31 January 2018

Don Bosco – Saint

Father and teacher who could do magic tricks

Giovanni Bosco was born in 1815 soon after the
end of the Napoleonic Wars
Saint John Bosco, who was often known as Don Bosco, died on this day in 1888 in Turin.

He had dedicated his life to helping street children, juvenile delinquents and other disadvantaged young people and was made a saint by Pope Pius XI in 1934.

Bosco is now the patron saint of apprentices, editors, publishers, children, young delinquents and magicians.

He was born Giovanni Bosco in Becchi, just outside Castelnuovo d’Asti in Piedmont in 1815. His birth came just after the end of the Napoleonic Wars that had ravaged the area.

Bosco’s father died when he was two, leaving him to be brought up by his mother, Margherita.

Mama Margherita Occhiena would herself be declared venerable by the Catholic Church in 2006.

Bosco attended Church and grew up to become very devout. Although his family was poor, his mother would share what they had with homeless people who came to the door.

While Bosco was still young, he had the first of a series of dreams that would influence his life.

He saw a group of poor boys who blasphemed while they played together, and a man told him that if he showed meekness and charity he would win over these boys, who were his friends.

Don Bosco used magic tricks to get the attention of street children
Don Bosco used magic tricks to get the
attention of street children
Not long afterwards he saw a travelling group of circus performers and magicians and realised if he learnt their magic tricks he could use them for his own purposes. He staged a magic show for other children and ended by inviting them to pray with him.

He later decided to become a priest, but had to work for two years in a vineyard before he found a priest, Joseph Cafasso, who was willing to help him achieve his ambition. Cafasso would later be made a saint for his work ministering to prisoners and the condemned.

After studying for six years, Bosco was ordained as a priest in 1841. He was assigned to work with poor children in Turin and visited prisons which housed large numbers of boys between the ages of 12 and 18 in deplorable conditions.

Bosco used his magic tricks to get the attention of the street children and then shared his message with them. He developed teaching methods based on love rather than punishment.

His mother began to help him and by the 1860s they were responsible for finding shelter for hundreds of boys.

He negotiated new rights for apprentices to prevent them from being abused and beaten. He encouraged some of the boys he met to consider becoming priests, but was accused by other priests of stealing boys from their parishes.

Don Bosco is commemorated around the world. This statue is in Rondo, in Spain
Don Bosco is commemorated around the
world. This statue is in Rondo, in Spain
The Marquis of Cavour, Chief of Police in Turin, regarded his open air services as political and a threat to the state. Bosco was interrogated on several occasions but no charges were ever made against him.

In 1859 Bosco established the Society of St Francis de Sales to carry on his charitable work helping boys. The organisation has continued to help children all around the world to this day.

Some of the boys helped by Don Bosco also decided to work to help abandoned boys. One of these was John Cagliero, who later became a Cardinal.

Bosco also founded a group of religious sisters to do for girls what he had been doing for boys. They became known as the Daughters of Mary Help of Christians.

After Bosco’s death on January 31, 1888, his funeral was attended by thousands and the call for his canonisation came immediately.

Pope Pius XI had known him personally and declared him blessed in 1929 and a Saint in 1934. He was given the title Father and Teacher of Youth. His feast day is celebrated all over the world on this day.

In 2002, Pope John Paul II was formally petitioned to declare Bosco the Patron Saint of stage magicians.

Bosco’s extraordinary life was featured in the 1935 film, Don Bosco, directed by Goffredo Alessandrini and starring Gianpaolo Rosmino as the priest.

The house in which Don Bosco was born is in Becchi, a
hamlet just outside Castelnuovo d'Asti
Travel tip:

Castelnuovo d’Asti in Piedmont, which was near the hamlet where Bosco was born, has been renamed Castelnuovo Don Bosco in honour of the saint. It is situated about 20km (12 miles) east of Turin and about 25km (15 miles) northwest of Asti. One of the main sights is a medieval tower, one of the few remains of the castle, which was built before the year 1000 and gave the town the name, Castelnuovo.

The Basilica of Don Bosco was built between 1961 and 1966
The Basilica of Don Bosco was built between 1961 and 1966
Travel tip:

The Basilica of Don Bosco was built in Frazione Morialdo at Castelnuovo Don Bosco between 1961 and 1966 close to the saint’s birthplace. In front of the church there is a large square designed to accommodate large numbers of pilgrims who visit the Basilica. It is also possible to visit the birthplace of Don Bosco, which is still standing at Via Becchi 36.

More reading:

Francesco Faà di Bruno - the wealthy academic who helped the poor

30 January 2018

Bernardo Bellotto – landscape painter

Venetian artist blessed with uncle Canaletto’s talent

A view of the New Market Square in Dresden, painted by Bernardo Bellotto in about 1750
A view of the New Market Square in Dresden, painted by
Bernardo Bellotto in about 1750
The landscape artist Bernardo Bellotto, a nephew and pupil of the masterful view painter Canaletto, was born on this day in 1721 in Venice, the city that brought fame to his illustrious uncle.

Bellotto painted some Venetian scenes but travelled much more extensively than his uncle and eventually became best known for his work in northern Europe, and in particular his views of the cities of Vienna, Warsaw and Dresden.

His work was notable for his use of light and shadow and his meticulous attention to detail.  His paintings of Warsaw became a point of reference for architects involved with the reconstruction of the city after the Second World War, so precise was he in terms of perspective and scale and the intricacies of architectural features.

Born in the parish of Santa Margherita in Venice, Bellotto was related to Giovanni Antonio Canal – Canaletto’s birth name – through his mother, Canaletto’s sister, Fiorenza Canal, who married Lorenzo Antonio Bellotto.

A Bellotto of the Rio dei Mendacanti with the Scuola di San Marco in Venice, probably executed in about 1741
A Bellotto of the Rio dei Mendacanti with the Scuola di
San Marco in Venice, probably executed in about 1741
It was natural for Bernardo to study in his uncle’s workshop and to an extent mimic Canaletto’s style. Sometimes, he would sign a painting with Canaletto’s name, which led to confusion later as art historians were occasionally unsure as to whose brush was actually responsible for a particular work.

But where Canaletto devoted himself largely to painting in his native city and in England, where he developed a considerable following, Bellotto left Venice at the age of 21 for Rome and spent much of his life away, travelling around Italy at first and then venturing north.

He painted views of Rome, Florence, Verona and Turin before accepting an invitation in 1747 from Augustus III, King of Poland and Elector of Saxony, to become his court painter in Dresden.  Those paintings he made of Dresden that have survived offer a glimpse into the outstanding beauty of the city, so much of which was destroyed by bombing during the Second World War.

As his fame spread, more invitations followed, to paint for the courts of Vienna, where he was based from 1758, and then Munich, where he moved in 1761. They were timely opportunities, given that the outbreak of the Seven Years’ War forced Augustus III’s court to disperse.

Bellotti's Self-Portrait as Venetian Ambassador, painted in about 1765
Bellotti's Self-Portrait as Venetian
painted in about 1765
He returned to Dresden after about a year but when Augustus III died in 1763 his importance in the city declined and he left for Russia, hoping to find employment at the court of Catherine II in St Petersburg.

Stopping off in Warsaw, however, his plans changed when he received an invitation from Augustus III’s successor, King Stanislaus Augustus Poniatowski, to be resident painter at his court in Warsaw, where he would remain for the rest of his life. He tended to be known as Il Canaletto and signed himself Bernardo de Canaletto.

While in Warsaw, for the first time he painted some historical scenes as well as views, including the Election of Stanislaus Augustus, and painted his own image in robes and wig in Self-Portrait as Venetian Ambassador.

The position gave Bellotto the financial stability to provide for his wife, Elisabetta, to whom he had been married before leaving Venice, and their four children.  He died in Warsaw in 1780 and was buried at the 17th century church of the Capuchins in Miodowa, a street in the centre of the city.

As well as his many views of city scenes and real landscapes, in which historians believe he probably made use of the camera obscura technique to achieve exact proportions and perspective, Bellotto was a proponent of the genre known as capriccio, in which the artist would indulge in fantasy by ‘moving’ famous monuments, buildings or ruins so that they could appear in the same view.

Many of his pictures can be seen in the Gemäldegalerie in Dresden, the Kunsthistoriches Museum in Vienna and the National Museum in Warsaw.

In Italy, there are Bellotto collections at the Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice and at the Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan.

The Campo Santa Margherita in Venice, at the heart of the area in which Bellotto grew up
The Campo Santa Margherita in Venice, at the heart of the
area in which Bellotto grew up
Travel tip:

Campo Santa Margherita, the main square of the parish where Bellotto grew up in the Dorsoduro area of Venice, offers visitors a glimpse of a real Venetian life in a neighbourhood away from the hordes that throng Piazza San Marco and the other main tourist locations in the city.  A large open space, the square is typically the scene of a local market, with some stalls selling fresh fish caught in the lagoon, and is surrounded by 14th and 15th century houses mostly occupied by Venetians.  There are a good number of restaurants and bars, which come to life at night in particular, when the square is a meeting place for students from the nearby Ca' Foscari University of Venice.

Bellotto's 1745 View of Turin Near the Royal Palace
Bellotto's 1745 View of Turin Near the Royal Palace
Travel tip:

During his time in Turin, working for the court of Charles Emmanuel III of Savoy, Bellotto spent much of his time around the Royal Palace, the historic house of Savoy in the centre of the city.  Built in the 16th century and modernised in the 17th century, the palace complex includes the Chapel of the Holy Shroud, which was built in the west wing and joins the apse of the Cathedral of St John the Baptist. The Chapel was added to house the Holy Shroud of Turin, believed by some to be the burial shroud of Christ, which was owned by the Savoy family for almost 500 years.

29 January 2018

Felice Beato – war photographer

Venetian-born adventurer captured some of first images of conflict

Felice Beato's graphic pictures from the Second Opium War in China shocked western audiences
Felice Beato's graphic pictures from the Second Opium
War in China shocked Western audiences
Felice Beato, who is thought to be one of the world’s first war photographers, died in Florence on this day in 1909.

He was 76 or 77 years old and had passed perhaps his final year in Italy, having spent the majority of his adult life in Asia and the Far East. 

Although he was from an Italian family it was thought for many years that he had been born on the island of Corfu and died in Burma. However, in 2009 his death certificate was found in an archive in Florence, listing his place of birth as Venice and his place of death as the Tuscan regional capital.

Beato photographed the Crimean War in 1855, the aftermath of the Indian Rebellion in 1857 and the final days of the Second Opium War in China in 1860, later travelling with United States forces in Korea in 1871 and with the British in the Sudan in 1884-85.

He also spent many years living in Japan and then Burma, where his photography introduced the people and culture of the Far East to many in the West for the first time.

Felice Beato, pictured in about 1872, when he was based in Japan
Felice Beato, pictured in about 1872, when
he was based in Japan
In addition, he developed photography techniques that put him ahead of his time, despite the crude nature of equipment compared with today’s technology.

These included adding colour using methods learned from Japanese watercolour artists and creating panoramas by carefully making several exposures of a scene and joining them together for pictures up to two metres (6½ feet) long.

Although not born in Corfu, Beato lived on the island from a young age after his parents moved there from Venice.  Corfu was a British protectorate at the time, which made him a British subject.  Later the family lived in Istanbul.

Equipped with what was thought to be the only camera he ever used, bought in Paris, he formed a partnership with the British photographer and his future brother-in-law James Robertson and began his travels by heading to Balaklava in Crimea, where his photographs captured the destruction of the Crimean War, including the fall of Sebastapol in 1855.

From there they went to Calcutta to observe and photograph the country in the wake of the Indian Rebellion of 1857 and in 1860 on to South China to photograph the Anglo-French military expedition in the Second Opium War. Beato’s pictures there were the first to document a military campaign as it was unfolding. His pictures of dead Chinese soldiers brought home the horrors of war as never seen before.

After travelling to London in 1861, where he raised funds by selling many of his photographs, he ventured to Yokohama in Japan, where he formed a new partnership with Charles Wirgmann, an illustrator with whom he had worked previously.

A street scene in Nagasaki in Japan in around 1868
A street scene in Nagasaki in Japan in around 1868
The move began a new chapter in Beato’s career. He compiled albums of Japanese photographs, including portraits, cityscapes and landscapes, and despite restrictions imposed by Japan’s military dictatorship was able to reach parts of the country into which few Westerners had been.

Unlike his work in India and China, which tended to underline the might of British imperial rule and paid little attention to the indigenous population, he was keen to introduce the Western world to Japanese people and culture and many of his photographs were of local people going about their daily life.

At the same time, Beato was expanding his horizons in a business sense, acquiring several studios, venturing into property, investing money in the new Grand Hotel in Yokohama and setting up a business importing carpets and women’s handbags, although he is said to have suffered big losses on the Yokohama silver exchange.

Later, after selling his business in 1877, he settled in Burma, where he continued to focus on photographing local people, while again developing money-making sidelines, in this case an antiques and curios business.

It is thought Beato spent time in Belgium towards the end of his life before returning to Italy to live in Florence in about 1908.

The ancient Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta in Torcello
The ancient Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta in Torcello
Travel tip:

Venice is a very different place today from Felice Beato’s era and many visitors find the number of people concentrated on the area around Piazza San Marco in high season rather daunting.  But by venturing towards the outlying parts of the city it is possible to escape the crowds. Better still, try a trip to one of the islands. Murano and Burano still attract tourists but in smaller numbers, while Torcello – just a few minutes further on from Burano – is more or less undisturbed.  Once home to upwards of 20,000 people, albeit in the 10th century, there are now fewer than 100 living on the island, yet relics of the past remain, such as the oldest church in the Venetian lagoon, the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta, founded in 639 and with Byzantine mosaics still intact from the 11th and 12th centuries.

The Chiesa di San Salvatore di Ognissanti in Borgo Ognissanti in Florence
The Chiesa di San Salvatore di Ognissanti
in Borgo Ognissanti in Florence
Travel tip:

A 10-minute walk west from the centre of Florence, the the Franciscan Chiesa di San Salvatore di Ognissanti – usually known simply as the Ognissanti – is a church worth venturing away from the main sights for. Once the parish church of the wealthy Vespucci family, including the explorer Amerigo, the church is rich in art treasures, including Ghirlandaio’s Madonna della Misericordia and his Last Supper, which was believed to have been the inspiration for Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper at the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan. There is also a Madonna and Child With Angels by Giotto and works by Sandro Botticelli, who is buried in the south transept.

28 January 2018

Simonetta Vespucci – Renaissance beauty

Noblewoman hailed as embodiment of female perfection

Simonetta Vespucci, as recalled by Sandro Botticelli in his 1480s Portrait of a Woman
Simonetta Vespucci, as recalled by Sandro
Botticelli in his 1480s Portrait of a Woman
Simonetta Vespucci, a young noblewoman who became the most sought-after artist’s model in Florence in the mid-15th century, is thought to have been born on this day in 1453.

Born Simonetta Cattaneo to a Genoese family, she was taken to Florence in 1469 when she married Marco Vespucci, an eligible Florentine nobleman who was a distant cousin of the explorer and cartographer Amerigo Vespucci.

She quickly became the talk of Florentine society. Soon known as La Bella Simonetta, she captivated painters and young noblemen alike with her beauty. 

It is said that, shortly before her arrival, a group of artists had been discussing their idea of the characteristics of perfect female beauty and were stunned, on meeting Simonetta, to discover that their idealised woman actually existed.

The Medici brothers, Lorenzo and Giuliano, were said to have been besotted with her, Giuliano in particular, while she is thought to have been the model for several of Sandro Botticelli’s portraits of women.

The female figure standing on a shell in Botticelli’s masterpiece, The Birth of Venus, so closely resembles the woman in the paintings accepted as being Simonetta Vespucci that some critics insist he must have based his Venus on her.

The Venus in Botticelli’s Primavera has the same hair colour and similar facial features, as does one of the figures in his Three Graces.

Another Botticelli Portrait of a Woman, clearly of the same model
Another Botticelli Portrait of a Woman,
clearly of the same model
The romantic notion that Botticelli, who never married, carried with him an unrequited love for Simonetta is reinforced by the story that, having outlived her, he asked to be buried at the Church of Ognissanti in Florence because she had been laid to rest there, although historians have pointed out that he had been baptized there and was buried with his family.

Other artists were similarly inspired by her. The 1490 Portrait of a woman by Piero di Cosimo is also believed to be Simonetta Vespucci.

Considering the impact she supposedly made, in reality her life was tragically short.

The daughter of a Genoese nobleman, Gaspare Catteneo, she was probably born in Genoa but some like to believe she was born in Porto Venere, the coastal town near La Spezia, the place that legend says was the birthplace of Venus herself.

Whichever it is true, she is said to have met Marco Simonetti while he was attending the Banco di San Giorgio. The young man asked her father for her hand and Gaspare, aware that the marriage would enhance his family’s social standing through Vespucci’s connection with the Medici, gave his approval.

In any event, both Lorenzo and Giuliano fell for her charms on their first meeting, and offered the couple use of a palazzo in Via Larga for the wedding ceremony followed by the wedding breakfast at their lavish Villa di Careggi.  The groom and his bride were both around 16 years old.

The Botticelli masterpiece The Birth of Venus is thought to have been inspired by Simonetta Vespucci
The Botticelli masterpiece The Birth of Venus is thought to
have been inspired by Simonetta Vespucci
Afterwards, Lorenzo was too busy with the politics of the day to pay Simonetta much attention but it was a different story for Giuliano, who did not conceal his feelings despite her now being married.

On one occasion, he took part in La Giostra, a jousting tournament, carrying a banner on which was a picture of Simonetta and an inscription, in French, that read La Sans Pareille, which translates in context as ‘The Woman Unparalleled’.

Guiliano won the tournament and dedicated his victory to ‘the Queen of Beauty’ and there have been suggestions that the pair become lovers, although historians think this was unlikely.

Simonetta died just one year later, at the age of 22.  It is thought she was stricken with tuberculosis, known at the time as ‘the subtle evil’ and a disease that was usually fatal.

During her funeral procession, it is said that the coffin was opened so that onlookers could appreciate her beauty one last time, although it appears to have been preserved for posterity in art.

The Uffizi overlooks the Arno river in central Florence
The Uffizi overlooks the Arno river in central Florence
Travel tip:

Botticelli’s paintings The Birth of Venus and Primavera can both be found in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, one of the largest and most important art museums in the world and the most visited art gallery in Italy, attracting more than two million visitors a year, with so many wanting to make it part of their experience of Florence that turning up without a pre-booked ticket can mean waiting up to five hours to be allowed in.  The complex of buildings that make up the gallery was originally designed by Giorgio Vasari on behalf of Cosimo I de’ Medici as offices – uffizi – for the Florentine magistrates.

The Villa di Castello is set in extensive gardens
The Villa di Castello is set in extensive gardens
Travel tip:

It is thought Cosimo I de’ Medici also commissioned Botticelli to provide some paintings to decorate the walls of a country house, the Villa di Castello, that the family had acquired in the hills northwest of Florence, near the town of Sesto Fiorentino and not far from the city's airport. Cosimo also commissioned an engineer, Piero di San Casciano, to build a system of aqueducts to carry water to the villa and gardens, a sculptor, Niccolo Tribolo, to create fountains and statues in the gardens and Vasari to restore and enlarge the main building.

27 January 2018

Giovanni Arpino – writer and novelist

Stories inspired classic Italian films

Giovanni Arpino had a distinguished career as both a sports writer and a novelist
Giovanni Arpino had a distinguished career as both
a sports writer and a novelist
The writer Giovanni Arpino, whose novels lay behind the Italian movie classics Divorce, Italian Style and Profumo di donna – later remade in the United States as Scent of a Woman – was born on this day in 1927 in the Croatian city of Pula, then part of Italy.

His parents did not originate from Pula, which is near the tip of the Istrian peninsula about 120km (75 miles) south of Trieste. His father, Tomaso, was a Neapolitan, while his mother, Maddalena, hailed from Piedmont, but his father’s career in the Italian Army meant the family were rarely settled for long in one place.

In fact, they remained in Pula only a couple of months. As Giovanni was growing up, they lived in Novi Ligure, near Alessandria, in Saluzzo, south of Turin, and in Piacenza in Emilia-Romagna. His father imposed a strict regime on Giovanni and his two brothers, who were required to spend a lot of their time studying.

In fact, Giovanni was separated from his family for a while during the Second World War, when his mother returned to the Piedmontese town of Bra, not far from Saluzzo in the province of Cuneo, to deal with the estate of her father, who passed away in 1940. He left the family a villa on the hill overlooking the Sanctuary of the Madonna dei Fiori, on the outskirts of the town.  Giovanni remained at school in Piacenza.

After the armistice of 1943, his father left the military and they settled in Bra, where he attended high school before enrolling in the faculty of law at the University of Turin.  He later switched to literature, completing a thesis on the Russian poet, Sergei Yesenin.

Arpino died prematurely in 1987 after a  year-long battle with cancer
Arpino died prematurely in 1987 after a
year-long battle with cancer
Arpino spent several periods of his life working in journalism, including a stint writing about football, for which he had a massive enthusiasm. Gianni Brera, the celebrated football writer, had brought his literary style to the sports pages a few years earlier and Arpino was encouraged to do the same.

His time working for La Stampa, the Turin daily newspaper, enabled him to travel to the 1978 World Cup finals in Argentina, from which his reports attracted a substantial following. 

It was as a novelist, however, that he truly made his mark. He wrote in a dry and sardonic style to which readers responded well.

His first novel, Sei stato felice, Giovanni (You’ve been happy, Giovanni), was published by Einaudi in 1952. At around the same time, having completed his own military service – compulsory rather than voluntary – he began courting his future wife, Caterina, whose parents owned the Caffe Garibaldi in Bra.

They married in 1953 and moved to Turin, where he began to work in the sales department of the Einaudi publishing house and at the same time wrote a column for the Rome newspaper Il Mondo about provincial life.

His first big break came when his fourth novel, Un delitto d’onore (An Honour Killing), published in 1962, formed the basis for the hit movie Divorzia all’Italiana – Divorce, Italian Style – a satirical comedy directed by Pietro Germi and starring Marcello Mastroianno.

Vittorio Gassman (left) and Alessandro Momo in a scene from Dino Risi's film Profumo di donna
Vittorio Gassman (left) and Alessandro Momo in a scene
from Dino Risi's film Profumo di donna
Two years later, his sixth novel, L’Ombra delle colline (The Shadow of the Hills), about the apprehensions and delusions of a young man who, as a child, had witnessed partisans fighting for their country towards the end of the Second World War, won the Strega Prize – the Premio Strega – which is Italy’s most prestigious literary award.

The film industry gave him another massive sales boost in 1969 when his novel Il buio e il miele – The Darkness and the Honey – was turned into the film Profumo di donna, directed by Dino Risi and starring Vittorio Gassman, both of whom received David di Donatello awards.

Another version of the film was made in 2012, when Martin Brest directed Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman, in which Pacino’s performance as Frank Slade, a retired Lieutenant Colonel who had lost his sight in an accident with a hand grenade, won him an academy award for best actor.

Arpino, whose enjoyment telling stories to his son, Tommaso, led him to write for children as well as for his established adult readership, developed cancer in his late 50s, which ultimately led to his early death in 1987 at the age of just 60.

Piazza dei Caduti in Bra with the Bernini church of Sant'Andrea Apostolo on the left
Piazza dei Caduti in Bra with the Bernini church of
Sant'Andrea Apostolo on the left
Travel tip:

The town of Bra in Piedmont, situated some 50km (31 miles) southeast of Turin, is renowned as the birthplace of the Slow Food movement, founded by Carlo Petrini in 1989 to prevent the disappearance of local food cultures and traditions. Every two years, Slow Food organizes the cheese festival in Bra, with artisanal cheese makers invited from across the world.  There are a number of attractive churches in the town, including the beautiful Chiesa di Sant’Andrea Apostolo, just off the main Piazza dei Caduti, which was built to a design by the sculptor and architect Gian Lorenzo Bernini, famous for the impact his designs made in the city of Rome in the 18th century.

The Castiglia, historic residence of the Marchesi di Saluzzo
The Castiglia, historic residence of the Marchesi di Saluzzo
Travel tip:

The Piedmontese town of Saluzzo, about 30km (19 miles) west of Bra on the edge of the southern part of the Alpine arc, is notable for a beautifully preserved 15th century historic centre characterised by a network of cobbled streets and steep passages by which to explore a number of fine palaces and churches, including the 15th century cathedral built in the Lombard-Gothic style.  At the summit of the town is the Castiglia, built in the 13th century by the Marquis Tommaso I and renovated in 1492 by Ludovico II of Saluzzo, at the time when the town was a powerful city-state.

26 January 2018

Valentino Mazzola – footballer

Tragic star may have been Italy’s greatest player

Valentino Mazzola scored more  than 100 goals in Serie A
Valentino Mazzola scored more
than 100 goals in Serie A
The footballer Valentino Mazzola, captain of the mighty Torino team of the 1940s, was born on this day in 1919 in Cassano d’Adda, a town in Lombardy about 30km (19 miles) northeast of Milan.

Mazzola, a multi-talented player who was primarily an attacking midfielder but who was comfortable in any position on the field, led the team known as Il Grande Torino to five Serie A titles in seven seasons between 1942 and 1949.

He scored 109 goals in 231 Serie A appearances for Venezia and Torino and had become the fulcrum of the Italy national team, coached by the legendary double World Cup-winner Vittorio Pozzo.

In just over a decade at the top level of the Italian game he achieved considerable success and some who saw him play believe he was the country’s greatest footballer of all time.

His life was cut short, however, when he and most of the Grande Torino team – and at the same time the Italian national team – were killed when a plane carrying them home from a friendly in Portugal crashed in thick fog on its approach to Turin airport on May 4, 1949.

The Superga Disaster – so-called because the aircraft collided with the rear wall of the Basilica of Superga, which stands on a hill overlooking the city – claimed the lives of 18 players, including all bar one of the Torino first team, as well as the team’s English coach, Leslie Lievesley, and four other officials, plus three journalists and all of the crew. Of the 31 on board, no one survived.

Mazzola in action for the Italian  national team in 1947
Mazzola in action for the Italian
national team in 1947
It was a tragedy of which there were eerie echoes in the Munich Disaster of nine years later, when many members of a talented Manchester United team were killed, including Duncan Edwards, who though much younger had similar qualities to Mazzola and many thought had the potential to become the English game’s greatest player.

Mazzola was il Grande Torino’s leader and inspiration, known for literally rolling up his sleeves when his team were not playing up to the standard he demanded, a habit that came to symbolise his determination and to lift those around him. If a game was not going well, the crowds in Torino’s old Filadelfia stadium would watch for the moment Mazzola gave the cue and would respond with a roar of encouragement for the team.

His character on the football field was a reflection of his life, which had seen him show bravery in the face of adversity in many ways.

Born in a poor neighbourhood, he had to leave school early after his father, a labourer, was laid off as the Wall Street Crash of 1929 began to reverberate across the world, taking a job as a baker’s boy and, at the age of 14, in a linen mill on the Adda river.

He had demonstrated his selfless courage at the age of 10 when he dived into the fast-flowing waters of the Adda to save the life of a six-year-old boy.  By an extraordinary coincidence, the boy who would likely have drowned had Mazzola not come to the rescue was Andrea Bonomi, a future footballer who would go on to captain a title-winning AC Milan team.

Mazzola played for two local teams, Tresoldi and Fara d’Adda, where his talent was noted by an employee of Alfa Romeo, the car manufacturer which had a plant in Arese, on the outskirts of Milan.

Valentino with his son Sandro, who would grow up to be a star like his father
Valentino with his son Sandro, who would
grow up to be a star like his father
Factories at the time in Italy regarded a successful football team as good for prestige and Alfa Romeo were particularly proud of theirs, which played at a semi-professional level in Serie C, the third tier of the Italian league system.  Companies were keen to find good players and the reports they heard about this boy from Cassano d’Adda prompted Alfa Romeo to offer him training as a mechanic if he would play for their team.

For the Mazzola family, the timing could not have been better. His father, sadly, had been killed when he was hit by a truck and this offer of a job enabled Valentino to become a breadwinner. 

His career evolved despite the outbreak of war in 1939.  Conscripted to the Royal Italian Navy, he was based in Venice and was soon invited to play for Venezia, making his Serie A debut in 1940 at the age of 21.

He moved to Torino after Venezia won the Coppa Italia in 1941 and finished third in Serie A in 1942, just a point behind the Turin team, who paid 200,000 lire for his services.  In Turin he worked for FIAT at their Lingotto plant. 

Mazzola won his first scudetto in 1943, his second in 1945 and then three in a row from 1947 to 1949, by margins of 13 points, 10 points and a record 16 points. The names of Eusebio Castigliano, Mario Rigamonti, Rubens Fadini, Romeo Menti, Ezio Loik, Gugliemo Gabetto and Franco Ossola as well as Mazzola became the talk of Italy, giving hope to the national team too.

The wreckage of the plane in which Mazzola and  his Grande Torino teammates perished
The wreckage of the plane in which Mazzola and
his Grande Torino teammates perished
In the desperate poverty of the immediate post-war years, life in Italy was grim but when the Italian national team beat Hungary 3-2 in a friendly in 1947, with 10 of the 11 Azzurri players coming from Torino, it gave the country a considerable fillip. Mazzola won 12 caps, although it would have been more but for the Second World War, which also denied him the chance to participate in a World Cup.

Away from football, Mazzola was a quiet person who valued his privacy.  In Turin in 1942, he married Emilia Rinaldi, moved into an apartment on Via Torricelli and they had two sons, Ferruccio and Sandro. The latter would grow up to play for Internazionale of Milan and become even more decorated than his father, winning the scudetto four times and the European Cup twice, as well as winning a European championship winners’ medal with Italy in 1968 and playing in the World Cup final in 1970.

He and Rinaldi separated in 1946 and he married for a second time in April 1949 to 19-year-old Giuseppina Cutrone, only to be killed just 10 days later.  He is buried in the Monumental Cemetery in Milan.

The Borromeo Castle by the Adda at Cassano d'Adda
The Borromeo Castle by the Adda at Cassano d'Adda
Travel tip:

Cassano d’Adda sits on the eastern bank of the Adda, the river that has shaped its history in may ways. The town developed as a result of the crossing there, which gave it a strategic importance that led it to be the site of several battles over the centuries, from Roman times to the French Revolutionary Wars of the 18th century. It is notable for the Borromeo Castle, built in around 1000 and significantly expanded by Francesco I Sforza in the 15th century. At different times it has been owned by the Venetians, the Spanish and the Austrians as well as by different Italian families.  Connected by canals with Milan and Lodi, Cassano d’Adda grew prosperous in the 19th century through linen manufacture using watermills.

The Basilica di Superga, near Turin
The Basilica di Superga, near Turin
Travel tip:

The Superga tragedy is commemorated with a simple memorial at the site of the crash, at the back of the magnificent 18th century Basilica di Superga.  Mounted on a wall, the damaged parts of which were never restored, is a large picture of the Grande Torino team, with a memorial stone that lists all the names of the 31 victims of the disaster, under the heading I Campioni d’Italia.  The basilica, which sits at an altitude of some 425m (1,395ft) above sea level and often sits serenely in sunlight while mist shrouds the city below, can be reached by a steep railway line, the journey taking about 20 minutes.

25 January 2018

Paolo Mascagni – physician

Scientist was first to map the human lymphatic system

Paolo Mascagni studied geology before turning to human science and anatomy
Paolo Mascagni studied geology before turning
to human science and anatomy
The physician Paolo Mascagni, whose scientific research enabled him to create the first map of the complete human lymphatic system, was born on this day in 1755 in Pomarance, a small town in Tuscany about 40km (25 miles) inland from the western coastline.

Mascagni described his findings in a book with detailed illustrations of every part of the lymphatic system he had identified, which was to prove invaluable to physicians wanting to learn more about a part of the human body vital to the regulation of good health.

He also commissioned the sculptor Clemente Susini to create a full-scale model in wax of the lymphatic system, which can still be seen at the Museum of Human Anatomy at the University of Bologna.

Later he created another significant tome, his Anatomia Universa, which comprises 44 enormous copperplate illustrations that set out to bring together in one book the full extent of human knowledge about the anatomy of the human body.  The ‘book’ in the event was so large it was never bound, each plate measuring more than 3ft 6ins (1.07m) by 2ft 6ins (0.76m), designed in such a way that those from the same plane of dissection can be placed together and show the whole body in life size.

Mascagni was the son of Aurelio Mascagni and Elisabetta Burroni, both belonging to ancient noble families from Chiusdino, a village in the province of Siena.

An illustration from Mascagni's celebrated book on the human lymphatic system
An illustration from Mascagni's celebrated
book on the human lymphatic system
He studied at the University of Siena, where his teacher of anatomy was Pietro Tabarrini, and graduated in philosophy and medicine in 1771. By his final year, he had been appointed assistant to Tabarrini and succeeded his mentor as Professor of Anatomy after blindness forced him to retire.

As a young man, Mascagni had been keen on geology and wrote a number of papers on the thermal springs of Siena and Volterra. Later, he would successfully identify boric acid in the waters and suggest ways to produce from it the industrial compound now known as borax.

After graduating, his focus turned to the human lymphatic system, feeling that he owed it to Tabarrini to do what he could to advance his teacher’s research into the workings of the human body. He decided that he would not work in clinical medicine but devote himself entirely to teaching and research.

His work was interrupted for a while by the political upheaval of the late 18th century, when Tuscany was occupied by the French. He became involved in politics somewhat reluctantly, becoming Superintendent of the Arts, Sciences and Charitable Institutions of Siena, and this placed him in constant conflict with the French authorities over their seizing of personal and public property.

Unfortunately, his involvement with the French was misinterpreted when Austria regained control of the area. Accused of having Jacobin sympathies, he was arrested and imprisoned for seven months.

The statue of Mascagni in the courtyard of the Uffizi in Florence, where he lived
The statue of Mascagni in the courtyard of the
Uffizi in Florence, where he lived for some years
On his release, he was appointed a professor of anatomy at the University of Pisa and began lecturing at the Hospital of Santa Maria Nuova in Florence before becoming a full professor at the University of Florence.

In his research into the lymphatic system, Mascagni perfected a technique whereby he injected mercury as a contrast medium into the peripheral lymphatic networks of a human cadaver and by following the mercury’s flow to other parts of the system was able to produce detailed diagrams and models.

This brought him fame all over Europe, yet he did not limit himself to merely describing the anatomy of the lymphatic system.  By his research into its physiology and pathology he was able to highlight its importance in fighting disease in the human body, the understanding of which helped in the evolution of new treatments.

Mascagni died in 1815 during a stay at his estate in Castelletto, near Chiusdino, the village near Siena where his family originated and where he spent most of his free time. He had contracted a pernicious fever, probably malaria.

His memory has been commemorated in several ways. The street where he was born in Pomerance is now called Via Paolo Mascagni; the hamlet where the family lived, 33km (20 miles) southwest of Siena, is now known as Castelletto Mascagni, and there is another Via Paolo Mascagni in nearby Chiusdino.

A statue of Paolo Mascagni can be found in a niche in the courtyard of the Uffizi in Florence, as one of the great men of Tuscany.  His house in Florence was in Via Fiesolana.  There is also a monument to him in the Accademia dei Fisiocritici in Siena, of which he was president.

One of the medieval gates into the town of Pomarance
One of the medieval gates into the town of Pomarance
Travel tip:

The town of Pomarance, where Mascagni was born, sits on a hill overlooking Val di Cecina, on the border between the provinces of Pisa, 80km (50 miles) to the north, and Siena, 69km (43 miles) to the east. The main square, Piazza de Larderel, is named after Francois Jacques de Lardarel, a 19th century French engineer who worked in the area on the exploitation of geothermal energy from the steam emitted by lagoons in the area.

The ancient village of Chiusdino occupies a hilltop position
The ancient village of Chiusdino occupies a hilltop position
Travel tip:

The ancient village of Chiusdino dates back to the seventh or eighth century, when it was a Longobard settlement, sitting on the top of a hill, surrounded by walls. Much of the history of the town surrounds the legend of San Galgano, who was an arrogant, licentious son of a local feudal lord in the 12th century who changed his ways after a supposed visit from Saint Michael the Archangel, who told him he must give up his excesses, prompting Galgano to say it would be easier to cut a rock with a sword. As if to prove it, he launched a sword thrust at a rock and was amazed when the blade plunged into the rock as easily as a knife into butter. He knelt to pray and vowed to become a hermit. The sword in the rock remains on display in a chapel, the Rotonda della Spada, that was built around it.

24 January 2018

Farinelli – music’s first superstar

Castrato rated among all-time opera greats

The castrato Carlo Broschi, known as Farinelli, in a 1752 painting by Jacopo Amigoni
The castrato Carlo Broschi, known as Farinelli, in
a 1752 painting by Jacopo Amigoni
The opera singer Carlo Broschi – better known by his stage name of Farinelli – was born on this day in 1705 in the city of Andria in what is now Apulia.

Farinelli was a castrato, a type of classical male singing voice that was enormously popular from the 16th to the 18th century, one which had an enormous range and flexibility, a little like a female soprano but subtly different.

It was achieved through the somewhat barbaric practice of castrating a male singer before puberty, which is why there are no castrati today. Among other things, the procedure caused changes in the development of the larynx, meaning the voice effectively never breaks, and of the bones, including the ribs, which grew longer than in non-castrated boys and gave the castrato singer considerably enhanced lung power and capacity.

Although many survived and, like Farinelli, went on to enjoy a normal lifespan, the practice was hugely risky and there were many deaths not only from post-operative infections but also from overdoses of opium or other narcotic drugs administered as painkillers, or else from the compression of the carotid artery in the neck employed as a means of rendering the boy unconscious.

During the early part of the 18th century, when castrato singers were in demand and could earn a considerable income, many poor families had their sons castrated in the hope that they would turn out to have beautiful voices that would provide the family with a route out of poverty.  Legally, a castration could be carried out only if there was a medical need, but tenuous reasons were often accepted with little argument.

Another depiction by Amigoni of the artist in a fantasised setting
Another depiction by Amigoni of the
artist in a fantasised setting
Farinelli’s story was somewhat different. His father, Salvatore Broschi, was a composer and maestro di cappella at Andria’s cathedral, and both he and Carlo’s mother, Caterina Barrese, were related to nobility. They were a well-to-do family.

Carlo had natural singing talent and, after the family had moved from Barletta, a coastal town not far from Andria, to Naples, primarily so his brother, Riccardo, could enroll at the Conservatory of Santa Maria di Loreto, he began to receive lessons from the renowned composer and voice teacher, Nicola Porpora.

There are differing versions of how he came to be castrated. One is that, after Salvatore Broschi died unexpectedly at the age of just 36 in 1717, the family suddenly faced financial insecurity and, knowing that Porpora was an especially gifted coach of castrati voices, Riccardo took the decision that Carlo should be castrated. But this is disputed by some historians, who argue that at 12 years old he was too old for the procedure to have saved his voice and that he probably underwent it earlier, while his father was alive.

Whatever the truth was, Carlo Broschi’s singing talent developed rapidly under Porpora’s tutelage and he made his stage debut at the age of 15 in one of Porpora’s own compositions, a serenata entitled Angelica e Medoro, with a libretto by the poet Pietro Trapassi, who would go on to be famous in his own right under the name of Metastasio.

It is thought Broschi adopted Farinelli as his stage name as a nod to the help provided for the family in paying for his singing lessons by the Farino brothers, who were wealthy Neapolitan lawyers and music lovers.

he cathedral at Andria, where Farinelli's father was the maestro di cappella
The cathedral at Andria, where Farinelli's father was
the maestro di cappella
Farinelli’s extraordinary voice, described by one critic as “a penetrating, full, rich, bright and well-modulated soprano voice, with a range from the A below middle C to the D two octaves above middle C”, soon made him famous across Italy and beyond.

After making his Rome debut in 1722, he sang in Vienna in 1724, then Parma and Milan in 1726, subsequently performing in Munich and again in Vienna.  In 1729, he was engaged to perform in two works by Metastasio during the carnival season in Venice, appearing at the Teatro San Giovanni Grisostomo alongside some of the greatest singers of his time.

Audiences were large and appreciative. In addition to his handsome appearance fees, Farinelli was regularly showered with lavish gifts and acquired a wealth to go with his fame.

In 1734, he moved to London, where he was signed up by Senesino, an Italian contralto-castrato who had formed his own company, the Opera of the Nobility, performing at a theatre in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, with Porpora as a composer. 

The company paid Farinelli £1,500 per season – an enormous salary for the times and possibly swelled to £5,000 with gifts – although the sum was not sustainable in the long run and by the end of his time in London he was performing for much more modest fees.

Farinelli's tomb at the Certosa cemetery in Bologna
Farinelli's tomb at the Certosa
cemetery in Bologna
When Farinelli left London in 1737, his career took a turn that removed him from the public arena for good but assured his financial security.  Summoned to Madrid by the Spanish queen, Elisabetta Farnese, in the hope that his voice might help lift her husband King Philip V, out of his depression, he was offered the position of Chamber Musician to the King.

He kept that position for 22 years, performing private concerts nightly for the royal couple and developing a still closer relationship with their successors, King Ferdinand VI and his wife, Barbara of Portugal, with whom he sang duets.

With a generous pension guaranteed, he left Spain in 1759 after Ferdinand was succeeded by Charles III, who was no music lover.  He retired to Bologna, where he had owned property since 1732, and died there in 1782, by then a rather lonely figure who had outlived most of his contemporaries.

He was buried at the Capuchin monastery of Santa Croce in Bologna and removed to the Certosa cemetery in Bologna after the monastery was destroyed during the Napoleonic wars.

Hotels in 

The Castel del Monte, outside Andria
The Castel del Monte, outside Andria
Travel tip:

Andria, where Farinelli was born, is a city well off the usual visitor trail yet is a substantial place with a population of more than 100,000, the fourth largest municipality of the Apulia region, an important centre of the agricultural service industry and a producer of wine, olives and almonds. Situated some 60km (37 miles) northwest of the port of Bari, it is about 210km (130 miles) almost due east of Naples across the peninsula. The centre of the city is Piazza Catuma and a short distance away is Piazza Duomo, the site of a 12th century cathedral. About 15km (10 miles) south of the city is the impressively well preserved 13th century Castel del Monte, built by the Emperor Frederick II, who was particularly fond of the area.

The Norman motte and bailey castle at Barletta
The Norman motte and bailey castle at Barletta
Travel tip:

Like Andria, the nearby coastal city of Barletta, where Farinelli grew up, is not a well known destination among tourists, with those who do visit the area tending to gravitate towards Trani, the attractive fishing port a few kilometres south. Yet Barletta is known for its sandy beaches to the north and south of the city and its reputation as a centre for concrete and cement production should not put off would-be visitors, who will find an attractive and historic old town and an impressive Norman castle of the traditional motte and bailey structure that was built in the 10th century, when it served as a hostel for soldiers heading for the Holy Land during the crusades.

Also on this day: