14 February 2018

Valentina Vezzali – fencer

Police officer is Italy’s most successful female athlete

Valentina Vezzali won nine Olympic medals, including six golds, making her one of fencing's all-time greats
Valentina Vezzali won nine Olympic medals, including six
golds, making her one of fencing's all-time greats
The fencer Valentina Vezzali, whose three Olympic and six World Championship individual gold medals make her Italy’s most decorated female athlete of all time, was born on this day in 1974 in the town of Iesi in Marche.

The 44-year-old police officer, who also sits in the Italian Chamber of Deputies as a representative for Marche, retired from competition after the 2016 World Championships.

Her haul of six Olympics golds in total – three individual and three from the team event – has not been bettered by any Italian athlete, male or female.

Two other Italian fencers from different eras – Edoardo Mangiarotti and Nedo Nadi – also finished their careers with six golds. Fencing has far and away been Italy’s most successful Olympic discipline, accruing 49 gold medals and 125 medals in total, more than twice the number for any other sport.

Alongside the German shooter Ralf Schumann, the Slovak slalom canoeist Michal Martikán and the Japanese judo player Ryoko Tani, Vezzali is one of only four athletes in the history of the Summer Olympics to have won five medals in the same individual event.

Valentina Vezzali sits in the Italian Chamber of Deputies
Valentina Vezzali sits in the
Italian Chamber of Deputies
She is married to the former professional footballer Domenico Giugliano, with whom she has two sons, 12-year-old Pietro and four-year-old Andrea, who was born in May 2013. A few months earlier, Valentina having won her final Olympic gold in the team event at London 2012, where she was also the Italian flag bearer at the opening ceremony.

Born into a family originally from Emilia-Romagna – her father was from Correggio and her mother from Quattro Castella – she grew up in Iesi in the province of Ancona and took up fencing when she was just six years old.

By the time she made her Olympic debut at the Atlanta Games of 1996, Vezzali had already achieved an impressive collection of medals, including a string of golds in junior European and World Championships and her first senior gold, in the team event at the 1995 World Championships.

Her Olympic success story began immediately with team gold and individual silver in Atlanta.  She achieved double gold at the Sydney Games of 2000, defending her individual title successfully in Athens in 2004 and Beijing in 2008, which made her the only fencer in Olympic history to win individual gold at three consecutive Games.

In addition her nine Olympic medals won, including a silver and two bronze, at the World Championships Vezzali won 15 gold medals (6 individual and 9 teams), five silver and four bronze, plus 13 European championship golds, four silver and four bronze.

Vezzali with her team gold medal at the  2014 World Championships
Vezzali with her team gold medal at the
2014 World Championships
Vezzali won fencing’s World Cup 11 times, running up a record 67 match victories. She also numbered two golds at the Mediterranean Games, four at the Universiade and 20 Italian titles (11 individual and 9 teams).  The Italian sports newspaper, Gazzetta dello Sport, made her their Italian sportswoman of the year on six occasions.

Since joining the Polizia di Stato – the municipal police force - in which she has risen to the rank of superintendent, Vezzali has competed for the Fiamme Oro, the police sports team.

She had hoped to compete in a sixth Olympics in Rio di Janeiro in 2016 but failed to qualify for the individual competition, while the Games on this occasion did not include a team event.

A celebrity in Italy – she participated in the 2009 series of Ballando con le Stelle (Dancing with the Stars), the Italian version of the hit UK show Strictly Come Dancing – she launched her political career with the 2013 general election, winning a seat in the Chamber of Deputies.

Campaigning on issues that included sport and physical education, health and nutrition and women’s rights, she was elected under the banner of Scelta Civica (Civic Choice), the centrist party founded by former prime minister Mario Monti, although she has since distanced herself from the party over their decision to support Silvio Berlusconi’s more right-leaning Forza Italia at this year’s elections.

The Palazzo Pianetti is one of a number of impressive palaces in Iesi
The Palazzo Pianetti in Iesi
Travel tip:

Situated about 20km (12 miles) inland from the Adriatic coast, Vezzali’s home town of Iesi is impressive for the massive walls that surround its medieval centre, which is built on Roman foundations on a ridge overlooking the valley of the Esino river. The centre of the town is the attractive Piazza Federico II, where a regular market is held, and there are a number of interesting palaces, towers and churches, including a Romanesque-Gothic cathedral.

A porticoed street in Correggio
A porticoed street in Correggio
Travel tip:

The small town of Correggio, where Vezzali’s family originated, can be found in the Po valley, about 20km (12 miles) northeast of Reggio Emilia.  An interesting town full of history, it is thought to have developed around an 11th century castle. Although the original walls were demolished as the town expanded, much of the medieval centre remains. The town was the home of the Renaissance artist Antonio Allegri, also known as Correggio, to whom a monument was created by the sculptor Vincenzo Vela in Piazza Quirino.

13 February 2018

Benvenuto Cellini – sculptor and goldsmith

Creator of the famous Perseus bronze had a dark history

Cellini's bronze of Perseus and the Head of Medusa in Piazza della Signoria in Florence
Cellini's bronze of Perseus with the Head of
in Piazza della Signoria in Florence
The colourful life of the Renaissance artist Benvenuto Cellini ended on this day in 1571 with his death in Florence at the age of 70.

A contemporary of Michelangelo, the Mannerist Cellini was most famous for his bronze sculpture of Perseus with the Head of Medusa, which still stands where it was erected in 1554 in the Loggia dei Lanzi of the Piazza della Signoria in Florence, and for the table sculpture in gold he created as a salieri - salt cellar - for Francis I of France.

The Cellini Salt Cellar, as it is generally known, measuring 26cm (10ins) by 33.5cm (13.2ins), is now kept at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, with an insurance value of $60 million.

His works apart, Cellini was also known for an eventful personal life, in which his violent behaviour frequently landed him in trouble. He killed at least two people while working in Rome as a young man and claimed also to have shot dead Charles III, Duke of Bourbon, during the 1527 Siege of Rome by mutinous soldiers of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V.

Cellini was also imprisoned for alleged embezzlement of the gems from the tiara of Pope Clement VII, famously escaping from jail at the Castel Sant’Angelo by climbing down a rope of knotted bedsheets, and for immorality.

He was a self-confessed bisexual, being found guilty of sodomy on a number of occasions.  One such charge, brought following accusations made by a male apprentice in his Florence workshop, led to a prison sentence of four years, commuted to house arrest following the intervention of the Medici family.

Cellini's extraordinary salt cellar in gold is insured for a value of $60 million
Cellini's extraordinary salt cellar in gold is insured
for a value of $60 million
Much of this is known because Cellini documented his life in an autobiography, the first by a significant Renaissance figure, in which he shared the details of his racy exploits. 

Cellini was apprenticed as a metalworker in the studio of the Florentine goldsmith Andrea di Sandro Marcone. He might have stayed in Florence had he not twice had to leave to escape the consequences of his violent behaviour.

After fleeing to Rome, he worked for the bishop of Salamanca, Sigismondo Chigi, and Pope Clement VII, which is how he came to participate on the side of the pontiff in defending Rome against the imperial forces in 1527, where he claimed not only to have killed Charles III of Bourbon but also to have shot, possibly fatally, the Prince of Orange, Philibert of Chalon.

Having survived the sack of Rome, he returned to Florence and in 1528 worked in Mantua, making a seal for Cardinal Gonzaga, which is now the property of the city’s Episcopal Archives.  Back in Rome, he then executed several works in gold for Clement VII, although apart from two medals made in 1534, which can be seen at the Uffizi in Florence, none survive.

His violent ways continued. After his brother, Cecchino, had killed a corporal of the Roman Watch and in turn received fatal wounds from the gun of another soldier, Cellini meted out his own justice by murdering his brother’s killer. He later murdered another man, this time a rival goldsmith.

A portrait bust of Cellini by Raffaello Romanelli  can be found on Florence's Ponte Vecchio
A portrait bust of Cellini by Raffaello Romanelli
 can be found on Florence's Ponte Vecchio
Amazingly, he was absolved by Clement VII’s successor, Pope Paul III, but the following year, having wounded a notary, he fled from Rome and settled back in Florence.

He made his first visit to France as a guest of Francis I in 1538. It was two years later that he arrived at Fontainebleau, carrying with him an unfinished salieri, which he had originally offered to Cardinal Ippolito d’Este of Ferrara, and which he now completed in gold for the French king. The piece, which has the figures of a man and a women symbolising the sea and the Earth, and in which tiny models of a ship and a temple were intended to be receptacles for the condiments, is the only surviving fully authenticated Cellini work in precious metal. Modelled by hand rather than cast, it has been dubbed the Mona Lisa of small sculptures.

While in France, Cellini modelled and cast his first large-scale work, a large bronze lunette of the Nymph of Fontainebleau for the entrance to the Louvre.

He left Paris to return to Florence in 1545, at which point he was welcomed by Cosimo de’ Medici and entrusted with the commissions for the bronze Perseus in the Loggia dei Lanzi, and for a colossal bust of the Grand Duke of Tuscany, now at the Bargello museum, a short distance away.

Cellini’s other late works include his marble figures of Apollo and Hyacinth (1546) and of Narcissus (1546–47), which are also in the Bargello, as is a small relief of a greyhound made as a trial cast for the Perseus (1545).

There is a statue of Cellini in the  Piazzale degli Uffizi
There is a statue of Cellini in the
Piazzale degli Uffizi
After the unveiling of the Perseus, he began work on a marble crucifix originally intended for his own tomb in the Florence church of Santissima Annunziata, but now in the church of the royal monastery of the Escorial in Spain.

He began to write his autobiography in 1558 and completed it in 1562, dictating the text to an assistant in his workshop.

First printed in Italy in 1728, the book was translated into English in 1771. Composed in colloquial language, it is enormously valuable in providing a first-hand account of life in Clement VII’s Rome, the Paris of Francis I, and the Florence of Cosimo de’ Medici.

Michelangelo's David (left) and Bartolommeo Bandinelli's Hercules and Cacus in Florence's Piazza della Signoria
Michelangelo's David (left) and Bartolommeo Bandinelli's
Hercules and Cacus in Florence's Piazza della Signoria
Travel tip:

Florence’s Piazza della Signoria, situated right in the heart of the city, close to the Duomo and the Uffizi Gallery, is home to a series of important sculptures, including Giambologna’s The Rape of the Sabine Women and his Equestrian Monument of Cosimo I, Baccio Bandinelli’s Hercules and Cacus, the Medici Lions by Fancelli and Vacca, The Fountain of Neptune by Bartolemeo Ammannati, copies of Donatello’s Judith and Holofernes and Il Marzocco (the Lion), and the copy of Michelangelo’s David, at the entrance to the Palazzo Vecchio.

The Palazzo del Bargello in Via del Proconsolo is home to many masterpieces
The Palazzo del Bargello in Via del Proconsolo
is home to many masterpieces
Travel tip:

As well as works by Cellini, other great Renaissance sculptures can be appreciated in the Museo Nazionale del Bargello - the Bargello National Museum - situated just a short distance from Piazza della Signoria in Via del Proconsolo. The museum houses masterpieces by Michelangelo, Donatello, Giambologna, Vincenzo Gemito, Jacopo Sansovino, Gianlorenzo Bernini and many works by the Della Robbia family.

More reading:

Also on this day:

(Picture credits: Perseus statue by Denise Zavala; Cellini Salt Cellar by Jerzy Strzelecki; Romanelli bust by Grzegorz Gołębiowski; Uffizi statue by Jebulon; Piazza della Signoria statues by Richard White; Palazzo Bargello by Kandi; all via Wikimedia Commons)

12 February 2018

Michelangelo Cerquozzi – painter

Battle scenes brought fame and riches to Baroque artist

Cerquozzi's painting Scena di battaglia is typical of the works  that earned him the nickname Michelangelo delle Battaglie
Cerquozzi's painting Scena di battaglia is typical of the works
 that earned him the nickname Michelangelo delle Battaglie
Michelangelo Cerquozzi, the Baroque painter, was born on this day in 1602 in Rome.

He was to become famous for his paintings of battles, earning himself the nickname of Michelangelo delle Battaglie - Michelangelo of the Battles. 

Cerquozzi was born into a well-off family as his father was a successful leather merchant. He started his artistic training at the age of 12 in the studio of Giuseppe Cesari, a history painter, with whom the young Caravaggio trained when he first arrived in Rome.

Not much is known about Cerquozzi’s early work, although he is thought to have been influenced by the Flemish and Dutch artists active in Rome at the time.

As well as battles, Cerquozzi painted small, religious and mythological works and some still life scenes.

Cerquozzi's Soldiers Playing Dice is now in a private collection
Cerquozzi's Soldiers Playing Dice is now in
a private collection
Cerquozzi joined the Accademia di San Luca in 1634 and, although he did not follow their strict rules, he started gradually gaining recognition for his work.

He secured commissions from prominent Roman patrons, including representatives of the Barberini and Colonna families.

His only public commission in Rome was for a lunette depicting the Miracle of Saint Francis of Paolo in the cloister of the Church of Sant’Andrea delle Fratte, which has sadly been lost.

He is also believed to have painted altarpieces for some churches in Sardinia.

The nickname Michelangelo delle Battaglie came from his paintings of battle scenes. He was considered to be one of the best of the Bamboccianti, the name given to the painters active in Rome in the 17th century.  

Many of them painted contemporary scenes featuring workers and soldiers, in action, in play and at rest.

A good example of this is Cerquozzi’s painting of Soldiers Playing Dice, painted in the 1630s and now in a private collection.  Despite featuring lower class subjects, many of his paintings went on to sell for high prices to collectors.

Cerquozzi's Rivolta di Masaniello can be seen at the Galleria Spada, near Campo dei Fiori in Rome
Cerquozzi's Rivolta di Masaniello can be seen at the
Galleria Spada, near Campo dei Fiori in Rome
His battle paintings were on small canvases and often provided a close up viewpoint of cavalry scenes showing the horses and men on the move.

One example is a work, simply titled Scena di battaglia – Battle Scene – which is housed at the Galleria Megna, in Via del Babuino in Rome.

Cerquozzi collaborated with the painter Viviano Codazzi in 1648 on a canvas depicting the Revolt of Masaniello, which is currently at the Galleria Spada in Rome. The painting shows the anti-Spanish rebellion of 1647 in the Piazza del Mercato in Naples with the leader, Masaniello, on a horse in the middle of the picture.

Cerquozzi never married and remained childless. He died, a wealthy man, in 1660 in his house near the Spanish Steps in Rome.

The Spanish Steps, and, on the corner,  Keats's house
The Spanish Steps, and, on the corner,  Keats's house
Travel tip:

Cerquozzi lived near Piazza di Spagna in Rome for most of his adult life. Piazza di Spagna gets its name from the Spanish Embassy to the Holy See which has been there since the 17th century. More than a century after Cerquozzi’s death the area at the foot of the Spanish Steps became popular with English aristocrats on the Grand Tour who stayed there while in Rome. In 1820, the English poet John Keats spent the last few months of his life in a small room overlooking the Spanish Steps and died there of consumption in February 1821, aged just 25. The house is now a museum and library dedicated to the Romantic poets.

The Church of Santa Maria del Carmine watches over Piazza del Mercato
The Church of Santa Maria del Carmine
watches over Piazza del Mercato
Travel tip:

Piazza del Mercato in Naples, where Cerquozzi depicted Masaniello leading the anti-Spanish rebellion, has long been the focal point of commercial life in the city due to its location not far from the port. Overlooked by the Church of Santa Maria del Carmine, it was the setting for the execution of Eleonora Fonseca Pimentel and her fellow revolutionaries in 1799. It was also the location for the beheading in 1268 of Corradino, a 16-year-old King of Naples.

More reading:

Also on this day:

(Paintings: Cerquozzi's Battle Scene and Soldiers Playing Dice both in private collections; Rivolta di Masaniello, Galleria Spada, Rome)

(Picture credits: Piazza di Spagna by Michael Paraskevas; Church of Santa Maria del Carmine by Luca Aless)

11 February 2018

Carlo Sartori – footballer

Italian was first foreigner to play for Manchester United

Italian-born Carlo Sartori in action  for Manchester United
Italian-born Carlo Sartori in action
 for Manchester United 
Carlo Domenico Sartori, the first footballer from outside Great Britain or Ireland to play for Manchester United, was born on this day in 1948 in the mountain village of Caderzone Terme in Trentino.

The red-haired attacking midfielder made his United debut on October 9, 1968, appearing as substitute in a 2-2 draw against Tottenham Hotspur at the London club’s White Hart Lane ground.

On the field were seven members of the United team that had won the European Cup for the first time the previous May, including George Best and Bobby Charlton, as well as his boyhood idol, Denis Law, who had missed the final against Benfica through injury.

Sartori, who made his European Cup debut against the Belgian side Anderlecht the following month, went on to make 56 appearances in four seasons as a senior United player before returning to Italy to join Bologna.

Although they dominate the Premier League today, players from abroad were a rarity in British football in Sartori’s era and United did not have another in their ranks until they signed the Yugoslav defender Nikola Jovanovic from Red Star Belgrade in 1980.

Jovanovic, in fact, was the first United player to be signed from an overseas club, Sartori having grown up in Manchester after arriving in the city with his family as a 10-month old baby.

Sartori made 56 senior appearances for  United before joining Bologna
Sartori made 56 senior appearances for
United before joining Bologna
They lived at first in the Ancoats area to the northeast of the industrial city, which at the time had a large Italian community.

Later, they would move a little further out of the city to Collyhurst, where his father established a knife-sharpening business that still thrives today, with clients in Liverpool as well as Manchester, and which would later provide Carlo with a living.

The young Sartori caught the eye as a schoolboy and a number of professional clubs began to monitor his progress.  Everton, Burnley and West Bromwich Albion all expressed an interest in signing him, and he had a trial with Manchester City, before United sent Joe Armstrong, their chief scout, to meet him and his parents at their home and offer him an apprenticeship.

His career made good progress while Matt Busby was United manager but began to wane after the legendary Scottish boss retired. In 1973 came the opportunity to play in Italy for Bologna, although in order to return to Italy he had to accept a period of compulsory national service.

Even so, Sartori was able to keep his football skills in order by turning out for the Italian Army team, with whom he won the World Military Cup.  Though he had to content himself initially with being on the fringes at Bologna, he still picked up a medal in his first season as a member of their victorious Coppa Italia squad.

He went on to play for a number of clubs in Italy, including 100 appearances for Lecce, before finishing his career, appropriately, with Trento, which meant he was able to rediscover his roots, having been born just 30km (19 miles) away.

Sartori, pictured at the time of his retirement, spent 29 years as a knife-sharpener
Sartori, pictured at the time of his retirement,
spent 29 years as a knife-sharpener
Had fate not intervened he might well have settled in the area. He qualified as a coach and was about to take up his first appointment, with the Serie C club at nearby Merano, when he learned that one of his two brothers, who had remained in England to run his father’s business, had passed away.

It meant that the surviving brother was left with more work that he could manage on his own and he asked Carlo to consider returning to England to help out.  After giving the matter some thought, he decided family came first.

So it was that Sartori, the former Manchester United star, became a familiar figure in the kitchens of the restaurants and hotels around Manchester that relied on the services of Sartori and Sons.

The business sustained him and his family for the next 29 years until he retired in 2013.  Now living near the town of Halifax in West Yorkshire, about 48km (30 miles) northeast of Manchester, he still returns to Italy from time to time and was recently honoured at a civic reception in Caderzone Terme.

The Alpine lakes at San Giugliano are one of the tourist attractions near Caderzone Terme
The Alpine lakes at San Giugliano are one of the tourist
attractions near Caderzone Terme
Travel tip:

Caderzone Terme is one of a cluster of villages in the middle of the Adamello-Brenta Nature Park in the Valle Rendena area of Trentino-Alto Adige, the autonomous region of northwest Italy that is also known as Sudtirol, with an Austrian as well as Italian heritage.  Traditionally, it was farming that provided for a population of around 5-600 inhabitants; nowadays, increasingly, the local economy is based on tourism. Nearby are the Alpine lakes of San Giugliano, Garzon and Vacarsa, while the mountains offer skiing and trekking opportunities.

Piazza Duomo in Trento, with the Palazzo Pretorio and Torre Civica on the left, and the Duomo to the right
Piazza Duomo in Trento, with the Palazzo Pretorio and Torre
Civica on the left, and the Duomo to the right
Travel tip:

The regional capital, Trento, is one of Italy’s wealthiest cities and often ranks highly in polls for quality of life, standard of living and business and job opportunities.  As well as being a modern city in terms of its strong scientific and financial sectors, Trento has a picturesque historic centre and a beautiful Alpine backdrop, with many of its suburbs retaining the feel of traditional rural or Alpine villages. At the centre of the city is the beautiful Piazza Duomo with its late Baroque Fountain of Neptune. The Duomo itself, built in the 12th and 13th centuries, sits on top of a late Roman basilica, the remains of which can be seen in the underground crypt.

10 February 2018

ENI – oil and gas multinational

Italian energy company 65 years old today

The ENI logo, with its strange six-legged dog
The ENI logo, with its strange
six-legged dog
The Rome-based multinational oil and gas company ENI, one of the world’s largest industrial concerns, was founded on this day in 1953.

The company, which operates in 79 countries, is currently valued at $52.2 billion (€47.6 billion) and employs almost 34,000 people.  It is the 11th largest oil company in the world.

Its operations include exploration for and production of oil and natural gas, the processing, transportation and refining of crude oil, the transportation of natural gas, the storage and distribution of petroleum products and the production of base chemicals and plastics.

A wholly state-owned company until 1995, ENI is still to a large extent in the control of the Italian government, which owns just over 30 per cent of the company as a golden share, which includes preferential voting rights, almost four per cent through the state treasury, and a further 26 per cent through the Italian investment bank, Cassa Depositi e Prestiti.

ENI came into being as Italy was rebuilding after the Second World War, which had left its economy in ruins. Enrico Mattei, an industrialist and a Christian Democrat deputy, was assigned the task of winding down the existing state-owned oil company Agip (Azienda Generale Italiana Petrolio), an entity that had come into being under the Fascist regime and was seen as unsustainable.

Enrico Mattei, ENI's founder, was a Christian Democrat deputy
Enrico Mattei, ENI's founder, was a
Christian Democrat deputy
Instead of closing Agip, however, Mattei rebuilt and expanded it, setting up a new company, Ente Nationale Idrocarburi – the National Hydrocarbons Authority – which would control the petrochemical industry throughout Italy.

The famous ENI logo – a six-legged imaginary dog – came into being at an early stage, the six legs symbolising the four wheels of a car and the two legs of the driver.

Mattei’s tactics were controversial.  Attempting to break the dominance of the world oil market by the so-called “Seven Sisters” – the seven mainly American companies that controlled 85 per cent of the global market from the mid-40s onwards, he made independent deals with Algeria, Egypt and Iran and, at the height of the Cold War, with the Soviet Union that greatly enhanced ENI’s value.

When Mattei was killed in a plane crash in 1962, there was strong evidence that the private jet in which he and the Time-Life journalist William McHale were travelling from Catania in Sicily to Milan had been sabotaged and conspiracy theories about the involvement of Italian and American secret service agents acting in the interests of the “Seven Sisters” rumbled on for years. After several enquiries, a court ruled in 1995 that Mattei’s cause of death was homicide, although the perpetrators have never been identified.

Even after Mattei’s death, however, ENI’s ties with the Middle East and Algeria were further strengthened, especially after the crisis of 1973, when the OPEC countries imposed an embargo on US and Netherlands companies in the wake of the Yom Kippur War.

Emma Marcegaglia, ENI's
current president
The ENI enterprises included an oil pipeline between Algeria and Sicily, via Tunisia, and, more recently, a joint initiative with Russia to import gas supplies into Europe.

Within Italy, ENI sells petrol and diesel under the ENI and Agip brands, and has seven power plants run using natural gas, at Brindisi in Apulia, Ferrara and Ravenna in Emilia-Romagna, Livorno in Tuscany and Bolgiano, Mantua and Ferrera Erbognone in Lombardy.

These supply power to 7.45 million residential customers in Italy and 2.09 million in other parts of Europe.

The ENI group includes companies in the construction, engineering and drilling businesses, with much energy devoted to finding new reserves off oil and gas, particularly off the coast of Africa and in the southern Mediterranean.

The company is chaired by the 52-year-old businesswoman Emma Marcegaglia, who was appointed president by Italian premier Matteo Renzi. The CEO is Claudio Descalzi, who first worked for ENI in 1981.

The Duomo at Brindisi, rebuilt after 1743 earthquake
The Duomo at Brindisi, rebuilt after 1743 earthquake
Travel tip:

The port of Brindisi, where the power plant is part of substantial ENI involvement in the area’s industry, sits on a large natural harbour overseen by the red-stone Aragonese Castle known as Forte a Mare that stands on a small island at the entrance, and by the Castello Grande or Castello Federiciano, which was once a residence of King Victor Emmanuel III.  Within the medieval centre of the city, which boasts a reconstructed Romanesque Duomo – the 11th or 12th century original was destroyed in an earthquake in 1743, two ancient Roman columns, which has been adopted as symbols of the city, are said to mark the beginning of the Appian Way, which linked Brindisi with Rome.

ENI's headquarters in the EUR district of Rome
ENI's headquarters in the EUR district of Rome
Travel tip:

ENI’s headquarters in Rome, the Palazzo ENI or Palazzo di vetro (The Glass Palace) is situated in the area known as Parco Centrale del Lago, a large green space in the middle of the EUR district, the modern city within a city built for the Universal Exposition that was scheduled to be held in Rome in 1942 but never took place. The Palazzo looks out over the Lago dell’EUR – the EUR lake – a short distance from the Palazzo dello Sport, the circular arena built by Marcello Piacentini and Pier Luigi Nervi for the 1960 Olympics.   Designed by the architects Marco Bacigalupo and Ugo Ratti, assisted by engineers Leo Finzi and Edoardo Nova, it is 85.5m high and has 22 floors. When it was inaugurated, it was the tallest building in the capital, after the Basilica of San Pietro in Vaticano, but has since been eclipsed by nearby Torre Europarco (120m) and the Eurosky Tower (155m).

(Picture credits: Brindisi duomo by LPLT; ENI building by Blackcat)


9 February 2018

Ezechiele Ramin – missionary

Priest from Padua who was murdered in Brazil

Ezechiele Ramin spent his adult life working on behalf of those in poverty or peril
Ezechiele Ramin spent his adult life working on
behalf of those in poverty or peril
Ezechiele Ramin, a Comboni missionary who was shot to death by hired killers after standing up for the rights of peasant farmers and traditional tribesmen in a remote rural area in Brazil, was born on this day in 1953 in Padua.

Ramin was only 32 when he was murdered in July 1985, having worked in the South American country for about a year and a half.

He had already completed missionary assignments in North and Central America, worked to help victims of the Irpinia earthquake in Campania and organised a demonstration against the Camorra in Naples before being posted to Brazil.

He was based in the state of Rondônia, an area in the northwest of Brazil next to the border with Bolivia, where small farmers found themselves oppressed, by legal and illegal means, by wealthy landowners, and where government measures had been introduced to curb the freedom of the indigenous Suruí tribes.

Ramin, an easy-going and popular man who amused himself by making sketches and playing the guitar, tried to solve the problems by arranging for a lawyer, paid for by the Brazilian Catholic Church through the Pastoral Land Commission, to act on behalf of the peasant farmers to see that their legal rights were properly observed.

This led to Ramin finding himself regularly threatened by the same armed gangs, hired by the landowners, who intimidated the rural workers.

Ramin was known for his friendly and  outgoing demeanour
Ramin was known for being a friendly
 and outgoing character
He was advised by his superiors at the Comboni Mission to act with caution but he continued towards his goal and on July 24, 1985 made a journey of around 100km (62 miles) from the city of Cacoal, in the Amazon valley, where he was based, to a large estate called the Fazenda Catuva. He had with him a trade union leader, Adilio de Souza, to chair a meeting of peasant farmers.

The meeting broke up and he had left the estate at the start of his return journey when a gang of seven armed gunmen, hired as an assassination squad by the landowners, ambushed the car in which he and De Souza were travelling and opened fire.

De Souza managed to escape but Ramin was hit by an estimated 50 bullets.  The irony is that feelings ran so high at the meeting he had attended that he spent much of it trying to persuade the farmers not to take up arms against the landowners, urging a peaceful solution.

His body was recovered by his fellow missionaries the following day, having been protected overnight by Suruí tribesmen, before being flown back to Italy for burial in the Cimitero Maggiore in Padua.

The possessions that were brought back with him included a substantial number of sketches, mainly in charcoal, which were displayed some time later in an exhibition in Padua.

A few days after his death, Ramin was defined as a “martyr of charity” by Pope John Paul II.

Adilio de Souza travelled with Ramin but escaped the assassins' bullets
Adilio de Souza travelled with Ramin but
escaped the assassins' bullets
Ramin had been born in the parish of San Giuseppe in Padua, the fourth of six sons in a family of modest means.  Known as Lele, he was a handsome boy who, according to some of his male friends, always seemed to be surrounded by groups of girls.

He was described as outgoing and sporty, with a particular enthusiasm for cycling.  In ball games he was highly competitive and if ever he lost he would always challenge his opponent to an immediate rematch.

But his family always encouraged him – and all of his brothers – to be true to their Christian principles and think about the wellbeing of others, and when Ezechiele became aware of how much poverty existed around the world he joined a charity called Mani Tese (Outstretched Hands), organising fund-raising activities to support projects in the Third World.

In 1972, he decided to join the religious institute of the Comboni Missionaries of the Heart of Jesus. His studied in Florence, in Venegono Inferiore, in the province of Varese, and in Chicago, where he graduated from Catholic Theological Union and served in the St. Ludmila Parish.

He did his first missionary work with impoverished Native Americans in South Dakota and later in Baja California in Mexico.

A bronze of Ezichiele Ramin in Piazza San Giuseppe in Padua
A bronze of Ezichiele Ramin in
Piazza San Giuseppe in Padua
Ramin was ordained a priest in 1980 in Padua. He was assigned to a parish in Naples but, following the 1980 Irpinia earthquake, he moved to the village of San Mango sul Calore, near Avellino, to assist survivors in an area almost completely destroyed.

Back in Naples in 1981, he organised one of the first peaceful demonstrations against the Camorra, the ruthless Neapolitan equivalent of the Sicilian Mafia.

In 2005, on the 20th anniversary of his death, a bronze sculpture created in his honour by Ettore Greco was unveiled in Piazza San Giuseppe in Padua, in front of the church he used to attend as a boy. In the same year, an icon depicting Father Ezekiel – as he was known in Rondônia – with a dove of peace was painted by Robert Lentz for the Chicago Catholic Theological Union.

The Comboni Mission, meanwhile, is trying to promote the idea of Ramin being beatified and, in time, made a saint.

The Basilica of St Anthony of Padua is a spectacular sight when illuminated at night
The Basilica of St Anthony of Padua is a spectacular
sight when illuminated at night
Travel tip:

The city of Padua in the Veneto – Padova in Italian – would almost certainly attract more visitors were it not for its proximity to Venice, which is less than half an hour away by train. Apart from being a picturesque city to explore, with a dense network of arcaded streets and several communal squares, it is the home of the Scrovegni Chapel and its wonderful circle of frescoes by Giotto, the vast Palazzo della Ragione, the Teatro Verdi, the elliptical square Prato della Valle and the two basilicas, of St Anthony of Padua and Santa Giustina.

Ariano Irpino is a popular town among visitors to Irpinia
Ariano Irpino is a popular town among visitors to Irpinia
Travel tip:

Irpinia, which was the centre of the earthquake in 1980 that killed at least 2,500 people and possibly nearer 4,000, is an area of the Apennine Mountains around the city of Avellino, about 55km (34 miles) inland from Naples.  A largely mountainous area, it has a great tradition for producing wine and food.  The Greco di Tuffo, Fiano di Avellino and Taurasi wines are indigenous to the area, while local produce includes scamorza and caciocavallo cheeses, sopressata – a type of salami – and sausages, as well as chestnuts, hazelnuts and black truffles. Ariano Irpino, a town built on three hills, is a popular destination for visitors to the area.

1891: The birth of politician Pietro Nenni

1953: The birth of world champion boxer Vito Antuofermo

(Picture credits: Bust by McMarcoP; Basilica by Tango7174; Ariano Irpino by Djparella; via Wikimedia Commons)

8 February 2018

Nicola Salvi – architect

Creator of Rome’s iconic Trevi Fountain

The Trevi Fountain was Nicola Salvi's masterpiece
The Trevi Fountain was Nicola Salvi's masterpiece
The architect Nicola Salvi, famous as the designer of the Fontana di Trevi – known in English as the Trevi Fountain and one of the most famous and most visited monuments in Rome – died on this day in 1751.

He was working on the Trevi when he passed away, having been engaged on the project since 1732. It had to be finished by Giuseppe Pannini and the giant statue of Oceanus – the Titan God of the Sea in Greek mythology – set in the central niche, was completed by Pietro Bracci, yet Salvi takes credit as the lead architect.

Salvi ran a workshop in Rome that he had taken over when his master, Antonio Canevari, left the city in 1727 to take up a position working as architectural consultant to the king of Portugal in Lisbon.

He completed a number of commissions on behalf of Canevari but spent a good deal of his time tutoring others and might have made very little impression on architectural history had he not submitted entries for two design competitions run by Pope Clement XII in 1732.

One was for a new façade for the church of San Giovanni in Laterano, for which his design was commended and in which he did have some input along with Alessandro Galilei – the winner – and Luigi Vanvitelli.

Floodlights illuminate the fountain at night
Floodlights illuminate the fountain at night
The other was to revive a project started and then abandoned by Gian Lorenzo Bernini one hundred years earlier to design a new fountain at the end of the former Aqua Virgo Roman aqueduct, in front of the Palazzo Poli.

Accounts of the outcome vary, but there is agreement that Salvi’s design did not win, with plans submitted by either Galilei or Ferdinando Fuga preferred. However, both of those architects were from Florence and there was a public view that the job should go to a Roman and, after considering this, the pope decided to give it to Salvi.

Salvi imagined a fountain composed of a large central basin, surrounded by a rough-hewn cliff from which the Palazzo Poli appears almost to have been carved, the whole composition dominated by the statue of Oceanus, set into the central arched niche of the palace, standing directly above the point at which the water emerges.

The monumental façade of the Palazzo Poli was designed by Vanvitelli to provide the fountain with a suitably dramatic backdrop.

The end product, which takes its names from its location at the convergence of tre vie – three roads, represented a classic of Roman Baroque, the largest Baroque fountain in the city and the most significant building built in Rome in the 18th century.

The Via Nicola Salvi in Rome skirts the Colosseum
The Via Nicola Salvi in Rome skirts the Colosseum
It defined the career of Salvi, who had been born in Rome in 1697 to a wealthy family thought to have been from Abruzzo originally. Precociously intelligent, he studied mathematics and philosophy before turning to architecture.

Until the Trevi, after a decline in the number of major structures commissioned across the city compared with the previous century, Salvi’s work had been relatively inconsequential, consisting for the most part of small, decorative projects.

He did build a baptistery at the Basilica of St Paul Outside the Walls but that was destroyed in a fire of 1823, while his reconstructed Chiesa di Santa Maria a Gradi in Viterbo was flattened by bombing during the Second World War.

Salvi died at his home in Via della Colonna in Rome at the age of 53, having developed bronchial problems as a result of many hours spent working in the damp tunnels of the aqueduct.

Large crowds flock to the Trevi at all hours of the day
Large crowds flock to the Trevi at all hours of the day
Travel tip:

The ritual of throwing coins over their shoulders into the Trevi Fountain is followed by thousands of visitors each day.  They used to be stolen regularly by gangs of thieves but a law was introduced making it a crime to fish coins out of the basin. Nowadays, the coins are collected by teams of municipal workers every night and given to a charity called Caritas, which converts the money into shopping vouchers for Romans who have fallen on hard times. The coins collected add up to around €3,000 each day.

Marcello Mastroianni and Anita Ekberg in La Dolce Vita
Marcello Mastroianni and Anita Ekberg in La Dolce Vita
Travel tip:

Part of the Trevi Fountain’s fame around the world is down to the starring role it has played in a number of movies, most notably Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, in which Anita Ekberg jumped into the fountain fully clothed, to be followed by Marcello Mastroianni. The monument also featured in Roman Holiday, Three Coins in the Fountain and Disney comedy The Lizzie McGuire Movie. When the revered Mastroianni died in 1996, the fountain was turned off and draped in black crepe as the city’s tribute.