31 January 2020

31 January

Bernardo Provenzano - Mafia boss

Head of Corleonesi clan dodged police for 43 years

Bernardo Provenzano, a Mafia boss who managed to evade the Sicilian police for 43 years after a warrant was issued for his arrest in 1963, was born on this day in 1933 in Corleone, the fabled town in the rugged countryside above Palermo that became famous for its association with Mario Puzo's novel The Godfather.  The former farm labourer, who rose through the ranks to become the overall head - il capo di tutti i capi - of the so-called Cosa Nostra, lived for years under the eyes of the authorities in an opulent 18th century villa in a prestigious Palermo suburb, although ultimately he took refuge in the hills, alternating between two remote peasant farmhouses.  He was finally captured and imprisoned in 2006 and died in the prisoners' ward of a Milan hospital 10 years later, aged 83.  Although Provenzano assumed power during one of the bloodiest periods in Mafia history, he was eventually credited with rescuing the organisation from the brink of collapse by turning away from the violent path followed by his predecessor as capo di tutti i capi, Salvatore 'Toto' Riina, and restoring traditional Mafia values.   Read more…


Ernesto Basile - architect

Pioneer of Stile Liberty - the Italian twist on Art Nouveau

The architect Ernesto Basile, who would become known for his imaginative fusion of ancient, medieval and modern architectural elements and as a pioneer of Art Nouveau in Italy, was born on this day in 1857 in Palermo.  His most impressive work was done in Rome, where he won a commission to rebuild almost completely the Palazzo Montecitorio, the home of the Chamber of Deputies of the Italian parliament.  Yet his most wide-ranging impact was in Sicily, where he followed in the footsteps of his father, Giovan Battista Filippo Basile, in experimenting with the Art Nouveau style.  Basile senior designed the Villa Favaloro, in Piazza Virgilio off Via Dante, and with Ernesto and others, notably Vincenzo Alagna, taking up the mantle, it was not long before entire districts of the city were dominated by Stile Liberty, the Italianate version of the Art Nouveau that took its name from the Liberty and Co store in London's Regent Street, which sold ornaments, fabric and objets d'art to a refined clientele and encouraged modern designers.  Fine examples of Ernesto Basile’s architecture in Palermo include the Villino Florio (1899–1902) in Viale Regina Margherita, and the Hotel Villa Igiea (1899–1901) on the waterfront.  Read more…


Don Bosco – Saint

Father and teacher who could do magic tricks

Saint John Bosco, who was often known as Don Bosco, died on this day in 1888 in Turin.  He had dedicated his life to helping street children, juvenile delinquents and other disadvantaged young people and was made a saint by Pope Pius XI in 1934.  Bosco is now the patron saint of apprentices, editors, publishers, children, young delinquents and magicians.  He was born Giovanni Bosco in Becchi, just outside Castelnuovo d’Asti in Piedmont in 1815. His birth came just after the end of the Napoleonic Wars that had ravaged the area.  Bosco’s father died when he was two, leaving him to be brought up by his mother, Margherita.  Mama Margherita Occhiena would herself be declared venerable by the Catholic Church in 2006.  Bosco attended Church and grew up to become very devout. Although his family was poor, his mother would share what they had with homeless people who came to the door.  While Bosco was still young, he had the first of a series of dreams that would influence his life.  He saw a group of poor boys who blasphemed while they played together, and a man told him that if he showed meekness and charity he would win over these boys.  Read more…


Charles Edward Stuart – royal exile

Bonnie Prince Charlie’s heart will forever be in Frascati 

The Young Pretender to the British throne, sometimes known as Bonnie Prince Charlie, died on this day in 1788 in Rome.  The man who would have been King Charles III was born and brought up in Italy where his father, James, the son of the exiled Stuart King James II, had been given a residence by Pope Clement XI.  Charles Edward Stuart was raised as a Catholic and taught to believe he was a legitimate heir to the British throne.  In 1745 Charles sailed to Scotland hoping to gather an army to help him place his father back on the thrones of England and Scotland.  He defeated a Government army at the Battle of Prestonpans and marched south. He had got as far as Derbyshire when the decision was made by his troops to return to Scotland because of the lack of English support for their cause.  They were pursued by King George II’s son, the Duke of Cumberland, who led troops against them at the Battle of Culloden in 1746. Many of his soldiers were shot and killed and the surviving Jacobites fled. They were pursued by Cumberland ’s men, who committed atrocities against them when they were caught.   Read more…


30 January 2020

Hyacintha Mariscotti – Saint

Noblewoman gave up luxurious lifestyle to help the poor

Viterbo-born Domenico Corvi's painting of Saint Hyacintha Mariscotti
Viterbo-born Domenico Corvi's painting
of Saint Hyacintha Mariscotti
Hyacintha Mariscotti, an Italian nun of the Third Order Regular of Saint Francis, died on this day in 1640 in Viterbo in Lazio.

Pope Pius VII canonised her in 1807 and her feast day is now celebrated on 30 January every year.

Hyacintha, known as Santa Giacinta Marescotti in Italian, was born in 1585 into a noble family living in the castle of Vignanello in the province of Viterbo and was baptised as Clarice.

Her father was Count Marcantonio Marescotti, who was descended from Marius Scotus, a military leader who served Emperor Charlemagne. Her mother was Countess Ottavia Orsini, whose father built the famous gardens of Bomarzo.

The young Clarice was sent with her sisters to the monastery of Saint Bernardino to be educated by the nuns of the Franciscan Third Order Regular. When their education was complete, her elder sister, Ginevra, chose to enter the community as a nun, becoming Sister Immacolata.

Clarice had set her sights on marrying the Marchese Capizucchi, but he chose her younger sister, Ortensia, instead. Following her disappointment, she entered the monastery at Viterbo taking the name Hyacintha (Giacinta). She admitted later that she did this only because she was upset and was not prepared to give up the luxuries she was used to.

She kept a private stock of extra food, wore a habit made from the finest material and went out to see people and received visitors as she wished, although she always retained a strong religious faith.

Pope Pius VII made Hyacintha Mariscotti
a saint in 1807
After ten years she became seriously ill and was visited in her cell at the monastery by the priest serving as her confessor, who was bringing her Holy Communion.  When he saw the extent of the luxuries she was keeping there he admonished her and told her to observe more closely the way of life she had committed herself to.

Hyacintha completely changed her life, wore an old tunic and went barefoot, frequently fasting on bread and water.

During an outbreak of plague in the city she became devoted to nursing the sick.

Hyacintha went on to establish two confraternities, whose members were Oblates of Mary, often referred to as ‘Sacconi’. They provided aid, such as food, clothes and bed linen for sick, poor and elderly people, and prisoners.

Hyacintha is said to have worked numerous miracles and had the gifts of prophecy and discerning the secret thoughts of others.

When Hyacintha died on 30 January 1640 she had established a reputation for holiness. During her wake her religious habit had to be replaced three times because pieces of it were constantly being snipped off by people wishing to keep the scraps of material as relics.

Hyacintha was beatified by Pope Benedict XIII in 1726. She was canonised by Pope Pius VII in 1807. Her remains are preserved in the church of her now defunct monastery, which has been named after her, the Church of Santa Giacinta Marescotti.

A giant turtle carrying a statue of a woman - one of the  bizarre sculptures in the Gardens of Bomarzo
A giant turtle carrying a statue of a woman - one of the
bizarre sculptures in the Gardens of Bomarzo
Travel tip:

The Gardens of Bomarzo, created by Hyacintha’s grandfather, are in Bomarzo in the province of Viterbo. Also known as Park of the Monsters, it was created during the sixteenth century in a wooded valley beneath the castle of Orsini. It has grotesque sculptures and small buildings set among the natural vegetation. The garden was created by Pier Francesco Orsini as a way of coping with his grief after the death of his wife, Giulia Farnese. Over the centuries the park became overgrown and neglected, but in the 1950s, after the artist Salvador Dali did a painting based on the park and made a short film about it, there was a major restoration project and today it is a tourist attraction.

The Piazza della Rocca in Viterbo, with its fountain designed by the 16th century architect Giacomo Barozzi da Vignola
The Piazza della Rocca in Viterbo, with its fountain designed
by the 16th century architect Giacomo Barozzi da Vignola
Travel tip:

The walled city of Viterbo is about 80 kilometres (50 miles) north of Rome in the region of Lazio. The historic centre is one of the best preserved medieval cities in central Italy and is unusual because of the many buildings with ‘profferli’ - external staircases - that remain intact. A main attraction is the Palazzo dei Papi, which hosted the papacy for 20 years during the 13th century. The Church of Santa Giacinta Marescotti is close to Piazza del Plebiscito in the centre of Viterbo.

More reading:

Compassionate nun Saint Veronica Giuliani

Saint Agatha of Sicily - Christian martyr

Frances Xavier Cabrini - the first American saint

Also on this day:

1629: The death of architect Carlo Maderno

1721: The birth of landscape painter Bernardo Bellotto

1935: The birth of actress Elsa Martinelli

The Feast of Saint Martina of Rome

30 January

NEW - Hyacintha Mariscotti – Saint

Noblewoman gave up luxurious lifestyle to help the poor

Hyacintha Mariscotti, an Italian nun of the Third Order Regular of Saint Francis, died on this day in 1640 in Viterbo in Lazio.  Pope Pius VII canonised her in 1807 and her feast day is now celebrated on 30 January every year.  Hyacintha, known as Santa Giacinta Marescotti in Italian, was born in 1585 into a noble family living in the castle of Vignanello in the province of Viterbo and was baptised as Clarice.  Her father was Count Marcantonio Marescotti, her mother Countess Ottavia Orsini, whose father built the famous gardens of Bomarzo.  The young Clarice was sent with her sisters to the monastery of Saint Bernardino to be educated by the nuns of the Franciscan Third Order Regular. When their education was complete, her elder sister, Ginevra, chose to enter the community as a nun. Clarice had set her sights on marrying the Marchese Capizucchi, but he chose her younger sister, Ortensia, instead. Following her disappointment, she entered the monastery at Viterbo taking the name Hyacintha (Giacinta). She admitted later that she did this only because she was upset and was not prepared to give up the luxuries she was used to.  Read more…


Carlo Maderno - architect

Facade of St Peter's among most notable works

The architect Carlo Maderno, who has been described as one of the fathers of Italian Baroque architecture, died on this day in 1629 in Rome.  His most important works included the facades of St Peter’s Basilica and the other Roman churches of Santa Susanna and Sant’ Andrea della Valle.  Although most of Maderno's work was in remodelling existing structures, he had a profound influence on the appearance of Rome, where his designs also contributed to the Palazzo Quirinale, the Palazzo Barberini and the papal palace at Castel Gandolfo.  One building designed and completed under Maderno's full control was the church of Santa Maria della Vittoria in the Sallustiano district.   Maderno was born in 1556 in the village of Capolago, on the southern shore of Lake Lugano in what is now the Ticino canton of Switzerland, part of the finger of Italy's northern neighbouring country that extends between the Italian lakes Como and Maggiore.  Marble was quarried in the mountains around Capolago and as well as a talent for sculpture he had experience as a marble cutter when he moved with four of his brothers to Rome in 1588 to work with his uncle, Domenico Fontana.  Read more…


Bernardo Bellotto – landscape painter

Venetian artist blessed with uncle Canaletto’s talent

The landscape artist Bernardo Bellotto, a nephew and pupil of the masterful view painter Canaletto, was born on this day in 1721 in Venice, the city that brought fame to his illustrious uncle.  Bellotto painted some Venetian scenes but travelled much more extensively than his uncle and eventually became best known for his work in northern Europe, and in particular his views of the cities of Vienna, Warsaw and Dresden.  His work was notable for his use of light and shadow and his meticulous attention to detail.  His paintings of Warsaw became a point of reference for architects involved with the reconstruction of the city after the Second World War, so precise was he in terms of perspective and scale and the intricacies of architectural features.  Born in the parish of Santa Margherita in Venice, Bellotto was related to Giovanni Antonio Canal – Canaletto’s birth name – through his mother, Canaletto’s sister, Fiorenza Canal, who married Lorenzo Antonio Bellotto.  It was natural for Bernardo to study in his uncle’s workshop and to an extent mimic Canaletto’s style. Sometimes, he would sign a painting with Canaletto’s name, which led to confusion later.   Read more…


Elsa Martinelli – actress

Tuscan beauty was spotted by Kirk Douglas

Actress and former model Elsa Martinelli was born Elisa Tia on this day in 1935 in Grosseto.  She moved to Rome with her family as a teenager and was discovered by designer Roberto Capucci in 1953 while working as a barmaid in the city.   Her stunning looks helped her to become a successful fashion model and she eventually began playing small parts in films.  As Elsa Martinelli she appeared in Claude Autant-Lara’s Le Rouge et Le Noir in 1954.  Her first important role came a year later when Kirk Douglas is said to have seen her on a magazine cover and told his production company to hire her to appear opposite him in the film, The Indian Fighter.  In 1956 she won the Silver Bear for Best Actress at the Berlin Film Festival for playing the title role in Mario Monicelli’s Donatella.  Martinelli married Count Franco Mancinelli Scotti di San Vito and they had a daughter, Cristiana, in 1958.  Ten years later, after she had split up with her first husband, Martinelli married photographer and furniture designer Willy Rizzo.  In the 1950s and 1960s she attended lavish parties and events in Rome with celebrities.  Read more…


Feast of Saint Martina of Rome

The day Pope Urban VIII’s own hymns are sung

The feast day of Saint Martina of Rome, who was martyred by the Romans in 228, is celebrated every year on this day.  Martina is now a patron saint of Rome and the patron saint of nursing mothers.  She was the daughter of an ex-consul, one of the chief magistrates of the Roman Republic, but became an orphan while still young.  Described at the time as a noble and beautiful virgin who was charitable to the poor, she openly testified to her Christian faith.  She was persecuted during the reign of Emperor Alexander Severus and arrested and commanded to return to idolatry, the worship of false gods.  When she refused she was whipped and condemned to be devoured by wild beasts in the amphitheatre. When she was miraculously untouched by the animals she was thrown on to a burning pyre from which she is also said to have escaped unhurt. Finally she was beheaded.  Afterwards it was claimed some of her executioners converted to Christianity and were also later beheaded.  In 1634 the relics of Martina were rediscovered by the artist Pietro da Cortona. They were in the crypt of a church originally built in the sixth century on the site of the ancient temple of Mars.  Read more…


29 January 2020

29 January

Bomb destroys Archiginnasio anatomical theatre

Historic facility hit in 1944 air raid

The historic anatomical theatre of the Palazzo Archiginnasio, the original seat of the University of Bologna, was almost completely destroyed in a bombing raid on the city by Allied forces on this day in 1944.  The northern Italian city was a frequent target during the final two years of the conflict because of its importance as a transport hub and communications centre.  The wing of the palazzo housing the anatomical theatre, built between 1636 and 1638, took a direct hit on the night of January 29.  Although it is unlikely that the university - the oldest in the world - was a specific target, bombing was much less precise 75 years ago and collateral damage was common and often widespread.  As well as its importance in the history of medical research, the anatomical theatre was notable as an art treasure, mainly for the 18th century carved wooden statues by Silvestro Gianotti depicting great physicians of history, from the Greek physicians Hippocrates and Galenus onwards, including many who worked at the university, such as Fabrizio Bartoletti, Marcello Malpighi, Mondino de Liuzzi and Gaspare Tagliacozzi.  Read more…


Felice Beato – war photographer

Venetian-born adventurer captured some of first images of conflict

Felice Beato, who is thought to be one of the world’s first war photographers, died in Florence on this day in 1909.  He was 76 or 77 years old and had passed perhaps his final year in Italy, having spent the majority of his adult life in Asia and the Far East.  Although he was from an Italian family it was thought for many years that he had been born on the island of Corfu and died in Burma. However, in 2009 his death certificate was found in an archive in Florence, listing his place of birth as Venice and his place of death as the Tuscan regional capital.  Beato photographed the Crimean War in 1855, the aftermath of the Indian Rebellion in 1857 and the final days of the Second Opium War in China in 1860, later travelling with United States forces in Korea in 1871 and with the British in the Sudan in 1884-85.  He also spent many years living in Japan and then Burma, where his photography introduced the people and culture of the Far East to many in the West for the first time.  In addition, he developed photography techniques that put him ahead of his time, despite the crude nature of equipment compared with today’s technology.  Read more…


Fire at La Fenice

Oldest theatre in Venice keeps rising from the ashes

La Fenice, the world famous opera house in Venice, was destroyed by fire on this day in 1996.  It was the third time a theatre had been burnt down in Venice and it took nearly eight years to rebuild.  The theatre had been named La Fenice, the Phoenix, when it was originally built in the 1790s, to reflect that it was helping an opera company rise from the ashes after its previous theatre had burnt down.  Disaster struck again in 1836 when La Fenice itself was destroyed by fire but it was quickly rebuilt and opened its doors again in 1837.  The American writer, Donna Leon, chose La Fenice to be the main location in her first novel featuring Commissario Guido Brunetti, published in 1992.  But in January 1996, approximately four years after Leon’s novel, Death At La Fenice, was published, the theatre burnt down again, making it front page news all over the world.  Arson was immediately suspected and in 2001 a court found two electricians guilty of setting the building on fire.  They were believed to have burnt it down because their company was facing heavy fines because of delays in the repair work they were carrying out.  Read more…


Luigi Nono - avant-garde composer

Venetian used music as a medium for political protest

The Italian avant-garde composer Luigi Nono, famous for using music as a form of political expression, was born in Venice on this day in 1924.  Nono, whose compositions often defied the description of music in any traditional sense, was something of a contradiction in that he was brought up in comfortable surroundings and had a conventional music background.  His father was a successful engineer, wealthy enough to provide for his family in a large house in Dorsoduro, facing the Giudecca Canal, while his grandfather, a notable painter, inspired in him an interest in the arts.  He had music lessons with the composer Gian Francesco Malipiero at the Venice Conservatory, where he developed a fascination for the Renaissance madrigal tradition, before going to the University of Padua to study law.  Nono appreciated the natural sounds of Venice, in particular how much they were influenced by the water, and as he began to compose works of his own there might have been an expectation that any contemporary influences would have been against a backcloth of ideas rooted in tradition.   Read more…


28 January 2020

28 January

Simonetta Vespucci – Renaissance beauty

Noblewoman hailed as embodiment of female perfection

Simonetta Vespucci, a young noblewoman who became the most sought-after artist’s model in Florence in the mid-15th century, is thought to have been born on this day in 1453.  Born Simonetta Cattaneo to a Genoese family, she was taken to Florence in 1469 when she married Marco Vespucci, an eligible Florentine nobleman who was a distant cousin of the explorer and cartographer Amerigo Vespucci.  She quickly became the talk of Florentine society. Soon known as La Bella Simonetta, she captivated painters and young noblemen alike with her beauty.  It is said that, shortly before her arrival, a group of artists had been discussing their idea of the characteristics of perfect female beauty and were stunned, on meeting Simonetta, to discover that their idealised woman actually existed.  The Medici brothers, Lorenzo and Giuliano, were said to have been besotted with her, Giuliano in particular, while she is thought to have been the model for several of Sandro Botticelli’s portraits of women.  The female figure standing on a shell in Botticelli’s masterpiece, The Birth of Venus, so closely resembles the woman in the paintings accepted as being Simonetta Vespucci that some critics insist he must have based his Venus on her.   Read more…


Giovanni Alfonso Borelli – physiologist and physicist

Neapolitan was the first to explain movement

The scientist who was the first to explain muscular movement according to the laws of statics and dynamics, Giovanni Alfonso Borelli, was born on this day in 1608 in Naples.  Borelli was also the first to suggest that comets travel in a parabolic path.  He was appointed professor of mathematics at Messina in 1649 and at Pisa in 1656. After 1675 he lived in Rome under the protection of Christina, the former Queen of Sweden. She had abdicated her throne in 1654, had converted to Catholicism and gone to live in Rome as the guest of the Pope.  Remembered as one of the most learned women of the 17th century, Christina became the protector of many artists, musicians and intellectuals who would visit her in the Palazzo Farnese, where she was allowed to live by the Pope.  Borelli’s best known work is De Motu Animalium - On the Movement of Animals - in which he sought to explain the movements of the animal body on mechanical principles. He is therefore the founder of the iatrophysical school. He dedicated this work to Queen Christina, who had funded it, but he died of pneumonia in 1679 before it was published.  Read more…


Gianluigi Buffon – goalkeeper

Record-breaking footballer still playing at 42

Juventus goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon was born on this day in 1978 in Carrara in Tuscany.  Widely considered by football experts at his peak to be the best goalkeeper in the world, he is known for his outstanding ability to stop shots.  He holds the record for the most clean sheets, both in Serie A and the national side, and he has won numerous awards.  Now aged 42, Buffon retired from international football after Italy failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup finals in Russia, having played a record 176 times for the Azzurri.  Buffon, whose nickname is Gigi, was born into a family of athletes. His mother, Maria, was a discus thrower and his father, Adriano, was a weightlifter. His two sisters both played volleyball for the Italian national team and his uncle was a prominent basketball player.  His grandfather’s cousin, Lorenzo Buffon, was also a top goalkeeper, playing for AC Milan and Italy, representing his country at the 1962 FIFA World Cup.  Gianluigi Buffon began his career with the Parma youth team at the age of 13 as an outfield player. When both of the team’s goalkeepers were injured he was asked to deputise in goal and within two weeks he had been promoted to first team 'keeper.  Read more…


Paolo Gorini – scientist

Teacher invented technique for preserving corpses

Mathematician and scientist Paolo Gorini, who made important discoveries about organic substances, was born on this day in 1813 in Pavia.  He is chiefly remembered for preserving corpses and anatomical parts according to a secret process he invented himself. His technique was first used on the body of Giuseppe Mazzini, the politician and activist famous for his work towards the unification of Italy.  Gorini was orphaned at the age of 12, but thanks to financial help from former colleagues of his father, who had been a university maths professor, he was able to continue with his studies and he obtained a mathematics degree from the University of Pavia.  He paid tribute in his autobiography to his private teacher, Alessandro Scannini, who he said first inspired his interest in geology and volcanology.  Gorini went to live in Lodi, just south of Milan, in 1834, where he became a physics lecturer at the local Lyceum.  As well as teaching, he dedicated his time to geology experiments, actually creating artificial volcanoes to illustrate their eruptive dynamics. He also made his first attempts at the preservation of animal substances.  Read more…


27 January 2020

27 January

NEW - Frank Nitti - mobster

Barber who became Al Capone’s henchman

The mobster who achieved notoriety as Frank Nitti was born Francesco Raffaele Nitto it is thought on this day in 1881, although some accounts put the year of his birth as 1886.  Nitti, who was raised in Brooklyn, New York, where he and Al Capone - his cousin - grew up, would eventually become Capone’s most trusted henchman in the Chicago mob he controlled.  After Capone was jailed for 11 years for tax evasion, Nitti was ostensibly in charge of operations.  Unlike many of the American Mafia bosses in the early part of the 20th century, Nitti was not a Sicilian.  His roots were in the heart of Camorra territory in the shadow of Vesuvius, his birthplace the town of Angri, 8km (5 miles) from nearby Pompei.  Angri was also the hometown of Capone’s parents.  Francesco’s father died while he was still a small child. His mother, Rosina, married again within a year to Francesco Dolengo, who emigrated to the United States in 1890.  Nitti, his mother and his sister, Giovannina, left Italy to join him in 1893, settling in Navy Street, Brooklyn.  He was enrolled in a local school but left at around age 13, taking a job as a pinsetter in a bowling alley before becoming a barber.  Read more…


Giuseppe Verdi – composer

How Italy mourned the loss of a national symbol

Opera composer Giuseppe Verdi died on this day at the age of 87 in his suite at the Grand Hotel et de Milan in 1901.  The prolific composer who had dominated the world of opera for a large part of the 19th century was initially buried privately at Milan’s Cimitero Monumentale.  But a month later Verdi’s body was moved to its final resting place in the crypt of a rest home for retired musicians that he had helped establish in Milan.  An estimated crowd of 300,000 people are reported to have turned out to bid Verdi farewell and ‘Va, pensiero’, a chorus from his 1842 opera Nabucco, was performed by a choir conducted by Arturo Toscanini.  Verdi meant a great deal to the Italian people because his composition, ‘Va, pensiero’ had been the unofficial anthem for supporters of the Risorgimento movement, which had sought the unification of Italy.  In his early operas Verdi had demonstrated sympathy with the cause of the Risorgimento and people had come to associate him with the movement’s ideals.  But as he became older and more prosperous he had chosen to withdraw from public life and had established himself on a country estate just outside Busseto, the town of his birth, near Parma in Emilia-Romagna.  Read more...


Trajan - Roman emperor

Military expansionist with progressive social policies

Marcus Ulpius Traianus succeeded to the role of Roman Emperor on this day in 98 AD.  The 13th ruler of the empire and known as Trajan, he presided over the greatest military expansion in Roman history, the consequence of which was that in terms of physical territory the empire was at its largest during his period in office.  Despite his taste for military campaigns - he conquered Dacia (the area now called Romania), Armenia, Mesopotamia, and the Sinai Peninsula - Trajan was seen as the second of the so-called Good Emperors to rule during the years known as Pax Romana, a long period of relative peace and stability.  He was credited with maintaining peace by working with rather than against the Senate and the ruling classes, introducing policies aimed at improving the welfare of citizens, and engaging in massive building projects that were to the benefit of ordinary Romans.  Marcus Ulpius Traianus was born in the Roman province of Baetica, which approximates to the area now known as Andalusia in southern Spain. His father was a provincial governor who then turned soldier, commanding a legion in the Roman war against Jews. Read more…


Roberto Paci Dalò – composer and film maker

Music maker coined the definition ‘media dramaturgy’

The award-winning contemporary musician and composer Roberto Paci Dalò was born on this day in 1962 in Rimini.  Paci Dalò is the co-founder and director of the performing arts ensemble Giardini Pensili and has composed music for theatre, radio, television and film.  After completing musical, visual and architectural studies in Fiesole, Faenza and Ravenna, Paci Dalò focused on sound and design and their use in film, theatre and collaborative projects.  He has been a pioneer in the use of digital technologies and telecommunication systems in art and has been particularly interested in performing arts as a meeting point of languages.  Since 1985 he has written, composed and directed more than 30 groundbreaking music-theatre works which have been presented worldwide.  Paci Dalò has composed music for acoustical ensembles, electronics and voices and has produced radio works for the main European broadcasting corporations.  His films and videos have been regularly presented in international festivals.  Paci Dalò taught Media Dramaturgy at the University of Siena.  Read more…


Giovanni Arpino – writer and novelist

Stories inspired classic Italian films

The writer Giovanni Arpino, whose novels lay behind the Italian movie classics Divorce, Italian Style and Profumo di donna – later remade in the United States as Scent of a Woman – was born on this day in 1927 in the Croatian city of Pula, then part of Italy.  His parents did not originate from Pula, which is near the tip of the Istrian peninsula about 120km (75 miles) south of Trieste. His father, Tomaso, was a Neapolitan, while his mother, Maddalena, hailed from Piedmont, but his father’s career in the Italian Army meant the family were rarely settled for long in one place.  In fact, they remained in Pula only a couple of months. As Giovanni was growing up, they lived in Novi Ligure, near Alessandria, in Saluzzo, south of Turin, and in Piacenza in Emilia-Romagna. His father imposed a strict regime on Giovanni and his two brothers, who were required to spend a lot of their time studying.  In fact, Giovanni was separated from his family for a while during the Second World War, when his mother returned to the Piedmontese town of Bra, not far from Saluzzo in the province of Cuneo, to deal with the estate of her father, who passed away in 1940.  Read more…


Frank Nitti - mobster

Barber who became Al Capone’s henchman

Frank Nitti grew up in the Capone family's  neighbourhood in Brooklyn, New York
Frank Nitti grew up in the Capone family's
neighbourhood in Brooklyn, New York
The mobster who achieved notoriety as Frank Nitti was born Francesco Raffaele Nitto it is thought on this day in 1881, although some accounts put the year of his birth as 1886. 

Nitti, who was raised in Brooklyn, New York, where he and Al Capone - his cousin - grew up, would eventually become Capone’s most trusted henchman in the Chicago mob he controlled.  After Capone was jailed for 11 years for tax evasion, Nitti was ostensibly in charge of operations.

Unlike many of the American Mafia bosses in the early part of the 20th century, Nitti was not a Sicilian.  His roots were in the heart of Camorra territory in the shadow of Vesuvius, his birthplace the town of Angri, 8km (5 miles) from nearby Pompei.  Angri was also the hometown of Capone’s parents.

Young Francesco’s father died when he still a small child. His mother, Rosina, married again within a year to Francesco Dolengo, who emigrated to the United States in 1890.  Nitti, his mother and his sister, Giovannina, left Italy to join him in 1893, settling in Navy Street, Brooklyn.

He was enrolled in a local school but left at around age 13, taking a job as a pinsetter in a bowling alley before becoming a barber. By this time he was well acquainted with criminal activities through the Navy Street Gang, of which a number of Capone’s brothers were members.  He is said to have left home after falling out with his step-father.

Nitti worked for many years as the chief henchman to Chicago boss Capone
Nitti worked for many years as the chief
henchman to Chicago boss Capone
The story of Nitti’s early adulthood is not clear but at some stage, possibly in 1913, he left Brooklyn and next surfaced in Chicago, again working as a barber, supplementing his income through crime after meeting mobsters Alex Louis Greenberg and Dion O'Banion. He kept a low profile but marriage records show that at some point he moved to Dallas, Texas, where he married his first wife, Rosa, in 1917.  Accounts suggest he became involved with a Galveston crime syndicate but fled back to Chicago after stealing a large amount of money from two associates.

Nitti renewed contacts with Greenberg and O’Banion and supported himself as a jewel thief, liquor smuggler and fence. Through his smuggling activities, Nitti came into contact with Chicago crime boss Johnny "Papa Johnny" Torrio and his lieutenant, Al Capone, who had been sent to assist Torrio by New York mobster Frankie Yale.

Capone, several years younger than Nitti, took over after Torrio survived an assassination attempt.  Thanks to their family connections, Capone saw Nitti as someone he could trust and placed him in charge of his growing smuggling and distribution operation. With prohibition in place, Nitti imported whisky from Canada and sold it through a network of so-called speakeasies around Chicago.

His stock remained sufficiently high that when Capone was briefly imprisoned in 1929 he ran the organisation. He acquired the nickname “The Enforcer” but is thought to have shied away from violence himself, preferring to leave the dirty work to others.

In 1931, by then married for a second time to Anna after his first marriage ended in divorce, Nitti was sent to jail along with his boss on tax evasion charges.  But where Nitti’s sentence was for 18 months, Capone was sent away for 11 years. It meant that Nitti was again in charge of the Chicago underworld.

Fearful of going to jail, Nitti killed himself in  a railway yard close to his home in 1943
Fearful of going to jail, Nitti killed himself in
a railway yard close to his home in 1943
As the boss, Nitti’s position was not as strong as it appeared.  Under his command, the upcoming Paul "The Waiter" Ricca became increasingly powerful, to the extent that when the New York mobsters Charles "Lucky" Luciano and Meyer Lansky set about organising the National Crime Syndicate to co-ordinate mob activity across the United States, they dealt directly with Ricca, rather than Nitti.

An attempt to remove Nitti was revealed in the aftermath of a police raid on his office by a team of Chicago police, headed by detectives Harry Lang and Harry Miller, during which Lang shot Nitti three times in the back and neck. He claimed he was acting in self defence and Nitti, who survived, was charged with attempted murder. During the trial, however. Miller testified that Lang had been given $15,000 to kill Nitti.

The end for Nitti came in 1943, when he and other leading figures in the so-called Chicago Outfit, including Ricca, were indicted on charges of extorting money from Hollywood movie studios, including Columbia Pictures, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Paramount Pictures, RKO Pictures and 20th Century Fox, with the threat that they would face problems from the unions if they did not comply.

Having discovered during his first confinement that he suffered from severe claustrophobia, Nitti dreaded the idea of going to jail again, yet he was under pressure from Ricca to go before the grand jury and shoulder the blame himself rather than allow the Outfit to be broken up.

The day before his scheduled appearance, Nitti took his own life. He waited for his latest wife, Annette, to leave their home in the Chicago suburb of Riverside for church before downing several large drinks and walking five blocks to a railway yard, where he first tried to throw himself in front of a moving train but could not go through with it, and then, at the third attempt, shot himself in the head.

Nitti is buried at Mount Carmel Cemetery in Hillside, another urban village, about 24km (15 miles) west of downtown Chicago. His grave can be found left of the main gain, to the right pf which is the family plot containing the grave of Capone. The cemetery contains the graves of several other Chicago mobsters.         

The Castello Doria in Angri is an unusual structure with two concentric towers, built by the Doria family
The Castello Doria in Angri is an unusual structure with
two concentric towers, built by the Doria family
Travel tip:

Nitti’s hometown of Angri, situated where the urban sprawl that fans out around Vesuvius meets the Lattari mountains at the beginning of the Sorrentine Peninsula, is rich in history. It was the scene of the battle marked the victory of the Eastern Roman Empire over the Goths in 552 and became an important town under Bourbon rule and in the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies in the 19th century.  The Castello Doria, notable for its two concentric towers, is an example of the town’s rich architectural heritage, dating back to the period between the 17th and 18th centuries in which Angri was controlled by the Doria family of Genova.

The impressive Pontifical Shrine of the Blessed  Virgin of the Rosary of Pompei
The impressive Pontifical Shrine of the Blessed
 Virgin of the Rosary of Pompei
Travel tip:

A few kilometres from Angri in the direction of the Bay of Naples is Pompei, the town about 25km (15 miles) south of Naples built close to the ruins of the former Roman city. Like Angri, it is not without impressive achitecture, notably the Pontifical Shrine of the Blessed Virgin of the Rosary of Pompei, its towering cathedral. The cathedral was built from a dilapidated former church by Bartolo Longo, a lawyer who had returned to the Christian faith after a period following alternative beliefs, over a 28-year period between 1873 and 1901. The statue of the Virgin of the Rosary that sits atop the façade was carved from a single block of Carrara marble by Gaetano Chiaromonte.

More reading:

Frankie Yale: gang boss who employed the young Al Capone

How Lucky Luciano brought order to warring clans

The real life 'Godfather' - Carlo Gambino

Also on this day:

98AD: The Roman Emperor Trajan begins his reign

1901: The death of composer Giuseppe Verdi

1927: The birth of writer Giovanni Arpino

1962: The birth of composer Roberto Paci Dalò


26 January 2020

26 January

Valentino Mazzola – footballer

Tragic star may have been Italy’s greatest player

The footballer Valentino Mazzola, captain of the mighty Torino team of the 1940s, was born on this day in 1919 in Cassano d’Adda, a town in Lombardy about 30km (19 miles) northeast of Milan.  Mazzola, a multi-talented player who was primarily an attacking midfielder but who was comfortable in any position on the field, led the team known as Il Grande Torino to five Serie A titles in seven seasons between 1942 and 1949. He scored 109 goals in 231 Serie A appearances for Venezia and Torino and had become the fulcrum of the Italy national team, coached by the legendary double World Cup-winner Vittorio Pozzo.  In just over a decade at the top level of the Italian game he achieved considerable success and some who saw him play believe he was the country’s greatest footballer of all time.  His life was cut short, however, when he and most of the Grande Torino team – and at the same time the Italian national team – were killed when a plane carrying them home from a friendly in Portugal crashed in thick fog on its approach to Turin airport on May 4, 1949.  The Superga Disaster – so-called because the aircraft collided with the rear wall of the Basilica of Superga, which stands on a hill overlooking the city – claimed the lives of 18 players.  Read more…


Giovanni Lanfranco - painter

Artist from Parma whose technique set new standards

The painter Giovanni Lanfranco, whom some critics regard as the equal of Pietro da Cortona and Guercino (Giovanni Francesco Barbieri) among the leading masters of High Baroque painting in Rome, was born on this day in 1582 in Parma.  A master of techniques for creating illusion, such as trompe l'oeil and foreshortening, he had a major influence on 17th century painting in Naples also, inspiring the likes of Mattia Preti, Luca Giordano and Francesco Solimena.  Lanfranco is best known for his Assumption of the Virgin (1625-7) in the duomo of Sant’Andrea della Valle in Rome, the altar fresco of the Navicella (1627-28) in St Peter’s Basilica, the cupola of the Gesù Nuovo church (1634-36) in Naples and the fresco of the Cappella del Tesoro, in Naples Cathedral (1643).  His St Mary Magdalen Transported to Heaven (c.1605), currently housed in the Capodimonte Museum in Naples, is another outstanding example of his work, as is The Ecstasy of the Blessed Margaret of Cortona (1622), in the Pitti Palace in Florence.  Lanfranco’s dome frescoes were influenced by the work of Antonio da Correggio, the master of chiaroscuro.  Read more…


Hebrew Bible in print for first time

Bologna printer makes history

The first printed edition of the Hebrew Bible was completed in Bologna on this day in 1482.  Specifically, the edition was the Pentateuch, or Torah, which consists of the first five books of the Christian and Jewish Bibles - Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.  Torah, in Hebrew, means 'instruction'.  The book was given that name because the stories within it, which essentially form the opening narrative of the history of the Jewish people, and the interpretations offered of them, were intended to set out the moral and religious obligations fundamental to the Jewish way of life.  The book was the work of the Italian-Jewish printer Abraham ben Hayyim dei Tintori, from Pesaro.  The text consisted of large, clear square letters, accompanied by a translation in the Jewish biblical language Aramaic and a commentary by Rashi, who had been the foremost biblical commentator of the Middle Ages.  It was published and financed by Joseph ben Abraham, a member of the Caravita banking family in Bologna. The editor was the Hebrew scholar Yosef Hayyim ben Aaron, of Strasbourg.  The printing press had been invented in Germany in 1439.  Read more…


Gabriele Allegra – friar and scholar

Sicilian who learnt Chinese to carry out his life’s work

The Blessed Gabriele Allegra, a Franciscan friar who translated the entire Catholic Bible into Chinese, is remembered on this day every year.  He was born Giovanni Stefano Allegra in San Giovanni la Punta in the province of Catania in Sicily in 1907 and he entered the Franciscan seminary in Acireale in 1918.  Gabriele Allegra was inspired to carry out his life’s work after attending a celebration for another Franciscan who had attempted a translation of the Bible into Chinese in the 14th century. For the next 40 years of his life the friar devoted himself to his own translation.  Gabriele Allegra was ordained a priest in 1930 and set sail for China. On his arrival he started to learn Chinese.  With the help of his Chinese teacher he prepared a first draft of his translation of the Bible in 1947 but it was not until 1968 that his one volume Chinese Bible was published for the first time.  Gabriele Allegra died on 26 January 1976 in Hong Kong. Although he was primarily a scholar, he had also helped the poor, the sick and lepers along the way.  He was declared Venerable in 1994.  Read more…


25 January 2020

25 January

Antonio Scotti - baritone

Neapolitan singer who played 35 seasons at the Met

The operatic baritone Antonio Scotti, who performed at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York for a remarkable 35 consecutive seasons, was born on this day in 1866 in Naples.  Scotti's career coincided with those of many fine baritones and experts did not consider his voice to be among the richest. Yet what he lacked in timbre, he compensated for in musicality, acting ability and an instinctive grasp of dramatic timing.  Later in his career, he excelled in roles that emerged from the verismo movement in opera in the late 19th century, of which the composer Giacomo Puccini was a leading proponent, drawing on themes from real life and creating characters more identifiable with real people.  For a while, Scotti's portrayal of the chief of police Baron Scarpia in Puccini's Tosca, for example, was the yardstick against which all performances were measured, at least until Tito Gobbi's emergence in the 1930s.  Indeed, in 1924 the Met chose a gala presentation of Tosca as a fitting way for Scotti to mark the 25th anniversary of his debut there.  Scotti's parents in Naples were keen for him to enter the priesthood but he chose to pursue his ambitions in music. Read more…


Paolo Mascagni – physician

Scientist was first to map the human lymphatic system

The physician Paolo Mascagni, whose scientific research enabled him to create the first map of the complete human lymphatic system, was born on this day in 1755 in Pomarance, a small town in Tuscany about 40km (25 miles) inland from the western coastline.  Mascagni described his findings in a book with detailed illustrations of every part of the lymphatic system he had identified, which was to prove invaluable to physicians wanting to learn more about a part of the human body vital to the regulation of good health. He also commissioned the sculptor Clemente Susini to create a full-scale model in wax of the lymphatic system, which can still be seen at the Museum of Human Anatomy at the University of Bologna.  Later he created another significant tome, his Anatomia Universa, which comprises 44 enormous copperplate illustrations that set out to bring together in one book the full extent of human knowledge about the anatomy of the human body.  The ‘book’ in the event was so large it was never bound, each plate measuring more than 3ft 6ins (1.07m) by 2ft 6ins (0.76m), designed in such a way that those from the same plane of dissection can be placed together and show the whole body in life size.  Read more…


Noemi - singer-songwriter

Debut album topped Italian charts

The singer-songwriter Noemi - real name Veronica Scopelliti - was born on Rome on this day in 1982.  Noemi’s first album, Sulla Mia Pelle, released in 2009, sold more than 140,000 copies, topping the Italian album charts.  It followed her appearance in the second series of the Italian version of The X-Factor, the television talent show that was launched in the United Kingdom in 2004.  Although she did not win the competition, Noemi proved to be the most popular singer, finishing fifth overall.  Soon afterwards, she landed her first recording contract, with Sony Music, and released a single, Briciole, which reached number two in the Italian singles chart.  Heavily influenced by soul music, Noemi established immediately the style that has seen her nicknamed the ‘lioness of Italian pop’.  The elder of two daughters of Armando and Stefania Scopelliti, Noemi - Veronica as she was then - had early experience of appearing in the spotlight - at 19 months she was chosen to model nappies in a TV commercial for Pampers.  She inherited her love for music from her father, who played guitar in a group, and began learning the piano at seven and the guitar at 11.  Read more…


Friuli earthquake

First of two disasters to rock Italy in the same year

A devastating earthquake hit the area now known as Friuli Venezia Giulia on this day in 1348.  With a seismic intensity believed to be the equivalent of 6.9 on the Richter scale, the effects of the quake were felt right across Europe.  According to contemporary sources, houses and churches collapsed and there were numerous casualties. It was recorded that even as far away as Rome, buildings had been damaged.  The epicentre is believed to have been north of Udine to the east of the small towns of Tolmezzo, Venzone and Gemona.  The earthquake happened on 25 January early in the afternoon and its effects were immediately felt in Udine, where the castle and cathedral were both damaged.  In Austria the town of Villach was later hit by a landslide caused by the earthquake. Buildings in Carniola, part of present day Slovenia, and in Vicenza, Verona and Venice were also damaged.  It was recorded that the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome was damaged by the earthquake and an ancient tower nearby developed a permanent tilt. Aftershocks were felt in different parts of Italy for several weeks.  Read more…


24 January 2020

24 January

- Galeazzo Maria Sforza - Duke of Milan

Effective leader with dark side

Galeazzo Maria Sforza, who became the second member of the Sforza family to take the title Duke of Milan, was born on this day in 1444 in Fermo, in what is now the Marche region.  Sforza was an effective ruler but is often remembered as a tyrant with a cruel streak.  He ruled Milan for just 10 years before he was assassinated in 1476.  In that time, Galeazzo did much to boost the economy of Milan and the wider area of Lombardia. He introduced measures to promote and protect the work of Lombard craftsmen and boosted agriculture by the introduction of jasmine farming and rice cultivation. Farsightedly, he realised that a healthy population was a more productive one and expanded the health institutions started by his father, Francesco Sforza.  He minted a new silver coin, the Testone, which carried an image of his profile on the reverse.  He saw to it that work on Milan’s cathedral, which had started almost 100 years earlier, continued to progress, and took over the construction of a major hospital that his father had wanted to see built.  Galeazzo was also a major patron of music, attracting composers and musicians not just in Italy but from northern Europe.  Read more…


Farinelli – music’s first superstar

Castrato rated among all-time opera greats

The opera singer Carlo Broschi – better known by his stage name of Farinelli – was born on this day in 1705 in the city of Andria in what is now Apulia.  Farinelli was a castrato, a type of classical male singing voice that was enormously popular from the 16th to the 18th century, one which had an enormous range and flexibility, a little like a female soprano but subtly different.  It was achieved through the somewhat barbaric practice of castrating a male singer before puberty, which is why there are no castrati today. Among other things, the procedure caused changes in the development of the larynx, meaning the voice effectively never breaks, and of the bones, including the ribs, which grew longer than in non-castrated boys and gave the castrato singer considerably enhanced lung power and capacity.  Although many survived and, like Farinelli, went on to enjoy a normal lifespan, the practice was hugely risky and there were many deaths not only from post-operative infections but also from overdoses of opium or other narcotic drugs administered as painkillers, or else from the compression of the carotid artery in the neck employed as a means of rendering the boy unconscious.  Read more...


Giorgio Chinaglia - footballer

Centre-forward from Carrara became a star on two continents

The footballer Giorgio Chinaglia, who would start his career in Wales before enjoying stardom in his native Italy and then the United States, was born on this day in 1947 in Carrara in Tuscany.  A powerful centre forward and a prolific goalscorer, Chinaglia scored more than 100 goals for Lazio. His 193 for New York Cosmos made him the all-time leading goalscorer in the North American Soccer League.   Chinaglia left Italy at the age of nine after his father, Mario, decided that his family would enjoy a more prosperous future abroad given the state of Italy's economy in the immediate wake of the Second World War.  Jobs at a Cardiff steelworks were advertised in the employment office in Carrara and Mario successfully applied.  He would eventually leave the steelworks to train as a chef, building on his experience as a cook in the army, and ultimately opened his own restaurant.  The catholic schools Chinaglia attended tended to favour rugby as their principal winter game and his teachers saw in him a potential second-row forward.  But rugby was an alien game to him and he much preferred football.  Ultimately he was picked for Cardiff Schools, for whom he scored a hat-trick in an English Schools Shield match, in doing so earning a trial at Swansea Town.  Read more…


Assassination of Caligula

Controversial emperor killed by Praetorian Guard

Gaius Julius Caesar Germanicus, the Roman emperor usually referred to by his childhood nickname, Caligula, was assassinated at the imperial palace on the Palatine Hill in Rome on this day in 41AD.  His killers were officers of the Praetorian Guard who confronted him in an underground corridor at the imperial palace, where he had been hosting the Palatine Games, an entertainment event comprising sport and dramatic plays.  According to one account, Caligula was stabbed 30 times in a deliberate act of symbolism, that being the number of knife wounds some believe were inflicted on Julius Caesar, his great-great-grandfather after whom he was named, when he was murdered in 44BC, although the number of blows Caesar suffered is disputed.  Most accounts agree that the chief plotter in Caligula’s murder, and the first to draw blood, was Cassius Chaerea, an officer Caligula was said to have frequently taunted for his weak, effeminate voice.  The motives behind the assassination were much more than one aggrieved officer wishing to avenge a personal slight.  A descendent of Rome's most distinguished family, the Julio Claudiens, Caligula had initially been popular.  Read more…


Arnoldo Foà – actor

Talented performer, director and writer worked into his 90s.

Theatre and film actor Arnoldo Foà was born on this day in 1916 in Ferrara.  He began acting in the 1930s and was still appearing on stage after the year 2000 when he was over 90. He had parts in more than 100 films between 1938 and 2007.  Foà was born into a Jewish family living in Ferrara but moved with his family to live in Florence when he was three years old, eventually attending an acting school there.  He abandoned his economics and commerce studies in Florence at the age of 20 to move to Rome and attend the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia.  Foà began appearing on stage in the 1930s but his situation became difficult during the war. In order to earn money he had to stand in for actors when they were ill using a false name.  He eventually moved to Naples and when the Allies arrived worked for their radio station as an announcer. At the end of the war Foà was able to work in the theatre under his own name again.  In the 1950s he started writing, became a theatre director and helped with the development of RAI.  During his film career Foà worked for many famous directors. On his website he picks as  two of his most prestigious films Il Processo (The Trial) directed by Orson Welles and Gente di Roma (People of Rome) directed by Ettore Scola, for which he received an award.  Read more…