30 March 2024

30 March

The Sicilian Vespers

How the French lost control of the island they were ruling

As the citizens of Palermo walked to vespers - evening prayers - in the church of Santo Spirito on this day in 1282, a French soldier grossly insulted a pretty young Sicilian woman.  The girl’s enraged fiancé immediately drew his dagger and stabbed the soldier through the heart.  The violence was contagious and the local people exploded in fury against the French occupying forces. More than 200 French soldiers were killed at the outset and the violence spread to other parts of Sicily the next day resulting in a full-scale rebellion against French rule. This bloody event, which led to Charles of Anjou losing control of Sicily, became known in history as the Sicilian Vespers.  King Charles was detested for his cold-blooded cruelty and his officials had made the lives of the ordinary Sicilians miserable.  After he was overthrown, Sicily enjoyed almost a century of independence.  There have been different versions given of the events that led to the rebellion against the French and it is not known exactly how the uprising started.  But to many Italians the story of the Sicilian Vespers has always been inspirational.  Read more…

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Faustina Bordoni - mezzo-soprano

Brilliant career overshadowed by infamous on-stage fight

Faustina Bordoni, a fêted mezzo-soprano ranked as one of the finest opera singers of the 18th century, was born on this day in 1697 in Venice.  Such was her popularity that when she joined her husband, the German composer Johann Adolf Hasse, in the employment of the Court of Saxony, where Hasse was maestro di cappella, her salary was double his.  Yet for all her acting talent and vocal brilliance, Bordoni is more often remembered as one half of the so-called ‘rival queens’ engaged by George Frideric Handel to join the company of the booming Royal Academy of Music in London in the 1720s, where she and the Italian soprano Francesca Cuzzoni allegedly came to blows on stage.  Born into a respected Venetian family, Bordoni’s musical talent was nurtured by the composers Alessandro and Benedetto Marcello and by her singing teacher, Michelangelo Gasparini.  She made her debut in Venice at the age of 19 in Carlo Francesco Pollarolo's Ariodante. The quality of her voice excited the critics, while audiences were instantly charmed by her youthful beauty and stage presence.  Read more…

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Fortunato Depero - artist

Futurist who designed iconic Campari bottle

The Futurist painter, sculptor and graphic artist Fortunato Depero, who left a famous mark on Italian culture by designing the conical bottle in which Campari Soda is still sold today, was born on this day in 1892 in the Trentino region.  Depero had a wide breadth of artistic talent, which encompassed painting, sculpture, architecture and graphic design. He designed magazine covers for the New Yorker, Vogue and Vanity Fair among others, created stage sets and costumes for the theatre, made sculptures and paintings and some consider his masterpiece to be the trade fair pavilion he designed for the 1927 Monza Biennale Internazionale delle Arti Decorative, which had giant block letters for walls.  Yet it is the distinctive Campari bottle that has endured longest of all his creations, which went into production in 1932 as the manufacturers of the famous aperitif broke new ground by deciding to sell a ready-made drink of Campari blended with soda water.  It was the first pre-mixed drink anyone had sold commercially and Depero, who was already working with the Milan-based company on a series of advertising posters and stylish black-and-white newspaper ads, was tasked with creating a unique miniature bottle in which the new product would be packaged..  Read more…

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Rimini Proclamation

Opening statement of the Risorgimento came from a Frenchman

The first political proclamation calling for all Italians to unite into a single people and drive out foreigners was issued on this day in 1815 in Rimini.  But the stirring words: ‘Italians! The hour has come to engage in your highest destiny…’ came from a Frenchman, Gioacchino (Joachim) Murat, who was at the time occupying the throne of Naples, which he had been given by his brother-in-law, Napoleon.  Murat had just declared war on Austria and used the Proclamation to call on Italians to revolt against the Austrians occupying Italy. He was trying to show himself as a backer of Italian independence in an attempt to find allies in his desperate battle to hang on to his own throne.  Although Murat was acting out of self-interest at the time, the Proclamation is often seen as the opening statement of the Risorgimento, the movement that helped to arouse the national consciousness of the Italian people. It led to a series of political events that freed the Italian states from foreign domination and unified them politically.  Murat’s Proclamation impressed the Milanese writer Alessandro Manzoni, who wrote a poem about it later that year, Il proclama di Rimini.  Read more…

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Ignazio Gardella – architect

Modernist who created Venetian classic

The engineer and architect Ignazio Gardella, considered one of the great talents of modern urban design in Italy, was born on this day in 1905 in Milan.  He represented the fourth generation in a family of architects and his destiny was determined at an early age. He graduated in civil engineering in Milan in 1931 and architecture in Venice in 1949.  Gardella designed numerous buildings during an active career that spanned almost six decades, including the Antituberculosis Dispensary in Alessandria, which is considered one of the purest examples of Italian Rationalism, and the Casa alle Zattere on the Giudecca Canal in Venice, in which he blended modernism with classical style in a way that has been heralded as genius.  During his university years, he made friends with many young architects from the Milan area and together they created the Modern Italian Movement.  He worked with his father, Arnaldo, on a number of projects while still studying.  On graduating, he set up an office in Milan, although he spent a good part of his early career travelling, sometimes with a commission but at other times to study.  Read more…

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Book of the Day: The Sicilian Vespers: A History of the Mediterranean World in the Later 13th Century, by Steven Runciman

On 30 March 1282, as the bells of Palermo were ringing for Vespers, the Sicilian townsfolk, crying 'Death to the French', slaughtered the garrison and administration of their Angevin King. Seen in historical perspective it was not an especially big massacre: the revolt of the long-subjugated Sicilians might seem just another resistance movement. But the events of 1282 came at a crucial moment. Steven Runciman takes the Vespers as the climax of a great narrative sweep covering the whole of the Mediterranean in the 13th century. His sustained narrative power is displayed here with concentrated brilliance in the rise and fall of this fascinating episode. The Sicilian Vespers: A History of the Mediterranean World in the Later 13th Century is also an excellent guide to the historical background to Dante's Divine Comedy, forming almost a Who's Who of the political figures in it, and providing insight into their placement in Hell, Paradise or Purgatory.

Steven Runciman was an English historian best known for his three-volume A History of the Crusades (1951–54). 

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29 March 2024

29 March

The Ghetto - Venice’s Jewish quarter

District began as area of enforced segregation

The Doge of Venice, Leonardo Loredan, pronounced a decree creating Venice’s historic Ghetto on this day in 1516.  It meant that the Jewish population of the city, who were already obliged to live under restrictions in place since the 13th century, were forced to move to an island in the northwestern part of the Cannaregio sestiere and could not live in any other district.  There are a number of theories about how it came to be known as the ghetto, the most plausible of which is that the area was known to Venetians by the dialect word geto - foundry - as it used to be home to a factory making heavy iron cannons for the Venetian fleet. The word may have acquired an ‘h’ in its spelling to reflect its mispronunciation by the early inhabitants, mainly German jews, who incorrectly gave it a hard ‘g’ rather than the soft one of the dialect.   Whatever its etymology, ghetto subsequently became a word used to refer to any deprived urban area dominated by one ethnic or religious group, often with negative connotations of deliberate racial segregation.  Yet the history of the Venice Ghetto was not wholly about racial persecution, even though anti-Jewish sentiments played a part.  Read more…

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Terence Hill – actor

Film star progressed from cowboy roles to popular parish priest

Terence Hill was born as Mario Girotti on this day in 1939 in Venice.  He became an actor as a child and went on to have many starring roles in films, particularly spaghetti westerns.  He took up the stage name Terence Hill after it was suggested as a publicity stunt by the producers of one of his films. It is said he had to pick from a list of names and chose one with his mother’s initials.  Terence Hill later became a household name in Italy as the actor who played the lead character in the long-running television series, Don Matteo.  Hill lived in Germany as a child but then his family moved to Rome, the capital of Italy’s film industry. When he was 12 years old, Hill was spotted by director Dino Risi and given a part in Vacanze col gangster, an adventure movie in which five youngsters help a dangerous gangster escape from prison.  Other film parts quickly followed and at the height of his popularity, Hill was said to be among the highest-paid actors in Italy.  His most famous films are They Call Me Trinity and My Name is Nobody, in which he appeared with Henry Fonda. Another of his films, Django, Prepare a Coffin was featured at the 64th Venice film festival in 2007.  Read more…

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Castruccio Castracani - condottiero

Mercenary soldier who ruled Lucca 

Castruccio Castracani, a condottiero who ruled his home city of Lucca from 1316 to 1328, was born on this day in 1281.  His relatively short life - he died at the age of 47 - was taken up with a series of battles, some fought on behalf of others, but latterly for his own ends in the conflict between the Guelphs and the Ghibellines that dominated medieval Italy as part of the power struggle between the Papacy and the Holy Roman Empire.  Castruccio's story inspired a biography by Niccolò Machiavelli and later a novel by Mary Shelley.  Born Castruccio Castracani degli Antelminelli, he was from a Ghibelline family and therefore a supporter of the Holy Roman Emperor in opposition to the Guelphs. He was exiled from Lucca at an early age with his parents and others by the Guelphs, then in the ascendancy.  Orphaned at 19, he lived initially in Pisa before moving to England, where he lived for some years and displayed a skill in the use of weapons that earned him victory in some tournaments and won the favour of King Edward I.  However, after committing a murder, even though it was for reasons of honour, he was forced to leave England and went to France.  Read more…

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Francesco Faà di Bruno - advocate for poor

Entered priesthood after appeal to Pope

The blessed Francesco Faà di Bruno, a talented academic from a wealthy family who devoted much energy to helping the poor, disadvantaged and elderly, was born on this day in 1825 near Alessandria in Piedmont.  He was a supporter of Italian unification and indeed was wounded in the cause as a commissioned lieutenant in the Piedmontese Army during the First Italian War of Independence. Yet he could not accept the anti-Catholic sentiments of many of the movement’s leaders.  At the age of 51 he became a priest, although only after the intervention of Pope Pius IX, who stepped in to overrule the Archbishop of Turin, who had rejected Francesco’s credentials on the grounds that he was too old.  He was beatified 100 years after his death by Pope John Paul II.  Francesco was the youngest of 12 children born to Lady Carolina Sappa de' Milanesi of her husband, Luigi, a wealthy landowner whose various titles included Marquis of Bruno, Count of Carentino, Lord of Fontanile, and Patrizio of Alessandria.  His family were of a strong Catholic faith and encouraged a concern for the poor among all their children.  Read more…

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Enea Bossi - aviation pioneer

Claimed first pedal-powered flight in 1936

Enea Bossi, the aviator credited - albeit disputedly - with building the world's first human-powered aeroplane, was born on this day in 1888 in Milan.  It was claimed that in 1936 Bossi's Pedaliante aircraft flew for approximately 300 feet (91.4m) under pedal power alone.  Piloted by Emilio Casco, a robustly built major in the Italian army and an experienced cyclist, the Pedaliante - or pedal glider - is said to have taken off and covered the distance while remaining a few feet off the ground, although in the absence of independent verification it is not counted as the first authenticated human-powered flight, which did not take place until 1961 in Southampton, England.  The following year, as Bossi attempted to win a competition in Italy offering a prize of 100,000 lire for a successful human-powered flight, Casco succeeded in completing the required 1km (0.62 miles) distance at a height of 30 feet (9m) off the ground.  The Pedaliante, which had been built by the Italian glider manufacturer Vittorio Bonomi, was disqualified, however, on account of having used a catapult launch to achieve its altitude.  Read more…

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Edoardo De Martino – painter

Naval officer who painted battle scenes was royal favourite 

Edoardo Federico De Martino, an artist who became famous for his paintings of warships and naval battles, was born on this day in 1838 in Meta, just outside Sorrento.  At the height of his success, De Martino worked in London, where his paintings of ships and famous British naval victories were held in high regard by Queen Victoria.  He went on to work as a painter for Queen Victoria’s son, King Edward VII, and he often accompanied the King on naval tours.  De Martino was born in the small town of Meta, to the northeast of Sorrento, which had a long history of boat building.  He served as an officer in the Italian Navy but by the time he was 30 his main interest was painting.  He became associated with the School of Resina, a group of artists who painted landscapes and contemporary scenes that gathered in Resina, a seaside resort south of Naples, now incorporated into the towns of Ercolano and Portici. Influenced by his fellow artists, De Martino eventually went to live and work in Naples.  He found fame after moving to London, where he painted scenes from the battles of Trafalgar, the Nile and Cape San Vincenzo.  Read more…

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Book of the Day: Venice and its Jews: 500 Years Since the Founding of the Ghetto, by Donatella Calabi

Half a millennium ago in Venice, the first ghetto was born. It was the first of many 'Jewish enclosures' ordained by political powers, such as the Venetian senate. A place to confine, it soon became an important cosmopolitan and commercial centre of the Republic. The architectural structure of its housing, which became extraordinarily high to accommodate the increasing number of inhabitants, is strictly interlaced with Venetian history, economy and culture. As one of the main Jewish centres in Italy and the Mediterranean, Venice played a crucial role in the Jewish world. The Venetian word 'geto' (from 'gettare', to throw away) originated from the sector of Venice where scrap metal accumulated from foundries. This was the area assigned to the Jews. Thus the word, over the course of time, has become a synonym for segregation.  Venice and its Jews was published to coincide with a exhibition in Venice to mark the 500th anniversary in 2016. The book is relevant for social and urban historians, as well as all those who are interested in the history of Venice, and Jewish history.

Donatella Calabi is Chair Professor of Urban History at the University Iuav of Venice and Visiting Professor at L'Ecole des Hautes Etudes of Paris, the British Academy, the University of Leicester, the Faculty of Architecture at the University of Sao Paolo, Brazil, as well as many other distinguished universities.

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28 March 2024

28 March

Anselmo Colzani - opera star

Baritone who had 16 seasons at the New York Met

Anselmo Colzani, an operatic baritone who was a fixture at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in the 1960s and 1970s, as well as La Scala in his home country, was born on this day in 1918 in Budrio, a town not far from Bologna.  His stage career continued until 1980, when he made his final stage appearance in one of his signature roles as Scarpia in Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca.  Although his repertoire was much wider, his reputation became strongly associated with the works of Puccini and Giuseppe Verdi, with Jack Rance in Puccini's Fanciulla del West and the title role of Verdi's Falstaff, as well as Amonasro in Aida and Iago in Otello among his most famous roles.  Colzani’s association with the Met began in March 1960 after he was approached by Rudolf Bing, the opera house’s general manager,  following the sudden death of Leonard Warren on stage during a performance of La Forza del Destino.  A few weeks later, Colzani took over Warren's role in Verdi's Simon Boccanegra. It was not only the first time he had sung at the Met, but the first time he had sung the role.  Read more…

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Vincenzo Capone - prohibition agent

'War hero'-turned-lawman hid his family identity

Vincenzo Capone, older brother of the notorious mobster Al Capone, was born on this day in 1892 in Angri, a town in Campania located between Salerno and Naples.  While Al drifted into crime as a teenager, Vincenzo wanted a different life. After running away to join a circus, he changed his name and invented a new background to conceal his true identity. He acquired a reputation as a war hero before forging a career in law enforcement, notably pitting himself against the criminal gangs of his brother’s world as an agent for the Bureau of Prohibition.  The first in a family of nine children, Vincenzo had just one sibling, his brother Ralph, when his father, Gabriele, a barber, and his mother, Teresa, emigrated to the United States in 1895. His father continued to work as a hairdresser, while Teresa’s skills as a seamstress enabled her to find a job. They settled in Brooklyn.  Over the years that followed, the family grew and Vincenzo and Ralph were joined by Frank, Alphonse, Ermina, John, Albert, Matthew and Mafalda. Sadly, Ermina did not survive her infancy.  As they grew up, most of his younger brothers became involved with petty crime.  Read more…

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Alberto Grimaldi - film producer

Spaghetti Western trilogy gave Naples producer his big break

Film producer Alberto Grimaldi, who boasts an extraordinary list of credits that includes Last Tango in Paris, The Canterbury Tales, Man of La Mancha, Fellini's Casanova, 1900, Ginger and Fred and Gangs of New York, was born in Naples on this day in 1925. Grimaldi trained as a lawyer and it was in that capacity that he initially found work in the cinema industry in the 1950s.  However, he could see the money-making potential in production and in the early 1960s set up his own company, Produzioni Europee Associate (PEA).  His first three productions, cashing in on the popularity in Italy of westerns, enjoyed some success but it was a meeting with Sergio Leone, the Italian director, that earned him his big break. Leone, whose first venture into the western genre, A Fistful of Dollars, had been an unexpected hit both for him and the young American actor, Clint Eastwood, was busy planning the sequel when a dispute arose with his producers over the cost of the movie.  As it happened, Grimaldi's first production, The Shadow of Zorro, had been filmed, like A Fistful of Dollars, on location in Spain.  Read more…

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Fra Bartolommeo - Renaissance great

Friar rated equal of Michelangelo, Raphael and Leonardo

Fra Bartolommeo, the Renaissance artist recognised as one of the greatest religious painters, was born on this day in 1472 in Savignano di Vaiano, in Tuscany.  Also known as Baccio della Porta, a nickname he acquired because when he lived in Florence his lodgings were near what is now the Porta Romana, Bartolommeo created works that chart the development of artistic styles and fashion in Florence, from the earthly realism of the 15th century to the grandeur of High Renaissance in the 16th century.  His most famous works include Annunciation, Vision of St Bernard, Madonna and Child with Saints, The Holy Family, The Mystic Marriage of St Catherine, God the Father with SS Catherine of Siena and Mary Magdalene and Madonna della Misericordia.  Bartolommeo always prepared for any painting by making sketches, more than 1,000 in total over the years he was active.  Around 500 of them were discovered at the convent of St Catherine of Siena in Florence in 1722, where nuns were unaware of their significance.  He is also remembered for his striking profile portrait of Fra Girolamo Savonarola, the fanatical priest under whose influence he came in the 1490s.  Read more…

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Book of the Day: Grand Opera: The Story of the Met, by Charles Affron and Mirella Jona Affron

The Metropolitan in New York has stood among the grandest of opera companies since its birth in 1883. Tracing the offstage/onstage workings of this famed New York institution, Charles Affron and Mirella Jona Affron tell how the Met became and remains a powerful actor on the global cultural scene. In this first new history of the company in 30 years, each of the chronologically sequenced chapters surveys a composer or a slice of the repertoire and brings to life dominant personalities and memorable performances of the time. From the opening night Faust to the recent controversial production of Wagner's Ring cycle, Grand Opera: The Story of the Met is a remarkable account of management and audience response to the push and pull of tradition and reinvention. Spanning the decades between the Gilded Age and the age of new media, this story of the Met concludes by tipping its hat to the hugely successful Live in HD simulcasts and other 21st-century innovations. Grand Opera's appeal extends far beyond the large circle of opera enthusiasts. Drawing on unpublished documents from the Metropolitan Opera Archives, reviews, recordings, and much more, this richly detailed book looks at the Met in the broad context of national and international issues and events.

Charles Affron is professor emeritus of French at New York University. He is the author of Lillian Gish: Her Legend and Life, and co-author or editor of several other titles. Mirella Jona Affron is a professor of cinema studies at the College of Staten Island/CUNY, where she was provost from 1995 to 2002, and at the Graduate Center/CUNY. 

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27 March 2024

27 March

Alessandro La Marmora - military general

Founder of Italy's famed Bersaglieri corps

The general who founded the Italian army's famous Bersaglieri corps was born on this day in 1799 in Turin.  Alessandro Ferrero La Marmora was one of 16 children born to the Marquis Celestino Ferrero della Marmora and his wife Raffaella.  The family had a strong military tradition. Alessandro was one of four of the male children who grew up to serve as generals.  La Marmora was a captain when he came up with the idea for the Bersaglieri in 1836.  He had spent much time in France, England, Bavaria, Saxony, Switzerland, and the Austrian county of Tyrol studying armies and tactics and he approached King Carlo Alberto of Piedmont-Sardinia with the idea of creating a new corps of light infantry.  He envisaged a mobile elite corps similar to the French chasseurs and Austrian jägers, trained to a high physical level and all crack marksmen.  He suggested they should act as scouts, providing screen for the main army,operate as skirmishers and use their sharpshooting skills to weaken the flanks of the enemy during a battle.  From this proposal emerged the Bersaglieri, soldiers who were trained to be bold, carrying out their duties with patriotic fervour despite personal danger.  Read more…

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Joe Sentieri - singer and actor

Career remembered for international hit song

The singer, songwriter and actor Joe Sentieri, who released seven albums and around 100 singles over the course of a career spanning more than a quarter of a century, died on this day in 2007 in the Adriatic coastal city of Pescara.  Although he enjoyed considerable success in his own right, he tends to be remembered most for his association with an Italian song that became an international hit after it was translated into English.  Sentieri’s 1961 song Uno dei tanti (One of the Many) was given English lyrics by the American producing partners Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller and repackaged as I (Who Have Nothing).  A hit first for the American soul and R&B star Ben E King, it was covered with considerable success by the British artists Tom Jones and later Shirley Bassey. The Jones version reached No 14 in the Billboard Hot 100 chart,while Bassey’s climbed to No 6 in the UK singles chart in 1963 and became a staple of her concert repertoire.  Countless other cover versions were released over time, by performers as diverse as Petula Clark and Joe Cocker, Katherine Jenkins and Gladys Knight.  Read more…

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Luca Zaia - politician

Popular president of Veneto was tipped as future PM

The politician Luca Zaia, who has been spoken of as a possible candidate to be Italy’s prime minister, was born on this day in 1968 in Conegliano, in the Veneto.  Zaia, who has been president of the Veneto region since 2010, received an approval rating of 56 per cent in a 2018 poll to find the most popular regional governor, the highest rating of any of Italy’s regional presidents.  A member of the Lega party, formerly Lega Nord (Northern League), he was suggested by some commentators as a dark horse for the position of President of the Council of Ministers - the official title of Italy’s prime minister.  Before successfully standing to be Veneto’s president in 2010 he had served in national government as Minister of Agriculture under Silvio Berlusconi.  At the 2018 election,the populist Movimento Cinque Stelle (Five Star Movement) won the biggest proportion of the vote at just over 32 per cent and the Lega achieved its highest share at just under 18 per cent, almost as many as the Democratic Party.   The Lega, whose traditional position was to campaign for an independent northern Italy, have been branded far-right because of the anti-immigration and anti-EU rhetoric of some of their leading figures. Read more…

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Gianluigi Lentini - transfer record breaker

AC Milan outbid Juventus for Torino star

Gianluigi Lentini, who was for four years the world's most expensive footballer, was born on this day in 1969.  A winger with Torino known for outstanding dribbling skills, crossing accuracy and lightning pace, Lentini was the subject of a fierce bidding war between Torino's city neighbours, Juventus, and defending Serie A champions AC Milan in the summer of 1992 which ended with Milan paying a fee of around £13 million for the 23-year-old star.  It was the second time in the space of a few weeks that Milan had paid a world record sum for a player, having signed the French striker Jean-Pierre Papin from Marseille for £10 million.  At a time when the Italian league was awash with cash,the Papin record itself had been eclipsed a short while before the Lentini deal was agreed when Juventus paid Sampdoria £12 million for striker Gianluca Vialli.  The Lentini record would remain until Newcastle United forked out £15 million for the Blackburn and England striker Alan Shearer in 1996.  Born in Carmagnola, a small town around 30km (18 miles) south of Turin, Lentini made his Serie A debut for Torino as a 17-year-old.  Read more…

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Book of the Day: The Italian Risorgimento, by Martin Clark 

The unification of Italy in the 19th century was the unlikely result of a lengthy and complex process of Italian revival (Risorgimento). Few Italians supported unification and the new rulers of Italy were unable to resolve their disputes with the Catholic Church, the local power-holders in the South and the peasantry. In this fascinating account, Martin Clark examines these problems and considers: the economic, social and religious contexts of unification, as well as the diplomatic and military aspects; the roles of Cavour and Garibaldi and also the wider European influences, particularly those of Britain and France; and the recent historiographical shift away from uncritical celebration of the achievement of Italian unity.  Did 'Italian unification' mean anything more than traditional Piedmontese expansionism? Was it simply an aspect of European 'secularisation'? Did it involve 'state-building', or just repression? In exploring these questions and more, the author offers the ideal introductory account for anyone wishing to understand how modern Italy was born.  This new edition of The Italian Risorgimento has been revised in the light of recent research and now has a greater emphasis on the losers of the conflict, the impact of unification on the South, and the complexity of the political realities of the times. It has also been updated with useful additional material such as a ‘who’s who’ and a plate section to go alongside its carefully chosen selection of original documents.

Martin Clark was formerly Reader in the Department of Politics, University of Edinburgh. Previous books published by Longman include Modern Italy (3rd ed., 2008) and Mussolini (2005).

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