25 February 2024

25 February

Benedetto Croce – philosopher and historian

Prolific writer opposed the Fascists and supported democracy

Benedetto Croce, one of the most important figures in Italian life and culture in the first half of the 20th century, was born on this day in 1866 in Pescasseroli in the region of Abruzzo.  Croce was an idealist philosopher, historian and erudite literary scholar whose approach to literature influenced future generations of writers and literary critics. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature 16 times.  He became a Senator in 1910 and was Minister for Education from 1920 to 1921 in the last pre-Fascist government of the so-called Giolitti era. He is also remembered for his major contribution to the rebirth of Italian democracy after World War II.  Croce was born into a wealthy family and raised in a strict Catholic environment.  However, from the age of 16 he gave up Catholicism and developed a personal philosophy of spiritual life.  In 1883, while he was still a teenager, he was on holiday with his family on the island of Ischia when an earthquake struck Casamicciola and destroyed the house they were staying in. His mother, father and sister were all killed, but although he was buried for a long time, he managed to survive.  Read more…

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Enea Salmeggia – artist

Painter was dubbed the Raphael of Bergamo

Prolific painter Enea Salmeggia, who was active during the late Renaissance period and left a rich legacy of art in northern Italy, died on this day in 1626 in Bergamo in the region of Lombardy.  Salmeggia, also known as Il Talpino, or Salmezza, went to Rome as a young man, where he studied the works of Raphael. His style has often been likened to that of Raphael and he has even been called the Bergamo Raphael by some art lovers. A drawing formerly attributed to Raphael, now in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, of two figures seated with some architectural studies, has subsequently been ascribed to Enea Salmeggia.  The artist was born at Salmezza, a frazione of Nembro, a comune - municipality - in the province of Bergamo, between 1565 and 1570. It is known that he grew up in Borgo San Leonardo in Bergamo, where his father, Antonio, was a tailor.  He learnt the art of painting from other Bergamo painters and is also believed to have studied under the Bergamo artist Simone Peterzano in Milan. Caravaggio was one of Peterzano’s most famous pupils and it has been suggested that Salmeggia could have been studying with Peterzano at the same time as Caravaggio.  Read more…

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Carlo Goldoni – playwright

Greatest Venetian dramatist whose work still entertains audiences today

Carlo Goldoni, the author of The Servant of Two Masters, one of Italy’s most famous and best-loved plays, was born on this day in 1707 in Venice.  Goldoni became a prolific dramatist who reinvigorated the commedia dell’arte dramatic form by replacing its masked, stock figures with more realistic characters. He produced tightly constructed plots with a new spirit of spontaneity and is considered the founder of Italian realistic comedy.  The son of a physician, Goldoni read comedies from his father’s library when he was young and ran away from his school at Rimini with a company of strolling players when he was just 14.  Later, while studying at the papal college in Pavia, Goldoni read comedies by Plautus, Terence and Aristophanes and learnt French so he could read plays by Molière.  He was eventually expelled for writing a satire about the ladies of Pavia and was sent to study law.  Although he practised law in Venice and Pisa and held diplomatic appointments, his real passion was writing plays for the theatres in Venice.  In 1748 he began writing for the Teatro Sant’Angelo company and dispensed with masked characters altogether for his play, La Pamela, a serious drama based on Samuel Richardson’s novel.  Read more…

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Alberto Sordi - actor

Comic genius who appeared in 190 films

Alberto Sordi, remembered by lovers of Italian cinema as one of its most outstanding comedy actors, died on this day in 2003 in Rome, the city of his birth.  He was 82 and had suffered a heart attack.  Italy reacted with an outpouring of grief and the decision was taken for his body to lie in state at Rome's town hall, the Campidoglio.  Streams of his fans took the opportunity to file past his coffin and when his funeral took place at the Basilica of San Giovanni in Laterano it was estimated that the crowds outside the church and in nearby streets numbered one million people.  Only the funeral of Pope John Paul II, who died two years later, is thought to have attracted a bigger crowd.  Sordi was the Italian voice of Oliver Hardy in the early days of his career, when he worked on the dubbing of the Laurel and Hardy movies.  He made the first of his 190 films in 1937 but it was not until the 1950s that he found international fame.  He appeared in two movies directed by Federico Fellini - The White Sheik and I vitelloni.  In the latter, he played an oafish layabout, something of a simpleton but an effeminate and vulnerable character to whom audiences responded with warmth and affection due to Sordi's interpretation.  Read more…

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Enrico Caruso – opera singer

Tenor's voice still regarded as greatest of all time 

Operatic tenor Enrico Caruso was born on this day in 1873 in Naples.  Believed by many opera experts to be the greatest tenor of all time, Caruso had a brilliant 25-year singing career, appearing at many of the major opera houses in Europe and America.  He made more than 200 recordings of his beautiful voice, some made as early as 1902.  Caruso was born in Via San Giovanello agli Ottocalli in Naples and baptised the next day in the nearby church of San Giovanni e Paolo.  At the age of 11 he was apprenticed to a mechanical engineer and also worked alongside his father in a factory.  At the same time he was singing in his church choir and was told his voice showed enough promise for him to consider becoming a professional singer.  Until she died in 1888, he was encouraged by his mother. To earn money, he started to work as a street singer in Naples, progressing to singing Neapolitan songs as entertainment in cafes. Having decided to become an opera singer, Caruso took singing lessons, keeping up with them even during his compulsory military service.  He made his stage debut in 1895 at the Teatro Nuovo in Naples.  Read more...

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The father of modern pathological anatomy

Anatomist Giovanni Battista Morgagni, who is credited with turning pathology into a science, was born on this day in 1682 in Forlì in Emilia-Romagna.  Morgagni was professor of anatomy at the University of Padua for 56 years and taught thousands of medical students during his time there.  He was sent by his parents to study philosophy and medicine at the University of Bologna when he was 18 and he graduated as a doctor from both faculties.  In 1706 he published his work, Adversaria anatomica, which was to be the first volume of a series and helped him become known throughout Europe as an accurate anatomist.  He succeeded to the chair of theoretical medicine at the University of Padua in 1712 and was to teach medicine there until his death in 1771.  Morgagni was promoted to the chair of anatomy after his first three years in Padua, following in the footsteps of many illustrious scholars. He brought out five more volumes of his Adversaria anatomica during his early years in Padua.  In 1761, when he was nearly 80, he brought out the work that was to make pathological anatomy into a science – De Sedibus et causis morborum per anotomem indagatis (Of the seats and cause of diseases investigated through anatomy). Read more…

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Book of the Day: Benedetto Croce and the Birth of the Italian Republic, 1943-1952, by Fabio Rizi

As president of the Italian Liberal Party, Benedetto Croce was one of the most influential intellectuals involved in Italian public affairs after the fall of Mussolini. Placing Croce at the centre of historical events between 1943 and 1952, this book details his participation in Italy’s political life, and his major contributions to the rebirth of Italian democracy.  Drawing on a great amount of primary material, including Croce’s political speeches, correspondences, diaries, and official documents from post-war Italy, Benedetto Croce and the Birth of the Italian Republic illuminates the dynamic and progressive nature of Croce’s liberalism and the shortcomings of the old Liberal leaders. Providing a year-by-year account of Croce’s initiatives, author Fabio Rizi fills the gap in Croce’s biography, covering aspects of his public life often neglected, misinterpreted, or altogether ignored, and restores his standing among the founding fathers of modern Italy.

Fabio Fernando Rizi was born in Italy and received his Ph.D. from York University. He was President of the Dante Society of Toronto for several years, and worked for the Toronto Public Library until his retirement.

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24 February 2024

24 February

Sandro Pertini - popular president

Man of the people who fought Fascism

Sandro Pertini, the respected and well-liked socialist politician who served as Italy's President between 1978 and 1985, died on this day in 1990, aged 93.  Pertini, a staunch opponent of Fascism who was twice imprisoned by Mussolini and again by the Nazis, passed away at the apartment near the Trevi Fountain in Rome that he shared with his wife, Carla.  After his death was announced, a large crowd gathered in the street near his apartment, with some of his supporters in tears.  Francesco Cossiga, who had succeeded him as President, visited the apartment to offer condolences to Pertini's widow, 30 years his junior.  They had met towards the end of the Second World War, when they were both fighting with the Italian resistance movement.  Pertini's popularity stemmed both from his strong sense of morality and his unwavering good humour.  He had the charm and wit to win over most people he met and was blessed with the common touch.  He would make a point whenever it was possible of appearing in person to greet parties of schoolchildren visiting the presidential palace, sometimes joining the staff for lunch and endearing himself to the nation with his passionate support for Italy's football team at the 1982 World Cup.  Read more…

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Renata Scotto - soprano and opera director

Singer who stood in for Callas became an international star

Opera singer Renata Scotto, who was one of the leading sopranos in the world at the height of her career, was born on this day in 1934 in Savona in Liguria.  Admired for her musicality and acting ability, Scotto was one of the most popular singers during the bel canto revival of the 1960s, performing throughout Italy, and in the UK, America, Russia, Japan, Spain, France and Germany.  She sang opposite great tenors such as Mario del Monaco, Alfredo Kraus and Luciano Pavarotti.  Scotto made her stage debut on Christmas Eve 1952 at the age of 18 as Violetta in Giuseppe Verdi’s La traviata, singing to a sold-out house in Savona, her home town. The next day she made her official debut at the Teatro Nuovo in Milan as Violetta. Shortly afterwards, she performed in Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly in Savona.  In 1953 she appeared at Teatro alla Scala in Milan as Walter in Alfredo Catalani's La Wally alongside Renata Tebaldi and Mario del Monaco and, on the opening night, was called back for 15 curtain calls.  At the Edinburgh Festival in 1957 she stood in for Maria Callas, who had refused to appear saying she was ill, as Amina in La Scala’s production of Vincenzo Bellini’s La sonnambula. Read more…

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Cesare “Caesar” Cardini – restaurateur

Italian emigrant who invented Caesar salad

The restaurateur who history credits with inventing the Caesar salad was born on this day in 1896 in Baveno, a small town on the shore of Lake Maggiore.  Cesare Cardini was one of a large family, with four brothers and two sisters.  In common with many Italians in the early part of the 20th century, his brothers Nereo, Alessandro and Gaudenzio emigrated to the United States, hoping there would be more opportunities to make a living.  Nereo is said to have opened a small hotel in Santa Cruz, California, south of San Francisco, while Alessandro and Guadenzio went to Mexico City.  Cesare left Italy for America in 1913. Records indicate he disembarked at Ellis Island, New York on May 1, having endured the transatlantic voyage as a steerage passenger, sleeping in a cargo hold equipped with dozens of bunk beds, which was the cheapest way to travel but came with few comforts.  He is thought then to have returned to Italy for a few years, working in restaurants in Milan, but ventured back to the United States in 1919.  This time he settled, first in Sacramento, then in San Diego, on the Pacific Ocean and close to the border with Mexico.  Read more…

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Bettino Craxi - prime minister

The Socialist who broke the grip of the Christian Democrats

Bettino Craxi, the politician who in 1983 became the first member of the Italian Socialist Party (PSI) to be appointed prime minister, was born on this day in 1934 in Milan.  He was not the first socialist to hold the office - Ivanoe Bonomi had been prime minister for six months in 1920 on an Italian Reformist Socialist Party ticket and succeeded Marshal Pietro Badoglio as leader of the war-torn nation’s post-Mussolini government in 1944. However, Craxi broke the hold of the Christian Democrats, who had been in power continuously since the first postwar elections in 1946.  Craxi was a moderniser who moved his party away from traditional forms of socialism in a way that was replicated elsewhere in Europe, such as in Britain under the New Labour prime minister Tony Blair. Craxi replaced the party’s hammer-and-sickle symbol with a red carnation.  His reputation was ultimately wrecked by a corruption scandal, but during his tenure as prime minister, Italy became the fifth largest industrial nation and gained entry into the G7 Group.  His fiscal policies saw him clash with the powerful trade unions over the abolition of the wage-price escalator.  Read more…

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L’Orfeo – an early opera

The lasting appeal of Monteverdi’s first attempt at opera

L’Orfeo by Claudio Monteverdi, the earliest opera still being regularly staged, had its first performance on this day in 1607 in Mantua.  Two letters, both dated 23 February, 1607, refer to the opera due to be performed the next day in the Ducal Palace as part of the annual carnival in Mantua in Lombardy.  In one of them a palace official writes: ‘… it should be most unusual as all the actors are to sing their parts.’  Francesco Gonzaga, the brother of the Duke, wrote in a letter dated 1 March, 1607, that the performance had been to the ‘great satisfaction of all who heard it.’  L’Orfeo, or La favola d’Orfeo as it is sometimes called, is based on the Greek legend of Orpheus. It tells the story of the hero’s descent to Hades and his unsuccessful attempt to bring his dead bride, Eurydice, back to the living world.  While it is recognised that L’Orfeo is not the first opera, it is the earliest opera that is still regularly performed in theatres today and it established the basic form that European opera was to take for the next 300 years.  The composer, Claudio Monteverdi, was born in Cremona in Lombardy in 1567.  Read more…

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Book of the Day: The Oxford Handbook of Italian Politics, edited by Erik Jones and Gianfranco Pasquino

The Oxford Handbook of Italian Politics provides a comprehensive look at the political life of one of Europe's most exciting and turbulent democracies.  Under the hegemonic influence of Christian Democracy in the early post-World War II decades, Italy went through a period of rapid growth and political transformation. In part this resulted in tumult and a crisis of governability; however, it also gave rise to innovation in the form of Eurocommunism and new forms of political accommodation. The great strength of Italy lay in its constitution; its great weakness lay in certain legacies of the past. Organised crime - popularly but not exclusively associated with the mafia - is one example. A self-contained and well entrenched 'caste' of political and economic elites is another. These weaknesses became apparent in the breakdown of political order in the late 1980s and early 1990s. This ushered in a combination of populist political mobilization and experimentation with electoral systems design, and the result has been more evolutionary than transformative. Italian politics today is different from what it was during the immediate post-World War II period, but it still shows many of the influences of the past.

Erik Jones is Professor of European Studies and Director of European and Eurasian Studies at the Paul H Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. Gianfranco Pasquino is the James Anderson Senior Adjunct Professor at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, and was Professor of Political Science at the University of Bologna until 2012. He was twice a member of the Italian Senate (1983-1992: 1994-1996).

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23 February 2024

23 February

NEW - Manfredo Fanti - military general

Risorgimento hero who founded Royal Italian Army

The Italian general Manfredo Fanti, a key figure in the Italian Wars of Independence in the mid-19th century and the founder of the Royal Italian Army, was born on this day in 1806 in Carpi, a town about 20km (13 miles) northwest of Modena in what is now Emilia-Romagna.  Although he ultimately had a disagreement with Giuseppe Garibaldi, the figurehead of the Italian Unification movement, Fanti is still regarded as one of the heroes of the Risorgimento, as a result of the military victories he engineered against the Austrians in the second war of independence, which liberated Lombardy from foreign control, and in the final push for unification in 1860.  Between the second and third wars of independence, after he had been appointed Minister of War in the Cavour government, Fanti organised the absorption of the army of the League of Central Italy into the Royal Sardinian Army, which he was later able to decree would take the name of the Royal Italian Army.  He also played a key role in the final push for unification.  As Garibaldi was leading his Expedition of the Thousand in the conquest of Sicily, Fanti led the simultaneous campaign in central Italy. Read more…

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Giovanni Battista de Rossi - archaeologist

Excavations unearthed massive Catacomb of St Callixtus

Giovanni Battista de Rossi, the archaeologist who revealed the whereabouts of lost Christian catacombs beneath Rome, was born on this day in 1822 in the Italian capital.  De Rossi’s most famous discovery – or rediscovery, to be accurate – of the Catacomb of St Callixtus, thought to have been created in the 2nd century by the future Pope Callixtus I, at that time a deacon of Rome, under the direction of Pope Zephyrinus, established him as the greatest archaeologist of the 19th century.  The vast underground cemetery, located beneath the Appian Way about 7km (4.3 miles) south of the centre of Rome, is estimated to have covered an area of 15 hectares on five levels, with around 20km (12.5 miles) of passageways.  It may have contained up to half a million corpses, including those of 16 popes and 50 Christian martyrs, from Pope Anicetus, who died in 166, to Damasus I, who was pontiff until 384. Nine of the popes were buried in a papal crypt.  The complex steadily fell into disuse thereafter and the most important relics were removed over the centuries and relocated to churches around Rome.  Read more…

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Gentile Bellini - Renaissance painter

Bellini family were Venice's leading 15th century artists

Gentile Bellini, a member of Venice's leading family of painters in the 15th century, died in Venice on this day in 1507.  He was believed to be in his late 70s, although the exact date of his birth was not recorded.  The son of Jacopo Bellini, who had been a pioneer in the use of oil paint in art, he was the brother of Giovanni Bellini and the brother-in-law of Andrea Mantegna.  Together, they were the founding family of the Venetian school of Renaissance art.  Although history tends to place Gentile in their shadow, he was considered in his time to be one of the greatest living painters in Venice and from 1454 he was the official portrait artist for the Doges of Venice.  He also served Venice as a cultural ambassador in Constantinople, where he was sent to work for Sultan Mehmed II as part of a peace settlement between Venice and Turkey.  Gentile learned painting in his father's studio.  Once established, he had no shortage of commissions, for portraits, views of the city, and for large paintings for public buildings, often characterised by multiple figures.  He was one of the artists hired by the Scuola Grande di San Giovanni Evangelista to paint a 10-painting cycle known as The Miracle of the Relics of the Cross.   Read more…

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Emanuele Notarbartolo - banker and politician

First major figure to be assassinated by Mafia

The banker and politician Emanuele Notarbartolo, whose determination to end corrupt banking practices in Sicily in the late 19th century would cost him his life, was born on this day in 1834 in Palermo.  Notarbartolo served as a conservative Mayor of Palermo from 1873 to 1876 and director of the Banco di Sicilia from 1876 to 1890.  He saved the bank from going bust by stamping down on the practice of doling out large and effectively unsecured loans to favoured individuals but in doing so made many enemies.  Having survived being kidnapped in 1882, Notarbartolo was stabbed to death in his first-class compartment on a train just outside Palermo, his body thrown out of the carriage on to the track side.  Although ultimately they were set free as the legal process broke down, Raffaele Palizzolo, a rival politician with Mafia connections as well as a fellow member of the Banco di Sicilia board, and a boss of the Villabate mafia clan, Giuseppe Fontana, were identified as being responsible for his death. Each was sentenced to 30 years in prison.  Murders involving members of the Cosa Nostra were commonplace but the victims were generally other mafiosi or associates.  Read more…

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John Keats – poet

Writer spent his final days in the Eternal City

English Romantic poet John Keats died on this day in Rome in 1821.  He had been a published writer for five years and had written some of his greatest work before leaving England.  Ode to a Nightingale, one of his most famous poems, was written in the spring of 1819 while he was sitting under a plum tree in an English garden.  Keats was just starting to be appreciated by the literary critics when tuberculosis took hold of him and he was advised by doctors to move to a warmer climate.  He arrived in Rome with his friend, Joseph Severn, in November 1820 after a long, gruelling journey.  Another friend had found them rooms in a house in Piazza di Spagna in the centre of Rome and they went past the Colosseum as they made their way there.  Keats slept in a room overlooking the Piazza and could hear the sound of the fountain outside, which may have inspired the words he later asked to be put on his tombstone.  To begin with he was well enough to go for walks along the Via del Corso and he enjoyed sitting on the Spanish Steps, but he was advised by his doctor against visiting the city’s main attractions.  Read more…

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Corrado Cagli - painter

Jewish artist who fought in World War II as a US soldier

The painter Corrado Cagli, one of the outstanding figures in the New Roman school that emerged in the early part of the 20th century, was born in Ancona on this day in 1910.  He moved with his family to Rome in 1915 at the age of five and by the age of 17 had created his first significant work, a mural painted on a building in Via Sistina, the street that links Piazza Barberini with the Spanish Steps in the historic centre of the city.  The following year he painted another mural inside a palazzo on the Via del Vantaggio, not far from Piazza del Popolo.  In 1932, he held his first personal exhibition at Rome’s Galleria d’Arte Moderna.  At this stage, despite being both Jewish and gay, Cagli had the support of the Fascist government, who commissioned him and others to produce mosaics and murals for public buildings.  Although he would go on to experiment in Neo-Cubist style and metaphysical styles, the aim of the Scuola Romana he sought to establish with fellow artists such as Giuseppe Capogrossi and Emanuele Cavalli was to reaffirm the principles of classical and Renaissance art.  Read more…

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Book of the Day: Risorgimento: The History of Italy from Napoleon to Nation-State, by Lucy Riall

The Risorgimento is considered to be the defining moment in Italy's history, the period where Italy became a nation and entered the modern world. Lucy Riall provides a provocative and pioneering examination of the historical debates surrounding this complex and controversial period, incorporating new research on national identity.  Well-written and articulately analysed, Risorgimento: The History of Italy from Napoleon to Nation-State offers readers an engaging and invaluable introduction to a complex and determinative component of Italian history, offering an outstanding synthesis of historical narrative and historical interpretation for those interested in the origins and trajectory of contemporary Italy.

Lucy Riall is an Irish historian. She was a professor of history at Birkbeck, University of London, and is currently a professor in the Department of History and Civilisation at the European University Institute in Florence. She has written or edited several books on Italian history. 

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Manfredo Fanti - military general

Risorgimento hero who founded Royal Italian Army

Manfredo Fanti's battlefield skills were vital to the unification campaign
Manfredo Fanti's battlefield skills
were vital to the unification campaign
The Italian general Manfredo Fanti, a key figure in the Italian Wars of Independence in the mid-19th century and the founder of the Royal Italian Army, was born on this day in 1806 in Carpi, a town about 20km (13 miles) northwest of Modena in what is now Emilia-Romagna.

Although he ultimately had a disagreement with Giuseppe Garibaldi, the figurehead of the Italian Unification movement, Fanti is still regarded as one of the heroes of the Risorgimento, as a result of the military victories he engineered against the Austrians in the second war of independence, which liberated Lombardy from foreign control, and against the Papal States and the Bourbons in the final push for unification in 1860.

Between the second and third wars of independence, after he had been appointed Minister of War in the Cavour government, Fanti organised the absorption of the army of the League of Central Italy into the Royal Sardinian Army, which he was later able to decree would take the name of the Royal Italian Army.

He also played a key role in freeing Italy from foreign domination and completing unification. As Garibaldi was leading his Expedition of the Thousand in the conquest of Sicily, Fanti led the simultaneous campaign in central Italy, winning significant victories against the armies of the Papal States and in the northern territories of the Bourbon-controlled Kingdom of the Two Sicilies.

Fanti grew up as a citizen of the Duchy of Modena and, in 1825, was admitted into the Pioneer Corps of the army of Duke Francesco IV d'Este. He studied at the military college in Modena, where he obtained a degree in engineering.

The Battle of Castelfidardo saw Fanti lead one of several key victories
The Battle of Castelfidardo saw Fanti
lead one of several key victories
Already drawn towards the vision of revolutionaries such as Giuseppe Mazzini and the growing Risorgimento movement, he took part in the uprising of 1830-31 in Modena before it was put down by the Austrian army, who condemned Fanti to be hanged. He escaped to France and later assisted the exiled Mazzini in his failed attempt to invade and capture the territories of Savoy.

He then moved to Spain, where he served in the army during a battle for power between the regent, Maria Cristina of Bourbon, and the supporters of Don Carlos, who felt he was the legitimate heir to the late King Ferdinand VII, before returning to Italy in 1848 to fight against the Austrians, who controlled most of northern Italy at the time. 

Assisted by French troops, he commanded a Lombard brigade of the Sardinian-Piedmontese Army, distinguishing himself on the battlefield with courage and tactical astuteness to win key victories at Palestro, Magenta, and Solferino in the Second Italian War of Independence, which ended with the Armistice of Villafranca and the return of Lombardy to Italian rule, along with most of the northern Italian states, although the Austrians initially retained control of Venetia.

Fanti supported but later had a disagreement with Garibaldi
Fanti supported but later had a
disagreement with Garibaldi
Fanti then organised the army of the Central Italian League, which included Tuscany, Modena, Parma, and Romagna, and prepared it for the annexation by Piedmont, the leading state of the Italian unification movement. 

In January 1860 , Camillo Count of Cavour, who returned to his position as prime minister of Sardinia-Piedmont after resigning following the Villafranca armistice, made Fanti his Minister for War and the Navy.

When the Expedition of the Thousand began in May, Fanti was appointed head of the army corps in central Italy. He again was an important figure on the battlefield, playing a significant part in the Battle of Castelfidardo and in the conquest of Perugia, which led to the Piedmontese annexation of Papal State territories in Marche and Umbria. 

He then became general of the army and chief of staff of the army in southern Italy, defeating the Bourbons at Mola and organising the successful siege of the fortress at Gaeta. 

Fanti's opposition to the admission of  5,000 officers of Garibaldi's volunteers into the new Royal Italian Army, with no loss of rank, was one of the reasons for his resignation from the army and government in June 1861, although the death of Cavour was also a factor.

He agreed to return the following year, taking command of an army corps in Florence, but fell ill soon afterwards. He died in Florence in April 1865 at the age of 59. His body was returned to Carpi, where he is buried in the Cathedral Basilica of Santa Maria Assunta.  There is a monument to Fanti in Piazza San Marco in Florence by the sculptor Pio Fedi, erected in 1873.

The Cathedral Basilica of Santa Maria Assunta in Carpi, where Manfredo Fandi is buried
The Cathedral Basilica of Santa Maria Assunta
in Carpi, where Manfredo Fandi is buried 
Travel tip:

Carpi, which sits in the Padana plain, the area of flat and fertile land through which the Po river flows, became a wealthy town during the era of industrial development in Italy as a centre for textiles and mechanical engineering. Its historic centre, which features a town hall housed in a former castle, is based around the Renaissance square, the Piazza Martiri, the third largest square in Italy, which is surrounded by historical buildings such as the Palazzo Pio di Savoia, the Cathedral Basilica of Santa Maria Assunta, and the Teatro Comunale. The Palazzo Pio di Savoia houses the Museum of the Deportation, dedicated to the victims of the Nazi concentration camps, and the Museum of the City, which displays artworks and artefacts from Carpi’s past. Carpi was a major centre of the Italian Resistance movement in World War Two and there is a memorial at the site of the former Fossoli concentration camp, where thousands of Jews, political prisoners, and resistance fighters were detained and deported.

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The monumental sculpture in Castelfidardo that commemorates the 1860 battle
The monumental sculpture in Castelfidardo
that commemorates the 1860 battle 
Travel tip:

Castelfidardo, which can be found about 21km (13 miles) south of the port of Ancona in the Marche region, is a charming hill town with a historical significance. It is renowned as the home of the accordion, which was actually patented in Austria in 1829 but underwent substantial redesign in Castelfidardo, where production of the instrument began in the late 19th century with the establishment of a factory opened by Paolo Soprani, who had bought one of the Austrian models after realising its potential. At one time 51,000 accordions were manufactured in the town in a single year, although production declined after World War Two as musical tastes changed. Nonetheless, it is still home to half of the accordion factories in the whole of Italy. There is inevitably an Accordion Museum, while the Monument of the Battle of Castelfidardo is commemorated with a dramatic monumental sculpture in the town’s Parco delle Rimembranze, by the Venetian sculptor Vito Pardo, which depicts in bronze a charge of infantrymen led by a figure on horseback descending from a mountain of white travertine boulders. 

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More reading:

How the Battle of Solferino led to the founding of the Red Cross

Why Mazzini was the ideological inspiration for Italian unification

The Frenchman who called for Italians to unite as a single people

Also on this day:

1507: The death of Renaissance painter Gentile Bellini

1821: The death in Rome of English poet John Keats

1822: The birth of archaeologist Giovanni Battista de Rossi

1834: The birth of ill-fated Sicilian banker Emanuele Notarbartolo 

1910: The birth of painter Corrado Cagli

(Picture credits: Carpi basilica by Attilios; Castelfidardo sculpture by Ermanon; via Wikimedia Commons)

(Painting of Battle of Castelfidardo by Giovanni Gallucci, Palazzo Comunale, Ancona)



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22 February 2024

22 February

Enrico Piaggio - industrialist

Former aircraft manufacturer famed for Italy's iconic Vespa motor scooter

Enrico Piaggio, born on this day in 1905 in the Pegli area of Genoa, was destined to be an industrialist, although he could not have envisaged the way in which his company would become a world leader.  Charged with rebuilding the family business after Allied bombers destroyed the company's major factories during World War II, Enrico Piaggio decided to switch from manufacturing aircraft to building motorcycles, an initiative from which emerged one of Italy's most famous symbols, the Vespa scooter.  The original Piaggio business, set up by his father, Rinaldo in 1884, in the Sestri Ponente district of Genoa, provided fittings for luxury ships built in the thriving port. As the business grew, Rinaldo moved into building locomotives and rolling stock for the railways, diversifying again with the outbreak of World War I, when the company began producing aircraft.  In 1917 the company bought a new plant in Pisa and in 1921 another in nearby Pontedera, which became a major centre for the production of aircraft engines and is still the headquarters of Piaggio today.   Aeroplanes remained the focus of the business, which Enrico and his brother, Armando, inherited with the death of their father in 1938.  Read more…

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Renato Dulbecco - Nobel Prize-winning physiologist

Research led to major breakthrough in knowledge of cancer

Renato Dulbecco, a physiologist who shared the 1975 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his role in drawing a link between genetic mutations and cancer, was born on this day in 1914 in Catanzaro in Calabria.  Through a series of experiments that began in the late 1950s after he had emigrated to the United States, Dulbecco and two colleagues showed that certain viruses could insert their own genes into infected cells and trigger uncontrolled cell growth, a hallmark of cancer.  Their findings transformed the course of cancer research, laying the groundwork for the linking of several viruses to human cancers, including the human papilloma virus, which is responsible for most cervical cancers.  The discovery also provided the first tangible evidence that cancer was caused by genetic mutations, a breakthrough that changed the way scientists thought about cancer and the effects of carcinogens such as tobacco smoke.  Dulbecco, who shared the Nobel Prize with California Institute of Technology (Caltech) colleagues Howard Temin and David Baltimore, then examined how viruses use DNA to store their genetic information.  Read more…

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Giovanni Zenatello - opera singer and director

Tenor star who turned Verona’s ancient Arena into major venue

The early 20th century opera star Giovanni Zenatello, who was not only a highly accomplished performer on stages around the world but also the driving force behind the establishment of the Arena di Verona as a major venue, was born on this day in 1876 in Verona.  Zenatello spent a large part of his career in the United States but is remembered with enormous respect in Italy - and in particular in his home city - for having teamed up with impresario Ottone Rivato and others to put on a spectacular staging of Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida at the Arena in 1913, the first operatic production of the century to take place within the remains of the Roman amphitheatre and the forerunner of hundreds more.  The tenor was already an important figure in Italian opera for his interpretations of Verdi’s Otello and most of the other dramatic or heroic leading male roles in the popular works of the day.  He had also been the first to sing the role of Pinkerton in Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly.  Zenatello initially trained as a baritone and when he made his professional stage debut in Belluno in 1898, taking on the roles of Silvio in Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci and Alfio in Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana, it was as a baritone.  Read more…

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Mario Pavesi – entrepreneur

Biscuit maker who gave Italian motorists the Autogrill

Italy lost one of its most important postwar entrepreneurs when Mario Pavesi died on this day in 1990.  Pavesi, originally from the town of Cilavegna in the province of Pavia in Lombardy, not only founded the Pavesi brand, famous for Pavesini and Ringo biscuits among other lines, but also set up Italy’s first motorway service areas under the name of Autogrill.  Always a forward-thinking businessman, Pavesi foresaw the growing influence American ideas would have on Italy during the rebuilding process in the wake of the Second World War and the way that Italians would embrace road travel once the country developed its own motorway network.  He was one of the first Italian entrepreneurs to take full advantage of advertising opportunities in the press, radio, cinema and later television.  Born in 1909 into a family of bakers, Pavesi moved to Novara in 1934, opening a pastry shop in Corso Cavour, where he sold a range of cakes and confectionery and served coffee. During the next few years, until Italy became embroiled in the war, he expanded the business in several ways.  Read more…

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Giulietta Masina - actress

Married to Fellini and excelled in his films

The actress Giulietta Masina, who was married for 50 years to the film director Federico Fellini, was born on this day in 1921 in San Giorgio di Piano, a small town in Emilia-Romagna, about 20km (12 miles) north of Bologna.  She appeared in 22 films, six of them directed by her husband, who gave her the lead female role opposition Anthony Quinn in La strada (1954) and enabled her to win international acclaim when he cast her as a prostitute in the 1957 film Nights of Cabiria, which built on a small role she had played in an earlier Fellini movie, The White Sheik.  Masina's performance in what was a controversial film at the time earned her best actress awards at the film festivals of Cannes and San Sebastián and from the Italian National Syndicate of Film Journalists (SNGCI).  Both La strada and Nights of Cabiria won Oscars for best foreign film at the Academy Awards.  Masina also won best actress in the David di Donatello awards for the title role in Fellini's Juliet of the Spirits (1965) and a second SNGCI best actress award for his 1986 film Ginger and Fred.  Although born in northern Italy, one of four children, her parents sent her to live with a widowed aunt in Via Lutezia in the Parioli area of Rome.  Read more…

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Book of the Day: The Scooter Bible: The Ultimate History and Encyclopedia, by Eric Dregni

Beginning with the first motor scooter in 1902, Eric Dregni is your guide to everything from the postwar American scooter boom to the golden age of Italian and European scooters, the rise of Mod scooter culture in England, right up to modern electric scooters.  Today, nostalgia for vintage Vespas, Piaggios, Cushmans, Lambrettas, and other top brands drive a new thirst for retro-inspired scooters in showrooms around the world. This revised and updated edition of The Scooter Bible brings the story up to date with the drive for zero emissions via electric vehicles. Throughout, author Eric Dregni offers you a wealth of imagery: historic black-and-white photos, evocative period advertisements and manufacturer photos in more than 500 images. Along the way, he also shows you scooter evolution, changing technologies, and scooter appearances in popular culture.  As the most comprehensive scooter book ever, The Scooter Bible also includes the world’s most exhaustive encyclopedia of scooter brands, from Puddlejumper to Piaggio, Ducati to Doodlebug, and Zündapp Bella to Genuine Stella. Scooters are mechanical marvels on two wheels - mutant oddballs of Jet Age styling gone berserk, innovative inventions shoehorned like sardines into miniaturized monocoque bodies. They are all here in The Scooter Bible.

Eric Dregni is an associate professor of English and Journalism at Concordia University in Saint Paul, Minnesota, where he teaches writing. He has written or co-written travel memoirs and essays about Minnesota, Norway, and Italy, as well as guidebooks and books on popular culture.

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21 February 2024

21 February

Giuseppe Abbati - painter and revolutionary

Early death robbed Italian art of bright new talent

Italy lost a great artistic talent tragically young when the painter and patriot Giuseppe Abbati died on this day in 1868.  Only 32 years old, Abbati passed away in the hospital of Santa Maria Nuova in Florence, having contracted rabies as a result of being bitten by a dog.  Abbati was a leading figure in the Macchiaioli movement, a school of painting advanced by a small group of artists who began to meet at the Caffè Michelangiolo in Florence in the late 1850s.  The group, in which Giovanni Fattori, Silvestro Lega and Cristiano Banti were other prominent members, were also for the most part revolutionaries, many of whom had taken part in the uprisings that occurred at different places in the still-to-be-united Italian peninsula in 1848.  Abbati, born in Naples, had joined Giuseppe Garibaldi's Expedition of the Thousand, losing his right eye in the Battle of the Volturno in 1860, when around 24,000 partisans were confronted by a 50,000-strong Bourbon army at Capua, north of Naples.  The son of Vincenzo Abbati, also a painter, Abbati was taken to live in Florence when he was six and to Venice before he was 10.  Read more…

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Domenico Ghirardelli – chocolatier

Built famous US business with skills learned in Genoa

The chocolatier Domenico Ghirardelli, founder of the Ghirardelli Chocolate Company in San Francisco, was born on this day in 1817 in a village just outside Rapallo in Liguria.  Also known as Domingo, Ghirardelli arrived in San Francisco in 1849 during the rapid expansion years of the Gold Rush, having spent the previous 10 years or so in Peru, where he had run a successful confectionery business.  After making money as a merchant, initially ferrying supplies to prospectors in the gold fields, he set up his first chocolate factory in 1852, drawing on the skills he acquired as an apprentice in Genoa.  By the end of the century, the Ghirardelli Chocolate Company was one of the city’s most successful businesses, with a prestige headquarters on North Point Street, a short distance from Fisherman’s Wharf, in a group of buildings that became known as Ghirardelli Square.  The son of a spice importer, Ghirardelli was born in the village of Santa Anna, just outside Rapallo, about 25km (16 miles) along the Ligurian coast from Genoa, in the direction of La Spezia to the southeast.  His father wanted him to have a trade and once he had reached his teens sent him to be an apprentice at a confectioner in Genoa.  Read more…

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Raimondo Montecuccoli – military leader

Brilliant tactician outwitted his opponents

Raimondo, Count of Montecuccoli, a soldier, strategist and military reformer who served the Habsburgs with distinction during the Thirty Years’ War, was born on this day in 1609 in Pavullo nel Frignano in the Duchy of Modena and Reggio.  As well as being Count of Montecuccoli, Raimondo also became a Prince of the Holy Roman Empire and the Duke of Melfi in the Kingdom of Naples.  He was born in the Castle of Montecuccolo in Pavullo nel Frignano near Modena and at the age of 16 began serving as a soldier under the command of his uncle, Count Ernest Montecuccoli, who was a General in the Austrian army.  After four years of active service in Germany and the Low Countries, Raimondo became a Captain of Infantry.  He was wounded at the storming of new Brandenburg and at the first Battle of Breitenfeld, where he was captured by Swedish soldiers.  After being wounded again at Lutzen in 1632 he was made a major in his uncle’s regiment. He then became a lieutenant–colonel of cavalry.  At the storming of Kaiserslautern in 1635 he led a brilliant charge and was rewarded by being made a colonel.  Read more…

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Death of Pope Julius II

Pope who commissioned Michelangelo for Sistine Chapel

Pope Julius II, who was nicknamed ‘the Warrior Pope’, died on this day in 1513 in Rome.  As well as conducting military campaigns during his papacy he was responsible for the destruction and rebuilding of St Peter’s Basilica and commissioning Michelangelo to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.  He is also remembered by students of British history as being the Pope who gave Henry VIII dispensation to marry Catherine of Aragon, his brother’s widow.  Born Giuliano della Rovere, he was the nephew of Francesco della Rovere, who became Pope Sixtus IV.  His uncle sent him to be educated by the Franciscans and he was made a Bishop soon after his Uncle became Pope.  He later became Cardinal Priest of San Pietro in Vincoli in Rome and was very influential in the College of Cardinals.  One of his major rivals was Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia, who was elected Pope Alexander VI in 1492. After accusing him of corruption, Della Rovere retreated from Rome until Alexander died in 1503.  He was succeeded by Pope Pius III who died less than a month after becoming Pope and Della Rovere was finally elected as Pope Julius II in November 1503.  Read more…

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Book of the Day: From Realism to Art Nouveau, by Laura Lombardi

From Realism to Art Nouveau traces the roots of modern art, beginning with Realist paintings such as Courbet's The Stonebreakers and Millet's The Gleaners - works that shocked mid19th-century Paris with their unblinking depiction of the lives of the poor. Realism was followed in rapid succession by Naturalism, the Pre-Raphaelites, Impressionism, Neo-Impressionism, Aestheticism, Symbolism and Art Nouveaus. Changing styles in art reflected the enormous changes taking place in the wider world. From Realism to Art Nouveau beautifully captures this turbulent era with an incisive text and breathtaking reproductions of works by Manet, Rossetti, Sargent, Monet, Seurat, Cézanne, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Rodin, Klimt and others.

Laura Lombardi teaches the Phenomenology of Contemporary Arts at the Academy of Fine Arts in Florence. A member of SISCA (Italian Society of the History of Art Criticism), she has written for many years for the monthly magazine The Art Newspaper and is the author of a number of books. 

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20 February 2024

20 February

The Barber of Seville premieres in Rome

Rival fans wreck debut of Rossini’s most famous opera

The Barber of Seville, the work that would come to be seen as Gioachino Rossini’s masterpiece of comic opera, was performed for the first time on this day in 1816 at the Teatro Argentina in Rome.  Commissioned by the theatre’s owner, Duke Francesco Sforza-Cesarini, it had a libretto by Cesare Sterbini based on the French comedy play Le Barbier de Séville and was originally entitled Almaviva or The Useless Precaution, out of deference to Giovanni Paisiello, the most popular composer in Italy in the 18th century, whose own version of Il barbiere di Siviglia had been very successful.  The second part of the same text, by Pierre Beaumarchais, was behind Mozart’s opera The Marriage of Figaro, which premiered four years after Paisiello’s.  Nonetheless, Paisiello’s loyal fans saw Rossini’s opera as an attempt to steal their favourite’s thunder, whatever name he gave it, and organised what was nothing short of an act of sabotage, packing the theatre on opening night and proceeding to jeer, shout and catcall throughout the whole performance, unsettling the cast and leading to a number of mishaps on stage.   Read more…

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Francesco Maria II della Rovere - the last Duke of Urbino

Last male in famous family line

Francesco Maria II della Rovere, the last holder of the title Duke of Urbino and the last surviving male from a famous noble family, was born on this day in 1549 in Pesaro in Le Marche.  Descended from the 15th century Pope Sixtus IV, Francesco Maria II’s only male heir, Federico Ubaldo della Rovere, died without fathering a son, which meant the Duchy reverted to Francesco Maria II, who in turn was convinced he should give it to Pope Urban VIII, of the Barberini family.  Federico’s daughter, Vittoria della Rovere, had been convinced she would be made Duchess of Urbino but had to be content with the Duchies of Rovere and Montefeltro, as well as an art collection that became the property of Florence after she had married Ferdinando II de’ Medici.  Pope Sixtus IV, best known for building the Sistine Chapel in the Apostolic Palace, the official papal residence in Vatican City, had come from a poor family in Savona in Liguria, but once elected pope became wealthy and powerful and set about ensuring that his personal prosperity was used to the betterment of his family.  He soon made his nephews Giuliano della Rovere (the future Pope Julius II) and Pietro Riario both cardinals and bishops.  Read more…

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Ferruccio Lamborghini - car maker

Tractor manufacturer inspired by Enzo Ferrari's 'insult'

Fans on one side of a great rivalry in Italy's performance car market were in mourning on this day in 1993 following the death at the age of 76 of Ferruccio Lamborghini.  Lamborghini, who made his fortune from building tractors to service Italy's post-war agricultural recovery, set up as a car maker in 1963 in direct competition with Enzo Ferrari, who had been selling sports cars with increasing success since 1947.  It is said there was no love lost between the two, not least because they first met when Lamborghini turned up at Ferrari's factory in Maranello, a few kilometres from Modena, to complain to Enzo in person that Ferrari were using inferior parts.  Lamborghini had become a collector of fast cars and owned a Mercedes-Benz 300SL, a Jaguar E-Type and two Maserati 3500 GTs among others.  He acquired his first Ferrari, a two-seater 250GT with bodywork designed by Pinin Farina, in 1958, and went on to own several more.  He was generally unimpressed, complaining that they were noisy and rough and essentially re-purposed track cars, with too little luxury refinement.  Read more…

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Laura Bassi – scientist

Ground-breaking academic paved the way for women

Brilliant physicist Laura Bassi died on this day in 1778 in Bologna.  She had enjoyed a remarkable career, becoming the first woman to earn a Chair in Science at a university anywhere in the world.  When she was just 13 her family’s physician had recognised her potential and took charge of her education.  When she was 20 he invited philosophers from the University of Bologna along with the Archbishop of Bologna, who later became Pope Benedict XIV, to examine her progress.  They were all impressed and Bassi was admitted to the Bologna Academy of Sciences as an honorary member, the first female ever to be allowed to join.  Her theses at the university showed influences of Isaac Newton’s work on optics and light. She was a key figure in introducing his ideas about physics to Italy.  When she received her degree from the university there was a public celebration in Bologna.  Another of her theses about the property of water led to her being awarded the post of Professor of Physics at the university.  As a woman, she was not allowed to teach at the university so she gave lessons and did experiments in her own home.  Read more…

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The Battle of Parabiago

When Visconti fought Visconti for control of Milan

One of the bloodiest battles of the 14th century took place on this day near the village of Parabiago, about 20km (12 miles) northwest of Milan.  The Battle of Parabiago in 1339 saw the armies of Azzone Visconti, the ruler of Milan, defeat an attempt to unseat him by his exiled uncle, Lodrisio Visconti, leader of a mercenary army named the Compagnia di San Giorgio - the Company of St George.  In 1311, Lodrisio had helped Matteo Visconti and his son Galeazzo regain the rulership of Milan from the Della Torre family, who had previously held power in the city but was later instrumental in imprisoning Galeazzo and his son, Azzone, as part of a power struggle. When Galeazzo and Azzone ultimately escaped, Lodrisio fled.  Initially holding up in his castle at Seprio, about 38km (24 miles) northwest of Milan, near the city of Varese, he was besieged by soldiers led by Azzone, who destroyed the castle but failed to capture Lodrisio.  In exile, Lodrisio became a condottiero - a mercenary military leader - and found employment with the Della Scala family of Verona, also known as the Scaligeri, who controlled much of the area that today makes up Veneto, with the exception of Venice, as well as the key strategic cities and surrounding territories of Brescia in Lombardy, Parma in Emilia-Romagna and Lucca in northern Tuscany.  Read more…

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Book of the Day: The Life of Rossini, by Stendhal. Translated by Richard N Coe

Rossini’s success in Italy in the early 1820s was certainly not echoed in France, where he was regarded as “an ill-bred parvenu, whose cheap popularity was an insult to a great musical tradition”. Stendhal was the first of his contemporaries to recognize the genius of this important Italian composer. Besides being a fascinating and penetrating account of the Italian composer’s most creative years, and of contemporary musical events and opinions, this work is one of the finest items in the Stendhalian literary canon. Details of Rossini’s early life are followed by penetrating discussions of the operas, libretti, personalities of the period and Rossini’s own character. Stendhal's Life of Rossini is a captivating biography of the composer, a vivid picture of Rossini's life, career, and artistic output and a  must-read for anyone interested in music history or classical music.

Marie-Henri Beyle (1783-1842), better known by his pen name Stendhal, was a 19th-century French writer. Known for his acute analysis of his characters' psychology, he is considered one of the earliest and foremost practitioners of realism, as is evident in the novels Le Rouge et le Noir (The Red and the Black, 1830) and La Chartreuse de Parme (The Charterhouse of Parma, 1839).  Richard N Coe (1923–87) taught French and Comparative Literature at various universities in the UK and Australia, and was the author of books on Ionesco, Beckett and Genet. His greatest achievement as a translator was the monumental Life of Rossini by Stendhal.

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