29 February 2020

Pietro Ottoboni - patron of music and art

Venetian cardinal spent fortune on composers and painters


Francesco Trevisiani's portrait of Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni, painted in around 1689
Francesco Trevisiani's portrait of Cardinal
Pietro Ottoboni, painted in around 1689
Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni, who is remembered as the biggest sponsor of the arts and music in particular in Rome in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, died on this day in 1740 in Rome.

Despite a somewhat licentious lifestyle that reportedly saw him father between 60 and 70 children, Ottoboni, whose great uncle was Pope Alexander VIII, was considered a candidate to succeed Pope Clement XII as pontiff following the death of the latter on 6 February.

However, he developed a fever during the conclave and had to withdraw. He died three weeks later.

Born into a noble Venetian family, Ottoboni was the last person to hold the office of Cardinal-nephew, a tradition dating back to the Middle Ages that allowed a pontiff to appoint members of his own family to key positions. The practice was abolished by Alexander VIII’s successor, Pope Innocent XII, in 1692.

Ottoboni was also made vice-chancellor of the Holy Church of Rome, a position he held until his death, which gave him an annual income that would have been the equivalent today of almost £5 million (€5.79m).  Although he had several positions of responsibility, including superintendent general of the affairs of the Apostolic See, and governor of the cities of Fermo and Tivoli, he was an unashamed seeker of sensual pleasure.

This translated into a considerable number of mistresses but also a great love of music, in the pursuit of which he spent lavishly and, despite his wealth, managed to run up substantial debts.

Arcangelo Corelli's career flourished with Pietro Ottoboni's financial support
Arcangelo Corelli's career flourished with
Pietro Ottoboni's financial support
Soon after he was made a Cardinal, he set about restoring the theatre at the Palazzo della Cancelleria, his residence in Rome.  The theatre had been unused for 15 years but Ottoboni was determined to make it the centre of music in Rome.  Filippo Juvara, his court architect, enlarged the theatre and turned it into one of the most technically advanced opera venues in the city, while Ottoboni hired the finest singers and musicians available. One of his favourites, the castrato Andrea Adami, was made master of the papal choir at the Sistine Chapel.

Operas by Alessandro Scarlatti, Antonio Caldara and many other leading composers were premiered at the Cancelleria.  Ottoboni supported Arcangelo Corelli, the greatest violinist of his generation, and worked with the German musician and composer George Frideric Handel for a period early in the 18th century.

His relationship with Corelli was such that when the musician died in 1713 he left his entire estate to the Cardinal, who in turn distributed it among Corelli’s family and arranged for him to buried at the Pantheon in Rome, his tomb marked with an elaborate memorial. 

Other composers who had Ottoboni to thank for the advancement of their careers included his fellow Venetians Antonio Vivaldi and Tomaso Albinoni.

Ottoboni’s patronage extended beyond his own theatre. He was also the major benefactor of what is now the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, Italy’s premier conservatory, and the Accademia Filarmonica di Bologna. 

The cover of the libretto for Scarlatti's  'The Martyrdom of St Cecilia'
The cover of the libretto for Scarlatti's
 'The Martyrdom of St Cecilia'
He made his own contribution to the advancement of the opera genre as a librettist.  His position in the Church meant he could not publish them under his own name, especially after Clement XI banned all public opera performances in 1701. It is widely thought, for instance, that the libretto for Scarlatti's 1693 opera La Giuditta was written by Ottoboni.

Beyond the world of music, the Sicilian architect Giovanni Battista Vaccarini, who became one of the most prominent figures in the Sicilian Baroque movement that grew after the earthquake of 1693, and painters Sebastiano Conca, Sebastiano Ricci and Francesco Trevisan also benefited from his support. The Seven Sacraments, which he commissioned in 1712 and was executed by Giuseppe Maria Crespi, is now in the Museum of Dresden in Germany.

Ottoboni was a collector of art as well as a sponsor, yet much of his vast collection was lost to Italy when he died, as a result of his debts, which demanded that his possessions be sold and the proceeds shared among his creditors.

Among his 530 paintings, some of which he inherited from his great uncle but many that he bought himself over half a century, included works by Guido Reni, Tintoretto, Pietro da Cortona, Jacopo Bassani, Giuseppe Cesari and Paolo Veronese.  They were disposed of in four sales and have consequently been distributed around the world.

The Palazzo della Cancelleria in Rome was Cardinal Ottoboni's home as vice-chancellor of the Holy Roman Church
The Palazzo della Cancelleria in Rome was Cardinal Ottoboni's
home as vice-chancellor of the Holy Roman Church
Travel tip:

The Palazzo della Cancelleria, which was Cardinal Ottoboni’s residence in Rome, is situated between Corso Vittorio Emanuele II and the Campo de' Fiori. It is probably the earliest Renaissance palace to be built in Rome, designed by the architect Donato Bramante and constructed between 1489 and 1513, initially as a residence for Cardinal Raffaele Riario, who was treasurer of the Holy Roman Church under Pope Sixtus V, and subsequently evolved as the seat of the Chancellery of the Papal States. It was also used as the parliament building by the short-lived Roman Republic in the mid-19th century.

Rome's ancient Pantheon is the burial place of many famous individuals, including Arcangelo Corelli
Rome's ancient Pantheon is the burial place of many
famous individuals, including Arcangelo Corelli
Travel tip:

Considered to be Rome’s best preserved ancient building, the Pantheon, which can be found in Piazza della Rotonda, was built in AD 118 on the site of a previous building dating back to 27 BC. It was consecrated as a church in the seventh century and many important people are buried there, including the kings Victor Emmanuel II and Umberto I, and Umberto’s wife, Queen Margherita, and the writers Voltaire, Rousseau, Victor Hugo and Émile Zola.

More reading:

How Arcangelo Corelli influenced the development of music

Why Alessandro Scarlatti was ahead of his time

Vaccarini's legacy to the city of Catania

Also on this day:

1792: The birth of composer Gioachino Rossini


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28 February 2020

28 February

Karl Zuegg - jam and juice maker


Businessman turned family farm into international company

Karl Zuegg, the businessman who turned his family's fruit-farming expertise into one of Italy's major producers of jams and juices, was born on this day in 1915 in Lana, a town in what is now the autonomous province of Bolzano in Trentino-Alto Adige.  His grandparents, Maria and Ernst August Zuech - they changed their name to Zuegg in 1903 - had been cultivating fruit on their farm since 1860, when Lana was part of South Tyrol in what was then Austria-Hungary.  They traded at local markets and began exporting.  Zuegg and the company's other major brand names, Skipper and Fruttaviva, are among the most recognisable in the fruit products market in Italy and it is largely through Karl's hard work and enterprise.  He was managing director of the company from 1940 to 1986, during which time Zuegg became the first drinks manufacturer in Italy to make use of the ground-breaking Tetrapak packaging invented in Sweden, which allowed drinks to be sold in lightweight cardboard cartons rather than traditional glass bottles.  The family business had begun to experiment with jams in 1917 when austerity measures in Italy were biting hard and there was a need to preserve food.  Read more…


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Dino Zoff – footballer


Long career of a record-breaking goalkeeper

Dino Zoff, the oldest footballer to be part of a World Cup winning team, was born on this day in 1942.  Zoff was captain of the Italian national team in the final of the World Cup in Spain in 1982 at the age of 40 years, four months and 13 days.  He also won the award for best goalkeeper of the tournament, in which he kept two clean sheets and made a number of important saves.  Zoff was born in Mariano del Friuli in Friuli-Venezia Giulia. He had trials with Inter-Milan and Juventus at the age of 14 but was rejected because of his lack of height.  Having grown considerably, he made his Seria A debut with Udinese in 1961. He then moved to Mantua, where he spent four seasons, and Napoli, where he spent five seasons.  Zoff made his international debut during Euro 68 and was number two goalkeeper in the 1970 World Cup.  From 1972 onwards he was Italy’s number one goalkeeper.  He signed for Juventus in 1972 and during his 11 years with the club won the Serie A championship six times, the Coppa Italia twice and the UEFA Cup once.  When Zoff retired he held the record for being the oldest Serie A player at the age of 41 and for the most Serie A appearances, having played 570 matches.  Read more…


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Mario Andretti – racing driver


American champion was born and grew up in Italy

Mario Andretti, who won the 1978 Formula One World Championship driving as an American, was born on this day in 1940 in Montona, about 35km (22 miles) south of Trieste in what was then Istria in the Kingdom of Italy.  Andretti’s career was notable for his versatility. He is the only driver in motor racing history to have won an Indianapolis 500, a Daytona 500 and an F1 world title, and one of only two to have won races in F1, Indy Car, NASCAR and the World Sportscar Championship. He is the last American to have won an F1 Grand Prix.  He clinched the 1978 F1 title at the Italian Grand Prix at Monza in September, the 14th of the 16 rounds, having led the standings by 12 points going into the race.  He crossed the line first and even though he was demoted to sixth place – the result of a one-minute penalty for going too soon at a restart – it was enough to mean he could not be caught.  His celebrations were muted, however, after his close friend, the Swedish driver Ronnie Petersen, died from complications to injuries he suffered in a crash on the first lap.  Andretti’s early years in Italy were fraught with difficulties.  Read more…


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27 February 2020

27 February

Italy's appeal for help with Leaning Tower


Fears of collapse prompted summit of engineers

The Italian government finally admitted that it needed help to save the Leaning Tower of Pisa from collapsing on this day in 1964.  There had been numerous attempts to arrest the movement of the tower, which had begun to tilt five years after construction began in 1173.  One side of the tower started to sink after engineers added a second floor in 1178, when the mistake of setting a foundation just three metres deep in weak, unstable soil became clear. Construction was halted.  In fact, in part because of a series of military conflicts, it did not resume for 100 years.  Additions were made to the building over the next 100 years, culminating in the completion of the bell chamber in 1372. Nothing more was done until the 19th century, when an ill-considered plan to dig a path around the base in 1838 resulted in a new increase in the tilt.  Ironically, the tower might have been deliberately destroyed in the Second World War when advancing American soldiers were ordered to blow up any tall building that might have been used by German snipers, regardless of its historical importance.  Thankfully, a German withdrawal before the Americans reached Pisa made it unnecessary.  Read more…

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Franco Moschino - fashion designer


Made clothes with sense of humour

The fashion designer Franco Moschino, founder of the Moschino fashion label, was born on this day in 1950 in Abbiategrasso, a town about 24km (15 miles) southwest of Milan.  Moschino became famous for his innovative and irreverent designs, which injected humour into high fashion.  For example, he created a miniskirt in quilted denim with plastic fried eggs decorating the hemline, a jacket studded with bottle tops and a suit covered with cutlery. He designed a dress that resembled a shopping bag and a ball gown made from black plastic bin bags.  Other designs carried messages mocking his own industry, such as a jacket with the motif ‘Waist of Money’ printed round the waistband, another in cashmere with ‘Expensive Jacket’ emblazoned across the back and a shirt with the words ‘I’m Full of Shirt’.  Moschino’s first collections focussed on casual clothes and jeans, but he eventually branched out into lingerie, eveningwear, shoes, menswear and perfumes.  As a young man, Moschino was encouraged to believe that his destiny lay in taking over his father’s iron foundry but his only interest in the plant lay in the layers of dust that clung to the walls, in which he would make drawings.  Read more…

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Mirella Freni – opera singer


Good advice from Gigli helped soprano have long career

Singer Mirella Freni was born Mirella Fregni on this day in 1935 in Modena in Emilia-Romagna.  Freni’s grandmother, Valentina Bartolomasi, had been a leading soprano in Italy from 1910 until 1927, specialising in Wagner roles. By coincidence, her mother worked alongside the mother of tenor Luciano Pavarotti in a tobacco factory in Modena.  Freni was obviously musically gifted and sang an opera aria in a radio competition when she was just ten years old.  One of the judges was the tenor Beniamino Gigli, who advised her to give up singing until she was older to protect her voice.  Freni took his advice and resumed singing when she was 17, making her operatic debut at the Teatro Municipale in Modena at the age of 20 in Bizet’s Carmen.  Her international debut came at Glyndebourne in Franco Zeffirelli’s staging of Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore.  In the 1960 season at Glyndebourne she sang comic roles from Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro and Don Giovanni.  Freni made her Covent Garden debut in 1961, her La Scala debut in 1963 and her Metropolitan Opera debut in 1965.  She started singing the heavier Verdi roles in the 1970s.  Read more…

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Simone Di Pasquale – dancer


Ballroom talent has been springboard for business success

Ballroom dancer and television celebrity Simone Di Pasquale was born on this day in 1978.  In 2005, he became a household name after he started to appear regularly on Italian television in Ballando con le Stelle - the equivalent of the US show Dancing with the Stars and Britain’s Strictly Come Dancing. The show, presented by Milly Carlucci, was broadcast every Saturday evening on the tv channel Rai Uno.  Pasquale has also appeared in numerous other television programmes, on stage in musical theatre and as an actor in a television drama.  Born in Rome, Di Pasquale learnt ballroom dancing at a young age and took part in competitions.  In 2000 he paired up with the dancer Natalia Titova, who also later became a celebrity because of Ballando con le Stelle. The couple were engaged from 1998 to 2005.  They took first place in the competition Rising Stars UK in 2004.  In the first season of Ballando con le Stelle, Di Pasquale partnered the Italian actress Hoara Borselli and the couple won the competition. He has taken part in each successive series since.  Di Pasquale has appeared as a guest on numerous programmes on Italian television.  Read more…


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26 February 2020

26 February

NEW - Emanuele Severino - philosopher 


Thinker famous for theories on eternity and being

The contemporary philosopher Emanuele Severino, who died in January of this year, was born on this day in 1929 in Brescia, in northern Italy.  Severino is regarded by many as one of Italy’s greatest thinkers of the modern era, yet came into conflict with the Catholic Church, so much that the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, the body that once stood in judgment of those it deemed as heretics, banished him from the Church in 1969 on the basis that his beliefs were not compatible with Christianity.  The basis for their action was his belief in “the eternity of all being”, which essentially denies the existence of God as a creator.  Severino believed that the ancient Greek theory of all things coming from nothing and returning to nothing after being granted temporary existence was flawed, and that the Greek sense of becoming was an error. He contended that the idea that an entity can move from ‘being’ to ‘non-being’ and vice-versa was absurd.  He argued that everything is eternal, not only all people and all things, but every moment of life, every feeling, every aspect of reality, and that nothing becomes or ceases to be.  Read more…


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Angelo Mangiarotti - architect and designer


Iconic glass church among legacy to city of Milan 

Angelo Mangiarotti, regarded by his peers as one of the greats of modern Italian architecture and design, was born on this day in 1921 in Milan.  Many notable examples of his work in urban design can be found in his home city, including the Repubblica and Venezia underground stations, the iconic glass church of Nostra Signora della Misericordia in the Baranzate suburb and several unique residential properties, including the distinctive Casa a tre cilindri - composed of a trio of cylindrical blocks - in Via Gavirate in the San Siro district of the city.  He also worked extensively in furniture design with major companies such as Vistosi, Fontana Arte, Danese, Artemide, Skipper and the kitchen producer Snaidero.  Mangiarotti graduated from the Architecture School of the Politecnico di Milano in 1948. He moved to the United States in 1953 and worked in Chicago as a visiting professor for the Illinois Institute of Technology. While in Illinois, he met internationally renowned architects Frank Lloyd Wright, Walter Gropius, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Konrad Wachsmann, all of whom were substantial influences.  Read more…

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Dante Ferretti – set designer


Three-times Oscar winner worked with Fellini and Scorsese

Dante Ferretti, who in more than half a century in movie production design has been nominated for 10 Academy Awards and won three, was born on this day in 1943 in the city of Macerata, in the Marche region of central Italy.  Ferretti, who works in partnership with his wife, the set decorator Francesca Lo Schiavo, won two of his Oscars for films directed by Martin Scorsese, with whom he has enjoyed a collaboration that began 25 years ago this year.  Nominated for his first film with Scorsese, The Age of Innocence (1993) and subsequently for Kundun (1998) and Gangs of New York (2003), he was successful with The Aviator (2005) and Hugo Cabret (2012).  Both Oscars, for Best Scenography, were shared with Lo Schiavo, with whom he also shared an Oscar for Tim Burton’s 2008 film Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.  Ferretti also enjoyed long collaborations with Federico Fellini and Pier Paolo Pasolini, and worked with a string of other major directors, including Elio Petri, Ettore Scola, Franco Zeffirelli, Jean-Jacques Annaud, Terry Gilliam, Anthony Minghella, Brian de Palma, Julie Taymor and Kenneth Branagh.  Read more…


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Napoleon escapes from Elba


Emperor leaves idyllic island to face his Waterloo

French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte escaped from the Italian island of Elba, where he had been living in exile, on this day in 1815.  Less than a year before, he had arrived in Elba, an island dotted with attractive hills and scenic bays, following his unconditional abdication from the throne of France.  Several countries had formed an alliance to fight Napoleon’s army and had chosen to send him to live in exile on the small Mediterranean island about 10km (6 miles) off the Tuscan coast.  They gave Napoleon sovereignty over the island and he was allowed to keep a small personal army to guard him. He soon set about developing the iron mines and brought in modern agricultural methods to improve the quality of life of the islanders.  But he began to be worried about being banished still further from France. He had heard through his supporters that the French Government were beginning to question having to pay him an annual salary.  He had also been told that many European ministers felt Elba was too close to France for comfort.  Napoleon also missed his wife, Marie-Louise, who he believed his captors were preventing from joining him.  Read more…


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Emanuele Severino - philosopher

Thinker famous for theories on eternity and being


Emanuele Severino was removed from the Catholic University of Milan because of his belief in the 'eternity of  all beings'
Emanuele Severino was removed from the Catholic University
of Milan because of his belief in the 'eternity of  all beings'
The contemporary philosopher Emanuele Severino, who died in January of this year, was born on this day in 1929 in Brescia, in northern Italy.

Severino is regarded by many as one of Italy’s greatest thinkers of the modern era, yet came into conflict with the Catholic Church, so much that the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, the body that once stood in judgment of those it deemed as heretics, banished him from the Church in 1969 on the basis that his beliefs were not compatible with Christianity.

The basis for their action was his belief in “the eternity of all being”, which essentially denies the existence of God as a creator.

Severino believed that the ancient Greek theory of all things coming from nothing and returning to nothing after being granted temporary existence was flawed, and that the Greek sense of becoming was an error. He contended that the idea that an entity can move from ‘being’ to ‘non-being’ and vice-versa was absurd.

He argued that everything is eternal, not only all people and all things, but every moment of life, every feeling, every aspect of reality, and that nothing becomes or ceases to be. He challenged the notion of death as annihilation, explaining birth and death through his theory that “we are eternal and mortal because the eternal enters and exits from appearing. Death is the absence of the eternal”.

Severino argued that nothing could come of nothing and therefore everything is eternal
Severino argued that nothing could come of
nothing and therefore everything is eternal
According to Severino, the incorrect faith in becoming, and the subsequent fear of becoming, in particular the fear of death or other undesired outcomes, underpins every aspect of Western civilisation and its continual attempts to defy the will of nature.

As a young man, Severino had been initially consumed by mathematics but turned to the study of philosophy after his brother, Giuseppe, with whom he often discussed the ideas of contemporary philosophers, had been killed in action in the Second World War.  He had a talent for music, too, and composed a suite for wind instruments that was performed in public.

Severino studied at the University of Pavia and subsequently at the Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore in Milan, where he became Professor of Moral Philosophy.  His philosophical position, which was described as neo-Parmenidism after the pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Parmenides, who similarly had contended that existence is unchanging and timeless, and that appearances to the contrary were the result of false conceptions produced by deceitful sensory faculties.

As a result of the Catholic Church’s judgment, Severino had to leave his position in Milan. He moved from there to the Ca’ Foscari University of Venice, where he was director of the Department of Philosophy and Theory of Sciences until 1989.

Despite the Church’s view that his opinions were dangerous, Severino was awarded the Gold Medal of the Republic for Meritorious Culture by the President of the Italian Republic. He won many prizes and regularly expressed his opinions in a column in the Corriere della Sera newspaper.

Severino died in January 2020 at the age of 89 in Brescia, where his body was cremated in a private ceremony before his death was announced.

Brescia's Duomo Vecchio, also known as la Rotonda, which is thought to date back to the 11th century
Brescia's Duomo Vecchio, also known as la Rotonda, which
is thought to date back to the 11th century
Travel tip:

Brescia, where Severino was born and died, is a city in Lombardy, situated about 90km (56 miles) east of Milan between the lakes of Iseo and Garda. It is a city of artistic and architectural importance. A Roman colony before the birth of Christ, it still has the remains of a forum, theatre and a temple. Brescia came under the protection of Venice in the 15th century and there is a Venetian influence in the architecture of the Piazza della Loggia, an elegant square, which has a clock tower similar to the one in Piazza San Marco in Venice. Next to the 17th century Duomo is an older cathedral, the unusually shaped Duomo Vecchio, also known as la Rotonda.

The Ca' Foscari and the Palazzo Giustinian, also part of the university, on Venice's Grand Canal
The Ca' Foscari and the Palazzo Giustinian, also part of the
university, on Venice's Grand Canal
Travel tip:

The Ca' Foscari University of Venice has been housed since its foundation in 1868 in the Venetian Gothic palace of Ca' Foscari, which stands on the Grand Canal, between the Rialto and San Marco, in the sestiere of Dorsoduro.  Originally the Regia Scuola Superiore di Commercio - the Royal High School of Commerce - it became a university in its centenary year in 1968.  Nowadays, it has eight departments and almost 21,000 students and regarded as one of top five universities in Italy, of which there are around 90.

Also on this day:

1815: Napoleon escapes from his exile on the island of Elba

1921: The birth of architect and designer Angelo Mangiarotti

1943: The birth of Oscar-winning set designer Dante Ferretti


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25 February 2020

25 February

Enrico Caruso – opera singer


Tenor's voice still regarded as greatest of all time 

Operatic tenor Enrico Caruso was born on this day in 1873 in Naples.  Believed by many opera experts to be the greatest tenor of all time, Caruso had a brilliant 25-year singing career, appearing at many of the major opera houses in Europe and America.  He made more than 200 recordings of his beautiful voice, some made as early as 1902.  Caruso was born in Via San Giovanello agli Ottocalli in Naples and baptised the next day in the nearby church of San Giovanni e Paolo.  At the age of 11 he was apprenticed to a mechanical engineer and also worked alongside his father in a factory.  At the same time he was singing in his church choir and was told his voice showed enough promise for him to consider becoming a professional singer.  Until she died in 1888, he was encouraged by his mother. To earn money, he started to work as a street singer in Naples, progressing to singing Neapolitan songs as entertainment in cafes. Having decided to become an opera singer, Caruso took singing lessons, keeping up with them even during his compulsory military service.  He made his stage debut in 1895 at the Teatro Nuovo in Naples.  Read more...

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Alberto Sordi - actor


Comic genius who appeared in 190 films

Alberto Sordi, remembered by lovers of Italian cinema as one of its most outstanding comedy actors, died on this day in 2003 in Rome, the city of his birth.  He was 82 and had suffered a heart attack.  Italy reacted with an outpouring of grief and the decision was taken for his body to lie in state at Rome's town hall, the Campidoglio.  Streams of his fans took the opportunity to file past his coffin and when his funeral took place at the Basilica of San Giovanni in Laterano it was estimated that the crowds outside the church and in nearby streets numbered one million people.  Only the funeral of Pope John Paul II, who died two years later, is thought to have attracted a bigger crowd.  Sordi was the Italian voice of Oliver Hardy in the early days of his career, when he worked on the dubbing of the Laurel and Hardy movies.  He made the first of his 190 films in 1937 but it was not until the 1950s that he found international fame.  He appeared in two movies directed by Federico Fellini - The White Sheik and I vitelloni.  In the latter, he played an oafish layabout, something of a simpleton but an effeminate and vulnerable character to whom audiences responded with warmth and affection due to Sordi's interpretation.  Read more…


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Carlo Goldoni – playwright


Greatest Venetian dramatist whose work still entertains audiences today

Carlo Goldoni, the author of The Servant of Two Masters, one of Italy’s most famous and best-loved plays, was born on this day in 1707 in Venice.  Goldoni became a prolific dramatist who reinvigorated the commedia dell’arte dramatic form by replacing its masked, stock figures with more realistic characters. He produced tightly constructed plots with a new spirit of spontaneity and is considered the founder of Italian realistic comedy.  The son of a physician, Goldoni read comedies from his father’s library when he was young and ran away from his school at Rimini with a company of strolling players when he was just 14.  Later, while studying at the papal college in Pavia, Goldoni read comedies by Plautus, Terence and Aristophanes and learnt French so he could read plays by Molière.  He was eventually expelled for writing a satire about the ladies of Pavia and was sent to study law.  Although he practiced law in Venice and Pisa and held diplomatic appointments, his real passion was writing plays for the theatres in Venice.  In 1748 he began writing for the Teatro Sant’Angelo company and dispensed with masked characters altogether for his play, La Pamela, a serious drama based on Samuel Richardson’s novel.  Read more…


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Giovanni Battista Morgagni - anatomist


The father of modern pathological anatomy

Anatomist Giovanni Battista Morgagni, who is credited with turning pathology into a science, was born on this day in 1682 in Forlì in Emilia-Romagna.  Morgagni was professor of Anatomy at the University of Padua for 56 years and taught thousands of medical students during his time there.  He was sent by his parents to study philosophy and medicine at the University of Bologna when he was 18 and he graduated as a doctor from both faculties.  In 1706 he published his work, Adversaria Anatomica, which was to be the first volume of a series and helped him become known throughout Europe as an accurate anatomist.  He succeeded to the chair of theoretical medicine at the University of Padua in 1712 and was to teach medicine there until his death in 1771.  Morgagni was promoted to the chair of anatomy after his first three years in Padua, following in the footsteps of many illustrious scholars. He brought out five more volumes of his Adversaria Anatomica during his early years in Padua.  In 1761, when he was nearly 80, he brought out the work that was to make pathological anatomy into a science – De Sedibus et causis morborum per anotomem indagatis (Of the seats and cause of diseases investigated through anatomy). Read more…


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24 February 2020

24 February

Cesare “Caesar” Cardini – restaurateur


Italian emigrant who invented Caesar salad

The restaurateur who history credits with inventing the Caesar salad was born on this day in 1896 in Baveno, a small town on the shore of Lake Maggiore.  Cesare Cardini was one of a large family, with four brothers and two sisters.  In common with many Italians in the early part of the 20th century, his brothers Nereo, Alessandro and Gaudenzio emigrated to the United States, hoping there would be more opportunities to make a living.  Nereo is said to have opened a small hotel in Santa Cruz, California, south of San Francisco, while Alessandro and Guadenzio went to Mexico City.  Cesare left Italy for America in 1913. Records indicate he disembarked at Ellis Island, New York on May 1, having endured the transatlantic voyage as a steerage passenger, sleeping in a cargo hold equipped with dozens of bunk beds, which was the cheapest way to travel but came with few comforts.  He is thought then to have returned to Italy for a few years, working in restaurants in Milan, but ventured back to the United States in 1919.  This time he settled, first in Sacramento, then in San Diego, on the Pacific Ocean and close to the border with Mexico.  Read more…


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Bettino Craxi - prime minister


The Socialist who broke the grip of the Christian Democrats

Bettino Craxi, the politician who in 1983 became the first member of the Italian Socialist Party (PSI) to be appointed prime minister, was born on this day in 1934 in Milan.  He was not the first socialist to hold the office - Ivanoe Bonomi had been prime minister for six months in 1920 on an Italian Reformist Socialist Party ticket and succeeded Marshal Pietro Badoglio as leader of the war-torn nation’s post-Mussolini government in 1944. However, Craxi broke the hold of the Christian Democrats, who had been in power continuously since the first postwar elections in 1946.  Craxi was a moderniser who moved his party away from traditional forms of socialism in a way that was replicated elsewhere in Europe, such as in Britain under the New Labour prime minister Tony Blair. Craxi replaced the party’s hammer-and-sickle symbol with a red carnation.  His reputation was ultimately wrecked by a corruption scandal, but during his tenure as prime minister, Italy became the fifth largest industrial nation and gained entry into the G7 Group.  His fiscal policies saw him clash with the powerful trade unions over the abolition of the wage-price escalator.  Read more…


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L’Orfeo – an early opera


The lasting appeal of Monteverdi’s first attempt at opera

L’Orfeo by Claudio Monteverdi, the earliest opera still being regularly staged, had its first performance on this day in 1607 in Mantua.  Two letters, both dated 23 February, 1607, refer to the opera due to be performed the next day in the Ducal Palace as part of the annual carnival in Mantua in Lombardy.  In one of them a palace official writes: ‘… it should be most unusual as all the actors are to sing their parts.’  Francesco Gonzaga, the brother of the Duke, wrote in a letter dated 1 March, 1607, that the performance had been to the ‘great satisfaction of all who heard it.’  L’Orfeo, or La favola d’Orfeo as it is sometimes called, is based on the Greek legend of Orpheus. It tells the story of the hero’s descent to Hades and his unsuccessful attempt to bring his dead bride, Eurydice, back to the living world.  While it is recognised that L’Orfeo is not the first opera, it is the earliest opera that is still regularly performed in theatres today and it established the basic form that European opera was to take for the next 300 years.  The composer, Claudio Monteverdi, was born in Cremona in Lombardy in 1567.  Read more…

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Sandro Pertini - popular president


Man of the people who fought Fascism

Sandro Pertini, the respected and well-liked socialist politician who served as Italy's President between 1978 and 1985, died on this day in 1990, aged 93.  Pertini, a staunch opponent of Fascism who was twice imprisoned by Mussolini and again by the Nazis, passed away at the apartment near the Trevi Fountain in Rome that he shared with his wife, Carla.  After his death was announced, a large crowd gathered in the street near his apartment, with some of his supporters in tears.  Francesco Cossiga, who had succeeded him as President, visited the apartment to offer condolences to Pertini's widow, 30 years his junior.  They had met towards the end of the Second World War, when they were both fighting with the Italian resistance movement.  Pertini's popularity stemmed both from his strong sense of morality and his unwavering good humour.  He had the charm and wit to win over most people he met and was blessed with the common touch.  He would make a point whenever it was possible of appearing in person to greet parties of schoolchildren visiting the presidential palace, sometimes joined the staff for lunch and endeared himself to the nation with his passionate support for Italy's football team at the 1982 World Cup.  Read more…


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23 February 2020

23 February

NEWCorrado Cagli - painter


Jewish artist who fought in World War II as a US soldier

The painter Corrado Cagli, one of the outstanding figures in the New Roman school that emerged in the early part of the 20th century, was born in Ancona on this day in 1910.  He moved with his family to Rome in 1915 at the age of five and by the age of 17 had created his first significant work, a mural painted on a building in Via Sistina, the street that links Piazza Barberini with the Spanish Steps in the historic centre of the city.  Another mural followed the following year he painted another mural inside a palazzo on the Via del Vantaggio, not far from Piazza del Popolo.  In 1932, he held his first personal exhibition at Rome’s Galleria d’Arte Moderna.  At this stage, despite being both Jewish and gay, Cagli had the support of the Fascist government, who commissioned him and others to produce mosaics and murals for public buildings.  Although he would go on to experiment in Neo-Cubist style and metaphysical styles, the aim of the Scuola Romana he sought to establish with fellow artists such as Giuseppe Capogrossi and Emanuele Cavalli was to reaffirm the principles of classical and Renaissance art.  Read more...


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Gentile Bellini - Renaissance painter


Bellini family were Venice's leading 15th century artists

Gentile Bellini, a member of Venice's leading family of painters in the 15th century, died in Venice on this day in 1507.  He was believed to be in his late 70s, although the exact date of his birth was not recorded.  The son of Jacopo Bellini, who had been a pioneer in the use of oil paint in art, he was the brother of Giovanni Bellini and the brother-in-law of Andrea Mantegna.  Together, they were the founding family of the Venetian school of Renaissance art.  Although history tends to place Gentile in their shadow, he was considered in his time to be one of the greatest living painters in Venice and from 1454 he was the official portrait artist for the Doges of Venice.  He also served Venice as a cultural ambassador in Constantinople, where he was sent to work for Sultan Mehmed II as part of a peace settlement between Venice and Turkey.  Gentile learned painting in his father's studio.  Once established, he had no shortage of commissions, for portraits, views of the city, and for large paintings for public buildings, often characterised by multiple figures.  He was one of the artists hired by the Scuola Grande di San Giovanni Evangelista to paint a 10-painting cycle known as the The Miracle of the Relics of the Cross.   Read more…


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John Keats – poet


Writer spent his final days in the Eternal City

English Romantic poet John Keats died on this day in Rome in 1821.  He had been a published writer for five years and had written some of his greatest work before leaving England.  Ode to a Nightingale, one of his most famous poems, was written in the spring of 1819 while he was sitting under a plum tree in an English garden.  Keats was just starting to be appreciated by the literary critics when tuberculosis took hold of him and he was advised by doctors to move to a warmer climate.  He arrived in Rome with his friend, Joseph Severn, in November 1820 after a long, gruelling journey.  Another friend had found them rooms in a house in Piazza di Spagna in the centre of Rome and they went past the Colosseum as they made their way there.  Keats slept in a room overlooking the Piazza and could hear the sound of the fountain outside, which may have inspired the words he later asked to be put on his tombstone.  To begin with he was well enough to go for walks along the Via del Corso and he enjoyed sitting on the Spanish Steps, but he was advised by his doctor against visiting the city’s main attractions.  Read more…


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Giovanni Battista de Rossi - Archaeologist


Excavations unearthed massive Catacomb of St Callixtus

Giovanni Battista de Rossi, the archaeologist who revealed the whereabouts of lost Christian catacombs beneath Rome, was born on this day in 1822 in the Italian capital.  De Rossi’s most famous discovery – or rediscovery, to be accurate – of the Catacomb of St Callixtus, thought to have been created in the 2nd century by the future Pope Callixtus I, at that time a deacon of Rome, under the direction of Pope Zephyrinus, established him as the greatest archaeologist of the 19th century.  The vast underground cemetery, located beneath the Appian Way about 7km (4.3 miles) south of the centre of Rome, is estimated to have covered an area of 15 hectares on five levels, with around 20km (12.5 miles) of passageways.  It may have contained up to half a million corpses, including those of 16 popes and 50 Christian martyrs, from Pope Anicetus, who died in 166, to Damasus I, who was pontiff until 384. Nine of the popes were buried in a papal crypt.  The complex steadily fell into disuse thereafter and the most important relics were removed over the centuries and relocated to churches around Rome.   Read more…


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Corrado Cagli - painter

Jewish artist who fought in World War II as a US soldier


Corrado Cagli, pictured in his studio in Rome in around 1969
Corrado Cagli, pictured in his studio in Rome
in around 1969
The painter Corrado Cagli, one of the outstanding figures in the New Roman school that emerged in the early part of the 20th century, was born in Ancona on this day in 1910. 

He moved with his family to Rome in 1915 at the age of five and by the age of 17 had created his first significant work, a mural painted on a building in Via Sistina, the street that links Piazza Barberini with the Spanish Steps in the historic centre of the city.

Another mural followed the following year he painted another mural inside a palazzo on the Via del Vantaggio, not far from Piazza del Popolo.  In 1932, he held his first personal exhibition at Rome’s Galleria d’Arte Moderna.

At this stage, despite being both Jewish and gay, Cagli had the support of the Fascist government, who commissioned him and others to produce mosaics and murals for public buildings.

Although he would go on to experiment in neo-Cubist style and metaphysical styles, the aim of the Scuola Romana he sought to establish with fellow artists such as Giuseppe Capogrossi and Emanuele Cavalli was to reaffirm the principles of classical and Renaissance art.

However, in 1938, when the Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini stepped up his persecution of Jews and other minorities, Cagli sought refuge in Paris and later fled to New York.

A detail from Cagli's 1936 painting, The Battle of San Martino, the final battle of the Second Italian War of Independence
A detail from Cagli's 1936 painting, The Battle of San Martino,
the final battle of the Second Italian War of Independence
Not knowing when or if he might return to Italy, Cagli became an American  citizen, even enlisting in the US Army. He went back to Europe as a soldier, taking part in the 1944 Normandy landings and seeing frontline combat fought in Belgium and Germany.

In fact, in an episode in his tour of duty that would have a profound effect on his life, he was part of a battalion that liberated Jewish prisoners from the Buchenwald concentration camp, near Weimar, in 1945. While he was there, Cagli made a series of dramatic drawings.

In 1948, Cagli finally returned to Rome to take up permanent residence again. At that time, he began to experiment in various abstract and non-figurative techniques, including metaphysical and neo-Cubist.

The recipient in 1946 of a Guggenheim award, in 1954 he was recognised with a Marzotto award, made by the Marzotto fashion company in Valdagno, in the Veneto between 1951 and 1968 to artists and thinkers who contributed to the cultural rebirth of Italy after the war.

In later life, he was the official banner painter for the Palio di Siena, the twice-yearly horse race around Siena’s Piazza del Campo, for which he had a particular fascination.

Corrado’s younger sister, Ebe, was a writer who also moved to the United States to escape Mussolini’s race laws.  She married an academic, Abraham Seidenberg, and did not return to Italy.

Cagli died in Rome in 1976.

Ancona's Cathedral of San Ciriaco, which occupies an elevated position on the site of a former acropolis
Ancona's Cathedral of San Ciriaco, which occupies an
elevated position on the site of a former acropolis
Travel tip:

Ancona, where Cagli lived until he was five years old, is a bustling port with a population of almost 102,000, situated on the Adriatic coast in the Marche region. Although the area around the port has an industrial feel, there are some notable beaches nearby of which the Passetto is the best known.  There is a good deal of history in the older part of the city,  some of it bearing witness to its Greek and Roman past, as well as the Cathedral of San Ciriaco, which has mixed Romanesque-Byzantine and Gothic elements, and stands on a hill on the site of the former acropolis of the Greek city.  The 18m-high Arch of Trajan, built in honour of the emperor who built the city’s harbour, is regarded as one of the finest Roman monuments in the Marche region. The harbour contains the Lazzaretto, a pentagonal building constructed on an artificial island in the 18th century as a quarantine station designed to protect the city from diseases carried by infected travellers.

Siena's beautiful Piazza del Campo, where the Palio di Siena horse race is staged on tow dates every summer
Siena's beautiful Piazza del Campo, where the Palio di Siena
horse race is staged on tow dates every summer
Travel tip:

The shell-shaped Piazza del Campo, established in the 13th century as an open marketplace on a sloping site between the three communities that eventually merged to form Siena, is regarded as one of Europe's finest medieval squares, looked over by the Palazzo Pubblico and the Torre del Mangia.  The red brick paving, fanning out from the centre in nine sections, was put down in 1349.  The Palio, which features 10 horses, each representing one of Siena's 17 contrade, or wards, ridden bareback by riders wearing the colours of the contrada they represent, was first contested in 1656 and is now staged on July 2 and August 16 each year.

Also on this day:

1507: The death of Renaissance painter Gentile Bellini

1821: The death of English Romantic poet John Keats

1822: The birth of archaeologist Giovanni Battista de Rossi


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22 February 2020

22 February

Mario Pavesi – entrepreneur


Biscuit maker who gave Italian motorists the Autogrill

Italy lost one of its most important postwar entrepreneurs when Mario Pavesi died on this day in 1990.  Pavesi, originally from the town of Cilavegna in the province of Pavia in Lombardy, not only founded the Pavesi brand, famous for Pavesini and Ringo biscuits among other lines, but also set up Italy’s first motorway service areas under the name of Autogrill.  Always a forward-thinking businessman, Pavesi foresaw the growing influence American ideas would have on Italy during the rebuilding process in the wake of the Second World War and the way that Italians would embrace road travel once the country developed its own motorway network.  He was one of the first Italian entrepreneurs to take full advantage of advertising opportunities in the press, radio, cinema and later television.  Born in 1909 into a family of bakers, Pavesi moved to Novara in 1934, opening a pastry shop in Corso Cavour, where he sold a range of cakes and confectionery and served coffee. During the next few years, until Italy became embroiled in the war, he expanded the business in several ways.  Read more…


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Enrico Piaggio - industrialist


Former aircraft manufacturer famed for Italy's iconic Vespa motor scooter

Enrico Piaggio, born on this day in 1905 in the Pegli area of Genoa, was destined to be an industrialist, although he cannot have envisaged the way in which his company would become a world leader.  Charged with rebuilding the business after Allied bombers destroyed the company's major factories during World War II, Enrico Piaggio decided to switch from manufacturing aircraft to building motorcycles, an initiative from which emerged one of Italy's most famous symbols, the Vespa scooter.  The original Piaggio business, set up by his father, Rinaldo in 1884, in the Sestri Ponente district of Genoa, provided fittings for luxury ships built in the thriving port. As the business grew, Rinaldo moved into building locomotives and rolling stock for the railways, diversifying again with the outbreak of World War I, when the company began producing aircraft.  In 1917 the company bought a new plant in Pisa and in 1921 another in nearby Pontedera, which became a major centre for the production of aircraft engines and is still the headquarters of Piaggio today.   Aeroplanes remained the focus of the business, which Enrico and his brother, Armando, inherited with the death of their father in 1938.  Read more…


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Giulietta Masina - actress


Married to Fellini and excelled in his films

The actress Giulietta Masina, who was married for 50 years to the film director Federico Fellini, was born on this day in 1921 in San Giorgio di Piano, a small town in Emilia-Romagna, about 20km (12 miles) north of Bologna.  She appeared in 22 films, six of them directed by her husband, who gave her the lead female role opposition Anthony Quinn in La Strada (1954) and enabled her to win international acclaim when he cast her as a prostitute in the 1957 film Nights of Cabiria, which built on a small role she had played in an earlier Fellini movie, The White Sheik.  Masina's performance in what was a controversial film at the time earned her best actress awards at the film festivals of Cannes and San Sebastián and from the Italian National Syndicate of Film Journalists (SNGCI).  Both La Strada and Nights of Cabiria won Oscars for best foreign film at the Academy Awards.  Masina also won best actress in the David di Donatello awards for the title role in Fellini's Juliet of the Spirits (1965) and a second SNGCI best actress award for his 1986 film Ginger and Fred.  Although born in northern Italy, one of four children, her parents sent her to live with a widowed aunt in Via Lutezia in the Parioli area of Rome.  Read more...


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Renato Dulbecco - Nobel Prize-winning physiologist


Research led to major breakthrough in knowledge of cancer

Renato Dulbecco, a physiologist who shared the 1975 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his role in drawing a link between genetic mutations and cancer, was born on this day in 1914 in Catanzaro in Calabria.  Through a series of experiments that began in the late 1950s after he had emigrated to the United States, Dulbecco and two colleagues showed that certain viruses could insert their own genes into infected cells and trigger uncontrolled cell growth, a hallmark of cancer.  Their findings transformed the course of cancer research, laying the groundwork for the linking of several viruses to human cancers, including the human papilloma virus, which is responsible for most cervical cancers.  The discovery also provided the first tangible evidence that cancer was caused by genetic mutations, a breakthrough that changed the way scientists thought about cancer and the effects of carcinogens such as tobacco smoke.  Dulbecco, who shared the Nobel Prize with California Institute of Technology (Caltech) colleagues Howard Temin and David Baltimore, then examined how viruses use DNA to store their genetic information.  Read more…


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21 February 2020

21 February


NEWRaimondo Montecuccoli – military leader


Brilliant tactician outwitted his opponents

Raimondo, Count of Montecuccoli, a soldier, strategist and military reformer who served the Hapsburgs with distinction during the Thirty Years’ War, was born on this day in 1609 in Pavullo nel Frignano in the Duchy of Modena and Reggio.  As well as being Count of Montecuccoli, Raimondo also became a Prince of the Holy Roman Empire and the Duke of Melfi in the Kingdom of Naples.  He was born in the Castle of Montecuccolo in Pavullo nel Frignano near Modena and at the age of 16 began serving as a soldier under the command of his uncle, Count Ernest Montecuccoli, who was a General in the Austrian army.  After four years of active service in Germany and the Low Countries, Raimondo became a Captain of Infantry.  He was wounded at the storming of new Brandenburg and at the first Battle of Breitenfeld, where he was captured by Swedish soldiers.  After being wounded again at Lutzen in 1632 he was made a major in his uncle’s regiment. He then became a lieutenant–colonel of cavalry.  At the storming of Kaiserslauten in 1635 he led a brilliant charge and was rewarded by being made a colonel.  Read more…


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Domenico Ghirardelli – chocolatier


Built famous US business with skills learned in Genoa

The chocolatier Domenico Ghirardelli, founder of the Ghirardelli Chocolate Company in San Francisco, was born on this day in 1817 in a village just outside Rapallo in Liguria.  Also known as Domingo, Ghirardelli arrived in San Francisco in 1849 during the rapid expansion years of the Gold Rush, having spent the previous 10 years or so in Peru, where he had run a successful confectionary business.  After making money as a merchant, initially ferrying supplies to prospectors in the gold fields, he set up his first chocolate factory in 1852, drawing on the skills he acquired as an apprentice in Genoa.  By the end of the century, the Ghirardelli Chocolate Company was one of the city’s most successful businesses, with a prestige headquarters on North Point Street, a short distance from Fisherman’s Wharf, in a group of buildings that became known as Ghirardelli Square.  The son of a spice importer, Ghirardelli was born in the village of Santa Anna, just outside Rapallo, about 25km (16 miles) along the Ligurian coast from Genoa, in the direction of La Spezia to the southeast.  His father wanted him to have a trade and once he had reached his teens sent him to be an apprentice at a confectioner in Genoa.  Read more…


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Giuseppe Abbati - painter and revolutionary


Early death robbed Italian art of bright new talent

Italy lost a great artistic talent tragically young when the painter and patriot Giuseppe Abbati died on this day in 1868.  Only 32 years old, Abbati passed away in the hospital of Santa Maria Nuova in Florence, having contracted rabies as a result of being bitten by a dog.  Abbati was a leading figure in the Macchiaioli movement, a school of painting advanced by a small group of artists who began to meet at the Caffè Michelangiolo in Florence in the late 1850s.  The group, in which Giovanni Fattori, Silvestro Lega and Cristiano Banti were other prominent members, were also for the most part revolutionaries, many of whom had taken part in the uprisings that occurred at different places in the still-to-be-united Italian peninsula in 1848.  Abbati, born in Naples, had joined Giuseppe Garibaldi's Expedition of the Thousand, losing his right eye in the Battle of the Volturno in 1860, when around 24,000 partisans were confronted by a 50,000-strong Bourbon army at Capua, north of Naples.  The son of Vincenzo Abbati, also a painter, Abbati was taken to live in Florence when he was six and to Venice before he was 10.  Read more…


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Death of Pope Julius II


Pope who commissioned Michelangelo for Sistine Chapel

Pope Julius II, who was nicknamed ‘the Warrior Pope’, died on this day in 1513 in Rome.  As well as conducting military campaigns during his papacy he was responsible for the destruction and rebuilding of St Peter’s Basilica and commissioning Michelangelo to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.  He is also remembered by students of British history as being the Pope who gave Henry VIII dispensation to marry Catherine of Aragon, his brother’s widow.  Born Giuliano della Rovere, he was the nephew of Francesco della Rovere, who became Pope Sixtus IV.  His uncle sent him to be educated by the Franciscans and he was made a Bishop soon after his Uncle became Pope.  He later became Cardinal Priest of San Pietro in Vincoli in Rome and was very influential in the College of Cardinals.  One of his major rivals was Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia, who was elected Pope Alexander VI in 1492. After accusing him of corruption, Della Rovere retreated from Rome until Alexander died in 1503.  He was succeeded by Pope Pius III who died less than a month after becoming Pope and Della Rovere was finally elected as Pope Julius II in November 1503.  Read more…


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