6 August 2020

6 August

NEW
- Marisa Merlini - actress


Fifties star who turned down Oscar-winning role

The actress Marisa Merlini, whose 60-year movie career was at its peak in the 1950s and early 1960s, was born in Rome on this day in 1923.  Although she had built a solid reputation in a string of movies as the foil to the comedic genius of Totó, the role with which Merlini is most often associated is the midwife Annarella in Luigi Comencini’s 1953 romantic comedy Pane, amore e fantasia - Bread, Love and Dreams - which presented an idyllic view of Italian rural life.  The movie won a Silver Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival and Merlini’s performance was hailed by both audiences and critics, bringing many offers to play similar characters.  Co-star Vittorio De Sica was impressed with Merlini’s acting skills and when he turned to directing he had her earmarked for the part of Cesira, the widowed shopkeeper in La Ciociara, the 1960 wartime drama based on Alberto Moravia’s novel Two Women.  It was a chance for Merlini to break free of her comedy typecasting and prove herself as a serious actress. Yet she turned down the role, deciding that at 36 she was not yet ready to play older women. The part instead went to Sophia Loren, whose portrayal of Cesira won her an Oscar for Best Actress.  Read more…

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Domenico Modugno – singer and songwriter


Artist who gave us a song that conjures up Italy

Domenico Modugno, who was one of the writers of the iconic Italian song, Volare, died on this day in 1994 in Lampedusa, Sicily.  Modugno wrote Volare with Franco Migliacci and performed it in the San Remo music festival in 1958 with Johnny Dorelli.  Sometimes referred to as 'Nel blu dipinto di blu', the song won San Remo and became a hit all over the world. It was the Italian entry in the 1958 Eurovision song contest. It came only third, yet received two Grammy Awards and sold more than 22 million copies.  Modugno was born in 1928 at Polignano a Mare near Bari in Apulia. After completing his military service he enrolled in drama school and had a number of parts in films while still studying.  The success of Volare proved to be the turning point in his career. He won the San Remo music festival again in 1959 and came second in 1960.  He also represented Italy in the Eurovision song contest for a second time in 1959. In 1962 he won San Remo for a third time and represented Italy at Eurovision again in 1966 with his song 'Dio come ti amo'. It was recorded in Italian and also in English as Oh How Much I Love You by other artists.  Read more…

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Barbara Strozzi – composer


One of few 17th century women to have her own music published

The talented singer and composer Barbara Strozzi was baptised on this day in 1619 in the Cannaregio district of Venice.  Strozzi had been recognised by the poet and librettist Giulio Strozzi as his adopted daughter. It was thought at the time she was likely to have been an illegitimate daughter he had fathered with his servant, Isabella Garzoni.  Giulio Strozzi encouraged his adopted daughter’s musical talent, even creating an academy where she could perform to an audience. She became one of only a few women in the 17th century to publish her own compositions.  The Academy of the Unknown - Accademia degli Incogniti - was a circle of intellectuals in Venice that met to discuss literature, ethics, aesthetics, religion and the arts. They were supporters of Venetian opera in the late 1630s and 1640s. Giulio Strozzi formed a musical sub-group, Academy of the Like-Minded - Accademia degli Unisoni - where Barbara Strozzi performed as a singer and even suggested topics for discussion.  In addition to her vocal talent she showed herself to be a gifted composer and so her father arranged for her to study with the composer, Francesco Cavalli.  Read more…

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Battle of Meloria


Naval loss that sparked decline of Pisa as trading power

The decline of the Republic of Pisa as one of Italy’s major naval and commercial powers began with a catastrophic defeat at the Battle of Meloria on this day in 1284.  A fleet of 72 galleys was routed by the forces of the rival Ligurian Sea port of Genoa in a confrontation fought close to the islet of Meloria, about 10km (6 miles) off the coast, near what is now Livorno.  More than 5,000 Pisan crew were killed with 10 galleys sunk and at least 25 captured before other vessels fled the scene and the Genovese claimed victory.  Pisa and Genoa had once been allies, joining forces to drive the Saracens out of Sardinia in the 11th century, but subsequently became fierce rivals for trade, particularly from the eastern Mediterranean and the Byzantine Empire.  The city’s participation in the Crusades secured valuable commercial positions for Pisan traders in Syria, and thereafter Pisa grew in strength to rival Genoa and Venice.  However, in the 13th century, Genoa conquered numerous settlements in Crimea, establishing a colony at Caffa. The Byzantine Empire granted free trading rights to Genoa, increasing their wealth and simultaneously reducing commercial opportunities for Venice and Pisa.  Read more…



Marisa Merlini - actress

Fifties star who turned down Oscar-winning role


Marisa Merlini appeared in more than 100 films in a career spanning 60 years
Marisa Merlini appeared in more than 100 films
in a career spanning 60 years
The actress Marisa Merlini, whose sixty-year movie career was at its peak in the 1950s and early 1960s, was born in Rome on this day in 1923. 

Although she had built a solid reputation in a string of movies as the foil to the comedic genius of Totó, the role with which Merlini is most often associated is the midwife Annarella in Luigi Comencini’s 1953 romantic comedy Pane, amore e fantasia - Bread, Love and Dreams - which presented an idyllic view of Italian rural life.

She starred opposite Vittorio De Sica, who played an amorous policeman who woos Merlini’s character after being snubbed by the beautiful farm girl played by Gina Lollobrigida. The movie won a Silver Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival and Merlini’s performance was hailed by both audiences and critics, bringing many offers to play similar characters. 

Merlini and De Sica were paired again in Antonio Racciopi’s comedy Tempo di villeggiatura (1956), in which her performance as a downcast tourist won her Italy’s Silver Ribbon as Best Supporting Actress.

Merlini starred with Vittorio De Sica (right) in Tempo di Villeggiatura in 1956
Merlini starred with Vittorio De Sica (right) in
Tempo di Villeggiatura in 1956
De Sica was impressed with Merlini’s acting skills and when he turned to directing he had her earmarked for the part of Cesira, the widowed shopkeeper in La Ciociara, the 1960 wartime drama based on Alberto Moravia’s novel Two Women.

It was a chance for Merlini to break free of her comedy typecasting and prove herself as a serious actress. Yet she turned down the role, deciding that at 36 she was not yet ready to play older women. The part instead went to Sophia Loren, whose portrayal of Cesira won her an Oscar for Best Actress.

Marisa Merlin, to use her birth name, grew up as one of five children in a middle-class family in the Monteverde Vecchio district of Rome and attended drama school as a girl. Her parents split up, however, and her father’s departure from the family home meant she had to work to help her mother support the family. At 17, she took a job on the perfume counter of a department school.

As luck would have it, she found her way on to the stage by another route, taken on as a showgirl in revues fronted by the comedian Erminio Macaro, whose wife, Mariuccia, was a customer at her perfume counter and noted her good looks and pin-up figure.  Her costume was little more than two strategically-placed fig leaves, yet each show made her 130 lire - as much as she earned in a month as a shop assistant.

Sophia Loren won an Oscar for her performance in La Ciociara
Sophia Loren won an Oscar for her
performance in La Ciociara
The big screen soon beckoned and in 1942 she made her movie debut in Stasera niente di nuovo - Tonight nothing is new - a 1942 drama film directed by Mario Mattoli and starring Alida Valli.

Back in the world of revue she met Totó, the comic actor with whom she made several films, including Comencini’s L’imperatore di Capri (1949), in which she played a German baroness.  She also became close friends with another Roman actress, Anna Magnani.

The fifties saw her popularity soar, with more plum roles. As well as her successes opposite Totó and De Sica, in 1957 she appeared with Marcello Mastroianni in Monicelli’s Padri e figli - Fathers and Sons - and in 1960 was Alberto Sordi’s wife in Il vigile - The Policeman - directed by Luigi Zampa.

After her decision not to take the part in La Ciociara, Merlini’s career stalled. Her appearance in Dino Risi’s 1963 comedy I mostri - The Monsters - preceded a fallow period of few meaningful roles until she was asked in 1970 to play Lady Hamilton’s Neapolitan governess in the first production of Terence Rattigan’s A Bequest to the Nation at The Haymarket theatre in London, an unexpected opportunity that Merlini accepted, despite not speaking English.

The play ran for a year and after returning to Italy, she appeared thereafter on stage and in television dramas alongside her film work. Her final screen role was in Pupi Avati’s La seconda notte delle nozze in 2005, by which time her film credits exceeded 100 movies.

She died at her home near Piazza Vescovio in Rome in 2008 at the age of 84, the funeral taking place at the church of Santa Maria in Montesanto in the Campo Marzio district.

The Villa Pamphili in the Monteverde Vecchio district is part of the biggest public park in Rome
The Villa Pamphili in the Monteverde Vecchio
district is part of the biggest public park in Rome
Travel tip:

Monteverde Vecchio, where Merlini grew up, forms half of the Monteverde residential district just outside the centre of Rome located south of the Janiculum hill and southwest of Trastevere.  Consisting mainly of early 20th century stately villas, the area is the home of the Villa Doria Pamphili, which used to be private property of the Pamphili family, but is now a public park, the largest in Rome.  The American University of Rome and the American Academy in Rome are also located in the neighbourhood. 

The Basilica of Santa Maria in Montesanto in Piazza del Popolo
The Basilica of Santa Maria in
Montesanto in Piazza del Popolo
Travel tip:

The church of Santa Maria in Montesanto, where Merlini’s funeral was held, is in the Rione Campo Marzio and stands in Piazza del Popolo, between Via del Corso and Via del Babuino. Also known as the Church of the Artists, it was built in 1662 to an original design by Carlo Rainaldi. After an interruption due to the death of the Pope, work resumed in 1673 under the supervision of Gian Lorenzo Bernini and the cooperation of Carlo Fontana and was finished in 1679, except for a belfry that was added in the 18th century.  The statues of saints on the exterior have been attributed to Bernini's design.  In August 1904, Angelo Roncalli, the future Pope John XXIII, was ordained a priest at the church. 

Also on this day:






5 August 2020

5 August

Franco Lucentini – author


Writer was one half of a famous literary partnership

The novelist Franco Lucentini, who achieved success with Carlo Fruttero in a remarkable literary association, died on this day in 2002 in Turin.  A news correspondent and editor, Lucentini met Fruttero in 1953 in Paris and they started working together as journalists and translators.  But they were best known for the mystery thrillers they produced together, which they composed in a businesslike manner.  After choosing a subject they would take it in turns to write and then edit the material until a novel was complete.  Their most popular books were The Sunday Woman (La donna della domenica), which was later made into a film and The D Case (La verità sul caso D), which was based on an unfinished work by Charles Dickens, The Mystery of Edwin Drood.  Lucentini fell foul of the Fascist regime while studying Philosophy at the University of Rome because of distributing anti-war messages among his fellow students and had to spend two months in prison.  But after the Second World War he was hired by the Allies to work as a junior editor for their news agency in Naples. Lucentini then went on to work in Rome for Italy's ANSA news agency.  Read more…

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Antonio Barberini – Cardinal


Pope’s nephew amassed fortune and became patron of the arts

Catholic cardinal, military leader and patron of the arts Antonio Barberini was born on this day in 1607 in Rome.  As one of the cardinal-nephews of Pope Urban VIII he helped to shape the politics, religion, art and music of 17th century Italy and took part in many papal conclaves.  He is sometimes referred to as Antonio the Younger, or Antonio Barberini Iuniore, to distinguish him from his uncle, Antonio Marcello Barberini.  Antonio was the youngest of six children born to Carlo Barberini and Costanza Magalotti. Like his brothers, he was educated at the Collegio Romano.  His brother, Francesco Barberini, became Grand Inquisitor of the Roman Inquisition.  His uncle, Maffeo Barberini, was elected as Pope the day after Antonio’s 16th birthday and became Pope Urban VIII.  Urban VIII was notorious for nepotism and he appointed Antonio as a cardinal just after his 20th birthday.  Nepotism was commonplace among popes from the Middle Ages up to the 17th century. The word derives from the Latin nepos (Italian: nipote), meaning nephew, to describe the practice among popes, who had taken vows of chastity and therefore could have no legitimate children, of appointing nephews to key positions.  Read more…

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Antonio Cesti – opera composer


Singer and organist wrote operas and church music

Composer Pietro Marc’Antonio Cesti was baptised on this day in 1623 in Arezzo in Tuscany. It was also probably the date of his birth.  One of the leading composers of the 17th century, Cesti is said to have written about 100 operas, although only 15 are known today.  He joined the order of Friars Minor, or Franciscans, a Catholic religious group founded by St Francis of Assisi in 1637.  Cesti studied first in Rome and then moved to Venice, where his first known opera, Orontea, was produced in 1649.  In 1652 he became chapel master to Archduke Ferdinand of Austria at Innsbruck and from 1669 he was vice chapel master to the imperial court in Vienna.  Throughout the 17th century his operas were widely performed in Italy. His most famous operas, Il pomo d’oro, Dori, and Orontea, have survived to this day.  Il pomo d’oro was a lavish production, written for the wedding of Emperor Leopold I in 1666 in Vienna.  An important manuscript collection of 18 secular and three sacred cantatas by Cesti are preserved in Oxford.  His cantatas and religious works show Roman influences, whereas his operas demonstrate the influence of the Venetian school.  Read more…

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Felice Casson - politician and magistrate


His investigations revealed existence of Operation Gladio

Felice Casson, the magistrate whose investigations exposed the existence of the NATO-backed secret army codenamed Gladio, was born on this day in 1953 in Chioggia, near Venice.  A former mayor of Venice and a representative of the Democratic Party in the Italian Senate, Casson devoted much of his career in the judiciary to fighting corruption and rooting out terrorists.  In 1984, his interest in terrorism led him to examine the unsolved mystery of the Peteano bombing in 1972, in which three Carabinieri officers were killed by a car bomb placed under an abandoned Fiat 500 in a tiny hamlet close to the border with Yugoslavia in the province of Gorizia.  Casson discovered flaws in the original investigation into the bombing, which at the time was blamed on the left-wing extremist group the Red Brigades, who would later be responsible for the kidnap and murder of Aldo Moro, a former prime minister.  Afterwards, Italy launched a nationwide crackdown on left-wing organisations and made more than 200 arrests.  But Casson found no record of any investigation of the scene of the bombing.  Read more…



4 August 2020

4 August

Pope Urban VII


Pope for just 12 days but introduced world's first smoking ban

Pope Urban VII was born Giovanni Battista Castagna on this day in 1521 in Rome.  Although his 12-day papacy in 1590 was the shortest in history, he is remembered as being the first person in the world to declare a ban on smoking.  He was against the use of tobacco generally, threatening to excommunicate anyone who ‘took tobacco in the porchway of, or inside a church, whether it be by chewing it, smoking it with a pipe, or sniffing it in powdered form through the nose’.  The ban is thought to have been upheld for the most part until 1724, when Pope Benedict XIII, himself a smoker, repealed it.  Castagna was the son of a nobleman of Genovese origin and studied in universities all over Italy. He obtained a doctorate in civil law and canon law from the University of Bologna.  He served as a constitutional lawyer to Pope Julius III and was then ordained a priest.  He took part in the Council of Trent and then served as an apostolic nuncio in Spain for four years.  Castagna was also Governor of Bologna, apostolic nuncio to Venice and then Papal Legate to Flanders and Cologne.  He is remembered for his charity to the poor.  Read more…

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Giovanni Spadolini - politician


The first non-Christian Democrat to lead Italian Republic

Giovanni Spadolini, who was the Italian Republic’s first prime minister not to be drawn from the Christian Democrats and was one of Italy's most respected politicians, died on this day in 1994.  In a country where leading politicians and businessmen rarely survive a whole career without becoming embroiled in one corruption scandal or another, he went to the grave with his reputation for honesty intact.  Although he was an expert on Italian unification and became a professor of contemporary history at the University of Florence when he was only 25, a background that gave him a deep knowledge of Italian politics, he first built a career as a journalist.  He became a political columnist for several magazines and newspapers, including Il Borghese, Il Mondo and Il Messaggero, and was appointed editor of the Bologna daily II Resto del Carlino in 1955, at the age of 30.  In 1968, having doubled Il Resto’s circulation, he left Bologna to become the editor at Corriere della Sera, in Milan, where he remained until 1972.  It was while editing the Corriere that he became known for his anti-extremist stance, condemning violent student activists on the left and terrorists on the right in equal measure.  Read more…

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Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici - politician


Art enthusiast who was Botticelli’s major patron

The Florentine banker and politician Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici, who was a significant figure in Renaissance art as the main sponsor and patron of the painter Sandro Botticelli, was born on this day in 1463.  The great-grandson of Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici, the founder of the Medici bank, Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco belonged to the junior, sometimes known as ‘Popolani’ branch of the House of Medici.  In 1476, when he and his brother, Giovanni, were still boys, their father, Pierfrancesco de’ Medici the Elder, died. They became wards, effectively, of their cousin, Lorenzo il Magnifico - Lorenzo the Magnificent - a member of the senior branch of the family and the effective ruler of Florence.  Relations between the two branches had been tense for some years and were not helped when Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco discovered, on becoming an adult, that Lorenzo had plundered a considerable sum from he and his brother’s joint inheritance in order to stave off a threatened bankruptcy of the family’s financial empire.  Although Lorenzo had provided the boys with the best education money could buy - the notable Florentine Renaissance humanists Marsilio Ficino, Angelo Poliziano and Giorgio Antonio Vespucci (uncle of Amerigo) were among their tutors - and given them a number of properties in compensation, the incident created a lingering bitterness.  Read more…



3 August 2020

3 August

La Scala - opera and ballet theatre


First night at the world’s most famous opera house

Milan’s Teatro alla Scala was officially inaugurated on this day in 1778.  Known to Italians simply as La Scala, the theatre has become the leading opera house in the world and many famous artists have appeared there. A fire had destroyed the Teatro Regio Ducale, which had previously been the home of opera in Milan. A group of 90 wealthy patrons, the owners of private boxes in the theatre, wrote to Archduke Ferdinand of Austria-Este asking that a new theatre be built.  The new theatre was built on the site of the former Church of Santa Maria alla Scala, which is how the theatre got its name. The church was deconsecrated and demolished to make way for the theatre.  With the cost of the project met by the 90 patrons, who paid in advance for boxes, the new theatre was designed by neoclassical architect Giuseppe Piermarini and at the official opening on 3 August 1778, Antonio Salieri’s opera L’Europa Riconosciuta was premiered.  As with most theatres at the time, the main floor had no seats, with audience members standing to watch the performances. This had the effect of making the theatre a meeting place, but also a venue for business dealings. Read more…

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Imperia Cognati - courtesan


Prostitute who became a celebrity

Imperia Cognati, who acquired celebrity status in Rome in the early 16th century as a courtesan to a number of rich and powerful figures, was born on this day in 1486.  Courtesans were originally the female companions of courtiers of the papal court, whose duties required them to be educated and familiar with etiquette, so that they could participate in the formalities of court life and take part in polite conversation.  In time, however, in some cases their companionship became of a more intimate nature and they became the mistresses of their courtiers, who in the papal court were clerics nor permitted to marry.  It was common, too, for courtesans to be the companions of several clients simultaneously.  They were in effect a new class of prostitute, refined and educated enough to hold their own in polite society.  Imperia Cognati acquired her elevated status mainly through being the chosen companion of Agostino Chigi, a Sienese banker closely associated with Pope Alexander VI and others and a patron of the Renaissance.  At one time he was thought to be the richest banker in the world.  He lavished Imperia – as she was usually known – to the extent that she could afford to keep both a palace in Rome and a country villa.  Read more…

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Antonio da Sangallo the Younger - Architect


Talented Florentine was commissioned by the Popes

Antonio da Sangallo the Younger, who left his mark on Rome during the Renaissance, died on this day in 1546 in Terni in Umbria.  Sangallo was the chief architect on St Peter’s Basilica from 1520 onwards and built many other beautiful churches and palaces in the city and throughout the Papal States.  He was born Antonio Cordiani in Florence in 1484. His grandfather had been a woodworker and his uncles, Giuliano and Antonio da Sangallo, were architects.  The young man followed his uncles to Rome to pursue a career in architecture and ended up taking the name Sangallo himself.  He became an assistant to Donato Bramante and started by preparing sketches for his master.  Recognising his talent, Bramante gave Sangallo projects to complete with no more than an outline of the design and motifs.  Sangallo’s first major commission was for the Church of Santa Maria di Loreto in 1507.  He came to the attention of Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, who later became Pope Paul III, and was commissioned to design the Farnese Palace in Piazza Farnese and a palace and church in the Cardinal’s home town of Gradoli.  Read more…



2 August 2020

2 August

Pietro Mascagni – composer


One opera was enough to build reputation of musician

Pietro Mascagni, the creator of the opera Cavalleria rusticana, died on this day in 1945 in Rome, at the age of 81.  Cavalleria rusticana was an outstanding success when it was first performed in Rome in 1890 and was said to have single-handedly brought the Verismo movement, in which the characters were ordinary people rather than gods, mythological figures or kings and queens, into Italian opera.  The beautiful intermezzo from the opera was used in the soundtrack of the 1980 film Raging Bull and a production of the opera was used as the setting for the climax of the 1990 film The Godfather Part III, with Michael Corleone’s son Anthony playing Turridu, the opera’s male protagonist. The film ends with the intermezzo playing.  In 2001 Andrea Bocelli recorded a song entitled Mascagni on his Cieli di Toscana album and had an excerpt from Cavalleria rusticana incorporated into the music.  The opera has been so successful that it has led to Mascagni sometimes being dismissed as a one-opera composer, but, in fact, the composer wrote 15 operas, as well as orchestral and piano music and songs.  Read more…

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Bologna railway station bombed


Biggest terrorist atrocity in Italy's history killed 85

Italy suffered the most devastating terrorist outrage in its history on this day in 1980 with the bombing of Bologna's main railway station.   A massive 23kg (51lbs) of explosive packed into a suitcase left in a crowded waiting room was detonated at 10.25am, creating a blast that destroyed much of the main building of the station and badly damaged a train on one of the platforms.  Many people, locals and tourists, Italians and foreign nationals, were caught up in the explosion. Some were killed instantly, others died as a result of the roof of the waiting room collapsing on to the victims. There were 85 deaths and more than 200 other people were wounded.  The bomb was clearly placed to cause mass casualties. It was the first Saturday in the traditional August holiday period, one of the busiest days of the year for rail travel, and the explosive-laden suitcase was left in a room with air conditioning, then still relatively rare in Italy. On a hot day, the room was naturally full of people.  The attack was the deadliest of several during a bleak period of 10-12 years in Italian history that became known as the Years of Lead, when the ideological struggle between the left and right in Italian politics was at its height.  Read more…

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Francis Marion Crawford – author


Novelist found inspiration while living in Sorrento

The American writer Francis Marion Crawford was born on this day in 1854 in Bagni di Lucca in Tuscany.  A prolific novelist, Crawford became known for the vividness of his characterisations and the realism of his settings, many of which were places he had visited in Italy.  He chose to settle in later life in the coastal resort of Sorrento in Campania where he even had a street named after him, Corso Marion Crawford.  Crawford was the only son of the American sculptor, Thomas Crawford. He spent his childhood going backwards and forwards between Italy and America and studied at various American and European Universities.  He spent some time in India where he found the inspiration for his first successful novel, Mr Isaacs, which was published in 1882.  In 1883 he returned to Italy to settle there permanently. He lived at the Hotel Cocumella in the village of Sant’Agnello just outside Sorrento to begin with. He then bought a nearby farmhouse, from which he developed the Villa Crawford, an impressive clifftop residence easily identifiable from the sea by the tall buttresses Crawford added as a safeguard against erosion.  Read more…


1 August 2020

1 August

NEW
- Paolo De Poli – enameller and painter


Artist devoted his life to an ancient technique

A painter who became fascinated with the ancient art of enamelling, Paolo De Poli was born on this day in 1905 in Padua.  At first De Poli experimented with enamelling small, decorative objects but after he mastered his craft he moved on to creating large panels for the interiors of ships, hotels and public buildings.  De Poli trained in drawing and embossing on metal at the art school Pietro Selvatico of Padua and then studied oil painting in Verona. He embarked on a career as a portrait and landscape painter.  In 1926 he participated for the first time in the Biennale di Venezia with the oil painting Still Life.  While travelling in the 1930s he visited art museums and archaeological sites and became interested in the traditional art of working with vitreous enamel.  From 1933 onwards, he devoted himself to creating enamel works on metal, experimenting with refined objects of many shapes in brilliant colours. He continued to improve his technique, reaching the highest level of skill.  In the 1940s, he collaborated with Milanese architect Gio Ponti in the production of furniture and decorative panels.  Read more…

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Antonio Cotogni – baritone


Singer who moved the composer Verdi to tears

Antonio ‘Toto’ Cotogni, who achieved international recognition as one of the greatest male opera singers of the 19th century, was born on this day in 1831 in Rome.  Cotogni’s fine baritone voice was particularly admired by the composer Giuseppe Verdi and music journalists wrote reviews full of superlatives after his performances.  Cotogni studied music theory and singing from an early age and began singing in churches and at summer music festivals outside the city.  He made his opera debut in 1852 at Rome’s Teatro Metastasio as Belcore in Donizetti's L’elisir d’amore.  After that he did not sing in public for a while, concentrating instead on building up his repertoire.  After singing in various Italian cities outside Rome he was signed up to sing at Rome’s Teatro Argentina in 1857 in Lucia di Lammermoor and Gemma di Vergy, also by Donizetti. Later that year he performed in Verdi's I due Foscari and Sanelli's Luisa Strozzi at Teatro Rossini in Turin. He met the soprano Maria Ballerini there and married her the following year.  His major breakthrough came in 1858 when he was asked to take the place of the famous baritone Felice Varesi in Nice.  Read more…

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Cosimo de' Medici


Banker who founded the Medici dynasty

The first of the Medici rulers of Florence, Cosimo di Giovanni de' Medici, died on this day in 1464 in Careggi in Tuscany.  Cosimo had political influence and power because of the wealth he had acquired as a banker and he is also remembered as a patron of learning, the arts and architecture.  Cosimo, who is sometimes referred to as Cosimo the Elder (il Vecchio) was born into a wealthy family in Florence in 1389. His father was a moneylender who then joined the bank of a relative before opening up his own bank in 1397.  The Medici Bank opened branches in Rome, Geneva, Venice and Naples and the Rome branch managed the papal finances in return for a commission.  The bank later opened branches in London, Pisa, Avignon, Bruges, Milan and Lubeck, which meant that bishoprics could pay their money into their nearest branch for the Pope to use.  In 1410, Baldassarre Cossa, who was on one side of a power struggle within the Catholic Church, borrowed money from the bank to buy himself into the office of Cardinal and in return put the Medici in charge of all the papal finances.   This gave the Medici family the power to threaten defaulting debtors with excommunication.  Read more…

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The Arab conquest of Sicily


Fall of Taormina put island in Muslim control

The Arab conquest of Sicily, which began in 827, was completed on this day in 902 with the fall of Taormina, the city in the northeast of the island that was the last stronghold of the Byzantine Empire, which had been in control for more than 350 years.  The island had been coveted by powers around the Mediterranean for centuries and raids by Saracens, as the Muslim Arabs from Roman Arabia became known, had been taking place since the mid-7th century without threatening to make substantial territorial gains.  However, in 827 the commander of the island's fleet, Euphemius, led a revolt against Michael II, the Byzantine Emperor, and when he and his supporters were at first driven from the island by forces loyal to Michael II, he turned to the Aghlabids, the rulers of Ifriqiya, the area of north Africa now known as Tunisia, for help.  The Aghlabids saw this as a strategic opportunity too good to miss and, with Euphemius’s forces to supplement their own, completed a successful landing on the southern coast and began to establish fortresses.  An attempt to capture Syracuse, which was then the capital, was beaten back, but when they turned their attention to Palermo it was a different story.  Read more…

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Francesca Scanagatta - soldier


Woman pretended to be a man to join Austrian army

Francesca Scanagatta, an Italian woman who served in the Imperial Austrian army for seven years while pretending to be a man, was born on this day in 1776 in Milan.  Scanagatta – sometimes known as Franziska – was a small and apparently rather plain girl, who was brought up in Milan while the city was under Austrian rule. She admired the Austrian soldiers to the extent of wishing she could join the army, yet knew that as a girl she would not be allowed to.  Even so, it did not stop her dreaming and throughout her childhood and teenage years she worked on becoming physically stronger through exercise while reading as much literature as she could about the army.  By contrast, her brother Giacomo hated the idea of joining up. He was rather effeminate in nature and the very thought of becoming a soldier filled him with dread.  Yet his father wanted him to serve and arranged for him to attend a military school in Vienna.  Giacomo confided his fears in Francesca and she suddenly realised she had an opportunity to fulfil her dreams by signing up in his place.  So, in June 1794, dressed as a man, the 17-year-old travelled with Giacomo to Austria.  Read more…



Paolo De Poli – enameller and painter

Artist devoted his life to an ancient technique


Paolo De Poli, pictured in his studio in Padua with a selection of the beautiful vases in which he specialised
Paolo De Poli, pictured in his studio in Padua with a
selection of the beautiful vases in which he specialised
A painter who became fascinated with the ancient art of enamelling, Paolo De Poli was born on this day in 1905 in Padua.

At first De Poli experimented with enamelling small, decorative objects but after he mastered his craft he moved on to creating large panels for the interiors of ships, hotels and public buildings.

De Poli trained in drawing and embossing on metal at the art school Pietro Selvatico of Padua and then studied oil painting in Verona. He embarked on a career as a portrait and landscape painter.

In 1926 he participated for the first time in the Biennale di Venezia with the oil painting Still Life.

While travelling in the 1930s he visited art museums and archaeological sites and became interested in the traditional art of working with vitreous enamel.

From 1933 onwards, he devoted himself to creating enamel works on metal, experimenting with refined objects of many shapes in brilliant colours. He continued to improve his technique, reaching the highest level of skill.

De Poli worked closely with the Milan architect Gio Ponti (above)
De Poli worked closely with the Milan
architect Gio Ponti (above)
In the 1940s, he collaborated with Milanese architect Gio Ponti in the production of furniture and decorative panels. This led to him producing animal statuettes in sculptural forms.

He also produced beautiful vases, bowls, trays, plates, cups, plaques and door handles in enamel on copper and accepted commissions for panels to decorate the homes of collectors in Italy and abroad.

Gio Ponti wrote about him: ‘If we can speak of an Italian art of enamel, it is thanks to De Poli, to the road he opened up and followed faithfully, to the example of his orthodox technique, to his sureness of touch, to the esteem and admiration he has won. And we should be grateful to him for this also.’

De Poli also dedicated himself to executing altarpieces and cycles of panels on the theme of the Stations of the Cross. These are preserved in churches in Padua, Abano Terme, Treviso and Bergamo.

His creations have been displayed at many international exhibitions and art fairs as expressions of Italian style. Many of his works in enamel on copper are now in the permanent collections of the important museums of decorative art and design.

De Poli was actively involved in the defence of the Italian cultural heritage and the promotion of arts and crafts during his career.  From 1960 to 1973 he served as a member of the board of directors of the Milan Triennale.

In 1970 De Poli was awarded the title of Cavaliere del Lavoro. He died in Padua in 1996, aged 91.

His personal archive of designs, prototypes, photographs and correspondence has been entrusted to the Archivio Progetti of IUAV University of Venice.

Palazzo Bo' in Via 8 Febbraio is the main building of Padua University
Palazzo Bo' in Via 8 Febbraio is the
main building of Padua University
Travel tip:

Two of De Poli’s panels, depicting Podesta Rusca and Vescovo Giordano, are in Palazzo Bo, the main building of Padua University in Via 8 Febbraio, which was named after the tavern known as Il Bo (‘the ox’ in Venetian dialect) that had been acquired by the university as new premises in 1493. Originally this building housed the university’s renowned medical faculty. You can take a guided tour and see the pulpit that was used by Galileo when he taught at the university between 1592 and 1610 and the anatomy theatre, built in 1594, which is the oldest surviving medical lecture theatre in the world today. To find Palazzo del Bo, leave Piazza Cavour, passing Caffe Pedrocchi on your right and walk down Via 8 Febbraio. The university building is on the left hand side of the street at its corner with Via San Francesco.

De Poli's statuette Toro is housed in the Musei Civici in Padua, formerly a convent
De Poli's statuette Toro is housed in the Musei
Civici in Padua, formerly a convent
Travel tip:

De Poli’s statuette, Toro (Bull) completed in 1966, is in Padua’s Musei Civici, a complex of museums and historic sites around the former convent of the Eremitani and its famous Cappella degli Scrovegni housing Giotto’s frescos. The complex also includes a museum of modern and medieval art housed in Palazzo Zuckermann in Corso Garibaldi.

Also on this day: