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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21 May 2020

21 May

Propaganda Due suspects named


Italy horrified as list reveals alleged members of ‘secret state’ 

Ordinary Italians were stunned and the country’s elite rocked to the core on this day in 1981 when a list was made public of alleged members of Propaganda Due, a secret Masonic lodge which sought to run the country as a ‘state within the state’.  A staggering 962 names were on the list, including 44 members of parliament, three of whom were cabinet ministers, 49 bankers, numerous industrialists, a number of newspaper editors and other high-profile journalists, the heads of all three of Italy’s secret services and more than 200 military and police officers, including 12 generals of the Carabinieri, five of the Guardia di Finanza, 22 of the army and four from the air force.  The existence of the illegal, underground lodge, known as P2 had been rumoured for several years but there had been little concrete evidence until magistrates investigating the collapse of the Banco Ambrosiano in Milan raided the home in Tuscany of Licio Gelli, the former Fascist financier who turned out to be the Grandmaster.  The list of alleged members, which was made public by Prime Minister Arnaldo Forlani on the advice of the prosecuting team, was found among paperwork seized in the raid.  Read more…


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Angelo Bruno - Mafia boss


Sicilian head of Philadelphia mob known as 'the Gentle Don'

Angelo Bruno, a mobster who ran the Philadelphia Mafia for two decades, was born Angelo Annaloro in Villalba, in the province of Caltanissetta, in Sicily, on this day in 1910.  Bruno was known as “the Gentle Don” because he preferred to solve problems and consolidate his power through non-violent means, such as bribery, and commissioned murders only as a last resort.  The son of a grocer, he emigrated to the United States in his teens and settled in Philadelphia. He became a close associate of New York crime family boss Carlo Gambino. Bruno dropped the name Annaloro and replaced it with his paternal grandmother's maiden name, Bruno.  Bruno’s dislike of violence was not driven by any compassion for his fellow man.  During his early days in Philadelphia, he worked for a series of bosses and did not shirk the tasks he had to perform in order to rise through the ranks, which included carrying out killings himself.  But in 1959, when he succeeded Joseph Ida as boss of the Philadelphia crime family, he decided it was in his interests and those of his criminal organisation to operate in a way that avoided attracting unwanted attention.  Read more…


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Michelangelo’s Pietà damaged


Work of art deliberately vandalised

Michelangelo’s beautiful Pietà, a marble sculpture of the Virgin Mary with the dead body of Jesus lying across her knees, was damaged by a man wielding a hammer on this day in 1972 in Rome.  A mentally disturbed man walked into St Peter’s Basilica and attacked the sculpture in an act of deliberate vandalism.  He struck it 15 times, removing Mary’s arm at the elbow, knocking off a chunk of her nose and chipping one of her eyelids.  Some of the pieces of marble that flew off were taken by some of the people who were in the church at the time and Mary’s nose had to be reconstructed from a block cut out of her back.  The man who carried out the attack was said to be suffering from a delusion that he was Jesus Christ risen from the dead. He was not charged with any crime but spent two years in a psychiatric hospital.  After the restoration work was completed the sculpture was returned to its place in St Peter’s, just to the right of the entrance, and it is now protected by a bulletproof acrylic glass panel.  Michelangelo carved this sculpture from a single piece of Carrara marble in 1499 when he was only 24 and it is the only work he ever signed.  Read more…


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Pandolfo Petrucci – ruler of Siena


Ruthless tyrant who encouraged art

Pandolfo Petrucci, who during his time ruling Siena was one of the most powerful men in Italy, died on this day in 1512 in San Quirico d’Orcia in Tuscany.  Although he had been a tyrannical ruler, Petrucci had also done a great deal to increase the artistic splendour of his native city.  Petrucci was born into an aristocratic family in Siena in 1452. He had to go into exile in 1483 for being a member of the Noveschi political faction, which had fallen out of favour with the rulers of Siena.  After he returned to Siena in 1487, he began to take advantage of the struggles between the different political factions.  He married Aurelia Borghese, who was the daughter of Niccolò Borghese, an important figure in Siena at the time. After entering public office himself, Petrucci acquired so much authority and wealth that he became the ruling despot of Siena with the title of signore - lord.  His rapid rise to power alienated his father-in-law, who conspired with other influential citizens in Siena to assassinate him. However, Petrucci uncovered the plot and in 1500 had Borghese murdered. This act terrified his other enemies, which left Petrucci in complete control.  Read more…


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20 May 2020

20 May

NEWGabriele Muccino - film director


Enjoyed box office success in US after partnering with Will Smith

The film director Gabriele Muccino, whose best-known work so far has been the Oscar-nominated 2006 Will Smith movie The Pursuit of Happyness, was born on this day in 1967 in Rome.  He is the older brother of the actor, Silvio Muccino.  Muccino, who also directed Smith in Seven Pounds (2008), spent several years in Hollywood following his success in Italy with L’ultimo bacio (The Last Kiss), which won him a David Di Donatello award as Best Director and for Best Screenplay.  His most recent work has been in Italy, with his latest film, Gli anni più belli (The Most Beautiful Years) released in February 2020.  The son of Luigi Muccino, an executive at the state television company Rai, and painter and costume designer Antonella Cappuccio, Gabriele enrolled at Rome’s Sapienza University to study literature, but was already fascinated with the cinema. Indeed, he abandoned his studies soon after he began them, choosing instead to attend Rome’s renowned Centro sperimentale di cinematografia, where he worked unpaid as a director’s assistant, working with the highly-regarded Pupi Avati and Marco Risi.  Read more…

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Albano Carrisi - singer


Performer best known as Al Bano has sold 165 million records

The singer Albano Carrisi, better known as Al Bano, was born on this day in 1943 in Cellino San Marco, a town in Puglia about 30km (19 miles) from Lecce.  He enjoyed considerable success as a solo artist in the late 1960s but became more famous still in Italy and across mainland Europe for his collaboration with the American singer Romina Power – daughter of the actor Tyrone Power.  They met during the shooting of a film - one of several, mainly romantic comedies and a vehicle for his songs, in which he starred during the 1970s.  They not only formed a professional partnership but were married for almost 30 years.  They twice performed as Italy’s entry for the Eurovision Song Contest, finishing seventh on both occasions, and appeared several times at Italy’s prestigious Sanremo Music Festival, winning the top prize in 1984.  They divorced in 1999 but reunited on a professional basis in 2013 and when they performed at the Arena di Verona in 2015 before a sell-out crowd of 11,000 the show was broadcast by the Italian TV network Rai and shown in seven other countries, with a combined audience estimated at 51 million.  Read more…


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Pietro Bembo – poet and scholar


Lucrezia’s lover helped with the development of modern Italian

Pietro Bembo, a writer who was influential in the development of the Italian language, was born on this day in 1470 in Venice.  He is probably most remembered for having an affair with Lucrezia Borgia while she was married to the Duke of Ferrara and he was living at the Este Court with them. His love letters to her were described by the English poet, Lord Byron, centuries later, as ‘the prettiest love letters in the world.’  As a boy, Bembo visited Florence with his father where he acquired a love for the Tuscan form of Italian which he was later to use as his literary medium. He later learnt Greek and went to study at the University of Padua.  He spent two years at the Este Court in Ferrara where he wrote poetry that was reminiscent of Boccaccio and Petrarch.  It was when he returned to the court at Ferrara a few years later he had an affair with Lucrezia Borgia, the daughter of Pope Alexander VI, who was at that time the wife of Alfonso I d’Este. The love letters between the pair to which Byron referred are now in the collection of the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan.  Byron greatly admired them when he saw them there in 1816.  Read more…


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Hieronymus Fabricius - anatomist and surgeon


Research pioneer known as “Father of Embryology”

The pioneering anatomist and physiologist known in academic history as Hieronymus Fabricius, whose Italian name was Girolamo Fabrizio, was born on this day in 1537 in Acquapendente, in Lazio.  Fabrizio, who designed the first permanent theatre for public anatomical dissections, advanced the knowledge of the make-up of the human body in many areas, including the digestive system, the eyes and ears, and the veins.  But his most significant discoveries were in embryology.  He investigated the foetal development of many animals and humans and produced the first detailed description of the placenta. For this he became known as the "Father of Embryology".  Fabrizio spent most of his life at the University of Padua, where he was a student under the guidance of Gabriele Falloppio, who discovered the tube connecting the ovaries with the uterus that became known as the Fallopian tube.  He succeeded Falloppio as chair of surgery and anatomy, holding the post from 1562 to 1613 and building a reputation that attracted students from all of Europe.  Among his pupils were the English anatomist William Harvey, as well as Giulio Casseri and Adriaan van den Spiegel, both of whom went on to become significant anatomists.  Read more…


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Gabriele Muccino - film director

Enjoyed box office success after partnering with Will Smith


Gabriele Muccino won awards in Italy before achieving success in the United States
Gabriele Muccino won awards in Italy before
achieving success in the United States
The film director Gabriele Muccino, whose best-known work so far has been the Oscar-nominated 2006 Will Smith movie The Pursuit of Happyness, was born on this day in 1967 in Rome.  He is the older brother of the actor, Silvio Muccino.

Muccino, who also directed Smith in Seven Pounds (2008), spent several years in Hollywood following his success in Italy with L’ultimo bacio (The Last Kiss), which won him a David Di Donatello award as Best Director and for Best Screenplay.

His most recent work has been in Italy, with his latest film, Gli anni più belli (The Most Beautiful Years) released in February 2020.

The son of Luigi Muccino, an executive at the state television company RAI, and painter and costume designer Antonella Cappuccio, Gabriele enrolled at Rome’s Sapienza University to study literature, but was already fascinated with the cinema.

Indeed, he abandoned his studies soon after he began them, choosing instead to attend Rome’s renowned Centro sperimentale di cinematografia, where he worked unpaid as a director’s assistant, working with the highly-regarded Pupi Avati and Marco Risi.

With Avati’s encouragement, he acted before he directed, taking a role in a TV mini-series that ran for nine months, but disliked the experience and decided he felt more comfortable behind the camera rather than in front of it. His earliest efforts as a director included a short film, Nani, in which both his younger sibling, Silvio, and his grandmother appeared.

Giovanna Mezzogiorno and Stefano Accorsi in a scene from Muccino's breakthrough movie, L'ultimo bacio
Giovanna Mezzogiorno and Stefano Accorsi in a scene from
Muccino's breakthrough movie, L'ultimo bacio
His first full-length movie, Ecco fatto (Done) was well received at the Torino Film Festival following its release in 1998 and Muccino’s reputation for stylish cinematography earned him a consistent stream of work in advertising, where he directed commercials for Aperol, Vodafone, Nescafé, Pepsi, TIM, Intimissimi and Lancia among others.

After modest success with Come te niente mai (Like You Nobody Ever) in 1999, Muccino’s major breakthrough came in 2001 with L'ultimo bacio, which starred Giovanna Mezzogiorno and Stefano Accorsi as a couple expecting their first child whose happiness is wrecked when Accorsi’s character embarks on an affair with an 18-year-old girl.

As well as winning him critical acclaim, the film grossed 13 million euros and enjoyed a run of six months in Italian cinemas. Early in 2002, the film was presented at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah, where it was well received.

More success followed for Muccino with Ricordati di me, which was shown to English-speaking audiences as Remember Me, My Love, which was released in 2003 and starred the Italian superstar actress, Monica Bellucci, alongside Fabrizio Bentivoglio and Laura Morante, with a role also for Muccino’s brother, Silvio.

Will Smith and his son, Jaden Smith, in a scene from The Pursuit of Happyness, directed by Gabriele Muccino
Will Smith and his son, Jaden Smith, in a scene from The
Pursuit of Happyness,
directed by Gabriele Muccino
Among his admirers by now was the American star Will Smith, who sought out Muccino to direct his own production, The Pursuit of Happyness, in which he was to star.  The relationship had its difficulties - Muccino could speak very little English when he arrived in Hollywood - but the two developed a rapport nonetheless. Smith had in his mind a particular interpretation of the film’s lead character and after Muccino had insisted that Smith watch with him two Italian cinema classics, Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948) and Umberto D (1952), the actor knew Muccino would direct sympathetically.

The two collaborated again on Seven Pounds. Both movies were box-office successes, together grossing almost 500 million dollars.  Muccino continued to work with A-list actors in America with the comedy Playing for Keeps (2012), which starred Gerard Butler, Jessica Biel, Catherine Zeta Jones, Uma Thurman and Dennis Quaid among others, and Fathers and Daughters (2015), featuring Oscar-winning actor Russell Crowe and Amanda Seyfried.

In Italy, he directed Baciami ancora (Kiss Me Again) in 2010 as a sequel to L’ultimo bacio, with Accorsi reprising his role, this time opposite Vittoria Puccini, as well as L’estate addosso (2016), which was titled Summertime for English-speaking audiences.

Gli anni più belli, which features a title song written and performed by the enduringly popular singer-songwriter Claudio Baglioni, tells the story of four friends spanning 40 years, from their adolescence in the 1980s of Muccino’s youth to the present day, charting their own successes and failures but also how Italy has changed in that period.  Much of the film was shot on location in Rome, Naples and Ronciglione, a rugged town in the Cimini mountains near Viterbo in Lazio.

Muccino is married to the costume designer Angelica Russo, who has worked on several of his films.

The Centro sperimentale di cinematografia in Rome is western Europe's oldest film school
The Centro sperimentale di cinematografia in
Rome is western Europe's oldest film school
Travel tip:

Located near Cinecittà in Rome, the Centro sperimentale di cinematografia (Experimental film centre) is the oldest film school in western Europe, founded in 1935 during the Benito Mussolini era by his head of cinema Luigi Freddi. Still financed by the Italian government, it focuses on education, research, publication and theory. With only six places per class, the selection process is highly competitive.  Situated six miles south of the city centre, Cinecittà is the largest film studio in Europe, spreading over an area of 100 acres with 22 stages and 300 dressing rooms, and is the hub of the Italian film industry.

The quaint medieval area of Ronciglione, used for location shooting in Gli anni più belli
The quaint medieval area of Ronciglione, used
for location shooting in Gli anni più belli
Travel tip:

Ronciglione, known locally as Ronció, is a town about 20km (12 miles) from Viterbo, on the southeast slope of the former volcano crater now housing Lake Vico.  The main sights include a well-preserved medieval centre, a castle originally built in the middle ages, with characteristic angle rounded towers, and a Baroque cathedral designed by Pietro da Cortona, rebuilt by Carlo Rainaldi between 1671 and 1695. Ronciglione is known for its carnival and the Palio of the Manna, which features riderless horses competing for each of nine contrades (parishes).  It is the birthplace of the singer-songwriter Marco Mengoni.

Also on this day:

1470: The birth of poet and scholar Pietro Bembo

1537: The birth of anatomist and surgeon Hieronymus Fabricius

1943: The birth of singer Albano Carrisi, who performs as Al Bano


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19 May 2020

19 May

Michele Placido – actor and director


Role of anti-Mafia police inspector turned actor into a TV star

Actor and director Michele Placido was born on this day in 1946 in Ascoli Satriano in Apulia.  Placido is best known for his portrayal of the character, Corrado Cattani, in the Italian television series, La piovra.  Cattani, a police inspector investigating the Mafia, was the lead character in the first four series of La piovra (meaning The Octopus, a name that referred to the Mafia). It was popular on television in the 1980s and the first three series were shown in the UK on Channel Four.  Placido’s family were originally from Rionero in Vulture in Basilicata and he is a descendant of the folk hero, Carmine Crocco, sometimes also known as Donatello. Crocco had fought in the service of Garibaldi but, after Italian unification, he became disappointed with the new Government and formed his own army to fight on behalf of the deposed King of the Two Sicilies, Francis II.  Placido moved to Rome to study acting and then began working in films. His first success came with his portrayal of soldier Paolo Passeri in Marcia Trionfale in 1976, directed by Marco Bellocchio, a role for which Placido won an award.  Read more…


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Andrea Pirlo - footballer


Midfielder who won multiple honours with AC Milan and Juventus

The footballer Andrea Pirlo, who some commentators bracket with Roberto Baggio as one of the two best Italian footballers of the last 25 years, was born on this day in 1979.  The midfielder, who left Italy to play for the Major League Soccer team New York City, has been part of six Italian championship-winning teams and is a double winner of the Champions League among a host of honours as a club player.  In international football he has a World Cup winner’s medal as a member of the 2006 Italian national team that lifted the trophy in Germany.  The fulcrum of the Azzurri midfield, he scored one goal and was credited with the assist for three other goals during the tournament.  One of those assists resulted in the crucial opening goal for Italy scored by Fabio Grosso in the classic semi-final against the host nation.  He was also one of Italy's successful penalty takers during the shoot-out that decided the final against France.  He was named man of the match three times in the tournament, more than any other player.  He matched that achievement six years later at Euro 2012, when Italy were beaten in the final.  Read more…


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Vittorio Orlando - politician


Prime minister humiliated at First World War peace talks

Vittorio Emanuele Orlando, the Italian prime minister best known for being humiliated by his supposed allies at the Paris peace talks following the First World War, was born on this day in 1860 in Palermo.  Elected to the Chamber of Deputies for the first time in 1897, Orlando had held a number of positions in government and became prime minister in 1917 following Italy’s disastrous defeat to the Austro-Hungarian army at Caporetto, which saw 40,000 Italian soldiers killed or wounded and 265,000 captured. The government of Orlando’s predecessor, Paolo Boselli, collapsed as a result.  Orlando, who had been a supporter of Italy’s entry into the war on the side of the Allies, rebuilt shattered Italian morale and the military victory at Vittorio Veneto, which ended the war on the Italian front and contributed to the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian empire, saw him hailed as Italy’s ‘premier of victory’.  However, his reputation was left in tatters when he and Sidney Sonnino, his half-Welsh foreign secretary, when to Paris to participate in peace talks but left humiliated after the territorial gains they were promised in return for entering the war on the side of Britain, France and the United States were not delivered.  Read more…


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