31 March 2018

Franco Bonvicini – comic book artist

Comic artist became famous for satirising the Nazis

Bonvi's Sturmtruppen was a hit in countries beyond Italy as well as at home
Bonvi's Sturmtruppen was a hit in countries
beyond Italy as well as at home
Franco Bonvicini, who signed his comic strips Bonvi, was born on this day in 1941 in either Parma or Modena in Emilia-Romagna.

The correct birthplace is unknown. According to the artist, his mother registered him in both places to obtain double the usual amount of food stamps for rations.

After a brief spell working in advertising, Bonvi made his debut in the comic strip world for the Rome newspaper Paese Sera with his creation Sturmtruppen in 1968.

This series satirising the German army was a big hit and was published in various periodicals over the years. It was also translated for publication in other countries.

Although left-wing and a pacifist, Bonvi was fascinated by war and built up immense knowledge about Nazi Germany’s uniforms, weapons and equipment, which he depicted faithfully in his illustrations. The cartoons satirised military life and the Nazis themselves, providing him with an endless source of comic and surreal situations.

Bonvi's characters first appeared in 1968 in the Paese Sera newspaper
Bonvi's characters first appeared in
1968 in the Paese Sera newspaper
Bonvi also created the character Nick Carter, a comic detective, who later featured in a play, two films and a number of television cartoons.

In the 1980s, Bonvi became a member of Bologna City Council and founded a publishing house and monthly magazine in the city.

He was killed in 1995 in Bologna when he was struck by a car while crossing a road on his way to the television studios. He was due to appear on a show hosted by DJ and TV personality Red Ronnie and it was believed he intended to appeal for financial assistance for a friend, a Bolognese cartoonist, who was unable to work because he was dying of cancer.

A plate of Parma's famous prosciutto
A plate of Parma's famous prosciutto
Travel tip:

Franco Bonvicini could have been born in either Parma or Modena, cities that are about 60 km apart in Emilia-Romagna. Parma is famous for producing Prosciutto di Parma, a type of cured ham, and Parmigiano Reggiano, a hard cheese. Modena for Cotechino Modena, a type of sausage, and aceto balsamico di Modena, a high quality balsamic vinegar made from grape must.

Bologna's best food shops can be found in the Quadrilatero
Bologna's best food shops can be found in the Quadrilatero
Travel tip:

Bologna, where Franco Bonvicini lived in later life, is known by Italians as La Grassa, the fat one, because of its rich culinary traditions. It is the home of the world’s most famous pasta dish, tagliatelle Bolognese, long strips of pasta served with a rich meat sauce. The best traditional food shops in the city can be found in the area known as the Quadrilatero, which is bordered by Piazza Maggiore, Via Rizzoli, Via Castiglione and Via Farini.

More reading:

How Benito Jacovitti became Italy's favourite cartoonist

Hugo Pratt, the Rimini-born creator of comic book character Corto Maltese

How comic actor Sergio Tòfano invented comic cartoon favourite Signor Bonaventura

Also on this day:

1425: The birth of Bianca Maria Visconti, the Milanese Duchess who led her army into battle

1675: The birth of intellectual leader Pope Benedict XIV


30 March 2018

Fortunato Depero - artist

Futurist who designed iconic Campari bottle

Fortunato Depero's 1932 Campari Soda bottle is still in production today
Fortunato Depero's 1932 Campari Soda
bottle is still in production today
The Futurist painter, sculptor and graphic artist Fortunato Depero, who left a famous mark on Italian culture by designing the conical bottle in which Campari Soda is still sold today, was born on this day in 1892 in the Trentino region.

Depero had a wide breadth of artistic talent, which encompassed painting, sculpture, architecture and graphic design.

He designed magazine covers for the New Yorker, Vogue and Vanity Fair among others, created stage sets and costumes for the theatre, made sculptures and paintings and some consider his masterpiece to be the trade fair pavilion he designed for the 1927 Monza Biennale Internazionale delle Arti Decorative, which had giant block letters for walls.

Yet it is the distinctive Campari bottle that has endured longest of all his creations, which went into production in 1932 as the manufacturers of the famous aperitif broke new ground by deciding to sell a ready-made drink of Campari blended with soda water.

It was the first pre-mixed drink anyone had sold commercially and Depero, who was already working with the Milan-based company on a series of advertising posters and stylish black-and-white newspaper ads, was tasked with creating a unique miniature bottle in which the new product would be packaged.

Depero became an important designer in the advertising world
Depero became an important designer
in the advertising world
The conical shape, a little like an upturned glass, made it stand out on the shelves and at a time when the modern and unconventional was considered chic was perfect in helping establish Campari Soda as the sophisticated pre-dinner drink of choice among Italy’s style-setters.

The shape, timelessly modern, has not changed fundamentally in 88 years since and has become an icon of Italian design.

Depero was born either in the village of Fondo or its neighbour Malosco, about 40-50km (25-31 miles) north of Trento, and went to college a little further south in Rovereto, between Trento and Verona. He was apprenticed in a marble workshop, having been turned down in his efforts to obtain a place at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna.

He first became aware of the Futurist movement on a trip to Florence in 1913 and when his mother died the following year he decided to move to Rome, where he met fellow Futurist Giacomo Balla. Together they produced an extraordinary text entitled Ricostruzione futurista dell’universo (Futurist Reconstruction of the Universe), a manifesto that reflected the core values of the movement, which rejected everything ancient and classical and aimed to free Italy from what was perceived as a stifling obsession with the past.

The establishment tended to dismiss Futurists as cranks, because they admired the speed and technological advancement of cars and aeroplanes and the new industrial cities, all of which they saw as demonstrating the triumph of humanity over nature through invention, and wanted to depict those things in their art.

Il Motociclista (the Motorcyclist) is an example of Depero's art
Il Motociclista (the Motorcyclist) is an example of Depero's art
Yet in many ways, Depero and Balla and talented Futurist painters such as Carlo Carrà and Umberto Boccioni, who embraced a parallel obsession with nationalistic revolution and the overthrow of the hierarchical class system, foresaw how the 20th century would unfold, from the evolution of technology to the explosion of violence and the spread of mass communication.

The movement was ultimately tarnished by its association with Fascism, with which they initially shared similar goals in terms of wishing to build a strong, egalitarian, productive, youthful and modern Italy.  Once the link existed, it was difficult to break and after Mussolini’s regime was defeated there were many Futurists who found themselves shunned.

Depero himself found Italy an uncomfortable place after the Second World War and decided to return to New York, where he had spent a couple of years in the late 1920s, working on magazines and in the theatre and even building a house.  During his second stay, which lasted until the early 1950s, he published an English version of an earlier autobiography, entitled So I Think, So I Paint.

Depero returned to Italy and lived out his final days in Rovereto, where he died in 1960 from complications of diabetes.  A large collection of his work can be seen at the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art of Trento and Rovereto.

Rovereto's Campana dei Caduti sounds 100 times at nightfall each day
Rovereto's Campana dei Caduti sounds
100 times at nightfall each day
Travel tip:

The picturesque small city of Rovereto, east of Riva del Garda, is notable not only for the aforementioned art museum but for a 14th century castle, which contains the Italian War Museum, and for the Maria Dolens (Mary Grieving) bell, also known as the Campana dei Caduti (the Bell of the Fallen) and the Bell of Peace. The second largest swinging bell in the world, it was originally the idea of a local priest, Father Antonio Rossaro, to honour the fallen of all wars and to invoke peace and brotherhood. Cast in 1924, since 1965 it has been located on Miravale Hill outside the town and sounds 100 times at nightfall each evening.

The beautiful Piazza Duomo in Trento
The beautiful Piazza Duomo in Trento
Travel tip:

The city of Trento is considered to have arguably the best quality of life in Italy, based on climate, surroundings and employment opportunities. With a population of 117,000, it is situated in an Alpine valley on the Adige river between the northern tip of Lake Garda and the border city of Bolzano, about 115km (71 miles) north of Verona. It was controlled by the Austrians almost continuously from the 14th century until the First World War.  In the 16th century, it hosted the Council of Trent, the ecumenical council of the Catholic Church that gave rise to the resurgence of the church following Protestant Reformation.

More reading:

The explosive art of leading Futurist painter Carlo Carrà

Luigi Russolo and the strange phenomenon of 'noise music'

Painter whose work depicted Fascist repression

Also on this day:

1282: The revolt that became known as the Sicilian Vespers

1905: The birth of Modernist architect Ignazio Gardella


29 March 2018

Francesco Faà di Bruno - advocate for poor

Entered priesthood after appeal to pope

Francesco maintained his faith through difficult times in Italy
Francesco maintained his faith
through difficult times in Italy
The blessed Francesco Faà di Bruno, a talented academic from a wealthy family who devoted much energy to helping the poor, disadvantaged and elderly, was born on this day in 1825 near Alessandria in Piedmont.

He was a supporter of Italian unification and indeed was wounded in the cause as a commissioned lieutenant in the Piedmontese Army during the First Italian War of Independence. Yet he could not accept the anti-Catholic sentiments of many of the movement’s leaders.

At the age of 51 he became a priest, although only after the intervention of Pope Pius IX, who stepped in to overrule the Archbishop of Turin, who had rejected Francesco’s credentials on the grounds that he was too old.

He was beatified 100 years after his death by Pope John Paul II.

Francesco was the youngest of 12 children born to Lady Carolina Sappa de' Milanesi of her husband, Luigi, a wealthy landowner whose various titles included Marquis of Bruno, Count of Carentino, Lord of Fontanile, and Patrizio of Alessandria.

His family were of a strong Catholic faith and encouraged a concern for the poor among all their children. Two of his sisters became nuns and one of his brothers built the church of St Peter in Hatton Garden for Italian immigrants living in London.

Francesco was wounded at the Battle of Novara in 1849
Francesco was wounded at the Battle
of Novara in 1849
Francesco, whose mother died when he was nine years old, was educated at home until he was 11 and entered the Royal Military Academy of Turin in 1840. One of the skills he developed was topography, which he used to draw up battlefield maps.

He was wounded during the Battle of Novara in 1849, where the Piedmontese were defeated by the Austrians. Afterwards, Victor Emmanuel, who had been his commander in the battle and succeeded his father, Charles Albert, as King of Sardinia, invited Francesco to become tutor to his two young sons but was forced to withdraw the offer because his supporters, including the revolutionary leader Giuseppe Garibaldi and the future prime minister of Italy, Count Camillo Benso di Cavour, were opposed to the influence of Catholics in education and put him under pressure to make a secular appointment.

Francesco then sought his release from the army and moved to Paris to study mathematics and astronomy at the Sorbonne, where his tutors included Augustin Cauchy and Urbain Le Verrier, who jointly discovered the planet Neptune.

Returning to Italy, he was appointed Professor of Mathematics at the University of Turin and at the same time began to devote increasing amounts of his time and money to helping the poor and disadvantaged. Despite it being a difficult time for the Catholic Church, he worked closely with the priest Giovanni Bosco, who set up a church grammar school, and also founded a society to promote Sunday observance and protect workers forced to work on Sundays.

The huge number of initiatives Francesco took up began with providing food for the poor during the icy cold Turin winters. Later he founded the Society of Saint Zita for maids and domestic servants, later expanding it to include unmarried mothers.

Pope John Paul II beatified Francesco in 1988, 100 years after his death
Pope John Paul II beatified Francesco
in 1988, 100 years after his death
He helped establish hospitals and boarding houses for the elderly, poor and disabled and, profoundly moved by the death of his brother Emilio in 1866 in the Third Italian War of Independence, he oversaw the construction of the church of Nostra Signora del Suffragio in Turin, completed in 1869 and dedicated to the memory of Italian soldiers who had lost their lives in the struggle for the unification of Italy.

Wishing to broaden and deepen his commitment to the poor, Francis studied for the priesthood, although his bid to be ordained was at first blocked by the Archbishop of Turin on the basis that he was too old. Traditionally, men began their preparation for Holy Orders in their teens.

However, after appealing directly to Pope Pius IX, he was ordained at the age of 51. As a priest, he continued to work on behalf of the disadvantaged and among his achievements was to create a refuge for prostitutes.

Remarkably, he still had the energy to pursue academic activities, contributing many articles to mathematics periodicals, designing several scientific instruments, writing a book about Catholic beliefs aimed at non-Catholics, and even composing a number of sacred melodies.

He died suddenly in Turin in 1888, two days before what would have been his 63rd birthday, from an intestinal infection.

Travel tip:

The village of Bruno in Piedmont is situated just over 20km (12 miles) southwest of Alessandria and a similar distance southeast of Asti. Formerly the seat of Francesco Faà di Bruno’s family, it falls within the area of Piedmont best known for the production of Nizza wine, a DOCG red made from the Barbera grape.

Nostra Signora del Suffragio: The church's bell tower is the fifth tallest building in Turin
The church's bell tower is the
fifth tallest building in Turin
Travel tip:

The neo-Romanesque church of Nostra Signora del Suffragio e Santa Zita, the church that Francesco built in part to honour the Italians killed in the struggle for independence, is located in the San Donato district of Turin. It is notable for its bell tower, which at 83 metres is the fifth tallest structure in the city, after the Mole Antonelliana, the Intesa SanPaolo skyscraper, the Lingotto skyscraper and the Littoria Tower. Adjoining the church is a museum dedicated to the life of the priest.

More reading:

The death of unification leader Giuseppe Garibaldi

Giuseppe Mazzini - hero of the Risorgimento

The inspirational figure of Giovanni (John) Bosco

Also on this day:

1888: The birth of Enea Bossi, disputed creator of the world's first human-powered aeroplane

1939: The birth of Don Matteo actor Terence Hill


28 March 2018

Anselmo Colzani - opera star

Baritone who had 16 seasons at the New York Met

Anselmo Colzani in his signature role, Scarpia in Puccini's Tosca
Anselmo Colzani in his signature role,
Scarpia in Puccini's Tosca
Anselmo Colzani, an operatic baritone who was a fixture at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in the 1960s and 1970s, as well as La Scala in his home country, was born on this day in 1918 in Budrio, a town not far from Bologna.

His stage career continued until 1980, when he made his final stage appearance in one of his signature roles as Scarpia in Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca.

Although his repertoire was much wider, his reputation became strongly associated with the works of Puccini and Giuseppe Verdi, with Jack Rance in Puccini's Fanciulla del West and the title role of Verdi's Falstaff, as well a Amonasro in Aida and Iago in Otello among his most famous roles.

Colzani’s association with the Met began in March 1960 after he was approached by Rudolf Bing, the opera house’s general manager, following the sudden death of Leonard Warren onstage during a performance of La Forza del Destino.

A few weeks later, Colzani took over Warren's role in Verdi's Simon Boccanegra. It was not only the first time he had sung at the Met, but the first time he had sung the role, which he had to learn it in a matter of days.

Yet so impressive was he that he returned to the Met for the next 16 seasons, making 272 appearances either in New York or on tour. A measure of the stature he achieved there in a short space of time was that he was the baritone chosen for the title role in the first performance of Franco Zeffirelli’s acclaimed production of Falstaff in 1964, conducted by Leonard Bernstein.

Colzani with the soprano Renata Tebaldi, with whom he starred many times
Colzani with the soprano Renata Tebaldi, with
whom he starred many times
Brought up in a musical family, Colzani joined the Italian Army before beginning to study singing formally, signing up as an 18-year-old in 1936. His service required him to fight in the Second World War. Thankfully he survived and in 1945 began attending the Bologna Conservatory under the tutelage of Corrado Zambelli.

He made his debut at the Teatro Comunale in Bologna in 1947 in the small role of the Herald in Wagner's Lohengrin. Also in the cast and making her house debut was the  soprano Renata Tebaldi, with whom he would later be reunited in New York.

Colzani made his bow at Teatro alla Scala in Milan, in 1952, as the murderous Alfio in Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana, and he continued to sing there until 1970, his last appearance being also as Alfio.

He was soon in demand throughout Italy for the dramatic baritone roles of Verdi in particular, becoming a major draw  in Naples, Verona and in Rome, where he enjoyed several seasons at the Baths of Caracalla.

He made his United States debut at the San Francisco Opera in 1956, but it was at the Met that he established an enduring foothold, appearing there with many of the major stars of the day, including Maria Callas, Franco Corelli and Carlo Bergonzi.

Colzani's last Met performance was as Michonnet in Adriana Lecouvreur, by Francesco Cilea, in 1978. He continued singing until 1980, when he gave his final performance in Tosca, reprising the Scarpia role in which he most frequently appeared during his years at the Met.

Married twice - his first wife died young - Colzani died in 2006, a few days before what would have been his 88th birthday. He was survived by his second wife, Ada, and his two children, Bianca and Miriam.

One of the towers that formed part of
Budrio's medieval 
Travel tip:

Colzani’s home town, Budrio, is 15km (9 miles) east of Bologna. A former Roman settlement, it is notable for the remains of the four corner towers of a castle rebuilt in the 14th century, inside which the original village was contained. Each year, the town stages an international opera competition in Colzani’s memory.

Travel tip:

Bologna has a tradition of presenting opera that goes back to the early 17th century. The Teatro Comunale, where Colzani made his debut, came into being in 1763 as the Nuovo Teatro Pubblico, designed by Antonio Galli Bibiena, who won a competition to design a new theatre for the city after another one, Teatro Mavezzi, had been destroyed by fire.  Arturo Toscanini, who went on to be musical director at La Scala, the Met and the New York Philharmonic, conducted there many times in the early part of his career.

More reading:

Why Renata Tebaldi was said to have the 'voice of an angel'

How Arturo Toscanini became a conductor by chance

Tito Gobbi - the baritone who enjoyed a movie career

Also on this day:

1472: The birth of the great Renaissance painter Fra Bartolommeo

1925: The birth of legendary film producer Alberto Grimaldi


27 March 2018

Luca Zaia - politician

Popular president of Veneto tipped as future PM

The politician Luca Zaia has been president of the  Veneto region since 2010
The politician Luca Zaia has been president of the
 Veneto region since 2010
The politician Luca Zaia, who was spoken of as a possible candidate to be Italy’s prime minister following the recent elections, was born on this day in 1968 in Conegliano, in the Veneto.

Zaia, who has been president of the Veneto region for almost eight years, only in the last few days received an approval rating of 56 per cent in a poll to find the most popular regional governor, the highest rating of any of Italy’s regional presidents.

A member of the Lega party, formerly Lega Nord (Northern League), he was suggested by some commentators as a dark horse for the position of President of the Council of Ministers - the official title of Italy’s prime minister - after the March 1 poll produced no overall winner.

Before successfully standing to be Veneto’s president in 2010 he had served in national government as Minister of Agriculture under Silvio Berlusconi.

Zaia, who has represented Lega Veneta and Lega Nord, since the early '90s, is popular in the Veneto
Zaia is popular with voters in the Veneto
At this year’s election, the populist Movimento Cinque Stelle (Five Star Movement) won the biggest proportion of the vote at just over 32 per cent and the Lega achieved its highest share at just under 18 per cent, almost as many as the Democratic Party, and there has been speculation that Cinque Stelle and the Lega were the likeliest to form a working coalition.

The Lega, whose traditional position was to campaign for an independent northern Italy, have been branded far-right because of the anti-immigration and anti-EU rhetoric of some of their leading figures, although the current head of the party, Matteo Salvini, is a former communist and the party’s policies in general position it more on the centre-right.

Although he has spoken out over the issue of illegal immigrants that was a major debating point during the election, Zaia’s biggest priorities are achieving fiscal autonomy for the regions and introducing a flat rate of tax, as well as implementing policies that encourage the employment of young people, among who unemployment in Italy is the highest, up to 60 per cent in some areas in the south.

He has the support of many prominent business leaders in the wealthy Veneto region, including such as Luxottica founder and owner Leonardo Del Vecchio and the Benetton patriarchs, Luciano and Gilberto.

Zaia supported a plebiscite on independence for the Veneto as recently as 2014, comparing Veneto’s status within Italy to that of Crimea within Ukraine.

Zaia (right), pictured with former Italian president Giorgio Napolitano, has been a member of the Lega since the 1990s
Zaia (right), pictured with former Italian president Giorgio
Napolitano, has been a member of the Lega since the 1990s
A graduate of the University of Udine, Zaia joined Lega Veneta–Lega Nord in the early 1990s, was first elected to public office in 1993, when he became municipal councillor of Godega di Sant'Urbano, not far from his home town of Conegliano. 

Two years later, he became a provincial councillor, then provincial minister of agriculture for Treviso and, in 1998, provincial president.  In 2002 he was re-elected with a landslide 68.9% of the vote.

In 2005, he was appointed vice-president of Veneto and regional minister of agriculture and tourism, before leaving in 2008 to become federal Minister of Agriculture in Berlusconi’s People of Freedom  federation.  During his term as vice-president, he made headlines when he saved the life of an Albanian man by dragging him from a burning car, in which he had become trapped.

Nominated by Lega Veneta, in March 2010, Zaia was elected President of Veneto in a landslide, winning 60.2% of the vote against 29.1% of his nearest challenger, the Democratic Party’s Giuseppe Bortolussi.  Zaia’s proportion of votes was the highest since direct election was introduced in 1995. He was re-elected in May 2015.

UPDATE: In the 2020 regional election Zaia was re-elected for a third consecutive term with 76.8% of the vote, becoming the most voted regional president in Italian history.

The area of Italy that it was once proposed would form a breakaway nation of Padania
The area of Italy that it was once proposed would
form a breakaway nation of Padania
Travel tip:

Lega Nord’s popularity grew around former leader Umberto Bossi’s symbolic ‘declaration of independence’ for Padania at a rally of supporters in Venice in 1996, yet the ‘country’ of Padania has never existed. It was historically used as a term to describe the area that encompasses Val Padana – the Po Valley.  The Lega Nord tended to define Padania as a broad area of northern Italy consisting of Veneto, Emilia-Romagna, Lombardy, Piedmont and Liguria.

Conegliano's castle stands guard over  the town near Treviso
Conegliano's castle stands guard over
the town near Treviso
Travel tip:

Conegliano is a town of almost 35,000 people in the Veneto, about 30km (19 miles) north of Treviso.  The remains of a 10th century castle, once owned by the Bishop of Vittorio Veneto, stands on a hill that dominates the town.  Conegliano is at the centre of a wine-producing region and is famous in particular for Prosecco, the popular sparkling wine made from the glera grape.  As well as Zaia, the town is the birthplace of Renaissance painter Giambattista Cima, film director Pier Paolo Pasolini and the World Cup-winning footballer Alessandro del Piero among others.

More reading:

Beppe Grillo and the rise of Cinque Stelle

Umberto Bossi - the fiery former leader of Lega Nord

Paolo Gentiloni - Italy's outgoing prime minister

Also on this day:

1799: The birth of Alessandro la Marmora, founder of the Italian army's famed Bersaglieri corps

1969: The birth of Gianluigi Lentini, once the world's most expensive footballer


26 March 2018

Lella Lombardi - racing driver

Only woman to win points in Formula One

Lella Lombardi is one of only two women to start a world championship race in the history of F1
Lella Lombardi is one of only two women to start
a world championship race in the history of F1
Maria Grazia “Lella” Lombardi, the only female driver to finish in a points position in a Formula One world championship motor race, was born on this day in 1941 in Frugarolo, near Alessandria in Piedmont.

She finished out of the points in 11 of the 12 world championship rounds which she started between 1974 and 1976 but finished sixth in the 1975 Spanish Grand Prix, a race marred by the tragic deaths of five spectators after the car being driven by the German driver Rolf Stommelen went out of control and somersaulted over a barrier into the crowd.

His was the eighth car to crash in the first 25 of the 75 laps and the race was halted four laps later when it became known there had been fatalities. At that moment, Lombardi’s March-Ford was in sixth position, albeit two laps between race leader Jochen Mass.

The points were awarded on the basis of positions when the race was stopped. In normal circumstances, a sixth-place finish would have been worth one point but because less than three-quarters of the race had been completed the points were halved, thus Lombardi was awarded half a point.

Her next best performance was to finish seventh in the German Grand Prix at the Nurburgring later in the same season.

Lella Lombardi at the wheel of the March 751 in which she finished sixth at the 1975 Spanish Grand Prix
Lella Lombardi at the wheel of the March 751 in which she
finished sixth at the 1975 Spanish Grand Prix
Lombardi was one of only two women to qualify for Formula One races in the history of the sport, the other being her fellow Italian, Maria Teresa de Filippis, who participated in the late 1950s.

Little detail is known about the origins of Lombardi’s fascination with cars and speed, although it is thought she learned to drive in order to help her father, a butcher, with deliveries. The family did not own a car.

A friend is said to have introduced her to racing, inviting her to be co-driver in rally events. She drove Alfa Romeo and BMW sports cars in club events and graduated to Formula Monza when she raised enough money to buy her own car, which she maintained herself.

Over the next decade, she raced in Formula Monza, Formula 3, Formula 850 and Formula 5000, winning the Formula Monza title in 1970, having been runner-up in the Formula 3 championship in 1968 behind her compatriot, Franco Bernabei.

She entered an F1 race - the British Grand Prix - for the first time in 1974 in an ageing Brabham but failed to qualify. That winter, however, she met Italian nobleman Count Vittorio Zanon, a well known motor racing enthusiast, and he paid for her to race in the 1975 season in a March 741 previously driven by the Italian driver Vittorio Brambilla.

Lombardi at the wheel
Lombardi at the wheel
At the opening race of the season, in South Africa, she became the first woman to qualify for a Grand Prix since De Filippis 17 years earlier. At the next race she had a new 751 with sponsorship from the Lavazza coffee company, with which Count Zanon's wife was associated. This was the car she races in Spain.

Although she was a standard bearer for women behind the wheel, Lombardi never had the car to be really competitive in F1 and decided at the end of the 1976 season to refocus on the sports car classes in which she had enjoyed success previously.

Her best season was in 1979 when she won the Six Hours of Pergusa and the Six Hours of Vallelunga. She also competed four times at the 24 hours of Le Mans, for which her co-driver in 1980 was Mark Thatcher, son of the British prime minister Margaret.

Lombardi continued to compete until the late 1980s, when she began to struggle with her health.  She gave up driving and formed Lombardi Autosport, a touring car team running Alfas, but it was not long afterwards that she was diagnosed with breast cancer, from which she died in 1992 at the age of only 50.

The church of San Felice in Frugarolo
The church of San Felice in Frugarolo
Travel tip:

Lombardi’s home village of Frugarolo, which has a population of just under 2,000, is little more than 10km (6 miles) southeast of Alessandria, in the direction of Genoa.  It has a Romanesque church, the parish church of San Felice, which has an incongruously new bell tower because the original collapsed.

Hotels in Alessandria by Booking.com

Travel tip:

The historic city of Alessandria became part of French territory after the army of Napoleon defeated the Austrians at the Battle of Marengo in 1800.  It was ruled by the Kingdom of Sardinia for many years and is notable for the Cittadella di Alessandria, a star-shaped fort and citadel built in the 18th century, which today it is one of the best preserved fortifications of that era.

25 March 2018

Mina - pop star

Italy’s all-time top selling female artist

The pop singer Anna Maria Mazzini, better known simply as Mina, was born on this day in 1940 in the Lombardy city of Busto Arsizio.

Mina openly smoked cigarettes in what was  considered at the time to be a defiant gesture
Mina openly smoked cigarettes in what was
considered at the time to be a defiant gesture
Since her debut single in 1958, Mina has sold well in excess of 150 million records, which makes her the top-selling female performer in Italian music history. Only her fellow 60s star Adriano Celentano can boast larger figures.

The pair worked together on one of Italy’s biggest-selling albums of all-time in 1998. Mina Celentano sold an impressive 2.365 million copies. They revived the collaboration in 2016 with Tutte Le Migliori.

Mina also enjoys an iconic status in the history of female emancipation in Italy as a result of the sensational ban imposed on her by the state television station RAI in 1963 following her affair with a married actor, Corrado Pani, by whom she became pregnant.

Despite pressure from the Catholic Church, whose position as the guardians of Italy’s public morals was still very strong at the time, the broadcaster was forced by the weight of public opinion, as well as Mina’s unaffected record sales, to rescind the ban the following January.

Mina, who had already cultivated a racy image by dressing in mini-skirts, dying her hair blonde and wearing heavy eye make-up, responded by singing songs with controversial lyrics, some glorifying smoking, which was still associated with women of loose morals in Italian society, and the pleasures of sex.

Mina wore short dresses, heavy eye make-up and dyed her hair blonde during the 1960s
Mina wore short dresses, heavy eye make-up and
dyed her hair blonde during the 1960s
Mina, who lives in Switzerland with her husband, the cardiologist Eugenio Quaini, has not appeared on stage since 1978 but continues to make records. Her latest album, Maeba, has only just been released.

Born into a working-class background in Busto Arsizio, she grew up in Cremona, where she cultivated a taste in American rock and roll and jazz music. She began to attend clubs in Milan in her teens and began her performing career under the name Baby Gate - somewhat ironic given she was 5ft 10ins (1.78m) tall - with a backing group called Happy Boys.

That partnership broke up when her parents refused to let her skip college, where she was studying accountancy, to go on tour in Turkey, despite one reviewer describing her debut on stage in Milan as “the birth of a star”.

Baby Gate gave way to Mina as a stage name, although her high-energy rock and roll style continued. Her loud vocals earned her the unflattering nickname Queen of the Screamers, while a journalist friend in Cremona called her the Tiger of Cremona.

She found fame rapidly, not just for her sensual stage performances and striking good looks but for the range of her voice. She hit the top of the Italian singles charts for the first time in September 1959 with Tintarella di Luna (Moon Tan) and would return regularly. So far she has had 79 albums and 71 singles in the Italian charts, including 16 number one albums and eight number one singles.

Largely she is remembered for melodramatic songs of anguished love stories, although her range and versatility enabled her to achieve success in different genres as the mood took her.  She won particular acclaim for her collaborations with the writers Bruno Canfora (Brava, 1965) and Ennio Morricone (Se telefonando, 1966), both of whom were asked to produce music that would showcase her range.

Mina at the start of her career in 1959
Mina at the start of her career in 1959
Mina encountered tragedy more than once in her private life, losing both her brother Alfredo and her first husband, the journalist Virgilio Crocco, in car crashes.

She moved to Lugano in Switzerland with her father in 1966 and has lived there since, although the city is less than half an hour’s drive from the Italian border.

After Crocco’s death, Mina was romantically linked with Walter Chiara, who was her co-host with Raffaella Carrà on the TV show Canzonissima, and had relationships with the up-and-coming actor Gian-Maria Volontè and the composer Augusto Martelli.  She met Quaini in 1981 and they were together 25 years before they married in 2006.

Mina decided to end her career as a public performer in the 1970s, for reasons that have never been explained, although it has been speculated that she simply tired of the spotlight.  She announced her decision at the end of what would be her final TV appearance in 1974 and gave her last concert at the Bussola nightclub in Marina di Pietrasanta in Tuscany, where she had first gone on stage in 1958 during a family summer holiday.

Nonetheless, her recording career has continued unabated, with her albums now produced by her son, Massimiliano Pani. She also has a daughter, Benedetta Mazzini Crocco, who is an actress and television presenter.

Piazza San Giovanni in Busto Arsizio, Lombardy
Piazza San Giovanni in Busto Arsizio, Lombardy
Travel tip:

Busto Arsizio is a city of some 82,000 inhabitants which lies along the Olona River about 34km (21 miles) northwest of Milan and 30km (19 miles) south of Varese. Its most notable monument is the Renaissance-style church of Santa Maria di Piazza, built between 1515 and 1523 to a design by Donato Bramante, who died before seeing the project completed. The city grew considerably in the 20th century to become an important textile centre.

Hotels in Busto Arsizio by Booking.com

The wide expanse of beach at Marina di Pietrasanta
The wide expanse of beach at Marina di Pietrasanta
Travel tip:

Part of Tuscany's Versilia coastline, Marina di Pietrasanta is a resort between Viareggio and Pisa that boasts some of the area's best beaches, stretching for five kilometres along the coast. Pietrasanta itself is a town that has been an important centre for marble extraction for hundreds of years. Look out for the Bozzetti Museum, which is dedicated to marble sculptures.

24 March 2018

Mimmo Jodice - photographer

Camera work with shades of metaphysical art

Mimmo Jodice celebrates his 84th birthday today
Mimmo Jodice celebrates his
84th birthday today
Domenico ‘Mimmo’ Jodice, who has been a major influence on artistic photography in Italy for half a century, was born on this day in 1934 in Naples.

Jodice, who was professor of photography at the Accademia di Belle Arti di Napoli from 1969 to 1996, is best known for his atmospheric photographs of urban scenes, especially in his home city.

Often these pictures reflected his fascination with how Italian cities habitually mix the present and the future with echoes of the past in their urban landscapes, with the incongruous juxtapositions of ancient and modern that were characteristic of metaphysical art occurring naturally as part of urban evolution.

His books Vedute di Napoli (Views of Naples) and Lost in Seeing: Dreams and Visions of Italy have been international bestsellers and he has exhibited his work all over the world.

Born in the Sanità district of Naples, Jodice was the second of four children. His father died when he was still a boy and the requirement that he find work as soon as he was able meant he had only a limited education.

Jodice is best known for his photographs of Naples
Jodice is best known for his photographs of Naples
Nonetheless, he was drawn towards art and the theatre, classical music and jazz and read as much as he could to expand his knowledge. He also taught himself to draw and paint.

He took up photography in the late 1950s and became part of the avant-garde revival that took hold in Italy in the 1960s.  Through his friendship with the Naples gallerist Lucio Amelio, he was introduced to artistic styles such as Pop art, Arte Povera and Fluxus, becoming acquainted with important contemporary artists such as Andy Warhol, Joseph Beuys and Robert Rauschenberg.

He exhibited his work for the first time at Libreria La Mandragola in Naples in 1967 and took a collection to the Teatro Spento in Urbino the following year. As interest in his photography spread, he began to take his work to many more locations in Italy, and eventually beyond.

Having at one time specialised in portraits and nudes, he began using his photography to highlight the poor conditions in which some people lived in Naples, particularly after the city’s widespread social deprivation sparked a cholera outbreak in 1973.

The disease was linked to poor sanitation and the consumption of seafood caught in waters badly polluted by the city’s antiquated sewerage system.

Jodice's collection Vedute di Napoli was a bestseller
Jodice's collection Vedute di Napoli was a bestseller
Jodice’s focus on social conditions continued until the 1980s, when he began to concentrate more on urban landscapes, where buildings and ancient relics became the focal point of his work rather than people.

His Vedute di Napoli, published in 1980, was the first of many collections which captured the spirit of his home city.  He also took wonderfully atmospheric pictures in Venice and Paris and many other settings.

He worked with the concept of time connecting the old with the new, run-down monuments with modern cities.  His tour de force, Lost in Seeing: Dreams and Visions of Italy, which brought together photographs from his urban and rural collections in Italy, was described by one reviewer as “photos representing metaphysical visions interweaving signs of the past as they return to inhabit the present”.

In the 1990s, Jodice became also a photographer of art and architecture, producing series that highlighted the works of such giants as Michelangelo and Canova, and backdrops such as Paestum, Pompei and historic Naples.

Jodice grew up in the Rione Sanità  neighbourhood
Jodice grew up in the Rione Sanità  neighbourhood 
Travel tips:

The Rione Sanità area of Naples, also known as Stella, to the north of the city near Capodimonte hill, has been alternately wealthy and poor. Once the chosen location for aristocratic Neapolitans to build villas, in more recent times it has had the reputation as one of the most run-down neighbourhoods, rife with crime and with high unemployment. But there are projects under way to try to give the area new life, to which Mimmo Jodice has contributed with fund-raising exhibitions. As well as being his home, it was also the area in which the comic actor Totò grew up.

Hotels in Naples by Booking.com

The Accademia di Belle Arti in Naples
The Accademia di Belle Arti in Naples
Travel tip:

The Accademia di Belle Arti is in the San Lorenzo district, north of Piazza Dante. Founded in 1752, it is one of the oldest academies in Europe. Situated in Via Santa Maria di Costantinopoli, it is at the heart of an area rich in cultural attractions, including the National Archaeological Museum, the Prince of Naples Gallery, the conservatory of San Pietro a Majella and the Teatro Bellini.

23 March 2018

Lorenzino de’ Medici - assassin

Mystery over motive for killing cousin

Alphonse Mucha's  1896 lithograph of Lorenzino
Alphonse Mucha's
1896 lithograph
of Lorenzino
Lorenzino de’ Medici, who became famous for the assassination of his cousin, the Florentine ruler Alessandro de’ Medici, was born on this day in 1514 in Florence.

The killing took place on the evening of January 6, 1537.  The two young men - Alessandro was just four years older - were ostensibly friends and Lorenzino was easily able to lure Alessandro to his apartments in Florence on the promise of a night of passion with a woman who had agreed to meet him there.

Lorenzino, sometimes known as Lorenzaccio, left him alone, promising to return with the woman in question, at which point Alessandro dismissed his entourage and waited in the apartments.  When Lorenzino did return, however, it was not with a female companion but with his servant, Piero, and the two attacked Alessandro with swords and daggers. Although a struggle ensued, they killed him.

The motive has been debated for centuries. One theory was that it was an act of revenge following a legal controversy the previous year, when Alessandro sided against Lorenzino in a dispute over the inheritance of his great, great grandfather, Pierfrancesco the Elder. Civilities were maintained at the time, yet Lorenzino was disadvantaged financially.

Another is that Lorenzino, as a junior member of the family compared with his cousin, wanted to make his mark in history by any means possible. Murdering Alessandro, who had been installed as Duke of Florence by the Medici pope Clement VII, and thus extinguishing the main branch of the Medici family (descended from Cosimo the Elder, the founder of the dynasty), would give him immortality, albeit of a dark kind, in the family history.

His own explanation, which he set out in a remarkable defence of his crime, entitled Apology, which he wrote within days of Alessandro’s death, was that he committed the crime out of a love of liberty, ridding Florence of a leader generally acknowledged as a tyrant.

The murder of Alessandro by Lorenzino,
as imagined in an 1863 engraving
There were suggestions that Lorenzino wanted to see a revival of the Republic of Florence, which had been disestablished with Alessandro’s appointment, following an 11-month siege.  This theory seemed to be supported by Lorenzino fleeing Florence first to Bologna, where he met Silvestro Aldobrandini, a republican exile, and then on to Venice, where he was welcomed by another exile, the wealthy banker Filippo Strozzi.

His supporters hailed him as a latterday Brutus, who had slain Julius Caesar in the name of liberating Rome, but whatever the truth of the story, Lorenzino was to spend the rest of his life effectively on the run, constantly looking over his shoulder at who might be plotting to avenge his cousin’s death.

In the event, there was no re-establishment of the Florentine Republic. Alessandro’s father-in-law, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, appointed 17-year-old Cosimo I de’ Medici, from the so-called cadet line of the family, as Duke of Florence, which effectively meant Lorenzino could never return.

For the next few years he moved between Venice, Mirandola in the Duchy of Modena, Constantinople and France.  While he was in Constantinople, Strozzi was taken prisoner after his forces were beaten by the army of Cosimo I and he died in 1538.

While in France, where he enjoyed the hospitality of many Florentine exiles, Lorenzino acted as a go-between for the French king, Francis I, in trying to organise Florentine exiles to mount a new military attack on Cosimo I.

Titian's portrait of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V
Titian's portrait of Holy Roman
Emperor Charles V
He returned to Venice in 1544, by which time the city was crawling with spies working on behalf of the Emperor and of the Medici family. Lorenzino was sheltered by the papal legate Giovanni Della Casa, but as more and more exiled Florentines left for France, fearful for their lives if they stayed in Venice, he became increasingly isolated.

The inevitable happened on February 26, 1548, when Lorenzino was murdered. Two mercenary assassins were responsible, but the identity of who hired them has been disputed by historians over the centuries.  A early theory that the disgraced former Medici secretary Giovanni Francesco Lottini was responsible was eventually discounted, to be replaced by an acceptance that Cosimo I ordered the murder directly to avenge the death of his predecessor.

More recent research has established that the trail actually went back to Charles V himself, who was grief-stricken by the death of Alessandro, his daughter Margaret’s husband, and without the knowledge of Cosimo I instructed Juan Hurtado de Mendoza, his ambassador in Venice, to see that Lorenzino paid the ultimate price.

The Villa del Trebbio, the Medici villa in the Mugello area
The Villa del Trebbio, the Medici villa in the Mugello area
Travel tip:

In the early part of his life, Lorenzino lived in the Villa del Trebbio, near San Piero a Sieve in the Mugello area, about 30km (19 miles) north of Florence, the area from which the Medici family originated. The villa had belonged to Giovanni di Bicci de' Medici, the founder of the Medici bank, and was remodelled by his son, Cosimo de' Medici (Cosimo the Elder), whose architect, Michelozzo, restyled it as a fortified castle.

Palazzo Strozzi in Via de' Tornabuoni, the  high fashion centre of Florence
Palazzo Strozzi in Via de' Tornabuoni, the
high fashion centre of Florence
Travel tip:

The Strozzi family, who were great rivals of the Medici family in Florence in the late 15th century, left their mark on the city in the shape of the Palazzo Strozzi, which can be found right in the heart of the city in Via de’ Tornabuoni, where all the high fashion stores are now clustered (the Gucci shop is directly opposite). Many buildings were demolished to create a big enough space for the palace, a towering three-storey structure with a facade of rusticated stone, which was started in 1489 on the instructions of Filippo Strozzi the Elder, who died two years later long before it was finished. On completion, it was confiscated by the Medicis, who did not return it to the Strozzi family for 30 years.

More reading:

Cosimo de' Medici - the banker who founded the Medici dynasty

The despotic reign of Alessandro's successor, Cosimo I

How the forces of Charles V sacked Rome

Also on this day:

1919: Benito Mussolini and the founding of the Italian Fascists

1922: The birth of Commedia all'Italiana star Ugo Tognazzi


22 March 2018

Nino Manfredi - actor and director

Totò fan became maestro of commedia all’italiana

Nino Manfredi made more than 100 films in the course of his career
Nino Manfredi made more than 100 films
in the course of his career
The actor and director Saturnino ‘Nino’ Manfredi, who would become known as the last great actor of the commedia all’italiana genre, was born on this day in 1921 in Castro dei Volsci, near Frosinone in Lazio.

Manfredi made more than 100 movies, often playing marginalised working-class figures in the bittersweet comedies that characterised the genre, which frequently tackled important social issues and poked irreverent fun at some of the more absurd aspects of Italian life, in particular the suffocating influence of the church.

He was a favourite of directors such as Dino Risi, Luigi Comencini, Ettore Scola and Franco Brusati, who directed him in the award-winning Pane and cioccolata (Bread and Chocolate), which evoked the tragicomic existence of immigrant workers and was considered one of his finest performances.

It helped him fulfil his dream of following in the footsteps of his boyhood idol Totò, the Neapolitan comic actor whose eccentric characters took enormous liberties in mocking Italian institutions, and to be spoken off in the company of Ugo Tognazzi, Vittorio Gassman and Alberto Sordi as a true maestro of commedia all’italiana.

Manfredi had a tough time in his childhood. Born into a farming family in the Ciociaria region south of Rome, he was uprooted to live in the capital at a young age after his father, a public safety officer, won a promotion.

Manfredi in a comedy called, in English, Fiasco in Milan,  which also starred Vittorio Gassman and Claudia Cardinale
Manfredi in a comedy called, in English, Fiasco in Milan,
 which also starred Vittorio Gassman and Claudia Cardinale
Brought up in the San Giovanni neighbourhood south of the Colosseum, he had a happy time with his brother, Dante, until he developed a strain of pleurisy in 1937 that was so serious he was admitted to hospital and given only a few weeks to live.  He survived but spent several years in the care of a sanatorium and would suffer health problems throughout his life.

It was while in the sanatorium that he began performing with a musical group and set his heart on a career on the stage, much to the dismay of his father, who wanted him to be a lawyer.  He became fascinated with the cinema and when he left hospital he enrolled himself at the National Academy of Dramatic Arts in Rome, although he acceded to his father’s wishes and studied law at the same time.

In the event, he passed his exams in both, despite the difficulties imposed by Italy being at war. In fact, he and Dante spent many months hiding in the mountains in Ciociaria to avoid conscription.

Making his way in theatre, Manfredi appeared in serious dramas and musicals, including a spell in a company in Milan in which he appeared in plays by Pirandello, Chekhov, Ibsen and Shakespeare until he tired of the lack of laughter, bursting as he was to perform comedy.

Manfredi played the puppet-maker Geppetto in Luigi Comencini's acclaimed TV version of Pinocchio
Manfredi played the puppet-maker Geppetto in Luigi
Comencini's acclaimed TV version of Pinocchio
He made his screen debut in 1949 and landed his first major part in 1955, starring with Alberto Sordi in Lo scapolo (The Batchelor), directed by Antonio Pietrangeli.  His big break came after a revue company he formed were invited to host a RAI television show, Canzonissima.

The exposure this brought accelerated his movie career and from the second half of the 1960s he became an established star of commedia all’italiana. He directed for the first time in 1971 with the acclaimed Between Miracles (Per grazia ricevuta in Italian) which controversially explored a young man’s torment when sexual desires and the sacrifices of faith collide.

Manfredi continued to make films even after a minor stroke in 1993 left him with cognitive difficulties, his last role coming in 2002 in La luz prodigiosa, also known as The End of a Mystery, a film set in Spain that imagined that Federico Lorca, a poet murdered by Franco’s thugs, had survived.

The following year, Manfredi suffered two major strokes and died in 2004, aged 83.  Married in 1955 to Erminia Ferrari, a model, he left a son, Luca and two daughters, Roberta and Giovanna, two of whom followed him into the entertainment business.

Castro dei Volsci sits on a hillside in Ciociaria
Castro dei Volsci sits on a hillside in Ciociaria
Travel tip:

Castro dei Volsci, which is situated some 25km (16 miles) southeast of Frosinone and about 105km (65 miles) from Rome, is a small town of less than 5,000 inhabitants that has been described as capturing the charm of Ciociaria. It has a hillside setting, with a network of steep, cobbled medieval streets and breathtaking views over the surrounding countryside of rolling hills and richly verdant valleys.

The San Giovanni neighbourhood is the area around Porta San Giovanni, south of the centre of Rome
The San Giovanni neighbourhood is the area around
Porta San Giovanni, south of the centre of Rome
Travel tip:

San Giovanni is a neighbourhood of Rome southeast of the city centre, straddling the Via Appia Nuova, en route to the town of Frascati and the Castelli Romani. A combination of modern thoroughfares and the architectural features of the Renaissance, it is considered an authentically Roman neighbourhood and one that is becoming popular with visitors looking for an affordable part if the city in which to stay, without being too far from the main sights.