31 May 2020

31 May

Angelo Moriondo - espresso machine pioneer


Bar and hotel owner invented way to make coffee faster

Angelo Moriondo, the man credited with inventing the world’s first espresso coffee machine, died on this day in 1914 in Marentino, a town in Piedmont, about 20km (12 miles) east of Turin.  Moriondo, who was 62 when he passed away, was the owner of the Grand-Hotel Ligure in Turin’s Piazza Carlo Felice and the American Bar in the former Galleria Nazionale on Via Roma.  He came up with the idea of a coffee machine essentially in the hope of gaining an edge over his competition at a time when coffee was a hugely popular beverage across Europe and in Italy in particular, but which still depended on brewing methods that required the customer to wait five minutes or more to be able to raise a cup to his mouth.  Moriondo figured that if he could find a way to make multiple cups of coffee simultaneously he would be able to serve more customers more quickly. He hoped that word would then get round in Turin’s commercial district that his bars were the ones to go if the pressures of business did not allow time for leisurely breaks.  He never contemplated industrial-scale production of his invention, his ambitions never extending beyond the needs of his own businesses.  Read more…

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Tintoretto – painter


Dyer’s son whose work still adorns Venice

Renaissance artist Tintoretto died on this day in 1594 in Venice.  Known for his boundless energy, the painter was also sometimes referred to as Il Furioso.  His paintings are populated by muscular figures, make bold use of perspective and feature the colours typical of the Venetian school.  Tintoretto was an expert at depicting crowd scenes and mythological subjects and during his successful career received important commissions to produce paintings for the Scuola Grande di San Marco and the Scuolo Grande di San Rocco.  Tintoretto was born Jacopo Comin, the son of a dyer (tintore), which earned him the nickname Tintoretto, meaning 'little dyer'.  He was also sometimes known as Jacopo Robusti as his father had defended the gates of Padua against imperial troops in a way that was described as ‘robust’ at the time.  As a child, Tintoretto daubed on his father’s walls so the dyer took him to the studio of Titian to see if he could be trained as an artist.  Things did not work out and Tintoretto was quickly sent home.  Read more…

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Andrew Grima - royal jeweller


Rome-born craftsman favoured by the Queen of England

The jewellery designer Andrew Grima, whose clients included the British Royal Family, was born on this day in 1921 in Rome.  Grima, whose flamboyant use of dramatically large, rough-cut stones and brilliant innovative designs revolutionised modern British jewellery, achieved an enviable status among his contemporaries.  After the Duke of Edinburgh had given the Queen a brooch of carved rubies and diamonds designed by Grima as a gift, he was awarded a Royal Warrant and rapidly became the jeweller of choice for London’s high society, as well as celebrities and film stars from around the world.  He won 13 De Beers Diamonds International Awards, which is more than any other jeweller, and examples of his work are kept by the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths.  When a private collection of Grima pieces was sold at auction by Bonhams in London in September 2017, some 93 lots realised a total of more than £7.6 million (€8.6m), with one pear-shaped blue diamond alone making £2.685m (€3.034m).  Grima’s father, John Grima, was the Maltese owner of a large international lace-making business.  Read more…


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30 May 2020

30 May

Giacomo Matteotti - martyr of freedom


Politician kidnapped and murdered by Fascist thugs

A brave and historic speech made in the Italian parliament on this day in 1924 marked the start of a crisis for Benito Mussolini's Fascist government.  The young socialist politician who delivered the speech, denouncing the Fascist victory in the general election held in April of that year as having been won through fraud and violence, was subsequently kidnapped and murdered.  Giacomo Matteotti, the 29-year-old founder and leader of the Unified Socialist Party, accused Mussolini's party of employing thugs to intimidate the public into voting Fascist and said that changes to electoral law were inherently corrupt in that they were framed to make a Mussolini government almost inevitable.  Matteotti, who had already written a controversial book about the Fascists' rise to power, knew the risk he took in making the speech and is said to have told colleagues they should "get ready to hold a wake for me" as they offered him their congratulations.  Less than two weeks later, on June 10, Matteotti was walking along the banks of the River Tiber close to his home in Rome when he was attacked by five or six assailants who beat him up and bundled him into a car.  Read more…

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Andrea Verga - anatomist and neurologist


Professor among founding fathers of Italian psychiatry

The anatomist and neurologist Andrea Verga, who was one of the first Italian doctors to carry out serious research into mental illness, was born on this day in 1811 in Treviglio in Lombardy.  Verga’s career was notable for his pioneering study of the criminally insane, for some of the first research into acrophobia - the fear of heights - which was a condition from which he suffered, and for the earliest known experiments in the therapeutic use of cannabis.  For a number of years, he held the post of Professor of Psychiatry at the Ospedale Maggiore in Milan. He also founded, in conjunction with another physician, Serafino Biffi, the Italian Archives for Nervous Disease and Mental Illness, a periodical in which research findings could be shared and discussed.  Verga also acquired an in-depth knowledge of the anatomy of the bone system and the nervous system, and was the first to identify an anomaly of the brain that occurs in only one in six people, which became known as ‘Verga’s ventricle’.  The son of a coachman, Verga was an enthusiastic student of classics whom his parents encouraged to pursue a career in the church, yet it was medicine that became his calling.  Read more…

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General Giulio Douhet - military strategist


Army commander was one of first to see potential of air power

The Italian Army general Giulio Douhet, who saw the military potential in aircraft long before others did, was born in Caserta, north of Naples, on this day in 1869.  With the arrival of airships and then fixed-wing aircraft in Italy, Douhet recognized the military potential of the new technology. He advocated the creation of a separate air arm commanded by airmen rather than by commanders on the ground. From 1912 to 1915 Douhet served as commander of the Aeronautical Battalion, Italy’s first aviation unit.  Largely because of Douhet, the three-engine Caproni bomber - designed by the young aircraft engineer Gianni Caproni - was ready for use by the time Italy entered the First World War.  His severe criticism of Italy’s conduct of the war, however, resulted in his court-martial and imprisonment. Only after a review of Italy’s catastrophic defeat in 1917 in the Battle of Caporetto was it decided that his criticisms had been justified and his conviction reversed.  Born into a family of Savoyard exiles who had migrated to Campania after the cession of Savoy to France, Douhet attended the Military Academy of Modena and was commissioned into the artillery of the Italian Army in 1882.  Read more…

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Giovanni Gentile – philosopher


The principal intellectual spokesman for Fascism

Giovanni Gentile, a major figure in Italian idealist philosophy, was born on this day in 1875 in Castelvetrano in Sicily.  Known as ‘the philosopher of Fascism’, Gentile was the ghostwriter of part of Benito Mussolini’s The Doctrine of Fascism in 1932. His own ‘actual idealism’ was strongly influenced by the German philosopher, Georg Hegel.  Gentile's rejection of individualism and acceptance of collectivism helped him justify the totalitarian element of Fascism.  After a series of university appointments, Gentile became professor of the history of philosophy at the University of Rome in 1917.  While writing The Philosophy of Marx – La filosophia di Marx – a Hegelian examination of Karl Marx’s ideas, he met writer and philosopher Benedetto Croce. The two men became friends and co-editors of the periodical La Critica until 1924, when a lasting disagreement occurred over Gentile’s embrace of Fascism.  Gentile was Minister of Education in the Fascist government of Italy from October 1922 to July 1924 carrying out wide reforms, which had a lasting impact on Italian education.  Read more…


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29 May 2020

29 May

NEW - Virginia de’ Medici – noblewoman


Duchess was driven mad by husband’s infidelity

Virginia de’ Medici, who for a time ruled the duchy of Modena and Reggio, was born on this day in 1568 in Florence.  She protected the autonomy of the city of Modena while her husband was away, despite plots against her, and she was considered to have been a clever and far-sighted ruler.  Virginia was the illegitimate daughter of Cosimo I de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany and his mistress, Camilla Martelli.  Her paternal grandparents were Giovanni dalle Bande Nere and his wife Maria Salviati, who was the granddaughter of Lorenzo the Magnificent. Her maternal grandparents were Antonio Martelli and Fiammetta Soderini, who were both members of important families in Florence.  In 1570, Cosimo I contracted a morganatic marriage with his mistress, Camilla, on the advice of Pope Pius V, which allowed him to legitimise his daughter.  Virginia lived with her parents at the Villa di Castello during the summer and in Pisa in the winter.  Cosimo I’s older children resented his second marriage and after his death in 1574 they imprisoned Camilla in a convent.  Virginia’s older brothers negotiated a marriage for her with a member of the Sforza family.  Read more…

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Franca Rame – actress, writer and politician


Artistic collaborator and wife of Dario Fo

The actress and writer Franca Rame, much of whose work was done in collaboration with her husband, the Nobel Prize-winning actor, playwright and satirist Dario Fo, died in Milan on this day in 2013 at the age of 83.  One of Italy's most admired and respected stage performers, her contribution to Dario Fo’s work was such that his 1997 Nobel prize for literature probably should have been a joint award. In the event, on receipt of the award, Fo announced he was sharing it with his wife.  Rame was also a left-wing militant. A member of the Italian Communist Party from 1967, she was elected to the Italian senate in 2006 under the banner of the Italy of Values party, a centre-left anti-corruption grouping led by Antonio di Pietro, the former prosecutor who had led the Mani pulite (“Clean Hands”) corruption investigation in the 1990s.  Later she was an independent member of the Communist Refoundation Party.  Her political views often heavily influenced her writing, in which her targets tended to be the Italian government and the Roman Catholic Church.  She was also an outspoken champion of women’s rights.  Read more…

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Michele Schirru - would-be assassin


Anarchist executed for plotting to kill Mussolini

The Sardinian-born anarchist Michele Schirru was executed by firing squad in Rome on this day in 1931.  Schirru, a former socialist revolutionary who had emigrated to the United States, had been arrested on suspicion of plotting to assassinate the Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini.  Seized at a hotel in Rome in February 1931, having arrived in the capital about three weeks earlier, he was tried by the Special Fascist Court and after he had loudly declared his hatred of both Fascism and communism was found guilty.  A death sentence was handed down at a further hearing on May 28 and the execution was carried out at first light the following day at the Casal Forte Braschi barracks on the western outskirts of Rome, where 24 Sardinian soldiers had answered the call to volunteer for the firing squad.  Schirru died screaming ‘long live anarchy, long live freedom, down with Fascism’, which bizarrely won posthumous praise from Mussolini, who made reference to Schirru’s distinguished service in Italy’s army during the First World War and applauded his bravery for declaring his unwavering conviction to his cause even as the riflemen were about to squeeze the trigger.  Read more…

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Katie Boyle – actress and television presenter


Daughter of Italian Marquis became the face of Eurovision

Television personality Katie Boyle was born Caterina Irene Maria Imperiali di Francavilla on this day in 1926 in Florence.  The actress, who became known for her appearances on panel games such as What’s My Line?, and also for presenting the Eurovision Song Contest on the BBC, died in 2018 at the age of 91.  She was the daughter of an Italian Marquis, the Marchese Imperiali di Francavilla, and his English wife, Dorothy Kate Ramsden.  At the age of 20, Caterina moved from Italy to the UK to begin a modelling career and she went on to appear in several 1950s films.  In 1947 she had married Richard Bentinck Boyle, the ninth Earl of Shannon, and although the marriage was dissolved in 1955, she kept the surname, Boyle, throughout her career.  Boyle was an on screen continuity announcer for the BBC in the 1950s and then became a television personality who regularly appeared on panel games and quiz programmes.  She was the presenter of the 1960, 1963, 1968 and 1974 Eurovision Song Contests, impressing viewers with her range of European languages.  Boyle has also worked in the theatre and on radio and has been an agony aunt for the TV Times.  Read more…


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Virginia de’ Medici – noblewoman

Duchess was driven mad by husband’s infidelity


Virginia de' Medici married into the House of Este, gaining wealth and power
Virginia de' Medici married into the House
of Este, gaining wealth and power
Virginia de’ Medici, who for a time ruled the duchy of Modena and Reggio, was born on this day in 1568 in Florence.

She protected the autonomy of the city of Modena while her husband was away, despite plots against her, and she was considered to have been a clever and far-sighted ruler.

Virginia was the illegitimate daughter of Cosimo I de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany and his mistress, Camilla Martelli.

Her paternal grandparents were Giovanni dalle Bande Nere and his wife Maria Salviati, who was the granddaughter of Lorenzo the Magnificent. Her maternal grandparents were Antonio Martelli and Fiammetta Soderini, who were both members of important families in Florence.

In 1570, Cosimo I contracted a morganatic marriage with his mistress, Camilla, on the advice of Pope Pius V, which allowed him to legitimise his daughter.

Virginia lived with her parents at the Villa di Castello during the summer and in Pisa in the winter.

Cosimo I’s older children resented his second marriage and after his death in 1574 they imprisoned Camilla in a convent.

Cesare d'Este became Virginia's husband in an arranged marriage in 1586
Cesare d'Este became Virginia's husband in
an arranged marriage in 1586
Virginia’s older brothers negotiated a marriage for her with a member of the Sforza family and when she was 13 she was betrothed to Francesco Sforza, Count of Santa Fiora.

The marriage did not take place because Sforza chose an ecclesiastical career and eventually became a Cardinal.

They then arranged a marriage for her with a member of the Este family and in 1586 Virginia married Cesare d’Este, the grandson of Alfonso I, Duke of Ferrara and son of Alfonso, Marquess of Montecchio. 

A play was written and performed to celebrate this event in Florence and the poet, Torquato Tasso, who was living in Ferrara, dedicated a Cantata to the newly married couple.

When the couple arrived in Ferrara, they lived in the Palazzo dei Diamanti, which was given to them by Cardinal Luigi d’Este, Cesare’s uncle.  A year later, Cesare’s father died and Virginia became Marchioness Consort of Montecchio after her husband inherited the title.

After Duke Alfonso II died in 1597 without issue, Cesare became the head of the House of Este and Virginia became Duchess Consort of Ferrara, Modena and Reggio and was given a wealth of other titles to do with territories owned by the Este family, some of which were in France.

Their rule over Ferrara did not last long as Pope Clement VII decided not to recognise Cesare’s succession. The Duchy of Ferrara was officially abolished and returned to the Papal States and Cesare and his family had to move to Modena. In 1601 he was also stripped of all his domains and titles in France.

The church of San Vincenzo in Modena, where Virginia is buried
The church of San Vincenzo in
Modena, where Virginia is buried
Virginia bore ten children for Cesare and acted as regent for him while he was away in Reggio. She stopped the attempts of the Podestà and Judge of Modena to seize control in his absence.

But she began to have unpredictable fits of anger and was thought to have been driven mad by knowing that her husband was often unfaithful to her. Her Jesuit confessor claimed she was possessed by the devil and tried to exorcise her demons.

It was later thought her mental illness was caused by having been married against her will and that it was worsened by her husband’s infidelity.

After Virginia’s death in 1615 in Modena at the age of 46 there were rumours that she had been poisoned by her husband but this was never proved. She was buried in the Este family crypt in the church of San Vincenzo in Modena.

The Palazzo dei Diamanti in Ferrara, which was a gift to Virginia and Cesare from Cesare's uncle, Cardinal Luigi d'Este
The Palazzo dei Diamanti in Ferrara, which was a gift to
Virginia and Cesare from Cesare's uncle, Cardinal Luigi d'Este
Travel tip:

Virginia and Cesare’s first home together was the Palazzo dei Diamanti in Ferrara. The palace, which is in Corso Ercole I d’Este, takes its name from the 8500 pointed diamond shaped stones that stud the façade, diamonds being an emblem of the Este family. It was designed by Biagio Rossetti and completed in 1503. The palace now houses the Pinacoteca Nazionale di Ferrara on its first floor, where you can also see the 16th century apartments inhabited by Virginia de’ Medici, three rooms that overlook Corso Biagio Rossetti. The art gallery is open from 10.00 to 17.30 Tuesday to Sunday.

The Palazzo dei Musei in Modena, which houses much of  the Este inheritance Cesare and Virginia took to Modena
The Palazzo dei Musei in Modena, which houses some of
the Este inheritance Cesare and Virginia took to Modena
Travel tip:

Modena is a city on the south side of the Po Valley in the Emilia-Romagna region, known for its car industry and for producing balsamic vinegar. Operatic tenor Luciano Pavarotti and soprano Mirella Freni were both born in Modena. When Cesare and Virginia had to relocate from Ferrara to Modena, they tried to take with them as much of the Este inheritance as possible, including cases full of rare and precious objects. These now form part of the Este family collection on display in the Gallerie Estensi, on the upper floor of the Palazzo dei Musei in Largo Porta Sant’Agostino in Modena. The galleries are open to visitors from Tuesday to Sunday. 

Also on this day:

1926: The birth in Florence of UK television personality Katie Boyle

1931: The execution of anarchist Michele Schirru

2013: The death of actress and writer Franca Rame


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28 May 2020

28 May

Caravaggio and a death in Campo Marzio


Hot-tempered artist killed man in Rome in row over a woman

The brilliant late Renaissance artist Caravaggio committed the murder that would cause him to spend the remainder of his life on the run on this day in 1606.  Renowned for his fiery temperament and history of violent acts as well as for the extraordinary qualities of his paintings, Caravaggio is said to have killed Ranuccio Tomassoni, described in some history books as a ‘wealthy scoundrel’, in the Campo Marzio district of central Rome, not far from the Piazza Monte D'Oro.  The incident led to Caravaggio being condemned to death by order of the incumbent pope, Paul V, and then fleeing the city, first to Naples, eventually landing in Malta.  It was thought that the two had a row over a game of tennis, which was gaining popularity in Italy at the time, and that the dispute escalated into a brawl, which was not unusual for Caravaggio. The story was that Tomassoni wounded the painter in some way, at which Caravaggio drew a sword and lashed out at his rival, inflicting a gash in the thigh from which he bled to death.  This was accepted by historians as a plausible story for almost 400 years until evidence emerged to challenge the theory in 2002.  Read more…

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The Last Supper goes back on display


Leonardo’s masterpiece put on show again at last

After more than 20 years of careful restoration, the world famous wall painting by Leonardo da Vinci, The Last Supper, was put back on display for visitors on this day in 1999.  The masterpiece, which shows the different expressions on the faces of the disciples at the moment Jesus says the words, ‘One of you will betray me’, was finally back where it belonged on the wall of the refectory of the Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan.  Commissioned by Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan, Leonardo began work on The Last Supper (known as Il Cenacolo in Italian) in 1495 and he completed it four years later. He felt traditional fresco painting techniques would not adequately capture the intensity he wanted so he experimented by painting on to dry plaster on the wall of the refectory.  But his new method was not as durable as the traditional one and the painting deteriorated quickly. By as early as 1556, the painting was described by one commentator as ‘ruined’.  Over the ensuing years it suffered from poor restoration techniques, blatant vandalism by French soldiers, having a doorway cut into it to provide a shortcut for the monks, and wartime bomb damage.  Read more…

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Geminiano Giacomelli – composer


Farnese duke encouraged musician to develop his talent

One of the most popular composers of opera in the early 18th century in Italy, Geminiano Giacomelli (sometimes known as Jacomelli) was born on this day in 1692 at Colorno near Parma.  From 1724, when his opera Ipermestra was performed for the first time, up to his death in 1740, Giacomelli composed 19 operas.  His best known work was Cesare in Egitto (Caesar in Egypt),  which he produced in 1735.  As a young child he had studied singing, counterpoint and the harpsichord with Giovanni Maria Capelli, organist and composer at the Farnese court and maestro di cappella at the cathedral in Parma.  After moving to Piacenza, Giacomelli became maestro di cappella in the ducal parish of San Fermo. In 1719 he became maestro di cappella to the Farnese court and also at the Chiesa della Madonna della Steccata. He wrote sacred music, including eight psalm settings for tenor and bass and some concertos with continuo.  Duke Francesco Farnese became Giacomelli’s protector and made him maestro di cappella for life at the church of San Giovanni in Piacenza with an annual salary.  He also allowed him time off to work on his operas.  Read more…

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Leandro Jayarajah - cricketer


Father was a pioneer of game in Italy

Leandro Jayarajah, the former captain and head coach of Roma Capannelle Cricket Club, was born on this day in 1987 in Rome.  His father, Francis Alphonsus Jayarajah, usually known as Alfonso, is a Sri Lankan national who founded what became the Capannelle club in 1978 and was one of the pioneers of organised cricket in Italy.  Alfonso was co-founder in 1980 of the Federazione Cricket Italiana, under whose auspices an Italian cricket championship has been played since 1983.  Capannelle, which takes its name from the racecourse in Rome, the Ippodromo Capannelle, where the club plays its home matches, have been Serie A champions on five occasions, most recently under Leandro’s leadership in 2013.  The club began life as the Commonwealth Wandering Giants Cricket Club, changing its name when the chance to use the green space in the middle of the racecourse as a permanent home presented itself in 1983.  Leandro, a right-handed batsman who bowls off spin and occasionally keeps wicket has followed his father into international cricket as a member of the Italy team, which is currently 28th in the world rankings.  Read more…


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27 May 2020

27 May

Bruno Vespa – television journalist


TV host opened the door to late night political debate

Bruno Vespa, the founding host of the television programme Porta a Porta, was born on this day in 1944 in L’Aquila in Abruzzo.  Vespa, who celebrates his 72nd birthday today, has fronted the late night television talk show, which literally means ‘Door to Door’ in English, since Italy's state broadcaster Rai launched the programme in 1996.  Vespa became a radio announcer with Rai when he was 18 and began hosting the news programme Telegiornale RAI a few years later.  He had begun his career in journalism by writing sports features for the L’Aquila edition of the newspaper, Il Tempo, when he was just 16 years old.  On television, he became well known for interviewing influential world figures just before they became famous, an example being his programme featuring Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, the year before he was elected as Pope John Paul II.  In June 1984, Vespa was official commentator for the live televised broadcast of the state funeral for Enrico Berlinguer, the former leader of the Italian Communist party.  Vespa has won awards for his journalism and television programmes and has also written many books.  Read more…

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Giuseppe Tornatore - writer and director


Oscar winner for Cinema Paradiso

The screenwriter and director Giuseppe Tornatore, the creator of the Oscar-winning classic movie Cinema Paradiso, was born on this day in 1956 in Bagheria, a small town a few kilometres along the coast from the Sicilian capital Palermo.  Known as Nuovo Cinema Paradiso in Italy, Tornatore’s best-known work won the award for Best Foreign Language Film at the 62nd Academy Awards following its release in 1988.  The movie, written by Tornatore, tells the story of Salvatore, a successful film director based in Rome who returns to his native Sicily after hearing of the death of the man who kindled his love of the cinema, the projectionist at the picture house in his local village, who became a father figure to him after his own father was killed on wartime national service.  Much of the film consists of flashbacks to Salvatore’s life as a child in the immediate post-war years and there is a memorable performance by Salvatore Cascio as the director’s six-year-old self, when he was known as Toto, as he develops an unlikely yet enduring friendship with Alfredo, the projectionist, played by the French actor Philippe Noiret.  Read more…

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Lucrezia Crivelli – lady in waiting


Mystery of the beautiful woman in painting by Leonardo

Lucrezia Crivelli, mistress of Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan, who was for a long time believed to be the subject of a painting by Leonardo da Vinci, died on this day in 1508 in Canneto sull’Oglio in Lombardy.  Crivelli served as a lady in waiting to Ludovico Sforza’s wife, Beatrice d’Este, from 1475 until Beatrice’s death in 1497.  She also became the Duke’s mistress and gave birth to his son, Giovanni Paolo, who went on to become the first Marquess of Caravaggio and a celebrated condottiero.  Crivelli lived for many years in the Castello of Canneto near Mantua under the protection of Isabella d’Este, the elder sister of Beatrice, until her death in 1508.  Coincidentally, her former lover, Ludovico Sforza, is believed to have died on the same day in 1508 while being kept prisoner in the dungeons of the castle of Loches en Touraine in France, having been captured by the French during the Italian Wars.  It was never proved, but it was assumed for many years that Crivelli may have been the subject of Leonardo da Vinci’s painting La belle Ferronnière, which is displayed in the Louvre in Paris.  Read more…


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26 May 2020

26 May

Alberto Ascari - racing driver


F1 champion killed amid eerie echoes of father's death

Racing driver Alberto Ascari, who was twice Formula One champion, died on this day in 1955 in an accident at the Monza racing circuit in Lombardy, just north of Milan.  A hugely popular driver, his death shocked Italy and motor racing fans in particular.  What many found particularly chilling was a series of uncanny parallels with the death of his father, Antonio Ascari, who was also a racing driver, 30 years previously.  Alberto had gone to Monza to watch his friend, Eugenio Castellotti, test a Ferrari 750 Monza sports car, which they were to co-drive the car in the 1000 km Monza race.  Contracted to Lancia at the time, although he had been given dispensation to drive for Ferrari in the race, Ascari was not supposed to test drive the car, yet he could not resist trying a few laps, even though he was dressed in a jacket and tie, in part to ensure he had not lost his nerve after a serious accident a few days earlier.  When he emerged from a fast curve on the third lap, however, the car inexplicably skidded, turned on its nose and somersaulted twice. Ascari was wearing Castellotti’s white helmet but he suffered multiple injuries nonetheless.  Read more…


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Napoleon becomes King of Italy


French Emperor places Iron Crown of Lombardy on his own head

Napoleon Bonaparte was declared King of Italy on this day in 1805 in Milan.  He crowned himself at a ceremony in the Duomo using the Iron Crown of Lombardy.  The title King of Italy signified that Napoleon was the head of the new Kingdom of Italy, which was at that time a vassal state of the French Empire. The area controlled by Napoleon had previously been known as a republic, with Napoleon as its president.  But Napoleon had become the Emperor of France the year before and had decided Italy should become a Kingdom ruled by himself, or a member of his family.  Before the ceremony, the Iron Crown had to be fetched from Monza. The crown consisted of a circlet of gold with a central iron band, which according to legend was beaten out of a nail from Christ’s true cross, found by Saint Helena in the Holy Land. The crown is believed to have been given to the city of Monza in the sixth century.  During his coronation, Napoleon is reported to have picked up the precious relic, announced that God had given it to him, and placed it on his own head.  After the coronation there were celebratory fireworks in Milan.  Read more…


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Luca Toni - World Cup winner


Striker one of stars of 2006 triumph in Germany

The footballer Luca Toni, who played an important role in Italy’s achievement in winning the soccer World Cup in Germany in 2006, was born on this day in 1977 in the small town of Pavullo nel Frignano in Emilia-Romagna.  Toni scored twice in Italy’s 3-0 victory over Ukraine in the quarter-finals before starting as the Azzurri’s main striker in both the semi-final triumph over the hosts and the final against France, in which they eventually prevailed on penalties. Toni hit the bar with one header and saw another disallowed for offside in the final.  The goals were among 16 he scored in 47 appearances for the national team but it was his remarkable club career that makes him stand out in the history of Italian football.  A muscular 6ft 4ins in height and hardly the most mobile of forwards, he was never seen as a great player, more an old-fashioned centre forward of the kind rarely seen in today’s game.  Yet between his debut for his local club, Modena, in 1994 and his retirement in 2016 following his final season with Hellas Verona, Toni found the net 322 times in club football, which makes him the fourth most prolific goalscorer among all Italian players.  Read more…


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25 May 2020

25 May

Enrico Berlinguer - Communist politician


Popular leader turned left-wing party into political force

Enrico Berlinguer, who for more than a decade was Western Europe's most powerful and influential Communist politician, was born on this day in 1922 in the Sardinian city of Sassari.  As secretary-general of the Italian Communist Party from March 1972 until his death in 1984, he led the largest Communist movement outside the Eastern Bloc, coming close to winning a general election in 1976.  He achieved popularity by striving to establish the Italian Communists as a political force that was not controlled from Moscow, pledging a commitment to democracy, a parliamentary system, a mixed economy, and Italian membership of the Common Market and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.  At its peak, Berlinguer's Westernized brand of Communism appealed to nearly a third of Italian voters.  His policies were adopted by other left-wing parties in Europe under what became known as Eurocommunism.  As support for the previously dominant Christian Democrats waned in the 1970s, he proposed a ''historic compromise'' with other parties, rejecting the traditional left-wing vision of violent revolution, and declared that the Italian Communists would be happy to enter into a coalition with Christian Democrats and others.  Read more…


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Stefano Baldini - Olympic marathon champion


Won gold medal over historic course in Athens

Stefano Baldini, the marathon runner who was Olympic champion in Athens in 2004 and twice won the European marathon title, as born on this day in 1971 in Castelnovo di Sotto, about 14km (nine miles) north-west of the city of Reggio Emilia.  Although Baldini’s class was not doubted, his Olympic gold was slightly tarnished by an incident seven kilometres from the finish when a spectator broke through the barriers and attacked the Brazilian runner, Vanderlei de Lima, who was leading the field.  The spectator, an Irishman called Conelius Horan who had disrupted the British Grand Prix motor race the previous year, was wrestled off de Lima by another spectator but the incident cost the Brazilian 15 to 20 seconds and much momentum. He was passed subsequently by Baldini and finished third.  Baldini finished the race, which followed the historic route from Marathon to Athens, in two hours 10 minutes and 55 seconds, although this was not the fastest time of his career.  His best was the 2:07:56 he clocked at the 1997 London Marathon, when he finished second, in what is still the fastest time by an Italian over the marathon distance.  Read more…


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Gaetano Scirea - footballer


Multiple champion who died tragically young

The World Cup-winning footballer Gaetano Scirea, one of the most accomplished players in the history of the game, was born on this day in 1953 in the town of Cernusco sul Naviglio in Lombardy.  Scirea, who became an outstanding performer in the so-called libero role, was a key member of the Italy team that won the 1982 World Cup in Spain and enjoyed huge success also in club football.  In a career spent mostly with Juventus, he won every medal that was available to a club player in Italy, some several times over.  During his time there, the Turin club won the scudetto - the popular name for the Serie A championship - seven times and the Coppa Italia twice.  He also won the UEFA Cup, the European Cup-Winners’ Cup, the European Cup (forerunner of the Champions League), the UEFA Super Cup and the Intercontinental Cup.  Scirea retired in 1988 but continued to work for Juventus. Tragically, while visiting Poland in 1989 to make a scouting report on an upcoming opponent in a UEFA Cup match, the car he was travelling in collided head-on with a truck in heavy rain and he was killed, along with two fellow passengers.   Read more…


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Padre Pio – Saint


Capuchin friar is claimed to have cured cancer

Padre Pio, who has become one of the world’s most famous and popular saints, was born on this day in 1887 in Pietrelcina in Campania.  He was well-known for exhibiting stigmata, marks corresponding to the crucifixion wounds of Jesus, constantly making him the subject of controversy.  Padre Pio has said that at five years old he decided to dedicate his life to God and as a youth he reported experiencing heavenly visions and ecstasies. At the age of 15 he was admitted to the novitiate of the Capuchin Order, taking the name of Fra Pio, in honour of Pope Pius I.  He suffered from poor health for most of his life and fellow friars say he often appeared to be in a stupor during prayers. One claimed to have seen him in ecstasy, levitating above the ground.  In 1910 he was ordained a priest and moved to a friary in San Giovanni Rotondo in Foggia.  He was called up to serve in the Italian army during the First World War and assigned to the medical corps in Naples, but because of his poor health he was declared unfit for service and discharged.  In 1918 he exhibited stigmata for the first time while hearing a confession. This was to continue until his death 50 years later.  Read more…


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24 May 2020

24 May

NEW - Jacopo Carucci da Pontormo – artist


Painter’s expressive style was the start of Mannerism

Painter Jacopo Carucci, often referred to simply as Pontormo, was born on this day in 1494 in Pontorme near Empoli in Tuscany.  Pontormo is considered to be the founder of the Mannerist style of painting in the later years of the Italian high renaissance, as he was capable of blending Michelangelo’s use of colour and monumental figures with the metallic rigidity of northern painters such as Albrecht Dürer. His work represents a distinct stylistic shift from the art typical of the Florentine Renaissance.  According to Giorgio Vasari in his book, The Lives of the Artists, Pontormo’s father was also a painter but he became an orphan at the age of ten. As a young art apprentice he moved around a lot, staying with Leonardo da Vinci, Mariotto Albertinelli, Piero di Cosimo and Andrea del Sarto.  Pope Leo X, passing through Florence in 1515 on a journey, commissioned the young Pontormo to fresco the Pope’s Chapel in the church of Santa Maria Novella.  Pontormo also participated in the decoration of the nuptial chamber of Pierfrancesco Borgherini with his Stories of Joseph, four paintings that are now in the National Gallery in London.  Read more…

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Charles Emmanuel IV – King of Sardinia


Monarch who was descended from Charles I of England

Charles Emmanuel IV, who was King of Sardinia from 1796 until he abdicated in 1802 and might once have had a claim to the throne of England, was born on this day in 1751 in Turin.  Born Carlo Emanuele Ferdinando Maria di Savoia, he was the eldest son of Victor Amadeus III, King of Sardinia, and of his wife Infanta Maria Antonia Ferdinanda of Spain. From his birth he was known as the Prince of Piedmont.  In 1775, he married Marie Clotilde of France, the daughter of Louis, Dauphin of France, and Princess Marie-Josèphe of Saxony, and sister of King Louis XVI of France.  Although it was essentially a political marriage over which they had little choice, the couple became devoted to one another.  With the death of his father in October 1796, Charles Emmanuel inherited the throne of Sardinia, a kingdom that included not only the island of Sardinia, but also the whole of Piedmont and other parts of north-west Italy.  He took on a difficult political situation along with the throne, only months after his father had signed the disadvantageous Treaty of Paris with the French Republic following the four-year War of the First Coalition, in which Napoleon’s army prevailed.  Read more…

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Simone Rugiati - celebrity chef


Popular presenter found fame early in career

The chef and TV presenter Simone Rugiati was born on this day in 1981 in Santa Croce sull’ Arno, midway between Pisa and Florence in Tuscany.  He became a famous face on TV in Italy with a seven-year run on the hit cookery show La Prova del Cuoco - the Test of the Cook - a hugely popular daytime programme on Rai Uno based on the BBC show Ready Steady Cook, fronted by Antonella Clerici.  Rugiati has also presented numerous programmes on the satellite TV food channel Gambero Rosso and since 2010 he has been the face of Cuochi e Fiamme  - Cooks and Flames - a cookery contest on the La7 network in which two non-professional chefs cook the same dish and see their efforts marked by a panel of judges.  He has also taken part in reality TV shows, including the 2010 edition of L’Isola dei Famosi, an Italian version of the American show Survivor.  Rugiati reached the semi-final of another reality show, Pechino Express, in which the competitors, paired in couples, complete an epic 7,900km (4,900 miles) journey from Haridwar in the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand to Beijing in China, undertaking various challenges along the way.  Read more…

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Gian Gastone de' Medici – Grand Duke of Tuscany


The last Medici to rule Florence

Gian Gastone de' Medici, the seventh and last Grand Duke of Tuscany, was born on this day in 1671 in the Pitti Palace in Florence.  He was the second son of Grand Duke Cosimo III and Marguerite Louise d’Orleans.  Because his elder brother predeceased him he succeeded his father to the title in 1723.  He had an unhappy arranged marriage and the couple had no children so when he died in 1737 it was the end of 300 years of Medici rule over Florence.  He spent the last few years of his reign confined to bed, looked after by his entourage.  One of his final acts was to order the erection of a statue to Galileo in the Basilica of Santa Croce.  He was buried in the Basilica of San Lorenzo and Francis Stephen of Lorraine succeeded to the title of Grand Duke of Tuscany.  The Palazzo Pitti, known to English visitors as the Pitti Palace, is on the south side of the River Arno, a short distance from the Ponte Vecchio. It became the main residence of the rulers of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany and is now the largest museum complex in Florence.  Read more…


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Jacopo Carucci da Pontormo – artist

Painter’s expressive style was the start of Mannerism


Jacopo Pontormo's masterpiece, The Deposition from the Cross
Jacopo Pontormo's masterpiece, The
Deposition from the Cross
Painter Jacopo Carucci, often referred to simply as Pontormo, was born on this day in 1494 in Pontorme near Empoli in Tuscany.

Pontormo is considered to be the founder of the Mannerist style of painting in the later years of the Italian high renaissance, as he was capable of blending Michelangelo’s use of colour and monumental figures with the metallic rigidity of northern painters such as Albrecht Dürer. His work represents a distinct stylistic shift from the art typical of the Florentine Renaissance.

According to Giorgio Vasari in his book, The Lives of the Artists, Pontormo’s father was also a painter but he became an orphan at the age of ten. As a young art apprentice he moved around a lot, staying with Leonardo da Vinci, Mariotto Albertinelli, Piero di Cosimo and Andrea del Sarto.

Pope Leo X, passing through Florence in 1515 on a journey, commissioned the young Pontormo to fresco the Pope’s Chapel in the church of Santa Maria Novella.

Pontormo also participated in the decoration of the nuptial chamber of Pierfrancesco Borgherini with his Stories of Joseph, four paintings that are now in the National Gallery in London.

According to Vasari, the model for the boy seated on the step in one of the pictures was Pontormo’s young apprentice, Bronzino.

In 1522, when the plague broke out in Florence, Pontormo went to stay at a cloistered Carthusian monastery, the Certosa di Galluzzo, where he painted a series of frescoes on the passion and resurrection of Christ, but sadly these have been damaged over the years.

Pontormo’s surviving masterpiece is considered to be The Deposition from the Cross, a large altarpiece canvas in the church of Santa Felicità in Florence.

Pontormo's portrait, The Halberdier, was once
the most expensive painting in the world
In the last few years of his life, Pontormo worked on frescoes for the choir of the Basilica of San Lorenzo in Florence, but only the drawings for these have survived. The artist died, aged 62, in January 1557 before completing this work.

According to Vasari, Pontormo ‘was buried in the first cloister of the Church of the Servite friars under the scene he had previously painted there of the Visitation.’ This is the church of Santissima Annunziata in Piazza della Santissima Annunziata in Florence.

His body was moved in 1562 to the chapel devoted to artists and placed under the Trinity, which had been painted by his pupil, Bronzino.

Vasari portrays Pontormo as withdrawn, neurotic and miserly, but subsequent art historians have pointed out that the two were rivals for Medici commissions, which might have influenced Vasari’s judgment.

Pontormo’s work was out of fashion for centuries, but there has recently been renewed interest in him from art historians. Between 1989 and 2002, Pontormo’s portrait of The Halberdier held the title of the world’s most expensive painting by an Old Master.

The church of San Michele in Pontorme, Empoli, is just a few steps from the house in which Pontormo was born
The church of San Michele in Pontorme, Empoli, is just
a few steps from the house in which Pontormo was born
Travel tip:

The village of Pontorme, where Jacopo Carucci was born, is now a district of the town of Empoli, which can be found 20km (12 miles) southwest of Florence. Pontorme is essentially the network of streets around the church of San Michele Arcangelo. The house where Carucci spent his early years is now a museum in which visitors can see objects and artworks that include preparatory sketches for the altarpiece depicting Saints John the Evangelist and the Archangel Michael from the church of San Michele, a page from the painter’s diary and pieces of ceramic cookware uncovered during the building’s restoration.  The house is close to the church of San Michele in Via Pontorme, who can arrange visits.

The loggia facade of the Basilica della Santissima  Annunziata in Florence, where Carucci was buried
The loggia facade of the Basilica della Santissima
Annunziata in Florence, where Carucci was buried
Travel tip:

The Basilica della Santissima Annunziata, where Carucci was buried, is a Renaissance-style basilica in Florence. Considered the mother church of the Servite Order, it is located at the northeastern side of the Piazza Santissima Annunziata near the city centre. The facade of the church is by the architect Giovanni Battista Caccini, added in 1601 to imitate the Renaissance-style loggia of Brunelleschi's facade of the Foundling Hospital, which defines the eastern side of the piazza. The building opposite the Foundling Hospital, designed by Sangallo the Elder, was also given a Brunelleschian facade in the 1520s.

Also on this day:

1671: The birth of Gian Gastone de’ Medici, the last Medici to rule Florence

1751: The birth of Charles Emmanuel IV, King of Sardinia

1981: The birth of celebrity chef Simone Rugiati


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23 May 2020

23 May

Sergio Gonella - football referee


First Italian to referee a World Cup final

Sergio Gonella, the first Italian football referee to take charge of a World 1978 final between the Netherlands and the hosts Argentina in Buenos Aires and although he was criticised by many journalists and football historians for what they perceived as a weak performance lacking authority, few matches in the history of the competition can have presented a tougher challenge.  Against a backcloth of political turmoil in a country which had suffered a military coup only two years earlier and where opponents of the regime were routinely kidnapped and tortured, or simply disappeared, this was Argentina’s chance to build prestige by winning the biggest sporting event in the world, outside the Olympics.  Rumours of subterfuge surrounded most of Argentina’s matches and when the final arrived the atmosphere in the stadium was as intimidating as anything Gonella would have experienced in his whole 13-year professional career.  The match began with an unprecedented delay, caused first by the Argentine team’s deliberate late arrival on the field. Read more…

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Girolamo Savonarola executed


Death of the friar who was to inspire best-selling novel by Tom Wolfe

The hellfire preacher Girolamo Savonarola was hanged and burned on this day in 1498 in Piazza della Signoria in Florence.  By sheer force of personality, Savonarola had convinced rich people to burn their worldly goods in spectacular bonfires in Florence during 1497, but within a year it was Savonarola’s burning corpse that the crowds turned out to see.  Savonarola had become famous for his outspoken sermons against vice and corruption in the Catholic Church in Italy and he encouraged wealthy people to burn their valuable goods, paintings and books in what have become known as ‘bonfires of the vanities.’  This phrase inspired Tom Wolfe to write The Bonfire of the Vanities, a novel about ambition and politics in 1980s New York.  Savonarola was born in 1452 in Ferrara. He became a Dominican friar and entered the convent of Saint Mark in Florence in 1482. He began preaching against corruption and vice and prophesied that a leader would arrive from the north to punish Italy and reform the church.  When Emperor Charles VIII invaded from the north many people thought Savonarola’s prediction was being fulfilled.  Read more…

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Giuseppe Parini – writer


Satirist avenged bad treatment though his poetry

Poet and satirist Giuseppe Parini was born on this day in 1729 in Bosisio in Lombardy.  A writer associated with the Age of Enlightenment in Europe, he is remembered for his series of Horatian odes and for Il giorno - The Day - a satirical poem in four books about the selfishness and superficiality of the aristocracy in Milan.  The son of a silk trader, Parini was sent to Milan to study under the religious order, the Barnabites. In 1752 his first volume of verse introduced him to literary circles and the following year he joined the Milanese Accademia dei Trasformati - Academy of the Transformed - which was located at the Palazzo Imbonati in the Porta Nuova district.  He was ordained a priest in 1754 - a condition of a legacy made to him by a great aunt - and entered the household of Duke Gabrio Serbelloni at Tremezzo on Lake Como to be tutor to his eldest son.  Parini was unhappy there and felt he was badly treated, but he twice got his revenge on his employer through his writing. In 1757 he wrote his Dialogo sopra la nobilità, a discussion between the corpse of a nobleman and the corpse of a poet about the true nature of nobility.   Read more…

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Ferdinando II de’ Medici – Grand Duke of Tuscany


Technology fan who supported scientist Galileo

Inventor and patron of science Ferdinando II de’ Medici died on this day in 1670 in Florence.  Like his grandmother, the dowager Grand Duchess Christina, Ferdinando II was a loyal friend to Galileo and he welcomed the scientist back to Florence after the prison sentence imposed on him for ‘vehement suspicion of heresy’ was commuted to house arrest.  Ferdinando II was reputed to be obsessed with new technology and had hygrometers, barometers, thermometers and telescopes installed at his home in the Pitti Palace.  He has also been credited with the invention of the sealed glass thermometer in 1654.  Ferdinando II was born in 1610, the eldest son of Cosimo II de’ Medici and Maria Maddalena of Austria.  He became Grand Duke of Tuscany in 1621 when he was just 10 years old after the death of his father.  His mother, Maddalena, and paternal grandmother, Christina, acted as joint regents for him. Christina is said to have been the power behind the throne until her death in 1636.  Ferdinando II was patron and friend to Galileo, who dedicated his work, Dialogue Concerning the two Chief World Systems, to him.  Read more…


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22 May 2020

22 May

Trevi Fountain inaugurated


Famous fountain now helps raise money for the poor

Rome’s iconic Trevi Fountain - Fontana di Trevi - was officially opened by Pope Clement XIII on this day in 1762.  Standing at more than 26 metres high and 49 metres wide it is the largest Baroque fountain in Rome and probably the most famous fountain in the world.  It has featured in films such as La Dolce Vita and Three Coins in the Fountain.  For more than 400 years a fountain served Rome at the junction of three roads, tre vie, using water from one of Ancient Rome’s aqueducts.  In 1629 Pope Urban VIII asked Gian Lorenzo Bernini to draw up possible renovations but the project was abandoned when the pope died.  In 1730 Pope Clement XII organised a contest to design a new fountain. The Florentine Alessandro Galilei originally won but there was such an outcry in Rome that the commission was eventually awarded to a Roman, Nicola Salvi.  Work on the fountain began in 1732 but Salvi died in 1751 when it was only half finished. Made from Travertine stone quarried in Tivoli near Rome, the fountain was completed by Giuseppe Pannini, with Oceanus (god of all water), designed by Pietro Bracci, set in the central niche.  Read more…


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José João Altafini - footballer who made history


Forward tamed Eusebio to give Italy first European Cup

Supporters of AC Milan took to the streets to celebrate on this day in 1963 after José João Altafini's goals secured an historic victory in the European Cup.  Milan beat Benfica at Wembley Stadium in London to become the first Italian team to win the trophy.  Until then the European Cup had been dominated by Real Madrid, who were champions for five years in a row after the competition was launched in 1955-56, with the great Eusebio's Benfica winning in 1961 and 1962.  At half-time at Wembley in 1963, Milan looked set to provide another near-miss story for Italy, trailing to a Eusebio goal as Benfica closed on a third successive title.  The Rossoneri had lost to Real Madrid five years earlier, 12 months after the Spanish giants brushed aside Fiorentina in the final.  But 24-year-old Altafini, who became one of Serie A’s most prolific all-time goalscorers, refused to be cowed.  He netted in the 58th and 66th minutes, sparking joyous scenes in Milan and starting a period of European dominance for the city, with AC’s rivals Internazionale winning the next two tournaments.  The Milan team that night in London boasted two future Italy managers in Cesare Maldini and Giovanni Trapattoni, as well as the great Gianni Rivera, but Altafini was the star.  Read more…


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Giulia Grisi - operatic soprano


Officer’s daughter became a star on three continents

The opera singer Giulia Grisi, one of the leading sopranos of the 19th century, was born on this day in 1811 in Milan.  Renowned for the smooth sweetness of her voice, Grisi sang to full houses in Europe, the United States and South America during a career spanning 30 years in which composers such as Vincenzo Bellini and Gaetano Donizetti created roles especially for her.  These included Elvira in Bellini’s final opera, I puritani, in which Grisi appeared alongside the great tenor Giovanni Battista Rubini, the bass Luigi Lablache and the baritone Antonio Tamburini when the work premiered in Paris in 1835.  The opera was such a success that whenever the four singers performed together subsequently they were known as the “Puritani quartet”.  Grisi was also the first soprano cast in the role of Adalgisa in Bellini’s Norma in Milan in 1831, playing opposite Giuditta Pasta in the title role.  Donizetti wrote the parts of Norina and Ernesto in his 1843 work Don Pasquale for Grisi and her future husband, the tenor Giovanni Matteo De Candia, usually known by his stage name of Giovanni Mario. Lablache and Tamburini again starred with her in the Paris premiere.  Read more…


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