30 April 2020

30 April

Andrea Dandolo - Doge of Venice


Reign tested by earthquake, plague and war

Andrea Dandolo, the fourth member of a Patrician Venetian family to serve as Doge of the historic Republic, was born on this day in 1306.  A notably erudite scholar, Dandolo wrote two chronicles of the history of Venice in Latin and reformed the Venetian legal code by bringing together all of the diverse laws applicable to the Venetian Republic within one legal framework.  He achieved these things despite his reign being marked by a devastating earthquake, a catastrophic outbreak of the Black Death plague and two expensive wars, against Hungary and then Genoa.  Dandolo studied at the University of Padua, where he became a professor of law, a position he maintained until he was elected Doge. He quickly rose to a position of prominence in Venetian life, being appointed Procurator of St Mark’s Basilica, the second most prestigious position in the Venetian hierarchy after the Doge, at the age of just 25.  He was elected Doge in 1343, aged 37.  It was a particularly young age at which to be given the leadership of the Republic, but his family history and the manner in which he had conducted himself.  Read more…

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Luigi Russolo – painter and composer


Futurist artist who invented 'noise music'

Luigi Russolo, who is regarded as the first ‘noise music’ composer, was born on this day in 1885 in Portogruaro in the Veneto.  Russolo originally chose to become a painter and went to live in Milan where he met and was influenced by other artists in the Futurist movement.  Along with other leading figures in the movement, such as Carlo Carrà, he signed both the Manifesto of Futurist Painters and the Technical Manifesto of Futurist Painting as the artists set out how they saw Futurism being represented on canvas, and afterwards participated in Futurist art exhibitions.  Russolo issued his own manifesto, L’arte dei rumori, - The Art of Noises - in 1913, which he expanded into book form in 1916.  He stated that the industrial revolution had given modern man a greater capacity to appreciate more complex sounds. He found traditional, melodic music confining and envisioned noise music replacing it in the future.  Russolo invented intonarumori - noise-emitting machines - and conducted concerts using these machines. The audiences reacted with either enthusiasm or hostility to the style of music he produced.  None of these machines survived although they have since been reconstructed for use in performances.  Read more…


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Pope Pius V - Saint


Pontiff dismissed jester and clamped down on heretics

The feast day of Saint Pius V is celebrated every year on this day, the day before the anniversary of his death in 1572 in Rome.  Saint Pius V, who became Pope in 1566, is remembered chiefly for his role in the Counter Reformation, the period of Catholic resurgence following the Protestant Reformation.  He excommunicated Queen Elizabeth I of England for heresy and for persecuting English Catholics and he formed the Holy League, an alliance of Catholic states against the Turks.  Saint Pius V was born Antonio Ghislieri in Bosco, now Bosco Marengo, in Piedmont. At the age of 14 he entered the Dominican Order, taking the name of Michele. He was ordained at Genoa in 1528 and then sent to Pavia to lecture.  He became a bishop under Pope Pius IV but after opposing the pontiff was dismissed. After the death of Pius IV, Ghislieri was elected Pope Pius V in 1566. His first act on becoming Pope was to dismiss the court jester and no Pope has had one since.  Protestantism had by then conquered many parts of Europe and Pius V was determined to prevent it getting into Italy. He therefore took a personal interest in the activities of the Inquisition in Rome and appeared to be unmoved by the cruelty practiced.  Read more…


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29 April 2020

29 April

Liberation of Fornovo di Taro


How Brazilian soldiers hastened Nazi capitulation

The town of Fornovo di Taro in Emilia-Romagna acquired a significant place in Italian military history for a second time on this day in 1945 when it was liberated from Nazi occupation by soldiers from the Brazilian Expeditionary Force fighting with the Allies.  Under the command of General João Baptista Mascarenhas de Morais, the Brazilians marched into Fornovo, which is situated about 13km (8 miles) south-west of Parma on the east bank of the Taro river, at the conclusion of the four-day Battle of Collecchio.  It was in Fornovo that the 148th Infantry Division of the German army under the leadership of General Otto Fretter-Pico offered their surrender, along with soldiers from the 90th Panzergrenadier Division and the 1st Bersaglieri and 4th Mountain Divisions of the Fascist National Republican Army.  In total, 14,779 German and Italian troops laid down their arms after Fretter-Pico concluded that, with the Brazilians surrounding the town, aided by two American tank divisions and one company of Italian partisans, there was no hope of escape.  Although the total capitulation of the German and Fascist armies in Italy was not officially announced until 2 May in Turin, the surrender in Fornovo effectively brought the war in the peninsula to an end.  Read more…


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Rafael Sabatini – writer


Author of swashbucklers had the ‘gift of laughter’

Rafael Sabatini, who wrote successful adventure novels that were later made into plays and films, was born on this day in 1875 in Iesi, a small town in the province of Ancona in Le Marche.  Sabatini was the author of the international best sellers, Scaramouche and Captain Blood, and afterwards became respected as a great writer of swashbucklers with a prolific output.  He was the son of an English mother, Anna Trafford, and an Italian father, Vincenzo Sabatini, who were both opera singers.  At a young age he was exposed to different languages because he spent time with his grandfather in England and also attended school in both Portugal and Switzerland, while his parents were on tour.  By the time Sabatini went to live in England permanently, at the age of 17, he was already proficient in several languages. Although his first attempts at writing were in French when he was at school in Switzerland, he is said to have consciously chosen to write in English, saying at the time that all the best stories had been written in English.  Sabatini wrote short stories in the 1890s, some of which were published in English magazines.   Read more…


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Sara Errani -- tennis champion


Five-times Grand Slam doubles winner reached No 5 in singles

Tennis star Sara Errani, who was born in Bologna on this day in 1987, is arguably the most successful Italian tennis player of all time.  She and partner Roberta Vinci's career record of five Grand Slam doubles titles is unparalleled.  No other Italian combination has won more than one Grand Slam title and no Italian singles player has won more than two.  Nicola Pietrangeli, who was ranked the No 3 men's singles player at his peak, won the French Open championship in 1959 and 1960 and was runner-up in Paris on two other occasions, as well as winning the men's doubles at the French in 1959, with fellow Italian Orlando Sirola.  But Errani and Vinci have won on all surfaces, achieving a career Grand Slam in 2014 when they triumphed in the women's doubles at Wimbledon, having already won the French and US titles in 2012 and the Australian in both 2013 and 2014.  They are only the fifth pairing in tennis history to complete a career Grand Slam.  Errani also achieved a world ranking of No 5 in singles in 2013, having been runner-up to Maria Sharapova in the 2012 French Open as well as winning five WTA singles titles in the space of 12 months.  Read more…


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Giovanni Antonio Pellegrini - painter


Venetian artist who made mark in England

The painter Giovanni Antonio Pellegrini, who is regarded as one of the most important Venetian painters of the early 18th century, was born on this day in 1675 in Venice.   He played a major part in the spread of the Venetian style of large-scale decorative painting in northern Europe, working in Austria, England, France, Germany, and the Netherlands.  With a style that had influences of Renaissance artist Paolo Veronese and the Baroque painters Pietro da Cortona and Luca Giordano, he is considered an important predecessor of Giovanni Battista Tiepolo in the development of Venetian art.  A pupil of the Milanese painter Paolo Pagani, Pellegrini began travelling while still a teenager, accompanying Pagano to Moravia and Vienna.  After a period studying in Rome, he returned to Venice and married Angela Carriera, the sister of the portraitist Rosalba Carriera.  Soon afterwards, he accepted the commission to decorate the dome above the staircase at the Scuola Grande di San Rocco in 1709.  Pellegrini spent a significant part of his career in England, where he was invited, along with Marco Ricci, the nephew of Sebastiano Ricci, by Charles Montagu, the future Duke of Manchester.  Read more…


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28 April 2020

28 April

The death of Benito Mussolini


Fascist dictator captured and killed on shores of Lake Como

Benito Mussolini, the dictator who ruled Italy for 21 years until he was deposed in 1943, was killed by Italian partisans on this day in 1945, at the village of Giulino di Mezzegra on the shore of Lake Como.  The 61-year-old leader of the National Fascist Party had been captured the previous day in the town of Dongo, further up the lake, as he attempted to reach Switzerland along with his mistress, Claretta Petacci, and a number of Fascist officials.  With Nazi Germany on the brink of defeat, Mussolini had been planning to board a plane in Switzerland in order to fly to Spain.  Mussolini was said to have donned a Luftwaffe helmet and overcoat in the hope that he would not be recognised but the disguise did not work.  Fearing that the Germans would try to free him, as they had two years earlier when Italy's King Victor Emmanuel III placed him under house arrest in mountainous Abruzzo, the partisans hid Mussolini and the others in a remote farmhouse.  The following morning, along the coast of the lake at Mezzegra, their captives were stood against a wall and shot dead. The executions were said to have been carried out by a partisan who went under the name of Colonnello Valerio.  Read more…


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Nicola Romeo - car maker


Engineer used profits from military trucks to launch famous marque

Nicola Romeo, the entrepreneur and engineer who founded Alfa Romeo cars, was born on this day in 1876 in Sant’Antimo, a town in Campania just outside Naples.  The company, which became one of the most famous names in the Italian car industry, was launched after Romeo purchased the Milan automobile manufacturer ALFA - Anonima Lombarda Fabbrica Automobili.  After making substantial profits from building military trucks in the company’s Portello plant during the First World War, in peacetime Romeo switched his attention to making cars. The first Alfa Romeo came off the production line in 1921.  The cars made a major impact in motor racing, mainly thanks to the astuteness of Romeo in hiring the the up-and-coming Enzo Ferrari to run his racing team, and the Fiat engineer Vittorio Jano to build his cars.  Away from the track, the Alfa Romeo name sat on the front rank of the luxury car market.  Romeo’s parents, originally from an area known as Lucania that is now part of the Basilicata region, were not wealthy but Nicola was able to attend what was then Naples Polytechnic – now the Federico II University – to study engineering.  Read more…


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Baldus de Ubaldis – lawyer


Legal opinions have stood the test of time

An expert in medieval Roman law, Baldus de Ubaldis, died on this day in 1400 in Pavia.  De Ubaldis had written more than 3,000 consilia - legal opinions - the most to remain preserved from any medieval lawyer.  His work on the law of evidence and gradations of proof remained the standard treatment of the subject for centuries after his death.  De Ubaldis was born into a noble family in Perugia in 1327. He studied law and received the degree of doctor of civil law when he was 17.  He taught law at the University of Bologna for three years and was then offered a professorship at Perugia University where he remained for 33 years.  De Ubaldis subsequently taught law at Pisa, Florence, Padua, Pavia and Piacenza.  He taught Pierre Roger de Beaufort, who became Pope Gregory XI, whose immediate successor, Urban VI, summoned De Ubaldis to Rome in 1380 to consult with him about the anti-pope, Clement VII. The lawyer’s view on the legal issues relating to the schism are laid down in his Questio de schismate.  One of the best works of De Ubaldis is considered to be his commentary on the Libri Feudorum, a compilation of feudal law provisions.  Read more…


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27 April 2020

27 April

NEW -
Cesare Bianchi - head chef


From shores of Lake Como to London’s Café Royal

Cesare Bianchi, who rose from humble beginnings to become head chef at London’s prestigious Café Royal in the 1930s, was born on this day in 1897 in Cernobbio, a village on Lake Como in northern Italy.  He moved to England when he was only 16, hoping to build a career in catering and soon found work doing odd jobs in a London kitchen. However, he had been in the city barely a year when the outbreak of the First World War meant he had to return to his homeland for national service.  In his case, it was with the Alpini, Italy’s mountain brigades, with whom he was an interpreter.  Eager to resume his career in England, once the war was over Cesare took a job at the Palace Hotel in Aberdeen.  It was there he met Martha Gall, the woman who would become his wife.  They were married in 1921 and Martha soon gave birth to their daughter, Patricia.  Ambitious, Cesare persuaded his wife to leave Scotland behind so that he could make another attempt to establish himself in London.  His culinary talents took him a long way as he worked his way up from modest beginnings to land a place in the kitchen at the Café Royal in Regent Street.  Read more…

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Antonio Gramsci - left-wing intellectual


Communist leader Mussolini could not gag

Antonio Gramsci, one of the more remarkable intellectuals of left-wing Italian politics in the early 20th century, died on this day in 1937 in Rome, aged only 46.  A founding member and ultimately leader of the Italian Communist Party (PCI), he was arrested by Benito Mussolini's Fascist regime in November 1926 and sentenced to 20 years' imprisonment.   In failing health, he was granted his release after a campaign by friends and supporters but died without leaving the clinic in which he spent his final two years.  The conditions he encountered in jail led him to develop high blood pressure, angina, tuberculosis and acute gastric disorders.  Yet he found sufficient energy while imprisoned  to study the social and political history of Italy in extensive detail and to record his thoughts and theories in notebooks and around 500 letters to friends and supporters.  Many of his propositions heavily influenced the political strategy of communist parties in the West after the Second World War following the publication of his Prison Notebooks.  Gramsci was born in January 1891 in the small town of Ales, in a mountainous inland part of Sardinia.  Read more…

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Vittorio Cecchi Gori - entrepreneur


Ex-president of Fiorentina who produced two of Italy’s greatest films

Vittorio Cecchi Gori, whose chequered career in business saw him produce more than 300 films and own Fiorentina’s football club but also saw him jailed for fraudulent bankruptcy, was born on this day in 1942 in Florence.  The son of Mario Cecchi Gori, whose production company he inherited, he provided the financial muscle behind two of Italy’s greatest films of recent years, Il Postino (1994), which was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture, and Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful (1997), which won an Oscar for Best Foreign Language film.  He was also involved with the 1992 Oscar winner Mediterraneo, directed by Gabriele Salvatores, which also won in the Best Foreign Language film category.  Vittorio’s legacy from his father also included Fiorentina football club, of which he was president from 1993 to 2002.   With Cecchi Gori’s backing, while his involvement with the movie business was generating such huge profits, Fiorentina enjoyed great times.  He invested heavily in new players and persuaded the club’s icon, the Argentine forward Gabriel Batistuta, to stay after the viola were relegated in 1993.  Read more…

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Renato Rascel - actor, singer and songwriter


Film and TV star who wrote the iconic song Arrivederci Roma

Renato Rascel, whose remarkable career encompassed more than 60 movies, a hit 1970s TV series, representing Italy at the Eurovision Song Contest and writing one of the most famous Italian songs of all time, was born on this day in 1912 in Turin.  Rascel was Italy’s entry at Eurovision 1960 in London, singing Romantica, with which he had won the Sanremo Music Festival earlier in the year. Romantica finished eighth overall in London.  He is arguably most famous, however, for the song Arrivederci Roma, which he wrote for the 1955 film of the same name, in which he starred with the Italian-American tenor and actor Mario Lanza, which was subsequently released for English and American cinema audiences with the title Seven Hills of Rome.  Arrivederci Roma quickly became a favourite Italian song and scores of big-name singers recorded cover versions, including Bing Crosby, Connie Francis, Dean Martin, Dionne Warwick, Nat King Cole, Perry Como and Vic Damone.  Only a year earlier, Rascel had written the best-selling Italian song of 1954 in Te voglio bene tanto tanto (I Love You So Much).  Read more…

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Popes John XXIII and John Paul II made saints


Crowd of 800,000 in St Peter's Square for joint canonisation

Pope Francis declared Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II as saints at a ceremony during Mass in Rome’s St Peter’s Square on this day in 2014.  Hundreds of thousands of people from around the world converged on the Vatican to attend the ceremony, which celebrated two popes recognised as giants of the Catholic Church in the 20th century.  There was scarcely room to move in St Peter's Square, the Via della Conciliazione and the adjoining streets.  The crowd, probably the biggest since John Paul II’s beatification three years earlier, was estimated at around 800,000, of which by far the largest contingent had made the pilgrimage from John Paul’s native Poland to see their most famous compatriot become a saint.  Thousands of red and white Polish flags filled the square.  In his homily, Pope Francis said Saints John XXIII and JohnPaul II were “priests, bishops and popes of the 20th century. They lived through the tragic events of that century, but they were not overwhelmed by them. For them God was more powerful, faith was more powerful”.  He added that the two popes had “co-operated with the Holy Spirit in renewing and updating” the Catholic Church.  Read more…


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Cesare Bianchi - head chef

From shores of Lake Como to London’s Café Royal


The Art Deco memorial in Hampstead Cemetery, built by Bianchi for his widow, Martha
The Art Deco memorial in Hampstead Cemetery,
built by Bianchi for his widow, Martha
Cesare Bianchi, who rose from humble beginnings to become head chef at London’s prestigious Café Royal in the 1930s, was born on this day in 1897 in Cernobbio, a village on Lake Como in northern Italy.

He moved to England when he was only 16, hoping to build a career in catering and soon found work doing odd jobs in a London kitchen. However, he had been in the city barely a year when the outbreak of the First World War meant he had to return to his homeland for national service.  In his case, it was with the Alpini, Italy’s mountain brigades, with whom he was an interpreter.

Eager to resume his career in England, once the war was over Cesare took a job at the Palace Hotel in Aberdeen.  It was there he met Martha Gall, the woman who would become his wife.

They were married in 1921 and Martha soon gave birth to their daughter, Patricia.  Ambitious, Cesare persuaded his wife to leave Scotland behind so that he could make another attempt to establish himself in London.

His culinary talents took him a long way as he worked his way up from modest beginnings to land a place in the kitchen at the Café Royal in Regent Street, which at the turn of the century had become one of the capital’s most fashionable restaurants, the place to be seen for society figures.

The Café Royal had a heady reputation but Bianchi was quite at home, soon winning many compliments for his culinary skills.  Ultimately, he was promoted to head chef. He and Martha and their daughter set up home in Hampstead, in Lawn Road.

Cesare Bianchi's position counted for nothing when he was declared an alien
Cesare Bianchi's position counted for
nothing when he was declared an alien
However, his life was turned upside down in 1936 when Martha died giving birth to their second child.  The baby, a boy given the name Robert, survived.  Martha was buried in Hampstead Cemetery, where Bianchi commissioned an enormous monument, an Art Deco extravagance topped with a Futurist angel, arms outstretched, between two columns and standing on a plinth bearing the name of Bianchi.

The grave, which now has Grade II listed status, is set in a triangular plot. Either side of the angel are two reliefs, one showing Cesare with Martha, who is cradling the baby she never lived to see, sitting on a park bench.  He had hoped one day that he would be buried alongside her.

Martha’s sister, Mary, helped Cesare bring up his children and he was able to return to work in Regent Street.

When peace in Europe was shattered again in 1939, Bianchi’s life took another unwelcome turn.  Although he had been resident in England for much of his adult life and had fought on the side of the Allies when Italy opposed the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary and Turkey) in World War I, Bianchi found himself classed as an alien in World War II after Italy entered an alliance with Germany.

His status in London counted for nothing. He, along with many other Italians and Germans, were taken to Liverpool, set to board the Arandora Star, a ship that would take them to internment in Newfoundland in Canada.

Smithfield Market, where Bianchi worked, was destroyed by a German V2 flying bomb
Smithfield Market, where Bianchi worked, was
destroyed by a German V2 flying bomb
The boat set sail on 2 July, 1940 with 1,300 prisoners on board but had barely hit the open sea of the Atlantic beyond Ireland when it was spotted by a German U-boat.  The enemy submarine was on its way back to base to reload its weapons batteries but had one torpedo left, which its commander  fired at the Arandora Star.

The device hit the side of the Arandora Star. The resulting explosion killed everyone in the ship’s engine room and caused the ship to start sinking rapidly. Bianchi was one of more than 700 Italian prisoners being contained in cramped dormitories - along with almost 600 Germans. Two thirds of the Italians drowned but Bianchi somehow survived and was picked up by a rescue ship.

He was still interned as planned but instead of Canada - or Australia, where others were shipped - was taken to a camp much closer to home on the Isle of Man, where he would remain until the end of 1942. At that point it was considered safe for him to return to London, even though it was not until the autumn of the following year that Italy signed an armistice with the Allies and itself declared war on Germany.

Bianchi rejoined Mary Gall and his children in Hampstead and found a new job in Smithfield Market, with which he hoped to rebuild his career.

The winged angel that sits above the grave of Martha Gall-Bianchi in Hampstead Cemetery
The winged angel that sits above the grave of
Martha Gall-Bianchi in Hampstead Cemetery
After his ordeal on the Arandora Star, he might have hoped that the war would hold no more drama for him but, tragically, that was not the case.

On 8 March, 1945, in one of the last attacks that Germany would launch against Britain, Smithfield Market was struck by a V2, one of the second generation of flying bombs used by the Nazis and the forerunner of the inter-continental ballistic missile.

The explosion caused by the rocket destroyed the market and killed 110 people who were inside at the time, including both Cesare Bianchi and Mary Gall, whose presence there may have been because she was one of a large number of women shopping on that day.

In the circumstances, it was not possible for Bianchi to be buried alongside Martha. Along with the other victims of the bomb, he was laid to rest at the London Cemetery in Manor Park in the borough of Newham in the east of the city.

The Villa d'Este on the shores of Lake Como near Cernobbio, where Cesare Bianchi was born
The Villa d'Este on the shores of Lake Como near
Cernobbio, where Cesare Bianchi was born
Travel tip:

Bianchi’s hometown of Cernobbio is notable for the Villa d’Este, the vast complex built as a 16th century summer residence for the Cardinal of Como, and one of many fine villas fronting the water. The town once attracted large crowds hoping to catch a sight of movie star George Clooney, who had a house at nearby Laglio and would occasionally be spotted at a cafe in Cernobbio. Scenes from the movie Ocean’s 12, in which Clooney starred, were filmed locally. The town generally has more locals than tourists. On summer evenings and weekends when the main piazza is full of families and couples.

The 15th century facade of the Duomo in the centre of the lakeside town of Como
The 15th century facade of the Duomo
in the centre of the lakeside town of Como
Travel tip:

Cernobbio is just a few kilometres from Como, the town at the southern tip of the eastern branch of Lake Como. It is a pleasant town with an impressive cathedral in the historical centre, the construction of which spanned almost 350 years, which is why it combines features from different architectural areas, including Gothic and Renaissance. The façade was built in 1457, its characteristic rose window and a portal flanked by Renaissance statues of Pliny the Elder and Pliny the Younger, both of whom were from Como. This Duomo replaced the earlier 10th-century cathedral, San Fedele.

Also on this day:

1912: The birth of singer-songwriter and actor Renato Rascel

1937: The death of Communist leader Antonio Gramsci

1942: The birth of disgraced entrepreneur Vittorio Cecchi Gori

2014: Popes John XXIII and John Paul II made saints


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26 April 2020

26 April

Samantha Cristoforetti - astronaut


Record-breaker spent almost 200 days in space

Italy’s first female astronaut, Samantha Cristoforetti, was born on this day in 1977 in Milan.  A captain in the Italian Air Force, in which she is a pilot and engineer, Cristoforetti holds the world record for the longest space flight by a woman, which she set as a crew member on the European Space Agency’s Futura mission to the International Space Station in 2014.  Cristoforetti and her two fellow astronauts, the Russian Anton Shkaplerov and the American Terry Virts, left Kazakhstan in a Soyuz spacecraft on November 23, 2014 and returned on June 11, 2015, having spent 199 days and 16 hours in space – four days longer than the previous record for a female astronaut, held by the American NASA astronaut Sunita Williams.  The mission was supposed to have ended a month earlier but had to be extended after a Russian supply freighter failed to reach the ISS. The extra time also allowed Cristoforetti to set a record for the longest time in space by a European astronaut of either gender.  While Williams was hailed as the first person to complete a marathon in space when she ran 26 miles and 385 yards on the ISS’s on-board treadmill, Cristoforetti can claim to be the first person to have brewed an espresso coffee in space.  Read more…

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Michele Ferrero - the man who invented Nutella


Hazelnut spread that became a worldwide favourite

The man who invented the global commercial phenomenon that is Nutella spread was born on this day in 1925.  Michele Ferrero, who died in 2015 aged 89, owned the Italian chocolate manufacturer Ferrero SpA, the second largest confectionery producer in Europe after Nestlé.  He was the richest individual in Italy, listed by the Bloomberg Billionaires index in 2014 as the 20th richest person in the world.  The wealth of Michele and his family was put at $20.4 billion, around 14.9 billion euros.  Ferrero is famous for such brands as Ferrero Rocher, Mon Cheri, Kinder and Tic Tacs.  But, it could be argued, none of those names would probably exist had it not been for Nutella.  The chocolate and hazelnut spread came into being after Michele, who was born in the small town of Dogliani in Piedmont, inherited the Ferrero company from his father, Pietro.  With high taxes on cocoa beans making conventional chocolate expensive to make, Pietro had managed to build the business by producing a solid confectionery bar that combined Gianduja, a traditional Piedmontese hazelnut paste, with about 20 per cent chocolate.  Read more…

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Maria de’ Medici


Medici daughter who ended up ruling France

Maria de’ Medici, who became Queen of France after her marriage to King Henri IV, was born on this day in 1575 at the Palazzo Pitti in Florence.  After her husband was assassinated the day after his coronation, she ruled France as regent for her son, Louis, until he came of age.  Maria was the daughter of the grand duke of Tuscany, Francesco de’ Medici, and his wife, Joanna of Austria.  Henri had divorced his wife, Margaret, and married Maria in 1600 to obtain a large dowry that would help him pay his debts.  In 1601 Maria gave birth to a son, the future King Louis XIII, and then went on to bear a further five children for her husband.  However she resented her husband’s infidelities and he despised her friends from Florence, Concino Concini and his wife, Leonora.  After Henri was assassinated in 1610, the French parliament proclaimed Maria regent for her young son.  Guided by her favourite, Concini, who had become Marquis of Ancre, Maria reversed Henri’s anti-Spanish policy. She is also alleged to have squandered the country’s revenue and made humiliating concessions to its rebellious nobles.  Read more…


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25 April 2020

25 April

Ferruccio Ranza - World War One flying ace


Fighter pilot survived 57 aerial dogfights

Ferruccio Ranza, a World War One pilot who survived 465 combat sorties and scored 17 verified victories, died on this day in 1973 in Bologna, at the age of 80.  Ranza, who also saw service in the Second World War, when he rose to the rank of Brigadier General, was jointly the seventh most successful of Italy’s aviators in the 1914-18 conflict, and would be placed third if his eight unconfirmed victories had been proven.  In all, he engaged with enemy aeroplanes in 57 dogfights.  The most successful Italian flying ace from the First World War was Francesco Barraca, who chalked up 34 verified victories before he was killed in action in 1918.  Ranza served alongside Barraca in the 91st Fighter Squadron of the Italian air force, the so-called ‘squadron of aces’.  Ranza was born in Fiorenzuolo d’Arda, a medium-sized town in the province of Piacenza in what is now Emilia-Romagna, in 1892. Both his parents, Paolo and Maria, were teachers.  After attending the Istituto Tecnico ‘Romagnosi’ in Piacenza, he joined the Italian army in December 1913. He was a second lieutenant in the 1st Regiment of Engineers when the First World War began in 1914.  Read more…


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Giovanni Caselli - inventor


Priest and physicist who created world’s first ‘fax' machine

Giovanni Caselli, a physics professor who invented the pantelegraph, the forerunner of the modern fax machine, was born on this day in 1815 in Siena.  Caselli’s developed a prototype pantelegraph, which was capable of transmitting handwriting and images over long distances via wire telegraph lines, in 1856, some 20 years ahead of the patenting of Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone in the United States. It entered commercial service in France in 1865.  The technology was patented in Europe and the United States in the 1860s, when it was also trialled in Great Britain and Russia, but ultimately it proved too unreliable to achieve universal acceptance and virtually disappeared from popular use until midway through the 20th century.  Caselli spent his early years in Florence studying physics, science, history and religion and was ordained as a priest in the Catholic Church when he was 21.  In 1841 he was appointed tutor to the sons of Count Marquis Sanvitale of Modena in Parma, where he spent eight years before his time there was abruptly ended by expulsion from the city as a result of his participation in an uprising against the ruling House of Austria-Este.  Read more…


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Leon Battista Alberti - Renaissance polymath


Architect with multiple artistic talents

The polymath Leon Battista Alberti, who was one of the 15th century’s most significant architects but possessed an intellect that was much more wide ranging, died on this day in 1472 in Rome.  In his 68 years, Alberti became well known for his work on palaces and churches in Florence, Rimini and Mantua in particular, but he also made major contributions to the study of mathematics, astronomy, language and cryptography, wrote poetry in Latin and works of philosophy and was ordained as a priest.  He was one of those multi-talented figures of his era, along with Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and, a little later, Galileo Galilei, for whom the description Renaissance Man was coined.  Alberti was born in Genoa in 1404, although his family were wealthy Florentine bankers. It just happened that at the time of his birth his father, Lorenzo, was in exile, having been expelled by the powerful Albizzi family.  Leon and his brother, Carlo, were born out of wedlock, the product of their father’s relationship with a Bolognese widow, but as Lorenzo’s only offspring they were given a privileged upbringing.  Read more…


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Festa della Liberazione


Date of radio broadcast chosen for annual celebration

Today is a public holiday in Italy, one which in normal circumstances would see the whole country join together to celebrate the anniversary of the end of the Fascist regime with la Festa della Liberazione.  Every year on this day, the end of the Nazi occupation of Italy is commemorated with parades and parties and many public buildings are closed.  The Festa della Liberazione (Liberation Day) marks the day when Allied troops were finally able to liberate Italy.  The date for the national holiday was chosen in 1946. It was decided to hold the Festa on 25 April, the date the news of the liberation was officially announced to the country on the radio.  The marches and events customarily held on the day provide an opportunity for Italians to remember their fallen soldiers, in particular the partisans of the Italian resistance who fought the Nazis, as well as Mussolini’s troops, throughout the second world war. A ceremony is usually held at the war memorial in each city and town.  It is also a festive occasion for many Italians, who enjoy the food festivals, open air concerts and parties taking place.  Read more…


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24 April 2020

24 April

NEW - Giuseppe Marc’Antonio Baretti – author


Dramatic life of the ‘scourge’ of writers

Literary critic, poet, writer, translator and linguist Giuseppe Baretti was born on this day in 1719 in Turin, the capital city of Piedmont.  His life was often marred by controversies and he eventually had to leave Italy for England, where the drama in his life continued and he was tried at the Old Bailey for murder in 1769.  Baretti’s father had intended him to enter the legal profession but when he was 16 he fled from Turin to Guastalla in Emilia-Romagna where he worked in the import and export business.  His main interest was studying literature and criticism but, after he became an expert in the field himself, his writing was so controversial that he eventually had to move abroad.  Many students of Italian Literature are familiar with the name of Giuseppe Baretti as the writer, editor and proprietor of the fearlessly sarcastic periodical La frusta letteraria, which means Literary Scourge, in which he castigated bad authors.  For a few years Baretti wandered from country to country supporting himself by writing.  He was the author of two influential dictionaries, a Dictionary and Grammar of the Italian Language and a Dictionary of the Spanish Language.  Read more…


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Luigi Lavazza - coffee maker


From a grocery store in Turin to Italy's market leader

Luigi Lavazza, the Turin grocer who founded the Lavazza Coffee Company, was born on this day in 1859 in the small town of Murisengo in Piedmont.  He had lived as a peasant farmer in Murisengo but times were hard and after a couple of poor harvests he decided to abandon the countryside and head for the city, moving to Turin and finding work as a shop assistant.  The Lavazza brand began when Luigi had saved enough money to buy his own shop in Via San Tommaso, in the centre of Turin, in 1895.  He sold groceries and provisions and where other stores simply sold coffee beans, he had a workshop in the rear of the store where he experimented by grinding the beans and mixing them into different blends according to the tastes of his customers.  He travelled to Brazil to improve his knowledge of coffee and his blends became an important part of the business, after which he moved into wholesale as well as retail as a coffee merchant.  When the first automatic roasting machines went into production in the 1920s, he was one of the first in Italy to buy one.  The economic climate in Italy improved after the First World War.  Read more…


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Giuseppe Panza - art collector


Businessman amassed more than 2,500 pieces

The art collector Giuseppe Panza di Biumo, whose fascination with postwar art, particularly American, led him to build up one of the world’s most important collections, died on this day in 2010 in Milan.  A businessman who succeeded his father in making money from wine and property, Panza acquired more than 2,500 pieces in his lifetime, many of which he sold or donated to museums and art galleries.  Some he parted with for millions of dollars, although he always insisted that his motivation was never financial gain but the love of art.  Approximately 10 per cent of his collection remains in the 18th-century Villa Menafoglio Litta, his family home at Varese, north of Milan, where he created 50,000 square feet (4,600 sq m) of exhibition space.  He had an astute eye for talent, often identifying unknown artists who would go on to become collectible long before their works commanded premium prices.  For example, he anticipated the popularity of Minimalism in the 1960s, snapping up works by Donald Judd and Dan Flavin well before their careers had really taken off.  Born in 1923 in Milan, Panza had a comfortable background. His father, Ernesto, was a wine distributor.  Read more…


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Alessandro Costacurta - champion of football longevity


AC Milan defender played in Serie A until 41 years old

Former Italy and AC Milan defender Alessandro Costacurta was born on this day in 1966 in the town of Orago, near Varese.  Costacurta retired in May 2007, 25 days after his 41st birthday, having played more than 660 matches for AC Milan over the course of 21 seasons.  He is the oldest outfield player to appear in a Serie A match.  Milan lost his final game 3-2 at home to Udinese but Costacurta marked the occasion with a goal, from the penalty spot.  It was only his third goal in 458 Serie A appearances for the rossoneri, but made him Serie A's oldest goalscorer.  He could look back on a career laden with honours, including seven Serie A titles and five European Cups, two in its traditional knock-out format and three more after the inception of the Champions League.  He also won 59 caps for Italy and was a member of the team that finished runners-up in the 1994 World Cup in the United States, although he had to sit out the final because of suspension.  Costacurta made his Milan debut in the Coppa Italia in 1986 before being sent away to gain experience with Monza in Serie C.  His first Serie A appearance came for Milan in October 1987.  Read more…


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Giuseppe Marc’Antonio Baretti – author

Dramatic life of the ‘scourge’ of writers


A portrait of Giuseppe Baretti by the English  painter Joshua Reynolds
A portrait of Giuseppe Baretti by the English
painter Joshua Reynolds
Literary critic, poet, writer, translator and linguist Giuseppe Baretti was born on this day in 1719 in Turin, the capital city of Piedmont.

His life was often marred by controversies and he eventually had to leave Italy for England, where the drama in his life continued and he was tried at the Old Bailey for murder in 1769.

Baretti’s father had intended him to enter the legal profession but when he was 16 he fled from Turin to Guastalla in Emilia-Romagna where he worked in the import and export business.

His main interest was studying literature and criticism but, after he became an expert in the field himself, his writing was so controversial that he eventually had to move abroad.

Many students of Italian Literature are familiar with the name of Giuseppe Baretti as the writer, editor and proprietor of the fearlessly sarcastic periodical La frusta letteraria, which means 'Literary Scourge', in which he castigated bad authors.

For a few years Baretti wandered from country to country supporting himself by writing.

A Reynolds portrait of Samuel Johnson, the English writer who befriended Baretti
A Reynolds portrait of Samuel Johnson,
the English writer who befriended Baretti
He was the author of two influential dictionaries, a Dictionary and Grammar of the Italian Language and a Dictionary of the Spanish Language, as well as dissertations on Shakespeare and Voltaire.

Eventually he settled in London, where he was sometimes referred to as Joseph Baretti. He became Secretary of the Royal Academy of Arts and a friend of the writer Samuel Johnson and the actor and playwright David Garrick.

Baretti was a frequent visitor at the home of Hester Thrale, an author whose diaries have been a valuable source of information about both Johnson and 18th century contemporary life. Baretti’s name also occurs repeatedly in James Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson.

In 1769, Baretti was tried for murder after inflicting a mortal wound with a knife on a man who had assaulted him in the street. Johnson and other friends supported him and gave evidence in his favour at his trial, which resulted in his acquittal. Baretti could have been sentenced to death, but his actions were regarded as self-defence.

He later said he was extremely satisfied with the outcome of the trial and the support of his friends, which had made him ‘an Englishman forever’.

Baretti died in London in 1789 and was buried in Marylebone Chapel in the city.

The facade of the Palazzo Madama, which  was designed by Filippo Juvara
The facade of the Palazzo Madama, which
was designed by Filippo Juvara
Travel tip:

Turin, where Giuseppe Baretti was born, is the capital city of the region of Piedmont. It has some fine architecture that illustrates its rich history as the home of the Savoy Kings of Italy. Piazza Castello, with the royal palace, royal library and Palazzo Madama, which used to house the Italian senate, is at the heart of ‘royal’ Turin. The elegant Baroque Palazzo Madama, built in white stone, was designed by the architect Filippo Juvara.

The Piazza Mazzini is the beautiful main square of the town of Guastalla in Emilia-Romagna
The Piazza Mazzini is the beautiful main square of
the town of Guastalla in Emilia-Romagna
Travel tip:

Guastalla, where Baretti went to escape a legal career, is a town in the province of Reggio Emilia in the region of Emilia-Romagna. It lies on the banks of the Po River in the Po Valley, about 30 kilometres (19 miles) from the cities of Reggio Emilia, Parma and Mantua. In the 16th century Guastallo was the capital of  a duchy ruled by the Gonzaga family and it was visited by the artist Guercino and the writer Torquato Tasso. The town is the headquarters of SMEG, a manufacturer of high-design domestic appliances, which was founded there in 1948.

Also on this day:

1859: The birth of coffee maker Luigi Lavazza

1966: The birth of footballer Alessandro Costacurta

2010: The death of art collector Giuseppe Panza


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23 April 2020

23 April

Ruggero Leoncavallo – opera composer


Writer and musician created one of the most popular operas of all time

Ruggero Leoncavallo, the composer of the opera, Pagliacci, was born on this day in 1857 in Naples.  Pagliacci - which means 'clowns' - is one of the most popular operas ever written and is still regularly performed all over the world.  Leoncavallo also wrote the song, Mattinata, often performed by Enrico Caruso and still recorded by today’s tenors.  Leoncavallo was the son of a judge and moved with his father from Naples to live in the town of Montalto Uffugo in Calabria when he was a child.  He later returned to Naples to be educated and then studied literature at the University of Bologna under the poet Giosuè Carducci.  Leoncavallo initially worked as a piano teacher in Egypt but then moved to Paris where he found work as an accompanist for artists singing in cafes.  He then moved to Milan where he taught the piano and started to compose operas.  After the success of Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana, Leoncavallo produced his own verismo work, Pagliacci. Verismo was a post-romantic operatic tradition, often featuring true stories about the lives of poor people.  Leoncavallo claimed he had derived the plot for Pagliacci from a real-life murder trial.  Read more…


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Stefano Bontade - Mafia supremo


Well-connected Cosa Nostra boss had links to ex-premier Andreotti

Stefano Bontade, one of the most powerful and well connected figures in the Sicilian Mafia in the 1960s and 1970s, was born on this day in 1939 in Palermo, where he was murdered exactly 42 years later in a birthday execution that sparked a two-year war between the island’s rival clans.  Known as Il Falco – the Falcon – he was said to have close links with a number of important politicians in Sicily and with the former Italian prime minister Giulio Andreotti.  He was strongly suspected of being a key figure in the 1962 murder of Enrico Mattei, the president of Italy’s state-owned oil and gas conglomerate ENI, and in the bogus kidnapping of Michele Sindona, the disgraced banker who used the Vatican Bank to launder the proceeds of Cosa Nostra heroin trafficking.  Born into a Mafia family, Bontade controlled the Villagrazia area in the south-west of Palermo and became head of the Santa Maria di Gesù crime family at the age of 25 when his father, Francesco Paolo Bontade, a major Cosa Nostra boss known as Don Paolino, stepped down in failing health.  He was banished to the mainland, specifically Qualiano in Campania, following his arrest in 1972.  Read more…


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Gaspara Stampa – poet


Beautiful sonnets were inspired by unrequited love

Gaspara Stampa, the greatest female poet of the Italian Renaissance, died on this day in 1554 in Venice at the age of 31.  She is regarded by many as the greatest Italian female poet of any age, despite having had such a brief life.  Gaspara was born in Padua and lived in the city until she was eight years old. Her father, Bartolomeo, had been a jewel and gold merchant, but after he died, Gaspara’s mother, Cecilia, took her three children to live in Venice. They were accommodated in the house of Geronimo Morosini, who was descended from a noble Venetian family, in the parish of Santi Gervasio and Protasio, now known as San Trovaso.  Along with her sister, Cassandra, and brother, Baldassare, Gaspara was educated in literature, music, history and painting. She excelled at singing and playing the lute and her home became a cultural hub as it was visited by many Venetian writers, painters and musicians, among them Francesco Sansovino, a poet and writer who was the son of the great Florentine architect, Jacopo Sansovino.  Gaspara dedicated most of her poems to Count Collatino di Collalto of Treviso, with whom she had an affair.  Read more…


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Gianandrea Noseda - conductor


Milanese musician has achieved worldwide acclaim

Gianandrea Noseda, who is recognised as one of the leading orchestra conductors of his generation, was born on this day in 1964 in Milan.  He holds the title of Cavaliere Ufficiale al Merito della Repubblica Italiana for his contribution to the artistic life of Italy.  Noseda studied piano and composition in Milan and began studying conducting at the age of 27.  He made his debut as a conductor in 1994 with the Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi. He won the Cadaques International Conducting Competition for young conductors in Spain the same year.  In 1997 he became principal guest conductor at the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg and during his time there became fluent in Russian.  In 2002 he became principal conductor of the BBC Philharmonic and in this role led live performances in Manchester of Beethoven’s nine symphonies. In 2006 his title was changed to chief conductor.  The London Symphony Orchestra announced the appointment of Noseda as its new principal guest conductor in 2016.  Noseda has been Music Director of the Teatro Regio Torino since 2007, taking their orchestra to the Edinburgh Festival in 2017.  Read more… 


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22 April 2020

22 April

Fiorenza Cossotto - operatic mezzo-soprano


Career overshadowed by story of ‘row’ with Maria Callas

Fiorenza Cossotto, a singer considered one of the greatest mezzo-sopranos of the 20th century, was born on this day in 1935 in Crescentino in Piedmont.  Cossotto was hailed for her interpretations of the major mezzo and contralto roles from mid-19th-century Italian operas, particularly those of Giuseppe Verdi such as Aida, Il trovatore and Don Carlos, but also Gaetano Donizetti, Amilcare Ponchielli, Vincenzo Bellini and the other important composers of the day.  Yet she is often remembered for a supposed spat with Maria Callas that led the Greek-American soprano to walk off the stage during her final performance at the Opéra in Paris of her signature role in Bellini’s Norma in 1965.  The incident in question took place immediately after Callas, as Norma, and Cossotto, as Adalgisa, had joined in their duet ‘Mira, o Norma’.  Callas, by that stage a little below her prime, was notoriously temperamental and within moments onlookers were imagining a row, theorising that Cossotto had tried to sabotage Callas’s performance by holding her own high notes longer and singing over Callas.  Read more…

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Alida Valli - actress


Scandal dogged star admired by Mussolini

The actress Alida Valli, who was once described by Benito Mussolini as the most beautiful woman in the world after Greta Garbo, died on this day in 2006 at the age of 84.  One of the biggest stars in Italian cinema in the late 1930s and 40s, when she starred in numerous romantic dramas and comedies, she was best known outside Italy for playing Anna Schmidt, the actress girlfriend of Harry Lime in Carol Reed’s Oscar-winning 1949 classic The Third Man.  She was cast in the role by the producer David O Selznick, who shared the Fascist leader’s appreciation for her looks, and who billed her simply as Valli, hoping it would create for her a Garboesque enigmatic allure.  Later, however, she complained that having one name made her “feel silly”.  Valli was born in Pola, Istria, then part of Italy (now Pula, Croatia), in 1921. She was christened Baroness Alida Maria Laura Altenburger von Marckenstein-Frauenberg, on account of a noble line to her paternal grandfather, Baron Luigi Altenburger, an Austrian-Italian from Trento and a descendant of the Counts d’Arco.  Her father was a journalist and professor. The family moved to Como when she was young.  Read more…

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Vittorio Jano - motor racing engineer


Genius behind the success of Alfa Romeo, Lancia and Ferrari

Born on this day in 1891, Vittorio Jano was among the greatest engine designers in motor racing history.  Jano's engines powered cars for Fiat, Alfa Romeo, Lancia and Ferrari during a career that spanned four decades, winning numerous Grand Prix races.  The legendary Argentinian Juan Manuel Fangio won the fourth of his five Formula One world championships in Jano's Lancia-Ferrari D50, in 1956.  Almost 30 years earlier, Jano's Alfa Romeo P2 won the very first Grand Prix world championship in 1925, while its successor, the P3, scored a staggering 46 race wins between 1932 and 1935.  He worked for Ferrari from the mid-50s onwards, where his greatest legacy was the V-8 Dino engine, which was the staple of Ferrari cars on the track and the road between 1966 and 2004.  Jano's parents were from Hungary, but settled in Italy, where his father worked as a mechanical engineer in Turin.  He was born in the small town of San Giorgio Canavese in Piedmont, about 35 kilometres north of Turin, and was originally called Viktor János.  Following his father into engineering, he joined Fiat at the age of just 20.  Read more…


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21 April 2020

21 April

Silvana Mangano - actress


Star who married the producer Dino De Laurentiis

The actress Silvana Mangano, who was decried as a mere sex symbol and later hailed as a fine character actress during a quite restricted career, was born on this day in 1930 in Rome.  She found fame through Giuseppe De Santis’s neorealist film Bitter Rice, in which she played a female worker in the rice fields in the Po Valley who becomes involved with a petty criminal Walter, played by Vittorio Gassman.  Mangano’s character was a sensual, lustful young woman and the actress, a former beauty queen, carried it off so well that she was hailed by one critic as “Ingrid Bergmann with a Latin disposition” and likened also to the American glamour queen Rita Hayworth.  She went on to work with many of Italy's leading directors, including Alberto Lattuada, Vittorio De Sica, Pier Paolo Pasolini and Luchino Visconti, but she made only 30 films, in part because she preferred to spend time with her family but also because Dino De Laurentiis, the producer of Bitter Rice who soon became her husband, controlled her career.  It is said that she was offered the important part of Maddalena in Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita but that De Laurentiis prevented her from taking it.  Read more…


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The birth of Rome


City said to have been founded on April 21, 753BC

Three days of celebrations would normally begin in Rome today to mark the annual Natale di Roma Festival, which commemorates the founding of the city 2,770 years ago.  The traditional celebrations would take place largely in the large open public space of Circus Maximus, which hosts many historical re-enactments.  In previous years a costumed parade would tour the city, featuring more than 2,000 gladiators, senators, vestal virgins and priestesses.  City museums traditionally offer free entry and many of the city’s restaurants have special Natale di Roma menus.  After dark, many public places are lit up, torches illuminate the Aventine Hill, and firework displays take place by the Tiber river.  According to legend, Romulus and his twin brother, Remus, founded Rome on the site where they were suckled by a she-wolf as orphaned infants.  They were said to be the sons of Rhea Silvia, the daughter of King Numitor of Alba Longa, a city located in the nearby Alban Hills southeast of what would become Rome.  Before they were born, Numitor was deposed by his younger brother Amulius, who murdered his existing son and forced Rhea to become a vestal virgin so that she would not give birth to rival claimants to his title.  Read more…


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Cosimo I de' Medici


The grand designs of a powerful archduke

The second duke of Florence and first grand duke of Tuscany, Cosimo I, died on this day in 1574 at the Villa di Castello near Florence.  Cosimo had proved to be both shrewd and unscrupulous, bringing Florence under his despotic control and increasing its territories.  He was the first to have the idea of uniting all public services in a single building. He commissioned the Uffizi - offices - a beautiful building that is now an art gallery in the centre of Florence.  Cosimo was the great-great-grandson of Lorenzo the Elder, whose brother was Cosimo the Elder but played no part in politics until he heard of the assassination of his distant cousin, Alessandro.  He immediately travelled to Florence and was elected head of the republic in 1537 with the approval of the city’s senate, assembly and council.  He also had the support of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V. The Emperor’s general defeated an army raised against Cosimo, who then had the principal rebels beheaded in public in Florence.  Cosimo began to style himself as a duke and sidelined the other Government bodies in the city.  As the Emperor’s protégée, he remained safe from the hostility of Pope Paul II and King Francis I of France.  Read more…


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