20 September 2020

20 September

Capture of Rome

Troops enter the capital in final act of unification

Crack infantry soldiers from Piedmont entered Rome and completed the unification of Italy on this day in 1870.  Rome had remained under French control even after the first Italian parliament had proclaimed Victor Emmanuel of Savoy the King of Italy in 1861.  The Italian parliament had declared Rome the capital of the new Kingdom of Italy even though it had not yet taken control of the city.  A French garrison had remained in Rome on the orders of Napoleon III of France in support of Pope Pius IX.  But after the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war, Napoleon III had to withdraw many of his troops. Italian soldiers from the Bersaglieri regiments in Piedmont led by General Raffaele Cadorna seized their chance and after a brief bombardment were able to enter Rome through a breach in the Aurelian Walls near Porta Pia.  King Victor Emmanuel II was then able to take up residence in the Quirinale Palace and Italy was declared officially united.  The date of 20 September, which marked the end of the Risorgimento, the long process of Italian unification, is commemorated in practically every town in Italy with a street named Via XX Settembre.  Read more…


Sophia Loren – actress

Glamorous star one of just three Italian Oscar winners

The actress Sophia Loren, who came to be regarded as one of the world’s most beautiful women and is the most famous name in Italian cinema history, was born on this day in 1934 in Rome.  In a career spanning more than 60 years, Loren appeared in almost 90 films made for the big screen and several others for television.  Although she was often picked for her looks and box-office appeal, she proved her acting talent by winning an Oscar for her role in Vittorio De Sica’s gritty 1960 drama Two Women, released in Italy as La Ciociara.  In doing so she became one of only three Italians to win the Academy Award for Best Actor or Actress and the first of either sex to win the award for an Italian-language film. She followed Anna Magnani, who had won in 1955 for The Rose Tattoo, as the second Italian Oscar winner.  Loren stayed away from the awards ceremony in 1961 on the grounds that the suspense of waiting to learn whether she had won was something she would rather suffer in private but she was there in person to accept an honorary Oscar in 1991, recognising her career achievements.  She also attended the 1993 Oscars to present an honorary award to the director Federico Fellini.  Read more… 


Election of Pope Clement VII

Appointment that sparked split in Catholic Church

The election of Robert of Geneva as Pope Clement VII by a group of disaffected French cardinals, prompting the split in the Roman Catholic Church that became known as the Western Schism or the Great Schism, took place on this day in 1378.  The extraordinary division in the hierarchy of the church, which saw two and ultimately three rival popes each claiming to be the rightful leader, each with his own court and following, was not resolved until 1417.  It was prompted by the election in Rome of Urban VI as the successor to Gregory XI, who had returned the papal court to Rome from Avignon, where it had been based for almost 70 years after an earlier dispute.  The election of Cardinal Bartolomeo Prignano as Urban VI followed rioting by angry Roman citizens demanding a Roman be made pope. Prignano, the former Archbishop of Bari was not a Roman - he was born in Itri, near Formia in southern Lazio - but was seen as the closest to it among those seen as suitable candidates.  His appointment was not well received, however, by some of the powerful French cardinals who had moved from Avignon to Rome, who claimed the election should be declared invalid because it was made under fear of civil unrest.  Read more…


19 September 2020

19 September

Italo Calvino – writer

One of 20th century Italy's most important authors

Novelist and journalist Italo Calvino died on this day in 1985 in Siena in Tuscany.  Calvino was regarded as one of the most important Italian writers of fiction of the 20th century.  His best known works are the Our Ancestors trilogy, written in the 1950s, the Cosmicomics collection of short stories, published in 1965, and the novels, Invisible Cities, published in 1972 and If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller, published in 1979.  Both of Calvino’s parents were Italian, but he was born in Santiago de Las Vegas, a suburb of Havana in Cuba, in 1923, where his father, Mario, an agronomist and botanist, was conducting scientific experiments. Calvino’s mother, Eva, was also a botanist and a university professor. It is believed she gave Calvino the first name of Italo to remind him of his heritage.  Calvino and his parents left Cuba for Italy in 1925 and settled permanently in Sanremo in Liguria, where his father’s family had an ancestral home at San Giovanni Battista.  His family held the science subjects in greater esteem than the arts and Calvino, a prolific reader of stories as a child, is said to have ‘reluctantly’ studied agriculture.  Read more…


Festival of San Gennaro

Worldwide celebrations for patron saint of Naples

Local worshippers, civic dignitaries and visitors meet together in the Duomo in Naples every year on this day to remember the martyrdom of the patron saint of the city, San Gennaro.  Each year a service is held to enable the congregation to witness the dried blood of the saint, which is kept in a glass phial, miraculously turn to liquid.  The practice of gathering blood to be kept as a relic was common at the time of the decapitation of San Gennaro in 305.  The ritual of praying for the miracle of liquefaction of the blood on the anniversary of his death dates back to the 13th century.  Gennaro is said to have been the Bishop of Benevento and was martyred during the Great Persecution led by the Roman Emperor Diocletian for trying to protect other Christians.  His decapitation is believed to have taken place in Pozzuoli but his remains were transferred to Naples in the 15th century to be housed in the Duomo. The festival of the saint’s martyrdom is celebrated each year by Neapolitan communities all over the world and the recurrence of the miracle in Naples is televised and reported in newspapers.  On 19 September in 1926, immigrants from Naples congregated along Mulberry Street in the Little Italy section of Manhattan in New York City to celebrate the Festa di San Gennaro there for the first time.  Read more…


Umberto Bossi - politician

Fiery leader of separatist Lega Nord

Controversial politician Umberto Bossi was born on this day in 1941 in the town of Cassano Magnago in Lombardy.  Until 2012, Bossi was leader of Lega Nord (Northern League), a political party whose goal was to achieve autonomy for northern Italy and establish a new independent state, to be called Padania.  With his distinctive, gravelly voice and penchant for fiery, sometimes provocative rhetoric, Bossi won a place in the Senate in 1987 representing his original party, Lega Lombarda. He was dismissed as an eccentric by some in the political mainstream but under his charismatic leadership Lega Nord became a force almost overnight.  Launched as Alleanza Nord in 1989, bringing together a number of regional parties including Bossi’s own Lega Lombarda, it was renamed Lega Nord in 1991 and fought the 1992 general election with stunning results.  With an impressive 8.7% of the vote, Lega Nord went into the new parliament with 56 deputies and 26 senators, making it the fourth largest party in Italy.  By 1996 that share had risen to 10% and Bossi had become a major figure in Italian politics.  Read more…


Giuseppe Saragat – fifth President of Italy

Socialist politician opposed Fascism and Communism

Giuseppe Saragat, who was President of the Italian Republic from 1964 to 1971, was born on this day in 1898 in Turin.  As a Socialist politician, he was exiled from Italy by the Fascists in 1926.  When he returned to Italy in 1943 to join the partisans, he was arrested and imprisoned by the Nazi forces occupying Rome, but he managed to escape and resume clandestine activity within the Italian Socialist Party.  Saragat was born to Sardinian parents living in Turin and he graduated from the University of Turin in economics and commerce. He joined the Socialist party in 1922.  During his years in exile he did various jobs in Austria and France.  After returning to Italy, he was minister without portfolio in the first post-liberation cabinet of Ivanoe Bonomi in 1944.  He was sent as ambassador to Paris between 1945 and 1946 and was then elected president of the Constitutional Assembly that drafted postwar Italy’s new constitution.  At the Socialist Party Congress in 1947, Saragat opposed the idea of unity with the Communist Party and led those who walked out to form the Socialist Party of Italian Workers (PSLI).  Read more…


18 September 2020

18 September

Alberto Franchetti - opera composer

Caruso sang his arias on first commercial record in 1902

The opera composer Alberto Franchetti, some of whose works were performed by the great tenor Enrico Caruso for his first commercial recording, was born on this day in 1860 in Turin.  Caruso had been taken with Franchetti’s opera, Germania, when he sang the male lead role in the opera’s premiere at Teatro alla Scala in Milan in March 1902.  A month later, Caruso famously made his first recording on a phonograph in a Milan hotel room and chose a number of arias from Germania and critics noted that he sang the aria Ah vieni qui… No, non chiuder gli occhi with a particular sweetness of voice.  A friend and rival of Giacomo Puccini, Franchetti had a style said to have been influenced by the German composers Wagner and Meyerbeer. He was sometimes described as the "Meyerbeer of modern Italy."  Despite the exposure the success of Germania and the association with Caruso brought him, Franchetti’s operas slipped quite quickly into obscurity.  Blame for that can be levelled at least in part at the Fascist Racial Laws of 1938, which made life and work very difficult for Italy's Jewish population.  Read more…


Rossano Brazzi - Hollywood star

Actor quit as a lawyer for career on the big screen

The movie actor Rossano Brazzi, whose credits include The Barefoot Contessa, Three Coins in the Fountain and South Pacific, was born on this day in 1916 in Bologna.  Brazzi gave up a promising career as a lawyer in order to act and went on to appear in more than 200 films, more often than not cast as a handsome heartbreaker or romantic aristocrat.  He was at his peak in the 50s and 60s but continued to accept parts until the late 80s. His last major role was as Father DeCarlo in Omen III: The Final Conflict in 1981.  Brazzi's family moved to Florence when he was aged four. His father Adelmo, a shoemaker, opened a leather factory in which Rossano, his brother Oscar and his sister, Franca, would all eventually work.  Adelmo had ambitions for Rossano, however, helping him win a place at the University of Florence, where he obtained a law degree, and then sending him to Rome to work in the legal practice of a family friend. But Rossano had become involved in a drama group at university and looked for opportunities to continue acting.  Eventually, he was approached by a film director and when he was offered a part in a film in 1939 he quit his job with the legal practice in order to devote himself to acting as a career.  Read more…


Francesca Caccini – singer and composer

Court musician composed oldest surviving opera by a woman

Prolific composer and talented singer Francesca Caccini was born on this day in 1587 in Florence.  Sometimes referred to by the nickname La Cecchina, she composed what is widely considered to be the oldest surviving opera by a woman composer, La Liberazione di Ruggiero, which was adapted from the epic poem, Orlando Furioso by Ludovico Ariosto.  Caccini was the daughter of the composer and musician, Giulio Caccini, and she received her early musical training from him. Like her father, she regularly sang at the Medici court.  She was part of an ensemble of singers referred to as le donne di Giulio Romano, which included her sister, Settimia, and other unnamed pupils.  After her sister married and moved to Mantua, the ensemble broke up, but Caccini continued to serve the court as a teacher, singer and composer, where she was popular because of her musical virtuosity.  She is believed to have been a quick and prolific composer but sadly very little of her music has survived. She was considered equal at the time to Jacopo Peri and Marco da Gagliano, who were also working for the court.  Read more…


17 September 2020

17 September

- Nives Meroi - mountaineer

One of history’s greatest female climbers 

The climber Nives Meroi, widely regarded as one of history’s finest female mountaineers, was born on this day in 1961 in Bonate Sotto, a small town in the province of Bergamo, about 40km (25 miles) northeast of Milan.  One half of a renowned husband-and-wife climbing team with Romano Benet, Meroi is one of only three women to have reached the peak of all 14 of the so-called eight-thousanders, the only mountains in the world that tower about 8,000m, topped by Everest (8,848m), which she conquered in 2007, and K2 (8,611), which she had scaled in 2006.  Meroi completed the full set of 14 when she reached the summit of Annapurna (8,091m) in the Himalayas in 2017.  She and Benet, born in Italy but who has Slovenian nationality, are the first married couple to have climbed all 14 together.  The two first met more than 40 years ago in Tarvisio in Friuli Venezia Giulia, Benet’s hometown, situated in an Alpine valley close to the borders with Austria and Slovenia. Meroi, a student, was sharing a house with Benet’s sister. They began hiking and climbing together after discovering they had a common love of the mountainous scenery.  Read more…


Ranuccio II Farnese – Duke of Parma

Feuding with the Popes led to the destruction of a city

Ranuccio II Farnese, who angered Innocent X so much that the Pope had part of his territory razed to the ground, was born on this day in 1630 in Parma.  Ranuccio II was the eldest son of Odoardo Farnese, the fifth sovereign duke of Parma, and his wife, Margherita de’ Medici.  Odoardo died while Ranuccio was still a minor and, although he succeeded him as Duke of Parma, he had to rule for the first two years of his reign under the regency of both his uncle, Francesco Maria Farnese, and his mother.  The House of Farnese had been founded by Ranuccio’s paternal ancestor, Alessandro Farnese, who became Pope Paul III. The Farnese family had been ruling Parma and Piacenza ever since Paul III gave it to his illegitimate son, Pier Luigi Farnese. He also made Pier Luigi the Duke of Castro.  While Odoardo had been Duke of Parma he had become involved in a power struggle with Pope Urban VIII, who was a member of the Barberini family. The Barberini family were keen to acquire Castro, which was north of Rome in the Papal States.  When Odoardo found himself unable to pay his debts, Urban VIII responded to the creditors’ pleas for help, by sending troops to occupy Castro.  Read more…


Reinhold Messner - mountaineer

Climber from Dolomites who conquered Everest

Reinhold Messner, the Italian mountaineer who was the first climber to reach the summit of Mount Everest without supplemental oxygen and the first to reach the peak on a solo climb, was born on this day in 1944 in Bressanone, a town in Italy's most northerly region of Alto Adige, which is also known as South Tyrol.  Messner was also the first man to ascend every one of the world's 14 peaks that rise to more than 8,000 metres (26,000 ft) above sea level.  His 1976 ascent of Everest with the Austrian climber Peter Habeler defied numerous doctors and other specialists in the effects of altitude who insisted that scaling the world's highest mountain without extra oxygen was not possible.  Born only 45km from Italy's border with Austria, Messner grew up speaking German and Italian and has also become fluent in English.  His father, Josef, introduced him to climbing and took him to his first summit at the age of five. He soon became familiar with all the peaks of the Dolomites.   From a family of 10 children - nine of them boys - Messner shared his passion for adventure with brothers Günther and Hubert, with whom he would later cross the Arctic.  Read more…


Maria Luisa of Savoy

Girl from Turin ruled Spain while a teenager

Maria Luisa of Savoy, who grew up to become a queen consort of Spain with a lot of influence over her husband, King Philip V, was born on this day in 1688 at the Royal Palace in Turin.  She was the daughter of Victor Amadeus II, Duke of Savoy, and his French wife, Anne Marie d’Orleans.  Philip V of Spain wanted to maintain his ties with Victor Amadeus II and therefore asked for Maria Luisa’s hand in marriage. She was wed by proxy to Philip V in 1701 when she was still only 13.  Maria Luisa was escorted to Nice and from there sailed to Antibes en route to Barcelona. The official marriage took place in November of the same year.  Maria Luisa was both beautiful and intelligent and Phillip V was deeply in love with her right from the start.  In 1702 when Philip V left Spain to fight in the War of the Spanish Succession, Maria Luisa acted as Regent in his absence.  She was praised as an effective ruler despite being only 14 years old. She gave audiences to ambassadors, worked for hours with ministers, and prevented Savoy from joining the enemy. She inspired people to make donations towards the war effort and her leadership was admired throughout Spain.  Read more…


Nives Meroi - mountaineer

One of history’s greatest female climbers 

Nives Meroi and Romano Benet
Nives Meroi and Romano Benet have been
climbing together for more than 40 years
The climber Nives Meroi, widely regarded as one of history’s finest female mountaineers, was born on this day in 1961 in Bonate Sotto, a small town in the province of Bergamo, about 40km (25 miles) northeast of Milan.

One half of a renowned husband-and-wife climbing team with Romano Benet, Meroi is one of only three women to have reached the peak of all 14 of the so-called eight-thousanders, the only mountains in the world that tower about 8,000m, topped by Everest (8,848m), which she conquered in 2007, and K2 (8,611), which she had scaled in 2006.

Meroi completed the full set of 14 when she reached the summit of Annapurna (8,091m) in the Himalayas in 2017.  She and Benet, born in Italy but who has Slovenian nationality, are the first married couple to have climbed all 14 together.

The two first met more than 40 years ago in Tarvisio in Friuli Venezia Giulia, Benet’s hometown, situated in an Alpine valley close to the borders with Austria and Slovenia. Meroi, a student, was sharing a house with Benet’s sister. They began hiking and climbing together after discovering they had a common love of the mountainous scenery.

They were married in 1989, about 10 years after they met, with climbing central to the decision to tie the knot, Meroi confessing in an interview some years later that it enabled them to realise a dream, which at the time seemed out of reach, to go climbing together in the Peruvian Andes, on the Cordillera Blanca range.

Benet and Meroi have scaled the 14 highest mountains in the world
Benet and Meroi have scaled the 14
highest mountains in the world
“We had no money or leave days," Meroi said in an interview on the BBC World Service. "So we decided to get married because our employers would give us two weeks off, and we asked our friends and family to pay for the trip."

With the Alps on their doorstep in Tarvisio, they had by then become seasoned climbers and it was not long after becoming husband and wife that they began to travel to the Himalayas.  They attempted both Everest and K2 in the mid-1990s, without reaching the peak, before chalking off the first of the eight-thousanders in 1998, whey they successfully scaled Nanga Parbat, which rises to 8,126m in Kashmir. Meroi was the first Italian woman at the summit.

They had climbed two more off the list by the end of the decade before, in 2003, Meroi became the first female climber to complete the three eight-thousanders of the Gasherbrum Massif on the border of China and Pakistan.  Their conquests of K2 and Everest in the next few years were notable for the couple reaching the summits alone, with no sherpas to help carry equipment, and without using supplemental oxygen.

Not surprisingly, given the risks involved with climbing, their lives have not been without drama.

In 2008, attempting a treacherous winter ascent of Makalu, at 8,485m the world’s fifth highest peak, Meroi was blown off her feet by a fierce gust of wind and fell between two boulders, breaking her right leg. With the help of another Italian climber who had accompanied them on the trip, Benet carried her down to a glacier 2,000m below where the incident took place, from which a helicopter took her to hospital. 

Nives Meroi
Meroi is only the third female to
climb all 14 eight-thousanders
A year later, once Meroi had recovered, the pair set out to climb Kangchenjunga, the world's third-highest peak, on the border of India and Nepal. They were closing in on the 8,586m summit when Benet became unwell. Meroi had the option to continue alone, leaving her husband to wait for her in a tent, which would have put her in with a chance of becoming the first woman to complete the 14 eight-thousanders, given that the two that would remain on her list were less daunting prospects.

In the event, the decision to descend immediately and quickly was the right one. Benet was suffering from aplastic anaemia, an extremely rare condition in which the bone marrow fails to produce enough new blood cells.  It took two years of treatment, including dozens of blood transfusions and two bone-marrow transplants, before Benet was well again, having been in grave danger of losing his life.

Undaunted, the couple resumed climbing.  They succeeded at the third attempt to reach the summit of Kangchenjunga in 2014, scaled the peak of Makalu two years later and conquered the last of the 14 on May 11, 2017, when she and Benet arrived at the 8,091-metre summit of Annapurna, in north-central Nepal.

It made Meroi only the third woman to have climbed all the world’s eight-thousanders, after the Spanish mountaineer Edurne Pasaban, who had achieved the feat in 2010, and the Austrian Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner, who followed a year later. Kaltenbrunner and Meroi are the only women to have completed all 14 without supplemental oxygen.

Benet - almost 10 years his wife’s senior - had just turned 65 in May 2017. He became the 16th man to complete the set and the fourth Italian.

The couple still live just outside Tarvisio in what they describe as a mountain hut.

The remaining apse of the former Basilica di Santa Giulia
The remaining apse of the former
Basilica di Santa Giulia
Travel tip:

Bonate Sotto, where Neroi was born, is a small town of around 7,000 residents some 12km (9 miles) southeast of the Lombardia city of Bergamo within the so-called Isola Bergamasca between the Brembo and Adda rivers. It is best known for the remains of the Basilica di Santa Giulia, a 12th-century Romanesque basilica built on the site of a church that may have stood since in the seventh century. It fell into disrepair and was abandoned in the 14th century. The 12th-century structure had a nave and two aisles with three apses, with an interior was divided into five bays, of which only the last one preceding the apse area survives. The area outside the remains includes a cemetery.

The market square in Treviso, with the church of Saints Peter and Paul
The market square in Treviso, with the
church of Saints Peter and Paul
Travel tip:

Tarvisio, which has a population of slightly less than 5,000, can be found 7km (4 miles) from the Austrian border and 11km (7 miles) from Slovenia, in the Val Canale between the Julian Alps and eastern Carnic Alps. It is a popular base for both winter and summer activities. Its historic market, which used to open on Saturdays but now hosts stalls on weekdays too, attracts shoppers from over the border.  Meroi and Benet live in an area of tiny Alpine lakes called the Fusine Laghi, just to the east of the town.

Also on this day:

1630: The birth of Ranuccio II Farnese, Duke of Parma

1688: The birth of Maria Luisa of Savoy

1944: The birth of mountaineer Reinhold Messner


16 September 2020

16 September

Alessandro Fortis - politician

Revolutionary who became Prime Minister

Alessandro Fortis, a controversial politician who was also Italy’s first Jewish prime minister, was born on this day in 1841 in Forlì in Emilia-Romagna.  Fortis led the government from March 1905 to February 1906. A republican follower of Giuseppe Mazzini and a volunteer in the army of Giuseppe Garibaldi, he was politically of the Historical Left but in time managed to alienate both sides of the divide with his policies.  He attracted the harshest criticism for his decision to nationalise the railways, one of his personal political goals, which was naturally opposed by the conservatives on the Right but simultaneously upset his erstwhile supporters on the Left, because the move had the effect of heading off a strike by rail workers. By placing the network in state control, Fortis turned all railway employees into civil servants, who were not allowed to strike under the law.  Some politicians also felt the compensation given to the private companies who previously ran the railways was far too generous and suspected Fortis of corruption.  His foreign policies, meanwhile, upset politicians and voters on both sides.  Read more…


Paolo di Lauro - Camorra boss

Capture of mobster struck at heart of Naples underworld

Italy's war against organised crime achieved one of its biggest victories on this day in 2005 when the powerful Camorra boss Paolo di Lauro was arrested.  In a 6am raid, Carabinieri officers surrounded a building in the notorious Secondigliano district of Naples and entered the modest apartment in which Di Lauro was living with a female companion.  The 52-year-old gang boss did not resist arrest, possibly believing any charges against him would not be made to stick.  However, at a subsequent trial he was convicted and sentenced to 30 years' imprisonment for drug trafficking and other crimes and remains in jail.  Di Lauro's conviction was significant because it removed the man who had been at the head of one of the most lucrative criminal networks in all of Italy for more than 20 years and yet managed to maintain such a low profile that police at times suspected he was dead.  At its peak, the Di Lauro clan presided over an organisation that imported and distributed cocaine and heroin said to be worth around €200 million per year.  The clan essentially controlled the run-down northern suburbs of Naples, making money also from real estate, counterfeit high-end fashion and prostitution.  Read more…


Sir Antony Panizzi - revolutionary librarian

Political refugee knighted by Queen Victoria

Sir Anthony Panizzi, who as Principal Librarian at the British Museum was knighted by Queen Victoria, was a former Italian revolutionary, born Antonio Genesio Maria Panizzi in Brescello in what is now Reggio Emilia, on this day in 1797.  A law graduate from the University of Parma, Panizzi began his working life as a civil servant, attaining the position of Inspector of Public Schools in his home town.   At the same time he was a member of the Carbonari, the network of secret societies set up across Italy in the early part of the 19th century, whose aim was to overthrow the repressive regimes of the Kingdoms of Naples and Sardinia, the Papal States and the Duchy of Modena and bring about the unification of Italy as a republic or a constitutional monarchy.  He was party to a number of attempted uprisings but was forced to flee the country in 1822, having been tipped off that he was to be arrested and would face trial as a subversive.  Panizzi found a haven in Switzerland, but after publishing a book that attacked the Duchy of Modena, of which Brescello was then part, he was sentenced to death in absentia by a court in Modena.  Read more…


15 September 2020

15 September

Ettore Bugatti - car designer

Name that became a trademark for luxury and high performance

The car designer and manufacturer Ettore Bugatti was born in Milan on this day in 1881.  The company Bugatti launched in 1909 became associated with luxury and exclusivity while also enjoying considerable success in motor racing.  When the glamorous Principality of Monaco launched its famous Grand Prix in 1929, the inaugural race was won by a Bugatti.  Although Bugatti cars were manufactured for the most part in a factory in Alsace, on the border of France and Germany, their stylish designs reflected the company’s Italian heritage and Bugatti cars are seen as part of Italy’s traditional success in producing desirable high-performance cars.  The story of Bugatti as a purely family business ended in 1956, and the company closed altogether in 1963.  The name did not die, however, and Bugatti cars are currently produced by Volkswagen.  Ettore came from an artistic family in Milan. His father, Carlo Bugatti, was a successful designer of Italian Art Nouveau furniture and jewelry, while his paternal grandfather, Giovanni Luigi Bugatti, had been an architect and sculptor.  His younger brother, Rembrandt Bugatti, became well known for his animal sculpture.  Read more…


Fausto Coppi - cycling great

Multiple title-winner who died tragically young

The cycling champion Fausto Coppi, who won the Giro d’Italia five times and the Tour de France twice as well as numerous other races, was born on this day in 1919 in Castellania, a village in Piedmont about 37km (23 miles) southeast of Alessandria.  Although hugely successful and lauded for his talent and mental strength, Coppi was a controversial character. His rivalry with his fellow Italian rider Gino Bartali divided the nation, while he offended many in what was still a socially conservative country by abandoning his wife to live with another woman.  Fausto, who openly admitted to taking performance enhancing drugs, which were then legal, died in 1960 at the age of just 40 following a trip to Burkina Faso in West Africa. The cause of death officially was malaria but a story has circulated in more recent years that he was poisoned in an act of revenge.  The fourth in a family of five children, Coppi had poor health as he grew up and would skip school in order to amuse himself riding a rusty bicycle he found in a cellar. He left at the age of 13 to work in a butcher’s shop in Novi Ligure, a town about 20km (12 miles) from his home village in Piedmont.  Read more…


Umberto II - last King of Italy

Brief reign was followed by long exile

The last King of Italy, Umberto II, was born on this day in 1904 in Racconigi in Piedmont.  Umberto reigned over Italy from 9 May 1946 to 12 June 1946 and was therefore nicknamed the May King - Re di Maggio.  When Umberto Nicola Tommaso Giovanni Maria di Savoia was born at the Castle of Racconigi he became heir apparent to the Italian throne as the only son and third child of King Victor Emmanuel III of Italy and his wife Queen Elena of Montenegro.  He was given the title of Prince of Piedmont.  Umberto married Marie Jose of Belgium in Rome in 1930 and they had four children.  He became de facto head of state in 1944 when his father, Victor Emmanuel III, transferred his powers to him in an attempt to repair the monarchy’s image after the fall of Benito Mussolini’s regime.  Victor Emmanuel III abdicated his throne in favour of Umberto in 1946 ahead of a referendum on the abolition of the monarchy in the hope that his exit and a new King might give a boost to the popularity of the monarchy.  However, after the referendum, Italy was declared a republic and Umberto had to live out the rest of his life in exile in Portugal.  Read more…


The first free public school in Europe

Frascati sees groundbreaking development in education

The first free public school in Europe opened its doors to children on this day in 1616 in Frascati, a town in Lazio just a few kilometres from Rome.  The school was founded by a Spanish Catholic priest, José de Calasanz, who was originally from Aragon but who moved to Rome in 1592 at the age of 35.  Calasanz had a passion for education and in particular made it his life’s work to set up schools for children who did not have the benefit of coming from wealthy families.  Previously, schools existed only for the children of noble families or for those studying for the priesthood. Calasanz established Pious Schools and a religious order responsible for running them, who became known as the Piarists.  Calasanz had been a priest for 10 years when he decided to go to Rome in the hope of furthering his ecclesiastical career.  He soon became involved with helping neglected and homeless children via the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine.  He would gather up poor children on the streets and take them to schools, only to find that the teachers, who were not well paid, would not accept them unless Calasanz provided them with extra money.  Read more…


14 September 2020

14 September

Renzo Piano – architect

Designer of innovative buildings is now an Italian senator

Award-winning architect Renzo Piano was born on this day in 1937 in Genoa.  Piano is well-known for his high-tech designs for public spaces and is particularly famous for the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, which he worked on in collaboration with the British architect, Richard Rogers, and the Shard in London.  Among the many awards and prizes Piano has received for his work are the Japan Art Association’s Praemium Imperiale prize for architecture in 1995, the Pritzker Architecture Prize in 1998 and the American Institute of Architects Gold Medal in 2008.  Piano was born into a family of builders and graduated from the Polytechnic in Milan in 1964. He completed his first building, the IPE factory in Genoa, in 1968 with a roof of steel and reinforced polyester.  He worked with a variety of architects, including his father, Carlo Piano, until he established a partnership with Rogers, which lasted from 1971-1977.  They made the Centre Georges Pompidou look like an urban machine with their innovative design and it immediately gained the attention of the international architectural community.  Read more…


Dante Alighieri – poet

Famous son of Florence remains in exile

Dante Alighieri, an important poet during the late Middle Ages, died on this day in 1321 in Ravenna in Emilia-Romagna.  Dante’s Divine Comedy is considered to be the greatest literary work written in Italian and has been acclaimed all over the world.  In the 13th century most poetry was written in Latin, but Dante wrote in the Tuscan dialect, which made his work more accessible to ordinary people.  Writers who came later, such as Petrarch and Boccaccio, followed this trend.  Therefore Dante can be said to have played an instrumental role in establishing the national language of Italy.  His depictions of Hell, Purgatory and Heaven in the Divine Comedy later influenced the works of John Milton, Geoffrey Chaucer and Lord Alfred Tennyson, among many others.  Dante was also the first poet to use the interlocking three-line rhyme scheme, terza rima.  Dante was born around 1265 in Florence into a family loyal to the Guelphs. By the time he was 12 he had been promised in marriage to Gemma di Manetto Donati, the daughter of a member of a powerful, local family.  He had already fallen in love with Beatrice Portinari, whom he first met when he was only nine.  Read more…


Tiziano Terzani - journalist

Asia correspondent who covered wars in Vietnam and Cambodia

The journalist and author Tiziano Terzani, who spent much of his working life in China, Japan and Southeast Asia and whose writing received critical acclaim both in his native Italy and elsewhere, was born on this day in 1938 in Florence.  He worked for more than 30 years for the German news magazine Der Spiegel, who took him on as Asia Correspondent in 1971, based in Singapore.  Although he wrote for other publications, including the Italian newspapers Corriere della Sera and La Repubblica, it was Der Spiegel who allowed him the freedom he craved. To a large extent he created his own news agenda but in doing so offered a unique slant on the major stories.  He was one of only a handful of western journalists who remained in Vietnam after the liberation of Saigon by the Viet Cong in 1975 and two years later, despite threats to his life, he reported from Phnom Penh in Cambodia after its capture by the Khmer Rouge.  He lived at different times in Beijing, Tokyo, Singapore, Hong Kong, Bangkok and New Delhi. His stay in China came to an end when he was arrested and expelled in 1984 for "counter-revolutionary activities".  Read more…


13 September 2020

13 September

- Fabio Cannavaro - World Cup winner

Defender captained Azzurri to 2006 triumph

The footballer and coach Fabio Cannavaro, who was captain of the Italy team that won the 2006 World Cup in Germany, was born on this day in 1973 in Naples.  In a hugely successful playing career, the central defender was part of the excellent Parma team that won the UEFA Cup and the Coppa Italia under coach Alberto Malesani in the late 1990s, winning another Coppa Italia in 2002 with Pietro Carmignani in charge.  But his biggest glories were to come after he left Italy for Spain to play for Real Madrid under the Italian coach Fabio Capello, winning the La Liga title twice in 2006 and 2007.  His 136 appearances for the Azzurri made him the most capped outfield player in the history of the Italian national team (only goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon has more caps in total) and the feat of winning La Liga and the World Cup in the same year helped him win the coveted Ballon d’Or, awarded annually by the magazine France Football to the player judged to be the best in Europe. He is only the third defender to be given the award, joining the company of Franz Beckenbauer and Matthias Sammer.  Read more…


Andrea Mantegna – artist

Genius led the way with his use of perspective

The painter Andrea Mantegna died on this day in 1506 in Mantua.  He had become famous for his religious paintings, such as St Sebastian, which is now in the Louvre in Paris, and The Agony in the Garden, which is now in the National Gallery in London.  But his frescoes for the Bridal Chamber (Camera degli Sposi) at the Palazzo Ducale in Mantua - Mantova in Italian - were to influence many artists who followed him because of his innovative use of perspective.  Mantegna studied Roman antiquities for inspiration and was also an eminent engraver.  He was born near Padua - Padova - in about 1431 and apprenticed by the age of 11 to the painter, Francesco Squarcione, who had a fascination for ancient art and encouraged him to study fragments of Roman sculptures.  Mantegna was one of a large group of painters entrusted with decorating the Ovetari Chapel in the Church of the Eremitani in Padua.  Much of his work was lost when the Allied forces bombed Padua in 1944, but other early work by Mantegna can be seen in the Basilica of Sant’Antonio and in the Church of Santa Giustina in Padua.  The artist later came under the influence of Jacopo Bellini, the father of Giovanni and Gentile Bellini.  Read more…


Girolamo Frescobaldi – composer

Organist was a ‘father of Italian music’

Girolamo Alessandro Frescobaldi, one of the first great masters of organ composition, was born on this day in 1583 in Ferrara.  Frescobaldi is famous for his instrumental works, many of which are compositions for the keyboard, but his canzone are of historical importance for the part they played in the development of pieces for small instrumental ensembles and he was to have a strong influence on the German Baroque school.  Frescobaldi began his career as organist at the church of Santa Maria in Trastevere in Rome in 1607. He travelled to the Netherlands the same year and published his first work, a book of madrigals, in Antwerp.  In 1608 he became the organist at St Peter’s Basilica in Rome and, except for a few years when he was court organist in Florence, he worked at St Peter’s until his death.  He married Orsola Travaglini in 1613 and they had five children.  Frescobaldi published 12 fantasie that are notable for their contrapuntal mastery.  In a collection of music published in 1626 he provides valuable information about performing his work. He writes in the preface: ‘Should the player find it tedious to play a piece right through he may choose such sections as he pleases provided only that he ends in the main key.’  Read more…


Saverio Bettinelli – writer

Jesuit scholar and poet was unimpressed with Dante

Poet and literary critic Saverio Bettinelli, who had the temerity to criticise Dante in his writing, died at the age of 90 on this day in 1808 in Mantua.  Bettinelli had entered the Jesuit Order at the age of 20 and went on to become known as a dramatist, poet and literary critic, who also taught Rhetoric in various Italian cities.  In 1758 he travelled through Italy and Germany and met the French writers Voltaire and Rousseau.  Bettinelli taught literature from 1739 to 1744 at Brescia, where he formed an academy with other scholars. He became a professor of Rhetoric in Venice and was made superintendent of the College of Nobles at Parma in 1751, where he was in charge of the study of poetry and history and theatrical entertainment.  After travelling to Germany, Strasbourg and Nancy, he returned to Italy, taking with him two young relatives of the Prince of Hohenlohe, who had entrusted him with their education. He took the eldest of his pupils with him to France, where he wrote his famous Lettere dieci di Virgilio agli Arcadi, which were published in Venice.  He also wrote a collection of poems, Versi sciolti, and some tragedies for the Jesuit theatre.  Read more…


Fabio Cannavaro - World Cup winner

Defender captained Azzurri to 2006 triumph

Fabio Cannavaro in action at the 2006 World Cup finals
Fabio Cannavaro in action at the
2006 World Cup finals
The footballer and coach Fabio Cannavaro, who was captain of the Italy team that won the 2006 World Cup in Germany, was born on this day in 1973 in Naples.

In a hugely successful playing career, the central defender was part of the excellent Parma team that won the UEFA Cup and the Coppa Italia under coach Alberto Malesani in the late 1990s, winning another Coppa Italia in 2002 with Pietro Carmignani in charge.

But his biggest glories were to come after he left Italy for Spain to play for Real Madrid under the Italian coach Fabio Capello, winning the La Liga title twice in 2006 and 2007.

His 136 appearances for the Azzurri made him the most capped outfield player in the history of the Italian national team (only goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon has more caps in total) and the feat of winning La Liga and the World Cup in the same year helped him win the coveted Ballon d’Or, awarded annually by the magazine France Football to the player judged to be the best in Europe. He is only the third defender to be given the award, joining the company of Franz Beckenbauer and Matthias Sammer. 

Cannavaro, who also played for Inter-Milan and Juventus, retired from playing in 2011 and has since coached teams in the United Arab Emirates and China, where he currently works for the Chinese Super League club Guangzhou Evergrande.

Cannavaro in his days as a young professional with Napoli
Cannavaro in his days as a young
professional with Napoli
The son of a bank clerk, Cannavaro learned to play football in the street with his brother, Paolo, who would also become a professional. A fanatical Napoli supporter, he was a 13-year-old ball boy at the Stadio San Paolo when the club won the Serie A title for the first time in their history in 1987, thanks to the brilliance of their icon Diego Maradona.

His own talent earned him games for a suburban Neapolitan team at Bagnoli and it was while playing for them that he was spotted by a scout from Napoli.  Soon he was turning out for Napoli’s youth team and earning an invitation to train alongside Maradona and the senior squad. A ball-winning midfield player at that time, he caused a stir in one training session when he launched a sliding tackle against the club’s prized asset that won the ball but made the coaching staff wince. Cannavaro was ticked off for being too aggressive but Maradona spoke up in his defence and reportedly gave him a pair of boots as a souvenir at the end of the session.

Cannavaro made his first-team debut for Napoli in 1993 at the age of 19. Despite standing only 5ft 9ins (1.75m), he was deployed as a centre-back alongside another of his heroes, Ciro Ferrera, after coach Claudio Ranieri determined that his anticipation, tackling, distribution and his ability to launch attacks from defensive more than compensated from his lack of height.

He might have made his career with his hometown club had Napoli not run into financial difficulties in the mid-1990s, obliging them to accept an offer of the equivalent of £6 million for him from Parma, whom he joined in the summer of 1995.

As well as enjoying trophy-winning success with the Emilia-Romagna club, of whom he was made captain not long after he arrived, he also played for two seasons alongside his brother, Paolo, who also made the move from Napoli to Parma, in 1999. 

Cannavaro with sports minister Giovanna Melandra, president Giorgio
Napolitano and coach Marcello Lippi at a night of celebration in Rome
After his success with Parma, Cannavaro’s transfer value rocketed, to the extent that Inter paid €23 million (£14 million) for his services in 2002. His spell at the San Siro did not bring any trophies but his own value was barely diminished and he moved to Juventus in a deal worth €20 million (£13.6 million) in 2004.

The transfer to Turin reunited him with former Parma teammates Buffon and Lilian Thuram and, for a season, with his former Napoli idol Ferrara, although it was an ill-fated move.  Juventus won the Serie A title in 2005 and 2006 under Capello’s astute management only to have the titles stripped after the so-called Calciopoli scandal, in which several clubs were found to have sought to influence the appointment of referees perceived as friendly to their cause.  Juventus were relegated to Serie B as a consequence.

Cannavaro subsequently followed Capello to Madrid and enjoyed the most successful spell of his career. When he returned to Juventus in 2009 after three years in Spain he was not the player he was. Juve supporters turned on him both for his erratic form and for having turned his back on the club in 2006 and in 2010, after a disappointing World Cup in South Africa, left the club on a free transfer to join Al-Ahli in the UAE.

Cannavaro enjoyed more success in Spain with Real Madrid
Cannavaro enjoyed more success
in Spain with Real Madrid
As an international player, Cannavaro had been part of Cesare Maldini’s Italy Under-21 team, which won the European championships in 1994 and 1996, before being elevated to the senior national team in 1997.  He starred in the Italy team that beat England 1-0 at Wembley, thanks to a Gianfranco Zola goal.

Quickly establishing his place in the side, Cannavaro helped the Azzurri reach the quarter-finals of the 1998 World Cup and the final of the 2000 European championships, in which they lost to France, but was injured in the 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea, in which Italy lost to the latter in the round of 16.

Cannavaro succeeded Paolo Maldini as captain in 2002 and settled into the role as a natural leader.  The European championships of 2004 were a disappointment but coach Marcello Lippi brought the team to its peak at the 2006 World Cup, the highlight of which was a 2-0 defeat of the hosts in the semi-finals, thanks to goals by Fabio Grosso and Alessandro Del Piero, with Cannavaro playing a key role in the second, launching an attack from a defensive position in the way that Ranieri identified during his formative years with Napoli.

A fractious final against France, famous for the sending-off of the French skipper Zinedine Zidane, was won on penalties, but Cannavaro’s performance in defence was hailed as decisive, earning him the nickname of the ‘Berlin Wall’ among Italy fans. Returning to Italy, Cannavaro held the trophy aloft at a rapturous night of celebration on the Circus Maximus in Rome.

He subsequently overtook Paolo Maldini’s record of 126 caps but after a disappointing World Cup in South Africa in 2010 announced his retirement from international football.

Cannavaro set up a charity with
former teammate Ciro Ferrara
Following his final transfer to Al Ahli in the UAE, Cannavaro moved into coaching. Much of his post-playing career has been spent in China, where he won the 2019 Chinese Super League title with Guangzhou Evergrande and was briefly in charge of the China national team.

Cannavaro, the father of three children with his wife, Daniela, who he married in 1996, joined with Ciro Ferrara after they had finished playing to set up the Fondazione Cannavaro Ferrara, a charity aimed at helping to buy equipment for a cancer hospital in their native Naples.

He attracted controversy in 2015 when he, Daniela and Paolo were handed jail sentences of between four and 10 months when they re-entered property that had been seized by police during an investigation into the player’s tax affairs. They appealed against the verdict and the sentences were suspended.

Cannavaro’s son, Christian, has followed his father in becoming a player, currently turning out for another Campanian team, Benevento.

The city of Parma is famous for its gastronomy and is the home of Prosciutto di Parma (Parma ham)
The city of Parma is famous for its gastronomy
and is the home of Prosciutto di Parma (Parma ham)
Travel tip:

Parma, where Cannavaro enjoyed a successful spell early in his career, is an historic city in the Emilia-Romagna region, famous for its ham (Prosciutto di Parma) and cheese (Parmigiano-Reggiano), the true ‘parmesan’. The city was given as a duchy to Pier Luigi Farnese, the illegitimate son of Pope Paul III, and his descendants ruled Parma till 1731. The composer, Verdi, was born near Parma at Bussetto and the city has a prestigious opera house, the Teatro Regio.

The Arch of Trajan is one of a number of Roman relics in the city of Benevento
The Arch of Trajan is one of a number
of Roman relics in the city of Benevento
Travel tip:

In ancient times, Benevento, which can be found about 70km (43 miles) northeast of Naples, was one of the most important cities in southern Italy, along the Via Appia trade route between Rome and Brindisi. The town is in an attractive location surrounded by the Apennine hills, and while it suffered considerable damage during the Second World War, there are many Roman remains, including a triumphal arch erected in honour of Trajan and an amphitheatre, built by Hadrian, that held 10,000 spectators and is still in good condition. The cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta, originally built in the 13th century, has undergone major reconstruction work, while the original bronze doors for the cathedral are now kept inside the building.

Also on this day: 

1506: The death of painter Andrea Mantegna

1583: The birth of composer Girolamo Frescobaldi

1808: The death of writer and literary critic Saverio Bettinelli


12 September 2020

12 September

Daniela Rocca – actress

Tragic beauty shunned after breakdown

The actress Daniela Rocca, who starred in the hit big-screen comedy Divorce, Italian Style, was born on this day in 1937 in Sicily.  The movie, in which she starred opposite Marcello Mastroianni, won an Academy Award for its writers and acclaim for former beauty queen Rocca, who revealed a notable acting talent.  Yet this zenith in her short career would in some ways also prove to be its nadir after she fell in love with the director, Pietro Germi.  The relationship she hoped for did not materialise and she subsequently suffered a mental breakdown, which had damaging consequences for her career and her life.  Born in Acireale, a coastal city in eastern Sicily in the shadow of the Mount Etna volcano, Rocca came from poor, working class roots but her looks became a passport to a new life. She entered and won the Miss Catania beauty contest before she was 16.  She subsequently entered Miss Italia, and although she did not win, her looks made an impression on the movie talent scouts who took a close interest in such events, on the lookout for potential starlets.  Rocca’s acting debut came in 1957 in the French director Maurice Cloche’s film Marchand de Filles.  Read more…


Nazis free captive Mussolini

Extraordinary daring of Gran Sasso Raid

One of the most dramatic events of the Second World War in Italy took place on this day in 1943 when Benito Mussolini, the deposed and imprisoned Fascist dictator, was freed by the Germans.  The former leader was being held in a remote mountain ski resort when 12 gliders, each carrying paratroopers and SS officers, landed on the mountainside and took control of the hotel where Mussolini was being held.  They forced his guards to surrender before summoning a small aircraft to fly Mussolini to Rome, from where another plane flew him to Austria.  Even Winston Churchill, Britain's wartime prime minister, professed his admiration for the daring nature of the daylight rescue.  Known as the Gran Sasso Raid or Operation Oak, the rescue was ordered by Adolf Hitler himself after learning that Mussolini's government, in the shape of the Grand Fascist Council, had voted through a resolution that he be replaced as leader and that King Victor Emmanuel III had ensured that the resolution was successful by having the self-styled Duce arrested.  The Italian government by then had decided defeat in the War was inevitable.  Read more…


Lorenzo II de’ Medici – Duke of Urbino

Short rule of the grandson of Lorenzo Il Magnifico

Lorenzo di Piero de’ Medici, Duke of Urbino, was born on this day in 1492 in Florence.  The grandson of Lorenzo the Magnificent, Lorenzo II ruled Florence from 1513 to 1519.  Niccolò Machiavelli addressed his work, The Prince, to Lorenzo II, advising him to accomplish the unification of Italy under Florentine rule by arming the whole nation and expelling its foreign invaders.  When Lorenzo was two years old, his father, who became known as Piero the Unfortunate, was driven out of Florence by Republicans with the help of the French.  The Papal-led Holy League, aided by the Spanish, finally defeated the rebels in 1512 and the Medici family was restored to Florence.  Lorenzo II’s uncle, Giuliano, ruled Florence for a year and then made way for his nephew. Another uncle, Pope Leo X, made Lorenzo the Duke of Urbino after expelling the legitimate ruler of the duchy, Francesco Maria della Rovere.  When Francesco Maria returned to Urbino he was welcomed by his subjects. Lorenzo II regained possession of the duchy only after a protracted war in which he was wounded. In 1519 Lorenzo II died at the age of just 26 and the duchy reverted to the della Rovere family.  Read more…