Showing posts with label Monza. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Monza. Show all posts

28 February 2018

Mario Andretti – racing driver

American champion was born and grew up in Italy

Mario Andretti raced as an American but was born in Montona, then part of Italy
Mario Andretti raced as an American but
was born in Montona, then part of Italy
Mario Andretti, who won the 1978 Formula One World Championship driving as an American, was born on this day in 1940 in Montona, about 35km (22 miles) south of Trieste in what was then Istria in the Kingdom of Italy.

Andretti’s career was notable for his versatility. He is the only driver in motor racing history to have won an Indianapolis 500, a Daytona 500 and an F1 world title, and one of only two to have won races in F1, Indy Car, NASCAR and the World Sportscar Championship. He is the last American to have won an F1 Grand Prix.

He clinched the 1978 F1 title at the Italian Grand Prix at Monza in September, the 14th of the 16 rounds, having led the standings by 12 points going into the race.  He crossed the line first and even though he was demoted to sixth place – the result of a one-minute penalty for going too soon at a restart – it was enough to mean he could not be caught.

His celebrations were muted, however, after his close friend, the Swedish driver Ronnie Petersen, died from complications to injuries he suffered in a crash on the first lap.

Andretti’s early years in Italy were fraught with difficulties. He and his twin brother, Aldo, were brought up by their father Gigi,  a farm manager, and their mother Rina in a loving family but at the end of the Second World War their lives were turned upside down when the allies ceded Istria to Yugoslavia and they found themselves living in a Communist country.

Mario Andretti with Lotus boss Colin Chapman (left) during the 1978 Formula One championship-winning season
Mario Andretti with Lotus boss Colin Chapman (left) during
the 1978 Formula One championship-winning season
They stayed there until 1948, hoping somehow the old order would be restored, but eventually joined the Italian exodus from the region, moving first to a dispersement camp in Udine, and then to Lucca in Tuscany, where they would live in a crowded refugee camp, sharing a single room with several other families, for the next seven years.

In 1955, the family decided to emigrate to the United States, leaving all of their possessions behind and settling in Nazareth, Pennsylvania.

The twins were already enthusiastic about cars.  As five-year-olds in their home village, they had raced each other down the steep streets in hand-made wooden cars.  Later, while they were living in Lucca, they watched a section of the Mille Miglia endurance race and Mario became captivated by Alberto Ascari, the two-times F1 World Champion, who won the race.

In Nazareth they went to work in an uncle’s garage and quickly learned about cars.  Their first experience of competition in America was on a dirt track near their home, where they took part in stockcar races unbeknown to their parents, in a car they had borrowed from their uncle’s workshop.

Although Aldo was unlucky that an injury hampered his progress, Mario quickly showed his talent, winning 20 races in his first two seasons.

The Lotus 79 car in which Andretti won the 1978 title
The Lotus 79 car in which Andretti won the 1978 title
He knew racing was the career he wanted to follow and quickly worked his way through the ranks before making his Indy Car debut in 1964, the year he became an American citizen.  He won his first Indy Car race in 1965 and, amazingly, became United States Auto Club champion at the first attempt, finishing in the top four in 12 races. At 25, he was the youngest champion in the history of the event.

He defended the title successfully in 1966, winning eight races, and claimed further Indy Car championships in 1969 and 1984.

Andretti’s Formula One debut came in 1968, three years after he had met Colin Chapman, the British owner of the Lotus team, and outlined his ambitions.  Chapman had told him to get in touch once he thought he was ready and, true to his word, gave the Italian-American an opportunity.

It took him three years to achieve a first F1 win, in the South African GP in 1971, driving for Ferrari, and another five years to clinch his second, in the Japanese GP in 1976, having returned to Chapman’s garage for John Player Team Lotus.

Mario Andretti today
Mario Andretti today
Everything clicked in 1977, when he was third in the standings after four race wins, and in 1978, driving the so-called “ground effects” Lotus he had helped develop, when he took the drivers’ title.

Andretti continued to race competitively until he was 54.  By the time he decided enough was enough, his list of honours, in addition to his four Indy Car titles, his wins at the 1969 Indianapolis 500 and 1967 Daytona 500 events and his F1 title, included three 12 Hours of Sebring victories, a USAC dirt track title and an International Race of Champions victory.

In all, he competed in 879 races, of which he won 111. He is the only driver to have won Indy Car races in four decades.

In retirement, Andretti has pursued a number of business interests, including a winery, worked as an ambassador for a number of companies and made frequent television appearances.  Both his sons, Michael and Jeff, became drivers, Michael repeating his father’s success by becoming Indy Car champion in 1991. His grandson, Marco – Michael’s son – is also a racing driver.

Motovun, formerly Montona, sits on top of a hill in Istria, the area of Croatia that was in Italy when Andretti was born
Motovun, formerly Montona, sits on top of a hill in Istria,
the area of Croatia that was in Italy when Andretti was born
Travel tip:

Montona – now known as Motovun and part of Croatia – was an idyllic hilltop village as Mario and his brother, Aldo, were growing up, surrounded by beautiful rolling countryside.  The summit could be reached by climbing a 1,052-step staircase, said to be the longest staircase in the world, and anyone with the stamina to complete the climb would be rewarded with stunning views over the vineyards of the Quieto river valley. The main square is named after Andrea Antico, a Renaissance music printer who invented the first wooden types for printing music scores.

Piazza dell'Anfiteatro in Lucca
Piazza dell'Anfiteatro in Lucca
Travel tip:

Lucca, where the Andrettis lived until they were granted visas to emigrate to the United States, is situated in western Tuscany, just 20km (12 miles) from Pisa, and 80km (50 miles) from Florence. Its majestic Renaissance walls are still intact, providing a complete 4.2km (2.6 miles) circuit of the city popular with walkers and cyclists.  The city has many charming cobbled streets and a number of beautiful squares, plus a wealth of churches, museums and galleries and a notable musical tradition, being the home of composers Alfredo Catalani, Luigi Boccherini and the opera giant, Giacomo Puccini.

More reading: 

Riccardo Patrese, the first F1 driver to compete in 250 Grands Prix

Michele Alboreto, the last Italian to challenge for the F1 drivers' title

A crash kills Alberto Ascari, twice F1 world champion

Also on this day:

1915: The birth of jam and juice maker Karl Zuegg

1942: The birth of goalkeeper Dino Zoff, the oldest player to win a World Cup

Selected reading:

The Golden Age of Formula One, by Rainer W Schlegelmilch

Driven: The Men Who Made Formula One, by Kevin Eason

(Picture credits: Top picture of Andreotti by Gillfoto; Andretti with Chapman by Suyk, Koen; Andretti today by Jonathan Mauer; Piazza in Lucca by Robespierre; via Wikimedia Commons)

23 January 2018

Luisa Casati – heiress and muse

Outrageous marchioness saw herself as a living work of art

The Marchesa Casati photographed by Adolfo de Meyer in 1912
The Marchesa Casati photographed by
Adolfo de Meyer in 1912
The heiress, socialite and artist’s muse Luisa Casati, known for her outlandish dresses, exotic pets and hedonistic lifestyle, was born on this day in 1881 in Milan.

Casati, born into a wealthy background, married a marquis – Camillo, Marchese Casati Stampa di Soncino – when she was 19 and provided him with a daughter, Cristina, a year later, yet the marriage was never strong and they kept separate residences from an early stage.

It was not long before she tired of a life bound by formalities and the strict rules of etiquette and everything changed after she met the poet, patriot and lothario Gabriele D’Annunzio at a society hunt.

They became lovers and D’Annunzio introduced her to the world of writers and artists.  Tall, almost painfully thin and with striking looks, she became a creature of fascination for many young artists, who craved the attention of this eccentric aristocrat and the chance to paint her.

Their interest only encouraged the Marchesa Casati to indulge her taste for the extravagant, posing in ever-more outlandish dresses, embracing the culture of the Belle Époque. Her wealth enabled her to throw lavish parties and in 1910 she moved to Venice, taking up residence in the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni on the Grand Canal, the palace that now houses the Peggy Guggenheim Collection.

Casati in 1922 in a typically outrageous dress
Casati in 1922 in a typically
outrageous dress
There she created a fantastical lifestyle, assembling an extraordinary menagerie of pets that included a pair of cheetahs, a boa constrictor, white peacocks trained to perch on her window sills, a flock of albino blackbirds and greyhounds whose coats she dyed blue.

She staged enormous, elaborate parties, in which she paraded herself in increasingly ridiculous costumes, such as a dress made entirely of lightbulbs, which at one point gave her such a powerful electric shock she was thrown backwards across the room. 

Naturally shy, the Marchesa concentrated on making an impression through how she looked. She contrasted her fiery red hair with skin that she kept a deathly white, dropped belladonna in her eyes to dilate her pupils and framed them with black eye liner and false eyelashes.  She delighted in prowling the atmospheric Venetian streets after dark, with her jewel-collared cheetahs on leads, herself often naked beneath a cloak embroidered with emeralds.

Her parties, in Rome and Paris as well as Venice, may have seemed like merely excuses for decadence and excess, with opium and cocaine a common indulgence among some of the guests, but were affairs that she choreographed carefully, with clothes, décor and entertainment precisely planned according to whichever theme she chose.  She saw herself as a living work of art.

She was certainly an inspiration for works of art.  Giovanni Boldini, Paolo Troubetzkoy, Adolph de Meyer and Romaine Brooks were among those painters who were in her thrall, along with Futurists such as Fortunato Depero and Umberto Boccioni. She had affairs with several. Augustus John's portrait of her is one of the most popular paintings at the Art Gallery of Ontario.

The Marchesa with a greyhound, painted by Giovanni Boldoni
The Marchesa with a greyhound,
painted by Giovanni Boldoni
D'Annunzio is said to have based the character of Isabella Inghirami in Forse che si forse che no (Maybe yes, maybe no) on Casati, while the character of La Casinelle, who appeared in two novels by Michel Georges-Michel, was also inspired by her. Plays and movies were written featuring characters based on the Marchesa, with actresses such as Vivien Leigh and Ingrid Bergman in the lead roles.

She patronised a number of fashion designers. John Galliano, Karl Lagerfeld and Alexander McQueen created collections based on or inspired by her, while the British designers Georgina Chapman and Karen Craig had her in mind when they opened a fashion house called Marchesa.

It was all a far cry from a childhood lived in a palace in Milan and villas in Monza and on Lake Como. Her father was Alberto Amman, a giant in the textile industry who was made a Count by Umberto I and whose death when Luisa was 15 made her and her sister, Francesca, the two wealthiest young women in Italy.

But her extravagances did not come cheap.  By 1920 she was living on Capri at the Swedish psychiatrist Axel Munthe’s Villa San Michele and moved out of the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni in the mid-1920s.  By 1930 she had amassed personal debts of $25 million and was forced to auction off her possessions.

Pursued by creditors, she fled to London and lived in a one-bedroom flat. It was just around the corner from Harrods in hardly the least salubrious part of the city, yet placed her reduced circumstances by her standards.

Casati's grave in London
Casati's grave in London
She died in London in June 1957 at her address in Beaufort Gardens in Knightsbridge at the age of 76, having suffered a stroke.  She was buried at Brompton Cemetery, one of her few remaining friends having seen to it that she was dressed in a leopard skin and black outfit and false eyelashes, with one of her taxidermied Pekinese dogs at her side.

Among just a handful of mourners at her funeral was an elderly man who had travelled from Venice, where half a century earlier he had been her personal gondolier.  Her grave is marked with a small tombstone shaped like an urn draped in cloth, bearing the inscription ‘Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety’ from Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra.

An autumnal scene in Milan's Parco Nord
An autumnal scene in Milan's Parco Nord
Travel tip:

The Marchesa Casati’s married home in Milan was the Villa Casati, a stately mansion on the edge of what is now Parco Nord, a suburban park that was once an airfield, in Cinisello Balsamo, then a town in its own right, now more of a suburb. It is on the northern edge of the Milan metropolitan area, about 10km (6 miles) from the city centre. More than 75,000 people now live there.

The Grand Canal frontage of the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni
The Grand Canal frontage of the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni
Travel tip:

The Palazzo Venier dei Leoni is a palace on the Grand Canal in Venice once owned by a noble Venetian family of the 14th to 16th century, three of whom – Antonio Venier, Francesco Venier and Sebastiano Venier – were Doges.  It was bought by the American socialite and arts patron Peggy Guggenheim in 1949 and she lived there for 30 years, opening her collection of artworks to the public for the first time in 1951.  It is in the Dorsoduro quarter of Venice, near where it emerges into the lagoon, accessed from San Marco via the Accademia Bridge.

8 January 2018

Maria Teresa de Filippis – racing driver

Pioneer for women behind the wheel

Maria Teresa de Filippis in 1958
Maria Teresa de Filippis in 1958
The racing driver Maria Teresa de Filippis, who was the first woman to compete in a Formula One world championship event and remains one of only two to make it on to the starting grid in the history of the competition, died on this day in 2016 in Gavarno, a village near Bergamo in Lombardy.

De Filippis, a contemporary of the early greats of F1, the Italians Giuseppe Farina and Alberto Ascari and the Argentine Juan Manuel Fangio, qualified for the Belgian Grand Prix in June 1958 and finished 10th.

She made the grid for the Portuguese and Italian Grands Prix later in the year but had to retire from both due to engine problems. 

She managed only six laps in the former but was unlucky not to finish in the latter event at Monza, where she completed 57 of the 70 laps. Although she was at the back of the field, 13 other cars had retired earlier in the race and she would therefore have finished eighth.

These were her only F1 races. The following year she turned her back on the sport following the death of her close friend, the French driver Jean Behra, in a crash in Germany. Only a year earlier, her former fiancé, the Italian driver Luigi Musso, had also been killed.

De Filippis prepares to take the wheel outside the Maserati garage during the 1958 season
De Filippis prepares to take the wheel outside the Maserati
garage during the 1958 season
De Filippis came from a wealthy background, born in Naples in 1926 and brought up in the 16th century Palazzo Marigliano. Her family, with aristocratic roots, also owned the Palazzo Bianco in Caserta.

A keen horsewoman, she also loved skiing and tennis as a teenager but took up car racing in order to prove a point to her two older brothers, Antonio and Giuseppe, who had teased her about her prowess at the wheel.

Determined to prove them wrong, at 22 she entered her first race, a hill climb between the port of Salerno and the town of Cava di Tirreni, 10km (6 miles) inland, and won.

Finding, to her surprise, that she had no fear behind the wheel she quickly progressed to sports car events, finishing second in the 1954 Italian sports car championship.

It was at the sports car race that accompanied the 1956 Naples Grand Prix that De Filippis caught the eye.  Driving a works-entered Maserati 200S on a circuit that followed the walled streets and tree-lined boulevards of Posillipo, an upmarket residential area of her home city, she started at the back of the grid after missing practice but worked her way through the field to finish second.

Maria Teresa de Filippis pictured at the age of 88
Maria Teresa de Filippis pictured at the age of 88
The invitation to compete in Formula One soon followed and it was in the Maserati 250F, the same car that took Fangio to his fifth world title the previous year, that she made her historic debut at the Spa-Francorchamps circuit.

Although a woman in motorsport was not a new phenomenon – the French driver and aviator Camille du Gast had taken part in the 1901 Paris to Berlin rally – Formula One was a wholly male-dominated world and there were considerable barriers to overcome.

Stirling Moss, the British driver she considered a friend, doubted whether a woman had the strength to handle an F1 car at speed, while the director of the French Grand Prix at Reims that followed the Belgian race allegedly barred her from taking part, telling her – in her words – that “the only helmet a woman should wear is the one at the hairdressers.”

It was at the French Grand Prix that Luigi Musso died. Although they had broken off their engagement and he had a new girlfriend, his death hit De Filippis hard nonetheless and made her think about whether she wanted to continue.

As the only female driver, she was never short of attention, but one of the fans to whom she was introduced at her Monza appearance in 1958, an Austrian textile chemist by the name of Theodor Huschek, made a bigger impression than others.

The iconic Maserati 250F
The iconic Maserati 250F
She bumped into him again in Istanbul the following year and after meeting for a third time on a skiing trip they became engaged and married. After living in Austria and Switzerland they moved to Cortina d’Ampezzo in the Dolomites, then to Rome and next Capri, the idyllic island in the Bay of Naples.

They had a daughter, Carola, and settled in Bergamo area when Theodor began working for the Legler textile firm in Ponte San Pietro, to the northwest of the city. They settled in Gavarno, a village between Scanzorosciate and Nembro.

Despite De Filippis having broken new ground for women in motor racing, the only other female driver to participate in a Formula One race is Lella Lombardi, her fellow Italian, who started 12 times between 1974 and 1976.

In later life, De Filippis was vice-president of the International Club of Former F1 Grand Prix Drivers.

The facade of the Palazzo Marigliano
The facade of the Palazzo Marigliano
Travel tip:

The Palazzo Marigliano, built in the early 16th century, is the former home of Andrea de Capua, the fourth Count of Altavill and the chief legal executive for the Kingdom of Naples. It was refurbished in the 1750s with frescoes by Francesco de Mura and paintings by Giovanni Battista Maffei. It can be found right in the heart of the city in Via San Biagio dei Librai, which forms part of the historic Spaccanapoli, the narrow, straight thoroughfare that runs in a 2km (1.25 miles) diagonal across the city. Today the beautiful inner courtyard hosts artisan workshops and part of the palace is given over to apartments.

Gavarno is situated in a wooded valley near Bergamo
Gavarno is situated in a wooded valley near Bergamo
Travel tip:

Gavarno is a village of some 1,200 residents a few kilometres to the northeast of Bergamo overlooking the stream of the same name that joins the Serio river at nearby Nembro. Built largely on a gentle hillside, it is in an area popular with walkers, offering pleasant woodland paths. Between Gavarno and Nembro there is a interesting modern church, consecrated only in 2000, dedicated to Pope Giovanni XXIII, who hailed from Sotto il Monte in Bergamo province.

25 December 2017

Charlemagne – Holy Roman Emperor

Christmas Day crowning for the Pope’s supporter

Charlemagne is crowned Holy Roman Emperor
Charlemagne is crowned Holy Roman Emperor
Charlemagne, the King of the Franks and the Lombards, was crowned Holy Roman Emperor on this day in 800 in the old St Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

He was the first recognised emperor in Western Europe since the fall of the Western Roman Empire three centuries earlier and has been referred to as the ‘father of Europe’ because he united most of Europe for the first time since the days of the Roman Empire, including parts that had never been under Roman rule.

Charlemagne was the son of Pepin the Short and became King of the Franks when his father died in 768, initially as co-ruler with his brother Carloman I. When Carloman died suddenly in unexplained circumstances it left Charlemagne as the sole, undisputed ruler of the Frankish Kingdom.

He continued his father’s policy towards the papacy and became its protector, removing the Lombards in power from northern Italy and leading an incursion into Muslim Spain. He also campaigned against the Saxons, making them become Christians or face the death penalty.

Charlemagne was Holy Roman  Emperor for 14 years
Charlemagne was Holy Roman
Emperor for 14 years
In 799, Pope Leo III was violently mistreated by the Romans and fled to the protection of Charlemagne in Germany.

Charlemagne escorted him back to Rome and, rather than letting him be tried for his alleged crimes, had him swear an oath of innocence on December 23.

Two days later Charlemagne attended the Christmas Day mass in St Peter’s and as he knelt at the altar to pray, the Pope placed a jewelled crown upon his head, declaring him to be Emperor of the Romans.

Some historians say that Charlemagne was ignorant of the Pope’s intentions and did not want a coronation.

Others say Charlemagne was well aware the coronation was going to take place and could not have missed seeing the bejewelled crown waiting on the altar when he knelt in front of it to pray.

In crowning Charlemagne, Pope Leo III effectively ignored the reign of the Empress Irene of Constantinople. Since 727 the papacy had been in conflict over a number of issues with Irene’s predecessors in Constantinople. Relations between the Eastern Roman Empire and the Western Roman Empire were to remain difficult, leading to an eventual split in the 11th century.

In 813 Charlemagne crowned his son, Louis the Pious, as co-emperor. The following year he fell ill with pleurisy and died on 21 January 1814. He was buried that same day in Aachen Cathedral.

The last Holy Roman Emperor to be crowned by the Pope was Charles V in 1530. The final Holy Roman Emperor, Francis II, abdicated in 1806 during the Napoleonic Wars, which led to the final dissolution of the Empire.

The crown of Charlemagne
The crown of Charlemagne
Travel tip:

After Charlemagne had successfully besieged the city of Pavia in 773, he is said to have had himself crowned with the Iron Crown of Lombardy in 774. This crown was famously placed by Napoleon on his own head in the Duomo in Milan in 1805. The crown is a circlet of gold with a central iron band, which according to legend was beaten out of a nail from Christ’s cross. The crown is kept in a Chapel in the Cathedral of Saint John in Monza, a city to the north east of Milan, which is famous nowadays for its Grand Prix racing circuit.

St Peter's Basilica in Rome
St Peter's Basilica in Rome
Travel tip:

Charlemagne was crowned Holy Roman emperor in the old St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. This stood from the fourth to the 16th centuries where the present-day Basilica stands in Vatican City. The old Basilica was built where the crucifixion and burial of Saint Peter took place by order of Emperor Constantine I in 318 and it took about 30 years to complete.


16 November 2017

Tazio Nuvolari – racing driver

Man from Mantua seen as greatest of all time

Tazio Nuvolari is seen by some as Italy's greatest racing driver
Tazio Nuvolari is seen by some as
Italy's greatest racing driver
Tazio Nuvolari, the driver many regard as the greatest in the history not only of Italian motor racing but perhaps of motorsport in general, was born on this day in 1892 in Castel d’Ario, a small town in Lombardy, about 15km (9 miles) east of the historic city of Mantua.

Known for his extraordinary daring as well as for his skill behind the wheel, Nuvolari was the dominant driver of the inter-war years, winning no fewer than 72 major races including 24 Grands Prix.  He was nicknamed Il Mantovano Volante - the Flying Mantuan.

From the start of his career in the 1920s, Nuvolari won more than 150 races all told and would have clocked up more had the Second World War not put motor racing in hibernation.  As it happens, Nuvolari’s last big victory came on September 3, 1939, the day the conflict began, in the Belgrade Grand Prix.

His popularity was such that when he died in 1953 from a stroke, aged only 60, his funeral in his adopted home city of Mantua attracted at least 25,000 people and possibly as many as 55,000 – more than the city’s recorded population.

His coffin was placed on a car chassis pushed by legendary drivers Alberto Ascari, Luigi Villoresi and Juan Manuel Fangio, at the head of a mile-long procession.

Today, his name lives on as the name of a motor racing channel on Italian subscription television.

Tazio Nuvolari at the wheel of the Alfa Romeo car in  which he won the 1935 German Grand Prix
Tazio Nuvolari at the wheel of the Alfa Romeo car in
which he won the 1935 German Grand Prix
Nuvolari was not only a brilliant driver but one who willingly risked his life on the track in order to satisfy his lust for victory.

The performances that have gone down in Italian motor racing folklore include his incredible performance against his rival Achille Varzi in the Mille Miglia endurance event of 1930.

A significant distance behind Varzi as the race entered its night-time phase between Perugia and Bologna, Nuvolari took the strategic decision to switch off his headlights despite reaching speeds of more than 150kph (93mph).

Unable to see Nuvolari in his mirrors, Varzi was fooled into thinking he had the race sewn up and eased back on the throttle only for Nuvolari to appear alongside him with three kilometres remaining, at which point he switched his lights on, gave Varzi a cheery wave and accelerated ahead.

More than once, after serious accidents, he defied doctors’ orders to get behind the wheel again while still heavily bandaged, returning to action within days when he was supposed to rest for at least a month.

How the start of a Grand Prix looked in 1935
How the start of a Grand Prix looked in 1935
His greatest performance, after which he was hailed as a national hero, came in the 1935 German Grand Prix at the Nurburgring, which had been set up by the Nazi propaganda machine as an opportunity to demonstrate the might of both the German drivers and their Mercedes and Auto Union cars.

Nuvolari had tried to join the Auto Union team only to be rebuffed and was obliged to tackle the race in an outdated and underpowered Alfa Romeo for Enzo Ferrari’s team, an arrangement brokered by none other than Italy’s Fascist leader Benito Mussolini.

It looked a hopeless cause.  Nuvolari had a poor start and lost more time through a refuelling delay, yet managed somehow to battle through the field to be second by the start of the final lap, on which he caught and passed the German Manfred von Brauchitsch to claim what some still believe to be the greatest motor racing triumph of all time.

The eight cars immediately in Nuvolari’s wake were all German.  As the Nazi hierarchy fumed, Mussolini seized the chance to score a propaganda success of his own.  As it happened, Nuvolari eventually got his wish to drive for Auto Union and his last three big wins – in the Italian and British Grands Prix of 1938 and the Belgrade event in 1939 – were under their flag.

A garlanded Nuvolari after winning the  French Grand Prix in 1932
A garlanded Nuvolari after winning the
French Grand Prix in 1932
Nuvolari’s daring was evident from a young age.  As a boy, he designed a parachute made from various pieces of material he had gathered up around the family home and decided to test it by jumping off the roof of the house.  He suffered serious injuries but survived to tell the tale.

In the First World War, despite his tender years, he persuaded the Italian army to take him on as an ambulance driver only to be deemed too dangerous behind the wheel to be entrusted with wounded personnel.

After the Second World War, Nuvolari did return to racing but his health began to decline in his 50s. He began to develop breathing problems attributed to years of breathing in dangerous fumes and suffered the first of his two strokes in 1952.

Dubbed "the greatest driver of the past, present and future" by Ferdinand Porsche, founder of the company which shares his name, in addition to his Grands Prix successes, Nuvolari also won five Coppa Cianos, two Mille Miglias, two Targa Florios, two RAC Tourist Trophies, a Le Mans 24-hour race, and the European Grand Prix Championship.

The son of a farmer, Arturo Nuvolari, Tazio had grown up with speed.  His father and brother, Giuseppe, both enjoyed success on two wheels. Indeed, Giuseppe was a multiple winner of the Italian national motorcycling championship.

Nuvolari was married to Carolina Perina, with whom he had two sons, Giorgio and Alberto, both of whom sadly died before they had reached the age of 20.

Mantua is surrounded by water on three sides
Mantua is surrounded by water on three sides
Travel tip:

Mantua has scarcely altered in size since the 12th century thanks to the decision taken to surround it on three sides by artificial lakes as a defence system. The lakes are fed by the Mincio river, which descends from Lake Garda, and it is largely as a result of the restrictions on expansion imposed by their presence that the city’s population has remained unchanged at around 48,000 for several centuries.  The city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is the 2017 European Capital of Gastronomy, famous for its pumpkin ravioli (Tortelli di zucca alla Mantovana), its pike in tangy parsley and caper sauce (Luccio in salsa) and its pasta with sardines (Bigoli con le sardelle alla Mantovana).

The monument to Tazio Nuvolari in Castel d'Ario
The monument to Tazio Nuvolari in Castel d'Ario
Travel tip:

The life of Tazio Nuvolari is commemorated in several ways around Mantua and Castel d’Ario.  He is buried in the family tomb in the Cimitero Degli Angeli, on the road from Mantua to Cremona, and his home on Via Giulia Romano how houses a museum dedicated to his achievements.  In Castel d'Ario there is a bronze statue of Nuvolari reclining against the bonnet of a Bugatti racing car in an open space behind the town hall as well as a square named after him.

10 November 2017

Gaetano Bresci - assassin

Anarchist who gunned down a king

Gaetano Bresci plotted to kill Umberto I while working as a silk weaver in New Jersey
Gaetano Bresci plotted to kill Umberto I while
working as a silk weaver in New Jersey
Gaetano Bresci, the man who assassinated the Italian king Umberto I, was born on this day in 1869 in Coiano, a small village near Prato in Tuscany.

He murdered Umberto in Monza, north of Milan, on July 29, 1900, while the monarch was handing out prizes at an athletics event.  Bresci mingled with the crowd but then sprang forward and shot Umberto three or four times with a .32 revolver.

Often unpopular with his subjects despite being nicknamed Il Buono (the good), Umberto had survived two previous attempts on his life, in 1878 and 1897.

Bresci was immediately overpowered and after standing trial in Milan he was given a life sentence of hard labour on Santo Stefano island, a prison notorious for its anarchist and socialist inmates.

He had been closely involved with anarchist groups and had served a brief jail term earlier for anarchist activity but had a motive for killing Umberto.

A silk weaver by profession, he was living in the United States, where he had emigrated in the 1890s and had settled in New Jersey with his Irish-born wife. 

Working as a weaver in a mill in Paterson, New Jersey, Bresci and others set about propagating anarchist ideas among the large local Italian immigrant population, eventually setting up a newspaper, La Questione Social.

An artist's idea of the scene in Monza as Bresci is overpowered after shooting the king
An artist's idea of the scene in Monza as Bresci is
overpowered after shooting the king
Bresci became one of the main contributors to the paper, devoting much of his free time to writing and organising fellow anarchists, when he heard about a horrific event in Milan on May 6, 1898 that would determine the course of the rest of his life.

Following the so-called ‘bread riots’ - a prolonged campaign of strikes and demonstrations across Italy to protest against the rising cost of living - a mass demonstration of workers had taken place in Milan on that day.

There were outbreaks of violence and the Italian army were positioned to protect key buildings. The march took an increasingly threatening nature and, fearing an attack upon the Royal Palace, General Florenzo Bava-Beccaris ordered troops to fire on the crowd.

The shootings, known as the Bava-Beccaris massacre, officially left 80 people dead, although the true number was possibly double that.

Bresci was so incensed he vowed to avenge the workers who had been cut down on the streets of Milan that day and hatched his plot to kill the king.

He kept it a secret even from those fellow anarchists with whom he had worked so closely in Paterson. In May 1900, with no explanation, he asked for the return of a $150 loan he had made to set up La Questione, a move that left some of his comrades deeply bitter towards him.

Bresci set sail for Italy on May 17, 1900 and carried out his plan two months later.  His sentence was pronounced on August 29 and his friends and family consoled themselves with the knowledge that at least he was still alive.

However, only a year later he was dead, in mysterious circumstances, discovered hanged in his cell. His death was recorded as suicide but there were strong suspicions that he was kicked to death by prison guards, who attempted to conceal evidence from investigators by throwing his body into the sea.

How the abandoned prison on Santa Stefano looks today
How the abandoned prison on Santa Stefano looks today
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 for a while.  These days, the island is uninhabited but for the tourists who visit each day.

The church of Saints Peter and Paul in Coiano
The church of Saints Peter and Paul in Coiano
Travel tip:

The small hamlet of Coiano, where Bresci was born, can be found on the hills bordering the Elsa and the Elba valleys, near Castelfiorentino, about midway between Florence and Livorno, not far from Empoli. It is known for its monumental Romanesque church dedicated to Saints Peter and Paul in Via Francigena. It is a typical example of Romanesque12th century Pisa-Volterra architecture with a façade made of half sandstone and half brick, probably due to a collapse of the upper part.

8 November 2017

Francesco Molinari – golfer

Second win in Italian Open gave him unique status

Francesco Molinari lining up the putt that won him the 2016 Italian Open golf championship at Monza
Francesco Molinari lining up the putt that won him
the 2016 Italian Open golf championship at Monza
Francesco Molinari, one of two golfing brothers who have advanced the cause of the sport in Italy more than anyone in the modern era, was born on this day in 1982 in Turin.

He and Edoardo, who is 21 months’ his senior, won the Mission Hills World Cup in China in 2009, the first time Italy had won the two-player team event.

And when he sank a 5ft (1.5m) putt to beat the Masters champion Danny Willett to win the Italian Open in Monza in September last year, Francesco became the first Italian to win his country’s open championship twice since it became part of the European tour in 1972.

He had won it for the first time in 2006 at the Castello di Tolcinasco course just outside Milan, which gave him his first European tour victory at the age of 23 and made him the first Italian to win the tournament since Massimo Mannelli in 1980.

The success made such an impact in Italy, and in Turin in particular, that Francesco was asked to be one of the official torch carriers on behalf of the host nation at the 2006 Winter Olympics, which were staged in Turin.

With four titles to his name on the European tour, Francesco has yet to win a major but went close in this year’s PGA Championship at the Quail Hollow Club in Charlotte, North Carolina, finishing in a three-way tie for second place just two shots behind winner Justin Thomas. He might have won had he not made a bogey at the 16th hole in the final round.

Molinari at the 2013 French Open
Molinari at the 2013 French Open
In terms of European tour victories, he now stands just one behind Costantino Rocca, the most successful male golfer Italy has produced.

Rocca, who plays now on the seniors tour, contested 21 majors in the 1990s and remains the only player to beat Tiger Woods in a Ryder Cup singles match. He was beaten to the Open Championship at St Andrews in 1995 only in a play-off against the American, John Daly.

Golf is not a widely played sport in Italy, with fewer than 300 courses in the whole country, less than half of which have the full 18 holes. Yet the Molinari brothers grew up in a golfing family, following their parents and grandparents in taking up the clubs.

Francesco began playing at the Circolo Golf Torino, an exclusive club about 25km (15 miles) northwest of the centre of the city and host to the Italian Open three times, at the age of eight and as he matured he became a star on the amateur circuit.

After graduating in economics and business at the Luigi Einaudi Faculty of the University of Turin, he turned professional in 2004.

His best season so far as a professional, even considering his achievement at the PGA Championship this year, was the 2010 campaign, when he won his first world tour event, defeating Lee Westwood by one stroke to win the WGC-HSBC Championship in Shanghai, China. The win moved him into 14th place in the world rankings, his highest to date. He also recorded eleven top-10 finishes including two runner-up spots.

Francesco's brother Edoardo Molinari
Francesco's brother Edoardo Molinari
In October of the same year, he and Edoardo became the first brothers to appear on the winning side in a Ryder Cup match as Europe beat the United States 14½–13½ in a thrilling contest at the Celtic Manor Resort in Wales.

It is thought that Francesco and Edoardo are largely responsible for seeing the number of participating golfers in Italy rising at a rate of roughly five per cent per year since 2000, when there were fewer than 60,000 active golfers. The sport is still seen as rather elitist, yet the numbers are up to more than 100,000 now and Italy will host the Ryder Cup in 2022

Francesco is married to lawyer and photogapher Valentina Platini, with whom he has a son, Tommaso. Despite his roots in Turin, Francesco is a fan of the Milan football team Internazionale. Encouraged by his veteran English coach, Denis Pugh, he has declared an allegiance also to the English Premier League club, West Ham.

UPDATE: In July 2018, Molinari became the first Italian to win a major golf championship when he held off a cluster of star names to claim the Open Championship at Carnoustie in Scotland. He finished two shots ahead of four players who tied for second place with the all-time great Tiger Woods one shot further behind.

The Castello di Tolcinasco golf complex, near Milan
The Castello di Tolcinasco golf complex, near Milan
Travel tip:

As the name would suggest, Castello di Tolcinasco, a small community about 20km (12 miles) south of Milan on the edge of the Milan South Agricultural Park, is notable for its 16th century castle, which was built for the protection of farmland and food stores.  The golf course, one of few in Lombardy with 36 holes, including 27 of championship standard, was designed by the great American golfer, Arnold Palmer.

The Reggia di Venaria Reale palace, once a hunting lodge owned by the House of Savoy
The Reggia di Venaria Reale palace, once a hunting lodge
owned by the House of Savoy
Travel tip:

The Circolo Golf Torino club is located in a beautiful area of parkland known as La Mandria, which was once the Royal House of Savoy’s game reserve, and is only a short distance from the Baroque splendour of the Reggia di Venaria Reale palace, a former royal residence. The palace was commissioned by Duke Charles Emmanuel II and built in 1675 by the court architect Amedeo di Castellamonte, as a base for the duke while he was participating in hunting expeditions in the hills north of the city.

3 September 2017

Giuseppe ‘Nino’ Farina – racing driver

The first Formula One world champion

Giuseppe 'Nino' Farina had family roots in the automotive industry
Giuseppe 'Nino' Farina had family roots
in the automotive industry
Emilio Giuseppe Farina, driving an Alfa Romeo, became the first Formula One world champion on this day in 1950.

The 43-year-old driver from Turin - usually known as Giuseppe or 'Nino' - clinched the title on home territory by winning the Italian Grand Prix at Monza.

He was only third in the seven-race inaugural championship going into the final event at the Lombardy circuit, trailing Alfa teammates Juan Manuel Fangio, of Argentina, by four points and his Italian compatriot, Luigi Fagioli, by two.

Under the competition’s complicated points scoring system, Fangio was hot favourite, with the title guaranteed if he was first or second, and likely to be his if he merely finished in the first five, provided Farina did not win.  He could have been crowned champion simply by picking up a bonus point for the fastest lap in the race, provided Farina was no higher than third.

Fagioli could take the title only by winning the race with the fastest lap, provided Farina was third or lower and Fangio failed to register a point.

Farina could win the title only by winning the race, recording the fastest lap and hoping Fangio finished no better than third place.  A top-three finish with the fastest lap bonus would do if Fangio did not score at all.

Farina on the cover of the Argentine motor racing magazine El Gráfico in 1953
Farina on the cover of the Argentine motor
racing magazine El Gráfico in 1953
In the event, Farina won and Fangio had a bad day, retiring twice – first in his own car, on which the greabox failed, and then in team-mate Piero Taruffi’s Alfa. He scored one point for the fastest lap, but that on its own was not enough.

It was a third victory of the season for Farina, who had also triumphed in the British Grand Prix at Silverstone and the Swiss Grand Prix at Bremgarten.

Born in Turin in 1906, Farina’s roots were in the car business.  He was the son of automotive coachbuilder Giovanni Carlo Farina and the nephew of the brilliant car designer Battista “Pinin” Farina.

Giuseppe excelled at skiing, football and athletics but was always likely to opt for motor sport.  He bought his first competition car while still at university and abandoned a potential career as an officer in the Italian Army in order to fulfil his ambitions on the track.

He made his competitive debut in 1933 and by 1936 was driving Alfas for Enzo Ferrari’s Scuderia Ferrari team. In 1937 he won his first Grand Prix in Naples and by the end of the season was Italian champion, a title he retained in 1938 and 1939, driving for Alfa Corse, then the official Alfa Romeo team.

The Second World War almost certainly robbed him of his best years. In the immediate years following, he fell out with Alfa Corse, but had some successes in a privately-entered Maserati before returning to Scuderia Ferrari. 

Farina in practice at Monza in 1955
Farina in practice at Monza in 1955
In 1950, however, he rejoined Alfa and enjoyed his best season, going back to Ferrari in 1954 only because Alberto Ascari – world champion in 1952 and 1953 - had left Ferrari and switched to Lancia, creating a vacancy for team leader.

Farina retired in 1955, after which he became involved in Alfa Romeo and Jaguar distributorships and later assisted at the Pininfarina factory.  He died in June 1966 at the age of 59 en route to the French Grand Prix, when he lost control of his Lotus in the Savoy Alps, near Aiguebelle, hit a telegraph pole and was killed instantly.

Travel tip:

Apart from the motor racing circuit, Monza is notable for its 13th century Basilica of San Giovanni Battista, often known as Monza Cathedral, which contains the famous Corona Ferrea or Iron Crown, bearing precious stones.  According to tradition, the crown was found on Jesus's Cross.  Look out also for Villa Reale, built in the neoclassical style by Piermarini at the end of the 18th Century, which has a sumptuous interior and a court theatre.

The church of Santa Giulia in Borgo Vanchiglia
The church of Santa Giulia in Borgo Vanchiglia
Travel tip:

Giuseppe Farina’s father established his coachbuilding business in the historic Borgo Vanchiglia district of Turin, near the confluence of the Dora Riparia river and the Po. The neo-Gothic church of Santa Giulia, on Piazzetta Santa Guilia, is at the heart of the neighbourhood, which is renowned for buildings of unusual design.

28 July 2017

Luigi Musso - racing driver

Wealthy Roman who found expectations hard to bear

Musso at the wheel of his Ferrari Formula One car
Musso at the wheel of his Ferrari Formula One car

Luigi Musso, who for a period of his life was Italy’s top racing driver, was born on this day in 1924 in Rome.

Musso competed six times for the world drivers’ championship, three times for Maserati and three times for Ferrari. His finished third in the 1957 season, driving for Ferrari.

His solitary Formula One Grand Prix victory came in 1956 in Argentina, although he had to content himself with a half-share of the points after being forced to hand over his car to Juan Fangio, the local hero and Ferrari team leader, after 29 of the 98 laps, when Fangio’s car failed.

Sadly, two years later he was killed in an accident at the French Grand Prix in Reims, which his girlfriend, Fiamma Breschi, blamed on the ferocity of his rivalry with his fellow Ferrari drivers Mike Hawthorn and Peter Collins.

Born into a wealthy Roman family – his father was a diplomat – Musso grew up in a luxurious palazzo off the Via Veneto. He acquired his love of cars from his brothers, who were also racing drivers.

Luigi Musso was the wealthy son of a Roman diplomat
Luigi Musso was the wealthy son
of a Roman diplomat
He began to compete in 1950 in a car he bought himself, a 750cc Giannini sports car. He made an inauspicious start, his first race ending when he left the track and collided with a statue of the national hero, Giuseppe Garibaldi.

But he soon began to enjoy success racing sports cars and his talent was noted by Maserati, for whom he dominated the 1953 national 2000cc sports car championship. More success the following year, when he placed highly in the two big endurance road races, the Mille Miglia and the Targa Florio, as well as winning several smaller events, saw him named reserve driver for Maserati’s Formula One team. In that capacity he finished second in the Spanish Grand Prix in Barcelona.

He moved to Ferrari in 1956, a season which began with his handover to Fangio in Buenos Aires and was interrupted by a major crash in Germany, in which Musso was lucky to escape with only a broken arm.

When he returned for the Italian Grand Prix, the last race on the calendar, he found himself facing a repeat of the first, when his team asked him to surrender his car to Fangio.  This time, risking his Ferrari career, he refused, taking a gamble that almost paid off.  In the lead with four laps remaining, he suffered a puncture and then steering problems and was forced to quit, leaving Stirling Moss, in a Maserati, to win.

The pit lane at the Argentine Grand Prix of 1956, in which Musso, whose car is No 12, gained his only F1 win
The pit lane at the Argentine Grand Prix of 1956, in which
Musso, whose car is No 12, gained his only F1 win
Musso was embarrassed. Yet far from attracting ignominy he endeared himself to the Monza crowd, who appreciated his daring.  Come the 1957 season he was firmly in the spotlight, the Italian press loving the new rivalry between Musso and his fellow Italian, Eugenio Castellotti.

When Castellotti suffered fatal injuries in a crash while testing, Italian motor racing fans looked to Musso more than ever to deliver success.

Yet he found the weight of expectation hard to bear.  He was now the best Italian driver, built up by the press as the heir to Alberto Ascari, the winner of back-to-back Formula One world titles in 1952 and 1953 but who had himself been killed in an accident in 1955.  The pressure on Musso to win races became intense.

There were rumours of debts, the result of a gambling habit that saw him lose large sums in the casinos. His personal life was in turmoil, too, after leaving his wife and two children for Fiamma, a beautiful blonde. And then there was the growing animosity between Musso and his Ferrari teammates, Hawthorn and Collins, two close friends who had a deal to pool their prize money and share it, from which Musso was excluded.

Musso's girlfriend, Fiamma Breschi
Musso's girlfriend, Fiamma Breschi
It all came to a head in the French Grand Prix at Reims in July. Musso was second on the grid behind Hawthorn, having matched his best-ever performance in practice. The race was the most lucrative on the calendar and Musso was determined to win.

Hawthorn made a flying start and began to pull away from the field.  Musso felt he had no option but to chase hard.  He took more and more risks until, on the 10th lap, he took one too many.  Attempting to take a corner at 150mph, he was unable to keep the car on the track and one of the wheels clipped the edge of a ditch, sending it somersaulting into the air.

Musso was thrown from the car but suffered severe head injuries.  He was taken to hospital but died later that evening.

Breschi later recalled that after spending several hours at the hospital, doctors told her she should return to her hotel to rest. In the car park of the hotel she says she saw Hawthorn and Collins laughing and joking, playing football with a tin can, and hated them from that point onwards.

The Excelsior Hotel is a landmark on the Via Veneto
The Excelsior Hotel is a landmark on the Via Veneto
Travel tip:

The Via Vittorio Veneto, colloquially known as Via Veneto, is one of the most elegant and expensive streets in Rome. The street is named after the Battle of Vittorio Veneto (1918), a decisive Italian victory of the First World War. Federico Fellini's 1960 film La Dolce Vita was mostly centered on the Via Veneto area. Its bars and restaurants attracted Hollywood stars such as Audrey Hepburn, Anita Ekberg, Anna Magnani, Gary Cooper and Orson Welles as well as writers Tennessee Williams and Jean Cocteau and the designer Coco Chanel.

Monza Cathedral with its marble facade
Monza Cathedral with its marble facade 
Travel tip:

Although widely known for its Formula One track, Monza has other attractions that tend to be overlooked. There is an elegant and stylish historical centre, in which the cathedral, which originated in the sixth century and was rebuilt in the 14th, featuring a marble façade in Romanesque style with some Gothic adornments, and a bell tower added in 1606, stands out.  Another feature is the vast Parco di Monza, at 688 hectares one of the largest enclosed parks in Italy, which contains the Royal Villa, built between 1771 and 1780 for Archduke Ferdinand of Austria.