19 March 2024

19 March

Giuseppe Mercalli - seismologist

Scientist who invented Mercalli Scale died in fire

The seismologist and volcanologist Giuseppe Mercalli, who at the time of his death was director of the Vesuvius Observatory, died in a fire at his home in Naples on this day in 1914.  The initial suspicion was that Mercalli, who devised a scale for determining the strength of earthquakes according to the intensity of shaking, had knocked over a paraffin lamp accidentally after falling asleep while working late.  However, an examination of his remains suggested he may have been strangled after disturbing an intruder, who then soaked his clothes in petrol before setting light to them. A sum of money worth the equivalent of $1,400 (€1,250) today was missing, although no one was ever apprehended for the crime.  Born in Milan, Mercalli was ordained a Roman Catholic priest and became a professor of Natural Sciences at the seminary of Milan, although he left under something of a cloud because of his support for Antonio Rosmini, a controversial priest and philosopher who campaigned for social justice and was fiercely critical of various aspects of how the Roman Catholic church operated.  Read more…


Filippo Mazzei – physician and businessman

Liberal thinker was praised by John F Kennedy

Globe-trotting doctor Filippo Mazzei, who was a close friend of the American president, Thomas Jefferson, died on this day in 1816 in Pisa in Tuscany.  During the American Revolutionary War, Mazzei had acted as an agent for Jefferson, purchasing arms for Virginia.  President John F Kennedy paid tribute to Mazzei’s contribution to the Declaration of Independence in his book, A Nation of Immigrants.  Mazzei was born in 1730 in Poggio a Caiano in Tuscany. He studied medicine in Florence and then practised in both Italy and Turkey. He moved to London in 1755 and set himself up in business as an importer, while also working as an Italian teacher.  In London he met both Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, who would become two of the Founding Fathers, and came up with the idea of importing Tuscan products, such as wine and olive trees, to the New World.  In 1773 Mazzei boarded a ship from Livorno to Virginia, taking with him plants, seeds, silkworms and farmers from Lucca.  He visited Jefferson at his estate in Virginia and was given a large piece of land to start an experimental plantation.  Mazzei and Jefferson started what was to become the first commercial vineyard in Virginia.  Read more…


Benito Jacovitti - cartoonist

Multiple comic characters loved by generations

Benito Jacovitti, who would become Italy's most famous cartoonist, was born on this day in 1923 in the Adriatic coastal town of Termoli.  Jacovitti drew for a number of satirical magazines and several newspapers but also produced much work aimed at children and young adults.  His characters became the constant companions of generations of schoolchildren for more than 30 years via the pages of Diario Vitt, the school diary produced by the publishers of the Catholic comic magazine Il Vittorioso, which had a huge readership among teenagers and young adults, and for which Jacovitti drew from 1939 until it closed in 1969.  Jacovitti gave life to such characters as "the three Ps" - Pippo, Pertica and Pallo - as well as Chicchiriccì and Jack Mandolino via their cartoon adventures in Il Vittorioso, introduced Zorry Kid, a parody of Zorro, through a later association with children's journal Il Corriere del Picoli, and the cowboy Cocco Bill, who emerged during his 10-year stint as cartoonist for the daily newspaper, Il Giorno.  Born Benito Franco Iacovitti, he was the son of a railway worker.  Read more…


Festa del Papà - Father’s Day

Italian celebration always takes place on 19 March

Today in Italy is a celebration day in honour of the nation’s fathers.  La Festa del Papà - Italy’s equivalent of Father’s Day - owes its history to La Festa di San Giuseppe - St Joseph’s Day - the annual celebration that has been held since the Middle Ages to recognise the role of Joseph, the husband of Mary, as the legal if not the biological father of Jesus Christ.  In Catholic tradition, Saint Joseph is the embodiment of the ideal father, a strong, pious character perfectly suited to fulfil his role as protector of and provider for his family.  For many years, the Festa di San Giuseppe - which always falls on March 19, regardless of whether it is a weekday or a weekend - remained a largely religious celebration. But, thanks to the growth of commercialism around family celebration days, it has taken a lead from Father’s Days around the world, and in particular the United States, and expanded into something bigger.  So nowadays, in common with Father’s Days around the world, La Festa del Papà is an occasion for children to show their appreciation and affection for their own fathers by making cards and giving treats and gifts.  Read more…


Francesco Gasparini – musician and writer

Opera composer who gave Vivaldi a job

Francesco Gasparini, one of the great Baroque composers, whose works were performed all over Europe, was born on this day in 1661 in Camaiore near Lucca in Tuscany.  Gasparini also worked as a music teacher and was musical director of the Ospedale della Pietà in Venice for about 15 years, where he made the inspired decision to employ a 25-year-old Antonio Vivaldi as a violin master.  By the age of 17, Gasparini was a member of the Philharmonic Academy of Bologna. He moved to Rome, where he studied under the musicians Arcangelo Corelli and Bernardo Pasquini. His first important opera, Roderico, was produced there in 1694.  After arriving in Venice in 1702, he became one of the leading composers in the city. He wrote the first opera to use the story of Hamlet - Ambleto - in 1705, although he did not base the work on Shakespeare’s play.  Gasparini was appointed musical director of the Ospedale della Pietà, an orphanage in Venice where young girls received a musical education. The most talented pupils stayed on to become members of the Ospedale’s orchestra and choir.  Read more…


Mario Monti – prime minister

‘Super Mario’ stepped in during debt crisis

Economist Mario Monti, who was prime minister of Italy from 2011 to 2013, was born on this day in 1943 in Varese in Lombardy.  Monti was invited by Italian president Giorgio Napolitano to form a new government after the resignation of Silvio Berlusconi in November 2011 in the middle of the European debt crisis.  Monti, who was the 54th prime minister of Italy, led a government of technocrats, who introduced austerity measures in Italy.  Monti was born in Varese and, after attending a private school, went to Bocconi University in Milan, where he obtained a degree in Economics.  He was a European commissioner from 1994 to 1999, where he obtained the nickname ‘Super Mario’ from his colleagues and the Press.  In 1999 the prime minister at the time, Massimo D’Alema, appointed him to the new Prodi Commission, giving him responsibility for Competition.  He was made a lifetime senator by Giorgio Napolitano in November 2011 and a few days later he was invited to form a new government following Berlusconi’s resignation.  He appointed a technocratic cabinet composed entirely of unelected professionals.  Read more…


Book of the Day: Vesuvius - A Biography, by Alwyn Scarth

Capricious, vibrant, and volatile, Vesuvius has been and remains one of the world's most dangerous volcanoes. In its rage, it has destroyed whole cities and buried thousands alive. In its calm, its ashes have fertilized the soil, providing for the people who have lived in its shadows. For over two millennia, the dynamic presence of this volcano has fascinated scientists, artists, writers, and thinkers, and inspired religious fervor, Roman architecture, and Western literature. In Vesuvius, Alwyn Scarth draws from the latest research, classical and eyewitness accounts, and a diverse range of other sources to tell the riveting story of this spectacular natural phenomenon.  Scarth follows Vesuvius across time, examining the volcano's destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum in 79 AD, its eruptions during the Counter-Reformation that were viewed as God's punishment of sinners, and the building of the world's first volcano observatory on Vesuvius in the 1840s. Scarth explores the volcano's current position overlooking a population of more than three million people and the complex attitudes maintained by the residents, at once reverent, protective, and fearful. He also considers the next major eruption of Vesuvius, which experts have indicated could be the most powerful since 1631. The longer Vesuvius remains dormant, the more violent its reawakening will be, and despite scientific advances for predicting when this might occur, more people are vulnerable than ever before. Exploring this celebrated wonder from scientific, historical, and cultural perspectives, Vesuvius provides a colorful portrait of a formidable force of nature.

Alwyn Scarth, born in West Yorkshire and a graduate of St Catherine's College, Cambridge, taught geography for many years at Queen’s College, St Andrews University (from 1967, University of Dundee). His research focused primarily on volcanoes. Following early retirement in 1993 he published several books, including Volcanoes (1994), Savage Earth (1997), Vulcan’s Fury (1999) and La Catastrophe (2002) as well as Vesuvius: A Biography (2009).

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