30 September 2016

Pierina Legnani - ballerina

Italian dancer who conquered St Petersburg

Pierina Legnani picture in St Petersburg in around 1895
Pierina Legnani photographed in St
 Petersburg in around 1895
The ballerina Pierina Legnani, considered by many ballet historians to be one of the greatest dancers in history, was born on this day in 1863 in Milan.

Legnani's legacy was the 32-turn fouetté en tournant in which the dancer essentially spins on the point of one foot for 32 revolutions while maintaining perfect balance.

No ballerina had completed 32 turns before Legnani, who is said to have tried it out at the Alhambra Theatre in London before introducing the move to the wider world in 1893 on her debut at the Imperial Ballet in St Petersburg in Russia, where she was performing in the title role of Cinderella.

It came in the final act on the night of the premiere and her perfection of technique and execution caused a sensation, with many critics hailing her as the supreme ballerina of her generation.

Her feat set a new standard for future ballerinas as a yardstick of strength and technique. A sequence of 32 fouetté turns was later choreographed into the Black Swan solo in Act Three of Swan Lake, of which it continues to be a feature.

Jealous rivals criticised Legnani for what they saw as showing off, taking an audacious gamble that could have backfired horribly, both to her embarrassment and that of the Imperial Ballet. The truth was that many feared that were they challenged to match her they would fall short.

Yet it paid off and Marius Petipa, the French dancer and choreographer who was Premier Maître de Ballet at the Mariinsky Theatre, was so impressed with Legnani's technical brilliance, not to mention her bravery, the he gave her the title of prima ballerina assoluta, the first ballerina to be bestowed with such recognition.

Legnani in the Cinderella role that would make her famous
Legnani in the Cinderella role that
would make her famous
The title was created by Petipa to signify that in his opinion Legnani, who had been prima ballerina at Teatro alla Scala in Milan, was the best of the best.  The suffix assoluta has been given to only 11 other female dancers since.

It was the making of Legnani's career.  She proved to be Petipa's greatest muse and almost every new ballet he mounted throughout his remaining years with the Imperial Ballet featured Legnani in the principal rôle.

Legnani began dancing at the age of seven and after passing auditions was accepted as a pupil at La Scala under the instruction of Caterina Beretta.  When she was old enough and proficient enough to perform on stage as part of the corps de ballet she was paid just one lira per night.

This rose to 40, 60 and then 80 lira per month.  Her professional career took off when she was named prima ballerina in a production of Salandra, by Giovanni Casati, at the Alhambra in London.

Having understudied for Maria Giuri, Legnani became prima ballerina at La Scala in 1892, the same year in which she was invited to St Petersburg.  She would enjoy eight highly successful years working with Petipa, deciding to leave only because she tired of the rivalries that developed between dancers.

A picture of ballet being performed at La Scala in about 1893
A picture of ballet being performed at La Scala in about 1893
She spent the remainder of her career performing largely in Europe, principally in London, Paris and Milan, before retiring to her villa on the shores of Lake Como, maintaining a connection with ballet as a member of the examining board at La Scala.  She died in 1930, aged 67, and is buried at the cemetery in the village of Pognana Lario.

Travel tip:

The La Scala Theatre Ballet  - Corpo di ballo del Teatro alla Scala - is the resident classical ballet company at La Scala in Milan.  One of the oldest and most renowned ballet companies in the world, it predates the theatre, but was officially founded at the inauguration of La Scala in 1778.  Its history can be traced back to Renaissance courts of Italy, notably in the Sforza family’s palace in Milan.

The Villa Carlotta with its wonderful views towards the Bellagio peninsula
The Villa Carlotta with its wonderful views towards
the Bellagio peninsula
Travel tip: 

Lake Como is one of the deepest lakes in Europe, with an average depth of 154m (500ft) but plunging to 425m (1,400ft) at its deepest point, more than 200m (650ft) below sea level.  Surrounded by mountains, some of which are topped with snow almost all year round, the lake offers outstanding views in all directions.  It has been a haunt of the wealthy since Roman times, when villas began to be built on the shores.

Celebrities who have or have had homes on Lake Como include Madonna, George Clooney, Gianni Versace, Ronaldinho, Sylvester Stallone and Richard Branson.

More reading:

Fanny Cerrito - Neapolitan favourite who was darling of ballet's Romantic era

La Scala is born - first night at the world's most famous opera house


29 September 2016

Silvio Berlusconi - entrepreneur and politician

Businessman now barred from office but still leading his party

Silvio Berlusconi is Italy's longest serving post-war Prime Minister
Silvio Berlusconi is Italy's longest serving
post-war Prime Minister
Silvio Berlusconi, who has served as Prime Minister of Italy in four Governments, was born on this day in 1936 in Milan.

Head of a large media empire and owner of the football club AC Milan, Berlusconi was Prime Minister for a total of nine years, making him the longest-serving post-war Prime Minister and the third longest-serving since Italian unification.

Berlusconi was the eldest of three children born to a bank employee and his wife and, after completing his secondary school education, he studied Law at the Università Statale in Milan, graduating with honours in 1961.

While at University he played the double bass in a group and occasionally performed as a cruise ship crooner. In later life he was to co-write both AC Milan’s and Forza Italia’s anthems and, in collaboration with Mariano Apicella, a Neapolitan singer and musician, he wrote the lyrics for two albums of Neapolitan-style songs, which Apicella put to music.

In the late 1960s, Berlusconi’s company, Edilnord, built 4,000 residential apartments in a new 'town' he called Milano Due and he was able to use the profits to fund his future businesses.

In 1973 he set up Italy's first private television network, TeleMilano and went on to buy two further television channels. He founded the media group Fininvest, which expanded into a country-wide network of local television stations.

In 1980 he founded Italy’s first private national television network, Canale 5. He followed this with Italia 1 and Rete 4, all of which come under the umbrella of another Berlusconi company, Mediaset, of which Fininvest is the largest shareholder.

Berlusconi in his days as a singer on a  cruise ship
Berlusconi in his days as a singer on a
cruise ship 
Berlusconi was helped by his connection with Bettino Craxi, secretary-general of the Italian Socialist Party, who was Prime Minister at the time. In October 1984 Craxi’s Government passed an emergency decree legalising the nationwide transmissions made by Berlusconi’s television stations. In 1990, Craxi was to be one of Berlusconi’s best men at his second wedding.

Berlusconi was elected to the Chamber of Deputies for the first time in 1994. He became Prime Minister the same year, after his party, Forza Italia, gained a majority just three months after it was launched.

He was defeated in the elections of 1996 but won again in 2001, holding on to power till 2006, when he was defeated by a narrow margin. He became Prime Minister again in 2008 and led the Government until he had to resign in 2011. After the 2013 general election he became a member of the Senate.

While in power Berlusconi was criticised for his dominance of the Italian media and was also undermined by allegations of sex scandals.

He became embroiled in a number of court proceedings for alleged abuse of office and corruption and in 2013 was sentenced to a one-year prison sentence, but later acquitted of the offence of which he was accused.

Berlusconi has also been convicted of tax fraud but, because he was more than 70 years of age, was exempted from imprisonment and ordered to do unpaid community work.

The Senate has been forced to expel him and bar him from holding public office for six years.

UPDATE: Berlusconi, having pledged to remain leader of Forza Italia throughout the remaining period of his public office ban, was elected as an MEP at the 2019 European Parliament election and returned to the Senate after winning a seat in the 2022 Italian general election. He died in June 2023 after suffering from chronic leukaemia. 

The Italian government granted him a state funeral, which took place in the Duomo in Milan, before his body was cremated at the Tempio Crematorio Valenziano Panta Rei in Alessandria, and his ashes buried in the chapel at his Villa San Martino mansion in Arcore, next to the tomb of his parents Luigi and Rosa, and his sister Maria.

Travel tip:

Silvio Berlusconi’s football club, AC Milan, play at the Stadio Giuseppe Meazza in the San Siro district of Milan. The club’s administrative headquarters are about three kilometres from the ground in Via Aldo Rossi in the Portello district, accessible from the centre of Milan via Linea 1 on the metro, getting off at the QT8 station. At the same location is the Mondo Milan museum, which charts the 117-year history of the club, founded in 1899 by two Englishmen, Alfred Edwards and Herbert Kilpin.

Silvio Berlusconi's home, the Villa San Martino, is in the  town of Arcore, north-east of Milan
Silvio Berlusconi's home, the Villa San Martino, is in the
town of Arcore, north-east of Milan
Travel tip:

Silvio Berlusconi’s personal residence, the Villa San Martino, is about 20 kilometres to the north east of Milan, in the town of Arcore in the province of Monza and Brianza. Berlusconi’s home, along with other important villas in the area, was built in the 16th century by a wealthy noble Lombardian family.

More reading:

Berlusconi and Gianni Rivera - poles apart politically, linked by AC Milan

Giuseppe Meazza - Italian football's first superstar

Matteo Renzi - Italy's youngest Prime Minister


The Italians, by John Hooper

(Photo of Villa San Martino by MarkusMark CC BY-SA 3.0)


28 September 2016

Pope John Paul I

Sudden end to the reign of ‘The Smiling Pope’

Pope John Paul I making his weekly  address to the crowds outside St Peter's
Pope John Paul I making his weekly
address to the crowds outside St Peter's

John Paul I died on this day in 1978 in Rome, having served for just 33 days as Pope.

His reign is one of the shortest in Papal history and resulted in the most recent ‘Year of Three Popes’, which hadn’t happened since 1605.

John Paul I was also the most recent Pope to be born in Italy, his death ending the succession of Italian pontiffs that started with Clement VII in 1523.

Pope John Paul I was born Albino Luciani in 1912 in a small town then known as Forno di Canale, in the province of Belluno in the Veneto.

The son of a bricklayer, he decided to become a priest when he was just ten years old and was educated first at the seminary in Feltre and then in Belluno.

After Luciani was ordained, he taught for a while at the seminary in Belluno before going to Rome to work on a Doctorate in Sacred Theology.

He was appointed Bishop of Vittorio Veneto by Pope John XXIII in 1958. The next Pope, Paul VI, made him Patriarch of Venice in 1969 and then Cardinal Priest of San Marco in 1973.

Albino Luciani in 1959, soon after he was  appointed Bishop of Vittorio Veneto
Albino Luciani in 1959, soon after he was
 appointed Bishop of Vittorio Veneto 
After the death of Pope Paul VI in August 1978, Luciani was elected Pope in the fourth ballot of the papal conclave. He accepted his election but prophesied that his reign would be a short one.

The new Pope chose the name John Paul to honour both of his predecessors, Pope John XXIII and Pope Paul VI. It was the first time in history a Pope had chosen a double name.

It was suggested at the time that his election had been a compromise to satisfy rival camps among the Cardinals.

Pope John Paul I died during the night of 28 September 1978 and was found the following morning lying in his bed with a book open next to him and his reading light on. According to a doctor at the Vatican he had died at around 11 pm of a heart attack.

After his funeral in St Peter’s Square, the Pope’s body was laid to rest in a tomb in the Vatican grottoes.

His successor Cardinal Karol Wojtyla chose the name Pope John Paul II and paid tribute to his predecessor’s warm qualities.

In Italy John Paul I is remembered as ‘The Smiling Pope’, Il Papa del Sorriso.

Pope John Paul I was against Communism but was a friend to Muslim people and defended their right to build Mosques in Italy.

The suddenness of his death and the discrepancies in statements issued by the Vatican about it resulted in a number of conspiracy theories being aired. Several books were published and films and plays were produced based on the story.

David Yallop’s book, In God’s Name, puts forward the theory that the Pope was in danger because of corruption in the Vatican Bank, while Malachi Martin’s book, Vatican: A Novel, suggests the Pope was murdered by the Soviet Union because he was opposed to Communism. Other books and films propose alternative theories.

The house in Canale d'Agordo in which Albino Luciani, who would become Pope John Paul I, was born
The house in Canale d'Agordo in which Albino Luciani, who
would become Pope John Paul I, was born
Travel tip:

Canale d’Agordo, the birthplace of John Paul I, is a small town in the province of Belluno in the Veneto, which was previously known as Forno di Canale. The Albino Luciani Museum, which displays documents, personal items and objects associated with the life of Pope John Paul I, opened last month in the old town hall in Canale d’Agordo.

Travel tip:

Belluno, where Luciani both studied and taught in the Seminary, is about 100 kilometres north of Venice. Named Alpine Town of the Year in 1999, it is the most important city in the area of the Eastern Dolomites and has some fine architecture There are picturesque views of the surrounding countryside to be seen from the 12th century Porta Ruga at the end of the main street and from the Campanile of the 16th century Duomo.

(Photo of John Paul's birthplace by Sibode 1 GFDL)


In God's Name, by David Yallop

Vatican: A Novel, by Malachi Martin


27 September 2016

Gracie Fields - actress and singer

English-born performer who made Capri her home 

Photo of a young Gracie Fields
Gracie Fields
The English actress, singer and comedian Gracie Fields died on this day in 1979 at her home on Capri, the island on the south side of the Gulf of Naples.

The 81-year-old former forces sweetheart had been in hospital following a bout of pneumonia but appeared to be regaining her health.  The previous day she had walked with her husband, Boris, to the post office on the island to collect her mail.

Some English newspapers reported that Gracie had died in the arms of her husband but that version of events was later corrected. It is now accepted that Boris had already left La Canzone del Mare, the singer's original Capri home overlooking the island's landmark Faraglioni rocks, to work on the central heating at a second property they had bought in Anacapri, on the opposite side of the island, and that Gracie was with her housekeeper, Irena, when she passed away suddenly.

Fields, born Grace Stansfield in Rochdale, England, in 1898, had visited Capri for the first time in the late 1920s or early 30s, with two artists she had befriended in London, where she was becoming an established star in the revue format that was popular with theatregoers in the inter-war years.  She would develop a romance with one of them, John Flanagan.

They stayed in a former British fort overlooking Marina Piccola, named Il Fortino, and Fields was captivated, proclaiming that if she could ever own "one blade of grass" on the island she would be "the happiest woman alive."

Gracie Fields entertaining RAF personnel in France in 1939
Gracie Fields entertaining RAF personnel in France in 1939
The opportunity arose more quickly than she anticipated when Il Fortino came up for sale in 1933 and she bought it, for £11,000.  The only sadness was that Flanagan, with whom she lived in London, declined her offer to move to Capri with her, claiming he would have been too distracted to work.

Nonetheless, she was not deterred from pursuing her dream.  In 1935 she met Mario Bianchi, an actor from Cesena in northern Italy who had starred in a number of silent movies in the United States under the name of Monty Banks.

Together they set about restoring Il Fortino and would eventually turn it into La Canzone del Mare, a restaurant and bathing complex that is still in business today as a luxury hotel. It was a life far removed from Rochdale, the mill town in Lancashire, where Fields was born above a fish and chip shop.

However, the next few years were tough for Gracie.  She made her first movie - Sally in Our Alley - in 1931 and in the next eight years starred in a dozen more.  In 1939 came the devastating news that she had cervical cancer.

She was given only a 50-50 chance of making a recovery but happily, after surviving a major operation, she was given the all-clear.  Soon afterwards, she divorced her first husband, the theatre impresario Archie Pitt, her former manager, and in 1940 married Monty, who had been at her side throughout her illness.

The movie poster for the 1939 Gracie Fields film Shipyard Sally
The movie poster for the 1939 Gracie
Fields film Shipyard Sally
Marriage to an Italian led her into further problems, however.  When Italy formed its alliance with Germany in the Second World War, Monty was classified as an alien and the couple were advised to move to America so that he could avoid internment in Britain.

Their decision led to a backlash against Fields at home, with newspapers accusing her of abandoning her country.  She rebuilt her reputation by performing at home and in Canada and the United States without pay, donating all the proceeds to the war effort.  She also threw herself into entertaining British and Allied servicemen abroad, performing during air raids in France, behind enemy lines in Berlin, and travelling as far away as New Guinea and the South Pacific islands.

She made her last movie in 1945 but continued her career, appearing regularly on television in both entertainment shows and drama. Away from the camerasm she spent much of her life on Capri.  La Canzone del Mare, where she and Monty lived in a house above the restaurant, became a favoured haunt for Hollywood stars including Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, Greta Garbo and Noël Coward.  Opera singer Maria Callas and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis are also said to have been visitors.

The Chiesa di Santo Stefano, where Gracie Fields was married in 1952
The Chiesa di Santo Stefano,
where Fields was married in 1952
After Monty Banks died in 1950, Fields was married for a third time, to a Romanian radio repairman called Boris Alperovici. The ceremony took place at the Chiesa di Santo Stefano, the striking white church that overlooks the Piazzetta in Capri town.

She made her last TV appearance in the United States in January 1979 and shortly afterwards, seven months before her death, was invested as a Dame by Queen Elizabeth II.  She is buried in Capri's Protestant Cemetery.

Travel tip:

Capri has been a popular resort since Roman times and the remains exist of a number of Imperial Roman villas.  Although its first known tourist was a French antiques dealer who visited in the 17th century, recording his impressions in diaries, it was not until the 1950s that the island began to attract visitors in anything like the numbers of today.   Tourists arrive at the island by ferry or hydrofoil from Naples, Sorrento, Positano, Amalfi and other ports around the Gulf of Naples.  Attractions include the Blue Grotto, the picturesque Marina Piccola, the limestone Faraglioni sea stacks, and the towns of Capri and Anacapri.

The view from the terrace of the Villa San Michele
The view from the terrace of the Villa San Michele
Travel tip:

As well as being popular with tourists, Capri was for many years a favourite retreat for writers and can list Axel Munthe, Norman Douglas, Graham Greene, Curzio Malaparte, Mario Soldati and Alberto Moravia and Maxim Gorky as former residents.  Greene spent at least two months of every year at his Villa Rosario in Anacapri, where the Villa San Michele, home to Axel Munthe, the Swedish physician and author, is open to the public and offers outstanding views.

(Photo of Chiesa di Santo Stefano by Berthold Werner CC BY-SA 3.0)
(Photo of view from Villa san Michele by Berthold Werner CC BY-SA 3.0)


26 September 2016

Anna Magnani - Oscar-winning film star

Roman one of only three Italians to land best actor award

Anna Magnani, the Rome-born actress who died in 1973
Anna Magnani, the Rome-born
actress who died in 1973
Anna Magnani, who found fame for her performance in Roberto Rossellini's neorealist classic movie Rome, Open City and went on to become one of only three Italian actors to win an Academy Award, died on this day in Rome in 1973.

Magnani had been quietly suffering from pancreatic cancer and her death at the age of just 65 shocked her fans and even close friends. Rossellini, with whom she had a tempestuous five-year relationship before he ditched her for the Swedish actress, Ingrid Bergman, was at her bedside along with her son, Luca.  Rossellini was considered to be Magnani’s one great love. The American playwright Tennessee Williams, who wrote two parts for her in his plays (Serafina in The Rose Tattoo and Lady in Orpheus Descending) specifically with Magnani in mind, was so devastated he could not bring himself to attend her funeral.

Instead he sent 20 dozen roses to signify the bond they developed while working together over 24 years.  When Williams was in Rome they would meet for cocktails on the roof-top terrace of her home, overlooking the city, always at eight o'clock - "alle venti" in Italy, where times are generally expressed according to the 24-hour clock.  They would sign off letters and telegrams to one another with the words "Ci vediamo alle venti" or "See you at eight."

The funeral procession attracted crowds in the tens of thousands. Countless businesses closed and many streets were shut to traffic as Magnani's coffin was taken to the Basilica di Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, near the Pantheon in central Rome, where the service took place.  The Piazza Minerva was thronged with people, who broke into spontaneous cheering when the coffin appeared.

The original movie poster for the film  of the Tennessee Williams play, The Rose Tattoo.
The original movie poster for the film
of the Tennessee Williams play
It was the movie version of The Rose Tattoo, for which Williams wrote the screenplay, that won Magnani her Oscar in 1955, playing opposite Burt Lancaster. She was the first of two Italian actresses to win the Academy Award, to be followed six years later by Sophia Loren for Vittorio De Sica's La Ciociara, which was renamed Two Women for the American market.

Loren’s role was originally designed for Magnani and Loren was supposed to play the role of her daughter. Magnani refused to play opposite Loren, who was already 26 years old and not right for a teenaged virgin, and actually gave De Sica the idea to cast Loren as the mother; a role for which she would win the Best Actress Oscar in 1962.

Roberto Benigni is the only Italian-born male actor to win an Oscar, for Life is Beautiful in 1998.

Magnani's acting was notable in that she was able to bring her own personality, her affinity with the ordinary people she grew up with, to her roles, in which she was often cast as una popolana - a coarse woman of working class background.  Raised largely by her grandparents in a poor, working-class part of Rome, Anna was a product of a short-lived marriage between her mother, Marina Magnani, and an itinerant Calabrian father (who worked in Egypt) whom she met only once.

Some erroneous biographical notes suggest she was born in Alessandria, Egypt but Magnani herself insisted that while her mother may have been in Egypt when she fell pregnant, she had moved back to Rome and was living in the Porta Pia area by the time she gave birth.  Magnani was given her maternal surname, the last name of both her mother and grandmother.

While Anna had a tough upbringing in Rome, her grandmother managed to send her to a convent school, learned French, played piano, and, at age 17, went on to study at the Eleonora Duse Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in Rome for two years. She often said she felt more at home with the more down-to-earth people in her own neighborhood as it taught her to become streetwise at a young age. Magnani soon was supporting herself by singing in cabarets and nightclubs, where her performances drew comparisons with the French singer, Edith Piaf.

Magnani had her first film role in the 1920s, although it was 20 years before her breakthrough in Rossellini's 1945 movie Rome, Open City, which is generally regarded as the first film in the Italian neorealist genre to achieve commercial success. Magnani's performance as Pina, the pregnant widow of an Italian resistance fighter murdered by the occupying Germans forces as she tries to protect her fiance, was acclaimed for its brilliance. Although she was not regarded as a conventional beauty, she had an earthy sensuality that audiences found captivating.

Anna Magnani, centre, in a scene from Rome, Open City, the film that was the turning point in her career
Anna Magnani, centre, in a scene from Rome, Open City,
the film that was the turning point in her career
Her relationship with Rossellini, often punctuated with violent rows in which they were renowned for throwing crockery at one another, foundered after five years, when Rossellini began an affair with Bergman, reneging on a promise to make Magnani the star of his 1950 film, Stromboli, and giving the role instead to the Swedish actress.  Magnani retaliated  by making her own film with director William Dieterle entitled Vulcano.

Yet Magnani's career never faltered as it this very time, in 1949-50, that her friendship with American playwright Tennessee Williams would blossom. She went on to work with many of the great Italian directors, such as Luchino Visconti, Pier Paolo Pasolini and Federico Fellini, whose 1972 film, Roma, would be her last.

Magnani married Italian director, Goffredo Alessandrini, in the 1930s but they were together only briefly before the marriage was annulled.  Her son, Luca, was born in 1942, the product of an affair with an Italian actor, Massimo Serato. Luca was stricken with polio as a child (1944) but Anna dedicated her life to caring for him in his younger years and providing him with the best (Swiss) medical care. Luca Magnani - Anna fought in court for him to keep her maternal surname - would go on to be a noted architect and real estate developer.

Luca Magnani's daughter, Olivia Magnani, born in Bologna in 1975, has followed her grandmother in becoming a movie actress. She is the fifth generation to carry on the Magnani name.

The stage play, Roman Nights, by Italo-American playwright Franco D’Alessandro recounts the inspired, fruitful, and tumultuous friendship between Anna Magnani and Tennessee Williams. 

The beautiful vaulted ceiling of the Basilica di Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome
The beautiful vaulted ceiling of the Basilica
di Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome
Travel tip:

The Basilica di Santa Maria sopra Minerva is the only existing example of an oroginal Gothic church in Rome, its Renaissance-style frontage concealing a Gothic interior featuring an arched vaulted ceiling painted blue with gilded stars.  It contains a marble sculpture, Cristo della Minerva, by Michelangelo, and the strikingly beautiful Carafa Chapel, with frescoes by Filippino Lippi.  Buried in the church are Saint Catherine of Siena, the Renaissance painter Fra Angelico, and at least four popes.

Travel tip:

Porta Pia, from which the neighbourhood in which Anna Magnani was born takes its name, is a gate in Rome's Aurelian Walls, designed by Michelangelo and named after Pope Pius IV.  It was close to Porta Pia that a breach of the walls made by Bersaglieri soldiers from the north of Italy enabled Rome to be captured and completed the unification of Italy in 1870.  It was also the scene of a failed assassination attempt on Benito Mussolini in 1926 by anti-Fascist activist Gino Lucetti.

Also on this day:

(Photo of interior of Basilica by Tango7174 GFDL)


25 September 2016

Zucchero Fornaciari – singer

Sweet success for writer and performer

Zucchero is known for the passion and emotion of his stage performances
Zucchero is known for the passion and
emotion of his stage performances
The singer/songwriter now known simply as Zucchero was born Adelmo Fornaciari on this day in 1955 in Roncocesi, a small village near Reggio Emilia.

In a career lasting more than 30 years, he has sold more than 50 million records and has become popular all over the world.

He is hailed as ‘the father of the Italian blues’, having introduced blues music to Italy, and he has won many awards for his music. He has also been given the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic.

As a young boy, Zucchero lived in the Tuscan seaside resort of Forte dei Marmi, where he sang in the choir and learned to play the organ at his local church.

He became fond of soul music and began to write his own songs and play the tenor saxophone. He started playing in bands while studying veterinary medicine but gave up his studies to follow his dream of becoming a singer.

He took the stage name of Zucchero, the Italian word for sugar, which was a nickname one of his teachers had given him.

Zucchero with U2 lead singer Bono at a U2 concert in Turin in 2015
Zucchero with U2 lead singer Bono at a U2
concert in Turin in 2015
Zucchero took part in the San Remo song contest for the second time in 1985 and although his song ‘Donne’ did not win, it went on to become a hit single.

His 1987 album Blues became the highest selling album in Italian history and made Zucchero a household name. His next album Oro, Incenso e Birra, which included guest spots by Ennio Morricone, Eric Clapton and Rufus Thomas, then outsold it.

Zucchero has sung in duets with Paul Young, Sting, and Luciano Pavarotti and his collaboration on the song Miserere with the young Andrea Bocelli won popularity for the up-and-coming tenor.

He sang regularly in the concerts organised by Pavarotti to raise money for children in war zones and more recently he has sung at the Concert for Emilia, to raise money for earthquake victims, and in the Voices for Refugees concert in Vienna in 2015.

Watch Zucchero on stage at the Arena in Verona

His new single, Streets of Surrender, which is dedicated to the victims of the recent Paris attacks, will be among the songs he will perform in his concerts at the Arena in Verona taking place between now and 28 September.

Travel tip:

Roncocesi, where Zucchero was born, is a hamlet – frazione -- of Reggio Emilia, situated about seven kilometres outside the city. Reggio Emilia is an ancient walled city in Emilia-Romagna that has many beautiful buildings within the hexagonal shape of its historic centre. Roman remains mingle with medieval palaces and Renaissance and Baroque masterpieces.

Stage construction under way at the Arena di Verona
Stage construction under way at the Arena di Verona 
Travel tip:

The Arena di Verona, where Zucchero is appearing in concert between 16 and 28 September, is a wonderful surviving example of a first-century Roman amphitheatre, which has now become a famous location for large-scale, outdoor productions of opera each summer.

See Zucchero's back catalogue of music at Amazon.com

(Main photo of Zucchero by Danielle dk CC BY-SA 3.0)
(Bono & Zucchero photo by angelo freddo)


24 September 2016

Marco Tardelli - footballer

Joyous celebration lasting image of Italy's 1982 World Cup win

Marco Tardelli loses himself in his joy after scoring in the 1982 World Cup final
Marco Tardelli loses himself in his joy
after scoring in the 1982 World Cup final
Marco Tardelli, the footballer whose ecstatic celebration after scoring a goal in the final became one of the abiding images of Italy's victory in the 1982 World Cup, was born on this day in 1954.

The midfield player, who spent much of his club career with one of the best Juventus teams of all time, ran to the Italian bench after his goal against West Germany gave the Azzurri a 2-0 lead, clenching both fists in front of his chest, tears flowing as he shook his head from side to side and repeatedly shouted "Gol! Gol!" in what became known as the Tardelli Scream.

Italy went on to complete a 3-1 win over the Germans in the Santiago Bernabéu Stadium in Madrid with Paolo Rossi and Antonio Altobelli scoring Italy's other goals.  Tardelli, who was part of Italy's squad for three World Cups, had earlier scored against Argentina in the second group phase.

Tardelli later said that he felt he "was born with that scream inside me" and its release was sparked by the sheer joy at realising a dream he had nurtured since he was a child, of scoring in the final of a World Cup.

It meant that when he retired as a player in 1988 he could look back on winning international football's greatest prize as well as every competition in which he participated in club football.

During his career with Juventus, whom he joined in 1975 and left after 11 seasons, the Turin team won the Scudetto - the Serie A title - five times, the Coppa Italia twice, plus the UEFA Cup, the Cup-Winners' Cup and the European Cup, as well as the UEFA Super Cup.

Relive Marco Tardelli's goal and celebration from the 1982 World Cup final

He and his Juventus team-mates Antonio Cabrini and Gaetano Scirea were the first three players in football history to have collected winners' medals for all three major European club competitions.  His goal in the first leg of the 1977 UEFA Cup final against Athletic Bilbao helped Juventus win their first European title.

Tardelli was born in the tiny village of Capanne di Careggine, in the mountainous Garfagnana area of northern Tuscany.  The village has between 500 and 600 residents.

He began his career with Pisa, then in Serie C, moved next to Serie B club Como and joined Juventus in 1975.  He went on to play 376 matches for Juventus, scoring 51 goals, before moving to Internazionale in 1985, spending two seasons in Milan before completing his playing career with a season in Switzerland, playing for St Gallen.

Called up for the national team in 1976, he won 81 international caps and scored six goals, captaining his country between 1983 and 1985.

During an era when Italian football was heavily defensive, Tardelli stood out for his versatility, a hard-tackling yet technically skilful and elegant defensive midfielder, with an ability to contribute in attack too.  He could play anywhere in midfield or defence but was also blessed with accurate passing ability with both feet and a powerful shot.

Tactically intelligent, it was inevitable he would move into coaching.  Indeed, he was hired by the Italian Football Federation as soon as he retired as a player.

Appointed as head coach of the Under-16 Italian national team in 1988, he quickly graduated to assistant Under-21 coach under Cesare Maldini before trying his hand in club football with Como, with whom he won promotion to Serie B.

Marco Tardelli and Giovanni Trappatoni during their time in charge of the Republic of Ireland national team
Marco Tardelli and Giovanni Trapattoni during their time
in charge of the Republic of Ireland national team
After a stint with another Serie B team, Cesena, he returned to the Federation and head coach of the Italian Under-21 team, winning the European Under-21 Championship and reaching the quarter-finals at the 2000 Olympics.

His return to club football with Internazionale ended after one season, a string of embarrassing defeats culminating in a 6-0 defeat to local rivals AC Milan. Tardelli was fired in June 2001 and spells with Bari, the Egyptian national team and Arezzo brought no success.

He then spent five years working alongside Giovanni Trapattoni as assistant manager of the Republic of Ireland national team.  The pair took the Irish team to the finals of Euro 2012 but were dismissed after failing to qualify for the 2014 World Cup and Tardelli has worked largely as a pundit since then. He has recently published an autobiography, Tutto o niente: La mia storia (All or Nothing: My Story).

The Church of San Pietro in Careggine
The Church of San Pietro in Careggine
Travel tip:

Careggine stands on a plateau offering stunning views of the strikingly beautiful Monte Pisanino and the valley it overlooks. The parish Church of St Peter, founded in 720, still conserves parts of its original medieval structure, including the bell tower, despite damage suffered in an earthquake in 1920.

Travel tip:

The Garfagnana is the mountainous area around the Serchio valley north of the walled city of Lucca.  Its heavy annual rainfall means that the lower mountain slopes have a lush covering of dense woodland, mainly sweet chestnut trees.  The main towns are Castelnuovo di Garfagnana, home to the impressive Rocca Ariostesca (Ariosto's Castle), and Barga, which is famous for its annual opera and jazz festivals. Barga was once dubbed "the most Scottish town in Italy" because its surrounding countryside bears similarities with the Scottish Highlands and has twinned with no fewer than four towns in Scotland.

More reading

Paolo Rossi's World Cup hat-trick marks redemption

Marcello Lippi - World Cup winning coach

A fourth World Cup for the Azzurri

(Photo of Marco Tardelli and Trapattoni by Michael Cranewitter CC BY-SA 3.0)
(Photo of Careggine church by Davide Papalini CC BY-SA 3.0)


23 September 2016

Mussolini's last stand

Deposed dictator proclaims Republic of Salò 

A Luftwaffe general inspects soldiers of the Italian Social Republic in Rome in 1943
A Luftwaffe general inspects soldiers of the Italian Social
Republic in Rome in 1943
In what would prove the final chapter of his political career - and his life - Benito Mussolini proclaimed the creation of the Italian Social Republic on this day in 1943.

The establishment of this new state with the Fascist dictator as its leader was announced just 11 days after German special forces freed Mussolini from house arrest in the Apennine mountains.

Although Mussolini was said to be in failing health and had hoped to slip quietly into the shadows after his escape, Hitler's compassion for his Italian ally - whose rescue had been on the direct orders of the Fuhrer - did not extend to giving him an easy route into retirement.

Faced with an Allied advance along the Italian peninsula that was gathering momentum, he put Mussolini in charge of the area of northern and central Italy of which the German army had taken control following the Grand Fascist Council's overthrow of the dictator.

Although the area was renamed the Italian Social Republic - also known as the Republic of Salò after the town on the shores of Lake Garda where Mussolini's new government was headquartered - it was essentially a puppet German state.  Only Germany and its other ally, Japan, recognised it as legitimate.

Mussolini and Hitler in Munich with Ciano second left in the picture
Mussolini and Hitler in Munich with
Ciano second left in the picture
Reluctant though he was now to continue what he knew was a losing fight against the Allies, Mussolini did take advantage of his restored powers by taking revenge against those Fascists he perceived to have betrayed him by voting for his removal.

These included his son-in-law, Count Galeazzo Ciano, his former Foreign Minister, who had fled to Germany after Mussolini's reinstatement only to be sent back on Hitler's orders.  Mussolini's daughter, Edda, pleaded with her father for Ciano to be spared but she was ignored. Ciano and five others were executed by firing squad.

Although Mussolini was theoretically head of his own Italian army, which numbered about 150,000 personnel, decisions were taken in Germany, among them an order to carry out mass executions of Italian citizens in revenge for attacks on German soldiers by the Italian resistance.  One such attack in March 1944 triggered the slaughter of 335 Italians in retaliation for a bomb attack that killed 33 German soldiers. Mussolini was powerless to prevent the massacre of his own citizens, which hardly helped his popularity.

Meanwhile, the Allied advanced steadily forced the German army into retreat and by April 1945 the end for Mussolini and his Italian Social Republic was becoming inevitable.  In his public speeches, Mussolini was defiant, urging his people to ‘fight to the last Italian’. Secretly, however, he was plotting his escape.

On April 25, accompanied by a few fellow Fascists who still supported him, he and his mistress, Claretta Petacci, fled Salò, hoping to reach neutral Switzerland. His wife, Rachele, was left behind in Salò.  He had been on the run for only a day, however, when he was recognised at a checkpoint set up by Italian partisans on the shores of Lake Como and captured.

Two days later, Mussolini, Petacci and the rest of his entourage were executed, after which their bodies were taken to Milan and suspended for public display from a beam above a petrol station.

Travel tip:

For all its regrettable association with such a despised figure as Mussolini, Salò has recovered to become a pleasant resort on the shore of Lake Garda, visited by many tourists each year. Its promenade is the longest of any of the lakeside towns and it has a Duomo rebuilt in Gothic style in the 15th century as well as a museum commemorating, among other things, the resistance against Fascism.

Piazzale Loreto in Milan today, a square bearing little resemblance to how it looked in 1945
Piazzale Loreto in Milan today, a square bearing little
resemblance to how it looked in 1945
Travel tip:

Visitors to Milan hoping to find the scene of Mussolini's final humiliation, when his body and those of his mistress and accomplices were hung upside down from a beam across an Esso petrol station, will find little evidence that the event took place.  Piazzale Loreto, the location of the Esso station, was renamed Piazza Quindici Martiri in honour of 15 Italian partisans murdered by Fascist militia in the same square in 1944. Nowadays a busy intersection of the SP11 highway north-west of the city centre at the end of the Corso Buenos Aires, it has changed in appearance so much as to be unrecognisable in comparison with archive pictures showing how it was in the 1940s.

(Wartime photos from German archives)
(Photo of Piazzale Loreto by Arbalete CC BY-SA 3.0)

More reading

Germans free Mussolini in daring Gran Sasso raid

Partisans capture and execute dictator Mussolini


22 September 2016

Andrea Bocelli - tenor

Singer has perfect voice for either opera or pop

Andrea Bocelli performing a concert outdoors in the  United States, where he has a big following
Andrea Bocelli performing a concert outdoors in the
 United States, where he has a big following
Tenor Andrea Bocelli was born on this day in 1958 in La Sterza, a hamlet or frazione of Lajatico in Tuscany.

Bocelli, who is blind, had poor eyesight from birth and was diagnosed with congenital glaucoma, but he lost his sight completely at the age of 12 after an accident while playing football.

He always loved music and started to learn the piano at the age of six. But after hearing a recording by opera singer Franco Corelli, he set his heart on becoming a tenor.

Bocelli won his first singing competition in Viareggio with ‘O sole mio’ at the age of 14.

He has since sold 150 million records worldwide and performed for four US presidents, three Popes and the British Royal family. His voice has been acclaimed by critics as perfect for either opera or pop.

Bocelli originally studied law and spent one year working as a lawyer, but in 1992 the great Italian tenor Luciano Pavarotti heard a recording of his unique voice performing Italian rock and pop artist Zucchero’s song Miserere and helped his career take off.
Andrea Bocelli (right) with the late Luciano Pavarotti and rock  musician Zucchero at one of Pavarotti's fund-raising events
Andrea Bocelli (right) with the late Luciano Pavarotti and rock
 musician Zucchero at one of Pavarotti's fund-raising events

He sang Miserere with Zucchero during a European tour and performed it at the San Remo song festival, where he won the newcomer’s section with the highest ever number of votes. He later performed it at Pavarotti’s annual charity concert in Modena.

He has sung duets with many top names in the classical and popular music world, made recordings, performed in concerts and operas and appeared on television all over the world. 

Many of his recordings have enjoyed record sales figures. His album Sacred Arias became the all-time biggest-selling classical crossover album by a solo artist when sales reached five million copies and, with more than 20 million copies sold worldwide, his 1997 pop album Romanza became the best-selling album by an Italian artist of any genre in history.

Watch Andrea Bocelli perform his hit single Time to Say Goodbye with British artist Sarah Brightman

Bocelli was made a Grand Officer of the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic in 2006 and was honoured with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2010.

Bocelli's open-air Teatro del Silenzio, which he helped to create near his home town of Lajatico in Tuscany
Bocelli's open-air Teatro del Silenzio, which he helped
to create near his home town of Lajatico in Tuscany
Travel tip:

Lajatico in the province of Pisa lies among rolling hills within easy distance of Florence and Pisa. Every summer, Bocelli performs in a concert with guest singers and musicians at the Teatro del Silenzio, an open air amphitheatre he helped establish in his home town. 

Travel tip:

La Sterza, the hamlet where Andrea Bocelli was born, is about two and a half kilometres from Lajatico and is surrounded by gentle sloping countryside dotted with olive trees. It is a prime area for strawberry cultivation and the local people celebrate producing their crops each year with a strawberry festival at the beginning of May.


21 September 2016

Cigoli – painter and architect

First artist to paint a realistic moon

Cigoli's fresco at the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore shows  the Madonna standing on a pock-marked crescent moon
Cigoli's fresco at the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore shows
 the Madonna standing on a pock-marked crescent moon
The artist Cigoli was born Lodovico Cardi on this day in 1559 near San Miniato in Tuscany.

He became a close friend of Galileo Galilei, who is said to have regarded him as the greatest painter of his time. They wrote to each other regularly and Galileo practised his drawing while Cigoli enjoyed making astronomical observances.

Cigoli painted a fresco in the dome of the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome depicting the Madonna standing upon a pock-marked lunar orb, exactly as it had been seen by Galileo through his telescope.

This is the first example still in existence of Galileo’s discovery about the surface of the moon being portrayed in art. The moon is shown just as Galileo had drawn it in his astronomical treatise, Sidereus Nuncius, which published the results of Galileo’s early observations of the imperfect and mountainous moon.

Until Cigoli’s fresco, the moon in pictures of the Virgin had always been represented by artists as spherical and smooth.

Cigoli's Martyrdom of St Stephen is in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence
Cigoli's Martyrdom of St Stephen is in
the Uffizi Gallery in Florence
Lodovico Cardi was born at Villa Castelvecchio di Cigoli, and was therefore commonly known as Cigoli.

He trained as an artist in Florence under the Mannerist painter Alessandro Allori. But he later discarded Mannerist principles and painted to express his own feelings and ideas.

Cigoli also worked with the architect Bernardo Buontalenti in Florence and the imposing inner courtyard of the Palazzo Nonfinito in the city is believed to have been designed by Cigoli.

He painted a version of Ecce Homo for a Roman patron, which was subsequently taken by Napoleon to the Louvre in Paris. It was later restored to Florence and can now be seen in Palazzo Pitti.

Also for the Pitti Palace, Cigoli painted a Venus and Satyr and a Sacrifice of Isaac.

He became so famous and admired that when he travelled to Rome he was personally welcomed and greeted by the Florentine ambassador to the city.

For St Peter’s in Rome, Cigoli painted St Peter Healing the Lame. For the Church of San Paolo fuori le mura, he painted an unfinished Burial of St Paul. In a fresco for the Villa Borghese he painted a Story of Psyche.

Among other important Cigoli paintings are his Martyrdom of St Stephen and Stigmata of St Francis, which are both now in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.

Just before Cigoli’s death in Rome in June 1613 he was made a Knight of Malta by Pope Paul V.

The statue of Lodovico Cardi in his home village of Cigoli in Tuscany
The statue of Lodovico Cardi in his home
village of Cigoli in Tuscany
Travel tip:

Villa di Castelvecchio di Cigoli, the artist’s birthplace, is now referred to simply as Cigoli and is a hamlet - frazione - of the town of San Miniato in the province of Pisa in Tuscany. The Bishop’s Sanctuary in San Miniato has a Baroque façade designed by Cigoli.  There is a statue of Lodovico Cardi outside the Santaurio della Madonna Madre dei Bambini. San Miniato is also famous for white truffles and during the last three weeks of November hosts a festival dedicated to the white truffle, which is harvested in the surrounding area and is more highly valued than the black truffles found in other regions of Italy.

Travel tip:

After Cigoli’s death in Rome in 1613, his remains were transferred to Florence and buried in the Church of Santi Michele Arcangelo and Gaetano da Thiene in Via de Tornabuoni. The Church is one of the most important examples of the Baroque style of architecture in the city. Cigoli’s family tomb is between the second and third chapel on the left.

(Photos of Martyrdom of St Peter and statue by Sailko CC BY 3.0)


20 September 2016

Capture of Rome

Troops enter the capital in final act of unification

Bersaglieri soldiers storm through the walls of Rome in this 1880 painting by Carlo Ademollo
Bersaglieri soldiers storm through the walls of Rome in
this 1880 painting by Carlo Ademollo
Crack infantry soldiers from Piedmont entered Rome and completed the unification of Italy on this day in 1870.

Rome had remained under French control even after the first Italian parliament had proclaimed Victor Emmanuel of Savoy the King of Italy in 1861.

The Italian parliament had declared Rome the capital of the new Kingdom of Italy even though it had not yet taken control of the city.

A French garrison had remained in Rome on the orders of Napoleon III of France in support of Pope Pius IX.

An 1860 portrait of Victor Emmanuel II
An 1860 portrait of
 Victor Emmanuel II
But after the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war, Napoleon III had to withdraw many of his troops. Italian soldiers from the Bersaglieri regiments in Piedmont led by General Raffaele Cadorna seized their chance and after a brief bombardment were able to enter Rome through a breach in the Aurelian Walls near Porta Pia.

King Victor Emmanuel II was then able to take up residence in the Quirinale Palace and Italy was declared officially united.

The date of 20 September, which marked the end of the Risorgimento, the long process of Italian unification, is commemorated in practically every town in Italy with a street named Via XX Settembre.

Porta Pia, designed by Michelangelo in 1564, stands at the  end of Via XX Settembre, not far from the Villa Borghese
Porta Pia, designed by Michelangelo in 1564, stands at the
end of Via XX Settembre, not far from the Villa Borghese
Travel tip:

Porta Pia is a gate in Rome’s ancient walls, named after Pope Pius lV, who commissioned Michelangelo to design it just before his death in Rome in 1564. You will find it at the end of Via XX Settembre, which goes off Piazza di San Bernardo, not far from the Quirinale Palace and the Trevi Fountain. A marble and brass monument - the Monumento al Bersagliere - commemorating the liberation of Rome was erected near the place the Italian troops breached the walls, opposite the external façade of the gate.

Travel tip:

One of Italy's many Via XX Settembre can be found in the beautiful city of Bergamo in northern Italy. Bergamo's Via XX Settembre is one of the main thoroughfares in the lower town and has been dubbed ‘the shopping street’ by the locals because of the wealth of smart shops that line both sides, from department stores, book and gift shops to jewellery and fashion stores. Top names gracing the elegant street include Calvin Klein, Stefanel, Benetton, Max Mara, Luisa Spagnoli, Marina Rinaldi and Sisley.