15 September 2020

15 September

Ettore Bugatti - car designer

Name that became a trademark for luxury and high performance

The car designer and manufacturer Ettore Bugatti was born in Milan on this day in 1881.  The company Bugatti launched in 1909 became associated with luxury and exclusivity while also enjoying considerable success in motor racing.  When the glamorous Principality of Monaco launched its famous Grand Prix in 1929, the inaugural race was won by a Bugatti.  Although Bugatti cars were manufactured for the most part in a factory in Alsace, on the border of France and Germany, their stylish designs reflected the company’s Italian heritage and Bugatti cars are seen as part of Italy’s traditional success in producing desirable high-performance cars.  The story of Bugatti as a purely family business ended in 1956, and the company closed altogether in 1963.  The name did not die, however, and Bugatti cars are currently produced by Volkswagen.  Ettore came from an artistic family in Milan. His father, Carlo Bugatti, was a successful designer of Italian Art Nouveau furniture and jewelry, while his paternal grandfather, Giovanni Luigi Bugatti, had been an architect and sculptor.  His younger brother, Rembrandt Bugatti, became well known for his animal sculpture.  Read more…


Fausto Coppi - cycling great

Multiple title-winner who died tragically young

The cycling champion Fausto Coppi, who won the Giro d’Italia five times and the Tour de France twice as well as numerous other races, was born on this day in 1919 in Castellania, a village in Piedmont about 37km (23 miles) southeast of Alessandria.  Although hugely successful and lauded for his talent and mental strength, Coppi was a controversial character. His rivalry with his fellow Italian rider Gino Bartali divided the nation, while he offended many in what was still a socially conservative country by abandoning his wife to live with another woman.  Fausto, who openly admitted to taking performance enhancing drugs, which were then legal, died in 1960 at the age of just 40 following a trip to Burkina Faso in West Africa. The cause of death officially was malaria but a story has circulated in more recent years that he was poisoned in an act of revenge.  The fourth in a family of five children, Coppi had poor health as he grew up and would skip school in order to amuse himself riding a rusty bicycle he found in a cellar. He left at the age of 13 to work in a butcher’s shop in Novi Ligure, a town about 20km (12 miles) from his home village in Piedmont.  Read more…


Umberto II - last King of Italy

Brief reign was followed by long exile

The last King of Italy, Umberto II, was born on this day in 1904 in Racconigi in Piedmont.  Umberto reigned over Italy from 9 May 1946 to 12 June 1946 and was therefore nicknamed the May King - Re di Maggio.  When Umberto Nicola Tommaso Giovanni Maria di Savoia was born at the Castle of Racconigi he became heir apparent to the Italian throne as the only son and third child of King Victor Emmanuel III of Italy and his wife Queen Elena of Montenegro.  He was given the title of Prince of Piedmont.  Umberto married Marie Jose of Belgium in Rome in 1930 and they had four children.  He became de facto head of state in 1944 when his father, Victor Emmanuel III, transferred his powers to him in an attempt to repair the monarchy’s image after the fall of Benito Mussolini’s regime.  Victor Emmanuel III abdicated his throne in favour of Umberto in 1946 ahead of a referendum on the abolition of the monarchy in the hope that his exit and a new King might give a boost to the popularity of the monarchy.  However, after the referendum, Italy was declared a republic and Umberto had to live out the rest of his life in exile in Portugal.  Read more…


The first free public school in Europe

Frascati sees groundbreaking development in education

The first free public school in Europe opened its doors to children on this day in 1616 in Frascati, a town in Lazio just a few kilometres from Rome.  The school was founded by a Spanish Catholic priest, José de Calasanz, who was originally from Aragon but who moved to Rome in 1592 at the age of 35.  Calasanz had a passion for education and in particular made it his life’s work to set up schools for children who did not have the benefit of coming from wealthy families.  Previously, schools existed only for the children of noble families or for those studying for the priesthood. Calasanz established Pious Schools and a religious order responsible for running them, who became known as the Piarists.  Calasanz had been a priest for 10 years when he decided to go to Rome in the hope of furthering his ecclesiastical career.  He soon became involved with helping neglected and homeless children via the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine.  He would gather up poor children on the streets and take them to schools, only to find that the teachers, who were not well paid, would not accept them unless Calasanz provided them with extra money.  Read more…


14 September 2020

14 September

Renzo Piano – architect

Designer of innovative buildings is now an Italian senator

Award-winning architect Renzo Piano was born on this day in 1937 in Genoa.  Piano is well-known for his high-tech designs for public spaces and is particularly famous for the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, which he worked on in collaboration with the British architect, Richard Rogers, and the Shard in London.  Among the many awards and prizes Piano has received for his work are the Japan Art Association’s Praemium Imperiale prize for architecture in 1995, the Pritzker Architecture Prize in 1998 and the American Institute of Architects Gold Medal in 2008.  Piano was born into a family of builders and graduated from the Polytechnic in Milan in 1964. He completed his first building, the IPE factory in Genoa, in 1968 with a roof of steel and reinforced polyester.  He worked with a variety of architects, including his father, Carlo Piano, until he established a partnership with Rogers, which lasted from 1971-1977.  They made the Centre Georges Pompidou look like an urban machine with their innovative design and it immediately gained the attention of the international architectural community.  Read more…


Dante Alighieri – poet

Famous son of Florence remains in exile

Dante Alighieri, an important poet during the late Middle Ages, died on this day in 1321 in Ravenna in Emilia-Romagna.  Dante’s Divine Comedy is considered to be the greatest literary work written in Italian and has been acclaimed all over the world.  In the 13th century most poetry was written in Latin, but Dante wrote in the Tuscan dialect, which made his work more accessible to ordinary people.  Writers who came later, such as Petrarch and Boccaccio, followed this trend.  Therefore Dante can be said to have played an instrumental role in establishing the national language of Italy.  His depictions of Hell, Purgatory and Heaven in the Divine Comedy later influenced the works of John Milton, Geoffrey Chaucer and Lord Alfred Tennyson, among many others.  Dante was also the first poet to use the interlocking three-line rhyme scheme, terza rima.  Dante was born around 1265 in Florence into a family loyal to the Guelphs. By the time he was 12 he had been promised in marriage to Gemma di Manetto Donati, the daughter of a member of a powerful, local family.  He had already fallen in love with Beatrice Portinari, whom he first met when he was only nine.  Read more…


Tiziano Terzani - journalist

Asia correspondent who covered wars in Vietnam and Cambodia

The journalist and author Tiziano Terzani, who spent much of his working life in China, Japan and Southeast Asia and whose writing received critical acclaim both in his native Italy and elsewhere, was born on this day in 1938 in Florence.  He worked for more than 30 years for the German news magazine Der Spiegel, who took him on as Asia Correspondent in 1971, based in Singapore.  Although he wrote for other publications, including the Italian newspapers Corriere della Sera and La Repubblica, it was Der Spiegel who allowed him the freedom he craved. To a large extent he created his own news agenda but in doing so offered a unique slant on the major stories.  He was one of only a handful of western journalists who remained in Vietnam after the liberation of Saigon by the Viet Cong in 1975 and two years later, despite threats to his life, he reported from Phnom Penh in Cambodia after its capture by the Khmer Rouge.  He lived at different times in Beijing, Tokyo, Singapore, Hong Kong, Bangkok and New Delhi. His stay in China came to an end when he was arrested and expelled in 1984 for "counter-revolutionary activities".  Read more…


13 September 2020

13 September

- Fabio Cannavaro - World Cup winner

Defender captained Azzurri to 2006 triumph

The footballer and coach Fabio Cannavaro, who was captain of the Italy team that won the 2006 World Cup in Germany, was born on this day in 1973 in Naples.  In a hugely successful playing career, the central defender was part of the excellent Parma team that won the UEFA Cup and the Coppa Italia under coach Alberto Malesani in the late 1990s, winning another Coppa Italia in 2002 with Pietro Carmignani in charge.  But his biggest glories were to come after he left Italy for Spain to play for Real Madrid under the Italian coach Fabio Capello, winning the La Liga title twice in 2006 and 2007.  His 136 appearances for the Azzurri made him the most capped outfield player in the history of the Italian national team (only goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon has more caps in total) and the feat of winning La Liga and the World Cup in the same year helped him win the coveted Ballon d’Or, awarded annually by the magazine France Football to the player judged to be the best in Europe. He is only the third defender to be given the award, joining the company of Franz Beckenbauer and Matthias Sammer.  Read more…


Andrea Mantegna – artist

Genius led the way with his use of perspective

The painter Andrea Mantegna died on this day in 1506 in Mantua.  He had become famous for his religious paintings, such as St Sebastian, which is now in the Louvre in Paris, and The Agony in the Garden, which is now in the National Gallery in London.  But his frescoes for the Bridal Chamber (Camera degli Sposi) at the Palazzo Ducale in Mantua - Mantova in Italian - were to influence many artists who followed him because of his innovative use of perspective.  Mantegna studied Roman antiquities for inspiration and was also an eminent engraver.  He was born near Padua - Padova - in about 1431 and apprenticed by the age of 11 to the painter, Francesco Squarcione, who had a fascination for ancient art and encouraged him to study fragments of Roman sculptures.  Mantegna was one of a large group of painters entrusted with decorating the Ovetari Chapel in the Church of the Eremitani in Padua.  Much of his work was lost when the Allied forces bombed Padua in 1944, but other early work by Mantegna can be seen in the Basilica of Sant’Antonio and in the Church of Santa Giustina in Padua.  The artist later came under the influence of Jacopo Bellini, the father of Giovanni and Gentile Bellini.  Read more…


Girolamo Frescobaldi – composer

Organist was a ‘father of Italian music’

Girolamo Alessandro Frescobaldi, one of the first great masters of organ composition, was born on this day in 1583 in Ferrara.  Frescobaldi is famous for his instrumental works, many of which are compositions for the keyboard, but his canzone are of historical importance for the part they played in the development of pieces for small instrumental ensembles and he was to have a strong influence on the German Baroque school.  Frescobaldi began his career as organist at the church of Santa Maria in Trastevere in Rome in 1607. He travelled to the Netherlands the same year and published his first work, a book of madrigals, in Antwerp.  In 1608 he became the organist at St Peter’s Basilica in Rome and, except for a few years when he was court organist in Florence, he worked at St Peter’s until his death.  He married Orsola Travaglini in 1613 and they had five children.  Frescobaldi published 12 fantasie that are notable for their contrapuntal mastery.  In a collection of music published in 1626 he provides valuable information about performing his work. He writes in the preface: ‘Should the player find it tedious to play a piece right through he may choose such sections as he pleases provided only that he ends in the main key.’  Read more…


Saverio Bettinelli – writer

Jesuit scholar and poet was unimpressed with Dante

Poet and literary critic Saverio Bettinelli, who had the temerity to criticise Dante in his writing, died at the age of 90 on this day in 1808 in Mantua.  Bettinelli had entered the Jesuit Order at the age of 20 and went on to become known as a dramatist, poet and literary critic, who also taught Rhetoric in various Italian cities.  In 1758 he travelled through Italy and Germany and met the French writers Voltaire and Rousseau.  Bettinelli taught literature from 1739 to 1744 at Brescia, where he formed an academy with other scholars. He became a professor of Rhetoric in Venice and was made superintendent of the College of Nobles at Parma in 1751, where he was in charge of the study of poetry and history and theatrical entertainment.  After travelling to Germany, Strasbourg and Nancy, he returned to Italy, taking with him two young relatives of the Prince of Hohenlohe, who had entrusted him with their education. He took the eldest of his pupils with him to France, where he wrote his famous Lettere dieci di Virgilio agli Arcadi, which were published in Venice.  He also wrote a collection of poems, Versi sciolti, and some tragedies for the Jesuit theatre.  Read more…


Fabio Cannavaro - World Cup winner

Defender captained Azzurri to 2006 triumph

Fabio Cannavaro in action at the 2006 World Cup finals
Fabio Cannavaro in action at the
2006 World Cup finals
The footballer and coach Fabio Cannavaro, who was captain of the Italy team that won the 2006 World Cup in Germany, was born on this day in 1973 in Naples.

In a hugely successful playing career, the central defender was part of the excellent Parma team that won the UEFA Cup and the Coppa Italia under coach Alberto Malesani in the late 1990s, winning another Coppa Italia in 2002 with Pietro Carmignani in charge.

But his biggest glories were to come after he left Italy for Spain to play for Real Madrid under the Italian coach Fabio Capello, winning the La Liga title twice in 2006 and 2007.

His 136 appearances for the Azzurri made him the most capped outfield player in the history of the Italian national team (only goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon has more caps in total) and the feat of winning La Liga and the World Cup in the same year helped him win the coveted Ballon d’Or, awarded annually by the magazine France Football to the player judged to be the best in Europe. He is only the third defender to be given the award, joining the company of Franz Beckenbauer and Matthias Sammer. 

Cannavaro, who also played for Inter-Milan and Juventus, retired from playing in 2011 and has since coached teams in the United Arab Emirates and China, where he currently works for the Chinese Super League club Guangzhou Evergrande.

Cannavaro in his days as a young professional with Napoli
Cannavaro in his days as a young
professional with Napoli
The son of a bank clerk, Cannavaro learned to play football in the street with his brother, Paolo, who would also become a professional. A fanatical Napoli supporter, he was a 13-year-old ball boy at the Stadio San Paolo when the club won the Serie A title for the first time in their history in 1987, thanks to the brilliance of their icon Diego Maradona.

His own talent earned him games for a suburban Neapolitan team at Bagnoli and it was while playing for them that he was spotted by a scout from Napoli.  Soon he was turning out for Napoli’s youth team and earning an invitation to train alongside Maradona and the senior squad. A ball-winning midfield player at that time, he caused a stir in one training session when he launched a sliding tackle against the club’s prized asset that won the ball but made the coaching staff wince. Cannavaro was ticked off for being too aggressive but Maradona spoke up in his defence and reportedly gave him a pair of boots as a souvenir at the end of the session.

Cannavaro made his first-team debut for Napoli in 1993 at the age of 19. Despite standing only 5ft 9ins (1.75m), he was deployed as a centre-back alongside another of his heroes, Ciro Ferrera, after coach Claudio Ranieri determined that his anticipation, tackling, distribution and his ability to launch attacks from defensive more than compensated from his lack of height.

He might have made his career with his hometown club had Napoli not run into financial difficulties in the mid-1990s, obliging them to accept an offer of the equivalent of £6 million for him from Parma, whom he joined in the summer of 1995.

As well as enjoying trophy-winning success with the Emilia-Romagna club, of whom he was made captain not long after he arrived, he also played for two seasons alongside his brother, Paolo, who also made the move from Napoli to Parma, in 1999. 

Cannavaro with sports minister Giovanna Melandra, president Giorgio
Napolitano and coach Marcello Lippi at a night of celebration in Rome
After his success with Parma, Cannavaro’s transfer value rocketed, to the extent that Inter paid €23 million (£14 million) for his services in 2002. His spell at the San Siro did not bring any trophies but his own value was barely diminished and he moved to Juventus in a deal worth €20 million (£13.6 million) in 2004.

The transfer to Turin reunited him with former Parma teammates Buffon and Lilian Thuram and, for a season, with his former Napoli idol Ferrara, although it was an ill-fated move.  Juventus won the Serie A title in 2005 and 2006 under Capello’s astute management only to have the titles stripped after the so-called Calciopoli scandal, in which several clubs were found to have sought to influence the appointment of referees perceived as friendly to their cause.  Juventus were relegated to Serie B as a consequence.

Cannavaro subsequently followed Capello to Madrid and enjoyed the most successful spell of his career. When he returned to Juventus in 2009 after three years in Spain he was not the player he was. Juve supporters turned on him both for his erratic form and for having turned his back on the club in 2006 and in 2010, after a disappointing World Cup in South Africa, left the club on a free transfer to join Al-Ahli in the UAE.

Cannavaro enjoyed more success in Spain with Real Madrid
Cannavaro enjoyed more success
in Spain with Real Madrid
As an international player, Cannavaro had been part of Cesare Maldini’s Italy Under-21 team, which won the European championships in 1994 and 1996, before being elevated to the senior national team in 1997.  He starred in the Italy team that beat England 1-0 at Wembley, thanks to a Gianfranco Zola goal.

Quickly establishing his place in the side, Cannavaro helped the Azzurri reach the quarter-finals of the 1998 World Cup and the final of the 2000 European championships, in which they lost to France, but was injured in the 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea, in which Italy lost to the latter in the round of 16.

Cannavaro succeeded Paolo Maldini as captain in 2002 and settled into the role as a natural leader.  The European championships of 2004 were a disappointment but coach Marcello Lippi brought the team to its peak at the 2006 World Cup, the highlight of which was a 2-0 defeat of the hosts in the semi-finals, thanks to goals by Fabio Grosso and Alessandro Del Piero, with Cannavaro playing a key role in the second, launching an attack from a defensive position in the way that Ranieri identified during his formative years with Napoli.

A fractious final against France, famous for the sending-off of the French skipper Zinedine Zidane, was won on penalties, but Cannavaro’s performance in defence was hailed as decisive, earning him the nickname of the ‘Berlin Wall’ among Italy fans. Returning to Italy, Cannavaro held the trophy aloft at a rapturous night of celebration on the Circus Maximus in Rome.

He subsequently overtook Paolo Maldini’s record of 126 caps but after a disappointing World Cup in South Africa in 2010 announced his retirement from international football.

Cannavaro set up a charity with
former teammate Ciro Ferrara
Following his final transfer to Al Ahli in the UAE, Cannavaro moved into coaching. Much of his post-playing career has been spent in China, where he won the 2019 Chinese Super League title with Guangzhou Evergrande and was briefly in charge of the China national team.

Cannavaro, the father of three children with his wife, Daniela, who he married in 1996, joined with Ciro Ferrara after they had finished playing to set up the Fondazione Cannavaro Ferrara, a charity aimed at helping to buy equipment for a cancer hospital in their native Naples.

He attracted controversy in 2015 when he, Daniela and Paolo were handed jail sentences of between four and 10 months when they re-entered property that had been seized by police during an investigation into the player’s tax affairs. They appealed against the verdict and the sentences were suspended.

Cannavaro’s son, Christian, has followed his father in becoming a player, currently turning out for another Campanian team, Benevento.

The city of Parma is famous for its gastronomy and is the home of Prosciutto di Parma (Parma ham)
The city of Parma is famous for its gastronomy
and is the home of Prosciutto di Parma (Parma ham)
Travel tip:

Parma, where Cannavaro enjoyed a successful spell early in his career, is an historic city in the Emilia-Romagna region, famous for its ham (Prosciutto di Parma) and cheese (Parmigiano-Reggiano), the true ‘parmesan’. The city was given as a duchy to Pier Luigi Farnese, the illegitimate son of Pope Paul III, and his descendants ruled Parma till 1731. The composer, Verdi, was born near Parma at Bussetto and the city has a prestigious opera house, the Teatro Regio.

The Arch of Trajan is one of a number of Roman relics in the city of Benevento
The Arch of Trajan is one of a number
of Roman relics in the city of Benevento
Travel tip:

In ancient times, Benevento, which can be found about 70km (43 miles) northeast of Naples, was one of the most important cities in southern Italy, along the Via Appia trade route between Rome and Brindisi. The town is in an attractive location surrounded by the Apennine hills, and while it suffered considerable damage during the Second World War, there are many Roman remains, including a triumphal arch erected in honour of Trajan and an amphitheatre, built by Hadrian, that held 10,000 spectators and is still in good condition. The cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta, originally built in the 13th century, has undergone major reconstruction work, while the original bronze doors for the cathedral are now kept inside the building.

Also on this day: 

1506: The death of painter Andrea Mantegna

1583: The birth of composer Girolamo Frescobaldi

1808: The death of writer and literary critic Saverio Bettinelli


12 September 2020

12 September

Daniela Rocca – actress

Tragic beauty shunned after breakdown

The actress Daniela Rocca, who starred in the hit big-screen comedy Divorce, Italian Style, was born on this day in 1937 in Sicily.  The movie, in which she starred opposite Marcello Mastroianni, won an Academy Award for its writers and acclaim for former beauty queen Rocca, who revealed a notable acting talent.  Yet this zenith in her short career would in some ways also prove to be its nadir after she fell in love with the director, Pietro Germi.  The relationship she hoped for did not materialise and she subsequently suffered a mental breakdown, which had damaging consequences for her career and her life.  Born in Acireale, a coastal city in eastern Sicily in the shadow of the Mount Etna volcano, Rocca came from poor, working class roots but her looks became a passport to a new life. She entered and won the Miss Catania beauty contest before she was 16.  She subsequently entered Miss Italia, and although she did not win, her looks made an impression on the movie talent scouts who took a close interest in such events, on the lookout for potential starlets.  Rocca’s acting debut came in 1957 in the French director Maurice Cloche’s film Marchand de Filles.  Read more…


Nazis free captive Mussolini

Extraordinary daring of Gran Sasso Raid

One of the most dramatic events of the Second World War in Italy took place on this day in 1943 when Benito Mussolini, the deposed and imprisoned Fascist dictator, was freed by the Germans.  The former leader was being held in a remote mountain ski resort when 12 gliders, each carrying paratroopers and SS officers, landed on the mountainside and took control of the hotel where Mussolini was being held.  They forced his guards to surrender before summoning a small aircraft to fly Mussolini to Rome, from where another plane flew him to Austria.  Even Winston Churchill, Britain's wartime prime minister, professed his admiration for the daring nature of the daylight rescue.  Known as the Gran Sasso Raid or Operation Oak, the rescue was ordered by Adolf Hitler himself after learning that Mussolini's government, in the shape of the Grand Fascist Council, had voted through a resolution that he be replaced as leader and that King Victor Emmanuel III had ensured that the resolution was successful by having the self-styled Duce arrested.  The Italian government by then had decided defeat in the War was inevitable.  Read more…


Lorenzo II de’ Medici – Duke of Urbino

Short rule of the grandson of Lorenzo Il Magnifico

Lorenzo di Piero de’ Medici, Duke of Urbino, was born on this day in 1492 in Florence.  The grandson of Lorenzo the Magnificent, Lorenzo II ruled Florence from 1513 to 1519.  Niccolò Machiavelli addressed his work, The Prince, to Lorenzo II, advising him to accomplish the unification of Italy under Florentine rule by arming the whole nation and expelling its foreign invaders.  When Lorenzo was two years old, his father, who became known as Piero the Unfortunate, was driven out of Florence by Republicans with the help of the French.  The Papal-led Holy League, aided by the Spanish, finally defeated the rebels in 1512 and the Medici family was restored to Florence.  Lorenzo II’s uncle, Giuliano, ruled Florence for a year and then made way for his nephew. Another uncle, Pope Leo X, made Lorenzo the Duke of Urbino after expelling the legitimate ruler of the duchy, Francesco Maria della Rovere.  When Francesco Maria returned to Urbino he was welcomed by his subjects. Lorenzo II regained possession of the duchy only after a protracted war in which he was wounded. In 1519 Lorenzo II died at the age of just 26 and the duchy reverted to the della Rovere family.  Read more…


11 September 2020

11 September

Scipione Borghese - adventurer

Nobleman from Ferrara won Paris to Peking car race

The Italian adventurer Prince Scipione Borghese, who won a car race since described as the most incredible of all time, was born on this day in 1871 in Migliarino in Emilia-Romagna, not far from Ferrara.  Borghese was a nobleman, the eldest son of Paolo, ninth Prince of Sulmona.  He was described as an industrialist and politician but he was also a mountaineer and a keen participant in the revolution in transport that began when the first petrol-powered motor vehicles appeared in the late 19th century.  In 1907 the French newspaper, Le Matin, which was keen to promote the growing motor industry in France, challenged readers to prove their theory that the car would open up the world's horizons, enabling man to travel anywhere on the planet.  When it asked for volunteers to take part in a drive from Paris to Beijing - then known as Peking - a 5,000-mile journey - Borghese's taste for the daring was immediately excited.  Originally, more than 40 teams proposed to sign up.  In time, this dwindled to five vehicles and 11 men, consisting of drivers, mechanics and, in some cases, journalists who would file reports using the telegraph system as the event progressed.  Read more…


Manrico Ducceschi - partisan

Brave freedom fighter whose death is unsolved mystery

Manrico ‘Pippo’ Ducceschi, who led one of the most successful brigades of Italian partisans fighting against the Fascists and the Nazis in the Second World War, was born on this day in 1920 in Capua, a town in Campania about 25km (16 miles) north of Naples.  Ducceschi’s battalion, known as the XI Zona Patrioti, are credited with killing 140 enemy soldiers and capturing more than 8,000. They operated essentially in the western Tuscan Apennines, between the Garfagnana area north of Lucca, the Valdinievole southwest of Pistoia, and the Pistoiese mountains.  He operated under the name of Pippo in honour of his hero, the patriot and revolutionary Giuseppe Mazzini.  Ducceschi's success in partisan operations led to him being placed at the top of the Germans' ‘most wanted’ list. Even his relatives were forced to go into hiding.  After the war, he was honoured by the Allies for the help he provided in the Italian campaign but oddly his deeds were never recognised by the post-war Italian government, nor even by his own comrades in the National Association of Italian Partisans (Anpi).  Read more…


Ulisse Aldrovandi – naturalist

Professor became fascinated with plants while under house arrest

Ulisse Aldrovandi, who is considered to be the father of natural history studies, was born on this day in 1522 in Bologna.  He became renowned for his systematic and accurate observations of animals, plants and minerals and he established the first botanical garden in Bologna, now known as the Orto Botanico dell’Università di Bologna.  Aldrovandi’s gardens were in the grounds of Palazzo Pubblico in Bologna but in 1803 they were moved to their present location in Via Imerio, where they are run by the University of Bologna but are open to the public every day except Sunday.  The professor was also the first person to extensively document neurofibromatosis disease, which is a type of skin tumour.  Aldrovandi, who is sometimes referred to as Aldrovandus or Aldroandi, was born into a noble family. He studied humanities and law at the universities of Bologna and Padua and became a notary. He then became interested in studying philosophy and logic, which he combined with the study of medicine.  He was charged with heresy in 1549, accused of supporting theories doubting the Holy Trinity, and kept under house arrest in Rome.  Read more…


10 September 2020

10 September

- Liliana Segre - Holocaust survivor

Schoolgirl who was spared after family killed

Holocaust survivor Liliana Segre, who was one of only a small number of Italian children to return home after being deported to the Auschwitz concentration camp during the Second World War, was born on this day in 1930 in Milan.  Now a life member of the Italian Senate, Segre was shipped to the notorious camp in Nazi-occupied Poland when she was 13 years old, one of 776 Italians aged 14 and under to be sent to Auschwitz. Only 35 survived.  Forced to work in a munitions factory, she was twice moved to other camps during her time as a prisoner before being freed in May 1945, shortly after the Nazis surrendered to the Allies.  Born in to a successful Jewish family involved in the textile and leather goods industry, Liliana grew up in an apartment in Corso Magenta in the centre of Milan, not far from the Castello Sforzesco, to which her father, Alberto, had moved with his parents following the death of her mother, Lucia, from cancer when Liliana was still a baby.  She was unaware of being Jewish until the Fascist government introduced racial segregation laws in 1938, at which point she was expelled from her primary school.  Read more…


Elsa Schiaparelli - fashion designer

Clothes inspired by Surrealist art 

The designer Elsa Schiaparelli, who is regarded along with her rival Coco Chanel as one of the key figures in the fashion world between the two World Wars, was born on this day in 1890 in Rome.  Heavily influenced by the Surrealist cultural movement – the artists Salvador Dali and Jean Cocteau were among her collaborators – she became a favourite of some of the world’s most recognisable women, including the American actresses Greta Garbo and Mae West, the German singer and actress Marlene Dietrich, and the socialite and heiress Daisy Fellowes.  Her style shaped the look of fashion in the 1920s and 1930s, often featuring elements of the trompe l’oeil artistic technique to create optical illusions, such as the dress she made with Dali’s collaboration that seemed to be full of rips and tears, or the evening coat she designed with Cocteau that featured two female profiles facing one another which, viewed another way, created the impression of a vase for the fabric roses adorning the shoulders and neck.  Other designs, such as the Lobster Dress and the Skeleton Dress, both influenced by Dali, satisfied her taste for the outrageous.  Read more…


Historic victory at Rome Olympics

Bikila's golden moment for African athletics

History was made on this day at the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome when Ethiopia's Abebe Bikila won the marathon.  Not only did he run the whole 26 mile 385 yards (42.195km) barefoot, he also became the first athlete from sub-Saharan Africa to win an Olympic gold medal.  Bikila retained the marathon title at Tokyo in 1964.  Subsequently, the middle and long-distance running events have become increasingly dominated by sub-Saharan runners, particularly Kenyans and Ethiopians.  The British runner Mo Farah - born in Somalia - continued that domination by winning both the 5,000m and 10,000m gold medals at consecutive summer Olympics in London 2012 and Rio de Janeiro this year.  In total, more than 40 gold medals at distances from 800m to the marathon have been won by sub-Saharan runners since Bikila's breakthrough.  Bikila competed in Rome only after a late call-up to the Ethiopia squad to fill a place vacated when a colleague became ill.  He arrived with no running shoes but hoped to be supplied with some by adidas, one of the Games sponsors.  However, by the time Bikila went to see their representatives in Rome, they had only a few pairs left and none would fit him comfortably, so he decided to run barefoot.  Read more…


Giovanni Gronchi – Italy’s third president

Opponent of Mussolini became head of state in 1955

Christian Democrat politician Giovanni Gronchi, who served as President of Italy from 1955 to 1962, was born on this day in 1887 at Pontedera in Tuscany.  He was elected to the Camera dei Deputati in 1919 and went on to become leader of a group of deputies opposed to Mussolini, but when the Fascist government suppressed this group he put his political career on hold.  Gronchi returned to politics towards the end of the Second World War and helped found the new Christian Democrat party. In 1955 he was chosen as the third President of the Republic of Italy, succeeding Luigi Einaudi.  His presidency was notable for his attempt to open a door into government for the Italian Socialist and Communist parties, which ultimately failed.  As a young man, Gronchi had obtained a degree in Literature and Philosophy at the Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa and worked as a teacher of classics in Parma, Massa di Carrara, Bergamo and Monza. He volunteered for military service during the First World War and afterwards became one of the founding members of the Catholic Italian Popular Party.  Read more…