10 April 2020

10 April

NEW - Jacopo Mazzoni – philosopher


Brilliant scholar could recite long passages from Dante

Jacopo Mazzoni, a University professor with a phenomenal memory who was a friend of Galileo Galilei, died on this day in 1598 in Ferrara in Emilia-Romagna.  Mazzoni, also sometimes referred to as Giacomo Mazzoni, was regarded as one of the most eminent scholars of his period. His excellent powers of recall made him adept at recalling passages from Dante, Lucretius, Virgil and other writers during his regular debates with prominent academics. He relished taking part in memory contests, which he usually won.  Mazzoni was born in Cesena in Emilia-Romagna in 1548 and was educated at Bologna in Hebrew, Greek, Latin, rhetoric and poetics. He later attended the University of Padua where he studied philosophy and jurisprudence.  He became an authority on ancient languages and philology and promoted the scientific study of the Italian language.  Although Mazzoni wrote a major work on philosophy, he became well known for his works on literary criticism, in particular for his writing in defence of Dante’s Divine Comedy - Discorso in Difesa Della Commedia della Divina Poeta Dante - published in 1572.  Read more…

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From Rome to the North Pole


Aeronautical history launched from Ciampino airport

On this day in 1926, an airship took off from Ciampino airport in Rome on the first leg of what would be an historic journey culminating in the first flight over the North Pole.  The expedition was the brainchild of the Norwegian polar explorer and expedition leader Roald Amundsen, but the pilot was the airship's designer, aeronautical engineer Umberto Nobile, who had an Italian crew.  They were joined in the project by millionaire American explorer Lincoln Ellsworth who, along with the Aero Club of Norway, financed the trip which was known as the Amundsen-Ellsworth 1926 Transpolar Flight.  Nobile - born in Lauro, near Avellino in Campania - designed the 160metres long craft on behalf of the Italian State Airship factory, who sold it to Ellsworth for $75,000.  Amundsen named the airship Norge, which means Norway in his native tongue.  The first leg of the flight north was due to have left Rome on 6 April but was delayed due to strong winds until the 10th.  The first stop-off point was at the Pulham Airship Station in England, from where it took off again for Oslo on 12 April. Three days later Nobile, Amundsen, Ellsworth and the crew flew on to Gatchina, near Leningrad, the journey taking 17 hours because of dense fog.  Read more…

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Agostino Bertani – physician and politician


Compassionate doctor was Garibaldi’s friend and strategist

Agostino Bertani, who worked with Giuseppe Mazzini and Giuseppe Garibaldi to liberate Italy, died on this day in 1886 in Rome.  He had been a surgeon in Garibaldi’s corps in the Austro-Sardinian War of 1859 and personally treated Garibaldi’s wounds after the military leader lost the Battle of Aspromonte in 1862.  Bertani became a hero to the Italian people for his work organising ambulances and medical services during Garibaldi’s campaigns and he became a close friend and strategist to the military leader.  Born in Milan in 1812, Bertani's family had many friends with liberal ideals and his mother took part in anti-Austrian conspiracies.  At the age of 23, Bertani graduated from the faculty of medicine at the Borromeo College in Pavia and became an assistant to the professor of surgery there.  He took part in the 1848 uprising in Milan and directed a military hospital for Italian casualties. He organised an ambulance service for soldiers defending Rome in 1849 and distinguished himself by his service in Genoa with Mazzini during the cholera epidemic of 1854.  In 1860 Bertani was one of the strategists who planned the attack on Sicily and Naples known as the Expedition of the Thousand.  Read more…

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The Moby Prince disaster


Tragic toll of collision between ferry and tanker

The worst maritime catastrophe to occur in Italian waters in peacetime took place on this day in 1991 when a car ferry collided with an oil tanker near the harbour entrance at Livorno on the coast of Tuscany.  The collision sparked a fire that claimed the lives of 140 passengers and crew and left only one survivor.  The vessels involved were the MV Moby Prince, a car ferry en route from Livorno to Olbia, the coastal city in north-east Sardinia, and the 330-metres long oil tanker, Agip Abruzzo.  The ferry departed Livorno shortly after 22.00 for a journey scheduled to last eight and a half hours but had been under way for only a few minutes when it struck the Agip Abruzzo, which was at anchor near the harbour mouth.  The ferry’s prow sliced into one of the Agip Abruzzo's tanks, which contained 2,700 tonnes of crude oil.  The impact caused some oil to spill into the sea and a large amount to be sprayed over the ferry.  A fire broke out, which set light to the oil both on the surface of the water and on the ferry itself.  Within moments, the Moby Prince was engulfed in flames.  Although the loss of life was so tragically large the toll might have been much worse.  Read more…

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Giovanni Aldini - physicist


Professor thought to given Mary Shelley the idea for Frankenstein

The physicist and professor Giovanni Aldini, whose experiment in trying to bring life to a human corpse is thought to have inspired Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein, was born on this day in 1762 in Bologna.  The nephew of Luigi Galvani, who discovered the phenomenon that became known as galvanism, one of Aldini’s goals in life was to build on his uncle’s work in the field of bioelectricity.   Galvani’s discovery that the limbs of a dead frog could be made to move by the stimulation of electricity sparked an intellectual argument with his rival physicist Alessandro Volta that he found uncomfortable. When he was then removed from his academic and public positions after Bologna became part of the French Cisalpine Republic in the late 18th century, Galvani was unable to progress his experiments as he would have liked.  Aldini essentially picked up his uncle’s mantle and was determined to discover whether the effect of an electrical impulse on the body of a frog could be reproduced in a human being.  His most famous experiment came in 1803, when he was given permission to test his electrical equipment on the corpse of George Forster shortly after he had been hanged at Newgate Prison in London.  Read more…


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Jacopo Mazzoni – philosopher

Brilliant scholar could recite long passages from Dante


Jacopo Mazzoni was known for literary criticism as well as philosophy
Jacopo Mazzoni was known for literary
criticism as well as philosophy
Jacopo Mazzoni, a University professor with a phenomenal memory who was a friend of Galileo Galilei, died on this day in 1598 in Ferrara in Emilia-Romagna.

Mazzoni, also sometimes referred to as Giacomo Mazzoni, was regarded as one of the most eminent scholars of his period. His excellent powers of recall made him adept at recalling passages from Dante, Lucretius, Virgil and other writers during his regular debates with prominent academics. He relished taking part in memory contests, which he usually won.

Mazzoni was born in Cesena in Emilia-Romagna in 1548 and was educated at Bologna in Hebrew, Greek, Latin, rhetoric and poetics. He later attended the University of Padua where he studied philosophy and jurisprudence.

He became an authority on ancient languages and philology and promoted the scientific study of the Italian language.

Galileo Galilei was a fellow professor at Pisa University
Galileo Galilei was a fellow
professor at Pisa University
Although Mazzoni wrote a major work on philosophy, he became well known for his works on literary criticism, in particular for his writing in defence of Dante’s Divine Comedy - Discorso in Difesa Della Commedia della Divina Poeta Dante - published in 1572 and Della Difesa Della Commedia di Dante, which was not published until 1688.

Mazzoni was also influenced by Plato and Aristotle and often made references to their works.

In turn, his theories about poetry influenced romantic writers who came later such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Friedrich von Schiller.

Mazzoni is also credited with helping to found the Accademia della Crusca, a society of scholars of Italian linguistics and philology, in 1583. The academy, in Florence, is the oldest linguistic academy in the world and the most important research institution into the Italian language.

The pala - shovel - given to Mazzoni by the Accademia della Crusca
The pala - shovel - given to Mazzoni
by the Accademia della Crusca
Crusca is the Italian word for bran, its use a reflection of the society's symbology, which likened 'good' language to flour sifted from bran.  The society's emblem was the frullone, a machine used to separate flour from bran. The operator would load bran into the machine using a pala - shovel - and the society extended the symbolism by presenting each member with a shovel bearing the member's name and a motto, usually a line of verse.

Mazzoni worked as a university professor, first at Macerata and then at Pisa, where he taught philosophy from 1588 to 1597. It was there he met Galileo, who was a young mathematics professor at the university. They became good friends and in May 1597, Galileo wrote Mazzoni a letter in which he commented on Mazzoni’s latest book, In universam Platonis et Aristotelis philosophiam praeludia, and also stated his inclination towards the Copernican system over the Ptolemaic one.

Later that year, Mazzoni accepted the chair in philosophy at Rome’s La Sapienza University.

He was asked to accompany Cardinal Pietro Aldobrandini on a mission to Venice in 1598. After they stopped off in Ferrara on the way back, Mazzoni was taken ill and later died. He was 57 years old.

The Rocca Malatestiana in Cesena, once a prison, now houses a museum of agriculture
The Rocca Malatestiana in Cesena, once a prison, now
houses a museum of agriculture
Travel tip:

Cesena, the birthplace of Jacopo Mazzoni, is a city in Emilia-Romagna, south of Ravenna and west of Rimini. One of the main sights in the town is the 15th century Biblioteca Malatestiana, which houses many valuable manuscripts and was the first public library in Europe. The library has been preserved in its 15th century condition and is now a listed UNESCO World Heritage site. The city’s castle, the Rocca Malatestiana, was used by Cesare Borgia as a prison during the Italian Wars and is now a museum.


The Castello Estense is the centrepiece of the city of Ferrara, where Mazzoni died
The Castello Estense is the centrepiece of the city
of Ferrara, where Mazzoni died
Travel tip:

Ferrara, where Jacopo Mazzoni died, is a city in Emilia-Romagna, about 50 km (31 miles) to the northeast of Bologna. It was ruled by the Este family between 1240 and 1598. Building work on the magnificent moated Este Castle (Castello Estense) in the centre of the city began in 1385 and the castle was added to and improved by successive rulers of Ferrara until the end of the Este line. The castle was purchased for 70,000 lire by the province of Ferrara in 1874 to be used as the headquarters of the Prefecture. You can still see Ferrara’s original narrow, medieval streets to the west and south of the city centre, between the main thoroughfares of Via Ripa Grande and Via Garibaldi. These were the original heart of the city in the middle ages before the Este family redesigned it.

Also on this day:

1726: The birth of physicist Giovanni Aldini

1886: The death of physician and politician Agostino Bertani

1926: Airship leaves Rome for the North Pole

1991: The Moby Prince disaster

(Picture credits - Mazzoni's shovel by Sailko CC-BY-3.0; Rocca Malatestiana by Otello Amaducci CC-BY-SA 3.0) 


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9 April 2020

9 April

Patty Pravo - pop singer of enduring fame


Venetian artist's career has spanned 50 years

The pop singer Patty Pravo was born Nicoletta Strambelli on this day in 1948. Her career spans more than 50 years since she took her first steps on the road to fame with the release of her first single, Ragazzo Triste.  Pravo has recorded 27 albums and 52 singles, selling more than 110 million records, making her the third biggest selling Italian artist of all time.  Her album, Eccomi, was released in February 2016 following her ninth appearance at the Sanremo Music Festival, and she promoted the album with a tour of Italy. Born in Venice, she grew up in an intellectual environment. Family friends included Cardinal Angelo Roncalli - the future Pope John XXIII - the actor Cesco Baseggio, the soprano Toti dal Monte and the American poet Ezra Pound, who lived in Venice and would take the young Nicoletta for walks and buy her ice cream.  She would spend time too at the house of Peggy Guggenheim, the American socialite and art collector.  Read more…


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Gian Maria Volonté – actor


Brilliant talent who played ‘spaghetti western’ parts for fun

Gian Maria Volonté, recognised as one of the finest character actors Italy has produced, was born on this day in 1933 in Milan.  Trained at the Silvio D’Amico National Academy of the Dramatic Arts in Rome, Volonté became famous outside Italy for playing the villain to Clint Eastwood’s hero in two movies in Sergio Leone’s western trilogy that were part of a genre dubbed the ‘spaghetti westerns’.  However, he insisted he accepted the chance to appear in A Fistful of Dollars (1964) – in which he appeared under the pseudonym John Wells - and For a Few Dollars More (1964) simply to earn some money and did not regard the parts of Ramon and El Indio as serious.  In Italy, it was for the much heavier roles given to him by respected directors such as Elio Petri and Francesco Rosi that he won huge critical acclaim.  A person known for a tempestuous private life, he was very strong playing complex and neurotic characters, while his left-wing political leanings attracted him to roles in which he had to portray individuals from real life.  He was a particular favourite of Rosi, the neo-realist director who directed in him in five movies.  Read more…


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Treaty of Lodi


When the battles stopped (briefly) in northern Italy

The Treaty of Lodi, which brought peace between rival states in the north of Italy for 40 years, was signed on this day in 1454 at Lodi in Lombardy.  Also known as the Peace of Lodi, it established a balance of power among Venice, Milan, Naples, Florence and the Papal States.  Venice had been faced with a threat to its commercial empire from the Ottoman Turks and was eager for peace and Francesco Sforza, who had been proclaimed Duke by the people of Milan, was also keen for an end to the costly battles.  By the terms of the peace, Sforza was recognised as ruler of Milan and Venice regained its territory in northern Italy, including Bergamo and Brescia in Lombardy.  The treaty was signed at the Convent of San Domenico in Via Tito Fanfulla in Lodi, where a plaque today marks the building, no longer a convent.  Milan’s allies, Florence, Mantua and Genoa, and Venice’s allies, Naples, Savoy and Montferrat, had no choice but to agree.  A 25-year mutual defensive pact was agreed to maintain existing boundaries and an Italian league, Lega Italica, was set up.  The states promised to defend one another in the event of an attack.  Read more…


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8 April 2020

8 April

Lorenzo the Magnificent - Renaissance ruler


Patron of the arts who sponsored Michelangelo and Botticelli

Lorenzo de’ Medici, the ruler of Florence usually known as Lorenzo the Magnificent, died on this day in 1492 in the Medici villa at Careggi, just to the north of the city.  He was only 43 and is thought to have developed gangrene as a result of an inherited genetic condition.  He had survived an assassination attempt 14 years earlier in what became known as the Pazzi Conspiracy, in which his brother, Giuliano, was killed.  The grandson of Cosimo de’ Medici, Lorenzo was a strict ruler but history has judged him as a benevolent despot, whose reign coincided with a period of stability and peace in relations between the Italian states.  He helped maintain the Peace of Lodi, a treaty agreed in 1454 between Milan, Naples and Florence which was signed by his grandfather.  However, he is most remembered as an enthusiastic patron of Renaissance culture, providing support for poets, scholars and artists, notably Michelangelo and Botticelli.  He contributed more than anyone to the flowering of Florentine genius during the second half of the 15th century.  Read more…


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Gaetano Donizetti - operatic genius


The day the music died

A prolific composer of operas in the first half of the 19th century, Gaetano Donizetti died on this day in 1848 in Bergamo in Lombardy.  Donizetti had returned to his native city after a brilliant international career to spend his last days in the Palazzo Scotti in the Città Alta, the upper town.  By then seriously ill, he was looked after by friends in the gracious surroundings of the palazzo until his death. His tomb is in the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, where it is marked by a white, marble monument.  Donizetti has since become acknowledged as the greatest composer of lyrical opera of all time. He was a major influence on Verdi, Puccini and other composers who came after him.  His best and most famous operas are considered to be Lucia di Lammermoor, Don Pasquale and L’elisir d’amore.  In Via Sentierone in Bergamo’s lower town there is an elaborate white marble monument to the composer next to Teatro Donizetti, which was renamed in his honour in 1897 on the centenary of his birth.  Donizetti’s casa natale (birthplace), is in Borgo Canale just outside the walls of the upper town. It has now been declared a national monument and is open free to visitors every weekend.  Read more…

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Federico Caprilli - equestrian pioneer


Study of horses revolutionised jumping techniques

Federico Caprilli, the Italian cavalry officer who revolutionised the way horse riders jump fences, was born on this day in 1868 in Livorno.  One of four children born to Enrico Caprilli and his wife, Elvira, Federico was bent on an army career from an early age. He enrolled as a cadet at military college in Florence at 13 years old, subsequently transferring to Rome and then Modena. He had no riding experience at the start, and when he graduated with the rank of lieutenant, though an excellent gymnast and proficient fencer, his horsemanship was marked as ‘poor’.  Nonetheless, he was assigned to the Royal Piedmont cavalry regiment, where his job, at a time when the introduction of weapons such as the Gatling Gun was negating any battlefield advantage a soldier had from being mounted, was to train horses for new combat roles, such as springing surprise attacks in difficult terrain.  It was there that he observed the way horses jumped obstacles and concluded that conventional beliefs about the way a horse should be ridden over jumps were entirely wrong.  Until Caprilli came along, it was accepted that the rider should use long stirrups and approach a fence leaning back in the saddle.  Read more…


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Renzo De Felice - historian


Mussolini biographer whose views on Fascism aroused anger

The controversial historian Renzo De Felice, best known for his 6,000-word four-volume biography of Benito Mussolini, was born on this day in 1929 in Rieti, the northernmost city in Lazio.  Although De Felice was Jewish and his other major work described in detail the persecution of Jews in Italy under Mussolini’s rule, he sparked considerable anger by arguing that the postwar world view of Fascism should be revised to recognise that the ideology in itself was not inherently evil.  De Felice contended that fascism as a political movement in Italy was not the same as Fascism as a regime, arguing that the former was a revolutionary middle-class ideology that had its roots in the progressive thinking of the Age of Enlightenment.  He argued that the ideology was effectively hijacked by Mussolini to provide the superstructure for his dictatorship and personal ambition and that fascism itself, as distinct from Mussolini’s interpretation, was a valid political concept, not just something to be demonized and dismissed in simplistic terms.  It was an argument that was respected by many intellectuals, even some who were staunchly anti-Fascist.  Read more…


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7 April 2020

7 April

Marco Delvecchio - footballer


Striker who became TV dance show star

The former Roma and Italy striker Marco Delvecchio, who launched a new career in television after finishing runner-up in the Italian equivalent of Strictly Come Dancing, was born on this day in 1973 in Milan.  Delvecchio scored 83 goals in exactly 300 appearances for Roma, where he was part of the side that won the Scudetto in 2000-01 and where he became a huge favourite with fans of the giallorossi because of his penchant for scoring against city rivals Lazio.  His record of nine goals in the Rome derby between 2002 and 2009 was the best by any player in the club’s history until that mark was overtaken by the Roma great Francesco Totti, whose career tally against Lazio was 11.  Delvecchio’s talents were somewhat underappreciated at international level. He made 22 appearances for the azzurri and the first of his four goals was in the final of Euro 2000 against France, although he finished on the losing side. Yet after being favoured by Dino Zoff, he was not so popular with Zoff’s successor as head coach, Giovanni Trapattoni, who took him to the 2002 World Cup but did not give him a game, and omitted him from his squad for the 2004 Euros.  Read more…

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Domenico Dragonetti - musician


Venetian was best double bass player in Europe

The composer and musician Domenico Dragonetti  - Europe's finest double bass virtuoso - was born on this day in 1763 in Venice.  Apart from the fame his talent brought him, Dragonetti is remembered as the musician who opened the eyes of Ludwig van Beethoven and other composers to the potential of the double bass.  They met in Vienna in 1799 and experts believe it was Dragonetti’s influence that led Beethoven to include passages for double bass in his Fifth Symphony.   From 1794 onwards until his death in 1846 at the age of 83, Dragonetti lived in London but it was in Venice that he established his reputation.  The son of a barber who was also a musician, Domenico Carlo Maria Dragonetti taught himself to play the guitar and the double bass as a child using his father’s instruments.  It was not long before word of his precocious ability spread and he was sent to the Ducal Palace of San Marco for tuition from Michele Berini, who was widely respected as the best double bass player in Venice.  Berini declared after only 11 lessons that there was nothing more he could teach the young Dragonetti.  Read more…

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Giovanni Battista Rubini - opera singer


Tenor was as famous in his day as Caruso

Giovanni Battista Rubini, born on this day in 1794, was a tenor as famous in his day as Enrico Caruso would be almost a century later, his voice having contributed to the popularity of opera composers Vincenzo Bellini and Gaetano Donizetti.   He was the first 19th-century non-castrati singer to become a major international star after two centuries in which audiences and composers were obsessed with the castrati.  Rubini's exceptionally high voice could match the coloratura of the castrati and he effectively launched the era of the bel canto tenor, which signalled the end of the dominance of the castrati.  Rubini was just 12 when he was taken on as a violinist and chorister at the Riccardi Theatre in Bergamo, not far from his home town of Romano di Lombardia. He was 20 when he made his professional debut in Pietro Generali’s Le lagrime d’una vedova at Pavia in 1814, then sang for 10 years in Naples in the smaller, comic opera houses.  Famed for a voice capable of reaching beyond the range of conventional tenors, particularly in the higher registers, in 1825 he sang the leading roles in Gioacchino Rossini’s La Cenerentola, Otello, and La donna del lago in Paris.  Read more…


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6 April 2020

6 April

NEW -
Sergio Franchi – tenor


Budding opera star became popular for singing romantic ballads

The tenor and actor Sergio Franchi was born Sergio Franci Galli on this day in 1926 in Codogno in the province of Lodi in northern Italy.  Franchi earned recognition as a performer in Britain in the 1960s and subsequently went to America where he became such a success he was once invited by John F Kennedy to sing the US national anthem at a rally.  Franchi was born to a Neapolitan father and a Ligurian mother who were living in Codogno in the Lombardy region. As a child he sang with his father who played the piano and guitar.  When he was 16, Franchi formed a band to earn extra money and went on to sing with a male group in jazz clubs.  Franchi’s father was a successful businessman but he lost all his assets during the German occupation of Italy in World War II.  After the war a family friend suggested to Franchi’s father that he should emigrate to South Africa where there were more opportunities for work. The whole family moved to Johannesburg in 1947.  Franchi worked initially for his father but also began singing in informal concerts. His voice soon attracted attention and he was offered roles in musicals.  Read more…

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Raphael - Renaissance painter and architect


Precocious genius from Urbino famous for Vatican frescoes

The Renaissance painter and architect commonly known as Raphael was born Raffaello Sanzio in Urbino, in the Marche region of Italy, on this day in 1483.  Raphael is regarded as one of the masters of the Renaissance, along with Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci.  He was more prolific than Da Vinci and, some argue, more versatile than Michelangelo, and was certainly influenced by both.  The young Raphael was taught to paint by his father, Giovanni Santi, who was a painter for the Duke of Urbino, Federigo da Montefeltro, but his talents surpassed those of his father, who died when he was just 11 years old.  He was soon considered one of Urbino's finest painters and was commissioned to paint for a church in a neighbouring town while still a teenager.  In 1500, Raphael moved to Perugia in Umbria to become assistant to Pietro Vannunci, otherwise known as Perugino, absorbing considerable knowledge of his master's technique and incorporating it in his own style.  From 1504 onwards, Raphael spent a good deal of his time in Florence, studying the works of Fra Bartolommeo, Da Vinci, Michelangelo and Masaccio.  Read more…

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Alberto Marvelli - Rimini's Good Samaritan


Heroic deeds helped victims of bombing raids

Alberto Marvelli, who came to be seen as a modern day Good Samaritan after risking his life repeatedly to help the victims of devastating air raids in the Second World War, was born on this day in 1918 in Ferrara.  He died in 1946 at the age of only 28 when he was struck by a truck while riding his bicycle but in his short life identified himself to many as a true hero.  He was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 2004.  Marvelli's acts of heroism occurred mainly in Rimini, his adopted hometown, which suffered heavy bombing from the Allies due to its proximity to the Gothic or Green Line, a wide belt of German defensive fortifications that ran across the whole peninsula from La Spezia to the Adriatic coast.  As well as giving aid and comfort to the wounded and dying and to those whose homes and possessions had been destroyed, Marvelli also rescued many Rimini citizens from trains destined for concentration camps.  Alberto was the second of six children born to Luigi Marvelli and Maria Mayr. Growing up, he was set a powerful example by his mother, who always kept open house for the poor and regularly gave away food intended for her own family.  Read more…

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Pier Giorgio Frassati – social activist


Brave Catholic has inspired youth of the world

Pier Giorgio Frassati, who was dedicated to social justice issues and spent his brief life helping the poor, was born on this day in 1901 in Turin.  He was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1990, who dubbed him ‘the Man of the Eight Beatitudes,’ alluding to a passage in the Gospel According to Matthew.  Frassati’s father, Alfredo, owned the newspaper La Stampa, and his mother Adelaide, was a painter, whose works were purchased by King Victor Emmanuel III.  Although he was from a wealthy background, even as a child Frassati showed compassion for the poor. He was educated at a school run by Jesuits and grew up to become dedicated to social action as a means of combating inequalities.  He was an ardent opponent of Fascism and was arrested in Rome for protesting with the Young Catholic Workers Congress, continuing to hold his banner aloft while being attacked by the police.  One night a group of Fascists broke into his family’s home to attack him and his father, but Frassati fought them off single-handedly and chased them away down the street.  He joined Catholic Action in 1919 and later became a member of the Third Order of Saint Dominic.  Read more…

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Maurizio and Giorgio Damilano – race walkers


Maurizio won Olympic gold in Moscow

Twins Maurizio and Giorgio Damilano, both former race walkers, were born on this day in 1957 in Scarnafigi in the province of Cuneo in Piedmont.  Maurizio won the gold medal at the 1980 Moscow Olympics in the 20km race walk, while his brother, Giorgio, finished 11th.  In sympathy with the American-led boycott of the Moscow Games following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Italian athletes competed under the Olympic flag rather than the Italian tricolore.  Damilano was one of eight Italians to win gold medals in Moscow.  Giorgio was less successful than Maurizio, but did win the 20km race walk at the 1979 Italian Athletics Championships.  Maurizio was also the 1987 and 1991 World Champion in the 20km race walk. He had 60 caps for representing the national team between 1977 and 1992. He was supported through much of his career by the Italian car manufacturer, Fiat.  He also achieved a world record for the 30km race walk in 1992 with a time of 2:01:44.1, which he set in Cuneo.  Maurizio won two more Olympic medals, picking up the bronze medal for the 20km race walk at both the 1984 Games in Los Angeles and the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea.  Read more…


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Sergio Franchi – tenor

Budding opera star became popular for singing romantic ballads


Sergio Franchi's voice first gained  recognition in South Africa
Sergio Franchi's voice first gained
recognition in South Africa
The tenor and actor Sergio Franchi was born Sergio Franci Galli on this day in 1926 in Codogno in the province of Lodi in northern Italy.

Franchi earned recognition as a performer in Britain in the 1960s and subsequently went to America where he became such a success he was once invited by John F Kennedy to sing the US national anthem at a rally.

Franchi was born to a Neapolitan father and a Ligurian mother who were living in Codogno in the Lombardy region. As a child he sang with his father who played the piano and guitar.

When he was 16, Franchi formed a band to earn extra money and went on to sing with a male group in jazz clubs.

Franchi’s father was a successful businessman but he lost all his assets during the German occupation of Italy in World War II.

After the war a family friend suggested to Franchi’s father that he should emigrate to South Africa where there were more opportunities for work. The whole family moved to Johannesburg in 1947.

Franchi worked initially for his father but also began singing in informal concerts. His voice soon attracted attention and he was offered roles in musicals.

Franchi's career took a new direction after opera   failed to provide an income to support his family
Franchi's career took a new direction after opera
 failed to provide an income to support his family 
Alessandro Rota, a successful operatic tenor who had moved to Johannesburg, helped form the National Opera Association and began producing operatic concerts. Taught by Rota, Franchi’s voice matured and his vocal range and technique developed.

He was given the leading tenor roles in Puccini’s Madam Butterfly and Verdi’s La traviata.

Franchi returned to Italy to seek more opportunities to become an opera singer. He reached the finals of a competition at La Scala in Milan and secured a role in an opera at a minor theatre. But with a wife and children to support by then, he had to look for other opportunities to earn money.

He began recording for Durium records, having hits with ‘Amore mio’ and ‘I tuoi occhi verde’, and he then made an album of Italian songs.

An English agent encouraged him to travel to London, where he made two appearances on Sunday Night at the London Palladium. This was to bring him to the attention of RCA Victor in America, who soon gave him a recording contract.

After Franchi’s first album was released in America in 1962 he appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show and also made his concert debut at Carnegie Hall, singing without a microphone. He was to become one of Ed Sullivan’s favourite guests.

Sergio Franchi with Ed Sullivan (left), on whose show he made regular guest appearances
Sergio Franchi with Ed Sullivan (left), on whose show he
made regular guest appearances
In 1963 Franchi was asked to sing the national anthem by President Kennedy at a rally and he bought a record to help him learn the words. This turned out to be a good move because he was able to reassure the President before the performance when he asked if Franchi knew all the words to the anthem. He later sang for Ladybird Johnson and President Ronald Reagan.

Franchi became a US citizen in 1972 and continued to enjoy a glittering career in America.

The last of Franchi’s 130 television appearances was in July 1989 and his last concert was later that month. While rehearsing for his next concert in August, Franchi collapsed and was taken to hospital. Tests revealed a brain tumour and despite treatment he died in May 1990, less than a month after his 64th birthday.

Franchi had supported the arts and many charities throughout his career and for his support for Italian children’s charities he was posthumously awarded the title of Cavaliere in the Order of Merit (stella al merito del lavoro) by the Italian government in 2001.

The church of Santi Teodoro e Paradiso in Codogno
The church of Santi Teodoro
e Paradiso in Codogno
Travel tip:

Codogno, where Sergio Franchi was born, is a small city with a population of under 16,000 in Lombardy in the province of Lodi, to the south east of Milan. Codogno hit the headlines worldwide because of the Covid 19 pandemic. It was there that a 38-year-old Italian went to a clinic on 16 February 2020 reporting respiratory problems and it is thought the virus then spread from Codogno throughout Italy and the rest of Europe. The city was quarantined on 22 February 2020.

Il Torrazzo in Cremona is Italy's tallest bell tower at 112 metres
Il Torrazzo in Cremona is Italy's tallest
bell tower at 112 metres
Travel tip:

Cremona, to the south east of Codogno, was often thought to be Sergio Franchi’s home town, but he made it clear in interviews that he was born in Codogno but spent a lot of time in Cremona while he was growing up. Cremona is famous for having the tallest bell tower in Italy, il Torrazzo, which measures more than 112 metres in height. As well as being well known for producing the world’s best violins, Cremona is also famous for making confectionery. Negozio Sperlari in Via Solferino specialises in producing the city’s renowned torrone (nougat). The concoction of almonds, honey and egg whites was first created in the city to mark the marriage of Bianca Maria Visconti to Francesco Sforza in 1441, when Cremona was given to the bride as part of her dowry.

Also on this day:

1483: The birth of Renaissance genius Raphael

1901: The birth of social activist Pier Giorgio Frassati

1918: The birth of war hero Alberto Marvelli

1957: The birth of race-walking twins Maurizio and Giorgio Damilano

(Picture credit: church in Codogno by Ago56)


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5 April 2020

5 April

Vincenzo Gioberti - philosopher and politician


Writings helped bring about unification of Italy

Vincenzo Gioberti, a philosopher regarded as one of the key figures in the Italian unification, was born on this day in 1801 in Turin.  He became prime minister of Sardinia-Piedmont in December 1848, albeit for only two months.  Although he was an associate of the republican revolutionary Giuseppe Mazzini - and was arrested and then exiled as a result - he did not agree with Mazzini’s opposition to the monarchy and was not an advocate of violence.  However, he was staunchly in favour of a united Italy, particularly because of his conviction that Italians represented a superior race, intellectually and morally, and that by pulling together as one nation they could assert a profound influence on civilisation that would benefit the world.  Gioberti’s book Del Primato civile e morale degli Italiani (The civic and moral primacy of the Italians), which detailed examples from history to underline his theories about Italian supremacy, is said to have helped give momentum to the unification campaign.  Born into a family of modest means, Gioberti studied diligently, obtained the baccalaureate in theology and in 1825 was ordained a priest.  Read more…

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Vincenzo Viviani – mathematician and scientist


Galileo follower's name lives on as moon crater

Forward-thinking scientist Vincenzo Viviani was born on this day in 1622 in Florence.  Viviani worked as an assistant to Galileo Galilei and after his mentor's death continued his experimental work in the field of mathematics and physics. This work was considered so important that Viviani has had a small crater on the moon named after him.  While at school in Florence, Viviani was given a scholarship to buy mathematical books by the Grand Duke Ferdinando II de' Medici. He later became a pupil of Evangelista Torricelli and worked with him on physics and geometry.  By the time he was 17 he was working as an assistant to Galileo Galilei. After Galileo’s death in 1642, Viviani edited the first edition of his teacher’s collected works.  Viviani was appointed to fill Torricelli’s position at the Accademia dell’Arte del Disegno in Florence after his death in 1647.  In 1660 Viviani conducted an experiment with another scientist, Giovanni Borelli, to determine the speed of sound by timing the difference between seeing the flash and hearing the noise of a cannon being fired from a distance.  As his reputation as a mathematician grew, Viviani started to receive job offers from abroad.  Read more…

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Giovanni dalle Bande Nere - condottiero


Medici soldier who fathered Cosimo I de' Medici

Giovanni dalle Bande Nere, the military leader regarded as the last of the great Italian condottieri, was born on this day in 1498 in Forlì, in what is now the Emilia-Romagna region.  The condottieri were professional soldiers, mercenaries who hired themselves out to lead the armies of the Italian city-states and the Papacy in the frequent wars that ensued from the Middle Ages through to the Renaissance.  Giovanni spent the greater part of his military career in the service of Pope Leo X, the Medici pope. Indeed, he was a Medici himself, albeit from a then secondary branch of the family. Baptised Ludovico, he was the son of Giovanni de’ Medici, also known as Il Popolano and a great-nephew of Cosimo the Elder, the founder of the dynasty.  It was his mother, Caterina Sforza, the powerful daughter of the Duke of Milan, who renamed him Giovanni in memory of his father, her fourth husband, who died when the boy was just five months old. He became Giovanni dalle Bande Nere much later, in 1521, when he added black stripes to his military insignia in a show of mourning for Pope Leo X.  His upbringing brought out the worst aspects of his character.  Read more…


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4 April 2020

4 April

Francesco De Gregori - singer-songwriter


Performer inspired by songs of hero Bob Dylan

The singer-songwriter Francesco De Gregori - popularly known as "Il Principe dei cantautori" (the prince of the singer-songwriters) – was born on this day in 1951.  Born in Rome, De Gregori has released around 40 albums in a career spanning 45 years, selling more than five million records.  Famous for the elegant and often poetic nature of his lyrics, De Gregori was once described by Bob Dylan as an “Italian folk hero”.  De Gregori acknowledges Dylan as one of his biggest inspirations and influences, along with Leonard Cohen and the Italian singer Fabrizio de André.  Covers of Dylan songs have regularly featured in his stage performances. He made an album in 2015 entitled Love and Theft: De Gregori Sings Bob Dylan.  Born into a middle class family – his father was a librarian, his mother a teacher - De Gregori spent his youth living in Rome or on the Adriatic coast at Pescara. He began to develop his musical career at the Folkstudio in Rome’s Trastevere district, where Dylan had performed in 1962.   He became friends with fellow singer-songwriters Antonello Venditti, Mimmo Locasciulli and Giorgio Lo Cascio.  Read more…

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Niccolò Antonio Zingarelli - composer


Neapolitan who snubbed Napoleon wrote 37 operas

The composer Niccolò Antonio Zingarelli, who wrote 37 mainly comic operas and more than 500 pieces of sacred music, was born on this day in 1752 in Naples.  His success made him one of the principal composers of opera and religious music of his time. At various points in his career, he was maestro di cappella - music director - at Milan Cathedral, choir master at the Sistine Chapel and director of the Naples Conservatory.  Many of Zingarelli’s operas were written for Teatro alla Scala in Milan. Early in his career he worked in Paris, which held him in good stead later when he was arrested after refusing to conduct a hymn for the newly-born son of the Emperor Napoleon, who at the time was the self-proclaimed King of Italy.  Sometimes known as Nicola, the young Zingarelli studied from the age of seven at the Conservatorio di Santa Maria di Loreto, which was the original conservatory of Naples, dating back to 1537. He was tutored by Fedele Fenaroli, whose pupils also included Domenico Cimarosa and, later, Giuseppe Verdi, and also by Alessandro Speranza.  As a young man, Zingarelli earned a living as a violinist, while also composing.  Read more…

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Irene Pivetti – journalist and politician


From top political office to TV presenter

Irene Pivetti, who was only the second woman to become president of the Italian Chamber of Deputies, was born on this day in 1963 in Milan.  Once a key figure in Italy’s Lega Nord party, Pivetti has now quit politics for a career as a television presenter.  Pivetti obtained an honours degree in Italian literature from the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart in Milan and afterwards worked in publishing, editing books on the Italian language. In this she was following in the footsteps of her maternal grandfather, Aldo, a renowned linguist.  While working as a journalist, she became involved with the Lega Lombardia (Lombard League), which later became the Lega Nord (Northern League) and in 1992 was elected as a deputy, the Italian equivalent of a Member of Parliament.  Two years later, after the vote had gone to a fourth ballot, Pivetti was elected President of the Chamber of Deputies. At the age of 31, she was the youngest president in the Chamber’s history. She occupied the role from 1994 to 1996.  Pivetti was re-elected as a deputy in the 1996 election but later that year was expelled from the Lega Nord because of her opposition to some of their ideas.  Read more…

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Daniela Riccardi - businesswoman


Head of luxury glassware company trained as a ballet dancer

Born on this day in 1960, Daniela Riccardi is chief executive of Baccarat, the luxury glass and crystal manufacturer that originated in the town of the same name in the Lorraine region of France in the 18th century.  Formerly CEO of the Italian clothing company Diesel, she is one of Italy's most successful businesswomen, yet might easily have forged alternative careers as a dancer or a diplomat.  Born in Rome, she began dancing when she was five and studied ballet for 12 years at the National Dance Academy in Rome, with the aim of becoming a professional dancer.  When it became clear that she would not quite be good enough to grace the world's great stages, she remained determined to have a career that would satisfy her desire to experience many countries and cultures and went to Rome University to study political science and international studies, with the aim of working in diplomacy.  However, during a postgraduate year at Yale University in the United States, she spent a brief period as an intern at Pepsi, where she was so impressed by the energy and leadership of the company's management she realised that this was the career she really wanted.  Read more…


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3 April 2020

3 April

NEW - Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco – composer


Versatile musician wrote for stringed instruments and for films

One of the most admired composers of the 20th century, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, was born on this day in 1895 in Florence.  He composed more than 100 pieces of music for the guitar, many of them written for the Spanish guitarist Andrés Segovia.  Because of anti-semitism in Europe, Mario emigrated to the United States in 1939 where he went to work for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, composing music for about 200 films.  Mario was descended from a family of bankers that had lived in Siena since the Jews were expelled from Spain in the 16th century.  He was introduced to the piano by his mother and was composing music by the time he was nine years old. His mother recognised his musical talent and encouraged him to study the piano and composition under well-regarded musicians.  Mario came to the attention of the composer and pianist Alfredo Casella, who included some of his work in his repertoire and promoted him throughout Europe as an up-and-coming young composer.  In 1926, Mario’s first opera, La mandragola, was premiered. Based on a play by Niccolò Machiavelli, it was the first of his many works inspired by great literature.  Read more…


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Maria Redaelli - supercentenarian


Inter fan who was the oldest living person in Europe

Maria Angela Redaelli, a supercentenarian who for 10 months was the oldest living person in Europe and for 14 months the oldest living person in Italy, was born on this day in 1899 in Inzago in Lombardy.  She died in 2013 on the eve of what would have been her 114th birthday, at which point she was the fourth oldest living person in the world, behind the Japanese supercentenarians Jiroemon Kimura and Misao Okawa, and the American Gertrude Weaver.  Kimura died two months later at the age of 116 years and 54 days, which is the most advanced age reached by any male in the history of the human race, according to verifiable records.  Okawa and Weaver survived for another two years, Okawa reaching 117 years and 27 days, which made her the fifth oldest woman in history at the time, although she has since been overtaken by the Italian Emma Morano, who is still living in Pallanza on Lake Maggiore and is, at 117 years and 124 days, the oldest person on the planet of verifiable age.  At the time of her death, Maria was living in Novate Milanese, a suburb of Milan, being looked after by her 88-year-old daughter Carla and her grandson, Lamberto.  Read more…


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Alcide De Gasperi - prime minister who rebuilt Italy


Christian Democrat founder was jailed by Mussolini

Born on this day in 1881, Alcide De Gasperi was the Italian prime minister who founded the Christian Democrat party and led the rebuilding of the country after World War II.  An opponent of Benito Mussolini who survived being locked up by the Fascist dictator, he was the head of eight consecutive governments between 1945 and 1953, a record for longevity in post-War Italian politics.  Although Silvio Berlusconi has spent more time in office - nine years and 53 days compared with De Gasperi's seven years and 238 days - the media tycoon's time in power was fragmented, whereas De Gasperi served continuously until his resignation in 1953.  As prime minister, De Gasperi was largely responsible for Italy's post-War economic salvation and for helping to hold the line between East and West as the Soviet Union established its border on Italy's doorstep.  During his premiership, Italy became a republic, signed a peace treaty with the Allies, joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and became an ally of the United States, who in turn provided considerable help in reviving the shattered Italian economy.  Read more…


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Alessandro Stradella – violinist and composer


Talented musician lived for romance and adventure

Baroque composer Alessandro Stradella, who led a colourful life courting danger while producing more than 300 highly regarded musical works, was born on this day in 1639 at Nepi in the province of Viterbo, north of Rome in the Lazio region.  After an affair with the mistress of a Venetian nobleman he was attacked in the street and left for dead by two hired assassins, but he lived on for another few years to compose more music.  Five years later he was stabbed to death in Genoa, but the identity of his killers was never confirmed.  Stradella was born into an aristocratic family and by the age of 20 was making a name for himself as a composer.  He moved to Rome where he composed sacred music for Queen Christina of Sweden, who had abdicated her throne to go and live there.  It is believed he tried to embezzle money from the Roman Catholic Church and his numerous reckless affairs with women also made him enemies among powerful people in the city.  In 1637 he moved to Venice where he was hired by a nobleman, Alvise Contarini, as a music tutor to his mistress.  Stradella began an affair with her and they attempted to elope together to Turin in 1677.  Read more…


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Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco – composer

Versatile musician wrote for stringed instruments and for films


Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco began composing music for the piano when he was a boy, growing up in Siena
Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco began composing music for the
piano when he was a boy, growing up in Siena
One of the most admired composers of the 20th century, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, was born on this day in 1895 in Florence.

He composed more than 100 pieces of music for the guitar, many of them written for the Spanish guitarist Andrés Segovia.

Because of anti-semitism in Europe, Mario emigrated to the United States in 1939 where he went to work for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, composing music for about 200 films.

Mario was descended from a family of bankers that had lived in Siena since the Jews were expelled from Spain in the 16th century.

He was introduced to the piano by his mother and was composing music by the time he was nine years old. His mother recognised his musical talent and encouraged him to study the piano and composition under well-regarded musicians.

Mario came to the attention of the composer and pianist Alfredo Casella, who included some of his work in his repertoire and promoted him throughout Europe as an up-and-coming young composer.

Castelnuovo-Tedesco recognised the potential of the guitar after meeting Segovia in 1932
Castelnuovo-Tedesco recognised the potential
of the guitar after meeting Segovia in 1932
In 1926, Mario’s first opera, La mandragola, was premiered. Based on a play by Niccolò Machiavelli, it was the first of his many works inspired by great literature.

Another source of inspiration for his music was his Jewish heritage. His violin concerto No 2, written in 1931 at the request of violinist Jascha Heifetz, showed his pride in his origins in the face of increasing anti-semitism in Europe.

Mario first met Segovia at the 1932 festival of the International Society of Contemporary Music in Venice, which prompted him to start writing for the guitar.

He went on to write about 100 compositions for the guitar, some dedicated to Segovia. He also composed concertos specifically for the cellist Gregor Piatigorsky.

By the 1930s, Mario was not only one of Italy’s leading contemporary composers, but also a sought-after pianist and an insightful critic.

But even before the Italian Racial Laws were introduced in 1938, Mario was banned from the radio and had performances of his works cancelled.

Listen to Castelnuovo-Tedesco's Opus 129 for guitar, played by the Tuscan guitarist Martina Barlotta





Conductor Arturo Toscanini and Heifetz both supported him in his bid to emigrate to the US and Mario left Italy with his wife and two sons on a ship from Trieste in July 1939 before the Second World War started.

Arturo Toscanini, who supported Castelnuovo- Tedesco in his bid to reach the United States
Arturo Toscanini, who supported Castelnuovo-
Tedesco in his bid to reach the United States
He made his American debut performing his second piano concerto with the New York Philharmonic.

Mario went to Los Angeles to work as a composer of film music for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. He was also asked by Rita Hayworth to write the music for her 1948 film The Loves of Carmen released by Columbia pictures.

He taught many other film composers, including John Williams, Henry Mancini, Jerry Goldsmith, Nelson Riddle and Andre Previn.

Mario became a US citizen in 1946 but frequently visited Italy after the war.

In 1958 he won the Concorso Campari with his opera The Merchant of Venice, which was first performed in 1961 at the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino under the baton of Gianandrea Gavazzeni.

Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco died in 1968 at the age of 72 in Beverly Hills. He is buried at Westwood Village Memorial Park cemetery.

A collection of his manuscripts was donated to the Library of Congress in Washington by his family in 2000. The Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco Collection is now accessible online.

A tree-lined avenue within Florence's Parco delle Cascine. which was once a hunting estate owned by the Medici
A tree-lined avenue within Florence's Parco delle Cascine.
which was once a hunting estate owned by the Medici
Travel tip:

Florence, where Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco was born, has named a road after the composer. Fittingly it joins up with Via Arturo Toscanini, who was one of his close friends. The road is near Parco delle Cascine, a park on the north bank of the River Arno.  The origins of the park can be traced to 1563, when it was developed as a farming and hunting estate for the Medici family. It became a public park in the early 19th century.

The Piazza Unità d'Italia in the centre of Trieste, which was
Castlenuovo-Tedesco's starting point on his voyage to America
Travel tip:

Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco left Italy in 1939 on board the SS Saturnia, which set sail from Trieste, a seaport that is the capital city of the Friuli-Venezia-Giulia region. Trieste lies in the northernmost part of the high Adriatic near the border with Slovenia and 30 kilometres north of Croatia. Over the centuries it has been ruled by the Romans, Venetians, French, Austrians, Germans and Yugoslavians. It officially became part of the Italian republic in 1954. Today, Trieste is a lively and cosmopolitan city and a major centre for trade and ship building. In 2012, Lonely Planet called Trieste ‘the world’s most underrated travel destination’. It is a fascinating place to visit because of the Venetian, Slovenian, Austrian and Hungarian influences in the architecture, culture and cuisine.

Also on this day:

1639: The birth of composer Alessandro Stradella

1881: The birth of politician Alcide De Gasperi

1899: The birth of supercentenarian Maria Redaelli

(Picture credits: Parco delle Cascine by Sailko; Piazza Unità by Diego Delso)


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