30 April 2024

30 April

Andrea Dandolo - Doge of Venice

Reign tested by earthquake, plague and war

Andrea Dandolo, the fourth member of a patrician Venetian family to serve as Doge of the historic Republic, was born on this day in 1306.  A notably erudite scholar, Dandolo wrote two chronicles of the history of Venice in Latin and reformed the Venetian legal code by bringing together all of the diverse laws applicable to the Venetian Republic within one legal framework.  He achieved these things despite his reign being marked by a devastating earthquake, a catastrophic outbreak of the Black Death plague and two expensive wars, against Hungary and then Genoa.  Dandolo studied at the University of Padua, where he became a professor of law, a position he maintained until he was elected Doge. He quickly rose to a position of prominence in Venetian life, being appointed Procurator of St Mark’s Basilica, the second most prestigious position in the Venetian hierarchy after the Doge, at the age of just 25.  He was elected Doge in 1343, aged 37.  It was a particularly young age at which to be given the leadership of the Republic, but his family history and the manner in which he had conducted himself as Procurator gained the respect of the republic’s aristocratic elders.  Read more…


Pope Pius V - Saint

Pontiff dismissed jester and clamped down on heretics

The feast day of Pope Saint Pius V is celebrated every year on this day, the day before the anniversary of his death in 1572 in Rome.  Pius V, who became Pope in 1566, is remembered chiefly for his role in the Counter Reformation, the period of Catholic resurgence following the Protestant Reformation.  He excommunicated Queen Elizabeth I of England for heresy and for persecuting English Catholics and he formed the Holy League, an alliance of Catholic states against the Turks.  Pius V was born Antonio Ghislieri in Bosco, now Bosco Marengo, in Piedmont. At the age of 14 he entered the Dominican Order, taking the name of Michele. He was ordained at Genoa in 1528 and then sent to Pavia to lecture.  He became a bishop under Pope Pius IV but after opposing the pontiff was dismissed. After the death of Pius IV, Ghislieri was elected Pope Pius V in 1566. His first act on becoming Pope was to dismiss the court jester and no Pope has had one since.  Protestantism had by then conquered many parts of Europe and Pius V was determined to prevent it getting into Italy. He therefore took a personal interest in the activities of the Inquisition in Rome and appeared to be unmoved by the cruelty practised.  Read more…


Antonio Sant’Elia - architectural visionary

Futurist’s ideas were decades ahead of his time

The architect Antonio Sant’Elia, best known for producing hundreds of drawings based on his vision of an idealised modern industrial city, was born on this day in 1888 in Como in Lombardy.  Sant’Elia’s life was short - he died in battle barely a year after signing up for military service in the First World War - and his physical legacy comprised only one completed building, a modest villa in the hills above his home city.  Yet, thanks to the boldly imaginative designs he captured in dozens of sketches illustrating how he saw the cities of the future, Sant’Elia is still seen as one of modern architecture’s most influential figures, more than a century after his death.  A builder by trade, in 1912 Sant’Elia set up a design office in Milan with fellow architect Mario Chittone.  He was already a follower of Futurism, the avant-garde artistic, social and political movement that had been launched by the poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti in 1909.  The Futurists’ admiration for the speed and technological advancement of cars and aeroplanes and the new industrial cities, which they saw as demonstrating the triumph of humanity over nature through invention, aligned with his own rejection of traditional design.  Read more…


Luigi Russolo – painter and composer

Futurist artist who invented 'noise music'

Luigi Russolo, who is regarded as the first ‘noise music’ composer, was born on this day in 1885 in Portogruaro in the Veneto.  Russolo originally chose to become a painter and went to live in Milan where he met and was influenced by other artists in the Futurist movement.  Along with other leading figures in the movement, such as Carlo Carrà, he signed both the Manifesto of Futurist Painters and the Technical Manifesto of Futurist Painting as the artists set out how they saw Futurism being represented on canvas, and afterwards participated in Futurist art exhibitions.  Russolo issued his own manifesto, L’arte dei rumori - The Art of Noises - in 1913, which he expanded into book form in 1916.  He stated that the industrial revolution had given modern man a greater capacity to appreciate more complex sounds. He found traditional, melodic music confining and envisioned noise music replacing it in the future.  Russolo invented intonarumori - noise-emitting machines - and conducted concerts using these machines. The audiences reacted with either enthusiasm or hostility to the style of music he produced.  None of these machines survived although they have since been reconstructed for use in performances.  Read more…


Book of the Day: A History of Venice, by John Julius Norwich

A History of Venice begins with frightened refugees from the barbarian invasions of Italy settling in a marshy lagoon, continuing through the establishment of republican government and the building of a trading empire encompassing the Dalmatian Coast, Mediterranean Islands and parts of the Po Valley. Then, with the Portuguese establishing a more direct trade route to the originating locations of valued Asian goods, it continues with the reinvention of the city into a publishing, intellectual, and finally a pleasure centre. It ends with the Napoleonic invasion, bringing an end to the thousand year old, Serenissima Repubblica (Most Serene Republic).  Rich in fascinating historical detail, populated by extraordinary characters and packed with a wealth of incident and intrigue, this is a brilliant testament to a great city - and a great and gripping read. A classic that has become one of the standard works on the history of the ultimate maritime city.

John Julius Norwich was born in 1929. He was educated in Toronto, at Eton, at the University of Strasbourg and, after a spell of National Service in the Navy, at New College, Oxford, where he took a degree in French and Russian. In 1952 he joined the Foreign Service, where he remained for 12 years, serving at the embassies in Belgrade and Beirut. In 1964 he resigned from the service to write, later becoming an accomplished presenter of TV documentaries as well as the author of more than 40 books.

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29 April 2024

29 April

Liberation of Fornovo di Taro

How Brazilian soldiers hastened Nazi capitulation

The town of Fornovo di Taro in Emilia-Romagna acquired a significant place in Italian military history for a second time on this day in 1945 when it was liberated from Nazi occupation by soldiers from the Brazilian Expeditionary Force fighting with the Allies.  Under the command of General João Baptista Mascarenhas de Morais, the Brazilians marched into Fornovo, which is situated about 13km (8 miles) south-west of Parma on the east bank of the Taro river, at the conclusion of the four-day Battle of Collecchio.  It was in Fornovo that the 148th Infantry Division of the German army under the leadership of General Otto Fretter-Pico offered their surrender, along with soldiers from the 90th Panzergrenadier Division and the 1st Bersaglieri and 4th Mountain Divisions of the Fascist National Republican Army.  In total, 14,779 German and Italian troops laid down their arms after Fretter-Pico concluded that, with the Brazilians surrounding the town, aided by two American tank divisions and one company of Italian partisans, there was no hope of escape.  Although the total capitulation of the German and Fascist armies in Italy was not officially announced until May 2 in Turin, the surrender in Fornovo effectively brought the war in the peninsula to an end.  Read more…


Giovanni Antonio Pellegrini - painter

Venetian artist who made mark in England

The painter Giovanni Antonio Pellegrini, who is regarded as one of the most important Venetian painters of the early 18th century, was born on this day in 1675 in Venice.   He played a major part in the spread of the Venetian style of large-scale decorative painting in northern Europe, working in Austria, England, France, Germany, and the Netherlands.  With a style that had influences of Renaissance artist Paolo Veronese and the Baroque painters Pietro da Cortona and Luca Giordano, he is considered an important predecessor of Giovanni Battista Tiepolo in the development of Venetian art.  A pupil of the Milanese painter Paolo Pagani, Pellegrini began travelling while still a teenager, accompanying Pagano to Moravia and Vienna.  After a period studying in Rome, he returned to Venice and married Angela Carriera, the sister of the portraitist Rosalba Carriera.  Soon afterwards, he accepted the commission to decorate the dome above the staircase at the Scuola Grande di San Rocco in 1709.  Pellegrini spent a significant part of his career in England, where he was invited, along with Marco Ricci, the nephew of Sebastiano Ricci, by Charles Montagu, the future Duke of Manchester.  Read more…


Rafael Sabatini – writer

Author of swashbucklers had the ‘gift of laughter’

Rafael Sabatini, who wrote successful adventure novels that were later made into plays and films, was born on this day in 1875 in Iesi, a small town in the province of Ancona in Le Marche.  Sabatini was the author of the international bestsellers, Scaramouche and Captain Blood, and afterwards became respected as a great writer of swashbucklers with a prolific output.  He was the son of an English mother, Anna Trafford, and an Italian father, Vincenzo Sabatini, who were both opera singers.  At a young age he was exposed to different languages because he spent time with his grandfather in England and also attended school in both Portugal and Switzerland, while his parents were on tour.  By the time Sabatini went to live in England permanently, at the age of 17, he was already proficient in several languages. Although his first attempts at writing were in French when he was at school in Switzerland, he is said to have consciously chosen to write in English, saying at the time that all the best stories had been written in English.  Sabatini wrote short stories in the 1890s, some of which were published in English magazines.   Read more…


Sara Errani -- tennis champion

Five-times Grand Slam doubles winner reached No 5 in singles

Tennis star Sara Errani, who was born in Bologna on this day in 1987, is arguably the most successful Italian tennis player of all time.  She and partner Roberta Vinci's career record of five Grand Slam doubles titles is unparalleled.  No other Italian combination has won more than one Grand Slam title and no Italian singles player has won more than two.  Nicola Pietrangeli, who was ranked the No 3 men's singles player at his peak, won the French Open championship in 1959 and 1960 and was runner-up in Paris on two other occasions, as well as winning the men's doubles at the French in 1959, with fellow Italian Orlando Sirola.  But Errani and Vinci have won on all surfaces, achieving a career Grand Slam in 2014 when they triumphed in the women's doubles at Wimbledon, having already won the French and US titles in 2012 and the Australian in both 2013 and 2014.  They are only the fifth pairing in tennis history to complete a career Grand Slam.  Errani also achieved a world ranking of No 5 in singles in 2013, having been runner-up to Maria Sharapova in the 2012 French Open as well as winning five WTA singles titles in the space of 12 months.  Read more…


Book of the Day: The Battle for Italy: One of the Second World War's Most Brutal Campaigns, by John Strawson

It could have all been over much quicker. In this gripping account, bestselling author John Strawson analyses how the slow, bloody and fiercely fought Italian campaign delayed the end of the Second World War after the tide had turned against Hitler and the Germans. Here was a point of dogged resistance; and also indomitable advance and eventual victory from a huge Allied push up the peninsula.  What was the justification for opening up a major new front against Hitler? What were the effects of doing so, the consequences of the important tactical decisions made by politicians and generals, the hostility between Patton and Montgomery, and the larger disagreement between the US and Britain? In answering them Strawson gets to the heart not only of this too-often overlooked struggle, but the entire War.  The Battle for Italy is military history at its finest, full of unforgettable detail and grand strategy. Readers of Max Hastings or James Holland will find the narrative style just as engaging.

Major General John Strawson CBE was a British Army officer, best known for his service during the Second World War in the Middle East and Italy, and afterwards in Germany and Malaya. In civilian life he became a prolific author, especially on military matters, writing around a dozen books.

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28 April 2024

28 April

- Andrea Moroni – architect

Cousin of brilliant painter left mark on Padua

Andrea Moroni, who designed many beautiful buildings in Padua and the Veneto region, died on this day in 1560 in Padua.  Born into a family of stonecutters in Albino near Bergamo in Lombardy, Moroni was the cousin and contemporary of Giovan Battista Moroni, the brilliant Bergamo painter, who was also born in Albino.  Moroni the architect has works attributed to him in Brescia, another city in Lombardy about 50km (31 miles) east of Bergamo. He is known to have been in the city between 1527 and 1532 where he built a choir for the monastery of Santa Giulia.  He probably also designed the building in which the nuns could attend mass in the monastery of Santa Giulia and worked on the church of San Faustino.  As a result, he made his name with the Benedictine Order and obtained commissions for two Benedictine churches in Padua, Santa Maria di Praglia and the more famous Santa Giustina.  His contract with Santa Giustina was renewed every ten years until his death and he settled down to live in Padua.  Read more…


The death of Benito Mussolini

Fascist dictator captured and killed on shores of Lake Como

Benito Mussolini, the dictator who ruled Italy for 21 years until he was deposed in 1943, was killed by Italian partisans on this day in 1945, at the village of Giulino di Mezzegra on the shore of Lake Como.  The 61-year-old leader of the National Fascist Party had been captured the previous day in the town of Dongo, further up the lake, as he attempted to reach Switzerland along with his mistress, Claretta Petacci, and a number of Fascist officials.  With Nazi Germany on the brink of defeat, Mussolini had been planning to board a plane in Switzerland in order to fly to Spain.  Mussolini was said to have donned a Luftwaffe helmet and overcoat in the hope that he would not be recognised but the disguise did not work.  Fearing that the Germans would try to free him, as they had two years earlier when Italy's King Victor Emmanuel III placed him under house arrest in mountainous Abruzzo, the partisans hid Mussolini and the others in a remote farmhouse.  The following morning, along the coast of the lake at Mezzegra, their captives were stood against a wall and shot dead. The executions were said to have been carried out by a partisan who went under the name of Colonnello Valerio.  Read more…


Nicola Romeo - car maker

Engineer used profits from military trucks to launch famous marque

Nicola Romeo, the entrepreneur and engineer who founded Alfa Romeo cars, was born on this day in 1876 in Sant’Antimo, a town in Campania just outside Naples.  The company, which became one of the most famous names in the Italian car industry, was launched after Romeo purchased the Milan automobile manufacturer ALFA - Anonima Lombarda Fabbrica Automobili.  After making substantial profits from building military trucks in the company’s Portello plant during the First World War, in peacetime Romeo switched his attention to making cars. The first Alfa Romeo came off the production line in 1921.  The cars made a major impact in motor racing, mainly thanks to the astuteness of Romeo in hiring the up-and-coming Enzo Ferrari to run his racing team, and the Fiat engineer Vittorio Jano to build his cars.  Away from the track, the Alfa Romeo name sat on the front rank of the luxury car market.  Romeo’s parents, originally from an area known as Lucania that is now part of the Basilicata region, were not wealthy but Nicola was able to attend what was then Naples Polytechnic – now the Federico II University – to study engineering.  Read more…


Escape from San Vittore prison

How a terrorist and a mass murderer brought fear to streets of Milan

Milan citizens were left cowering in fear on this day in 1980 when police engaged in a prolonged shootout in the streets around San Vittore prison, which is situated less than three kilometres from the Duomo.  It followed an escape from the 19th century institution organised jointly by the notorious criminal and mass killer Renato Vallanzasca and the Red Brigades terrorist Corrado Alunni.  Vallanzasca, the head of the Milanese crime gang Banda della Comasina, had been in jail for much of the last eight years and was serving a life sentence for his role in a number of kidnappings and armed robberies, which had resulted in the deaths of a number of police officers, bank staff and members of the public.  Alunni, who had been a member of both the Red Brigades and the Communist terror group Prima Linea, had been jailed in 1978 after his arrest following an armed attack on a carabinieri patrol in the city of Novara in Piedmont.  In the days leading up to their escape attempt, the two had managed to smuggle a number of firearms into the prison and discussed how they would force prison guards to open the gates.  Read more…


Baldus de Ubaldis – lawyer

Legal opinions have stood the test of time

An expert in mediaeval Roman law, Baldus de Ubaldis died on this day in 1400 in Pavia.  De Ubaldis had written more than 3,000 consilia - legal opinions - the most to remain preserved from any mediaeval lawyer.  His work on the law of evidence and gradations of proof remained the standard treatment of the subject for centuries after his death.  De Ubaldis was born into a noble family in Perugia in 1327. He studied law and received the degree of doctor of civil law when he was 17.  He taught law at the University of Bologna for three years and was then offered a professorship at Perugia University where he remained for 33 years.  De Ubaldis subsequently taught law at Pisa, Florence, Padua, Pavia and Piacenza.  He taught Pierre Roger de Beaufort, who became Pope Gregory XI, whose immediate successor, Urban VI, summoned De Ubaldis to Rome in 1380 to consult with him about the anti-pope, Clement VII. The lawyer’s view on the legal issues relating to the schism are laid down in his Questio de schismate.  One of the best works of De Ubaldis is considered to be his commentary on the Libri Feudorum, a compilation of feudal law provisions.  Read more…


Book of the Day: Italian Architecture of the 16th Century, by Colin Rowe and Leon Satkowski

Italian Architecture of the 16th Century is the last published work of the legendary Colin Rowe, the fruit of his four-year collaboration with Leon Satkowski, a Rowe student and author of Giorgio Vasari: Architect and Courtier. The book is a testament to the buildings, architects, and artists Rowe most deeply appreciated. For the millions of travellers who flock to Italy to see the art and architecture of the 16th century-subjects that captured Rowe's heart and challenged his fertile mind-this book is at once a pleasurable read and the pinnacle in scholarship. It is written in Rowe's unmatched and engaging personal style, and it is beautifully illustrated throughout with photographs, drawings, and paintings of the art and architecture that make this period and this place so beloved. The book emphasises the leading subjects of the 16th -century Renaissance: the architects (Bramante, Vignola), the patrons (Leo X, Cosimo I de Medici), the artists (Michelangelo), and the cities (Rome, Venice, Florence). As the finest critical scholarship on cinquecento Italy and an accessible guide for the non-scholar, this book is destined to be regarded as one of Rowe's most important.

Colin Rowe was a popular lecturer at Cornell University in New York. A mentor to thousands, his legacy at Cornell matches that of Vincent Scully at Yale. Rowe's lectures assumed legendary status and notes by students continue to circulate. Leon Satkowski, who trained at Cornell and Harvard, is a professor of architecture and art history at the University of Minnesota.

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Andrea Moroni – architect

Cousin of brilliant painter left mark on Padua

The Basilica of Santa Giustina in Padua is arguably Andrea Moroni's most famous work
The Basilica of Santa Giustina in Padua is
arguably Andrea Moroni's most famous work
Andrea Moroni, who designed many beautiful buildings in Padua and the Veneto region, died on this day in 1560 in Padua.

Born into a family of stonecutters in Albino near Bergamo in Lombardy, Moroni was the cousin and contemporary of Giovanni Battista Moroni, the brilliant Bergamo painter, who was also born in Albino.

Moroni the architect has works attributed to him in Brescia, another city in Lombardy about 50km (31 miles) east of Bergamo. He is known to have been in the city between 1527 and 1532 where he built a choir for the monastery of Santa Giulia.

He probably also designed the building in which the nuns could attend mass in the monastery of Santa Giulia and worked on the church of San Faustino.

As a result, he made his name with the Benedictine Order and obtained commissions for two Benedictine churches in Padua, Santa Maria di Praglia and the more famous Santa Giustina.

His contract with Santa Giustina was renewed every ten years until his death and he settled down to live in Padua.

Moroni supervised the construction of Palazzo del Bo, the university building in the centre of Padua
Moroni supervised the construction of Palazzo del
Bo, the university building in the centre of Padua
He was commissioned by the Venetian Government to build the Palazzo del Podestà, which is now known as Palazzo Moroni in Via VIII Febbraio , and is currently the seat of Padua city Council. It is considered one of the most significant Renaissance buildings in the entire Veneto region.

Moroni was also involved in the construction of the Orto Botanico, Padua’s famous botanical gardens, where medicinal plants were grown, and some of the university buildings.

It is known that he supervised the construction of Palazzo del Bo, the main university building in the city, but there is some controversy over who designed the internal courtyard. Famous names such as Jacopo Sansovino and Andrea Palladio have been suggested rather than Moroni.

However the Loggia of the Palazzo del Capitaniato and the Palazetto have been attributed to him, along with Palazzo Zacco and the Charterhouse of Vigodarzere.

Some architectural historians believe Moroni’s reputation as an architect, and the question marks over whether some buildings attributed to him were really the work of others, may have suffered because his career coincided with that of Palladio.

The Chapel of St Luke at the Basilica di Santa, where the remains of the saint are said to rest
The Chapel of St Luke at the Basilica di Santa,
where the remains of the saint are said to rest

Travel tip:

The Basilica di Santa Giustina in Padua is at the south-east corner of the square called Prato della Valle, where it is joined by Via Avezzano and Via Ferrari. At the back of the Presbytery, a magnificent altarpiece painted by Paolo Veronese in 1575 depicts the moment of her death. The basilica also contains Jacopo Bassano’s Santa Giustina enthroned with the saints Sebastian, Antonio Abate and Rocco, which was painted by him in around 1560 with the help of his son, Francesco, and is considered one of the most original examples of the Venetian Mannerist culture. Next door to the basilica there is a Benedictine monastery with frescoed cloisters and a famous library that can be visited by arrangement. The remains of Santa Giustina, a devout young woman who was martyred in 304, are buried in the church, which is also home to the tomb containing the body of St Luke the Evangelist, who was credited with writing the Gospel according to St Luke.

The Orto Botanico in Padua, now a UNESCO heritage site, is thought to the world's first botanical garden
The Orto Botanico in Padua, now a UNESCO heritage
site, is thought to the world's first botanical garden
Travel tip:

Padua’s Botanical Garden (Orto Botanico), which was created in 1545, is thought to be the world’s first botanical garden. Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the garden, which still belongs to the University of Padua, is in Via Orto Botanico close to Prato della Valle. When it was founded, the garden was devoted to the growth of medicinal plants that could provide natural remedies. According to UNESCO, the garden has made a profound contribution to the development of many modern scientific disciplines, notably botany, medicine, chemistry, ecology and pharmacy.  The garden was designed by Moroni as a circle enclosing a square divided into four quadrants, in which the plants were grown. The Orto Botanico is open to the public every day apart from working Mondays with an entry fee of €10. 

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27 April 2024

27 April

Antonio Gramsci - left-wing intellectual

Communist leader who Mussolini could not gag

Antonio Gramsci, one of the more remarkable intellectuals of left-wing Italian politics in the early 20th century, died on this day in 1937 in Rome, aged only 46.  A founding member and ultimately leader of the Italian Communist Party (PCI), he was arrested by Benito Mussolini's Fascist regime in November 1926 and sentenced to 20 years' imprisonment.   In failing health, he was granted his release after a campaign by friends and supporters but died without leaving the clinic in which he spent his final two years.  The conditions he encountered in jail led him to develop high blood pressure, angina, tuberculosis and acute gastric disorders.  Yet he found sufficient energy while imprisoned  to study the social and political history of Italy in extensive detail and to record his thoughts and theories in notebooks and around 500 letters to friends and supporters.  Many of his propositions heavily influenced the political strategy of communist parties in the West after the Second World War following the publication of his Prison Notebooks.  Gramsci was born in January 1891 in the small town of Ales, in a mountainous inland part of Sardinia.  Read more…


Cesare Bianchi - head chef

From shores of Lake Como to London’s Café Royal

Cesare Bianchi, who rose from humble beginnings to become head chef at London’s prestigious Café Royal in the 1930s, was born on this day in 1897 in Cernobbio, a village on Lake Como in northern Italy.  He moved to England when he was only 16, hoping to build a career in catering and soon found work doing odd jobs in a London kitchen. However, he had been in the city barely a year when the outbreak of the First World War meant he had to return to his homeland for national service.  In his case, it was with the Alpini, Italy’s mountain brigades, with whom he was an interpreter.  Eager to resume his career in England, once the war was over Cesare took a job at the Palace Hotel in Aberdeen.  It was there he met Martha Gall, the woman who would become his wife.  They were married in 1921 and Martha soon gave birth to their daughter, Patricia.  Ambitious, Cesare persuaded his wife to leave Scotland behind so that he could make another attempt to establish himself in London.  His culinary talents took him a long way as he worked his way up from modest beginnings to land a place in the kitchen at the Café Royal in Regent Street.  Read more…


Vittorio Cecchi Gori - entrepreneur

Ex-president of Fiorentina who produced two of Italy’s greatest films

Vittorio Cecchi Gori, whose chequered career in business saw him produce more than 300 films and own Fiorentina’s football club but also saw him jailed for fraudulent bankruptcy, was born on this day in 1942 in Florence.  The son of Mario Cecchi Gori, whose production company he inherited, he provided the financial muscle behind two of Italy’s greatest films of recent years, Il Postino (1994), which was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture, and Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful (1997), which won an Oscar for Best Foreign Language film.  He was also involved with the 1992 Oscar winner Mediterraneo, directed by Gabriele Salvatores, which also won in the Best Foreign Language film category.  Vittorio’s legacy from his father also included Fiorentina football club, of which he was president from 1993 to 2002.   With Cecchi Gori’s backing, while his involvement with the movie business was generating such huge profits, Fiorentina enjoyed great times.  He invested heavily in new players and persuaded the club’s icon, the Argentine forward Gabriel Batistuta, to stay after the viola were relegated in 1993.  Read more…


Renato Rascel - actor, singer and songwriter

Film and TV star who wrote the iconic song Arrivederci Roma

Renato Rascel, whose remarkable career encompassed more than 60 movies, a hit 1970s TV series, representing Italy at the Eurovision Song Contest and writing one of the most famous Italian songs of all time, was born on this day in 1912 in Turin.  Rascel was Italy’s entry at Eurovision 1960 in London, singing Romantica, with which he had won the Sanremo Music Festival earlier in the year. Romantica finished eighth overall in London.  He is arguably most famous, however, for the song Arrivederci Roma, which he wrote for the 1955 film of the same name, in which he starred with the Italian-American tenor and actor Mario Lanza, which was subsequently released for English and American cinema audiences with the title Seven Hills of Rome.  Arrivederci Roma quickly became a favourite Italian song and scores of big-name singers recorded cover versions, including Bing Crosby, Connie Francis, Dean Martin, Dionne Warwick, Nat King Cole, Perry Como and Vic Damone.  Only a year earlier, Rascel had written the best-selling Italian song of 1954 in Te voglio bene tanto tanto (I Love You So Much).  Read more…


Popes John XXIII and John Paul II made saints

Crowd of 800,000 in St Peter's Square for joint canonisation

Pope Francis declared Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II as saints at a ceremony during Mass in Rome’s St Peter’s Square on this day in 2014.  Hundreds of thousands of people from around the world converged on the Vatican to attend the ceremony, which celebrated two popes recognised as giants of the Catholic Church in the 20th century.  There was scarcely room to move in St Peter's Square, the Via della Conciliazione and the adjoining streets.  The crowd, probably the biggest since John Paul II’s beatification three years earlier, was estimated at around 800,000, of which by far the largest contingent had made the pilgrimage from John Paul’s native Poland to see their most famous compatriot become a saint.  Thousands of red and white Polish flags filled the square.  In his homily, Pope Francis said Saints John XXIII and John Paul II were “priests, bishops and popes of the 20th century. They lived through the tragic events of that century, but they were not overwhelmed by them. For them God was more powerful, faith was more powerful”.  He added that the two popes had “co-operated with the Holy Spirit in renewing and updating” the Catholic Church.  Read more…


Book of the Day: An Introduction to Antonio Gramsci: His Life, Thought and Legacy, by George Hoare and Nathan Sperber

This is a concise introduction to the life and work of the Italian militant and political thinker, Antonio Gramsci. As head of the Italian Communist Party in the 1920s, Gramsci was arrested and condemned to 20 years' imprisonment by Mussolini's fascist regime. It was during this imprisonment that Gramsci wrote his famous Prison Notebooks – over 2,000 pages of profound and influential reflections on history, culture, politics, philosophy and revolution.  An Introduction to Antonio Gramsci retraces the trajectory of Gramsci's life, before examining his conceptions of culture, politics and philosophy. Gramsci's writings are then interpreted through the lens of his most famous concept, that of 'hegemony'; Gramsci's thought is then extended and applied to 'think through' contemporary problems to illustrate his distinctive historical methodology. The book concludes with a valuable examination of Gramsci's legacy today and useful tips for further reading.  George Hoare and Nathan Sperber make Gramsci accessible for students of history, politics and philosophy keen to understand this seminal figure in 20th-century intellectual history.

George Hoare is an independent researcher and co-host of the Bungacast podcast. His books include The End of the End of History: Politics in the Twenty-First Century and Taking Control: Sovereignty and Democracy after Brexit (with Philip Cunliffe, Lee Jones, and Peter Ramsay).  Nathan Sperber is a sociologist based in Paris and an associate of the European Centre of Sociology and Political Science of the Sorbonne, France.

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26 April 2024

26 April

Gian Paolo Lomazzo - artist

Painter became leading art historian and critic of the 16th century

Gian Paolo Lomazzo, a talented painter who went blind when he was 33 and turned to writing instead, was born on this day in Milan in 1538.  He became an expert on the work of Leonardo da Vinci and was given unique access to the artist’s own written work.  Lomazzo, whose first name is sometimes given as Giovan or Giovanni, was born into a family who had just moved to Milan from the town of Lomazzo in the province of Como in Lombardy.  He began training as a painter early in his life with the artists Gaudenzio Ferrari and Giovan Battista della Cerva in Milan.  By 1567 Lomazzo had painted a large Allegory of the Lenten Feast for the Church of Sant’ Agostino in Piacenza. Other notable works by him include an elaborate fresco of a dome with Glory of Angels and a painting depicting The Fall of Simon Magus for the Cappella Foppa in the Church of San Marco in Milan.  Lomazzo was so admired as an artist that the sculptor and medallist Annibale Fontana depicted him on a medallion in 1562.  But by 1571 Lomazzo had become blind and could no longer paint. He adapted to writing about art instead and produced two complex treatises that are regarded as milestones in the development of art criticism.  Read more…


Michele Ferrero - the man who invented Nutella

Hazelnut spread that became a worldwide favourite

The man who invented the global commercial phenomenon that is Nutella spread was born on this day in 1925.  Michele Ferrero, who died in 2015 aged 89, owned the Italian chocolate manufacturer Ferrero SpA, the second largest confectionery producer in Europe after Nestlé.  He was the richest individual in Italy, listed by the Bloomberg Billionaires index in 2014 as the 20th richest person in the world.  The wealth of Michele and his family was put at $20.4 billion, around 14.9 billion euros.  Ferrero is famous for such brands as Ferrero Rocher, Mon Cheri, Kinder and Tic Tacs.  But, it could be argued, none of those names would probably exist had it not been for Nutella.  The chocolate and hazelnut spread came into being after Michele, who was born in the small town of Dogliani in Piedmont, inherited the Ferrero company from his father, Pietro.  With high taxes on cocoa beans making conventional chocolate expensive to make, Pietro had managed to build the business by producing a solid confectionery bar that combined Gianduja, a traditional Piedmontese hazelnut paste, with about 20 per cent chocolate.  Read more…


Maria de’ Medici

Medici daughter who ended up ruling France

Maria de’ Medici, who became Queen of France after her marriage to King Henri IV, was born on this day in 1575 at the Palazzo Pitti in Florence.  After her husband was assassinated the day after his coronation, she ruled France as regent for her son, Louis, until he came of age.  Maria was the daughter of the grand duke of Tuscany, Francesco de’ Medici, and his wife, Joanna of Austria.  Henri had divorced his wife, Margaret, and married Maria in 1600 to obtain a large dowry that would help him pay his debts.  In 1601 Maria gave birth to a son, the future King Louis XIII, and then went on to bear a further five children for her husband.  However she resented her husband’s infidelities and he despised her friends from Florence, Concino Concini and his wife, Leonora.  After Henri was assassinated in 1610, the French parliament proclaimed Maria regent for her young son.  Guided by her favourite, Concini, who had become Marquis of Ancre, Maria reversed Henri’s anti-Spanish policy. She is also alleged to have squandered the country’s revenue and made humiliating concessions to its rebellious nobles.  Read more…


Tommaso Allan - rugby player

Ex-Treviso star has won 80 international caps

The rugby player Tommaso Allan, who has won 80 international caps for the Italy rugby union team since his debut in 2013, was born on this day in 1993 in Vicenza.  A specialist fly-half, Allan is second in the all-time points scoring chart for the Azzurri, having amassed a total of 501 points, including 15 tries and 89 conversions.  Only Diego Dominguez, who also played at fly-half before retiring in 2003, scored more points for the national team in his career.  Currently playing for Perpignan in France, Allan spent five seasons playing for Benetton Treviso, one of Italy’s most famous and successful clubs.  Allan was born into a rugby-playing family. His mother, Paola Berlato, was herself an international player, with four caps for the Azzurre at scrum half; his father, William, born in Scotland, spent two years playing for the rugby team of Thiene, a small city in Vicenza province. His father’s brother, John, won nine international caps for Scotland and 13 for South Africa.  Tommaso began playing himself at around the age of six, training at the Petrarca Padova youth academy.   Read more…


Samantha Cristoforetti - astronaut

Record-breaker spent almost 200 days in space

Italy’s first female astronaut, Samantha Cristoforetti, was born on this day in 1977 in Milan.  A captain in the Italian Air Force, in which she is a pilot and engineer, Cristoforetti holds the world record for the longest space flight by a woman, which she set as a crew member on the European Space Agency’s Futura mission to the International Space Station in 2014.  Cristoforetti and her two fellow astronauts, the Russian Anton Shkaplerov and the American Terry Virts, left Kazakhstan in a Soyuz spacecraft on November 23, 2014 and returned on June 11, 2015, having spent 199 days and 16 hours in space – four days longer than the previous record for a female astronaut, held by the American NASA astronaut Sunita Williams.  The mission was supposed to have ended a month earlier but had to be extended after a Russian supply freighter failed to reach the ISS. The extra time also allowed Cristoforetti to set a record for the longest time in space by a European astronaut of either gender.  While Williams was hailed as the first person to complete a marathon in space when she ran 26 miles and 385 yards on the ISS’s on-board treadmill, Cristoforetti can claim to be the first person to have brewed an espresso coffee in space.  Read more…


Book of the Day: A New History of Italian Renaissance Art, by Stephen J Campbell and Michael W Cole

Campbell and Cole, respected teachers and active researchers, draw on traditional and current scholarship to present complex interpretations in this new edition of their engaging account of Italian Renaissance art. The book’s unique decade-by-decade structure is easy to follow, and permits the authors to tell the story of art not only in the great centres of Rome, Florence and Venice, but also in a range of other cities and sites throughout Italy, including more in this edition from Naples, Padua and Palermo. This approach allows the artworks to take centre-stage, in contrast to the book’s competitors, which are organised by location or by artist. Other updates for this edition of A New History of Italian Renaissance Art include an expanded first chapter on the Trecento, and a new ‘Techniques and Materials’ appendix that explains and illustrates all of the major art-making processes of the period.  Richly illustrated with high-quality reproductions and new photography of recent restorations, it presents the classic canon of Renaissance painting and sculpture in full, while expanding the scope of conventional surveys by offering a more thorough coverage of architecture, decorative and domestic arts, and print media.

Stephen J Campbell is a specialist in Italian art of the 15th and 16th centuries, focusing on the artistic culture of North Italian court centres, on the Ferrarese painter Cosme Tura, and the Paduan Andrea Mantegna.  Michael W Cole is a specialist in Renaissance and Baroque European art, with a focus on art in 15th, 16th and 17th-century Italy.  His books include Sofonisba’s Lesson, a study of the portraitist Sofonisba Anguissola and how she changed the image of women’s education in Europe.

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25 April 2024

25 April

NEW - Giacomo Boni - archaeologist and architect 

Venetian best known for his discoveries at the Forum in Rome

The archaeologist Giacomo Boni, who was director of excavations at the Forum in Rome for 27 years until his death in 1925, was born on this day in 1859 in Venice.  His work within the ancient Roman site led to significant discoveries such as the Iron Age necropolis, the Lapis Niger, the Regia, and other monuments.  Boni had a particular interest in stratigraphy, the branch of geology concerning subterranean layers of rock and other materials, and was among the first to apply the principles of stratigraphic excavation in the field of archaeological research.  The methods he employed in his work at the Forum still serve as a reference point today.  Boni was also an architect. In that area of his work, his masterpiece is considered to be the restoration of the Villa Blanc, a prestigious house that represents a unique example of eclectic art, a harmonious blend of elements and styles of different ages and cultures.  He served as a soldier during World War I, after which he embraced fascism, which he saw as an opportunity for the revival of ancient Roman religion and paganism, in which he had a keen interest.  Read more…


La Festa della Liberazione

Date of radio broadcast chosen for annual celebration

Today is a public holiday in Italy as the whole country joins together to celebrate the anniversary of the end of the Fascist regime with la Festa della Liberazione.  Every year on this day, the end of the Nazi occupation of Italy is commemorated with parades and parties and many public buildings are closed.  La Festa della Liberazione (Liberation Day) marks the day when Allied troops were finally able to liberate Italy.  The date for the national holiday was chosen in 1946. It was decided to hold the Festa on 25 April, the date the news of the liberation was officially announced to the country on the radio.  The marches and events customarily held on the day provide an opportunity for Italians to remember their fallen soldiers, in particular the partisans of the Italian resistance who fought the Nazis, as well as Mussolini’s troops, throughout the second world war. A ceremony is usually held at the war memorial in each city and town.  It is also a festive occasion for many Italians, who enjoy the food festivals, open air concerts and parties taking place.  Read more…


Giovanni Caselli - inventor

Priest and physicist who created world’s first ‘fax' machine

Giovanni Caselli, a physics professor who invented the pantelegraph, the forerunner of the modern fax machine, was born on this day in 1815 in Siena.  Caselli developed a prototype pantelegraph, which was capable of transmitting handwriting and images over long distances via wire telegraph lines, in 1856, some 20 years ahead of the patenting of Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone in the United States. It entered commercial service in France in 1865.  The technology was patented in Europe and the United States in the 1860s, when it was also trialled in Great Britain and Russia, but ultimately it proved too unreliable to achieve universal acceptance and virtually disappeared from popular use until midway through the 20th century.  Caselli spent his early years in Florence studying physics, science, history and religion and was ordained as a priest in the Catholic Church when he was 21.  In 1841 he was appointed tutor to the sons of Count Marquis Sanvitale of Modena in Parma, where he spent eight years before his time there was abruptly ended by expulsion from the city as a result of his participation in an uprising against the ruling House of Austria-Este.  Read more…


Leon Battista Alberti - Renaissance polymath

Architect with multiple artistic talents

The polymath Leon Battista Alberti, who was one of the 15th century’s most significant architects but possessed an intellect that was much more wide ranging, died on this day in 1472 in Rome.  In his 68 years, Alberti became well known for his work on palaces and churches in Florence, Rimini and Mantua in particular, but he also made major contributions to the study of mathematics, astronomy, language and cryptography, wrote poetry in Latin and works of philosophy and was ordained as a priest.  He was one of those multi-talented figures of his era, along with Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and, a little later, Galileo Galilei, for whom the description Renaissance Man was coined.  Alberti was born in Genoa in 1404, although his family were wealthy Florentine bankers. It just happened that at the time of his birth his father, Lorenzo, was in exile, having been expelled by the powerful Albizzi family.  Leon and his brother, Carlo, were born out of wedlock, the product of their father’s relationship with a Bolognese widow, but as Lorenzo’s only offspring they were given a privileged upbringing.  Read more…


Ferruccio Ranza - World War One flying ace

Fighter pilot survived 57 aerial dogfights

Ferruccio Ranza, a World War One pilot who survived 465 combat sorties and scored 17 verified victories, died on this day in 1973 in Bologna, at the age of 80.  Ranza, who also saw service in the Second World War, when he rose to the rank of Brigadier General, was jointly the seventh most successful of Italy’s aviators in the 1914-18 conflict, and would be placed third if his eight unconfirmed victories had been proven.  In all, he engaged with enemy aeroplanes in 57 dogfights.  The most successful Italian flying ace from the First World War was Francesco Baracca, who chalked up 34 verified victories before he was killed in action in 1918.  Ranza served alongside Baracca in the 91st Fighter Squadron of the Italian air force, the so-called ‘squadron of aces’.  Ranza was born in Fiorenzuolo d’Arda, a medium-sized town in the province of Piacenza in what is now Emilia-Romagna, in 1892. Both his parents, Paolo and Maria, were teachers.  After attending the Istituto Tecnico ‘Romagnosi’ in Piacenza, he joined the Italian army in December 1913. He was a second lieutenant in the 1st Regiment of Engineers when the First World War began in 1914.  Read more…


Book of the Day: The Roman Forum, by David Watkin

One of the most visited sites in Italy, the Roman Forum is also one of the best-known wonders of the Roman world. Though a highpoint on the tourist route around Rome, for many visitors the site can be a baffling disappointment. Several of the monuments turn out to be 19th or 20th-century reconstructions, while the rubble and the holes made by archaeologists have an unclear relationship to the standing remains, and, to all but the most skilled Romanists, the Forum can be an unfortunate mess.  David Watkin’s book sheds completely new light on the Forum, examining the roles of the ancient remains while revealing what exactly the standing structures embody—including the rarely studied mediaeval, Renaissance, and Baroque churches, as well as the nearby monuments that have important histories of their own. Watkin asks the reader to look through the veneer of archaeology to rediscover the site as it was famous for centuries. This involves offering a remarkable and engaging new vision of a well-visited, if often misunderstood, wonder. The Roman Forum will be enjoyed by readers at home and serve as a guide in the site itself.

The late David Watkin was Professor of Architectural History at the University of Cambridge. His work includes major studies of architects such as John Soane and Thomas Hope, and the influential polemic Architecture and Morality. 

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