31 August 2023

31 August

Gino Lucetti – failed assassin

Anarchist tried to kill Mussolini with grenade

Gino Lucetti, who acquired notoriety for attempting to assassinate Italy’s Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini in Rome in 1926, was born on this day in 1900. A lifelong anarchist, part of a collective of like-minded young men and women from Carrara in Tuscany, he planned to kill Mussolini on the basis that doing so would save the lives of thousands of potential future victims of the Fascist regime.  Lucetti hatched his plot while in exile in France, where he had fled after taking a Fascist bullet in the neck following an argument in a bar in Milan, clandestinely returning several times to Carrara to finalise the details.  After enlisting the help of other anarchists, notably Steffano Vatteroni, who worked as a tinsmith in Rome, and Leandro Sorio, a waiter originally from Brescia, he returned to Rome to carry out the attack.  Vatteroni was able to obtain information about Mussolini’s movements from a clerical worker in the dictator’s Rome offices, including details of his regular motorcades through the city. These were carefully choreographed affairs in which cheering citizens lined the streets, enabling Mussolini to present an image to the world of a popular leader.  Read more…


Altiero Spinelli - political visionary

Drafted plan for European Union while in Fascist jail

Altiero Spinelli, a politician who is regarded as one of the founding fathers of the European Union, was born on this day in 1907 in Rome.  A lifelong Communist who was jailed for his opposition to the Fascist regime of Benito Mussolini, he spent much of the Second World War in confinement on the island of Ventotene in the Tyrrhenian Sea, one of an archipelago known as the Pontine Islands.  It was there that he and two prisoners, Ernesto Rossi and Eugenio Colorni, agreed that if the forces of Fascism in Italy and Germany were defeated, the only way to avoid future European wars was for the sovereign nations of the continent to join together in a federation of states.  The document they drew up, which became known as the Ventotene Manifesto, was the first document to argue for a European constitution and formed the basis for the Movimento Federalista Europeo, which Spinelli, Rossi and some 20 others launched at a secret meeting in Milan as soon as they were able to leave their internment camp.  In a nutshell, the Ventotene Manifesto put forward proposals for creating a European federation of states so closely joined together they would no longer be able to go to war with one another.  Read more…


Amilcare Ponchielli - opera composer

Success of La Gioconda put musician on map

The opera composer Amilcare Ponchielli was born on this day in 1834 in Paderno Fasolaro, near Cremona, about 100km south-east of Milan in what is now Lombardia.  Ponchielli's works in general enjoyed only modest success, despite the rich musical invention for which he was later applauded.  One that did win acclaim in his lifetime, however, was La Gioconda, which was first produced in 1876 and underwent several revisions but remained unaltered after 1880.  Well known for the tenor aria, Cielo e mar, and the ballet piece, Dance of the Hours, La Gioconda is the only opera by Ponchielli still performed today and many recordings have been made, featuring some of the biggest stars of recent times.  Maria Callas, Renata Tebaldi and Montserrat Caballé are among those to have played the role of Gioconda, written for soprano, while the lead tenor part of Enzo, whose affections are sought both by Gioconda and another major character, Laura, has been taken by Giuseppe Di Stefano, Carlo Bergonzi, Luciano Pavarotti and Placido Domingo among others.  Ponchielli had such a talent for music that he won a scholarship to Milan Conservatory at nine years old.  Read more…


Isabella de’ Medici – noblewoman

Tuscan beauty killed by her husband

Isabella Romola de’ Medici, the daughter of the first Grand Duke of Tuscany, was born on this day in 1542 in Florence.  She was said to have been beautiful, charming, educated and talented and was the favourite child of her father, Cosimo I de’ Medici.  But she died at the age of 33, believed to have been murdered by the husband her family had chosen for her to marry.  While Isabella was growing up she lived first in Palazzo Vecchio and later in Palazzo Pitti in Florence with her brothers and sisters. Her brother, Francesco, who was a year older than her, eventually succeeded his father as Grand Duke of Tuscany.  The Medici children were educated by tutors in classics, languages and the arts and Isabella particularly loved music.  When Isabella was 11 she was betrothed to 12-year-old Paolo Giordano Orsini, heir to the Duchy of Bracciano in Tuscany, because her father wanted to secure the southern border of Tuscany and his relationship with the Orsini family.  Five years later, when Isabella was 16, they were married at the Medici country estate, Villa di Castello.  Read more…


Luca Cordero di Montezemolo – aristocrat and businessman

Former driver who led Ferrari to Formula One success

Luca Cordero di Montezemolo, a former racing driver, chairman of Ferrari and Fiat and president of employers’ federation Confindustria, was born on this day in 1947 in Bologna.  He is one of the founders of NTV, an Italian company that is Europe’s first private, open access operator of 300km/h (186 mph) high-speed trains.  Montezemolo is a descendant of an aristocratic family from Piedmont, who served the Royal House of Savoy for generations. He is the youngest son of Massimo Cordero dei Marchesi di Montezemolo and Clotilde Neri, niece of the surgeon, Vincenzo Neri. His uncle was a commander in the Italian Navy in World War II and his grandfather and great grandfather were both Generals in the Italian Army.  After graduating with a degree in law from Rome Sapienza University in 1971, Montezemolo studied for a master’s degree in international commercial law at Columbia University.  His sporting career began at the wheel of a Giannini Fiat 500. He then drove briefly for the Lancia rally team, before joining the auto manufacturing conglomerate Fiat. In 1973 he moved to Ferrari, where he became Enzo Ferrari’s assistant. Read more… 


Book of the Day: Mussolini: The Rise and Fall of Il Duce, by Christopher Hibbert

With his signature insight and compelling style, Christopher Hibbert explains the extraordinary complexities and contradictions that characterized Benito Mussolini. Mussolini was born on a Sunday afternoon in 1883 in a village in central Italy. On a Saturday afternoon in 1945 he was shot by Communist partisans on the shores of Lake Como. In the sixty-two years in between those two fateful afternoons Mussolini lived one of the most dramatic lives in modern history. Hibbert traces Mussolini's unstoppable rise to power and details the nuances of his fascist ideology. This book examines Mussolini's legacy and reveals why he continues to be both revered and reviled by the Italian people.

Christopher Hibbert was an English writer, historian and biographer. He has been called "a pearl of biographers" (New Statesman) and "probably the most widely-read popular historian of our time and undoubtedly one of the most prolific" (The Times). Hibbert was a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and the author of many books, including The Story of England, Disraeli, Edward VII, George IV, The Rise and Fall of the House of Medici, and Cavaliers and Roundheads.

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30 August 2023

30 August

Joe Petrosino - New York crime fighter

Campanian immigrant a key figure in war against Mafia

Joe Petrosino, a New York police officer who dedicated his life to fighting organised crime, was born Giuseppe Petrosino in Padula, a southern Italian town on the border of Campania and Basilicata, on this day in 1860.  The son of a tailor, Prospero Petrosino, he emigrated to the United States at the age of 12.  The family lived in subsidised accommodation in Mulberry Street, part of the area now known as Little Italy on the Lower East Side towards Brooklyn Bridge, where around half a million Italian immigrants lived in the second half of the 19th century.  Giuseppe took any job he could to help the family, at first as a newspaper boy and then shining shoes outside the police headquarters on Mulberry Street, where he would dream of becoming a police officer himself.  In 1878, by then fluent in English and known to everyone as Joe, Petrosino became an American citizen but it took him five years and repeated applications to realise his dream of joining the police. At 5ft 3ins he was technically too short to meet the criteria for an officer but after the police began to use him as an informant it was decided he could be of use in the fight against Italian organised crime.  Read more…


Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo – painter and printmaker

Famous artist’s son developed his own style

Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo, who became famous for his paintings of Venetian life and of the clown, Pulcinella, was born on this day in 1727 in Venice.  Also known as Giandomenico Tiepolo, he was one of the nine children born to the artist Giovanni Battista Tiepolo and his wife, Maria Guardi, the sister of painters Francesco and Giovanni Guardi. Perhaps not surprisingly, Giandomenico inherited the talent to go into the same profession as his father and uncles and, by the age of 13, he had become the elder Tiepolo’s chief assistant. His younger brother, Lorenzo, also became a painter and worked as an assistant to his father.  By the age of 20, Giandomenico was already producing his own work for commissions. However, he continued to accompany his father when he received his major commissions in Italy, Germany and Spain.  He assisted his father with a grand stairwell fresco for a prince’s palace in Wurzburg in Bavaria in 1750 and with decorations for the Villa Valmarana ai Nani in Vicenza in 1757 and the Royal Palace of Madrid in 1770.  The elder Tiepolo died while in Madrid and after Giandomenico returned to live in Venice.  Read more…


Andrea Gabrieli - composer

Father of the Venetian School

The Venetian composer and organist Andrea Gabrieli, sometimes known as Andrea di Cannaregio, notable for his madrigals and large-scale choral works written for public ceremonies, died on this day in 1585.  His nephew, Giovanni Gabrieli, is more widely remembered yet Andrea, who was organist of the Basilica di San Marco – St Mark’s – for the last 19 years of his life, was a significant figure in his lifetime, the first member of the Venetian School of composers to achieve international renown. He was influential in spreading the Venetian style of music in Germany as well as in Italy.  Little is known about Andrea’s early life aside from the probability that he was born in the parish of San Geremia in Cannaregio and that he may have been a pupil of the Franco-Flemish composer Adrian Willaert, who was maestro di cappella at St Mark’s from 1527 until 1562.  In 1562 – the year of Willaert’s death – Andrea is on record as having travelled to Munich in Germany, where he met and became friends with Orlando di Lasso, who wrote secular songs in French, Italian, and German, as well as Latin.  There was evidence in the later work of Di Lasso of a Venetian influence. Read more…


Emanuele Filiberto – Duke of Savoy

Ruler who made Turin the capital of Savoy

Emanuele Filiberto of Savoy, who was nicknamed testa di ferro (iron head) because of his military prowess, died on this day in 1580 in Turin.  After becoming Duke of Savoy he recovered most of the lands his father Charles III had lost to France and Spain and he restored economic stability to Savoy.  Emanuele Filiberto was born in 1528 in Chambery, now part of France. He grew up to become a skilled soldier and served in the army of the emperor Charles V, who was the brother-in-law of his mother, Beatrice of Portugal, during his war against Francis I of France. He distinguished himself by capturing Hesdin in northern France in July 1553.  When he succeeded his father a month later he began the reacquisition of his lands.  His brilliant victory over the French at Saint Quentin in northern France in 1557 on the side of the Spanish helped to consolidate his power in Savoy. The peace of Cateau-Cambresis in 1559 ended the wars between Charles V and the French Kings and restored part of the Duchy of Savoy back to Emanuele Filiberto on the understanding that he would marry Margaret of France, the sister of King Henry II.   Read more…


Book of the Day: The Italian Squad: How the NYPD Took Down the Black Hand Extortion Racket, by Andrew Paul Mele

At the turn of the 20th century, thousands of Italian immigrants left their home country for the United States and, particularly, New York City. A small minority of the immigrants were members of a criminal syndicate that largely victimised fellow immigrants. The most common crime was a type of extortion known as "Black Hand." The methods of extortion were particularly violent, and included kidnapping, arson, and murder. The New York Police Department, unable to speak the language and unaware of the traditions of the immigrants, was virtually helpless in dealing with them. In 1904, Italian-American Lt. Detective Joseph Petrosino formed a group of Italian detectives to deal exclusively with the extortion crimes and the criminal underworld of Italian society in New York which had become known in the American press as "The Black Hand Society." This book tells the story of The Italian Squad from its inception, through Petrosino's death, to the squad's expansion into Queens and Brooklyn.

Andrew Paul Mele, who died in 2020 at the age of 81, was a Brooklyn-born former baseball player and army veteran. As well as The Italian Squad, he wrote books about the Brooklyn Dodgers baseball team and the Italian population of Staten Island, where he settled in later life.

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29 August 2023

29 August

Ugo Nespolo - artist and designer

Painter and sculptor worked in theatre, advertising and literature

The contemporary artist Ugo Nespolo, whose broad range of work includes paintings and sculpture, theatre sets and costumes, advertising posters, book layouts, commercial designs and experimental films, was born on this day in 1941 in the village of Mosso Santa Maria in the Biellese Prealps, about 70km (43 miles) northeast of Turin. As well as an enormous output of artworks influenced by Pop Art, conceptual art and Arte Povera among others and numerous sculptures in glass and ceramic, Nespolo created unique set and costume designs for a number of major opera and theatre productions and was associated with several prestigious advertising campaigns, including for the drinks manufacturer Campari and the chocolatier Caffarel.  Nespolo is described as having an insatiable artistic and intellectual appetite and a belief that no artist should confine himself to a single medium. He is said to have inherited those characteristics from his father, whose restless nature compelled him frequently to change jobs and where he - and his family - lived.  His interest in art was probably nurtured by his father’s brother, himself a painter.  Read more…


Libero Grassi - anti-Mafia hero

Businessman brutally murdered after refusing to pay

Libero Grassi, a Palermo clothing manufacturer, died on this day in 1991, shot three times in the head as he walked from his home to his car in Via Vittorio Alfieri, a street of apartment buildings not far from the historic centre, at 7.30am.  It was a classic Mafia hit to which there were no witnesses, at least none prepared to come forward. Such killings were not uncommon in the Sicilian capital as rival clans fought for control of different neighbourhoods.  Yet this one was different in that 67-year-old Grassi had no connection with the criminal underworld apart from his brave decision to stand up to their demands for protection money and refuse to pay.  Grassi owned a factory making underwear, which he sold in his own shop.  He employed 100 workers and his business had a healthy turnover. In a struggling economy, he was doing very well.  Of course, the Mafia wanted their cut.  Grassi began receiving demands, first by telephone, then in person, that he fall in line with other Palermo businesses and pay a pizzo, the term used for the monthly payment the mob collects from businesses in the city in a racket worth today in the region of €160 million a year.  Read more…


Tiziana ‘Tosca’ Donati - singer

Versatile performer whose range spans musicals to sacred songs

The singer Tiziana Donati, who performs under the stage name Tosca, was born on this day in 1967 in Rome.  Winner of the Sanremo Festival in 1996, Tosca has recorded 10 studio albums, released the same number of singles and has recorded duets with many other artists.  She has enjoyed a successful stage career, appearing in numerous theatrical productions, and has been invited to perform songs for several movies, including the title track for Franco Zeffirelli’s version of Jane Eyre in 1996. She also sang and spoke the part of Anastasia in the Italian dubbed version of the Disney cartoon of the same name.  At Christmas in 1999, she participated in concerts in churches in Italy where she performed Latin songs set to music by Vincenzo Zitello and Stefano Melone.  Following this she began a collaboration with the Vatican, taking part in several televised events to commemorate the Jubilee of 2000, and was chosen to sing the Mater Iubilaei, the Marian anthem of the Jubilee, in a ceremony led by Pope John Paul II.  Throughout 2000, she toured with Musica Caeli, a concert made up of never-before performed sacred chants.  Read more…


Leonardo De Lorenzo – flautist

Flair for the flute led to international career

Leonardo De Lorenzo, a brilliant flute player who passed on his knowledge of the instrument to others through his books, was born on this day in 1875 in Viggiano in the province of Potenza.  De Lorenzo started playing the flute at the age of eight and then moved to Naples to attend the music conservatory of San Pietro a Majella.  He became an itinerant flautist until he was 16, when he moved to America, where he worked in a hotel. He returned to Italy in 1896 to do his military service in Alessandria and became a member of a military band directed by Giovanni Moranzoni, whose son was to become a famous conductor of the orchestra at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.  De Lorenzo then began a career as a flautist and toured Italy, Germany, England and South Africa, joining an orchestra in Cape Town for a while. Eventually he returned to Naples to continue his studies.  When he travelled to America again, he became the first flautist of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra directed by Gustav Mahler. He was warned never to answer back to Mahler, who had a reputation for being unpleasant.  Read more…


Book of the Day: The Perfect Tonic: The Remarkable Medicinal History of Beer, Wine, Spirits and Cocktails, by Camper English

Consider the Negroni. The bittersweet cocktail dating to the early 1900s is made of equal parts gin, sweet vermouth and Campari. Gin takes its name and flavour from the juniper tree, which medieval doctors burned to ward off bubonic plague and other miasmas. ‘Vermouth’ comes from the German word for wormwood, a herb famous for its ability to rid the body of intestinal parasites. Campari is a brand of liqueur dating to 1860 with a secret recipe probably containing gentian (effective against indigestion) and rhubarb root (used as a laxative). The perfect cocktail of curative ingredients is now self-prescribed as an aperitif.  The intertwined stories of medicine and alcohol stretch back to the ancient world, and involve alchemy, madness and monks, not to mention microbiology, biochemistry and germ theory. Now, in The Perfect Tonic, Camper English reveals how and why the contents of our medicine and liquor cabinets were, until surprisingly recently, one and the same.

Camper English is a cocktails and spirits writer and speaker who has covered the craft cocktail renaissance for over 15 years, contributing to more than 50 publications around the world.  He has won awards for International Cognac Writer of the Year and Best Cocktail Writer.

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28 August 2023

28 August

- Giovanni Maria Benzoni - sculptor

Roman collectors called him the ‘new Canova’

The sculptor Giovanni Maria Benzoni, who earned such fame in Rome in the mid-19th century that collectors and arts patrons in the city dubbed him the “new Canova” after the great Neoclassical sculptor Antonio Canova, was born on this day in 1809 in Songavazzo, a small mountain village in northern Lombardy.  Benzoni sculpted many allegorical and mythological scenes, but also busts and funerary monuments.  Songavazzo being just outside Clusone in the province of Bergamo, Benzoni was regarded as a bergamasco - a native of the ancient city - even though he spent much of his life in Rome.  As such he was held in similar regard to bergamaschi celebrities such as the composer Gaetano Donizetti, the philologist Cardinal Angelo Mai and the painter Francesco Coghetti, all of whom lived in Rome during Benzoni’s time there.  He was later commissioned to sculpt a monumental tomb for Cardinal Mai in the Basilica of Sant’Anastasia al Palatino in the centre of Rome.  Benzoni’s parents, Giuseppe and Margherita, were farmers of modest means. Giovanni Maria worked briefly as a shepherd, but his father died when he was around 11 years old, after which he was sent to work in his uncle’s small carpentry shop at Riva di Solto, on the western shore of Lago d’Iseo, about 25km (16 miles) away.  Read more…


Lamberto Maggiorani - unlikely movie star

Factory worker who shot to fame in Bicycle Thieves

Lamberto Maggiorani, who found overnight fame after starring in the neorealist classic Bicycle Thieves (1948), was born on this day in 1909 in Rome.  Maggiorani was cast in the role of Antonio Ricci, a father desperate for work to support his family in post-War Rome, who is offered a job pasting posters to advertising hoardings but can take it only on condition that he has a bicycle – essential for moving around the city carrying his ladder and bucket.  He has one, but it has been pawned.  To retrieve it, his wife, Marie, strips the bed of her dowry sheets, which the pawn shop takes in exchange for the bicycle. They are happy, because Antonio has a job which will support her, their son Bruno and their new baby.  However, on his first day in the job the bicycle is stolen, snatched by a thief who waits for Antonio to climb to the top of his ladder before seizing his moment.  The remainder of the film follows Antonio and Bruno as they try to find the bicycle.  As a portrait of life among the disadvantaged working class in Rome in the late 1940s, the film is hailed as a masterpiece, director Vittorio de Sica and his screenwriter Cesare Zavattini fêted by the critics for turning a little-known novel by Luigi Bartolini into a piece of cinema genius.  Read more…


Elisabetta Sirani – artist

Sudden death of talented young woman shocked Bologna

The brilliant Baroque painter and printmaker Elisabetta Sirani died in unexplained circumstances at the age of 27 on this day in 1665 in Bologna. The body of the artist was carried to the Chapel of the Rosary in the Basilica of San Domenico in Bologna to be mourned, not just by her family, but by an entire community as she was loved and respected as an important female painter.  Elisabetta has been described as beautiful, focused and selfless and she became a symbol of the progressive city of Bologna, where the creativity of women was encouraged and they were able to express themselves through art and music.  Elisabetta’s father, Giovanni Andrea Sirani, was himself an artist and she was trained in his studio, although contemporary writers have recorded that he was reluctant to teach her to paint in the Bolognese style, as established by artists in the city in the 16th and 17th centuries as a way to distinguish themselves from the artists of Florence and Rome.  But Elisabetta acquired the technique anyway and became one of the most renowned painters in Bologna, overshadowing her father.  Read more…


Maurizio Costanzo - talk show host

Journalist whose show was the longest running on Italian TV

Talk show host and writer Maurizio Costanzo was born on this day in 1938 in Rome. Costanzo spent more than 40 years in television.  His eponymous programme, the Maurizio Costanzo Show, broke all records for longevity in Italian television.  Launched on September 18, 1982, the current affairs programme continued for 27 years, alternating between Rete 4 and Canale 5, two of Italy's commercial television networks, part of the Mediaset group owned by former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi.  Its run came to an end in 2009 but was relaunched on the satellite channel Mediaset Extra in 2014 and returned to terrestrial television in 2015, again on Rete 4.  Costanzo began his media career in print journalism with the Rome newspaper Paese Sera at just 18 years old and by the time he was 22 he was in charge of the Rome office of the mass circulation magazine Grazia.  After branching into radio, he switched to television in 1976, hosting the RAI programme Bontà loro, which is considered to be Italy's first TV talk show.  Others followed before the launch of the Maurizio Costanzo Show, which involved prominent politicians and others in the public eye, discussing major issues of the day.  Read more…


Book of the Day: Historical Dictionary of Neoclassical Art and Architecture, Second Edition, by Allison Lee Palmer

Neoclassicism refers to the revival of classical art and architecture beginning in Europe in the 1750s until around 1830, with late Neoclassicism lingering through the 1870s. It is a highly complex movement that brought together seemingly disparate issues into a new and culturally rich era, one that was unified under a broad interest in classical antiquity. The movement was born in Italy and France and spread across Europe to Russia and the United States. It was motivated by a desire to use ideas from antiquity to help address modern social, economic, and political issues in Europe, and neoclassicism came to be viewed as a style and philosophy that offered a sense of purpose and dignity to art, following the new "enlightened" thinking. This second edition of Historical Dictionary of Neoclassical Art and Architecture contains a chronology, an introduction, and an extensive bibliography. 

Allison Lee Palmer is an Associate Professor of Renaissance and Baroque Art History at the University of Oklahoma. Her research focuses on Italian art and architecture from the late Middle Ages onward.

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Giovanni Maria Benzoni - sculptor

Roman collectors called him the ‘new Canova’

Benzoni's self-portrait bust is in the Biblioteca Angelo Mai in Bergamo
Benzoni's self-portrait bust is in the
Biblioteca Angelo Mai in Bergamo
The sculptor Giovanni Maria Benzoni, who earned such fame in Rome in the mid-19th century that collectors and arts patrons in the city dubbed him the “new Canova” after the great Neoclassical sculptor Antonio Canova, was born on this day in 1809 in Songavazzo, a small mountain village in northern Lombardy.

Benzoni sculpted many allegorical and mythological scenes, but also busts and funerary monuments.  

Songavazzo being just outside Clusone in the province of Bergamo, Benzoni was regarded as a bergamasco - a native of the ancient city - even though he spent much of his life in Rome.

As such he was held in similar regard to celebrated bergamaschi such as the composer Gaetano Donizetti, the philologist Cardinal Angelo Mai and the painter Francesco Coghetti, all of whom lived in Rome during Benzoni’s time there.

He was later commissioned to sculpt a monumental tomb for Cardinal Mai in the Basilica of Sant’Anastasia al Palatino in the centre of Rome.

Benzoni’s parents, Giuseppe and Margherita, were farmers of modest means. Giovanni Maria worked briefly as a shepherd, but his father died when he was around 11 years old, after which he was sent to work in his uncle’s small carpentry shop at Riva di Solto, on the western shore of Lago d’Iseo, about 25km (16 miles) away.

Benzoni's Flight from Pompeii is notable for its extraordinary realism
Benzoni's Flight from Pompeii is
notable for its extraordinary realism
He began to show a talent for carving religious statues which came to the attention of a wealthy patron called Giuseppe Fontana, who was impressed enough to speak about him to Count Luigi Tadini, who would later open the Tadini Academy of Fine Arts in Lovere, another town on Lago d’Iseo.

Tadini asked Benzoni to make a copy of the Stele Tadini, the sculpture made for him by Antonio Canova in memory of the count’s son Faustino, who had died at a young age.

He was so impressed by Benzoni’s attention to detail and the accuracy of the reproduction that he arranged for the young man, who had never had a formal education, to attend a college in Lovere. 

When he reached the age of 18 or 19, Tadini took Benzoni to Rome, where he would work in the workshop of Giuseppe Fabris - an artist who would later became director general of the Vatican museums - and attend the prestigious Accademia di San Luca, where his fees were paid by Count Tadini.

Benzoni’s elegant marble sculptures had echoes of Canova’s work, which he greatly admired. One of his earliest pieces sculpted at the Academy, entitled Silent Love, attracted the approval of wealthy buyers in Rome, who soon began to speak of him as “il novello Canova” - the new Canova. 

After winning several competitions at San Luca, Benzoni began to earn money for his work and opened a small studio in Via Sant'Isidoro, in the centre of Rome, off the street now called Via Vittorio Veneto. Demand for his work grew so rapidly that he was obliged to find bigger premises, first in Via del Borghetto and later in Via del Babuino, between the Spanish Steps and Piazza del Popolo.

Benzoni's bust of his former patron, Count Luigi Tadini, in Lovere
Benzoni's bust of his former patron,
Count Luigi Tadini, in Lovere
At the peak of his fame, he employed more than 50 assistants, making multiple versions of his most popular works. His Cupid and Psyche (1845) and Veiled Rebecca (1863) are considered to be two of his greatest triumphs.  Benzoni had clients in Holland, France, England and Ireland as well as in Italy.  

One of his later works, Flight from Pompeii or The Last Days of Pompeii (1868), was inspired by his visits to the Naples region in the 1850s and 1860s, when he was moved by the capacity for destruction of the volcano Vesuvius. The sculpture depicts with notable realism a man, his wife and their baby child, the man holding a cloak above his head to try to protect the trio as they seek refuge from the falling ashes.

The original was made for the wife of a wealthy New York hotelier. Among the many copies Benzoni produced, one is housed in a museum in Australia, another in the Neoclassical-style Town Hall at Todmorden, in the English county of Yorkshire.

Benzoni, who married into a noble Roman family and had six children, always lived in Rome but returned regularly to Bergamo, where he became a member of the city’s university and donated busts of famous citizens. His own self-portrait bust is in the Biblioteca Civica Angelo Mai on Piazza Vecchia in Bergamo’s mediaeval Città Alta.

He sculpted a statue of his former patron, Count Tadini, which stands on a plinth in a lakeside garden opposite the Tadini Academy in Lovere.

After his death in 1873, the popularity of Benzoni’s work declined, in common with the Neoclassical style as the newlly unified-Italy began to look forward. It has enjoyed a revival in recent years, however. Among his most famous works, his 1861 sculpture Innocenza difesa dalla fedeltà (Innocence Defended by Loyalty), which shows a young girl removing a thorn from the paw of her faithful pet dog, sold at Sotheby’s in New York in 2001 for more than $84,000 (€77,800; £66,800) and was presented as a gift to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The Torre dell'orologio is one of several notable buildings in the town of Clusone
The Torre dell'orologio is one of several
notable buildings in the town of Clusone
Travel tip:

Benzoni’s birthplace, Songavazzo, is just outside the town of Clusone, about 35km (22 miles) northeast of Bergamo, a beautiful small town nestling on a plain against the backdrop of the Alpi Orobie - sometimes translated as the Orobic Alps - which attracts visitors all year round. Apart from its proximity to ski resorts, Clusone is famous for the frescoes that decorate some of its most significant buildings, such as the Municipio (Town Hall), the Torre dell'orologio (Clock Tower) and the Oratorio dei Disciplini (Oratory of the Disciplines), which has a macabre offering entitled The Triumph of Death. Clusone is also home to a prestigious annual jazz festival.

The Palazzo Tadini in Lovere on Lago d'Iseo is home of the Accademia di Belle Arti Tadini
The Palazzo Tadini in Lovere on Lago d'Iseo is
home of the Accademia di Belle Arti Tadini
Travel tip:

Lovere, where Benzoni received his first formal education, is the largest town on the western shore of Lago d’Iseo  and has wonderful views of the top of the lake with its dramatic backdrop of mountains. Benzoni’s patron, Count Luigi Tadini of Crema, established the Accademia di Belle Arti Tadini in the lakefront Palazzo Tadini in 1829 and it has become one of the most important art galleries in Italy. The church of Santa Maria in Valvendra has some 16th century frescoes and the church of San Giorgio, which is built into a mediaeval tower, contains an important work by Palma il Giovane. A pleasant boat ride connects Lovere with Pisogne on the eastern shore of the lake, which has a railway line linking the lake with the city of Brescia. The landing stage adjoins Piazza XIII Martiri.

Also on this day:

1665: The death of painter and printmaker Elisabetta Sirani

1909: The birth of Lamberto Maggiorani, star of classic movie Bicycle Thieves

1938: The birth of journalist and talk show host Maurizio Costanza


27 August 2023

27 August

The 410 Sack of Rome

Invasion that signalled terminal decline of Western Roman Empire

The ancient city of Rome was left in a state of shock and devastation after three days of looting and pillaging by Visigoths under the command of King Alaric came to an end on this day in 410.  An unknown number of citizens had been killed and scores of others had fled into the countryside. Countless women had been raped. Many buildings were damaged and set on fire and Alaric and his hordes made off with vast amounts of Roman treasure.  It was the first time in 800 years that an invading army had successfully breached the walls of the Eternal City and many historians regard the event as the beginning of the end for the Western Roman Empire.  It could have been more devastating still had Alaric, a Christian, been a more cruel leader.  Although he struggled to control his men - historians believe they were an ill-disciplined rabble rather than an organised fighting force - he stopped short of ordering large-scale slaughter of the Roman population, while silver and gold objects they were told had belonged to St Peter were left behind.  It was brought to a swift conclusion because Alaric had other targets he wished to attack.  Read more…


Zanetta Farussi – actress

Venetian performer who gave birth to a legendary womaniser

Zanetta Farussi, the comedy actress who was the mother of the notorious adventurer, Casanova, was born on this day in 1707 in Venice.  At the age of 17, Zanetta had married the actor Gaetano Casanova, who was 10 years older than her.  He had just returned to Venice after several years with a touring theatrical troupe, to take a job at the Teatro San Samuele.  Farussi’s parents opposed the marriage because they considered acting to be a disreputable profession.  But Farussi soon began working at Teatro San Samuele herself and the following year she gave birth to a son, Giacomo, who was to grow up to make the name Casanova synonymous with womanising and philandering.  Giacomo Casanova would later claim that his real father was Michele Grimani, who owned the Teatro San Samuele.  Zanetta and Gaetano accepted a theatrical engagement in London where Farussi gave birth to their second son, Francesco, who became a well-known painter.  They returned to Venice in 1728 and went on to have four more children. The youngest child was born two months after the death of his father.  Read more…


Lina Poletti - writer and feminist

One of first Italian women to come out as gay

The writer, poet and playwright Lina Poletti, who was one of the first gay Italian women to openly declare their sexuality, was born on this day in 1885 in Ravenna.  Poletti, an active campaigner for the emancipation of women, had relationships with a number of high-profile partners, including the writer Sibilla Aleramo and the actress Eleonora Duse. Her own works included the epic Il poemetto della guerra (The War Poem), many essays and lectures on her literary heroes, including Dante Alghieri, Giovanni Pascoli and Giosuè Carducci, and a number of collections of poetry.  One of four daughters born to Francesco Poletti and his wife Rosina Donati, who ran a business making ceramics, Lina’s birth name was Cordula.  She was said to be a rebellious child, misunderstood by her sisters and something of a loner, often disappearing into the attic of their house in Via Rattazzi, or hiding in the tree house in the garden.  After finishing high school in Ravenna, she enrolled against her family’s wishes at the University of Bologna, where she became acquainted with Pascoli, a fellow student, and wrote a celebrated thesis on the poetry of Carducci.  Read more…


Titian - giant of Renaissance art

Old master of Venice who set new standards

Tiziano Vecellio, the artist better known as Titian, died in Venice on this day in 1576.  Possibly in his 90s by then - his date of birth has never been established beyond doubt - he is thought to have succumbed to the plague that was sweeping through the city at that time.  Titian is regarded as the greatest painter of 16th century Venice, a giant of the Renaissance held in awe by his contemporaries and seen today as having had a profound influence on the development of painting in Italy and Europe.  The artists of Renaissance Italy clearly owe much to the new standards set by Titian in the use of colour and his penetration of human character.  Beyond Italy, the work of Rubens, Rembrandt and Manet have echoes of Titian.  Titian was enormously versatile, famous for landscapes, portraits, erotic nudes and monumental religious works.  Although it was his fullness of form, the depth of colour and his ability to bring his figures almost to life which he earned his reputation, he was not afraid to experiment with his painting.  Towards the end of his life, some of his works were impressionist in nature, almost abstract.  Read more…


Alessandro Farnese – Duke of Parma, Piacenza and Castro

Duke was a brilliant strategist and diplomat

The outstanding military leader, Alessandro Farnese, was born on this day in 1545 in Rome.  As regent of the Netherlands on behalf of Philip II of Spain between 1578 and 1592, Alessandro restored Spanish rule and ensured the continuation of Roman Catholicism there, a great achievement and testimony to his skill as a strategist and diplomat.  However, his brilliant military career gave him no time to rule Parma, Piacenza and Castro when he succeeded to the Dukedom.  Alessandro was the son of Duke Ottavio Farnese of Parma and Margaret, the illegitimate daughter of the King of Spain and Habsburg Emperor, Charles V.  Ottavio, and was the grandson of Pope Paul III, a Farnese who had set up the papal states of Parma, Piacenza and Castro as a duchy in order to award them to his illegitimate son, Pier Luigi. Ottavio became Duke in 1551 after his father, Pier Luigi, was murdered.  Alessandro had a twin brother, Charles, who died after one month. He was sent to live in the court of Philip II as a young child as a guarantee of Ottavio’s loyalty to the Habsburgs. He lived with Philip II first in the Netherlands and then in Madrid.  Read more…


Book of the Day: The History of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, by Edward Gibbon

Spanning thirteen centuries from the age of Trajan to the taking of Constantinople by the Turks, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire was originally published in six volumes between 1776 and 1788. It has stood the test of time as one of the greatest narratives in European Literature. This book brings together extracts chosen by Thomas Warton Professor of Literature at the University of Oxford David Womersley, whose masterly selection and bridging commentary enables the reader to acquire a general sense of the progress and argument of the whole work and displays the full variety of Gibbon's achievement.

Edward Gibbon was an English historian and Member of Parliament. The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, his most famous work, is known for the quality and irony of its prose, its use of primary sources, and its open criticism of organized religion.

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26 August 2023

26 August

La Pietà - Michelangelo's masterpiece

Brilliant sculpture commissioned by French Cardinal

Michelangelo Buonarotti agreed the contract to create the sculpture that would come to be regarded as his masterpiece on this day in 1498.  It was made between the artist and Cardinal Jean de Bilhères-Lagraulas, the French ambassador to the Holy See, who wanted a sculpture of the Virgin Mary grieving over the body of Jesus, which was a common theme in religious art in northern Europe at the time.  Michelangelo, who would live until he was almost 89, was just 23 at the time and had been in Rome only a couple of years, but was about to produce a piece of work that astounded his contemporaries and is still seen as one of the finest pieces of sculpture ever crafted.  La Pietà – in English, 'the pity' – was carved from a block of blue and white Carrara marble selected by Michelangelo, a good six feet (183cm) tall by six feet across.  The Cardinal intended it to be his funeral monument. It was eventually placed in a chapel in St Peter’s Basilica.  The work shows the body of Christ, shortly after being taken down from the cross following his crucifixion by the Romans, cradled in the lap of Mary.  It is necessarily out of proportion – Michelangelo makes Mary quite a broad figure to accommodate the body of a man lying across her -  but the detail is exquisite.  Read more…


Carlo Camillo Di Rudio - soldier

Italian aristocrat who survived Battle of the Little Bighorn

Carlo Camillo Di Rudio, a military officer who became known as Charles Camillus DeRudio and gave 32 years’ service to the United States Army in the late 19th century, was born in Belluno in northern Italy on this day in 1832.  Having arrived in New York City as an immigrant from England in 1860, he served as a volunteer in the American Civil War (1861-65) before joining the Regular Army in 1867 as a 2nd lieutenant in the 2nd Infantry, an appointment which was cancelled when he failed a medical. Undeterred, he was readmitted and joined the 7th Cavalry in 1869, eventually attaining the rank of Major.  He participated in the Battle of the Little Bighorn, in which the US Army suffered a defeat to the combined forces of Lakota, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapaho tribesmen. The battle was part of the Great Sioux Wars of 1876, fought for possession of the Black Hills in South Dakota, where gold had been found.  DeRudio was thrown from his horse as the American forces under Major Marcus Reno were driven back across the Little Bighorn River to regroup on the eastern side. He was left stranded on the western side and hid for 36 hours with a private, Thomas O’Neill.  Read more…


Sant’Alessandro of Bergamo

Annual festival keeps alive the memory of city’s saint

The patron saint of Bergamo, Sant’Alessandro, was martyred on this day in 303 by the Romans for refusing to renounce his Christian faith.  It is believed Alessandro was a devout citizen who had continued to preach in Bergamo, despite having several narrow escapes from would-be Roman executioners, but he was eventually caught and suffered public decapitation.  In Christian legend, Alessandro was a centurion of the Theban Legion, a legion of the Roman army that converted en masse to Christianity, whose existence prompted a crusade against Christianity launched by the Romans in around AD 298.  Alessandro was reputedly held in prison in Milan on two occasions but escaped to Bergamo, where he defiantly refused to go into hiding and instead openly preached, converting many Bergamaschi to his faith.  Of course, he was ultimately taken into custody again by the Romans and beheaded on August 26, 303, on the spot now occupied by the church of Sant' Alessandro in Colonna in Bergamo’s Città Bassa (lower town).  Today is the Festa di Sant'Alessandro.  Read more…


Book of the Day: Michelangelo: His Life and Works in 500 Images, by Rosalind Ormiston

The first half of the stunning Michelangelo: His Life and Works in 500 Images explores Michelangelo's fascinating life through his family, friends, patrons and commissions. Born near Florence in 1475 Michelangelo grew up surrounded by new forms of architecture, painting and sculpture. His influences and achievements are explained clearly and comprehensively with informative and attractive illustrations throughout. The second half of the book contains a comprehensive gallery of over 300 of his major works of sculpture, painting and architecture. These superb reproductions are accompanied by thorough analysis of each artwork and its significance with the context of Michelangelo's life, his technique and his body of work as a whole.

Rosalind Ormiston is a researcher, lecturer and author with a wide range of interests in art, architecture and design history. Since 2002 she has been a lecturer in art and architectural history at Kingston University, London with a specialist field of Renaissance Italy.

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25 August 2023

25 August

NEW - Carlo Eduardo Acton – composer and musician

Musical member of the Acton family was born in Naples

Opera composer Carlo Eduardo Acton, who was part of the distinguished Italian-based branch of the Acton family, was born on this day in 1829 in Naples.  Carlo became a concert pianist and is particularly remembered for composing the opera Una cena in convitto. His father, Francis Charles Acton, was the youngest son of General Joseph Acton, and he was also the younger brother of Sir John Acton, the sixth Baronet.  Sir John Acton, Carlo’s uncle, had served as Commander of the naval forces of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany and as the Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Naples while the city was under the rule of King Ferdinand IV. He was the son of Edward Acton, an English physician who had settled in France, and he was the great-grandson of Sir Walter Acton, the second Baronet.  One of Sir John's grandchildren, John Dalberg-Acton (1834-1902), better known as Lord Acton, was an historian, English politician, and writer, also born in Naples. He was Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge from 1895 until his death. He edited the first series of the Cambridge Modern History, served as a Liberal Party MP and is remembered for coining the phrase 'power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely' in a letter to an Anglican bishop.  Read more…


Alessandro Galilei - architect

Florentine who made mark in Rome

The architect Alessandro Galilei, best known for the colossal Classical façade of the basilica of San Giovanni in Laterano in Rome, was born on this day in 1691 in Florence.  From the same patrician family as Renaissance polymath Galileo Galilei but not a direct descendant, Galilei’s father was a notary, Giuseppe Maria Galilei. Though his father considered the family to be noble still, their standing had fallen somewhat under Medici rule.  Alessandro studied mathematics and engineering at the prestigious Accademia dei Nobili in Florence, where he was instructed in building techniques and perspective among other things.  As he sought to develop a career, Galilei met John Molesworth, son of the Irish Viscount, Robert Molesworth, who spent three years in Florence as an envoy to the Medici court. Molesworth used his time there to indulge his interests in architecture, art, music, literature and poetry and developed a close friendship with Galilei, whose designs he admired.  He sponsored Galilei to spend time studying in Rome and when his posting in Italy was at an end, invited him to return to London with him.  Read more…


Vesuvius erupts

Terrible toll of Europe's worst volcanic catastrophe 

Mount Vesuvius erupted on this day in AD 79, burying the Roman cities of Pompeii, Herculaneum, Oplontis and Stabiae and causing the deaths of thousands of people.  An eyewitness account of the eruption, in which tons of stones, ash and fumes were ejected from the volcano, has been left behind for posterity by a Roman administrator and poet, Pliny the Younger, who described the event in his letters to the historian Tacitus.  Although there were at least three large eruptions of Vesuvius before AD 79 and there have been many since, the disaster in August AD 79 is considered the most catastrophic volcanic eruption in European history.  Mount Vesuvius had thrown out ash the day before and many people had left the area. But in the early hours of the morning of August 25, pyroclastic flows of hot gas and rock began to sweep down the mountain.  The flows were fast moving and knocked down all the structures in their path, incinerating or suffocating the people who had remained. Pliny noted there were also earth tremors and a tsunami in the Bay of Naples.  The remains of about 1500 people have been found at Pompeii and Herculaneum (Ercolano) but it is not known what percentage this represents of the overall death toll.  Read more…


Ippolito II d’Este – Cardinal

Borgia prince enjoyed the good things in life

Ippolito II d’Este, who became infamous for plundering Hadrian’s Villa to decorate his own home, was born on this day in 1509 in Ferrara in Emilia-Romagna.  He was the second son of Lucrezia Borgia and her husband, Duke Alfonso I d’Este and therefore also a grandson of Pope Alexander VI. He was named after his uncle, Ippolito d’Este.  At the age of ten, Ippolito II inherited the archbishopric of Milan from his uncle, the first of a long list of ecclesiastical appointments he was to be given, which provided him with a good income. He was later given benefices in many parts of France from which he was also able to draw revenue and he was created a Cardinal by Pope Paul III before he had reached the age of 30. A lover of luxuries and the finer things in life, Ippolito II had Palazzo San Francesco in Ferrara refurbished for himself. He also had a palace renovated to provide him with a sumptuous residence in Rome.  He became Governor of Tivoli in 1550 and had the Villa d’Este built there to a design by Mannerist architect Pirro Ligorio.  He became interested in the ruins of the Roman villas in Tivoli and carried out archaeological excavations.  Read more…


Galileo demonstrates potential of telescope

Scientist unveiled new instrument to Doge of Venice

The scientist and inventor Galileo Galilei demonstrated the wonders of the telescope to an audience of Venetian lawmakers on this day in 1609.  The 90th Doge, Leonardo Donato, and other members of the Venetian senate accompanied Galileo to the top of the campanile of St Mark’s Basilica, where each took it in turn to look through the instrument.  The meeting had been arranged by Galileo’s friend, Paolo Sarpi, who was a scientist, lawyer and statesman employed by the Venetian government. The two were both professors at the University of Padua.  Galileo, whose knowledge of the universe led him to be called the ‘father of observational astronomy’, was for many years wrongly credited with the invention of the telescope when in fact the first to apply for a patent for the device was a Dutch eyeglass maker named Hans Lippershey.  However, Galileo’s work using uncertain details of Lippershey’s design certainly took the idea to a different level.  Whereas Lippershey’s device magnified objects by about three times, Galileo eventually produced a telescope with a magnification factor of 30.  The one he demonstrated on August 25, 1609, is thought to have had a factor of about eight or nine.  Read more…


Saint Patricia of Naples

Patron saint performs a miracle every week

The feast day of Saint Patricia is celebrated every year in Naples on this day.  The saint, who is also sometimes referred to as Patricia of Constantinople, is one of a long list of patron saints of Naples.  She is less well known than San Gennaro, also a patron saint of the city, who attracts crowds to Naples Cathedral three times a year to witness the miracle of a small sample of his blood turning to liquid.  But Saint Patricia’s blood, which is kept in the Church of San Gregorio Armeno, is said to undergo the same miraculous transformation every Tuesday morning as well as on August 25 each year - her feast day - which was believed to be the day she died in 665 AD.  Saint Patricia was a noble woman, who may have been descended from St Constantine the Great.  She was a devout virgin and travelled to Rome to become a nun in order to escape an arranged marriage.  She received the veil – symbolising her acceptance into the monastic community – from Pope Liberius.  When her wealthy father died, she returned to Constantinople and, renouncing any claim to the imperial crown, distributed her wealth among the poor.  Read more…


Book of the Day: Vesuvius: A Biography, by Alwyn Scarth

Capricious, vibrant, and volatile, Vesuvius has been and remains one of the world's most dangerous volcanoes. In its rage, it has destroyed whole cities and buried thousands alive. In its calm, its ashes have fertilized the soil, providing for the people who have lived in its shadows. For over two millennia, the dynamic presence of this volcano has fascinated scientists, artists, writers, and thinkers, and inspired religious fervor, Roman architecture, and Western literature. In Vesuvius: A Biography, Alwyn Scarth draws from the latest research, classical and eyewitness accounts, and a diverse range of other sources to tell the riveting story of this spectacular natural phenomenon.  He follows Vesuvius across time, examining the volcano's destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum in 79 A.D., its eruptions during the Counter-Reformation that were viewed as God's punishment of sinners, and the building of the world's first volcano observatory on Vesuvius in the 1840s. Scarth explores the volcano's current position overlooking a population of more than three million people and the complex attitudes maintained by the residents, at once reverent, protective, and fearful. He also considers the next major eruption of Vesuvius, which experts have indicated could be the most powerful since 1631. 

Alwyn Scarth was a geologist and author. Born in Yorkshire, he was a lecturer in geography at the University of Dundee, Scotland. A noted volcanologist, he wrote a number of books about volcanoes around the world.