31 July 2017

Alessandro Algardi – sculptor

Baroque works of art were designed to illustrate papal power

Algardi's extraordinary marble relief, Fuga d'Attila, which he created for St Peter's Basilica in Rome
Algardi's extraordinary marble relief, Fuga d'Attila,
which he created for St Peter's Basilica in Rome
Alessandro Algardi, whose Baroque sculptures grace many churches in Rome, was born on this day in 1598 in Bologna.

Algardi emerged as the principal rival of Gian Lorenzo Bernini in the field of portrait sculpture and although Bernini’s creations were known for their dynamic vitality and penetrating characterisation, Algardi’s works were appreciated for their sobriety and surface realism. Many of his smaller works of arts, such as marble busts and terracotta figures are now in collections and museums all over the world.

Algardi was born in Bologna, where he was apprenticed in the studio of Agostino Carracci from a young age.

He soon showed an aptitude for sculpture and his earliest known works, two statues of saints, were created for the Oratory of Santa Maria della Vita in Bologna.

After a short stay in Venice, he went to Rome in 1625 with an introduction from the Duke of Mantua to the late pope’s nephew, Cardinal Ludovico Ludovisi, who employed him to restore ancient statues.

This portrait by Carlo Maratta  is thought to be of Algardi
This portrait by Carlo Maratta
 is thought to be of Algardi
Although it was a time for great architectural initiatives in Rome, Algardi struggled for recognition at the start as Bernini was given most of the major sculptural commissions.

Algardi was commissioned to produce some terracotta and marble portrait busts and also worked on the tombs of the Mellini family in the Mellini Chapel in Santa Maria del Popolo.

He received his first major commission in about 1634 to sculpt a funeral monument for Pope Leo XI, who had reigned for less than a month in 1605.

Then he was asked to create a colossal statue of Filippo Neri for Santa Maria in Vallicella and after this Algardi produced a sculptural group to represent the beheading of St Paul for the Church of San Paolo in Bologna. These works firmly established his reputation.

In 1644 the new pope, Innocent X, and his nephew, Camillo Pamphili, favoured Algardi over Bernini.

A large bronze of Innocent X by Algardi is now in the Capitoline Museums. In the grounds of Villa Pamphili, Algardi and members of his studio executed fountains adorned with sculptures and created other garden features.

Algardi's funeral monument for Pope Leo XI
Algardi's funeral monument for Pope Leo XI
In 1650 Algardi received commissions from Spain and there are four chimney pieces by him in the Royal Palace of Aranjuez and figures by him on the fountain of Neptune in the gardens. A tomb in the Augustinian monastery at Salamanca is also by him.

The Fuga d’Attila relief, Algardi’s large marble panel of Pope Leo XI and Attila for St Peter’s Basilica, reinvigorated the fashion for marble reliefs. It depicted the historical legend of the Pope stopping the Huns from looting Rome, illustrating papal power.

Algardi died in 1654 within a year of completing this work, which was much admired by his contemporaries.

The 17th century Villa Doria Pamphili is situated in Rome's largest landscaped public park
The 17th century Villa Doria Pamphili is situated in
Rome's largest landscaped public park
Travel tip:

The Villa Doria Pamphili is a 17th century villa in Rome with, what is today, the largest, landscaped public park in the city. The villa is situated just outside Porta San Pancrazio in the ancient walls of Rome. It began as a villa for the Pamphili family and when the line died out in the 18th century it passed to Prince Andrea IV Doria, from which time it has been known as the Villa Doria Pamphili. In 1644 Cardinal Giambattista Pamphili was elected to the papacy and took the name of Innocent X. He aspired to a grand villa and brought in Algardi to help with the design and create the sculptures in the garden.

Travel tip:

The huge marble Fuga d’Attila relief, showing Pope Leo XI restraining Attila from marching on Rome, was the largest high relief sculpture in the world when it was created by Algardi between 1646 and 1653 for St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The Basilica had been completed and consecrated in 1626. It was believed to be the largest church in the world and was built to replace the original fourth century Basilica that had been constructed on what was believed to be the burial site of Saint Peter.

30 July 2017

Vittorio Erspamer - chemist

Professor who first identified the neurotransmitter serotonin

Dr Vittorio Erspamer
Dr Vittorio Erspamer
Vittorio Erspamer, the pharmacologist and chemist who first identified the neurotransmitter serotonin, was born on this day in 1909 in in the small village of Val di Non in Malosco, a municipality of Trentino.

Serotonin, also known as 5-hydroxytryptamine (5-HT), is found in the gastrointestinal tract, blood platelets and central nervous system of animals, including humans.

It is popularly thought to be a contributor to feelings of well-being and happiness. A generation of anti-depressant drugs, including Prozac, Seroxat, Zoloft and Celexa, have been developed with the aim of interfering with the action of serotonin in the body in a way that boosts such feelings.

The name serotonin was coined in the United States in 1948 after research doctors at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio discovered a vasoconstrictor substance - one that narrows blood vessels - in blood serum. Since it was a serum agent affecting vascular tone, they named it serotonin.

However, in 1952 it was shown that a substance identified by Dr Erspamer in 1935, which he named enteramine, was the same as serotonin.

Dr Erspamer made his discovery when he was working as assistant professor in anatomy and physiology at the University of Pavia, having graduated there in medicine and surgery in 1935.

His speciality was pharmacognosy - the study of drugs from natural sources. In particular, he was interested in the extraction of pharmacologically active substances from animals, which was the focus of much of his life’s work.

An illustration of how scientists believe the dopamine and  serotonin neurotransmitters affect brain function
An illustration of how scientists believe the dopamine and
serotonin neurotransmitters affect brain function
Dr Erspamer’s early research in the Institute of Comparative Anatomy and Physiology at Pavia focussed on the smooth muscle constricting or contracting properties of various compounds – known as amine - found in the skins and intestinal tracts of a number of species, including rabbits, mollusks, and frogs.

One substance which interested him was found in certain cells of the gut. An acetone isolate of the cells caused smooth muscle contraction, especially in the uterus of the female rat.

He carried out tests to prove that the substance was not another neurotransmitter, epinephrine - also known as adrenaline – and named the new substance enteramine.

During his career, Dr Erspamer held positions at the universities of Rome, Bari and Parma and also studied in Berlin.

The Ghislieri College at the University of Pavia, where Vittorio Erspamer graduated and worked for several years
The Ghislieri College at the University of Pavia, where
Vittorio Erspamer graduated and worked for several years
He was one of the first Italian pharmacologists to realize that strong relationships with the chemical and pharmaceutical industries could yield vital funds for research.

In the late 1950s, he established a long-term collaboration with chemists at the Farmitalia company, thanks to whose funding he collected more than 500 species of marine organisms from all around the world, including amphibians, shellfish, sea anemones and other species.

During more than 60 years he was able to conclude the isolation, identification, synthesis and pharmacological study of more than 60 new chemical compounds, most of which were isolated from animals, predominantly amphibians.

His other major discovery was octopamine, a substance similar in function to epinephrine in that it mobilises the body and the nervous system for action. He found this in the salivary glands of the octopus.

Twice nominated for a Nobel Prize, he was obliged to retire from official academic positions in 1984 on the grounds of age but continued to work at the Sapienza University of Rome, alongside his wife Giuliana Falconieri, a long-time colleague he married in the early 1960s, up until the time of his death in 1999 at the age of 90.

Malosco Castle, restored in the 16th century
Malosco Castle, restored in the 16th century
Travel tip:

Vittorio Erspamer’s birthplace, Malosco, is a small village in the upper Val di Non valley situated on a high plateau about 54km (34 miles) north of Trento in an area of forests and meadows. The discovery of coins in the vicinity points to Roman origins. More recently, it belonged to the family of count Gerolamo Guarienti, who rebuilt Malosco Castle in the 16th century. Today it is a popular centre for cross-country skiing and there is a network of trails for walkers to enjoy.

Travel tip:

Although not established until 1361 – almost 300 years after the University of Bologna, which is recognised as the oldest in Europe – the University of Pavia can claim to have its roots in an educational institution in the Lombardy city of which the first known mention was in 825, in an edict issued by the Frankish king of Italy, Lothar I. That would make it older even than Al Quaraouyine University, in Morocco, which was founded in 859 and is officially the oldest continually operating educational institution in the world.

29 July 2017

Pope Urban VIII

Pontiff whose extravagance led to disgrace

Caravaggio's portrait of the future Urban VIII
Caravaggio's portrait of the future Urban VIII
The controversial Pope Urban VIII died on this day in 1644 in Rome.

Urban VIII – born Maffeo Barberini – was a significant patron of the arts, the sponsor of the brilliant sculptor and architect Gian Lorenzo Bernini, whose work had a major influence on the look of Rome.

But in his ambitions to strengthen and expand the Papal States, he overreached himself in a disastrous war against Odoardo Farnese, the Duke of Parma, and the expenses incurred in that and other conflicts, combined with extravagant spending on himself and his family, left the papacy seriously weakened.

Indeed, so unpopular was Urban VIII that after news spread of his death there was rioting in Rome and a bust of him on Capitoline Hill was destroyed by an angry mob.

His time in office was also notable for the conviction in 1633 for heresy of the physicist and astronomer Galileo Galilei, who had promoted the supposition, put forward by the Polish scientist Nicolaus Copernicus, that the earth revolved around the sun, which was directly contrary to the orthodox Roman Catholic belief that the sun revolved around the earth.

A bust of Urban VIII sculpted by Gian Lorenzo Bernini in 1637-8
A bust of Urban VIII sculpted by
Gian Lorenzo Bernini in 1637-8
Urban VIII was born to Antonio Barberini, a Florentine nobleman, and Camilla Barbadoro, in Florence in April 1568, moving to Rome after the death of his father in 1571 to be placed in the charge of his uncle, Francesco Barberini, who was part of the papal staff.

He was educated by the Jesuits, received a doctorate of law from the University of Pisa and, through the influence of his uncle, was appointed by Pope Clement VIII to be a papal legate to the court of King Henry IV of France.

He became rich overnight at the death of his uncle, who had some years earlier named him as his heir. He immediately bought a palace in Rome that he turned into a luxurious Renaissance residence.

He maintained his high status in the church under Clement VIII’s successor, Pope Paul V, who raised him to the order of the Cardinal-Priest, with the titular church of San Pietro in Montorio. On the death of Paul V’s successor, Pope Gregory XV, he was chosen as pope in 1623.

Only 56 when he began he reign, he was seen as an elegant, refined figure with an aristocratic bearing and regarded as an excellent debater. He also was skilled in writing Latin verse and was the author of a number of hymns and scriptural works.

Yet he was extraordinarily extravagant and with shameless nepotism appointed several members of his family to prominent positions in the Roman Catholic hierarchy.

Gian Lorenzo Bernini took on many commissions for Urban VIII
Gian Lorenzo Bernini took on many
commissions for Urban VIII
He elevated to Cardinal his brother Antonio Marcello Barberini and his nephews Francesco Barberini and Antonio Barberini. He also gave another nephew, Taddeo Barberini, the titles Prince of Palestrina, Gonfalonier of the Church, Prefect of Rome and Commander of Sant'Angelo.  The effect of this was that the wealth of the Barberini family grew massively.

Urban VIII’s sponsorship of Bernini was also extremely expensive, for all that it enriched the landscape of Rome for posterity.

In addition to having him sculpt several portrait busts of himself, Urban commissioned Bernini to work on the family palace in Rome, the Palazzo Barberini, the College of the Propaganda Fide and the Fontana del Tritone in the Piazza Barberini.

Urban appointed Bernini architect of St Peter’s in succession to Carlo Maderno. Many important additions were down to Bernini, including the gilt-bronze baldacchino over the tomb of St Peter and the colonnades enclosing the piazza in front of the basilica, which is considered his greatest architectural achievement.

Numerous members of the Barberini family also had their likenesses sculpted by Bernini, such as his brothers Carlo and Antonio. Urban also had Bernini rebuild the Church of Santa Bibiana and the Church of San Sebastiano al Palatino on the Palatine Hill.

Urban VIII’s spending extended to building the grandiose papal villa at Castel Gandolfo, fortifying the Castel Sant’Angelo in Rome, erecting the strategically located Fort Urbano at Castelfranco Emilia, near Modena, developing Civitavecchia, north of Rome, into a flourishing port with a military harbour, and enlarging the arsenal at Tivoli.

Bernini's Fontana del Tritone in Piazza Barberini is one of the sculptor's many famous works in Rome
Bernini's Fontana del Tritone in Piazza Barberini
is one of the sculptor's many famous works in Rome
With the acquisition of the Duchy of Urbino in 1626, he had established the Papal States as a compact, well-defended bloc dominating central Italy.

But then came the war against Odoardo Farnese, the Duke of Parma, which some historians blame on his nephews.

The conflict was rooted in a quarrel over questions of etiquette during the Duke’s visit to Rome in 1639. In revenge,  the nephews persuaded Urban to ban the export of grain from Castro, an ancient city controlled by the Farnese family in what is now northern Lazio, to the Papal States.

This deprived Farnese of an income he needed to pay the interest on his borrowings. The Duke's creditors complained to the pope, who took forcible possession of Castro in order to assure the payment. When the Duke still failed to meet his debts, Urban excommunicated him and deprived him of all his fiefs.

What Urban VIII had not foreseen was that the Farnese would enlist the support of Tuscany, Modena, and Venice in raising an army of about 3000 horsemen, who put the papal troops to flight. When Urban refused to accept proposed peace terms, hostilities were renewed and continued until the pope finally conceded defeat in March, 1644.

By then the debts of the Papal States had grown so huge that 80 per cent of their annual income was spent on paying the interest alone.

Urban VIII died disliked and in disgrace, his achievements as pope, such as denouncing the slave trade in the West Indies and Brazil, clearing the way for Jesuit missionaries to travel to South America, China and Japan and banning the use of tobacco in holy places – a decree that was repealed 100 years later – not given the recognition they deserved.

His tomb, sculpted by Bernini, is in St Peter’s Basilica.

The papal palace at Castel Gandolfo opens on to the town's main square, Piazza della Libertà
The papal palace at Castel Gandolfo opens on to the
town's main square, Piazza della Libertà
Travel tip:

Visitors to the town of Castel Gandolfo in the Alban Hills, overlooking Lago Albano in the area known as the Castelli Romani, can now go inside Urban VIII’s 17th century papal palace, which ceased to be a papal residence in 2016 at the behest of the incumbent Pope Francis, ending its centuries’ old role as the summer retreat for the pontiff.  Built on the site of what was once the residence of the Roman emperor Domitian, the palace was designed for Urban VIII by the then architect of St Peter’s, Carlo Maderno.

Tortellini are said to be shaped to represent a female navel
Tortellini are said to be shaped to represent a female navel
Travel tip:

Castelfranco Emilia is a town just to the east of Modena, straddling the ancient Via Emilia, the Roman road that ran from Piacentia (now Piacenza) to Ariminum (now Rimini) on the Adriatic coast. It is said to be the home of tortellini, the stuffed pasta supposedly created by an innkeeper to represent the navel of a female guest with whom he was particularly taken and whom he had spied upon while bathing.

28 July 2017

Luigi Musso - racing driver

Wealthy Roman who found expectations hard to bear

Musso at the wheel of his Ferrari Formula One car
Musso at the wheel of his Ferrari Formula One car

Luigi Musso, who for a period of his life was Italy’s top racing driver, was born on this day in 1924 in Rome.

Musso competed six times for the world drivers’ championship, three times for Maserati and three times for Ferrari. His finished third in the 1957 season, driving for Ferrari.

His solitary Formula One Grand Prix victory came in 1956 in Argentina, although he had to content himself with a half-share of the points after being forced to hand over his car to Juan Fangio, the local hero and Ferrari team leader, after 29 of the 98 laps, when Fangio’s car failed.

Sadly, two years later he was killed in an accident at the French Grand Prix in Reims, which his girlfriend, Fiamma Breschi, blamed on the ferocity of his rivalry with his fellow Ferrari drivers Mike Hawthorn and Peter Collins.

Born into a wealthy Roman family – his father was a diplomat – Musso grew up in a luxurious palazzo off the Via Veneto. He acquired his love of cars from his brothers, who were also racing drivers.

Luigi Musso was the wealthy son of a Roman diplomat
Luigi Musso was the wealthy son
of a Roman diplomat
He began to compete in 1950 in a car he bought himself, a 750cc Giannini sports car. He made an inauspicious start, his first race ending when he left the track and collided with a statue of the national hero, Giuseppe Garibaldi.

But he soon began to enjoy success racing sports cars and his talent was noted by Maserati, for whom he dominated the 1953 national 2000cc sports car championship. More success the following year, when he placed highly in the two big endurance road races, the Mille Miglia and the Targa Florio, as well as winning several smaller events, saw him named reserve driver for Maserati’s Formula One team. In that capacity he finished second in the Spanish Grand Prix in Barcelona.

He moved to Ferrari in 1956, a season which began with his handover to Fangio in Buenos Aires and was interrupted by a major crash in Germany, in which Musso was lucky to escape with only a broken arm.

When he returned for the Italian Grand Prix, the last race on the calendar, he found himself facing a repeat of the first, when his team asked him to surrender his car to Fangio.  This time, risking his Ferrari career, he refused, taking a gamble that almost paid off.  In the lead with four laps remaining, he suffered a puncture and then steering problems and was forced to quit, leaving Stirling Moss, in a Maserati, to win.

The pit lane at the Argentine Grand Prix of 1956, in which Musso, whose car is No 12, gained his only F1 win
The pit lane at the Argentine Grand Prix of 1956, in which
Musso, whose car is No 12, gained his only F1 win
Musso was embarrassed. Yet far from attracting ignominy he endeared himself to the Monza crowd, who appreciated his daring.  Come the 1957 season he was firmly in the spotlight, the Italian press loving the new rivalry between Musso and his fellow Italian, Eugenio Castellotti.

When Castellotti suffered fatal injuries in a crash while testing, Italian motor racing fans looked to Musso more than ever to deliver success.

Yet he found the weight of expectation hard to bear.  He was now the best Italian driver, built up by the press as the heir to Alberto Ascari, the winner of back-to-back Formula One world titles in 1952 and 1953 but who had himself been killed in an accident in 1955.  The pressure on Musso to win races became intense.

There were rumours of debts, the result of a gambling habit that saw him lose large sums in the casinos. His personal life was in turmoil, too, after leaving his wife and two children for Fiamma, a beautiful blonde. And then there was the growing animosity between Musso and his Ferrari teammates, Hawthorn and Collins, two close friends who had a deal to pool their prize money and share it, from which Musso was excluded.

Musso's girlfriend, Fiamma Breschi
Musso's girlfriend, Fiamma Breschi
It all came to a head in the French Grand Prix at Reims in July. Musso was second on the grid behind Hawthorn, having matched his best-ever performance in practice. The race was the most lucrative on the calendar and Musso was determined to win.

Hawthorn made a flying start and began to pull away from the field.  Musso felt he had no option but to chase hard.  He took more and more risks until, on the 10th lap, he took one too many.  Attempting to take a corner at 150mph, he was unable to keep the car on the track and one of the wheels clipped the edge of a ditch, sending it somersaulting into the air.

Musso was thrown from the car but suffered severe head injuries.  He was taken to hospital but died later that evening.

Breschi later recalled that after spending several hours at the hospital, doctors told her she should return to her hotel to rest. In the car park of the hotel she says she saw Hawthorn and Collins laughing and joking, playing football with a tin can, and hated them from that point onwards.

The Excelsior Hotel is a landmark on the Via Veneto
The Excelsior Hotel is a landmark on the Via Veneto
Travel tip:

The Via Vittorio Veneto, colloquially known as Via Veneto, is one of the most elegant and expensive streets in Rome. The street is named after the Battle of Vittorio Veneto (1918), a decisive Italian victory of the First World War. Federico Fellini's 1960 film La Dolce Vita was mostly centered on the Via Veneto area. Its bars and restaurants attracted Hollywood stars such as Audrey Hepburn, Anita Ekberg, Anna Magnani, Gary Cooper and Orson Welles as well as writers Tennessee Williams and Jean Cocteau and the designer Coco Chanel.

Monza Cathedral with its marble facade
Monza Cathedral with its marble facade 
Travel tip:

Although widely known for its Formula One track, Monza has other attractions that tend to be overlooked. There is an elegant and stylish historical centre, in which the cathedral, which originated in the sixth century and was rebuilt in the 14th, featuring a marble façade in Romanesque style with some Gothic adornments, and a bell tower added in 1606, stands out.  Another feature is the vast Parco di Monza, at 688 hectares one of the largest enclosed parks in Italy, which contains the Royal Villa, built between 1771 and 1780 for Archduke Ferdinand of Austria.

27 July 2017

Giosuè Carducci – poet and Nobel Prize winner

Writer used his poetry as a vehicle for his political views 

Giosuè Carducci in a photograph  taken in about 1870
Giosuè Carducci in a photograph
 taken in about 1870
Giosuè Carducci, the first Italian to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature, was born on this day in 1835 in Tuscany.

Christened Giosuè Alessandro Giuseppe Carducci, he lived with his parents in the small village of Valdicastello in the province of Lucca.

His father, a doctor, was an advocate of the unification of Italy and was involved with the Carbonari, a network of secret revolutionary groups. Because of his politics, the family was forced to move several times during Carducci’s childhood, eventually settling in Florence.

During his time in college, Carducci became fascinated with the restrained style of Greek and Roman literature and his work as an adult often used the classical meters of such Latin poets as Horace and Virgil. He published his first collection of poems, Rime, in 1857.

He married Elvira Menicucci in 1859 and they had four children.

Carducci in around 1900
Carducci in around 1900
Carducci taught Greek at a high school in Pistoia and was then appointed as an Italian professor at the University of Bologna.

Carducci was a popular lecturer and a fierce critic of literature and society. He was an atheist, whose political views were vehemently hostile to Christianity generally and the Catholic Church in particular.

These opinions were voiced in a deliberately blasphemous and provocative poem, Inno a Satana - Hymn to Satan. This poem was published in Bologna’s radical newspaper, Il Popolo, at a time when feelings against the Vatican were running high and the public were pressing for an end to the Vatican’s domination over the papal states.

In 1890 Carducci met Annie Vivanti, a writer and poet with whom he had a love affair.

His greatest works have been judged to be his collections of poems, Rime Nuove (New Rhymes) and Odi Barbare (Barbarian Odes).

A bust of Carducci stands proud in Castagneto Carducci
A bust of Carducci stands proud
in Castagneto Carducci
Carducci received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1906 and was also made a Senator of Italy.

In the words of the citation, the award was made to Carducci "not only in consideration of his deep learning and critical research, but above all as a tribute to the creative energy, freshness of style, and lyrical force which characterize his poetic masterpieces"

The Nobel Prize in Literature has been awarded subsequently to five other Italians - Grazia Deledda, Luigi Pirandello, Salvatore Quasimodo, Eugenio Montale and Dario Fo.

During his life, Carducci wrote 20 volumes of literary criticism, biographies, speeches and essays.

He died in 1907 at the age of 71 in Casa Carducci, his home in Bologna and was buried in the Certosa di Bologna monumental cemetery.  His achievement is commemorated with busts and statues in public places in several Italian towns, including Castagneto Carducci, a hill town in the province of Livorno where he spent some years as a child.

Marina di Pietrasanta's beach is considered  to be in among the best in Italy
Marina di Pietrasanta's beach is considered
to be in among the best in Italy
Travel tip:

Valdicastello, where Carducci was born, is part of Pietrasanta, a small town in the province of Lucca in the north-west corner of Tuscany. The town has Roman origins and part of the Roman wall still exists. The town is three kilometres (two miles) inland from the coastal resort of Marina di Pietrasanta. The Marina, with its golden sand, is considered to have one of the best beaches in Italy.

The Casa Carducci in Bologna houses the  Civic Museum of the Risorgimento
The Casa Carducci in Bologna houses the
Civic Museum of the Risorgimento

Travel tip:

Casa Carducci, where the poet lived until his death in 1907, is a 16th century villa in Piazza Giosuè Carducci in Bologna. The ground floor now houses the Civic Museum of the Risorgimento, which tells the story of the unification of Italy from a cultural, social and economic perspective. Visitors can also see Carducci’s bedroom, with the small granite washbasin he used, and the family dining room, which has a large clock with the hands stopped at the exact moment of the poet’s death. In his office there is a framed fragment of a tunic belonging to Petrarch and an armchair, where Garibaldi is said to have sat while he was recovering from an injury. The library contains about 40,000 books, pamphlets and documents, meticulously catalogued by Carducci himself.

26 July 2017

Pope Paul II

Flamboyant pope who helped make books available to ordinary people

Cristofano dell'Altissimo's portrait of Pope Paul II
Cristofano dell'Altissimo's portrait
of Pope Paul II
Pietro Barbo, who became Pope Paul II, died on this day in 1471 in Rome at the age of 54.

He is remembered for enjoying dressing up in sumptuous, ecclesiastical finery and having a papal tiara made for himself, which was studded with diamonds, sapphires, emeralds, topaz, large pearls and many other precious gems.

Barbo was born in Venice and was a nephew of Pope Eugenius IV through his mother and a member of the noble Barbo family through his father.

He adopted a spiritual career after his uncle was elected as pope and made rapid progress. He became a cardinal in 1440 and promised that if he was elected pope one day he would buy each cardinal a villa to escape the summer heat. He then became archpriest of St Peter’s Basilica.

It was reported that Pope Pius II suggested he should have been called Maria Pietissima (Our Lady of Pity) as he would use tears to help him obtain things he wanted. Some historians have suggested the nickname may have been an allusion to his enjoyment of dressing up or, possibly, to his lack of masculinity.

Barbo was elected to succeed Pope Pius II in the first ballot of the papal conclave of 1464.

Beforehand an agreement had been drawn up that bound the future pope to continue the Turkish war, to not journey outside Rome without the consent of the majority of the cardinals, nor to leave Italy without the consent of all of them.

Pope Paul II as depicted in the Nuremberg Chronicles in 1493
Pope Paul II as depicted in the
Nuremberg Chronicles in 1493
The maximum number of cardinals was to be limited to 24 and any new pope was to be limited to having only one cardinal-nephew.

Upon taking office, the new pope, Paul II, was obliged to convene an ecumenical council within three years.

Paul II later modified these terms for his own benefit, losing the confidence of the college of cardinals as a result.

After his coronation, Paul withdrew from public life and became almost inaccessible. Audiences were granted only at night and even his good friends waited a fortnight to see him.

Paul II is reputed to have worn rouge in public. There was a story told by one cardinal that he meant to take the name Formosus II, which means handsome, but that he was persuaded not to. Another story claimed he was dissuaded from choosing Marcus because he was Venetian and the Cardinal of San Marco and because 'Viva San Marco' was the war cry of Venice.

Paul II built the Palazzo San Marco, which is now called Palazzo Venezia, in Rome and continued to live there even when he was pope.

He annoyed the College of Cardinals by creating new cardinals in secret without publishing their names. Some were believed to have even died before their names were published.

The house in Venice's Calle della Pietà, where Pietro Barbo was born.
The house in Venice's Calle della Pietà,
where Pietro Barbo was born.
He often clashed with papal officials and had some of them imprisoned and tortured and he excommunicated the King of Bohemia.

When Paul II died suddenly of a heart attack, reports of the cause of death varied. Some said he had collapsed with indigestion after eating an excess of melons. Some said he had died while being sodomised by a page boy.

Paul II oversaw the introduction of printing into the Papal States with the results that books became less expensive and enabled more people to be educated.

He also put on popular amusements for the locals such as a horse race during the Carnival along a main street in Rome, which then became known as Via del Corso.

He is said to have forced Jews to run naked in the streets for the amusement of non-Jews and it is claimed he made them identify themselves by wearing yellow handkerchiefs in public, a tactic used later during the Holocaust. After the death of Paul II, the next pope and a selecct group of cardinals discovered a quantity of jewels, pearls and gold that he had amassed.

Travel tip:

Before he became Pope Paul II, Pietro Barbo was made archpriest of the old St Peter’s Basilica, the church built over the burial site of St Peter in the fourth century. It contained tombs for most of the popes from St Peter to the 15th century  but in 1505, after Paul’s death, Pope Julius II decided to demolish the old Basilica and replace it with a bigger, far more imposing structure, which would house his own tomb. The present Basilica was designed by Donato Bramate, Michelangelo, Carlo Maderno and Gian Lorenzo Bernini.

The Palazzo San Marco - now Palazzo Venezia - was Pope Paul II's favoured residence in Rome
The Palazzo San Marco - now Palazzo Venezia - was Pope
Paul II's favoured residence in Rome
Travel tip:

Paul II lived at Palazzo San Marco in Rome even when he was pope. Now known as Palazzo Venezia, north of Capitoline Hill, the palace was originally a modest, medieval house for cardinals to live in. It took on a new layout in 1451 when owned by Pietro Barbo, the future Pope Paul II. It had some of the first Renaissance architectural features in Rome and much of the stone used was quarried from the nearby Colosseum, a common practice until the 18th century.

25 July 2017

Agostino Steffani – composer

Baroque musician and cleric who features in modern literature

Agostino Steffani, depcited in a 1714
portrait by Gerhard Kappers
A priest and diplomat as well as a singer and composer, Agostino Steffani was born on this day in 1654 in Castelfranco Veneto near Venice.

Details of his life and works have recently been brought to the attention of readers of contemporary crime novels because they were used by the American novelist, Donna Leon, as background for her 2012 mystery The Jewels of Paradise.

Steffani was admitted as a chorister at St Mark’s Basilica in Venice while he was still young and in 1667 the beauty of his voice attracted the attention of Count Georg Ignaz von Tattenbach, who took him to Munich.

Ferdinand Maria, Elector of Bavaria, paid for Steffani’s education and granted him a salary, in return for his singing.

In 1673 Steffani was sent to study in Rome, where he composed six motets. The original manuscripts for these are now in a museum in Cambridge.

On his return to Munich Steffani was appointed court organist. He was also ordained a priest and given the title of Abbate of Lepsing. His first opera, Marco Aurelia, was written for the carnival and produced at Munich in 1681.

Part of the score of Duetto da Camera Pria ch'io faccia by
Agostino Steffani, which is in the British Library in London
The only manuscript score of it known to exist is in the Royal Library at Buckingham Palace. He followed this with six more operas written between 1685 and 1688.

Steffani then accepted the post of Kapellmeister at the court of Hanover where he showed great kindness to the young Handel, who was just beginning his career.

He composed an opera called Henrico Leone for the opening of the new opera house, which enhanced his reputation. He composed several more operas for the same theatre and the scores were brought to London by the Elector of Hanover, George Louis, when he became King George I. They are now preserved in Buckingham Palace.

Steffani went on diplomatic missions on behalf of George Louis’s father, Ernest Augustus, when he became Elector of Hanover and this work was recognised by Pope Innocent XI who granted him high honours.

George Louis, later King George I of England
George Louis, later King George I of England
By then a respected cleric, Steffani continued to write operas using the name of his secretary, although one score that has been judged to be his work bears no name.

In 1724 the Academy of Ancient Music in London elected him as honorary president for life and in return he sent them a Stabat Mater and three madrigals, which have been considered to be in advance of the age in which they were written. Steffani also wrote many beautiful cantatas for two voices, the scores for which are now in the British Museum.

The composer visited Italy for the last time in 1727, where he met up with Handel again. Steffani died in 1728 while on diplomatic business in Frankfurt.

In Donna Leon’s novel The Jewels of Paradise, a young musicologist is hired in Venice to find the rightful heirs to fictional treasure that Steffani left in trunks that had not been opened for centuries. Donna Leon’s interest in Baroque opera inspired her to write this story, weaving fact with fiction as she takes details from Steffani’s past and creates a present-day mystery involving two avaricious Venetians who think they are heirs to Steffani’s fortune.

The Cathedral at Castelfranco Veneto
Travel tip:

Castelfranco Veneto, where Steffani was born, is an ancient walled town in the Veneto region of Italy. It is also famous for being the birthplace of Renaissance artist, Giorgione. The Cathedral inside the walls contains one of his finest works, Madonna with St Francis and Liberalis, which was painted in 1504.

The Biblioteca Marciana in Venice
The Biblioteca Marciana in Venice
Travel tip:

In Donna Leon’s novel The Jewels of Paradise, the main character, the musicologist Caterina Pellegrini, carries out a lot of her research into the life of Agostino Steffani at the Biblioteca Marciana, which is an elegant building opposite the Doge’s Palace in the Piazzetta, off St Mark’s Square in Venice.

24 July 2017

Giuseppe Di Stefano – tenor

Singer from Sicily who made sweet music with Callas

Giuseppe Di Stefano was one of Italy's greatest tenors
Giuseppe Di Stefano was one of
Italy's greatest tenors
The opera singer Giuseppe Di Stefano, whose beautiful voice led people to refer to him as ‘the true successor to Beniamino Gigli’, was born on this day in 1921 in Motta Sant’Anastasia, a town near Catania in Sicily.

Di Stefano also became known for his many performances and recordings with the soprano, Maria Callas, with whom he had a brief romance.

The only son of a carabinieri officer, who later became a cobbler, and his dressmaker wife, Di Stefano was educated at a Jesuit seminary and for a short while contemplated becoming a priest.

But after serving in the Italian army he took singing lessons from the Swiss tenor, Hugues Cuenod. Di Stefano made his operatic debut in Reggio Emilia in 1946 when he was in his mid-20s, singing the role of Des Grieux in Massenet’s Manon. The following year he made his debut at La Scala in Milan in the same role.

Di Stefano made his debut at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in 1948 as the Duke of Mantua in Verdi’s Rigoletto. After his performance in Manon a month later, a journalist wrote in Musical America that Di Stefano had ‘the rich velvety sound we have seldom heard since the days of Gigli.’

Maria Callas and Giuseppe Di Stefano on stage in Tokyo, at around the time they had a brief affair
Maria Callas and Giuseppe Di Stefano on stage in Tokyo,
at around the time they had a brief affair
He made his Royal Opera House debut in 1961 as Cavaradossi in Tosca.

He was admired for his excellent diction, passionate delivery and the sweetness of his soft singing.

In his Metropolitan Opera radio broadcast of Faust he attacked the high C forte and then softened the sound to a pianissimo. Sir Rudolf Bing, the Met's general manager wrote in his memoirs: ‘I shall never as long as I live forget the beauty of that sound.’

Di Stefano was chosen by EMI to record all the popular Italian operas with Maria Callas. Their 1953 studio recording of Tosca is considered one of the greatest performances in the history of the gramophone.

The two also performed well together on stage from 1951 onwards. He sang with Callas in the famous Visconti production of La Traviata in 1955 at La Scala and the last time they sang together in an opera was in Un ballo in maschera at La Scala in 1957.

In 1973 Di Stefano accompanied Callas on her final recital tour. Critics said they were both losing their voices but they were enthusiastically received everywhere. It was during this tour that the two had a brief romance.

Di Stefano also made recordings with a wealth of other opera stars.

Di Stefano's albums sold millions of copies
Di Stefano's albums sold millions of copies
His final operatic role was as the aged emperor in Turandot in July 1992.

In 2004 Di Stefano suffered a brutal beating by unknown assailants near his home in Diani Beach in Kenya after he was ambushed in his car with his wife, Monika Curth.

The singer was still unconscious a week after the attack and had several operations.

He was flown to Milan and admitted to the San Raffaele clinic where he slipped into a coma.

Eventually he came out of his coma but his health never fully improved and he died at his home in Santa Maria Hoè, between Bergamo and Como, in 2008 at the age of 86.

Luciano Pavarotti said he modelled himself on Di Stefano, who was his idol. He said Di Stefano had ‘the most incredible, open voice you could hear.’ Di Stefano is also said to be the tenor who most inspired José Carreras.

Travel tip:

Motta Sant'Anastasia, with a snow-covered Mount  Etna in the background
Motta Sant'Anastasia, with a snow-covered Mount
Etna in the background
Motta Sant’Anastasia, where Di Stefano was born, is a municipality nine kilometres (5.5 miles) west of Catania, built on a rocky outcrop not far from Mount Etna. It was inhabited by Greeks in the fifth century BC. Roman coins and a Roman mosaic have also been discovered there. The Tower of Motta was built in the 11th century as a defensive structure to protect the area from Saracen invasions.

Travel tip:

Di Stefano performed regularly on the stage of Teatro alla Scala in Milan from 1949 onwards. The theatre was officially inaugurated in 1778 after being built on the site of the former Church of Santa Maria alla Scala to the design of Giuseppe Piermarini. It is across the road from the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, an elegant arcade lined with shops, cafes and restaurants which links Piazza alla Scala with Piazza del Duomo, Milan’s cathedral square. La Scala’s museum displays costumes and memorabilia from the history of opera. The entrance is in Largo Ghiringhelli, just off Piazza alla Scala and it is open every day except Bank Holidays.

23 July 2017

Sergio Mattarella – President of Italy

Anti-Mafia former Christian Democrat is Italy's 12th President

Sergio Mattarella, the 12th President of the Italian Republic
Sergio Mattarella, the 12th President of
the Italian Republic
The first Sicilian to become President of Italy, Sergio Mattarella, was born on this day in 1941 in Palermo.

Mattarella went into politics after the assassination of his brother, Piersanti, by the Mafia in 1980. His brother had been killed while holding the position of President of the Regional Government of Sicily.

Their father, Bernardo Mattarella, was an anti-Fascist, who with other prominent Catholic politicians helped found the Christian Democrat (Democrazia Cristiana) party. They dominated the Italian political scene for almost 50 years, with Bernardo serving as a minister several times. Piersanti Mattarella was also a Christian Democrat politician.

Sergio Mattarella graduated in Law from the Sapienza University of Rome and  a few years later started teaching parliamentary procedure at the University of Palermo.

His parliamentary career began in 1983 when he was elected a member of the Chamber of Deputies in a left-leaning faction of the DC that had supported an agreement with the Italian Communist Party led by Enrico Berlinguer. The following year he was entrusted with cleansing the Sicilian faction of the party from Mafia control by DC Secretary Ciriaco De Mita.

Mattarella's brother, Piersanti, was
killed by the Mafia
In 1985 Mattarella helped a young lawyer, Leoluc Orlando, who had worked alongside his brother, Piersanti, to become Mayor of Palermo.

Mattarella was appointed Minister for Parliamentary Affairs and subsequently Minister of Education.

He stood down from his post, along with other ministers, in 1990 when parliament passed an act liberalising the media sector in Italy, which he saw as a favour to media magnate Silvio Berlusconi.

Mattarella  became director of the Christian Democrat newspaper, Il Popolo, and in 1994 when DC was dissolved following Tangentopoli, he helped form the Italian People’s party.

Mattarella was one of the first supporters of the economist, Romano Prodi, at the head of the centre left coalition known as The Olive Tree.

Two years later he was appointed Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defence in the Government of Massimo D’Alema, the leader of the Democrats of the Left.

Mattarella with his predecessor Giorgio Napoletano
Mattarella with his predecessor Giorgio Napoletano
In 2007 Mattarella was one of the founders of the Democratic Party, a merger of left-wing and centre parties

He was elected to be a Judge of the Constitutional Court in 2011 and served for nearly four years.

His wife, Marisa Chiazzese, the mother of his three children, died in 2012.

Mattarella was elected President of the Italian Republic in 2015, replacing Giorgio Napoletano who had served for nine years.

In December 2016 the Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi announced his resignation following the rejection of his proposals in the 2016 Italian constitutional referendum and Matterella appointed the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Paolo Gentiloni, to be the new head of Government.

The Church of San Cataldo in Palermo with its spherical red domes
The Church of San Cataldo in Palermo with its
spherical red domes
Travel tip:

Palermo, where Mattarella was born and where he taught at the University, is the capital of Sicily, on the northern coast of the island, with a wealth of beautiful architecture, revealing both northern European and Arabian influences. The Church of San Cataldo in Piazza Bellini has a bell tower typical of those in northern France and three spherical, red domes on the roof of Arabic style.

The Courtyard at the Palazzo Quirinale in Rome
The Courtyard at the Palazzo Quirinale in Rome
Travel tip:

President Sergio Mattarella lives in Palazzo Quirinale in Rome at one end of Piazza del Quirinale. This was the summer palace of the popes until 1870 when it became the palace of the Kings of the newly unified Italy. Following the abdication of the last King, it became the official residence of the President of the Republic in 1947.