31 August 2016

Amilcare Ponchielli - opera composer

Success of La Gioconda put musician on map

Amilcare Ponchielli composed 11 operas
Amilcare Ponchielli composed 11 operas
The opera composer Amilcare Ponchielli was born on this day in 1834 in Paderno Fasolaro, near Cremona, about 100km south-east of Milan in what is now Lombardia.

Ponchielli's works in general enjoyed only modest success, despite the rich musical invention for which he was later applauded.  One that did win acclaim in his lifetime, however, was La Gioconda, which was first produced in 1876 and underwent several revisions but remained unaltered after 1880.

Well known for the tenor aria, Cielo e Mar, and the ballet piece, Dance of the Hours, La Gioconda is the only opera by Ponchielli still performed today and many recordings have been made, featuring some of the biggest stars of recent times.

Maria Callas, Renata Tebaldi and Montserrat Caballe are among those to have played the role of Gioconda, written for soprano, while the lead tenor part of Enzo, whose affections are sought both by Gioconda and another major character, Laura, has been taken by Giuseppe Di Stefano, Carlo Bergonzi, Luciano Pavarotti and Placido Domingo among others.

Ponchielli had such a talent for music that he won a scholarship to Milan Conservatory at nine years old and had written his first symphony by the time he was 10.

He left the Conservatory in disappointment after being denied the professorship that was supposed to have been his prize in a competition and for a number of years his main musical occupation was as a bandmaster, at first in Piacenza and then Cremona.  He arranged and wrote more than 200 compositions for wind instruments.

The Milan Conservatory, which Ponchielli attended  from the age of nine years
The Milan Conservatory, which Ponchielli attended
from the age of nine years
His passion for opera was undiminished, however, and he achieved his first breakthrough with I promessi sposi (The Betrothed), an opera based on the novel by Alessandro Manzoni, which he had originally written soon after completing his studies and which earned him his first contract with a music publisher in 1872.

The original premiered at the Teatro Concordia in Cremona in 1856; the revised version was first performed at the Teatro Dal Verme in Milan. The leading soprano role was taken by Teresina Brambilla, from Cassano d'Adda, just outside Milan, whom Ponchielli would marry.

Ponchielli wrote 11 operas in total but none won him the acclaim he received for La Gioconda, which was based on Angelo, Tyrant of Padua, a play by Victor Hugo.

Listen to Luciano Pavarotti performing Cielo e Mar from La Gioconda

Nonetheless, works such as Il figliuol prodigo and Marion Delorme, from another play by Victor Hugo, both performed at Teatro alla Scala in Milan, are recognised as having been influences on a new generation of composers from which Giacomo Puccini, Pietro Mascagni and Umberto Giordano emerged.

In 1881, Ponchielli was appointed maestro di cappella of Bergamo Cathedral, and from the same year he was a professor of composition at the Milan Conservatory, where his students included Puccini, Mascagni and Emilio Pizzi.

He died of pneumonia in Milan in 1886 and was buried in the city's Monumental Cemetery.

Travel tip:

Paderno Fasolaro, a small town in the heart of the Po Valley, is now known as Paderno Ponchielli in honour of its most famous native son.  It was given the name after local residents began a petition on the 100th anniversary of his birth in 1934, although it took until 1950 for the President of the Republic, Luigi Einaudi, to issue a decree making the change legal.

The cathedral at Cremona is a fine example of Romanesque style
The cathedral at Cremona is a fine
example of Romanesque style
Travel tip:

The city of Cremona has a strong musical tradition, particularly in the production of violins and other stringed instruments.  It was home to rival violin makers Antonio Stradivari, Giuseppe Guarneri and the Amati family.  Cremona has an exceptional Romanesque cathedral, with an ornate facade including a Renaissance logia with three niches, flanked by two orders of loggette (small logias).


30 August 2016

Joe Petrosino - New York crime fighter

Campanian immigrant a key figure in war against Mafia

Joe Petrosinno, the New York cop from Campania who wanted to protect the good name of Italians
Joe Petrosino, the New York cop from Campania
who wanted to protect the good name of Italians
Joe Petrosino, a New York police officer who dedicated his life to fighting organised crime, was born Giuseppe Petrosino in Padula, a southern Italian town on the border of Campania and Basilicata, on this day in 1860.

The son of a tailor, Prospero Petrosino, he emigrated to the United States at the age of 12.  The family lived in subsidised accommodation in Mulberry Street, part of the area now known as Little Italy on the Lower East Side towards Brooklyn Bridge, where around half a million Italian immigrants lived in the second half of the 19th century.

Giuseppe took any job he could to help the family, at first as a newspaper boy and then shining shoes outside the police headquarters on Mulberry Street, where he would dream of becoming a police officer himself.

In 1878, by then fluent in English and known to everyone as Joe, Petrosino became an American citizen but it took him five years and repeated applications to realise his dream of joining the police. At 5ft 3ins he was technically too short to meet the criteria for an officer but after the police began to use him as an informant it was decided he could be of use in the fight against Italian organised crime. He was the first Italian-speaking officer in the history of the New York Police Department.

His career progressed partly because of his friendship with Theodore Roosevelt, the future president, who was then a police commissioner in New York.  Noting his success in solving crimes involving Italians, Roosevelt promoted him to detective sergeant in the Homicide Division, after which Petrosino was hand-picked to lead a newly-formed Italian Squad, comprising Italian-American detectives.

Enrico Caruso, victim of  a blackmail attempt foiled by Petrosino
Enrico Caruso, victim of  a blackmail
attempt foiled by Petrosino
The Italian Squad was set up specifically to fight against the rise of criminal organisations such as the Mafia and it appealed to Petrosino, who saw the Mafia as bringing shame to decent Italian-Americans. By the time of his appointment to the new division, in 1908, the Italian immigrant population of Manhattan and Brooklyn had grown to more than a million, living mainly in Little Italy, East Harlem and Williamsburg.

Petrosino achieved notable successes in hampering Mafia activities, often working undercover. Famously, he tracked down and arrested mobsters attached to the so-called Black Hand who were attempting to blackmail the Italian tenor, Enrico Caruso, while he was performing at the Metropolitan Opera House.

In 1907 he married Adelina Saulino, the daughter of the owner of a restaurant he frequented, with whom he rented an apartment in Lafayette Street, just one block away from his childhood home in Mulberry Street.  They had a daughter in 1908.

The marriage was shortlived, although for tragic reasons.  Despatched on a secret mission to Sicily in 1909, armed with a list of New York criminals with links to the island, Petrosino was to gather evidence aimed at facilitating the deportation under new legislation of Italians with criminal convictions in their own country.

However, soon after Petrosino had set sail, Theodore A Bingham, who had succeeded Roosevelt as police commissioner, gave an interview to the New York Herald in which he discussed the officer's mission, which as a result was no longer so secret.

Petrosino's ship docked in Genoa, after which he stopped off in Milan, Bologna and Rome before paying a visit to his brother, Vincenzo, in Padula, en route to Sicily.

Petrosino's hearse paraded through New York
Petrosino's hearse paraded through New York
Soon after he arrived in Palermo, Petrosino received a message from somebody claiming to have information that would be helpful to him and arranged to meet them in the city's Piazza della Marina. It was a trap.  While waiting for his supposed informant, Petrosino was hit by three bullets from the gun of a Mafia assassin and died on the spot.

A funeral took place in Palermo, after which Petrosino's body was returned to New York and another ceremony took place at St Patrick's Cathedral in Mott Street, which runs parallel with Mulberry Street in Little Italy, after which a procession of 200,000 people followed the coffin to the Calvary Cemetery in Queens.

No one was convicted of Petrosino's killing, although Vito Cascio Ferro, one of his targets for arrest, was detained, only to be released when an associate came forward with an alibi. More than a century later, a descendant under investigation by the Italian police confessed that it was known within the family that Vito Cascio Ferro had ordered his murder.

Travel tip:

Padula, which is situated just outside the beautiful Cilento National Park in Campania, is a small community of just over 5,200 people about 100km south of Salerno, notable for the Padula Charterhouse - Certosa di Padula in Italian - the largest monastery in Italy with a physical area of some 51,500 square metres (12.7 acres) and 320 rooms.

One of the entrances to the Certosa di Padula
One of the entrances to the Certosa di Padula
Travel tip:

The majestic Cilento and Vallo di Diano National Park extends from the Tyrhennian coast to the feet of the Campania-Lucania Apennines. It includes coastal and mountain areas which play host to an abundance of wild life but there is also a rich cultural history, notably the Greek ruins at Velia and Paestum. 

More reading:

(Photo of Certosa di Padula by Enrico Viceconte CC BY-SA 2.0)


29 August 2016

Libero Grassi - anti-Mafia hero

Businessman brutally murdered after refusing to pay

Libero Grassi was murdered by the Mafia in Palermo in 1991
Libero Grassi
Libero Grassi, a Palermo clothing manufacturer, died on this day in 1991, shot three times in the head as he walked from his home to his car in Via Vittorio Alfieri, a street of apartment buildings not far from the historic centre, at 7.30am.

It was a classic Mafia hit to which there were no witnesses, at least none prepared to come forward. Such killings were not uncommon in the Sicilian capital as rival clans fought for control of different neighbourhoods.

Yet this one was different in that 67-year-old Grassi had no connection with the criminal underworld apart from his brave decision to stand up to their demands for protection money and refuse to pay.

Grassi owned a factory making underwear, which he sold in his own shop.  He employed 100 workers and his business had a healthy turnover. In a struggling economy, he was doing very well.

Of course, the Mafia wanted their cut.  Grassi began receiving demands, first by telephone, then in person, that he fall in line with other Palermo businesses and pay a pizzo, the term used for the monthly payment the mob collects from businesses in the city in a racket worth today in the region of €160 million a year.

The penalties imposed for not paying range from vandalism or arson directed at business premises to physical harm and even death.  It is little wonder than an estimated 80 per cent of businesses comply, each paying around €500 per month.

Libero Grassi pictured in his factory in Palermo
Libero Grassi pictured in his factory in Palermo
But Grassi decided he would not pay.  Indeed, he was so outraged by the practice routinely accepted as normal that in January 1991 he wrote an open letter in a Palermo daily newspaper denouncing the Mafia and proudly telling the city of his stand.  He also gave the names of his would-be extortionists to the police, as a result of which five members of the Mafia were arrested.

Grassi was hailed as a hero by the Mayor of Palermo and attracted widespread media attention, even appearing on national television.  Yet within the business community there was little support.  In fact, Grassi found himself shunned and isolated for attracting headlines that his fellow traders felt did damage to the image of the Palermo business community.

Meanwhile, the Mafia continued to make demands and Grassi continued to dismiss them, despite his shop being broken into and subjected to a failed arson attack.  Eventually, he paid the ultimate price.

After the killing, a protest movement began, initially a spontaneous demonstration involving 10,000 people taking to the streets, eventually leading to the formation in Sicily of the Addiopizzo movement, which encouraged businesses to resist extortion demands and consumers to buy only from shops on a "pizzo-free" list.

Following gestures of support for Grassi's stand that included a five-hour TV special hosted by Maurizio Costanzo and Michele Santoro, two of Italy's best known presenters, the police eventually charged Salvatore Madonia, the son of the head of Palermo's Resuttana crime family, with his murder.

The placard out up by Grassi's family close to the spot where he was gunned down near his home
The placard out up by Grassi's family close to the spot
where he was gunned down near his home
With the help of evidence from a "supergrass", Madonia, his father Francesco and 28 other mobsters were convicted of around 60 murders, including Grassi.

His widow, Pina, and two children, Davide and Alice, put up a placard on the spot where Libero was killed, denouncing not only the Mafia but also the business community that refused to support him and the politicians that sat on their hands rather than move to clamp down on illegal activities.

Today, anti-Mafia campaigners meet on Via Vittorio Alfieri every August 29 in a show of solidarity. The Palermo authorities have honoured Grassi by giving his name to a technical college and a station on the city's new metro.

Travel tip:

Happily, visitors to Palermo would normally witness nothing to suggest that the criminal underworld exerts any influence on daily life.  The Sicilian capital, on the northern coast of the island, is a vibrant city with a wealth of beautiful architecture bearing testament to a history of northern European and Arabian influences.  The church of San Cataldo on Piazza Bellini is a good example of the fusion of Norman and Arabic architectural styles, having a bell tower typical of those common in northern France but with three spherical red domes on the roof.

The church of San Cataldo in Palermo with its mix of Norman and Arabic architectural styles
The church of San Cataldo in Palermo with its mix of
Norman and Arabic architectural styles
Travel tip:

Although Mount Etna typically has snow on its upper slopes in the winter, away from the mountainous regions Sicily has a particularly mild climate, with daytime temperatures even in December and January usually climbing above 10 degrees Celsius and rarely slipping below five degrees even at night.  Palermo is the sunniest city in Italy with typical averages of between 10 and 14 hours of sunshine daily between April and September.

More reading:

Giovanni Falcone - judge and anti-Mafia crusader

Carlo Gambino - the Palermo mobster who became a Mafia Don in New York


Cosa Nostra: A History of the Sicilian Mafia, by John Dickie

The Sicilian Mafia: A True Crime Travel Guide, by Carl Russo

(photo of Church of San Cataldo by Bjs CC BY-SA 2.5)


28 August 2016

Maurizio Costanzo - talk show host

Journalist whose show is the longest running on Italian TV

Maurizio Costanza pictured early in his broadcasting career, as host of a 1972 radio show, Buon Pomeriggio
Maurizio Costanza pictured early in his broadcasting
career, as host of a 1972 radio show, Buon Pomeriggio
Veteran talk show host and writer Maurizio Costanzo celebrates his 78th birthday today.

Born on this day in 1938 in Rome, Costanzo has spent 40 years in television.  His eponymous programme, the Maurizio Costanzo Show, has broken all records for longevity in Italian television.

Launched on September 18, 1982, the current affairs programme continued for 27 years, alternating between Rete 4 and Canale 5, two of Italy's commercial television networks, part of the Mediaset group owned by former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi. 

Its run came to an end in 2009 but was relaunched on the satellite channel Mediaset Extra in 2014 and returned to terrestrial television in 2015, again on Rete 4.

Costanzo began his media career in print journalism with the Rome newspaper Paese Sera at just 18 years old and by the time he was 22 he was in charge of the Rome office of the mass circulation magazine Grazia.

After branching into radio, he switched to television in 1976, hosting the RAI programme Bontà loro, which is considered to be Italy's first TV talk show.  Others followed before the launch of the Maurizio Costanzo Show, which involved prominent politicians and others in the public eye, discussing major issues of the day.

Costanzo returned to print in 1978, while continuing his broadcasting career in parallel, when he was appointed editor of La Domenica del Corriere, the Sunday edition of the Milan newspaper, Corriere della Sera, a move that saw Costanzo caught up in scandal.

Maurizio Costanza as TV audiences know him today
Maurizio Costanza as TV audiences know him today
Corriere della Sera had in 1977 secretly fallen into the control of Propaganda Due, a clandestine network that evolved from a masonic lodge into an alliance of industrialists, members of parliament, military leaders, journalists and other influential figures who aimed to create a "state within a state" to control the direction of Italy's social and political future.

In 1980, Costanzo conducted a controversial interview with Licio Gelli, a former Fascist blackshirt who was head of Propaganda Due - already under scrutiny because of apparent links with the disgraced former banker, Michele Sindona - in which Gelli denied P2 had any malevolent agenda but spoke about his support for a rewriting of the Italian constitution along the lines of the Gaullist presidential system of France.

Less than a year later, police investigating Sindona raided Gelli's villa outside Arezzo in Tuscany and discovered a list of supposed subscribers to P2 that ran to almost 1,000 names.  As well as Berlusconi, 44 MPs, the heads of all four of Italy's secret services and 195 officers of the armed forces, the names included Costanzo himself.

Although at first he denied being a member, Costanzo later admitted his involvement but stressed his deep regret, insisting he was naive and acted only in the interests of safeguarding his career. He publicly distanced himself from the organisation and Gelli, who was subsequently jailed.

Costanzo rebuilt his reputation in the eyes of the public after shifting his political stance more towards the left and risking his own safety to campaign against the Mafia through his broadcasting. It is suspected that a car bomb that exploded in Rome in 1993 outside the Teatro Parioli, which was regularly used for the Maurizio Costanzo Show, was intended either to do him harm or at least frighten him.

A man of immense professional energy, Costanzo had a parallel career as a screenwriter both for television and the cinema, with a long list of credits from the 1960s until as recently as 2007.

He has been married four times and has two children by his second wife, journalist Flaminia Morando, of whom, Saverio, is a film director. He married his current wife, television host and producer Maria de Filippi, on his 57th birthday in 1995.

UPDATE: Maurizio Costanzo sadly passed away in Rome on February 24, 2023, at the age of 84. His funeral took place at the Church of Santa Maria in Montesanto, known as the Church of the Artists, in Piazza del Popolo, on Monday, February 27, 2023. His remains were buried at the Campo Verano cemetery.

Travel tip:

The Teatro Parioli - full name Teatro Parioli Peppino De Filippo - is situated in the Parioli district of Rome, about 20 minutes north of the city's historic centre. Opened in 1938 in the Via Giosuè Borsi, it takes its name from the Italian artist Peppino De Filippo.  Costanzo became artistic director in 1988 and remained in the position until 2011.

April in Rome: a view over St Peter's Square along  Via della Conciliazione towards the Tiber
April in Rome: a view over St Peter's Square along
Via della Conciliazione towards the Tiber
Travel tip:

Seasoned visitors to Rome consider the Eternal City to be at its best between October and April, when there are fewer tourists and hotel prices are generally cheaper than in the high season.  The early part of October can still feel like summer with temperatures in the low to mid-20s, although there is an increasing chance of rain.  April tends to be a little cooler but is often dry and with plenty of sunshine.

(Photo of Maurizio Costanzo today by Birillo253 CC BY-SA 4.0)
(Photo of St Peter's Square by Diliff CC BY-SA 3.0)


27 August 2016

Titian - giant of Renaissance art

Old master of Venice who set new standards

Titian, a self-portrait painted in about 1567, which can be found in the Prado in Madrid
Titian, a self-portrait painted in about 1567,
which can be found in the Prado in Madrid
Tiziano Vecellio, the artist better known as Titian, died in Venice on August 27, 1576.  Possibly in his 90s by then - his date of birth has never been established beyond doubt - he is thought to have succumbed to the plague that was sweeping through the city at that time.

Titian is regarded as the greatest painter of 16th century Venice, a giant of the Renaissance held in awe by his contemporaries and seen today as having had a profound influence on the development of painting in Italy and Europe.

The artists of Renaissance Italy clearly owe much to the new standards set by Titian in the use of colour and his penetration of human character.  Beyond Italy, the work of Rubens, Rembrandt and Manet have echoes of Titian.

Titian was enormously versatile, famous for landscapes, portraits, erotic nudes and monumental religious works.  Although it was his fullness of form, the depth of colour and his ability to bring his figures almost to life which he earned his reputation, he was not afraid to experiment with his painting.  Towards the end of his life, some of his works were impressionist in nature, almost abstract.

Born in Piave di Cadore, a village at the foot of the Dolomites, he was one of four sons of a military official, Gregorio di Conte dei Vecelli.  He and his older brother, Francesco, also a painter, moved to Venice when Tiziano was nine or 10 years old, to live with an uncle.

By the age of 12, Tiziano was working for Giovanni Bellini, the best known of the Bellini family of Renaissance painters in Venice, whose workshop was one of the most important in the city.  In around 1508 he began working with Giorgione of Castelfranco, collaborating on frescoes at the Fondaco dei Tedeschi, the headquarters of Venice's German merchants, situated on the Grand Canal near the Rialto bridge.

Titian's Pesaro Madonna in the  Frari church in Venice
Titian's Pesaro Madonna in the
Frari church in Venice
Giorgione was such a strong influence on Titian's early work that there are a number of paintings in existence that are so similar in their characteristics they could be attributed to either painter.

Titian launched his independent career after Giorgione died in 1510.  His popularity grew rapidly and among those who commissioned him were Alfonse I of Este, Duke of Ferrara, the Duke of Urbino, the Court of Pope Paolo III Farnese, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and Charles's son, Philip II of Spain.

He travelled within Italy and to other parts of Europe, including Austria, but after 1551 rarely left Venice, except for summer visits to Pieve di Cadore.  He was married in 1525 and is thought to have had three or four children, one of whom, Orazio, became his assistant but also died in the plague.  His wife, Cecilia, passed away after they had been together for only five years, and he never married again.

Titian courted controversy with the obvious eroticism of his nudes and through his friendship with the writer Pietro Aretino, a journalist whose work scandalised 16th century Italian society.  Aretino arrived in Venice at around the same time as the sculptor Jacopo Sansovino, and the three are said to have become inseparable.

Around 300 of an estimated 400 of Titian's works are said to have survived.  Some are in churches in Venice and elsewhere in Italy, such as the Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari in the San Polo quarter of Venice, where visitors can see the vivid colours of the Pesaro Madonna and the monumental Assumption of the Virgin, set behind the high altar.  There are also a number of Titians in the Church of Santa Maria della Salute on the Punta Dogana, between the Grand Canal and the Giudecca Canal.

Venus of Urbino, a work by Titian painted in 1538, which is on display at the Uffizi in Florence
Venus of Urbino, a work by Titian painted in 1538,
which is on display at the Uffizi in Florence
Others are in galleries around the world, including the National Gallery in London, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Uffizi in Florence, the Louvre in Paris and the Museo del Prado in Madrid.

When they do change hands it is for considerable sums.  For example, when Diana and Actaeon, one work in a seven-part series of mythological paintings for Philip II of Spain, became available, it was bought by the National Gallery and the National Galleries of Scotland in conjunction for £50 million.

Titian was buried at the Basilica of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari.  At first his resting place, near to the Pesaro Madonna, was unmarked, but later the Austrian rulers of Venice commissioned Antonio Canova to sculpt a large monument. Canova's own heart was buried within the monument after his death at the age of 64.

Titian's Assumption of the Virgin dominates the high altar inside the Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari
Titian's Assumption of the Virgin dominates the high altar
inside the Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari
Travel tip:

The Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, often referred to simply as the Frari, is one of Venice's greatest churches, situated in Campo dei Frari at the heart of the San Polo district.  Built of brick, it is one of three notable churches in Venice built in the Italian Gothic style.  Construction began in the 14th century and took more than 100 years to complete, including a campanile that is the second tallest in Venice, after St Mark's.  In addition to Titian, the brilliant composer Claudio Monteverdi was also buried in the Frari.

Travel tip:

The Church of Santa Maria della Salute is one of the most familiar sights of Venice, one captured by many artists, including Turner and Canaletto. Its position on the narrow promontory between the Grand Canal and the Giudecca Canal enables it to stand almost like a sentry, guarding the entrance to the Bacino di San Marco and the lagoon beyond.  It houses a number of works by Titian. Ironically, given how the artist died, it was built by the Republic of Venice as an offer for the city's deliverance from the devastating outbreak of plague that occurred in 1630, dedicated to Our Lady of Health (in Italian: Salute).

Read more:

Lisa del Giocondo - Florentine mother immortalised as the Mona Lisa

How the works of Tintoretto still adorn Venice


Titian: Circa 1490-1576, by Ian G Kennedy

Titian: His Life and the Golden Age of Venice, by Sheila Hale

(Photo inside the Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari by Welleschik CC BY-SA 3.0)


26 August 2016

Sant’Alessandro of Bergamo

Annual festival keeps alive the memory of city’s saint

Sant'Alessandro, as portrayed by artist Bernardino Luini in 1525
Sant'Alessandro, as portrayed by
artist Bernardino Luini in 1525
The patron saint of Bergamo, Sant’Alessandro, was martyred on this day in 303 by the Romans for refusing to renounce his Christian faith.

It is believed Alessandro was a devout citizen who had continued to preach in Bergamo, despite having several narrow escapes from would-be Roman executioners, but he was eventually caught and suffered public decapitation.

In Christian legend, Alessandro was a centurion of the Theban Legion, a legion of the Roman army that converted en masse to Christianity, whose existence prompted a crusade against Christianity launched by the Romans in around AD 298.

Alessandro was reputedly held in prison in Milan on two occasions but escaped to Bergamo, where he defiantly refused to go into hiding and instead openly preached, converting many Bergamaschi to his faith.

Of course, he was ultimately taken into custody again by the Romans and beheaded on August 26, 303, on the spot now occupied by the church of Sant' Alessandro in Colonna in Bergamo’s Città Bassa (lower town).

Festive lights in the Via Sant'Alessandro in Bergamo
Festive lights in the Via Sant'Alessandro in Bergamo
Today is the Festa di Sant'Alessan- 
dro. In fact, his memory is celebrated with a series of religious, cultural and gastronomic events that take place in his name over several days throughout Bergamo, which is decorated with festive lights.

In 2010, for the first time, there was a re-enactment of Alessandro’s execution in full costume at the place where it is believed to have been carried out, in Via Sant’Alessandro. 

The Chiesa di Sant'Alessandro in Colonna lit up for the Festa along with the Roman column
The Chiesa di Sant'Alessandro in Colonna lit
up for the Festa along with the Roman column
Travel tip:

A Roman column in front of Chiesa di Sant’Alessandro in Colonna in Via Sant’Alessandro is believed to mark the exact spot where Bergamo’s patron saint was executed by the Romans. The column was constructed in the 17th century from Roman fragments and there are various theories about where the pieces came from. The church of Sant’Alessandro in Colonna was rebuilt in the 18th century on the site of an earlier church. Its ornate campanile was completed at the beginning of the 20th century. The church houses a work depicting the martyrdom of Sant’Alessandro by Enea Salmeggia and one showing the transporting of Sant’Alessandro’s corpse by Gian Paolo Cavagna. It also contains paintings by Lorenzo Lotto and Romanino.

Travel tip:

Porta Sant’Alessandro, which leads from the Città Alta (upper town) to Borgo Canale and San Vigilio, was built in the 16th century in memory of the saint. It was named after a fourth century cathedral that had originally been dedicated to Sant’Alessandro  but was later demolished. The gate became a checkpoint manned by customs officers, who would tax farmers from outside the city bringing in vegetables, eggs, chickens and wine to sell to residents of the Città Alta. The Duomo in the Città Alta, originally dedicated to St Vincent, was renamed in honour of Sant'Alessandro in the 17th century.

25 August 2016

Vesuvius erupts

Terrible toll of Europe's worst volcanic catastrophe 

A nightmarish vision of the 79AD eruption is conveyed in this painting by the 19th century British artist, John Martin
A nightmarish vision of the AD 79 eruption is conveyed in
this painting by the 19th century British artist, John Martin
Mount Vesuvius erupted on this day in AD 79, burying the Roman cities of Pompeii, Herculaneum, Oplontis and Stabiae and causing the deaths of thousands of people.

An eyewitness account of the eruption, in which tons of stones, ash and fumes were ejected from the volcano, has been left behind for posterity by a Roman administrator and poet, Pliny the Younger, who described the event in his letters to the historian Tacitus.

Although there were at least three large eruptions of Vesuvius before AD 79 and there have been many since, the disaster in August AD 79 is considered the most catastrophic volcanic eruption in European history.

Mount Vesuvius had thrown out ash the day before and many people had left the area. But in the early hours of the morning of August 25, pyroclastic flows of hot gas and rock began to sweep down the mountain.

The flows were fast moving and knocked down all the structures in their path, incinerating or suffocating the people who had remained. Pliny noted there were also earth tremors and a tsunami in the Bay of Naples.

The remains of about 1500 people have been found at Pompeii and Herculaneum (Ercolano) but it is not known what percentage this represents of the overall death toll.

The crater of Vesuvius as it is today
The crater of Vesuvius as it is today
Pompeii dates back to at least the seventh century BC and came under Roman rule around 200 BC. The city was almost completely covered after the eruption but the upper floors of some of the buildings stuck out from the rubble. These were looted by local people over the centuries until eventually the city was forgotten. Engineers rediscovered it while digging an aqueduct in the 17th century. The first organised excavations began in 1748 and the site soon became an attraction for wealthy Europeans on the Grand Tour.

After AD 79, eruptions occurred at a rate of one or two every century, culminating in a very busy period between 900 and 1073 in which there are records of eight eruptions.  After 1150, the volcano became relatively quiet for almost 500 years, with activity so infrequent that vineyards and shrubbery covered the whole mountain.

But in 1631 the peace was shattered by a major eruption, burying several villages under lava flows and resulting in many casualties. After that, Vesuvius continued to erupt every few years.

A dramatic image of the 1944 eruption, taken from a US military aircraft
A dramatic image of the 1944 eruption, taken from
a US military aircraft
More recently, an eruption in March 1944 destroyed three villages and about 80 planes belonging to the US Army Air Forces, which were based at an airfield close by. American military personnel took photographs of the eruption, which have been useful for experts to analyse.

Since 1944 Vesuvius has been uncharacteristically quiet, although it is constantly monitored for activity and an evacuation plan is in place. Experts believe seismic activity would give them between 14 and 20 days notice of an impending eruption.

The volcano remains a concern because of the same geological factors that make the Italian peninsula so prone to earthquakes, as has been confirmed so tragically this week in the Apennine mountains north of Rome, with the destruction of the town of Amatrice and other communities.

Travel tip:

Tourists can visit the volcano inside Mount Vesuvius National Park, which was created in 1955. The crater is accessible to visitors and there is a road to within 200 metres of it, but after that the ascent is on foot only.  The crater is about 200 metres deep and has a maximum diameter of about 600 metres. The climb is said to be well worth it because the view takes in the entire coastline from the Gulf of Gaeta, some 84 kilometres to the north, to the Sorrento peninsula. Visitors can take the Naples-Sorrento line of the Circumvesuviana railway and get off at Ercolano station, from where a shuttle bus runs to the park. There is an observatory, a museum, a visitor centre, a restaurant and a shop where you can buy Lacrima Christi del Vesuvio, the wine made from the grapes grown on the volcano. You have to sign up for a guided tour to actually get close to the crater.

The ruins of Pompeii, with Vesuvius in the distance as a constant reminder of the Roman city's history
The ruins of Pompeii, with Vesuvius in the distance as a
constant reminder of the Roman city's history
Travel tip:

One of the most popular tourist attractions in Italy, gli scavi - the excavated ruins of Pompeii - show us what daily life was like in a Roman city, even down to what was sold in the shops and how people decorated their homes. A large number of important artefacts have been unearthed on the site in the last 250 years since excavations began properly. To get there take the Circumvesuviana railway and get off at Pompeii Scavi-Villa dei Misteri station. It is a short walk to the main entrance of the site in Piazza Porta Marina. From there walk along Via Marina to il Foro Civile (the forum) where orators addressed public meetings and law courts were held. Along Via del Mercurio there are interesting houses, including Casa dei Vettii, where there are well preserved wall paintings. Along Via dell’Abbondanza are the remains of shops, a tavern and even a brothel. At the end of the street you will find the main anfiteatro (ampitheatre). There is a self service bar and restaurant near the Tempio di Giove.  The excavations are open daily from 8.30 to 19.30 during the summer and 8.30 to 17.00 between November and April.

More reading:

Vesuvius - the 1944 eruption

(Photo of Vesuvius crater by S J Pinkney CC BY 2.0)


24 August 2016

Carlo Gambino - Mafia Don

Sicilian thought to be model for Mario Puzo's Godfather

Carlo Gambino, pictured in a mug shot that the New York police had on file in the 1930s
Carlo Gambino, pictured in a mug shot that the New
 York police had on file in the 1930s
Carlo Gambino, who would become one of the most powerful Mafia Dons in the history of organised crime, was born on this day in 1902 in Palermo, Sicily.  

For almost two decades up to his death in 1976, he was head of the Gambino Crime Family, one of the so-called Five Families that have sought to control organised crime in New York under one banner or another for more than a century.

He is thought to have been the real-life Don that author Mario Puzo identified as the model for Vito Corleone, the fictional Don created for the best-selling novel, The Godfather.

During Gambino's peak years, the family's criminal activities realised revenues of an estimated $500 million per year.  Yet Gambino, who kept a modest house in Brooklyn and a holiday home on Long Island, claimed to make a living as a partner in a company that advised on labour relations.

Despite coming under intensive surveillance by the FBI, he managed to avoid prison during a life spent almost exclusively in crime.  Everything he did was planned meticulously to avoid detection, even down to communicating with associates through coded messages.

Gambino was born into a Sicilian family who were part of the so-called Honoured Society and moved to the United States in December 1921, by which time though still only 19 he was already able to call himself a 'Made Man' in Mafia parlance, having carried out a number of murders in the Palermo area.

He reached America as a stowaway on a ship that docked in Norfolk, Virginia, having survived allegedly on a diet of anchovies and wine.  From Virginia he travelled to New York, staying with cousins from the Castellano family.

Gambino was introduced to a crime family run by another Sicilian, Salvatore 'Toto' D'Aquila, and became part of a gang of young Jewish and Italian mobsters known as the Young Turks that included Charles 'Lucky' Luciano, also Sicilian.  Gambino soon became a prominent figure in the New York underworld but it would take him more than 35 years to establish himself as the city's most powerful Mafia boss.

Charles 'Lucky' Luciano, Gambino's rival and sometimes ally, who established the Mafia Commission
Charles 'Lucky' Luciano, Gambino's rival and sometimes
ally, who established the Mafia Commission
Along the way he was involved in the elimination of a series of rivals, although he was content to bide his time in his quest for power, spending 20 years as third in command of the former D'Aquila empire after Vincent Mangano took control.

Although he had ambitions of his own, he was also motivated by the knowledge that a Mafia not at war with itself would generate much greater profits for all concerned, hence he always respected Luciano, later a rival, but who set up The Commission as a Mafia governing body designed to settle disputes.

He moved up one place in the pecking order in 1951, when Mangano disappeared, presumed murdered, and Albert Anastasia, the notorious head of the execution squad known as Murder Incorporated, took charge.

The chance to grab control himself came in 1957 when Anastasia, prone to irrational outbursts, broke a Mafia rule that forbade the murder of outsiders, a code of conduct that had nothing to do with morals but which simply sought to prevent unwanted scrutiny from the authorities.

Gambino, reasoning that Anastasia was now discredited, teamed up with another mobster with designs on power and arranged to Anastasia to be killed, clearing the way for Gambino to seize control of Mangano's former empire and rename it after himself.

Gambino's coffin arrives at his funeral
Gambino's coffin arrives at his funeral
By the 1960s, Gambino effectively ran all crime in Manhattan, while the infiltration of the New York Longshoremen union gave him control of 90 per cent of the city's ports.  He retained power, seeing off a number of attempts to unseat him, until 1976, when he died of a heart attack at his holiday home.

His funeral at a church in a quiet residential area of Brooklyn was a ticket-only affair attended by 2000 people, including prominent members of all the Five Families, as well as numerous plain clothes detectives and FBI agents, who witnessed Gambino's body being buried in a $7,000 dollar bronze coffin.

Travel tip:

Despite its unfortunate associations with the history of organised crime, Palermo is well worth visiting. The capital of Sicily, it is a vibrant city with a wealth of beautiful architecture bearing testament to its rich history. It has examples of Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque churches and palaces, while the Palazzo dei Normanni, the seat of the Sicilian Regional Assembly, is a marvellous example of Norman architecture.

The magnificent Teatro Massimo in Palermo
The magnificent Teatro Massimo in Palermo
Travel tip:

Palermo's Renaissance-style Teatro Massimo, opened in 1897, is the largest opera house in Italy and the third biggest in Europe after the Opéra National de Paris and the K. K. Hof-Opernhaus in Vienna. It was originally designed with an auditorium for 3,000 people, although today there is a limit of 1,350.  There are also seven tiers of boxes. Enrico Caruso sang in a performance of La Gioconda during the opening season, returning to perform in Rigoletto at the end of his career. The theatre was closed for renovation for more than 20 years but reopened in 1997.   The final scenes of the third part of The Godfather Trilogy, based in Puzo's novel, was filmed there.

More reading:

Nino Rota - more to his music than just The Godfather

(Photo of Teatro Massimo by Bernhard J. Scheuvens CC BY-SA 2.5)


23 August 2016

Rita Pavone - teenage singing star

Precocious talent who conquered America

Rita Pavone pictured in 1965
Rita Pavone pictured in 1965
Rita Pavone, who was one of Europe's biggest teenage singing stars in the 1960s and was still performing live concerts as recently as 2014, celebrates her 71st birthday today.

The Turin-born singer had her first hit single when she was just 17 years old and enjoyed success at home and in America during a career that spanned more than five decades, going on to become an accomplished actress on television and in the theatre.

She announced she was quitting show business in 2006 but came out of retirement in 2013 to record two studio albums as a tribute to the stars who had influenced her in throughout her career, then embarking on a series of live concerts in Italy in 2014 and performing in Toronto, Canada exactly 50 years after her first appearance there.

Earlier this year she appeared in Ballando Con le Stelle - the Italian equivalent of the US show Dancing With the Stars and Britain's Strictly Come Dancing - and finished third with partner Simone de Pasquale, reaching the final despite being the oldest competitor.

Pavone was born on August 23, 1945 and spent her early years living in a two-room apartment in Turin.  She was the third of four children yet it was not until 1959 that the family was able to move somewhere bigger, in the Mirafiori district, when a scheme run by the FIAT factory where her father worked enabled employees to obtain a family home at low rent.

Rita Pavone in 1973, after returning to Italy to embark on an acting career
Rita Pavone in 1973, after returning
to Italy to embark on an acting career
Her father, Giovanni, was a fan of American musicals, and it was when she began singing along to his record collection, largely featuring Al Jolson, Judy Garland and Gene Kelly, that he realised she had talent.  Rita left school at just 11 years old to take a job as an ironer in a shirt factory but Giovanni encouraged her interest in singing, finding the money to pay for lessons and, on bank holidays, taking her to schools and village halls on the back of his scooter, so she could sing at children's parties and local festivities.

In 1959, Pavone made her public debut as a singer, impersonating Al Jolson in a children's talent contest.  Her big break came in 1962, when she won first prize in La Festa Degli Sconosciuti Festival of the Unknown - a nationwide talent search launched by a record producer and singer from Trieste, born Ferruccio Merk-Ricordi but who went under the professional name of Teddy Reno.

The prize was a management contract with Reno - the man she would later marry - and a record deal with RCA Italiana, Her first single - La Partita di Pallone  -The Football Match - sold more than a million copies, earning Pavone a regular slot on a popular Italian television variety series, Studio One. 

More hits followed yet Reno was not content with success merely in Italy.  After scoring chart hits in Spain and Germany, he set his sights on the United States. In May 1964, Pavone's American debut album, The International Teenage Sensation, was released, and the single Remember Me became a hit.

When Pavone made her first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, the most popular variety show on American television, in 1964, it could be acknowledged that she had cracked the US market, a rarity for an Italian performer.  Soon she was appearing alongside Diana Ross and The Supremes, Ella Fitzgerald, Tom Jones, Duke Ellington and Paul Anka, meeting Elvis Presley and recording a duet with Barbra Streisand.

Pavone returned to Italy to develop her interest in acting, appearing in several films and television dramas.

Rita Pavone with dance partner Simone di Pasquale in a publicity shot for the TV show Ballando Con le Stelle
Rita Pavone with dance partner Simone di Pasquale in
a publicity shot for the TV show Ballando Con le Stelle
Her popularity was such that when she was admitted to hospital in 1964, suffering from appendicitis, she received get-well cards from 13 million fans.

Pavone risked her reputation when she and Reno decided to marry in Switzerland in 1968.  Italy at the time did not recognise divorce and Reno had been married previously in Mexico. He was thus regarded as a bigamist. However, Italy's marriage laws changed in 1971 and they renewed their vows.

Teddy Reno turned 90 last July. The couple remain together, living in Ticino, Switzerland. They have two sons, Alessandro and Giorgio, the former a political reporter on Swiss television, the latter a rock singer performing under the name of George Merk.

Travel tip:

Mirafiori, where Rita Pavone's family lived at the start of her musical career, is a district of Turin that owes its identity to the car manufacturer FIAT, where her father worked.  FIAT opened a massive factory there in 1936 when demand for the company's cars exceeded the production capacity of the nearby Lingotto plant. Large numbers of apartment buildings were built to house the workers. A strike there in 1943 that grew to include 100,000 workers, and spread to involve industrial areas all over northern Italy, is said to have marked the beginning of the end for the Fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini. Today it is the site of the Mirafiori Motor Village, the largest exhibition centre in Europe devoted to the cars.

The Piazza Unità d'Italia in Trieste
Travel tip:

Trieste, where Teddy Reno was born, is the main city of the region of Friuli Venezia Giulia and lies close to the Slovenian border.  It was once the main seaport of the Austro-Hungarian empire, of which there are still echoes in the coffee houses and restaurants that blend in with the more recognisably Italian.  There is much Austrian influence in the architecture too, dating from the era of Hapsburg domination.

More reading:

The enduring talent of 60s pop star Patty Pravo

Pier Angeli - Hollywood star from Sardinia who dated James Dean

(Photo of Rita Pavone in 1965 by Joop van Bilsen CC BY-SA 3.0)


22 August 2016

Giacomo Radini-Tedeschi – bishop

Progressive priest who shaped the destiny of a future Pope

Giacomo Radini-Tedeschi, the Bishop of Bergamo
Giacomo Radini-Tedeschi, the
Bishop of Bergamo

Giacomo Radini-Tedeschi, Bishop of Bergamo, who was a mentor for the future Pope John XXIII, died on this day in 1914 in Bergamo.

He was Bishop of the Diocese of Bergamo from 1905 until his death and is remembered with respect because of his strong involvement in social issues at the beginning of the 20th century when he sought to understand the problems of working class Italians.

Radini-Tedeschi was born in 1857 into a wealthy, noble family living in Piacenza in Emilia-Romagna.

He was ordained as a priest in 1879 and then became professor of Church Law in the seminary of Piacenza.

In 1890 he joined the Secretariat of State of the Holy See and was sent on a number of diplomatic missions.

In 1905 he was named Bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Bergamo by Pope Pius X and was consecrated by him in the Sistine Chapel.

Angelo Roncalli, Pope John XXIII
Angelo Roncalli, Pope John XXIII
Radini-Tedeschi was a strong supporter of Catholic trade unions and backed the workers at a textile plant in Ranica, a district of Bergamo Province, during a labour dispute.

Working for him as his secretary at the time was a young priest named Angelo Roncalli who had been born at Sotto il Monte just outside Bergamo into a large farming family.

Roncalli went on to become Pope John XXIII in 1958 but never forgot the values Radini-Tedeschi had taught him.

The Bishop became ill with cancer and died at the age of 57 just after the outbreak of the First World War. His last words are reputed to have been: ‘Angelo, pray for peace.’

Travel tip:

Piacenza, where Radini-Tedeschi was born, is on the western edge of Emilia-Romagna and is in a strategic position between the River Po and the Appenines, situated between Bologna and Milan. It has many fine churches and old palaces with splendid gardens to explore. Piacenza Cathedral was built in 1122 and is a good example of northern Italian Romanesque architecture.

The Church of Santa Maria Immacolata delle Grazia in Bergamo's lower town
The Church of Santa Maria Immacolata
delle Grazia in Bergamo's lower town
Travel tip:

A landmark in Bergamo’s lower town is the church of Santa Maria Immacolata delle Grazie in Viale Papa Giovanni XXIII, one of the main thoroughfares. The huge church on the corner of Porta Nuova has a 19th century green cupola topped with a golden statue with an early 20th century campanile next to it. But the origins of the church date back to 1422 when a convent was built on the site dedicated to Santa Maria delle Grazie. The beautiful cloisters have been preserved within the church buildings although the convent was suppressed at the beginning of the 19th century. The neoclassical design for the new church was created by architect Antonio Preda. In 1907 the main altar was consecrated in the presence of the bishop, Giacomo Radini- Tedeschi, accompanied by his 26-year-old secretary, Angelo Roncalli, the future Pope John XXIII.


21 August 2016

Giuseppe Meazza - Italy's first superstar

Inter striker who gave his name to the San Siro stadium

Giuseppe Meazza's matinée idol looks led him to be likened to Rudolph Valentino
Giuseppe Meazza's matinée idol looks
led him to be likened to Rudolph Valentino

Italian football's first superstar, the prolific goalscorer Giuseppe Meazza, died on this day in 1969, two days before what would have been his 69th birthday.

Most biographical accounts of his life say Meazza was staying at his holiday villa in Rapallo, on the coast of Liguria, when he passed away but John Foot, the Italian football historian, says he died in Monza, much closer to his home city of Milan.

Meazza, who was equally effective playing as a conventional centre forward or as a number 10, spent much of his career with Internazionale, the Milan club for whom he scored a staggering 243 league goals in 365 appearances.

In the later stages of his career he left Inter after suffering a serious injury, initially joining arch rivals AC Milan.  A year after his death, the civic authorities in Milan announced that the stadium shared by the two clubs in the San Siro district of the city would be renamed Stadio Giuseppe Meazza in his honour.

Born in the Porta Vittoria area of Milan, not far from the centre, Meazza had a tough upbringing.  His father was killed in the First World War when Giuseppe was only seven.  He was a rather sickly child and was sent to an 'open-air' school in the city - one of a number that sprang up across Europe to combat the spread of tuberculosis - in the hope his health would improve.

Like most young boys, he played football games in the street and it is said he developed his skills by playing barefoot. His mother needed him to help on the family fruit and vegetable stall and hid his shoes in the hope he would not be able to play. He was 12 before he was allowed to join an organised team.

Giuseppe Meazza made his Inter debut as a 17-year-old
Giuseppe Meazza made his Inter debut
as a 17-year-old 
His talent was brought to the attention of AC Milan when he was 13 but they rejected him as too skinny.  However, an Inter scout saw him juggling a rag ball in the street near his home and after a trial he was quickly signed up, the club deciding if they fed him well he would grow stronger.

Their faith paid off.  After scoring twice on his debut as a 17-year-old, Meazza went on to be Inter's leading scorer season after season.

Inevitably he was selected for Italy's national team and established himself as a key member of the side that won two World Cups under manager Vittorio Pozzo in 1934 and 1938, the second time as captain. In 53 appearances for the Azzurri, he scored 33 times.   He was a natural goalscorer, particularly when faced with the opposition goalkeeper one-on-one, when he would almost always come out on top.

Although stocky and somewhat short, he was blessed with good looks and found himself adopted as a poster boy for Mussolini's Fascists, who saw him as a symbol of manliness and athleticism.  His early nickname 'il Balilla' was a reference to Mussolini's youth movement.

He made the most of his fame, which won him advertising contracts for toothpaste and the brilliantine he applied liberally to his hair, which gave him something of a Rudolph Valentino look.  He had an apartment in the centre of Milan not far from Inter's former home at the Arena Civica, drove expensive sports cars and was never short of female company.

He left Inter after suffering a blood clot in his left leg in the 1938-39 season, after which he was never the same player, although he managed to extend his career by another seven years, playing for AC Milan, Juventus, Varese and Atalanta before returning to Inter for one final season.

Meazza's tomb at the Monumental Cemetery in Milan
Meazza's tomb at the Monumental Cemetery in Milan
On retirement, he starred as himself in a movie and then went into coaching.  He was not so successful in this role as he had been as a player but did oversee the development of some fine youth players at Inter, including Sandro Mazzola, who also played number 10 for Italy, and the defender Giacinto Facchetti.

No stranger to Milan's nightlife, he did not help his health in retirement by smoking heavily.  He remained fêted wherever he went but tired of celebrity towards the end of his life, when he wanted his declining health to be kept secret and requested shortly before he died that his funeral should be a small, private affair and that there should even be no headstone.

He was buried at the Monumental Cemetery in Milan, where his grave is marked, but simply with his name and his dates.

Travel tip:

Porta Vittoria has a special significance in Italian history.  Formerly known as Porta Tosa, the eastern gate in the old Spanish Walls of Milan, it was the first strategic position to be taken by the Milanese rebels during the so-called Five Days of Milan (Cinque Giornate di Milano) in 1848, during the First Italian War of Independence, in which the Austrians were driven out of the city.  The gate was demolished in the late 19th century and an obelisk erected in its place in what is now the Piazza Cinque Giornate.

The Castello sul Mare at Rapallo
The Castello sul Mare at Rapallo
Travel tip:

Rapallo, where Meazza spent his holidays, is a resort on the Ligurian coast between Chiavari and the jet-set haunt of Portofino.  It has a pretty harbour and lush hillsides dotted with villas rise from the sea.  Also notable, right on the very seafront, is the Castello sul Mare - the castle on the sea - built in 1551 to counter frequent pirate attacks.

More reading:

Internazionale - how the club began in 1908

Ulisse Stacchini - the man who built the original San Siro

(Castello sul Mare picture by RegentsPark CC BY-SA 3.0)
(Meazza's tomb picture by batrace CC BY-SA 2.0)