22 September 2022

Mario Berrino - painter

Artist who was also a popular entrepreneur 

Berrino captured many scenes from life on the coast of Liguria in and near his home in Alassio
Berrino captured many scenes from life on the
coast of Liguria in and near his home in Alassio
The painter and entrepreneur Mario Berrino was born on this day in 1920 in Alassio, the coastal town in Liguria where he spent almost all his life.

Berrino took up painting full time in his 50s and his simple yet atmospheric and evocative works became sought after by collectors, often selling for hundreds of euros at auction.

Alassio has a gallery dedicated entirely to his work, as does the jet set playground of Monte Carlo, about 100km (62 miles) along the riviera coastline to the west, not far from Italy’s border with France.

Before that, Berrino had lived a colourful life in and around his home town, his entrepreneurial spirit shining through in many projects that left a lasting impression on Alassio.

As a young man, he helped his father and brothers run a bar and restaurant in Alassio, the Caffè Roma, which earned fame in the years between the First and Second World Wars as a hang-out for writers, artists, and musicians, among them the American novelist Ernest Hemingway, who was a frequent visitor to Italy and became a close friend of Berrino.

It was when Hemingway was in Alassio in 1953 that Berrino hatched the idea of attaching brightly coloured tiles to the low wall of a public garden opposite the Caffè Roma bearing the signatures of artists who had visited the restaurant.

Il Muretto di Alassio, which Berrino created on a wall outside the Caffè Roma, still attracts visitors
Il Muretto di Alassio, which Berrino created on a
wall outside the Caffè Roma, still attracts visitors
He asked a ceramicist to create some tiles and he and Hemingway crossed the road between the Caffè Roma and the garden one evening, using cement to attach the first three - one bearing Hemingway’s own signature and a second with the signature of a guitarist Cosimo de Ceciglie. The third carried all four signatures of a singing group, Il Quartetto Cetra.

The wall became known as Il Muretto di Alassio and remains a tourist attraction today, with close to 1,000 tiles, the criteria for inclusion expanded to include personalities from cinema, television, fashion, entertainment and sport.

In the same year as the wall came into being, Berrino launched a beauty contest, Miss Muretto, which was held every year until 2013. The winners include several women who have gone on to achieve a degree of fame, including the TV presenters Simona Ventura, Maria Teresa Ruta, Elisa Isoardi and Melissa Satta.

Berrino launched himself with enthusiasm into several other entrepreneurial ideas, cashing in on Alassion’s reputation for invigorating sea air by selling l’Aria Pura di Alassio in 500 litre jars, for which he received orders from all over Europe.

Berrino on the occasion of a 90th birthday celebration in Alassio
Berrino on the occasion of a 90th
birthday celebration in Alassio
He also successfully organised the Sciaccagiara, in which Formula One racing drivers including world champion James Hunt and the popular Swiss-Italian Clay Regazzoni, raced each other on steamrollers.

He was a popular figure in Alassio, usually seen driving his red Fiat Ghia 500 Jolly, a specially adapted Fiat 500 with a removable canopy top and wicker seats that was favoured by celebrities and VIPs ranging from the Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis to Italian Communist leader Enrico Berlinguer.

Berrino set aside a wall of the Caffè Roma, called La buca del Muretto, to allow artists to exhibit, which was his inspiration to take up painting himself. Using watercolour, tempera, encaustic and oil techniques, he had become an established painter in the 1960s and from 1976 onwards devoted himself to painting full time.

Two years earlier, he had survived the ordeal of being kidnapped by a gang who demanded 300 million lire be paid for his release. Berrino managed to escape from captivity to the safety of a Carabinieri station.

Berrino remains a personality held in deep affection by the town of Alassio, who staged a celebration of his life on the 100th anniversary of his birth in 2020, nine years after his death in Alassio in August 2011.

A painting by Berrino that captures the beauty of Alassio's location on the coast of Liguria
A painting by Berrino that captures the beauty
of Alassio's location on the coast of Liguria
Travel tip:

Alassio is an attractive town on the Riviera di Ponente, the stretch of coastline that stretches southwest of the Ligurian capital of Genoa to the town of Ventimiglia, close to the French border. Renowned for its sandy beaches and blue seas, Alassio is popular for bathing in the summer and as a health resort in the winter.  It is a tourist-friendly town not least for having a narrow, pedestrianised street known as Il Budello which runs the length of the town just a few steps away from the beach. The English composer Edward Elgar is said to have written an overture while staying in Alassio during the winter of 1903-04, having been drawn to the area by its reputation for mild winters.  Read more...

The Caffè Roma remains a thriving business in Alassio today
The Caffè Roma remains a thriving
business in Alassio today
Travel tip:

The Caffè Roma, in Via Dante Alighieri, remains a thriving part of the life of Alassio, a symbolic monument to the town and its history as one of the resorts most favoured by writers, artists and musicians. The Muretto di Alassio remains a draw for visitors, who often spend many minutes trying to decipher the signatures on the ceramic tiles. The restaurant and cafe itself is housed in an attractive building in the Italian variant of Art Nouveau known as Stile Liberty.

Also on this day:

1929: The birth of motorcycle world champion Carlo Ubbiali

1955: The birth of Mafia ‘pentito’ Leonardo Messina

1958: The birth of tenor Andrea Bocelli

1979: The birth of writer Roberto Saviano


21 September 2022

21 September

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…


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…


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…


20 September 2022

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…


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… 


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…


19 September 2022

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…


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…


Mariangela Melato - actress

Versatile star excelled on stage and screen

Mariangela Melato, who won acclaim for her work with the brilliant and sometimes controversial director Lina Wertmüller, played a camp villain in the comic book send-up Flash Gordon, and later excelled as a classical stage actress, was born on this day in 1941 in Milan.  She enjoyed her peak years on screen in the 1970s, most notably in Wertmuller’s The Seduction of Mimi, Love and Anarchy and Swept Away.  From the mid-80s onwards, Melato was based at the Teatro Stabile in Genoa, where she played many of the great classical parts in works by authors such as Pirandello, Euripides and Shakespeare.  She made her mark in television, notably winning praise for her portrayal of Mrs Danvers in an Italian adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca in 2008.  Melato’s father emigrated to Italy from Nazi Germany, changed his name from Honing to Melato and became a traffic policeman in Trieste. He moved to Milan and met his future wife, who worked as a seamstress.  Their daughter showed a talent for art and enrolled at the Brera Academy in Milan but was interested in acting and as a teenager employed her artistic talents working as a window dresser at the Milan department store La Rinascente, which helped pay for acting lessons.  Read more…


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…


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…