8 October 2021

8 October

Vincenzo Peruggia – art thief

Gallery worker who stole the Mona Lisa

Vincenzo Peruggia, a handyman who earned notoriety when he pulled off the most famous art theft in history, was born on this day in 1881 in Dumenza in Lombardy, a village on the Swiss border.  Peruggia stole Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa from the Louvre in Paris and evaded detection for more than two years, even though he was questioned by police over the painting’s disappearance.  It was only when he attempted to sell the iconic painting - thought to be of Lisa del Giocondo, the wife of a cloth and silk merchant - to an art dealer in Florence that he was arrested.  Experts accept that, although the Mona Lisa - sometimes known in Italy as La Gioconda - was a notable work, it is open to debate whether it was the best of all the magnificent pieces created by the Tuscan Renaissance genius, whose other masterpieces included The Last Supper and The Virgin of the Rocks and other outstanding portraits, such as The Lady with an Ermine.  Yet it is without question the most famous painting in the world and enjoys that status largely because of Peruggia’s audacious crime.  The theft took place on August 21, 1911, a Monday morning, when Peruggia removed the painting from the wall of the Salon Carré in the Musée du Louvre on the Right Bank of the Seine.  Read more…


Giulio Caccini - composer

16th century singer who helped create opera genre

The singer and composer Giulio Caccini, who was a key figure in the advance of Baroque style in music and wrote musical dramas that would now be recognised as opera, was born on this day in 1551.  The father of the composer Francesca Caccini and the singer Settimia Caccini, he served for some years at the court of the Medici family in Florence, by whom he was also employed, as a somewhat unusual sideline, as a spy.  Caccini wrote the music for three operas and published two collections of songs and madrigals.  His songs for solo voice accompanied by one musical instrument gained him particular fame and he is remembered now for one particular song, a madrigal entitled Amarilli, mia bella, which is often sung by voice students.  Caccini is thought to have been born in Tivoli, just outside Rome, the son of a carpenter, Michelangelo Caccini, from Montopoli, near Pisa.  His younger brother, Giovanni, became a sculptor and architect in Florence.  He developed his voice as a boy soprano in the prestigious Cappella Giulia at St. Peter’s basilica in Rome, studying under maestro di cappella Giovanni Animuccia.   Read more…


Antonio Cabrini - World Cup winner

Star of 1982 part of formidable Juventus team

World Cup winner and former Juventus defender Antonio Cabrini was born on this day in 1957 in Cremona.  Cabrini, who was coach of the Italy women’s football team for five years until 2017, took his first steps in professional football with his local team, Cremonese, and moved from there to Atalanta of Bergamo, but it was with the Turin club Juventus that he made his mark, forming part of a formidable defence that included goalkeeper Dino Zoff plus the centre-back Claudio Gentile and the sweeper Gaetano Scirea.  During Cabrini's 13 seasons in Turin, the Bianconeri won the Serie A title six times, as well as the 1985 European Cup, plus the Coppa Italia twice, the UEFA Cup and the European Super Cup, and the Intercontinental Cup.  Milan's Paolo Maldini tends to be recognised as the greatest defensive player produced by Italy but Cabrini's abilities put him only just behind.  Known by his fans as Bell'Antonio for his good looks and the elegance of his football, Cabrini's game possessed all the qualities required of a left-back.  His positional sense and speed of thought served him well in defensive duties and he was also exceptional going forward.  Read more…

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7 October 2021

7 October

Gabriele Corcos - celebrity cook

YouTube recipe blog led to TV fame in US

The TV cook and author Gabriele Corcos, whose show Extra Virgin on the Cooking Channel has given him celebrity status in the United States, was born on this day in 1972 in Fiesole, a town in the Tuscan hills just outside Florence.  He was invited to produce and host the show - the first original cookery programme to go out on the network when it launched in 2010 - after his YouTube channel, in which he prepared traditional Tuscan dishes, attracted a large following of devoted fans.  The Cooking Channel show was so successful it ran for five seasons, with 68 episodes, spawning a best-selling book of Tuscan recipes and a further show, Extra Virgin Americana, in which he starred with his wife, the actress Debi Mazar.  Corcos became a star of the kitchen without ever intending it to be his career.  His parents - his father was a surgeon, his mother a schoolteacher - wanted him to achieve his academic potential, while he was eager to find paid employment. He found a compromise by joining the army with the intention of qualifying as a medic, only to realise that the reward for graduating was to be posted to Kosovo, Somalia or Iraq.  Read more…


Saint Giustina of Padua

Murdered by Romans in last major purge of Christians

On the Italian catholic calendar, today is the feast day of Santa Giustina of Padua, celebrating the memory of a young woman executed on this day in 304 in the city of Padua.  Little is known about the life of Giustina apart from her faith. Born into a noble family in Padua, she took a vow of chastity and devoted her life to God and teaching the values of Christianity.  She died as a victim of the purge of Christians undertaken by the Roman Emperor Diocletian.  Persecution of Christians by the Romans was nothing new. Christians were regarded with suspicion and seen as subversive at times. When misfortune struck the Roman Empire they were often blamed. Feeding Christians to lions was once seen as entertainment.  Even as Christianity grew and attitudes softened, there were still emperors from time to time who decided to take a hard line.  One was Diocletian, who had come to power in 284.  Following an edict that rescinded all legal rights for Christians and compelled Christians to sacrifice to Roman gods or face imprisonment or execution, Diocletian launched what became known as the Diocletian Persecution.  Read more…


Rosalba Carriera - portrait painter

Venetian artist specialised in miniatures

One of the most successful women painters in the history of art, Rosalba Carriera is thought to have been born on this day in 1675 in Venice.  A pioneer of the Rococo style, she worked in pastel colours and was best known for her portraits. Her work was so admired that at her peak she had an almost constant stream of commissions from notable visitors to Venice, and from diplomats and nobility in the courts of other countries, principally France and Austria.  Born into a middle-class background, she was able to live a relatively comfortable life, although she would outlive her family, including her two sisters, and had gone blind by the time she died, at the age of 84.  Nowadays, Carriera’s portraits are as highly sought after as they were in the 18th century, with prices in the tens or even hundreds of thousands of pounds realised when examples come up for auction.  One of the finest such examples, a portrait of the Irish politician Gustavus Hamilton, who was a colonel in the regiment of William of Orange at the Battle of the Boyne, fetched £421,250 at Christie’s in 2008.  The daughter of a clerk and a lacemaker, Carriera is said to have learned lacemaking from her mother but as the lace industry declined she began decorating snuff boxes with miniature portraits, to be sold to tourists.  Read more…


Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta - condottiero

Brutal tyrant or sensitive patron of the arts?

One of the most daring military leaders in 15th century Italy, Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta, died on this day in 1468 in Rimini.  He had been Lord of Rimini, Fano and Cesena since 1432 and is remembered as a generous patron of the arts during his rule.  Sigismondo commissioned the architect Leon Battista Alberti to build the most famous monument in Rimini, the Church of San Francesco, which is also known as the Tempio Malatestiano, and he welcomed artists and writers to his court.  But partly as a result of a systematic campaign of defamation by his enemy, Pope Pius II, some historians have ascribed a reputation for brutality to him.  Sigismondo was one of three illegitimate sons of Pandolfo Malatesta, who had ruled over Brescia and Bergamo between 1404 and 1421.  At the age of ten, after the death of his father, Sigismondo went to Rimini with his brothers to the court of his uncle, Carlo Malatesta. His birth was later legitimised by Pope Martin V.  After Carlo’s death, Sigismondo’s older brother inherited the Lordship of Rimini, but after two years he abandoned it to go into a monastery and handed over power to Sigismondo.  Read more…


6 October 2021

6 October

Ottavio Bianchi - football coach

The northerner who steered Napoli to first scudetto

Ottavio Bianchi, the coach who guided Napoli to their first Serie A title in the Italian football championship, was born on this day in 1943 in the northern Italian city of Brescia.  Napoli, who had been runners-up four times in Italy's elite league, broke their duck by winning the scudetto in the 1986-87 season, when Bianchi built his side around the forward line consisting initially of the World Cup-winning Argentina star Diego Maradona, the Italy strikers Bruno Giordano and Andrea Carnevale.  After the arrival of the Brazilian forward Careca to partner Maradona and Giordano, the trio became collectively known as MaGiCa.  Bianchi’s team began the 1986-87 season with a 13-match unbeaten run. It came to an end with an away defeat against Fiorentina but Napoli lost only two more matches all season, winning the title by three points from Juventus to spark wild celebrations in Naples.  It is a reflection of how defensively-minded Italian football coaches were at the time that Napoli won the title despite scoring only 41 goals in 30 matches, with Maradona (10) the only individual player to reach double figures.  Read more…


Bruno Sammartino - wrestling champion

How a sickly kid from Abruzzo became king of the ring

Bruno Sammartino, who found fame as a professional wrestler in the United States, was born on this day in 1935 in Pizzoferrato, a village in the province of Chieti in the Abruzzo region.  He died in 2018 at the age of 82, having spent the last years of his life in Ross Township in Pennsylvania, about six miles north of the city of Pittsburgh.  Sammartino held the title of world heavyweight champion under the banner of the World Wide Wrestling Federation - now known as World Wrestling Entertainment - for more than 11 years in two reigns. The first of those, spanning seven years, eight months and one day, is the longest any individual has held the title continuously since it was first contested in 1963.  At his peak in the ring, Sammartino weighed in at 265lbs (120kg), yet it was something of a miracle that he survived his childhood.  Sammartino grew up in a mountainous region of Abruzzo now known as the Majella (or Maiella) National Park, still populated by bears, wolves and wild cats.  Life was tough, especially during the harsh winter months. He was the youngest of seven brothers and sisters, four of whom did not make it into adulthood.  Read more…


Maria Bertilla Boscardin – wartime nurse

Brave nun was prepared to die caring for others

Maria Bertilla Boscardin, a nun who was canonised for her devoted nursing of sick children and air raid victims in the First World War, was born on this day in 1888 in Brendola, a small town in the Veneto.  She was beatified by Pope Pius XII in 1952, just 30 years after she died, and made a saint by Pope John XXIII nine years later.  It was one of the quicker canonisations of modern history. Sometimes many decades or even hundreds of years pass before a person’s life is recognised with sainthood.  Boscardin’s came so swiftly that relatives and some of the patients she cared for were present at her canonisation ceremony. Indeed, her father, Angelo, was asked to provide testimony during the beatification process.  Born into a peasant family, who knew her as Annette, her life in Brendola, which is about 15km (9 miles) southwest of Vicenza, was tough.  She was seen as rather a slow-witted child, mocked by her peers and unkindly nicknamed ‘the goose’ even by the local priest. Her father, a drunkard, was often abusive and violent.  She wanted to become educated but her attendance at school was at times only sporadic because her family required her to work.  Read more…


5 October 2021

5 October

- Andrea De Cesaris - racing driver

Career defined by unwanted record

The racing driver Andrea De Cesaris, who competed in 15 consecutive Formula One seasons between 1980 and 1994, died on this day in 2014 as a result of injuries sustained in a motorcycle accident.  De Cesaris lost control of his Suzuki motorcycle on Rome’s orbital motorway, the Grande Raccordo Anulare, and collided with a guard rail.  The Rome-born driver, the son of a tobacco merchant, retired from competition with the unwanted record of having never won a race in 208 Formula One starts, the most by any driver without a victory to his name in the sport’s history.  He needed no second invitation to hit the accelerator on the track but his daring often veered towards the wild and erratic and had a reputation for being accident prone, putting not only himself but other drivers at risk.  His tendency to drive into trouble gave him a number of other records he would have preferred not to have earned: the most consecutive non-finishes, 18 between 1985 and 1986, although that includes mechanical failures, the most successive non-finishes in a single season, 12 in 1987, when he also set the record for the most non-finishes in a single, 16-race season, at 14. Read more…


Alberto Sughi - painter

20th century artist who was unwitting victim of plagiarism

The artist Alberto Sughi, an acclaimed  20th century painter whose style was defined as “existential realism”, was born on this day in 1928 in Cesena in Emilia-Romagna.  Sughi was regarded as one of the greatest artists of his generation but is often remembered mainly for his unwitting part in a famous case of plagiarism.  It happened in 2006 when a Japanese painter, Yoshihiko Wada, was awarded the prestigious Art Encouragement Prize, the Japanese equivalent of the Turner Prize, for a series of paintings depicted urban life in Italy - one of Sughi’s specialities.  A month after the award was announced in March of that year, the Japan Artists Association and Agency for Cultural Affairs received an anonymous tip-off questioning the authenticity of Wada's work, which then sparked an investigation into possible plagiarism.  The anonymous accuser had noted that several pieces of Wada’s art in an exhibition before the award was decided bore striking similarities to paintings by Sughi. Two examples were Wada’s Boshi-zo (Mother and Child), which looked almost exactly like Sughi’s Virgo Laurentana, even in tiny details, and Wada’s Muso (Reverie), which appeared to be a near-identical copy of Sughi’s Piano Bar Italia.  Read more…


Mary of Modena – Queen of England

Catholic wife of James II greeted with suspicion

Maria Beatrice Anna Margherita Isabella d'Este, who would become known in England as Mary of Modena when she served as queen consort for almost four years in the 17th century, was born on this day in 1658.  The daughter of Alfonso IV, Duke of Modena, the princess, descended from the Bourbon royal family of France and the Medici family of Italy, was born in the Ducal Palace in Modena. Her mother, Laura Martinozzi, from Fano in the Marche, hailed from a noble Roman family.  Tall, elegant and highly educated – she was fluent in French as well as Italian and had a good knowledge of Latin – Maria Beatrice was sought after as a bride for James, Duke of York, heir to Charles II.  She was picked as a suitable prospective bride for his Catholic master by Lord Peterborough, one of the Duke’s closest aides, who communicated with the d’Este family through French diplomatic channels.  James was a widower following the death of his first wife, Anne Hyde. He was no great catch, 25 years older than Maria Beatrice, scarred by smallpox and venereal disease and afflicted with a stutter.  Read more…


Francesco Guardi - painter

Artist evoked image of republic’s final years

One of the last great artists of the Venetian school, Francesco Lazzaro Guardi, was born on this day in 1712 in Venice.  Guardi’s wonderful scenes of crowds, festivals, regattas and concerts in Venice have kept the heyday of the republic alive for future generations to enjoy in art galleries all over the world.  The artist was born into a family of nobility from Trentino, who lived in a house in the Cannaregio district of Venice.  Guardi’s father and brothers were also painters and his sister, Maria Cecilia, married the great Venetian artist, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo.  Guardi’s first known works were painted in the 1730s in Vigo Anuania in Trentino, where he was working alongside his older brother, Gian Antonio.  The first work to be signed by Guardi is the picture Saint Adoring the Eucharist, which was painted in about 1739.  Guardi seemed equally comfortable painting landscapes or figures, but his early views of Venice show the influence of Canaletto on his style.  In 1757 Guardi married Maria Mattea Pagani, the daughter of another painter, Matteo Pagani.  One of his most important works was The Doge’s Feasts, a series of 12 canvases commissioned to celebrate the ceremonies held in 1763 for the election of Doge Alvise IV Mocenigo.  Read more…


Andrea De Cesaris - racing driver

Career defined by unwanted record

Andrea De Cesaris at the wheel of the Marlboro  McClaren he drove in his first full F1 season
Andrea De Cesaris at the wheel of the Marlboro 
McClaren he drove in his first full F1 season
The racing driver Andrea De Cesaris, who competed in 15 consecutive Formula One seasons between 1980 and 1994, died on this day in 2014 as a result of injuries sustained in a motorcycle accident.

De Cesaris, who was 55, lost control of his Suzuki motorcycle on Rome’s orbital motorway, the Grande Raccordo Anulare, and collided with a guard rail.

The Rome-born driver, the son of a tobacco merchant, retired from competition with the unwanted record of having never won a race in 208 Formula One starts, the most by any driver without a victory to his name in the sport’s history.

He needed no second invitation to hit the accelerator on the track but his daring often veered towards the wild and erratic and had a reputation for being accident prone, putting not only himself but other drivers at risk.  A facial tic reinforced the perception of some rivals that he was slightly mad.

His tendency to drive into trouble gave him a number of other records he would have preferred not to have earned: the most consecutive non-finishes, 18 between 1985 and 1986, although that includes mechanical failures, the most successive non-finishes in a single season, 12 in 1987, when he also set the record for the most non-finishes in a single, 16-race season, at 14. 

De Cesaris raced for 15 seasons in Formula 1 but never won
De Cesaris raced for 15 seasons
in Formula 1 but never won 
The pattern was set in 1981 - his first full season in F1 - driving for McLaren after forging a strong personal relationship with the Philip Morris tobacco company during their promotion of the Marlboro brand.  De Cesaris was involved in 19 crashes in practice and competition, most of them ascribed to human error.  He finished only six of the 14 races that he started.

The British-based team, which ran him alongside John Watson, a five-time GP winner, did not extend his contract beyond the 1981 season.

Yet, having entered F1 with a record of success in karting, Formula Three and Formula Two, De Cesaris was never without a team.

In all, he represented 10 teams during his career and in only one season, when he drove for Minardi in 1986, did he fail to register a point.

His best years came with Alfa Romeo in 1982 and 1983, when he achieved three of his five career podium finishes.

In 1982, De Cesaris became at 23 the youngest man ever to take pole position at the Long Beach Grand Prix, which made him only the second Alfa Romeo driver to capture a pole in 30 years.  In the same season he finished third in the Monaco GP and sixth in the Canadian GP in Montreal.

He might have claimed second place in Monaco had he not ran out of fuel on the last lap when in a position to potentially pass Didier Peroni.

De Cesaris driving a Sauber in the 1994 British Grand Prix in his final competitive season
De Cesaris driving for Sauber in the 1994 British
Grand Prix in his final competitive season
At Spa the following year he led the Belgian GP for half the race, and set the fastest lap, before his engine let him down. Second places at Hockenheim and Kyalami helped him accumulate a career-high 15 points to eighth in the drivers' championship, his best finish.

Alfa's withdrawal after the 1983 season left him without a drive but he was soon hired by Ligier for two seasons, and subsequently represented Minardi, Brabham, Rial, Dallara, Jordan - alongside Michael Schumacher - Tyrrell and Sauber.

Sauber’s car was unreliable and De Cesaris decided to retire at the end of the 1984 season, when he finished sixth in the French GP at Magny-Cours in France but was let down by his engine in failing to finish any of the next seven races.

Away from racing De Cesaris became a successful currency broker in Monte Carlo, a career he combined with a new sporting passion in windsurfing, in pursuit of which he travelled the world.  He bought a house in Hawaii to use as his windsurfing base.

His funeral took place at the church of San Roberto Bellarmino in the Parioli district of Rome.

The now-abandoned Pista d'Oro karting circuit just outside Rome, where De Cesaris once raced
The now-abandoned Pista d'Oro karting circuit
just outside Rome, where De Cesaris once raced
Travel tip:  

Some of De Cesaris’s earliest racing experience was gained at the now-abandoned Pista d’Oro, a karting stadium in Rome where Italian drivers of the calibre of Elio De Angelis, Emanuele Pirro, and Giancarlo Fisichella and even current world champion Lewis Hamilton have competed. The stadium was situated about 20km (12 miles) east of Rome at Tivoli Terme on the Via Tiburtina, which follows the route of the Roman road of the same name that linked Rome with Aternum (the modern Pescara) on the Adriatic coast. It was built by the Roman consul Marcus Valerius Maximus around 286BC, and covered a distance of approximately 200km (124 miles). 

The church of San Roberto Bellarmino in the Parioli district of Rome
The church of San Roberto Bellarmino
in the Parioli district of Rome
Travel tip:

The Parioli district is one of Rome's wealthiest residential neighbourhoods. Located north of the city centre, it is notable for its tree-lined streets and elegant houses, and for some of Rome's finest restaurants. The Auditorium Parco della Musica and the Villa Ada, once the Rome residence of the Italian royal family and surrounded by the second largest park in the city, can also be found within the Parioli district.

Also on this day:

1658: The birth of Mary of Modena, queen consort of England

1712: The birth of painter Francesco Guardi

1928: The birth of painter Alberto Sughi


4 October 2021

4 October

Giovanni Battista Piranesi – artist

Genius who put 18th century Rome on the map

Draftsman, printmaker and architect Giovanni Battista Piranesi was born on this day in 1720 in Mogliano Veneto near Treviso in the Veneto.  He became famous for his large prints depicting the buildings of Rome, which stimulated interest in Rome and inspired the neoclassical movement in art in the 18th century.  Piranesi went to Rome to work as a draftsman for the Venetian ambassador when he was 20. There he studied with some of the leading printmakers of the day.  It was during this period that he developed his own, original etching technique, producing rich textures and bold contrasts of light and shadow by means of intricate, repeated bitings of the copperplate.  Among his finest early prints are the Prisons - Carceri - imaginary scenes depicting ancient Roman ruins, which are converted into fantastic dungeons filled with scaffolding and instruments of torture.  Piranesi later opened a workshop in Via del Corso and created the series of vedute - views - of Rome that established his fame.  Among his best mature prints are the series Roman Antiquities (Le antichita romane), Views of Rome (Vedute di Roma) and views of the Greek temples at Paestum.  Read more…


Ignazio Boschetto - tenor

Talented singer is known for being the funny guy in Il Volo

Ignazio Boschetto, a singer in the award-winning pop and opera trio Il Volo, was born on this day in 1994 in Bologna in the region of Emilia-Romagna.  His Sicilian parents, Vito Boschetto and Caterina Licari, took him back to live in Sicily and he grew up in Marsala in the province of Trapani in the most western part of Sicily.  He has said in interviews that from being about three years old he used to sing operatic arias alone in his room, such as La donna e mobile from Rigoletto by Giuseppe Verdi, much to the surprise of his parents.  Ignazio could be classed as a lyric tenor, considering the timbre of his voice, which is warm and soft, but strong enough to sing over an orchestra. A complete artist, Ignazio also plays the piano, guitar and drums.  When he was 12 he started to take part in festivals and competitions and in December 2007 he reached the finals of the Premio Nave Punica, winning third place among competitors of all ages.  The following year he won the 11th Festival della Canzone di Custonaci singing Il mare calmo della sera. In December, when he had turned 13, he won the third edition of the Premio Nave Punica.  Read more…


Bernardino Ramazzini - physician

Pioneer in knowledge of occupational diseases, cancer and malaria

The physician Bernardino Ramazzini, often described as the “father of occupational medicine” and responsible also for pioneering work in the study of cancer and the treatment of malaria, was born in Carpi in Emilia-Romagna on this day in 1633.  Ramazzini’s tour de force, which he completed at the age of 67, was his book De Morbis Artificum Diatriba - Discourse of the Diseases of Workers - which came to be regarded as a seminal work in his field, the lessons from which still influence practice today in the prevention and treatment of occupational diseases.  A student at the University of Parma, Ramazzini was appointed chair of theory of medicine at the University of Modena in 1682 and professor of medicine at the University of Padua from 1700 until his death in 1714.  It was while he was in Parma that he began to take an interest in diseases suffered by workers.  When he became a departmental head at Modena, he began to study the health problems of workers in a more systematic way.  He would visit their workplaces, observe the activities they undertook in their work and discuss their health problems with them.  Read more…


Francesco Solimena - painter

Neapolitan artist who influenced a generation

Francesco Solimena, a prolific painter in the Baroque style who became one of the wealthiest and most influential artists in Europe, was born on this day in 1657 in Canale di Sereno, a village in Campania about 14km (9 miles) southeast of Avellino.  He spent most of his working life in Naples yet his fame spread far beyond and his work was in such demand among his wealthy patrons, including Prince Eugene of Savoy, Louis XIV of France and Pope Benedict XIII, that he acquired a considerable fortune, was given the title of baron and lived in a palace.  His workshop became effectively an academy, at the heart of the Naples cultural scene. Among many who trained there were the leading painters Francesco de Mura, Giuseppe Bonito, Corrado Giaquinto and Sebastiano Conca.  The Scottish portraitist Allan Ramsay was a pupil in his studio in around 1737-38.  Solimena’s own training came initially from his father, Angelo, a revered painter of frescoes, with whom he worked at the cathedral of Nocera in the province of Salerno, and at the church of San Domenico at Solofra, not far from his home village.  He often worked in Nocera later in life.  Read more…


Feast of Saint Francis of Assisi

Lamps light up Assisi in memory of saint

The city of Assisi in Umbria is today celebrating the Feast Day - la festa - of their famous Saint, Francis - Francesco -  who is one of the most venerated religious figures in history.  It is the most important festival in the Franciscan calendar as it commemorates Saint Francis’s transition from this life to the afterlife.  For two days Assisi is illuminated by lamps burning consecrated oil. Special services are held in the Basilica Papale di San Francesco and the Basilica di Santa Maria degli Angeli.  The feast day is also celebrated in other churches all over the world and children are encouraged to bring their pets to be blessed in memory of Saint Francis’s love for animals.  Saint Francis was born Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone in about 1181 in Assisi but he was informally known as Francesco by his family.  A theory is that his father, Pietro di Bernardone, a prosperous silk merchant, decided to call his new son Francesco - the Frenchman - because he had been on business in France at the time of the birth.  His wife, Pica de Bourlemont, was a noblewoman from Provence, although it was she who chose the name Giovanni.  Read more…

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3 October 2021

3 October

Eleonora Duse – actress

Performer 'became' the person she played with her whole being

Regarded as one of the greatest acting talents of all times, Eleonora Duse was born on this day in 1858 in Vigevano in Lombardy.  Often simply known as Duse, she was admired for her total assumption of the roles she played. In 1947, the film, Eleonora Duse, was made about her life.  She began acting at the age of four, joining her father and grandfather in the profession. She worked in a troupe with her family, travelling from city to city. Duse became famous for creating Italian versions of roles made famous by the actor Sarah Bernhardt.  Duse toured South America, Russia and the US, beginning the tours as an unknown actor, but leaving in her wake a general recognition of her genius.  She had an affair with the Italian poet, Arrigo Boito, who was the librettist for the composer, Giuseppe Verdi.  They carried out their relationship in a clandestine manner, but the letters they exchanged have survived and they remained on good terms until Boito’s death in 1918.  In 1895 Duse met the writer Gabriele D’Annunzio and they became involved romantically as well as professionally.  D’Annunzio wrote four plays for her but when he gave the lead in La Città Morta to Sarah Bernhardt instead of her, Duse ended her relationship with him.  Read more…


Alessandro Mazzinghi - boxing champion

Tuscan fighter held world title twice

The boxer Alessandro 'Sandro' Mazzinghi, who won the world light middleweight championship twice in his 64-fight career, was born on this day in 1938 in Pontedera in Tuscany.  Mazzinghi won the title for the first time at the Velodromo Vigorelli in Milan in September 1963, defeating the American Ralph Dupas, defending his title successfully in a rematch in Sydney, Australia in December of the same year.  He lost the crown to fellow Italian Nino Benvenuti in 1965 at the San Siro football stadium in Milan but regained it at the same venue in May 1968, defeating  the South Korean Ki-Soo.  He did so after recovering from an horrific car crash in January 1964 that claimed the life of his young wife, Vera, only 12 days after they were married.  The couple had been on their way home to Pontedera from a gala dinner in Montecatini Terme in Tuscany when their car slid off a muddy road in heavy rain and collided with a tree.  Vera was killed instantly and Mazzinghi, who was thrown from the car, suffered a fractured skull.  He was in a critical condition for several days but recovered. Amazingly, he was back in the ring within weeks.  Read more…


Ruggero Raimondi - opera star

Singer overcame shyness to become a great bass-baritone

The bass-baritone singer Ruggero Raimondi, who would become famous for his performances in the operas of Verdi, Rossini, Puccini and Mozart, was born on this day in Bologna in 1941.  Blessed with a mature voice at an early age, he was soon encouraged to pursue a career in opera and enrolled at the Giuseppe Verdi Conservatory in Milan at the age of only 16, later continuing his studies in Rome at the Accademia di Santa Cecilia.  He won a national competition for young singers in Spoleto and made his debut in the same Umbrian city in 1964 in the role of Colline in Giacomo Puccini's La bohème in 1964. Soon afterwards, he appeared in the leading role of Procida in Verdi’s I vespri siciliani at the Rome Opera House.  Raimondi was also studying accountancy, wary that his ambitions in opera might not materialise.  But then came an audition at La Fenice opera house in Venice, after which Raimondi was offered a five-year contract.  Naturally shy, he struggled with the acting element to operas but was able to conquer his inhibitions with the help of acting lessons and work with a vocal coach who taught him interpretation.  Read more…


2 October 2021

2 October

Joe Profaci - Mafia boss

Sicilian who influenced profile of Mario Puzo’s Godfather

The Mafia boss Giuseppe ‘Joe’ Profaci, one of the real-life gangsters who influenced the author Mario Puzo as he created the character of his fictional mob boss Vito Corleone in The Godfather, was born in Villabate in Sicily on this day in 1897.  It was after studying Profaci’s crime career that he decided that Corleone, who is thought to have been based largely on one of Profaci's fellow mob bosses, Carlo Gambino, should hide his criminal activities behind his ‘legitimate’ identity as an olive oil importer, mirroring what Profaci did in real life in New York.  Profaci is believed to have started importing olive oil before he became heavily involved in crime but chose to keep the business going as one of a network of legitimate companies, so that he could mask the proceeds of his crime empire and satisfy the authorities that he was paying his taxes.  In fact, the olive oil business became a hugely lucrative concern, particularly when shortages in the Second World War enabled him to sell the product at premium prices. The irony of Profaci’s criminal life was that his legitimate companies, of which he had as many as 20, actually provided work for hundreds of New Yorkers.  Read more...


Antonio Di Pietro – magistrate and politician

Former policeman who led Mani Pulite corruption investigations

The politician and former magistrate Antonio Di Pietro, who uncovered wide-ranging corruption in the Italian government in a scandal that changed the landscape of Italian politics, was born on this day in 1950 in Molise.  Di Pietro was the lead prosecutor in the so-called Mani Pulite trials in the early 1990s, which led to many politicians and businessmen being indicted and to the collapse of the traditional Socialist and Christian Democratic parties.  The Christian Democrats had been the dominant force in Italian politics since the formation of the Italian Republic at the end of the Second World War but after several high-profile arrests and resignations and poor results in the 1992 general election and 1993 local elections the party was disbanded in 1994.  The Italian Socialist Party was dissolved in the same year following the resignation of party secretary and former prime minister Bettino Craxi, who was the most high-profile casualty in the corruption scandal. It was also known as Tangentopoli, which can be roughly translated as “Bribesville”.  Di Pietro was born into a poor rural family in Montenero di Bisaccia, a hill town in the province of Campobasso in the Molise region.  Read more…


Saint Charles Borromeo

Great reformer earned appreciation after his death

Charles (Carlo) Borromeo, a leading Catholic figure who led the movement to combat the spread of Protestantism, was born on this day in Milan in 1538.  Part of the noble Borromeo family, he became a Cardinal and brought in many reforms to benefit the Church, which made him unpopular at the time. But he was held in high regard after his death and was quickly made a saint by Pope Paul V.  Borromeo was born at the Castle of Arona on Lake Maggiore, near Milan. His father was Count of Arona and his mother was part of the Medici family.  He was educated in civil and canon law at the University of Pavia.  When his uncle, Cardinal Giovanni Angelo Medici became Pope Pius IV in 1559, Borromeo was brought to Rome and given a post in the Vatican.  The following year the Pope made him a Cardinal and asked him to supervise the Franciscans, Carmelites and Knights of Malta and organise the last session of the Council of Trent, which was being held in Trento to reform the Church and counter the spread of Protestantism.  The Council issued a long list of decrees covering disputed aspects of the Catholic religion as well as denouncing what it considered to be heresies committed in the name of Protestantism.  Read more…


1 October 2021

1 October

Attilio Pavesi - Olympic cycling champion

Rider from Emilia-Romagna won Italy's first road racing gold 

Attilio Pavesi, the first winner of an individual Olympic gold medal in Italian cycling history, was born on this day in 1910 in the small town of Caorso in Emilia-Romagna.  At the Los Angeles Olympics of 1932, Pavesi won the individual road race and picked up a second gold medal as a member of the Italian quartet that won the team classification in the same race.  Italy had already won gold medals for the team pursuit in track cycling - indeed, they won that title for the fourth time in a row in 1932 - but had not enjoyed success on the road before Pavesi's triumph.  Pavesi, the last of 11 children born to Angelo, a poultry farmer, and his wife Maria, was a natural all-round sportsman, excelling at running, long jump, swimming, diving, gymnastics and football as he grew up.  He was such a strong swimmer he once saved a boy from drowning in a local river by pulling him to the bank by his hair.  His interest in cycling developed after he left school at the age of 10 to take a job in a workshop, learning how to repair all modes of transport from bicycles to tractors.  He joined a cycling team and won a number of trophies and continued to compete during his national service.  Read more…


Walter Mazzarri - football coach

Former Watford manager with outstanding record in Italy

The football coach Walter Mazzarri, whose disappointing spell in English football as Watford manager contrasts with a fine record as a coach in his native Italy, was born on this day in 1961 in San Vincenzo, a resort on the coast of Tuscany.  Mazzarri won promotion to Serie A with his local club Livorno and kept tiny Calabrian team Reggina in Serie A against the odds for three consecutive seasons, on the last occasion despite an 11-point deduction for involvement in an alleged match-fixing scandal.  He subsequently had two seasons as coach of Sampdoria, qualifying for the UEFA Cup by finishing sixth in the first of those campaigns and then reaching the final of the Coppa Italia with a team that included the potent attacking duo Antonio Cassano and Giampaolo Pazzini.  After that he returned to Napoli, where he had previously been assistant to Renzo Ulivieri, to be appointed head coach in 2009, guiding the azzurri to sixth place - their best Serie A finish for 25 years - to qualify for the Europa League in his first season in charge, and doing even better in his second season, when Napoli were third, their highest placing since the golden days of the late 1980s.  Read more…


Leonello d’Este - Marquis of Ferrara

Ruler who spent money on the arts and education

Leonello d’Este, who is remembered as a dedicated patron of the arts, literature and culture, died on this day in 1450 in Ferrara.  Leonello was Marquis of Ferrara and Duke of Modena and Reggio Emilia from 1441 to 1450.  An illegitimate son of Niccolo III d’Este, Leonello was favoured by his father as his successor ahead of his legitimate children.  As he was well educated and popular with the common people, he was considered by his father to be the most suitable heir.  During his rule over Ferrara, Leonello transformed the city and reformed the University of Ferrara, actions which influenced the political and artistic achievements of his successors.  Leonello was tutored by Guarino Veronese, who instructed him on the traits of a desirable ruler and how to govern. Veronese was later appointed as a professor at the University of Ferrara.  Because of his strong academic background, Leonello made economic, political and cultural changes to Ferrara as soon as he took over. He was responsible for the building of the first hospital in Ferrara.  Artists such as Pisanello, Bellini, Mantegna and Della Francesca worked for him in Ferrara.  Read more…