Showing posts with label Travel. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Travel. Show all posts

21 April 2024

Pietro Della Valle – composer and travel writer

Adventurous Roman wrote unique accounts of 17th century Persia and India 

Della Valle's journey expanded knowledge of Indian history
Della Valle's journey expanded
knowledge of Indian history
Composer, musicologist, and writer Pietro Della Valle, who travelled to the Holy Land, Persia and India during the Renaissance and wrote about his experiences in letters to a friend, died on this day in 1652 in Rome.

Della Valle was born in Rome into a wealthy and noble family and grew up to study Latin, Greek, classical mythology and the Bible. Another member of his family was Cardinal Andrea della Valle, after whom the Basilica Sant’Andrea della Valle in Rome was named.

Having been disappointed in love, Pietro Della Valle vowed to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. He sailed from Venice to Istanbul, where he lived for more than a year learning Turkish and Arabic.

He then travelled to Jerusalem, by way of Alexandria, Cairo, and Mount Sinai, where he visited the holy sites. He wrote regular letters about his travels to Mario Schipano, a professor of medicine in Naples, who later published them in three volumes.

Della Valle moved on to Damascus, went to Baghdad, where he married a Christian woman, Sitti Maani Gioenida, and then to Persia, now known as Iran. While in the Middle East, Della Valle created one of the first modern records of the location of ancient Babylon. 

A 17th century representation of Della Valle's visit to India
A 17th century representation
of Della Valle's visit to India
His wife died after delivering a stillborn child in Persepolis, but Della Valle continued his journey, taking her embalmed body with him so that it could eventually be buried in his family vault in Rome. 

Reaching Surat in north western India in 1623, he was introduced to the king of Kaladi in south India. Della Valle’s memoirs about his experiences provide the best contemporary account of society in that area in the 17th century and are one of the most important sources of history about that period for the region.

The traveller continued southward along the coast to Calicut for the next year and returned to Italy by way of Basra in southern Mesopotamia - now Iraq - and through the desert to Aleppo in Syria, finally reaching Cyprus and then Rome in 1626. 

He was appointed a gentleman of the bedchamber - an honorary ceremonial position in the papal court - by Pope Urban VIII to reward him for his exploits. 

From his 36 letters to Schipano, which contained more than a million words, three volumes were eventually published: Turkey (1650), Persia (1658) and India (1663). Part of his accounts of his time in India have been translated into English.

Della Valle was also a keen book collector and purchased rare manuscripts while he was in Syria that he brought back to Italy with him.

Once living back in Rome, Della Valle concentrated on music, composing religious music and writing treatises about musical theory, which praised the music of the time countering the criticisms of other contemporary writers. He also wrote libretti for musical spectacles that were performed in Rome.

After his death in 1652, Pietro Della Valle was buried alongside his wife in the family vault in Santa Maria Ara Coeli in Rome.

The Basilica of Santa Maria Ara Coeli on the Campidoglio Hill, where Della Valle is buried
The Basilica of Santa Maria Ara Coeli on the
Campidoglio Hill, where Della Valle is buried
Travel tip

Santa Maria Ara Coeli, the Basilica of Saint Mary of the Altar in Heaven, where Pietro Della Valle is buried in his family’s vault, is on the highest summit of the Campidoglio, one of the seven hills of Rome. It houses relics belonging to Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine. It is claimed the church was built on the site where the Tiburtine Sibyl prophesied the coming of Christ to the Emperor Augustus. In the Middle Ages, condemned criminals used to be publicly executed at the foot of the steps. It is now the designated church of Rome City Council.




The beautiful Basilica of Sant'Andrea della Valle, in the Sant'Eustachio district of Rome
The beautiful Basilica of Sant'Andrea della Valle,
in the Sant'Eustachio district of Rome

Travel tip

The Basilica of Sant'Andrea della Valle, named after Cardinal Andrea della Valle, and dedicated to St Andrew the Apostle, is a minor basilica in the rione of Sant’Eustachio in Rome. The dome of the church is the third largest in Rome, behind St Peter’s and the Pantheon. Building work started on the church in 1590 following the designs of Giacomo della Porta and Pier Paolo Olivieri. The church was used as a setting by the composer Puccini for his opera, Tosca.

Also on this day:

753BC: The founding of Rome

1574: The death of Tuscan ruler Cosimo I de’ Medici

1922: The death of castrato singer Alessandro Moreschi

1930: The birth of actress Silvana Mangano

1948: The birth of surgeon and charity founder Gino Strada



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9 January 2024

Marco Polo - merchant and explorer

Venetian trader who described travels in China 

A 19th century portrait in mosaic of Marco Polo at Palazzo Tursi in Genoa
A 19th century portrait in mosaic of
Marco Polo at Palazzo Tursi in Genoa
The Italian explorer Marco Polo, who achieved a place in history as the first European to write in extensive detail about life in China, is thought by many historians to have died on or close to this day in 1324 in his home city of Venice.

Accounts of his final days say he had been confined to bed with an illness and that his doctor was concerned on January 8 that he was close to death. Indeed, so worried were those around his bedside that they sent for a local priest to witness his last will and testament, which Polo dictated in the presence of his wife, Donata, and their three daughters, who were appointed executors.

The supposition has been that he died on the same evening. The will document was preserved and is kept by the Biblioteca Marciana, the historic public library of Venice just across the Piazzetta San Marco from St Mark’s Basilica. It shows the date of the witnessing of Polo’s testament as January 9, although it should be noted that under Venetian law at the time, the change of date occurred at sunset rather than midnight.

Confusingly, the document recorded his death as occurring in June 1324 and the witnessing of the will on January 9, 1323. The consensus among historians, however, is that he reached his end in January, 1324.

Born in 1254 - again the specific date is unknown - Marco Polo was best known for his travels to Asia in the company of his father, Niccolò, and his uncle, Maffeo.

Having left Venice in 1271, when Marco was 16 or 17, they are said to have reached China in 1275 and remained there for 17 years. Marco wrote about the trip in a book that was originally titled Book of the Marvels of the World but is today known as The Travels of Marco Polo. It is considered a classic of travel literature.

A map showing the journeys said to have been  made by Marco Polo on his travels to China
A map showing the journeys said to have been 
made by Marco Polo on his travels to China
The book, which was written in prison after he had been captured during a war between the rival republics of Venice and Genoa upon returning to Italy, describes his experiences in China in terms of first-hand accounts. Sceptical experts have suggested some of the stories might have been appropriated from other explorers and merchants and passed off by Polo as his own. Yet although some of his descriptions of the exotic animals he ecountered seem somewhat fantastical, the accuracy of much of what he described has generally been confirmed in subsequent years.

The book, which Polo dictated to Rustichello da Pisa, a fellow prisoner of the Genoese who happened to be a writer, introduced European audiences to the mysteries of the Eastern world, including the wealth and sheer size of the Mongol Empire and China, providing descriptions of China, Persia, India, Japan and other Asian cities and countries.

Polo’s father and uncle had traded with the Middle East for many years and had become wealthy in the process. They had visited the western territories of the Mongol Empire on a previous expedition, established strong trading links and visited Shangdu, about 200 miles (320km) north of modern Beijing, where Kublai Khan, founder of the Yuan dynasty, had an opulent summer palace, and which was immortalised by the English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge as Xanadu.

Their journey with Marco originally took them to Acre in present-day Israel, where - at the request of Kublai Khan - they secured some holy oil from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. They continued to the Persian port city of Hormuz and thereafter followed overland routes that later became known as the Silk Road.

Travelling through largely rough terrain, the journey to Shangdu took the best part of three years.  Marco Polo’s long stay owed itself partly to Kublai Khan taking him into his court and sending him on various official missions.  In that capacity, he extended his travels to include what is now the city of Hangzhou and may have crossed the border into India and what is now Myanmar.

A painting of unknown origin of Marco Polo's father and uncle presenting a gift to Kublai Khan
A painting of unknown origin of Marco Polo's
father and uncle presenting a gift to Kublai Khan
The Polos left China in around 1291 or 1292, given the responsibility to escort a young princess to Persia, where she was to marry the Mongol ruler. Their route from Persia took through parts of what is now Turkey, to Constantinople, and then north along the Adriatic to Venice.  They arrived home in 1295.

It was during the second of four wars between Venice and their trading rival Genoa that Marco Polo was captured.  He remained a prisoner until 1299, when a peace treaty allowed for his release.  Thereafter, he continued his life as a merchant, achieving prosperity, but rarely left Venice or its territories again until his death.

His book, known to Italians under the title Il Milione after Polo’s own nickname, introduced the West to many aspects of Chinese culture and customs and described such things as porcelain, gunpowder, paper money and eyeglasses, which were previously unknown in Europe. Contrary to some stories, his discoveries did not include pasta, which was once held widely to have been imported by Marco Polo but is thought actually to have existed in the Italy of the Etruscans in the 4th century BC. 

Christopher Columbus and other explorers are said to have been inspired by Marco Polo to begin their own adventures, Columbus discovering the Americas effectively by accident after setting sail across the Atlantic in the expectation of reaching the eastern coast of Asia.

Marco Polo is buried at the church of San Lorenzo
Marco Polo is buried at the
church of San Lorenzo
Travel tip:

One of the wishes Marco Polo expressed on his deathbed was that he be buried in the church of San Lorenzo in the Castello sestiere of Venice, about 850m (930 yards) on foot from Piazza San Marco. The church, whick dates back to the ninth century and was rebuilt in the late 16th century, houses the relics of Saint Paul I of Constantinople as well as Marco Polo’s tomb. Castello is the largest of the six sestieri, stretching east almost from the Rialto Bridge and including the shipyards of Arsenale, once the largest naval complex in Europe, the Giardini della Biennale and the island of Sant’Elena. Unlike its neighbour, San Marco, Castello is a quiet neighbourhood, where tourists can still find deserted squares and empty green spaces.

Arched Byzantine windows thought to have been from the Polo family home
Arched Byzantine windows thought to
have been from the Polo family home
Travel tip: 

The Polo family home in Venice, which was largely destroyed in a fire in 1598, was in the Cannaregio sestiere close to where the Teatro Malibran now stands, in Corte Seconda del Milion, one of two small square that recall Marco Polo’s nickname, Il Milione, which may have been coined as a result of his enthusiasm for the wealth he encountered at the court of Kublai Khan in China or as a result of his being from the Polo Emilioni branch of the family. The Byzantine arches visible in Corte Seconda del Milion are thought to have been part of the Polo house.  The Teatro Malibran was originally inaugurated in 1678 as the Teatro San Giovanni Grisostomo, opening with the premiere of Carlo Pallavicino's opera Vespasiano.  It was renamed Teatro Malibran in 1835 in honour of a famous soprano, Maria Malibran, who was engaged to sing Vincenzo Bellini's La sonnambula there but was so shocked as the crumbling condition of the theatre that she refused her fee, insisting it be put towards the theatre’s upkeep instead. 

Also on this day:

1878: The death of Victor Emmanuel II, first King of Italy

1878: Umberto I succeeds Victor Emanuel II

1944: The birth of architect Massimiliano Fuksas

2004: The death of political philosopher Norberto Bobbio


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17 August 2022

The Milan-Monza railway

First line in northern Italy sparked industrial growth 

The first railway line laid in northern Italy was opened on this day in 1840.

The route, almost a straight line, of the first passenger railway in northern Italy
The route, almost a straight line, of the
first passenger railway in northern Italy
The line, authorised by Ferdinand I of Austria, within whose empire the Kingdom of Lombardy-Venetia fell at the time, connected the city of Milan with the smaller city of Monza, covering a distance of 12.8km (eight miles).

It was the second railway line to be built on the Italian peninsula, following on from the shorter Naples-Portici line, which had been opened in October of the previous year.

Italy was a little behind in developing railways. The first steam-powered railway engine had completed its maiden journey some 56 years earlier, in England.   But once Milan-Monza was operational, quickly followed by the first section of what would become a Milan-Venice line, the rest of Italy awoke to their potential.

By the end of the 1840s, there were nine or 10 routes, mainly in the north; by unification in 1861, the network had expanded to more than 2,000km (1,240 miles) and by the early 1870s, there were some 7,000km (4,340 miles) of track, enabling travel from the outposts of Susa in the northwest, close to the border with France, and Udine in the northeast, all the way down to Maglie, south of Lecce, and Cariati, east of Cosenza, in the south.

The Milan-Monza line went under the rather grand title of the Imperiale Regno Privilegiata Strada Ferrata da Milano a Monza - the Imperial and Royal Privileged Railway from Milan to Monza. ‘Privilege’ was the equivalent of ‘concession’ in the bureaucratic language of the time.

An engine by Robert Stephenson similar to those that saw service on the Milan-Monza line
An engine by Robert Stephenson similar to those
that saw service on the Milan-Monza line 

The privilege for this railway had been granted by Emperor Ferdinand I in 1838 and construction assigned to the Holzhammer company of Bolzano in what was then Austrian South Tyrol, although the designer was the Italian engineer Guido Sarti.

The track, mounted on stone cubes sunk into the ground and with transverse bars to maintain the gauge, followed a straight course. The starting point was the former Stazione Porta Nuova with an intermediate station at Sesto San Giovanni.

In the interests of safety, tall masonry towers were built along the line, each manned by signalmen who could communicate with one another and the trains using visual and acoustic signals.

The first trains, which were pulled by locomotives built by George Rennie and Robert Stephenson in England, named Milano and Lombardia, ran four times each day, soon increasing to six.  Each train consisted of up to 21 carriages, of which passengers had a choice of first, second or third class, paying fares of 1.5 Austrian lire, 1 lira or 75 cents per journey.

Milano and Lombardia proved rather unreliable, but the services were popular nonetheless. By the end of December, more than 150,000 passengers had been carried and four new locomotives, named Lambro, Brianza, Monza and Adda, were acquired.

The main building of the former Stazione Porta Nuova now houses a luxury boutique hotel
The main building of the former Stazione Porta
Nuova now houses a luxury boutique hotel 
As well as providing a service to the public that was much faster than the horse-drawn carriage that railways and the automobile would ultimately replace, the new train connection spurred the growth of industry.

Sesto San Giovanni saw an expansion in the number of spinning mills and the Italian Post Office began to use the line to transport mail. Industry in Monza also began to expand.

The Austrian government originally intended the line to be extended to Bergamo via one branch and to Como via another. In the event, the project was scaled down to allow just the Como leg. The first extensions, to Camnago-Lentate and Camerlata, were completed in 1849, although it was 1875 before it reached Como. 

Today, the Milan-Monza section is part of a line extending through Como to Chiasso in Switzerland. It began to operate electrically powered trains in 1899 and, now fully electrified, the section also carries trains to Bergamo as well as intercity trains linking Milan with Basel and Zurich. 

Monza's beautiful 13th century  town hall, the Arengario
Monza's beautiful 13th century 
town hall, the Arengario
Travel tip:

The city of Monza is famous for its Grand Prix motor racing circuit, which hosts the Formula One Italian Grand Prix. The city is also home to the Iron Crown of Lombardy - the Corona Ferrea - a circlet of gold with a central iron band, which according to legend, was beaten out of a nail from Christ’s true cross and was found by Saint Helena in the Holy Land. The crown is believed to have been given to the city of Monza in the sixth century and is kept in a chapel in the 13th century Basilica of San Giovanni Battista, the city’s cathedral. When Napoleon Bonaparte was declared King of Italy in 1805, he was crowned in the Duomo in Milan and the Iron Crown had to be fetched from Monza before the ceremony. During his coronation, Napoleon is reported to have picked up the precious relic, announced that God had given it to him, and placed it on his own head. In Piazza Roma, the city's 13th century Arengario - town hall - has echoes of the Palazzo della Ragione in Milan.

The city of Bolzano, in Alto Adige, has a backdrop of lush, tree-lined mountains
The city of Bolzano, in Alto Adige, has a backdrop
of lush, tree-lined mountains 
Travel tip:

Bolzano, home of the Holzhammer company commissioned to build the Milan-Monza railway line, is a city in the South Tyrol province of what is now northern Italy, also known as Alto Adige. It is in a valley flanked by hills covered in lush vineyards. A gateway to the Dolomites mountain range in the Italian Alps, it has a medieval city centre famous for its wooden market stalls, selling Alpine cheeses and hams and loaves of dark, seeded bread. One of the features of the city is the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology, which features a Neolithic mummy called Ötzi the Iceman. Buildings of note include the imposing 13th-century Mareccio Castle, and the Duomo di Bolzano with its Romanesque and Gothic architecture. With a population of 108,000 in the city and 250,000 including surrounding suburbs, towns and villages, it is one of the largest urban areas in the Alpine region. Three languages - Italian, German and a local language called Ladin - are spoken in the area, which in 2020 was ranked joint first with Bologna for the best standard of living in Italy.

Also on this day:

1498: Cesare Borgia resigns as a Cardinal of the Catholic Church

1740: Prospero Lambertini elected as Pope Benedict XIV

2008: The death of oil tycoon Franco Sensi


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