4 January 2017

Giovanni Battista Pergolesi – composer

Brief career of 'opera buffa' genius

A portrait of Pergolesi presented to the Naples Conservatory by his brother, Florimo
A portrait of Pergolesi presented to the Naples
Conservatory by his brother, Florimo
Opera composer Giovanni Battista Pergolesi was born on this day in 1710 as Giovanni Battista Draghi, in Jesi, in what is now the province of Ancona.

He later acquired the name Pergolesi, the Italian word for the residents of Pergola in Marche, which had been the birthplace of his ancestors.

Pergolesi was the most important early composer of opera buffa - comic opera. He wrote a two-act buffa intermezzo for one of his serious operas, which later became a popular work in its own right.

He also wrote sacred music and his Stabat Mater, composed in 1736, has been used in the soundtracks of many contemporary films.

Pergolesi received a musical education at the Conservatorio dei Poveri in Naples where he gained a good reputation as a violinist.

Watch a complete performance of Pergolesi's Stabat Mater

In 1732 he was appointed maestro di cappella to the Prince of Stigliano in Naples and produced for him an opera buffa, Lo frate ‘nnammorato, and a sacred work, believed to be his Mass in D, which were both well received.

The following year his serious opera, Il prigionier superbo, was produced but it was the comic intermezzo, La serva padrona, inserted between the acts, that was most popular, revealing his gift for comic characterisation.

A poster advertising a performance of Pergolesi's  intermezzo La Serva Padrona in 1739
A poster advertising a performance of Pergolesi's
 intermezzo La Serva Padrona in 1739
In 1734 Pergolesi went to Rome to direct the performance of his Mass in F.

After that his health began to fail and he went to live in the Franciscan monastery at Pozzuoli, near Naples, where he finished his last work, the celebrated Stabat Mater, which demonstrated his ability to handle large, choral and instrumental forces.

He died in extreme poverty at the age of 26 and was buried in the Cathedral at Pozzuoli.

When Pergolesi died, his fame had scarcely spread beyond Rome and Naples, but later in the century it grew enormously. The success of La serva padrona was mainly posthumous and it reached its peak after it was performed in Paris in 1752.

It led to the so called ‘guerre des bouffons’ - the war of the buffoons - which divided the supporters of serious opera and the supporters of the new Italian comic opera, with Pergolesi held up as a model of the Italian style. Musical forgers produced works claiming to be by Pergolesi, and a number of works originally attributed to him have since been shown to be by other composers.

Jesi's Teatro Pergolesi was named in honour of the composer
Jesi's Teatro Pergolesi was named in honour of the composer
Pergolesi was the subject of a 1932 Italian film, Pergolesi , directed by Guido Brignone with Elio Steiner playing the role of the composer.

His Stabat Mater was used in the films, Farinelli, Jesus of Montreal, Smilla’s Sense of Snow, Amadeus, The Mirror, Cactus and a 2016 documentary, Nothing Left Unsaid, which was about Gloria Vanderbilt and Anderson Cooper.

Pergolesi was honoured in his home town of Jesi in the 19th century when the Teatro della Concordia was renamed Teatro Pergolesi.

Travel tip:

The Conservatorio dei Poveri in Naples, where Pergolesi studied, was founded in 1589 by Marcello Fossataro, a Franciscan monk. It was adjacent to the Baroque Church of Santa Maria della Colonna in Via dei Tribunali. It was converted into a religious educational institution in 1743.

The Baroque church of Santa Maria della Colonna in Naples
The Baroque church of Santa Maria
della Colonna in Naples
Travel tip:

Pozzuoli is a comune of Naples in the region of Campania, lying in the centre of an area of volcanic activity. In the 1980s the city experienced hundreds of tremors and the sea bottom was raised by almost two metres, making the Bay of Pozzuoli too shallow for large craft. After Pergolesi died in poverty in Pozzuoli, his body was placed in an unmarked mass grave in the Cathedral.

More reading:

Why Domenico Cimarosa's Il Matrimonio Segreto is regarded as one of the greatest comic operas

The opening of Teatro San Carlo in Naples in 1737

Jacopo Peri - the 'inventor' of the opera

Also on this day:

1975: Death of writer Carlo Levi

(Picture credits: Teatro Pergolesi by Gaspa; church of Santa Maria della Colonna by Miguel Hermoso Cuesta)


3 January 2017

Gianfranco Fini – politician

Party leader who moved away from Fascism

Gianfranco Fini
Gianfranco Fini
Gianfranco Fini, former leader of the Alleanza Nazionale (National Alliance), the post-Fascist political party in Italy, was born on this day in 1952 in Bologna.

Fini has been President of the Italian Chamber of Deputies and was Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs in Silvio Berlusconi’s Government from 2001 to 2006.

His father, Argenio ‘Sergio’ Fini, was a volunteer with the Italian Social Republic, a fascist state in Northern Italy allied with Germany between 1943 and 1945.

His maternal grandfather, Antonio Marani, took part in the march on Rome, which signalled the beginning of Italian Fascism in 1922.

Fini’s first name, Gianfranco, was chosen in memory of his cousin, who was killed at the age of 20 by partisans after the liberation of northern Italy on 25 April, 1945.

Fini became interested in politics at the age of 16, after he was involved in a clash with communist activists and he went on to join the Italian Social Movement (MSI), a neo-fascist political party.

After graduating from La Sapienza University in Rome he became involved with the party’s newspaper, Il Secolo d’Italia.

Benito Mussolini
Benito Mussolini
He became MSI party secretary in 1988 and confirmed the MSI’s role as inheritors of Benito Mussolini’s Fascist legacy.

In 1993 Fini ran for Mayor of Rome, and although Francesco Rutelli won, it was the first time an MSI candidate had received significant support in a major election.

In the 1990s, Fini began to move MSI away from its neo-fascist ideology to a more conservative political agenda.

In 1995 the MSI merged with the conservative elements of the disbanded Christian Democrats to form the Alleanza Nazionale. Fini became president of the new party, which distanced itself from fascism.

Fini and his party were part of Berlusconi’s right wing coalition, which won the 1994 and 2001 parliamentary elections. Fini became Deputy Prime Minister in 2001 and Foreign Minister in 2004.

He agreed with Berlusconi that they would present their two parties under the same symbol, the People of Freedom, in the 2008 election.

By then, Fini's attitude towards Mussolini's Fascism had shifted so markedly that, having described the former dictator in 1994 as "the greatest Italian statesman of the 20th century", on a visit to Israel in 2003 he told an audience that Mussolini's time in power had been "a shameful chapter in the history of our people."

Fini and Silvio Berlusconi (right) meet the Italian  president Giorgio Napolitano (left) after the 2001 elections
Fini and Silvio Berlusconi (right) meeting the future Italian
president Giorgio Napolitano (left) after the 2001 elections
After he and Berlusconi were victorious he was elected President (Speaker) of the Chamber of Deputies.

In this role he criticised the Government for their extensive use of confidence votes and for the practice of voting on behalf of absentees,

In the 2013 election, his party, now named Future and Freedom for Italy, were awarded no seats, ending Fini’s 30-year parliamentary career. He has since been criticised by right wing politicians for moving away from traditional policies.

Fini married Daniela di Sotto in 1988 and they had a daughter, Giuliana. After the couple separated in 2007, he met Elisabetta Tulliani, a lawyer, with whom he has since had another two daughters.

Travel tip:

Bologna, where Gianfranco Fini was born, is the largest city and the capital of the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy. It is famous for having the oldest University in the world, established in 1088, and a rich cuisine, which has earned the city the nickname of ‘la grassa’. Its most famous dish is tagliatelle al ragù, strips of pasta with a rich meat sauce, which has been adopted the world over as spaghetti alla bolognese.

Bologna's signature dish, tagliatelle al ragù
Bologna's signature dish, tagliatelle al ragù
Travel tip:

Gianfranco Fini graduated from Rome University, often known simply as La Sapienza, which means ‘the wisdom’.  It can trace its origins back to 1303, when it was opened by Pope Boniface VIII as the first pontifical university. In the 19th century the University broadened its outlook and a new campus was built near the Termini railway station in 1935. Rome University now caters for more than 112,000 students.

More reading:

Benito Mussolini and the founding of the Italian Fascists

Mussolini is captured and executed

Silvio Berlusconi - four times Italian premier

Also on this day:

(Picture credits: Gianfranco Fini by Regola21; tagliatelle by Sergiozif; via Wikimedia Commons)


2 January 2017

Pope John II

First Pope to choose a regnal name

The portrait of John II in the Rome Basilica of St Paul Outside the Walls
The portrait of John II in the Rome Basilica of
St Paul Outside the Walls
John II became Pope on this day in 533 in Rome, the first pontiff to take a new name after being elevated to the Papacy. 

John had considered his birth name of Mercurius to be inappropriate as it honoured the pagan god, Mercury.

He chose John as his regnal name - or reign name - in memory of Pope John I, who was venerated as a martyr.

Mercurius was born in Rome and became a priest at the Basilica di San Clemente, a church with ancient origins near the Colosseum.

At that time in history, simony - the buying and selling of church offices - was rife among the clergy.

After the death of Pope John II’s predecessor, there was an unfilled vacancy for more than two months, during which some sacred vessels were sold off.

The matter was brought to the attention of the Roman Senate, which passed its last-known decree, forbidding simony in papal elections.

This decree was confirmed by the Gothic King, Athalaric, who ordered it to be engraved in marble and placed in St Peter’s Basilica.

Byzantine Emperor, Justinian I, portrayed in mosaic in Ravenna's Basilica of San Vitale
Byzantine Emperor, Justinian I, portrayed in
mosaic in Ravenna's Basilica of San Vitale
He added a stipulation that if a disputed election took place in the future, a sum of money was to be paid by the Roman clergy, which would be distributed among the poor.

It is not known for certain how Mercurius obtained the papal chair, but during that period the favour of kings was important for anyone who wanted to become Pope.

Athalaric always remained on good terms with Pope John II and referred all actions brought against the Roman clergy to him for his judgment.

John II was also obviously in favour with the Byzantine Emperor, Justinian I, who is recorded as having sent him some valuable gifts.

During his two-year reign as Pope, John had to deal with the adulterous behaviour of the Bishop of Riez in Provence. He ordered him to be confined to a monastery and, until a replacement could be appointed, he told the clergy in the area to take their instructions from the Bishop of Arles.

Before his death, John received a question from a council of bishops in Carthage about whether bishops who had lapsed into arianism should, on repentance, keep their rank or be admitted only to lay communion.

Before he could answer the question, John died in May 535 and was buried in St Peter’s Basilica. He was succeeded by Pope Agapetus I, who kept his real name and answered the question posed by the bishops to his predecessor.

Popes after John II all kept their real names until Pietro Canepanova was chosen in 983.

He did not want to use the name of St Peter, who was the first Pope, and so he styled himself John XIV.

He was followed by Giovanni di Gallina Alba, who kept his birth name and became John XV. After his death, popes began choosing a regnal name on a regular basis.

The most popular papal name chosen over the centuries has been John. It was last used between 1958 and 1963 by Pope John XXIII, who was born Angelo Roncalli.

The garden and facade of the Basilica of San Clemente
The garden and facade of the Basilica of San Clemente 
Travel tip:

The Basilica of San Clemente in Rome, where Pope John II had previously served as a priest, is in Via Labicana, close to the Colosseum and the Parco del Celio. It is an interesting, three-tiered building. The present basilica was built in the 11th century, but underneath there is a fourth-century basilica, converted from the home of a Roman nobleman, where John II would have served as a priest. The floor below that had been a republican villa, which had briefly served as a mithraeum, a temple for the cult of Mithras, a religion popular with Roman soldiers that rivalled Christianity. The novelist Ngaio Marsh was fascinated with the Basilica and used it as the model for a fictitious church in Rome, which she uses as the crime scene in her Roderick Alleyn mystery, When In Rome.

Travel tip:

Pope John II was buried in the old St Peter’s Basilica in 535. But his tomb was believed to have been destroyed during the demolition of the old church and the building of the new Basilica in the 16th and 17th centuries. Some of the tombs of dead popes were reburied in the new Basilica, while some were moved to other places, but the final resting place for many of them is still uncertain. There is a plaque in St Peter’s listing the popes buried in the Basilica and Pope John II’s name appears in the list, even though the exact location of his tomb is not known.

More reading:

Pope Leo X - the Medici pope

The completion and consecration of St Peter's

Pope John Paul II visits his would-be killer in prison

Also on this day:


(Picture credits: Mosaic by Petar Milošević; Basilica of San Clemente by Dudva; via Wikimedia Commons)



1 January 2017

Claudio Villa - singing star

'King' of Sanremo sold 45 million records

Claudio Villa's tenor voice was considered good enough for operatic arias but he chose a career in pop
Claudio Villa's tenor voice was considered good enough
for operatic arias but he chose a career in pop
The singer Claudio Villa, who sold 45 million records and won the Sanremo Music Festival four times, was born on New Year's Day in 1926 in the Trastevere district of Rome.

The tenor, nicknamed 'the little king' on account of his diminutive stature and fiery temper, lent his voice to popular songs rather than opera although his voice was of sufficient quality to include operatic arias in his repertoire.

His four wins at Sanremo, in 1955, 1957, 1962 and 1967, is the most by any individual performer, a record he shares with Domenico Modugno, the singer-songwriter who was at his peak in the same era.

Villa recorded more than 3,000 songs and enjoyed a successful film career, starring in more than 25 musicals. His biggest hits included Ti Voglio Come Sei, Binario, Non ti Scordar di Me, Buongiorno Tristezza and Granada. 

Listen to Claudio Villa performing on the Italian TV show Canzonissima

He was a frequent guest on the Italian TV variety show Canzonissima, which was broadcast on state channel Rai Uno between 1958 and 1974. Later, he became a master of traditional Italian and Neapolitan songs.

Born Claudio Pica, the son of a taxi driver, he was raised in a working class area, living in the shadow of Rome's main prison in Via Lungara.

Villa starred in many  successful musicals
Villa starred in many
successful musicals
His talent for singing became apparent while he was still a teenager and he won the first song contest in which he participated, at the age of 14, performing the song Chitaratella, made popular by his idol, Carlo Buti.

Villa began to make regular appearances on the local station Radio Roma in 1946 and made his first record the following year on the Parlophone label.  He appeared in his first musical in the same year.

His career spanned 40 years, tailing off only in the 1980s, when he was profoundly affected by the death of his mother. He performed at Sanremo for the final time in 1985.

Villa lived in Rome all his life.  In 1986, he took a prominent role in an anti-fast food movement after the fast food chain McDonald's was allowed to open a branch in Piazza di Spagna.

His death, which was announced during the Sanremo Music Festival of 1987, came as a shock to his many fans.  Suffering from pancreatis and heart trouble, he travelled to Padua to undergo surgery but never left hospital, suffering a heart attack a month after his operation.

Villa married the actress Miranda Bonansea in 1952, with whom he had a son, Mauro, but they divorced after 10 years. After a number of relationships, including a long-standing one with the Roman singer Noemi Garofalo, who bore him a daughter, Manuele and a second son, Claudio, he was married again in 1973, to Patrizia Baldi.

Patrizia was just 18, some 31 years his junior, and the marriage made headlines for that reason.  Yet they remained together and had two children, Andrea and Aurora.

Travel tip:

Although formerly a working class neighbourhood, the Trastevere district, which sits alongside the River Tiber, is regarded as one of Rome's most charming areas for tourists to visit. Full of winding, cobbled streets and well preserved medieval 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.

The Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere
The Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere
Travel tip:

Trastevere is home to one of the oldest churches in Rome in the Basilica of Santa Maria.  The floor plan and wall structure of the church date back to the 340AD, although most of it was built in the first half of the 12th century. Inside, the walls and ceiling are covered with breathtakingly beautiful 13th century mosaics, by Pietro Cavallini.

More reading:

How Domenico Modugno's first Sanremo win gave the world an Italian classic

Gigliola Cinquetti - the first Italian to win Eurovision

Rita Pavone - the 60s star who conquered America

Also on this day:

Capodanno in Italy