31 October 2017

Bud Spencer – swimmer-turned-actor

Competed at two Olympics before turning to screen career

Bud Spencer (right) with Terence Hill in the 1974 comedy Watch Out, We're Mad!
Bud Spencer (right) with Terence Hill in the 1974
comedy Watch Out, We're Mad!
The actor known as Bud Spencer was born Carlo Pedersoli on this day in 1929 in Naples.

He was best known for the series of so-called Spaghetti Westerns and comedies he made with another Italian-born actor, Terence Hill.

Hill was from Venice and his real name was Mario Girotti.  They began their partnership in 1967 in a Spaghetti Western directed by Giuseppe Colizzi called God Forgives…I Don’t! and were asked to change their names so that they would sound more American.

Pedersoli came up with Bud Spencer because his movie idol was Spencer Tracy and his favourite American beer was Budweiser.   The two would go on to make 18 movies together, with westerns such as Ace High (1968) and They Call Me Trinity (1970) winning them box office success.

As Carlo Pedersoli, he had already achieved a measure of fame as a swimmer, the first Italian to swim the 100m freestyle in less than one minute.  He represented Italy at the Olympics in Helsinki in 1952 and Melbourne four years later, on each occasion reaching the semi-final in the 100m freestyle.

He also played professional water polo, winning an Italian championship with SS Lazio and a gold medal at the 1955 Mediterranean Games in Barcelona.

Bud Spencer in 2015
Bud Spencer in 2015
In a rich and varied life, Pedersoli also learned how to fly jets and helicopters, ran his own airline and, at the personal invitation of Silvio Berlusconi, stood as a Forza Italia candidate in regional elections in Lazio in 2005, although he was not elected.

Born in the Santa Lucia area of Naples, Pedersoli showed an aptitude for swimming from an early age.  His family moved to Rome when he was 10 and he began to swim competitively while attending high school.  He attended Rome’s Sapienza University from the age of 17, studying chemistry, but was forced to give up his course when his family moved again, this time to South America.

For two years, he worked at the Italian consulate in Recife, Brazil, and became fluent in Portuguse.

Back in Rome, he made his debut in international swimming competition in 1949 and, after his 59.5 sec 100m freestyle in 1950 he swam for Italy in the European championships in Vienna.  After a silver medal at the 1951 Mediterranean Games in Alexandria (Egypt), he was called up for the Italian Olympic squad.

At the same time, Pedersoli was studying law and taking his first tentative steps in the movie business, landing a part as a Praetorian Guard in in the 1951 MGM epic Quo Vadis, filmed in Italy.

There was no overnight rise to fame.  He married Maria Amato, daughter of the Italian film producer Giuseppe Amato, in 1961, but his career did not take off until that Spaghetti Western offer in 1967.  A distinctive figure, heavily built and with a thick black beard, he quickly became a favourite, particularly for the way his character would end on-screen fights by slamming his fist down on the head of his opponent.

Before he found fame as Bud Spencer the movie star, Carlo Pedersoli was a Olympic swimmer
Before he found fame as Bud Spencer the movie star,
Carlo Pedersoli was a Olympic swimmer
He decided he would learn to fly after appearing with Terence Hill in a 1973 adventure comedy called All The Way Boys, in which Colizzi took his two Spaghetti Western characters and placed them in a modern context, as bush pilots in South America, where they made money by faking aircraft crashes for insurance scams.

By 1984, with a licence to fly jets and helicopters, Spencer had set up Mistral Air, an air-mail handler which also flew Catholic pilgrims to sacred religious sites.  He later sold the airline to Poste Italiane, who also operate commercial passenger flights.

Spencer had a number of starring roles on television in the 1990s and continued to make films until well into his 70s.  He died in Rome in 2016, aged 86.  His movies with Terence Hill are still regularly shown on television and he retains an enthusiastic following in several countries around Europe, notably Germany and Hungary.

Via Santa Lucia leads from the Royal Palace to the waterfront at Castel dell'Ovo
Via Santa Lucia leads from the Royal Palace
to the waterfront at Castel dell'Ovo
Travel tip:

Santa Lucia is the area of central Naples that can be found between the Royal Palace and Borgo Marinari, the small island on which stands Castel dell’Ovo.  The first settlement there was established by the Greeks and the Roman general Lucullus was so taken with the views across the bay that he built a sumptuous fortified villa, Castellum Lucullanum, that would eventually become the home in exile of the last Roman emperor, Romulus Augustus.  Nowadays, the area is a mix of grand hotels, sailing clubs and many fine fish restaurants.

Castel dell'Ovo with the yachts and harbourside restaurants of Borgo Marinari in the foreground
Castel dell'Ovo with the yachts and harbourside restaurants
of Borgo Marinari in the foreground
Travel tip:

Castel dell’Ovo was built on the site of the Castellum Lucullanum, which was demolished in the 9th century. The castle was built by the Normans in the 12th century and remains the oldest fortified structure in Naples.  It took its name from a legend about the Roman poet Virgil, who in medieval times was thought to have mystical powers.  The legend had it that Virgil placed a magical egg – ouvo in Italian – in the foundations, and that had the egg ever broken then the castle would be destroyed that Naples would suffer a series of catastrophes.

30 October 2017

Antonino Votto – conductor

Outstanding operatic conductor made recordings with Callas

Antonino Votto was regarded as one of the finest conductors of his era
Antonino Votto was regarded as one of the finest
conductors of his era
Operatic conductor Antonino Votto was born on this day in 1896 in Piacenza in Emilia-Romagna.

He became famous in the 1950s because he conducted the orchestra for the acclaimed recordings made by soprano Maria Callas for EMI.

Votto was also considered one of the leading operatic conductors of his time on account of his performances at La Scala in Milan, where he worked regularly for nearly 20 years.

After Votto had attended the Naples conservatory for his music studies he went to work at La Scala, where he became an assistant conductor to Arturo Toscanini.

He made his official debut there in 1923, leading a performance of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut.

Votto went on to build a reputation as one of the most outstanding conductors of Italian opera, appearing at many other operatic venues in Italy and abroad.

Votto taught at the Giuseppe Verdi conservatory in Milan
Votto taught at the Giuseppe Verdi
conservatory in Milan
In 1941 he began teaching at the Giuseppe Verdi conservatory in Milan as the war limited operatic activity in Italy and in most parts of Europe.

One of his students was the present day Italian orchestra conductor, Riccardo Muti.

Recordings of Votto conducting opera live in the theatre were a great success. He conducted Bellini’s Norma in 1955 with Callas at La Scala and La Sonnambula in 1957 with Callas in Cologne. These are both considered to be great performances.

Votto also made a series of highly successful studio recordings in the 1950s with Callas, based on productions that had been staged at La Scala. Their collaborations for EMI on Puccini’s La Bohème and Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera in 1956 and Bellini’s La Sonnambula in 1957 were enthusiastically received by both the critics and the public.

Votto made his debut at Covent Garden in 1924 with performances of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly and Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci.

His American debut came in 1960 when he appeared at the Chicago Opera House conducting Verdi’s Aida and Don Carlo.

Votto continued conducting at La Scala until 1967 and died in Milan in 1985.

The bronze statue of Ranuccio II Farnese by Francesco Mochi is a feature of Piazza Cavalli in Piacenza
The bronze statue of Ranuccio II Farnese by Francesco
Mochi is a feature of Piazza Cavalli in Piacenza
Travel tip:

Piacenza, where Votto was born, is a city in the Emilia Romagna region of northern Italy. The main square is named Piazza Cavalli because of its two bronze equestrian monuments featuring Alexander Farnese, Duke of Parma and his son Ranuccio II Farnese, Duke of Parma, who succeeded him. The statues are masterpieces by the sculptor Francesco Mochi.

Teatro alla Scala is Italy's most prestigious opera house
Teatro alla Scala is Italy's most prestigious opera house
Travel tip:

Teatro alla Scala, where Votto conducted for 20 years, is in Piazza della Scala in the centre of Milan across the road from the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, an elegant arcade lined with cafes, shops and restaurants. It was built to link Piazza della Scala with Piazza del Duomo, Milan’s cathedral square. La Scala has a fascinating museum that displays costumes and memorabilia from the history of opera. The entrance is in Largo Ghiringhelli, just off Piazza della Scala. It is open every day except the Italian Bank Holidays and the days when it is closed in December. Opening hours are from 9.00 to 12.30 and 1.30 to 5.30 pm.

29 October 2017

King appoints Mussolini Prime Minister

Victor Emmanuel turned to Fascist leader after fearing civil war

Victor Emmanuel III
Victor Emmanuel III
Victor Emmanuel III, the king of Italy, invited Benito Mussolini to become Prime Minister on this day in 1922, ushering in the era of Fascist rule in Italy.

History has largely perceived the decision as a moment of weakness on the part of the king, a man of small physical stature who had never been particularly comfortable in his role.

Yet at the time, with violent clashes between socialist supporters and Mussolini’s Blackshirts occurring almost daily with both sides bent on revolution, Victor Emmanuel feared that Italy was on the brink of civil war.

The First World War had been financially crippling for Italy, even though they had emerged with a victory of sorts in that the Austro-Hungarians were finally pushed out of northern Italy.

In the poverty that followed, the country shifted sharply to the left and in the 1919 general election the Italian Socialist Party (PSI) gained 32 per cent of the vote, amounting to 156 seats in the Chamber of Deputies, the largest representation in their history.

But for all the support for the PSI, particularly among factory workers in urban areas, there were just as many Italians who felt uncomfortable about their advance, and not only those who belonged to the moneyed elite.  The PSI had aligned themselves with the Russian Bolsheviks and were determined to pursue a strong ultra-left agenda that included the overthrow of bourgeois capitalism, but also threatened, through state seizure of agricultural land, to deny rural workers any prospect of fulfilling their aspiration to own land themselves.

The king with Mussolini in Rome in 1923
The king with Mussolini in Rome in 1923
Ironically, Mussolini had been the leader of this Bolshevik faction of the PSI before the First World War, his own politics having been founded in socialist values.

But he was expelled from the party after going against their opposition to the war and moving towards national syndicalism, which embraced the principle of workers’ collectives owning the means of production but which favoured tight state control and only limited democracy, combined with military expansion to further national growth.

Many similarly displaced former PSI members joined Mussolini in forming the Fascist Revolutionary Party, which evolved into the National Fascist Party.  And though Mussolini’s party differed from the socialists in several areas, it still portrayed itself as being on the side of the people.

Both sides promised to take power away from the ruling classes and politicians by whom many ordinary Italians felt betrayed and though, as a character, he lacked decisiveness, Victor Emmanuel knew he could not allow the social unrest to continue and would have to come down on one side or the other if order were to be restored.

Matters came to a head when he became aware that Mussolini, who had already acquired a considerable following and effective control in parts of northern Italy, was planning an insurrection in which he would lead his Blackshirts in a symbolic March on Rome.  Luigi Facta, the Liberal prime minister, drafted a decree of martial law, having been advised by General Pietro Badoglio to tell Victor Emmanuel his troops could repel the uprising. But after initially indicating he would sign the decree, the king then changed his mind.

Victor Emmanuel overestimated the threat of the Fascists to Rome
Victor Emmanuel overestimated the
threat of the Fascists to Rome
This was partly because he overestimated the number of men likely to take part in the march and the degree to which they would be armed, and partly because he did not trust the army not to take the opportunity to stage a coup. Largely, though, it was because he considered allowing Italy to fall into the hands of the Marxists in the PSI to be unthinkable.

As it happens, having been told that the army would remain loyal to the king, and knowing that the 300,000-strong force he would later claim to have taken part actually amounted a the start to fewer than 10,000, Mussolini was on the point of abandoning the insurrection.

Instead, a few minutes before midnight on October 29, he received a telegram from the king inviting him to Palazzo del Quirinale, the official Rome residence of the monarch and the seat of power. 

By noon the following day, aged only 39, with no previous experience of office and only 35 Fascists deputies in the Chamber, he had been sworn in as President of the Council of Ministers – the Prime Minister.  Rather than marching into Rome to seize power, Mussolini actually travelled to the capital by train.  The march did take place, but as a celebration.

The decision allowed Mussolini to crush the opposition, his thugs continuing to employ the violent methods that had allowed him to dominate northern and central areas of the country before his accession to power to reinforce his rule across the whole of the country.

Mussolini joined the March on Rome, although by then his objective of taking power had been achieved
Mussolini joined the March on Rome, although by then
his objective of taking power had been achieved
Victor Emmanuel’s real crime was to stand aside while all this was taking place, failing to act even when Giacomo Matteotti, a socialist deputy who outspokenly claimed the 1923 election was rigged, was assassinated, with clear evidence that Fascists close to Mussolini were involved.

He allowed Mussolini free rein to abuse his power, to the extent that he had dropped all pretence of democracy within three years, passing a law that decreed that he was no longer answerable to parliament, only to the king.

By the time, in 1943, with Italy again sinking into civil war, Victor Emmanuel ordered Mussolini’s arrest following a Fascist Grand Council vote to remove him as leader, the Italian royal family by their association with Fascism were irreversibly discredited.

The Palazzo del Quirinale used to be the royal residence in Rome
The Palazzo del Quirinale used to be the royal residence in Rome
Travel tip:

The Palazzo del Quirinale, a vast complex 20 times larger than the White House and a seat of power in Italy since it was built in 1583, sits on the top of Quirinal Hill, one of the seven hills of Rome.  It has been the official residence of 30 popes – it was built originally as a summer residence for Pope Gregory XIII – four kings of Italy and 12 presidents of the Italian republic. It became a royal palace after the unification of Italy in 1871, although Victor Emmanuel III preferred to live elsewhere, in the Villa Savoia, a house set in parkland in the northern part of the city.

The church of San Sepolcro in the square of the same name in central Milan, where Mussolini launched his Fascist party
The church of San Sepolcro in the square of the same name
in central Milan, where Mussolini launched his Fascist party
Travel tip:

The roots of the Mussolini’s National Fascist Party can be traced back to a rally that took place in Milan’s Piazza San Sepolcro on March 23, 1919, when the expelled former official of the Italian Socialist Party launched a fascio – the word in use it Italy in the late 19th and early 20th century to describe any political group.  His Fasci Italiani di Combattimento (roughly translated: Italian League of Combatants) was initially meant to represent combatants from the First World War angered at the failure of the king and state to secure the appropriate rewards for Italy after the sacrifices made by Italian soldiers in achieving a victory.  The Piazza san Sepolcro is in the centre of Milan, a few streets away from the Duomo, just behind the Ambrosian Library.

28 October 2017

Sergio Tòfano – actor and illustrator

The many talents of stage and screen star

Sergio Tofano as Professor Toti, in Luigi  Pirandello's comic play Pensaci, Giacomino!
Sergio Tòfano as Professor Toti, in Luigi
 Pirandello's comic play Pensaci, Giacomino!
Comic actor, director, writer and illustrator Sergio Tòfano died on this day in 1973 in Rome.

He is remembered as an intelligent and versatile theatre and film actor and also as the creator of the much-loved cartoon character Signor Bonaventura, who entertained Italians for more than 40 years.

Tòfano was born in Rome in 1886, the son of a magistrate, and studied at the University of Rome and the Academy of Santa Cecilia. He made his first appearance on stage in 1909.

He soon specialised as a comic actor and worked with a string of famous directors including Luigi Almirante and Vittorio de Sica.
He became famous after his performance as Professor Toti in Luigi Pirandello’s comic play, Pensaci, Giacomino! 

Also a talented artist and writer, Tòfano invented his cartoon character Signor Bonaventura for the children’s magazine, Il Corriere dei Piccoli, signing himself as Sto.

Signor Bonaventura made his first appearance in 1917. The character wore a red frock coat and a hat and his fans interpret him as showing how good people, despite making mistakes, can avoid the bad outcome they seem fated to experience, even in complicated situations, because there is always hope.

Tofano's invention, the cartoon character Signor Bonaventura
Tòfano's invention, the cartoon
character Signor Bonaventura
After the Second World War Tòfano continued to act, working with important directors such as Luchino Visconti and Giorgio Strehler at the Piccolo Teatro in Milan performing in plays by Ibsen and Shakespeare. He also took parts in plays by Molière and Goldoni at the Teatro dei Satiri in Rome.

Tòfano has a string of film and television credits to his name, his most successful films including Goffredo Alessandrini’s 1934 comedy Seconda B, the Raffaello Matarazzo drama Giù il Sipario (1940) and Partner (1968), directed by Bernardo Bertolucci and based on the on the novel The Double by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

He continued to act until his death at the age of 87, having survived his wife, Rosetta, a costume designer he married in 1923, by 13 years.

Before 1935, Rome University's base was in the Palazzo della Sapienza, near Piazza Navona
Before 1935, Rome University's base was in
the Palazzo della Sapienza, near Piazza Navona
Travel tip:

Rome University, where Tòfano studied, is often known simply as La Sapienza, which means ‘the wisdom’.  It can trace its origins back to 1303, when it was opened by Pope Boniface VIII as the first pontifical university. In the 19th century the University broadened its outlook and started to offer more than just ecclesiastical studies. Today’s campus was built near the Termini railway station in 1935. Rome University now caters for more than 112,000 students.

Travel tip:

The Piccolo Teatro della Città di Milano, where Tòfano performed regularly after it was founded in 1947, was Italy’s first permanent repertory company. It now operates from three venues in Milan, the Teatro Grassi, the Teatro Studio and the Teatro Strehler.

27 October 2017

Enrico Mattei – industrialist and entrepreneur

Death in plane crash remains an unsolved mystery

Enrico Mattei rose to political prominence in the years after the Second World War
Enrico Mattei rose to political prominence in the years
after the Second World War
Enrico Mattei, one of the most important figures in Italy’s post-War economic rebirth, was killed on this day in 1962 in a plane crash near the village of Bascapè in Lombardy.

Accompanied by a Time-Life journalist, William McHale, Mattei was returning to Milan from Catania in Sicily in a French-built four-seater Morane-Saulnier jet being flown by Irnerio Bertuzzi, a respected pilot who had flown many daring missions during the Second World War.

They were on their descent towards Milan Linate when the crash happened, less than 17km (10.5 miles) from the airport.

Mattei, a politically powerful industrialist, best known for turning round Italy’s seemingly unviable oil industry, was not short of enemies and after his death there was considerable speculation that it did not happen by accident.

A government-led investigation, overseen by the then Italian Defence Minister Giulio Andreotti, concluded that a storm was to blame for the crash, even though the pilot was highly experienced and very unlikely to have allowed bad weather to bring him down.

Questions about the initial inquiry’s findings led to a second inquiry was opened in 1966 but shelved without reaching a conclusion.

Mattei established ENI as Italy's state oil company in the early 1950s
Mattei established ENI as Italy's state oil
company in the early 1950s
In the fevered atmosphere that prevailed in Italy at the time, however, with much social unrest and the Italian Communist Party threatening the grip of the Christian Democrats, the conspiracy theories never went away.

Indeed, there were good grounds to imagine that dark forces might have been involved, given the controversial way in which Mattei had gone about reviving Italy’s ailing oil industry.

Born at Acqualagna in Marche in 1906, Mattei had experience in the tanning and chemical industries in the late 1920s and early 1930s and joined the Fascist Party in 1931, although he was never active politically and was persuaded by the disastrous course of the Second World War to join anti-Fascist groups during the 1940s.

After Mussolini was ousted in 1943, Mattei supplied weapons to the Italian resistance and aligned himself with the newly-formed Christian Democrats, participating in the Northern Italian military command of the National Liberation Committee.

He went on to become a powerful figure within the Christian Democrats, for whom he sat in the Chamber of Deputies between 1948 and 1953.

But it was the decision of the National Liberation Committee, in the immediate aftermath of war, to put him in charge of the Fascist-instigated state-owned oil company, Agip (Azienda Generale Italiana Petrolio), that defined his life.

A Morane-Saulnier MS 760 similar to the one in which Mattei was travelling when he was killed
A Morane-Saulnier MS 760 similar to the one in which
Mattei was travelling when he was killed
Mattei’s brief was to close Agip, which was seen as unsustainable.  Instead, Mattei rebuilt it, exploiting newly-discovered oil and methane sources in the Po Valley, which he used to supply the postwar industrial growth in northern Italy with vital energy supplies.

He ploughed profits back into more exploration and ultimately persuaded the government, despite opposition from within his own party, to set up a new company, called Ente Nazionale Idrocarburi (ENI) with control over the petrochemical industry throughout Italy.

It was as president of ENI that Mattei began to acquire enemies. Keen to develop international operations once it became clear Italy could not be self-sufficient in oil, he persuaded parliament to support a massive expansion of the company, often – it became clear later – using company money to pay sweeteners.

However, in the international field he was up against the might of the cartel he dubbed the Seven Sisters – the seven major companies, mainly American, that controlled 85 per cent of the world’s petroleum reserves and kept prices at a high level.

Mattei's desk is preserved at a small museum dedicated to his memory in his home town of Acqualanga
Mattei's desk is preserved at a small museum dedicated
to his memory in his home town of Acqualanga
Determined to get a better deal for Italy, Mattei began to make arrangements of his own that bypassed the cartel, with the poorer Middle East and north African countries and, most controversially, with Russia. 

This engendered opposition from the United States, who saw the deals he struck with Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt and Iran as severely detrimental to their own interests, and from NATO, who feared that a major trade link between Italy and Russia would only aid the march of communism in Italy, which they were committed to preventing.

Mattei upset the French, too, by secretly funding the independence movement in French colonial Algeria, again to facilitate preferential oil agreements.

Thus the finger of suspicion soon began to point at America and France, in the shape of the CIA, the French secret services and the French far-right paramilitary group, the OAS.

In 1974 there was another inquiry, prompted by the disappearance in Sicily of a journalist, Mauro de Mauro, who was looking into Mattei’s business dealings for a film about him being planned by the director, Francesco Rosi, and the claim by a former agent of the French intelligence agency SDECE, that Mattei had been eliminated by them.

Again, no conclusion was reached but in 1995 a further inquiry was launched, which took into account a claim by the Mafia pentito (supergrass) Tommaso Buscetta that Sicilian Cosa Nostra members had killed Mattei at the request of the American Mafia, but was largely concerned with some wreckage from the plane that had found its way to the officer of the public prosecutor in Pavia, under whose jurisdiction that crash scene fell.

Fragments saved at the scene by an Italian secret service agent had been handed to Mattei’s nephew, Angelo, who in turn gave them to the prosecutor.  This prompted an exhumation of the bodies of Mattei and Bertuzzi, the pilot, and a new post mortem that identified clear indications that an explosion had taken place on the plane while it was still in the air, almost certainly caused by a bomb triggered when the landing gear was activated.

On the basis of this evidence, a judge quashed Andreotti’s original pronouncement that the deaths were caused accidentally and reclassified them as homicide, although the identity of the perpetrators remains an unsolved mystery.

The beautiful Gola di Furlo
The beautiful Gola di Furlo
Travel tip:

The town of Acqualagna, which is situated about 40km (25 miles) inland of Pesaro to the southwest, is in the valley of the Candigliano river close to where it is joined by the Burano, just upstream from the beautiful Gola di Furlo – the Furlo pass – a gorge formed between two mountain peaks by the force of the Candigliano, along which was built the Roman road Via Flaminia, part of which passes through a tunnel built into the rock by the Romans at the narrowest part of the gorge.  The house in which Mattei was born contains a small museum dedicated to his memory, which can be viewed by appointment.

Milan's Linate airport as it appeared when commercial operations began in 1930s
Milan's Linate airport as it appeared when commercial
operations began in 1930s
Travel tip:

Linate airport, situated less than 10km (6 miles) from Piazza del Duomo, is Milan’s city airport, although it nowadays handles considerably fewer passengers than Malpensa, which is almost 50km (30 miles) out of town, just a few kilometres from Lake Maggiore. Linate began commercial operations in the 1930s when it was built to replace Taliedo airport, just to the south of the city, which had been one of the world’s first aerodromes but was too small for significant commercial traffic.

26 October 2017

Giuditta Pasta – soprano

The first singer to perform the roles of Anna Bolena and Norma

Giuditta Pasta was a mezzo-soprano much in demand among 19th century composers
Giuditta Pasta was a mezzo-soprano much in
demand among 19th century composers
Singer Giuditta Pasta, whose voice was so beautiful Gaetano Donizetti wrote the role of Anna Bolena especially for her, was born on this day in 1797 in Saronno in Lombardy.

Her mezzo-soprano voice was much written about by 19th century opera reviewers and in modern times her performance style has been compared with that of Maria Callas.

Indeed, Vincenzo Bellini’s opera Norma, which Callas would turn into her signature role, was actually written for Pasta in 1831.

Pasta was born Giuditta Negri, the daughter of a Jewish soldier. She studied singing in Milan and made her operatic debut there in 1816.

Later that year she performed at the Theatre Italien in Paris as Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni, but it was not until 1821 that her talent was fully recognised when she appeared in Paris as Desdemona in Gioachino Rossini’s Otello.

Giuditta married another singer, Giuseppe Pasta, in 1816 and as well as being her regular leading man he handled her business affairs and identified likely roles and composers who might wish to work with her.

An illustration of Giuditta Pasta in the  premiere of La Sonnambula
An illustration of Giuditta Pasta in the
premiere of La Sonnambula
She sang regularly in Milan, Naples, Paris and London and her unique voice attracted a lot of attention.

The French writer Stendhal wrote about her: ‘She can achieve perfect resonance on a note as low as bottom A and can rise as high as C sharp or even to a slightly sharpened D, and she possesses the rare ability to be able to sing contralto as easily as she can sing soprano.’

He argued for a score to be composed expressly for Pasta. Donizetti responded with the role of Anna Bolena in the opera of the same name and Pasta performed it at Milan’s Teatro Carcano in 1830, giving the composer the greatest success of his career to that point.

Bellini wrote for her the part of Amina in La Sonnambula and the protagonist’s part in Norma and these were also major successes for Pasta in 1831. She retired from the stage in 1835 when her voice began to deteriorate.

After her husband’s death, she taught singing and among her pupils were contralto Emma Albertazzi, soprano Marianna Barbieri-Nini, and the English soprano Adelaide Kemble. Another pupil, Carolina Fermi, who also became a noted Norma, taught the soprano Eugenia Burzio, whose recordings are known for their passionate expression.

Pasta died in Blevio in the province of Como at the age of 67.

The Sanctuario della Madonna dei Miracoli in Saronno
The Sanctuario della Madonna dei Miracoli in Saronno
Travel tip:

Saronno, where Giuditta Pasta was born, is a large town in Lombardy in the province of Varese. It is well known for the production of amaretti di Saronno, small almond-flavoured biscuits, and the liqueur, amaretto. One of the town’s most beautiful buildings is the Santuario della Madonna dei Miracoli, built in 1498, which has a stunning fresco, The Concert of Angels, by Gaudenzio Ferrari.

The Teatro Carcano is in Corso di Porta Romana on the  south-east side of Milan city centre
The Teatro Carcano is in Corso di Porta Romana on the
south-east side of Milan city centre
Travel tip:

The Teatro Carcano in Milan, where Giuditta sang the role of Anna Bolena for the first time in 1830, is still a working theatre and can be found in Corso di Porta Romana. Although it now presents mainly plays and ballets, it was an opera house for most of the 19th century. It was built in 1803 on the site of a former convent for Milanese aristocrat and theatre-lover Giuseppe Carcano. The world premiere of Anna Bolena took place at the theatre on December 26, 1830 and the world premiere of La Sonnambula on March 6, 1831.

25 October 2017

Carlo Gnocchi – military chaplain

Remembering a protector of the sick and the mutilated

Carlo Gnocchi as a young priest
Carlo Gnocchi as a young priest
Carlo Gnocchi, a brave priest who was chaplain to Italy’s alpine troops during the Second World War, was born on this day in 1902 in San Colombano al Lambro, near Lodi in Lombardy.

In recognition of his marvellous life, which was dedicated to easing the wounds of suffering and misery created by war, his birthday was made into his feast day when he was beatified by Pope Benedict XVI on October 25, 2009 in Milan.

Gnocchi was the youngest of three boys born to Henry and Clementine Gnocchi. His father died when he was five years old and his two brothers died of tuberculosis before he was 13.

He was ordained a priest in 1925 in the archdiocese of Milan and afterwards worked as a teacher.

When war broke out he joined up as a voluntary priest and departed first for the front line between Greece and Albania and then for the tragic campaign in Russia, which he miraculously survived, despite suffering from frostbite.

While he was chaplain to alpine troops in the war he helped Jews and Allied prisoners of war escape to Switzerland. During this time he was imprisoned for writing against Fascism.

Gnocchi pictured with General Luigi Reverberi at the Russian Front
Gnocchi (left) pictured with General Luigi
Reverberi at the Russian Front
As he assisted the wounding and dying soldiers and listened to their last wishes the idea came to him to create a charity that was to become a reality after the war.

Gnocchi founded the Fondazione Pro Juventute after the war and worked to provide care for those orphaned or disabled during the conflict. The Foundation gradually expanded its operations to care for children suffering from polio.

Today the Don Carlo Gnocchi Foundation also cares for children or young people with disabilities or diseases and for patients of any age with debilitating diseases. In 2003 the president of the Italian Republic awarded it a gold medal for service to public health.

Gnocchi died of cancer in 1956 in Milan and on his deathbed donated his corneas, which returned sight to two, blind young people.

After his death many people invoked his name when in danger and claimed Gnocchi had saved their lives. An electrician from Villa d’Adda said he had survived a serious accident at work after praying to him in 1979.

He was venerated in December 2002 by Pope John Paul II and in 2009 his beatification was celebrated in Piazza del Duomo in Milan on October 25, the date of his birth 107 years before.

A panoramic view over San Colombano al Lambro
A panoramic view over San Colombano al Lambro
Travel tip:

San Colombano al Lambro, where Gnocchi was born, has the distinction of being the only wine producing town in the province of Milan. An area of 100 hectares (250 acres) grows the grapes to produce the acclaimed red wine San Colombano DOC. San Colombano is an exclave of the province of Milan, as it is completely surrounded by the territory of the provinces of Lodi and Pavia. When the province of Lodi was carved out of Milanese territory, the people in San Colombano voted in a referendum to stay part of Milan.

The Santuario del Beato Don Gnocchi is next door to the Fondazione Don Carlo Gnocchi in the San Siro district
The Santuario del Beato Don Gnocchi is next door to the
Fondazione Don Carlo Gnocchi in the San Siro district
Travel tip:

Gnocchi’s remains were transferred in 1960 from the Cimitero Monumentale in Milan to the Fondazione Don Carlo Gnocchi, which is close to Via Don Carlo Gnocchi in the San Siro district of Milan. The foundation stone for the building was laid in September 1955 but Carlo Gnocchi did not live long enough to see the construction completed. Named after him, the organisation was originally set up to provide care, rehabilitation and social integration for children who had lost limbs during wars but has expanded over the years to provide treatment for adult patients as well. 

24 October 2017

Luciano Berio – composer

War casualty who became significant figure in Italian music

Luciano Berio was an experimental composer with a prolific output
Luciano Berio was an experimental
composer with a prolific output
The avant-garde composer Luciano Berio, whose substantial catalogue of diverse work made him one of the most significant figures in music in Italy in the modern era, was born on this day in 1925 in Oneglia, on the Ligurian coast.

Noted for his innovative combining of voices and instruments and his pioneering of electronic music, Berio composed more than 170 pieces between 1937 and his death in 2003.

His most famous works are Sinfonia, a composition for orchestra and eight voices in five movements commissioned by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in 1968, and dedicated to the conductor Leonard Bernstein, and his Sequenza series of 18 virtuoso solo works that each featured a different instrument, or in one case a female voice alone.

Berio's musical fascinations included Italian opera, particularly Monteverdi and Verdi, the 20th-century modernism of Stravinsky, the Romantic symphonies of Schubert, Brahms and Mahler, folk songs, jazz and the music of the Beatles.

All these forms influenced him in one way or another and even his most experimental work paid homage to the past. In writing operas, concerti, string quartets or pieces for solo instruments, Berio could be said to have contributed to tradition, even if composing pieces that followed traditional forms was far from his thinking.

The apparent chaos of Sinfonia, for example, may seem as far away from a traditional symphony as is possible and yet conforms to the principle of what constitutes a symphony, a combination of different moods, keys and emotions. 

Berio at a formal appearance in The Hague in 1972, pictured with Princess Beatrix and Prince Claus of The Netherlands
Berio at a formal appearance in The Hague in 1972, pictured
with Princess Beatrix and Prince Claus of The Netherlands
The eight voices often speak or shout rather than sing, yet in superimposing texts by authors ranging from James Joyce to Samuel Beckett and snatches from many classical and romantic works of music on to a framework of the scherzo of Mahler's Second Symphony, Berio creates, by definition, a symphony.

Berio came from a musical background. Both his grandfather Adolfo and father Ernesto were organists and he might have become a concert pianist but for the misfortune that befell him in the Second World War.

It was late in the conflict – 1944 – when he was called up. He considered joining the resistance movement, but feared what the consequences might be for his family and so accepted conscription.  Given a loaded gun on his first day, he was trying to learn how it worked when it went off, badly injuring his right hand.

He spent three months in a military hospital before fleeing to Como, joining the partisans after all. When, after the war, he entered the Milan Conservatory, it was clear his hand injury would prevent him achieving proficiency as a pianist, at which point he decided to concentrate on composition.

A suite for piano he had written in 1947 was his first work to be publicly performed. He earned his keep by accompanying singing classes and accepting conducting engagements in small opera houses.

The Studio Fonologia in Milan that Berio helped establish
The Studio Fonologia in Milan that Berio helped establish
One of the singers he accompanied was Cathy Berberian, an American soprano with whom he fell in love and married within a few months. He visited the United States for the first time on honeymoon and thereafter became a frequent visitor, where he won a scholarship to study at Tanglewood in Massachusetts, the summer home of the Boston Philharmonic.

At the same time, Berio was beginning to experiment with electronic music.  He and Bruno Maderna, another Italian he had met at an annual summer school on Germany where avant-garde composers would congregate, became co-directors of an electronic studio within the Milan studios of the state broadcaster, RAI.

He and Berberian divorced in 1964 but Berio continued to spend much of his time in New York with his second wife, Susan Oyama, a Japanese psychology student. He had founded the Juilliard Ensemble while teaching at the Juilliard School of Music. He resigned from the Juilliard in 1971, divorcing Oyama in the same year.

He returned to Italy and bought a house to renovate in the hill town of Radicondoli, near Siena, where he planted vineyards and fruit trees. He moved into the house in 1975 and was soon married for a third time, to the Israeli musicologist, Talia Pecker.  

Berio, whose other acclaimed works include Opera and Coro, both composed in the 1970s, La Vera Storia (1981) and Outis (1996), remained an active composer until his death.  He was Distinguished Composer in Residence at Harvard University until 2000, when he became president of the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia in Rome, where he was living at the time of his death.

The waterfront at Imperia, looking towards Porto Maurizio
The waterfront at Imperia, looking towards Porto Maurizio
Travel tip:

Oneglia, where Luciano Berio was born, ceased to exist as a town in its own right in 1923, when it and its neighbour, Porto Maurizio, were subsumed into a new city of Imperia, created by Benito Mussolini as part of his drive to create ideal Fascist cities. Today, Imperia is part industrial port and part tourist resort.  What used to be Oneglia is at the eastern end of Imperia, around Piazza Dante, which is at the centre of a long shopping street, Via Aurelia.

The church of Santi Simone e Guida in the ancient town of Radicondoli
The church of Santi Simone e Guida
in the ancient town of Radicondoli
Travel tip:

Radicondoli, situated about 50km (31 miles) west of Siena, is a beautiful walled medieval town of Etruscan origins, perched on a hilltop and offering outstanding views of the surrounding countryside, looking out over typical rolling Tuscan hills.  The town itself, with quaint cobbled streets, is home to little more than 1,000 inhabitants, with an economy and lifestyle based on farming, and a diet rich in local produce.

23 October 2017

Francesco Foscari – Doge of Venice

Ignominious ending to a long and glorious reign

Lazzaro Bastiani's profile portrait of the  65th Doge of Venice, Francesco Foscari
Lazzaro Bastiani's profile portrait of the
65th Doge of Venice, Francesco Foscari
After 34 years as Doge of Venice, Francesco Foscari was abruptly forced to leave office on this day in 1457.

Stripped of his honours, he insisted on descending the same staircase from the Doge’s Palace that he had climbed up in triumph more than a third of a century before, rather than leave through a rear entrance. Eight days later the former Doge was dead.

The story behind the downfall of Foscari and his son, Jacopo, fascinated the poet Lord Byron so much during his visit to Venice in 1816 that he later wrote a five-act play about it.

This play, The Two Foscari: An Historical Tragedy, formed the basis of Verdi’s opera, I Due Foscari, and ensured that the sad story of the father and son was never forgotten.

Francesco Foscari, who was born in 1373, was the 65th Doge of the Republic of Venice. He had previously served the Republic in many roles, including as a member of the Council of Forty and the Council of Ten, Venice’s ruling bodies, and as Procurator of St Mark’s. He was elected Doge in 1423, after defeating the other candidate, Pietro Loredan.

As Doge he led Venice in a long series of wars against Milan, which was then governed by the Visconti, who were attempting to dominate northern Italy.

An 1872 representation of the two Foscaris - Francesco and  Jacopo - by the Spanish painter Ricardo Maria Navarette Fos
An 1872 representation of the two Foscaris - Francesco and
Jacopo - by the Spanish painter Ricardo Maria Navarette Fos
The war was extremely costly for Venice, whose real source of wealth and power was at sea. Under Foscari’s leadership, Venice was eventually overcome by the forces of Milan under the leadership of Francesco Sforza, but meanwhile some of Venice’s eastern territories had been lost to the Turks.

In 1445, Foscari’s only surviving son, Jacopo, was tried by the Council of Ten on charges of bribery and corruption and exiled from the city. After two further trials, in 1450 and 1456, Jacopo was imprisoned on Crete, where he died.

After receiving the news of Jacopo’s death, Foscari withdrew from his Government duties. His enemies conspired to depose him and the Doge was forced to abdicate by the Council of Ten on October 23, 1457.

Foscari’s death, just over a week later at the age of 84, provoked such a public outcry that the former Doge was given a state funeral in Venice.

As well as being the subject of Byron’s play, Foscari’s life features as an episode in Italy, a long poem written by Samuel Rogers.

Byron’s play was the basis for the libretto written by Francesco Maria Piave for Giuseppe Verdi’s opera I Due Foscari, which premiered on November 3, 1844 in Rome. Mary Mitford also wrote a play about Foscari’s life, which opened in 1826 at Covent Garden, with the celebrated actor, Charles Kemble, playing the lead role.

The Doge's Palace has been the seat of the Venetian government since the early days of the republic
The Doge's Palace has been the seat of the Venetian
government since the early days of the republic
Travel tip:

The Doge’s Palace, where Francesco Foscari lived for 34 years, was the seat of the Government of Venice and the home of the Doge from the early days of the republic. For centuries this was the only building in Venice entitled to the name palazzo. The others were merely called Cà, short for Casa. The current palazzo was built in the 12th century in Venetian Gothic style, one side looking out over the lagoon, the other side looking out over the piazzetta that links St Mark’s Square with the waterfront. It opened as a museum in 1923 and is now run by the Fondazione Musei Civici di Venezia.

The church of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari
The church of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari
Travel tip:

Francesco Foscari’s tomb is in the chancel of the magnificent church of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari in Venice. This huge, plain Gothic church in Campo dei Frari in San Polo is known simply to Venetians as the Frari. The church also houses the tombs of Monteverdi, Rossini, Titian and Doge Nicolo Tron. It has works of art by Titian, Bellini, Sansovino and Donatello. The church is open daily from 9.00 to 5.30 pm and on Sundays from 1.00 to 5.30 pm.

22 October 2017

Valeria Golino - actress

Neapolitan starred with Hoffman and Cruise in Rain Man

Valeria Golino has won multiple awards for films made for the Italian market
Valeria Golino has won multiple awards
for films made for the Italian market
The actress Valeria Golino, who found international fame when she played opposite Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise in the hugely successful movie Rain Man, was born on this day in 1965 in Naples.

Golino was cast as the girlfriend of Tom Cruise’s character, Charlie Babbitt, in Barry Levinson’s comedy, in which Babbitt’s estranged father dies and leaves most of his multi-million dollar estate to another son, an autistic savant named Raymond (Dustin Hoffman) whose existence Charlie knew nothing about.

The 1988 movie won four Oscars and grossed more than $350 dollars. Although Golino was not nominated for her performance in Rain Man, she has won a string of other awards over a career so far spanning almost 35 years.

She is one of only three stars to win Best Actress at the Venice Film Festival on two occasions, for the 1986 drama Storia d’amore (“A Tale of Love”), directed by Francesco Maselli, and for Giuseppe M Gaudino’s 2015 drama Per amor vostro (“For Your Love”).

Golino was close to being selected to star opposite Richard Gere in another massive US hit, Pretty Woman, making it to the final audition stage for the 1990 romantic comedy but eventually losing out to Julia Roberts.

In the same year, Roberts also pipped her to the lead female role in the science-fiction horror film Flatliners.

Golina has been acting for the big screen since making her debut in 1983
Golina has been acting for the big screen
since making her debut in 1983
Golino did have other success in America, again in the comedy field, with Big Top Pee-Wee, Hot Shots! and Hot Shots! Part Deux.

Back home in Italy, she was cast in meatier, dramatic roles, bringing her great respect. The winner of several Nastro d’Argento awards from Italian film journalists, she landed her first David di Donatello for Best Actress for La guerra di Mario (“Mario’s War”), Antonio Capuano’s film about the relationship between a mother, played by Golino, and her rebellious adopted son, a boy taken away from an abusive real mother.

Mario’s War also won her an Italian Golden Globe.  Her second David di Donatello was for Best Supporting Actress in Paolo Virzi’s 2013 film Il capitale umano (“Human Capital”).

Golino has revealed a talent for directing, too. Her first short film, Armandino e il Madre, for which she also wrote the script, received a favourable reaction and her first feature film as director, Miele (“Honey”), was screened at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival and won a commendation.

Miele, the story of a woman who works with an Italian hospital doctor in the illegal facilitating of assisted suicides, earned her a Nastro d’Argento as Best New Director as well as an Italian Golden Globe for Best First Feature.

Valeria Golino receives her award at the 2015 Venice Film Festival
Valeria Golino receives her award at the
2015 Venice Film Festival
Born in Naples into a middle-class background – her father was an academic specialising in German studies, her mother a Greek-born artist – her formative years were spent alternating between Athens and Sorrento after her parents split up.

Although her mother instilled in her a love of the cinema, she had no great ambition to act as she grew up.  In fact, after undergoing surgery to correct a curvature of the spine, she set her sights on the medical profession, dreaming of becoming a cardiologist.

For one reason or another, the opportunity to pursue a career in medicine never came about.  She took some modelling assignments, which she found unfulfilling.  Life changed for her at 17 years old when her uncle, the L’Espresso journalist Enzo Golino, recommended her to Lina Wertmüller, a film director whom he knew socially, for a part in her upcoming movie, Scherzo del destino (“A Joke of Destiny”), alongside the renowned Commedia all’italiana actor, Ugo Tognazzi.

Despite being hospitalised for five months after a car crash disturbed the metal rod implanted in her back to correct the weakness in her spine, her acting career took off at the age of 20 after she played a life-loving cleaning lady in Maselli’s Storia d’amore.

Although she tries to keep her private life out of the public eye, Golino has been a regular in Italian gossip magazines following a series of relationships with other well-known figures in the movie business, the most recent with Riccardo Scamarcio, an actor and director 14 years her junior whom she was with for 10 years.  Nowadays, she largely lives in Rome.

Beautiful views abound in Sorrento
Beautiful views abound in Sorrento
Travel tip:

From the age of five years, Golino’s Italian home was in Sorrento, the popular resort town that occupies a cliff-top position overlooking the Bay of Naples, about 48km (30 miles) along the coast from the city of Naples, heading south.  The journey takes about an hour using the Circumvesuviana railway or hydrofoil across the bay, but considerably longer by road because of the almost constant traffic.  Sorrento, which has Greek origins but was developed by the Romans, is a lively place to stay but with much charm and stunning views from numerous vantage points.

Pictures of Piazza del Plebiscito accompanied the  opening credits for Marriage, Italian Style
Pictures of Piazza del Plebiscito accompanied the
opening credits for Marriage, Italian Style
Travel tips:

Naples has a connection with the film industry going back to the early years of the 20th century, when movie makers had already seen its potential for offering a spectacular or atmospheric backdrop.  In later years, Roberto Rossellini, Eduardo de Filippo, Vittorio de Sica and Francesco Rosi set many of their great films in the city.  The actress Sophia Loren, whose Neapolitan movies included Marriage, Italian Style and Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow, in both of which she co-starred with Marcello Mastroianni, was born in Rome but grew up in Naples and nearby Pozzuoli and regards herself as a Neapolitan.