31 October 2023

31 October

Eduardo De Filippo - Neapolitan dramatist

Playwright captured essence of city's spirit

One of Italy’s greatest dramatists, Eduardo De Filippo, died on this day in 1984 in Rome at the age of 84.  An actor and film director as well as a playwright, De Filippo – often referred to simply as Eduardo – is most remembered as the author of a number of classic dramas set in his native Naples in the 1940s that continue to be performed today.  Arguably the most famous of these was Filomena Marturano, upon which was based the hit movie Marriage, Italian Style, which starred Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni under the direction of Vittorio de Sica.  De Filippo’s other memorable works included Napoli Milionaria, Le voci di dentro and Sabato, domenica e lunedi.  All of these plays showcased De Filippo’s ability to capture the essence of life in Naples in his time, particularly in the working class neighbourhoods that he felt were the beating heart of the city.  Rich in Neapolitan dialect, they were often bittersweet comedies of family life. They were social commentaries in which typical themes were the erosion of morals in times of desperation, the struggle of the downtrodden to retain their dignity and the preservation of family values even in the most poverty-stricken households.  Read more…


Angelo Rizzoli – publisher

Rags to riches story of an editorial entrepreneur

Printer, publisher and film producer Angelo Rizzoli was born on this day in 1889 in Milan.  Rizzoli was orphaned when still very young and grew up in poverty, but by the time he was in his 20s he had become an entrepreneur.  Young Angelo was brought up in the orphanage of Martinitt in Milan, which had been founded in the 16th century in Via Manzoni for orphaned and abandoned Roman Catholic boys. It was there that he learnt the trade of a printer.  Along with another trained print worker, and using his savings for the downpayment on a Linotype machine, he opened a typographical firm under the name of A. Rizzoli & C. in Via Cerva in Milan in 1911. The company was later to evolve into the publishing giant, RCS MediaGroup.  Rizzoli acquired Novella magazine, a bi-weekly aimed mainly at women and went on to add new publications, such as Annabella, Bertoldo, Candido, Omnibus, Oggi and L’Europeo.  In 1929, he started publishing books, producing La Storia del Risorgimento by Cesare Spellanzon. He later began producing both classic and popular novels.  His business gradually grew. He bought the Lama di Reno paper mill, near the town of Marzabotto in Emilia-Romagna.  Read more…


Bud Spencer – swimmer-turned-actor

Competed at two Olympics before turning to screen career

The actor known as Bud Spencer was born Carlo Pedersoli on this day in 1929 in Naples.  He was best known for the series of so-called spaghetti westerns and comedies he made with another Italian-born actor, Terence Hill.  Hill was from Venice and his real name was Mario Girotti.  They began their partnership in 1967 in a spaghetti western directed by Giuseppe Colizzi called God Forgives…I Don’t! and were asked to change their names so that they would sound more American.  Pedersoli came up with Bud Spencer because his movie idol was Spencer Tracy and his favourite American beer was Budweiser.   The two would go on to make 18 movies together, with westerns such as Ace High (1968) and They Call Me Trinity (1970) winning them box office success.  As Carlo Pedersoli, he had already achieved a measure of fame as a swimmer, the first Italian to swim the 100m freestyle in less than one minute.  He represented Italy at the Olympics in Helsinki in 1952 and Melbourne four years later, on each occasion reaching the semi-final in the 100m freestyle.  He also played professional water polo, winning an Italian championship with SS Lazio and a gold medal at the 1955 Mediterranean Games in Barcelona.  Read more…


Galileo Ferraris - electrical engineer

Pioneer of alternating current (AC) systems

The physicist and electrical engineer Galileo Ferraris, who was one of the pioneers of the alternating current (AC) system for transmitting electricity and invented the first alternators and induction motors, was born on this day in 1847 in Piedmont.  The AC system was a vital element in the development of electricity as a readily-available source of power in that it made it possible to transport electricity economically and efficiently over long distances.  Ferraris did not benefit financially from his invention, which is still the basis of induction motors in use today. Another scientist, the Serbian-born Nikola Tesla, patented the device after moving to the United States to work for the Edison Corporation.  Tesla had been working simultaneously on creating an induction motor but there is evidence that Ferraris probably developed his first and as such is regarded by many as the unsung hero in his field.  He saw himself as a scientist rather than an entrepreneur and, although there is no suggestion that his ideas were stolen, openly invited visitors to come in and see his lab.  Unlike Tesla, he never intended to start a company to manufacture the motor and even had doubts whether it would work.  Read more…


Book of the Day: Filumena, by Eduardo De Filippo (translated by Timberlake Wertenbaker)

Filumena is one of Eduardo de Filippo's finest Neapolitan comedies. Filumena Domenico is a former Neopolitan prostitute who has had three sons by three different fathers. As her sons become adults Filumena feels the pressing need to become respectable and so she searches for a man to marry her, ensuring legitimacy for her family.  In British theatre, an English language translation by Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall was performed at the Lyric Theatre in London in 1977,  directed by Franco Zeffirelli and starring Colin Blakely and Joan Plowright. The production won The London Theatres comedy of the year award in 1978 and was taken to Baltimore and then New York City, opening on Broadway in February 1980.  The production staged at the Piccadilly Theatre, London, between September 1998 and February 1999, with Judi Dench in the title role, is particularly well remembered. Judi Dench's photograph appears on the cover of this edition. 

Eduardo de Filippo was a Neapolitan actor, playwright, screenwriter, author and poet. His best known works include Napoli Milionaria, Filumena and Sabato, domenica e lunedì (Saturday, Sunday and Monday). He is regarded as one of Italy's greatest dramatists.  Timberlake Wertenbaker is a New York-born, British-based playwright, screenplay writer, and translator who has written plays for the Royal Court, the Royal Shakespeare Company and others. 

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30 October 2023

30 October

Inventor of Baci chocolates who diversified into fashion

The businesswoman Luisa Spagnoli, who is credited with creating the Perugina company’s famous Baci chocolates and later developed clothing lines using wool from angora rabbits, was born on this day in 1877 in Perugia.  Spagnoli was one of the four partners who launched the Perugina brand in 1907. She is said to have invented the confection that came to be known as Baci as a way to avoid wasting surplus chocolate and hazelnuts left over from the company’s other lines.  Perugina, now owned by Nestlé, grew to be Italy’s biggest chocolate manufacturer and Baci its best-selling product. The romantic messages inside the wrappers that remain a popular feature of the chocolates to this day are said to have been inspired by the clandestine romance between Spagnoli and the son of one of the other partners.  Her Angora Spagnoli business evolved into the Luisa Spagnoli fashion line that was developed by her son, Mario, and grandson, Lino, who took the business forward after Luisa had died in 1935, at the age of just 57.  Spagnoli was born Luisa Sargentini, the daughter of a fishmonger, Pasquale.  Read more…


Charles Atlas - bodybuilder

Poor immigrant from Calabria who transformed his physique

The bodybuilder Charles Atlas was born Angelo Siciliano on this day in 1893 in the Calabrian town of Acri.  Set 720m above sea level straddling two hills in the province of Cosenza, on the edge of what is now the mountainous Sila National Park, Acri was a poor town and while Angelo was growing up his father, Santos, began thinking about joining the growing number of southern Italians who had gone to forge a new life in America. They made the move when Angelo was 11.  The journey by sea from Naples took around two weeks. After registering their arrival at Ellis Island, the immigrant inspection station in New York Bay, the family settled in Brooklyn.  Most accounts of Angelo’s life suggest that his father, a farmer, returned to Italy within a short time but his mother remained, taking work as a seamstress and endeavouring to make a better life for her children.  Angelo’s path to becoming Charles Atlas and enjoying worldwide fame began with a classic story of bullying. Like many Italian children of his time, having been born in a part of the country where living conditions were difficult and good food was in short supply, he was sickly and scrawny, an easy target to be picked on. Read more…


Antonino Votto – conductor

Outstanding operatic conductor made recordings with Callas

Operatic conductor Antonino Votto was born on this day in 1896 in Piacenza in Emilia-Romagna.  He became famous in the 1950s because he conducted the orchestra for the acclaimed recordings made by soprano Maria Callas for EMI.  Votto was also considered one of the leading operatic conductors of his time on account of his performances at La Scala in Milan, where he worked regularly for nearly 20 years.  After Votto had attended the Naples conservatory for his music studies he went to work at La Scala, where he became an assistant conductor to Arturo Toscanini.  He made his official debut there in 1923, leading a performance of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut.  Votto went on to build a reputation as one of the most outstanding conductors of Italian opera, appearing at many other operatic venues in Italy and abroad.  In 1941 he began teaching at the Giuseppe Verdi conservatory in Milan as the war limited operatic activity in Italy and in most parts of Europe.  One of his students was the present day Italian orchestra conductor, Riccardo Muti.  Recordings of Votto conducting opera live in the theatre were a great success. He conducted Bellini’s Norma in 1955 with Callas at La Scala.  Read more…


Poggio Bracciolini – scholar and humanist

Calligrapher who could read Latin changed the course of history

Gian Francesco Poggio Bracciolini, who rediscovered many forgotten Latin manuscripts including the only surviving work by the Roman poet and philosopher, Lucretius, died on this day in 1459 in Florence.  For his services to literature he was commemorated after his death with a statue by Donatello and a portrait by Antonio del Pollaiuolo.  Bracciolini was born in 1380 at Terranuova near Arezzo in Tuscany. In 1862 his home village was renamed Terranuova Bracciolini in his honour.  He studied Latin as a young boy under a friend of the poet, Petrarch, and his linguistic ability and talent for copying manuscripts neatly was soon noted by scholars in Florence.  He later studied notarial law and was received into the notaries guild in Florence at the age of 21.  After becoming secretary to the Bishop of Bari, Bracciolini was invited to join the Chancery of Apostolic Briefs in the Roman Curia of Pope Boniface IX.  He was to spend the next 50 years serving seven popes, first as a writer of official documents and then working his way up to becoming a papal secretary.  Read more…


Book of the Day: Old Calabria, by Norman Douglas

Calabria. A dramatic peninsula of rugged mountains and windswept coastlines facing Sicily - 'the most beautiful kilometre in Italy' - wrote Gabriele d'Annunzio of its coastline. Though steeped in a rich and ancient past, Calabria had been lost from view when Norman Douglas visited in the early 1900s. Long familiar with southern Italy, the region captivated him and the wild and unspoilt landscape inspired him. Tracing a typically adventurous route from the promontory of Gargano in the north - linked in ancient times with Byzantium - to the southern tip of Aspromote, he scaled vast mountain ranges, trekked through dense forest and crossed remote and often dangerous countryside. Within Douglas' vibrant account of his adventures is woven the rich history - from Greek settlers and Roman conquerors to the powerful 'Ndrangheta organised crime family - that has shaped the land, language, culture and people of a place that Douglas grew to adore. Witty, erudite and elegant, Old Calabria is a literary classic, acclaimed as much for its sparkling prose as for its exquisite portrait of Italy's most unpredictable and colourful province.

Norman Douglas (1868-1952) was born in Austria and educated in England, Germany and France. Much of his life was spent in exile, in Italy and the south of France. His first work, Siren Land, was published in 1911, followed by Fountains in the Sand (1912) and Old Calabria (1915). Douglas returned briefly to England in 1942 but spent the last five years of his life on Capri.

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Luisa Spagnoli - businesswoman

Inventor of Baci chocolates who diversified into fashion

Luisa Spagnoli became the driving force of Perugina chocolates after Italy entered the First World War
Luisa Spagnoli became the driving force of Perugina
chocolates after Italy entered the First World War
The businesswoman Luisa Spagnoli, who is credited with creating the Perugina company’s famous Baci chocolates and later developed clothing lines using wool from angora rabbits, was born on this day in 1877 in Perugia.

Spagnoli was one of the four partners who launched the Perugina brand in 1907. She is said to have invented the confection that came to be known as Baci as a way to avoid wasting surplus chocolate and hazelnuts left over from the company’s other lines.

Perugina, now owned by Nestlé, grew to be Italy’s biggest chocolate manufacturer and Baci its best-selling product. The romantic messages inside the wrappers that remain a popular feature of the chocolates to this day are said to have been inspired by the clandestine romance between Spagnoli and the son of one of the other partners.

Her Angora Spagnoli business evolved into the Luisa Spagnoli fashion line that was developed by her son, Mario, and grandson, Lino, who took the business forward after Luisa had died in 1935, at the age of just 57.

Spagnoli was born Luisa Sargentini, the daughter of a fishmonger, Pasquale. After leaving school at 13 to work on the accountancy and commercial side of her father’s business, she was married at the age of 21 to Annibale Spagnoli.

She went into business with her husband when they took over the running of a grocery store in Perugia.  They produced their own sugared almonds to sell in the store, expanding into jams, confectionery and chocolate.

Today's Baci chocolates are still produced according to Luisa's 1922 recipe
Today's Baci chocolates are still produced
according to Luisa's 1922 recipe
In 1907, Annibale and Luisa joined up with pasta manufacturer Francesco Buitoni and another businessman, Leone Ascoli, in launching La Società Perugina.

The first product line was sugared almonds, but recognising the potential of chocolate they opened a factory at Fontivegge, near the city’s railway station, which produced cocoa powder and cocoa butter. 

Italy’s entry into World War One in 1915 brought profound changes. After the men were enlisted to do military service, Luisa found herself in charge of the business. As resources became limited, Luisa turned her focus to chocolate, blending caramelised sugar with cocoa to produce a 51% dark chocolate.  

Sugary sweets were defined by the Italian government as superfluous, luxury goods as they tried to avoid shortages and their production was prohibited, but Luisa priced her chocolate bars at a level that meant they were available to all and could not be classed as luxuries. For good measure, boxes of bars were sent to fortify Italian soldiers on the frontline.

In 1922, Annibale Spagnoli left the business, apparently because of internal friction within the company. Luisa remained, running the business jointly with Francesco Buitoni’s son, Giovanni.

Giovanni Buitoni, with whom Luisa had a clandestine romance
Giovanni Buitoni, with whom Luisa
had a clandestine romance
It was in the same year that Baci chocolates was born. Ever resourceful, Luisa was determined that the surplus chocolate and hazelnuts left at the end of each batch of bars produced would not be thrown away. She had the idea to use the excess to make small, individual chocolates, wrapping chocolate round a blob of chopped hazelnuts and gianduja - a concoction of chocolate and hazelnut paste - topped with a whole hazelnut.

She thought the sweet resembled a clenched fist and decided to call it a cazzotto - the Italian word for punch. Giovanni, however, thought it was an inappropriate name for something meant to give pleasure and suggested bacio, which is Italian for kiss.

Buitoni was 32 and Luisa 46 but despite the age gap - and the fact that Luisa was already married - a romance developed between the two, which was to continue clandestinely for the rest of her life. While they were working together in the factory, she would secretly wrap love notes around chocolates as she sent them to Giovanni to taste.

These became the inspiration for the way Baci were marketed - chocolate kisses with a romantic note attached as the perfect present for young lovers.

At a time when women in business were a rarity, Spagnoli proved herself not only to have a shrewd commercial brain but also to be one of the most forward-thinking bosses of her age. 

She had houses and a swimming pool built for Perugina’s workforce and organised leisure activities to aid their wellbeing. During the war, she provided a nursery so that female employees with young children could continue to work even when their husbands were away at the front.

The fashion stores opened by her son, Mario, carry his mother;s name
The fashion stores opened by her son,
Mario, carry his mother;s name

Her first moves into the fashion business came at around the same time as Baci were born as she began breeding long-haired angora rabbits, from which wool could be produced not by shearing their coats but simply by combing. She set up a production plant in the Perugia suburb of Santa Lucia, where the wool was used to make shawls, boleros and other fashionable garments. 

After a favourable reception when she showed off her products at the Milan Fair, she recruited a network of 8,000 breeders to supply the business. 

Sadly, Spagnoli did not live long enough to see her fashion enterprise reach its potential. Diagnosed with throat cancer, she moved at Giovanni’s insistence to Paris in order to receive the best care available but died there in 1935.

Two years after her death, Mario Spagnoli - one of three sons she had with Annibale - turned Angora Spagnoli from a small, artisan concern to industrial scale production, opening a new factory in Santa Lucia. Later, together with his son, Annibale - known as Lino - they opened a network of Luisa Spagnoli fashion stores, which still exist today.

In the 1940s, at a time when many Italians suffered from hunger and cold thanks to the deprivations of war, Mario maintained his mother’s spirit of generosity towards the workers who helped generate the company’s profits, making sure their efforts were rewarded with a Christmas gift of shirts, socks and wool to a value of 4,000 lire, a considerable sum at the time.

His mother is buried in the crypt adjacent to the Santa Lucia factory.  Her name lives on, though, in the packaging on Baci chocolates - still in the blue of the originals - with the subtitle 'Fondente Luisa', while the Perugina 51% dark chocolate bar is still marketed as the Perugina Luisa bar.

Piazza IV Novembre is the main square of the Umbrian capital, Perugia, where Spagnoli was born
Piazza IV Novembre is the main square of the
Umbrian capital, Perugia, where Spagnoli was born
Travel tip:

Perugia, the capital of the Umbria region, is an ancient city that sits on a high hilltop midway between Rome and Florence. In Etruscan times it was one of the most powerful cities of the period.  It is also a university town with a long history, the University of Perugia having been founded in 1308.  The presence of the University for Foreigners and a number of smaller colleges gives Perugia a student population of more than 40,000.  The centre of the city, Piazza IV Novembre, has a mediaeval fountain, the Fontana Maggiore, which was sculpted by Nicolo and Giovanni Pisano. The city’s imposing Basilica di San Domenico, built in the early 14th century also to designs by Giovanni Pisano, is the largest church in Umbria, with a distinctive 60m (197ft) bell tower and a 17th-century interior, designed by Carlo Maderno, lit by enormous stained-glass windows. The basilica contains the tomb of Pope Benedict XI, who died from poisoning in 1304.

Perugia's historic Pasticceria Sandri
Perugia's historic
Pasticceria Sandri
Travel tip:

Luisa Spagnoli’s main store in Perugia is in Corso Vannucci, right in the heart of the city, which connects Piazza IV Novembre with Piazza Italia. The street takes its name from Pietro Vannucci , a painter born in Città della Pieve and best known by his nickname Il Perugino. His frescoes decorate the Palazzo dei Priori, one of the most important buildings on Corso Vannucci along with the 15th century Palazzo dei Notari and the House of Baldo degli Ubaldi, the deconsecrated church of Sant'Isidoro and the Palazzo Donini.  The street is also home to the historic Pasticceria Sandri, which has been trading there since 1860.

Also on this day:

29 October 2023

29 October

King appoints Mussolini Prime Minister

Victor Emmanuel turned to Fascist leader after fearing civil war

Victor Emmanuel III, the king of Italy, invited Benito Mussolini to become Prime Minister on this day in 1922, ushering in the era of Fascist rule in Italy.  History has largely perceived the decision as a moment of weakness on the part of the king, a man of small physical stature who had never been particularly comfortable in his role.  Yet at the time, with violent clashes between socialist supporters and Mussolini’s Blackshirts occurring almost daily with both sides bent on revolution, Victor Emmanuel feared that Italy was on the brink of civil war.  The First World War had been financially crippling for Italy, even though they had emerged with a victory of sorts in that the Austro-Hungarians were finally pushed out of northern Italy.  In the poverty that followed, the country shifted sharply to the left and in the 1919 general election the Italian Socialist Party (PSI) gained 32 per cent of the vote, amounting to 156 seats in the Chamber of Deputies, the largest representation in their history.  But for all the support for the PSI, particularly among factory workers in urban areas, there were just as many Italians who felt uncomfortable about their advance, and not only those who belonged to the moneyed elite.  Read more…


Franco Corelli - 'Prince of Tenors'

Self-taught singer who wowed New York

The great Italian tenor Franco Corelli died in Milan on this day in 2003 aged 82 after suffering heart problems.  Corelli was renowned for the power and vibrancy of his voice, described by some as generating a 'white heat' on the stage when he performed.  In a career spanning more than a quarter of a century he mastered all the major tenor roles and appeared at the greatest opera theatres in the world.  He was a fixture at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, where he performed 19 roles over 15 seasons in some 365 appearances.  As well as possessing outstanding vocal range, he used his natural assets – he stood 6ft 1ins tall and weighed 200lbs – to develop a charismatic stage presence.  Blessed with movie star looks, he had the appearance of an opera-singing Errol Flynn. He was nicknamed the 'Prince of Tenors'.  Corelli was born in 1921 in Ancona on Italy’s Adriatic coast, in a house just yards from the shore.  His father was a shipbuilder for the Italian navy and as he neared adulthood it seemed that Corelli’s destiny was to pursue the same profession. He obtained a place at Bologna University to study naval engineering.  It was while he was in Bologna that a friend dared him to enter a singing competition. Read more…


Carlo Emanuele Ruspoli – Duke of Morignano

Noble architect is now a prolific writer

Carlo Emanuele Maria Ruspoli was born on this day in 1949 in Rome.  He became the third Duke of Morignano in 2003, succeeding his father, Prince Galeazzo Ruspoli. Carlo had previously graduated as a Doctor of Architecture from the Sapienza University of Rome and he now works as a researcher and writer.  He is a prolific author of works on history and anthropology as well as historical novels, drawing on his own family heritage and his fascination with the East.  The House of Ruspoli is one of the great aristocratic families of Rome and all members hold the title of Prince of the Holy Roman Empire.  The family’s origins can be traced back to their ancestor, Marius Scotus, in the eighth century, the Ruspoli family of Florence in the 13th century, and the Marescotti family of Bologna.  A branch of the Ruspoli family moved to Rome in the 17th century. Their last descendant, Vittoria Ruspoli, Marchioness of Cerveteri, married Sforza Marescotti, Count of Vignanello, a descendant of the Farnese family, but to make sure the House of Ruspoli continued, one of Vittoria’s sons, Francesco Maria Marescotti Ruspoli, took on the name and coat of arms of the House of Ruspoli.  Read more…


Fabiola Gianotti - particle physicist

First woman to be director-general of CERN

The particle physicist Fabiola Gianotti, who in 2016 became the first woman to be made director-general in the 64-year history of the European Organisation for Nuclear Research, was born on this day in 1960 in Rome. She led one of the two teams of physicists working for the organisation - generally known as CERN after its title in French - whose experiments in 2012 resulted in the discovery of the Higgs boson, the particle that explains why some other elementary particles have mass.  The discovery was regarded as so significant in the advancement of scientific knowledge that it was nicknamed the “God particle.”  As the project leader and spokesperson of the ATLAS project at CERN, which involved a collaboration of around 3,000 physicists from 38 countries, Dr. Gianotti announced the discovery of the particle.  Their work involved the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the world's largest and most powerful particle collider and the largest machine of any kind on the planet, which lies in a tunnel 27km (17 miles) in circumference, 175 metres (574 ft) beneath the France–Switzerland border near Geneva.  Read more…


Book of the Day: Mussolini's War: Fascist Italy from Triumph to Collapse, 1935-1943, by John Gooch

While staying closely aligned with Hitler, Mussolini remained carefully neutral until the summer of 1940. Then, with the wholly unexpected and sudden collapse of the French and British armies, Mussolini declared war on the Allies in the hope of making territorial gains in southern France and Africa. This decision proved a horrifying miscalculation, dooming Italy to its own prolonged and unwinnable war, immense casualties and an Allied invasion in 1943 which ushered in a terrible new era for the country.  Mussolini's War is the definitive account of Italy's war experience. Beginning with the invasion of Abyssinia and ending with Mussolini's arrest, Gooch brilliantly portrays the nightmare of a country with too small an industrial sector, too incompetent a leadership and too many fronts on which to fight.  Everywhere - whether in the USSR, the Western Desert or the Balkans - Italian troops found themselves against either better-equipped or more motivated enemies. The result was a war entirely at odds with the dreams of pre-war Italian planners - a series of desperate improvisations against Allies who could draw on global resources and against whom Italy proved helpless.  This remarkable book rightly shows the centrality of Italy to the war, outlining the brief rise and disastrous fall of the Italian military campaign.

John Gooch is one of the world's leading writers on Italy and the two world wars. His books include Mussolini and His Generals and The Italian Army and the First World War. He is Professor Emeritus at the University of Leeds.

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28 October 2023

28 October

Battle of the Milvian Bridge in Rome

How Christianity became official religion of the Roman Empire

Roman emperor Constantine defeated his rival Maxentius in a battle at the Milvian Bridge (Ponte Milvio), a vital point for crossing the River Tiber, on this day in 312 in Rome. The battle was a crucial moment in a civil war that ended with Constantine I as sole ruler of the Roman Empire and Christianity established as the empire’s official religion. The Roman Empire was being torn apart by different factions at war with each other at the beginning of the fourth century.  Although Constantine - known also as Constantine the Great - was declared Emperor at York in 306, his brother in law and rival, Maxentius, later claimed the imperial title in Rome.  In 312, Constantine led a force to march on Rome. Troops fighting for Maxentius lay in wait for them next to the River Tiber at Pons Milvius (Ponte Milvio, which had been partially dismantled to stop the attacking force crossing the river).  It is said that Constantine had a dream before the battle and saw the sun, the object of his own worship, overlain by the figure of a cross. Beneath the cross was the message in hoc signo vinces (in this sign prevail).  Read more…


Eros Ramazzotti - singer-songwriter

Best-selling Italian star has enduring appeal

The best-selling Italian singer and songwriter Eros Ramazzotti was born on this day in 1963 in Rome.  Ramazzotti, whose style has developed from pure pop to a contemporary soft rock genre with elements of classical crossover, has sold around 65 million records in a career spanning almost 40 years, putting him among the top 12 Italian recording artists of all time.  He is popular throughout Europe and in Spanish-speaking countries in South America, so much so that he records most of his albums in Spanish as well as Italian.  Among his 13 studio albums, three compilations and six live albums, 12 have reached No 1 in the Italian charts and 10 in the Swiss charts.  In addition, Ramazzotti has had No 1s in Austria, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany and Sweden.  Twice - with 9 in 2003 and e2 in 2007 – he sold more records in that year in Italy than any other artist.  Other major selling albums have been In ogni senso, Tutte storie, Dove c'è musica, Stilelibero and Calma apparente.  His appeal is said to stem from his unique voice - a vibrant, slightly nasal tenor – his energetic delivery of catchy pop numbers and the passion he brings to often semi-autobiographical ballads.  Read more…


The March on Rome

The insurrection that put Fascists in power

The March on Rome that resulted in Benito Mussolini’s Fascist party taking control of the Italian government took place on this day 100 years ago in 1922.  A mob comprising members of Mussolini’s Blackshirt militia and other party supporters converged on the city. At the same time, other Blackshirt groups were capturing strategic locations throughout Italy.  Italy’s Liberal prime minister, Luigi Facta, wanted to deploy the army to put down the insurrection and hastened to the Palazzo Quirinale to see the king, Victor Emmanuel III, and ask him to sign a decree of martial law so that he could put Rome in a state of siege.  At first, the monarch was prepared to grant his request, but after giving it more thought he changed his mind, much to Facta’s consternation.   Instead, the Blackshirt mob, headed by four Mussolini henchmen - Italo Balbo, Cesare Maria De Vecchi, Michele Bianchi and Emilio De Bono - were allowed to enter Rome unchallenged. By the following day, what had been effectively a bloodless coup d’état was completed when Victor Emmanuel III invited Mussolini to form a government and at the age of 39 become what was then Italy’s youngest prime minister.  Read more…


Sergio Tòfano – actor and illustrator

The many talents of stage and screen star

Comic actor, director, writer and illustrator Sergio Tòfano died on this day in 1973 in Rome.  He is remembered as an intelligent and versatile theatre and film actor and also as the creator of the much-loved cartoon character Signor Bonaventura, who entertained Italians for more than 40 years.  Tòfano was born in Rome in 1886, the son of a magistrate, and studied at the University of Rome and the Academy of Santa Cecilia. He made his first appearance on stage in 1909.  He soon specialised as a comic actor and worked with a string of famous directors including Luigi Almirante and Vittorio de Sica.  He became famous after his performance as Professor Toti in Luigi Pirandello’s comic play, Pensaci, Giacomino!   Also a talented artist and writer, Tòfano invented his cartoon character Signor Bonaventura for the children’s magazine, Il Corriere dei Piccoli, signing himself as Sto.  Signor Bonaventura made his first appearance in 1917. The character wore a red frock coat and a hat and his fans interpret him as showing how good people, despite making mistakes, can avoid the bad outcome they seem fated to experience, even in complicated situations.  Read more…


Stefano Landi – composer

Musician whose works influenced development of opera

Stefano Landi, an influential early composer of opera, died on this day in 1639 in Rome.  He wrote his most famous opera, Sant’Alessio, in 1632, which was the earliest to be about a historical subject, describing the life of the 4th century monastic, Saint Alexis.  It was also notable for Landi interspersing comic scenes drawn from the contemporary life of Rome in the 17th century.  Born in Rome, Landi had joined the Collegio Germanico as a boy soprano in 1595.  He took minor orders in 1599 and began studying at the Seminario Romano in 1602. He is mentioned in the Seminary’s records as being an organist and singer in 1611.  By 1618 he had moved to northern Italy and he published a book of five-voice madrigals in Venice. He wrote his first opera while in Padua, La morte d’Orfeo, which was probably part of the festivities for a wedding.  In 1620 he returned to Rome, where his patrons included the Borghese family, Cardinal Maurizio of Savoy, and the Barberini family, who were to be his major employers throughout the late 1620s and 1630s.  It was for the Barberini family that he wrote the work for which he is most famous, Sant’Alessio. It was used to open the Teatro delle Quattro Fontane in 1632.  Read more…


Book of the Day: Constantine: Unconquered Emperor, Christian Victor, by Paul Stephenson

A masterly survey of the life and enduring legacy of the greatest and most unjustly ignored of the later Roman emperors from a richly gifted British historian.  In 312, Constantine - one of four Roman emperors ruling a divided empire - marched on Rome to establish his sole control of its western half. Having claimed the imperial capital for himself, he then converted to Christianity and led its emergence from the shadows, its adherents no longer persecuted. Constantine founded Constantinople on the site of the ancient trading colony of Byzantium, a new Christian capital set apart from Rome's pagan past. Thereafter the Christian Roman Empire endured in the East as Byzantium, while Rome itself fell to the barbarian hordes in AD 476.  In Constantine: Unconquered Emperor, Christian Victor, Paul Stephenson offers a nuanced and deeply satisfying account of a man whose cultural and spiritual renewal of the Roman Empire gave birth to the historically crucial idea of a unified Christian Europe. Constantine, a seminal figure in the political and cultural history of the West, has at last found the biographer he deserves.

Paul Stephenson is author or editor of 10 books, most recently New Rome: the Empire in the East (2022). He has held teaching and research posts at universities, museums, and institutes in seven countries, including professorial chairs at Wisconsin, Durham, Nijmegen and Lincoln.

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27 October 2023

27 October

- Giovanni Giolitti – Prime Minister

Long-lasting Liberal politician made important social reforms

Giovanni Giolitti, who served as Prime Minister of Italy five times, was born on this day in 1842 in Mondovì in Piedmont.  A Liberal, he was the leading statesman in Italy between 1900 and 1914 and was responsible for the introduction of universal male suffrage in the country.  He was considered one of the main liberal reformers of late 19th and early 20th century Europe, along with George Clemenceau, who was twice prime minister of France, and David Lloyd George, who led the British government from 1916 to 1922.  Giolitti is the longest serving democratically elected prime minister in Italian history and the second longest serving premier after Benito Mussolini. He is considered one of the most important politicians in Italian history.  As a master of the political art of trasformismo, by making a flexible, centrist coalition that isolated the extremes of Left and Right in Italian politics after unification, he developed the national economy, which he saw as essential for producing wealth.  The period between 1901 and 1914, when he was Prime Minister and Minister of the Interior with only brief interruptions, is often referred to as the Giolitti era.  Read more…


Enrico Mattei – industrialist and entrepreneur

Death in plane crash remains an unsolved mystery

Enrico Mattei, one of the most important figures in Italy’s post-War economic rebirth, was killed on this day in 1962 in a plane crash near the village of Bascapè in Lombardy.  Accompanied by a Time-Life journalist, William McHale, Mattei was returning to Milan from Catania in Sicily in a French-built four-seater Morane-Saulnier jet being flown by Irnerio Bertuzzi, a respected pilot who had flown many daring missions during the Second World War.  They were on their descent towards Milan Linate when the crash happened, less than 17km (10.5 miles) from the airport.  Mattei, a politically powerful industrialist, best known for turning round Italy’s seemingly unviable oil industry, was not short of enemies and after his death there was considerable speculation that it did not happen by accident.  A government-led investigation, overseen by the then Italian Defence Minister Giulio Andreotti, concluded that a storm was to blame for the crash, even though the pilot was highly experienced and very unlikely to have allowed bad weather to bring him down.  Questions about the initial inquiry’s findings led to a second inquiry being opened in 1966 but shelved without reaching a conclusion.  Read more…


Simone Moro - mountaineer

Bergamo climber with unique record

The mountaineer Simone Moro, who is the only climber whose list of achievements includes the first winter ascent of four of the so-called eight-thousanders, was born on this day in 1967 in the city of Bergamo in Lombardy.  The eight-thousanders are the 14 peaks on Earth that rise to more than 8,000m (26,247ft) above sea level. All are located in the Himalayan and Karakoram mountain ranges in Asia.  A veteran of 15 winter expeditions, he completed the winter ascent of Shisha Pangma (8,027m) in 2005, Makalu (8,485m) in 2009, Gasherbrum II (8,035m) in 2011 and Nanga Parbat (8,126m) in 2016.  He has scaled Everest (8,848m) four times, including the first solo south-north traverse in 2006. In total he has completed more than 50 expeditions, conquering peaks in Tien Shan, Pamir, Andes, Patagonia and Antarctica as well as the Himalayas and Karakoram.  Moro is also renowned for his courage and bravery. During his 2001 attempt on the Everest-Lhotse traverse, he abandoned his ascent at 8,000m and battled through the most dangerous conditions in darkness to save the life of British climber Tom Moores.  Read more…


Roberto Benigni - Oscar winner

How Life is Beautiful made Tuscan actor and director famous

Roberto Benigni, whose performance in the 1997 film Life is Beautiful won him an Oscar for Best Actor, was born on this day in 1952 in rural Tuscany, around 20km (12 miles) south of Arezzo.  The Academy Award, for which he beat off strong competition from Nick Nolte (Affliction) and Tom Hanks (Saving Private Ryan) among others, put him in the company of Anna Magnani (1955) and Sophia Loren (1961) as one of just three Italian winners of best actor or actress.  Benigni, who also directed Life is Beautiful, had won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film earlier in the awards ceremony, which delighted him so much he famously clambered on to the back of the seats of audience members in the row in front of his to lead the applause before stepping up to the stage to receive the award from Sophia Loren.  When Helen Hunt called out his name for Best Actor - the first since Loren to win the most coveted prize with a foreign language film - he began his acceptance speech by apologizing for having "used up all my English", before proceeding to deliver another joyously emotional expression of gratitude.  Read more…


Niccolò Paganini - musician and composer

Extraordinary talent aroused bizarre suspicions

The musician and composer Niccolò Paganini, widely regarded as one of the greatest violinists of all time, was born on this day in 1782 in Genoa. Paganini’s ability was so far ahead of his contemporaries that to some observers it defied comprehension. He possessed unusually long fingers, a memory that enabled him to play entire pieces without the need for sheet music, and could play at up to 12 notes per second.  This, combined with his appearance - he was tall and thin, with hollow cheeks, pale skin and a fondness for dressing in black - as well as a habit of making wild, exaggerated movements as he played, gave rise to outlandish theories that he was possessed by the Devil, or even was the Devil himself. He also pursued a somewhat dissolute lifestyle, drinking heavily, gambling and taking advantage of his fame to engage in numerous affairs.  The suspicion of demonic associations stayed with him all his life to the extent that after his death at the age of 58 it was four years before his body was laid to rest because the Catholic Church would not give him a Christian burial, their reticence not helped by his refusal to accept the last rites.  Read more...


Book of the Day: A Concise History of Italy, by Christopher Duggan

Since its formation in 1861, Italy has struggled to develop an effective political system and a secure sense of national identity. This new edition of Christopher Duggan's acclaimed introduction charts the country's history from the fall of the Roman Empire in the west to the present day and surveys the difficulties Italy has faced during the last two centuries in forging a nation state. Duggan successfully weaves together political, economic, social and cultural history, and stresses the alternation between materialist and idealist programmes for forging a nation state. This second edition has been thoroughly revised and updated to offer increased coverage of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Italy, as well as a new section devoted to Italy in the twenty-first century. With a new, extensive bibliographical essay and a detailed chronology, A Concise History of Italy is the ideal resource for those seeking an authoritative and comprehensive introduction to Italian history.

Christopher Duggan is Professor of Modern Italian History at the University of Reading. He has written extensively on many aspects of 19th and 20th entury Italy. His books include Fascism and the Mafia (1989), Francesco Crispi: From Nation to Nationalism (2002), The Force of Destiny: A History of Italy since 1796 (2007) and Fascist Voices: An Intimate History of Mussolini's Italy (2012). 

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Giovanni Giolitti – Prime Minister

Long-lasting Liberal politician made important social reforms

Giovanni Giolitti was one of Europe's main liberal reformers
Giovanni Giolitti was one of
Europe's main liberal reformers
Giovanni Giolitti, who served as Prime Minister of Italy five times, was born on this day in 1842 in Mondovì in Piedmont.

A Liberal, he was the leading statesman in Italy between 1900 and 1914 and was responsible for the introduction of universal male suffrage in the country.

He was considered one of the main liberal reformers of late 19th and early 20th century Europe, along with George Clemenceau, who was twice prime minister of France, and David Lloyd George, who led the British government from 1916 to 1922.

Giolitti is the longest serving democratically-elected prime minister in Italian history and the second longest serving premier after Benito Mussolini. He is considered one of the most important politicians in Italian history.

As a master of the political art of trasformismo, by making a flexible, centrist coalition that isolated the extremes of Left and Right in Italian politics after unification, he developed the national economy, which he saw as essential for producing wealth.

The period between 1901 and 1914, when he was Prime Minister and Minister of the Interior with only brief interruptions, is often referred to as the Giolitti era.

He made progressive social reforms that improved the living standards of ordinary Italians and he nationalised the telephone and railway operators.

Giolitti’s father, Giovenale Giolitti, had worked in the avvocatura dei poveri, assisting poor people in both civil and criminal cases. He died in 1843, the year after his son, Giovanni, was born. The family moved to live in his mother’s family home in Turin, where she taught him to read and write.

Giolitti earned a degree in law from the University of Turin
Giolitti earned a degree in law
from the University of Turin
Giolitti was educated in Turin and went to the University of Turin at the age of 16, where he earned a law degree after three years.

His uncle was a friend of Michelangelo Castelli, the secretary of Camillo Benso di Cavour - the united Italy's first prime minister but Giolitti was not interested in the Risorgimento and did not fight in the Italian Second War of Independence, choosing instead to work in public administration.

At the 1882 Italian general election, Giolitti was elected to the Chamber of Deputies. In 1889 he was selected by Francesco Crispi as the new Minister of Treasury and Finance, but he later resigned because he did not agree with Crispi’s colonial policy.

After the fall of a new government led by Antonio Starabba di Rudini, Giolitti was asked by King Umberto I to form a new cabinet.

He resigned after a series of problems and scandals and was impeached for abuse of power, but this allegation was later quashed. He was once again appointed prime minister by King Victor Emmanuel III, but he had to resign in 1905 after losing the support of the Socialists.

When the next prime minister, Sidney Sonnino, lost his majority in 1906, Giolitti became prime minister again. He introduced laws to protect women and child workers and passed a law to provide workers with a weekly day of rest.

Giolitti was re-elected in 1909 but soon had to resign again, afterwards supporting the new head of government, Luigi Luzzatti, while remaining the real power behind the scenes.

In 1911, Luzzati resigned from office and Victor Emmanuel III again gave Giolitti the task of forming a new cabinet.

In 1912, Giolitti got Parliament to approve an electoral reform bill that expanded the electorate from three million to eight and a half million voters. This is thought to have hastened the end of the Giolitti era. The Radicals brought down Giolitti’s coalition in 1914 and he resigned.  

He became prime minister again in 1920, supported by Mussolini’s Fascist party, but he had to step down in 1921. By 1925 he had become completely opposed to the Fascist party and refused to join. He died in 1928 in Cavour in Piedmont and his last words to the priest were that he could not sing the official anthem of the Fascist regime.

A section of the Piazza Maggiore, with its frescoed Baroque architecture
A section of the Piazza Maggiore, with its
frescoed Baroque architecture
Travel tip: 

Mondovì is a beautiful town of some 22,000 inhabitants situated in Italy’s Piedmont region at the foot of the southern Alps, close to the border between Piedmont and Liguria.  Like much of the area in which it sits, the town is rich in mediaeval frescoes and Baroque architecture from the 17th and 18th centuries, many of the buildings designed by local architect Francesco Gallo.  The town is in two sections: the lower town called Breo, which grew up alongside the Ellero river, is linked to the upper town of Piazza by a funicular railway.  Mondovì Piazza, the old part of the city founded around 1198, has the two-level Piazza Maggiore at its heart, surrounded by beautiful porticoed buildings such as Palazzo dei Bressani and the Governor’s Palace.  Mondovì was one of the most important towns during the Savoy era, with an ancient university and a printing press that produced, in 1472, the first book printed in Piedmont with modern typography.  The town’s printing museum - the Museo della Stampa - can be found in the 17th century Palazzo delle Orfane. 

Cavour is dominated by the giant Rocca di  Cavour, which looms over the town
Cavour is dominated by the giant Rocca di 
Cavour, which looms over the town
Travel tip: 

Cavour is a small town of around 5,500 residents in Piedmont, situated about 40km (25 miles) southeast of Turin, built at the foot of the Rocca di Cavour, an isolated mass of granite rising from otherwise flat terrain. On top of the Rocca, once the site of a Roman village, are some mediaeval remains. The town gave its name to the Benso family of Chieri, of whom the most famous member was Camillo Benso, Count of Cavour, the statesman who was a driving force in the Risorgimento and was appointed the first prime minister of the united Italy in 1861.  The Rocca di Cavour has been a protected natural park since 1995.

Also on this day:

1782: The birth of virtuoso violinist Niccolò Paganini

1952: The birth of Oscar-winning actor Roberto Benigni

1962: The death of entrepreneur industrialist Enrico Mattei

1967: The birth of mountaineer Simone Moro


26 October 2023

26 October

Trieste becomes part of Italy

Fascinating city retains influences from past rulers

The beautiful seaport of Trieste officially became part of the Italian Republic on this day in 1954.  Trieste is now the capital of the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region, one of the most prosperous areas of Italy.  The city lies towards the end of a narrow strip of land situated between the Adriatic Sea and Slovenia and it is also just 30km (19 miles) north of Croatia.  Trieste has been disputed territory for thousands of years and throughout its history has been influenced by its location at the crossroads of the Latin, Slavic and Germanic cultures.  It became part of the Roman Republic in 177 BC and was granted the status of a Roman colony by Julius Caesar in 51 BC.  In 788 Trieste was conquered by Charlemagne on behalf of the French but by the 13th century was being occupied by the Venetian Republic. Austria made the city part of the Habsburg domains in the 14th century but it was then conquered again by Venice. The Hapsburgs recovered Trieste in the 16th century and made it an important port and a commercial hub.  Trieste fell into French hands during the time of Napoleon but then became part of Austrian territory again.  Read more…


Domenico Scarlatti - composer

Neapolitan famous for his 555 keyboard sonatas

The composer Giuseppe Domenico Scarlatti, known as Domenico Scarlatti, was born in Naples on this day in 1685.  Born in the same year as Johann Sebastian Bach and George Frideric Handel, Scarlatti was the sixth of 10 children fathered by the composer Alessandro Scarlatti.  Like his father, Domenico composed in a variety of musical styles, making the transition in his lifetime from Baroque to traditional Classical. Today, he is known mainly for his 555 keyboard sonatas, which expanded the musical possibilities of the harpsichord.  Although he began his career in Naples, Scarlatti spent a large part of his life in the service of the Portuguese and Spanish royal families. In fact, he died in Madrid in 1757.  Early in 1701, at the age of just 15, Scarlatti was appointed as composer and organist at the royal chapel in Naples. At 17, his first operas, L’Ottavia restituita al trono and Il giustino, were produced there.  In 1705 his father sent him to Venice, reputedly to study with the composer Francesco Gasparini, although nothing is known with certainty about his life there. It is thought he may have met a young Irishman, Thomas Roseingrave, who later described Scarlatti’s advances in harpsichord music to the English musicologist Charles Burney.  Read more…


Trilussa - poet and journalist

Writer used humour and irony in social commentary

The Roman poet who went under the name Trilussa was born on this day in 1871.  The writer, best known for his works in Romanesco dialect, was actually christened Carlo Alberto Camillo Mariano Salustri. His pseudonym was an anagram of his last name.  He was inspired to take up poetry by his admiration for Giuseppe Gioachino Belli, who satirised life in 19th century Rome in his sonnets, which were also written in Roman dialect.  Born in a house in Via del Babuino, near the Spanish Steps, Carlo was the son of a waiter originally from Albano Laziale in the Castelli Romani area around Lago Albano south of Rome. His mother, Carlotta, was a seamstress born in Bologna.  His early years were marred by tragedy. He lost both a sister and his father before he had reached four years old.  After living for a short time in Via Ripetta, close to the Tiber river, his family were offered accommodation in a palazzo in Piazza di Pietra, a square midway between the Pantheon and the Trevi Fountain.  The palazzo was owned by Carlo’s Godfather, the Marquis Ermenegildo del Cinque, who had been introduced to the family by Professor Filippo Chiappini, a disciple of Belli who for a while was Trilussa’s tutor.  Read more…


Giuditta Pasta – soprano

The first singer to perform the roles of Anna Bolena and Norma

Singer Giuditta Pasta, whose voice was so beautiful Gaetano Donizetti wrote the role of Anna Bolena especially for her, was born on this day in 1797 in Saronno in Lombardy.  Her mezzo-soprano voice was much written about by 19th century opera reviewers and in modern times her performance style has been compared with that of Maria Callas.  Indeed, Vincenzo Bellini’s opera Norma, which Callas would turn into her signature role, was actually written for Pasta in 1831.  Pasta was born Giuditta Negri, the daughter of a Jewish soldier. She studied singing in Milan and made her operatic debut there in 1816.  Later that year she performed at the Theatre Italien in Paris as Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni, but it was not until 1821 that her talent was fully recognised when she appeared in Paris as Desdemona in Gioachino Rossini’s Otello.  Giuditta married another singer, Giuseppe Pasta, in 1816 and as well as being her regular leading man he handled her business affairs and identified likely roles and composers who might wish to work with her.  Read more…


Primo Carnera - boxer

Heavyweight’s career dogged by ‘fix’ rumours

The boxer Primo Carnera, who was world heavyweight champion between 1933 and 1934, was born on this day in 1906 in a village in Friuli-Venezia Giulia.  After launching his professional career in Paris in 1928, Carnera moved to the United States in 1930 and spent many years there, returning from time to time to Italy, where he had a house built for himself and his family, but not permanently until he was in declining health and decided he would like to spend his final years in his home country.  He won 89 of his 103 fights, 72 by a knockout, although there were suspicions that many of his fights were fixed by the New York mobsters who made up his management team, even including the victory over the American Jack Sharkey that earned him the world title.  Physically, he was a freak.  Said to have weighed 22lbs at birth he had grown to the size of an adult man by the time he was eight. By adulthood, he was a veritable giant, by Italian standards, standing 6ft 6ins tall when the average Italian man was 5ft 5ins.  His fighting weight was as high at times as 275lb (125kg).  He was born into a peasant family in the village of Sequals, around 45km (28 miles) west of Udine.  Read more…


Book of the Day: Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere, by Jan Morris

Jan Morris first visited Trieste as a soldier at the end of the Second World War. Since then, the city has come to represent her own life, with all its hopes, disillusionments, loves and memories. Here, her thoughts on a host of subjects - ships, cities, cats, sex, nationalism, Jewishness, civility and kindness - are inspired by the presence of Trieste, and recorded in or between the lines of this book.  Evoking the whole of its modern history, from its explosive growth to wealth and fame under the Habsburgs, through the years of Fascist rule to the miserable years of the Cold War, when rivalries among the great powers prevented its creation as a free city under United Nations auspices, Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere is neither a history nor a travel book; like the place, it is one of a kind.  

Jan Morris was born in 1926 of a Welsh father and an English mother. She spent the last years of her life with her partner Elizabeth Morris in Wales, between the mountains and the sea. Her books include Coronation Everest, Venice, the Pax Britannica trilogy and Conundrum. She was also the author of six books about cities and countries, two autobiographical books and several volumes of collected travel essays. She was recognized in 2018 for her outstanding contribution to travel writing by the Edward Stanford Travel Writing Awards.

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