27 September 2021

27 September

Grazia Deledda - Nobel Prize winner

First Italian woman to be honoured

The novelist Grazia Deledda, who was the first of only two Italian women to be made a Nobel laureate when she won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1926, was born on this day in 1871 in the city of Nuoro in Sardinia.  A prolific writer from the age of 13, she published around 50 novels or story collections over the course of her career, most of them drawing on her own experience of life in the rugged Sardinian countryside.  The Nobel prize was awarded "for her idealistically inspired writings which with plastic clarity picture the life on her native island and with depth and sympathy deal with human problems in general."  Deledda’s success came at the 11th time of asking, having been first nominated in 1913. The successful nomination came from Henrik Schuck, a literature historian at the Swedish Academy.  Born into a middle-class family - her father, Giovanni, was in her own words a “well-to-do landowner” - Deledda drew inspiration for her characters from the stream of friends and business acquaintances her father insisted must stay at their home whenever they were in Nuoro.  She was not allowed to attend school beyond the age of 11 apart from private tuition in Italian.  Read more…

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Cosimo de’ Medici – banker and politician

Father of Florence used his wealth to encourage great architecture

Today is the date Cosimo di Giovanni de’ Medici, the founder of the Medici dynasty, celebrated his birthday.  Cosimo and his twin brother, Damiano, were born to Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici and Piccarda Bueri in April 1389, but Damiano survived for only a short time.  The twins were named after the saints Cosmas and Damian, whose feast day in those days was celebrated on 27 September. Cosimo later decided to celebrate his birthday on 27 September, his ‘name day’, rather than on the actual date of his birth.  Cosimo’s father came from a wealthy family and after making even more money he married well. A supporter of the arts in Florence, he was one of the financial backers for the magnificent doors of the Baptistery by Ghiberti, although they were not completed until after his death.  By the time his father died, Cosimo was 40 and had become a rich banker himself, which gave him great power. He had also become a patron of the arts, learning and architecture.  The Abizzi family, who ruled Florence, feared his power and also coveted his wealth so they had Cosimo arrested on the capital charge of having tried to raise himself up higher than others.  Read more…

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Jovanotti - musician

Former rapper an important figure in Italian pop culture

The singer-songwriter Lorenzo Cherubini – better known as Jovanotti – was born on this day in 1966 in Rome.  Famous in his early days as Italy’s first rap star, Jovanotti has evolved into one of Italian pop music’s most significant figures, his work progressing from hip hop to funk and introducing ska and other strands of world music to Italian audiences, his increasingly sophisticated compositions even showing classical influences.  He has come to match Ligabue in terms of the ability to attract massive audiences, while his international record sales in the mid-90s were on a par with Eros Ramazzotti and Laura Pausini.  Since his recording debut in 1988 he has sold more than seven million albums.  Although born in Rome, Cherubini came from a Tuscan family and spent much of his childhood and adolescence in Cortona in the province of Arezzo, where he now has a home.  He began to work as a DJ at venues in and around Cortona, mainly playing dance music and hip hop, which at the time was scarcely known in Italy. After finishing high school he went back to Rome because he felt he had a better chance of launching a musical career via the capital’s club scene.  Read more…

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Gracie Fields - actress and singer

English-born performer who made Capri her home 

The English actress, singer and comedian Gracie Fields died on this day in 1979 at her home on Capri, the island on the south side of the Gulf of Naples.  The 81-year-old former forces sweetheart had been in hospital following a bout of pneumonia but appeared to be regaining her health.  The previous day she had walked with her husband, Boris, to the post office on the island to collect her mail.  Some English newspapers reported that Gracie had died in the arms of her husband but that version of events was later corrected. It is now accepted that Boris had already left La Canzone del Mare, the singer's original Capri home overlooking the island's landmark Faraglioni rocks, to work on the central heating at a second property they had bought in Anacapri, on the opposite side of the island, and that Gracie was with her housekeeper, Irena, when she passed away suddenly.  Fields, born Grace Stansfield in Rochdale, England, in 1898, had visited Capri for the first time in the late 1920s or early 30s, with two artists she had befriended in London, where she was becoming an established star in the revue format.  Read more…


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26 September 2021

26 September

Enzo Bearzot - World Cup-winning coach

Led Italy to 1982 triumph in Spain

Enzo Bearzot, the pipe-smoking coach who plotted Italy’s victory at the 1982 World Cup in Spain and at the same time changed the way the national team traditionally played, was born on September 26, 1927 in the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region of northwest Italy.  Italy had a reputation for ultra-defensive and sometimes cynical football but in 44 years had won only one major competition, the 1968 European championships, a much lower-key affair than the current four-yearly Euros, which Italy hosted.  But Bearzot was an admirer of the so-called ‘total football’ philosophy advanced by the Dutch coach Rinus Michels, with which the Netherlands national team reached two World Cup finals in the 1970s, albeit without winning.  Italy did not impress at the start of their Spain adventure, recording three fairly lacklustre draws in their group matches, and were expected to be eliminated in the second group phase when they were obliged to play Argentina, the holders, and a Brazil side brimming with brilliant players.  Bearzot and the team attracted scathing criticism in the Italian press.  Read more…

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Anna Magnani - Oscar-winning film star

Roman one of only three Italians to land best actor award

Anna Magnani, who found fame for her performance in Roberto Rossellini's neorealist classic movie Rome, Open City and went on to become one of only three Italian actors to win an Academy Award, died on this day in Rome in 1973.   She had been suffering from pancreatic cancer and her death at the age of just 65 shocked her fans and close friends.  Rossellini, with whom she had a tempestuous affair before he ditched her for the Swedish actress, Ingrid Bergman, was at her bedside along with her son, Luca.  The American playwright Tennessee Williams, who wrote the part of Serafina in his play The Rose Tattoo specifically with Magnani in mind, was so devastated he could not bring himself to attend her funeral.  Instead he sent 20 dozen roses to signify the bond they developed while working together.  When Williams was in Rome they would meet for cocktails on the roof-top terrace of her home, overlooking the city, always at eight o'clock - "alle venti" in Italy, where times are generally expressed according to the 24-hour clock.  They would sign off letters and telegrams to one another with the words "Ci vediamo alle venti" or "See you at eight."  Read more…

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St Francis Basilica struck by earthquake

Historic art works damaged in double tremor

The historic Basilica of Saint Francis in Assisi suffered serious damage on this day in 1997 when two earthquakes struck in the central Apennines.  The quakes claimed 11 lives in the Assisi area and forced the evacuation of 70 per cent of buildings in the Umbrian town, at least temporarily, because of safety fears.  Many homes were condemned as unsafe for occupation and residents had to be housed in makeshift accommodation.  The event also caused considerable damage to frescoes painted in the 13th century by Giotto and to other important works by Cimabue, Pietro Lorenzetti and Simone Martini.  The first quake, measuring 5.5 on the Richter Scale, struck shortly after 2.30am and was felt as far away as Rome, some 170km (44 miles) to the south.  A series of smaller tremors kept residents on edge through the night.  Yet the biggest quake, measured at 5.7 initially but later revised upwards to 6.1, was still to come. With tragic consequences, it occurred at 11.43am, just as a party of Franciscan monks, journalists, town officials and experts from the Ministry of Culture had decided to venture inside the basilica to inspect the damage.  Read more…


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25 September 2021

25 September

Zucchero Fornaciari – singer

Sweet success for writer and performer

The singer/songwriter now known simply as Zucchero was born Adelmo Fornaciari on this day in 1955 in Roncocesi, a small village near Reggio Emilia.  In a career lasting more than 30 years, he has sold more than 50 million records and has become popular all over the world.  He is hailed as ‘the father of the Italian blues’, having introduced blues music to Italy, and he has won many awards for his music. He has also been given the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic.  As a young boy, Zucchero lived in the Tuscan seaside resort of Forte dei Marmi, where he sang in the choir and learned to play the organ at his local church.  He became fond of soul music and began to write his own songs and play the tenor saxophone. He started playing in bands while studying veterinary medicine but gave up his studies to follow his dream of becoming a singer.  He took the stage name of Zucchero, the Italian word for sugar, which was a nickname one of his teachers had given him.  Zucchero took part in the San Remo song contest for the second time in 1985 and although his song Donne did not win, it went on to become a hit single.  Read more…

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Nino Cerruti - fashion designer

Turn of fate led to a life in haute couture 

The fashion designer Nino Cerruti, who used the family textile business as the platform on which to build one of the most famous names in haute couture, was born on this day in 1930 in Biella in northern Piedmont.  At its peak, the Cerruti brand became synonymous with Hollywood glitz and the movie industry, both as the favourite label of many top stars and the supplier of clothing ranges for a string of box office hits.  Yet Cerruti might have lived a very different life had fate not intervened. Although Lanificio Fratelli Cerruti - the textile mills set up by his grandfather, Antonio, and his great uncles, Stefano and Quintino - had been the family firm since 1881, Nino wanted to be a journalist.  But when his father, Silvio, who had taken over the running of the business from Antonio, died prematurely, Nino was almost obligated to take over, even though he was only 20 years old.  However, despite the sacrifice of his ambitions and his studies, Cerruti threw himself into developing the business. He saw the potential in repositioning Cerruti as a fashion label and invested in a modernisation plan for the family weaving workshops in Biella as well as acquiring two further factories in Milan.  Read more…

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Agostino Bassi – biologist

Scientist who rescued the silk industry in Italy

Bacteriologist Agostino Bassi, who was the first to expound the parasitic theory of infection, was born on this day in 1773 at Mairago near Lodi in Lombardy.  He developed his theory by studying silkworms, which helped him discover that many diseases are caused by microorganisms.  This was 10 years in advance of the work of Louis Pasteur.  In 1807 Bassi began an investigation into the silkworm disease mal de segno, also known as muscardine, which was causing serious economic losses in Italy and France.  After 25 years of research and carrying out various experiments, Bassi was able to demonstrate that the disease was contagious and was caused by a microscopic parasitic fungus.  He concluded that the organism, at the time named botrytis paradoxa, but now known as beauvaria bassiana in his honour, was transmitted among the worms by contact and by infected food.  These findings enabled Bassi to rescue the economically important silk industry in Italy by recommending using disinfectants, separating the rows of feeding caterpillars and keeping farms clean.  Read more…


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24 September 2021

24 September

NEW
- Girolamo Cardano - doctor and mathematician

Polymath was also a gambler and womaniser

The Renaissance polymath Girolamo Cardano, whose range of talents included mathematics and medicine but who also invented a number of mechanical devices still in use today, was born on this day in 1501 in Pavia, then part of the Duchy of Milan.  Cardano, also known as Gerolamo, Hieronymus Cardanus in Latin and Jerome Cardan in English, is notable for writing Ars Magna which was the first Latin treatise devoted solely to algebra.  Far from being a stuffy academic, however, Cardano led a controversial life, practising as a physician without a licence and becoming proficient at gambling to keep himself solvent, while as a university professor being regularly accused of sexual impropriety with students.  In his wide range of interests, he seemed to be inspired by Leonardo da Vinci, who was a close friend of his father. Like Da Vinci, he wanted to put his mathematical and scientific skills to practical use and is credited with inventing among other things the first combination locks, the gimbal that allows a supported compass or gyroscope to rotate freely, and a universal joint that allows the transmission of rotation between the components of a drive train even when out of alignment.  Read more…

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Marco Tardelli - footballer

Joyous celebration lasting image of Italy's 1982 World Cup win

Marco Tardelli, the footballer whose ecstatic celebration after scoring a goal in the final became one of the abiding images of Italy's victory in the 1982 World Cup, was born on this day in 1954.  The midfield player, who spent much of his club career with one of the best Juventus teams of all time, ran to the Italian bench after his goal against West Germany gave the Azzurri a 2-0 lead, clenching both fists in front of his chest, tears flowing as he shook his head from side to side and repeatedly shouted "Gol! Gol!" in what became known as the Tardelli Scream.  Italy went on to complete a 3-1 win over the Germans in the Santiago Bernabéu Stadium in Madrid with Paolo Rossi and Antonio Altobelli scoring Italy's other goals.  Tardelli, who was part of Italy's squad for three World Cups, had earlier scored against Argentina in the second group phase.  Tardelli later said that he felt he "was born with that scream inside me" and its release was sparked by the sheer joy at realising a dream he had nurtured since he was a child, of scoring in the final of a World Cup.  It meant that when he retired as a player in 1988 he could look back on winning international football's greatest prize as well as every competition in which he participated in club football.  Read more…

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Riccardo Illy - businessman

Grandson of Illy coffee company founder who became firm’s chairman

Riccardo Illy, whose paternal grandfather, Hungarian-born Francesco Illy, founded the world-famous illy coffee company, was born on this day in 1955 in Trieste.  Illy is president and former chairman of Gruppo illy and vice-chairman of illycaffè. Under his leadership, the company has expanded to include Domori chocolate, Dammann Frères teas, Agrimontana - which makes fruit preserves, jams and confectionery -  and Mastrojanni, a winery located in the Montalcino region of southern Tuscany.  It also holds a stake in Grom, a chain of premium ice cream parlours.  The company now has a presence in 140 countries and as well as coffee shops the company also operates ice cream stores in Italy, as well as in New York, Malibu, Los Angeles, Paris, Dubai, Osaka, and Jakarta.  Although the company’s roots are in Trieste, where Francesco opened for business in 1933, Gruppo illy Spa is based in Rome.  Riccardo’s first job was as a skiing instructor at the Piancavallo resort in the Dolomites and a sailing instructor at Monfalcone, near Trieste. He married the food and wine journalist Rossana Bettini, with whom he had a daughter, Daria.  Read more…

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Maria Pia of Bourbon-Parma - exiled princess

Vote for republic forced King's daughter to leave

Princess Maria Pia of Bourbon-Parma was born into the Italian royal family on this day in 1934, the grand-daughter of King Victor Emmanuel III.  Her father, Umberto of Savoy, would himself become King on her grandfather’s abdication but reigned for just 34 days in 1946 before Italy voted to become a republic and the royals were effectively thrown out of the country.  Italians could not forgive Victor Emmanuel III for not doing enough to limit the power of the Fascists and for approving Benito Mussolini’s anti-semitic race laws. The constitution of the new republic decreed that no male member of the House of Savoy could set foot in Italy ever again.  It meant that Princess Maria Pia, the eldest of Umberto’s four children, had to leave Italy immediately along with her brother and two sisters and all the other members of the family, bringing to an abrupt end the life she had known until that moment.  Born in Naples, where the Villa Rosebery, once the property of the British prime minister, the Earl of Rosebery, had been renamed Villa Maria Pia by her doting father, the 11-year-old princess was removed to Cascais in Portugal.  Read more…


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Girolamo Cardano - doctor and mathematician

Polymath was also a gambler and womaniser

Girolamo Cardano was the leading mathematician of Renaissance Italy
Girolamo Cardano was the leading
mathematician of Renaissance Italy
The Renaissance polymath Girolamo Cardano, whose range of talents included mathematics and medicine but who also invented a number of mechanical devices still in use today, was born on this day in 1501 in Pavia, then part of the Duchy of Milan.

Cardano, also known as Gerolamo, Hieronymus Cardanus in Latin and Jerome Cardan in English, is notable for writing Ars Magna which was the first Latin treatise devoted solely to algebra.

Far from being a stuffy academic, however, Cardano led a controversial life, practising as a physician without a licence and becoming proficient at gambling to keep himself solvent, while as a university professor being regularly accused of sexual impropriety with students.

In his wide range of interests, he seemed to be inspired by Leonardo da Vinci, who was a close friend of his father. Like Da Vinci, he wanted to put his mathematical and scientific skills to practical use and is credited with inventing among other things the first combination locks, the gimbal that allows a supported compass or gyroscope to rotate freely, and a universal joint that allows the transmission of rotation between the components of a drive train even when out of alignment.

A version of the joint in use today to connect the gearbox of a rear-wheel drive car with the rear axle is called a Cardan Shaft.

Girolamo Cardano was the illegitimate child of Fazio Cardano, a Milanese lawyer and university professor, and Chiara Micheria, a widow 20 years Fazio’s junior. Despite his mother’s attempts to abort the pregnancy, Girolamo was born at the home of some wealthy friends of his father in Pavia, where his mother was sent to escape an outbreak of plague in Milan that claimed the lives of her three other children.

The cover page of Ars Magna, seen as Cardano's magnum opus
The cover page of Ars Magna, seen
as Cardano's magnum opus
Girolamo survived a sickly childhood and, fascinated with philosophy and science, enrolled to read medicine at the University of Pavia, against the wishes of his father, who wanted him to study law.  The Italian War of 1521-26 forced the University of Pavia to close but he was able to resume his studies at the University of Padua.

There, however, he gained a reputation for being awkward and confrontational and while he obtained a doctorate he was denied admission to the College of Physicians in Milan, partly because he was not well liked and partly because of his illegitimacy.  

Unable to practise medicine legally in Milan, he moved to Saccolongo, a village outside Padua where he set up a practice despite his lack of a licence. He married Lucia, the daughter of a local militia captain, with whom he had three children.  His practice was not particularly successful, however, and he increasingly turned to gambling to make money, a habit he had developed while studying, but slipped further into debt.

Desperate for a change of fortune, he moved the family back to Milan. They had so little money they were forced to live in a poorhouse but Girolamo eventually elicited help from contacts of his father in the Milanese nobility, who arranged for him to be given his father’s former post of lecturer in mathematics at the Piatti Foundation in Milan.

For all that he was a difficult character, his brilliant mind was never in doubt and when the College of Physicians changed their attitude to illegitimacy he was granted his licence.  His success in treating his patients, some of whom had wide influence in Milan society, soon made him the most sought-after doctor in the city.

Cardano's universal joint is still used in the drive shafts of motor vehicles today
Cardano's universal joint is still used in the
drive shafts of motor vehicles today 
The next few years were his most productive. In 1537, he published the first of some 130 printed works, the most famous of which was Ars Magna, published in 1545. It included the first comprehensive solution for finding roots of cubic equations, which at the time was a subject that was the focus of much attention. Even that was the subject of controversy as Nicolo Tartaglia, another mathematician of note, accused Cardano of publishing results shared with him in confidence. 

He also wrote Liber de ludo aleae - Book on Games of Chance - which contains the first systematic treatment of probability, the basic concepts of which he had learned through his gambling. He also shared some of his secrets on how to cheat successfully.

Cardano did much of his inventing during this period, and enhanced his reputation as one of the world’s finest physicians, becoming rector of the College of Physicians that for so long rejected him. 

He turned down most invitations to work outside Italy but made an exception when asked to travel to Scoland, where John Hamilton, Archbishop of St Andrews, was suffering increasingly severe asthma attacks that the physicians of both the French king and German emperor had been unable to keep in check.

Cardano was also known for his chaotic and controversial personal life
Cardano was also known for his chaotic
and controversial personal life
Cardano was welcomed as a celebrity when he landed in Scotland, where he was promised a substantial payment if he could treat the Archbishop successfully. In the event, he quickly established that feather pillows were the cause of the Archbishop’s malady and the patient made a full recovery.

For all that he was ultimately hailed as a genius, Cardano's personal life was filled with tragedy.

Lucia died in 1546, his eldest son was executed for poisoning his wife and his daughter died of syphilis. He disowned his second son, who stole money from him to fund his own gambling addiction.

Cardano was appointed a professor of medicine at the University of Bologna but as the father of a convicted murderer he was shunned by many colleagues, while his arrogant manner made him many enemies.  A shameless womaniser, he was frequently accused of using his power to coerce female students into inappropriate relationships.

In 1570 he spent a short time in jail, having been accused of heresy after publishing a horoscope of Jesus Christ.  It cost him his position at the University of Bologna.

Nonetheless, on moving to Rome he received a lifetime annuity from Pope Gregory XIII and was accepted in the Royal College of Physicians. He continued to practise medicine and expanded his philosophical studies. 

He died in Rome in 1576 at the age of 74. 

The covered bridge linking Pavia with the area known as Borgo Ticino
The covered bridge linking Pavia with the
area known as Borgo Ticino
Travel tip:

Pavia is a city in Lombardy, about 46km (30 miles) south of Milan. Its university was founded in 1361 and was the sole university in the Duchy of Milan until the 19th century. As well as Girolamo Cardano, its alumni include explorer Christopher Columbus, physicist Alessandro Volta and the poet and revolutionary Ugo Foscolo. Pavia is also famous for its Certosa, a magnificent Renaissance monastery complex north of the city that dates back to 1396 and includes a number of important sculptures and frescoes. A pretty covered bridge over the River Ticino leads to Borgo Ticino, where the inhabitants claim to be the true people of Pavia.

Giotto's frescoes cover the inner walls of the Scrovegni Chapel
Giotto's frescoes cover the inner
walls of the Scrovegni Chapel
Travel tip:

Padua in the Veneto is one of the most important centres for art in Italy and home to the country’s second oldest university. Padua has become acknowledged as the birthplace of modern art because of the Scrovegni Chapel, the inside of which is covered with frescoes by Giotto, an artistic genius who was the first to paint people with realistic facial expressions showing emotion. His scenes depicting the lives of Mary and Joseph, painted between 1303 and 1305, are considered his greatest achievement and one of the world’s most important works of art. At Palazzo Bo, where Padua’s university was founded in 1222, you can still see the original lectern used by Galileo and the world’s first anatomy theatre, where dissections were secretly carried out from 1594.

Also on this day:

1934: The birth of exiled Princess Maria Pia of Bourbon-Parma

1954: The birth of footballer Marco Tardelli

1955: The birth of businessman Riccardo Illy


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23 September 2021

23 September

Mussolini's last stand

Deposed dictator proclaims Republic of Salò 

In what would prove the final chapter of his political career - and his life - Benito Mussolini proclaimed the creation of the Italian Social Republic on this day in 1943.  The establishment of this new state with the Fascist dictator as its leader was announced just 11 days after German special forces freed Mussolini from house arrest in the Apennine mountains.  Although Mussolini was said to be in failing health and had hoped to slip quietly into the shadows after his escape, Hitler's compassion for his Italian ally - whose rescue had been on the direct orders of the Führer - did not extend to giving him an easy route into retirement.  Faced with an Allied advance along the Italian peninsula that was gathering momentum, he put Mussolini in charge of the area of northern and central Italy of which the German army had taken control following the Grand Fascist Council's overthrow of the dictator.  Although the area was renamed the Italian Social Republic - also known as the Republic of Salò after the town on the shores of Lake Garda where Mussolini's new government was headquartered - it was essentially a puppet German state.   Read more…

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Augustus - the first Emperor of Rome

Great nephew of Julius Caesar became powerful leader

Augustus, who history recognises as the first Emperor of Rome, was born Gaius Octavius on this day in 63 BC in Rome.  He was to lead Rome’s transformation from republic to empire during the stormy years following the assassination of his great-uncle and adoptive father Julius Caesar, the dictator of the Roman Republic.  The son of a senator and governor in the Roman Republic, Octavius was related to Caesar through his mother, Atai, who was Caesar’s niece. The young Octavius was raised in part by his grandmother Julia Caesaris - Caesar’s sister - in what is now Velletri, about 40km (25 miles) southeast of Rome.  Octavius was only 17 when he learned of his great uncle’s death, although he had begun to wear the toga - a symbol of manhood - at 16 and fought alongside Caesar in Hispania (Spain), where his bravery prompted Caesar to name him in his will as his heir and successor.  When Caesar died, his allies rallied around Octavius - now known as Octavian - against Mark Antony, his rival for power, and troops loyal to Octavian defeated Antony’s army in northern Italy. However, the future emperor stepped back from seeking to eliminate Mark Antony, preferring that they formed an alliance.  Read more…

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Francesco Barberini – Cardinal

Patron of the arts sympathised with Galileo

Francesco Barberini, a cardinal who as Grand Inquisitor of the Roman Inquisition refused to condemn the scientist Galileo Galilei as a heretic, was born on this day in 1597 in Florence.  As a cardinal working within the Vatican administration, Barberini also became an important patron of literature and the arts.  The son of Carlo Barberini and Costanza Magalotti, Francesco was assisted by Galileo during his studies at the University of Pisa. The scientist was also a family friend. Francesco graduated in canon and civil law at the age of 25 in 1623.  Later that year, his uncle, Maffeo Barberini, who had been recently elected as Pope Urban VIII, made him a cardinal and sent him to be papal legate to Avignon.  He was sent to Paris as a special legate to negotiate with Cardinal Richelieu and then to Spain as a papal legate, but both his missions were unsuccessful.  From 1633 until his death more than 40 years later, Barberini was the Grand Inquisitor of the Roman Inquisition. He was part of the Inquisition tribunal investigating Galileo after the publication of writings supporting the arguments put forward by the German scientist Nicolaus Copernicus that the sun and not the earth was the centre of the universe.  Read more…

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Paolo Rossi - World Cup hero

Goalscorer who bounced back from two-year ban

The footballer Paolo Rossi, whose goals steered Italy to World Cup glory in 1982, was born on this day in 1956 in Prato in Tuscany.  At the peak of his career in club football, in which his best years were with Juventus and Vicenza, Rossi scored almost 100 Serie A and Serie B goals in seven seasons.  Yet for many his exploits with the Italian national team define his career. In 48 appearances he scored 20 goals, including six in the 1982 finals in Spain, when he won the Golden Boot as the tournament’s top scorer and the Golden Ball as the best player.  In 1982 he also won the Ballon D’Or, the prestigious award given to the player of the season across all the European leagues, following in the footsteps of Omar Sivori and Gianni Rivera to become the third Italian player to win the vote, in which company he has since been joined by Roberto Baggio and Fabio Cannavaro.  His success story is all the more remarkable for the fact that he scaled so many personal peaks after being banned from football for two years in a match-fixing scandal, although he denied the accusations levelled at him.  The 1982 World Cup saved his career and his reputation.  Read more…



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22 September 2021

22 September

Roberto Saviano - writer and journalist

Author of ‘Gomorrah’ who lives under police protection

The author and journalist Roberto Saviano, whose 2006 book Gomorrah exposed the inner workings of the Camorra organised crime syndicate in his home city of Naples, was born on this day in 1979.  Gomorrah was an international bestseller that was turned into a film and inspired a TV series, bringing Saviano fame and wealth.  However, within six months of the book’s publication, Saviano had received so many threats to his life from within the Camorra that the decision was taken on the advice of former prime minister Giuliano Amato to place him under police protection.  Some 15 years later, he remains under 24-hour police guard.  He travels only in one of two bullet-proof cars, lives either in police barracks or obscure hotels and is encouraged never to remain in the same place for more than a few days. His protection team includes seven bodyguards.  Saviano has written several more books including a collection of his essays and Zero, Zero, Zero - an exposé of the cocaine trade. He has also written The Piranhas, a novel set in Naples with the Camorra at the centre of the story.  Yet Saviano has complained that, although he has so far avoided being killed, he has no real life.  Read more…

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Carlo Ubbiali - motorcycle world champion

Racer from Bergamo won nine GP titles

Carlo Ubbiali, who preceded Giacomo Agostini and Valentino Rossi as Italy’s first great motorcycling world champion, was born on this day in 1929 in Bergamo.  Between 1951 and 1960, he won nine Grand Prix titles, in the 250cc and 125cc categories, setting a record for the most world championships that was equalled by Britain’s Mike Hailwood in 1967 but not surpassed until Agostini won the 10th of his 15 world titles in 1971.  Until his death in 2020, Ubbiali was the second oldest surviving Grand Prix champion after Britain’s Cecil Sandford, who was his teammate in the 1950s. Ubbiali’s compatriot Agostini, who came from nearby Lovere, in Bergamo province,was born in 1942.  Ubbiali won a total of 39 Grand Prix races, all bar two of them for the MV Agusta team.  Three times – in 1956, 1959 and 1960 – he was world champion in 125cc and 250cc classes, and on no fewer than five occasions, including both categories in 1956, he won the title with the maximum number of points possible under the scoring system.  He was also a five-times winner at the prestigious Isle of Man TT festival and six-times Italian champion.  Read more…

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Andrea Bocelli - tenor

Singer has perfect voice for either opera or pop

Tenor Andrea Bocelli was born on this day in 1958 in La Sterza, a hamlet or frazione of Lajatico in Tuscany.  Bocelli, who is blind, had poor eyesight from birth and was diagnosed with congenital glaucoma, but he lost his sight completely at the age of 12 after an accident while playing football.  He always loved music and started to learn the piano at the age of six. But after hearing a recording by opera singer Franco Corelli, he set his heart on becoming a tenor.  Bocelli won his first singing competition in Viareggio with ‘O sole mio’ at the age of 14.  He has since sold 150 million records worldwide and performed for four US presidents, three Popes and the British Royal family. His voice has been acclaimed by critics as perfect for either opera or pop.  Bocelli originally studied law and spent one year working as a lawyer, but in 1992 the great Italian tenor Luciano Pavarotti heard a recording of his unique voice performing Italian rock and pop artist Zucchero’s song Miserere and helped his career take off.  He sang Miserere with Zucchero during a European tour and performed it at the San Remo song festival, where he won the newcomer’s section.  Read more…

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Leonardo Messina - Mafia ‘pentito’

Sicilian who linked ex-premier with organised crime

The Mafia pentito or turncoat Leonardo ‘Narduzzo’ Messina, the first to accuse former prime minister Giulio Andreotti of links with organised crime, was born on this day in 1955 in San Cataldo, a town in the centre of the island of Sicily.  Messina, who decided to reveal what he knew to the authorities soon after the murder of the anti-Mafia magistrate Giovanni Falcone, named Andreotti as part of extensive testimony that led to the arrest of more than 200 mafiosi in 1992.  A so-called ‘man of honour’ for more than a decade, Messina, who had been arrested for his part in a drugs racket, became a pentito - literally a ‘repentant’ - after Falcone was killed by a massive bomb placed under the highway linking the city of Palermo with its airport.  Falcone’s wife and three police escorts died with him when the bomb was detonated, and it was the emotional appeal for information by the widow of one of the police officers that persuaded Messina he no longer wished to be associated with the Cosa Nostra.  Messina provided a goldmine of information to Falcone’s friend and fellow magistrate Paolo Borsellino, who himself would be killed by a car bomb in July of that year.  Read more…


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21 September 2021

21 September

Cigoli – painter and architect

First artist to paint a realistic moon

The artist Cigoli was born Lodovico Cardi on this day in 1559 near San Miniato in Tuscany.  He became a close friend of Galileo Galilei, who is said to have regarded him as the greatest painter of his time. They wrote to each other regularly and Galileo practised his drawing while Cigoli enjoyed making astronomical observances.  Cigoli painted a fresco in the dome of the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome depicting the Madonna standing upon a pock-marked lunar orb, exactly as it had been seen by Galileo through his telescope.  This is the first example still in existence of Galileo’s discovery about the surface of the moon being portrayed in art. The moon is shown just as Galileo had drawn it in his astronomical treatise, Sidereus Nuncius, which published the results of Galileo’s early observations of the imperfect and mountainous moon.  Until Cigoli’s fresco, the moon in pictures of the Virgin had always been represented by artists as spherical and smooth.  Lodovico Cardi was born at Villa Castelvecchio di Cigoli, and was therefore commonly known as Cigoli.  He trained as an artist in Florence under the Mannerist painter Alessandro Allori.   Read more…

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Giacomo Quarenghi - architect

Neoclassicist famous for his work in St Petersburg

The architect Giacomo Quarenghi, best known for his work in Russia, and in St Petersburg in particular, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, was born on this day in 1744 in Rota d’Imagna, a village in Lombardy about 25km (16 miles) northwest of Bergamo.  His extensive work in St Petersburg between 1782 and 1816, which followed an invitation from the Empress Catherine II (Catherine the Great), included the Hermitage Theatre, one of the first buildings in Russia in the Palladian style, the Bourse and the State Bank, St. George’s Hall in the Winter Palace, several bridges on the Neva river, and a number of academic buildings including the Academy of Sciences, on the University Embankment.  He was also responsible for the reconstruction of some buildings around Red Square in Moscow in neo-Palladian style.  Quarenghi’s simple yet imposing neoclassical buildings, which often featured an elegant central portico with pillars and pediment, are responsible for much of St Petersburg’s stately elegance.  As a young man, Quarenghi was allowed to study painting in Bergamo despite his parents’ hopes that he would follow for a career in law or the church.   Read more…

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Maurizio Cattelan - conceptual artist

Controversial work softened by irreverent humour

The conceptual artist Maurizio Cattelan, known for the dark humour and irreverence of much of his work, was born on this day in 1960 in Padua.  Cattelan, probably best known for his controversial waxwork sculptures of Pope John Paul II and Adolf Hitler, has been described at different times as a satirist, a prankster, a subversive and a poet, although it seems to have been his aim to defy any attempt at categorisation.  His works are often interpreted as critiques of the art world and of society in general and while death and mortality are recurring themes there is more willingness among modern audiences to see how even tragic circumstances can give rise to comedic absurdities.  Although some of his work has provoked outrage, more viewers have been enthralled than angered by what he has presented, and some of his creations have changed hands for millions of dollars.  Cattelan has said that his memories of growing up in Padua are of economic hardship, punishments at school and a series of unfulfilling menial jobs.  His artistic skills were entirely self-taught. He was designing and making wooden furniture in Forlì, in Emilia-Romagna, when he began his first experiments with sculpture and conceptual art.  Read more…


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20 September 2021

20 September

Sophia Loren – actress

Glamorous star one of just three Italian Oscar winners

The actress Sophia Loren, who came to be regarded as one of the world’s most beautiful women and is the most famous name in Italian cinema history, was born on this day in 1934 in Rome.  In a career spanning more than 60 years, Loren appeared in almost 90 films made for the big screen and several others for television.  Although she was often picked for her looks and box-office appeal, she proved her acting talent by winning an Oscar for her role in Vittorio De Sica’s gritty 1960 drama Two Women, released in Italy as La Ciociara.  In doing so she became one of only three Italians to win the Academy Award for Best Actor or Actress and the first of either sex to win the award for an Italian-language film. She followed Anna Magnani, who had won in 1955 for The Rose Tattoo, as the second Italian Oscar winner.  Loren stayed away from the awards ceremony in 1961 on the grounds that the suspense of waiting to learn whether she had won was something she would rather suffer in private but she was there in person to accept an honorary Oscar in 1991, recognising her career achievements.  She also attended the 1993 Oscars to present an honorary award to the director Federico Fellini.  Read more… 

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Capture of Rome

Troops enter the capital in final act of unification

Crack infantry soldiers from Piedmont entered Rome and completed the unification of Italy on this day in 1870.  Rome had remained under French control even after the first Italian parliament had proclaimed Victor Emmanuel of Savoy the King of Italy in 1861.  The Italian parliament had declared Rome the capital of the new Kingdom of Italy even though it had not yet taken control of the city.  A French garrison had remained in Rome on the orders of Napoleon III of France in support of Pope Pius IX.  But after the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war, Napoleon III had to withdraw many of his troops. Italian soldiers from the Bersaglieri regiments in Piedmont led by General Raffaele Cadorna seized their chance and after a brief bombardment were able to enter Rome through a breach in the Aurelian Walls near Porta Pia.  King Victor Emmanuel II was then able to take up residence in the Quirinale Palace and Italy was declared officially united.  The date of 20 September, which marked the end of the Risorgimento, the long process of Italian unification, is commemorated in practically every town in Italy with a street named Via XX Settembre.  Read more…

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Election of Pope Clement VII

Appointment that sparked split in Catholic Church

The election of Robert of Geneva as Pope Clement VII by a group of disaffected French cardinals, prompting the split in the Roman Catholic Church that became known as the Western Schism or the Great Schism, took place on this day in 1378.  The extraordinary division in the hierarchy of the church, which saw two and ultimately three rival popes each claiming to be the rightful leader, each with his own court and following, was not resolved until 1417.  It was prompted by the election in Rome of Urban VI as the successor to Gregory XI, who had returned the papal court to Rome from Avignon, where it had been based for almost 70 years after an earlier dispute.  The election of Cardinal Bartolomeo Prignano as Urban VI followed rioting by angry Roman citizens demanding a Roman be made pope. Prignano, the former Archbishop of Bari was not a Roman - he was born in Itri, near Formia in southern Lazio - but was seen as the closest to it among those seen as suitable candidates.  His appointment was not well received, however, by some of the powerful French cardinals who had moved from Avignon to Rome, who claimed the election should be declared invalid because it was made under fear of civil unrest.  Read more…


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19 September 2021

19 September

Mariangela Melato - actress

Versatile star excelled on stage and screen

Mariangela Melato, who won acclaim for her work with the brilliant and sometimes controversial director Lina Wertmüller, played a camp villain in the comic book send-up Flash Gordon, and later excelled as a classical stage actress, was born on this day in 1941 in Milan.  She enjoyed her peak years on screen in the 1970s, most notably in Wertmuller’s The Seduction of Mimi, Love and Anarchy and Swept Away.  From the mid-80s onwards, Melato was based at the Teatro Stabile in Genoa, where she played many of the great classical parts in works by authors such as Pirandello, Euripides and Shakespeare.  She made her mark in television, notably winning praise for her portrayal of Mrs Danvers in an Italian adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca in 2008.  Melato’s father emigrated to Italy from Nazi Germany, changed his name from Honing to Melato and became a traffic policeman in Trieste. He moved to Milan and met his future wife, who worked as a seamstress.  Their daughter showed a talent for art and enrolled at the Brera Academy in Milan but was interested in acting and as a teenager employed her artistic talents working as a window dresser at the Milan department store La Rinascente, which helped pay for acting lessons.  Read more…

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Umberto Bossi - politician

Fiery leader of separatist Lega Nord

Controversial politician Umberto Bossi was born on this day in 1941 in the town of Cassano Magnago in Lombardy.  Until 2012, Bossi was leader of Lega Nord (Northern League), a political party whose goal was to achieve autonomy for northern Italy and establish a new independent state, to be called Padania.  With his distinctive, gravelly voice and penchant for fiery, sometimes provocative rhetoric, Bossi won a place in the Senate in 1987 representing his original party, Lega Lombarda. He was dismissed as an eccentric by some in the political mainstream but under his charismatic leadership Lega Nord became a force almost overnight.  Launched as Alleanza Nord in 1989, bringing together a number of regional parties including Bossi’s own Lega Lombarda, it was renamed Lega Nord in 1991 and fought the 1992 general election with stunning results.  With an impressive 8.7% of the vote, Lega Nord went into the new parliament with 56 deputies and 26 senators, making it the fourth largest party in Italy.  By 1996 that share had risen to 10% and Bossi had become a major figure in Italian politics.  Read more…

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Italo Calvino – writer

One of 20th century Italy's most important authors

Novelist and journalist Italo Calvino died on this day in 1985 in Siena in Tuscany.  Calvino was regarded as one of the most important Italian writers of fiction of the 20th century.  His best known works are the Our Ancestors trilogy, written in the 1950s, the Cosmicomics collection of short stories, published in 1965, and the novels, Invisible Cities, published in 1972 and If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller, published in 1979.  Both of Calvino’s parents were Italian, but he was born in Santiago de Las Vegas, a suburb of Havana in Cuba, in 1923, where his father, Mario, an agronomist and botanist, was conducting scientific experiments. Calvino’s mother, Eva, was also a botanist and a university professor. It is believed she gave Calvino the first name of Italo to remind him of his heritage.  Calvino and his parents left Cuba for Italy in 1925 and settled permanently in Sanremo in Liguria, where his father’s family had an ancestral home at San Giovanni Battista.  His family held the science subjects in greater esteem than the arts and Calvino, a prolific reader of stories as a child, is said to have ‘reluctantly’ studied agriculture.  Read more…

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Festival of San Gennaro

Worldwide celebrations for patron saint of Naples

Local worshippers, civic dignitaries and visitors meet together in the Duomo in Naples every year on this day to remember the martyrdom of the patron saint of the city, San Gennaro.  Each year a service is held to enable the congregation to witness the dried blood of the saint, which is kept in a glass phial, miraculously turn to liquid.  The practice of gathering blood to be kept as a relic was common at the time of the decapitation of San Gennaro in 305.  The ritual of praying for the miracle of liquefaction of the blood on the anniversary of his death dates back to the 13th century.  Gennaro is said to have been the Bishop of Benevento and was martyred during the Great Persecution led by the Roman Emperor Diocletian for trying to protect other Christians.  His decapitation is believed to have taken place in Pozzuoli but his remains were transferred to Naples in the 15th century to be housed in the Duomo. The festival of the saint’s martyrdom is celebrated each year by Neapolitan communities all over the world and the recurrence of the miracle in Naples is televised and reported in newspapers.  On 19 September in 1926, immigrants from Naples congregated along Mulberry Street in the Little Italy section of Manhattan in New York City to celebrate the Festa di San Gennaro there for the first time.  Read more…

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Giuseppe Saragat – fifth President of Italy

Socialist politician opposed Fascism and Communism

Giuseppe Saragat, who was President of the Italian Republic from 1964 to 1971, was born on this day in 1898 in Turin.  As a Socialist politician, he was exiled from Italy by the Fascists in 1926.  When he returned to Italy in 1943 to join the partisans, he was arrested and imprisoned by the Nazi forces occupying Rome, but he managed to escape and resume clandestine activity within the Italian Socialist Party.  Saragat was born to Sardinian parents living in Turin and he graduated from the University of Turin in economics and commerce. He joined the Socialist party in 1922.  During his years in exile he did various jobs in Austria and France.  After returning to Italy, he was minister without portfolio in the first post-liberation cabinet of Ivanoe Bonomi in 1944.  He was sent as ambassador to Paris between 1945 and 1946 and was then elected president of the Constitutional Assembly that drafted postwar Italy’s new constitution.  At the Socialist Party Congress in 1947, Saragat opposed the idea of unity with the Communist Party and led those who walked out to form the Socialist Party of Italian Workers (PSLI).  Read more…


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Mariangela Melato - actress

Versatile star excelled on stage and screen

Mariangela Melato was admired and respected for her screen and stage work
Mariangela Melato was admired and
respected for her screen and stage work
Mariangela Melato, who won acclaim for her work with the brilliant and sometimes controversial director Lina Wertmüller, played a camp villain in the comic book send-up Flash Gordon, and later excelled as a classical stage actress, was born on this day in 1941 in Milan.

She enjoyed her peak years on screen in the 1970s, most notably in Wertmuller’s The Seduction of Mimi, Love and Anarchy and Swept Away.

From the mid-80s onwards, Melato was based at the Teatro Stabile in Genoa, where she played many of the great classical parts in works by authors such as Pirandello, Euripides and Shakespeare. 

She made her mark in television, notably winning praise for her portrayal of Mrs Danvers in an Italian adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca in 2008. 

Melato’s father emigrated to Italy from Nazi Germany, changed his name from Honing to Melato and became a traffic policeman in Trieste. He moved to Milan and met his future wife, who worked as a seamstress. 

Their daughter showed a talent for art and enrolled at the Brera Academy in Milan but was interested in acting and as a teenager employed her artistic talents working as a window dresser at the Milan department store La Rinascente, which helped pay for acting lessons.

After making her stage debut in 1960, she became part of a touring company directed by the comedian and playwright Dario Fo. She appeared in productions by Luchino Visconti and a celebrated performance of Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso, directed by Luca Ronconi, at the Spoleto Festival.

Melato with Giancarlo Giannini in Wertmüller's Swept Away, regarded as among her finest work
Melato with Giancarlo Giannini in Wertmüller's
Swept Away, regarded as among her finest work
Her film debut came in 1969 in Pupi Avati's horror fantasy, Thomas e gli indemoniati - Thomas and the Possessed.  Her acting talent soon became recognised and she was soon working for some of Italy’s leading directors, including Nino Manfredi, Vittorio De Sica, Luigi Comencini and Elio Petri, who had her starring opposite the brilliant Gian Maria Volonté in La classe operaia va in paradiso - The Working Class Goes to Heaven - which tied with another Italian film, The Mattei Affair, for the Grand Prix International at the 1972 Canne Film Festival.

The performances regarded as the most memorable of her film career came while she was working with Wertmüller, who met her for the first time while she was doing stage work with Ronconi.  Wertmüller, a director prepared to explore areas of human behaviour considered off limits by some, recognised Melato's natural comic potential and chose her to play opposite Giancarlo Giannini in The Seduction of Mimi (1972), in which Giannini played a man on the run from the Mafia and Melato the communist with whom he has an affair.

Wertmüller paired them again in Love and Anarchy, in which Giannini was a country bumpkin who travels to Rome with a plan to assassinate Mussolini and discovers that his cousin Salomé, played by Melato, works in a brothel.

Melato with Renzo Arbore, her long-term partner
Melato with Renzo Arbore,
her long-term partner
Their collaboration is remembered most, however, for Swept Away (1974), which featured a bravura performance from Melato as a neurotic Italian noblewoman, a jet-set snob, who takes a yachting holiday and ends up marooned on an island with one of the boat’s crew, a communist, played by Giannini.  Despite the differences in their politics and social backgrounds, which initially leads to furious rows, they eventually have an affair, but one which lasts only until they are rescued and return to their previous lives.

Her success in Europe led Melato to be invited to America, where she played the villainess General Kala in Flash Gordon (1980), and co-starred with Ryan O'Neal in the comedy, So Fine (1981).  

However, her quirky style and appearance did not match American perceptions of European glamour and she did not enjoy enough success to persuade her to stay.

Back in Italy, she worked with Wertmüller again on Summer Nights (1986) but her focus increasingly switched to a stage career and latterly television.

Although she never married, she had a long relationship with the actor, singer and TV host Renzo Arbore.

Melato died in 2013 at the age of 71 in Rome, following a long battle with pancreatic cancer.  Her funeral at the church of Santa Maria di Montesanto in Piazza del Popolo attracted a large gathering of colleagues and fans.

Milan's La Rinascente department store is in Piazza Duomo, opposite the cathedral itself
Milan's La Rinascente department store is in
Piazza Duomo, opposite the cathedral itself
Travel tip:

La Rinascente in Milan, where Mariangela Melato worked to fund her acting lessons, is right in the centre of the city in Piazza Duomo, close to the entrance to the Duomo metro stop. The store, which sells house wares as well as clothes and cosmetics, was nominated the Best Department Store in the World at a Global Department Store Summit in 2016.  The company, who evolved from a shop opened in Milan in 1865 by Luigi and Ferdinando Bocconi, acquired its name when it changed hands in 1917 and the new owners commissioned to poet, Gabriele D’Annunzio, to come up with a name and he suggested La Rinascente, meaning new birth.

Rome's 'twin churches' - Santa Maria in Montesanto (left) and Santa Maria dei Miracoli
Rome's 'twin churches' - Santa Maria in
Montesanto (left) and Santa Maria dei Miracoli
Travel tip:

The church of Santa Maria in Montesanto stands in Piazza del Popolo, between Via del Corso and Via del Babuino. It is also known as the Church of the Artists and is regarded as the twin church of Santa Maria dei Miracoli, which stands between Via del Corso and Via di Ripetta, facing the piazza, which sits just inside the northern gate of the ancient city, the Porta Flaminia. The church was built in 1662, on the initiative of Pope Alexander VII. The original design was the work of Carlo Rainaldi and there was later input from Gian Lorenzo Bernini and Carlo Fontana.  It is known as the Church of the Artists because, since 1953, Sunday mass has been celebrated there by representatives of the world of culture and art. 

Also on this day:

1898: The birth of Giuseppe Saragat, fifth President of Italy

1941: The birth of fiery politician Umberto Bossi

1985: The death of writer Italo Calvino

The Festival of San Gennaro


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