31 May 2024

31 May

Paolo Sorrentino - film director

Seventh Italian director to win Best Foreign Film at Oscars

The film director Paolo Sorrentino, whose 2013 movie La grande bellezza  won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, was born on this day in 1970 in Naples.  The award put him in the company of Federico Fellini and Vittorio De Sica in landing the Oscar for Best Foreign Film, a prize that has been won by only seven Italian directors in the history of the Academy Awards.  Fellini scooped the honour four times and De Sica twice. The other successful Italian directors are Elio Petri, Giuseppe Tornatore, Gabriele Salvatores and Roberto Benigni.  La grande bellezza - released for English-speaking audiences as The Great Beauty - was the first Italian winner since Benigni’s Life is Beautiful was named as Best Foreign Film in 1998.  Sorrentino’s 2021 semi-autobiographical movie The Hand of God - È stata la mano di Dio in Italian - was nominated for an Oscar but missed out to the Japanese drama Drive My Car.  Lauded for combining an expansive visual style with a sensitivity for psychological subtleties in his films, Sorrentino was born in the Arenella district of Naples, a relatively prosperous neighbourhood atop the Vomero hill.  Read more…


Andrew Grima - royal jeweller

Rome-born craftsman favoured by the Queen of England

The jewellery designer Andrew Grima, whose clients included the British Royal Family, was born on this day in 1921 in Rome.  Grima, whose flamboyant use of dramatically large, rough-cut stones and brilliant innovative designs revolutionised modern British jewellery, achieved an enviable status among his contemporaries.  After the Duke of Edinburgh had given the Queen a brooch of carved rubies and diamonds designed by Grima as a gift, he was awarded a Royal Warrant and rapidly became the jeweller of choice for London’s high society, as well as celebrities and film stars from around the world.  He won 13 De Beers Diamonds International Awards, which is more than any other jeweller, and examples of his work are kept by the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths.  When a private collection of Grima pieces was sold at auction by Bonhams in London in September 2017, some 93 lots realised a total of more than £7.6 million (€8.6m), with one pear-shaped blue diamond alone making £2.685m (€3.034m).  Grima’s father, John Grima, was the Maltese owner of a large international lace-making business.  Read more…


Angelo Moriondo - espresso machine pioneer

Bar and hotel owner invented way to make coffee faster

Angelo Moriondo, the man credited with inventing the world’s first espresso coffee machine, died on this day in 1914 in Marentino, a town in Piedmont, about 20km (12 miles) east of Turin.  Moriondo, who was 62 when he passed away, was the owner of the Grand-Hotel Ligure in Turin’s Piazza Carlo Felice and the American Bar in the former Galleria Nazionale on Via Roma.  He came up with the idea of a coffee machine essentially in the hope of gaining an edge over his competition at a time when coffee was a hugely popular beverage across Europe and in Italy in particular, but which still depended on brewing methods that required the customer to wait five minutes or more to be able to raise a cup to his mouth.  Moriondo figured that if he could find a way to make multiple cups of coffee simultaneously he would be able to serve more customers more quickly. He hoped that word would then get round in Turin’s commercial district that his bars were the ones to go if the pressures of business did not allow time for leisurely breaks.  He never contemplated industrial-scale production of his invention, his ambitions never extending beyond the needs of his own businesses.  Read more…


Tintoretto – painter

Dyer’s son whose work still adorns Venice

Renaissance artist Tintoretto died on this day in 1594 in Venice.  Known for his boundless energy, the painter was also sometimes referred to as Il Furioso.  His paintings are populated by muscular figures, make bold use of perspective and feature the colours typical of the Venetian school.  Tintoretto was an expert at depicting crowd scenes and mythological subjects and during his successful career received important commissions to produce paintings for the Scuola Grande di San Marco and the Scuolo Grande di San Rocco.  Tintoretto was born Jacopo Comin, the son of a dyer (tintore), which earned him the nickname Tintoretto, meaning 'little dyer'.  He was also sometimes known as Jacopo Robusti as his father had defended the gates of Padua against imperial troops in a way that was described as ‘robust’ at the time.  As a child, Tintoretto daubed on his father’s walls so the dyer took him to the studio of Titian to see if he could be trained as an artist.  Things did not work out and Tintoretto was quickly sent home.  Read more…


Book of the Day: The Cinema of Paolo Sorrentino – Commitment to Style, by Russell Kilbourn

Paolo Sorrentino, director of Il Divo (2008) and The Great Beauty (2013) and creator of the HBO series The Young Pope (2016), has emerged as one of the most compelling figures in 21st century European film. From his earliest productions to his more recent transnational works, Sorrentino has paid homage to Italy’s cinematic past while telling stories of masculine characters whose sense of self seems to be on the brink of dissolution. Together with his usual collaborators (including cinematographer Luca Bigazzi and editor Cristiano Travagliolo) and actors (chief among them Toni Servillo), Sorrentino has produced an incisive depiction of the contemporary European condition by means of an often spectacular postclassical style that nevertheless continues postwar Italian film’s tradition of political commitment.  This book is a critical examination of Sorrentino’s work. The author offers close readings of Sorrentino’s feature films and television output, featuring in-depth analyses of the director’s exuberant and intensified film style. Addressing the crucial themes of Sorrentino’s output―including a masculine subject defined by a melancholic awareness of its own imminent demise, and a critique of the conventional cinematic representation of women―Kilbourn illuminates Sorrentino’s ability to suffuse postmodern elegies for the humanist worldview with a sense of social awareness and responsibility. The first English-language study of the acclaimed director’s oeuvre, The Cinema of Paolo Sorrentino demonstrates why he is considered one of the most dynamic figures making films today.

Russell J A Kilbourn is Professor of English and Film Studies at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario. His books include Cinema, Memory, Modernity: The Representation of Memory from the Art Film to Transnational Cinema (2010).

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30 May 2024

30 May

Giacomo Matteotti - martyr of freedom

Politician kidnapped and murdered by Fascist thugs

A brave and historic speech made in the Italian parliament on this day in 1924 marked the start of a crisis for Benito Mussolini's Fascist government.  The young socialist politician who delivered the speech, denouncing the Fascist victory in the general election held in April of that year as having been won through fraud and violence, was subsequently kidnapped and murdered.  Giacomo Matteotti, the 29-year-old founder and leader of the Unified Socialist Party, accused Mussolini's party of employing thugs to intimidate the public into voting Fascist and said that changes to electoral law were inherently corrupt in that they were framed to make a Mussolini government almost inevitable.  Matteotti, who had already written a controversial book about the Fascists' rise to power, knew the risk he took in making the speech and is said to have told colleagues they should "get ready to hold a wake for me" as they offered him their congratulations.  Less than two weeks later, on June 10, Matteotti was walking along the banks of the River Tiber close to his home in Rome when he was attacked by five or six assailants who beat him up and bundled him into a car.  Read more…


General Giulio Douhet - military strategist

Army commander was one of first to see potential of air power

The Italian Army general Giulio Douhet, who saw the military potential in aircraft long before others did, was born in Caserta, north of Naples, on this day in 1869.  With the arrival of airships and then fixed-wing aircraft in Italy, Douhet recognized the military potential of the new technology. He advocated the creation of a separate air arm commanded by airmen rather than by commanders on the ground. From 1912 to 1915 Douhet served as commander of the Aeronautical Battalion, Italy’s first aviation unit.  Largely because of Douhet, the three-engine Caproni bomber - designed by the young aircraft engineer Gianni Caproni - was ready for use by the time Italy entered the First World War.  His severe criticism of Italy’s conduct of the war, however, resulted in his court-martial and imprisonment. Only after a review of Italy’s catastrophic defeat in 1917 in the Battle of Caporetto was it decided that his criticisms had been justified and his conviction reversed.  Born into a family of Savoyard exiles who had migrated to Campania after the cession of Savoy to France, Douhet attended the Military Academy of Modena and was commissioned into the artillery of the Italian Army in 1882.  Read more…


Giovanni Gentile – philosopher

The principal intellectual spokesman for Fascism

Giovanni Gentile, a major figure in Italian idealist philosophy, was born on this day in 1875 in Castelvetrano in Sicily.  Known as ‘the philosopher of fascism’, Gentile was the ghostwriter of part of Benito Mussolini’s The Doctrine of Fascism in 1932. His own ‘actual idealism’ was strongly influenced by the German philosopher, Georg Hegel.  Gentile's rejection of individualism and acceptance of collectivism helped him justify the totalitarian element of fascism.  After a series of university appointments, Gentile became Professor of the History of Philosophy at the University of Rome in 1917.  While writing La filosophia di Marx - The Philosophy of Marx - a Hegelian examination of Karl Marx’s ideas, he met writer and philosopher Benedetto Croce. The two men became friends and co-editors of the periodical La Critica until 1924, when a lasting disagreement occurred over Gentile’s embrace of fascism.  Gentile was Minister of Education in the Fascist government of Italy from October 1922 to July 1924 carrying out wide reforms, which had a lasting impact on Italian education.  Read more…


Andrea Verga - anatomist and neurologist

Professor among founding fathers of Italian psychiatry

The anatomist and neurologist Andrea Verga, who was one of the first Italian doctors to carry out serious research into mental illness, was born on this day in 1811 in Treviglio in Lombardy.  Verga’s career was notable for his pioneering study of the criminally insane, for some of the first research into acrophobia - the fear of heights - which was a condition from which he suffered, and for the earliest known experiments in the therapeutic use of cannabis.  For a number of years, he held the post of Professor of Psychiatry at the Ospedale Maggiore in Milan. He also founded, in conjunction with another physician, Serafino Biffi, the Italian Archives for Nervous Disease and Mental Illness, a periodical in which research findings could be shared and discussed.  Verga also acquired an in-depth knowledge of the anatomy of the bone system and the nervous system, and was the first to identify an anomaly of the brain that occurs in only one in six people, which became known as ‘Verga’s ventricle’.  The son of a coachman, Verga was an enthusiastic student of classics whom his parents encouraged to pursue a career in the church, yet it was medicine that became his calling.  Read more…


Book of the Day: Blood and Power: The Rise and Fall of Italian Fascism, by John Foot

In the aftermath of the First World War, the seeds of fascism were sown in Italy. While the country reeled in shock, a new movement emerged from the chaos: one that preached hatred for politicians and love for the fatherland; one that promised to build a 'New Roman Empire', and make Italy a great power once again.  Wearing black shirts and wielding guns, knives and truncheons, the supporters of the Italian Fascist Party embraced a climate of violence and rampant masculinity. Led by Benito Mussolini, they would systematically destroy the organisations of the left, murdering and torturing anyone who got in their way.  In Blood and Power, historian John Foot draws on decades of research to chart the turbulent years between 1915 and 1945, and beyond. Drawing widely from accounts of people across the political spectrum - fascists, anti-fascists, communists, anarchists, victims, perpetrators and bystanders - he tells the story of Italian Fascism and its legacy, which still, disturbingly, reverberates to this day.

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

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29 May 2024

29 May

Franca Rame – actress, writer and politician

Artistic collaborator and wife of Dario Fo

The actress and writer Franca Rame, much of whose work was done in collaboration with her husband, the Nobel Prize-winning actor, playwright and satirist Dario Fo, died in Milan on this day in 2013 at the age of 83.  One of Italy's most admired and respected stage performers, her contribution to Dario Fo’s work was such that his 1997 Nobel prize for literature probably should have been a joint award. In the event, on receipt of the award, Fo announced he was sharing it with his wife.  Rame was also a left-wing militant. A member of the Italian Communist Party from 1967, she was elected to the Italian senate in 2006 under the banner of the Italy of Values party, a centre-left anti-corruption grouping led by Antonio Di Pietro, the former prosecutor who had led the Mani pulite (“Clean Hands”) corruption investigation in the 1990s.  Later she was an independent member of the Communist Refoundation Party.  Her political views often heavily influenced her writing, in which her targets tended to be the Italian government and the Roman Catholic Church.  She was also an outspoken champion of women’s rights.  Read more…


Michele Schirru - would-be assassin

Anarchist executed for plotting to kill Mussolini

The Sardinian-born anarchist Michele Schirru was executed by firing squad in Rome on this day in 1931.  Schirru, a former socialist revolutionary who had emigrated to the United States, had been arrested on suspicion of plotting to assassinate the Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini.  Seized at a hotel in Rome in February 1931, having arrived in the capital about three weeks earlier, he was tried by the Special Fascist Court and after he had loudly declared his hatred of both fascism and communism was found guilty.  A death sentence was handed down at a further hearing on May 28 and the execution was carried out at first light the following day at the Casal Forte Braschi barracks on the western outskirts of Rome, where 24 Sardinian soldiers had answered the call to volunteer for the firing squad.  Schirru died screaming ‘long live anarchy, long live freedom, down with fascism’, which bizarrely won posthumous praise from Mussolini, who made reference to Schirru’s distinguished service in Italy’s army during the First World War and applauded his bravery for declaring his unwavering conviction to his cause even as the riflemen were about to squeeze the trigger.  Read more…


Katie Boyle – actress and television presenter

Daughter of Italian Marquis became the face of Eurovision

Television personality Katie Boyle was born Caterina Irene Maria Imperiali di Francavilla on this day in 1926 in Florence.  The actress, who became known for her appearances on panel games such as What’s My Line?, and also for presenting the Eurovision Song Contest on the BBC, died in 2018 at the age of 91.  She was the daughter of an Italian Marquis, the Marchese Imperiali di Francavilla, and his English wife, Dorothy Kate Ramsden.  At the age of 20, Caterina moved from Italy to the UK to begin a modelling career and she went on to appear in several 1950s films.  In 1947 she had married Richard Bentinck Boyle, the ninth Earl of Shannon, and although the marriage was dissolved in 1955, she kept the surname, Boyle, throughout her career.  Boyle was an on screen continuity announcer for the BBC in the 1950s and then became a television personality who regularly appeared on panel games and quiz programmes.  She was the presenter of the 1960, 1963, 1968 and 1974 Eurovision Song Contests, impressing viewers with her range of European languages.  Boyle has also worked in the theatre and on radio and has been an agony aunt for the TV Times.  Read more...


Saint Bona of Pisa

Pilgrim was unusual for travelling extensively in 12th century

Tour guides and flight attendants might wish to raise a glass today to Saint Bona of Pisa, whose feast day is celebrated every year on May 29.  Pope John XXIII canonised Bona in 1962 and made her the patron saint of her native city of Pisa, as well as the patron saint of Italian tour guides and flight attendants.  This was because Bona, who was born in 1156 in Pisa, used to take parties of pilgrims on the potentially dangerous journey to Santiago de Compostela in north west Spain, where James the Great, one of the 12 apostles of Jesus, is honoured.  Bona was born in the parish of San Martino in Guazzolongo in Pisa. When she was three years old her father left home and never returned, leaving her family in financial difficulties.  It is said that when Bona was about seven years of age, the figure on a crucifix in a church held its hand out to her. A few years later, at another church, she saw a vision of Jesus, the Virgin Mary and three saints. She was frightened by the light around these figures and ran away. One of the saints, James the Great, followed her and led her back to the image of Jesus.  Read more…


Virginia de’ Medici – noblewoman

Duchess was driven mad by husband’s infidelity

Virginia de’ Medici, who for a time ruled the duchy of Modena and Reggio, was born on this day in 1568 in Florence.  She protected the autonomy of the city of Modena while her husband was away, despite plots against her, and she was considered to have been a clever and far-sighted ruler.  Virginia was the illegitimate daughter of Cosimo I de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany and his mistress, Camilla Martelli.  Her paternal grandparents were Giovanni dalle Bande Nere and his wife Maria Salviati, who was the granddaughter of Lorenzo the Magnificent. Her maternal grandparents were Antonio Martelli and Fiammetta Soderini, who were both members of important families in Florence.  In 1570, Cosimo I contracted a morganatic marriage with his mistress, Camilla, on the advice of Pope Pius V, which allowed him to legitimise his daughter.  Virginia lived with her parents at the Villa di Castello during the summer and in Pisa in the winter.  Cosimo I’s older children resented his second marriage and after his death in 1574 they imprisoned Camilla in a convent.  Virginia’s older brothers negotiated a marriage for her with a member of the Sforza family.  Read more…


Book of the Day: Dario Fo and Franca Rame: Theatre, Politics, Life, by Joseph Farrell

Dario Fo (1926–2016) was an actor, playwright, theatre director, stage designer, political activist, artist and author who, having attained international fame in theatre, produced the first of his six novels at the age of 88. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1997, and works such as Accidental Death of an Anarchist and Can’t Pay? Won’t Pay secured his reputation as the outstanding political playwright of his age. Fo’s chosen genre was farce, so his drama is a uniquely engaging mixture of laughter and anger. In 1954 he married Franca Rame (1929–2013), a member of a family-company of touring players, and they remained together for almost 60 years, until her death. Although she was always recognised as an actor of considerable talent, her contribution to the writing of the plays was long undervalued. As one of Europe’s leading feminist campaigners, she increasingly asserted herself, notably with a series of one-woman works she wrote and performed. A target for right-wing terrorist groups, in 1973 she was kidnapped and raped by neo-Fascist thugs. Although the subjects of their plays, with their fearless attacks on corruption and satire of Popes and politicians, were often taken from the headlines of the day, their work was deeply rooted in theatrical tradition. The Nobel Prize citation stated that Fo ‘emulated the jesters of the Middle Ages in scourging authority and upholding the dignity of the downtrodden’. Joseph Farrell translated many of their works and knew Dario and Franca well. Dario Fo and Franca Rame: Theatre, Politics, Life is a complete account of their multifaceted lives.

Joseph Farrell is Emeritus Professor at the University of Strathclyde. His books include a cultural history of Sicily and biographies of Dario Fo and Leonardo Sciascia. He has translated works in Italian by Leonardo Sciascia, Vincenzo Consolo, Dario Fo and Valerio Varesi. 

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28 May 2024

28 May

NEW - The night Maria Callas made an audience weep

La Scala witnesses a stunning performance

Maria Callas gave a stunning performance that has gone down in history as her greatest ever portrayal of Violetta in La traviata on this day in 1955 at La Scala opera house in Milan.  After the opening night of the production on 28 May, it was reported in the press that Callas had driven the audience into a frenzy with her wonderful singing and powerful acting as she played the part of Giuseppe Verdi’s doomed heroine, who was a beautiful courtesan.  The character of Violetta is considered by opera experts to be one of the three finest roles ever portrayed by Callas and it is ranked alongside her performances in Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma and Gaetano Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor.  The staging by director Luchino Visconti for the 1955 production of La traviata provided the perfect setting for Callas with its ornate décor and costumes.  The conductor, Carlo Maria Giulini, later confessed that he had wept in the orchestra pit as she had sung.  At the end members of the audience cried out Callas’s name, sobbed uncontrollably and showered the stage with red roses, which the tearful singer picked up as she took a solo bow.  Read more...


The Last Supper goes back on display

Leonardo’s masterpiece put on show again at last

After more than 20 years of careful restoration, the world famous wall painting by Leonardo da Vinci, The Last Supper, was put back on display for visitors on this day in 1999.  The masterpiece, which shows the different expressions on the faces of the disciples at the moment Jesus says the words, ‘One of you will betray me’, was finally back where it belonged on the wall of the refectory of the Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan.  Commissioned by Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan, Leonardo began work on The Last Supper (known as Il Cenacolo in Italian) in 1495 and he completed it four years later. He felt traditional fresco painting techniques would not adequately capture the intensity he wanted so he experimented by painting on to dry plaster on the wall of the refectory.  But his new method was not as durable as the traditional one and the painting deteriorated quickly. By as early as 1556, the painting was described by one commentator as ‘ruined’.  Over the ensuing years it suffered from poor restoration techniques, blatant vandalism by French soldiers, having a doorway cut into it to provide a shortcut for the monks, and wartime bomb damage.  Read more…


Caravaggio and a death in Campo Marzio

Hot-tempered artist killed man in Rome in row over a woman

The brilliant late Renaissance artist Caravaggio committed the murder that would cause him to spend the remainder of his life on the run on this day in 1606.  Renowned for his fiery temperament and history of violent acts as well as for the extraordinary qualities of his paintings, Caravaggio is said to have killed Ranuccio Tomassoni, described in some history books as a ‘wealthy scoundrel’, in the Campo Marzio district of central Rome, not far from the Piazza Monte D'Oro.  The incident led to Caravaggio being condemned to death by order of the incumbent pope, Paul V, and then fleeing the city, first to Naples, eventually landing in Malta.  It was thought that the two had a row over a game of tennis, which was gaining popularity in Italy at the time, and that the dispute escalated into a brawl, which was not unusual for Caravaggio. The story was that Tomassoni wounded the painter in some way, at which Caravaggio drew a sword and lashed out at his rival, inflicting a gash in the thigh from which he bled to death.  This was accepted by historians as a plausible story for almost 400 years until evidence emerged to challenge the theory in 2002.  Read more…


Geminiano Giacomelli – composer

Farnese duke encouraged musician to develop his talent

One of the most popular composers of opera in the early 18th century in Italy, Geminiano Giacomelli (sometimes known as Jacomelli) was born on this day in 1692 at Colorno near Parma.  From 1724, when his opera Ipermestra was performed for the first time, up to his death in 1740, Giacomelli composed 19 operas.  His best known work was Cesare in Egitto (Caesar in Egypt),  which he produced in 1735.  As a young child he had studied singing, counterpoint and the harpsichord with Giovanni Maria Capelli, organist and composer at the Farnese court and maestro di cappella at the cathedral in Parma.  After moving to Piacenza, Giacomelli became maestro di cappella in the ducal parish of San Fermo. In 1719 he became maestro di cappella to the Farnese court and also at the Chiesa della Madonna della Steccata. He wrote sacred music, including eight psalm settings for tenor and bass and some concertos with continuo.  Duke Francesco Farnese became Giacomelli’s protector and made him maestro di cappella for life at the church of San Giovanni in Piacenza with an annual salary.  He also allowed him time off to work on his operas.  Read more…


Leandro Jayarajah - cricketer

Father was a pioneer of game in Italy

Leandro Jayarajah, the former captain and head coach of Roma Capannelle Cricket Club, was born on this day in 1987 in Rome.  His father, Francis Alphonsus Jayarajah, usually known as Alfonso, is a Sri Lankan national who founded what became the Capannelle club in 1978 and was one of the pioneers of organised cricket in Italy.  Alfonso was co-founder in 1980 of the Federazione Cricket Italiana, under whose auspices an Italian cricket championship has been played since 1983.  Capannelle, which takes its name from the racecourse in Rome, the Ippodromo Capannelle, where the club plays its home matches, have been Serie A champions on several occasions, including under Leandro’s leadership in 2013.  The club began life as the Commonwealth Wandering Giants Cricket Club, changing its name when the chance to use the green space in the middle of the racecourse as a permanent home presented itself in 1983.  Leandro, a right-handed batsman who bowls off spin and occasionally keeps wicket, has followed his father into international cricket as a member of the Italy team, which is currently 28th in the world rankings.  Read more…


Luigi Capuana - author and journalist

Sicilian was leading figure in verismo movement

The author and journalist Luigi Capuana, one of the most important writers of the verismo movement that flourished in Italy in the late 19th century, was born on this day in 1839 in Mineo, a mediaeval town in southeast Sicily, in the province of Catania.  Verismo - meaning ‘realism’ - sought to portray society and humanity in the manner of a photograph, objectively representing life as it really was, stripped of romanticism, usually among the lower classes, using explicit descriptive detail and realistic dialogue.  Capuana, who was influenced by the French writers Honoré de Balzac and Emile Zola, and his fellow Sicilian Giovanni Verga were two of the earliest advocates of the movement, which was at its peak in the final quarter of the 19th century.  It declined in popularity in the early 20th century but its principles were revived in the neorealism movement that dominated Italian cinema in the immediate years after World War II and is often cited as a golden age in the Italian film industry.  Capuana, whose best-known works were his novels Giacinta (1879), a psychological study of a wronged woman and Il marchese di Roccaverdina (1901), a study of guilt, was born into a wealthy family in Mineo.  Read more…


Muzio Attendolo Sforza - condottiero

Mercenary captain who founded Sforza dynasty

Muzio Attendolo Sforza, who is recognised as the founder of the Sforza dynasty that ruled the Duchy of Milan from 1450 to 1535, was born on this day in 1369 in Cotignola, a town in Emilia-Romagna about 25km (16 miles) west of Ravenna.  A career soldier who made his fortune as a mercenary captain - a condottiero - Muzio was a key figure in many of the wars between rival states across Northern Italy in the late 14th and early 15th century, eventually losing his life on the battlefield.  He acquired the name Sforza initially as a nickname but it was eventually adopted as a family name. His illegitimate son, Francesco, one of Muzio’s 16 known children, became the first Sforza Duke of Milan through his marriage to Bianca Maria Visconti, whose father, the last Visconti Duke of Milan, died without a male heir.  Some accounts have it that the Sforza family grew from peasant origins. Muzio, in fact, though from a rural background, was born into family with noble roots, who were relatively well off.  Given the name of Giacomo or Jacopo at birth, he was called Muzio because it had been the name by which his paternal grandfather, Giacomuzzo, was commonly known.  Read more…


Book of the Day: Verdi With a Vengeance: An Energetic Guide to the Life and Complete Works of the King of Opera, by William Berger

Everything you could possibly know about Verdi and his operas, from the brilliant and humorous author of Wagner Without Fear.  If you want to know why La traviata was actually a flop at its premiere in 1853, it's in here. If you want to know why claiming to have heard Bjorling's Chicago performance of Il trovatore is the classic opera fan faux pas, it's in here. Even if you just want to know how to pronounce Aida, or what the plot of Rigoletto is all about, this is the place to look. From the composer's intense hatred of priests to synopses of the operas and a detailed discography of the best recordings to buy, it can all be found in Verdi with a Vengeance. William Berger has given another improbable performance, serving up a book as thorough as it is funny and as original as it is astute, an utterly indispensable guide for novice and expert alike.  

William Berger is an American author, radio music host and commentator.  As well as Verdi With a Vengeance, he is the author of  Wagner Without Fear and Puccini Without Excuses.  Born in California. he now lives in New York, where he is the popular commentator for the Metropolitan Opera and hosts broadcasts on Met Opera Radio.

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The night Maria Callas made an audience weep

La Scala witnesses a stunning performance

Maria Callas's interpretation of Violetta was seen as the finest performance of her stage career
Maria Callas's interpretation of Violetta was
seen as the finest performance of her stage career
Maria Callas gave a stunning performance that has gone down in history as her greatest ever portrayal of Violetta in La traviata on this day in 1955 at Teatro alla Scala opera house in Milan.

After the opening night of the production on May 28, it was reported in the press that Callas had driven the audience into a frenzy with her wonderful singing and powerful acting as she played the part of Giuseppe Verdi’s doomed heroine, who was a beautiful courtesan.

The character of Violetta is considered by opera experts to be one of the three finest roles ever portrayed by Callas and it is ranked alongside her performances in Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma and Gaetano Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor.  

The staging by director Luchino Visconti for the 1955 production of La traviata provided the perfect setting for Callas with its ornate décor and costumes.

The conductor, Carlo Maria Giulini, later confessed that he had wept in the orchestra pit as she had sung.

At the end members of the audience cried out Callas’s name, sobbed uncontrollably and showered the stage with red roses, which the tearful singer picked up as she took a solo bow.

Callas shone in Visconti's lavish Belle Époque stage settings
Callas shone in Visconti's lavish
Belle Époque stage settings
This gesture proved too much for tenor Giuseppe Di Stefano, who felt she was monopolising the attention of the audience. He stormed off the stage at the end of the performance and left the show for good that night.

Callas had moved the audience to tears in the scene where Violetta agrees to renounce Alfredo, the man she loves, to avoid spoiling the wedding prospects of his sister.

Sadly, Callas had only a few years of her career left ahead of her. After she left her husband for shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis in 1959, she hardly ever performed on stage again. Onassis subsequently left her to marry Jackie Kennedy and Callas died in 1977, aged just 53. 

Thankfully, her performance on that memorable night was recorded and the complete May 28 production can still be listened to on CD, MP3 and streaming platforms.

Verdi’s opera La traviata had premiered at La Fenice opera house in Venice about 100 years earlier. It was based on the 1852 novel by Alexander Dumas, La dame aux camelias.

La traviata means ‘fallen woman’ and refers to the main character, Violetta, who is a courtesan. The opera featured some of the most challenging and revered music in the entire soprano repertoire.

Milan's Teatro alla Scala, opened in 1778, is the most famous opera house in the world
Milan's Teatro alla Scala, opened in 1778, is the
most famous opera house in the world
Travel tip:

Teatro alla Scala in Milan is Italy’s most famous opera house and Maria Callas made her debut there in 1950 as Aida.  The theatre, known to Italians simply as La Scala, is the leading opera house in the world. It opened in 1778 after fire had destroyed the Teatro Regio Ducale, which had previously been the home of opera in Milan. A new theatre for the city was built on the site of the former Church of Santa Maria alla Scala, which is how the theatre got its name. It was designed by neoclassical architect Giuseppe Piermarini. The world’s finest singers have appeared at La Scala during the last 240 years and the theatre has hosted the premieres of operas by Rossini, Donizetti, Verdi, and Puccini. La Scala’s original 18th century structure was renovated in 1907 and, after bomb damage during World War II, it was rebuilt and reopened in 1946.

The mediaeval Rocca Scaligera castle is the dominant feature of the Sirmione skyline
The mediaeval Rocca Scaligera castle is the
dominant feature of the Sirmione skyline
Travel tip:

Maria Callas spent some happy years living in Sirmione, a resort on Lake Garda in Italy, after she married her first husband, Giovanni Battista Meneghini, an Italian businessman.  Villa Callas, which is still privately owned today, looks the same as it did when it was first purchased by Meneghini in the 1950s as a holiday home for the couple. There is a plaque outside the villa recording the dates when Maria Callas lived there. Sirmione, the historic centre of which is on a peninsula that divides the southern part of Lake Garda, is known for its thermal baths and Rocca Scaligera, a mediaeval castle overlooking the lake. Visitors can look round a museum dedicated to the life and performances of Maria Callas. At the the tip of the peninsula is the archaeological site of Grotte di Catullo, which encompasses a Roman villa, a museum and olive trees. 

Also on this day:

1369: The bith of condottiero Muzio Attendolo Sforza

1606: Caravaggio attacks and kills a man in Rome

1692: The birth of opera composer Geminiano Giacomelli

1839: The birth of author and journalist Luigi Capuana

1987: The birth of cricketer Leandro Jayarajah

1999: Da Vinci’s Last Supper goes back on display in Milan after 20 years of restoration


27 May 2024

27 May

Bruno Vespa – television journalist

TV host opened the door to late night political debate

Bruno Vespa, the founding host of the television programme Porta a Porta, was born on this day in 1944 in L’Aquila in Abruzzo.  Vespa has fronted the late night television talk show, which literally means ‘Door to Door’ in English, since Italy's state broadcaster Rai launched the programme in 1996.  Vespa became a radio announcer with Rai when he was 18 and began hosting the news programme Telegiornale RAI a few years later.  He had begun his career in journalism by writing sports features for the L’Aquila edition of the newspaper, Il Tempo, when he was just 16 years old.  On television, he became well known for interviewing influential world figures just before they became famous, an example being his programme featuring Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, the year before he was elected as Pope John Paul II.  In June 1984, Vespa was the official commentator for the live televised broadcast of the state funeral for Enrico Berlinguer, the former leader of the Italian Communist party.  Vespa has won awards for his journalism and television programmes and has also written many books.  Read more…


Lucrezia Crivelli – lady in waiting

Mystery of the beautiful woman in painting by Leonardo

Lucrezia Crivelli, mistress of Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan, who was for a long time believed to be the subject of a painting by Leonardo da Vinci, died on this day in 1508 in Canneto sull’Oglio in Lombardy.  Crivelli served as a lady in waiting to Ludovico Sforza’s wife, Beatrice d’Este, from 1475 until Beatrice’s death in 1497.  She also became the Duke’s mistress and gave birth to his son, Giovanni Paolo, who went on to become the first Marquess of Caravaggio and a celebrated condottiero.  Crivelli lived for many years in the Castello of Canneto near Mantua under the protection of Isabella d’Este, the elder sister of Beatrice, until her death in 1508.  Coincidentally, her former lover, Ludovico Sforza, is believed to have died on the same day in 1508 while being kept prisoner in the dungeons of the castle of Loches en Touraine in France, having been captured by the French during the Italian Wars.  It was never proved, but it was assumed for many years that Crivelli may have been the subject of Leonardo da Vinci’s painting La belle Ferronnière, which is displayed in the Louvre in Paris.  Read more…


Giuseppe Tornatore - writer and director

Oscar winner for Cinema Paradiso

The screenwriter and director Giuseppe Tornatore, the creator of the Oscar-winning classic movie Cinema Paradiso, was born on this day in 1956 in Bagheria, a small town a few kilometres along the coast from the Sicilian capital Palermo.  Known as Nuovo Cinema Paradiso in Italy, Tornatore’s best-known work won the award for Best Foreign Language Film at the 62nd Academy Awards following its release in 1988.  The movie, written by Tornatore, tells the story of Salvatore, a successful film director based in Rome who returns to his native Sicily after hearing of the death of the man who kindled his love of the cinema, the projectionist at the picture house in his local village, who became a father figure to him after his own father was killed on wartime national service.  Much of the film consists of flashbacks to Salvatore’s life as a child in the immediate post-war years and there is a memorable performance by Salvatore Cascio as the director’s six-year-old self, when he was known as Totò, as he develops an unlikely yet enduring friendship with Alfredo, the projectionist, played by the French actor Philippe Noiret.  Read more…


Book of the Day: A Fatal Attraction: Public Television and Politics in Italy, by Cinzia Padovani

Cinzia Padovani takes an in-depth look at Italian public service broadcasting, covering its history, its role in Italian society, its relationship to the political party system, and its influence on cultural and linguistic unification in Italy. Tracing the history and development of Italian public television broadcaster Radiotelevisione Italiana (Rai) to the present, Padovani challenges traditional views by asserting that parties' 'interference' in Rai has, at times, strengthened the role of public service broadcasting and that partisan journalism has even enhanced democratic potential.  A Fatal Attraction offers a thorough, well-documented examination of the nexus between Italian politics and public television over the past 60 years, in which Padovani concludes that government involvement in the television system may have in some ways improved the public service role of state-owned television broadcasting. She explains how a political quota system served to stabilize the system in an ironic sort of way. The book is undoubtedly the most thorough examination of the topic available in English.

Cinzia Padovani is Associate Professor with Tenure in the Department of Radio Television and Digital Media, at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.  Her research focuses on the relationship between media and power, and the role that media play in the formation of the public sphere in contemporary societies.

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26 May 2024

26 May

Alberto Ascari - racing driver

F1 champion killed amid eerie echoes of father's death

Racing driver Alberto Ascari, who was twice Formula One champion, died on this day in 1955 in an accident at the Monza racing circuit in Lombardy, just north of Milan.  A hugely popular driver, his death shocked Italy and motor racing fans in particular.  What many found particularly chilling was a series of uncanny parallels with the death of his father, Antonio Ascari, who was also a racing driver, 30 years previously.  Alberto had gone to Monza to watch his friend, Eugenio Castellotti, test a Ferrari 750 Monza sports car, which they were to co-drive in the 1000 km Monza race.  Contracted to Lancia at the time, although he had been given dispensation to drive for Ferrari in the race, Ascari was not supposed to test drive the car, yet he could not resist trying a few laps, even though he was dressed in a jacket and tie, in part to ensure he had not lost his nerve after a serious accident a few days earlier.  When he emerged from a fast curve on the third lap, however, the car inexplicably skidded, turned on its nose and somersaulted twice. Ascari was wearing Castellotti’s white helmet but he suffered multiple injuries nonetheless.  Read more…


Napoleon becomes King of Italy

French Emperor places Iron Crown of Lombardy on his own head

Napoleon Bonaparte was declared King of Italy on this day in 1805 in Milan.  He crowned himself at a ceremony in the Duomo using the Iron Crown of Lombardy.  The title King of Italy signified that Napoleon was the head of the new Kingdom of Italy, which was at that time a vassal state of the French Empire. The area controlled by Napoleon had previously been known as a republic, with Napoleon as its president.  But Napoleon had become the Emperor of France the year before and had decided Italy should become a Kingdom ruled by himself, or a member of his family.  Before the ceremony, the Iron Crown had to be fetched from Monza. The crown consisted of a circlet of gold with a central iron band, which according to legend was beaten out of a nail from Christ’s true cross, found by Saint Helena in the Holy Land. The crown is believed to have been given to the city of Monza in the sixth century.  During his coronation, Napoleon is reported to have picked up the precious relic, announced that God had given it to him, and placed it on his own head.  After the coronation there were celebratory fireworks in Milan.  Read more…


Luca Toni - World Cup winner

Striker one of stars of 2006 triumph in Germany

The footballer Luca Toni, who played an important role in Italy’s achievement in winning the soccer World Cup in Germany in 2006, was born on this day in 1977 in the small town of Pavullo nel Frignano in Emilia-Romagna.  Toni scored twice in Italy’s 3-0 victory over Ukraine in the quarter-finals before starting as the Azzurri’s main striker in both the semi-final triumph over the hosts and the final against France, in which they eventually prevailed on penalties. Toni hit the bar with one header and saw another disallowed for offside in the final.  The goals were among 16 he scored in 47 appearances for the national team but it was his remarkable club career that makes him stand out in the history of Italian football.  A muscular 6ft 4ins in height and hardly the most mobile of forwards, he was never seen as a great player, more an old-fashioned centre forward of the kind rarely seen in today’s game.  Yet between his debut for his local club, Modena, in 1994 and his retirement in 2016 following his final season with Hellas Verona, Toni found the net 322 times in club football, which makes him the fourth most prolific goal scorer among all Italian players.  Read more…


Book of the Day: Enzo Ferrari: The Definitive Biography of an Icon, by Luca Dal Monte

The definitive account of how Enzo Ferrari became the master of motor racing, and one of the most complex, important and imposing figures in the 20th century.  Enzo Ferrari: The Definitive Biography of an Icon draws upon years of original research, conducted in Italy and abroad, and unveils hidden aspects of Ferrari's career - from his early days as a racer, to how he founded the Ferrari company, and even his dealings with the Italian Fascist government and Communist leaders.  Learn how Ferrari pushed his drivers to the brink of disaster, revolutionised the automobile industry and overcame family and company infighting on his rise to greatness.

Luca Dal Monte, born in 1963 in Cremona, Italy, is an accomplished author and automotive industry veteran. After working for Cremona's La Provincia newspaper, he joined the Italian office of the French carmaker Peugeot and went on to have roles with Toyota, Pirelli, Ferrari and Maserati.

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25 May 2024

25 May

Enrico Berlinguer - communist politician

Popular leader turned left-wing party into political force

Enrico Berlinguer, who for more than a decade was Western Europe's most powerful and influential communist politician, was born on this day in 1922 in the Sardinian city of Sassari.  As secretary-general of the Italian Communist Party from March 1972 until his death in 1984, he led the largest communist movement outside the Eastern Bloc, coming close to winning a general election in 1976.  He achieved popularity by striving to establish the Italian Communists as a political force that was not controlled from Moscow, pledging a commitment to democracy, a parliamentary system, a mixed economy, and Italian membership of the Common Market and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.  At its peak, Berlinguer's Westernised brand of communism appealed to nearly a third of Italian voters.  His policies were adopted by other left-wing parties in Europe under what became known as Eurocommunism.  As support for the previously dominant Christian Democrats waned in the 1970s, he proposed an ''historic compromise'' with other parties, rejecting the traditional left-wing vision of violent revolution, and declared that the Italian Communists would be happy to enter into a coalition with Christian Democrats and others.  Read more…


Stefano Baldini - Olympic marathon champion

Won gold medal over historic course in Athens

Stefano Baldini, the marathon runner who was Olympic champion in Athens in 2004 and twice won the European marathon title, was born on this day in 1971 in Castelnovo di Sotto, about 14km (nine miles) north-west of the city of Reggio Emilia.  Although Baldini’s class was not doubted, his Olympic gold was slightly tarnished by an incident seven kilometres from the finish when a spectator broke through the barriers and attacked the Brazilian runner, Vanderlei de Lima, who was leading the field.  The spectator, an Irishman called Cornelius Horan who had disrupted the British Grand Prix motor race the previous year, was wrestled off de Lima by another spectator but the incident cost the Brazilian 15 to 20 seconds and much momentum. He was passed subsequently by Baldini and finished third.  Baldini finished the race, which followed the historic route from Marathon to Athens, in two hours 10 minutes and 55 seconds, although this was not the fastest time of his career.  His best was the 2:07:56 he clocked at the 1997 London Marathon, when he finished second, in what is still the fastest time by an Italian over the marathon distance.  Read more…


Gaetano Scirea - footballer

Multiple champion who died tragically young

The World Cup-winning footballer Gaetano Scirea, one of the most accomplished players in the history of the game, was born on this day in 1953 in the town of Cernusco sul Naviglio in Lombardy.  Scirea, who became an outstanding performer in the so-called libero role, was a key member of the Italy team that won the 1982 World Cup in Spain and enjoyed huge success also in club football.  In a career spent mostly with Juventus, he won every medal that was available to a club player in Italy, some several times over.  During his time there, the Turin club won the scudetto - the popular name for the Serie A championship - seven times and the Coppa Italia twice.  He also won the UEFA Cup, the European Cup-Winners’ Cup, the European Cup (forerunner of the Champions League), the UEFA Super Cup and the Intercontinental Cup.  Scirea retired in 1988 but continued to work for Juventus. Tragically, while visiting Poland in 1989 to make a scouting report on an upcoming opponent in a UEFA Cup match, the car in which he was travelling collided head-on with a truck in heavy rain and he was killed, along with two fellow passengers.   Read more...


Padre Pio – Saint

Capuchin friar is claimed to have cured cancer

Padre Pio, who has become one of the world’s most famous and popular saints, was born on this day in 1887 in Pietrelcina in Campania.  He was well-known for exhibiting stigmata, marks corresponding to the crucifixion wounds of Jesus, constantly making him the subject of controversy.  Padre Pio has said that at five years old he decided to dedicate his life to God and as a youth he reported experiencing heavenly visions and ecstasies. At the age of 15 he was admitted to the novitiate of the Capuchin Order, taking the name of Fra Pio, in honour of Pope Pius I.  He suffered from poor health for most of his life and fellow friars say he often appeared to be in a stupor during prayers. One claimed to have seen him in ecstasy, levitating above the ground.  In 1910 he was ordained a priest and moved to a friary in San Giovanni Rotondo in Foggia.  He was called up to serve in the Italian army during the First World War and assigned to the medical corps in Naples, but because of his poor health he was declared unfit for service and discharged.  In 1918 he exhibited stigmata for the first time while hearing a confession. This was to continue until his death 50 years later.  Read more…


Book of the Day: The Rise and Fall of the Italian Communist Party: A Transnational History, by Silvio Pons

The Rise and Fall of Italian Communism reassesses the history of Italian communism in international perspective. Analysing the rise and fall of the Italian Communist Party as a case study in the global history of communism, Silvio Pons considers a wide range of relational and temporal contexts, from the practices of internationalism to the training of militants and leaders, and to networks established not only in Europe but also in the colonial and postcolonial world. Pons focuses on the attempts of the Italian Communist Party to forge an intellectually defensible party program that combined the international demands of Moscow with the Italians' attempts to develop their own foreign and domestic policies according to their own political circumstances. Following three leaders of the Italian Communist Party - Antonio Gramsci, Palmiro Togliatti, and Enrico Berlinguer - from the First World War to the fall of the Soviet Union, Silvio Pons considers the broader relationship between communism and Cold War history, the history of decolonization, and the rise of "Europe" as a political category.

Silvio Pons is Professor of Contemporary History at the Scuola Normale Superiore in Pisa, and Director of the Gramsci Institute. He has written a number of books.

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