30 April 2021

30 April

- Antonio Sant’Elia - architectural visionary

Futurist’s ideas were decades ahead of his time

The architect Antonio Sant’Elia, best known for producing hundreds of drawings based on his vision of an idealised modern industrial city, was born on this day in 1888 in Como in Lombardy.  Sant’Elia’s life was short - he died in battle barely a year after signing up for military service in the First World War - and his physical legacy comprised only one completed building, a modest villa in the hills above his home city.  Yet, thanks to the boldly imaginative designs he captured in dozens of sketches illustrating how he saw the cities of the future, Sant’Elia is still seen as one of modern architecture’s most influential figures, more than a century after his death.  A builder by trade, in 1912 Sant’Elia set up a design office in Milan with fellow architect Mario Chittone.  He was already a follower of Futurism, the avant-garde artistic, social and political movement that had been launched by the poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti in 1909.  The Futurists’ admiration for the speed and technological advancement of cars and aeroplanes and the new industrial cities, which they saw as demonstrating the triumph of humanity over nature through invention, aligned with his own rejection of traditional design.  Read more...


Andrea Dandolo - Doge of Venice

Reign tested by earthquake, plague and war

Andrea Dandolo, the fourth member of a Patrician Venetian family to serve as Doge of the historic Republic, was born on this day in 1306.  A notably erudite scholar, Dandolo wrote two chronicles of the history of Venice in Latin and reformed the Venetian legal code by bringing together all of the diverse laws applicable to the Venetian Republic within one legal framework.  He achieved these things despite his reign being marked by a devastating earthquake, a catastrophic outbreak of the Black Death plague and two expensive wars, against Hungary and then Genoa.  Dandolo studied at the University of Padua, where he became a professor of law, a position he maintained until he was elected Doge. He quickly rose to a position of prominence in Venetian life, being appointed Procurator of St Mark’s Basilica, the second most prestigious position in the Venetian hierarchy after the Doge, at the age of just 25.  He was elected Doge in 1343, aged 37.  It was a particularly young age at which to be given the leadership of the Republic, but his family history and the manner in which he had conducted himself.  Read more…


Pope Pius V - Saint

Pontiff dismissed jester and clamped down on heretics

The feast day of Saint Pius V is celebrated every year on this day, the day before the anniversary of his death in 1572 in Rome.  Saint Pius V, who became Pope in 1566, is remembered chiefly for his role in the Counter Reformation, the period of Catholic resurgence following the Protestant Reformation.  He excommunicated Queen Elizabeth I of England for heresy and for persecuting English Catholics and he formed the Holy League, an alliance of Catholic states against the Turks.  Saint Pius V was born Antonio Ghislieri in Bosco, now Bosco Marengo, in Piedmont. At the age of 14 he entered the Dominican Order, taking the name of Michele. He was ordained at Genoa in 1528 and then sent to Pavia to lecture.  He became a bishop under Pope Pius IV but after opposing the pontiff was dismissed. After the death of Pius IV, Ghislieri was elected Pope Pius V in 1566. His first act on becoming Pope was to dismiss the court jester and no Pope has had one since.  Protestantism had by then conquered many parts of Europe and Pius V was determined to prevent it getting into Italy. He therefore took a personal interest in the activities of the Inquisition in Rome and appeared to be unmoved by the cruelty practiced.  Read more…


Luigi Russolo – painter and composer

Futurist artist who invented 'noise music'

Luigi Russolo, who is regarded as the first ‘noise music’ composer, was born on this day in 1885 in Portogruaro in the Veneto.  Russolo originally chose to become a painter and went to live in Milan where he met and was influenced by other artists in the Futurist movement.  Along with other leading figures in the movement, such as Carlo Carrà, he signed both the Manifesto of Futurist Painters and the Technical Manifesto of Futurist Painting as the artists set out how they saw Futurism being represented on canvas, and afterwards participated in Futurist art exhibitions.  Russolo issued his own manifesto, L’arte dei rumori, - The Art of Noises - in 1913, which he expanded into book form in 1916.  He stated that the industrial revolution had given modern man a greater capacity to appreciate more complex sounds. He found traditional, melodic music confining and envisioned noise music replacing it in the future.  Russolo invented intonarumori - noise-emitting machines - and conducted concerts using these machines. The audiences reacted with either enthusiasm or hostility to the style of music he produced.  None of these machines survived although they have since been reconstructed for use in performances.  Read more…


Antonio Sant’Elia - architectural visionary

Futurist’s ideas were decades ahead of his time

Antonio Sant'Elia's design for an apartment block with external lifts, above a network of roads
Antonio Sant'Elia's design for an apartment block
with external lifts, above a network of roads 

The architect Antonio Sant’Elia, best known for producing hundreds of drawings based on his vision of an idealised modern industrial city, was born on this day in 1888 in Como in Lombardy.

Sant’Elia’s life was short - he died in battle barely a year after signing up for military service in the First World War - and his physical legacy comprised only one completed building, the Villa Elisi, a modest house in the hills above his home city.

Yet, thanks to the boldly imaginative designs he captured in dozens of sketches illustrating how he saw the cities of the future, Sant’Elia is still seen as one of modern architecture’s most influential figures, more than a century after his death.

A builder by trade, in 1912 Sant’Elia set up a design office in Milan with fellow architect Mario Chittone.

He was already a follower of Futurism, the avant-garde artistic, social and political movement that had been launched by the poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti in 1909.

Sant'Elia's vision of an airport rail terminal with escalators from the rail platforms
Sant'Elia's vision of an airport rail terminal
with escalators from the rail platforms
The Futurists’ admiration for the speed and technological advancement of cars and aeroplanes and the new industrial cities, which they saw as demonstrating the triumph of humanity over nature through invention, aligned with his own rejection of traditional design.

The movement’s Manifesto of Futurist Architecture, published by Marinetti in 1914, is thought to have been written by Sant’Elia, outlining his vision for the industrialised and mechanised city of the future, comprising interconnected multi-level buildings in the style of modern skyscrapers, with integrated transport systems that facilitated fast, efficient movement.

In the same year, a collection of Sant’Elia’s drawings called Città Nuova - New City - was displayed in May 1914 at an exhibition of the Nuove Tendenze group, of which he was a member, at the Famiglia Artistica gallery in Milan.

It was these drawings that revealed Sant’Elia’s remarkable vision, his designs so futuristic they would scarcely have seemed dated had another architect unveiled them towards the end of the 20th century rather than in its infancy.

Antonio Sant'Elia opened a  design studio in Milan
Antonio Sant'Elia opened a 
design studio in Milan
They featured pyramids, buttresses and towers, giant factories and multi-floor, stepped residential buildings complete with external elevators, linked with walkways, and interspersed with roads and railways suspended at different levels. 

One of Sant’Elia’s drawings was of a transport portal for trains and aircraft with escalators linking the railway platforms with the runway.

Although the Città Nuova was never built, Sant’Elia’s ideas influenced many generations of future architects. The Pompidou Centre in Paris (1977), designed by Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano, Rogers’s Lloyds Building in London (1986) and Piano’s The Shard, also in London (2012) all carry echoes of Sant’Elia’s designs, as does Helmut Jahn’s James R Thompson Centre in Chicago and the Marriott Marquis hotel in Georgia by John Portman, both built in the 1980s.

Many within the Futurist movement were strongly nationalist in their political leanings, which inevitably led some to be drawn towards Fascism and its vision of a powerful, self-contained Italy free from foreign influence.

It was Sant’Elia’s own nationalism and irredentism that persuaded him to join the army as Italy entered World War I in 1915, excited at the idea that he could play a part in finally evicting the Austrians from northeast Italy, where they still controlled an area stretching from Trentino through the South Tyrol to Trieste.

Sadly, he did not live to see that ambition realised. The focus of the Italian-Austrian conflict was the valley of the Isonzo river, also known as the Soça, which runs from its source in the Julian Alps in western Slovenia and enters the Gulf of Trieste near Monfalcone, and there were a series of 12 battles fought along this front between June 1915 and November 1917.

Sant’Elia died in the eighth of these battles in October 1916 near Gorizia. In all, the Battles of the Isonzo, concluding with the catastrophic Battle of Caporetto, resulted in almost one million Italian casualties including 300,000 dead, half of the number of Italians killed in the whole of World War One.

Sant'Elia's only finished building, the Villa Elisi
Sant'Elia's only finished
building, the Villa Elisi
Travel tip:

The Villa Elisi can be found in the San Maurizio area above the town of Brunate, about 8km (5 miles) up a winding road from Como, to which it is also linked by a funicular railway. The area offers spectacular views of Lake Como. Villa Elisa, the only building designed and built by Antonio Sant’Elia, was commissioned by the Como industrialist Romeo Longatti as a holiday home. The villa features the asymmetrical, geometric designs typical of much of Sant'Elia's work. It represented an opportunity for Sant’Elia to prove his worth as an architect and overcome the structural problems posed by the house’s location on steeply sloping ground.

Palazzo Volpi in Como, home of the city's civic art gallery, where Sant'Elia's drawings can be seen
Palazzo Volpi in Como, home of the city's civic
art gallery, where Sant'Elia's drawings can be seen
Travel tip:

Sant’Elia’s drawings of his Città Nuovo are on permanent display in Como’s Pinocoteca Civica, the city’s art gallery. Inaugurated in 1989 in the 17th-century Palazzo Volpi in Via Armando Diaz, the gallery houses a collection that spans the Middle Ages through to contemporary times, documenting the Como area’s artwork from religious buildings to portraiture, landscapes and 20th century works related. In addition to Sant’Elia’s drawings, the centrepieces are the sixth century Portraits of Illustrious Men collection by Paolo Giovio and some major works by the Gruppo Como, a group of 20th century abstract artists from Como.

Also on this day:

1306: The birth of Venetian Doge Andrea Dandolo

1885: The birth of Futurist composer Luigi Russolo

The Feast Day of Saint Pius V



29 April 2021

29 April

Giovanni Antonio Pellegrini - painter

Venetian artist who made mark in England

The painter Giovanni Antonio Pellegrini, who is regarded as one of the most important Venetian painters of the early 18th century, was born on this day in 1675 in Venice.   He played a major part in the spread of the Venetian style of large-scale decorative painting in northern Europe, working in Austria, England, France, Germany, and the Netherlands.  With a style that had influences of Renaissance artist Paolo Veronese and the Baroque painters Pietro da Cortona and Luca Giordano, he is considered an important predecessor of Giovanni Battista Tiepolo in the development of Venetian art.  A pupil of the Milanese painter Paolo Pagani, Pellegrini began travelling while still a teenager, accompanying Pagano to Moravia and Vienna.  After a period studying in Rome, he returned to Venice and married Angela Carriera, the sister of the portraitist Rosalba Carriera.  Soon afterwards, he accepted the commission to decorate the dome above the staircase at the Scuola Grande di San Rocco in 1709.  Pellegrini spent a significant part of his career in England, where he was invited, along with Marco Ricci, the nephew of Sebastiano Ricci, by Charles Montagu, the future Duke of Manchester.  Read more…


Liberation of Fornovo di Taro

How Brazilian soldiers hastened Nazi capitulation

The town of Fornovo di Taro in Emilia-Romagna acquired a significant place in Italian military history for a second time on this day in 1945 when it was liberated from Nazi occupation by soldiers from the Brazilian Expeditionary Force fighting with the Allies.  Under the command of General João Baptista Mascarenhas de Morais, the Brazilians marched into Fornovo, which is situated about 13km (8 miles) south-west of Parma on the east bank of the Taro river, at the conclusion of the four-day Battle of Collecchio.  It was in Fornovo that the 148th Infantry Division of the German army under the leadership of General Otto Fretter-Pico offered their surrender, along with soldiers from the 90th Panzergrenadier Division and the 1st Bersaglieri and 4th Mountain Divisions of the Fascist National Republican Army.  In total, 14,779 German and Italian troops laid down their arms after Fretter-Pico concluded that, with the Brazilians surrounding the town, aided by two American tank divisions and one company of Italian partisans, there was no hope of escape.  Although the total capitulation of the German and Fascist armies in Italy was not officially announced until 2 May in Turin, the surrender in Fornovo effectively brought the war in the peninsula to an end.  Read more…


Sara Errani -- tennis champion

Five-times Grand Slam doubles winner reached No 5 in singles

Tennis star Sara Errani, who was born in Bologna on this day in 1987, is arguably the most successful Italian tennis player of all time.  She and partner Roberta Vinci's career record of five Grand Slam doubles titles is unparalleled.  No other Italian combination has won more than one Grand Slam title and no Italian singles player has won more than two.  Nicola Pietrangeli, who was ranked the No 3 men's singles player at his peak, won the French Open championship in 1959 and 1960 and was runner-up in Paris on two other occasions, as well as winning the men's doubles at the French in 1959, with fellow Italian Orlando Sirola.  But Errani and Vinci have won on all surfaces, achieving a career Grand Slam in 2014 when they triumphed in the women's doubles at Wimbledon, having already won the French and US titles in 2012 and the Australian in both 2013 and 2014.  They are only the fifth pairing in tennis history to complete a career Grand Slam.  Errani also achieved a world ranking of No 5 in singles in 2013, having been runner-up to Maria Sharapova in the 2012 French Open as well as winning five WTA singles titles in the space of 12 months.  Read more…


Rafael Sabatini – writer

Author of swashbucklers had the ‘gift of laughter’

Rafael Sabatini, who wrote successful adventure novels that were later made into plays and films, was born on this day in 1875 in Iesi, a small town in the province of Ancona in Le Marche.  Sabatini was the author of the international best sellers, Scaramouche and Captain Blood, and afterwards became respected as a great writer of swashbucklers with a prolific output.  He was the son of an English mother, Anna Trafford, and an Italian father, Vincenzo Sabatini, who were both opera singers.  At a young age he was exposed to different languages because he spent time with his grandfather in England and also attended school in both Portugal and Switzerland, while his parents were on tour.  By the time Sabatini went to live in England permanently, at the age of 17, he was already proficient in several languages. Although his first attempts at writing were in French when he was at school in Switzerland, he is said to have consciously chosen to write in English, saying at the time that all the best stories had been written in English.  Sabatini wrote short stories in the 1890s, some of which were published in English magazines.   Read more…



28 April 2021

28 April

Nicola Romeo - car maker

Engineer used profits from military trucks to launch famous marque

Nicola Romeo, the entrepreneur and engineer who founded Alfa Romeo cars, was born on this day in 1876 in Sant’Antimo, a town in Campania just outside Naples.  The company, which became one of the most famous names in the Italian car industry, was launched after Romeo purchased the Milan automobile manufacturer ALFA - Anonima Lombarda Fabbrica Automobili.  After making substantial profits from building military trucks in the company’s Portello plant during the First World War, in peacetime Romeo switched his attention to making cars. The first Alfa Romeo came off the production line in 1921.  The cars made a major impact in motor racing, mainly thanks to the astuteness of Romeo in hiring the the up-and-coming Enzo Ferrari to run his racing team, and the Fiat engineer Vittorio Jano to build his cars.  Away from the track, the Alfa Romeo name sat on the front rank of the luxury car market.  Romeo’s parents, originally from an area known as Lucania that is now part of the Basilicata region, were not wealthy but Nicola was able to attend what was then Naples Polytechnic – now the Federico II University – to study engineering.  Read more…


The death of Benito Mussolini

Fascist dictator captured and killed on shores of Lake Como

Benito Mussolini, the dictator who ruled Italy for 21 years until he was deposed in 1943, was killed by Italian partisans on this day in 1945, at the village of Giulino di Mezzegra on the shore of Lake Como.  The 61-year-old leader of the National Fascist Party had been captured the previous day in the town of Dongo, further up the lake, as he attempted to reach Switzerland along with his mistress, Claretta Petacci, and a number of Fascist officials.  With Nazi Germany on the brink of defeat, Mussolini had been planning to board a plane in Switzerland in order to fly to Spain.  Mussolini was said to have donned a Luftwaffe helmet and overcoat in the hope that he would not be recognised but the disguise did not work.  Fearing that the Germans would try to free him, as they had two years earlier when Italy's King Victor Emmanuel III placed him under house arrest in mountainous Abruzzo, the partisans hid Mussolini and the others in a remote farmhouse.  The following morning, along the coast of the lake at Mezzegra, their captives were stood against a wall and shot dead. The executions were said to have been carried out by a partisan who went under the name of Colonnello Valerio.  Read more…


Baldus de Ubaldis – lawyer

Legal opinions have stood the test of time

An expert in medieval Roman law, Baldus de Ubaldis, died on this day in 1400 in Pavia.  De Ubaldis had written more than 3,000 consilia - legal opinions - the most to remain preserved from any medieval lawyer.  His work on the law of evidence and gradations of proof remained the standard treatment of the subject for centuries after his death.  De Ubaldis was born into a noble family in Perugia in 1327. He studied law and received the degree of doctor of civil law when he was 17.  He taught law at the University of Bologna for three years and was then offered a professorship at Perugia University where he remained for 33 years.  De Ubaldis subsequently taught law at Pisa, Florence, Padua, Pavia and Piacenza.  He taught Pierre Roger de Beaufort, who became Pope Gregory XI, whose immediate successor, Urban VI, summoned De Ubaldis to Rome in 1380 to consult with him about the anti-pope, Clement VII. The lawyer’s view on the legal issues relating to the schism are laid down in his Questio de schismate.  One of the best works of De Ubaldis is considered to be his commentary on the Libri Feudorum, a compilation of feudal law provisions.  Read more…


27 April 2021

27 April

Renato Rascel - actor, singer and songwriter

Film and TV star who wrote the iconic song Arrivederci Roma

Renato Rascel, whose remarkable career encompassed more than 60 movies, a hit 1970s TV series, representing Italy at the Eurovision Song Contest and writing one of the most famous Italian songs of all time, was born on this day in 1912 in Turin.  Rascel was Italy’s entry at Eurovision 1960 in London, singing Romantica, with which he had won the Sanremo Music Festival earlier in the year. Romantica finished eighth overall in London.  He is arguably most famous, however, for the song Arrivederci Roma, which he wrote for the 1955 film of the same name, in which he starred with the Italian-American tenor and actor Mario Lanza, which was subsequently released for English and American cinema audiences with the title Seven Hills of Rome.  Arrivederci Roma quickly became a favourite Italian song and scores of big-name singers recorded cover versions, including Bing Crosby, Connie Francis, Dean Martin, Dionne Warwick, Nat King Cole, Perry Como and Vic Damone.  Only a year earlier, Rascel had written the best-selling Italian song of 1954 in Te voglio bene tanto tanto (I Love You So Much).  Read more…


Antonio Gramsci - left-wing intellectual

Communist leader Mussolini could not gag

Antonio Gramsci, one of the more remarkable intellectuals of left-wing Italian politics in the early 20th century, died on this day in 1937 in Rome, aged only 46.  A founding member and ultimately leader of the Italian Communist Party (PCI), he was arrested by Benito Mussolini's Fascist regime in November 1926 and sentenced to 20 years' imprisonment.   In failing health, he was granted his release after a campaign by friends and supporters but died without leaving the clinic in which he spent his final two years.  The conditions he encountered in jail led him to develop high blood pressure, angina, tuberculosis and acute gastric disorders.  Yet he found sufficient energy while imprisoned  to study the social and political history of Italy in extensive detail and to record his thoughts and theories in notebooks and around 500 letters to friends and supporters.  Many of his propositions heavily influenced the political strategy of communist parties in the West after the Second World War following the publication of his Prison Notebooks.  Gramsci was born in January 1891 in the small town of Ales, in a mountainous inland part of Sardinia.  Read more…


Vittorio Cecchi Gori - entrepreneur

Ex-president of Fiorentina who produced two of Italy’s greatest films

Vittorio Cecchi Gori, whose chequered career in business saw him produce more than 300 films and own Fiorentina’s football club but also saw him jailed for fraudulent bankruptcy, was born on this day in 1942 in Florence.  The son of Mario Cecchi Gori, whose production company he inherited, he provided the financial muscle behind two of Italy’s greatest films of recent years, Il Postino (1994), which was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture, and Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful (1997), which won an Oscar for Best Foreign Language film.  He was also involved with the 1992 Oscar winner Mediterraneo, directed by Gabriele Salvatores, which also won in the Best Foreign Language film category.  Vittorio’s legacy from his father also included Fiorentina football club, of which he was president from 1993 to 2002.   With Cecchi Gori’s backing, while his involvement with the movie business was generating such huge profits, Fiorentina enjoyed great times.  He invested heavily in new players and persuaded the club’s icon, the Argentine forward Gabriel Batistuta, to stay after the viola were relegated in 1993.  Read more…


Cesare Bianchi - head chef

From shores of Lake Como to London’s Café Royal

Cesare Bianchi, who rose from humble beginnings to become head chef at London’s prestigious Café Royal in the 1930s, was born on this day in 1897 in Cernobbio, a village on Lake Como in northern Italy.  He moved to England when he was only 16, hoping to build a career in catering and soon found work doing odd jobs in a London kitchen. However, he had been in the city barely a year when the outbreak of the First World War meant he had to return to his homeland for national service.  In his case, it was with the Alpini, Italy’s mountain brigades, with whom he was an interpreter.  Eager to resume his career in England, once the war was over Cesare took a job at the Palace Hotel in Aberdeen.  It was there he met Martha Gall, the woman who would become his wife.  They were married in 1921 and Martha soon gave birth to their daughter, Patricia.  Ambitious, Cesare persuaded his wife to leave Scotland behind so that he could make another attempt to establish himself in London.  His culinary talents took him a long way as he worked his way up from modest beginnings to land a place in the kitchen at the Café Royal in Regent Street.  Read more…


Popes John XXIII and John Paul II made saints

Crowd of 800,000 in St Peter's Square for joint canonisation

Pope Francis declared Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II as saints at a ceremony during Mass in Rome’s St Peter’s Square on this day in 2014.  Hundreds of thousands of people from around the world converged on the Vatican to attend the ceremony, which celebrated two popes recognised as giants of the Catholic Church in the 20th century.  There was scarcely room to move in St Peter's Square, the Via della Conciliazione and the adjoining streets.  The crowd, probably the biggest since John Paul II’s beatification three years earlier, was estimated at around 800,000, of which by far the largest contingent had made the pilgrimage from John Paul’s native Poland to see their most famous compatriot become a saint.  Thousands of red and white Polish flags filled the square.  In his homily, Pope Francis said Saints John XXIII and John Paul II were “priests, bishops and popes of the 20th century. They lived through the tragic events of that century, but they were not overwhelmed by them. For them God was more powerful, faith was more powerful”.  He added that the two popes had “co-operated with the Holy Spirit in renewing and updating” the Catholic Church.  Read more…

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26 April 2021

26 April

- Gian Paolo Lomazzo - artist

Painter became leading art historian and critic of the 16th century

Gian Paolo Lomazzo, a talented painter who went blind when he was 33 and turned to writing instead, was born on this day in Milan in 1538.  He became an expert on the work of Leonardo da Vinci and was given unique access to the artist’s own written work.  Lomazzo, whose first name is sometimes given as Giovan or Giovanni, was born into a family who had just moved to Milan from the town of Lomazzo in the province of Como in Lombardy.  He began training as a painter early in his life with the artists Gaudenzio Ferrari and Giovan Battista della Cerva in Milan.  By 1567 Lomazzo had painted a large Allegory of the Lenten Feast for the Church of Sant’ Agostino in Piacenza. Other notable works by him include an elaborate fresco of a dome with Glory of Angels and a painting depicting The Fall of Simon Magus for the Cappella Foppa in the Church of San Marco in Milan.  Lomazzo was so admired as an artist that the sculptor and medallist Annibale Fontana depicted him on a medallion in 1562.  But by 1571 Lomazzo had become blind and could no longer paint. He adapted to writing about art instead and produced two complex treatises that are regarded as milestones in the development of art criticism.  Read more...


Michele Ferrero - the man who invented Nutella

Hazelnut spread that became a worldwide favourite

The man who invented the global commercial phenomenon that is Nutella spread was born on this day in 1925.  Michele Ferrero, who died in 2015 aged 89, owned the Italian chocolate manufacturer Ferrero SpA, the second largest confectionery producer in Europe after Nestlé.  He was the richest individual in Italy, listed by the Bloomberg Billionaires index in 2014 as the 20th richest person in the world.  The wealth of Michele and his family was put at $20.4 billion, around 14.9 billion euros.  Ferrero is famous for such brands as Ferrero Rocher, Mon Cheri, Kinder and Tic Tacs.  But, it could be argued, none of those names would probably exist had it not been for Nutella.  The chocolate and hazelnut spread came into being after Michele, who was born in the small town of Dogliani in Piedmont, inherited the Ferrero company from his father, Pietro.  With high taxes on cocoa beans making conventional chocolate expensive to make, Pietro had managed to build the business by producing a solid confectionery bar that combined Gianduja, a traditional Piedmontese hazelnut paste, with about 20 per cent chocolate.  Read more…


Samantha Cristoforetti - astronaut

Record-breaker spent almost 200 days in space

Italy’s first female astronaut, Samantha Cristoforetti, was born on this day in 1977 in Milan.  A captain in the Italian Air Force, in which she is a pilot and engineer, Cristoforetti holds the world record for the longest space flight by a woman, which she set as a crew member on the European Space Agency’s Futura mission to the International Space Station in 2014.  Cristoforetti and her two fellow astronauts, the Russian Anton Shkaplerov and the American Terry Virts, left Kazakhstan in a Soyuz spacecraft on November 23, 2014 and returned on June 11, 2015, having spent 199 days and 16 hours in space – four days longer than the previous record for a female astronaut, held by the American NASA astronaut Sunita Williams.  The mission was supposed to have ended a month earlier but had to be extended after a Russian supply freighter failed to reach the ISS. The extra time also allowed Cristoforetti to set a record for the longest time in space by a European astronaut of either gender.  While Williams was hailed as the first person to complete a marathon in space when she ran 26 miles and 385 yards on the ISS’s on-board treadmill, Cristoforetti can claim to be the first person to have brewed an espresso coffee in space.  Read more…


Maria de’ Medici

Medici daughter who ended up ruling France

Maria de’ Medici, who became Queen of France after her marriage to King Henri IV, was born on this day in 1575 at the Palazzo Pitti in Florence.  After her husband was assassinated the day after his coronation, she ruled France as regent for her son, Louis, until he came of age.  Maria was the daughter of the grand duke of Tuscany, Francesco de’ Medici, and his wife, Joanna of Austria.  Henri had divorced his wife, Margaret, and married Maria in 1600 to obtain a large dowry that would help him pay his debts.  In 1601 Maria gave birth to a son, the future King Louis XIII, and then went on to bear a further five children for her husband.  However she resented her husband’s infidelities and he despised her friends from Florence, Concino Concini and his wife, Leonora.  After Henri was assassinated in 1610, the French parliament proclaimed Maria regent for her young son.  Guided by her favourite, Concini, who had become Marquis of Ancre, Maria reversed Henri’s anti-Spanish policy. She is also alleged to have squandered the country’s revenue and made humiliating concessions to its rebellious nobles.  Read more…


Gian Paolo Lomazzo - artist

Painter became leading art historian and critic of the 16th century

Lomazzo's Madonna and the Saints
in the church of San Marco, Milan)
Gian Paolo Lomazzo, a talented painter who went blind when he was 33 and turned to writing instead, was born on this day in Milan in 1538.

He became an expert on the work of Leonardo da Vinci and was given unique access to the artist’s own written work.

Lomazzo, whose first name is sometimes given as Giovan or Giovanni, was born into a family who had just moved to Milan from the town of Lomazzo in the province of Como in Lombardy.

He began training as a painter early in his life with the artists Gaudenzio Ferrari and Giovan Battista della Cerva in Milan.

By 1567 Lomazzo had painted a large Allegory of the Lenten Feast for the Church of Sant’ Agostino in Piacenza. Other notable works by him include an elaborate fresco of a dome with Glory of Angels and a painting depicting The Fall of Simon Magus for the Cappella Foppa in the Church of San Marco in Milan.

Lomazzo was so admired as an artist that the sculptor and medallist Annibale Fontana depicted him on a medallion in 1562.

But by 1571 Lomazzo had become blind and could no longer paint. He adapted to writing about art instead and produced two complex treatises that are regarded as milestones in the development of art criticism.

His first work, completed in 1584, Trattato dell’arte della pittura, scultura e architettura, is in part a guide to decorum, contemporary concepts of good taste, which the Renaissance inherited in part from Antiquity. It has been described as the Bible of Mannerism and Lomazzo’s writing made him a central figure in the development of Italian Mannerist theories.

His 1590 work, Idea del tempio della pittura, explained the role of individuality in judgment and artistic invention.

Lomazzo's self-portrait, painted in about 
1568, is in the Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan
Lomazzo took into account three aspects of art criticism: doctrina, the discoveries made my artists in the course of history; prattica, the personal preferences of the artist; and iconography, the literary element in art. He systematically extracted abstract concepts from art, rather than just recounting the marvels of the works of famous artists in the manner of Giorgio Vasari. He is regarded by historians as a very reliable chronicler of the period and he gave detailed practical instruction on the creation of art.

He is reputed to have had a large collection of drawings by Leonardo da Vinci and he spent years amassing every fact that was known about Leonardo.

He wrote about Leonardo: ‘Whenever he began to paint, it seemed that Leonardo trembled, and he never finished any of the works he commenced because, so sublime was his idea of art, he saw faults even in the things that to others seemed miracles.’

Leonardo’s protégé and heir, Francesco Melzi, gave Lomazzo access to the maestro’s own writings.

Scholars have taken from what Lomazzo wrote about the creation of the picture of Mona Lisa, that Leonardo painted two almost identical portraits of the subject, one called Mona Lisa and the other called La Gioconda.

Lomazzo also wrote poetry and had a number of pupil painters during his career, including the artists Giovanni Ambrogio Figino and Cristoforo and Girolamo Ciocca.

Lomazzo died in 1592, at the age of 53, in Milan. His self-portrait, painted in about 1568, is in the Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan.

The Arch of Peace in the town of Lamozzo
The Arch of Peace
in the town of Lomazzo
Travel tip:

Lomazzo in Lombardy, where Gian Paolo Lomazzo’s family originated, is about halfway between Como and Milan. The historic centre of the town was built upon a hill. The Church of San Siro, built in 1732 in the town, houses a 16th century panel by Morazzone depicting the Adoration of the Magi. In 1286, the town witnessed the signing of one of several peace treaties between the Guelphs and the Ghibellines, not all of them successful, and this one was marked by the construction of an Arch of Peace in front of the Church of San Siro.

The Church of San Marco in Milan, which has frescoes by Lomazzo
The Church of San Marco in Milan,
which has frescoes by Lomazzo
Travel tip:

The Church of San Marco in Milan, which has frescoes by Gian Paolo Lomazzo, dates back to the 13th century. It was dedicated to Saint Mark, the patron saint of Venice, after the help given by the city in the war against Frederick Barbarossa in the 12th century. The building was modified in the Baroque style during the 17th century and became the largest church in Milan after the Duomo.  In early 1770, the young Mozart resided in the monastery of San Marco for three months and in 1874, the Milanese poet and novelist Alessandro Manzoni was commemorated in the church by the first performance of Verdi's Requiem, written in his honour.

Also on this day:

1575: The birth of Maria de’ Medici, Queen of France

1925: The birth of Michele Ferrero, the chocolatier who invented Nutella spread

1977: The birth of astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti

(Picture credits: Arch of Peace by Alberto Monti; Church of San Marco by MarkusMark via Wikimedia Commons)


25 April 2021

25 April

Giovanni Caselli - inventor

Priest and physicist who created world’s first ‘fax' machine

Giovanni Caselli, a physics professor who invented the pantelegraph, the forerunner of the modern fax machine, was born on this day in 1815 in Siena.  Caselli developed a prototype pantelegraph, which was capable of transmitting handwriting and images over long distances via wire telegraph lines, in 1856, some 20 years ahead of the patenting of Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone in the United States. It entered commercial service in France in 1865.  The technology was patented in Europe and the United States in the 1860s, when it was also trialled in Great Britain and Russia, but ultimately it proved too unreliable to achieve universal acceptance and virtually disappeared from popular use until midway through the 20th century.  Caselli spent his early years in Florence studying physics, science, history and religion and was ordained as a priest in the Catholic Church when he was 21.  In 1841 he was appointed tutor to the sons of Count Marquis Sanvitale of Modena in Parma, where he spent eight years before his time there was abruptly ended by expulsion from the city as a result of his participation in an uprising against the ruling House of Austria-Este.  Read more…


Ferruccio Ranza - World War One flying ace

Fighter pilot survived 57 aerial dogfights

Ferruccio Ranza, a World War One pilot who survived 465 combat sorties and scored 17 verified victories, died on this day in 1973 in Bologna, at the age of 80.  Ranza, who also saw service in the Second World War, when he rose to the rank of Brigadier General, was jointly the seventh most successful of Italy’s aviators in the 1914-18 conflict, and would be placed third if his eight unconfirmed victories had been proven.  In all, he engaged with enemy aeroplanes in 57 dogfights.  The most successful Italian flying ace from the First World War was Francesco Baracca, who chalked up 34 verified victories before he was killed in action in 1918.  Ranza served alongside Baracca in the 91st Fighter Squadron of the Italian air force, the so-called ‘squadron of aces’.  Ranza was born in Fiorenzuolo d’Arda, a medium-sized town in the province of Piacenza in what is now Emilia-Romagna, in 1892. Both his parents, Paolo and Maria, were teachers.  After attending the Istituto Tecnico ‘Romagnosi’ in Piacenza, he joined the Italian army in December 1913. He was a second lieutenant in the 1st Regiment of Engineers when the First World War began in 1914.  Read more


Leon Battista Alberti - Renaissance polymath

Architect with multiple artistic talents

The polymath Leon Battista Alberti, who was one of the 15th century’s most significant architects but possessed an intellect that was much more wide ranging, died on this day in 1472 in Rome.  In his 68 years, Alberti became well known for his work on palaces and churches in Florence, Rimini and Mantua in particular, but he also made major contributions to the study of mathematics, astronomy, language and cryptography, wrote poetry in Latin and works of philosophy and was ordained as a priest.  He was one of those multi-talented figures of his era, along with Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and, a little later, Galileo Galilei, for whom the description Renaissance Man was coined.  Alberti was born in Genoa in 1404, although his family were wealthy Florentine bankers. It just happened that at the time of his birth his father, Lorenzo, was in exile, having been expelled by the powerful Albizzi family.  Leon and his brother, Carlo, were born out of wedlock, the product of their father’s relationship with a Bolognese widow, but as Lorenzo’s only offspring they were given a privileged upbringing.  Read more…


Festa della Liberazione

Date of radio broadcast chosen for annual celebration

Today is a public holiday in Italy, one which in normal circumstances would see the whole country join together to celebrate the anniversary of the end of the Fascist regime with la Festa della Liberazione.  Every year on this day, the end of the Nazi occupation of Italy is commemorated with parades and parties and many public buildings are closed.  The Festa della Liberazione (Liberation Day) marks the day when Allied troops were finally able to liberate Italy.  The date for the national holiday was chosen in 1946. It was decided to hold the Festa on 25 April, the date the news of the liberation was officially announced to the country on the radio.  The marches and events customarily held on the day provide an opportunity for Italians to remember their fallen soldiers, in particular the partisans of the Italian resistance who fought the Nazis, as well as Mussolini’s troops, throughout the second world war. A ceremony is usually held at the war memorial in each city and town.  It is also a festive occasion for many Italians, who enjoy the food festivals, open air concerts and parties taking place.  Read more…


24 April 2021

24 April

Luigi Lavazza - coffee maker

From a grocery store in Turin to Italy's market leader

Luigi Lavazza, the Turin grocer who founded the Lavazza Coffee Company, was born on this day in 1859 in the small town of Murisengo in Piedmont.  He had lived as a peasant farmer in Murisengo but times were hard and after a couple of poor harvests he decided to abandon the countryside and head for the city, moving to Turin and finding work as a shop assistant.  The Lavazza brand began when Luigi had saved enough money to buy his own shop in Via San Tommaso, in the centre of Turin, in 1895.  He sold groceries and provisions and where other stores simply sold coffee beans, he had a workshop in the rear of the store where he experimented by grinding the beans and mixing them into different blends according to the tastes of his customers.  He travelled to Brazil to improve his knowledge of coffee and his blends became an important part of the business, after which he moved into wholesale as well as retail as a coffee merchant.  When the first automatic roasting machines went into production in the 1920s, he was one of the first in Italy to buy one.  The economic climate in Italy improved after the First World War.  Read more…


Giuseppe Panza - art collector

Businessman amassed more than 2,500 pieces

The art collector Giuseppe Panza di Biumo, whose fascination with postwar art, particularly American, led him to build up one of the world’s most important collections, died on this day in 2010 in Milan.  A businessman who succeeded his father in making money from wine and property, Panza acquired more than 2,500 pieces in his lifetime, many of which he sold or donated to museums and art galleries.  Some he parted with for millions of dollars, although he always insisted that his motivation was never financial gain but the love of art.  Approximately 10 per cent of his collection remains in the 18th-century Villa Menafoglio Litta, his family home at Varese, north of Milan, where he created 50,000 square feet (4,600 sq m) of exhibition space.  He had an astute eye for talent, often identifying unknown artists who would go on to become collectible long before their works commanded premium prices.  For example, he anticipated the popularity of Minimalism in the 1960s, snapping up works by Donald Judd and Dan Flavin well before their careers had really taken off.  Born in 1923 in Milan, Panza had a comfortable background. His father, Ernesto, was a wine distributor.  Read more…


Alessandro Costacurta - champion of football longevity

AC Milan defender played in Serie A until 41 years old

Former Italy and AC Milan defender Alessandro Costacurta was born on this day in 1966 in the town of Orago, near Varese.  Costacurta retired in May 2007, 25 days after his 41st birthday, having played more than 660 matches for AC Milan over the course of 21 seasons.  He is the oldest outfield player to appear in a Serie A match.  Milan lost his final game 3-2 at home to Udinese but Costacurta marked the occasion with a goal, from the penalty spot.  It was only his third goal in 458 Serie A appearances for the rossoneri, but made him Serie A's oldest goalscorer.  He could look back on a career laden with honours, including seven Serie A titles and five European Cups, two in its traditional knock-out format and three more after the inception of the Champions League.  He also won 59 caps for Italy and was a member of the team that finished runners-up in the 1994 World Cup in the United States, although he had to sit out the final because of suspension.  Costacurta made his Milan debut in the Coppa Italia in 1986 before being sent away to gain experience with Monza in Serie C.  His first Serie A appearance came for Milan in October 1987.  Read more…


Giuseppe Marc’Antonio Baretti – author

Dramatic life of the ‘scourge’ of writers

Literary critic, poet, writer, translator and linguist Giuseppe Baretti was born on this day in 1719 in Turin, the capital city of Piedmont.  His life was often marred by controversies and he eventually had to leave Italy for England, where the drama in his life continued and he was tried at the Old Bailey for murder in 1769.  Baretti’s father had intended him to enter the legal profession but when he was 16 he fled from Turin to Guastalla in Emilia-Romagna where he worked in the import and export business.  His main interest was studying literature and criticism but, after he became an expert in the field himself, his writing was so controversial that he eventually had to move abroad.  Many students of Italian Literature are familiar with the name of Giuseppe Baretti as the writer, editor and proprietor of the fearlessly sarcastic periodical La frusta letteraria, which means Literary Scourge, in which he castigated bad authors.  For a few years Baretti wandered from country to country supporting himself by writing.  He was the author of two influential dictionaries, a Dictionary and Grammar of the Italian Language and a Dictionary of the Spanish Language.  Read more…


23 April 2021

23 April

Stefano Bontade - Mafia supremo

Well-connected Cosa Nostra boss had links to ex-premier Andreotti

Stefano Bontade, one of the most powerful and well connected figures in the Sicilian Mafia in the 1960s and 1970s, was born on this day in 1939 in Palermo, where he was murdered exactly 42 years later in a birthday execution that sparked a two-year war between the island’s rival clans.  Known as Il Falco – the Falcon – he was said to have close links with a number of important politicians in Sicily and with the former Italian prime minister Giulio Andreotti.  He was strongly suspected of being a key figure in the 1962 murder of Enrico Mattei, the president of Italy’s state-owned oil and gas conglomerate ENI, and in the bogus kidnapping of Michele Sindona, the disgraced banker who used the Vatican Bank to launder the proceeds of Cosa Nostra heroin trafficking.  Born into a Mafia family, Bontade controlled the Villagrazia area in the south-west of Palermo and became head of the Santa Maria di Gesù crime family at the age of 25 when his father, Francesco Paolo Bontade, a major Cosa Nostra boss known as Don Paolino, stepped down in failing health.  He was banished to the mainland, specifically Qualiano in Campania, following his arrest in 1972.  Read more…


Ruggero Leoncavallo – opera composer

Writer and musician created one of the most popular operas of all time

Ruggero Leoncavallo, the composer of the opera, Pagliacci, was born on this day in 1857 in Naples.  Pagliacci - which means 'clowns' - is one of the most popular operas ever written and is still regularly performed all over the world.  Leoncavallo also wrote the song, Mattinata, often performed by Enrico Caruso and still recorded by today’s tenors.  Leoncavallo was the son of a judge and moved with his father from Naples to live in the town of Montalto Uffugo in Calabria when he was a child.  He later returned to Naples to be educated and then studied literature at the University of Bologna under the poet Giosuè Carducci.  Leoncavallo initially worked as a piano teacher in Egypt but then moved to Paris where he found work as an accompanist for artists singing in cafes.  He then moved to Milan where he taught the piano and started to compose operas.  After the success of Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana, Leoncavallo produced his own verismo work, Pagliacci. Verismo was a post-romantic operatic tradition, often featuring true stories about the lives of poor people.  Leoncavallo claimed he had derived the plot for Pagliacci from a real-life murder trial.  Read more…


Gaspara Stampa – poet

Beautiful sonnets were inspired by unrequited love

Gaspara Stampa, the greatest female poet of the Italian Renaissance, died on this day in 1554 in Venice at the age of 31.  She is regarded by many as the greatest Italian female poet of any age, despite having had such a brief life.  Gaspara was born in Padua and lived in the city until she was eight years old. Her father, Bartolomeo, had been a jewel and gold merchant, but after he died, Gaspara’s mother, Cecilia, took her three children to live in Venice. They were accommodated in the house of Geronimo Morosini, who was descended from a noble Venetian family, in the parish of Santi Gervasio and Protasio, now known as San Trovaso.  Along with her sister, Cassandra, and brother, Baldassare, Gaspara was educated in literature, music, history and painting. She excelled at singing and playing the lute and her home became a cultural hub as it was visited by many Venetian writers, painters and musicians, among them Francesco Sansovino, a poet and writer who was the son of the great Florentine architect, Jacopo Sansovino.  Gaspara dedicated most of her poems to Count Collatino di Collalto of Treviso, with whom she had an affair.  Read more…


Gianandrea Noseda - conductor

Milanese musician has achieved worldwide acclaim

Gianandrea Noseda, who is recognised as one of the leading orchestra conductors of his generation, was born on this day in 1964 in Milan.  He holds the title of Cavaliere Ufficiale al Merito della Repubblica Italiana for his contribution to the artistic life of Italy.  Noseda studied piano and composition in Milan and began studying conducting at the age of 27.  He made his debut as a conductor in 1994 with the Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi. He won the Cadaques International Conducting Competition for young conductors in Spain the same year.  In 1997 he became principal guest conductor at the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg and during his time there became fluent in Russian.  In 2002 he became principal conductor of the BBC Philharmonic and in this role led live performances in Manchester of Beethoven’s nine symphonies. In 2006 his title was changed to chief conductor.  The London Symphony Orchestra announced the appointment of Noseda as its new principal guest conductor in 2016.  Noseda has been Music Director of the Teatro Regio Torino since 2007, taking their orchestra to the Edinburgh Festival in 2017.  Read more… 

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22 April 2021

22 April

Vittorio Jano - motor racing engineer

Genius behind the success of Alfa Romeo, Lancia and Ferrari

Born on this day in 1891, Vittorio Jano was among the greatest engine designers in motor racing history.  Jano's engines powered cars for Fiat, Alfa Romeo, Lancia and Ferrari during a career that spanned four decades, winning numerous Grand Prix races.  The legendary Argentinian Juan Manuel Fangio won the fourth of his five Formula One world championships in Jano's Lancia-Ferrari D50, in 1956.  Almost 30 years earlier, Jano's Alfa Romeo P2 won the very first Grand Prix world championship in 1925, while its successor, the P3, scored a staggering 46 race wins between 1932 and 1935.  He worked for Ferrari from the mid-50s onwards, where his greatest legacy was the V-8 Dino engine, which was the staple of Ferrari cars on the track and the road between 1966 and 2004.  Jano's parents were from Hungary, but settled in Italy, where his father worked as a mechanical engineer in Turin.  He was born in the small town of San Giorgio Canavese in Piedmont, about 35 kilometres north of Turin, and was originally called Viktor János.  Following his father into engineering, he joined Fiat at the age of just 20.  Read more…


Alida Valli - actress

Scandal dogged star admired by Mussolini

The actress Alida Valli, who was once described by Benito Mussolini as the most beautiful woman in the world after Greta Garbo, died on this day in 2006 at the age of 84.  One of the biggest stars in Italian cinema in the late 1930s and 40s, when she starred in numerous romantic dramas and comedies, she was best known outside Italy for playing Anna Schmidt, the actress girlfriend of Harry Lime in Carol Reed’s Oscar-winning 1949 classic The Third Man.  She was cast in the role by the producer David O Selznick, who shared the Fascist leader’s appreciation for her looks, and who billed her simply as Valli, hoping it would create for her a Garboesque enigmatic allure.  Later, however, she complained that having one name made her “feel silly”.  Valli was born in Pola, Istria, then part of Italy (now Pula, Croatia), in 1921. She was christened Baroness Alida Maria Laura Altenburger von Marckenstein-Frauenberg, on account of a noble line to her paternal grandfather, Baron Luigi Altenburger, an Austrian-Italian from Trento and a descendant of the Counts d’Arco.  Her father was a journalist and professor. The family moved to Como when she was young.  Read more…


Fiorenza Cossotto - operatic mezzo-soprano

Career overshadowed by story of ‘row’ with Maria Callas

Fiorenza Cossotto, a singer considered one of the greatest mezzo-sopranos of the 20th century, was born on this day in 1935 in Crescentino in Piedmont.  Cossotto was hailed for her interpretations of the major mezzo and contralto roles from mid-19th-century Italian operas, particularly those of Giuseppe Verdi such as Aida, Il trovatore and Don Carlos, but also Gaetano Donizetti, Amilcare Ponchielli, Vincenzo Bellini and the other important composers of the day.  Yet she is often remembered for a supposed spat with Maria Callas that led the Greek-American soprano to walk off the stage during her final performance at the Opéra in Paris of her signature role in Bellini’s Norma in 1965.  The incident in question took place immediately after Callas, as Norma, and Cossotto, as Adalgisa, had joined in their duet ‘Mira, o Norma’.  Callas, by that stage a little below her prime, was notoriously temperamental and within moments onlookers were imagining a row, theorising that Cossotto had tried to sabotage Callas’s performance by holding her own high notes longer and singing over Callas.  Read more…