20 July 2024

20 July

Death of Marconi

State funeral for engineer who was at first shunned

Guglielmo Marconi, the Italian electrical engineer who is credited with the invention of radio, died on this day in Rome in 1937.  Aged 63, he passed away following a series of heart attacks.  He was granted a state funeral in recognition of the prestige he brought to Italy through his pioneering work. In Great Britain, where he had spent a significant part of his professional life, all BBC and Post Office radio transmitters observed a two-minute silence to coincide with the start of the funeral service in Rome.  Marconi was born in Bologna on April 25, 1874. His father, Giuseppe Marconi, was an Italian country gentleman who was married to Annie Jameson, a member of the Jameson whiskey family from County Wexford in Ireland.  A student of physics and electrical science from an early age, Guglielmo conducted experiments at his father's country estate at Pontecchio, near Bologna, where he succeeded in sending wireless signals between two transmitters a mile and a half apart.  Disappointingly, the initial response to his discovery was sceptical and Marconi's request to the Italian government to help fund further research did not even receive a reply.  As a result, in 1896, he moved to London.  Read more…

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Giovanna Amati - racing driver

Kidnap survivor who drove in Formula One

Racing driver Giovanna Amati, the last female to have been entered for a Formula One Grand Prix, was born on this day in 1959 in Rome.  The story of Amati’s signing for the Brabham F1 team in 1992 was all the more remarkable for the fact that 14 years earlier, as an 18-year-old girl, she had been kidnapped by a ransom gang and held for 75 days in a wooden cage.  Kidnaps happened with alarming frequency in Italy in the 1970s, a period marked by social unrest and acts of violence committed by political extremists, often referred to as the Years of Lead. Young people with rich parents were often the targets and Amati, whose father Giovanni was a wealthy industrialist who owned a chain of cinemas, fitted the bill.  She was snatched outside the family’s villa in Rome in February 1978 and held first in a house only a short distance away and then at a secret location, where she was physically abused and threatened with having her ear cut off while her captors negotiated with her 72-year-old father.  Eventually, Giovanni is said to have paid 800 million lira (about $933,000 dollars), for her release, partly raised from box office receipts from the Star Wars movie playing at his cinemas.  Read more…

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Giorgio Morandi – painter

The greatest master of still life in the 20th century

The artist Giorgio Morandi, who became famous for his atmospheric representations of still life, was born on the day in 1890 in Bologna.  Morandi’s paintings were appreciated for their tonal subtlety in depicting simple subjects, such as vases, bottles, bowls and flowers.  He studied at the Accademia di Belle Arti di Bologna and taught himself to etch by studying books on Rembrandt. Even though he lived his whole life in Bologna, he was deeply influenced by the work of Cézanne, Derain and Picasso.  In 1910 Morandi visited Florence, where the work of Giotto, Masaccio, Piero della Francesca and Paolo Uccello also impressed him.  Morandi was appointed as instructor of drawing for elementary schools in Bologna, a position he held from 1914 until 1929. He joined the army in 1915 but suffered a breakdown and had to be discharged.  During the war his paintings of still life became purer in form, in the manner of Cezanne. After a phase of experimenting with the metaphysical style of painting he began to focus on subtle gradations of hue and tone.  Morandi became associated with a Fascist-influenced Futurist group in Bologna.  Read more…

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Book of the Day: Marconi: The Man Who Networked the World, by Marc Raboy

A little over a century ago, the world went wireless. Cables and all their limiting inefficiencies gave way to a revolutionary means of transmitting news and information almost everywhere, instantaneously. By means of "Hertzian waves," as radio waves were initially known, ships could now make contact with other ships (saving lives, such as on the doomed S.S. Titanic); financial markets could coordinate with other financial markets, establishing the price of commodities and fixing exchange rates; military commanders could connect with the front lines, positioning artillery and directing troop movements. Suddenly and irrevocably, time and space telescoped beyond what had been thought imaginable. Someone had not only imagined this networked world but realized it: Guglielmo Marconi.  Born to an Italian father and an Irish mother, he was in many ways stateless, working his cosmopolitanism to advantage. Through a combination of skill, tenacity, luck, vision, and timing, Marconi popularized - and, more critically, patented - the use of radio waves. Soon after he burst into public view at the age of 22 with a demonstration of his wireless apparatus in London, 1896, he established his Wireless Telegraph & Signal Company and seemed unstoppable. Until his death in 1937, Marconi was at the heart of every major innovation in electronic communication. Based on original research and unpublished archival materials in four countries and several languages, Marconi: The Man Who Networked the World is the first to connect significant parts of Marconi's story, from his early days in Italy, to his groundbreaking experiments and his role in world affairs. Raboy also explores Marconi's relationships  with his wives, mistresses, and children, and examines in unsparing detail the last ten years of the inventor's life, when he returned to Italy and became a pillar of Benito Mussolini's fascist regime. 

Marc Raboy is a writer and emeritus professor in the Department of Art History and Communication Studies at McGill University in Montreal.

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19 July 2024

19 July

The Great Fire of Rome

City devastated by nine-day blaze

Almost two thirds of the ancient city of Rome was destroyed in the Great Fire of Rome, which took hold on this day in 64 AD.  Accounts vary as to whether the blaze began on July 19 or on the evening of July 18. What seems not to be in doubt is that the fire spread uncontrollably for six days, seemed to burn itself out, then reignited and continued for another three days.  Of Rome’s 14 districts at the time, only four were unaffected. In three, nothing remained but ashes and the other seven fared only marginally better, with just a few scorched ruins still standing.  Among the more important buildings in the city, the Temple of Jupiter Stator, the House of the Vestals, and the emperor Nero's palace, the Domus Transitoria were damaged or destroyed, along with the part of the Forum where senators lived and worked.  According to the historian Publius Cornelius Tacitus, who published an account of the fire in his Annals, which covered the period from Tiberius to Nero, the blaze probably began in shops around Rome's chariot stadium, Circus Maximus.  Driven by a strong wind, it quickly spread along the length of the Circus Maximus and into adjoining streets.  Read more…

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Petrarch – Renaissance poet

Writer whose work inspired the modern Italian language

Renaissance scholar and poet Francesco Petrarca died on this day in 1374 at Arquà near Padua, now renamed Arquà Petrarca. Known in English as Petrarch, he is considered to be an important figure in the history of Italian literature.  He is often credited with initiating the 14th century Renaissance, after his rediscovery of Cicero’s letters, and also with being the founder of Humanism.  In the 16th century, the Italian poet Pietro Bembo created the model for the modern Italian language based on Petrarch’s works.  Petrarch was born in Arezzo in Tuscany in 1304. His father was a friend of the poet Dante Alighieri, but he insisted that Petrarch studied law.  The poet was far more interested in writing and in reading Latin literature and considered the time he studied law as wasted years.  Petrarch’s first major work, Africa, about the Roman general, Scipio Africanus, turned him into a celebrity. In 1341 he became the first poet laureate since ancient times and his sonnets were admired and imitated throughout Europe.  Petrarch travelled widely throughout Italy and Europe during his life and once climbed Mount Ventoux near Vaucluse in France just for pleasure, writing about the experience afterwards.  Read more…

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Jacopo Tiepolo - Doge of Venice

Ruler laid down the law and granted land for beautiful churches

Jacopo Tiepolo, the Doge who granted the land for the building of the Basilica di Santi Giovanni e Paolo and the Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, died on this day in 1249 in Venice.  His election as Doge in 1229 had sparked a feud between the Tiepolo and Dandolo families, which led to the rules being changed for future elections. He also produced five books of statutes setting out Venetian law which was to change life in Venice significantly, bringing a raft of civil and economic regulations to which Venetians were obliged to adhere.  Tiepolo, who was also known as Giacomo Tiepolo, had previously served as the first Venetian Duke of Crete and had two terms as podestà – chief administrator - in Constantinople.  He acted as the de facto ruler of the Latin Empire, negotiating treaties with the Egyptians and the Turks.  Tiepolo was elected Doge, a month after his predecessor, Pietro Ziani, abdicated. At the election a stalemate was reached between Tiepolo and his rival, Marino Dandolo, both of them having 20 votes each. The contest was decided by drawing lots, which led to Tiepolo’s victory.  Read more…

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Cesare Cremonini - philosopher

Great thinker famous for Galileo ‘denial’

The philosopher Cesare Cremonini, the contemporary and friend of Galileo Galilei who famously refused to look at the Moon through Galileo’s telescope, died on this day in 1631 in Padua.  Cremonini was considered one of the great thinkers of his time, a passionate advocate of the doctrines of the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle. He was paid a handsome salary by his patron, Alfonso II d’Este, the Duke of Ferrara, and kings and princes regularly sought his counsel.  He struck up a friendship with the poet, Torquato Tasso, while he was studying in Ferrara, and met Galileo in 1550 after he was appointed by the Venetian Republic to the chair of the University of Padua.  The two built a relationship of respect and friendship that endured for many years, despite many differences of opinion, yet in 1610 their divergence of views on one subject created an impasse between them.  It came about when Galileo observed the surface of the Moon through his telescope and proclaimed that he had discovered mountains on the Moon.  But Cremonini said that Aristotle had proved that the Moon could only be a perfect sphere and was having none of Galileo’s claim that it was not, refusing Galileo’s invitation to see for himself.  Read more…

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Book of the Day: Ancient Rome: The Rise and Fall of an Empire, by Simon Baker

Ancient Rome: The Rise and Fall of an Empire is the story of the greatest empire the world has ever known. Simon Baker charts the rise and fall of the world's first superpower, focusing on six momentous turning points that shaped Roman history. Welcome to Rome as you've never seen it before - awesome and splendid, gritty and squalid. From the conquest of the Mediterranean beginning in the third century BC to the destruction of the Roman Empire at the hands of barbarian invaders some seven centuries later, we discover the most critical episodes in Roman history: the spectacular collapse of the 'free' republic, the birth of the age of the 'Caesars', the violent suppression of the strongest rebellion against Roman power, and the bloody civil war that launched Christianity as a world religion.  At the heart of this account are the dynamic, complex but flawed characters of some of the most powerful rulers in history: men such as Pompey the Great, Julius Caesar, Augustus, Nero and Constantine. Putting flesh on the bones of these distant, legendary figures, Simon Baker looks beyond the dusty, toga-clad caricatures and explores their real motivations and ambitions, intrigues and rivalries. The superb narrative, full of energy and imagination, is a brilliant distillation of the latest scholarship and a wonderfully evocative account of Ancient Rome.

Simon Baker read Classics at Oxford University. In 1999 he joined the BBC's award-winning History Unit where he has worked on Timewatch and a wide range of programmes about the classical world. He was the Development Producer on the BBC One series Ancient Rome - The Rise and Fall of an Empire. This is his second book.

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18 July 2024

18 July

NEW - Angelo Morbelli - painter

Artist known for socially conscious themes

Angelo Morbelli, a painter who won acclaim for his socially conscious genre scenes, was born on this day in 1853 in the Piedmont city of Alessandria.  Initially a painter of landscapes and historical scenes, he switched quite early in his career to contemporary subjects, many of which reflected his own social concerns. He had a particular interest in the lives of the elderly and the fate of the women who laboured in the region’s rice fields.  He was a proponent of the Divisionist style of painting that was founded in the 1880s by the French post-Impressionist Georges Seurat. In Divisionism, rather than physically blending paints to produce variations in colour, the painter constructed a picture from separate dots of paint that by their proximity would produce an optical interaction. Divisionists believed this technique achieved greater luminosity of colour.  Morbelli developed his painting as a student at the prestigious Brera Academy in Milan but his original ambitions had been in the field of music.  The son of a wealthy vineyard owner from Casale Monferrato, about 35km (22 miles) north of Alessandria, Morbelli had shown a remarkable aptitude for the flute but was forced by illness into a change of direction.  Read more…

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Gino Bartali - cycling star and secret war hero

Tour de France champion was clandestine courier

Gino Bartali, one of three Italian cyclists to have won the Tour de France twice and a three-times winner of the Giro d’Italia, was born on this day in 1914 in the town of Ponte a Ema, just outside Florence.  Bartali’s career straddled the Second World War, his two Tour successes coming in 1938 and 1948, but it is as much for what he did during the years of conflict that he is remembered today.  With the knowledge of only a few people, Bartali repeatedly risked his life smuggling false documents around Italy to help Italian Jews escape being deported to Nazi concentration camps.  He hid the rolled up documents inside the hollow handlebars and frame of his bicycle and explained his frequent long-distance excursions as part of the training schedule he needed to maintain in order to keep himself in peak physical fitness.   In fact, he was carrying documents from secret printing presses to people who needed them in cities as far apart as Florence, Lucca, Genoa, Assisi, and the Vatican in Rome.  Sometimes he would pull a cart that contained a secret compartment in order to smuggle Jewish refugees in person into Switzerland.  Read more…

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William Salice - businessman and chocolatier

Former salesman known as inventor of Kinder Eggs

William Salice, the man credited with being the inventor of the enormously popular children’s confectionery known as Kinder Eggs, was born on this day in 1933 in Casei Gerola, a small town in Lombardy, southwest of Milan. Salice worked for the chocolate and confectionery company headed by Michele Ferrero, which had already enjoyed considerable success thanks to the Nutella hazelnut chocolate spread launched in the 1960s.  Keen to better himself after joining Ferrero as a salesman in 1960 at the age of 27, Salice studied marketing in his spare time, aware that Italy needed to make up ground on some other western countries in that area of business.  His willingness to embrace new ideas impressed Michele Ferrero, who commissioned him to come up with a way of turning the popularity in Italy of children’s chocolate Easter eggs into a product that could be sold all year round, with the added benefit that the moulds used to produce eggs at Easter did not need to be dismantled and stored away once the Easter holiday had passed.  Salice came up with the Kinder Sorpresa. Read more...

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Mysterious death of Caravaggio

Experts divided over how brilliant artist met his end

The death of the brilliant Renaissance artist Caravaggio is said to have occurred on this day in 1610 but the circumstances and even the location are disputed even today.  Official records at the time concluded that the artist died in the Tuscan coastal town of Porto Ercole, having contracted a fever, thought to have been malaria.  However, there is no record of a funeral having taken place, nor of a burial, and several alternative theories have been put forward as to what happened to him.  One, which came to light in 2010 on the 400th anniversary of the painter's death, is that Caravaggio's death was caused by lead poisoning, the supposition being that lead contained in the paint he used entered his body either through being accidentally ingested or by coming into contact with an open wound.  This was supported by research led by Silvano Vincenti, a prominent art historian and broadcaster, who claimed to have found evidence that Caravaggio had been buried at a cemetery in Porto Ercole that was built over in the 1950s.  Some remains were transferred to the municipal cemetery in Porto Ercole.  Read more…

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Giacomo Balla - painter

Work captured light, movement and speed

The painter Giacomo Balla, who was a key proponent of Futurism and was much admired for his depictions of light, movement and speed in his most famous works, was born on this day in 1871 in Turin.  An art teacher who influenced a number of Italy’s most important 20th century painters, Balla became interested in the Futurist movement after becoming a follower of the poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, who is regarded as the ideological founder of Futurism.  Futurism was an avant-garde artistic, social and political movement. Its ethos was to embrace modernity and free Italy from what was perceived as a stifling obsession with the past.  Balla was one of the signatories of Il manifesto dei pittori futuristi - the Manifesto of Futurist Painters - in 1910.  He differed from some of the other artists who signed the Manifesto, painters such as Carlo Carrà and Umberto Boccioni, whose work tried to capture the power and energy of modern industrial machinery and the passion and violence of social change, in that his focus was primarily on exploring the dynamics of light and movement.  Giacomo Balla was the son of a seamstress and a waiter who was an amateur photographer. He lost his father at the age of nine, at which point he gave up an early interest in music and began working in a lithograph print shop.  Read more…

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Alberto di Jorio – Cardinal

Priest spent 60 years accumulating money for the Vatican

Cardinal Alberto di Jorio, who increased the wealth of the Vatican by buying shares in big corporations, was born on this day in 1884 in Rome.  Di Jorio was considered to be the power behind the Istituto per le Opere di Religione, popularly known as the Vatican Bank, which he served for 60 years.  As a young man he had been sent to the prestigious Pontifical Roman Seminary and he became a Catholic priest in 1908.  Di Jorio worked in an administrative role for the Vatican to begin with, but in 1918, when he was still in his early 30s, he took up the position of president of the Istituto per le Opere di Religione - The Institute of Religious Works.  He was directed by Pope Pius XI to form a close working relationship with Bernardino Nogara, a layman working as a financial adviser to the Vatican. Nogara helped di Jorio build up the Vatican’s financial strength.  After the Lateran Treaty settled the Roman Question and made the Vatican an independent state, di Jorio was chosen to run the Vatican Bank and allowed to buy shares in any company, even if it made products that were contrary to Catholic Church teaching.  Read more…

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Book of the Day: Painting Light - Italian Divisionism 1885-1910, by Renato Miracco

Inspired by the achievements of the Impressionists and Neo-Impressionists, the school of painting known as Divisionism emerged in Italy around the end of the 19th century. Like their French counterparts, these artists were fascinated with capturing effects of light, and this pioneering exhibition explored their attempts to evoke that most elusive of subjects. Closely allied to the work of artists such as Georges Seurat and Paul Signac, the Divisionist technique was grounded in the construction of images from small dashes of pure colour that would blend in the eye of the spectator when viewed from a distance, resulting in works characterised by an intense luminosity.  Despite its close links with French artistic theories, Divisionism was very much an autonomous and independent movement, distinguished by its attempts to strike a careful balance between formal and narrative concerns. Many Italian artists, such as Giacomo Balla and Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo, combined their study of light and their investigation of optical phenomena with social commentary, applying their pictorial theories to depictions of the marginalised elements of society. Painting Light - Italian Divisionism 1885-1910 catalogues the paintings displayed at an exhibition of the same name staged by the Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art in London in 2003. It also featured the work of painters such as Giovanni Segantini, Angelo Morbelli and Gaetano Previati. 

Renato Miracco is a scholar, art critic, and curator from Naples, Italy. He previously served as the Cultural Attaché of the Italian Embassy in Washington, and he is a former member of the Board of Guarantors for the Italian Academy at Columbia University.

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Angelo Morbelli - painter

Artist known for socially conscious themes

Morbelli, pictured in this self-portrait, highlighted social issues in his work
Morbelli, pictured in this self-portrait,
highlighted social issues in his work
Angelo Morbelli, a painter who won acclaim for his socially conscious genre scenes, was born on this day in 1853 in the Piedmont city of Alessandria.

Initially a painter of landscapes and historical scenes, he switched quite early in his career to contemporary subjects, many of which reflected his own social concerns. He had a particular interest in the lives of the elderly and the fate of the women who laboured in the region’s rice fields.

He was a proponent of the Divisionist style of painting that was founded in the 1880s by the French post-Impressionist Georges Seurat. In Divisionism, rather than physically blending paints to produce variations in colour, the painter constructed a picture from separate dots of paint that by their proximity would produce an optical interaction. Divisionists believed this technique achieved greater luminosity of colour.

Morbelli developed his painting as a student at the prestigious Brera Academy in Milan but his original ambitions had been in the field of music.

The son of a wealthy vineyard owner from Casale Monferrato, about 35km (22 miles) north of Alessandria, Morbelli had shown a remarkable aptitude for the flute but was forced by illness into a change of direction. At the age of seven, he contracted mastoiditis, a serious ear infection that caused him to suffer permanent hearing loss.

His parents instead encouraged him instead to study drawing, which quickly revealed a different talent, which would in time win him a scholarship granted by the Municipality of Alessandria to move to Milan and enrol at the Brera, where he studied under Giuseppe Bertini, Raffaele Casnedi and Luigi Riccardi, three renowned professors.

Morbelli's Giorni...ultimi, painted at the Pio Albergo Trivulzio retirement home, is one of his greatest works
Morbelli's Giorni...ultimi, painted at the Pio Albergo
Trivulzio retirement home, is one of his greatest works
His early works were primarily landscapes and historical scenes. His 1880 work, La morte di Goethe - the Death of Goethe - was among the first he exhibited to bring him public attention. 

Around 1883, Morbelli shifted his focus to contemporary subjects. Notably, he depicted elderly residents of the Pio Albergo Trivulzio, a retirement home and hospital in Milan that was founded in the 18th century following a bequest from Tolomeo Trivulzio, a Milanese aristocrat. 

Morbelli’s series of paintings from the home included Giorni…ultimi (Last Days), which earned him a Gold Medal at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1889. 

Early in the 1880s he married Maria Pagani, a woman with whom he would share the rest of his life. They had four children, inspiring him to paint several works on motherhood. He often painted Maria with the children at their house in Milan and in the garden of their summer residence, Villa Maria, at Colma di Rosignano Monferrato, in the hills above Casale Monferrato.

He began to experiment with Divisionism in around 1890, at first painting landscapes close to the Villa Maria.

Morbelli's Per ottanta centesimi highlighted the exploitation of female labour in the rice fields
Morbelli's Per ottanta centesimi highlighted the
exploitation of female labour in the rice fields
In the mid-90s, his interest drawn towards another social issue, he began to visit the farms in the rice fields around Vercelli, north of Casale Monferrato. A collapse in the price of rice led to the harsh exploitation of workers, mainly women, who were made to toil long hours for low wages.

His painting Per ottanta centesimi (For Eighty Cents), which depicted groups of women, standing ankle deep in water, engaged in the back-breaking work of picking the rice, was awarded the Gold Medal at the 1897 International Exhibition in Dresden.  He used photography to inform some of his work, which attracted criticism from some other painters.

The year that opened the millennium was important for Morbelli, who at the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris received another Gold Medal - and the award of the Legion of Honor - for Giorno di festa (Day of Celebration), another painting set in the Pio Albergo Trivulzio.

Between 1902 and 1903, continuing to ponder old age and death, Morbelli set up a studio in the rooms of the hospice, where he created Il Natale dei resta (The Christmas of the Remainers), part of a cycle entitled Il poema della vecchiaia (The Poem of Old Age). The painting presented a stark image of five men sitting in a hall partly lit by the sun, among many rows of empty benches.

Morbelli’s work in the early part of the 20th century returned to painting landscapes, with work ranging from a view of Milan’s Duomo to a boat on Lake Garda. His 1913 painting Angolo di giardino (Corner of the Garden), which offered a glimpse of the family villa in Colma, was noted for the vibrant luminous depth he gave to the countryside beyond the villa’s garden.  Some of his last work was completed between 1914 and 1919 in the Usseglio valley, a mountainous area in the east of Piedmont, close to the border with France.

Between 1908 and 1903, Morbelli is said to have met Carlo Carrà and Umberto Boccioni, two important painters of the Italian Futurist movement. Divisionism was influential in the development of Futurism, whose proponents adopted some of its methods to help evoke the dynamism of the urban environment they sought to convey in their work

He was still active when, in 1919, he developed pneumonia, which led to his death in Milan on November 7, at the age of 66. 

The Cattedrale dei Santi Pietro e Marco was consecrated in 1879, replacing an older church
The Cattedrale dei Santi Pietro e Marco was
consecrated in 1879, replacing an older church 
Travel tip:

The historic city of Alessandria, about 90km (56 miles) southeast of Turin, became part of French territory after the army of Napoleon defeated the Austrians at the Battle of Marengo in 1800 on fields to the east of the city. Alessandria has a Museum of the Battle of Marengo in Via della Barbotta in the district of Spinetta Marengo. The city was ruled by the Kingdom of Sardinia for many years and is notable for the Cittadella di Alessandria, a star-shaped fort and citadel built in the 18th century, which covers more than 180 acres on a site just across the Tanaro river and is one of the best preserved fortifications of its type.  It remained a military establishment until as recently as 2007 and now holds a permanent exhibition of about 1500 uniforms, weapons and memorabilia. The city's neoclassical Cattedrale dei Santi Pietro e Marco was built in between 1874 and 1879. Alessandria is also a rail hub for northern Italy. The railway station opened in 1850 to form part of the Turin to Genoa railway and now also has lines to many other towns and cities both in Piedmont and neighbouring Lombardy. 

Submerged fields in the rice-growing area around the city of Vercelli
Submerged fields in the rice-growing
area around the city of Vercelli
Travel tip:

Vercelli is best known as the centre of Italy’s rice production industry, with many of the surrounding fields in the vast Po plain submerged under water during the summer months. Rice has been cultivated in the area since the 15th century. One of Vercelli’s speciality dishes, panissa, is made from risotto rice and beans, with pork and red wine.  The city, which has around 46,500 inhabitants, is some 85km (53 miles) west of Milan and about 75km (46 miles) northeast of Turin. It is reckoned to be built on the site of one of the oldest settlements in Italy, dating back to 600BC, and was home to the world's first publicly-funded university, which was opened in 1228 but folded in 1372. Vercelli’s Basilica of Sant'Andrea is regarded as one of the most beautiful and best-preserved Romanesque buildings in Italy. The city also has an amphitheatre from the Roman period.

Also on this day:

1610: The death of Renaissance painter Caravaggio

1871: The birth of painter Giacamo Balla

1884: The birth of Cardinal Alberto di Jorio, Vatican banker

1914: The birth of cycling star and secret war hero Gino Bartali

1933: The birth of William Salice, inventor of the Kinder Egg


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17 July 2024

17 July

Gino D'Acampo - celebrity chef

Neapolitan inherited talent from grandfather

The celebrity chef Gino D’Acampo was born on this day in 1976 in Torre del Greco, a conurbation of around 90,000 inhabitants within the Metropolitan City of Naples.  Based in England since 1995, D’Acampo is scarcely known in his native country yet his social media pages have more than two and a half million followers.  The author of 11 books on cooking, his numerous television appearances include several series of his own show, Gino’s Italian Escapes.  He owns a number of restaurants and pasta bars and is the co-owner of a company selling Italian ingredients.  His success is all the more remarkable given that he had to rebuild his life after being convicted in 1998 of burglary, an episode that took place while he was working as a waiter. He described the incident as a mistake he vowed never to repeat and has since spent time helping disadvantaged young people to learn from their mistakes.  Born Gennaro D’Acampo, he grew up around food. His grandfather, Giovanni, who had been head chef for a cruise company, owned a restaurant and although he had early aspirations to become a doctor or a dentist, he eventually enrolled at the Luigi de Medici catering school in Naples.  Read more…

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Maria Salviati - noblewoman

Florentine whose line included kings of France and England

The noblewoman Maria Salviati, whose descendants include two kings of France and two kings of England, was born on this day in 1499 in Florence.  Salviati was the mother of Cosimo I de’ Medici, the first Grand Duke of Tuscany and a powerful figure in the mid-16th century.  Her descendants included Louis XIII and Louis XIV of France, and Charles II and James II of England.  Married for nine years to Lodovico de’ Medici, who was more widely known as the condottiero Giovanni dalle Bande Nere, Salviati herself had Medici blood. One of a family of 10 children, her mother was Lucrezia de Lorenzo de’ Medici, who had married the politician Iacopo Salviati, who was from another major banking family in Florence.  Maria’s maternal grandfather was Lorenzo the Magnificent, the Renaissance ruler who famously sponsored Michelangelo and Botticelli.  She was married to Giovanni dalle Bande Nere when she was 18, having known him since she was 10, when he was placed in the care of her parents following the death of his mother, Caterina Sforza, daughter of the Duke of Milan.  As a professional soldier, her husband spent much less time with her than she would have liked and Cosimo was their only child.  Read more…

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Michele Casadei Massari - chef and restaurateur

American dream from small beginnings

The chef and businessman Michele Casadei Massari, owner and founder of the Piccolo Cafe and the Lucciola restaurant in New York City, was born on this day in 1975 in Riccione, on the Adriatic coast of Emilia-Romagna.  Massari had planned to become a doctor but abandoned his studies in order to pursue his dream of cooking in his own restaurant.  After working as general manager and executive chef of a restaurant at a holiday resort in Sardinia, Massari and an old school friend decided to go it alone and chose to start a business in New York.  They began by selling coffee from a kiosk on Union Square in Manhattan before graduating to a cafe selling traditional Italian food as well as salads, panini and egg dishes.  Massari and his partner opened their first Piccolo Cafe in Third Avenue, a couple of blocks from Union Square in 2010. Now they have four branches of Piccolo Cafe and a restaurant, Lucciola, that specialises in the cuisine of Bologna and Emilia-Romagna.  Only six years old when he saw the inside of a restaurant kitchen for the first time, Massari acquired his love of cooking from his grandfather, ‘Nonno Gigi’.  Read more…

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Lady Blessington’s Neapolitan Journals

Irish aristocrat fell in love with Naples

Marguerite, Lady Blessington, an Irish-born writer who married into the British aristocracy, arrived in Naples on this day in 1823 and began writing her Neapolitan Journals.  She was to stay in the city for nearly three years and her detailed account of what she saw and who she met has left us with a unique insight into life in Naples nearly 200 years ago.  Lady Blessington made herself at home in Naples and thoroughly embraced the culture, attending local events, making what at the time were adventurous excursions, and entertaining Neapolitan aristocrats and intellectuals at the former royal palace that became her home.  Those who know Naples today will recognise in her vivid descriptions many places that have remained unchanged for the last two centuries.  She also provides a valuable insight into what life was like at the time for ordinary people as well as for the rich and privileged.  A society beauty, she came to Naples during a long European tour after her marriage to Charles Gardiner, the first Earl of Blessington, and immediately became fascinated by the local customs, food and traditions. She also visited Ercolano, Paestum, Capri, Ischia and Sorrento and made an ascent of Vesuvius on an ass.  Read more…

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Book of the Day: Gino's Italy: Like Mamma Used to Make, by Gino D’Acampo

In Gino D’Acampo’s words: "People have this idea that in every Italian family there are secret recipes that get passed down the generations. And it's 100 per cent true! This book is my way of celebrating the amazing women in all our families. I want to show my love and appreciation for everything they have done for me."  Drawing on the wisdom of his late mother, his 15 bossy aunties, and a whole nation of home-cooking nonnas, Gino shares the secrets to making the very best version of much-loved Italian classics. Recipes include: Grilled scallops with parsley and hazelnut butter; Oozing baked risotto; Slow-cooked pork shoulder with super-crispy crackling; Biscoff and espresso cheesecake. With over 80 recipes for the ultimate Italian classics, ranging from quick weeknight meals to classic blowouts, Gino's Italy: Like Mamma Used to Make is Gino's most iconic book yet.

Born into a large family in Torre del Greco, Gino D’Acampo's love of cooking developed from a young age when he was taught to cook by his mother and, at the age of 11, started working at his grandfather's restaurant. After training at the Luigi de Medici Catering college, Gino came to work in London and was soon discovered as a TV talent. 

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16 July 2024

16 July

Vincenzo Gemito - sculptor

Neapolitan who preserved figures from local street life

Vincenzo Gemito, one of the sculptors responsible for eight statues of former kings that adorn the western façade of the Royal Palace in Naples, was born on this day in 1852.  The statues are in niches along the side of the palace that fronts on to the Piazza del Plebiscito, displayed in chronological order beginning with Roger the Norman, also known as Roger II of Sicily, who ruled in the 12th century, and ends with Vittorio Emanuele II, who was on the throne when his kingdom became part of the united Italy in 1861.  Gemito sculpted the fifth statue in the sequence, that of Charles V, who was the Holy Roman Emperor from 1519 to 1556 and, by virtue of being king of Spain from 1516 to 1556, also the king of Naples. Gemito was known for the outstanding realism in his work, as can be seen in his sculpture Il giocatore di carte – The Card Player - which he created when he was only 16. Born in Naples, Gemito’s first steps in life were difficult ones.  The son of a poor woodcutter, he was taken by his mother the day after his birth to the orphanage attached to the Basilica of Santissima Annunziata Maggiore in the centre of the city and left on the steps.  Read more…

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The first Coppa Italia football tournament

Tiny club from Liguria emerged the winners

The first final of the Coppa Italia, which was to become Italian football’s equivalent of England’s celebrated FA Cup knock-out competition, took place on this day in 1922.  It was won by Vado Foot-Ball Club, from Vado Ligure, a commercial and industrial port in the province of Savona in Liguria.  Vado, who defeated Udinese in the final to lift the trophy, have not won any major honours in 101 years since their famous triumph and currently play in Serie D, the fourth tier in the Italian football pyramid.  The circumstances of their victory would look quite bizarre in the context of modern-day football.  The competition itself existed only because of a major schism in the Italian championship that had taken place the year before, when 24 of the country’s major clubs broke away from the Italian Football Federation (FIGC) to form their own championship after a demand for a reduction in the number of teams in the Prima Categoria - the forerunner of Serie A - was rejected.  With the likes of Pro Vercelli, Juventus, Bologna and AC Milan choosing to play in the new Italian Football Championship (CCI), the FIGC launched the Coppa Italia as an attempt to regain prestige.  Read more…

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Andrea del Sarto – painter

The brief career of an artist ‘senza errori’

Renaissance artist Andrea del Sarto was born Andrea d’Agnolo di Francesco di Luca di Paolo del Migliore on this day in 1486 in Florence.  He had a brilliant career but died at the age of 43 during an outbreak of plague and afterwards his achievements were eclipsed by the talents of Da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raphael.  Andrea’s father, Agnolo, was a tailor and therefore the child became known as del Sarto, meaning son of the tailor.  As a young boy del Sarto was apprenticed to a goldsmith and then a woodcarver before being sent to learn to be an artist.  He decided to open a joint studio with an older friend, Franciabigio, and from 1509 onwards they were employed to paint a series of frescoes at Basilica della Santissima Annunziata in Florence. Del Sarto also painted a Procession of the Magi, in which he included a self-portrait, and a Nativity of the Virgin for the entrance to the church.  He married Lucrezia del Fede, a widow, in 1512 and often used her as a model for his paintings of the Madonna.  After spending a year as court painter to Francis I of France in 1518, del Sarto returned home to his wife and was offered a major commission by the Medici family.  Read more…

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St Clare of Assisi

Birth of the founder of the Poor Clares

St Clare was born on this day in 1194 in Assisi as Chiara Offreduccio, the beautiful daughter of a Count.  As a young girl Clare was extremely devout and at the age of 18 she was inspired by hearing Francis of Assisi preach and went to see him to ask for help to live her life according to the Gospel.  In 1212, Clare left her father’s home and went to the chapel of Porziuncola to meet Francis. Her hair was cut off and she was given a plain robe and veil in exchange for her rich gown.  Clare joined a convent of Benedictine nuns and when her father tracked her down refused to leave it to return home.  Francis sent her to another monastery, where she was later joined by her sister. Over the years other women came to be with them who also wanted to serve Jesus and live with no money. They became known as the Poor Ladies of San Damiano because of the austere lifestyle they lived.  Clare took care of St Francis when he became old and after his death continued to lead her Order of Poor Women in the Franciscan tradition, which later became known as the Order of St Clare, also often referred to as The Poor Clares.  Read more…

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Book of the Day: In the Shadow of Vesuvius: A Cultural History of Naples, by Jordan Lancaster

Naples is an Italian city like no other. Drama and darkness are often associated with Naples, which rests beneath active Mount Vesuvius and is the home of the Camorra - the Neapolitan version of the mafia. But beyond this, Naples reveals itself to be one of the most historically and culturally vibrant cities in Europe.  From its origins in Homer's Odyssey and its founding nearly 3,000 years ago, Naples has long attracted travellers, artists and foreign rulers - from the visitors of the Grand Tour to Goethe, Nelson, Dickens and Neruda.  The stunning beauty of its natural setting coupled with the charms of its colourful past and lively present - from the ruins of Pompeii to the glittering performances of the San Carlo opera house - continue to seduce all those who explore Naples today. In the Shadow of Vesuvius is a sparkling portrait of the city - the definitive companion for anyone seeking to delve beneath its surface.

Jordan Lancaster studied at the universities of Cambridge and Bologna and holds a PhD in Italian Studies from the University of Toronto. She taught Italian language and literature at universities in Canada and the United States before moving to Naples where she was a postdoctoral fellow at the Istituto Italiano per gli Studi Storici. 

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15 July 2024

15 July

NEW - Pietro Ruggeri da Stabello – poet


Talented writer kept record of 1848 rebellions and produced verses in local dialect

Prolific writer Pietro Ruggeri da Stabello, who became famous after his death for the poetry he had written in his local dialect, was born on this day in 1797 in a hamlet near Zogno in Lombardy, a short distance from the city of Bergamo.  Ruggeri da Stabello wrote a valuable account of events that occurred in the north of Italy during revolts against the Austrian occupying army, which were later collected in a volume entitled Bergamo Revolution of the Year 1848.  He was the second son of a Bergamo couple, Santo Ruggeri, and Diana Stella Ceribelli, who had moved to the Brembana valley to escape the riots that followed the fall of the Republic of Venice in 1797.  When Pietro Ruggeri became an adult, he added the words da Stabello to his name, to honour the small village where he had grown up, which is less than one kilometre from the municipality of Zogno in Val Brembana, to which it belongs.  After Pietro Ruggeri moved to live in Bergamo to study for a diploma in accountancy, he began to compose verses, inspired by his contact with local people and what he had witnessed of how they lived their daily lives in the city. He wrote more for his own pleasure than as a literary exercise. Read more…

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Guido Crepax - cartoonist

Erotic character Valentina captured spirit of 1960s Italy

The cartoonist Guido Crepax, whose character Valentina became a heroine of the 1960s generation in Italy and beyond, was born on this day in 1933 in Milan.  Valentina first appeared in May 1965 as a secondary character in another cartoon, the photographer girlfriend of an art critic and amateur sleuth.  But the sinuous, sensual female depicted by Crepax, her hair cut in a glossy bob, soon acquired fans both male and female.  In an era when Italian society was beginning to experience a sense of sexual liberation for the first time, Valentina’s eroticism naturally attracted a legion of male fans. But her assertive individuality struck a chord with many modern Italian women, too, even if her readiness to shed her clothes caused outrage among others.  Soon, Valentina left behind her fictional boyfriend and starred in a series of her own adventures, which Crepax continued to produce for three decades. She was outspoken in her left-wing political views, while her uninhibited fantasies increasingly reflected the world of dreams and psychoanalysis that fascinated her creator.  Her style even influenced the Milan fashion world.  Read more…

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Frances Xavier Cabrini – the first American saint

Missionary who was directed to the US by the Pope

Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini, who founded a religious institute to provide support for impoverished Italian immigrants in the United States, was born on this day in 1850 in Sant’Angelo Lodigiano, in Lombardy.  Frances did such good in her life she became the first naturalised citizen of the United States to be canonised in 1946.  She had been born into a family of cherry tree farmers, the youngest of 13 children. She was two months premature and remained in delicate health all her life.  After her parents died she applied for admission to the Daughters of the Sacred Heart but was told she was too frail for the life.  She became the headmistress of an orphanage in Codogno, about 30km (19 miles) from her hometown, where she drew in other women to live a religious life with her.  She took religious vows in 1877, adding Xavier to her name to honour Francis Xavier, the patron saint of missionary service.  Along with some of the other women who had taken religious vows, she founded the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.  Frances went to seek Pope Leo X’s approval to establish missions in China but he suggested she went to the United States instead, to help the many Italian immigrants who were living in poverty.  Read more…

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Fire damages St Paul Outside-the-Walls

Beautiful Basilica was faithfully rebuilt and restored

A blaze nearly destroyed the ancient Papal Basilica of Saint Paul Outside-the-Walls (Basilica Papale San Paolo Fuori Le Mura) in Rome on this day in 1823.  A workman repairing the lead in the church roof accidentally started a fire that burnt down the Basilica, which dated back to the third century and was unique in Rome, having retained its primitive style.  St Paul Outside-the-Walls is one of four major Papal Basilicas in Rome, along with St John in the Lateran (San Giovanni in Laterano), St Peter’s (San Pietro in Vaticano) and St Mary Major (Santa Maria Maggiore).  After the fire, Pope Leo XII appealed for donations to help rebuild the church in exactly the same style.  The Basilica was reopened in 1840 and reconsecrated in 1855 in the presence of Pope Pius IX.  The redecoration was helped by contributions from all over the world, including pillars of alabaster from Egypt and malachite and lapis lazuli from Russia.  The Italian Government funded the work on the façade and declared the Church a national monument.  The Basilica had been founded by the Roman Emperor Constantine over the burial place of St Paul.   Read more…

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Book of the Day: Introduction to Italian Poetry: A Dual-Language Book, by Luciano Rebay

A treasury of 34 hymns, sonnets, madrigals, heroic epics and lyrics by Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio, Ariosto, Tasso, d'Annunzio and 15 others, including lesser known but significant poets such as Compiuta Donzella and Cavalcanti, from seven centuries of Italian poetical works. Introduction to Italian Poetry consists of full Italian texts with expert literal translations on facing pages, as well as a biographical and critical commentary on each poet.  Illustrated with black and white illustrations, the book explores a broad range of styles, from Saint Francis of Assisi, author of the first memorable Italian lyric, `Cancio delle creature,` to Salvatore Quasimodo, winner of the 1959 Nobel Prize for Literature, and the satirical work of Dario Fo.

Luciano Rebay, known especially for his work on the poets Giuseppe Ungaretti, and Eugenio Montale, was one of the leading post-war critics of Italian literature in America. He had a long affiliation with Columbia University, where he was the Giuseppe Ungaretti Professor of Italian.

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Pietro Ruggeri da Stabello – poet

Talented writer kept record of 1848 rebellions and produced verses in local dialect

Enrico Scuri's portrait of Pietro Ruggeri is kept at Bergamo's Accademia Carrara
Enrico Scuri's 1838 portrait of Pietro Ruggeri
da Stabello (Accademia Carrara, Bergamo)
Prolific writer Pietro Ruggeri da Stabello, who became famous after his death for the poetry he had written in his local dialect, was born on this day in 1797 in a hamlet near Zogno, a short distance from the city of Bergamo in Lombardy.

Ruggeri da Stabello wrote a valuable account of events that occurred in the north of Italy during revolts against the Austrian occupying army, which were later collected in a volume entitled Bergamo Revolution of the Year 1848.

He was the second son of a Bergamo couple, Santo Ruggeri and Diana Stella Ceribelli, who had moved to the Brembana valley to escape the riots that followed the fall of the Republic of Venice in 1797.

When Pietro Ruggeri became an adult, he added the words da Stabello to his name, to honour the small village where he had grown up, which is less than one kilometre from the municipality of Zogno in Val Brembana, to which it belongs.

After Pietro Ruggeri moved to live in Bergamo to study for a diploma in accountancy, he began to compose verses, inspired by his contact with local people and what he had witnessed of how they lived their daily lives in the city.

He wrote his 1816 work, Letter of Pietro Ruggeri da Stabello Against the Widespread Misery, in the Italian language, more for his own pleasure than as a literary exercise. He went on to write four more works in Italian between 1820 and 1822 that were never published.

Ruggeri da Stabello started to write poetry in the Bergamo dialect from about 1822. As his fame spread, he was portrayed in a painting by Enrico Scuri and invited to social gatherings to meet other learned people from the area, while he continued to do a variety of jobs to earn his living.

He founded and became president of The Philharmonic Academy in Bergamo and he was painted on the occasion by Luigi Deleidi, a Bergamo artist, who was also known as Nebbia.

Ruggeri da Stabello wrote sonnets dedicated to his friends and some well-known people, such as the painter Francesco Coghetti, and he started to compile, but never finished, a Bergamo-Italian vocabulary.

Ruggeri da Stabello is commemorated with a statue in Bergamo's Piazza Pontida
Ruggeri da Stabello is commemorated with
a mounted bust in Bergamo's Piazza Pontida 
During 1848, he wrote his volume about the revolts against the Austrians while he was being forced to take refuge in the safer territory of Zogno, because of verses he had written in honour of Pope Pius IX and of Italy, after the Austrians returned to occupy the country.

Pietro Ruggeri da Stabello died in Bergamo in 1878. He was buried in the cemetery of San Maurizio in the Città Bassa, but his tomb was lost after the cemetery was closed.

However, his writing was evaluated after his death and he was recognised as the greatest writer in the Bergamo dialect ever known. In appreciation of his talent, his native city named a street after him and erected a mounted bust of him in Piazza Pontida, one of the historic squares in the Città Bassa, Bergamo’s lower town. 

In 1933, another Bergamo citizen, Bortolo Belotti, published some of his poetry in the volume, Pietro Ruggeri, Poet from Bergamo.

Modern Italian is now the most widely spoken language in Bergamo, but the Bergamo dialect - dialetto Bergamasco - is still seen on menus, street signs and often reproduced in popular Bergamo sayings. Linguistically it is closer to French and Catalan, than to Italian. It is still spoken in some of the small villages out in the province of Bergamo and the area around Crema, another city in Lombardy.

Because of migration in the 19th and 20th centuries, Bergamo dialect is still spoken in some communities in southern Brazil.

The town of Zogno nestles in Val Brembana, 
a beautiful valley north of Bergamo
Travel tip:

The municipality of Zogno, where Pietro Ruggeri da Stabello was born, is about 11km (7 miles) north of Bergamo in the Brembana Valley. Set in beautiful countryside, Zogno has a 17th century church, San Lorenzo Martire, as well as a modern church, the Santuario di Maria Santissima Regina. The village of Stabello now has a population of fewer than 500 people. The Val Brembana is an area rich in history and traditions, about which much can be learned by visiting the San Lorenzo Museum and the Valley Museum. Zogno also attracts many visitors to the Terme di Bracca spa facility.

Piazza Pontida, in Bergamo's Città Bassa, was once a hub of commercial activity in the city
Piazza Pontida, in Bergamo's Città Bassa, was
once a hub of commercial activity in the city
Travel tip:

Pietro Ruggeri da Stabello’s statue stands in Bergamo's Piazza Pontida in the Città Bassa, the Lombardy city's lower town. It is near the junction of Via Sant’Alessandro and Via XX Settembre, which would have been the hub of the lower town in the 15th century. The piazza is close to a point known for centuries as Cinque Vie (five roads), where traffic from Milan, Lecco, Treviglio and Crema would converge. It was the place where goods arriving in Bergamo would be unloaded before being sent up to the Città Alta (upper town). Some of the portici (porticos) date back to the 15th century, when farmers and merchants would shelter from the sun under them, while negotiating over the goods. It would have been a lively scene, with storytellers and poets roaming from one inn to the next, entertaining the crowds who had come to trade in the square. There are now modern shops doing business behind the porticos, but the square is still a popular meeting place with plenty of bars and restaurants.

Also on this day:

1823: Fire damages Basilica of St Paul Outside-the-Walls

1850: The birth in Italy of Frances Xavier Cabrini, the first American saint

1933: The birth of cartoonist Guido Crepax


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