Showing posts with label Trastevere. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Trastevere. Show all posts

10 September 2017

Elsa Schiaparelli - fashion designer

Clothes inspired by Surrealist art 

Elsa Schiaparelli left Rome in search of  adventure in around 1912
Elsa Schiaparelli left Rome in search of
adventure in around 1912
The designer Elsa Schiaparelli, who is regarded along with her rival Coco Chanel as one of the key figures in the fashion world between the two World Wars, was born on this day in 1890 in Rome.

Heavily influenced by the Surrealist cultural movement – the artists Salvador Dali and Jean Cocteau were among her collaborators – she became a favourite of some of the world’s most recognisable women, including the American actresses Greta Garbo and Mae West, the German singer and actress Marlene Dietrich, and the socialite and heiress Daisy Fellowes.

Her style shaped the look of fashion in the 1920s and 1930s, often featuring elements of the trompe l’oeil artistic technique to create optical illusions, such as the dress she made with Dali’s collaboration that seemed to be full of rips and tears, or the evening coat she designed with Cocteau that featured two female profiles facing one another which, viewed another way, created the impression of a vase for the fabric roses adorning the shoulders and neck.

Other designs, such as the Lobster Dress and the Skeleton Dress, both influenced by Dali, satisfied her taste for the outrageous.

Schiaparelli was also an innovator.  She was among the pioneers of the wrap dress, she invented the divided skirt – a forerunner of shorts – that the tennis player Lili de Alvarez wore at Wimbledon in 1931, was the first to create designs that included zips in the colour of the fabric and the first to make brooch-like buttons and fasteners.

Schiaparelli's 1938 coat-dress, designed with Jean Cocteau, is typical of her Surrealist style
Schiaparelli's 1938 coat-dress, designed with Jean
Cocteau, is typical of her Surrealist style
She was also the first to come up with the idea of a catwalk show, featuring parading models in artistically designed stage sets with accompanying music.

The colour Shocking pink was her own creation, a shade of magenta inspired by a Cartier diamond owned by Daisy Fellowes.  Originally called Schiaparelli pink, it was first used by her on the packaging for her first fragrance, which she called Shocking, and thereafter became known as Shocking pink.

In fact, there was very little about Schiaparelli’s life that followed conventional patterns.

Born into wealth in Rome, her family home was an apartment in the baroque 18th century Palazzo Corsini, a sumptuously grand palace in the Trastevere quarter of the city that was once home to royalty and now houses one of Rome’s most important art galleries.

Her mother, Maria-Luisa, was a Neapolitan aristocrat, her father, Celestino Schiaparelli, a prominent scholar and academic who for a while was Dean of the Sapienza University of Rome. His brother, the astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli, was notable for identifying what for many years were believed to be canals on Mars.

Elsa herself studied at the University but was soon courting controversy, publishing a book of sensual poetry deemed so shocking her parents sent her off to a convent in Switzerland, where she promptly forced them to bring her back to Rome by going on hunger strike.

Schiaparelli's trademark colour, Shocking Pink
Schiaparelli's trademark colour, Shocking Pink
She was soon bored with being confined to home, however, finding her lifestyle, while comfortable, to be unfulfilling, and embarked on a series of adventures that took her to London, Paris and New York, where she travelled in the company of a highly unsuitable husband, who called himself Count Wilhelm Frederick Wendt de Kerlor.

They had met in London after she attended a lecture he gave on theosophy, the study of the mystical and the occult, in which she had a fascination. He agreed to help her with her English and a relationship developed. In fact, he was essentially a con-man, passing himself off at various times as a doctor, a lecturer, a detective and criminal psychologist.  Yet he had a charisma she found hard to resist, they were married in 1914 and when he was deported from England in 1915 she followed him to Paris, Cannes, Nice, Monte Carlo and eventually New York.

De Kerlor continued his dubious business practices in New York, attracting the attention of the authorities, and the couple both at times feared deportation, Elsa having been suspected of spreading support for Bolshevism among the Italian community. They had a child, Maria-Luisa, known as Gogo, in 1920, after which De Kerlor disappeared, abandoning his new family.

She returned with her daughter to France but went back to New York, having an affair with an opera singer, Mario Laurenti,  before his sudden death in 1922 prompted her to quit America and settle in Paris.

Schiaparelli models the knitted top with the trompe l'oeil collar that launched her career
Schiaparelli models the knitted top with the
trompe l'oeil collar that launched her career
Schiaparelli’s career in fashion grew from the need to earn an independent income.  Although she had worked in a fashion boutique in New York, it was only after a friend introduced her to a couturier, Paul Poiret, that the idea of a career in the industry began to have some appeal.

A proposal that she could set up a business selling French haute-couture in New York came to nothing but her time in Poiret’s company allowed her to observe his methods, and she began to design clothes of her own. In 1927, she launched a collection of knitwear featuring the trompe l’oeil touches that would become her hallmark.

The collection was featured in Vogue magazine, after which her order book expanded rapidly. She steadily acquired more clients and added to her range, taking on more staff and opening her first shop, the House of Schiaparelli.

Her reputation grew and grew.  By 1931, an established star and celebrity, she was operating from prestigious premises in Place Vendôme.

Everything changed with the Second World War, however.  Soon after Paris fell to the Germans in 1940, Schiaparelli fled to New York, where she remained until the end of the conflict. After she returned to Paris, with austerity biting hard and other designers catching the eye, the business foundered and she took the decision to close in 1954.

Schiaparelli died in Paris in 1973 and for a while her work was not nearly as well remembered as that of her rival, Chanel. But there has been a revival of interest recently. In 2012, New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art featured her work, along with that of Italian designer Miuccia Prada, in a major exhibition.

The Palazzo Corsini was Schiaparelli's home as a young girl
The Palazzo Corsini was Schiaparelli's home as a young girl
Travel tip:

The Palazzo Corsini, which overlooks the Tiber on Via della Lungara, just across the road from Villa Farnesina, was erected for the Corsini family – the Florentine aristocrats who were represented in the capital by Pope Clement XII (formerly Cardinal Lorenzo Corsini) – on the site of a 15th-century villa, to a design by the architect Ferdinando Fuga. The villa had previously been the home of Christina, Queen of Sweden, who moved to Rome after abdicating.  The first floor of the palace now houses the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica. Most of the works were donated by the Corsini family and acquired by the state in 1883. It encompasses mainly Italian paintings from the early Renaissance to the late 18th century, although there is also a Van Dyck and a Rubens. For more information visit

The Piazza di Santa Maria in Trastevere
The Piazza di Santa Maria in Trastevere
Travel tip:

Trastevere is a charming medieval quarter which is popular with visitors to Rome for its down-to-earth atmosphere and quaint cobbled streets. The central Piazza di Santa Maria has a homely neighbourhood feel, although the Basilica di Santa Maria, which dominates the square, contains some beautifully elaborate golden mosaics by Pietro Cavallini.  Behind the Palazzo Corsini is the University of Rome’s botanical gardens, with more than 7,000 plant species, while the nearby Gianicolo hill, seldom scaled by many tourists on account of a 20-minute climb, offers some of the best views across the city.

4 April 2017

Francesco De Gregori - singer-songwriter

Performer inspired by songs of hero Bob Dylan

Francesco de Gregori on stage in 2008
Francesco de Gregori on stage in 2008
The singer-songwriter Francesco De Gregori - popularly known as "Il Principe dei cantautori" (the prince of the singer-songwriters) – was born on this day in 1951.

Born in Rome, De Gregori has released around 40 albums in a career spanning 45 years, selling more than five million records.

Famous for the elegant and often poetic nature of his lyrics, De Gregori was once described by Bob Dylan as an “Italian folk hero”.

De Gregori acknowledges Dylan as one if his biggest inspirations and influences, along with Leonard Cohen and the Italian singer Fabrizio de André.  Covers of Dylan songs have regularly featured in his stage performances. He made an album in 2015 entitled Love and Theft: De Gregori Sings Bob Dylan.

Born into a middle class family – his father was a librarian, his mother a teacher - De Gregori spent his youth living in Rome or on the Adriatic coast at Pescara. He began to develop his musical career at the Folkstudio in Rome’s Trastevere district, where Dylan had performed in 1962.

De Gregori (left) and Lucio Dalla in Genoa in 2010
De Gregori (left) and Lucio Dalla in Genoa in 2010
He became friends with fellow singer-songwriters Antonello Venditti, Mimmo Locasciulli and Giorgio Lo Cascio. It was alongside Venditti that he made his professional debut and the two collaborated on an album, Theorius Campus, in 1972. Venditti had more songs and was considered to have a better voice and when their record label indicated that they were more interested in Venditti, the partnership broke up.

De Gregori's 1973 solo debut album, Alice Non Lo Sa, did not impress the critics, who were not enthused either by his 1974 follow-up. But with his 1975 album, Rimmel, he began to enjoy some success. Reviewers liked his reflective and intelligent lyrics – less obscure than some of his earlier songs – and the album benefitted from some input from Lucio Dalla, with whom he struck a lasting friendship.

In 1976 he had another success with Bufalo Bill but an incident in Milan during a tour the following year led to him abruptly quitting the music business.

Bob Dylan in 2010
Bob Dylan in 2010
De Gregori had been a member of the Italian Communist Party and his songs often had a political theme, as did those of many Italian performers at that time, but while he was on stage at the PalaLido arena in Milan he was targeted by a group of left-wing extremists who began a protest during the show, accusing him of using left-wing messages merely to sell his records.  Fearing physical attack, he left the stage and the concert was abandoned, after which he announced that his career was over.

For the next few months he worked as a clerk in a book and music shop but was persuaded to resume his career the following year. A new album, De Gregori, included a song, "Generale," that would become one of his signature tracks. Soon afterwards, he joined Dalla on a successful tour entitled Banana Republic.  The two would later host a music show on the Rai television network, entitled Due.

Ironically, the title track of his next album, Viva l’Italia, was adopted as an anthem by the Italian Socialist Party.  In 1982 he recorded Titanic, the album many critics consider his tour de force, and since then, after a period working as a journalist for the newspaper L’Unità, De Gregori has recorded albums at a rate of one every year. His latest, Sotto il Vulcano, was released in February this year.

Married to Alessandra, whom he met at high school, De Gregori has two sons, Marco and Federico.  His nickname – Il Principe – was given to him by a journalist and apparently related to his sometimes haughty manner when dealing with the press.

Via Garibaldi in Trastevere
Via Garibaldi in Trastevere
Travel tip:

The Folkstudio club opened in 1961 in a cellar in Via Garibaldi in the Trastevere area of Rome. Its founder was an American painter and musician, Harold Bradley Jr, who invited a then little known Bob Dylan to play there soon after it opened. The club, which at first promoted jazz and blues musicians, eventually hosted performers of many different styles and helped launch the careers of many Italian artists. Bradley moved back to the United States in 1967 but music lover Giancarlo Cesaroni took over. The club’s premises moved subsequently to the library L'Uscita, in Via dei Banchi Vecchi, then to Via Sacchi and later Via Frangipane, near the Colosseum.  A plaque on the wall in Via Garibaldi marks its original home.

Prati is an affluent Roman neighbourhood
Prati is an affluent Roman neighbourhood
Travel tip:

De Gregori was raised in the Prati district of Rome, close to the Vatican and St Peter’s Basilica, which is now an affluent residential neighbourhood which is popular with tourists for offering a relatively quiet place to stay that still provides easy access to the city’s historical centre. It has many authentic Roman trattorie as well as a host of bars and pubs.

More reading:

The enduring talents of Antonello Venditti

How pop singer Lucio Dalla found inspiration in opera great Enrico Caruso

The story of Adelmo Fornaciari - otherwise known as Zucchero

Also on this day:

1752: The birth of composer Niccolò Antonio Zingarelli

(Picture credits: De Gregori and Dalla by Gianky; Bob Dylan by Alberto Cabello; Via Garibaldi by Mark Ahsmann; Prati street by Lalupa; all via Wikimedia Commons)


25 February 2017

Alberto Sordi - actor

Comic genius who appeared in 190 films

Alberto Sordi with Sophia Loren in the 1954 film Due notti con Cleopatra (Two Nights with Cleopatra)
Alberto Sordi with Sophia Loren in the 1954 film
Due notti con Cleopatra (Two Nights with Cleopatra)
Alberto Sordi, remembered by lovers of Italian cinema as one of its most outstanding comedy actors, died on this day in 2003 in Rome, the city of his birth.

He was 82 and had suffered a heart attack.  Italy reacted with an outpouring of grief and the decision was taken for his body to lie in state at Rome's town hall, the Campidoglio.

Streams of his fans took the opportunity to file past his coffin and when his funeral took place at the Basilica of San Giovanni in Laterano it was estimated that the crowds outside the church and in nearby streets numbered one million people.

Only the funeral of Pope John Paul II, who died two years later, is thought to have attracted a bigger crowd.

Sordi (right) in a scene from his 1954 film An American in  Rome, which established him as a comic character actor
Sordi (right) in a scene from An American in Rome 
(1954) which established him as a comic character actor
Sordi was the Italian voice of Oliver Hardy in the early days of his career, when he worked on the dubbing of the Laurel and Hardy movies.  He made the first of his 190 films in 1937 but it was not until the 1950s that he found international fame.

He appeared in two movies directed by Federico Fellini - The White Sheik and I vitelloni.  In the latter, he played an oafish layabout, something of a simpleton but an effeminate and vulnerable character to whom audiences responded with warmth and affection due to Sordi's interpretation.

It was Sordi's eye for the foibles of quirks of the Italian character that identified him as an actor of considerable talent.  His films often had the simple titles of the Italian stereotypes he was sending up, such as The Seducer, The Bachelor, The Husband, The Widower, The Traffic Cop and The Moralist.

Some were black comedies, some slapstick farces, others more serious dramas. Along with Vittorio Gassman, Ugo Tognazzi and Nino Manfredi, he made up a quartet that has been described as Italy's equivalent of the Ealing comedy school.

Alberto Sordi in the 1962 black comedy Mafioso
Alberto Sordi in the 1962 black comedy Mafioso
Born in Rome in June 1920 in the working class Trastevere district, Sordi came from a musical family. While his mother was a schoolteacher, his father played the tuba in the orchestra at the Rome Opera House.

His father encouraged an interest in music and by the age of 10 Sordi was singing in the Sistine Chapel choir. At 16 he went to Milan to study at drama school but was told he would never be successful unless he shed his thick Roman accent.  In the event, the accent and distinctive voice became part of his popularity.

Back in Rome, he became popular in radio shows and as a music hall act before landing the voice-over part for the Laurel and Hardy films, employing the bogus English accent he had used in a music hall sketch.

Eager for more work in the burgeoning movie industry, he hung around the cafes in Piazza di Spagna, where he befriended Fellini and his fellow director, Vittorio De Sica.  After working as an extra, he landed his first important role was as an air force cadet in Tre Aquilotti (Three Eaglets) in 1941.

Sordi (in the foreground) lounges outside a cafe in I vitelloni
Sordi (in the foreground) lounges outside a cafe in I vitelloni
The two Fellini movies brought him to the attention of the movie world as an actor of potential but it was his performance in An American in Rome (1954), directed by Stefano Vanzina - usually known as Steno - that established his brilliance in exaggerating the foibles and idiosyncrasies of his fellow Italians.

Poking fun at Italy's obsession with things American, Sordi played Ferdinand 'Nando' Mericoni, a young Roman who is so in awe of the American lifestyle he tries to make his room look like a Hollywood set, pretends he is from Kansas City and lives out everyday situations as if he were an actor in an American film. He makes up for his inability to speak English by making American vocal sounds.  Sordi would return to the theme years later, in 1968, with an Italian in America, which he directed himself.

In the opinion of the critics, the most accomplished performance of his career was as a middle-class Italian in Mario Monicelli's hard-hitting 1977 film Un Borghese Piccolo Piccolo (A Very Small Petit Bourgeois), who takes vengeance after seeing his child killed in a robbery.

Sordi never married but was the long-time partner of the actress Andreina Pagnani. Later in life, he lived quietly with his dogs and his two sisters in a splendid villa near the Baths of Caracalla, indulging his interests in opera, collecting antiques and supporting his football team, AS Roma.

Over a career that spanned five decades, he won seven David di Donatello awards for best actor - the most won by anyone in that category - and four awards from the Italian National Syndicate of Film Journalists. He also received a Golden Lion for lifetime achievement at the Venice Film Festival in 1995.

Less than a week after his death, the mayor of Rome announced that the gallery of shops opposite the Palazzo Chigi would be renamed Galleria Alberto Sordi in his memory.

The Isola Tiberina adjoins the Trastevere district
The Isola Tiberina adjoins the Trastevere district
Travel tip:

The Trastevere district has evolved from its working class roots into one of Rome's most fashionable neighbourhoods, certainly among young professionals, who are attracted by its pretty cobbled streets and the wealth of inexpensive but chic restaurants.  There are interesting attractions for visitors, too.  Apart from some fine churches, the area boasts the Botanical Garden of Rome, the lovely Isola Tiberina, an island in the middle of the river on which is built an old hospital and a church, and the lively Porta Portese Sunday market.

Rome hotels from

Travel tip:

Numbering John Keats, Mary Shelley and Casanova among its fans, the Piazza di Spagna is a beautiful square noted for the famous Spanish Steps leading up to the Trinità dei Monti church. Keats had a house next to the steps on the right looking up from the square. The steps tend to be crowded with tourists during the day but thin out after 10pm, when the square still looks glorious under the street lights. Leading off the square, Via Condotti has become home to Rome’s most exclusive shops, including Prada and Gucci. There are plenty of restaurants and bars around the square, although they can be expensive. However, inexpensive beer, ice creams and roasted chestnuts can be bought from street vendors.

More reading:

Giulietta Masina - Fellini's muse and wife of 50 years

Otto e mezzo - the greatest Fellini movie of them all?

How tough-talking Roman actress Anna Magnani became an Oscar-winning star

Also on this day:

1682: The birth of anatomist Giovanni Battista Morgagni

1707: The birth of Venetian playwright Carlo Goldoni

1873: The birth of the brilliant tenor Enrico Caruso

Selected books:

A History of Italian Cinema, by Peter Bondanella and Federico Pacchioni


1 January 2017

Claudio Villa - singing star

'King' of Sanremo sold 45 million records

Claudio Villa's tenor voice was considered good enough for operatic arias but he chose a career in pop
Claudio Villa's tenor voice was considered good enough
for operatic arias but he chose a career in pop
The singer Claudio Villa, who sold 45 million records and won the Sanremo Music Festival four times, was born on New Year's Day in 1926 in the Trastevere district of Rome.

The tenor, nicknamed 'the little king' on account of his diminutive stature and fiery temper, lent his voice to popular songs rather than opera although his voice was of sufficient quality to include operatic arias in his repertoire.

His four wins at Sanremo, in 1955, 1957, 1962 and 1967, is the most by any individual performer, a record he shares with Domenico Modugno, the singer-songwriter who was at his peak in the same era.

Villa recorded more than 3,000 songs and enjoyed a successful film career, starring in more than 25 musicals. His biggest hits included Ti Voglio Come Sei, Binario, Non ti Scordar di Me, Buongiorno Tristezza and Granada. 

Listen to Claudio Villa performing on the Italian TV show Canzonissima

He was a frequent guest on the Italian TV variety show Canzonissima, which was broadcast on state channel Rai Uno between 1958 and 1974. Later, he became a master of traditional Italian and Neapolitan songs.

Born Claudio Pica, the son of a taxi driver, he was raised in a working class area, living in the shadow of Rome's main prison in Via Lungara.

Villa starred in many  successful musicals
Villa starred in many
successful musicals
His talent for singing became apparent while he was still a teenager and he won the first song contest in which he participated, at the age of 14, performing the song Chitaratella, made popular by his idol, Carlo Buti.

Villa began to make regular appearances on the local station Radio Roma in 1946 and made his first record the following year on the Parlophone label.  He appeared in his first musical in the same year.

His career spanned 40 years, tailing off only in the 1980s, when he was profoundly affected by the death of his mother. He performed at Sanremo for the final time in 1985.

Villa lived in Rome all his life.  In 1986, he took a prominent role in an anti-fast food movement after the fast food chain McDonald's was allowed to open a branch in Piazza di Spagna.

His death, which was announced during the Sanremo Music Festival of 1987, came as a shock to his many fans.  Suffering from pancreatis and heart trouble, he travelled to Padua to undergo surgery but never left hospital, suffering a heart attack a month after his operation.

Villa married the actress Miranda Bonansea in 1952, with whom he had a son, Mauro, but they divorced after 10 years. After a number of relationships, including a long-standing one with the Roman singer Noemi Garofalo, who bore him a daughter, Manuele and a second son, Claudio, he was married again in 1973, to Patrizia Baldi.

Patrizia was just 18, some 31 years his junior, and the marriage made headlines for that reason.  Yet they remained together and had two children, Andrea and Aurora.

Travel tip:

Although formerly a working class neighbourhood, the Trastevere district, which sits alongside the River Tiber, is regarded as one of Rome's most charming areas for tourists to visit. Full of winding, cobbled streets and well preserved medieval houses, it is fashionable with Rome's young professional class as a place to live, with an abundance of restaurants and bars and a lively student music scene.

The Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere
The Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere
Travel tip:

Trastevere is home to one of the oldest churches in Rome in the Basilica of Santa Maria.  The floor plan and wall structure of the church date back to the 340AD, although most of it was built in the first half of the 12th century. Inside, the walls and ceiling are covered with breathtakingly beautiful 13th century mosaics, by Pietro Cavallini.

More reading:

How Domenico Modugno's first Sanremo win gave the world an Italian classic

Gigliola Cinquetti - the first Italian to win Eurovision

Rita Pavone - the 60s star who conquered America

Also on this day:

Capodanno in Italy