3 March 2023

3 March

Teatro Olimpico – Vicenza

Renaissance theatre still stages plays and concerts

The Teatro Olimpico in Vicenza , originally designed by Andrea Palladio, was inaugurated on this day in 1585.  A performance of Oedipus the King by Sophocles was given for its opening and the original scenery, which was meant to represent the streets of Thebes, has miraculously survived to this day.  The theatre was the last piece of architecture designed by Andrea Palladio and it was not completed until after his death.  The Teatro Olimpico is one of three Renaissance theatres remaining in existence and since 1994 it has been listed by Unesco as a World Heritage Site.  In 1579 Palladio was asked to produce a design for a permanent theatre in Vicenza and he decided to base it on the designs of Roman theatres he had studied.  After his death, only six months into the project, the architect Vincenzo Scamozzi was called in to complete it.  Scamozzi is credited with fulfilling Palladio's wish to use perspective in the design, creating the impression that the streets visible through the archways stretched into the distance.  The theatre is still used for plays and musical performance, but audiences are limited to 400 for conservation reasons.  Read more…


Charles Ponzi - fraudster

Name forever linked with investment scam

The swindler Charles Ponzi, whose notorious fraudulent investment scheme in 1920s America led his name to be immortalised in the lexicon of financial crimes, was born Carlo Ponzi in the town of Lugo di Romagna on this day in 1882.  Ponzi, who emigrated to the United States in 1903 but arrived there almost penniless, had been in prison twice - once for theft and a second time for smuggling Italian immigrants illegally into the US from Canada - when he came up with his scheme.  Always on the lookout for ways to make a fast buck, Ponzi identified a way to make profits through exploiting the worldwide market in international postal reply coupons.  This was not his scheme, simply the starting point.  These coupons, which allowed a correspondent in one country to pay for the cost of return postage from another country, were sold at a universal cover price but variations in exchange rates meant that a coupon bought in one country might be worth more in another.  Coupons bought in Italy, for example, could be exchanged for stamps in the US that could then be sold for several times more than the dollar-equivalent cost of the coupon in Italy.  Read more…


The Balvano Disaster

Italy’s worst but little known train tragedy

The Italian railway network suffered its worst accident on this day in 1944 when more than 600 passengers died from carbon monoxide poisoning after a train stopped in a tunnel just outside the small town of Balvano, on the border of Basilicata and Campania about 90km (56 miles) east of Salerno.  Yet, despite the death toll being perhaps nine times that of the country’s worst peacetime rail disaster, few Italians were aware that it had happened until author and historian Gianluca Barneschi wrote a book about it in 2014.  Because the tragedy took place during the final stages of the Second World War, when much of southern Italy was a battleground between German and Allied forces, it resonated as a news story for only a short time, the victims essentially added to Italy’s overall count of civilian casualties during the conflict, which is put at more than 150,000.  However, there was no military involvement in the disaster, which was purely an accident, albeit one that was in part caused by the circumstances of the time.  Barneschi discovered details in classified documents at Britain’s National Archives office in Kew, London.  Read more…


Ascanio Sforza – Cardinal

Borgia pope’s ally used his power to benefit Milan

Ascanio Maria Sforza Visconti, who became a skilled diplomat and a Cardinal of the Catholic Church, was born on this day in 1455 in Cremona in Lombardy.  He played a major part in the election of Rodrigo Borgia as Pope Alexander VI in the papal conclave of 1492 and served as Vice-Chancellor of the Holy Roman Church from 1492 until 1505.  Ascanio was the son of Francesco Sforza, Duke of Milan, and Bianca Maria Visconti. Two of his brothers, Galeazzo Maria Sforza and Ludovico Sforza, became Dukes of Milan, as did his nephew, Gian Galeazzo Sforza.  At the age of ten, Ascanio was named commendatory abbot of Chiaravalle and he was promised the red hat of a cardinal when he was in his teens. He was appointed Bishop of Pavia in 1479.  Pope Sixtus IV created him cardinal deacon of SS Vito e Modesto in March 1484. Pope Sixtus died in August before Ascanio’s formal ceremony of investiture had taken place and some of the cardinals objected to him participating in the conclave to elect the next pope.  Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia intervened on his behalf and Ascanio was received with all the rights of a cardinal. The conclave elected Giovanni Battista Cybo as Pope Innocent VIII.  Read more...


Sebastiano Venier – Doge of Venice

Victorious naval commander briefly ruled La Serenissima

Sebastiano Venier, who successfully commanded the Venetian contingent at the Battle of Lepanto, died on this day in 1578 in Venice.  He had been Doge of Venice for less than a year when fire badly damaged the Doge’s Palace. He died soon afterwards, supposedly as a result of the distress it had caused him.  Venier was born in Venice around 1496, the son of Moisè Venier and Elena Donà. He was descended from Pietro Venier, who governed Cerigo, one of the main Ionian islands off the coast of Greece, which was also known as Kythira.  Venier worked as a lawyer, although he had no formal qualifications, and he went on to become an administrator for the Government of the Republic of Venice. He was married to Cecilia Contarini, who bore him two sons and a daughter.  Venier was listed as procurator of St Mark’s in 1570, but by December of the same year, he was capitano generale da mar, the Admiral of the Venetian fleet, in the new war against the Ottoman Turks.  As the commander of the Venetian contingent at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571, he helped the Christian League decisively defeat the Turks.  Read more…


Nicola Porpora – composer and teacher

Tutor of celebrated opera singers died in poverty

Nicola Porpora, who composed more than 60 operas and was a brilliant singing teacher in Italy, died on this day in 1768 in Naples.  Among his many pupils were poet and librettist Pietro Metastasio, composers Johann Adolph Hasse and Joseph Haydn and the celebrated castrati, Farinelli (Carlo Broschi) and Caffarelli (Gaetano Majorano).  Porpora’s most important teaching post was in Venice at the Ospedale degli Incurabili, where there was a music school for girls, in which he taught between 1726 and 1733.  He then went to London as chief composer to the Opera of the Nobility, a company that had been formed in opposition to Royal composer George Frideric Handel’s opera company.  The composer had been born Nicola Antonio Giacinto Porpora in 1686 in Naples.  He graduated from the music conservatory, Poveri di Gesù Cristo, and his first opera, Agrippina, was a success at the Neapolitan court in 1708. His second opera, Berenice, was performed in Rome.  To support himself financially while composing, Porpora worked as maestro di cappella for aristocratic patrons and also taught singing.  Read more…



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