16 June 2016

Giacomo Agostini - world motorcycle champion

Lovere exhibition commemorates record-breaking career 

Photo of Giacomo Agostini
Giacomo Agostini
Giacomo Agostini, 15 times Grand Prix world motorcycling champion, celebrates his 74th birthday today.

Born on this day in 1942 in Brescia, Agostini moved with his family to the lakeside town of Lovere when he was 13 and his career is being commemorated with a month-long exhibition at the Accademia Tadini, which overlooks the picturesque Lago d'Iseo.

The exhibition is timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Agostini's first world championship in 1966.

Riding for the Italian MV Agusta team, Agostini won the 500cc class seven times in a row from 1966 to 1972 and the 350cc class seven times in succession from 1968 to 1974, adding a further 500cc title on a Yamaha in 1975.

His total of 122 Grand Prix wins from 1965 to 1976 is the highest by any rider in the history of the sport, although his fellow Italian, 37-year-old Valentino Rossi, is now only eight behind on 114 following his victory in the Catalan GP on June 5.

Agostini, considered perhaps the greatest motorcycle racer of all time, was at the peak of his powers between 1967 and 1970.

In 1967, he won an epic duel with his former MV Agusta teammate, Britain's Mike Hailwood, who was riding for Honda.  They were tied on five race wins each going into the final GP of the season in Canada, where Hailwood won, with his rival second.  That meant they were tied on points and wins, but Agostini had a greater number of second place finishes and so he was crowned champion.

For the next three seasons, after Hailwood left motorcycle racing to race cars, Agostini dominated, winning every race in which he competed in 350cc and 500cc classes, equalling Hailwood's record for most wins in a single year in 1970 when he was first in 19 races.

Agostini also won 10 races at the Isle of Man TT, the most by any non-British rider. It might have been more but he decided to quit TT racing in 1972 after his close friend, Gilberto Parlotti, was killed during the event.

Photo of Giacomo Agostini in race action in 1969.
Giacomo Agostini (No 1) in action at Riccione in 1969.
His great rival Mike Hailwood is No 63.
The only Italian to win the prestigious Daytona 200 race in America - he was victorious in 1974 - Agostini retired in 1977 at the age of 35 after competing in the 1977 British GP at Silverstone.  He had a season driving in Formula One cars for Williams in 1980 but then switched to management, where he enjoyed more success.

As team manager for Marlboro Yamaha, he won three 500cc world titles with the Californian rider Eddie Lawson.  Agostini also managed for Cagiva and Honda before retiring in 1995.

The eldest of four brothers, Giacomo Agostini was only 11 when he rode a moped for the first time and knew immediately he wanted to race motorcycles.  His father Aurelio, a local government employee in Lovere, wanted him to become an accountant but allowed him to pursue his dream after seeking counsel from a lawyer who was a family friend.

The lawyer told him he thought sport would be good for Giacomo's character and only later did Aurelio find out that his friend had misunderstood him and believed Giacomo wanted to take up cycling.  His mother, Maria Vittoria, ensured that when he raced he always carried in his helmet a medal showing the image of Pope John XXIII, who hailed from Sotto il Monte, a small village which, like Lovere, is in the Lombardy province of Bergamo.

The exhibition at the Tadini Academy, which runs until July 3, is called Giacomo Agostini: The Golden Age.  Sponsored by a local furnace manufacturer, Forni Industriali Bendotti, as part of their 100th anniversary celebrations, the exhibition includes many mementos of his career, including the suits and helmets he wore in his first and last races.  For more details, visit www.accedemiatadini.it

Visitors can also admire - in Lovere's Piazza XIII Martiri - an artwork featuring one of Agostini's bikes by the Milan architect Mauro Piantelli entitled "Of the Brave and his Steed".

Travel tip:

Brescia is a town of great artistic and architectural importance with Roman remains and well-preserved Renaissance buildings. Next to the 17th century Duomo is an older cathedral, the unusually shaped Duomo Vecchio, also known as la Rotonda. The Santa Giulia Museo della Citta covers more than 3000 years of Brescia’s history, housed within the Benedictine Nunnery of San Salvatore and Santa Giulia in Via Musei.

Photo of the Palazzo Tadini in Lovere
Palazzo Tadini in Lovere is currently hosting an exhibition
dedicated to the career of Giacomo Agostini
Travel tip:

Lovere is the largest town on the western shore of Lago d’Iseo  and has wonderful views of the top of the lake with its dramatic backdrop of mountains. Art lovers will be interested in the classical Palazzo Tadini, which looks out over the lake from Via Tadini and is home to Accademia Tadini, one of the most important art galleries in Italy. The church of Santa Maria in Valvendra has some 16th century frescoes and the church of San Giorgio, which is built into a medieval tower, contains an important work by Palma il Giovane. You can take the boat from Lovere over to Pisogne on the eastern shore of the lake. The landing stage adjoins Piazza XIII Martiri.

More reading:

Enrico Piaggio: the man behind the iconic Vespa motor scooter

Luigi Fagioli - Formula One's oldest winner

Vittorio Jano: Genius of racing car engineering

(Photo of Giacomo Agostini by Jack de Nijs CC BY-SA 3.0)

More reading:


15 June 2016

Lisa del Giocondo – the Mona Lisa

Florentine wife and mother who became a global icon

Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci
Da Vinci's Mona Lisa can be found
in the Louvre in Paris
Merchant’s wife Lisa del Giocondo, who has been identified as the model for the Mona Lisa, was born on this day in 1479 in Florence.

Her enigmatic beauty was immortalised by Leonardo da Vinci in the early part of the 16th century when he painted her portrait, a major work of art known as the Mona Lisa, which is now in the Louvre in Paris. 

The painting, sometimes known as La Gioconda, has become a global icon that has been used in other works of art, illustrations and advertising.

The face of the Mona Lisa belongs to a woman who was born as Lisa Gherardini into a well-off Tuscan family. When she was still in her teens she was married to Francesco di Bartolomeo di Zanobi del Giocondo, a successful cloth and silk merchant who was much older than her. They had five children together. 

In 1503, when the couple were living in the Via della Stufa, it is thought Leonardo da Vinci started work on her portrait.

Francesco later became an official in Florence and is believed to have had connections with the Medici family.

In June 1537 he made provision for Lisa in his will, referring to the ‘affection and love of the testator towards Mona Lisa, his beloved wife.’

Lisa del Giocondo spent her final years at Florence’s Sant’Orsola convent, where she died in 1543 at the ago of 63.

In the painting, Leonardo portrays Lisa as a faithful wife, who is dressed fashionably to demonstrate her financial status.

He did not complete the portrait at the time because he started work on something else. It is thought he may have finished the painting in 1516 when he was living in France and that it was later acquired by King Francis I of France.

The Mona Lisa was stolen from the Louvre in 1911 and taken to Asia and North America. It is now back in the gallery as part of the French national art collection and is visited by an estimated six million people a year.

The word 'Mona' in the title of the painting is a contraction 'Ma donna', a form of address similar to Madam or Ma'am or 'my lady' in English.  In Italian it is often spelled Monna.

Photo of No 23 Via della Stufa in Florence
No 23 Via della Stufa, which is thought to have
 been Lisa del Giocondo's home in Florence
Travel tip:

The house at number 23 Via della Stufa, where Francesco and Lisa lived with their children in Florence, is probably where Leonardo began work on the famous portrait. The street is just north of the Arno River, a short walk from the Basilica di San Lorenzo. 

Travel tip:

Lisa del Giocondo was known to have been buried in the grounds of Sant’Orsola convent after her death in Florence in 1542. The convent, which was built in 1309 as a satellite of San Lorenzo, has since been used as a factory and also a teaching facility for the University of Florence. In the 1980s the building was converted for the use of the Guardia di Finanza, Italy’s finance police. Remains since found in a grave under the concrete floor of the building were compatible with the period of Lisa’s death, but there was no way of proving definitively that they belonged to the beautiful subject of Leonardo’s 
Mona Lisa.

More reading:

Leonardo da Vinci - painter and inventor

(Photo of No 23 Via della Stufa by Sailko CC BY-SA 3.0)


14 June 2016

Battle of Marengo

Napoleon works up an appetite driving out the Austrians

Napoleon was victorious in battle against the Austrians on this day in 1800 in an area near the village of Marengo, about five kilometres south of Alessandria in Piedmont.

Painting of the Battle of Marengo
Scene from the Battle of Marengo, captured by the artist
Louis-Francois, Baron Lejeune
A chicken dish named after the battle, Pollo alla Marengo, keeps the event alive by continuing to appear on restaurant menus and in cookery books.

It was an important victory for Napoleon, who effectively drove the Austrians out of Italy by forcing them to retreat.

Initially French forces had been overpowered by the Austrians and had been pushed back a few miles. The Austrians thought they had won and retired to Alessandria.

But the French received reinforcements and launched a surprise counter-attack, forcing the Austrians to retreat and to have to subsequently sign an armistice.

This sealed a political victory for Napoleon and helped him secure his grip on power.

Painting of Napoleon Bonaparte
Napoleon Bonaparte: detail from a portrait
by the artist Andrea Appiani
There are various stories about the origin of the chicken dish named after the battle. Some say Napoleon ate it after his victory, while others say a restaurant chef in Paris invented it and named it after the battle in Napoleon’s honour.

There is also a story that Napoleon refused to eat before the battle but eventually came off the field with a ferocious hunger. His chef had to whip up a meal from the only ingredients he had to hand, which is how the dish ended up as being made from chicken fried in oil, garlic and tomatoes, garnished with eggs and crayfish. 

Napoleon is said to have wolfed it down and then the battle turned in his favour. He therefore associated the dish with victory and insisted on eating it before every future battle.

Travel tip:

Alessandria is an historic city in Piedmont, situated to the south east of Turin. After the Battle of Marengo in 1800 it became part of French territory but was returned to Italy a few years later. It is now a major railway hub.

Travel tip:

The Museum of Marengo, Museo della Battaglia di Marengo, is at Spinetta Marengo, a suburb of Alessandria. To ensure his victory would not be forgotten, Napoleon ordered a column commemorating the date to be erected at the exact site of the battle. For more information and to find out about re enactment events visit www.marengomuseum.it.

More reading:

Napoleon becomes King of Italy

13 June 2016

Saint Anthony of Padua

Pilgrims honour the saint famous for his miracles

Photo of the Basilica di Sant'Antonio
The Basilica di Sant'Antonio in Padua
The feast of Saint Anthony of Padua (Sant’Antonio da Padova) will be celebrated  by thousands of pilgrims visiting the northern Italian city today.

Special services will be held in the Basilica di Sant’Antonio and a statue of the saint will be carried through the streets of Padua.

Over the next few days pilgrims from all over the world will visit the Basilica, to see the saint’s tomb and relics.

Anthony was born in Portugal where he became a Catholic priest and a friar of the Franciscan order. He died on 13 June, 1231 in Padova and was declared a saint by the Vatican a year after his death, which is considered a remarkably short space of time.

Anthony is one of the most loved of all the saints and his name is regularly invoked by Italians to help them recover lost items.

It is estimated that about five million pilgrims visit the Basilica every year in order to file past and touch the tomb of the Franciscan monk, who became famous for his miracles, particularly relating to lost people or things.

The magnificent basilica in Piazza del Santo is an architectural masterpiece created between the 13th and 14th centuries, but it was later enriched with works of art by masters such as Titian, Tiepolo and the sculptor Donatello.

Saint Anthony’s Basilica is an imposing sight in Padova’s skyline even from a distance as it has seven domes around a cupola, two campanili (towers) and tapering spires like the minarets of a mosque.

Inside, the church is in the plan of a Latin cross with a nave and aisles in the gothic tradition. The Saint’s body lies in a marble tomb in the area known as the Chapel of the Tomb in the left transept.

The walls around the tomb are decorated with large 16th century marble reliefs that depict scenes from Saint Anthony’s life. These are overshadowed by the impressive amount of offerings and photographs on display from people wishing to give thanks after surviving car crashes or serious illnesses thanks to what they believe was the intervention of Sant’Antonio.

In a separate chapel, visitors can see relics of Saint Anthony and other important objects, such as a tunic believed to have been worn by the saint.

Photo of the Scrovegni Chapel
The Scrovegni Chapel is home to magnificent
frescoes by Giotto
Travel tip:

Padova in the Veneto is also one of the most important centres for art in Italy and home to the country’s second oldest university. Padova has become acknowledged as the birthplace of modern art because it is home to the Scrovegni Chapel, the inside of which is covered with frescoes by Giotto, a genius who was the first to paint people with realistic facial expressions showing emotion. His scenes depicting the lives of Mary and Joseph, painted between 1303 and 1305, are acknowledged as his greatest achievement and are one of the world’s most important works of art. At Palazzo Bò, Padova’s university founded in 1222, you can still see the original lectern used by Galileo and the world’s first anatomy theatre, where dissections were secretly carried out from 1594.

Travel tip:

The enormous Basilica di Sant’Antonio da Padova, or Basilica del Santo as it is known to local people, is one of the most important places of Christian worship in the world. To reach it from the railway station in Piazzale Stazione, take the tram and get off at the stop called simply, Santo. Buses also run between the station and the Basilica. If you are on foot, walk down Corso del Popolo, Corso Garibaldi, Via Eremitani, Via Zabarella and Via del Santo. The Basilica is open from 06.20 to 19.00 in the winter and 06.20 to 19.45 in the summer. Admission is free.