6 May 2021

6 May

Rudolph Valentino - star of silent films

Heart-throb actor who died tragically young

The man who would become Rudolph Valentino was born on this day in 1895 in Castellaneta, a small town in a rocky region of Puglia notable for steep ravines.  Born the second youngest of four children by the French wife of an Italian veterinary surgeon, he was christened Rodolfo Alfonso Raffaello Pierre Filibert Guglielmi di Valentina d'Antonguolla.  When he arrived in America as an immigrant in 1913, he was registered as Rodolfo Guglielmi. His first movie credit listed him as Rudolpho di Valentina and he appeared under nine different variations of that name before achieving fame as Rudolph Valentino in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in 1920.  During the silent movie boom, he enjoyed more success in The Sheik, Blood and Sand, The Eagle and The Son of the Sheik and his smouldering good looks made him a 1920s sex symbol, nicknamed "The Latin Lover" and adored by countless female fans.  Yet his route to fame was difficult. Unable to find work at home, he joined the exodus of southern Italians to the United States and aged just 18 boarded a boat to New York, disembarking at Ellis Island on 13 December, 1913.  Read more…


Alessandra Ferri – ballerina

Dancing star who believes age is a matter of attitude

Prima ballerina assoluta Alessandra Ferri, who retired in 2007 but then made a triumphant return to ballet in 2013, was born on this day in 1963 in Milan. She marked her 55th birthday in 2018 by dancing at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow and the Hamburg Staatsoper, before performing at the Ravello Festival in Italy in July and in Tokyo in August.  In a newspaper interview, Ferri said she was happy to be breaking barriers as an older woman in a youth-dominated world. She said she still has full confidence in her abilities and believes ageing is largely an attitude and her advice to other women of her age is ‘to keep moving’.  Ferri began studying ballet at La Scala Theatre Ballet School. She moved to the upper school of the Royal Ballet School in London, where she won a scholarship that enabled her to continue studying there.  She joined the Royal Ballet in 1980 and won the Laurence Olivier Award for her first major role in 1982. She was promoted to the rank of principal dancer in 1983.  Ferri became principal dancer with the American Ballet Theatre under the direction of Mikhail Baryshnikow in 1985.  Read more…


The Sack of Rome

Mutinous army of Holy Roman Empire laid waste to city

An army loyal to the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, laid siege to the city of Rome on this day in 1527, at the start of the Sack of Rome, a significant event in the conflict between Charles and the so-called League of Cognac that had profound implications for Rome’s wealth and power.  Rome at the time was part of the Papal States, who at the behest of Pope Clement VII had joined the League of Cognac – an alliance that included France, Milan, Florence and Venice – in an effort to stop the advance of the Empire, which had its centre of power in the Kingdom of Germany, into the Italian peninsula.  After the Imperial Army had defeated the French at Pavia in the Italian War of 1521-26, it would have been a logical step for Charles to march on Rome but the attack is said to have come about not through any planned strategy but after a mutiny among his troops, many of whom were hired mercenaries, after it became clear there were insufficient funds available to pay them.  Aware of the rich treasures they could seize if they stormed Rome and overthrew Clement VII, 34,000 Imperial troops, an army made up of Germans, Spaniards and Italians, demanded that their commander, Charles III, Duke of Bourbon, led them towards Rome.  Read more…


5 May 2021

5 May

NEW - Giovanni Gaeta - composer and songwriter

Post Office worker whose songs became famous

The poet, composer and lyricist Giovanni Gaeta, whose classic Neapolitan songs brought him fame under his pseudonym E A Mario, was born on this day in 1884 in Naples.  Gaeta’s compositions as E A Mario, such as Santa Lucia luntana and Balocchi e profumi, were performed by some of the world’s greatest voices, from Enrico Caruso to Luciano Pavarotti, and became staples in the repertoire of Neapolitan song specialists such as Peppino di Capri, Mario Abbate and Bruno Venturini.  He was also responsible for La canzone del Piave - the Song of the Piave - which he wrote to commemorate the bravery of Italian soldiers in repelling an attempt by the Austrian imperial army to inflict a decisive victory on the Piave front in northeast Italy in 1918, a show of resistance that hastened the end of the First World War.  The song became one of Italy’s most famous patriotic songs and was briefly adopted as the country’s national anthem.  Yet Gaeta’s talent never made him wealthy.  In need of money to care for his sick wife, Adelina, he sold the rights to all his songs to a Milan publishing house, thereafter receiving very little of the royalties they generated.  Read more…


Montagna Longa air disaster

Italy’s deadliest plane crash

Italy was in shock on this day in 1972 after an Alitalia Douglas DC-8 en route from Rome to Palermo crashed into a mountainside on its approach to the Sicilian airport.  Alitalia Flight 112, which was carrying 115 passengers and crew, was 5km (3 miles) from touching down at Palermo International Airport at around 10.24pm when it struck a 935m (1,980ft) crest of Montagna Longa, part of the Monti di Palermo range.  The aircraft slid along the ground for some distance but broke up after striking a series of rocks, spreading burning kerosene over a wide area. The wreckage ultimately covered an area of 4km (2.5 miles). Witnesses in the nearby town of Carini described seeing the aircraft on fire before it crashed.  The crash remains Italy’s deadliest accident involving a single aeroplane. Only the 2001 disaster at Milan’s second airport, Linate, when an airliner and a business jet collided on the ground, killing 114 passengers plus four people on the ground, claimed more casualties.  Most of the passengers on board Alitalia Flight 112 were Italians, returning to Sicily from Rome to vote in the national elections.  Read more…


The Expedition of the Thousand

Garibaldi's Spedizione dei Mille launched from Genoa

The Expedition of the Thousand, the military campaign to unite Italy led by the soldier and revolutionary Giuseppe Garibaldi, was launched on this day in 1860.  The campaign, in some ways the climax of the Risorgimento movement, began in response to an uprising in Sicily, when Garibaldi set sail from Genoa, with a makeshift army of volunteers, hoping his support would enable the rebels to overthrow the Bourbon rulers of the island.  The greater purpose, though, was to achieve another step towards his ultimate goal, which he shared with his fellow nationalist revolutionary, Giuseppe Mazzini, and which was supported by King Victor Emmanuel II of Sardinia-Piedmont and his prime minister, Camillo Benso di Cavour, that of creating a united Italy.  The revolutionary leader in Sicily, Francesco Crispi, had all but guaranteed that substantial numbers of Sicilians would fight on the side of Garibaldi’s troops.  Some accounts suggest Garibaldi, who had commanded military campaigns in Europe and South America and was a charismatic figure, had wanted to lead his followers into an attack on the French occupiers of Nice, his home city, but was persuaded to turn his attention to Sicily by Cavour, who feared a war with France would result.  Read more…


Francesco Bussone da Carmagnola – condottiero

Adventurous soldier lived on in literature

The soldier of fortune, Francesco Bussone da Carmagnola, who has been featured in poetry, books and an opera, was executed on this day in 1432 in Venice.  The military leader had been seized, imprisoned and brought to trial for treason against La Serenissima, the Most Serene Republic of Venice, and was beheaded between the columns of San Marco and San Todaro at the entrance to the Piazzetta.  Francesco Bussone had been born at Carmagnola near Turin into a peasant family. He began his military career at the age of 12, serving under the condottiero, Facino Cane, who was in the service of the Marquess of Monferrat at the time, but later fought for Gian Galeazzo Visconti, Duke of Milan.  After the death of Gian Galeazzo, the duchy was divided up, but his son Filippo Maria was determined to reconquer it by force. He gave command of the army to Bussone da Carmagnola, who had taken over Cane’s role after his death.  Carmagnola subdued Bergamo, Brescia, Parma, Genoa and many smaller towns until the whole duchy was under Filippo Maria’s control.  Read more…


Mudslides in Campania

Towns and villages destroyed in natural disaster

Italy was in shock on this day in 1998 as a series of mudslides brought devastation in Campania, destroying or badly damaging more than 600 homes and killing 161 people. Almost 2,000 people were left with nowhere to live.  The mudslides were set off by several days of torrential rain and blamed on the increasingly unstable landscape caused by the deforestation and unregulated construction of roads and buildings.  Torrents of mud coursed down mountainsides in several areas between Avellino and Salerno to the east of Naples.  The town of Sarno bore the brunt of the damage but the villages of Quindici, Siano and Bracigliano were also badly hit.  The accumulation of large quantities of volcanic ash deposited by historic eruptions of the nearby Mount Vesuvius is thought to have made the mudslides particularly fast moving and the affected communities were quickly overwhelmed.  Scenes in the Sarno suburb of Episcopio were said to be reminiscent of nearby Pompeii, the city destroyed in the Vesuvius eruption of 79AD, with some streets completely buried in mud up to four metres deep.  Read more…

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Giovanni Gaeta - composer and songwriter

Post Office worker whose songs became famous

Giovanni Gaeta, aka E A Mario, pictured in his studio in Naples in around 1955
Giovanni Gaeta, aka E A Mario, pictured in his
studio in Naples in around 1955
The poet, composer and lyricist Giovanni Gaeta, whose classic Neapolitan songs brought him fame under his pseudonym E A Mario, was born on this day in 1884 in Naples.

Gaeta’s compositions as E A Mario, such as Santa Lucia luntana and Balocchi e profumi, were performed by some of the world’s greatest voices, from Enrico Caruso to Luciano Pavarotti, and became staples in the repertoire of Neapolitan song specialists such as Peppino di Capri, Mario Abbate and Bruno Venturini.

He was also responsible for La canzone del Piave - the Song of the Piave - which he wrote to commemorate the bravery of Italian soldiers in repelling an attempt by the Austrian imperial army to inflict a decisive victory on the Piave front in northeast Italy in 1918, a show of resistance that hastened the end of the First World War.

The song became one of Italy’s most famous patriotic songs and was briefly adopted as the country’s national anthem.

The verses of E A Mario's most famous patriotic song
The verses of E A Mario's most
famous patriotic song
Yet Gaeta’s talent never made him wealthy.  In need of money to care for his sick wife, Adelina, he sold the rights to all his songs to a Milan publishing house, thereafter receiving very little of the royalties they generated. 

Although he had many volumes of poetry published, for most of his life he remained an employee of the Naples office of the Royal Italian Post Office, where he had been taken on at a young age.

Gaeta’s family, originally from Pellezano, near Salerno, lived in an area of central Naples called Borgo Sant’Antonio Abate. His father, Michele, ran a barber’s shop, the small rooms attached to which served as home to Giovanni and nine other members of the family.

Always an avid reader, as a young man he became friends with the Naples poet and playwright, Eduardo Scarpetta, father of Eduardo, Peppino and Titina De Filippo, who would become celebrated figures in Neapolitan theatre and literary circles. 

His interest in music was in part down to a careless client of his father’s shop, who left a mandolin on a chair and never returned to collect it. Gaeta taught himself how to play the instrument, learned how to read music in the pages of a magazine and was soon composing melodies.

Although he took a job with the Post Office at their Naples offices in the nearby Monteoliveto area, his poetry introduced him to other opportunities, once such followed a meeting with Alessandro Sacheri, journalist and editor-in-chief of the Genoa newspaper Il Lavoro, who was impressed enough with Gaeta’s work to invite him to write for the publication under the pen name Ermes.

General Armando Diaz sent E A  Mario a telegraph thanking him for the song
General Armando Diaz sent E A  Mario
a telegraph thanking him for the song
The pseudonym under which he wrote his songs apparently took its ‘E’ from Ermes and its ‘A’ from Alessandro, while Mario is thought to refer to Mario Clarvy, the Polish editor of a literary magazine that published his work.

He penned the verses and music for La canzone del Piave immediately after the so-called Battle of the Solstice in June 1918, when the Italian army overpowered the Austrian forces at the front along the Piave river.  The words of the song expressed the anger and bitterness felt after defeat at the Battle of Caporetto in the autumn of the previous year as well as pride in their victory by the Piave.

The song, also known as La leggenda del Piave, made such an impact that General Armando Diaz, commander-in-chief of the Italian army, sent Mario a telegraph to let him know that the song had helped the war effort by giving courage to his troops for the battles ahead.

When Italy became a republic at the end of the Second World War and sought a new national anthem to replace the Marcia Reale (Royal March), La canzone del Piave was initially chosen to fulfil the function, although after a national debate that also considered Giuseppe Verdi’s chorus Va, pensiero from the opera Nabucco, Goffredo Mamelmi’s Il canto degli Italiani, popularly known by its opening line, Fratelli d’Italia, was the song officially adopted.

Under his real name and as E A Mario, Gaeta wrote more than 2,000 songs, providing the music to many of them.  In 1922, he was awarded the Commenda della Corona - the Order of the Crown of Italy - by King Victor Emmanuel III, who presented him with the medal in person after listening to his song.

Still living in rented accommodation, in Viale Elena (now Viale Antonio Gramsci), a short distance from the Mergellina waterfront, Gaeta died in 1961 at the of 77, having been nursed by his daughters, Delia, Italia and Bruna. He had survived his wife by only a few months.  The house is marked by a plaque.

Another plaque, bearing the first lines of Santa Lucia luntana, the song he wrote in 1919 dedicated to the many Neapolitans who emigrated, mainly to the Americas, can be seen in Borgo Marinaro, the harbour area adjacent to the Santa Lucia district, which was often the last sight of the city recalled by emigrants at the start of their long voyage.

Clothes drying across the street are a  common sight in Sant'Antonio Abate
Clothes drying across the street are a 
common sight in Sant'Antonio Abate
Travel tip:

The Borgo Sant’Antonio Abate, where Gaeta grew up, is a typically lively, traditional Naples district, fanning out from the Gothic church of San Giovanni a Carbonara, bordered by the Via Foria, Via Carbonara and Corso Giuseppe Garibaldi. with its marble mausoleum and vibrant, 15th-century frescoes. Alleys strung with drying clothes are a common sight, with plenty of pizzerie and as well as pasticerie selling the local specialty dessert, rum baba.  The Teatro Totò, named after the comic actor born in nearby Rione Sanità, can also be found in the district.

Borgo Marinaro is dominated by the 12th century Norman fortress Castel dell'Ovo
Borgo Marinaro is dominated by the 12th century
Norman fortress Castel dell'Ovo
Travel tip:

Borgo Marinaro is a rocky islet attached to Borgo Santa Lucia by a causeway, close to Palazzo Reale and Piazza del Plebiscito in the heart of Naples. The site of the 12th century Castel dell’Ovo, built by the Normans and historically a key fortress in the defence of Naples and Campania, the area today comprises a harbour for both fishing boats and expensive yachts, surrounded by bars and restaurants that make it a popular destination for tourists and locals after dark. It was also the point at which the Greeks first settled the city in the seventh century BC. 

Also on this day:

1432: The execution in Venice of renowned condottiero Francesco Bussone da Carmagnola

1860: The launch of Garibaldi’s Expedition of the Thousand

1972: The Montagna Longa air crash

1998: Campania mudslides kill 161

(Picture credit: Clothes across Naples street Orna Wachman via Pixabay) 


4 May 2021

4 May

Anthony Martin Sinatra - father of Frank

Sicilian who became a professional boxer in New York

Saverio Antonino Martino Sinatra, who at various times was a fireman, a professional boxer and the owner of a bar, was born on this day in 1894 in Lercara Friddi, a mining town in Sicily, about 70km (44 miles) south-east of the island’s capital, Palermo.  Usually known as Antonino, after emigrating to the United States he married Natalie Garaventa, a girl from near Genoa who lived in his neighbourhood in New York City.  They set up home in New Jersey and had a son, whom they christened Francis Albert, who would grow up to be better known as Frank Sinatra, one of the most popular entertainers of all time.  Lercara Friddi today is a town of between 7,000 and 8,000 inhabitants, which at the time of Antonino’s birth was an important centre for the mining of sulphur.  His father, Francesco, worked there as a shoemaker and married Rosa Saglimini. They had seven children, although two of them were believed to have died during an outbreak of cholera.  Early in Antonino’s life, Francesco decided to join the growing number of Sicilians who believed their prospects of escaping a life of poverty in their homeland were slim and after sailing to Naples boarded a ship bound for New York.  Read more…


Osbert Sitwell – English writer

Baronet’s love for a Tuscan castle

Sir Francis Osbert Sacheverell Sitwell died on this day in 1969 at the Castello di Montegufoni near Florence in Tuscany.  Like his famous elder sister, Edith Sitwell, who was a poet, and his younger brother, Sacheverell, an art and music critic and a prolific writer, Osbert devoted his life to art and literature.  His father, Sir George Reresby Sitwell, had purchased the Castle of Montegufoni, which is 20 km from Florence, in 1909 when it was derelict and restored it beautifully to become his personal residence.  Osbert inherited the castle after his father’s death in 1943 along with the baronetcy and he reigned over Montegufoni for the rest of his life.  Osbert was born in 1892 and grew up at the family homes in Derbyshire and Scarborough. In 1911 he joined the Sherwood Rangers Yeomanry but soon transferred to the Grenadier Guards and was based at the Tower of London, enabling him to go to the theatre and art galleries when he was off duty.  In 1914 he was sent to the trenches near Ypres in French, where the experience inspired him to write his first poems.  He left the Army with the rank of Captain and contested the 1918 general election as a Liberal.  Read more…


Marella Agnelli - noblewoman and socialite

Married for 50 years to Fiat patriarch Gianni Agnelli

Donna Marella Caracciolo di Castagneto, the noblewoman from an old Neapolitan family who married the jet-setting chairman of car giants Fiat, Gianni Agnelli, was born on this day in 1927 in Florence.  Simply known as Marella Agnelli, she was propelled by her marriage at the age of 26 into a world in which she became a socialite and style icon, devoting her life to collecting art, decorating the numerous homes she and her husband kept in Europe and beyond, and attending and hosting lavish, exclusive parties.  The couple would eventually have homes in Rome, Paris, New York,  Corsica and Saint-Moritz, as well as several houses in and around Agnelli’s home city of Turin, including the Agnelli estate in the foothills of the Italian Alps.  As a member of the House of Caracciolo, she was regarded as high Italian nobility, although she admitted that the conservative aristocratic circles in which she grew up were a long way removed from the new life she took on at Agnelli’s side.  Her father was Don Filippo Caracciolo, 8th Prince di Castagneto, 3rd Duke di Melito, and hereditary Patrician of Naples, who married an American whiskey heiress, Margaret Clarke.  Read more…


Bartolomeo Cristofori - inventor of the piano

Instrument maker adapted harpsichord to play soft and loud notes

Bartolomeo Cristofori, the man widely credited with inventing the piano, was born on this day in 1655 in Padua.  He came up with the idea while working for the Grand Prince Ferdinando de' Medici in Florence, who had hired him to look after his collection of harpsichords and other instruments. It is thought that Cristofori, who was assumed to have been an established maker of musical instruments when Ferdinando invited him to Florence in around 1690, wanted to create a keyboard instrument similar to a harpsichord but capable of playing notes of varying loudness.  An inventory of Medici instruments from 1700 described an "arpi cimbalo", which resembled a harpsichord but which created sounds through hammers and dampers rather than the plucking mechanism employed by the harpsichord. It was said to be "newly invented by Bartolomeo Cristofori".  In 1711, Scipione Maffei, a poet and journalist, referred to Cristofori's "gravicembalo col piano, e forte" (harpsichord with soft and loud), the first time it was called by its eventual name, pianoforte. A Florentine court musician, Federigo Meccoli, noted that the "arpi cimbalo del piano e forte" was first made by Cristofori in 1700, which is regarded as the birth date for the piano.  Read more...


3 May 2021

3 May

Francesco Algarotti - writer and art collector

Philosopher and polymath with a playboy lifestyle

The multi-talented writer, philosopher and art connoisseur Francesco Algarotti, one of the most prominent and colourful individuals in 18th century intellectual society, died on this day in 1764 in Pisa.  Algarotti, who wrote many essays and a number of books, was something of a polymath in his breadth of knowledge on a wide number of subjects, including architecture and music as well as art. He was also a charismatic figure who became friends with most of the leading authors of his day, including Voltaire, Jean-Baptiste de Boyer, Marquis d'Argens and Pierre-Louis de Maupertuis.  His urbane manner and suave good looks, combined with his considerable intellect, led him to acquire admirers of both sexes. Indeed, at one time he is said to have found himself at the centre of a colourful bisexual love triangle involving John Hervey, the English peer and politician, and Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, the aristocratic travel writer, who became infatuated with Algarotti at the same time as Hervey, her one-time lover.  Algarotti was often engaged by the courts of European monarchs to acquire or commission paintings.  Read more…


Niccolò Machiavelli – writer and diplomat

Political scientist came up with the idea ‘the ends justify the means’ 

Statesman and diplomat Niccolò Machiavelli, whose name has become synonymous with the idea of political cunning, was born on this day in 1469 in Florence.  The ideas he put forward in his writing were to make the word ‘machiavellian’ a regularly used pejorative adjective and the phrase ‘Old Nick’ a term to denote the devil in English.  The son of an attorney, Machiavelli was educated in grammar, rhetoric and Latin. After Florence expelled the Medici family in 1494 he went to work for the new republic in the office that produced official Florentine documents.  Machiavelli also carried out diplomatic missions to Rome on behalf of the republic where he witnessed the brutality of Cesare Borgia and his father, Pope Alexander VI, as they tried to acquire large parts of central Italy.  He later became responsible for the Florentine militia and, because of his distrust of mercenaries, used citizens in the army. Under his command, Florentine soldiers defeated Pisa in battle in 1509.  But Machiavelli’s success did not last and in 1512 the Medici, using Spanish troops, defeated the Florentines at Prato. He was dismissed from office in Florence by a written decree issued by the new Medici rulers.  Read more…


Raffaele Riario – Cardinal

Patron of arts linked with murder conspiracies

Renaissance Cardinal Raffaele Riario was born Raffaele Sansoni Galeoti Riario on this day in 1461 in Savona.  A patron of the arts, he is remembered for inviting Michelangelo to Rome and commissioning Palazzo della Cancelleria to be built. He was also embroiled in murder conspiracies which nearly cost him his life.  Although Riario was born in poverty, his mother was a niece of Francesco della Rovere, who became Pope Sixtus IV in 1471.  As a relative of the Pope he was created a Cardinal in 1477 and was named administrator of several dioceses, which gave him a good income at the age of 16, while he was studying canon law at the University of Pisa.  On his way to Rome in 1478, Riario stopped off in Florence, where he became a witness to the Pazzi conspiracy against the Medici. The Pazzi family wanted to replace the Medici as rulers of Florence. They attempted to assassinate Lorenzo, who was wounded but survived, and his brother Giuliano, who was killed, while they were attending mass in the Duomo. The conspirators were caught and executed and Riario was also arrested because he was related to Girolamo Riario, his uncle, who was one of the masterminds behind the plot.  Read more…


Battle of Tolentino

Murat is defeated but ignites desire for Risorgimento

Neapolitan troops were defeated by Austrian forces on this day in 1815 near Tolentino in what is now the Marche region of Italy.  It was the decisive battle in the Neapolitan War fought by the Napoleonic King of Naples, Joachim Murat, in a bid to keep the throne after the Congress of Vienna had ruled that the Bourbon Ferdinand IV, King of Sicily, should be restored.  The conflict was similar to the Battle of Waterloo, in that it occurred during the 100 days following Napoleon’s return from exile.  Murat had declared war on Austria in March 1815 after learning about Napoleon’s return to France and he advanced north with about 50,000 troops, establishing his headquarters at Ancona.  By the end of March, Murat’s army had arrived in Rimini, where he incited all Italian nationalists to go to war with him against the Austrians.  But his attempts to cross the River Po into Austrian-dominated northern Italy were unsuccessful and the Neapolitan army suffered heavy casualties.  The United Kingdom then declared war on Murat and sent a fleet to Italy. Murat retreated to Ancona to regroup his forces, with two Austrian armies pursuing him.  Read more…


2 May 2021

2 May

Alessandro Scarlatti - composer

Prolific opera composer was ahead of his time

Baroque composer Alessandro Scarlatti was born on this day in 1660 in Palermo.  He is considered to be the founder of the Neapolitan School of opera, from which modern opera developed, and his two sons, Domenico and Pietro Filippo, also went on to become composers.  Scarlatti is believed to have been a pupil of Giacomo Carissimi in Rome. When his opera Gli equivoci nel sembiante was produced in the city he gained the support of Queen Christina of Sweden, an enthusiastic patron of the arts who had taken up residence there. He became her maestro di cappella and joined the Arcadian Academy she had founded.  Along with composers Bernardo Pasquini and Arcangelo Corelli, he regularly visited her home to perform music he had dedicated to her.  In 1684 Scarlatti became maestro di cappella to the royal family in Naples and produced a series of operas and music for state occasions for them.  Scarlatti also enjoyed the patronage of Ferdinando de' Medici and composed operas for his private theatre near Florence. He was also maestro di cappella for Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni who procured him a post at the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome.  Read more…


Pietro Frua - car designer

Built business from a bombed-out factory

The car designer and coachbuilder Pietro Frua, who built some of Italy’s most beautiful cars without achieving the fame of the likes of Giovanni Bertone or Battista “Pinin” Farina, was born on this day in 1913 in Turin.  He is particularly remembered for his work with Maserati, for whom he designed the A6G and the Mistral among other models.  The son of a Fiat employee, Carlo Frua, Pietro was an apprentice draftsman with Fiat and from the age of 17 worked alongside Battista Farina for his brother, Giovanni Farina, who had a coachbuilding business in Turin. He became director of styling for Stabilimenti Farina at the age of just 22.  After being obliged to diversify during the war, when he designed electric ovens and children’s model cars among other things, Frua bought a bombed-out factory building in 1944, restored it to serviceable order and hired 15 workers to help him launch his own business.  The first car he designed in his own studio was the soft-top Fiat 1100C sports car in 1946.  Subsequent work for Peugeot and Renault came his way and in 1955 he was approached by Maserati for the first time.  Read more…


Marco Pannella - campaigning politician

Radical voice who helped modernise Italian society

The Radical politician Marco Pannella, whose relentless campaigning on civil rights and other issues helped transform modern Italian society, was born on this day in 1930 in Teramo in Abruzzo.  Pannella’s party won only a 3.4 per cent share of vote in the most successful election he fought yet he forced referendums to be held on divorce, abortion, the abolition of nuclear power, the public funding of political parties and many other issues, many of which led to changes in the law.  He was so passionate about the causes for which he campaigned he regularly staged hunger strikes to demonstrate his commitment and to attract publicity.  In 1970, for example, he went 78 days without food, allowing himself to consume only vitamin pills and three cups of coffee per day, losing 27 kilos (60lb) in weight before parliament agreed to hold a debate over the divorce laws.  Pannella’s emotional speeches were legend, as were his broadcasts on Radio Radicale, the radio station he founded in 1976 as a vehicle for his own message, but also as a champion of free speech.  His parents named him Giacinto (Hyacinth) but he found the name embarrassing and went under the name of Marco instead.   Read more…


1 May 2021

1 May

Uberto Pasolini - film producer and director

Roman count who found unexpected fame with The Full Monty

The film director and producer Uberto Pasolini, who gained international recognition when his British comedy The Full Monty became one of UK cinema’s biggest commercial success stories in 1997, was born on this day in 1957 in Rome.  A nephew of the great Italian director Luchino Visconti, Pasolini worked for 12 years as an investment banker in England before following his dream to work in the film industry, abandoning his career to work, initially without pay, on the set of the David Puttnam-Roland Joffé film, The Killing Fields, in Thailand.  Puttnam took him on, at first as a location scout, before Pasolini moved to America to become part of Puttnam’s production team in Los Angeles. He set up his own company in London in 1994 and went on to direct some of his own productions, including the critically acclaimed 2008 movie Machan, based on a true story about a group of would-be immigrants from Sri Lanka who overcome visa problems stopping them from moving to the West by pretending to be their country’s national handball team.  Like Luchino Visconti, who was a descendant of the same Visconti family that ruled Milan between the 13th and 15th centuries, Pasolini was from a noble background.  Read more…


The Portella della Ginestra Massacre

Conspiracy theories behind murder of peasants

Sicily and the whole of Italy was horrified on this day in 1947 when gunmen opened fire on defenceless peasants gathered for a Labour Day celebration in the hills above Palermo, killing 11 and wounding more than 30 in what became known as the Portella della Ginestra Massacre.  The victims included four children between the ages of seven and 15, who were cut down indiscriminately by a gang of men, some on horseback, who appeared suddenly and began firing machine guns as the peasants, numbering several hundred, congregated on a plain along a remote mountain pass between the towns of Piana degli Albanesi and San Giuseppe Jato, where a Labour Day rally had taken place every year since 1893.  Salvatore Giuliano, an outlaw wanted in connection with the killing of a police officer in 1943, was held responsible although many people believed that Giuliano and his gang of bandits were set up as scapegoats in a conspiracy involving the Mafia, wealthy landowners and politicians.  The outrage came only 10 days after a surprise victory by the so-called People’s Block - a coalition of the Italian Communist Party and the Italian Socialist Party - in Sicilian local elections.  Read more…


Laura Betti - actress and jazz singer

Long-time companion of director Pier Paolo Pasolini

The actress and singer Laura Betti, who appeared in a number of important Italian films in the 1960s and 1970s, including Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, Bernardo Bertolucci’s Novecento and Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Teorema, was born on this day in 1927 in Casalecchio di Reno, in Emilia-Romagna.  In addition to Teorema, which won her the coveted Volpi Cup for best actress at the 1968 Venice Film Festival, Betti appeared in six other Pasolini films as the two developed a special and unlikely relationship.  Betti, a vivacious blonde with striking good looks, had no shortage of suitors among the authors, artists, singers and aspiring actors that made up her circle in Rome in the 1950s, but Pasolini was gay and had no interest in her in a romantic sense.  Yet he became a regular guest at her apartment near the Palazzo Farnese and she wrote many years later that a kind of love developed between them. They met while he was an unknown poet and it was with her encouragement that he realised his aspiration to become a director.  Over time she effectively became his cook and housekeeper.  Read more…


Giovanni Guareschi – writer

Satirical magazine editor first used Don Camillo to fill a gap

Author Giovanni Guareschi, the creator of the fictional character, Don Camillo, was born on this day in 1908 in Roccabianca in Emilia-Romagna.  The popular stories featuring his famous comic creations, the stalwart Italian priest, Don Camillo, and the Communist mayor, Peppone, have since been made into many radio and television programmes and films.  Guareschi, who was christened Giovannino, started his career writing for the Gazzetta di Parma and then became a magazine editor.  He was called up to serve in the army in 1943 but was quickly taken prisoner, along with other Italian soldiers, by the Germans. He wrote a secret diary while he was in the prison camp, Diario Clandestino.  After the war Guareschi founded a weekly satirical magazine, Candido, where his Don Camillo stories first appeared. He had written the introductory story for another publication but lifted it to fill a gap in Candido at the last minute.  His magazine criticised and satirised the Communists but after they were beaten in the 1948 elections he turned his attention to the Christian Democrats instead.  Read more…


Ignazio Silone – politician and author

Socialist leader became famous for anti-Fascist novels

Writer and political leader Ignazio Silone was born Secondino Tranquilli on this day in 1900 in Pescina dei Marsi in the region of Abruzzo.  Tranquilli became famous under the pseudonym, Ignazio Silone, during World War II for his powerful anti-Fascist novels and he was nominated for the Nobel prize for literature ten times.  Silone’s father, Paolo Tranquilli, died when he was 11 and he lost his mother, Marianna, and other members of his family four years later in the Avezzano earthquake of 1915.  Two years afterwards he joined the Young Socialist group of the Italian Socialist Party (PSI), eventually becoming their leader and editor of their newspaper Avanguardia.  He was a founding member of the breakaway Italian Communist Party (PCI) party in 1921 and became one of its covert leaders during the Fascist regime, editing their newspaper in Trieste, Il Lavoratore. His brother, Romolo Tranquilli, was arrested in 1928 for being a member of the PCI and died in prison in 1931 as a result of the severe beatings he had received from the Fascist police.  Silone went to live in Switzerland in 1930 where he declared his opposition to Joseph Stalin and was expelled from the PCI.  Read more…

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