23 December 2019

Giovanni Battista Crespi – Baroque artist

Religious painter portrayed saints expressing human emotions

Crespi's painting, St Gregory delivers the soul of a monk, in Varese
Crespi's painting, St Gregory delivers
the soul of a monk,
in Varese
Painter, sculptor and architect Giovanni Battista Crespi was born on this day in 1573 in Romagnano Sesia in the Piedmont region of Italy.

His father was the painter Raffaele Crespi, who eventually moved his family to live in Cerano near Novara. When Giovanni Battista Crespi became one of the chief Lombardy artists of the early 17th century, he was often referred to as Il Cerano.

Reflecting the Counter Reformation pious mood of the time, many of his paintings focused on mysteries and mystical episodes in the lives of the saints, capturing their emotions.

Crespi spent some time in Rome, where he formed a friendship with the Milanese cardinal, Federico Borromeo, who became his patron. Together, they went to Milan, which was under the inspiration of the cardinal’s uncle, Charles Borromeo, and was a centre for the fervent spiritual revival in art.

Crespi formed a style that was Mannerist in its use of colour and in the mystical quality of his figures, although he also gave them realistic details.

Along with other artists, Crespi completed a series of paintings, Quadroni of St Charles, for the Duomo in Milan. He painted an altarpiece, the Baptism of St Augustine, for San Marco, Milan and a painting, Mass of St Gregory, for the Basilica of San Vittore in Varese. Also in San Vittore is his 1617 painting, St Gregory delivers the soul of a monk.

Crespi’s later paintings are impressive because of the human qualities of the figures he portrays while they are going through religious experiences, such as the Madonna of the Rosary in 1615, which is now in the Brera Museum in Milan.

In 1620, Crespi was appointed head of the Accademia Ambrosiana, which was founded by Cardinal Federico Borromeo. Among the artists he taught at the Accademia were Daniele Crespi, who was possibly one of his relatives, Carlo Francesco Nuvolone and Melchiorre Gherardini.

A respected academic as well as an artist, Crespi died in 1632 in Milan.

The Piazza Libertà, the main square in Romagnano Sesia
The Piazza Libertà, the main square in Romagnano Sesia,
where Giovanni Battista Crespi was born
Travel tip:

Romagnano Sesia, the birthplace of Giovanni Battista Crespi, is a town in the province of Novara, about 80km (50 miles) northeast of Turin and about 25km (16 miles) northwest of Novara. One of the famous sights there is the Cantina dei Santi (Saints' Cellar), a room that is the only remaining evidence of the ancient Benedictine monastery of San Silano. The cantina has frescoes depicting the Biblical story of David and King Saul dating back to the 15th century.

The entrance to the Biblioteca Ambrosiana, the historic library in central Milan
The entrance to the Biblioteca Ambrosiana, the historic
library in central Milan
Travel tip:

The Accademia Ambrosiana in Milan, where Giovanni Battista Crespi taught, was established in 1618 by Cardinal Federico Borromeo as a place where young Counter Reformation artists could study. He also founded the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana to inspire and support fine art students and the Biblioteca Ambrosiana, a library where they could go to read and research. You can visit the Pinacoteca and Biblioteca in Piazza Pio XI in Milan, which is close to the Duomo and Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II.

Also on this day:


22 December 2019

22 December

Giacomo Puccini – opera composer

Musical genius who took the baton from Verdi

Giacomo Puccini, one of the greatest composers of Italian opera, was born on this day in 1858 in Lucca in Tuscany.  He had his first success with his opera, Manon Lescaut, just after the premiere of Verdi’s last opera, Falstaff. Manon Lescaut was a triumph with both the public and the critics, and he was hailed as a worthy successor to Verdi.  Puccini was born into a musical family who encouraged him to study music as a child while he was growing up in Lucca.  He moved to Milan to continue his studies at the Milan Conservatory, where he was able to study under the guidance of the composer, Amilcare Ponchielli.  He wrote an orchestral piece that impressed Ponchielli and his other teachers when it was first performed at a student concert. Ponchielli then suggested that Puccini’s next work might be an opera.   Puccini’s first attempt at opera was successful enough for it to be purchased by a firm of music publishers and after some revisions it was performed at Teatro alla Scala in Milan.  His next opera, Edgar, which also made its debut La Scala, was not so well received but his third composition, Manon Lescaut, was a triumph when it was first performed in Turin in 1893.  Read more…


Giuseppe Bergomi – footballer

World Cup winner who spent his whole career with Inter

The footballer Giuseppe Bergomi, renowned as one of the best defenders in the history of Italian football and a member of the World Cup-winning Azzurri side of 1982, was born on this day in 1963 in Milan.  Bergomi spent his entire club career with the Milan side Internazionale, spanning 20 years in which he made 756 appearances, including 519 in Serie A, which was a club record until it was overtaken by the Argentine-born defender Javier Zanetti, who went on to total 856 club appearances before he retired in 2014.  In international football, Bergomi played 87 times for the Italian national team, of which he was captain during the 1990 World Cup finals, in which Italy reached the semi-finals as hosts.  Alongside the brothers Franco, of AC Milan, and Giuseppe Baresi, his team-mate at Inter, and the Juventus trio Gaetano Scirea, Antonio Cabrini and Claudio Gentile, he was part of the backbone of the Italian national team for much of the 1980s.  He made his Azzurri debut in April 1982, only a couple of months before the World Cup finals in Spain, aged just 18 years and 3 months, making him the youngest player to feature in a match for Italy since the Second World War.  Read more…


Giacomo Manzù – sculptor

Shoemaker’s son who became internationally acclaimed sculptor

Sculptor Giacomo Manzù was born Giacomo Manzoni on this day in 1908 in Bergamo in Lombardy.  The son of a shoemaker, he taught himself to be a sculptor, helped only by a few evening classes in art, and went on to achieve international acclaim.  Manzoni changed his name to Manzù and started working in wood while he was doing his military service in the Veneto in 1928.  After moving to Milan, he was commissioned by the architect, Giovanni Muzio, to decorate the Chapel of the Sacred Heart Catholic University.  But he achieved national recognition after he exhibited a series of busts at the Triennale di Milano.  The following year he held a personal exhibition with the painter, Aligi Sassu, with whom he shared a studio.  He attracted controversy in 1942 when a series of bronze bas reliefs about the death of Christ were exhibited in Rome. They were criticised by the Fascist Government after they were interpreted as an indictment of Nazi-Fascist violence and Manzù had to go into hiding for a while, fearful of arrest.   Manzù had started teaching at the Accademia di Brera in Milan, but during the war he went back north to live in Clusone, to the north of Bergamo.  Read more…


Giovanni Bottesini - double bass virtuoso

Musician was also a composer and conductor

The composer, conductor and double bassist Giovanni Bottesini was born on this day in 1821 in Crema, now a city in Lombardy although then part of the Austrian Empire.  He became such a brilliant and innovative performer on his chosen instrument that he became known as “the Paganini of the double bass” - a reference to the great violin virtuoso Niccolò Paganini, whose career was ending just as his was beginning.  Bottesini was one of the first bassists to adopt the French-style bow grip, previously used solely by violinists, violists and cellists.  He was also a respected conductor, often called upon to direct performances at the leading theatres in Europe and elsewhere, and a prolific composer, particularly in the last couple of decades of his life.  A close friend of Giuseppe Verdi, he wrote a dozen operas himself, music for chamber and full orchestras, and a considerable catalogue of pieces for double bass, for accompaniment by piano or full orchestra, or duets.  When conducting opera, Bottesini would often bring his double bass on stage to play fantasies based on the evening's opera, of his own composition, during the intermission.  Read more…


21 December 2019

21 December

Strife-torn Rome turns to Vespasian

Elevation of military leader ends Year of Four Emperors

The ninth Roman emperor, Vespasian, began his 10-year rule on this day in 69AD, ending a period of civil war that brought the death of Nero and encompassed a series of short-lived administrations that became known as the Year of the Four Emperors.  Nero committed suicide in June 68 AD, having lost the support of the Praetorian Guard and been declared an enemy of the state by the Senate.  However, his successor, Galba, after initially having the support of the Praetorian Guard, quickly became unpopular.  On his march to Rome, he imposed heavy fines on or vengefully destroyed towns that did not declare their immediate allegiance to him and then refused to pay the bonuses he had promised the soldiers who had supported his elevation to power.  After he then had several senators and officials executed without trial on suspicion of conspiracy, the Germanic legions openly revolted and swore allegiance to their governor, Vitellius, proclaiming him as emperor.  Bribed by Marcus Salvius Otho, the Roman military commander, members of the Praetorian Guard set upon Galba in the Forum on January 15, 69AD and killed him.  Read more…


Lorenzo Perosi - priest and composer

Puccini contemporary chose sacred music over opera

Don Lorenzo Perosi, a brilliant composer of sacred music who was musical director of the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican for almost half a century, was born on this day in 1872 in the city of Tortona in Piedmont.  A devoutly religious man who was ordained as a priest at the age of 22, Perosi was a contemporary of Giacomo Puccini and Pietro Mascagni, both of whom he counted as close friends, but was the only member of the so-called Giovane Scuola of late 19th century and early 20th century composers who did not write opera.  Instead, he concentrated entirely on church music and was particularly noted for his large-scale oratorios, for which he enjoyed international fame.  Unlike Puccini and Mascagni, or others from the Giovane Scuola such as Ruggero Leoncavallo, Umberto Giordano and Francesco Cilea, Perosi's work has not endured enough for him to be well known today.  Yet at his peak, which music scholars consider to be the period between his appointment as Maestro of the Choir of St Mark's in Venice in 1894 and a serious mental breakdown suffered in 1907, he was hugely admired by his fellows in the Giovane Scuola and beyond.  Read more…


Masaccio – Renaissance artist

Innovative painter had brief but brilliant career

The 15th century artist Masaccio was born on this day in 1401 in Tuscany.  He is now judged to have been the first truly great painter of the early Renaissance in Italy because of his skill at painting lifelike figures and his use of perspective.  Christened Tommaso di Ser Giovanni di Simone, the artist came into the world in a small town near Arezzo, which is now known as San Giovanni Valdarno.  Little is known about his early life but it is likely he would have moved to Florence to be apprenticed to an established artist while still young.  The first evidence of him definitely being in the city was when he joined the painters’ guild in Florence in 1422.  The name Masaccio derives from Maso, a shortened form of his first name, Tommaso. Maso has become Masaccio, meaning ‘clumsy or messy Maso’. But it may just have been given to him to distinguish him from his contemporary, Masolino Da Panicale.  Massaccio’s earliest known work is the San Giovenale Triptych painted in 1422, which is now in a museum near Florence . He went on to produce a wealth of wonderful paintings over the next six years.  Read more…


Moira Orfei - circus owner and actress

‘Queen of the Big Top’ became cultural icon

Moira Orfei, an entertainer regarded as the Queen of the Italian circus and an actress who starred in more than 40 films, was born on this day in 1931 in Codroipo, a town in Friuli-Venezia Giulia about 25km (16 miles) southwest of Udine.  She had a trademark look that became so recognisable that advertising posters for the Moira Orfei Circus, which she founded in 1961 with her new husband, the circus acrobat and animal trainer Walter Nones, carried simply her face and the name 'Moira'. As a young woman, she was a strikingly glamorous Hollywood-style beauty but in later years she took to wearing heavy make-up, dark eye-liner and bright lipstick, topped off with her bouffant hair gathered up in a way that resembled a turban.  Her camped-up appearance made her an unlikely icon for Italy’s gay community.  Born Miranda Orfei, she spent her whole life in the circus. Her father, Riccardo, was a bareback horse rider and sometime clown; her mother, part of the Arata circus dynasty, gave birth to her in the family’s living trailer.  Growing up, she performed as a horse rider, acrobat and trapeze artist.  Read more…


20 December 2019

20 December

Gigliola Cinquetti - singer and TV presenter

Eurovision win at 16 launched successful career

Gigliola Cinquetti, who was the first Italian to win the Eurovision Song Contest, was born on this day in 1947 in Verona.  She took the prize in Copenhagen in 1964 with Non ho l'età (I'm Not Old Enough), with music composed by Nicola Salerno and lyrics by Mario Panzeri.  Just 16 years old at the time, she scored an overwhelming victory, gaining 49 points from the judges. The next best song among 16 contenders, which was the United Kingdom entry I Love the Little Things, sung by Matt Monro, polled just 17 points.  Non ho l'età became a big hit, selling more than four million copies and even spending 17 weeks in the UK singles chart, where songs in foreign languages did not traditionally do well. It had already won Italy's prestigious Sanremo Music Festival, which served as the qualifying competition for Eurovision at that time.  Italy had finished third on two occasions previously at Eurovision, which had been launched in 1956. Domenico Modugno, singing Nel blu, dipinto di blu (later renamed Volare) was third in 1958, as was Emilio Pericoli in 1963, singing Uno per tutte.  None of the country's entries went so close until Cinquetti herself finished runner-up 10 years later with Read more…


San Leonardo da Porto Maurizio

Franciscan monk canonized in 1867

San Leonardo da Porto Maurizio, whose feast day is celebrated on November 27 each year, was born Paolo Gerolamo Casanova on this day in 1676 in Porto Maurizio, which is now part of the port city of Imperia in Liguria.  Leonardo recovered from a serious illness developed soon after he became a priest and devoted the remaining 43 years of his life to preaching retreats and parish missions throughout Italy.  He was one of the main propagators of the Catholic rite of Via Crucis - the Way of the Cross - and established Stations of the Cross - reconstructions in paintings or sculpture of Christ’s journey to the cross - at more than 500 locations. He also set up numerous ritiri - houses of recollection.  Leonardo was a charismatic preacher who found favour with Popes Clement XII and Benedict XIV, who helped him spread his missions, which began in Tuscany, into central and southern Italy, inspiring religious fervour among the population.  The son of a ship’s captain from Porto Maurizio, the young Paolo was sent to Rome at the age of 13 to live with a wealthy uncle and study at the Jesuit Roman College. Read more…


Giuliana Sgrena – journalist

War reporter who survived kidnapping in Iraq

The journalist Giuliana Sgrena, a war correspondent for an Italian newspaper who was kidnapped by insurgents while reporting the 2003 invasion of Iraq, was born on this day in 1948 in Masera, a village in Piedmont.  Sgrena, who was covering the conflict for the Rome daily Il Manifesto and the weekly German news magazine Die Welt, was seized outside Baghdad University on February 4, 2005.  During her 28 days in captivity, she was forced to appear in a video pleading that the demands of her abductors – the withdrawal of the 2,400 Italian troops from the multi-national force in Iraq – be met.  Those demands were rejected but the Italian authorities allegedly negotiated a $6 million payment to secure Sgrena’s release.  She was rescued by two Italian intelligence officers on March 4 only then to come under fire from United States forces en route to Baghdad International Airport.  In one of the most controversial incidents of the conflict, Major General Nicola Calipari, from the Italian military intelligence corps, was shot dead. Sgrena and the other intelligence officer were wounded.  Read more…


Francesco Bentivegna – military leader

Patriotic baron executed in what was to become Mafia heartland

Baron Francesco Bentivegna, a Sicilian patriot, died on this day at Mezzojuso in Sicily in 1856.  Bentivegna led revolts against the Bourbon rulers of the island in the mid 19th century and became renowned for his bravery.  He was born in Corleone near Palermo - a modern day Mafia stronghold - and it is believed his parents originally intended him for the church.  But after leading his first revolt against the Bourbons in 1848 in Palermo he was appointed military governor of the Corleone district as a reward.  Within 16 months the Bourbon soldiers had reoccupied Palermo and offered all the rebels an amnesty if they pledged loyalty to their French rulers.  Bentivegna refused and again attempted to launch a coup, which was unsuccessful. Afterwards he had to live as a wanted fugitive, while continuing to try to organise revolutionaries.  He was arrested in 1853 but released in 1856, after which he began to plan a full-scale uprising against the occupying forces.  The Baron was betrayed by one of his compatriots and arrested. He was sentenced to death and executed by a firing squad on 20 December 1856.  Read more…