Showing posts with label 1900. Show all posts
Showing posts with label 1900. Show all posts

1 May 2020

Ignazio Silone – politician and author

Socialist leader became famous for anti-Fascist novels

Ignazio Silone was a founding member of the Italian Communist Party in 1921
Ignazio Silone was a founding member of
the Italian Communist Party in 1921
Writer and political leader Ignazio Silone was born Secondino Tranquilli on this day in 1900 in Pescina dei Marsi in the region of Abruzzo.

Tranquilli became famous under the pseudonym, Ignazio Silone, during World War II for his powerful anti-Fascist novels and he was nominated for the Nobel prize for literature ten times.

Silone’s father, Paolo Tranquilli, died when he was 11 and he lost his mother, Marianna, and other members of his family four years later in the Avezzano earthquake of 1915.

Two years afterwards he joined the Young Socialist group of the Italian Socialist Party (PSI), eventually becoming their leader and editor of their newspaper Avanguardia.

He was a founding member of the breakaway Italian Communist Party (PCI) party in 1921 and became one of its covert leaders during the Fascist regime, editing their newspaper in Trieste, Il Lavoratore.

His brother, Romolo Tranquilli, was arrested in 1928 for being a member of the PCI and died in prison in 1931 as a result of the severe beatings he had received from the Fascist police.

Silone went to live in Switzerland in 1930 where he declared his opposition to Joseph Stalin and was expelled from the PCI.

Silone's Abruzzo Trilogy won him acclaim as a novelist
Silone's Abruzzo Trilogy won
him acclaim as a novelist
He suffered from tuberculosis and clinical depression and spent nearly a year in Swiss clinics. While recovering, he began writing his first novel, Fontamara, under the pseudonym of Ignazio Silone, which was published in German in 1933.

After the English edition was published by Penguin Books in 1934, the Spanish Civil War and the events leading up to World War II increased the attention on the novel, which was about the exploitation of peasants in a southern Italian village and how they were brutally suppressed while they tried to obtain their rights. It became an international sensation and was published in 14 languages.

Silone’s later novels, Pane e vino (Bread and wine) and Il seme sotto la neve (The seed beneath the snow) portrayed socialist heroes who tried to help the peasants by sharing their sufferings in a Christian spirit.

The US army printed versions of Fontamara and Pane e vino and distributed them to the Italians during the liberation of Italy after 1943. Together with Il seme sotto la neve, they formed the Abruzzo Trilogy.

During World War II, Silone was the leader of a clandestine socialist organisation operating from Switzerland supporting resistance groups in German-occupied northern Italy. He also became an Office of Strategic Services agent.

A poster advertising the film made of Silone's book, Fontamara
A poster advertising the film made
of Silone's book, Fontamara
Silone returned to Italy in 1944 and was elected as a PSI member of the Italian parliament two years later.

In 1969 he was awarded the Jerusalem Prize, an award for writers who deal with the theme of individual freedom and society. In 1971 he received the Prix Mondial Cino del Duca, which recognises authors whose work sends out a message of modern humanism.

Silone wrote ten novels and six essays as well as plays and poetry. A film based on his novel, Fontamara, starring Michele Placido, was released in 1977.

Married to Irish journalist Darina Laracy, Silone died in Geneva in Switzerland in 1978.

In the 1990s, documents emerged that seemed to show Silone had acted as an informant for the Fascist police between 1919 and 1930, causing scholars and biographers to re-evaluate the writer’s political stands and literary work. It was believed he broke away from the police because of the torture they inflicted on his brother.

A plaque marks the birthplace of Ignazio Silone in the Abruzzo town of Pescina dei Marsi
A plaque marks the birthplace of Ignazio Silone in
the Abruzzo town of Pescina dei Marsi
Travel tip:

Pescina dei Marsi, where the writer Ignazio Silone was born, is in the province of L’Aquila in the region of Abruzzo in central Italy. Pescina was badly damaged in the earthquake of Avezzano in 1915 in which Silone’s mother was killed. There were 5,000 victims in Pescina out of a population of 6,000. The oldest part of the town, which was built in the 14th century, was almost destroyed, with only the bell tower of the old church of San Berardo and a few other buildings surviving.

The tomb of Ignazio Silone sits under the bell tower of San Berardo in Pescina dei Marsi
The tomb of Ignazio Silone sits under the bell tower of
San Berardo in Pescina dei Marsi
Travel tip:

Ignazio Silone used the old part of Pescina dei Marsi as the setting for his novel Fontamara. Today, visitors can go to the partially restored old town where Silone’s tomb lies below the medieval bell tower of San Berardo.  His birthplace, one of the few houses to survive the earthquake, is now a museum dedicated to the writer and has some of his manuscripts and original letters.

Also on this day:

1908: The birth of author Giovanni Guareschi 

1927: The birth of actress and jazz singer Laura Betti

1947: The Porto della Ginestra Massacre

1957: The birth of film director Uberto Pasolini


29 July 2018

Teresa Noce - activist and partisan

Anti-Fascist who became union leader and parliamentary deputy

Teresa Noce, who became one of the most important female campaigners for workers’ rights in 20th century Italy, was born on this day in 1900.

Teresa Noce led a partisan unit in France before returning to Italian politics in 1945
Teresa Noce led a partisan unit in France before
returning to Italian politics in 1945
A trade union activist as young as 12 years old, Noce spent almost 20 years in exile after the Fascists outlawed her political activity, during which time she became involved with the labour movement in Paris and subsequently led a French partisan unit under the code name Estella.

After she returned to Italy in 1945 she was elected to the Camera dei Deputati (Chamber of Deputies) as a member of the Italian Communist Party (PCI).

Working with the Unione Donne Italiane (Italian Women’s Union), she secured changes to the law to protect working mothers and provide paid maternity leave.

Born in one of the poorest districts of Turin, she and her older brother were brought up in a one-parent family after her father abandoned their mother while they were both young. Because of her mother’s poor income, they were seldom able to keep the same home more than a few weeks before being evicted for non-payment of rent.

Teresa was a bright girl who taught herself to read the newspapers her mother occasionally bought but was forced to abandon her dreams of an education in order to contribute to the family income as soon as she was physically capable of work.

Luigo Longo was also a communist activist when he married Noce in 1925
Luigo Longo was also a communist
activist when he married Noce in 1925
She took a job in a bakery initially and became a seamstress before she was even 10 years old. She joined a workers’ union and helped organise a strike for better pay and conditions when she was just 12. She moved to the Fiat factory in Corso Dante, employed like her brother as a turner, began writing for left-wing journals at the age of 14 and, after protesting against Italy’s entry to the First World War, became in 1919 a member of the Young Socialist movement.

Noce’s mother died in 1914 and her brother was killed on active service during the First World War. She became a founder-member of the Partito Comunista Italiano in 1921 after Antonio Gramsci and Amadeo Bordiga led a split from the socialists. Soon afterwards, despite being derided by his parents as “ugly, poor and communist”, she married another activist, Luigi Longo, with whom she organised illegal union activity after Mussolini had outlawed the PCI in 1925.

After both were arrested and imprisoned at different times, the two ultimately fled to Moscow before moving to Paris, where Noce became prominent among exiled Italians, campaigning for better working conditions and editing a number of anti-Fascists periodicals. She also travelled to Spain to support the Spanish Civil War.

After France surrendered to the Nazis she remained in Paris and became leader of a partisan unit comprising mainly Italians, adopting the nom de guerre Estella. After several brief imprisonments and other narrow escapes, she was arrested and sent to a women’s concentration camp at Ravensbruck in Germany.

Noce addressing a meeting of textile workers in 1948
Noce addressing a meeting of textile workers in 1948
Released in 1945 and allowed to return to Italy, she was elected to the central committee of the PCI and elected to the Italian Parliament.

She became general secretary of the textile workers’ union but her rise to a more senior position in the PCI hierarchy was blocked after he expressed differences with the leadership over policy and found herself shunned by others following an acrimonious split from Longo, who would eventually became the party’s general secretary.

The mother of three children, Noce died in Bologna in 1980 at the age of 79. She had written a number of books, including an autobiography entitled Rivoluzionaria professional (Professional Revolutionary).

The Fiat factory in Corso Dante in Turin
Travel tip:

The Fiat factory on Corso Dante, where Noce worked, still exists today and is open to the public as a museum, with a large number of exhibits, including cars and aeroplanes, outlining the company’s history up to about 1970. Opened in 1900, it was active for 22 years before the massive Lingotto plant came into use, and became associated with the Fiat Brevetti car.  The museum can be found at the junction of Corso Dante and Via Gabriele Chiabrera about 5km (3 miles) from the centre of Turin, near the southern end of the Parco del Valentino.

Palazzo Maggiore in Bologna is the heart of the city
Palazzo Maggiore in Bologna is the heart of the city
Travel tip:

The northern city of Bologna in Emilia-Romagna, where Noce spent the final years of her life, for many years was the success story of communist local government in Italy. The PCI governed the city from 1945 onwards. Between 1946 to 1956, the city council built 31 nursery schools, 896 flats and nine schools. Health care improved substantially, street lighting was installed, new drains and municipal launderettes were built and 8,000 children received subsidised school meals. The historic city centre was restored and, in 1972, the mayor, Renato Zangheri, introduced limitations for private vehicles and a renewed concentration on cheap public transport.


10 March 2018

Corrado Parnucci – architectural sculptor

Prolific artist whose work adorns cities of Michigan

Corrado Parnucci moved to New York with his father at the age of just four
Corrado Parnucci moved to New York
with his father at the age of just four 
The architectural sculptor Corrado Giuseppe Parnucci, who left his artistic mark on more than 600 buildings in Detroit and other cities in the US state of Michigan, was born on this day in 1900 in Buti, a Tuscan village about 15km (9 miles) east of Pisa.

Taken to live in America at the age of four, Parnucci – generally known as Joe – settled in Detroit after accepting some work there in 1924.

Among the Detroit landmarks with architectural embellishments by Parnucci are the Buhl Building, The Players, the Guardian Building, the David Stott Building, the Detroit Masonic Temple, the Detroit Historical Museum and the Wilson Theater.  Most of those buildings went up during the 1920s as the city’s skyline underwent huge change.

Parnucci also sculpted work for buildings in most other major Michigan cities, including Grand Rapids, Ann Arbor and Flint, and accepted numerous commissions from private individuals.

One of his masterpieces is the moulded plaster ceiling in the dining room of Meadowbrook Hall, the Tudor revival mansion built for Matilda Dodge, ex-wife of Dodge Motors co-founder John F Dodge. He also worked on the home of Edsel Ford, the son of Ford founder Henry.

The entrance to the Guardian Building in Detroit, flanked by Parnucci carvings either side
The entrance to the Guardian Building in Detroit,
flanked by Parnucci carvings either side
Although Parnucci worked in a wide range of styles, from Romanesque to Aztec, he was particularly known as a pioneer of Greco Deco, which combined Greek and Roman traditions with the then highly-fashionable Art Deco.

Born into a family of 13 children, he emigrated to New York with his father. For reasons not known, he was the only one of the family who accompanied his father, who found work as a grocer yet had to place his son in the care of a Catholic orphanage until the rest of the family were able to join them 18 months later, taking a house in MacDougall Street in the Greenwich Village area of Manhattan, just south of Washington Square

Nonetheless, Corrado grew up a bright boy and showed an aptitude for art at school, which brought him to the attention of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, a society heiress who went on to found the Whitney Museum of American Art, and who had a philanthropic interest in New York slum kids.

It was with her help that he attended sculpture classes and later obtained a scholarship to an arts institute in New York.

On leaving college, Parducci was apprenticed to architectural sculptor Ulysses Ricci.

The cathedral of St Peter in Marquette
The cathedral of St Peter in Marquette
In 1924 Parducci travelled to Detroit to work for Albert Kahn, the foremost American industrial architect of his time. Parducci planned to stay for only a few months before returning to New York.

However, Detroit was enjoying a boom time as the automotive industry blossomed and he soon realised the opportunity to make a good living was something he could not turn down. After a short time, having set up his own studio, he decided he would stay.

When the Depression brought commercial building projects to a standstill, Parducci diversified into sculpting for churches, which became a major focus of his work.  His projects included a basilica in Royal Oak, Michigan, cathedrals in Marquette and Detroit and the Shrine of the Holy Innocents at the Queen of Heaven Cemetery in Chicago.

Parducci died in Detroit in 1981, having worked at his studios until a few days before his death.

The main square in Parnucci's home town of Buti
The main square in Parnucci's home town of Buti
Travel tip:

Buti, a town of Roman origin on the eastern slopes of Monte Pisano, is home to about 5,500 people.  It is notable for the Villa Medicea, built by the Medici family in the 16th century, for the fortress of Castel Tonini that stands guard over the town, and the nearby fortified village, Castel di Nocco, which were among eight fortifications that once stood in the area, a throwback to the days when the town was a prize to be captured in the long-running battle for supremacy waged by Lucca, Pisa and Florence.

Palazzo Carovana in Pisa's Piazza dei Cavalieri
Palazzo della Carovana in Pisa's Piazza dei Cavalieri
Travel tip:

Many visitors to Pisa do not venture beyond the Campo dei Miracoli, home of the Leaning Tower, the handsome Romanesque cathedral and the equally impressive baptistry. But there is much more to the city, where a large student population ensures a vibrant cafe and bar scene. There are also many Romanesque buildings, Gothic churches and Renaissance piazzas, among them Piazza dei Cavalieri, which is notable for the Palazzo della Carovana, built by Giorgio Vasari in 1564.

More reading:

Giuseppe Moretti, the sculptor whose statue of Vulcan stands guard over Birmingham, Alabama

Ernesto Basile, the pioneer of Stile Liberty

Renzo Piano, the architect behind the Pomidou Centre and the Shard

Also on this day:

1749: The birth of Lorenzo Da Ponte, Mozart's colourful librettist

1872: The death of Risorgimento hero Giuseppe Mazzini

(Picture credits: Guardian Building by Carptrash; Cathedral of St Peter by Bobak; square in Buti by Sailko; Palazzo della Carovano by Archeologo; via Wikimedia Commons)

10 November 2017

Gaetano Bresci - assassin

Anarchist who gunned down a king

Gaetano Bresci plotted to kill Umberto I while working as a silk weaver in New Jersey
Gaetano Bresci plotted to kill Umberto I while
working as a silk weaver in New Jersey
Gaetano Bresci, the man who assassinated the Italian king Umberto I, was born on this day in 1869 in Coiano, a small village near Prato in Tuscany.

He murdered Umberto in Monza, north of Milan, on July 29, 1900, while the monarch was handing out prizes at an athletics event.  Bresci mingled with the crowd but then sprang forward and shot Umberto three or four times with a .32 revolver.

Often unpopular with his subjects despite being nicknamed Il Buono (the good), Umberto had survived two previous attempts on his life, in 1878 and 1897.

Bresci was immediately overpowered and after standing trial in Milan he was given a life sentence of hard labour on Santo Stefano island, a prison notorious for its anarchist and socialist inmates.

He had been closely involved with anarchist groups and had served a brief jail term earlier for anarchist activity but had a motive for killing Umberto.

A silk weaver by profession, he was living in the United States, where he had emigrated in the 1890s and had settled in New Jersey with his Irish-born wife. 

Working as a weaver in a mill in Paterson, New Jersey, Bresci and others set about propagating anarchist ideas among the large local Italian immigrant population, eventually setting up a newspaper, La Questione Social.

An artist's idea of the scene in Monza as Bresci is overpowered after shooting the king
An artist's idea of the scene in Monza as Bresci is
overpowered after shooting the king
Bresci became one of the main contributors to the paper, devoting much of his free time to writing and organising fellow anarchists, when he heard about a horrific event in Milan on May 6, 1898 that would determine the course of the rest of his life.

Following the so-called ‘bread riots’ - a prolonged campaign of strikes and demonstrations across Italy to protest against the rising cost of living - a mass demonstration of workers had taken place in Milan on that day.

There were outbreaks of violence and the Italian army were positioned to protect key buildings. The march took an increasingly threatening nature and, fearing an attack upon the Royal Palace, General Florenzo Bava-Beccaris ordered troops to fire on the crowd.

The shootings, known as the Bava-Beccaris massacre, officially left 80 people dead, although the true number was possibly double that.

Bresci was so incensed he vowed to avenge the workers who had been cut down on the streets of Milan that day and hatched his plot to kill the king.

He kept it a secret even from those fellow anarchists with whom he had worked so closely in Paterson. In May 1900, with no explanation, he asked for the return of a $150 loan he had made to set up La Questione, a move that left some of his comrades deeply bitter towards him.

Bresci set sail for Italy on May 17, 1900 and carried out his plan two months later.  His sentence was pronounced on August 29 and his friends and family consoled themselves with the knowledge that at least he was still alive.

However, only a year later he was dead, in mysterious circumstances, discovered hanged in his cell. His death was recorded as suicide but there were strong suspicions that he was kicked to death by prison guards, who attempted to conceal evidence from investigators by throwing his body into the sea.

How the abandoned prison on Santa Stefano looks today
How the abandoned prison on Santa Stefano looks today
Travel tip:

Santo Stefano is an island in the Tyrrhenian Sea off the west coast of Italy, part of the Pontine Islands.  The prison built by the Bourbons in 1797 remained in use until 1965. It was one of the prisons used extensively by the Fascists to imprison opponents of Benito Mussolini’s regime.  The future president of the republic, Sandro Pertini, was incarcerated there for a while.  These days, the island is uninhabited but for the tourists who visit each day.

The church of Saints Peter and Paul in Coiano
The church of Saints Peter and Paul in Coiano
Travel tip:

The small hamlet of Coiano, where Bresci was born, can be found on the hills bordering the Elsa and the Elba valleys, near Castelfiorentino, about midway between Florence and Livorno, not far from Empoli. It is known for its monumental Romanesque church dedicated to Saints Peter and Paul in Via Francigena. It is a typical example of Romanesque12th century Pisa-Volterra architecture with a façade made of half sandstone and half brick, probably due to a collapse of the upper part.

31 August 2017

Gino Lucetti – failed assassin

Anarchist tried to kill Mussolini with grenade

Gino Lucetti was part of a substantial anarchist presence in Carrara
Gino Lucetti was part of a substantial
anarchist presence in Carrara
Gino Lucetti, who acquired notoriety for attempting to assassinate Italy’s Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini in Rome in 1926, was born on this day in 1900.

A lifelong anarchist, part of a collective of like-minded young men and women from Carrara in Tuscany, he planned to kill Mussolini on the basis that doing so would save the lives of thousands of potential future victims of the Fascist regime.

Lucetti hatched his plot while in exile in France, where he had fled after taking a Fascist bullet in the neck following an argument in a bar in Milan, clandestinely returning several times to Carrara to finalise the details.

After enlisting the help of other anarchists, notably Steffano Vatteroni, who worked as a tinsmith in Rome, and Leandro Sorio, a waiter originally from Brescia, he returned to Rome to carry out the attack.

Vatteroni was able to obtain information about Mussolini’s movements from a clerical worker in the dictator’s Rome offices, including details of his regular motorcades through the city. These were carefully choreographed affairs in which cheering citizens lined the streets, enabling Mussolini to present an image to the world of a popular leader.

Sorio provided a penniless Lucetti with somewhere to stay in Rome while he planned the attack.

Mussolini would ride in an open-topped car, milking the applause of the crowds
Mussolini would ride in an open-topped car,
milking the applause of the crowds
Lucetti settled on September 11 as the day he would kill Il Duce. He had observed how closely his famous Lancia car passed by the crowds and having obtained advance notice that Mussolini’s route that day would pass through the historic gateway at Porta Pia, he loitered in wait for several hours.

When the Lancia came into view, he stepped forward from the crowd and hurled one of two grenades he had in the pockets of his jacket in the direction of the car, hoping to land it at the feet of the dictator as he waved to the cheering masses.

Instead it hit the windscreen, shattering the glass but failing to explode, then bouncing off the running board and into the road.  It blew up after Mussolini’s car had gone by, the force of the blast somewhat ironically knocking Lucetti off his feet.

In the confusion that followed, Lucetti initially sheltered in a doorway in nearby Via Nomentana, but it was not long before Mussolini’s bodyguards found him.

He was beaten up on the spot, then subjected to a violent interrogation at police headquarters.

He compounded his actions by giving police a false identity, insisting he was Ermete Giovanni, from Castelnuovo Garfagnana in Tuscany, as a result of which the town near Lucca was blockaded and dozens of people arrested. Lucetti may have failed in his assassination attempt but regarded showing up the incompetence of the police as at least a small consolation.

Lucetti's grave in Carrara, bedecked in an anarchist flag
Lucetti's grave in Carrara, bedecked in an
anarchist flag 
He stood trial in 1927, at the end of which he was sentenced to 30 years in jail. Vatteroni and Sorio received sentences of around 20 years.

Lucetti spent 17 years in a prison on Santo Stefano, one of the Pontine islands off the coast between Rome and Naples.

He died on the island of Ischia, in the Bay of Naples, in September, 1943, in circumstances that are not clear.  Some accounts say he escaped from Santo Stefano, others that he was transferred to Ischia.

Either way, he was killed during shelling of the island, either by American forces, or by German positions on neighbouring Procida.

Lucetti’s body was returned to Carrara, where he is buried alongside other anarchists, including Goliardo Fiaschi, who was a prominent figure in the Italian resistance in the Second World War, and the Giuseppe Pinelli, who fell from a fourth-floor window of the Milan police headquarters after being taken in for questioning about the Piazza Fontana bombing in 1969, and was later immortalised in Dario Fo’s play, Accidental Death of an Anarchist.

The Michelangelo-designed gate at Porta Pia
The Michelangelo-designed gate at Porta Pia
Travel tip:

Porta Pia is a gateway in Rome’s ancient Aurelian Walls, designed by Michelangelo and the artist’s final architectural project before his death in 1564. It acquired a special place in Italian history as a result of a section of wall immediately adjoining it being breached in September 1870, enabling forces led by Piedmontese General Raffaele Cadorno to storm the city, overwhelming what remained of the Papal garrisons and completing the unification of the country.

The mountains around Carrara sometimes appear to be covered in snow even in summer
The mountains around Carrara sometimes appear
to be covered in snow even in summer
Travel tip:

Carrara, famous for its blue and white marble, sits in a valley that descends from the Apuane Alps in Tuscany, in which the natural white of the peaks often convinces visitors they are covered with snow even in the summer. Marble has been quarried in the area for more than 2,000 years. Michelangelo was said to have been so taken with the purity of the stone that he spent eight months there choosing blocks for specific projects.  Nowadays, Carrara is a city of almost 70,000 inhabitants.  It became a hotbed of anarchists in the last 19th and early 20th century, largely because of the radical views of the quarry workers.

3 July 2017

Alessandro Blasetti - film director

Reputation tarnished by links with Mussolini

Alessandro Blasetti was one of the first directors to use the techniques of neorealism in his films
Alessandro Blasetti was one of the first directors
to use the techniques of neorealism in his films
Alessandro Blasetti, the film director sometimes referred to as ‘the father of Italian cinema’ for the part he played in reviving the film industry in Italy in the late 1920s and 30s, was born on this day in 1900 in Rome.

In his directing style, Blasetti was seen as ahead of his time, even in his early days.  His films were often shot on location, used many non-professional actors and had the characteristics of the neorealism that would make Italian cinema famous in the post-War years.

Yet he will forever be seen by some critics as an apologist for Fascism, a charge which stems mainly from his support for at least part of the ideology of Benito Mussolini, which led to a number of his films being interpreted as Fascist propaganda, although the evidence in some cases was rather thin.

The son of an oboe professor at Rome’s Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, Blasetti graduated in law from the Sapienza University of Rome.   Married in 1923, his first job was as a bank clerk but after a year he began to work as a journalist and wrote the first film column to appear in an Italian national newspaper.

He used his position to campaign for a revival of film production in Italy, which at that time had largely ground to a halt, despite Rome having been a major hub of the silent movie industry before the First World War.

Adriana Benetti and Gino Cervi in a scene from Blasetti's 1942 film Quattro pasi fra le nuvole
Adriana Benetti and Gino Cervi in a scene from
Blasetti's 1942 film Quattro pasi fra le nuvole 
Blasetti helped begin the resurgence with his first movie, Sole – Sun – in 1929, with a storyline set against the real-life draining of the Pontine Marshes, south of Rome, a project organised by Mussolini.

Mussolini applauded the end result, declaring it to be ‘the dawn of the Fascist film’. Financed through a co-operative, it was not a commercial success yet it was significant in that Mussolini saw film as a way of spreading his message and would later invest much state funding in the Italian film industry.

Blasetti’s early neorealism was clear in 1860, a film made in 1934 about Garibaldi’s campaign to unite Italy as seen through the eyes of two peasants, again with much location filming and imbued with the same kind of visual starkness that would be associated with Luchino Visconti, Roberto Rossellini, Vittorio De Sica and others in the post-War years.

It can be argued that several of Blasetti’s 1930s films are critical of the Fascist regimes. Vecchio guardia - The Old Guard - recounts Mussolini’s 1922 March on Rome, which led to his ascension to power. Ironically, it was criticised by some in the Fascist government for having too few scenes of public enthusiasm for Il Duce.

Blasetti pictured in 1965
Blasetti pictured in 1965
Blasetti, however, did not discourage Mussolini’s interest in his work and took every opportunity to lobby for state funding and support. One outcome was the construction of the large, state-of-the-art Cinecittà studios in Rome, which would give Italian filmmakers the resources to make a real impact.

A marked shift to neorealism came with Quattro pasi fra le nuvole – Four Steps in the Clouds – his 1942 story of a married salesman who agrees to save the honour of a pregnant girl he meets on a train by presenting himself to her family as her husband.

As well as his films, Blasetti’s notable contribution to Italian cinema was as founder of the school that was to become the Centro Sperimentale, Rome’s noted film study centre archive.  He died in Rome in 1987.

Coastal lakes or lagoons typify the Pontine Marshes
Coastal lakes or lagoons typify the Pontine Marshes
Travel tip:

The Pontine Marshes is a reclaimed area of land south of Rome, bordered roughly by the Alban Hills, the Lepini Mountains, and the Tyrrhenian Sea.  It was a marshy and malarial area that several emperors and popes tried unsuccessfully to drain and until the early part of the 20th century it was inhabited by just a handful of shepherds. However, in 1928 the Fascist government drained the marshes, cleared the vegetation and built new towns, notably Littoria (now Latina) in 1932, Sabaudia in 1934, Pontinis in 1935, Aprilia in 1937, and Pomezia in 1939. By the Second World War the only untouched area was the Monte Circeo National Park. The area is now the most productive agricultural region in in Italy.

Travel tip:

The Centro sperimentale di cinematografia – the Italian national film school - was established in 1935. The oldest film school in Western Europe, it is still financed by the Italian government. It is located near Cinecittà, about 10km (6 miles) south-east of the centre of Rome along Via Tuscolana.

16 March 2017

Bernardo Bertolucci - film director

Caused outrage with Last Tango in Paris

Bernardo Bertolucci
Bernardo Bertolucci
The controversial film maker Bernardo Bertolucci was born on this day in 1940 in Parma.

Bertolucci won an Oscar for best director as The Last Emperor picked up an impressive nine Academy Awards in 1988 but tends to be remembered more for the furore that surrounded his 1972 movie Last Tango in Paris.

Last Tango in Paris, starring Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider, caused outrage for its portrayal of sexual violence and emotional turmoil and was banned in Italy.

Although the storm died down over time, it blew up again in 2007 when Schneider, who was only 19 when the film was shot, claimed she felt violated after one particularly graphic scene because she had not been told everything that would happen.  Schneider died from cancer in 2011.

The controversy has overshadowed what has otherwise been an outstanding career, his movies placing him in the company of Federico Fellini, Michelangelo Antonioni, Luchino Visconti and Franco Zeffirelli among the greatest Italian directors of all time.

As a young man, Bertolucci wanted to become a poet, inspired by his father, Attilio Bertolucci, who was a poet as well as an art historian.

He moved to Rome to study modern literature at Sapienza University yet it was his father's part-time occupation as a film critic that was to shape his career.

Marlon Brando in a scene from Last Tango in Paris
Marlon Brando in a scene from Last Tango in Paris
He had helped Pier Paolo Pasolini find a publisher for his first novel and Pasolini in turn took on Bernardo as his first assistant when he began his film directing career with Accattone in 1961.  It was not long afterwards that Bertolucci quit university and at the age of 22, in 1962, he directed his first movie, La commare secca, with a screenplay by Pasolini and produced by Tonino Cervi.

Last Tango came 10 years later, by which time Bertolucci was beginning to acquire a reputation as a director of talent, having attracted particular acclaim for his 1970 film, The Conformist, based on a novel by Alberto Moravia.

It was Last Tango that thrust him into the spotlight, however.  Though there was an Oscar nomination, it was overshadowed by the backlash of moral outrage.  The Italian authorities, as well as ordering initially that all copies of the film should be destroyed - an appeal court later allowed three to be saved - launched a prosecution for obscenity against Bertolucci, who was given a four-month suspended jail sentence and a five-year revoking of his civil rights.

Nonetheless, his career moved to another level.  He made his comeback in 1976 with 1900, an epic that ran to five hours and 17 minutes in its uncut version, telling the story of two men from different ends of the social spectrum in Bertolucci's native Emilia-Romagna, set against the background of political turmoil in Italy in the first half of the 20th century.  Boasting a cast that include Robert De Niro, Gérard Depardieu, Donald Sutherland and Burt Lancaster, 1900 was hailed as a masterpiece.

A publicity poster for Bertolucci's acclaimed 1976 epic tale, 1900
A publicity poster for Bertolucci's
acclaimed 1976 epic tale, 1900
More success followed with La Luna and Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man before The Last Emperor, his British-Italian biographical film about Puyi, the last emperor of China before the People's Republic of China imposed communist rule.  The first western feature film for which the producers were authorized to film in the Forbidden City in Beijing, it won nine Academy Awards, including best picture and Bertolucci's best director.   The Last Emperor marked the beginning of his working relationship with the British producer, Jeremy Thomas.

Although hampered by serious back problems that now mean he is increasingly wheelchair-bound, Bertolucci continued to work into his 70s.  In 2007, he received the Golden Lion Award at the Venice Film Festival for his life's work, and in 2011 the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival.

Married to Clare Peploe, a writer who worked on the screenplay of Antonioni's 1970 classic Zabriskie Point, Bertolucci is a former supporter of the Italian Communist Party.  He was awarded a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6925 Hollywood Boulevard in Hollywood, California on November 19, 2013.

Parma's cathedral and octagonal baptistery
Parma's cathedral and octagonal baptistery
Travel tip:

Bertolucci's home city of Parma suffers a little from living in the shadow of Modena and Bologna, both of which have achieved greater fame.  Yet the home of prosciutto di Parma and parmigiano reggiano is an elegantly wealthy city with a virtually car free centre, a host of fine churches - including the Romanesque cathedral and baptistery and the Sanctuary of Santa Maria della Steccata - and some beautiful palaces.

Travel tip

Emilia-Romagna is one of the wealthiest regions in Europe, let alone Italy. Its capital, Bologna, is the home of the University of Bologna, the oldest university in the world, while the region is a major centre for food and car production. It is the home of companies such as Ferrari, Lamborghini, Maserati, Pagani, De Tomaso and Ducati, and a thriving tourist trade based around the popular coastal resorts of Cervia, Cesenatico, Rimini and Riccione.

More reading:

The brilliant legacy of Federico Fellini

How Shakespeare adaptations made Zeffirelli a household name

Why Francesco Rosi can be counted among Italian cinema's greats

Also on this day:

1886: The birth of Emilio Lunghi, Italy's first Olympic medallist

1978: The terrorist kidnapping of former prime minister Aldo Moro