17 July 2024

17 July

Gino D'Acampo - celebrity chef

Neapolitan inherited talent from grandfather

The celebrity chef Gino D’Acampo was born on this day in 1976 in Torre del Greco, a conurbation of around 90,000 inhabitants within the Metropolitan City of Naples.  Based in England since 1995, D’Acampo is scarcely known in his native country yet his social media pages have more than two and a half million followers.  The author of 11 books on cooking, his numerous television appearances include several series of his own show, Gino’s Italian Escapes.  He owns a number of restaurants and pasta bars and is the co-owner of a company selling Italian ingredients.  His success is all the more remarkable given that he had to rebuild his life after being convicted in 1998 of burglary, an episode that took place while he was working as a waiter. He described the incident as a mistake he vowed never to repeat and has since spent time helping disadvantaged young people to learn from their mistakes.  Born Gennaro D’Acampo, he grew up around food. His grandfather, Giovanni, who had been head chef for a cruise company, owned a restaurant and although he had early aspirations to become a doctor or a dentist, he eventually enrolled at the Luigi de Medici catering school in Naples.  Read more…

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Maria Salviati - noblewoman

Florentine whose line included kings of France and England

The noblewoman Maria Salviati, whose descendants include two kings of France and two kings of England, was born on this day in 1499 in Florence.  Salviati was the mother of Cosimo I de’ Medici, the first Grand Duke of Tuscany and a powerful figure in the mid-16th century.  Her descendants included Louis XIII and Louis XIV of France, and Charles II and James II of England.  Married for nine years to Lodovico de’ Medici, who was more widely known as the condottiero Giovanni dalle Bande Nere, Salviati herself had Medici blood. One of a family of 10 children, her mother was Lucrezia de Lorenzo de’ Medici, who had married the politician Iacopo Salviati, who was from another major banking family in Florence.  Maria’s maternal grandfather was Lorenzo the Magnificent, the Renaissance ruler who famously sponsored Michelangelo and Botticelli.  She was married to Giovanni dalle Bande Nere when she was 18, having known him since she was 10, when he was placed in the care of her parents following the death of his mother, Caterina Sforza, daughter of the Duke of Milan.  As a professional soldier, her husband spent much less time with her than she would have liked and Cosimo was their only child.  Read more…

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Michele Casadei Massari - chef and restaurateur

American dream from small beginnings

The chef and businessman Michele Casadei Massari, owner and founder of the Piccolo Cafe and the Lucciola restaurant in New York City, was born on this day in 1975 in Riccione, on the Adriatic coast of Emilia-Romagna.  Massari had planned to become a doctor but abandoned his studies in order to pursue his dream of cooking in his own restaurant.  After working as general manager and executive chef of a restaurant at a holiday resort in Sardinia, Massari and an old school friend decided to go it alone and chose to start a business in New York.  They began by selling coffee from a kiosk on Union Square in Manhattan before graduating to a cafe selling traditional Italian food as well as salads, panini and egg dishes.  Massari and his partner opened their first Piccolo Cafe in Third Avenue, a couple of blocks from Union Square in 2010. Now they have four branches of Piccolo Cafe and a restaurant, Lucciola, that specialises in the cuisine of Bologna and Emilia-Romagna.  Only six years old when he saw the inside of a restaurant kitchen for the first time, Massari acquired his love of cooking from his grandfather, ‘Nonno Gigi’.  Read more…

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Lady Blessington’s Neapolitan Journals

Irish aristocrat fell in love with Naples

Marguerite, Lady Blessington, an Irish-born writer who married into the British aristocracy, arrived in Naples on this day in 1823 and began writing her Neapolitan Journals.  She was to stay in the city for nearly three years and her detailed account of what she saw and who she met has left us with a unique insight into life in Naples nearly 200 years ago.  Lady Blessington made herself at home in Naples and thoroughly embraced the culture, attending local events, making what at the time were adventurous excursions, and entertaining Neapolitan aristocrats and intellectuals at the former royal palace that became her home.  Those who know Naples today will recognise in her vivid descriptions many places that have remained unchanged for the last two centuries.  She also provides a valuable insight into what life was like at the time for ordinary people as well as for the rich and privileged.  A society beauty, she came to Naples during a long European tour after her marriage to Charles Gardiner, the first Earl of Blessington, and immediately became fascinated by the local customs, food and traditions. She also visited Ercolano, Paestum, Capri, Ischia and Sorrento and made an ascent of Vesuvius on an ass.  Read more…

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Book of the Day: Gino's Italy: Like Mamma Used to Make, by Gino D’Acampo

In Gino D’Acampo’s words: "People have this idea that in every Italian family there are secret recipes that get passed down the generations. And it's 100 per cent true! This book is my way of celebrating the amazing women in all our families. I want to show my love and appreciation for everything they have done for me."  Drawing on the wisdom of his late mother, his 15 bossy aunties, and a whole nation of home-cooking nonnas, Gino shares the secrets to making the very best version of much-loved Italian classics. Recipes include: Grilled scallops with parsley and hazelnut butter; Oozing baked risotto; Slow-cooked pork shoulder with super-crispy crackling; Biscoff and espresso cheesecake. With over 80 recipes for the ultimate Italian classics, ranging from quick weeknight meals to classic blowouts, Gino's Italy: Like Mamma Used to Make is Gino's most iconic book yet.

Born into a large family in Torre del Greco, Gino D’Acampo's love of cooking developed from a young age when he was taught to cook by his mother and, at the age of 11, started working at his grandfather's restaurant. After training at the Luigi de Medici Catering college, Gino came to work in London and was soon discovered as a TV talent. 

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16 July 2024

16 July

Vincenzo Gemito - sculptor

Neapolitan who preserved figures from local street life

Vincenzo Gemito, one of the sculptors responsible for eight statues of former kings that adorn the western façade of the Royal Palace in Naples, was born on this day in 1852.  The statues are in niches along the side of the palace that fronts on to the Piazza del Plebiscito, displayed in chronological order beginning with Roger the Norman, also known as Roger II of Sicily, who ruled in the 12th century, and ends with Vittorio Emanuele II, who was on the throne when his kingdom became part of the united Italy in 1861.  Gemito sculpted the fifth statue in the sequence, that of Charles V, who was the Holy Roman Emperor from 1519 to 1556 and, by virtue of being king of Spain from 1516 to 1556, also the king of Naples. Gemito was known for the outstanding realism in his work, as can be seen in his sculpture Il giocatore di carte – The Card Player - which he created when he was only 16. Born in Naples, Gemito’s first steps in life were difficult ones.  The son of a poor woodcutter, he was taken by his mother the day after his birth to the orphanage attached to the Basilica of Santissima Annunziata Maggiore in the centre of the city and left on the steps.  Read more…

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The first Coppa Italia football tournament

Tiny club from Liguria emerged the winners

The first final of the Coppa Italia, which was to become Italian football’s equivalent of England’s celebrated FA Cup knock-out competition, took place on this day in 1922.  It was won by Vado Foot-Ball Club, from Vado Ligure, a commercial and industrial port in the province of Savona in Liguria.  Vado, who defeated Udinese in the final to lift the trophy, have not won any major honours in 101 years since their famous triumph and currently play in Serie D, the fourth tier in the Italian football pyramid.  The circumstances of their victory would look quite bizarre in the context of modern-day football.  The competition itself existed only because of a major schism in the Italian championship that had taken place the year before, when 24 of the country’s major clubs broke away from the Italian Football Federation (FIGC) to form their own championship after a demand for a reduction in the number of teams in the Prima Categoria - the forerunner of Serie A - was rejected.  With the likes of Pro Vercelli, Juventus, Bologna and AC Milan choosing to play in the new Italian Football Championship (CCI), the FIGC launched the Coppa Italia as an attempt to regain prestige.  Read more…

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Andrea del Sarto – painter

The brief career of an artist ‘senza errori’

Renaissance artist Andrea del Sarto was born Andrea d’Agnolo di Francesco di Luca di Paolo del Migliore on this day in 1486 in Florence.  He had a brilliant career but died at the age of 43 during an outbreak of plague and afterwards his achievements were eclipsed by the talents of Da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raphael.  Andrea’s father, Agnolo, was a tailor and therefore the child became known as del Sarto, meaning son of the tailor.  As a young boy del Sarto was apprenticed to a goldsmith and then a woodcarver before being sent to learn to be an artist.  He decided to open a joint studio with an older friend, Franciabigio, and from 1509 onwards they were employed to paint a series of frescoes at Basilica della Santissima Annunziata in Florence. Del Sarto also painted a Procession of the Magi, in which he included a self-portrait, and a Nativity of the Virgin for the entrance to the church.  He married Lucrezia del Fede, a widow, in 1512 and often used her as a model for his paintings of the Madonna.  After spending a year as court painter to Francis I of France in 1518, del Sarto returned home to his wife and was offered a major commission by the Medici family.  Read more…

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St Clare of Assisi

Birth of the founder of the Poor Clares

St Clare was born on this day in 1194 in Assisi as Chiara Offreduccio, the beautiful daughter of a Count.  As a young girl Clare was extremely devout and at the age of 18 she was inspired by hearing Francis of Assisi preach and went to see him to ask for help to live her life according to the Gospel.  In 1212, Clare left her father’s home and went to the chapel of Porziuncola to meet Francis. Her hair was cut off and she was given a plain robe and veil in exchange for her rich gown.  Clare joined a convent of Benedictine nuns and when her father tracked her down refused to leave it to return home.  Francis sent her to another monastery, where she was later joined by her sister. Over the years other women came to be with them who also wanted to serve Jesus and live with no money. They became known as the Poor Ladies of San Damiano because of the austere lifestyle they lived.  Clare took care of St Francis when he became old and after his death continued to lead her Order of Poor Women in the Franciscan tradition, which later became known as the Order of St Clare, also often referred to as The Poor Clares.  Read more…

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Book of the Day: In the Shadow of Vesuvius: A Cultural History of Naples, by Jordan Lancaster

Naples is an Italian city like no other. Drama and darkness are often associated with Naples, which rests beneath active Mount Vesuvius and is the home of the Camorra - the Neapolitan version of the mafia. But beyond this, Naples reveals itself to be one of the most historically and culturally vibrant cities in Europe.  From its origins in Homer's Odyssey and its founding nearly 3,000 years ago, Naples has long attracted travellers, artists and foreign rulers - from the visitors of the Grand Tour to Goethe, Nelson, Dickens and Neruda.  The stunning beauty of its natural setting coupled with the charms of its colourful past and lively present - from the ruins of Pompeii to the glittering performances of the San Carlo opera house - continue to seduce all those who explore Naples today. In the Shadow of Vesuvius is a sparkling portrait of the city - the definitive companion for anyone seeking to delve beneath its surface.

Jordan Lancaster studied at the universities of Cambridge and Bologna and holds a PhD in Italian Studies from the University of Toronto. She taught Italian language and literature at universities in Canada and the United States before moving to Naples where she was a postdoctoral fellow at the Istituto Italiano per gli Studi Storici. 

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15 July 2024

15 July

NEW - Pietro Ruggeri da Stabello – poet


Talented writer kept record of 1848 rebellions and produced verses in local dialect

Prolific writer Pietro Ruggeri da Stabello, who became famous after his death for the poetry he had written in his local dialect, was born on this day in 1797 in a hamlet near Zogno in Lombardy, a short distance from the city of Bergamo.  Ruggeri da Stabello wrote a valuable account of events that occurred in the north of Italy during revolts against the Austrian occupying army, which were later collected in a volume entitled Bergamo Revolution of the Year 1848.  He was the second son of a Bergamo couple, Santo Ruggeri, and Diana Stella Ceribelli, who had moved to the Brembana valley to escape the riots that followed the fall of the Republic of Venice in 1797.  When Pietro Ruggeri became an adult, he added the words da Stabello to his name, to honour the small village where he had grown up, which is less than one kilometre from the municipality of Zogno in Val Brembana, to which it belongs.  After Pietro Ruggeri moved to live in Bergamo to study for a diploma in accountancy, he began to compose verses, inspired by his contact with local people and what he had witnessed of how they lived their daily lives in the city. He wrote more for his own pleasure than as a literary exercise. Read more…

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Guido Crepax - cartoonist

Erotic character Valentina captured spirit of 1960s Italy

The cartoonist Guido Crepax, whose character Valentina became a heroine of the 1960s generation in Italy and beyond, was born on this day in 1933 in Milan.  Valentina first appeared in May 1965 as a secondary character in another cartoon, the photographer girlfriend of an art critic and amateur sleuth.  But the sinuous, sensual female depicted by Crepax, her hair cut in a glossy bob, soon acquired fans both male and female.  In an era when Italian society was beginning to experience a sense of sexual liberation for the first time, Valentina’s eroticism naturally attracted a legion of male fans. But her assertive individuality struck a chord with many modern Italian women, too, even if her readiness to shed her clothes caused outrage among others.  Soon, Valentina left behind her fictional boyfriend and starred in a series of her own adventures, which Crepax continued to produce for three decades. She was outspoken in her left-wing political views, while her uninhibited fantasies increasingly reflected the world of dreams and psychoanalysis that fascinated her creator.  Her style even influenced the Milan fashion world.  Read more…

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Frances Xavier Cabrini – the first American saint

Missionary who was directed to the US by the Pope

Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini, who founded a religious institute to provide support for impoverished Italian immigrants in the United States, was born on this day in 1850 in Sant’Angelo Lodigiano, in Lombardy.  Frances did such good in her life she became the first naturalised citizen of the United States to be canonised in 1946.  She had been born into a family of cherry tree farmers, the youngest of 13 children. She was two months premature and remained in delicate health all her life.  After her parents died she applied for admission to the Daughters of the Sacred Heart but was told she was too frail for the life.  She became the headmistress of an orphanage in Codogno, about 30km (19 miles) from her hometown, where she drew in other women to live a religious life with her.  She took religious vows in 1877, adding Xavier to her name to honour Francis Xavier, the patron saint of missionary service.  Along with some of the other women who had taken religious vows, she founded the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.  Frances went to seek Pope Leo X’s approval to establish missions in China but he suggested she went to the United States instead, to help the many Italian immigrants who were living in poverty.  Read more…

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Fire damages St Paul Outside-the-Walls

Beautiful Basilica was faithfully rebuilt and restored

A blaze nearly destroyed the ancient Papal Basilica of Saint Paul Outside-the-Walls (Basilica Papale San Paolo Fuori Le Mura) in Rome on this day in 1823.  A workman repairing the lead in the church roof accidentally started a fire that burnt down the Basilica, which dated back to the third century and was unique in Rome, having retained its primitive style.  St Paul Outside-the-Walls is one of four major Papal Basilicas in Rome, along with St John in the Lateran (San Giovanni in Laterano), St Peter’s (San Pietro in Vaticano) and St Mary Major (Santa Maria Maggiore).  After the fire, Pope Leo XII appealed for donations to help rebuild the church in exactly the same style.  The Basilica was reopened in 1840 and reconsecrated in 1855 in the presence of Pope Pius IX.  The redecoration was helped by contributions from all over the world, including pillars of alabaster from Egypt and malachite and lapis lazuli from Russia.  The Italian Government funded the work on the façade and declared the Church a national monument.  The Basilica had been founded by the Roman Emperor Constantine over the burial place of St Paul.   Read more…

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Book of the Day: Introduction to Italian Poetry: A Dual-Language Book, by Luciano Rebay

A treasury of 34 hymns, sonnets, madrigals, heroic epics and lyrics by Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio, Ariosto, Tasso, d'Annunzio and 15 others, including lesser known but significant poets such as Compiuta Donzella and Cavalcanti, from seven centuries of Italian poetical works. Introduction to Italian Poetry consists of full Italian texts with expert literal translations on facing pages, as well as a biographical and critical commentary on each poet.  Illustrated with black and white illustrations, the book explores a broad range of styles, from Saint Francis of Assisi, author of the first memorable Italian lyric, `Cancio delle creature,` to Salvatore Quasimodo, winner of the 1959 Nobel Prize for Literature, and the satirical work of Dario Fo.

Luciano Rebay, known especially for his work on the poets Giuseppe Ungaretti, and Eugenio Montale, was one of the leading post-war critics of Italian literature in America. He had a long affiliation with Columbia University, where he was the Giuseppe Ungaretti Professor of Italian.

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Pietro Ruggeri da Stabello – poet

Talented writer kept record of 1848 rebellions and produced verses in local dialect

Enrico Scuri's portrait of Pietro Ruggeri is kept at Bergamo's Accademia Carrara
Enrico Scuri's 1838 portrait of Pietro Ruggeri
da Stabello (Accademia Carrara, Bergamo)
Prolific writer Pietro Ruggeri da Stabello, who became famous after his death for the poetry he had written in his local dialect, was born on this day in 1797 in a hamlet near Zogno, a short distance from the city of Bergamo in Lombardy.

Ruggeri da Stabello wrote a valuable account of events that occurred in the north of Italy during revolts against the Austrian occupying army, which were later collected in a volume entitled Bergamo Revolution of the Year 1848.

He was the second son of a Bergamo couple, Santo Ruggeri and Diana Stella Ceribelli, who had moved to the Brembana valley to escape the riots that followed the fall of the Republic of Venice in 1797.

When Pietro Ruggeri became an adult, he added the words da Stabello to his name, to honour the small village where he had grown up, which is less than one kilometre from the municipality of Zogno in Val Brembana, to which it belongs.

After Pietro Ruggeri moved to live in Bergamo to study for a diploma in accountancy, he began to compose verses, inspired by his contact with local people and what he had witnessed of how they lived their daily lives in the city.

He wrote his 1816 work, Letter of Pietro Ruggeri da Stabello Against the Widespread Misery, in the Italian language, more for his own pleasure than as a literary exercise. He went on to write four more works in Italian between 1820 and 1822 that were never published.

Ruggeri da Stabello started to write poetry in the Bergamo dialect from about 1822. As his fame spread, he was portrayed in a painting by Enrico Scuri and invited to social gatherings to meet other learned people from the area, while he continued to do a variety of jobs to earn his living.

He founded and became president of The Philharmonic Academy in Bergamo and he was painted on the occasion by Luigi Deleidi, a Bergamo artist, who was also known as Nebbia.

Ruggeri da Stabello wrote sonnets dedicated to his friends and some well-known people, such as the painter Francesco Coghetti, and he started to compile, but never finished, a Bergamo-Italian vocabulary.

Ruggeri da Stabello is commemorated with a statue in Bergamo's Piazza Pontida
Ruggeri da Stabello is commemorated with
a mounted bust in Bergamo's Piazza Pontida 
During 1848, he wrote his volume about the revolts against the Austrians while he was being forced to take refuge in the safer territory of Zogno, because of verses he had written in honour of Pope Pius IX and of Italy, after the Austrians returned to occupy the country.

Pietro Ruggeri da Stabello died in Bergamo in 1878. He was buried in the cemetery of San Maurizio in the Città Bassa, but his tomb was lost after the cemetery was closed.

However, his writing was evaluated after his death and he was recognised as the greatest writer in the Bergamo dialect ever known. In appreciation of his talent, his native city named a street after him and erected a mounted bust of him in Piazza Pontida, one of the historic squares in the Città Bassa, Bergamo’s lower town. 

In 1933, another Bergamo citizen, Bortolo Belotti, published some of his poetry in the volume, Pietro Ruggeri, Poet from Bergamo.

Modern Italian is now the most widely spoken language in Bergamo, but the Bergamo dialect - dialetto Bergamasco - is still seen on menus, street signs and often reproduced in popular Bergamo sayings. Linguistically it is closer to French and Catalan, than to Italian. It is still spoken in some of the small villages out in the province of Bergamo and the area around Crema, another city in Lombardy.

Because of migration in the 19th and 20th centuries, Bergamo dialect is still spoken in some communities in southern Brazil.

The town of Zogno nestles in Val Brembana, 
a beautiful valley north of Bergamo
Travel tip:

The municipality of Zogno, where Pietro Ruggeri da Stabello was born, is about 11km (7 miles) north of Bergamo in the Brembana Valley. Set in beautiful countryside, Zogno has a 17th century church, San Lorenzo Martire, as well as a modern church, the Santuario di Maria Santissima Regina. The village of Stabello now has a population of fewer than 500 people. The Val Brembana is an area rich in history and traditions, about which much can be learned by visiting the San Lorenzo Museum and the Valley Museum. Zogno also attracts many visitors to the Terme di Bracca spa facility.

Piazza Pontida, in Bergamo's Città Bassa, was once a hub of commercial activity in the city
Piazza Pontida, in Bergamo's Città Bassa, was
once a hub of commercial activity in the city
Travel tip:

Pietro Ruggeri da Stabello’s statue stands in Bergamo's Piazza Pontida in the Città Bassa, the Lombardy city's lower town. It is near the junction of Via Sant’Alessandro and Via XX Settembre, which would have been the hub of the lower town in the 15th century. The piazza is close to a point known for centuries as Cinque Vie (five roads), where traffic from Milan, Lecco, Treviglio and Crema would converge. It was the place where goods arriving in Bergamo would be unloaded before being sent up to the Città Alta (upper town). Some of the portici (porticos) date back to the 15th century, when farmers and merchants would shelter from the sun under them, while negotiating over the goods. It would have been a lively scene, with storytellers and poets roaming from one inn to the next, entertaining the crowds who had come to trade in the square. There are now modern shops doing business behind the porticos, but the square is still a popular meeting place with plenty of bars and restaurants.

Also on this day:

1823: Fire damages Basilica of St Paul Outside-the-Walls

1850: The birth in Italy of Frances Xavier Cabrini, the first American saint

1933: The birth of cartoonist Guido Crepax


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14 July 2024

14 July

Collapse of St Mark’s Campanile

Dramatic fall of instantly recognisable symbol of Venice

The bell tower (Campanile) in St Mark’s Square in Venice collapsed on this day in 1902.  No one was killed but the Biblioteca Marciana nearby was partially damaged by its fall.  A crack had appeared in one of the walls of the bell tower a few days before and at approximately 9.45 am on Monday, 14 July, the entire structure collapsed into a heap of rubble.  Venetians regarded the event as a tragedy. The bell tower, just short of 100 metres tall, had stood for around 1,000 years and was seen as symbolic of the city.  Built on foundations of wood and mud, however, there was always the danger it would become unstable over time.  On the evening of the day of the collapse, the Venice authorities approved funding for the reconstruction of the Campanile in exactly the same place in the piazza, to be built to resemble how it looked after 16th century improvements to the original ninth century design.  The rubble was painstakingly removed from the square, loaded on to barges and dumped in the sea about five miles offshore from Venice Lido.  The new tower was designed with internal reinforcement to prevent a future collapse, and a lift.  Read more…

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Natalia Ginzburg - writer and politician

Sicilian raised in Turin became one of Italy’s great postwar novelists

The writer and politician Natalia Ginzburg was born on this day in 1916 in the Sicilian capital, Palermo.  The author of 11 novels and short story collections, as well as numerous essays, Ginzburg came to be regarded as one of Italy’s great postwar writers, alongside Primo Levi, Carlo Levi, Alberto Moravia, Cesare Pavese, Elsa Morante and Giorgio Bassani among others.  Her most famous works include Tutti i nostri ieri - All Our Yesterdays - published in 1952, Lessico famigliare  - Family Sayings -  published in 1963, and La famiglia Manzoni - The Manzoni Family - published in 1983.  She was notable for writing about family relationships, politics during and after the Fascist years and World War II, and philosophy.  Ginzburg, who was married to a prominent figure in the Italian resistance movement in World War Two, was an active anti-Fascist and a member of the Italian Communist Party in the 1930s.  In later life, she was elected to the Chamber of Deputies as an independent.  Although born in Palermo, Ginzburg spent her early life in Turin, where her father, Giuseppe Levi, was a professor of neuroanatomy at the University of Turin. Read more…

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Palmiro Togliatti – politician

Communist leader gunned down near Italian parliament

The leader of the Italian Communist Party, Palmiro Togliatti, was shot three times on this day in 1948 near Palazzo Montecitorio in Rome.  Togliatti was seriously wounded and for several days it was not certain that he would survive, causing a political crisis in Italy.  Three months before the shooting, Togliatti had led the Communists in the first democratic election in Italy after the Second World War, which would elect the first Republican parliament.  He lost to the Christian Democrats after a confrontational campaign in which the United States played a big part, viewing Togliatti as a Cold War enemy.  On July 14, Togliatti was shot three times near the Parliament building. It was described as an assassination attempt, the perpetrator of which was named as Antonio Pallante, an anti-Communist student with mental health problems. While the Communist leader’s life hung in the balance a general strike was called.  He eventually recovered and was able to continue as head of the party until his death in 1964.  Togliatti was born in Genoa in 1893. He was named Palmiro because he was born on a Palm Sunday.  Read more…

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Cardinal Jules Mazarin - ruler of France

Jesuit-educated Italian served two French kings

Jules Mazarin, who was to become the de facto ruler of France for nearly 20 years, was born Giulio Raimondo Mazzarino on this day in 1602 in Pescina, a small town in the province of L’Aquila in the Abruzzo region.  He served as the chief minister to the Kings of France, Louis XIII and Louis XIV, from 1642 until his death in 1661. Mazzarino’s parents were residents of Rome but would spend the summers in Pescina to escape the heat.  His father, Pietro Mazzarino, had moved to Rome from Sicily to become a chamberlain in the family of Filippo I Colonna, the Grand Constable of Naples. His mother was Filippo I Colonna’s goddaughter.  Influenced by the Colonna family, the couple sent Mazzarino to the Jesuit College in Rome when he was seven. He excelled in his studies and gave a public lecture at the age of 16, explaining Halley’s comet, which had appeared that year. He also enjoyed gambling at cards and was frequently in debt.  To get him away from bad influences in Rome, he was sent to Madrid with Girolamo Colonna to study law, but he continued to gamble and became engaged to the daughter of a notary who had lent him money.  Read more…

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Camillus de Lellis - saint

Reformed gambler who became devoted to caring for sick

Camillo de Lellis, a gambler and streetfighter who reformed his life and eventually set up a religious order to tend the wounds of soldiers on the battlefield, died on this day in 1614 in Rome.  He was made Saint Camillus de Lellis by Pope Benedict XIV in 1746. Nowadays he is recognised as the patron saint of the sick, hospitals, nurses and physicians. Sometimes his assistance is also invoked by individuals with gambling problems.  The Order of Clerks Regular, Ministers of the Infirm (M.I), better known as the Camillians, is seen as the original Red Cross on account of an incident during the Battle of Canizza in 1601, when a tent containing all of the Camillians’ equipment and supplies was destroyed in a fire.  Among the ashes, the red cross from the back of a religious habit belonging to one of the Camillians was found to have survived. It became known as the Red Cross of Camillus.  The Order’s activities eventually extended to caring for the sick generally, particularly during outbreaks of Bubonic plague. They established a presence in hospitals in Naples and Milan and in time the Camillians ran hospitals of their own.  Read more…

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Book of the Day: La Serenissima: The Story of Venice, by Jonathan Keates

'Everything about Venice,' observed Lord Byron, 'is, or was, extraordinary - her aspect is like a dream, and her history is like a romance.' Dream and romance have conditioned myriad encounters with Venice across the centuries, but the city's story embodies the hard reality of an independent state built on conquest, profit and entitlement and on the toughness and resilience of a free people.  In La Serenissima, a new study of key moments in Venice's history, from its half-legendary founding amid the collapse of the Roman empire to its modern survival as a fragile city of the arts menaced by saturation tourism and rising sea levels, Jonathan Keates shows us just how much this remarkable place has contributed to world culture and explains how it endures as an object of desire and inspiration for so many.

Jonathan Keates is an English writer, biographer, novelist and former chairman of the Venice in Peril Fund. Among his more than 20 books are several about aspects of Italian history or travel in the region.

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13 July 2024

13 July

Tommaso Buscetta - Mafia ‘pentito’

Sicilian gangster’s testimony put hundreds behind bars

The Sicilian mobster Tommaso Buscetta, who was the first major Mafia figure to break the code of omertà and pass details of organised criminal activity to the authorities, was born on this day in 1928 in Palermo.  His evidence to the celebrated anti-Mafia judge Giovanni Falcone paved the way for the so-called Maxi Trial, a process lasting six years that led to the conviction and jailing of 350 mafiosi.  Buscetta’s testimony in the Pizza Connection Trial in New York State at around the same time in the mid-1980s led to the conviction of several hundred more mobsters both in Italy and the United States, including the powerful Sicilian Mafia boss Gaetano Badalamenti.  Arguably the most shocking information he passed on to the authorities concerned Italy’s three-times former prime minister, the late Giulio Andreotti, whose links with the Cosa Nostra he exposed shortly after Falcone was murdered in May 1992, killed by a massive bomb placed under the motorway linking Palermo with the city’s international airport.  Andreotti was found guilty of complicity in the Mafia assassination of a journalist and sentenced to 24 years in jail.  Read more…

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Vannozza dei Cattanei - popes’ mistress

Mother of Lucrezia and Cesare Borgia was figure of influence

Vannozza dei Cattanei, who was for many years the chief mistress of Cardinal Rodrigo de Borgia - later Pope Alexander VI - was born on this day in 1442 in Mantua.  Herself from the aristocratic Candia family, Vannozza - baptised as Giovanna de Candia - grew up to be a beautiful woman but also a successful businesswoman, acquiring a number of osterie - inns - after she moved to Rome.  In 15th century Italy, it was not unusual for cardinals and popes to have mistresses, despite Holy Orders coming with a vow of celibacy.  Before her relationship with Rodrigo de Borgia, Vannozza allegedly was mistress to Cardinal Giuliano della Rovere, the future Pope Julius II and a rival to Borgia in the 1492 papal election that he won.  Rodrigo made no attempt to hide his sexual dalliances, acquiring the nickname Papa Cattivo - the naughty pope - not only for his promiscuity but his questionable morals in other areas, with allegations that he was involved in bribery and extortion on his rise to the top, and rumours that he poisoned some of his rivals.  Unusually, compared with other popes and cardinals who flouted the rules, Borgia openly acknowledged the children that Vannozza bore him.  Read more…

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Jarno Trulli - racing driver and winemaker

Ex-Formula One star still winning prizes

The racing driver-turned-winemaker Jarno Trulli was born on this day in 1974 in Pescara on the Adriatic coast.  Trulli competed in Formula One from 1997 until 2011, competing in more than 250 Grands Prix.  He enjoyed his most successful season in 2004, when he represented the Mild Seven Renault team and finished sixth in the drivers’ championship.  He retired from racing in 2014-15 to focus on his winemaking business, which he had established while still competing and which now produces more than 1.2 million bottles every year.  Trulli’s Podere Castorani vineyard, situated near the village of Alanno, some 35km (22 miles) inland of Pescara, focuses largely on wines made from Abruzzo’s renowned Montepulciano grapes.  Although he was familiar with vineyards as a boy - his grandfather was a winemaker - Trulli’s parents were motorsports fans and named him after a Finnish Grand Prix motorcycling champion, Jarno Saarinen, who had been killed at the Monza circuit the year before Trulli was born.  Trulli began kart racing at the age of seven and by 17 was Karting World Champion.  He made his debut in Formula Three in 1993 and in 1996, driving for the Benetton-sponsored Opel team, won the German F3 Championship.  Read more…

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Giulio d’Este of Ferrara

Plots and prison ruin life of handsome son of Duke

Giulio d’Este, who spent more than half of his life in prison for taking part in a failed conspiracy against his half-brother, the Duke of Ferrara, was born on this day in 1478 in Ferrara.  He was the illegitimate son of Ercole I d’Este, an earlier Duke of Ferrara, born as a result of an affair the Duke had with Isabella Arduin, a lady in waiting to his wife.  Giulio was often in conflict with his half-brothers, Alfonso and Ippolito, which led to him eventually playing his part in a plot to assassinate them.  He had grown up in the court of Ferrara and later lived in a palace on the Via degli Angeli in Ferrara.  The first major conflict between Giulio and Ippolito arose over a musician, Don Rainaldo of Sassuolo. Rainaldo was in the service of Giulio, but Ippolito, who had by then become a Cardinal, wanted him for his chapel and so in 1504 he abducted Rainaldo and held him in the Fortress of Gesso.  When Giulio discovered where he was being held, he went with a group of armed men and recovered the musician. In a sign of defiance, Giulio replaced him with the warden of the fortress.  Ippolito complained about his actions to his brother, Alfonso.  Read more…

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The founding of the Carabinieri

Italy’s stylish ‘First Force’

The Carabinieri Corps was created on this day in 1814 in Italy by a resolution passed by Victor Emmanuel I of Savoy.  He established an army of mounted and foot soldiers to provide a police force, to be called Royal Carabinieri (Carabinieri Reali). The soldiers were rigorously selected ‘for their distinguished good conduct and judiciousness.’  Their task was defined as ‘to contribute to the necessary happiness of the State, which cannot be separated from protection and defence of all good subjects.’  Their functions were specified in the royal licence issued at the time, which underlined the importance of the personal skills required by the soldiers selected. It also affirmed their dual military and civil roles.  The sense of duty and high level of conduct displayed by the Carabinieri went on to win the respect of the Italian people.  They were called Carabinieri to avoid any comparisons with the former Napoleonic gendarmerie, and because they were equipped with carbines as weapons.  Their dress uniform was designed to reflect the solemn image of the sovereign state, with a two cornered hat, known as the lucerna, and dark blue dress coat.   Read more…

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Book of the Day: Cosa Nostra: The Definitive History of the Sicilian Mafia, by John Dickie

Recognised as the 'first truly definitive English-language study of this myth-laden subject' (Sunday Times), Cosa Nostra is the compelling story of the Sicilian Mafia, the world's most famous, most secretive and most misunderstood criminal fraternity.  The Mafia has been given many names since it was founded 140 years ago: the Sect, the Brotherhood, the Honoured Society, and now Cosa Nostra. Yet as times have changed, the Mafia's subtle and bloody methods have remained the same. Now, for the first time, Cosa Nostra reconstructs the complete history of the Sicilian mafia from its origins to the present day, from the lemon groves and sulphur mines of Sicily, to the streets of Manhattan.  Described by journalist and presenter Andrew Marr as 'Monumental and gripping', Cosa Nostra is a history rich in atmosphere with the narrative pace of the best detective fiction, and hailed by critics in Italy as one of the best books to be written about the Mafia.

John Dickie is Professor of Italian Studies at University College London (UCL). He is an internationally-recognised specialist on many aspects of Italian history and culture and his books have been translated into more than 20 languages. His history of Italian food, Delizia!, was turned into a six-part series for Italian television.

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12 July 2024

12 July

Carla Fendi - fashion executive

Turned family business into global giant

Carla Fendi, whose flair for marketing helped propel her mother and father’s small fur and leather business into a worldwide fashion giant, was born on this day in 1937 in Rome.  Under Fendi’s guidance, the business became so successful that at one point it had 215 stores worldwide and generated more than $1.2 billion in annual sales.  She also helped turn a young Paris-based German designer named Karl Lagerfeld into a household name, having taken up a friend’s recommendation to give him a try when the firm needed some fresh ideas in the 1960s.  Carla Fendi was one of five sisters who grew up in the leather workshop and fur boutique run by Edoardo and Adele Fendi in the Via del Plebiscito, near Rome’s Piazza Venezia. The family lived in rooms above the shop.  When Edoardo died in 1954, the sisters began to help the mother with the business, gradually taking on more responsibility. The business had a solid, up-market clientele for its bags and cases but Carla sensed it needed to appeal to attract younger, more fashion-conscious customers if it were to expand.  Read more…

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Amedeo Modigliani – artist

Illness marred short life of creative genius 

Painter and sculptor Amedeo Clemente Modigliani was born on this day in 1884 in Livorno in Tuscany.  The artist went on to become famous for his portraits and his paintings of nudes, which were characterised by their elongated faces and figures.  Modigliani did not receive much acclaim during his lifetime, but after his death his work became popular and achieved high prices.  He was born into a Jewish family and suffered health problems as a child, but began drawing and painting from an early age and begged his family to take him to see the paintings in the Uffizi in Florence.  His mother enrolled him at the art school of Guglielmo Micheli in Livorno where he received artistic instruction influenced by the style and themes of 19th century Italian art.  In 1902 Modigliani enrolled in the school of nude studies at the Accademia di Belle Art in Florence and then moved on to Venice to continue his studies.  In 1906 he moved to Paris, where he set up a studio with Jacob Epstein.  He lived with a beautiful young French art student, Jeanne Hébuterne, from 1917 until he became ill with tuberculosis and died in 1920, at the age of just 35.  Read more…

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Stefano della Bella – printmaker

Artist sketched important events preserving them for posterity

Stefano della Bella, who produced hundreds of sketches of court festivities held by the Medici, as well as visual records of important public occasions, died on this day in 1664 in Florence.  Della Bella was a draughtsman and printmaker known for his etchings of military and court scenes. He left more than 1,000 prints and several thousand drawings, but only one known painting.  He was born into a family of artists in Florence in 1610 and was apprenticed to a goldsmith. However he went on to become an engraver and studied etching.  Thanks to the patronage of the Medici family, della Bella was able to study for six years in Rome living in the Medici Palace in the Villa Borghese area.  Della Bella produced views of Rome, drawings of antiquities and sketches of crowded public occasions in a series of sketchbooks, many of which were later turned into prints.  Della Bella captured major events of his time, just like a photographer does today, and his prints have enabled people to see in detail the lavish festivities held by the Medici family and what daily life was like in Rome - and also in Paris - in the first half of the 17th century.  Read more…

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Agostino Codazzi - soldier and map-maker

Italian who mapped first route for Panama Canal

Agostino Codazzi, a soldier, scientist, geographer and cartographer who became a national hero in Venezuela and plotted the route for the Panama Canal on behalf of the British government, was born on this day in 1793 in the town of Lugo in Emilia-Romagna.  When the canal was eventually built by United States engineers, they followed the precise route that Codazzi had recommended, although the Italian has not been credited in the history of the project.  Known in Latin America as Agustín Codazzi, he was born Giovanni Battista Agostino Codazzi.  As a young man, he was excited about the French Revolution and the idea of the ruling classes being overthrown by the people in pursuit of a more equitable society.  After attending the Scuola di Artiglieria military academy in Pavia, he joined Napoleon’s army and served with them until the Napoleonic empire collapsed in 1815.  It was then that he decided to travel further afield, finally settling in Venezuela, where he offered his military knowledge to another revolutionary, Simón Bolívar - known as El Libertador - who played a leading role in the establishment of Venezuela, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Panama as sovereign states, independent of Spanish rule.  Read more…

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Book of the Day: Italian Glamour: The Essence of Italian Fashion From the Postwar Years to the Present Day, by Enrico Quinto and Paolo Tinarelli


The fashion archive of Enrico Quinto and Paolo Tinarelli has been painstakingly assembled over the last 20 years and traces the international evolution of costume from the mid-19th century to the present day. This quintessential volume on Italian Style narrates the development of fashion through around 300 dresses, chronologically ordered and selected from an international collection of over 6,000 pieces, enriched by commentary by historians, journalists and fashion designers, but also by photography, film and personal testimony: a concrete resource for historians of costume, students and passionates. The idea of departing from a purely chronological sequence springs from a desire to demonstrate the vitality and ongoing relevance of historical pieces through their juxtaposition with contemporary examples. Most of the displayed dresses in Italian Glamour were documented by photographers when they first appeared worn by famous actresses, models and jet set personalities of the time: from the Duchess of Windsor to Queen Paola of Belgium, from Princess Grace of Monaco to Ava Gardner, Marilyn Monroe, Sophia Loren, Audrey Hepburn, Veruschka, Marisa Berenson, Grace Jones amongst many others.

Enrico Quinto and Paolo Tinarelli established the first flea market in Rome and were the first to introduce the concept of vintage in Italy. They went on to become fashion collectors and archivists with an extensive knowledge of the history of Italian fashion.



11 July 2024

11 July

NEW - Antoninus Pius - Roman Emperor

Hadrian’s adopted son presided over 23 years of peace

Antoninus Pius, the fourth of the so-called Five Good Emperors who ruled the Roman Empire between 96 and 180 AD, assumed power on this day in 138 following the death of Hadrian at his villa outside Naples the previous day.  As well as being notable for peace and stability, his reign was one of well-run administration, support for education and public works projects including expanded free access to drinking water in all parts of the empire. He was seen as a wise and benevolent ruler who made the well-being of his subjects a priority, an example being the attention he gave to ensuring freed slaves were given the full rights of citizenship.  Antoninus instigated legal reforms, built temples and theatres, was an active promoter of the arts and sciences, and rewarded the teachers of rhetoric and philosophy in particular with honours and financial incentives.  Despite a number of major disturbances in different parts of the empire during his time, he was reluctant to commit to any aggressive military action. Revolts in Mauretania, Germany, Dacia and Egypt were successfully contained by his armies with no recourse to escalation.  Read more…

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Eleonora di Garzia di Toledo - noblewoman

The shocking fate of Medici wife

The beautiful wife of Don Pietro de' Medici, Eleonora di Garzia di Toledo, was strangled to death with a dog lead on this day in 1576 in a villa near Barberino di Mugello in Tuscany.  The murder was carried out by her husband, Pietro, but he was never brought to justice. His brother, Francesco, the Grand Duke of Tuscany, gave out as the official line that his sister-in-law had died as a result of an accident.  Eleonora, who was more often referred to as Leonora, was born in Florence in 1553, the daughter of Garcia Alvarez di Toledo and Vittoria d’Ascanio Colonna. Her father and mother were living in Florence at the time because Garcia was in charge of the castles of Valdichiana.  When her mother died a few months later, the baby, Leonora, was left in the care of her aunt, Eleonora, the Duchess of Florence, and her husband, the Grand Duke Cosimo I de' Medici, who raised her, preparing her for a life at the Medici court.  After the Duchess, Eleonora, died, her daughter, Isabella, took over the supervision of the young Leonora.  A marriage was arranged between Leonora and Cosimo’s son and Isabella’s brother, Pietro.  Read more…

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Giorgio Armani – designer

Former army medic forged brilliant career in fashion

Giorgio Armani,who is considered by many to be Italy's greatest fashion designer, was born on this day in 1934 in Piacenza in Emilia-Romagna.  Known for his menswear and the clean, tailored lines of his collections for women, Armani has become a multi-billionaire.  His original career plan was to become a doctor and he enrolled in the Department of Medicine at the University of Milan but after three years left to join the army. Due to his medical background he was assigned to the military hospital in Verona.  After he left the army, Armani decided to have a complete career change and got a job as a window dresser for La Rinascente, a Milan department store.  He progressed to become a sales assistant in the menswear department and then moved on to work for Nino Cerruti as a menswear designer.  In 1973 Armani opened a design office in Milan from where he worked as a freelance designer for fashion houses. He founded his own company, Giorgio Armani, in Milan in 1975.  He began producing designs specifically for the United States and his label soon became one of the leading names in international fashion.   Read more…

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Giuseppe Arcimboldo – painter

Portraits were considered unique in the history of art

The artist Giuseppe Arcimboldo, who created imaginative portrait heads made up entirely of objects such as fruit, vegetables, flowers and fish, died on this day in 1593 in Milan.  Unique at the time, Arcimboldo’s work was greatly admired in the 20th century by artists such as Salvador Dali and his fellow Surrealist painters.  Giuseppe’s father, Biagio Arcimboldo, was also an artist and Giuseppe followed in his footsteps designing stained glass and frescoes for churches.  Arcimboldo (sometimes also known as Arcimboldi) at first painted entirely in the style of the time. His beautiful fresco of the Tree of Jesse can still be seen in the Duomo of Monza.  But in 1562 he abruptly changed his style after moving to Prague to become court painter to the erudite King Rudolph II.  He began to create human heads, which could be considered as portraits, made up of pieces of fruit and vegetable and other objects, which were chosen for the meaning attributed to the image.  Arcimboldo also painted settings for the court theatre in Prague and he became an expert in illusionist trickery. His paintings contained allegorical meanings, puns and jokes that were appreciated by his contemporaries, but were lost upon later audiences.  Read more…

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Book of the Day: The Reign of Emperor Antoninus Pius, AD 138–161, by John S McHugh

The reign of Antoninus Pius is widely seen as the apogee of the Roman Empire yet, due to gaps in the historical sources, his reign has been overlooked by modern historians. He is considered one of the Five Good Emperors of the Antonine dynasty under whom the pax Romana enabled the empire to prosper, trade to flourish and culture to thrive. His reign is considered a Golden Age but in The Reign of Emperor Antoninus Pius, McHugh argues that this was partly an image created by imperial propaganda. There were serious conflicts in North Africa and Dacia, as well as a major revolt in Britain. On his death the empire stood on the cusp of the catastrophic invasions and rebellions that marked the reign of his successor Marcus Aurelius. Antoninus Pius became emperor through the hand of fate, being adopted by Hadrian only after the death of his intended heir, Lucius Aelius Caesar. His rule was a balancing act between securing his own safety, securing the succession of his adopted heir and denying opportunities for conspiracy and rebellion. ‘Equanimity’ was the last password he issued to his guards as he lay on his death bed. In the face of the threats and challenges he remained calm and composed, providing 23 years of stability; a calm before the storms that gathered both within and beyond Rome’s borders.

John S McHugh, who has a BA and MA in Ancient History, is the author of a number of books on Roman history, including The Emperor Commodus: God and Gladiator; Emperor Alexander Severus: Rome's Age of Insurrection, AD 222-235; and Sejanus, Regent of Rome.

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