Showing posts with label January. Show all posts
Showing posts with label January. Show all posts

9 January 2016

Umberto I – King of Italy

Anarchists made three attempts on monarch’s life

King Umberto I ascended the throne of Italy on this day in 1878.

This full length portrait was painted in 1878, the year of his ascension to the throne
Umberto I, depicted in a
portrait painted in 1878
Known by the Italian people as Il Buono (the Good) he succeeded on the death of his father, Victor Emmanuel II.

Umberto had already won popular support because of the way he had conducted himself during his military career and as a result of his marriage to Margherita of Savoy and the subsequent birth of their son, who was to become King Victor Emmanuel III.

But he was to become increasingly unpopular during his reign because of his imperialist policies and his harsh ways of dealing with civil unrest.

Queen Margherita was particularly loved in Naples, where she visited schools and hospitals and organised collections of toys and clothes for the children of poor families. She was seen to hold the hands of cholera victims without wearing gloves and to join the ordinary women in their processions to the Duomo.

As a result, Pizza Margherita, with its tomatoes, basil and mozzarella representing the colours of the Italian flag, was created in Naples and named after her.

However, her popularity didn’t help Umberto, who was attacked by an anarchist in Naples during the first year of his reign.

Umberto was making a tour of the kingdom accompanied by Queen Margherita, and the Prime Minister, Benedetto Cairoli.

While saluting the crowd from his carriage, Umberto was attacked by a young man, Giovanni Passanante, who was employed as a cook but was later described as an anarchist.

Passanante jumped on the carriage and attempted to stab the King. Umberto warded off the blow with his sabre but the Prime Minister, who came to his aid, was wounded in the thigh.

In 1897 Umberto was attacked again, this time by an unemployed ironworker who tried, but failed, to stab him in Rome.

But in July 1900 the anarchists were finally successful. Umberto was shot and killed in Monza by Gaetano Bresci, who later claimed he wanted to avenge the people killed in a recent massacre in Milan, when military force had been used against ordinary people protesting about rising bread prices.

Umberto was buried in the Pantheon in Rome next to the tomb of his father, Victor Emmanuel II.

The Pantheon in Rome, which houses the tombs
of Umberto I and his father, Victor Emanuel II
Travel tip:

The Pantheon in Piazza della Rotonda is Rome’s best preserved ancient building. It was built in AD 118 on the site of a previous building dating back to 27 BC. The building, which has a huge dome, was consecrated as a church in the seventh century. Victor Emanuel II, Umberto I and his wife, Queen Margherita, are the only members of the Italian royal family buried there.

Travel tip:

The Duomo in Naples, in Via Duomo, off Via Tribunali, was built over the ruins of two earlier Christian churches for Charles I of Anjou at the end of the 13th century. The Duomo is in the spotlight in May and September each year when a vial containing the dried blood of the city’s patron saint, San Gennaro is brought out to liquefy in front of the congregation. It is believed that whenever the blood fails to liquefy disaster is going to befall Naples. The Duomo is open to the public from 8.30 to 1.30 and 2.30 to 8 pm Monday to Saturday and 8.30 to 1.30 and 4.30 to 7.30 pm on Sundays.

8 January 2016

Giotto – Renaissance artist

Realistic figures were first painted by Florentine genius Giotto

The brilliant 14th century painter Giotto di Bondone, who was known simply as Giotto, died on this day in 1337 in Florence.

The Scrovegni Chapel houses some of Giotto's greatest work
The Scrovegni Chapel in Padova, home of
Giotto's stunning cycle of frescoes
Although much of his work is no longer in existence, he is remembered as one of the greatest artists of the early Renaissance period.

It is believed Giotto was born in about 1267 in Florence but it is not known how he learned to paint with such a sense of space, naturalism and drama. His work represented a crucial turning point in the history of art because he painted lifelike, solid figures and put in fascinating background details.

He is believed to be the first artist to make a decisive break with the Byzantine style of painting and draw figures accurately from life.

Giotto’s revolutionary style was followed by many other painters later in the 14th century and it is said that he was actually paid a salary by the commune of Florence because of his excellence.
Some of his work can be seen in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, such as his altarpiece, The Ognissanti Madonna, painted in 1310, which is a good example of his ability to paint lifelike people.

But Giotto’s most stunning surviving work is the interior of the Scrovegni chapel in Padova. His cycle of frescoes is considered to be one of the greatest works of art in the world.

Dedicated to Santa Maria della Carita (Saint Mary of the Charity), the chapel was decorated by Giotto between 1303 and 1305. The work was commissioned by Enrico degli Scrovegni, who was hoping to atone for the sins of usury committed by himself and his dead father.

The frescoes narrate events in the lives of the Virgin Mary and Christ and cover the side walls of the chapel. On the wall opposite the altar is Giotto’s magnificent Universal Judgment, which tells the story of human salvation and includes the figure of Enrico degli Scrovegni offering up a model of the chapel to the Virgin Mary in a desperate bid to save his father from hell.

Under a bright blue sky, the realistic figures with their powerful facial expressions and colourful clothes tell the bible stories in a way they had never been told before.

In later life, Giotto was made ‘first court painter', with a yearly pension, by King Robert of Anjou in Naples. He lived in Naples till 1333 but none of his work there has survived.

Giotto's Campanile in Florence
Photo: Sailko (CC BY-SA 3.0)
On his return to Florence he was asked to design the new Campanile for the Cathedral in 1334 and his last known work was the decoration of a chapel in the Bargello.

It is thought Giotto was about 70 years of age when he died on 8 January 1337. Some sources say he was buried in Santa Maria del Fiore, Florence’s Duomo, while others believe he was buried in the earlier church on the site, Santa Reparata.

In the 1970s, bones were discovered beneath the paving of Santa Reparata and forensic examination confirmed they were those of a painter. The bones were reburied with honour near the grave of Brunelleschi in the church, but it is still not certain that they are actually the remains of Giotto.
Travel tip:

It is a miracle Giotto’s frescoes in the Scrovegni Chapel have survived for 700 years. The chapel was acquired by the city of Padova in 1880 and specialised restoration operations have been carried out since. The state of the building, the quality of air, and the conservation of the frescoes have all been carefully studied. The chapel can be accessed from Giardini dell’Arena off Piazza Eremitani. There is a separate building where visitors can watch a video to prepare them for seeing the frescoes. Visits are carefully organised so people can enter the chapel and look at the frescoes without jeopardising their condition. Tickets should be booked in advance and collected an hour before the visit. For details visit

The interior of the Scrovegni Chapel is lined with
Giotto's extraordinary frescoes
Photo: Rastaman3000 (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Travel tip:

The Campanile of Santa Maria del Fiore was designed by Giotto in 1334, but it was not completed till 1359, 22 years after his death. The bell tower is clad in white, pink and green Tuscan marble. In the 1870s, a marble façade was added to the Duomo to echo Giotto’s design for the Campanile.


7 January 2016

Il tricolore

Flag represented people’s hopes for a united Italy

The Italian flag, with its panels of green, white and red, was first hoisted on this day in 1797 in Reggio Emilia.

The Italian flag is known as Il Tricolore
Il tricolore
Photo: Jacopo Prisco
(CC BY-SA 3.0)
Long before Italy became a united country, an early form of the tricolore was being flown in a part of the country then known as the Cispadane Republic, where it had been agreed to make universal “the standard or flag of three colours, green, white and red”.

The Cispadane Republic (Repubblica Cispadana) was founded with the protection of the French Army in 1796 in what is now Emilia Romagna. The republic organised a congress on 7 January in Reggio Emilia and adopted the first ever tricolore as its flag.

But it was many years and many battles later before the flag as we know it now was formally adopted by the Italian republic in 1948.

It is thought the Cispadane republic chose panels of red and white because they were the colours of the flag of Milan and green because it was the colour of the uniform of the Milan civic guard.

Some believe the green panel (on the hoist side of the flag as it is used now) represents Italy’s plains and hills, the white panel, the snow capped alps and the red panel, the blood spilt in Italy’s fight for independence from foreign domination.

A religious interpretation is that green represents hope, white represents faith and red represents charity.

Football fans unite behind the Italian flag at major tournaments
Football fans delight in waving the tricolore
when Italy competes for the World Cup
Many forms of the flag were adopted in different parts of Italy in the years before unification, but the tricolore became the symbol of the Risor- 
gimento, the movement fighting for independence.

In 1861 the flag of the Kingdom of Sardinia was declared to be the flag of the newly formed Kingdom of Italy. This was the Italian tricolore with the emblem of the House of Savoy on it.

The flag remained like this until the birth of the republic in 1946. Then the flag of green, white and red vertical panels was formally adopted.

Italians fly the flag with particular pride when the national football team competes in the World Cup and it was prominent at the 150th celebrations of the unification of Italy in 2011.

Travel tip:

Reggio Emilia, where the first ever tricolore was hoisted, is a city in the Emilia Romagna region surrounded by medieval walls built in a hexagonal design. It has a wealth of 16th century palaces and churches and is famous for producing Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.

Victor Emanuel completed the unification of Italy when he entered Rome in 1870
The Italian flag flies at the momument
to Victor Emanuel II in Rome
Photo: Nicolai Schafer (CC BY-SA 2.0 DE)
Travel tip:

Rome remained under French control after the first Italian parliament proclaimed Victor Emanuel II  King of Italy, despite attempts by nationalists to liberate it. But after the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war, Napoleon III withdrew some of his troops. Italian soldiers seized their chance and after a brief bombardment entered Rome on 20 September 1870 through a breach in the walls at Porta Pia. Victor Emanuel took up residence in the Quirinale Palace, the tricolore was hoisted and Italy was declared officially united. A marble plaque commemorating the liberation of Rome was placed near Porta Pia where the Italian troops first got through.


6 January 2016


A good witch who traditionally sweeps away problems

Children in Italy will be waking up on this day hoping to find that Befana has left them some presents while they have been sleeping.

A puppet depicting Befana
Photo: Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Although Christmas is almost over, the eve of 6 January is when a kind witch is supposed to visit the good children in Italy and leave them presents.

Traditionally, children who have been naughty are supposed to receive only a lump of coal and those who have been stupid are supposed to receive only a carrot.

But in reality, many children throughout Italy will expect good presents from Befana today.

Befana is also sometimes referred to as La Vecchia (the old woman) and La Strega (the witch). But she is supposed to be a similar character to Saint Nicholas or Santa Claus.

It is believed her name derives from La Festa dell’Epifania (the feast of the Epiphany).

Befana is usually portrayed in illustrations as an old lady riding a broomstick, wearing a black shawl and covered in soot because she enters the children’s homes through the chimney.

Another tradition is that Befana sweeps the floor of the house before she leaves, symbolising the sweeping away of the problems of the previous year.

Many households will leave out a small glass of wine and a plate with small portions of the regional or local specialties for Befana.

Some lucky children in Italy will have already received presents from Santa Claus on 25 December and will wake up today to find another delivery from Befana.

The famous Christmas market in Rome's Piazza
Navona. Photo: Mitravabanerjee (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Travel tip:

Piazza Navona in Rome is the site of a Christmas market, which lasts till Epiphany, where toys, sweets and craft items are on sale. Many people go down to the market on the night of 6 January as there is a legend that Befana will appear at a window overlooking the square. Everyone jokes about it while enjoying the festive atmosphere and buying the goods on sale.

Travel tip:

The home of Befana is traditionally supposed to be Urbania, a small town south west of Urbino in Le Marche. A national Befana festival is held there every year between 2 and 6 January and a special post box is set up to receive mail for Befana. Urbania has medieval walls and a Ducal Palace and is well known in Italy as a centre for majolica and ceramics production.


5 January 2016

Umberto Eco – novelist and semiotician

Prolific author became fascinated with signs and symbols

Academic and writer Umberto Eco was born on this day in 1932 in Alessandria in Piedmont.
Umberto Eco's novels, The Name of the Rose and Foucault's Pendulum, were worldwide bestsellers
Umberto Eco
He is best known for his mystery novel, The Name of the Rose - Il Nome della Rosa, which was first published in Italian in 1980, but he is also a respected expert on semiotics, the branch of linguistics concerned with signs and symbols.

Eco studied medieval literature and philosophy at the University of Turin and after graduating worked in television as well returning to lecture at the University of Turin.

He has since been a visiting professor at a number of American universities and has received honorary doctorates from universities in America and Serbia.

As well as producing fiction, he has published books on medieval aesthetics, literary criticism, media culture, anthropology and philosophy. He has also helped to found an important new approach in contemporary semiotics and to launch a journal on semiotics.

Eco set his first novel, The Name of the Rose, in a 14th century monastery with a Franciscan friar as the detective. The book has been described as ‘an intellectual mystery combining semiotics in fiction, biblical analysis, medieval studies and literary theory’. In 1986 it was made into a film starring Sean Connery.

Buy The Name Of The RoseFoucault's Pendulum and Numero Zero.

His novel Foucault’s Pendulum, published in 1988, is about three book editors who decide to have a bit of fun with what they think is a fictional plot to take over the world by a secret order descended from the Knights Templar. But when the story takes over and the deaths start mounting up they are forced to make a frantic search for the truth.

Eco’s most recent novel, Numero Zero, has now been translated from the original Italian by Richard Dixon. First published in English in November 2015, it has been described as being about ‘Mussolini, media hoaxes, gossip and murder’.

Now 84, Eco divides his time between living in his apartment in Milan and his holiday home near Urbino.

UPDATE - Umberto Eco died in Milan in February 2016.

Travel tip:

Alessandria is an historic city about 90 km south east of Turin in Piedmont. It is easy to reach as it is on the Turin–Genoa railway line and is a hub for six other railway lines. It has 14th and 15th century churches in the centre to look round as well as a museum devoted to the Battle of Marengo, which was fought near the town in 1800 between Austrian and French forces.

Umberto Eco has a home in Urbino in the Marche region
A view over the walled city of Urbino
Photo: Zyance (CC BY-SA 2.5)
Travel tip:

Urbino is a walled city in the Marche region with a remarkable legacy of Renaissance architecture. One of the highlights is the Palazzo Ducale, built in the 15th century for Federico II da Montefeltro and now home to one of the most important collections of Renaissance paintings in the world.


4 January 2016

Carlo Levi – writer and painter

Author and doctor who highlighted poverty in southern Italy

The anti-fascist writer, painter and doctor, Carlo Levi, died on this day in Rome in 1975.

Carlo Levi wrote Christ Stopped at Eboli based on his experiences in exile in Basilicata
Carlo Levi, anti-fascist writer and
author of Christ Stopped at Eboli
He is best remembered for his book ‘Christ Stopped at Eboli’ (Cristo si è fermato a Eboli), an account of the time he spent in political exile in a remote, impoverished part of Italy.

Levi was born in Turin in 1902. His father was a wealthy Jewish physician and Levi went to the University of Turin to study medicine after finishing school.

While at University he became active in politics and after graduating he turned his attention to painting.

But he never completely abandoned medicine and moved to Paris to continue his medical research while painting.

After returning to Italy, Levi founded an anti-fascist movement in 1929. As a result he was arrested and sent into exile to a remote area of Italy called Lucania (now renamed Basilicata).

He encountered extreme poverty, which had been unknown in the north where he grew up. As well as writing and painting while he was in exile, he served as a doctor to help the poor villagers he lived among.

When he was released from his political exile he moved back to France but on his return to Italy he was arrested again and imprisoned in Florence.

After the fall of Mussolini he was released from prison and he wrote ‘Christ Stopped at Eboli’ about his experiences living in Lucania.

At the end of the war he moved to Rome where he continued to paint, work as a political journalist and write books.

He died of pneumonia at the age of 72 on 4 January, 1975.

In 1979, ‘Christ Stopped at Eboli’ was made into a film directed by Francesco Rosi.

Aliano is the town near Matera in Basilicata upon which Carlo Levi based his fictional town of Gagliano
The hill town of Aliano in Basilicata was the
inspiration for Levi's fictional town of Gagliano
Photo: Michele Pinassi (CC BY 2.5 IT)
Travel tip:

Aliano, a town about 90 kilometres from Matera in the region of Basilicata, was the inspiration for the fictional town of Gagliano in Levi’s book ‘Christ Stopped at Eboli’. Located on top of rocky hills, it was badly damaged by an earthquake in 1980. Many residents still speak alianese dialect and keep up ancient traditions to bring themselves good luck and ward off ‘the evil eye.’ For more information visit

Travel tip:

Turin University in Via Giuseppe Verdi dates back to 1404 but officially became a university after reforms were made to it by Victor Amadeus II of Sardinia in the 18th century. The Faculty of Medicine attended by Carlo Levi is proud of its 600-year history, which it counts back to 1412 when it was founded by a local doctor, Antonio Cusano.


3 January 2016

Sergio Leone – film director

Distinctive style of  ‘Spaghetti Western’ creator

Italian film director, producer and screen writer Sergio Leone was born on this day in 1929 in Rome.

Leone is most associated with the ‘spaghetti western’ genre of films, such as the Dollars trilogy of westerns featuring Clint Eastwood.

Clint Eastwood starred in Sergio Leone's Dollars trilogy
Clint Eastwood in a publicity shot for
Sergio Leone's A Fistful of Dollars
He had a distinctive film-making style that involved juxtaposing extreme close-up shots with lengthy long shots.

Leone’s father was a film director and his mother was a silent film actress. He went to watch his father at work on film sets from an early age.

He dropped out of university to begin his own career in the industry at the age of 18 as an assistant to the director Vittorio de Sica.

He began writing screen plays and worked as an assistant director on Quo Vadis and Ben Hur at Cinecittà in Rome.

When the director of The Last Days of Pompeii fell ill, Leone was asked to step in and complete the film.

He made his solo debut as a director with The Colossus of Rhodes in 1961.

Leone turned his attention to making spaghetti westerns in the 1960s and his films, A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly were big financial successes.

He turned down the opportunity to direct The Godfather to work on the gangster film Once Upon A Time in America. It was drastically cut by the film company and was initially a flop. But when the original, longer version was released it was hailed a masterpiece. It was to be his last film.

In 1988 he was head of the jury at the 45th Venice International Film Festival.

Leone died in 1989 at the age of 60.

Travel tip:

Cinecittà in Rome, the hub of the Italian film industry, is a large studio complex to the south of the city, 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 and it has its own dedicated Metro stop.

Sergio Leone on the set of
Once Upon a Time in America

Travel tip:

The first Venice film festival was held in 1932 on the terrace of the Hotel Excelsior on the Venice Lido and was such a success it was held again in 1934. The 73rd Venice International Film Festival, organised by La Biennale di Venezia, will take place from 31 August to 10 September 2016 . The aim of the festival will be to raise awareness of, and promote, international cinema as art, entertainment and also an industry. For more information about the 2016 festival, visit

More reading:


2 January 2016

Piero di Cosimo – painter

Florentine artist achieved world wide recognition

A Renaissance artist famous for his elaborate landscapes, Piero di Cosimo, was born on this day in Florence in 1462.

Piero di Cosimo's Immaculate Conception with
Saints is housed at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence
His paintings are now in galleries all over the world and experts credit him with bringing the Renaissance spirit into the 16th century, while adding vivacity and lyricism.

The painter was born Piero di Lorenzo di Chimenti, but he became known as Piero di Cosimo after being apprenticed to the painter Cosimo Rosselli, with whom he frescoed the walls of the Sistine Chapel.

Early in his career he was influenced by the Flemish artist, Hugo van der Goes, and from him acquired a love for painting the countryside with all the plants and animals in great detail.

Piero di Cosimo eventually moved to Rome where he began painting scenes from classical mythology and he also developed a reputation for eccentric behaviour among his fellow artists.

But he was regarded as an excellent portrait painter and regularly received commissions. His most famous portrait, of a Florentine noble woman, Simonetta Vespucci, who was the mistress of Giuliano dè Medici, is now in a gallery in France.

Later in his life Piero di Cosimo became profoundly influenced by hellfire preacher Savonarola and turned his attention to painting religious subjects.

The Immaculate Conception with Saints in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence is an example of his religious fervour at the time, as is The Adoration of the Christ Child, an oil painting on wood, in the Galleria Borghese in Rome.

But many of his most famous paintings are now in galleries in America, Canada, Brazil, Britain, Germany and France.

It is believed that Piero di Cosimo died after contracting the plague in 1522.

Travel tip:

The Uffizi in Florence is one of the oldest and most famous art galleries in the world and houses a wealth of Renaissance art treasures. Located in Piazzale degli Uffizi close to Piazza della Signoria and the Palazzo Vecchio, it was originally built as a suite of offices in 1560, but later became used by the Medici family to display their art treasures. Visit

The Uffizi houses a wealth of Renaissance art treasures
The Uffizi Gallery in Florence by night
Photo: Chris Wee (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Travel tip:

Galleria Borghese in Villa Borghese in Rome was built in 1613 for Cardinal Scipione Borghese to display his magnificent art collection. The gallery now houses masterpieces by Caravaggio, Titian and Lotto as well as sculptures by Bernini and Canova. To visit the gallery it is necessary to reserve tickets. For details visit