31 December 2021

31 December

Giovanni Michelucci - architect

Designer made mark with railway station and motorway church

The architect Giovanni Michelucci, whose major legacies include the Santa Maria Novella railway station in Florence, died on this day in 1990 in his studio just outside the Tuscan city at Fiesole.  Considered by many to be the 'father' of modern Italian architecture, he was only two days away from his 100th birthday.  He was still working and is said to have been inspecting progress on his latest project when he slipped and fell, later suffering a cardiac arrest.  Michelucci, who was born in Pistoia on January 2, 1891, is also remembered for the brilliantly unconventional church of San Giovanni Battista, with its tent-like curved roof, which forms part of a rest area on the Autostrada del Sole as it passes Florence.  The Santa Maria Novella station project for which he first won acclaim came after a collective of young architects known as the Tuscan Group, co-ordinated by Michelucci, beat more than 100 other entries in a national competition in the early 1930s to build a new station behind the church of the same name.  The linear design was loathed by conservatives but loved by modernists, although it could not be said to conform to the style identifiable as Fascist architecture in Italy at the time.  Read more…


Festa di San Silvestro – Feast of Saint Sylvester

Celebrating with a meal of pork and lentils for a prosperous New Year

New Year’s Eve in Italy is known as the Festa di San Silvestro in memory of Pope Sylvester I who died on this day in 335 in Rome.  It is not a public holiday in Italy but in normal times it is a festive time everywhere, with firework displays, concerts and parties.  One custom still followed in some parts of Italy is throwing your old things out of the window at midnight to symbolise your readiness to accept the New Year.  Throughout Italy, bars and restaurants are busy with residents and visitors enjoying drinks and meals before seeing in the New Year in the main square when the bells ring at midnight.  Popular menu items include cotechino (Italian sausage), zampone (stuffed pig’s trotter) and lenticchie (lentils).  Pork is said to represent the fullness or richness of life, while lentils are supposed to symbolise wealth or money. Many Italians believe the coming year could bring prosperity if these foods are eaten on New Year’s Eve.  The President of the Republic delivers an end of year message from the Quirinale in Rome, which is shown on most Italian television channels during the evening. There are live concerts in the open air in many squares throughout Italy, some of which are televised.  Read more…


Eleonora Gonzaga, Duchess of Urbino

Image of wise ruler has been preserved in paintings

Eleonora Gonzaga, a noble woman who was painted four times by Titian, was born on this day in 1493 in Mantua.  When she was 15 she married Francesco Maria I della Rovere, Duke of Urbino, the 16-year-old nephew of Pope Julius II and the marriage was celebrated at the Vatican in Rome.  Eleonora, along with the dowager duchess, Elisabetta Montefeltro, became largely responsible for the internal government of the duchy because Francesco was a captain in the papal army and often absent from Urbino. She also became an important patron of the arts.  Eleonora was the eldest of the seven children of Francesco II Gonzaga, Marquess of Mantua and Isabella d’Este. Although her father was a notorious libertine, her mother was also famous for being a patron of the arts. As a result, Eleonora was well educated in reading, writing, Latin, music and needlework, which had made her cultured and very suitable for marriage with another member of the nobility.  But, within six years of their marriage, the fortunes of Eleonora and her husband, Francesco, changed suddenly. The new pope, Leo X, ordered Francesco to lead an army in the pope’s planned invasion of France.  Read more…


Giovanni Boldini – artist and portraitist

Sought-after painter who captured elegance of Belle Époque

Giovanni Boldini, whose sumptuous images of the rich and famous made him the most fashionable portrait painter in Paris during the Belle Époque era of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, was born in Ferrara on this day in 1842.  His subjects included some famous names, including the opera composer Giuseppe Verdi and the actress Sarah Bernhardt, and he had countless commissions from prominent individuals in Parisian society.  Boldini's skill was to capture his subject in soft-focus, elongating their features to accentuate beauty and creating a sense of motion in the figures so that they appeared to be both sophisticated and full of life.  He dressed his subjects in sumptuous gowns that would grace any fashion catwalk and society women in particular felt the need to confirm their status by having a Boldini portrait to show off to their friends and demanded that their wealthy husbands arrange a sitting.  Boldini came from an artistic background.  His father, Antonio, painted religious figures and scenes and had a house in Via Voltapaletto, which links Ferrara’s cathedral with the Basilica of San Francesco.  Read more…


Giovanni Pascoli – poet

Painful childhood inspired great verse

Giovanni Placido Agostino Pascoli, who was regarded as the greatest Italian poet writing at the beginning of the 20th century, was born on this day in 1855 in San Mauro di Romagna, then part of the Kingdom of Sardinia.  Pascoli’s poems in Latin won prizes and he was regarded by the writer Gabriele D’Annunzio as the finest Latin poet since the Augustan age, which lasted from approximately 43 BC to AD 18 and was thought to be the golden age of Latin literature.  Although Pascoli was the fourth of ten children, his family were comfortable financially and his father, Ruggero Pascoli, was administrator of an estate of farmland on which they lived.  But when Giovanni Pascoli was just 12 years old, his father, returning from Cesena in a carriage drawn by a black and white mare, was shot and killed by an assassin hiding in a ditch at the side of the road. The mare carried on slowly and brought home the body of her master, Ruggero, but the murderer was never brought to justice.  Giovanni Pascoli’s mother died the following year and five other children in the family had also died before he became an adult.  Read more…

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30 December 2021

30 December

Titus – Roman Emperor

'Good' ruler who helped victims of Vesuvius eruption

The Roman Emperor Titus was born Titus Flavius Vespasianus on this day in AD 39.  He was Emperor from AD 79 to 81 and is remembered for capturing Jerusalem and for completing the Colosseum in Rome.  Two months after his accession, on August 24, AD 79, Mount Vesuvius in Campania began erupting, eventually killing thousands of people around Pompeii and Herculaneum.  Titus appointed officials to coordinate the relief effort, while donating large amounts of money from the imperial treasury to aid the victims. He visited Pompeii twice.  Titus was a member of the Flavian dynasty and succeeded his father Vespasian after his death, becoming the first Roman emperor to come to the throne after his biological father.  Titus was believed to have been born in Rome on December 30, AD 39, the eldest son of Titus Flavius Vespasianus, who was commonly known as Vespasian.  His father had earned prestige as a military commander, taking part in the invasion of Britain in AD 43 under the emperor Claudius.  Titus served under his father in Judea during the first Jewish-Roman war.  Read more…


Galeazzo Alessi – architect

Brilliant designer left legacy of beautiful palaces and churches

Italian architect Galeazzo Alessi, who designed some of the most impressive buildings in Genoa and Assisi, died on this day in 1572.  Born in Perugia in 1512, Alessi studied drawing for both civil and military architecture and developed great enthusiasm for ancient architecture, although he was also later influenced by Michelangelo.  He became known throughout Europe for his distinctive style and towards the end of his career was commissioned to design churches and palaces in France, Germany, Belgium and Spain.  A lot of his work can still be seen in Perugia and Assisi, where, in collaboration with another architect, Alessi designed the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli in 1568.  In Genoa he designed some of the beautiful palaces with ornate decoration that have now been listed as Unesco world heritage sites and he was involved in planning the lay-out of the streets and the restoration of the city walls.  Alessi died at the age of 60 in Perugia before the designs that he had drawn up for El Escorial, the residence of the King of Spain, could be carried out.  Perugia, Alessi’s home town, is the capital city of the region of Umbria and one of the main Etruscan cities of Italy.  Read more…


Alessandra Mussolini – politician

Controversial granddaughter of Fascist dictator

The MEP Alessandra Mussolini, niece of actress Sophia Loren and granddaughter of Italy’s former Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, was born on this day in 1962 in Rome.  Formerly an actress and model, Mussolini entered politics in the early 1990s as a member of the neofascist Movimento Sociale Italiano, which had its roots in the Italian Social Republic, the German puppet state led by her grandfather from September 1943 until his death in April 1945.  Her views have changed in more recent years and she has become known for embracing modern issues including abortion, artificial insemination, gay rights and civil unions from a progressive standpoint that has more in common with left-wing feminism.  She has left behind her association with the far right and serves on the European Parliament as representative for Central Italy under a centre-right Forza Italia ticket.  However, she is not without some admiration for the policies of her grandfather.  Only recently she caused consternation when asked her opinion on what to do about an escalating Mafia war in the Roman seaside resort of Ostia by claiming that “granddad would have sorted this out in two or three months.”  Read more…


Camila Giorgi - tennis player

Italian who specialises in beating big names

The tennis player Camila Giorgi was born on this day in 1991 in Macerata, a city in the Marche region.  Giorgi rose to 26 in the Women’s Tennis Association world rankings at the end of 2018, at which time there was no other Italian woman in the top 100.  This followed a breakthrough year for Giorgi in which she reached the quarter-finals of a Grand Slam event for the first time, at the Wimbledon Championships in London in June.  Giorgi was not seeded but after defeating 21st seed Anastasija Sevastova in the first round, she advanced through her section of the draw with three more victories, culminating in a straight-sets win over former world No 8 Ekaterina Makarova in the fourth round.  That earned Giorgi a last-eight meeting with seven-times Wimbledon champion and world record grand slam winner Serena Williams.  Giorgi won the first set but Williams fought back to win the match.  Earlier in the 2018 summer, Giorgi had delivered her best performance at the French Open by reaching the third round. Later in the year, she won her second career WTA tournament, the Linz Open in Austria.  Read more…


29 December 2021

29 December

- The opening of Venice’s historic Caffè Florian

Meeting place on St Mark’s Square became an institution

Venice’s famous Caffè Florian opened its doors for the first time on this day in 1720.  Florian’s nowadays occupies a long stretch of the arcades on the southern side of Piazza San Marco, its seats stretching out across the square with a permanent orchestra in residence to entertain clients. Yet the original consisted of just two rooms.  It was officially given the grand title of Alla Venezia Trionfante (“To Triumphant Venice”), but soon became known as Florian’s after the owner, Floriano Francesconi.  The cafè’s 301-year history makes it the oldest still-active coffee house in Italy and the second oldest in Europe behind the Café Procope in Paris, which was founded in 1686.  Florian’s soon became a fashionable meeting place for Venetian society, especially its writers. Among its 18th century clientele were the Venetian playwright and librettist Carlo Goldoni and the German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, while the writer and adventurer Giacomo Casanova is said to have been regularly seen there, possibly drawn by the cafè’s then-unusual policy of opening its doors to women.  When the critic and dramatist Gasparo Gozzi launched his literary magazine Gazzetta Veneta in 1760, Florian’s agreed to help him publicise his venture and sell copies.  Read more…


Gaetano Russo - sculptor

Creator of New York’s Christopher Columbus Monument

The sculptor Gaetano Russo, famous for having created the monument dedicated to Christopher Columbus at Columbus Circle in New York, was born on this day in 1847 in the Sicilian city of Messina.  Russo’s 13ft (3.96m) statue of the 15th century Genoese explorer, carved from a block of Carrara marble, stands on top of a 70ft (21.3m) granite column, decorated with bronze reliefs depicting the Niña, the Pinta and the Santa Maria, Columbus’s three caravel sailing ships.  At the foot of the column there is an angel holding the globe.  Unveiled on October 12, 1892 on the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s voyage to the Americas, the statue was a gift to the city from New York’s Italian-American community, funded by a campaign by an Italian-language newspaper, Il Progresso.  For the laying of the statue’s cornerstone, a procession took place from Little Italy to what is now called Columbus Circle, at the southern end of Central Park, a distance of 6.5km (4.2 miles). Close to 10,000 people are said to have attended the dedication ceremony.  Additional ornamentation around the base of the column depicts Columbus’s journey, American patriotic symbols, and allegorical figures.  Read more…


Luigi Olivari – flying ace

First World War pilot claimed 19 victories

Lieutenant Luigi Olivari, a pilot in the military aviation corps of the Royal Italian Army who was decorated with a string of awards for valour in action, was born on this day in 1891 in La Spezia, the maritime city on the coast of what is now Liguria.  Olivari became a proficient aerial duellist, claiming to have downed 19 enemy aircraft as Italian planes took on Austro-Hungarian opponents after Italy had joined the war on the side of the Triple Entente of Britain, France and Russia.  Only eight of these were confirmed, yet Olivari was awarded four silver and two bronze medals for valour by the Italian government, as well as the French Croix de guerre and the Serbian Order of the Star of Karadorde.  The last of his silver medals was awarded posthumously after he was killed on October 13, 1917 when his Spad VII aircraft stalled and crashed during take-off at the Santa Caterina airfield just outside Udine in northwest Italy.  Born to middle-class parents in La Spezia, as a boy he moved with his family to Turin.  A good all-round sportsman and an accomplished motorcyclist, Olivari entered the school for civil pilots at Mirafiori, just outside Turin.  Read more…


Tullio Levi-Civita – mathematician

Professor from Padua who was admired by Einstein

Tullio Levi-Civita, the mathematician renowned for his work in differential calculus and relativity theory, died on this day in 1941 in Rome.  With the collaboration of Gregorio Ricci-Curbastro, his professor at the University of Padua, Levi-Civita wrote a pioneering work on the calculus of tensors. Albert Einstein is said to have used this work as a resource in the development of the theory of general relativity.  Levi-Civita corresponded with Einstein about his theory of relativity between 1915 and 1917 and the letters he received from Einstein, carefully kept by Levi-Civita, show how much the two men respected each other.  Years later, when asked what he liked best about Italy, Einstein is reputed to have said ‘spaghetti and Levi-Civita.’  The mathematician, who was born into an Italian Jewish family in Padua in 1873, became an instructor at the University of Padua in 1898 after completing his own studies.  He became a professor of rational mechanics there in 1902 and married one of his own students, Libera Trevisani, in 1914.  In 1917, having been inspired by Einstein’s theory of general relativity, Levi-Civita made his most important contribution to this branch of mathematics.  Read more…


Stefano Eranio – footballer

Fast forward made his mark in England’s Premier League

Italy international footballer Stefano Eranio was born on this day in 1966 in Genoa, the main city of Liguria.  He represented his country 20 times between 1990 and 1997 but is most remembered for his playing career with AC Milan and Genoa.  A midfield player or wing-back, Eranio had brilliant technique, good pace and the ability to make attacking runs.  Towards the end of his career he played in the English Premier League for Derby County and was made an official ‘Derby Legend’ in 2006.  Eranio began his career with Genoa in 1984.  He played for them for eight seasons before moving to A C Milan in 1992.  At Milan he won three league titles, three Italian Super Cups and played in two Champions League finals.  Eranio’s first international goal was against the Netherlands in 1992 when Italy won the match 3-2. In 1997 he played his last game for Italy, helping them beat Moldova 3–0.  When he moved to Derby County in the Midlands of England, Eranio quickly became a favourite with the fans as part of an exciting team that included another Italian player, Francesco Baiano.  Eranio is credited with scoring the first goal in a competitive match at Derby's Pride Park Stadium.  Read more…


The opening of Venice’s historic Caffè Florian

Meeting place on St Mark’s Square became an institution

The Caffè Florian took its name from its
original owner, Floriano Francesconi
Venice’s famous Caffè Florian opened its doors for the first time on this day in 1720.

Florian’s nowadays occupies a long stretch of the arcades on the southern side of Piazza San Marco, its seats stretching out across the square with a permanent orchestra in residence to entertain clients. Yet the original consisted of just two rooms. 

It was officially given the grand title of Alla Venezia Trionfante (“To Triumphant Venice”), but soon became known as Florian’s after the owner, Floriano Francesconi.

The cafè’s 301-year history makes it the oldest still-active coffee house in Italy and the second oldest in Europe behind the Café Procope in Paris, which was founded in 1686. 

Florian’s soon became a fashionable meeting place for Venetian society, especially its writers. Among its 18th century clientele were the Venetian playwright and librettist Carlo Goldoni and the German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, while the writer and adventurer Giacomo Casanova is said to have been regularly seen there, possibly drawn by the cafè’s then-unusual policy of opening its doors to women.

Florian's sits under the arcade on the southern side of the piazza
Florian's sits under the arcade on
the southern side of the piazza
When the critic and dramatist Gasparo Gozzi launched his literary magazine Gazzetta Veneta in 1760, Florian’s agreed to help him publicise his venture and sell copies.

Its popularity with writers continued in the 19th century, when the growing number of tourists visiting Venice might have found themselves sitting at the next table to English poet Lord Byron, the French novelist Marcel Proust or the increasingly popular English novelist Charles Dickens. 

Florian’s would remain in family ownership for more than a century. After the death of Floriano, his grandson, Valentino Francesconi, took over the running of the establishment in 1773 - by then expanded to four rooms - and he in turn handed it on to his son, Antonio, in 1810.

In the late 18th century, in the last days of the Republic of Venice, Florian’s was closed on order of the authorities, who were worried that its rooms were being used by would-be revolutionaries encouraged by the uprising in France that had toppled the French court of Louis XVI.  In the event, it was only a matter of months before the army of Napoleon Bonaparte began to support the Venice revolutionaries and the cafè was allowed to re-open.  

Today, Florian’s is known for its sumptuous elegance and for its art, a tradition that stems from its change of hands in 1858, which marked an era of new ownership outside the Francesconi family.  The new proprietors commissioned the architect and designer Lodovico Cadorin to undertake a substantial renovation project.

Cadorin transformed its four rooms, which emerged on the completion of his work as the Sala del Senato (Senate Room), the Sala Greca (Greek Room), the Sala Cinese (Chinese Room) and the Sala Orientale (Oriental Room).

Inside the sumptuously decorated Sala del Senato, one of Florian's several elegant rooms
Inside the sumptuously decorated Sala del Senato,
one of Florian's several elegant rooms
The Senate Room was notable for its paintings by Giacomo Casa, mainly themed around the progress of civilisation and science, while both the Chinese and Oriental Rooms were decorated by Antonio Pascuti, whose paintings had an exotic nature inspired by the art of the Far East.

The Sala degli Uomini Illustri (Hall of the Illustrious Men) was decorated by Giulio Carlini with paintings of notable Venetians; Vincenzo Rota’s decorations in the Sala degli Specchi (Hall of Mirrors) represented the four seasons.

Having been suspected of being a centre of revolutionary plotting in the 18th century, Florian’s openly played a part in the upheavals of the 19th century. The Senate Room became a meeting point for Venetian patriots eager to promote the cause of the Risorgimento and was used as a temporary hospital as Venetians fought to expel the occupying forces of Austria from the city in 1866.

More peaceful times followed, and early in the 20th century, Florian’s followed the fashion in central Europe for providing entertainment for its clients with daily concerts, a practice that soon led to the appointment of a resident orchestra. At around the same time, a seventh room was added, given the name of Sala Liberty, decorated in an art nouveau style.

The cafè’s position in the Venetian art world had taken on a new dimension in 1893 when it became home to the Esposizione Internazionale d'Arte Contemporanea (International Exhibition of Contemporary Art), known today as the Venice Biennale.  Since 1988, Florian’s has hosted a contemporary art exhibition that takes place every two years in conjunction with the modern Biennale.

Piazza San Marco is often thronged with visitors
Piazza San Marco is often
thronged with visitors
Travel tip:

Piazza San Marco, often known by its English name, St Mark's Square, is Venice’s main public space. It has the distinction of being one of only two squares in Venice to be known as piazza (Piazzale Roma is the other one). All the other open spaces in the city are called campi, campo being the Italian word for field. Along with the Piazzetta, which connects the main Piazza to the waterfront, San Marco has become the religious, political and social centre of the city. It flanks the Basilica di San Marco, the city’s cathedral church, and the Doge’s Palace, which was the traditional seat of government when Venice was an independent state, while also playing host on opposite sides to two of the city’s most famous cafes, Florian and Quadri.  Napoleon Bonaparte is said to have dubbed the square as ‘the drawing room of Europe’.

The gold mosaics that adorn the facade of Basilica San Marco led it to be nicknamed Chiesa d'Oro
The gold mosaics that adorn the facade of Basilica
San Marco led it to be nicknamed Chiesa d'Oro
Travel tip:

The Basilica di San Marco is one of the best examples of Italo-Byzantine architecture in existence. Because of its opulent design and gold ground mosaics it became a symbol of Venetian wealth and power and has been nicknamed Chiesa d’Oro (Church of Gold). The spacious interior with its multiple choir lofts inspired the development of the Venetian polychoral style used by the Gabrielis, uncle and nephew, and Claudio Monteverdi. The original church on the site of the basilica may have been built in the ninth century, although the earliest recorded mention was dated 1084. It has been rebuilt several times, the present neoclassical church dating from a rebuilding of 1795-1806, for patrician Pietro Zaguri, by Giannantonio Selva.

Also on this day:

1847: The birth of the sculptor Gaetano Russo

1891: The birth of WW1 flying ace Luigi Olivari

1941: The death of mathematician Tullio Levi-Civita

1966: The birth of footballer Stefano Eranio


28 December 2021

28 December

Piero the Unfortunate – Medici ruler

Ill-fated son of Lorenzo the Magnificent

Piero di Lorenzo de’ Medici, later dubbed Piero the Unfortunate or The Fatuous, died on this day in 1503, drowning in the Garigliano river, south of Rome, as he attempted to flee following a military defeat.  The eldest son of Lorenzo the Magnificent, Piero was handed power in Florence at the age of 21 following the death of his father.  He was a physically handsome young man who had been educated specifically so that he would be ready to succeed his father as head of the Medici family and de facto ruler of Florence.  Yet he turned out to be a feeble, ill-disciplined character who was not suited to leadership and who earned his unflattering soubriquet on account of his poor judgment in military and political matters, which ultimately led to the Medici family being exiled from Florence.  Piero took over as leader of Florence in 1492. Initially there was calm but the peace between the Italian states for which his father had worked tirelessly to achieve collapsed in 1494 when King Charles VIII of France led an army across the Alps with the intention to march on the Kingdom of Naples, claiming hereditary rights.  Read more…


The Cervi brothers - partisans

Anti-Fascists murdered by Nazi firing squad

Seven brothers belonging to a single family from the northern Italian city of Reggio Emilia were shot dead by a firing squad on this day in 1943 in a massacre that has since become a symbol of Italian resistance to authoritarian rule and the overthrow of Fascism.  The Fratelli Cervi - Cervi brothers - the seven sons of a militant communist tenant farmer called Alcide Cervi, had been in prison for more than a month on suspicion of anti-Fascist activity following a raid on the family farm at Praticello di Gattatico, a village about 15km (nine miles) northwest of Reggio Emilia.  They were taken at dawn on 28 December to the city’s shooting range, where soldiers loyal to Benito Mussolini’s Italian Social Republic lined them up against a wall and shot them dead, it is thought in reprisal for the murder of two Fascist officials.  Their father, who had been held in a different part of the St Thomas prison in Reggio Emilia, did not learn of the fate of his sons until January of the following year, after damage to the prison in an air raid allowed him to escape.  Alcide - who came to be known to Italians as Papa Cervi - was a successful tenant farmer who had helped introduce modern farming techniques, such as crop rotation, to the Po Valley.  Read more…


Catastrophic tremor of 1908 may have killed up to 200,000

The most destructive earthquake ever to strike Europe brought devastation to the cities of Messina and Reggio Calabria on this day in 1908.  With its epicentre beneath the Strait of Messina, which separates Sicily from the Italian mainland, the quake had a magnitude of 7.1 and caused the ground to shake for between 30 and 40 seconds.  It was enough to cause such catastrophic damage that Messina, on the Sicilian side, and Reggio Calabria, on the mainland side, were almost completely destroyed.  The loss of life was huge because the earthquake happened at 5.21am, when most residents were still in bed.  An unknown number were swept away by the tsunami that struck both cities 10 minutes after the major tremor had stopped, when the sea on both sides of the Strait receded up to 70 metres and then rushed back towards the land, generating three massive waves, each taller than the one that preceded it, up to a height of 12 metres (39 feet).  At least 75,000 people were killed in Messina alone, where 91 per cent of buildings were either destroyed or damaged beyond repair.  The Norman cathedral, which had withstood a series of five quakes in 1783, was reduced this time to a partial shell.  Read more…


Death of Victor Emmanuel III

King loses his life after just 18 months in exile 

Victor Emmanuel III, Italy’s longest reigning King, died on this day in 1947.  The previous year he had abdicated his throne in favour of his son, King Umberto II.  Victor Emmanuel III had been hoping this would strengthen support for the monarchy in advance of the referendum asking the country if they wanted to abolish it.  Earlier in his reign he had been popular with the people and respected for his military success, but opinion changed after the Second World War.  Vittorio Emanuele III di Savoia was born in Naples in 1869. The only child of King Umberto I and Queen Margherita of Savoy, he was given the title of Prince of Naples.  He became King of Italy in 1900 after his father was assassinated in Monza.  At the height of his popularity he was nicknamed by the Italians Re soldato (soldier King) and Re vittorioso (victorious King) because of Italy’s success in battle during the First World War. He was also called sciaboletta (little sabre) as he was only five feet (1.53m) tall.  Italy had remained neutral at the start of the First World War but signed treaties to go into the war on the side of France, Britain and Russia in 1915.  Read more…


Battle of Ortona 

Adriatic port liberated by Canadians at huge cost

Canadian troops fighting with the Allies liberated the Adriatic port of Ortona from the Germans on this day in 1943 after one of the bloodiest battles of the Italian Campaign.  The Battle of Ortona and other confrontations close to the nearby Moro river, which encompassed the whole Christmas period, claimed almost 2,400 lives.  It was characterised by brutal close-quarters fighting and is sometimes known as “the Italian Stalingrad”, partly because of the high number of casualties but also because of the backcloth of destroyed buildings and rubble.  Although the battalions of German paratroopers holding the strategic port were defeated, casualties on the Canadian side were greater, with 1,375 soldiers from the Canadian 1st Infantry Division killed and 964 wounded, against 867 Germans killed.  In addition, more than 1,300 civilians died.  The Canadian deaths amounted to more than a quarter of their entire losses in the whole of the Italian Campaign, which spanned 22 months as Allied forces fought their way up the peninsula.  Ortona, in the Abruzzo region, had some strategic importance as one of the few usable deep water ports on the Adriatic coast. Read more…


Francesco Tamagno - operatic tenor

19th century star was first to sing Verdi’s Otello

The operatic tenor Francesco Tamagno, most famous for singing the title role at the premiere of Giuseppe Verdi’s Otello at Teatro alla Scala in Milan in 1887, was born on this day in 1850 in Turin.  Tamagno, whose powerful voice and range put him a category of singers known as heroic tenors by being naturally suited to heroic roles, developed a reputation that enabled him to command high fees around the world and amass a considerable fortune.  During a career that spanned 32 years from his debut in 1873 to his premature death at the age of 54, Tamagno sang in some 55 operas and sacred works in 26 countries.  In addition to his association with Otello, he also was the first Gabriele Adorno in Verdi's 1881 revision of Simon Boccanegra, and appeared in the premiere of Verdi's Italian-language version of Don Carlos when it was staged at La Scala in 1884.  Five other operas in which Tamagno is acknowledged as the creator of leading roles include Carlos Gomes's Maria Tudor, Amilcare Ponchielli's Il figliol prodigo and Marion Delorme, Ruggero Leoncavallo's I Medici and Isidore de Lara's Messaline.  Read more…


27 December 2021

27 December

Tito Schipa – operatic tenor

Star on two continents whose voice divided opinions

Tito Schipa, one of the most popular opera singers in the first half of the 20th century who sang to packed houses in the United States and South America as well as in Italy, was born on this day in 1888 in Lecce.  The tenor, whose repertoire included Verdi and Puccini roles in the early part of his career and later encompassed works by Donizetti, Cilea and Massanet, rose from modest beginnings to find fame with the Chicago and New York Metropolitan opera companies in America.  He also appeared regularly in Buenos Aires in Argentina and later in his career starred regularly at Teatro alla Scala in Milan and the Rome Opera.  Some critics said his voice lacked power and had too narrow a range for him to be considered a genuinely great tenor, yet he overcame his perceived limitations to become extremely popular with the public wherever he performed.  Schipa was born Raffaele Attilio Amedeo Schipa in the Le Scalze district of Lecce, a fairly working class neighbourhood in the Puglian city.  His family were of Albanian heritage. His father was a customs officer.  His talent was first noted by a primary school teacher in Lecce.  Read more…


Terrorist attack at Fiumicino

Horrifying end to Christmas celebrations

The peace of Italy's festive celebrations was shattered by a devastating terrorist attack on this day in 1985 when Arab gunmen opened fire in the main departure hall at Rome's Leonardo da Vinci-Fiumicino Airport.  The attack, which claimed the lives of 16 people, took place shortly after 9.05am, when the four perpetrators approached the check-in desks of Israel's El Al Airline and the United States carrier Trans World Airlines.  Israeli secret services were aware that an attempt either to hijack a plane or stage an attack on the ground was being planned between December 25 and 31 in Rome and an Israeli security officer became suspicious of the quartet as he watched their movements in the departure hall.  However, when he stepped forward to challenge them, they produced assault rifles and began firing, at the same time throwing grenades.  The Israeli officer was killed and in the ensuing gunfight, involving more Israeli security staff and Italian police, some 12 passengers were fatally wounded.  They included Americans, Mexicans, Greeks, Italians and at least one Algerian.  Three of the gunmen were shot dead and a fourth, 18-year-old Ibrahim Khaled, was captured by police.  Read more…


Pope John Paul II’s prison visit

Pope came face to face with his would-be killer

Pope John Paul II visited Rebibbia prison on the outskirts of Rome on this day in 1983 to forgive formally the man who had tried to assassinate him.  Two years previously the Pope had been shot and critically wounded in St Peter’s Square by Mehmet Ali Agca, a Turkish member of a fascist group known as Grey Wolves.  John Paul II had been rushed unconscious to hospital with bullet wounds to the abdomen, colon and small intestine and had to have five hours of surgery to repair the damage.  Agca was caught and restrained by bystanders until the police arrived. He was tried and sentenced to life imprisonment.  John Paul II visited Agca on 27 December 1983 in prison in Rebibbia, a suburb on the northeastern edge of Rome.  They spoke privately for about 20 minutes and afterwards the Pope said he had pardoned his would-be killer.  Agca had previously escaped from a Turkish prison where he had been serving a sentence for murdering a journalist. He was deported to Turkey at the end of his jail sentence in Italy and went on to serve another ten years in prison.  On 27 December 2014, 33 years after the shooting, Agca came to the Vatican in Rome to lay white roses on Pope John Paul II’s tomb.  Read more…


Saint Veronica Giuliani

Life of compassionate nun is still inspiring others

Nun and mystic Veronica Giuliani was born on this day in 1660 in Mercatello sul Metauro in the Duchy of Urbino.  After she had spent her whole life devoted to Christ, the marks of the crown of thorns appeared on her forehead and the signs of his five wounds on her body. She was subjected to a rigorous testing of her experience by her bishop but, after he decided the phenomena were authentic, he allowed her to return to normal convent life.  The nun was made a saint by Pope Gregory XVI in 1839, more than 100 years after her death.  Veronica was born Orsola Giuliani, the youngest of seven sisters. By the time she was three years old she was demonstrating compassion for the poor, often giving away her own food and clothes.  When her father decided she was old enough to marry, she pleaded with him to be allowed to choose a different way of life and, at the age of 17, in 1677 she was received into the monastery of the Capuchin Poor Clares in Città di Castello in Umbria.  She took the name of Veronica and lived as a sister in the convent for the next 50 years.  Sister Veronica was made a novice mistress at the age of 34.  Read more…

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26 December 2021

26 December

Beppe Severgnini - journalist and author

Books observing national mores have been best sellers

The author and journalist Giuseppe Severgnini was born on this day in 1956 in Crema in northern Italy.  Better known as Beppe Severgnini, he is a respected commentator on politics and social affairs, about which he has written for some of the most influential journals and newspapers in Italy and the wider world.  Severgnini is equally well known for his humorous writing, in particular his gently satirical observations of the English and the Americans as well as Italians, about whom he has written many books.  His biggest selling titles include An Italian in America, which has also been published as Hello America. He has also enjoyed success with La Bella Figura: An Insider's Guide to the Italian Mind, Mamma Mia! Berlusconi's Italy Explained for Posterity and Friends Abroad, and An Italian in Britain.  Severgnini is currently a columnist for Corriere della Sera in Italy and the International New York Times in the United States.  A former correspondent for the British journal The Economist, he writes in both Italian and English, having spent a number of years living in London, Washington and New York.  The son of a notary in Crema, Severgnini graduated in law at the University of Pavia.  Read more…


Renato Guttuso - artist and illustrator

Creator of works representing the victims of Fascist repression

The painter Renato Guttuso, whose illustrations for Elizabeth David’s classic cookery book, Italian Food, gave him international fame, was born on this day in 1912 in Bagheria near Palermo in Sicily.  A fierce anti-Fascist, he painted powerful pictures, which he said represented the many people who, because of their ideas, endured outrage, imprisonment and torment.  Guttuso’s father, Gioacchino, was a land surveyor who painted water colours and Renato started painting as a child, signing and dating his art works from the age of 13. He was educated in Palermo and then went on to Palermo University.  He painted nature scenes featuring flowers, lemon trees and Saracen olive trees, which brought him recognition as a talented Sicilian painter when they were exhibited. He opened a studio with another painter and two sculptors in Palermo.  Guttuso became a member of an artistic movement that stood for free and open attitudes and was opposed to Fascism during the years of the Spanish Civil War.  He moved to Milan, where his morals and political commitment became even more visible in his paintings.  Read more…


Piergiorgio Welby - euthanasia campaigner

Muscular dystrophy sufferer who fought for right to die

The poet, painter and muscular dystrophy sufferer Piergiorgio Welby, whose wish to be given help to die after nine years being kept alive artificially sparked a huge legal, political and religious debate, was born on this day in 1945 in Rome.  Welby, the son of an AS Roma footballer with Scottish ancestry, developed MS when he was 17 years old.  Throughout the 1960s and 70s his lifestyle helped keep the disease under control. He lived as an artist and writer, following the hippie movement but also hunting and fishing. His use of recreational drugs dulled the symptoms of the disease and he was able to travel extensively in Europe.  During this period he met his future wife, Wilhelmine - later known as Mina - who was from Bolzano province in Trentino-Alto Adige but encountered Welby in Rome.  Welby decided in the 1980s to wean himself off drugs by embarking on methadone therapy, but the disease then progressed rapidly and he was soon paralysed from the waist down.  In 1997, he suffered severe respiratory problems and from that point onwards was dependent on a breathing tube.  Read more…


Santo Stefano - Boxing Day

Feast of Santo Stefano in Italy

Italians enjoy another day relaxing with their families on the Feast of Santo Stefano, which is a public holiday in Italy.  It is traditional to visit loved ones and friends that you didn't see the day before to take presents and gifts of food.  Lunch will be less formal but still consist of several courses and each area of Italy will have its own specialities.  The day remembers Santo Stefano, traditionally thought of as the first Christian martyr, who lived during the first century  BC.  He aroused enmity with his Christian teachings in Jerusalem. Accused of blasphemy, he was tried and sentenced to death. Eventually he was stoned to death by an angry crowd.  The day is celebrated in different ways across Italy.  In some towns there are processions, in others there are re-enactments of the nativity. It is also a tradition in some areas to visit nativity scenes in local churches and leave donations.  The Sicilian town of Ragusa stages an annual presepe vivente (live nativity scene) on the feast of Santo Stefano, which attracts many visitors. Ragusa is one of the island's most picturesque towns, with spectacular views.  It has become a location regularly used for Sicilian detective drama Il Commissario Montalbano (Inspector Montalbano).  Read more…


25 December 2021

25 December

Natale – Christmas Day

Celebrating Christmas the Italian way

Christmas Day in Italy is the culmination of a celebration that - officially, at least - begins on 8 December with the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, at which point towns light up their Christmas illuminations and trees are erected in public squares.  It also sees nativity scenes - called presepi in Italian - unveiled in many towns and cities, a tradition that goes back to 1223, when St Francis of Assisi, inspired by being shown the birthplace of Jesus on a trip to the Holy Land, ordered the creation of a scene representing the birth as a focal point for worship. A local cave was the setting, with straw spread on the floor, a crib placed in the corner and a live donkey, ox and a dozen peasants representing the principles in the scene.  Although living participants have been replaced by model figures for the most part, the stable scene remains at the heart of the idea.  Specialist model-makers have made an industry out of creating presepi figurines, with Naples a notable centre.  Just as in many other countries, Christmas itself is celebrated around food.  La Vigilia di Natale - Christmas Eve - is marked by Cenone di Natale, a Christmas supper usually comprising several fish courses.  Read more… 


Lina Cavalieri – soprano

Christmas Day baby became singing beauty

Singer and actress Lina Cavalieri was born Natalina - meaning 'Little Christmas' - Cavalieri on this day in 1874, in Viterbo in Lazio.  During her career she starred opposite Enrico Caruso in operas and earned the title of ‘the world’s most beautiful woman', while many of her female contemporaries tried to attain her hour-glass figure by using tight-laced corsetry.  Raised as one of five children in humble circumstances, she was expected to work to supplement the family income.  To this end, she sold flowers and sang on the streets of Rome.  After a music teacher heard her singing, she was offered some music lessons.  Subsequently, she found work as a café singer and then in theatres in Rome.  Increasingly popular both for her voice and her physical beauty, she made her way from Rome first to Vienna and then Paris where she performed in music halls including the Folies-Bergère and worked with singing coaches to develop her voice.  The progression to opera came in 1900, when she made her debut in Lisbon as Nedda in Pagliacci, by Ruggero Leoncavallo. It was in the same year that she married her first husband, the Russian Prince, Alexandre Bariatinsky, whom she had met in Paris.  Read more…


Marco Mengoni - singer-songwriter

X-Factor victory was launchpad to stardom

The singer-songwriter Marco Mengoni, who rose to fame after winning the Italian version of the TV talent show The X-Factor, was born on this day in 1988 in Ronciglione in northern Lazio.  Mengoni triumphed in the 2009 edition - the third series of X-Factor on the public service channel Rai Due before it was bought up by subscription channel Sky Italia - during which he unveiled what would be his debut single, Dove si vola, which he sang for the first time at the semi-final stage.  The single, an example of the sophisticated pop-rock style that would become Mengoni’s trademark,  reached number one in the Italian downloads chart while a seven-track extended play album of the same name sold 70,000 copies, peaking at nine in the Italian albums chart.  Mengoni’s performances on The X-Factor had received favourable comments from both Mina and Adriano Celentano, the all-time bestselling artists in Italian popular music history.  The prize for winning The X-Factor was a recording contract with a value of €300,000 and automatic selection for the 2010 Sanremo Music Festival 2010, in which he finished third with Credimi ancora.   Read more…


Charlemagne – Holy Roman Emperor

Christmas Day crowning for the Pope’s supporter

Charlemagne, the King of the Franks and the Lombards, was crowned Holy Roman Emperor on this day in 800 in the old St Peter’s Basilica in Rome.  He was the first recognised emperor in Western Europe since the fall of the Western Roman Empire three centuries earlier and has been referred to as the ‘father of Europe’ because he united most of Europe for the first time since the days of the Roman Empire, including parts that had never been under Roman rule.  Charlemagne was the son of Pepin the Short and became King of the Franks when his father died in 768, initially as co-ruler with his brother Carloman I. When Carloman died suddenly in unexplained circumstances it left Charlemagne as the sole, undisputed ruler of the Frankish Kingdom.  He continued his father’s policy towards the papacy and became its protector, removing the Lombards in power from northern Italy and leading an incursion into Muslim Spain. He also campaigned against the Saxons, making them become Christians or face the death penalty. In 799, Pope Leo III was violently mistreated by the Romans and fled to the protection of Charlemagne in Germany.  Read more…


24 December 2021

24 December

Francesco Cirio - canning pioneer

Market trader whose name became known worldwide

Francesco Cirio, who pioneered the technique of canning food products to preserve their freshness, was born on this day in 1836 in the town of Nizza Monferrato in what is now Piedmont.  His father was a grain trader and Francesco developed entrepreneurial instincts at an early age.  By the age of 14 he was working at the fruit and vegetable market of Porta Palazzo in Turin.  He soon became aware that there was a demand for fresh Italian produce in London and Paris and set up a company to export fruit and vegetables to other cities in Europe.  At the same time he heard about the work of Nicolas Appert, the French confectioner and chef, whose attempts to find ways to preserve food led him to discover that heat could be used as a method of sterilisation and that foods treated in that way could be sealed in cans and would retain their fresh condition for many months.  The method, which became known as Appertisation, was taken up by Cirio, who set up his first canning factory in Turin in 1856 at the age of 20, concentrating first on peas and then achieving similar success with other vegetables.  Read more…


Pier Giorgio Perotto - electronics engineer

Pioneer who designed world’s first personal computer

The engineer Pier Giorgio Perotto, whose Programma 101 machine is seen as the first example of a desktop personal computer, was born on this day in 1930 in Turin.  Perotto invented the Programma 101 in the early 1960s while working for Olivetti, which more than half a century earlier had opened Italy’s first typewriter factory.  The Programma 101, which itself had the appearance of an office typewriter, was really an electronic calculator, but was programmable via information stored on a magnetic strip, which meant it could be instructed to perform a series of calculations in accordance with the needs of the user.  For example, the machine could be programmed to work out tax and other payroll deductions for every employee at a company with the operator needing only to enter the employee’s earnings.  Launched in 1964 and put into production the following year at a price considerably lower than any other computer on the market, the Programma 101 was a great success. In 1969, it was used by NASA in the planning of the Apollo 11 space mission, which saw the first humans set foot on the surface of the moon.  Read more…


Lazzaro Ponticelli – war veteran

Wounded soldier survived to set records for longevity

Lazzaro Ponticelli, who became the oldest living man of Italian birth and the oldest man living in France, was born on this day in 1897 in a frazione of Bettola in Emilia-Romagna.  Before his death at the age of 110 years and 79 days, Ponticelli was the last surviving officially recognised veteran of the First World War from France and the last infantry man from its trenches to die.  He had moved to France at the age of eight to join his family who had gone there to find work. At the age of 16, he lied about his age to join the French army in 1914.  Ponticelli was transferred against his will to the Italian army when Italy entered the war the following year. He enlisted in the 3rd Alpini regiment and saw service against the Austro-Hungarian army at Mount Pal Piccolo on the Italian border with Austria.  At one stage he was wounded by a shell but continued firing his machine gun although blood was running into his eyes.  He spoke of a period when fighting ceased for three weeks and the two armies swapped loaves of bread for tobacco and took photographs of each other, as many of them could speak each other's language.  Read more…


Domenico Sarro – composer

Court choirmaster wrote several important operas

Opera composer Domenico Sarro was born on this day in 1679 in Trani, a seaport north of Bari in Apulia.  He was given the middle name, Natale, which is the Italian word for Christmas.  Sarro is famous for being the composer of Achille in Sciro, the opera chosen for the opening night of the new Teatro San Carlo in Naples in 1737.  He studied music from the age of six at Sant’Onofrio, a church near Porta Capuana, one of the ancient city gates of Naples, which at the time was the location of the city’s music conservatory. His first opera, L’opera d’amore, was performed in Naples in 1702.  Sarro was appointed assistant choirmaster to the Neapolitan court in 1702 and by 1706 was having his religious music performed in churches in Naples. He wrote several of what were then referred to as three-act musical dramas, which were performed in theatres and private palaces throughout the city.  Sarro’s opera, Didone abbandonata, was premiered on February 1, 1724 at the Teatro San Bartolomeo in Naples. It was the first setting of a major libretto by the writer Pietro Metastasio, who would become the most celebrated librettist of the 18th century.  Read more…


Vigilia di Natale – Christmas Eve

Feasting on fish the night before Christmas

The day before Christmas, la Vigilia di Natale, is also referred to as ‘the feast of the seven fishes’ in Italy.  It is a tradition that no meat is served on Christmas Eve, but families in many areas will follow the tradition of serving seven fish courses for the evening meal.  Afterwards, many people will go to midnight mass to celebrate the coming of Christ and, in Rome, some will head to St Peter’s Square.  Fish dishes regularly served at the beginning of the meal include baccalà  (salt cod) and frutti di mare (shellfish). In Naples, a popular dish to start the meal is broccoli fried with frutti di mare.  For the pasta course, lasagne with anchovies is popular in the north, while vermicelli with clams (vongole) is often served in the south.'  There are traditionally seven different fish dishes, representing the seven sacraments, on the menu on Christmas Eve. In some areas of southern Italy, in the midnight between 24 and 25 December it is customary for families to stage a procession, at home, led by a candle-bearer followed by the youngest family member carrying a figurine of the baby Jesus, with the rest of the family members following. This procession ends with the placing of the “baby” in the cradle of the family nativity scene.  Read more…