21 April 2024

21 April

NEW - Pietro Della Valle – composer and travel writer

Adventurous Roman wrote unique accounts of 17th century Persia and India 

Composer, musicologist, and writer Pietro Della Valle, who travelled to the Holy Land, Persia and India during the Renaissance and wrote about his experiences in letters to a friend, died on this day in 1652 in Rome.  Della Valle was born in Rome into a wealthy and noble family and grew up to study Latin, Greek, classical mythology and the Bible. Another member of his family was Cardinal Andrea della Valle, after whom the Basilica Sant’Andrea della Valle in Rome was named.  Having been disappointed in love, Pietro Della Valle vowed to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. He sailed from Venice to Istanbul, where he lived for more than a year learning Turkish and Arabic.  He then travelled to Jerusalem, by way of Alexandria, Cairo, and Mount Sinai, where he visited the holy sites. He wrote regular letters about his travels to Mario Schipano, a professor of medicine in Naples, who later published them in three volumes.  Della Valle moved on to Damascus, went to Baghdad, where he married a Christian woman, Sitti Maani Gioenida, before moving on to Persia, now known as Iran. While in the Middle East, Della Valle created one of the first modern records of the location of ancient Babylon.  Read more…


Alessandro Moreschi - the last castrato

Only singer of his type to make solo recordings

Alessandro Moreschi, the singer generally recognised as the last castrato, and the only castrato of whom solo recordings were made, died on this day in 1922 in his apartment in Rome.  Suffering from pneumonia, Moreschi passed away in his apartment in Via Plinio, just a few minutes walk from the Vatican, where he sang for 30 years as a member of the Sistine Chapel choir.  Castrati were male classical singers with voices that were the equivalent of the female soprano, mezzo-soprano or contralto, but which carried much greater power. As the name suggests, these vocal qualities in men were produced through castration, which had to take place before puberty to prevent normal development.  The procedure both impaired the development of the larynx so that the pre-pubescent vocal range was retained and altered the way in which the subject’s bones developed, which resulted often in unusually long limbs and, more significantly, very long ribs, which gave the castrato’s lungs unrivalled capacity.  It was a barbaric practice and many boys did not survive it, but the rewards for those who did were potentially huge.   Read more…


The birth of Rome

City said to have been founded on April 21, 753 BC

Three days of celebrations in Rome mark the annual Natale di Roma Festival, which commemorates the founding of the city in 753BC.  The traditional celebrations take place largely in the large open public space of Circus Maximus, which hosts many historical re-enactments.  In past years a costumed parade has toured the city, featuring more than 2,000 gladiators, senators, vestal virgins and priestesses.  City museums traditionally offer free entry and many of the city’s restaurants have special Natale di Roma menus.  After dark, many public places are lit up, torches illuminate the Aventine Hill, and firework displays take place by the Tiber river.  According to legend, Romulus and his twin brother, Remus, founded Rome on the site where they were suckled by a she-wolf as orphaned infants.  They were said to be the sons of Rhea Silvia, the daughter of King Numitor of Alba Longa, a city located in the nearby Alban Hills southeast of what would become Rome.  Before they were born, Numitor was deposed by his younger brother Amulius, who murdered his existing son and forced Rhea to become a vestal virgin so that she would not give birth to rival claimants to his title.  Read more…


Cosimo I de' Medici

The grand designs of a powerful archduke

The second duke of Florence and first grand duke of Tuscany, Cosimo I, died on this day in 1574 at the Villa di Castello near Florence.  Cosimo had proved to be both shrewd and unscrupulous, bringing Florence under his despotic control and increasing its territories.  He was the first to have the idea of uniting all public services in a single building. He commissioned the Uffizi - offices - a beautiful building that is now an art gallery in the centre of Florence.  Cosimo was the great-great-grandson of Lorenzo the Elder, whose brother was Cosimo the Elder but played no part in politics until he heard of the assassination of his distant cousin, Alessandro.  He immediately travelled to Florence and was elected head of the republic in 1537 with the approval of the city’s senate, assembly and council.  He also had the support of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V. The Emperor’s generals defeated an army raised against Cosimo, who then had the principal rebels beheaded in public in Florence.  Cosimo began to style himself as a duke and sidelined the other Government bodies in the city.  As the Emperor’s protégée, he remained safe from the hostility of Pope Paul II and King Francis I of France.  Read more…


Silvana Mangano - actress

Star who married the producer Dino De Laurentiis

The actress Silvana Mangano, who was decried as a mere sex symbol and later hailed as a fine character actress during a quite restricted career, was born on this day in 1930 in Rome.  She found fame through Giuseppe De Santis’s neorealist film Bitter Rice, in which she played a female worker in the rice fields in the Po Valley who becomes involved with a petty criminal Walter, played by Vittorio Gassman.  Mangano’s character was a sensual, lustful young woman and the actress, a former beauty queen, carried it off so well that she was hailed by one critic as “Ingrid Bergmann with a Latin disposition” and likened also to the American glamour queen Rita Hayworth.  She went on to work with many of Italy's leading directors, including Alberto Lattuada, Vittorio De Sica, Pier Paolo Pasolini and Luchino Visconti, but she made only 30 films, in part because she preferred to spend time with her family but also because Dino De Laurentiis, the producer of Bitter Rice who soon became her husband, controlled her career.  It is said that she was offered the important part of Maddalena in Federico Fellini’s La dolce vita but that De Laurentiis prevented her from taking it.  Read more…


Gino Strada - surgeon and charity founder

‘Maestro of humanity’ built hospitals for war victims

The surgeon and founder of the medical and humanitarian charity Emergency, Gino Strada, was born on this day in 1948 in Sesto San Giovanni, a town that is now effectively a suburb of Milan.  Emergency has provided free healthcare to more than 11 million people in 19 different countries, including locations severely affected by conflict such as Afghanistan, Iraq, and Yemen.  It also operates in Eritrea, Sierra Leone, Uganda, Sudan, Cambodia, Serbia, Nicaragua and Sri Lanka.  The hospitals set up by the organisation - some designed with the help of Strada’s friend, the world-renowned architect Renzo Piano - are built to the highest standards, with the aim of providing world-class treatments and after-care. Strada, who was said himself to have performed more than 30,000 operations on direct or indirect victims of conflict, insisted that the hospitals in which his European volunteers worked had to be places where “you would be happy to have one of your family members treated”.  When Strada died in 2021, among the many tributes paid to him was one by the then president of the European parliament, David Sassoli, who described him as the ‘maestro of humanity’. Read more…


Book of the Day: SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome, by Mary Beard

Ancient Rome matters.  Its history of empire, conquest, cruelty and excess is something against which we still judge ourselves. Its myths and stories - from Romulus and Remus to the Rape of Lucretia - still strike a chord with us. And its debates about citizenship, security and the rights of the individual still influence our own debates on civil liberty today.  SPQR is a new look at Roman history from one of the world's foremost classicists. It explores not only how Rome grew from an insignificant village in central Italy to a power that controlled territory from Spain to Syria, but also how the Romans thought about themselves and their achievements, and why they are still important to us. Covering 1,000 years of history, and casting fresh light on the basics of Roman culture from slavery to running water, as well as exploring democracy, migration, religious controversy, social mobility and exploitation in the larger context of the empire, this is a definitive history of ancient Rome.  SPQR is the Romans' own abbreviation for their state: Senatus Populusque Romanus, 'the Senate and People of Rome'.

Dame Winifred Mary Beard is an English classicist specialising in Ancient Rome. She is a trustee of the British Museum and formerly held a personal professorship of classics at the University of Cambridge. She is a fellow of Newnham College, Cambridge, and Royal Academy of Arts Professor of Ancient Literature.

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