15 April 2024

15 April

Filippo Brunelleschi – architect

Genius who designed the largest brick dome ever constructed

One of the founding fathers of the Renaissance, Filippo Brunelleschi died on this day in 1446 in Florence.  He is remembered for developing a technique for linear perspective in art and for building the dome of Florence Cathedral.  However, his achievements also included sculpture, mathematics, engineering and ship design.  Brunelleschi was born in 1377 in Florence. According to his biographer, Antonio Manetti, and the historian Giorgio Vasari, his father was Brunellesco di Lippo, a notary. Filippo’s education would have equipped him to follow in his father’s footsteps but because he was artistically inclined he was enrolled in the silk merchants guild, which also included goldsmiths and metal workers, and he became a master goldsmith in 1398.  In 1401 he entered a competition to design a new set of bronze doors for the Baptistery in Florence. His entry and that of Lorenzo Ghiberti are the only two to have survived.  In the first few years of the 15th century, Brunelleschi and his friend, Donatello, visited Rome together to study the ancient ruins. It is believed they were the first to study the physical fabric of the ruins in any detail.  Read more…

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Giovanni Amendola - journalist and politician

Liberal writer died following attack by Mussolini’s thugs

Giovanni Amendola, a dedicated opponent of Fascism, was born on this day in 1882 in Naples in southern Italy.  As a critic of the right wing extremists in Italy, Amendola had to suffer a series of attacks by hired thugs. He endured a particularly brutal beating in 1925 by 15 Blackshirts armed with clubs near Montecatini Terme in Tuscany and he later died as a result of his injuries, becoming one of the earliest victims of the Fascist regime.  Amendola had obtained a degree in philosophy and contributed to the newspapers, Il Leonardo and La Voce, expressing his philosophical and ideological views. He was given the chair of theoretical philosophy at the University of Pisa but, attracted by politics, he stood for parliament and was elected to the Chamber of Deputies three times to represent Salerno.  He began contributing to Il Resto di Carlino and Corriere della Sera, urging Italy’s entry into World War I in 1915. He then fought as a volunteer, reaching the rank of captain and winning a medal for valour.  Amendola supported the Italian Liberal movement but was completely against the ideology of prime minister Giovanni Giolitti.  Read more…

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Leonardo da Vinci – painter and inventor

Artist regarded as most talented individual ever to have lived

Leonardo da Vinci, painter, draughtsman, sculptor, architect and engineer, was born on this day in 1452 near Vinci in Tuscany.  Leonardo’s genius epitomises the Renaissance ideal of possessing all-round accomplishments and his wall painting of The Last Supper and portrait of the Mona Lisa are among the most popular and influential artworks of all time.  His surviving notebooks reveal a spirit of scientific enquiry and a mechanical inventiveness that were centuries ahead of their time.  Leonardo received an elementary education but must have shown early artistic inclinations because his father apprenticed him to Andrea del Verrocchio in Florence when he was 15, in whose workshop he was trained in painting and sculpting. There are many superb pen and pencil drawings still in existence from this period, including sketches of military weapons and apparatus.  Some of Leonardo’s drawings have been widely reproduced over the centuries and are now even used on T-shirts and coins.  Leonardo moved to Milan in 1482 to work for the Duke, Ludovico Sforza, where he was listed as both a court painter and engineer. In addition to his works of art, he designed court festivals and advised on architecture and fortifications.  Read more…

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Italy’s first nuclear reactor opens

Facility based on pioneer Enrico Fermi’s historic Chicago-Pile series

The first nuclear reactor to be built on Italian soil was inaugurated on this day in 1959 at Ispra, a small town on the eastern shore of Lago Maggiore.  The facility, which preceded the first generation of nuclear power plants serving the need for clean, reliable and plentiful electricity sources for industrial and domestic use, was built purely for research purposes.  It was opened four years ahead of the country’s first commercial nuclear plant, at Latina in Lazio.  The 5 megawatt Ispra-1 research reactor, as it was titled, was modelled on the latest version of the Chicago-Pile 5 series developed by Enrico Fermi, the Rome-born nuclear physicist who created the world’s first nuclear reactor, the Chicago-Pile 1, following his discovery that if uranium neutrons were emitted into fissioning uranium, they could split other uranium atoms, setting off a chain reaction that would release enormous amounts of energy.  The Ispra-1 reactor was built by Italy’s National Nuclear Research Council. It was officially transferred to the European Community in March 1961, becoming a Joint Research Centre (JRC) of the European Commission.  Read more…

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Jacopo Riccati – mathematician

Venetian nobleman who was fascinated by Maths

Respected mathematician Jacopo Francesco Riccati, who had an equation named after him, died on this day in 1754 in Treviso.  He had devoted his life to the study of mathematical analysis, turning down many prestigious academic posts offered to him. He is chiefly remembered for the Riccati differential equation, which he spent many years studying.  Riccati was born in 1676 in Venice. His father, Conte Montino Riccati, was from a noble family of landowners and his mother was from the powerful Colonna family. His father died when Riccati was only ten years old, leaving him a large estate at Castelfranco Veneto.  Riccati was educated first at the Jesuit school for the nobility in Brescia and in 1693 went to the University of Padua to study law.  After receiving a doctorate in law in 1696 he began to study mathematical analysis.  He was invited to Russia by Peter the Great to be president of the St Petersburg Academy of Sciences, also to Vienna to be an imperial councillor, and he was offered a professorship at the University of Padua, but he declined them all, preferring to remain on his estate with his family studying on his own.  Read more…

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Book of the Day: Brunelleschi: Studies of His Technology and Inventions, by Frank D Prager and Gustina Scaglia

A pioneer of Italian Renaissance architecture, Filippo Brunelleschi (1377–1446) is most famous for his daring and original ideas, among them the magnificent dome of Florence's famed cathedral - Santa Maria del Fiore. For the project, which was started in 1420 and substantially completed by 1434, Brunelleschi designed a huge dome without supporting framework. The construction took place during much of his lifetime and formed the basis of Italian architecture of the period.  Complemented by 28 photographs and 18 line illustrations, this comprehensive narrative describes Brunelleschi's many remarkable achievements, among them masonry techniques for building the cupola; construction concepts, including the use of stone and wood chains; machines he devised and built (a reversible hoist and elevated cranes); and other inventions.  Of value to students of architecture and engineering, Brunelleschi: Studies of His Technology and Inventions will appeal to anyone with an interest in Renaissance studies. 

For more than 40 years, the late historian Gustina Scaglia researched 15th and 16th manuscripts containing drawings of machines. She was the first female professor of History of Art at Queens College City University of New York . She wrote a number of highly regarded books, some with fellow historian Frank D Prager.

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14 April 2024

14 April

NEW - Randolfo Pacciardi – anti-Fascist and journalist

Valiant republican opposed Mussolini and served his country

Ardent anti-Fascist Randolfo Pacciardi, who was Deputy Prime Minister and then Minister of Defence for the Italian Government between 1948 and 1953, died on this day in 1991 in Rome.  Pacciardi had to live abroad in exile for many years after the Fascists outlawed all opposition parties in 1926, but he was able to return to Italy in 1944 after the liberation of Rome. He was born in 1899 in Giuncarico in the province of Grosseto in Tuscany. By the time he was 16 years old, Pacciardi had become a member of the Partito Repubblicano Italiano (PRI) the Italian Republican party.  He was a supporter of Italy’s participation in World War I and enrolled in the officers’ school of the Italian Army. He took part in the fighting and received two silver medals and a bronze medal for military valour, a British military cross and a French croix de guerre.  After receiving a law degree from the University of Siena in 1921, Pacciardi wrote for a local newspaper in the city.  In 1922 he went to live in Rome, where he became an opponent of the violent Fascist squads of the time, and he established Italia Libera, an anti-Fascist veterans’ organisation.  Read more…

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The Milan-Sanremo cycle race

Classic event older than Giro d’Italia

The Milan-Sanremo cycle race - one of the sport’s oldest and most prestigious single-day contests - took place for the first time on this day in 1907.  Covering a distance of 286km (177 miles), the race followed a course said to have begun at the Conca Fallata Inn, next to a navigation basin on the Naviglio Pavese canal in Milan and ended on Corso Cavallotti on the outskirts of Sanremo, a seaside town on the coast of Liguria famed for its temperate Mediterranean climate.  Cycling was growing in popularity across Europe at the time, particularly in Belgium and France. Both of those countries had established single-day long distance races in the late 19th century and it is probable that these were the inspiration when Tullo Morgagni, a Milan journalist, put forward the idea for Milan-Sanremo.  Morgagni had launched what would become the Giro di Lombardia the previous year and proposed his new project to Eugenio Costamagna, director of the Milan sports newspaper Gazzetta dello Sport.  Morgagni reasoned that Sanremo’s standing at the heart of Italy’s nascent tourist industry would give the event a particular appeal.  Read more…

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Girolamo Riario - papal military leader

Assassinated after failed attempt to unseat Medici family

Girolamo Riario, the 15th century governor of Imola and Forlì who was part of a major plot to displace the powerful Medici family as rulers of Florence, was assassinated on this day in 1488. Riario, a nephew of Pope Sixtus IV who had appointed him Captain General of the Church, was unpopular with his subjects as a result of imposing high taxes, but his murder was thought to be an attempt by the noble Orsi family of Forlì to seize control of the city. Two members of the family, Checco and Ludovico, led a group of assassins armed with swords into the government palace, where Riario was set upon.  Despite the presence of guards, Riario was stabbed and slashed repeatedly.  Eventually, his dead body was left in a local piazza, surrounded by a crowd celebrating his demise, as the Orsi brothers and their gang looted the palace.  A decade earlier, Riario, who had been appointed Lord of Imola by Sixtus IV, joined with Francesco Salviati, whose family were the Papal bankers in Florence, and members of the Pazzi family in a plot to assassinate the ruler of Florence, Lorenzo de’ Medici, and his brother, Giuliano.  Read more…

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Lamberto Dalla Costa - Olympic bobsleigh champion

Fighter pilot who became first Italian to win a Gold medal

Lamberto Dalla Costa, part of the team that brought Italy its first gold medal for Olympic bobsleigh, was born on this day in 1920 in Crespano del Grappa, a small town in the Veneto. Dalla Costa was an adventurous individual with a passion for flying. He joined the Italian Air Force as a volunteer during World War Two and became a combat pilot who rose eventually to the rank of air marshall.  When Italy was chosen to host the 1956 Winter Olympics at Cortina d'Ampezzo they was a tradition of looking towards the military to provide the crews for the bobsleigh events and Dalla Costa was selected, even though he had never been involved with high-level competitive sport, after demonstrating the right level of skill and discipline.  It was an advantage when the Games came round that Dalla Costa and his colleagues were able to practise on the Cortina d'Ampezzo track, gaining familiarity with every quirk.  Partnered with another air force recruit, Major Giacomo Conti, from Palermo in Sicily, Dalla Costa registered the fastest times in all four heats and won the two-man bob event by more than a second from the second Italian crew of Eugenio Monti and Renzo Alvera.  Read more…

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Gasparo da Salò – violin maker

Founder of the Brescian school of stringed instrument craftsmen

One of Italy’s earliest violin makers, Gasparo da Salò, died on this day in 1609 in Brescia. He developed the art of string making to a high level and his surviving instruments are still admired and revered. Da Salò was born Gasparo Bertolotti in Salò, a resort on Lake Garda in 1542. His father and uncle were violinists and composers and his cousin, Bernardino, was a violinist at the Este court in Ferrara and at the Gonzaga court in Mantua. Bertolotti received a good musical education and was referred to as ‘a talented violone player’ in a 1604 document about the music at the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Bergamo. Bertolotti moved to Brescia on the death of his father and set up shop in an area where there were other instrument makers. He became known as Gasparo da Salò and his workshop quickly became one of the most important in Europe. for the production of every type of stringed instrument that was played at the time.  His business was so successful that he was able to acquire land and property and provide financial assistance to members of his family.  It is not known whether da Salò was the first craftsman to produce a violin in its modern form.  Read more…

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Gianni Rodari - children’s author

Writer whose books reflect the struggles of the lower classes in society

Writer and journalist Gianni Rodari, who became famous for creating Cipollino, a children’s book character, died on this day in 1980 in Rome. Regarded as the best modern writer for children in Italian, Rodari had been awarded the Hans Christian Andersen Medal for children’s literature in 1970, which gained him an international reputation. Cipollino, which means Little Onion, fought the unjust treatment of his fellow vegetable characters by the fruit royalty, such as Prince Lemon and the overly proud Tomato, in the garden kingdom. The main themes of the stories are the struggle of the underclass against the powerful, good versus evil and the importance of friendship in the face of difficulties. Rodari was born in 1920 in Omegna, a small town on Lake Orta in the province of Novara in northern Italy.  His father died when he was ten years old and Rodari and his two brothers were brought up by their mother in her native village of Gavirate near Varese.  Rodari trained to be a teacher and received his diploma when he was 17. He began to teach elementary classes in rural schools around Varese.  Read more…

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Book of the Day: The Archipelago: Italy Since 1945, by John Foot

Italy emerged from the Second World War in ruins. Divided, invaded and economically broken, it was a nation that some people claimed had ceased to exist. And yet, as rural society disappeared almost overnight, by the 1960s, it could boast the fastest-growing economy in the world.  In The Archipelago, historian John Foot chronicles Italy's tumultuous history from the post-war period to the present day. From the silent assimilation of Fascists into society after 1945 to the artistic peak of neorealist cinema, he examines both the corrupt and celebrated sides of the country. While often portrayed as a failed state on the margins of Europe, Italy has instead been at the centre of innovation and change - a political laboratory. This new history tells the fascinating story of a country always marked by scandal but with the constant ability to re-invent itself.  Comprising original research and lively insights, The Archipelago chronicles the crises and modernisations of more than seventy years of post-war Italy, from its fields, factories, squares and housing estates to Rome's political intrigue.

John Foot is an English academic historian specialising in Italy. He is the author of several books, including histories of Italian football, Italian cylcling and the story of the pioneering psychiatrist, Franco Basaglia, who led a revolution in mental health care in Italy. 

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Randolfo Pacciardi – anti-Fascist and journalist

Valiant republican opposed Mussolini and served his country

Pacciardi had to flee Italy when Mussolini outlawed all opposition
Pacciardi had to flee Italy when
Mussolini outlawed all opposition
Ardent anti-Fascist Randolfo Pacciardi, who was Deputy Prime Minister and then Minister of Defence for the Italian Government between 1948 and 1953, died on this day in 1991 in Rome.

Pacciardi had to live abroad in exile for many years after the Fascists outlawed all opposition parties in 1926, but he was able to return to Italy in 1944 after the liberation of Rome.

He was born in 1899 in Giuncarico in the province of Grosseto in Tuscany. By the time he was 16 years old, Pacciardi had become a member of the Partito Repubblicano Italiano (PRI) the Italian Republican Party. 

He was a supporter of Italy’s participation in World War I and enrolled in the officers’ school of the Italian Army. He took part in the fighting and received two silver medals and a bronze medal for military valour, a British military cross and a French croix de guerre.

After receiving a law degree from the University of Siena in 1921, Pacciardi wrote for a local newspaper in the city.

In 1922 he went to live in Rome, where he became an opponent of the violent Fascist squads of the time, and he established Italia Libera, an anti-Fascist veterans’ organisation. They were one of the few groups to plan for armed opposition to Benito Mussolini after the assassination of the socialist politician Giacomo Matteotti. They were also one of the first groups to be banned by the Fascist Government in 1925.

When the Fascists outlawed all rival parties in 1926, Pacciardi was sentenced to five years of internal exile, but he was able to escape to Austria.

Luigi Einuadi was among Pacciardi's colleagues in postwar governmen
Luigi Einuadi was among Pacciardi's
colleagues in postwar government
Helped by Ernesta Battisti, the widow of patriot Cesare Battisti, he moved to live in Lugano in Switzerland.

He helped other anti-Fascists with logistical support, including a future president of Italy, Sandro Pertini, for whom he procured a counterfeit passport.

He helped organise troops during the Spanish Civil war in which he himself was wounded. Then he moved to Paris, where he founded a magazine, La Giovine Italia, which was named after the Young Italy movement launched by Giuseppe Mazzini in the 19th century.

The German invasion of France forced Pacciardi to flee to America with his wife, Luigia, and they managed to get to New York after travelling through South America on false documents. 

After Pacciardi’s return to Italy towards the end of the war, he became national secretary of the Partito Repubblicano Italiano and was elected to the constituent assembly of Italy in 1946. With the end of the monarchy in Italy, the Republican Party entered a coalition government for the first time.

He became a Deputy Prime Minister with Liberal Luigi Einaudi and Social Democrat Giuseppe Saragat. He was elected to Parliament in 1948 and served as defence minister until 1953, supporting Italian membership of NATO.

Pacciardi's tomb in the municipal cemetery at Grosseto after his death in 1991
Pacciardi's tomb in the municipal cemetery at
Grosseto after his death in 1991
In 1963, when Christian Democrat leader Aldo Moro set up a cabinet that included Partito Socialista Italiano (PSI) ministers for the first time in 16 years, Pacciardi voted against it and he found himself excluded from his own party.

He founded a new party, the Democratic Union for the New Republic, but his party failed to attract many votes in the 1968 election. 

In 1974 he was accused of plotting an attempted coup against the government but the charges against him were later dropped. In 1979 he asked to be readmitted to the PRI and this was granted. In his final years he was a supporter of Prime Minister Bettino Craxi.

Pacciardi died from a stroke on 14 April 1991 at the age of 92. The President of Italy, Francesco Cossiga, granted him a state funeral and he was buried in the municipal cemetery of Grosseto.

During his long life, Pacciardi became a friend of Ernest Hemingway and he also advised Michael Curtiz on the making of Casablanca.

The polygonal Palazzo Aldobrandeschi is one of Grosseto's curiosities
The polygonal Palazzo Aldobrandeschi
is one of Grosseto's curiosities
Travel tip:

Grosseto is the largest town of the Maremma region of Tuscany, with approximately 65,000 inhabitants. Located in the alluvial plain of the Ombrone river, about 14km from the Tyrrhenian sea, the town grew in importance several centuries ago because of the trade in salt, that was obtained in salt pans in the now reclaimed lagoon that covered most of the area between Grosseto and the sea.  By 1328, the silting up of the lagoon robbed Grosseto of its salt revenues, after which is became largely depopulated, vulnerable to outbreaks of malaria caused by the mosquitos that thrived in the marshy areas surrounding the town. It began to expand again in the 19th century. Tourists today are drawn to visit by the walls begun by Francesco I de Medici in 1574, by the Romanesque cathedral, dedicated to St. Lawrence, and by the polygonal Palazzo Aldobrandeschi, on Piazza Dante, seat of the provincial government.

The well-preserved mediaeval village of Giuncarico in Tuscany has a hilltop location
The well-preserved mediaeval village of Giuncarico
in Tuscany has a hilltop location
Travel tip:

Giuncarico, where Pacciardi was born, is a charming and well-preserved mediaeval village, built on a hill overlooking the Bruna river. Founded in the eighth or ninth century, the village was once under the rule of the noble Albobrandeschi family and later became part of the Republic of Siena before joining the Grand Duchy of Tuscany in the 16th century.  It is known for its protective walls, built in the 1100s with two stone-arch gateways into the village, with historic palaces along Via Roma, dating back to the 1400s and 1500s. Despite its small size, with just 449 residents, the village offers a few shops, cafes, and restaurants. The Piazza del Popolo, halfway along Via Roma, offers a panoramic view of the surrounding countryside. The area is also notable for several wineries, including the celebrated Rocca di Frassinello, which is approximately 15 minutes outside the village by road. Situated about 80km (50 miles) southwest of Siena, Giuncarico is some 25km (16 miles) north of Grosseto. 

Also on this day:

1488: The death of papal military leader Girolamo Riario

1609: The death of violin maker Gasparo da Salò

1907: The first Milan-Sanremo cycle race

1920: The birth of Olympic bobsleigh champion Lamberto Dalla Costa

1980: The death of children's author Gianni Rodari

(Picture credits: Pacciardi tomb by Sofocle77; Palazzo Aldobrandeschi by Sailko; Giuncarico skyline by LigaDue; via Wikimedia Commons)


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13 April 2024

13 April

Antonio Meucci - inventor of the telephone

Engineer from Florence was 'true' father of communications

Antonio Meucci, the Italian engineer who was acknowledged 113 years after his death to be the true inventor of the telephone, was born on this day in 1808 in Florence.  Until Vito Fossella, a Congressman from New York, asked the House of Representatives to recognise that the credit should have gone to Meucci, it was the Scottish-born scientist Alexander Graham Bell who was always seen as the father of modern communications.  Yet Meucci’s invention was demonstrated in public 16 years before Bell took out a patent for his device. This was part of the evidence Fossella submitted to the House, which prompted a resolution in June, 2002, that the wealth and fame that Bell enjoyed were based on a falsehood.  It has even been suggested that Bell actually stole Meucci’s invention and developed it as his own while the Italian died in poverty, having been unable to afford the patent.  Meucci’s story began when he was born in the San Frediano area of Florence, which was then part of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, the first of nine children fathered by a policeman, Amatis Meucci, and his wife, Domenica.  Read more…

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Giannino Marzotto - racing driver

Double Mille Miglia winner from a famous family

Giannino Marzotto, a racing driver who twice won the prestigious Mille Miglia and finished fifth at Le Mans, was born on this day in 1928 in Valdagno, a town situated in the mountains about 30km (19 miles) northwest of Vicenza.  He was the great, great grandson of Luigi Marzotto, who in 1836 opened a woollen factory that evolved into the Marzotto Group, one of Italy’s largest textile manufacturers.  Marzotto worked for the company after he retired from motor racing, at one point filling the position of managing director and later company president, before giving up those roles to develop other businesses.  He was one of five sons of Count Gaetano Marzotto, who was the major figure in the Marzotto company in the 20th century, transforming the family business into an international entity and building the Città Sociale, a town adjoining Valdagno characterised by wide, tree-lined boulevards which he built to provide a pleasant and well-appointed community for the workers at the Marzotto factory.  With this wealthy background, Giannino was able to indulge his passion for cars.   Read more…

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Roberto Calvi – banker

Mystery remains over bizarre death of bank chairman

Roberto Calvi, dubbed 'God’s Banker' by the press because of his close association with the Vatican, was born on this day in 1920 in Milan.  In 1982 his body was found hanging from scaffolding beneath Blackfriars Bridge close to London’s financial district. His death is a mystery that has never been satisfactorily solved and it has been made the subject of many books and films.  Calvi was the chairman of Banco Ambrosiano in Milan, which had direct links to Pope John Paul II through his bodyguard, Archbishop Paul Marcinkus, who was also head of the Vatican Bank, which had shares in Ambrosiano.  Calvi had been missing for nine days before his body was found by a passer-by in London. At first police treated his death as suicide but a year later a second inquest overturned this and delivered an open verdict.  In October 2002, forensic experts commissioned by an Italian court finally concluded Calvi had been murdered.  Calvi had become chairman of Ambrosiano, Italy’s largest private bank, in 1975 and had built up a vast financial empire.  But three years later the Bank of Italy issued a report claiming Ambrosiano had illegally exported several million lire.  Read more…

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Book of the Day: Antonio and the Electric Scream: The Man Who Invented the Telephone, by Sandra Meucci

Antonio Meucci represents an unlikely story in American history. Having come of age in Florence, Italy, he immigrated to America by way of Cuba, where he lived for many years and where he worked with the Italian Opera Company. Familiar with telegraphy, wherein intelligence (information) was being transmitted through a wire, he proposed to transmit human voice through the same type of wire. Having come to New York, and having established several kinds of business, he experimented with his telettrofono (electric phone). Satisfied with the results of having transmitted voice intelligence from one end to the other end of copper wire, Meucci applied for a patent and received a caveat instead. Alexander Graham Bell, however, received a patent for a similar invention. Now, finally, after more than 160 years, Meucci is being vindicated: a Silver and Bronze Medal were struck by The Italian American Bicentennial Society; the Meucci-Garibaldi Museum has been established in New York; the  US Postal Services has published a commemorative stamp; and the 107th Congress of the United States resolved to recognize Meucci as the inventor of the telephone. Antonio and the Electric Scream tells his story.

Sandra Meucci, a distant relative of Antonio Meucci, lives in the Pacific Northwest where she sorks as a researcher and writer. On hearing from her grandfather, Giuseppe, that Antonio was the inventor of the telephone, at first she rejected that claim. In view of newly discoverd information, she has now changed her mind.

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12 April 2024

12 April

Caffarelli – opera singer

Tempestuous life of a talented male soprano

The castrato singer who performed under the stage name of Caffarelli was born Gaetano Maiorano on this day in 1710 in Bitonto in the province of Bari in Puglia.  Caffarelli had a reputation for being temperamental and for fighting duels with little provocation, but he was popular with audiences and was able to amass a large fortune for himself.  One theory is that his stage name, Caffarelli, was taken from his teacher, Caffaro, who gave him music lessons when he was a child, but another theory is that he took the name from a patron, Domenico Caffaro.  When Maiorano was ten years old he was given the income from two vineyards owned by his grandmother to enable him to study music. The legal document drawn up mentioned that the young boy wished to be castrated and become a eunuch. Maiorano became a pupil of Nicola Porpora, the composer and singing teacher, who is reputed to have kept him working from one sheet of exercises for years before telling him there was no more he could be taught because he was the greatest singer in Europe.  In 1726 Maiorano made his debut in Rome, aged 15, under the stage name Caffarellino.  Read more…

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Matteo Berrettini - tennis champion

First Italian to reach Wimbledon final

The tennis player Matteo Berrettini, who in 2021 became the first Italian to reach the men’s singles final at the Wimbledon Championships, was born on this day in 1996 in Rome.  Berrettini finished runner-up in the prestigious grass court tournament in South West London, losing in four sets to the world No 1 Novak Djokovic. It was his first appearance in any of the four Grand Slam finals, having previously reached the semi-finals at the US Open in 2019 and the quarter-finals at the French Open in 2021, where he also lost to Djokovic.  A week before the Wimbledon tournament began, Berrettini had won his first ATP 500 level final when he beat the British player Cameron Norrie in the final of the Queen’s Club Championships, also in London and also played on grass.  He proved a popular winner despite home support for his opponent and despite having knocked out another two British players in two-time former Wimbledon champion Andy Murray and Dan Evans on the way to the final.  Berrettini climbed to a career-high No 6 in the ATP world rankings in January 2022 after reaching the semi-finals of the Australian Open.  Read more…

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Giorgio Cantarini - actor

Child star of Oscar-winning Life Is Beautiful

Giorgio Cantarini, who delivered an award-winning performance in the triple Oscar-winning movie Life Is Beautiful when he was just five years old, was born on this day in 1992 in Orvieto.  Cantarini was cast as Giosuè, the four-year-old son of Roberto Benigni’s character, Guido, in the 1997 film, which brought Academy Awards for Benigni as Best Actor and, as the director, for Best Foreign Film. For his own part, Cantarini was rewarded for a captivating performance in the poignant story with a Young Artist award.  Three years later, in Ridley Scott’s Oscar-winning blockbuster Gladiator, Cantarini was given another coveted part as the son of Russell Crowe’s character, Maximus.  Born to parents who separated soon after his fifth birthday, Cantarini went to an audition for the part of Giosuè after an uncle read a description in a newspaper article of the kind of child Benigni wanted and told him he was a perfect match.  Cantarini recalled in an interview in 2018 that the audition consisted simply of a conversation with Benigni, with no acting involved. Once shooting began, he was told what to do on a scene-by-scene basis.  Read more…

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Flavio Briatore - entrepreneur

From clothing to luxury resorts via Formula One

The colourful and controversial entrepreneur Flavio Briatore was born on this day in 1950 in Verzuolo, a large village in the Italian Alps near Saluzzo in Piedmont.  Briatore is best known for his association with the Benetton clothing brand and, through their sponsorship, Formula One motor racing, but his business interests have extended well beyond the High Street and the race track.  His empire includes his exclusive Sardinian beach club Billionaire, Twiga beach clubs in Tuscany and Apulia, the Lion under the Sun spa resort in Kenya, the upmarket Sumosan, Twiga and Cipriani restaurants, and the Billionaire Couture menswear line.  Briatore was also for three years co-owner with former F1 chief executive Bernie Ecclestone and steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal of the English football club Queen’s Park Rangers.  He is also the man to whom the contestants must answer in the Italian version of the hit British TV series The Apprentice.  With a fortune estimated at £120m (€140m; $150m), Briatore lives the lifestyle of the super-rich clients he entertains at his clubs and restaurants, owns a £68.2m (€80m; $85m) yacht and has enjoyed the company of a string of beautiful and famous women.  Read more…

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Pope Julius I

Day of remembrance for pope who chose the date for Christmas

Pope Julius I died on this day in 352 AD in Rome and soon after his death he was made a saint. His feast day is celebrated on this day every year by Catholics all over the world.  Julius I is remembered for setting 25 December as the official date of birth of Jesus Christ, starting the tradition of celebrating Christmas on that date.  He also asserted his authority against Arianism, a heretical cult that insisted Christ was human and not divine.  Julius was born in Rome but the exact date of his birth is not known. He became pope in 337 AD, four months after his predecessor, Pope Mark, had died.  In 339 Julius gave refuge in Rome to Bishop St Athanasius the Great of Alexandria, who had been deposed and expelled by the Arians.  At the Council of Rome in 340, Julius reaffirmed the position of Athanasius.  He then tried to unite the Western bishops against Arianism with the Council of Sardica in 342. The council acknowledged the Pope’s supreme authority, enhancing his power in ecclesiastical affairs by granting him the right to judge cases of legal possession of Episcopal sees.  Read more…

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Marcello Lippi - World Cup winning coach

Former Juventus manager won Champions League and World Cup

Marcello Lippi, one of Italy's most successful football managers and a World Cup winner in 2006, was born on this day in 1948 in Viareggio on the Tuscan coast.  Lippi, who as Juventus coach won five Serie A titles and the Champions League before taking the reins of the national team, subsequently had a successful career in China, where his Guangzhou Evergrande team won three Chinese Super League championships and the Asian Champions League.  He is the only manager to have won both the European Champions League and the Asian Champions League.  Lippi, who still lives in Viareggio, spent much of his playing career in Genoa with Sampdoria, where he played as a central defender or sweeper.  He began his coaching career at the same club in 1982, looking after the youth team, before taking on his first senior team at Pontedera, a small club in Tuscany playing in the third tier.  It is in the Italian tradition for coaches to gain a grounding in the lower divisions and Lippi did not experience Serie A until Cesena became his fifth club in 1989.  His breakthrough came in 1994 when he achieved UEFA Cup qualification with Napoli, a club at that time in financial turmoil.  Read more…

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Book of the Day: Angels and Monsters - Male and Female Sopranos in the Story of Opera, 1600-1900, by Richard Somerset-Ward

A riveting history of the early male and female sopranos for whom many of the greatest roles in opera were written.  During its first two centuries, opera was dominated by sopranos. There were male sopranos, or castrati, whose supercharged voices (female vocal cords powered by male lungs) were capable of feats of vocalism that are hard to imagine today. And there were female sopranos, or prima donnas, whose long battle for social acceptance and top billing was crowned in the early 19th century when the castrati disappeared from the opera stage and left them supreme.  Whether they were male or female, these singers were amazing virtuosi, perhaps the greatest singers there have ever been - “angels.” Unfortunately, some of them (and often the most famous) were also capable of behaving extremely badly, both on and off stage - “monsters.” This book tells their colourful stories.  Besides providing fascinating anecdotes about some of those who graced and disgraced the operatic stage, Richard Somerset-Ward tells the story of their greatest glory - the singing tradition they founded and perfected, which we know as bel canto and which is still the backbone of operatic singing today.  Rich in musical, social, and cultural lore, Angels and Monsters illuminates a unique and vanished tradition and will be irresistible to opera lovers everywhere.

Richard Somerset-Ward is a former Head of Music and Arts for BBC Television who subsequently became an independent writer and television producer in New York, and a senior fellow of the Benton Foundation, Washington, DC.

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11 April 2024

11 April

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- Renato Cesarini - footballer and coach

Marchigiano who played for Italy and Argentina

Renato Cesarini, an attacking footballer who played for the national teams of both Italy and Argentina and whose name became part of the Italian language, was born on this day in 1906 near Senigallia, the port and resort town in Marche.  Cesarini’s family emigrated to Buenos Aires when he was an infant. He acquired Argentine citizenship and began his playing career in the Buenos Aires area, playing for Chacarita Juniors at a time when football in the South American country was still an amateur game.  He returned to Italy in 1929 to sign for Juventus, with whom he won five consecutive league championships.  His habit of scoring late goals, both for club and country, prompted a journalist to begin describing the last minutes of a match as the zona Cesarini.  The phrase not only became part of the language of football was adopted more broadly in different contexts, such as when a deadline loomed to complete a task or an agreement in an industrial dispute was reached just in time to avert a scheduled strike.  Cesarini was also a dual international, playing for both Argentina and Italy national teams.  Read more…

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Rachele Mussolini - wife of Il Duce

Marriage survived 30 years despite dictator's infidelity

Rachele Mussolini, the woman who stayed married to Italy’s former Fascist dictator for 30 years despite his simultaneous relationship with his mistress, Claretta Petacci, and numerous affairs, was born on this day in 1890.  The daughter of Agostino Guidi, a peasant farmer, and Anna Lombardi, she was born, like Benito Mussolini, in Predappio, a small town in what is now Emilia-Romagna.  They met for the first time when the future self-proclaimed Duce had a temporary teaching job at her school.  They were married in December 1915 in a civil ceremony in Treviglio, near Milan, although by that time she had been his mistress for several years, having given birth to his eldest daughter, Edda, in 1910.  Mussolini had actually married another woman, Ida Dalser, in 1914 but the marriage had broken down despite her bearing him a son, Benito junior, and Mussolini returned to Rachele.  Her father had cautioned her against marrying Mussolini, whom he considered to have no prospects, but when Agostino died, his widow became the lover of Mussolini’s father, Alessandro, himself a widower.  Read more…

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Donato Bramante - architect and painter

Father of High Renaissance style left outstanding legacy

The architect and painter Donato Bramante, credited with introducing High Renaissance architecture to Rome, died on this day in 1514 in Rome, probably aged around 70.  Bramante, who was also a perspectivist painter, worked in Milan before moving to Rome, where he produced the original designs for St Peter’s Basilica and built several buildings and structures considered to be masterpieces of early 16th century architecture.  These include the Tempietto di San Pietro in Montorio on the summit of the Janiculum Hill, the Chiostro di Santa Maria della Pace near Piazza Navona, the Cortile del Belvedere and Scala del Bramante in the Vatican and the Palazzo della Cancelleria, located between Campo de' Fiori and Corso Vittorio Emanuele II.  Bramante was born Donato di Pascuccio d'Antonio in around 1444 to a well-to-do farming family in Fermignano, a town in what is now the Marche region, a few kilometres south of Urbino. He was also known as Bramante Lazzari.  Little is known of his early life, although it is possible he worked on the construction site of Federico da Montefeltro's Palazzo Ducale in Urbino, having trained under its architect, Luciano Laurana.  Read more…

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Primo Levi - Auschwitz survivor

Celebrated writer killed in fall in Turin

Primo Levi, an Auschwitz survivor who wrote a number of books chronicling his experiences of the Holocaust, died on this day in Turin in 1987.  He was 67 years old and his body was found at the foot of a stairwell in the apartment building where he lived, having seemingly fallen from the third floor.  A chemist by profession, Levi died in the same building in which he was born in July 1919, in Corso Re Umberto in the Crocetta district of the northern Italian city.  Apart from his periods of incarceration, he lived in the same apartment, a gift from his father to his mother, almost all his life.  His death was officially recorded as suicide, the verdict supported by his son's statement that his father had suffered from depression in the months leading to his death.  He had undergone surgery for a prostate condition and was worried about the failing health of his 92-year-old mother.  Some of his friends, however, doubted that he would have taken his own life and believed he had fallen accidentally.  They argued that while other survivors never recovered from the mental scarring, Levi had emerged with "soul and psyche intact" and retained a hopeful and positive outlook.  Read more…

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Battle of Ravenna

Thousands die in pointless conflict of the Italian Wars

French forces inflicted appalling casualties upon a largely Spanish Holy League army on this day in 1512 at Molinaccio just outside Ravenna.  The French, under the command of their brilliant 21-year-old leader Gaston de Foix, had taken Brescia in Lombardy by storm in February and then marched on Ravenna intending to provoke the papal Holy League army into battle. They also had an Italian contingent of soldiers with them under the command of Alfonso I d’Este, Duke of Ferrara.  Ramon de Cardona, Spanish viceroy of Naples and commander of the Holy League forces, led an army through the papal states of the Romagna to relieve Ravenna, passing Forlì and advancing north along the Ronco river.  Both sides had learned the new rules of warfare in the gunpowder age and were reluctant to assault well defended earthworks with cavalry or infantry.  They indulged in an artillery duel and had to manoeuvre unwieldy cannons to find effective lines of fire.  But after two hours they changed tactics and both cavalry and infantry threw themselves forward in assaults. The casualties were heavy as horsemen clashed in swirling melees and infantry swarmed over ramparts and ditches.  Read more…

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Book of the Day: Calcio: A History of Italian Football, by John Foot

The first history of Italian football to be written in English, Calcio: A History of Italian Football is a mix of serious analysis and comic storytelling, with vivid descriptions of games, goals, dives, missed penalties, riots and scandals in the sometimes richest and toughest league in the world.  Calcio tells the story of Italian football from its origins in the 1890’s to the present day. It takes us through a history of great players and teams, of style, passion and success, but also of violence, cynicism, catenaccio tactics and corruption.  We meet the personalities that have shaped this history – from the Italian heroes to the foreigners that failed, the model professionals to the mavericks. Calcio evokes the triumphs (the 1982 World Cup victory) and the tragedies (Meroni, the 'Italian George Best', killed by his number one fan), set against a backdrop of paranoia and intrigue, in a country where the referee is seen as corrupt until proven otherwise.

John Foot, whose father, Paul, was a noted investigative journalist, is an English academic and historian specialising in Italy. His other books include Blood and Power: The Rise and Fall of Italian Fascism, The Archipelago: Italy Since 1945, and Pedalare! Pedalare!: A History of Italian Cycling.




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Renato Cesarini - footballer and coach

Marchigiano who played for Italy and Argentina

Renato Cesarini in action for Juventus  against Milan in the 1933-34 season
Renato Cesarini in action for Juventus 
against Milan in the 1933-34 season
Renato Cesarini, an attacking footballer who played for the national teams of both Italy and Argentina and whose name became part of the Italian language, was born on this day in 1906 near Senigallia, the port and resort town in Marche.

Cesarini’s family emigrated to Buenos Aires when he was an infant. He acquired Argentine citizenship and began his playing career in the Buenos Aires area, playing for Chacarita Juniors at a time when football in the South American country was still an amateur game.

He returned to Italy in 1929 to sign for Juventus, with whom he won five consecutive league championships.  His habit of scoring late goals, both for club and country, prompted a journalist to begin describing the last minutes of a match as the zona Cesarini.

The phrase not only became part of the language of football was adopted more broadly in different contexts, such as when a deadline loomed to complete a task or an agreement in an industrial dispute was reached just in time to avert a scheduled strike.

After retiring as a player, Cesarini became a successful coach, managing clubs such as River Plate and Boca Juniors, among others in Argentina, and returning to Italy to coach Juventus. 

Cesarini’s story began in the tiny village of Castellaro, set in agricultural land about 12km (7 miles) from Senigallia and about 4km (2.5 miles) from the Adriatic coast. With little work available in the area, his family took the decision to emigrate when Renato was just a few months old.

Cesarini in the colours of his first club in Argentina, Chacarita Juniors
Cesarini in the colours of his first
club in Argentina, Chacarita Juniors
Growing up in the bustling neighbourhoods of Buenos Aires, Renato’s passion for football was ignited at an early age and his success with Chacarita Juniors, for whom he scored 57 goals in 93 games, brought his name to the attention of European scouts. 

His Italian roots made a return to Italy an attractive proposition, especially since it offered the opportunity to play as a professional for the first time. He signed for Juventus in 1929, made his debut against Napoli in March 1930 and quickly became a fixture in the team that became known as Juve del Quinquennio, coached by Carlo Carcano, who were winners of the scudetto - the Italian Serie A championship - for five seasons in a row between 1930 and 1935. 

It was a record that was equalled twice - by Torino in the 1940s and Internazionale in the 2000s - but not surpassed until the Juventus of Massimiliano Allegri became champions in 2016, the sixth consecutive Serie A title in a run of nine in a row begun by Allegri’s predecessor Antonio Conte and completed by his successor, Maurizio Sarri.

An attacking player who could operate in midfield or as a striker, Cesarini scored 46 times in 128 Serie A matches in the black and white stripes of the Juventus shirt. He was top-scorer in the 1932 edition of the Coppa Mitropa, a forerunner of the European Cup that brought together the champions and runners-up from the Italian, Austrian, Hungarian and Czech championships. Cesarini scored five goals but the competition was won by the Serie A runners-up, Bologna.

Cesarini had already played for Argentina twice in the 1920s but with Italy on his birth certificate he qualified to turn out for the azzurri as well, which he did 11 times between 1931 and 1934 under coach Vittorio Pozzo.

The Juventus team that were crowned Serie A winners
in 1935. Cesarini is second from the right in the front row 
After the fifth Juventus title, Cesarini returned to Argentina to play and then coach. He had immediate success with River Plate, where he coached the iconic team known as La Máquina, which is still celebrated for its fluid, attacking style of play, winning the Argentine championship in 1941 and 1942. Juventus quickly tempted him back as coach, although his period on the touchline in Turin coincided with the peak years of Grande Torino and he had to be content with Juventus finishing runners-up to their city rivals in each of his three seasons as coach.

Later he would return to Juventus as technical director for the 1959-60, working alongside coach Carlo Parola as the Piemontese club completed a league-and-cup double for the first time in their history, thanks in no small part to the 28 goals scored by Omar Sivori, another Argentine-Italian dual international who had been Cesarini’s protégé at River Plate.

Cesarini ended his career with a brief stint as head coach of the Argentina national team. He died in 1969 at the age of 62, not long after finishing his career.

In 1975, a football club - Club Renato Cesarini - and training academy in Argentina was founded and named in his honour by former members of the Argentina national team.

The art nouveau pier, known as the Rotonda a Mare, is a feature of Senigallia's long, golden beach
The art nouveau pier, known as the Rotonda a Mare,
is a feature of Senigallia's long, golden beach
Travel tip:

Senigallia, the nearest sizeable town to the village where Cesarini was born, is a port and resort of around 44,000 inhabitants famous for its 13km (8 miles) of golden sandy beach known as the Spiaggia di Veluto - the Velvet Beach - which attracts thousands of visitors each year. The beach is punctuated by a small harbour and by the Rotonda a Mare, an art nouveau pier designed by the engineer Enrico Cardelli and opened in 1933, replacing a previous structure destroyed in World War One.  Although much of present-day Senigallia is modern, some relics of its historical past remain, notably the Rocca Roveresca, a castle of Gothic origins that was restored in 1492, built on a square plan with four round towers.

The 18m-high Roman Arch of Trajan still stands guard over the entrance to Ancona's harbour
The 18m-high Roman Arch of Trajan still stands
guard over the entrance to Ancona's harbour 
Travel tip:

Senigallia and Castellaro fall within the province of Ancona, a bustling port with a population of almost 102,000. Although the area around the port has an industrial feel, there are some notable beaches nearby and a good deal of history in the older part of the city, bearing witness to its Greek and Roman past. The 18m(59ft)-high Arch of Trajan, built in honour of the emperor who built the city’s harbour, is regarded as one of the finest Roman monuments in the Marche region. Ancona’s harbour contains the Lazzaretto, a pentagonal building constructed on an artificial island in the 18th century as a quarantine station designed to protect the city from diseases carried by infected travellers.

Also on this day:

1512: The Battle of Ravenna

1514: The death of painter and architect Donato Bramante

1890: The birth of dictator’s wife Rachele Mussolini

1987: The death of writer and Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi


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