23 October 2021

23 October

NEW
- Carlo Caracciolo - newspaper publisher

Left-leaning aristocrat who co-founded L’Espresso and La Repubblica 

The newspaper publisher Carlo Caracciolo, who was the driving force behind the news magazine L’Espresso and the centre-left daily La Repubblica, was born on this day in 1925 in Florence.  Caracciolo aligned himself politically with the Left and spent the last two years of World War Two fighting against the Fascists as a member of a partisan unit he joined at the age of 18.  Yet he was born into Italian aristocracy, inheriting the titles Prince of Castagneto and Duke of Melito with the death of his father in 1965. After his younger sister, Marella, married the Fiat chairman, Gianni Agnelli, in 1953, he became one of the best connected individuals in Italian society. His funeral in 2008 was attended by members of five of Italy’s most powerful dynasties: Agnelli, Caracciolo, Borghese, Visconti and Pasolini.  Tall and handsome, effortlessly elegant in his dress sense and instinctively well-mannered, he could not disguise his refined roots but never flaunted them. He was at his most comfortable in the company of left-wing intellectuals and insisted he be known only as Carlo.  At the same time, however, he was a formidable businessman.  Read more…

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Francesco Foscari – Doge of Venice

Ignominious ending to a long and glorious reign

After 34 years as Doge of Venice, Francesco Foscari was abruptly forced to leave office on this day in 1457.  Stripped of his honours, he insisted on descending the same staircase from the Doge’s Palace that he had climbed up in triumph more than a third of a century before, rather than leave through a rear entrance.  Eight days later the former Doge was dead. The story behind the downfall of Foscari and his son, Jacopo, fascinated the poet Lord Byron so much during his visit to Venice in 1816 that he later wrote a five-act play about it.  This play, The Two Foscari: An Historical Tragedy, formed the basis of Verdi’s opera, I Due Foscari, and ensured that the sad story of the father and son was never forgotten.  Francesco Foscari, who was born in 1373, was the 65th Doge of the Republic of Venice. He had previously served the Republic in many roles, including as a member of the Council of Forty and the Council of Ten, Venice’s ruling bodies, and as Procurator of St Mark’s. He was elected Doge in 1423, after defeating the other candidate, Pietro Loredan.  As Doge he led Venice in a long series of wars against Milan.  Read more…

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Alex Zanardi - racing driver and Paralympian

Crash victim who refused to be beaten

Alessandro 'Alex’ Zanardi, a title-winning racing driver who lost both legs in an horrific crash but then reinvented himself as a champion Paralympic athlete, was born on this day in 1966 in the small town of Castel Maggiore, just outside Bologna.  Zanardi was twice winner of the CART series - the forerunner of IndyCar championship of which the marquee event is the Indianapolis 500 - and also had five seasons in Formula One.  But in September 2001, after returning to CART following the loss of his contract with the Williams F1 team, Zanardi was competing in the American Memorial race at the EuroSpeedway Lausitz track in Germany when he lost control of his car emerging from a pit stop and was struck side-on by the car of the Canadian driver Alex Tagliani.  The nose of Zanardi’s car was completely severed as Tagliani's car slammed into Zanardi's cockpit, just behind the front wheel, and the Italian driver suffered catastrophic injuries. Rapid medical intervention saved his life after he lost almost 75 per cent of his blood volume but both legs had to be amputated, one at the thigh and the other at the knee.  Read more…

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Saint John of Capistrano

Patron saint of lawyers and chaplains

The feast day of Saint John of Capistrano (San Giovanni da Capestrano) is being celebrated today in Abruzzo and is marked by Catholics in the rest of Italy and the world.  The patron saint of the legal profession and military chaplains, St John is particularly venerated in Austria, Hungary, Poland and Croatia as well as in different parts of America.  St John was born in Capestrano, about halfway between L’Aquila and Pescara in the Abruzzo region of Italy, in 1386.  He studied law at the University of Perugia and was then appointed Governor of Perugia by King Ladislaus of Naples.  When war broke out between Perugia and the Malatesta family in 1416, John was sent to broker peace, but ended up in prison.  While in captivity he decided not to consummate his recent marriage but to study theology instead.  He entered the Order of Friars Minor at Perugia in 1416 and a few years later began preaching all over Italy as a Franciscan friar.  He was particularly effective in Germany, Austria, Croatia and Poland and, because the churches were not big enough for his audiences, he had to preach in public squares.  Read more…


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Carlo Caracciolo - newspaper publisher

Left-leaning aristocrat who co-founded L’Espresso and La Repubblica 

Carlo Caracciolo set up La Repubblica in 1976
Carlo Caracciolo set up
La Repubblica in 1976
The newspaper publisher Carlo Caracciolo, who was the driving force behind the news magazine L’Espresso and the centre-left daily La Repubblica, was born on this day in 1925 in Florence.

Caracciolo aligned himself politically with the Left and spent the last two years of World War Two fighting against the Fascists as a member of a partisan unit he joined at the age of 18.

Yet he was born into Italian aristocracy, inheriting the titles Prince of Castagneto and Duke of Melito with the death of his father in 1965. After his younger sister, Marella, married the Fiat chairman, Gianni Agnelli, in 1953, he became one of the best connected individuals in Italian society. His funeral in 2008 was attended by members of five of Italy’s most powerful dynasties: Agnelli, Caracciolo, Borghese, Visconti and Pasolini.

Tall and handsome, effortlessly elegant in his dress sense and instinctively well-mannered, he could not disguise his refined roots but never flaunted them. He was at his most comfortable in the company of left-wing intellectuals and insisted he be known only as Carlo.

At the same time, however, he was a formidable businessman, pursuing his ideals of an independent free press but at the same time rebuilding his family’s fortune, which had suffered after the stock market crash of 1929 when his American mother, heir to a distilling company in Illinois, lost much of her inheritance. He was said to be the only man Gianni Agnelli, whose wealth and influence made him the most powerful person in Italy, genuinely regarded as an equal.

Caracciolo was fortunate to survive his experience of fighting with the partisans, which saw him arrested and sentenced to death. In an early indication of his talent for negotiating, however, he secured his escape from prison by striking a deal with his jailer, promising that when the Axis alliance fell to the Allies he would use his influence to return the favour.

Caracciolo (right) pictured with Eugenio Scalfari,  who helped him make L'Espresso his first success
Caracciolo (right) pictured with Eugenio Scalfari, 
who helped him make L'Espresso his first success
After the conflict ended, Caracciolo was sent to study law first in Rome and then at Harvard. It was there he met and became friends with Giorgio Agnelli, Gianni’s brother. Caraciollo remained in America for a while, working for a leading New York law firm.

He moved to Milan in 1951, where he worked at a trade publication for the packaging industry.  His business contacts soon included Adriano Olivetti, who inherited the Olivetti typewriter company from his father, Camillo, but had a progressive view of entrepreneurialism, believing that profits generated should be reinvested for the benefit of wider society.

Caracciolo likewise was a man of progressive ideas and wanted to challenge Italy’s tradition of clientelism, where so much depended on patronage, connections and favours, and which made it difficult for there to be a truly free press. He saw in Olivetti the perfect partner for his ambition to set up a genuinely independent news magazine. Together, they created the Nuove Edizioni Romane publishing company, enlisted two of Italy’s most respected journalists, Arrigo Benedetti and Eugenio Scalfari, and launched L’Espresso.

From the start, L'Espresso championed aggressive investigative journalism, seeking out the corruption and clientelism on which Caracciolo felt the Christian Democrats relied to maintain their grip on Italian politics. This had repercussions for Olivetti, who lost some major contracts as a result. Olivetti ultimately had to withdraw and handed Caracciolo his majority shareholding for a token amount.

Scalfari and Caracciolo (centre) at the launch of La Repubblica in Rome in 1976
Scalfari and Caracciolo (centre) at the launch
of La Repubblica in Rome in 1976
At that point, the magazine was losing money but, with the help of Scalfari in particular, Caracciolo transformed L’Espresso, redesigning it along the lines of Time magazine and altering Italian attitudes to the purpose and potential of a free press.

The magazine’s success gave them the platform to pursue their dream of publishing an independent daily. Seeking an investor, Caracciolo homed in on Giorgio Mondadori, who was looking for a new venture after a somewhat acrimonious split with the publishing house set up by his father, Arnoldo Mondadori, and saw their project as the right fit.

Thus, La Repubblica was launched on 14 January, 1976. Based in Rome, it was to be the first Italian daily to position itself on the centre-left, playing an important role in shifting Marxist activism in Italy towards contemporary social democracy.  Caracciolo was astute enough to see the value of arts coverage in building a strong circulation, particularly among younger readers.  He also correctly judged that adopting the Berliner format, the compact size that is slightly bigger than a tabloid but shorter and narrower than a broadsheet, would appeal to readers buying a newspaper to read on the go.

As a newspaper that was neither the voice piece of a political party nor owned by an industrial tycoon, La Repubblica was able to forge an independent path that also enabled it to recruit some of the best journalists in the country, giving them a chance to report the news without fear or favour.

Caracciolo's sister, Marella, who married Gianni Agnelli
Caracciolo's sister, Marella,
who married Gianni Agnelli
Caracciolo took his publishing activities to the Italian stock exchange in 1984 and four years later, with a circulation of 730,000 that made La Repubblica the most read newspaper in Italy, he sold his holdings in Editoriale L'Espresso to Mondadori. 

Much to his dismay, parts of the company subsequently ended up in the hands of Silvio Berlusconi, the entrepreneur whose politics were diametrically opposed to his own, but it was another Berlusconi opponent, Carlo De Benedetti, who took control of L’Espresso and La Repubblica.

With the money he made from the venture - his fortune was estimated at around $200 million (€172m; £145m) - Caracciolo acquired two country estates, one in Tuscany and the other - Torrecchia Vecchia - south of Rome, where he had a 17th-century barn converted into a villa by the architect Gae Aulenti and employed the English gardener and TV presenter Dan Pearson to design gardens that became his favourite part of the estate. He also owned an elegant apartment in the Trastevere district of central Rome. 

Caracciolo died in 2008, having survived his wife of 12 years, Violante Visconti di Modrone, a niece of the stage and film director Luchino Visconti, by eight years. He is survived by three children, Carlo, Margherita and Jacaranda.

The house on the Torrecchia Vecchia estate where Caracciolo spent much of his time when not in Rome
The house on the Torrecchia Vecchia estate where
Caracciolo spent much of his time when not in Rome
Travel tip:

Torrecchia Vecchia, one of two estates owned by Caracciolo, covers over 1500 acres just outside the town of Cisterna di Latina, some 55km (34 miles) south of Rome. Recognised as a Natural Monument in 2007, it may be visited by permission. Containing over 625 acres of woodland, the estate originally contained a medieval hilltop village and ruined castle, which was abandoned some 800 years ago.  Cisterna di Latina is acknowledged to have grown on the site of the village of Tres Tabernae, which was mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles as one of the towns where Saint Paul stopped on his way to Rome.

The Basilica of Santa Maria is one of Rome's oldest churches
The Basilica of Santa Maria is
one of Rome's oldest churches
Travel tip:

Although formerly a working class neighbourhood alongside the Tiber, the Trastevere district, where Caracciolo kept an apartment for when he was working in Rome, is regarded as one of the city's most charming areas for tourists to visit. Full of winding, cobbled streets and well preserved medieval houses, it is fashionable with Rome's young professional class as a place to live, with an abundance of restaurants and bars and a lively student music scene. It is also home to one of the oldest churches in Rome in the Basilica of Santa Maria, with a wall structure and floor plan dating back to the fourth century, although most of it was built in the first half of the 12th century. Inside, the walls and ceiling are covered with breathtakingly beautiful 13th century mosaics, by Pietro Cavallini.

Also on this day:

1457: The forced abdication of Francesco Foscari after 34 years as Doge of Venice

1966: The birth of racing driver and Paralympian Alex Zanardi

The Feast of Saint John of Capistrano


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22 October 2021

22 October

Giovanni Martinelli – tenor

Singer made his fame abroad

One of the most famous tenors of the early 20th century, Giovanni Martinelli, was born on this day in 1885 in Montagnana in the province of Padua in the Veneto.  Martinelli began his career playing the clarinet in a military band and then studied as a singer with Giuseppe Mandolini in Milan. He made his professional debut at the Teatro del Verme in Milan in the title role of Giuseppe Verdi's Ernani in 1910.  Martinelli became famous for singing the role of Dick Johnson in Giacomo Puccini's La Fanciulla del West, which he performed in Rome, Brescia, Naples, Genoa, Monte Carlo and also at La Scala in Milan.  He played Cavaradossi in Puccini's Tosca at the Royal Opera House in London and took on the same role for his first American engagement in 1913. That same year Martinelli portrayed Pantagruel in the world premiere of Jules Massenet’s Panurge in Paris.  He attracted favourable reviews when he played Rodolfo in Puccini's La bohème at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. He went on to sing 36 different roles for the theatre over 32 seasons.  In 1937 Martinelli returned to London to sing opposite the English soprano Eva Turner at Covent Garden.  Read more…

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Valeria Golino - actress

Neapolitan starred with Hoffman and Cruise in Rain Man

The actress Valeria Golino, who found international fame when she played opposite Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise in the hugely successful movie Rain Man, was born on this day in 1965 in Naples.  Golino was cast as the girlfriend of Tom Cruise’s character, Charlie Babbitt, in Barry Levinson’s comedy, in which Babbitt’s estranged father dies and leaves most of his multi-million dollar estate to another son, an autistic savant named Raymond (Dustin Hoffman) whose existence Charlie knew nothing about. The 1988 movie won four Oscars and grossed more than $350 dollars. Although Golino was not nominated for her performance in Rain Man, she has won a string of other awards over a career so far spanning almost 35 years.  She is one of only three stars to win Best Actress at the Venice Film Festival on two occasions, for the 1986 drama Storia d’amore (“A Tale of Love”), directed by Francesco Maselli, and for Giuseppe M Gaudino’s 2015 drama Per amor vostro (“For Your Love”).  Golino was close to being selected to star opposite Richard Gere in another massive US hit, Pretty Woman, making it to the final audition stage for the 1990 romantic comedy. Read more…

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Soave - an Italian classic wine

How the dry white from the Veneto earned its DOC status

Soave - at one time the world's most popular Italian wine - was officially granted a DOC classification on this day in 1968.  The DOC status - which stands for Denominazione di Origine Controllata - was introduced midway through the last century as part of a series of laws designed to safeguard the quality and authenticity of Italian wines.  Winegrowers had been pushing for such regulation because the increasing popularity of Italian wines around the world was impacting on quality as more and more producers sprang up to meet demand.  Soave was a case in point.  Originally limited to a small area of just 2,720 acres (1,100 hectares) in the hills to the north of the small towns of Soave and Monteforte d'Alpone, roughly 25km (16 miles) east of Verona in the Veneto region, production spread rapidly to an area more than six times as large.  The biggest demand was from the United States, which developed a taste for Italian wines in the boom years that followed the end of the Second World War.  Of the huge volume of imported bottles that arrived on ships from Europe, Soave was the most popular.  Read more…

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Salvatore Di Vittorio – composer and conductor  

Musician has promoted his native Palermo throughout the world

Salvatore Di Vittorio, founding music director and conductor of the Chamber Orchestra of New York, was born on this day in 1967 in Palermo in Sicily.  Also a composer, Di Vittorio has written music in the style of the early 20th century Italian composer, Ottorino Respighi, who, in turn, based his compositions on the music he admired from the 16th and 17th centuries.  Di Vittorio has been recognised by music critics as respectful of the ancient Italian musical tradition and also as an emerging, leading interpreter of the music of Ottorino Respighi.  He began studying music when he was a child with his father, Giuseppe, who introduced him to the operas of Verdi and Puccini. He went on to study composition at the Manhattan School of Music and Philosophy at Columbia University.  He has since worked with orchestras all over the world and composed music for them to perform and has also taught music in New York.  In 2007, Di Vittorio was invited by Elsa and Gloria Pizzoli, Respighi’s great nieces, to edit and complete several of the composer’s early works, including his first Violin Concerto, composed in 1903.  Read more…


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21 October 2021

21 October

Giuseppe Pinelli - anarchist

His 'accidental death' inspired classic Dario Fo play

Giuseppe 'Pino' Pinelli, the railway worker from Milan who inspired Dario Fo to write his classic play, Accidental Death of an Anarchist, was born on this day in 1928.  Pinelli fell to his death from a fourth floor window of the Milan Questura - the main police station - on December 15, 1969, three days after a bomb exploded at a bank in Piazza Fontana in Milan, killing 17 people and wounding 88.  A known anarchist during a period of growing political and social tension in Italy, Pinelli had been picked up for questioning, along with a number of other activists, over the Piazza Fontana bomb.  The story put out first by police was that Pinelli had jumped, willing to take his own life rather than face prosecution. Yet three police officers who had been interrogating Pinelli were put under investigation.  No action was taken against them and later a judge ruled that Pinelli's death had been accidental. This time the suggestion was that he had fainted, lost his balance and fallen through the open window, which seemed to many to be somewhat far-fetched.  It did not convince his supporters and when one of his interrogators, Commissioner Luigi Calabresi, was shot dead on his way to work in May 1972, two left-wing activists were convicted of his murder. Read more…

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Domenichino - Baroque master

Artist whose talents rivalled Raphael

The painter Domenico Zampieri, in his era spoken of in the same breath as Raphael, was born on this day in 1581 in Bologna.  Better known as Domenichino (“Little Domenico”), the nickname he picked up early in his career on account of his small stature, he painted in classical and later Baroque styles in Rome, Bologna and Naples.  Noted for the subtle, almost serene lighting and understated colours of his compositions, he painted portraits, landscapes, religious and mythological scenes and had a prolific output. Among his most notable works were significant frescoes commissioned by Cardinal Alessandro Farnese for the Badia (monastery) at Grottaferrata, outside Rome, and for Cardinal Pietro Aldobrandini at the Villa Belvedere (also known as the Villa Aldobrandini) in nearby Frascati, as well as Scenes from the Life of Saint Cecilia at the church of San Luigi dei Francesi, not far from Piazza Navona, in Rome itself.  Domenichino’s paintings can be seen in art galleries in many countries, with the largest single collection held by the Louvre in Paris.  One of his most celebrated paintings, the depiction of St John the Evangelist that he worked on between 1621 and 1629, has been described as a “masterpiece epitomising the grandeur and nobility of Roman Baroque". Read more…

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Prince Amedeo, Duke of Aosta

Cousin of Italy's wartime monarch died in a POW camp

Prince Amedeo, Duke of Aosta, who died in a British prisoner-of-war camp after leading the defeated Italian Army in the East Africa Campaign of the Second World War, was born on this day in 1898 in Turin.  After distinguished military service in the First World War and seeing action as a pilot in the pacification of Italian Libya in the early 1930s, Amedeo had been appointed by Mussolini as Viceroy of Ethiopia and Governor-General of Italian East Africa in 1937, replacing the controversial Marshal Rodolfo Graziani.  Italy’s entry into the Second World War on the side of Germany in June 1940 meant the Duke of Aosta became the commander of the Italian forces against the British in what became known as the East African Campaign.  As such, he oversaw the Italian advances into the Sudan and Kenya and the Italian invasion of British Somaliland.  However, when the British launched a counter-invasion early the following year, the Italians were put on the defensive and after fighting desperately to protect their territory were beaten in the Battle of Keren. The rest of Eritrea, including the port of Massawa, fell soon afterwards.  Read more…


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20 October 2021

20 October

Dado Moroni - jazz musician

Self-taught pianist recorded first album at 17

The renowned jazz musician Edgardo ‘Dado’ Moroni was born on this day in 1962 in Genoa.  Moroni, who learned at the feet of some of the greats of American jazz music in Italian clubs in the 1980s and 90s, has recorded more than 25 albums, having released his first when he was only 17.  He has appeared as a guest on many more albums and built such a reputation as a pianist and composer that he was able to become part of the American jazz scene himself in the 1990s, when he lived in New York.  Moroni attributes his love of jazz music to his father’s passion for the genre, which meant that he grew up listening to the likes of Earl Hines, Fats Waller and Count Basie.  Using a piano his parents had bought for his sister, Monica, he taught himself to play many of the songs he heard on the record player, receiving his first informal tuition from his mother, who played the accordion.  Formal piano lessons were arranged for him with the Genoa jazz pianist Flavio Crivelli, who introduced him to the music of Charlie Parker, Bud Powell and Dizzy Gillespie and contemporary pianists like Bill Evans, Ahmad Jamal and Oscar Peterson.  Read more…

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Claudio Ranieri - football manager

Title-winning Leicester City boss 

Football manager Claudio Ranieri was born on this day in 1951 in Rome.  Ranieri, who won the English Premier League in 2016 with rank outsiders Leicester City, has managed 19 clubs in four countries in a 30-year career in coaching.  He also had a stint in charge of the Greece national team.  Among the teams he has coached are a host of big names - Internazionale, Juventus, Roma, Napoli and Fiorentina in Italy, Atletico Madrid and Valencia in Spain, Monaco in France and Chelsea in England.  He has won titles in lower divisions as well as Italy's Coppa Italia and the Copa del Rey in Spain but until Leicester defied pre-season odds of 5,000-1 to win the Premier League, a major league championship had eluded him.  He had finished second three times, with Chelsea, Roma and Monaco.  Before turning to coaching, Ranieri was a player for 14 seasons. He began in Serie A with home-town club Roma, but enjoyed more success in the lower divisions, enjoying promotion twice with the Calabrian club Catanzaro, where he spent the biggest part of his career, and once each with the Sicilian teams Catania and Palermo.  Read more…

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Jacopo della Quercia - sculptor

Innovative work said to have influenced Michelangelo

The sculptor Jacopo della Quercia, regarded as one of the most original artists in his field in the early 15th century and an influence on a number of leading figures in the Renaissance including Michelangelo, died on this day in 1438. Della Quercia’s most notable works include the Fonte Gaia in Piazza del Campo in Siena, the sculptures around the Porta Magna of the church of San Petronio in Bologna, the tomb of Ilaria del Carretto in Lucca Cathedral, and Zacharias in the Temple, a bronze relief for the baptismal font in the church of San Giovanni in Siena.  His attention to proportion and perspective gave his creations a particularly lifelike quality and his innovative work put him at the forefront of his generation.  Art historians consider that his work marked a transition in Italian art from Gothic to Renaissance style that was taken forward by Michelangelo and contemporaries such as Francesco di Giorgio and Niccolò dell’Arca.  Born, it is thought, in 1374, he was baptised as Jacopo di Pietro d’Agnolo di Guarnieri.  He took his working name from his home village, Quercia Grossa - now Quercegrossa - situated a few kilometres outside Siena.  Read more…

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Mara Venier - television presenter

Former actress became famous as face of Sunday afternoon

Mara Venier, a familiar face on Italian television for more than 35 years, was born on this day in 1950 in Venice.  The former actress, who made her big-screen debut in 1973, is best known for presenting the long-running Sunday afternoon variety show Domenica In, which has been a fixture on the public TV channel Rai Uno since 1976.  Venier, born Mara Povoleri, hosted the show for nine seasons in four stints between 1993 and 2014. Only Pippo Baudo, something of a legendary figure in Italian television, has presented more editions.  Fronting Domenica In, which was on air for an incredible six hours, was not only a test of stamina for the presenter but came with a huge sense of responsibility. In fact, holding the attention of the viewers was a patriotic duty, the show’s format having been conceived by the Italian government, faced with the global oil crisis in the 1970s, as something to tempt citizens to stay at home rather than use precious fuel for their cars.  Venier had been a movie actress, known largely to audiences in Italy, for two decades before she was invited to host Domenica InRead more…


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19 October 2021

19 October

Umberto Boccioni - painter

Artist who died tragically young was key figure in Futurism

The painter Umberto Boccioni, who became arguably the leading artist of Italian Futurism before the First World War, was born on this day in 1882 in Reggio Calabria.  Futurism was an avant-garde artistic, social and political movement that was launched by the poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti in 1909.  Its ethos was to embrace modernity and free Italy from what was perceived as a stifling obsession with the past. The Futurists admired the speed and technological advancement of cars and aeroplanes and the new industrial cities, all of which they saw as demonstrating the triumph of humanity over nature through invention. Their work attempted to capture the dynamism of life in a modern city, creating images that convey a sense of the power and energy of industrial machinery and the passion and violence of social change.  Boccioni became part of the movement after meeting Marinetti in Milan early in 1910, after which he joined Giacomo Balla, Gino Severini, Carlo Carrà and Luigi Russolo in signing Il manifesto dei pittori futuristi - the Manifesto of Futurist Painters.  In the same year, Boccioni completed one of his finest works, entitled La città che sale, which is translated as The City Rises and which many consider to be the first truly Futurist painting.  Read more…

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Carlo Urbani – microbiologist

Infectious disease expert who identified SARS

The doctor and microbiologist Carlo Urbani, whose decisive action after discovering the deadly SARS virus saved millions of lives, was born on this day in 1956 in Castelplanio, near Ancona.  Dr Urbani himself died after contracting the condition, which had been given the name severe acute respiratory syndrome.  He identified it in an American businessman who had been taken ill in Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam, with suspected influenza.  Recognising quickly that what he was dealing with was not a straightforward case of ‘flu, Urbani, who was working in Vietnam as an infectious diseases specialist for the World Health Organisation, immediately alerted WHO headquarters in Geneva.  He convinced them that what he had discovered posed a grave threat to life and thus sparked the most effective response to a major epidemic in the history of medicine.  At a local level, be persuaded the Vietnamese health authorities to introduce a raft of preventative measures, including large-scale screening and prompt, secure isolation of suspected victims, that slowed the spread of the disease.  It was as a result of Urbani’s actions that the epidemic was largely contained.  Read more…

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Fiorenzo Magni - cycling champion

Rider from Tuscany won Giro d'Italia three times

Italy lost one of its finest professional riders and its last link with the so-called golden age of Italian cycle racing when Fiorenzo Magni died on this day in 2012.  Tuscan-born Magni was a multiple champion, winning the Giro d'Italia three times, as well as three Italian Road Race Championships.  He had seven stage wins in the Tour de France, in which he wore the yellow jersey as race leader for a total of nine days.  His other major victories were in the demanding Tour of Flanders, in which he became only the second non-Belgian winner in 1949 and went on to win three times in a row, a feat yet to be matched.  Magni might have been even more successful had his career not coincided with those of two greats of Italian cycling, the five-times Giro champion Fausto Coppi, who was twice winner of the Tour de France, and Gino Bartali, who won three Giros and one Tour de France.  His reputation for toughness, however, was unrivalled.  He relished racing in harsh, wintry weather, as often prevailed in the Tour de Flanders, and refused to give in to injuries if he happened to have a fall.  The classic example of this came in the 1956 Giro d'Italia, his final ride in Italy's foremost event, when an accident left him with a broken left collarbone only halfway through the race. Read more…


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18 October 2021

18 October

NEW
- Theft of Caravaggio masterpiece

Fate of Nativity taken from Palermo church remains a mystery

One of the most notorious art crimes in history was discovered on this day in 1969 when a housekeeper at the Oratory of Saint Lawrence in Palermo arrived for work to find that the Nativity with St. Francis and St. Lawrence, painted by the Renaissance master Caravaggio in 1609, had been stolen. The painting sat above the altar in the Oratory, which is situated in Via Immacolata in the centre of the Sicilian capital, adjacent to the Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi, but when the housekeeper, Maria Gelfo, opened up with her sister on the morning of 18 October, they were confronted with an empty frame.  Worth an estimated £20 million (€23.73 million; $27.52 million), the painting has never been found, leaving half a century’s worth of theories about its fate to remain unproven.  Most of the theories link the theft to the Sicilian Mafia.  It is assumed that the painting was taken during the night of the 17-18 October, although the weather was reportedly awful, with a lightning storm raging for much of the night and Palermo suffering a deluge of rain, hardly ideal conditions for carrying a valuable work of art from a church to a waiting vehicle.  Read more...

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Cristoforo Benigno Crespi - entrepreneur

Textile boss created industrial village of Crespi d’Adda

The entrepreneur Cristoforo Benigno Crespi, who became famous for creating a company-owned village around his textile factory in Lombardy, was born on this day in 1833 in Busto Arsizio, about 34km (21 miles) northwest of Milan.  A textile manufacturer, in 1869 Crespi bought an area of land close to where the Brembo and Adda rivers converge, about 40km (25 miles) northeast of Milan, with the intention of building a cotton mill on the banks of the Adda.  The factory he built was substantial, with room for 10,000 spindles, but as well the capacity to produce textiles on a large scale, Crespi recognised that it was essential to his plans to have a contented workforce. Consequently, following the lead of other manufacturers in the textile industry outside Italy, he set about providing on site everything to meet the daily needs of his employees.  In addition to the factory premises, he built homes for his workers, a school, a wash-house, a hospital, a church and a grocery store.  Houses were built in English-style parallel rows, with gardens and vegetable plots, and the streets were the first in Italy to have modern electric lighting.  Read more…

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Ludovico Scarfiotti - racing driver

Last Italian to win ‘home’ Grand Prix

The racing driver Ludovico Scarfiotti, whose victory in the 1966 Italian Grand Prix at Monza is the last by an Italian, was born on this day in 1933 in Turin.  His success at Monza, where he came home first in a Ferrari one-two with the British driver Mike Parkes, was the first by a home driver for 14 years since Alberto Ascari won the last of his three Italian Grand Prix in 1952.  It was Scarfiotti’s sole victory - indeed, his only top-three finish - in 10 Formula One starts. His competitive career spanned 15 years, ending in tragic circumstances with a fatal crash in 1968, little more than a month after he had come home fourth in the Monaco Grand Prix in a Cooper-BRM.  Scarfiotti in some respects was born to race. His father, Luigi, a deputy in the Italian parliament who made his fortune from cement, had raced for Ferrari as an amateur.  His uncle was Gianni Agnelli, the powerful president of Fiat.  He first raced in 1953 and he won his class in the 1956 Mille Miglia. He joined Ferrari in 1960 and finished fourth on the Targa Florio. Although he subsequently drove for OSCA and Scuderia Serenissima, he returned to Ferrari in 1962.  Read more…

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Luca Giordano – artist

Talented Neapolitan was renowned for being a fast worker

Luca Giordano, the most celebrated and prolific Neapolitan painter of the late 17th century, was born on this day in 1634 in Naples.  His nicknames were Luca Fa Presto - "Luca work faster" - said to derive from the way his father, the copyist Antonio Giordano, used to admonish him, Fulmine (the Thunderbolt) because of his speed, and Proteus, because he was reputed to be able to imitate the style of almost any other artist.  Giordano’s output both in oils and in frescoes was enormous and he is said to have once painted a large altarpiece in just one day.  He was influenced at the start of his career by Jose de Ribera, who he was apprenticed to, and he also assimilated Caravaggio’s style of dramatic intensity.  But after Giordano had travelled to Rome, Florence and Venice, his style underwent a profound change. The influence of Pietro da Cortona’s frescoes in the Pitti Palace in Florence can be detected in Giordano’s huge ceiling fresco in the ballroom of the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi, which he completed in 1683, and he became noted for his showy use of colour.  He went to Spain in 1692 as court painter to Charles II and stayed there till 1702.  Read more…

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Luke the Evangelist

Scientists believe Saint is buried in Padua

The feast day of St Luke the Evangelist - la festa di San Luca - is celebrated in Padua and throughout Italy on this day every year.  Luke the Evangelist is believed to be one of the four authors of the Gospels in the New Testament. Both the Gospel according to St Luke and the book of Acts of the Apostles have been ascribed to him.  Luke is believed to have been a doctor who was also a disciple of St Paul. It has been claimed he was martyred by being hung from an olive tree, although other sources say he worked as a doctor until his death at the age of 84.  He is regarded as the patron saint of artists, physicians, surgeons, students and butchers and it is strongly believed that his body lies in the Basilica of Santa Giustina in Prato della Valle in Padua.  It is thought that Luke was a Greek physician who lived and worked in the city of Antioch in ancient Syria.  He is mentioned in some of St Paul’s Epistles and he is believed to have been with Paul in Rome near the end of his life.  After Luke’s death it is believed he was buried in Thebes but his remains were later transferred to Constantinople.  They are thought to have been bought by a Serb who later sold them on to the Venetian Republic.  Read more…


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Theft of Caravaggio masterpiece

Fate of Nativity taken from Palermo church remains a mystery

Caravaggio's painting Nativity with St Lawrence and St Francis
Caravaggio's painting Nativity with
St Lawrence and St Francis
One of the most notorious art crimes in history was discovered on this day in 1969 when a housekeeper at the Oratory of Saint Lawrence in Palermo arrived for work to find that the Nativity with St. Francis and St. Lawrence, painted by the Renaissance master Caravaggio in 1609, had been stolen.

The painting sat above the altar in the Oratory, which is situated in Via Immacolata in the centre of the Sicilian capital, adjacent to the Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi, but when the housekeeper, Maria Gelfo, opened up with her sister on the morning of 18 October, they were confronted with an empty frame.

Worth an estimated £20 million (€23.73 million; $27.52 million), the painting has never been found, leaving half a century’s worth of theories about its fate to remain unproven.  Most of the theories link the theft to the Sicilian Mafia.

It is assumed that the painting was taken during the night of the 17-18 October, although the weather was reportedly awful, with a lightning storm raging for much of the night and Palermo suffering a deluge of rain, hardly ideal conditions for carrying a valuable work of art from a church to a waiting vehicle.

The thieves broke into the Oratory and seemingly headed straight for the Caravaggio. The painting appeared to have been cut from its frame using a sharp blade. Maria Gelfo also told police that a rug was also missing, which led to speculation that the canvas was removed from the church rolled up inside the rug.

The empty frame above the altar,  pictured soon after the theft
The empty frame above the altar, 
pictured soon after the theft
Yet what happened to the painting is shrouded in mystery, not least because files containing statements made to police by key witnesses mysteriously disappeared, along with a report on the state of the premises ordered after Benedetto Rocco, the parish priest at the time of the theft, had raised concerns about security with the local state official for works of art, Vincenzo Scuderi.

Rocco had also raised concerns about Scuderi allowing RAI, the state broadcaster, to film a programme on hidden treasures inside the oratory - including Caravaggio’s painting - which was broadcast in August 1969. 

Gelfo, meanwhile, had expressed her worries about the security of a street-level window that could have been forced by an intruder, as well as reporting an unusually large number of strangers wanting to see the Caravaggio in the weeks leading up to its disappearance.

When the investigation into the crime was reopened in 2017 by the government’s anti-Mafia commission, following supposedly credible information supplied by Mafia pentiti Marino Mannoia and Gaetano Grado, the statements from Rocco and Gelfo had vanished.

Mannoia and Grado said that the painting was in Switzerland, albeit having been cut up, after Mafia boss Gaetano Badalamenti, who had made his money from trafficking heroin to the United States and had supposedly commissioned its theft, decided he no longer wanted it on his hands. The involvement of Badalamenti tallied with an interview given by Rocco in 2001 in which he claimed that Badalamenti was the perpetrator and had attempted to open a negotiation with the Catholic Church for its return, cutting off a small section of the canvas and sending it to Rocco to prove he had it.

Gaetano Badalamenti, a Mafia boss accused of ordering the theft
Gaetano Badalamenti, a Mafia
boss accused of ordering the theft
However, the police were unable to find the files relating to the crime, including Rocco’s statements. Rocco, Gelfo and Badalamenti are all now dead.

Mannoia had previously told the anti-Mafia magistrate Giovanni Falcone that the Mafia had commissioned the theft after agreeing a price with a buyer, but that when the buyer saw the painting, it was so badly damaged he called the deal off.  Experts have since said that, had the painting been rolled up to be smuggled out inside a rug, it is likely that large amounts of paint would have cracked and fallen off.

Other explanations of its fate are that the painting was eaten by pigs after being kept in a barn, that it was buried by another mafioso, Gerlando Alberti, after he had failed to sell it, and that it was transported to Campania to be sold to the Naples Camorra only to be buried under rubble during the 1980 earthquake.

Another theory, put forward by a Mafia expert in Palermo, is that the theft was actually carried out by highly-skilled professional art thieves working independently of the local Mafia and that the multiple claims of Cosa Nostra responsibility were false, issued somewhat in panic by local gang bosses embarrassed that a crime of such magnitude had taken place under their noses without their knowledge. 


Detail from Giacomo Serpotta's stucco work in the Oratory
Detail from Giacomo Serpotta's
stucco work in the Oratory
Travel tip:

The Oratory of Saint Lawrence was founded in around 1570 by the Company of Saint Francis of Assisi, a baroque church built over the remnants of an ancient church dedicated to Saint Lawrence (San Lorenzo). It is located in the La Kalsa or Tribunali district of Palermo near Corso Vittorio Emanuele, next door to the basilica of Saint Francis (San Francesco d'Assisi).  In addition to Caravaggio’s masterpiece, the setting of which, above the altar, is now occupied by a reproduction of the original, the Oratory is also notable for the brilliant stucco decorations by Giacomo Serpotta, born in the neighbourhood but considered by many to be one of Sicily’s greatest artists.

Palermo's beautiful cathedral, viewed across the its square in the Monte di Pietà district of the city
Palermo's beautiful cathedral, viewed across the
its square in the Monte di Pietà district of the city
Travel tip:

Although the Mafia have long cast an unwanted shadow over Palermo, thankfully most visitors know it as an attractive tourist destination, a vibrant city with a wealth of history, culture, art, music and food. It has many outstanding restaurants as well as fine examples of Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque churches, palaces and buildings.  Attractions include the extraordinary Cappella Palatina, featuring Byzantine mosaics decorated with gold leaf and precious stones, the Teatro Massimo, the largest opera house in Italy and the third biggest in Europe, and a beautiful cathedral that blends Norman, Moorish, Gothic, Baroque and Neoclassical styles.  Although the Sicilian Baroque style is strongly represented in the city’s architecture, the streets around Via Libertà and the seaside resort of Mondello, just outside the city, feature many examples of Stile Liberty, the Italian variant on Art Nouveau, in villas built for the well-to-do of Palermo in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Also on this day: 

1634: The birth of painter Luca Giordano

1833: The birth of entrepreneur Cristoforo Benigno Crespi

1933: The birth of racing driver Ludovico Scarfiotti

The Feast Day of St Luke the Evangelist


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17 October 2021

17 October

The end of the Venetian Republic

Peace treaty saw Venice given away to Austria

A peace settlement signed in a small town in north-east Italy on this day in 1797 heralded a dark day for Venice as the Most Serene Republic officially lost its independence after 1,100 years.  The Treaty of Campo Formio, drawn up after the Austrians had sought an armistice when faced with Napoleon Bonaparte's advance on Vienna, included an exchange of territory that saw Napoleon hand Venice to Austria.  It marked the end of the First Coalition of countries allied against the French, although it was a short-lived peace.  A Second Coalition was formed the following year.  The Venetian Republic, still a playground for the rich but in decline for several centuries in terms of real power, had proclaimed itself neutral during the Napoleonic Wars, wary that it could not afford to sustain any kind of conflict.  But Napoleon wanted to acquire the city nonetheless, seeing it as a potential bargaining chip in his empire-building plans and had his eye on its vast art treasures.  In May 1797 he provoked the Venetians into attacking a French ship and used this as an excuse to declare war.  The reaction of the Venetian Grand Council and the last of its Doges, Ludovico Manin, was to vote the Republic out of existence.  Read more…

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Bartolommeo Bandinelli - Renaissance sculptor

Career scarred by petty jealousies

The sculptor Bartolommeo Bandinelli, a contemporary and rival of Michelangelo and Benvenuto Cellini in Renaissance Italy, was born on this day in 1473 in Florence.  He left his mark on Florence in the shape of the monumental statue of Hercules and Cacus in the Piazza della Signoria and his statues of Adam and Eve, originally created for the Duomo but today housed in the Museo Nazionale del Bargello.  Also known as Baccio Bandinelli and Bartolommeo Brandini, he was skilled in small sculptures but became known and disliked for his antagonistic manner with other artists and his particular hatred of Michelangelo, of whom he was bitterly jealous.  Giorgio Vasari, the artist and sculptor who was the first to compile a written history of art and artists, and who was a student in Bandinelli’s workshop, recalled an occasion when Bandinelli was so enraged by the excitement that ensued when a Michelangelo drawing was uncovered in the Palazzo Vecchio that, as soon as an opportunity arose, he tore it up.  Where Michelangelo was revered for everything he did, Bandinelli’s critics said he lacked the skills required to tackle large sculptures.  Read more…

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Giovanni Matteo Mario - operatic tenor

Disgraced nobleman became the toast of London and Paris

The operatic tenor Giovanni Matteo Mario, a Sardinian nobleman who deserted from the army and began singing only to earn a living after fleeing to Paris, was born on this day in 1810 in Cagliari.  He was baptised Giovanni Matteo de Candia, born into an aristocratic family belonging to Savoyard-Sardinian nobility. Some of his relatives were members of the Royal Court of Turin. His father, Don Stefano de Candia of Alghero, held the rank of general in the Royal Sardinian Army and was aide-de-camp to the Savoy king Charles Felix of Sardinia.  He became Giovanni Mario or Mario de Candia only after he had begun his stage career at the age of 28. He was entitled to call himself Cavaliere (Knight), Nobile (Nobleman) and Don (Sir) in accordance with his inherited titles, yet on his first professional contract, he signed himself simply ‘Mario’ out of respect for his father, who considered singing a lowly career.  Although he was one of the most celebrated tenors of the 18th century, Italy never heard Mario sing. Instead, the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in London and the Théâtre Italien in Paris witnessed most of his triumphs.  Read more…


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16 October 2021

16 October

Dorando Pietri - marathon runner

Athlete who made his fortune from famous disqualification

The athlete Dorando Pietri, who found fame and fortune after being disqualified in the 1908 Olympic marathon, was born on this day in 1885 in Mandrio, a hamlet near Carpi, in Emilia-Romagna.  In an extraordinary finish to the 1908 race in London, staged on an exceptionally warm July day, Pietri entered the White City Stadium in first place, urged on by a crowd of more than 75,000 who were there to witness the finish, only for his legs to buckle beneath him.  He was helped to his feet by two officials only to fall down four more times before he crossed the finish line.  Each time, officials hauled him to his feet and walked alongside him, urging him on and ready to catch him if he fell.  The final 350 yards (320m) of the event accounted for 10 minutes of the two hours, 54 minutes and 46 seconds recorded as his official time.  Eventually, a second athlete entered the stadium, the American Johnny Hayes, but Pietri had staggered over the line before he could complete the final lap.  The American team was already unpopular with the British crowd, partly because of a row about a flag at the opening ceremony. They lost even more support after they lodged an objection to the result.   Read more…

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Dino Buzzati - author

Novelist likened to Camus whose short stories remain popular

The multi-talented author Dino Buzzati, whose output included five novels, several theatre and radio plays, a children’s novel, five opera libretti, some poetry, a comic book in which he also drew the illustrations, and several books of short stories, was born on this day in 1906 in Belluno.  Buzzati’s most famous novel, Il deserto dei Tartari (1940), titled The Tartar Steppe in the English translation, saw Buzzati compared to Albert Camus and Franz Kafka as a work of existentialist style, but it is for his short stories that he still wins acclaim.  A new collection entitled Catastrophe and Other Stories, which showcases Buzzati’s talent for weaving nightmarish fantasy into ordinary situations, was published earlier this year.  Buzzati, who worked as a journalist for the whole of his adult life and also painted prolifically, was the second of four children born to Giulio Cesare Buzzati, a distinguished professor of international law, and Alba Mantovani, a veterinarian born in Venice.  The family’s main home was in Milan but they had a summer villa in San Pellegrino, a village just outside Belluno in the foothills of the Dolomites, which was where Dino was born.  Read more…

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Election of Pope John Paul II

How Karol Wojtyla became first non-Italian pope for 455 years

Pope John Paul II, who was to have a political and social influence unmatched by any pontiff since the Middle Ages, was elected to be the new leader of the Catholic Church on this day in 1978.  The result of the second Papal conclave in what became known as the Year of the Three Popes was announced after eight ballots. The new pontiff succeeded Pope John Paul I, who had died on September 28 after only 33 days in office, who had himself followed Pope Paul VI, who had passed away in August after reigning for 15 years.  The new man chosen was 58-year-old Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, then Archbishop of Kraków, the first non-Italian to hold office for 455 years since the Dutch Pope Adam VI, who served from 1522-23.  Wojtyla's stand against Poland's Communist regime had brought him respect but he was not seen as a Vatican favourite and his elevation to the highest office stunned the Catholic world.  Yet he would go on to become one of the most familiar faces in the world, remaining in post for almost 27 years, which made him the second longest-serving pope in modern history after Pope Pius IX. Read more…

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