1 April 2020

1 April

Arrigo Sacchi -- football coach


AC Milan manager's tactics revolutionised football in Italy

Arrigo Sacchi, the football coach who led AC Milan to back-to-back European Cups and steered Italy to a World Cup final, was born on this day in 1946 in Fusignano, a small town not far from Ravenna in Emilia-Romagna.  Unusually among top coaches, Sacchi never played football as a professional.  Aware of his limited ability, he quickly decided he would concentrate instead on becoming a manager, taking charge of a local amateur team, Baracca Lugo, when he was just 26.  Literally, he worked his way up from the bottom, making a living as a shoe salesman while training his players in his spare time.  Yet step by step he ascended to the very top of the game, landing jobs on the coaching staffs at Cesena, Rimini and Fiorentina before Parma, then in the third tier of the Italian football pyramid, made him head coach in 1985.  He won promotion to Serie B in his first season and finished only three points short of promotion to Serie A in his second year, when Parma also pulled off one of the biggest upsets of the season, knocking AC Milan out of the Coppa Italia, which is Italy's equivalent of England's FA Cup.  Read more…


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April Fools' Day - Italian style


What lies behind the tradition of Pesce d'Aprile?

Playing practical jokes on April 1 is a tradition in Italy in the same way as many other countries, although in Italy the day is called Pesce d’Aprile – April’s Fish – rather than April Fools’ Day.  It is said to have become popular in Italy between 1860 and 1880, especially in Genoa, where families in the wealthier social circles embraced the idea, already popular in France, of marking the day by playing tricks on one another.  The most simple trick involves sticking a cut-out picture of a fish on the back of an unsuspecting ‘victim’ and watching how long it takes for him or her to discover he had been pranked but over the years there have been many much more elaborate tricks played.  Often these have involved spoof announcements or false stories in the newspapers or on TV or radio shows, aimed at embarrassing large numbers of gullible readers, viewers or listeners.  One of the first such large-scale hoaxes took place in 1878, when the newspaper Gazzetta d’Italia announced the cremation of an Indian Maharaja was to take place in Florence, attracting a large crowd to Parco delle Cascine where a pyre had been built in preparation.  Read more…


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Alberto Zaccheroni - football coach


First Italian coach to lead a foreign nation to success

The football coach Alberto Zaccheroni, who won the Serie A title with AC Milan and steered the Japan national team to success in the Asia Cup, was born on this day in 1953 in Meldola, a town in Emilia-Romagna.  In a long coaching career, Zaccheroni has taken charge of 13 teams in Italy, a club side in China and two international teams, Japan and the United Arab Emirates.  In common with many coaches in Italy, Zaccheroni began at semi-professional level and worked his way up through the professional leagues.  Before winning the Scudetto with Milan in 1999, he had twice won titles at Serie D (fourth tier) level and twice in Serie C.  Zaccheroni played as a fullback, with the youth team at Bologna and the Serie D team Cesenatico in Emilia-Romagna, but his career was hampered by a lung disease he contracted at the age of 17, which meant he could not train or play for two years.  He quit playing in his mid-20s and began to coach Cesenatico’s youth teams.  His coaching talents began to attract attention when, in two consecutive seasons, he was asked to take over on the bench for Cesenatico’s first team following the sacking of the head coach and on each occasion saved them from relegation.  Read more…


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31 March 2020

31 March

Franco Bonvicini – comic book artist


Comic artist became famous for satirising the Nazis

Franco Bonvicini, who signed his comic strips Bonvi, was born on this day in 1941 in either Parma or Modena in Emilia-Romagna.  The correct birthplace is unknown. According to the artist, his mother registered him in both places to obtain double the usual amount of food stamps for rations.  After a brief spell working in advertising, Bonvi made his debut in the comic strip world for the Rome newspaper Paese Sera with his creation Sturmtruppen in 1968.  This series satirising the German army was a big hit and was published in various periodicals over the years. It was also translated for publication in other countries.  Although left-wing and a pacifist, Bonvi was fascinated by war and built up immense knowledge about Nazi Germany’s uniforms, weapons and equipment, which he depicted faithfully in his illustrations. The cartoons satirised military life and the Nazis themselves, providing him with an endless source of comic and surreal situations.  Bonvi also created the character Nick Carter, a comic detective, who later featured in a play, two films and a number of television cartoons.  Read more…


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Dante Giacosa - auto engineer


Designer known as ‘the father of the Cinquecento'

The automobile engineer Dante Giacosa, who worked for the Italian car maker Fiat for almost half a century and designed the iconic Fiat 500 - the Cinquecento - in all its incarnations as well as numerous other classic models, died on this day in 1996 at the age of 91.  Giacosa was the lead design engineer for Fiat from 1946 to 1970. As such, he was head of all Fiat car projects during that time and the direction of the company’s output was effectively entirely down to him.  In addition to his success with the Cinquecento, Giacosa’s Fiat 128, launched in 1969, became the template adopted by virtually every other manufacturer in the world for front-wheel drive cars.  His Fiat 124, meanwhile, was exported to the Soviet Union and repackaged as the Zhiguli, known in the West as the Lada, which introduced Soviet society of the 1970s to the then-bourgeois concept of private car ownership.  Born in Rome, where his father was undertaking military service, Giacosa's family roots were in Neive in southern Piedmont. He studied engineering at the Polytechnic University of Turin.  After completing his compulsory military service he joined Fiat in 1928.  Read more…


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Bianca Maria Visconti – Duchess of Milan


Ruler fought alongside her troops to defend her territory

Bianca Maria Visconti, the daughter of Filippo Maria Visconti, Duke of Milan, was born on this day in 1425 near Settimo Pavese in Lombardy.  A strong character, her surviving letters showed she was able to run Milan efficiently after becoming Duchess and even supposedly donned a suit of armour and rode with her troops into battle, earning herself the nickname, Warrior Woman.  Bianca Maria was the illegitimate daughter of the Duke of Milan, and was sent to live with her mother in comfortable conditions in a castle where she received a good education.  At the age of six she was betrothed for political reasons to the condottiero, Francesco I Sforza, who was 24 years older than her.  Despite the political situation changing many times over the years, Bianca Maria and Francesco Sforza did get married in 1441 when she was 16. The wedding took place in Cremona, which was listed as part of her dowry. The celebrations lasted several days and included a banquet, tournaments, a palio and a huge cake made in the shape of the city’s Torrazzo, the bell tower.  Bianca Maria quickly proved her skills in administration and diplomacy.  Read more…


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Pope Benedict XIV


Bologna cardinal seen as great intellectual leader

Prospero Lorenzo Lambertini, who would in his later years become Pope Benedict XIV, was born on this day in 1675 in Bologna.  Lambertini was a man of considerable intellect, considered one of the most erudite men of his time and arguably the greatest scholar of all the popes.  He promoted scientific learning, the baroque arts, the reinvigoration of the philosophy of Saint Thomas Aquinas and the study of the human form.  He was Bishop of Ancona at the age of 52, Archbishop of Bologna at 56 and Pope at 65 but at no time did he consider his elevation to these posts an honour upon which to congratulate himself.  He saw them as the opportunity to do good and tackled each job with zeal and energy. A man of cheerful character, he set out never to allow anyone to leave his company dissatisfied or angry, without feeling strengthened by his wisdom or advice.  He attracted some criticism for his willingness to make concessions or compromises in his negotiations with governments and rulers, yet his pursuit of peaceful accommodation was always paramount and historians have noted that few conflicts in which he sought to arbitrate remained unresolved.  Read more…


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30 March 2020

30 March

NEW -
Rimini Proclamation


Opening statement of the Risorgimento came from a Frenchman

The first political proclamation calling for all Italians to unite into a single people and drive out foreigners was issued on this day in 1815 in Rimini.  But the stirring words: ‘Italians! The hour has come to engage in your highest destiny…’ came from a Frenchman, Gioacchino (Joachim) Murat, who was at the time occupying the throne of Naples, which he had been given by his brother-in-law, Napoleon.  Murat had just declared war on Austria and used the Proclamation to call on Italians to revolt against the Austrians occupying Italy. He was trying to show himself as a backer of Italian independence in an attempt to find allies in his desperate battle to hang on to his own throne.  Although Murat was acting out of self-interest at the time, the Proclamation is often seen as the opening statement of the Risorgimento, the movement that helped to arouse the national consciousness of the Italian people. It led to a series of political events that freed the Italian states from foreign domination and unified them politically.  Murat’s Proclamation impressed the Milanese writer Alessandro Manzoni, who wrote a poem about it later that year, Il proclama di Rimini.  Read more…


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Ignazio Gardella – architect


Modernist who created Venetian classic

The engineer and architect Ignazio Gardella, considered one of the great talents of modern urban design in Italy, was born on this day in 1905 in Milan.  He represented the fourth generation in a family of architects and his destiny was determined at an early age. He graduated in civil engineering in Milan in 1931 and architecture in Venice in 1949.  Gardella designed numerous buildings during an active career that spanned almost six decades, including the Antituberculosis Dispensary in Alessandria, which is considered one of the purest examples of Italian Rationalism, and the Casa alle Zattere on the Giudecca Canal in Venice, in which he blended modernism with classical style in a way that has been heralded as genius.  During his university years, he made friends with many young architects from the Milan area and together they created the Modern Italian Movement.  He worked with his father, Arnaldo, on a number of projects while still studying.  On graduating, he set up an office in Milan, although he spent a good part of his early career travelling, sometimes with a commission but at other times to study.  Read more…


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Fortunato Depero - artist


Futurist who designed iconic Campari bottle

The Futurist painter, sculptor and graphic artist Fortunato Depero, who left a famous mark on Italian culture by designing the conical bottle in which Campari Soda is still sold today, was born on this day in 1892 in the Trentino region.  Depero had a wide breadth of artistic talent, which encompassed painting, sculpture, architecture and graphic design. He designed magazine covers for the New Yorker, Vogue and Vanity Fair among others, created stage sets and costumes for the theatre, made sculptures and paintings and some consider his masterpiece to be the trade fair pavilion he designed for the 1927 Monza Biennale Internazionale delle Arti Decorative, which had giant block letters for walls.  Yet it is the distinctive Campari bottle that has endured longest of all his creations, which went into production in 1932 as the manufacturers of the famous aperitif broke new ground by deciding to sell a ready-made drink of Campari blended with soda water.  It was the first pre-mixed drink anyone had sold commercially and Depero, who was already working with the Milan-based company on a series of advertising posters.  Read more…


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The Sicilian Vespers


How the French lost control of the island they were ruling

As the citizens of Palermo walked to vespers - evening prayers - in the church of Santo Spirito on this day in 1282, a French soldier grossly insulted a pretty young Sicilian woman.  The girl’s enraged fiancé immediately drew his dagger and stabbed the soldier through the heart.  The violence was contagious and the local people exploded in fury against the French occupying forces. More than 200 French soldiers were killed at the outset and the violence spread to other parts of Sicily the next day resulting in a full-scale rebellion against French rule. This bloody event, which led to Charles of Anjou losing control of Sicily, became known in history as the Sicilian Vespers.  King Charles was detested for his cold-blooded cruelty and his officials had made the lives of the ordinary Sicilians miserable.  After he was overthrown, Sicily enjoyed almost a century of independence.  There have been different versions given of the events that led to the rebellion against the French and it is not known exactly how the uprising started.  But to many Italians the story of the Sicilian Vespers has always been inspirational.  Read more…


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Rimini Proclamation

Opening statement of the Risorgimento came from a Frenchman



Murat's Rimini Proclamation is seen as the rallying call for the Risorgimento
Murat's Rimini Proclamation is seen as the
rallying call for the Risorgimento
The first political proclamation calling for all Italians to unite into a single people and drive out foreigners was issued on this day in 1815 in Rimini.

But the stirring words: ‘Italians! The hour has come to engage in your highest destiny…’ came from a Frenchman, Gioacchino (Joachim) Murat, who was at the time occupying the throne of Naples, which he had been given by his brother-in-law, Napoleon.

Murat had just declared war on Austria and used the Proclamation to call on Italians to revolt against the Austrians occupying Italy. He was trying to show himself as a backer of Italian independence in an attempt to find allies in his desperate battle to hang on to his own throne.

Although Murat was acting out of self-interest at the time, the Proclamation is often seen as the opening statement of the Risorgimento, the movement that helped to arouse the national consciousness of the Italian people. It led to a series of political events that freed the Italian states from foreign domination and unified them politically.

Murat’s Proclamation impressed the Milanese writer Alessandro Manzoni, who wrote a poem about it later that year, Il proclama di Rimini. However, he abandoned it unfinished after Murat’s military campaign failed.

Joachim Murat was one of Napoleon's most trusted military aides
Joachim Murat was one of Napoleon's
most trusted military aides
Napoleon had originally installed his brother, Joseph, as King of Naples in 1806. But two years later he moved Joseph to the throne of Spain and installed Murat, the husband of his sister, Carolina, in his place.

Murat was one of Napoleon’s most trusted military aides, who had shown himself to be a daring and capable military leader.

While in charge of Naples, Murat made social and economic changes, reformed the University and introduced new scientific facilities. He built new roads and started work on Piazza del Plebiscito and the Church of San Francesco di Paola.

After Napoleon’s exile to Elba in 1814, Murat signed a treaty with Austria, pledging his help against the French troops in the north.

He took over the Papal States and Tuscany in return for an Austrian assurance that he would remain on the throne of Naples. From Rimini he writes in his Proclamation: 'Providence has called you to be an independent nation. From the Alps to the straits of Sicily, there is but one cry – Italian independence.’

But then Napoleon escaped from Elba and set out for Paris. Murat decided to realign himself with his brother-in-law and declared war on the Austrians.

He fought battles to save his own throne and to prevent the Austrians from moving into France to take on Napoleon. But after he lost a major battle at Tolentino in May and his army was in tatters, he fled from Italy to France, where he was snubbed by Napoleon.

Murat was killed by a firing squad in the Calabrian town of Pizzo
Murat was killed by a firing squad
in the Calabrian town of Pizzo
Murat set sail for Italy again to make one last desperate attempt to regain his kingdom, which by now was back in Bourbon hands.

With a small group of soldiers he landed at Pizzo on the coast of Calabria, planning to march north to Naples. Instead, he was captured, imprisoned and sentenced to death.

On 13 October 1815 he faced his firing squad, smartly dressed and fearless, having refused the offer of a blindfold.

Within another 46 years Italy had become a unified country.

The Tempio Malatestiano, a 13th century Gothic church in Rimini, has works by Piero della Francesca and Giotto
The Tempio Malatestiano, a 13th century Gothic church in
Rimini, has works by Piero della Francesca and Giotto
Travel tip:

The coastal city of Rimini was part of Napoleon’s Cisalpine Republic when Murat launched his Proclamation from there to the Italian people in 1815. The city looking out over the Adriatic Sea was incorporated into the Kingdom of Italy in 1860. Now part of the Emilia-Romagna region it has become one of the leading seaside resorts in Europe, with wide sandy beaches and plenty of hotels and restaurants. One of Rimini’s most famous sights is the Tempio Malatestiano, a 13th century Gothic church originally built for the Franciscans that was transformed on the outside in the 15th century and decorated inside with frescos by Piero della Francesca and works by Giotto.

The Palazzo Reale, on the Piazza del Plesbiscito, was  Murat's luxurious home in Naples
The Palazzo Reale, on the Piazza del Plesbiscito, was
Murat's luxurious home in Naples
Travel tip:

Murat lived a luxurious lifestyle during his brief rule over the Kingdom of Naples and resided at the Royal Palace in Naples (Palazzo Reale), which is at the eastern end of Piazza del Plebiscito. The 17th century palace now houses a 30-room museum and the largest library in southern Italy, which are both open to the public. A statue of Murat was erected in the 1880s in the west façade of the Royal palace.

Also on this day:

1282: French driven out by the Sicilian Vespers

1892: The birth of painter and designer Fortunato Depero

1905: The birth of architect and engineer Ignazio Gardella


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29 March 2020

29 March

NEW - Edoardo De Martino – painter


Naval officer who painted battle scenes was a favourite of British royal family

Edoardo Federico De Martino, an artist who became famous for his paintings of warships and naval battles, was born on this day in 1838 in Meta, just outside Sorrento.  At the height of his success, De Martino worked in London, where his paintings of ships and famous British naval victories were held in high regard by Queen Victoria.  He went on to work as a painter for Queen Victoria’s son, King Edward VII, and he often accompanied the King on naval tours.  De Martino was born in the small town of Meta, to the northeast of Sorrento, which had a long history of boat building.  He served as an officer in the Italian Navy but by the time he was 30 his main interest was painting.  He became associated with the School of Resina, a group of artists who painted landscapes and contemporary scenes that gathered in Resina, a seaside resort south of Naples, now incorporated into the towns of Herculaneum and Portici. Influenced by his fellow artists, De Martino eventually went to live and work in Naples.  He found fame after moving to London, where he painted scenes from the battles of Trafalgar, the Nile and Cape San Vincenzo.  Read more…


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Enea Bossi - aviation pioneer


Claimed first pedal-powered flight in 1936

Enea Bossi, the aviator credited - albeit disputedly - with building the world's first human-powered aeroplane, was born on this day in 1888 in Milan.  It was claimed that in 1936 Bossi's Pedaliante aircraft flew for approximately 300 feet (91.4m) under pedal power alone.  Piloted by Emilio Casco, a robustly built major in the Italian army and an experienced cyclist, the Pedaliante - or pedal glider - is said to have taken off and covered the distance while remaining a few feet off the ground, although in the absence of independent verification it is not counted as the first authenticated human-powered flight, which did not take place until 1961 in Southampton, England.  The following year, as Bossi attempted to win a competition in Italy offering a prize of 100,000 lire for a successful human-powered flight, Casco succeeded in completing the required 1km (0.62 miles) distance at a height of 30 feet (9m) off the ground.  The Pedaliante, which had been built by the Italian glider manufacturer Vittorio Bonomi, was disqualified, however, on account of having used a catapault launch to achieve its altitude.  Read more…

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Terence Hill – actor


Film star progressed from cowboy roles to popular parish priest

Terence Hill was born as Mario Girotti on this day in 1939 in Venice.  He became an actor as a child and went on to have many starring roles in films, particularly spaghetti westerns.  He took up the stage name Terence Hill after it was suggested as a publicity stunt by the producers of one of his films. It is said he had to pick from a list of names and chose one with his mother’s initials.  Terence Hill later became a household name in Italy as the actor who played the lead character in the long-running television series, Don Matteo.  Hill lived in Germany as a child but then his family moved to Rome, the capital of Italy’s film industry. When he was 12 years old, Hill was spotted by director Dino Risi and given a part in Vacanze col gangster, an adventure movie in which five youngsters help a dangerous gangster escape from prison.  Other film parts quickly followed and at the height of his popularity, Hill was said to be among the highest-paid actors in Italy.  His most famous films are They Call Me Trinity and My Name is Nobody, in which he appeared with Henry Fonda. Another of his films, Django, Prepare a coffin was featured at the 64th Venice film festival in 2007.  Read more…


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Castruccio Castracani - condottiero


Mercenary soldier who ruled Lucca 

Castruccio Castracani, a condottiero who ruled his home city of Lucca from 1316 to 1328, was born on this day in 1281.  His relatively short life - he died at the age of 47 - was taken up with a series of battles, some fought on behalf of others, but latterly for his own ends in the conflict between the Guelphs and the Ghibellines that dominated medieval Italy as part of the power struggle between the Papacy and the Holy Roman Empire.  Castruccio's story inspired a biography by Niccolò Machiavelli and later a novel by Mary Shelley.  Born Castruccio Castracani degli Antelminelli, he was from a Ghibelline family and therefore a supporter of the Holy Roman Emperor in opposition to the Guelphs. He was exiled from Lucca at an early age with his parents and others by the Guelphs, then in the ascendancy.  Orphaned at 19, he lived initially in Pisa before moving to England, where he lived for some years and displayed a skill in the use of weapons that earned him victory in some tournaments and won the favour of King Edward I.  However, after committing a murder, even though it was for reasons of honour, he was forced to leave England and went to France.  Read more…


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Francesco Faà di Bruno - advocate for poor


Entered priesthood after appeal to pope

The blessed Francesco Faà di Bruno, a talented academic from a wealthy family who devoted much energy to helping the poor, disadvantaged and elderly, was born on this day in 1825 near Alessandria in Piedmont.  He was a supporter of Italian unification and indeed was wounded in the cause as a commissioned lieutenant in the Piedmontese Army during the First Italian War of Independence. Yet he could not accept the anti-Catholic sentiments of many of the movement’s leaders.  At the age of 51 he became a priest, although only after the intervention of Pope Pius IX, who stepped in to overrule the Archbishop of Turin, who had rejected Francesco’s credentials on the grounds that he was too old.  He was beatified 100 years after his death by Pope John Paul II.  Francesco was the youngest of 12 children born to Lady Carolina Sappa de' Milanesi of her husband, Luigi, a wealthy landowner whose various titles included Marquis of Bruno, Count of Carentino, Lord of Fontanile, and Patrizio of Alessandria.  His family were of a strong Catholic faith and encouraged a concern for the poor among all their children.  Read more…


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Edoardo De Martino – painter

Naval officer who painted battle scenes was a favourite of British royal family


Edoardo de Martino, photographed at work in around 1906
Edoardo De Martino, photographed at
work in around 1906
Edoardo Federico De Martino, an artist who became famous for his paintings of warships and naval battles, was born on this day in 1838 in Meta, just outside Sorrento.

At the height of his success, De Martino worked in London, where his paintings of ships and famous British naval victories were held in high regard by Queen Victoria.

He went on to work as a painter for Queen Victoria’s son, King Edward VII, and he often accompanied the King on naval tours.

De Martino was born in the small town of Meta, to the northeast of Sorrento, which had a long history of boat building.  He served as an officer in the Italian Navy but by the time he was 30 his main interest was painting.

He became associated with the School of Resina, a group of artists who painted landscapes and contemporary scenes that gathered in Resina, a seaside resort south of Naples, now incorporated into the towns of Herculaneum and Portici. Influenced by his fellow artists, De Martino eventually went to live and work in Naples.

He found fame after moving to London, where he painted scenes from the battles of Trafalgar, the Nile and Cape San Vincenzo.

A naval scene, thought to be depicting a battle in 1826, painted by De Martino in 1888
A naval scene, thought to be depicting a battle in
1826, painted by De Martino in 1888
For his service as Marine painter in Ordinary to King Edward VII, De Martino was appointed an Honorary Commander of the Royal Victorian Order (CVO) in the 1902 Birthday Honours. He received the decoration from King Edward VII at Sandringham House on 9 November 1902.

From 1905 onwards, De Martino travelled widely, completing paintings of Italian naval ships and views of the Brazilian coast.  He died in Richmond-upon-Thames in London in 1912 at the age of 76.

In 2013, many of De Martino’s sketches and paintings were put on display in an exhibition organised by the Association of Commercianti del Casale di Meta.

The Basilica of Santa Maria del Lauro is one of the finest churches on the Sorrentine peninsula
The Basilica of Santa Maria del Lauro is one of the finest
churches on the Sorrentine peninsula
Travel tip:

Meta, where Edoardo De Martino was born, lies between Piano di Sorrento and Vico Equense on the main coastal road going from Sorrento in the direction of Naples. The town has a long history of boat building and by the time of his birth its shipyards were producing hundreds of boats, with the local women sewing the sails for them in the courtyards of their houses. Although steamships eventually replaced sailing boats, the shipyards continued to produce the Sorrentine Gozzo, a small sailing and rowing boat that enables the occupant to fish and row at the same time. Meta has a magnificent church, the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Lauro, in the centre of the town, just off the main road. The church was built in medieval times on the site of an ancient temple after a local deaf and dumb woman was said to have found a statue of the Virgin Mary under a laurel tree and then miraculously had her hearing and speech restored. It was rebuilt in the 16th century and restored and modified in the 18th and 19th centuries. The wooden door is from the 16th century building and the Chapel of the Madonna del Lauro has frescoes from the 18th century. Meta celebrates the Festa of Santa Maria del Lauro every year on 12 September.

The Castel Nuovo in Naples, with the port, one of the  largest in the Mediterranean, in the background
The Castel Nuovo in Naples, with the port, one of the
largest in the Mediterranean, in the background
Travel tip:

Naples, the Italian city where Edoardo De Martino lived after becoming a full-time painter, has one of the largest ports in Italy and one of the largest on the Mediterranean, which would have been a constant source of inspiration to him. Nowadays the port has a huge capacity for cargo traffic and receives many cruise ships. There are also ferry services to the islands of Capri, Ischia and Procida out in the bay and regular services to Sicily, Sardinia, the Aeolian islands and Ponza.

Also on this day: 

1281: The birth of condottiero Castruccio Castracani

1825: The birth of compassionate priest Francesco Faà di Bruno

1888: The birth of aviation pioneer Enea Bossi

1939: The birth of actor Terence Hill 


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28 March 2020

28 March

Anselmo Colzani - opera star


Baritone who had 16 seasons at the New York Met

Anselmo Colzani, an operatic baritone who was a fixture at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in the 1960s and 1970s, as well as La Scala in his home country, was born on this day in 1918 in Budrio, a town not far from Bologna.  His stage career continued until 1980, when he made his final stage appearance in one of his signature roles as Scarpia in Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca.  Although his repertoire was much wider, his reputation became strongly associated with the works of Puccini and Giuseppe Verdi, with Jack Rance in Puccini's Fanciulla del West and the title role of Verdi's Falstaff, as well a Amonasro in Aida and Iago in Otello among his most famous roles.  Colzani’s association with the Met began in March 1960 after he was approached by Rudolf Bing, the opera house’s general manager, following the sudden death of Leonard Warren onstage during a performance of La Forza del Destino.  A few weeks later, Colzani took over Warren's role in Verdi's Simon Boccanegra. It was not only the first time he had sung at the Met, but the first time he had sung the role.  Read more…


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Fra Bartolommeo - Renaissance great


Friar rated equal of Michelangelo, Raphael and Leonardo

Fra Bartolommeo, the Renaissance artist recognised as one of the greatest religious painters, was born on this day in 1472 in Savignano di Vaiano, in Tuscany.  Also known as Baccio della Porta, a nickname he acquired because when he lived in Florence his lodgings were near what is now the Porta Romana, Bartolommeo created works that chart the development of artistic styles and fashion in Florence, from the earthly realism of the 15th century to the grandeur of High Renaissance in the 16th century.  His most famous works include Annunciation, Vision of St Bernard, Madonna and Child with Saints, the Holy Family, the Mystic Marriage of St Catherine, God the Father with SS Catherine of Siena and Mary Magdalene and Madonna della Misericordia.  Bartolommeo always prepared for any painting by making sketches, more than 1,000 in total over the years he was active.  Around 500 of them were discovered at the convent of St Catherine of Siena in Florence in 1722, where nuns were unaware of their significance.  He is also remembered for his striking profile portrait of Fra Girolamo Savonarola, the fanatical priest under whose influence he came in the 1490s.  Read more…


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Alberto Grimaldi - film producer


Spaghetti western trilogy gave Naples producer his big break

Film producer Alberto Grimaldi, who boasts an extraordinary list of credits that includes Last Tango in Paris, The Canterbury Tales, Man of La Mancha, Fellini's Casanova, 1900, Ginger and Fred and Gangs of New York, was born in Naples on this day in 1925. Grimaldi trained as a lawyer and it was in that capacity that he initially found work in the cinema industry in the 1950s.  However, he could see the money-making potential in production and in the early 1960s set up his own company, Produzioni Europee Associate (PEA).  His first three productions, cashing in on the popularity in Italy of westerns, enjoyed some success but it was a meeting with Sergio Leone, the Italian director, that earned him his big break. Leone, whose first venture into the western genre, A Fistful of Dollars, had been an unexpected hit both for him and the young American actor, Clint Eastwood, was busy planning the sequel when a dispute arose with his producers over the cost of the movie.  As it happened, Grimaldi's first production, The Shadow of Zorro, had been filmed, like A Fistful of Dollars, on location in Spain.  Read more…


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27 March 2020

27 March

Gianluigi Lentini - transfer record breaker


AC Milan outbid Juventus for Torino star

Gianluigi Lentini, who was for four years the world's most expensive footballer, was born on this day in 1969.  A winger with Torino known for outstanding dribbling skills, crossing accuracy and lightning pace, Lentini was the subject of a fierce bidding war between Torino's city neighbours, Juventus, and defending Serie A champions AC Milan in the summer of 1992 which ended with Milan paying a fee of around £13 million for the 23-year-old star.  It was the second time in the space of a few weeks that Milan had paid a world record sum for a player, having signed the French striker Jean-Pierre Papin from Marseille for £10 million.  At a time when the Italian league was awash with cash, the Papin record itself had been eclipsed a short while before the Lentini deal was agreed when Juventus paid Sampdoria £12 million for striker Gianluca Vialli.  The Lentini record would remain until Newcastle United forked out £15 million for the Blackburn and England striker Alan Shearer in 1996.  Born in Carmagnola, a small town around 30 kilometres (18 miles) south of Turin, Lentini made his Serie A debut for Torino as a 17-year-old.  Read more…


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Alessandro La Marmora - military general


Founder of Italy's famed Bersaglieri corps

The general who founded the Italian army's famous Bersaglieri corps was born on this day in 1799 in Turin.  Alessandro Ferrero La Marmora was one of 16 children born to the Marquis Celestino Ferrero della Marmora and his wife Raffaella.  The family had a strong military tradition. Alessandro was one of four of the male children who grew up to serve as generals.  La Marmora was a captain when he came up with the idea for the Bersaglieri in 1836.  He had spent much time in France, England, Bavaria, Saxony, Switzerland, and the Austrian county of Tyrol studying armies and tactics and he approached King Carlo Alberto of Piedmont-Sardinia with the idea of creating a new corps of light infantry.  He envisaged a mobile elite corps similar to the French chasseurs and Austrian jägers, trained to a high physical level and all crack marksmen.  He suggested they should act as scouts, providing screen for the main army, operate as skirmishers and use their sharpshooting skills to weaken the flanks of the enemy during a battle.  From this proposal emerged the Bersaglieri, soldiers who were trained to be bold, carrying out their duties with patriotic fervour despite personal danger.  Read more…


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Joe Sentieri - singer and actor


Career remembered for international hit song

The singer, songwriter and actor Joe Sentieri, who released seven albums and around 100 singles over the course of a career spanning more than a quarter of a century, died on this day in 2007 in the Adriatic coastal city of Pescara.  Although he enjoyed considerable success in his own right, he tends to be remembered most for his association with an Italian song that became an international hit after it was translated into English.  Sentieri’s 1961 song Uno dei tanti - One of the Many - was given English lyrics by the American producing partners Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller and repackaged as I (Who Have Nothing).  A hit first for the American soul and R&B star Ben E King, it was covered with considerable success by the British artists Tom Jones and later Shirley Bassey. The Jones version reached No 14 in the Billboard Hot 100 chart, while Bassey’s climbed to No 6 in the UK singles chart in 1963 and became a staple of her concert repertoire.  Countless other cover versions were released over time, by performers as diverse as Petula Clark and Joe Cocker, Katherine Jenkins and Gladys Knight.   Read more…


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Luca Zaia - politician


Popular president of Veneto tipped as future PM

The politician Luca Zaia, who was spoken of as a possible candidate to be Italy’s prime minister following the recent elections, was born on this day in 1968 in Conegliano, in the Veneto.  Zaia, who has been president of the Veneto region for almost eight years, received an approval rating of 56 per cent in a 2018 poll to find the most popular regional governor, the highest rating of any of Italy’s regional presidents.  A member of the Lega party, formerly Lega Nord (Northern League), he was suggested by some commentators as a dark horse for the position of President of the Council of Ministers - the official title of Italy’s prime minister.  Before successfully standing to be Veneto’s president in 2010 he had served in national government as Minister of Agriculture under Silvio Berlusconi.  At the 2018 election, the populist Movimento Cinque Stelle (Five Star Movement) won the biggest proportion of the vote at just over 32 per cent and the Lega achieved its highest share at just under 18 per cent, almost as many as the Democratic Party.   The Lega, whose traditional position was to campaign for an independent northern Italy, have been branded far-right because of the anti-immigration and anti-EU rhetoric of some of their leading figures. Read more…


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26 March 2020

26 March

Elio de Angelis - racing driver


The 'last gentleman racer' of Formula One

The Formula One motor racing driver Elio de Angelis was born on this day in 1958 in Rome.  His record of winning two Grands Prix from 108 career starts in F1 may not look impressive but he was regarded as a talented driver among his peers, holding down a place with Lotus for six consecutive seasons alongside such talents as Nigel Mansell and Ayrton Senna, both future world champions.  He had his best seasons in 1984 and 1985, which encompassed seven of his nine career podium finishes and in which he finished third and fifth respectively in the drivers' championship standings. Tragically, he was killed in testing the following year, having left Lotus for Brabham in frustration after perceiving that Senna was being given more favourable treatment.  De Angelis was seen by many in motor racing as "the last of the gentlemen racers." In contrast to his teammate Mansell, who came from a working class background in the West Midlands of England, De Angelis was born into wealth.  His family was long established in the upper echelons of Roman society.  His father, Giulio, ran a successful construction company and raced powerboats.  Read more…

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Guccio Gucci – fashion designer


The man whose name inspired the interlocking G logo

The founder of the House of Gucci, Guccio Gucci, was born on this day in 1881 in Florence.  In the early 1900s Gucci worked as a lift boy at the Savoy Hotel in London, where he was inspired by the elegance of the wealthy people who stayed there and their smart luggage.  On his return to Florence he started making his own line of leather travel bags and accessories and in the 1920s he opened a small leather and equestrian shop in Via della Vigna Nuova.  Gucci later added handbags to his line and relocated to a bigger shop. He was fascinated with horses and his handbags featured clasps and fasteners resembling horse bits and stirrups. He gained a reputation for hiring the best craftsmen he could to work on his products.  In 1938 he expanded his business to Rome. When raw materials became scarce during the war he used materials such as hemp and linen to make his bags, but still trimmed them with metal resembling horse bits and stirrups.  The Gucci label later became famous for certain key products, such as a bag with bamboo handles and a pair of classic loafers.  Gucci and his wife, Aida Calvelli, had six children.  Read more…

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Lella Lombardi - racing driver


Only woman to win points in Formula One

Maria Grazia “Lella” Lombardi, the only female driver to finish in a points position in a Formula One world championship motor race, was born on this day in 1941 in Frugarolo, near Alessandria in Piedmont.  She finished out of the points in 11 of the 12 world championship rounds which she started between 1974 and 1976 but finished sixth in the 1975 Spanish Grand Prix, a race marred by the tragic deaths of five spectators after the car being driven by the German driver Rolf Stommelen went out of control and somersaulted over a barrier into the crowd.  His was the eighth car to crash in the first 25 of the 75 laps and the race was halted four laps later when it became known there had been fatalities. At that moment, Lombardi’s March-Ford was in sixth position, albeit two laps between race leader Jochen Mass.  The points were awarded on the basis of positions when the race was stopped. In normal circumstances, a sixth-place finish would have been worth one point but because less than three-quarters of the race had been completed the points were halved, thus Lombardi was awarded half a point.  Read more…


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25 March 2020

25 March

NEW - Veronica Franco – courtesan and poet


The literary talent of a popular prostitute

The beautiful courtesan, Veronica Franco, was born on this day in 1546 in Venice.  A cortigiana onesta, literally 'honest courtesan', but really meaning intellectual and high class, Veronica is remembered for the quality of her poetry as well as her profession.  In the 16th century Venice was renowned for the number of its courtesans and Veronica became one of the most famous of them.  She had three brothers who were educated by tutors and fortunately her mother, a former cortigiana onesta herself, had ensured that Veronica shared that education.  Veronica was married in her mid-teens to a physician, but she soon initiated divorce proceedings.  She asked her husband to return her dowry but he refused, and with a young child to support, she had no choice but to become a courtesan.  She was a great success and was able to support her family well for the next few years.  By the time she was 20, Veronica was among the most popular and respected courtesans in Venice.  Among her clients were King Henry III of France and Domenico Venier, a wealthy poet whose salon she joined.  As a member of the Venetian literati, Veronica participated in discussions and contributed to collections of poetry.  Read more…


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Mina - pop star


Italy’s all-time top selling female artist

The pop singer Anna Maria Mazzini, better known simply as Mina, was born on this day in 1940 in the Lombardy city of Busto Arsizio.  Since her debut single in 1958, Mina has sold well in excess of 150 million records, which makes her the top-selling female performer in Italian music history. Only her fellow 60s star Adriano Celentano can boast larger figures.  The pair worked together on one of Italy’s biggest-selling albums of all-time in 1998. Mina Celentano sold an impressive 2.365 million copies. They revived the collaboration in 2016 with Tutte Le Migliori.  Mina also enjoys an iconic status in the history of female emancipation in Italy as a result of the sensational ban imposed on her by the state television station RAI in 1963 following her affair with a married actor, Corrado Pani, by whom she became pregnant.  Despite pressure from the Catholic Church, whose position as the guardians of Italy’s public morals was still very strong at the time, the broadcaster was forced by the weight of public opinion, as well as Mina’s unaffected record sales, to rescind the ban the following January.  Read more…


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Tina Anselmi - ground-breaking politician


Former partisan became Italy’s first female cabinet minister

The politician Tina Anselmi, who made history in 1976 as the first woman to hold a ministerial position in an Italian government and later broke new ground again when she was appointed to chair the public inquiry into the infamous Propaganda Due masonic lodge, was born on this day in 1927 in Castelfranco Veneto.  Anselmi was chosen as Minister for Labour and Social Security and then Minister for Health in the government led by Giulio Andreotti from 1976 to 1979.  In 1981, she became the first woman to lead a public inquiry in Italy when she was asked to head the commission looking into the clandestine and illegal P2 masonic lodge, which had among its members prominent journalists, members of parliament, industrialists, and military leaders and was suspected of involvement in many scandals in pursuit of an ultra-right agenda.  Anselmi’s political views were heavily influenced by her upbringing in the Veneto during the years of Mussolini and war. She was from a comfortable background - her father was a pharmacist in Castelfranco Veneto, while her mother ran an osteria with her grandmother.  Read more…


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Francesco I - Grand Duke of Tuscany


Florentine ruler at heart of Medici murder mystery

Francesco I, the Medici Grand Duke whose death at the age of 46 became the subject of a murder mystery still unsolved 430 years later, was born on this day in 1541 in Florence.  The second to be given the title Grand Duke of Tuscany, Francesco was the son of Cosimo I de' Medici, the first to hold the title, and Eleonor of Toledo.  Like his father, Francesco was often a despotic leader, but while Cosimo's purpose was to maintain Florence's independence, Francesco's loyalties were not so clear. He taxed his subjects heavily but diverted large sums to the empires of Austria and Spain.  He continued his father's patronage of the arts, supporting artists and building the Medici Theatre as well as founding the Accademia della Crusca and the Uffizi Gallery. He was also interested in chemistry and alchemy and spent many hours in his private laboratory.  It was his personal life that he is remembered for, beginning with an unhappy marriage to Joanna of Austria, youngest daughter of Ferdinand I, Holy Roman Emperor and Anne of Bohemia and Hungary.  Joanna was reportedly homesick for her native Austria, and Francesco was unfaithful from the start.  Read more… 


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Veronica Franco – courtesan and poet

The literary talent of a popular prostitute


Veronica Franco was in her lifetime one of the most famous courtesans in Venice
Veronica Franco was in her lifetime one of the
most famous courtesans in Venice
The beautiful courtesan, Veronica Franco, was born on this day in 1546 in Venice.

A cortigiana onesta, literally 'honest courtesan', but really meaning intellectual and high class, Veronica is remembered for the quality of her poetry as well as her profession.

In the 16th century Venice was renowned for the number of its courtesans and Veronica became one of the most famous of them.

She had three brothers who were educated by tutors and fortunately her mother, a former cortigiana onesta herself, had ensured that Veronica shared that education.

Veronica was married in her mid teens to a physician, but she soon initiated divorce proceedings.  She asked her husband to return her dowry but he refused, and with a young child to support, she had no choice but to become a courtesan.

She was a great success and was able to support her family well for the next few years.  By the time she was 20, Veronica was among the most popular and respected courtesans in Venice.

Among her clients were King Henry III of France and Domenico Venier, a wealthy poet whose salon she joined.

Franco was sponsored by the wealthy poet and socialite Domenico Venier
Franco was sponsored by the wealthy poet
and socialite Domenico Venier
As a member of the Venetian literati, Veronica participated in discussions and contributed to collections of poetry published by other members of the salon.

In 1575 she published Terze Rime, a collection of 25 verse letters, of which 17 had been written by her.

Veronica’s poetry was sexually explicit. She was not ashamed of being a courtesan and she defended the rights of courtesans and women generally in several of the poems.

Soon after her book was published, a bout of plague broke out in Venice that was to last for two years. Veronica was forced to flee the city and while she was away her house was looted and she lost most of her possessions. She was saved from ruin only by the generosity of her client, Domenico Venier.

The plague had killed her mother and one of her brothers so Veronica was left with the care of her nephews as well as her own three children. She unsuccessfully tried to persuade Venice to fund a charity for the children of courtesans.

In 1577, her son’s tutor denounced her to the Inquisition on a charge of witchcraft, a common complaint lodged against courtesans at the time. 

She defended herself eloquently and, helped by her many clients among the nobility, managed to win an acquittal.  But by then she had lost most of her money and she had to move to a poor area of the city.

In 1580, Veronica published a collection of 50 letters she had written to her clients and friends.  Little is known about her life after that time and she died at the age of 45 in poverty.

Her life was the subject of a book, The Honest Courtesan, by US author Margaret Rosenthal, which was published in 1992. The 1998 film, Dangerous Beauty, was based on the book.

Franco was sponsored by the wealthy poet
and socialite Domenico Venier
Travel tip:

Many of Venice’s 16th century prostitutes, which at one time amounted to a fifth of the city’s female population, did their business in an area of the San Polo sestiere known as Carampane, not far from the Rialto bridge. The name derives from a particularly infamous brothel called Palazzo Ca’ Rampani. Today, visitors to Venice can stroll down Rio Terra de la Carampane towards San Cassiano and cross the Ponte delle Tette - Bridge of Tits - where prostitutes used to gather to advertise their services. The nearby Trattoria Antiche Carampane, a highly regarded restaurant known for its seafood.

The west face of the church of Santa Maria Formosa, which  was frequented by Franco as a girl
The west face of the church of Santa Maria Formosa, which
was frequented by Franco as a girl
Travel tip:

Ca’ Venier, the house where Veronica Franco’s patron, Domenico Venier, held his literary salons and where Veronica read and circulated most of her poems, was in Campo Santa Maria Formosa in the Castello sestiere, which is also known to have been Franco’s home parish. Ca’ Venier can be found adjoining the popular Hotel Scandinavia, opposite the church of Santa Maria Formosa, which was built at the end of the 15th century and completed by the middle of the next century.

Also on this day:

1541: The birth of Francesco I, the Medici Grand Duke of Tuscany

1927: The birth of Tina Anselmi, who in 1976 became Italy’s first female cabinet minister

1940: The birth of pop star Mina


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24 March 2020

24 March

Luigi Einaudi - politician and winemaker


Composer's grandfather was President of the Republic

The politician, economist, journalist and winemaker Luigi Einaudi was born on this day in 1874 in Carrù, in the province of Cuneo in what is now Piedmont.   Einaudi, who is the grandfather of the musician and composer Ludovico Einaudi and the father of publisher Giulio Einaudi, was elected President of the new Italian Republic between 1948 and 1955, the second person to occupy the post.  He was actively involved with politics from his university days, when he supported socialist movements.  For a decade he edited a socialist magazine but later took a more conservative position. After being appointed to the Senate of the Kingdom of Italy in 1919, in the days when the upper house of the Italian parliament was a non-elected body, he was one of the signatories in forming the Italian Liberal Party (PLI).  The PLI initially joined forces with the Italian Fascists and it was through their support that Mussolini was able to win the 1924 general election with an absolute majority.  Einaudi had been both a journalist and an academic since graduating in law from Turin University in 1895.  Read more…


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Mimmo Jodice - photographer


Camera work with shades of metaphysical art

Domenico ‘Mimmo’ Jodice, who has been a major influence on artistic photography in Italy for half a century, was born on this day in 1934 in Naples.  Jodice, who was professor of photography at the Accademia di Belle Arti di Napoli from 1969 to 1996, is best known for his atmospheric photographs of urban scenes, especially in his home city.  Often these pictures reflected his fascination with how Italian cities habitually mix the present and the future with echoes of the past in their urban landscapes, with the incongruous juxtapositions of ancient and modern that were characteristic of metaphysical art occurring naturally as part of urban evolution.  His books Vedute di Napoli (Views of Naples) and Lost in Seeing: Dreams and Visions of Italy have been international bestsellers and he has exhibited his work all over the world.  Born in the Sanità district of Naples, Jodice was the second of four children. His father died when he was still a boy and the requirement that he find work as soon as he was able meant he had only a limited education.  Nonetheless, he was drawn towards art and the theatre, classical music and jazz.  Read more…


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Dario Fo – writer and actor


Prolific playwright put the spotlight on corruption

Playwright and all round entertainer Dario Fo celebrates his 90th birthday today. He was born in Leggiuno Sangiano in the Province of Varese in Lombardy on this day in 1926.  His plays have been widely performed and translated into many different languages. He is perhaps most well known for Accidental Death of an Anarchist and Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1997.  Fo’s early work is peppered with criticisms of the corruption, crime, and racism that affected life in Italy at the time. He later moved on to ridicule Forza Italia and Silvio Berlusconi and more recently his targets have included the banks and big business.  He was brought up near the shores of Lago Maggiore but moved to Milan to study. During the war he served with several branches of the forces before deserting. He returned to Milan to study architecture but gave it up to paint and work in small theatres presenting improvised monologues. In the 1950s Fo worked in radio and on stage performing his own work. He met and later married actress Franca Rame and they had a son, Jacopo, who also became a writer.  Read more…


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Guido Menasci - poet, librettist and biographer


Respected writer and historian who found fame from an opera

The writer Guido Menasci, who is best known as a co-author of the libretto for composer Pietro Mascagni’s successful opera Cavalleria rusticana but was also a respected historian, was born on this day in 1867 in the Tuscan port of Livorno.  Menasci, a law graduate from the University of Pisa and briefly a prosecutor at the Court of Appeal in Lucca, wrote for a number of literary magazines in Italy and beyond and produced a biography of the German poet and playwright Johann Wolfgang Goethe that is considered a definitive work.  Fluent in French as well as Italian, he published books and gave lectures in Paris, often on the subject of art history, which was another of his fascinations.  Yet he was most famous for his work with Mascagni and his fellow librettist, Giovanni Targioni-Tozzetti, whom he met through his involvement with literary and cultural societies in Livorno, where all three grew up.  They collaborated on a number of operas, the most famous of which by some way was Cavalleria rusticana, which was performed for the first time in 1890, at the Teatro Costanzi in Rome.   Based on a novella of the same name by Giovanni Verga, Cavalleria rusticana is a simple story of betrayal and revenge.  Read more…


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