4 January 2016

Carlo Levi – writer and painter

Author and doctor who highlighted poverty in southern Italy

The anti-fascist writer, painter and doctor, Carlo Levi, died on this day in Rome in 1975.

Carlo Levi wrote Christ Stopped at Eboli based on his experiences in exile in Basilicata
Carlo Levi, anti-fascist writer and
author of Christ Stopped at Eboli
He is best remembered for his book ‘Christ Stopped at Eboli’ (Cristo si è fermato a Eboli), an account of the time he spent in political exile in a remote, impoverished part of Italy.

Levi was born in Turin in 1902. His father was a wealthy Jewish physician and Levi went to the University of Turin to study medicine after finishing school.

While at University he became active in politics and after graduating he turned his attention to painting.

But he never completely abandoned medicine and moved to Paris to continue his medical research while painting.

After returning to Italy, Levi founded an anti-fascist movement in 1929. As a result he was arrested and sent into exile to a remote area of Italy called Lucania (now renamed Basilicata).

He encountered extreme poverty, which had been unknown in the north where he grew up. As well as writing and painting while he was in exile, he served as a doctor to help the poor villagers he lived among.

When he was released from his political exile he moved back to France but on his return to Italy he was arrested again and imprisoned in Florence.

After the fall of Mussolini he was released from prison and he wrote ‘Christ Stopped at Eboli’ about his experiences living in Lucania.

At the end of the war he moved to Rome where he continued to paint, work as a political journalist and write books.

He died of pneumonia at the age of 72 on 4 January, 1975.

In 1979, ‘Christ Stopped at Eboli’ was made into a film directed by Francesco Rosi.

Aliano is the town near Matera in Basilicata upon which Carlo Levi based his fictional town of Gagliano
The hill town of Aliano in Basilicata was the
inspiration for Levi's fictional town of Gagliano
Photo: Michele Pinassi (CC BY 2.5 IT)
Travel tip:

Aliano, a town about 90 kilometres from Matera in the region of Basilicata, was the inspiration for the fictional town of Gagliano in Levi’s book ‘Christ Stopped at Eboli’. Located on top of rocky hills, it was badly damaged by an earthquake in 1980. Many residents still speak alianese dialect and keep up ancient traditions to bring themselves good luck and ward off ‘the evil eye.’ For more information visit www.parcolevi.it

Travel tip:

Turin University in Via Giuseppe Verdi dates back to 1404 but officially became a university after reforms were made to it by Victor Amadeus II of Sardinia in the 18th century. The Faculty of Medicine attended by Carlo Levi is proud of its 600-year history, which it counts back to 1412 when it was founded by a local doctor, Antonio Cusano.


3 January 2016

Sergio Leone – film director

Distinctive style of  ‘Spaghetti Western’ creator

Italian film director, producer and screen writer Sergio Leone was born on this day in 1929 in Rome.

Leone is most associated with the ‘spaghetti western’ genre of films, such as the Dollars trilogy of westerns featuring Clint Eastwood.

Clint Eastwood starred in Sergio Leone's Dollars trilogy
Clint Eastwood in a publicity shot for
Sergio Leone's A Fistful of Dollars
He had a distinctive film-making style that involved juxtaposing extreme close-up shots with lengthy long shots.

Leone’s father was a film director and his mother was a silent film actress. He went to watch his father at work on film sets from an early age.

He dropped out of university to begin his own career in the industry at the age of 18 as an assistant to the director Vittorio de Sica.

He began writing screen plays and worked as an assistant director on Quo Vadis and Ben Hur at Cinecittà in Rome.

When the director of The Last Days of Pompeii fell ill, Leone was asked to step in and complete the film.

He made his solo debut as a director with The Colossus of Rhodes in 1961.

Leone turned his attention to making spaghetti westerns in the 1960s and his films, A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly were big financial successes.

He turned down the opportunity to direct The Godfather to work on the gangster film Once Upon A Time in America. It was drastically cut by the film company and was initially a flop. But when the original, longer version was released it was hailed a masterpiece. It was to be his last film.

In 1988 he was head of the jury at the 45th Venice International Film Festival.

Leone died in 1989 at the age of 60.

Travel tip:

Cinecittà in Rome, the hub of the Italian film industry, is a large studio complex to the south of the city, built during the fascist era under the personal direction of Benito Mussolini and his son, Vittorio. The studios were bombed by the Allies in the Second World War but were rebuilt and used again in the 1950s for large productions, such as Ben Hur. These days a range of productions, from television drama to music videos, are filmed there and it has its own dedicated Metro stop.

Sergio Leone on the set of
Once Upon a Time in America

Travel tip:

The first Venice film festival was held in 1932 on the terrace of the Hotel Excelsior on the Venice Lido and was such a success it was held again in 1934. The 73rd Venice International Film Festival, organised by La Biennale di Venezia, will take place from 31 August to 10 September 2016 . The aim of the festival will be to raise awareness of, and promote, international cinema as art, entertainment and also an industry. For more information about the 2016 festival, visit www.labiennale.org.

More reading:


2 January 2016

Piero di Cosimo – painter

Florentine artist achieved world wide recognition

A Renaissance artist famous for his elaborate landscapes, Piero di Cosimo, was born on this day in Florence in 1462.

Piero di Cosimo's Immaculate Conception with
Saints is housed at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence
His paintings are now in galleries all over the world and experts credit him with bringing the Renaissance spirit into the 16th century, while adding vivacity and lyricism.

The painter was born Piero di Lorenzo di Chimenti, but he became known as Piero di Cosimo after being apprenticed to the painter Cosimo Rosselli, with whom he frescoed the walls of the Sistine Chapel.

Early in his career he was influenced by the Flemish artist, Hugo van der Goes, and from him acquired a love for painting the countryside with all the plants and animals in great detail.

Piero di Cosimo eventually moved to Rome where he began painting scenes from classical mythology and he also developed a reputation for eccentric behaviour among his fellow artists.

But he was regarded as an excellent portrait painter and regularly received commissions. His most famous portrait, of a Florentine noble woman, Simonetta Vespucci, who was the mistress of Giuliano dè Medici, is now in a gallery in France.

Later in his life Piero di Cosimo became profoundly influenced by hellfire preacher Savonarola and turned his attention to painting religious subjects.

The Immaculate Conception with Saints in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence is an example of his religious fervour at the time, as is The Adoration of the Christ Child, an oil painting on wood, in the Galleria Borghese in Rome.

But many of his most famous paintings are now in galleries in America, Canada, Brazil, Britain, Germany and France.

It is believed that Piero di Cosimo died after contracting the plague in 1522.

Travel tip:

The Uffizi in Florence is one of the oldest and most famous art galleries in the world and houses a wealth of Renaissance art treasures. Located in Piazzale degli Uffizi close to Piazza della Signoria and the Palazzo Vecchio, it was originally built as a suite of offices in 1560, but later became used by the Medici family to display their art treasures. Visit www.uffizi.org

The Uffizi houses a wealth of Renaissance art treasures
The Uffizi Gallery in Florence by night
Photo: Chris Wee (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Travel tip:

Galleria Borghese in Villa Borghese in Rome was built in 1613 for Cardinal Scipione Borghese to display his magnificent art collection. The gallery now houses masterpieces by Caravaggio, Titian and Lotto as well as sculptures by Bernini and Canova. To visit the gallery it is necessary to reserve tickets. For details visit www.galleriaborghese.it

1 January 2016

Capodanno in Italy

Toasting the New Year the Italian way

New Year’s Day is called Capodanno in Italy, which literally means ‘head of the year’.

Rai Uno will be screening a New Year's Day concert from La Fenice
Teatro La Fenice in Venice

It is a public holiday, and schools, Government offices, post offices and banks are closed.

After a late start following the New Year’s Eve festivities, many families will enjoy another traditional feast together, either at home or in a restaurant.

Visitors and residents will attend church services throughout the country before sitting down to a festive meal and toasting 2016 with a glass of good Prosecco.

Rai Uno will be broadcasting a New Year’s Day concert live from La Fenice in Venice at 12.20 local time.

San Giuseppe Maria Tomasi

The Catholic Church remembers cardinal-priest Giuseppe Maria Tomasi di Lampedusa who died on this day in 1713.

He was the son of the Prince of Lampedusa in Sicily but he renounced his inheritance and joined a religious order.

Later in life he worked to reform the church and was created a cardinal-priest by Pope Clement XI who admired his sanctity.

He was buried in a church near his home after his death but his remains were later transferred to the Basilica of Sant’Andrea della Valle in Rome and he was canonised by Pope John Paul II in 1986.

Travel tip:

La Fenice (the Phoenix ) is Venice’s world famous opera house, originally built in 1790. The name reflects its role in permitting an opera company to rise from the ashes after their previous theatre burnt down.  La Fenice was itself destroyed by fire in 1836 and had to be rebuilt. It was severely damaged by fire again in 1996 and rebuilt at a cost of more than 90 million euros, reopening seven years later. La Fenice is in Campo San Fantin, a short walk from Piazza San Marco.

The Basilica of Sant'Andrea
della Valle in Rome
Travel tip:

There is a shrine to San Giuseppe Maria Tomasi in the baroque Basilica of Sant’Andrea della Valle in Corso Vittoria Emanuele II in Rome. The large church is also famous for being chosen by Puccini as the setting for the first act of his opera, Tosca.

Buon Anno e Tanti Auguri per 2016 (Happy New Year and best wishes for 2016) from all at Italy On This Day!