4 June 2023

4 June

Cecilia Bartoli – opera singer

Soprano put the spotlight back on ‘forgotten’ composers and singers

Mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli was born on this day in 1966 in Rome. Bartoli is renowned for her interpretations of the music of Mozart and Rossini and for her performances of music by some of the lesser-known Baroque and 19th century composers.  Her parents were both professional singers and gave her music lessons themselves and her first public performance was at the age of eight when she appeared as the shepherd boy in Tosca.  Bartoli studied at the Conservatorio di Santa Cecilia in Rome and made her professional opera debut in 1987 at the Arena di Verona.  The following year she earned rave reviews for her portrayal of Rosina in Rossini’s The Barber of Seville in Germany and Switzerland.  Bartoli made her debut at La Scala in 1996, followed by the Metropolitan Opera in 1997 and the Royal Opera House in 2001.  She has performed and recorded Baroque music by composers such as Gluck, Vivaldi, Haydn and Salieri.  She has sold more than ten million copies of her albums, received numerous gold and platinum certificates and been given many awards and honours.  Read more…


Flavio Biondo – historian and archaeologist

Writer reconstructed ancient Roman topography

Flavio Biondo, the first historian to write about the concept of the Middle Ages, died on this day in 1463 in Rome.  Biondo, who is also sometimes referred to as Flavius Biondus, his Latin name, wrote Historiarum, which ran to 32 volumes. It was a comprehensive treatment of both Europe and Christendom from the sack of Rome by the Goths in AD 410 to the rise of Italian cities in the 15th century.  His work provided a definite chronological scheme, from ancient Rome up to his own time, which started the idea of the 1000 year period we now refer to as the Middle Ages. It is known that the writer Niccolò Machiavelli often consulted this work.  Biondo was born in 1392 in Forlì in Romagna, which is now part of the region of Emilia-Romagna. He was educated well and during a brief stay in Milan he discovered, and was able to transcribe, the only existing manuscript of Cicero’s dialogue, Brutus.  Biondo trained as a notary before moving to Rome, where he was appointed as an apostolic secretary.  After embarking on diplomatic missions throughout Italy, he wrote De Roma instaurata (Rome Restored), a three-volume work that reconstructed ancient Roman topography.  Read more…


Deborah Compagnoni - Olympic skiing champion

Alpine ace won gold medals in 1992, 1994 and 1998

The three-times Olympic skiing champion Deborah Compagnoni was born on this day in 1970 in Bormio, northern Lombardy.  Regarded as the greatest Italian female skier of all-time, she won gold medals at the 1992, 1994 and 1998 Winter Olympics.  Despite suffering two serious cruciate ligament injuries, she also won multiple events at the Alpine Skiing World Cup between 1992 and 1998.  Born in Bormio but raised in Santa Caterina di Valfurva, in Valtellina, Compagnoni’s talent became obvious at a young age but she began suffering injuries also at an early age.  At just 16 years old she won the bronze medal in the downhill at the World junior championships in 1987, and the following year won the junior title in giant slalom and achieved her first podium in the World Cup.  However, shortly afterwards she broke her right knee at Val d'Isére downhill, the first of a number of major injuries, but for which she could have attained even greater success.  Compagnoni won her first race in the World Cup in 1992, in the super-G. She also won the gold medal at the Winter Olympics of the same year, again in the super-G, at Albertville in France.  Read more…


Claudia de’ Medici – Archduchess of Tyrol

Medici daughter who was born to rule

Claudia de’ Medici, who ruled the Tyrol region of Austria while her son was still a minor, was born on this day in 1604 in the Palazzo Pitti in Florence.  Claudia was the daughter of Ferdinando I de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, and his wife Christina of Lorraine.  She was destined for a marital alliance with someone equally aristocratic and became engaged at just four years old to Federico Ubaldo della Rovere, Duke of Urbino.  She was educated in a convent where, in addition to piety, she learned to play the harp and paint pictures.  At the age of 16, she married Federico, Duke of Urbino and was initially disappointed when she found out he had his mistress installed in the ducal palace.  But two years later she had a daughter with him, Vittoria della Rovere. Her husband died a year later in 1623 leaving her a widow at the age of 19.  Claudia remarried in 1626 to Leopold V, Archduke of Austria, and became the Archduchess consort of Austria. She had five children by Leopold before his death six years later in 1632.  She assumed the regency of Tyrol in the name of her son, Ferdinand Charles, and held it until 1646 when Ferdinand became 18.  Read more…


3 June 2023

3 June

Domenico Antonio Vaccaro - painter, sculptor and architect

Creative genius whose legacy is still visible around Naples

The painter, sculptor and architect Domenico Antonio Vaccaro, who created some notable sculptures and designed some of the finest churches and palaces around Naples in the early 18th century, was born in the great southern Italian city on June 3, 1678.  Vaccaro was also an accomplished painter, but it is his architectural legacy for which he is most remembered.  Among the famous churches attributed to Vaccaro are the Chiesa di San Michele Arcangelo, which overlooks Piazza Dante, and the Chiesa di Santa Maria della Concezione a Montecalvario, which can be found in the Spanish Quarter, while he completed the Chiesa di Santa Maria della Stella in the district of the same name.  His notable palaces included the Palazzo Spinelli di Tarsia, just off Via Toledo, and the beautiful late Baroque palace, the Palazzo dell’Immacolatella, built on the water’s edge in the 1740s and now dwarfed by the enormous ocean-going ships that dock either side of it. Vaccaro was also responsible for finishing the carved obelisk topped by a bronze statue in Piazza di San Domenico Maggiore.  He sculpted a statue of San Gennaro, the patron saint of Naples, in the city’s cathedral.  Read more…


Roberto Rossellini - film director

Roman movie pioneer whose 'neorealism' had lasting influence

Film director Roberto Rossellini died on this day in 1977 in Rome, the city that provided the backdrop to his greatest work and earned him the reputation as the 'father of neorealism'.  Rossellini had been associated with the Fascist regime during the early part of the Second World War, in part due to his friendship with Vittorio Mussolini, the film producer son of the dictator, Benito Mussolini.  His three wartime movies, The White Ship, A Pilot Returns and The Man with a Cross, all had elements of pro-Fascist propaganda.  But after Mussolini was dismissed and his government collapsed in 1943, Rossellini began work on the anti-Fascist film Rome, Open City, which he described as a history of Rome under Nazi occupation.  It starred the popular actor Aldo Fabrizi in the role of a priest ultimately executed by the Nazis and the actress Anna Magnani as the heroine, Pina, but also featured footage of real Roman citizens originally intended to be used in two short documentary films.  Rossellini also used non-professional actors for many scenes, feeling that they could portray the hardships and poverty of Rome under occupation more authentically.  Read more…


Pietro Paolini – artist

Follower of Caravaggio passed on his techniques to the next generation

Pietro Paolini, a painter in the Baroque period in Italy, was born on this day in 1603 in Lucca in Tuscany.  Sometimes referred to as Il Lucchese, Paolini was a follower of the controversial Italian artist Caravaggio.  He also founded an academy in his native city and taught the next generation of painters in Lucca.  Paolini’s father, Tommaso, sent him to Rome when he was 16 to train in the workshop of Angelo Caroselli, who was a follower of Caravaggio.  Paolini had the opportunity to study various schools and techniques, which is reflected in the flexible style of his work. He was exposed to the second generation of painters in the Caravaggio tradition such as Bartolomeo Manfredi, Cecco del Caravaggio and Bartolomeo Cavarozzi.  The principal themes of Paolini’s work were the subjects popularised by Caravaggio around the turn of the 17th century involving lower class people such as hawkers, prostitutes and musicians. Some of his paintings have allegorical meanings, such as The Allegory of the Five Senses, which depicts a darkened inn with people engaged in playing music and drinking, each representing one of the five senses.  Read more…


The Blessed Vincent Romano

Priest who devoted himself to helping the poor

The Blessed Vincent Romano, a priest from Torre del Greco on the Bay of Naples who became known for his tireless devotion to helping the poor, was born on this day in 1751.  Admired for his simple way of life and his efforts in particular to look after the wellbeing of orphaned children, he was nicknamed “the worker priest” by the local community. His commitment to helping poor people extended across the whole Neapolitan region.  He would demonstrate his willingness to roll up his sleeves in a different way in 1794 after his church – now the Basilica of Santa Croce – was all but destroyed by the eruption of Vesuvius.  Not only did Romano devote many hours to organising the rebuilding he actually cleared a good deal of rubble with his own hands.  He was born Vincenzo Domenico Romano to poor parents in Naples. He developed a strong faith as a child and began to study for the priesthood in Naples at the age of 14.  He was ordained as a priest in 1775 and assigned to Torre del Greco, where he led a simple and austere life.  The eruption of Vesuvius in June 1794 destroyed most of Torre del Greco as a lava flow swept down to the sea.  Read more…


2 June 2023

2 June

The death of Giuseppe Garibaldi

Unification hero spent last days on his island off Sardinia

The Italian revolutionary and patriot Giuseppe Garibaldi died on this day in 1882 on the Sardinian island of Caprera.  The 74-year-old former military general and left-wing politician, whose Expedition of the Thousand was a major factor in completing the unification of Italy, had spent much of the last 27 years of his life on the island.  Increasingly confined to bed because of crippling arthritis, he was living on his farm with his third wife, Francesca Armosino, when he passed away.  Knowing he was fading, in the days before his death Garibaldi had asked for his bed to be moved close to a window, from which he could gaze at the emerald and sapphire sea.  He has asked for a simple funeral and cremation, and had even nominated the place on the island where he wished his body to be burned, in an open coffin, with his face to the sun.  He had hoped his ashes would be handed over to ordinary Italians, to be mixed with the earth in a place where a garden might grow as a symbol of the new Italy.  But his wishes were ignored. His body at first remained in his four-poster bed, guarded by a soldier and a sailor, while a succession of people filed past to pay their respects.  Read more…


Festa della Repubblica

Parades and parties celebrate the birth of the republic

Italy is today celebrating the anniversary of becoming a republic on this day in 1946. Each year the country has a national holiday to commemorate the result of the referendum which sent the male descendants of the House of Savoy into exile.  Following the Second World War and the fall of Fascism, the Italian people were called to the polls to vote on how they wanted to be governed. The result signalled the end for the monarchy.  In normal times, a grand military parade takes place in Rome, attended by the President of the Republic and the Prime Minister.  Many cities throughout Italy hold their own celebrations as the day is an official bank holiday.  In April 1944, the reigning King, Victor Emmanuel III, had relinquished many of his powers to his heir, Crown Prince Umberto.  He finally abdicated in 1946 and Umberto II ascended the throne. It had been thought that Umberto II and his Queen would be more acceptable to the people. But Umberto II has gone down in history as Re di maggio, the King of May, as he reigned for only 40 days before being sent into exile.  Umberto II accepted the results of the referendum magnanimously and his family remained in exile until 2002.  Read more… 


Roberto Visentini - cyclist

One half of the Giro d’Italia’s most controversial duel

Roberto Visentini, the Italian road racing cyclist who won the 1986 Giro d’Italia but the following year was a central figure in the most controversial race since the historic tour of Italy began, was born on this day in 1957 in Gardone Riviera.  The son of a wealthy undertaker from Brescia, Visentini had been an Italian and a world champion at junior level in 1975 and won the Italian national time-trial championship in 1977 as an amateur, before turning professional in 1978. Despite his success, he was not universally respected by his peers, some of whom felt his penchant for fast cars and a playboy lifestyle were not in keeping with what was traditionally a working-class sport.  The Giro was always his focus. Riding for the Inoxpran team, he was runner-up in the 1983 edition behind his fellow countryman Giuseppe Saronni and looked set to win the event two years later, holding the race leader’s pink jersey for nine consecutive stages to the half-way point, only to become unwell, dropping back to finish 49th overall behind the Frenchman Bernard Hinault.  In 1986, now with the Carrera team, Visentini finally claimed the prize as his own.  Read more…


1 June 2023

1 June

Arrigo Benedetti - journalist and author

Founder and editor of three major news magazines

Arrigo Benedetti, one of the most influential figures in postwar Italian news journalism, was born on this day in 1910 in Lucca.  Benedetti was the founding editor of three of Italy’s most important news magazines, one of which, L’Espresso, still ranks as one of the two most prominent Italian weeklies, alongside Panorama.  Of the other two, L’Europeo, which was launched in 1945, ceased publication in 1995, although the title was briefly revived in the 2000s, while Oggi continues to be published some 82 years after its inception, making it one of Italy’s oldest still-active magazines.  Arrested by the Fascist regime during World War Two, Benedetti escaped after the prison in which he was being held was bombed during an Allied air strike.  Born Giulio Benedetti, the son of a sales representative, he studied literature and philosophy at the University of Pisa and had some literary works published in the early 1930s.   But he had ambitions to pursue a career in journalism rather than academia and in 1937 moved to Rome to join his boyhood friend, Mario Pannunzio, in working for a new weekly news magazine, Omnibus, edited by Leo Longanesi.  Read more…


Francesco Scipione – playwright

Erudite marquis revitalised Italian drama

Dramatist Francesco Scipione, marchese di Maffei, was born on this day in 1675 in Verona.  His most famous work was his verse tragedy, Merope, which attempted to introduce Greek and French classical simplicity into Italian drama. This prepared the way for the dramatic tragedies of Vittorio Alfieri and the librettos of Pietro Metastasio later in the 18th century.  After studying at Jesuit colleges in Parma and Rome, Scipione went to fight on the side of Bavaria in the War of the Spanish Succession. He saw action in 1704 at the Battle of Schellenberg, near Donauworth, when his brother, Alessandro, was second in command at the battle.  In 1710, Scipione was one of the founders of an influential literary journal, Giornale dei letterati, a vehicle for his ideas about reforming Italian drama. He founded a later periodical, Osservazioni letterarie, to promote the same cause.  Scipione spent time studying the manuscripts in the Royal Library at Turin and arranged the collection of objects of art which Charles Emmanuel, Duke of Savoy had brought from Rome. He also travelled extensively in France, England, the Netherlands and Germany. Read more…


Iolanda of Savoy - banished princess

Sister of Italy’s last monarch lived quiet life in seaside villa

Princess Iolanda of Savoy, the eldest daughter of Italy’s wartime king Vittorio Emanuele III, was born on this day in 1901 in Rome.  Along with the other members of the Italian royal family, she left the country in 1946 after a referendum over whether to turn Italy into a republic gained the support of 54 per cent of those who voted.  The new constitution specifically banned the male heirs of the House of Savoy from setting foot on Italian soil.  Her brother, Umberto II, who had been made king when his father abdicated in May 1946, shortly before the vote, had the crown for just 27 days. He left for Portugal, never to return to his homeland.  The decision to send male members of the family into exile was essentially the new republic’s punishment for Vittorio Emanuele having allowed the Fascist leader Benito Mussolini to run the country as a dictator.  Vittorio Emanuele, who was king for 46 years, was tainted in particular by his approval of Mussolini's anti-semitic race laws by which all Jewish students were expelled from schools and Jews were banned from public office and forbidden to marry outside their race.  Read more…


Alice Barbi - singer

Mezzo-soprano who became close friend of Brahms

Alice Barbi, who enjoyed a short but successful career as a singer after showing a talent for the violin from an early age, was born on this day in 1858 in Modena.  An accomplished mezzo-soprano famed for her sweet, velvety tone, Barbi performed in London, St Petersburg, Berlin and Vienna as well as in her native Italy. She is also known for her friendship with the celebrated German composer Johannes Brahms.  The two met shortly after Barbi had performed in Vienna for the first time in 1888. Brahms was said to be captivated by both her voice and her beauty and they soon began to meet regularly for dinner. Their relationship, which lasted until his death in 1897, was never more than platonic, although the composer - 25 years’ her senior - is said to have confessed to friends that she was the only woman he had met in his later years he would have liked to marry.  Barbi’s love of music was passed on by her father, Enrico, who was a violin teacher and tutored Alice so well that she was able to make her public debut on the instrument at the age of seven.  The family moved to Egypt but when Alice returned to Italy she enrolled at the Conservatorio Giovanni Battista Martini in Bologna. Read more…


Francis V – Duke of Modena

Jacobite claimant was forced to flee his own duchy

The last reigning Duke of Modena, Francis V, was born on this day in 1819 in Modena.  He was the son of Francis IV of Modena and Princess Maria Beatrice of Savoy.  After the death of his mother in 1840, Francis was considered by Jacobites to be the next legitimate heir to the thrones of England, Scotland and Ireland.  He succeeded as Duke of Modena in 1846 on the death of his father and also held the titles of Archduke of Austria and royal Prince of Hungary and Bohemia.  During the 1848 revolutions in Italy, Francis was forced to flee from Modena after an uprising, but he was restored to his duchy backed by Austrian troops the following year.  He had to flee again in 1859 after the duchy was invaded by the armies of France and Piedmont. In March 1860, the new King of Italy, Victor Emmanuel II, ordered Modena to be incorporated into his new kingdom.  Francis went to live in Vienna and died there in 1875. After his death, his niece, Maria Theresa of Austria Este, became the new Jacobite claimant.  The Duchy of Modena and Reggio was an Italian state from 1452 to 1859. Modena has now become famous as the birthplace of opera singers Luciano Pavarotti and Mirella Freni.  Read more…