23 January 2018

Luisa Casati – heiress and muse

Outrageous marchioness saw herself as a living work of art

The Marchesa Casati photographed by Adolfo de Meyer in 1912
The Marchesa Casati photographed by
Adolfo de Meyer in 1912
The heiress, socialite and artist’s muse Luisa Casati, known for her outlandish dresses, exotic pets and hedonistic lifestyle, was born on this day in 1881 in Milan.

Casati, born into a wealthy background, married a marquis – Camillo, Marchese Casati Stampa di Soncino – when she was 19 and provided him with a daughter, Cristina, a year later, yet the marriage was never strong and they kept separate residences from an early stage.

It was not long before she tired of a life bound by formalities and the strict rules of etiquette and everything changed after she met the poet, patriot and lothario Gabriele D’Annunzio at a society hunt.

They became lovers and D’Annunzio introduced her to the world of writers and artists.  Tall, almost painfully thin and with striking looks, she became a creature of fascination for many young artists, who craved the attention of this eccentric aristocrat and the chance to paint her.

Their interest only encouraged the Marchesa Casati to indulge her taste for the extravagant, posing in ever-more outlandish dresses, embracing the culture of the Belle Époque. Her wealth enabled her to throw lavish parties and in 1910 she moved to Venice, taking up residence in the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni on the Grand Canal, the palace that now houses the Peggy Guggenheim Collection.

Casati in 1922 in a typically outrageous dress
Casati in 1922 in a typically
outrageous dress
There she created a fantastical lifestyle, assembling an extraordinary menagerie of pets that included a pair of cheetahs, a boa constrictor, white peacocks trained to perch on her window sills, a flock of albino blackbirds and greyhounds whose coats she dyed blue.

She staged enormous, elaborate parties, in which she paraded herself in increasingly ridiculous costumes, such as a dress made entirely of lightbulbs, which at one point gave her such a powerful electric shock she was thrown backwards across the room. 

Naturally shy, the Marchesa concentrated on making an impression through how she looked. She contrasted her fiery red hair with skin that she kept a deathly white, dropped belladonna in her eyes to dilate her pupils and framed them with black eye liner and false eyelashes.  She delighted in prowling the atmospheric Venetian streets after dark, with her jewel-collared cheetahs on leads, herself often naked beneath a cloak embroidered with emeralds.

Her parties, in Rome and Paris as well as Venice, may have seemed like merely excuses for decadence and excess, with opium and cocaine a common indulgence among some of the guests, but were affairs that she choreographed carefully, with clothes, décor and entertainment precisely planned according to whichever theme she chose.  She saw herself as a living work of art.

She was certainly an inspiration for works of art.  Giovanni Boldini, Paolo Troubetzkoy, Adolph de Meyer and Romaine Brooks were among those painters who were in her thrall, along with Futurists such as Fortunato Depero and Umberto Boccioni. She had affairs with several. Augustus John's portrait of her is one of the most popular paintings at the Art Gallery of Ontario.

The Marchesa with a greyhound, painted by Giovanni Boldoni
The Marchesa with a greyhound,
painted by Giovanni Boldoni
D'Annunzio is said to have based the character of Isabella Inghirami in Forse che si forse che no (Maybe yes, maybe no) on Casati, while the character of La Casinelle, who appeared in two novels by Michel Georges-Michel, was also inspired by her. Plays and movies were written featuring characters based on the Marchesa, with actresses such as Vivien Leigh and Ingrid Bergman in the lead roles.

She patronised a number of fashion designers. John Galliano, Karl Lagerfeld and Alexander McQueen created collections based on or inspired by her, while the British designers Georgina Chapman and Karen Craig had her in mind when they opened a fashion house called Marchesa.

It was all a far cry from a childhood lived in a palace in Milan and villas in Monza and on Lake Como. Her father was Alberto Amman, a giant in the textile industry who was made a Count by Umberto I and whose death when Luisa was 15 made her and her sister, Francesca, the two wealthiest young women in Italy.

But her extravagances did not come cheap.  By 1920 she was living on Capri at the Swedish psychiatrist Axel Munthe’s Villa San Michele and moved out of the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni in the mid-1920s.  By 1930 she had amassed personal debts of $25 million and was forced to auction off her possessions.

Pursued by creditors, she fled to London and lived in a one-bedroom flat. It was just around the corner from Harrods in hardly the least salubrious part of the city, yet placed her reduced circumstances by her standards.

Casati's grave in London
Casati's grave in London
She died in London in June 1957 at her address in Beaufort Gardens in Knightsbridge at the age of 76, having suffered a stroke.  She was buried at Brompton Cemetery, one of her few remaining friends having seen to it that she was dressed in a leopard skin and black outfit and false eyelashes, with one of her taxidermied Pekinese dogs at her side.

Among just a handful of mourners at her funeral was an elderly man who had travelled from Venice, where half a century earlier he had been her personal gondolier.  Her grave is marked with a small tombstone shaped like an urn draped in cloth, bearing the inscription ‘Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety’ from Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra.

An autumnal scene in Milan's Parco Nord
An autumnal scene in Milan's Parco Nord
Travel tip:

The Marchesa Casati’s married home in Milan was the Villa Casati, a stately mansion on the edge of what is now Parco Nord, a suburban park that was once an airfield, in Cinisello Balsamo, then a town in its own right, now more of a suburb. It is on the northern edge of the Milan metropolitan area, about 10km (6 miles) from the city centre. More than 75,000 people now live there.

The Grand Canal frontage of the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni
The Grand Canal frontage of the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni
Travel tip:

The Palazzo Venier dei Leoni is a palace on the Grand Canal in Venice once owned by a noble Venetian family of the 14th to 16th century, three of whom – Antonio Venier, Francesco Venier and Sebastiano Venier – were Doges.  It was bought by the American socialite and arts patron Peggy Guggenheim in 1949 and she lived there for 30 years, opening her collection of artworks to the public for the first time in 1951.  It is in the Dorsoduro quarter of Venice, near where it emerges into the lagoon, accessed from San Marco via the Accademia Bridge.

22 January 2018

Frankie Yale - gang boss

Mobster who employed a young Al Capone

Frankie Yale's police mugshot
Frankie Yale's police mugshot
The gang boss who gave Al Capone one of his first jobs was born in this day in 1893 in Longobucco in Calabria.

Francesco Ioele, who would later become known as Frankie Yale, moved to the United States in around 1900, his family settling into the lower Manhattan area of New York City.

Growing up, Ioele was befriended by another southern Italian immigrant, John Torrio, who introduced him to the Five Points Gang, which was one of the most dominant street gangs in New York in the early part of the 20th century.

In time, Ioele graduated from petty street crime and violent gang fights to racketeering, changing his name to Yale to make him sound more American and taking control of the ice delivery trade in Brooklyn.

With the profits Yale opened a waterfront bar on Coney Island, which was called the Harvard Inn. It was there that he took on a young Capone as a bouncer and in a fight there that Capone acquired the facial scars that would stay with him for life.

Capone worked for Yale for two years until Torrio, by then based in Chicago, recruited him to his organisation, and Capone moved to the city with which his criminal activities would become associated.

Al Capone worked for Yale in the bar he opened on Coney Island
Al Capone worked for Yale in the bar
he opened on Coney Island
Yale’s operations in Brooklyn flourished, his empire extending to extortion, prostitution and protection rackets as well as controlling legitimate businesses such as restaurant supply, creating monopolies by seeing off the competition through violence and coercion.  When prohibition was introduced, Yale became one of Brooklyn’s biggest bootleggers.

His front was a funeral home in 14th avenue, which enabled him to describe himself in official paperwork as a funeral director by profession.   He kept his neighbourhood onside by regularly performing acts of philanthropic generosity to help out people who had fallen on hard times through no fault of their own.

A snappy dresser who favoured expensive suits and diamond jewellery, he was a family man who married twice and fathered three daughters.

Ultimately, though, his power made him a target and as other Italian Mafia groups moved into New York, increasing competition for territory, wars between rival crime families became a regular occurrence and moves were made to take Yale off the scene.

Yale survived two attempts on his life between 1921 and 1923 yet emerged from both with his power increased.  He continued to work with Torrio and the increasingly powerful Capone, travelling to Chicago himself with two associates to carry out a murder on their behalf, for which he was arrested but released without charge when police were unable to disprove Yale’s alibi.

44th Street in Brooklyn as it looks today
44th Street in Brooklyn as it looks today
Yet when Yale finally met his demise on July 1, 1928, shot to death at the wheel of his Lincoln coupe on 44th Street, Brooklyn, the trail led back to Capone.

The Chicago mob boss had sent a spy to New York to try to discover who was behind the hijacking of trucks that were meant to be ferrying supplies of imported Canadian whisky illegally obtained by Yale, and the word that came back was that it was Yale himself.

A trap was set for Yale that involved him driving alone from his club in Brooklyn to his home. It was not long before a Buick sedan carrying four men ranged alongside his Lincoln and despite his attempts to shake them off in a high-speed chase Yale was eventually caught and the men opened fire. One of them carried a Thompson submachine gun, the first time such a weapon had been used in a New York gangland shooting, and Yale was killed instantly.

Despite the allegations surrounding his death, Yale was given one of the most lavish mob funerals New York had seen or would see in subsequent years, with thousands of Brooklyn people lining the route of the procession.  There were 38 cars to carry the flowers alone and 250 for the mourners, who saw his $15,000 silver casket lowered into the ground at the Holy Cross Cemetery.

The village of Longobucco nestles in a remote valley near the Sila national park in Calabria
The village of Longobucco nestles in a remote valley
near the Sila national park in Calabria
Travel tip:

Longobucco, where Yale was born, is a typical Calabrian village hidden away in a remote valley on the edge of the Sila national park. The valley forms a section of a pass through the Sila massif, which carries a road linking the provincial capital of Cosenza with the coastal towns on the southwestern shore of the Gulf of Taranto, the sea which fills the arch of Italy’s ‘boot’. The town was once a stronghold for brigands, who would ambush travellers, steal their valuables and sometimes kidnap travellers who looked well-heeled enough to command a ransom.

The Corso Telesio in the medieval heart of Cosenza
The Corso Telesio in the medieval heart of Cosenza
Travel tip:

According to the Lonely Planet travel guide, the Calabrian city of Cosenza “epitomises the unkempt charm of southern Italy”. Like many Italian cities, it has a modern part and a distinct historic part.  In Cosenza’s case, that history can be traced back to the third century, when there was a settlement called Consentia, the capital of the Brutti tribe. Over subsequent years, the area was captured the Visigoths, the Lombards, the Saracens, the Normans and the Spanish, who resisted the French in the early part of the 19th century, before the Risorgimento and unification saw it become part of the new Italy.  At the heart of the medieval old city, with its network of steep, narrow streets, is a cathedral originally built in the 11th century and modified many times subsequently.  Its 19th century neo-Gothic façade changed its character but parts of the original structure have been retained.

21 January 2018

Camillo Golgi – neuroscientist

Nobel prize winner whose name lives on in medical science

Camillo Golgi expanded knowledge of  the human nervous system
Camillo Golgi expanded knowledge of
the human nervous system
Camillo Golgi, who is recognised as the greatest neuroscientist and biologist of his time, died on this day in 1926 in Pavia.

He was well known for his research into the central nervous system and discovering a staining technique for studying tissue, sometime called Golgi’s method, or Golgi’s staining.

In 1906, Golgi and a Spanish biologist, Santiago Ramon y Cajal, were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in recognition of their work on the structure of the nervous system.

Golgi was born in 1843 in Corteno, a village in the province of Brescia in Lombardy.

The village was later renamed Corteno Golgi in his honour.

In 1860 Golgi went to the University of Pavia to study medicine. After graduating in 1865 he worked in a hospital for the Italian army and as part of a team investigating a cholera epidemic in the area around Pavia.

He resumed his academic studies under the supervision of Cesare Lombroso, an expert in medical psychology, and wrote a thesis about mental disorders. As he became more and more interested in experimental medicine he started attending the Institute of General Pathology headed by Giulio Bizzozero, who was to influence Golgi’s research publications. They became close friends and Golgi later married his niece, Lina Aletti.

Financial pressure led Golgi to work at the Hospital for the Chronically Ill in Abbiategrasso near Milan and while he was there he set up a simple laboratory in a former hospital kitchen.

A statue within the campus of Pavia University commemorates Golgi's life and work
A statue within the campus of Pavia University
commemorates Golgi's life and work
It was in his improvised laboratory that he made his most notable discoveries. His major achievement was the development of staining technique for studying nerve tissue called the black reaction, using potassium bichromate and silver nitrate, which was more accurate than other methods and was later to become known as Golgi’s method.

In 1885 he joined the faculty of histology at the University of Pavia and then later became Professor of Histology. He also became Professor of Pathology at the San Matteo hospital.  His connection with the university is commemorated with a statue within the grounds, while a plaque marks the house in nearby Corso Strada Nuova where he lived.

He was rector of the University of Pavia for two separate periods and during the First World War he directed the military hospital, Collegio Borromeo, in Pavia.

Golgi retired in 1818 and continued his research in a private laboratory. He died on 21 January1926.

In 1900 he had been named as a Senator by King Umberto I. He received honorary doctorates from many universities and was commemorated on a stamp by the European community in 1994.

The Golgi apparatus, the Golgi tendon organ, the Golgi tendon reflex and certain nerve cells are all named after him.

The Golgi museum in Via Brescia, Corteno Golgi
The Golgi museum in Via Brescia, Corteno Golgi
Travel tip:

Corteno Golgi, a village of around 2,000 people is situated in the High Camonica Valley, about 100km (62 miles) north of Brescia in the Orobie Alps in Lombardy. It has a museum dedicated to Camillo Golgi in Via Brescia. For more information visit www.museogolgi.it.

The covered bridge over the Ticino river at Pavia
The covered bridge over the Ticino river at Pavia
Travel tip:

Pavia, where Golgi lived for a large part of his life, is a city in Lombardy, about 46km (30 miles) south of Milan, known for its ancient university, which was founded in 1361, and its famous Certosa, a magnificent monastery complex north of the city that dates back to 1396. A pretty covered bridge over the River Ticino leads to Borgo Ticino, where the inhabitants claim to be the true people of Pavia and are of Sabaudian origin.

20 January 2018

Franca Sozzani – magazine editor

Risk taker who turned Vogue Italia into a major voice

Franca Sozzani was editor-in-chief of Vogue Italia for 28 years
Franca Sozzani was editor-in-chief of
Vogue Italia for 28 years
Franca Sozzani, the journalist who was editor-in-chief of the Italian edition of Vogue magazine for 28 years, was born on this day in 1950 in Mantua.

Under her stewardship, Vogue Italia was transformed from what she saw as little more than a characterless clothing catalogue for the Milan fashion giants to one of the edgiest publications the style shelves of the newsstands had ever seen.

Sozzani used high-end fashion and the catwalk stars to make bold and sometimes outrageous statements on the world issues she cared about, creating shockwaves through the industry but often selling so many copies that editions sometimes sold out even on second or third reprints.

It meant that advertisers who backed off in horror in the early days of her tenure clamoured to buy space again, particularly when the magazine began to attract a following even outside Italy.

She gave photographers and stylists a level of creative freedom they enjoyed nowhere else, encouraging them to express themselves through their photoshoots, particularly if they could deliver a message at the same time.  She encouraged her writers, too, not to shy away from issues she thought were important, and not to regard fashion as an insular world.

Among the most famous editions of the magazine were those that drew attention to broad topics such as drug abuse and rehab, domestic abuse and plastic surgery, and specific issues such as the Gulf of Mexico oil spill of 2010 and America’s election of a first black president, which she marked with an edition in which all of the models used were non-white.

Sozzani had a vision to set Vogue Italia apart from its sister publications in other countries
Sozzani had a vision to set Vogue Italia apart from
its sister publications in other countries
The work they did for her advanced the careers of many photographers, including Peter Lindbergh, Paolo Roversi, Bruce Weber and Steven Meisel, whose elevation to star status in magazine photography owed almost everything to her guidance and nurture.

Sozzani wanted her readers to think about issues, even to disturb them, and she sometimes attracted criticism. For instance, when she had the model Kristin McMenamy photographed covered in oil, as a stricken bird of paradise, in response to the Gulf oil spill, it was seen as insensitive.  Her response was to say that if you wanted to take risks, as she did, then you should expect people to make judgments, good or bad.

Brought up in a comfortable environment in Mantua, the historic and prosperous city in Lombardy where her father, Gilberto, was an engineer, Sozzani might never have followed the career path that was to unfold in front of her had her father not talked to her about the virtues of getting a steady job.

She attended convent schools and then the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart in Milan, where she graduated in literature and philosophy, following her free spirited nature by getting married at the age of 20 and then going travelling in London and India.

The marriage collapsed after just three months, after which she sought to convince her father that she could take a long-term view of her future and took a job as a secretary at Condé-Nast, the magazine publishing company.  From there in 1976 she became an editorial assistant on the company’s Vogue Bambini title and gradually worked her way up the production ladder.

The 2008 'black edition' of Vogue Italia was one of Sozzani's notable triumphs
The 2008 'black edition' of Vogue Italia
was one of Sozzani's notable triumphs
This in time led to the editorship in 1980 of a new Italian magazine, Lei, which was the Italian equivalent of Glamour, and two years later its sister title aimed at the male market, Per Lui.  It was while working for those magazines that she began to use photographers such as Weber and Meisel and Olivieri Toscani, who had much to do with the multicultural and socially aware advertising campaigns followed by Italy’s trendsetting Benetton company.

The two titles remained her focus until the late 80s, at which point she felt she had taken both as far as she could and was prepared to move on, only for Condé-Nast to realise the talent they were about to lose and gave her Vogue Italia, which lagged the British, American and French versions of the magazines in sales and prestige and needed freshening up.

No one was better suited to create an identity for Vogue Italia than Sozzani, whose vision from the outset was that where Vogue in the UK was about elegance and romance, in the US about glossy celebrity and the French version intellectual chic, her readers would understand that each edition of Vogue Italia would say something about the world, in words but sometimes only in images.

Her own attitude to fashion helped shape her editorial policy. She thought many aspects of the fashion world were ridiculous and in her own day-to-day life favoured clothes that were easy to wear, elegant but understated. 

After her first misadventure, Sozzani never married again, and managed to keep subsequent relationships largely out of the spotlight. One of them produced a son, Francesco Carrozzini, who was born in 1982. She died in 2016 after a long illness, at the age of 66.

The Basilica of Sant'Andrea in Mantua
The Basilica of Sant'Andrea in Mantua
Travel tip:

Mantua, where Franca Sozzani was born, is an atmospheric old city in Lombardy, about 180km (112 miles) to the south east of Milan, surrounded on three sides by a broad stretch of the Mincio river, which has always limited its growth, making it an easy place for tourists to look round. At the Renaissance heart of the city is Piazza Mantegna, where the 15th century Basilica of Sant’Andrea houses the tomb of the artist, Andrea Mantegna.

Each wall of the Sforza Castle is 180m long,  while the Torre di Filarete is 70m high
Each wall of the Sforza Castle is 180m long,
 while the Torre di Filarete is 70m high
Travel tip:

Vogue Italia’s headquarters are in Milan in Piazza Castello, the horseshoe-shaped piazza that wraps around the city’s impressive Castello Sforzesco – the Sforza Castle – which was built in the 15th century by Francesco Sforza, Duke of Milan on the site of a fortification erected in the previous century by another Milanese warlord, Galeazzo II Visconti. One of the largest citadels in Europe, it has a central tower, the Torre del Filarate, that climbs to 70m (230ft) in height, while each of the four walls is more than 180m (590ft) long. At the end of the 15th century, Ludovico Sforza commissioned artists including Bramante and Leonardo da Vinci to improve the interior decoration and they painted several notable frescoes.