19 January 2024

19 January

Paolo Borsellino - anti-Mafia judge

Magistrate slain by Mafia 57 days after colleague Giovanni Falcone

Paolo Borsellino, the judge who was helping to wage a successful war against the Sicilian Mafia when he was murdered in 1992, was born on this day in 1940 in Palermo.  He and his boyhood friend, Giovanni Falcone, became the most prominent members of a pool of anti-Mafia magistrates set up in the 1980s to investigate organised crime and share information. They made considerable progress in weakening the Sicilian Mafia, also known as Cosa Nostra, in particular through the so-called Maxi Trial of 1986-87, which resulted in 360 convictions and prison sentences totalling 2,665 years.  Yet both were killed within the space of two months, Falcone on May 23 by a bomb placed under the motorway between Sicilian capital Palermo and the city's airport, Borsellino on July 19 by a car bomb as he left his mother's house in the centre of the city.  The two were born and raised within a few streets of one another in the Kalsa district of Palermo, not far from the tree-lined Foro Italico Umberto I, the broad thoroughfare that runs along the city's waterfront.  It was a middle class neighbourhood that suffered severe damage in air raids as the Allies prepared to invade Sicily in 1943.  Read more…


Il trovatore – opera

Verdi masterpiece is regularly performed all over the world 

One of the most successful operas composed by Giuseppe Verdi, Il trovatore was first staged on this day in 1853 in Rome.  The four act opera was based on a play by Antonio Garcia Gutiérrez about a troubadour, the son of a gypsy woman, who is in love with a lady in waiting at a Spanish castle.  After its premiere, at the Teatro Apollo in Rome, the opera became a big success and in the first three years there were 229 productions of it worldwide. In Naples alone there were 11 different productions in six theatres, including Teatro San Carlo, during the first three years. The opera was first performed in America by the Max Maretzek Opera Company in 1855. The Metropolitan Opera in New York have performed it more than 600 times since it was first staged there in 1883.  Verdi was asked to prepare a French version of the opera in 1855, Le Trouvère, and to include music for a ballet. It was first performed in French in 1857 in Paris when Emperor Napoleon III and Empress Eugènie went to see it.  Along with Rigoletto and La traviata, Il trovatore is believed by experts to represent Verdi at the height of his artistry in the middle of his career.   Read more…


Assunta ‘Pupetta’ Maresca – camorrista

Ex-beauty queen who avenged death of husband

Assunta Maresca, the mobster’s wife who made headlines around the world when she walked into a bar in Naples in broad daylight and shot dead the man she suspected of ordering the murder of her husband on behalf of the Neapolitan Mafia - the Camorra - was born on this day in 1935 in the coastal town of Castellammare di Stabia.  Better known as ‘Pupetta’ – the little doll – on account of her small stature and stunning good looks, Maresca took the law into her own hands after her husband – a young and ambitious camorrista and the father of her unborn child - was assassinated on the orders of a rival.  Her extraordinary act brought her an 18-year prison sentence, of which she served about a third, yet made her a figure of such public fascination that several movies and TV series were made about her life.  She went on to become the lover of another mobster and was alleged to have participated in Camorra activity herself, serving another jail term after she was found guilty of abetting the murder of a forensic scientist, which she denied.  Assunta Maresca was born into a world of crime.  Her father, Alberto, was a smuggler specialising in trafficking cigarettes.  Read more…


Giuseppe Bonomi - architect

Roman who became famous for English country houses

The architect Giuseppe Bonomi, who became better known by his Anglicised name Joseph Bonomi after spending much of his working life in England, was born on this day in 1739 in Rome.  Records nowadays refer to him as Joseph Bonomi the Elder, to distinguish him from his son of the same name, who became a sculptor, artist and Egyptologist of some standing and tends to be described as Joseph Bonomi the Younger.   Joseph Bonomi the Elder is known primarily for designing a number of English country houses in the last two decades of the 18th century and the early years of the 19th.  Among these are Lambton Castle in County Durham, Barrells Hall in Warwickshire, Longford Hall in Shropshire and Laverstoke House in Hampshire.  He also designed the saloon in the grand house of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu in Portman Square in London, sadly destroyed during the Blitz in the Second World War.  Bonomi’s father hailed from the Veneto and was an agent to members of the Roman aristocracy. Giuseppe was educated at the Collegio Romano, the Jesuit school in Rome that taught pupils from elementary school to university age.  Read more…


Rosina Storchio - soprano

Star prospered despite Butterfly debut flop

The soprano Rosina Storchio, a major star of the opera world in the early 20th century, was born on this day in 1872 in Venice.  A favourite of the celebrated conductor Arturo Toscanini, with whom she had an affair that scandalised Milan, she sang opposite Enrico Caruso and other male stars of her era, including Giuseppe Anselmi, Titta Ruffo and the Russian, Fyodor Chaliapin.  She sang in five notable premieres.  Ruggero Leoncavallo cast her as the first Mimì in his version of La bohème (1897) and also as Zazà in the opera of the same name (1900), Umberto Giordano created the role of Stephana for her in Siberia (1903), while she was Pietro Mascagni’s first Lodoletta (1917).  The first night for which she was often remembered, however, was the one that turned into a personal catastrophe for Giacomo Puccini, when Madama Butterfly was unveiled at Teatro alla Scala in Milan in 1904 only to be roundly booed by the audience, forcing the opera to be pulled from La Scala’s spring programme after one night.  Critics argued that the second act was too long and that despite a star-studded cast, including the celebrated Storchio in the role of Cio-Cio San, the story’s tragic heroine, the performance suffered from being under-rehearsed.  Read more…


Giuseppe Millico - opera singer, composer and teacher

Castrato taught Lord Nelson’s lover

The castrato opera singer and composer Giuseppe Millico, who numbered Lord Nelson’s future lover, Emma Hamilton, as among his pupils as a singing teacher in Naples, was born on this day in 1737 in Terlizzi, a town in Apulia.  As a singer, Millico is best remembered for his performances in the operas of the Bavarian composer Christoph Willibald Gluck. He also compiled a significant body of work of his own, including eight operas, eight cantatas, numerous arias and duets not part of wider works, and 82 canzonets.  Having learned his craft in Naples in the 1750s, Millico returned to the city in 1780 after many years of touring, becoming a teacher as well as a composer. He taught singing to the Bourbon princesses Maria Teresa and Luisa Maria, as well as to Emma, Lady Hamilton, the actress and model, who was living in Naples after her marriage to Sir William Hamilton, the British Ambassador.  After studying at one of the Naples conservatories, Millico made his performing debut in Rome in 1757. Soon afterwards, he went to Moscow to sing at the Russian court. He remained in Russia for seven years, earning the nickname Il Moscovita on his return.  Read more…


Book of the Day: Vendetta: The Mafia, Judge Falcone and the Quest for Justice, by John Follain

On 23 May 1992 the Mafia assassinated its 'Number One Enemy', the legendary prosecutor Judge Falcone, with a motorway bomb that also killed his wife Francesca and three bodyguards. Fifty-seven days later, the Mafia killed Falcone's friend and colleague, Judge Paolo Borsellino, with a car bomb outside his mother's home that also killed five bodyguards.  These two murders changed forever how Italy viewed the Mafia. Vendetta tells the inside story of the assassination plots and the investigation that followed. Follain reveals Borsellino's desperate race against time to find out who killed his friend while knowing he was next on the list and reveals the daring undercover police mission which unmasked the killers.  Based on new and exclusive interviews and the testimony of investigators, Mafia supergrasses, survivors, relatives and friends, Vendetta recounts the events hour-by-hour, minute-by-minute as the Mafiosi plan and carry out the murders, and as the police hunt them down.

John Follain has reported from Italy and France for more than 30 years as a foreign correspondent for Bloomberg, the Sunday Times, Reuters and AP-DowJones, and covered stories as an investigative journalist in 20 countries in Europe, North America, North Africa and the Middle East. Among his eight non-fiction books are A Death in Italy: The Definitive Account of the Amanda Knox Case, The Last Godfathers and Zoya's Story, about an Afghan resistance fighter, which was translated into 14 languages. 

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