Showing posts with label Florence. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Florence. Show all posts

13 October 2021

Francesca Bertini - silent movie actress

Diva described as Italy’s first film star

Francesca Bertini appeared in  almost 150 movies in her career
Francesca Bertini appeared in 
almost 150 movies in her career
The actress Francesca Bertini, one of the three so-called divas of Italy’s silent movie era, died on this day in 1985 in Rome at the age of 93.

Between her screen debut in 1907 and her effective retirement in 1935, Bertini appeared in 139 titles. Her last appearance came in 1976, at the age of 84, when the director Bernardo Bertolucci persuaded her to accept a cameo in his epic historical drama, Novecento (1900).

Bertini, Lyda Borelli and Pina Menichelli were regarded as Italy’s three biggest female stars of the silent movie years and though Borelli came to be seen as the most talented of the three, there is no doubt that Bertini was a woman of outstanding ability. She has been described as Italy's first film star.

Her most famous film, Assunta Spina, a 1915 production, not only saw her take the title role but write scripts and direct many of the scenes, introducing a level of realism into the performances that was ahead of its time.

Bertini’s birth was registered in 1892 at an orphanage in Florence as Elena Taddei, although it is unclear whether Taddei was the name of her father. Her mother was said to be Adelina di Venanzio Fratiglioni, an unmarried woman who was thought to have been an actress herself. After 1910, when her mother married Arturo Vitiello, she was known as Elena Seracini Vitiello.

Vitiello was thought to be a furniture dealer who had connections with the theatre in Naples as a propman and Bertini’s first experiences of acting came in the southern city. In fact, her debut came in a stage production of Assunta Spina, a short story that its Neapolitan author, Salvatore Di Giacomo, had turned into a play.

Francesca Bertini in a scene from her most successful movie, Assunta Spina
Francesca Bertini in a scene from her
most successful movie, Assunta Spina 
Her early film roles included Lucrezia Borgia, Cordelia in King Lear, Manon Lescaut in a screen adaptation of Puccini’s opera and by 1915 she had already clocked up 50 credits and was becoming known everywhere that silent films were taking off.

The success of such films as Histoire d’un Pierrot (1914), Sangue bleu (1914), Nelly la gigolette (1915) and La signora delle camelie (1915) saw Bertini able to negotiate substantial pay deals and significant artistic input.

In interviews later in life, Bertini declared her pride in Assunta Spina, claiming she was the first to suggest shooting scenes in the street rather than on stage sets and using members of the public as extras, to a degree that it should be seen as a forerunner of the Neorealism that put Italian cinema on the map in the postwar years.

Bertini had the opportunity to take her career to Hollywood in 1920 as the Fox Film Corporation offered her a contract. However, she turned it down. Recently married to Paul Cartier, a wealthy Swiss banker, she wanted to move with him to Switzerland. 

After 10 films in 1920 alone, Bertini significantly reduced her output once married, winding down her career further once Mussolini’s Fascists began to introduce censorship.  After the third of three adaptations of Odette, based upon the play by Victorien Sardou, in 1935, she went 15 years without making another screen appearance.

When Bertolucci invited Bertini to appear in Novecento, part of a cast that included Robert De Niro, Gerard Depardieu, Donald Sutherland, Laura Betti, Stefania Sandrelli, Alida Valli and Burt Lancaster, it was taken as a tribute to her own talent and to the stars of the silent movie era.

Bertini returned to Rome after the death of her husband and spent her final years in the Italian capital.

The Florence duomo dominates the skyline of Italy's beautiful Renaissance city
The Florence duomo dominates the skyline of
Italy's beautiful Renaissance city
Travel tip:

Florence, Bertini’s birthplace, remains one of the most beautiful cities in Europe, largely on account of its wealth of art and architecture, the visible legacy of its history as the cradle of the Renaissance. Its duomo - the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore - with its enormous dome by Filippo Brunelleschi and campanile by Giotto, towers above the city and is the dominant feature of almost every cityscape. The focal point of the city is the Piazza della Signoria, which contains several important sculptures and statues, including a copy of Michelangelo's David - the original is in the Galleria dell'Accademia - outside the Palazzo Vecchio, Bandinelli's Hercules and Cacus, just to the right of the David, and the Nettuno by Ammannati.   Under the Loggia dei Lanzi, to the right of Palazzo Vecchio, the statue of Perseus holding Medusa's head, by Benvenuto Cellini, alongside Giambologna's Rape of the Sabines.

A reconstruction of ancient Rome is part of the Cinecittà complex in the south of the city
A reconstruction of ancient Rome is part of
the Cinecittà complex in the south of the city
Travel tip:

The centre of the movie industry in Rome is Cinecittà, the largest film studio in Europe, spreading over an area of 100 acres with  22 stages and 300 dressing rooms. Situated six miles south of the city centre, it is the hub of the Italian film industry. Built during the Fascist era under the personal direction of Benito Mussolini and his son, Vittorio, the studios were bombed by the Allies in the Second World War but were rebuilt and used again in the 1950s for large productions, such as Ben Hur. These days a range of productions, from television drama to music videos, are filmed there.

Also on this day:

54: The death of Claudius, Roman emperor

1815: The execution of Napoleon’s chief aide in Italy, Joachim Murat

1884: The birth of anarchist Mario Buda

1899: The birth of sportsman and entrepreneur Piero Dusio

(Florence picture by Andrea Spallanzani from Pixabay)


14 September 2021

Vittorio Gui – composer and conductor

Precise and sensitive musician enjoyed a long and distinguished career

Vittorio Gui enjoyed a long and distinguished career
Vittorio Gui enjoyed a long
and distinguished career
Internationally renowned orchestra conductor Vittorio Gui was born on this day in 1885 in Rome.

Gui composed his own operas, while travelling around Italy and Europe conducting the music of other composers. He spent many years conducting in Britain and served as the musical director of the Glyndebourne Festival for 12 years.

He was taught to play the piano by his mother when he was a young child. He graduated in Humanities at the University of Rome and then studied composition at the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia.

The premiere of his opera, David, took place in Rome in 1907. He made his professional conducting debut at the Teatro Adriano in Rome in the same year, having been brought in as a substitute to lead Ponchielli’s La Gioconda.

This led to Gui being invited to conduct in Rome and Turin. Arturo Toscanini then invited him to conduct Salome by Richard Strauss as the season opener at La Scala in Milan in 1923.

He conducted at the Teatro Regio in Turin between 1925 and 1927 and premiered his own fairytale opera, Fata Malerba, there.

Gui founded the Orchestra Stabile in Florence and developed the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino festival, which he led for ten years, conducting the Orchestra Stabile and trying out unusual operas there.

Some recordings of performances conducted by Gui are still available
Some recordings of performances
conducted by Gui are still available 
He was guest conductor at the Salzburg festival in 1933 and invited by Sir Thomas Beecham in 1936 to be a regular conductor at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden in London.

Complete recordings of Gui conducting Il Trovatore and La Traviata from the 1939 Covent Garden season have survived.

Gui remained in Britain during World War Two and made his debut at the Glyndebourne Festival in 1948. He served as musical director there from 1951 to 1963 and as artistic counsellor to the festival from 1963 to 1965.

He was particularly known for his conducting of music by Brahms and in 1947, on the 50th anniversary of the death of Brahms, he conducted a complete cycle of the orchestral and choral works of the composer  throughout Italy.

A prolific writer and critic, Gui’s works include a study of Boito’s opera, Nerone, an article on Mozart in Italy and a collection of essays, Battuta d’aspetto.

Gui died in October 1975 at his home in Florence at the age of 90 after an attack of angina. He had made his final appearance as a conductor in Italy just two weeks before his death, when he inaugurated the new season at the Teatro Comunale in Florence with a concert of Mozart and Brahms.

He was considered by critics to have been one of the most precise and sensitive conductors of the 20th century and he had been presented with a gold medal by the regional administration of Florence on 14 September, 1975, his 90th birthday.

The Teatro Regio in Turin was closed for 37  years after a catastrophic fire in 1936
The Teatro Regio in Turin was closed for 37 
years after a catastrophic fire in 1936
Travel tip:

The Teatro Regio in Turin, where Gui conducted in the 1920s, was burnt down in a catastrophic fire in 1936. It remained dark for 37 years until reopening in 1973. The theatre, which is in Piazza Castello close to the Palazzo Reale in the centre of the city, had something of a chequered history even before the fire. Inaugurated in 1740, it was closed by royal decree in 1792 then reopened with the French occupation of Turin during the early 19th century, first as the Teatro Nazionale and then the Teatro Imperiale before its original name was reinstated with the fall of Napoleon in 1814. It endured several financial crises in the late 1800s but somehow survived.

The Teatro del Maggio Musicale  has been fully open only since 2014
The Teatro del Maggio Musicale 
has been fully open only since 2014
Travel tip:

The Orchestra Stabile Fiorentina founded by Gui evolved into the Orchestra del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, resident at the Teatro Comunale in Corso Italia, on the edge of the city’s historic centre, about 1.5km (1 mile) from the Ponte Vecchio along the Arno river.  Since 2014, the May Festival has had its own base at the new Teatro del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, situated less than one kilometre away on land opposite the vast public park known as Le Cascine. Designed by Paolo Desideri, it was inaugurated in 2011 with a performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony conducted by Zubin Mehta, although not fully opened until 2014-15, when its first opera season was staged. The square in front of the theatre is named Piazza Vittorio Gui in honour of the festival’s founder.

Also on this day:

1321: The death of the poet Dante Alighieri

1937: The birth of architect Renzo Piano

1938: The birth of journalist Tiziano Terzani


10 February 2021

Luca della Robbia - sculptor

Renaissance ‘genius’ famed for glazed terracotta

Della Robbia's Resurrection over the door of
the northern sacristy in the Florence duomo
Luca della Robbia, whose work saw him spoken of in the same breath as Donatello and Lorenzo Ghiberti among the great sculptors of the Renaissance, died on this day in 1482 in Florence.

Della Robbia worked in marble and bronze initially but enjoyed considerable success after inventing a process for making statuary and reliefs in terracotta decorated with a colourful mineral glaze.

Thought to be around 82 or 83 years old, he had shared the full details of the process only with his family. On his death, his nephew Andrea della Robbia inherited his workshop and other members of the family, notably his great-nephews Giovanni della Robbia and Girolamo della Robbia, continued to employ his methods with success into the 16th century.

Terracotta literally means cooked earth and Della Robbia’s technique involved the application of colourful glazes made using lead, tin and other minerals to the fired clay. 

Sculpting in terracotta was not new, having been invented in the ancient world, but Della Robbia’s idea to coat the terracotta with a glaze that fused with the clay below gave the surface a brightness and shine and made the sculpture particularly durable. 

Della Robbia decorated the dome of Brunelleschi's Pazzi Chapel in the Basilica of Santa Croce
Della Robbia decorated the dome of Brunelleschi's
Pazzi Chapel in the Basilica of Santa Croce
It took him many years to perfect his technique. The clay itself came from riverbeds, where Della Robbia would look for a light-colored, chalky variety of clay that bound particularly well with his glazes, cleaning and sifting it before adding soft river sand to achieve optimal consistency.  The blend of minerals in the glaze itself was a closely guarded secret.

The first commissions for which Della Robbia used the technique were in the Duomo of Florence, where between 1442 and 1445 he sculpted a lunette of the Resurrection over the door of the northern sacristy and a relief of the Ascension over the southern sacristy door.

He went on to execute many more works in the medium, of which some of the most important are the roundels of the Apostles in Filippo Brunelleschi’s Pazzi Chapel in the Basilica di Santa Croce in Florence, the roof of Michelozzo’s Chapel of the Crucifix in the Basilica di San Miniato al Monte, Florence, and a lunette over the entrance of the Church of San Domenico at Urbino.

His final major work was an altarpiece in the Palazzo Vescovile at Pescia, a small town just over an hour from Florence, near Montecatini Terme.

Della Robbia's bust in the Pincio Gardens in Rome
Della Robbia's bust in the Pincio
Gardens in Rome
It was the Renaissance polymath Leon Battista Alberti who compared Della Robbia to fellow sculptors Donatello and Ghiberti, ranking him also alongside the architect Brunelleschi and the painter Masaccio in terms of their artistic genius. This assessment took into account more than just his work in glazed terracotta, although his use of bright colours gave his work in the medium a particular charm that was very popular.

In the early part of his career, Della Robbia, who may have trained as a goldsmith, worked with Ghiberti on the famous bronze doors of the Florence Baptistry - the so-called Gates of Paradise.

Brunelleschi often used him for sculpture on his buildings. His important commission was for the Cantoria - a singing gallery - in Florence's Duomo, for which he was probably chosen by the Medici family.  The project took seven years and his depictions in the 10 panels of children singing, dancing and making music, the figures lively and finely observed in the manner of Renaissance naturalism, established him as a major Florentine artist.

Della Robbia’s other important works in marble include a tabernacle carved for the Chapel of San Luca in the Santa Maria Nuova Hospital in Florence, and the tomb of Benozzo Federighi, bishop of nearby Fiesole.

Florence's magnificent Duomo towers above the skyline of Della Robbia's city
Florence's magnificent Duomo towers above
the skyline of Della Robbia's city
Travel tip:

The Florence Duomo - the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore - with its enormous dome by Filippo Brunelleschi and campanile by Giotto, is one of Italy's most recognisable and most photographed sights, towering above the city and the dominant feature of almost every cityscape. From groundbreaking to consecration, the project took 140 years to complete and involved a series of architects. Arnolfo di Cambio, who also designed the church of Santa Croce and the Palazzo Vecchio was the original architect engaged and it was to his template, essentially, that the others worked.  When he died in 1410, 14 years after the first stone was laid, he was succeeded by Giotto, who himself died in 1337, after which his assistant Andrea Pisano took up the project.  Pisano died in 1348, as the Black Death swept Europe, and a succession of architects followed, culminating in Brunelleschi, who won a competition - against Lorenzo Ghiberti - to build the dome, which remains the largest brick-built dome ever constructed.

Find a hotel in Florence with

Piazzo Mino is the main square in the centre of Fiesole, in the hills to the northeast of Florence
Piazzo Mino is the main square in the centre of
Fiesole, in the hills to the northeast of Florence
Travel tip:

Fiesole, a town of about 14,000 inhabitants situated in an elevated position about 8km (5 miles) northeast of Florence, has since the 14th century been a popular place to live for wealthy Florentines and even to this day remains the richest municipality in Florence.  Formerly an important Etruscan settlement, it was also a Roman town of note, of which the remains of a theatre and baths are still visible.  Fiesole's cathedral, built in the 11th century, is supposedly built over the site of the martyrdom of St. Romulus. In the middle ages, Fiesole was as powerful as Florence until it was conquered by the latter in 1125 after a series of wars.

Fiesole hotels by

More reading:

Lorenzo Ghiberti and the 'Gates of Paradise'

Filippo Brunelleschi, the genius who designed the dome of the Florence duomo

Gian Lorenzo Bernini, the Florentine who made his mark in Rome

Also on this day:

1791: The birth of painter Francesco Hayez

1918: The death of Nobel Peace Prize winner Ernesto Teodoro Moneta

1941: The birth of author and politician Raffaele Lauro

1953: The founding of the giant oil and gas company ENI

1966: The birth of footballer Andrea Silenzi

(Picture credits: Resurrection by Sailko; Pazzi Chapel ceiling by Mattis; bust of della Robbia by Lalupa; via Wikimedia Commons)


29 May 2020

Virginia de’ Medici – noblewoman

Duchess was driven mad by husband’s infidelity

Virginia de' Medici married into the House of Este, gaining wealth and power
Virginia de' Medici married into the House
of Este, gaining wealth and power
Virginia de’ Medici, who for a time ruled the duchy of Modena and Reggio, was born on this day in 1568 in Florence.

She protected the autonomy of the city of Modena while her husband was away, despite plots against her, and she was considered to have been a clever and far-sighted ruler.

Virginia was the illegitimate daughter of Cosimo I de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany and his mistress, Camilla Martelli.

Her paternal grandparents were Giovanni dalle Bande Nere and his wife Maria Salviati, who was the granddaughter of Lorenzo the Magnificent. Her maternal grandparents were Antonio Martelli and Fiammetta Soderini, who were both members of important families in Florence.

In 1570, Cosimo I contracted a morganatic marriage with his mistress, Camilla, on the advice of Pope Pius V, which allowed him to legitimise his daughter.

Virginia lived with her parents at the Villa di Castello during the summer and in Pisa in the winter.

Cosimo I’s older children resented his second marriage and after his death in 1574 they imprisoned Camilla in a convent.

Cesare d'Este became Virginia's husband in an arranged marriage in 1586
Cesare d'Este became Virginia's husband in
an arranged marriage in 1586
Virginia’s older brothers negotiated a marriage for her with a member of the Sforza family and when she was 13 she was betrothed to Francesco Sforza, Count of Santa Fiora.

The marriage did not take place because Sforza chose an ecclesiastical career and eventually became a Cardinal.

They then arranged a marriage for her with a member of the Este family and in 1586 Virginia married Cesare d’Este, the grandson of Alfonso I, Duke of Ferrara and son of Alfonso, Marquess of Montecchio. 

A play was written and performed to celebrate this event in Florence and the poet, Torquato Tasso, who was living in Ferrara, dedicated a Cantata to the newly married couple.

When the couple arrived in Ferrara, they lived in the Palazzo dei Diamanti, which was given to them by Cardinal Luigi d’Este, Cesare’s uncle.  A year later, Cesare’s father died and Virginia became Marchioness Consort of Montecchio after her husband inherited the title.

After Duke Alfonso II died in 1597 without issue, Cesare became the head of the House of Este and Virginia became Duchess Consort of Ferrara, Modena and Reggio and was given a wealth of other titles to do with territories owned by the Este family, some of which were in France.

Their rule over Ferrara did not last long as Pope Clement VII decided not to recognise Cesare’s succession. The Duchy of Ferrara was officially abolished and returned to the Papal States and Cesare and his family had to move to Modena. In 1601 he was also stripped of all his domains and titles in France.

The church of San Vincenzo in Modena, where Virginia is buried
The church of San Vincenzo in
Modena, where Virginia is buried
Virginia bore ten children for Cesare and acted as regent for him while he was away in Reggio. She stopped the attempts of the Podestà and Judge of Modena to seize control in his absence.

But she began to have unpredictable fits of anger and was thought to have been driven mad by knowing that her husband was often unfaithful to her. Her Jesuit confessor claimed she was possessed by the devil and tried to exorcise her demons.

It was later thought her mental illness was caused by having been married against her will and that it was worsened by her husband’s infidelity.

After Virginia’s death in 1615 in Modena at the age of 46 there were rumours that she had been poisoned by her husband but this was never proved. She was buried in the Este family crypt in the church of San Vincenzo in Modena.

The Palazzo dei Diamanti in Ferrara, which was a gift to Virginia and Cesare from Cesare's uncle, Cardinal Luigi d'Este
The Palazzo dei Diamanti in Ferrara, which was a gift to
Virginia and Cesare from Cesare's uncle, Cardinal Luigi d'Este
Travel tip:

Virginia and Cesare’s first home together was the Palazzo dei Diamanti in Ferrara. The palace, which is in Corso Ercole I d’Este, takes its name from the 8500 pointed diamond shaped stones that stud the façade, diamonds being an emblem of the Este family. It was designed by Biagio Rossetti and completed in 1503. The palace now houses the Pinacoteca Nazionale di Ferrara on its first floor, where you can also see the 16th century apartments inhabited by Virginia de’ Medici, three rooms that overlook Corso Biagio Rossetti. The art gallery is open from 10.00 to 17.30 Tuesday to Sunday.

The Palazzo dei Musei in Modena, which houses much of  the Este inheritance Cesare and Virginia took to Modena
The Palazzo dei Musei in Modena, which houses some of
the Este inheritance Cesare and Virginia took to Modena
Travel tip:

Modena is a city on the south side of the Po Valley in the Emilia-Romagna region, known for its car industry and for producing balsamic vinegar. Operatic tenor Luciano Pavarotti and soprano Mirella Freni were both born in Modena. When Cesare and Virginia had to relocate from Ferrara to Modena, they tried to take with them as much of the Este inheritance as possible, including cases full of rare and precious objects. These now form part of the Este family collection on display in the Gallerie Estensi, on the upper floor of the Palazzo dei Musei in Largo Porta Sant’Agostino in Modena. The galleries are open to visitors from Tuesday to Sunday. 

Also on this day:

1926: The birth in Florence of UK television personality Katie Boyle

1931: The execution of anarchist Michele Schirru

2013: The death of actress and writer Franca Rame


24 May 2020

Jacopo Carucci da Pontormo – artist

Painter’s expressive style was the start of Mannerism

Jacopo Pontormo's masterpiece, The Deposition from the Cross
Jacopo Pontormo's masterpiece, The
Deposition from the Cross
Painter Jacopo Carucci, often referred to simply as Pontormo, was born on this day in 1494 in Pontorme near Empoli in Tuscany.

Pontormo is considered to be the founder of the Mannerist style of painting in the later years of the Italian high renaissance, as he was capable of blending Michelangelo’s use of colour and monumental figures with the metallic rigidity of northern painters such as Albrecht Dürer. His work represents a distinct stylistic shift from the art typical of the Florentine Renaissance.

According to Giorgio Vasari in his book, The Lives of the Artists, Pontormo’s father was also a painter but he became an orphan at the age of ten. As a young art apprentice he moved around a lot, staying with Leonardo da Vinci, Mariotto Albertinelli, Piero di Cosimo and Andrea del Sarto.

Pope Leo X, passing through Florence in 1515 on a journey, commissioned the young Pontormo to fresco the Pope’s Chapel in the church of Santa Maria Novella.

Pontormo also participated in the decoration of the nuptial chamber of Pierfrancesco Borgherini with his Stories of Joseph, four paintings that are now in the National Gallery in London.

According to Vasari, the model for the boy seated on the step in one of the pictures was Pontormo’s young apprentice, Bronzino.

In 1522, when the plague broke out in Florence, Pontormo went to stay at a cloistered Carthusian monastery, the Certosa di Galluzzo, where he painted a series of frescoes on the passion and resurrection of Christ, but sadly these have been damaged over the years.

Pontormo’s surviving masterpiece is considered to be The Deposition from the Cross, a large altarpiece canvas in the church of Santa Felicità in Florence.

Pontormo's portrait, The Halberdier, was once
the most expensive painting in the world
In the last few years of his life, Pontormo worked on frescoes for the choir of the Basilica of San Lorenzo in Florence, but only the drawings for these have survived. The artist died, aged 62, in January 1557 before completing this work.

According to Vasari, Pontormo ‘was buried in the first cloister of the Church of the Servite friars under the scene he had previously painted there of the Visitation.’ This is the church of Santissima Annunziata in Piazza della Santissima Annunziata in Florence.

His body was moved in 1562 to the chapel devoted to artists and placed under the Trinity, which had been painted by his pupil, Bronzino.

Vasari portrays Pontormo as withdrawn, neurotic and miserly, but subsequent art historians have pointed out that the two were rivals for Medici commissions, which might have influenced Vasari’s judgment.

Pontormo’s work was out of fashion for centuries, but there has recently been renewed interest in him from art historians. Between 1989 and 2002, Pontormo’s portrait of The Halberdier held the title of the world’s most expensive painting by an Old Master.

The church of San Michele in Pontorme, Empoli, is just a few steps from the house in which Pontormo was born
The church of San Michele in Pontorme, Empoli, is just
a few steps from the house in which Pontormo was born
Travel tip:

The village of Pontorme, where Jacopo Carucci was born, is now a district of the town of Empoli, which can be found 20km (12 miles) southwest of Florence. Pontorme is essentially the network of streets around the church of San Michele Arcangelo. The house where Carucci spent his early years is now a museum in which visitors can see objects and artworks that include preparatory sketches for the altarpiece depicting Saints John the Evangelist and the Archangel Michael from the church of San Michele, a page from the painter’s diary and pieces of ceramic cookware uncovered during the building’s restoration.  The house is close to the church of San Michele in Via Pontorme, who can arrange visits.

The loggia facade of the Basilica della Santissima  Annunziata in Florence, where Carucci was buried
The loggia facade of the Basilica della Santissima
Annunziata in Florence, where Carucci was buried
Travel tip:

The Basilica della Santissima Annunziata, where Carucci was buried, is a Renaissance-style basilica in Florence. Considered the mother church of the Servite Order, it is located at the northeastern side of the Piazza Santissima Annunziata near the city centre. The facade of the church is by the architect Giovanni Battista Caccini, added in 1601 to imitate the Renaissance-style loggia of Brunelleschi's facade of the Foundling Hospital, which defines the eastern side of the piazza. The building opposite the Foundling Hospital, designed by Sangallo the Elder, was also given a Brunelleschian facade in the 1520s.

Also on this day:

1671: The birth of Gian Gastone de’ Medici, the last Medici to rule Florence

1751: The birth of Charles Emmanuel IV, King of Sardinia

1981: The birth of celebrity chef Simone Rugiati


4 May 2020

Osbert Sitwell – English writer

Baronet’s love for a Tuscan castle

Osbert Sitwell (right), pictured with his younger brother, Sacheverell, a writer and critic
Osbert Sitwell (right), pictured with his younger
brother, Sacheverell, a writer and critic
Sir Francis Osbert Sacheverell Sitwell died on this day in 1969 at the Castello di Montegufoni near Florence in Tuscany.

Like his famous elder sister, Edith Sitwell, who was a poet, and his younger brother, Sacheverell, an art and music critic and a prolific writer, Osbert devoted his life to art and literature.

His father, Sir George Reresby Sitwell, had purchased the Castle of Montegufoni, which is 20 km from Florence, in 1909 when it was derelict and restored it beautifully to become his personal residence.

Osbert inherited the castle after his father’s death in 1943 along with the baronetcy and he reigned over Montegufoni for the rest of his life.

Osbert was born in 1892 and grew up at the family homes in Derbyshire and Scarborough. In 1911 he joined the Sherwood Rangers Yeomanry but soon transferred to the Grenadier Guards and was based at the Tower of London, enabling him to go to the theatre and art galleries when he was off duty.

In 1914 he was sent to the trenches near Ypres in French, where the experience inspired him to write his first poems.

Sitwell served in the trenches at Ypres during World War I, reaching the rank of captain
Sitwell served in the trenches at Ypres during
World War I, reaching the rank of captain
He left the Army with the rank of Captain and contested the 1918 general election as a Liberal candidate for Scarborough and Whitby, finishing second.

Osbert, Edith and Sacheverell all worked closely together, dominating literary London between the two world wars.

Osbert wrote poetry, art criticism and was a controversial journalist. He published his first novel, Before the Bombardment, in 1926, receiving good reviews.

In the mid 1920s he met David Stuart Horner who was his lover and companion for the rest of his life.

As a close friend of the Duke and Duchess of York, the future King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, Osbert wrote a poem Rat Week, attacking Edward VIII and Mrs Simpson. When a magazine printed an edited version of the poem in 1937 that made it seem as though he was sympathetic to the Windsors for the way they had been treated, Osbert sued them for breach of copyright and eventually won damages and costs.

In 1946, Osbert settled at the Castle of Montegufoni with his partner. They made the castle an important cultural centre by inviting artists from all over the world to work there.

From the 1950s, Osbert started to suffer from Parkinson’s Disease and by the middle of the 1960s his condition had become so severe he had to abandon writing.

He died on 4 May 1969 in the castle. His body was cremated and his ashes were buried in the Cimitero Evangelico degli Allori in Florence, along with a copy of his first novel, Before the Bombardment.

Osbert left a legacy of essays, novels, travel writing, poetry and an autobiography that ran to five volumes. His novel, A Place of One’s Own, was made into a film in 1945.

Osbert Sitwell inherited the Castello di  Montegufoni from his father
Osbert Sitwell inherited the Castello di
Montegufoni from his father 
Travel tip:

The Castello di Montegufoni, where Osbert Sitwell died after living there for more than 20 years, is near Montespertoli amid the hills and historic wine estates of Chianti country. It was originally owned by the Ormanni family who were mentioned in Dante’s Divine Comedy. It was attacked by Florence in 1135 and left in ruins until the 13th century when the Acciaioli family acquired it, expanding it over the years. The castle was renovated in around 1650 and given the exterior style it has today. During World War II, hundreds of important works from the Uffizi Gallery in Florence were hidden in the castle’s cellars. Osbert Sitwell left the castle to his nephew in his will, who sold it in 1972. It has now been converted into luxury holiday apartments.

Osbert Sitwell's grave at the Cimitero degli Allori in Florence
Osbert Sitwell's grave at the Cimitero degli Allori in Florence
Travel tip:

Osbert Sitwell is one of many famous people buried in the Cimitero degli Allori in Florence. The small cemetery was opened in 1877 when non-Catholics could no longer be buried in the English Cemetery in Piazzale Donatello. The cemetery is in Via Senese between Due Strade and Galluzzo. Alice Keppel, the mistress of Edward VII and great–grandmother of Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, is also buried there.

Also on this day:

1655: The birth of Bartolomeo Cristofori, inventor of the piano

1894: The birth of Anthony Martin Sinatra, father of Frank

1927: The birth of noblewoman and socialite Marella Agnelli


12 December 2019

Robert Browning – English poet

Writer who called Italy his ‘university’

Robert Browning pictured in 1888, about  a year before he died in Venice,  aged 77
Robert Browning pictured in 1888, about
 a year before he died in Venice,  aged 77
Victorian poet and playwright Robert Browning died on this day in 1889 at his son’s home, Ca’ Rezzonico, a palazzo on the Grand Canal in Venice.

Browning was considered one of the most important Victorian poets, who had made contributions to social and political debate through his work, and he was given the honour of being buried in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey.

The poet’s early career had begun promisingly with his work being well received by the critics, but his long poem, Sordello, produced in 1840, was judged to be wilfully obscure and it was to take many years for his reputation to recover.

In 1846 Browning secretly married the poet, Elizabeth Barrett, who was six years older than him and had been living the life of an invalid in her father’s house in London. A few days later they went to live in Italy, leaving their families behind in England forever.

Elizabeth’s poetry became increasingly popular and after the death of Wordsworth in 1850 she was considered as a serious contender to become the next Poet Laureate. However, the position eventually went to Alfred Tennyson.

The Brownings lived in Pisa at first but then moved to Florence, where they lived in an apartment in a 15th century house, Casa Guidi, in the Oltrarno district.

A younger Robert Browning in a portraint by
 Italian painter Michele Gordigiani in 1858
Their only child, Robert Wiedeman Barrett Browning, who they nicknamed Penini, or Pen, was born to them in 1849.

Browning became fascinated with the art and cultural environment of Italy and would in later life describe the country as his ‘University’.

While Elizabeth continued to write and achieved fame through her poetry, Browning’s own work was still being dismissed by other writers and critics.

While in Florence, Browning worked on the poems that would eventually comprise his two-volume Men and Women, for which he is now well known.

But in 1855 when they were first published they made little impact.

When Elizabeth’s health began to deteriorate, the Brownings moved to the Villa Alberti in Siena.

They moved to Rome in 1860, but when Elizabeth’s health became worse they returned to Florence. Elizabeth died in Browning’s arms in June 1861, aged 55. She was buried in a white marble tomb, designed by Frederic, Lord Leighton, in the protestant English Cemetery of Florence.

Now a widower, Browning returned to London with his 12-year-old son, Pen. Through years of hard work he gradually built up his reputation again and became part of the London literary scene.

A portrait of Robert Browning painted by his son, Pen, in aroud 1882
A portrait of Robert Browning painted by
his son, Pen, in aroud 1882
In 1868, after five years of intensive writing, he published The Ring and the Book, his most ambitious project,and considered by some to be his greatest work. The poem was a commercial and critical success and brought him the recognition he had long been hoping for.

In his later years, Browning travelled frequently to Italy, finding peace and inspiration in the small hilltop town of Asolo in the Veneto. However, he never visited Florence again.

After one last visit to Asolo in the summer of 1889, Browning, accompanied by his sister, Sarianna, travelled to Venice to visit Pen and his wife at the end of October.

Pen, who had by then become a successful painter, had recently bought and renovated Ca’ Rezzonico.

Browning would spend the mornings at the Lido, the afternoons visiting his friend, Katharine Bronson, at her residence Ca’ Alvisi, and the evenings at Ca’ Rezzonico with his family.

In December, Browning became unwell and was diagnosed with bronchitis and a weak heart.

On December 12 he received the news that his last volume of poetry, Asolando, had sold out on the same day it was published. Browning knew there was an advertisement for a new edition of Mrs Browning’s poetry on the back of the book.  He told his son he was ‘more than satisfied’ and died a few hours later. He was 77 years old.

The elegant Ca' Rezzonico on the Grand Canal in Venice, which Browning's son, Pen, owned
The elegant Ca' Rezzonico on the Grand Canal
in Venice, which Browning's son, Pen, owned
A private funeral service was held in the sala (dining room) of Ca’ Rezzonico.

At the end of the service, eight pompieri (firemen) in blue uniforms and brass helmets, carried Browning’s body downstairs and on to a municipal barge, which conveyed the poet to the chapel on San Michele, the ‘isle of the dead’.

Two days later, Browning’s manservant escorted the coffin back to London by train.

On 31 December 1889, Browning was conveyed to Westminster Abbey along a route lined by thousands of people for a service, followed by an interment in Poets Corner, where he now lies surrounded by the great names of literature.

Casa Guidi in Florence, which has now been converted into a study centre
Casa Guidi in Florence, which has now
been converted into a study centre
Travel tip:

A plaque marks Casa Guidi, the home of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and her husband Robert Browning in Piazza di San Felice in the Oltrarno district of Florence. The Brownings lived in the piano nobile apartment between 1847 and 1862. The New York Browning Society restored the apartment and then gave it to Eton College to be converted into a study centre. Casa Guidi is open to the public on Monday, Wednesday and Friday afternoons from 3-6pm between April and November.

The main square - Piazza Giuseppe Garibaldi - at Asolo in the Veneto, which Browning made his home
The main square - Piazza Giuseppe Garibaldi - at Asolo in
the Veneto, which Browning made his home
Travel tip:

Robert Browning’s beloved Asolo is a hilltop town in the Veneto region of northern Italy. It is known as ‘the pearl of the province of Treviso’ and also as ‘the city of a hundred horizons’ because of its beautiful views over the countryside and the mountains. Browning published Asolando, a volume of poetry written in the town, in 1889 just before his death. The main road leading into the town is named Via Browning in his honour. One of the main sights is the Castle of Caterina Cornaro, which now houses the Eleonora Duse Theatre.

Also on this day:

1685: The birth of composer Lodovico Giustini

1901: Guglielmo Marconi receives the first transatlantic radio signal

1957: The birth of author Susanna Tamaro

1969: The Piazza Fontana bombing kills 17


25 April 2019

Giovanni Caselli - inventor

Priest and physicist who created world’s first ‘fax' machine

Although Caselli was ordained as a priest in 1836 he devoted his life to the study of science
Although Caselli was ordained as a priest in
1836 he devoted his life to the study of science
Giovanni Caselli, a physics professor who invented the pantelegraph, the forerunner of the modern fax machine, was born on this day in 1815 in Siena.

Caselli developed a prototype pantelegraph, which was capable of transmitting handwriting and images over long distances via wire telegraph lines, in 1856, some 20 years ahead of the patenting of Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone in the United States. It entered commercial service in France in 1865.

The technology was patented in Europe and the United States in the 1860s, when it was also trialled in Great Britain and Russia, but ultimately in proved too unreliable to achieve universal acceptance and virtually disappeared from popular use until midway through the 20th century.

Caselli spent his early years in Florence studying physics, science, history and religion and was ordained as a priest in the Catholic Church when he was 21.

In 1841 he was appointed tutor to the sons of Count Marquis Sanvitale of Modena in Parma, where he spent eight years before his time there was abruptly ended by expulsion from the city as a result of his participation in an uprising against the ruling House of Austria-Este.

A model of Caselli's device can be seen at the Leonardo da Vinci museum in Milan
A model of Caselli's device can be seen
at the Leonardo da Vinci museum in Milan 
He returned to Florence in 1849, when he became a professor of physics at the University of Florence.  It was at this time that he began to study electrochemistry, electromagnetism, electricity and magnetism. He also launched a journal with the intention of explaining the science of physics in layman's terms.

Alexander Bain and Frederick Bakewell were two other physicists working on similar technology at the same time as Caselli but were unable to achieve the necessary synchronization between the transmitting and receiving parts so they would work together correctly. Caselli, though, built in a regulating clock that made the sending and receiving mechanisms work together.

In Caselli’s device, an image was made using non-conductive ink on tin foil, over which a stylus passed, lightly touching the foil, which conducted electricity where there was no ink and not where there was ink, causing circuit breaks that matched the image.

The signals were then sent along a long distance telegraph line to a receiver, where an electrical stylus reproduced the image line-by-line using blue dye ink on white paper.

In 1856, Caselli presented his prototype to Leopold II, Grand Duke of Tuscany, who was impressed enough to give Caselli some financial support, before he moved to Paris to introduce his invention to Napoleon III.

A 'fax' message that was transmitted between Paris and Lyon using Caselli's pantelegraph in 1862
A 'fax' message that was transmitted between Paris and
Lyon using Caselli's pantelegraph in 1862
Napoleon embraced the technology with great enthusiasm, and between 1857 and 1861 Caselli worked on perfecting his pantelegraph, sometimes known as the Autotelegraph or Universal Telegraph, with the French mechanical engineer Léon Foucault.

After seeing a demonstration of Caselli's improved pantelegraph in 1860, Napoleon gave Caselli the chance to test in within the French national telegraph network, providing him with financial backing. Among the successful tests was one between Paris and Amiens, over a distance of 140km (87 miles) of a document bearing the signature of the composer Gioachino Rossini. 

After a further successful test between Paris and Marseille, commercial operations started in 1865, first between Paris and Lyon line, extending to Marseille in 1867.

After patenting his device in Europe in 1861 the United States in 1863, and receiving the Legion d’Honneur from Napoleon in recognition for his work, Caselli oversaw trials in England and Russia, where Tsar Alexander II used the system to send documents between his palaces in Saint Petersburg and Moscow between 1861 and 1865.

In the first year of operation, Caselli’s pantelegraph transmitted almost 5,000 'faxes'.

Yet Caselli could not develop the technology quickly enough for reliability issues to be solved and eventually interest in it began to decline to the extent that he effectively abandoned it and returned to Florence, where he died in 1891 at the age of 76.

Although in the 1920s, the AT & T Corporation developed a way to transmit images using radio signals, it was not until 1964 that the Xerox Corporation introduced the first commercial fax machine of the kind recognisable today.

Many of Caselli’s patents, letters and proofs of teleautographic transmission are kept at the municipal library of Siena. Others can be found in the archives of the Museo Galileo in Florence.

The shell-shaped Piazza del Campo in Siena is regarded as one of the finest medieval squares in Europe
The shell-shaped Piazza del Campo in Siena is regarded
as one of the finest medieval squares in Europe
Travel tip: 

Siena, where Caselli was born, is famous for its shell-shaped Piazza del Campo, established in the 13th century as an open marketplace on a sloping site between the three communities that eventually merged to form Siena. It is regarded as one of Europe's finest medieval squares. The red brick paving, put down in 1349, fans out from the centre in nine sections. It has become well known as the scene of the historic horse race, the Palio di Siena.  Siena also has a beautiful Duomo - the Cathedral of St Mary of the Assumption - which was designed and completed between 1215 and 1263, its façade built in Tuscan Romanesque style using polychrome marble.

Piazza San Marco in Florence, a short distance from the centre of the city, is the home of the University of Florence
Piazza San Marco in Florence, a short distance from the centre
of the city, is the home of the University of Florence
Travel tip:

The University of Florence, the headquarters of which is in Piazza San Marco in the centre of the city, can trace its roots to the Studium Generale, which was established by the Florentine Republic in 1321. The Studium was recognized by Pope Clement VI in 1349, and included Italy’s first faculty of theology. The Studium became an imperial university in 1364, but was moved to Pisa in 1473 when Lorenzo the Magnificent gained control of Florence. Charles VIII moved it back from 1497–1515, but it was moved to Pisa again when the Medici family returned to power.  The modern university dates from 1859, when a group of institutions formed the Istituto di Studi Pratici e di Perfezionamento, which a year later was recognized as a full-fledged university, and renamed as the University of Florence in 1923.

More reading:

Antonio Meucci - the 'true' inventor of the telephone

Innocenzo Manzetti, the inventor who may have produced the first prototype telephone

The Italian physicist who pioneered the alternating current (AC) system

Also on this day:

Festa della Liberazione

1472: The death of Renaissance polymath Leon Battista Alberti

1973: The death of World War One flying ace Ferruccio Ranza


6 February 2019

Girolamo Benivieni – poet

Follower of Plato, Dante and Savonarola

Girolamo Benivieni, pictured as an old man in a painting attributed to Ridolfo Ghirlandaio
Girolamo Benivieni, pictured as an old man in
a painting attributed to Ridolfo Ghirlandaio
The poet Girolamo Benivieni, who turned Marsilio Ficino’s translation of Plato’s Symposium into verse, was born on this day in 1453 in Florence.

His poem was to influence other writers during the Renaissance and some who came later.

As a member of the Florentine Medici circle, Benivieni was a friend of the Renaissance humanists Ficino, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola and Angelo Poliziano, commonly known as Polician.

Ficino translated Plato’s Symposium in about 1474 and wrote his own commentary on the work.

Benivieni summarised Ficino’s work in the poem De lo amore celeste - Of Heavenly Love - These verses then became the subject of a commentary by Pico della Mirandola.

As a result of all these works, Platonism reached such writers as Pietro Bembo and Baldassare Castiglione and the English poet, Edmund Spencer.

Benivieni later fell under the spell of Girolamo Savonarola, the fiery religious reformer, and he rewrote some of his earlier sensual poetry as a result. He also translated a treatise by Savonarola into Italian, Della semplicità della vita cristiana - On the Simplicity of the Christian life - and he wrote some religious poetry of his own.

Benivieni's tombstone behind the statue of Savonarola in the Church of San Marco
Benivieni's tombstone behind the statue of
Savonarola in the Church of San Marco
He took part in Savonarola’s Bonfire of the Vanities and documented the destruction of art works worth ‘several thousand ducats’ at the time.

Lucrezia de’ Medici supported him in his writing and they shared an interest in the works of Dante Alighieri. In 1506 Benivieni published an edition of Dante’s Divine Comedy with maps by Antonio Manetti and commentaries by Benivieni and Manetti.

He drafted a letter for Lucrezia to send to her brother, Pope Leo X, seeking his assistance in bringing Dante’s body back to Florence from Ravenna where he was buried.

Benivieni also used his connection with Lucrezia to advance his ideas on church reform with her brother, and later with her cousin, Pope Clement VII.

In 1530 he wrote a letter to Pope Clement in defence of Savonarola, seeking to have his reputation restored within the Church.

He died in 1542, a few months before his 90th birthday and was buried in the Church of San Marco in Florence next to his friend, Pico della Mirandola.

The Church of San Marco in Florence is close to where the fiery priest Girolamo Savonarola lived
The Church of San Marco in Florence is close to where
the fiery priest Girolamo Savonarola lived
Travel tip:

The Church of San Marco, where Girolamo Benivieni and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola are buried together, is in Piazza di San Marco to the north of the Galleria dell’Accademia, which houses Michalangelo’s David. The original tombstone is in Latin. It says: ‘Here lies Giovannni Mirandola; known both at the Tagus and the Ganges and maybe even the antipodes. He died in 1494 and lived for thirty-two years. Girolamo Benivieni, to prevent separate places from disjointing after death the bones of those whose souls were joined by Love while living, provided for this grave where he too is buried. He died in 1542 and lived for eighty-nine years and six months.’ Next to the church is the convent of San Marco, now the Museo Nazionale di San Marco, where Savonarola and the painters, Fra Angelico and Fra Bartolomeo, once lived.

The tomb of Dante Alighieri adjoins the Basilica of San Francesco in Ravenna
The tomb of Dante Alighieri adjoins the
Basilica of San Francesco in Ravenna
Travel tip:

A tomb built for Dante in the Basilica di Santa Croce in Florence still remains empty. Dante died while living in exile in Ravenna in about 1321. He was buried at the Church of San Pier Maggiore in Ravenna and a tomb was erected there for him in 1483. Florence has made repeated requests for the return of Dante’s remains to the city but Ravenna has always refused.

More reading:

The Bonfire of the Vanities - preacher Savonarola's war on Renaissance 'excesses'

Giovanni Pico della Mirandola – the philosopher who wrote the 'Manifesto of the Renaissance'

Pietro Bembo - the poet and scholar who became Lucrezia Borgia's lover

Also on this day:

1577: The birth of Roman heroine Beatrice Cenci

1778: The birth of the poet and revolutionary Ugo Foscolo

1908: The birth of six-times Italian prime minister Amintore Fanfani


12 January 2019

John Singer Sargent - painter

Celebrated portraitist had lifelong love for Italy

John Singer Sargent, photographed in 1903 by James E Purdy
John Singer Sargent, photographed in
1903 by James E Purdy
The painter John Singer Sargent, who was hailed as the leading portraitist of his era but was also a brilliant painter of landscapes, was born on this day in 1856 in Florence.

Although he became an American citizen at the first opportunity, both his parents being American, he spent his early years in Italy and would regularly return to the country throughout his life.

At his commercial peak during the Edwardian age, his studio in London attracted wealthy clients not only from England but from the rest of Europe and even from the other side of the Atlantic, asking him to grant them immortality on canvas.

His full length portraits, which epitomised the elegance and opulence of high society at the end of the 19th century, would cost the subject up to $5,000 - the equivalent of around $140,000 (€122,000; £109,000) today.

Sargent was born in Italy on account of a cholera pandemic, the second to hit Europe that century, which caused a high number of fatalities in London in particular. His parents, who were regular visitors to Italy, were in Florence and decided it would be prudent to stay.

A Sargent portrait of a celebrated  American actress and her daughter
A Sargent portrait of a celebrated
American actress and her daughter
There was always a strong chance that he would be born in Italy. Although his parents had a home in Paris, they were almost constantly travelling to one part of Europe or another in search of culture, and Italy, with its wealth of classical attractions, was a favourite destination.

Sargent’s sister, Mary, was also born in Florence and in time the family decided to stay there, his father relinquishing his position as an eye surgeon in Philadelphia.

The young Sargent did not have a formal education but learned much from his parents, quickly developing an appreciation of art, particularly in Venice, where he studied at first hand the works of Tintoretto, whom he rated an inferior only to Titian and Michelangelo.

By the age of 12, Sargent was already making his own sketches of the scenic wonders of Italy. He received his first organised art instruction from the German landscape painter, Carl Welsch, in Florence but left in 1874 to study in Paris. He was 22 before he made his first visit to the United States, and although he took the opportunity to claim his American citizenship, he immediately returned to Italy.

He spent time in Naples and Capri in 1878 before taking a studio in Venice, from which he painted many views, often of the lesser-known parts of the city and of Venetian people going about their normal daily lives. Where many painters focused on the places that attracted tourists, and did very well as a result, Sargent was more interested in the real Venice.

Sargent's impressionist-style watercolour of the Scuola di San Rocco in Venice, noted for its collection of Tintoretto paintings
Sargent's impressionist-style watercolour of the Scuola di San
Rocco in Venice, noted for its collection of Tintoretto paintings
Among his Venetian scenes, his Scuola di San Rocco (c. 1903) marks Sargent as one of the finest watercolour painters of all time.

He found his own best commercial opportunities lay in Paris, and subsequently London, however, and portrait-painting became the driving force of his career.

His gift was in his ability to make each portrait somehow unique, despite the repetitive nature of the work. He managed to find something different about every sitter, could use props and background to suggest their class or occupation, and specialised in capturing his subjects in off-guard moments, rather than formal poses, to evoke a sense of their nature.

But portraits were not really what he wanted to do and, in 1910, having grown wealthy, Sargent gave up portraiture and devoted the rest of his life to painting murals and Alpine and Italian landscapes in watercolour.

Sargent's watercolour of the church of Santa Maria della Salute
Sargent's watercolour of the church of Santa Maria della Salute
Travel tip:

The great Baroque church of Santa Maria della Salute was one of Sargent’s favourite churches in Venice. Standing at the entrance to the Grand Canal and supported by more than a million timber piles, it was built to celebrate the city’s deliverance from the plague that claimed the lives of 46,000 Venetians in 1630. It is one of the most imposing architectural landmarks in Venice and has inspired painters such as Canaletto, Turner and Guardi. The interior consists of a large octagonal space below a cupola with eight side chapels. There are paintings by Titian and Tintoretto and a group of statues depicting the Virgin and Child expelling the plague by the Flemish sculptor, Josse de Corte.

Sargent's impression of a gondola passing beneath the Rialto
Sargent's impression of a gondola passing beneath the Rialto
Travel tip:

The Rialto Bridge, of which Sargent sought different aspects, is the oldest of the four bridges spanning the Grand Canal in Venice, connecting the sestieri of San Marco and San Polo. Originally built as a pontoon bridge in 1181, and called Ponte della Moneta after the city’s mint, which stood near its eastern entrance, it was rebuilt several times, first in 1255, when it was replaced with a wooden bridge to cope with extra traffic generated by the development of the Rialto market. It had two inclined ramps meeting at a movable central section, that could be raised to allow the passage of tall ships. The rows of shops along the sides of the bridge were added in the first half of the 15th century. It was replaced by a stone bridge after once burning down and twice collapsing under the weight of people.

More reading:

Tintoretto, the dyer's son whose work adorns Venice

Titian, the giant of Renaissance art

The Festival of Madonna della Salute, when Venetians celebrate their deliverance from the plague

Also on this day:

1562: The birth of Charles Emmanuel I, Duke of Savoy

1751: The birth of Ferdinand I of the Two Sicilies

1848: Sicily rebels against the Bourbons