Showing posts with label 1907. Show all posts
Showing posts with label 1907. Show all posts

21 November 2018

Giorgio Amendola - politician and partisan

Anti-Mussolini activist who sought to moderate Italian Communism

Giorgio Amendola was against extremism on the right or left of politics
Giorgio Amendola was against extremism
on the right or left of politics
The politician Giorgio Amendola, who opposed extremism on the right and left in Italy, was born on this day in 1907 in Rome.

Amendola was arrested for plotting against the Fascist regime of Benito Mussolini in the 1930s, fought with the Italian resistance in the Second World War and later worked to move the Italian Communist Party (PCI) away from the doctrines of Soviet Communism and Leninism towards a more moderate position acceptable in the mainstream of Italian politics.

Amendola was almost born to be a political thinker. His mother, Eva Kuhn, was an intellectual from Lithuania, his father Giovanni a liberal anti-Fascist who was a minister in the last democratically elected Italian government before Mussolini.

It was as a reaction to his father’s death in 1926, following injuries inflicted on him by Fascist thugs who tracked him down in France on Mussolini’s orders, that Amendola secretly joined the PCI and began to work for the downfall of the dictator.

Giorgio's father, Giovanni, died after being beaten by Fascist thugs
Giorgio's father, Giovanni, died
after being beaten by Fascist thugs
He was largely based in France and Germany but from time to time returned to Italy undercover in order to meet other left-wing figures. It was on one visit in 1932 that he was arrested in Milan.

After a few months in jail he was freed under a supposed amnesty but then detained again and sentenced to confinement on Santo Stefano island in the Pontine archipelago, which Mussolini used for political prisoners. After leading protests by inmates against the requirement that they greet visiting politicians with the Fascist ‘Roman salute’ he was exiled to France and later Tunisia.

Amendola was not freed until 1943, at which point he returned to Rome to join in the Italian partisans in helping to liberate the city.

He was a PCI representative in the Central Committee of National Liberation and as the commander of a so-called “Garibaldini" corps - named after the volunteers who fought with Giuseppe Garibaldi in the unification of Italy in the 19th century - he reached Milan in 1944, helping with the work of partisan group in parts of northern Italy still under German occupation.

After the war, Amendola served as a deputy for the PCI from 1948 until his death in 1980.

A minister in the postwar governments of Ferruccio Parri and Alcide De Gaspari, he adopted a position on the right-wing of the party, opposing the extremism of the left as fiercely as he had fought against the extremism of Mussolini’s followers.

Italian Communist leader Enrico Berlinguer built on the work of Amendola in making the left more mainstream
Italian Communist leader Enrico Berlinguer built on the work
of Amendola in making the left more mainstream
It was Amendola’s goal to shift the party away from the ideology of the Russian Communists towards a position where meaningful alliances could be formed with more moderate left-wing groups, such as the Italian Socialist Party (PSI).

His attempts to reposition the PCI was in part responsible for the emergence of the concept of Eurocommunism that gained popularity as the philosophy embraced by Italy’s most successful communist politician, the long-time PCI leader Enrico Berlinguer.

Amendola turned his political philosophy into several books, including Comunismo, antifascismo e Resistenza (Communism, Anti-Fascism and Resistance, 1967), Lettere a Milano (Letters to Milan, 1973), Intervista sull'antifascismo (Interview on Anti-Fascism, 1976, with Piero Melograni), Una scelta di vita (A choice of Life, 1978), and Un'isola (An Island, 1980), which was a biographical work about his time on Santo Stefano.

Amendola died in Rome, aged 72, after a long illness. His wife Germaine Lecocq, whom he met during his French exile in Paris and who helped him to write his last work, passed away only a few hours later.

The ruins of the prison building on the island of Santo Stefano that Mussolini used to incarcerate his opponents
The ruins of the prison building on the island of Santo
Stefano that Mussolini used to incarcerate his opponents
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. These days, the island is uninhabited except for the tourists who visit each day.

The Campo Verano cemetery in Rome has many highly elaborate and ornate tombstones
The Campo Verano cemetery in Rome has many highly
elaborate and ornate tombstones
Travel tip:

Giorgio Amendola was buried in the Campo Verano cemetery in Rome, close to the Basilica of San Lorenzo al Verano in the Tiburtino quarter of the city, not far from the Sapienza University of Rome. The cemetery, built on the site of ancient Roman catacombs, is also the last resting place among others of the novelist Alberto Moravia, the actor Marcello Mastroianni, the racing driver Elio de Angelis, and Claretta Petacci, who was the mistress of the Fascist leader Benito Mussolini.

More reading:

How Enrico Berlinguer turned Italy's Communists into a political force

Alcide de Gaspari - the man charged with rebuilding a broken Italy

Antonio Gramsci - the Communist intellectual Mussolini could not gag

Also on this day:

1688: The birth of engraver Antonio Visentini

The Festival of Madonna della Salute in Venice

1854: The birth of Pope Benedict XV, First World War pontiff


13 November 2018

Giovanna of Italy - Tsaritsa of Bulgaria

Daughter of King of Italy who married Tsar Boris III

Princess Giovanna of Savoy, who became Ioanna, Tsarista of Bulgaria
Princess Giovanna of Savoy, who
became Ioanna, Tsarista of Bulgaria
The girl who would grow up to be Ioanna, Tsarista of Bulgaria, was born Princess Giovanna Elisabetta Antonia Romana Maria of Savoy on this day in 1907 in Rome.

Giovanna’s father was King Victor Emmanuel III, who was Italy’s monarch through two world wars from 1900 until he abdicated in 1946 just as Italy was about to become a republic.  Her mother was Queen Elena of Montenegro.

At the age of 22, Princess Giovanna became Tsarista Ioanna - the last Tsarista - after marrying the Tsar of Bulgaria, Boris III, in the Basilica of St Francis in Assisi.  It was the hope of the Italian royal family that the marriage would strengthen their relationship with the Balkan states.

The marriage lasted until Boris’s death in 1943 at the age of just 49. The Tsar had fallen ill during a trip to Germany to discuss Bulgaria’s role in the Second World War as a member of the Axis bloc and there were suspicions that he was poisoned on the orders of Hitler.

Bulgaria had agreed to join the Axis under the threat of invasion by the Germans, who wanted to use their territory to launch an attack on Greece, but the Tsar was said to be appalled at Hitler's massacres of Jews. On two occasions he refused orders to deport Bulgarian Jews. Queen Ioanna herself intervened to obtain transit visas to enable a number of Jews to escape to Argentina.

Boris III died at the age of only 49 amid suspicions he was poisoned by Hitler
Boris III died at the age of only 49 amid
suspicions he was poisoned by Hitler
Princess Giovanna had been brought up in Rome at Villa Savoia, the former and present Villa Ada, set in a large area of parkland to the northeast of the city centre.

A bright, intelligent girl with a love of music, she was given an education in literature, history and Latin. She learned to play the piano and the cello and spoke English and French.

It was always her destiny to marry into a foreign royal family, which has been a tradition in the House of Savoy, going back to the former Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia.  Indeed, Boris’ father, Tsar Ferdinand, had married a princess of the former royal houses of Parma and the Two-Sicilies.

When she reached the age at which speculation over her future husband began, Princess Giovanna was linked with a number of foreign princes, although for a while she was seen in the company of the Marquis de Pinedo, a daring Italian aviator, with whom the princess led off two court balls of the 1927 season. He was also her guest in the royal box at the Davis Cup tennis matches later that year.

She had met Tsar Boris III for the first time in 1927 when he was touring Europe with his brother Prince Kyril. Romance blossomed later, after they attended the wedding in January 1930 of Princess Maria Jose of Belgium to Princess Giovanna’s brother Prince Umberto. It was after that meeting that plans were laid for them to be married.

Umberto II, Italy's exiled king, was joined by Giovanna in Portugal
Umberto II, Italy's exiled king, was
joined by Giovanna in Portugal
As with Tsar Ferdinand’s marriage, the match could only happen with an accommodation between the Eastern Orthodox Church of Bulgaria and the Roman Catholic Church of Italy. Negotiations were so difficult that at one point talks broke off entirely with Boris III declaring that he would remain a bachelor if he could not marry Princess Giovanna and the Princess vowing to enter a convent if she could not marry the Tsar.

Eventually, Boris III promised that any future children be raised in the Catholic faith and Pope Pius XI granted approval. In the final negotiations, it had helped that Giovanna knew the Pope's Apostolic Visitor to Bulgaria, Archbishop Angelo Roncalli, the future Pope John XXIII.

The Tsar and the Princess were married in Assisi on October 25, 1930.  After the wedding breakfast, the couple travelled by train and yacht to Sofia, where the newlyweds stepped out on to a railway platform strewn with chrysanthemums. From there they proceeded to the city's cathedral for an Orthodox ceremony.

Despite the agreements reached before the wedding in Italy, the couple's two children, Marie-Louise, born in 1933, and Simeon, born in 1937, were baptized in the Eastern Orthodox church. Yet Giovanna was spared excommunication.

After Boris’s death, Simeon became the new Tsar and a regency was established, led by his uncle Prince Kyril.

Giovanna was welcomed back by the Bulgarian people when she returned to Sofia in 1993
Giovanna was welcomed back by the Bulgarian
people when she returned to Sofia in 1993
Towards the end of the Second World War, however, Bulgaria was invaded by the Soviet Union. Prince Kyril was tried by a ‘people's court’ and subsequently executed. Giovanna and her son Simeon remained under house arrest until 1946, when the new Communist government gave them 48 hours to leave the country.

They fled first to Alexandria in the Egypt, to join her father, Victor Emmanuel III, before moving on to Madrid. After Simeon married in 1962, Giovanna moved to Estoril, on the Portuguese Riviera, where would live for the rest of her life, close to the home of her brother, the exiled Italian king, Umberto II.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, she returned to Bulgaria in 1993, visiting the site of Boris's grave, which had been destroyed by the Communists, and attending the reburial of his heart, which had been found in the gardens of the former royal palace.  Thousands of people turned out on the streets to greet her.

Giovanna died in 2000. She is buried in the Communal Cemetery of Assisi, Italy.

Simeon - who as Simeon II was the last Tsar of Bulgaria, albeit at the age of six - is now a businessman in Madrid. Giovanna’s daughter, Marie-Louise, lives in New Jersey.

The Basilica of St Francis of Assisi, where Princess Giovanna and King Boris III were married in 1930
The Basilica of St Francis of Assisi, where Princess
Giovanna and King Boris III were married in 1930
Travel tip:

The Papal Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi, where Tsarista Ioanna was married and is buried, is the mother church of the Franciscan Order. It can be found in Piazza Inferiore di San Francesco in Assisi. Built into the side of a hill, it consists of two churches, a lower Basilica and an upper Basilica, and a crypt that contains the remains of St Francis. The Basilica is one of the most important places of Christian pilgrimage in Italy and has been designated a Unesco World Heritage site since 2000.

The Villa Ada-Savoia, former royal residence, now home of the Egyptian Embassy in Rome
The Villa Ada-Savoia, former royal residence, now home
of the Egyptian Embassy in Rome
Travel tip:

The Villa Ada - formerly the Villa Savoia -  is a 450 acres (1.8 km2) park in Rome, the second largest in the city after Villa Doria Pamphili, located in the northeastern part of the city.  The park was bought in 1872 by King Victor Emmanuel II, who expanded and improved the main house, but his successor Umberto I preferred the Palazzo Quirinale as the royal residence and the villa was sold to Count Telfener, who named it to his wife Ada. Victor Emmanuel III bought it back in 1904 and the villa became a royal residence, with a change of name to Villa Savoia, until 1946.  Nowadays, it houses the Egyptian Embassy. The various buildings in the park included the Villa Polissena, the Royal Stables, the Casino Pallavicini and the Temple of Flora. Victor Emmanuel III had a bunker built in the grounds as an air raid shelter, recently restored by the non-profit organisation, Roma Sotteranea, who organise tours.

More reading:

The abdication of King Victor Emmanuel III

Umberto II - the last King of Italy

The quiet life of a banished princess

Also on this day:

1868: The death of composer Gioachino Rossini

1894: The death of Saint Agostina Pietrantoni

1914: The birth of film director Alberto Lattuada


31 August 2018

Altiero Spinelli - political visionary

Drafted plan for European Union while in Fascist jail

Spinelli and two fellow prisoners were the first to propose a united Europe
Spinelli and two fellow prisoners were
the first to propose a united Europe
Altiero Spinelli, a politician who is regarded as one of the founding fathers of the European Union, was born on this day in 1907 in Rome.

A lifelong Communist who was jailed for his opposition to the Fascist regime of Benito Mussolini, he spent much of the Second World War in confinement on the island of Ventotene in the Tyrrhenian Sea, one of an archipelago known as the Pontine Islands.

It was there that he and two prisoners, Ernesto Rossi and Eugenio Colorni, agreed that if the forces of Fascism in Italy and Germany were defeated, the only way to avoid future European wars was for the sovereign nations of the continent to join together in a federation of states.

The document they drew up, which became known as the Ventotene Manifesto, was the first document to argue for a European constitution and formed the basis for the Movimento Federalista Europeo, which Spinelli, Rossi and some 20 others launched at a secret meeting in Milan as soon as they were able to leave their internment camp.

An official mugshot of Spinelli taken during his confinement on Ventotene
An official mugshot of Spinelli taken
during his confinement on Ventotene
In a nutshell, the Ventotene Manifesto put forward proposals for creating a European federation of states so closely joined together they would no longer be able to go to war with one another. It argued that if all of the European countries retained their complete national sovereignty in the post-war landscape then the possibility of a Third World War would still exist even if the Nazi attempt to establish the domination of the German race in Europe was defeated.

Throughout the 40s and 50s, Spinelli’s MFE was in the vanguard of the drive for European integration and Spinelli himself, who was elected as a Communist MEP in 1979, its most powerful voice.

By stages, he persuaded the Italian government and then the European Parliament of the wisdom of his proposals and his draft document, known as the Spinelli Plan, became the basis for the Single European Act of 1986 and the Maastricht Treaty of 1992, which formally agreed the establishment of a European Union.

Spinelli himself lived to see none of these developments. His health declined in his late 70s and he died in a Rome clinic in May 1986 at the age of 78.

However, his legacy was recognised when the main building of the European Parliament in Brussels was named after him in 1999.

Spinelli was buried on the island of  Ventotene, where his memory is preserved
Spinelli was buried on the island of
Ventotene, where his memory is preserved
Although born in Rome, Spinelli spent his early years in Brazil, where his father was the Italian Vice-Consul. On returning home he joined the Italian Communist Party at the age of 17 in 1924, the year of the murder of Giacomo Matteotti, with Fascism now in power and Communists forced underground.

He was arrested in Milan in June 1927, when the Fascists introduced legislation outlawing political opponents. He was convicted and sentenced to 16 years and eight months in prison.

After a decade, he was transferred to Rome and was led to believe he would be released, only to be told he was instead being transferred to confinement status, first on the island of Ponza, later on Ventotene, a smaller island midway between Ponza and Ischia, off the coast of Naples.

His release eventually came in 1943, after Mussolini had been expelled by the Fascist Grand Council and arrested on the orders of the king, Victor Emmanuel III. 

Ponza has some beautiful coastline and was once a haunt for movie stars and other celebrities
Ponza has some beautiful coastline and was once a haunt
for movie stars and other celebrities
Travel tip:

The island of Ponza has had a chequered history. Inhabited from neolithic to Roman times, it was abandoned during the middle ages due to frequent attacks by Saracens and pirates and not recolonised until the 18th century. Due to its remoteness, it was used as penal colony by several regimes in addition to the Fascists. Mussolini himself was confined there for a brief period after his arrest in 1943. In more recent years, it was developed for tourism and became a fashionable resort for celebrities, including Sophia Loren, Gina Lollobrigida, Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas. It has become less attractive since the death of several tourists due to falling rocks led to the permanent closure of the main beach, Chiaia di Luna, although there are many other smaller beaches and several picturesque bays.

The picturesque harbour on the island of Ventotene
The picturesque harbour on the island of Ventotene
Travel tip:

Closer to the mainland than Ponza and therefore more easy to reach, Ventotene attracts many tourists during the summer months but remains in some ways a permanent monument to Spinelli, who was returned to the island following his death and interred in the churchyard of the Parrocchia Santa Candida Vergine e Martire. The former prison has been converted into colorful summer homes and visitors can even sleep in Spinelli’s old apartment.  In 2016, Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi met with the German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande on the island, where they laid a wreath at the Spinelli’s tomb and staged a mini-summit meeting to discuss the future of the EU following the referendum staged in Britain.

More reading:

Victor Emmanuel III appoints Mussolini as prime minister

The murder of Giacomo Matteotti

How Alcide de Gasperi rebuilt Italy

Also on this day:

1834: The birth of opera composer Amilcare Ponchielli

1900: The birth of Gino Lucetti, anarchist famous for botched attempt to kill Mussolini


6 January 2017

First Montessori school opens in Rome

Educationalist Maria Montessori launches Casa dei Bambini

Maria Montessori in Rome in 1913
Maria Montessori in Rome in 1913
The first of what would become recognised across the world as Montessori schools opened its doors in Rome on this day in 1907.

The Casa dei Bambini, in the working class neighbourhood of San Lorenzo, was launched by the physician and educationalist Maria Montessori.

Montessori - the first woman in Italy to qualify as a physician - had enjoyed success with her teaching methods while working with children as a volunteer at Rome University's psychiatric clinic.

She was convinced that the techniques she had used to help children with learning difficulties and more serious mental health issues could be adapted for the benefit of all children.

The Casa dei Bambini came into being after Montessori had been invited to work on a housing project in San Lorenzo, where her responsibility was to oversee the care and education of the project's children while their parents were at work.

Situated in Via dei Marsi, it catered for between 50 and 60 children aged between two and seven.  The methods Montessori employed, which included many practical activities as well as more conventional lessons and revolved around allowing children to follow the direction in which their own interests led them, were essentially the same as those that would become the hallmarks of her philosophy.

Maria Montessori's image featured on Italy's  1000 lire banknotes prior to the switch to the Euro
Maria Montessori's image featured on Italy's
1000 lire banknotes prior to the switch to the Euro
Children developed self-discipline and self-motivation in the environment she created for them, while their intellectual attainments outstripped those of children in conventional education. Word of the method's success quickly spread.  A second Casa dei Bambini was opened later the same year, followed by three more in 1908.  By 1915, schools in every major European country were using the Montessori method, which was being taken up with enthusiasm in parts of Australia, Asia, South America and the Middle East.

It became popular in the United States from about 1911 onwards and by 1913 there were about 100 Montessori schools.  Maria Montessori embarked on a number of lecture tours, although the popularity of her methods went into decline from about 1925, largely because of opposition from the educational establishment.  It did not gain momentum again until the 1950s.

Nonetheless, at their peak, Montessori schools in the United States numbered around 4,000 out of approximately 7,000 across the world.

Maria Montessori was born in 1870 in the town of Chiaravalle in the province of Ancona in Le Marche. Her parents were well educated middle-class people but were traditional and conservative in their outlook, especially when it came to the role of women in society.

They moved to Florence and then Rome because of her father's work with the Ministry of Finance.  This afforded her better educational opportunities, yet she was not encouraged to aim higher than teaching as a career.  It was somewhat in defiance of what she perceived as restrictions on her ambition that she first set out to study engineering and then switched to medicine, enrolling at the University of Rome.

It was unheard of for a woman to study medicine at the time and she met with hostility from both professors and fellow students.  She had to perform her dissection of cadavers alone in her own time because it was deemed inappropriate for her to attend classes with men in the presence of a naked body, even one preserved in formaldehyde.

Maria Montessori's name still adorns the wall of the Casa dei Bambini in Rome, which is no longer a Montessori school
Maria Montessori's name still adorns the wall of the Casa
dei Bambini in Rome, which is no longer a Montessori school 
Yet she persevered and became a trailblazer for women in medicine when she obtained her degree in 1896.

Afterwards, she remained at Rome University to research into so-called 'phrenasthenic' children - those deemed to be mentally retarded.  It was her observation of the behaviour of these children that led her to discover ways of teasing out the intrinsic intelligence she believed existed in all children.

During that time, she had a son, Mario, as a result of an affair with a fellow doctor.  Convention at the time dictated that were she to have married the father she would have been expected to abandon her career.  She refused to contemplate such a sacrifice and Mario was placed in foster care, although they would be reunited in his teenage years and he would go on to continue his mother's work after her death.

The growth of the Montessori method suffered a setback during the 1930s when Benito Mussolini, the leader of the Italian Fascist government, who had initially embraced Maria Montessori's ideas, began closing Montessori schools if their teachers did not swear loyalty to the state.  In Germany, Hitler's Nazi party took a similarly hard line, banning the Montessori method and even burning copies of her books.

Maria fled with her son to India, where she knew her methods were growing in popularity, but once Italy signed a formal alliance with Germany they were both arrested as aliens.  Although Maria was spared any restriction on her movement, Mario was incarcerated in a prison camp.

At the end of the war they returned to Europe and Maria based herself in Amsterdam.  Nominated three times for the Nobel Peace Prize, she died in the Netherlands in 1952 at the age of 81.

Piazza Mazzini in Chiaravalle, where Maria  Montessori was born in 1870
Piazza Mazzini in Chiaravalle, where Maria
Montessori was born in 1870
Travel tip:

Maria Montessori's birthplace in Chiaravalle in Piazza Mazzini is open to the public.  It houses a museum containing a collection of the educational materials developed by Montessori and used in the original Casa dei Bambini.  It is also the head office of the Montessori Foundation.

Travel tip:

The San Lorenzo district adjoins the campus of Rome's Sapienza University and sits just to the north of the main Roma Termini station.  Dominated by Via Tiburtina, it is a gritty, somewhat down at heel neighbourhood that has suffered through the decline of industry in the city yet is home to a vibrant youth culture thanks to a large student population.

More reading:

The 17th century philosophy student thought to be the first woman in the world to receive an academic degree

How 18th century scientist Laura Bassi broke new ground for female academics

Tullio Levi-Civita - the mathematician Einstein admired

Also on this day:

Befana - the post-Christmas gift bonus for Italy's children

(Picture credits: Banknotes by Flanker via Wikimedia Commons)


10 December 2016

Amedeo Nazzari - movie star

Sardinian actor seen as the Errol Flynn of Italian cinema

Amedeo Nazzari in a scene from the 1950s film by Federico Fellini, Nights of Cabiria
Amedeo Nazzari in a scene from the 1950s film by
Federico Fellini, Nights of Cabiria
The prolific actor Amedeo Nazzari, who made more than 90 movies and was once one of Italian cinema's biggest box office names, was born on this day in 1907 in Cagliari.

Likened in his prime to the Australian-American star Errol Flynn, with whom he had physical similarities and the same screen presence, Nazzari enjoyed a career spanning five decades.

One of his first major successes, in the title role of the 1938 drama Luciano Serra, Pilot, in which he played a First World War veteran, established him as Italy's leading male star in 1930s and he maintained his popularity in the 40s and 50s.

He is remembered also for his appearance in Federico Fellini's Nights of Cabiria, which won the 1957 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language film.

Towards the end of his career, he featured in Henri Verneuil's 1969 Mafia caper The Sicilian Clan, for which the score was composed by Ennio Morricone.  His last big screen appearance came in 1976 in A Matter of Time, an Italian-American musical fantasy directed by Vincente Minnelli and starring his daughter, Liza Minnelli.

Nazzari was born Amedeo Carlo Leone Buffa, the son of a pasta manufacturer, Salvatore Buffa, and Argenide Nazzari, who was the daughter of the President of the Court of Appeal in Cagliari, Amedeo Nazzari, whose name he decided to take as his stage name.

The poster advertising Nazzari's first big success, Luciano Serra, Pilot
The poster advertising Nazzari's first
big success, Luciano Serra, Pilot
Salvatore Buffa died when Amedeo was only six and the family moved to Rome, where his mother guided him through his teenage years and hoped he would develop a career as an engineer. After joining a drama society, however, Amedeo became infatuated with theatre and, ultimately, cinema.

After the death of Rudolph Valentino, the movie sex symbol of the 1920s, he entered a competition organised by Twentieth Century Fox to find an Italian who could step into his shoes.  He was rejected on the grounds that he was too tall and too thin and that he had a gloomy expression.  There was no putting him off, however, and he continued to pursue his dream.

His first big break came in 1936, when the emerging actress Anna Magnani saw him on stage in the theatre and, impressed with his energy, recommended him to her husband, the director Goffredo Alessandrini for a lead role in his next film, Cavalry.  The film debuted at the Venice Film Festival and subsequently played to full houses all over Italy.

A man of strong principals, he turned down Benito Mussolini's invitation to join the Fascist party after the success of Luciano Serra, Pilot.  Nazzari had become a matinee idol and Mussolini wanted to promote him as a symbol of Italian masculinity but Nazzari allegedly told him: 'Thank you, Duce, but I would prefer not to concern myself with politics, occupied as I am with more pressing artistic commitments.'

Given that Mussolini, the driving force behind the Cinecittà complex in Rome that was in time to be known as 'Hollywood on the Tiber', was keen to ally himself with the stars of the movie industry, Nazzari risked his stand being interpreted as a snub but in the event it had no detrimental effect on his career, perhaps because he willingly participated in some wartime productions that were blatantly propagandist, in particular the 1942 film Bengasi, an anti-British war film set in Libya.

A year earlier, in 1941, the Venice Film Festival had awarded Nazzari the title of Best Actor for the film Caravaggio, il pittore maledetto - Caravaggio, the cursed painter - also directed by Alessandrini. Earlier in 1942, he had starred in La cena delle beffe - the dinner of mockery - a costume drama that takes place in the Florence of the Medici, directed by Alessandro Blasetti.

Later, Nazzari would turn down the chance to play opposite Marilyn Monroe in Let's Make Love, his proposed role going to Yves Montand after Nazzari expressed doubt over his ability to play convincingly in an English-speaking part and confessed that he feared his attempts to sing and dance would attract ridicule.

Amedeo Nazzari in the 1950 film Il brigante Musolino
Amedeo Nazzari in the 1950 film Il brigante Musolino
In fact, he rejected most approaches to play comedy roles in Italy, preferring meatier parts such as that of the brave Neapolitan magistrate who stands up to the Camorra in Luigi Zampa's Processo alla città - A city on trial.

Married in 1957 to Irene Genna, an Italian-Greek actress, he had a daughter, Maria Evelina, who followed him into acting and established a successful career in theatre and television.

In his later years he developed kidney problem and died in Rome in November 1979, aged 71, a few months before his daughter gave birth to his first grandchild, Leonardo.

He is buried at the monumental cemetery of Verano in Rome under the name of Amedeo Nazzari Buffa.

Cagliari as seen by travellers arriving by sea
Cagliari as seen by travellers arriving by sea
Travel tip:

Cagliari, the capital of Sardinia, is an industrial centre and one of the largest ports in the Mediterranean but is also a city of considerable beauty and history.  When D.H. Lawrence arrived in the 1920s, witnessing the confusion of domes, palaces and ornamental facades that seemed to be piled on top of one another as he approached from the sea, he likened the city to Jerusalem, describing it as 'strange and rather wonderful, not a bit like Italy.’

Travel tip:

Rome's Cinecittà studios were founded in 1937 by Mussolini, his son Vittorio and the Fascist government's head of cinema, Luigi Freddi, under the slogan 'Cinema is the Most Powerful Weapon'. The Fascist leader had propaganda in mind but he was also keen to revive the Italian film industry, which was in crisis at the time.  Later, Cinecittà would become closely associated with the director Federico Fellini, who filmed La Dolce Vita, Satirycon and Casanova there, among other productions.  It is also used for shooting television shows and houses the set for Grande Fratello, the Italian version of Big Brother.

More reading:

Anna Magnani - Oscar-winning actress famous for Rossellini's Rome, Open City

Four-times Oscar winner Federico Fellini left huge legacy of influence

Rudolph Valentino - heartthrob actor who died tragically young

Also on this day:


19 November 2016

Luigi Beccali - Olympic athlete

Milanese runner brought home Italy's first track gold

Luigi Beccali, Olympic champion in 1932
Luigi Beccali, Olympic
champion in 1932

Luigi Beccali, the first Italian to win an Olympic gold medal in track and field events, was born on this day in 1907 in Milan.

Although Italy had won gold medals in fencing and gymnastics in previous Games, Beccali's victory in the 1,500 metres at the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles was the first time an Italian had won gold in a running event.

His victory came out of the blue since the field included several runners with top credentials, including New Zealand’s Jack Lovelock and America's Glenn Cunningham.  Beccali had a reputation as a determined competitor but his results were relatively modest next to those of the favourites.

However, in May of 1932 he had posted a mile time of four minutes 11.5 seconds in Milan which was only four tenths of a second slower than Cunningham's time in winning the 1932 National Collegiate Athletics Association championships.

The three heats at Los Angeles were won by Lovelock, Beccali, and Cunningham, who posted the best time of 3:55.8 in winning the first heat.

In the final, Lovelock led the field through the first 400m but Cunningham took the lead on the second lap only to be overtaken by Canada's Phil Edwards, who led at 800m.

Cunningham tried to forge ahead on the third lap, but Edwards stayed with him and started to pull away over the last lap.

Beccali storms home to win the gold medal at Los Angeles in 1932
Beccali storms home to win the gold
medal at Los Angeles in 1932
At that stage, Cunningham looked beaten but Beccali, Lovelock, and Britain’s John “Jerry” Cornes went after Edwards. Beccali passed Lovelock and then Cunningham to be second at the final curve before rushing past Edwards with 100m remaining. Cornes went through to take silver with Edwards holding off Cunningham for bronze.

On the victory podium, Beccali gave a fascist salute, although the incident passed with only brief mentions in newspaper reports and acquired notoriety for him only later, after Adolf Hitler had hijacked the 1936 Berlin Olympics as a political platform.

As a youth, Beccali enjoyed cycling as well as athletics but choose the latter when he met Dino Nai, a university lecturer in veterinary science, who would become his coach.

He made his debut at the Amsterdam Games in 1928 but was eliminated after finishing only fourth in his 1500m heat.  It was not until four years later that he would make the world take notice of him.

Beccali attributed his success to having a job that allowed him the opportunity to train twice a day. He worked as a council surveyor responsible for road maintenance in Milan but was unsupervised and no one would question his movements during the day so long as he completed the work required.

Therefore he was able to sneak in a training session in the morning as well as after work.

His victory at the Los Angeles Games turned him into a national hero overnight and he enjoyed a period of further success.

Jack Lovelock gained his revenge at the Berlin Games in 1936
Jack Lovelock gained his revenge at
the Berlin Games in 1936
In 1933, Beccali equalled the 1,500m world record of 3 mins 49.2 seconds then lowered it to 3:49.0. He also set the 1,000 yd (910 m) world record at 2:10.0.

He won the 1,500m at the first European Championships in 1934, but was overwhelmed by Lovelock in the defence of his 1,500m crown at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, settling to the third place.

After finishing third at 1,500m at the European Championships in 1938 and winning his fifth Italian championships, he moved to the United States, where he continued to compete until 1941.

Beccali, who had a son, Gene, by his wife, Aida, settled in Long Island and ran a wine merchants' business for many years, doing well enough to buy a holiday home in Daytona Beach in Florida.

Some accounts of his life say that he was in Florida when he died in 1990 at the age of 92 but a report in the New York Times insisted he was in Italy at the time of his death, staying at the Ligurian coastal resort of Rapallo.

Travel tip:

Beccali's name is commemorated in Milan in the Via Luigi Beccali, an approach road to the Milanosport complex near Parco Nord, about 10km to the north-east of the centre of Milan. Milanosport has 24 facilities across the city dedicated to providing opportunities for participation in sport. Parco Nord is a large public park built on the site of a former industrial complex.

Rapallo: villas nestle among the trees above the waterfront at the attractive resort on the Ligurian Riviera
Rapallo: villas nestle among the trees above the waterfront
at the attractive resort on the Ligurian Riviera
Travel tip:

Rapallo is an attractive resort on Liguria's Riviera di Levante and offers a cheaper alternative to the smaller and more fashionable Portofino, situated less than 10km away along the same stretch of coastline.  It has a pretty harbour notable for a castle that sits right at its edge and a grid of streets just behind the waterfront that reflects the town's past as a Roman settlement.

More reading:

How cyclist Attilio Pavesi won Italy's first Olympic gold on the road

Why the 1960 Olympics in Rome was an historic moment for African athletics

Also on this day:

1877: The birth of Giuseppe Volpi, founder of the Venice Film Festival

(Photo of Rapallo by Davide Paplini via Wikemedia Commons)


11 September 2016

Scipione Borghese - adventurer

Nobleman from Ferrara won Peking to Paris car race

Scipione Borghese (left) and journalist Luigi Barzini pictured with Borghese's Itala car
Scipione Borghese (left) and journalist Luigi Barzini
pictured with Borghese's Itala car

The Italian adventurer Prince Scipione Borghese, who won a car race since described as the most incredible of all time, was born on this day in 1871 in Migliarino in Emilia-Romagna, not far from Ferrara.

Borghese was a nobleman, the eldest son of Paolo, ninth Prince of Sulmona.  He was described as an industrialist and politician but he was also a mountaineer and a keen participant in the revolution in transport that began when the first petrol-powered motor vehicles appeared in the late 19th century.

In 1907 the French newspaper, Le Matin, which was keen to promote the growing motor industry in France, challenged readers to prove their theory that the car would open up the world's horizons, enabling man to travel anywhere on the planet.

When it asked for volunteers to take part in a drive from Paris to Beijing - then known as Peking - a 5,000-mile journey - Borghese's taste for the daring was immediately excited.

Volunteers haul the Itala through a  steep mountain pass
Volunteers haul the Itala through a
steep mountain pass
Originally, more than 40 teams proposed to sign up.  In time, this dwindled to five vehicles and 11 men, consisting of drivers, mechanics and, in some cases, journalists who would file reports using the telegraph system as the event progressed.  Apart from Borghese, taking part were a Dutch Spyker driven by an unknown named Charles Goddard, a three-wheeler Cyclecar piloted by the father of the opera singer Lily Pons and two French De Dions.

Borghese, despite his family having lost much of their wealth through a series of misfortunes, commissioned a car powered by a seven-litre engine from the Itala company in Turin with sponsorship from tyre manufacturers Pirelli.  He would be accompanied on the journey by two more Italians - his mechanic and sometime chauffeur, Ettore Guizzardi, and Luigi Barzini, a journalist.

To avoid the monsoon rains, the proposed direction of the race was reversed to start in Peking in June 1907 with the cars driving westward to Paris. The conditions could hardly have been less car-friendly, the route taking in numerous mountain ranges and two major deserts where no provision had been made for recognisable roads.

Although the project was conceived as a demonstration of the potential of the automobile rather than a race, Borghese was determined to make it one and win it, planning assiduously to give his team the best chance.  He arranged for fuel and spare parts to be stored along the route and, before the race began, took a 300-mile ride on horseback to the mountain passes north of Peking carrying a bamboo pole cut to the width of his car to see if the Itala could squeeze through.

The route led through deserts, mountain passes and steppes to Outer Mongolia, on to Moscow and then across Russia, Poland, Germany and Belgium to Paris. There were often mountain tracks and paths rather than roads, no petrol stations and no one who had ever seen a motor car before.

The Itala was left upside down after falling through a bridge but survived
The Itala was left upside down after
falling through a bridge but survived
Auguste Pons dropped out of the race after running out of fuel in the Gobi Desert and being rescued by nomadic Mongolians and Goddard failed to complete the trip but Borghese's journey was hardly plain sailing.

At one point the Itala rolled back down a narrow pass and Guizzardi only just managed to stop the car dropping into a ravine, taking him with it; at another, all three of the team were lucky to escape injury when a bridge collapsed under them.  At times, the car had to be hitched to mule trains or teams of men to cross treacherous mountain passes.

Amazingly, the car kept going and by the time they reached Moscow, Borghese and his crew were 17 days in front of their nearest pursuers, enough of a lead for Borghese even to make a detour to St Petersburg for a party.

The final leg to Paris was uneventful by comparison, although Borghese was stopped for speeding in Belgium.  When the Itala reached Paris on August 10, the lead had been extended to 20 days.

The Itala arrived at the finishing line in the French capital at 4.30pm to a huge ovation from crowds encouraged to attend by Le Matin's trumpeting of the success of their challenge. A dinner was given in Borghese's honour, attended by the Italian chargé d’affaires and prominent automobile industry figures.

Luigi Barzini, who worked as a war correspondent during the First World War and was editor at different times of both Corriere della Sera and Il Mattino, two prominent Italian newspapers, was followed into journalism by his son, also called Luigi, who was most famous for his 1964 book, The Italians, a probing analysis of the Italian national character that is credited with generating the fascination with Italian life and culture shared by many outside the country.

Ferrara has 9km of ancient walls, with walkways and cycle  paths along most of its length
Ferrara has 9km of ancient walls, with walkways and cycle
paths along most of its length
Travel tip:

Migliarino, where Scipione Borghese was born, is a small town in the province in of Ferrara, a city famous for its castle, a wealth of palaces, a beautiful pink and white Duomo and the 12th century city walls that remain intact to this day, stretching to nine kilometres in length.

Travel tip:

Ferrara is the ideal city destination for cycling enthusiasts thanks to a network of cycle paths all around the city and the perimeter walls and a city centre from which cars are banned.  The self-proclaimed Città delle Biciclette - city of bicycles - since the late 1960s, Ferrara offers numerous outlets from which tourists can rent bicycles and enjoy exploring a beautiful city that combines medieval history and Renaissance elegance.


Luigi Barzini's book, Peking To Paris: Across Two Continents in an Itala, was reprinted by Penguin in 1986 and some second hand copies are still available on Amazon.

Buy Luigi Barzini junior's book, The Italians


28 November 2015

Alberto Moravia - journalist and writer

Italian novelist recognised as major 20th century literary figure

The novelist Alberto Moravia was born Alberto Pincherle on this day in 1907 in Rome.

The island of Capri in the Bay of Naples

He adopted Moravia, the maiden name of his paternal grandmother, as a pen name and became a prolific writer of short stories and novels. Much of his work has been made into films.

Before the Second World War, he had difficulties with the Fascist regime, which banned the publication of one of his novels. But his anti-Fascist novel Il Conformista later became the basis for the film The Conformist directed by Bernardo Bertolucci.

In 1941 he married the novelist Elsa Morante and they went to live first on Capri, and then in the Ciociaria area of Lazio before returning to Rome after it was liberated in 1944.

Moravia was once quoted as comparing a childhood illness, which confined him to bed for a long period, with Fascism. He said they had both made him suffer and do things he otherwise would not have done.

The rugged terrain of the Ciociaria

He died in Rome in 1990 and is remembered today as an important literary figure of the 20th century.

Travel tip

The beautiful island of Capri is a sophisticated holiday resort that has attracted many writers, artists and celebrities over the centuries. It lies in the Bay of Naples and can be reached by boat from Sorrento and Naples. 

Travel tip

The Ciociaria is a remote, hilly part of Lazio, lying south of Rome and north of Naples, dotted with small towns and villages. It is believed the area is named after the ciocie (sandals), traditionally worn by the people living and working in the area.