24 May 2023

Ilaria Alpi - investigative journalist

TV reporter murdered in Somalia ambush

Ilaria Alpi's reports from war zones in Africa and the Middle East were a feature of Tg3 news coverage
Ilaria Alpi's reports from war zones in Africa and
the Middle East were a feature of Tg3 news coverage
The TV journalist Ilaria Alpi, who with her Italian cameraman Miran Hrovatin was murdered while reporting from war-torn Somalia in the early 1990s, was born on this day in 1961 in Rome.

Alpi, who was in Somalia for Italy’s national broadcaster Rai as the United Nations attempted to end a three-year long civil war in the country, was killed near the Hotel Sahafi, which was the international media base in the Somali capital Mogadishu.

The pick-up in which she and Hrovatin were travelling was at a crossroads about 4.5km (2.8 miles) from the Sahafi when a Land Rover pulled across their path, forcing their vehicle to stop. At this point a gunman or several gunmen - as many as seven, some reports said - began shooting. Alpi and Hrovatin died at the scene, although their driver and three armed bodyguards escaped unhurt.

The murders shocked Italy, where viewers had been used to seeing Alpi’s reports on the Tg3 news programmes from Lebanon and Kuwait as well as Somalia. She had a deep knowledge of the area and was fluent in Arabic languages.

She had been in Somalia regularly to report on the United Nations’ attempts to bring order and peace to the country via Restore Hope, a peacekeeping mission launched in response to the civil war that had been ongoing for a number of years. 

What was to be her final, fateful visit had begun only two weeks earlier when she was sent to cover the effective abandonment of the mission with the withdrawal of the American contingent, ordered by President Clinton following an escalation in UN casualties. 

Alpi with her regular cameraman Miran Hrovatin, who also died in the attack
Alpi with her regular cameraman Miran
Hrovatin, who also died in the attack
A former Italian colony, Somalia became a fully independent country in 1960 but retained close ties with Italy afterwards, thanks to a number of Italian citizens living in the country, many with business interests there. 

Although the motive for the murders of Alpi and Hrovatin have never been established (and a Somali suspect convicted of the killings eventually released and compensated for wrongful imprisonment), it is thought that parallel to her coverage of the UN peace mission, Alpi had been investigating suspected illegal arms trafficking between Italy and Somalia as well as the dumping of toxic and even nuclear waste shipped from Italy.

In the days before the murders, she and Hrovatin had travelled almost 1,400 miles north to the port of Bosaso on the Gulf of Aden to interview Abdullah Moussa Bohor, a local so-called sultan.

Alpi had reportedly told the newsroom at Tg3 to expect to receive interviews she had conducted, the content of which was “too big and important” to discuss on the telephone.

On the afternoon of Sunday, March 20, 1994, witnesses who recall speaking to Alpi at the Hotel Sahafi said that she left hurriedly to see a contact at another hotel in the north of Mogadishu and that it was on her way back from this meeting that she was gunned down.

Alpi had been a student of Arabic and Islamic culture before she became a journalist
Alpi had been a student of Arabic and Islamic
culture before she became a journalist
Although extensive investigations followed the killing, in Somalia and involving the Italian government and the police forces of Rome, where Alpi was resident, and Hrovatin’s home town of Trieste, the circumstances and motives have never been established.

The most popular theory was that Bohor had told them about an Italian-Somalian fishing company whose vessels had been involved in shipping arms from factories in northern Italy to be sold illegally to Somali’s armed militia groups, as well as transferring toxic waste to be buried in the desert, and that they had even been shown one of the vessels.

The theory was reinforced by the presence at the murder scene soon after the shooting had taken place of an Italian entrepreneur based in Mogadishu with previous links to the arms trade in Somalia. The bodies of Alpi and Hrovatin were removed from the scene on one of his trucks prior to their return to Italy.  Notebooks and video cassettes that were among the possessions recovered at the scene had mysteriously disappeared by the time the bodies arrived in Rome.

The entrepreneur, who was never accused of any crime in relation to his presence, allegedly offered a view that the attack was unlikely to have been an attempt to steal their truck, as was reported at the time, but that the two journalists had “probably seen something they were not meant to see”.

Alpi’s parents, Giorgio and Luciana, both of whom are now dead, campaigned tirelessly to find the truth about what happened to their daughter.

Many parts of Mogadishu still bear the scars of  years of conflict in the Somalian region
Many parts of Mogadishu still bear the scars of 
years of conflict in the Somalian region
A Somali citizen, Hashi Omar Hassan, was convicted of the murders in Rome in 2000 and sentenced to 26 years in jail only for the conviction to be overturned 16 years later. Hassan was awarded compensation for wrongful imprisonment.

A further twist involved an Italian secret service operative, Vincenzo Li Causi, who had died in mysterious circumstances a few months earlier. Li Causi, a contact of Alpi, was a member of Gladio, the undercover operation set up by the Americans to remain in Italy after World War Two, primarily as a bulwark against the potential advance of communism in the country.

Alpi entered journalism after graduating from Rome’s Sapienza University, where she studied literature and languages and Islamic culture. Fluent in English, French and Arabic, she freelanced for various newspapers and radio stations before being appointed as a correspondent in Cairo for the newspapers Paese Sera and L’Unità.

She joined Rai in 1990, initially for the RaiSat international channel before being assigned to Tg3, the news arm of Rai Tre.

Ilaria Alpi’s memory lives on in a large number of streets, squares, gardens and buildings carrying her name and that of her cameraman Miran Hrovatin in towns and cities across Italy.

In popular culture, numerous books have been written and films made about her life, including the award-winning Ilaria Alpi - Il più crudele dei giorni (Ilaria Alpi - The Cruellest of Days), directed by Ferdinando Vicentini Orgnani and starring Giovanna Mezzogiorno as Ilaria.

An Ilaria Alpi Prize was established for the best Italian television investigations dedicated to the themes of peace and solidarity.

The University of Rome was given a modern new campus designed by Marcello Piacentini
The University of Rome was given a modern
new campus designed by Marcello Piacentini
Travel tip:

The University of Rome, where Ilaria Alpi studied, is often referred to as the Sapienza University of Rome or simply La Sapienza, meaning 'knowledge'. It was founded in 1303 by Pope Boniface VIII, as a place for  ecclesiastical studies over which he could exert greater control than the already established universities of Bologna and Padua. The first pontifical university, it expanded in the 15th century to include schools of Law, Medicine, Philosophy and Theology. Money raised from a new tax on wine enabled the University to buy a palace, which later housed the Sant'Ivo alla Sapienza church. The University was closed during the sack of Rome in 1527 but reopened by Pope Paul III in 1534. In 1870, La Sapienza ceased to be the papal university and as the university of the capital of Italy became recognised as the country's most prestigious seat of learning. A new modern campus was built in 1935 under the guidance of the architect Marcello Piacentini.

The headquarters building of Rai, Italy's national TV network, in Rome's Viale Mazzini
The headquarters building of Rai, Italy's national
TV network, in Rome's Viale Mazzini
Travel tip:

The Rome headquarters of Rai, Italy’s national television network, can be found in Viale Giuseppe Mazzini, where the company has been based since 1966. It is in the elegant neighbourhood called Della Vittoria, immediately north of the Prati neighbourhood, which contains the Stadio Olimpico. Originally called Milvio when it was established in 1921 and was given its present name only in 1935 to honour Italy’s victory in the First World War. Many of the area’s streets are named after heroes of the Risorgimento and the First World War. Piazza Mazzini, the area’s most important square, is just a few steps from the Rai building, in front of which is a striking bronze horse by the Sicilian sculptor Francesco Messina. The sculpture was meant to represent power and strength, yet is now commonly known as ‘the dying horse’ after a journalist wrongly thought the signs of deterioration were meant to be wounds, creating an alternative name that caught on.

Also on this day: 

1494: The birth of painter Jacopo Carucci di Pontormo

1671: The birth of Gian Gastone de’ Medici

1751: The birth of Charles Emmanuel IV, King of Sardinia

1847: The birth of inventor Alessandro Cruto

1949: The birth of film producer Aurelio De Laurentiis

1981: The birth of TV chef Simone Rugiati


23 May 2023

23 May

Girolamo Savonarola executed

Death of the friar who was to inspire best-selling novel by Tom Wolfe

The hellfire preacher Girolamo Savonarola was hanged and burned on this day in 1498 in Piazza della Signoria in Florence.  By sheer force of personality, Savonarola had convinced rich people to burn their worldly goods in spectacular bonfires in Florence during 1497, but within a year it was Savonarola’s burning corpse that the crowds turned out to see.  Savonarola had become famous for his outspoken sermons against vice and corruption in the Catholic Church in Italy and he encouraged wealthy people to burn their valuable goods, paintings and books in what have become known as ‘bonfires of the vanities.’  This phrase inspired Tom Wolfe to write The Bonfire of the Vanities, a novel about ambition and politics in 1980s New York.  Savonarola was born in 1452 in Ferrara. He became a Dominican friar and entered the convent of Saint Mark in Florence in 1482. He began preaching against corruption and vice and prophesied that a leader would arrive from the north to punish Italy and reform the church.  When Emperor Charles VIII invaded from the north many people thought Savonarola’s prediction was being fulfilled.  Read more…


Sergio Gonella - football referee

First Italian to referee a World Cup final

Sergio Gonella, the first Italian football referee to take charge of a World Cup final, was born on this day in 1933 in Asti, a city in Piedmont best known for its wine production.  Gonella was appointed to officiate in the 1978 final between the Netherlands and the hosts Argentina in Buenos Aires and although he was criticised by many journalists and football historians for what they perceived as a weak performance lacking authority, few matches in the history of the competition can have presented a tougher challenge.  Against a backcloth of political turmoil in a country that had suffered a military coup only two years earlier and where opponents of the regime were routinely kidnapped and tortured, or simply disappeared, this was Argentina’s chance to build prestige by winning the biggest sporting event in the world, outside the Olympics.  Rumours of subterfuge surrounded most of Argentina’s matches and when the final arrived the atmosphere in the stadium was as intimidating as anything Gonella would have experienced in his whole 13-year professional career.  The match began with an unprecedented delay, caused first by the Argentine team’s deliberate late arrival on the field. Read more…


Ferdinando II de’ Medici – Grand Duke of Tuscany

Technology fan who supported scientist Galileo

Inventor and patron of science Ferdinando II de’ Medici died on this day in 1670 in Florence.  Like his grandmother, the dowager Grand Duchess Christina, Ferdinando II was a loyal friend to Galileo and he welcomed the scientist back to Florence after the prison sentence imposed on him for ‘vehement suspicion of heresy’ was commuted to house arrest.  Ferdinando II was reputed to be obsessed with new technology and had hygrometers, barometers, thermometers and telescopes installed at his home in the Pitti Palace.  He has also been credited with the invention of the sealed glass thermometer in 1654.  Ferdinando II was born in 1610, the eldest son of Cosimo II de’ Medici and Maria Maddalena of Austria.  He became Grand Duke of Tuscany in 1621 when he was just 10 years old after the death of his father.  His mother, Maddalena, and paternal grandmother, Christina, acted as joint regents for him. Christina is said to have been the power behind the throne until her death in 1636.  Ferdinando II was patron and friend to Galileo, who dedicated his work, Dialogue Concerning the two Chief World Systems, to him.  Read more…


Giuseppe Parini – writer

Satirist avenged bad treatment though his poetry

Poet and satirist Giuseppe Parini was born on this day in 1729 in Bosisio in Lombardy.  A writer associated with the Age of Enlightenment in Europe, he is remembered for his series of Horatian odes and for Il giorno - The Day - a satirical poem in four books about the selfishness and superficiality of the aristocracy in Milan.  The son of a silk trader, Parini was sent to Milan to study under the religious order, the Barnabites. In 1752 his first volume of verse introduced him to literary circles and the following year he joined the Milanese Accademia dei Trasformati - Academy of the Transformed - which was located at the Palazzo Imbonati in the Porta Nuova district.  He was ordained a priest in 1754 - a condition of a legacy made to him by a great aunt - and entered the household of Duke Gabrio Serbelloni at Tremezzo on Lake Como to be tutor to his eldest son.  Parini was unhappy there and felt he was badly treated, but he twice got his revenge on his employer through his writing. In 1757 he wrote his Dialogo sopra la nobilità, a discussion between the corpse of a nobleman and the corpse of a poet about the true nature of nobility.   Read more…


22 May 2023

22 May

José João Altafini - footballer who made history

Forward tamed Eusebio to give Italy first European Cup

Supporters of AC Milan took to the streets to celebrate on this day in 1963 after José João Altafini's goals secured an historic victory in the European Cup.  Milan beat Benfica at Wembley Stadium in London to become the first Italian team to win the trophy.  Until then the European Cup had been dominated by Real Madrid, who were champions for five years in a row after the competition was launched in 1955-56, with the great Eusebio's Benfica winning in 1961 and 1962.  At half-time at Wembley in 1963, Milan looked set to provide another near-miss story for Italy, trailing to a Eusebio goal as Benfica closed on a third successive title.  The rossoneri had lost to Real Madrid five years earlier, 12 months after the Spanish giants brushed aside Fiorentina in the final.  But 24-year-old Altafini, who became one of Serie A’s most prolific all-time goalscorers, refused to be cowed.  He netted in the 58th and 66th minutes, sparking joyous scenes in Milan and starting a period of European dominance for the city, with AC’s rivals Internazionale winning the next two tournaments.  The Milan team that night in London boasted two future Italy managers in Cesare Maldini and Giovanni Trapattoni, as well as the great Gianni Rivera, but Altafini was the star.  Read more…


Giulia Grisi - operatic soprano

Officer’s daughter became a star on three continents

The opera singer Giulia Grisi, one of the leading sopranos of the 19th century, was born on this day in 1811 in Milan.  Renowned for the smooth sweetness of her voice, Grisi sang to full houses in Europe, the United States and South America during a career spanning 30 years in which composers such as Vincenzo Bellini and Gaetano Donizetti created roles especially for her.  These included Elvira in Bellini’s final opera, I puritani, in which Grisi appeared alongside the great tenor Giovanni Battista Rubini, the bass Luigi Lablache and the baritone Antonio Tamburini when the work premiered in Paris in 1835.  The opera was such a success that whenever the four singers performed together subsequently they were known as the “Puritani quartet”.  Grisi was also the first soprano cast in the role of Adalgisa in Bellini’s Norma in Milan in 1831, playing opposite Giuditta Pasta in the title role.  Donizetti wrote the parts of Norina and Ernesto in his 1843 work Don Pasquale for Grisi and her future husband, the tenor Giovanni Matteo De Candia, usually known by his stage name of Giovanni Mario. Lablache and Tamburini again starred with her in the Paris premiere.  Read more…


Trevi Fountain inaugurated

Famous fountain now helps raise money for the poor

Rome’s iconic Trevi Fountain - Fontana di Trevi - was officially opened by Pope Clement XIII on this day in 1762.  Standing at more than 26m (85ft) high and 49m (161ft) wide it is the largest Baroque fountain in Rome and probably the most famous fountain in the world.  It has featured in films such as La dolce vita and Three Coins in the Fountain.  For more than 400 years a fountain served Rome at the junction of three roads, tre vie, using water from one of Ancient Rome’s aqueducts.  In 1629 Pope Urban VIII asked Gian Lorenzo Bernini to draw up possible renovations but the project was abandoned when the pope died.  In 1730 Pope Clement XII organised a contest to design a new fountain. The Florentine Alessandro Galilei originally won but there was such an outcry in Rome that the commission was eventually awarded to a Roman, Nicola Salvi.  Work on the fountain began in 1732 but Salvi died in 1751 when it was only half finished. Made from Travertine stone quarried in Tivoli near Rome, the fountain was completed by Giuseppe Pannini, with Oceanus (god of all water), designed by Pietro Bracci, set in the central niche.  Read more…


21 May 2023

21 May

Angelo Bruno - Mafia boss

Sicilian head of Philadelphia mob known as 'the Gentle Don'

Angelo Bruno, a mobster who ran the Philadelphia Mafia for two decades, was born Angelo Annaloro in Villalba, in the province of Caltanissetta, in Sicily, on this day in 1910.  Bruno was known as “the Gentle Don” because he preferred to solve problems and consolidate his power through non-violent means, such as bribery, and commissioned murders only as a last resort.  The son of a grocer, he emigrated to the United States in his teens and settled in Philadelphia. He became a close associate of New York crime family boss Carlo Gambino. Bruno dropped the name Annaloro and replaced it with his paternal grandmother's maiden name, Bruno.  Bruno’s dislike of violence was not driven by any compassion for his fellow man.  During his early days in Philadelphia, he worked for a series of bosses and did not shirk the tasks he had to perform in order to rise through the ranks, which included carrying out killings himself.  But in 1959, when he succeeded Joseph Ida as boss of the Philadelphia crime family, he decided it was in his interests and those of his criminal organisation to operate in a way that avoided attracting unwanted attention.  Read more…


Propaganda Due suspects named

Italy horrified as list reveals alleged members of ‘secret state’ 

Ordinary Italians were stunned and the country’s elite rocked to the core on this day in 1981 when a list was made public of alleged members of Propaganda Due, a secret Masonic lodge which sought to run the country as a ‘state within the state’.  A staggering 962 names were on the list, including 44 members of parliament, three of whom were cabinet ministers, 49 bankers, numerous industrialists, a number of newspaper editors and other high-profile journalists, the heads of all three of Italy’s secret services and more than 200 military and police officers, including 12 generals of the Carabinieri, five of the Guardia di Finanza, 22 of the army and four from the air force.  The existence of the illegal, underground lodge, known as P2 had been rumoured for several years but there had been little concrete evidence until magistrates investigating the collapse of the Banco Ambrosiano in Milan raided the home in Tuscany of Licio Gelli, the former Fascist financier who turned out to be the Grandmaster.  The list of alleged members, which was made public by Prime Minister Arnaldo Forlani on the advice of the prosecuting team, was found among paperwork seized in the raid.  Read more…


Pandolfo Petrucci – ruler of Siena

Ruthless tyrant who encouraged art

Pandolfo Petrucci, who during his time ruling Siena was one of the most powerful men in Italy, died on this day in 1512 in San Quirico d’Orcia in Tuscany.  Although he had been a tyrannical ruler, Petrucci had also done a great deal to increase the artistic splendour of his native city.  Petrucci was born into an aristocratic family in Siena in 1452. He had to go into exile in 1483 for being a member of the Noveschi political faction, which had fallen out of favour with the rulers of Siena.  After he returned to Siena in 1487, he began to take advantage of the struggles between the different political factions.  He married Aurelia Borghese, who was the daughter of Niccolò Borghese, an important figure in Siena at the time. After entering public office himself, Petrucci acquired so much authority and wealth that he became the ruling despot of Siena with the title of signore - lord.  His rapid rise to power alienated his father-in-law, who conspired with other influential citizens in Siena to assassinate him. However, Petrucci uncovered the plot and in 1500 had Borghese murdered. This act terrified his other enemies, which left Petrucci in complete control.  Read more…


Michelangelo’s Pietà damaged

Work of art deliberately vandalised

Michelangelo’s beautiful Pietà, a marble sculpture of the Virgin Mary with the dead body of Jesus lying across her knees, was damaged by a man wielding a hammer on this day in 1972 in Rome.  A mentally disturbed man walked into St Peter’s Basilica and attacked the sculpture in an act of deliberate vandalism.  He struck it 15 times, removing Mary’s arm at the elbow, knocking off a chunk of her nose and chipping one of her eyelids.  Some of the pieces of marble that flew off were taken by some of the people who were in the church at the time and Mary’s nose had to be reconstructed from a block cut out of her back.  The man who carried out the attack was said to be suffering from a delusion that he was Jesus Christ risen from the dead. He was not charged with any crime but spent two years in a psychiatric hospital.  After the restoration work was completed the sculpture was returned to its place in St Peter’s, just to the right of the entrance, and it is now protected by a bulletproof acrylic glass panel.  Michelangelo carved this sculpture from a single piece of Carrara marble in 1499 when he was only 24 and it is the only work he ever signed.  Read more…