7 January 2018

Pope Innocent X

Political pontiff dominated by sister-in-law

The portrait of Innocent X by the Spanish artist Diego Valesquez, notably for a terse facial expression
The portrait of Innocent X by the Spanish artist Diego
Velázquez, notable for a terse facial expression
A politically charged and controversial period in papal history ended on this day in 1655 with the death in Rome of Pope Innocent X.

Described by some historians as a scheming and bitter pontiff, Innocent X’s tenure was notable for his malicious attack on a rival family, his destruction of the ancient city of Castro, a squabble with France that almost ended in war, his interference in the English Civil War and his refusal to recognise the independence of Portugal.

It was also overshadowed by rumours of an immoral relationship with his sister-in-law, Olimpia Maidalchini, the widow of his late brother. Historians generally agree that these were unfounded, yet Innocent X was dominated by her to the extent that she became the most powerful figure in his court, her influence so strong that ambassadors, cardinals and bishops knew that the pope would defer to her before making any decision and consequently would address any issues directly to her.

Born in Rome in 1574 and baptised as Giovanni Battista Pamphili, he came from a wealthy and well-established family who originally came from Gubbio in Umbria.

His parents, Camillo Pamphili and Flaminia de Bubalis, groomed him from an early age with the ambition that he would one day become pope.

Innocent X's predecessor, Urban VIII, as  depicted by Caravaggio in 1598
Innocent X's predecessor, Urban VIII, as
depicted by Caravaggio in 1598
He studied jurisprudence at the Collegio Romano and succeeded his uncle, Girolamo Pamphili, as auditor (judge) of the Roman Rota, the most important court in the ecclesiastical legal system.

Under Pope Gregory XV, he became nuncio (ambassador) to the court of the Kingdom of Naples, and was sent by Urban VIII to accompany his nephew, Francesco Barberini, whom he had accredited as nuncio, first to France and then Spain.

In May 1626, he was made apostolic nuncio to the court of Philip IV of Spain, an appointment that led to a lifelong association with the Spaniards. He was made a cardinal in 1627 at the age of 53.

He was elected pope in 1644 after a long and stormy conclave to find a successor to Urban VIII, undermined by the difficult relations between the Spanish and the French.  Pamphili was put forward as a compromise candidate, despite his sympathies towards Spain.  Cardinal Jules Mazarin, the de facto ruler of France, travelled to Rome to veto the appointment but arrived too late.

Soon after his accession, having given himself the name of  Innocent X, he began a legal action against the Barberini family, long-time rivals of the Pamphili, for alleged misappropriation of public funds.

It led the brothers, Francesco, Antonio and Taddeo Barberini, to flee to Paris, where they found a powerful protector in Cardinal Mazarin.  Innocent X confiscated their property and issued a bull (decree) that all cardinals who might leave the Papal States for six months without express papal permission would be deprived of their benefices and eventually cease to be cardinals.

A painting by an unknown artist believed to show Olimpia Maidalchini
A painting by an unknown artist believed
to show Olimpia Maidalchini
France refused to recognise the papal ordinance but it was only when Mazarin prepared to send troops to Italy that Innocent X yielded. Papal policy towards France became softer and in time the Barberini brothers were rehabilitated.

Innocent X’s destruction of the ancient city of Castro in Lazio seems to have been an act of revenge against Odoardo Farnese, Duke of Parma, over a defeat suffered by Urban VIII and the humiliation that seemed to hasten his demise.

His intervention in the English Civil War was to send the archbishop of Fermo, Giovanni Battista Rinuccini, to Ireland as nuncio extraordinary, along with a large quantity of arms, gunpowder and money, to support the foundation of an independent Catholic-ruled Ireland, only for Oliver Cromwell to hold sway and restore Ireland to his side.

Innocent X's decision to side with Spain over Portugal’s bid for independence was consistent with his general policy of supporting Spanish ambitions and, as an extension of that position, opposing France.

Although his papacy was dominated by political matters, he did not entirely neglect ecclesiastical issues. The most important in his time concerned the condemnation of Jansenism, an interpretation of the teachings of St. Augustine about grace and free will that he decreed was heretical.

He was cautious financially, although he did commission the completion of the interior of St. Peter’s as well as the transformation of Piazza Navona into the artistic masterpiece we see today, and the restoration of Palazzo Pamphili, the home of Pope Urban VIII, which looks out on the piazza.

Innocent X was pope for 11 years until his death in Rome at the age of 80. Religious historians are divided on his legacy, some believing he weakened the papacy, others that he increased its power. He was succeeded by Alexander VII, from the Chigi family.

Bernini's Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi
Bernini's Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi
Travel tip:

Built on the site of the Roman Stadium of Domitian, Piazza Navona became a public open space in the 15th century, when Rome’s main market moved there from Campidoglio. It already contained the Fontana del Moro (Moors Foutain) and the Fontana del Nettuno (Fountain of Neptune), sculpted by Giacomo della Porta between 1574 and 1575, but Innocent X commissioned Gian Lorenzo Bernini to create its magnificent centrepiece, the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (Fountain of the Four Rivers) in 1651, which is topped by the Obelisk of Domitian, moved from the Circus of Maxentius.

A typical staircase in medieval Gubbio
A typical staircase in medieval Gubbio
Travel tip:

Gubbio, the town in Umbria from which Innocent X’s family originated, is one of the best-preserved medieval towns in Italy, partly because, perched on the side of Monte Ingino, it is not accessible easily enough to attract hordes of visitors.  Full of narrow streets, alleyways and staircases, most of them dramatically steep, it has been dubbed La Città del Silenzio – the City of Silence – for its sometimes eerie serenity and calm. 


6 January 2018

Adriano Celentano – singer and actor

Italy’s biggest-selling recording artist of all time

Adriano Celentano on stage in 2012
Adriano Celentano on stage in 2012
The pop singer and movie actor Adriano Celentano, who is estimated to have sold in the region of 200 million records in a career spanning 60 years, was born on this day in 1938 in Milan.

One of the most important and influential figures in Italian pop culture, Celentano enjoys such enduring popularity that when he gave his first live performance for 18 years at the Arena di Verona in 2012, screened on the Canale 5 television channel, it attracted an audience of more than nine million viewers.

He has recorded more than 40 albums, the latest of which, Tutti le migliori (All The Best) reviving his collaboration with another veteran Italian star, Mina, was released only last year and included new material.

Celentano’s biggest individual hits include Stai lontana di me (Stay away from me, 1962), Si è spento il sole (The sun has gone out, 1962), Pregherò (I will pray, 1962), Il ragazzo della via Gluck (The boy from Gluck Street, 1966), La coppia più bello del mondo (The most beautiful couple in the world, 1967), Azzurro (Blue, 1968), Sotto le lenzuola (Under the sheets, 1971), Ti avrò (I will have you, 1978) and Susanna (1984).

He also had an unexpected worldwide hit in 1972 with Prisencolinensinainciusol – a made-up word that Celentano sung in such a way as to demonstrate what American English – the language of most pop songs – sounds like to a non-English speaking Italian.

Celentano, centre, with his 1950s band The Rock Boys
Celentano, centre, with his 1950s band The Rock Boys
Celentano also appeared in more than 30 films and countless TV shows, mainly comedies, in which he developed a character with comic facial expressions and a distinctive way of walking. It was no surprise that he was a great fan of the zany American comic actor Jerry Lewis.

One of his earliest parts was in Federico Fellini’s classic La Dolce Vita, in which he played a rock musician, while his most acclaimed role was in Pietro Germi’s Serafino, in which he played a simple shepherd who inherits a fortune from a wealthy art and squanders it all before returning to his old life in the mountains.

Born in Milan in Via Cristoforo Gluck, in a modest neighbourhood near Milano Centrale station, Celentano grew up obsessed with the American rock and roll scene.  His early music was pure rock and roll, heavily influenced by Elvis Presley, Little Richard and Bill Haley, whose iconic track Rock Around the Clock was part of the soundtrack of Blackboard Jungle, the film that captured the imagination of Celentano and his fellow teenagers when it was released in 1955.

He and a group of friends formed a group The Rock Boys, who recorded covers of Rip It Up, Jailhouse Rock, Blueberry Hill and Tutti Frutti.  They are credited now with having introduced Italy to the rock and roll genre.

Celentano with his wife, actress Claudia Mori, on the  set of a TV show in 1972
Celentano with his wife, actress Claudia Mori, on the
set of a TV show in 1972
As his career developed, he won the Sanremo Music Festival in 1970 with Chi non lavora non fa l’amore (Who does not work does not make love), in which he partnered his wife, Claudia Mori.

He had met Claudia, a beautiful actress and singer from Rome, on the set of a film in 1963 and they married secretly in Grosseto the following year.  

Mori, who appeared with her husband in several films as well as accompanying him in several duets, is the manager of his record company, Clan Celentano. They have three children – Rosita, Giacomo and Rosalinda, all born in the 1960s.

In the 1970s, Celentano was so popular and the demand for tickets for his concerts so great he began to stage events at football stadiums, playing to 65,000 at the San Paolo stadium in Naples and 50,000 at the football stadium in Rimini.

He has several times taken long breaks from performing live, in order to focus on other projects. After 14 years without going on stage, he made a comeback of sorts in 2008 at the Giuseppe Meazza Stadium in Milan – home of his beloved Internazionale – as part of the celebrations for the club’s centenary.

Scene at the Arena di Verona for Celentano's 2012 concert
Scene at the Arena di Verona for Celentano's 2012 concert
It set the seed for him to plan his 2012 show in Verona, where he demonstrated that his voice had lost none of its power and sophistication, reeling off a string of his greatest hits from six decades of music.

Increasingly a political figure – many of his songs carry strong messages – he is a supporter of the centre-right Five Star Movement, led by his long-time friend Beppe Grillo.

The Palazzo del Ghiaccio now stages events such as banquets in a uniquely striking setting
The Palazzo del Ghiaccio now stages events such as banquets
in a uniquely striking setting 
Travel tip:

Adriano Celentano made his performing debut in 1957 at the Palazzo del Ghiaccio (The Ice Palace), a beautiful Art Nouveau building in Via Piranesi, in the Porta Vittoria area of the city. Opened in 1923, covering 1,800 square metres, it was once the major covered ice rink in Europe and one of the largest in the world. The building was seriously damaged during the Second World War but was restored and reopened and remained an active venue for skating events until 2002. It has also hosted boxing, fencing and basketball among other sports, as well as entertainment events such as the Italian Festival of Rock and Roll at which Celentano took his first bows. His contemporary Mina played there for the first time in 1959. The Palazzo is still an important venue today for fashion shows, exhibitions, business conventions, concerts and other events.

The Piazza Cinque Giornate
The Piazza Cinque Giornate in Milan
Travel tip:

Porta Vittoria was formerly known as Porta Tosa, the eastern gate of the Spanish walls of the city in the 16th century. It was renamed Porta Vittoria with Italian unification in 1861 in respect of its historical significance, having been the seen of a battle between Milanese rebels and the occupying Austrian forces during the so-called Five Days of Milan in 1848.  The actual gate was demolished in 1881 and its location in what is now Piazza Cinque Giornate is marked with an obelisk designed by Giuseppe Grandi.

5 January 2018

Dr Michele Navarra – physician and Mafia boss

Hospital doctor who headed Corleone clan

Michele Navarra was an eminent  physician in Corleone
Michele Navarra was an eminent
physician in Corleone
Michele Navarra, an extraordinary figure who became the leading physician in his home town of Corleone while simultaneously heading up one of the most notorious clans in the history of the Sicilian Mafia, was born on this day in 1905.

Dr Navarra was a graduate of the University of Palermo, where he studied engineering before turning to medicine, and became a captain in the Royal Italian Army. He could have had a comfortable and worthy career as a doctor.

Yet he developed a fascination with stories about his uncle, Angelo Gagliano, who had until he was murdered when Navarra was a boy of about 10 years old been a member of the Fratuzzi – the Brothers – a criminal organisation who leased agricultural land from absentee landlords and then sublet it to peasant farmers at exorbitant rates, enforcing their authority by extorting protection money, as well as by controlling the hiring of workers.

As the son of a land surveyor, Navarra already enjoyed privileges inaccessible to most of the population and his medical qualifications only further lifted his standing in the community. Somehow, though, it was not enough.

After the Allied invasion of Sicily in 1943, having co-operated with the Anglo-American forces, Navarra took advantage of his relationship with Angelo di Carlo, a Sicilian cousin in the American marines who had used his Mafia connections to become a vital go-between for the Office of Strategic Services (precursor of the CIA) in obtaining intelligence ahead of the invasion.

Navarra, along with a fellow doctor, was killed in his  car in an ambush on a country road
Navarra, along with a fellow doctor, was killed in his
 car in an ambush on a country road
The occupying army were determined to remove Fascist party members from power on the island, so Navarra presented himself as an anti-Fascist and, with Di Carlo’s help, secured the right to round up and take possession of all military vehicles abandoned by the Italian army.

He used some of these to set up a regional bus service but others became vital to his cattle rustling operations, which enabled him to establish himself as an important figure in the criminal underworld, to the extent that, when Corleonese clan boss Cologero Lo Bue died in 1944 – from natural causes – Navarra was able to fight off a challenge from Vincenzo Collura, a Sicilian-born American gangster, to take over as Lo Bue’s succssor.

At the same time, remarkably, Dr Navarra was advancing his medical career.  In 1946, he was appointed the lead physician at Corleone’s local hospital (after his predecessor was mysteriously murdered) and enjoyed enormous respect in the community for his skill and diligence, and his generosity in waiving fees for those in financial hardship. Often, he would be invited to be godfather to the children of grateful patients.

When Corleone people spoke of him, they called him 'u patri nostru - Sicilian dialect for 'our father'.

Luciano Leggio, Navarra's former lieutenant, ultimately betrayed his boss
Luciano Leggio, Navarra's former lieutenant,
ultimately betrayed his boss
Yet it was his criminal activity that was the real source of his wealth and power. The Corleonese clan controlled not only cattle rustling but all manner of other activities, legitimate or otherwise, thanks to Dr Navarra’s influence in the award of local government contracts.

As a member of the Christian Democrat party, he did what he could to keep the party in power locally and was duly rewarded, even if his methods were somewhat unusual.  Voters were often escorted into the polling booths by gang members to ensure they voted the right way, Dr Navarra having issued certificates to say they were blind had to be assisted at the ballot box.

More sinisterly, he despatched his young lieutenant, Luciano Leggio, to murder Placido Rizzotto, a trade union leader who was gaining popularity for the Socialist party.

Navarra exploited his standing to develop powerful political allies, who in turn handed him prestigious positions.  For a while, for example, he was the official medical adviser to Ferrovie dello Stato, the state rail network.

He was always well dressed, genteel even, yet almost every week he would issue the order for someone to be killed, either an opponent or an individual who in some way was an impediment to his progress.

Navarra was careful to keep his own hands clean, always commissioning murders through a third party. Seldom could a killing be traced back to him, although he was sent into exile in Reggio Calabria after being accused of personally silencing, though a lethal injection, the only witness to the Rizzotto murder.

It was during his exile that his former underling, Leggio, developed his own rackets and tried to seize power. Navarra tried to have him killed in the summer of 1958 but the plot failed and it was only a few months later that Navarra's car was ambushed on an isolated country road and he died, along with an innocent colleague from the hospital, in a hail of machine gun fire.

Among the suspected killers were two notorious future bosses of the Corleonese clan, Salvatore ‘Toto’ Riina and Bernardo Provenzano.

The Palazzo Chiaramonte-Steri
The Palazzo Chiaramonte-Steri
Travel tip:

The University of Palermo, founded in 1806 but with roots in learning traceable to the 15th century, when medicine and law were first taught on the site, is home to about 50,000 students.  It is notable among other things for the Palazzo Chiaramonte-Steri, the 14th century palace that was once the home of the powerful Sicilian ruler Manfredi III Chiaramonte, which now houses the rector’s office and a museum, and the 30-acre Orto Botanico (Botanical Gardens).

The Palazzo Comunale overlooks the Piazza Garibaldi
at the heart of Corleone
Travel tip:

Although the town of Corleone was immortalised in fiction by Mario Puzo’s novel The Godfather and the film of the same name, its Mafia past is only too real and citizens lived an oppressed life for many years, fearful of even admitting that the secret society existed.  Nowadays, there are organisations that are proudly anti-Mafia and the confiscated home of one-time leader Bernardo Provenzano has been turned into an anti-Mafia museum and art gallery in memory of Paolo Borsellino, the anti-Mafia magistrate who was murdered in 1992.

4 January 2018

Gaetano Merola – conductor and impresario

Neapolitan who founded the San Francisco Opera

Gaetano Merola ran the San Francisco Opera Company for 30 years
Gaetano Merola ran the San Francisco Opera
Company for 30 years
Gaetano Merola, a musician from Naples who emigrated to the United States and ultimately founded the San Francisco Opera, was born on this day in 1881.

Merola directed the company and conducted many performances for 30 years from its opening night in September 1923 until his death in August 1953.

He literally died doing what he loved, collapsing in the orchestra pit while conducting the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra during a concert at an outdoor amphitheatre in the city.

The son of a violinist at the Royal Court in Naples, Merola studied piano and conducting at the Conservatorio di San Pietro a Majella in Naples, graduating with honours at the age of 16.

Three years later he was invited to New York to work as assistant to Luigi Mancinelli, another Italian emigrant, born in Orvieto, who was a noted composer and cellist who was lead conductor of the New York Metropolitan Opera.

Demand for his services grew and he made regular guest appearances with companies across America and beyond, including a stint at Oscar Hammerstein’s London Opera House on the site of what is now the Peacock Theatre in Holborn.

Merola in action with the baton
He became a regular visitor to San Francisco with Fortune Gallo’s San Carlo Opera Company – named after the Naples opera house – and it was after becoming acquainted with many opera enthusiasts there that he identified the city as potentially one to rival New York as a centre that could attract the world’s top stars.

Merola noted how much the city was prepared to pay to have such illustrious companies as the Chicago Opera and the Scotti Company as well as the San Carlo to perform there and determined that he would be the man to give San Francisco its own company and make it as prestigious as any across the country.

Invited to make his home there by a philanthropic patron of the arts who set Merola and his wife up in an apartment, he immersed himself in the city’s large Italian community, where there was much enthusiasm about his ambition to bring the world's finest opera stars to the city.

When, in 1922, he hit upon the idea of a two-week season of open air concerts at Stanford Stadium, where he had noted during a football game how much the half-time marching band benefitted from the venue’s acoustics, they were all for it and there was no shortage of businessmen and wealthy professionals from the community willing to offer financial support, investing between $500 and $1,000 each in the venture.

Beniamino Gigli was one of the big names Merola was able to attract to perform in San Francisco
Beniamino Gigli was one of the big names Merola
was able to attract to perform in San Francisco
Merola signed up many stars of the day, including the Italian tenor Giovanni Martinelli, the American soprano Bianca Soraya and the Spanish baritone Vincente Ballester. The audiences were large and enthusiastic, rising from around 6,000 for the opening performance of I Pagliacci to 10,000 for Faust on the closing night.

Yet it made no money.  Indeed, once the costs were reckoned up, Merola had to tell his backers they were liable to a $19,000 shortfall.  He feared his dream was over until Giulio Stradi, a produce retailer who was one of the bigger investors, spoke up for the rest of the group by putting an arm round Merola’s shoulder and telling him the experience had been worth every penny.

They paid his dues in full and encouraged him to pursue another funding scheme, this time not relying on the largesse of a small number of wealthy patrons but by finding 750 individuals willing to pay $100 each, which included a $50 season ticket.

In the event, Merola attracted more than 2,400 investors and comfortably hit his funding target. His San Francisco Opera Company was born and made its debut at the city’s Civic Auditorium with Martinelli and soprano Queena Mario starring in Puccini’s La bohème.

The War Memorial Opera House opened in 1932
The War Memorial Opera House opened in 1932
More productions followed, with headline stars including Beniamino Gigli and Giuseppe de Luca, and by the end of the 1923-24 season he was able to pay his investors a dividend.

The San Francisco Opera was now established and its continued success in spite of the financial Depression led in 1931 to the construction of a permanent home, the grand Palladian-style War Memorial Opera House, designed by the architect Arthur Brown Jr.  It opened in October 1932 with a performance of Puccini’s Tosca, with the Italian soprano Claudia Muzio in the title role.

Merola began to wind down in the 1940s, bringing in Arturo Toscanini’s assistant Kurt Herbert Adler to serve as conductor, choral director and his deputy.  Merola, meanwhile, continued to use his contacts to attract the biggest names to San Francisco, including Tito Gobbi, Renata Tebaldi and Mario del Monaco.

After Merola’s death, which came as he conducted an excerpt from Puccini’s Madama Butterfly at the Sigmund Stern Grove amphitheatre, Adler established in his honour the Merola Opera Program to provide training for young singers.

The San Francisco Opera still thrives to this day.  In 2002, when it celebrated its 80th anniversary, the guests included 98-year-old Louise Dana – the former Louise Stradi, daughter of Giulio, who had helped Merola with the organisation of his first season.

The Conservatorio di San Pietro a Majella
The Conservatorio di San Pietro a Majella
Travel tip:

The Conservatorio di San Pietro a Majella – often known as the Naples Conservatory – can be found a short distance from Piazza Dante in the centre of Naples. Along with the adjacent church, it is part of the former San Pietro a Majella monastic complex, built at the end of the 13th century. The conservatory houses an impressive library of manuscripts giving an insight into the life and work of many great composers who spent time there, including Scarlatti, Pergolesi, Cimarosa, Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti. The museum has a display of rare antique musical instruments.

The Teatro di San Carlo in Naples is the oldest continuously  active opera venue in the world
The Teatro di San Carlo in Naples is the oldest continuously
 active opera venue in the world 
Travel tip:

The Teatro di San Carlo, the opera house of Naples, was opened in 1737 after the Bourbon king Charles III of Naples commissioned its construction as a replacement for the small and somewhat dilapidated Teatro San Bartolomeo, which was no longer big enough to satisfy demand in the city after the popular composer Alessandro Scarlatti had decided to base himself there and was establishing Naples as a major centre for opera.  Although it was partly destroyed by a fire in 1816, the theatre was rebuilt on the orders of Charles III’s son, King Ferdinand IV, and is regarded as the oldest continuously active public venue for opera in the world, predating Milan’s Teatro alla Scala and Venice’s Fenice by several decades.


3 January 2018

Pietro Metastasio – poet and librettist

From street entertainer to leading libretto writer

Pietro Metastasio became Europe's
most celebrated librettist 
Pietro Metastasio, who became Europe’s most celebrated opera librettist in the 18th century, was born on this day in 1698 in Rome.

He was christened Pietro Antonio Domenico Trapassi, one of four children born to Felice Trapassi, from Assisi and Francesca Galasti from Bologna. His father served in the papal forces before becoming a grocer in Via dei Cappellari.

While still a child, Pietro could attract crowds by reciting impromptu verses. On one occasion, in 1709, Giovanni Vincenzo Gravina, director of the Arcadian Academy, stopped to listen. He was so impressed that he made the young boy his protégé and later adopted him, changing his surname to Metastasio.

He provided the young Metastasio with a good education and encouraged him to develop his talent.

When Gravina was on his way to Calabria on a business trip, he exhibited Metastasio in the literary circles of Naples, but after the young boy became ill, he placed him in the care of a relative to help him recuperate.

Gravina decided Metastasio should never improvise again but should concentrate on his education and reserve his talent for nobler efforts.

The title page of Metastasio's libretto Glo orti esperidi
The title page of Metastasio's libretto
Glo orti esperidi
At the age of 12, Metastasio translated the Iliad into octave stanzas and two years later he composed a tragedy based on Gravina’s favourite epic poem.

After Gravina died, Metastasio inherited his fortune. He recited an elegy to his patron at a meeting of the Arcadian Society in Rome.

But within two years he had spent all his money and he decided to become a lawyer in Naples.

While working in a lawyer’s office he composed a poem for Donna Anna Francesca Ravaschieri Pinelli di Sangro on the occasion of her marriage to the Marchese Don Antonio Pignatelli.

In 1722, while Naples was under Austrian rule, he was asked to compose a serenata to mark the birthday of Empress Elisabeth Christine. He wrote Gli orti esperidi, which was set to music by Nicola Porpora and featured Porpora’s pupil, the castrato Farinelli.

Marianna Bulgarelli, who played Venus in the opera, persuaded Metastasio to give up law and promised him fame and financial independence.

In her house he met the great composers of the day, such as Scarlatti and Pergolesi, who later set his plays to music. Bulgarelli adopted him, along with the whole Trapassi family, who came to live with them.

The monument in Metastasio in  Rome's Piazza della Chiesa Nuova
The monument in Metastasio in
Rome's Piazza della Chiesa Nuova

Metastasio wrote a string of dramas, earning a reasonable sum of money for each work, but he always longed for a fixed income.

When he was offered the post of court poet in Vienna he accepted willingly and set off at once, leaving his family in Bulgarelli’s devoted care.

Between the years 1730 and 1740 he wrote some of his finest dramas for the imperial theatre.

The libretto for Adriano in Siria was used by more than 60 composers during the 18th and early 19th centuries.

From about 1745 his output began to decline, although some of the cantatas he wrote at that time were later to become very popular.

His works were translated into French, English, German, Spanish and modern Greek and set to music over and over again by the top composers.

Metastasio died in 1782, while still in Vienna , at the age of 84.

The Palazzo Farnese is now used for the French Embassy
The Palazzo Farnese is now used for the French Embassy
Travel tip:

The Arcadian Society in Rome used to meet at Palazzo Farnese, the home of the former Queen of Sweden. Queen Christina had abdicated from her throne, converted to Roman Catholicism and moved to Rome, where she became a cultural leader and the protector of artists, musicians and writers. She was allowed to lodge in Palazzo Farnese, an important renaissance building, by Pope Alexander VII.  The palace, in Piazza Farnese in the Campo dè Fiori area of Rome is now used as the French Embassy.

The Teatro San Bartolomeo 
Travel tip:

Metastasio’s libretto for the opera Didone abbandonato, with music by the composer Domenico Sarro, was first heard at the Teatro San Bartolomeo in Naples in 1724. Teatro San Bartolomeo closed in 1737 when the newly-built Teatro San Carlo replaced it as the royal opera house in Naples . It was demolished to make way for the Chiesa di Santa Maria delle Grazie, but remnants of the old theatre’s boxes can still be seen in the church, which is in vico Graziella al Porto, behind the Church of the Pietà dei Turchini, accessible through narrow alleys from Via Medina in the San Giuseppe Carità district. 

2 January 2018

Riccardo Cassin – mountaineer

Long life of partisan who was fascinated by mountains

Riccardo Cassin developed a fascination with mountains as a boy
Riccardo Cassin developed a fascination
with mountains as a boy
The climber and war hero Riccardo Cassin was born on this day in 1909 at San Vito al Tagliamento in Friuli.

Despite his daring mountain ascents and his brave conduct against the Germans during the Second World War, he was to live past the age of 100.

By the age of four, Cassin had lost his father, who was killed in a mining accident in Canada. He left school when he was 12 to work for a blacksmith but moved to Lecco when he was 17 to work at a steel plant.

Cassin was to become fascinated by the mountains that tower over the lakes of Lecco, Como and Garda and he started climbing with a group known as the Ragni di Lecco - the Spiders of Lecco.

In 1934 he made his first ascent of the smallest of the Tre Cime di Lavaredo in the Dolomites. The following year, after repeating another climber’s route on the north west face of the Civetta, he climbed the south eastern ridge of the Trieste Tower and established a new route on the north face of Cima Ovest di Lavaredo.

In 1937 Cassin made his first climb on the granite of the Western Alps. Over the course of three days he made the first ascent of the north east face of Piz Badile in the Val Bregaglia in Switzerland. Two of the climbers accompanying him died of exhaustion and exposure on the descent.

The Tre Cime di Lavaredo, where Cassin embarked on some of his earliest climbing challenges
The Tre Cime di Lavaredo, where Cassin embarked on some
of his earliest climbing challenges
This is known today as the Cassin Route, or Via Cassin and he confirmed his mountaineering prowess by climbing the route again at the age of 78.

His most celebrated first ascent was the Walker Spur on the north face of the Grandes Jorasses in the Mont Blanc massif in 1938, which was universally acknowledged as the toughest Alpine challenge. Even though Cassin knew little about the area before going there he reached the summit and made a successful descent during a violent storm.

Cassin made a total of 2,500 ascents, of which more than 100 were first ascents.

During the Second World War, Cassin fought on the side of the Italian partisans against the Germans. In 1945 along with another partisan he attempted to stop a group of Germans escaping along an alpine pass into Germany. His comrade was shot dead by them but Cassin survived and was later decorated for his heroic actions.

Cassin was supposed to have been part of the Italian expedition that made the first ascent of K2 in the Karakoram, having sketched the route and done all the organisation.  But the expedition leader left him out after sending Cassin for a medical examination in Rome where he was told he had cardiac problems.

The Grandes Jorasses in the Mont Blanc massif, where Cassin scaled the Walker Spur
The Grandes Jorasses in the Mont Blanc
massif, where Cassin scaled the Walker Spur
Cassin realised the expedition leader had felt threatened by his experience and from then on he organised and led expeditions himself, such as the first ascent of Gasherbrum IV in the Karakorum range and an ascent of Jirishanca in the Andes.

In 1961 he led a successful ascent of Mount McKinley in Alaska. The ridge was later named Cassin Ridge in his honour and he received a telegram of congratulations from President Kennedy.

Cassin began designing and producing mountaineering equipment in the 1940s and formed a limited company in 1967. In 1997 the CAMP company bought the Cassin trademark from him.

Cassin wrote two books about climbing and received two honours from the Italian Republic. He became Grand’Ufficiale dell Ordine al merito in 1980 and Cavaliere di Gran Croce Ordine al merito in 1999.

The book, Riccardo Cassin: Cento volti di un grande alpinista, was produced for his 100th birthday, containing 100 testimonials from people who had been associated with him, including President Kennedy.

Cassin died in August 2009, more than seven months after his 100th birthday, in Piano dei Resinelli, Lecco.

The main square - Piazza del Popolo - in San Vito al Tagliamento
The main square - Piazza del Popolo - in
San Vito al Tagliamento
Travel tip:

San Vito al Tagliamento, where Riccardo Cassin was born, is a medieval town in the province of Pordenone in Friuli-Venezia-Giulia, about 80 kilometres northwest of Trieste . It still has three towers of its medieval walls and a Duomo with a triptych by Andrea Bellunello. Mussolini’s brother, Arnaldo, taught there for several years and his nephew, Vito, also lived and worked there.

Lago di Lecco
Lago di Lecco
Travel tip:

Lecco, where Riccardo Cassin eventually settled, lies at the end of the south eastern branch of Lago di Como, which is known as Lago di Lecco. The Bergamo Alps rise to the north and east of the lake. The writer Alessandro Manzoni lived there for part of his life and based his famous novel, I promessi sposi, there.  

1 January 2018

Guglielmo Libri – book thief

Nobleman stole more than 30,000 books and documents

Guglielmo Libri is thought to have stolen more than 30,000 books, manuscripts and letters
Guglielmo Libri is thought to have stolen more
than 30,000 books, manuscripts and letters
The notorious 19th century thief Guglielmo Libri, who stole tens of thousands of historic books, manuscripts and letters, many of which have never been found, was born on this day in 1803 in Florence.

A distinguished and decorated academic, Libri was an avid collector of historic documents whose passion for adding to his collections ultimately became an addiction he could not satisfy by legal means alone.

He stole on a large scale from the historic Laurentian Library in Florence but it was after he was appointed Chief Inspector of French Libraries in 1841 – he had been a French citizen since 1833 – that his nefarious activities reached their peak.

As the man responsible for cataloguing valuable books and precious manuscripts across the whole of France, Libri had privileged access to the official archives of many cities and was able to spend many hours in dusty vaults completely unhindered and unsupervised.

He was in a position to “borrow” such items as he required in the interests of research with no pressure to return them. Where the removal of a book or document was forbidden, he would smuggle them out under the huge cape that he insisted on wearing – on the grounds of supposedly poor health – even in the height of summer.

Although he began to arouse suspicion, it was not until 1848 that a warrant was issued in France for his arrest.  Tipped off, Libri had already fled to London, taking with him about 18 trunks containing more than 30,000 documents.

Some 72 letters written by Descartes were thought to have been stolen by Libri
Some 72 letters written by Descartes were
thought to have been stolen by Libri
These included 72 letters written by the great French philosopher and mathematician René Descartes, as well as the Tours Pentateuch, a late sixth or early seventh-century illuminated Latin manuscript of the first five books of the Old Testament, which he stole from the Library of Tours.

With no extradition agreement existing between France and Britain at that time, Libri was thus able to evade justice, even though he was tried in absentia in 1850 and sentenced to 10 years’ jail.

Indeed, he lived a good life in London, mainly by selling books, often to members of the English nobility, or else at auction.

The Tours Pentateuch later became known as the Ashburnham Pentateuch after it was sold to the 4th Earl of Ashburnham by Libri in 1847.  Two auction sales in 1861 are said to have netted him more than one million francs.

Born Count Guglielmo Libri Carucci dalla Sommaja, he was a precocious academic who began studying law at the University of Pisa at the age of 16 before switching to mathematics and being appointed professor of mathematical physics at the age of just 20.

He made many friends in Paris during a sabbatical visit in 1824 and when his involvement back in Italy with the secret revolutionary plotters known as the Carbonari led to the threat of arrest, it was to Paris that he escaped.

Libri's History of Mathematical Sciences drew on stolen documents
Libri's History of Mathematical Sciences
drew on stolen documents
He became a French citizen in 1833 and his academic stock continued to rise. He obtained a professorship at the Collège de France and in 1834 he was elected as assistant professor in the calculus of probabilities at the Sorbonne and elevated to the French Academy of Sciences.

Between 1838 and 1841, Libri wrote a four-volume tome entitled History of the Mathematical Sciences in Italy from the Renaissance of literature to the 17th Century, drawing from 1800 manuscripts and books by Galileo, Descartes, Leibniz and others which he claimed were in his personal collection. It was discovered later that many had been stolen from the Laurentian Library.

He cultivated contacts in high places to protect his reputation. His appointment as Chief Inspector of French Libraries, for example, came about through his friendship with the influential French Chief of Police, François Guizot.

Libri remained in England until 1868, when his declining health persuaded him to return to Italy.  He died the following year in Fiesole, just outside Florence, at the age of 66.

Although many of the huge number of items Libri stole have never been returned, having been forgotten about or left to gather dust in private libraries and storerooms, one of the missing Descartes letters, written in 1641 to Father Marin Marsenne, the priest and polymath who oversaw the publication of his Meditations on First Philosophy, turned up at Haverford College in Pennsylvania in 2010.

The Laurentian Library - the long building in the middle of this picture - was fitted out to a design by Michelangelo
The Laurentian Library - the long building in the middle of
this picture - was fitted out to a design by Michelangelo
Travel tip:

The Laurentian Library – the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana – dates back to 1523, when the Medici pope Clement VII commissioned it to be built in a cloister of the Basilica of San Lorenzo in Florence, which is situated between the Duomo and Santa Maria Novella railway station. Home to some 11,000 manuscripts and 4,500 historic books, it was built to designs by Michelangelo in Mannerist style and is considered one of his greatest achievements, not only for elegance of its architectural features but for the innovative use for space to maximise the library’s capacity without detracting from its aesthetic beauty.

The remains of the Roman amphitheatre at Fiesole
The remains of the Roman amphitheatre at Fiesole 
Travel tip:

Fiesole, a town of around 14,000 inhabitants, is situated about 8km (5 miles) northeast of Florence on a hill offering panoramic views. It was built on the site of an Etruscan city probably founded in the eighth or ninth century BC. In the middle ages it grew to be as powerful as Florence until it was conquered by the latter in 1125 after a series of wars. Among several notable sights is its 11th century Romanesque Cathedral of St Romulus and many Roman remains, including those of an amphitheatre still used for open-air concerts during the summer.  Historically popular with wealthy Florentines as a place to build their villas, it still has the reputation of an upmarket residential area.