Showing posts with label Como. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Como. Show all posts

30 April 2021

Antonio Sant’Elia - architectural visionary

Futurist’s ideas were decades ahead of his time

Antonio Sant'Elia's design for an apartment block with external lifts, above a network of roads
Antonio Sant'Elia's design for an apartment block
with external lifts, above a network of roads 

The architect Antonio Sant’Elia, best known for producing hundreds of drawings based on his vision of an idealised modern industrial city, was born on this day in 1888 in Como in Lombardy.

Sant’Elia’s life was short - he died in battle barely a year after signing up for military service in the First World War - and his physical legacy comprised only one completed building, the Villa Elisi, a modest house in the hills above his home city.

Yet, thanks to the boldly imaginative designs he captured in dozens of sketches illustrating how he saw the cities of the future, Sant’Elia is still seen as one of modern architecture’s most influential figures, more than a century after his death.

A builder by trade, in 1912 Sant’Elia set up a design office in Milan with fellow architect Mario Chittone.

He was already a follower of Futurism, the avant-garde artistic, social and political movement that had been launched by the poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti in 1909.

Sant'Elia's vision of an airport rail terminal with escalators from the rail platforms
Sant'Elia's vision of an airport rail terminal
with escalators from the rail platforms
The Futurists’ admiration for the speed and technological advancement of cars and aeroplanes and the new industrial cities, which they saw as demonstrating the triumph of humanity over nature through invention, aligned with his own rejection of traditional design.

The movement’s Manifesto of Futurist Architecture, published by Marinetti in 1914, is thought to have been written by Sant’Elia, outlining his vision for the industrialised and mechanised city of the future, comprising interconnected multi-level buildings in the style of modern skyscrapers, with integrated transport systems that facilitated fast, efficient movement.

In the same year, a collection of Sant’Elia’s drawings called Città Nuova - New City - was displayed in May 1914 at an exhibition of the Nuove Tendenze group, of which he was a member, at the Famiglia Artistica gallery in Milan.

It was these drawings that revealed Sant’Elia’s remarkable vision, his designs so futuristic they would scarcely have seemed dated had another architect unveiled them towards the end of the 20th century rather than in its infancy.

Antonio Sant'Elia opened a  design studio in Milan
Antonio Sant'Elia opened a 
design studio in Milan
They featured pyramids, buttresses and towers, giant factories and multi-floor, stepped residential buildings complete with external elevators, linked with walkways, and interspersed with roads and railways suspended at different levels. 

One of Sant’Elia’s drawings was of a transport portal for trains and aircraft with escalators linking the railway platforms with the runway.

Although the Città Nuova was never built, Sant’Elia’s ideas influenced many generations of future architects. The Pompidou Centre in Paris (1977), designed by Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano, Rogers’s Lloyds Building in London (1986) and Piano’s The Shard, also in London (2012) all carry echoes of Sant’Elia’s designs, as does Helmut Jahn’s James R Thompson Centre in Chicago and the Marriott Marquis hotel in Georgia by John Portman, both built in the 1980s.

Many within the Futurist movement were strongly nationalist in their political leanings, which inevitably led some to be drawn towards Fascism and its vision of a powerful, self-contained Italy free from foreign influence.

It was Sant’Elia’s own nationalism and irredentism that persuaded him to join the army as Italy entered World War I in 1915, excited at the idea that he could play a part in finally evicting the Austrians from northeast Italy, where they still controlled an area stretching from Trentino through the South Tyrol to Trieste.

Sadly, he did not live to see that ambition realised. The focus of the Italian-Austrian conflict was the valley of the Isonzo river, also known as the Soça, which runs from its source in the Julian Alps in western Slovenia and enters the Gulf of Trieste near Monfalcone, and there were a series of 12 battles fought along this front between June 1915 and November 1917.

Sant’Elia died in the eighth of these battles in October 1916 near Gorizia. In all, the Battles of the Isonzo, concluding with the catastrophic Battle of Caporetto, resulted in almost one million Italian casualties including 300,000 dead, half of the number of Italians killed in the whole of World War One.

Sant'Elia's only finished building, the Villa Elisi
Sant'Elia's only finished
building, the Villa Elisi
Travel tip:

The Villa Elisi can be found in the San Maurizio area above the town of Brunate, about 8km (5 miles) up a winding road from Como, to which it is also linked by a funicular railway. The area offers spectacular views of Lake Como. Villa Elisa, the only building designed and built by Antonio Sant’Elia, was commissioned by the Como industrialist Romeo Longatti as a holiday home. The villa features the asymmetrical, geometric designs typical of much of Sant'Elia's work. It represented an opportunity for Sant’Elia to prove his worth as an architect and overcome the structural problems posed by the house’s location on steeply sloping ground.

Palazzo Volpi in Como, home of the city's civic art gallery, where Sant'Elia's drawings can be seen
Palazzo Volpi in Como, home of the city's civic
art gallery, where Sant'Elia's drawings can be seen
Travel tip:

Sant’Elia’s drawings of his Città Nuovo are on permanent display in Como’s Pinocoteca Civica, the city’s art gallery. Inaugurated in 1989 in the 17th-century Palazzo Volpi in Via Armando Diaz, the gallery houses a collection that spans the Middle Ages through to contemporary times, documenting the Como area’s artwork from religious buildings to portraiture, landscapes and 20th century works related. In addition to Sant’Elia’s drawings, the centrepieces are the sixth century Portraits of Illustrious Men collection by Paolo Giovio and some major works by the Gruppo Como, a group of 20th century abstract artists from Como.

Also on this day:

1306: The birth of Venetian Doge Andrea Dandolo

1885: The birth of Futurist composer Luigi Russolo

The Feast Day of Saint Pius V


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27 April 2020

Cesare Bianchi - head chef

From shores of Lake Como to London’s Café Royal


The Art Deco memorial in Hampstead Cemetery, built by Bianchi for his widow, Martha
The Art Deco memorial in Hampstead Cemetery,
built by Bianchi for his widow, Martha
Cesare Bianchi, who rose from humble beginnings to become head chef at London’s prestigious Café Royal in the 1930s, was born on this day in 1897 in Cernobbio, a village on Lake Como in northern Italy.

He moved to England when he was only 16, hoping to build a career in catering and soon found work doing odd jobs in a London kitchen. However, he had been in the city barely a year when the outbreak of the First World War meant he had to return to his homeland for national service.  In his case, it was with the Alpini, Italy’s mountain brigades, with whom he was an interpreter.

Eager to resume his career in England, once the war was over Cesare took a job at the Palace Hotel in Aberdeen.  It was there he met Martha Gall, the woman who would become his wife.

They were married in 1921 and Martha soon gave birth to their daughter, Patricia.  Ambitious, Cesare persuaded his wife to leave Scotland behind so that he could make another attempt to establish himself in London.

His culinary talents took him a long way as he worked his way up from modest beginnings to land a place in the kitchen at the Café Royal in Regent Street, which at the turn of the century had become one of the capital’s most fashionable restaurants, the place to be seen for society figures.

The Café Royal had a heady reputation but Bianchi was quite at home, soon winning many compliments for his culinary skills.  Ultimately, he was promoted to head chef. He and Martha and their daughter set up home in Hampstead, in Lawn Road.

Cesare Bianchi's position counted for nothing when he was declared an alien
Cesare Bianchi's position counted for
nothing when he was declared an alien
However, his life was turned upside down in 1936 when Martha died giving birth to their second child.  The baby, a boy given the name Robert, survived.  Martha was buried in Hampstead Cemetery, where Bianchi commissioned an enormous monument, an Art Deco extravagance topped with a Futurist angel, arms outstretched, between two columns and standing on a plinth bearing the name of Bianchi.

The grave, which now has Grade II listed status, is set in a triangular plot. Either side of the angel are two reliefs, one showing Cesare with Martha, who is cradling the baby she never lived to see, sitting on a park bench.  He had hoped one day that he would be buried alongside her.

Martha’s sister, Mary, helped Cesare bring up his children and he was able to return to work in Regent Street.

When peace in Europe was shattered again in 1939, Bianchi’s life took another unwelcome turn.  Although he had been resident in England for much of his adult life and had fought on the side of the Allies when Italy opposed the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary and Turkey) in World War I, Bianchi found himself classed as an alien in World War II after Italy entered an alliance with Germany.

His status in London counted for nothing. He, along with many other Italians and Germans, were taken to Liverpool, set to board the Arandora Star, a ship that would take them to internment in Newfoundland in Canada.

Smithfield Market, where Bianchi worked, was destroyed by a German V2 flying bomb
Smithfield Market, where Bianchi worked, was
destroyed by a German V2 flying bomb
The boat set sail on 2 July, 1940 with 1,300 prisoners on board but had barely hit the open sea of the Atlantic beyond Ireland when it was spotted by a German U-boat.  The enemy submarine was on its way back to base to reload its weapons batteries but had one torpedo left, which its commander  fired at the Arandora Star.

The device hit the side of the Arandora Star. The resulting explosion killed everyone in the ship’s engine room and caused the ship to start sinking rapidly. Bianchi was one of more than 700 Italian prisoners being contained in cramped dormitories - along with almost 600 Germans. Two thirds of the Italians drowned but Bianchi somehow survived and was picked up by a rescue ship.

He was still interned as planned but instead of Canada - or Australia, where others were shipped - was taken to a camp much closer to home on the Isle of Man, where he would remain until the end of 1942. At that point it was considered safe for him to return to London, even though it was not until the autumn of the following year that Italy signed an armistice with the Allies and itself declared war on Germany.

Bianchi rejoined Mary Gall and his children in Hampstead and found a new job in Smithfield Market, with which he hoped to rebuild his career.

The winged angel that sits above the grave of Martha Gall-Bianchi in Hampstead Cemetery
The winged angel that sits above the grave of
Martha Gall-Bianchi in Hampstead Cemetery
After his ordeal on the Arandora Star, he might have hoped that the war would hold no more drama for him but, tragically, that was not the case.

On 8 March, 1945, in one of the last attacks that Germany would launch against Britain, Smithfield Market was struck by a V2, one of the second generation of flying bombs used by the Nazis and the forerunner of the inter-continental ballistic missile.

The explosion caused by the rocket destroyed the market and killed 110 people who were inside at the time, including both Cesare Bianchi and Mary Gall, whose presence there may have been because she was one of a large number of women shopping on that day.

In the circumstances, it was not possible for Bianchi to be buried alongside Martha. Along with the other victims of the bomb, he was laid to rest at the London Cemetery in Manor Park in the borough of Newham in the east of the city.

The Villa d'Este on the shores of Lake Como near Cernobbio, where Cesare Bianchi was born
The Villa d'Este on the shores of Lake Como near
Cernobbio, where Cesare Bianchi was born
Travel tip:

Bianchi’s hometown of Cernobbio is notable for the Villa d’Este, the vast complex built as a 16th century summer residence for the Cardinal of Como, and one of many fine villas fronting the water. The town once attracted large crowds hoping to catch a sight of movie star George Clooney, who had a house at nearby Laglio and would occasionally be spotted at a cafe in Cernobbio. Scenes from the movie Ocean’s 12, in which Clooney starred, were filmed locally. The town generally has more locals than tourists. On summer evenings and weekends when the main piazza is full of families and couples.

The 15th century facade of the Duomo in the centre of the lakeside town of Como
The 15th century facade of the Duomo
in the centre of the lakeside town of Como
Travel tip:

Cernobbio is just a few kilometres from Como, the town at the southern tip of the eastern branch of Lake Como. It is a pleasant town with an impressive cathedral in the historical centre, the construction of which spanned almost 350 years, which is why it combines features from different architectural areas, including Gothic and Renaissance. The façade was built in 1457, its characteristic rose window and a portal flanked by Renaissance statues of Pliny the Elder and Pliny the Younger, both of whom were from Como. This Duomo replaced the earlier 10th-century cathedral, San Fedele.

Also on this day:

1912: The birth of singer-songwriter and actor Renato Rascel

1937: The death of Communist leader Antonio Gramsci

1942: The birth of disgraced entrepreneur Vittorio Cecchi Gori

2014: Popes John XXIII and John Paul II made saints


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5 November 2018

Filippo Taglioni - dancer and choreographer

Father of star ballerina was pioneer of Romantic ballet


Filippo Taglioni's portrait, the original of which is at Teatro alla Scala in Milan
Filippo Taglioni's portrait, the original of
which is at Teatro alla Scala in Milan
The dancer and choreographer Filippo Taglioni, who choreographed the original version of the ballet classic La Sylphide for his ballerina daughter Marie Taglioni, was born on this day in 1777 in Milan.

La Sylphide was one of the earliest works to represent a new ballet genre, which became known as Romantic ballet, that gained popularity in the 19th century as an alternative to traditional classical ballet.  Romantic ballet was different in that the characters were recognisable as real people rather than the gods and goddesses and strange creatures from Roman and Greek mythology that populated classical ballet.

The work, which premiered at the Salle Le Peletier of the Paris Opéra in 1832, cemented Marie Taglioni’s status as a star, the prima ballerina of the Romantic movement, although the version performed today - the only version to have survived - was choreographed by the Danish ballet master August Bournonville in 1836.

Filippo was part of an Italian dancing dynasty of the 18th and 19th centuries. His father and mother, Carlo Taglioni and Maria Petracchi, were both dancers. Carlo, who was born in Turin, worked in Venice, Rome, Siena and Udine.

Taglioni's daughter, Marie, pictured in a performance of La Sylphide
Taglioni's daughter, Marie, pictured in a
performance of La Sylphide
As well as Marie, Filippo had a son, Paul Taglioni, who was a successful choreographer and the father of another dancer, Marie Taglioni the younger. Filippo’s brother, Salvatore Taglioni, was father of Luisa Taglioni, who was a ballerina of the Paris Opéra, and Fernando Taglioni, who became a respected composer.

Trained for the most part by the Neapolitan dancer Carlo Blasis and Jean-François Coulon, Filippo made his debut at 17 in Pisa, playing female roles, and after appearing in other Italian cities joined the Paris Opéra at the age of 22, before moving to Stockholm to be principal dancer and ballet master for the Royal Swedish Ballet.

It was while he was living in Stockholm that he married the dancer Sophie Karsten, daughter of a famous Swedish opera singer Christoffer Christian Karsten and a Polish actress, Sophie Stebnowska.

Their two children were born early in the marriage and after living for a number of years in Vienna and Germany they moved to Paris to escape the the Napoleonic wars.  Filippo danced and choreographed in different parts of Europe before accepting a permanent position in Vienna.

Filippo Taglioni made his daughter, Marie, practise six hours a day for six months
Filippo Taglioni made his daughter, Marie,
practise six hours a day for six months
Filippo had left his daughter, Marie, to study ballet in Paris but in time summoned her to join him in Vienna, where he began training her himself, making her practice six hours a day for six months until she mastered her jumps and pointe work. When he judged her to be ready he took her back to Paris.

Marie soon became popular and Filippo was able to negotiate a six-year contract for the two of them. He unveiled La Sylphide to huge acclaim and its success established Marie as the pre-eminent prima ballerina of the Romantic period, as well as making him its most renowned choreographer.

The two toured Europe and Russia and were well rewarded, although Filippo lost a good deal of his daughter’s fortune in through unwise and speculative investments.

His legacy, though, was to have changed the nature of ballet. Although the Romantic movement began to decline at the start of the 20th century, it produced works of lasting popularity such as Delibes’s Coppélia (1870) and Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake (1876) and The Nutcracker (1892).

Filippo Taglioni died in Como in 1871, at the age of 93.

The Teatro Verdi in Pisa was opened in November 1867
The Teatro Verdi in Pisa was opened in November 1867
Travel tip:

The principal venue for ballet and opera in Pisa is the Teatro Verdi in Via Palestro, built in the mid-19th century in the style of classic theatre architecture to designs by the Venetian architect Andrea Scala, who won a competition organised by the architect and politician Ranieri Simonelli, a prominent Pisan citizen of the day. Completed in 1867, it was inaugurated on November 12 of that year with a performance of Gioachino Rossini’s opera William Tell. It began to stage ballet as well as opera in the latter part of the 19th century.  Taglioni is likely to have performed at the Regia Teatro Nuovo, which the Teatro Verdi replaced.

The beautiful Villa Olmo on Lake Como
The beautiful Villa Olmo on Lake Como
Travel tip:

Como, where Taglioni died, is a city at the southern end of Lake Como. It has become a popular tourist destination because it is close to the lake and has many attractive churches, gardens, museums, theatres, parks and palaces to visit. The Villa Olmo, built in neoclassical style there in 1797 by an aristocratic family, has hosted Napoleon, Ugo Foscolo, Prince Metternich, Archduke Franz Ferdinand I and Giuseppe Garibaldi, to name but a few of the eminent people who have stayed there.

More reading:

Fanny Cerrito - the Neapolitan ballerina who wowed Europe

Pierina Legnani - the Italian who conquered St Petersburg

How Strictly Come Dancing judge Bruno Tonioli dealt with playground bullies

Also on this day:

1702: The birth of Venetian painter Pietro Longhi

1754: The birth of explorer Alessandro Malaspina

1898: The birth of Francesco Chiarello, soldier who survived two World Wars


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20 October 2018

Dado Moroni - jazz musician

Self-taught pianist recorded first album at 17


Dado Moroni has become a major figure in jazz music in Italy and internationally
Dado Moroni has become a major figure in jazz
music in Italy and internationally
The renowned jazz musician Edgardo ‘Dado’ Moroni was born on this day in 1962 in Genoa.

Moroni, who learned at the feet of some of the greats of American jazz music in Italian clubs in the 1980s and 90s, has recorded more than 25 albums, having released his first when he was only 17.

He has appeared as a guest on many more albums and built such a reputation as a pianist and composer that he was able to become part of the American jazz scene himself in the 1990s, when he lived in New York.

Moroni attributes his love of jazz music to his father’s passion for the genre, which meant that he grew up listening to the likes of Earl Hines, Fats Waller and Count Basie.

Using a piano his parents had bought for his sister, Monica, he taught himself to play many of the songs he heard on the record player, receiving his first informal tuition from his mother, who played the accordion.

Dado Moroni on stage with the guitarist Luigi Tessarollo
Dado Moroni on stage with the guitarist Luigi Tessarollo
Formal piano lessons were arranged for him with the Genoa jazz pianist Flavio Crivelli, who introduced him to the music of Charlie Parker, Bud Powell and Dizzy Gillespie and contemporary pianists like Bill Evans, Ahmad Jamal and Oscar Peterson.
Moroni progressed so rapidly he was able to play professionally in clubs from the age of 14.  The Italian jazz scene while he was growing up was popular but not wealthy.  Club owners were keen to hire famous artists but could not always afford to pay for support musicians.

This worked to the advantage of up-and-coming Italian musicians such as Moroni, who were more than happy to make up the numbers. Moroni found himself accompanying such internationally renowned names as Harry “Sweets” Edison, Freddie Hubbard, and even greats such as Peterson and Gillespie when they were on tour in Europe.

It was Gillespie, Moroni said, who persuaded him to back his own talent and pursue a career in music after doubts about his ability to make a living had led him to embark on studies for a law degree.

The cover of one of Moroni's early albums
The cover of one of Moroni's early albums
Moroni began a collaboration with two other Italian jazz musicians, Tullio de Piscopo and Franco Ambrosetti. At just 17 years old, he recorded an album with De Piscopo and the American bassist Julius Farmer and another with Ambrosetti and the Danish bass player Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen.

Through the 80s, he played at festivals and clubs across Europe, often with a trio led by Duke Ellington’s former bassist, Jimmy Woode.  In 1987, at the age of just 25, he was invited as the only European musician to be part of the jury of the Thelonious Monk international piano award held in Washington in 1987.

Moroni moved to the United States in 1991 and became part of the New York jazz scene, performing with several bands and contributing to the rich heritage of Italian musicians in America. He appeared at the most prestigious jazz clubs in the city, such as the Blue Note, Birdland, Bradley’s and the Village Vanguard.

In 1995 he returned to Italy to join the classical pianist Antonio Ballista in a project called “Two Pianos, One Soul”, which played some of Italy’s major theatres, among them the Teatro Comunale in Ferrara, the Teatro Regio in Turin, the Teatro Verdi in Florence and the Teatro Carlo Felice in his native Genoa. Moroni won the prestigious Umbria Jazz Award in the same year.

In 2007 he won the "Best Jazz Act" at the Italian Jazz Awards. He is now based permanently in Italy and continues to record and tour, while at the same time teaching jazz piano at the Como Conservatory of Music. 

The Palazzo Ducale in Genoa, taken from Piazza Matteotti
The Palazzo Ducale in Genoa, taken from Piazza Matteotti
Travel tip:

The port city of Genoa, where Moroni was born, is the capital of the Liguria region. It has a rich history as a powerful trading centre with considerable wealth built on its shipyards and steelworks, but also boasts many fine buildings, among them the 13th century Palazzo Ducale, the 16th century Royal Palace and the Romanesque-Renaissance style San Lorenzo Cathedral. The area around the restored harbour area offers a maze of fascinating alleys and squares, enhanced recently by the work of Genoa architect Renzo Piano, and a landmark aquarium, the largest in Italy.

The facade of Como's Gothic Duomo
The facade of Como's Gothic Duomo
Travel tip:

Como is a city with a population of just over 85,000 at the southern tip of Lake Como, a little under 60km (37 miles) north of Milan. It is notable for its Gothic Cathedral, the facade of which incorporates statues of the famous comaschi Pliny the Elder and Pliny the Younger. There is a spectacular scenic funicular railway linking Como with the village of Brunate and a number of museums, including the Museo Didattico della Seta, which traces the history of Como's silk industry, and the Tempio Voltiano, dedicated to Italian physicist Alessandro Volta. Just north of the city are the lakeside gardens of the palatial Villa Olmo, as well as other stately villas.

More reading:

Lucio Dalla - the jazz sax player and composer who wrote the haunting song Caruso

The band leader who became an Italian pioneer of jazz and swing

The wide-ranging talents of Tiziana 'Tosca' Donati

Also on this day:

1950: The birth of TV presenter Mara Venier

1951: The birth of football manager Claudio Ranieri


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22 April 2017

Alida Valli - actress

Scandal dogged star admired by Mussolini


The actress Alida Valli was the object of Mussolini's admiration
The actress Alida Valli was the object of
Mussolini's admiration
The actress Alida Valli, who was once described by Benito Mussolini as the most beautiful woman in the world after Greta Garbo, died on this day in 2006 at the age of 84.

One of the biggest stars in Italian cinema in the late 1930s and 40s, when she starred in numerous romantic dramas and comedies, she was best known outside Italy for playing Anna Schmidt, the actress girlfriend of Harry Lime in Carol Reed’s Oscar-winning 1949 classic The Third Man.

She was cast in the role by the producer David O Selznick, who shared the Fascist leader’s appreciation for her looks, and who billed her simply as Valli, hoping it would create for her a Garboesque enigmatic allure.  Later, however, she complained that having one name made her “feel silly”.

Valli was born in Pola, Istria, then part of Italy (now Pula, Croatia), in 1921. She was christened Baroness Alida Maria Laura Altenburger von Marckenstein-Frauenberg, on account of a noble line to her paternal grandfather, Baron Luigi Altenburger, an Austrian-Italian from Trento and a descendant of the Counts d’Arco.

Her father was a journalist and professor. The family moved to Como when she was young but her father died when she was a teenager, after which she and her mother moved to Rome, where she enrolled at the capital's new film school, Centro Sperimentale.

She had no expectations of making a career in movies but the Centro's teachers recognised her talent. The name Alida Valli was invented for her, and in 1937 she made five films, each one more successful than the last. Consequently, her salary went up with each production. When she realised her earnings could support her whole family, she decided that it was a career worth taking seriously.

Alida Valli with Joseph Cotten in The Third Man
After a number of comedies and costume dramas, she won acclaim for more serious roles in Picolo mondo antico (1941) and We the Living (1942). The latter saw her star opposite Rossano Brazzi as tragic lovers in post-revolutionary St Petersburg, which pleased the Fascist regime because it seemed to convey an anti-communist message.

She felt uncomfortable about being linked with the Mussolini regime, however, especially when an anonymous letter to the United States embassy in Rome stalled her application for a visa to work in the US. The letter accused her of Fascist sympathies and being romantically involved with Hitler's propanganda chief Joseph Goebbels. The visa was granted, but only after Selznick's lawyers had disproved the allegations.

After Alida returned to Europe, she moved into more serious roles in films such as Luchino Visconti's Senso (1954) and Michelangelo Antonioni's Il Grido (1957), which had won her praise and confirmed that her beauty was underpinned with genuine acting ability.

Her success was overshadowed, however, by her relationship with Piero Piccioni, the son of Italy’s foreign minister, Attilio Piccioni, who was implicated in a sex and drugs scandal – the so-called Montesi scandal -  that emerged following the discovery of a young woman’s body on a beach near Ostia Antica, the old Roman resort, in 1953.

Piccioni was acquitted of any culpability in the woman’s death after Valli confirmed that she and Piccioni were together in Amalfi, 200 miles away, at the time, staying in a villa as guests of Carlo Ponti.  Valli had by then separated from her husband, Oscar De Mejo.

Valli with Stewart Granger in Luchino Visconti's Senso
During the next decade Alida struggled to rebuild her film career and turned to working more in theatre and television, before her reputation was re-established with parts in such films as Pier Paolo Pasolini's Oedipus Rex (1967) and Bernardo Bertolucci's The Spider's Strategem (1970), 1900 (1976) and La Luna (1979).

Valli encountered tragedy in her personal life when her lover as a young actress, the fighter pilot Carlo Cugnasca, was killed in action over Africa. In 1944, Alida married De Mejo, a jazz pianist, with whom she had a son, Carlo, in 1945, by which time Alida had been offered a Hollywood contract.  They had another son, Larry, but parted after eight years.

Valli's death at her home in Rome was announced by the office of the mayor of Rome, Walter Veltroni. The Italian president, CarloAzeglio Ciampi, described her passing as “a great loss for the cinema, the theatre and Italian culture.”

The 15th century facade of Como's Duomo
The 15th century facade of Como's Duomo
Travel tip:

Como, where Valli grew up, can be found at the southern tip of the eastern branch of Lake Como. It is a pleasant town with an impressive cathedral in the historical centre, the construction of which spanned almost 350 years, which is why it combines features from different architectural areas, including Gothic and Renaissance. The façade was built in 1457, its characteristic rose window and a portal flanked by Renaissance statues of Pliny the Elder and Pliny the Younger, both of whom were from Como. This Duomo replaced the earlier 10th-century cathedral, San Fedele.



Travel tip:

The Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia can be found off Via Tuscolana to the south of Rome, nextdoor to the Cinecittà studio complex. It is the oldest film school in Western Europe, founded in 1935 during the Mussolini era by his head of cinema, Luigi Freddi. It is still financed by the Italian government to provide training, research and experimentation in the field of cinema.  Apart from Alida Valli, other actors and actresses to have emerged from the school include Claudia Cardinale, Domenico Modugno and Francesca Neri. Directors among the alumni include Michelangelo Antonioni, Giuseppe De Santis and Luigi Zampa.



More reading:




5 March 2017

Alessandro Volta – scientist

Invention sparked wave of electrical experiments


Alessandro Volta as depicted in a painting by an unknown artist
Alessandro Volta as depicted in a painting
by an unknown artist
Alessandro Volta, who invented the first electric battery, died on this day in 1827 in Como.

His electric battery had provided the first source of continuous current and the volt, a unit of the electromotive force that drives current, was named in his honour in 1881.

Volta was born Alessandro Giuseppe Antonio Anastasio Volta in 1745 in Como.

He became professor of physics at the Royal School of Como in 1774. His interest in electricity led him to improve the electrophorus, a device that had been created to generate static electricity. He discovered and isolated methane gas in 1776, after finding it at Lake Maggiore and was then appointed to the chair of physics at the University of Pavia.

Volta was a friend of the scientist Luigi Galvani, a professor at Bologna University, whose experiments led him to announce in 1791 that the contact of two different metals with the muscle of a frog resulted in the generation of an electric current.

Italy's 10,000 lire note used to have an image of Volta on the front and the Tempio Voltiano on the reverse
Italy's 10,000 lire note used to have an image of Volta
on the front and the Tempio Voltiano on the reverse
Galvani interpreted that as a new form of electricity found in living tissue, which he called animal electricity.

Volta felt that the frog merely conducted a current that flowed between the two metals, which he called metallic electricity. He began experimenting in 1792 with metals alone and found that animal tissue was not needed to produce a current.

This provoked much controversy between the animal-electricity adherents and the metallic-electricity advocates, but Volta won the argument when he unveiled the first electric battery in 1800.

Known as the voltaic pile, or the voltaic column, Volta’s invention led to further electrical experiments.

Within six weeks, English scientists William Nicholson and Anthony Carlisle used a voltaic pile to decompose water into hydrogen and oxygen, thus discovering electrolysis and creating the field of electrochemistry.

In 1801 in Paris, Volta demonstrated the way his battery generated an electronic current in front of Napoleon, who made Volta a count and a senator of the Kingdom of Lombardy.

A statue at the University of Pavia commemorates Volta's work
A statue at the University of Pavia
commemorates Volta's work
Francis I, Emperor of Austria, made Volta director of the philosophical faculty at the University of Padua in 1815.

Volta retired in 1819 to his estate in Camnago, a frazione of Como, which is now named Camnago Volta in his honour. He died there on 5 March 1827, just after his 82nd birthday, and he was buried in Camnago Volta.

He is commemorated with a statue at the University of Pavia and another in Piazza Volta in Como. A house in the Via Brera in Milan in which he lived in the early part of the 19th century is marked with a plaque.

Travel tip:

Como, where Volta was born and died, is a city at the foot of Lake Como. It has become a popular tourist destination because it is close to the lake and has many attractive churches, gardens, museums, theatres, parks and palaces to visit. The Villa Olmo, built in neoclassical style there in 1797 by an aristocratic family, has hosted Napoleon, Ugo Foscolo, Prince Metternich, Archduke Franz Ferdinand I and Giuseppe Garibaldi, to name but a few of the eminent people who have stayed there.

Hotels in Como by Booking.com


The Tempio Voltiano by Lake Como houses a museum dedicated to the life of Alessandro Volta
The Tempio Voltiano by Lake Como houses a museum
dedicated to the life of Alessandro Volta
Travel tip:

The Tempio Voltiano is in a public garden near the side of the lake in Como and houses a museum dedicated to the life and work of Alessandro Volta. The museum has a collection of scientific instruments used by the inventor, including his early voltaic piles, and some of his personal belongings and awards he received. A picture of the temple used to be featured on the back of a 10,000 lire banknote, with Volta’s portrait on the front.

13 January 2016

Carlo Tagliabue – opera singer

Powerful performer remembered for his Don Carlo

A leading Italian baritone in the middle of the last century, Carlo Tagliabue was born on this day in 1898 in Mariano Comense near Como in Lombardy.

Tagliabue became well known for his roles in Verdi operas
Carlo Tagliabue
He particularly excelled in Verdi roles at the height of his career and continued to perform on stage and make recordings when he was well into his fifties.

After studying in Milan, Tagliabue made his debut on stage at a theatre in Lodi in 1922 singing Amonasro, King of Ethiopia, in Aida.

He went on to sing in Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, when it was performed in Italian at theatres in Genoa, Turin , Milan , Rome and Naples.

He later became known for his performances in Verdi operas, particularly La forza del destino, Rigoletto, La traviata, Nabucco and Otello and he was consistently praised for the power of his voice.

Tagliabue is also remembered for creating the role of Basilio in the world premiere of Respighi’s La fiamma in 1934.


Listen to Carlo Tagliabue sing Di provenza il mar from Verdi's La Traviata




He went on to sing in Buenos Aires, New York, San Francisco and London but his final performance was in 1955 on the stage of La Scala in Milan as Don Carlo in La forza del destino, singing alongside Maria Callas playing Donna Leonora.

Tagliabue retired to teach in 1958 and died at the age of 80 in Monza in 1978.


More opera -- Giacomo Puccini, born 22 December, 1858.

More music -- Death of violin maker Antonio Stradivari, 18 December, 1737


Travel tip:
The Villa Olmo, an 18th century house set in magnificent grounds, is open to the public
The Villa Olmo in Como
Photo: Geobia (CC BY-SA 3.0)


Como, to the north of Mariano Comense, the small town where Tagliabue was born, is right on the edge of Lake Como and a popular tourist destination with palaces, museums, parks and theatres to visit. There is an 18th century house, the Villa Olmo, which is set in magnificent grounds are open to the public and there is a 13th century town hall, known as the Broletto, striped in pink, white and grey, with a pretty balcony that was used for addressing the people.


Travel tip:

Lodi, where Tagliabue made his stage debut, is an historic city south east of Milan that was ruled by the Visconti family in the 15th century. There are still remains of the castle they built there but one of the main attractions is the Church of the Beata Vergine Incoronata, near Piazza della Vittoria, Lodi’s main square, which is considered to be one of the most beautiful Renaissance buildings in Lombardy.

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