Showing posts with label 1915. Show all posts
Showing posts with label 1915. Show all posts

16 May 2018

Mario Monicelli - film director

Life’s work put him among greats of commedia all’italiana

Mario Monicelli directed his first film in 1949, which also  marked the start of his successful relationship with Totò
Mario Monicelli directed his first film in 1949, which also
marked the start of his successful relationship with Totò
Mario Monicelli, the director who became known as ‘the father of commedia all’italiana’ and was nominated for an Oscar six times, was born on this day in 1915 in Viareggio.

He made more than 70 films, working into his 90s.  He helped advance the careers of actors such as Vittorio Gassman, Marcello Mastroianni and Claudia Cardinale, and forged successful associations with the great comic actors Totò and Alberto Sordi.

Commedia all’italiana was notable for combining the traditional elements of comedy with social commentary, often addressing some of the most controversial issues of the times and making fun of any organisation, the Catholic Church in particular, perceived to have an earnest sense of self-importance.

The genre’s stories were often heavily laced with sadness and Monicelli’s work won praise for his particular sensitivity to the miseries and joys of Italian life and the foibles of ordinary Italians. He claimed the lack of a happy ending actually defined Italian humour and that themes drawn from poverty, hunger, misery, old age, sickness, and death were the ones that most appealed to the Italian love of tragi-comedy.

Monicelli continued to direct films into his 90s
Monicelli continued to direct films
into his 90s
He was part of a golden generation of Italian directors including Luchino Visconti, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Bernardo Bertolucci, Dino Risi and Luigi Comencini, and many of his films were hailed as masterpieces, including the caper comedy I soliti ignoti (1958), which was packaged for American audiences as Big Deal on Madonna Street, the satire La grande guerra (The Great War, 1959), which won him Venice's Golden Lion award, and the bitter-sweet drama I compagni (The Comrades, 1963), also known as The Organizer.

Monicelli was the son of a noted journalist, Tommaso Monicelli, and had two older brothers, one a writer and translator, the other a journalist. He attended the universities of Pisa and Milan, where he studied literature and philosophy, and after graduation became became a film critic and amateur film-maker. At the age of just 20 he made a feature-length film, I ragazzi della via Paal, which won an amateur prize at the Venice Film Festival  in 1935.

He spent 12 years as scriptwriter and assistant director, collaborating on some of the most celebrated Italian films of the 1940s, including Giuseppe De Santis’s Riso Amaro (Bitter Rice, 1949).

Monicelli’s debut as a director came in a collaboration with Steno (real name Stefanio Vanzina) on Totò cerca casa (Totò looks for a house, 1949), the first of several popular films the pair made starring Totò over the next four years, including Guardie e Ladri (Cops and Robbers, 1951) and Totò e i Re di Roma (1952). 

Totò cerca casa was typical of the genre, a farce set against the background of Italy’s desperate housing shortage. Guardie e Ladri caused controversy because it was about the friendship between a thief and a policeman, two men from similar backgrounds sharing similar problems, a concept considered so revolutionary that Monicelli had to appear personally before the sensors before it could be released.

Alberto Sordi (left) and Vittorio Gassman in a scene
from the tragic Italian movie La grande guerra
Totò e Carolina (1955), which depicted a young suicidal girl being helped by Communists, was actually banned for a year and a half, and was ultimately granted a certificate only after Monicelli had made 34 cuts.

I soliti ignoti, sometimes called Italian cinema's first true Commedia all'Italiana film, was his first hit. Starring Totò, it gave early comedy roles to Mastroianni, Gassman and Cardinale. Despite the lack of a happy ending, it was a success both in the United Kingdom, where it was titled Persons Unknown, and in the US, where it was also turned into a Broadway musical.

Next came Monicelli’s bravest and possibly most controversial film, the funny but poignant La grande guerra, a scathing satire of the First World War with Sordi and Gassman as peasants thrust into the bewildering world of battle, which opponents claimed would defile the memory of the 600,000 Italians who died in the conflict but once released was seen as a triumph, a film that at last dared to say that so many men, poor men who were badly dressed, badly fed, ignorant and illiterate, had gone to fight a war that had little to do with them and was ultimately pointless.  The film won the Golden Lion award at Venice, and, like I soliti ignoti, was nominated for an Oscar as best foreign film.

Totò (left) and Aldo Fabrizi in a scene from Guardie
e Ladri.
They worked together in numerous films. 
I Compagni brought his second Oscar nomination and in 1968 came a third, for La Ragazza con la pistola (Girl with the Gun), which starred Monica Vitti as a girl who travels from Sicily to London intending to murder her unfaithful lover.

Amici miei (My Dear Friends, 1975), a tale of ageing friends who play jokes on one another to camouflage the realities of disillusionment, loneliness and failure, proved one of his greatest hits, breaking records in Italy and France. The following year he won his final Oscar nomination, for another Mastroianni hit, Casanova '70. 

His last feature film was Le rose del deserto (Rose of the Desert, 2006), the story of a group of soldiers in Libya during the Second World War, which he directed at the age of 91. Yet he had still not finished working, in 2008 directing a documentary entitled Monti, about his adopted neighbourhood in Rome.

A lifetime supporter of left-wing parties, he remained politically active until late in life, in 2009 calling on students to protest against the government's proposals to cut the culture budget. He described Italy's then prime minister Silvio Berlusconi as “a philistine” and "a modern tyrant".

Monicelli’s father, Tommaso, had committed suicide and when he was diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer in 2010, he decided he would end his life the same way, dramatically jumping from a window on the fifth floor of the San Giovanni Addolorata Hospital in Rome.

Italy's President Giorgio Napolitano said Monicelli would be "remembered by millions of Italians for the way he moved them, for how he made them laugh, and reflect."

Viareggio's Grand Hotel is a throwback to its heydey
Viareggio's Grand Hotel is a throwback to its heydey
Travel tip:

Viareggio, the seaside resort in Tuscany in which Monicelli was born, has an air of faded grandeur, its seafront notable for the Art Nouveau architecture that reminds visitors of the town's heyday in the 1920s and '30s. Thanks to its wide, sandy beaches, however, the resort remains hugely popular, especially with Italians. In addition, it boasts a colourful Carnevale, featuring a wonderful parade of elaborate and often outrageous floats, that is second only to the Venice carnival among Italy’s Mardi Gras celebrations.

Via dei Serpenti, looking towards the Colosseum
Via dei Serpenti, looking towards the Colosseum
Travel tip:

One of Rome's oldest and most charming residential neighbourhoods, Monti retains a bohemian flavour with chic cafes and street food and alternative fashion shops. Occupying the area between the Quirinal Hill and the Colosseum, in Roman times the area was home to craftsmen but also to prostitutes and good-for-nothings and was hidden from the more refined areas of the city by a large wall. Nowadays, it is popular with architects, screenwriters and other creative types as one of Rome’s most fashionable central areas.  Monicelli’s former home in Via dei Serpenti is marked with a plaque.

Also on this day:

1945: The birth of business tycoon and former Inter chairman Massimo Moratti

1974: The birth of top-selling singer-songwriter Laura Pausini


28 February 2017

Karl Zuegg - jam and juice maker

Businessman turned family farm into international company

Karl Zuegg
Karl Zuegg
Karl Zuegg, the businessman who turned his family's fruit-farming expertise into one of Italy's major producers of jams and juices, was born on this day in 1915 in Lana, a town in what is now the autonomous province of Bolzano in Trentino-Alto Adige.

His grandparents, Maria and Ernst August Zuech - they changed their name to Zuegg in 1903 - had been cultivating fruit on their farm since 1860, when Lana was part of South Tyrol in what was then Austria-Hungary.  They traded at local markets and began exporting.

Zuegg and the company's other major brand names, Skipper and Fruttaviva, are among the most recognisable in the fruit products market in Italy and it is largely through Karl's hard work and enterprise.

He was managing director of the company from 1940 to 1986, during which time Zuegg became the first drinks manufacturer in Italy to make use of the ground-breaking Tetrapak packaging invented in Sweden, which allowed drinks to be sold in lightweight cardboard cartons rather than traditional glass bottles.

The family business had begun to experiment with jams in 1917 when austerity measures in Italy were biting hard and there was a need to preserve food.  Rather than throw away overripe apples, the family turned them into jam.

The Zuegg logo is well known in Italian grocery stores
The Zuegg logo is well known in Italian grocery stores
Their methods were successful with other fruits too and Zuegg jams went into mass production in 1923, achieving immediate success.

But it was not until Karl joined the board of the company in 1937 that the business began to expand on a large scale.

Under Karl's leadership, the Zuegg brand grew, with bigger production facilities and innovative technology. The company developed new products such as the Fruttino snack bar, a solid stick of quince jam enriched with vitamins that became a staple of children's school lunches throughout Italy.

The first Zuegg fruit juices arrived in 1954, with bottles of pear, peach and apricot juice soon becoming familiar items on the shelves of Italian grocery stores.

Fruit cultivation is an important part of Lana's economy
Fruit cultivation is an important part of Lana's economy
In the early 1960s, Zuegg intoduced the Fruttaviva jams, the first to be produced without the use of preservatives and dyes, and two years later, after opening a new plant in Verona - now the company's headquarters - became a supplier of fruit products for use in yogurt, pastries and ice cream.

It was in 1979, as Karl continually looked for innovations that would help grow the business further, that the company signed a deal for the Swedish company Tetrapak to supply its revolutionary cartons for Zuegg products.

Tetrapak's unique method, combining paper, polyethylene and aluminium, produced a lightweight packaging that not only kept fluids from leaking outwards. It also prevented bacteria from entering the product and, through the aluminium layer, protected the contents from deteriorating through exposure to light.

Selling drinks in these so-called 'briks' was a novelty in Italy and Karl Zuegg's vision made his company the market leader. Today, of course, such packaging is standard.

The original Zuegg headquarters in Lana
The original Zuegg headquarters in Lana
On the back of this success, Zuegg was able to open another Italian production plant at Luogosano, in the province of Avellino in Campania, in 1985.  Three years later, the Skipper line, selling 100 per cent pure fruit juices, was launched.

Today, Zuegg is an international company with six plants - two in Italy, two in Germany, one in France and one in Russia - and employs more than 500 staff.

As part of its campaign to promote healthy living, the company has a long history of sponsorship in sport, which has seen it provide financial backing for competitors in skiing and snowboarding, beach volleyball, basketball and tennis, and for two seasons promoted the brand as a main sponsor of Internazionale football club.

Karl Zuegg, who was made Cavaliere del Lavoro by the Italian government in recognition of his services to industry, died in 2005 in Lana, his home town, at the age of 91.  He is buried at the church of Santa Maria Assunta in Lana di Sotto.

Travel tip:

Lana is a small town and resort in the Adige valley in north-eastern Italy midway between Bolzano and Merano in the area of the Trentino-Alto Adige region also known as South Tyrol. The German influence on the area is so dominant that more than 90 per cent of the town's 12,000 residents speak German as their first language, and less than eight per cent Italian. It is popular with hikers and cyclists in the summer months, with a network of well defined cycle paths.  Lana is also home to the South Tyrol Museum of Fruit, which details the history of fruit cultivation in the area.

Hotels in Lana from

The Roman Porta Borsari in Verona is almost 2,000 years old
The Roman Porta Borsari in Verona is almost 2,000 years old 
Travel tip:

Verona is famous for the Arena, the Roman amphitheatre that stages open air concerts, and for Casa Giulietta, the house with the balcony said to be the one that featured in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet.  But there is more to the city's attractions.  In addition to the Arena, Verona is said to have more Roman ruins than any other Italian city and many are part of the everyday fabric of the city, including the Porta Borsari, with its two large arches and numerous smaller arches above, dating back to the 1st century, which straddles the entrance to Corso Porta Borsari, one of the city's main shopping streets.  There are many squares, including the charming Piazza dei Signori, which is surrounded by several fine buildings, including the Palazzo del Comune, the Palazzo Domus Nova and the Loggia del Consiglio.

More reading:

How Michele Ferrero's hazelnut spread became a worldwide phenomenon

Francesco Cirio and the canning revolution

A hotel empire that started with a single London coffee bar

Also on this day:

1940: The birth of F1 motor racing champion Mario Andretti

1942: The birth of record-breaking goalkeeper Dino Zoff

(Picture credits: Tractor in orchard by böhringer friedrich; Porta Borsari by Didier Descouens via Wikimedia Commons; Zuegg pictures from Zuegg company website)


27 July 2016

Mario Del Monaco – tenor

Singer became famous for his interpretations of Otello

Mario del Monaco, dressed for his most famous role as Otello in Verdi's opera of the same name
Mario Del Monaco, dressed for his most famous
role as Otello in Verdi's opera of the same name
Opera singer Mario Del Monaco, who was renowned for the amazing power of his voice, was born on this day in 1915 in Florence.

His family were musical and as a child he studied the violin but he developed a passion for singing as well.

He studied at the Rossini Conservatory in Pesaro, where he first met and sang with the soprano Renata Tebaldi, who was to partner him regularly later in his career.

Del Monaco made a big impact with his debut performance as Lieutenant Pinkerton in Puccini’s Madam Butterfly in Milan in 1940.

He became popular with the audience at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in the 1950s, making many appearances in dramatic Verdi roles.

He was one of the four Italian tenors at their peak in the 1950s and 1960s, sharing the limelight with Giuseppe Di Stefano, Carlo Bergonzi and Franco Corelli.

Del Monaco became famous for his interpretation of the title role in Verdi’s Otello, which, it is estimated, he sang hundreds of times.

Listen to the voice of Mario Del Monaco

He started making recordings for HMV in 1948 in Milan and was later partnered by Renata Tebaldi in a series of Verdi and Puccini operas recorded for Decca.

Del Monaco retired from the stage in 1975 and spent his last years living in a villa near Treviso in the Veneto with his wife, Rina, a former singer.

He died in Mestre, near Venice, in 1982 at the age of 67, having been in poor health since sustaining serious injuries in a road accident several years previously.  He was buried in Pesaro, where he grew up.  At his own request, he was laid to rest dressed in his favourite Otello costume.

Giancarlo Del Monaco, one of his two sons, followed him into opera as a director, making his debut in Siracusa in 1964 with a production in which his father starred, and going on to work at some of the world's top opera houses, including La Scala in Milan and the Met.

Travel tip:

Pesaro, where Del Monaco grew up and studied at the Rossini Conservatory, is a beautiful, traditional seaside resort on the Adriatic coast, renowned for its sandy beach. Rossini’s birthplace, at Via Rossini 34, is now a museum dedicated to the composer and there is also a theatre named after him. A Rossini opera festival is held in Pesaro every summer.

The statue of Mario del Monaco in Piazza Borsa in Treviso
The statue of Mario Del Monaco
in Piazza Borsa in Treviso
Travel tip:

Treviso’s municipal theatre in Corso del Popolo was renamed Teatro Comunale Mario Del Monaco after the tenor and operatic costumes he wore are on display there. Close by in Piazza Borsa there is a bronze statue showing him in costume.

More reading:

How Italy mourned the death of Giuseppe Verdi

The genius of Giacomo Puccini

Renata Tebaldi: the voice of an angel

(Photo of Mario Del Monaco as Otello by MDM 1915 CC BY-SA 4.0)