Showing posts with label Writers. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Writers. 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



18 February 2024

Alessandro Varaldo – crime writer and playwright

The first Italian author of gialli to be accepted by Mondadori

Varaldo's Il sette bello was the
first giallo by an Italian
Alessandro Varaldo, the author credited with creating the first fictional Italian police officer, died on this day in 1953 in Rome.

His character, the police commissario Ascanio Bonichi, made his first appearance in Varaldo’s novel Il sette bello - the name by which Italians refer to the seven of diamonds in a deck of cards - which was published by Mondadori in 1931.

The author had been approached by Arnaldo Mondadori himself and encouraged to create a novel in Italian to appeal to the readers who were already eagerly buying their gialli, the Italian translations of English, American and French detective novels that the firm published.

Gialli take their name from the distinctive yellow - giallo in Italian - covers used by Mondadori for their crime novels in the 1930s. 

Varaldo was born in Ventimiglia in Liguria in 1873 and grew up to become a journalist, novelist and playwright. From 1910 onwards he wrote novels, short stories and plays and contributed to newspapers such as Gazzetta del Popolo and Il Caffaro. 

He was president of the Italian Society of Authors and Publishers between 1920 and 1928 and director of the Academy of Dramatic Art in Milan from 1943.

In 1931, the Italian Government had brought in measures to try to curb the number of translated books by foreign authors being published, which encouraged Varaldo, along with other authors at the time, to try his hand at the genre.

Varaldo, who was also a journalist, wrote seven other gialli in addition to Il sette bello
Varaldo, who was also a journalist, wrote
seven other gialli in addition to Il sette bello
Esteemed for the quality of his writing, which Mondadori considered essential for the books they published, Varaldo became the first Italian author accepted into Mondadori’s series of gialli, and he went on to write eight mysteries for them. He was able to reconcile the traditionally Anglo-Saxon genre of crime fiction with Fascist values in order to comply with the dictates of the Mussolini regime.

He portrayed Bonichi as a down to earth character from the countryside who solved his cases by chance, rather than using the more scientific methods employed by other fictional detectives such as Sherlock Holmes.

His novels were set in Rome before the war and described the city’s Baroque and neo-Baroque buildings, which formed a theatrical background during the night and at dawn, when the silhouette of a figure could be illuminated. Crime fiction experts think this evoked an irretrievable past for his readers to escape to.

Varaldo wrote a total of eight gialli between 1931 and 1938 and he also wrote some drammi gialli -detective plays - before his death.

Travel tip: 

Ventimiglia, where Alessandro Varaldo was born, is the last major town on the Italian riviera before the border with France, which is about 6km (3.7 miles) away. Situated about 130km (81 miles) west of the Ligurian capital Genoa, it is not a well known as nearby Sanremo but has plenty going for it, nonetheless, its charm enhanced by the pastel colours of its houses. The town is divided in two by the Roia river, which separates the newer lower town from the old upper town - Ventimiglia Alta - which sits on a hill encircled by walls. Ancient buildings and churches dating back to the 10th century make the climb worthwhile, as does the spectacular view over the Ligurian sea. The mediaeval old town is also home to the Biblioteca Civica Aprosiana - founded by the writer and Augustan monk Angelico Aprosio in 1648 - has one of the largest collections of 17th century manuscripts and books in Italy.  The elegant lower town is best known for the massive open-air market that takes place in the beautiful setting of the lungomare - the promenade - every Friday. There are a smaller number of stalls open on the other days of the week. For beach lovers, the Spiaggia dei Balzi Rossi and the Spiaggia delle Calandre are only a short walk from the centre.

Travel tip:

The Mondadori publishing house, whose Gialli Mondadori broke new ground in publishing in Italy as the first book series to feature detective and crime stories alone, was launched in Ostiglia, an historical town about 160 km (99 miles) southeast of Milan and about 30 km (19 miles) from Mantua. In Roman times, when it was called Hostilia, its location on the Via Claudia Augusta Padana saw it become a trade hub linking Emilia with northern Europe.  In the Middle Ages it was a stronghold of Verona before being acquired in turn by the Scaliger, Visconti and Gonzaga families. The Palazzina Mondadori, an elegant Art Nouveau-style building that was the first Arnoldo printing house, hosts Arnoldo Mondadori’s private library consisting of about 1,000 books, many signed by the authors. Mondadori relocated to Milan in 1929 and now boasts a modern headquarters in the suburb of Segrate, to the east of the centre.

More reading:

How Giorgio Mondadori helped launch the newspaper La Repubblica

Why Augusto De Angelis is regarded as the 'father of Italian crime fiction'

The Naples bank worker who became a leading modern crime writer

Also on this day:

1455: The birth of painter Fra Angelico

1564: The death of painter and sculptor Michelangelo

1626: The birth of biologist Francesco Redi

1967: The birth of footballer Roberto Baggio

1983: The birth of tennis champion Roberta Vinci


27 January 2024

Marco Malvaldi – crime writer and chemist

Author has mastered the science of detective fiction

Marco Malvadi began his writing career with La briscola in cinque
Marco Malvadi began his writing
career with La briscola in cinque
Novelist Marco Malvaldi, who has written a prize-winning mystery featuring the real-life 19th century Italian culinary expert Pellegrino Artuso as his fictional sleuth, was born on this day in 1974 in Pisa.

Malvaldi, who is a graduate in chemistry from Pisa University, has also written a travel guide about his home town with the title Scacco alle Torre (Checkmate to the Tower), which has been presented at the Pisa Book Festival. In the book, he writes a story about a nocturnal walk through the city entitled Finalmente soli (Finally Alone), which was inspired by an image taken by a professional photographer, Nicola Ughi, a fellow Pisan, who has become his official portraitist. 

He began his writing career in 2007 with a mystery novel, La briscola in cinque (Game for Five), published by Sellerio Editore. The novel’s protagonist, Massimo, a barista, and the owner of a bar named BarLume, which is a play on the Italian word barlume, which means 'flicker of light', is forced into the role of investigator in the fictional seaside resort town of Pineta on the Tuscan coast.  

Other books in the series followed and three have been translated into English: Il gioco delle tre carte (Three-card Monte), Il re dei giochi (The King of Games) and La carta più alta (The Highest Card).

In 2011, Malvaldi’s novel, Odore di chiuso (The Scent of Must) was published by Sellerio Editore and later published in English under the title, The Art of Killing Well. It featured Pellegrino Artusi, a renowned 19th century gastronomist from the Romagna region, as his fictional detective. The novel was awarded the Isola d’Elba Award and the Castiglioncello Prize. 

Malvadi's novel The Art of Killing Well
Malvadi's novel The
Art of Killing Well
Malvaldi published a thriller in 2012, Milioni di milioni (Millions of Millions), which is set in the fictional Tuscan town of Montesodi Marittimo, and features a university geneticist and an archivist, who form an unusual team of amateur investigators. In 2013, Malvaldi was awarded the literary prize, Premio Letterario La Tore Isola d’Elba - two of five literary honours his books have won.

After graduating, Malvaldi also did research in the department of pharmacy at Pisa University and he has written several books about science. His book, Le due teste del tiranno: metodi matematici per la Libertà (The Two Heads of the Tyrant: Mathematic Methods for Freedom), published in 2017, won a 2018 Asimov award, for the best book in scientific dissemination published in Italy.

Malvaldi, whose birthday today is his 50th, has also co-authored books with Roberto Vacca, Dino Leporini, journalist and poet Ernesto Ragazzoni among many others. 

Malvaldi’s partner is Samantha Bruzzone, who is also a chemist and passionate about detective fiction. Together, they have written two children’s books and in 2022 the novel, Chi si ferma e perduto (Who Stops is Lost).

Pisa's leaning tower began to  tilt soon after it was built
Pisa's leaning tower began to 
tilt soon after it was built
Travel tip:

Pisa is world famous for its leaning tower, which Malvaldi writes about in his book Scacco alle Torre (Checkmate to the Tower). Work began on the construction of a freestanding bell tower for the Cathedral in Pisa in 1173. The tower’s famous tilt began during the building process and is believed to have been caused by the laying of inadequate foundations on ground that was too soft on one side to support the weight of the structure. The tilt got worse over the years until work had to be carried out to correct it in the 20th century. At its most extreme, the tower leaned at an angle of 5.5 degrees but since the restoration work carried out between 1990 and 2001 the tower leans at about 3.99 degrees. The tower was reopened to the public in 2001, when it was declared that it would be stable for another 300 years.

The picturesque harbour at the port of Portoferraio on the island of Elba off the Tuscan coast
The picturesque harbour at the port of Portoferraio
on the island of Elba off the Tuscan coast
Travel tip:

The Tuscan coast, which Malvaldi fictionalises in some of his books, has a long stretch of sandy beaches that include holiday destinations such as Viareggio, Forte dei Marmi, Catiglioncello, Follonica, Castiglione della Pescaia, Porto Ercole, Talamone, and many others. Off the coast is the island of Elba, a popular destination for holidaymakers who arrive by ferry at Portoferraio, where there is an old port and a modern seafront with hotels. The west coast of the island has sandy beaches, but the east coast is more rugged with high cliffs. Inland there are olive groves and vineyards producing the wine, Elba DOC. You can visit Napoleon’s two residences while he was in exile on the island, Palazzina Naopleonica, a modest house built around two windmills in Portoferraio, and Villa San Martino, his country house, further inland at San Martino and decorated inside with Egyptian-style frescoes.

Also on this day:

98: Trajan becomes Emperor of Rome 

1861: Italy elects its first parliament

1881: The birth of mobster Frank Nitti

1901: The death of composer Giuseppe Verdi

1927: The birth of writer and novelist Giovanni Arpino

1962: The birth of musician Roberto Paci Dalò


3 December 2023

Nino Martoglio - writer, theatre and film director

Journalist and playwright whose movies inspired post-war neorealism 

Nino Martoglio is considered by some as the founder of Sicilian theatre
Nino Martoglio is considered by some
as the founder of Sicilian theatre
The journalist, playwright and theatre and film director Nino Martoglio was born in Belpasso, a town in the foothills of volcanic Mount Etna in eastern Sicily, on this day in 1870.

Martoglio is widely considered to be Sicily’s finest dialect playwright and by some to be the founder of Sicilian theatre.  He was also an acclaimed poet, basing a good deal of his verse on the everyday conversations of working class Sicilians, written to amuse. His collection, Centona, is still sold today.

Later in a career that was ended abruptly by his death in an accident, Martoglio directed a number of silent films, the style of some of which prompted critics to describe them as forerunners of the post-war neorealism movement.

The son of a journalist and a school teacher, Martoglio studied sailing as a young man and obtained a captain’s licence. Yet he sought a career in journalism and joined the editorial staff of La Gazzetta di Catania, a daily newspaper founded by his father, Luigi.

In 1889, he launched a weekly magazine, D’Artagnan, a Sicilian language periodical devoted to art, literature and theatre, sharp political satire and the plight of the people of Civita, a poor neighbourhood in Catania which suffered particular deprivation. It also proved to be a useful vehicle for the poems that would eventually be gathered together in the Centona collection.

Theatre began to occupy most of Martoglio's attention from around the turn of the century. In 1901, he created the Sicilian Dramatic Company, which thanks to the talents of actors such as Angelo Musco, Giovanni Grasso, Virginia Balistrieri and others enjoyed success with Sicilian language productions even in Milan, where they performed at the Teatro Manzoni in 1903. The company’s productions of comedies written by a young Sicilian playwright, Pier Maria Rosso di San Secondo, were especially popular, among them San Giovanni Decapitato - Saint John the Beheaded - which he later turned into a film.

Martoglio staged the first theatrical works of Luigi Pirandello (above)
Martoglio staged the first theatrical
works of Luigi Pirandello (above)
Martoglio’s work became still more widely known after he moved to Rome in 1904, having become unhappy with the political climate in Sicily, where he had been elected a municipal councillor in Catania. In the capital, he met and married Elvira Schiavazzi, the sister of Piero Schiavazzi, a Sardinian tenor. They would go on to have four children. 

In 1910, he founded the first "Teatro Minimo" in Rome at the Teatro Metastasio. He staged one-act plays from the Italian and foreign repertoire, as well as bringing to the stage the first theatrical works of Luigi Pirandello, by then famous as a novelist and a future Nobel Prize winner. Their collaborations included A vilanza (la bilancia) and Cappidazzu pava tutu.

Martoglio’s venture into cinema spanned two years from 1913-14. He directed the actress Pina Menichelli, one of the so-called ‘three divas’ of Italian silent movies, in Il romanzo and followed it with Capitan Blanco, Sperduti nel buio, for which he wrote the screenplay and directed in collaboration with Roberto Danesi, and Teresa Raquin.  

All his screen work emphasised the gulf in Italian society between wealth and poverty and Sperduti nel buio - Lost in the Dark - which starred Grasso and Balistrieri - veterans of Martoglio’s original company in Catania - came to be regarded as a classic of the silent film era, representative of a small number of films that made up the realismo movement in Italian cinema. 

In the 1930s, the film critic and lecturer Umberto Barbaro enthusiastically showed Sperduti nel buio in his classes at Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia in Rome, where his students included Roberto Rossellini and Luchino Visconti, who would go on to become leading figures in the neorealism film movement after the Second World War.

The bust of Martoglio in the Bellini Gardens
The bust of Martoglio
in the Bellini Gardens
Martoglio’s death at the age of 50 remains something of a mystery.  After visiting the Vittorio Emanuele II Hospital in Catania on the evening of 15 September, 1921, to see one of his sons, who was being treated there, Martoglio’s body was found the following morning at the bottom of an elevator shaft in part of the hospital that was under construction.  Although there were no witnesses, the assumption was that he had suffered a tragic accident, perhaps after getting lost as he tried to find the way out. 

His body was laid to rest at the Campo Verano monumental cemetery in the Tiburtino quarter in Rome, not far from the Basilica di San Lorenzo fuori le mura. The cemetery is notable as the burial place of hundreds of illustrious figures from the artistic, historical, literary, musical and cinematographic world.  

Although his films were lost, presumably stolen or destroyed during World War Two, Martoglio’s nieces, Vincenza and Angela, took steps to preserve their uncle’s manuscripts.  There is a monumental bust of him in the Bellini Gardens in Catania, a short distance from the Teatro Metropolitan. 

The Teatro Comunale Nino Martoglio in Belpasso
The Teatro Comunale Nino
Martoglio in Belpasso
Travel tip:

The town of Belpasso, where Martoglio was born, has a population of 28,000. Located about 10km (six miles) northwest of the city of Catania, it has something of a chequered history, having twice been destroyed by the forces of nature and repositioned in consequence. In 1669, it was buried in lava following an eruption of the Mount Etna volcano which looms over Catania. Rebuilt in another location at a lower level, it was then badly damaged by an earthquake in 1693 and abandoned. The current settlement was founded two years later at a third site. Today, it is best known as the home of Condorelli, one of Sicily’s most famous brands of confectionary, biscuits and cakes. Nino Martoglio’s name is preserved in the Teatro Comunale Nino Martoglio, the town’s municipal theatre, in Via XII Traversa.

The port city of Catania, the second largest city in Sicily, with a snow-capped Etna in the distance
The port city of Catania, the second largest city
in Sicily, with a snow-capped Etna in the distance
Travel tip:

The city of Catania, which is located on the east coast of Sicily facing the Ionian Sea, is one of the ten biggest cities in Italy, and the seventh largest metropolitan area in the country, with a population including the environs of 1.12 million. Twice destroyed by earthquakes, in 1169 and 1693, it can be compared in some respects with Naples, which sits in the shadow of Vesuvius, in that it lives with the constant threat of a natural catastrophe.  As such it has always been a city for living life to the full. In the Renaissance, it was one of Italy's most important cultural, artistic and political centres and enjoys a rich cultural legacy today, with numerous museums and churches, theatres and parks and many restaurants.  It is also notable for many fine examples of the Sicilian Baroque style of architecture, including the beautiful Basilica della Collegiata, with its six stone columns and the concave curve of its façade.

Also on this day:

1596: The birth of violin maker Nicolò Amati 

1779: The birth of Tuscan painter Matilde Malenchini

1911: The birth of composer Nino Rota

1917: The death in WW1 of champion cyclist Carlo Oriani

1937: The birth of actress Angela Luce

1947: The birth of controversial politician Mario Borghezio


25 March 2023

Giambattista Marino – poet

The colourful life of an influential literary figure

A portrait of Giambattista Marino by Caravaggio, painted in about 1600
A portrait of Giambattista Marino by
Caravaggio, painted in about 1600
Controversial poet Giambattista Marino, who founded the school of Marinism that dominated 17th century Italian poetry, died on this day in 1625 in Naples.

Marino’s poetry was translated into other languages and many other poets imitated his use of complicated wordplay, elaborate conceits and metaphors.

But although Marino’s work was praised throughout Europe, he led a chaotic life, was frequently short of money and at times arrested and imprisoned for alleged immorality.

Marino, sometimes referred to as Marini, was born in Naples in 1569. He trained for the law, under pressure from his parents, but later rebelled and refused to practise his profession.

From 1590 onwards, he spent his time travelling in Italy and France and enjoying the success of his poetry. His work was circulated in manuscript form to great acclaim and later in his life he managed to get some of it published, despite censorship.

In 1596 he wrote La Sampogna (The Syrinx), a series of sensual verses, but he was unable to publish them until 1620.

While working as secretary to a Neapolitan prince he was arrested in both 1598 and 1600 on charges of immorality, but on both occasions his admirers managed to secure his release from prison. One of his arrests was for procuring an abortion for the daughter of the Mayor of Naples and the other for forging episcopal bulls to save the life of a friend who had been involved in a duel.

Some of his defenders and some of his detractors have claimed that Marino himself had homosexual tendencies, but this practice was persecuted during the Counter Reformation and so Marino would not have been open about it.

The front cover of an edition of Marino's Adone, dated 1623
The front cover of an edition of
Marino's Adone, dated 1623
After moving to Rome, Marino attached himself to Cardinal Pietro Aldobrandini, a nephew of Pope Clement VIII, and they travelled round Italy together. Marino tried to get some of his poetry published while they were in Parma but was prevented by the Inquisition.

But in 1602 he was able to publish some of his early poetry as Le rime (The Rhymes) and La lira (The Lyre).

While living in Turin between 1608 and 1615, he enjoyed the patronage of the Duke of Savoy, but he was the victim of an assassination attempt by a rival poet and he was imprisoned yet again after writing satirical poems.

After friends had managed to secure his release, Marino went to Paris, where he lived until 1623 under the patronage of Marie de’ Medici and her son, Louis XIII.

While in Paris, Marino published his most important work, Adone, an epic poem of 45,000 lines that tells the love story of Venus and Adonis. This was dedicated to Louis XIII. Although critics have praised some of its brilliant passages, they have also criticised the poet’s excessive use of wordplay and metaphors in it.

Marino returned to Italy in 1623 and lived in Naples until his death. He is buried in the Chiesa dei Santi Apostoli in Naples.

Marinism, also sometimes referred to as Secentismo, 17th century style, is a reaction against classicism and uses extravagant metaphors and hyperbole to tell stories with the intention of startling the reader. Marino’s imitators carried this style to such excess that by the end of the 17th century the term marinism began to be used in a pejorative way.

However, after World War II, there was a revival of interest in this style of poetry and a reassessment of the merits of Marino and Marinism.

The Cambridge History of Italian Literature judged Marino to be one of the greatest Italian poets of all time.

The western facade of the Royal Palace, overlooking Piazza del Plebiscito
The western facade of the Royal Palace,
overlooking Piazza del Plebiscito
Travel tip:

Giambattista Marino would have been able to admire the newly built Royal Palace in Naples when he returned from France to live in the city again in 1623.  The palace, which opens on to the Piazza del Plebiscito, was completed in 1620 to designs by the architect Domenico Fontana. In 1734, with the arrival of Charles III of Spain to Naples, the palace became the royal residence of the Bourbons. Additions have been made over the years, including the connecting Teatro San Carlo, which opened in 1737 and is now the oldest working opera house in the world.  The series of niche statues on the western facade, the one that faces the piazza, were added in 1888, commissioned by King Umberto I of Savoy.

The nave of the church of Santi Apostoli in Naples, where Marino is buried
The nave of the church of Santi Apostoli
in Naples, where Marino is buried
Travel tip:

Marino’s tomb is in the Chiesa dei Santi Apostoli in Via Anticaglia in Naples, not far from the historic centre of the city. The Baroque church was built on the site of a Roman temple and given to the Theatine Order in 1570. A cloister and monastery was added in 1590 and early in the 17th century, the church was reconstructed by Giacomo Conforti. Inside, visitors can admire a large fresco depicting Paradise (1684) by Giovanni Battista Benasca in the cupola and works by other painters including Marco da Siena, Luca Giordano and Francesco Solimena. 

Also on this day:

1347: The birth of Saint Catherine of Siena

1541: The birth of Francesco I, Grand Duke of Tuscany

1546: The birth of poet and courtesan Veronica Franco

1927: The birth of politician Tina Anselmi, Italy’s first female minister

1940: The birth of pop megastar Mina


26 October 2022

Trilussa - poet and journalist

Writer used humour and irony in social commentary

Trilussa became known as  "the people's poet"
Trilussa became known as 
"the people's poet"
The Roman poet who went under the name Trilussa was born on this day in 1871.

The writer, best known for his works in Romanesco dialect, was actually christened Carlo Alberto Camillo Mariano Salustri. His pseudonym was an anagram of his last name.

He was inspired to take up poetry by his admiration for Giuseppe Gioachino Belli, who satirised life in 19th century Rome in his sonnets, which were also written in Roman dialect. 

Born in a house in Via del Babuino, near the Spanish Steps, Carlo was the son of a waiter originally from Albano Laziale in the Castelli Romani area around Lago Albano south of Rome. His mother, Carlotta, was a seamstress born in Bologna.

His early years were marred by tragedy. He lost both a sister and his father before he had reached four years old.  After living for a short time in Via Ripetta, close to the Tiber river, his family were offered accommodation in a palazzo in Piazza di Pietra, a square midway between the Pantheon and the Trevi Fountain.

The palazzo was owned by Carlo’s Godfather, the Marquis Ermenegildo del Cinque, who had been introduced to the family by Professor Filippo Chiappini, a disciple of Belli who for a while was Trilussa’s tutor.  

Carlo was never a committed student. Twice he was required to repeat a year at high school and left formal education entirely at the age of 15, against the advice of both his mother and Professor Chiappini.

The monument to Trilussa in the square of the same name in Rome
The monument to Trilussa in the
square of the same name in Rome
Nonetheless, his flair for humorous, satirical poetry would serve him well. In 1887, a dialect magazine entitled Rugantino published some of his verses, which were well received by readers.

The following year, he brought together a collection of poems published in Rugantino as a book, called Stelle de Roma: Versi romaneschi (Stars of Rome: Romanesco verses), a series of about 30 madrigals written in appreciation of the most beautiful young women in the city. It sold well.

Soon, Trilussa became a well known name. His work appeared in popular newspapers such as il Mesaggero and il Resto del Carlino.

In 1891, he began a collaboration with Don Chisciotte della Mancia, a newspaper with national circulation, for whom in addition to his poetry he wrote articles commenting on national government as well as life in Rome, ultimately becoming a member of the editorial board. 

His second volume of collected verses, Quaranta sonetti romaneschi (Forty Roman Sonnets), which marked the start of a long-running relationship with the publishers, Voghera, included poems he had written for Don Chisciotte della Mancia.

Trilussa was a man of striking appearance who dressed elegantly
Trilussa was a man of striking
appearance who dressed elegantly
Even as his fame grew and more collections of poetry were published, bringing him a good income, he rejected the idea that he should move in more intellectual circles, much preferring to spend his time chatting to locals in neighbourhood bars.  He was aware that the division between the rich and poor in Rome was huge and would mock the style in which the rich lived and treated the “working” class. This led to him becoming known as the people’s poet.

He developed a talent for drawing as well as verse. Some of his published work was accompanied by his own illustrations.

Trilussa managed to avoid running into trouble with the Fascist regime, who generally looked suspiciously at writers and artists, by declaring himself to be not anti-Fascist but non-Fascist. Although he satirised politics even in the turbulent 1920s and ‘30s, his relationship with Mussolini’s government remained relatively uneventful.

A tall man, he always dressed elegantly and lived in an apartment furnished according to his supposedly eclectic tastes, where he entertained fellow artists and writers. He was said to have led a rather hedonistic lifestyle, interspersed with periods of financial difficulty. When he died in December 1950, he had little money.

He never married, yet had a long relationship with Giselda Lombardi - better known as the silent movie actress Leda Gys - who he described as the love of his life. It was Trilussa who launched her career by introducing her to friends in the film business, only for her to meet and marry a producer.

In declining health, he was made a senator for life by President Luigi Einuadi in 1950 but died less than three weeks later. His body is buried at the Verano Cemetery in Rome.

A square in Trastevere, formerly called Piazza Ponte Sisto, was renamed Piazza Trilussa after his death. The beautiful square, surrounded by bars and restaurants, was in an area in which the poet spent much of his time. Nowadays, it is a popular spot with young Romans.

The square features a quirky monument, featuring a bust in bronze leaning over a marble fragment of a Roman ruin, created by the sculptor Lorenzo Ferri in 1954.

The Spanish steps is one of Rome's best known sights
The Spanish steps is one of
Rome's best known sights
Travel tip:

Trilussa was born in a house not far from the Spanish Steps - known to Romans as the Scalinata di Trinità dei Monti, leading to the piazza and church of the same name at the top of the steps. At the bottom is the Piazza di Spagna, which gets its name from the Spanish Embassy to the Holy See which has been there since the 17th century. The square was popular with English aristocrats on the Grand Tour who stayed there while in Rome. In 1820, the English poet John Keats spent the last few months of his life in a small room overlooking the Spanish Steps and died there of consumption in February 1821, aged just 25. The house is now a museum and library dedicated to the Romantic poets.

The Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere is one of the oldest churches in Rome
The Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere is
one of the oldest churches in Rome
Travel tip:

Although formerly a working class neighbourhood, the Trastevere district, which sits alongside the Tiber, is regarded as one of Rome's most charming areas for tourists to visit. Full of winding, cobbled streets and well preserved mediaeval 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.  It is also home to one of the oldest churches in Rome in the Basilica di Santa Maria in Trastevere, the floor plan and wall structure of which date back to 340AD.

Also on this day:

1685: The birth of composer Domenico Scarlatti

1797: The birth of soprano Giuditta Pasta

1906: The birth of boxer Primo Carnera

1954: Trieste became part of the Italian Republic


31 March 2022

Maurizio De Giovanni – crime writer

Detective novelist has opened up his native Naples to crime fiction fans

Maurizio De Giovanni worked in a  bank before becoming a full-time writer
Maurizio De Giovanni worked in a 
bank before becoming a full-time writer
Bestselling author Maurizio De Giovanni was born on this day in 1958 in Naples in southern Italy.

His novels have been translated into English, Spanish, Catalan, French and German and have sold well over a million copies throughout Europe.

De Giovanni is best known for his two fictional detectives, Commissario Ricciardi, who works as a detective in 1930s Naples, and Ispettore Lojacono, who has been transferred to present day Naples from his home town of Agrigento in Sicily, after being accused of associating with the Mafia.

He has also written stories featuring a very different character, a social worker called Mina Settembre, who is based at a clinic in Naples specialising in providing psychological support.

In 2005, De Giovanni won a writing competition for unpublished authors with a short story, I vivi e i morti - The Living and the Dead -  which was set in the 1930s and featured the character Commissario Ricciardi. 

He was working in a bank at the time, a job for which by his own admission he had no particular inclination but which paid the bills. Always known as a bookworm, he wrote stories that he would show his colleagues. In fact, it was his co-workers who entered him for the competition, without his knowledge.

His success inspired his first novel, Le lacrime del pagliaccio - The Tears of the Clown - which was later republished in English as I Will Have Vengeance – The Winter of Commissario Ricciardi.

De Giovanni was inspired by his parents' memories of Naples
De Giovanni was inspired by
his parents' memories of Naples
He wrote his early stories in the Naples of the 1930s in part because his parents, who were also born in Naples, would share their memories with him of the city before World War Two.

I Will Have Vengeance was followed in 2008 by Blood Curse- The Springtime of Commissario Ricciardi and subsequently by Everyone in Their Place – The Summer of Commissario Ricciardi in 2009 and the Day of the Dead – The Autumn of Commissario Ricciardi in 2010. 

To date De Giovanni has written 13 Commissario Ricciardi novels, 10 of which have been published in English.

In 2012, he ventured into the noir genre with The Crocodile, which was the first appearance by his other detective, Ispettore Lojacono.

He was then inspired by the 87th Precinct series by the American author Ed McBain to write a police procedural, The Bastards of Pizzofalcone. His five Pizzofalcone novels have now been made into a television series by RAI, starring Alessandro Gassmann - son of the celebrated actor, Vittorio Gassman - as Ispettore Lojacono. In 2021 it aired for a third season.

His Commissario Ricciardi and Mina Settembre stories have also been adapted for television.

De Giovanni, who has lived and worked for most of his life in Naples, has also written features and short stories about sport - and for the theatre.

He adapted the American novelist Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and David Manet’s play American Buffalo for Italian theatre audiences and has written three original stage plays - Ingresso indipendente, Mettici la mano and Il silenzio grande.

Il silenzio grande - The Great Silence - is a two-act comedy that was first staged at the Teatro Diana in Naples and turned into a film - directed by Alessandro Gassman - that was shown at the 2021 edition of the Venice Film Festival.

The Teatro di San Carlo is thought to be the oldest opera house the the world still in use
The Teatro di San Carlo is thought to be the
oldest opera house the the world still in use
Travel tip:

Much of De Giovanni’s debut novel, I Will Have Vengeance, takes place in the Teatro di San Carlo in Naples, the city’s historic opera house. Teatro di San Carlo was officially opened in 1737, way ahead of La Scala in Milan and La Fenice in Venice. Built in Via San Carlo close to Piazza del Plebiscito, the main square in Naples, Teatro di San Carlo quickly became one of the most important opera houses in Europe and renowned for its excellent productions. The theatre was designed by Giovanni Antonio Medrano for the Bourbon King of Naples, Charles I, and took just eight months to build. This was 41 years before La Scala and 55 years before La Fenice opened. San Carlo is now believed to be one of the oldest, if not the oldest, remaining opera houses in the world. Both Gioachino Rossini and Gaetano Donizetti served as artistic directors at San Carlo and the world premieres of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor and Rossini’s Mosè were performed there.

The Piazza del Plebiscito in Naples, as seen from the Pizzofalcone hill
The Piazza del Plebiscito in Naples, as seen
from the Pizzofalcone hill
Travel tip:

Pizzofalcone, where De Giovanni’s police procedural series is set, is an area of the San Ferdinando district, situated between Piazza del Plebiscito and the Royal Palace and Castel dell’Ovo and the Santa Lucia area. It is essentially a hill, also known as Monte di Dio. It is so called because in the 13th century Charles I of Anjou, who was King of Naples at the time, had a falconry built there. Its elevated position offers panoramic views of the Naples coastline stretching towards Mergellina along the Riviera di Chiaia. De Giovanni has spoken about Pizzofalcone, which has both upmarket and poor neighbourhoods, as a microcosm of the city of Naples.

Also on this day:

1425: The birth of Bianca Maria Visconti – Duchess of Milan

1675: The birth of Pope Benedict XIV

1941: The birth of comic book artist Franco Bonvicini

1996: The death of auto engineer Dante Giacosa


4 March 2022

Giorgio Bassani - writer and novelist

Best-known work reflected plight of wealthy Jewish Italians in 1930s

Giorgio Bassani's novels drew on his own background in Ferrara
Giorgio Bassani's novels drew on his
own background in Ferrara
Giorgio Bassani, rated by many critics as alongside the likes of Cesare Pavese, Elsa Morante and Alberto Moravia among the great postwar Italian novelists, was born on this day in 1916 in Bologna.

Bassani’s best-known work, his 1962 novel Il giardino dei finzi-contini - The Garden of the Finzi-Continis - was turned into an Oscar-winning movie by the director Vittorio De Sica.

Like much of his fiction, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis is semi-autobiographical, drawing on his upbringing as a member of an upper middle-class Jewish family in Ferrara, the city in Emilia-Romagna, during the rise of Mussolini’s Fascists and the onset of World War Two.

Bassani, who was the editor of a number of literary journals and a respected screenplay writer, had already achieved recognition for his work through his Cinque storie ferraresi - Five Stories of Ferrara - which won the prestigious Strega Prize in 1956.

But it was The Garden of the Finzi-Continis that won him international acclaim. The novel was part of a series that expanded on the same theme in presenting a picture of the world during the author's formative years, against a background of state-promoted antisemitism.

The son of a doctor and an aspiring singer, Bassani was born in Bologna. His father, Angelo Enrico Bassani, had served with the Italian Army as a medical officer in World War One and was on furlough in Bologna, where his pregnant wife, Dora, joined him but went into labour during the visit.

They were both from Ferrara, where they returned after the war ended. Giorgio was named after the patron saint of the Po Valley city, on whose feast day his parents had become engaged.

Bassani's most famous novel is a Penguin Modern Classic
Bassani's most famous novel is
a Penguin Modern Classic
With his younger brother, Paolo, and their little sister, Jenny, Bassani had a childhood that was, at first, idyllic. They lived in a big family home on Via Cisterna del Follo, receiving their education at the Liceo Ludovico Ariosto and spending many hours outdoors, playing tennis or football, taking their summer holidays in the seaside resorts of the northern Adriatic coastline, and going skiing in the winter.

There was wealth on both sides of the family. Their paternal grandfather had been a landowner and cloth merchant; their maternal grandfather was a professor of medicine and head of the main hospital in Ferrara, an expert in gastroenterology who was still working right up to his death, aged 99. 

Yet the ambitions of all three siblings were thwarted by Mussolini’s anti-semitic Racial Laws. Giorgio, a talented pianist, completed his degree at the Faculty of Arts and Letters at the University of Bologna, but with Jews barred from most professions the only work he could find was as a teacher at the Jewish School in Via Vignatagliata.

Paolo hoped to become a doctor, like his father and grandfather, but with Jews barred from Italian universities, he was forced to go to France, where he studied engineering instead, before being expelled following the German invasion. Jenny became one of Giorgio’s pupils at the Jewish School but, with little prospect of making a career in Ferrara, fled to Florence.

It was while he was teaching, in 1940, that Bassani published his first novel,  Una città di pianura  - A City of the Plain - which he wrote under a pseudonym, Giacomo Marchi, so as to evade the race laws. It was around this time that he became a political activist, joining the anti-Fascist resistance. He was arrested in May 1943 but thankfully spent only a couple of months in jail, freed after Italy formally surrendered to the allies and Mussolini was arrested.

Dominque Sanda and Lino Capolicchio, stars of the film version of The Garden of the Finzi-Continis
Dominique Sanda and Lino Capolicchio, stars of the
film version of The Garden of the Finzi-Continis
The threat to the safety of Jews was not over, however.  With his new wife, Valeria, whom he married soon after his release from prison, he too fled to Florence, where they lived under assumed names with forged passports.  Bassani managed somehow to rescue his parents, and his sister Jenny, from the advancing Germans; Paolo, who eventually returned to Italy after a spell on the run in Spain, fought in the resistance and survived, settling in Rome. Sadly, most of their extended family left in Ferrara died at the Buchenwald concentration camp.

Bassani, too, drifted south to Rome, where his literary career gathered pace. As an editorial director of the publisher Feltrinelli, he was responsible for the posthumous publication of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa's novel Il Gattopardo - The Leopard. He published some poetry and short stories of his own before his Cinque storie ferraresi raised his profile following the award of the Premio Strega.

His 1958 novel, Gli occhiali d'oro - The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles, which was later also made into a film, examined the marginalisation of Jews and homosexuals and ultimately became the first in a series of books known as Il romanzo di Ferrara - the Ferrara Stories.  

The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, which was one of the series, is narrated by a young middle-class Jew in the Italian city of Ferrara, who is fascinated with the Finzi-Continis, a wealthy Jewish family, and especially by their beautiful daughter Micòl, with whom he becomes infatuated.

The Finzi-Continis live in a lavish walled estate, which becomes a meeting place for other wealthy Jews, who find sanctuary there. The narrator - himself called Giorgio - finds his love for Micòl ultimately unrequited in a poignant portrait of a family and friends enjoying their final days of freedom before the horrors of the world outside the walls close in on them. 

After Dietro la porta - Behind the Door (1964), L'airone - The Heron (1968) and L'odore del fieno - The Smell of May (1972) completed his series of Ferrara stories, Bassani wrote very little more in the way of fiction.

Estranged from his wife, he spent the final years of his life with his companion, Portia Prebys, an American-born professor of literature, whom he met in 1977. Suffering from Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and a heart complaint, he died in 2000 at the age of 84. 

De Sica’s film of The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, which starred Lino Capolicchio as Giorgio and Dominique Sanda as Micòl, won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 1972.

The centre of the city of Ferrara, looking down from the Castello Estense
The centre of the city of Ferrara, looking
down from the Castello Estense
Travel tip:

Ferrara is a city in Emilia-Romagna, about 50 km (31 miles) to the north-east of Bologna. It was ruled by the Este family between 1240 and 1598. Building work on the magnificent Este Castle in the centre of the city began in 1385 and it was added to and improved by successive rulers of Ferrara until the end of the Este line.  The castle was purchased for 70,000 lire by the province of Ferrara in 1874 to be used as the headquarters of the Prefecture.   Ferrara is also notable for Palazzo dei Diamanti, a palace in Corso Ercole I d’Este, that takes its name from the 8500 pointed diamond shaped stones that stud the façade, diamonds being an emblem of the Este family. It was designed by Biagio Rossetti and completed in 1503. The palace now houses the Pinacoteca Nazionale di Ferrara on its first floor.

Hotels in Ferrara by

The bustling Via Giuseppe Mazzini is part of what used to be Ferrara's Ghetto
The bustling Via Giuseppe Mazzini is part of
what used to be Ferrara's Ghetto
Travel tip:

Via Vignatagliata in Ferrara, where Giorgio Bassani found work as a teacher at the Jewish School - formerly at No 79 - is part of what used to be the city’s Jewish Ghetto, established in 1624, when about 1,500 Jews lived in Ferrara. Centrally situated, only about 500km (546 yards) from the Castello Estense, it remained open, on and off, until 1859, when it was permanently closed, although it remained the heart of the city’s Jewish community for many years afterwards. Criss-crossed by cobbled streets, the area maintains much of its structure and character. Its main street, Via Giuseppe Mazzini, which begins at Piazza della Cattedrale, is largely pedestrianised and has evolved into one of Ferrara’s main shopping streets.

Also on this day:

1678: The birth of composer Antonio Vivaldi

1848: The approval of the Albertine Statute, which became the basis for the Italian Constitution

1943: The birth of singer-songwriter Lucio Dalla


28 February 2022

Gabriele Rossetti - poet and revolutionary

Academic fled to England after exile from Naples

Gabriele Rossetti became a revolutionary after moving to Naples as a student
Gabriele Rossetti became a revolutionary
after moving to Naples as a student
The poet and academic Gabriele Rossetti, who was a key figure in a revolutionary secret society in 19th century Italy known as the Carbonari, was born on this day in 1783 in the city of Vasto in Abruzzo.

A Dante scholar known for his detailed and sometimes controversial interpretations of The Divine Comedy and other works, Rossetti’s own poetry was of a patriotic nature and regularly contained commentaries on contemporary politics, often in support of the growing number of popular uprisings in the early 19th century.

He became a member of the Carbonari, an informal collective of secret revolutionary societies across Italy that was active between 1800 and 1831, promoting the creation of a liberal, unified Italy. He came into contact with them after moving to Naples to study at the city's prestigious university.

Similar to masonic lodges in that they had used secret signals so that fellow members could recognise them and even a coded language, the Carbonari were founded in Naples, where their membership included military officers, nobility and priests as well as ordinary citizens. 

A librettist at the city’s Teatro San Carlo and later curator at the Capodimonte Museum, Rossetti’s standing in Naples society made him an important figure within the group, which was the driving force behind the 1820 uprising in the city which, with the help of a mutiny among the army, forced King Ferdinand I to agree to a constitution.

The Piazza Gabriele Rossetti in his home city of Vasto, with the monument to him in the centre
The Piazza Gabriele Rossetti in his home city of
Vasto, with the monument to him in the centre
It was a short-lived affair, however. After a congress to discuss a response to the uprising, Ferdinand sought help from Austria - his in-laws included the Habsburg empress Maria Theresa - and returned to Naples with an army of 50,000 that easily crushed the force of 8,000 Neapolitans pitted against him, promptly dismissing the newly-appointed parliament and tearing up the constitution.

This so outraged Rossetti that he published a poem that amounted to a tirade against Ferdinand’s tyranny. Immediately branding him a traitor, the King issued a warrant for Rossetti's arrest and announced a death sentence. Fortunately, Rossetti managed to escape, fleeing first to Malta, where he remained in hiding for three years before an admiral of the British Royal Navy helped him travel to London.

He settled in England, supporting himself by giving Italian lessons and publishing two volumes of commentary on Dante’s La divina commedia (The Divine Comedy). 

The commentary claimed that The Divine Comedy was written in the code language of a humanistic secret society that was opposed to political and ecclesiastical tyranny. Rossetti’s interpretation is now regarded as unrealistic but at the time it helped him attain the position of professor of Italian at King’s College, London, a post he held until his eyesight began to fail in 1847.

In 1826 he had married Frances Mary Lavinia Polidori, daughter of another Italian exile in England, Gaetano Polidori. Their four children - Maria Francesca, Dante Gabriel, William Michael and Christina Georgina - all grew up to be distinguished writers or artists in their own right. 

Rossetti died in London in April 1854 at the age of 71 and was buried in Highgate Cemetery. The main square in Vasto was named after him, with a monument to him at its centre.

The 15th century Castello Caldoresco presides  over the centre of the city of Vasto
The 15th century Castello Caldoresco presides 
over the centre of the city of Vasto
Travel tip:

Vasto is not a well known destination among overseas tourists but with an elevated position overlooking the Adriatic in the south of Abruzzo it is a small city well worth a visit, offering beautiful panoramic views of the coastline in addition to a charming medieval centre, with narrow alleyways and the impressive Castello Caldoresco. Built in the early 15th century, the square castle is built around an inner courtyard with cylindrical towers in three of the four corners. The Piazza Gabriele Rossetti is behind the castle.  In addition to the attractions of the city, it is just a 15-20 minute walk down the hill to golden, sandy beach at Marina di Vasto, which while thronged by Italian families in July and August is relatively quiet outside the main Italian holiday season.

The Reggia di Capodimonte in Naples, home of one of Italy's most important art collections
The Reggia di Capodimonte in Naples, home of
one of Italy's most important art collections
Travel tip:

The Museo di Capodimonte, where Rossetti was curator before he was forced to flee the city, is an art museum located in the Reggia di Capodimonte, a grand Bourbon royal palace a few kilometres from the centre of Naples. Housing the most important collection of Neapolitan painting and decorative art, as well as works from other Italian schools of painting and ancient Roman sculptures, it is one of the biggest museums in Italy.  The palace dates back to 1783, when it was built by King Charles VII of Naples and Sicily. Adjoining an area of woodland now known as the Real Bosco di Capodimonte, it was originally intended to be a hunting lodge but evolved as a replacement for the Reggia di Portici as the seat of Charles’s court. The King’s fabulous Farnese art collection, which he had inherited from his mother, Elisabetta Farnese, became the basis for the museum’s collection.

Also on this day:

1740: The death of Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni, patron of music and art

1907: The birth of entrepreneur Domenico Agusta

1915: The birth of jam maker Karl Zuegg

1940: The birth of racing driver Mario Andretti

1942: The birth of footballer and coach Dino Zoff