30 September 2017

Angelo Cerica - Carabinieri general

First job was to arrest Mussolini

General Cerica was hand-picked as the  Carabinieri commander to arrest Mussolini
General Cerica was hand-picked as the
Carabinieri commander to arrest Mussolini
General Angelo Cerica, the police commander tasked with arresting the Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini after he was deposed as party leader in 1943, was born on this day in 1885 in Alatri, in the Ciociaria region of Lazio, about 90km (56 miles) south of Rome.

Mussolini was arrested on July 25 as he left his regular meeting with the King, Vittorio Emanuele III, the day after the Fascist Grand Council had voted to remove him from power.  The monarch had informed him that General Pietro Badoglio, former chief of staff of the Italian army, would be replacing him as prime minister.

Cerica had been appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Carabinieri, Italy’s para-military second police force, only two days previously, succeeding General Azolino Hazon, who had been killed in a bombing raid.

He was hand-picked for the job by General Vittorio Ambrosio, who was party to secret plot among Carabinieri officers to depose Mussolini irrespective of the Grand Council vote.  They wanted a commander who would not oppose the anti-Mussolini faction and would carry out the arrest.

Cerica, in fact, shared their view of il Duce, blaming him for leading Italy into a ruinous alliance with Germany in the Second World War and eager for him to be removed, so that Italy could seek an armistice with the Allies.

He was comfortable, therefore, to position himself with a brigade of Carabinieri to arrest the dictator as he stepped out of the Palazzo Quirinale following the meeting with the King.

Cerica fought with partisans after German army swept into Rome
Cerica fought with partisans after
German army swept into Rome
He then instructed his officers to ready themselves for any public backlash against the arrest, although in the event the news was generally well received.

Later in the year, after the Badoglio Proclamation of September 8 informed the Italian population of the switch of allegiance, Cerica led a battalion of Carabinieri in a battle with German troops on the Via Ostiense in Rome.

The Germans’ superior firepower won the day but Cerica escaped and went into hiding, eventually joining up with partisans in Abruzzo and fighting on the side of the Italian Resistance movement.

Once the Allies had liberated the area, he rejoined the mainstream military, heading a department in the Army of the South, also known as the Italian Liberation Corps, until the end of the war.

In 1945, in Florence, commissioned by the Minister of War Alessandro Casati, he directed the liberation struggle against the Germans. After the war was over, he was presented with the Medal for Freedom Silver Palm by the US President, Harry S Truman. 

Cerica, born to Pietro Felice Cerica and Luisa Villa in Alatri, was set on a military career from an early age, entering a military academy soon after leaving school. In 1906, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant and joined the 74th Infantry Regiment, being promoted to full lieutenant in June 1909.

During June 1912, he was transferred to the Carabinieri Corps. He participated in the First World War, attaining the rank of captain. In September 1920, he was promoted to major and became a lieutenant colonel in 1927.

Allied tanks arrive in Rome
Allied tanks arrive in Rome
During the Second Italo-Abyssinian War, Cerica was appointed commander of the Carabinieri Legion in Asmara, an office he held from September 1936 to June 1939, eventually promoted to colonel.

Due to exceptional merit, he received the rank of brigadier general later that year, becoming the chief of Carabinieri forces in Italian East Africa. He served in the same capacity in Italian North Africa from July 1940 until February 1941. Cerica was posted back to Italy, attained the rank of Divisional General in June 1942.

After leaving the Carabinieri, Cerica served as the President of the Supreme Military Court from May 1947 to September 1951. He was also a Member of the Senate for the Christian Democrats.  

He died in Rome in April 1961, aged 75.

The church of Santa Maria Maggiore
The church of Santa Maria Maggiore 
Travel tip:

Alatri is a town in southern Lazio in the Ciociaria region notable for its acropolis, a Roman citadel built on the top of a hill surrounded by polygonal walls.  The old town within the walls contains many churches and ancient architectural structures, including the Cathedral of San Paolo, which dates back to the 10th century.  Outside the citadel, the church of Santa Maria Maggiore, in the main square, built on the site of an early Christian temple of the fifth century, has a facade in the Romanesque-Gothic style and hosts a number of works of art, including a wooden statue of the Madonna di Costantinopoli of the 13th century and a fine triptych by Antonio da Alatri (15th century), in the left nave.

Porta San Paolo, where Via Ostiense leaves Rome
Porta San Paolo, where Via Ostiense leaves Rome
Travel tip:

The Via Ostiense follows the route of the Via Ostiensis, an important road in ancient Rome that ran west 30km (19 miles) from the city of Rome to its sea port of Ostia Antica, from which it took its name. The road began near the Forum Boarium, ran between the Aventine Hill and the Tiber River along its left bank, and left the city's Servian Walls through the Porta Trigemina. When the later Aurelian Walls were built, the road left the city through the Porta Ostiensis (Porta San Paolo). The modern Via Ostiense is the main connecting route between Rome and Ostia, passing the important basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls.

29 September 2017

Enrico Fermi – nuclear physicist

Scientist from Rome who created world’s first nuclear reactor

Enrico Fermi discovered how splitting uranium atoms could generate vast amounts of energy
Enrico Fermi discovered how splitting uranium
atoms could generate vast amounts of energy
Enrico Fermi, who has been called the architect of the nuclear age and even the father of the atomic bomb, was born on this day in 1901 in Rome.

Fermi, who won a Nobel Prize in 1938, created the world’s first nuclear reactor, the so-called Chicago Pile-1, after he had settled in the United States, and also worked on the Manhattan Project, which was the code name for the secret US research project aimed at developing nuclear weapons in the Second World War.

The third child of Alberto Fermi, an official in Italy’s Ministry of Railways, and Ida de Gattis, a school teacher, Fermi took an interest in science from an early age, inspired by a book about physics he had discovered in the local market in Campo de’ Fiori in Rome, written in Latin by a Jesuit priest in about 1840.

He read avidly as he was growing up, conducting many experiments. After high school, he was granted a place at the prestigious Scuola Normale Superiore, part of the University of Pisa, where it became clear the depth of knowledge he had already acquired was greater than that of many of his professors. It was not long before they began asking him to organise seminars in quantum physics. He graduated with honours in 1922.

After spending several months in Germany and Holland on scholarships, working alongside renowned professors such as  Max Born and Paul Ehrenfest, he returned to Italy to take up a lectureship at the University of Florence. In 1927 he was appointed Professor of Theoretical Physics at the University of Rome.

Fermi (centre), with his fellow scientists at the University of Pisa, Franco Rasetti and Emilio Segrè
Fermi (centre), with his fellow scientists at the University of
Pisa, Franco Rasetti and Emilio Segrè
In the same year, he married Laura Capon, who came from a respected Jewish family in Rome.  They would soon have two children, Giulio and Nella.

In 1934, Fermi began working with the atom, the area of physics that would define his life. He discovered that nuclear transformation could occur in nearly every element.

One of the elements whose atoms he split was uranium. This led to discovery of slow neutrons, which in turn led to nuclear fission and the production of new elements.

When, in 1938, Fermi was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics "for his work with artificial radioactivity produced by neutrons, and for nuclear reactions brought about by slow neutrons”, it could not have come at a more timely moment.

Benito Mussolini, whose Fascist party Fermi had joined when he was made a member of the Royal Academy of Italy in 1929, had introduced tough new race laws in his support for the German leader Adolf Hitler. The anti-Jewish element of these laws threatened Fermi’s family and he became desperate to leave Italy.

The eerie mushroom cloud formed by the  first test explosion of an atomic bomb
The eerie mushroom cloud formed by the
first test explosion of an atomic bomb
Strict travel restrictions were being implemented, too, but Mussolini wanted Fermi to receive his Nobel award in person at the ceremony in Sweden and allowed him to travel with his family. Once in Stockholm, they made arrangements to escape to America.

Thus Fermi, his wife and their children disembarked a passenger liner in New York in January 1939.  He quickly settled into an academic career in American universities.

Fermi was appointed professor of physics at New York's Columbia University, where he discovered that if uranium neutrons were emitted into fissioning uranium, they could split other uranium atoms, setting off a chain reaction that would release enormous amounts of energy. His experiments led to the first controlled nuclear chain reaction, which he prosaically christened Chicago Pile-1, on December 2, 1942, under Chicago University's athletic stadium.

During the Second World War, Fermi was invited to join the Manhattan Project, which focused on the development of the atomic bomb. Worried that scientists in Germany were close to developing their own bomb, Fermi and other scientists encouraged the US Government to invest in the project without delay.

He witnessed the first test detonation of a nuclear weapon, codenamed Trinity, in a remote area of desert in New Mexico on July 16, 1945.  He advised the US Government on target selection, recommending the bomb be used without warning against an industrial area.

General Leslie R Groves presents Fermi with his Medal of Merit for wartime service to the US
General Leslie R Groves presents Fermi with his
Medal of Merit for wartime service to the US 
After the war, Enrico Fermi was appointed to the General Advisory Committee for the Atomic Energy Commission. In October 1949, the commission met to discuss the development of the hydrogen bomb, a weapon 500 times more powerful than the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan, which themselves killed 129,000 people.

Fermi was appalled at the prospect, however, opposing it on both technical and moral grounds.

In 1944, Fermi and his wife had become American citizens, and at the end of the war he accepted a professorship at the University of Chicago's Institute for Nuclear Studies, a position which he held until his death. There he turned his attention to high-energy physics, and led investigations into the pion-nucleon interaction.

He died in 1954 at the age of only 53 from stomach cancer. It is thought likely now that he developed the disease as a result of his exposure to radiation, possibly when he witnessed the Trinity explosion, when he reported feeling the heat from the blast, or from his work creating the Chicago reactor.

He confessed to friends during his life that he was aware that he might be at risk but considered scientific advancement more important than his own long-term health.

As well as his Nobel prize, Fermi won many other awards for his research, while others granted to modern scientists bear his name.  Among other things named after him are the Fermilab particle accelerator and physics lab in Batavia, Illinois and the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope.  Three nuclear reactor installations have been named after him: the Fermi 1 and Fermi 2 nuclear power plants in Newport, Michigan, the Enrico Fermi Nuclear Power Plant at Trino Vercellese in Italy, and the RA-1 Enrico Fermi research reactor in Argentina.

A synthetic element isolated from the debris of the 1952 Ivy Mike nuclear test was named fermium, in honour of Fermi's contributions to the scientific community.

The Basilica of Santa Croce in Florence, known as the Temple of Italian Glories for its many graves of artists, scientists and prominent figures in Italian history, has a plaque commemorating Fermi.

Fermi's birthplace in Via Gaeta in Rome
Fermi's birthplace in Via Gaeta in Rome
Travel tip:

Fermi’s birthplace in Rome was in Via Gaeta, not far from the Termini railway station, and the house is marked with a plaque. The area around Via Gaeta has nothing in particular to recommend it but nearby are the ruins of the Terme di Diocleziano – the Baths of Diocletian – a Roman bathing complex that covered 13 acres and could accommodate up to 3,000 people. The complex today houses one of the four sites of the Museo Nazionale Romana, containing a fascinating collection of objects and artefacts to help visitors build a picture of Roman life in the days of the empire. Also worth visiting at the site is a large and peaceful cloister built from designs by Michelangelo.

The magnificent Basilica of Santa Croce in Florence
The magnificent Basilica of Santa Croce in Florence
Travel tip:

The Basilica of Santa Croce, with its 16 chapels, is the largest Franciscan church in the world, and has been one of Florence’s most impressive buildings since it was completed towards the end of the 14th century. Inside can be found work by many of the great artists of the Renaissance, including Giotto, Cimabue, Donatello, Antonio Canova and Domenico Veneziano. The Basilica is also notable as the burial place of a host of illustrious Italians, such as Michelangelo, Galileo, Machiavelli, the poet Ugo Foscolo, the philosopher Giovanni Gentile and the composer Rossini.

28 September 2017

Marcello Mastroianni – actor

Film star who immortalised the Trevi Fountain

Marcello Mastroianni was an icon of Italian cinema for more than 45 years
Marcello Mastroianni was an star of
Italian cinema for more than 45 years
Marcello Vincenzo Domenico Mastroianni, who grew up to star in some of the most iconic Italian films of the 20th century, was born on this day in 1924 in Fontana Liri, in the province of Frosinone in Lazio.

He was the son of Ida Irolle and Ottone Mastroianni, who ran a carpentry shop. His uncle, Umberto Mastroianni, was a sculptor.

At the age of 14, Marcello Mastroianni made his screen debut as an extra in a 1939 film called Marionette.

His career was interrupted by the Second World War, during which he was interned in a German prison camp until he managed to escape and go into hiding in Venice.

He made several minor film appearances after the war until he landed his first big role in Atto d’accusa, directed by Giacomo Gentilomo, in 1951.

Ten years later, Mastroianni had become an international celebrity, having starred in Federico Fellini’s La dolce vita opposite Anita Ekberg. He played a disillusioned tabloid journalist who spends his days and nights exploring Rome’s high society. The film is most famous for the scene in which Ekberg's character, Sylvia, wades into the Trevi Fountain.

Mastroianni followed this with a starring role in Fellini’s   - Otto e mezzo - in which he played a film director who suffers from creative block while making a movie.

Mastroianni's famous Trevi Fountain scene with Anita Ekberg in Federico Fellini's La dolce vita
Mastroianni's famous Trevi Fountain scene with Anita
Ekberg in Federico Fellini's La dolce vita
He was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor three times, for Pietro Germi's Divorce, Italian-style, Ettore Scola's A Special Day and Dark Eyes, directed by Nikita Mikhalkov. He is one of only three actors to have twice been awarded the Best Actor award at the Cannes film festival.

A Special Day was one of 11 films in which he starred opposite Sophia Loren, his on-screen partnership with whom was a feature of Italian cinema in the 1960s and ‘70s.

Mastroianni married Flora Carabella in 1950 and they had a daughter, Barbara. After they separated, he had a relationship with the actress Faye Dunaway. He later lived with French actress Catherine Deneuve and they had a daughter, Chiara Mastroianni.

Mastroianni in Divorce, Italian-style
Mastroianni in Divorce, Italian-style
He was rumoured to have had affairs with other actresses until, in 1976, he became involved with Anna Maria Tato, an author and film maker.

Mastroianni died from pancreatic cancer in 1996 at the age of 72. Both of his daughters, as well as Deneuve and Tato, were at his bedside.

The Trevi Fountain was turned off and draped in black as a tribute to him.

Travel tip:

Fontana Liri, where Marcello Mastroianni was born, is a small village in the Apennines, about 90km (56 miles) southeast of Rome and about 15km (9 miles) east of Frosinone. It falls within the remote hilly part of Lazio known as the Ciociaria, which is south of Rome and north of Naples and is named after the ciocie, sandals, traditionally worn by local people.

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 in Rome, where Marcello Mastroianni paddled with Anita Ekberg in La dolce vita, was symbolically turned off and draped in black as a tribute to the actor after he died. The fountain was officially opened by Pope Clement XIII in 1762. Standing at more than 26m (85 feet) high and 49m (161 feet) wide, it is the largest Baroque fountain in Rome and probably the most famous fountain in the world. It was designed by a Roman architect, Nicola Salvi, but he died when it was only half finished. Made from Travertine stone quarried in Tivoli near Rome, the fountain was completed by Giuseppe Pannini, with Oceanus (god of all water), designed by Pietro Bracci, set in the central niche. Coins are traditionally thrown into the fountain by visitors, using the right hand over the left shoulder. It is estimated about 3000 euros are thrown into the fountain each day, money which is used to subsidise a supermarket for the poor in Rome.

27 September 2017

Jovanotti - musician

Former rapper important figure in Italian pop culture

Jovanotti is now one of Italy's most popular performers, attracting sell-out crowds
Jovanotti is now one of Italy's most popular
performers, attracting sell-out crowds
The singer-songwriter Lorenzo Cherubini – better known as Jovanotti – was born on this day in 1966 in Rome.

Famous in his early days as Italy’s first rap star, Jovanotti has evolved into one of Italian pop music’s most significant figures, his work progressing from hip hop to funk and introducing ska and other strands of world music to Italian audiences, his increasingly sophisticated compositions even showing classical influences.

He has come to match Ligabue in terms of the ability to attract massive audiences, while his international record sales in the mid-90s were on a par with Eros Ramazzotti and Laura Pausini.  Since his recording debut in 1988 he has sold more than seven million albums.

Although born in Rome, Cherubini came from a Tuscan family and spent much of his childhood and adolescence in Cortona in the province of Arezzo, where he now has a home.

He began to work as a DJ at venues in and around Cortona, mainly playing dance music and hip hop, which at the time was scarcely known in Italy. After finishing high school he went back to Rome because he felt he had a better chance of launching a musical career via the capital’s club scene.  

Jovanotti started out as a DJ before turning to hip hop and rap
Jovanotti started out as a DJ before
turning to hip hop and rap
Jovanotti became his stage name not quite by design.  He had intended to call himself Joe Vanotti – the name meant to sound like giovanotti, the Italian word for “young people” – but the promotional poster for one of his early club bookings as a deejay incorrectly billed him as Jovanotti and the name stuck.

His success in Rome earned him bookings further afield, particularly at holiday resorts, and it was on one such gig that he met the entrepreneur record producer Claudio Ceccheto, who would give him national exposure via his radio station, Radio Deejay.

Jovanotti’s early work was raw and basic. He fashioned himself as a Paninaro – a kind of Italian version of the English mods of the 1960s, who favoured Vespa and Lambretta scooters and had signature clothes, in particular Timberland boots, Levi jeans and American military flying jackets.

Yet he became an icon for Italian youth. Songs such as Sei come la mia moto – roughly translated: “You’re like my Lambretta/Vespa” – and Gimme Five became youth anthems, the first of many that Italian teenagers, who love to memorise the lyrics of their favourite tracks and sing them together, would turn into pop classics. Fans refer to him often as simply Jova.

His 1988 debut album, Jovanotti for President, was panned by the critics, yet sold more than 400,000 copies. His second, La Mia Moto, topped 600,000.  His catalogue now stands at 13 studio albums, four live albums, six compilations, a remix album and four video albums, plus 82 singles.

Jovanotti songs became anthems for Italian youth
Jovanotti songs became anthems
for Italian youth
The last seven of his studio albums have gone to number one in the Italian music charts and songs such as A te, L’Ombelico del Mondo, Bella, Fango, Piove, Penso Positivo and Per Te – which he wrote for his newborn daughter, Teresa, in 1998 – have entered what writers have dubbed The Great Italian Songbook.

Initially loved for the fact that his songs tended not to carry any political or ideological messages, from the 1990s onwards, Jovanotti became much more political. As a committed pacifist, he frequently worked with organizations such as Make Poverty History and Amnesty International, and he has contributed to events dedicated to debt relief, forming a friendship with the similarly minded U2 front man Bono.

He declared his support for the Partito Democratico della Sinistra (the Democratic Party of the Left), which formed from a split in the Italian Communist Party, in the 1992 general election.

In September 2008, 10 years after the birth of their daughter,  Jovanotti married his long-term partner Francesca Valiani at Cortona, in the Church of Santa Maria Nuova.

The Palazzo Comune in Cortona
The Palazzo Comune in Cortona
Travel tip:

Cortona is a charming small city in the Valdichiana, or Chiana Valley, in the province of Arezzo in southern Tuscany, about 120km (75 miles) southeast of Florence. The city, enclosed by stone walls dating back to Etruscan and Roman times, sits on the top of a hill about 600m (2000ft) above sea level, offering spectacular views.  It is characterised by steep, narrow streets – indeed the main street, Via Nazionale, is the only street in the city with no gradient. Among the main sights is the domed church of Santa Maria Nuova, designed by Giorgio Vasari.

The Best Company label favoured by Paninari
The Best Company label favoured by Paninari
Travel tip:

The Paninaro youth culture of the 1980s began in Milan among a group of teenagers who fashioned an identity for themselves around certain clothing brands. They tended to meet in particular cafes and fast food outlets in central Milan, in particular Al Panino in Via Agnello, a stone’s throw from the Duomo. As befits the fashion capital of Italy, they favoured expensive labels and it was not unusual to see Paninari dressed in Armani jeans, although the real must-haves in addition to Timberland boots were brightly coloured Best Company sweatshirts and Alpha Industries or Schott flying jackets.

26 September 2017

St Francis Basilica struck by earthquake

Historic art works damaged in double tremor

The Basilica of St Francis at Assisi
The Basilica of St Francis at Assisi
The historic Basilica of Saint Francis in Assisi suffered serious damage on this day in 1997 when two earthquakes struck in the central Apennines.

The quakes claimed 11 lives in the Assisi area and forced the evacuation of 70 per cent of buildings in the Umbrian town, at least temporarily, because of safety fears.

Many homes were condemned as unsafe for occupation and residents had to be housed in makeshift accommodation.

The event also caused considerable damage to frescoes painted in the 13th century by Giotto and to other important works by Cimabue, Pietro Lorenzetti and Simone Martini.

The dramatic moment the vaulted ceiling came down
The dramatic moment the vaulted ceiling came down
The first quake, measuring 5.5 on the Richter Scale, struck shortly after 2.30am and was felt as far away as Rome, some 170km (44 miles) to the south.  A series of smaller tremors kept residents on edge through the night.

Yet the biggest quake, measured at 5.7 initially but later revised upwards to 6.1, was still to come. With tragic consequences, it occurred at 11.43am, just as a party of Franciscan monks, journalists, town officials and experts from the Ministry of Culture had decided to venture inside the basilica to inspect the damage.

It is thought that between 20 and 30 people were inside the Upper Church when the shaking began, caused the vaulted ceiling to collapse, bringing down sections of Giotto’s fresco cycle depicting the Life of Saint Francis.

Most of them were able to escape by running away as the ceiling began to fall but 10 were trapped under the rubble for many hours. Six were pulled out alive but rescuers found that two of the friars and two of the government experts had been killed.

As well as the Giotto cycle, there was also damage to a cycle of frescoes by Cimabue that many experts regarded to be fundamental to the history of Western art.  These included portraits of the so-called Doctors of the Latin Church – St Ambrose, St Jerome, St Augustine and St Gregory the Great – and of the writers of the Gospels of the New Testament – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

Detail from the Giotto cycle The Life of St Francis
Detail from the Giotto cycle The Life of St Francis
The church, a significant tourist attraction in Italy, was immediately closed to visitors, yet it was reopened in just two years, which was considered exceptional by Italian standards. Giotto’s images of St Rufina and St Vittorino were reconstructed from more than 3,000 tiny fragments.

The government attracted criticism, however, for devoting much more money and energy to rebuilding the basilica and restoring art works than it had to rehousing people whose homes were destroyed by the quake.

On the day of the re-opening, a celebration that attracted live television coverage, 10,000 people in the area were still living in adapted metal containers, which had been provided as temporary accommodation.

It was revealed that whereas around €37 million had been spent on the restoration of the basilica, which dates back to 1228, and the Sacred Convent attached to it, only €4.75 million had been directed at rebuilding ruined homes and other buildings.

In the longer term, the broader restoration project was hailed as providing evidence to end a long-running argument over the authenticity of the works attributed to Giotto, which some experts believed were painted in the 14th century, after his death.

A portrait thought to be of Giotto di Bondone
A portrait thought to be
of Giotto di Bondone
In 2012, restorers uncovered previously unknown frescoes in a chapel within the basilica that had been closed and unused for many years. They discovered the initials “G.B” in one corner of the work, which they took to be the initials of Giotto di Bondone.

Giotto is considered to be the forefather of Italian Renaissance art, famous for the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua and the Ognisanti Madonna, which hangs in the Uffizi gallery in Florence.

The second of the two Assisi quakes was the most powerful to hit Italy since the devastating seismic event of 1980, just outside Naples, which killed at least 2,500 people.

There have been two more powerful quakes since – at L’Aquila in Abruzzo in 2009 and the one that struck the central Apennines in 2016, about 45km (28 miles) north of L’Aquila, both of which claimed around 300 lives.

The Basilica of St Francis is built into the side of a hill
The Basilica of St Francis is built into the side of a hill
Travel tip:

The Basilica of St Francis, which was begun in 1228 and developed over a period of about 300 years, is unusual in that it is built into the side of a hill and comprises two churches known as the Upper Church and the Lower Church, and a crypt where the remains of the saint are interred. The frescoes are by numerous late medieval painters from the Roman and Tuscan schools, and include works by possibly Pietro Cavallini as well as Cimabue, Giotto, Martini and Lorenzetti.  The range and quality of the works gives the basilica a unique importance in demonstrating the development of Italian art in early Renaissance.

The Temple of Minerva on Piazza del Comune
The Temple of Minerva on
Piazza del Comune
Travel tip:

There is more to Assisi than the Basilica of St Francis.  The town has several other notable churches, including the Cathedral of San Rufino and the Basilicas of Santa Chiara and Santa Maria degli Angeli, plus the remains of a Roman amphitheatre.  At the centre of the town is a charming square, the Piazza del Comune, where can be found the ancient Temple of Minerva, with its six Corinthian columns, built in the first century BC.

25 September 2017

Agostino Bassi – biologist

Scientist who rescued the silk industry in Italy

Agostino Bassi had lessons from Lazzaro Spallanzani
Agostino Bassi had lessons from
Lazzaro Spallanzani
Bacteriologist Agostino Bassi, who was the first to expound the parasitic theory of infection, was born on this day in 1773 at Mairago near Lodi in Lombardy.

He developed his theory by studying silkworms, which helped him discover that many diseases are caused by micro organisms.  This was 10 years in advance of the work of Louis Pasteur.

In 1807 Bassi began an investigation into the silkworm disease mal de segno, also known as muscardine, which was causing serious economic losses in Italy and France.

After 25 years of research and carrying out various experiments, Bassi was able to demonstrate that the disease was contagious and was caused by a microscopic parasitic fungus.

He concluded that the organism, at the time named botrytis paradoxa, but now known as beauvaria bassiana in his honour, was transmitted among the worms by contact and by infected food.

These findings enabled Bassi to rescue the economically important silk industry in Italy by recommending using disinfectants, separating the rows of feeding caterpillars and keeping farms clean.

A plaque outside the house in Paolo Gorini in Lodi, where Bassi lived and studied, commemorates his life
A plaque outside the house in Paolo Gorini in Lodi, where
Bassi lived and studied, commemorates his life
Bassi announced his discoveries in his work Del mal del segno, calcinaccio o moscarduino, published in 1835.

He also produced scientific works on laboratory cultures of potatoes, on cheese and wine making, as well as the human diseases of leprosy and cholera, after which he made the important generalisation that many diseases of plants, animals and man are caused by animal or vegetable parasites.

Bassi preceded both Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch in formulating a germ theory of disease. He prescribed methods for the prevention and elimination of muscardine, which earned him a lot of prestige.

His father, a wealthy farmer, had wanted Bassi him to look after the family property when he grew up, rather than become a biologist. But he was able to take science lessons from the biologist, Lazzaro Spallanzani, who was one of his relatives.

Louis Pasteur is reputed to have had the portraits of both Spallanzani and Bassi on the walls of his office.

After Bassi’s death in 1856 in Lodi, when the biologist was 82, he was buried in the Romanesque church of San Francesco in his home town.

In 1953 the Italian post office issued a stamp on the 180th anniversary of his birth in 1773, featuring a portrait of Bassi bordered by pictures of silkmoths.

Via Agostino Bassi is the main street in Mairago, where the biologist was born
Via Agostino Bassi is the main street in Mairago,
where the biologist was born
Travel tip:

The comune of Mairago, where Bassi was born, is in the province of Lodi about 40km (25 miles) south east of Milan and about 7km (4 miles) southeast of Lodi. Mairago is surrounded by fields of corn and barley and there is widespread beekeeping in the area.

Agostini Bassi's tomb in the church of San Francesco
Agostini Bassi's tomb in the church of San Francesco
Travel tip:

Agostino Bassi’s tomb is in the 13th century church of San Francesco in Piazza Ospedale in Lodi, set against a wall in the right transept. The church is distinctive because of its two ‘open sky’ double mullioned windows in the façade, an early example of a design that was often repeated in northern Italy during the 14th and 15th centuries.

24 September 2017

Maria Pia of Bourbon-Parma - exiled princess

Vote for republic forced King's daughter to leave

Princess Maria Pia of Bourbon-Parma, pictured in 1963
Princess Maria Pia of Bourbon-Parma,
pictured in 1963
Princess Maria Pia of Bourbon-Parma was born into the Italian royal family on this day in 1934, the grand-daughter of King Victor Emmanuel III.

Her father, Umberto of Savoy, would himself become King on her grandfather’s abdication but reigned for just 34 days in 1946 before Italy voted to become a republic and the royals were effectively thrown out of the country.

Italians could not forgive Victor Emmanuel III for not doing enough to limit the power of the Fascists and for approving Benito Mussolini’s anti-semitic race laws. The constitution of the new republic decreed that no male member of the House of Savoy could set foot in Italy ever again.

It meant that Princess Maria Pia, the eldest of Umberto’s four children, had to leave Italy immediately along with her brother and two sisters and all the other members of the family, bringing to an abrupt end the life she had known until that moment.

Born in Naples, where the Villa Rosebery, once the property of the British prime minister, the Earl of Rosebery, had been renamed Villa Maria Pia by her doting father, the 11-year-old princess was removed to Cascais in Portugal.

When her parents separated almost immediately after leaving Italy – as strict Catholics, Umberto and Marie-José never divorced – she divided her time between Portugal and her mother’s home in Switzerland.

Princess Maria Pia of Savoy, as she was then, pictured with her first husband,  Alexander of Yugoslavia
Princess Maria Pia of Savoy, as she was then, pictured
with her first husband,  Alexander of Yugoslavia
This changed in 1954 after she was invited to a cruise hosted by Queen Frederica of Greece on the yacht Agamemnon, where she met Prince Alexander of Yugoslavia.  They were married the following year and settled in Paris.

They had four children – two sets of twins, born in 1958 and 1963 – and lived a comfortable life.  Maria Pia was much photographed and came to be regarded as a symbol of Italian style.  Unlike the males in the Savoy line, she was allowed to return to Italy, where she was a regular customer of the Sorelle Fontana fashion house in Rome and would buy shoes from Alberto Dal Cò, the uncle of the three Fontana sisters.

She also wore dresses designed by her fellow Neapolitan, Emilio Schuberth, and would go to Capri to the boutique of Emilio Pucci.

For a while she was a model for Vogue magazine and worked as a journalist on another magazine, Novella 2000, revealing a talent for writing she claimed she inherited from her mother.

Among the many people she interviewed was the artist Salvador Dalì, with whom she became close friends.

Princess Maria Pia is still actively involved with charities
Princess Maria Pia is still actively involved with charities
Like that of her parents, however, her marriage to Prince Alexander ultimately broke down.  They divorced in 1967.

By that time she had begun an affair with Prince Michel of Bourbon-Parma and was already living with him when she and Alexander divorced. They have remained together since, although they were not married until 2003.

Michel, whose ancestry goes back to the establishment of the House of Bourbon-Parma in Italy in 1731, had been separated from his first wife, Yolande of Broglie-Revel, since 1966 but they did not divorce until 1999.

He and Maria Pia were married in a civil ceremony in Manalapan, Florida, close to the mansion they owned in Palm Beach.

In recent years they have divided their time between homes in Neuilly-sur-Seine, just outside Paris, and Palm Beach, although the 91-year-old Michel has recently become too frail to leave France.

Unlike her brother, Vittorio Emanuele, who did the reputation of the family no good in various scandals, Maria Pia had led a life free from controversy and is recognised, in Florida in particular, for her work with charities and her keen interest in promoting the preservation of the historic, architectural and cultural heritage of Palm Beach.

The Villa Rosebery overlooks the sea at Marechiaro
The Villa Rosebery overlooks the sea at Marechiaro
Travel tip:

The Villa Rosebery, which sits in 16.3 acres (6.6 hectares) of land in Marechiaro on the northern side of the Bay of Naples, came into the possession of the 5th Earl of Rosebery, the former Liberal prime minister of Great Britain, in 1897.  In 1909, he presented the building to the British government for the use of the British Ambassador to Italy. In 1932 the British government in turn presented the building to the Italian State and the villa was used as a summer royal residence until the royal family were exiled in 1946.  It was then used by the Accademia Aeronautica until 1949, after which it was unoccupied until it became an official residence of the President of the Italian Republic in 1957.

Piazza di Spagna, viewed from the Spanish Steps
Piazza di Spagna, viewed from the Spanish Steps
Travel tip:

The House of Fontana still exists today, with its headquarters close to Piazza di Spagna, one of the most famous squares in Rome, situated at the foot of the much-photographed Spanish Steps. The square and steps take their name from the Embassy of Spain, situated close by. The steps were built to provide access from the embassy to the church of Trinità dei Monti.

23 September 2017

Paolo Rossi - World Cup hero

Goalscorer who bounced back from two-year ban

(This article was written in 2017; sadly, Paolo Rossi passed away in 2020 at the age of 64)

Paolo Rossi celebrates his goal in the 1982 World Cup final in Spain
Paolo Rossi celebrates his goal in the 1982
World Cup final in Spain
The footballer Paolo Rossi, whose goals steered Italy to World Cup glory in 1982, was born on this day in 1956 in Prato in Tuscany.

At the peak of his career in club football, in which his best years were with Juventus and Vicenza, Rossi scored almost 100 Serie A and Serie B goals in seven seasons.

Yet for many his exploits with the Italian national team define his career. In 48 appearances he scored 20 goals, including six in the 1982 finals in Spain, when he won the Golden Boot as the tournament’s top scorer and the Golden Ball as the best player.

In 1982 he also won the Ballon D’Or, the prestigious award given to the player of the season across all the European leagues, following in the footsteps of Omar Sivori and Gianni Rivera to become the third Italian player to win the vote, in which company he has since been joined by Roberto Baggio and Fabio Cannavaro.

His success story is all the more remarkable for the fact that he scaled so many personal peaks after being banned from football for two years in a match-fixing scandal, although he denied the accusations levelled at him.

The 1982 World Cup saved his career and his reputation, although the fairytale would never have happened but for the faith shown in him by the national coach, Enzo Bearzot.

Italy's coach, Enzo Bearzot, stood by Rossi
Italy's coach, Enzo Bearzot, stood by Rossi
Bearzot’s selection of Rossi for the squad he took to Spain came barely a month after his suspension was lifted and sparked an outcry in Italy. Apart from those who thought he was unworthy of wearing the Azzurri shirt, others argued he would be too lacking in fitness to make an effective contribution.

Yet Bearzot not only believed in Rossi’s innocence, he also recalled the three goals the striker had scored in the 1978 World Cup finals in Argentina and was convinced he could make an impact again.

His faith was borne out totally.  Rossi looked off the pace at the start of the tournament but found his feet memorably in the second phase, scoring all three of Italy’s goals in a 3-2 win against a superior Brazil team that still ranks as one of the greatest matches in World Cup history.

He went on to score both Italy’s goals as they defeated Poland in the semi-finals and opened the scoring in Italy’s 3-1 victory over West Germany in the final.

As a boy, Rossi played his first football with an amateur team in the Santa Lucia area of Prato. At the age of 12, he was spotted by a scout from Juventus, who had also been interested in his brother, Rossano, but had sent him home after a year.

His mother, who had always been worried about Rossano having to fend for himself in Turin, was reluctant to suffer a similarly anxious time with Paolo, especially since Rossano’s dreams ultimately came to nothing.

Paolo Rossi in action for Juventus
Paolo Rossi in action for Juventus
But Juventus were persuasive, offering substantial inducements for him to sign, and ultimately in 1972 a deal was agreed.

It took a long time for his career to take off, however. He suffered a series of serious knee injuries and apart from a handful of Coppa Italia games he did not make any real progress towards a regular place in the first team at Juventus.

A spell on loan with Como did not change his fortunes and he might have been told to seek an alternative career had Lanerossi Vicenza, the Serie B club, not stepped in with another loan deal.

Rossi had, until then, been seen as a winger, slight in build but with the speed to beat defenders. Vicenza’s coach, Giovan Battista Fabbri, had other ideas, reckoning that Rossi’s pace could be deployed in the middle, despite his lack of physical stature. 

It proved a masterstroke.  Rossi scored 21 goals to help Vicenza win promotion to Serie A and followed it with 24 in the top flight as Vicenza finished second, a remarkable performance.  Rossi became the first player to be top scorer in Serie B and Serie A in consecutive seasons.

In the event, Vicenza’s flame went out as quickly as it had ignited. They paid 2.612 million lire to make Rossi their own player, making him the world’s most expensive footballer, which he rewarded with another 15 goals, despite missing many games through injury. Yet Vicenza were relegated.

Rossi (right) with Giovan Battista Fabbri, the coach of Vicenza, who turned him into a striker
Rossi (right) with Giovan Battista Fabbri, the
coach of Vicenza, who turned him into a striker
Had they stayed up, Rossi might never have been embroiled in the match-fixing allegations.  Instead, in order to continue playing in Serie A and continue his international career, he went on loan to Perugia, who were heavily implicated in what became known as the Totonero scandal after a match against Avellino, in which Rossi scored twice, was found to have been rigged to end in a draw.

Rossi admitted he had been approached by a third party interested in fixing the result but said he had agreed to nothing.  Nonetheless, he was found guilty and banned for three years, reduced on appeal to two.

Disillusioned, he threatened to leave Italy for a new life elsewhere but Juventus bought him back from Vicenza and the bianconeri finally saw the real Rossi.  He helped them win the Serie A title – the ‘Scudetto’ - the UEFA Cup and the European Cup during a period when his very presence in a team seemed to guarantee their winning a trophy.

Since retiring, Rossi has run a real estate company, opened an agritourism complex in Bucine, near Arezzo, taken part in Ballando con le Stelle – the Italian version of Strictly Come Dancing – and worked for several newspapers and television stations as a columnist and pundit.

He has also run for election to the European Parliament and worked on behalf of a number of charities.  Married to journalist Federica Cappelletti, he has three children.

The Castello dell'Imperatore in Prato
The Castello dell'Imperatore in Prato
Travel tip:

Paolo Rossi’s home city of Prato is the second largest in Tuscany after Florence and has a considerable number of historic churches and palaces and two castles, yet is rarely part of anyone’s tourist itinerary.  Attractions include beautiful frescoes by Filippo Lippi inside the Duomo and the external pulpit by Michelozzo and Donatello, the beautiful Palazzo Pretorio and Piazza del Comune where it sits.  The remains of Castello dell’Imperatore are also worth exploring.  Prato’s traditional textile industry, which today employs many of the city’s large Chinese population, once saw it described as ‘the Manchester of Italy.’

Palladio's Villa Capra, known as La Rotonda
Palladio's Villa Capra, known as La Rotonda
Travel tip:

Known as both the city of Palladio and, on account of its historical trade in precious metals, the ‘city of gold’, Vicenza is one of the gems of the Veneto, with a centre rich in beautiful architecture, much of which has been built or influenced by the 16th century architect Andrea Palladio, who also left his mark on the area by building many impressive villas in the countryside around Vicenza, the most famous of which, the symmetrically four-sided Villa Almerico Capra, commonly known as La Rotonda. There are some 23 buildings in the city itself that were designed by Palladio, including perhaps the city’s most popular attraction, the Teatro Olimpico, which was his last work.


22 September 2017

Carlo Ubbiali - motorcycle world champion

Racer from Bergamo won nine GP titles

(This article was written in 2017; sadly, Ubbiali passed away in 2020 at the age of 90)

Carlo Ubbiali, who preceded Giacomo Agostini and Valentino Rossi as Italy’s first great motorcycling world champion, was born on this day in 1929 in Bergamo.

Ubbiali, racing a bike equipped with subsequently outlawed 'dustbin' fairing, in action at his peak in the 1950s
Ubbiali, racing a bike equipped with subsequently outlawed
'dustbin' fairing, in action at his peak in the 1950s
Between 1951 and 1960, he won nine Grand Prix titles, in the 250cc and 125cc categories, setting a record for the most world championships that was equalled by Britain’s Mike Hailwood in 1967 but not surpassed until Agostini won the 10th of his 15 world titles in 1971.

Ubbiali is the second oldest surviving Grand Prix champion after Britain’s Cecil Sandford, who was his teammate in the 1950s. Ubbiali’s compatriot Agostini, who came from nearby Lovere, in Bergamo province, is 75.

Ubbiali won a total of 39 Grand Prix races, all bar two of them for the MV Agusta team.  Three times – in 1956, 1959 and 1960 – he was world champion in 125cc and 250cc classes, and on no fewer than five occasions, including both categories in 1956, he won the title with the maximum number of points possible under the scoring system.

He was also a five-times winner at the prestigious Isle of Man TT festival and six-times Italian champion.

Even at the age of 71, pictured here riding in a MV Agusta reunion event, Ubbiali had not lost his skills
Even at the age of 71, pictured here riding in a MV Agusta
reunion event, Ubbiali had not lost his skills
Unlike many of his contemporaries in a sport that was even more dangerous in his era than it is today, Ubbiali retired in 1960 without ever having suffered a major crash.

During his active years, motorcycle Grand Prix races claimed 34 fatalities in competition. He had just lost his brother, Maurizio, and was also planning a wedding when he decided to call time, reasoning that motorcycle racing was not a suitable career for a prospective husband and father.

Ubbiali was familiar with bikes from an early age, thanks to his father, who sold and maintained motorcycles from his workshop/showroom in Bergamo.

He competed for the first time in the Coppa di Bergamo in 1946, alongside brothers Maurizio and Franco, and won, although it was a triumph tainted by tragedy.  Following the post-race celebrations, two family friends were killed in an accident on their way home.

Ubbiali’s relationship with MV Agusta began in 1948, when his father obtained the rights to sell the bikes from his showroom. The company – Meccanica Verghera Agusta – was a new and ambitious enterprise set up in a small town northwest of Milan, as a postwar offshoot of the Agusta aviation company.

Carlo Ubbiali, pictured in 2010
Carlo Ubbiali, pictured in 2010
Invited to take part in some trial races for MV Agusta, Ubbiali impressed enough that, after finishing second in a race to mark the re-opening of the Monza circuit – badly damaged during the Second World War – he earned a place on their team in the inaugural GP world championship in 1949, making his debut in the Swiss GP

In the same year he won the gold medal at the prestigious International Six-Day Time Trial, on that occasion held in Wales.

Soon in demand, he accepted an offer to ride for FB-Mondial, which was the most successful manufacturer at the time and after scoring his first race victory in the Ulster GP of 1950 Ubbiali was crowned 125cc world champion for the first time in 1951, winning a five-race series.  It was a reflection of how Italy dominated motorcycle racing at the time that 12 of the 17 riders who took part were Italian.

Beaten to the 1952 title by Sandford, he accepted MV Agusta’s offer to join the Englishman in their garage the following year, beginning a relationship with the team that would yield eight world titles in six seasons between 1955 and 1960.

Ubbiali’s racing style earned him the nickname “The Fox” on the basis that he was a cunning tactician, content to bide his time in a race while he studied the behaviour and tactics of his opponents, before attacking in the final stages.

In an era that was much less politically correct than today, he was also known as Il Cinesino - “The Little Chinaman” – on account of nothing more than his physical appearance, quite small and with almond shaped eyes.

Nine times a winner of what was then called the Nations Grand Prix on his home circuit at Monza, he finished his career there by winning in both the 125cc and 250cc categories, which gave him the title in both classes for the second year running.

After his retirement, he took over the running of his father’s business in Bergamo and continued to attend motorcycle events in consultancy roles.  He was also instrumental, through his friendship with Count Domenico Agusta, the company’s co-owner, in securing a place for a then 21-year-old Agostini on the MV Agusta team,

Ubbiali was indicted into the MotoGP Hall of Fame in 2001.

Bergamo's Piazza Vecchia is a beautiful square
Travel tip:

Bergamo, situated 40km (25 miles) northeast of Milan, is in a way two cities in one.  Its historic heart, perched on a ridge, is the Città Alta, which boasts many examples of magnificent architecture of the 12th century onwards; spreading out below is the vast expanse of the Città Bassa, more modern but with an elegance of its own.  The old, upper city is surrounded by impressively forbidding walls, built by the Venetians in the 16th century and granted UNESCO Heritage Site status in 2017. The Città Alta, with the beautiful Piazza Vecchia at its core, is small and can be explored easily on foot; the Città Bassa and suburbs cover a broad area of around 500,000 residents.

Motorcycles on display at Museo Agusto
Motorcycles on display at Museo Agusto
Travel tip:

Examples of MV Agusta’s historic motorcycles can be seen at the fascinating Museo Agusta at the company’s original headquarters in Cascina Costa, a district of Samarate, about 45km (28 miles) northwest of Milan. Agusta was formerly a aviation company manufacturing helicopters and continued to do so until it disappeared in a merger in 2000. The motorcycle manufacturing offshoot is now based in Varese.  The museum is open on Tuesday and Wednesday afternoons and both in the morning and afternoon on Saturday and Sunday, with an entrance fee of just €2.50 (€1.50 concessions).