16 January 2024

16 January

NEW - Erasmo da Narni - condottiero

Soldier from poor origins became general commander of Venetian armies

One of the most famous condottieri of the Renaissance, Erasmo da Narni, who had a distinguished career as a military leader, died on this day in 1443 in Padua.  Known as Gattamelata, the honey-eyed cat, Erasmo has been immortalised by Donatello’s bronze equestrian statue of him in Piazza del Santo, one of Padua’s main squares.  Born in Narni in Umbria, Erasmo went from a humble household into a military life, serving in turn the rulers of the Papal States, Rome, Florence, and Venice. Condottieri were professional soldiers who were hired by city states to lead mercenary armies on the battlefield.  With his friend, Brandolino Brandolini, he worked for the Assisi lord, Cecchino Broglia, and later, serving under another condottiero, Braccio da Montone, lord of Perugia, he played his part in the conquests of Todi, Terni, Narni, Rieti, and Spoleto and helped win the Battle of Viterbo against Muzio Attendolo Sforza in 1419.  During the War of L’Aquila, Braccio’s army was defeated and the condottiero himself was killed, so Erasmo led the remaining troops into the service of Florence.  Later, Pope Martin V hired Erasmo to recapture the lands he had lost in the battles against Braccio da Montone.  Read more…


Arturo Toscanini - conductor

Talented musician had unexpected career change

World famous orchestra conductor Arturo Toscanini died on this day in 1957.  He served as musical director of La Scala in Milan, the Metropolitan Opera in New York and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.  Toscanini was a well-known musician in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, respected for his amazing musical ear and his photographic memory.  Towards the end of his career he became a household name as director of the NBC Symphony Orchestra because of the radio and television broadcasts and recordings he made.  Toscanini was born in Parma in 1867 and won a scholarship to his local music conservatory where he studied the cello.  He joined the orchestra of an opera company and while they were presenting Aida on tour in Rio de Janeiro the singers went on strike.  They were protesting against their conductor and demanded a substitute. They suggested Toscanini, who they were aware knew the whole opera from memory.  Although he had no previous conducting experience, he was eventually persuaded to take up the baton late in the evening. He led a performance of the long Verdi opera, entirely relying on his memory.  Read more…


Count Vittorio Alfieri – playwright and poet

Romantic nobleman inspired the oppressed with his writing

Dramatist and poet Count Vittorio Alfieri was born on this day in 1749 in Asti in Piedmont.  He earned himself the title of ‘the precursor of the Risorgimento’ because the predominant theme of his poetry was the overthrow of tyranny and with his dramas he tried to encourage a national spirit in Italy. He has also been called ‘the founder of Italian tragedy.’  Alfieri was educated at the Military Academy of Turin but disliked military life and obtained leave to travel throughout Europe.  In France he was profoundly influenced by studying the writing of Voltaire, Rousseau and Montesquieu and in England he embarked on a doomed affair with an unsuitable woman.  When he returned to Italy in 1772 he settled in Turin and resigned his military commission.  Soon afterwards, he wrote a tragedy, Cleopatra, which was performed to great acclaim in 1775.  He decided to devote himself to literature and began a methodical study of the classics and of Italian poetry.  Since he expressed himself mainly in French, which was the language of the ruling classes in Turin, he went to Tuscany to familiarise himself with pure Italian.  Read more…


Renzo Mongiardino - interior and set designer

Favourite of wealthy clients known as the ‘architect of illusion’

Lorenzo ‘Renzo’ Mongiardino, who became Italy’s leading classic interior designer and a creator of magnificent theatre and film sets, died in Milan on this day in 1998.  He was 81 years old and had never fully recovered from an operation the previous November to install a pacemaker.  Mongiardino, who was nominated for two Academy Awards for Best Art Direction during his career, worked on interior design for an international clientele that included the industrialist and art collector Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza, the business tycoons Aristotle Onassis and Gianni Agnelli, the former Russian prince Stanisław Albrecht Radziwiłł and his socialite wife Lee Radziwill, the fashion designer Gianni Versace, the Lebanese banker Edmond Safra, the Rothschild family and the Hearst family.  Nonetheless, he habitually rejected his reputation as the eminence grise of interior design. ''I'm a creator of ambiance, a scenic designer, an architect but not a decorator,'' he once said.  The only son of Giuseppe Mongiardino, a theatre impresario said to have introduced colour television to Italy, Mongiardino grew up in an 18th-century palazzo in Genoa.  Read more…


Niccolò Piccinni – opera composer

Writer drawn into 18th century Paris rivalry

The composer Niccolò Piccinni, one of the most popular writers of opera in 18th century Europe, was born on this day in 1728 in Bari.  Piccinni, who lived mainly in Naples while he was in Italy, had the misfortune to be placed under house arrest for four years in his 60s, when he was accused of being a republican revolutionary.  He is primarily remembered, though, for having been invited to Paris at the height of his popularity to be drawn unwittingly into a battle between supporters of traditional opera, with its emphasis on catchy melodies and show-stopping arias, and those of the German composer Christoph Willibald Gluck, who favoured solemnly serious storytelling more akin to Greek tragedy.  Piccinni’s father was a musician but tried to discourage his son from following the same career. However, the Bishop of Bari, recognising Niccolò’s talent, arranged for him to attend the Conservatorio di Sant’Onofrio in Capuana in Naples.  He was a prolific writer. His first opera, a comedy entitled Le donne dispettose (The mischievous women) was staged at the Teatro dei Fiorentini in Naples in 1755.  Read more…


Mario Tobino – poet, novelist and psychiatrist

Doctor was torn between literature and his patients

The author and poet who was also a practising psychiatrist, Mario Tobino, was born on this day in 1910 in Viareggio in Tuscany.  Tobino was a prolific writer whose works dealt with social and psychological themes. His novel, Il clandestino, inspired by his experiences fighting as a partisan to liberate Italy in 1944, won him the Premio Strega, the most prestigious Italian literary award.  After completing his degree in medicine in 1936, Tobino embarked on a career working in a mental hospital, treating people with mental disabilities.  He went to work as a doctor in Libya in 1940 but had to flee when war broke out in the country. His experiences were recorded in his book, Il deserto della Libia, which was published in 1952.  In 1953, his novel, Libere donne di Magliano, established him as an important Italian writer. In 1972, another novel, Per le antiche scale won the Premio Campiello, an annual Italian literary award. Both novels were inspired by his experiences as a director of a psychiatric hospital at Maggiano, a suburb of Lucca.  His novel Il manicomio di Pechino, published in 1990, also drew on his medical experiences.  Read more…


Carlo Maria Viganò - controversial archbishop

Former papal ambassador who shocked Catholic Church

Carlo Maria Viganò, the controversial former Apostolic Nuncio to the United States who was twice at the centre of serious corruption allegations against the Vatican, was born on this day in 1941 in Varese, northern Italy.  Viganò, who had occupied one of the most powerful positions in the Vatican before Pope Benedict XVI set him to be his ambassador in Washington in 2011, was a key figure in the so-called Vatileaks scandal in 2012 when the Italian journalist Gianluigi Nuzzi published leaked documents that included letters from Viganò to Pope Benedict and to the Vatican secretary of state Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone complaining of corruption in the awarding of contracts.  The subsequent scandal resulted in the conviction of Benedict’s former butler, Paolo Gabriele, who was found guilty of theft by a Vatican court and handed an 18-month prison sentence.  Viganò’s 2011 allegations pale, however, alongside the extraordinary 11-page document he published seven years later, in which he claimed that high-ranking church officials were implicated in a cover-up surrounding sexual abuse allegations against former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick.  Read more…


Book of the Day: Power and Imagination: City States in Renaissance Italy, by Lauro Martines

In Power and Imagination: City States in Renaissance Italy, noted historian Lauro Martines rethinks the evolution of the city-state in Renaissance Italy and recasts the conventional distinction between "society" and "culture." He traces the growth of commerce and the evolution of governments; he describes the attitudes, pleasures, and rituals of the ruling elite; and he seeks to understand the period's towering works of the imagination in literature, painting, city planning, and philosophy-not simply as the creations of individual artists, but as the formal expression of the ambitions and egos of those in power.

Lauro Martines is one of the world's foremost historians of the Italian Renaissance and early modern Europe. He is the author of nine books, most recently the critically acclaimed Fire in the City: Savonarola and the Struggle for Renaissance Florence and April Blood: Florence and the Plot Against the Medici. Born in Chicago, he was a professor of history at UCLA. He was married to the Irish novelist, Julia O'Faolain, who died in 2020.

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