31 March 2022

31 March

NEW - Maurizio De Giovanni – crime writer


Detective novelist has opened up his native Naples to crime fiction fans

Bestselling author Maurizio De Giovanni was born on this day in 1958 in Naples in southern Italy.  His novels have been translated into English, Spanish, Catalan, French and German and have sold well over a million copies throughout Europe.  De Giovanni is best known for his two fictional detectives, Commissario Ricciardi, who works as a detective in 1930s Naples, and Ispettore Lojacono, who has been transferred to present day Naples from his home town of Agrigento in Sicily, after being accused of associating with the Mafia.  He has also written stories featuring a very different character, a social worker called Mina Settembre, who is based at a clinic in Naples specialising in providing psychological support.  In 2005, De Giovanni won a writing competition for unpublished authors with a short story, I vivi e i morti - The Living and the Dead -  which was set in the 1930s and featured the character Commissario Ricciardi.  He was working in a bank at the time, a job for which by his own admission he had no particular inclination but which paid the bills. Always known as a bookworm, he wrote stories that he would show his colleagues. Read more…

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Bianca Maria Visconti – Duchess of Milan

Ruler fought alongside her troops to defend her territory

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

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Dante Giacosa - auto engineer

Designer known as ‘the father of the Cinquecento'

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

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Franco Bonvicini – comic book artist

Comic artist became famous for satirising the Nazis

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

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Pope Benedict XIV

Bologna cardinal seen as great intellectual leader

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


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Maurizio De Giovanni – crime writer

Detective novelist has opened up his native Naples to crime fiction fans

Maurizio De Giovanni worked in a  bank before becoming a full-time writer
Maurizio De Giovanni worked in a 
bank before becoming a full-time writer
Bestselling author Maurizio De Giovanni was born on this day in 1958 in Naples in southern Italy.

His novels have been translated into English, Spanish, Catalan, French and German and have sold well over a million copies throughout Europe.

De Giovanni is best known for his two fictional detectives, Commissario Ricciardi, who works as a detective in 1930s Naples, and Ispettore Lojacono, who has been transferred to present day Naples from his home town of Agrigento in Sicily, after being accused of associating with the Mafia.

He has also written stories featuring a very different character, a social worker called Mina Settembre, who is based at a clinic in Naples specialising in providing psychological support.

In 2005, De Giovanni won a writing competition for unpublished authors with a short story, I vivi e i morti - The Living and the Dead -  which was set in the 1930s and featured the character Commissario Ricciardi. 

He was working in a bank at the time, a job for which by his own admission he had no particular inclination but which paid the bills. Always known as a bookworm, he wrote stories that he would show his colleagues. In fact, it was his co-workers who entered him for the competition, without his knowledge.

His success inspired his first novel, Le lacrime del pagliaccio - The Tears of the Clown - which was later republished in English as I Will Have Vengeance – The Winter of Commissario Ricciardi.

De Giovanni was inspired by his parents' memories of Naples
De Giovanni was inspired by
his parents' memories of Naples
He wrote his early stories in the Naples of the 1930s in part because his parents, who were also born in Naples, would share their memories with him of the city before World War Two.

I Will Have Vengeance was followed in 2008 by Blood Curse- The Springtime of Commissario Ricciardi and subsequently by Everyone in Their Place – The Summer of Commissario Ricciardi in 2009 and the Day of the Dead – The Autumn of Commissario Ricciardi in 2010. 

To date De Giovanni has written 13 Commissario Ricciardi novels, 10 of which have been published in English.

In 2012, he ventured into the noir genre with The Crocodile, which was the first appearance by his other detective, Ispettore Lojacono.

He was then inspired by the 87th Precinct series by the American author Ed McBain to write a police procedural, The Bastards of Pizzofalcone. His five Pizzofalcone novels have now been made into a television series by RAI, starring Alessandro Gassmann - son of the celebrated actor, Vittorio Gassman - as Ispettore Lojacono. In 2021 it aired for a third season.

His Commissario Ricciardi and Mina Settembre stories have also been adapted for television.

De Giovanni, who has lived and worked for most of his life in Naples, has also written features and short stories about sport - and for the theatre.

He adapted the American novelist Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and David Manet’s play American Buffalo for Italian theatre audiences and has written three original stage plays - Ingresso indipendente, Mettici la mano and Il silenzio grande.

Il silenzio grande - The Great Silence - is a two-act comedy that was first staged at the Teatro Diana in Naples and turned into a film - directed by Alessandro Gassman - that was shown at the 2021 edition of the Venice Film Festival.

The Teatro di San Carlo is thought to be the oldest opera house the the world still in use
The Teatro di San Carlo is thought to be the
oldest opera house the the world still in use
Travel tip:

Much of De Giovanni’s debut novel, I Will Have Vengeance, takes place in the Teatro di San Carlo in Naples, the city’s historic opera house. Teatro di San Carlo was officially opened in 1737, way ahead of La Scala in Milan and La Fenice in Venice. Built in Via San Carlo close to Piazza del Plebiscito, the main square in Naples, Teatro di San Carlo quickly became one of the most important opera houses in Europe and renowned for its excellent productions. The theatre was designed by Giovanni Antonio Medrano for the Bourbon King of Naples, Charles I, and took just eight months to build. This was 41 years before La Scala and 55 years before La Fenice opened. San Carlo is now believed to be one of the oldest, if not the oldest, remaining opera houses in the world. Both Gioachino Rossini and Gaetano Donizetti served as artistic directors at San Carlo and the world premieres of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor and Rossini’s Mosè were performed there.

The Piazza del Plebiscito in Naples, as seen from the Pizzofalcone hill
The Piazza del Plebiscito in Naples, as seen
from the Pizzofalcone hill
Travel tip:

Pizzofalcone, where De Giovanni’s police procedural series is set, is an area of the San Ferdinando district, situated between Piazza del Plebiscito and the Royal Palace and Castel dell’Ovo and the Santa Lucia area. It is essentially a hill, also known as Monte di Dio. It is so called because in the 13th century Charles I of Anjou, who was King of Naples at the time, had a falconry built there. Its elevated position offers panoramic views of the Naples coastline stretching towards Mergellina along the Riviera di Chiaia. De Giovanni has spoken about Pizzofalcone, which has both upmarket and poor neighbourhoods, as a microcosm of the city of Naples.

Also on this day:

1425: The birth of Bianca Maria Visconti – Duchess of Milan

1675: The birth of Pope Benedict XIV

1941: The birth of comic book artist Franco Bonvicini

1996: The death of auto engineer Dante Giacosa


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30 March 2022

30 March

Ignazio Gardella – architect

Modernist who created Venetian classic

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

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Fortunato Depero - artist

Futurist who designed iconic Campari bottle

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

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Rimini Proclamation

Opening statement of the Risorgimento came from a Frenchman

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

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The Sicilian Vespers

How the French lost control of the island they were ruling

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


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29 March 2022

29 March

Enea Bossi - aviation pioneer

Claimed first pedal-powered flight in 1936

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

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The Ghetto - Venice’s Jewish quarter

District began as area of enforced segregation

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

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Terence Hill – actor

Film star progressed from cowboy roles to popular parish priest

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

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Edoardo De Martino – painter

Naval officer who painted battle scenes was royal favourite 

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

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Castruccio Castracani - condottiero

Mercenary soldier who ruled Lucca 

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

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Francesco Faà di Bruno - advocate for poor

Entered priesthood after appeal to pope

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


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28 March 2022

28 March

NEW
- Vincenzo Capone - prohibition agent


'War hero'-turned-lawman hid his family identity

Vincenzo Capone, older brother of the notorious mobster Al Capone, was born on this day in 1892 in Angri, a town in Campania located between Salerno and Naples.  While Al drifted into crime as a teenager, Vincenzo wanted a different life. After running away to join a circus, he changed his name and invented a new background to conceal his true identity. He acquired a reputation as a war hero before forging a career in law enforcement, notably pitting himself against the criminal gangs of his brother’s world as an agent for the Bureau of Prohibition.  The first in a family of nine children, Vincenzo had just one sibling, his brother Ralph, when his father, Gabriele, a barber, and his mother, Teresa, emigrated to the United States in 1895. His father continued to work as a hairdresser, while Teresa’s skills as a seamstress enabled her to find a job. They settled in Brooklyn.  Over the years that followed, the family grew and Vincenzo and Ralph were joined by Frank, Alphonse, Ermina, John, Albert, Matthew and Mafalda. Sadly, Ermina did not survive her infancy.  As they grew up, most of his younger brothers became involved with petty crime.  Read more…

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Fra Bartolommeo - Renaissance great

Friar rated equal of Michelangelo, Raphael and Leonardo

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

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Alberto Grimaldi - film producer

Spaghetti Western trilogy gave Naples producer his big break

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

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Anselmo Colzani - opera star

Baritone who had 16 seasons at the New York Met

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

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Vincenzo Capone - prohibition agent

'War hero'-turned-lawman hid his family identity

When Vincenzo Capone became a town marshal in Nebraska, he called himself Richard James Hart
When Vincenzo Capone became a town marshal
in Nebraska, he called himself Richard James Hart
Vincenzo Capone, older brother of the notorious mobster Al Capone, was born on this day in 1892 in Angri, a town in Campania located between Salerno and Naples.

While Al drifted into crime as a teenager, Vincenzo wanted a different life. After running away to join a circus, he changed his name and invented a new background to conceal his true identity. He acquired a reputation as a war hero before forging a career in law enforcement, notably pitting himself against the criminal gangs of his brother’s world as an agent for the Bureau of Prohibition.

The first in a family of nine children, Vincenzo had just one sibling, his brother Ralph, when his father, Gabriele, a barber, and his mother, Teresa, emigrated to the United States in 1895. His father continued to work as a hairdresser, while Teresa’s skills as a seamstress enabled her to find a job. They settled in Brooklyn.

Over the years that followed, the family grew and Vincenzo and Ralph were joined by Frank, Alphonse, Ermina, John, Albert, Matthew and Mafalda. Sadly, Ermina did not survive her infancy.

As they grew up, most of his younger brothers became involved with petty crime. By contrast, Vincenzo, who had already adopted James as his “American” first name and would often take the ferry to Staten Island, where the fields and woods offered an escape from the overcrowded streets of the city. 

As a lawman, Capone modelled
himself on William "Two Gun" Hart
He offered to help out in stables and learned to ride horses. His father secured a job for him there after witnessing his son’s fascination with Buffalo Bill Cody and the Wild West Shows that were popular at the time.

It may have been his fascination with the wild west that led to his decision at the age of 16 to run away from home. It has been speculated that Alphonse, who was eight at the time, wanted to go with him but that Vincenzo told him to go home. The family knew nothing about where he had gone until a letter arrived from Vincenzo a year later, saying he was in Kansas, travelling with a circus.

The author Jeff McArthur, who wrote a book about Vincenzo, says that he joined the Miller Brothers Ranch Wild West Show and called himself James Hart, which is thought to have reflected his admiration for the silent movie actor William S Hart, who often starred in Westerns. He worked to shed his Brooklyn accent and explained away his swarthy southern Italian skin colour by claiming he was half American Indian.

His determination to adopt a new identity was confirmed when he joined the military under the name Richard James Hart, insisting he was born in Indiana and had worked as a farmer.  

Accounts vary of his time in service.  Some say that he fought in France in World War One, achieved the rank of lieutenant, was made a military policeman and was awarded a Distinguished Service Cross for ‘extraordinary heroism in action’. However, another story says that he joined the veterans organisation the American Legion after the war was over but was later expelled when it was found that the Department of the Army had no record of any war service. 

Al Capone - Vincenzo's younger brother - was head of the Chicago crime syndicate
Al Capone - Vincenzo's younger brother -
was head of the Chicago crime syndicate
Regardless of which version is true, Capone returned to America and changed his name legally to Richard James Hart. He married Kathleen Winch in 1919, and they had four sons, Richard, William, Sherman, and Harry. They made their home in Homer, Nebraska, where he became a town marshal and soon afterwards a federal prohibition agent. 

He was among the more eccentric agents. Mimicking the persona of his hero, William S Hart, he wore leather cowboy boots with spurs and a 10-gallon hat, carried two pearl-handled pistols and rode around on a horse, even though he owned a car.  After a series of successful raids against bootleggers, he gained the nickname of "Two-Gun" Hart - the same moniker the silent movie business bestowed upon his idol.  It was somewhat ironic that, at the time Vincenzo was locking up bootleggers under his new identity, Al Capone’s control of the illegal booze market in Chicago was a major part of his crime empire.

As Hart, Vincenzo joined the Bureau of Indian Affairs, where he was charged with investigating criminal activity on Indian reservations. He built further on his larger-than-life reputation and arrested at least 20 murderers in addition to smashing a number of moonshine liquor operations, although he was himself convicted of manslaughter after killing a man he claimed was refusing to surrender.

It did not stop him continuing to serve as a town marshal and a justice of the peace but when the Great Depression arrived in the 1930s his life began to unravel. Caught shoplifting from a grocery store, he was dismissed from both positions.  Soon, struggling to support his family, he contacted his brother Ralph - a key member of the Capone crime family - asking for financial help. He even attended a reunion at Ralph’s house when Al Capone was released from prison on parole in 1939, eight years into his jail sentence for tax evasion. 

In 1951, Ralph himself was tried for tax evasion in 1951. It transpired that he had been laundering money through Hart since 1941 and when Hart testified during his trial, he did so as James Vincenzo Capone. 

Hart was subpoenaed to appear before a grand jury in Chicago, on a date set in 1952. By this time, he was suffering from diabetes and could only walk with a stick. Shortly after testifying he died of a heart attack at the age of 60.

The Castello Doria in Angri, once ruled by the powerful Doria family from Genova
The Castello Doria in Angri, once ruled by the
powerful Doria family from Genova
Travel tip:

Vincenzo Capone’s hometown of Angri, which is also the birthplace of the mobster Frank Nitti, who worked for Al Capone, is situated where the urban sprawl that fans out around Vesuvius meets the Lattari mountains at the beginning of the Sorrentine Peninsula. It is rich in history. The scene of the battle that marked the victory of the Eastern Roman Empire over the Goths in 552, it became an important town under Bourbon rule and in the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies in the 19th century.  The Castello Doria, notable for its two concentric towers, is an example of the town’s rich architectural heritage, dating back to the period between the 17th and 18th centuries in which Angri was controlled by the Doria family of Genova.

Hotels in Angri by Booking.com

Palm trees line the waterfront at Salerno, a city often overlooked by visitors to Campania
Palm trees line the waterfront at Salerno, a city
often overlooked by visitors to Campania
Travel tip:

Salerno, situated some 25km (16 miles) from Angri, has a population of about 133,000. It is a city with a reputation as an industrial port and is often overlooked by visitors to Campania, who tend to flock to Naples, Sorrento, the Amalfi coast and the Cilento. Yet it has an attractive waterfront and a quaint old town, at the heart of which is the Duomo, originally built in the 11th century, which houses in its crypt the tomb of one of the twelve apostles of Christ, Saint Matthew the Evangelist. It is also a good base for excursions both to the Amalfi coast, just a few kilometres to the north, and the Cilento, which can be found at the southern end of the Gulf of Salerno. Hotels are also cheaper than at the more fashionable resorts.

Check out hotels in Salerno with Tripadvisor

Also on this day:

1472: The birth of Renaissance painter Fra Bartolommeo

1918: The birth of operatic baritone Anselmo Colzani

1925: The birth of film producer Alberto Grimaldi


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27 March 2022

27 March

Luca Zaia - politician

Popular president of Veneto was tipped as future PM

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

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Alessandro La Marmora - military general

Founder of Italy's famed Bersaglieri corps

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

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Gianluigi Lentini - transfer record breaker

AC Milan outbid Juventus for Torino star

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

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Joe Sentieri - singer and actor

Career remembered for international hit song

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


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26 March 2022

26 March

Lella Lombardi - racing driver

Only woman to win points in Formula One

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

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Guccio Gucci – fashion designer

The man whose name inspired the interlocking G logo

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

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Elio de Angelis - racing driver

The 'last gentleman racer' of Formula One

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


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