Showing posts with label Enrico Berlinguer. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Enrico Berlinguer. Show all posts

24 February 2019

Bettino Craxi - prime minister

The Socialist who broke the grip of the Christian Democrats

Bettino Craxi was the first socialist prime  minister of Italy in the modern era
Bettino Craxi was the first socialist prime
 minister of Italy in the modern era
Bettino Craxi, the politician who in 1983 became the first member of the Italian Socialist Party (PSI) to be appointed prime minister, was born on this day in 1934 in Milan. 

He was not the first socialist to hold the office - Ivanoe Bonomi had been prime minister for six months in 1920 on an Italian Reformist Socialist Party ticket and succeeded Marshal Pietro Badoglio as leader of the war-torn nation’s post-Mussolini government in 1944. However, Craxi broke the hold of the Christian Democrats, who had been in power continuously since the first postwar elections in 1946.

Craxi was a moderniser who moved his party away from traditional forms of socialism in a way that was replicated elsewhere in Europe, such as in Britain under the New Labour prime minister Tony Blair. Craxi replaced the party’s hammer-and-sickle symbol with a red carnation.

His reputation was ultimately wrecked by a corruption scandal, but during his tenure as prime minister, Italy became the fifth largest industrial nation and gained entry into the G7 Group.

His fiscal policies saw him clash with the powerful trade unions over the abolition of the wage-price escalator under which workers’ wages rose automatically in line with inflation, scoring a major victory when a referendum on the issue called by the Italian Communist Party went in his favour.  However, as a result of Craxi’s overall spending policies, Italy’s national debt overtook its gross domestic product.

Craxi with the US president Ronald Reagan, with whom he clashed over the hijacking of the Achille Lauro cruise ship
Craxi with the US president Ronald Reagan, with whom he
clashed over the hijacking of the Achille Lauro cruise ship
Craxi demonstrated his strength again in a dispute with the United States following the hijacking off the Egyptian coast of the Achille Lauro cruise ship by members of the Palestine Liberation Army in 1983, during which an American citizen, Leon Klinghoffer, was killed. President Ronald Reagan wanted the four perpetrators to be extradited to the US but Italy wished to preserve its good diplomatic relations with the Arab world and avoid becoming a terrorist target, so Craxi refused, insisting that the hijackers should come under Italian jurisdiction. His firmness earned him a standing ovation in the Italian Senate, even from his Communist opponents.

Craxi, who formed a new coalition in 1986 after his 1983 government collapsed, resigned in early 1987. In 1993, following the mani puliti investigations, multiple charges of political corruption against him forced Craxi to quit as party leader.

He did not deny that he had solicited funding for the Socialist Party illegally but claimed that all the political parties did the same and that the PSI were being targeted for political reasons. Craxi fled to exile in Tunisia later that year, just before being convicted, and never returned. He died there in 2000.

Craxi opposed the mooted 'historic compromise'  with Enrico Berlinguer's Communists
Craxi opposed the 'historic compromise' with
 the Communists of Enrico Berlinguer (above)
Craxi - who was christened Benedetto - owed his political beliefs to his father, Vittorio, an anti-Fascist lawyer from Sicily, who became vice-prefect for Milan and then prefect for Como and stood in the 1948 national elections for the Popular Democratic Front, a political alliance between Socialists and Communists. Bettino campaigned for his father and later joined the Italian Socialist Party at the age of 17.

After being elected a town councillor in Sant'Angelo Lodigiano - his mother’s birthplace - in 1956, he became a member of the PSI’s central committee in 1957, won a seat on the city council of Milan in 1960 and was elected to the Chamber of Deputies in 1968.

In 1970 he was appointed the party’s deputy secretary. He was a strong supporter of the centre-left coalition between the Christian Democrats of Aldo Moro and Amintore Fanfani, the PSI, then led by Pietro Nenni, the Social Democrats the Republicans.

He was elevated to general secretary in 1976 following a poor election performance by PSI candidates and set about uniting the party’s squabbling factions, committed it to moderate social and economic policies, and tried to dissociate it from the much larger Italian Communist Party.

Craxi always opposed the mooted 'historic compromise' favoured by Moro and the Communist leader, Enrico Berlinguer, on the basis that a political alliance between the Christian Democrats and the Communists would marginalise the Socialists, yet when Moro was kidnapped by the Red Brigades in 1978, amid demands for the release of so-called political prisoners, Craxi was the only political leader to declare himself open to a "humanitarian solution" that would allow Moro to be freed.

Under Craxi’s leadership the Socialists were members in five of Italy’s six coalition governments from 1980 to 1983 before the 1983 elections gave him the opportunity to form a coalition government with the Christian Democrats and several small, moderate parties.

His tenure as prime minister lasted three years and seven months, the third longest in the republican era. Silvio Berlusconi, with whom he enjoyed a close friendship despite their political differences, is the only prime minister to enjoy longer unbroken spells in office.

The Castello di Sant'Angelo Lodigiano is now a museum set up in honour of the Bolognini family
The Castello di Sant'Angelo Lodigiano is now a museum
set up in honour of the Bolognini family
Travel tip:

The town of Sant’Angelo Lodigiano, where Bettino Craxi served as a councillor in the 1950s, is situated about 40km (25 miles) southeast of Milan, close to the city of Lodi in Lombardy. It is best known for the castle that was built there in the 13th century, standing guard over the river Lambro in a strategically favourable position for the control of river traffic to Milan. The castle was turned into a summer residence by Regina della Scala, wife of Bernabò Visconti. In 1452, with the passage of the power of the Duchy of Milan from the Visconti to the Sforza, the fiefdom and the castle were donated, by Francesco Sforza, to Michele Matteo Bolognini, who received the title of Count. It remained the property of the Bolognini family and became known as the Castello Bolognini until 1933, when the widow of the last descendant - Count Gian Giacomo Morando Bolognini -  created the Fondazione Morando Bolognini for agricultural research and turned the castle into a museum.

Hotels in Sant'Angelo Lodigiano by

Lodi's beautiful main square, the Piazza della Vittoria. looking towards the 12th century cathedral
Lodi's beautiful main square, the Piazza della Vittoria.
looking towards the 12th century cathedral
Travel tip:

The city of Lodi sits on the right bank of the River Adda. The main square, Piazza della Vittoria, has been listed by the Touring Club of Italy as among the most beautiful squares in Italy with its porticoes on all four sides. Its cathedral, the Basilica Cattedrale della Vergine Assunta, was founded on August 3, 1158, the day on which Lodi was refounded after its destruction by Milanese troops in 1111. The façade, built in Romanesque style with the exception of the large Gothic entrance portico supported by small columns with lion sculptures at the base, was completed in 1284.

(Picture credits: Castle Sant’Angelo Lodigiano by Paperkat; Piazza della Vittoria, Lodi by Gabriele Zuffetti; via Wikmedia Commons)

21 November 2018

Giorgio Amendola - politician and partisan

Anti-Mussolini activist who sought to moderate Italian Communism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The ruins of the prison building on the island of Santo Stefano that Mussolini used to incarcerate his opponents
The ruins of the prison building on the island of Santo
Stefano that Mussolini used to incarcerate his opponents
Travel tip:

Santo Stefano is an island in the Tyrrhenian Sea off the west coast of Italy, part of the Pontine Islands.  The prison built by the Bourbons in 1797 remained in use until 1965. It was one of the prisons used extensively by the Fascists to imprison opponents of Benito Mussolini’s regime.  The future president of the republic, Sandro Pertini, was incarcerated there. These days, the island is uninhabited except for the tourists who visit each day.

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

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

More reading:

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

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

Antonio Gramsci - the Communist intellectual Mussolini could not gag

Also on this day:

1688: The birth of engraver Antonio Visentini

The Festival of Madonna della Salute in Venice

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


3 November 2018

Monica Vitti - actress

Star of Antonioni classics also excelled in comedy roles

Monica Vitti made her name playing enigmatic characters in Antonioni films
Monica Vitti made her name playing
enigmatic characters in Antonioni films
The actress Monica Vitti, who became famous as the star of several films directed by Michelangelo Antonioni during the early 1960s, was born on this day in 1931 in Rome.

Antonioni, with whom she had a romantic relationship that lasted a decade, cast her as his female lead in L'avventura (1960), La notte (1961), and L'eclisse (1962), three enigmatically moody films once described as a "trilogy on modernity and its discontents".

She also starred for him in his first colour film, Il deserto rosso (1964), which continued in a similar vein.  Her performance earned her a second of four Golden Grail awards. Vitti was also honoured with five David di Donatello awards as Best Actress from the Italian Film Academy.

After splitting with Antonioni, Vitti excelled in comedy, working with directors such as Mario Monicelli, Dino Risi, Alberto Sordi and Ettore Scola.

Her performances in movies such as Monicelli’s The Girl With the Pistol (1968) and I Know That You Know That I Know (1982) saw her spoken of as one of the great actors of the Commedia all’Italiana genre alongside Sordi himself, Ugo Tognazzi, Vittorio Gassman and Nino Manfredi.

Monica Vitti made her screen debut in 1954 after honing her skills in the theatre
Monica Vitti made her screen debut in
1954 after honing her skills in the theatre
Although born in Rome - her real name was Maria Luisa Ceciarelli - Vitti spent eight of her childhood years in Messina in Sicily and returned to Rome after her brothers had left to seek their fortune in America.

She acted in amateur productions as a teenager before securing a place at the National Academy of Dramatic Arts in Rome, where she graduated in 1953. She toured Germany with an Italian acting troupe and made her first stage appearance in Rome in a production of Niccolò Machiavelli's La Mandragola.

Her first small film role came 1954 but her performance of note was in Mario Amendola's Le dritte (1958). By then, she had joined Michelangelo Antonioni's company at the Teatro Nuovo di Milano, which is where her association with the director began.

Vitti’s acting brilliance came to the fore in Antonioni’s films, in which her characters were inevitably complex, tormented, mysterious sometimes neurotic young women, who she was able to portray with incredible empathy.

Yet, after Monicelli suggested to her that she could turn her talent to comedy, she quickly proved her versatility with a string of successes.

Monica Vitti now lives in Rome with her husband, director Roberto Russo
Monica Vitti now lives in Rome with her
husband, director Roberto Russo
A woman of natural beauty, Vitti was much-photographed and her private life subject to close scrutiny.  Politically left-wing, she was part of the guard of honour at the funeral of the Communist leader Enrico Berlinguer in 1984.

Her last movie was Secret Scandal (1990), which she also wrote and directed, and for a few years thereafter she worked in television. At the Venice Film Festival in 1995 she received the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement.

In 2000, Vitti took part in the celebrations for the 80th birthday of Alberto Sordi and was a guest, along with many personalities from the entertainment world, at the Jubilee celebrations at the Basilica of San Pietro in the Vatican in December of the same year.

However, after 2002 she was not seen again in public and rumours began to circulate about her health. After some time her husband, the former director Roberto Russo, confirmed that she was alive and living in Rome but was suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease.

The cathedral at Messina had to be rebuilt twice in the 20th century because of earthquake and war damage
The cathedral at Messina had to be rebuilt twice in the 20th
century because of earthquake and war damage
Travel tip:

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

The auditorium of the Teatro Nuovo di Milano, where Monica Vitti appeared in the 1950s
The auditorium of the Teatro Nuovo di Milano, where
Monica Vitti appeared in the 1950s
Travel tip:

The Teatro Nuovo theatre in Milan, located on the Piazza San Babila in the lower level of the Palazzo del Toro, was designed by architect Emilio Lancia and was the project of the impresario Remigio Paone. It was inaugurated on in December 1938 with a performance of Eduardo De Filippo's comedy Ditegli sempre di sì. Piazza San Babila is characterized by the presence of a fountain built in 1997 by the architect Luigi Caccia Dominioni in conjunction with the Ente Fiera Milano.

More reading:

Michelangelo Antonioni - the 'last great' of post-War Italian cinema

Why Mario Monicelli is called the 'father of Commedia all'Italiana'

The comic genius of Alberto Sordi

Also on this day:

1560: The birth of painter Annibale Carracci

1801: The birth of opera composer Vincenzo Bellini

1918: Armistice ends First World War in Italy


23 July 2017

Sergio Mattarella – President of Italy

Anti-Mafia former Christian Democrat is Italy's 12th President

Sergio Mattarella, the 12th President of the Italian Republic
Sergio Mattarella, the 12th President of
the Italian Republic
The first Sicilian to become President of Italy, Sergio Mattarella, was born on this day in 1941 in Palermo.

Mattarella went into politics after the assassination of his brother, Piersanti, by the Mafia in 1980. His brother had been killed while holding the position of President of the Regional Government of Sicily.

Their father, Bernardo Mattarella, was an anti-Fascist, who with other prominent Catholic politicians helped found the Christian Democrat (Democrazia Cristiana) party. They dominated the Italian political scene for almost 50 years, with Bernardo serving as a minister several times. Piersanti Mattarella was also a Christian Democrat politician.

Sergio Mattarella graduated in Law from the Sapienza University of Rome and  a few years later started teaching parliamentary procedure at the University of Palermo.

His parliamentary career began in 1983 when he was elected a member of the Chamber of Deputies in a left-leaning faction of the DC that had supported an agreement with the Italian Communist Party led by Enrico Berlinguer. The following year he was entrusted with cleansing the Sicilian faction of the party from Mafia control by DC Secretary Ciriaco De Mita.

Mattarella's brother, Piersanti, was
killed by the Mafia
In 1985 Mattarella helped a young lawyer, Leoluc Orlando, who had worked alongside his brother, Piersanti, to become Mayor of Palermo.

Mattarella was appointed Minister for Parliamentary Affairs and subsequently Minister of Education.

He stood down from his post, along with other ministers, in 1990 when parliament passed an act liberalising the media sector in Italy, which he saw as a favour to media magnate Silvio Berlusconi.

Mattarella  became director of the Christian Democrat newspaper, Il Popolo, and in 1994 when DC was dissolved following Tangentopoli, he helped form the Italian People’s party.

Mattarella was one of the first supporters of the economist, Romano Prodi, at the head of the centre left coalition known as The Olive Tree.

Two years later he was appointed Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defence in the Government of Massimo D’Alema, the leader of the Democrats of the Left.

Mattarella with his predecessor Giorgio Napoletano
Mattarella with his predecessor Giorgio Napoletano
In 2007 Mattarella was one of the founders of the Democratic Party, a merger of left-wing and centre parties

He was elected to be a Judge of the Constitutional Court in 2011 and served for nearly four years.

His wife, Marisa Chiazzese, the mother of his three children, died in 2012.

Mattarella was elected President of the Italian Republic in 2015, replacing Giorgio Napoletano who had served for nine years.

In December 2016 the Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi announced his resignation following the rejection of his proposals in the 2016 Italian constitutional referendum and Matterella appointed the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Paolo Gentiloni, to be the new head of Government.

The Church of San Cataldo in Palermo with its spherical red domes
The Church of San Cataldo in Palermo with its
spherical red domes
Travel tip:

Palermo, where Mattarella was born and where he taught at the University, is the capital of Sicily, on the northern coast of the island, with a wealth of beautiful architecture, revealing both northern European and Arabian influences. The Church of San Cataldo in Piazza Bellini has a bell tower typical of those in northern France and three spherical, red domes on the roof of Arabic style.

The Courtyard at the Palazzo Quirinale in Rome
The Courtyard at the Palazzo Quirinale in Rome
Travel tip:

President Sergio Mattarella lives in Palazzo Quirinale in Rome at one end of Piazza del Quirinale. This was the summer palace of the popes until 1870 when it became the palace of the Kings of the newly unified Italy. Following the abdication of the last King, it became the official residence of the President of the Republic in 1947.

14 July 2017

Palmiro Togliatti – politician

Communist leader gunned down near Italian parliament

The Communist leader Palmiro  Togliatti, pictured in 1950
The Communist leader Palmiro
Togliatti, pictured in 1950
The leader of the Italian Communist Party, Palmiro Togliatti, was shot three times on this day in 1948 near Palazzo Montecitorio in Rome.

Togliatti was seriously wounded and for several days it was not certain that he would survive, causing a political crisis in Italy.

Three months before the shooting, Togliatti had led the Communists in the first democratic election in Italy after the Second World War, which would elect the first Republican parliament.  He lost to the Christian Democrats after a confrontational campaign in which the United States played a big part, viewing Togliatti as a Cold War enemy.

On July 14, Togliatti was shot three times near the Parliament building. It was described as an assassination attempt, the perpetrator of which was named as Antonio Pallante, an anti-Communist student with mental health problems. While the Communist leader’s life hung in the balance a general strike was called.

He eventually recovered and was able to continue as head of the party until his death in 1964.

Togliatti was born in Genoa in 1893. He was named Palmiro because he was born on a Palm Sunday.

Togliatti, pictured with the surgeon, Pietro Valdoni, who saved his life, recovers in hospital after the assassination attempt.
Togliatti, pictured with the surgeon, Pietro Valdoni, who saved
his life, recovers in hospital after the assassination attempt.
His father, Antonio, was an accountant and the family had to move frequently because of his job.  When his father died of cancer in 2011, the family struggled financially, but with the help of a scholarship, Togliatti was able to graduate in law from the University of Turin in 1917.

He served as a volunteer officer during the First World War but was wounded in action and sent home.

Togliatti became part of the group that gathered around Antonio Gramsci’s L’Ordine Nuovo newspaper in Turin. He was an admirer of the Russian Revolution and helped Gramsci refocus the newspaper to be a revolutionary voice. The newspaper supported the general strike of 1921 and began to be published daily.

A member of the Communist faction within the Italian Socialist Party, Togliatti was one of the founders of the Italian Communist Party in 1921.

The young Togliatti, pictured in about 1920
The young Togliatti, pictured in about 1920
In 1922, Fascist leader Benito Mussolini took advantage of the general strike and demanded that the Government should either give political power to the Fascist Party or face a coup. The Fascists demanded the resignation of Prime Minister Luigi Facta.

King Victor Emmanuel III had to choose between the Fascists and the anti-monarchist Socialists. He picked the Fascists and appointed Mussolini as Prime Minister.

Mussolini pushed a new electoral law through parliament and, coupled with his intimidation tactics, it resulted in a landslide victory for the Fascists in the 1924 election.

In 1924, international Communists began a process of Bolshevisation, which forced each party to conform to the discipline and orders of Moscow.  Mussolini banned the Italian Communist Party in 1926 and some officials, including Gramsci, were arrested and imprisoned, but Togliatti escaped arrest because he was in Moscow at the time.

In exile abroad in the 1920s and 1930s, Togliatti organised clandestine meetings. He stayed in the Soviet Union during the Second World War, broadcasting radio messages to Italy calling for resistance against the Nazis.

In 1944 Togliatti returned to Italy and joined in a government of national unity. He served as Deputy Prime Minister and then Justice Minister.

Togliatti with his partner, Nilde Iotti, at a Communist Party conference in Russia, which they visited many times
Togliatti with his partner, Nilde Iotti, at a Communist Party
conference in Russia, which they visited many times
The writer Carlo Lucarelli gives a vivid, fictional account of the day of the shooting in his novel Via delle oche, the final book in his De Luca trilogy.

Togliatti survived the shooting to see his party become the second largest party in Italy and the largest non-ruling Communist party in Europe. The party held many municipalities and was powerful in some areas at local and regional level.

Togliatti died as a result of a cerebral haemorrhage in 1964 while on holiday with his partner in the Black Sea resort of Yalta, which was then in the Soviet Union. His favourite pupil, Enrico Berlinguer, was elected as his successor.

The Russian city of Stavropol-on-Volga, where Togliatti had helped establish a car manufacturing plant in collaboration with Fiat, was renamed Tolyatti in his honour in 1964.

The Palazzo Madama is one of the features of what is known as 'royal' Turin
The Palazzo Madama is one of the features of what is
known as 'royal' Turin
Travel tip:

Turin, where Togliatti went to University and helped launch a Communist-sympathising newspaper, is the capital city of the region of Piedmont. It is an important business centre with architecture demonstrating its rich history, which is linked with the Savoy Kings of Italy. Piazza Castello, with the royal palace, royal library and Palazzo Madama, which used to house the Italian senate, is at the heart of ‘royal’ Turin.

The Palazzo Montecitorio was designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini for the nephew of Pope Gregory XV
The Palazzo Montecitorio was designed by Gian Lorenzo
Bernini for the nephew of Pope Gregory XV
Travel tip

Palazzo Montecitorio in Rome, which is near the spot where Togliatti was shot and seriously wounded, is the seat of the Italian Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of the Italian Parliament. The building was originally designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini for the nephew of Pope Gregory XV. The palace was chosen as the seat of the Chamber of Deputies in 1871 but the building proved inadequate for their needs. After extensive renovations had been carried out, the chamber returned to the palace in 1918.

8 March 2017

Antonello Venditti - enduring music star

Roman singer-songwriter's career spans almost 50 years

Antonello Venditti has sold more than 30 million discs in a long career
Antonello Venditti has sold more than
30 million discs in a long career
Singer-songwriter Antonello Venditti, one of Italy's most popular and enduring stars of contemporary music, will celebrate his 68th birthday today with a live performance in his home city of Rome.

Venditti will perform at the PalaLottomatica arena - formerly known as Palazzo dello Sport - in a concert entitled 'Viva le Donne' to mark International Women's Day.

Famous in the 1970s for the strong political and social content of many of his songs, Venditti can look back on a career spanning almost 50 years, in which he has sold more than 30 million records.

Taking into account singles, studio and live albums and compilations, Venditti has released more than 100 recordings.

His biggest success came with the 1988 album In questo mondo di ladri - In this world of thieves - which sold 1.5 million copies, making it jointly the eighth best-selling album in Italian music history.

Venditti's music ranges from folk to soft rock, often with classical overtones. He enjoyed sustained success in the 1980s and 90s, when Cuore - Heart - Benvenuti in Paradiso - Welcome to Paradise - and Prendilo tu questo frutto amaro - Take this bitter fruit - all sold well.  His versatility as a singer was demonstrated with the 1979 album Buona Domenica, which contained several ballads including one, Modena, which regarded as among his finest songs.

Antonello Venditti (right) with Giorgio Lo Cascio and Francesco De Gregori at Folkstudio in 1975
Antonello Venditti (right) with Giorgio Lo Cascio and
Francesco De Gregori at Folkstudio in 1975
For some fans, however, he was at his peak during his politicised phase with Lilly (1975) and Ullalà (1976), which featured several tracks bearing powerful social messages, against drugs and corruption among other things.  Ullalà included the song Canzone per Seveso, which was specifically about the accident at a chemical factory in the Lombardy town of Seveso that resulted in tens of thousands of deaths among farm animals and pets exposed to dioxins.

Venditti was born Antonio Venditti on March 8, 1949, in the Trieste quarter of Rome, about 8km (5 miles) to the north-east of the city centre. He was the only child of a middle-class couple. His father was a government official and future deputy-prefect of Rome, his mother a teacher specialising in Latin and Greek.  He was educated to a high standard himself, attending the Giulio Cesare High School and Sapienza University in Rome, where he graduated in law in 1973 before obtaining a further degree in the philosophy of law.

This qualified him, naturally, to build a career in the legal profession.  Yet Venditti was already writing songs and, having been taught to play the piano as a boy, wanted to perform.

Antonello Venditti in 2008
Antonello Venditti in 2008
In the late 1960s he began to frequent the famous Roman club Folkstudio, in the Trastevere quarter, where Bob Dylan had performed in 1962.  He made friends with other young musicians and sang some of his own compositions, accompanying himself on a jazz piano, and made such an impression he was offered a recording contract with a new company.

His first album Theorius Campus, which he recorded with another Folkstudio regular, Francesco De Gregori, contained two of the songs he played at that first impromptu gig - Sora Rosa and Roma Capoccia - that would become lasting favourites with his fans.  He wrote both, in Romanesco dialect, when he was 14.

Influenced by the militancy among the student population at the time, Venditti's politics were firmly on the left and his subsequent albums reflected that.  It was the powerful social messages in many of his songs that helped him acquire such a devoted following.  One of his compositions, A cristo - 'Hey, Christ' in Roman dialect - which he performed in Rome in 1974, resulted in his arrest for blasphemy, although he was ultimately acquitted.

However, in time he became less political, particularly after terrorism became such a problem for Italy during the late 1970s, when blame for a number of attacks tended to be laid at the door of left-wing groups.  His friend, De Gregori, was booed at one concert.

Venditti also said that he began to have problems reconciling his strong religious faith with left-wing ideology and felt that while the left offered social changes that he saw as good it did not suggest a path towards happiness and contentment.

The stage at the Arena di Verona, where Venditti performed at the Wind Music Awards in 2016
The stage at the Arena di Verona, where Venditti performed
at the Wind Music Awards in 2016
Nonetheless, he would return to political themes from time to time.  Benvenuti in Paradiso (1991) contained a song Dolce Enrico, which was a tribute to the former leader of Italy's communists, Enrico Berlinguer, while Che fantastica storia è la vita (2003) included a song satirising Silvio Berlusconi.  His 2015 release Tortuga was his 20th studio album.

A fanatical supporter of AS Roma, he has written a number of songs celebrating the team and gave a free open air concert in Circus Maximus when Roma won the scudetto - the Italian championship - in 2001.

Married briefly in the 1970s to Italian screenwriter and director Simona Izzo, Venditti has a son Francesco Saverio.

He is also the author of two books,  L'importante è che tu sia infelice - The important thing is that you be unhappy - an autobiographical work in which he focussed on his difficult relationship with his mother, and Nella notte di Roma - On Roman nights - a discourse on what he considers good and bad about the city of his birth.

The arch of the Palazzi degli Ambasciatori is one of the features of the Piazza Mincio in the Trieste quarter
The arch of the Palazzi degli Ambasciatori is one of the
features of the Piazza Mincio in the Trieste quarter
Travel tip:

Antonello Venditti's childhood home was in Via Zara in the Trieste quarter of Rome, a stone's throw from the picturesque Villa Torlonia park, a feature of which is the 18th century Casino Nobile, a house that was once the Rome residence of Benito Mussolini.  Trieste nowadays is a popular district with young professionals and students, with a bustling market, artisan shops and plenty of stylish bars and restaurants, as well as lots of green space within walking distance.  The Villa Ada, Villa Paganini and Villa Borghese parks are all close by. Trieste is also the home of the so-called Coppedè Quarter, an area of beautiful and distinctive buildings designed by the architect Gino Coppedè, fanning out from Piazza Mincio.

Hotels in Rome from

The Piazza Guglielmo Marconi, with its obelisk, is typical of the bold architecture of the EUR district
The Piazza Guglielmo Marconi, with its obelisk, is typical
of the bold architecture of the EUR district
Travel tip:

The PalaLottomatica, formerly known as Palazzo dello Sport, was designed by the architect Marcello Piacentini and built by Pier Luigi Nervi for the 1960 Olympics, in which it hosted the basketball tournament.  It forms part of the EUR complex, to the south of the centre of Rome, originally developed to host the 1942 World's Fair, which was cancelled because of the Second World War.  A team of prominent architects, headed by Piacentini and including Giovanni Michelucci, contributed to the project, which featured the neoclassical designs that came to be known as Fascist architecture.

More reading:

Singer-songwriter Lucio Dalla's tribute to Enrico Caruso

65 million sales and rising - Eros Ramazotti's lasting appeal

How Laura Pausini keeps turning out hit after hit

Also on this day:

Italy's own Festa della Donna

1566: The birth of composer Carlo Gesualdo

(Picture credits: top picture; Venditti in 2008 by Elena Torre; Verona Arena by Raphael Mair; arch of the Palazzi degli Ambasciatori by LPLT; EUR piazza by Blackcat; via Wikimedia Commons)


2 February 2017

Antonio Segni - prime minister and president

Sardinian politician famous for tactical cunning

Antonio Segni: Christian Democrat was twice Italian prime minister
Antonio Segni: Christian Democrat was
twice Italian prime minister
Antonio Segni, the first Sardinian to become Italy's prime minister, was born on this day in 1891 in Sassari, the second largest city on the island.

Sassari was also the home town of another Italian prime minister, Francesco Cossiga, and of the country's most successful Communist leader, Enrico Berlinguer.  Like Segni, Cossiga also served the country as president.

Born into a landowning family and a prominent member of the Christian Democratic party from the time of its formation towards the end of the Second World War, Segni was prime minister from 1955 to 1957 and from 1959 to 1960. He was president from 1962 until he was forced to retire due to ill health in 1964.

Frail in appearance for much of his life, Segni was a strong politician nonetheless, given the affectionate nickname Il malato di ferro - the invalid with the iron constitution - by his supporters.

He was also highly astute, particularly when it came to wrong-footing opponents.

Segni became politically active in his late 20s, joining the Italian People's Party (PPI) - predecessor of the Christian Democrats - in 1919 and by 1924 was a member of the party's national council. He spoke out against extremism on the left and the right and opposed PPI participation in any coalition involving the Fascists.

Alcide de Gasperi led Italy's first government as a republic after the end of the Second World War
Alcide de Gasperi led Italy's first government as
a republic after the end of the Second World War
In 1926, the debate became irrelevant as Fascist leader Benito Mussolini banned all political organisations apart from his own and for the next 17 years Segni, who had graduated with a degree in agricultural and commercial law, returned to academic life, lecturing in agrarian law at a number of universities.

He resumed his political career in 1943 - the year in which Mussolini was thrown out by his own party and arrested by King Victor Emmanuel III - helping launch the Christian Democratic Party in Sardinia.  He was part of the wartime governments of Ivanoe Bonimi, Ferrucio Parri and Alcide de Gasperi before being elected to the first parliament of the new Italian Republic, serving as Minister for Agriculture, also under De Gasperi.

It was in that capacity that Segni showed himself to be an innovative thinker in political tactics.  Aware that agricultural workers, still living in a somewhat medieval societal structure dominated by large landowners, were a prime target for left-wing revolutionaries, Segni sought to keep them onside by proposing that areas of uncultivated land should be expropriated from large landowners and given to the workers so that they could grow and sell their own produce.

He was prepared to lose substantial amounts of his own land under the scheme.  In the event, the proposal met with opposition both from the right, who objected to any imposed limitations on property ownership, and from the left, who saw it as a calculated attempt to undermine their support from agricultural workers.  Nonetheless, the watered down version that was passed still led to some 121,000 working class families becoming landowners.

Giovanni de Lorenzo was the head of Italy's Carabinieri police force
Giovanni de Lorenzo was the head
of Italy's Carabinieri police force
As prime minister, Segni introduced other social reforms to the benefit of ordinary Italians, particularly in the area of pensions, and in insurance against health problems linked to working conditions.

Later, however, it was alleged that his tactics for keeping the left from gaining power in Italy were not always so honourable.

In 1967, after an investigation by the news magazine L'Espresso, it was claimed that, as president, Segni was so uneasy about the growing popularity of the Italian Socialist and Communist parties he had asked General Giovanni de Lorenzo, the head of the Carabinieri - Italy's quasi-military police force - to work with the Italian secret services and the CIA to prepare a coup.

This supposedly would have involved 20,000 Carabinieri officers on the streets around the country, 5,000 of them in Rome, who would occupy government buildings such as the Palazzo del Quirinale, the offices of the television and radio stations, plus the headquarters premises of the Communist and Socialist parties and the Communist party newspaper, L'Unità.  Leaders and prominent supporters of the Communist party were to be detained and interned at a secret base in Sardinia already used by the clandestine anti-Communist organisation, Gladio.

The existence of the plot was never proved.  It was suggested in some quarters that the story was a plant by the right aimed at dissuading progressive Christian Democrats such as Aldo Moro from entering into coalition deals with left-wing parties; others dismissed the story as an attempt by L'Espresso to discredit De Lorenzo, who was a member of the neo-fascist Italian Social Movement.

Segni stepped down as president in December 1964, four months after suffering a cerebral haemorrhage.  He died in Rome in 1972 at the age of 81.

Travel tip:

Sassari, the origins of which can be traced to the early 12th century, is a city rich in art, culture and history. It is well known for its beautiful palazzi, for the Fountain of the Rosello, and for the elegant neoclassical architecture that can be found around the central Piazza d'Italia and the Teatro Civico. The city - second in size on Sardinia only to Cagliari - is not heavily industrialised, its economy mainly reliant on tourism and the service industries.

Palazzo Madama is the seat of Italy's Senate
Palazzo Madama is the seat of Italy's Senate
Travel tip:

Rome's four main government buildings can be found within a short distance from one another in the centre of the city.  The prime minister's official residence and cabinet office are in Palazzo Chigi in Piazza Colonna, just off Via del Corso.  The Palazzo Montecitori, where Italy's lower house, the Chamber of Deputies, convenes, is little more than 150m from Palazzo Chigi in the Piazza di Monte Citori.  Approximately 600m from Palazzo Chigi, going west, and a stone's throw from Piazza Navona, the upper house, the Senate, sits in Palazzo Madama, which can be found in Piazza Madama. The official residence of the Italian president is the Palazzo del Quirinale, or simply il Quirinale, which is roughly 800m from Palazzo Chigi in the opposite direction.  Sitting atop one of Rome's seven hills, it is often referred to also as il Colle – the Hill.

More reading:

How Enrico Berlinguer turned Italy's Communist Party in a political force

Why the Aldo Moro tragedy overshadowed career of Francesco Cossiga

Also on this day:

1723: The death of anatomist Antonio Maria Valsalva

1925: The birth of Olympic showjumper Raimondo D'Inzeo

(Picture credit: Palazzo Madama by Paul Hermans; via Wikmedia Commons)


27 October 2016

Roberto Benigni - Oscar winner

How Life is Beautiful made Tuscan actor and director famous

Roberto Benigni
Roberto Benigni
Roberto Benigni, whose performance in the 1997 film Life is Beautiful won him an Oscar for Best Actor, was born on this day in 1952 in rural Tuscany, around 20km south of Arezzo.

The Academy Award, for which he beat off strong competition from Nick Nolte (Affliction) and Tom Hanks (Saving Private Ryan) among others, put him in the company of Anna Magnani (1955) and Sophia Loren (1961) as one of just three Italian winners of best actor or actress.

Benigni, who also directed Life is Beautiful, had won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film earlier in the awards ceremony, which delighted him so much he famously clambered on to the back of the seats of audience members in the row in front of his to lead the applause before stepping up to the stage to receive the award from Sophia Loren.

When Helen Hunt called out his name for Best Actor - the first since Loren to win the most coveted prize with a foreign language film - he began his acceptance speech by apologizing for having "used up all my English", before proceeding to deliver another joyously emotional expression of gratitude.

Benigni was born in the hamlet of Manciano la Misericordia, near the walled town of Castiglion Fiorentino.  His family moved when he was six years old to Vergaio, a village near Prato, to which he made reference in his speech, thanking his parents, Luigi and Isolina, for "the gift of poverty", despite which he had a happy childhood and believes shaped his character and made him appreciate his good fortune all the more.

Roberto Benigni with his wife and co-star, Nicoletta Braschi
Roberto Benigni with his wife
and co-star, Nicoletta Braschi
He based Life is Beautiful, the story of a Jewish Italian bookshop owner who uses his comic imagination to shield his son from the horrors of internment in a Nazi concentration camp, in part on the experiences of his father, who spent almost three years in the Belsen concentration camp in Germany.

Written in collaboration with Vincenzo Cerami, the film was attacked by some critics for presenting an unrealistic picture of the Holocaust which contained too little suffering, and suggested that "laughing at everything" was disrespectful to the millions of victims.

However, others praised Benigni for having the artistic daring and skill to create such a sensitive comedy against a background of dark, unparalleled tragedy.

Before the huge fame the movie brought him, Benigni, who was raised as a Catholic and was an altar boy in his local church, had enjoyed relatively modest success in his acting and directing career.

After studying initially to become a priest, a path he abandoned after the school he attended in Florence was damaged in the floods of 1966, he developed a fascination with a circus that was playing near his home and was offered work as a magician's assistant.

He had his first taste of theatre in Prato before moving to Rome, where he appeared in avant-garde theatre and became popular for his improvisation of epic poems, such as those of Ludovico AriostoEdmund Spenser and Dante Alighieri.

It was in Rome that he met Giuseppe Bertolucci - brother of Bernardo - who cast him in a film entitled Berlinguer, I love You, that appealed to his Communist sympathies.  Enrico Berlinguer was the leader of the Italian Communist Party.

See Roberto Benigni's acceptance speech for Best Foreign Language Film Oscar

He appeared in a number of TV shows directed by Renzo Arbore, one of which was banned by the censors, and worked on films with Bernardo Bertolucci and Federico Fellini.

The first of his nine films as a director was Tu mi turbi (You disturb me), a comedy that satirizes religion and the banking system.  He also starred in the film opposite Nicoletta Braschi, an actress from Cesena with whom he became romantically involved.  They have been married since 1991.  Braschi also appears in Life is Beautiful as the wife of Benigni's character.

Benigni's two films after Life is Beautiful - Pinocchio and The Tiger and the Snow - played well with home audiences but were less well received outside Italy and in the 11 years since the latter he has not made another film, although he hinted recently that he has a new project in mind.

Roberto Benigni on stage in his touring  one-man show, TuttiDante
Roberto Benigni on stage in his touring
one-man show, TuttiDante
He has remained successful on stage and television with his 90-minute one-man show TuttiDante, in which he has returned to his love of improvisatory poetry - a particularly Tuscan art form for which his father was an enthusiast.

During the show, Benigni combines current events with his memories of the past in a passionate interpretation of Dante's Divine Comedy.

No stranger to controversy, apart from his role in the Abore TV show that was taken off the air, he attracted headlines for appearing to call Pope John Paul II by an impolite name, for lifting a startled Enrico Berlinguer off his feet in an embrace at a Communist rally, and then for gatecrashing a TV news bulletin reporting on a protest against Silvio Berlusconi in which he had taken part, removing his shirt, draping it around the shoulders if the presenter and declaring (falsely) that Berlusconi had resigned.

Travel tip:

Arezzo, where much of Life is Beautiful is filmed, is a city in eastern Tuscany famous among other things for the frescoes of the artist, Piero della Francesco, in the 13th century church of San Francesco.  The Legend of the True Cross, painted between 1452 and 1466, is considered to be one of Italy’s greatest fresco cycles.  Arezzo is also the birthplace of the 14th century Renaissance poet, Francesco Petrarca, widely known by his English name, Petrarch.

The view through one of the archways in Giorgio Vasari's loggia
The view through one of the archways
in Giorgio Vasari's loggia
Travel tip:

Apart from its 13th century walls, the Tuscan hill town of Castiglion Fiorentino, of which Manciano la Misericordia, Benigni's birthplace, is a frazione (parish), is notable for a handsome nine-arch loggia designed by the 16th century artist and architect, Giorgio Vasari, along one side of the Piazza del Municipio, which offers a beautiful vista looking out over the Val di Chio below the town.  Vasari, who worked for the Medici family in Florence, designed the loggia at the Palazzo degli Uffizi and the Vasari Corridor, which connects the Uffizi with the Medici residence across the River Arno at Palazzo Pitti and includes the covered Ponte Vecchio bridge.

More reading:

(Top photo of Benigni by Gorup de Besanez CC BY-SA 4.0)
(Second photo of Benigni by Georges Biard CC BY-SA 3.0)
(Photo of Vasari's loggia view by Silviapitt CC BY-SA 3.0)