31 July 2022

31 July

Alessandro Algardi – sculptor

Baroque works of art were designed to illustrate papal power

Alessandro Algardi, whose Baroque sculptures grace many churches in Rome, was born on this day in 1598 in Bologna.  Algardi emerged as the principal rival of Gian Lorenzo Bernini in the field of portrait sculpture and although Bernini’s creations were known for their dynamic vitality and penetrating characterisation, Algardi’s works were appreciated for their sobriety and surface realism. Many of his smaller works of arts, such as marble busts and terracotta figures are now in collections and museums all over the world.  Algardi was born in Bologna, where he was apprenticed in the studio of Agostino Carracci from a young age.  He soon showed an aptitude for sculpture and his earliest known works, two statues of saints, were created for the Oratory of Santa Maria della Vita in Bologna.  After a short stay in Venice, he went to Rome in 1625 with an introduction from the Duke of Mantua to the late pope’s nephew, Cardinal Ludovico Ludovisi, who employed him to restore ancient statues.  Although it was a time for great architectural initiatives in Rome, Algardi struggled for recognition at the start as Bernini was given most of the major sculptural commissions.  Read more…


Salvatore Maranzano - crime boss

Sicilian ‘Little Caesar’ who established New York’s Five Families

The criminal boss Salvatore Maranzano, who became the head of organised crime in New York City after the so-called Castellammarese War of 1930-31, was born on this day in 1886 in Castellammare del Golfo in Sicily.  Maranzano’s position as ‘capo di tutti capi’ - boss of all bosses - in the city lasted only a few months before he was killed, but during that time he came up with the idea of organising criminal activity in New York along the lines of the military chain of command established in ancient Rome by his hero, Julius Caesar.  His fascination with and deep knowledge of the Roman general and politician led to him being nicknamed 'Little Caesar' by his Mafia contemporaries in New York.  Installing himself and four other survivors of the Castellammarese War as bosses, he established the principle of replacing the unstructured gang rivalry in New York with five areas of strictly demarcated territory to be controlled by criminal networks known as the Five Families.  Originally the Maranzano, Profaci, Mangano, Luciano and Gagliano families, they are now known by different names - Bonanno, Colombo, Gambino, Genovese and Lucchese to be precise - but are essentially based on the same structure.  Read more…


Antonio Conte - football coach

Southern Italian roots of the former boss of Chelsea

Antonio Conte, the coach who led Italy to the quarter-finals of Euro 2016 and is currently head coach of Tottenham Hotspur, having previously managed Chelsea in the English Premier League, was born on this day in 1969 in Lecce, the Puglian city almost at the tip of the heel of Italy.  As a midfield player for Juventus, he won five Serie A titles and a Champions League. He also played in the European Championships and the World Cup for the Italy national team.  After returning to the Turin club as head coach, he won the Serie A title in each of his three seasons in charge before succeeding Cesare Prandelli as Italy's head coach.  Conte hails from a close-knit family in which his parents, Cosimino and Ada, imposed strict rules, although as a child Antonio was allowed to spend many hours playing football and tennis in the street with his brothers, Gianluca and Daniele.  He began to play organised football with Juventina Lecce, an amateur team coached by his father, but it was not long before US Lecce, the local professional club, recognised his potential and offered him an opportunity.   Juventina received compensation of 200,000 lire - the equivalent of about €300 or £250 in today's money - plus eight new footballs.  Read more…



30 July 2022

30 July

Michelangelo Antonioni - film director

Enigmatic artist often remembered for 1966 movie Blowup

The movie director Michelangelo Antonioni, sometimes described as “the last great” of Italian cinema’s post-war golden era, died on this day in 2007 at his home in Rome.  Antonioni, who was 94 years old when he passed away, was a contemporary of Federico Fellini and Luchino Visconti.  Remarkably, three of that trio’s most acclaimed works - Fellini’s La dolce vita, Visconti’s Rocco and His Brothers and Antonioni’s L’avventura - appeared within a few months of one another.  Antonioni’s genius lay in the way he challenged traditional approaches to storytelling and drama and the way people viewed the world in general.  His characters were often intentionally vague, his most favoured themes being social alienation and bourgeois ennui, reflecting his view that life left many people emotionally adrift and unable to find their bearings.  His movies often had no strong plot in a conventional sense, were dotted with unfinished conversations and seemingly disconnected incidents. His style was seen as a rejection of neorealism, his films more a metaphor for human experience, rather than a record of it.  Read more…


Naples earthquake of 1626

Devastating tremor and tsunami killed 70,000

The region around Naples, one of the most physically unstable areas of high population in the world with a long history of volcanic activity and earthquakes, suffered one of its more devastating events on this day in 1626.  An earthquake that it has been estimated would register around seven on the modern Richter scale struck the city and the surrounding area.  Its epicentre was about 50km out to sea, beyond the Bay of Naples and the island of Capri to the south, but the shock waves were strong enough to cause the collapse of many buildings in the city and the destruction of more than 30 small towns and villages.  A tsunami followed, in which according to some reports the sea receded by more than three kilometres (two miles) before rushing back with enormous force, towering waves engulfing the coastline.  In total, it is thought that approximately 70,000 people were killed by the quake itself and the tsunami.  Naples at the time was a thriving city, still under Spanish rule.  It had a population of around 300,000, which made it the largest port city in Europe and the second largest of all European cities apart from Paris.  Read more…


Adriano Galliani - entrepreneur and football executive

Businessman was CEO of AC Milan in golden era 

The entrepreneur Adriano Galliani, who was chief executive of AC Milan for 21 years, was born on this day in 1944 in Monza, the Lombardy city a little under 20km (12 miles) north of Milan.  With Galliani at the helm, Milan won the Serie A title eight times and were five-times winners of the Champions League in what was a golden era for the club.  Galliani became CEO at the club in 1986 when the ownership transferred to Silvio Berlusconi, the businessman and future prime minister with whom he had created the commercial TV company Mediaset.  He was responsible for some of the club’s most spectacular player signings, persuading such global stars as Marco van Basten, Ruud Gullit, George Weah, Andriy Shevchenko and Kaka to sign for the club.  All five won the Ballon D’Or, the annual award given to the player judged to the best player in all the European leagues, during their time with the club.  Since 2018, Galliani has held a seat in the Senate of the Italian parliament as a representative of Forza Italia, the political party founded by Berlusconi.  Galliani hailed from a middle class family in Monza. His father was an official on the local council.  Read more…


Vittorio Erspamer - chemist

Professor who first identified the neurotransmitter serotonin

Vittorio Erspamer, the pharmacologist and chemist who first identified the neurotransmitter serotonin, was born on this day in 1909 in the small village of Val di Non in Malosco, a municipality of Trentino.  Serotonin, also known as 5-hydroxytryptamine (5-HT), is found in the gastrointestinal tract, blood platelets and central nervous system of animals, including humans.  It is popularly thought to be a contributor to feelings of well-being and happiness. A generation of anti-depressant drugs, including Prozac, Seroxat, Zoloft and Celexa, have been developed with the aim of interfering with the action of serotonin in the body in a way that boosts such feelings.  The name serotonin was coined in the United States in 1948 after research doctors at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio discovered a vasoconstrictor substance - one that narrows blood vessels - in blood serum. Since it was a serum agent affecting vascular tone, they named it serotonin.  However, in 1952 it was shown that a substance identified by Dr Erspamer in 1935, which he named enteramine, was the same as serotonin.  Dr Erspamer made his discovery when he was working as assistant professor in anatomy and physiology at the University of Pavia.  Read more…


29 July 2022

29 July

Teresa Noce - activist and partisan

Anti-Fascist who became union leader and parliamentary deputy

Teresa Noce, who became one of the most important female campaigners for workers’ rights in 20th century Italy, was born on this day in 1900.  A trade union activist as young as 12 years old, Noce spent almost 20 years in exile after the Fascists outlawed her political activity, during which time she became involved with the labour movement and in Paris and subsequently led a French partisan unit under the code name Estella.  After she returned to Italy in 1945 she was elected to the Camera dei Deputati (Chamber of Deputies) as a member of the Italian Communist Party (PCI).  Working with the Unione Donne Italiane (Italian Women’s Union), she secured changes to the law to protect working mothers and provide paid maternity leave.  Born in one of the poorest districts of Turin, she and her older brother were brought up in a one-parent family after her father abandoned their mother while they were both young. Because of her mother’s poor income, they were seldom able to keep the same home more than a few weeks before being evicted for non-payment of rent.  Teresa was a bright girl who taught herself to read the newspapers.  Read more…


Agostino Depretis – politician

Premier stayed in power by creating coalitions

One of the longest serving Prime Ministers in the history of Italy, Agostino Depretis, died on this day in 1887 in Stradella in the Lombardy region.  He had been the founder and main proponent of trasformismo, a method of making a flexible centrist coalition that isolated the extremists on the right and the left.  Depretis served as Prime Minister three times between 1876 and his death.  He was born in 1813 in Mezzana Corti, a hamlet that is now part of Cava Manara, a municipality in the province of Pavia.  After graduating from law school in Pavia, Depretis ran his family’s estate.  In 1848, the year of revolutions in Europe, he was elected as a member of the first parliament in Piedmont.  He consistently opposed Camillo Benso, Count of Cavour, the Prime Minister of Piedmont Sardinia.  A disciple of the pro-unification activist Giuseppe Mazzini, Depretis was nearly captured by the Austrians while smuggling arms into Milan, but he did not take part in the 1853 uprising planned by Mazzini in Milan. It is thought he predicted it would fail.  Depretis briefly served as Governor of Brescia in Lombardy after Cavour’s resignation in 1859.  Read more…


Benito Mussolini  - Fascist leader

Future dictator inspired by his father's politics

Benito Mussolini, who would become Italy's notorious Fascist dictator during the 1920s, was born on this day in 1883 in a small town in Emilia-Romagna known then as Dovia di Predappio, about 17km south of the city of Forlì.  His father, Alessandro, worked as a blacksmith while his mother, Rosa was a devout Catholic schoolteacher.  Benito was the eldest of his parents' three children. He would later have a brother, Arnaldo, and a sister, Edvige.  It could be said that Alessandro's political leanings influenced his son from birth.  Benito was named after the Mexican reformist President, Benito Juárez, while his middle names - Andrea and Amilcare - were those of the Italian socialists Andrea Costa and Amilcare Cipriani.  Working in his father's smithy as a boy growing up, Mussolini would listen to Alessandro's admiration for the protagonists of the Italian unification movement, such as the nationalist Giuseppe Mazzini, and the military leader Giuseppe Garibaldi. But he also heard him speak with approval about the socialist thinker Carlo Pisacane and anarchist revolutionaries such as Carlo Cafiero and Mikhail Bakunin.  Read more…


Pope Urban VIII

Pontiff whose extravagance led to disgrace

The controversial Pope Urban VIII died on this day in 1644 in Rome.  Urban VIII – born Maffeo Barberini – was a significant patron of the arts, the sponsor of the brilliant sculptor and architect Gian Lorenzo Bernini, whose work had a major influence on the look of Rome.  But in his ambitions to strengthen and expand the Papal States, he overreached himself in a disastrous war against Odoardo Farnese, the Duke of Parma, and the expenses incurred in that and other conflicts, combined with extravagant spending on himself and his family, left the papacy seriously weakened.  Indeed, so unpopular was Urban VIII that after news spread of his death there was rioting in Rome and a bust of him on Capitoline Hill was destroyed by an angry mob.  His time in office was also notable for the conviction in 1633 for heresy of the physicist and astronomer Galileo Galilei, who had promoted the supposition, put forward by the Polish scientist Nicolaus Copernicus, that the earth revolved around the sun, which was directly contrary to the orthodox Roman Catholic belief that the sun revolved around the earth.  Read more…


28 July 2022

28 July

Vittorio Valletta - industrialist

Agnelli lieutenant who turned Fiat into an auto giant

The industrialist Vittorio Valletta, whose diplomatic and deal-making skills helped him turn Fiat into the beacon of Italy’s postwar recovery, was born on this day in 1883 in Sampierdarena, a port suburb of Genoa famous for shipbuilding.  He joined Fiat in 1921, quickly rising to the top and became effectively the right-hand man to founder and president Giovanni Agnelli, as CEO practically steering the company single-handed through the turmoil of the Second World War.  After Agnelli’s death in 1945 he became president and remained in control of the company until 1966, when he finally handed over to Gianni Agnelli, the founder’s grandson, at the age of 83. Under his leadership, Fiat grew to such a position of dominance in postwar Italy that at one stage 80 per cent of cars bought in Italy were made by Fiat. The company’s factories employed almost 100,000 people, fulfilling Giovanni’s ambition, which he handed to Valletta almost on his deathbed, to "make Fiat greater, giving more working opportunities to the people, and producing cheaper and better cars".  Valletta also pulled off one of the greatest business coups of the postwar years when he secured a contract with the government of Russia to produce 600,000 cars per year.  Read more…


San Marino’s liberation from Fascism

The day the people demonstrated against their government

San Marino residents celebrate the anniversary of their liberation from Fascism on this day every year.  The Sammarinese Fascist Party had been founded in 1922 by Giuliano Gozi, a veteran of the First World War who came from a rich and powerful family.  The party was modelled on the Fascist party of Italy and used violence and intimidation against its opponents.  Gozi took the roles of both foreign minister and interior minister, which gave him control over the military and the police. He continued to serve as foreign minister, leading the cabinet, until 1943.  In 1923 Gozi was elected as San Marino’s Captain Regent. The Fascists retained this post for 20 years as they banned all other political parties, although some independent politicians continued to serve in the Grand and General Council of the Republic.  But in the early 1940s a group of Socialists started up a clandestine anti-fascist movement and the opposition to the Fascist regime grew stronger in the republic.  On July 28, 1943 the Socialists held a successful political demonstration against Fascism and as a result new elections were called.  Read more…


Luigi Musso - racing driver

Wealthy Roman who found expectations hard to bear

Luigi Musso, who for a period of his life was Italy’s top racing driver, was born on this day in 1924 in Rome.  Musso competed six times for the world drivers’ championship, three times for Maserati and three times for Ferrari. He finished third in the 1957 season, driving for Ferrari.  His solitary Formula One Grand Prix victory came in 1956 in Argentina, although he had to content himself with a half-share of the points after being forced to hand over his car to Juan Fangio, the local hero and Ferrari team leader, after 29 of the 98 laps, when Fangio’s car failed.  Sadly, two years later he was killed in an accident at the French Grand Prix in Reims, which his girlfriend, Fiamma Breschi, blamed on the ferocity of his rivalry with his fellow Ferrari drivers Mike Hawthorn and Peter Collins.  Born into a wealthy Roman family – his father was a diplomat – Musso grew up in a luxurious palazzo off the Via Veneto. He acquired his love of cars from his brothers, who were also racing drivers.  He began to compete in 1950 in a car he bought himself, a 750cc Giannini sports car. He made an inauspicious start, his first race ending when he left the track and collided with a statue of the national hero, Giuseppe Garibaldi.  Read more…


Riccardo Muti - conductor

Celebrated maestro shows no sign of slowing down

The brilliant conductor and musical director Riccardo Muti was born on this day in 1941 in Naples.  Since 2010, Muti has been conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra while retaining his directorship of the Luigi Cherubini Youth Orchestra, a training ensemble for talent from Italian and other European music schools, based in Ravenna and Piacenza, which he founded in 2005.  Previously, Muti held posts at the Maggio Musicale in Florence, the Philharmonia Orchestra in London, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Teatro alla Scala in Milan and the Salzburg Whitsun Festival.  He was named principal conductor and music director for the Maggio Musicale when he was only 28 and stayed there 12 years.  He was at La Scala for 19 years from 1986 to 2005, his tenure ending amid rancour following a conflict with the theatre's general manager, Carlo Fontana.  Muti spent his childhood years largely in the Puglian port city of Molfetta, near Bari. He entered the world in Naples, he says, at the insistence of his mother, Gilda, herself a Neapolitan, who travelled across the peninsula by train in the later stages of each of her five pregnancies in order that her children would also grow up as Neapolitans.  Read more…



27 July 2022

27 July

Adolfo Celi – actor and director

Successful career of a Sicilian who was typecast as a baddy

An actor who specialised in playing the role of the villain in films, Adolfo Celi was born on this day in 1922 in Curcuraci, a hamlet in the province of Messina in Sicily.  Celi was already prominent in Italian cinema, but he became internationally famous for his portrayal of Emilio Largo, James Bond’s adversary with the eye patch, in the 1965 film Thunderball.  He had made his film debut after the Second World War in A Yank in Rome (Un americano in vacanza), in 1946.  In the 1950s he moved to Brazil, where he co-founded the Teatro Brasiliero de Comedia.  He was successful as a stage actor in Brazil and Argentina and also directed three films.  Celi’s big break came when he played the villain in Philippe de Broca’s That Man from Rio. Afterwards he was cast as the camp commandant in the escape drama, Von Ryan’s Express, in which Frank Sinatra and Trevor Howard played prisoners of war.  After appearing in Thunderball, Celi was offered scores of big parts as a villain.  He later made a spoof of Thunderball in the film, OK Connery, in which he played opposite Sean Connery’s brother, Neil.  Read more…


Peppino di Capri – singer and songwriter

Performer ushered Italy into the rock ‘n roll era

Pop legend Peppino di Capri was born Giuseppe Faiella on this day in 1939 on the island of Capri in southern Italy.  A hugely successful singer, songwriter and pianist in Italy and throughout Europe, Di Capri, affectionately known as the Italian Buddy Holly, has had many international hits.  He began singing and playing the piano, by instinct, at the age of four, following in his father’s footsteps, and he provided entertainment for the American troops stationed on Capri during World War II.  His father owned a record shop and also sold musical instruments.  Di Capri studied classical music for five years until he discovered rock music in the 1950s. He recorded his first album in 1958 with his band, The Rockers, including some Neapolitan songs, and he had instant success.  For the next few years, Di Capri recorded some of his biggest hits, such as Voce e Notte, Luna Caprese, Let’s Twist Again and Roberta. He introduced the twist to Italy with his song, St Tropez Twist.  In 1965 he was the opening act at the concerts of The Beatles, during the only Italian tour they ever made, and he then went on to found his own record label and recording studio.  Read more…


Giosuè Carducci – poet and Nobel Prize winner

Writer used his poetry as a vehicle for his political views 

Giosuè Carducci, the first Italian to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature, was born on this day in 1835 in Tuscany.  Christened Giosuè Alessandro Giuseppe Carducci, he lived with his parents in the small village of Valdicastello in the province of Lucca.  His father, a doctor, was an advocate of the unification of Italy and was involved with the Carbonari, a network of secret revolutionary groups. Because of his politics, the family was forced to move several times during Carducci’s childhood, eventually settling in Florence.  During his time in college, Carducci became fascinated with the restrained style of Greek and Roman literature and his work as an adult often used the classical meters of such Latin poets as Horace and Virgil. He published his first collection of poems, Rime, in 1857.  He married Elvira Menicucci in 1859 and they had four children.  Carducci taught Greek at a high school in Pistoia and was then appointed as an Italian professor at the University of Bologna.  Carducci was a popular lecturer and a fierce critic of literature and society. He was an atheist, whose political views were vehemently hostile to Christianity.  Read more…


Mario Del Monaco - tenor

Singer became famous for his interpretations of Otello

Opera singer Mario Del Monaco, who was renowned for the amazing power of his voice, was born on this day in 1915 in Florence.  His family were musical and as a child he studied the violin but he developed a passion for singing as well.  He studied at the Rossini Conservatory in Pesaro, where he first met and sang with the soprano Renata Tebaldi, who was to partner him regularly later in his career.  Del Monaco made a big impact with his debut performance as Lieutenant Pinkerton in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly in Milan in 1940.  He became popular with the audience at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in the 1950s, making many appearances in dramatic Verdi roles.  He was one of the four Italian tenors at their peak in the 1950s and 1960s, sharing the limelight with Giuseppe Di Stefano, Carlo Bergonzi and Franco Corelli.  Del Monaco became famous for his interpretation of the title role in Verdi’s Otello, which, it is estimated, he sang hundreds of times.  He started making recordings for HMV in 1948 in Milan and was later partnered by Renata Tebaldi in a series of Verdi and Puccini operas recorded for Decca.  Read more…


26 July 2022

26 July

Pope Paul II

Flamboyant pope who helped make books available to ordinary people

Pietro Barbo, who became Pope Paul II, died on this day in 1471 in Rome at the age of 54.  He is remembered for enjoying dressing up in sumptuous, ecclesiastical finery and having a papal tiara made for himself, which was studded with diamonds, sapphires, emeralds, topaz, large pearls and many other precious gems.  Barbo was born in Venice and was a nephew of Pope Eugenius IV through his mother and a member of the noble Barbo family through his father.  He adopted a spiritual career after his uncle was elected as pope and made rapid progress. He became a cardinal in 1440 and promised that if he was elected pope one day he would buy each cardinal a villa to escape the summer heat. He then became archpriest of St Peter’s Basilica.  It was reported that Pope Pius II suggested he should have been called Maria Pietissima (Our Lady of Pity) as he would use tears to help him obtain things he wanted. Some historians have suggested the nickname may have been an allusion to his enjoyment of dressing up or, possibly, to his lack of masculinity.  Barbo was elected to succeed Pope Pius II in the first ballot of the papal conclave of 1464.  Read more…


Constantino Brumidi - painter

Rome-born artist responsible for murals in US Capitol Building

Constantino Brumidi, an artist whose work provides the backcloth to the daily business of government in the United States Capitol Building in Washington, was born on this day in 1805 in Rome.  Brumidi’s major work is the allegorical fresco The Apotheosis of Washington, painted in 1865, which covers the interior of the dome in the Rotunda.  Encircling the base of the dome, below the windows, is the Frieze of American History, in which Brumidi painted scenes depicting significant events of American history, although the second half of the work, which he began in 1878, had to be completed by another painter, Filippo Costaggini, as Brumidi died in 1880.  Previously, between 1855 and about 1870, Brumidi had decorated the walls of eight important rooms in the Capitol Building, including the Hall of the House of Representatives, the Senate Library and the President’s Room.  His Liberty and Union paintings are mounted near the ceiling of the White House entrance hall and the first-floor corridors of the Senate part of the Capitol Building are known as the Brumidi Corridors.  Brumidi arrived in the United States in 1852, having spent 13 months in jail in Rome.  Read more… 


Francesco Cossiga - Italy's 8th President

Political career overshadowed by Moro murder

Former Italian President Francesco Cossiga was born on this day in 1928 in the Sardinian city of Sassari.  Cossiga, a Christian Democrat who had briefly served as Prime Minister under his predecessor, Sandro Pertini, held the office for seven years from 1985 to 1992. He was the eighth President of the Republic.  His presidency was unexceptional until the last two years, when he gained a reputation for controversial comments about the Italian political system and former colleagues.  It was during this time that another heavyweight of the Italian political scene, Giulio Andreotti, revealed the existence during the Cold War years of Gladio, a clandestine network sponsored by the American secret services and NATO that was set up amid fears that Italy would fall into the hands of Communists, either through military invasion from the East or, within Italy, via the ballot box.  Cossiga, said to have been obsessed with espionage, admitted to having been involved with the creation of Gladio in the years immediately following the end of the Second World War.  This led to renewed speculation surrounding the kidnap and murder of former Prime Minister Aldo Moro in 1978.  Read more… 


25 July 2022

25 July

Battle of Molinella

First time artillery played a major part in warfare

An important battle in Italy’s history was fought on this day in 1467 at Molinella, near Bologna.  On one side were infantry and cavalry representing Venice and on the other side there was an army serving Florence.  It was the first battle in Italy in which artillery and firearms were used extensively, the main weapons being cannons fired by gunpowder that could launch heavy stone or metal balls.  The barrels were 10 to 12 feet in length and had to be cleaned following each discharge, a process that took up to two hours.  Leading the 14,000 soldiers fighting for Venice was the Bergamo condottiero Bartolomeo Colleoni. He was working jointly with Ercole I d’Este from Ferrara and noblemen from Pesaro and Forlì. Another condottiero, Federico da Montefeltro, led the army of 13,000 soldiers serving Florence in an alliance with Galeazzo Maria Sforza, ruler of the Duchy of Milan, King Ferdinand II of Aragon and Giovanni II Bentivoglio, the ruler of Bologna.  Condottieri were professional military leaders hired by the Italian city-states to lead armies on their behalf.  The fighting took place between the villages of Riccardina and Molinella and so the event is also sometimes referred to as the Battle of Riccardina.  Read more…


Agostino Steffani – composer

Baroque musician and cleric who features in modern literature

A priest and diplomat as well as a singer and composer, Agostino Steffani was born on this day in 1654 in Castelfranco Veneto near Venice.  Details of his life and works have recently been brought to the attention of readers of contemporary crime novels because they were used by the American novelist, Donna Leon, as background for her 2012 mystery The Jewels of Paradise.  Steffani was admitted as a chorister at St Mark’s Basilica in Venice while he was still young and in 1667 the beauty of his voice attracted the attention of Count Georg Ignaz von Tattenbach, who took him to Munich.  Ferdinand Maria, Elector of Bavaria, paid for Steffani’s education and granted him a salary, in return for his singing.  In 1673 Steffani was sent to study in Rome, where he composed six motets. The original manuscripts for these are now in a museum in Cambridge.  On his return to Munich Steffani was appointed court organist. He was also ordained a priest and given the title of Abbate of Lepsing. His first opera, Marco Aurelia, was written for the carnival and produced at Munich in 1681. The only manuscript score of it known to exist is in the Royal Library at Buckingham Palace.  Read more…


Carlo Bergonzi – operatic tenor

Singer whose style was called the epitome of Italian vocal art

Carlo Bergonzi, one of the great Italian opera singers of the 20th century, died on this day in 2014 in Milan.  He specialised in singing roles from the operas of Giuseppe Verdi, helping to revive some of the composer’s lesser-known works.  Between the 1950s and 1980s he sang more than 300 times with the Metropolitan Opera of New York and the New York Times, in its obituary, described his voice as ‘an instrument of velvety beauty and nearly unrivalled subtlety’.  Bergonzi was born in Polesine Parmense near Parma in Emilia-Romagna in 1924. He claimed to have seen his first opera, Verdi’s Il trovatore, at the age of six.  He sang in his local church and soon began to appear in children’s roles in operas in Busseto, a town near where he lived.  He left school at the age of 11 and started to work in the same cheese factory as his father in Parma.  At the age of 16 he began vocal studies as a baritone at the Arrigo Boito Conservatory in Parma.  During World War II, Bergonzi became involved in anti-Fascist activities and was sent to a German prisoner of war camp. After two years he was freed by the Russians and walked 106km (66 miles) to reach an American camp.  Read more…


Alfredo Casella – composer

Musician credited with reviving popularity of Vivaldi

Pianist and conductor Alfredo Casella, a prolific composer of early 20th century neoclassical music, was born on this day in 1883 in Turin.  Casella is credited as being the person responsible for the resurrection of Antonio Vivaldi’s work, following a 'Vivaldi Week' that he organised in 1939.  Casella was born into a musical family. His grandfather had been first cello in the San Carlo Theatre in Lisbon and he later became a soloist at the Royal Chapel in Turin.  His father, Carlo, and his brothers, Cesare and Gioacchino, were professional cellists. His mother, Maria, was a pianist and she gave the young Alfredo his first piano lessons. Their home was in Via Cavour, where it is marked with a plaque.  Casella entered the Conservatoire de Paris in 1896 to study piano under Louis Diemer and to study composition under Gabriel Fauré.  Ravel was one of his fellow students and Casella also got to know Debussy, Stravinsky, Mahler and Strauss while he was in Paris.  He admired Debussy, but he was also influenced by Strauss and Mahler when he wrote his first symphony in 1905.  Read more…



24 July 2022

24 July

NEW - Ermanno Olmi - film director

Won most prestigious awards at Cannes and Venice festivals

The film director Ermanno Olmi, who won both the coveted Palme d’Or at Cannes and the Venice Film Festival’s equivalent Golden Lion with two of his most memorable films, was born on this day in 1931 in the Lombardy city of Bergamo.  His 1978 film L'albero degli zoccoli - The Tree of Wooden Clogs - a story about Lombard peasant life in the 19th century that had echoes of postwar neorealism in the way it was shot, won the Palme d’Or - one of the most prestigious of film awards - at the Cannes Film Festival of the same year.  A decade later, Olmi won the Golden Lion, the top award at the Venice Film Festival, with La leggenda del santo bevitore - The Legend of the Holy Drinker - a story adapted from a novella by the Austrian author Joseph Roth about a homeless drunk in Paris, who is handed a 200-francs lifeline by a complete stranger and vows to find a way to pay it back as a donation to a local church.  He also won three David di Donatello awards  - the Italian equivalent of the Oscars - as Best Director, for Il posto - The Job - his first full length feature film, in 1962, for The Legend of the Holy Drinker, and for Il mestiere delle armi - The Profession of Arms - in 2002. Read more…


Eugene de Blaas - painter

Austro-Italian famous for Venetian beauties

Eugene de Blaas, a painter whose animated depictions of day-to-day life among ordinary Venetians - especially young Venetian women - were his most popular works, was born on this day in 1843 in Albano Laziale, just outside Rome.  Sometimes known as Eugenio Blaas, or Eugene von Blaas, he was of Austrian parentage. His father, Karl, also a painter, was a teacher at the Accademia di Belle Arti (Academy of Fine Arts) in Rome. His brother, Julius, likewise born in Albano, was also a painter.  In 1856, the family moved to Venice after his father was offered a similar position at the Venetian Academy. At that time, Venice attracted artists from all over Europe and the young De Blaas grew up in a social circle that was largely populated by painters and poets.  Like his father, he became interested in the school known as Academic Classicism, a style which seeks to adhere to the principles of Romanticism and Neoclassicism.  He exhibited at the Venice Academy when he was only 17 years old.  Religious painting was still in demand and one of his earliest important commissions, in 1863, was an altarpiece for the parish church of San Valentino di Merano.  Read more…


Giuseppe Di Stefano – tenor

Singer from Sicily who made sweet music with Callas

The opera singer Giuseppe Di Stefano, whose beautiful voice led people to refer to him as ‘the true successor to Beniamino Gigli’, was born on this day in 1921 in Motta Sant’Anastasia, a town near Catania in Sicily.  Di Stefano also became known for his many performances and recordings with the soprano, Maria Callas, with whom he had a brief romance.  The only son of a carabinieri officer, who later became a cobbler, and his dressmaker wife, Di Stefano was educated at a Jesuit seminary and for a short while contemplated becoming a priest.  But after serving in the Italian army he took singing lessons from the Swiss tenor, Hugues Cuenod. Di Stefano made his operatic debut in Reggio Emilia in 1946 when he was in his mid-20s, singing the role of Des Grieux in Massenet’s Manon. The following year he made his debut at La Scala in Milan in the same role.  Di Stefano made his debut at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in 1948 as the Duke of Mantua in Verdi’s Rigoletto. After his performance in Manon a month later, a journalist wrote in Musical America that Di Stefano had ‘the rich velvety sound we have seldom heard since the days of Gigli.’  Read more…


Victor Emmanuel of Sardinia

The first king to be called Victor Emmanuel

The King of Sardinia between 1802 and 1821, Victor Emmanuel I was born on this day in 1759 in the Royal Palace in Turin.  He was the second son of King Victor Amadeus III of Sardinia and was known from birth as the Duke of Aosta.  When the King died in 1796, Victor Emmanuel’s older brother succeeded as King Charles Emmanuel IV of Sardinia.  Within two years the royal family was forced to leave Turin because their territory in the north was occupied by French troops.  After his wife died, Charles Emmanuel abdicated the throne in favour of his brother, Victor Emmanuel, because he had no heir.  The Duke of Aosta became Victor Emmanuel I of Sardinia in June 1802 and ruled from Cagliari for the next 12 years until he was able to return to Turin.  During his reign he formed the Carabinieri, which is still one of the primary forces of law and order in Italy.  On the death of his older brother in 1819, he became the heir general of the Jacobite succession as Victor Emmanuel I of England, Scotland and Ireland, but he never made any public claims to the British throne.  He abdicated in favour of his brother, Charles Felix, in 1821 and died three years later at the Castle of Moncalieri in Turin.  Read more…

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Ermanno Olmi - film director

Won most prestigious awards at Cannes and Venice festivals

Ermanno Olmi's films won some of  cinema's most prestigious awards
Ermanno Olmi's films won some of 
cinema's most prestigious awards 
The film director Ermanno Olmi, who won both the coveted Palme d’Or at Cannes and the Venice Film Festival’s equivalent Golden Lion with two of his most memorable films, was born on this day in 1931 in the Lombardy city of Bergamo.

His 1978 film L'albero degli zoccoli - The Tree of Wooden Clogs - a story about Lombard peasant life in the 19th century that had echoes of postwar neorealism in the way it was shot, won the Palme d’Or - one of the most prestigious of film awards - at the Cannes Film Festival of the same year.

A decade later, Olmi won the Golden Lion, the top award at the Venice Film Festival, with La leggenda del santo bevitore - The Legend of the Holy Drinker - a story adapted from a novella by the Austrian author Joseph Roth about a homeless drunk in Paris, who is handed a 200-francs lifeline by a complete stranger and vows to find a way to pay it back as a donation to a local church.

He also won three David di Donatello awards  - the Italian equivalent of the Oscars - as Best Director, for Il posto - The Job - his first full length feature film, in 1962, for The Legend of the Holy Drinker, and for Il mestiere delle armi - The Profession of Arms - in 2002.

Born in the Malpensata district of Bergamo, near the railway station, Olmi grew up in Treviglio, a town in Bergamo province about 40km (25 miles) east of Milan. His mother worked in a cotton mill. His father, a railway worker and a staunch anti-Fascist, was killed during World War Two.

As a young man, Olmi enrolled at the Academy of Dramatic Art in Milan to take acting lessons, at the same time taking a job as a messenger at the electric company, Edison-Volta, where his mother also found work.

The original poster for the film seen as Olmi's masterpiece
The original poster for the
film seen as Olmi's masterpiece
The company entrusted Olmi with organising leisure activities and entertainment for employees. By now, the film industry was becoming the focus of his ambitions and he persuaded Edison-Volta to sponsor him to make documentaries promoting the company, which he saw as an opportunity to develop his skills behind the camera.

Edison-Volta were impressed with Olmi’s work, in particular his 1959 mini-feature film, Il tempo si è fermato - Time Stood Still, a story about a friendship between a student and the guardian of an isolated hydro-electric dam high in the mountains, which he filmed at the Sabbione Dam in Val Formazza, an Alpine valley in Piedmont, close to the Swiss border.

Subsequently, they agreed to support his first full-length feature, Il posto (1961), a semi-autobiographical and gently humorous story about the aspirations of two young men from rural areas whose first jobs are with big firms in Milan in the postwar years. In the tradition of Roberto Rossellini, the neorealist director whom he particularly admired, Olmi cast non-professional actors in many of the roles, one of whom, Loredana Detto, he would later marry. 

The success of Il posto, in terms of both critical acclaim and the doors opened by winning a David di Donatello and the critics’ prize at the Venice Film Festival, enabled Olmi to devote himself to film-making. His next few films, including a biographical feature about Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, the Bergamo cardinal who became Pope John XXIII, enjoyed relatively modest success, but in 1978 came the movie regarded by many critics as his masterpiece.

Inspired by the stories he was told by his grandmother about the peasant community in rural Lombardy, L’albero degli zoccoli revolves around the lives of four peasant farming families earning a meagre living on land owned by the same landlord. 

Olmi followed in the tradition of the neorealist era in using non-professional actors
Olmi followed in the tradition of the
neorealist era in using non-professional actors
Set against the turbulent political background of late 19th century Italy, its focus is the plight of one of the families who want to give their son the opportunity to better himself and cut down a tree so that the father of their household can make wooden clogs for him to wear on his long daily walk to school. The fragility of their existence is then underlined when the landlord is so incensed he throws them off their land, with the other families looking on in dismay.

As well as winning the Palme d’Or, the movie won critical acclaim in Europe, Britain and the United States, where the actor Al Pacino many years later described it as his favourite film and where the New York Times in 2003 listed The Tree of Wooden Clogs in a feature entitled The Best 1,000 Movies Ever.

Il mestiere delle armi focuses on a battle between a Papal Army led by Giovanni de’ Medici and the army of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, in 1526, highlighting the harsh conditions and ultimate lack of glory in warfare.  It was shot in Bulgaria and featured several Bulgarian actors.

In the late 1960s, Olmi and his wife moved to a home he had built at Asiago, in the mountains above Vicenza. It was a story he was told by the residents of Asiago that inspired him to make I recuperanti (The Scavengers), his 1970 film about how the deprivations of World War Two forced local people to dig for scrap metal buried in the ground to sell for cash. 

Olmi spent the rest of his life in Asiago, where he died in 2018 after struggling for a number of years with the degenerative neurological condition Guillain-Barré syndrome. Fabio Olmi, one of Ermanno and Loredana's three children, also works in the world of cinema as a director of photography.

The Basilica of San Martino in the city of Treviglio
The Basilica of San Martino
in the city of Treviglio
Travel tip:

The small city of Treviglio in Lombardy can be found about 20km (13 miles) south of Bergamo and 40km (25 miles) northeast of Milan, in an area known as Bassa Bergamasca. Treviglio, the second most populous city in Bergamo province with 30,000 inhabitants, developed from a fortified town in the early Middle Ages and, having been at times controlled by the French and the Spanish. It became part of the Kingdom of Italy in 1860.  Its most visited attraction is the Basilica of San Martino, originally built in 1008 and reconstructed in 1482, with a Baroque façade from 1740, which is in Piazza Manara. In 1915, the town was chosen by Italy’s future dictator Benito Mussoloni for his civil marriage to the long-suffering Rachele Guidi. 

The alpine landscape around the town of Asiago in the northern Veneto region
The alpine landscape around the town of
Asiago in the northern Veneto region
Travel tip:

Asiago, where Olmi lived from the late 1960s onwards, is in the province of Vicenza in the Veneto, halfway between Vicenza to the south and Trento, the capital of Trentino-Alto-Adige, to the west. It is now a major ski resort and famous for producing Asiago cheese. It is situated on a high plateau known as the Altopiano di Asiago - the Asiago upland - in an area that has been favoured by emigrants from Germany for more than 1,000 years. The widely spoken local dialect, known as Cimbro, is very similar to German. The landscape over the years has been dotted with fortresses. The Interrotto in Camporovere, in the centre of the town, is a barracks-fortress whose construction goes back to the middle of the 1800s.  The area also has many reminders of the Battle of Asiago, a major confrontation of Italian and Austro-Hungarian forces in World War One that resulted in more than 25,000 deaths.

Also on this day:

1759: The birth of Victor Emanuel I of Sardinia

1843: The birth of painter Eugene de Blaas

1921: The birth of tenor Giuseppe Di Stefano


23 July 2022

23 July

Damiano Damiani – screenwriter and director

Filmmaker behind the hit Mafia drama series La piovra

Damiano Damiani, who directed the famous Italian television series La piovra, which was about the Mafia and its involvement in Italian politics, was born on this day in 1922 in Pasiano di Pordenone in Friuli.  Damiani also made a number of Mafia-themed films and he was particularly acclaimed for his 1966 film, A Bullet for the General, starring Gian Maria Volontè, which came at the beginning of the golden age of Italian westerns.  Damiani studied at the Accademia di Brera in Milan and made his debut in 1947 with the documentary, La banda d’affari. After working as a screenwriter, he directed his first feature film, Il rossetto, in 1960.  His 1962 film, Arturo’s Island, won the Golden Shell at the San Sebastian International film festival.  During the 1960s, Damiani was praised by the critics and his films were box office successes.  A Bullet for the General is regarded as one of the first, and one of the most notable, political, spaghetti westerns. Its theme was the radicalisation of bandits and other criminals into revolutionaries.  Damiani’s 1968 film, Il giorno della civetta - The Day of the Owl - starring Claudia Cardinale, Franco Nero and Lee J Cobb, started a series of films that blended social criticism with spectacular plots.  Read more…


Francesco Cilea – opera composer

Calabrian remembered for beautiful aria Lamento di Federico 

Composer Francesco Cilea was born on this day in 1866 in Palmi near Reggio di Calabria.  He is particularly admired for two of his operas, L’arlesiana and Adriana Lecouvreur.  Cilea loved music from an early age. It is said that when he was just four years old he heard music from Vincenzo Bellini’s opera, Norma, and was moved by it.  When he became old enough, he was sent to study music in Naples and at the end of his course of study there he submitted an opera he had written, Gina, as part of his final examination. When this was performed for the first time it attracted the attention of a music publisher who arranged for it to be performed again.  Cilea was then commissioned to produce a three-act opera, meant to be along the lines of Pietro Mascagni's Cavalleria rusticana, by the same publisher.  The resulting work, La Tilda, was performed in several Italian theatres, but the orchestral score has been lost, which has prevented it from enjoying a modern revival.  In 1897, Cilea’s third opera, L’arlesiana was premiered at the Teatro Lirico in Milan.  In the cast was the young Enrico Caruso, who performed, to great acclaim, the famous Lamento di Federico, often known by its opening line, È la solita storia del pastore.  Read more…


Sergio Mattarella – President of Italy

Anti-Mafia former Christian Democrat is Italy's 12th President

The first Sicilian to become President of Italy, Sergio Mattarella, was born on this day in 1941 in Palermo.  Mattarella, who has occupied the office since 2015, went into politics after the assassination of his brother, Piersanti, by the Mafia in 1980. His brother had been killed while holding the position of President of the Regional Government of Sicily.  Their father, Bernardo Mattarella, was an anti-Fascist, who with other prominent Catholic politicians helped found the Christian Democrat (Democrazia Cristiana) party. They dominated the Italian political scene for almost 50 years, with Bernardo serving as a minister several times. Piersanti Mattarella was also a Christian Democrat politician.  Sergio Mattarella graduated in Law from the Sapienza University of Rome and  a few years later started teaching parliamentary procedure at the University of Palermo.  His parliamentary career began in 1983 when he was elected a member of the Chamber of Deputies in a left-leaning faction of the DC that had supported an agreement with the Italian Communist Party led by Enrico Berlinguer. The following year he was entrusted with cleansing the Sicilian faction of the party from Mafia control.  Read more…


Licia Albanese – soprano

Butterfly had a long career

Operatic soprano Licia Albanese, whose portrayal of Verdi and Puccini heroines delighted audiences all over the world during the last century, was born on this day in 1909 in Bari in the region of Puglia.  She made her operatic debut unexpectedly in 1934 at the Teatro Lirico in Milan during a performance of Madama Butterfly. Albanese was understudying the title role and when the soprano became ill during Act One, she was hustled on to the stage to take over in Act Two.  She was a great success and during the next 40 years sang more than 300 performances in the role of Cio-Cio-San, the geisha who is better known as Madama Butterfly.  Her connection with the opera began early when she was studying with the singer, Giuseppina Baldassare-Tedeschi, who was a contemporary of the composer, Giacomo Puccini, and had been the greatest Butterfly of her day.  Albanese went on to appear at La Scala, Covent Garden and many other European houses, also winning praise for her portrayals of Mimi, Violetta and Manon Lescaut.  She was fortunate to have as tenor partners, singers of the calibre of Tito Schipa, Beniamino Gigli and Giacomo Lauri-Volpi.  Read more…