31 March 2021

31 March

Dante Giacosa - auto engineer

Designer known as ‘the father of the Cinquecento'

The automobile engineer Dante Giacosa, who worked for the Italian car maker Fiat for almost half a century and designed the iconic Fiat 500 - the Cinquecento - in all its incarnations as well as numerous other classic models, died on this day in 1996 at the age of 91.  Giacosa was the lead design engineer for Fiat from 1946 to 1970. As such, he was head of all Fiat car projects during that time and the direction of the company’s output was effectively entirely down to him.  In addition to his success with the Cinquecento, Giacosa’s Fiat 128, launched in 1969, became the template adopted by virtually every other manufacturer in the world for front-wheel drive cars.  His Fiat 124, meanwhile, was exported to the Soviet Union and repackaged as the Zhiguli, known in the West as the Lada, which introduced Soviet society of the 1970s to the then-bourgeois concept of private car ownership.  Born in Rome, where his father was undertaking military service, Giacosa's family roots were in Neive in southern Piedmont. He studied engineering at the Polytechnic University of Turin.  After completing his compulsory military service he joined Fiat in 1928.  Read more…


Bianca Maria Visconti – Duchess of Milan

Ruler fought alongside her troops to defend her territory

Bianca Maria Visconti, the daughter of Filippo Maria Visconti, Duke of Milan, was born on this day in 1425 near Settimo Pavese in Lombardy.  A strong character, her surviving letters showed she was able to run Milan efficiently after becoming Duchess and even supposedly donned a suit of armour and rode with her troops into battle, earning herself the nickname, Warrior Woman.  Bianca Maria was the illegitimate daughter of the Duke of Milan, and was sent to live with her mother in comfortable conditions in a castle where she received a good education.  At the age of six she was betrothed for political reasons to the condottiero, Francesco I Sforza, who was 24 years older than her.  Despite the political situation changing many times over the years, Bianca Maria and Francesco Sforza did get married in 1441 when she was 16. The wedding took place in Cremona, which was listed as part of her dowry. The celebrations lasted several days and included a banquet, tournaments, a palio and a huge cake made in the shape of the city’s Torrazzo, the bell tower.  Bianca Maria quickly proved her skills in administration and diplomacy.  Read more…


Franco Bonvicini – comic book artist

Comic artist became famous for satirising the Nazis

Franco Bonvicini, who signed his comic strips Bonvi, was born on this day in 1941 in either Parma or Modena in Emilia-Romagna.  The correct birthplace is unknown. According to the artist, his mother registered him in both places to obtain double the usual amount of food stamps for rations.  After a brief spell working in advertising, Bonvi made his debut in the comic strip world for the Rome newspaper Paese Sera with his creation Sturmtruppen in 1968.  This series satirising the German army was a big hit and was published in various periodicals over the years. It was also translated for publication in other countries.  Although left-wing and a pacifist, Bonvi was fascinated by war and built up immense knowledge about Nazi Germany’s uniforms, weapons and equipment, which he depicted faithfully in his illustrations. The cartoons satirised military life and the Nazis themselves, providing him with an endless source of comic and surreal situations.  Bonvi also created the character Nick Carter, a comic detective, who later featured in a play, two films and a number of television cartoons.  Read more…


Pope Benedict XIV

Bologna cardinal seen as great intellectual leader

Prospero Lorenzo Lambertini, who would in his later years become Pope Benedict XIV, was born on this day in 1675 in Bologna.  Lambertini was a man of considerable intellect, considered one of the most erudite men of his time and arguably the greatest scholar of all the popes.  He promoted scientific learning, the Baroque arts, the reinvigoration of the philosophy of Saint Thomas Aquinas and the study of the human form.  He was Bishop of Ancona at the age of 52, Archbishop of Bologna at 56 and Pope at 65 but at no time did he consider his elevation to these posts an honour upon which to congratulate himself.  He saw them as the opportunity to do good and tackled each job with zeal and energy. A man of cheerful character, he set out never to allow anyone to leave his company dissatisfied or angry, without feeling strengthened by his wisdom or advice.  He attracted some criticism for his willingness to make concessions or compromises in his negotiations with governments and rulers, yet his pursuit of peaceful accommodation was always paramount and historians have noted that few conflicts in which he sought to arbitrate remained unresolved.  Read more…


30 March 2021

30 March

Fortunato Depero - artist

Futurist who designed iconic Campari bottle

The Futurist painter, sculptor and graphic artist Fortunato Depero, who left a famous mark on Italian culture by designing the conical bottle in which Campari Soda is still sold today, was born on this day in 1892 in the Trentino region.  Depero had a wide breadth of artistic talent, which encompassed painting, sculpture, architecture and graphic design. He designed magazine covers for the New Yorker, Vogue and Vanity Fair among others, created stage sets and costumes for the theatre, made sculptures and paintings and some consider his masterpiece to be the trade fair pavilion he designed for the 1927 Monza Biennale Internazionale delle Arti Decorative, which had giant block letters for walls.  Yet it is the distinctive Campari bottle that has endured longest of all his creations, which went into production in 1932 as the manufacturers of the famous aperitif broke new ground by deciding to sell a ready-made drink of Campari blended with soda water.  It was the first pre-mixed drink anyone had sold commercially and Depero, who was already working with the Milan-based company on a series of advertising posters and stylish black-and-white newspaper ads, was tasked with creating a unique miniature bottle in which the new product would be packaged..  Read more…


Rimini Proclamation

Opening statement of the Risorgimento came from a Frenchman

The first political proclamation calling for all Italians to unite into a single people and drive out foreigners was issued on this day in 1815 in Rimini.  But the stirring words: ‘Italians! The hour has come to engage in your highest destiny…’ came from a Frenchman, Gioacchino (Joachim) Murat, who was at the time occupying the throne of Naples, which he had been given by his brother-in-law, Napoleon.  Murat had just declared war on Austria and used the Proclamation to call on Italians to revolt against the Austrians occupying Italy. He was trying to show himself as a backer of Italian independence in an attempt to find allies in his desperate battle to hang on to his own throne.  Although Murat was acting out of self-interest at the time, the Proclamation is often seen as the opening statement of the Risorgimento, the movement that helped to arouse the national consciousness of the Italian people. It led to a series of political events that freed the Italian states from foreign domination and unified them politically.  Murat’s Proclamation impressed the Milanese writer Alessandro Manzoni, who wrote a poem about it later that year, Il proclama di Rimini.  Read more…


Ignazio Gardella – architect

Modernist who created Venetian classic

The engineer and architect Ignazio Gardella, considered one of the great talents of modern urban design in Italy, was born on this day in 1905 in Milan.  He represented the fourth generation in a family of architects and his destiny was determined at an early age. He graduated in civil engineering in Milan in 1931 and architecture in Venice in 1949.  Gardella designed numerous buildings during an active career that spanned almost six decades, including the Antituberculosis Dispensary in Alessandria, which is considered one of the purest examples of Italian Rationalism, and the Casa alle Zattere on the Giudecca Canal in Venice, in which he blended modernism with classical style in a way that has been heralded as genius.  During his university years, he made friends with many young architects from the Milan area and together they created the Modern Italian Movement.  He worked with his father, Arnaldo, on a number of projects while still studying.  On graduating, he set up an office in Milan, although he spent a good part of his early career travelling, sometimes with a commission but at other times to study.  Read more…


The Sicilian Vespers

How the French lost control of the island they were ruling

As the citizens of Palermo walked to vespers - evening prayers - in the church of Santo Spirito on this day in 1282, a French soldier grossly insulted a pretty young Sicilian woman.  The girl’s enraged fiancé immediately drew his dagger and stabbed the soldier through the heart.  The violence was contagious and the local people exploded in fury against the French occupying forces. More than 200 French soldiers were killed at the outset and the violence spread to other parts of Sicily the next day resulting in a full-scale rebellion against French rule. This bloody event, which led to Charles of Anjou losing control of Sicily, became known in history as the Sicilian Vespers.  King Charles was detested for his cold-blooded cruelty and his officials had made the lives of the ordinary Sicilians miserable.  After he was overthrown, Sicily enjoyed almost a century of independence.  There have been different versions given of the events that led to the rebellion against the French and it is not known exactly how the uprising started.  But to many Italians the story of the Sicilian Vespers has always been inspirational.  Read more…

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29 March 2021

29 March

- The Ghetto - Venice’s Jewish quarter

District began as area of enforced segregation

The Doge of Venice, Leonardo Loredan, pronounced a decree creating Venice’s historic Ghetto on this day in 1516.  It meant that the Jewish population of the city, who were already obliged to live under restrictions in place since the 13th century, were forced to move to an island in the northwestern part of the Cannaregio sestiere and could not live in any other district.  There are a number of theories about how it came to be known as the ghetto, the most plausible of which is that the area was known to Venetians by the dialect word geto - foundry - as it used to be home to a factory making heavy iron cannons for the Venetian fleet. The word may have acquired an ‘h’ in its spelling to reflect its mispronunciation by the early inhabitants, mainly German jews, who incorrectly gave it a hard ‘g’ rather than the soft one of the dialect.   Whatever its etymology, ghetto subsequently became a word used to refer to any deprived urban area dominated by one ethnic or religious group, often with negative connotations of deliberate racial segregation.  Yet the history of the Venice Ghetto was not wholly about racial persecution, even though anti-Jewish sentiments played a part.  Read more…


Terence Hill – actor

Film star progressed from cowboy roles to popular parish priest

Terence Hill was born as Mario Girotti on this day in 1939 in Venice.  He became an actor as a child and went on to have many starring roles in films, particularly spaghetti westerns.  He took up the stage name Terence Hill after it was suggested as a publicity stunt by the producers of one of his films. It is said he had to pick from a list of names and chose one with his mother’s initials.  Terence Hill later became a household name in Italy as the actor who played the lead character in the long-running television series, Don Matteo.  Hill lived in Germany as a child but then his family moved to Rome, the capital of Italy’s film industry. When he was 12 years old, Hill was spotted by director Dino Risi and given a part in Vacanze col gangster, an adventure movie in which five youngsters help a dangerous gangster escape from prison.  Other film parts quickly followed and at the height of his popularity, Hill was said to be among the highest-paid actors in Italy.  His most famous films are They Call Me Trinity and My Name is Nobody, in which he appeared with Henry Fonda. Another of his films, Django, Prepare a coffin was featured at the 64th Venice film festival in 2007.  Read more…


Edoardo De Martino – painter

Naval officer who painted battle scenes was a favourite of British royal family

Edoardo Federico De Martino, an artist who became famous for his paintings of warships and naval battles, was born on this day in 1838 in Meta, just outside Sorrento.  At the height of his success, De Martino worked in London, where his paintings of ships and famous British naval victories were held in high regard by Queen Victoria.  He went on to work as a painter for Queen Victoria’s son, King Edward VII, and he often accompanied the King on naval tours.  De Martino was born in the small town of Meta, to the northeast of Sorrento, which had a long history of boat building.  He served as an officer in the Italian Navy but by the time he was 30 his main interest was painting.  He became associated with the School of Resina, a group of artists who painted landscapes and contemporary scenes that gathered in Resina, a seaside resort south of Naples, now incorporated into the towns of Herculaneum and Portici. Influenced by his fellow artists, De Martino eventually went to live and work in Naples.  He found fame after moving to London, where he painted scenes from the battles of Trafalgar, the Nile and Cape San Vincenzo.  Read more…


Enea Bossi - aviation pioneer

Claimed first pedal-powered flight in 1936

Enea Bossi, the aviator credited - albeit disputedly - with building the world's first human-powered aeroplane, was born on this day in 1888 in Milan.  It was claimed that in 1936 Bossi's Pedaliante aircraft flew for approximately 300 feet (91.4m) under pedal power alone.  Piloted by Emilio Casco, a robustly built major in the Italian army and an experienced cyclist, the Pedaliante - or pedal glider - is said to have taken off and covered the distance while remaining a few feet off the ground, although in the absence of independent verification it is not counted as the first authenticated human-powered flight, which did not take place until 1961 in Southampton, England.  The following year, as Bossi attempted to win a competition in Italy offering a prize of 100,000 lire for a successful human-powered flight, Casco succeeded in completing the required 1km (0.62 miles) distance at a height of 30 feet (9m) off the ground.  The Pedaliante, which had been built by the Italian glider manufacturer Vittorio Bonomi, was disqualified, however, on account of having used a catapult launch to achieve its altitude.  Read more…


Castruccio Castracani - condottiero

Mercenary soldier who ruled Lucca 

Castruccio Castracani, a condottiero who ruled his home city of Lucca from 1316 to 1328, was born on this day in 1281.  His relatively short life - he died at the age of 47 - was taken up with a series of battles, some fought on behalf of others, but latterly for his own ends in the conflict between the Guelphs and the Ghibellines that dominated medieval Italy as part of the power struggle between the Papacy and the Holy Roman Empire.  Castruccio's story inspired a biography by Niccolò Machiavelli and later a novel by Mary Shelley.  Born Castruccio Castracani degli Antelminelli, he was from a Ghibelline family and therefore a supporter of the Holy Roman Emperor in opposition to the Guelphs. He was exiled from Lucca at an early age with his parents and others by the Guelphs, then in the ascendancy.  Orphaned at 19, he lived initially in Pisa before moving to England, where he lived for some years and displayed a skill in the use of weapons that earned him victory in some tournaments and won the favour of King Edward I.  However, after committing a murder, even though it was for reasons of honour, he was forced to leave England and went to France.  Read more…


Francesco Faà di Bruno - advocate for poor

Entered priesthood after appeal to pope

The blessed Francesco Faà di Bruno, a talented academic from a wealthy family who devoted much energy to helping the poor, disadvantaged and elderly, was born on this day in 1825 near Alessandria in Piedmont.  He was a supporter of Italian unification and indeed was wounded in the cause as a commissioned lieutenant in the Piedmontese Army during the First Italian War of Independence. Yet he could not accept the anti-Catholic sentiments of many of the movement’s leaders.  At the age of 51 he became a priest, although only after the intervention of Pope Pius IX, who stepped in to overrule the Archbishop of Turin, who had rejected Francesco’s credentials on the grounds that he was too old.  He was beatified 100 years after his death by Pope John Paul II.  Francesco was the youngest of 12 children born to Lady Carolina Sappa de' Milanesi of her husband, Luigi, a wealthy landowner whose various titles included Marquis of Bruno, Count of Carentino, Lord of Fontanile, and Patrizio of Alessandria.  His family were of a strong Catholic faith and encouraged a concern for the poor among all their children.  Read more…


The Ghetto - Venice’s Jewish quarter

District began as area of enforced segregation

The Campo di Ghetto Nuovo, heart of the Ghetto district of the Cannaregio sestiere
The Campo di Gheto Nuovo, heart of the Ghetto
district of the Cannaregio sestiere
A decree creating Venice’s historic Ghetto was pronounced by the Doge of Venice, Leonardo Loredan, on this day in 1516.

It meant that the Jewish population of the city, who were already obliged to live under restrictions in place since the 13th century, were forced to move to an island in the northwestern part of the Cannaregio sestiere and could not live in any other district.

There are a number of theories about how it came to be known as the Ghetto, the most plausible of which is that the area was known to Venetians by the dialect word geto - foundry - as it used to be home to a factory making heavy iron cannons for the Venetian fleet. The word may have acquired an ‘h’ in its spelling to reflect its mispronunciation by the early inhabitants, mainly German Jews, who incorrectly gave it a hard ‘g’ rather than the soft one of the dialect. At some time later, it acquired a second 't', although street signs in Venice have only one.

Whatever its etymology, ghetto subsequently became a word used to refer to any deprived urban area dominated by one ethnic or religious group, often with negative connotations of deliberate racial segregation.

Yet the history of the Venice Ghetto was not wholly about racial persecution, even though anti-Jewish sentiments played a part.

Giovanni Bellini's 1501 portrait of Venetian Doge, Leonardo Loredan
Giovanni Bellini's 1501 portrait
of Venetian Doge, Leonardo Loredan
Venice was actually more tolerant towards its Jewish inhabitants than many European cities in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, although that is not to say they enjoyed freedom as it would be defined today.  Many citizens saw them as a threat to the Republic’s commercial and financial sectors, so there were laws in place prohibiting Jews from working in certain professions and requiring them to wear yellow badges and hats to identify them.  

However, the commercial acumen that some regarded with suspicion was also a benefit to the city. Jewish merchants provided money and goods for the republic’s military defences and when the 1516 decree was passed it was only after a long and heated debate. 

The Republic’s governing council recognised that successful Jewish businesses had become vital to Venice’s economy, yet were under pressure from the Catholic Church, which had ruled that Christians and Jews should not live together at the Third Lateran Council of 1179. There was also the problem of Jewish refugees arriving in Venice in increasing numbers as they fled persecution elsewhere in Europe.

The 1516 decree therefore had a strong element of compromise, a way of appeasing the Catholic Church and addressing the fears of Venice’s non-Jewish population but also of providing the reward of security to the Jewish population in recognition of their contribution to the Republic’s coffers.

The Jews of the Ghetto therefore enjoyed a certain amount of freedom. They were allowed to work and follow recreational pursuits in any part of the city, so long as they returned to the island before nightfall.  Gates erected at entry points were locked at night, yet it was as much a fortress as a prison. The watchmen - paid for by the Jewish community - were there to stop people leaving but also to ensure no unwanted visitors got in.

Indeed, over subsequent years, the Venice Ghetto came to be seen as a haven, with Jews expelled from Portugal and Spain adding to its population, along with Jews displaced from the Veneto by the Habsburg army during the War of the League of Cambrai and from the eastern Mediterranean by the Ottomans. In time the population swelled to more than 5,000.

The Ghetto is notable for its tall buildings, built to accommodate a rapidly growing population
The Ghetto is notable for its tall buildings, built
to accommodate a rapidly growing population
It was as much a consequence of this that the area became one of deprivation, rather than by any deliberate persecution by the authorities.

As more and more people squeezed into the neighbourhood, overcrowding became rife.  With space limited, the concept of multi-storey dwellings was explored, with laws passed allowing houses in Cannaregio to be a third taller than those in the rest of the city. However, unscrupulous landlords not only charged exorbitant rents but instructed builders to squeeze as many floors as possible into the height allowed, often rendering them cramped and airless and a breeding ground for infectious diseases.

Yet for all its problems, the area became the centre of a vibrant and colourful culture, a reflection of the diverse roots of its inhabitants. For example, the immigrants from the eastern Mediterranean dressed as they had at home, the men sporting turbans, the women wearing expensive silks and jewellery, in stark contrast to the modest and austere dress of the German Jews.

The Ghetto became a centre of trade not only for Jewish residents and visitors but also for Christian Venetians, who poured into the district every morning, attracted by the shops selling everyday supplies, cloth and books that lined the main streets, alongside the ubiquitous moneylenders. 

In addition to places of worship - there were eventually five synagogues, one each for the German, Italian, Spanish, and Levantine communities, and a fifth that may have been French - there was also a theatre, an academy of music, literary salons, an inn and a hospital.

The Scuola Grande Spagnola still offers regular religious services to Venice's Jewish community
The Scuola Grande Spagnola still offers regular
religious services to Venice's Jewish community
Nonetheless, the freedom of the rest of the city was not restored to the Jewish population until 1797, when the French Army, commanded by 28-year-old General Napoleon Bonaparte, occupied Venice and forced the dissolution of the Republic. The Ghetto's gates were removed, with Jews given the same status as other citizens.

The wealthier inhabitants jumped at the opportunity to move out, some even buying palaces on the Grand Canal.  Yet many of the poorer Jews chose to continue living in the area and others were forced back only months later by the new Austrian administration.  It was not until Venice became part of the unified Italy in 1866 that full emancipation was regained.

The Ghetto remained a focal point for the city’s Jewish community until the Second World War, when the arrival of the Germans in 1944 signalled a dark period in the area’s history, with some 246 Jews from all parts of Venice herded back into the Ghetto for deportation.

Today, the Ghetto - just a few minutes' walk from the Santa Lucia rail station - is still a centre of Jewish life, with two of the five synagogues - the Scuola Grande Spagnola and the Scuola Levantina - still offering religious services. Ironically, only a few of Venice’s approximately 500 Jewish residents actually live in the area, largely because it is too expensive, many young Venetian professionals having chosen it as a trendy area to live.

The entrance to the Museo Ebraico di Venezia
The entrance to the Museo
Ebraico di Venezia
Travel tip: 

The Museo Ebraico di Venezia - the city’s Jewish museum - is situated in the Campo di Gheto Nuovo, between the two most ancient Venetian synagogues, the Scuola Grande Tedesca and the Scuola Canton. Founded in 1953, it includes important examples of goldsmith and textile manufacture in the Jewish tradition made between the 16th and the 19th centuries and a wide selection of ancient books and manuscripts, and exhibitions dedicated to the cycle of the most important Jewish festivities, with many ritual objects.

The Banco Rosso was a hybrid of bank and pawn shop
The Banco Rosso was a hybrid of
bank and pawn shop
Travel tip:

The preponderance of Jewish moneylenders in Venice at the time of the Ghetto’s establishment was largely because Christians were forbidden by their religious leaders to lend money with interest. The demand for loans, however, remained strong and the Jewish community established banks in Venice which were coded by colour - red, green and black - depending on their function. The Banco Rosso, which can also be found on the Campo di Gheto Nuovo, was a hybrid of bank and pawnshop. It has been restored and is open to visitors, who learn that its name is derived from the red receipt that customers received when pawning an item. Some have speculated that this practice is why even today people who owe money to their bank are said to be “in the red”.

Also on this day:

1281: The birth of condottiero Catruccio Castracani

1825: The birth of Francesco Faà di Bruno, advocate for the poor

1838: The birth of Edoardo De Martino, a painter notable for his depictions of naval battles

1888: The birth of aviation pioneer Enea Bossi

1939: The birth of actor Terence Hill

(Picture credits: Tall buildings, street name sign by Andreas H. from Pixabay; Campo di Ghetto Nuovo by Marc Ryckaert; Museo Ebraico by Arie Darzi; Scuola Spagnola by Didier Descouens, via Wikimedia Commons)


28 March 2021

28 March

Alberto Grimaldi - film producer

Spaghetti Western trilogy gave Naples producer his big break

Film producer Alberto Grimaldi, who boasts an extraordinary list of credits that includes Last Tango in Paris, The Canterbury Tales, Man of La Mancha, Fellini's Casanova, 1900, Ginger and Fred and Gangs of New York, was born in Naples on this day in 1925. Grimaldi trained as a lawyer and it was in that capacity that he initially found work in the cinema industry in the 1950s.  However, he could see the money-making potential in production and in the early 1960s set up his own company, Produzioni Europee Associate (PEA).  His first three productions, cashing in on the popularity in Italy of westerns, enjoyed some success but it was a meeting with Sergio Leone, the Italian director, that earned him his big break. Leone, whose first venture into the western genre, A Fistful of Dollars, had been an unexpected hit both for him and the young American actor, Clint Eastwood, was busy planning the sequel when a dispute arose with his producers over the cost of the movie.  As it happened, Grimaldi's first production, The Shadow of Zorro, had been filmed, like A Fistful of Dollars, on location in Spain.  Read more…


Fra Bartolommeo - Renaissance great

Friar rated equal of Michelangelo, Raphael and Leonardo

Fra Bartolommeo, the Renaissance artist recognised as one of the greatest religious painters, was born on this day in 1472 in Savignano di Vaiano, in Tuscany.  Also known as Baccio della Porta, a nickname he acquired because when he lived in Florence his lodgings were near what is now the Porta Romana, Bartolommeo created works that chart the development of artistic styles and fashion in Florence, from the earthly realism of the 15th century to the grandeur of High Renaissance in the 16th century.  His most famous works include Annunciation, Vision of St Bernard, Madonna and Child with Saints, the Holy Family, the Mystic Marriage of St Catherine, God the Father with SS Catherine of Siena and Mary Magdalene and Madonna della Misericordia.  Bartolommeo always prepared for any painting by making sketches, more than 1,000 in total over the years he was active.  Around 500 of them were discovered at the convent of St Catherine of Siena in Florence in 1722, where nuns were unaware of their significance.  He is also remembered for his striking profile portrait of Fra Girolamo Savonarola, the fanatical priest under whose influence he came in the 1490s.  Read more…


Anselmo Colzani - opera star

Baritone who had 16 seasons at the New York Met

Anselmo Colzani, an operatic baritone who was a fixture at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in the 1960s and 1970s, as well as La Scala in his home country, was born on this day in 1918 in Budrio, a town not far from Bologna.  His stage career continued until 1980, when he made his final stage appearance in one of his signature roles as Scarpia in Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca.  Although his repertoire was much wider, his reputation became strongly associated with the works of Puccini and Giuseppe Verdi, with Jack Rance in Puccini's Fanciulla del West and the title role of Verdi's Falstaff, as well a Amonasro in Aida and Iago in Otello among his most famous roles.  Colzani’s association with the Met began in March 1960 after he was approached by Rudolf Bing, the opera house’s general manager, following the sudden death of Leonard Warren on stage during a performance of La Forza del Destino.  A few weeks later, Colzani took over Warren's role in Verdi's Simon Boccanegra. It was not only the first time he had sung at the Met, but the first time he had sung the role.  Read more…


27 March 2021

27 March

Alessandro La Marmora - military general

Founder of Italy's famed Bersaglieri corps

The general who founded the Italian army's famous Bersaglieri corps was born on this day in 1799 in Turin.  Alessandro Ferrero La Marmora was one of 16 children born to the Marquis Celestino Ferrero della Marmora and his wife Raffaella.  The family had a strong military tradition. Alessandro was one of four of the male children who grew up to serve as generals.  La Marmora was a captain when he came up with the idea for the Bersaglieri in 1836.  He had spent much time in France, England, Bavaria, Saxony, Switzerland, and the Austrian county of Tyrol studying armies and tactics and he approached King Carlo Alberto of Piedmont-Sardinia with the idea of creating a new corps of light infantry.  He envisaged a mobile elite corps similar to the French chasseurs and Austrian jägers, trained to a high physical level and all crack marksmen.  He suggested they should act as scouts, providing screen for the main army, operate as skirmishers and use their sharpshooting skills to weaken the flanks of the enemy during a battle.  From this proposal emerged the Bersaglieri, soldiers who were trained to be bold, carrying out their duties with patriotic fervour despite personal danger.  Read more…


Gianluigi Lentini - transfer record breaker

AC Milan outbid Juventus for Torino star

Gianluigi Lentini, who was for four years the world's most expensive footballer, was born on this day in 1969.  A winger with Torino known for outstanding dribbling skills, crossing accuracy and lightning pace, Lentini was the subject of a fierce bidding war between Torino's city neighbours, Juventus, and defending Serie A champions AC Milan in the summer of 1992 which ended with Milan paying a fee of around £13 million for the 23-year-old star.  It was the second time in the space of a few weeks that Milan had paid a world record sum for a player, having signed the French striker Jean-Pierre Papin from Marseille for £10 million.  At a time when the Italian league was awash with cash, the Papin record itself had been eclipsed a short while before the Lentini deal was agreed when Juventus paid Sampdoria £12 million for striker Gianluca Vialli.  The Lentini record would remain until Newcastle United forked out £15 million for the Blackburn and England striker Alan Shearer in 1996.  Born in Carmagnola, a small town around 30 kilometres (18 miles) south of Turin, Lentini made his Serie A debut for Torino as a 17-year-old.  Read more…


Luca Zaia - politician

Popular president of Veneto tipped as future PM

The politician Luca Zaia, who has been spoken of as a possible candidate to be Italy’s prime minister, was born on this day in 1968 in Conegliano, in the Veneto.  Zaia, who has been president of the Veneto region since 2010, received an approval rating of 56 per cent in a 2018 poll to find the most popular regional governor, the highest rating of any of Italy’s regional presidents.  A member of the Lega party, formerly Lega Nord (Northern League), he was suggested by some commentators as a dark horse for the position of President of the Council of Ministers - the official title of Italy’s prime minister.  Before successfully standing to be Veneto’s president in 2010 he had served in national government as Minister of Agriculture under Silvio Berlusconi.  At the 2018 election, the populist Movimento Cinque Stelle (Five Star Movement) won the biggest proportion of the vote at just over 32 per cent and the Lega achieved its highest share at just under 18 per cent, almost as many as the Democratic Party.   The Lega, whose traditional position was to campaign for an independent northern Italy, have been branded far-right because of the anti-immigration and anti-EU rhetoric of some of their leading figures. Read more…


Joe Sentieri - singer and actor

Career remembered for international hit song

The singer, songwriter and actor Joe Sentieri, who released seven albums and around 100 singles over the course of a career spanning more than a quarter of a century, died on this day in 2007 in the Adriatic coastal city of Pescara.  Although he enjoyed considerable success in his own right, he tends to be remembered most for his association with an Italian song that became an international hit after it was translated into English.  Sentieri’s 1961 song Uno dei tanti - One of the Many - was given English lyrics by the American producing partners Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller and repackaged as I (Who Have Nothing).  A hit first for the American soul and R&B star Ben E King, it was covered with considerable success by the British artists Tom Jones and later Shirley Bassey. The Jones version reached No 14 in the Billboard Hot 100 chart, while Bassey’s climbed to No 6 in the UK singles chart in 1963 and became a staple of her concert repertoire.  Countless other cover versions were released over time, by performers as diverse as Petula Clark and Joe Cocker, Katherine Jenkins and Gladys Knight.   Read more…


26 March 2021

26 March

Guccio Gucci – fashion designer

The man whose name inspired the interlocking G logo

The founder of the House of Gucci, Guccio Gucci, was born on this day in 1881 in Florence.  In the early 1900s Gucci worked as a lift boy at the Savoy Hotel in London, where he was inspired by the elegance of the wealthy people who stayed there and their smart luggage.  On his return to Florence he started making his own line of leather travel bags and accessories and in the 1920s he opened a small leather and equestrian shop in Via della Vigna Nuova.  Gucci later added handbags to his line and relocated to a bigger shop. He was fascinated with horses and his handbags featured clasps and fasteners resembling horse bits and stirrups. He gained a reputation for hiring the best craftsmen he could to work on his products.  In 1938 he expanded his business to Rome. When raw materials became scarce during the war he used materials such as hemp and linen to make his bags, but still trimmed them with metal resembling horse bits and stirrups.  The Gucci label later became famous for certain key products, such as a bag with bamboo handles and a pair of classic loafers.  Gucci and his wife, Aida Calvelli, had six children.  Read more…


Elio de Angelis - racing driver

The 'last gentleman racer' of Formula One

The Formula One motor racing driver Elio de Angelis was born on this day in 1958 in Rome.  His record of winning two Grands Prix from 108 career starts in F1 may not look impressive but he was regarded as a talented driver among his peers, holding down a place with Lotus for six consecutive seasons alongside such talents as Nigel Mansell and Ayrton Senna, both future world champions.  He had his best seasons in 1984 and 1985, which encompassed seven of his nine career podium finishes and in which he finished third and fifth respectively in the drivers' championship standings. Tragically, he was killed in testing the following year, having left Lotus for Brabham in frustration after perceiving that Senna was being given more favourable treatment.  De Angelis was seen by many in motor racing as "the last of the gentlemen racers." In contrast to his teammate Mansell, who came from a working class background in the West Midlands of England, De Angelis was born into wealth.  His family was long established in the upper echelons of Roman society.  His father, Giulio, ran a successful construction company and raced powerboats.  Read more…


Lella Lombardi - racing driver

Only woman to win points in Formula One

Maria Grazia “Lella” Lombardi, the only female driver to finish in a points position in a Formula One world championship motor race, was born on this day in 1941 in Frugarolo, near Alessandria in Piedmont.  She finished out of the points in 11 of the 12 world championship rounds which she started between 1974 and 1976 but finished sixth in the 1975 Spanish Grand Prix, a race marred by the tragic deaths of five spectators after the car being driven by the German driver Rolf Stommelen went out of control and somersaulted over a barrier into the crowd.  His was the eighth car to crash in the first 25 of the 75 laps and the race was halted four laps later when it became known there had been fatalities. At that moment, Lombardi’s March-Ford was in sixth position, albeit two laps between race leader Jochen Mass.  The points were awarded on the basis of positions when the race was stopped. In normal circumstances, a sixth-place finish would have been worth one point but because less than three-quarters of the race had been completed the points were halved, thus Lombardi was awarded half a point.  Read more…

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25 March 2021

25 March

- Saint Catherine of Siena

Pious woman from ordinary family helped the Pope reorganise the church

Caterina Benincasa, who was to one day become a patron saint of Rome, Italy and Europe, was born on this day in 1347 in Siena in Tuscany.  She is remembered for her writings, all of which were dictated to scribes, as she did not learn to write until late in life. While carrying out Christ’s work in Italy, she wrote about 380 letters, 26 prayers, and four treatises of Il libro della divina dottrina, better known as The Dialogue. These works were so influential and highly regarded she was later declared a Doctor of the Church.  Caterina was the youngest of 25 children born to Lapa Piagenti, the daughter of a poet, and Jacopo di Benincasa, a cloth dyer. She is said to have had her first vision of God when she was just five years old and at the age of seven, Caterina vowed to give her whole life to God.  She refused to get married when her parents tried to arrange it, cut off her hair to make herself look less attractive and began to fast. She did not want to take a nun’s veil, but to live an active life full of prayer in society, following the model of the Dominicans.  When she was in her early 20s, Caterina said she had experienced a spiritual espousal, or mystical marriage, to Christ.  Read more…


Mina - pop star

Italy’s all-time top selling female artist

The pop singer Anna Maria Mazzini, better known simply as Mina, was born on this day in 1940 in the Lombardy city of Busto Arsizio.  Since her debut single in 1958, Mina has sold well in excess of 150 million records, which makes her the top-selling female performer in Italian music history. Only her fellow 60s star Adriano Celentano can boast larger figures.  The pair worked together on one of Italy’s biggest-selling albums of all-time in 1998. Mina Celentano sold an impressive 2.365 million copies. They revived the collaboration in 2016 with Tutte Le Migliori.  Mina also enjoys an iconic status in the history of female emancipation in Italy as a result of the sensational ban imposed on her by the state television station RAI in 1963 following her affair with a married actor, Corrado Pani, by whom she became pregnant.  Despite pressure from the Catholic Church, whose position as the guardians of Italy’s public morals was still very strong at the time, the broadcaster was forced by the weight of public opinion, as well as Mina’s unaffected record sales, to rescind the ban the following January.  Read more…


Francesco I - Grand Duke of Tuscany

Florentine ruler at heart of Medici murder mystery

Francesco I, the Medici Grand Duke whose death at the age of 46 became the subject of a murder mystery still unsolved 430 years later, was born on this day in 1541 in Florence.  The second to be given the title Grand Duke of Tuscany, Francesco was the son of Cosimo I de' Medici, the first to hold the title, and Eleonor of Toledo.  Like his father, Francesco was often a despotic leader, but while Cosimo's purpose was to maintain Florence's independence, Francesco's loyalties were not so clear. He taxed his subjects heavily but diverted large sums to the empires of Austria and Spain.  He continued his father's patronage of the arts, supporting artists and building the Medici Theatre as well as founding the Accademia della Crusca and the Uffizi Gallery. He was also interested in chemistry and alchemy and spent many hours in his private laboratory.  It was his personal life that he is remembered for, beginning with an unhappy marriage to Joanna of Austria, youngest daughter of Ferdinand I, Holy Roman Emperor and Anne of Bohemia and Hungary.  Joanna was reportedly homesick for her native Austria, and Francesco was unfaithful from the start.  Read more… 


Veronica Franco – courtesan and poet

The literary talent of a popular prostitute

The beautiful courtesan, Veronica Franco, was born on this day in 1546 in Venice.  A cortigiana onesta, literally 'honest courtesan', but really meaning intellectual and high class, Veronica is remembered for the quality of her poetry as well as her profession.  In the 16th century Venice was renowned for the number of its courtesans and Veronica became one of the most famous of them.  She had three brothers who were educated by tutors and fortunately her mother, a former cortigiana onesta herself, had ensured that Veronica shared that education.  Veronica was married in her mid-teens to a physician, but she soon initiated divorce proceedings.  She asked her husband to return her dowry but he refused, and with a young child to support, she had no choice but to become a courtesan.  She was a great success and was able to support her family well for the next few years.  By the time she was 20, Veronica was among the most popular and respected courtesans in Venice.  Among her clients were King Henry III of France and Domenico Venier, a wealthy poet whose salon she joined.  As a member of the Venetian literati, Veronica participated in discussions and contributed to collections of poetry.  Read more…


Tina Anselmi - ground-breaking politician

Former partisan became Italy’s first female cabinet minister

The politician Tina Anselmi, who made history in 1976 as the first woman to hold a ministerial position in an Italian government and later broke new ground again when she was appointed to chair the public inquiry into the infamous Propaganda Due masonic lodge, was born on this day in 1927 in Castelfranco Veneto.  Anselmi was chosen as Minister for Labour and Social Security and then Minister for Health in the government led by Giulio Andreotti from 1976 to 1979.  In 1981, she became the first woman to lead a public inquiry in Italy when she was asked to head the commission looking into the clandestine and illegal P2 masonic lodge, which had among its members prominent journalists, members of parliament, industrialists, and military leaders and was suspected of involvement in many scandals in pursuit of an ultra-right agenda.  Anselmi’s political views were heavily influenced by her upbringing in the Veneto during the years of Mussolini and war. She was from a comfortable background - her father was a pharmacist in Castelfranco Veneto, while her mother ran an osteria with her grandmother.  Read more…


Saint Catherine of Siena

Pious woman from ordinary family helped the Pope reorganise the church

Tiepolo's 1746 painting of St Catherine, in  the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna
Tiepolo's 1746 painting of St Catherine, in
 the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna
Caterina Benincasa, who was one day to be canonized as Saint Catherine of Siena, a patron saint of Rome, Italy and Europe, was born on this day in 1347 in Siena in Tuscany.

She is remembered for her writings, all of which were dictated to scribes, as she did not learn to write until late in life. While carrying out Christ’s work in Italy, she wrote about 380 letters, 26 prayers, and four treatises of Il libro della divina dottrina, better known as The Dialogue. These works were so influential and highly regarded she was later declared a Doctor of the Church.

Caterina was the youngest of 25 children born to Lapa Piagenti, the daughter of a poet, and Jacopo di Benincasa, a cloth dyer. She is said to have had her first vision of God when she was just five years old and at the age of seven, Caterina vowed to give her whole life to God.

She refused to get married when her parents tried to arrange it, cut off her hair to make herself look less attractive and began to fast. She did not want to take a nun’s veil, but to live an active life full of prayer in society, following the model of the Dominicans.

When she was in her early 20s, Caterina said she had experienced a spiritual espousal, or mystical marriage, to Christ, and she began serving the poor and sick in Siena and attracted a group of followers.

Alessandro Franchi's 19th century painting depicts a young Caterina cutting off her long hair
Alessandro Franchi's 19th century painting depicts
a young Caterina cutting off her long hair
She started to travel around Italy to promote church reform. She strongly believed the return of Pope Gregory XI to Rome was the best way to bring peace to Italy and she went to Avignon to be an unofficial advocate of this. She was then sent by him to negotiate peace with Florence.

In 1377 she founded a women’s monastery of strict observance in an old fortress outside Siena.

The next Pope, Urban VI, invited Caterina to Rome to help reorganise the church. She lived at the court meeting individual nobles to convince them to support the Pope and sending letters to other princes and cardinals urging them to obey him.

She tried to win back the support of Queen Joan I of Naples for the papacy, although Urban VI had previously excommunicated the queen for supporting the antipope. Being trusted by the Pope with such important work was rare for a woman in the Middle Ages.

By the time Caterina was 33 her habit of extreme fasting, eventually living just off the daily Eucharist, had made her ill. She became unable to eat and drink at all and lost the use of her legs. She died on 29 April, 1380 following a stroke. Her last words had been: ‘Father, into Your Hands I commend my soul and my spirit.’

Lorenzo Lotto's 1533 painting, St Catherine with the
Holy Family,
is in the Accademia Carrara in Bergamo
Pope Urban VI celebrated her funeral and her burial in the Basilica of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva near the Pantheon in Rome. Her head and thumb were later entombed in the Basilica of San Domenico in Siena, where they remain.

Caterina had a spiritual adviser and friend from about 1374 until her death named Raymond of Capua. He wrote what is known as the Legenda Major: a Life of Caterina, which was completed in 1395.

Tommaso Caffarini, also known as Thomas of Siena, wrote an account of Caterina’s life and compiled a set of documents with testimony from many of her disciples as part of the process for her canonisation. An anonymous Florentine wrote Miracoli della Beata Caterina, about the miracles she performed.

The devotion to Caterina di Siena grew rapidly after her death. She was canonised in 1461 by Pope Pius II, who was himself from Siena and her feast day was established on 29 April. She was declared patron saint of Rome in 1866 and of Italy, together with St Francis of Assisi, in 1939. She was proclaimed patron saint of Europe in 1999 by Pope John Paul II.

Caterina’s Dialogue, letters and prayers have given her a prominent place in the history of Italian literature.

Caterina's home in Siena is now a shrine which houses a museum dedicated to her life
Caterina's home in Siena is now a shrine, which
houses a museum dedicated to her life
Travel tip:

Siena in Tuscany, where Caterina was born and lived for much of her life, has made a shrine out of the house she lived in with her parents. It has a museum dedicated to her life and is open to visitors in Vicolo di Tiratolo off Costa Sant’Antonio.  The nearby Basilica of San Domenico has a Cappella Santa Caterina where her head and thumb are housed. Siena is the venue for the historic horse race, the Palio di Siena. The race is contested in Siena’s Piazza del Campo, a shell-shaped open area which is regarded as one of Europe’s finest medieval squares. It was established in the 13th century as an open marketplace on a sloping site between the three communities that eventually merged to form the city of Siena.

Hotels in Siena by Booking.com

The Basilica of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva in Rome, which houses Catherine's remains
The Basilica of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva
in Rome, which houses Catherine's remains
Travel tip:

Caterina was buried in the Basilica of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, which is in Piazza Minerva, close to the Pantheon in Rome. The basilica is the only surviving Gothic church structure left in Rome and has the original, arched vaulting inside. A sarcophagus containing the remains of Saint Catherine of Siena can be seen behind the high altar.  Among the works of art in the church are Michelangelo's statue Cristo della Minerva (1521) and the late 15th-century (1488–93) cycle of frescoes in the Carafa Chapel by Filippino Lippi. The basilica also houses the tomb of the 15th century the Dominican friar Fra Giovanni da Fiesole (Blessed John of Fiesole, born Guido di Piero) better known as the painter Fra Angelico.

Also on this day:

1541: The birth of Francesco I, Grand Duke of Tuscany

1546: The birth of courtesan and poet Veronica Franco

1927: The birth of ground-breaking politician Tina Anselmi

1940: The birth of Mina, Italy’s all-time best-selling female pop singer

(Picture credits: Caterina's house in Siena by Gryffindor; Basilica by sonofgroucho via Wikimedia Commons)


24 March 2021

24 March

Dario Fo – writer and actor

Prolific playwright put the spotlight on corruption

Playwright and all-round entertainer Dario Fo was born in Leggiuno Sangiano in the Province of Varese in Lombardy on this day in 1926.  His plays have been widely performed and translated into many different languages. He is perhaps most well known for Accidental Death of an Anarchist and Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1997.  Fo’s early work is peppered with criticisms of the corruption, crime, and racism that affected life in Italy at the time. He later moved on to ridicule Forza Italia and Silvio Berlusconi and more recently his targets have included the banks and big business.  He was brought up near the shores of Lago Maggiore but moved to Milan to study. During the war he served with several branches of the forces before deserting. He returned to Milan to study architecture but gave it up to paint and work in small theatres presenting improvised monologues. In the 1950s Fo worked in radio and on stage performing his own work. He met and later married actress Franca Rame and they had a son, Jacopo, who also became a writer.  Read more…


Luigi Einaudi - politician and winemaker

Composer's grandfather was President of the Republic

The politician, economist, journalist and winemaker Luigi Einaudi was born on this day in 1874 in Carrù, in the province of Cuneo in what is now Piedmont.   Einaudi, who is the grandfather of the musician and composer Ludovico Einaudi and the father of publisher Giulio Einaudi, was elected President of the new Italian Republic between 1948 and 1955, the second person to occupy the post.  He was actively involved with politics from his university days, when he supported socialist movements.  For a decade he edited a socialist magazine but later took a more conservative position. After being appointed to the Senate of the Kingdom of Italy in 1919, in the days when the upper house of the Italian parliament was a non-elected body, he was one of the signatories in forming the Italian Liberal Party (PLI).  The PLI initially joined forces with the Italian Fascists and it was through their support that Mussolini was able to win the 1924 general election with an absolute majority.  Einaudi had been both a journalist and an academic since graduating in law from Turin University in 1895.  Read more…


Mimmo Jodice - photographer

Camera work with shades of metaphysical art

Domenico ‘Mimmo’ Jodice, who has been a major influence on artistic photography in Italy for half a century, was born on this day in 1934 in Naples.  Jodice, who was professor of photography at the Accademia di Belle Arti di Napoli from 1969 to 1996, is best known for his atmospheric photographs of urban scenes, especially in his home city.  Often these pictures reflected his fascination with how Italian cities habitually mix the present and the future with echoes of the past in their urban landscapes, with the incongruous juxtapositions of ancient and modern that were characteristic of metaphysical art occurring naturally as part of urban evolution.  His books Vedute di Napoli (Views of Naples) and Lost in Seeing: Dreams and Visions of Italy have been international bestsellers and he has exhibited his work all over the world.  Born in the Sanità district of Naples, Jodice was the second of four children. His father died when he was still a boy and the requirement that he find work as soon as he was able meant he had only a limited education.  Nonetheless, he was drawn towards art and the theatre, classical music and jazz.  Read more…


Guido Menasci - poet, librettist and biographer

Respected writer and historian who found fame from an opera

The writer Guido Menasci, who is best known as a co-author of the libretto for composer Pietro Mascagni’s successful opera Cavalleria rusticana but was also a respected historian, was born on this day in 1867 in the Tuscan port of Livorno.  Menasci, a law graduate from the University of Pisa and briefly a prosecutor at the Court of Appeal in Lucca, wrote for a number of literary magazines in Italy and beyond and produced a biography of the German poet and playwright Johann Wolfgang Goethe that is considered a definitive work.  Fluent in French as well as Italian, he published books and gave lectures in Paris, often on the subject of art history, which was another of his fascinations.  Yet he was most famous for his work with Mascagni and his fellow librettist, Giovanni Targioni-Tozzetti, whom he met through his involvement with literary and cultural societies in Livorno, where all three grew up.  They collaborated on a number of operas, the most famous of which by some way was Cavalleria rusticana, which was performed for the first time in 1890, at the Teatro Costanzi in Rome.   Based on a novella of the same name by Giovanni Verga, Cavalleria rusticana is a simple story of betrayal and revenge.  Read more…