30 September 2023

30 September

Massimo Bottura - chef and food activist

Leading restaurateur who set up project to feed hungry

The chef and restaurateur Massimo Bottura, whose Osteria Francescana in his hometown of Modena has twice been named as the world’s best restaurant, was born on this day in 1962.  Bottura is also the founder, in partnership with his American-born wife, the former actress and artist Lara Gilmore, of Food for Soul, a non-profit organisation that sets out to combat waste and feed the hungry through a network of refectories in major cities around the world.  The Food for Soul project was launched in 2015 with a refettorio in Greco, a poor district of northern Milan, and has expanded to the extent that it now numbers seven similar dining rooms for the hungry and homeless, in London, Paris and Rio de Janeiro as well as at three other locations in Italy.  As a young man, Bottura’s passions were food and football. He drew inspiration from the cooking of his mother and grandmothers in his dream of being a chef but envisioned a career as a footballer first, believing he had the talent to play professionally.  His father, a successful businessman, insisted he followed a different path, and Bottura enrolled instead to study law at university.   Read more…


Pierina Legnani - ballerina

Italian dancer who conquered St Petersburg

The ballerina Pierina Legnani, considered by many ballet historians to be one of the greatest dancers in history, was born on this day in 1863 in Milan.  Legnani's legacy was the 32-turn fouetté en tournant in which the dancer essentially spins on the point of one foot for 32 revolutions while maintaining perfect balance.  No ballerina had completed 32 turns before Legnani, who is said to have tried it out at the Alhambra Theatre in London before introducing the move to the wider world in 1893 on her debut at the Imperial Ballet in St Petersburg in Russia, where she was performing in the title role of Cinderella.  It came in the final act on the night of the premiere and her perfection of technique and execution caused a sensation, with many critics hailing her as the supreme ballerina of her generation.  Her feat set a new standard for future ballerinas as a yardstick of strength and technique. A sequence of 32 fouetté turns was later choreographed into the Black Swan solo in Act Three of Swan Lake, of which it continues to be a feature.  Jealous rivals criticised Legnani for what they saw as showing off, taking an audacious gamble that could have backfired horribly.  Read more…


Angelo Cerica - Carabinieri general

First job was to arrest Mussolini

General Angelo Cerica, the police commander tasked with arresting the Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini after he was deposed as party leader in 1943, was born on this day in 1885 in Alatri, in the Ciociaria region of Lazio, about 90km (56 miles) south of Rome.  Mussolini was arrested on July 25 as he left his regular meeting with the King, Vittorio Emanuele III, the day after the Fascist Grand Council had voted to remove him from power.  The monarch had informed him that General Pietro Badoglio, former chief of staff of the Italian army, would be replacing him as prime minister.  Cerica had been appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Carabinieri, Italy’s paramilitary second police force, only two days previously, succeeding General Azolino Hazon, who had been killed in a bombing raid.  He was hand-picked for the job by General Vittorio Ambrosio, who was party to a secret plot among Carabinieri officers to depose Mussolini irrespective of the Grand Council vote.  They wanted a commander who would not oppose the anti-Mussolini faction and would carry out the arrest.  Cerica, in fact, shared their view of il Duce, blaming him for leading Italy into a ruinous alliance with Germany.  Read more…


Monica Bellucci - actress and model

Movie actress who became face of Dolce & Gabbana

The actress and model Monica Bellucci, who has appeared in more than 60 films in a career that began in 1990, was born on this day in 1964 in Città di Castello in Umbria.  Bellucci, who is associated with Dolce & Gabbana and Dior perfumes, began modelling to help fund her studies at the University of Perugia, where she was enrolled at the Faculty of Law with ambitions of a career in the legal profession.  But she was quickly brought to the attention of the major model agencies in Milan and soon realised she had the potential to follow a much different career.  Bellucci, whose father Pasquale worked for a transport company, soon began to attract big-name clients in Paris and New York as well as Italy, but decided not long into her modelling career that she would take acting lessons.  She claimed to have been inspired by watching the Italian female movie icons Claudia Cardinale and Sophia Loren and gained her first part in a TV miniseries directed by the veteran director Dino Risi in 1990.  The following year she made her big screen debut with a leading role in the film La raffa, directed by Francesco Laudadio.   Read more…


Girolamo Mercuriale – physician

Doctor went from hero to villain and back again

Girolamo Mercuriale, who is believed to have written the first book about sports medicine and one of the first books about the benefits of physical exercise, was born on this day in 1530 in Forlì.  He published his most famous book, De Arte Gymnastica, in 1569 in Venice, having studied Greek and Roman medical literature and learnt about the attitude of athletes in ancient times to diet, exercise and hygiene.  Girolamo was the son of a doctor, Giovanni Mercuriale, and he was sent to Bologna, Padua and Venice to study medicine. After receiving his doctorate in philosophy and medicine in 1555 in Venice he went to Rome on a political mission, where he had access to many of the important libraries housing classical manuscripts.  His book is believed to be the first to explain the principles of physical therapy, now known as physiotherapy and the first to suggest that exercise can be helpful, or harmful, depending on its use, duration and intensity.  He became famous and was offered the chair of practical medicine at Padua in 1569, where he studied the works of Hippocrates, which gave him the material to write the first scientific tracts on skin disease, and women’s and children’s diseases.  Read more…


Book of the Day: Bread Is Gold: Extraordinary Meals With Ordinary Ingredients, by Massimo Bottura

Massimo Bottura, the world's best chef, prepares extraordinary meals from ordinary and sometimes 'wasted' ingredients inspiring home chefs to eat well while living well.  In Bottura’s words: “These dishes could change the way we feed the world, because they can be cooked by anyone, anywhere, on any budget. To feed the planet, first you have to fight the waste.”  Bread is Gold is the first book to take a holistic look at the subject of food waste, presenting recipes for three-course meals from 45 of the world's top chefs, including Daniel Humm, Mario Batali, René Redzepi, Alain Ducasse, Joan Roca, Enrique Olvera, Ferran & Albert Adrià and Virgilio Martínez. These recipes, which number more than 150, turn everyday ingredients into inspiring dishes that are delicious, economical, and easy to make.

The chef-patron of Osteria Francescana, a three-Michelin-star restaurant that he opened in 1995 in Modena, Italy, which was ranked number one in the World's 50 Best in 2016, Massimo Bottura was interested in cooking from a young age.  He is also the author of Never Trust a Skinny Italian Chef.

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29 September 2023

29 September

Silvio Berlusconi - entrepreneur and politician

Businessman who was four times PM

Silvio Berlusconi, who has served as prime minister of Italy in four Governments, was born on this day in 1936 in Milan.  Head of a large media empire and owner of the football club AC Milan, Berlusconi was prime minister for a total of nine years, making him the longest-serving post-war prime minister and the third longest-serving since Italian unification.  Berlusconi was the eldest of three children born to a bank employee and his wife and, after completing his secondary school education, he studied Law at the Università Statale in Milan, graduating with honours in 1961.  While at University he played the double bass in a group and occasionally performed as a cruise ship crooner. In later life he was to co-write both AC Milan’s and Forza Italia’s anthems and, in collaboration with Mariano Apicella, a Neapolitan singer and musician, he wrote the lyrics for two albums of Neapolitan-style songs, which Apicella put to music.  In the late 1960s, Berlusconi’s company, Edilnord, built 4,000 residential apartments in a new 'town' he called Milano Due and he was able to use the profits to fund his future businesses.  Read more…


Enrico Fermi – nuclear physicist

Scientist from Rome who created world’s first nuclear reactor

Enrico Fermi, who has been called the architect of the nuclear age and even the father of the atomic bomb, was born on this day in 1901 in Rome.  Fermi, who won a Nobel Prize in 1938, created the world’s first nuclear reactor, the so-called Chicago Pile-1, after he had settled in the United States, and also worked on the Manhattan Project, which was the code name for the secret US research project aimed at developing nuclear weapons in the Second World War.  The third child of Alberto Fermi, an official in Italy’s Ministry of Railways, and Ida de Gattis, a school teacher, Fermi took an interest in science from an early age, inspired by a book about physics he had discovered in the local market in Campo de’ Fiori in Rome, written in Latin by a Jesuit priest in about 1840.  He read avidly as he was growing up, conducting many experiments. After high school, he was granted a place at the prestigious Scuola Normale Superiore, part of the University of Pisa, where it became clear the depth of knowledge he had already acquired was greater than that of many of his professors. It was not long before they began asking him to organise seminars in quantum physics. He graduated with honours in 1922.  Read more…


Silvio Piola - footballer

Modest star who remains Italy’s greatest goalscorer

Silvio Piola, a forward whose career tally of 364 goals between 1930 and 1954 remains the most scored by any professional player in the history of football in Italy, was born on this day in 1913 in Robbio Lomellina, a small town about 50km (31 miles) southwest of Milan.  Of those goals, 274 were scored in Serie A and 30 for the Italian national team, with whom he was a World Cup winner in 1938, scoring twice in the final against Hungary.  No other player has scored so many goals in the top flight of Italian football and only two others - Gigi Riva and Giuseppe Meazza - have scored more while wearing the azzurri shirt.  Other records still held by Piola include all-time highest Serie A goalscorer for three different clubs - his hometown club Pro Vercelli, Lazio, and Novara - and one of only two players to have scored six goals in a single match.  Until recently, Piola held a unique double record of being both the youngest player to score two goals in a Serie A match and the oldest, having scored twice for Pro Vercelli in a 5-4 win away to Alessandria in 1931 when he was 17 years and 104 days and twice for Novara against Lazio in a match in 1953, at the age of 39 years and 127 days.  Read more…


Giorgio Frassineti - politician

Mayor who proposed museum of Fascism

Giorgio Frassineti, the politician famous for proposing a museum dedicated to Fascism in Predappio, the birthplace of Benito Mussolini, was born on this day in 1964 in Forlì in Emilia-Romagna.  A member of the centre-left Partito Democratico, Frassineti served as mayor of Predappio from 2009 to 2019.  Predappio, around 18km (11 miles) south of Forlì, has a population of less than 6,500 and is not on the tourist trail.  Apart from by private car, it is accessible only by bus from Forlì, which is a pleasant small city but one that tourists mainly pass through on the way to Rimini and the Adriatic coast.  Yet 50,000 visitors a year descend on Predappio, mainly to visit the house where Mussolini was born in 1883, or the family mausoleum where his body was laid to rest following his execution by Italian partisans in 1945. Despite his World War Two alliance with the Nazi leader Adolf Hitler, Mussolini is still admired by some Italians and Predappio’s main street has shops that openly sell Fascist memorabilia, in part a cynical exploitation of the village’s evolution as a place of pilgrimage for Mussolini supporters, but in part also a reflection of the country’s more ambivalent attitude towards his memory.  Read more…


Book of the Day: The Last Man Who Knew Everything: The Life and Times of Enrico Fermi, Father of the Nuclear Age, by David N Schwartz

In 1942, a team at the University of Chicago achieved what no one had before: a nuclear chain reaction. At the forefront of this breakthrough stood Enrico Fermi. Straddling the ages of classical physics and quantum mechanics, equally at ease with theory and experiment, Fermi truly was the last man who knew everything-at least about physics. But he was also a complex figure who was a part of both the Italian Fascist Party and the Manhattan Project, and a less-than-ideal father and husband who nevertheless remained one of history's greatest mentors. Based on new archival material and exclusive interviews, The Last Man Who Knew Everything lays bare the enigmatic life of a colossus of twentieth century physics.

David N. Schwartz holds a B.A. from Stanford University and a Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He has worked at the US Department of State, the Brookings Institution, and Goldman Sachs in both London and New York. He has published widely on US strategic nuclear weapons policy, NATO, and foreign policy. His father, Melvyn, was a Nobel Prize-winning physicist.

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28 September 2023

28 September

Marcello Mastroianni – actor

Film star who immortalised the Trevi Fountain

Marcello Vincenzo Domenico Mastroianni, who grew up to star in some of the most iconic Italian films of the 20th century, was born on this day in 1924 in Fontana Liri, in the province of Frosinone in Lazio.  He was the son of Ida Irolle and Ottone Mastroianni, who ran a carpentry shop. His uncle, Umberto Mastroianni, was a sculptor.  At the age of 14, Marcello Mastroianni made his screen debut as an extra in a 1939 film called Marionette.  His career was interrupted by the Second World War, during which he was interned in a German prison camp until he managed to escape and go into hiding in Venice.  He made several minor film appearances after the war until he landed his first big role in Atto d’accusa, directed by Giacomo Gentilomo, in 1951.  Ten years later, Mastroianni had become an international celebrity, having starred in Federico Fellini’s La dolce vita opposite Anita Ekberg. He played a disillusioned tabloid journalist who spends his days and nights exploring Rome’s high society. The film is most famous for the scene in which Ekberg's character, Sylvia, wades into the Trevi Fountain.  Read more…


Filippo Illuminato - partisan

Teenager who gave his life for his city

The partisan fighter Filippo Illuminato died on this day in 1943 in Naples.  He was among more than 300 Italians killed in an uprising known as the Quattro giornate di Napoli - the Four Days of Naples - which successfully liberated the city from occupying Nazi forces ahead of the arrival of the first Allied forces in the city on 1 October.  Illuminato’s memory has been marked in a number of ways in the southern Italian city, honoured because he was only 13 years old when he was killed by German gunfire in a street battle in the famous Piazza Trieste e Trento, just a few steps from the Royal Palace. His last act had been to blow up a German armoured car.  Born into a poor family, Illuminato was working as an apprentice mechanic when he decided to join the uprising, which was sparked by a brutal crackdown imposed by the Nazis in response to the Italian government’s decision to surrender to the Allies, confirmed in the signing of the Armistice of Cassabile on 3 September on the island of Sicily.  The German forces, which had numbered 20,000, had responded to the news by banning all assemblies and introducing a curfew.  Read more…


Pietro Badoglio - soldier and politician

Controversial general who turned against Mussolini

Marshal Pietro Badoglio, who was a general in the Italian Army in both World Wars and became Italy’s wartime prime minister after the fall of Mussolini, was born on this day in 1871 in the village of Grazzano Monferrato in Piedmont.  He was Mussolini’s Chief of Staff between 1925 and 1940, although his relationship with the Fascist dictator was fractious.  Indeed, he ultimately played a key part in Mussolini’s downfall in 1943, encouraging the Fascist Grand Council to remove him as leader and advising King Victor Emmanuel III in the lead-up to Mussolini’s arrest and imprisonment in July of that year, after which he was named as head of an emergency government.  It was Badoglio who then conducted the secret negotiations with the Allies that led to an armistice being signed barely five weeks later. However, historians are divided over whether he should be seen as an heroic figure, in part because of his role in the disastrous defeat for Italian forces at the Battle of Caporetto in the First World War, at a cost of 10,000 Italian deaths and 30,000 more wounded.  Badoglio hailed from a middle-class background. His father, Mario, was a small landowner.  Read more…


Book of the Day: Beyond the Latin Lover: Marcello Mastroianni, Masculinity, and Italian Cinema, by Jacqueline Reich

Marcello Mastroianni is considered by many to be the epitome of the Latin lover, the consummate symbol of Italian masculinity. In Beyond the Latin Lover, Jacqueline Reich unmasks the reality behind the myth. In her investigation of many of Mastroianni's most famous characters in Italian cinema, she reveals that beneath the image of hyper-masculinity lies the figure of the inetto, the Italian schlemiel at odds with and out of place in a rapidly changing world. Diverse roles throughout his career―the impotent man, the cuckold, and the unruly woman's victim, among others―present an anti-hero caught in traditional but increasingly unsteady modes of masculinity. Far from being a study of just one Italian film star, however, Reich's work demonstrates that Mastroianni's inetto is a reflection of the unstable political, social, and sexual climate of post-war Italy and its constantly shifting gender roles.

Jacqueline Reich is Associate Professor of Italian and Comparative Literature at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, where she directs the Cinema and Cultural Studies undergraduate programme.

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27 September 2023

27 September

- Vittorio Vidali - communist revolutionary 

One-time Russian agent ultimately elected Italian deputy and senator

The revolutionary Vittorio Vidali, who operated as a secret agent of the Russian communists in the United States, Mexico and Spain, was born on this day in 1900 in the coastal town of Muggia, near Trieste.  Known at various times by at least five different names, he was implicated in the murder of a fellow agent and in an attempt to assassinate Leon Trotsky, although in neither case could his involvement be proved. After returning to Italy at the end of World War Two, he served as a deputy and then a senator in the Italian parliament.  Vidali was politically active from an early age, joining the Socialist Youth movement in Trieste at the age of 16. At 20 he was one of the founders of the youth federation of the Italian Communist Party (Pci). In the same year - 1921 - he was arrested for his part in rioting at the San Marco shipyards where his father worked.  He became a target for Mussolini’s Blackshirts after organising, with others, an anti-fascist paramilitary group, and fled Italy in 1922, to Germany and then New York, where he met the Italian anarchists, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti.  From New York he travelled to Russia. Read more…


Jovanotti - musician

Former rapper an important figure in Italian pop culture

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


Flaminio Scala - Renaissance writer and actor

Influential figure in growth of commedia dell’arte

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


Gracie Fields - actress and singer

English-born performer who made Capri her home 

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


Cosimo de’ Medici – banker and politician

Father of Florence used his wealth to encourage great architecture

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


Grazia Deledda - Nobel Prize winner

First Italian woman to be honoured

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


Book of the Day: Travellers of the World Revolution: A Global History of the Communist International, by Brigitte Studer

The Communist International was the first organised attempt to bring about worldwide revolution and left a lasting mark on 20th-century history. A Global History offers a new and fascinating account of this transnational organisation founded in 1919 by Lenin and Trotsky and dissolved by Stalin in 1943, telling the story through the eyes of the activists who became its “professional revolutionaries”.  Studer follows such figures as Willi Münzenberg, Mikhail Borodin, M.N. Roy and Evelyn Trent, Tina Modotti, Agnes Smedley and many others as they are despatched to the successive political hotspots of the 1920s and ’30s, from revolutionary Berlin to Baku, from Shanghai to Spain, from Nazi Germany to Stalin’s Moscow. It traces their journeys from revolutionary hope to accommodation, defeat or death, looking at questions of motivation and commitment, agency and negotiation, of life and love, conflict and frustration. In doing so, it reveals a forgotten Comintern, the expression of a multi-dimensional revolutionary moment, which attracted not only working-class but feminist, anti-racist, anti-colonial and anti-imperialist activists, highlighting the role of women in the Comintern and the centrality of anti-colonialism to the Communist project. The book concludes with a reflection on the ultimate demise of a historically unique undertaking.

Brigitte Studer is an historian and professor emerita of contemporary history at the University of Bern. A specialist in gender history and social and political history, she has written extensively on political activism, international Communism and Stalinism, citizenship, welfare and employment protection as well as on female suffrage and women’s movements.

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Vittorio Vidali - communist revolutionary

One-time Russian agent ultimately elected Italian deputy and senator

Vittorio Vidali became an agent of the Russian Communist Party
Vittorio Vidali became an agent of
the Russian Communist Party
The revolutionary Vittorio Vidali, who operated as a secret agent of the Russian communists in the United States, Mexico and Spain, was born on this day in 1900 in the coastal town of Muggia, near Trieste.

Known at various times by at least five different names, he was implicated in the murder of a fellow agent and in an attempt to assassinate Leon Trotsky, although in neither case could his involvement be proved. After returning to Italy at the end of World War Two, he served as a deputy and then a senator in the Italian parliament.

Vidali was politically active from an early age, joining the Socialist Youth movement in Trieste at the age of 16. At 20 he was one of the founders of the youth federation of the Italian Communist Party. In the same year - 1921 - he was arrested for his part in rioting at the San Marco shipyards where his father worked.

He became a target for Mussolini’s Blackshirts after organising, with others, an anti-fascist paramilitary group, and fled Italy in 1922, to Germany and then New York, where he met the Italian anarchists, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti.

From New York he travelled to Russia, becoming involved with the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and their international wing, known as Comintern, which had agents operating around the world in their attempt to spread the communist doctrine.

Vidali became romantically involved with Tina Modotti, a glamorous former actress
Vidali became romantically involved with
Tina Modotti, a glamorous former actress
Comintern sent Vidali to Mexico on a mission to bring discipline to the Mexican Communist Party. There he is thought to have become infatuated with Tina Modotti, a former model and silent movie actress originally from Udine in Italy, who had been living in San Francisco and moved to Mexico to work as a photographer. She too was a communist activist.

When Modotti’s lover, Julio Antonio Mella , one of the founders of the Communist Party of Cuba, was shot dead at point blank range while walking with her, some witnesses claimed that Vidali was with the couple and even that it was he who carried out the killing. 

He had plausible motives, both personal and political, given his own interest in Modotti and Mella’s association with Trotskyists, to whom the Stalinist Comintern was hostile. Yet, although they questioned and released Modotti, the Mexican authorities charged another man, José Agustín López, a criminal with no political associations, with the murder. The accepted version of events, in Cuban history in any event, is that Mella’s death was ordered by the Cuban president, Gerardo Machado.

Vidali left Mexico for Spain.  Working under the name Carlos Contreras, he teamed up with Enrique Castro Delgado to create the so-called "Fifth Regiment" responsible for the defence of Madrid against Francisco Franco’s Nationalists, and organised the production of a daily newspaper to provide information for those fighting for the Spanish Democratic Republic.  At the same time, in a more sinister side to his activities on behalf of Comintern, he is said to have arranged for a number of pro-Trotsky operatives on the republican side to be eliminated.

He returned to Mexico in 1940, not long before Trotsky was killed. He was suspected of being involved in a failed assassination attempt at Trotsky’s residence in Mexico City. He was also thought to have facilitated the infiltration into Trotsky’s inner circle of the Stalinist operative Ramón Mercader, who entered Trotsky’s study and killed him with an ice axe later in the same year.  

Vidali served for 10 years in the Italian parliament
Vidali served for 10 years in
the Italian parliament
Modotti, who was expelled from Mexico in 1930, rejoined Vidali in Spain and returned with him to Mexico under a false name. She herself died suddenly in 1942, suffering a cardiac arrest while returning home from a social engagement in a taxi. There were rumours that Vidali, despite the intimate nature of their relationship, had her killed simply because she knew too much about his activities in Spain.

By 1947, Vidali was back in his home country, returning to Trieste. After the postwar settlement saw the long-disputed city established as the Free Territory of Trieste, Vidali became one of the most powerful members of the Communist Party there, conducting a purge of Titoists within the organisation following Stalin’s split with the Yugoslav leader. 

After Trieste became part of Italy again in 1954, Vidali had ambitions to serve as a Communist in the Italian Parliament from the area. He was elected to the Chamber of Deputies in 1958 and to the Senate in 1963, sitting until 1968.  He died in Trieste at the age of 83.

The harbour at the quaint seaside town of Muggia, the only Istrian town to remain part of Italy
The harbour at the quaint seaside town of Muggia,
the only Istrian town to remain part of Italy
Travel tip:

At the time of Vidali’s birth, the coastal town of Muggia - situated 12km (7 miles) by road from Trieste - belonged to the part of the Austria-Hungary empire known as the Istrian peninsula, which includes a number of beautiful towns and cities such as Pula, Rovinj, Perec and Vrsar. It was partitioned to Italy in the Treaty of Rapallo in 1920 following the First World War. In the Second World War it became a battleground for rival ethnic groups and political groups. It was occupied by Germany but with their withdrawal in 1945  Yugoslav partisans gained the upper hand and Istria was eventually ceded to Yugoslavia. It was divided between Croatia and Slovenia following the break-up of Yugoslavia in 1991. Nowadays, Muggia remains the only former Istrian town that is part of Italy. A charmingly quaint fishing port, Muggia’s main attractions are its Duomo, dedicated to the saints John and Paul, the Basilica of Santa Maria Assunta and its 14th century castle, which stood abandoned for 200 years but has been restored by the sculptor, Villi Bossi. 

The sea-facing Piazza Unita d'Italia is the oldest and most elegant square in Trieste
The sea-facing Piazza Unita d'Italia is the oldest
and most elegant square in Trieste
Travel tip:

The seaport of Trieste, capital of the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region, officially became part of the Italian Republic in 1954. Trieste had been disputed territory for thousands of years and after it was granted to Italy in 1920, thousands of the resident Slovenians left. The final border with Yugoslavia was settled in 1975 with the Treaty of Osimo. The area today is one of the most prosperous in Italy and Trieste is a lively, cosmopolitan city and a major centre for trade and ship building.  The city has a coffee house culture that dates back to the Hapsburg era.  Caffè Tommaseo, in Piazza Nicolò Tommaseo, near the grand open space of the Piazza Unità d’Italia, is the oldest in the city, dating back to 1830.

Also on this day:

1552: The birth of writer and actor Flaminio Scala

1871: The birth of Nobel Prize winner Grazia Deledda

1966: The birth of musician Jovanotti

1979: The death of actress and writer Gracie Fields

September 27 was the chosen birthday of Cosimo de’ Medici, born in 1389


26 September 2023

26 September

Anna Magnani - Oscar-winning film star

Roman one of only three Italians to land best actor award

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


St Francis Basilica struck by earthquake

Historic art works damaged in double tremor

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


Enzo Bearzot - World Cup-winning coach

Led Italy to 1982 triumph in Spain

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


Book of the Day: The Rose Tattoo and Other Plays, by Tennessee Williams

In these three exotic, steamy dramas Tennessee Williams portrays loss, faded lives and passionate love affairs.  The Rose Tattoo is set in a bustling, Sicilian-American community, where newly widowed Serafina is paralysed by grief, until she has her romantic illusions about her dead husband shattered and rediscovers her true nature as a fiery prima donna, in a life-affirming celebration of love and sex. Tennessee Williams explores a new 'wild and unrestricted' theatrical form in the colourful tropical fantasy Camino Real, while Orpheus Descending, however, takes us into the dark territory of the Deep South: the corrupt hell of a small, brutal township, where a forbidden and tragic love affair sparks horrific violence.

Tennessee Williams was born in 1911 in Columbus, Mississippi. When his father, a travelling salesman, moved the family to St Louis some years later, he found it impossible to settle to city life. After attending college for two years, he left to take a clerical job in a shoe company, writing in the evenings.  At age 33, after years of obscurity, Williams suddenly became famous with the success of The Glass Menagerie (1944) in New York City and a string of further successes saw him recognised as one of the great literary figures of the 20th century.

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25 September 2023

25 September

Zucchero Fornaciari – singer

Sweet success for writer and performer

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


Nino Cerruti - fashion designer

Turn of fate led to a life in haute couture 

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


Agostino Bassi – biologist

Scientist who rescued the silk industry in Italy

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

Book of the Day: Made in Italy: Studies in Popular Music, edited by Franco Fabbri and Goffredo Plastino

Made in Italy serves as a comprehensive and rigorous introduction to the history, sociology, and musicology of contemporary Italian popular music. Each essay, written by a leading scholar of Italian music, covers the major figures, styles, and social contexts of pop music in Italy and provides adequate context so readers understand why the figure or genre under discussion is of lasting significance to Italian popular music. The book first presents a general description of the history and background of popular music, followed by essays organized into thematic sections: Themes; Singer-Songwriters; and Stories.

Franco Fabbri is Professor of Popular Music, and Techniques and Cultures of Sound and Music, at the University of Torino in Italy. He has published widely and in many languages on subjects such as pop music, genre theory and music in the digital age. Goffredo Plastino is Reader in Ethnomusicology at Newcastle University in the UK. He has co-edited multiple volumes on popular music and has published in several languages on folk music, jazz, and organology.

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24 September 2023

24 September

NEW - Vincenzo da Filicaja – poet

Patriotic writer was inspired by victory against the Turks

Vincenzo da Filicaja, a writer and a politician whose poetry has been compared with that of the great Italian poet Petrarch, died on this day in 1707 in Florence.  Da Filicaja’s six celebrated odes inspired by a famous battle victory led to scholars placing him on a level with some of the greatest Italian poets.  He was also a respected politician and was named governor of Volterra and Pisa by Cosimo III, the Grand Duke of Tuscany, who later appointed him to serve in the Tuscan Senate.  Born into an aristocratic family in Florence in 1642, Da Filicaja was educated by Jesuits before going to Pisa University to study law. In Pisa, he was inspired by the historical associations he saw that were linked with the former glory of the republic of Pisa.  The banners and emblems of the Order of St Stephen, which had its seat in Pisa, had great significance for the young student, who knew that the navy of this military order, created by Cosimo I de’ Medici, formed the main defence of his country and its commerce against Turkish, Algerian and Tunisian corsairs.  After returning to Florence, Da Filicaja married Anna Capponi in 1673, the daughter of a senator and marquis. Read more…


Riccardo Illy - businessman

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

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


Marco Tardelli - footballer

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

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


Girolamo Cardano - doctor and mathematician

Polymath was also a gambler and womaniser

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


Maria Pia of Bourbon-Parma - exiled princess

Vote for republic forced King's daughter to leave

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


Book of the Day: The Match: The Story of Italy v Brazil 1982, by Piero Trellini

The Match is a multi-award-winning book first published in Italy in 2019. The book has been reprinted numerous times, with translated versions published to great acclaim in Spain and Latin America. It also inspired the 2022 Sky Sports TV series Italy v Brazil 3-2 – La Partita. This is the eagerly awaited English edition.  The book tells the tale of an extraordinary sports event – a match described by Time magazine in 2010 as the most beautiful game in football history: Italy v Brazil at Spain 82.  Piero Trellini delves into the stories and lives of the many great players and characters who shone on that day and lit up that unforgettable match – from Paolo Rossi to Sócrates, from Enzo Bearzot to Zico – as well as some forgotten figures who all played their part.  The Match takes us on a fascinating journey through the 1982 World Cup, and includes fresh insight and fascinating anecdotes on the historical and sporting links between the two countries. Italy, a nation historically at the forefront of football, did not arrive in Spain as favourites, with widespread doubts about their chances, not least in the Italian press. This is one of the reasons why their triumph that summer is still celebrated in Italy above any others by the azzurri.

Piero Trellini is an award-winning Italian writer whose journalistic work has appeared in La Repubblica and many other leading Italian newspapers. He has spent most of his life researching and reliving the Italy-Brazil match of 1982, collecting stories, anecdotes and memorabilia, including the referee’s whistle used that day. The Match won the 2020 Bancarella Sport Prize, the Mastercard Letteratura Prize, the Massarosa Jury Award, was named Book of the Year by TuttoSport and the book with the best narrative by Corriere della Sera.

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