31 October 2020

31 October

Bud Spencer – swimmer-turned-actor

Competed at two Olympics before turning to screen career

The actor known as Bud Spencer was born Carlo Pedersoli on this day in 1929 in Naples.  He was best known for the series of so-called spaghetti westerns and comedies he made with another Italian-born actor, Terence Hill.  Hill was from Venice and his real name was Mario Girotti.  They began their partnership in 1967 in a spaghetti western directed by Giuseppe Colizzi called God Forgives…I Don’t! and were asked to change their names so that they would sound more American.  Pedersoli came up with Bud Spencer because his movie idol was Spencer Tracy and his favourite American beer was Budweiser.   The two would go on to make 18 movies together, with westerns such as Ace High (1968) and They Call Me Trinity (1970) winning them box office success.  As Carlo Pedersoli, he had already achieved a measure of fame as a swimmer, the first Italian to swim the 100m freestyle in less than one minute.  He represented Italy at the Olympics in Helsinki in 1952 and Melbourne four years later, on each occasion reaching the semi-final in the 100m freestyle.  He also played professional water polo, winning an Italian championship with SS Lazio and a gold medal at the 1955 Mediterranean Games in Barcelona.  Read more…


Galileo Ferraris - electrical engineer

Pioneer of alternating current (AC) systems

The physicist and electrical engineer Galileo Ferraris, who was one of the pioneers of the alternating current (AC) system for transmitting electricity and invented the first alternators and induction motors, was born on this day in 1847 in Piedmont.  The AC system was a vital element in the development of electricity as a readily-available source of power in that it made it possible to transport electricity economically and efficiently over long distances.  Ferraris did not benefit financially from his invention, which is still the basis of induction motors in use today. Another scientist, the Serbian-born Nikola Tesla, patented the device after moving to the United States to work for the Edison Corporation.  Tesla had been working simultaneously on creating an induction motor but there is evidence that Ferraris probably developed his first and as such is regarded by many as the unsung hero in his field.  He saw himself as a scientist rather than an entrepreneur and, although there is no suggestion that his ideas were stolen, openly invited visitors to come in and see his lab.  Unlike Tesla, he never intended to start a company to manufacture the motor and even had doubts whether it would work.  Read more…


Eduardo De Filippo - Neapolitan dramatist

Playwright captured essence of city's spirit

One of Italy’s greatest dramatists, Eduardo De Filippo, died on this day in 1984 in Rome at the age of 84.  An actor and film director as well as a playwright, De Filippo – often referred to simply as Eduardo – is most remembered as the author of a number of classic dramas set in his native Naples in the 1940s that continue to be performed today.  Arguably the most famous of these was Filomena marturano, upon which was based the hit movie Marriage, Italian Style, which starred Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni under the direction of Vittorio de Sica.  De Filippo’s other memorable works included Napoli Milionaria, Le voci di dentro and Sabato, domenica e lunedi.  All of these plays showcased De Filippo’s ability to capture the essence of life in Naples in his time, particularly in the working class neighbourhoods that he felt were the beating heart of the city.  Rich in Neapolitan dialect, they were often bittersweet comedies of family life. They were social commentaries in which typical themes were the erosion of morals in times of desperation, the struggle of the downtrodden to retain their dignity and the preservation of family values even in the most poverty-stricken households.  Read more…

30 October 2020

30 October

Antonino Votto – conductor

Outstanding operatic conductor made recordings with Callas

Operatic conductor Antonino Votto was born on this day in 1896 in Piacenza in Emilia-Romagna.  He became famous in the 1950s because he conducted the orchestra for the acclaimed recordings made by soprano Maria Callas for EMI.  Votto was also considered one of the leading operatic conductors of his time on account of his performances at La Scala in Milan, where he worked regularly for nearly 20 years.  After Votto had attended the Naples conservatory for his music studies he went to work at La Scala, where he became an assistant conductor to Arturo Toscanini.  He made his official debut there in 1923, leading a performance of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut.  Votto went on to build a reputation as one of the most outstanding conductors of Italian opera, appearing at many other operatic venues in Italy and abroad.  In 1941 he began teaching at the Giuseppe Verdi conservatory in Milan as the war limited operatic activity in Italy and in most parts of Europe.  One of his students was the present day Italian orchestra conductor, Riccardo Muti.  Recordings of Votto conducting opera live in the theatre were a great success. He conducted Bellini’s Norma in 1955 with Callas at La Scala.  Read more…


Charles Atlas - bodybuilder

Poor immigrant from Calabria who transformed his physique

The bodybuilder Charles Atlas was born Angelo Siciliano on this day in 1893 in the Calabrian town of Acri.  Set 720m above sea level straddling two hills in the province of Cosenza, on the edge of what is now the mountainous Sila National Park, Acri was a poor town and while Angelo was growing up his father, Santos, began thinking about joining the growing number of southern Italians who had gone to forge a new life in America. They made the move when Angelo was 11.  The journey by sea from Naples took around two weeks. After registering their arrival at Ellis Island, the immigrant inspection station in New York Bay, the family settled in Brooklyn.  Most accounts of Angelo’s life suggest that his father, a farmer, returned to Italy within a short time but his mother remained, taking work as a seamstress and endeavouring to make a better life for her children.  Angelo’s path to becoming Charles Atlas and enjoying worldwide fame began with a classic story of bullying. Like many Italian children of his time, having been born in part of the country where living conditions were difficult and good food was in short supply, he was sickly and scrawny, an easy target to be picked on. Read more…


Poggio Bracciolini – scholar and humanist

Calligrapher who could read Latin changed the course of history

Gian Francesco Poggio Bracciolini, who rediscovered many forgotten Latin manuscripts including the only surviving work by the Roman poet and philosopher, Lucretius, died on this day in 1459 in Florence.  For his services to literature he was commemorated after his death with a statue by Donatello and a portrait by Antonio del Pollaiuolo.  Bracciolini was born in 1380 at Terranuova near Arezzo in Tuscany. In 1862 his home village was renamed Terranuova Bracciolini in his honour.  He studied Latin as a young boy under a friend of the poet, Petrarch, and his linguistic ability and talent for copying manuscripts neatly was soon noted by scholars in Florence.  He later studied notarial law and was received into the notaries guild in Florence at the age of 21.  After becoming secretary to the Bishop of Bari, Bracciolini was invited to join the Chancery of Apostolic Briefs in the Roman Curia of Pope Boniface IX.  He was to spend the next 50 years serving seven popes, first as a writer of official documents and then working his way up to becoming a papal secretary.  Read more…


29 October 2020

29 October

Franco Corelli - 'Prince of Tenors'

Self-taught singer who wowed New York

The great Italian tenor Franco Corelli died in Milan on this day in 2003 aged 82 after suffering heart problems.  Corelli was renowned for the power and vibrancy of his voice, described by some as generating a 'white heat' on the stage when he performed.  In a career spanning more than a quarter of a century he mastered all the major tenor roles and appeared at the greatest opera theatres in the world.  He was a fixture at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, where he performed 19 roles over 15 seasons in some 365 appearances.  As well as possessing outstanding vocal range, he used his natural assets – he stood 6ft 1ins tall and weighed 200lbs – to develop a charismatic stage presence.  Blessed with movie star looks, he had the appearance of an opera-singing Errol Flynn. He was nicknamed the 'Prince of Tenors'.  Corelli was born in 1921 in Ancona on Italy’s Adriatic coast, in a house just yards from the shore.  His father was a shipbuilder for the Italian navy and as he neared adulthood it seemed that Corelli’s destiny was to pursue the same profession. He obtained a place at Bologna University to study naval engineering.  It was while he was in Bologna that a friend dared him to enter a singing competition. Read more…


King appoints Mussolini Prime Minister

Victor Emmanuel turned to Fascist leader after fearing civil war

Victor Emmanuel III, the king of Italy, invited Benito Mussolini to become Prime Minister on this day in 1922, ushering in the era of Fascist rule in Italy.  History has largely perceived the decision as a moment of weakness on the part of the king, a man of small physical stature who had never been particularly comfortable in his role.  Yet at the time, with violent clashes between socialist supporters and Mussolini’s Blackshirts occurring almost daily with both sides bent on revolution, Victor Emmanuel feared that Italy was on the brink of civil war.  The First World War had been financially crippling for Italy, even though they had emerged with a victory of sorts in that the Austro-Hungarians were finally pushed out of northern Italy.  In the poverty that followed, the country shifted sharply to the left and in the 1919 general election the Italian Socialist Party (PSI) gained 32 per cent of the vote, amounting to 156 seats in the Chamber of Deputies, the largest representation in their history.  But for all the support for the PSI, particularly among factory workers in urban areas, there were just as many Italians who felt uncomfortable about their advance, and not only those who belonged to the moneyed elite.  Read more…


Fabiola Gianotti - particle physicist

First woman to be director-general of CERN

The particle physicist Fabiola Gianotti, who in 2016 became the first woman to be made director-general in the 64-year history of the European Organisation for Nuclear Research, was born on this day in 1960 in Rome. She led one of the two teams of physicists working for the organisation - generally known as CERN after its title in French - whose experiments in 2012 resulted in the discovery of the Higgs boson, the particle that explains why some other elementary particles have mass.  The discovery was regarded as so significant in the advancement of scientific knowledge that it was nicknamed the “God particle.”  As the project leader and spokesperson of the ATLAS project at CERN, which involved a collaboration of around 3,000 physicists from 38 countries, Dr. Gianotti announced the discovery of the particle.  Their work involved the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the world's largest and most powerful particle collider and the largest machine of any kind on the planet, which lies in a tunnel 27km (17 miles) in circumference, 175 metres (574 ft) beneath the France–Switzerland border near Geneva.  Read more…


Carlo Emanuele Ruspoli – Duke of Morignano

Noble architect is now a prolific writer

Carlo Emanuele Maria Ruspoli was born on this day in 1949 in Rome.  He became the third Duke of Morignano in 2003, succeeding his father, Prince Galeazzo Ruspoli. Carlo had previously graduated as a Doctor of Architecture from the Sapienza University of Rome and he now works as a researcher and writer.  He is a prolific author of works on history and anthropology as well as historical novels, drawing on his own family heritage and his fascination with the East.  The House of Ruspoli is one of the great aristocratic families of Rome and all members hold the title of Prince of the Holy Roman Empire.  The family’s origins can be traced back to their ancestor, Marius Scotus, in the eighth century, the Ruspoli family of Florence in the 13th century, and the Marescotti family of Bologna.  A branch of the Ruspoli family moved to Rome in the 17th century. Their last descendant, Vittoria Ruspoli, Marchioness of Cerveteri, married Sforza Marescotti, Count of Vignanello, a descendant of the Farnese family, but to make sure the House of Ruspoli continued, one of Vittoria’s sons, Francesco Maria Marescotti Ruspoli, took on the name and coat of arms of the House of Ruspoli.  Read more…


28 October 2020

28 October

- Battle of the Milvian Bridge in Rome

How Christianity became official religion of the Roman Empire

Roman emperor Constantine defeated his rival Maxentius in a battle at the Milvian Bridge (Ponte Milvio), a vital point for crossing the River Tiber, on this day in 312 in Rome. The battle was a crucial moment in a civil war that ended with Constantine I as sole ruler of the Roman Empire and Christianity established as the empire’s official religion. The Roman Empire was being torn apart by different factions at war with each other at the beginning of the fourth century.  Although Constantine - known also as Constantine the Great - was declared Emperor at York in 306, his brother in law and rival, Maxentius, later claimed the imperial title in Rome.  In 312, Constantine led a force to march on Rome. Troops fighting for Maxentius lay in wait for them next to the River Tiber at Pons Milvius (Ponte Milvio, which had been partially dismantled to stop the attacking force crossing the river).  It is said that Constantine had a dream before the battle and saw the sun, the object of his own worship, overlain by the figure of a cross. Beneath the cross was the message in hoc signo vinces (in this sign prevail).  Read more…


Eros Ramazzotti - singer-songwriter

Best-selling Italian star has enduring appeal

The best-selling Italian singer and songwriter Eros Ramazzotti was born on this day in 1963 in Rome.  Ramazzotti, whose style has developed from pure pop to a contemporary soft rock genre with elements of classical crossover, has sold around 65 million records in a career spanning almost 35 years, putting him among the top 12 Italian recording artists of all time.  He is popular throughout Europe and in Spanish-speaking countries in South America, so much so that he records most of his albums in Spanish as well as Italian.  Among his 13 studio albums, three compilations and six live albums, 12 have reached No 1 in the Italian charts and 10 in the Swiss charts.  In addition, Ramazzotti has had No 1s in Austria, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany and Sweden.  Twice - with 9 in 2003 and e2 in 2007 – he sold more records in that year in Italy than any other artist.  Other major selling albums have been In ogni senso, Tutte storie, Dove c'è musica, Stilelibero and Calma apparente.  His appeal is said to stem from his unique voice - a vibrant, slightly nasal tenor – his energetic delivery of catchy pop numbers and the passion he brings to often semi-autobiographical ballads.  Read more…


Sergio Tòfano – actor and illustrator

The many talents of stage and screen star

Comic actor, director, writer and illustrator Sergio Tòfano died on this day in 1973 in Rome.  He is remembered as an intelligent and versatile theatre and film actor and also as the creator of the much-loved cartoon character Signor Bonaventura, who entertained Italians for more than 40 years.  Tòfano was born in Rome in 1886, the son of a magistrate, and studied at the University of Rome and the Academy of Santa Cecilia. He made his first appearance on stage in 1909.  He soon specialised as a comic actor and worked with a string of famous directors including Luigi Almirante and Vittorio de Sica.  He became famous after his performance as Professor Toti in Luigi Pirandello’s comic play, Pensaci, Giacomino!   Also a talented artist and writer, Tòfano invented his cartoon character Signor Bonaventura for the children’s magazine, Il Corriere dei Piccoli, signing himself as Sto.  Signor Bonaventura made his first appearance in 1917. The character wore a red frock coat and a hat and his fans interpret him as showing how good people, despite making mistakes, can avoid the bad outcome they seem fated to experience, even in complicated situations.  Read more…


Stefano Landi – composer

Musician whose works influenced development of opera

Stefano Landi, an influential early composer of opera, died on this day in 1639 in Rome.  He wrote his most famous opera, Sant’Alessio, in 1632, which was the earliest to be about a historical subject, describing the life of the fourth-century monastic, Saint Alexis.  It was also notable for Landi interspersing comic scenes drawn from the contemporary life of Rome in the 17th century.  Born in Rome, Landi had joined the Collegio Germanico as a boy soprano in 1595.  He took minor orders in 1599 and began studying at the Seminario Romano in 1602. He is mentioned in the Seminary’s records as being an organist and singer in 1611.  By 1618 he had moved to northern Italy and he published a book of five-voice madrigals in Venice. He wrote his first opera while in Padua, La morte d’Orfeo, which was probably for part of the festivities for a wedding.  In 1620 he returned to Rome, where his patrons included the Borghese family, Cardinal Maurizio of Savoy, and the Barberini family, who were to be his major employers throughout the late 1620s and 1630s.  It was for the Barberini family that he wrote the work for which he is most famous, Sant’Alessio. It was used to open the Teatro delle Quattro Fontane in 1632.  Read more…


Battle of the Milvian Bridge in Rome

How Christianity became official religion of the Roman Empire

A 17th-century Flemish painting in the style of Italian artist Giulio Romano imagines a battle scene
A 17th-century Flemish painting in the style of Italian
artist Giulio Romano imagines a battle scene
Roman emperor Constantine defeated his rival Maxentius in a battle at the Milvian Bridge (Ponte Milvio), a vital point for crossing the River Tiber, on this day in 312 in Rome.

The battle was a crucial moment in a civil war that ended with Constantine I as sole ruler of the Roman Empire and Christianity established as the empire’s official religion.

The Roman Empire was being torn apart by different factions at war with each other at the beginning of the fourth century.

Although Constantine - known also as Constantine the Great - was declared Emperor at York in 306, his brother in law and rival, Maxentius, later claimed the imperial title in Rome.

In 312, Constantine led a force to march on Rome. Troops fighting for Maxentius lay in wait for them next to the River Tiber at Pons Milvius (Ponte Milvio, which had been partially dismantled to stop the attacking force crossing the river).

It is said that Constantine had a dream before the battle and saw the sun, the object of his own worship, overlain by the figure of a cross. Beneath the cross was the message in hoc signo vinces (in this sign prevail).

A bust of Constantine I - originally from a statue - in Rome's Capitoline Museum
A bust of Constantine I - originally from
a statue - in Rome's Capitoline Museum
The next morning Constantine ordered his men to paint crosses on their shields and then they marched into war as Christian soldiers.

Constantine’s victory owed a lot to his skill as a general. He realised Maxentius had placed his troops too near the river and hurled his cavalry against them, breaking their ranks and leaving them no room to regroup as the rear was too close to the Tiber.

Then Constantine ordered his infantry to push forward, leaving the infantry of Maxentius no room to manoeuvre.

The stone bridge had been reduced in width to keep Constantine and his men back and Maxentius and his troops had crossed the river using an improvised pontoon construction.

But the decision taken by Maxentius to retreat using the temporary pontoon proved fatal and he drowned in the Tiber along with some of his men. According to contemporary sources his body was later fished out of the Tiber and decapitated.

Constantine took Rome the next day and made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. The Arch of Constantine in Rome was erected in celebration of his victory. He later relocated the imperial capital to Byzantium, which he renamed Constantinople in honour of himself.

The Ponte Milvio in Rome as it is today
The Ponte Milvio in Rome as it is today
Travel tip:

Ponte Milvio was later restored and is still a strategically important bridge over the Tiber in northern Rome. It became famous again in 2006 because of a book and a film. A tradition of locking padlocks, (lucchetti dell’amore), to bridges, railings and lamp posts to demonstrate never-ending love started after the publication of Ho voglio di te (I want you) by Federico Moccia, and the release of the film of the same name, starring Riccardo Scamarcio and Laura Chiatti. In the story, young lovers tie a chain and padlock around a lamppost at the side of Ponte Milvio in Rome, inscribe their names on it, lock it and then throw the key into the River Tiber, suggesting they will be together forever. This has since been copied throughout Italy and hundreds of love locks have had to be removed from Ponte Milvio and the Accademia and Rialto bridges in Venice. The lamppost featured in the novel began to collapse under the weight of all the padlocks in 2007 and afterwards all parts of Ponte Milvio were used by couples. Rome’s city council has introduced a 50 euro fine for anyone attaching a love lock. The bridge also became a notorious place for AS Roma football fans to gather to attack fans of the opposing team on route to the Stadio Olimpico on match days.

The Arch of Constantine can be found close to the Colosseum in the centre of Rome
The Arch of Constantine can be found close to
the Colosseum in the centre of Rome
Travel tip:

The Arch of Constantine was commissioned by the Roman Senate to commemorate Constantine’s victory over Maxentius and was officially dedicated to the Emperor in 315. It is located in Via di San Gregorio, between the Colosseum and the Palatine Hill, and spans the route taken by victorious military leaders entering the city. It is the largest triumphal arch in Rome at 21 meters high, 25.9 meters wide and 7.4 metres deep. The arch served as the finish line for the marathon event at the 1960 Olympics in Rome.

Also on this day:

1639: The death of composer Stefano Landi

1963: The birth of singer-songwriter Eros Ramazzotti

1973: The death of actor and illustrator Sergio Tòfano


27 October 2020

27 October

Roberto Benigni - Oscar winner

How Life is Beautiful made Tuscan actor and director famous

Roberto Benigni, whose performance in the 1997 film Life is Beautiful won him an Oscar for Best Actor, was born on this day in 1952 in rural Tuscany, around 20km south of Arezzo.  The Academy Award, for which he beat off strong competition from Nick Nolte (Affliction) and Tom Hanks (Saving Private Ryan) among others, put him in the company of Anna Magnani (1955) and Sophia Loren (1961) as one of just three Italian winners of best actor or actress.  Benigni, who also directed Life is Beautiful, had won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film earlier in the awards ceremony, which delighted him so much he famously clambered on to the back of the seats of audience members in the row in front of his to lead the applause before stepping up to the stage to receive the award from Sophia Loren.  When Helen Hunt called out his name for Best Actor - the first since Loren to win the most coveted prize with a foreign language film - he began his acceptance speech by apologizing for having "used up all my English", before proceeding to deliver another joyously emotional expression of gratitude.  Read more…


Enrico Mattei – industrialist and entrepreneur

Death in plane crash remains an unsolved mystery

Enrico Mattei, one of the most important figures in Italy’s post-War economic rebirth, was killed on this day in 1962 in a plane crash near the village of Bascapè in Lombardy.  Accompanied by a Time-Life journalist, William McHale, Mattei was returning to Milan from Catania in Sicily in a French-built four-seater Morane-Saulnier jet being flown by Irnerio Bertuzzi, a respected pilot who had flown many daring missions during the Second World War.  They were on their descent towards Milan Linate when the crash happened, less than 17km (10.5 miles) from the airport.  Mattei, a politically powerful industrialist, best known for turning round Italy’s seemingly unviable oil industry, was not short of enemies and after his death there was considerable speculation that it did not happen by accident.  A government-led investigation, overseen by the then Italian Defence Minister Giulio Andreotti, concluded that a storm was to blame for the crash, even though the pilot was highly experienced and very unlikely to have allowed bad weather to bring him down.  Questions about the initial inquiry’s findings led to a second inquiry being opened in 1966 but shelved without reaching a conclusion.  Read more…


Simone Moro - mountaineer

Bergamo climber with unique record

The mountaineer Simone Moro, who is the only climber whose list of achievements includes the first winter ascent of four of the so-called eight-thousanders, was born on this day in 1967 in the city of Bergamo in Lombardy.  The eight-thousanders are the 14 peaks on Earth that rise to more than 8,000m (26,247ft) above sea level. All are located in the Himalayan and Karakoram mountain ranges in Asia.  A veteran of 15 winter expeditions, he completed the winter ascent of Shisha Pangma (8,027m) in 2005, Makalu (8,485m) in 2009, Gasherbrum II (8,035m) in 2011 and Nanga Parbat (8,126m) in 2016.  He has scaled Everest (8,848m) four times, including the first solo south-north traverse in 2006. In total he has completed more than 50 expeditions, conquering peaks in Tien Shan, Pamir, Andes, Patagonia and Antarctica as well as the Himalayas and Karakoram.  Moro is also renowned for his courage and bravery. During his 2001 attempt on the Everest-Lhotse traverse, he abandoned his ascent at 8,000m and battled through the most dangerous conditions in darkness to save the life of British climber Tom Moores.  Read more…


26 October 2020

26 October

Primo Carnera - boxer

Heavyweight’s career dogged by ‘fix’ rumours

The boxer Primo Carnera, who was world heavyweight champion between 1933 and 1934, was born on this day in 1906 in a village in Friuli-Venezia Giulia.  After launching his professional career in Paris in 1928, Carnera moved to the United States in 1930 and spent many years there, returning from time to time to Italy, where he had a house built for himself and his family, but not permanently until he was in declining health and decided he would like to spend his final years in his home country.  He won 89 of his 103 fights, 72 by a knockout, although there were suspicions that many of his fights were fixed by the New York mobsters who made up his management team, even including the victory over the American Jack Sharkey that earned him the world title.  Physically, he was a freak.  Said to have weighed 22lbs at birth he had grown to the size of an adult man by the time he was eight. By adulthood, he was a veritable giant, by Italian standards, standing 6ft 6ins tall when the average Italian man was 5ft 5ins.  His fighting weight was as high at times as 275lb (125kg).  He was born into a peasant family in the village of Sequals, around 45km (28 miles) west of Udine.  Read more…


Domenico Scarlatti - composer

Neapolitan famous for his 555 keyboard sonatas

The composer Giuseppe Domenico Scarlatti, known as Domenico Scarlatti, was born in Naples on this day in 1685.  Born in the same year as Johann Sebastian Bach and George Frideric Handel, Scarlatti was the sixth of 10 children fathered by the composer Alessandro Scarlatti.  Like his father, Domenico composed in a variety of musical styles, making the transition in his lifetime from Baroque to traditional Classical. Today, he is known mainly for his 555 keyboard sonatas, which expanded the musical possibilities of the harpsichord.  Although he began his career in Naples, Scarlatti spent a large part of his life in the service of the Portuguese and Spanish royal families. In fact, he died in Madrid in 1757.  Early in 1701, at the age of just 15, Scarlatti was appointed as composer and organist at the royal chapel in Naples. At 17, his first operas, L’Ottavia restituita al trono and Il giustino, were produced there.  In 1705 his father sent him to Venice, reputedly to study with the composer Francesco Gasparini, although nothing is known with certainty about his life there. It is thought he may have met a young Irishman, Thomas Roseingrave, who later described Scarlatti’s advances in harpsichord music to the English musicologist Charles Burney.  Read more…


Giuditta Pasta – soprano

The first singer to perform the roles of Anna Bolena and Norma

Singer Giuditta Pasta, whose voice was so beautiful Gaetano Donizetti wrote the role of Anna Bolena especially for her, was born on this day in 1797 in Saronno in Lombardy.  Her mezzo-soprano voice was much written about by 19th century opera reviewers and in modern times her performance style has been compared with that of Maria Callas.  Indeed, Vincenzo Bellini’s opera Norma, which Callas would turn into her signature role, was actually written for Pasta in 1831.  Pasta was born Giuditta Negri, the daughter of a Jewish soldier. She studied singing in Milan and made her operatic debut there in 1816.  Later that year she performed at the Theatre Italien in Paris as Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni, but it was not until 1821 that her talent was fully recognised when she appeared in Paris as Desdemona in Gioachino Rossini’s Otello.  Giuditta married another singer, Giuseppe Pasta, in 1816 and as well as being her regular leading man he handled her business affairs and identified likely roles and composers who might wish to work with her.  Read more…


Trieste becomes part of Italy

Fascinating city retains influences from past rulers

The beautiful seaport of Trieste officially became part of the Italian Republic on this day in 1954.  Trieste is now the capital of the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region, one of the most prosperous areas of Italy.  The city lies towards the end of a narrow strip of land situated between the Adriatic Sea and Slovenia and it is also just 30 kilometres north of Croatia.  Trieste has been disputed territory for thousands of years and throughout its history has been influenced by its location at the crossroads of the Latin, Slavic and Germanic cultures.  It became part of the Roman Republic in 177 BC and was granted the status of a Roman colony by Julius Caesar in 51 BC.  In 788 Trieste was conquered by Charlemagne on behalf of the French but by the 13th century was being occupied by the Venetian Republic. Austria made the city part of the Habsburg domains in the 14th century but it was then conquered again by Venice. The Hapsburgs recovered Trieste in the 16th century and made it an important port and a commercial hub.  Trieste fell into French hands during the time of Napoleon but then became part of Austrian territory again.  Read more…


25 October 2020

25 October

Carlo Gnocchi – military chaplain

Remembering a protector of the sick and the mutilated

Carlo Gnocchi, a brave priest who was chaplain to Italy’s alpine troops during the Second World War, was born on this day in 1902 in San Colombano al Lambro, near Lodi in Lombardy.  In recognition of his life, which was dedicated to easing the wounds of suffering and misery created by war, his birthday was made into his feast day when he was beatified by Pope Benedict XVI on October 25, 2009 in Milan.  Gnocchi was the youngest of three boys born to Henry and Clementine Gnocchi. His father died when he was five years old and his two brothers died of tuberculosis before he was 13.  He was ordained a priest in 1925 in the archdiocese of Milan and afterwards worked as a teacher.  When war broke out he joined up as a voluntary priest and departed first for the front line between Greece and Albania and then for the tragic campaign in Russia, which he miraculously survived, despite suffering from frostbite.  While he was chaplain to alpine troops in the war he helped Jews and Allied prisoners of war escape to Switzerland. During this time he was imprisoned for writing against Fascism.  Read more…


Evangelista Torricelli – inventor of the barometer

Physicist's name lives on in scientific terminology

The inventor of the barometer, Evangelista Torricelli, died on this day in 1647 in Florence at the age of just 39.  A disciple of Galileo, Torricelli made many mathematical and scientific advances during his short life and had an asteroid and a crater on the moon named after him.  Torricelli was born into a poor family from Faenza in the province of Ravenna.  He studied science under the Benedictine monk, Benedetto Castelli, a professor of Mathematics at the Collegio della Sapienza, now known as the Sapienza University of Rome, who had been a student of Galileo Galilei.  After Galileo’s death the Grand Duke Ferdinand II de’ Medici asked Torricelli to succeed Galileo as Chair of Mathematics at the University of Pisa.  Torricelli was also interested in optics and designed and built telescopes and microscopes.  His most important invention was the mercury barometer, which he produced after he had discovered the principle of the barometer while trying to find a solution to the limitations of the suction pump in forcing water upwards.  Scientific terms such as the Torricellian tube and Torricellian vacuum are named after the scientist, as is the torr, a unit of pressure in vacuum measurements.  Read more…


Camillo Sivori – virtuoso violinist

Paganini’s successor was also a talented composer

Ernesto Camillo Sivori, a virtuoso violinist and composer, was born on this day in 1815 in Genoa.  Remembered as the only pupil of the great virtuoso violinist Niccolò Paganini, Sivori began his career as a travelling virtuoso at the age of 12, having by then also studied with other violin teachers.  He was acclaimed as ‘Paganini reincarnated’, or even, ‘Paganini without the flaws’, by music critics during a lengthy tour of Europe that he made between 1841 and 1845.  During his travels he met some of the best-known composers of the day, such as Mendelssohn, Schumann and Berlioz and he took parts in hundreds of concerts.  After being compared to other celebrated violinists, his status as Paganini’s successor was confirmed, even though the great man had died in 1840 and was still remembered in the musical world.  Sivori had met Paganini, who was also from Genoa, when he was seven years old and had made such a favourable impression on him that Paganini gave him lessons between October 1822 and May 1823.  Paganini also wrote pieces of music for his pupil ‘to shape his spirit’ and even provided guitar accompaniment when Sivori performed these pieces privately.  Read more…


24 October 2020

24 October

- Domitian - Roman emperor

Authoritarian ruler was last of the Flavian dynasty

The emperor Domitian, the last of three members of the Flavian dynasty to rule Rome, was born on this day in 51AD.  He was the son of Vespasian and the younger brother of Titus, during whose reigns he had a minor role in the government of the empire that was largely ceremonial. Yet when Titus died suddenly only two years after succeeding his father in 79AD, Domitian quickly presented himself to the Praetorian Guard to be proclaimed emperor.  The official record was that Titus, who had spent virtually the whole of his period on the throne dealing with the aftermath of the catastrophic eruption of Vesuvius in 79AD and a devastating fire in Rome, succumbed to a fever on a trip to the Sabine territories north of the city, but there were suspicions that he had been poisoned by his brother, perhaps in revenge for not having been given the position of power he had anticipated when Titus succeeded Vespasian. At the same time, there were rumours of an affair between Titus and Domitian’s wife, Domitia.  Vespasian and Titus had governed as the heads of a republic, but Domitian decided immediately that he wanted absolute power.   Read more…


Sir Moses Montefiore - businessman

Italian-born philanthropist who made his fortune in London

The businessman and philanthropist Sir Moses Montefiore, who made his fortune in England and became a prominent supporter of Jewish rights, was born in Livorno on this day in 1784.  Born into a Sephardic Jewish family, his grandfather, Moses Vita (Haim) Montefiore, had emigrated from Livorno to London in the 1740s, but regularly returned to Italy, as did other members of the family.  Moses Montefiore was born while his parents, Joseph Elias and Rachel - whose father, Abraham Mocatta, was a powerful bullion broker in London - were in Livorno on business.  Their son was to amass considerable wealth in his working life, accumulating such a fortune on the London stock exchange he was able to retire at 40, but in his youth his family’s situation was so perilous he had to abandon his education without qualifications in order to find a job.  First apprenticed to a firm of grocers and tea merchants, he left to become one of 12 so-called ‘Jew brokers’ in the City of London.  His early days in the city were not without setbacks, notably when a major fraud in 1806 caused him to lose most of his clients’ money.  Read more…


Tito Gobbi – baritone

Singer found fame on both stage and screen

Opera singer Tito Gobbi was born on this day in 1913 in Bassano del Grappa in the Veneto region.  He had a career that lasted 44 years and sang more than 100 different operatic roles on stages all over the world.  Gobbi also sang in 25 films and towards the end of his career directed opera productions throughout Europe and America.  His singing talent was discovered by a family friend while he was studying law at the University of Padua, who suggested that he studied singing instead. As a result, Gobbi moved to Rome in 1932 to study under the tenor, Giulio Crimi.  At his first audition he was accompanied at the piano by Tilde De Rensis, the daughter of musicologist Raphael De Rensis. She was later to become Gobbi’s wife.  Gobbi made his debut in 1935 in Gubbio, singing the role of Count Rodolfo in Vincenzo Bellini’s La sonnambula, and then went to work for a season at La Scala in Milan as an understudy, which gained him valuable experience.  He made his first appearance on stage there as the Herald in Ildebrando Pizzetti’s Orseolo.  In 1942 he sang the role of Belcore in Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore at La Scala, conducted by Tullio Serafin.  Read more…


Luciano Berio – composer

War casualty who became significant figure in Italian music

The avant-garde composer Luciano Berio, whose substantial catalogue of diverse work made him one of the most significant figures in music in Italy in the modern era, was born on this day in 1925 in Oneglia, on the Ligurian coast.  Noted for his innovative combining of voices and instruments and his pioneering of electronic music, Berio composed more than 170 pieces between 1937 and his death in 2003.  His most famous works are Sinfonia, a composition for orchestra and eight voices in five movements commissioned by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in 1968, and dedicated to the conductor Leonard Bernstein, and his Sequenza series of 18 virtuoso solo works that each featured a different instrument, or in one case a female voice alone.  Berio's musical fascinations included Italian opera, particularly Monteverdi and Verdi, the 20th-century modernism of Stravinsky, the Romantic symphonies of Schubert, Brahms and Mahler, folk songs, jazz and the music of the Beatles.  All these forms influenced him in one way or another and even his most experimental work paid homage to the past.  Read more…


Domitian - Roman emperor

Authoritarian ruler was last of the Flavian dynasty

Domitian succeeded his brother Titus as emperor in 81AD
Domitian succeeded his brother Titus
as emperor in 81AD
The emperor Domitian, the last of three members of the Flavian dynasty to rule Rome, was born on this day in 51AD.

He was the son of Vespasian and the younger brother of Titus, during whose reigns he had a minor role in the government of the empire that was largely ceremonial. Yet when Titus died suddenly only two years after succeeding his father in 79AD, Domitian quickly presented himself to the Praetorian Guard to be proclaimed emperor.

The official record was that Titus, who had spent virtually the whole of his period on the throne dealing with the aftermath of the catastrophic eruption of Vesuvius in 79AD and a devastating fire in Rome, succumbed to a fever on a trip to the Sabine territories north of the city, but there were suspicions that he had been poisoned by his brother, perhaps in revenge for not having been given the position of power he had anticipated when Titus succeeded Vespasian. At the same time, there were rumours of an affair between Titus and Domitian’s wife, Domitia.

Vespasian and Titus had governed as the heads of a republic, but Domitian decided immediately that he wanted absolute power, moving the centre of government to the imperial court and making it clear that, in his view, Rome should be ruled as a divine monarchy. This put him at odds with the Senate from the outset.

Domitian’s best-known accomplishment was to build the Flavian Palace on the Palatine Hill, which was not the only sumptuous home he lavished on himself. He also ordered the construction of the Villa of Domitian, a vast palace situated 20 km (12 miles) outside Rome in the Alban Hills.

How the Flavian Palace complex would have looked after its completion in 92AD
How the Flavian Palace complex would have
looked after its completion in 92AD
Yet he did much to restore the many buildings in Rome that had fallen into disrepair even before Vespasian came to power, due to fire and decay. He rebuilt the Capitol, which had been gutted by fire, built a new temple to Jupiter, a new stadium on the site of what is now Piazza Navona, and a concert hall for musicians and poets. 

He sought to raise the standards of public morality by forbidding male castration, also taking action against the homosexuality that was not rare among senators. He was nonetheless seen as a generous leader and was viewed among those around him, at least early in his reign, as considerate towards his friends and fair while dispensing justice.

Domitian strengthened the economy by revaluing the Roman coinage and enhanced the empire’s borders and fought significant wars in Britain, where his general Agricola attempted to conquer Caledonia (Scotland), and in Dacia, in the area now known as Romania.

The Roman population did not mind the authoritarian nature of Domitian’s rule and he was popular too with the army, whose numbers he considerably strengthened. But he was considered a tyrant by members of the Roman Senate.

Rome's senators saw Domitian as a despot and tyrant
Rome's senators saw Domitian as
a despot and tyrant
Domitian was only too aware of this and his relationship with the senate caused him to become increasingly paranoid during his 15-year reign. He had a number of Senators executed for treason and banned free speech in an effort to silence opposition to him.  Seemingly out of jealousy, he had Sullustius Lucullus, governor of Britannia, executed for naming a new type of lance after himself.

What really pushed the senate over the edge, historians surmise, was his insistence on being addressed as dominus et deus - master and god.  Senators and their supporters began to plot against him, culminating in his assassination in September 96, apparently instigated by Domitian's chamberlain Parthenius, possibly with the connivance or at least approval of his wife, who feared for her life because of her husband’s increasing lack of trust in even those closest to him.

Several days before the plot reached its bloody conclusion, Domitian claimed that Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom, had appeared to the him in a dream, from which the emperor emerged convinced his death would take place at midday. He became anxious at around that time each day.

On the day he was killed, Domitian repeatedly asked Stephanus, a servant, to tell him what time it was. Unbeknown to him, it was Stephanus who had been charged with carrying out the attack and he lied to the emperor, telling him that it was already late in the afternoon.

Reassured, Domitian went to his desk to work, only for Stephanus, who had been wearing a bandage on his arm for several days, pretending he had been injured, to appear at his side, claiming to have uncovered a plot. He handed the emperor a document, which Domitian read eagerly. While the emperor was distracted, Stephanus ripped off the bandage, under which he had been concealing a knife, and stabbed Domitian in the groin. 

Domitian fought back, drawing his own knife and inflicting a fatal wound on his assailant, but others appeared to finish the job.  His body was taken away and cremated, his nurse Phyllis taking his ashes away to be buried at the Flavian Temple. 

Senators could not contain their delight at his death, proclaimed Marcus Cocceius Nerva, a senior consul, as the new emperor,  and soon ordered that statues and arches Domitian built to celebrate his power were pulled down, his coins melted and his name erased from public records. There was said to be indifference among the public, but the army, who remained loyal to him, grieved his loss, and though their demands that the plotters be punished were initially refused, in time a number of trials and executions took place.

Roman historians such as Tacitus, Pliny the Younger, and Suetonius portrayed Domitian as a cruel and paranoid tyrant in their writings. Yet the view among many modern historians is that Domitian was a ruthless but efficient autocrat whose cultural, economic, and political policies laid the foundations for a period of peace and stability.

A section of the visible remains of the  Domus Augustana on Rome's Palatine Hill
A section of the visible remains of the 
Domus Augustana on Rome's Palatine Hill
Travel tip:

The Flavian Palace,  also known as the Domus Flavia, was completed in 92 AD, its design attributed to Domitian’s master architect, Rabirius. Domus Flavia is the name for the northwestern section of the palace, which contained large rooms for official business, entertaining and ceremonial purposes. The domestic wing to the southeast, where the emperor lived, was called the Domus Augustana.  Running along the eastern side of the Domus Augustana was Domitian’s so-called Hippodrome or Stadium, which was actually an elaborate garden with the appearance of a Roman stadium, although it was too small to accommodate the chariot races of which Domitian was an enthusiastic spectator.  The remains sit atop the Palatine Hill.

The Villa of Domitian enjoyed commanding  views over beautiful Lago Albano outside Rome
The Villa of Domitian enjoyed commanding 
views over beautiful Lago Albano outside Rome
Travel tip:

The Villa of Domitian was a vast and sumptuous villa, built between 81 and 96AD, situated 20km (12 miles) outside Rome, in the Alban Hills, in the ancient territory of Ager Albanus, which contained the city of Alba Longa, overlooking the Lago Albano lake. The remains of the villa are located mostly within the estate of the Pontifical Villas of Castel Gandolfo, the traditional summer residence of the popes, with other relics in the towns of Castel Gandolfo and Albano Laziale. Some are visible in the gardens of the Villa Barberini. 

Also on this day:

1784: The birth of philanthropist and businessman Sir Moses Montefiore

1913: The birth of operatic baritone Tito Gobbi

1925: The birth of the avant-garde composer Luciano Berio


23 October 2020

23 October

Francesco Foscari – Doge of Venice

Ignominious ending to a long and glorious reign

After 34 years as Doge of Venice, Francesco Foscari was abruptly forced to leave office on this day in 1457.  Stripped of his honours, he insisted on descending the same staircase from the Doge’s Palace that he had climbed up in triumph more than a third of a century before, rather than leave through a rear entrance.  Eight days later the former Doge was dead. The story behind the downfall of Foscari and his son, Jacopo, fascinated the poet Lord Byron so much during his visit to Venice in 1816 that he later wrote a five-act play about it.  This play, The Two Foscari: An Historical Tragedy, formed the basis of Verdi’s opera, I Due Foscari, and ensured that the sad story of the father and son was never forgotten.  Francesco Foscari, who was born in 1373, was the 65th Doge of the Republic of Venice. He had previously served the Republic in many roles, including as a member of the Council of Forty and the Council of Ten, Venice’s ruling bodies, and as Procurator of St Mark’s. He was elected Doge in 1423, after defeating the other candidate, Pietro Loredan.  As Doge he led Venice in a long series of wars against Milan.  Read more…


Alex Zanardi - racing driver and Paralympian

Crash victim who refused to be beaten

Alessandro 'Alex’ Zanardi, a title-winning racing driver who lost both legs in an horrific crash but then reinvented himself as a champion Paralympic athlete, was born on this day in 1966 in the small town of Castel Maggiore, just outside Bologna.  Zanardi was twice winner of the CART series - the forerunner of IndyCar championship of which the marquee event is the Indianapolis 500 - and also had five seasons in Formula One.  But in September 2001, after returning to CART following the loss of his contract with the Williams F1 team, Zanardi was competing in the American Memorial race at the EuroSpeedway Lausitz track in Germany when he lost control of his car emerging from a pit stop and was struck side-on by the car of the Canadian driver Alex Tagliani.  The nose of Zanardi’s car was completely severed as Tagliani's car slammed into Zanardi's cockpit, just behind the front wheel, and the Italian driver suffered catastrophic injuries. Rapid medical intervention saved his life after he lost almost 75 per cent of his blood volume but both legs had to be amputated, one at the thigh and the other at the knee.  Read more…


Saint John of Capistrano

Patron saint of lawyers and chaplains

The feast day of Saint John of Capistrano (San Giovanni da Capestrano) is being celebrated today in Abruzzo and is marked by Catholics in the rest of Italy and the world.  The patron saint of the legal profession and military chaplains, St John is particularly venerated in Austria, Hungary, Poland and Croatia as well as in different parts of America.  St John was born in Capestrano, about halfway between L’Aquila and Pescara in the Abruzzo region of Italy, in 1386.  He studied law at the University of Perugia and was then appointed Governor of Perugia by King Ladislaus of Naples.  When war broke out between Perugia and the Malatesta family in 1416, John was sent to broker peace, but ended up in prison.  While in captivity he decided not to consummate his recent marriage but to study theology instead.  He entered the Order of Friars Minor at Perugia in 1416 and a few years later began preaching all over Italy as a Franciscan friar.  He was particularly effective in Germany, Austria, Croatia and Poland and, because the churches were not big enough for his audiences, he had to preach in public squares.  Read more…


22 October 2020

22 October

Valeria Golino - actress

Neapolitan starred with Hoffman and Cruise in Rain Man

The actress Valeria Golino, who found international fame when she played opposite Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise in the hugely successful movie Rain Man, was born on this day in 1965 in Naples.  Golino was cast as the girlfriend of Tom Cruise’s character, Charlie Babbitt, in Barry Levinson’s comedy, in which Babbitt’s estranged father dies and leaves most of his multi-million dollar estate to another son, an autistic savant named Raymond (Dustin Hoffman) whose existence Charlie knew nothing about. The 1988 movie won four Oscars and grossed more than $350 dollars. Although Golino was not nominated for her performance in Rain Man, she has won a string of other awards over a career so far spanning almost 35 years.  She is one of only three stars to win Best Actress at the Venice Film Festival on two occasions, for the 1986 drama Storia d’amore (“A Tale of Love”), directed by Francesco Maselli, and for Giuseppe M Gaudino’s 2015 drama Per amor vostro (“For Your Love”).  Golino was close to being selected to star opposite Richard Gere in another massive US hit, Pretty Woman, making it to the final audition stage for the 1990 romantic comedy. Read more…


Soave - an Italian classic wine

How the dry white from the Veneto earned its DOC status

Soave - at one time the world's most popular Italian wine - was officially granted a DOC classification on this day in 1968.  The DOC status - which stands for Denominazione di Origine Controllata - was introduced midway through the last century as part of a series of laws designed to safeguard the quality and authenticity of Italian wines.  Winegrowers had been pushing for such regulation because the increasing popularity of Italian wines around the world was impacting on quality as more and more producers sprang up to meet demand.  Soave was a case in point.  Originally limited to a small area of just 2,720 acres (1,100 hectares) in the hills to the north of the small towns of Soave and Monteforte d'Alpone, roughly 25km east of Verona in the Veneto region, production spread rapidly to an area more than six times as large.  The biggest demand was from the United States, which developed a taste for Italian wines in the boom years that followed the end of the Second World War.  Of the huge volume of imported bottles that arrived on ships from Europe, Soave was the most popular.  Read more…


Giovanni Martinelli – tenor

Singer made his fame abroad

One of the most famous tenors of the 20th century, Giovanni Martinelli, was born on this day in 1885 in Montagnana in the province of Padua in the Veneto.  Martinelli began his career playing the clarinet in a military band and then studied as a singer with Giuseppe Mandolini in Milan. He made his professional debut at the Teatro del Verme in Milan in the title role of Giuseppe Verdi's Ernani in 1910.  Martinelli became famous for singing the role of Dick Johnson in Giacomo Puccini's La Fanciulla del West, which he performed in Rome, Brescia, Naples, Genoa, Monte Carlo and also at La Scala in Milan.  He played Cavaradossi in Puccini's Tosca at the Royal Opera House in London and took on the same role for his first American engagement in 1913. That same year Martinelli portrayed Pantagruel in the world premiere of Jules Massenet’s Panurge in Paris.  He attracted favourable reviews when he played Rodolfo in Puccini's La bohème at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. He went on to sing 36 different roles for the theatre over 32 seasons.  In 1937 Martinelli returned to London to sing opposite the English soprano Eva Turner at Covent Garden.  Read more…


Salvatore Di Vittorio – composer and conductor  

Musician has promoted his native Palermo throughout the world

Salvatore Di Vittorio, founding music director and conductor of the Chamber Orchestra of New York, was born on this day in 1967 in Palermo in Sicily.  Also a composer, Di Vittorio has written music in the style of the early 20th century Italian composer, Ottorino Respighi, who, in turn, based his compositions on the music he admired from the 16th and 17th centuries.  Di Vittorio has been recognised by music critics as respectful of the ancient Italian musical tradition and also as an emerging, leading interpreter of the music of Ottorino Respighi.  He began studying music when he was a child with his father, Giuseppe, who introduced him to the operas of Verdi and Puccini. He went on to study composition at the Manhattan School of Music and Philosophy at Columbia University.  He has since worked with orchestras all over the world and composed music for them to perform and has also taught music in New York.  In 2007, Di Vittorio was invited by Elsa and Gloria Pizzoli, Respighi’s great nieces, to edit and complete several of the composer’s early works, including his first Violin Concerto, composed in 1903.  Read more…