21 September 2020

21 September

Giacomo Quarenghi - architect

Neoclassicist famous for his work in St Petersburg

The architect Giacomo Quarenghi, best known for his work in Russia, and in St Petersburg in particular, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, was born on this day in 1744 in Rota d’Imagna, a village in Lombardy about 25km (16 miles) northwest of Bergamo.  His extensive work in St Petersburg between 1782 and 1816, which followed an invitation from the Empress Catherine II (Catherine the Great), included the Hermitage Theatre, one of the first buildings in Russia in the Palladian style, the Bourse and the State Bank, St. George’s Hall in the Winter Palace, several bridges on the Neva river, and a number of academic buildings including the Academy of Sciences, on the University Embankment.  He was also responsible for the reconstruction of some buildings around Red Square in Moscow in neo-Palladian style.  Quarenghi’s simple yet imposing neoclassical buildings, which often featured an elegant central portico with pillars and pediment, are responsible for much of St Petersburg’s stately elegance.  As a young man, Quarenghi was allowed to study painting in Bergamo despite his parents’ hopes that he would follow for a career in law or the church.   Read more…

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Maurizio Cattelan - conceptual artist

Controversial work softened by irreverent humour

The conceptual artist Maurizio Cattelan, known for the dark humour and irreverence of much of his work, was born on this day in 1960 in Padua.  Cattelan, probably best known for his controversial waxwork sculptures of Pope John Paul II and Adolf Hitler, has been described at different times as a satirist, a prankster, a subversive and a poet, although it seems to have been his aim to defy any attempt at categorisation.  His works are often interpreted as critiques of the art world and of society in general and while death and mortality are recurring themes there is more willingness among modern audiences to see how even tragic circumstances can give rise to comedic absurdities.  Although some of his work has provoked outrage, more viewers have been enthralled than angered by what he has presented, and some of his creations have changed hands for millions of dollars.  Cattelan has said that his memories of growing up in Padua are of economic hardship, punishments at school and a series of unfulfilling menial jobs.  His artistic skills were entirely self-taught. He was designing and making wooden furniture in Forlì, in Emilia-Romagna, when he began his first experiments with sculpture and conceptual art.  Read more…

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Cigoli – painter and architect

First artist to paint a realistic moon

The artist Cigoli was born Lodovico Cardi on this day in 1559 near San Miniato in Tuscany.  He became a close friend of Galileo Galilei, who is said to have regarded him as the greatest painter of his time. They wrote to each other regularly and Galileo practised his drawing while Cigoli enjoyed making astronomical observances.  Cigoli painted a fresco in the dome of the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome depicting the Madonna standing upon a pock-marked lunar orb, exactly as it had been seen by Galileo through his telescope.  This is the first example still in existence of Galileo’s discovery about the surface of the moon being portrayed in art. The moon is shown just as Galileo had drawn it in his astronomical treatise, Sidereus Nuncius, which published the results of Galileo’s early observations of the imperfect and mountainous moon.  Until Cigoli’s fresco, the moon in pictures of the Virgin had always been represented by artists as spherical and smooth.  Lodovico Cardi was born at Villa Castelvecchio di Cigoli, and was therefore commonly known as Cigoli.  He trained as an artist in Florence under the Mannerist painter Alessandro Allori.   Read more…


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20 September 2020

20 September

Capture of Rome

Troops enter the capital in final act of unification

Crack infantry soldiers from Piedmont entered Rome and completed the unification of Italy on this day in 1870.  Rome had remained under French control even after the first Italian parliament had proclaimed Victor Emmanuel of Savoy the King of Italy in 1861.  The Italian parliament had declared Rome the capital of the new Kingdom of Italy even though it had not yet taken control of the city.  A French garrison had remained in Rome on the orders of Napoleon III of France in support of Pope Pius IX.  But after the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war, Napoleon III had to withdraw many of his troops. Italian soldiers from the Bersaglieri regiments in Piedmont led by General Raffaele Cadorna seized their chance and after a brief bombardment were able to enter Rome through a breach in the Aurelian Walls near Porta Pia.  King Victor Emmanuel II was then able to take up residence in the Quirinale Palace and Italy was declared officially united.  The date of 20 September, which marked the end of the Risorgimento, the long process of Italian unification, is commemorated in practically every town in Italy with a street named Via XX Settembre.  Read more…

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Sophia Loren – actress

Glamorous star one of just three Italian Oscar winners

The actress Sophia Loren, who came to be regarded as one of the world’s most beautiful women and is the most famous name in Italian cinema history, was born on this day in 1934 in Rome.  In a career spanning more than 60 years, Loren appeared in almost 90 films made for the big screen and several others for television.  Although she was often picked for her looks and box-office appeal, she proved her acting talent by winning an Oscar for her role in Vittorio De Sica’s gritty 1960 drama Two Women, released in Italy as La Ciociara.  In doing so she became one of only three Italians to win the Academy Award for Best Actor or Actress and the first of either sex to win the award for an Italian-language film. She followed Anna Magnani, who had won in 1955 for The Rose Tattoo, as the second Italian Oscar winner.  Loren stayed away from the awards ceremony in 1961 on the grounds that the suspense of waiting to learn whether she had won was something she would rather suffer in private but she was there in person to accept an honorary Oscar in 1991, recognising her career achievements.  She also attended the 1993 Oscars to present an honorary award to the director Federico Fellini.  Read more… 

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Election of Pope Clement VII

Appointment that sparked split in Catholic Church

The election of Robert of Geneva as Pope Clement VII by a group of disaffected French cardinals, prompting the split in the Roman Catholic Church that became known as the Western Schism or the Great Schism, took place on this day in 1378.  The extraordinary division in the hierarchy of the church, which saw two and ultimately three rival popes each claiming to be the rightful leader, each with his own court and following, was not resolved until 1417.  It was prompted by the election in Rome of Urban VI as the successor to Gregory XI, who had returned the papal court to Rome from Avignon, where it had been based for almost 70 years after an earlier dispute.  The election of Cardinal Bartolomeo Prignano as Urban VI followed rioting by angry Roman citizens demanding a Roman be made pope. Prignano, the former Archbishop of Bari was not a Roman - he was born in Itri, near Formia in southern Lazio - but was seen as the closest to it among those seen as suitable candidates.  His appointment was not well received, however, by some of the powerful French cardinals who had moved from Avignon to Rome, who claimed the election should be declared invalid because it was made under fear of civil unrest.  Read more…


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19 September 2020

19 September

Italo Calvino – writer

One of 20th century Italy's most important authors

Novelist and journalist Italo Calvino died on this day in 1985 in Siena in Tuscany.  Calvino was regarded as one of the most important Italian writers of fiction of the 20th century.  His best known works are the Our Ancestors trilogy, written in the 1950s, the Cosmicomics collection of short stories, published in 1965, and the novels, Invisible Cities, published in 1972 and If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller, published in 1979.  Both of Calvino’s parents were Italian, but he was born in Santiago de Las Vegas, a suburb of Havana in Cuba, in 1923, where his father, Mario, an agronomist and botanist, was conducting scientific experiments. Calvino’s mother, Eva, was also a botanist and a university professor. It is believed she gave Calvino the first name of Italo to remind him of his heritage.  Calvino and his parents left Cuba for Italy in 1925 and settled permanently in Sanremo in Liguria, where his father’s family had an ancestral home at San Giovanni Battista.  His family held the science subjects in greater esteem than the arts and Calvino, a prolific reader of stories as a child, is said to have ‘reluctantly’ studied agriculture.  Read more…

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Festival of San Gennaro

Worldwide celebrations for patron saint of Naples

Local worshippers, civic dignitaries and visitors meet together in the Duomo in Naples every year on this day to remember the martyrdom of the patron saint of the city, San Gennaro.  Each year a service is held to enable the congregation to witness the dried blood of the saint, which is kept in a glass phial, miraculously turn to liquid.  The practice of gathering blood to be kept as a relic was common at the time of the decapitation of San Gennaro in 305.  The ritual of praying for the miracle of liquefaction of the blood on the anniversary of his death dates back to the 13th century.  Gennaro is said to have been the Bishop of Benevento and was martyred during the Great Persecution led by the Roman Emperor Diocletian for trying to protect other Christians.  His decapitation is believed to have taken place in Pozzuoli but his remains were transferred to Naples in the 15th century to be housed in the Duomo. The festival of the saint’s martyrdom is celebrated each year by Neapolitan communities all over the world and the recurrence of the miracle in Naples is televised and reported in newspapers.  On 19 September in 1926, immigrants from Naples congregated along Mulberry Street in the Little Italy section of Manhattan in New York City to celebrate the Festa di San Gennaro there for the first time.  Read more…

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Umberto Bossi - politician

Fiery leader of separatist Lega Nord

Controversial politician Umberto Bossi was born on this day in 1941 in the town of Cassano Magnago in Lombardy.  Until 2012, Bossi was leader of Lega Nord (Northern League), a political party whose goal was to achieve autonomy for northern Italy and establish a new independent state, to be called Padania.  With his distinctive, gravelly voice and penchant for fiery, sometimes provocative rhetoric, Bossi won a place in the Senate in 1987 representing his original party, Lega Lombarda. He was dismissed as an eccentric by some in the political mainstream but under his charismatic leadership Lega Nord became a force almost overnight.  Launched as Alleanza Nord in 1989, bringing together a number of regional parties including Bossi’s own Lega Lombarda, it was renamed Lega Nord in 1991 and fought the 1992 general election with stunning results.  With an impressive 8.7% of the vote, Lega Nord went into the new parliament with 56 deputies and 26 senators, making it the fourth largest party in Italy.  By 1996 that share had risen to 10% and Bossi had become a major figure in Italian politics.  Read more…

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Giuseppe Saragat – fifth President of Italy

Socialist politician opposed Fascism and Communism

Giuseppe Saragat, who was President of the Italian Republic from 1964 to 1971, was born on this day in 1898 in Turin.  As a Socialist politician, he was exiled from Italy by the Fascists in 1926.  When he returned to Italy in 1943 to join the partisans, he was arrested and imprisoned by the Nazi forces occupying Rome, but he managed to escape and resume clandestine activity within the Italian Socialist Party.  Saragat was born to Sardinian parents living in Turin and he graduated from the University of Turin in economics and commerce. He joined the Socialist party in 1922.  During his years in exile he did various jobs in Austria and France.  After returning to Italy, he was minister without portfolio in the first post-liberation cabinet of Ivanoe Bonomi in 1944.  He was sent as ambassador to Paris between 1945 and 1946 and was then elected president of the Constitutional Assembly that drafted postwar Italy’s new constitution.  At the Socialist Party Congress in 1947, Saragat opposed the idea of unity with the Communist Party and led those who walked out to form the Socialist Party of Italian Workers (PSLI).  Read more…


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18 September 2020

18 September

Alberto Franchetti - opera composer

Caruso sang his arias on first commercial record in 1902

The opera composer Alberto Franchetti, some of whose works were performed by the great tenor Enrico Caruso for his first commercial recording, was born on this day in 1860 in Turin.  Caruso had been taken with Franchetti’s opera, Germania, when he sang the male lead role in the opera’s premiere at Teatro alla Scala in Milan in March 1902.  A month later, Caruso famously made his first recording on a phonograph in a Milan hotel room and chose a number of arias from Germania and critics noted that he sang the aria Ah vieni qui… No, non chiuder gli occhi with a particular sweetness of voice.  A friend and rival of Giacomo Puccini, Franchetti had a style said to have been influenced by the German composers Wagner and Meyerbeer. He was sometimes described as the "Meyerbeer of modern Italy."  Despite the exposure the success of Germania and the association with Caruso brought him, Franchetti’s operas slipped quite quickly into obscurity.  Blame for that can be levelled at least in part at the Fascist Racial Laws of 1938, which made life and work very difficult for Italy's Jewish population.  Read more…

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Rossano Brazzi - Hollywood star

Actor quit as a lawyer for career on the big screen

The movie actor Rossano Brazzi, whose credits include The Barefoot Contessa, Three Coins in the Fountain and South Pacific, was born on this day in 1916 in Bologna.  Brazzi gave up a promising career as a lawyer in order to act and went on to appear in more than 200 films, more often than not cast as a handsome heartbreaker or romantic aristocrat.  He was at his peak in the 50s and 60s but continued to accept parts until the late 80s. His last major role was as Father DeCarlo in Omen III: The Final Conflict in 1981.  Brazzi's family moved to Florence when he was aged four. His father Adelmo, a shoemaker, opened a leather factory in which Rossano, his brother Oscar and his sister, Franca, would all eventually work.  Adelmo had ambitions for Rossano, however, helping him win a place at the University of Florence, where he obtained a law degree, and then sending him to Rome to work in the legal practice of a family friend. But Rossano had become involved in a drama group at university and looked for opportunities to continue acting.  Eventually, he was approached by a film director and when he was offered a part in a film in 1939 he quit his job with the legal practice in order to devote himself to acting as a career.  Read more…

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Francesca Caccini – singer and composer

Court musician composed oldest surviving opera by a woman

Prolific composer and talented singer Francesca Caccini was born on this day in 1587 in Florence.  Sometimes referred to by the nickname La Cecchina, she composed what is widely considered to be the oldest surviving opera by a woman composer, La Liberazione di Ruggiero, which was adapted from the epic poem, Orlando Furioso by Ludovico Ariosto.  Caccini was the daughter of the composer and musician, Giulio Caccini, and she received her early musical training from him. Like her father, she regularly sang at the Medici court.  She was part of an ensemble of singers referred to as le donne di Giulio Romano, which included her sister, Settimia, and other unnamed pupils.  After her sister married and moved to Mantua, the ensemble broke up, but Caccini continued to serve the court as a teacher, singer and composer, where she was popular because of her musical virtuosity.  She is believed to have been a quick and prolific composer but sadly very little of her music has survived. She was considered equal at the time to Jacopo Peri and Marco da Gagliano, who were also working for the court.  Read more…


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17 September 2020

17 September

NEW
- Nives Meroi - mountaineer

One of history’s greatest female climbers 

The climber Nives Meroi, widely regarded as one of history’s finest female mountaineers, was born on this day in 1961 in Bonate Sotto, a small town in the province of Bergamo, about 40km (25 miles) northeast of Milan.  One half of a renowned husband-and-wife climbing team with Romano Benet, Meroi is one of only three women to have reached the peak of all 14 of the so-called eight-thousanders, the only mountains in the world that tower about 8,000m, topped by Everest (8,848m), which she conquered in 2007, and K2 (8,611), which she had scaled in 2006.  Meroi completed the full set of 14 when she reached the summit of Annapurna (8,091m) in the Himalayas in 2017.  She and Benet, born in Italy but who has Slovenian nationality, are the first married couple to have climbed all 14 together.  The two first met more than 40 years ago in Tarvisio in Friuli Venezia Giulia, Benet’s hometown, situated in an Alpine valley close to the borders with Austria and Slovenia. Meroi, a student, was sharing a house with Benet’s sister. They began hiking and climbing together after discovering they had a common love of the mountainous scenery.  Read more…

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Ranuccio II Farnese – Duke of Parma

Feuding with the Popes led to the destruction of a city

Ranuccio II Farnese, who angered Innocent X so much that the Pope had part of his territory razed to the ground, was born on this day in 1630 in Parma.  Ranuccio II was the eldest son of Odoardo Farnese, the fifth sovereign duke of Parma, and his wife, Margherita de’ Medici.  Odoardo died while Ranuccio was still a minor and, although he succeeded him as Duke of Parma, he had to rule for the first two years of his reign under the regency of both his uncle, Francesco Maria Farnese, and his mother.  The House of Farnese had been founded by Ranuccio’s paternal ancestor, Alessandro Farnese, who became Pope Paul III. The Farnese family had been ruling Parma and Piacenza ever since Paul III gave it to his illegitimate son, Pier Luigi Farnese. He also made Pier Luigi the Duke of Castro.  While Odoardo had been Duke of Parma he had become involved in a power struggle with Pope Urban VIII, who was a member of the Barberini family. The Barberini family were keen to acquire Castro, which was north of Rome in the Papal States.  When Odoardo found himself unable to pay his debts, Urban VIII responded to the creditors’ pleas for help, by sending troops to occupy Castro.  Read more…

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Reinhold Messner - mountaineer

Climber from Dolomites who conquered Everest

Reinhold Messner, the Italian mountaineer who was the first climber to reach the summit of Mount Everest without supplemental oxygen and the first to reach the peak on a solo climb, was born on this day in 1944 in Bressanone, a town in Italy's most northerly region of Alto Adige, which is also known as South Tyrol.  Messner was also the first man to ascend every one of the world's 14 peaks that rise to more than 8,000 metres (26,000 ft) above sea level.  His 1976 ascent of Everest with the Austrian climber Peter Habeler defied numerous doctors and other specialists in the effects of altitude who insisted that scaling the world's highest mountain without extra oxygen was not possible.  Born only 45km from Italy's border with Austria, Messner grew up speaking German and Italian and has also become fluent in English.  His father, Josef, introduced him to climbing and took him to his first summit at the age of five. He soon became familiar with all the peaks of the Dolomites.   From a family of 10 children - nine of them boys - Messner shared his passion for adventure with brothers Günther and Hubert, with whom he would later cross the Arctic.  Read more…

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Maria Luisa of Savoy

Girl from Turin ruled Spain while a teenager

Maria Luisa of Savoy, who grew up to become a queen consort of Spain with a lot of influence over her husband, King Philip V, was born on this day in 1688 at the Royal Palace in Turin.  She was the daughter of Victor Amadeus II, Duke of Savoy, and his French wife, Anne Marie d’Orleans.  Philip V of Spain wanted to maintain his ties with Victor Amadeus II and therefore asked for Maria Luisa’s hand in marriage. She was wed by proxy to Philip V in 1701 when she was still only 13.  Maria Luisa was escorted to Nice and from there sailed to Antibes en route to Barcelona. The official marriage took place in November of the same year.  Maria Luisa was both beautiful and intelligent and Phillip V was deeply in love with her right from the start.  In 1702 when Philip V left Spain to fight in the War of the Spanish Succession, Maria Luisa acted as Regent in his absence.  She was praised as an effective ruler despite being only 14 years old. She gave audiences to ambassadors, worked for hours with ministers, and prevented Savoy from joining the enemy. She inspired people to make donations towards the war effort and her leadership was admired throughout Spain.  Read more…


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Nives Meroi - mountaineer

One of history’s greatest female climbers 

Nives Meroi and Romano Benet
Nives Meroi and Romano Benet have been
climbing together for more than 40 years
The climber Nives Meroi, widely regarded as one of history’s finest female mountaineers, was born on this day in 1961 in Bonate Sotto, a small town in the province of Bergamo, about 40km (25 miles) northeast of Milan.

One half of a renowned husband-and-wife climbing team with Romano Benet, Meroi is one of only three women to have reached the peak of all 14 of the so-called eight-thousanders, the only mountains in the world that tower about 8,000m, topped by Everest (8,848m), which she conquered in 2007, and K2 (8,611), which she had scaled in 2006.

Meroi completed the full set of 14 when she reached the summit of Annapurna (8,091m) in the Himalayas in 2017.  She and Benet, born in Italy but who has Slovenian nationality, are the first married couple to have climbed all 14 together.

The two first met more than 40 years ago in Tarvisio in Friuli Venezia Giulia, Benet’s hometown, situated in an Alpine valley close to the borders with Austria and Slovenia. Meroi, a student, was sharing a house with Benet’s sister. They began hiking and climbing together after discovering they had a common love of the mountainous scenery.

They were married in 1989, about 10 years after they met, with climbing central to the decision to tie the knot, Meroi confessing in an interview some years later that it enabled them to realise a dream, which at the time seemed out of reach, to go climbing together in the Peruvian Andes, on the Cordillera Blanca range.

Benet and Meroi have scaled the 14 highest mountains in the world
Benet and Meroi have scaled the 14
highest mountains in the world
“We had no money or leave days," Meroi said in an interview on the BBC World Service. "So we decided to get married because our employers would give us two weeks off, and we asked our friends and family to pay for the trip."

With the Alps on their doorstep in Tarvisio, they had by then become seasoned climbers and it was not long after becoming husband and wife that they began to travel to the Himalayas.  They attempted both Everest and K2 in the mid-1990s, without reaching the peak, before chalking off the first of the eight-thousanders in 1998, whey they successfully scaled Nanga Parbat, which rises to 8,126m in Kashmir. Meroi was the first Italian woman at the summit.

They had climbed two more off the list by the end of the decade before, in 2003, Meroi became the first female climber to complete the three eight-thousanders of the Gasherbrum Massif on the border of China and Pakistan.  Their conquests of K2 and Everest in the next few years were notable for the couple reaching the summits alone, with no sherpas to help carry equipment, and without using supplemental oxygen.

Not surprisingly, given the risks involved with climbing, their lives have not been without drama.

In 2008, attempting a treacherous winter ascent of Makalu, at 8,485m the world’s fifth highest peak, Meroi was blown off her feet by a fierce gust of wind and fell between two boulders, breaking her right leg. With the help of another Italian climber who had accompanied them on the trip, Benet carried her down to a glacier 2,000m below where the incident took place, from which a helicopter took her to hospital. 

Nives Meroi
Meroi is only the third female to
climb all 14 eight-thousanders
A year later, once Meroi had recovered, the pair set out to climb Kangchenjunga, the world's third-highest peak, on the border of India and Nepal. They were closing in on the 8,586m summit when Benet became unwell. Meroi had the option to continue alone, leaving her husband to wait for her in a tent, which would have put her in with a chance of becoming the first woman to complete the 14 eight-thousanders, given that the two that would remain on her list were less daunting prospects.

In the event, the decision to descend immediately and quickly was the right one. Benet was suffering from aplastic anaemia, an extremely rare condition in which the bone marrow fails to produce enough new blood cells.  It took two years of treatment, including dozens of blood transfusions and two bone-marrow transplants, before Benet was well again, having been in grave danger of losing his life.

Undaunted, the couple resumed climbing.  They succeeded at the third attempt to reach the summit of Kangchenjunga in 2014, scaled the peak of Makalu two years later and conquered the last of the 14 on May 11, 2017, when she and Benet arrived at the 8,091-metre summit of Annapurna, in north-central Nepal.

It made Meroi only the third woman to have climbed all the world’s eight-thousanders, after the Spanish mountaineer Edurne Pasaban, who had achieved the feat in 2010, and the Austrian Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner, who followed a year later. Kaltenbrunner and Meroi are the only women to have completed all 14 without supplemental oxygen.

Benet - almost 10 years his wife’s senior - had just turned 65 in May 2017. He became the 16th man to complete the set and the fourth Italian.

The couple still live just outside Tarvisio in what they describe as a mountain hut.

The remaining apse of the former Basilica di Santa Giulia
The remaining apse of the former
Basilica di Santa Giulia
Travel tip:

Bonate Sotto, where Neroi was born, is a small town of around 7,000 residents some 12km (9 miles) southeast of the Lombardia city of Bergamo within the so-called Isola Bergamasca between the Brembo and Adda rivers. It is best known for the remains of the Basilica di Santa Giulia, a 12th-century Romanesque basilica built on the site of a church that may have stood since in the seventh century. It fell into disrepair and was abandoned in the 14th century. The 12th-century structure had a nave and two aisles with three apses, with an interior was divided into five bays, of which only the last one preceding the apse area survives. The area outside the remains includes a cemetery.

The market square in Treviso, with the church of Saints Peter and Paul
The market square in Treviso, with the
church of Saints Peter and Paul
Travel tip:

Tarvisio, which has a population of slightly less than 5,000, can be found 7km (4 miles) from the Austrian border and 11km (7 miles) from Slovenia, in the Val Canale between the Julian Alps and eastern Carnic Alps. It is a popular base for both winter and summer activities. Its historic market, which used to open on Saturdays but now hosts stalls on weekdays too, attracts shoppers from over the border.  Meroi and Benet live in an area of tiny Alpine lakes called the Fusine Laghi, just to the east of the town.

Also on this day:

1630: The birth of Ranuccio II Farnese, Duke of Parma

1688: The birth of Maria Luisa of Savoy

1944: The birth of mountaineer Reinhold Messner


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16 September 2020

16 September

Alessandro Fortis - politician

Revolutionary who became Prime Minister

Alessandro Fortis, a controversial politician who was also Italy’s first Jewish prime minister, was born on this day in 1841 in Forlì in Emilia-Romagna.  Fortis led the government from March 1905 to February 1906. A republican follower of Giuseppe Mazzini and a volunteer in the army of Giuseppe Garibaldi, he was politically of the Historical Left but in time managed to alienate both sides of the divide with his policies.  He attracted the harshest criticism for his decision to nationalise the railways, one of his personal political goals, which was naturally opposed by the conservatives on the Right but simultaneously upset his erstwhile supporters on the Left, because the move had the effect of heading off a strike by rail workers. By placing the network in state control, Fortis turned all railway employees into civil servants, who were not allowed to strike under the law.  Some politicians also felt the compensation given to the private companies who previously ran the railways was far too generous and suspected Fortis of corruption.  His foreign policies, meanwhile, upset politicians and voters on both sides.  Read more…

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Paolo Di Lauro - Camorra boss

Capture of mobster struck at heart of Naples underworld

Italy's war against organised crime achieved one of its biggest victories on this day in 2005 when the powerful Camorra boss Paolo Di Lauro was arrested.  In a 6am raid, Carabinieri officers surrounded a building in the notorious Secondigliano district of Naples and entered the modest apartment in which Di Lauro was living with a female companion.  The 52-year-old gang boss did not resist arrest, possibly believing any charges against him would not be made to stick.  However, at a subsequent trial he was convicted and sentenced to 30 years' imprisonment for drug trafficking and other crimes and remains in jail.  Di Lauro's conviction was significant because it removed the man who had been at the head of one of the most lucrative criminal networks in all of Italy for more than 20 years and yet managed to maintain such a low profile that police at times suspected he was dead.  At its peak, the Di Lauro clan presided over an organisation that imported and distributed cocaine and heroin said to be worth around €200 million per year.  The clan essentially controlled the run-down northern suburbs of Naples, making money also from real estate, counterfeit high-end fashion and prostitution.  Read more…

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Sir Anthony Panizzi - revolutionary librarian

Political refugee knighted by Queen Victoria

Sir Anthony Panizzi, who as Principal Librarian at the British Museum was knighted by Queen Victoria, was a former Italian revolutionary, born Antonio Genesio Maria Panizzi in Brescello in what is now Reggio Emilia, on this day in 1797.  A law graduate from the University of Parma, Panizzi began his working life as a civil servant, attaining the position of Inspector of Public Schools in his home town.   At the same time he was a member of the Carbonari, the network of secret societies set up across Italy in the early part of the 19th century, whose aim was to overthrow the repressive regimes of the Kingdoms of Naples and Sardinia, the Papal States and the Duchy of Modena and bring about the unification of Italy as a republic or a constitutional monarchy.  He was party to a number of attempted uprisings but was forced to flee the country in 1822, having been tipped off that he was to be arrested and would face trial as a subversive.  Panizzi found a haven in Switzerland, but after publishing a book that attacked the Duchy of Modena, of which Brescello was then part, he was sentenced to death in absentia by a court in Modena.  Read more…


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