24 June 2021

24 June

Piero Barone – singer

Young tenor found fame on TV talent show

Piero Barone, one of the three singers who make up the Italian opera and pop group, Il Volo, was born on this day in 1993 in Naro, a town in the province of Agrigento in Sicily.  Il Volo hit the headlines after winning the Sanremo Music Festival in 2015. They came third when they represented Italy in the Eurovision Song Contest with their hit Grande Amore later that year in Austria and have since acquired growing popularity worldwide.  In 2016, the group, together with tenor Placido Domingo, released Notte Magica – A Tribute to the Three Tenors, a live album featuring many of the songs performed by the Three Tenors (Domingo, Luciano Pavarotti and Jose Carreras) for their iconic concert held at the Baths of Caracalla in Rome on the eve of the Italia ’90 World Cup.  Piero’s father, Gaetano Barone, is a mechanic and his mother, Eleonora Ognibene, a housewife.  His musical talent was discovered by his grandfather, Pietro Ognibene, when he was just five years of age. Pietro was a blind musician who had written a song in Sicilian and when Piero sang it for him he was amazed by his voice.  Read more…

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Benedetta Tagliabue - architect

Italian half of an acclaimed design partnership

The architect Benedetta Tagliabue, whose work in partnership with her late husband Enric Miralles included the iconic Scottish Parliament Building at Holyrood in Edinburgh, was born on this day in 1963 in Milan.  Tagliabue formed a close friendship with Barcelona-born Miralles when she was a student and he was teaching at Columbia University in New York.  They became business partners in 1991 and married a year later.  Tragically, Miralles died in 2000 at the age of just 45, having been diagnosed with a brain tumour, but Tagliabue has continued to run the business they created.  Tagliabue studied architecture in Switzerland and Venice, attending the Istituto di Architettura di Venezia (IUAV), which is part of the University of Venice. She fell in love with the city of canals and made it her home for several years. Indeed, she first met Miralles in Venice when she interviewed him for a magazine.  They were reacquainted when she went to New York for the final thesis of her degree and stayed in touch. They began a formal collaboration in 1991 and founded the architecture firm Miralles Tagliabue EMBT.  Read more…

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Battle of Solferino

Suffering of soldiers led to the founding of the Red Cross

The Battle of Solferino took place on this day in 1859 south of Lake Garda between Milan and Verona.  It was the last battle in world history where all the armies were under the personal command of their monarchs.  The French army under Napoleon III was allied with the Sardinian army commanded by Victor Emmanuel II. Together, they were victorious against the Austrian army led by Emperor Franz Joseph I.  The battle lasted more than nine hours and resulted in thousands of deaths on both sides.  The Austrians were forced to retreat and it was a crucial step towards the eventual unification of Italy under an Italian King.  Jean-Henri Dunant, a Swiss businessman, toured the battlefield afterwards and was horrified by what he saw, joining in with the efforts of local people to care for the injured.  Greatly moved by the suffering of the thousands of wounded and dying soldiers, he wrote a book about what he had seen and set about establishing the International Red Cross.  This battle is also referred to as the Battle of Solferino and San Martino as there was fighting near both of the towns.  Read more…

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Vittorio Storaro - cinematographer

Triple Oscar winner among best in movie history

Cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, whose work has won three Academy Awards, was born on this day in 1940 in Rome.  Storaro won Oscars for Best Cinematography for Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 Vietnam War epic Apocalypse Now, for the Warren Beatty-directed historical drama Reds in 1981, and for The Last Emperor, Bernardo Bertolucci’s story of imperial China, in 1987.  Described as someone for whom cinematography was “not just art and technique but a philosophy as well”, Storaro worked extensively with Bertolucci, for whom he shot the controversial Last Tango in Paris and the extraordinary five-hour epic drama 1900.  He filmed many stories for his cousin, Luigi Bazzoni, collaborated with Coppola on three other movies and recently has worked with Woody Allen, whose latest picture, A Rainy Day in New York, is due to be released next month.  Storaro inherited his love of the cinema from his father, who was a projectionist at the Lux Film Studio, which was based in Rome from 1940 having been established in Turin by the anti-Fascist businessman Riccardo Gualino in 1934.  He began studying photography at the age of 11.  Read more…

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Battle of Custoza

Austrians thwart Italy’s hopes of unifying the peninsula

An army of the recently unified Kingdom of Italy was driven out of Custoza in the Veneto region by Austrian troops on this day in 1866.  Although the Italians had twice the number of soldiers, the Austrians were victorious strategically and drove the Italians back across the Mincio river and out of the area then known as Venetia.  King Victor Emmanuel II’s younger son, Amadeo, was severely wounded in the battle but he survived his injuries and went on to reign briefly as King of Spain from 1870 to 1873.  The German Kingdom of Prussia had declared war on the Austrian Empire and the Kingdom of Italy seized the opportunity to join forces with Prussia, with the intention of annexing Venetia and uniting the Italian peninsula. The Austrian Imperial army joined up with the Venetian army.  The Italians divided their troops into two armies, one led by General Alfonso Ferrero La Marmora, accompanied by the King, and the other led by Enrico Cialdini.  La Marmora’s troops crossed the Mincio river and invaded Venetia. The Austrians led by Archduke Albrecht of Habsburg marched west from Verona to the north of the Italian position, so as to cut them off from the rear.  Read more…


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23 June 2021

23 June

Giuseppina Tuissi - partisan

Key figure in capture and execution of Mussolini

Giuseppina Tuissi, who was among a group of partisans who captured the deposed Fascist leader Benito Mussolini as he tried to escape to Switzerland in 1945, was born on this day in 1923 in Abbiategrasso, near Milan.  Tuissi and her comrades seized Mussolini at Dongo, a small town on the shores of Lake Como, on April 27, 1945, along with his mistress Claretta Petacci.  Having heard that Hitler was preparing to surrender to the Allies, Mussolini was trying to reach Switzerland before flying on to Spain in the hope of finding refuge under Franco’s nationalist dictatorship.  He and Petacci and their entourage were executed at the village of Giulino di Mezzegra the following day before the partisan group took their bodies to be put on public display in Milan.  Tuissi, however, would herself be killed less than a couple of months later, probably at the hands of fellow partisans who suspected her of betraying comrades during a period earlier in the year in which she had been held captive and tortured by Fascist militia and handed over to the Nazis but was then released.  Although she was born in Abbiategrasso, about 30km (19 miles) southwest of Milan, Tuissi lived and worked in Baggio, a suburb of Milan.  Read more…

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Francesca Schiavone – tennis player

First Italian woman to win a Grand Slam

Tennis champion Francesca Schiavone was born on this day in 1980 in Milan.  When she won the French Open at Roland Garros in 2010 she became the first Italian woman to win a Grand Slam event in singles. She was the runner-up in the French Open final the following year.  To date she is also the last one-handed backhand player to win a Grand Slam title on the women’s tour.  Schiavone has won six titles on the WTA tour and has also been the runner up in events 11 times.  Her highest career ranking is World Number Four, which she achieved in January 2011.  She has helped Italy win the Federation Cup in 2006, 2009 and 2010 and she has had the most wins for the Italian team.  She also appeared in the women’s doubles final at the 2008 French Open.  At the 2016 French Open in May it was mistakenly announced that Schiavone was retiring from tennis after she was defeated in the first round of the competition.  She retired from tennis after the 2018 US Open. In December 2019, Schiavone revealed she had been diagnosed with cancer earlier in the year but after successful treatment she was free of the disease.  Read more…

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Claudio Capone – actor and dubber

The Italian voice of a host of stars

Italy lost one of its most famous voices on this day in 2008 with the premature death of Claudio Capone.  The Rome-born actor was working in Scotland when he suffered a stroke. He was admitted to hospital in Perth but despite the best efforts of doctors he died two days later, at the age of only 55.  Although he began his career with the ambitions of any actor to reach the top of his profession, he was offered an opportunity only a few years out of drama school to do some voice-over work and found the flow of work in dubbing to be so consistent he ultimately made it his career.  Unlike some countries, Italian cinema and TV audiences have always preferred to watch imported films and TV shows with dubbed Italian voices rather than subtitles, which meant that a talented dubbing actor was seldom unemployed.  Capone was among the best and it was down to him that many foreign stars became famous in Italy, even though many did not speak a word of Italian.  The biggest example of this was the American actor Ronn Moss, who played the part of fashion magnate Ridge Forrester in the CBS soap opera The Bold and the Beautiful.  Read more…


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22 June 2021

22 June

Galileo Galilei convicted of heresy

'Father of Science' forced to deny that earth revolved around sun

One of the more bizarre episodes in the history of human intellectual advancement took place in Rome on this day in 1633 when Galileo Galilei, the brilliant astronomer, mathematician, philosopher and engineer – often described as ‘the father of science’ - was convicted of heresy.  His crime was to support the view – indeed, to confirm it with scientific proof – that the sun rather than the earth was the centre of the solar system, as had been theorised by the Polish scientist Nicolaus Copernicus in the previous century.  This flew completely in the face of a major plank of orthodox Roman Catholic beliefs, within which the contention that the sun moved around the earth was regarded as a fact of scripture that could not be disputed.  Galileo, something of a celebrity in his day who won the patronage of such powerful Italian families as the Medicis and the Barberinis following the discoveries he made with his astronomical telescope, had been essentially under surveillance by the Church since 1609 after publishing details of observations he had made that supported Copernicus’s theory of heliocentrism.  Read more…

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Walter Bonatti - mountaineer

Climber's outstanding career marred by 50-year row

Walter Bonatti, the Italian who some would argue is the greatest alpine mountain climber that ever lived, was born on this day in 1930 in Bergamo in Lombardy.  He was the first to complete some of the most demanding climbs in the Alps and the Himalayas, including the first solo climb in winter of the North face of the Matterhorn.  But those achievements were marred for half a century by the bitter row that sprang from the part he played in the 1954 Italian expedition to conquer K2, the 8,611-metre peak north-east of the Himalayas that is the second highest in the world - behind Mount Everest (8,848 metres) - but is regarded as the more difficult climb.  Incredibly fit and able to survive at high altitudes without oxygen, he was already such an accomplished climber at just 24 years of age that he was chosen to join the expedition, which aimed to succeed where five previous attempts over 52 years had failed.  The row stemmed from the decision taken by expedition leader Ardito Desio as the party neared the summit that the more experienced Lino Lacedelli and Achille Compagnoni should be the climbers to make the final ascent, even though Bonatti was in better physical condition than either.  Read more…

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Lucrezia Tornabuoni - political adviser

Medici wife one of most powerful women of the Renaissance

Lucrezia Tornabuoni, who became one of the most influential and therefore powerful women in 15th century Italy through family connections and her own political and business acumen, was born on this day in 1427 in Florence.  Connected by birth to the powerful Tornabuoni family on her father’s side and the Guicciardini through her mother, Lucrezia entered a third powerful family when she married Piero di Cosimo de’ Medici.  Yet she was an important figure in her own right, revealing political skill and a talent for diplomacy during her husband’s time as de facto leader of Florence, and when their son, Lorenzo, succeeded him.  She was also a successful property owner, buying houses, shops and farms in and around Pisa and Florence, which she would then lease out. She bought and renovated a hot spring, Bagno a Morba, turning it into a resort and spa for paying guests.  And she enhanced her popularity in Florence by supporting religious convents and working with them to help widows and orphans. She would draw on her own income to provide dowries for women from poor families so that they could marry and use her influence to help family members obtain good positions in the church or government.  Read more…


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21 June 2021

21 June

Pier Luigi Nervi - architect

Striking designs from football stadiums to churches

The brilliant structural engineer and architect Pier Luigi Nervi was born on this day in 1891 in Sondrio, an Alpine town in northern Lombardy at the heart of the Valtellina.  Nervi made his mark with a number of strikingly original designs at home and abroad and was noted both for his innovative use of reinforced concrete and his multi-dimensional designs, which enabled him to create structures that were both strong and elegant.  His major works in Italy include the Palazzo del Lavoro in Turin, the bell tower of the Chiesa del Sacro Cuore in Florence and the Papal Audience Hall at the Vatican City, as well as a number of important sports facilities.  The Stadio Artemio Franchi (formerly the Stadio Communale) in Florence - home of the Fiorentina football club - was one of his first important projects and he designed several stadia for the Rome Olympics in 1960, including the Stadio Flaminio and the Palazzo dello Sport EUR.  Around the world, the UNESCO headquarters in Paris, the George Washington Bridge Bus Station in New York, the Stock Exchange Tower in Montreal, St Mary's Cathedral in San Francisco and the Italian Embassy in Brasilia are among Nervi's legacy.  Read more…

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Pope Paul VI

Pontiff who helped wartime prisoners

Giovanni Battista Enrico Antonio Maria Montini was elected as Pope Paul VI on this day in 1963 in Rome.  He succeeded Pope John XXIII and immediately re-convened the Second Vatican Council which had automatically closed after Pope John’s death.  Pope Paul then implemented its various reforms and as a result had to deal with the conflicting expectations of different Catholic groups.  Following his famous predecessor Saint Ambrose of Milan, Pope Paul named Mary as the Mother of the Church.  He described himself as ‘a humble servant for a suffering humanity’ and demanded changes from the rich in North America and Europe in favour of the poor in the third world.  Pope Paul had been born in Concesio near Brescia in 1897 and was ordained a priest in Brescia in 1920. He took a doctorate in Canon Law in Milan and afterwards studied at various universities, therefore never working as a parish priest.  He had one foreign posting, to the office of the papal nuncio in Poland.  After the outbreak of the Second World War, he created an information office for prisoners of war and refugees, producing more than 11 million replies to enquiries about missing persons.  Read more…

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Paolo Soleri - architect

Italian greatly influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright

The groundbreaking architect and ecologist Paolo Soleri was born on this day in 1919 in Turin.  Soleri is largely remembered for the Arcosanti project, an experiment in urban design in the Arizona desert that was like no other town on the planet, a unique fusion of architecture and ecology.  Originally conceived as providing a completely self-sufficient urban living space for 5,000 people when it began in 1970, only about five per cent of the proposed development was ever completed.  At its peak, Arcosanti’s population barely exceeded 200 yet the buildings Soleri erected in accordance with his vision are still there, rising from the desert as an assortment of concrete blocks, domes and soaring vaults, resembling a cross between the remains of some ancient civilisation and a set from Star Wars.  It has never been abandoned, however, and although Soleri died in 2013 the project is still home to between 50 and 100 of his most ardent disciples, still seeking to live as Soleri envisaged.  Although Soleri grew up in Italy, it was a visit to the United States in 1946 that had the most profound influence on his life.  Read more…


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20 June 2021

20 June

NEW - Gian Galeazzo Sforza - Duke of Milan

Ruler who never truly held power

Gian Galeazzo Sforza, the third member of the Sforza family to have the title Duke of Milan, was born on this day in 1469 in Abbiategrasso, a town in the Po Valley about 22km (14 miles) north of Milan.  He was the sixth Duke of Milan in all, the title having previously been the property of the Visconti family.  However, Gian Galeazzo had only a short life and never truly held any power, having inherited the Duchy at the age of seven when his father, Galeazzo Maria Sforza, was assassinated in the porch of Basilica di Santo Stefano Maggiore in Milan, on December 26, 1476, where he was attending a celebration for the Festa di San Stefano.  Gian Galeazzo could not legally inherit the Duchy until he reached the age of majority, which in Renaissance times was 14. Until then, Milan would be ruled by his mother, Galeazzo Maria’s widow, Bona of Savoy.  But Gian Galeazzo’s uncle, Ludovico Sforza, had designs on the Duchy as Galeazzo Maria’s brother and the next five years encompassed a bitter struggle for the regency.  With the help of her powerful counsellor, the ducal secretary Cicco Simonetta, Bona managed to repel Ludovico’s first bid to seize power, but not for long.  Read more…

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Giannina Arangi-Lombardi – opera singer

Soprano’s superb voice was captured in early recordings

Soprano Giannina Arangi-Lombardi was born on this day in 1891 in Marigliano near Naples in Campania.  She studied singing at the Conservatory of San Pietro a Majella in Naples and made her debut on the stage in Rome in 1920. Arangi-Lombardi sang mezzo-soprano roles for the next three years at theatres in Rome, Sicily, Parma, Florence and Naples.  She then underwent further study and returned to the stage as what is known as a spinto soprano, a singer who can reach the high notes of the lyric soprano but can also achieve dramatic climaxes with her voice.  Arangi-Lombardi’s second debut, this time as a soprano, was in 1923. The first time she sang the role of Aida in Verdi's opera of the same name the audience was stunned by her voice and her fame quickly spread.  She appeared on stage at Teatro alla Scala in Milan for the first time in 1924 singing Elena in Boito’s Mefistofele. The orchestra for her debut performance was conducted by Arturo Toscanini.  She sang regularly at La Scala until 1930 and appeared at many other opera houses in Europe as well as in South America.  Read more…

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Armando Picchi - footballer

Star defender captained ‘La Grande Inter’

The footballer Armando Picchi, who was captain of the Inter-Milan of the 1960s known as La Grande Inter and one of Italian football’s most accomplished players in the libero position, was born on this day in 1935 in the Tuscan port of Livorno.  Under his captaincy, the Inter side managed by the Argentina-born coach Helenio Herrera won the European Cup twice as well as three Serie A titles and two Intercontinental Cups between 1963 and 1966.  After retiring as a player at 34, Picchi embarked on a coaching career of his own, but after his progress with Varese and hometown club AS Calcio Livorno earned him the chance to take the helm at Juventus his life was cut tragically short in 1971, when he developed an aggressive form of cancer and died just three months after being diagnosed.  Picchi grew up 30km (19 miles) south of Livorno in the coastal resort of Vada.  He had the good fortune to have a brother, Leo, who was already a professional footballer when he was growing up. Leo, 14 years’ his senior, nurtured Armando’s early development and recommended him to Livorno, then playing in Serie C.  Read more…

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Valerio Evangelisti - novelist

Writer's stories of the Inquisition are bestsellers

The bestselling novelist Valerio Evangelisti, best known for his science fiction, fantasy, historical novels and horror stories, was born in Bologna on this day in 1952.  He is famous in Italy for his series of novels featuring the inquisitor Nicolas Eymerich and for the Magus trilogy, all of which have been translated into many languages.  Eymerich is a real historical character, a member of the order of the Dominicans and of the Spanish Inquisition who was born in 1320 in Girona, Catalonia.  Evangelisti portrays him as a cruel and ruthless man who acts without mercy to protect the Catholic Church against threats of both natural and supernatural origin.  Evangelisti uses the Eymerich novels to investigate the mysterious phenomena in medieval Europe that strategically influenced the great historical events of the time, creating a dark and nightmarish picture of the epoch.  The Magus trilogy is a romanticized biography of the famous Middle Ages writer of prophecies, Nostradamus. The three novels, Il presagio (The Omen), L’inganno (The Deceit) and L'abisso (The Abyss) were also bestsellers in Italy.  Read more…

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Luigi de Magistris - politician

Popular and progressive Mayor of Naples

Luigi de Magistris, who has been Mayor of Naples since a shock win in the 2011 local elections, was born on this day in 1967.  A former public prosecutor with a reputation for standing up against corruption and organised crime, De Magistris was the Member of the European Parliament for Southern Italy between 2009 and 2011, when he ran for Italy of Values, the centre-left party founded by another former magistrate, Antonio di Pietro.  He stood in the 2011 mayoral elections in Naples with the support of minor parties on the left and the right and won in the second round of voting with 65 per cent of the vote, defeating Gianni Lettieri, the candidate for a centre right coalition led by Silvio Berlusconi’s People of Freedom party.  In office, De Magistris has faced difficult times because of the city’s precarious financial situation, which at times has seen local transport suspended because fuel bills were not paid and rubbish piling up in the streets because of continuing problems with the disposal of domestic refuse that had reached a peak in 2008.  De Magistris claims year-on-year improvements in refuse collection as one of his success stories.  Read more…


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Gian Galeazzo Sforza - Duke of Milan

Ruler who never truly held power

Gian Galeazzo Sforza was too young to inherit his father's title
Gian Galeazzo Sforza was too
young to inherit his father's title
Gian Galeazzo Sforza, the third member of the Sforza family to have the title Duke of Milan, was born on this day in 1469 in Abbiategrasso, a town in the Po Valley about 22km (14 miles) north of Milan.

He was the sixth Duke of Milan in all, the title having previously been the property of the Visconti family.

However, Gian Galeazzo had only a short life and never truly held any power, having inherited the Duchy at the age of seven when his father, Galeazzo Maria Sforza, was assassinated in the porch of Basilica di Santo Stefano Maggiore in Milan, on December 26, 1476, where he was attending a celebration for the Festa di San Stefano.

Gian Galeazzo could not legally inherit the Duchy until he reached the age of majority, which in Renaissance times was 14. Until then, Milan would be ruled by his mother, Galeazzo Maria’s widow, Bona of Savoy.

But Gian Galeazzo’s uncle, Ludovico Sforza, also known as Ludovico il Moro, had designs on the Duchy as Galeazzo Maria’s brother and the next five years encompassed a bitter struggle for the regency.

With the help of her powerful counsellor, the ducal secretary Cicco Simonetta, Bona managed to repel Ludovico’s first bid to seize power, but not for long.

Ludovico Sforza had designs on the Duchy of Milan
Ludovico Sforza had designs
on the Duchy of Milan

Ludovico was determined that Milan would be his and redoubled his efforts, this time using deception, persuading Bona that Simonetta was plotting against her.

Taken in by Ludovico’s false story, Bona had Simonetta arrested, tried for treason, imprisoned in Pavia and ultimately executed, at which point Ludovico turned on Bona, seized her son and ordered Bona to leave Milan.

By this time, Gian Galeazzo was 13, still not old enough to assume power, and in the meantime Ludovico, while ostensibly ruling as regent, strengthened his power base.

Gian Galeazzo grew up, marrying his cousin, Princess Isabella of Naples, at the age of 19.  He had no desire to challenge his uncle’s position as regent of Milan, even though he had every right to reclaim the Duchy, and the couple moved to the castle of Pavia, where they had four children.

The peace between them began to fragment, however, when Ludovico married Beatrice d'Este, daughter of Duke Ercole I d'Este of Ferrara and Modena in 1491.

Isabella and Beatrice became rivals on behalf of their children. Isabella feared that her son, Francesco, would be deprived of the Duchy to which she believed he was the rightful heir, while Beatrice insisted that Ludovico’s unchallenged rule meant that his son, Massimiliano, should inherit the title.

The argument came to a head when Gian Galeazzo died in 1494, at the age of 25, at the Palazzo Ducale (Ducal Palace), the summer home of the the Sforza family, in Vigevano, in the province of Pavia, about 40km (25 miles) southwest of Milan. 

Ludovico's wife, Beatrice, wanted her son to inherit the Duchy
Ludovico's wife, Beatrice, wanted
her son to inherit the Duchy
Bizarre stories circulated as to the cause of death, among them that it was due to sexual excesses. However, according to the 16th century Italian historian Francesco Guicciardini in his History of Italy, he was poisoned by Ludovico.

One version of events claims that Gian Galeazzo was taken prisoner by his uncle, kept in a caged pit in his dining room at the Palazzo Ducale, and given only enough food to keep him alive. The story has it that Ludovico let him out on the occasion of a visit by Cardinal Ascanio Sforza, at which he demanded that he be cooked a dinner of pheasants. Ludovico is said to have agreed to his request but contaminated one of the birds with poison, which killed his nephew in front of the shocked cardinal.

Ludovico is said to have joked afterwards that Gian Galeazzo was “Duke for an hour” before being undone by his greed. 

Whatever the truth of Gian Galeazzo’s death, Ludovico immediately approached the State Council of Milan, demanding the Duchy should pass to him rather than four-year-old Francesco. The council, fearing the implications of another child as Duke, agreed to his demand.

Five years later, however, in the course of the Italian Wars, the army of Louis XII of France took Milan from Ludovico Sforza and it was not until 1512, four years after Ludovico’s death in captivity in France, when Imperial German troops drove out the French, that Massimiliano was able to become Duke.

The Visconti Castle in Abbiategrasso was built in 1382 by Gian Galeazzo Visconti
The Visconti Castle in Abbiategrasso was built
in 1382 by Gian Galeazzo Visconti
Travel tip:

Abbiategrasso, today a town of 32,000 inhabitants in the Milan metropolitan area, is home to the Visconti Castle, built in 1382 by Gian Galeazzo Visconti and enlarged and decorated by Filippo Maria Visconti after 1438. The nearby Basilica church of Santa Maria Nuova was built in 1388 to celebrate the birth of Gian Galeazzo Visconti's son. The castle passed into the ownership of the Sforza family in common with much of the Visconti family’s property when the male line died out in 1450.  Abbiategrasso is also the home town of Giuseppina Tuissa, one of the partisans who captured Mussolini as he tried to flee to Switzerland in 1945, and of the fashion designer, Franco Moschino.

The beautiful Piazza Ducale in Vigevano, seen from the Castello Sforzesco
The beautiful Piazza Ducale in Vigevano,
seen from the Castello Sforzesco
Travel tip:

Historic Vigevano is renowned for shoemaking and is a centre for rice growing but its main claim to fame is as the home of the Castello Sforzesco, a Lombard fortress developed by the Visconti family and rebuilt between 1492–94 for Ludovico Sforza, born in the town, who transformed the fortification into a rich noble residence. Leonardo da Vinci was his guest at Vigevano, as was the architect Donato Bramante, who designed the tower that watches over the beautiful rectangular Piazza Ducale, which was completed in 1493 as the forecourt to the castle.  The Peroni Brewery was founded by Giovanni Peroni in Vigevano in 1846.

Also on this day:

1891: The birth of soprano Giannina Arangi-Lombardi

1935: The birth of footballer Armando Picchi

1952: The birth of novelist Valerio Evangelisti

1967: The birth of Naples mayor Luigi de Magistris


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19 June 2021

19 June

Francesco Baracca – flying ace

Italy’s most successful First World War fighter pilot

Italy’s top fighter pilot of the First World War, Francesco Baracca, died in action on this day in 1918.  He had been flying a strafing mission against Austro-Hungarian ground troops in support of an Italian attack on the Montello Hill, about 17km (11 miles) north of Treviso in the Veneto, on which he was accompanied by a rookie pilot, Tenente Franco Osnago.  They split from one another after being hit by ground fire but a few minutes later, Osnago saw a burning plane falling from the sky.  Witnesses on the ground saw it too. Osnago flew back to his base but Baracca never returned.  Only when the Austro-Hungarian troops were driven back was the wreckage of Baracca’s Spad VII aircraft found in a valley.  His body was discovered a few metres away.  A monument in his memory was later built on the site. Osnago, fellow pilot Ferruccio Ranza and a journalist recovered his body. It was taken back to his home town of Lugo in the province of Ravenna, where a large funeral was held.  It is thought that Barocca was seeking to provide Osnago with cover from above as he swooped on enemy trenches when he was attacked by an Austrian plane.  Read more…

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Pier Angeli - Hollywood star

Actress hailed for talent and beauty died tragically young

The actress Pier Angeli, a Hollywood star in the 1950s and 60s, was born on this day in 1932 in Cagliari, Sardinia.  She won awards in Italy and in America at the start of her career, when she was likened by some critics to the Swedish-born star Greta Garbo.  Described by the actor Paul Newman as "the most beautiful Italian actress of the century", Angeli was also a fixture in the gossip columns.  Linked romantically with a number of Hollywood's leading male actors, she dated Kirk Douglas and became close to the celebrated 'rebel' James Dean before marrying another star, the Italian-American actor and singer, Vic Damone.  It would be the first of two marriages.  She had a son, Perry, with Damone but they divorced after four years.  A second marriage, to the Italian composer, Armando Trovaioli, produced another son, Andrew, but they also divorced.  Born Anna Maria Pierangeli, the daughter of an architect, she had a twin sister, Maria Luisa, who would also become an actress.  Her mother, Enrica, used to dress the girls to resemble the American child star, Shirley Temple. The family moved to Rome when she was three.  Read more…

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Marisa Pavan - actress

Twin sister of tragic star Pier Angeli

The actress Marisa Pavan, whose twin sister Pier Angeli was a Hollywood star in the 1950s and 1960s, was born on this day in 1932 as Maria Luisa Pierangeli in Cagliari, Sardinia.  Pavan’s career ran parallel with that of her sister, who was born 20 minutes before her, but she rejected the re-invention as an ultra-glamorous starlet that Pier Angeli underwent within the Hollywood studio system.  She turned roles down when she felt they did not have enough substance and did not hesitate to sack agents if she felt they were putting her forward for unsuitable parts.  She refused to sign up to any one studio.  Her biggest success was The Rose Tattoo, the 1955 film adaptation of a Tennessee Williams play in which she played the daughter of the central character, played by Anna Magnani - with whom she is pictured - one of postwar Italian cinema’s most respected actresses.  Magnani won an Oscar for Best Actress for her portrayal of a Sicilian widow, with Pavan receiving a nomination for best supporting actress at the Academy Awards and although that award went to someone else she did have the substantial compensation of winning a Golden Globe for the role.  Read more…

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Francesco Moser - Giro d’Italia winner

Only two riders have won more road races

The cycling champion Francesco Moser, winner of the 1984 Giro d’Italia and the 1977 World road racing championship among 273 road victories in his career, was born on this day in 1951 in Palù di Giovo, a village about 10km (6 miles) north of Trento in northern Italy.  Only the great Belgians Eddy Merckx (525) and Rik Van Looy (379) won more road races than Moser, who was at his peak during the late 1970s and early 1980s.  One of his proudest achievements was to break Merckx’s record for the greatest distance covered in one hour.  He became renowned as a specialist in the so-called Monuments, the five road races among what are generally termed the Classics considered to be the oldest, hardest and most prestigious one-day events in cycling.  Of those events, Moser won the Paris-Roubaix three times, the Giro di Lombardia twice and the Milan-San Remo once.  Moser attributed his cycling prowess to growing up on the family farm in Val di Cembra, working in steep-sided vineyards in an era when most of the work was carried out by hand, rather than machinery.  Family members used bicycles to move around the estate.  Read more…


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18 June 2021

18 June

Fabio Capello - football manager

Veteran Champions League winner with five Serie A titles 

Fabio Capello, one of European club football's most successful managers, was born in San Canzian d'Isonzo, close to the border of Italy and Slovenia, on this day in 1946.  Capello is the winner of five Serie A titles as a coach and four as a player, plus two La Liga titles as manager of Real Madrid, and the Champions League with AC Milan.  At the time he was born, San Canzian d'Isonzo was in an area occupied by Allied forces after the end of the Second World War.  Capello’s uncle, Mario Tortul, who was from the same village near Trieste, had been a professional footballer, playing in Serie A with Sampdoria, Triestina and Padova and making one appearance for the Italian national team.  Capello began his playing career at the Ferrara-based SPAL club and went on to represent Roma, Juventus and AC Milan.  A midfielder with an eye for goal, he was a Serie A champion three times with Juventus and once with Milan, also winning the Coppa Italia with Roma and Milan.  He represented Italy 32 times, playing at the 1974 World Cup finals in West Germany.  He regards scoring the only goal against England in 1973 as Italy won at Wembley for the first time in their history as the highlight of his international career.  Read more…

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Raffaella Carrà - entertainer and TV presenter

Much-loved star with long and varied career

Raffaella Carrà, the singer, dancer, television presenter and actress often simply known as la Carrà or Raffaella, was born in Bologna on this day in 1943.  Carrà has become a familiar face on Italian TV screens as the host of many variety shows and, more recently, as a judge on the talent show The Voice of Italy.  She has also enjoyed a recording career spanning 45 years and was a film actress for the best part of 25 years, having made her debut at the age of nine.  Her best-known screen role outside Italy was alongside Frank Sinatra in the hit American wartime drama, Von Ryan’s Express.  Carrà was born Raffaella Maria Roberta Pelloni. Shew grew up in the Adriatic resort of Bellaria-Igea Marina, just north of Rimini, where her father ran a bar and her maternal grandfather an ice cream parlour.  At the age of eight, she won a place at the National Dance Academy in Rome and from there moved to the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia, Italy’s oldest film school.  Her film career was never more than modestly successful. Although she has a long list of credits, she was cast mainly in small parts.   Read more…

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Bartolomeo Ammannati – sculptor and architect

Florentine artist created masterpieces for his home city

Bartolomeo Ammannati, whose buildings in Italy marked the transition from the Renaissance to the Baroque style, was born on this day in 1511 at Settignano near Florence.  Ammannati began his career as a sculptor, carving statues in a number of Italian cities during the 1530s.  He trained first under Baccio Bandinelli and then under Jacopo Sansovino in Venice, working with him on the Library of St Mark, the Biblioteca Marciana, in the Piazzetta.  Pope Julius III called Ammannati to Rome in 1550 on the advice of architect and art historian Giorgio Vasari. Ammannati then worked with Vasari and Giacomo da Vignola on the Villa Giulia, which belonged to the Pope.  In the same year, Ammannati married the poet Laura Battiferri and they spent the early years of their marriage in Rome.  Cosimo I de' Medici brought Ammannati back to Florence in 1555, and it was where he was to spend the rest of his career.  His first job was to finish the Laurentian Library begun by Michelangelo. He interpreted a clay model sent to him by Michelangelo to produce the impressive staircase leading from the vestibule into the library.   Read more…


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17 June 2021

17 June

Rinaldo ‘Dindo’ Capello - endurance racing driver

Three times winner of the Le Mans 24 Hours 

Rinaldo ‘Dindo’ Capello, one of Italy’s most successful endurance racing drivers, was born on this day in 1964 in Asti, in Piedmont.  During a period between 1997 and 2008 in which there was an Italian winning driver in all bar two years, Capello won the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the most prestigious endurance race on the calendar, three times.  Only Emanuele Pirro, his sometime Audi teammate and rival during that period, has more victories in the race among Italian drivers, with five. Pirro won in 2000, 2001, 2002, 2006 and 2007, Capello in 2003, 2004 and 2008.  Capello’s career record also includes two championship wins in the American Le Mans Series and five victories in the 12 Hours of Sebring. He is also the record holder for most wins at Petit Le Mans, the race run annually at Atlanta, Georgia to Le Mans rules, with five.  Alongside teammates Tom Kristensen and Allan McNish, he was regarded as the quiet man of the all-conquering Audi sports car team, although his contribution was every bit as impressive.   Capello’s ambitions when he began his single-seater career were the same as other young drivers - to work his way up to Formula One.  Read more…

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Giovanni Paolo Panini – artist

Painter who preserved scenes of Rome

Giovanni Paolo Panini, an artist mainly known for his views of Rome, was born on this day in 1691 in Piacenza, in Emilia-Romagna.  He is particularly remembered for his view of the interior of the Pantheon, commissioned by the Venetian collector, Francesco Algarotti, in around 1734.  The Pantheon was as much a tourist attraction in Panini’s day as it is today and Panini manipulated the proportions and perspective to include more of the interior that is actually visible from any one vantage point.  Indeed, many of his works, especially those of ruins, have slightly unreal embellishment. He sought to meet the needs of visitors for painted postcards depicting scenes of Italy and his clients were often happy with minor distortions of reality if it meant they could show off a unique picture.   As a young man, Panini trained in Piacenza  but then moved to Rome where he studied drawing. His work was to influence other painters, such as Canaletto, who resolved to do for Venice what Panini had done for Rome and, of course, enjoyed enormous fame and success.  Much in demand, Panini also became famous as the decorator of Roman palaces.  Read more…

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Saint Joseph of Copertino

Flying friar now protects aviators

Saint Joseph, a Franciscan friar who became famous for his miraculous levitation, was born Giuseppe Maria Desa on this day in 1603 in Copertino, a village in Puglia that was then part of the Kingdom of Naples.  Joseph was canonised in 1767, more than 100 years after his death, by Pope Clement XIII and he is now the patron saint for astronauts and aviation.  Joseph’s father, Felice Desa, had died before his birth leaving large debts. After the family home was seized to settle what was owed, his mother, Francesca Panara, was forced to give birth to him in a stable.  Joseph experienced ecstatic visions as a child at school. When he was scorned by other children he had outbursts of anger.  He was apprenticed to a shoemaker but when he applied to join the Franciscan friars he was rejected because of his lack of education.  He was accepted in 1620 as a lay brother by the Capuchin friars only to be dismissed because his constant ecstasies made him unfit to carry out his required duties.  Forced to return home he pleaded with the Franciscan friars near Copertino to be allowed to work in their stables.  Read more…

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Sergio Marchionne - business leader

Man who saved Fiat divides opinions in Italy

Controversial business leader Sergio Marchionne was born on this day in 1952 in the city of Chieti in the Abruzzo region of Italy.  The former chief executive of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, who died in 2018, was credited with saving the iconic Italian motor manufacturer from potential extinction in 2004, when Fiat was on the verge of being taken into the ownership of the banks that were keeping it afloat.  It had suffered cumulative losses of more than $8 billion over the previous two years and a strategic alliance with General Motors had failed. Its share of the European car market had shrunk to an historic low of just 5.8 per cent.  Yet after the little known Marchionne was appointed chief executive at the company's Turin headquarters it took him only just over a year to bring Fiat back into profit.  When Fiat opened a new assembly line at the Mirafiori plant outside Turin in 2006, Marchionne was hailed as a hero.  The inauguration celebrations were attended by politicians of all parties and trade union leaders.  Soon, the new Fiat 500 was launched, tapping into Italian nostalgia by reprising the name that was synonymous with the optimistic years of the 1950s and 60s.  Read more…


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16 June 2021

16 June

Giacomo Agostini - world motorcycle champion

Brescia-born rider enjoyed record-breaking career 

Giacomo Agostini, 15 times Grand Prix world motorcycling champion, was born on this day in 1942 in Brescia. Agostini moved with his family to the lakeside town of Lovere, which overlooks the picturesque Lago d'Iseo, when he was 13.   Riding for the Italian MV Agusta team, Agostini won the 500cc class seven times in a row from 1966 to 1972 and the 350cc class seven times in succession from 1968 to 1974, adding a further 500cc title on a Yamaha in 1975.  His total of 122 Grand Prix wins from 1965 to 1976 is the highest by any rider in the history of the sport. Agostini, considered perhaps the greatest motorcycle racer of all time, was at the peak of his powers between 1967 and 1970.  In 1967, he won an epic duel with his former MV Agusta teammate, Britain's Mike Hailwood, who was riding for Honda.  They were tied on five race wins each going into the final GP of the season in Canada, where Hailwood won, with his rival second.  That meant they were tied on points and wins, but Agostini had a greater number of second place finishes and so he was crowned champion.  For the next three seasons, after Hailwood left motorcycle racing to race cars, Agostini dominated.  Read more…

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Pietro Bracci - sculptor

Artist best known for Oceanus statue at Trevi Fountain

The sculptor Pietro Bracci, who left his mark on the architectural landscape of Rome with the colossal six-metre high statue Oceanus that towers over the Trevi Fountain, was born on this day in 1700 in Rome.  The monumental figure is shown standing on a chariot, in the form of a shell, pulled by two winged horses flanked by two tritons. Bracci worked from sketches by Giovanni Battista Maini, who died before he could execute the project.  He also completed work on the fountain itself, built in front of Luigi Vanvitelli’s Palazzo Poli. This was started by Bracci’s close friend Nicola Salvi, who had been commissioned by Pope Clement XII to realize plans drawn up by Gian Lorenzo Bernini that had been shelved in the previous century. Salvi died in 1751, before he could complete the work. Giuseppe Pannini was also involved for a while before Bracci took over in 1761.  The work confirmed Bracci as a major talent of his time in the field of sculpture, one of the greatest of the late Baroque period, continuing in the tradition established by Bernini in the previous century that gave the city of Rome so many wonderful monuments.  Read more…

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Achille Lauro - shipping magnate and politician

Businessman once dubbed the ‘Neapolitan Onassis’

The businessman and politician Achille Lauro, who at his peak controlled the largest private shipping fleet in the Mediterranean and whose achievements as Mayor of Naples included building the San Paolo football stadium and the city’s main railway station, was born on this day in 1887 in Piano di Sorrento in Campania.  Lauro inherited a small number of ships from his father, Gioacchino, but lost them at the start of the First World War, when they were requisitioned by the government. When the conflict ended he had no money but managed to launch another fleet by creating a company that was essentially owned by its employees, who invested their savings in return for a share of the profits and a guarantee of employment.  Within little more than a decade, Flotta Lauro consisted of 21 vessels. Lauro's business plan avoided the union problems that were prevalent in the 1920s as his staff concentrated on making the business profitable, knowing that they would benefit too.  The company became renowned both for reliable service and punctuality and grew rapidly. By the 1930s Lauro owned the largest private fleet in the Mediterranean basin.  Read more…

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Mario Rigoni Stern – author

Brave soldier became a bestselling novelist

The novelist Mario Rigoni Stern, who was a veteran of World War II, died on this day in 2008 in Asiago in the Veneto region.  His first novel, Il sergente della neve - The Sergeant in the snow - was published in 1953. It drew upon his experiences as a sergeant major in the Alpine corps during the disastrous retreat from Russia in the Second World War. It became a best seller and was translated into English and Spanish.  Rigoni Stern had been a sergeant commanding a platoon in Mussolini’s army in the Soviet Union during the retreat of the Italians in the winter of 1942.  His book was inspired by how he succeeded in leading 70 survivors on foot from the Ukraine into what was then White Russia - now part of Belarus - and back to Italy.  It won the Viareggio Prize for best debut novel and went on to sell more than a million copies.  At the time the author said it was not written to claim a role for him as a hero, but as a tribute to his fellow soldiers and the ordinary Russians who gave them shelter.  Rigoni Stern was born in Asiago in the Veneto and became a cadet at the military academy at Aosta in 1938.  Read more…


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15 June 2021

15 June

NEW
- Carlo Scorza - politician and journalist

Blackshirt who was last party secretary of Mussolini’s Fascists 

Carlo Scorza, who rose to prominence with the Fascist paramilitary group known as the Blackshirts and was the last party secretary of Benito Mussolini’s regime, was born on this day in 1897 in Paolo, a seaside town in Calabria.  Scorza fought with the Italian Army’s Bersaglieri corps during World War One. After the war he became a member of Mussolini’s fasci italiani di combattimento, the organisation that was the forerunner of the National Fascist Party.  Such was his loyalty to Mussolini even as the course of the Second World War turned against Italy that the dictator appointed him secretary of the party in April 1943, although the position ceased to exist when the party was dissolved in July of that year after Mussolini was deposed as leader and arrested.  After growing up on his father’s small farm in Calabria, Scorza moved with his family to Lucca in Tuscany, where ultimately he studied to be an accountant. He supported Italy’s involvement in the First World War and after joining the Bersaglieri, a highly mobile infantry corps, he rose to the rank of tenente (Lieutenant).  When the conflict ended, Scorza returned to the Lucca area. He joined Mussolini’s party and became involved in acts of violence against communists and socialists.  Read more…

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Lisa del Giocondo – the Mona Lisa

Florentine wife and mother who became a global icon

Merchant’s wife Lisa del Giocondo, who has been identified as the model for the Mona Lisa, was born on this day in 1479 in Florence.  Her enigmatic beauty was immortalised by Leonardo da Vinci in the early part of the 16th century when he painted her portrait, a major work of art known as the Mona Lisa, which is now in the Louvre in Paris.  The painting, sometimes known as La Gioconda, has become a global icon that has been used in other works of art, illustrations and advertising.  The face of the Mona Lisa belongs to a woman who was born as Lisa Gherardini into a well-off Tuscan family. When she was still in her teens she was married to Francesco di Bartolomeo di Zanobi del Giocondo, a successful cloth and silk merchant who was much older than her. They had five children together.   In 1503, when the couple were living in the Via della Stufa, it is thought Leonardo da Vinci started work on her portrait.  Francesco later became an official in Florence and is believed to have had connections with the Medici family.  In June 1537 he made provision for Lisa in his will, referring to the ‘affection and love of the testator towards Mona Lisa, his beloved wife.’  Read more…

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Carlo Cattaneo - philosopher and writer

Intellectual who became a key figure in Milan uprising

Carlo Cattaneo, the philosopher and political writer who emerged as a leader in the so-called Five Days of Milan, the 1848 rebellion against the harsh rule of Austria, was born on this day in 1801 in Milan.  An influential figure in academic and intellectual circles in Milan, whose ideas helped shape the Risorgimento, Cattaneo was fundamentally against violence as a means to achieve change.  Yet when large-scale rioting broke out in the city in March 1848 he joined other intellectuals bringing organisation to the insurrection and succeeded in driving out Austrian’s occupying army, at least temporarily.  The uprising happened against a backcloth of social reform in other parts of the peninsula, in Rome and further south in Salerno, Naples and Sicily.  By contrast, the Austrians, who ruled most of northern Italy, sought to strengthen their grip by imposing harsh tax increases on the citizens and sent out tax collectors, supported by the army, to ensure that everybody paid.  Cattaneo, who published his philosophical and political ideas in a journal entitled Il Politecnico, considered negotiation was the best way to represent the grievances of Milanese citizens.  Read more…

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Hugo Pratt – comic book creator

Talented writer and artist travelled widely

The creator of the comic book character, Corto Maltese, was born Hugo Eugenio Pratt on this day in 1927 in Rimini.  Pratt became a famous comic book writer and artist and was renowned for combining strong storytelling with extensive historical research.  His most famous character, Corto Maltese, came into being when he started a magazine with Florenzo Ivaldi.  Pratt spent most of his childhood in Venice with his parents, Rolando Pratt and Evelina Genero. His paternal grandfather, Joseph Pratt, was English and Hugo Pratt was related to the actor, Boris Karloff, who was born William Henry Pratt.  Hugo Pratt moved to Ethiopia with his mother in the late 1930s to join his father, who was working there following the conquest of the country by Benito Mussolini.  Pratt’s father was later captured by British troops and died from disease while he was a prisoner of war.  Pratt and his mother were interned in a prison camp where he would regularly buy comics from the guards.  After the war, Pratt returned to Venice where he organised entertainment for the Allied troops. He later joined what became known as ‘the Venice group’ with other Italian cartoonists, including Alberto Ongaro and Mario Faustinelli.  Read more…


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