16 January 2018

Niccolò Piccinni – opera composer

Writer drawn into 18th century Paris rivalry

Niccolò Piccinni was one of Italy's most  popular composers in the 18th century
Niccolò Piccinni was one of Italy's most
popular composers in the 18th century
The composer Niccolò Piccinni, one of the most popular writers of opera in 18th century Europe, was born on this day in 1728 in Bari.

Piccinni, who lived mainly in Naples while he was in Italy, had the misfortune to be placed under house arrest for four years in his 60s, when he was accused of being a republican revolutionary.

He is primarily remembered, though, for having been invited to Paris at the height of his popularity to be drawn unwittingly into a battle between supporters of traditional opera, with its emphasis on catchy melodies and show-stopping arias, and those of the German composer Christoph Willibald Gluck, who favoured solemnly serious storytelling more akin to Greek tragedy.

Piccinni’s father was a musician but tried to discourage his son from following the same career. However, the Bishop of Bari, recognising Niccolò’s talent, arranged for him to attend the Conservatorio di Sant’Onofrio in Capuana in Naples.

He was a prolific writer. His first opera, a comedy entitled Le donne dispettose (The mischievous women) was staged at the Teatro dei Fiorentini in Naples in 1755 and after he had formed a working partnership with the acclaimed librettist Pietro Metastasio his catalogue of works was already well into double figures when the success of one particular composition won him popularity across Europe.

La buona figliuola (The good daughter), also known as La Cecchina, was essentially an opera buffa – a light-hearted comedy – for which the libretto was written by the famous playwright Carlo Goldoni.

Carlo Goldoni, the Venetian playwright, wrote the libretto for Piccinni's first major success
Carlo Goldoni, the Venetian playwright, wrote
the libretto for Piccinni's first major success
It premiered at the Teatro delle Dame in Rome in 1760 and was so popular it enjoyed a two-year run, acquiring such a reputation as a crowd pleaser that it was soon attracting packed houses in every capital city in Europe.  What set it apart was that it was a comedy with dramatic elements and a soft sentimentality designed to touch the emotions of the audience.

The public enthusiasm for the story was such that a commercial spin-off industry developed around it almost in the manner of box-office successes of today, with fashion houses and shops trading on the La Cecchina name.

The new sentimental style caught on with other composers, eager to match Piccinni’s success, but at the same time there was a backlash among conservatives, who felt music, and opera in particular, should be about strength and manliness and saw this brand of modern Italian music as rather effete, promoting effeminacy and cowardliness rather than courage and moral virtue.

Among those composers who had their support was Gluck, the German who had found favour with the Hapsburg court in Vienna.  Gluck moved to Paris in the 1770s and when Queen Marie Antoinette invited Piccinni to live and work in the French capital, the directors of the Academie Royale de Musique, as the Paris Opera was then known, saw the commercial potential in pitting the two against one another.

They invited each to compose his own interpretation of the same texts and deliberately encouraged the Parisian public to fall into one or the other of two camps – the Gluckists and the Piccinnists. The antagonism between some factions became quite ugly.

The Piccinni statue in his home city of Bari
The Piccinni statue in his
home city of Bari
The irony was that Piccinni admired Gluck and while in Paris, excited by the chance to compose pieces of greater substance, he collaborated with the celebrated French dramatist Jean-Francois Marmontel on several projects that he hoped would advance the cause of operatic reform that Gluck and his intellectual supporters were proposing.

The French Revolution in 1789 – two years after the death of Gluck - brought to an end Piccinni’s time in Paris and he returned to Naples, where he was given a warm welcome by King Ferdinand IV, whose wife Maria Carolina was the ill-fated Marie Antoinette’s sister, only to fall out of favour when his daughter’s marriage to a French democratic republican brought him under suspicion of connections and sympathies with the revolutionaries whose influence Ferdinand feared.

The king’s attitude towards any suspected republicans in Naples had been uncompromising and many were rounded up and shot. Piccinni was spared that fate but remained under house arrest for four years.

His fame long since faded, he spent the years after his release eking out an uncertain living in Naples, Venice and Rome before returning to Paris in 1798, where he was received with enthusiasm but struggled to make much money, although with the support of friends he was able to settle in the comfortable suburb of Passy, where he died in 1800 at the age of 72.

Piccinni’s life is commemorated with a statue in the Piazza della Prefettura in his home city of Bari in Puglia.

Porta Capuana in Naples used to be part of the city's  ancient Aragonese walls
Porta Capuana in Naples used to be part of the city's
ancient Aragonese walls
Travel tip:

Capuana is the area of Naples close to Porta Capuana, a now free-standing gateway that was once part of the Aragonese walls of the city.  Situated roughly between the city’s main railway station and the Duomo.  The Conservatorio di Sant’Onofrio, which was in time absorbed into the Naples Conservatory, used to be close to the Castel Capuano, originally a 12th-century fortress which has been modified several times.  Until recently, the castle was home to the city’s Hall of Justice, also known as the Vicaria, comprising legal offices and a prison.

The pretty Via Margutta in Rome, close to where the Teatro delle Dame stood in the 18th and early 19th centuries
The pretty Via Margutta in Rome, close to where the
Teatro delle Dame stood in the 18th and early 19th centuries
Travel tip:

In the 18th century, Rome’s Teatro delle Dame vied with the Teatro Capranica for the right to be called the city’s leading opera house, staging many premieres of works by the leading composers of the day. Built in 1713 specifically to stage opera seria – as opposed to opera buffa – and remained a major venue until the early 19th century, when it was used more often for public dancing, acrobatic shows and plays in local Roman dialect.  Completely destroyed by fire in 1863, it stood where Via Aliberti joins Via Margutta in an area of pretty, narrow streets close to Piazza di Spagna in the direction of Piazza del Popolo.

15 January 2018

Paolo Sarpi – writer and statesman

Patriotic Venetian who the Pope wanted dead

Paolo Sarpi was an outspoken critic of the Catholic Church
Paolo Sarpi was an outspoken critic of
the Catholic Church
Historian, scientist, writer and statesman Paolo Sarpi died on this day in 1623 in Venice.

He had survived an assassination attack 16 years before and was living in seclusion, still preparing state papers on behalf of Venice, writing, and carrying out scientific studies.

The day before his death he had dictated three replies to questions about state affairs of the Venetian Republic.

He had been born Pietro Sarpi in 1552 in Venice. His father died while he was still a child and he was educated by his uncle, who was a school teacher, and then by a monk in the Augustinian Servite order.

He entered the Servite order himself at the age of 13, assuming the name of Fra Paolo. After going into a monastery in Mantua, he was invited to be court theologian to Duke Guglielmo Gonzaga.

He then went to Milan, where he was an adviser to Charles Borromeo, the archbishop of Milan, before being transferred back to Venice to be professor of philosophy at the Servite convent.

At the age of 27, Sarpi was sent to Rome, where he interacted with three successive popes. He then returned to Venice, where he spent 17 years studying. His writings were highly critical of the Catholic Church.

Pope Paul V, who plotted to have Sarpi killed
Pope Paul V, who plotted to have
Sarpi killed
Sarpi was a defender of the liberties of Republican Venice and a proponent of the separation of the church and state.

After Paul V was made pope, Venice adopted measures to restrict papal prerogative, but Paul V excommunicated the Venetians. Sarpi entered the argument and set out principles, which struck radically at papal intervention in secular matters. A compromise was finally arranged between the Pope and Venice through Henry IV of France

Afterwards, however, Sarpi became the target of an assassination attempt instigated by the Pope. In 1607, an unfrocked friar assisted by two other people agreed to kill Sarpi for the sum of 8,000 crowns, but the plot was discovered and they were arrested and imprisoned after crossing into Venetian territory.

The following month Sarpi was attacked and left for dead with 15 stiletto thrusts. His attackers were welcomed back into papal territory but the pope’s enthusiasm for them cooled after he discovered Sarpi had survived his injuries.

His would-be assassins settled in Rome and were granted a pension by the viceroy of Naples.

Plots continued to be formed against Sarpi and he occasionally occasionally spoke of taking refuge in England.

But he stayed in Venice and served the state until the end. His last words are said to have been: ‘Esto perpetua,’ or ‘May she endure forever.’

These words were later adopted as the state motto of American state of Idaho and appear on the back of the 2007 Idaho quarter.

The statue of Parlo Sarpi in Campo Santa Fosca in Cannaregio in Venice
The statue of Parlo Sarpi in Campo
Santa Fosca in Cannaregio in Venice
Travel tip:

A bronze statue of Paolo Sarpi stands on a monument to him in Campo Santa Fosca in the Cannaregio district of Venice near Strada Nova. It is close to the place where he was stabbed by the Pope’s would-be assassins.

Travel tip:

Liceo Classico Paolo Sarpi, established in 1803, is a public high school in Bergamo’s Città Alta, which is ranked highly nationally because of the teaching methods and the subjects studied. Students shared their experience in a 2012 television documentary film, Gli anni e I giorni.

14 January 2018

Franchino Gaffurio – composer

Musician whose name has lived on for centuries in Milan

Da Vinci's Portrait of a Musician, of which Gaffurio is thought to have been the subject
Da Vinci's Portrait of a Musician, of which
Gaffurio is thought to have been the subject 
Renaissance composer Franchino Gaffurio was born on this day in 1451 in Lodi, a city in Lombardy some 40km (25 miles) southeast of Milan.

He was to become a friend of Leonardo da Vinci later in life and may have been the person depicted in Leonardo’s famous painting, Portrait of a Musician.

The oil on wood painting, which Da Vinci is thought to have completed in around 1490, is housed in the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan.

Gaffurio was born into an aristocratic family, who sent him to a Benedictine monastery, where he acquired musical training.

He later became a priest and lived in Mantua and Verona before setting in Milan, where he became maestro di cappella (choirmaster) at the Duomo in 1484. He was to retain the post for the rest of his life.

Gaffurio was one of Italy’s most famous musicians in the late 15th and early 16th centuries and as such met composers from all over Europe while working in Milan and wrote books of instruction for young composers.

One of his most famous comments was that the tactus, the tempo of a semibreve, is equal to the pulse of a man who is breathing quietly, at about 72 beats per minute.

The entrance to the Franco Gaffurio Music School in Lodi
The entrance to the Franco Gaffurio
Music School in Lodi
During his years in Milan, Gaffurio wrote masses, motets and hymns, many for ceremonial occasions held by the Sforza family.

Some of his music shows the influence of Josquin des Prez, a French composer he became friends with, and also the many composers from the Netherlands, who were drawn to Milan, which was a centre of musical activity at the time.

The Duomo in Milan to this day has a school for choirboys known as The Franchino Gaffurio School, named after the choirmaster, composer and teacher, whose music had resounded in the Duomo 600 years before.

Gaffurio died in 1522 in Milan and was buried in the Church of San Marcellino at Porta Comasina, one of the gates to the city, which was renamed Porta Garibaldi in 1860.

The Piazza della Vittoria in Lodi
The Piazza della Vittoria in Lodi
Travel tip:

One of the main sights in Lodi, where Gaffurio was born, is Piazza della Vittoria, listed by the Italian Touring Club as one of the most beautiful squares in Italy, as it features porticoes on all four sides. Accademia Gaffurio in Via Solferino teaches music and dance and organises musical events and concerts. It was founded as the Franchino Gaffurio Music School in 1917.

The Duomo in Milan, where Gaffurio was maestro di cappella from 1484 until his death in 1522
The Duomo in Milan, where Gaffurio was maestro di
cappella from 1484 until his death in 1522
Travel tip:

The Duomo in Milan, where Gaffurio was maestro di cappella, was built in 1386 using Candoglia marble, which was transported along the Navigli canals. It was consecrated in 1418, yet remained unfinished until the 19th century, when Napoleon had the façade completed, before being crowned King of Italy there.

13 January 2018

Renato Bruson – operatic baritone

Donizetti and Verdi specialist rated among greats

Renato Bruson, pictured not long after his debut in the 1960s.
Renato Bruson, pictured not long after
his debut in the 1960s.
The opera singer Renato Bruson, whose interpretation of Giuseppe Verdi’s baritone roles sometimes brought comparison with such redoubtable performers as Tito Gobbi, Ettore Bastianini and Piero Cappuccili, was born on this day in 1936 in the village of Granze, near Padua.

Bruson’s velvety voice and noble stage presence sustained him over a career of remarkable longevity. He was still performing in 2011 at the age of 75, having made his debut more than half a century earlier.

Since then he has devoted himself more to teaching masterclasses, although he did manage one more performance of Verdi’s Falstaff, which was among his most famous roles, at the age of 77 in 2013, having been invited to the Teatro Verdi in Busseto, the composer’s home town in Emilia-Romagna, as part of a celebration marking 200 years since Verdi’s birth.

Today he is director of the Accademia Lirica at Teatro alla Scala in Milan, a role he combines with a professorship at the Accademia Chigiana in Siena and a post at the lyrical academy in Spoleto.

It was at the Teatro Lirico Sperimentale in Spoleto, the ancient city in Umbria, that Bruson made his stage debut as the Conte di Luna in Verdi’s Il trovatore in 1960, which was a moment that brought deep satisfaction after a difficult childhood.

The parish church of Santa Cristina in Granze near Padua, where Bruson sang in the choir as a boy
The parish church of Santa Cristina in Granze near Padua,
where Bruson sang in the choir as a boy
Born into a family of modest means, he found it difficult to convince his parents that if they allowed him to pursue his desire to study music it would not make him appear to others as workshy.

In an interview many years later, Bruson said that the older generation in Granze as he was growing up took the view that people who went straight from school into the world of work could look forward to a prosperous future, whereas those who preferred to continue their studies were destined never to find their path in life.

Therefore he was given little support from his family, even though they had encouraged him to sing in the parish choir. Fortunately, he was awarded a scholarship by the Conservatory of Padua, 30km (19 miles) away.

His debut in Spoleto was well received and he was soon making his mark at some of the great opera houses of Italy, including the Teatro dell’Opera in Rome (1961), La Fenice in Venice (1965) and the Teatro Massimo in Palermo (1966).

The Teatro Regio in Parma, where Bruson was seen by a talent scout from the Met
The Teatro Regio in Parma, where Bruson was
seen by a talent scout from the Met
His big break came in 1967, when he sang the role of Don Carlo di Vargas in Verdi’s La forza del destino at the Teatro Regio in Parma.

In the audience was Roberto Bauer, whose job was to scour Europe looking for new talent for the Metropolitan Opera in New York.  He was so impressed he sought out Bruson afterwards so that he could arrange a meeting with the Met’s artistic director, Rudolf Bing.  Two years later, Bruson was making his debut on the other side of the Atlantic as Enrico in Gaetano Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor.

In the early part of his career, in particular, Bruson was associated with Donizetti’s baritones as much as Verdi’s, performing in no fewer than 17 operas from the pen of the Bergamo composer.

Over the next few years, Bruson paraded his acting skills, the deep but smooth resonance of his voice and his commanding stage presence at Europe’s leading opera houses.

Another milestone moment came in 1972 with his debut as Antonio in Donizetti’s Linda di Chamounix at La Scala.

In 1975 he took his first bows at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, London, as Renato in Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera, and in 1978 came his debut at the Vienna State Opera in Macbeth, the Shakespeare play upon which Verdi had based his 10th opera in 1847.

Renato Bruson in more recent years
Renato Bruson in more recent years
In the meantime, he had also begun what was to be a long and fruitful collaboration with the conductor Riccardo Muti, who was particularly appreciative of Bruson’s vocal style, which had deep resonance without the thunderous qualities associated with some baritones. The singer always wanted audiences to appreciate the quality of his voice, rather than the volume, and to go home “with something in their hearts rather than some sounds in their ears.”

Bruson is married to Tita Tegano, a costume and set designer who has also written several books about the life and work of her husband. In 1996 he was made Knight of the Grand Cross of the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic.

Last year, his career was celebrated again as he was named as the recipient of the Caruso Prize in recognition of his lifetime contribution to the opera genre.  The award is made annually in a ceremony at the Villa Caruso di Bellosguarda in Tuscany, former home of the great Neapolitan tenor and now a museum.

The well-preserved castle at Spoleto
The well-preserved castle at Spoleto
Travel tip:

The ancient city of Spoleto in Umbria, where Bruson made his first appearance in a live opera performance, has a long association with music and other performing arts, which it celebrates every summer with the Festival dei Due Mondi, which sees events taking place in churches, theatres and open squares throughout the city and attracts a high calibre of performers during June and July. Spoleto also has some fine architecture, including a beautiful 12th-century Duomo which has frescoes by Fra Filippo Lippi, who is buried in the church.  The city also has the remains of a Roman amphiteatre and an imposing castle, parts of which go back to the fifth century.

Padua's Palazzo della Ragione
Padua's Palazzo della Ragione
Travel tip:

The city of Padua’s biggest attraction is the beautiful Scrovegni Chapel, made famous by the wonderful frescoes painted by Giotto, but there is plenty more to the Veneto’s second largest city, including a wealth of parks and gardens and a city centre where you will find many more students and local people than tourists.  This is despite Padua boasting the two fine basilicas of Sant’Antonio and Santa Giustina, the oval piazza known as Prato della Valle, the historic centre built around the Duomo, the Palazzo della Ragione and a University established in 1222 at which Galileo Galilei was a lecturer.

12 January 2018

Ferdinand I of the Two Sicilies

Despotic ruler presided over chaos in southern Italy

Ferdinand IV of Naples as a boy, painted by the German painter Anton Raphel Mengs
Ferdinand IV of Naples as a boy, painted by
the German painter Anton Raphel Mengs
The Bourbon prince who would become the first monarch of a revived Kingdom of the Two Sicilies was born in Naples on this day in 1751.

Ferdinando, third son of King Carlos (Charles) III of Spain, was handed the separate thrones of Naples and Sicily when he was only eight years old after his father’s accession to the Spanish throne required him to abdicate his titles in Spanish-ruled southern Italy.

In a 65-year reign, he would preside over one of the most turbulent periods in the history of a region that was never far from upheaval, which would see Spanish rule repeatedly challenged by France before eventually being handed to Austria.

Too young, obviously, to take charge in his own right when his reign began officially in 1759, he continued to enjoy his privileged upbringing, alternating between the palaces his father had built at Caserta, Portici and Capodimonte.

Government was placed in the hands of Bernardo Tanucci, a Tuscan statesman from Stia, near Arezzo, in whom King Charles had complete trust.  Tanucci, who fully embraced the enlightened ideas that were gaining popularity with the educated classes across Europe, had his own ideas about running the two territories, and did little to prepare the boy for the responsibilities he would eventually inherit as Ferdinand IV of Naples and Ferdinand III of Sicily.

Indeed, Tanucci was more than happy to encourage him to pursue the frivolous activities of youth for as long as he wished while he continued the liberal reforms King Charles had set in motion. Ferdinand reached the age of majority in 1767 but was prepared to allow Tanucci to continue to call the shots.

Bernardo Tanucci, the trusted statesman who governed Naples and Sicily as regent
Bernardo Tanucci, the trusted statesman who
governed Naples and Sicily as regent
It all changed, however, in 1768 when Ferdinand married Archduchess Maria Carolina, daughter of the Hapsburg Empress Maria Theresa and sister of the ill-fated French queen Marie Antoinette.

The marriage was part of a treaty between Spain and Austria, by the terms of which Maria Theresa would be given a place on Tanucci’s governing council once she had produced a male heir to her husband’s crowns.

The new Queen considered herself to be enlightened too but did not care for Tanucci and had her own long-term agenda for Austrian rule over the territory.  She had to wait until 1775 to give birth to a son, following two daughters, but by 1777 had found a reason to dismiss Tanucci.

Maria Carolina dominated Ferdinand, but herself was heavily influenced by Sir John Acton, the English former commander of the naval forces of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, whom she hired to reorganise the Neapolitan navy.

Acton, promising to support Maria Carolina’s wish to free Naples from Spanish rule, was soon appointed commander-in-chief of both the army and the navy and eventually prime minister, much to the disapproval of the Spanish monarchy, who were about to go to war against Britain alongside France.

In the meantime, thanks to Ferdinand’s incompetence and Acton’s manoeuvring for power, Naples was so poorly governed it became clear that something similar to the French Revolution, which had famously toppled the French monarchy, could be about to be repeated in Naples.

Ferdinand aged 22 or 23, again painted by Anton Raphael Mengs
Ferdinand aged 22 or 23, again painted by
Anton Raphael Mengs
Not surprisingly, the execution of Marie Antoinette in Paris in 1793 had a profound effect on Maria Carolina. Abandoning all pretence to enlightenment, she persuaded Ferdinand to pledge the Kingdom of Naples to the War of the First Coalition against republican France, while at the same time summarily rounding up anyone in southern Italy suspected of revolutionary intentions.

For the next 23 years, Ferdinand’s forces fought the French in one conflict after another. Obliged the make peace in 1796 when faced with the young commander Napoleon Bonaparte’s march into central Italy, the Bourbon king then enlisted the help of Nelson’s British fleet in the Mediterranean to support a counter march on Rome in 1798.

Driven back rapidly, Ferdinand took flight, leaving Naples in a state of anarchy as he took refuge in Sicily. Bonaparte’s troops soon marched into Naples and in January 1799 established the Parthenopaean Republic.

Ferdinand now turned his attention to rooting out and executing suspected republicans in Palermo, but when Napoleon was forced to send most of his soldiers back to northern Italy, Ferdinand despatched an army led by the ruthless commander Fabrizio Cardinal Ruffo to crush the Parthenopaean Republic and reclaim Naples.

Yet Ferdinand was driven out again six years later when Napoleon’s victories against Austrian and Russian forces in the north allowed him to send another army to Naples, led by his brother Joseph, whom he proclaimed king of Naples and Sicily.

Mengs painted Queen Maria Carolina in 1768, around the time they were married
Mengs painted Queen Maria Carolina in
1768, around the time they were married
In fact, Ferdinand remained ruler of Sicily, with British protection, although protection that came at a price that included granting the island a constitutional government and sending Maria Carolina into exile in Austria, where she died in 1814.

Ferdinand made another triumphant return to Naples in 1815 after Joseph Bonaparte’s successor, Joachim Murat, was defeated by the Austrians and Ferdinand was reinstated as King of Naples and Sicily.

Now completely beholden to the Austrians, he abolished Sicily’s constitutional government and declared himself Ferdinand I of the Two Sicilies, bringing the two kingdoms together as one, as they had been for a brief period in the 15th century.

But for all Ferdinand’s attempts to eliminate revolutionary elements in Naples and Palermo, the mood for change would not go away, if anything gaining momentum through resentment of the Austrians. After Ferdinand’s death in 1825 the new Kingdom of the Two Sicilies lasted only until 1860, when it was conquered by Giuseppe Garibaldi’s volunteer army to complete Italian Unification.

The facade of the Royal Palace at Portici
The facade of the Royal Palace at Portici
Travel tip:

The vast wealth of King Charles enabled him to build lavish palaces around Naples.  Portici, close to the Roman ruins at Ercolano (Herculaneum), was constructed between 1738 and 1742 as a private residence where he could entertain foreign visitors. Today it has a botanical garden that belongs to the University of Naples Federico II and houses the Accademia Ercolanese museum.  The palace at Capodimonte, in the hills above the city, was originally to be a hunting lodge but turned into a much bigger project when Charles realised the Portici palace would not be big enough to house the Farnese art collection be inherited from his mother, Elisabetta Farnese. Today it is home to the Galleria Nazionale (National Gallery), with paintings by Raphael, Titian, Caravaggio, Masaccio, Lotto, Bellini, Vasari and many more.  Charles never actually slept in the spectacular Royal Palace at Caserta, modelled on the French royal family’s Palace of Versailles and containing 1,200 rooms, having abdicated before it was completed.

The Piazza Tanucci in the village of Stia
The Piazza Tanucci in the village of Stia
Travel tip:

Stia, the Tuscan village of Bernardo Tanucci’s birth, is the first large community in the path of the Arno, the source of which is in the nearby Monte Falterona. Florence lies some 40km (25 miles) downstream. Situated in the beautiful Casentino valley area around Arezzo, Stia is a charming village in which the unusual triangular main square, which slopes sharply at one end, is named Piazza Tanucci in honour of the statesman. In the square, which has covered arcades of shops and restaurants along each side, can be found the church of Santa Maria della Assunta, which has a 19th century Baroque façade concealing a well-preserved Romanesque interior that possibly dates back to the late 12th century.

11 January 2018

The Giannini sextuplets

The multiple birth that made history

Rosanna Gemelli and her babies featured on  the cover of Gente magazine each year
Rosanna Giannini and her babies featured on
 the cover of Gente magazine each year 
History was made on this day in 1980 when a schoolteacher from the Casentino valley in Tuscany gave birth to sextuplets in a hospital in Florence.

The babies – four boys and two girls – delivered between 4.17am and 4.22am at the Careggi Hospital, on the northern outskirts of the Tuscan capital, grew to become the first sextuplets in Europe to survive beyond infancy and only the second set in the world.

Their arrival turned the Gianninis - mum Rosanna and dad Franco - into instant celebrities and their house in Soci, a village in the municipality of Bibbiena, 60km (37 miles) east of Florence, was besieged by the world’s media, seeking pictures and interviews.

In Italy, the event was celebrated with particular enthusiasm, heralded as the good news the nation craved after a particularly difficult year marked by a series of catastrophes, including the Ustica plane crash, the bombing of Bologna railway station and the Irpinia earthquake.

The family eventually signed an exclusive deal with the best-selling Italian magazine Gente for access rights.  Photographs of the children appeared around the time of their birthday for a number of years and features were written by the magazine’s leading journalist, Achille Mezzadri, who would later ghostwrite Rosanna’s autobiography, Vivere con sei gemelli – Living with sextuplets.

The couple – Rosanna was 29 and Franco 30 – faced uncharted territory in raising six babies simultaneously and faced enormous bills, too, first needing to find a house that would accommodate them all.

The sextuplets made the cover of Gente when they began to attend school
The sextuplets made the cover of Gente
when they began to attend school
They received help from the Tuscan regional government, while Rosanna’s revelation that she had to wash at least five loads of clothes every day prompted a major detergent company to propose a television advertising campaign for their products featuring the Giannini family.

The multiple pregnancy came about after Rosanna, desperate to start a family with Franco after being married in 1976, had been given hormone treatment after fearing she was entering an unnaturally early menopause.

She became pregnant in April 1979 but after feeling unwell during a particularly hot summer that year she was admitted to hospital for tests.  There she underwent an ultrasound scan and was astonished when the nurse carrying out the scan told her she was expecting twins, then spotted the third, fourth, fifth and sixth babies.

Her gynaecologist told her to keep her news a secret to avoid media attention ahead of the event but once the babies arrived there was no keeping it quiet.  By an amazing coincidence, the only other surviving sextuplets in the world at that time had been born in South Africa on January 11, 1974.

The six Giannini children – Letizia, Linda, Fabrizio, Francesco, Giorgio and Roberto – all weighed between 2lb 9oz (1.16kg) and 3lb 12oz (1.7kg) and thrived through childhood and adolescence, although Francesco came through a difficult time when he developed a serious kidney problem as a 19-year-old.

He slipped into a coma for a while and Rosanna credits the intervention of Don Alvaro, the parish priest of nearby Arezzo, who visited him in hospital and performed a blessing with the relics of Padre Pio, the much-venerated saint, for bringing about his recovery.

Rosanna pictured in 2015, aged 64, when her  famous sextuplets turned 35
Rosanna pictured in 2015, aged 64, when her
famous sextuplets turned 35
Media interest in the family naturally tailed off after a number of years but in 2015, on the occasion of the children’s 35th birthday, Rosanna gave an interview to the Italian newspaper La Stampa in which she lamented the fact that, despite four of the six obtaining degrees and the other two passing their high school exams, only Giorgio, a business economics graduate, had a permanent job, as an auditor for a company in Florence.

Of the others, Linda and Letizia, both graduates, were teaching but only on temporary contracts, Roberto had a job in a textile factory and Fabrizio, the other graduate, was working in a shopping mall with no job security.  Francesco had recently been laid off from his office job.

“In a way my children are emblematic of today’s Italy,” she said. “Four have degrees, the other two have high school certificates, and yet four do not have permanent or stable jobs.”

She and Franco had, though, become grandparents for the first time thanks to the arrival in 2014 of Letizia’s son, Tommaso.

The hilltop town of Bibbiena
The hilltop town of Bibbiena
Travel tip:

Bibbiena is an ancient town situated on a hill overlooking the Archiano river with a well-preserved medieval centre not well known to tourists but which contains a number of attractive palaces and churches, including the 14th century Chiesa di San Lorenzo and the 12th century Chiesa di Santi Ippolito e Donato. The town is surrounded by typical Tuscan countryside of rolling hills dotted with characteristic larch, beech and fir trees.  The town has a strong tradition of producing pecorino cheese.

Arezzo's sloping Piazza Grande
Arezzo's sloping Piazza Grande
Travel tip:

The city of Arezzo is well worth including in any Tuscan itinerary. Its central square, the sloping Piazza Grande, is as beautiful as any in Italy, while the city’s Duomo has painted vaulted ceilings and a 15th-century fresco of Mary Magdalene by Piero della Francesca. The Basilica di San Francesco has a chapel decorated with more Piero frescoes and inside the Basilica di San Domenico can be found a 13th-century Crucifix painted by Cimabue.  Piazza Grande hosts a large antiques fair every month and an annual medieval festival entitled the Saracen Joust, which features “knights” on horseback representing different areas of the city.

10 January 2018

Pina Menichelli – silent movie star

Screen diva who enjoyed worldwide fame

Pina Menichelli in one of the extravagant costumes she wore in Il Fuoco
Pina Menichelli in one of the extravagant
costumes she wore in Il Fuoco
The actress Pina Menichelli, who became one of the most celebrated female stars of the silent movie era, was born on this day in 1890 in Castroreale, a village in northeast Sicily.

Menichelli’s career was brief – she retired at the age of just 34 – but in her last eight or nine years on screen she enjoyed such popularity that her films played to packed houses and she commanded a salary that was the equivalent of millions of euros in today’s money.

Without words, actors had to use facial expressions and body movements to create character in the parts they were playing and Menichelli, a naturally beautiful woman, exploited her elegance and sensuality to the full, at times pushing the limits of what was acceptable on screen.

In fact, one of her films, La Moglie di Claudio (Claudio’s Wife) was banned by the censors for fear it would offend sensitivities, particularly those of the Catholic Church.

Generally cast in the role of femme fatale, Menichelli thus became something of a sex symbol in the years after the First World War and there was considerable shock when she announced abruptly in 1924 that she was quitting the film industry for good.

Born Giuseppa Iolanda Menichelli, she came from a theatrical background.  Her parents, Cesare and Francesca, were touring theatre actors, part of a dynasty of performers that included Nicola Menichelli, an 18th century comedian. Two sisters and a brother also became actors.

Menichelli and Amleto Novelli in the film Padrone delle Ferriere directed by Eugenio Perego
Menichelli and Amleto Novelli in the film Padrone
delle Ferriere directed by Eugenio Perego
She grew up on the road. She went to school in Bologna in northern Italy and joined a theatre company to tour Argentina as a teenager in 1908.

While she was living in Buenos Aires she met and married Libero Pica, an Italian journalist who was based there, and had two sons, the first of whom, sadly, survived only a few days.

Had things worked out differently, her big-screen career might never have happened, but after she became pregnant for a third time the couple separated and she returned to Italy. Her third child, a daughter, was born in Milan in 1912.

In 1913, with the Italian film industry still in its infancy, Menichelli signed up with the Rome studio Cines, and between 1913 and 1915 made 35 movies, graduating from small parts in short films to lead roles in features.

She was climbing the ladder towards fame, having earned favourable comparisons with Lydia Borelli and Francesca Bertini, the most famous Italian actresses of the day, when she moved to Itala Films of Turin, lured there by the director, Giovanni Pastrone, who saw in her the potential to become a star.

Giovanni Pastrone recognised Pina Menichelli's star potential
Giovanni Pastrone recognised Pina
Menichelli's star potential
He gave her the lead role in a film entitled Il Fuoco (The Fire), about the tempestuous love affair between an aristocratic poet (Menichelli) and an impoverished painter (Febo Mari), which was critically acclaimed and became a global success.

Her next role, as a glamorous Russian countess pursued by an amorous diplomat (Alberto Nepoti), in Pastrone’s Tigre Reale (Royal Tiger), had critics trying to outdo one another in the extravagance of their praise, referring to her “erotic charge, seductive glances and provocative body movements.”

One critic, noting Menichelli's propensity for writhing poses and sudden, dramatic movements, rather unflatteringly dubbed her "Our Lady of the Spasms."

It established Menichelli as the biggest star of all the divas of Italy’s silent movie scene and her salary catapulted almost overnight from around 12,000 lire per year working for Cines to move than 300,000 lire per year at Itala.

In 1919, she took the bold decision to leave Pastrone and Itala Films in order to sign up with Rinascimento Film of Rome, a company set up specifically for her by Baron Carlo d’Amato, who would later become her second husband.

The Italian film industry was beginning to struggle as the economic hardships of the 1920s began to take hold, yet by targeting foreign markets D’Amato was able to buck the trend and Menichelli continued to enjoy success.

La Storia di Una Donna won critical acclaim for Menichelli
La Storia di Una Donna won
critical acclaim for Menichelli
She was also given a platform to show off a different range of acting talents by a director willing to experiment.  His 1920 feature La Storia di Una Donna starred Menichelli as a mystery woman taken unconscious with gunshot wounds to a hospital, where a detective trying to identify her finds a diary telling the story of her life, which is then played out for the audience as a series of extended flashbacks, a technique at the time that was highly unusual.

Menichelli made a total of 13 films for D’Amato, rounding off with a couple of light-hearted comedies before the two were married in 1924, following the death of her first husband, who had always refused to allow their marriage to be annulled.

It was then that she announced she was not only retiring but turning her back on the cinema to the extent that she wished almost to erase it from her life, destroying every photograph, poster and programme she possessed and making it known that approaches from journalists, biographers or cinema historians who might wish to chronicle her career would not be welcome.

Wealthy enough never to have to worry about money, she seemingly wanted nothing but to resume the life of a housewife and mother that was denied to her when she parted acrimoniously from her first husband.  The image of a “vamp”, a femme-fatale, a sex symbol, she felt was incompatible with that of a good wife.

She lived the remainder of her life – another 60 years – out of the spotlight, outliving her husband and dying in relative obscurity in Milan in 1984 at the age of 94.

The hilltop town of Castroreale in Sicily
The hilltop town of Castroreale in Sicily
Travel tip:

Castroreale, where Pina Menichelli was born, is a hilltop village in northeast Sicily about 9km (5.5 miles) inland and 30km (19 miles) southwest of the city of Messina. It is notable for having 80 churches – roughly one for every 35 residents.  Notable among these are the 15th century Duomo di Santa Maria Assunta, with its Mannerist façade with Baroque and classical decorations, the church of the Candelora on Via Umberto I, which contains a 17th century wooden altar with carvings attributed to Giovanni Siracusa.  Two art collections, housed in the former church of Santa Maria degli Angeli, and in the Civic Museum, are worth a visit.

The Villa della Regina was a palace of the House of Savoy
The Villa della Regina was a palace of the House of Savoy
Travel tip:

The studios of Itala Film, where Menichelli found fame, were in Via Luisa del Carretto, a street in Turin in the neighbourhood of Gran Madre, a quiet residential area across the Po river from the main part of the city yet only five or 10 minutes from the centre.  Nearby is the Villa della Regina, a 17th century palace designed by Ascanio Vitozzi for the House of Savoy.