31 December 2023

31 December

Giovanni Michelucci - architect

Designer made mark with railway station and motorway church

The architect Giovanni Michelucci, whose major legacies include the Santa Maria Novella railway station in Florence, died on this day in 1990 in his studio just outside the Tuscan city at Fiesole.  Considered by many to be the 'father' of modern Italian architecture, he was only two days away from his 100th birthday.  He was still working and is said to have been inspecting progress on his latest project when he slipped and fell, later suffering a cardiac arrest.  Michelucci, who was born in Pistoia on January 2, 1891, is also remembered for the brilliantly unconventional church of San Giovanni Battista, with its tent-like curved roof, which forms part of a rest area on the Autostrada del Sole as it passes Florence.  The Santa Maria Novella station project for which he first won acclaim came after a collective of young architects known as the Tuscan Group, co-ordinated by Michelucci, beat more than 100 other entries in a national competition in the early 1930s to build a new station behind the church of the same name.  The linear design was loathed by conservatives but loved by modernists, although it could not be said to conform to the style identifiable as Fascist architecture in Italy at the time.  Read more…


Eleonora Gonzaga, Duchess of Urbino

Image of wise ruler has been preserved in paintings

Eleonora Gonzaga, a noblewoman who was painted four times by Titian, was born on this day in 1493 in Mantua.  When she was 15 she married Francesco Maria I della Rovere, Duke of Urbino, the 16-year-old nephew of Pope Julius II and the marriage was celebrated at the Vatican in Rome.  Eleonora, along with the dowager duchess, Elisabetta Montefeltro, became largely responsible for the internal government of the duchy because Francesco was a captain in the papal army and often absent from Urbino. She also became an important patron of the arts.  Eleonora was the eldest of the seven children of Francesco II Gonzaga, Marquess of Mantua and Isabella d’Este. Although her father was a notorious libertine, her mother was also famous for being a patron of the arts. As a result, Eleonora was well educated in reading, writing, Latin, music and needlework, which had made her cultured and very suitable for marriage with another member of the nobility.  But, within six years of their marriage, the fortunes of Eleonora and her husband, Francesco, changed suddenly. The new pope, Leo X, ordered Francesco to lead an army in the pope’s planned invasion of France.  Read more…


Sought-after painter who captured elegance of Belle Époque

Giovanni Boldini, whose sumptuous images of the rich and famous made him the most fashionable portrait painter in Paris during the Belle Époque era of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, was born in Ferrara on this day in 1842.  His subjects included some famous names, including the opera composer Giuseppe Verdi and the actress Sarah Bernhardt, and he had countless commissions from prominent individuals in Parisian society.  Boldini's skill was to capture his subject in soft-focus, elongating their features to accentuate beauty and creating a sense of motion in the figures so that they appeared to be both sophisticated and full of life.  He dressed his subjects in sumptuous gowns that would grace any fashion catwalk and society women in particular felt the need to confirm their status by having a Boldini portrait to show off to their friends and demanded that their wealthy husbands arrange a sitting.  Boldini came from an artistic background.  His father, Antonio, painted religious figures and scenes and had a house in Via Voltapaletto, which links Ferrara’s cathedral with the Basilica of San Francesco.  Read more…


Giovanni Pascoli – poet

Painful childhood inspired great verse

Giovanni Placido Agostino Pascoli, who was regarded as the greatest Italian poet writing at the beginning of the 20th century, was born on this day in 1855 in San Mauro di Romagna, then part of the Kingdom of Sardinia.  Pascoli’s poems in Latin won prizes and he was regarded by the writer Gabriele D’Annunzio as the finest Latin poet since the Augustan age, which lasted from approximately 43 BC to AD 18 and was thought to be the golden age of Latin literature.  Although Pascoli was the fourth of ten children, his family were comfortable financially and his father, Ruggero Pascoli, was administrator of an estate of farmland on which they lived.  But when Giovanni Pascoli was just 12 years old, his father, returning from Cesena in a carriage drawn by a black and white mare, was shot and killed by an assassin hiding in a ditch at the side of the road. The mare carried on slowly and brought home the body of her master, Ruggero, but the murderer was never brought to justice.  Giovanni Pascoli’s mother died the following year and five other children in the family had also died before he became an adult.  Read more…


Festa di San Silvestro – Feast of Saint Sylvester

Celebrating with a meal of pork and lentils for a prosperous New Year

New Year’s Eve in Italy is known as the Festa di San Silvestro in memory of Pope Sylvester I who died on this day in 335 in Rome.  It is not a public holiday in Italy but in normal times it is a festive time everywhere, with firework displays, concerts and parties.  One custom still followed in some parts of Italy is throwing your old things out of the window at midnight to symbolise your readiness to accept the New Year.  Throughout Italy, bars and restaurants are busy with residents and visitors enjoying drinks and meals before seeing in the New Year in the main square when the bells ring at midnight.  Popular menu items include cotechino (Italian sausage), zampone (stuffed pig’s trotter) and lenticchie (lentils).  Pork is said to represent the fullness or richness of life, while lentils are supposed to symbolise wealth or money. Many Italians believe the coming year could bring prosperity if these foods are eaten on New Year’s Eve.  The President of the Republic delivers an end of year message from the Quirinale in Rome, which is shown on most Italian television channels during the evening. There are live concerts in the open air in many squares throughout Italy, some of which are televised.  Read more…


Book of the Day: The Architecture of Modern Italy: Volume Two - Visions of Utopia, 1900-Present, by Terry Kirk

This groundbreaking and authoritative survey is the first truly comprehensive history of modern Italian architecture and urbanism to appear in any language. Told in lively prose, it recounts more than 250 years of experimentation, creativity, and turmoil that have shaped the landscape of contemporary Italy. Visions of Utopia, 1900- Present tracks the development of Italy's architectural avant-garde through the upheavals of the twentieth century. Beginning with the development of Italian art nouveau - stile liberty - and moving through futurism, fascism, rationalism, and on to the creative experimentation of the present day, it explores the work of such pivotal figures as Raimondo d'Aronco, Antonio Sant'Elia, Adalberto Libera, Giuseppe Terragni, Pier Luigi Nervi, Gio Ponti, Carlo Scarpa, Aldo Rossi and Renzo Piano. The Architecture of Modern Italy is exhaustively illustrated with rare period images, new photography, maps, drawings, and plans. With Colin Rowe's Italian Architecture of the 16th Century, it provides a nearly complete overview of the history of Italian architecture.

Terry Kirk is a professor of architectural history at the American University of Rome.

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30 December 2023

30 December

- For a Few Dollars More released in Italy

Second in Spaghetti Western trilogy

The movie For a Few Dollars More, the second in what became known as the Dollars Trilogy of Spaghetti Westerns, was released for public viewing in Italy on this day in 1965.  Directed by Sergio Leone and starring Clint Eastwood as the Man with No Name, the film followed the unexpected success of the low-budget feature A Fistful of Dollars, released 15 months earlier, which overcame poor initial reviews to become, for a time, the biggest-grossing movie in Italian cinema history.  Released for Italian audiences as Per Qualche Dollaro in Più, the follow-up proved even more commercially successful than its predecessor. By 1967, it had displaced A Fistful of Dollars as the highest-grossing Italian production, generating 3.1 billion lire ($5 million) in ticket sales from more than 14 and a half million admissions.  Eastwood, who had been little known outside America before A Fistful of Dollars catapulted him to international fame, had been paid a reputed sum of just $15,000 for his role in the original film, from a production budget of only $200,000.  This time Leone had more money at his disposal after teaming up with Italian producer Alberto Grimaldi.  Read more…


Titus – Roman emperor

'Good' ruler who helped victims of Vesuvius eruption

The Roman emperor Titus was born Titus Flavius Vespasianus on this day in AD 39.  He was emperor from AD 79 to 81 and is remembered for capturing Jerusalem and for completing the Colosseum in Rome.  Two months after his accession, on August 24, AD 79, Mount Vesuvius in Campania began erupting, eventually killing thousands of people around Pompeii and Herculaneum.  Titus appointed officials to coordinate the relief effort, while donating large amounts of money from the imperial treasury to aid the victims. He visited Pompeii twice.  Titus was a member of the Flavian dynasty and succeeded his father Vespasian after his death, becoming the first Roman emperor to come to the throne after his biological father.  Titus was believed to have been born in Rome on December 30, AD 39, the eldest son of Titus Flavius Vespasianus, who was commonly known as Vespasian.  His father had earned prestige as a military commander, taking part in the invasion of Britain in AD 43 under the emperor Claudius.  Titus served under his father in Judea during the first Jewish-Roman war.  Read more…


Alessandra Mussolini – politician

Controversial granddaughter of Fascist dictator

The MEP Alessandra Mussolini, niece of actress Sophia Loren and granddaughter of Italy’s former Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, was born on this day in 1962 in Rome.  Formerly an actress and model, Mussolini entered politics in the early 1990s as a member of the neofascist Movimento Sociale Italiano, which had its roots in the Italian Social Republic, the German puppet state led by her grandfather from September 1943 until his death in April 1945.  Her views have changed in more recent years and she has become known for embracing modern issues including abortion, artificial insemination, gay rights and civil unions from a progressive standpoint that has more in common with left-wing feminism.  She has left behind her association with the far right and serves in the European Parliament as representative for Central Italy under a centre-right Forza Italia ticket.  However, she is not without some admiration for the policies of her grandfather.  Only recently she caused consternation when asked her opinion on what to do about an escalating Mafia war in the Roman seaside resort of Ostia by claiming that “granddad would have sorted this out in two or three months.”  Read more…


Galeazzo Alessi – architect

Brilliant designer left legacy of beautiful palaces and churches

Italian architect Galeazzo Alessi, who designed some of the most impressive buildings in Genoa and Assisi, died on this day in 1572.  Born in Perugia in 1512, Alessi studied drawing for both civil and military architecture and developed great enthusiasm for ancient architecture, although he was also later influenced by Michelangelo.  He became known throughout Europe for his distinctive style and towards the end of his career was commissioned to design churches and palaces in France, Germany, Belgium and Spain.  A lot of his work can still be seen in Perugia and Assisi, where, in collaboration with another architect, Alessi designed the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli in 1568.  In Genoa he designed some of the beautiful palaces with ornate decoration that have now been listed as Unesco world heritage sites and he was involved in planning the lay-out of the streets and the restoration of the city walls.  Alessi died at the age of 60 in Perugia before the designs that he had drawn up for El Escorial, the residence of the King of Spain, could be carried out.  Perugia, Alessi’s home town, is the capital city of the region of Umbria and one of the main Etruscan cities of Italy.  Read more…


Camila Giorgi - tennis player

Italian who specialised in beating big names

The tennis player Camila Giorgi was born on this day in 1991 in Macerata, a city in the Marche region.  Giorgi rose to 26 in the Women’s Tennis Association world rankings at the end of 2018, at which time there was no other Italian woman in the top 100.  This followed a breakthrough year for Giorgi in which she reached the quarter-finals of a Grand Slam event for the first time, at the Wimbledon Championships in London in June.  Giorgi was not seeded but after defeating 21st seed Anastasija Sevastova in the first round, she advanced through her section of the draw with three more victories, culminating in a straight-sets win over former world No 8 Ekaterina Makarova in the fourth round.  That earned Giorgi a last-eight meeting with seven-times Wimbledon champion and world record grand slam winner Serena Williams.  Giorgi won the first set but Williams fought back to win the match.  Earlier in the 2018 summer, Giorgi had delivered her best performance at the French Open by reaching the third round. Later in the year, she won her second career WTA tournament, the Linz Open in Austria.  Read more…


Book of the Day: Roman Emperors: A Guide to the Men Who Ruled the Empire, by Mario Bartolini 

Roman Emperors is a concise chronological guide to the emperors who ruled the Roman Empire. It covers the period from the establishment of the Empire by Augustus in 27 BCE to the abdication of Romulus Augustus in 476 CE, an event that marks the official end of the existence of the Roman Empire as a political entity in Western Europe. After a useful introduction to the late Republic and its transformation into the Empire, each of the eighty-five emperors customarily recognized as legitimate are presented in the order in which they reigned. This includes both Eastern and Western emperors for those periods where the empire was divided, and each one is illustrated. A useful glossary of technical terms is also provided.

Mario Bartolini is a retired political analyst and officer in the Canadian army reserve, with a long-held interest in Roman military history. He has a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in political history from the Université de Sherbrooke, Canada, and a second master’s degree in war studies, obtained at the Royal Military College of Canada. 

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For a Few Dollars More released in Italy

Second in Spaghetti Western trilogy

The poncho-wearing Clint Eastwood became one of the Western genre's most famous characters
The poncho-wearing Clint Eastwood became one
of the Western genre's most famous characters
The movie For a Few Dollars More, the second in what became known as the Dollars Trilogy of Spaghetti Westerns, was released for public viewing in Italy on this day in 1965.

Directed by Sergio Leone and starring Clint Eastwood as the Man with No Name, the film followed the unexpected success of the low-budget feature A Fistful of Dollars, released 15 months earlier, which overcame poor initial reviews to become, for a time, the biggest-grossing movie in Italian cinema history.

Released for Italian audiences as Per Qualche Dollaro in Più, the follow-up proved even more commercially successful than its predecessor. By 1967, it had displaced A Fistful of Dollars as the highest-grossing Italian production, generating 3.1 billion lire ($5 million) in ticket sales from more than 14 and a half million admissions.

Eastwood, who had been little known outside America before A Fistful of Dollars catapulted him to international fame, had been paid a reputed sum of just $15,000 for his role in the original film, from a production budget of only $200,000.

This time Leone had more money at his disposal after teaming up with Italian producer Alberto Grimaldi and Eastwood received $50,000, although co-star Lee Van Cleef, given the part of a rival bounty hunter after Charles Bronson turned the role down, was paid a rather more modest $17,000.

One of the original posters advertising the film in Italy
One of the original posters
advertising the film in Italy
As with A Fistful of Dollars, the lead villain in For a Few Dollars More was played by Gian Maria Volonté, who was to become one of Italy’s most celebrated movie actors, famous for portraying memorable but neurotic characters in high-profile social dramas, usually with a political message. Volonté always insisted he took the Dollars roles only for the money.

Some critics were again derisive, dismissing the theme as corny, others accusing the director of glorifying violence and murder, yet For a Few Dollars More transfixed audiences with a gripping storyline, stunning cinematography, and powerful performances, as well as another brilliant musical score by Leone’s former school friend, the great Ennio Morricone.

The central plotline revolves around the rivalry between Eastwood’s character, on this occasion known as Manco, and Van Cleef’s former army officer, Colonel Douglas Mortimer, a fellow bounty hunter, with Volonté as a cold-blooded bank robber known as El Indio, who is just out of prison with a price on his head.

In common with the original, the film was shot on location in Spain rather than Italy. The original takes were all recorded without sound. Voices, sound effects and the musical score were all added later.

Leone completed the trilogy the following year with The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, which teamed Eastwood again with Lee Van Cleef but with Eli Wallach taking over from Volonté as the chief villain.

The budget this time was $1.2 million and box office revenue worldwide was almost as much as the first two parts of the trilogy combined.  Eastwood and Leone’s careers went in opposite directions but both enjoyed considerable success.

Leone scored another huge western hit with Once Upon a Time in the West in 1968 and, despite turning down the chance to direct The Godfather, directed a great gangster epic of his own in 1984, with Once Upon a Time in America. Sadly, he died of a heart attack in 1989 at the age of 60.

Eastwood went on to enjoy countless box office successes as an actor before becoming an Oscar-winning director, remaining active even into his 90s.

The arches of the Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana echo those of the Colosseum
The arches of the Palazzo della Civiltà
Italiana echo those of the Colosseum 
Travel tip:

Sergio Leone, born in Rome, died there in 1989 when he suffered a fatal heart attack in the villa he used to entertain friends in the city’s EUR district, the complex to the south of central Rome that was originally developed to host the 1942 World's Fair - the Esposizione Universale Roma - which was cancelled because of the Second World War.  Mussolini’s modern city within a city was designed by a team of prominent architects, headed by Marcello Piacentini and including Giovanni Michelucci. The designs combined classical Roman elements with Italian Rationalism in a simplified neoclassicism that came to be known as Fascist architecture.  The Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana, which has become known as the “square colosseum”, is regarded as the building which is the most symbolic of EUR. Designed by Giovanni Guerrini, Ernesto La Padula, and Mario Romano, it draws inspiration from the Colosseum with its rows of arches, while its square shape and stark whiteness are reminiscent of metaphysical art.

The historic entrance to the Cinecitta film studios in Rome, in its heyday the largest in Europe
The historic entrance to the Cinecitta film studios
in Rome, in its heyday the largest in Europe
Travel tip:

The Italian film industry for many years revolved around Cinecittà, the Rome film studio that is the largest in Europe, spreading over an area of 100 acres with  22 stages and 300 dressing rooms. Situated six miles south of the city centre, like EUR it was built during the Fascist era under the personal direction of Mussolini. The studios were bombed by the Allies in the Second World War but were rebuilt and used again in the 1950s for large productions, such as Ben Hur. These days a range of productions, from television drama to music videos, are filmed there. The complex contains a permanent exhibition about the history of the studio, within which a special hall is devoted to the work of Sergio Leone, who worked at Cinecittà in the early stage of his career as an assistant director on several large-scale international productions, notably Quo Vadis (1951) and Ben-Hur (1959).

Also on this day: 

39: The birth of Roman emperor Titus

1572: The death of architect Galeazzo Alessi 

1962: The birth of politician Alessandra Mussolini

1991: The birth of tennis star Camila Georgi


29 December 2023

29 December

The opening of Venice’s historic Caffè Florian

Meeting place on St Mark’s Square became an institution

Venice’s famous Caffè Florian opened its doors for the first time on this day in 1720.  Florian’s nowadays occupies a long stretch of the arcades on the southern side of Piazza San Marco, its seats stretching out across the square with a permanent orchestra in residence to entertain clients. Yet the original consisted of just two rooms.  It was officially given the grand title of Alla Venezia Trionfante (“To Triumphant Venice”), but soon became known as Florian’s after the owner, Floriano Francesconi.  The cafè’s 301-year history makes it the oldest still-active coffee house in Italy and the second oldest in Europe behind the Café Procope in Paris, which was founded in 1686.  Florian’s soon became a fashionable meeting place for Venetian society, especially its writers. Among its 18th century clientele were the Venetian playwright and librettist Carlo Goldoni and the German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, while the writer and adventurer Giacomo Casanova is said to have been regularly seen there, possibly drawn by the cafè’s then-unusual policy of opening its doors to women.  When the critic and dramatist Gasparo Gozzi launched his literary magazine Gazzetta Veneta in 1760, Florian’s agreed to help him publicise his venture and sell copies.  Read more…


Gaetano Russo - sculptor

Creator of New York’s Christopher Columbus Monument

The sculptor Gaetano Russo, famous for having created the monument dedicated to Christopher Columbus at Columbus Circle in New York, was born on this day in 1847 in the Sicilian city of Messina.  Russo’s 13ft (3.96m) statue of the 15th century Genoese explorer, carved from a block of Carrara marble, stands on top of a 70ft (21.3m) granite column, decorated with bronze reliefs depicting the Niña, the Pinta and the Santa Maria, Columbus’s three caravel sailing ships.  At the foot of the column there is an angel holding the globe.  Unveiled on October 12, 1892 on the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s voyage to the Americas, the statue was a gift to the city from New York’s Italian-American community, funded by a campaign by an Italian-language newspaper, Il Progresso.  For the laying of the statue’s cornerstone, a procession took place from Little Italy to what is now called Columbus Circle, at the southern end of Central Park, a distance of 6.5km (4.2 miles). Close to 10,000 people are said to have attended the dedication ceremony.  Additional ornamentation around the base of the column depicts Columbus’s journey, American patriotic symbols, and allegorical figures.  Read more…


The Battle of San Mauro

Defeat that ended Sicily’s separatist ambitions  

Soldiers from the Italian army, bolstered by Carabinieri officers, decisively defeated the paramilitaries of the clandestine Volunteer Army for the Independence of Sicily at what became known as the Battle of San Mauro on this day in 1945.  The confrontation, which took place in the hills above the city of Caltagirone in southeast Sicily, concluded with the arrest of Concetto Gallo, commander of the paramilitary group, and the effective end of the movement for Sicilian independence that grew during the Allied military occupation of the island in World War Two.  The Volunteer Army (EVIS) had formed in February 1945 as a secret paramilitary wing of the Movimento per l'Indipendenza della Sicilia (MIS), a political party launched in 1943 with the aim of achieving independence for the island.  The party brought together individuals from across the political spectrum in Sicily under the leadership of Andrea Finocchiaro Aprile, including the revolutionary socialist Antonio Canepa, the social-democrat Giovanni Guarino Amella, local aristocratic landowners and even Mafia figures, such as the powerful Calogero Vizzini.  Read more…


Luigi Olivari – flying ace

First World War pilot claimed 19 victories

Lieutenant Luigi Olivari, a pilot in the military aviation corps of the Royal Italian Army who was decorated with a string of awards for valour in action, was born on this day in 1891 in La Spezia, the maritime city on the coast of what is now Liguria.  Olivari became a proficient aerial duellist, claiming to have downed 19 enemy aircraft as Italian planes took on Austro-Hungarian opponents after Italy had joined the war on the side of the Triple Entente of Britain, France and Russia.  Only eight of these were confirmed, yet Olivari was awarded four silver and two bronze medals for valour by the Italian government, as well as the French Croix de guerre and the Serbian Order of the Star of Karadorde.  The last of his silver medals was awarded posthumously after he was killed on October 13, 1917 when his Spad VII aircraft stalled and crashed during take-off at the Santa Caterina airfield just outside Udine in northwest Italy.  Born to middle-class parents in La Spezia, as a boy he moved with his family to Turin.  A good all-round sportsman and an accomplished motorcyclist, Olivari entered the school for civil pilots at Mirafiori, just outside Turin.  Read more…


Tullio Levi-Civita – mathematician

Professor from Padua who was admired by Einstein

Tullio Levi-Civita, the mathematician renowned for his work in differential calculus and relativity theory, died on this day in 1941 in Rome.  With the collaboration of Gregorio Ricci-Curbastro, his professor at the University of Padua, Levi-Civita wrote a pioneering work on the calculus of tensors. Albert Einstein is said to have used this work as a resource in the development of the theory of general relativity.  Levi-Civita corresponded with Einstein about his theory of relativity between 1915 and 1917 and the letters he received from Einstein, carefully kept by Levi-Civita, show how much the two men respected each other.  Years later, when asked what he liked best about Italy, Einstein is reputed to have said ‘spaghetti and Levi-Civita.’  The mathematician, who was born into an Italian Jewish family in Padua in 1873, became an instructor at the University of Padua in 1898 after completing his own studies.  He became a professor of rational mechanics there in 1902 and married one of his own students, Libera Trevisani, in 1914.  In 1917, having been inspired by Einstein’s theory of general relativity, Levi-Civita made his most important contribution to this branch of mathematics.  Read more…


Stefano Eranio – footballer

Fast forward made his mark in England’s Premier League

Italy international footballer Stefano Eranio was born on this day in 1966 in Genoa, the main city of Liguria.  He represented his country 20 times between 1990 and 1997 but is most remembered for his playing career with AC Milan and Genoa.  A midfield player or wing-back, Eranio had brilliant technique, good pace and the ability to make attacking runs.  Towards the end of his career he played in the English Premier League for Derby County and was made an official ‘Derby Legend’ in 2006.  Eranio began his career with Genoa in 1984.  He played for them for eight seasons before moving to A C Milan in 1992.  At Milan he won three league titles, three Italian Super Cups and played in two Champions League finals.  Eranio’s first international goal was against the Netherlands in 1992 when Italy won the match 3-2. In 1997 he played his last game for Italy, helping them beat Moldova 3–0.  When he moved to Derby County in the Midlands of England, Eranio quickly became a favourite with the fans as part of an exciting team that included another Italian player, Francesco Baiano.  Eranio is credited with scoring the first goal in a competitive match at Derby's Pride Park Stadium.  Read more…


Book of the Day: A History of Venice, by John Julius Norwich

A History of Venice tells the story of this most remarkable of cities from its founding in the fifth century, through its unrivalled status for over a thousand years as one of the world's busiest and most powerful city states, until its fall at the hands of Napoleon in 1797. Rich in fascinating historical detail, populated by extraordinary characters and packed with a wealth of incident and intrigue, this is a brilliant testament to a great city - and a great and gripping read. Written by a renowned historian, and author of A Short History of Byzantium, John Julius Norwich's classic work can be regarded as the standard history of Venice in the English language.

John Julius Norwich was born in 1929. He was educated at Upper Canada College, Toronto, at Eton, at the University of Strasbourg and, after a spell of National Service in the Navy, at New College, Oxford, where he took a degree in French and Russian. After 12 years in the Foreign Service, for whom he served at the embassies in Belgrade and Beirut, in 1964 he resigned from the service to write. He also wrote and presented some 30 historical documentaries on television.

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28 December 2023

28 December

The Cervi brothers - partisans

Anti-Fascists murdered by Nazi firing squad

Seven brothers belonging to a single family from the northern Italian city of Reggio Emilia were shot dead by a firing squad on this day in 1943 in a massacre that has since become a symbol of Italian resistance to authoritarian rule and the overthrow of Fascism.  The Fratelli Cervi - Cervi brothers - the seven sons of a militant communist tenant farmer called Alcide Cervi, had been in prison for more than a month on suspicion of anti-Fascist activity following a raid on the family farm at Praticello di Gattatico, a village about 15km (nine miles) northwest of Reggio Emilia.  They were taken at dawn on 28 December to the city’s shooting range, where soldiers loyal to Benito Mussolini’s Italian Social Republic lined them up against a wall and shot them dead, it is thought in reprisal for the murder of two Fascist officials.  Their father, who had been held in a different part of the St Thomas prison in Reggio Emilia, did not learn of the fate of his sons until January of the following year, after damage to the prison in an air raid allowed him to escape.  Alcide - who came to be known to Italians as Papa Cervi - was a successful tenant farmer who had helped introduce modern farming techniques, such as crop rotation, to the Po Valley.  Read more…


Piero the Unfortunate – Medici ruler

Ill-fated son of Lorenzo the Magnificent

Piero di Lorenzo de’ Medici, later dubbed Piero the Unfortunate or The Fatuous, died on this day in 1503, drowning in the Garigliano river, south of Rome, as he attempted to flee following a military defeat.  The eldest son of Lorenzo the Magnificent, Piero was handed power in Florence at the age of 21 following the death of his father.  He was a physically handsome young man who had been educated specifically so that he would be ready to succeed his father as head of the Medici family and de facto ruler of Florence.  Yet he turned out to be a feeble, ill-disciplined character who was not suited to leadership and who earned his unflattering soubriquet on account of his poor judgment in military and political matters, which ultimately led to the Medici family being exiled from Florence.  Piero took over as leader of Florence in 1492. Initially there was calm but the peace between the Italian states for which his father had worked tirelessly to achieve collapsed in 1494 when King Charles VIII of France led an army across the Alps with the intention to march on the Kingdom of Naples, claiming hereditary rights.  Read more…


Italy's worst earthquake

Catastrophic tremor of 1908 may have killed up to 200,000

The most destructive earthquake ever to strike Europe brought devastation to the cities of Messina and Reggio Calabria on this day in 1908.  With its epicentre beneath the Strait of Messina, which separates Sicily from the Italian mainland, the quake had a magnitude of 7.1 and caused the ground to shake for between 30 and 40 seconds.  It was enough to cause such catastrophic damage that Messina, on the Sicilian side, and Reggio Calabria, on the mainland side, were almost completely destroyed.  The loss of life was huge because the earthquake happened at 5.21am, when most residents were still in bed.  An unknown number were swept away by the tsunami that struck both cities 10 minutes after the major tremor had stopped, when the sea on both sides of the Strait receded up to 70 metres and then rushed back towards the land, generating three massive waves, each taller than the one that preceded it, up to a height of 12 metres (39 feet).  At least 75,000 people were killed in Messina alone, where 91 percent of buildings were either destroyed or damaged beyond repair.  The Norman cathedral, which had withstood a series of five quakes in 1783, was reduced this time to a partial shell.  Read more…


Francesco Tamagno - operatic tenor

19th century star was first to sing Verdi’s Otello

The operatic tenor Francesco Tamagno, most famous for singing the title role at the premiere of Giuseppe Verdi’s Otello at Teatro alla Scala in Milan in 1887, was born on this day in 1850 in Turin.  Tamagno, whose powerful voice and range put him in a category of singers known as heroic tenors by being naturally suited to heroic roles, developed a reputation that enabled him to command high fees around the world and amass a considerable fortune.  During a career that spanned 32 years from his debut in 1873 to his premature death at the age of 54, Tamagno sang in some 55 operas and sacred works in 26 countries.  In addition to his association with Otello, he also was the first Gabriele Adorno in Verdi's 1881 revision of Simon Boccanegra, and appeared in the premiere of Verdi's Italian-language version of Don Carlos when it was staged at La Scala in 1884.  Five other operas in which Tamagno is acknowledged as the creator of leading roles include Carlos Gomes's Maria Tudor, Amilcare Ponchielli's Il figliol prodigo and Marion Delorme, Ruggero Leoncavallo's I Medici and Isidore de Lara's Messaline.  Read more…


Death of Victor Emmanuel III

King loses his life after just 18 months in exile 

Victor Emmanuel III, Italy’s longest reigning King, died on this day in 1947.  The previous year he had abdicated his throne in favour of his son, King Umberto II.  Victor Emmanuel III had been hoping this would strengthen support for the monarchy in advance of the referendum asking the country if they wanted to abolish it.  Earlier in his reign he had been popular with the people and respected for his military success, but opinion changed after the Second World War.  Vittorio Emanuele III di Savoia was born in Naples in 1869. The only child of King Umberto I and Queen Margherita of Savoy, he was given the title of Prince of Naples.  He became King of Italy in 1900 after his father was assassinated in Monza.  At the height of his popularity he was nicknamed by the Italians Re soldato (soldier King) and Re vittorioso (victorious King) because of Italy’s success in battle during the First World War. He was also called sciaboletta (little sabre) as he was only five feet (1.53m) tall.  Italy had remained neutral at the start of the First World War but signed treaties to go into the war on the side of France, Britain and Russia in 1915.  Read more…


Battle of Ortona 

Adriatic port liberated by Canadians at huge cost

Canadian troops fighting with the Allies liberated the Adriatic port of Ortona from the Germans on this day in 1943 after one of the bloodiest battles of the Italian Campaign.  The Battle of Ortona and other confrontations close to the nearby Moro river, which encompassed the whole Christmas period, claimed almost 2,400 lives.  It was characterised by brutal close-quarters fighting and is sometimes known as “the Italian Stalingrad”, partly because of the high number of casualties but also because of the backcloth of destroyed buildings and rubble.  Although the battalions of German paratroopers holding the strategic port were defeated, casualties on the Canadian side were greater, with 1,375 soldiers from the Canadian 1st Infantry Division killed and 964 wounded, against 867 Germans killed.  In addition, more than 1,300 civilians died.  The Canadian deaths amounted to more than a quarter of their entire losses in the whole of the Italian Campaign, which spanned 22 months as Allied forces fought their way up the peninsula.  Ortona, in the Abruzzo region, had some strategic importance as one of the few usable deep water ports on the Adriatic coast. Read more…


Book of the Day:  Among the Italian Partisans: The Allied Contribution to the Resistance, by Malcolm Edward Tudor

Here is the remarkable story of the Allied servicemen who took part in the guerrilla war against Nazis and Fascists in Second World War Italy. The partisans included Britons, Australians, Canadians, New Zealanders, South Africans, Americans, Russians, Poles and Yugoslavs. Most were escaped prisoners of war who fled their camps after the Italian armistice and surrender in September 1943. The British Special Operations Executive (SOE) and the American Office of Strategic Services (OSS) sent personnel into enemy territory to carry out sabotage and to support and encourage the partisans. Allied air forces provided the planes and crews to transport agents, deliver weapons and supplies, evacuate personnel, and drop propaganda leaflets. Among the Italian Partisans provides the uplifting story of the Allied contribution to the Italian Resistance, which became one of the greatest insurgent movements in Western Europe. This is a testimonial to the brave servicemen of many nations who cooperated in the armed struggle so that Italy would be free.

Malcolm Tudor is the Anglo-Italian author of 10 military history books on Italy during the Second World War. He is fluent in Italian and uses many Italian sources. He has a particular expertise on the secret war behind enemy lines.

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27 December 2023

27 December

Pope John Paul II’s prison visit

Pope came face to face with his would-be killer

Pope John Paul II visited Rebibbia prison on the outskirts of Rome on this day in 1983 to forgive formally the man who had tried to assassinate him.  Two years previously the Pope had been shot and critically wounded in St Peter’s Square by Mehmet Ali Agca, a Turkish member of a fascist group known as Grey Wolves.  John Paul II had been rushed unconscious to hospital with bullet wounds to the abdomen, colon and small intestine and had to have five hours of surgery to repair the damage.  Agca was caught and restrained by bystanders until the police arrived. He was tried and sentenced to life imprisonment.  John Paul II visited Agca on 27 December 1983 in prison in Rebibbia, a suburb on the northeastern edge of Rome.  They spoke privately for about 20 minutes and afterwards the Pope said he had pardoned his would-be killer.  Agca had previously escaped from a Turkish prison where he had been serving a sentence for murdering a journalist. He was deported to Turkey at the end of his jail sentence in Italy and went on to serve another ten years in prison.  On 27 December 2014, 33 years after the shooting, Agca came to the Vatican in Rome to lay white roses on Pope John Paul II’s tomb.  Read more…


Tito Schipa – operatic tenor

Star on two continents whose voice divided opinions

Tito Schipa, one of the most popular opera singers in the first half of the 20th century who sang to packed houses in the United States and South America as well as in Italy, was born on this day in 1888 in Lecce.  The tenor, whose repertoire included Verdi and Puccini roles in the early part of his career and later encompassed works by Donizetti, Cilea and Massanet, rose from modest beginnings to find fame with the Chicago and New York Metropolitan opera companies in America.  He also appeared regularly in Buenos Aires in Argentina and later in his career starred regularly at Teatro alla Scala in Milan and the Rome Opera.  Some critics said his voice lacked power and had too narrow a range for him to be considered a genuinely great tenor, yet he overcame his perceived limitations to become extremely popular with the public wherever he performed.  Schipa was born Raffaele Attilio Amedeo Schipa in the Le Scalze district of Lecce, a fairly working class neighbourhood in the Puglian city.  His family were of Albanian heritage. His father was a customs officer.  His talent was first noted by a primary school teacher in Lecce.  Read more…


Terrorist attack at Fiumicino

Horrifying end to Christmas celebrations

The peace of Italy's festive celebrations was shattered by a devastating terrorist attack on this day in 1985 when Arab gunmen opened fire in the main departure hall at Rome's Leonardo da Vinci-Fiumicino Airport.  The attack, which claimed the lives of 16 people, took place shortly after 9.05am, when the four perpetrators approached the check-in desks of Israel's El Al Airline and the United States carrier Trans World Airlines.  Israeli secret services were aware that an attempt either to hijack a plane or stage an attack on the ground was being planned between December 25 and 31 in Rome and an Israeli security officer became suspicious of the quartet as he watched their movements in the departure hall.  However, when he stepped forward to challenge them, they produced assault rifles and began firing, at the same time throwing grenades.  The Israeli officer was killed and in the ensuing gunfight, involving more Israeli security staff and Italian police, some 12 passengers were fatally wounded.  They included Americans, Mexicans, Greeks, Italians and at least one Algerian.  Three of the gunmen were shot dead and a fourth, 18-year-old Ibrahim Khaled, was captured by police.  Read more…


Saint Veronica Giuliani

Life of compassionate nun is still inspiring others

Nun and mystic Veronica Giuliani was born on this day in 1660 in Mercatello sul Metauro in the Duchy of Urbino.  After she had spent her whole life devoted to Christ, the marks of the crown of thorns appeared on her forehead and the signs of his five wounds on her body. She was subjected to a rigorous testing of her experience by her bishop but, after he decided the phenomena were authentic, he allowed her to return to normal convent life.  The nun was made a saint by Pope Gregory XVI in 1839, more than 100 years after her death.  Veronica was born Orsola Giuliani, the youngest of seven sisters. By the time she was three years old she was demonstrating compassion for the poor, often giving away her own food and clothes.  When her father decided she was old enough to marry, she pleaded with him to be allowed to choose a different way of life and, at the age of 17, in 1677 she was received into the monastery of the Capuchin Poor Clares in Città di Castello in Umbria.  She took the name of Veronica and lived as a sister in the convent for the next 50 years.  Sister Veronica was made a novice mistress at the age of 34.  Read more…


Book of the Day: Witness to Hope: The biography of Pope John Paul II 1920 - 2005, by George Wiegel

A comprehensive and compelling account of the life and work of Pope John Paul II.  When the Holy Father first asked George Weigel to write his biography he said: “You have the interior disposition to do this…you know my mind”. In this the only account of his life to be written with the Pope’s co-operation, a remarkable and unique person is revealed.  Drawing on unique access to Vatican papers and based on extensive interviews with the Pope himself, George Weigel draws together the two main strands of the ministry of the head of the Catholic Church. Others have written about the Pope as a political figure, but none with so much privileged information. The spiritual side, however, has largely been neglected by commentators and observers alike.  This authoritative and complete biography examines the driving forces of the Pope’s Christian faith and his dramatic reform of the papacy for the modern world. It looks at his philosophical position, prophetic outlook, his profound understanding of human freedom and his work for unity. The book explores his challenge to the sexual revolution, his concern for young people and his dialogue with science.  For those of all faiths and none, Witness to Hope will make a powerful impact on every reader.

George Weigel is a Catholic American author, political analyst, and social activist. He currently serves as a Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, having been Founding President of the James Madison Foundation. He is the author of a best-selling biography of Pope John Paul II, Witness to Hope, and Tranquillitas Ordinis: The Present Failure and Future Promise of American Catholic Thought on War and Peace.

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26 December 2023

26 December

Beppe Severgnini - journalist and author

Books observing national mores have been best sellers

The author and journalist Giuseppe Severgnini was born on this day in 1956 in Crema in northern Italy.  Better known as Beppe Severgnini, he is a respected commentator on politics and social affairs, about which he has written for some of the most influential journals and newspapers in Italy and the wider world.  Severgnini is equally well known for his humorous writing, in particular his gently satirical observations of the English and the Americans as well as Italians, about whom he has written many books.  His biggest selling titles include An Italian in America, which has also been published as Hello America. He has also enjoyed success with La Bella Figura: An Insider's Guide to the Italian Mind, Mamma Mia! Berlusconi's Italy Explained for Posterity and Friends Abroad, and An Italian in Britain.  Severgnini is currently a columnist for Corriere della Sera in Italy and the International New York Times in the United States.  A former correspondent for the British journal The Economist, he writes in both Italian and English, having spent a number of years living in London, Washington and New York.  The son of a notary in Crema, Severgnini graduated in law at the University of Pavia.  Read more…


Renato Guttuso - artist and illustrator

Creator of works representing the victims of Fascist repression

The painter Renato Guttuso, whose illustrations for Elizabeth David’s classic cookery book, Italian Food, gave him international fame, was born on this day in 1912 in Bagheria near Palermo in Sicily.  A fierce anti-Fascist, he painted powerful pictures, which he said represented the many people who, because of their ideas, endured outrage, imprisonment and torment.  Guttuso’s father, Gioacchino, was a land surveyor who painted water colours and Renato started painting as a child, signing and dating his art works from the age of 13. He was educated in Palermo and then went on to Palermo University.  He painted nature scenes featuring flowers, lemon trees and Saracen olive trees, which brought him recognition as a talented Sicilian painter when they were exhibited. He opened a studio with another painter and two sculptors in Palermo.  Guttuso became a member of an artistic movement that stood for free and open attitudes and was opposed to Fascism during the years of the Spanish Civil War.  He moved to Milan, where his morals and political commitment became even more visible in his paintings.  Read more…


Piergiorgio Welby - euthanasia campaigner

Muscular dystrophy sufferer who fought for right to die

The poet, painter and muscular dystrophy sufferer Piergiorgio Welby, whose wish to be given help to die after nine years being kept alive artificially sparked a huge legal, political and religious debate, was born on this day in 1945 in Rome.  Welby, the son of an AS Roma footballer with Scottish ancestry, developed MS when he was 17 years old.  Throughout the 1960s and 70s his lifestyle helped keep the disease under control. He lived as an artist and writer, following the hippie movement but also hunting and fishing. His use of recreational drugs dulled the symptoms of the disease and he was able to travel extensively in Europe.  During this period he met his future wife, Wilhelmine - later known as Mina - who was from Bolzano province in Trentino-Alto Adige but encountered Welby in Rome.  Welby decided in the 1980s to wean himself off drugs by embarking on methadone therapy, but the disease then progressed rapidly and he was soon paralysed from the waist down.  In 1997, he suffered severe respiratory problems and from that point onwards was dependent on a breathing tube.  Read more…


Santo Stefano - Boxing Day

Saint Stephen's Day in Italy

Italians enjoy another day relaxing with their families on the Festa di Santo Stefano which is a public holiday in Italy.  It is traditional to visit loved ones and friends that you didn't see the day before to take presents and gifts of food.  Lunch will be less formal but still consist of several courses and each area of Italy will have its own specialities.  The day remembers Santo Stefano, traditionally thought of as the first Christian martyr, who lived during the first century  BC.  He aroused enmity with his Christian teachings in Jerusalem. Accused of blasphemy, he was tried and sentenced to death. Eventually he was stoned to death by an angry crowd.  The day is celebrated in different ways across Italy.  In some towns there are processions, in others there are re-enactments of the nativity. It is also a tradition in some areas to visit nativity scenes in local churches and leave donations.  The Sicilian town of Ragusa stages an annual presepe vivente (live nativity scene) on the feast of Santo Stefano, which attracts many visitors. Ragusa is one of the island's most picturesque towns, with spectacular views.  It has become a location regularly used for Sicilian detective drama Il Commissario Montalbano (Inspector Montalbano).  Read more…


Book of the Day: La Bella Figura: An Insider’s Guide to the Italian Mind, by Beppe Severgnini

'First of all, let's get one thing straight. Your Italy and out Italia are not the same thing. Italy is a soft drug peddled in predictable packages such as hills in the sunset, olive groves, white wine and raven haired girls. Italia, on the other hand, is a maze. It's alluring but complicated. In Italia you can go round and round in circles for years. Which of course, is great fun.'  Beppe Severgnini was The Economist's Italian correspondent for ten years. A huge Anglophile as well as an astute observer of his countrymen, he's the perfect companion for La Bella Figura - an hilarious tour of modern Italy that takes you behind the seductive face it puts on for visitors - la bella figura - and uncovers the far more complex, paradoxical true self. Alongside the historic cities and glorious countryside, there'll be stops at the places where the Italians reveal themselves in all their authentic, maddening glory: the airport, the motorway and the living room.  Ten days, thirty places. From north to south, from food to politics, from saintliness to sexuality. This witty and beguiling examination will help you understand why Italy, as Beppe says, 'can have you fuming and then purring in the space of a hundred metres or ten minutes.'

Beppe Severgnini’s writing on politics and social affairs have appeared in  some of the most influential journals and newspapers in Italy and beyond.  Severgnini is equally well known for his humorous writing.  He has published more than 25 books, several of which have been translated into English.

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