31 August 2020

31 August

Gino Lucetti – failed assassin

Anarchist tried to kill Mussolini with grenade

Gino Lucetti, who acquired notoriety for attempting to assassinate Italy’s Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini in Rome in 1926, was born on this day in 1900. A lifelong anarchist, part of a collective of like-minded young men and women from Carrara in Tuscany, he planned to kill Mussolini on the basis that doing so would save the lives of thousands of potential future victims of the Fascist regime.  Lucetti hatched his plot while in exile in France, where he had fled after taking a Fascist bullet in the neck following an argument in a bar in Milan, clandestinely returning several times to Carrara to finalise the details.  After enlisting the help of other anarchists, notably Steffano Vatteroni, who worked as a tinsmith in Rome, and Leandro Sorio, a waiter originally from Brescia, he returned to Rome to carry out the attack.  Vatteroni was able to obtain information about Mussolini’s movements from a clerical worker in the dictator’s Rome offices, including details of his regular motorcades through the city. These were carefully choreographed affairs in which cheering citizens lined the streets, enabling Mussolini to present an image to the world of a popular leader.  Read more…


Altiero Spinelli - political visionary

Drafted plan for European Union while in Fascist jail

Altiero Spinelli, a politician who is regarded as one of the founding fathers of the European Union, was born on this day in 1907 in Rome.  A lifelong Communist who was jailed for his opposition to the Fascist regime of Benito Mussolini, he spent much of the Second World War in confinement on the island of Ventotene in the Tyrrhenian Sea, one of an archipelago known as the Pontine Islands.  It was there that he and two prisoners, Ernesto Rossi and Eugenio Colorni, agreed that if the forces of Fascism in Italy and Germany were defeated, the only way to avoid future European wars was for the sovereign nations of the continent to join together in a federation of states.  The document they drew up, which became known as the Ventotene Manifesto, was the first document to argue for a European constitution and formed the basis for the Movimento Federalista Europeo, which Spinelli, Rossi and some 20 others launched at a secret meeting in Milan as soon as they were able to leave their internment camp.  In a nutshell, the Ventotene Manifesto put forward proposals for creating a European federation of states so closely joined together they would no longer be able to go to war with one another.  Read more…


Isabella de’ Medici – noblewoman

Tuscan beauty killed by her husband

Isabella Romola de’ Medici, the daughter of the first Grand Duke of Tuscany, was born on this day in 1542 in Florence.  She was said to have been beautiful, charming, educated and talented and was the favourite child of her father, Cosimo I de’ Medici.  But she died at the age of 33, believed to have been murdered by the husband her family had chosen for her to marry.  While Isabella was growing up she lived first in Palazzo Vecchio and later in Palazzo Pitti in Florence with her brothers and sisters. Her brother, Francesco, who was a year older than her, eventually succeeded his father as Grand Duke of Tuscany.  The Medici children were educated by tutors in classics, languages and the arts and Isabella particularly loved music.  When Isabella was 11 she was betrothed to 12-year-old Paolo Giordano Orsini, heir to the Duchy of Bracciano in Tuscany, because her father wanted to secure the southern border of Tuscany and his relationship with the Orsini family.  Five years later, when Isabella was 16, they were married at the Medici country estate, Villa di Castello.  Read more…


Amilcare Ponchielli - opera composer

Success of La Gioconda put musician on map

The opera composer Amilcare Ponchielli was born on this day in 1834 in Paderno Fasolaro, near Cremona, about 100km south-east of Milan in what is now Lombardia.  Ponchielli's works in general enjoyed only modest success, despite the rich musical invention for which he was later applauded.  One that did win acclaim in his lifetime, however, was La Gioconda, which was first produced in 1876 and underwent several revisions but remained unaltered after 1880.  Well known for the tenor aria, Cielo e mar, and the ballet piece, Dance of the Hours, La Gioconda is the only opera by Ponchielli still performed today and many recordings have been made, featuring some of the biggest stars of recent times.  Maria Callas, Renata Tebaldi and Montserrat Caballe are among those to have played the role of Gioconda, written for soprano, while the lead tenor part of Enzo, whose affections are sought both by Gioconda and another major character, Laura, has been taken by Giuseppe Di Stefano, Carlo Bergonzi, Luciano Pavarotti and Placido Domingo among others.  Ponchielli had such a talent for music that he won a scholarship to Milan Conservatory at nine years old.  Read more…


30 August 2020

30 August

Andrea Gabrieli - composer

Father of the Venetian School

The Venetian composer and organist Andrea Gabrieli, sometimes known as Andrea di Cannaregio, notable for his madrigals and large-scale choral works written for public ceremonies, died on this day in 1585.  His nephew, Giovanni Gabrieli, is more widely remembered yet Andrea, who was organist of the Basilica di San Marco – St Mark’s – for the last 19 years of his life, was a significant figure in his lifetime, the first member of the Venetian School of composers to achieve international renown. He was influential in spreading the Venetian style of music in Germany as well as in Italy.  Little is known about Andrea’s early life aside from the probability that he was born in the parish of San Geremia in Cannaregio and that he may have been a pupil of the Franco-Flemish composer Adrian Willaert, who was maestro di cappella at St Mark’s from 1527 until 1562.  In 1562 – the year of Willaert’s death – Andrea is on record as having travelled to Munich in Germany, where he met and became friends with Orlando di Lasso, who wrote secular songs in French, Italian, and German, as well as Latin.  There was evidence in the later work of Di Lasso of a Venetian influence. Read more…


Joe Petrosino - New York crime fighter

Campanian immigrant a key figure in war against Mafia

Joe Petrosino, a New York police officer who dedicated his life to fighting organised crime, was born Giuseppe Petrosino in Padula, a southern Italian town on the border of Campania and Basilicata, on this day in 1860.  The son of a tailor, Prospero Petrosino, he emigrated to the United States at the age of 12.  The family lived in subsidised accommodation in Mulberry Street, part of the area now known as Little Italy on the Lower East Side towards Brooklyn Bridge, where around half a million Italian immigrants lived in the second half of the 19th century.  Giuseppe took any job he could to help the family, at first as a newspaper boy and then shining shoes outside the police headquarters on Mulberry Street, where he would dream of becoming a police officer himself.  In 1878, by then fluent in English and known to everyone as Joe, Petrosino became an American citizen but it took him five years and repeated applications to realise his dream of joining the police. At 5ft 3ins he was technically too short to meet the criteria for an officer but after the police began to use him as an informant it was decided he could be of use in the fight against Italian organised crime.  Read more…


Emanuele Filiberto – Duke of Savoy

Ruler who made Turin the capital of Savoy

Emanuele Filiberto of Savoy, who was nicknamed testa di ferro (iron head) because of his military prowess, died on this day in 1580 in Turin.  After becoming Duke of Savoy he recovered most of the lands his father Charles III had lost to France and Spain and he restored economic stability to Savoy.  Emanuele Filiberto was born in 1528 in Chambery, now part of France. He grew up to become a skilled soldier and served in the army of the emperor Charles V, who was the brother-in-law of his mother, Beatrice of Portugal, during his war against Francis I of France. He distinguished himself by capturing Hesdin in northern France in July 1553.  When he succeeded his father a month later he began the reacquisition of his lands.  His brilliant victory over the French at Saint Quentin in northern France in 1557 on the side of the Spanish helped to consolidate his power in Savoy. The peace of Cateau-Cambresis in 1559 ended the wars between Charles V and the French Kings and restored part of the Duchy of Savoy back to Emanuele Filiberto on the understanding that he would marry Margaret of France, the sister of King Henry II.   Read more…


29 August 2020

29 August

- Ugo Nespolo - artist and designer

Painter and sculptor worked in theatre, advertising and literature

The contemporary artist Ugo Nespolo, whose broad range of work includes paintings and sculpture, theatre sets and costumes, advertising posters, book layouts, commercial designs and experimental films, was born on this day in 1941 in the village of Mosso Santa Maria in the Biellese Prealps, about 70km (43 miles) northeast of Turin. As well as an enormous output of artworks influenced by Pop Art, conceptual art and Arte Povera among others and numerous sculptures in glass and ceramic, Nespolo created unique set and costume designs for a number of major opera and theatre productions and was associated with several prestigious advertising campaigns, including for the drinks manufacturer Campari and the chocolatier Caffarel.  Nespolo is described as having an insatiable artistic and intellectual appetite and a belief that no artist should confine himself to a single medium. He is said to have inherited those characteristics from his father, whose restless nature compelled him frequently to change jobs and where he - and his family - lived.  His interest in art was probably nurtured by his father’s brother, himself a painter.  Read more…


Libero Grassi - anti-Mafia hero

Businessman brutally murdered after refusing to pay

Libero Grassi, a Palermo clothing manufacturer, died on this day in 1991, shot three times in the head as he walked from his home to his car in Via Vittorio Alfieri, a street of apartment buildings not far from the historic centre, at 7.30am.  It was a classic Mafia hit to which there were no witnesses, at least none prepared to come forward. Such killings were not uncommon in the Sicilian capital as rival clans fought for control of different neighbourhoods.  Yet this one was different in that 67-year-old Grassi had no connection with the criminal underworld apart from his brave decision to stand up to their demands for protection money and refuse to pay.  Grassi owned a factory making underwear, which he sold in his own shop.  He employed 100 workers and his business had a healthy turnover. In a struggling economy, he was doing very well.  Of course, the Mafia wanted their cut.  Grassi began receiving demands, first by telephone, then in person, that he fall in line with other Palermo businesses and pay a pizzo, the term used for the monthly payment the mob collects from businesses in the city in a racket worth today in the region of €160 million a year.  Read more…


Tiziana ‘Tosca’ Donati - singer

Versatile performer whose range spans musicals to sacred songs

The singer Tiziana Donati, who performs under the stage name Tosca, was born on this day in 1967 in Rome.  Winner of the Sanremo Festival in 1996, Tosca has recorded 10 studio albums, released the same number of singles and has recorded duets with many other artists.  She has enjoyed a successful stage career, appearing in numerous 20 theatrical productions, and has been invited to perform songs for several movies, including the title track for Franco Zeffirelli’s version of Jane Eyre in 1996. She also sang and spoke the part of Anastasia in the Italian dubbed version of the Disney cartoon of the same name.  At Christmas in 1999, she participated in concerts in churches in Italy where she performed Latin songs set to music by Vincenzo Zitello and Stefano Melone.  Following this she began a collaboration with the Vatican, taking part in several televised events to commemorate the Jubilee of 2000, and was chosen to sing the Mater Iubilaei, the Marian anthem of the Jubilee, in a ceremony led by Pope John Paul II.  Throughout 2000, she toured with Musica Caeli, a concert made up of never-before performed sacred chants.  Read more…


Leonardo De Lorenzo – flautist

Flair for the flute led to international career

Leonardo De Lorenzo, a brilliant flute player who passed on his knowledge of the instrument to others through his books, was born on this day in 1875 in Viggiano in the province of Potenza.  De Lorenzo started playing the flute at the age of eight and then moved to Naples to attend the music conservatory of San Pietro a Majella.  He became an itinerant flautist until he was 16, when he moved to America, where he worked in a hotel. He returned to Italy in 1896 to do his military service in Alessandria and became a member of a military band directed by Giovanni Moranzoni, whose son was to become a famous conductor of the orchestra at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.  De Lorenzo then began a career as a flautist and toured Italy, Germany, England and South Africa, joining an orchestra in Cape Town for a while. Eventually he returned to Naples to continue his studies.  When he travelled to America again, he became first flautist of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra directed by Gustav Mahler. He was warned never to answer back to Mahler, who had a reputation for being unpleasant.  Read more…


Ugo Nespolo - artist and designer

Painter and sculptor worked in theatre, advertising and literature

Nespolo's advertising poster for Campari themed on the 1990 World Cup
Nespolo's advertising poster for
Campari themed on the 1990 World Cup
The contemporary artist Ugo Nespolo, whose broad range of work includes paintings and sculpture, theatre sets and costumes, advertising posters, book layouts, commercial designs and experimental films, was born on this day in 1941 in the village of Mosso Santa Maria in the Biellese Prealps, about 70km (43 miles) northeast of Turin.

As well as an enormous output of artworks influenced by Pop Art, conceptual art and Arte Povera among others and numerous sculptures in glass and ceramic, Nespolo created unique set and costume designs for a number of major opera and theatre productions and was associated with several prestigious advertising campaigns, including for the drinks manufacturer Campari and the chocolatier Caffarel.

Nespolo is described as having an insatiable artistic and intellectual appetite and a belief that no artist should confine himself to a single medium. He is said to have inherited those characteristics from his father, whose restless nature compelled him frequently to change jobs and where he - and his family - lived.  His interest in art was probably nurtured by his father’s brother, himself a painter.

Nespolo graduated in modern literature after attending the University of Turin, where his studies included semiotics and art history. He also studied art at the Accademia delle Belle Arti in Turin.

He took a job in teaching at a secondary school but his ambitions lay well beyond the world of education.  In his spare time, he painted and in the early 1960s became part of Turin’s avant-garde movement.  He began to exhibit locally and realised his first important break when Arturo Schwartz, a Milan gallery owner, offered him a small contract and helped him to set up a show in New York.

Nespolo's painting Urbano, which featured letters and numbers
Nespolo's painting Urbano, which
featured letters and numbers
At the same time, he also developed an interest in experimental cinema, directing his first movie, Grazie, mamma Kodak, in 1966.  He has returned to film regularly, conceiving, writing and directing about 20 movies over a 40-year period, his work featured by institutions such as the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, the Philadelphia Museum of Modern Art, and Warsaw's Filmoteka Polska. 

Nespolo visited the United States for the first time in 1967 and thereafter became an increasingly regular visitor, particularly in the 1980s.  He became an admirer and acquaintance of Andy Warhol, at the time a leading figure in the Pop Art genre.

During that time, Nespolo was also becoming an advocate of Arte Povera, the movement in Europe that rejected the traditional media in favour of using simple, everyday materials to convey artistic concepts. 

Nespolo’s standing grew exponentially in the 1970s, when he exhibited all over Europe as well as in North and South America and Japan. He was sought after to visualise advertising campaigns, create title designs for television and book layouts for publishing houses. He made sculptures in ceramic and designed furniture and carpets.

He opened a 4,000-square metre atelier in Turin in a three-storey former factory building, incorporating an exhibition space, a workshop and a 40-seat auditorium and an office, in which he installed a traditional American jukebox.

Ugo Nespolo, pictured at an exhibition in 2017
Ugo Nespolo, pictured at an
exhibition in 2017
The 1980s, during which he spent many months each year in the United States, saw his first venture into opera set and costume design at a production of Ferruccio Busoni’s Turandot at the Connecticut Grand Opera in Stamford. Subsequently, he would be engaged for productions of Giovanni Paisiello's Don Quixote at the Teatro dell'Opera di Roma and Gaetano Donizetti's L'elisir d'amore in Rome, Paris, Lausanne, Liège and Metz. He designed the stage and costumes for Giacomo Puccini's Madama Butterfly at the Festival Puccini 2007 in Torre del Lago.

Now in his 80th year, Nespolo remains an important figure in the art world and continues to receive invitations to collaborate on various projects.  One of the more recent ones was the unveiling of the latest of several watches he has helped design for the Swiss watchmaker Swatch, who hosted an exhibition of his work in Geneva to celebrate a long association with the company that developed from Nespolo’s fascination with numbers, a recurring theme in his work.

Biella's Roman baptistery dates back to the early 1000s
Biella's Roman baptistery dates back
to the early 1000s
Travel tip:

Ugo Nespolo’s home village of Mossa Santa Maria - now simply Mossa - is in the province of Biella, a town of almost 45,000 inhabitants in the foothill of the Alps, about 85km (53 miles) northeast of Turin and slightly more than 100m (62 miles) west of Milan. Its attractions include a Roman baptistery from the early 1000s and the church and convent of San Sebastian. Wool and textiles have been associated with the town since the 13th century and although the best years of the industry have now passed, with many mills and factories closed, in addition to Cerruti, brands such as Ermenegildo Zegna, Vitale Barberis Canonico and Fila still have a presence. 

Turin's Accademia Albertina has fostered the study of art since the 17th century
Turin's Accademia Albertina has fostered
the study of art since the 17th century
Travel tip:

Turin’s Accademia Albertina di Belle Arti can be found in Via Accademia Albertina, which links the Via Po and Piazza Carlo Emanuele II in the centre of the Piemontese capital, in the university district close to the city’s landmark Mole Antonelliana, the enormous structure - at 167.5m (550ft) the tallest unreinforced brick building in the world - originally built as a synagogue. In 1678, the academy was formally founded as the Academy of Painters, Sculptors and Architects (Accademia dei Pittori, Scultori e Architetti) by Marie Jeanne of Savoy. It was re-established under the name Albertina in 1833 by Charles Albert of Sardinia.

Also on this day:

1875: The birth of flautist Leonardo De Lorenzo

1967: The birth of singer Tiziana ‘Tosca’ Donati

1991: The shooting of anti-Mafia businessman Libero Grassi


28 August 2020

28 August

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Maurizio Costanzo - talk show host

Journalist whose show is the longest running on Italian TV

Veteran talk show host and writer Maurizio Costanzo was born on this day in 1938 in Rome, Costanzo has spent more than 40 years in television.  His eponymous programme, the Maurizio Costanzo Show, has broken all records for longevity in Italian television.  Launched on September 18, 1982, the current affairs programme continued for 27 years, alternating between Rete 4 and Canale 5, two of Italy's commercial television networks, part of the Mediaset group owned by former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi.  Its run came to an end in 2009 but was relaunched on the satellite channel Mediaset Extra in 2014 and returned to terrestrial television in 2015, again on Rete 4.  Costanzo began his media career in print journalism with the Rome newspaper Paese Sera at just 18 years old and by the time he was 22 he was in charge of the Rome office of the mass circulation magazine Grazia.  After branching into radio, he switched to television in 1976, hosting the RAI programme Bontà loro, which is considered to be Italy's first TV talk show.  Others followed before the launch of the Maurizio Costanzo Show, which involved prominent politicians and others in the public eye, discussing major issues of the day.  Read more...


Lamberto Maggiorani - unlikely movie star

Factory worker who shot to fame in Bicycle Thieves

Lamberto Maggiorani, who found overnight fame after starring in the neorealist classic Bicycle Thieves (1948), was born on this day in 1909 in Rome.  Maggiorani was cast in the role of Antonio Ricci, a father desperate for work to support his family in post-War Rome, who is offered a job pasting posters to advertising hoardings but can take it only on condition that he has a bicycle – essential for moving around the city carrying his ladder and bucket.  He has one, but it has been pawned.  To retrieve it, his wife, Marie, strips the bed of her dowry sheets, which the pawn shop takes in exchange for the bicycle. They are happy, because Antonio has a job which will support her, their son Bruno and their new baby.  However, on his first day in the job the bicycle is stolen, snatched by a thief who waits for Antonio to climb to the top of his ladder before seizing his moment.  The remainder of the film follows Antonio and Bruno as they try to find the bicycle.  As a portrait of life among the disadvantaged working class in Rome in the late 1940s, the film is hailed as a masterpiece, director Vittorio de Sica and his screenwriter Cesare Zavattini fêted by the critics for turning a little-known novel by Luigi Bartolini into a piece of cinema genius.  Read more…


Elisabetta Sirani – artist

Sudden death of talented young woman shocked Bologna

The brilliant Baroque painter and printmaker Elisabetta Sirani died in unexplained circumstances at the age of 27 on this day in 1665 in Bologna. The body of the artist was carried to the Chapel of the Rosary in the Basilica of San Domenico in Bologna to be mourned, not just by her family, but by an entire community as she was loved and respected as an important female painter.  Elisabetta has been described as beautiful, focused and selfless and she became a symbol of the progressive city of Bologna, where the creativity of women was encouraged and they were able to express themselves through art and music.  Elisabetta’s father, Giovanni Andrea Sirani, was himself an artist and she was trained in his studio, although contemporary writers have recorded that he was reluctant to teach her to paint in the Bolognese style, as established by artists in the city in the 16th and 17th centuries as a way to distinguish themselves from the artists of Florence and Rome.  But Elisabetta acquired the technique anyway and became one of the most renowned painters in Bologna , overshadowing her father.  Read more…


27 August 2020

27 August

The 410 Sack of Rome

Invasion that signalled terminal decline of Western Roman Empire

The ancient city of Rome was left in a state of shock and devastation after three days of looting and pillaging by Visigoths under the command of King Alaric came to an end on this day in 410.  An unknown number of citizens had been killed and scores of others had fled into the countryside. Countless women had been raped. Many buildings were damaged and set on fire and Alaric and his hordes made off with vast amounts of Roman treasure.  It was the first time in 800 years that an invading army had successfully breached the walls of the Eternal City and many historians regard the event as the beginning of the end for the Western Roman Empire.  It could have been more devastating still had Alaric, a Christian, been a more cruel leader.  Although he struggled to control his men - historians believe they were an ill-disciplined rabble rather than an organised fighting force - he stopped short of ordering large-scale slaughter of the Roman population, while silver and gold objects they were told had belonged to St Peter were left behind.  It was brought to a swift conclusion because Alaric had other targets he wished to attack.  Read more…


Titian - giant of Renaissance art

Old master of Venice who set new standards

Tiziano Vecellio, the artist better known as Titian, died in Venice on August 27, 1576.  Possibly in his 90s by then - his date of birth has never been established beyond doubt - he is thought to have succumbed to the plague that was sweeping through the city at that time.  Titian is regarded as the greatest painter of 16th century Venice, a giant of the Renaissance held in awe by his contemporaries and seen today as having had a profound influence on the development of painting in Italy and Europe.  The artists of Renaissance Italy clearly owe much to the new standards set by Titian in the use of colour and his penetration of human character.  Beyond Italy, the work of Rubens, Rembrandt and Manet have echoes of Titian.  Titian was enormously versatile, famous for landscapes, portraits, erotic nudes and monumental religious works.  Although it was his fullness of form, the depth of colour and his ability to bring his figures almost to life which he earned his reputation, he was not afraid to experiment with his painting.  Towards the end of his life, some of his works were impressionist in nature, almost abstract.  Read more…


Zanetta Farussi – actress

Venetian performer who gave birth to a legendary womaniser

Zanetta Farussi, the comedy actress who was the mother of the notorious adventurer, Casanova, was born on this day in 1707 in Venice.  At the age of 17, Zanetta had married the actor Gaetano Casanova, who was 10 years older than her.  He had just returned to Venice after several years with a touring theatrical troupe, to take a job at the Teatro San Samuele.  Farussi’s parents opposed the marriage because they considered acting to be a disreputable profession.  But Farussi soon began working at Teatro San Samuele herself and the following year she gave birth to a son, Giacomo, who was to grow up to make the name Casanova synonymous with womanising and philandering.  Giacomo Casanova would later claim that his real father was Michele Grimani, who owned the Teatro San Samuele.  Zanetta and Gaetano accepted a theatrical engagement in London where Farussi gave birth to their second son, Francesco, who became a well-known painter.  They returned to Venice in 1728 and went on to have four more children. The youngest child was born two months after the death of his father.  Read more…


Alessandro Farnese – Duke of Parma, Piacenza and Castro

Duke was a brilliant strategist and diplomat

The outstanding military leader, Alessandro Farnese, was born on this day in 1545 in Rome.  As regent of the Netherlands on behalf of Philip II of Spain between 1578 and 1592, Alessandro restored Spanish rule and ensured the continuation of Roman Catholicism there, a great achievement and testimony to his skill as a strategist and diplomat.  However, his brilliant military career gave him no time to rule Parma, Piacenza and Castro when he succeeded to the Dukedom.  Alessandro was the son of Duke Ottavio Farnese of Parma and Margaret, the illegitimate daughter of the King of Spain and Hapsburg Emperor, Charles V.  Ottavio, was the grandson of Pope Paul III, a Farnese who had set up the papal states of Parma, Piacenza and Castro as a duchy in order to award them to his illegitimate son, Pier Luigi. Ottavio became Duke in 1551 after his father, Pier Luigi, was murdered.  Alessandro had a twin brother, Charles, who died after one month. He was sent to live in the court of Philip II as a young child as a guarantee of Ottavio’s loyalty to the Habsburgs. He lived with Philip II first in the Netherlands and then in Madrid.  Read more…


26 August 2020

26 August

Carlo Camillo Di Rudio - soldier

Italian aristocrat who survived Battle of the Little Bighorn

Carlo Camillo Di Rudio, a military officer who became known as Charles Camillus DeRudio and gave 32 years’ service to the United States Army in the late 19th century, was born in Belluno in northern Italy on this day in 1832.  Having arrived in New York City as an immigrant from England in 1860, he served as a volunteer in the American Civil War (1861-65) before joining the Regular Army in 1867 as a 2nd lieutenant in the 2nd Infantry, an appointment which was cancelled when he failed a medical. Undeterred, he was readmitted and joined the 7th Cavalry in 1869, eventually attaining the rank of Major.  He participated in the Battle of the Little Bighorn, in which the US Army suffered a defeat to the combined forces of Lakota, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapaho tribesmen. The battle was part of the Great Sioux Wars of 1876, fought for possession of the Black Hills in South Dakota, where gold had been found.  DeRudio was thrown from his horse as the American forces under Major Marcus Reno were driven back across the Little Bighorn River to regroup on the eastern side. He was left stranded on the western side and hid for 36 hours with a private, Thomas O’Neill.  Read more…


La Pietà - Michelangelo's masterpiece

Brilliant sculpture commissioned by French Cardinal

Michelangelo Buonarotti agreed the contract to create the sculpture that would come to be regarded as his masterpiece on this day in 1498.  It was made between the artist and Cardinal Jean de Bilhères-Lagraulas, the French ambassador to the Holy See, who wanted a sculpture of the Virgin Mary grieving over the body of Jesus, which was a common theme in religious art in northern Europe at the time.  Michelangelo, who would live until he was almost 89, was just 23 at the time and had been in Rome only a couple of years, but was about to produce a piece of work that astounded his contemporaries and is still seen as one of the finest pieces of sculpture ever crafted.  La Pietà – in English, 'the pity' – was carved from a block of blue and white Carrara marble selected by Michelangelo a good six feet (183cm) tall by six feet across.  The Cardinal intended it to be his funeral monument. It was eventually placed in a chapel in St Peter’s Basilica.  The work shows the body of Christ, shortly after being taken down from the cross following his crucifixion by the Romans, cradled in the lap of Mary.  It is necessarily out of proportion – Michelangelo makes Mary quite a broad figure to accommodate the body of a man lying across her -  but the detail is exquisite.  Read more…


Sant’Alessandro of Bergamo

Annual festival keeps alive the memory of city’s saint

The patron saint of Bergamo, Sant’Alessandro, was martyred on this day in 303 by the Romans for refusing to renounce his Christian faith.  It is believed Alessandro was a devout citizen who had continued to preach in Bergamo, despite having several narrow escapes from would-be Roman executioners, but he was eventually caught and suffered public decapitation.  In Christian legend, Alessandro was a centurion of the Theban Legion, a legion of the Roman army that converted en masse to Christianity, whose existence prompted a crusade against Christianity launched by the Romans in around AD 298.  Alessandro was reputedly held in prison in Milan on two occasions but escaped to Bergamo, where he defiantly refused to go into hiding and instead openly preached, converting many Bergamaschi to his faith.  Of course, he was ultimately taken into custody again by the Romans and beheaded on August 26, 303, on the spot now occupied by the church of Sant' Alessandro in Colonna in Bergamo’s Città Bassa (lower town).  Today is the Festa di Sant'Alessandro.  Read more…


25 August 2020

25 August

Ippolito II d’Este – Cardinal

Borgia prince enjoyed the good things in life

Ippolito II d’Este, who became infamous for plundering Hadrian’s Villa to decorate his own home, was born on this day in 1509 in Ferrara in Emilia-Romagna.  He was the second son of Lucrezia Borgia and her husband, Duke Alfonso I d’Este and therefore also a grandson of Pope Alexander VI. He was named after his uncle, Ippolito d’Este.  At the age of ten, Ippolito II inherited the archbishopric of Milan from his uncle, the first of a long list of ecclesiastical appointments he was to be given, which provided him with a good income. He was later given benefices in many parts of France from which he was also able to draw revenue and he was created a Cardinal by Pope Paul III before he had reached the age of 30. A lover of luxuries and the finer things in life, Ippolito II had Palazzo San Francesco in Ferrara refurbished for himself. He also had a palace renovated to provide him with a sumptuous residence in Rome.  He became Governor of Tivoli in 1550 and had the Villa d’Este built there to a design by Mannerist architect Pirro Ligorio.  He became interested in the ruins of the Roman villas in Tivoli and carried out archaeological excavations.  Read more…


Vesuvius erupts

Terrible toll of Europe's worst volcanic catastrophe 

Mount Vesuvius erupted on this day in AD 79, burying the Roman cities of Pompeii, Herculaneum, Oplontis and Stabiae and causing the deaths of thousands of people.  An eyewitness account of the eruption, in which tons of stones, ash and fumes were ejected from the volcano, has been left behind for posterity by a Roman administrator and poet, Pliny the Younger, who described the event in his letters to the historian Tacitus.  Although there were at least three large eruptions of Vesuvius before AD 79 and there have been many since, the disaster in August AD 79 is considered the most catastrophic volcanic eruption in European history.  Mount Vesuvius had thrown out ash the day before and many people had left the area. But in the early hours of the morning of August 25, pyroclastic flows of hot gas and rock began to sweep down the mountain.  The flows were fast moving and knocked down all the structures in their path, incinerating or suffocating the people who had remained. Pliny noted there were also earth tremors and a tsunami in the Bay of Naples.  The remains of about 1500 people have been found at Pompeii and Herculaneum (Ercolano) but it is not known what percentage this represents of the overall death toll.  Read more…


Galileo demonstrates potential of telescope

Scientist unveiled new instrument to Doge of Venice

The scientist and inventor Galileo Galilei demonstrated the wonders of the telescope to an audience of Venetian lawmakers on this day in 1609.  The 90th Doge, Leonardo Donato, and other members of the Venetian senate accompanied Galileo to the top of the campanile of St Mark’s Basilica, where each took it in turn to look through the instrument.  The meeting had been arranged by Galileo’s friend, Paolo Sarpi, who was a scientist, lawyer and statesman employed by the Venetian government. The two were both professors at the University of Padua.  Galileo, whose knowledge of the universe led him to be called the ‘father of observational astronomy’, was for many years wrongly credited with the invention of the telescope when in fact the first to apply for a patent for the device was a Dutch eyeglass maker named Hans Lippershey.  However, Galileo’s work using uncertain details of Lippershey’s design certainly took the idea to a different level.  Whereas Lippershey’s device magnified objects by about three times, Galileo eventually produced a telescope with a magnification factor of 30.  The one he demonstrated on August 25, 1609, is thought to have had a factor of about eight or nine.  Read more…


Saint Patricia of Naples

Patron saint performs a miracle every week

The feast day of Saint Patricia is celebrated every year in Naples on this day.  The saint, who is also sometimes referred to as Patricia of Constantinople, is one of a long list of patron saints of Naples.  She is less well known than San Gennaro, also a patron saint of the city, who attracts crowds to Naples Cathedral three times a year to witness the miracle of a small sample of his blood turning to liquid.  But Saint Patricia’s blood, which is kept in the Church of San Gregorio Armeno, is said to undergo the same miraculous transformation every Tuesday morning as well as on August 25 each year - her feast day - which was believed to be the day she died in 665 AD.  Saint Patricia was a noble woman, who may have been descended from St Constantine the Great.  She was a devout virgin and travelled to Rome to become a nun in order to escape an arranged marriage.  She received the veil – symbolising her acceptance into the monastic community – from Pope Liberius.  When her wealthy father died, she returned to Constantinople and, renouncing any claim to the imperial crown, distributed her wealth among the poor.  Read more…


Ippolito II d’Este – Cardinal

Borgia prince enjoyed the good things in life

Ippolito II d'Este plundered the treasures of Hadrian's Villa
Ippolito II d'Este plundered
the treasures of Hadrian's Villa
Ippolito II d’Este, who became infamous for plundering Hadrian’s Villa to decorate his own home, was born on this day in 1509 in Ferrara in Emilia-Romagna.

He was the second son of Lucrezia Borgia and her husband, Duke Alfonso I d’Este and therefore also a grandson of Pope Alexander VI. He was named after his uncle, Ippolito d’Este.

At the age of ten, Ippolito II inherited the archbishopric of Milan from his uncle, the first of a long list of ecclesiastical appointments he was to be given, which provided him with a good income. He was later given benefices in many parts of France from which he was also able to draw revenue and he was created a Cardinal by Pope Paul III before he had reached the age of 30.

A lover of luxuries and the finer things in life, Ippolito II had Palazzo San Francesco in Ferrara refurbished for himself. He also had a palace renovated to provide him with a sumptuous residence in Rome.

He became Governor of Tivoli in 1550 and had the Villa d’Este built there to a design by Mannerist architect Pirro Ligorio.

He became interested in the ruins of the Roman villas in Tivoli and carried out archaeological excavations.

Ippolito gave support to the composer Palestrina and others
Ippolito gave support to the
composer Palestrina and others
To decorate his own villa, Ippolito II had marble and statues removed from Hadrian’s Villa, which at the time would have been about 1400 years old. As a result, the Emperor Hadrian’s villa lost most of its original features.

Ippolito II was ambassador on behalf of Ferrara to the French court and became Cardinal Protector of France during the reign of King Henry II of France.

He also helped to sponsor the work of Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, one of the most important composers of sacred music of the Renaissance, and gave support to the sculptor Benvenuto Cellini and the poet Torquato Tasso.

Ippolito II died in Rome after a short illness in 1572. He was aged 63. He was buried in the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore in Tivoli near his villa.

More than 2000 of his letters and 200 of his account books have survived and are now kept in an archive in Modena.

The book, The Cardinal’s Hat: Money, Ambition and Everyday Life in the Court of a Borgia Prince, by Mary Holllingworth, was based on his letters and account books.

A section of the ruins of  Hadrian's Villa at Tivoli
A section of the ruins of 
Hadrian's Villa at Tivoli
Travel tip:

Hadrian’s Villa (Villa Adriano) is a large Roman archaeological complex at Tivoli, about 32km (19 miles) east of Rome, which is a designated UNESCO World heritage site. It is owned by the Italian Republic and is run by the Polo Museale del Lazio. It was built at Tivoli - then known as Tibur - as a retreat from Rome for the Emperor Hadrian in the second century AD.  Hadrian is said to have disliked the palace on the Palatine Hill in Rome and the villa at Tivoli was somewhere he felt more able to relax from the demands of everyday life.  During the later years of his reign, Hadrian actually governed the empire from the villa, which he adopted as his official residence.

The Villa d'Este is notable for its complex of more than 50 fountains and waterfalls
The Villa d'Este is notable for its complex of
more than 50 fountains and waterfalls
Travel tip:

The Villa d'Este is a 16th-century villa in Tivoli famous for its terraced hillside Italian Renaissance gardens, often referred to simply as the Tivoli Gardens, and for its profusion of fountains, more than 50 in total. The nearby river Aniene was diverted to provide water for the complex system of pools, water jets, channels, fountains, cascades and water games. Canals were dug and 200 metres of underground pipes were laid. A Benedictine convent before Ippolito II d’Este confiscated it to develop as his residence, it is now an Italian state museum, and is listed as a UNESCO world heritage site.

Also on this day:

79: The eruption of Vesuvius that buried Pompeii and Herculaneum

665: The death of Saint Patricia of Naples

1609: Galileo demonstrates potential of the telescope


24 August 2020

24 August

Carlo Gambino - Mafia Don

Sicilian thought to be model for Mario Puzo's Godfather

Carlo Gambino, who would become one of the most powerful Mafia Dons in the history of organised crime, was born on this day in 1902 in Palermo, Sicily.  For almost two decades up to his death in 1976, he was head of the Gambino Crime Family, one of the so-called Five Families that have sought to control organised crime in New York under one banner or another for more than a century.  He is thought to have been the real-life Don that author Mario Puzo identified as the model for Vito Corleone, the fictional Don created for the best-selling novel, The Godfather.  During Gambino's peak years, the family's criminal activities realised revenues of an estimated $500 million per year.  Yet Gambino, who kept a modest house in Brooklyn and a holiday home on Long Island, claimed to make a living as a partner in a company that advised on labour relations.  Despite coming under intensive surveillance by the FBI, he managed to avoid prison during a life spent almost exclusively in crime.  Everything he did was planned meticulously to avoid detection, even down to communicating with associates through coded messages.  Read more…


Parmigianino - Mannerist painter

Artist from Parma left outstanding legacy

The artist Girolamo Francesco Maria Mazzola – better known as Parmigianino – died on this day in 1540 in Casalmaggiore, a town on the Po river south-east of Cremona in Lombardy.  Sometimes known as Francesco Mazzola, he was only 37 years old when he passed away but had nonetheless made sufficient impact with his work to be regarded as an important influence on the period that followed the High Renaissance era of Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raphael.  Known for the refined sensuality of his paintings, Parmigianino – literally ‘the little one from Parma’ – was one of the first generation of Mannerist painters, whose figures exuded elegance and sophistication by the subtle exaggeration of qualities associated with ideal beauty.  Parmigiano is also thought to have been one of the first to develop printmaking using the technique known as etching and through this medium his work was copied, and circulated to many artistic schools in Italy and other countries in northern Europe, where it could be studied and admired.  Parmigianino’s figures would often have noticeably long and slender limbs and strike elegant poses.  Read more…


Peppino De Filippo - comedian, actor and playwright

Talented Neapolitan who lived in shadow of his brother

The playwright and comic actor Peppino De Filippo was born Giuseppe De Filippo on this day in 1903 in Naples.  A highly accomplished performer on stage in serious as well as comedy roles, De Filippo also had a list of film credits numbering almost 100, of which he is best remembered for his screen partnership with the brilliant comic actor Totò.  To an extent, however, he spent his career in the shadow of his older brother, Eduardo De Filippo, who after Luigi Pirandello was regarded as the second great Italian playwright of the 20th century.  The two fell out in the 1940s for reasons that were never made clear, although it later emerged that they had many artistic differences.  They were never reconciled, and though Peppino went on to enjoy a successful career and was widely acclaimed it annoyed him that he was always seen as a minor playwright compared with his brother.  When Peppino published an autobiography in 1977, three years before he died, he called it Una famiglia difficile - A Difficult Family. In the book he described his relationship with his sister, Titina, as one of warmth and affection, but portrays Eduardo as something of a tyrant.  Read more…


23 August 2020

23 August

Rita Pavone - teenage singing star

Precocious talent who conquered America

Rita Pavone, who was one of Europe's biggest teenage singing stars in the 1960s and was still performing live concerts as recently as 2014, was born on this day in 1945 in Turin. The singer had her first hit single when she was just 17 years old and enjoyed success at home and in America during a career that spanned more than five decades, going on to become an accomplished actress on television and in the theatre.  She announced she was quitting show business in 2006 but came out of retirement in 2013 to record two studio albums as a tribute to the stars who had influenced her in throughout her career, then embarking on a series of live concerts in Italy in 2014 and performing in Toronto, Canada exactly 50 years after her first appearance there.  In 2016, she appeared in Ballando Con le Stelle - the Italian equivalent of the US show Dancing With the Stars and Britain's Strictly Come Dancing - and finished third with partner Simone Di Pasquale, reaching the final despite being the oldest competitor.  Pavone spent her early years living in a two-room apartment in Turin.  She was the third of four children yet it was not until 1959 that the family was able to move somewhere bigger.  Read more…


Roberto Assagioli – psychiatrist

Harsh imprisonment sparked new psychiatric theories

Roberto Assagioli, the pioneering psychiatrist who founded the science of psychosynthesis, died on this day in 1974 in Capolona in the province of Arezzo in Tuscany.  His innovative psychological movement, which emphasised the possibility of progressive integration, or synthesis, of the personality, aimed at finding inner peace and harmony. It is still admired and is being developed by therapists and psychologists today.  Assagioli explained his ideas in four books - two published posthumously - and the many different pamphlets he wrote during his lifetime. In 1940 the psychiatrist had to spend 27 days in solitary confinement in prison, having been arrested by Mussolini’s Fascist government for praying for peace and encouraging others to join him. He later claimed this experience helped him make his psychological discovery.  Assagioli was born under the name of Roberto Marco Grego in 1888 into a middle-class, Jewish background in Venice.  His father died when he was two years old and his mother remarried quickly to Alessandro Emanuele Assagioli. As a young child Roberto was exposed to art and music and learnt many different languages.  Read more…


Pino Presti – bass player and composer

Talented musician could sing, play guitar, compose and conduct

Pino Presti, one of the most important personalities in the Italian music business, was born Giuseppe Prestipino Giarritta on this day in 1943 in Milan.  He is a bass guitar player, arranger, composer, conductor and record producer and his work ranges between the different music genres of pop, jazz, funk, latin and dance.  His father, Arturo Prestipino Giarritta, was a well-known violinist and Presti began studying piano and music theory at the age of six.  He taught himself to play the bass guitar and began playing professionally at the age of 17, having developed his own special technique using either the pick or thumb.  Presti was a pioneer of electric bass and was probably the first to play a Fender Jazz Bass in Italy.  His talent for playing the instrument led him to collaborate with the major Italian pop artists of the 1960s, including the famous singer, Mina, who is Italy's all-time top-selling female recording artist. Presti arranged and conducted 86 tracks and composed four songs for her, also sometimes backing her as a singer.  Among the many other artists he worked with were Bobby Solo, Gigliola Cinquetti and Adriano Celentano.  Read more…


22 August 2020

22 August

- Giada De Laurentiis - TV chef

Food Network star who was born in Rome

The TV presenter, chef, author and restaurateur Giada Pamela De Laurentiis was born in Rome on this day in 1970.  A classically-trained chef who learned her craft in Paris, she worked in the kitchens of a number of restaurants in Los Angeles before breaking into television. Since 2003 she has been a regular on the Food Network, the American cable channel.  Born into a theatre and movie background, De Laurentiis takes her name from her mother, the actress Veronica De Laurentiis, whose parents were the producer Dino De Laurentiis and the actress Silvana Mangano.  Her father is the actor-producer Alex De Benedetti.  Giada spent her first seven years in Rome, where her mother still has a home near the Spanish Steps, but after her parents divorced she and her sisters moved to Los Angeles.  Her grandfather had a home in Hollywood and had by then become a restaurateur and Giada has memories of spending time in the kitchen of his DDL Foodshow delicatessen and restaurant in Los Angeles, where she acquired her interest in cooking.  Her own entry into the catering business came via a roundabout route.   Read more…


History’s first air raid

Balloon bombs dropped on Venice

Venice suffered the first successful air raid in the history of warfare on this day in 1849.  It came six months after Austria had defeated the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia in the First Italian War of Independence as the Austrians sought to regain control of Venice, where the revolutionary leader Daniele Manin had established the Republic of San Marco.  The city, over which Manin’s supporters had seized control in March 1848, was under siege by the Austrians, whose victory over the Piedmontese army in March 1849 had enabled them to concentrate more resources on defeating the Venetians.  They had regained much of the mainland territory of Manin’s republic towards the end of 1848 and were now closing in on the city itself, having decided that cutting off resources while periodically bombarding the city from the sea would bring Venice’s capitulation.  However, because of the shallow lagoons and the strength of Venice’s coastal defences, there were still parts of the city that were out of the range of the Austrian artillery.  It was at this point that one of Austrian commander Josef von Radetzky’s artillery officers, Lieutenant Franz von Uchatius, came up with the unlikely idea of attaching bombs to unmanned balloons.  Read more…


Bruno Pontecorvo - nuclear physicist

Defection to Soviet Union sparked unsolved mystery 

Bruno Pontecorvo, a nuclear physicist whose defection to the Soviet Union in 1950 led to suspicions of espionage after he had worked on research programmes in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom, was born on this day in 1913 in Marina di Pisa.  One of eight children born to Massimo Pontecorvo - a Jewish textile manufacturer who owned three factories - Bruno was from a family rich in intellectual talent. One of his brothers was the film director Gillo Pontecorvo, another the geneticist Guido Pontecorvo.  After high school, he enrolled at the University of Pisa to study engineering, but after two years switched to physics in 1931. He received a doctorate to study at the University of Rome La Sapienza, where Enrico Fermi had gathered together a group of promising young scientists, whom he dubbed “the Via Panisperna boys” after the name of the street where the Institute of Physics  was then situated.  Fermi described the 18-year-old Pontecorvo as one of the brightest young men he had met and invited Pontecorvo to work with him on his experiments bombarding atomic nuclei with slow neutrons.  Read more…


Giacomo Radini-Tedeschi – bishop

Progressive priest who shaped the destiny of a future Pope

Giacomo Radini-Tedeschi, Bishop of Bergamo, who was a mentor for the future Pope John XXIII, died on this day in 1914 in Bergamo.  He was Bishop of the Diocese of Bergamo from 1905 until his death and is remembered with respect because of his strong involvement in social issues at the beginning of the 20th century when he sought to understand the problems of working class Italians.  Radini-Tedeschi was born in 1857 into a wealthy, noble family living in Piacenza in Emilia-Romagna.  He was ordained as a priest in 1879 and then became professor of Church Law in the seminary of Piacenza.  In 1890 he joined the Secretariat of State of the Holy See and was sent on a number of diplomatic missions.  In 1905 he was named Bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Bergamo by Pope Pius X and was consecrated by him in the Sistine Chapel.  Radini-Tedeschi was a strong supporter of Catholic trade unions and backed the workers at a textile plant in Ranica, a district of Bergamo Province, during a labour dispute.  Working for him as his secretary at the time was a young priest named Angelo Roncalli who had been born at Sotto il Monte just outside Bergamo into a large farming family.  Read more…


Luca Marenzio – composer

Madrigal writer influenced Monteverdi

Luca Marenzio, a prolific composer of madrigals during the late Renaissance period, died on this day in 1599 in the garden of the Villa Medici on Monte Pincio in Rome.  Marenzio wrote at least 500 madrigals, some of which are considered to be the most famous examples of the form, and he was an important influence on the composer Claudio Monteverdi.  Born at Coccaglio, a small town near Brescia in 1553, Marenzio was one of seven children belonging to a poor family, but he received some early musical training at Brescia Cathedral where he was a choirboy.  It is believed he went to Mantua with the maestro di cappella from Brescia to serve the Gonzaga family as a singer.  Marenzio was then employed as a singer in Rome by Cardinal Cristoforo Madruzzo and, after the Cardinal’s death, he served at the court of Cardinal Luigi d’Este.  He travelled to Ferrara with Luigi d’Este and took part in the wedding festivities for Vincenzo Gonzaga and Margherita Farnese.  While he was there he wrote two books of madrigals and dedicated them to Alfonso II and Lucrezia d’Este.  Read more…