26 March 2023

26 March

Guccio Gucci – fashion designer

The man whose name inspired the interlocking G logo

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

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Elio de Angelis - racing driver

The 'last gentleman racer' of Formula One

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

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Lella Lombardi - racing driver

Only woman to win points in Formula One

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


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25 March 2023

25 March

NEW
- Giambattista Marino – poet


The colourful life of an influential literary figure

Controversial poet Giambattista Marino, who founded the school of Marinism that dominated 17th century Italian poetry, died on this day in 1625 in Naples.  Marino’s poetry was translated into other languages and many other poets imitated his use of complicated word play, elaborate conceits and metaphors.  But although Marino’s work was praised throughout Europe, he led a chaotic life, was frequently short of money and at times arrested and imprisoned for alleged immorality.  Marino, sometimes referred to as Marini, was born in Naples in 1569. He trained for the law, under pressure from his parents, but later rebelled and refused to practise his profession.  From 1590 onwards, he spent his time travelling in Italy and France and enjoying the success of his poetry. His work was circulated in manuscript form to great acclaim and later in his life he managed to get some of it published, despite censorship.  In 1596 he wrote La Sampogna (The Syrinx), a series of sensual verses, but he was unable to publish them until 1620.  Read more…

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Tina Anselmi - ground-breaking politician

Former partisan became Italy’s first female cabinet minister

The politician Tina Anselmi, who made history in 1976 as the first woman to hold a ministerial position in an Italian government and later broke new ground again when she was appointed to chair the public inquiry into the infamous Propaganda Due masonic lodge, was born on this day in 1927 in Castelfranco Veneto.  Anselmi was chosen as Minister for Labour and Social Security and then Minister for Health in the government led by Giulio Andreotti from 1976 to 1979.  In 1981, she became the first woman to lead a public inquiry in Italy when she was asked to head the commission looking into the clandestine and illegal P2 masonic lodge, which had among its members prominent journalists, members of parliament, industrialists, and military leaders and was suspected of involvement in many scandals in pursuit of an ultra-right agenda.  Anselmi’s political views were heavily influenced by her upbringing in the Veneto during the years of Mussolini and war. She was from a comfortable background - her father was a pharmacist in Castelfranco Veneto, while her mother ran an osteria with her grandmother.  Read more…

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Saint Catherine of Siena

Pious woman from ordinary family helped the Pope reorganise the church

Caterina Benincasa, who was to one day become a patron saint of Rome, Italy and Europe, was born on this day in 1347 in Siena in Tuscany.  She is remembered for her writings, all of which were dictated to scribes, as she did not learn to write until late in life. While carrying out Christ’s work in Italy, she wrote about 380 letters, 26 prayers, and four treatises of Il libro della divina dottrina, better known as The Dialogue. These works were so influential and highly regarded she was later declared a Doctor of the Church.  Caterina was the youngest of 25 children born to Lapa Piagenti, the daughter of a poet, and Jacopo di Benincasa, a cloth dyer. She is said to have had her first vision of God when she was just five years old and at the age of seven, Caterina vowed to give her whole life to God.  She refused to get married when her parents tried to arrange it, cut off her hair to make herself look less attractive and began to fast. She did not want to take a nun’s veil, but to live an active life full of prayer in society, following the model of the Dominicans.  When she was in her early 20s, Caterina said she had experienced a spiritual espousal, or mystical marriage, to Christ.  Read more…

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Francesco I - Grand Duke of Tuscany

Florentine ruler at heart of Medici murder mystery

Francesco I, the Medici Grand Duke whose death at the age of 46 became the subject of a murder mystery still unsolved 430 years later, was born on this day in 1541 in Florence.  The second to be given the title Grand Duke of Tuscany, Francesco was the son of Cosimo I de' Medici, the first to hold the title, and Eleonor of Toledo.  Like his father, Francesco was often a despotic leader, but while Cosimo's purpose was to maintain Florence's independence, Francesco's loyalties were not so clear. He taxed his subjects heavily but diverted large sums to the empires of Austria and Spain.  He continued his father's patronage of the arts, supporting artists and building the Medici Theatre as well as founding the Accademia della Crusca and the Uffizi Gallery. He was also interested in chemistry and alchemy and spent many hours in his private laboratory.  It was his personal life that he is remembered for, beginning with an unhappy marriage to Joanna of Austria, youngest daughter of Ferdinand I, Holy Roman Emperor and Anne of Bohemia and Hungary.  Joanna was reportedly homesick for her native Austria, and Francesco was unfaithful from the start.  Read more… 

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Mina - pop star

Italy’s all-time top selling female artist

The pop singer Anna Maria Mazzini, better known simply as Mina, was born on this day in 1940 in the Lombardy city of Busto Arsizio.  Since her debut single in 1958, Mina has sold well in excess of 150 million records, which makes her the top-selling female performer in Italian music history. Only her fellow 60s star Adriano Celentano can boast larger figures.  The pair worked together on one of Italy’s biggest-selling albums of all-time in 1998. Mina Celentano sold an impressive 2.365 million copies. They revived the collaboration in 2016 with Tutte Le Migliori.  Mina also enjoys an iconic status in the history of female emancipation in Italy as a result of the sensational ban imposed on her by the state television station RAI in 1963 following her affair with a married actor, Corrado Pani, by whom she became pregnant.  Despite pressure from the Catholic Church, whose position as the guardians of Italy’s public morals was still very strong at the time, the broadcaster was forced by the weight of public opinion, as well as Mina’s unaffected record sales, to rescind the ban the following January.  Read more…

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Veronica Franco – courtesan and poet

The literary talent of a popular prostitute

The beautiful courtesan, Veronica Franco, was born on this day in 1546 in Venice.  A cortigiana onesta, literally 'honest courtesan', but really meaning intellectual and high class, Veronica is remembered for the quality of her poetry as well as her profession.  In the 16th century Venice was renowned for the number of its courtesans and Veronica became one of the most famous of them.  She had three brothers who were educated by tutors and fortunately her mother, a former cortigiana onesta herself, had ensured that Veronica shared that education.  Veronica was married in her mid-teens to a physician, but she soon initiated divorce proceedings.  She asked her husband to return her dowry but he refused, and with a young child to support, she had no choice but to become a courtesan.  She was a great success and was able to support her family well for the next few years.  By the time she was 20, Veronica was among the most popular and respected courtesans in Venice.  Among her clients were King Henry III of France and Domenico Venier, a wealthy poet whose salon she joined.  As a member of the Venetian literati, Veronica participated in discussions and contributed to collections of poetry.  Read more…

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Giambattista Marino – poet

The colourful life of an influential literary figure

A portrait of Giambattista Marino by Caravaggio, painted in about 1600
A portrait of Giambattista Marino by
Caravaggio, painted in about 1600
Controversial poet Giambattista Marino, who founded the school of Marinism that dominated 17th century Italian poetry, died on this day in 1625 in Naples.

Marino’s poetry was translated into other languages and many other poets imitated his use of complicated wordplay, elaborate conceits and metaphors.

But although Marino’s work was praised throughout Europe, he led a chaotic life, was frequently short of money and at times arrested and imprisoned for alleged immorality.

Marino, sometimes referred to as Marini, was born in Naples in 1569. He trained for the law, under pressure from his parents, but later rebelled and refused to practise his profession.

From 1590 onwards, he spent his time travelling in Italy and France and enjoying the success of his poetry. His work was circulated in manuscript form to great acclaim and later in his life he managed to get some of it published, despite censorship.

In 1596 he wrote La Sampogna (The Syrinx), a series of sensual verses, but he was unable to publish them until 1620.

While working as secretary to a Neapolitan prince he was arrested in both 1598 and 1600 on charges of immorality, but on both occasions his admirers managed to secure his release from prison. One of his arrests was for procuring an abortion for the daughter of the Mayor of Naples and the other for forging episcopal bulls to save the life of a friend who had been involved in a duel.

Some of his defenders and some of his detractors have claimed that Marino himself had homosexual tendencies, but this practice was persecuted during the Counter Reformation and so Marino would not have been open about it.

The front cover of an edition of Marino's Adone, dated 1623
The front cover of an edition of
Marino's Adone, dated 1623
After moving to Rome, Marino attached himself to Cardinal Pietro Aldobrandini, a nephew of Pope Clement VIII, and they travelled round Italy together. Marino tried to get some of his poetry published while they were in Parma but was prevented by the Inquisition.

But in 1602 he was able to publish some of his early poetry as Le rime (The Rhymes) and La lira (The Lyre).

While living in Turin between 1608 and 1615, he enjoyed the patronage of the Duke of Savoy, but he was the victim of an assassination attempt by a rival poet and he was imprisoned yet again after writing satirical poems.

After friends had managed to secure his release, Marino went to Paris, where he lived until 1623 under the patronage of Marie de’ Medici and her son, Louis XIII.

While in Paris, Marino published his most important work, Adone, an epic poem of 45,000 lines that tells the love story of Venus and Adonis. This was dedicated to Louis XIII. Although critics have praised some of its brilliant passages, they have also criticised the poet’s excessive use of wordplay and metaphors in it.

Marino returned to Italy in 1623 and lived in Naples until his death. He is buried in the Chiesa dei Santi Apostoli in Naples.

Marinism, also sometimes referred to as Secentismo, 17th century style, is a reaction against classicism and uses extravagant metaphors and hyperbole to tell stories with the intention of startling the reader. Marino’s imitators carried this style to such excess that by the end of the 17th century the term marinism began to be used in a pejorative way.

However, after World War II, there was a revival of interest in this style of poetry and a reassessment of the merits of Marino and Marinism.

The Cambridge History of Italian Literature judged Marino to be one of the greatest Italian poets of all time.

The western facade of the Royal Palace, overlooking Piazza del Plebiscito
The western facade of the Royal Palace,
overlooking Piazza del Plebiscito
Travel tip:

Giambattista Marino would have been able to admire the newly built Royal Palace in Naples when he returned from France to live in the city again in 1623.  The palace, which opens on to the Piazza del Plebiscito, was completed in 1620 to designs by the architect Domenico Fontana. In 1734, with the arrival of Charles III of Spain to Naples, the palace became the royal residence of the Bourbons. Additions have been made over the years, including the connecting Teatro San Carlo, which opened in 1737 and is now the oldest working opera house in the world.  The series of niche statues on the western facade, the one that faces the piazza, were added in 1888, commissioned by King Umberto I of Savoy.

The nave of the church of Santi Apostoli in Naples, where Marino is buried
The nave of the church of Santi Apostoli
in Naples, where Marino is buried
Travel tip:

Marino’s tomb is in the Chiesa dei Santi Apostoli in Via Anticaglia in Naples, not far from the historic centre of the city. The Baroque church was built on the site of a Roman temple and given to the Theatine Order in 1570. A cloister and monastery was added in 1590 and early in the 17th century, the church was reconstructed by Giacomo Conforti. Inside, visitors can admire a large fresco depicting Paradise (1684) by Giovanni Battista Benasca in the cupola and works by other painters including Marco da Siena, Luca Giordano and Francesco Solimena. 




Also on this day:

1347: The birth of Saint Catherine of Siena

1541: The birth of Francesco I, Grand Duke of Tuscany

1546: The birth of poet and courtesan Veronica Franco

1927: The birth of politician Tina Anselmi, Italy’s first female minister

1940: The birth of pop megastar Mina


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24 March 2023

24 March

Dario Fo – writer and actor

Prolific playwright put the spotlight on corruption

Playwright and all-round entertainer Dario Fo was born in Leggiuno Sangiano in the Province of Varese in Lombardy on this day in 1926.  His plays have been widely performed and translated into many different languages. He is perhaps most well known for Accidental Death of an Anarchist and Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1997.  Fo’s early work is peppered with criticisms of the corruption, crime, and racism that affected life in Italy at the time. He later moved on to ridicule Forza Italia and Silvio Berlusconi and more recently his targets have included the banks and big business.  He was brought up near the shores of Lago Maggiore but moved to Milan to study. During the war he served with several branches of the forces before deserting. He returned to Milan to study architecture but gave it up to paint and work in small theatres presenting improvised monologues. In the 1950s Fo worked in radio and on stage performing his own work. He met and later married actress Franca Rame and they had a son, Jacopo, who also became a writer.  Read more…

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Luigi Einaudi - politician and winemaker

Composer's grandfather was President of the Republic

The politician, economist, journalist and winemaker Luigi Einaudi was born on this day in 1874 in Carrù, in the province of Cuneo in what is now Piedmont.   Einaudi, who is the grandfather of the musician and composer Ludovico Einaudi and the father of publisher Giulio Einaudi, was elected President of the new Italian Republic between 1948 and 1955, the second person to occupy the post.  He was actively involved with politics from his university days, when he supported socialist movements.  For a decade he edited a socialist magazine but later took a more conservative position. After being appointed to the Senate of the Kingdom of Italy in 1919, in the days when the upper house of the Italian parliament was a non-elected body, he was one of the signatories in forming the Italian Liberal Party (PLI).  The PLI initially joined forces with the Italian Fascists and it was through their support that Mussolini was able to win the 1924 general election with an absolute majority.  Einaudi had been both a journalist and an academic since graduating in law from Turin University in 1895.  Read more…

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Guido Menasci - poet, librettist and biographer

Respected writer and historian who found fame from an opera

The writer Guido Menasci, who is best known as a co-author of the libretto for composer Pietro Mascagni’s successful opera Cavalleria rusticana but was also a respected historian, was born on this day in 1867 in the Tuscan port of Livorno.  Menasci, a law graduate from the University of Pisa and briefly a prosecutor at the Court of Appeal in Lucca, wrote for a number of literary magazines in Italy and beyond and produced a biography of the German poet and playwright Johann Wolfgang Goethe that is considered a definitive work.  Fluent in French as well as Italian, he published books and gave lectures in Paris, often on the subject of art history, which was another of his fascinations.  Yet he was most famous for his work with Mascagni and his fellow librettist, Giovanni Targioni-Tozzetti, whom he met through his involvement with literary and cultural societies in Livorno, where all three grew up.  They collaborated on a number of operas, the most famous of which by some way was Cavalleria rusticana, which was performed for the first time in 1890, at the Teatro Costanzi in Rome.   Based on a novella of the same name by Giovanni Verga, Cavalleria rusticana is a simple story of betrayal and revenge.  Read more…

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Giorgio Gori - politician

Mayor who steered city of Bergamo through Covid nightmare

The politician Giorgio Gori, who as Mayor of Bergamo became one of the spokespersons for Italy during the first stage of the Covid-19 pandemic, was born in Bergamo on this day in 1960.  Of 158,000 deaths from the virus in Italy since it was identified in a patient from the town of Codogno in February 2020, more than 39,000 have been in the Lombardy region, with the city of Bergamo and the surrounding area suffering the heaviest toll.  Bergamo province lost 4,500 citizens in the first month of the pandemic alone and is haunted by the image of a convoy of military vehicles carrying coffins away for cremation elsewhere because the city’s own crematorium could no longer cope with the numbers of dead.  As television crews descended on the city, Gori regularly agreed to be interviewed on camera and thus was seen by audiences in many countries as the story of Covid-19’s devastating impact on Italy dominated news bulletins.  Gori’s own background is in the media. Educated in the magnificent but traditionally demanding surroundings of the Liceo Classico Paolo Sarpi in Bergamo’s historic Città Alta, he went on to study architecture at the University of Milan but at the same time began to contribute to local newspapers, including L’Eco di Bergamo and Bergamo-Oggi, and the city’s own television station, BergamoTV.  Read more…

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Mimmo Jodice - photographer

Camera work with shades of metaphysical art

Domenico ‘Mimmo’ Jodice, who has been a major influence on artistic photography in Italy for half a century, was born on this day in 1934 in Naples.  Jodice, who was professor of photography at the Accademia di Belle Arti di Napoli from 1969 to 1996, is best known for his atmospheric photographs of urban scenes, especially in his home city.  Often these pictures reflected his fascination with how Italian cities habitually mix the present and the future with echoes of the past in their urban landscapes, with the incongruous juxtapositions of ancient and modern that were characteristic of metaphysical art occurring naturally as part of urban evolution.  His books Vedute di Napoli (Views of Naples) and Lost in Seeing: Dreams and Visions of Italy have been international bestsellers and he has exhibited his work all over the world.  Born in the Sanità district of Naples, Jodice was the second of four children. His father died when he was still a boy and the requirement that he find work as soon as he was able meant he had only a limited education.  Nonetheless, he was drawn towards art and the theatre, classical music and jazz.  Read more…


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23 March 2023

23 March

Lorenzino de’ Medici - assassin

Mystery over motive for killing cousin

Lorenzino de’ Medici, who became famous for the assassination of his cousin, the Florentine ruler Alessandro de’ Medici, was born on this day in 1514 in Florence.  The killing took place on the evening of January 6, 1537.  The two young men - Alessandro was just four years older - were ostensibly friends and Lorenzino was easily able to lure Alessandro to his apartments in Florence on the promise of a night of passion with a woman who had agreed to meet him there.  Lorenzino, sometimes known as Lorenzaccio, left him alone, promising to return with the woman in question, at which point Alessandro dismissed his entourage and waited in the apartments.  When Lorenzino did return, however, it was not with a female companion but with his servant, Piero, and the two attacked Alessandro with swords and daggers. Although a struggle ensued, they killed him.  The motive has been debated for centuries. One theory was that it was an act of revenge following a legal controversy the previous year, when Alessandro sided against Lorenzino in a dispute over the inheritance of his great, great grandfather, Pierfrancesco the Elder.  Read more…

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Ugo Tognazzi - comic actor

Achieved international fame through La Cage aux Folles

Ugo Tognazzi, the actor who achieved international fame in the film La Cage aux Folles, was born on this day in 1922 in Cremona.  Renowned for his wide repertoire in portraying comic characters, Tognazzi made more than 62 films and worked with many of Italy's top directors.  Along with Vittorio Gassman, Alberto Sordi and Nino Manfredi, Tognazzi was regarded as one of the four top stars of commedia all'italiana - comedy the Italian way - in the 1960s and 1970s.  In 1981 he won the award for best actor at the Cannes International Film Festival for his role in Bernardo Bertolucci's Tragedia di un Uomo Ridicolo (The Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man).  His work was widely acclaimed in Italy, but it was not until he was cast in the role of homosexual cabaret owner Renato Baldi in the French director Édouard Molinaro's 1979 movie La Cage Aux Folles that he became known outside Italy.   The film became in its time the most successful foreign language film ever released in the United States, with box office receipts of more than $20 million.  The film spawned two sequels in which Tognazzi reprieved the role of the mincing Baldi, who in the story was the joint owner of a night club in St Tropez that specialised in drag acts.  Read more…

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Franco Battiato – singer-songwriter

Long career of a musical philosopher

One of the most popular singer-songwriters in Italy, Franco Battiato, was born on this day in 1945 in Ionia in Sicily.  Nicknamed Il Maestro, Battiato has written many songs with philosophical and religious themes. He has also had a long-lasting professional relationship with Italian singer Alice, with whom he represented Italy at the 1984 Eurovision Song Contest.  Battiato graduated from high school at the Liceo Scientifico Archimede in Acireale, a city in the province of Catania in Sicily.  He went to Rome and then moved on to Milan, where he won his first musical contract. After his first single, La Torre, was released, Battiato performed the song on television. After some success with the romantic song E l’amore, he released the science fiction single La convenzione, which was judged to be one of the finest Italian progressive rock songs of the 1970s.  The albums of electronic music he produced in the ‘70s, obscure at the time, are now sought after by collectors.  His popularity grew after he moved away from progressive rock to a more mainstream pop style, producing music that was regarded as elegant, yet easy to listen to. Read more…

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The founding of the Italian Fascists

Mussolini launched party at 1919 Milan rally

Italy's notorious dictator Benito Mussolini officially formed what would become known as the National Fascist Party on this day in 1919 at a rally in Milan's Piazza San Sepolcro.  A war veteran and former socialist activist who had moved towards a more nationalist political stance, Mussolini initially drew his followers together as the Fasci Italiani di Combattimento (Italian Combat Group).  This group evolved into the Partito Nazionale Fascista (PNF) two years later, sweeping to power in 1922 when King Victor Emmanuel III, fearing civil war after 30,000 of Mussolini's supporters, the Blackshirts, marched on Rome, asked Mussolini to form a government.  Born the son of a blacksmith in Predappio, in Emilia-Romagna, Mussolini had been an active socialist, first in Switzerland, where he had moved as a 19-year-old to seek work and avoid military service, and again when he returned to Italy.  He became a leading figure in the Italian Socialist Party (PSI) and edited the left-wing newspaper Avanti.  But he was expelled by the PSI because of his opposition to the party's neutral stance on the First World War.  Read more…


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22 March 2023

22 March

NEW - Vittorio Emanuele II Monument - Rome landmark

‘Altar of the Fatherland’ built to honour unified Italy’s first king

The foundation stone of Rome’s huge Monument to Vittorio Emanuele II was laid on this day in 1885 in the presence of his son and successor Umberto I and his family.  The monument, which took half a century to fully complete, occupies a site on the northern slope of the Capitoline (Campidoglio) Hill on the south-eastern side of the modern city centre, a few steps from the ruins of the Forum, the heart of ancient Rome.  Built in white Botticino marble, the multi-tiered monument is 135m (443 ft) wide, 130m (427 ft) deep, and 70m (230 ft) high, rising to 81m (266ft) including the two statues of a chariot-mounted winged goddess Victoria on the summit of the two propylaea.  Its appearance has earned it various nicknames, ranging from the ‘wedding cake’ to the ‘typewriter’, although it is officially known as Vittoriano or Altare della Patria.  The Altar of the Fatherland is actually just one part of the monument, at the front and in the centre, consisting of an inset statue of the goddess Roma and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, where two soldiers guard an eternal flame.  Above it is a large bronze horse-back statue of Vittorio Emanuele II himself on a central plinth in front of the broad upper colonnade.  Read more…

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Michele Sindona - fraudster and killer

Failed banker ordered murder of investigating lawyer

The shadowy banker Michele Sindona, who had links to underworld figures in Italy and America as well as prominent politicians, died in hospital in the Lombardy town of Voghera, 70km (43 miles) south of Milan, on this day in 1986.  His death, attributed to cyanide poisoning, came four days after he had been sentenced to life imprisonment for ordering the killing of a lawyer investigating the collapse of his $450 million financial empire.  His own lawyer claimed Sindona had been murdered but although it was never established beyond doubt, the circumstances of his death, caused by drinking coffee laced with the poison at breakfast in Voghera's maximum-security prison, pointed towards suicide.  During his chequered career, which also saw him sentenced to 25 years' jail in America for fraud following the failure of the Franklin National Bank on Long Island, Sindona had links with Mafia bosses in Sicily and New York, with the illegal Propaganda Due masonic lodge and with the controversial head of the Vatican Bank, the American Archbishop, Paul Marcinkus.  He had close ties with another Vatican Bank client who met an untimely death, Roberto Calvi. Read more…

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Nino Manfredi - actor and director

Totò fan became maestro of commedia all’italiana

The actor and director Saturnino ‘Nino’ Manfredi, who would become known as the last great actor of the commedia all’italiana genre, was born on this day in 1921 in Castro dei Volsci, near Frosinone in Lazio.  Manfredi made more than 100 movies, often playing marginalised working-class figures in the bittersweet comedies that characterised the genre, which frequently tackled important social issues and poked irreverent fun at some of the more absurd aspects of Italian life, in particular the suffocating influence of the church.  He was a favourite of directors such as Dino Risi, Luigi Comencini, Ettore Scola and Franco Brusati, who directed him in the award-winning Pane and cioccolata (Bread and Chocolate), which evoked the tragicomic existence of immigrant workers and was considered one of his finest performances.  It helped him fulfil his dream of following in the footsteps of his boyhood idol Totò, the Neapolitan comic actor whose eccentric characters took enormous liberties in mocking Italian institutions, and to be spoken off in the company of Ugo Tognazzi, Vittorio Gassman and Alberto Sordi as a true maestro of commedia all’italiana.  Read more…

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'La Castiglione' – model and secret agent

Beautiful woman helped the cause of Italian unification

Virginia Oldoini, who became known as La Castiglione, was born on this day in 1837 in Florence.  She became the mistress of the Emperor Napoleon III of France and also made an important contribution to the early development of photography.  She was born Virginia Oldoini to parents who were part of the Tuscan nobility, but originally came from La Spezia in Liguria. At the age of 17 she married the Count of Castiglione, who was 12 years older than her, and they had one son, Giorgio.  Her cousin was Camillo, Count of Cavour, who was the prime minister to Victor Emmanuel II, the King of Sardinia, later to become the first King of a united Italy.  When the Countess travelled with her husband to Paris in 1855, Cavour asked her to plead the cause of Italian unity with Napoleon III.  Considered to be the most beautiful woman of her day, she became Napoleon III’s mistress and her husband demanded a separation. During her relationship with Napoleon III she influenced Franco-Italian political relations, mingled with European nobility and met Otto von Bismarck.  She became known both for her beauty and elaborate clothes.  Read more…


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Vittorio Emanuele II Monument - Rome landmark

 ‘Altar of the Fatherland’ built to honour unified Italy’s first king

The Monument's multi-layered construction in white marble has earned it the nickname the 'wedding cake
The Monument's multi-layered construction in white
marble has earned it the nickname the 'wedding cake'
The foundation stone of Rome’s huge Monument to Vittorio Emanuele II was laid on this day in 1885 in the presence of his son and successor Umberto I and his family.

The monument, which took half a century to fully complete, occupies a site on the northern slope of the Capitoline (Campidoglio) Hill on the south-eastern side of the modern city centre, a few steps from the ruins of the Forum, the heart of ancient Rome.

Built in white Botticino marble, the multi-tiered monument is 135m (443 ft) wide, 130m (427 ft) deep, and 70m (230 ft) high, rising to 81m (266ft) including the two statues of a chariot-mounted winged goddess Victoria on the summit of the two propylaea. 

Its appearance has earned it various nicknames, ranging from the ‘wedding cake’ to the ‘typewriter’, although it is officially known as Vittoriano or Altare della Patria - the Altar of the Fatherland.

The Altare della Patria is actually just one part of the monument, at the front and in the centre, consisting of an inset statue of the goddess Roma and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, where two soldiers guard an eternal flame.

Vittorio Emanuele II is commemorated with a huge bronze statue at the front of the monument
Vittorio Emanuele II is commemorated with a
huge bronze statue at the front of the monument
Above it is a large bronze horse-back statue of Vittorio Emanuele II himself on a central plinth in front of the broad upper colonnade.  The statue, 10m (33ft) long and 12m (40ft) high, is said to have been made with 50 tons of bronze obtained by melting down army cannons.

Officially opened in 1911 on the 50th anniversary of the Unification of Italy, the monument has become a national symbol of Italy, representing the values of freedom and unity, which are represented in the two chariots atop the propylaea - on the left is the Quadriga dell'Unità by Carlo Fontana, on the right the Quadriga della Libertà by Paolo Bartolini.

The Vittoriano has an important ceremonial role. On three occasions each year - on Liberation Day (April 25), Republic Day (June 2) and Armed Forces Day (November 4) - the President of the Republic lays a laurel wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier to honour those who sacrificed their lives in the service of the country.

It also houses the Museo Centrale del Risorgimento Italiano al Vittoriano, the museum that commemorates the decades-long struggle for Italian unification, known as the Risorgimento.

The idea of building a permanent monument to Vittorio Emanuele II was first mooted soon after his death in 1878, when a Royal Commission set up to have responsibility for the project invited architects to put forward their ideas in a competition.

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, where the Italian president lays a laurel wreath on state occasions
The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, where the Italian
president lays a laurel wreath on state occasions
The winner was a French designer, Henri-Paul Nénot. However, the idea of entrusting a non-Italian with what would become a symbol of the nation provoked such fierce opposition, not least because Nénot’s entry was one he had previously submitted for a project in Paris, that the contest was declared void and another one staged.

After the Commission could not decide between designs submitted by the Italians Manfredo Manfredi and Giuseppe Sacconi, and the German Bruno Schmitz, a third contest took place, which was won by Sacconi, an architect from Le Marche, whose design envisaged a neoclassical interpretation of the nearby Forum.

Such was the scale of the project, including the vast Piazza Venezia that the monument overlooks, a wide area of mediaeval and Renaissance streets and buildings had to be demolished. A small building to the right of the Vittoriano, at the foot of the stairway leading to the adjoining Basilica di Santa Maria in Ara Coeli, is all that remains.

Building proceeded slowly and was still some way from complete when Sacconi died in 1905. The project was continued by Gaetano Koch, Manfredi and Pio Piacentini and though it was inaugurated during the international exhibition for the 50th anniversary of unification in 1911, it was not considered complete until 24 years later.

During this time, the body of the Italian Unknown Soldier was placed in the crypt under the statue of the goddess Roma. This took place on Armed Forces Day in 1921, when the remains of an unidentified soldier killed in the First World War were interred in a solemn ceremony and the eternal flame was lit.

Finally, in 1935, the monument was declared to be fully completed with the addition of the museum of the Risorgimento, which occupies the space between the propylaea on the upper level. 

The entrance to the Museo del Risorgimento can be found on Via San Pietro in Carcere
The entrance to the Museo del Risorgimento
can be found on Via San Pietro in Carcere
Travel tip:

Open to the public since 1970, the Museo Centrale del Risorgimento Italiano - the National Museum of the Risorgimento - takes visitors on a tour of the Risorgimento in 14 stages, beginning with the Napoleonic period at the end of the 18th century and ending with the First World War, marking major events such as the uprising known as the Five Days of Milan, the two wars of independence and Giuseppe Garibaldi’s Expedition of the Thousand. It celebrates the roles of Garibaldi, the revolutionary philosopher Giuseppe Mazzini, the politician Cavour (Camillo Benso, Count of Cavour) and Vittorio Emanuele II himself. Visitors access the museum via an entrance on Via San Pietro in Carcere, to the rear of the monument.

Rome's ancient Forum, an area of extensive ruins, is one of the city's most popular attractions
Rome's ancient Forum, an area of extensive ruins,
is one of the city's most popular attractions
Travel tip:

Rome's historic Forum, the ruins of which can be found immediately behind the Vittoriano, was at the heart both of the ancient city of Rome and the Roman Empire itself, the nucleus of political affairs and commercial business, a place where elections took place and great speeches were made.  The site fell into disrepair with the fall of the empire and over time buildings were dismantled for the stone and marble, with much debris left behind.  Eventually it was abandoned and became overgrown and was used mainly for grazing cattle.  Attempts at uncovering and restoring buildings began in the early 19th century and the process of excavating areas long buried continues today.  The impressive and extensive ruins are now one of Rome's major tourist attractions.  The site opens at 8.30am and closes one hour before sunset and visitors should allow at least two hours to explore.

Also on this day:

1837: The birth of ‘La Castiglione’ - mistress of Napoleon III

1921: The birth of actor and director Nino Manfredi

1986: The death of fraudster Michele Sindona


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21 March 2023

21 March

Alberto Marvelli - Rimini's Good Samaritan

Heroic deeds helped victims of bombing raids

Alberto Marvelli, who came to be seen as a modern day Good Samaritan after risking his life repeatedly to help the victims of devastating air raids in the Second World War, was born on this day in 1918 in Ferrara.  He died in 1946 at the age of only 28 when he was struck by a truck while riding his bicycle but in his short life identified himself to many as a true hero.  He was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 2004.  Marvelli's acts of heroism occurred mainly in Rimini, his adopted hometown, which suffered heavy bombing from the Allies due to its proximity to the Gothic or Green Line, a wide belt of German defensive fortifications that ran across the whole peninsula from La Spezia to the Adriatic coast.  As well as giving aid and comfort to the wounded and dying and to those whose homes and possessions had been destroyed, Marvelli also rescued many Rimini citizens from trains destined for concentration camps.  Alberto was the second of six children born to Luigi Marvelli and Maria Mayr. Growing up, he was set a powerful example by his mother, who always kept open house for the poor and regularly gave away food intended for her own family.  Read more…

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AC Milan pay record fee for Ruud Gullit

Signing of Dutch star sparked new era of success

A new golden era in the history of the AC Milan football club effectively began on this day in 1987 when the club agreed a world record transfer fee of £6 million - the equivalent of about £14.5 million (€16.8 million) today - to sign the attacking midfielder Ruud Gullit from the Dutch champions PSV Eindhoven.  The captain of The Netherlands national team that would be crowned European champions the following year, Gullit was regarded as one of the world’s best players at the time and his arrival in Milan caused huge excitement.  Thousands of Milan supporters turned out to greet him on the day he arrived in the city, so many that the car taking him from the airport to the club’s headquarters needed a police escort with sirens blaring in order to forge a path through the crowds.  Those fans correctly sensed that Gullit’s signing would bring a change of fortunes for the rossoneri after a dark period in their history.  Traditionally one of Italian football’s most powerful clubs, Milan had won the scudetto - the Italian championship - for the 10th time in 1979 but the following year were embroiled in the match-fixing scandal known as Totonero and as a punishment were relegated to Serie B - the second division - for the first time in their history.  Read more…

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Benedetta Cambiagio Frassinello – Educator

Nun who promoted the rights of girls to a quality education

The Feast Day of Saint Benedetta Cambiagio Frassinello, who founded the Benedictine Sisters of Providence, is celebrated on this day, the anniversary of her death in 1858.  Benedetta carried out pioneering work by rescuing poor and abandoned girls and promoting their rights to a good education. She was made a saint by Pope John Paul II in 2002.  Benedetta was born in 1791 in Genoa but her family later moved to Pavia. As a young girl she wanted to consecrate her life to God, but obeying her parents’ wishes, she married Giovanni Battista Frassinello when she was 24.  After two years of marriage, during which they had no children, they decided to live a celibate life and stay together as brother and sister. They both later joined religious orders but Benedetta was forced to leave and return to live in Pavia again because of ill health.  When she was well again she dedicated herself to the education of the many young girls who had been abandoned or who were at risk in the area. There was so much work that the local Bishop asked her husband to leave his religious order to help her.  She was helped by young women volunteers.  Read more…

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Angela Merici – Saint

Nun dedicated her life to educating girls

Angela Merici, who founded the monastic Ursuline Order, was born on this day in 1474 in Desenzano del Garda, then part of the republic of Venice.  The Ursulines are the oldest order of women in the Roman Catholic Church dedicated to teaching and were the first to work outside a convent in the community.  Merici was orphaned at the age of 15 and sent to Salò to live in the home of an uncle, where she became deeply religious and joined the Third Order of Saint Francis.  She returned to Desenzano after the death of her uncle when she was 20 and found that many of the young girls in her home town received no education and had no hope of a better future.  Merici gathered together a group of girls to teach the catechism to the young children.  Then, in 1506, while praying in the fields, she had a vision that she would found a society of virgins in the town of Brescia.  It is claimed Merici became suddenly blind when she was on the island of Crete on her way to the Holy Land but continued on her journey. She is believed to have been cured of her blindness on her return, while praying at exactly the same place where she had been afflicted.  Read more…

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20 March 2023

20 March

Azeglio Vicini - 1990 World Cup coach

Semi-final heartbreak ended dream of victory on home soil

Azeglio Vicini, the coach who led Italy to the semi-finals when the nation hosted the 1990 World Cup finals, was born in the city of Cesena in Emilia-Romagna, on this day in 1934. Vicini worked for the Italian Football Federation for an unbroken 23 years in various roles, having joined their technical staff in 1968 after less than one season as a coach at club level. He was head coach of the Italy Under-23 and Italy Under-21 teams before succeeding World Cup winner Enzo Bearzot as coach of the senior Italy side in 1986.  Vicini's brief with the senior team was an onerous one.  When Italy won the right to host the 1990 World Cup finals there was an expectation among Italian football's hierarchy that a nation with such a proud history should be capable of winning the tournament on home soil. Responsibility for producing a team good enough rested squarely on Vicini's shoulders but he was well prepared, having guided his under-21 team to the later stages of the European Championships consistently and brought through the likes of Roberto Mancini, Giuseppe Giannini, Roberto Donadoni, Walter Zenga and Gianluca Vialli.  Read more…

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Fulco di Verdura - jeweller

Exclusive brand favoured by stars and royalty

The man behind the exclusive jewellery brand Verdura was born Fulco Santostefano della Cerda, Duke of Verdura, on this day in 1898 in Palermo. Usually known as Fulco di Verdura, he founded the Verdura company in 1939, when he opened a shop on Fifth Avenue in New York and became one of the premier jewellery designers of the 20th century.  Well connected through his own heritage and through his friendship with the songwriter Cole Porter, Verdura found favour with royalty and with movie stars.  Among his clients were the Duchess of Windsor - the former socialite Wallis Simpson - and stars such as Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Rita Hayworth, Katharine Hepburn, Paulette Goddard, Millicent Rogers and Marlene Dietrich.  Although Verdura died in 1978, the company lives on and continues to specialise in using large, brightly coloured gemstones. The most expensive gemstone ever sold at auction, the so-called Oppenheimer Blue diamond, was set in a ring designed by Verdura. It changed hands at Christie's in Geneva for $50.6 million (£34.7 million) in May 2016.  The last to bear the now defunct Sicilian title of Duke of Verdura, Fulco grew up in aristocratic surroundings.  Read more…

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Giampiero Moretti - entrepreneur racing driver

Gentleman racer behind ubiquitous Momo accessories brand

Giampiero Moretti, a motor racing enthusiast who made his fortune almost literally by reinventing the wheel, was born on this day in 1940 in Milan.  Known as 'the last of the gentleman racers' because of his unfailing courtesy, refined manners and an unquenchable determination to succeed on the track, Moretti made a profound mark on the sport through his ergonomic rethink of the racecar steering wheel.  Steering wheels were traditionally large and made of steel or polished wood but Moretti saw that reducing the diameter of the wheel would cut the effort needed by the driver to steer the car, helping him conserve energy and creating a more comfortable driving position.  He also covered the wheel with leather to improve the driver's grip, and gave it a contoured surface.  He made the first one for a car he planned to race himself and there was soon interest among other drivers and he began to make more wheels.  His big break came when Ferrari invited him to design a leather wheel for their Formula One car.  Enzo Ferrari himself was a traditionalist who took some persuading that the tried-and-tested old steering wheel was not the best.  Read more…


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19 March 2023

19 March

NEW - Festa del Papà - Father’s Day

Italian celebration this year coincides with Mothering Sunday in UK

While today marks Mothering Sunday - or Mother’s Day - in the United Kingdom and elsewhere, the Italian tradition is that celebrations on this day in the religious calendar are for Father’s Day.   La Festa del Papà in Italy owes its history to La Festa di San Giuseppe - St Joseph’s Day - the annual celebration that has been held since the Middle Ages to recognise the role of Joseph, the husband of Mary, as the legal if not the biological father of Jesus Christ.  In Catholic tradition, Saint Joseph is the embodiment of the ideal father, a strong, pious character perfectly suited to fulfil his role as protector of and provider for his family.  For many years, the Festa di San Giuseppe - which always falls on March 19, regardless of whether it is a weekday or a weekend - remained a largely religious celebration. But, thanks to the growth of commercialism around family celebration days, it has taken a lead from Father’s Days around the world, and in particular the United States, and expanded into something bigger.  So nowadays, in common with Father’s Days around the world, La Festa del Papà is an occasion for children to show their appreciation and affection for their own fathers by making cards and giving treats and gifts.  Read more…

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Giuseppe Mercalli - seismologist

Scientist who invented Mercalli Scale died in fire

The seismologist and volcanologist Giuseppe Mercalli, who at the time of his death was director of the Vesuvius Observatory, died in a fire at his home in Naples on this day in 1914.  The initial suspicion was that Mercalli, who devised a scale for determining the strength of earthquakes according to the intensity of shaking, had knocked over a paraffin lamp accidentally after falling asleep while working late.  However, an examination of his remains suggested he may have been strangled after disturbing an intruder, who then soaked his clothes in petrol before setting light to them. A sum of money worth the equivalent of $1,400 (€1,250) today was missing, although no one was ever apprehended for the crime.  Born in Milan, Mercalli was ordained a Roman Catholic priest and became a professor of Natural Sciences at the seminary of Milan, although he left under something of a cloud because of his support for Antonio Rosmini, a controversial priest and philosopher who campaigned for social justice and was fiercely critical of various aspects of how the Roman Catholic church operated.  Read more…

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Benito Jacovitti - cartoonist

Multiple comic characters loved by generations

Benito Jacovitti, who would become Italy's most famous cartoonist, was born on this day in 1923 in the Adriatic coastal town of Termoli.  Jacovitti drew for a number of satirical magazines and several newspapers but also produced much work aimed at children and young adults.  His characters became the constant companions of generations of schoolchildren for more than 30 years via the pages of Diario Vitt, the school diary produced by the publishers of the Catholic comic magazine Il Vittorioso, which had a huge readership among teenagers and young adults, and for which Jacovitti drew from 1939 until it closed in 1969.  Jacovitti gave life to such characters as "the three Ps" - Pippo, Pertica and Pallo - as well as Chicchiriccì and Jack Mandolino via their cartoon adventures in Il Vittorioso, introduced Zorry Kid, a parody of Zorro, through a later association with children's journal Il Corriere del Picoli, and the cowboy Cocco Bill, who emerged during his 10-year stint as cartoonist for the daily newspaper, Il Giorno.  Born Benito Franco Iacovitti, he was the son of a railway worker.  Read more…

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Francesco Gasparini – musician and writer

Opera composer who gave Vivaldi a job

Francesco Gasparini, one of the great Baroque composers, whose works were performed all over Europe, was born on this day in 1661 in Camaiore near Lucca in Tuscany.  Gasparini also worked as a music teacher and was musical director of the Ospedale della Pietà in Venice for about 15 years, where he made the inspired decision to employ a 25-year-old Antonio Vivaldi as a violin master.  By the age of 17, Gasparini was a member of the Philharmonic Academy of Bologna. He moved to Rome, where he studied under the musicians Arcangelo Corelli and Bernardo Pasquini. His first important opera, Roderico, was produced there in 1694.  After arriving in Venice in 1702, he became one of the leading composers in the city. He wrote the first opera to use the story of Hamlet - Ambleto - in 1705, although he did not base the work on Shakespeare’s play.  Gasparini was appointed musical director of the Ospedale della Pietà, an orphanage in Venice where young girls received a musical education. The most talented pupils stayed on to become members of the Ospedale’s orchestra and choir.  Read more…

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Filippo Mazzei – physician and businessman

Liberal thinker was praised by John F Kennedy

Globe-trotting doctor Filippo Mazzei, who was a close friend of the American president, Thomas Jefferson, died on this day in 1816 in Pisa in Tuscany.  During the American Revolutionary War, Mazzei had acted as an agent for Jefferson, purchasing arms for Virginia.  President John F Kennedy paid tribute to Mazzei’s contribution to the Declaration of Independence in his book, A Nation of Immigrants.  Mazzei was born in 1730 in Poggio a Caiano in Tuscany. He studied medicine in Florence and then practised in both Italy and Turkey. He moved to London in 1755 and set himself up in business as an importer, while also working as an Italian teacher.  In London he met both Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, who would become two of the Founding Fathers, and came up with the idea of importing Tuscan products, such as wine and olive trees, to the New World.  In 1773 Mazzei boarded a ship from Livorno to Virginia, taking with him plants, seeds, silkworms and farmers from Lucca.  He visited Jefferson at his estate in Virginia and was given a large piece of land to start an experimental plantation.  Mazzei and Jefferson started what was to become the first commercial vineyard in Virginia.  Read more…

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Mario Monti – prime minister

‘Super Mario’ stepped in during debt crisis

Economist Mario Monti, who was prime minister of Italy from 2011 to 2013, was born on this day in 1943 in Varese in Lombardy.  Monti was invited by Italian president Giorgio Napolitano to form a new government after the resignation of Silvio Berlusconi in November 2011 in the middle of the European debt crisis.  Monti, who was the 54th prime minister of Italy, led a government of technocrats, who introduced austerity measures in Italy.  Monti was born in Varese and, after attending a private school, went to Bocconi University in Milan, where he obtained a degree in Economics.  He was a European commissioner from 1994 to 1999, where he obtained the nickname ‘Super Mario’ from his colleagues and the Press.  In 1999 the prime minister at the time, Massimo D’Alema, appointed him to the new Prodi Commission, giving him responsibility for Competition.  He was made a lifetime senator by Giorgio Napolitano in November 2011 and a few days later he was invited to form a new government following Berlusconi’s resignation.  He appointed a technocratic cabinet composed entirely of unelected professionals.  Read more…

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