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.

19 January 2018

Assunta ‘Pupetta’ Maresca – camorrista

Ex-beauty queen who avenged death of husband

Assunta Maresca's good looks concealed a ruthless, violent streak
Assunta Maresca's good looks concealed
a ruthless, violent streak
Assunta Maresca, the mobster’s wife who made headlines around the world when she walked into a bar in Naples in broad daylight and shot dead the man she suspected of ordering the murder of her husband, was born on this day in 1935 in the coastal town of Castellammare di Stabia.

Better known as ‘Pupetta’ – the little doll – on account of her small stature and stunning good looks, Maresca took the law into her own hands after her husband – a young and ambitious camorrista and the father of her unborn child - was assassinated on the orders of a rival.

Her extraordinary act brought her an 18-year prison sentence, of which she served about a third, yet made her a figure of such public fascination that several movies and TV series were made about her life.

She went on to become the lover of another mobster and was alleged to have participated in Camorra activity herself, serving another jail term after she was found guilty of abetting the murder of a forensic scientist, which she denied.

Assunta Maresca was born into a world of crime.  Her father, Alberto, was a smuggler specialising in trafficking cigarettes; her uncle, Vincenzo, a Camorra boss who had served a prison sentence for killing his own brother.

Her family were known as i Lampatielli, from the word ‘lampo’, meaning lightning, for the speed at which they wielded a knife. Assunta had a violent streak and was once arrested for seriously wounding a fellow pupil, although she escaped conviction after her victim, on leaving hospital, withdrew her complaint.

Maresca on the day of her wedding to Pasquale Simonetti, who would be dead within a matter of weeks
Maresca on the day of her wedding to Pasquale Simonetti,
who would be dead within a matter of weeks
At the age of 19 she entered and won a beauty pageant at Rovigliano, a few kilometres along the Bay of Naples coast from Castellammare.  It was not long after that when she caught the eye of Pasquale Simonetti, ostensibly a worker in the Naples fruit and vegetable market but also a contraband cigarette dealer and the enforcer for a Camorra cartel that fixed the prices of produce, controlled supply and selected the buyers, often through violent coercion.

With the family’s blessing they were married at the Pontifical Shrine of the Blessed Virgin of the Rosary of Pompei – the cathedral in the modern town of Pompei, a short distance from the celebrated Roman ruins – in April 1955.

Pasquale, a big, broad man from Palma Campania, a village about 25km (15 miles) from Naples on the other side of Mount Vesuvius, promised to change his life for Assunta but did not have the chance. Ambitious enough to be seen as a threat by other gang bosses, just three months after the wedding, on July 16, he was killed by Gaetano Orlando, a hitman hired by gang boss Antonio Esposito.

Heavily pregnant, a devastated Assunta soon discovered who was responsible.  She believed that the police knew as well but, for one reason or another, chose not to make an arrest. With her younger brother, Ciro, she travelled to San Giovanni in Rotondo, some 230km (143 miles) away in Puglia, in order to plan her next move well away from Esposito’s sphere of influence.

Maresca believed family honour dictated that she avenged her husband's death
Maresca believed family honour dictated
that she avenged her husband's death
It was from there that she drove back to Naples a little under three weeks later and arranged to meet Esposito in a bar on Corso Novara, a few steps from the city’s main railway station at Piazza Garibaldi.  In her handbag was the Smith and Wesson revolver Pasquale had handed to her on their wedding day in a symbolic gesture as he pledged to reform his life.

As soon as Esposito identified himself she drew it, gripping it in both hands as she pulled the trigger. Esposito fell to the floor and once satisfied he was dead Assunta and Ciro left horrified customers to contemplate what they had just seen.

She was arrested a couple of months later and detained in the prison at Poggioreale, not far from the city’s Capodichino airport, where she gave birth to her son, Pasquale Jnr.

It was four years before the case came to trial.  The New York Times and Time magazine were among a swathe of news organisations that covered the trial and crowds gathered every day outside the courtroom in such numbers that the court decided to set up microphones and speakers so that proceedings could be followed outside.  There were factions, who called themselves Pupettisti – those vocally supporting Pupetta – and Antipupettisti, who were against her.

Assunta argued that she acted out of passion and self-defence, fearing she would also be killed.  But the prosecuting magistrate argued successfully that the killing was part of a wider gang war. Orlando was jailed for 30 years for murdering Simonetti, Assunta received an 18-year sentence for killing Esposito and her brother, Ciro, 12 years for his role in facilitating Assunta’s crime.

The sentence for Assunta was reduced to 13 years and four months on appeal, with Ciro acquitted altogether. Assunta, who became a leader among her fellow female inmates in jail, was pardoned in 1965.

Maresca (right) with the actress Manuela Arcuri, who portrayed her in a 2013 TV drama
Maresca (right) with the actress Manuela Arcuri, who
portrayed her in a 2013 TV drama
She admitted later that the killing, although driven by grief, was also a matter of honour. She planned to take over Pasquale’s criminal activity and knew that to do so she would have to command respect, which in the Camorra world meant being seen to avenge her husband’s murder personally.

On her release, she took advantage of her celebrity, actually playing herself in a 1967 movie based on her life, and trading on her glamorous notoriety by opening two fashion shops in Naples.

She took up with another mobster, Umberto Ammaturo, with whom she had twins, Roberto and Antonella, although they never married.

The relationship survived despite the death in 1974 of Pasquale Jnr, who was determined to be a worthy son to his late father by becoming a significant figure in the Camorra.  He was killed in an ambush and Pupetta suspected her partner, who had been a rival of her husband and always felt uneasy with Pasquale Jnr’s ambitions.

In time, though, they drifted apart and separated in 1982, when Pupetta was jailed following the murder of Aldo Semerari, a corruptible psychiatrist, criminologist and forensic scientist who had previously offered ‘helpful’ diagnoses on behalf of the Nuova Famiglia, the arm of the divided Camorra to which Pupetta and Ammaturo were affiliated, but had jumped ship to keep rival boss Raffaele Cutolo, head of the Nuova Camorra Organizzata, out of jail by testifying that he was insane.

She was eventually released for lack of evidence but, on suspicion of Camorra association, all her assets were seized. Nowadays, in her 80s, Pupetta has become a reclusive figure, reportedly dividing her time between apartments in Castellammare and the resort of Sorrento, some 20km (12 miles) further along the bay.

The celebrated director Francesco Rosi made a film, La sfida, about her life in 1958 and she was the subject of a mini-series on TV as recently as 2013, when the producers were accused by some anti-Mafia campaigners of glamourising crime.

Castellammare di Stabia's bandstand - the cassa armonica -  is a famous landmark in the resort
Castellammare di Stabia's bandstand - the cassa armonica -
is a famous landmark in the resort
Travel tip:

Much of Castellammare di Stabia, a resort about 30km (19 miles) from Naples that became a major centre for shipbuilding on the Bay of Naples, was built over the Roman city of Stabiae, which was destroyed along with Pompeii and other Roman towns in the Vesuvius eruption of 79AD.  Pliny the Elder, the philosopher and naval and army commander of the early Roman empire, is said to have died in the eruption.  Once a bustling resort, it is famous for the ornate cast-iron and glass bandstand on the seafront, constructed originally in 1900 and restored in 1911.

The cathedral at Pompei, where Maresca was married in 1955
The cathedral at Pompei, where Maresca was married in 1955
Travel tip:

The impressive Pontifical Shrine of the Blessed Virgin of the Rosary of Pompei, the cathedral of the new Pompei in Campania, a town of around 25,000 people about 25km (15 miles) south of Naples close to the ruins of the former Roman city that attract millions of visitors every year, was built from a dilapidated former church by Bartolo Longo, a lawyer who had returned to the Christian faith after a period following alternative beliefs, over a 28-year period between 1873 and 1901. The statue of the Virgin of the Rosary that sits atop the façade was carved from a single block of Carrara marble by Gaetano Chiaromonte.

18 January 2018

Dino Meneghin – basketball player

Italy’s biggest star won 32 trophies and Olympic medal

Dino Meneghin in 1980, the year his Olympic silver medal followed a domestic treble
Dino Meneghin in 1980, the year his Olympic
silver medal followed a domestic treble
Dino Meneghin, universally recognised as the greatest Italian player in basketball history, was born on this day in 1950 in Alano di Piave, a village in the Veneto.

The first Italian and only the second European player to be drafted by a National Basketball Association team when he was picked by the Atlanta Hawks in 1970, Meneghin enjoyed a professional career spanning 28 years.

He did not retire until he was 44 years old and had played in a professional match against his own son, Andrea, having won 32 trophies including 12 Italian national championships and seven EuroLeague titles.

Meneghin also participated in four OIympic basketball tournaments, winning a silver medal in the 1980 Games in Moscow. His international career amounted to 271 appearances for Italy, in which he scored 2,847 points.

Brought up in Varese in Lombardy, Meneghin was always exceptionally tall, growing to a height of 6ft 9ins (2.06m), and was earmarked for an athletic career.  He and his brother Renzo would train together, Renzo as a middle-distance runner, Dino as a shot-putter and discus thrower.

It just happened that in 1963 his school entered a basketball tournament and his PE teacher, looking at who might be a candidate for the school team, naturally wanted to see whether Dino had the skills to go with his height.

Meneghin father and son: on court in  1990 with son Andrea (left)
Meneghin father and son: on court in
1990 with son Andrea (left)
He asked Dino to perform a series of runs and movements and was sufficiently encouraged to ask him to return the following day with some basketball shoes.  Many years later, in his autobiography, Meneghin revealed that when he asked his mother if he could have some basketball shoes she confessed she had not even heard of basketball, let alone knew where to buy the requisite footwear.

Nonetheless, he played in the tournament, impressing his teacher so much he was recommended for a trial with Pallacanestro Varese, better known as Ignis Varese after the electrical appliance firm that were its sponsors, and one of the leading clubs in the Italian Basketball League.

Three years later, at the age of 16 years and 11 months, he made his professional debut, beginning what would be a career of extraordinary success.

Playing in the key position of center, which normally goes to the tallest player on the team, Meneghin helped Varese win seven Italian championships between 1969 and 1977, plus four Italian Cups, five European (EuroLeague) Cups, two Cup-Winners’ Cups and two Intercontinental Cups.

After Varese had won the treble of domestic league and cup and the European crown in 1970, Meneghin was entered for the NBA draft, the first Italian to be given that honour.  In the event, though selected by Atlanta, he did not take up the chance to play as it would have meant turning his back on his international career.

Had that happened his participation in the Munich, Atlanta, Moscow and Los Angeles Olympics would not have taken place, nor would he have supplemented his silver medal in Moscow, in which Italy were beaten by Yugoslavia in the final in the absence of the USA, with bronze medals at the European championships in 1971 and 1975 and gold at the 1983 finals in France.

Meneghin in retirement as president of the Italian Basketball Federation
Meneghin in retirement as president of
the Italian Basketball Federation
Meneghin spent 14 years with Varese before joining Olimpia Milano in 1980 and continuing his success, winning five more Italian league titles, two Italian Cups, two EuroLeague titles and another Intercontinental Cup.

After 10 years in Milan, he moved again in 1990 to Stefanel Trieste, where in November 1990 he enjoyed the emotional experience of playing against his son, Andrea, who had started out in the same way as his father, making his debut for Varese at the age of 16.

Andrea was to go on to win a first Italian title with Varese in 1999, in the same year winning a European championship gold medal for Italy in a team of which his father was sitting on the bench as manager.

Since retiring, Dino has been inducted to the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame – only the second Italian to be granted the accolade, the most prestigious in the sport, after Cesare Rubini, the former Milano player and coach.

He has also served as president of the Italian Basketball Federation, made an honorary citizen of Varese and handed the keys to Alano di Piave.

In 2015, he was named on a list of 100 Italian sportsmen and women to be commemorated in a new Walk of Fame of Italian Sport, connecting the Avenue of the Olympics with the Olympic Stadium at the Foro Italico in Rome.

Nowadays, Meneghin lives in Alice Bel Colle, a pretty village in rolling countryside in the province of Alessandria in Piedmont, about 100km (62 miles) southeast of Turin and 80km (50 miles) northwest of the Ligurian capital of Genoa.

Varese's town hall is the Palazzo Estense, set in several acres of beautiful gardens
Varese's town hall is the Palazzo Estense, set in several
acres of beautiful gardens
Travel tip:

The city of Varese, in an area in the foothills of the Alps that owes its terrain to the activities of ancient glaciers that created 10 lakes in the immediate vicinity, including Lago di Varese, which this elegant provincial capital overlooks.  Most visitors to the city arrive there because of the Sacro Monte di Varese (the Sacred Hill of Varese), which features a picturesque walk passing 14 monuments and chapels, eventually reaching the monastery of Santa Maria del Monte.  But the town itself and the handsome villas and palaces in the centre and the surrounding countryside are interesting in their own right, reflecting the prosperity of the area. The grand Palazzo Estense is one, now the city's Municipio - the town hall.

The village of Alano di Piave in Veneto, viewed from the foothills of Monte Grappa
The village of Alano di Piave in Veneto, viewed from
the foothills of Monte Grappa
Travel tip:

Meneghin’s home village of Alano di Piave is situated in a beautiful valley in the northern area of Veneto, at the foot of Monte Grappa, in an area popular with climbers and walkers. Some 35km (22 miles) northeast of Bassano del Grappa and a similar distance southwest of Belluno, overlooking the fast-flowing Piave river, it is close to Valdobbiadene, the wine-growing area in the province of Treviso most famous for producing the finest Prosecco.

17 January 2018

Pope Gregory XI returns the papacy to Rome

Important date in Roman and papal history

Pope Gregory XI was the last French pope  and the last to rule from Avignon
Pope Gregory XI was the last French pope
and the last to rule from Avignon
The French Pope, Gregory XI, returned the papacy to Rome, against the wishes of France and several of his cardinals, on this day in 1377.

The move back to Rome was a highly significant act in history as the papacy, from that date onwards, was to remain in the city.

Gregory was born Pierre-Roger De Beaufort in Limoges. He was the last French pope, and he was also the last pope to reign from Avignon, where he had been unanimously elected in 1370.

He immediately gave consideration to returning the papacy to Rome in order to conduct negotiations for reuniting the Eastern and Western Churches and to maintain papal territories against a Florentine revolt being led by the powerful Visconti family.

But Gregory had to shelve his Roman plan temporarily in order to strive for peace between England and France after another phase in the Hundred Years’ War started.

However, in 1375, he defeated Florence in its war against the Papal States and the following year, he listened to the pleas of the mystic Catherine of Siena, later to become a patron saint of Italy, to move the papacy back to Rome.

Giovanni di Paolo's painting depicts the meeting of Catherine of Siena with Gregory XI at Avignon
Giovanni di Paolo's painting depicts the meeting
of Catherine of Siena with Gregory XI at Avignon
After peace was concluded against Florence, Gregory returned the papal court to Rome, entering the city on 17 January 1377, ending nearly 70 years of popes residing in Avignon.

His last few months in Rome were marred by conflict and at one stage he had to flee to Anagni, a town outside the city. Gregory died in March 1377 in Rome and was interred in the church of Santa Maria Nuova.

But the move back to Rome he brought about was important in papal history. Since then, the papacy, despite the reigns of antipopes in other cities, has always remained in Rome.

After Gregory’s death, the College of Cardinals was threatened by a Roman mob that broke into the voting chamber to try to force an Italian pope into the papacy.

The Italians chose Urban VI, but the Cardinals were against him and withdrew to Fondi, the city between Rome and Naples that was the home of the powerful Caetani family, where they annulled the election of Urban and elected a French pope, Clement VII.

This election of rival popes caused the split known as the Western Schism, forcing Europe into a dilemma about papal allegiance.

The Schism was not resolved fully until the Council of Constance was held by the College of Cardinals between 1414 and 1418. The Council deposed both popes and elected the Roman-born Martin V.

After a long stay in Florence, Martin V entered Rome in 1420 and immediately set to work restoring order and repairing dilapidated churches and palaces.

The papal residence in Anagni was a retreat for many popes seeking refuge from Rome
The papal residence in Anagni was a retreat for many
popes seeking refuge from Rome
Travel tip:

Anagni, where Pope Gregory XI briefly sought refuge, is an ancient town in the province of Frosinone in Lazio. It is south east of Rome in an area known as Ciociaria, named after the primitive footwear, ciocie, a type of sandal, worn by people living in the area. During medieval times many popes chose to reside in Anagni, considering it safer and healthier than Rome. The town produced four popes, the last one being Boniface VIII, who was hiding out there in 1303 when he received the famous Anagni slap, delivered by an angry member of the fiercely antipapal Colonna family after he refused to abdicate. After his death the power of the town declined and the papal court was transferred to Avignon. The medieval Palace of Boniface VIII, is near the Cathedral in the centre of the town. Close by there is a restaurant named Lo Schiaffo - The Slap.

Gregory XI's tomb at the Basilica di Santa Francesca Romana, near the Roman Forum
Gregory XI's tomb at the Basilica di Santa
Francesca Romana, near the Roman Forum
Travel tip:

The church of Santa Maria Nuova, where Pope Gregory XI is buried, adjoins the Roman Forum and is now known as the Basilica di Santa Francesca Romana, off the piazza of the same name. The tomb of Pope Gregory XI is in the south transept of the church and was reconstructed in 1584 to a design by Per Paulo Oliviero.