4 December 2015

Luigi Galvani - physicist and biologist

Death of the scientist who seemed to give dead frog new life 

Luigi Galvani, the first scientist to discover bioelectricity, died on this day in 1798 in Bologna.

Luigi Galvani studied medicine at Bologna University
Luigi Galvani studied medicine
at Bologna University

Galvani discovered that the muscles in the leg of a dead frog twitched when struck by an electrical spark. This was the beginning of bioelectricity, the study of the electrical patterns and signals of the nervous system.

The word ‘galvanise’, to stimulate by electricity, or rouse by shock and excitement, comes from the surname of the scientist.

Galvani studied medicine at Bologna University and, after graduating in 1759, became an honorary lecturer of surgery and then subsequently of theoretical anatomy.

He became the first scientist to appreciate the relationship between electricity and animation when he was dissecting a frog one day. His assistant touched an exposed nerve in the leg of the frog with a metal scalpel that had picked up an electrical charge. They both saw sparks and the frog’s leg kicked. The phenomenon was dubbed ‘galvanism’.

In 1797 Galvani refused to swear loyalty to the French, who were then occupying northern Italy, and lost his academic position at the university and also his income.

He died, depressed and impoverished, in his brother’s house in Bologna in 1798.

Travel tip:

The world’s first university was established in Bologna in 1088 and attracted popes and kings as well as students of the calibre of Dante, Copernicus and Boccaccio. You can visit the university’s former anatomy theatre in the oldest university building, the Archiginnasio, which is open Monday to Saturday from 9 am to 1 pm, admission free.

Piazza Maggiore is Bologna's main square
Bologna's Piazza Maggiore

Travel tip:

There is a statue of Galvani in the square named after him, Piazza Luigi Galvani, which faces the palace of the Archiginnasio, just a short walk from Piazza Maggiore and the Basilica di San Petronio in the centre of Bologna.


3 December 2015

Nino Rota – composer

Musician and teacher composed soundtrack for The Godfather 

Giovanni ‘Nino’ Rota, composer, conductor and pianist, was born on this day in 1911 in Milan.

Part of a musical family, he started composing with an oratorio based on a religious subject at the age of 11, but he was to go on to produce some of the best-known and iconic music for the cinema of the 20th century.

Nino Rota's score for The Godfather won him an Oscar
The Godfather, Don Corleone, played
by Marlon Brando

Rota studied at the Milan Conservatory and then in Rome before he was encouraged by the conductor, Arturo Toscanini, to move to America, where he studied at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia.

When he returned to Milan he took a degree in Literature and then began a teaching career. He became a director of the Liceo Musicale in Bari in 1950 and kept this post until his death. Orchestra conductor Riccardo Muti was one of his students.

Rota wrote film scores from the 1940s onwards for all the noted directors of the time, including Zeffirelli, Visconti and de Filippo. He wrote the music for all Federico Fellini’s films from The White Sheik in 1952 to Orchestral Rehearsal in 1978. He composed the score for Francis Ford Coppola’s film The Godfather and won an Oscar for best original score for the Godfather Part II in 1974.

Listen to Nino Rota's Godfather theme 

At Fellini’s funeral, the director’s widow asked for Rota’s Improviso dell’Angelo  to be played in the Basilica di Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri in Rome.

Rota was also a prolific writer of operas, ballets and orchestral and choral music. He died in Rome in 1979.
The Basilica of St Mary of the
Angels and the Martyrs
Photo: Peter Clarke (CC SY-BA 3.0)

Travel tip:

Bari  the capital of Puglia on the Adriatic Sea, is both a port and a university city. It is home to one of the most important opera houses in Italy, the Petruzzelli Theatre. The Liceo Musicale where Rota taught for so many years is now named the Niccolo Picinni Conservatory.

Travel tip:

The Basilica of Saint Mary of the Angels and the Martyrs (Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri) where Fellini’s funeral was held, is built inside the former baths of Diocletian in Piazza della Repubblica in Rome . It was built on the orders of Pope Pius IV in 1561 to be dedicated to all Christian martyrs, known and unknown. Michelangelo and Vanvitelli both contributed to the design of the church.


2 December 2015

Gianni Versace – designer

Meteoric rise of the talented son of a dressmaker

Gianni Versace, the founder of the international fashion house, Versace, was born on this day in 1946 in Reggio di Calabria in the south of Italy.

Reggio di Calabria, on the Italian coast facing Sicily, is the home town of Gianni Versace
The coastal city of Reggio di Calabria,
birthplace of designer Gianni Versace

He went on to start a highly successful clothing label and also designed costumes for the theatre and films. He was a personal friend of the late Princess Diana and numerous celebrities, including Elton John and Madonna.

Christened Giovanni Maria Versace, the designer literally learnt his trade at his mother’s knee as she was herself a dressmaker and employed him as an apprentice in her business from an early age.

He moved north to Milan to work in the fashion industry for other designers and, after presenting his own first signature collection in the city, opened a boutique in Via della Spiga in 1978. His career immediately took off and his exclusive designs were highly sought after.

View over fashion capital Milan
 from roof of Duomo

He became one of the top designers of the 1980s and 90s and employed his brother, Santo, and his sister, Donatella, in his successful and profitable business.

One of his most famous creations was a black dress held together by safety pins, worn by the actress, Elizabeth Hurley, to a film premiere.

In 1997, at just 50 years of age, Versace was shot dead on the steps of his Miami home after returning from a morning walk. The gunman killed himself with the same weapon a few days later and no clear motive for the murder has ever been established by the American police.

Travel tip:

Reggio di Calabria is the biggest city in the region of Calabria, near the ‘toe’ of the Italian peninsula. Its seafront promenade facing Messina in Sicily across the Straits, has been described as ‘the most beautiful kilometre of Italy’.

Travel tip:

The Versace boutique in Milan is at the heart of the fashion district in Via Monte Napoleone, a short walk from the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II. The top designers all have outlets in the ‘quadrilateral’ bordered by Via Manzoni, Via Montenapoleone, Via della Spiga (where Versace first started) and Via Sant’Andrea.


1 December 2015

Salvatore 'Toto' Schillaci - footballer

Golden boy of Italia ‘90 now coaches future players

The star of Italy’s 1990 World Cup campaign, Toto Schillaci, was born on this day in Palermo in Sicily in 1964.
Toto Schillaci in action
Toto Schillaci in action

Schillaci was born into a struggling, working class household in Palermo. He began his football career with Messina in Sicily, playing in Serie B, but his goals earned him a move to Serie A giants Juventus in 1989.

He continued his scoring form, hitting 21 goals in his first season for Juventus, earning a call-up to the national team for the first time. He made his debut in a friendly in March, just three months before the World Cup finals began.

Small in stature, but agile, he owed many of his goals to his quick reactions in the box, which enabled him to snap up half-chances. 

Despite his status as a novice in terms of international football, coach Azeglio Vicini named him for the Italy squad seeking to win the World Cup as hosts.

Schillaci was the sensation of the tournament, coming off the bench to score the only goal in Italy's opening match against Austria.

Relive all of Toto Schillaci's six goals in Italia '90

After going on as sub again in Italy's second match, he made his first start against Czechoslovakia in the third of their group games and scored again, playing alongside Robert Baggio up front.

As Italy progressed, Schillaci grabbed further goals against Uruguay in the first knock-out round and Ireland in the quarter-finals, taking his team to a semi-final against Argentina in Naples, where he scored again but Italy's adventure ended in a penalty shoot-out.

A goal against England in the match to decide third place increased Schillaci's total to six for the tournament. He matched Paoli Rossi in 1982 by winning the Golden Boot as leading marksman, as well as the Golden Ball award as best player of the tournament.

Sadly, after Italia ‘90, Schillaci suffered a downturn in fortunes and would score only one more international goal, against Norway in 1991, in what would prove to be the last of his 23 appearances for the Azzurri.
Toto Schillaci in familiar pose
Toto Schillaci in familiar pose

Pundits began labelling him a one-hit wonder. The goals dried up at Juventus and he had a number of injuries. He fared no better when he moved to Internazionale in Milan in 1992. He fell out of favour with coach Osvaldo Bagnoli and the fans booed him. 

He was to enjoy a renaissance in Japan. Signing for Jubilo Iwata in the fledgling J-League, he became the first Italian to play professional football in Japan and scored 56 goals in just 78 appearances.

He retired in 1999, returning to his native Palermo, where he set up his own football academy and also served as a local councillor. 

Travel tip:

Palermo is the capital of Sicily, a vibrant city with a wealth of beautiful architecture bearing testament to its rich history. There are plenty of shops and markets to browse in and a large opera house.

Travel tip:
Juventus Football Club, colloquially known as Juve, play at Juventus Stadium in Turin in Piedmont (Piemonte). They are currently in fifth place in Serie A. Last Sunday (29 November) they beat Palermo 3-0.