31 July 2018

Salvatore Maranzano - crime boss

Sicilian ‘Little Caesar’ who established New York’s Five Families

Salvatore Maranzano had a  mission to kill rival boss
Salvatore Maranzano had a
mission to kill rival boss
The criminal boss Salvatore Maranzano, who became the head of organised crime in New York City after the so-called Castellammarese War of 1930-31, was born on this day in 1886 in Castellammare del Golfo in Sicily.

Maranzano’s position as ‘capo di tutti capi’ - boss of all bosses - in the city lasted only a few months before he was killed, but during that time he came up with the idea of organising criminal activity in New York along the lines of the military chain of command established in ancient Rome by his hero, Julius Caesar.

His fascination with and deep knowledge of the Roman general and politician led to him being nicknamed 'Little Caesar' by his Mafia contemporaries in New York.

Installing himself and four other survivors of the Castellammarese War as bosses, he established the principle of replacing the unstructured gang rivalry in New York with five areas of strictly demarcated territory to be controlled by criminal networks known as the Five Families.

Originally the Maranzano, Profaci, Mangano, Luciano and Gagliano families, they are now known by different names - Bonanno, Colombo, Gambino, Genovese and Lucchese to be precise - but are essentially based on the same structure.

Charles 'Lucky' Luciano, pictured at the exclusive  Excelsior Hotel in Rome in 1948
Charles 'Lucky' Luciano, pictured at the exclusive
Excelsior Hotel in Rome in 1948
Maranzano, perversely, had originally set out to be a priest in his homeland and even undertook the necessary studies to become one. Somehow, his path changed and he found himself drawn into the criminal underworld and became a respected figure in the Sicilian Mafia.

He decided to emigrate to the United States shortly after the end of the First World War. He opened a business as a real estate broker in Brooklyn, while simultaneously growing a bootlegging business, eager to cash in on the restrictions of the Prohibition Era. In time, his activity extended to prostitution and the illegal smuggling of narcotics. He became acquainted with a young mobster called Joseph Bonanno, whom he groomed for power.

Maranzano’s true purpose in going to the United States, however, was not simply for his own personal gains. He had been despatched there by Don Vito Ferro, a powerful Sicilian mafioso who had designs on seizing control of Mafia operations in the US from Giuseppe ‘Joe the Boss’ Masseria, another Sicilian but one from the Agrigento province on the south coast of the island.

Joseph Bonanno was groomed  for high office in the Mafia
Joseph Bonanno was groomed
for high office in the Mafia
From his base in Castellammare del Golfo, not far from Palermo on the north coast, Ferro sent Maranzano specifically to eliminate Masseria, a mission he accomplished but only at the end of the 14 months of the Castellammarese War.

Masseria was shot dead in April 1931 while playing cards at a restaurant on Coney Island. The hit had been arranged by Charles ‘Lucky’ Luciano, the former Masseria lieutenant who had defected to Maranzano’s side along with Vito Genovese, Frank Costello and others on the understanding that Masseria’s death would result in Maranzano calling off the conflict, which was impacting heavily on gang profits.

Maranzano kept his side of the bargain and Luciano was rewarded with a position of power within the Five Families structure.

However, Luciano was uneasy about Maranzano declaring himself ‘boss of all bosses’ and it was not long before he concluded that his new boss was no more forward thinking about Mafia activity than his predecessor.  There were major ideological differences between the two. While Maranzano, like Masseria, trusted only fellow Sicilians, Luciano had partnerships with Jewish gangsters, of which Maranzano strongly disapproved.

Luciano decided that to leave Maranzano in charge would not be in the best interests of progress and began plotting his downfall almost immediately. In fact, Maranzano had been boss for only five months when four men, including Luciano’s Jewish associates Benjamin ‘Bugsy’ Siegel and Samuel ‘Red’ Levine, entered his office in what is now the Helmsley Building in Manhattan, posing as tax officials, and murdered him.

It left Luciano as the most powerful boss in New York City. He did nothing to change the Five Families structure Maranzano had established but, in a further measure aimed at reducing conflict between rival groups, not only in New York but across the United States, by establishing The Commission, a kind of board of directors of the American Mafia, consisting of the heads of the Five Families and the leaders of the Chicago and Buffalo crime families, who would oversee and coordinate Mafia activities across the US and mediate in disputes.

The attractive port area at Castellammare del Golfo
The attractive port area at Castellammare del Golfo
Travel tip:

Castellammare del Golfo is a resort and fishing town overlooking a large bay in the northwest corner of Sicily, midway between Trapani and Palermo.  It has an attractive setting, guarding over a broad sweep of water and with steep lanes of houses climbing the hillside from the harbour towards the elevated Piazza Petrolo.  A popular backdrop for TV dramas, including some episodes of the Inspector Montalbano series, it has the remains of a castle probably built at the time of the ninth-century Arab occupation of the town, and a good selection of bars and restaurants. It is the birthplace of many American Mafia figures, including Sebastiano DiGaetano, Stefano Magaddino, Vito Bonventre, John Tartamella and Joseph Bonanno, as well as Maranzano.

The Tempio di Giunone in the Valley of the Temples
The Tempio di Giunone in the Valley of the Temples
Travel tip:

Agrigento, the home town of Maranzano’s rival boss Joe Masseria, is on the southern coast of Sicily and is built on the site of an ancient Greek city. Its most famous sight is the Valley of the Temples (Valle dei Templi) a large sacred area where seven monumental Greek temples were constructed during the sixth and fifth centuries BC. Situated on a ridge rather than in a valley, It is one of the most outstanding examples of Greater Greece art and architecture anywhere and at 1,300 hectares the the largest archaeological site in the world.

More reading:

How Lucky Luciano brought order among warring Mafia clans

Was Carlo Gambino the model for The Godfather?

Joe Petrosino - the Italian immigrant who fought against the mob

Also on this day:

1598: The birth of sculptor Alessandro Algardi

1969: The birth of football coach Antonio Conte


30 July 2018

Michelangelo Antonioni - film director

Enigmatic artist often remembered for 1966 movie Blowup

Michelangelo Antonioni was described as one of Italian cinema's 'last greats'
Michelangelo Antonioni was described
as one of Italian cinema's 'last greats'
The movie director Michelangelo Antonioni, sometimes described as “the last great” of Italian cinema’s post-war golden era, died on this day in 2007 at his home in Rome.

Antonioni, who was 94 years old when he passed away, was a contemporary of Federico Fellini and Luchino Visconti.

Remarkably, three of that trio’s most acclaimed works - Fellini’s La dolce vita, Visconti’s Rocco and His Brothers and Antonioni’s L’avventura - appeared within a few months of one another.

Antonioni’s genius lay in the way he challenged traditional approaches to storytelling and drama and the way people viewed the world in general.

His characters were often intentionally vague, his most favoured themes being social alienation and bourgeois ennui, reflecting his view that life left many people emotionally adrift and unable to find their bearings.  His movies often had no strong plot in a conventional sense, were dotted with unfinished conversations and seemingly disconnected incidents. His style was seen as a rejection of neorealism, his films more a metaphor for human experience, rather than a record of it.

He divided opinions. At the Cannes Film Festival in 1960, when L’avventura was shown, half the audience booed and jeered. But Antonioni’s fellow director Roberto Rossellini sprang to his defence, hailing the movie, about a young woman's disappearance during a boating trip and how her lover and her best friend join forces to search for her but eventually begin having an affair, as a work of genius.

The actress Monica Vitti in a scene from L'eclisse (1962)
The actress Monica Vitti in a scene from L'eclisse (1962)
L’avventura (1960) was the first of three films, with Le notte (1961) and L’eclisse (1962), that were described as his “trilogy on modernity and its discontents”. All starred a young Roman actress called Monica Vitti, who was at the time Antonioni’s lover.  Some critics argue that the exquisite, mysterious qualities that Vitti brought to her acting were the key to the trilogy’s success and Antonioni’s breakthrough with large international audiences. His first film in colour, The Red Desert (1964) explored similar themes.

He and Vitti stayed together for 10 years, their relationship falling between his two marriages. His third wife, Enrica Fico, was also a director.

Antonioni made a number of films in English, the most famous of which were Zabriskie Point (1970) and The Passenger (1975) and, above all, Blowup (1966), a movie starring David Hemmings and Vanessa Redgrave that was shocking at the time for its sex scenes, which was loosely based on the life of David Bailey, the photographer who captured the Swinging Sixties with more style and impact than any of his contemporaries.

Antonioni was honoured with numerous awards for his films
Antonioni was honoured with numerous
awards for his films
Born in Ferrara, in the Po valley, Antonioni came from a family that enjoyed largely self-made prosperity thanks to his father’s efforts, though taking evening classes alongside his day job, to establish a career that was paid well enough for him to rise above his working-class roots.

Growing up, Antonioni loved music and drawing, with a fascination for architecture, and had he not fallen in love with the cinema he might have been an accomplished violinist. He went to university in Bologna, where he obtained a degree in economics, before beginning work for Il Corriere Padano, a newspaper based in Ferrara, where he wrote film reviews.

In his 20s he played tennis, winning amateur championships in northern Italy, and moved to Rome. During the Second World War he fought against the Fascists as a member of the Italian Resistance.

In 1942, Antonioni ventured into film-making for the first time, co-writing A Pilot Returns with Roberto Rossellini. He made his own debut with Gente del Po (1943), a short film about poor fishermen in the Po valley. His earliest feature films, many of which were lost after Rome was liberated by the Allies, were neorealist in style, before he broke away from that genre in the 1950s to make films with the theme of social alienation that would become common in his work.

Antonioni received numerous film festival awards and nominations throughout his career. He is one of only three directors to have won the Palme d'Or (Cannes), the Golden Lion (Venice) and the Golden Bear (Berlin), and the only director to have won these three and the Golden Leopard (Locarno). He received an honorary Academy Award in 1995.

The Este Castle dominates the centre of Ferrara
The Este Castle dominates the centre of Ferrara
Travel tip:

The city of Ferrara in Emilia-Romagna is about 50km (31 miles) northeast of Bologna. It was ruled by the Este family between 1240 and 1598. Building work on the magnificent Este Castle in the centre of the city began in 1385 and it was added to and improved by successive rulers of Ferrara until the end of the Este line. Apart from the castle, the city has other architectural gems, including many the striking Renaissance building Palazzo dei Diamanti, so-called because the stone blocks of its facade are cut into the shape of diamonds.

The Archiginnasio is the oldest part of Bologna University
The Archiginnasio is the oldest part of Bologna University
Travel tip:

Bologna University, where Antonioni studied, was founded in 1088 and is the oldest university in the world. The oldest surviving building, the Archiginnasio, is now a library and is open Monday to Friday from 9 am to 7 pm, and on Saturdays from 9 am to 2 pm. It is a short walk away from Piazza Maggiore and the Basilica di San Petronio in the centre of the city.

More reading:

Fellini's legacy to Italian cinema

Luchino Visconti - the aristocrat of Italian cinema

Why Roberto Rossellini is known as the 'father of neorealism'

Also on this day:

1626: The Naples earthquake that killed 70,000 people

1909: The birth of chemist Vittorio Erspamer, the scientist who discovered serotonin


29 July 2018

Teresa Noce - activist and partisan

Anti-Fascist who became union leader and parliamentary deputy

Teresa Noce, who became one of the most important female campaigners for workers’ rights in 20th century Italy, was born on this day in 1900.

Teresa Noce led a partisan unit in France before returning to Italian politics in 1945
Teresa Noce led a partisan unit in France before
returning to Italian politics in 1945
A trade union activist as young as 12 years old, Noce spent almost 20 years in exile after the Fascists outlawed her political activity, during which time she became involved with the labour movement in Paris and subsequently led a French partisan unit under the code name Estella.

After she returned to Italy in 1945 she was elected to the Camera dei Deputati (Chamber of Deputies) as a member of the Italian Communist Party (PCI).

Working with the Unione Donne Italiane (Italian Women’s Union), she secured changes to the law to protect working mothers and provide paid maternity leave.

Born in one of the poorest districts of Turin, she and her older brother were brought up in a one-parent family after her father abandoned their mother while they were both young. Because of her mother’s poor income, they were seldom able to keep the same home more than a few weeks before being evicted for non-payment of rent.

Teresa was a bright girl who taught herself to read the newspapers her mother occasionally bought but was forced to abandon her dreams of an education in order to contribute to the family income as soon as she was physically capable of work.

Luigo Longo was also a communist activist when he married Noce in 1925
Luigo Longo was also a communist
activist when he married Noce in 1925
She took a job in a bakery initially and became a seamstress before she was even 10 years old. She joined a workers’ union and helped organise a strike for better pay and conditions when she was just 12. She moved to the Fiat factory in Corso Dante, employed like her brother as a turner, began writing for left-wing journals at the age of 14 and, after protesting against Italy’s entry to the First World War, became in 1919 a member of the Young Socialist movement.

Noce’s mother died in 1914 and her brother was killed on active service during the First World War. She became a founder-member of the Partito Comunista Italiano in 1921 after Antonio Gramsci and Amadeo Bordiga led a split from the socialists. Soon afterwards, despite being derided by his parents as “ugly, poor and communist”, she married another activist, Luigi Longo, with whom she organised illegal union activity after Mussolini had outlawed the PCI in 1925.

After both were arrested and imprisoned at different times, the two ultimately fled to Moscow before moving to Paris, where Noce became prominent among exiled Italians, campaigning for better working conditions and editing a number of anti-Fascists periodicals. She also travelled to Spain to support the Spanish Civil War.

After France surrendered to the Nazis she remained in Paris and became leader of a partisan unit comprising mainly Italians, adopting the nom de guerre Estella. After several brief imprisonments and other narrow escapes, she was arrested and sent to a women’s concentration camp at Ravensbruck in Germany.

Noce addressing a meeting of textile workers in 1948
Noce addressing a meeting of textile workers in 1948
Released in 1945 and allowed to return to Italy, she was elected to the central committee of the PCI and elected to the Italian Parliament.

She became general secretary of the textile workers’ union but her rise to a more senior position in the PCI hierarchy was blocked after he expressed differences with the leadership over policy and found herself shunned by others following an acrimonious split from Longo, who would eventually became the party’s general secretary.

The mother of three children, Noce died in Bologna in 1980 at the age of 79. She had written a number of books, including an autobiography entitled Rivoluzionaria professional (Professional Revolutionary).

The Fiat factory in Corso Dante in Turin
Travel tip:

The Fiat factory on Corso Dante, where Noce worked, still exists today and is open to the public as a museum, with a large number of exhibits, including cars and aeroplanes, outlining the company’s history up to about 1970. Opened in 1900, it was active for 22 years before the massive Lingotto plant came into use, and became associated with the Fiat Brevetti car.  The museum can be found at the junction of Corso Dante and Via Gabriele Chiabrera about 5km (3 miles) from the centre of Turin, near the southern end of the Parco del Valentino.

Palazzo Maggiore in Bologna is the heart of the city
Palazzo Maggiore in Bologna is the heart of the city
Travel tip:

The northern city of Bologna in Emilia-Romagna, where Noce spent the final years of her life, for many years was the success story of communist local government in Italy. The PCI governed the city from 1945 onwards. Between 1946 to 1956, the city council built 31 nursery schools, 896 flats and nine schools. Health care improved substantially, street lighting was installed, new drains and municipal launderettes were built and 8,000 children received subsidised school meals. The historic city centre was restored and, in 1972, the mayor, Renato Zangheri, introduced limitations for private vehicles and a renewed concentration on cheap public transport.


28 July 2018

San Marino’s liberation from Fascism

The day the people demonstrated against their government

The leader of San Marino's Fascists was the wealthy Giuliano Gozi
The leader of San Marino's Fascists was
the wealthy Giuliano Gozi
San Marino residents celebrate the anniversary of their liberation from Fascism on this day every year.

The Sammarinese Fascist Party had been founded in 1922 by Giuliano Gozi, a veteran of the First World War who came from a rich and powerful family.

The party was modelled on the Fascist party of Italy and used violence and intimidation against its opponents.

Gozi took the roles of both foreign minister and interior minister, which gave him control over the military and the police. He continued to serve as foreign minister, leading the cabinet, until 1943.

In 1923 Gozi was elected as San Marino’s Captain Regent. The Fascists retained this post for 20 years as they banned all other political parties, although some independent politicians continued to serve in the Grand and General Council of the Republic.

But in the early 1940s a group of Socialists started up a clandestine anti-fascist movement and the opposition to the Fascist regime grew stronger in the republic.

On July 28, 1943 the Socialists held a successful political demonstration against Fascism and as a result new elections were called.

The symbol of the Sammarinese Fascist Party
The symbol of the Sammarinese
Fascist Party
When Mussolini was freed by the Germans and Fascism was restored in Italy, the new Government of San Marino managed to negotiate a peace treaty allowing it to remain neutral between the two opposing forces.

During the war San Marino became a safe shelter for more than 100,000 refugees and many Jews were saved from being sent to concentration camps.

At the end of the Second World War, British and American troops supervised the slow return of these refugees to their homes.

A public holiday and festival is held in San Marino on July 28 every year in celebration of the day the Republic finally got rid of the Fascists.

San Marino's Fortress of Guaita is one of the republic's most photographed spectacles
San Marino's Fortress of Guaita is one of the republic's
most photographed spectacles
Travel tip:

San Marino, which is on the border between Emilia-Romagna and Marche, still exists as an independent state within Italy, situated on the north east side of the Apennine mountains. The republic’s romantic battlements and towers can be seen from miles away against the skyline. San Marino claims to be the oldest surviving sovereign state and constitutional republic in the world. It covers an area of just 61 square kilometres, or 24 square miles.

The Palazzo Pubblico
The Palazzo Pubblico
Travel tip:

San Marino’s official government building, the Palazzo Pubblico, is similar in design to the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence but is on a much smaller scale. It is in the heart of the Città di San Marino in Contrada del Pianello. Designed by the architect Francesco Azzurri it was built between 1884 and 1894.

More reading:

How the Allies bombed San Marino by accident

The founding of San Marino

The anarchist who tried to kill Mussolini

Also on this day:

1883: The birth of Fascist leader Benito Mussolini

1924: The birth of racing driver Luigi Musso


27 July 2018

Adolfo Celi – actor and director

Successful career of a Sicilian who was typecast as a baddy

Adolfo Celi in his most famous role as the villain Emilio Largo in the 1965 Bond film Thunderball
Adolfo Celi in his most famous role as the villain
Emilio Largo in the 1965 Bond film Thunderball
An actor who specialised in playing the role of the villain in films, Adolfo Celi, was born on this day in 1922 in Curcuraci, a hamlet in the province of Messina in Sicily.

Celi was already prominent in Italian cinema, but he became internationally famous for his portrayal of Emilio Largo, James Bond’s adversary with the eye patch, in the 1965 film Thunderball.

He had made his film debut after the Second World War in A Yank in Rome (Un americano in vacanza), in 1946.

In the 1950s he moved to Brazil, where he co-founded the Teatro Brasiliero de Comedia.  He was successful as a stage actor in Brazil and Argentina and also directed three films.

Celi’s big break came when he played the villain in Philippe de Broca’s That Man from Rio. Afterwards he was cast as the camp commandant in the escape drama, Von Ryan’s Express, in which Frank Sinatra and Trevor Howard played prisoners of war.

After appearing in Thunderball, Celi was offered scores of big parts as a villain.

Celi (left) in a scene from the 1975 comedy-drama  Amici miei (My Friends), directed by Mario Monicelli
Celi (left) in a scene from the 1975 comedy-drama
Amici miei (My Friends), directed by Mario Monicelli
He later made a spoof of Thunderball in the film, OK Connery, in which he played opposite Sean Connery’s brother, Neil.

Despite being fluent in several languages, Celi’s heavy Sicilian accent meant he was always dubbed when he appeared in English language films.

But he was allowed to speak for himself when he appeared as the Spanish pope, Alexander VI, formerly Rodrigo Borgia, in the 1981 BBC series, The Borgias.

Celi was married three times. His son, Leonardo Celi, is a director and his daughter, Alessandra Celi, is an actress.

Celi (right) played Pope Alexander VI in The Borgias
Celi (right) played Pope
Alexander VI in The Borgias
In his later years, Celi worked mainly in the theatre. In February 1986, when he was 64, he was in Siena directing and acting in I misteri di Pietroburgo, a theatrical version of Dostoevsky’s work, The Mysteries of St Petersburg.

He suddenly became ill and his friend, the great Italian theatre and film actor Vittorio Gassman, had to take his place on the stage for the premiere of the play on the evening of February 19.

Adolfo Celi died a few hours later in hospital after suffering a heart attack. He was buried in the Cimitero Monumentale in Messina.

The church of Santa Maria dei Bianchi in Curcuraci was rebuilt by residents
The church of Santa Maria dei Bianchi
in Curcuraci was rebuilt by residents
Travel tip:

Curcuraci, where Adolfo Celi was born, is about 7km (4 miles) north of the town of Messina. The Church of Santa Maria dei Bianchi in the village had been built in a place where, according to tradition, the Madonna had appeared in 1347. The church was destroyed in an earthquake in 1908 but the local people worked together to rebuild it, completing the reconstruction by 1926. There is a statue of the patron saint of Curcuraci by the entrance gate and the residents hold a celebration for the saint every year on the first Sunday in September.

The Teatro dei Rinnovati, reopened in 1950, is the most famous of several theatres in the city of Siena
The Teatro dei Rinnovati, reopened in 1950, is the most
famous of several theatres in the city of Siena
Travel tip:

The most important theatre in Siena, the city where Celi died, is the Teatro dei Rinnovati right in the centre of the city in Piazza del Campo. Built in the 17th century to a design by the architect Carlo Fontana, the theatre opened in 1670 with a performance of the opera, L’Argia.  The theatre fell into disrepair in the early part of the 20th century and closed in 1927 but with the support of the famous Siena bank Monte dei Paschi, the municipal administration embarked on a programme of renovations designed to make it safe to use. Work was interrupted by the Second World War but the theatre was finally reopened in 1950.

More reading:

Why Mario Monicelli was called 'the father of Commedia all'Italiana'

The comic genius of Alberto Sordi

How Messina was all but destroyed in Italy's worst earthquake

Also on this day:

1835: The birth of poet and Nobel Prize winner Giosuè Carducci

1915: The birth of opera singer Mario del Monaco


26 July 2018

Constantino Brumidi - painter

Rome-born artist responsible for murals in US Capitol Building

Constantino Brumidi left Italy in 1852 after being released from prison
Constantino Brumidi left Italy in 1852 after
being released from prison
Constantino Brumidi, an artist whose work provides the backcloth to the daily business of government in the United States Capitol Building in Washington, was born on this day in 1805 in Rome.

Brumidi’s major work is the allegorical fresco The Apotheosis of Washington, painted in 1865, which covers the interior of the dome in the Rotunda.

Encircling the base of the dome, below the windows, is the Frieze of American History, in which Brumidi painted scenes depicting significant events of American history, although the second half of the work, which he began in 1878, had to be completed by another painter, Filippo Costaggini,  as Brumidi died in 1880.

Previously, between 1855 and about 1870, Brumidi had decorated the walls of eight important rooms in the Capitol Building, including the Hall of the House of Representatives, the Senate Library and the President’s Room.

His Liberty and Union paintings are mounted near the ceiling of the White House entrance hall and the first-floor corridors of the Senate part of the Capitol Building are known as the Brumidi Corridors.

Brumidi arrived in the United States in 1852, having spent 13 months in jail in Rome following the upheaval caused by the occupation of the city by French forces and the revolution among Roman citizens that led to the formation of the short-lived Roman Republic.

A section of Brumidi's Corridor in the  Capitol Building in Washington
A section of Brumidi's Corridor in the
Capitol Building in Washington
He was already a well-known and respected artist, whose murals adorned a theatre built at the villa of the wealthy Torlonia family. At the time of the revolution he was working for the Vatican, where he has restored some frescoes for Pope Gregory XVI and painted a portrait of Pope Pius IX, for whom he was also a captain in the civic guard set up to defend the city. At the same time, he and his family were running a coffee shop in Rome inherited from his father.

When Pius IX fled to avoid capture when the republic was declared, Brumidi took it upon himself to remove some valuable art works from the Vatican for safe keeping. When Pius IX returned, however, Brumidi was arrested, accused of theft and sentenced to 18 years in prison.

It was only after many pleas were made on his behalf that the pope decided to show mercy on Brumidi and grant him a pardon, his decision influenced by Brumidi’s intention to emigrate to the United States.

Born in Rome of a Greek father and Italian mother, and trained in painting and sculpture at the Accademia di San Luca, he applied for US citizenship as soon as he arrived in New York and began to earn a living from private commissions and and by painting murals and altarpieces in various churches.

Among his religious paintings are a fresco of the Crucifixion at Our Lady of the Scapular and St. Stephen Church on East 29th Street in Manhattan, for which he also executed a Martyrdom of St. Stephen and an Assumption of Mary.

Brumidi worked at the Capitol Building for 25 years until his death
Brumidi worked at the Capitol Building for
25 years until his death
He also executed frescoes at Taylor's Chapel, Baltimore and further examples of his work can be seen at n the Cathedral-Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul in Philadelphia, St. Ignatius Church in Baltimore, and St Aloysius Church in Washington.

When he was granted US citizenship in 1857 he was already in the employ of the US Government, earning eight dollars a day. He was so proud of his new status that a fresco he completed soon afterwards, in the Hall of the House of Representatives, he signed ‘C. Brumidi, Artist, Citizen of the U.S.’

Brumidi died in Washington and was interred at Glenwood Cemetery. His grave was unmarked and its location lost until 1952, when a document detailing where he had been buried was found and a marker was finally placed above it.

His work in the Capitol was not acknowledged for many years but in September, 2008, President George W. Bush signed a law that posthumously awarded him the Congressional Gold Medal, to be displayed in the Capitol Visitor Center, as part of an exhibit honoring him.

The Accademia di San Luca in Palazzo Carpegna
Travel tip:

The Accademia di San Luca was founded in 1577 as an association of artists in Rome with the purpose of elevating the work of "artists", which included painters, sculptors and architects, above that of mere craftsmen. The Academy was named after Saint Luke the evangelist who, legend has it, made a portrait of the Virgin Mary, and thus became the patron saint of painters' guilds.  From the late 16th century until it moved to its present location at the Palazzo Carpegna - just behind the Trevi Fountain along Via della Stamperia - the Academy was based in a building by the Roman Forum near the Academy church of Santi Luca e Martina, designed by the Baroque architect, Pietro da Cortona.

A view over St Peter's Square at the heart of the Vatican
 A view over St Peter's Square at the heart of the Vatican
Travel tip:

The Vatican can be defined as the palace within the Vatican City in which the pope resides or Vatican City itself, an independent state inside Italy, policed by its own security force, the Swiss Guard. St Peter’s Basilica, built over the place where St Peter is believed to have been crucified and buried, is part of Vatican City, as are the Vatican museums where you can see the Sistine Chapel, which was decorated by Michelangelo. The Pope holds audiences in the Vatican every Wednesday and blesses the crowds in St Peter’s Square every Sunday.

More reading:

How Michelangelo's ceiling of the Sistine Chapel was revealed for the first time

The Sienese sculptor who made his mark in Pittsburgh and Birmingham, Alabama

The Tuscan architect whose work found him fame in Detroit

Also on this day:

1471: The death of the flamboyant Pope Paul II

1928: The birth of former President of Italy Francesco Cossiga


25 July 2018

Alfredo Casella – composer

Musician credited with reviving popularity of Vivaldi

Alfredo Casella was born into a musical family in Turin in 1883
Alfredo Casella was born into a musical
family in Turin in 1883
Pianist and conductor Alfredo Casella, a prolific composer of early 20th century neoclassical music, was born on this day in 1883 in Turin.

Casella is credited as being the person responsible for the resurrection of Antonio Vivaldi’s work, following a 'Vivaldi Week' that he organised in 1939.

Casella was born into a musical family. His grandfather had been first cello in the San Carlo Theatre in Lisbon and he later became a soloist at the Royal Chapel in Turin.

His father, Carlo, and his brothers, Cesare and Gioacchino, were professional cellists. His mother, Maria, was a pianist and she gave the young Alfredo his first piano lessons. Their home was in Via Cavour, where it is marked with a plaque.

Casella entered the Conservatoire de Paris in 1896 to study piano under Louis Diemer and to study composition under Gabriel Fauré.

Ravel was one of his fellow students and Casella also got to know Debussy, Stravinsky, Mahler and Strauss while he was in Paris.

Casella at his piano. He spent some years in the United States
Casella at his piano. He spent some
years in the United States 
He admired Debussy, but he was also influenced by Strauss and Mahler when he wrote his first symphony in 1905. The composer made his debut as a conductor when he led the orchestra at the symphony’s premiere in Monte Carlo in 1908.

During World War I, Casella taught piano at the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia in Rome.

He married Yvonne Muller in Paris in 1921. Their granddaughter is the actress Daria Nicolodi and their great granddaughter is the actress Asia Argento.

From 1927 to 1929, Casella was principal conductor of the Boston Pops Orchestra in Boston, Massachusetts.

Playing the piano, with Arturo Bonucci, cello, and Alberto Poltronieri, violin, Casella formed the Trio Italiano in 1930, which played to great acclaim in Europe and America. He wrote some of his best compositions for the Trio to play on tour.

Perhaps his biggest success was his music for the ballet, La Giara, written in 1924, but he also wrote some beautiful music for the cello, piano and harp.

Casella made live-recording piano music rolls for the Aeolian Duo-Art system, which can still be heard today.

A wall plaque marks the house in Turin where Casella was born
In 1923, with Gabriele D’Annunzio and Gian Francesco Malpiero from Venice, he founded an association to promote the spread of modern Italian music, the Corporation of the New Music.

Antonio Vivaldi’s music became popular again in the 20th century, thanks to the efforts of Casella, who organised Vivaldi Week in 1939.

In 1947, a Venetian businessman founded  the Istituto Italiano Antonio Vivaldi to promote the baroque composer’s music.

Casella’s work on behalf of the Italian baroque composers was to profoundly influence his own music. The composer died in Rome in 1947.

The Palazzo Madama in Piazza Castello
The Palazzo Madama in Piazza Castello
Travel tip:

Turin, where Casella was born, is the capital city of the region of Piedmont. The city has some fine architecture, which illustrates its rich history as the home of the Savoy Kings of Italy. Piazza Castello, with the royal palace, royal library and Palazzo Madama, which used to house the Italian senate, is at the heart of ‘royal’ Turin.
Inside the modern Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia
Inside the modern Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia

Travel tip

The St Cecilia Academy - Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia - where Casella taught the piano, is one of the oldest musical academies in the world. It was founded in Rome by Pope Sixtus V in 1585 at the Church of Santa Maria ad Martires, better known as the Pantheon. Over the centuries, many famous composers and musicians have been members of the Academy, which lists opera singers Beniamino Gigli and Cecilia Bartoli among its alumni. Since 2005 the Academy’s headquarters have been at the Parco della Musica in Rome, which was designed by the architect Renzo Piano.

More reading:

Success and sadness in the life of Antonio Vivaldi

How Cecilia Bartoli put the spotlight on forgotten composers

The opera composer who gave Vivaldi a job

Also on this day:

1467: The world's first artillery battle

1654: The birth of Baroque composer Agostino Steffani


24 July 2018

Eugene de Blaas - painter

Austro-Italian famous for Venetian beauties

Beautiful young women and handsome suitors would often feature in De Blaas's work, as with On the Balcony (1877)
Beautiful young women and handsome suitors would often
feature in De Blaas's work, as with On the Balcony (1877)
Eugene de Blaas, a painter whose animated depictions of day-to-day life among ordinary Venetians were his most popular works, was born on this day in 1843 in Albano Laziale, just outside Rome.

Sometimes known as Eugenio Blaas, or Eugene von Blaas, he was of Austrian parentage. His father, Karl, also a painter, was a teacher at the Accademia di Belle Arti (Academy of Fine Arts) in Rome. His brother, Julius, likewise born in Albano, was also a painter.

In 1856, the family moved to Venice after his father was offered a similar position at the Venetian Academy. At that time, Venice attracted artists from all over Europe and the young De Blaas grew up in a social circle that was largely populated by painters and poets.

Like his father, he became interested in the school known as Academic Classicism, a style which seeks to adhere to the principles of Romanticism and Neoclassicism.  He exhibited at the Venice Academy when he was only 17 years old.

The Water Carrier, celebrating the beauty of ordinary Venetian girls
The Water Carrier (1908), celebrating
 the beauty of ordinary Venetian girls
Religious painting was still in demand and one of his earliest important commissions, in 1863, was an altarpiece for the parish church of San Valentino di Merano.

Over time he produced paintings and watercolours of Venetian landscapes, catering for the needs of visitors who in the traditions of the Grand Tour wished to take home with them a pictorial souvenir of the beauty of the city.

But it was when, responding to the demand for pictures with human interest, that he began to introduce figures into his scenes that he began to develop the speciality with which he would be identified.

He painted gondoliers and fishermen, but eventually the dominant figures in most of his paintings were Venetian women, not only those from aristocratic, moneyed backgrounds but those he saw around him, going about their daily lives.

He had a keen eye for movement and expression and his scenes were lifelike down to precise detail. He often painted groups of women talking among themselves or being coy or flirtatious with male suitors and he would enhance the beauty of his female figures in a somewhat idealised way.  It is said that he used his wife, Paola Prina, whom he married in 1870, as the model for many of them.

Set against the pale, sun-bleached stone of authentic Venetian backgrounds, his paintings had a charm that appealed to buyers not only in Venice but in time in other parts of Europe and particularly in England, where many examples are exhibited in museums and art galleries.

De Blaas's self-portrait
De Blaas's self-portrait
Among his most famous works are On the Balcony (1877), Meeting in the Square (1886), The New Suitor (1888), The Flirtation (1889), The Water Carrier (1908), The Laundress (1912) and his only nude, In the Water (1914).

In addition to his portraits, De Blaas sometimes took on much bigger projects. He painted frescoes, for example, for the Vienna Arsenal.

Like his father, he spent some time teaching at the Accademia di Belle Arti in Venice, where he was an honorary professor from 1884 to 1890. He died in Venice in 1931 at the age of 87.

The remains of Porta Pretoria in Albano Laziale
The remains of Porta Pretoria in Albano Laziale
Travel tip:

Albano Laziale, often known simply as Albano, is the largest and commercially most important town of the Castelli Romani. With a population of almost 42,000 on the shores of Lake Albano a short distance from Castel Gandolfo, home of the papal summer palace, it has been a bishopric since the fifth century and is the historic principality of the Savelli family. The town has a cathedral basilica, dedicated to St Pancras, and other buildings of interest, including the 13th century Palazzo Savelli and the Palazzo Lercaro, also known as the Bishop’s Palace. The fortification of the old town of Albano was almost completely dismantled at the end of the 18th century for the enlargement of Via Appia, although sections still remain, such as the Porta Pretoria and the Porta San Paolo.

The former Ospedale degli Incurabili, on Fondamenta Zattere. is the home of the Venice Academy of Fine Arts
The former Ospedale degli Incurabili, on Fondamenta Zattere.
is the home of the Venice Academy of Fine Arts
Travel tip:

The Accademia di Belle Arti di Venezia was first housed in 1750 in the Fonteghetto della Farina, a flour warehouse and market on the Grand Canal near Piazza San Marco. In 1807, it was moved to premises in the Palladian complex of the Scuola della Carità in the Dorsoduro quarter, which today houses the Gallerie dell’Accademia, where a number of Zuccarelli’s works can be found . The academy itself is now based at the Ospedale degli Incurabili, also in Dorsoduro, looking out over the Giudecca Canal.

More reading:

How Canaletto captured the splendid beauty of 18th century Venice

The engraver who spread Canaletto's fame beyond Italy

How the works of Tintoretto still adorn Venice

Also on this day:

1959: The birth of King Victor Emmanuel I of Sardinia

1921: The birth of tenor Giuseppe di Stefano


23 July 2018

Damiano Damiani – screenwriter and director

Film maker behind the hit Mafia drama series La piovra

Damiano Damiani directed a number of 'spaghetti westerns'
Damiano Damiani directed a number
of so-called 'spaghetti westerns'
Damiano Damiani, who directed the famous Italian television series La piovra, which was about the Mafia and its involvement in Italian politics, was born on this day in 1922 in Pasiano di Pordenone in Friuli.

Damiani also made a number of Mafia-themed films and he was particularly acclaimed for his 1966 film, A Bullet for the General, starring Gian Maria Volontè, which came at the beginning of the golden age of Italian westerns.

Damiani studied at the Accademia di Brera in Milan and made his debut in 1947 with the documentary, La banda d’affari. After working as a screenwriter, he directed his first feature film, Il rossetto, in 1960.

His 1962 film, Arturo’s Island, won the Golden Shell at the San Sebastian International film festival.

During the 1960s, Damiani was praised by the critics and his films were box office successes.

A Bullet for the General is regarded as one of the first, and one of the most notable, political, spaghetti westerns. Its theme was the radicalisation of bandits and other criminals into revolutionaries.

Michele Placido starred in Damiani's La piovra
Michele Placido starred in
Damiani's La piovra
Damiani’s 1968 film, Il giorno della civetta - The Day of the Owl - starring Claudia Cardinale, Franco Nero and Lee J Cobb, started a series of films in which social criticism, often related to the connections between politics and crime, was mixed with spectacular plots.

Damiani’s 1971 film, Confessions of a Police Captain, which again starred Franco Nero, won the Golden Prize at the 7th Moscow International film festival.

He made his debut as an actor in 1973, playing Giovanni Amendola in Florestano Vancini’s The Matteotti Murder, about the assassination in 1924 of the Socialist leader, Giacomo Matteotti, allegedly by Fascist thugs.

He became known to cult horror film fans in 1982 for directing Amityville II: The Possession.

Damiani was still directing in his mid-70s
Damiani was still directing in his mid-70s
In 1984, Damiani directed one of Italy’s most famous television series, La piovra, which put the spotlight on the power of the contemporary Italian Mafia and its involvement in Italian politics.

Starring Michele Placido in the role of the police inspector, Corrado Cattani, it was hugely popular on television in the 1980s and the first three series were shown in the UK on Channel Four. One of the minor characters in the drama was played by Luca Zingaretti, who would later become famous as Inspector Montalbano in the series based on Andrea Camilleri's books.

Damiani won a David di Donatello award for his film, L’Inchiesta, in 1986.

His last feature film was Assassini dei giorni di festa, which he directed in 2002.

Damiani died at his home in Rome in 2013, having reached the age of 90.

Pordenone's elegant town hall, Palazzo Communale
Pordenone's elegant town hall, Palazzo Communale
Travel tip:

Friuli is an area of northeast Italy with its own strong, cultural and historical identity. It comprises the major part of the region Friuli-Venezia Giulia. The towns of Udine, Pordenone and Gorizia are part of Friuli. Pordenone has Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque buildings. The Gothic town hall, Palazzo Communale, in the main street, Corso Vittorio Emanuele, was built between 1291 and 1365.

The Villa Saccomani is one of five Venetian villas around the small town of Pasiano di Pordenone
The Villa Saccomani is one of five Venetian villas around
the small town of Pasiano di Pordenone
Travel tip:

Damiano Damiani is probably the most famous person to come from Pasiano di Pordenone, a small comune - municipality - about 90 km (56 miles) northwest of Trieste and about 13 km (8 miles) south of Pordenone. The comune has no fewer than five Venetian villas worth seeing, which were built between the 15th and the 18th centuries. They are Villa Salvi, Villa Saccomani, Villa Gozzi, Villa Querini and Villa Tiepolo.

More reading:

The role that turned Michele Placido into a star

The brilliance and versatility of the character actor Gian Maria Volontè

How Montalbano turned Luca Zingaretti into a star

Also on this day:

1866: The birth of composer Francesco Cilea

1941: The birth of the Italian president, Sergio Matarella



22 July 2018

Palermo falls to the Allies

Capture of Sicilian capital triggered ousting of Mussolini

The American forces were welcomed as liberators by many ordinary Sicilian citizens
The American forces were welcomed as liberators by
many ordinary Sicilian citizens
One of the most significant developments of the Second World War in Italy occurred on this day in 1943 when Allied forces captured the Sicilian capital, Palermo.

A battle took place between General George S Patton’s Seventh Army and some German and Italian divisions but it was not a prolonged affair.  The Sicilians themselves by then had little appetite to fight in a losing cause on behalf of the Germans and the invading soldiers were greeted by many citizens as liberators.

It was not a decisive victory for the Allies but it had a symbolic value, signifying the fall of Sicily only 12 days after Allied forces had crossed the Mediterranean from bases in North Africa and landed at Pachina and Gela on the south coast of the island.

In fact, the Americans and the British were still meeting German resistance around Catania and Messina in the northeastern corner of the island, it would be only a matter of time before their resistance ceased.

An American officer celebrates the capture of Palermo
An American officer celebrates the capture of Palermo
When news reached Rome that Palermo had fallen, the Fascist Grand Council, who had for some time given only uneasy support to Mussolini, knew that something had to be done to limit the damage of what now looked like an inevitable defeat for the Axis powers in Italy.

After a series of disasters sustained by the Axis in Africa, many of the Italian leaders were desperately anxious to make peace with the Allies and the invasion of Sicily, representing an immediate threat to the Italian mainland, was the development that prompted them to action.

Two days after the fall of Palermo, after Mussolini had told the Grand Council that Hitler was thinking of withdrawing German forces from the south of Italy, a motion calling for Mussolini’s removal from power was passed.

How the New York Times reported the fall of Palermo
How the New York Times reported the fall of Palermo
On July 25, the king, Victor Emmanuel III, told Mussolini that he was to be replaced as prime minister by General Pietro Badoglio, the former chief of staff of the Italian army. After he left their meeting, Mussolini was arrested.

Although there was still a large presence of German army personnel in Italy and undoubtedly many undercover agents, secret meetings between Italian officials and the Allied commanders were already taking place with a view to agreeing an armistice, which would be signed as early as September 3.

A few days after Mussolini was ousted, Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, the German commander in chief in Italy, decided that the Axis troops in Sicily must be evacuated. Under the cover of rearguard actions in the area of Mount Etna, 40,000 Germans and 60,000 Italian troops were safely withdrawn across the Strait of Messina to the mainland.

The Allies entered Messina on August 16, at which point the conquest of Sicily was complete. Of approximately 190,000 Italian casualties during the invasion, 4,678 killed were confirmed as killed with 36,072 missing, 32,500 wounded and 116,681 captured.

The spectacular interior of Monreale Cathedral
The spectacular interior of Monreale Cathedral
Travel tip:

One of the places from which the Allies chose to launch their assault on Palermo was Monreale, an historic hill town famous for the fine mosaics in the town's great Norman cathedral. Dedicated to the Nativity of the Virgin Mary, the cathedral is often spoken of as the island's greatest Norman building. It dates back to the 12th century, when the Norman ruler, William II, founded a Benedictine monastery. The church became something of a national monument for Sicily.

The waterfront at Messina in northeast Sicily
The waterfront at Messina in northeast Sicily
Travel tip:

Messina, which was the last part of Sicily to come under Allied control, is a city in the northeast of the island, separated from mainland Italy by the Strait of Messina. It is the third largest city on the island and is home to a large Greek-speaking community. The 12th century cathedral in Messina has a bell tower which houses one of the largest astronomical clocks in the world, built in 1933.

More reading:

Germans free captive Mussolini in daring mountain raid

How the Italian Social Republic was Mussolini's last stand

The day Mussolini took Italy into the Second World War

Also on this day:

1559: The birth of St Lawrence of Brindisi

2001: The death of Indro Montanelli, hailed as one of the greatest Italian journalists of the 20th century