28 February 2017

Karl Zuegg - jam and juice maker

Businessman turned family farm into international company

Karl Zuegg
Karl Zuegg
Karl Zuegg, the businessman who turned his family's fruit-farming expertise into one of Italy's major producers of jams and juices, was born on this day in 1915 in Lana, a town in what is now the autonomous province of Bolzano in Trentino-Alto Adige.

His grandparents, Maria and Ernst August Zuech - they changed their name to Zuegg in 1903 - had been cultivating fruit on their farm since 1860, when Lana was part of South Tyrol in what was then Austria-Hungary.  They traded at local markets and began exporting.

Zuegg and the company's other major brand names, Skipper and Fruttaviva, are among the most recognisable in the fruit products market in Italy and it is largely through Karl's hard work and enterprise.

He was managing director of the company from 1940 to 1986, during which time Zuegg became the first drinks manufacturer in Italy to make use of the ground-breaking Tetrapak packaging invented in Sweden, which allowed drinks to be sold in lightweight cardboard cartons rather than traditional glass bottles.

The family business had begun to experiment with jams in 1917 when austerity measures in Italy were biting hard and there was a need to preserve food.  Rather than throw away overripe apples, the family turned them into jam.

The Zuegg logo is well known in Italian grocery stores
The Zuegg logo is well known in Italian grocery stores
Their methods were successful with other fruits too and Zuegg jams went into mass production in 1923, achieving immediate success.

But it was not until Karl joined the board of the company in 1937 that the business began to expand on a large scale.

Under Karl's leadership, the Zuegg brand grew, with bigger production facilities and innovative technology. The company developed new products such as the Fruttino snack bar, a solid stick of quince jam enriched with vitamins that became a staple of children's school lunches throughout Italy.

The first Zuegg fruit juices arrived in 1954, with bottles of pear, peach and apricot juice soon becoming familiar items on the shelves of Italian grocery stores.

Fruit cultivation is an important part of Lana's economy
Fruit cultivation is an important part of Lana's economy
In the early 1960s, Zuegg intoduced the Fruttaviva jams, the first to be produced without the use of preservatives and dyes, and two years later, after opening a new plant in Verona - now the company's headquarters - became a supplier of fruit products for use in yogurt, pastries and ice cream.

It was in 1979, as Karl continually looked for innovations that would help grow the business further, that the company signed a deal for the Swedish company Tetrapak to supply its revolutionary cartons for Zuegg products.

Tetrapak's unique method, combining paper, polyethylene and aluminium, produced a lightweight packaging that not only kept fluids from leaking outwards. It also prevented bacteria from entering the product and, through the aluminium layer, protected the contents from deteriorating through exposure to light.

Selling drinks in these so-called 'briks' was a novelty in Italy and Karl Zuegg's vision made his company the market leader. Today, of course, such packaging is standard.

The original Zuegg headquarters in Lana
The original Zuegg headquarters in Lana
On the back of this success, Zuegg was able to open another Italian production plant at Luogosano, in the province of Avellino in Campania, in 1985.  Three years later, the Skipper line, selling 100 per cent pure fruit juices, was launched.

Today, Zuegg is an international company with six plants - two in Italy, two in Germany, one in France and one in Russia - and employs more than 500 staff.

As part of its campaign to promote healthy living, the company has a long history of sponsorship in sport, which has seen it provide financial backing for competitors in skiing and snowboarding, beach volleyball, basketball and tennis, and for two seasons promoted the brand as a main sponsor of Internazionale football club.

Karl Zuegg, who was made Cavaliere del Lavoro by the Italian government in recognition of his services to industry, died in 2005 in Lana, his home town, at the age of 91.  He is buried at the church of Santa Maria Assunta in Lana di Sotto.

Travel tip:

Lana is a small town and resort in the Adige valley in north-eastern Italy midway between Bolzano and Merano in the area of the Trentino-Alto Adige region also known as South Tyrol. The German influence on the area is so dominant that more than 90 per cent of the town's 12,000 residents speak German as their first language, and less than eight per cent Italian. It is popular with hikers and cyclists in the summer months, with a network of well defined cycle paths.  Lana is also home to the South Tyrol Museum of Fruit, which details the history of fruit cultivation in the area.

Hotels in Lana from Hotels.com

The Roman Porta Borsari in Verona is almost 2,000 years old
The Roman Porta Borsari in Verona is almost 2,000 years old 
Travel tip:

Verona is famous for the Arena, the Roman amphitheatre that stages open air concerts, and for Casa Giulietta, the house with the balcony said to be the one that featured in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet.  But there is more to the city's attractions.  In addition to the Arena, Verona is said to have more Roman ruins than any other Italian city and many are part of the everyday fabric of the city, including the Porta Borsari, with its two large arches and numerous smaller arches above, dating back to the 1st century, which straddles the entrance to Corso Porta Borsari, one of the city's main shopping streets.  There are many squares, including the charming Piazza dei Signori, which is surrounded by several fine buildings, including the Palazzo del Comune, the Palazzo Domus Nova and the Loggia del Consiglio.

More reading:

How Michele Ferrero's hazelnut spread became a worldwide phenomenon

Francesco Cirio and the canning revolution

A hotel empire that started with a single London coffee bar

Also on this day:

1940: The birth of F1 motor racing champion Mario Andretti

1942: The birth of record-breaking goalkeeper Dino Zoff

(Picture credits: Tractor in orchard by böhringer friedrich; Porta Borsari by Didier Descouens via Wikimedia Commons; Zuegg pictures from Zuegg company website)


27 February 2017

Italy's appeal for help with Leaning Tower

Fears of collapse prompted summit of engineers

The tower began to lean within five years of the start of construction in 1173
The tower began to lean within five years
of the start of construction in 1173
The Italian government finally admitted that it needed help to save the Leaning Tower of Pisa from collapsing on this day in 1964.

There had been numerous attempts to arrest the movement of the tower, which had begun to tilt five years after construction began in 1173.

One side of the tower started to sink after engineers added a second floor in 1178, when the mistake of setting a foundation just three metres deep in weak, unstable soil became clear. Construction was halted.  In fact, in part because of a series of military conflicts, it did not resume for 100 years.

Additions were made to the building over the next 100 years, culminating in the completion of the bell chamber in 1372. Nothing more was done until the 19th century, when an ill-considered plan to dig a path around the base in 1838 resulted in a new increase in the tilt.

Ironically, the tower might have been deliberately destroyed in the Second World War when advancing American soldiers were ordered to blow up any tall building that might have been used by German snipers, regardless of its historical importance.  Thankfully, a German withdrawal before the Americans reached Pisa made it unnecessary.

Counterweights helped to stabilise the tower in 1992
Counterweights helped to stabilise the tower in 1992
By 1964, the top of the 180ft (55m) tower was a staggering 17 feet out of alignment with the base, and studies showed that the tilt was increasing every year.

The Leaning Tower had become one of Italy’s most visited tourist attractions but experts warned it was in serious danger of toppling in an earthquake or storm.

Proposals to save the tower arrived in Pisa from all over the world and a multinational task force of engineers, mathematicians, and historians gathered on the Azores islands to discuss possible ways of stabilising the structure.

Yet it was 44 years before it was announced that the Leaning Tower had stopped moving for the first time in its history.

Cables were also attached to the third floor during the 1992 attempt
Cables were also attached to the third
floor during the 1992 attempt 
Stabilisation studies took more than two decades to complete, in which time the tower remained open to the public.  Two attempts to slow the tilt's progress - in 1966 and 1985 - had to be aborted after drilling caused the lean to increase.

The government decided to close the tower in 1990 through concerns for public safety.  Worries about a collapse increased after disaster struck the 236ft (72m) Civic Tower in Pavia in 1989, killing four people and injuring 15 when it suddenly fell to the ground.

In 1992, in an effort to stabilise the Pisa tower at least temporarily, plastic-coated steel tendons were built around the tower up to the second story. A concrete foundation was built around the tower in which counterweights were placed on the north side. The use of these weights lessened the tilt by nearly an inch.

Hovever, three years later the commission overseeing the restoration decided they wanted to replace the counterweights with underground cables, on the grounds that they were unsightly.  But when engineers froze the ground with liquid nitrogen in preparation, there was an alarming increase in the tilt and project was called off.

Amid fears that a collapse might be imminent, the bells in the tower were removed and cables were attached around the third level, anchored to the ground several hundred meters away. Apartments and houses in the path of the tower were vacated for safety.

The baptistry with the cathedral in the background
The baptistry with the cathedral in the background
Finally, in 1999, a solution was found that actually worked, which involved removing 38 cubic metres (1,342 cubic feet) of soil from underneath the raised north side.

The soil was removed at a very slow pace, no more than a gallon or two a day, with a massive cable harness holding the tower in the event of a sudden destabilisation.

At the end of the process, which took more than a year to complete, the tower had been straightened by 45 centimetres (17.7 inches), returning to its position before the path at the base was dug in 1838.  It was never intended to straighten the tower completely.

After expects were satisfied the movement had been arrested,  the tower was reopened to the public in December 2001. It is thought the work will extend the life of the Leaning Tower by 300 years.  An inspection in 2008 confirmed that the tower's movement had stopped.

The Leaning Tower may be the most famous tilting building in the world but it is by no means unique.  There are thought to be around 75 towers around the world that have failed to stand up straight, including another two in Pisa - the campanile - bell towers - of the churches of San Michele degli Scalzi and San Nicola.

Venice has four - the Campanile of San Giorgio dei Greci in Castello, the Campanile of Santo Stefano in San Marco and the Campanile of St Mark's itself, plus the Campanile of San Martino on the island of Burano.

The Palazzo della Carovana in Pisa's Piazza dei Cavalieri
The Palazzo della Carovana in Pisa's Piazza dei Cavalieri
Travel tip:

Many visitors to Pisa confine themselves to the Campo dei Miracoli, of which the Leaning Tower is part, touring the handsome Romanesque cathedral and the equally impressive baptistry and then moving on.  But there is much more to Pisa than the Leaning Tower. The University of Pisa remains one of the most prestigious in Italy, while the student population ensures a vibrant cafe and bar scene. There is also much to see in the way of Romanesque buildings, Gothic churches and Renaissance piazzas. Interesting churches include Santa Maria della Spina, which sits next to the Arno river, while Piazza dei Cavalieri is notable for the Palazzo della Carovana, built by Giorgio Vasari in 1564 as the headquarters for the Knights of St Stephen.

Pisa hotels from Booking.com

The leaning tower of the church of San Giorgio dei Greci in Venice
The leaning tower of the church of San
Giorgio dei Greci in Venice
Travel tip:

The church of San Giorgio dei Greci in the sestiere of Castello was built in the 16th century to be the focal point of the Greek community in Venice.  There had been close ties between Venice and the Byzantine world for centuries but it was not until 1539, after protracted negotiations, that the papacy allowed the construction of the church of San Giorgio. Construction began in 1548, with the Campanile added in 1592.  The church is popular for its peaceful inner courtyard and for the beautiful Greek icons inside.

26 February 2017

Angelo Mangiarotti - architect and designer

Iconic glass church among legacy to city of Milan 

Angelo Mangiarotti, pictured at a conference in 2007
Angelo Mangiarotti, pictured at a conference in 2007
Angelo Mangiarotti, regarded by his peers as one of the greats of modern Italian architecture and design, was born on this day in 1921 in Milan.

Many notable examples of his work in urban design can be found in his home city, including the Repubblica and Venezia underground stations, the iconic glass church of Nostra Signora della Misericordia in the Baranzate suburb and several unique residential properties, including the distinctive Casa a tre cilindri - composed of a trio of cylindrical blocks - in Via Gavirate in the San Siro district of the city.

He also worked extensively in furniture design with major companies such as Vistosi, Fontana Arte, Danese, Artemide, Skipper and the kitchen producer Snaidero.

Inside the glass Chiesa di Nostra Signora della Misericordia
Inside the glass Chiesa di Nostra Signora della Misericordia
Mangiarotti graduated from the Architecture School of the Politecnico di Milano in 1948. He moved to the United States in 1953 and worked in Chicago as a visiting professor for the Illinois Institute of Technology. While in Illinois, he met internationally renowned architects Frank Lloyd Wright, Walter Gropius, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Konrad Wachsmann, all of whom were substantial influences.

He returned to Italy in 1950 and opened his own architectural firm in Milan with fellow architect Bruno Morassutti, a partnership which was active until 1960.

It was with Morasutti and another Milan-based designer and engineer, Aldo Favini, that Mangiarotti collaborated on the Chiesa di Nostra Signora della Misericordia, which signalled a massive change in the design features and construction techniques of Italian churches.

The church, in the Baranzate suburb to the north-west of Milan, was constructed of concrete, steel and glass - chosen as the materials that fuelled the rebirth of Italy after the devastation of the Second World War.

The Case a tre cilindri in the San Siro district of Milan
The Case a tre cilindri in the San Siro district of Milan
Mangiarotti's original designs helped create a timeless building that has recently been restored and continues to be an impressive example of modern, progressive design even 60 years after its original construction.

The church is very near the Fiera Milano metro station, which was Mangiarotti's last architectural project before his death in 2012.

Mangiarotti's designs for furniture, lighting, decorative objects, ceramics and glassware remain highly collectible and sell for high prices.  He also created a famous collection of Murano glass Giogali Lighting produced by Vistosi.

His partnership with Rino Snaidero, which began in 1960, helped establish Snaidero's position as a leader in kitchen design.

Mangiarotti designed the Cruscotto kitchen and Sistema lines for Snaidero, both of which were notable for the exceptionally refined materials used.  The Cruscotto design was exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

The distinctive Snaidero headquarters building
The distinctive Snaidero headquarters building
The relationship between Snaidero and Mangiarotti reached its peak when the architect was given the job of designing the new building to house Snaidero's offices and central headquarters in Majano in the province of Udine, for which he created a mushroom-shaped main building with a fibreglass facade secured to a reinforced concrete structure, supported by four columns.

It had rounded corners and slightly protruding elliptical windows reminiscent of a ship or an aeroplane.

Mangiarotti, who died in 2012 aged 91, passed on his ideas as a lecturer at universities and technical institutes in Venice, Palermo, Florence and Milan in Italy, as well as Lausanne in Switzerland, Hawaii and Adelaide, Australia.   His work won numerous awards.

Travel tip:

The San Siro district of Milan originated as a small settlement in the 19th century in the area now known as Piazzale Lotto. The area developed in the 20th century and has since become a very diverse district, with a mix of green space and congested residential neighbourhoods, combining villas and apartment blocks serving different income groups, and a concentration of sports facilities, most notably the Giuseppe Meazza football stadium, home of AC Milan and Internazionale, the Milanese hippodrome horse racing track and the Palasport di San Siro arena, which is mainly used for basketball and volleyball.

Milan hotels from Booking.com

The Piazza della Libertà in Udine
The Piazza della Libertà in Udine
Travel tip:

Majano, the base of the Snaidero company headquarters that Mangiarotti designed, is a short distance from the city of Udine, an attractive and wealthy provincial city which is the gastronomic capital of Friuli. Udine's most attractive area lies within the medieval centre, which has Venetian, Greek and Roman influences. The main square, Piazza della Libertà, features the town hall, the Loggia del Lionello, built in 1448–1457 in the Venetian-Gothic style, and a clock tower, the Torre dell’Orologio, which is similar to the clock tower in Piazza San Marco - St Mark's Square - in Venice.

More reading:

25 February 2017

Alberto Sordi - actor

Comic genius who appeared in 190 films

Alberto Sordi with Sophia Loren in the 1954 film Due notti con Cleopatra (Two Nights with Cleopatra)
Alberto Sordi with Sophia Loren in the 1954 film
Due notti con Cleopatra (Two Nights with Cleopatra)
Alberto Sordi, remembered by lovers of Italian cinema as one of its most outstanding comedy actors, died on this day in 2003 in Rome, the city of his birth.

He was 82 and had suffered a heart attack.  Italy reacted with an outpouring of grief and the decision was taken for his body to lie in state at Rome's town hall, the Campidoglio.

Streams of his fans took the opportunity to file past his coffin and when his funeral took place at the Basilica of San Giovanni in Laterano it was estimated that the crowds outside the church and in nearby streets numbered one million people.

Only the funeral of Pope John Paul II, who died two years later, is thought to have attracted a bigger crowd.

Sordi (right) in a scene from his 1954 film An American in  Rome, which established him as a comic character actor
Sordi (right) in a scene from An American in Rome 
(1954) which established him as a comic character actor
Sordi was the Italian voice of Oliver Hardy in the early days of his career, when he worked on the dubbing of the Laurel and Hardy movies.  He made the first of his 190 films in 1937 but it was not until the 1950s that he found international fame.

He appeared in two movies directed by Federico Fellini - The White Sheik and I vitelloni.  In the latter, he played an oafish layabout, something of a simpleton but an effeminate and vulnerable character to whom audiences responded with warmth and affection due to Sordi's interpretation.

It was Sordi's eye for the foibles of quirks of the Italian character that identified him as an actor of considerable talent.  His films often had the simple titles of the Italian stereotypes he was sending up, such as The Seducer, The Bachelor, The Husband, The Widower, The Traffic Cop and The Moralist.

Some were black comedies, some slapstick farces, others more serious dramas. Along with Vittorio Gassman, Ugo Tognazzi and Nino Manfredi, he made up a quartet that has been described as Italy's equivalent of the Ealing comedy school.

Alberto Sordi in the 1962 black comedy Mafioso
Alberto Sordi in the 1962 black comedy Mafioso
Born in Rome in June 1920 in the working class Trastevere district, Sordi came from a musical family. While his mother was a schoolteacher, his father played the tuba in the orchestra at the Rome Opera House.

His father encouraged an interest in music and by the age of 10 Sordi was singing in the Sistine Chapel choir. At 16 he went to Milan to study at drama school but was told he would never be successful unless he shed his thick Roman accent.  In the event, the accent and distinctive voice became part of his popularity.

Back in Rome, he became popular in radio shows and as a music hall act before landing the voice-over part for the Laurel and Hardy films, employing the bogus English accent he had used in a music hall sketch.

Eager for more work in the burgeoning movie industry, he hung around the cafes in Piazza di Spagna, where he befriended Fellini and his fellow director, Vittorio De Sica.  After working as an extra, he landed his first important role was as an air force cadet in Tre Aquilotti (Three Eaglets) in 1941.

Sordi (in the foreground) lounges outside a cafe in I vitelloni
Sordi (in the foreground) lounges outside a cafe in I vitelloni
The two Fellini movies brought him to the attention of the movie world as an actor of potential but it was his performance in An American in Rome (1954), directed by Stefano Vanzina - usually known as Steno - that established his brilliance in exaggerating the foibles and idiosyncrasies of his fellow Italians.

Poking fun at Italy's obsession with things American, Sordi played Ferdinand 'Nando' Mericoni, a young Roman who is so in awe of the American lifestyle he tries to make his room look like a Hollywood set, pretends he is from Kansas City and lives out everyday situations as if he were an actor in an American film. He makes up for his inability to speak English by making American vocal sounds.  Sordi would return to the theme years later, in 1968, with an Italian in America, which he directed himself.

In the opinion of the critics, the most accomplished performance of his career was as a middle-class Italian in Mario Monicelli's hard-hitting 1977 film Un Borghese Piccolo Piccolo (A Very Small Petit Bourgeois), who takes vengeance after seeing his child killed in a robbery.

Sordi never married but was the long-time partner of the actress Andreina Pagnani. Later in life, he lived quietly with his dogs and his two sisters in a splendid villa near the Baths of Caracalla, indulging his interests in opera, collecting antiques and supporting his football team, AS Roma.

Over a career that spanned five decades, he won seven David di Donatello awards for best actor - the most won by anyone in that category - and four awards from the Italian National Syndicate of Film Journalists. He also received a Golden Lion for lifetime achievement at the Venice Film Festival in 1995.

Less than a week after his death, the mayor of Rome announced that the gallery of shops opposite the Palazzo Chigi would be renamed Galleria Alberto Sordi in his memory.

The Isola Tiberina adjoins the Trastevere district
The Isola Tiberina adjoins the Trastevere district
Travel tip:

The Trastevere district has evolved from its working class roots into one of Rome's most fashionable neighbourhoods, certainly among young professionals, who are attracted by its pretty cobbled streets and the wealth of inexpensive but chic restaurants.  There are interesting attractions for visitors, too.  Apart from some fine churches, the area boasts the Botanical Garden of Rome, the lovely Isola Tiberina, an island in the middle of the river on which is built an old hospital and a church, and the lively Porta Portese Sunday market.

Rome hotels from Booking.com

Travel tip:

Numbering John Keats, Mary Shelley and Casanova among its fans, the Piazza di Spagna is a beautiful square noted for the famous Spanish Steps leading up to the Trinità dei Monti church. Keats had a house next to the steps on the right looking up from the square. The steps tend to be crowded with tourists during the day but thin out after 10pm, when the square still looks glorious under the street lights. Leading off the square, Via Condotti has become home to Rome’s most exclusive shops, including Prada and Gucci. There are plenty of restaurants and bars around the square, although they can be expensive. However, inexpensive beer, ice creams and roasted chestnuts can be bought from street vendors.

More reading:

Giulietta Masina - Fellini's muse and wife of 50 years

Otto e mezzo - the greatest Fellini movie of them all?

How tough-talking Roman actress Anna Magnani became an Oscar-winning star

Also on this day:

1682: The birth of anatomist Giovanni Battista Morgagni

1707: The birth of Venetian playwright Carlo Goldoni

1873: The birth of the brilliant tenor Enrico Caruso

Selected books:

A History of Italian Cinema, by Peter Bondanella and Federico Pacchioni


24 February 2017

Sandro Pertini - popular president

Man of the people who fought Fascism

Sandro Pertini (right) congratulates coach Enzo Bearzot after Italy won the World Cup in Spain in 1982
Sandro Pertini (right) congratulates coach Enzo Bearzot
after Italy won the World Cup in Spain in 1982
Sandro Pertini, the respected and well-liked socialist politician who served as Italy's President between 1978 and 1985, died on this day in 1990, aged 93.

Pertini, a staunch opponent of Fascism who was twice imprisoned by Mussolini and again by the Nazis, passed away at the apartment near the Trevi Fountain in Rome that he shared with his wife, Carla.

After his death was announced, a large crowd gathered in the street near his apartment, with some of his supporters in tears.  Francesco Cossiga, who had succeeded him as President, visited the apartment to offer condolences to Pertini's widow, 30 years his junior.  They had met towards the end of the Second World War, when they were both fighting with the Italian resistance movement.

Pertini's popularity stemmed both from his strong sense of morality and his unwavering good humour.  He had the charm and wit to win over most people he met and was blessed with the common touch.

Sandro Pertini with his customary pipe
Sandro Pertini with his
customary pipe
He would make a point whenever it was possible of appearing in person to greet parties of schoolchildren visiting the presidential palace, sometimes joined the staff for lunch and endeared himself to the nation with his passionate support for Italy's football team at the 1982 World Cup final in Spain.

Pertini's life story was extraordinary.  Born in Stella, in Liguria, in the province of Savona, he was the son of a wealthy landowner and was given an expensive education, culminating in a Law degree from the University of Genoa.

He was patriotic inasmuch as he enlisted to fight in the Italian army in the First World War even though he opposed Italy's involvement, but his politics leaned towards the left.  After the war he joined the Unitary Socialist Party (PSU) and settled in Florence.

Already openly opposed to the Fascists, whose squads of paramilitary thugs beat him up more than once, his attitude hardened considerably when Giacomo Matteotti, the PSU leader, was murdered soon after accusing Mussolini's party of using violence and fraud to influence the 1924 elections.

He was arrested for the first time in 1925 for 'inciting hatred' after attacking the Fascists in print for their "barbarous domination" and sentenced to eight months' jail.  He managed to escape and fled to France.

Sandro Pertini made a point whenever possible of meeting children in person when they visited the presidential palace
Sandro Pertini made a point whenever possible of meeting
children in person when they visited the presidential palace
Pertini kept his head down at first, working as a taxi driver in Paris, but after moving to Nice to work as a bricklayer he was twice prosecuted for his role in political disturbances.  Back in Italy, where he felt compelled to return to join the anti-Fascist underground, he was arrested in connection with a failed plot assassinate Mussolini.

Exiled to Santo Stefano, an island in the Tyrrhenian Sea, he was released with the arrest of Mussolini in 1943. Recaptured by the occupying Nazi forces and sentenced to death, he was freed by partisans and joined the anti-Nazi resistance movement.

By then the PSU had rejoined the Italian Socialist Party (PSI) from which it had broken away previously, and after being part of the Constituent Assembly charged with designing the constitution for the new Italian Republic, Pertini was elected to the Chamber of Deputies under the PSI flag.

In 1968 he became president of the Chamber of Deputies and in 1978 President of the Republic, elected as a compromise candidate respected by politicians of the left and right.

Although by then he was 72, the pipe-smoking Pertini did much to restore the credibility of the political system in Italy at a time when the country was demoralised by internal terrorism, corruption scandals and a weak economy. He denounced the violence of the Red Brigades, spoke out against organized crime and expressed his disgust with South African apartheid, the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet and other dictatorial regimes. He also criticised the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Pertini was pictured playing cards with Dino Zoff, Franco  Causio, and Enzo Bearzot on the plane home from Spain
Pertini was pictured playing cards with Dino Zoff, Franco
 Causio, and Enzo Bearzot on the plane home from Spain
By the time he left office in 1985, corruption was still a problem but the Anni di piombo - the Years of Lead - had been left behind, the economy was recovering well... and Italy had won the World Cup.

Always his own man, Pertini declined the opportunity to live in the Quirinale Palace, preferring his own apartment, and rather than be ferried around in state-owned limousines he had his wife drive him around Rome in a red Fiat 500.  Despite being an atheist, he had a close friendship with Pope John Paul II. He rushed to the Gemelli Hospital in Rome as soon as news reached him of the assassination attempt against John Paul II in 1981 and refused to go home until doctors assured him the pontiff was out of danger.

After Italy's World Cup victory, he invited the team to a reception at the Quirinale, telling striker Paolo Rossi, whose goals had been vital to the Azzurri triumph, that the chance to congratulate the players made it his "best day as President."

Stella San Giovanni nestles on a hillside overlooking the coast of Liguria, not far from the port of Savona
Stella San Giovanni nestles on a hillside overlooking
the coast of Liguria, not far from the port of Savona
Travel tip:

Sandro Pertini was born in Stella San Giovanni, one of five frazioni that make up an area collectively known as Stella, situated about 15 minutes inland from the Ligurian coastline not far from the sea port of Savona, which is notable for having been a major centre in the Italian iron industry and also as the one-time home of the explorer Christopher Columbus.  Its medieval centre is interesting for the Cathedral of Assunta and the adjoining Cistine Chapel and for the Priamar Fortress, built in 1542 after the Genoese had captured Savona. It later became a prison, where the revolutionary politician Giuseppe Mazzini was once held for being a member of a banned political organisation.

Hotels in Savona from Booking.com

The Trevi Fountain is the largest Baroque  fountain in Rome
The Trevi Fountain is the largest Baroque
 fountain in Rome 
Travel tip:

The Trevi Fountain, which takes its name from the Trevi district in Rome, was commissioned by Pope Clement XII and designed by Italian architect Nicola Salvi in slightly controversial circumstances. The Pope had organised a contest for the best design, which Salvi lost to Alessandro Galilei, but awarding the commission to a Florentine caused a public outcry in Rome and to curb unrest it was eventually given to Salvi by default. Standing 26.3 metres (86 ft) high and 49.15 metres (161.3 ft) wide, it is the largest Baroque fountain in the city and one of the most famous fountains in the world, playing a starring role in Federico Fellini's film, La Dolce Vita.  Work began in 1732 and the fountain was completed in 1762, long after Salvi's death, with Pietro Bracci - who was responsible for setting Oceanus - the god of all water - in the central niche, taking over.

(Picture credits: all Pertini pictures from Quirinale.it; Stella San Giovanni panorama by Davide Papalini; Trevi Fountain by Paul Vlaar; all via Wikemedia Commons)

23 February 2017

Gentile Bellini - Renaissance painter

Bellini family were Venice's leading 15th century artists

A self-portrait of Gentile Bellini which he is  thought to have drawn in 1496
A self-portrait of Gentile Bellini which he is
thought to have drawn in 1496
Gentile Bellini, a member of Venice's leading family of painters in the 15th century, died in Venice on this day in 1507.  He was believed to be in his late 70s, although the exact date of his birth was not recorded.

The son of Jacopo Bellini, who had been a pioneer in the use of oil paint in art, he was the brother of Giovanni Bellini and the brother-in-law of Andrea Mantegna.  Together, they were the founding family of the Venetian school of Renaissance art.

Although history tends to place Gentile in their shadow, he was considered in his time to be one of the greatest living painters in Venice and from 1454 he was the official portrait artist for the Doges of Venice.

He also served Venice as a cultural ambassador in Constantinople, where he was sent to work for Sultan Mehmed II as part of a peace settlement between Venice and Turkey.

Gentile learned painting in his father's studio.  Once established, he had no shortage of commissions, for portraits, views of the city, and for large paintings for public buildings, often characterised by multiple figures.

Gentile Bellini's Miracle of the True Cross at the Bridge of San Lorenzo can be found at the Galleria dell'Accademia
Gentile Bellini's Miracle of the True Cross at the Bridge of
San Lorenzo
can be found at the Galleria dell'Accademia 
He was one of the artists hired by the Scuola Grande di San Giovanni Evangelista to paint a 10-painting cycle known as the The Miracle of the Relics of the Cross.  His contribution included the Procession of the True Cross in Piazza San Marco (1496) and the Miracle of the True Cross at the Bridge of San Lorenzo (1500), which includes a self-portrait and a portrait of his brother, Giovanni.

Gentile was despatched by the Venetian senate to Turkey in 1479. Mehmed II had been interested for many years in the art and culture of Italy and one of his life's wishes was to have his portrait painted by an Italian.  It is certain that Gentile would have executed at least one, possibly more.  The portrait of Mehmed in the National Gallery has for many years been attributed to Gentile, although there are some who question that assumption.

His painting Saint Mark Preaching in Alexandria, which was completed by Giovanni after Gentile's death, has an Oriental flavour influenced by his time there. Saint Mark, the patron of Venice, was from Alexandria.

Gentile Bellini's painting Saint Mark Preaching in Alexandria
Gentile Bellini's painting Saint Mark Preaching in Alexandria
Back in Venice, Gentile Bellini was an early teacher of Titian, although they were said to have had a difficult relationship and Titian found his adherence to conventions somewhat restricting.  He is said to have preferred to learn from Giovanni, although soon afterwards he went to work with Giorgione.

Some 70 years after his death, a large fire at the Doge's Palace in Venice destroyed some of Gentile's most notable work, although there are several examples preserved in galleries around the world, notably in the United States and in London as well as Italy.

Saint Mark Preaching in Alexandria is in the Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan, while the Procession of the True Cross in Piazza San Marco and the Miracle of the True Cross at the Bridge of San Lorenzo can both be found in the Gallerie dell'Accademia in Venice.

Two of his portraits of the Doges - of Giovanni Mocenigo and Leonardo Loredan - are housed in the Museo Correr in Venice. Another in the series, of Pasquale Malipiero, is in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.  The Frick Collection in New York has another portrait of Giovanni Mocenigo; another of Leonardo Loredan can be seen in the Young Memorial Museum in San Francisco.

The entrance to the Galleria dell'Accademia in Campo della Carità in the Dorsoduro district of Venice
The entrance to the Galleria dell'Accademia in Campo
della Carità in the Dorsoduro district of Venice
Travel tip:

The Gallerie dell'Accademia in Venice is housed in the Scuola della Carità on the south bank of the Grand Canal, in the Dorsoduro district. It evolved from the gallery of the Accademia di Belle Arti di Venezia, from which it became independent in 1879.  The church of Santa Maria and the monastery of the Canonici Lateranensi, built by Andrea Palladio, are integral parts of the Accademia. As well as works by Gentile and Giovanni Bellini, its collection includes paintings by Canaletto, Carpaccio, Guardi, Giorgione, Longhi, Lotto, Mantegna, Tiepolo, Tintoretto, Titian, Veronese, Vasari and Leonardo da Vinci.  Opening hours are 8.15am to 2pm on Mondays, 8.15am to 7.15pm on Tuesday to Sunday.

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The Museo Correr in St Mark's Square has a substantial collection of Venetian works of art
The Museo Correr in St Mark's Square has a substantial
collection of Venetian works of art
Travel tip:

Venice's Museo Correr is located on the south side of Piazza San Marco (St Mark's Square) on the upper floors of the Procuratorie Nuove.  The museum originated with the collection bequeathed to the city of Venice in 1830 by Teodoro Correr, a member of a prestigious Venetian family who dedicated most of his life to the collection of works of art, documents and objects that reflected the history of Venice, which he donated to the city after his death. Museo Correr is open from 10am to 5pm from November 1 to March 31 and from 10am to 7pm from April 1 to October 31.

More reading:

Why Titian was a giant of Renaissance art in Venice

How Andrea Mantegna pioneered use of perspective

The boundless energy of Tintoretto

Also on this day:

22 February 2017

Giulietta Masina - actress

Married to Fellini and excelled in his films

Giulietta Masina in a picture taken in about 1960
Giulietta Masina in a picture taken
in about 1960
The actress Giulietta Masina, who was married for 50 years to the film director Federico Fellini, was born on this day in 1921 in San Giorgio di Piano, a small town in Emilia-Romagna, about 20km (12 miles) north of Bologna.

She appeared in 22 films, six of them directed by her husband, who gave her the lead female role opposition Anthony Quinn in La Strada (1954) and enabled her to win international acclaim when he cast her as a prostitute in the 1957 film Nights of Cabiria, which built on a small role she had played in an earlier Fellini movie, The White Sheik.

Masina's performance in what was a controversial film at the time earned her best actress awards at the film festivals of Cannes and San Sebastián and from the Italian National Syndicate of Film Journalists (SNGCI).

Both La Strada and Nights of Cabiria won Oscars for best foreign film at the Academy Awards.

Masina also won best actress in the David di Donatello awards for the title role in Fellini's Juliet of the Spirits (1965) and a second SNGCI best actress award for his 1986 film Ginger and Fred.

Although born in northern Italy, one of four children, her parents sent her to live with a widowed aunt in Via Lutezia in the Parioli area of Rome. They hoped it would improve her prospects by obtaining a better education.  Ultimately, she graduated from the Sapienza University of Rome with a degree in Literature.

Giulietta Masini as Cabiria in the Fellini film Nights of Cabiria, for which she won a string of awards
Giulietta Masina as Cabiria in the Fellini film Nights of
, for which she won a string of awards
Having earlier studied music and dance, she turned to acting while at university, appearing in productions at the university's own Ateneo Theatre and the Compagnia del Teatro Comico Musicale.  It was there in 1942 that she was spotted by Fellini, who cast her in his radio serial, Terziglio.

The two hit it off immediately and married after only one year, in October 1943.  Masina continued to work on stage, in some productions alongside Marcello Mastroianni, who would become Fellini's leading man, before her husband helped her make the transition to the big screen, where she excelled in the portrayal of innocent, pathetic and troubled outcasts.

She was renowned for being able to use her expressive face to convey a range of emotions from sorrow and pathos to happiness and love. Many critics described her as a female Charlie Chaplin.  In her private life, she was noted for her impish sense of humour.

The original movie poster for Fellini's film Nights of Cabiria
The original movie poster for
Fellini's film Nights of Cabiria
As well as movie work, towards the end of her career Masina worked successfully in radio, hosting Lettere aperte, a show in which she responded to listeners' correspondence, and acted in television dramas.

Her marriage to Fellini was not blessed with children. Her first pregnancy ended after she suffered a miscarriage following a fall on a flight of stairs. She became pregnant again but her son, Pierfederico, to whom she gave birth in March 1945, tragically died from encephalitis at a month old.

Despite her husband's frequent infidelities, most of which he confessed, Masina stuck by Fellini.  They celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in October 1993, a day before he died.

Onlookers noted how frail she looked at his funeral and it was only five months later that she passed away herself at the age of 73, having been diagnosed with lung cancer.  She and her husband are buried together at Rimini cemetery in a tomb marked by a prow-shaped monument, the work of sculptor Arnaldo Pomodoro.

San Giorgio di Piano's parish church of San Giorgio Martire (St George the Martyr)
San Giorgio di Piano's parish church of
San Giorgio Martire (St George the Martyr)
Travel tip:

San Giorgio di Piano is a pleasant town within greater Bologna in an area with an economy based on the production of hemp and wheat.  It grew in the 14th century around a castle, the Castello di San Giorgio.  The Via della Libertà is an elegant porticoed street typical of the architecture in Bologna and Ferrara.  The parish church of St George the Martyr was renovated during the 19th century, as was the adjoining bell tower, which was added in the 18th century.  The church contains important paintings by Antonio Randa and Mario Roversi. In June each year, the town hosts a festival, the Corso dei Fiori, which is celebrated in the manner of a carnival with a parade of floats and a tradition of wearing decorative masks. 

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The Parioli district is notable for its tree-lined streets
The Parioli district of Rome, where Masina grew up,
is a well-to-do area notable for its tree-lined streets
Travel tip:

Parioli, where Masina grew up, is now one of Rome's wealthiest residential areas. Located between two of the city's largest parks - the gardens of the Villa Borghese and the Villa Ada - it is notable for tree-lined streets and elegant houses, and is also home to some of Rome's best restaurants, while its bars attract a sophisticated clientele. Many luxury apartments to rent make it popular with well-heeled visitors to the capital.

21 February 2017

Giuseppe Abbati - painter and revolutionary

Early death robbed Italian art of bright new talent

Giovanni Boldini's portrait of  Giuseppe Abbati in 1865
Giovanni Boldini's portrait of
Giuseppe Abbati in 1865
Italy lost a great artistic talent tragically young when the painter and patriot Giuseppe Abbati died on this day in 1868.

Only 32 years old, Abbati passed away in the hospital of Santa Maria Nuova in Florence, having contracted rabies as a result of being bitten by a dog.

Abbati was a leading figure in the Macchiaioli movement, a school of painting advanced by a small group of artists who began to meet at the Caffè Michelangiolo in Florence in the late 1850s.

The group, in which Giovanni Fattori, Silvestro Lega and Cristiano Banti were other prominent members, were also for the most part revolutionaries, many of whom had taken part in the uprisings that occurred at different places in the still-to-be-united Italian peninsula in 1848.

Abbati, born in Naples, had joined Giuseppe Garibaldi's Expedition of the Thousand, losing his right eye in the Battle of the Volturno in 1860, when around 24,000 partisans were confronted by a 50,000-strong Bourbon army at Capua, north of Naples.

The son of Vincenzo Abbati, also a painter, Abbati was taken to live in Florence when he was six and to Venice before he was 10.  The family stayed in Venice for 12 years, Abbati attending the Accademia di Belle Arti, where he met future Macchiaioli painters Vito D'Ancona and Telemaco Signorini.

Abbati's painting Il lattaio di Piagentina, which was completed in Florence in 1864 (Museo Civico, Naples)
Abbati's painting Il lattaio di Piagentina, which was
completed in Florence in 1864 (Museo Civico, Naples)
It was there that he witnessed the uprising against the Austrians led by Daniele Manin, future president of the short-lived Republic of San Marco.

Abbati returned to Naples in 1858, exhibiting at the Royal Bourbon Museum, before moving again to Florence in 1860 and making the acquaintance at the Caffè Michelangiolo of the Macchiaioli group.

They were a group who favoured political renewal but wanted also to establish a new Italian national pictorial culture, breaking away from the conventions taught by the established academies.  They believed that spots - macchie, in Italian - of light and shade were the chief components of works of art and were also advocates of painting outdoors - often referred to by the French expression en plein air - in order to capture the way scenes appeared at the time of execution, and how they are affected by light and weather conditions.

Abbati's La Fenestra, which is housed
in the Pitti Palace in Florence
Comparisons were made with the Impressionist movement in France but the Macchiaioli were less bold in their pursuit of optical effects and their outlines and figures were generally more sharply defined.

Abbati was seen as one of the most talented in the group and enjoyed a period of high productivity between 1860 and 1866 with a series of street or countryside scenes, sometimes painting a scene through the frame of a window or an archway, emphasising the contrasts of light and shade.

He tasted military action again in 1866, joining up to fight in the Third Italian War of Independence on the side of the new Kingdom of Italy against the Austrians.  He was captured during the Battle of Custoza and imprisoned in Croatia.

On his return to Italy, he lived on the estate owned by Diego Martelli, a patron and critic he met in Florence, in Castelnuovo della Misericordia, in the hills above Livorno, on the Tuscan coast.

It was there, however, that Abbati was bitten by one of Martelli's dogs, which turned out to be rabid.  He was treated in hospital for almost six weeks before the disease finally took him.

The facade of the 11th century Basilica of Sant' Angelo in Formis was built over a Roman temple
The facade of the 11th century Basilica of Sant'
Angelo in Formis was built over a Roman temple 
Travel tip:

Capua, where Abbati fought alongside Garibaldi in the Expedition of the Thousand, developed as a town around the point at which the Volturno river crosses the Via Appia, the Roman road linking Rome with Brindisi, and therefore was always strategically important.  There are many Roman relics including the remains of the second largest amphitheatre of the Roman empire.  Only the Colosseum in Rome has larger dimensions.  The 11th century Basilica of Sant'Angelo in Formis and the Cathedral of Capua, some of which dates back to the ninth century and which contains painting by Domenico Vaccaro, are also worth visiting.

The plaque outside 21 Via Cavour in Florence marks the site of the Caffè Michelangiolo
The plaque outside 21 Via Cavour in Florence marks
the site of the Caffè Michelangiolo 
Travel tip:

The Caffè Michelangiolo was a literary cafe that could be found in what was then Via Largo (now Via Cavour) in Florence, a short distance from the centre of the city going towards the university.  The building at 21 Via Cavour has a plaque to commemorate its history as a meeting place of the Macchiaioli artists. Today it is a centre for events and exhibitions celebrating their work.

More reading:

How Carlo Carra and the Futurists turned their art into a political movement

Marcello Piacentini: designer whose buildings symbolised Fascist ideals

Giuseppe Mazzini - hero of the Risorgimento

Also on this day: