow the rousing chorus of Hebrew slaves 'Va, pensiero'. He resumed by inviting the audience to participate in an encore of 'Va, pensiero', which was delivered with such feeling that some of those onstage were moved to tears.  A week later, Berlusconi reversed the cuts.

Among many honours awarded to Muti is the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic, which equates to a British knighthood.

Muti shows no sign of slowing down.  He planned to spend his birthday working with young musicians and conductors from his Opera Academy at the Teatro Alighieri in Ravenna, where they are performing Verdi's La Traviata. while his diary of engagements is full for many months ahead.  Next January, for example, he is scheduled to return to Teatro alla Scala for the first time since his controversial resignation, as leader of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

The pretty harbour at Molfetta, on the Adriatic Coast in  Puglia, where Muti grew up
The pretty harbour at Molfetta, on the Adriatic Coast in
Puglia, where Muti grew up
Travel tip:

Molfetta is a port town situated around 35km north of Bari on the Adriatic coast. It has a pretty harbour and a well restored historic quarter full of narrow alleyways. The old cathedral - the Duomo di San Corrado - which overlooks the harbour is notable for two 20-metre towers, one of which served as a watchtower during the years in which Molfetta was an embarcation point for pilgrims heading for the Holy Land.

Travel tip:

Once the capital of the Western Roman Empire, Ravenna is notable for many elegant squares and a wealth of lavish Byzantine mosaics that can be found decorating many of the city's churches, including masterpieces studded with gold, emerald and sapphire renowned for their exquisite beauty. Look out in particular for the Galla Placidia Mausoleum, the Arian Baptistery and the Church of San Vitale.

More reading:

La Traviata - the world's favourite opera

How Italy mourned the death of Giuseppe Verdi

Toscanini's talent impressed even Verdi himself

(Photo of Riccardo Muti by Andreas Praefcke CC BY-SA 3.0)
(Photo of the young Muti by Gbonaju CC BY-SA 3.0)
(Photo of Molfetta Harbour by Michele Zaccaria CC BY-SA 2.0)


27 July 2016

Mario Del Monaco – tenor

Singer became famous for his interpretations of Otello

Mario del Monaco, dressed for his most famous role as Otello in Verdi's opera of the same name
Mario Del Monaco, dressed for his most famous
role as Otello in Verdi's opera of the same name
Opera singer Mario Del Monaco, who was renowned for the amazing power of his voice, was born on this day in 1915 in Florence.

His family were musical and as a child he studied the violin but he developed a passion for singing as well.

He studied at the Rossini Conservatory in Pesaro, where he first met and sang with the soprano Renata Tebaldi, who was to partner him regularly later in his career.

Del Monaco made a big impact with his debut performance as Lieutenant Pinkerton in Puccini’s Madam Butterfly in Milan in 1940.

He became popular with the audience at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in the 1950s, making many appearances in dramatic Verdi roles.

He was one of the four Italian tenors at their peak in the 1950s and 1960s, sharing the limelight with Giuseppe Di Stefano, Carlo Bergonzi and Franco Corelli.

Del Monaco became famous for his interpretation of the title role in Verdi’s Otello, which, it is estimated, he sang hundreds of times.

Listen to the voice of Mario Del Monaco

He started making recordings for HMV in 1948 in Milan and was later partnered by Renata Tebaldi in a series of Verdi and Puccini operas recorded for Decca.

Del Monaco retired from the stage in 1975 and spent his last years living in a villa near Treviso in the Veneto with his wife, Rina, a former singer.

He died in Mestre, near Venice, in 1982 at the age of 67, having been in poor health since sustaining serious injuries in a road accident several years previously.  He was buried in Pesaro, where he grew up.  At his own request, he was laid to rest dressed in his favourite Otello costume.

Giancarlo Del Monaco, one of his two sons, followed him into opera as a director, making his debut in Siracusa in 1964 with a production in which his father starred, and going on to work at some of the world's top opera houses, including La Scala in Milan and the Met.

Travel tip:

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

The statue of Mario del Monaco in Piazza Borsa in Treviso
The statue of Mario Del Monaco
in Piazza Borsa in Treviso
Travel tip:

Treviso’s municipal theatre in Corso del Popolo was renamed Teatro Comunale Mario Del Monaco after the tenor and operatic costumes he wore are on display there. Close by in Piazza Borsa there is a bronze statue showing him in costume.

More reading:

How Italy mourned the death of Giuseppe Verdi

The genius of Giacomo Puccini

Renata Tebaldi: the voice of an angel

(Photo of Mario Del Monaco as Otello by MDM 1915 CC BY-SA 4.0)


26 July 2016

Francesco Cossiga - Italy's 8th President

Political career overshadowed by Moro murder

Francesco Cossiga served Italy as both Prime Minister and President
Francesco Cossiga
Former Italian President Francesco Cossiga was born on this day in 1928 in the Sardinian city of Sassari.

Cossiga, a Christian Democrat who had briefly served as Prime Minister under his predecessor, Sandro Pertini, held the office for seven years from 1985 to 1992. He was the eighth President of the Republic.

His presidency was unexceptional until the last two years, when he gained a reputation for controversial comments about the Italian political system and former colleagues.

It was during this time that another heavyweight of the Italian political scene, Giulio Andreotti, revealed the existence during the Cold War years of Gladio, a clandestine network sponsored by the American secret services and NATO that was set up amid fears that Italy would fall into the hands of Communists, either through military invasion from the East or, within Italy, via the ballot box.

Cossiga, said to have been obsessed with espionage, admitted to have been involved with the creation of Gladio in the years immediately following the end of the Second World War.

This led to renewed speculation surrounding the kidnap and murder of former Prime Minister Aldo Moro in 1978, an event that prevented a vote in the Italian parliament on the so-called 'historic compromise' whereby the Italian Communist Party, which was riding a peak of popularity at a time in which Italy seemed especially vulnerable to social unrest, would be given a direct role in government for the first time.

The event was a key moment in Cossiga's political career. As interior minister - effectively home secretary - in an Andreotti-led government, Cossiga was in charge of the operation to find and free Moro during the 55 days he was held captive.  He received a personal plea from Moro to negotiate with his captors, the ultra left-wing group Red Brigades, but the government's stance was not to talk with terrorists and Moro's pleas were ignored.

When Moro's body was discovered in the boot of a car parked almost exactly halfway between the Rome headquarters of the Christian Democrats and the Italian Communists, Cossiga rushed to the scene immediately and resigned the following day, declaring himself to be "politically dead".  Yet he returned within a year to be Prime Minister, his 14-month stint coinciding with another event that shook the Italian nation, when a bomb supposedly planted by terrorists from the extreme right killed 85 people at Bologna railway station.

Francesco Cossiga (right) pictured with Giulio Andreotti shortly after the kidnap and murder of Aldo Moro
Francesco Cossiga (right) pictured with Giulio Andreotti
shortly after the kidnap and murder of Aldo Moro
The Gladio revelations re-opened debate over the Moro affair, particularly over the question of how the authorities never located the Rome apartment where he was held, despite numerous tip-offs. As President, Cossiga survived an attempt by the Democratic Party of the Left to have him impeached but resigned in 1992, two months before his term of office was due to end.

Italy had no government at the time following the collapse of a third coalition led by Andreotti but Cossiga said he was unwilling to approve any more coalitions if he did not think they could tackle the problems of debt and organised crime, or prepare Italy adequately for monetary and political union with Europe.

He did not disappear from politics. By the late 1990s, he had formed his own small centrist party, the Democratic Union of the Republic, which he hoped might pull together the various strands of Italy's centre-right. However, the party was dissolved in 1999.

Thus ended a political career that had begun with Cossiga's election to the Italian parliament as a deputy for Sassari in 1958.

Although his father was a director in a bank, politics was in the family. One of his cousins was Enrico Berlinguer, who would later become secretary-general of Italy's Communist Party, and he was related to another former Prime Minister born in Sassari, Antonio Segni.  He joined the Christian Democrats aged only 16.

After his election he quickly scaled the Christian Democrat ladder, serving as Under-Secretary for Defence from 1966 to 1970, and in 1974 taking the unlikely brief of a roving minister charged with reforming government bureaucracy.  He became Interior Minister in 1976.

In 1960, he married Giuseppa Sigurani, from whom he was divorced in 1998. They had two children, Anna Maria, a writer, and Giuseppe, who followed his father into politics, serving as junior minister for defence in Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia-led government between 2008 and 2011.

Cossiga senior suffered from depression in his later years.  He died in 2010 aged 82, following cardiovascular problems.

Sassari's elegant Piazza d'Italia lit up by night
Sassari's elegant Piazza d'Italia lit up by night
Travel tip:

Sassari, the second largest city in Sardinia with a population of 275,000 in the metropolitan area, is rich in art, culture and history, notable for beautiful palaces and elegant neoclassical architecture, examples of which can be found around Piazza d'Italia.  Also worth seeing are the Teatro Civico and the Fountain of the Rosello.

Travel tip:

Sardinia's white, sandy beaches and blue seas make it one of the most popular summer holiday destinations for Italian families as well as visitors from overseas, and is particularly crowded in August, when the population of many mainland cities decamp almost en masse for the cool of the mountains or the lure of the sea.  The Costa Smeralda, to the north-east of the island, remains a celebrity haunt and is consequently expensive, but there are plenty of less developed areas where the beaches are just as good.

(Photo of Francesco Cossiga courtesy of the Presidency of the Italian Republic)
(Photo of Piazza d'Italia in Sassari by Enigmatico27 CC BY-SA 3.0)

More reading:

How Enrico Berlinguer turned Italy's communists into a political force

The Red Brigades and the tragedy of Aldo Moro

Antonio Gramsci - Sardinian founder of the Italian Communist Party


25 July 2016

Battle of Molinella

First time artillery played a major part in warfare

A scene from the Battle of Molinella depicted by the artist Il Romanino in frescoes at Malpaga Castle, near Bergamo
A scene from the Battle of Molinella depicted by the artist
Il Romanino in frescoes at Malpaga Castle, near Bergamo
An important battle in Italy’s history was fought on this day in 1467 at Molinella, near Bologna.

On one side were infantry and cavalry representing Venice and on the other side there was an army serving Florence.

It was the first battle in Italy in which artillery and firearms were used extensively, the main weapons being cannons fired by gunpowder that could launch heavy stone or metal balls.  The barrels were 10 to 12 feet in length and had to be cleaned following each discharge, a process that took up to two hours.

Leading the 14,000 soldiers fighting for Venice was the Bergamo condottiero Bartolomeo Colleoni. He was working jointly with Ercole I d’Este from Ferrara and noblemen from Pesaro and Forlì.

A portrait of Bartolomeo Colleoni by the Italian artist Cristofano dell'altissimo
A portrait of Bartolomeo Colleoni by the
Italian artist Cristofano dell'altissimo
Another condottiero, Federico da Montefeltro, led the army of 13,000 soldiers serving Florence in an alliance with Galeazzo Maria Sforza, ruler of the Duchy of Milan, King Ferdinand II of Aragon and Giovanni II Bentivoglio, the ruler of Bologna.

Condottieri were professional military leaders hired by the Italian city-states to lead armies on their behalf.

The fighting took place between the villages of Riccardina and Molinella and so the event is also sometimes referred to as the Battle of Riccardina

It is not certain which side won, but as a result Colleoni abandoned his plans to conquer Milan. There were hundreds of casualties and it is thought up to 1,000 horses were killed.

The following year Pope Paul II managed to broker a peace between the two sides.

Travel tip:

Molinella is a small town to the north east of Bologna in Emilia Romagna and was of strategic importance because of its hilltop position between Bologna and Ferrara. It now has a railway station on the Bologna-Portomaggiore line.

Colleoni's castle at Malpaga, south of Bergamo
Colleoni's castle at Malpaga, south of Bergamo
Travel tip:

Bartolomeo Colleoni spent the last years of his life living with his family at his castle in Malpaga to the south of Bergamo, which has frescoes depicting scenes from the Battle of Molinella that are attributed to the painter Il Romanino. The castle is open to the public at weekends between March and November.

More reading:

Colleoni the honourable condottiero

Da Montefeltro used earnings from war to sponsor the arts

(Photo of fresco by Giorces CC BY-SA 2.5it)
(Photo of Colleoni portrait by Sailko CC BY-SA 3.0)
(Photo of castle by Mercurioblu CC BY-SA 3.0)


24 July 2016

Victor Emmanuel of Sardinia

The first king to be called Victor Emmanuel

King Victor Emmanuel I
King Victor Emmanuel I
The King of Sardinia between 1802 and 1821, Victor Emmanuel I was born on this day in 1759 in the Royal Palace in Turin.

He was the second son of King Victor Amadeus III of Sardinia and was known from birth as the Duke of Aosta.

When the King died in 1796, Victor Emmanuel’s older brother succeeded as King Charles Emmanuel IV of Sardinia.

Within two years the royal family was forced to leave Turin because their territory in the north was occupied by French troops.

After his wife died, Charles Emmanuel abdicated the throne in favour of his brother, Victor Emmanuel, because he had no heir.

The Duke of Aosta became Victor Emmanuel I of Sardinia in June 1802 and ruled from Cagliari for the next 12 years until he was able to return to Turin.

During his reign he formed the Carabinieri, which is still one of the primary forces of law and order in Italy.

The Carabinieri, the Italian police corps  recognisable for their elaborate uniforms
The Carabinieri, the Italian police corps
recognisable for their elaborate uniforms
On the death of his older brother in 1819, he became the heir general of the Jacobite succession as Victor Emmanuel I of England, Scotland and Ireland, but he never made any public claims to the British throne.

He abdicated in favour of his brother, Charles Felix, in 1821 and died three years later at the Castle of Moncalieri in Turin.

When the newly-unified Kingdom of Italy was officially proclaimed in 1861, the first monarch chose to call himself Victor Emmanuel II, out of respect for his ancestor, Victor Emmanuel I.

Victor Emmanuel II had become King of Sardinia in 1849 after his father, Charles Albert, had abdicated. He in turn had succeeded his distant cousin, Charles Felix, the brother of Victor Emmanuel I.

Travel tip:

Turin is the capital city of the region of Piedmont in the north of Italy and has a rich history linked with the House of Savoy. There are many impressive Renaissance, baroque and rococo buildings in the centre of the city. Piazza Castello with the royal palace, royal library and Palazzo Madama, which used to house the Italian senate, is at the heart of royal Turin.

The dome of the Cathedral towers over Cagliari's medieval Castello quarter
The dome of the Cathedral towers over Cagliari's
medieval Castello quarter
Travel tip:

Sardinia is a large island off the coast of Italy in the Mediterranean Sea. It has sandy beaches and a mountainous landscape. The southern city of Cagliari, from where Victor Emmanuel I ruled, has a medieval quarter called Castello, which has narrow streets, palaces and a 13th century Cathedral.

(Carabinieri photo by CEphoto, Uwe Aranas CC BY-SA 3.0)
(Photo of Castello by Martin Kraft CC BY-SA 3.0)

More reading: 

Camillo Benso di Cavour - Italy's first Prime Minister


23 July 2016

Francesco Cilea – opera composer

Calabrian remembered for beautiful aria Lamento di Federico 

The composer Francesco Cilea
Francesco Cilea
Composer Francesco Cilea was born on this day in 1866 in Palmi near Reggio di Calabria.

He is particularly admired for two of his operas, L’Arlesiana and Adriana Lecouvreur.

Cilea loved music from an early age. It is said that when he was just four years old he heard music from Vincenzo Bellini’s opera, Norma, and was moved by it.

When he became old enough, he was sent to study music in Naples and at the end of his course of study there he submitted an opera he had written, Gina, as part of his final examination. When this was performed for the first time it attracted the attention of a music publisher who arranged for it to be performed again.

Cilea was then commissioned to produce a three-act opera, meant to be along the lines of Pietro Mascagni's Cavalleria rusticana, by the same publisher.

The resulting work, La Tilda, was performed in several Italian theatres, but the orchestral score has been lost, which has prevented it from enjoying a modern revival.

In 1897, Cilea’s third opera, L’Arlesiana was premiered at the Teatro Lirico in Milan.

In the cast was the young Enrico Caruso, who performed, to great acclaim, the famous Lamento di Federico. This beautiful aria - often known by its opening line, È la solita storia del pastore, has kept the name of the opera alive until present day and it has been performed and recorded by many famous tenors over the years, including Luciano Pavarotti.

Enjoy Pavarotti singing Lamento di Federico

In 1902, Cilea’s opera, Adriana Lecouvreur was received enthusiastically at the Teatro Lirico in Milan, again starring Enrico Caruso. Around the same time, Cilea accompanied Caruso on the piano when he made one of his early recordings for the gramophone.

Cilea’s last opera, Gloria, was premiered at La Scala in Milan in 1907 under the baton of Arturo Toscanini, but it was a failure and was withdrawn after only two performances.

After this Cilea turned his attention to teaching and became director of the Conservatorio Vincenzo Bellini in Palermo, although he continued to compose chamber and orchestral music.

The Cilea Mausoleum in Palmi
The Cilea Mausoleum in Palmi
He supported the career of the Italian soprano, Magda Olivero, whose performances, in the title role of Adriana Lecouvreur, he particularly admired.

Cilea spent the last years of his life living in Varazze, near Savona in Liguria, and he died there in 1950.

Travel tip:

Palmi, where Francesco Cilea was born, is a small commune in the province of Reggio di Calabria in southern Iraly. A seaside resort, Palmi has been referred to as ‘the terrace on the strait of Messina.’ A mausoleum decorated with scenes from the myth of Orpheus, was built there in memory of Cilea.

The Teatro Cilea in Reggio di Calabria
The Teatro Cilea in Reggio di Calabria
Travel tip:

Reggio di Calabria, often referred to as Reggio Calabria, or simply Reggio, is the biggest city in the region of Calabria in southern Italy. The theatre in the city was renamed Teatro Comunale Francesco Cilea in the composer’s memory.

More reading:

The genius of Puccini

The dominance of Giuseppe Verdi

Lasting appeal of Enrico Caruso

(Photo of Cilea Mausoleum by Palminellafede CC BY-SA 3.0)
(Photo of Teatro Cilea by Franc rc CC BY-SA 3.0)


22 July 2016

St Lawrence of Brindisi

Talented linguist who converted Jews and Protestants

A statue of St Lawrence at the Convent of Capuchin Friars in Rovigo, in the Veneto
A statue of St Lawrence at the Convent of
Capuchin Friars in Rovigo, in the Veneto
St Lawrence of Brindisi was born Giulio Cesare Russo on this day in 1559 in Brindisi.

He became a Roman Catholic priest and joined the Capuchin friars, taking the name Brother Lawrence.

He was made St Lawrence in 1881, remembered for his bravery leading an army against the Turks armed only with a crucifix.

Lawrence was born into a family of Venetian merchants and was sent to Venice to be educated. He joined the Capuchin order in Verona when he was 16 and received tuition in theology, philosophy and foreign languages from the University of Padua. He progressed to be able to speak many European and Semitic languages fluently.

Pope Clement VIII gave Lawrence the task of converting Jews living in Rome to Catholicism because of his excellent command of Hebrew. Lawrence also established Capuchin monasteries in Germany and Austria and brought many Protestants back to Catholicism.

The Palazzo Bo at the University of Padua, where Lawrence acquired his command of languages
The Palazzo Bo at the University of Padua, where
Lawrence acquired his command of languages
While serving as the imperial chaplain to the Holy Roman Emperor, Rudolph II, he led an army against the Ottoman Turks threatening to conquer Hungary armed only with a crucifix and many people attributed the subsequent victory to his leadership.

He was later sent to be papal nuncio to Bavaria and then to Spain. Lawrence eventually retired to live in a monastery in Spain but was recalled to be a special envoy to the King of Spain in order to intercede on behalf of the rulers of the Kingdom of Naples.

His mission, made in the sweltering summer heat, exhausted him and he died on 22 July 1619, his 60th birthday, in Lisbon.

Lawrence was beatified in 1783 by Pope Pius VI and canonised in 1881 by Pope Leo XIII. He was declared a doctor of the Church by Pope John XXIII in 1959.

The feast day of St Lawrence is celebrated on 21 July each year.

A feature in Brindisi, birthplace of St Lawrence, are the remains of two columns marking the end of the Appian Way
A feature in Brindisi, birthplace of St Lawrence, are the
remains of two columns marking the end of the Appian Way
Travel tip:

Brindisi, the birthplace of St Lawrence, is a coastal city in Apulia in southern Italy. Its port is still important today for trade with Greece and the Middle East. The city has two Roman columns, thought to have once marked the end of the Appian Way from Rome, which were used as a port reference for sailors out at sea centuries ago.

Travel tip:

The University of Padua, where St Lawrence became proficient in languages, was established in 1222 and is one of the oldest in the world, second in Italy only to the University of Bologna. The main university building, Palazzo del Bò in Via VIII Febbraio in the centre of Padua, used to house the medical faculty. You can take a guided tour to see the pulpit used by Galileo when he taught at the university between 1592 and 1610.

(Photo of St Lawrence statue in Brindisi by Threecharlie CC BY-SA 3.0)


21 July 2016

Beppe Grillo - comedian turned activist

Grillo's Five Star Movement gaining popularity

Beppe Grillo addresses a crowd of  supporters in Sestri Levante in Liguria
Beppe Grillo addresses a crowd of
supporters in Sestri Levante in Liguria
The comedian turned political activist Beppe Grillo was born on this day in 1948 in Genoa.

Grillo is the founder and president of the Five Star Movement - Movimento Cinque Stelle - a growing force in Italian politics that enjoyed one of its first high-profile successes when Virginia Raggi was elected Mayor of Rome in 2016.

Luigi Di Maio, who succeeded Grillo as leader, became Italy’s foreign minister and deputy prime minister between 2018 and 2019.  The party's current president, Giuseppe Conte, was prime minister of Italy from 2018 to 2021. 

The Five Star Movement - M5S - polled more than 25 per cent of the votes for the Chamber of Deputies at the 2013 elections in Italy and almost 24 per cent of the votes for the Senate, although under existing electoral rules this translated to only 109 seats among 630 Deputies and 54 of the 315 Senators.

Nonetheless, the group is seen as the biggest threat to Prime Minister Matteo Renzi's centre-left Democratic Party at the next national elections in 2018.

Raggi won 67 per cent of the vote in Rome. Another M5S candidate, Chiara Appendino, was elected Mayor of Turin, beating the Democratic Party candidate into second place.  Overall, Five Star won 19 of 20 mayoral elections which it contested.

Grillo launched M5S as a protest group in 2009 but his ability to inspire audiences led to a rapid growth in popularity.  It has positioned itself as anti-corruption, anti-globalisation and pro transparency in the political system.  It wants a system introduced to provide universal income support for the poor and campaigns for a referendum that would give Italians the chance to ditch the euro and revert to the lira as its currency.

Having originally trained as an accountant, Grillo took up comedy in the late 1970s after being spotted by the television presenter Pippo Baudo.

Virginia Raggi, the Movimento Cinque Stelle candidate recently elected as Mayor of Rome
Virginia Raggi, the Movimento Cinque Stelle candidate
recently elected as Mayor of Rome
Despite a conviction for manslaughter after a road accident in 1980 in which three people sadly died, his own television career blossomed to the point at which he was fronting his own shows.

However, his taste for satire proved to be his downfall as a TV presenter.  Complaints from politicians offended by his jokes were common yet his audience figures were huge, attracting as many as 15 million viewers for a single show. Given that he was employed by the state-owned broadcaster RAI, he was always treading a fine line between what was acceptable and what was not and a vitriolic attack on Bettino Craxi, Italy's first socialist prime minister in the modern era, eventually led to him effectively being banned.

Ironically, Craxi was eventually disgraced after being convicted of corruption.

Grillo continued to perform in the theatre and his touring act inevitably had a political theme.  In 2005 he launched his own blog, which attracted a considerable following, and it was after he organised "V-Day" - the V stands for a well-known Italian obscenity - and garnered 300,000 signatures on a petition demanding clean politics in Italy that he had the idea for launching M5S.

His opponents have denounced him as a populist who derives support from Italian resentment of the political establishment.

He lives with his Iranian-born second wife, Parvin Tadjk, in Nervi, a former fishing village a few miles along the Ligurian coast from central Genoa.

Genoa's Via Garibaldi is lined with elegant palaces
Travel tip:

The sixth largest city in Italy, Genoa derives its wealth from shipyards and steel works, which made possible the construction of numerous marble palaces and elegant squares that earned the city the nickname of La Superba. Look out for the beautiful Cathedral of San Lorenzo and the palaces along the Via Garibaldi.

Travel tip:

Just seven miles from the centre of Genoa, Nervi has become almost a suburb of the city, although it retains many characteristics of the fishing village it once was.  Its chief attraction is the elevated Passeggiata Anita Garibaldi, a two-kilometre walkway along the cliffs offering stunning views.

More reading:

How Italy's PM Matteo Renzi was inspired by the Scout Movement

(Photo of Virginia Raggi by Movimento Cinque Stelle CC BY-SA 3.0)
(Photo of Via Garibaldi by Andrzej Otrębski CC BY-SA 3.0)


20 July 2016

Death of Marconi

State funeral for engineer who was at first shunned

Guglielmo Marconi, painted in 1908
Guglielmo Marconi, photographed in 1908
Guglielmo Marconi, the Italian electrical engineer who is credited with the invention of radio, died on this day in Rome in 1937.

Aged 63, he passed away following a series of heart attacks.  He was granted a state funeral in recognition of the prestige he brought to Italy through his pioneering work.

In Great Britain, where he had spent a significant part of his professional life, all BBC and Post Office radio transmitters observed a two-minute silence to coincide with the start of the funeral service in Rome.

Marconi was born in Bologna on April 25, 1874. His father, Giuseppe Marconi, was an Italian country gentleman who was married to Annie Jameson, a member of the Jameson whiskey family from County Wexford in Ireland.  A student of physics and electrical science from an early age, Guglielmo conducted experiments at his father's country estate at Pontecchio, near Bologna, where he succeeded in sending wireless signals between two transmitters a mile and a half apart.

Disappointingly, the initial response to his discovery was sceptical and Marconi's request to the Italian government to help fund further research did not even receive a reply.  As a result, in 1896, he moved to London.

With the backing of William Preece, chief electrical engineer of the British Post Office, he was able to complete successful transmissions over increasing distances using Morse code signals, even over open sea.  The Italian government now did begin to take an interest, but it was in Britain and the United States that he continued to break new ground.

Guglielmo Marconi photographed during the first transatlantic  wireless transmission on 1901
Marconi photographed during the first transatlantic
wireless transmission on 1901
He sent messages across the English channel for the first time in 1899. Later in the same year, after being invited by the American shipping company, American Line, to install equipment on the liner SS Saint Paul, he was responsible for the first ship-to-shore message as the Saint Paul heralded her imminent return to England by generating a signal from 66 nautical miles off the English coast.

The Marconi Telegraph Company was established in London in 1899 and in December 1901 Marconi sent and received the first transatlantic wireless message, between antennae set up in Cornwall in England and Nova Scotia in Canada.

Marconi might have perished in the Titanic disaster in 1912.  He had enjoyed more success, including the establishment of a commercial news service for shipping and a fixed transatlantic radio link, and was invited to travel on the Titanic's fateful maiden voyage.  As it was, Marconi decided to travel three days' earlier on the Lusitania. Later, he was acclaimed for the role played by his radio equipment in the rescue of 705 of the Titanic's 2,224 passengers.

In 1909, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics jointly with the German inventor Karl Ferdinand Braun.

Returning to Italy in 1913 and settling in Rome, Marconi was made a Senator in the Italian Senate and appointed Honorary Knight Grand Cross of the Royal Victorian Order in the UK.

During World War I, Marconi was placed in charge of the Italian military's radio service. He attained the rank of lieutenant in the Italian Army and of commander in the Italian Navy. In 1929, he was made a marquess by King Victor Emmanuel III.

Controversially, Marconi joined the Italian Fascist party in 1923, becoming a member of the Fascist Grand Council in 1930 when the dictator Benito Mussolini appointed him President of the Royal Academy of Italy.

Married twice, he left his entire fortune to his second wife, the daughter of an Italian count, and their daughter, named Maria Elettra Elena Anna.

The Villa Marconi in Pontecchio, near Bologna
Travel tip:

A monument to Marconi can be seen in the Basilica of Santa Croce in Florence but his remains are in the Mausoleum of Guglielmo Marconi in Pontecchio Marconi, near Bologna. His former villa, adjacent to the mausoleum, is now the Marconi Museum. holding much of his equipment.

Travel tip:

The Basilica of Santa Croce in Florence is the burial place of some of the most illustrious Italians, such as Michelangelo, Galileo, Machiavelli, Foscolo, Gentile and Rossini.


19 July 2016

Petrarch – Renaissance poet

Writer whose work inspired the modern Italian language

Francesco Petrarca
Renaissance scholar and poet Francesco Petrarca died on this day in 1374 at Arquà near Padua.

Petrarca, known in English as Petrarch, is considered to be an important figure in the history of Italian literature.

He is often credited with initiating the 14th century Renaissance, after his rediscovery of Cicero’s letters, and also with being the founder of Humanism.

In the 16th century, the Italian poet, Pietro Bembo, created the model for the modern Italian language based on Petrarch’s works.

Petrarch was born in Arezzo in Tuscany in 1304. His father was a friend of the poet Dante Alighieri, but he insisted that Petrarch studied law.

The poet was far more interested in writing and in reading Latin literature and considered the time he studied law as wasted years.

The main square of Arezzo, Piazza Grande, where
Petrarch was born in 1304
Petrarch’s first major work, Africa, about the Roman general, Scipio Africanus, turned him into a celebrity. In 1341 he became the first poet laureate since ancient times and his sonnets were admired and imitated throughout Europe.

Petrarch travelled widely throughout Italy and Europe during his life and once climbed Mount Ventoux near Vaucluse in France just for pleasure, writing about the experience afterwards.

Towards the end of his life he moved with his daughter, Francesca, and her family, to live in the small town of Arquà in the Euganean Hills near Padua. He died there on 19 July 1374, the day before his 70th birthday.

Travel tip:

Arezzo, where Petrarch was born, is an interesting town in eastern Tuscany that has become famous because of the 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.

The tomb of Petrarch in Arqua Petrarca
Travel tip:

Arquà near Padua, where Petrarch spent his last few years, is considered to be one of the most beautiful, small towns in Italy and it has won awards for tourism and hospitality. In 1870 the town became known as Arquà Petrarca and the house where the poet lived now has a museum dedicated to him.


18 July 2016

Mysterious death of Caravaggio

Experts divided over how brilliant artist met his end

Ottavio Leoni's portrait of Caravaggio
Ottavio Leoni's portrait of Caravaggio
The death of the brilliant Renaissance artist Caravaggio is said to have occurred on this day in 1610 but the circumstances and even the location are disputed even today.

Official records at the time concluded that the artist died in the Tuscan coastal town of Porto Ercole, having contracted a fever, thought to have been malaria.

However, there is no record of a funeral having taken place, nor of a burial, and several alternative theories have been put forward as to what happened to him.

One, which came to light in 2010 on the 400th anniversary of the painter's death, is that Caravaggio's death was caused by lead poisoning, the supposition being that lead contained in the paint he used entered his body either through being accidentally ingested or by coming into contact with an open wound.

This was supported by research led by Silvano Vincenti, a prominent art historian and broadcaster, who claimed to have found evidence that Caravaggio had been buried at a cemetery in Porto Ercole that was built over in the 1950s.

Some remains were transferred to the municipal cemetery in Porto Ercole and among nine potential sets one was identified through DNA testing as having a 50-60 per cent chance of being Caravaggio. The bones contained toxic levels of lead, enough at least to have sent him mad.

Another theory, put forward in 2012 by Vincenzo Pacelli, a professor at the University of Naples, is that the artist, notorious for a quick temper and violent behaviour, was assassinated by the ancient order of the Knights of Malta with the connivance of the Vatican.

Professor Pacelli says documents from the Vatican Secret Archives suggest that the artist was murdered as an act of vengeance, following injuries inflicting by Caravaggio on a member of the order during a brawl in Malta.  He already had a death sentence on his head, issued by the Pope, after killing a man in a fight in Rome in 1606.

Caravaggio's The Crucifixion of St Peter
Caravaggio's The Crucifixion of St Peter
The Pacelli theory is that Caravaggio's body was thrown into the sea off Civitavecchia, north of Rome and some 70km south of Porto Ercole.  The professor cites another document, supposedly written by Caravaggio's doctor to record his death, in which the place name Civitavecchia is rubbed out and replaced with Porto Ercole, as well as an account of his death written in 1630 by an archivist who referred to it as an "assassination".

Caravaggio was born Michelangelo Merisi or Amerighi in Milan in 1571. It is thought his family moved to the town of Caravaggio, just south of Bergamo, because of an outbreak of plague in Milan soon after his birth.  He adopted the name of the town as part of his signature when he began painting, eventually becoming known simply as Caravaggio.

He returned to Milan to train under Simone Peterzano who had himself trained under Titian.  He went on to work in Rome, Naples, Malta and Sicily, where he was in demand to produce paintings for the many new churches and palaces that were being built.

His work became famous for his realistic observation of the physical and emotional state of human beings and for his dramatic use of light and shade, known as chiaroscuro, which gave his paintings a three-dimensional quality. This was a formative influence for the baroque school of painting.

Some of his major works, such as The Calling of St Matthew, The Crucifixion of St Peter and Deposition, can be found in churches in Rome, but his work is also well represented in the Uffizi gallery in Florence.

Caravaggio's David with the Head of Goliath features Caravaggio's own face on the head
Caravaggio's David with the Head of Goliath
features Caravaggio's own face on the head
It is said that at the time of his death he had left Naples by boat for Rome, where he anticipated that his death sentence for the Rome murder would be lifted.  In his painting of David with the Head of Goliath, completed shortly before his death, David is depicted with a strangely sorrowful expression as he gazes on the severed head of the giant, on which Caravaggio painted his own face.  It has been suggested that the painting represented his plea for clemency.

Travel tip:

In addition to its connection with the artist, the town of Caravaggio is well worth visiting to see the Sanctuary of the Madonna di Caravaggio, which was built in the 16th century on the spot where the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared to a local peasant woman.  The Sanctuary was later rebuilt and completed in the 18th century and is now a grand building visited by pilgrims from all over the world.

Travel tip:

Porto Ercole is one of two small, picturesque towns on Monte Argentario, a unusual peninsula connected to the mainland by three narrow strips of land, situated on part of the Tuscan coastline known as the Maremma.  It is known for its chic restaurants and bustling nightlife.

More reading:

Lisa del Giocondo - the Florentine wife and mother Da Vinci turned into a global icon

Raphael - the precocious genius of the Renaissance

Giotto - brilliant painter who was the pioneer of realism in art