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…


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…


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…


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…


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…


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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