31 December 2017

Giovanni Boldini – artist and portraitist

Sought-after painter who captured elegance of Belle Époque

Giovanni Baldini: an 1892 self-portrait housed at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence
Giovanni Baldini: an 1892 self-portrait
housed at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence
Giovanni Boldini, whose sumptuous images of the rich and famous made him the most fashionable portrait painter in Paris during the Belle Époque era of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, was born in Ferrara on this day in 1842.

His subjects included some famous names, including the opera composer Giuseppe Verdi and the actress Sarah Bernhardt, and he had countless commissions from prominent individuals in Parisian society.

Boldini's skill was to capture his subject in soft-focus, elongating their features to accentuate beauty and creating a sense of motion in the figures so that they appeared to be both sophisticated and full of life.

He dressed his subjects in sumptuous gowns that would grace any fashion catwalk and society women in particular felt the need to confirm their status by having a Boldini portrait to show off to their friends and demanded that their wealthy husbands arrange a sitting.

Boldini came from an artistic background.  His father, Antonio, painted religious figures and scenes and had a house in Via Voltapaletto, which links Ferrara’s cathedral with the Basilica of San Francesco.  The eighth of 13 children – all boys -- Giovanni was baptised on the day of his birth in the church of Santa Maria in Vado.

Boldoni's portrait of Giuseppe Verdi is housed in Rome's National Gallery of  Modern Art
Boldoni's portrait of Giuseppe Verdi is housed
in Rome's National Gallery of  Modern Art
He began filling notebooks with sketches from the age of five, even before he learned to write. Taught the rudiments of painting in his father’s workshop, he contented himself for a time copying the works of the Renaissance masters.  In 1856 at the age of 14, he produced a self-portrait of a quality that exuded a maturity of technique beyond his years.

In 1862, he moved to Florence, where he would remain for six years. His intention was to study formally at the Academy of Fine Arts, and though he enjoyed the influence of some distinguished tutors, he attended classes infrequently, preferring to immerse himself in a busy social life.

Renting an apartment in Via Lambertasca, he became a regular at the Caffè Michelangiolo in Via Cavour, the haunt of a group of realist painters known as the Macchiaioli, who were the Italian precursors to Impressionism. Their influence is seen in Boldini's early landscapes.

He enjoyed success as a portraitist for the first time when he moved to London, where he was commissioned by prominent society figures including Lady Holland and the Duchess of Westminster.  His success continued when he moved to Paris in 1872, where he mingled in the most fashionable salons and became part of a circle of artists that included Edgar Degas, Alfred Sisley and Édouard Manet.

Boldini’s client list grew, but the invitation to paint Giuseppe Verdi in 1886 took him to a new level.  The Italian composer was the biggest celebrity of the time and Boldini’s portrait became an iconic image.

The portrait of Marthe de Florian that was discovered in a Paris apartment in 2010
The portrait of Marthe de Florian that was
discovered in a Paris apartment in 2010
Verdi introduced Boldini to the world of opera, which led to many more commissions for portraits, both from artists and from the opera fans he met in theatres and cafes around Europe.

As well as portraits, he also painted realistic and natural landscapes, influenced by the Macchiaioli school. Only towards the end of his life did his style become more impressionistic. So financially comfortable he no longer needed to accept commissions for portraits to make a living, he began painting subjects of his own choice, including many nudes.

He surprised his friends in 1929 by getting married, ending 86 years of bachelor life. At the wedding breakfast, he told guests: "It is not my fault if I am so old, it's something which has happened to me all at once."

In the event, it was a short-lived marriage. Two years later he developed pneumonia and died in Paris. His body was returned to Italy and he is buried in his hometown of Ferrara.

Boldini’s paintings can be seen in some of the world’s finest art galleries and museums, although a great many are in private collections.  On the rare occasions they come up for sale at auction, they change hands for considerable sums.

In 2010, a Boldini portrait of his former muse, Marthe de Florian, a French actress, was discovered in an apartment near the Trinité church in Paris between the Pigalle red light district and Opera.

The apartment had been abandoned at the outbreak of the Second World War, when de Florian’s granddaughter fled to the South of France, and remained locked up and unvisited for 70 years.  

A scribbled note from Boldini found nearby, written on a calling card, confirmed the portrait’s authenticity and when it was sold at auction, with a guide price of €300,000, the hammer eventually came down at €1.2 million.

The Cattedrale di San Giorgio Martire in Ferrara
The Cattedrale di San Giorgio Martire in Ferrara
Travel tip:

Ferrara’s cathedral – the Cattedrale di San Giorgio Martire – is one of the main sights of the centre of the city, situated close to the Castello Estense and the Palazzo Comunale.  The Romanesque design of the cathedral, consecrated in 1135, features three cusps and a series of loggias, small arcades and rose windows. The interior, refurbished in Romanesque style after a fire in the 18th century, houses a number of notable statues and paintings, including a Crucifixion in bronze by Niccolò Baroncelli and a Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence painted by Guercino.

A gathering of Macchiaioli painters at the Caffè Michelangiolo
Travel tip:

The Caffè Michelangiolo at Via Cavour 21 in Florence was at the centre of the city’s artistic community from the second half of the 19th century until about 1920. The Macchiaioli group met there until about 1866. Today the café houses the Leonardo da Vinci Museum, and still hosts exhibitions and cultural events celebrating the historical, political and artistic themes that characterized the coffee house in its heyday.

30 December 2017

Alessandra Mussolini – politician

Controversial granddaughter of Fascist dictator

Alessandra  Mussolini is an Italian MEP
Alessandra  Mussolini is an Italian MEP
The MEP Alessandra Mussolini, niece of actress Sophia Loren and granddaughter of Italy’s former Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, was born on this day in 1962 in Rome.

Formerly an actress and model, Mussolini entered politics in the early 1990s as a member of the neofascist Movimento Sociale Italiano, which had its roots in the Italian Social Republic, the German puppet state led by her grandfather from September 1943 until his death in April 1945.

Her views have changed in more recent years and she has become known for embracing modern issues including abortion, artificial insemination, gay rights and civil unions from a progressive standpoint that has more in common with left-wing feminism.

She has left behind her association with the far right and serves on the European Parliament as representative for Central Italy under a centre-right Forza Italia ticket.

However, she is not without some admiration for the policies of her grandfather.  Only recently she caused consternation when asked her opinion on what to do about an escalating Mafia war in the Roman seaside resort of Ostia by claiming that “granddad would have sorted this out in two or three months.”

Mussolini in her days as an  aspiring young actress
Mussolini in her days as an
 aspiring young actress
The daughter of Benito Mussolini’s fourth son Romano, a jazz pianist who married Sophia Loren’s younger sister, Anna Maria Villani Scicolone, also an actress, she was taken under Loren’s wing as a child and was only 14 years old when she appeared with her aunt (in the role of her daughter) and Marcello Mastroianni in Ettore Scola’s award-winning movie Una giornata particolare (A Special Day).

After studying at the American Overseas School and then Sapienza University in Rome, where she graduated in 1986 and then obtained a Master’s in medicine and surgery, Alessandra returned to the cinema, winning acclaim for her role in another Loren hit, Sabato, domenica e lunedi (Saturday, Sunday and Monday), directed by Lina Wertmüller.

Somewhat ironically, given her ancestry, she had a part in the American-made film The Assisi Underground, which focussed on the efforts of a Franciscan priest to rescue Jews from the Nazis

She also recorded an album of romantic pop songs, albeit released only in Japan, and twice posed for Playboy magazine shoots.

She was elected to the Italian parliament in 1992 for a Naples constituency as a member of MSI, which would later evolve into the Allianza Nationale.  The following year she ran for Mayor of Naples, although she was beaten by the former communist, Antonio Bassolino.

Alessandra has inherited some of her grandfather's talent for passionate speeches
Alessandra has inherited some of her
grandfather's talent for passionate speeches
At the time she did not shy from associations with her grandfather’s politics.  At an MSI rally in Rome in 1992, during which supporters defied party instructions not to wear blackshirts and give Fascist salutes, she stood on a balcony at the Palazzo Venezia, from which the self-proclaimed Duce had delivered many speeches, and shouted “Grazia, Nonno!” (Thanks, Granddad!) as supporters marched past.

Later, she quit the Allianza Nationale after its leader, Gianfranco Fini, in an attempt to move the party away from its perceived position at the far right, made a visit to Israel in which he apologised for Italy’s role as an Axis Power in the Second World War and described Fascism as part of the “absolute evil” that brought about the Holocaust, although she conceded that the world should “beg the forgiveness of Israel” for what had happened.

When she then formed the Social Action party and organised a coalition named Social Alternative, it was expected she would continue to propagate a far-right ideology, so it came as a surprise that she chose to campaign on progressive policies usually associated with the left.

After the Italian general election of April 2008, Mussolini served as a member of the Italian parliament within Silvio Berlusconi's alliance of right wing parties, The People of Freedom.

In the election in February 2013, she was elected to the Senate for The People of Freedom, which was rebranded in November 2013 as Berlusconi relaunched Forza Italia, which had brought him huge success in the mid-1990s and early 2000s, including an unprecedented nine years as prime minister, the longest-serving Italian leader since Benito Mussolini.

In the 2014 European Parliament election, Alessandra Mussolini was elected for Forza Italia, a position she still holds.

The Palazzo Venezia looks out over the Piazza Venezia and the Via del Plebiscito
The Palazzo Venezia looks out over the Piazza Venezia
and the Via del Plebiscito
Travel tip:

The Palazzo Venezia, formerly known as the Palace of St. Mark, is a palace in central Rome, just north of the Capitoline Hill. Originally a modest medieval house intended as the residence of the cardinals appointed to the church of San Marco, in 1469 it became a residential papal palace. In 1564, Pope Pius IV, to curry favour with the Republic of Venice, gave the mansion to the Venetian embassy to Rome on condition that part of the building would remain a residence for the cardinals. Today, the palace, which faces Piazza Venezia and Via del Plebiscito, houses a museum. Its association with Benito Mussolini, who had an office in the palace, led to the balcony from which he made his speeches remaining covered up for many years amid fears it would become a place of pilgrimage for Fascist sympathisers, but it has recently been renovated and opened to the public.

Roman ruins at Ostia Antica
Roman ruins at Ostia Antica
Travel tip:

The seaside resort of Ostia lies 30km (19 miles) to the southwest of the centre of Rome, yet is part of the Rome metropolitan area and thus the only part of the city on the Tyrrhenian Sea.  Situated just across the Tiber river from Fiumicino, home of Rome’s largest international airport, it adjoins the remains of the ancient Roman city of Ostia Antica. Many Romans spend the summer holidays in the modern town, swelling a population of about 85,000.

29 December 2017

Luigi Olivari – flying ace

First World War pilot claimed 19 victories

Luigi Olivari was only 25 when he was killed in a crash near Udine
Luigi Olivari was only 25 when he was killed
in a crash near Udine
Lieutenant Luigi Olivari, a pilot in the military aviation corps of the Royal Italian Army who was decorated with a string of awards for valour in action, was born on this day in 1891 in La Spezia, the maritime city on the coast of what is now Liguria.

Olivari became a proficient aerial duellist, claiming to have downed 19 enemy aircraft as Italian planes took on Austro-Hungarian opponents after Italy had joined the war on the side of the Triple Entente of Britain, France and Russia.

Only eight of these were confirmed, yet Olivari was awarded four silver and two bronze medals for valour by the Italian government, as well as the French Croix de guerre and the Serbian Order of the Star of Karadorde.

The last of his silver medals was awarded posthumously after he was killed on October 13, 1917 when his Spad VII aircraft stalled and crashed during take-off at the Santa Caterina airfield just outside Udine in northwest Italy.

Born to middle-class parents in La Spezia, as a boy he moved with his family to Turin.

A Spad VII similar to the one flown by Luigi Olivari
A Spad VII similar to the one flown by Luigi Olivari
A good all-round sportsman and an accomplished motorcyclist, Olivari entered the school for civil pilots at Mirafiori, just outside Turin, and obtained his Aero Club’s pilots licence on November 27, 1914.

In May 1915, the week before Italy entered the war, Olivari applied for military pilot's training. He qualified in June and in January 2016 was assigned to fly in the 1a Squadriglia (later redesignated as 70a Squadriglia). 

He scored his first confirmed aerial victory on April 7 - only the second success in the air for Italy – having claimed an earlier success that went unconfirmed.

In September 1916, Olivari was commissioned as a Sottotenente - sub-lieutenant. By April 1917, he was specifically assigned two aircraft—a Spad VII and a Nieuport 17 ser. no. 3127.

In May 1917, he was transferred to the newly formed fighter squadron 91a Squadriglia and than loaned to 77a Squadriglia for about a month. He was subsequently promoted to Tenente and assigned as an Ansaldo SVA.5 test pilot for the Technical Directorate.

Olivari won many awards for valour and claimed to have shot down 19 enemy aircraft
Olivari won many awards for valour and claimed to have
shot down 19 enemy aircraft
In February 1919, some 16 months after his death, the Bongiovanni military intelligence commission issued its final determination of Italian aerial victories during the First World War. Olivari's score was cut to eight confirmed victories. Notable for their exclusion were some victories that were noted in Olivari's award citations.

The Ghedi Air Force base, near Brescia, home of the Regia Aeronautica 6th Stormo (6th Wing) was named in his memory after the war.

There are streets named after Luigi Olivari in San Maurizio Canavese, near Turin’s airport, and in the Ligurian city of Genoa.

Piazza Garibaldi in La Spezia
Piazza Garibaldi in La Spezia
Travel tip:

Overshadowed by its chic neighbours in the Cinque Terre, the port town of La Spezia, home to Italy's largest naval base, tends to be overlooked as a travel destination but offers an affordable alternative base for touring the area, although it is worth inclusion anyway. Nowadays, it is one of Italy’s busiest ports, yet the narrow streets of the old city are deeply atmospheric and have plenty to interest visitors, with a wealth of good restaurants showing off the best Ligurian cuisine.

Travel tip:

Santa Caterina near Udine is best known as the original site of one of the oldest fairs in Italy, which began in 1380 to honour Saint Catherine of Alexandria, who was supposedly beheaded by the Romans for not sacrificing animals to the gods.  Since 1485 the fair has been held within the city walls, in Piazza I Maggio in the municipality of Pasian di Prato.  It is held every year from around November 25 with an array of stalls, although the fairground rides that accompanied it from the mid-1980s have now been moved to the Friuli stadium.

28 December 2017

Piero the Unfortunate – Medici ruler

Ill-fated son of Lorenzo the Magnificent

Piero the Unfortunate's poor judgment  earned him his unenviable moniker
Piero the Unfortunate's poor judgment
earned him his unenviable moniker
Piero di Lorenzo de’ Medici, later dubbed Piero the Unfortunate or The Fatuous, died on this day in 1503, drowning in the Garigliano river, south of Rome, as he attempted to flee following a military defeat.

The eldest son of Lorenzo the Magnificent, Piero was handed power in Florence at the age of 21 following the death of his father.

He was a physically handsome young man who had been educated specifically so that he would be ready to succeed his father as head of the Medici family and de facto ruler of Florence.

Yet he turned out to be a feeble, ill-disciplined character who was not suited to leadership and who earned his unflattering soubriquet on account of his poor judgment in military and political matters, which ultimately led to the Medici family being exiled from Florence.

Piero took over as leader of Florence in 1492. Initially there was calm but the peace between the Italian states for which his father had worked tirelessly to achieve collapsed in 1494 when King Charles VIII of France led an army across the Alps with the intention to march on the Kingdom of Naples, claiming hereditary rights.

The young leader’s first bad decision had been to ally Florence with Naples rather than Milan, where his father had striven to maintain an even-handed relationship with both.

Ludovico Sforza, the former regent of Milan, was unimpressed, but at the same time saw an opportunity to re-assert his power in the city by scheming with Charles VIII to eject his nephew, Gian Galeazzo Sforza, and replace him as Duke.

Charles VIII of France
Charles VIII of France
In return he allowed Charles’s army, some 30,000 strong, to proceed unchallenged through his territories and arrive at the borders of Tuscany.  Piero’s decision to ally with Naples meant that Florence, by association, was France’s enemy

Piero at first attempted to mount some resistance, but at a time when the fanatical Dominican priest Girolamo Savonarola was undermining the authority of the Medici court he struggled to garner support from the Florentine elites.

He then made the extraordinary decision to seek a deal with Charles, taking the lead from his father’s great act of diplomacy in 1479, when Lorenzo reached a settlement with Naples by making a personal visit to the King of Naples.

Piero persuaded Charles to give him an audience, yet returned home having given away several important Tuscan castles along with the ports of Pisa and Livorno.

His poor handling of the situation and failure to negotiate better terms led to an uproar in Florence, and the Medici family fled. The family palazzo was looted, the Republic of Florence was re-established and the Medici formally exiled.

A member of the Medici family would not rule Florence again until 1512, after Piero’s younger brother, Giovanni, was elected Pope Leo X.

Piero and his family at first fled to Venice. In 1503, as the French fought the Spanish over the Kingdom of Naples, he travelled south. The two armies engaged in the Battle of Garigliano, named after a major river between Naples and Rome, and after the French were routed Piero attempted to escape to the south but was drowned as he tried to cross the the Garigliano river.

French artist Henri Philippoteaux's depiction of a scene from the 1503 Battle of Garigliano
French artist Henri Philippoteaux's depiction of a scene from
the 1503 Battle of Garigliano
Travel tip:

The Garigliano river, which flows into the Tyrrhenian Sea near Marina di Minturno, south of Formia, marks the border between Lazio and Campania.  Its strategic position has led it to be the scene of several notable battles. In 915 a coalition of the papal army, the Byzantines, Franks, Lombards and Neapolitans defeated the Garigliano Arabs there and in 1503 came the fateful Battle of Garigliano after which Piero drowned and Medici power transferred to his brother, Giovanni.  During the Italian Campaign of the Second World War, the Liri and Gari-Garigliano rivers were key elements of a system of German defensive lines around which the battle of Monte Cassino took place in 1943-1944.

The rebuilt Abbey of Monte Cassino
The rebuilt Abbey of Monte Cassino
Travel tip:

Piero the Unfortunate’s body was buried in the cloister of Monte Cassino abbey, one of the most famous abbeys in the world, established in the sixth century when Saint Benedict chose its mountain location as a place to host him and his fellow monks as they travelled from the monastery at Subiaco, outside Rome. At a height of 520m (1,700ft) it is a landmark for travellers on the A1 motorway and the Rome-Naples railway. The abbey has been destroyed four times – by the Lombards in 577, the Saracens in 887, an earthquake in 1349 and by the ferocious Battle of Monte Cassino in the Second World War, when the Allies made the controversial decision to bombard the site, which they suspected was being used by the Germans to launch artillery attacks.  Fortunately, the Germans smuggled out most of the priceless books and artworks to a place of safety prior to the bombardment and the abbey was rebuilt after the war had ended.

More reading:

Also on this day:

(Paintings: Portrait of Piero by Gherardo di Giovanni del Fora (1494); portrait of Charles VIII by unknown painter in the style of Jean Perréal, Musée Condé, Chantilly; Battle of Garigliano by Henri Félix Emmanuel Philippoteaux (1840), Palace of Versailles) 

(Picture credit: Monte Cassino Abbey by Ludmiła Pilecka via Wikimedia Commons)

27 December 2017

Tito Schipa – operatic tenor

Star on two continents whose voice divided opinions

The tenor Tito Schipa enjoyed success on two continents
The tenor Tito Schipa enjoyed success
on two continents
Tito Schipa, one of the most popular opera singers in the first half of the 20th century who sang to packed houses in the United States and South America as well as in Italy, was born on this day in 1888 in Lecce.

The tenor, whose repertoire included Verdi and Puccini roles in the early part of his career and later encompassed works by Donizetti, Cilea and Massanet, rose from modest beginnings to find fame with the Chicago and New York Metropolitan opera companies in America.

He also appeared regularly in Buenos Aires in Argentina and later in his career starred regularly at Teatro alla Scala in Milan and the Rome Opera.

Some critics said his voice lacked power and had too narrow a range for him to be considered a genuinely great tenor, yet he overcome his perceived limitations to become extremely popular with the public wherever he performed.

Schipa was born Raffaele Attilio Amedeo Schipa in the Le Scalze district of Lecce, a fairly working class neighbourhood in the Puglian city.  His family were of Albanian heritage. His father was a customs officer.

His talent was first noted by a primary school teacher in Lecce and soon afterwards by a Catholic bishop, Gennaro Trama, a music enthusiast who had a reputation as something of a talent scout, and who encouraged him to join his local seminary.

Schipa often performed opposite the
soprano Amelita Galli-Curci
Eventually, feeling his opportunities in Lecce were limited, Schipa made the bold decision to move to Milan to work with Emilio Piccoli, an opera singer who had become a distinguished voice teacher.

With Piccoli’s help he was able to make his stage debut in Vercelli in Piedmont as Alfredo in a performance of Verdi’s La Traviata in 1909 at the age of 21.

He was by no means an overnight success, spending the next few seasons appearing at small opera houses around Italy. But in 1913 he had the opportunity to travel to South America. He had already displayed his linguistic versatility by singing in Spanish for audiences in Madrid and he was a hit with operagoers in both Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro.

On his return to Italy, a brilliant performance in Puccini’s Tosca on his debut at Teatro San Carlo in Naples in 1914 earned rave reviews and suddenly Schipa was regarded as a major talent.

He developed a professional relationship with the soprano Amelita Galli-Curci, whose voice blended perfectly with his. It was alongside Galli-Curci that he made his US debut in Chicago in 1919, having been invited by the Scottish soprano Mary Garden and the impresario Cleofonte Campanini, who were managers of the Civic Opera.

His debut in Verdi’s Rigoletto began a 20-year association with the Chicago Opera Company, although from 1932, as the financial recession hit Chicago in particular, he was dividing his loyalties between the Illinois city and the New York Metropolitan Opera.

Schipa waves farewell from the steps of an American ship en route to New York
Schipa waves farewell from the steps of
an American ship en route to New York
Schipa’s career was boosted by the growing popularity of the gramophone. He made numerous audio recordings of arias and songs during his career from 1913 onwards. His 78-rpm set of Donizetti's Don Pasquale, made in 1932, is considered so good that it remains in circulation on CD.

Away from the theatre, Schipa led a colourful social life, although his associations with characters in the circle of the Mafia boss Al Capone often resulted in him losing money through dubious ‘investments’ presented to him.

He was married for the first time in 1920 to the French actress Antoinette Michel d'Ogoy, with whom he had two daughters, Elena and Liana.  During the Second World War he had a long affair with the Italian actress Caterina Boratto, although it was to another Italian starlet, Teresa Borgna, that he was married after Antoinette’s death in 1947. The marriage produced a son, Tito junior.

Schipa was a conductor as well as a singer and towards the end of his career, after he had retired from the operatic stage, was the director of a singing school in Budapest.  He had another singing school in New York, and was living in Manhattan at the time of his death, in 1965, at the age of 78, from diabetes.

Piazza Duomo in the Baroque city of Lecce
Piazza Duomo in the Baroque city of Lecce
Travel tip:

Lecce, Schipa’s birthplace, has such a rich cultural heritage it is sometimes called the Florence of the South. It is the main city on Puglia's Salento peninsula. It became a centre for the ornate architecture called Barocco Leccese. Its historic centre, compact and easy to explore, is filled with Baroque monuments. There are many restaurants, too, that offer fine food typical of Puglia.

The Piazza Cavour is at the heart of historic Vercelli
Travel tip:

Vercelli, where Schipa made his operatic debut, is a city of around 46,500 people situated about 80km (50 miles) northeast of Turin near the Sesia river.  It is one of the oldest urban settlements in northern Italy, founded in around 600BC and has numerous Roman relics and several noteworthy towers, including the Torre dell’Angelo that overlooks the market square, Piazza Cavour.  The Basilica di Sant’Andrea is one of the best preserved Romanesque monuments in Italy.

26 December 2017

Renato Guttuso - artist and illustrator

Creator of works representing the victims of Fascist repression

Renato Guttuso
The painter Renato Guttuso, whose illustrations for Elizabeth David’s cookery book, Italian Food, gave him international fame, was born on this day in 1912 in Bagheria near Palermo in Sicily.

A fierce anti-Fascist, he painted powerful pictures, which he said represented the many people who, because of their ideas, endured outrage, imprisonment and torment.

Guttuso’s father, Gioacchino, was a land surveyor who painted water colours and Renato started painting as a child, signing and dating his art works from the age of 13. He was educated in Palermo and then went on to Palermo University.

He painted nature scenes featuring flowers, lemon trees and Saracen olive trees, which brought him recognition as a talented Sicilian painter when they were exhibited. He opened a studio with another painter and two sculptors in Palermo.

Guttuso became a member of an artistic movement that stood for free and open attitudes and was opposed to Fascism during the years of the Spanish Civil War.

He moved to Milan, where his morals and political commitment became even more visible in his paintings, particularly in one of his most famous works, Flight from Etna.

Guttuso's illustration on the cover of Elizabeth David's Italian Food
Guttuso's illustration on the cover of
Elizabeth David's Italian Food
After moving to Rome, Guttuso mixed with other significant artists of the time and painted the work he is perhaps best remembered for, Crucifixion (Crocefissione). He said he wanted to paint the torment of Christ as a contemporary scene to symbolise all those who had to endure insults, imprisonment or torture because of their ideas. The painting was derided at the time by the clergy and the Fascists.

Guttuso continued to work during the Second World War, producing a collection of drawings entitled Massacres (Massacri).

In 1945 he founded the New Arts Front with other artists who had previously been bound by Fascist rule, and social and political themes continued to dominate his work.

He met fellow artist Pablo Picasso, who was to remain a friend until his death in 1973.

In 1950 Guttuso was awarded the World Council of Peace Prize in Warsaw and in 1972 he received the Lenin Peace prize.

It was during the 1950s that he was approached by publishers Macmillan to provide the illustrations for Elizabeth David’s book Italian Food, which was the first book on Italian cooking to be published for the English market.

At a time when food was still rationed, when olive oil was sold only for medicinal purposes and when to obtain even basic ingredients for Italian recipes such as rice and pasta required visits to specialist shops, it was a bold move by Macmillan to publish such a book.

They chose to approach Guttuso after being impressed by the vivid colours of food in his painting of the market at Vucciria in Palermo. Miss David, a food writer, was said to be delighted with the results and after a quite appearance in 1954 the book went on to become a classic.
The Villa Cattolica in Bagheria
The Villa Cattolica in Bagheria
After his wife, Mimise Dotti-Guttuso, died in 1986, the artist became bedridden. Guttuso died of lung cancer within four months of her death, in January 1987.

Travel tip:

One of the main sights to see in Bagheria in Sicily, where Renato Guttuso was born, is the Villa Cattolica, where there is a permanent exhibition of his work. The town was used as a location in the 1990 film The Godfather Part III.

Fishing boats at Aspra, where the colourful scenes inspired Guttuso to paint
Fishing boats at Aspra, where the colourful scenes
inspired Guttuso to paint
Travel tip:

Renato Guttuso was inspired to paint by the views from the village of Aspra, which is within the municipality of Bagheria, by the sea at the east end of the gulf of Palermo. There are frescoes representing Christ and the Saints painted by Guttuso in the Church of Maria Santissima Addolorata there.

25 December 2017

Charlemagne – Holy Roman Emperor

Christmas Day crowning for the Pope’s supporter

Charlemagne is crowned Holy Roman Emperor
Charlemagne is crowned Holy Roman Emperor
Charlemagne, the King of the Franks and the Lombards, was crowned Holy Roman Emperor on this day in 800 in the old St Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

He was the first recognised emperor in Western Europe since the fall of the Western Roman Empire three centuries earlier and has been referred to as the ‘father of Europe’ because he united most of Europe for the first time since the days of the Roman Empire, including parts that had never been under Roman rule.

Charlemagne was the son of Pepin the Short and became King of the Franks when his father died in 768, initially as co-ruler with his brother Carloman I. When Carloman died suddenly in unexplained circumstances it left Charlemagne as the sole, undisputed ruler of the Frankish Kingdom.

He continued his father’s policy towards the papacy and became its protector, removing the Lombards in power from northern Italy and leading an incursion into Muslim Spain. He also campaigned against the Saxons, making them become Christians or face the death penalty.

Charlemagne was Holy Roman  Emperor for 14 years
Charlemagne was Holy Roman
Emperor for 14 years
In 799, Pope Leo III was violently mistreated by the Romans and fled to the protection of Charlemagne in Germany.

Charlemagne escorted him back to Rome and, rather than letting him be tried for his alleged crimes, had him swear an oath of innocence on December 23.

Two days later Charlemagne attended the Christmas Day mass in St Peter’s and as he knelt at the altar to pray, the Pope placed a jewelled crown upon his head, declaring him to be Emperor of the Romans.

Some historians say that Charlemagne was ignorant of the Pope’s intentions and did not want a coronation.

Others say Charlemagne was well aware the coronation was going to take place and could not have missed seeing the bejewelled crown waiting on the altar when he knelt in front of it to pray.

In crowning Charlemagne, Pope Leo III effectively ignored the reign of the Empress Irene of Constantinople. Since 727 the papacy had been in conflict over a number of issues with Irene’s predecessors in Constantinople. Relations between the Eastern Roman Empire and the Western Roman Empire were to remain difficult, leading to an eventual split in the 11th century.

In 813 Charlemagne crowned his son, Louis the Pious, as co-emperor. The following year he fell ill with pleurisy and died on 21 January 1814. He was buried that same day in Aachen Cathedral.

The last Holy Roman Emperor to be crowned by the Pope was Charles V in 1530. The final Holy Roman Emperor, Francis II, abdicated in 1806 during the Napoleonic Wars, which led to the final dissolution of the Empire.

The crown of Charlemagne
The crown of Charlemagne
Travel tip:

After Charlemagne had successfully besieged the city of Pavia in 773, he is said to have had himself crowned with the Iron Crown of Lombardy in 774. This crown was famously placed by Napoleon on his own head in the Duomo in Milan in 1805. The crown is a circlet of gold with a central iron band, which according to legend was beaten out of a nail from Christ’s cross. The crown is kept in a Chapel in the Cathedral of Saint John in Monza, a city to the north east of Milan, which is famous nowadays for its Grand Prix racing circuit.

St Peter's Basilica in Rome
St Peter's Basilica in Rome
Travel tip:

Charlemagne was crowned Holy Roman emperor in the old St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. This stood from the fourth to the 16th centuries where the present-day Basilica stands in Vatican City. The old Basilica was built where the crucifixion and burial of Saint Peter took place by order of Emperor Constantine I in 318 and it took about 30 years to complete.


24 December 2017

Lazzaro Ponticelli – war veteran

Wounded soldier survived to set records for longevity

Lazzaro Ponticelli as a young soldier in the First World War
Lazzaro Ponticelli as a young
soldier in the First World War
Lazzaro Ponticelli, who became the oldest living man of Italian birth and the oldest man living in France, was born on this day in 1897 in a frazione of Bettola in Emilia-Romagna.

Before his death at the age of 110 years and 79 days, Ponticelli was the last surviving officially recognised veteran of the First World War from France and the last infantry man from its trenches to die.

He had moved to France at the age of eight to join his family who had gone there to find work. At the age of 16, he lied about his age to join the French army in 1914.

Ponticelli was transferred against his will to the Italian army when Italy entered the war the following year. He enlisted in the 3rd Alpini regiment and saw service against the Austro-Hungarian army at Mount Pal Piccolo on the Italian border with Austria.

At one stage he was wounded by a shell but continued firing his machine gun although blood was running into his eyes.

He spoke of a period when fighting ceased for three weeks and the two armies swapped loaves of bread for tobacco and took photographs of each other, as many of them could speak each other's language.

The Ponticelli Brothers' headquarters in a Paris suburb
The Ponticelli Brothers' headquarters in a Paris suburb
After the war Ponticelli founded a piping and metal work company with his brothers. As of 2017, Ponticelli Brothers was still in business.

They produced supplies for the war effort during the First World War and Ponticelli also worked with the French Resistance against the Nazis. He managed the company until his retirement in 1960.

Every Armistice Day until 2007 Ponticelli attended ceremonies honouring deceased veterans. But in his later years he also criticised war.

He said he felt unworthy of the state funeral the French Government offered him, but eventually accepted it. He asked for the occasion to focus on the many ordinary soldiers who died on the battlefield.

Ponticelli pictured in 2007, aged 109
Ponticelli pictured in
2007, aged 109
He died in France on 12 March 2008 at the age of 110 years and 79 days, at the home he shared with his daughter in Kremlin-Bicetre, a suburb of Paris.

French president Nicolas Sarkozy honoured Ponticelli’s wish and dedicated a plaque to the soldiers who had been killed in battle during the super centurion’s funeral.

On the first Armistice Day after his death, the street where he had lived was renamed Rue de Verdun-Lazare-Ponticelli in his honour.

Travel tip:

Lazzaro Ponticelli was born in Cordani, a frazione - the Italian equivalent of a ward or parishof Bettola in the province of Piacenza in Emilia-Romagna. It is claimed that the explorer Christopher Columbus was born in the nearby frazione of Pradello and the main square of Bettola is named Piazza Colombo.

Remains still exist of military positions built on Mount Pal Piccolo during the First World War
Remains still exist of military positions built on
Mount Pal Piccolo during the First World War
Travel tip:

During the First World War, Lazzaro Ponticelli fought in a series of furious battles against the Austro-Hungarian army at Mount Pal Piccolo in the region of Udine. An open air museum has been created on Mount Pal Piccolo where you can visit Italian and Austro-Hungarian military installations. For more information visit www.itinerarigrandeguerra.com.

23 December 2017

Dino Risi – film director

Film comedy director helped launch career of Sophia Loren

Dino Risi won a number of top awards for his work in Italian cinema
Dino Risi won a number of top awards
for his work in Italian cinema
The director Dino Risi, who was regarded as one of the masters of Italian film comedy, was born on this day in 1916 in Milan.

He had a string of hits in the 1950s and 1960s and gave future stars Sophia Loren, Alberto Sordi and Vittorio Gassman opportunities early in their careers.

Risi’s older brother, Fernando, was a cinematographer and his younger brother, Nelo, was a director and writer.

He started his career as an assistant to Mario Soldati and Alberto Lattuada and then began directing his own films.

One of Risi’s early successes was the 1951 comedy, Vacation with a Gangster, in which he cast the 12-year-old actor Mario Girotti, who later became well known under the name Terence Hill.

His 1966 film, Treasure of San Gennaro was entered into the 5th Moscow International Film Festival where it won a silver prize.

Among his best-known films are Pane, amore e… in 1955, Poveri ma belli in 1956, Una vita difficile in 1961 and Profumo di donna in 1974.

Agostina Belli and Vittorio Gassman in a scene from Dino Risi's Profumo di donna
Agostina Belli and Vittorio Gassman in a scene from
Dino Risi's Profumo di donna
He was awarded the David di Donatello award for best film director in 1975 for Profumo di donna.  The actor Al Pacino would win an Oscar for a remake of the movie as Scent of a Woman in 1992.

In 2002 Risi was awarded the Golden Lion award at the Venice Film Festival for his lifetime’s work.

Two of his films, Il giovedi and Il commissario Lo Gatto, were shown in a retrospective section on Italian comedy at the 67th Venice International Film Festival.

Risi died at the age of 91 in 2008 at his home in Rome, where he had lived for 30 years in an apartment in the Aldrovandi Residence in the Parioli district. He was survived by his two children, Claudio, and Marco, who is a film director.

Teatro alla Scala is Milan's famous opera house
Teatro alla Scala is Milan's famous opera house
Travel tip:

Milan, Risi’s town of birth, is the capoluogo – the most important city – of Lombardia. As well as being an important financial centre, Milan is a mecca for fashion shoppers and a magnet for opera lovers. Visit Piazza Duomo in the centre of the city where you are bound to be impressed with the Duomo, which is the third largest cathedral in the world. Walk through the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele where there are elegant bars and restaurants and designer shops. At the other end, Piazza Scala is home to the world famous opera house, Teatro alla Scala, where there is a fascinating museum with original costumes and scores and some items that belonged to the composer Giuseppe Verdi. You can walk along the Via Manzoni to see the Grand Hotel et de Milan where Verdi died in 1901. From there turn into Via Montenapoleone where the top Italian and international fashion designers have shops.

Venice Lido has hosted the Venice Film Festival since 1932
Venice Lido has hosted the Venice Film Festival since 1932
Travel tip:

The Venice Film Festival, where Risi was honoured, was first held in 1932 and took place between 6 and 21 August on the terrace of the Hotel Excelsior at the Venice Lido. The festival was considered a success and was held again in 1934 from August 1-20, when it involved a competition for the first time. In 1935 the Film Festival became a yearly event in Venice and the Coppa Volpi (Volpi Cup), an award for actors, was introduced for the first time. The Venice Lido is an eight-mile long sand bank that forms a natural barrier between Venice and the open sea and has become a seaside resort for the city. It is the only island in the lagoon with roads and can be reached from the mainland by car ferry. The Lido is served by regular vaporetti – water buses – from Venice and has plenty of hotels. It became a fashionable holiday destination at the beginning of the 20th century for royalty, writers and film stars. The atmosphere at the time was brilliantly captured by Thomas Mann’s book Death in Venice, published in 1912, which was made into a film in 1971 directed by Luchino Visconti.

22 December 2017

Giuseppe Bergomi – footballer

World Cup winner who spent his whole career with Inter

Giuseppe Bergomi made 87  appearances for the national team
Giuseppe Bergomi made 87
appearances for the national team
The footballer Giuseppe Bergomi, renowned as one of the best defenders in the history of Italian football and a member of the World Cup-winning Azzurri side of 1982, was born on this day in 1963 in Milan.

Bergomi spent his entire club career with the Milan side Internazionale, spanning 20 years in which he made 756 appearances, including 519 in Serie A, which was a club record until it was overtaken by the Argentine-born defender Javier Zanetti, who went on to total 856 club appearances before he retired in 2014.

In international football, Bergomi played 87 times for the Italian national team, of which he was captain during the 1990 World Cup finals, in which Italy reached the semi-finals as hosts.

Alongside the brothers Franco, of AC Milan, and Giuseppe Baresi, his team-mate at Inter, and the Juventus trio Gaetano Scirea, Antonio Cabrini and Claudio Gentile, he was part of the backbone of the Italian national team for much of the 1980s.

He made his Azzurri debut in April 1982, only a couple of months before the World Cup finals in Spain, aged just 18 years and 3 months, making him the youngest player to feature in a match for Italy since the Second World War.

Not surprisingly, given his young age, he was not a first-choice in the 1982 side under coach Enzo Bearzot.

Bergomi in his early days 
But he came on as a substitute against Brazil in the memorable 3-2 second phase win and on the strength of that was named in the starting line-up against Poland in the semi-final because Gentile was suspended.

Such was his performance, displaying a maturity beyond his years, that Bearzot felt he could not drop him for the final against West Germany.

In the event, given the job of marking the dangerous Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, he was one of Italy’s best players, rendering the German star so ineffective he was substituted in the second half as Italy ran out 3-1 winners. Bergomi also played a part in the build-up to Marco Tardelli’s famous goal.

Italy did not progress beyond the last 16 in the 1986 World Cup in Mexico but under his captaincy the Azzurri to a third-place finish, losing to Argentina on penalties in the semi-final before beating England in the play-off for third place.

Bergomi’s international career seemed to be over after he was sent off against Norway in a qualifying match for the 1992 European Championships, prefacing a long period in which he was not selected.

Yet he made a surprise comeback to play in his fourth World Cup finals in France in 1998, at the age of 34.  Alongside Fabio Cannavaro, Alessandro Costacurta and Paolo Maldini, he played in three matches as Italy reached the last eight before being eliminated on penalties by the hosts and eventual champions France.

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Versatile enough to play in any defensive role, as full back, centre back or sweeper, he was renowned for his positional strength and his ability to make surging forward runs in his favoured position of right back.

He was also a fierce tackler, although he had a short fuse at times.  Much admired as a sportsman with an innate sense of fairness, he sometimes struggled to contain his emotions and was actually sent off a total of 12 times in his career.

The highlights of his career with Inter included the Serie A title in 1988-89 and three UEFA Cup medals in the 1990s, Inter lifting the trophy in 1991, 1994 and 1998.

Affectionately referred to as Lo zio – the uncle – during his playing career, he was named as one of the 100 best players in the history of football in 2004 in a list compiled by the Brazil legend Pelé to mark the 100th anniversary of FIFA 100.

Since retiring as a player, Bergomi has done some coaching and currently works as a pundit at Sky Sports Italia. He frequently co-commentates on Serie A matches alongside Fabio Caressa, with whom he described Italy’s victory in the 2006 World Cup in Germany.

Inter was formed by a group of friends who met in a Milan restaurant
Inter was formed by a group of friends
who met in a Milan restaurant
Travel tip:

Bergomi’s home-town club, Internazionale, was originally established by expatriate British football enthusiasts but after a dispute over whether foreign players should be signed that a breakaway group formed following a meeting at the Ristorante L'Orologio in Via Giuseppe Mengoni in Milan, a short distance from the opera house, Teatro alla Scala.  An artist, Giorgio Muggiani, who had developed an enthusiasm for football while studying in Switzerland, was the driving force behind the new club and it was he who designed the club's famous logo, featuring the colours blue, black and gold. 

The Arena Civica was Inter's home for 37 years
The Arena Civica was Inter's home for 37 years
Travel tip:

For many years, Internazionale's home ground was the Arena Civica, in the heart of Milan. Opened in 1807 in the city's Parco Sempione, behind the Castello Sforzesco, the arena is one of Milan's main examples of neoclassical architecture, an elliptical amphitheatre commissioned by Napoleon Bonaparte soon after he became King of Italy in 1805.  Napoleon wanted it to be Milan's equivalent of the Colosseum in Rome.  It was Inter’s home for 37 years until they moved to the Giuseppe Meazza Stadium in the San Siro district of Milan, which they share with AC Milan.