Showing posts with label Emilia-Romagna. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Emilia-Romagna. Show all posts

22 October 2023

Ettore Boiardi - entrepreneur

Emilian immigrant who founded canned pasta brand

Boiardi wowed diners with his signature pasta sauce
Boiardi wowed diners with
his signature pasta sauce
Ettore Boiardi, the former New York chef whose name lives on in the Chef Boyardee canned pasta products brand, was born on this day in 1897 in Piacenza, now part of the Emilia-Romagna region.

Boiardi, whose culinary skills first gained popularity when he was working in the kitchens of the iconic Plaza Hotel in New York, hit upon the idea of selling cook-at-home Italian food after opening his first restaurant while still in his 20s.

He and his brother, Paolo, built a company that employed 5,000 staff and filled 250,000 cans per day at its peak, making the Chef Boyardee brand a familiar sight in grocery stores across America. 

They eventually sold the business for $6 million dollars in 1948 but the Chef Boyardee brand never went away. Today, Chef Boyardee products, which still carry Ettore Boiardi’s image on their packaging, are made and marketed by Chicago-based Conagra Brands.

Ettore and Paolo grew up in Piacenza.  Their parents, Giuseppe and Maria, inspired them to be interested in food from an early age and Ettore was working in a local restaurant, La Croce Bianca, by the time he was 11. Although his tasks were limited to peeling potatoes, emptying waste bins and other menial duties, he performed them while observing how the head chef created dishes to serve to his customers.

Like many young Italians of his time, Ettore believed he would need to go abroad if he was to make something of his life. As a teenager, he made his way to Paris and London, taking work where he could to gain experience. 

Ettore (centre) with brothers Mario (left) and Paolo pictured at their factory in Milton
Ettore (centre) with brothers Mario (left) and
Paolo pictured at their factory in Milton
Paolo, meanwhile, had emigrated to New York, his waiting skills enabling him to climb quickly to the role of Maître d’hôtel at the Plaza. Ettore managed to join him there in 1914 after crossing the Atlantic on a French-registered ship, La Lorraine, and with his brother’s help became a sous chef in the hotel’s kitchen. Allowed to cook some of the Emilian recipes he knew from home, Ettore quickly acquired a following among the hotel’s well-heeled clients.

Indeed, such was his popularity that word quickly spread about his culinary talents and he enjoyed a meteoric rise. Within a year of disembarking at Ellis Island, he had been hired as head chef by the Barbetta restaurant on 46th Street and was soon also headhunted by the exclusive Greenbrier Resort in West Virginia.

It was there, at the age of just 17, that Boiardi is said to have been put in charge of catering at the wedding reception of the US President, Woodrow Wilson, and his second wife, Edith. Wilson was so impressed he asked Boiardi to supervise a homecoming meal for 2,000 soldiers returning from service in World War One.

An offer to be head of the kitchen at the prestigious Hotel Winton took him next to Cleveland, Ohio, where he met and married his wife, Helen, who encouraged him to open his own restaurant, the Giardino d’Italia, in 1926.  It was something of a gamble. While Italian restaurants were rapidly gaining popularity in the cities of the east and west coasts, there were still comparatively few inland.

Ettore's image still figures on the packaging labels of Chef Boyardee products today
Ettore's image still figures on the packaging
labels of Chef Boyardee products today
Yet the rarity factor worked in Boiardi’s favour. Word soon spread among Cleveland diners that the young chef’s signature sauce, served with spaghetti and sprinkled with grated hard cheese, was something special. Not only did the Giardino d’Italia frequently have queues of people waiting for a table, its customers, once they had tried the sauce, began asking for an extra portion to take home. 

Boiardi obliged by filling sterilised milk bottles with the sauce. This was noticed by two of his regular customers, Maurice and Eva Weiner, who were the owners of a nationwide chain of grocery stores. They suggested he should consider canning the sauce, which they could sell in their shops.

So it was that Helen and Ettore - now known by his anglicised name of Hector - were joined by Paolo and another brother, Mario, in launching the Chef Boiardi Food Company, in 1928, selling the sauce together with packs of spaghetti and tubs of grated parmesan cheese as a ready-to-heat meal kit.

In time, the name was changed to Chef Boyardee, which the brothers reasoned wa easier for Americans to pronounce, and production shifted to a bigger plant in Milton, Pennsylvania, which Boairdi chose for its fertile soil so that he could use locally-produced tomatoes, the key ingredient of his sauces, which eventually required him to produced 20,000 tons every year.

The Second World War created problems for the company, despite being handed a contract to produce ration packs for American servicemen. By the end of the war, maintaining 24-hour production and employing 5,000 staff in their factories became too much for the brothers, who decided to sell up to American Home Foods.

By the time Ettore died in 1985, at the age of 87, Chef Boyardee lines were grossing $500 million a year as one of the best-known tinned pasta brands in America.

The Palazzo Comunale in Piacenza, flanked by Francesco Mochi's equestrian statues
The Palazzo Comunale in Piacenza, flanked by
Francesco Mochi's equestrian statues 
Travel tip:

Piacenza, where Ettore Boiardi was born, is a city in the Emilia-Romagna region of northern Italy. The main square in Piacenza is named Piazza Cavalli because of its two bronze equestrian monuments featuring Alexander Farnese, Duke of Parma and his son Ranuccio I Farnese, Duke of Parma, who succeeded him. The statues are masterpieces by the sculptor Francesco Mochi.  The square is dominated by the Palazzo Comunale, also known as il Gotico, was built in 1281 as the town hall. With its pink marble and brick facade, notable for its five arcades, it is an excellent example of civil architecture in Lombard Gothic style.  The city is situated between the River Po and the Apennines, between Bologna and Milan. It has many fine churches and old palaces. Piacenza Cathedral was built in 1122 and is a good example of northern Italian Romanesque architecture.

Parmigiano Reggiano cheese is one of many food products from Emilia-Romagna
Parmigiano Reggiano cheese is one of many
food products from Emilia-Romagna
Travel tip: 

The Emilia-Romagna region is widely regarded as one of the food capitals of  Europe. Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, balsamic vinegar from Modena and Prosciutto di Parma cured ham all originated in Emilia-Romagna, while ragù bolognese meat sauce originates in the region capital of Bologna, although it would be served with tagliatelle rather than spaghetti in Italy. The stuffed pasta dish tortellini in brodo - cushions of pasta filled with mortadella, prosciutto and pork loin served in a clear chicken broth - is another local speciality.  Historically, it was the cities of Emilia - Piacenza, Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena and Ferrara - whose cuisines were dominated by pork and pork products, although the whole region is renowned as a meat-eater’s paradise. 

Also on this day:

1885: The birth of tenor Giovanni Martinelli

1946: The birth of singer Roberto Loreti

1965: The birth of actress Valeria Golino

1967: The birth of conductor Salvatore Di Vittorio

1968: Soave wine awarded DOC status


16 April 2019

Felice Pedroni - prospector

Italian’s discovery sparked Fairbanks Gold Rush

Felice Pedroni, a photograph taken in Alaska  in the early 20th century
Felice Pedroni, a photograph taken in Alaska
in the early 20th century
The gold prospector known as Felix Pedro was born Felice Pedroni on this day in 1858 in the village of Trignano, near the small Apennine town of Fanano in Emilia-Romagna.

In July 1902, on or around the 22nd, Pedroni discovered gold in the Tanana Hills northeast of the fledgling town of Fairbanks, Alaska in a small, then unnamed stream (later to be called Pedro Creek).

Some claim that Pedroni was the prospector who, on his return to Fairbanks from his prospecting mission, uttered the famous words "There's gold in them there hills", although there are other accounts of where the phrase originated.

What does not seem to be disputed is that Pedroni’s discovery triggered what became known as the Fairbanks Gold Rush as more than 1,000 other gold diggers flooded the area.

Brought up in a family of subsistence farmers in Trignano, Pedroni was the youngest of six brothers. He left Italy in 1881 after the death of his father. He moved first to France, then took the bold decision to board a steamship to America.

After disembarking in New York City, where he was registered as Felix Pedro, he found work as a labourer but, having heard about the gold in Alaska and was determined to get there. As soon as he had saved enough money, Pedroni moved on, first to Ohio, then Washington State, British Columbia and Yukon, each time taking a job and biding his time until he could afford to move on. He became an American citizen in 1888.

Fairbanks quickly developed as a city with the wealth  generated by the gold rush sparked by Pedroni's find
Fairbanks quickly developed as a city with the wealth
generated by the gold rush sparked by Pedroni's find
Once in Alaska, Pedroni panned for gold in the Fortymile, the Piledriver Slough and various other waterways, including the 'Lost Creek' in which Pedroni and his partner, Tom Gilmore, claimed to have found a sizable amount of gold in 1898, but were forced to abandon due to lack of food.
Despite marking the spot and searching for it for the next three years, they were unable to find it again.

It was while trying to locate the creek that they were drawn to the camp that would become Fairbanks after seeing plumes of smoke from a steamboat. They dropped down from the hills above the settlement, stocked up with supplies and returned to their search.

This time they did find gold, in the Tanana Hills, northeast of Fairbanks.

Pedroni died in July, 1910 at age 52 at St. Joseph's Hospital in Fairbanks - which by then had grown rapidly to be the largest city in Alaska - reportedly of a heart attack.

This was later disputed by business partner Vincenzo Gambiani, who suspected Pedroni's Irish wife, Mary Ellen Doran, of poisoning him.

The inscription on Felice Pedroni's simple grave in Fanano, the town near his birthplace in Emilia-Romagna
The inscription on Felice Pedroni's simple grave in Fanano,
the town near his birthplace in Emilia-Romagna
Pedroni had intended to marry an Italian girl and, in fact, returned to Italy in 1906 a wealthy man, in search of a bride. He thought he had found one in Egle Zanetti, a young teacher from Lizzano in Belvedere with whom he fell in love. She turned down his proposal, however, and returned to Alaska, heartbroken.

By contrast, Mary Doran was said to be a saloon girl of loose morals. Gambiani believed she killed Pedroni so that she might inherit his fortune.

Pedroni’s body was initially shipped to Colma, near San Francisco, to be buried, which is where it remained until October, 1972, when it was found, exhumed, and moved to Italy to be re-interred in Fanano. First, however, some hair samples were tested, the results of which reportedly supported the theory that Pedroni had been murdered.

Today, Pedroni is remembered in Alaska as one of the founding fathers of Fairbanks. In 1947, the Felice Pedroni Monument was erected on the Steese Highway north of Fairbanks, near what is still known as Pedro Creek. The annual Fairbanks Golden Days celebration always begins with a rededication of the monument.

The countryside of the Valle di Ospitale, close to Fanano in the Frignano regional park in Emilia-Romagna
The countryside of the Valle di Ospitale, close to Fanano
in the Frignano regional park in Emilia-Romagna
Travel tip:

Fanano is a town of some 2,500 inhabitants within the Regional Park of the Modenese High Apennines, otherwise known as the Frignano regional park, a rich and colourful natural area of lakes and mountains maintained for the growth and preservation of rare species, animals and plants. The park covers 15 thousand hectares, rising to a height of 2,165 metres (7,100 feet) at the summit of Monte Cimone. Among the several rare species to be found in the park are Alpine Marmots and Apennine Wolves. The area is popular for mountain biking, trekking and orienteering, and snow tracking in the winter. Fanano itself is close to the lakes of Scaffaiolo and Pratignano and the Passo della Croce Arcana, an alpine pass at 1,669m (5,475ft) between outlying areas of Fanano and Cutigliano.

The Ducal Palace in Modena, which dates back to 1635, was once the most sumptuous palace in Europe
The Ducal Palace in Modena, which dates back to 1635, was
once the most sumptuous palace in Europe
Travel tip:

Fanano is just over 60km (37 miles) from the city of Modena, which is well known for a variety of reasons, as a centre of the car industry - Ferrari, De Tomaso, Lamborghini, Pagani and Maserati all have connections with the city - the home of balsamic vinegar, and the birthplace of the great tenor, Luciano Pavarotti. One of the main sights in Modena is the huge, baroque Ducal Palace, which was begun by Francesco I d’Este, Duke of Modena, on the site of a former castle in 1635. His architect, Luigi Bartolomeo Avanzini, created a home for him that few European princes could match at the time. The palace is now home to the Italian national military academy. In the Galleria Estense, on the upper floor of the Palazzo dei Musei in Modena, there is a  one-metre high bust of Francesco by Gian Lorenzo Bernini.

More reading:

The Italian origins of San Francisco's Ghirardelli Chocolate Company

How Gaetano Merola founded the San Francisco Opera

Carlo Camillo di Rudio - the Italian aristocrat who fought in the Battle of Little Bighorn

Also on this day:

1118: The death of Adelaide del Vasto, Countess of Sicily

1839: The birth of politician Antonio Di Rudini, twice Italy's prime minister

1881: The birth of magazine artist Fortunino Matania


12 July 2018

Agostino Codazzi - soldier and map-maker

Italian who mapped first route for Panama Canal

Agostino Codazzi became a national hero in Venezuela after fighting for Napoleon
Agostino Codazzi became a national hero
in Venezuela after fighting for Napoleon
Agostino Codazzi, a soldier, scientist, geographer and cartographer who became a national hero in Venezuela and plotted the route for the Panama Canal on behalf of the British government, was born on this day in 1793 in the town of Lugo in Emilia-Romagna.

When the canal was eventually built by United States engineers, they followed the precise route that Codazzi had recommended, although the Italian has not been credited in the history of the project.

Known in Latin America as Agustín Codazzi, he was born Giovanni Battista Agostino Codazzi.

As a young man, he was excited about the French Revolution and the idea of the ruling classes being overthrown by the people in pursuit of a more equitable society.  After attending the Scuola di Artiglieria military academy in Pavia, he joined Napoleon’s army and served with them until the Napoleonic empire collapsed in 1815.

It was then that he decided to travel further afield, finally settling in Venezuela, where he offered his military knowledge to another revolutionary, Simón Bolívar - known as El Libertador - who played a leading role in the establishment of Venezuela, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Panama as sovereign states, independent of Spanish rule.

Codazzi produced extensive and detailed maps of Venezuela
Codazzi produced extensive and detailed maps of Venezuela
Apart from military duties, in which he was elevated to the rank of colonel, he gave Venezuela the benefit of his expertise in geography and cartography, mapping the the borders between Venezuela, Colombia and Ecuador.

His creation of an Atlas of Venezuela led to him being awarded the Legion of Honor by the King of France in 1842, on behalf of the French Academy of Science.

Venezuela, on whose behalf he quelled many revolts during the establishment of the republic, honoured him with citizenship, and the president, José Antonio Páez, made him Governor of Barinas, a region of southwestern Venezuela.

The monument to Codazzi in Colonia Tovar
The monument to Codazzi
in Colonia Tovar
When a military insurrection led to the fall of Páez, Codazzi fled to Colombia, where he continued his geographic and mapping activity and took on military duties for the Colombian government.  In was in 1852, commissioned by the British government, that he studied the geography of Panama and outlined the route he felt would be most suitable for a canal through the territory.

Codazzi died of malaria in February 1859 in the small town of Espíritu Santo in the Colombian mountains, which was subsequently renamed Aldea Codazzi.

Venezuela honored the memory of Agustín Codazzi by placing his remains inside the National Pantheon of Venezuela in 1942, which is reserved for those considered national heroes.

He is also honoured with a monument in Colonia Tovar, a small German settlement in the Venezuelan central mountains that he helped establish and which still exists today.

The Este Castle in Lugo di Romagna
The Este Castle in Lugo di Romagna
Travel tip:

Lugo di Romagna is a town of 32,000 people about 30km (19 miles) west of Ravenna and 18km (8 miles) north of Faenza in Emilia-Romagna. It was overrun by Napoleonic forces while Codazzi was a child. Its most famous monument, the Rocca Estense (Este Castle), was partially rebuilt during the French occupation. The interior houses portraits of famous lughesi and a lunette attributed to Mino da Fiesole. Also of note is the 19th century covered market hall known as Il Paviglione and the restored 18th century Teatro Rossini. Apart from Codazzi, famous lughesi include the First World War fighter pilot Francesco Baracca.

The Duomo and Baptistery in Parma, one of several great medieval cities in Emilia-Romagna
The Duomo and Baptistery in Parma, one of several great
medieval cities in Emilia-Romagna
Travel tip:

The Emilia-Romagna region in northern Italy, which borders Apennine mountains to the south and the Po river in the north, has something for everyone, from its wealth of medieval cities, such as Parma, Modena, Reggio Emilia, Ferrara and Ravenna, to lively seaside resorts such as Rimini, Riccione and Cattolica. The capital, Bologna, is a vibrant city with an 11th-century university, and arched porticoes lining the streets and squares of its medieval centre. The area is famed for its gastronomy, producing many of Italy’s most famous foods, such as grana parmigiano cheese, balsamic vinegar and prosciutto di parma.

More reading:

The first comprehensive map of Italy

When Napoleon became King of Italy

The story of Lugo's famed flying ace Francesco Baracca

Also on this day:

1664: The death of Stefano della Bella, sketch-maker to the Medici

1884: The birth of tragic artist Amadeo Modigliani


10 June 2018

Carlo Ancelotti - football manager

Four-times winner of the Champions League

Carlo Ancelotti in the Milan colours in which he twice won European football's top prize as both a player and a manager
Carlo Ancelotti in the Milan colours in which he twice won
European football's top prize as both a player and a manager
Carlo Ancelotti, a former top-level player who has become one of football’s most accomplished managers, was born on this day in 1959 in Reggiolo, a small town in Emilia-Romagna.

With Real Madrid's defeat of Liverpool in the 2022 final, he became the only manager to have won the UEFA Champions League four times - twice with AC Milan and twice with Real Madrid. He is also the only coach to have managed teams in five finals.

Ancelotti, who has managed title-winning teams in four countries, is also one of only seven to have won the European Cup or Champions League as a player and gone on to do so as a manager too.

As a boy, Ancelotti often helped his father, Giuseppe, who made and sold cheese for a living, in the fields on the family farm, which is where he claims he acquired his appreciation of hard work.

But despite the cheeses of Emilia-Romagna having international renown, especially the famous Parmigiana-Reggiano, he saw how his father struggled to make enough money to feed his family and vowed to make more of his own life.

Ancelotti is one of the most accomplished coaches in world football
Ancelotti is one of the most accomplished
coaches in world football
His talent for football, allied to that work ethic, enabled him to fulfil that promise.

After playing for his local youth team in Reggiolo, Ancelotti was snapped up as a teenager by Parma, making his debut in Serie C - the third tier in Italian football - in the 1976–77 season, at the age of 18. His two goals in the decisive play-off earned the gialloblu promotion to Serie B the following year.

He joined Roma in 1979, staying in the capital for eight trophy-laden seasons, winning the Coppa Italia four times and his first Serie A title in 1983, under the great Swedish coach Nils Liedholm.

Then came six seasons with Arrigo Sacchi’s magnificent AC Milan team, which won the Scudetto - the Serie A title - in 1988, and the European Cup in both 1989 and 1990. He won his third Scudetto when Fabio Capello replaced Sacchi as manager.

An efficient and assiduous midfield player, he could create goals and score them, which earned him a place in the Italian national team, although injuries restricted him to 26 senior caps and caused him to miss the 1982 and 1986 World Cups as well as the Olympics in Seoul in 1988.  He did win a bronze medal as part of the Azzurri squad at the 1990 World Cup on home soil.

As a mentor to several future top-class players, including Giuseppe Giannini, Demetrio Albertini and Andrea Pirlo, Ancelotti displayed burgeoning man-management skills even while still a player.

Ancelotti with the Champions League trophy after winning it for the third time with Real Madrid in 2014
Ancelotti with the Champions League trophy after winning
it for the third time with Real Madrid in 2014
Persistent knee injuries forced him to quit at the age of 33. He moved immediately into coaching with the Italian Football Federation at the national training headquarters at Coverciano, near Florence, where he rose to be assistant to his former Milan manager Arrigo Sacchi on the Azzurri coaching staff as Italy reached the final of the 1994 World Cup.

Ancelotti stepped on to the club management ladder in familiar territory with Reggiana in Serie B in 1995. He had to wait seven years for his first major trophy, but claimed the biggest prize first as AC Milan, his fourth club after Reggiana, Parma and Juventus, won the 2002-03 Champions League final, defeating Juventus in the final on penalties.

Now major trophies came thick and fast: a Serie A title with Milan in 2004 and a second Champions League in 2007, when victory over Liverpool in the final in Athens made up for the catastrophe of losing the 2005 final to the same opponents in Istanbul after being 3-0 up at half-time.

The Stadio San Paolo in Naples, where Ancelotti takes up his next management position in July
The Stadio San Paolo in Naples, where Ancelotti takes
up his next management position in July
Moving to England, he led Chelsea to a Premier League-FA Cup double in 2009-10, won the French Ligue 1 title with Paris St Germain in 2013, followed by a third Champions League with Spanish giants Real Madrid in 2014.

After taking some time off for a back operation, Ancelotti resurfaced at Bayern Munich, where he succeeded Pep Guardiola and led the German giants to their fifth consecutive Bundesliga title. But lack of success in the Champions League led to his dismissal in September 2017.

He later had spells with Napoli back in Italy and Everton in England, before returning to Real Madrid in 2021.

Having been with his first wife, Luisa, for 25 years before they divorced in 2008, Ancelotti is now married to the Canadian businesswoman Barrena McClay, whom he met while they were both working in London. He has two children, Katia and Davide, from his first marriage. Davide was on his father’s coaching staff at Bayern Munich.

(Updated on 09-06-22)

The Rocca di Reggiolo in Ancelotti's home town
The Rocca di Reggiolo in Ancelotti's home town
Travel tip:

Ancelotti’s home town of Reggiolo is close to the border of Emilia-Romagna and Veneto, about 32km (20 miles) north of Reggio Emilia in the Padana plain. It is the same distance from Mantua in the Veneto and was the frequent target of attacks between the 12th and 14th centuries, when Mantua and Reggio disputed possession. This led to the construction of the impressive walled castle that remains the town’s main feature.

Piazza San Prospero in Reggio Emilia often hosts a market
Piazza San Prospero in Reggio Emilia often hosts a market
Travel tip:

Although the city of Reggio Emilia is often described as the home of Italy's world famous hard cheese, Parmigiano-Reggiano - known in English as Parmesan - is thought to have originated in the commune of Bibbiano, in the Reggio Emilia province, about 15km (9 miles) to the southeast.  The province is also believed to have given Italy its tricolore national flag, with evidence that a short-lived 18th century republic, the Repubblica Cispadana, had a flag of red, white and green.  The city lacks the cultural wealth of neighbouring Parma and is consequently less visited but it has an attractive historic centre with a number of notable buildings, including the Basilica della Ghiara and the 10th century Basilica di San Prospero, which overlooks the elegant Piazza of the same name.

More reading:

How Arrigo Sacchi started a tactical and technical revolution in Italian football

The genius of Andrea Pirlo

Coaching veteran Fabio Capello has won Serie A five times

Also on this day:

1918: The death of writer and composer Arrigo Boito

1940: Italy enters the Second World War


11 April 2018

Battle of Ravenna

Thousands die in pointless conflict of the Italian Wars

The chaos of the Battle of Ravenna depicted in a  15th century woodcut
The chaos of the Battle of Ravenna depicted in a
15th century woodcut
French forces inflicted appalling casualties upon a largely Spanish Holy League army on this day in 1512 at Molinaccio just outside Ravenna.

The French, under the command of their brilliant 21-year-old leader Gaston de Foix, had taken Brescia in Lombardy by storm in February and then marched on Ravenna intending to provoke the papal Holy League army into battle. They also had an Italian contingent of soldiers with them under the command of Alfonso I d’Este, Duke of Ferrara.

Ramon de Cardona, Spanish viceroy of Naples and commander of the Holy League forces, led an army through the papal states of the Romagna to relieve Ravenna, passing Forlì and advancing north along the Ronco River.

Both sides had learned the new rules of warfare in the gunpowder age and were reluctant to assault well defended earthworks with cavalry or infantry.

They indulged in an artillery duel and had to manoeuvre unwieldy cannons to find effective lines of fire.

But after two hours they changed tactics and both cavalry and infantry threw themselves forward in assaults. The casualties were heavy as horsemen clashed in swirling melees and infantry swarmed over ramparts and ditches.

Alfonso I d'Este, who led a contingent of  Italian soldiers in the battle
Alfonso I d'Este, who led a contingent of
Italian soldiers in the battle
The issue was decided when the French cavalry, having driven the opposing horsemen from the field, returned to attack the Spanish infantry.

While many of his soldiers were slaughtered, Cardona was taken prisoner.

Then, when the battle was effectively over, the French commander De Foix was killed during a pointless skirmish with the retreating Spanish infantry.

It was estimated that the French lost 4,500 men and the Holy League 9,000 in this battle, part of the War of the League of Cambrai, which took place during the long period of the Italian Wars.

The victory failed to help the French secure northern Italy and they were forced to withdraw from the region entirely by August of the same year.

Travel tip:

The Romagna, controlled by the Pope in the 16th century, was a region of Italy that approximately corresponds to the south eastern part of the present day region of Emilia-Romagna. It included the cities of Cesena, Faenza, Forlì, Imola, Ravenna and Rimini, where the Romagnola dialect is still spoken today.

The Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna
The Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna
Travel tip:

Ravenna, in Emilia-Romagna, was the capital city of the western Roman empire in the fifth century. It is known for its well preserved late Roman and Byzantine architecture and has eight UNESCO world heritage sites. The Basilica of San Vitale is one of the most important examples of early Christian Byzantine art and architecture in Europe.

More reading:

How the Treaty of Lodi brought peace to northern Italy

Ravenna, the Ostrogoths and the Sack of Rome

The murder of papal military leader Girolamo Riario


24 December 2017

Lazzaro Ponticelli – war veteran

Wounded soldier survived to set records for longevity

Lazzaro Ponticelli as a young soldier in the First World War
Lazzaro Ponticelli as a young
soldier in the First World War
Lazzaro Ponticelli, who became the oldest living man of Italian birth and the oldest man living in France, was born on this day in 1897 in a frazione of Bettola in Emilia-Romagna.

Before his death at the age of 110 years and 79 days, Ponticelli was the last surviving officially recognised veteran of the First World War from France and the last infantry man from its trenches to die.

He had moved to France at the age of eight to join his family who had gone there to find work. At the age of 16, he lied about his age to join the French army in 1914.

Ponticelli was transferred against his will to the Italian army when Italy entered the war the following year. He enlisted in the 3rd Alpini regiment and saw service against the Austro-Hungarian army at Mount Pal Piccolo on the Italian border with Austria.

At one stage he was wounded by a shell but continued firing his machine gun although blood was running into his eyes.

He spoke of a period when fighting ceased for three weeks and the two armies swapped loaves of bread for tobacco and took photographs of each other, as many of them could speak each other's language.

The Ponticelli Brothers' headquarters in a Paris suburb
The Ponticelli Brothers' headquarters in a Paris suburb
After the war Ponticelli founded a piping and metal work company with his brothers. As of 2017, Ponticelli Brothers was still in business.

They produced supplies for the war effort during the First World War and Ponticelli also worked with the French Resistance against the Nazis. He managed the company until his retirement in 1960.

Every Armistice Day until 2007 Ponticelli attended ceremonies honouring deceased veterans. But in his later years he also criticised war.

He said he felt unworthy of the state funeral the French Government offered him, but eventually accepted it. He asked for the occasion to focus on the many ordinary soldiers who died on the battlefield.

Ponticelli pictured in 2007, aged 109
Ponticelli pictured in
2007, aged 109
He died in France on 12 March 2008 at the age of 110 years and 79 days, at the home he shared with his daughter in Kremlin-Bicetre, a suburb of Paris.

French president Nicolas Sarkozy honoured Ponticelli’s wish and dedicated a plaque to the soldiers who had been killed in battle during the super centurion’s funeral.

On the first Armistice Day after his death, the street where he had lived was renamed Rue de Verdun-Lazare-Ponticelli in his honour.

Travel tip:

Lazzaro Ponticelli was born in Cordani, a frazione - the Italian equivalent of a ward or parishof Bettola in the province of Piacenza in Emilia-Romagna. It is claimed that the explorer Christopher Columbus was born in the nearby frazione of Pradello and the main square of Bettola is named Piazza Colombo.

Remains still exist of military positions built on Mount Pal Piccolo during the First World War
Remains still exist of military positions built on
Mount Pal Piccolo during the First World War
Travel tip:

During the First World War, Lazzaro Ponticelli fought in a series of furious battles against the Austro-Hungarian army at Mount Pal Piccolo in the region of Udine. An open air museum has been created on Mount Pal Piccolo where you can visit Italian and Austro-Hungarian military installations. For more information visit

19 December 2017

Alberto Tomba – Italy’s greatest skier

Playboy showman who won three Olympic golds

Alberto Tomba (right) pictured with the  legendary Austrian skier Franz Klammer
Alberto Tomba (right) pictured with the
legendary Austrian skier Franz Klammer 
Italy’s greatest alpine ski racer, Alberto Tomba, was born on this day in 1966 in San Lazzaro di Savena, a town in Emilia-Romagna that now forms part of the metropolitan city of Bologna.

Tomba – popularly known as ‘Tomba la Bomba’ – won three Olympic gold medals, two World Championships and won no fewer than nine titles in thirteen World Cup seasons, between 1986 and 1998.

The only other Italian Alpine skiers with comparable records are Gustav Thoni, who won two Olympic golds and four World Championships in the 1970s, and Deborah Compagnoni, who won three golds at both the Olympics and the World Championships between 1992 and 1998.

Thoni would later be a member of Tomba’s coaching team.

Tomba had showmanship to match his talent on the slopes. Always eager to seek out the most chic nightclubs wherever he was competing, he would drive around the centre of Bologna in an open-topped Ferrari, flaunting both his wealth and his fame.

At his peak, he would arrive with his entourage in the exclusive ski resort at Aspen, Colorado to hold open house at his rented chalet on Buttermilk Mountain, with the rich and famous desperate to be invited.

At his peak, Tomba cultivated a glamorous image
At his peak, Tomba cultivated
a glamorous image
Never short of confidence when it came to the opposite sex, Tomba once famously asked the German skater Katarina Witt for a date just as she was coming off the ice as an Olympic champion at the Winter Games in Calgary in 1988 and partied the night away with the winner of a Miss Italia competition in which he was one of the judges.

He never let his appetite for a full social life take away his competitive edge, however.  Much as he was captivated with the glamorous Witt, he took the gold medals in both the slalom and the giant slalom at the same Games.

Tomba’s love for skiing came from his father, Franco, a successful businessman in the textiles industry. Bologna is a long way from the Alps, the background from which most skiing champions emerge, but Monte Cimone, the highest peak in the Apennines, was not too far away and Franco thought nothing of driving from their home to the slopes at Sestola, even though it could take two and half hours each way.

He would often take Alberto and his older brother Marco along with him and Alberto was a proficient skier from the age of three and competing by the time he was seven.  He took part in the Junior World Championships at the age of 17 and made his World Cup debut in 1985, three days before his 19th birthday.

Early in 1987 he won his first medal – bronze in the giant slalom – at the World Championships in Crans-Montana, Switzerland, and in November of the same year scored the first of his 50 World Cup race wins, in the slalom, and two days later the second, defeating his idol, Ingemar Stenmark, in the giant slalom.

Tomba's double Olympic gold at the 1988 Winter Games was commemorated on a postage stamp in Paraguay
Tomba's double Olympic gold at the 1988 Winter Games
was commemorated on a postage stamp in Paraguay
After a relatively lean couple of years, he returned to form to win his second World Championship giant slalom title in 1991 and in 1992 was almost unstoppable, clocking up nine World Cup wins to take the slalom and giant slalom titles, and winning his third Olympic gold, in the slalom, at the Albertville Games in France.

He was overall World Cup champion for the only time in his career in 1995, amassing 11 individual race wins, and in 1996 won double World Championship gold, taking the slalom and the giant slalom at Sierra Nevada in Spain.

Tomba retired at the end of the 1998 season, but not before notching the last of his 50 World Cup race wins at in the season finale at Crans-Montana, in doing so becoming the only male alpine skier to have won at least one World Cup race per year for 11 consecutive seasons.

In part, it was the constant attention that came with fame that caused him to quit at the age of 31.  On one occasion, his temper got the better of him and he threw his winner’s trophy at a photographer he had spotted from the podium, who he knew was responsible for picture of him naked in a sauna.

He had also broken up with his girlfriend, former Miss Italy Martina Colombari, because she found photographers and journalists were too intrusive.  He admitted too that, having won everything in his disciplines, the urge to compete was not quite as sharp as before.

Nowadays, Tomba lives his life at a slower pace, insisting he prefers a stimulating conversation over dinner and to drink wine with friends rather than to stay out until the early hours. He has never married and says any future bride would have to cook tagliatelle Bolognese as well as his mother.

He still skis, but not in places such as Sestriere in Italy, where he would still be recognised even in goggles and with a ski hat pulled down over his head.  Instead, he heads for Idaho or New Mexico.

At other times, he devotes his energy to the Laureus World Sports Academy and Laureus Sport for Good Foundation, working to spread the positive influence of sport and to help young people learn respect, discipline and loyalty, to stay away from drugs, crime and hate and, through sport, to experience how people from different countries, of different colour or social class can be equals.

Unusual rock formations abound in the chalky landscape around San Lazzaro di Savena
Unusual rock formations abound in the chalky landscape
around San Lazzaro di Savena
Travel tip:

The town of San Lazzaro di Savena, where Tomba grew up – specifically in the Castel de Britti area – has grown from the one-time site of a leprosy isolation unit to a thriving municipal area of greater Bologna, its population having risen to more than 32,000 through industrial development and its expansion as a housing area for Bologna.  Situated only 6km (3.6 miles) from the centre of Bologna along the Via Appia, it is not far from the popular caving area of the Parco deo Gessi Bolognesi e Calanchi dell’Abbadessa.

A typically wintry scene in Sestriere
A typically wintry scene in Sestriere
Travel tip:

Sestriere, a village completely surrounded by mountains on the pass that links Val Chisone and Val Susa to the west of Turin and close to the French border, was developed as a ski resort in 1930s by Giovanni Agnelli, the FIAT founder. It has a number of hotels and ski lodges, including two landmark tower-block hotels that were the first buildings of the Agnelli development. The ski slopes, of which there are 146 accessible from the village, were one of the main venues in the 2006 Winter Olympics, have twice hosted the skiing World Championships and regular stage World Cup events.  In the winter months, the population of the area soars from less than 1,000 to more than 20,000.

11 December 2017

Gianni Morandi – actor and pop singer

Veteran entertainer has sold 50 million records 

Gianni Morandi has been in the music  business for 55 years
Gianni Morandi has been in the music
business for 55 years
The singer Gianni Morandi, a Sanremo Festival winner and Eurovision Song Contest contestant who has sold more than 50 million records and had a simultaneous career as a successful TV and film actor, was born on this day in 1944 in a mountain village in Emilia-Romagna.

Morandi, whose longevity has brought comparisons with the British singer Sir Cliff Richard, is still performing today at the age of 73. In fact, he had an unlikely hit this year when he teamed up with 23-year-old rapper and web star Fabio Rovazzi.

Morandi, whose pop-ballad style still has a big following, showed his versatility and willingness to indulge in self-mocking humour this year by co-starring with Rovazzi in an electro-pop track and video called Volare that went to No 1 on iTunes Italy and attracted 2.5 million views in less than 24 hours.

He has also appeared in his 11th TV drama series, having a few months earlier seen the release of his 18th movie.

His birthday is being marked today with a late-evening special on Italy’s Canale 5 television station called Amore d’Autore, which celebrates the public and private life of one of Italy’s best-loved entertainers.

Morandi on stage in 2016: He still performs regularly
Morandi on stage in 2016: He still
performs regularly
Morandi was born in Monghidoro, now a village of almost 4,000 people that sits on a ridge in the Tuscan-Emilian Apennines some 840m (2,750ft) above sea level, about 41km (25 miles) south of Bologna.

As a young man he sold drinks and confectionery at his local cinema and worked as an assistant in the workshop of his father, Renato, a cobbler.  Renato was an active member of the Italian Communist Party and Morandi recalls that part of his daily routine was to read aloud passages from Karl Marx’s Das Kapital and reports from the party newspaper L’Unità.

But they were also a family who sang to entertain themselves and it was when his father arranged for him to sing at family festivals sponsored by L’Unità that Morandi enjoyed his first commercial success, collecting a princely 1,000 lire as his appearance fee.

In 1958, his rendition of Domenico Modugno’s Sanremo winner Nel blu dipinto di blu – more commonly known as Volare – earned him a place at a singing school in Bologna and after winning good reviews at a number of festivals he released his first single in 1962, with backing from Ennio Morricone’s orchestra.

With a recording contract from RCA, he had a juke-box hit and his first chart success later in the same year before releasing his first album in 1963. 

Throughout the 60s, he was a star of the Italian pop scene. His 1964 single In ginocchio da te (Kneeling before you) was at the top of the Italian singles charts for 17 weeks, selling more than one million copies, and was followed by several more number one successes.

Morandi performing at the Eurovision Song Contest in Amsterdam in 1970
Morandi performing at the Eurovision Song
Contest in Amsterdam in 1970
He courted controversy while at the early peak of his fame by recording a protest song against the Vietnam War which the television networks refused to promote yet which still reached number one in the chart.

Ironically, his career was then interrupted by compulsory national service.

When he returned to civilian life, he was chosen to participate for Italy in the 1970 Eurovision Song Contest in Amsterdam, in which he finished eighth behind the young Irish singer Dana’s entry All Kinds of Everything, but thereafter his career went into a decline.

He enjoyed a revival in the 1980s, started by his success as an actor in TV dramas, and by 1987, when he won the Sanremo Festival with Si può dare di più, he was again popular and an album recorded with his friend, the singer-songwriter Lucio Dalla, was very well received.

Since then, Morandi has become something of an icon in the entertainment world in Italy. His concert tours, often marathon affairs lasting more than a year and packing in hundreds of dates, would sell out months in advance, and he has fronted many TV shows.

In 2013, his two Gianni Morandi – Live concerts at the Arena di Verona were broadcast live on Canale 5 with an average audience of 6 million.  Cher and Ennio Morricone were among the artists who made guest appearances.

Morandi (right) in one of his earliest TV dramas, in 1966
Morandi (right) in one of his earliest TV dramas, in 1966
Morandi has been married twice – for the first time, from 1966 to 1979, to Laura Efrikian, the daughter of an Armenian conductor, with whom he had three children: Serena (1967), who sadly died after only a few hours, Marianna (1969) and Marco (1974). He has five grandchildren.

In November, 2004 he married Anna Dan, his partner of 10 years and the mother of his son, Pietro, and the couple moved into a renovated house in the regional park of Gessi Bolognesi and Calanchi dell'Abbadessa.

Morandi owes his enduring physical fitness to a passion for marathon running. He has raced in 10 marathons, including New York (twice), Berlin, London, Paris, Milan and Bologna.

Away from the entertainment business, he is a lifelong fan of Bologna Football Club, which he helped saved from bankruptcy in 2010 before being appointed honorary president later in the same year, a position he held until the club was sold to an American consortium in 2014.

The Chiostro della Cisterna in Monghidoro
The Chiostro della Cisterna in Monghidoro
Travel tip:

Occupying a ridge between two river valleys, Monghidoro has historically been a place of strategic importance going back to the time of the Ostrogoths and Lombards in the eighth and ninth centuries and remained so in the Second World War, when it was liberated from the Germans by Allied forces in October 1944. Because of the challenging nature of nearby terrain, it was also a stopping-off place for travellers seeking a passage between the Po Valley and central Italy. Notable sights include the Chiostro della Cisterna, an elegant cloister in the centre of the village that is all that remains of a 16th century Olivetan monastery. The cultural heart of the village, in the summer it hosts concerts, plays and exhibitions.  The elegant Piazza Armaciotto De Ramazzotti has a romantic atmosphere created by lanterns, which take the place of street lights.

Typical scenery in the Gessi Bolognesi and Calanchi dell'Abbadessa regional park near Bologna
Typical scenery in the Gessi Bolognesi and Calanchi
dell'Abbadessa regional park near Bologna
Travel tip:

The Gessi Bolognesi and Calanchi dell'Abbadessa regional park, situated just outside the city of Bologna to the southeast, is an area of striking natural beauty characterised by a series of gypsum outcrops creating a landscape of cliffs, caves, rocky hillsides, enclosed basins, chalky ridges and hidden valleys interspersed with rich greenery.  The area has been subjected to intensive mining over the centuries but all activity ceased in the 1970s and the area is now popular with walkers and caving enthusiasts.

29 April 2017

Liberation of Fornovo di Taro

How Brazilian soldiers hastened Nazi capitulation

The moment at which General Otto Fretter-Pico (second left) formally surrendered to Brazilian forces in Fornovo di Taro
The moment at which General Otto Fretter-Pico (second left)
formally surrendered to Brazilian forces in Fornovo di Taro
The town of Fornovo di Taro in Emilia-Romagna acquired a significant place in Italian military history for a second time on this day in 1945 when it was liberated from Nazi occupation by soldiers from the Brazilian Expeditionary Force fighting with the Allies.

Under the command of General João Baptista Mascarenhas de Morais, the Brazilians marched into Fornovo, which is situated about 13km (8 miles) south-west of Parma on the east bank of the Taro river, at the conclusion of the four-day Battle of Collecchio.

It was in Fornovo that the 148th Infantry Division of the German army under the leadership of General Otto Fretter-Pico offered their surrender, along with soldiers from the 90th Panzergrenadier Division and the 1st Bersaglieri and 4th Mountain Divisions of the Fascist National Republican Army.

In total, 14,779 German and Italian troops laid down their arms after Fretter-Pico concluded that, with the Brazilians surrounding the town, aided by two American tank divisions and one company of Italian partisans, there was no hope of escape.

Although the total capitulation of the German and Fascist armies in Italy was not officially announced until May 2 in Turin, the surrender in Fornovo effectively brought the war in the peninsula to an end.

Italian citizens hailed the Brazilians as heroes
Italian citizens hailed the Brazilians as heroes
It represented a successful conclusion to an eight-month campaign in Italy by the Brazilian Expeditionary Force, which numbered 25,700 army and air force personnel, representing the only independent South American country to send ground troops to fight overseas during the whole of the Second World War.

Brazil, traditionally isolationist, had initially remained neutral in the global conflict, although it allowed the United States to set up bases on Brazilian soil.  But, in 1942, Brazil’s decision to sever diplomatic relations with the Axis countries of Germany, Japan and Italy prompted Germany to send submarines to the south Atlantic to attack Brazilian merchant ships.

During the month of July 1942, 13 Brazilian ships were sunk, at a cost of more than 100 lives, mainly crew members.  The country’s leaders still refused to be drawn into the conflict but the attacks continued and in the space of just two days in August, a single German U-boat sank five ships, causing more than 600 deaths, many of them civilians travelling on passenger vessels.

Faced with rioting on the streets as German businesses in the capital Rio de Janeiro were attacked, Brazil’s president, Getúlio Vargas, had no option but declare war on Germany and its allies.

It took two years to convert Brazil’s obsolete army into a force that was anywhere near equipped to fight effectively in Europe but in July 1944 the first 5,000 Brazilian troops disembarked in Naples.  Others arrived later.

The tunic badge
Such had been the scepticism in Brazil about any of their countrymen ever seeing action, they acquired the nickname ‘the smoking snakes’ – so called because Brazilians would joke with one another, using an expression with a similar meaning to 'pigs might fly' in the English language, that it was more likely that ‘a snake would smoke a pipe’ than the BEF would go to the front and fight.  They wore a badge on their tunics depicting a smoking snake.

Yet between September 1944 and the German surrender they achieved success in 17 battles across the north of Italy. Deployed to replace the French and US troops that had been diverted to help in the Allied invasion of German-occupied France, they attracted praise in particular for the part they played in the battles for Monte Castello and Castelnuovo in the Northern Apennines, as well as in the Battle of Collecchio.

Although the Italian Front was not as important as the Eastern Front in bringing the Nazis to their knees, the hastening of the German defeat in the peninsula, coming at the same time as the Red Army captured Berlin and news spread of the death of Adolf Hitler, helped bring the Second World War to a quicker end than might otherwise have been the case. The Fascist leader Benito Mussolini had been executed by Italian partisans only 24 hours before Fornovo witnessed its historic moment.

Overall, the Brazilian Expeditionary Force suffered 443 losses over the eight months but against that took 20,573 Axis prisoners.

For Fornovo, the battle fought in the surrounding countryside prompted historians to recall that the town had witnessed a major military confrontation once before in its history as the site of the Battle of Fornovo, fought between the Italian Holy League and the French forces of Charles VIII at the start of the Italian Wars in July 1495.

Parma's baptistry
Parma's baptistry
Travel tip:

Fornovo and Collecchio are within a short distance of Parma, one of the most attractive cities of the Emilia-Romagna region. The home of prosciutto di parma, parmigiano reggiano and Sangiovese wine, it is a food-lover’s paradise but also a city with a rich cultural heritage, the home of composers Giuseppe Verdi and Niccolò Paganini, the conductor Arturo Toscanini, the film director Bernardo Bertolucci, the writer Giovanni Guareschi and a host of painters, headed by Francesco Mazzola, better known as Il Parmigiano.  The city has much fine architecture, too, including a striking Romanesque cathedral and neighbouring baptistry, several other churches and palaces and notable modern buildings such as the Niccolò Paganini Auditorium, designed by Renzo Piano.

Piazza San Prospero in Reggio Emilia
Piazza San Prospero in Reggio Emilia
Travel tip:

Reggio Emilia, the next city on from Parma along the route of the Via Emilia – the Roman road that linked Piacenza, south-east of Milan, with the Adriatic resort of Rimini – lacks the cultural wealth of Parma and tends to be given little attention as a result. Yet it is an attractive city, neat and well organised, retaining its historical centre, which has a hexagonal layout based on its old walls, but with a modern and forward-thinking attitude.  There are many fine restaurants, elegant squares and interesting palaces and churches, and its roll call of famous citizens ranges from the poet Ludovico Ariosto to the former prime minister Romano Prodi and the football coach Carlo Ancelotti.

More reading:

How Mussolini was captured and killed by Italian partisans

Annual celebration of Festa della Liberazione

The moment Italy entered the Second World War

Also on this day:

1675: The birth of painter Giovanni Antonio Pellegrini

1987: The birth of tennis champion Sara Errani