8 February 2024

8 February

Nicola Salvi – architect

Creator of Rome’s iconic Trevi Fountain

The architect Nicola Salvi, notable as the designer of the Fontana di Trevi – known in English as the Trevi Fountain and one of the most famous and most visited monuments in Rome – died on this day in 1751.  He was working on the Trevi when he passed away, having been engaged on the project since 1732. It had to be finished by Giuseppe Pannini and the giant statue of Oceanus – the Titan God of the Sea in Greek mythology – set in the central niche, was completed by Pietro Bracci, yet Salvi takes credit as the lead architect.  Salvi ran a workshop in Rome that he had taken over when his master, Antonio Canevari, left the city in 1727 to take up a position working as architectural consultant to the king of Portugal in Lisbon.  He completed a number of commissions on behalf of Canevari but spent a good deal of his time tutoring others and might have made very little impression on architectural history had he not submitted entries for two design competitions run by Pope Clement XII in 1732.  One was for a new façade for the church of San Giovanni in Laterano, for which his design was commended.  Read more…


Guercino - Bolognese master

Self-taught artist amassed fortune from his work

The artist known as Guercino was born Giovanni Francesco Barbieri on this day in 1591 in Cento, a town between Bologna and Ferrara in what is now the Emilia-Romagna region.  His professional name began as a nickname on account of his squint - guercino means little squinter in Italian.  After the death of Guido Reni in 1642, he became established as the leading painter in Bologna.  Guercino painted in the Baroque and classical styles. His best known works include The Arcadian Shepherds (Et in Arcadia Ego - I too am in Arcadia), showing two shepherds who have discovered a skull, which is now on display at the Galleria Nazionale di Arte Antica in Rome, and The Flaying of Marsyas by Apollo, which can be found in the Palazzo Pitti in Florence, both of which were painted in 1618.  Guercino's frescoes were notable for the technique of creating an illusionist ceiling and would make a big impact on how churches and palaces in the 17th century were decorated.  Mainly self-taught, Guercino became apprenticed at 16 to Benedetto Gennari, a painter of the Bolognese school, at his workshop in Cento before moving to Bologna in 1615.  Read more…


Italo Santelli - fencer

Olympic medallist famous for real ‘duel’

The Olympic fencer Italo Santelli, who famously fought a duel with his former team captain over a matter of honour, died on this day in 1945 in Livorno, Tuscany.  Santelli won a silver medal at the 1900 Olympics in Paris with a new style of sabre fencing of his own invention. Originally from Carrodano in Liguria, he fought for Italy but spent a large part of his career coaching Hungary, who he helped become a formidable power in fencing.  It was this conflict of interests that sparked an incident at the 1924 Olympics, also in Paris, that led to Santelli and Adolfo Cotronei, who was Italy’s team captain, engaging in the infamous duel.  It happened during a match between the Italians and the host nation France in the team foil event when Italy’s Aldo Boni was facing off against Lucien Gaudin. With the match tied at four touches each, the Hungarian judge György Kovacs awarded the winning fifth touch to Gaudin, a decision that sparked immediate consternation in the Italian ranks.  Boni rounded on Kovacs, delivering a verbal tirade. But it was in Italian - beyond the official’s comprehension. It just happened that Santelli, in his capacity as Hungary’s coach, witnessed the whole dispute and was asked to step in as interpreter.  Read more…


Giuseppe Torelli – violinist and composer

Brilliant musician could both perform and write beautiful music

Talented musician Giuseppe Torelli, who played the viola and violin and was a composer during the late Baroque era, died on this day in 1709 in Bologna in Emilia-Romagna.  He is remembered for contributing to the development of the instrumental concerto and for being the most prolific Baroque composer for trumpets and he is ranked with Arcangelo Corelli as a developer of the Baroque concerto and concerto grosso.  Torelli was born in Verona in 1658. He learnt to play the violin and studied composition with Giacomo Antonio Perti.  At the age of 26 it is known that he was a member of the Accademia Filarmonica as a violinist. Two years later he was employed as a viola player at the Basilica di San Petronio in Bologna. He stayed there for about ten years until the orchestra was disbanded because of financial constraints.  His first published works were ten sonatas for violin and basso continuo and 12 concerti da camera for two violins and basso continuo.  Around 1690 Torelli began writing his first trumpet works. It is considered unusual for a strings player to compose works for the trumpet. Read more… 


Revolt in Padua

When students and citizens joined forces against their oppressors 

An uprising against the Austrian occupying forces, when students and ordinary citizens fought side by side, took place on this day in Padua in 1848.  A street is now named Via VIII Febbraio to commemorate the location of the struggle between the Austrian soldiers and the students and citizens of Padua, when both the University of Padua and the Caffè Pedrocchi briefly became battlegrounds.  The Padua rebellion was one of a series of revolts in Italy during 1848, which had started with the Sicilian uprising in January of that year.  The Austrians were seen as arrogant and aggressive by ordinary citizens and the ideas of Giuseppe Mazzini and Camillo Benso Cavour about a united Italy were becoming popular with progressive thinkers.   Students and professors at Padua University had been meeting in rooms at the University and in Caffè Pedrocchi to discuss their discontent.  The uprising began with the storming of a prison and prisoners being set free. Then many ordinary citizens came to fight alongside the students against the armed Austrians, who clubbed the Paduans with their guns as well as firing at them.  Read more…


Book of the Day: Not Built in a Day: Exploring the Architecture of Rome, by George Sullivan

Not Built in a Day: Exploring the Architecture of Rome is a unique, unconventional guide and a deeply felt homage to Rome and its extraordinary 2,500-year history. Moving beyond the names, dates, and statistics of ordinary guidebooks, George Sullivan's eye-opening essays celebrate the special character of Rome's buildings, fountains, piazzas, streets, and ruins. From the largest landmark down to the smallest hidden gem, Not Built in a Day explores the city in comprehensive detail, offering detailed visual and historical analyses that enable readers to see and understand exactly what makes the architecture of Rome so important, influential, and fascinating. The book is supported by a companion website (NotBuiltInADay.com) that offers, among other features, detailed illustrative photographs for readers who want to experience the book's walking tours at home and large printable maps for readers using small electronic devices on-site in Rome.

George H Sullivan is a veteran travel writer whose work includes walking tours of both Florence and Vienna for Fodor’s Travel Guides. A lecturer on Roman architecture at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, he spent 15 years researching and writing the essays that became Not Built in a Day.

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7 February 2024

7 February

NEW - Vasco Rossi - singer-songwriter

Controversial rock star still performing

Vasco Rossi, a singer-songwriter in the rock genre who has sold more than 40 million records since releasing his first single in 1977, was born on this day in 1952 in Zocca, a small town in a mountainous region of Emilia-Romagna.  Rossi, who has attracted criticism for his lifestyle and for the sometimes controversial content of his songs, enjoys a huge following among fans of Italian rock music.  An open-air concert he performed in Modena in 2017 sold 225,173 tickets, a record for tickets sold by any artist anywhere in the world.  Describing himself as a provocautore - a writer who provokes - he has written more than 250 songs, nine of which have been number one in the Italian singles charts, and made more than 30 albums, including five that were the best-selling album for the year of their release.  The enormous public enthusiasm for his work has not always been shared by the critics. Although his albums have won him many awards within his own sector of the music industry, when he appeared at the Sanremo Music Festival in 1982, the judging panel placed him bottom, reportedly in protest at the lyrics and his on-stage behaviour, which they thought was disrespectful to the competition.  Read more…


Amedeo Guillet – army officer

Superb horseman helped keep the British at bay

Amedeo Guillet, the last man to lead a cavalry charge against the British Army, was born on this day in 1909 in Piacenza.  His daring actions in Eritrea in 1941 were remembered by some British soldiers as ‘the most frightening and extraordinary’ episode of the Second World War.  It had seemed as though the British invasion of Mussolini’s East African empire was going like clockwork. But at daybreak on January 21, 250 horsemen erupted through the morning mist at Keru, galloping straight towards British headquarters and the artillery of the Surrey and Sussex Yeomanry.  Red Italian grenades that looked like cricket balls exploded among the defenders and the guns that had been pointing towards Italian fortifications had to be quickly turned to face a new enemy.  The horsemen later disappeared into the network of wadis - ravines - that crisscrossed the Sudan-Eritrean lowlands.  Guillet’s actions at Keru helped the Italian army regroup and go on to launch their best actions in the entire war. Guillet was to live on until the age of 101 and become one of the most decorated people in Italian history.  Read more…


Little Tony – pop singer

Star from San Marino enjoyed a long career 

Singer and actor Little Tony was born Antonio Ciacci on this day in 1941 in Tivoli near Rome.  His parents were both born in the Republic of San Marino and so Little Tony was Sammarinese and never applied for Italian citizenship.  He became successful in the late 1950s and early 1960s in Britain as the lead singer of Little Tony and His Brothers.  He had formed a group with his brothers, Alberto and Enrico, in 1957, calling himself Little Tony after the singer, Little Richard.  The brothers were signed up by a record company, who released their versions of a series of American songs in Italy.  After being invited to appear on a British TV show, they released their first single in the UK , I can’t help it, which was their 11th in Italy. Their third single, Too Good, reached No 19 in the UK singles chart in 1960.  The group returned to Italy to appear at the Sanremo Festival where they came second. Then Little Tony began working as a solo singer and film actor.  His hit song Cuore matto - Crazy Heart - was number one for nine consecutive weeks in 1967.  In 1975 he recorded an album Tony canta Elvis - Tony Sings Elvis - paying tribute to Elvis Presley.  Read more…


The Bonfire of the Vanities

Preacher Savonarola's war on Renaissance 'excesses'

The most famous 'bonfire of the vanities' encouraged by the outspoken Dominican priest Girolamo Savonarola took place in Florence on this day in 1497.  Savonarola campaigned against what he considered to be the artistic and social excesses of the Renaissance, preaching with fanatical passion against any material possession that might tempt the owner towards sin.  He became notorious for organising large communal bonfires in the tradition of San Bernardino of Siena, urging Florentines to come forward with items of luxury or vanity or even simply entertainment that might draw them away from their faith.  Savonarola arrived in Florence from his home town of Ferrara in 1482, entering the convent of St Mark. With Lorenzo de' Medici at the height of his power, Savonarola became disturbed by what he perceived as the moral collapse of the Catholic church.  For a number of years he confined himself to speaking about repentance to congregations of believers in the parishes around Florence but on returning to the city in 1490 he began to campaign with more vigour about what he saw as the need for a return to piety.   Read more…


Vittoria delle Rovere – Grand Duchess of Tuscany

Bride who brought the treasures of Urbino to Florence

Vittoria della Rovere, who became Grand Duchess of Tuscany, was born on this day in 1622 in the Ducal Palace of Urbino.  Her marriage to Ferdinando II de’ Medici was to bring a wealth of treasures to the Medici family, which can still be seen today in the Palazzo Pitti and the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.  Vittoria was the only child of Federico Ubaldo della Rovere, the son of the Duke of Urbino, Francesco Maria. Her mother was Claudia de’ Medici, a sister of Cosimo II de’ Medici.  As a child it was expected that Vittoria would one day inherit the Duchy of Urbino, but Pope Urban VIII convinced Francesco Maria to leave it to the Papacy and the Duchy was eventually annexed to the Papal States.  Instead, at the age of nine, Vittoria received the Duchies of Rovere and Montefeltro and an art collection.  Vittoria had been betrothed to her Medici cousin, Ferdinando, since the age of one and was sent by her mother to be brought up at the Tuscan court.  The marriage was arranged by Ferdinando’s grandmother, Christina of Lorraine, who had been acting as joint regent of the Duchy with Ferdinando’s mother, Maria Maddalena of Austria.  Read more…


Pope Pius IX

Pontiff who regarded himself as a prisoner

Pope Pius IX, who died on this day in 1878 in the Apostolic Palace in Vatican City in Rome, had the longest verified papal reign in history, having been head of the Catholic Church since 1846.  He is also remembered for permanently losing control of the Papal States, which became part of the Kingdom of Italy in 1870. Afterwards he refused to leave Vatican City and often referred to himself as ‘a prisoner of the Vatican’.  Pius IX was born Giovanni Maria Mastai Ferretti in 1792 in Senigallia in Le Marche which was then part of the Papal States.  While studying theology, Mastai Ferretti met Pope Pius VII when he was visiting his hometown and afterwards, he entered the Papal Noble Guard. He was dismissed after he suffered an epileptic seizure, but Pius VII supported him continuing with his theological studies and he was ordained a priest in 1819.  Pope Leo X chose him to support the Apostolic Nunzio on a mission to Chile and although it ended in failure the Pope gave him new roles and appointed him Archbishop of Spoleto in 1827, where he gained the reputation of being both efficient and liberal.  Read more…


Book of the Day: Amedeo: The True Story of an Italian's War in Abyssinia, by Sebastian O'Kelly

This is the story of Amedeo Guillet – an Italian calvary officer who was sent out to Abyssinia as part of Mussolini’s army to establish and command a troupe of 2,000 Spahis – or Arabic calvary. Together they held up the British lorries heaving up the mountain road to Asmara and blew up the important Ponte Aosta. Eventually captured, Amedeo went on the run disguised as an Arab, eventually making it to Yemen, only to be thrown in jail.  This is a rare view of the Second World War from an Italian perpective; particularly valuable are the chapters that tell the story of Italian resistance to the Nazis, and their subsequent withdrawal from Italy in 1943. There are few stories more cinemagraphic than this – Fascist Italy, his early years in Ethiopia commanding the Cossack-like Spahis, the brutal Abyssinian war waged by the Duce, Italian and British colonial rivalry; Amedeo led the last ever cavalry charge the British army faced. He met and fell in love with Khadija – a beautiful Ethiopian Muslim - only to be forced to leave her behind to face her future alone and return to Italy, to his fiancée and a career as a distinguished Italian diplomat and Arabist.  Amedeo spent part of his retirement living in County Meath, Ireland, where he collaborated with Sebastian O’Kelly in writing this book. Amedeo: The True Story of an Italian's War in Abyssinia is a stunning and vaulable story, beautifully told.

Sebastian O'Kelly is a journalist who has written for the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. A fluent Italian speaker, he is also the founder of the charity Leasehold Knowledge Partnership, which advises people who fall foul of the hazards of leaseholding.

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Vasco Rossi - singer-songwriter

Controversial rock star still performing

Vasco Rossi has been one of Italy's biggest stars for almost 40 years
Vasco Rossi has been one of Italy's
biggest stars for almost 40 years
Vasco Rossi, a singer-songwriter in the rock genre who has sold more than 40 million records since releasing his first single in 1977, was born on this day in 1952 in Zocca, a village in a mountainous region of Emilia-Romagna.

Rossi, who has attracted criticism for his lifestyle and for the sometimes controversial content of his songs, enjoys a huge following among fans of Italian rock music.  An open-air concert he performed in Modena in 2017 sold 225,173 tickets, a record for tickets sold by any artist anywhere in the world.

Describing himself as a provocautore - a writer who provokes - he has written more than 250 songs, nine of which have been number one in the Italian singles charts, and made more than 30 albums, including five that were the best-selling album for the year of their release.

The enormous public enthusiasm for his work has not always been shared by the critics. Although his albums have won him many awards within his own sector of the music industry, when he appeared at the Sanremo Music Festival in 1982, the judging panel placed him bottom, reportedly in protest at the lyrics and his on-stage behaviour, which they thought was disrespectful to the competition. 

Despite his success, Rossi has at times struggled with alcohol and drug addictions and depression yet has used the darker periods in his life as the inspiration for songs.  Following his arrest and brief imprisonment for cocaine possession in the 1980s, he produced an album entitled Bollicine - Little Bubbles - that featured lyrics about drug use, attracting more opprobrium but at the same time helping secure his status as a rock icon.

Rossi in the 1970s, at the start of his career
Rossi in the 1970s, at
the start of his career
Rossi’s father, Carlo, was a truck driver, his mother, Novella, a housewife. It was Novella, herself an enthusiastic music fan, who had an inkling about his singing ability, enrolling him for singing lessons as a small child. He soon developed a love for music, joining his first band at the age of 14.  After the family had moved to Bologna, he studied accountancy at high school before enrolling for a degree course in Business and Economics at the University of Bologna, which he eventually abandoned.

Instead of equipping himself for a career in finance or business, he worked as a DJ, setting up the Punta Club, a party venue, before teaming up with some friends to open Punta Radio, one of Italy’s first private radio stations.  His own early recordings tended to get their first airing on Punta Radio.

His first EP was released in 1977, including the songs Jenny è pazza and Silvia, followed by his debut album the following year, and has brought out a new album almost every year since, an extraordinary output.  It took a few years to achieve peak popularity, while the shock of his father’s death in 1979 from a stroke at the age of just 56 almost persuaded him to quit. But by the late 1980s his albums were selling in huge numbers and he had to move from traditional concert venues into stadiums such as the Stadio Giuseppe Meazza - better known as San Siro - in Milan, territory usually reserved for international superstars such as U2 and Madonna.

An aerial shot of the crowd of more than 225,000 fans who saw Rossi's 2017 concert in Modena
An aerial shot of the crowd of more than 225,000
fans who saw Rossi's 2017 concert in Modena
Between 2001 and 2014, five of his albums - Stupido hotel (2001), Tracks (2002), Buoni o cattivi (2004), Vivere o niente (2011) and Sono innocente (2014) - outsold all other albums in Italy in the year of their release.  Yet he remains largely unknown outside Europe, a phenomenon he has claimed is down to overseas markets, specifically the British and American markets, being rigged.

He announced in 2011 that he was retiring from touring, yet was back on stage only two years later. In his career he has performed in more than 800 concerts, watched by more than 10 million fans. He has more dates planned this year.

Rossi has three children Davide and Lorenzo - both born in 1986 - and Luca, born in 1991, all by different partners. He married Luca’s mother, Laura Schmidt, in a low-key ceremony in Zocca in 2012.

Zocca occupies a hillside location around 45km (28 miles) southeast of Modena in Emilia-Romagna
Zocca occupies a hillside location around 45km
(28 miles) southeast of Modena in Emilia-Romagna
Travel tip:

Vasco Rossi’s home village of Zocca in Emilia-Romagna can be found around 45km (28 miles) southeast of Modena and a similar distance southwest of Bologna. It sits on the eastern side of the mountain that divides the Panaro River Valley from the Reno and Samoggia Valleys. It enjoys a strategically favourable position, which was reflected in mediaeval history by the  establishment of a number of castles in the area and more recently by its importance in World War Two as a stronghold of the Italian resistance movement.  Zocca has a pleasant centre characterised by elegant shops and a number of interesting churches, including the neo-Romanesque chiesa del Sacro Cuore di Gesù and the Santuario della Verucchia, which has its origins in the 12th century.  A music festival in Zocca was established by Rossi’s friend, Massimo Riva, and rock fans visit the area in large numbers in the summer months, attracted by a tour organised by the Visit Modena tourist office. A chestnut festival takes place every October.

The magnificent Baroque architecture of the Ducal Palace is one of the main attractions of Modena
The magnificent Baroque architecture of the Ducal
Palace is one of the main attractions of Modena
Travel tip:

Modena, where Vasco Rossi set a world record for ticket sales for his 2017 concert at the Enzo Ferrari Park motor racing venue, is a city on the south side of the Po Valley in the Emilia-Romagna region It is known for its car industry, as Ferrari, De Tomaso, Lamborghini, Pagani and Maserati have all been located there. The city is also well known for producing balsamic vinegar, while operatic tenor Luciano Pavarotti and soprano Mirella Freni were both born in Modena.  One of the main sights in Modena is the huge, baroque Ducal Palace, which was begun by Francesco I on the site of a former castle in 1635. His architect, Luigi Bartolomeo Avanzini, created a home for him that few European princes could match at the time. The palace is now home to the Italian national military academy. In the Galleria Estense, on the upper floor of the Palazzo dei Musei in Modena, the one-metre high bust of Francesco I d’Este, Duke of Modena, by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, still seems to be commanding the city.

Also on this day:

1497: Preacher Girolamo Savonarola’s ‘bonfire of the vanities’

1622: The birth of Vittoria delle Rovere, Grand Duchess of Tuscany

1878: The death of Pope Pius IX

1909: The birth of cavalry officer Amedeo Guillet

1941: The birth of pop singer Little Tony


6 February 2024

6 February

Beatrice Cenci - Roman heroine

Aristocrat's daughter executed for murder of abusive father

Beatrice Cenci, the daughter of an aristocrat whose execution for the murder of her abusive father became a legendary story in Roman history, was born on this day in 1577 in the family's palace off the Via Arenula, not far from what is now the Ponte Garibaldi in the Regola district.  Cenci's short life ended with her beheading in front of Castel Sant'Angelo on 11 September 1599, with most of the onlookers convinced that an injustice had taken place.  Her father, Francesco Cenci, had a reputation for violent and immoral behaviour that was widely known and had often been found guilty of serious crimes in the papal court. Yet where ordinary citizens were routinely sentenced to death for similar or even lesser offences, he was invariably given only a short prison sentence and frequently bought his way out of jail.  Romans appalled at this two-tier system of justice turned Beatrice into a symbol of resistance against the arrogance of the aristocracy and her story has been preserved not only in local legend but in many works of literature.  In the early 19th century, the English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, who was living in Italy, was so moved by her story that he turned it into a drama in verse entitled The Cenci: A Tragedy in Five Acts.  Read more…


Ugo Foscolo – poet

Revolutionary who expressed his feelings in verse

Writer Ugo Foscolo was born Niccolò Foscolo on this day in 1778 on the island of Zakynthos, now part of Greece, but then part of the Republic of Venice.  Foscolo went on to become a revolutionary who wrote poetry and novels that reflected the feelings of many Italians during the turbulent years of the French revolution, the Napoleonic Wars and Austrian rule. His talent was probably not sufficiently appreciated until after his death, but he is particularly remembered for his book of poems, Dei Sepolchri - Of the Sepulchres.  After the death of his father, Andrea, who was an impoverished Venetian nobleman, the family moved back to live in Venice.  Foscolo went on to study at Padova University and by 1797 had begun to write under the name Ugo Foscolo.  While at University he took part in political discussions about the future of Venice and was shocked when Napoleon handed it over to the Austrians in 1797.  He denounced this action in his novel Ultime lettere di Jacopo Ortis - The Last Letters of Jacopo Ortis.  Foscolo moved to Milan where he published a book of sonnets. Still putting his faith in Napoleon, he decided to serve as a volunteer in the French army.  Read more…


1783 Calabria Earthquakes

Series of powerful tremors killed at least 35,000

The Calabrian peninsula of southwest Italy was waking up to the unfolding horror of a sequence of five deadly earthquakes on this day in 1783.  A major tremor destroyed the town of Oppido Mamertina in what is now the province of Reggio Calabria on 5 February, killing almost 1,200 residents, followed by another just after midnight on 6 February, setting off a tsunami that claimed still more lives.   The effects of the first quake  - which has been classified at an estimated 7.0 on the Richter magnitude scale - were felt over a much wider area, however, with countless land and rockslides.  The whole of the island of Sicily is said to have shaken.  In total, it is thought some 180 villages were effectively destroyed, with far more buildings reduced to rubble than remained standing. The city of Messina, on the northeast tip of Sicily, was seriously hit and many casualties were reported there also.  The city’s mediaeval Duomo was badly damaged, while a tsunami caused the walls of the harbour to collapse.  This first shock was thought to have claimed in the region of 25,000 lives across the large area affected as buildings simply collapsed.  Read more…


Amintore Fanfani - politician

Former prime minister who proposed "third way"

Amintore Fanfani, a long-serving politician who was six times Italy’s prime minister and had a vision of an Italy run by a powerful centre-left alliance of his own Christian Democrat party and the socialists, was born on this day in 1908.  A controversial figure in that he began his political career as a member of Mussolini’s National Fascist Party, he went on to be regarded as a formidable force in Italian politics, in which he was active for more than 60 years, admired for his longevity and his energy but also for his principles.  Throughout his career, or at least the post-War part of it, he was committed to finding a “third way” between collective communism and the free market and became a major influence on centre-left politicians not only in Italy but in other parts of the world.  The American president John F Kennedy, whose friendship he valued, told colleagues that it was reading Fanfani’s book, Catholicism, Protestantism and Capitalism, that persuaded him to dedicate his life to politics. They last met in Washington in November 1963, just two weeks before Kennedy was assassinated.   Although he opposed communism, Fanfani’s position was generally in favour of socio-economic intervention by the state and against unfettered free-market capitalism.  Read more…


Girolamo Benivieni – poet

Follower of Plato, Dante and Savonarola

The poet Girolamo Benivieni, who turned Marsilio Ficino’s translation of Plato’s Symposium into verse, was born on this day in 1453 in Florence.  His poem was to influence other writers during the Renaissance and some who came later.  As a member of the Florentine Medici circle, Benivieni was a friend of the Renaissance humanists Ficino, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola and Angelo Poliziano, commonly known as Politian.  Ficino translated The Symposium in about 1474 and wrote his own commentary on the work.  Benivieni summarised Ficino’s work in the poem De lo amore celeste - Of Heavenly Love. These verses then became the subject of a commentary by Pico della Mirandola.  As a result of all these works, Platonism reached such writers as Pietro Bembo and Baldassare Castiglione and the English poet, Edmund Spencer.  Benivieni later fell under the spell of Girolamo Savonarola, the fiery religious reformer, and he rewrote some of his earlier sensual poetry as a result. He also translated a treatise by Savonarola into Italian, Della semplicità della vita cristiana - On the Simplicity of the Christian life - and he wrote some religious poetry of his own.  Read more…


Book of the Day: Beatrice's Spell: The Enduring Legend of Beatrice Cenci, by Belinda Jack

Beatrice Cenci was executed in Rome in September 1599: she was said to be sixteen, and was hauntingly beautiful. Her crime was the murder of her father, a member of one of the greatest Roman families, but his cruel treatment of her, including incestuous rape, moved the people of the city to take her side.   Weeping crowds lined the streets, and a special mass is still said in Rome on the anniversary of her death. She was at once innocent and guilty, the victim and the perpetrator of appalling crimes. From that time since, the ambivalent image of Beatrice has attracted writers and artists, and often their obsession with her fed their own self-destruction. In this compelling study, Belinda Jack takes on the dangerous challenge of bringing Beatrice to life, and of tracing her power over those who tried to resurrect her, from the tragedy of Shelley to the novels of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville, from the sculpture of Harriet Hosmer and the photographs of Julia Margaret Cameron to the desperate drama of Antonin Artaud.  As we follow the stories of their lives and ambitions, we see how they suffered critical condemnation for their works about Beatrice, and were sometimes pushed to the brink of insanity. Her story, which is one of lust, passion and violence, contains a powerful sense of the forbidden, the taboo that drives people over the edge. Beatrice's Spell is at once scholarly and utterly engrossing, carrying the power of her story through time.

Belinda Jack is Fellow and Tutor in French literature and Language at Christ Church, Oxford at the University of Oxford, Professor of Rhetoric at Gresham College and the author of books such as The Woman Reader and George Sand: A Woman's Life Writ Large.

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5 February 2024

5 February

La dolce vita - cinematic masterpiece

Commentary on decadence of 1950s Rome saw Fellini hailed as a genius

La dolce vita, a film still regarded as one of the greatest in cinema history, was screened in front of a paying audience for the first time on this day in 1960.  After a preview before invited guests and media at the Fiamma cinema in Rome, the Capitol Cinema in Milan was chosen for its public premiere. The movie went on general release in Italy the day afterwards and made its London debut on 8 February.  It was shown in America for the first time in April of the following year.  Directed by Federico Fellini, the film won the Palme d'Or, the highest award presented at the Cannes Film Festival in 1960 and was nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Director for Fellini, although ultimately the production team had to be content with the Oscar for Best Costumes.  It won numerous awards in Italy, while the brilliant Nino Rota’s soundtrack was nominated for a Grammy.  In America, the National Board of Review and the New York Film Critics Circle made it their best foreign film of 1961.  The film is episodic rather than having a conventional plot, following the life of Marcello Rubini, a somewhat jaded magazine gossip columnist portrayed by Marcello Mastroianni, over seven days and nights in the Rome of the late 1950s. Read more…


Giovanni Battista Moroni – artist

Portrait painter left visual record of a changing society

Giovanni Battista Moroni, who was considered one of the greatest portrait painters of the 16th century, died on this day in 1578 while working on a painting at a church just outside Bergamo in the northern region of Lombardy.  His wonderful legacy of portraits provides an illuminating insight into life in Italy in the 16th century, as he received commissions from merchants trying to climb the social ladder as well as from rich noblemen.  Moroni was born at Albino near Bergamo somewhere between 1510 and 1522 and went on to train under a religious painter from Brescia, Alessandro Bonvicino.  Although Moroni painted many acclaimed religious works, he became known much more for the vitality and realism of his portraits, for which he was once praised by Titian.  Some of Moroni’s work is in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence and the National Gallery in London but there are fine examples of Moroni’s work in the collection of the Accademia Carrara in Bergamo, such as The Old Man Sitting Down and the Portrait of Bernardo Spini.  One of Moroni’s finest religious works, the Coronation of the Virgin, can be seen in the church of Sant'alessandro della Croce in Via Pignolo in Bergamo’s lower town.  Read more…


Cesare Maldini - footballer and coach

Enjoyed success with AC Milan as player and manager

The footballer and coach Cesare Maldini, who won four Serie A titles and an historic European Cup as a centre half with AC Milan and later coached the club with success in domestic and European football, was born on this day in 1932 in Trieste.  When, under Maldini’s captaincy, Milan beat Benfica 2–1 at Wembley Stadium in London in May 1963, they became the first Italian club to win the European Cup and Maldini the first Italian captain to lift the trophy.  Maldini’s international career included an 18-month spell as coach of the Italy national team, during which the Azzurri reached the quarter-finals of the 1998 World Cup. He had earlier won three consecutive European championships as coach of the Italy Under-21s. He is the father of Paolo Maldini, the former AC Milan defender whose record-breaking career spanned 25 years and included no fewer than five winner’s medals from the European Cup and its successor, the Champions League. Cesare’s grandsons, Christian and Daniel - Paolo’s sons - are also professional players.  As a child, Cesare Maldini was largely brought up by his mother, Maria. Read more…


Premiere of Verdi’s Otello

Composer’s penultimate opera prompted 20 curtain calls

Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Otello, the penultimate work of his outstanding career, was staged for the first time at Milan’s Teatro alla Scala theatre on this day in 1887.  The four-act opera, based on the play Othello by William Shakespeare, came into being only after a long campaign by Verdi’s publisher, Giulio Ricordi, and the librettist Arrigo Boito, to persuade Italy’s greatest opera composer to come out of his unofficial retirement.  Verdi effectively called time on his writing career after the success of Aida in 1871. It was his 28th opera and his success had enabled him to become a wealthy landowner. Although his Requiem was to come in 1874, he was reluctant to commit himself to any new works.  It took Ricordi and Boito eight years from first suggesting to Verdi that he wrote an opera based on Othello to it actually coming to fruition.  The composer had been a lifelong admirer of Shakespeare’s work, which he had read and re-read since he was a young man. He had written an opera based on Macbeth which was first performed in Florence in 1847.  The idea was first put to him at a dinner at Verdi’s Milan residence in 1879. Read more…


Carolina Morace - footballer and coach

Prolific goalscorer first woman in Italian Football Hall of Fame

Footballer and coach Carolina Morace, the first woman to be inducted into the Italian Football Hall of Fame, was born on this day in 1964 in Venice.  Morace played for 20 years for 10 different clubs and was the leading goalscorer in the Women's Serie A on 12 occasions, including an incredible run of 11 consecutive seasons from 1987 to 1998.   She won the Italian championship 12 times with eight of her clubs and scored an extraordinary 550 goals at an average of three in every two games at her peak, with a further 105 goals in 153 appearances for the Italy national team.  Four of those came in one match when Italy Women played England in a curtain-raiser to the pre-season Charity Shield game at Wembley in 1990, which she described as one of her proudest moments.  Morace, the daughter of a former officer in the Italian Navy, grew up a stone’s throw away from Venice's football ground at Sant' Elena. She joined her first club in Venice when she was 11 years old, her ability to score goals allowing her to be accepted quickly in boys' teams.  Her father soon realised she needed to play at a higher level and at 14 helped her move to a club at Belluno, 120 miles north of Venice in the mountainous Dolomites. Read more…


Saint Agatha of Sicily – Christian martyr

Huge crowds turn out for feast day in Catania

One of the largest festivals in the Roman Catholic calendar takes place on this day every year to celebrate the life of the Christian martyr Saint Agatha of Sicily.   In Catania, which adopted her as the patron saint of the city, hundreds of thousands of people line the streets to watch the extraordinary sight of up to 5,000 citizens hauling a silver carriage said to weigh 20 tons (18,140kg), bearing a huge statue and containing the relics of the saint, who died on this day in 251 AD.  The procession follows a route from Piazza del Duomo that takes in several city landmarks and ends, after a long climb along the Via Antonino di Sangiuliano at Via Crociferi.  The procession begins in the afternoon and finishes deep into the night.  There is an enormous fireworks display that takes place when the procession reaches Piazza Cavour.  The final leg, the Race of the Cord, is the part that involves the seemingly endless lines of white-smocked citizens pulling cords attached to the carriage up the long hill of San Giuliano.  As well as being the patron saint of Catania, which may have been her birthplace and where citizens have long believed she has a calming influence on the volcanic activity of Mount Etna, Saint Agatha is the patron saint of breast cancer patients.  Read more…


Book of the Day: Fellini: The Sixties, by Manoah Bowman

Style. Beauty. Passion. Vision.These are just a few of the words often used to describe the films of the single most celebrated director in Italy, Federico Fellini. His films of the 1960s still inspire, shock, and delight. More than just encapsulating the age, these films also helped define the style of the decade. With a staggering 12 Academy Award nominations between his four feature films during this period, Fellini reached the heights of fame, film artistry, and worldwide prominence. Studied, analyzed, and re-released over the years, these films continue to amaze each new generation that discovers them. Their impeccable style makes them timeless, their images unforgettable. Fellini: The Sixties is a stunning photographic journey through the director's most iconic classics: La dolce vita , Otto e mezzo, Juliet of the Spirits and Fellini Satyricon . Carefully selected imagery from the Independent Visions photographic archive, many published here for the first time, illuminate these films as they have never been seen before, and reveal fascinating details of the director's working style and ebullient personality. With more than 150 photographs struck from original negatives, these images spring to life from the page with the depth and quality of the films themselves. Complemented with insightful essays from contemporary writers, Fellini: The Sixties is a true testament to the man and his work, a remarkable compendium of the legendary filmmaker's greatest achievements.

Manoah Bowman is the author of Fellini: The Sixties, Natalie Wood: Reflections On a Legendary Life and co-author of Grace Kelly: Hollywood Dream Girl. He maintains the Independent Visions photographic archives, a collection featuring more than a million unique images that details the history of cinema and television. 

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4 February 2024

4 February

- Saint Maria De Mattias - educator

Woman trapped by wealth who set up religious order

Maria De Mattias, whose ambition to serve Christ and to see women given the chance to receive a formal education led her to set up a religious order, was born on this day in 1805 in Vallecorsa, a village in a mountainous region of southern Lazio.  De Mattias, who died in Rome in 1866, was beatified in 1950 by Pope Pius XII and made a saint in 2003 by Pope John Paul II. The Sisters Adorers of the Blood of Christ, which she established in 1834, now has a membership of more than 2,000, with communities in South America, the United States, Southeast Asia and Africa as well as Italy.  During more than 30 years travelling throughout Italy to help establish communities of her Sisters, De Mattias founded nearly 70 schools, often in remote towns and rural areas of Italy. The young Maria had an upbringing said to have been happy for the most part but subject to constraints that children and adolescents in the modern world would find difficult to tolerate.  This had less to do with any restrictions imposed on her by her parents, though they had a strong faith that her father, Giovanni, passed on to her through his reading of the scriptures, than the political and social climate at the time.  Read more…


Ugo Betti - playwright

Judge who combined writing with legal career

Ugo Betti, a playwright whose works exploring facets of the human condition are considered by some to be the finest plays written by an Italian after Luigi Pirandello, was born on this day in 1892 in Camerino in Le Marche.  Betti wrote 27 plays, mainly concerned with evil, guilt, justice, atonement and redemption, largely in his spare time alongside a career in the legal profession.  Although he started life in what was then a remote town in the Apennine mountains, about 75km (47 miles) inland from the Adriatic coast and a similar distance from the city of Perugia, Betti moved with his family at an early age to Parma in Emilia-Romagna.  He followed his older brother Emilio in studying law, although his progress was interrupted when he was enlisted as a volunteer in the army after Italy entered the First World War. He was captured in the disastrous Battle of Caporetto and interned in a German prisoner of war camp.  By chance, he found himself in the company of two writers, Carlo Emilio Gadda and Bonaventura Tecchi, who encouraged him in his own writing. His first collections of poems were written while he was in German captivity.  Read more…


Cesare Battisti – patriot and irredentist

Campaigner for Trentino hailed as national hero

Cesare Battisti, a politician whose campaign to reclaim Trentino for Italy from Austria-Hungary was to cost him his life, was born on this day in 1875 in the region’s capital, Trento.  As a member of the Social Democratic Workers’ Party, Battista was elected to the assembly of South Tyrol and the Austrian Imperial Council, where he pushed for autonomy for Trentino, an area with a mainly Italian-speaking population.  When the First World War arrived and Italy decided to side with the Triple Entente and fight against Austria-Hungary, Battisti decided he could fight only on the Italian side, joining the Alpini corps.  At this time he was still a member of the Austrian Chamber of Deputies, so when he was captured wearing Italian uniform during the Battle of Asiago in 1916 he was charged with high treason and executed.  Italy now looks upon Battisti as a national hero and he is commemorated in monuments in several places in the country, as well as having numerous schools, streets and squares named after him.  At the time of his birth, the son of a merchant, also called Cesare, Trento was part of Tyrol in Austria-Hungary, even though it was a largely Italian-speaking city.  Read more…


Eugenio Corti - soldier and writer

Author drew on his experiences on the front line

Eugenio Corti, the writer most famous for his epic 1983 novel The Red Horse, died on this day in 2014 at the age of 93.  He passed away at his home in Besana in Brianza in Lombardy, where he had been born in January 1921.  The Red Horse, which follows the life of the Riva family in northern Italy from Mussolini's declaration of war in the summer of 1940 through to the 1970s, covers the years of the Second World War and the evolution of Italy's new republic.  Its themes reflect Corti's own view of the world, his unease about the totalitarianism of fascism and communism, his faith in the Christian Democrats to tread a confident path through the conservative middle ground, and his regret at the decline in Christian values in Italy.  It has been likened to Alessandro Manzoni's novel I promessi sposi - The Betrothed - for its strong moral tone and for the way that Corti employs the technique favoured by Manzoni of setting fictional characters in the novel against a backcloth of actual history, with real people and events written into the plot.  The Red Horse, which took Corti more than a decade to write, became a literary phenomenon in Italy, selling so many copies it needed to be reprinted 25 times.  Read more…


Alessandro Magnasco - painter

Artist known for eerie scenes and lifelike figures

The painter Alessandro Magnasco, who became famous for populating eerie landscapes with exaggeratedly realistic figures to illustrate the darker sides of society in his lifetime, was born on this day in 1667 in Genoa.  He specialised in wild and gloomy landscapes and interiors, often crowded with figures such as bandits and beggars, sometimes soldiers, monks or nuns in chaotic scenes, and acquired a substantial following.  His work was especially popular with wealthy families in Milan and Florence, where he worked primarily, and regular lucrative commissions enabled him to become wealthy himself.  Magnasco’s father, Stefano, was a modestly successful painter in Genoa and it is likely Alessandro would have remained in the Ligurian city had his father not died suddenly when he was only three years old.  Instead, when he was old enough, he was sent to Milan in the hope that he would learn about commerce and forge a career as a businessman.  However, Magnasco inherited his father’s love of painting and realised there were opportunities to pursue his passion in Milan, persuading his patron to pay his expenses while he took up an apprenticeship with Filippo Abbiati.  Read more…


Giacomo Facco – composer

The forgotten talent of the musician from Padua

Giacomo Facco, a Baroque composer, was born on this day in 1676 in Marsango, a small town just north of Padua.  Highly regarded during his own lifetime, he was completely forgotten about until 1962 when his work was rediscovered by Uberto Zanolli, a musicologist.  Facco is believed to have worked as a violinist and a conductor and he is known to have been given a job in 1705 by the Viceroy of Sicily as a choirmaster, teacher and violinist in Palermo.  In 1708 he moved with the Viceroy to Messina where he composed The Fight between Mercy and Incredulity. In 1710 he presented a work dedicated to King Philip V of Spain, The Augury of Victories, in Messina Cathedral.  By 1720 it is known Facco was working in the Spanish court because his pay is mentioned in a report dating from that year. He is later named as clavichord master to the Spanish princes.  At the height of his success he was commissioned to compose an opera to celebrate the marriage of one of the princes in 1721.  He then seems to have fallen out of favour and was just employed as a violinist in the orchestra of the Royal Chapel until his death in Madrid in 1753.  Read more…


Book of the Day: Butler's Lives of the Saints, The Third Millennium: Supplement of New Saints and Blesseds, by Paul Burns

Pope John Paul II proclaimed an unprecedented number of new saints and blesseds in the 27 years of his pontificate, despite the criticism from at least one cardinal that the altars were getting 'a little crowded' The proclamations were made in a large number of countries, from which the new saints and blesseds have come. This reflected a deliberate policy of strengthening the faith of local churches against the threats from totalitarianism, secularism, Pentecostalism, etc. (the Vatican tends to see most of the 'outside' world as a threat). There was also a deliberate policy to seek more examples of holiness from outside the ranks of clergy and religious. The 20th century was seen as the century of martyrs, largely those of Nazism and Communism, and they feature prominently - those of nominally Catholic military regimes are less favoured. Butler's Lives of the Saints, The Third Millennium covers a four-year period in the Butler's style. Blesseds appearing in the 1995-2000 volumes who have since been canonised have their entries updated and expanded as necessary; new blesseds are featured with the information that is available - which in the case of some Third-World figures is not very much. The Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs, and Other Principal Saints was originally published between 1756 and 1759 in four volumes by the English Roman Catholic priest Alban Butler. It has been revised and updated by many scholars since.

Paul Burns is the current editor of Butler's Lives of the Saints and author of New Concise Butler. He is a publisher and editor by profession.

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