27 September 2022

27 September

NEW
- Flaminio Scala - Renaissance writer and actor

Influential figure in growth of commedia dell’arte

The writer, actor and director Flaminio Scala, who is recognised as one of the most important figures in Renaissance theatre, was born on this day in 1552 in Rome.  Commonly known by his stage name Flavio, Scala was the author of the first published collection of scenarios - sketches - from the commedia dell’arte genre.  These scenarios, brought together under the title Il Teatro delle Favole Rappresentative, were short comic plays said to have provided inspiration to playwrights such William Shakespeare and Molière.  They were unusual because the theatre companies were so worried about rival troupes stealing their ideas that publishing them was considered too risky.  Commedia dell’arte was a theatrical form that used improvised dialogue and a cast of masked, colourful stock characters such as Arlecchino, Colombina and Pulcinella. The characters tended to be exaggerated versions of social stereotypes. Figures of authority, such as doctors or city officials, were often portrayed as buffoons, which the servants were much more lovable and sympathetic.  Read more…

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Gracie Fields - actress and singer

English-born performer who made Capri her home 

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

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Grazia Deledda - Nobel Prize winner

First Italian woman to be honoured

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

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Cosimo de’ Medici – banker and politician

Father of Florence used his wealth to encourage great architecture

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

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Jovanotti - musician

Former rapper an important figure in Italian pop culture

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


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Flaminio Scala - Renaissance writer and actor

Influential figure in growth of commedia dell’arte

A 16th century painting thought to show Flavio Scala's commedia dell'arte company, I Gelosi
A 16th century painting thought to show Flavio
Scala's commedia dell'arte company, I Gelosi 
The writer, actor and director Flaminio Scala, who is recognised as one of the most important figures in Renaissance theatre, was born on this day in 1552 in Rome.

Commonly known by his stage name Flavio, Scala was the author of the first published collection of scenarios - sketches - from the commedia dell’arte genre.

These scenarios, brought together under the title Il Teatro delle Favole Rappresentative, were short comic plays said to have provided inspiration to playwrights such William Shakespeare and Molière.

They were unusual because the theatre companies were so worried about rival troupes stealing their ideas that publishing them was considered too risky.

Commedia dell’arte was a theatrical form that used improvised dialogue and a cast of masked, colourful stock characters such as Arlecchino, Colombina and Pulcinella. The characters tended to be exaggerated versions of social stereotypes. Figures of authority, such as doctors or city officials, were often portrayed as buffoons, which the servants were much more lovable and sympathetic.

The cover page of Scala's collection of scenarios, published in 1611
The cover page of Scala's collection
of scenarios, published in 1611
The first record of Scala’s theatrical career suggests he was a member of a touring troupe known as the Compagnia dei Comici Gelosi in Florence from as early as 1577. He became known as Flavio after being given the role in 1610 of the company’s stock innamorato character, who was called Flavio.

Innamorati - lovers - were staple characters in commedia dell’arte, generally seen to be in love with themselves as much as other members of the cast. They were central to the plots of most scenarios.

As well as I Gelosi, Scala worked with a number of other successful commedia dell’arte companies. He can also be said to have been theatre’s first professional producer, having identified and hired an actor to play opposite him as his innamorata. She was Isabella Andreini, the 16-year-old wife of another actor, Francesco Andreini, who was such a success in the role that the company’s stock female lover became known as the Isabella.

Scala’s writing and directing reinforced commedia dell’arte as a highly expressive and physical art form, underlining the importance of body and facial gestures. The 50 scenarios in his collection Il Teatro delle Favole Rappresentative, published in 1611 and sometimes known simply as the Scala collection, did not contain any dialogue. 

They consisted instead of detailed stage direction, descriptions of the actions the characters were required to perform.  Dialogue in commedia dell’arte was improvised, the most successful actors those who could reference topical events or popular culture.

The collection was republished a number of times and, in 1967, appeared in translation for the first time as Scenarios of the Commedia dell'Arte.  More recently, translation of 30 of the scenarios was published as The Commedia dell'Arte of Flaminio Scala: A Translation and Analysis of 30 Scenarios, by Richard Andrews.

Little is known about Scala’s private life, although it is thought he was born into an aristocratic family and fathered one child, Orsola, who herself became an actress. His death was recorded as having occurred in Mantua in 1624.

The facade of the church of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome
The facade of the church of San
Luigi dei Francesi in Rome
Travel tip:

Flaminio Scala’s life coincided with that of the temperamental but brilliant painter, Caravaggio, who was active largely in Rome and was a major influence on the art of the Baroque period.  Rome today hosts approximately 25 Caravaggio masterpieces, several of which are on free public display in churches, including the basilicas of Sant’Agostino and Santa Maria del Popolo, which has two of his masterpieces in the Cerasi Chapel, and the church of San Luigi dei Francesi, where three Caravaggio paintings can be viewed in the Contarelli Chapel. The Sant’Agostino basilica is in Campo Marzio, where in 1606 the painter killed a man in a row over a woman, after which he spent the rest of his life effectively on the run.

Mantua, like Venice, gives the impression of rising from the water, in this case the Lago Superiore
Mantua, like Venice, gives the impression of rising
from the water, in this case the Lago Superiore
Travel tip: 

Mantua, where Flaminio Scala died, is a Renaissance city surrounded on  three sides by lakes, which can create the impression that the city rises from the water in the same way that Venice seems to emerge from the lagoon.  It is a city with a rich artistic and cultural heritage, going back to the time of Virgil, the Roman poet, said to have been born in a village nearby. In the Renaissance, Frederico Gonzaga II and Isabella d’Este presided over one of the finest artistic courts in Europe, to which they invited many musicians, artists and writers, among them Leonardo di Vinci and Raphael. Claudio Monteverdi’s opera L’Orfeo was performed for the first time in Mantua in 1607. More than 200 years later, Giuseppe Verdi set his opera, Rigoletto, in the city.

Also on this day:

1389: The official ‘birthday’ of Cosimo de’ Medici, banker and politician

1871: The birth of Nobel prize winner Grazia Deledda

1966: The birth of rapper and musician Jovanotti

1979: The death on Capri of English actress and singer Gracie Fields


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26 September 2022

26 September

St Francis Basilica struck by earthquake

Historic art works damaged in double tremor

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

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Enzo Bearzot - World Cup-winning coach

Led Italy to 1982 triumph in Spain

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

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Anna Magnani - Oscar-winning film star

Roman one of only three Italians to land best actor award

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


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25 September 2022

25 September

Nino Cerruti - fashion designer

Turn of fate led to a life in haute couture 

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

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Agostino Bassi – biologist

Scientist who rescued the silk industry in Italy

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

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Zucchero Fornaciari – singer

Sweet success for writer and performer

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


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24 September 2022

24 September

Marco Tardelli - footballer

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

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

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Maria Pia of Bourbon-Parma - exiled princess

Vote for republic forced King's daughter to leave

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

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Girolamo Cardano - doctor and mathematician

Polymath was also a gambler and womaniser

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

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Riccardo Illy - businessman

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

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

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23 September 2022

23 September

Augustus - the first Emperor of Rome

Great nephew of Julius Caesar became powerful leader

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

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Paolo Rossi - World Cup hero

Goalscorer who bounced back from two-year ban

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

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Mussolini's last stand

Deposed dictator proclaims Republic of Salò 

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

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Francesco Barberini – Cardinal

Patron of the arts sympathised with Galileo

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

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22 September 2022

22 September

NEW
- Mario Berrino - painter

Artist who was also a popular entrepreneur 

The painter and entrepreneur Mario Berrino was born on this day in 1920 in Alassio, the coastal town in Liguria where he spent almost all his life.  Berrino took up painting full time in his 50s and his simple yet atmospheric and evocative works became sought after by collectors, often selling for hundreds of euros at auction.  Alassio has a gallery dedicated entirely to his work, as does the jet set playground of Monte Carlo, about 100km (62 miles) along the riviera coastline to the west, not far from Italy’s border with France.  Before that, Berrino had lived a colourful life in and around his home town, his entrepreneurial spirit shining through in many projects that left a lasting impression on Alassio.  As a young man, he helped his father and brothers run a bar and restaurant in Alassio, the Caffè Roma, which earned fame in the years between the First and Second World Wars as a hang-out for writers, artists, and musicians, among them the American novelist Ernest Hemingway, who was a frequent visitor to Italy and became a close friend of Berrino.  It was when Hemingway was in Alassio in 1953 that Berrino hatched the idea of attaching brightly coloured tiles to the low wall of a public garden opposite the Caffè Roma bearing the signatures of artists who had visited the restaurant.  Read more…

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Andrea Bocelli - tenor

Singer has perfect voice for either opera or pop

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

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Leonardo Messina - Mafia ‘pentito’

Sicilian who linked ex-premier with organised crime

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

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Roberto Saviano - writer and journalist

Author of ‘Gomorrah’ who lives under police protection

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

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Carlo Ubbiali - motorcycle world champion

Racer from Bergamo won nine GP titles

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


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Mario Berrino - painter

Artist who was also a popular entrepreneur 

Berrino captured many scenes from life on the coast of Liguria in and near his home in Alassio
Berrino captured many scenes from life on the
coast of Liguria in and near his home in Alassio
The painter and entrepreneur Mario Berrino was born on this day in 1920 in Alassio, the coastal town in Liguria where he spent almost all his life.

Berrino took up painting full time in his 50s and his simple yet atmospheric and evocative works became sought after by collectors, often selling for hundreds of euros at auction.

Alassio has a gallery dedicated entirely to his work, as does the jet set playground of Monte Carlo, about 100km (62 miles) along the riviera coastline to the west, not far from Italy’s border with France.

Before that, Berrino had lived a colourful life in and around his home town, his entrepreneurial spirit shining through in many projects that left a lasting impression on Alassio.

As a young man, he helped his father and brothers run a bar and restaurant in Alassio, the Caffè Roma, which earned fame in the years between the First and Second World Wars as a hang-out for writers, artists, and musicians, among them the American novelist Ernest Hemingway, who was a frequent visitor to Italy and became a close friend of Berrino.

It was when Hemingway was in Alassio in 1953 that Berrino hatched the idea of attaching brightly coloured tiles to the low wall of a public garden opposite the Caffè Roma bearing the signatures of artists who had visited the restaurant.

Il Muretto di Alassio, which Berrino created on a wall outside the Caffè Roma, still attracts visitors
Il Muretto di Alassio, which Berrino created on a
wall outside the Caffè Roma, still attracts visitors
He asked a ceramicist to create some tiles and he and Hemingway crossed the road between the Caffè Roma and the garden one evening, using cement to attach the first three - one bearing Hemingway’s own signature and a second with the signature of a guitarist Cosimo de Ceciglie. The third carried all four signatures of a singing group, Il Quartetto Cetra.

The wall became known as Il Muretto di Alassio and remains a tourist attraction today, with close to 1,000 tiles, the criteria for inclusion expanded to include personalities from cinema, television, fashion, entertainment and sport.

In the same year as the wall came into being, Berrino launched a beauty contest, Miss Muretto, which was held every year until 2013. The winners include several women who have gone on to achieve a degree of fame, including the TV presenters Simona Ventura, Maria Teresa Ruta, Elisa Isoardi and Melissa Satta.

Berrino launched himself with enthusiasm into several other entrepreneurial ideas, cashing in on Alassion’s reputation for invigorating sea air by selling l’Aria Pura di Alassio in 500 litre jars, for which he received orders from all over Europe.

Berrino on the occasion of a 90th birthday celebration in Alassio
Berrino on the occasion of a 90th
birthday celebration in Alassio
He also successfully organised the Sciaccagiara, in which Formula One racing drivers including world champion James Hunt and the popular Swiss-Italian Clay Regazzoni, raced each other on steamrollers.

He was a popular figure in Alassio, usually seen driving his red Fiat Ghia 500 Jolly, a specially adapted Fiat 500 with a removable canopy top and wicker seats that was favoured by celebrities and VIPs ranging from the Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis to Italian Communist leader Enrico Berlinguer.

Berrino set aside a wall of the Caffè Roma, called La buca del Muretto, to allow artists to exhibit, which was his inspiration to take up painting himself. Using watercolour, tempera, encaustic and oil techniques, he had become an established painter in the 1960s and from 1976 onwards devoted himself to painting full time.

Two years earlier, he had survived the ordeal of being kidnapped by a gang who demanded 300 million lire be paid for his release. Berrino managed to escape from captivity to the safety of a Carabinieri station.

Berrino remains a personality held in deep affection by the town of Alassio, who staged a celebration of his life on the 100th anniversary of his birth in 2020, nine years after his death in Alassio in August 2011.

A painting by Berrino that captures the beauty of Alassio's location on the coast of Liguria
A painting by Berrino that captures the beauty
of Alassio's location on the coast of Liguria
Travel tip:

Alassio is an attractive town on the Riviera di Ponente, the stretch of coastline that stretches southwest of the Ligurian capital of Genoa to the town of Ventimiglia, close to the French border. Renowned for its sandy beaches and blue seas, Alassio is popular for bathing in the summer and as a health resort in the winter.  It is a tourist-friendly town not least for having a narrow, pedestrianised street known as Il Budello which runs the length of the town just a few steps away from the beach. The English composer Edward Elgar is said to have written an overture while staying in Alassio during the winter of 1903-04, having been drawn to the area by its reputation for mild winters.  Read more...

The Caffè Roma remains a thriving business in Alassio today
The Caffè Roma remains a thriving
business in Alassio today
Travel tip:

The Caffè Roma, in Via Dante Alighieri, remains a thriving part of the life of Alassio, a symbolic monument to the town and its history as one of the resorts most favoured by writers, artists and musicians. The Muretto di Alassio remains a draw for visitors, who often spend many minutes trying to decipher the signatures on the ceramic tiles. The restaurant and cafe itself is housed in an attractive building in the Italian variant of Art Nouveau known as Stile Liberty.



Also on this day:

1929: The birth of motorcycle world champion Carlo Ubbiali

1955: The birth of Mafia ‘pentito’ Leonardo Messina

1958: The birth of tenor Andrea Bocelli

1979: The birth of writer Roberto Saviano


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21 September 2022

21 September

Maurizio Cattelan - conceptual artist

Controversial work softened by irreverent humour

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

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Cigoli – painter and architect

First artist to paint a realistic moon

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

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Giacomo Quarenghi - architect

Neoclassicist famous for his work in St Petersburg

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


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20 September 2022

20 September

Capture of Rome

Troops enter the capital in final act of unification

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

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Sophia Loren – actress

Glamorous star one of just three Italian Oscar winners

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

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Election of Pope Clement VII

Appointment that sparked split in Catholic Church

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


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