4 November 2015

First night at Teatro di San Carlo

Oldest opera house in the world opens its doors in Naples

Teatro di San Carlo in Naples was officially opened on this day in 1737, way ahead of Teatra alla Scala in Milan and Teatro La Fenice in Venice.

Teatro San Carlo opened on 4 November 1737 with a performance of Mestastasio's Achille in Sciro
Teatro di San Carlo opened on 4 November 1737 with
a performance of Mestastasio's Achille in Sciro

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.

Originally known as the Real Teatro di San Carlo, the theatre was designed by Giovanni Antonio Medrano for the Bourbon King of Naples, Charles I, and took just eight months to build.

Medrano was primarily a military architect, but he was advised by Angelo Carasale, the former director of the Teatro San Bartolomeo, which the San Carlo was to replace. 

Incorporating 184 boxes plus a 10-seater royal box, the theatre had a capacity of more than 3,000 people, although modern safety regulations limit today's theatre to 1,386 seats. 

The official inauguration was on the King’s saint’s day, the festival of San Carlo, on the evening of 4 November. There was a performance of Achille in Sciro by Pietro Metastasio with music by Domenico Sarro, who also conducted the orchestra for the music for two ballets.

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. 

Teatro di San Carlo is a short walk from the Piazza del Plebiscito in the heart of Naples
Teatro di San Carlo is a short walk from the
Piazza del Plebiscito in the heart of Naples
In the magnificent auditorium, the focal point is the royal box surmounted by the crown of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. 

It is a lasting demonstration of the power of the Bourbon King Charles I in Naples at the time, which, thankfully, he used to give the city, and the rest of the world, a magnificent opera house.

Since then, San Carlo has suffered partial destruction in a fire in 1816 and was damaged by bombing raids in World War Two, although not too severely. It was open for business again within two months of Naples being liberated by the Allies in October 1943, relaunching on 26 December of that year with a performance of Puccini's La bohème.

Ironically, the great Neapolitan tenor, Enrico Caruso, did not enjoy a good relationship with San Carlo. From 1901 onwards, after being booed by a section of the audience during a performance of Donizetti's L'elisir d'amore, Caruso refused to sing there again.

The Caffè Gambrinus has a long and illustrious
history as a meeting place in the heart of Naples
Travel Tip:

Close to Teatro San Carlo in the centre of Naples, Galleria Umberto I, Caffè Gambrinus, the church of San Francesco di Paola and Palazzo Reale are all well worth visiting.  The Gambrinus is an historic coffee house situated next to the start of Via Chiaia.  It was was founded in 1860 by Vincenzo Apuzzo, whose dream was to make his cafe the most important of the newly unified Italy. The next owner, Mario Vacca, began a refurbishment programme and commissioned numerous contemporary artists to provide decoration. Their artwork still graces the elegant Art Nouveau interiors. Later, the Gambrinus became known as a meeting place for intellectuals and artists, among them Gabriele D'Annunzio and Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, Oscar Wilde, Ernest Hemingway and Jean Paul Sartre.

President Sergio Matarella leads part of the ceremony in Rome in 2018
President Sergio Matarella leads part of
the ceremony in Rome in 2018
Travel Tip:

National Unity and Armed Forces Day (Giorno dell’Unità Nazionale e Festa delle Forze Armate) is a day of celebration held in Italy on or close to 4 November each year. Originally conceived as a way to to commemorate the victory over Austria-Hungary in 1918, which to many marked the completion of Italian unification, it was somewhat hijacked as a celebration of military strength under Mussolini, who renamed it as the Anniversary of Victory. After World War Two, there was a reassertion of the sense that the celebration was about unity rather than a battlefield triumph. A national holiday until 1976, it became a moveable celebration after that and declined in importance for a while in the 1980s and '90s before being revived by former president Carlo Azeglio Ciampi. You may still see parades and celebrations of the day, which was marked with particular ceremony on the centenary of the end of World War One in 2018, with events held in Trieste and Trento, two cities at the forefront of the victory in 1918, as well as in Rome.

More reading:

Also on this day:

(Picture credits: Teatro di San Carlo by Radomil Binek; Piazza del Plebiscito by Baku; Caffè Gambrinus by Armando Mancini; Sergio Matarella by Quirinale.it; via Wikimedia Commons)

3 November 2015

Villa Giusti armistice

Talks held at villa in Padova end First World War in Italy

The Villa Giusti, owned by Count Giusti del Giardino, just outside Padua, was the scene of the historic treaty signing
The Villa Giusti, owned by Count Giusti del Giardino, just
outside Padua, was the scene of the historic treaty signing
An armistice signed between Italy and Austria-Hungary at Villa Giusti near Padua ended World War I on the Italian front on this day in 1918.

After the Allied troops were victorious in the Battle of Vittorio Veneto, the Austria-Hungary commanding officers asked for a ceasefire and for peace talks.

They were invited to Villa Giusti at Mandria just outside Padua, which was owned by Count Giusti del Giardino, a former mayor of Padua and an Italian senator.

The principal signatories on the Italian side were Tenente Generale Pietro Badoglio and Maggior Generale Scipione Scipioni. Leading the Austria-Hungary delegation was General Viktor Weber Edler von Webenau.

During the war, the Villa Giusti had been the temporary residence of King Victor Emmanuel III when he was away from the front.

The signing of the armistice came after the commanders of the Austro-Hungarian Army sought a ceasefire. Their troops were fatigued, while at home the Austro-Hungarian Empire was tearing itself apart under ethnic lines. If the empire were to survive, it would have to withdraw from the war.

As the Battle of Vittorio Veneto reached a near-stalemate, the Austro-Hungarian force started a chaotic withdrawal. While a truce was being negotiated, the Italians reached Trento and Udine and landed in Trieste.  The Austro-Hungarians at first threatened to pull out of the talks, but on November 3 they accepted the armistice.

The armistice was seen by many Italians as the final phase of the Risorgimento, the movement started in 1815 to unify Italy. The bells of a nearby church rang out when news came from the villa that the armistice had been agreed.

Travel tip:

Villa Giusti in Via Armistizio, Mandria, is just outside Padua. Guided visits can be made to the villa by arrangement. The furniture in the room where negotiations were conducted remains just as it was on that day. Visitors can even see the round table on which the armistice was signed. Tel: +39 049 867 0492.

Vittorio Veneto's present day Piazza del Popolo, with the city's Municipio (Town Hall) in the background
Vittorio Veneto's present day Piazza del Popolo, with the
city's Municipio (Town Hall) in the background
Travel tip:

Two separate towns in the Veneto region, Ceneda and Serravalle, were merged and renamed Vittorio in 1866 in honour of King Vittorio Emanuele II. After the last, decisive battle in the First World War had taken place nearby, the city was renamed Vittorio Veneto. Franco Zeffirelli shot some of the scenes for his film version of Romeo and Juliet against the backdrop of 15th century buildings in Seravalle.

Also on this day:

(Picture credit: Municipio at Vittorio Veneto by Mauro)

2 November 2015

Bartolomeo Colleoni - soldier

Death of an ‘honourable’ Italian military leader

Bergamo soldier Bartolomeo Colleoni, who became known for using his wealth to benefit people, died on this day in 1475.

Colleoni spent most of his life in the pay of the republic of Venice defending the city of Bergamo against invaders.

Statue of Colleoni in Venice
But he is remembered as one of the most decent condottieri of his era, carrying out charitable works and agricultural improvements in Bergamo and the surrounding area when he was not involved in military campaigns.

Condottieri were the leaders of troops, who worked for the powerful ruling factions, often for high payments. 

Bergamo’s Bartolomeo Colleoni was unusual because he remained steadfast to one employer, the republic of Venice, for most of his career.

During a period of peace between Venice and Milan he worked briefly for Milan but the rulers never fully trusted him and eventually he was arrested and imprisoned. On his release, he returned to work for Venice and subsequently stayed faithful to them.

Towards the end of his life he lived with his family at his castle in Malpaga, to the south of Bergamo and turned his attention to designing a building to house his own tomb. 

This has given Bergamo’s upper town its most ornate and celebrated building, the Cappella Colleoni (Colleoni Chapel).

Colleoni Chapel in Bergamo
Bartolomeo Colleoni left money to Venice in his will with a request that a statue of himself be erected in Piazza San Marco after his death. As there was a rule that no monuments were allowed in the Piazza, the statue, made by Andrea del Verrocchio, was eventually placed opposite the Scuola di San Marco in Campo Santi Giovanni e Paolo.

Travel tip:

Visit Bergamo to see one of the finest examples of Renaissance architecture in Italy.  
Cappella Colleoni was designed by architect Antonio Amadeo to harmonise with the adjacent Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, using pink and white marble to match the colours of the doorway of the basilica. Inside the chapel there is an elaborate two tier sarcophagus surmounted by a golden statue of Colleoni on horseback. The military leader’s body was placed in the lower sarcophagus, according to his instructions, where it still lies today. Above his tomb there are frescoes by Giambattista Tiepolo.

Travel tip:

November 2 is All Souls Day, or the Day of the Dead, in Italy, when people visit the graves of their loved ones. Many areas observe their own rituals and have special foods, such as the slightly macabre ossi dei morti (bones of the dead), which are traditional biscuits eaten on All Souls Day in the Veneto region.

1 November 2015

Antonio Canova - sculptor

Genius who could bring marble to life 

A self-portrait of Canova, painted in about 1790 (Uffizi, Florence)
A self-portrait of Canova, painted
in about 1790 (Uffizi, Florence)
Sculptor Antonio Canova was born on this day in 1757 in Possagno in the Veneto.

Considered to be the greatest Neoclassical sculptor of the late 18th and 19th centuries, Canova became famous for creating lifelike figures, possessing the ability to make the marble he worked with resemble nude flesh. One of his masterpieces is the group, The Three Graces, now in the Victoria and Albert museum in London.

Canova’s father and grandfather were both stone cutters and his grandfather taught him to draw at an early age.  By the age of 10, living in the care of his grandfather after his father died, he had carved two small shrines in Carrara marble.

The noble Falier family of Venice took an interest in Canova’s talent and brought him to the city at the age of 12 to learn his trade in the workshop of Giuseppe Bernardi, who was also known as Torretto.  He enrolled at the Accademia di Belle Arti di Venezia, where he won a number of prizes.

He was commissioned by Giovanni Falier, a senator, to produce statues of Orpheus and Eurydice for the garden at his villa in Asolo, another town in the Veneto.  In 1779, Canova opened his own studio in the Campo San Maurizio in Venice in the San Marco sestiere.

Canova also studied anatomy, history and languages and in 1780 moved to work in Rome, where he studied the work of Michelangelo among others. He opened a studio there there and his first big successes included a sculpture of Theseus and the Minotaur, commissioned by the Venetian ambassador to Rome and now housed at the Victoria and Albert museum in London, and his funerary monument to Clement XIV, which was inaugurated in the Basilica dei Santi Apostoli.

The Campo San Maurizio in Venice, where the young Canova opened his first workshop
The Campo San Maurizio in Venice, where the
young Canova opened his first workshop
He became the most celebrated artist in Europe, acquiring patrons from across the continent. He travelled to France, where he received several commissions from Napoleon Bonaparte, including a statue of the French leader as Mars the Peacemaker, which ultimately fell into the hands of the Duke of Wellington after his victory at the Battle of Waterloo.

He returned to Rome and was appointed Inspector-General of Antiquities and Fine Art of the Papal State, a position formerly held by Raphael. He was charged with restoring the tomb of Servilius Quartus, as part of a project to restore the Appian Way.

In 1816, Pope Pius VII  rewarded Canova with the title of marquis of Ischia after he arranged for the return of Italian art looted by the French. The title came with an annual pension. At the same time he was working on The Three Graces, a sculpture that would be considered one of his finest works.

Completed in 2017, it depicted the daughters of Zeus from Greek mythology, namely Euphrosyne, Aglaea and Thalia, who were meant respectively to represent mirth, elegance and youth or beauty.

The Three Graces at London's V&A
The Three Graces
at London's V&A
His first version, in terracotta, is now in a museum in Lyon. A marble version was made for the Empress Josephine, the estranged wife of Napoleon Bonaparte, which is now in a museum in St Petersburg, Russia.

He was commissioned to make another group of The Three Graces in 1814 for Woburn Abbey by the sixth Duke of Bedford, who visited the sculptor in his workshop in Rome. It is this version that can be seen in the Victoria and Albert museum in London.

Still working but in declining health, Canova died in Venice at the age of 64 and was buried in Tempio Canoviano in Possagno, the town of his birth. Canova’s heart was interred in a marble pyramid he had designed as a mausoleum for the painter, Titian, in the Frari church in Venice.

Canova's heart was buried at the Frari church in Venice
Canova's heart was buried at the
Frari church in Venice
Travel tip:

Canova’s heart is buried in a marble pyramid designed by himself, in the Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari in Venice. This huge Gothic-style church, the largest in the city, is in the San Polo sestiere. It is one of three notable churches in Venice that still retain their Venetian Gothic appearance. The current edifice, work on which began in around 1340, took more than a century to complete. The Frari, as it is usually known, also houses the tombs of Monteverdi, Rossini and Doge Nicolo Tron as well as works of art by Titian, Bellini and Donatello. The church is open daily from 9.00 to 5.30 pm and on Sundays from 1.00 to 5.30 pm.

The Gipsoteca Canoviana museum has become a tourist attraction in Possagno
The Gipsoteca Canoviana museum has become
a tourist attraction in Possagno
Travel tip:

Possagno is a small hilltop town in the Veneto region, about 60km (37 miles) northwest of Venice and about 35km (22 miles) northwest of Treviso.  The Tempio Canoviano, a church built in a severe Neoclassical style, with a facade of eight marble columns designed, financed, and in part built by Antonio Canova, has become one of the city's landmarks along with the museum of the Gipsoteca Canoviana, which houses various plaster casts of his most famous works as well as many of his paintings. 

(Picture credits: Campo San Maurizio, Frari church by Didier Descouens; The Three Graces by Colin Smith; Possagno museum by Caracas1830 via Wikipedia Commons)