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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