7 June 2017

Gaetano Berenstadt – operatic castrato

Italian-born performer who specialised in roles created by Handel

Gaetano Berenstadt (right) in a caricatured impression of his performance in Handel's Flavio
Gaetano Berenstadt (right) in a caricatured impression
of his performance in Handel's Flavio
Gaetano Berenstadt, an alto castrato who sang many roles in George Frideric Handel’s operas, was born on this day in 1687 in Florence.

His parents were German and his father played the timpani - kettle drums - for the Grand Duke of Tuscany.

Berenstadt was sent to be a pupil of Francesco Pistocchi, a singer, composer and librettist who founded a singing school in Bologna.

After performing in Bologna and Naples, Berenstadt visited London where he performed the role of Argante in a revival of Handel’s Rinaldo. The composer created three new arias especially for Berenstadt’s voice.

George Frederick Handel created many  roles for Gaetano Berenstadt
George Frideric Handel created many
roles for Gaetano Berenstadt
On a later visit to London, Berenstadt sang for the composers of the Royal Academy of Music. On this visit he created the roles of Tolomeo in Handel’s Giulio Cesare, the title role in Flavio, and the role of Adalberto in Ottone.

Back in Italy, he sang music by Italian composers and in two new compositions by Johann Adolph Hasse. He usually took on the role of a villainous tyrant and, despite the quality of his voice, he never portrayed a female character.

His final appearances on stage were in his native Florence. In retirement he published some music of his own until his death in Florence in 1734.

Letters that he wrote, which describe his love of books and art, are still in existence and he built up an extensive library of old books and pamphlets.

Travel tip:

The Grand Dukes of Tuscany lived in Palazzo Pitti in Florence from the 16th century to the 18th century when the last Medici Duke died without a male heir. The Pitti Palace is on the south side of the River Arno, a short distance away from Ponte Vecchio. It is now the largest museum complex in Florence with eight museums and galleries.

The entrance to Teatro alla Pergola
The entrance to Teatro alla Pergola
Travel Tip:

Berenstadt would have probably sung at Teatro della Pergola in Florence in the centre of Florence on Via della Pergola. The theatre was built in 1656 to designs by architect Ferdinando Tacca, the son of the sculptor, Pietro Tacca. The interior was finished in time to celebrate the wedding of the future Grand Duke Cosimo III de Medici with a special production for the court.  It was opened to the public after 1718 and the theatre presented operas by Mozart for the first time in Italy.

6 June 2017

Maria Theresa - the last Holy Roman Empress

Italian noblewoman was first Empress of Austria

Maria Theresa of Naples and Sicily
Maria Theresa of Naples and Sicily
Maria Theresa of Naples and Sicily, the last Holy Roman Empress and the first Empress of Austria, was born at the Royal Palace of Portici in Naples on this day in 1772.

She was the eldest daughter of Ferdinand IV & III of Naples and Sicily (later Ferdinand I of the Two Sicilies) and his wife, Marie Caroline of Austria, through whom she was a niece of the last Queen of France, Marie Antoinette.

Named after her maternal grandmother, Maria Theresa of Austria, she was the eldest of 17 children. Her father was a son of Charles III of Spain and through her father she was a niece of Maria Luisa of Spain and Charles IV of Spain.

Although she had a reputation for pursuing a somewhat frivolous lifestyle, which revolved around balls, carnivals, parties and masquerades, she did have some political influence, advising her husband about the make-up of his government and encouraging him to go to war with Napoleon, whom she detested.

She assumed her titles after she married her double first cousin Archduke Francis of Austria on September 15, 1790.

Francis became Holy Roman Emperor at age 24 in 1792 after the two-year reign of his father Leopold. Francis feared that Napoleon could take over his personal lands within the Holy Roman Empire, so in 1804 he proclaimed himself Emperor Franz I of Austria.

Maria Theresa's husband, Francis, after he became Emperor Franz I of Austria
Maria Theresa's husband, Francis, after
he became Emperor Franz I of Austria
Two years later, after Napoleon’s victory at the Battle of Austerlitz, the Holy Roman Empire was dissolved. Therefore, Maria Theresa was the last Holy Roman Empress and the first Empress of Austria.

She and Francis were quite different personalities, Francis a serious statesman compared with Maria Theresa, who was regarded as a sensuous beauty with an easy-going manner.

The marriage lasted 17 years until Maria Theresa’s death and it said that the union was happy one, yet some accounts suggest this was not quite the case.

In a diary entry during a visit to Vienna, Hedwig Elizabeth Charlotte of Holstein-Gottorp described Maria Theresa as a jealous woman:

“The Empress is reputed to be so jealous that she does not allow him to take part in social life or meet other women. Vicious tongues accuse her of being so passionate that she exhausts her consort and never leaves him alone even for a moment. Although the people of Vienna cannot deny that she is gifted, charitable and carries herself beautifully, she is disliked for her intolerance and for forcing the Emperor to live isolated from everyone.”

Maria-Theresa was also accused of indifference towards the fate of her parents when French revolutionaries swept into Naples in 1799, forcing her father to flee to Sicily aboard the British admiral Horatio Nelson’s ship, HMS Vanguard.

Maria Theresa's father, Ferdinand I
Yet in her life of self-indulgence in Vienna, she was an important patron of Viennese music.

She commissioned many compositions for official and private use. Joseph Haydn wrote his Te Deum for chorus and orchestra at her request and composed numerous masses to celebrate her reign. She also helped further the careers of Paul Wranitzky and Joseph Leopold Eybler, a composer of sacred music.

Maria Theresa died after giving birth to her 12th child. Towards the end of the pregnancy, she fell ill with pleurisy. Her doctor induced premature labour. The child was delivered but died after only one day. Maria Theresa did not recover and passed away aged just 34.

She was buried in the Imperial Crypt in the Franzensgruft, where she rests today alongside her husband and his three other wives.

The Royal Palace at Portici, where Maria Theresa was born
The Royal Palace at Portici, where Maria Theresa was born
Travel tip:

Maria Theresa was said to have been born at the Royal Palace at Portici, one of four palaces used by the Bourbon royal family during their rule of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, the others being at Capodimonte, Caserta and in the centre of Naples, overlooking Piazza del Plebiscito.  The Portici palace, near the remains of the Roman city of Herculaneum, was built in 1738 as a private residence and a palace to receive foreign officials. Today it is the home of Botanic Gardens operated by the University of Naples Federico II and Accademia Ercolanese, a museum of objects found on the Herculaneum archaeological site.

The Roman city of Herculaneum is very well preserved
The Roman city of Herculaneum is very well preserved
Travel tip:

Herculaneum – locally Ercolano – like Pompeii was an ancient Roman town destroyed by 79 AD eruption of Vesuvius. It is one of the best preserved ancient cities. Unlike Pompeii, the deep pyroclastic material which covered Herculaneum preserved wooden and other organic-based objects such as roofs, beds, doors and food. It had been thought that the town was evacuated before the eruption but in recent years some 300 skeletons have been discovered nearby.

5 June 2017

Ludovico III Gonzaga – Marquis of Mantua

Condottiero fought to improve the town of his birth

Ludovico Gonzaga in a detail from a  painting by Andrea Mantegna
Ludovico Gonzaga in a detail from a
painting by Andrea Mantegna
Ludovico Gonzaga, who ruled his native city for 34 years, was born on this day in 1412 in Mantua.

He grew up to fight as a condottiero - a military leader for hire - and in 1433 he married Barbara of Brandenburg, the niece of the Holy Roman Emperor, Sigismund.

After Ludovico entered the service of the Visconti family in Milan, he and his wife were exiled from Mantua by his father, Gianfrancesco I.

But father and son were later reconciled and Ludovico became Marquis of Mantua in 1444, inheriting territory that had been reduced in size and was impoverished after years of war.

He continued to serve as a condottiero, switching his allegiance between Milan, Florence, Venice and Naples, to gain territory and secure peace for Mantua.

The high point of his reign came when Pope Pius II held a Council in Mantua between 1459 and 1460 to plan a crusade against the Ottoman Turks. Although the Pope was unimpressed with Mantua and criticised the food and wine afterwards, the event earned prestige for Ludovico, whose son, Francesco, was made a Cardinal.

The Torre dell'Orologio Gonzaga built for Mantua
The Torre dell'Orologio Gonzaga built for Mantua
During Ludovico’s reign, he paved the streets of Mantua, built a clock tower and reorganised the city centre. He also appointed Andrea Mantegna to be court artist to the Gonzaga family.

Ludovico died in 1478 in Goito, to the north of Mantua, during an outbreak of plague and was subsequently buried in Mantua Cathedral.

Having fathered 14 legitimate children, Ludovico was succeeded by his eldest surviving son, who became Federico I of Mantua.

Travel tip:

Mantua is an atmospheric old city in Lombardy, to the south east of Milan, famous for its Renaissance Palazzo Ducale, the seat of the Gonzaga family between 1328 and 1707. The Camera degli Sposi is decorated with frescoes by Andrea Mantegna, depicting the life of Ludovico Gonzaga and his family. The beautiful backgrounds of imaginary cities and ruins reflect Mantegna’s love of classical architecture.

The Cathedral of St Peter in Mantua
The Cathedral of St Peter in Mantua
Travel tip:

Ludovico III was buried in the Cathedral of Saint Peter in Mantua, where his ancestor, Ludovico I, the founder of the Gonzaga family, is also buried. There was a church on the site from early Christian times, followed by a later building that was destroyed by fire. The current church was built between 1395 and 1401. It was given a baroque façade made from Carrara marble during the 18th century.

4 June 2017

Deborah Compagnoni - Olympic skiing champion

Alpine ace won gold medals in 1992, 1994 and 1998

Deboragh Compagnoni on the podium after winning gold at Lillehammer in 1994
Deborah Compagnoni on the podium after
winning gold at Lillehammer in 1994
The three-times Olympic skiing champion Deborah Compagnoni was born on this day in 1970 in Bormio, northern Lombardy.

Regarded as the greatest Italian female skier of all-time, she won gold medals at the 1992, 1994 and 1998 Winter Olympics.

Despite suffering two serious cruciate ligament injuries, she also won multiple events at the Alpine Skiing World Cup between 1992 and 1998.

Born in Bormio but raised in Santa Caterina di Valfurva, in Valtellina, Compagnoni’s talent became obvious at a young age but she began suffering injuries also at an early age.

At just 16 years old she won the bronze medal in the downhill at the World junior championships in 1987, and the following year won the junior title in giant slalom and achieved her first podium in the World Cup.

However, shortly afterwards she broke her right knee at Val d'Isére downhill, the first of a number of major injuries, but for which she could have attained even greater success.

Compagnoni in downhill action
Compagnoni in downhill action
Compagnoni won her first race in the World Cup in 1992, in the super-G. She also won the gold medal at the Winter Olympics of the same year, again in the super-G, at Albertville in France. A day later, while racing the giant slalom, she shattered her left knee.

Nonetheless, she still achieved 16 race victories in World Cup events in addition to the giant slalom at the 1994 Lillehammer Olympics, a feat she repeated four years later in Nagano. In 1998 she won also a silver medal in the slalom, finishing second by only 0.06 seconds.

Her record is so impressive that she is considered the equal of Italy’s most decorated male skiers, such as Gustav Thöni and Alberto Tomba. The World Cup skiing track in her native Santa Caterina Valfurva has been named after her.

She is married to Alessandro Benetton, the son of Benetton co-founder Luciano Benetton.

Benetton is a winter sports coach and former chairman of the Benetton Group and of Benetton Formula One as well as one of the pioneers of private equity in Italy.

He and Compagnoni have three children - Agnese, Tobias and Luce. They live in Ponzano Veneto, about six kilometres ( 3.7 miles) north-west of Treviso and about 30km (19 miles) north of Venice.

The Villa Minelli in Ponzano Veneto
The Villa Minelli in Ponzano Veneto
Travel tip:

Ponzano Veneto is a community of some 12,500 residents that essentially brings together three villages. The area is known for its elegant villas, including the Villa Minelli, which has been the main headquarters of the Benetton Group since the 1980s, having been in the family since 1969. There are a number of churches containing works of art by Sebastiano Santi and Antonio Zanchi, while the Villa Corner has frescoes by Giovan Battista Tiepolo.

The mountain backdrop to Santa Caterina
The mountain backdrop to Santa Caterina
Travel tip:

Santa Caterina, where Compagnoni was brought up, is a ski resort in Valtellina, about 13km (8 milles) from Bornio in the northern part of Lombardy, less than 30km from the border with Switzerland. It is also the home town of Achille Compagnoni, a cousin of Deborah Compagnoni, the mountaineer who was the first to conquer K2, the mountain on the Pakistan-China border that is the second highest in the world.


3 June 2017

The Blessed Vincent Romano

Priest who devoted himself to helping the poor

The Blessed Vincent Romano came from a poor family
The Blessed Vincent Romano came
from a poor family
The Blessed Vincent Romano, a priest from Torre del Greco on the Bay of Naples who became known for his tireless devotion to helping the poor, was born on this day in 1751.

Admired for his simple way of life and his efforts in particular to look after the wellbeing of orphaned children, he was nicknamed “the worker priest” by the local community. His commitment to helping poor people extended across the whole Neapolitan region.

He would demonstrate his willingness to roll up his sleeves in a different way in 1794 after his church – now the Basilica of Santa Croce – was all but destroyed by the eruption of Vesuvius.

Not only did Romano devote many hours to organising the rebuilding he actually cleared a good deal of rubble with his own hands.

He was born Vincenzo Domenico Romano to poor parents in Naples. He developed a strong faith as a child and began to study for the priesthood in Naples at the age of 14.

He was ordained as a priest in 1775 and assigned to Torre del Greco, where he led a simple and austere life.

Camillo de Vito's painting shows Torre del Greco  engulfed by fire after the 1794 eruption
Camillo de Vito's painting shows Torre del Greco
engulfed by fire after the 1794 eruption
The eruption of Vesuvius in June 1794 destroyed most of Torre del Greco as a lava flow swept down to the sea, bringing down and the church and part of the bell tower.

Romano, then assistant pastor and treasurer of the church, promoted its reconstruction. The rebuilding began in 1795 and continued over many years, ending with the consecration of the new structure in 1827.

Miraculous events seemed to accompany the reconstruction, including the arrival of a ship from Libya loaded with timber, which was offered as a gift for the construction of roof trusses. No one could explain this act of generosity nor knew who had commissioned it.

The new church was designed by Ignazio di Nardo, who was also responsible for the urban plan for the reconstructed city.

After the death of the incumbent parish priest in 1799, Romano became the provost of the parish, part of his mission being to promote the better education of children. He welcomed all people into his church.

Pope Paul VI, who beatified Romano in 1963
Pope Paul VI, who beatified Romano in 1963
Romano died in December 1831 after a long period of ill health. His remains are housed in the Basilica.

The beatification process began under Pope Gregory XVI in 1843 when Romano given the title of Servant of God. In 1895 he was declared to be Venerable after Pope Leo XIII recognized that Romano had lived a life of heroic virtue.

He was beatified by Pope Paul VI in November 1963 after the necessary two miracles received papal approval.

The first was the healing of Maria Carmela Restucci in December 1891 from an aggressive breast tumour after she had invoked the patronage of Romano, her recovery confirmed by her doctor as something unexplained by science and medicine.

The second was the healing of Maria Carmela Cozzolino in 1940 from an ailment diagnosed by her doctor as throat cancer but which miraculously disappeared when she appeared to be nearing death after she invoked the intercession of Romano. Again, the cure could not be explained.

Travel tip:

Torre del Greco was once part of Magna Graecia – Great Greece – in the eighth and seventh centuries BC but its name is thought to originated in the 11th century AD when a Greek hermit was said to have occupied an eight-sided costal watch tower called Turris Octava. From the 16th century it became popular with wealthy families and even Italian nobility, who built elaborate summer palaces there. In the 19th century and early 20th century Torre del Greco enjoyed its peak years as a resort to which wealthy Italians flocked, both to enjoy the sea air and as a point from which to scale Vesuvius via a funicular railway. A thriving café scene developed, and the art nouveau Gran Caffè Palumbo became famous across the country.  Since the 17th century it has been a major producer of coral jewellery.

The rebuilt Basilica of Santa Croce in Torre del Greco
Travel tip:

Built originally at the beginning of the 16th century, the Basilica of Santa Croce is the religious heart of Torre del Greco and houses the remains of the Blessed Vincent Romano. It was rebuilt after the Vesuvius eruption in 1794 and now overlooks Piazza Santa Croce in the historic centre of the town. Other buildings of note include the 18th century Palazzo Vallelonga and the Camaldoli alla Torre monastery.

2 June 2017

The death of Giuseppe Garibaldi

Unification hero spent last days on his island off Sardinia

The revolutionary general Giuseppe Garibaldi
The revolutionary general Giuseppe Garibaldi
The Italian revolutionary and patriot Giuseppe Garibaldi died on this day in 1882 on the Sardinian island of Caprera.

The 74-year-old former military general and left-wing politician, whose Expedition of the Thousand was a major factor in completing the unification of Italy, had spent much of the last 27 years of his life on the island.

Increasingly confined to bed because of crippling arthritis, he was living on his farm with his third wife, Francesca Armosino, when he passed away.

Knowing he was fading, in the days before his death Garibaldi had asked for his bed to be moved close to a window, from which he could gaze at the emerald and sapphire sea.

He has asked for a simple funeral and cremation, and had even nominated the place on the island where he wished his body to be burned, in an open coffin, with his face to the sun.

He had hoped his ashes would be handed over to ordinary Italians, to be mixed with the earth in a place where a garden might grow as a symbol of the new Italy.

Garibaldi with his third wife, Francesca
Garibaldi with his third wife, Francesca
But his wishes were ignored. His body at first remained in his four-poster bed, guarded by a soldier and a sailor, while a succession of people filed past to pay their respects.

Garibaldi’s body was then placed in a tomb in the gardens of his farmhouse, although his great-granddaughter Anita Garibaldi, named after Giuseppe’s Brazilian first wife, believes his body may have later been removed by supporters eager to honour his wishes and have it cremated.

His association with the island of Caprera goes back to what is thought to have been his first visit in 1849. In 1855 he bought half the island using his legacy from his brother, Angelo.

After the Expedition of the Thousand concluded with his handing over of Sicily and Naples to Victor Emmanuel II in November, 1860, he retired there, although his military campaigning was not over and he made two further attempts to capture Rome for the new Italy.

A depiction of Garibaldi's body after his death
A depiction of Garibaldi's body after his death
On both occasions, however, in 1862 and 1867, the French support for the Papal army proved too much.  On the second occasion he was arrested and held prisoner and his release was effectively conditional on him going into exile on Caprera.

Garibaldi remains an Italian hero and statues of him stand in many Italian squares and around the world. There is a bust of him directly outside the old Supreme Court Chamber in the US Capitol Building in Washington, DC.

He is even commemorated in Nottingham, England, in the colours worn by the football club Nottingham Forest, whose red shirts were based on the uniform worn by Garibaldi’s followers. Indeed, one of the club’s nicknames is the Garibaldi Reds.

Garibaldi's house is now a museum dedicated to his memory
Garibaldi's house is now a museum dedicated to his memory
Travel tip:

The island of Caprera, off the northern tip of the much larger island of Sardinia, was populated in the early days of the Western Roman Empire, as was evidenced by the discovery of the remains of Roman cargo ships there. It was unoccupied for centuries thereafter and the pinewoods that cover the island today began with trees planted by Garibaldi. Today it is a natural reserve for the royal seagull, the cormorant and the peregrine falcon. Garibaldi’s house nowadays is open to the public as a museum.

The harbour at La Maddalena
The harbour at La Maddalena
Travel tip:

The island of La Maddalena, which is connected to Caprera by a causeway, is renowned for its beaches and attracts many wealthy tourists to anchor their yachts in the harbour.  Like Caprera it was deserted for many centuries after the fall of the Western Roman Empire but began to develop in the late 18th century when a town of the same name was established under the occupation of the Savoy-Piedmontese kingdom.  The road linking the town’s port area with the central Piazza Umberto is named Via Garibaldi.

1 June 2017

Francesco Scipione – playwright

Erudite marquis revitalised Italian drama

An 18th century portrait of Scipione by  an unknown artist
An 18th century portrait of Scipione by
an unknown artist
Dramatist Francesco Scipione, marchese di Maffei, was born on this day in 1675 in Verona.

His most famous work was his verse tragedy, Merope, which attempted to introduce Greek and French classical simplicity into Italian drama. This prepared the way for the dramatic tragedies of Vittorio Alfieri and the librettos of Pietro Metastasio later in the 18th century.

After studying at Jesuit colleges in Parma and Rome, Scipione went to fight on the side of Bavaria in the War of the Spanish Succession. He saw action in 1704 at the Battle of Schellenberg, near Donauworth, when his brother, Alessandro, was second in command at the battle.

In 1710, Scipione was one of the founders of an influential literary journal, Giornale dei letterati, a vehicle for his ideas about reforming Italian drama. He founded a later periodical, Osservazioni letterarie, to promote the same cause.

Scipione spent time studying the manuscripts in the Royal Library at Turin and arranged the collection of objects of art which Charles Emmanuel, Duke of Savoy had brought from Rome. He also travelled extensively in France, England, the Netherlands and Germany and received an honorary doctorate from Oxford University.

The Scipione statue in Piazza dei
Signori in Verona
When Scipione’s verse tragedy, Merope, was first performed in 1713, it met with astonishing success. It was based on Greek mythology and the French neoclassical period, signalling the way for the later reform of Italian tragedy. It was popular with the audience because of its rapid action and the elimination of the prologue and the chorus.

In addition to Merope, Scipione wrote other plays, scholarly works and poetry, and he also translated the epic poems, the Iliad and Aeneid.

Another of his major works is a valuable account of the history and antiquities of his native city - Verona illustrata: A Compleat History of the Ancient Amphitheatres and in particular that of Verona.

Scipione built a museum in Verona to house his art and archaeological collection, which he bequeathed to his native city. He died there at the age of 79 in 1755.  A statue to him was later erected in Piazza dei Signori in Verona.

Travel tip:

The secondary school, Liceo Maffei, is named in Scipione’s honour in the town of his birth, Verona. The city in the Veneto is famous as the setting for Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet as well as for its Roman amphitheatre, L’Arena di Verona in Piazza Bra, where opera and music concerts are now regularly performed.

The Biblioteca Reale is housed inside the Royal Palace in Turin's Piazzetta Reale
The Biblioteca Reale is housed inside the Royal Palace
in Turin's Piazzetta Reale
Travel tip:

The Royal Library, Biblioteca Reale, in Turin, where Scipione studied the manuscripts, is on the ground floor of the Royal Palace in Piazzetta Reale. It was originally established to hold the rare manuscripts collected by members of the House of Savoy.