30 September 2020

30 September

NEW
- Massimo Bottura - chef and food activist

Leading restaurateur who set up project to feed hungry

The chef and restaurateur Massimo Bottura, whose Osteria Francescana in his hometown of Modena has twice been named as the world’s best restaurant, was born on this day in 1962.  Bottura is also the founder, in partnership with his American-born wife, the former actress and artist Lara Gilmore, of Food for Soul, a non-profit organisation that sets out to combat waste and feed the hungry through a network of refectories in major cities around the world.  The Food for Soul project was launched in 2015 with a refettorio in Greco, a poor district of northern Milan, and has expanded to the extent that it now numbers seven similar dining rooms for the hungry and homeless, in London, Paris and Rio de Janeiro as well as at three other locations in Italy.  As a young man, Bottura’s passions were food and football. He drew inspiration from the cooking of his mother and grandmothers in his dream of being a chef but envisioned a career as a footballer first, believing he had the talent to play professionally.  His father, a successful businessman, insisted he followed a different path, and Bottura enrolled instead to study law at university.   Read more…

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Pierina Legnani - ballerina

Italian dancer who conquered St Petersburg

The ballerina Pierina Legnani, considered by many ballet historians to be one of the greatest dancers in history, was born on this day in 1863 in Milan.  Legnani's legacy was the 32-turn fouetté en tournant in which the dancer essentially spins on the point of one foot for 32 revolutions while maintaining perfect balance.  No ballerina had completed 32 turns before Legnani, who is said to have tried it out at the Alhambra Theatre in London before introducing the move to the wider world in 1893 on her debut at the Imperial Ballet in St Petersburg in Russia, where she was performing in the title role of Cinderella.  It came in the final act on the night of the premiere and her perfection of technique and execution caused a sensation, with many critics hailing her as the supreme ballerina of her generation.  Her feat set a new standard for future ballerinas as a yardstick of strength and technique. A sequence of 32 fouetté turns was later choreographed into the Black Swan solo in Act Three of Swan Lake, of which it continues to be a feature.  Jealous rivals criticised Legnani for what they saw as showing off, taking an audacious gamble that could have backfired horribly.  Read more…

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Angelo Cerica - Carabinieri general

First job was to arrest Mussolini

General Angelo Cerica, the police commander tasked with arresting the Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini after he was deposed as party leader in 1943, was born on this day in 1885 in Alatri, in the Ciociaria region of Lazio, about 90km (56 miles) south of Rome.  Mussolini was arrested on July 25 as he left his regular meeting with the King, Vittorio Emanuele III, the day after the Fascist Grand Council had voted to remove him from power.  The monarch had informed him that General Pietro Badoglio, former chief of staff of the Italian army, would be replacing him as prime minister.  Cerica had been appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Carabinieri, Italy’s paramilitary second police force, only two days previously, succeeding General Azolino Hazon, who had been killed in a bombing raid.  He was hand-picked for the job by General Vittorio Ambrosio, who was party to secret plot among Carabinieri officers to depose Mussolini irrespective of the Grand Council vote.  They wanted a commander who would not oppose the anti-Mussolini faction and would carry out the arrest.  Cerica, in fact, shared their view of il Duce, blaming him for leading Italy into a ruinous alliance with Germany.  Read more…

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Monica Bellucci - actress and model

Movie actress who is face of Dolce & Gabbana

The actress and model Monica Bellucci, who has appeared in more than 60 films in a career that began in 1990, was born on this day in 1964 in Città di Castello in Umbria.  Bellucci, who is associated with Dolce & Gabbana and Dior perfumes, began modelling to help fund her studies at the University of Perugia, where she was enrolled at the Faculty of Law with ambitions of a career in the legal profession.  But she was quickly brought to the attention of the major model agencies in Milan and soon realised she had the potential to follow a much different career.  Bellucci, whose father Pasquale worked for a transport company, soon began to attract big-name clients in Paris and New York as well as Italy, but decided not long into her modelling career that she would take acting lessons.  She claimed to have been inspired by watching the Italian female movie icons Claudia Cardinale and Sophia Loren and gained her first part in a TV miniseries directed by the veteran director Dino Risi in 1990.  The following year she made her big screen debut with a leading role in the film La raffa, directed by Francesco Laudadio.   Read more…

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Girolamo Mercuriale – physician

Doctor went from hero to villain and back again

Girolamo Mercuriale, who is believed to have written the first book about sports medicine and one of the first books about the benefits of physical exercise, was born on this day in 1530 in Forlì.  He published his most famous book, De Arte Gymnastica, in 1569 in Venice, having studied Greek and Roman medical literature and learnt about the attitude of athletes in ancient times to diet, exercise and hygiene.  Girolamo was the son of a doctor, Giovanni Mercuriale, and he was sent to Bologna, Padua and Venice to study medicine. After receiving his doctorate in philosophy and medicine in 1555 in Venice he went to Rome on a political mission, where he had access to many of the important libraries housing classical manuscripts.  His book is believed to be the first to explain the principles of physical therapy, now known as physiotherapy and the first to suggest that exercise can be helpful, or harmful, depending on its use, duration and intensity.  He became famous and was offered the chair of practical medicine at Padua in 1569, where he studied the works of Hippocrates, which gave him the material to write the first scientific tracts on skin disease, and women’s and children’s diseases.  Read more…


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Massimo Bottura - chef and food activist

Leading restaurateur who set up project to feed hungry

Massimo Bottura
Massimo Bottura is seen as one of
the world's best chefs
The chef and restaurateur Massimo Bottura, whose Osteria Francescana in his hometown of Modena has twice been named as the world’s best restaurant, was born on this day in 1962.

Bottura is also the founder, in partnership with his American-born wife, the former actress and artist Lara Gilmore, of Food for Soul, a non-profit organisation that sets out to combat waste and feed the hungry through a network of refectories in major cities around the world.

The Food for Soul project was launched in 2015 with a refettorio in Greco, a poor district of northern Milan, and has expanded to the extent that it now numbers seven similar dining rooms for the hungry and homeless, in London, Paris and Rio de Janeiro as well as at three other locations in Italy.

As a young man, Bottura’s passions were food and football. He drew inspiration from the cooking of his mother and grandmothers in his dream of being a chef but envisioned a career as a footballer first, believing he had the talent to play professionally.

Lara Gilmore and Massimo Bottura met in New York in the last 1980s
Lara Gilmore and Massimo Bottura met in
New York in the last 1980s
His father, a successful businessman, insisted he followed a different path, and Bottura enrolled instead to study law at university.  In 1986, however, before he had completed his degree, he made the bold decision to buy a dilapidated roadside trattoria on the outskirts of Modena, determined that if one of his dreams had been dashed, the other would not suffer the same fate.

He worked round the clock to restore the building and a week later his first restaurant, Trattoria del Campazzo, opened for business.  Encouraged by his mother, who argued with his father on his behalf, he was determined to make a success of it.

Bottura’s horizons were broadened by a surprise visit to Trattoria del Campazzo by Alain Ducasse, head chef of Le Louis XV, the restaurant at the Hôtel de Paris in Monte Carlo. Ducasse invited him to the kitchen at Le Louis XV, which is where effectively he had his apprenticeship.

Bottura's restaurant Osteria Francescana in Modena has twice been named best in the world
Bottura's restaurant Osteria Francescana in
Modena has twice been named best in the world
He had met Lara while he was working in kitchens in New York in the late 1980s and she was an actress in experimental theatre.  He returned to pursue his education under Ducasse but they stayed in touch and in 1993 he invited her to Modena, to help him fulfil his ambition to open a new restaurant that combined food with contemporary art and design.

The culmination of their joint enterprise was the Osteria Francescana, on the corner of Via Stella and Via delle Rose in the centre of Modena. It opened on 19 March, 1995.  Bottura proposed to Lara the same day.

Bottura’s cooking took traditional Italian dishes and gave them a modern twist with a heavy accent on experimentation. At first, he struggled to win over local diners but had something of a lucky break when a renowned Italian food critic happened on the restaurant by chance in 2001 and gave the osteria a rave review.  It sparked a new wave of interest and within a year he had been awarded his first Michelin star.

The Osteria Francescana, which even in normal times serves only 28 guests at lunch and dinner, now has three stars and was named as one of the top three in the World’s Best Restaurants - a list compiled annually by the UK media company William Reed Business Media - for six consecutive years between 2013 and 2018, taking first place in 2016 and 2018.

Bottura launched a project to feed the hungry and homeless
Bottura launched a project to
feed the hungry and homeless
Bottura did not open another restaurant until Francescana 58, a more informal brasserie launched in Modena in 2011, in Via Vignolese. He moved outside Italy for the first time in 2014 with Ristorante Italia di Massimo Bottura in Istanbul. Subsequent ventures include restaurants in Florence, Dubai and Beverly Hills.

The idea behind Food for Soul developed during Expo 2015 in Milan, at which Bottura was invited to cook. The scale of the event within a city not without social problems set him thinking both about food wastage and social vulnerability, and he decided to take unused produce from Expo’s pavilions to create meals for the city's most vulnerable population. Rather than serve up those meals in the manner of a traditional soup kitchen, Bottura wanted to create a setting in which the diners could feel at least momentarily sheltered from the reality of their everyday lives, connecting with others at long refectory tables.

The first refettorio - the Refettorio Ambrosiano - opened in Piazza Greco in a disused concert theatre next to the parish church of San Martino in Greco. Under a giant mural of The Last Supper, seated at 14 refectory tables, each crafted and donated by a celebrated Italian designer, guests are served a three-course menu, nowadays made from food donated by local supermarkets.

In addition to the seven locations already established, Bottura has plans to open more in Mexico, California, New York and Quebec.  He regularly invites renowned chefs to cook for the project and they willingly oblige, in many cases serving the food themselves and sitting to talk to diners. 

Modena's grand baroque Ducal Palace is one of the city's major attractions for visitors
 Modena's grand baroque Ducal Palace is one of the city's
major attractions for visitors
Travel tip:

Modena is a city on the south side of the Po Valley in the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy. It is known for its car industry, as Ferrari, De Tomaso, Lamborghini, Pagani and Maserati have all been located there. The city is also well known for producing balsamic vinegar. Operatic tenor Luciano Pavarotti and soprano Mirella Freni were both born in Modena.  One of the main sights is the huge, baroque Ducal Palace, designed for Francesco I by the architect, Luigi Bartolomeo Avanzini, who created a home for him that few European princes could match at the time. 

The imposing facade of  Modena's duomo
The imposing facade of 
Modena's duomo
Travel tip:

Dominating Piazza Grande, Modena’s 12th-century duomo - the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta e San Geminiano - is regarded as one of the finest products of the Romanesque period in Italy and is on the UNESCO World Heritage list. The portal of the west facade is supported by two lions created by the sculptor Wiligelmo, who also did the larger reliefs that run along the wall. Inside, the plain stone coffin of San Geminiano - the patron saint of Modena – sits under the choir. On his feast day, January 31, crowds come to see his coffin, and a market is held in the square.

Also on this day:

1530: The birth of physician Girolamo Mercuriale 

1863: The birth of ballerina Pierina Legnani

1885: The birth of Carabinieri general Angelo Cerica 

1964: The birth of model and actress Monica Bellucci


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29 September 2020

29 September

Silvio Piola - footballer

Modest star who remains Italy’s great goalscorer

Silvio Piola, a forward whose career tally of 364 goals between 1930 and 1954 remains the most scored by any professional player in the history of football in Italy, was born on this day in 1913 in Robbio Lomellina, a small town about 50km (31 miles) southwest of Milan.  Of those goals, 274 were scored in Serie A and 30 for the Italian national team, with whom he was a World Cup winner in 1938, scoring twice in the final against Hungary.  No other player has scored so many goals in the top flight of Italian football and only two others - Gigi Riva and Giuseppe Meazza - have scored more while wearing the azzurri shirt.  Other records still held by Piola include all-time highest Serie A goalscorer for three different clubs - his hometown club Pro Vercelli, Lazio, and Novara - and one of only two players to have scored six goals in a single match.  Until recently, Piola held a unique double record of being both the youngest player to score two goals in a Serie A match and the oldest, having scored twice for Pro Vercelli in a 5-4 win away to Alessandria in 1931 when he was 17 years and 104 days and twice for Novara against Lazio in a match in 1953, at the age of 39 years and 127 days.  Read more…

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Enrico Fermi – nuclear physicist

Scientist from Rome who created world’s first nuclear reactor

Enrico Fermi, who has been called the architect of the nuclear age and even the father of the atomic bomb, was born on this day in 1901 in Rome.  Fermi, who won a Nobel Prize in 1938, created the world’s first nuclear reactor, the so-called Chicago Pile-1, after he had settled in the United States, and also worked on the Manhattan Project, which was the code name for the secret US research project aimed at developing nuclear weapons in the Second World War.  The third child of Alberto Fermi, an official in Italy’s Ministry of Railways, and Ida de Gattis, a school teacher, Fermi took an interest in science from an early age, inspired by a book about physics he had discovered in the local market in Campo de’ Fiori in Rome, written in Latin by a Jesuit priest in about 1840.  He read avidly as he was growing up, conducting many experiments. After high school, he was granted a place at the prestigious Scuola Normale Superiore, part of the University of Pisa, where it became clear the depth of knowledge he had already acquired was greater than that of many of his professors. It was not long before they began asking him to organise seminars in quantum physics. He graduated with honours in 1922.  Read more…

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Silvio Berlusconi - entrepreneur and politician

Businessman who was four times PM

Silvio Berlusconi, who has served as prime minister of Italy in four Governments, was born on this day in 1936 in Milan.  Head of a large media empire and owner of the football club AC Milan, Berlusconi was prime minister for a total of nine years, making him the longest-serving post-war prime minister and the third longest-serving since Italian unification.  Berlusconi was the eldest of three children born to a bank employee and his wife and, after completing his secondary school education, he studied Law at the Università Statale in Milan, graduating with honours in 1961.  While at University he played the double bass in a group and occasionally performed as a cruise ship crooner. In later life he was to co-write both AC Milan’s and Forza Italia’s anthems and, in collaboration with Mariano Apicella, a Neapolitan singer and musician, he wrote the lyrics for two albums of Neapolitan-style songs, which Apicella put to music.  In the late 1960s, Berlusconi’s company, Edilnord, built 4,000 residential apartments in a new 'town' he called Milano Due and he was able to use the profits to fund his future businesses.  Read more…


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28 September 2020

28 September

Pietro Badoglio - soldier and politician

Controversial general who turned against Mussolini

Marshal Pietro Badoglio, who was a general in the Italian Army in both World Wars and became Italy’s wartime prime minister after the fall of Mussolini, was born on this day in 1871 in the village of Grazzano Monferrato in Piedmont.  He was Mussolini’s Chief of Staff between 1925 and 1940, although his relationship with the Fascist dictator was fractious.  Indeed, he ultimately played a key part in Mussolini’s downfall in 1943, encouraging the Fascist Grand Council to remove him as leader and advising King Victor Emmanuel III in the lead-up to Mussolini’s arrest and imprisonment in July of that year, after which he was named as head of an emergency government.  It was Badoglio who then conducted the secret negotiations with the Allies that led to an armistice being signed barely five weeks later. However, historians are divided over whether he should be seen as an heroic figure, in part because of his role in the disastrous defeat for Italian forces at the Battle of Caporetto in the First World War, at a cost of 10,000 Italian deaths and 30,000 more wounded.  Badoglio hailed from a middle-class background. His father, Mario, was a small landowner.  Read more…

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Marcello Mastroianni – actor

Film star who immortalised the Trevi Fountain

Marcello Vincenzo Domenico Mastroianni, who grew up to star in some of the most iconic Italian films of the 20th century, was born on this day in 1924 in Fontana Liri, in the province of Frosinone in Lazio.  He was the son of Ida Irolle and Ottone Mastroianni, who ran a carpentry shop. His uncle, Umberto Mastroianni, was a sculptor.  At the age of 14, Marcello Mastroianni made his screen debut as an extra in a 1939 film called Marionette.  His career was interrupted by the Second World War, during which he was interned in a German prison camp until he managed to escape and go into hiding in Venice.  He made several minor film appearances after the war until he landed his first big role in Atto d’accusa, directed by Giacomo Gentilomo, in 1951.  Ten years later, Mastroianni had become an international celebrity, having starred in Federico Fellini’s La dolce vita opposite Anita Ekberg. He played a disillusioned tabloid journalist who spends his days and nights exploring Rome’s high society. The film is most famous for the scene in which Ekberg's character, Sylvia, wades into the Trevi Fountain.  Read more…

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Filippo Illuminato - partisan

Teenager who gave his life for his city

The partisan fighter Filippo Illuminato died on this day in 1943 in Naples.  He was among more than 300 Italians killed in an uprising known as the Quattro giornate di Napoli - the Four Days of Naples - which successfully liberated the city from occupying Nazi forces ahead of the arrival of the first Allied forces in the city on 1 October.  Illuminato’s memory has been marked in a number of ways in the southern Italian city, honoured because he was only 13 years old when he was killed by German gunfire in a street battle in the famous Piazza Trieste e Trento, just a few steps from the Royal Palace. His last act had been to blow up a German armoured car.  Born into a poor family, Illuminato was working as an apprentice mechanic when he decided to join the uprising, which was sparked by a brutal crackdown imposed by the Nazis in response to the Italian government’s decision to surrender to the Allies, confirmed in the signing of the Armistice of Cassabile on 3 September on the island of Sicily.  The German forces, which had numbered 20,000, had responded to the news by banning all assemblies and introducing a curfew.  Read more…


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27 September 2020

27 September

NEW
- Cosimo de’ Medici – banker and politician

Father of Florence used his wealth to encourage great architecture

Today is the date Cosimo di Giovanni de’ Medici, the founder of the Medici dynasty, celebrated his birthday.  Cosimo and his twin brother, Damiano, were born to Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici and Piccarda Bueri in April 1389, but Damiano survived for only a short time.  The twins were named after the saints Cosmas and Damian, whose feast day in those days was celebrated on 27 September. Cosimo later decided to celebrate his birthday on 27 September, his ‘name day’, rather than on the actual date of his birth.  Cosimo’s father came from a wealthy family and after making even more money he married well. A supporter of the arts in Florence, he was one of the financial backers for the magnificent doors of the Baptistery by Ghiberti, although they were not completed until after his death.  By the time his father died, Cosimo was 40 and had become a rich banker himself, which gave him great power. He had also become a patron of the arts, learning and architecture.  The Abizzi family, who ruled Florence, feared his power and also coveted his wealth so they had Cosimo arrested on the capital charge of having tried to raise himself up higher than others.  Read more…

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Jovanotti - musician

Former rapper an important figure in Italian pop culture

The singer-songwriter Lorenzo Cherubini – better known as Jovanotti – was born on this day in 1966 in Rome.  Famous in his early days as Italy’s first rap star, Jovanotti has evolved into one of Italian pop music’s most significant figures, his work progressing from hip hop to funk and introducing ska and other strands of world music to Italian audiences, his increasingly sophisticated compositions even showing classical influences.  He has come to match Ligabue in terms of the ability to attract massive audiences, while his international record sales in the mid-90s were on a par with Eros Ramazzotti and Laura Pausini.  Since his recording debut in 1988 he has sold more than seven million albums.  Although born in Rome, Cherubini came from a Tuscan family and spent much of his childhood and adolescence in Cortona in the province of Arezzo, where he now has a home.  He began to work as a DJ at venues in and around Cortona, mainly playing dance music and hip hop, which at the time was scarcely known in Italy. After finishing high school he went back to Rome because he felt he had a better chance of launching a musical career via the capital’s club scene.  Read more…

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Grazia Deledda - Nobel Prize winner

First Italian woman to be honoured

The novelist Grazia Deledda, who was the first of only two Italian women to be made a Nobel laureate when she won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1926, was born on this day in 1871 in the city of Nuoro in Sardinia.  A prolific writer from the age of 13, she published around 50 novels or story collections over the course of her career, most of them drawing on her own experience of life in the rugged Sardinian countryside.  The Nobel prize was awarded "for her idealistically inspired writings which with plastic clarity picture the life on her native island and with depth and sympathy deal with human problems in general."  Deledda’s success came at the 11th time of asking, having been first nominated in 1913. The successful nomination came from Henrik Schuck, a literature historian at the Swedish Academy.  Born into a middle-class family - her father, Giovanni, was in her own words a “well-to-do landowner” - Deledda drew inspiration for her characters from the stream of friends and business acquaintances her father insisted must stay at their home whenever they were in Nuoro.  She was not allowed to attend school beyond the age of 11 apart from private tuition in Italian.  Read more…

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Gracie Fields - actress and singer

English-born performer who made Capri her home 

The English actress, singer and comedian Gracie Fields died on this day in 1979 at her home on Capri, the island on the south side of the Gulf of Naples.  The 81-year-old former forces sweetheart had been in hospital following a bout of pneumonia but appeared to be regaining her health.  The previous day she had walked with her husband, Boris, to the post office on the island to collect her mail.  Some English newspapers reported that Gracie had died in the arms of her husband but that version of events was later corrected. It is now accepted that Boris had already left La Canzone del Mare, the singer's original Capri home overlooking the island's landmark Faraglioni rocks, to work on the central heating at a second property they had bought in Anacapri, on the opposite side of the island, and that Gracie was with her housekeeper, Irena, when she passed away suddenly.  Fields, born Grace Stansfield in Rochdale, England, in 1898, had visited Capri for the first time in the late 1920s or early 30s, with two artists she had befriended in London, where she was becoming an established star in the revue format.  Read more…


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Cosimo de’ Medici – banker and politician

Father of Florence used his wealth to encourage great architecture

Bronzino's portrait of Cosimo de' Medici, painted between 1565 and 1569
Bronzino's portrait of Cosimo de'
Medici, painted between 1565 and 1569
Today is the date Cosimo di Giovanni de’ Medici, the founder of the Medici dynasty, celebrated his birthday.

Cosimo and his twin brother, Damiano, were born to Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici and Piccarda Bueri in April 1389, but Damiano survived for only a short time.

The twins were named after the saints Cosmas and Damian, whose feast day in those days was celebrated on 27 September. Cosimo later decided to celebrate his birthday on 27 September, his ‘name day’, rather than on the actual date of his birth.

Cosimo’s father, who was the founder of the Medici Bank, came from a wealthy family and after making even more money he married well, his wife coming from an ancient Florentine family. A supporter of the arts in Florence, Giovanni was one of the financial backers for the magnificent doors of the Baptistery by Lorenzo Ghiberti, although they were not completed until after his death.

By the time his father died, Cosimo was 40 and had become a rich banker himself, which gave him great power. He had also become a patron of the arts, learning and architecture.

The Abizzi family, who ruled Florence, feared his power and also coveted his wealth so they had Cosimo arrested on the capital charge of having tried to raise himself up higher than others.

Brunelleschi's huge dome of Florence Cathedral, which Cosimo supported
Brunelleschi's huge dome of Florence
Cathedral, which Cosimo supported
But Cosimo was able to use his money to buy back his life and then later his freedom, before he went into exile for a year.

When he returned to Florence he became the de facto ruler of the city and banned the Abizzi family for ever. He became Europe’s richest banker and a great art patron, supporting Fra Angelico, Donatello, Ghiberti and many others.

He encouraged Filippo Brunelleschi to complete his great dome for Florence’s cathedral and ordered the construction of the Medici Chapel in the Basilica di Santa Croce.

He established the importance of the Medici family, who were to rule Florence for hundreds of years to come.

As he became older, Cosimo became badly affected by gout and he died in 1464 at the age of 75 at Careggi, where he had been born.

He was succeeded by his son Piero, who was to father Lorenzo the Magnificent, one of the most famous and admired of the Medici.

The Florentines awarded Cosimo the title Pater Patriae - Father of the Fatherland - an honour once awarded to Cicero, and they had it carved upon his tomb in the Church of San Lorenzo in the city.

The Villa Medici at Careggi, outside Florence, where Cosimo's life began and ended
The Villa Medici at Careggi, outside Florence,
where Cosimo's life began and ended
Travel tip:

Cosimo was born and also died at the Villa Medici at Careggi in the hills above Florence, which is the oldest of the Medici villas. After his father died, Cosimo had it remodelled by Michelozzo, who designed a walled garden overlooked by the upper loggias of the villa. The property was bought by an Englishman, Francis Sloane, in 1848, who added exotic plants and palms to the gardens. The villa now belongs to Regione Toscane and is in the process of being restored.

Luigi Pampaloni's statue of
Bunelleschi in Piazza del Duomo
Travel tip:

Santa Maria del Fiore, the Cathedral or Duomo of Florence, dominates the city with its enormous dome by Brunelleschi, which Cosimo had encouraged him to design. The largest dome of its time, it was built without scaffolding and given an inner shell to provide a platform for the timbers that support the outer shell. The architect died in 1446 before it was completed, but a statue of Brunelleschi was erected in Piazza del Duomo and he still looks up thoughtfully towards his greatest achievement, the dome that would forever define Florence and remains to this day the largest masonry dome in the world.

Also on this day:

1871: The birth of author and Nobel Prize winner Grazia Deledda

1966: The birth of singer-songwriter Jovanotti

1979: The death on Capri of singer and actress Gracie Fields


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26 September 2020

26 September

Anna Magnani - Oscar-winning film star

Roman one of only three Italians to land best actor award

Anna Magnani, who found fame for her performance in Roberto Rossellini's neorealist classic movie Rome, Open City and went on to become one of only three Italian actors to win an Academy Award, died on this day in Rome in 1973.   She had been suffering from pancreatic cancer and her death at the age of just 65 shocked her fans and close friends.  Rossellini, with whom she had a tempestuous affair before he ditched her for the Swedish actress, Ingrid Bergman, was at her bedside along with her son, Luca.  The American playwright Tennessee Williams, who wrote the part of Serafina in his play The Rose Tattoo specifically with Magnani in mind, was so devastated he could not bring himself to attend her funeral.  Instead he sent 20 dozen roses to signify the bond they developed while working together.  When Williams was in Rome they would meet for cocktails on the roof-top terrace of her home, overlooking the city, always at eight o'clock - "alle venti" in Italy, where times are generally expressed according to the 24-hour clock.  They would sign off letters and telegrams to one another with the words "Ci vediamo alle venti" or "See you at eight."  Read more…

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St Francis Basilica struck by earthquake

Historic art works damaged in double tremor

The historic Basilica of Saint Francis in Assisi suffered serious damage on this day in 1997 when two earthquakes struck in the central Apennines.  The quakes claimed 11 lives in the Assisi area and forced the evacuation of 70 per cent of buildings in the Umbrian town, at least temporarily, because of safety fears.  Many homes were condemned as unsafe for occupation and residents had to be housed in makeshift accommodation.  The event also caused considerable damage to frescoes painted in the 13th century by Giotto and to other important works by Cimabue, Pietro Lorenzetti and Simone Martini.  The first quake, measuring 5.5 on the Richter Scale, struck shortly after 2.30am and was felt as far away as Rome, some 170km (44 miles) to the south.  A series of smaller tremors kept residents on edge through the night.  Yet the biggest quake, measured at 5.7 initially but later revised upwards to 6.1, was still to come. With tragic consequences, it occurred at 11.43am, just as a party of Franciscan monks, journalists, town officials and experts from the Ministry of Culture had decided to venture inside the basilica to inspect the damage.  Read more…

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Enzo Bearzot - World Cup-winning coach

Led Italy to 1982 triumph in Spain

Enzo Bearzot, the pipe-smoking coach who plotted Italy’s victory at the 1982 World Cup in Spain and at the same time changed the way the national team traditionally played, was born on September 26, 1927 in the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region of northwest Italy.  Italy had a reputation for ultra-defensive and sometimes cynical football but in 44 years had won only one major competition, the 1968 European championships, a much lower-key affair than the current four-yearly Euros, which Italy hosted.  But Bearzot was an admirer of the so-called ‘total football’ philosophy advanced by the Dutch coach Rinus Michels, with which the Netherlands national team reached two World Cup finals in the 1970s, albeit without winning.  Italy did not impress at the start of their Spain adventure, recording three fairly lacklustre draws in their group matches, and were expected to be eliminated in the second group phase when they were obliged to play Argentina, the holders, and a Brazil side brimming with brilliant players.  Bearzot and the team attracted scathing criticism in the Italian press.  Read more…


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25 September 2020

25 September

Nino Cerruti - fashion designer

Turn of fate led to a life in haute couture 

The fashion designer Nino Cerruti, who used the family textile business as the platform on which to build one of the most famous names in haute couture, was born on this day in 1930 in Biella in northern Piedmont.  At its peak, the Cerruti became synonymous with Hollywood glitz and the movie industry, both as the favourite label of many top stars and the supplier of clothing ranges for a string of box office hits.  Yet Cerruti might have lived a very different life had fate not intervened. Although Lanificio Fratelli Cerruti - the textile mills set up by his grandfather, Antonio, and his great uncles, Stefano and Quintino - had been the family firm since 1881, Nino wanted to be a journalist.  But when his father, Silvio, who had taken over the running of the business from Antonio, died prematurely, Nino was almost obligated to take over, even though he was only 20 years old.  However, despite the sacrifice of his ambitions and his studies, Cerruti threw himself into developing the business. He saw the potential in repositioning Cerruti as a fashion label and invested in a modernisation plan for the family weaving workshops in Biella as well as acquiring two further factories in Milan.  Read more…

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Zucchero Fornaciari – singer

Sweet success for writer and performer

The singer/songwriter now known simply as Zucchero was born Adelmo Fornaciari on this day in 1955 in Roncocesi, a small village near Reggio Emilia.  In a career lasting more than 30 years, he has sold more than 50 million records and has become popular all over the world.  He is hailed as ‘the father of the Italian blues’, having introduced blues music to Italy, and he has won many awards for his music. He has also been given the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic.  As a young boy, Zucchero lived in the Tuscan seaside resort of Forte dei Marmi, where he sang in the choir and learned to play the organ at his local church.  He became fond of soul music and began to write his own songs and play the tenor saxophone. He started playing in bands while studying veterinary medicine but gave up his studies to follow his dream of becoming a singer.  He took the stage name of Zucchero, the Italian word for sugar, which was a nickname one of his teachers had given him.  Zucchero took part in the San Remo song contest for the second time in 1985 and although his song ‘Donne’ did not win, it went on to become a hit single.  Read more…

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Agostino Bassi – biologist

Scientist who rescued the silk industry in Italy

Bacteriologist Agostino Bassi, who was the first to expound the parasitic theory of infection, was born on this day in 1773 at Mairago near Lodi in Lombardy.  He developed his theory by studying silkworms, which helped him discover that many diseases are caused by microorganisms.  This was 10 years in advance of the work of Louis Pasteur.  In 1807 Bassi began an investigation into the silkworm disease mal de segno, also known as muscardine, which was causing serious economic losses in Italy and France.  After 25 years of research and carrying out various experiments, Bassi was able to demonstrate that the disease was contagious and was caused by a microscopic parasitic fungus.  He concluded that the organism, at the time named botrytis paradoxa, but now known as beauvaria bassiana in his honour, was transmitted among the worms by contact and by infected food.  These findings enabled Bassi to rescue the economically important silk industry in Italy by recommending using disinfectants, separating the rows of feeding caterpillars and keeping farms clean.  Read more…


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24 September 2020

24 September

Marco Tardelli - footballer

Joyous celebration lasting image of Italy's 1982 World Cup win

Marco Tardelli, the footballer whose ecstatic celebration after scoring a goal in the final became one of the abiding images of Italy's victory in the 1982 World Cup, was born on this day in 1954.  The midfield player, who spent much of his club career with one of the best Juventus teams of all time, ran to the Italian bench after his goal against West Germany gave the Azzurri a 2-0 lead, clenching both fists in front of his chest, tears flowing as he shook his head from side to side and repeatedly shouted "Gol! Gol!" in what became known as the Tardelli Scream.  Italy went on to complete a 3-1 win over the Germans in the Santiago Bernabéu Stadium in Madrid with Paolo Rossi and Antonio Altobelli scoring Italy's other goals.  Tardelli, who was part of Italy's squad for three World Cups, had earlier scored against Argentina in the second group phase.  Tardelli later said that he felt he "was born with that scream inside me" and its release was sparked by the sheer joy at realising a dream he had nurtured since he was a child, of scoring in the final of a World Cup.  It meant that when he retired as a player in 1988 he could look back on winning international football's greatest prize as well as every competition in which he participated in club football.  Read more…

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Maria Pia of Bourbon-Parma - exiled princess

Vote for republic forced King's daughter to leave

Princess Maria Pia of Bourbon-Parma was born into the Italian royal family on this day in 1934, the grand-daughter of King Victor Emmanuel III.  Her father, Umberto of Savoy, would himself become King on her grandfather’s abdication but reigned for just 34 days in 1946 before Italy voted to become a republic and the royals were effectively thrown out of the country.  Italians could not forgive Victor Emmanuel III for not doing enough to limit the power of the Fascists and for approving Benito Mussolini’s anti-semitic race laws. The constitution of the new republic decreed that no male member of the House of Savoy could set foot in Italy ever again.  It meant that Princess Maria Pia, the eldest of Umberto’s four children, had to leave Italy immediately along with her brother and two sisters and all the other members of the family, bringing to an abrupt end the life she had known until that moment.  Born in Naples, where the Villa Rosebery, once the property of the British prime minister, the Earl of Rosebery, had been renamed Villa Maria Pia by her doting father, the 11-year-old princess was removed to Cascais in Portugal.  Read more…

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Riccardo Illy - businessman

Grandson of Illy coffee company founder who became firm’s chairman

Riccardo Illy, whose paternal grandfather, Hungarian-born Francesco Illy, founded the world-famous illy coffee company, was born on this day in 1955 in Trieste.  Illy is president and former chairman of Gruppo illy and vice-chairman of illycaffè. Under his leadership, the company has expanded to include Domori chocolate, Dammann Frères teas, Agrimontana - which makes fruit preserves, jams and confectionery -  and Mastrojanni, a winery located in the Montalcino region of southern Tuscany.  It also holds a stake in Grom, a chain of premium ice cream parlours.  The company now has a presence in 140 countries and as well as coffee shops the company also operates ice cream stores in Italy, as well as in New York, Malibu, Los Angeles, Paris, Dubai, Osaka, and Jakarta.  Although the company’s roots are in Trieste, where Francesco opened for business in 1933, Gruppo illy Spa is based in Rome.  Riccardo’s first job was as a skiing instructor at the Piancavallo resort in the Dolomites and a sailing instructor at Monfalcone, near Trieste. He married the food and wine journalist Rossana Bettini, with whom he had a daughter, Daria.   Read more…


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23 September 2020

23 September

Augustus - the first Emperor of Rome

Great nephew of Julius Caesar became powerful leader

Augustus, who history recognises as the first Emperor of Rome, was born Gaius Octavius on this day in 63 BC in Rome.  He was to lead Rome’s transformation from republic to empire during the stormy years following the assassination of his great-uncle and adoptive father Julius Caesar, the dictator of the Roman Republic.  The son of a senator and governor in the Roman Republic, Octavius was related to Caesar through his mother, Atai, who was Caesar’s niece. The young Octavius was raised in part by his grandmother Julia Caesaris - Caesar’s sister - in what is now Velletri, about 40km (25 miles) southeast of Rome.  Octavius was only 17 when he learned of his great uncle’s death, although he had begun to wear the toga - a symbol of manhood - at 16 and fought alongside Caesar in Hispania (Spain), where his bravery prompted Caesar to name him in his will as his heir and successor.  When Caesar died, his allies rallied around Octavius - now known as Octavian - against Mark Antony, his rival for power, and troops loyal to Octavian defeated Antony’s army in northern Italy. However, the future emperor stepped back from seeking to eliminate Mark Antony, preferring that they formed an alliance.  Read more…

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Francesco Barberini – Cardinal

Patron of the arts sympathised with Galileo

Francesco Barberini, a cardinal who as Grand Inquisitor of the Roman Inquisition refused to condemn the scientist Galileo Galilei as a heretic, was born on this day in 1597 in Florence.  As a cardinal working within the Vatican administration, Barberini also became an important patron of literature and the arts.  The son of Carlo Barberini and Costanza Magalotti, Francesco was assisted by Galileo during his studies at the University of Pisa. The scientist was also a family friend. Francesco graduated in canon and civil law at the age of 25 in 1623.  Later that year, his uncle, Maffeo Barberini, who had been recently elected as Pope Urban VIII, made him a cardinal and sent him to be papal legate to Avignon.  He was sent to Paris as a special legate to negotiate with Cardinal Richelieu and then to Spain as a papal legate, but both his missions were unsuccessful.  From 1633 until his death more than 40 years later, Barberini was the Grand Inquisitor of the Roman Inquisition. He was part of the Inquisition tribunal investigating Galileo after the publication of writings supporting the arguments put forward by the German scientist Nicolaus Copernicus that the sun and not the earth was the centre of the universe.  Read more…

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Paolo Rossi - World Cup hero

Goalscorer who bounced back from two-year ban

The footballer Paolo Rossi, whose goals steered Italy to World Cup glory in 1982, was born on this day in 1956 in Prato in Tuscany.  At the peak of his career in club football, in which his best years were with Juventus and Vicenza, Rossi scored almost 100 Serie A and Serie B goals in seven seasons.  Yet for many his exploits with the Italian national team define his career. In 48 appearances he scored 20 goals, including six in the 1982 finals in Spain, when he won the Golden Boot as the tournament’s top scorer and the Golden Ball as the best player.  In 1982 he also won the Ballon D’Or, the prestigious award given to the player of the season across all the European leagues, following in the footsteps of Omar Sivori and Gianni Rivera to become the third Italian player to win the vote, in which company he has since been joined by Roberto Baggio and Fabio Cannavaro.  His success story is all the more remarkable for the fact that he scaled so many personal peaks after being banned from football for two years in a match-fixing scandal, although he denied the accusations levelled at him.  The 1982 World Cup saved his career and his reputation.  Read more…

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Mussolini's last stand

Deposed dictator proclaims Republic of Salò 

In what would prove the final chapter of his political career - and his life - Benito Mussolini proclaimed the creation of the Italian Social Republic on this day in 1943.  The establishment of this new state with the Fascist dictator as its leader was announced just 11 days after German special forces freed Mussolini from house arrest in the Apennine mountains.  Although Mussolini was said to be in failing health and had hoped to slip quietly into the shadows after his escape, Hitler's compassion for his Italian ally - whose rescue had been on the direct orders of the Fuhrer - did not extend to giving him an easy route into retirement.  Faced with an Allied advance along the Italian peninsula that was gathering momentum, he put Mussolini in charge of the area of northern and central Italy of which the German army had taken control following the Grand Fascist Council's overthrow of the dictator.  Although the area was renamed the Italian Social Republic - also known as the Republic of Salò after the town on the shores of Lake Garda where Mussolini's new government was headquartered - it was essentially a puppet German state.   Read more…


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22 September 2020

22 September

NEW
- Leonardo Messina - Mafia ‘pentito’

Sicilian who linked ex-premier with organised crime

The Mafia pentito or turncoat Leonardo ‘Narduzzo’ Messina, the first to accuse former prime minister Giulio Andreotti of links with organised crime, was born on this day in 1955 in San Cataldo, a town in the centre of the island of Sicily.  Messina, who decided to reveal what he knew to the authorities soon after the murder of the anti-Mafia magistrate Giovanni Falcone, named Andreotti as part of extensive testimony that led to the arrest of more than 200 mafiosi in 1992.  A so-called ‘man of honour’ for more than a decade, Messina, who had been arrested for his part in a drugs racket, became a pentito - literally a ‘repentant’ - after Falcone was killed by a massive bomb placed under the highway linking the city of Palermo with its airport.  Falcone’s wife and three police escorts died with him when the bomb was detonated, and it was the emotional appeal for information by the widow of one of the police officers that persuaded Messina he no longer wished to be associated with the Cosa Nostra.  Messina provided a goldmine of information to Falcone’s friend and fellow magistrate Paolo Borsellino, who himself would be killed by a car bomb in July of that year.  Read more…

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Carlo Ubbiali - motorcycle world champion

Racer from Bergamo won nine GP titles

Carlo Ubbiali, who preceded Giacomo Agostini and Valentino Rossi as Italy’s first great motorcycling world champion, was born on this day in 1929 in Bergamo.  Between 1951 and 1960, he won nine Grand Prix titles, in the 250cc and 125cc categories, setting a record for the most world championships that was equalled by Britain’s Mike Hailwood in 1967 but not surpassed until Agostini won the 10th of his 15 world titles in 1971.  At 88, Ubbiali is the second oldest surviving Grand Prix champion after Britain’s Cecil Sandford, who was his teammate in the 1950s. Ubbiali’s compatriot Agostini, who came from nearby Lovere, in Bergamo province, is 75.  Ubbiali won a total of 39 Grand Prix races, all bar two of them for the MV Agusta team.  Three times – in 1956, 1959 and 1960 – he was world champion in 125cc and 250cc classes, and on no fewer than five occasions, including both categories in 1956, he won the title with the maximum number of points possible under the scoring system.  He was also a five-times winner at the prestigious Isle of Man TT festival and six-times Italian champion.  Read more…

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Andrea Bocelli - tenor

Singer has perfect voice for either opera or pop

Tenor Andrea Bocelli was born on this day in 1958 in La Sterza, a hamlet or frazione of Lajatico in Tuscany.  Bocelli, who is blind, had poor eyesight from birth and was diagnosed with congenital glaucoma, but he lost his sight completely at the age of 12 after an accident while playing football.  He always loved music and started to learn the piano at the age of six. But after hearing a recording by opera singer Franco Corelli, he set his heart on becoming a tenor.  Bocelli won his first singing competition in Viareggio with ‘O sole mio’ at the age of 14.  He has since sold 150 million records worldwide and performed for four US presidents, three Popes and the British Royal family. His voice has been acclaimed by critics as perfect for either opera or pop.  Bocelli originally studied law and spent one year working as a lawyer, but in 1992 the great Italian tenor Luciano Pavarotti heard a recording of his unique voice performing Italian rock and pop artist Zucchero’s song Miserere and helped his career take off.  He sang Miserere with Zucchero during a European tour and performed it at the San Remo song festival, where he won the newcomer’s section.  Read more…

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Roberto Saviano - writer and journalist

Author of ‘Gomorrah’ who lives under police protection

The author and journalist Roberto Saviano, whose 2006 book Gomorrah exposed the inner workings of the Camorra organised crime syndicate in his home city of Naples, was born on this day in 1979.  Gomorrah was an international bestseller that was turned into a film and inspired a TV series, bringing Saviano fame and wealth.  However, within six months of the book’s publication, Saviano had received so many threats to his life from within the Camorra that the decision was taken on the advice of former prime minister Giuliano Amato to place him under police protection.  Some 14 years later, he remains under 24-hour police guard.  He travels only in one of two bullet-proof cars, lives either in police barracks or obscure hotels and is encouraged never to remain in the same place for more than a few days. His protection team includes seven bodyguards.  Saviano has written three more books including a collection of his essays and Zero, Zero, Zero - an exposé of the cocaine trade. He has also written The Piranhas, a novel set in Naples with the Camorra at the centre of the story.  Yet Saviano has complained that, although he has so far avoided being killed, he has no real life.  Read more…


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Leonardo Messina - Mafia ‘pentito’

Sicilian who linked ex-premier with organised crime

Leonardo Messina helped police catch 200 Mafia suspects
Leonardo Messina helped
police catch 200 Mafia suspects
The Mafia pentito or turncoat Leonardo ‘Narduzzo’ Messina, the first to accuse former prime minister Giulio Andreotti of links with organised crime, was born on this day in 1955 in San Cataldo, a town in the centre of the island of Sicily.

Messina, who decided to reveal what he knew to the authorities soon after the murder of the anti-Mafia magistrate Giovanni Falcone, named Andreotti as part of extensive testimony that led to the arrest of more than 200 mafiosi in 1992.

A so-called ‘man of honour’ for more than a decade, Messina, who had been arrested for his part in a drugs racket, became a pentito - literally a ‘repentant’ - after Falcone was killed by a massive bomb placed under the highway linking the city of Palermo with its airport.  Falcone’s wife and three police escorts died with him when the bomb was detonated, and it was the emotional appeal for information by the widow of one of the police officers that persuaded Messina he no longer wished to be associated with the Cosa Nostra.

Messina provided a goldmine of information to Falcone’s friend and fellow magistrate Paolo Borsellino, who himself would be killed by a car bomb in July of that year.

He gave Borsellino a wealth of detail concerning the workings of the Mafia in central and southern Sicily and the existence of a breakaway criminal organisation that emerged after the Second Mafia War of the 1980s. Even though Borsellino did not live to see the consequences of Messina’s evidence, his disclosures led to the arrest of 203 mafiosi.

Ex-premier Giulio Andreotti was named in Messina's testimony
Ex-premier Giulio Andreotti
was named in Messina's testimony
Messina also provided details of how Salvatore ‘Totò’ Riina, the Corleonesi boss who became the head of the Cosa Nostra across the whole island, presided over a reign of terror in which the Corleone clan turned brother against brother and systematically picked off major figures in rival gangs in order to exert control.

He also revealed the Mafia’s grip on construction and public-sector contracts in Sicily, including the identity of Riina’s fixer, Angelo Siino, a businessman who arranged public-sector contracts, collected bribes, negotiated with entrepreneurs and politicians and, where necessary, made threats and even ordered assassinations.  Messina’s testimony persuaded investigators to look at the role of Masonic Lodges in bringing Mafia businesses into contact with potential clients.

By far his biggest revelations, however, concerned the corrupt links between the Mafia and the government in Rome, especially the role of Salvatore Lima, the Christian Democrat former Mayor of Palermo and Deputy for Sicily who had a direct line to premier Andreotti, who rallied support for the Christian Democrats on the island in return for favours from Rome.

Messina was able to explain that this mutually beneficial relationship broke down over the Maxi Trial, the extraordinary six-year process, resulting largely from the testimony of another pentito, Tommasso Buscetta, that saw 350 mafiosi convicted, many of whom were handed very long jail sentences.  The Cosa Nostra counted on Corrado Carnevale, a supreme court judge with a reputation for overturning Mafia convictions on appeal, to quash or reduce many of the sentences. When this did not happen, mainly due to the intervention of Falcone in preventing Carnevale sitting for the appeal, the Mob invoked a terrible retribution, killing Lima, Falcone and his colleague Borsellino in a matter of months.

Andreotti himself eventually went on trial for his Mafia associations and for allegedly being complicit in the murder of a journalist. He was acquitted of both but in the first instance only by virtue of the statute of limitations after collusion with the Mafia was proved but found to have happened too long ago for any sentence to be enforced.

Now aged 65, in common with other pentiti, Messina lived under police protection until choosing to give up his anonymity in 2019. He testified in another, much smaller, Mafia trial in January, 2020.

The Corso Vittorio Emanuele and the church of San Rosario in the centre of San Cataldo
The Corso Vittorio Emanuele and the church of
San Rosario in the centre of San Cataldo
Travel tip:

San Cataldo is a hill town in central Sicily that dates back to the 17th century notable for its fine churches, including the Chiesa Madre, designed by Giovanni Battista Vaccarini, and the Chiesa del Rosario, which overlooks the tree-lined Corso Vittorio Emanuele. Outside the town, which is situated roughly equidistant between the major cities of Palermo and Catania, there is an important Bronze Age archeological site at Vassallaggi.

Corleone is surrounded by rugged landscape in the heart of Sicily
Corleone is surrounded by rugged landscape
in the heart of Sicily
Travel tip:

The Mafia stronghold of Corleone, a rugged town of around 12,000 inhabitants in the province of Palermo, was once dominated by Arabs before falling into the hands of the Normans.  Its strategic position overlooking the main routes between Palermo and Agrigento meant it was on the frontline in many wars.  At one time the town had two castles and was encircled by a defensive wall.  Its association with the Mafia began in the 1960s following the outbreak of violence that followed the killing of Michele Navarra. The link was solidified when Mario Puzo decided his main character in The Godfather would be known as Vito Corleone after a United States immigration official processing the arrival of Vito Andolini mistook his place of origin for his surname.

Also on this day:

1929: The birth of motorcycling world champion Carlo Ubbiali 

1958: The birth of superstar tenor Andrea Bocelli

1979: The birth of controversial writer Roberto Saviano


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