4 August 2017

Giovanni Spadolini - politician

The first non-Christian Democrat to lead Italian Republic

Giovanni Spadolini in 1987
Giovanni Spadolini in 1987
Giovanni Spadolini, who was the Italian Republic’s first prime minister not to be drawn from the Christian Democrats and was one of Italy's most respected politicians, died on this day in 1994.

In a country where leading politicians and businessman rarely survive a whole career without becoming embroiled in one corruption scandal or another, he went to the grave with his reputation for honesty intact.

Although he was an expert on Italian unification and became a professor of contemporary history at the University of Florence when he was only 25, a background that gave him a deep knowledge of Italian politics, he first built a career as a journalist.

He became a political columnist for several magazines and newspapers, including Il Borghese, Il Mondo and Il Messaggero, and was appointed editor of the Bologna daily II Resto del Carlino in 1955, at the age of 30.

In 1968, having doubled Il Resto’s circulation, he left Bologna to become the editor at Corriere della Sera, in Milan, where he remained until 1972.  It was while editing the Corriere that he became known for his anti-extremist stance, condemning violent student activists on the left and terrorists on the right in equal measure.

Under his stewardship, the Corriere took a strong anti-Communist stance, provoking attacks on its offices by angry demonstrators. Once, a stone thrown by a demonstrator smashed through Spadolini’s office window. He picked it up and placed it on his desk, where it remained throughout his time as editor, as a reminder of the turmoil brought about by political extremism.

Prime Minister Spadolini with the Italian president, Sandro Pertini
Prime Minister Spadolini (right) with the
Italian president, Sandro Pertini
During his time in Milan, Spadolini was persuaded to enter politics. In 1972, after leaving the Corriere, he was elected senator as an independent with the Republican Party. He was appointed Minister of Cultural Affairs in Aldo Moro’s cabinet in 1974.

He became leader of the Italian Republican Party in 1979, a position he held until 1987, and in 1981 he was chosen to be Italy's first non-Christian-Democrat prime minister by the Socialist President, Sandro Pertini.

In partnership, these two men did much to restore the credibility of Italy's political institutions after years of terrorist violence and the scandal of the secret P2 Masonic lodge, a secret society that included politicians, businessmen, some high-ranking military officers and policemen, that attempted to create a ‘state within a state.’  Spadolini introduced laws suppressing secret organisations.

It was during Spadolini’s time in office that the anti-terrorist unit of the Italian police freed the United States general James Lee Dozier, who had been kidnapped by the Red Brigades.  He also achieved a drop in inflation from 22 per cent to 16 per cent during his 18 months in office.

Spadolini, born into a bourgeois Florentine family, was known as a connoisseur of good food and drink and his wide girth became the target of Italy's political cartoonists.

Yet, in the 1983 national election, the Republican Party capitalised on Spadolini's popularity, realising 5.1 per cent of the vote, the highest they had achieved.

The Spadolini villa outside Florence is now the home of a cultural foundation
The Spadolini villa outside Florence is
now the home of a cultural foundation
He became dismayed at a new class of politician emerging at that time, whom he felt were preoccupied with grabbing the spoils of power rather than healing the ills of the country. As the speaker of the Senate from 1987, Spadolini regularly underlined his concern for Italy's institutions.

From 1987 to April 1994, he was president of the Italian Senate and, for a month in 1992, acting president of Italy, following the resignation of Francesco Cossiga. 

After the electoral success of Silvio Berlusconi's House of Freedoms party, he lost the presidency of the Senate to Carlo Scognamiglio Pasini by a single vote. He died four months later in Rome.

In his villa at Pian dei Giulliari, in the countryside near Florence, Spadolini left a library containing some 70,000 volumes on contemporary history and the 19th century. The villa became home to a cultural foundation dedicated to the study of Italian unity.

Casa Spadolini at 28 Via Cavour in Florence
Casa Spadolini at 28 Via Cavour in Florence
Travel tip:

Spadolini’s home until 1978 was at 28 Via Cavour, one of the principal streets in the northern part of the historic centre of Florence, a four-storey palazzo that had been acquired by his grandfather.  Spadolini kept the house as his main residence even while he was editing in Bologna and Milan and serving the country in Rome. He left for the family villa in Pian dei Giullari after the death of his mother.

Travel tip:

Pian dei Giullari is a picturesque village in the hills some 5km (3 miles) south of Florence.  Many villas line the Via Pian dei Giullari that runs through the village. The Spadolini Foundation is at number 139. On the same street can be found Il Gioiello, where the physicist, mathematician and astronomer Galileo Galilei spent his last years.

3 August 2017

Imperia Cognati - courtesan

Prostitute who became a celebrity

Raphael's Galatea in his frescoes at the Villa Farnesina in Rome is thought to be Imperia
Raphael's Galatea in his frescoes at the Villa
Farnesina in Rome is thought to be Imperia
Imperia Cognati, who acquired celebrity status in Rome in the early 16th century as a courtesan to a number of rich and powerful figures, was born on this day in 1486.

Courtesans were originally the female companions of courtiers of the papal court, whose duties required them to be educated and familiar with etiquette, so that they could participate in the formalities of court life and take part in polite conversation.

In time, however, in some cases their companionship became of a more intimate nature and they became the mistresses of their courtiers, who in the papal court were clerics nor permitted to marry.

It was common, too, for courtesans to be the companions of several clients simultaneously.  They were in effect a new class of prostitute, refined and educated enough to hold their own in polite society.

Imperia Cognati acquired her elevated status mainly through being the chosen companion of Agostino Chigi, a Sienese banker closely associated with Pope Alexander VI and others and a patron of the Renaissance.  At one time he was thought to be the richest banker in the world.

He lavished Imperia – as she was usually known – to the extent that she could afford to keep both a palace in Rome and a country villa.

The statue named Imperia at Konstanz is said to have been  inspired by Balzac's fictional portrayal of a courtesan
The statue named Imperia at Konstanz is said to have been
 inspired by Balzac's fictional portrayal of a courtesan
Chigi remained her main client but she took others, maintaining her status – and income – by being very selective over the men with whom she would consort.  Her exclusive list included Angelo di Bufalo, who was another banker, Angelo Colocci, a papal secretary under Leo X, Tommaso Inghirami, a papal librarian, and the painter Raphael, of whom Chigi was a sponsor.

Imperia posed as a model for Raphael on a number of occasions.  It is thought that the nymph Galatea in the frescoes Raphael painted for the Villa Farnesina in Rome, built by Chigi, is actually Imperia.

Imperia’s background is not entirely clear. Some sources suggest she hailed from Ferrara but the consensus is that she was born in Rome, the daughter of a prostitute, Diana di Pietro Cognati, and raised in Via Alessandrina in the district of Borgo.

It was speculated that her father was Paris de Grassis, who would later serve as master of ceremonies under Pope Julius II, which may explain how she acquired an education, and why she at times referred to herself as Imperia de Paris.

She gave birth to a daughter, named Lucrezia, at the age of 17, of whom the father was assumed to be Chigi.

The artist Raphael was among Imperia's  lovers at the time she posed for him
The artist Raphael was among Imperia's
lovers at the time she posed for him
Imperia died in 1512, at the age of just 26, apparently from poisoning, thought to be self-administered.

Various theories have been put forward as to what might have prompted her to take her own life. One is that she was distraught that Angelo di Bufalo, supposedly her true love, decided to end their relationship, another is that she felt pushed out when Chigi took a new, younger mistress. 

Whatever the reason, she was given a stately funeral in Rome, fit for a noblewoman rather than a prostitute, paid for by Agostino Chigi.  She was buried at the church of San Gregorio Magno al Celio in Rome, although the monument erected in her name has not survived.

Apart from her image being preserved in works by Raphael, Imperia is thought to have been the inspiration for Honoré de Balzac’s 1832 story La Belle Impéria, set in the time of the Council of Konstanz, which ended the Western Schism in the Catholic Church, in which a courtesan is given the name Imperia.

The character in Balzac’s novel has been portrayed by the German painter Lovis Corinth in 1925, and also inspired the larger-than-life Imperia statue in the harbour of Konstanz, the town on the lake in Germany of the same name, erected in 1993.

Travel tip:

Via Alessandrina is a street, nowadays closed to vehicles, that runs alongside the Roman ruins of the Italian capital, from the Forum in the direction of the Colosseum, joining up with Via dei Fori Imperiali.

The Villa Farnesina in the Trastevere district in Rome
The Villa Farnesina in the Trastevere district in Rome
Travel tip:

The Villa Farnesina, built by Baldassare Peruzzi for Agostino Chigi, can be found in the Via della Lungara, in the district of Trastevere in Rome. Owned at different times by the Bourbons of Naples and the Spanish Ambassador in Rome, it is today owned by the Italian State and accommodates the Accademia dei Lincei, a renowned Roman academy of sciences.  The main rooms of the villa, including the Loggia, are open to visitors.

2 August 2017

Pietro Mascagni – composer

One opera was enough to build reputation of musician

Pietro Mascagni in 1890, the year his opera Cavalleria Rusticana, was first played
Pietro Mascagni in 1890, the year his opera
Cavalleria Rusticana, was first played
Pietro Mascagni, the creator of the opera Cavalleria rusticana, died on this day in 1945 in Rome, at the age of 81.

Cavalleria rusticana was an outstanding success when it was first performed in Rome in 1890 and was said to have single-handedly brought the Verismo movement, in which the characters were ordinary people rather than gods, mythological figures or kings and queens, into Italian opera.

The beautiful intermezzo from the opera was used in the sound track of the 1980 film Raging Bull and a production of the opera was used as the setting for the climax of the 1990 film The Godfather Part III, with Michael Corleone’s son Anthony playing Turridu, the opera’s male protagonist. The film ends with the intermezzo playing.

In 2001 Andrea Bocelli recorded a song entitled Mascagni on his Cieli di Toscana album and had an excerpt from Cavalleria rusticana incorporated into the music.

The opera has been so successful that it has led to Mascagni sometimes being dismissed as a one-opera composer, but, in fact, the composer wrote 15 operas, as well as orchestral and piano music and songs.

Two of Mascagni’s other operas, L’amico Fritz and Iris, have remained in the European repertoire and have been regularly performed since their premières.

Mascagni, pictured in 1905
Mascagni was born in Livorno in Tuscany in 1863. He began studying music at the age of 13 and soon produced compositions of his own.

In 1881 he won first prize for a Cantata which was performed at a musical contest in Milan.

The following year, Mascagni passed the admission examination for the Milan Conservatory, where he first met the composer, Giacomo Puccini.

In 1885 Mascagni composed Il Re a Napoli in Cremona, a romance for a tenor and orchestra. Then he left Milan without completing his studies and began touring as an orchestra conductor for opera companies and he also gave piano lessons.

In 1889, a competition was announced for a one-act opera. The following year, Mascagni completed the composition of Cavalleria rusticana and sent the manuscript to Milan.

Cavalleria rusticana won the contest and Mascagni was summoned to Rome to present his opera.  The première was held at the Teatro Costanzi in Rome. It was an outstanding success and was then performed all over Italy. It was also performed in Hungary, Germany, Russia and Argentina and Mascagni became famous internationally.

Listen to Mascagni's most famous piece

Mascagni, who was married in 1889 to Lina Carbognani, with whom he went on to have three children, continued to write music and produce operas and went all over the world conducting orchestras.

Mascagni, centre, at a meeting in 1885 with his fellow  musicians Alberto Franchetti (left) and Giacomo Puccini
Mascagni, centre, at a meeting in 1885 with his fellow
musicians Alberto Franchetti (left) and Giacomo Puccini
By 1915 he was writing music to accompany silent films. In 1930 he conducted La Bohème in Torre del Lago as an homage to Puccini who had died in 1924.

In 1940, celebrations for the 50th anniversary of Cavalleria rusticana took place all over Italy, often with Mascagni conducting the orchestra.

His last opera season was in Rome featuring Cavalleria rusticana and L’amico Fritz, by which time he was so frail he had to conduct sitting on a chair.

Mascagni died on August 2, 1945 in his apartment at The Grand Hotel Plaza in Rome, which had by then been commandeered by the Allies but where he was allowed to remain.

His last years were marred by bitterness at his treatment by the post-Fascist Italian government, who punished him for his support for Mussolini and snubbed his funeral ceremony at Rome’s Cimitero Monumentale on August 4.

However, in 1951 Mascagni’s remains were transferred from Rome to his birthplace, Livorno, and reburied with honours.

The Terrazza Mascagni promenade in Livorno
The Terrazza Mascagni promenade in Livorno
Travel tip:

Livorno, where Mascagni was born, is the second largest city in Tuscany after Florence. Although it is a large commercial port, it has many attractions, including an elegant sea front, the Terrazza Mascagni, and an historic centre with canals.

Inside the sumptuous Grand Hotel Plaza in Rome
Inside the sumptuous Grand Hotel Plaza in Rome
Travel tip:

The Grand Hotel Plaza in Rome, where Mascagni lived in an apartment from 1927 until his death in 1945, is in Via del Corso in the heart of the city. It has beautiful views of Rome from its rooftop terraces. The hotel was remodelled in the 1920s, inspired by the Art Nouveau style in fashion at the time. It has been used as a film location on many occasions.

1 August 2017

Francesca Scanagatta - soldier

Woman pretended to be a man to join Austrian army

Francesca Scanagatta convinced the Austrian authorities she was a man
Francesca Scanagatta convinced the
Austrian authorities she was a man
Francesca Scanagatta, an Italian woman who served in the Imperial Austrian army for seven years while pretending to be a man, was born on this day in 1776 in Milan.

Scanagatta – sometimes known as Franziska – was a small and apparently rather plain girl, who was brought up in Milan while the city was under Austrian rule. She admired the Austrian soldiers to the extent of wishing she could join the army, yet knew that as a girl she would not be allowed to.

Even so, it did not stop her dreaming and throughout her childhood and teenage years she worked on becoming physically stronger through exercise while reading as much literature as she could about the army.

By contrast, her brother Giacomo hated the idea of joining up. He was rather effeminate in nature and the very thought of becoming a soldier filled him with dread.  Yet his father wanted him to serve and arranged for him to attend a military school in Vienna.

Giacomo confided his fears in Francesca and she suddenly realised she had an opportunity to fulfil her dreams by signing up in his place.

So, in June 1794, dressed as a man, the 17-year-old travelled with Giacomo to Austria and joined the Theresianische Militärakademie – the Theresian Military Academy – in his place as an external student.

When he learned what had happened, Francesca's father made plans to go to Vienna to bring her home, but she was so passionate about fulfilling her ambition that eventually he backed down and allowed her to stay at the academy.

A battlefield scene from around the time Scanagatta  was recruited by the Austrian army fighting France
A battlefield scene from around the time Scanagatta
was recruited by the Austrian army fighting France
Maintaining the pretence of being a man, she gained excellent grades and graduated as an ensign in January 1797.

She narrowly missed being drawn into a combat role later the same year, leading a reinforcement troop from Hungary to join her battalion on the Rhine preparing to repel the advancing armies of Napoleon in the later stages of the French Revolutionary Wars.  Napoleon’s earlier victories worried the Austrian commanders, however, and a peace treaty was agreed before Francesca’s men saw any action.

In February 1799, as hostilities broke out again, she marched with her company to join the so-called War of the Second Coalition against the French, only to be denied the chance to fight again, this time after suffering a severe attack of rheumatism, which confined her to two months of recuperation before she could rejoin the battalion.

In the meantime, she was transferred to a regiment based at Pancsova in an area now part of northern Serbia, with whom she marched to Italy to reinforce the Austrian lines.  She showed herself to be tough and resilient in testing conditions.

Rumours that she was not who she said she was were sometimes openly discussed among her colleagues but when another soldier teased her for being small, scarcely disguising what he was thinking, she challenged him to a duel and won, although she contented herself with merely wounding her opponent.

A scene from the Battle of Marengo, a significant victory for the French in the War of the Second Coalition
A scene from the Battle of Marengo, a significant victory
for the French in the War of the Second Coalition
Fully recovered from her illness, in December 1799 she led an attack on the French trenches at Barbagelata, a strategic village above the Val d’Aveto in Liguria, in the province of Genoa.

This was the last straw as far as her worried family were concerned.  When she returned home to visit during the early weeks of 1800, they tried desperately to persuade her to leave the army.

Instead, promoted to lieutenant in March of that year, Francesca returned to the Siege of Genoa, at which her father took the decision, despite knowing the fury his actions would provoke, of informing the Austrian authorities that the ‘man’ they had just made a lieutenant was, in fact, his daughter.

She was obliged to resign on the very day Genoa fell, on June 4, 1800. Nonetheless, her commander, Friedrich Heinrich von Gottesheim, held a party in her honour, out of respect for her bravery and outstanding conduct.

Back in Milan, she maintained close contact with the army and began a courtship with Lieutenant Spini, of the Italian Presidential (later Royal) Guard, whom she married in January, 1804.

They had four children, two boys and two girls. When the boys were old enough, they were allowed to wear the medals their mother was not permitted to wear.

She died in 1865 aged 89. Her portrait hangs in the Theresian Academy in Wiener Neustadt, 60km (37 miles) south of Vienna.

Travel tip:

The hamlet of Barbagelata, 1,115 metres above sea level some 48km (30 miles) north-east of Genoa, is officially listed as having 35 buildings and a population of just 17 people, with only seven over the age of 15.

Three Mozart operas were staged for the first time at Milan's Teatro Regio Ducale
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Travel tip:

Milan was in the possession of Austria from 1707 to 1797, the period of the Hapsburgs, and again after the end of Napoleon’s rule from 1815 to 1859, when the Austrians were defeated at the Battle of Solferino and Milan became part of the Kingdom of Sardinia.   During the first period of Austrian rule, Milan became a centre of lyric opera. In the 1770s, Mozart unveiled three operas at the Teatro Regio Ducale - Ascanio in AlbaMitridate, re di Ponto, and Lucio Silla. Later, after Teatro Regio Ducale burned down, Teatro alla Scala became the foremost opera theatre in the world, with its premières of Bellini, Donizetti, Rossini and Verdi.