Showing posts with label Calabria. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Calabria. Show all posts

22 January 2024

Giuseppe Musolino - brigand

Vengeful killer who became an unlikely folk hero

Giuseppe Musolino spent  most of his life in jail
Giuseppe Musolino spent 
most of his life in jail
Giuseppe Musolini, the Calabrian bandit whose fight for justice after a wrongful conviction turned him into a folk hero despite the multiple murders he committed in a quest for vengeance, died on this day in 1956 in a psychiatric hospital in Reggio Calabria.

He was 79 years old when he passed away, having been just 22 when he was sentenced to 21 years in prison for an attempted murder he swore he did not commit, with the evidence against him no better than circumstantial.

He escaped after just three months and embarked upon a killing spree in which he may have murdered as many as nine individuals and attempted the murder of several others, most of whom had played a part in what he saw as a corrupt trial.

The revenge killings took place during his two years and nine months on the run, during which Calabrians took to him as a symbolic figure, representing the people of an impoverished region against a state system rigged against them.

His story captured the imagination of not only Italians - southern Italians in particular - but of the wider world, with readers of newspapers in Europe and the United States eagerly awaiting the next update.

It all began with a brawl in Santo Stefano, the village in the Aspromonte mountains, a short distance from the city of Reggio Calabria, where Musolino had been born in 1876.  Musolino, a carpenter and woodcutter by trade, was drinking in his father’s tavern when he and his friend, Antonio Filastò, became involved in an argument with Vincenzo and Stefano Zoccali, two brothers from one of the village’s more powerful families, reputed to be part of a picciotteria, a criminal gang of the type that would later evolve into the region’s fearsome mafia, known as the ‘Ndrangheta.

An artist's imagined scene of the moment Musolini was captured
An artist's imagined scene of the
moment Musolino was captured 
The dispute was ostensibly over a delivery of hazelnuts, although it was also mooted that Musolino and Vincenzo Zoccali were rivals for the affections of a local girl. The fight spilled into the street, where others became involved and knives were drawn until one side produced guns and fired shots in the air to send the participants scattering for cover.  Musolino left the scene with stab wounds in his hand and arm, apparently inflicted by Zoccali.

The attempted murder charge came from what happened a day or two later when Zoccali’s family claimed a shot was fired at him at the stable where he kept horses. The assailant remained out of view behind a wall but witnesses testified to having heard Musolino shout and also to have found a hat belonging to him at the scene. They also said he had sworn a vendetta against the Zoccalis, which at the time was seen as a criminal offence.

A complaint was lodged with the police, although by the time they had decided to arrest Musolino he had long disappeared, having been tipped off that he was a wanted man. It took police six months to find him.

When his trial took place in Reggio Calabria, it was before a judge whose political associations gave him every encouragement to find against Musolino, while witnesses were thought to have either been bribed or intimidated by the Zoccali family to commit perjury. The judge, meanwhile, denied Musolino’s own lawyers the chance to call any witnesses who would testify for his innocence and sentenced him to 21 years in jail with hard labour, handing his friend, Antonio Filastò, a seven-year term.

Musolino was led away in a fury, shouting that if he had not sworn a vendetta against the Zoccalis, he would do so now. He also vowed revenge against all those who had given evidence against him, promising to kill them all as well as the prosecutor and the judge.

King of the Mountains is one of several books about Musolino
King of the Mountains is one of
several books about Musolino
He and Filastò were locked up at the prison fortress of Gerace Marina, located in present-day Locri on the Ionian coast, but within three months had escaped, taking advantage of the deteriorating condition of the fortress, which allowed them to hack away at the cement in the stone walls and create a hole to climb through, sliding down the outside with the aid of a ladder made from sheets and bed slats.  Musolino claimed that San Giuseppe, patron saint of carpenters and protector of the poor, had visited him in a dream to point out which part of the stone walls they should target.

Musolino hid in the Aspromonte mountains, one by one working through his list of targets, committing five murders in his first eight months out of captivity and continuing to pursue his goal of revenge for almost three years.  He found local people only too willing to help him, giving him food and hiding places despite a bounty of 5,000 lire being offered to anyone who caught him and turned him over to the police.

Many felt his trial had simply been a representation of the attitudes towards the south held by many northern Italians, who had led the fight to unify the country on behalf of the wealthy Kingdom of Sardinia but had subsequently disparaged southern Italians as backward and ignorant. There was a particular sense of betrayal in Santo Stefano, home of the Romeo family, who were patriots and major supporters of unification in Calabria, helping Garibaldi conquer the region and even joining him on his march north to Naples.

During his time on the run, Musolino, who claimed to be descended from French nobility on the side of his mother, wrote to Italy’s new king, Victor Emmanuel III, appealing for help for the people of Calabria. Eventually, he decided to leave Calabria and head north, hoping at some point to be able to meet Victor Emmanuel in person and ask to be pardoned.

Musolino hoped to ask Victor Emmanuel III for a pardon
Musolino hoped to ask Victor
Emmanuel III for a pardon
Despite the local police having been joined by the carabinieri corps and the army in searching for Musolino in the Aspromonte mountains, he left the area unnoticed. When he was captured, by accident, he was more than 800km - almost 500 miles - away in Acqualenga, just south of Urbino in Marche.

Walking along a country lane in October 1901, he caught sight of three carabinieri officers, whom he assumed were looking for him, and ran away. They saw him and pursued him, catching up with him when he tripped over a wire supporting a grapevine and fell.

Musolino was transferred by train to a prison in Catanzaro in Calabria on October 24, 1901 to await a second trial, which took place many hundred of miles away from his homeland in Lucca, Tuscany. He was sentenced to life imprisonment and taken to Portolongone prison near Livorno on the Tuscan coast, where he remained until 1946.

In that year, he was declared to be mentally ill and transferred to the psychiatric hospital in Reggio Calabria, where he died on January 22, 1956.

Giuseppe Musolino’s story had a huge impact worldwide, with mass circulation newspapers such as Corriere della Sera and Il Mattino at home giving it extensive coverage, along with international journals including The Times in London, Le Figaro in Paris and the New York Times.  Their reporting, which included tales of stealing from the rich to give money to the poor, convinced some readers that he was a romantic figure akin to the heroic outlaw of English folklore, Robin Hood.

A film, Il Brigante Musolino (1950), directed by Mario Camerini and starring Amedeo Nazzari, told the story to cinema audiences. The celebrated poet Giovanni Pascoli wrote an ode to him and the English writer Norman Douglas devoted a whole chapter of his book, Old Calabria, to his tale, which also inspired recording artists in many genres to write wrote songs about him.  Other books include King of the Mountains: The Remarkable Story of Giuseppe Musolino, Italy's Most Famous Outlaw, by Dan Possumato.

Santo Stefano in Aspromonte attracts winter visitors to its nearby ski slopes
Santo Stefano in Aspromonte attracts winter
visitors to its nearby ski slopes
Travel tip:

Santo Stefano in Aspromonte, birthplace of Giuseppe Musolino, is a village perched on a rocky spur in a mountainous area of the province of Reggio Calabria. The area, which falls within the area of the beautiful Aspromonte National Park, has attractions for summer and winter stays, the mountain areas dotted with pathways and stairways for trekking and the ski slopes of Gambarie nearby. The village itself boasts an historic centre of nooks and crannies, steep staircases, pretty palaces and fountains, as well as the remains of the ancient Abbey of San Giovanni a Castaneto. The area is renowned for its production of oil, cereals and fruit, while wild mushrooms and chestnuts trees abound in the nearby woodlands. 

The remains of an ancient Greek theatre in the vicinity of the Calabrian resport of Locri
The remains of an ancient Greek theatre in the
vicinity of the Calabrian resport of Locri
Travel tip:

The coastal city of Locri, on Calabria’s Ionian Sea coast, was originally a Greek colony founded at the end of the eighth century BC by Greek refugees who settled on the coast. It became a major centre in the political and artistic life of Magna Graecia, the name the Romans gave to the Greek-speaking areas of southern Italy. The modern Locri has attractions that include a museum and archaeological park that is home to ancient Greek ruins and artifacts, the scenic Lungomare di Locri and the Monument to the Five Martyrs of Gerace, dedicated to five Locride citizens who were executed in the Risorgimento for having fought for freedom. Locri has more than 12,000 inhabitants, is an important administrative and cultural centre on the Ionian Coast and is only 90 minutes away from the International Airport of Lamezia Terme.

Also on this day:

1506: The founding of the Papal Swiss Guard

1889: The birth of supercentenarian Antonio Todde

1893: The birth of mobster Frankie Yale

2005: The death of veteran soldier Carlo Orelli


6 February 2020

1783 Calabria Earthquakes

Before photography was possible, copper plate engravings served to record major events, including the 1783 earthquakes
Before photography was possible, copper plate engravings
served to record major events, including the 1783 earthquakes

Series of powerful tremors killed at least 35,000

The Calabrian peninsula of southwest Italy was waking up to the unfolding horror of a sequence of five deadly earthquakes on this day in 1783.

A major tremor destroyed the town of Oppido Mamertina in what is now the province of Reggio Calabria on 5 February, killing almost 1,200 residents, followed by another just after midnight on 6 February, setting off a tsunami that claimed still more lives.

The effects of the first quake  - which has been classified at an estimated 7.0 on the Richter magnitude scale - were felt over a much wider area, however, with countless land and rockslides.  The whole of the island of Sicily is said to have shaken.

In total, it is thought some 180 villages were effectively destroyed, with far more buildings reduced to rubble than remained standing. The city of Messina, on the northeast tip of Sicily, was seriously hit and many casualties were reported there also.

The city’s medieval Duomo was badly damaged, while a tsunami caused the walls of the harbour to collapse.

Another engraving of the late 18th century depicts the  turbulence in the Strait of Messina caused by the quakes
Another engraving of the late 18th century depicts the
turbulence in the Strait of Messina caused by the quakes
This first shock was thought to have claimed in the region of 25,000 lives across the large area affected as buildings ill-equipped to withstand such violent shaking, strong enough to knock people off their feet, simply collapsed.

Only a few hours later, just after midnight on 6 February a second major tremor occurred closer to Messina, this time put at a magnitude of 6.2. This caused a substantial rockslide into the sea near the coastal town of Scilla on the Italian mainland, which in turn set off a tsunami.  Many residents in Scilla, fearful of their homes collapsing after the 5 February quake, had taken refuge on the beach only to be swept away by the giant wave. It is reckoned around 1,500 died in Scilla.

Further up the peninsula, in the area of the Serre Mountains, about 40km (25 miles) from the first quake, a third one took place, more powerful than the second at 6.6 magnitude, at approximately 1.10pm on 7 February, flattening a string of villages between the towns of Acquaro and Soriano Calabro. Again, there were hundreds of casualties.

A period of less violent shocks followed until, on 1 March, another significant quake, put at magnitude 5.9, struck near the town of Filadelfia, about 30km (19 miles) south of Lamezia Terme. Although it took place some 100km (62 miles) northwest of Scilla and the seat of the first tremors, it was later determined to have been part of the same seismic sequence.

This engraving shows the tsunami crashing into the  fishing village of Scilla, with boats capsizing
This engraving shows the tsunami crashing into the
fishing village of Scilla, with boats capsizing
Damage and casualties this time were light, but that could not be said of the fifth major event, in the space of just over seven weeks, that struck on 28 March, just a few kilometres from Filadelfia, between the towns of Girifalco and Borgia. This tremor has been recorded at 7.0 magnitude, just as powerful as the first, with many villages destroyed and a further large number of residents killed.

The total number of deaths resulting from the series of earthquakes is put at 35,000 at least, although some estimates point to a figure nearer 50,000. Either way, it is one of the four deadliest seismic events in Italian history in which estimates of casualty numbers are available.

Modern science knows that the cause of earthquakes and other seismic activity in Sicily and southern Italy is caused by the collision of the African and Eurasian plates - two of the seven largest tectonic plates that make up the surface of the earth.

In the 18th century, however, there were different explanations, including one theory that there were ‘fire channels’ inside the earth, of which volcanoes were the manifestation on the surface, and that chemical reactions between gas, water and metal elements in subterranean voids were the cause of earthquakes and eruptions.

This seemed to be supported by another phenomenon that occurred at around the same time in the form of a sulfuric fog that covered much of Europe in the summer of 1783, which scientists thought was due to gas released by the Calabrian quakes although contemporary studies suggest the two things were not connected.

It is thought, instead, that the fog was the result of sulfuric gases released by a volcanic eruption in Iceland of which mainland Europeans had no knowledge.

The ancient fishing village of Chianalea sits on the water's  edge in the shadow of the Castello Ruffo
The ancient fishing village of Chianalea sits on the water's
edge in the shadow of the Castello Ruffo
Travel tip:

The resort town of Scilla on the north-facing Calabrian coast, situated about 23km (14 miles) north of the city of Reggio Calabria, grew up around a picturesque fishing village sheltered by cliffs and a rocky spur, atop which sits the Castello Ruffo, originally a sixth-century fortification but which has been destroyed and rebuilt a number of times.  Beneath is the sandy beach of Marina Grande, now lined with hotels. The main part of the expanded town sits above the cliffs on a plateau. On the other side of the promontory is the less developed village of Chianalea, where houses cling to the water’s edge along a single, cobbled thoroughfare.

Messina's cathedral and bell tower have had to be rebuilt on several occasions due to disasters and war
Messina's cathedral and bell tower have had to be
rebuilt on several occasions due to disasters and war
Travel tip:

Messina, the Sicilian city separated from mainland Italy by the Strait of Messina, is the third largest city on the island and home to a large Greek-speaking community. The 12th century Duomo - the cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta - has a bell tower which houses one of the largest astronomical clocks in the world, built in 1933. Originally built by the Normans, the cathedral, which still contains the remains of King Conrad, ruler of Germany and Sicily in the 13th century, suffered much damage in 1783 and then had to be almost entirely rebuilt following the massive earthquake that struck in 1908, and again in 1943, after a fire triggered by Allied bombings.

More reading:

How Italy's worst earthquake may have killed 200,000

The earthquake in Sicily that led to an architectural rebirth

The Naples earthquake of 1626

Also on this day:

1453: The birth of poet Girolamo Benivieni

1577: The birth of Beatrice Cenci, Roman heroine

1788: The birth of poet Ugo Foscolo

1908: The birth of politician Amintore Fanfani 


22 January 2018

Frankie Yale - gang boss

Mobster who employed a young Al Capone

Frankie Yale's police mugshot
Frankie Yale's police mugshot
The gang boss who gave Al Capone one of his first jobs was born in this day in 1893 in Longobucco in Calabria.

Francesco Ioele, who would later become known as Frankie Yale, moved to the United States in around 1900, his family settling into the lower Manhattan area of New York City.

Growing up, Ioele was befriended by another southern Italian immigrant, John Torrio, who introduced him to the Five Points Gang, which was one of the most dominant street gangs in New York in the early part of the 20th century.

In time, Ioele graduated from petty street crime and violent gang fights to racketeering, changing his name to Yale to make him sound more American and taking control of the ice delivery trade in Brooklyn.

With the profits Yale opened a waterfront bar on Coney Island, which was called the Harvard Inn. It was there that he took on a young Capone as a bouncer and in a fight there that Capone acquired the facial scars that would stay with him for life.

Capone worked for Yale for two years until Torrio, by then based in Chicago, recruited him to his organisation, and Capone moved to the city with which his criminal activities would become associated.

Al Capone worked for Yale in the bar he opened on Coney Island
Al Capone worked for Yale in the bar
he opened on Coney Island
Yale’s operations in Brooklyn flourished, his empire extending to extortion, prostitution and protection rackets as well as controlling legitimate businesses such as restaurant supply, creating monopolies by seeing off the competition through violence and coercion.  When prohibition was introduced, Yale became one of Brooklyn’s biggest bootleggers.

His front was a funeral home in 14th avenue, which enabled him to describe himself in official paperwork as a funeral director by profession.   He kept his neighbourhood onside by regularly performing acts of philanthropic generosity to help out people who had fallen on hard times through no fault of their own.

A snappy dresser who favoured expensive suits and diamond jewellery, he was a family man who married twice and fathered three daughters.

Ultimately, though, his power made him a target and as other Italian Mafia groups moved into New York, increasing competition for territory, wars between rival crime families became a regular occurrence and moves were made to take Yale off the scene.

Yale survived two attempts on his life between 1921 and 1923 yet emerged from both with his power increased.  He continued to work with Torrio and the increasingly powerful Capone, travelling to Chicago himself with two associates to carry out a murder on their behalf, for which he was arrested but released without charge when police were unable to disprove Yale’s alibi.

44th Street in Brooklyn as it looks today
44th Street in Brooklyn as it looks today
Yet when Yale finally met his demise on July 1, 1928, shot to death at the wheel of his Lincoln coupe on 44th Street, Brooklyn, the trail led back to Capone.

The Chicago mob boss had sent a spy to New York to try to discover who was behind the hijacking of trucks that were meant to be ferrying supplies of imported Canadian whisky illegally obtained by Yale, and the word that came back was that it was Yale himself.

A trap was set for Yale that involved him driving alone from his club in Brooklyn to his home. It was not long before a Buick sedan carrying four men ranged alongside his Lincoln and despite his attempts to shake them off in a high-speed chase Yale was eventually caught and the men opened fire. One of them carried a Thompson submachine gun, the first time such a weapon had been used in a New York gangland shooting, and Yale was killed instantly.

Despite the allegations surrounding his death, Yale was given one of the most lavish mob funerals New York had seen or would see in subsequent years, with thousands of Brooklyn people lining the route of the procession.  There were 38 cars to carry the flowers alone and 250 for the mourners, who saw his $15,000 silver casket lowered into the ground at the Holy Cross Cemetery.

The village of Longobucco nestles in a remote valley near the Sila national park in Calabria
The village of Longobucco nestles in a remote valley
near the Sila national park in Calabria
Travel tip:

Longobucco, where Yale was born, is a typical Calabrian village hidden away in a remote valley on the edge of the Sila national park. The valley forms a section of a pass through the Sila massif, which carries a road linking the provincial capital of Cosenza with the coastal towns on the southwestern shore of the Gulf of Taranto, the sea which fills the arch of Italy’s ‘boot’. The town was once a stronghold for brigands, who would ambush travellers, steal their valuables and sometimes kidnap travellers who looked well-heeled enough to command a ransom.

The Corso Telesio in the medieval heart of Cosenza
The Corso Telesio in the medieval heart of Cosenza
Travel tip:

According to the Lonely Planet travel guide, the Calabrian city of Cosenza “epitomises the unkempt charm of southern Italy”. Like many Italian cities, it has a modern part and a distinct historic part.  In Cosenza’s case, that history can be traced back to the third century, when there was a settlement called Consentia, the capital of the Brutti tribe. Over subsequent years, the area was captured the Visigoths, the Lombards, the Saracens, the Normans and the Spanish, who resisted the French in the early part of the 19th century, before the Risorgimento and unification saw it become part of the new Italy.  At the heart of the medieval old city, with its network of steep, narrow streets, is a cathedral originally built in the 11th century and modified many times subsequently.  Its 19th century neo-Gothic façade changed its character but parts of the original structure have been retained.

11 June 2017

Corrado Alvaro - writer and journalist

Novelist from Calabria won Italy's most prestigious literary prize

Corrado Alvaro
Corrado Alvaro
The award-winning writer and journalist Corrado Alvaro died on this day in 1956 at the age of 61.

Alvaro won the Premio Strega, Italy’s most prestigious literary prize, in 1951 with his novel Quasi una vita – Almost a lifetime.

The Premio Strega – the Strega Prize – has been awarded to such illustrious names as Alberto Moravia, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, Elsa Morante, Primo Levi, Umberto Eco and Dacia Maraini since its inception in 1947.

Alvaro made his debut as a novelist in 1926 but for much of his life his literary career ran parallel with his work as a journalist.

He was born in San Luca, a small village in Calabria at the foot of the Aspromonte massif in the southern Apennines. His father Antonio was a primary school teacher who also set up classes for illiterate shepherds.

Corrado was sent away to Jesuit boarding schools in Rome and Umbria before graduating with a degree in literature in 1919 at the University of Milan.

He began his newspaper career writing for Il Resto di Carlino of Bologna and Milan’s Corriere della Sera, both daily newspapers, for whom he combined reporting with literary criticism.

Gente in Aspromonte was Alvaro's breakthrough novel in 1931
Gente in Aspromonte was Alvaro's
breakthrough novel in 1931
After serving in the Italian army during the First World War, in which he was wounded in both arms and spent a long time in hospital, he resumed his journalistic career as a correspondent in Paris (France) for the anti-Fascist paper Il Mondo. In 1925, he supported Benedetto Croce’s Manifesto of the Anti-Fascist Intellectuals.

Alvaro’s debut novel L’uomo nel labirintothe Man in the labyrinth, published in 1926, explored the growth of Fascism in Italy in the 1920s, when his politics made him the target of surveillance by Mussolini's Fascist regime. Worried about the possibility of arrest, he moved to Berlin in 1928, and subsequently spent time in the Middle East and the Soviet Union.

On his return to Italy, having had little success with his early novels, he made a breakthrough in 1931 when Gente in Aspromonte, his 1930 novel about an uprising in the area around his home village, won a 50,000 lira prize sponsored by the newspaper La Stampa after impressing a judging panel including the novelist and playwright Luigi Pirandello.

Ironically, given that he was previously under scrutiny as an anti-Fascist, his 1938 novel L’uomo è forte – Man is strong – led him to be accused of being a Fascist sympathiser because its content was strongly critical of communist totalitarianism. Nonetheless, the book won the literary prize of the Accademia d’Italia in 1940.

Alvaro lost his father in 1941 but retained his connection with Calabria through his mother, who had moved from San Luca to nearby Caraffa del Bianco, where his brother, Massimo, was parish priest.

The monument to Corrado Alvaro in Reggio Calabria
The monument to Corrado Alvaro in Reggio Calabria
During the Second World War, Alvaro was briefly editor of the Rome newspaper Il Popolo but he was forced to flee Rome in the later years of the war to escape the Nazi occupation, taking refuge in Chieti, where he assumed a false name, Guido Giorgi, and made a living by giving English lessons.

In 1945 he was co-founder of the Italian Association of Writers, of which he became secretary two years later, a position he retained until his death.  He continued to write for prominent Italian newspapers and penned several more novels and a number of screenplays.

His Strega Prize in 1951 came in a vintage year for Italian literature, coinciding with the publication of L'orologio – the Clock – by Carlo Levi , Il conformista – the Conformist – by Alberto Moravia , A cena col commendatore – Dinner with the commander – by Mario Soldati and Gesù, fate luce – Jesus, make light – by Domenico Rea.

Alvaro died in Rome from lung cancer, having previously undergone surgery for an abdominal tumour. He is buried in the small cemetery of Vallerano in the province of Viterbo in Lazio, about 80km (50 miles) north-west of Rome, where he had bought a large country house in 1939.

His memory is celebrated both in Lazio and Calabria.

In Vallerano, a street, a library and an elementary school are named in his honour, with a statue at the entrance to the library.  The city also established a Corrado Alvaro literary prize in 2015.

In Calabria, the Aspromonte National Park contains a cultural itinerary that includes San Luca and a ‘literary park’ in his name. The regional capital, Reggio Calabria, honoured him with a monument in Piazza Indipendenza.

San Luca is on the eastern slope of Aspromonte
San Luca is on the eastern slope of Aspromonte
Travel tip:

That Alvaro’s home town of San Luca, situated on the eastern slopes of Aspromonte, could produce a literary giant of his standing is remarkable given its history as a stronghold of the N’drangheta – the Calabrian mafia – and the fact that in 1900, when Alvaro was five, it had no drinking water and a 100 per cent illiteracy rate. The only way to reach the village during his childhood was on foot. The convent known as the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Polsi, founded in 1144 by Roger II of Sicily, is situated in a spectacular setting at the foot of a deep gorge just outside the town.

The Loggia del Palazzo dei Papi in Viterbo
The Loggia del Palazzo dei Papi in Viterbo
Travel tip:

Viterbo in Lazio is regarded as one of the best preserved medieval towns in Italy, with the historic San Pellegrino quarter, which features an abundance of typical external staircases, at its centre.  The Palazzo dei Papi, which was the papal palace for about 20 years in the 13th century, and the Cathedral of San Lorenzo, which dates back to the 12th century, has a 14th century Gothic belfry and was largely rebuilt in the 16th century, are among a number of impressive buildings.

5 November 2016

Francesco Chiarello - survivor of two World Wars

Calabrian veteran lived to be 109 years old

Francesco Chiarello fought in the  First World War at 20 years old
Francesco Chiarello fought in the
First World War at 20 years old
Francesco Domenico Chiarello, who would live to be one of the world's longest surviving veterans to serve in both World Wars, was born on this day in 1898.

Chiarello was 109 years old when he died in June 2008.  Of soldiers anywhere on the planet who were active in the 1914-18 conflict and were called up again after 1939, only the Frenchman Fernand Goux outlived him.

Goux, from the Loiret department of central northern France, died just five months later, aged 108.

Chiarello also died as one of the last two surviving Italian soldiers from the First World War, outlived only by Delfino Borroni, from just outside Pavia in Lombardy, who was a tram driver during the Second World War.

Italian troops in Trento on November 3, 1918, in the final hours of the Battle of Vittorio Veneto
Italian troops in Trento on November 3, 1918, in the final
hours of the Battle of Vittorio Veneto
Borroni recovered from serious injuries sustained in an Allied bombing raid to be 110 years old when he died four months after Chiarello.

Chiarello, a farmer from Umbriatico in the province of Crotone in Calabria,  joined the Italian army in 1918 as a member of the 19th infantry regiment from Cosenza.

He was sent to the northern front at Trento where he took part in the final Battle of Vittorio Veneto, a seminal moment in the history of the conflict and of Italy.

The Italian victory brought the end of the war on the Italian Front and sealed the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  Some Italians see Vittorio Veneto as the completion of the Risorgimento nationalist movement, in which Italy was unified.

In 1968, the Italian government created a medal to commemorate the Battle of Vittorio Veneto, which was awarded to all veterans who fought for at least six months in the First World War.

After peace was declared, Chiarello continued his service in Albania, where he contracted malaria, and spent a period in Montenegro before returning to civilian life in Umbriatico in 1920.  He was called up for a second time in 1940 and was attached to a unit in Reggio Calabria, but was discharged after six months.

Examples of the Vittorio Veneto medal
Examples of the Vittorio Veneto medal
He remained in Umbriatico, a hill town accessible only by a viaduct over a steep valley, until he was in his 80s, at which point he moved with his son, Louis, to the coastal resort of Cirò Marina, about 30km away.

Chiarello attributed his long life to the clean air of Umbriatico and a simple Crotonese diet, of which the staples are fresh milk - a half-litre at breakfast and another at dinner - lunches combining pasta and fresh vegetables, fruit and occasionally ice cream, plus a daily tumbler (or two) of local red wine.

In Cirò Marina, where he bemoaned the air quality compared with Umbriatico, he would maintain his good health by taking long daily walks along the sea front.

A deputation of senior Italian army officers visited him shortly after his 109th birthday. They were concerned about how frail he might be but found him dressed and sitting in his armchair. His daughter-in-law, Maria, told them that Signor Chiarello suffered no rheumatic pains at all and refused to stay in bed in the mornings, even when offered the chance to do so.

Umbriatico is surrounded by steep ravines
Umbriatico is surrounded by steep ravines
Travel tip:

Umbriatico was the site, in 215 BC, of a battle between forces from the Carthagian and Roman empires in which Hannibal himself is said to have fought before escaping back to Carthage, leaving the Romans to overrun the city.  Nowadays, home to less than 1,000 inhabitants, it sits on a hill surrounded by ravines and connected to the outside world by just one road.  The medieval Cathedral of San Donato stands above a crypt that was originally a Greek pagan temple.

Travel tip:

The modern resort of Cirò Marina on the Ionian Sea is renowned for the quality of its bathing facilities and the cleanliness of its beaches and seawater. In 2015, Cirò Marina‘s beaches were awarded a blue flag certificate for the 15th time. The area is also known for its fine wine, Ciro DOC, and was named as Italy’s City of Wine in 2000.

Hotels in Cirò Marina from

More reading:

The armistice that followed Italy's victory at the Battle of Vittorio Veneto

Giuseppe Moscati - wartime doctor who became a saint

Also on this day


30 October 2016

Charles Atlas - bodybuilder

Poor immigrant from Calabria who transformed his physique

Charles Atlas, born Angelo Siciliano, pictured in around 1920
Charles Atlas, born Angelo Siciliano,
pictured in around 1920
The bodybuilder Charles Atlas was born Angelo Siciliano on this day in 1893 in the Calabrian town of Acri.

Acri, set 720m above sea level straddling two hills in the province of Cosenza, on the edge of what is now the mountainous Sila National Park, was a poor town and while Angelo was growing up his father, Santos, began thinking about joining the growing number of southern Italians who had gone to forge a new life in America.

They made the move when Angelo was 11.  The journey by sea from Naples took around two weeks. After registering their arrival at Ellis Island, the immigrant inspection station in New York Bay, the family settled in Brooklyn.  Most accounts of Angelo’s life suggest that his father, a farmer, returned to Italy within a short time but his mother remained, taking work as a seamstress and endeavouring to make a better life for her children.

Angelo’s path to becoming Charles Atlas and enjoying worldwide fame began with a classic story of bullying. Like many Italian children of his time, having been born in part of the country where living conditions were difficult and good food was in short supply, he was sickly and scrawny, an easy target to be picked on.

Humiliated at the beach by being knocked down by a physically stronger youth and having sand kicked in his face, Angelo was determined to build up his physique so that he might one day feel that no one could bully him.

He was inspired by the statues of Hercules, Apollo and Zeus at Brooklyn Museum and began to train with home-made weights at his local YMCA.  

The Dawn of Glory, a statue in Brooklyn for which Atlas was the model
The Dawn of Glory, a statue in Brooklyn
for which Atlas was the model
It was on a visit to the Prospect Park Zoo that he hit upon the idea that there might be another way to develop his body without using weights. It would become the foundation of his life and the business that would make him a wealthy man.

It came to him as he marvelled at the physical magnificence of lions. While watching a lion stretch, he realized that the enormous animal was undergoing a natural workout  by "pitting one muscle against another", harnessing his own strength to make himself stronger still.

Back at home, Angelo began to devise isometric and isotonic exercises that required no weights, which had the effect of honing and strengthening his body remarkably quickly.

Friends who noticed the change nicknamed him Atlas after the figure in Greek mythology who was required to carry the heavens on his shoulders.

By the age of 19, Angelo was able to make money by selling a device he had made as a chest developer in front of stores in Manhattan, and performing feats of strength in vaudeville shows.  Then he was introduced to New York’s community of sculptors who would pay him to be the model for numerous statues. The 97lb weakling he had dubbed himself when the bullies were doing their worst now weighed 180lb. He had a 47in chest, 17in biceps and 24in thighs - but a waist of just 32in.

He won bodybuilding competitions, changed his name to Charles Atlas and opened a mail order business, selling his equipment and accompanying lifestyle guidance.  It thrived for a while but his business sense was poor. He made poor decisions and spread himself too thin.

The famous ad for Atlas's method, designed by Charles Roman
The famous ad for Atlas's method,
designed by Charles Roman
It all changed, though, when he met Charles P Roman, a young advertising executive. They agreed that Angelo would concentrate on projecting his own body, making public appearances, demonstrating his equipment and performing stunts, while Charles diverted his focus to the business side of the partnership.

Charles Atlas Ltd was incorporated in 1929. Roman coined the name ‘Dynamic Tension’ to describe the Atlas method and a year later wrote the copy for the company’s most famous ad, depicting a young man who follows the Atlas method and is able to avenge his humiliation at the hands of a beach bully who kicks sand in his face.

The business grew and prospered Charles Atlas became recognized as one of the world’s foremost bodybuilding experts.  Baseball legend Joe di Maggio and boxer Rocky Marciano were among sportsmen who endorsed his products.

He retired in 1970, selling his share of the business to Roman and settling for a quiet life in Long Island, where he bought a house at Point Lookout, overlooking the ocean.  He ran along the beach each day and continued to exercise.  Married with two children, he died at the age of 80 after suffering a heart attack.

The single surviving tower of the town's castle sits
atop one of Acri's two hills
Travel tip:

Acri is a town of around 21,000 inhabitants situated close to the Sila National Park and the beautiful Lago Cicita in the province of Cosenza.  It has suffered a number of earthquakes over the centuries and a lot of its buildings are of relatively recent construction yet many historic buildings survive, including the medieval church of Santa Maria Maggiore, which was rebuilt in the 17th century.  On top of one of its two hills is the single remaining tower of a medieval castle.

Hotels in Cosenza from

Travel tip:

Cosenza, a city with an urban area in which more than 250,000 people live, combines a no-nonsense modern city with a small and atmospheric historic town built on a hill. The pedestrianized centre of the new city has sculptures by the likes of Dalí, De Chirico and Pietro Consagra. The old town boasts the 13th century Castello Svevo, built on the site of a Saracen fortification, which hosted the wedding of Louis III of Naples and Margaret of Savoy but which the Bourbons used as a prison. 

(Photo of Dawn and Glory statue by Eden, Janine and Jim - CC BY 2.0)
(Photo of Acri by Explorer at Italian Wikipedia - CC BY-SA 3.0)


20 October 2016

Claudio Ranieri - football manager

Title-winning Leicester City boss is 65 today

Claudio Ranieri
Claudio Ranieri
Football manager Claudio Ranieri was born on this day in 1951 in Rome.

Ranieri, who won the English Premier League last season with rank outsiders Leicester City, has managed 14 clubs in four countries in a 30-year career in coaching.  He also had a stint in charge of the Greece national team.

Among the teams he has coached are a host of big names - Internazionale, Juventus, Roma, Napoli and Fiorentina in Italy, Atletico Madrid and Valencia in Spain, Monaco in France and Chelsea in England.

He has won titles in lower divisions as well as Italy's Coppa Italia and the Copa del Rey in Spain but until Leicester defied pre-season odds of 5,000-1 to win the Premier League, a major league championship had eluded him.  He had finished second three times, with Chelsea, Roma and Monaco.

Before turning to coaching, Ranieri was a player for 14 seasons. He began in Serie A with home-town club Roma, but enjoyed more success in the lower divisions, enjoying promotion twice with the Calabrian club Catanzaro, where he spent the biggest part of his career, and once each with the Sicilian teams Catania and Palermo.

Ranieri was born in the San Saba district of Rome, not far from the ancient Baths of Caracalla and Circus Maximus in an area teeming with Roman ruins.  His father, Mario, was a butcher in neighbouring Testaccio, one of Rome's traditional working class neighbourhoods. His mother, Renata, now 96, still lives in Rome and Claudio regularly flies home to see her.

Where Testaccio, now increasingly popular with Rome's young professionals, was designed and built with blue collar workers in mind, San Saba is more middle-class historically, an area of houses rather than apartment buildings, with more urban green spaces such as the Piazza Gian Lorenzo Bernini, where Claudio and his friends would play football.

Claudio Ranieri celebrates with Leicester City's prolific striker Jamie Vardy
Claudio Ranieri celebrates with Leicester City's
prolific striker Jamie Vardy
Ranieri's early life was spent largely confined to these two neighbourhoods and nearby Aventine Hill, which affords panoramic views of the city.

A Roma fan for as long as he can remember, Ranieri dreamed of playing for the giallorossi and after being spotted by a scout he realised his ambition. He was taken on for a trial, given a contract and made his debut in November 1973 as a defender.  He was unfazed by playing in front of 80,000 fans and continuing to help out in the family business on his day off kept him grounded.

Sadly, the dream did not turn into a place in Roma folklore, as the young Ranieri might have hoped.  By the following summer, having made just six appearances, it was clear he was not going to be in the team on a regular basis and he moved to the deep south of Italy to Catanzaro, in the part of Calabria that sits in the arch of the boot on the map of Italy, to play in Serie B.

It was a world away from the frenzied pace of Roman life and Ranieri felt a little like an alien but the eight years he spent there shaped his life in many ways.

Catanzaro's team included many outsiders and they formed a bond of friendship that remains strong to this day. Indeed, until recently, the team's goalkeeper, Giorgio Pellizzaro, was Ranieri's specialist goalkeeping coach.

They became a good team on the field, too, winning promotion to Serie A twice in his time there, the second time staying for five years.

Off the field, it was while playing for Catanzaro that Ranieri met his wife, Rosanna, the daughter of a football journalist.  The couple had a daughter, Claudia and bought a villa at nearby Copanello, overlooking the Ionian Sea, where they still spend their summers. Ranieri also has a house at Formello, a town about 30km north of Rome in the Monti Sabatini area of Lazio.

Ranieri's son-in-law, the actor Alessandro Roja
Ranieri's son-in-law, the actor
Alessandro Roja
Claudia is now married to the Roman actor, Alessandro Roja, who starred in the drama series Romanzo Criminale, set in the Rome underworld in the 1970s.  Rosanna runs two antiques shops in Rome.

Ranieri's character, well-mannered, good humoured, calm under pressure, is said by some to be more typically Calabrian than Roman but, as the Italian writer Gabriele Marcotti explains in an excellent biography - Hail, Claudio! - to be published next month, there is a steel behind the charm.

An example came when he had left Catanzaro for Catania, where he was made captain.  When the manager, the former Catanzaro player Gianni di Marzio, was sacked after Catania, newly promoted, had made a poor start in Serie A, Ranieri was so furious he stormed into the office of the club president to make his feelings known, and repeated them in a television interview soon afterwards.

He was sure he would be sacked as well for speaking his mind and effectively humiliating the president, an autocratic millionaire not known for his patience. Instead, after recovering from the shock, the president decided that if Ranieri was man enough to stand up to him in that way he was too good an asset to lose.

UPDATE: Since leaving Leicester City in 2017, Ranieri has increased the number of coaching positions he has held to 21. As of his 72nd birthday on October 20, 2023, he was in charge of Serie A club Cagliari for the second time in his career.

The original structure of the Basilica of Santa Sabina dates back to the fifth century
The original structure of the Basilica of Santa
Sabina dates back to the fifth century
Travel tip:

The Aventine Hill, which Ranieri knew well as a boy, has many attractions, apart from the ruins of the Roman chariot racing stadium, Circus Maximus, and the Baths of Caracalla.  The historic Basilica of Santa Sabina, which dates back to the fifth century, is just one of several notable churches, while the area's elevated position offers outstanding views of the Rome, particularly from the Giardino degli Aranci (Garden of Oranges), overlooking the Tiber. A more unusual view is to be had from the Villa del Priorato di Malta, on Piazza dei Cavalieri di Malta, where crowds gather to peer through the keyhole in the wooden doors at the main gate, which provides a perfectly framed view of the dome of St Peter's Basilica.

The waterfront at Catanzaro Lido, which can be  found 15km (9 miles) from the city of Catanzaro
The waterfront at Catanzaro Lido, which can be 
found 15km (9 miles) from the city of Catanzaro
Travel tip:

Occupying a position 300mt (980ft) above the Gulf of Squillace, Catanzaro is known as the City of the Two Seas because, from some vantage points, it is possible to see the Tyrrhenian Sea to the north of the long peninsula occupied by Calabria as well as the Ionian Sea to the south.  The historic centre, which sits at the highest point of the city, includes a 16th century cathedral built on the site of a 12th century Norman cathedral which, despite being virtually destroyed by bombing in 1943, has been impressively restored.  The city is about 15km (9 miles) from Catanzaro Lido, which has a long white beach typical of the Gulf of Squillace.

More reading:


Hail, Claudio! The Man, The Manager, The Miracle, by Gabriele Marcotti (Yellow Jersey)

(Photo of Alessandro Roja by Laura Penna CC BY 2.0)
(Photo of the view from the Giardino degli Aranci by Marten253 CC BY-SA 3.0)


13 October 2016

Execution of former King of Naples

Joachim Murat, key aide of Napoleon, shot by firing squad

Joachim Murat, King of Naples, depicted by Francois Gerard
Joachim Murat, King of Naples,
depicted by Francois Gerard
Joachim Murat, the French cavalry leader who was a key military strategist in Napoleon's rise to power in France and his subsequent creation of an empire in continental Europe, was executed on this day in 1815 in Pizzo in Calabria.

The charismatic Marshal was captured by Bourbon forces in the coastal town in Italy's deep south as he tried to gather support for an attempt to regain control of Naples, where he had been King until the fall of Napoleon saw the throne returned to the Bourbon king Ferdinand IV in May 1815.

Murat was held prisoner in the Castello di Pizzo before a tribunal found him guilty of insurrection and sentenced him to death by firing squad.

The 48-year-old soldier from Lot in south-west France had been an important figure in the French Revolutionary Wars and gained recognition from Napoleon as one of his best generals, his influence vital in the success of Napoleon's campaigns in Egypt and Italy and in victories against the numerically superior Prussians and Russians.

He was a flamboyant dresser, going into battle with his uniform bedecked in medals, gold tassels, feathers and shiny buttons.  Yet for all his peacock tendencies, he was renowned as a bold, brave and decisive leader, often securing victory through daring cavalry charges.  In all he is thought to have fought around 200 battles.

A defiant Murat faces his executioners
A defiant Murat faces his executioners
Napoleon rewarded him with the hand of his sister, Caroline, and promotion to the rank of Marshal and Admiral of France. He made him King of Naples in 1808, although it was something of a consolation prize to Murat, who had hoped to be given the throne of Spain, which went instead to Napoleon's brother, Joseph.

Murat moved into the Royal Palace and indulged himself in a life of luxury, entertaining lavishly and surrounding himself with expensive acquisitions.  He had portraits of himself, his wife and other family members commissioned by celebrated artists as well as numerous scenes depicting his victories on the battlefield.

Nonetheless, he was an effective ruler of Naples, where he broke up the large landed estates, introduced workable laws and established the Napoleonic Code, under which class privilege and hereditary nobility were abolished and all male citizens deemed as equal. He also cracked down on the many gangs who made their living through robbery and pillage.

He foresaw and supported the potential unification of Italy, attempting to position himself to take control beyond Naples by encouraging the secret societies that eventually were central to the Risorgimento.

When it became clear, however, that Napoleon's grip on Europe was weakening, Murat's thoughts became focussed on self-preservation.

A room at the Murat museum in Pizzo imagines the scene as Murat appears before the Bourbon tribunal
A room at the Murat museum in Pizzo imagines the scene
as Murat appears before the Bourbon tribunal
Desperate to retain power in Naples and the lifestyle that went with it, he entered into an alliance with Austria after France’s defeat at the Battle of Leipzig in October of 1813. However, the summit of European powers that met at the Congress of Vienna after Napoleon's defeat had other ideas, planning to return Naples to the Bourbons.

Murat fled, declared himself in support of Italian independence and fought the Austrians in northern Italy. He was defeated, then attempted to regain favour with Napoleon, who had escaped his exile on Elba, only to be turned away without even speaking to him. The emperor would later regret shunning his former trusted aide, claiming that with Murat at his side he would have won the Battle of Waterloo,

In a last throw of the dice, Murat then assembled an expedition force on Corsica and set out to recapture Naples himself. With only 250 men, however, he was never likely to succeed. In the event, bad weather blew his three ships of course and his landed in Pizzo, more than 350km south of Naples, almost at the toe of the boot, where he was soon arrested.

He faced death in the same way as he had gone into battle, extravagantly dressed and fearless. Having been granted his last wish for a perfumed bath and the opportunity to write to his wife and children, he refused the offer of a blindfold and a stool to sit on, and instead stood before the firing squad, eyes wide open.  His final words, or so the story goes, were: “Soldiers, do your duty. Aim for my heart, but spare my face. Fire!”

Travel tip:

Pizzo has made the most of its connection with Joachim Murat, who was buried in the town's Baroque Church of St George. The Aragonese castle has been renamed Castello Murat and contains a Murat museum.  Each year celebrations take place on the anniversary of his death, sometimes with historical re-enactments.  Pizzo is also notable for tuna fishing and for its speciality tartufo ice cream, which features a ball of ice cream encasing molten chocolate.

The plaque on the wall of Murat's villa at Santa Maria Annunziata
The plaque on the wall of Murat's
villa at Santa Maria Annunziata
Travel tip:

As well as his home at the Royal Palace in Naples, Joachim Murat kept a villa on the Sorrentine peninsula, just outside the small town of Massa Lubrense at the village of Santa Maria Annunziata. The building, identifiable by a plaque on the wall, has a clear view of the island of Capri and was used as a vantage point by Murat from which, early in his reign as King of Naples, he was able to oversee an operation to recapture the island, which had been garrisoned by a combined force of English and Corsican soldiers in 1806.

Capri as seen from Murat's villa on the Sorrentine peninsula
Capri as seen from Murat's villa on the Sorrentine peninsula

More reading:

How the defeat of Austria at the Battle of Marengo helped Napoleon secure power

Napoleon crowns himself King of Italy