28 February 2021

28 February

NEW
- Domenico Agusta - entrepreneur 

Sicilian count who founded MV Agusta motorcycle company

Count Domenico Agusta, who founded the all-conquering MV Agusta motorcycle company in 1945, was born on this day in 1907 in Palermo.  Originally set up as a means of keeping the family’s aeronautical company in business after aircraft production in Italy was banned as part of the post World War II peace treaty with the Allies, MV Agusta became such a giant of motorcycle racing that their bikes claimed 38 MotoGP world titles in the space of 22 years as well as 34 victories in the prestigious Isle of Man Tourist Trophy.  MV Agusta made world champions of eight different riders, including two of the greatest Italians in motorcycle racing history, Giacomo Agostini and Carlo Ubbiali. Agostini won 13 of his record 15 world titles riding for MV Agusta.  Domenico Agusta was the son of Giovanni Agusta and hailed from a Sicilian family with aristocratic roots.  Both father and son exercised their right to use the title of count.  Agusta senior designed and built his first aeroplane in 1907, the year of Domenico’s birth.  After serving as a volunteer in the Italo-Turkish War of 1911-12, Giovanni moved the family north, where he believed there would be greater opportunities to develop his aviation business.  They settled in Cascina Costa, a village near the Lombardy town of Samarate, close to where the aeronautical pioneer Gianni Caproni had established an airfield on the site of what is now Milan Malpensa international airport. Read more…

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Dino Zoff – footballer

Long career of a record-breaking goalkeeper

Dino Zoff, the oldest footballer to be part of a World Cup winning team, was born on this day in 1942.  Zoff was captain of the Italian national team in the final of the World Cup in Spain in 1982 at the age of 40 years, four months and 13 days.  He also won the award for best goalkeeper of the tournament, in which he kept two clean sheets and made a number of important saves.  Zoff was born in Mariano del Friuli in Friuli-Venezia Giulia. He had trials with Inter-Milan and Juventus at the age of 14 but was rejected because of his lack of height.  Having grown considerably, he made his Seria A debut with Udinese in 1961. He then moved to Mantua, where he spent four seasons, and Napoli, where he spent five seasons.  Zoff made his international debut during Euro 68 and was number two goalkeeper in the 1970 World Cup.  From 1972 onwards he was Italy’s number one goalkeeper.  He signed for Juventus in 1972 and during his 11 years with the club won the Serie A championship six times, the Coppa Italia twice and the UEFA Cup once.  When Zoff retired he held the record for being the oldest Serie A player at the age of 41 and for the most Serie A appearances, having played 570 matches.  Read more…

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Karl Zuegg - jam and juice maker

Businessman turned family farm into international company

Karl Zuegg, the businessman who turned his family's fruit-farming expertise into one of Italy's major producers of jams and juices, was born on this day in 1915 in Lana, a town in what is now the autonomous province of Bolzano in Trentino-Alto Adige.  His grandparents, Maria and Ernst August Zuech - they changed their name to Zuegg in 1903 - had been cultivating fruit on their farm since 1860, when Lana was part of South Tyrol in what was then Austria-Hungary.  They traded at local markets and began exporting.  Zuegg and the company's other major brand names, Skipper and Fruttaviva, are among the most recognisable in the fruit products market in Italy and it is largely through Karl's hard work and enterprise.  He was managing director of the company from 1940 to 1986, during which time Zuegg became the first drinks manufacturer in Italy to make use of the ground-breaking Tetrapak packaging invented in Sweden, which allowed drinks to be sold in lightweight cardboard cartons rather than traditional glass bottles.  The family business had begun to experiment with jams in 1917 when austerity measures in Italy were biting hard and there was a need to preserve food.  Read more…

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Mario Andretti – racing driver

American champion was born and grew up in Italy

Mario Andretti, who won the 1978 Formula One World Championship driving as an American, was born on this day in 1940 in Montona, about 35km (22 miles) south of Trieste in what was then Istria in the Kingdom of Italy.  Andretti’s career was notable for his versatility. He is the only driver in motor racing history to have won an Indianapolis 500, a Daytona 500 and an F1 world title, and one of only two to have won races in F1, Indy Car, NASCAR and the World Sportscar Championship. He is the last American to have won an F1 Grand Prix.  He clinched the 1978 F1 title at the Italian Grand Prix at Monza in September, the 14th of the 16 rounds, having led the standings by 12 points going into the race.  He crossed the line first and even though he was demoted to sixth place – the result of a one-minute penalty for going too soon at a restart – it was enough to mean he could not be caught.  His celebrations were muted, however, after his close friend, the Swedish driver Ronnie Petersen, died from complications to injuries he suffered in a crash on the first lap.  Andretti’s early years in Italy were fraught with difficulties.  Read more…

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Pietro Ottoboni - patron of music and art

Venetian cardinal spent fortune on composers and painters

Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni, who is remembered as the biggest sponsor of the arts and music in particular in Rome in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, died on 29 February, 1740 in Rome.  Despite a somewhat licentious lifestyle that reportedly saw him father between 60 and 70 children, Ottoboni, whose great uncle was Pope Alexander VIII, was considered a candidate to succeed Pope Clement XII as pontiff following the death of the latter on 6 February.  However, he developed a fever during the conclave and had to withdraw. He died three weeks later.  Born into a noble Venetian family, Ottoboni was the last person to hold the office of Cardinal-nephew, a tradition dating back to the Middle Ages that allowed a pontiff to appoint members of his own family to key positions. The practice was abolished by Alexander VIII’s successor, Pope Innocent XII, in 1692.  Ottoboni was also made vice-chancellor of the Holy Church of Rome, a position he held until his death, which gave him an annual income that would have been the equivalent today of almost £5 million (€5.79m).  Although he had several positions of responsibility, including superintendent general of the affairs of the Apostolic See, and governor of the cities of Fermo and Tivoli, he was an unashamed seeker of sensual pleasure.  Read more...


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Domenico Agusta - entrepreneur

Sicilian count who founded MV Agusta motorcycle company

Domenico Agusta founded MV Agusta in 1945
Domenico Agusta founded
MV Agusta in 1945
Count Domenico Agusta, who founded the all-conquering MV Agusta motorcycle company in 1945, was born on this day in 1907 in Palermo.

Originally set up as a means of keeping the family’s aeronautical company in business after aircraft production in Italy was banned as part of the post World War II peace treaty with the Allies, MV Agusta became such a giant of motorcycle racing that their bikes claimed 38 MotoGP world titles in the space of 22 years as well as 34 victories in the prestigious Isle of Man Tourist Trophy.

MV Agusta made world champions of eight different riders, including two of the greatest Italians in motorcycle racing history, Giacomo Agostini and Carlo Ubbiali. Agostini won 13 of his record 15 world titles riding for MV Agusta.

Domenico Agusta was the son of Giovanni Agusta and hailed from a Sicilian family with aristocratic roots.  Both father and son exercised their right to use the title of count.

Agusta senior designed and built his first aeroplane in 1907, the year of Domenico’s birth.  After serving as a volunteer in the Italo-Turkish War of 1911-12, Giovanni moved the family north, where he believed there would be greater opportunities to develop his aviation business.  They settled in Cascina Costa, a village near the Lombardy town of Samarate, close to where the aeronautical pioneer Gianni Caproni had established an airfield on the site of what is now Milan Malpensa international airport.

Domenico quickly became interested in flying and at 19 he was among the first to serve in the Regia Aeronautica, Italy’s new autonomous aviation armed force, based at Malpensa.

Giacomo Agostino leads Britain's Phil Read in a 350cc race in 1971
Giacomo Agostino leads Britain's Phil Read
in a 350cc race in 1971
His father had set up a company manufacturing aeroplanes but it was in only its fifth year when he died, in 1927, at the age of just 48. Domenico, the eldest of four brothers, suddenly found himself effectively in charge of the business, alongside his mother, Giuseppina.

For the next 12 years, the company had full order books.  However, all that changed in the aftermath of the Second World War.  The Paris Peace Treaties of 1947 outlawed the manufacture of aircraft in Italy, sounding the death knell for businesses such as Agusta.

Thankfully, Count Domenico had already turned his thoughts towards diversifying and had proposed motorcycle production as a new line of business, anticipating that a country impoverished by war would have a need for the inexpensive means of transport that motorcycles could provide. By August 1943, in a workshop at Verghera, another village near Samarate, he had developed a 98 cc single-cylinder two-stroke engine and in January 1945 he registered a new company, Meccanica Verghera Srl, for its manufacture.

He wanted to call the light motorcycle he unveiled at a dealership in Milan the following October the Vespa 98, only to find that the Vespa name - the Italian word for wasp - had already been claimed by another manufacturer, Enrico Piaggio, for his motor scooter.  He settled instead for calling it simply the MV98, going into mass production in 1946. 

The famous MV Agusta logo familiar to MotoGP fans for more than 20 years
The famous MV Agusta logo familiar
to MotoGP fans for almost 30 years
From the outset, Count Domenico wanted to be involved with motorcycle racing, which by then had been in existence as a sport since the early part of the century.  Like Enzo Ferrari in the world of four wheels, he saw success on the track translating into increased sales for the road, and increased sales as the means to fund success on the track.

It is thought the first victory by an MV98 came in October 1946 in a road race held at La Spezia in Liguria, ridden by Vincenzo Nincioni. By the following year, bigger engines were beginning to dominate and Agusta moved quickly to develop 125cc and 250cc machines to compete in two of the classifications that were becoming standard.  Franco Bertoni registered the marque’s first track victory in 1947 and won the 125cc Italian Grand Prix at Monza in 1948.

Although Ubbiali would put MV Agusta firmly on the map, winning the 125cc world championship five years in a row between 1955 and 1960 and taking the 250cc title in three of those five years, it was an Englishman, Cecil Sandford, who had become MV’s first world champion, winning the 125cc crown in 1952. Three other British riders - Jon Surtees, Mike Hailwood and Phil Read - became major players in the company’s track success, winning 13 world titles between them, although their achievements would ultimately be put in the shade by Agostini.

The MV Agusta team took 37 constructors’ championships as well before retiring from racing in 1976, having clocked up 270 GP race victories.

Meanwhile, after the ban on aircraft manufacture in Italy was lifted in 1950, Count Domenico had begun to build helicopters under licence for Bell, the American company, before entering into similar arrangements with Sikorsky, Boeing and McDonnell Douglas.   He also moved into automobile production, acquiring the OSCA-Maserati company from the Maserati brothers in 1963.

Like his father, Count Domenico died relatively young, passing away in his apartment on Milan’s Piazza Sant’Erasmo in 1971 at the age of 63, having a few days earlier suffered a heart attack.

Helicopters on display outside the MV Agusta museum in Cascina Costa
Helicopters on display outside the MV Agusta
museum in Cascina Costa
Travel tip:

The headquarters of MV Agusta is nowadays in Varese but Samarate retains its link with the family through Leonardo Helicopters, which is based, like the original Agusta aviation company set up by Giovanni Agusta, in Cascina Costa.  Leonardo was formerly known as AgustaWestland. A town of 16,500 inhabitants approximately 40km (25 miles) northwest of Milan and 25km (16 miles) south of Varese, it is only a short distance from the perimeter of Milan Malpensa airport.  Motorcycle fans will be keen to visit the Agusta Museum in Via Giovanni Agusta in Cascina Costa, which has an impressive collection of motorcycles and helicopters for a modest entry price.

Raphael's The Marriage of the Virgin in the Brera gallery
Raphael's The Marriage of the
Virgin
in the Brera gallery
Travel tip:

Count Domenico Agusta’s apartment in Milan was close to the Brera quarter, which is one of the oldest neighborhoods of the city, situated a short distance from the Castello Sforza and the Parco Sempione. Famous for its Bohemian atmosphere, it is home to the Brera Academy of fine arts and the city’s largest art gallery Milan, the Pinacoteca di Brera, which includes works by Andrea Mantegna, Gentile and Giovanni Bellini, Raphael, Caravaggio, Tintoretto, Piero della Francesca and other painters of the Renaissance, as well as more modern works. The surrounding streets contain many popular restaurants. 

Also on this day:

1740 (Feb 29): The death of music and art patron Pietro Ottoboni

1915: The birth of juice and jam maker Karl Zuegg

1940: The birth of racing driver Mario Andretti

1942: The birth of footballer and coach Dino Zoff


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27 February 2021

27 February

Franco Moschino - fashion designer

Made clothes with sense of humour

The fashion designer Franco Moschino, founder of the Moschino fashion label, was born on this day in 1950 in Abbiategrasso, a town about 24km (15 miles) southwest of Milan.  Moschino became famous for his innovative and irreverent designs, which injected humour into high fashion.  For example, he created a miniskirt in quilted denim with plastic fried eggs decorating the hemline, a jacket studded with bottle tops and a suit covered with cutlery. He designed a dress that resembled a shopping bag and a ball gown made from black plastic bin bags.  Other designs carried messages mocking his own industry, such as a jacket with the motif ‘Waist of Money’ printed round the waistband, another in cashmere with ‘Expensive Jacket’ emblazoned across the back and a shirt with the words ‘I’m Full of Shirt’.  Moschino’s first collections focussed on casual clothes and jeans, but he eventually branched out into lingerie, eveningwear, shoes, menswear and perfumes.  As a young man, Moschino was encouraged to believe that his destiny lay in taking over his father’s iron foundry but his only interest in the plant lay in the layers of dust that clung to the walls, in which he would make drawings.  Read more…

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Mirella Freni – opera singer

Good advice from Gigli helped soprano have long career

Singer Mirella Freni was born Mirella Fregni on this day in 1935 in Modena in Emilia-Romagna.  Freni’s grandmother, Valentina Bartolomasi, had been a leading soprano in Italy from 1910 until 1927, specialising in Wagner roles. By coincidence, her mother worked alongside the mother of tenor Luciano Pavarotti in a tobacco factory in Modena.  Freni was obviously musically gifted and sang an opera aria in a radio competition when she was just ten years old.  One of the judges was the tenor Beniamino Gigli, who advised her to give up singing until she was older to protect her voice.  Freni took his advice and resumed singing when she was 17, making her operatic debut at the Teatro Municipale in Modena at the age of 20 in Bizet’s Carmen.  Her international debut came at Glyndebourne in Franco Zeffirelli’s staging of Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore.  In the 1960 season at Glyndebourne she sang comic roles from Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro and Don Giovanni.  Freni made her Covent Garden debut in 1961, her La Scala debut in 1963 and her Metropolitan Opera debut in 1965.  She started singing the heavier Verdi roles in the 1970s.  Read more…

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Italy's appeal for help with Leaning Tower

Fears of collapse prompted summit of engineers

The Italian government finally admitted that it needed help to save the Leaning Tower of Pisa from collapsing on this day in 1964.  There had been numerous attempts to arrest the movement of the tower, which had begun to tilt five years after construction began in 1173.  One side of the tower started to sink after engineers added a second floor in 1178, when the mistake of setting a foundation just three metres deep in weak, unstable soil became clear. Construction was halted.  In fact, in part because of a series of military conflicts, it did not resume for 100 years.  Additions were made to the building over the next 100 years, culminating in the completion of the bell chamber in 1372. Nothing more was done until the 19th century, when an ill-considered plan to dig a path around the base in 1838 resulted in a new increase in the tilt.  Ironically, the tower might have been deliberately destroyed in the Second World War when advancing American soldiers were ordered to blow up any tall building that might have been used by German snipers, regardless of its historical importance.  Thankfully, a German withdrawal before the Americans reached Pisa made it unnecessary.  Read more…

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Simone Di Pasquale – dancer

Ballroom talent has been springboard for business success

Ballroom dancer and television celebrity Simone Di Pasquale was born on this day in 1978.  In 2005, he became a household name after he started to appear regularly on Italian television in Ballando con le Stelle - the equivalent of the US show Dancing with the Stars and Britain’s Strictly Come Dancing. The show, presented by Milly Carlucci, was broadcast every Saturday evening on the tv channel Rai Uno.  Pasquale has also appeared in numerous other television programmes, on stage in musical theatre and as an actor in a television drama.  Born in Rome, Di Pasquale learnt ballroom dancing at a young age and took part in competitions.  In 2000 he paired up with the dancer Natalia Titova, who also later became a celebrity because of Ballando con le Stelle. The couple were engaged from 1998 to 2005.  They took first place in the competition Rising Stars UK in 2004.  In the first season of Ballando con le Stelle, Di Pasquale partnered the Italian actress Hoara Borselli and the couple won the competition. He has taken part in each successive series since.  Di Pasquale has appeared as a guest on numerous programmes on Italian television.  Read more…


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26 February 2021

26 February

Napoleon escapes from Elba

Emperor leaves idyllic island to face his Waterloo

French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte escaped from the Italian island of Elba, where he had been living in exile, on this day in 1815.  Less than a year before, he had arrived in Elba, an island dotted with attractive hills and scenic bays, following his unconditional abdication from the throne of France.  Several countries had formed an alliance to fight Napoleon’s army and had chosen to send him to live in exile on the small Mediterranean island about 10km (6 miles) off the Tuscan coast.  They gave Napoleon sovereignty over the island and he was allowed to keep a small personal army to guard him. He soon set about developing the iron mines and brought in modern agricultural methods to improve the quality of life of the islanders.  But he began to be worried about being banished still further from France. He had heard through his supporters that the French Government were beginning to question having to pay him an annual salary.  He had also been told that many European ministers felt Elba was too close to France for comfort.  Napoleon also missed his wife, Marie-Louise, who he believed his captors were preventing from joining him.  Read more…

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Dante Ferretti – set designer

Three-times Oscar winner worked with Fellini and Scorsese

Dante Ferretti, who in more than half a century in movie production design has been nominated for 10 Academy Awards and won three, was born on this day in 1943 in the city of Macerata, in the Marche region of central Italy.  Ferretti, who works in partnership with his wife, the set decorator Francesca Lo Schiavo, won two of his Oscars for films directed by Martin Scorsese, with whom he has enjoyed a collaboration that began 25 years ago this year.  Nominated for his first film with Scorsese, The Age of Innocence (1993) and subsequently for Kundun (1998) and Gangs of New York (2003), he was successful with The Aviator (2005) and Hugo Cabret (2012).  Both Oscars, for Best Scenography, were shared with Lo Schiavo, with whom he also shared an Oscar for Tim Burton’s 2008 film Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.  Ferretti also enjoyed long collaborations with Federico Fellini and Pier Paolo Pasolini, and worked with a string of other major directors, including Elio Petri, Ettore Scola, Franco Zeffirelli, Jean-Jacques Annaud, Terry Gilliam, Anthony Minghella, Brian de Palma, Julie Taymor and Kenneth Branagh.  Read more…

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Angelo Mangiarotti - architect and designer

Iconic glass church among legacy to city of Milan 

Angelo Mangiarotti, regarded by his peers as one of the greats of modern Italian architecture and design, was born on this day in 1921 in Milan.  Many notable examples of his work in urban design can be found in his home city, including the Repubblica and Venezia underground stations, the iconic glass church of Nostra Signora della Misericordia in the Baranzate suburb and several unique residential properties, including the distinctive Casa a tre cilindri - composed of a trio of cylindrical blocks - in Via Gavirate in the San Siro district of the city.  He also worked extensively in furniture design with major companies such as Vistosi, Fontana Arte, Danese, Artemide, Skipper and the kitchen producer Snaidero.  Mangiarotti graduated from the Architecture School of the Politecnico di Milano in 1948. He moved to the United States in 1953 and worked in Chicago as a visiting professor for the Illinois Institute of Technology. While in Illinois, he met internationally renowned architects Frank Lloyd Wright, Walter Gropius, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Konrad Wachsmann, all of whom were substantial influences.  Read more…

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Emanuele Severino - philosopher

Thinker famous for theories on eternity and being

The contemporary philosopher Emanuele Severino, who died in January 2020, was born on this day in 1929 in Brescia, in northern Italy.  Severino is regarded by many as one of Italy’s greatest thinkers of the modern era, yet came into conflict with the Catholic Church, so much that the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, the body that once stood in judgment of those it deemed as heretics, banished him from the Church in 1969 on the basis that his beliefs were not compatible with Christianity.  The basis for their action was his belief in “the eternity of all being”, which essentially denies the existence of God as a creator.  Severino believed that the ancient Greek theory of all things coming from nothing and returning to nothing after being granted temporary existence was flawed, and that the Greek sense of becoming was an error. He contended that the idea that an entity can move from ‘being’ to ‘non-being’ and vice-versa was absurd.  He argued that everything is eternal, not only all people and all things, but every moment of life, every feeling, every aspect of reality, and that nothing becomes or ceases to be.  Read more…


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25 February 2021

25 February

NEW
- Benedetto Croce – philosopher and historian

Prolific writer opposed the Fascists and supported democracy

Benedetto Croce, one of the most important figures in Italian life and culture in the first half of the 20th century, was born on this day in 1866 in Pescasseroli in the region of Abruzzo.  Croce was an idealist philosopher, historian and erudite literary scholar whose approach to literature influenced future generations of writers and literary critics. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature 16 times.  He became a Senator in 1910 and was Minister for Education from 1920 to 1921 in the last pre-Fascist government of the so-called Giolitti era. He is also remembered for his major contribution to the rebirth of Italian democracy after World War II.  Croce was born into a wealthy family and raised in a strict Catholic environment.  However, from the age of 16 he gave up Catholicism and developed a personal philosophy of spiritual life.  In 1883, while he was still a teenager, he was on holiday with his family on the island of Ischia when an earthquake struck Casamicciola and destroyed the house they were staying in. His mother, father and sister were all killed, but although he was buried for a long time, he managed to survive.  Read more…

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Carlo Goldoni – playwright

Greatest Venetian dramatist whose work still entertains audiences today

Carlo Goldoni, the author of The Servant of Two Masters, one of Italy’s most famous and best-loved plays, was born on this day in 1707 in Venice.  Goldoni became a prolific dramatist who reinvigorated the commedia dell’arte dramatic form by replacing its masked, stock figures with more realistic characters. He produced tightly constructed plots with a new spirit of spontaneity and is considered the founder of Italian realistic comedy.  The son of a physician, Goldoni read comedies from his father’s library when he was young and ran away from his school at Rimini with a company of strolling players when he was just 14.  Later, while studying at the papal college in Pavia, Goldoni read comedies by Plautus, Terence and Aristophanes and learnt French so he could read plays by Molière.  He was eventually expelled for writing a satire about the ladies of Pavia and was sent to study law.  Although he practiced law in Venice and Pisa and held diplomatic appointments, his real passion was writing plays for the theatres in Venice.  In 1748 he began writing for the Teatro Sant’Angelo company and dispensed with masked characters altogether for his play, La Pamela, a serious drama based on Samuel Richardson’s novel.  Read more…

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Enrico Caruso – opera singer

Tenor's voice still regarded as greatest of all time 

Operatic tenor Enrico Caruso was born on this day in 1873 in Naples.  Believed by many opera experts to be the greatest tenor of all time, Caruso had a brilliant 25-year singing career, appearing at many of the major opera houses in Europe and America.  He made more than 200 recordings of his beautiful voice, some made as early as 1902.  Caruso was born in Via San Giovanello agli Ottocalli in Naples and baptised the next day in the nearby church of San Giovanni e Paolo.  At the age of 11 he was apprenticed to a mechanical engineer and also worked alongside his father in a factory.  At the same time he was singing in his church choir and was told his voice showed enough promise for him to consider becoming a professional singer.  Until she died in 1888, he was encouraged by his mother. To earn money, he started to work as a street singer in Naples, progressing to singing Neapolitan songs as entertainment in cafes. Having decided to become an opera singer, Caruso took singing lessons, keeping up with them even during his compulsory military service.  He made his stage debut in 1895 at the Teatro Nuovo in Naples.  Read more...

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Alberto Sordi - actor

Comic genius who appeared in 190 films

Alberto Sordi, remembered by lovers of Italian cinema as one of its most outstanding comedy actors, died on this day in 2003 in Rome, the city of his birth.  He was 82 and had suffered a heart attack.  Italy reacted with an outpouring of grief and the decision was taken for his body to lie in state at Rome's town hall, the Campidoglio.  Streams of his fans took the opportunity to file past his coffin and when his funeral took place at the Basilica of San Giovanni in Laterano it was estimated that the crowds outside the church and in nearby streets numbered one million people.  Only the funeral of Pope John Paul II, who died two years later, is thought to have attracted a bigger crowd.  Sordi was the Italian voice of Oliver Hardy in the early days of his career, when he worked on the dubbing of the Laurel and Hardy movies.  He made the first of his 190 films in 1937 but it was not until the 1950s that he found international fame.  He appeared in two movies directed by Federico Fellini - The White Sheik and I vitelloni.  In the latter, he played an oafish layabout, something of a simpleton but an effeminate and vulnerable character to whom audiences responded with warmth and affection due to Sordi's interpretation.  Read more…

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Giovanni Battista Morgagni - anatomist

The father of modern pathological anatomy

Anatomist Giovanni Battista Morgagni, who is credited with turning pathology into a science, was born on this day in 1682 in Forlì in Emilia-Romagna.  Morgagni was professor of anatomy at the University of Padua for 56 years and taught thousands of medical students during his time there.  He was sent by his parents to study philosophy and medicine at the University of Bologna when he was 18 and he graduated as a doctor from both faculties.  In 1706 he published his work, Adversaria anatomica, which was to be the first volume of a series and helped him become known throughout Europe as an accurate anatomist.  He succeeded to the chair of theoretical medicine at the University of Padua in 1712 and was to teach medicine there until his death in 1771.  Morgagni was promoted to the chair of anatomy after his first three years in Padua, following in the footsteps of many illustrious scholars. He brought out five more volumes of his Adversaria anatomica during his early years in Padua.  In 1761, when he was nearly 80, he brought out the work that was to make pathological anatomy into a science – De Sedibus et causis morborum per anotomem indagatis (Of the seats and cause of diseases investigated through anatomy). Read more…


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Benedetto Croce – philosopher and historian

Prolific writer opposed the Fascists and supported democracy

Benedetto Croce influenced literature, philosophy and politics in his lifetime
Benedetto Croce influenced literature,
philosophy and politics in his lifetime
Benedetto Croce, one of the most important figures in Italian life and culture in the first half of the 20th century, was born on this day in 1866 in Pescasseroli in the region of Abruzzo.

Croce was an idealist philosopher, historian and erudite literary scholar whose approach to literature influenced future generations of writers and literary critics. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature 16 times.

He became a Senator in 1910 and was Minister for Education from 1920 to 1921 in the last pre-Fascist government of the so-called Giolitti era. He is also remembered for his major contribution to the rebirth of Italian democracy after World War II.

Croce was born into a wealthy family and raised in a strict Catholic environment.  However, from the age of 16 he gave up Catholicism and developed a personal philosophy of spiritual life.

In 1883, while he was still a teenager, he was on holiday with his family on the island of Ischia when an earthquake struck the town of Casamicciola Terme and destroyed the house they were staying in. His mother, father and sister were all killed, but although he was buried for a long time, he managed to survive.

Croce inherited his family’s fortune and was able to live a life of leisure, devoting his time to philosophy and writing while living in a palazzo in Naples. His ideas began to be publicised at the University of Rome by Professor Antonio Labriola.

After his appointment to the Senate, Croce was a critic of Italy’s involvement in World War I. He left Government office about a year before Benito Mussolini assumed power.

Benedetto Croce (left), with the first president of the post-War Italian republic, Enrico De Nicola
Benedetto Croce (left), with the first president of
the post-War Italian republic, Enrico De Nicola
In 1923, Croce was instrumental in relocating the Biblioteca Nazionale Vittorio Emanuele III to the Palazzo Reale in Naples.

After Giacomo Matteotti was assassinated by the Fascists in 1924, Croce was one of the signatories to the manifesto of the anti-Fascist intellectuals and he provided financial support to anti-Fascist writers.

His home and library in Naples were ransacked by the Fascists in 1926 and he was put under surveillance. No mainstream newspaper or academic publication was allowed to refer to him.

Croce kept a diary during World War II entitled ‘Quando l’Italia era tagliato in due (When Italy was cut into two)’.

He made daily entries in this diary between July 1943 and June 1944. He had left his home in Naples, Palazzo Filomarino della Rocca, and gone to Sorrento to escape the Allied air raids.

He was staying in the Villa Tritone, a clifftop residence in Via Marina Grande overlooking the sea. The Germans entered and occupied Naples during September and on 12 September the Germans rescued Mussolini - who had been overthrown by the Fascist Grand Council and held captive - from his prison on Gran Sasso in the mountains of Abruzzo with a glider-borne team.

The entrance to Villa Tritone on Via Marina Grande
in Sorrento, where Croce moved during World War II
On 13 September, Croce writes that he has been receiving anonymous threats. The following day he reports that there were lots of Fascists roaming the streets of Sorrento.

He is advised to leave the Villa Tritone immediately to avoid being taken hostage by Fascists who would use him for propaganda purposes.

The next day’s entry was written by him on Capri. Croce reports that a floating mine was found in the sea below the villa and it was thought the retreating Germans might have been planning to come and take him as they had taken other prominent Italians in Salerno.

A motorboat was sent for him and his daughters from Capri, which was at the time firmly in Allied hands. The family were able to use the stairs that led from Villa Tritone down to the beach to get away. On board were a police commissioner from Capri and an English army officer who had been tasked with rescuing him. 

The boat returned to Sorrento later to collect Croce’s wife and another of his daughters who had stayed behind to pack up their possessions. On board were the same police commissioner and Major Munthe, the son of Axel Munthe, the Swedish doctor who was a Capri resident for a large part of his life and was famous for his best-selling memoir, The Story of San Michele. The Fascist and German radio stations broadcast that ‘Croce and others’ were to be severely punished, but the Allies were able to counter this by broadcasting that the philosopher was now safely on Capri.

When democracy was restored in Italy in 1944, Croce became a minister in the governments of Pietro Badoglio and Ivanoe Bonomi.

He voted for the Monarchy in the Constitutional referendum in 1946. He was elected to the Constituent Assembly that existed until 1948 but he declined to stand as provisional president of Italy.

Croce’s philosophical ideas were expressed in more than 80 books and 40 years worth of articles in his own literary magazine, La Critica. His theories were later debated by many Italian philosophers, including Umberto Eco.

Croce was President of PEN International, the worldwide writer’s association, from 1949 until his death in Naples in 1952.

His widow and daughters established the Fondazione Biblioteca Benedetto Croce in the Palazzo Filomarino della Rocca in 1955. The street on which the palazzo stands is now named Via Benedetto Croce.

The Palazzo Reale in Naples, which houses the Biblioteca Nazionale Vittorio Emanuele III
The Palazzo Reale in Naples, which houses the
Biblioteca Nazionale Vittorio Emanuele III
Travel tip:

The Biblioteca Nazionale Vittorio Emanuele III, a national library of Italy, now occupies the eastern wing of the 18th century Palazzo Reale in Naples as a result of efforts made on its behalf by Benedetto Croce in the 1920s. It houses nearly one and a half million printed volumes, as well as hundreds of thousands of pamphlets, manuscripts and periodicals. The library had been founded in the 18th century in the Palazzo degli Studi but after various collections were added to it, following the suggestion of Croce, the library was moved to Palazzo Reale and installed in accommodation granted to it by King Victor Emmanuel III.

A plaque on the exterior wall of the Villa Tritone commemorates Croce's stay
A plaque on the exterior wall of the
Villa Tritone commemorates Croce's stay
Travel tip:

A plaque on the exterior wall of Villa Tritone in Sorrento records the residence there during World War II of Benedetto Croce ‘when Italy was cut in two’. A villa had been built on the site in the first century AD by Agrippa Postumus, grandson of Emperor Augustus, and Ovid was said to have been a frequent visitor. This became the site of a convent in the 13th century and then the land was purchased in the 19th century by Count Labonia and the present villa was built. At the beginning of the 20th century William Waldorf Astor bought the villa and designed the garden behind it with windows cut in the high wall on the seaward side to give views of the sea and Vesuvius across the bay.

Also on this day:

1683: The birth of pathological anatomist Giovanni Battista Morgagni

1707: The birth of playwright Carlo Goldoni

1873: The birth of opera singer Enrico Caruso

2003: The death of comic actor Alberto Sordi

(Picture of Palazzo Reale by Vitold Muratov via Wikimedia Commons)


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24 February 2021

24 February

Bettino Craxi - prime minister

The Socialist who broke the grip of the Christian Democrats

Bettino Craxi, the politician who in 1983 became the first member of the Italian Socialist Party (PSI) to be appointed prime minister, was born on this day in 1934 in Milan.  He was not the first socialist to hold the office - Ivanoe Bonomi had been prime minister for six months in 1920 on an Italian Reformist Socialist Party ticket and succeeded Marshal Pietro Badoglio as leader of the war-torn nation’s post-Mussolini government in 1944. However, Craxi broke the hold of the Christian Democrats, who had been in power continuously since the first postwar elections in 1946.  Craxi was a moderniser who moved his party away from traditional forms of socialism in a way that was replicated elsewhere in Europe, such as in Britain under the New Labour prime minister Tony Blair. Craxi replaced the party’s hammer-and-sickle symbol with a red carnation.  His reputation was ultimately wrecked by a corruption scandal, but during his tenure as prime minister, Italy became the fifth largest industrial nation and gained entry into the G7 Group.  His fiscal policies saw him clash with the powerful trade unions over the abolition of the wage-price escalator.  Read more…

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Cesare “Caesar” Cardini – restaurateur

Italian emigrant who invented Caesar salad

The restaurateur who history credits with inventing the Caesar salad was born on this day in 1896 in Baveno, a small town on the shore of Lake Maggiore.  Cesare Cardini was one of a large family, with four brothers and two sisters.  In common with many Italians in the early part of the 20th century, his brothers Nereo, Alessandro and Gaudenzio emigrated to the United States, hoping there would be more opportunities to make a living.  Nereo is said to have opened a small hotel in Santa Cruz, California, south of San Francisco, while Alessandro and Guadenzio went to Mexico City.  Cesare left Italy for America in 1913. Records indicate he disembarked at Ellis Island, New York on May 1, having endured the transatlantic voyage as a steerage passenger, sleeping in a cargo hold equipped with dozens of bunk beds, which was the cheapest way to travel but came with few comforts.  He is thought then to have returned to Italy for a few years, working in restaurants in Milan, but ventured back to the United States in 1919.  This time he settled, first in Sacramento, then in San Diego, on the Pacific Ocean and close to the border with Mexico.  Read more…

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L’Orfeo
– an early opera

The lasting appeal of Monteverdi’s first attempt at opera

L’Orfeo by Claudio Monteverdi, the earliest opera still being regularly staged, had its first performance on this day in 1607 in Mantua.  Two letters, both dated 23 February, 1607, refer to the opera due to be performed the next day in the Ducal Palace as part of the annual carnival in Mantua in Lombardy.  In one of them a palace official writes: ‘… it should be most unusual as all the actors are to sing their parts.’  Francesco Gonzaga, the brother of the Duke, wrote in a letter dated 1 March, 1607, that the performance had been to the ‘great satisfaction of all who heard it.’  L’Orfeo, or La favola d’Orfeo as it is sometimes called, is based on the Greek legend of Orpheus. It tells the story of the hero’s descent to Hades and his unsuccessful attempt to bring his dead bride, Eurydice, back to the living world.  While it is recognised that L’Orfeo is not the first opera, it is the earliest opera that is still regularly performed in theatres today and it established the basic form that European opera was to take for the next 300 years.  The composer, Claudio Monteverdi, was born in Cremona in Lombardy in 1567.  Read more…

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Sandro Pertini - popular president

Man of the people who fought Fascism

Sandro Pertini, the respected and well-liked socialist politician who served as Italy's President between 1978 and 1985, died on this day in 1990, aged 93.  Pertini, a staunch opponent of Fascism who was twice imprisoned by Mussolini and again by the Nazis, passed away at the apartment near the Trevi Fountain in Rome that he shared with his wife, Carla.  After his death was announced, a large crowd gathered in the street near his apartment, with some of his supporters in tears.  Francesco Cossiga, who had succeeded him as President, visited the apartment to offer condolences to Pertini's widow, 30 years his junior.  They had met towards the end of the Second World War, when they were both fighting with the Italian resistance movement.  Pertini's popularity stemmed both from his strong sense of morality and his unwavering good humour.  He had the charm and wit to win over most people he met and was blessed with the common touch.  He would make a point whenever it was possible of appearing in person to greet parties of schoolchildren visiting the presidential palace, sometimes joined the staff for lunch and endeared himself to the nation with his passionate support for Italy's football team at the 1982 World Cup.  Read more…


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23 February 2021

23 February

John Keats – poet

Writer spent his final days in the Eternal City

English Romantic poet John Keats died on this day in Rome in 1821.  He had been a published writer for five years and had written some of his greatest work before leaving England.  Ode to a Nightingale, one of his most famous poems, was written in the spring of 1819 while he was sitting under a plum tree in an English garden.  Keats was just starting to be appreciated by the literary critics when tuberculosis took hold of him and he was advised by doctors to move to a warmer climate.  He arrived in Rome with his friend, Joseph Severn, in November 1820 after a long, gruelling journey.  Another friend had found them rooms in a house in Piazza di Spagna in the centre of Rome and they went past the Colosseum as they made their way there.  Keats slept in a room overlooking the Piazza and could hear the sound of the fountain outside, which may have inspired the words he later asked to be put on his tombstone.  To begin with he was well enough to go for walks along the Via del Corso and he enjoyed sitting on the Spanish Steps, but he was advised by his doctor against visiting the city’s main attractions.  Read more…

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Gentile Bellini - Renaissance painter

Bellini family were Venice's leading 15th century artists

Gentile Bellini, a member of Venice's leading family of painters in the 15th century, died in Venice on this day in 1507.  He was believed to be in his late 70s, although the exact date of his birth was not recorded.  The son of Jacopo Bellini, who had been a pioneer in the use of oil paint in art, he was the brother of Giovanni Bellini and the brother-in-law of Andrea Mantegna.  Together, they were the founding family of the Venetian school of Renaissance art.  Although history tends to place Gentile in their shadow, he was considered in his time to be one of the greatest living painters in Venice and from 1454 he was the official portrait artist for the Doges of Venice.  He also served Venice as a cultural ambassador in Constantinople, where he was sent to work for Sultan Mehmed II as part of a peace settlement between Venice and Turkey.  Gentile learned painting in his father's studio.  Once established, he had no shortage of commissions, for portraits, views of the city, and for large paintings for public buildings, often characterised by multiple figures.  He was one of the artists hired by the Scuola Grande di San Giovanni Evangelista to paint a 10-painting cycle known as The Miracle of the Relics of the Cross.   Read more…

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Giovanni Battista de Rossi - archaeologist

Excavations unearthed massive Catacomb of St Callixtus

Giovanni Battista de Rossi, the archaeologist who revealed the whereabouts of lost Christian catacombs beneath Rome, was born on this day in 1822 in the Italian capital.  De Rossi’s most famous discovery – or rediscovery, to be accurate – of the Catacomb of St Callixtus, thought to have been created in the 2nd century by the future Pope Callixtus I, at that time a deacon of Rome, under the direction of Pope Zephyrinus, established him as the greatest archaeologist of the 19th century.  The vast underground cemetery, located beneath the Appian Way about 7km (4.3 miles) south of the centre of Rome, is estimated to have covered an area of 15 hectares on five levels, with around 20km (12.5 miles) of passageways.  It may have contained up to half a million corpses, including those of 16 popes and 50 Christian martyrs, from Pope Anicetus, who died in 166, to Damasus I, who was pontiff until 384. Nine of the popes were buried in a papal crypt.  The complex steadily fell into disuse thereafter and the most important relics were removed over the centuries and relocated to churches around Rome.  Read more…

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Corrado Cagli - painter

Jewish artist who fought in World War II as a US soldier

The painter Corrado Cagli, one of the outstanding figures in the New Roman school that emerged in the early part of the 20th century, was born in Ancona on this day in 1910.  He moved with his family to Rome in 1915 at the age of five and by the age of 17 had created his first significant work, a mural painted on a building in Via Sistina, the street that links Piazza Barberini with the Spanish Steps in the historic centre of the city.  The following year he painted another mural inside a palazzo on the Via del Vantaggio, not far from Piazza del Popolo.  In 1932, he held his first personal exhibition at Rome’s Galleria d’Arte Moderna.  At this stage, despite being both Jewish and gay, Cagli had the support of the Fascist government, who commissioned him and others to produce mosaics and murals for public buildings.  Although he would go on to experiment in Neo-Cubist style and metaphysical styles, the aim of the Scuola Romana he sought to establish with fellow artists such as Giuseppe Capogrossi and Emanuele Cavalli was to reaffirm the principles of classical and Renaissance art.  Read more...


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22 February 2021

22 February

NEW
- Giovanni Zenatello - opera singer and director

Tenor star who turned Verona’s ancient Arena into major venue

The early 20th century opera star Giovanni Zenatello, who was not only a highly accomplished performer on stages around the world but also the driving force behind the establishment of the Arena di Verona as a major venue, was born on this day in 1876 in Verona.  Zenatello spent a large part of his career in the United States but is remembered with enormous respect in Italy - and in particular in his home city - for having teamed up with impresario Ottone Rivato and others to put on a spectacular staging of Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida at the Arena in 1913, the first operatic production of the century to take place within the remains of the Roman amphitheatre and the forerunner of hundreds more.  The tenor was already an important figure in Italian opera for his interpretations of Verdi’s Otello and most of the other dramatic or heroic leading male roles in the popular works of the day.  He had also been the first to sing the role of Pinkerton in Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly.  Zenatello initially trained as a baritone and when he made his professional stage debut in Belluno in 1898, taking on the roles of Silvio in Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci and Alfio in Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana, it was as a baritone.  Read more…

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Giulietta Masina - actress

Married to Fellini and excelled in his films

The actress Giulietta Masina, who was married for 50 years to the film director Federico Fellini, was born on this day in 1921 in San Giorgio di Piano, a small town in Emilia-Romagna, about 20km (12 miles) north of Bologna.  She appeared in 22 films, six of them directed by her husband, who gave her the lead female role opposition Anthony Quinn in La Strada (1954) and enabled her to win international acclaim when he cast her as a prostitute in the 1957 film Nights of Cabiria, which built on a small role she had played in an earlier Fellini movie, The White Sheik.  Masina's performance in what was a controversial film at the time earned her best actress awards at the film festivals of Cannes and San Sebastián and from the Italian National Syndicate of Film Journalists (SNGCI).  Both La Strada and Nights of Cabiria won Oscars for best foreign film at the Academy Awards.  Masina also won best actress in the David di Donatello awards for the title role in Fellini's Juliet of the Spirits (1965) and a second SNGCI best actress award for his 1986 film Ginger and Fred.  Although born in northern Italy, one of four children, her parents sent her to live with a widowed aunt in Via Lutezia in the Parioli area of Rome.  Read more...

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Mario Pavesi – entrepreneur

Biscuit maker who gave Italian motorists the Autogrill

Italy lost one of its most important postwar entrepreneurs when Mario Pavesi died on this day in 1990.  Pavesi, originally from the town of Cilavegna in the province of Pavia in Lombardy, not only founded the Pavesi brand, famous for Pavesini and Ringo biscuits among other lines, but also set up Italy’s first motorway service areas under the name of Autogrill.  Always a forward-thinking businessman, Pavesi foresaw the growing influence American ideas would have on Italy during the rebuilding process in the wake of the Second World War and the way that Italians would embrace road travel once the country developed its own motorway network.  He was one of the first Italian entrepreneurs to take full advantage of advertising opportunities in the press, radio, cinema and later television.  Born in 1909 into a family of bakers, Pavesi moved to Novara in 1934, opening a pastry shop in Corso Cavour, where he sold a range of cakes and confectionery and served coffee. During the next few years, until Italy became embroiled in the war, he expanded the business in several ways.  Read more…

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Enrico Piaggio - industrialist

Former aircraft manufacturer famed for Italy's iconic Vespa motor scooter

Enrico Piaggio, born on this day in 1905 in the Pegli area of Genoa, was destined to be an industrialist, although he cannot have envisaged the way in which his company would become a world leader.  Charged with rebuilding the business after Allied bombers destroyed the company's major factories during World War II, Enrico Piaggio decided to switch from manufacturing aircraft to building motorcycles, an initiative from which emerged one of Italy's most famous symbols, the Vespa scooter.  The original Piaggio business, set up by his father, Rinaldo in 1884, in the Sestri Ponente district of Genoa, provided fittings for luxury ships built in the thriving port. As the business grew, Rinaldo moved into building locomotives and rolling stock for the railways, diversifying again with the outbreak of World War I, when the company began producing aircraft.  In 1917 the company bought a new plant in Pisa and in 1921 another in nearby Pontedera, which became a major centre for the production of aircraft engines and is still the headquarters of Piaggio today.   Aeroplanes remained the focus of the business, which Enrico and his brother, Armando, inherited with the death of their father in 1938.  Read more…

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Renato Dulbecco - Nobel Prize-winning physiologist

Research led to major breakthrough in knowledge of cancer

Renato Dulbecco, a physiologist who shared the 1975 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his role in drawing a link between genetic mutations and cancer, was born on this day in 1914 in Catanzaro in Calabria.  Through a series of experiments that began in the late 1950s after he had emigrated to the United States, Dulbecco and two colleagues showed that certain viruses could insert their own genes into infected cells and trigger uncontrolled cell growth, a hallmark of cancer.  Their findings transformed the course of cancer research, laying the groundwork for the linking of several viruses to human cancers, including the human papilloma virus, which is responsible for most cervical cancers.  The discovery also provided the first tangible evidence that cancer was caused by genetic mutations, a breakthrough that changed the way scientists thought about cancer and the effects of carcinogens such as tobacco smoke.  Dulbecco, who shared the Nobel Prize with California Institute of Technology (Caltech) colleagues Howard Temin and David Baltimore, then examined how viruses use DNA to store their genetic information.  Read more…


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