7 April 2024

7 April

The 1906 Vesuvius eruption

Deadliest incident of the 20th century

One of the most violent eruptions in the history of Mount Vesuvius reached its peak on this day in 1906, killing probably in excess of 200 people. The volcano, most famous for the 79AD eruption that buried the city of Pompeii and may have claimed  between 13,000 to 16,000 victims, had been spewing lava for almost 11 months, treating the residents of nearby Naples to regular fireworks displays.  On 5 April, 1906, an indication that a major eruption was imminent came in a failure in the water supply drawn from wells on the mountain sides, with such water as was still flowing having a strong taste of sulphur. The expulsions of lava became more explosive and an ash cloud began to form in the sky above the crater.  In the preceding days, there had been an earthquake on the island of Ustica some 130km (81 miles) away, which was thought to be connected to the Vesuvius eruption.  On the evening of 7 April came the biggest explosion, as well as three earthquakes felt in the city of Naples, which were said to cause much panic, but no particular damage.  That could not be said of some of the villages at the foot of the mountain, in particular Boscotrecase.  Read more…

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Giovanni Battista Rubini - opera singer

Tenor was as famous in his day as Caruso

Giovanni Battista Rubini, born on this day in 1794, was a tenor as famous in his day as Enrico Caruso would be almost a century later, his voice having contributed to the popularity of opera composers Vincenzo Bellini and Gaetano Donizetti.   He was the first 19th-century non-castrati singer to become a major international star after two centuries in which audiences and composers were obsessed with the castrati.  Rubini's exceptionally high voice could match the coloratura of the castrati and he effectively launched the era of the bel canto tenor, which signalled the end of the dominance of the castrati.  Rubini was just 12 when he was taken on as a violinist and chorister at the Riccardi Theatre in Bergamo, not far from his home town of Romano di Lombardia. He was 20 when he made his professional debut in Pietro Generali’s Le lagrime d’una vedova at Pavia in 1814, then sang for 10 years in Naples in the smaller, comic opera houses.  Famed for a voice capable of reaching beyond the range of conventional tenors, particularly in the higher registers, in 1825 he sang the leading roles in Gioachino Rossini’s La Cenerentola, Otello, and La donna del lago in Paris.  Read more…

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Gino Severini - painter and mosaicist

Tuscan was leading figure in Futurist movement

The painter and mosaicist Gino Severini, who was an important figure in the Italian Futurist movement in the early 20th century and is regarded as  one of the most progressive of all 20th century Italian artists, was born on this day in 1883 in the hilltop town of Cortona in Tuscany.  He divided his time largely between Rome and Paris, where he died in 1966. Although he was a signatory - along with Umberto Boccioni, Carlo Carrà, Luigi Russol and Giacomo Balla - of Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s Manifesto of Futurist Painters in 1910, his work was not altogether typical of the movement.  Indeed, ultimately he rejected Futurism, moving on to Cubism, having become friends with Cubist painters Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso in Paris, before ultimately turning his interest to Neo-Classicism and the Return to Order movement that followed the First World War.  He attracted criticism among his peers by his associations with the Fascist-supporting Novecento Italiano movement, whose work became closely linked with state propaganda. Severini was involved with Benito Mussolini's "Third Rome" project, supplying murals and mosaics for Fascist architectural structures inspired by imperial Rome. Read more…

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Domenico Dragonetti - musician

Venetian was best double bass player in Europe

The composer and musician Domenico Dragonetti  - Europe's finest double bass virtuoso - was born on this day in 1763 in Venice.  Apart from the fame his talent brought him, Dragonetti is remembered as the musician who opened the eyes of Ludwig van Beethoven and other composers to the potential of the double bass.  They met in Vienna in 1799 and experts believe it was Dragonetti’s influence that led Beethoven to include passages for double bass in his Fifth Symphony.   From 1794 onwards until his death in 1846 at the age of 83, Dragonetti lived in London but it was in Venice that he established his reputation.  The son of a barber who was also a musician, Domenico Carlo Maria Dragonetti taught himself to play the guitar and the double bass as a child using his father’s instruments.  It was not long before word of his precocious ability spread and he was sent to the Ducal Palace of San Marco for tuition from Michele Berini, who was widely respected as the best double bass player in Venice.  Berini declared after only 11 lessons that there was nothing more he could teach the young Dragonetti.  Read more…

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Marco Delvecchio - footballer

Striker who became TV dance show star

The former Roma and Italy striker Marco Delvecchio, who launched a new career in television after finishing runner-up in the Italian equivalent of Strictly Come Dancing, was born on this day in 1973 in Milan.  Delvecchio scored 83 goals in exactly 300 appearances for Roma, where he was part of the side that won the Scudetto in 2000-01 and where he became a huge favourite with fans of the giallorossi because of his penchant for scoring against city rivals Lazio.  His record of nine goals in the Rome derby between 2002 and 2009 was the best by any player in the club’s history until that mark was overtaken by the Roma great Francesco Totti, whose career tally against Lazio was 11.  Delvecchio’s talents were somewhat underappreciated at international level. He made 22 appearances for the azzurri and the first of his four goals was in the final of Euro 2000 against France, although he finished on the losing side. Yet after being favoured by Dino Zoff, he was not so popular with Zoff’s successor as head coach, Giovanni Trapattoni, who took him to the 2002 World Cup but did not give him a game, and omitted him from his squad for the 2004 Euros.  Read more…

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Book of the Day: Vesuvius: A Biography, by Alwyn Scarth

Capricious, vibrant, and volatile, Vesuvius has been and remains one of the world's most dangerous volcanoes. In its rage, it has destroyed whole cities and buried thousands alive. In its calm, its ashes have fertilized the soil, providing for the people who have lived in its shadows. For over two millennia, the dynamic presence of this volcano has fascinated scientists, artists, writers, and thinkers, and inspired religious fervor, Roman architecture, and Western literature. In Vesuvius: A Biography, Alwyn Scarth draws from the latest research, classical and eyewitness accounts, and a diverse range of other sources to tell the riveting story of this spectacular natural phenomenon.  He follows Vesuvius across time, examining the volcano's destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum in 79 A.D., its eruptions during the Counter-Reformation that were viewed as God's punishment of sinners, and the building of the world's first volcano observatory on Vesuvius in the 1840s. Scarth explores the volcano's current position overlooking a population of more than three million people and the complex attitudes maintained by the residents, at once reverent, protective, and fearful. He also considers the next major eruption of Vesuvius, which experts have indicated could be the most powerful since 1631. 

Alwyn Scarth was a geologist and author. Born in Yorkshire, he was a lecturer in geography at the University of Dundee, Scotland. A noted volcanologist, he wrote a number of books about volcanoes around the world.

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6 April 2024

6 April

Sergio Franchi – tenor

Budding opera star became popular for singing romantic ballads

The tenor and actor Sergio Franchi was born Sergio Franci Galli on this day in 1926 in Codogno in the province of Lodi in northern Italy.  Franchi earned recognition as a performer in Britain in the 1960s and subsequently went to America where he became such a success he was once invited by John F Kennedy to sing the US national anthem at a rally.  Franchi was born to a Neapolitan father and a Ligurian mother who were living in Codogno in the Lombardy region. As a child he sang with his father who played the piano and guitar.  When he was 16, Franchi formed a band to earn extra money and went on to sing with a male group in jazz clubs.  Franchi’s father was a successful businessman but he lost all his assets during the German occupation of Italy in World War II.  After the war a family friend suggested to Franchi’s father that he should emigrate to South Africa where there were more opportunities for work. The whole family moved to Johannesburg in 1947.  Franchi worked initially for his father but also began singing in informal concerts. His voice soon attracted attention and he was offered roles in musicals.  Read more…

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Raphael - Renaissance painter and architect

Precocious genius from Urbino famous for Vatican frescoes

The Renaissance painter and architect commonly known as Raphael was born Raffaello Sanzio in Urbino, in the Marche region of Italy, on this day in 1483.  Raphael is regarded as one of the masters of the Renaissance, along with Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci.  He was more prolific than Da Vinci and, some argue, more versatile than Michelangelo, and was certainly influenced by both.  The young Raphael was taught to paint by his father, Giovanni Santi, who was a painter for the Duke of Urbino, Federigo da Montefeltro, but his talents surpassed those of his father, who died when he was just 11 years old.  He was soon considered one of Urbino's finest painters and was commissioned to paint for a church in a neighbouring town while still a teenager.  In 1500, Raphael moved to Perugia in Umbria to become assistant to Pietro Vannucci, otherwise known as Perugino, absorbing considerable knowledge of his master's technique and incorporating it in his own style.  From 1504 onwards, Raphael spent a good deal of his time in Florence, studying the works of Fra Bartolommeo, Da Vinci, Michelangelo and Masaccio.  Read more…

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Maurizio and Giorgio Damilano – race walkers

Maurizio won Olympic gold in Moscow

Twins Maurizio and Giorgio Damilano, both former race walkers, were born on this day in 1957 in Scarnafigi in the province of Cuneo in Piedmont.  Maurizio won the gold medal at the 1980 Moscow Olympics in the 20km race walk, while his brother, Giorgio, finished 11th.  In sympathy with the American-led boycott of the Moscow Games following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Italian athletes competed under the Olympic flag rather than the Italian tricolore.  Damilano was one of eight Italians to win gold medals in Moscow.  Giorgio was less successful than Maurizio, but did win the 20km race walk at the 1979 Italian Athletics Championships.  Maurizio was also the 1987 and 1991 World Champion in the 20km race walk. He had 60 caps for representing the national team between 1977 and 1992. He was supported through much of his career by the Italian car manufacturer, Fiat.  He also achieved a world record for the 30km race walk in 1992 with a time of 2:01:44.1, which he set in Cuneo.  Maurizio won two more Olympic medals, picking up the bronze medal for the 20km race walk at both the 1984 Games in Los Angeles and the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea.  Read more…

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The L’Aquila Earthquake

Shock measuring 6.3 magnitude killed more than 300

The central Italy region of Abruzzo suffered a major disaster on this day in 2009 when an earthquake with a magnitude of 6.3 caused extensive damage and considerable loss of life in the city of L’Aquila and surrounding villages.  The main shock struck at 3.32am, when many of the victims would have been asleep, although there had been two smaller tremors the day before in an area with a long history of seismic turbulence, giving rise to speculation that a major quake was imminent.  The epicentre was only a little outside L’Aquila, a city with a population of about 70,000, damaging up to 11,000 buildings in the 13th century city.  A total of 309 people lost their lives and such was the scale of devastation that up to 65,000 people were left homeless in the city and neighbouring villages.  It was the deadliest earthquake to hit Italy since the Irpinia quake in Campania killed almost 2,500 people in 1980.  The dead in L’Aquila, a university city, included 55 students killed when their halls of residence collapsed.  The 309 victims were of 11 different nationalities, including Italians.  The main shock was felt 92 km (57 miles) away in the Italian capital, Rome.  Read more…

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Pier Giorgio Frassati – social activist

Brave Catholic has inspired youth of the world

Pier Giorgio Frassati, who was dedicated to social justice issues and spent his brief life helping the poor, was born on this day in 1901 in Turin.  He was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1990, who dubbed him ‘the Man of the Eight Beatitudes,’ alluding to a passage in the Gospel According to Matthew.  Frassati’s father, Alfredo, owned the newspaper La Stampa, and his mother, Adelaide, was a painter, whose works were purchased by King Victor Emmanuel III.  Although he was from a wealthy background, even as a child Frassati showed compassion for the poor. He was educated at a school run by Jesuits and grew up to become dedicated to social action as a means of combating inequalities.  He was an ardent opponent of Fascism and was arrested in Rome for protesting with the Young Catholic Workers Congress, continuing to hold his banner aloft while being attacked by the police.  One night a group of Fascists broke into his family’s home to attack him and his father, but Frassati fought them off single-handedly and chased them away down the street.  He joined Catholic Action in 1919 and later became a member of the Third Order of Saint Dominic.  Read more…

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Book of the Day: Singers of Italian Opera: The History of a Profession, by John Rosselli

Adelina Patti was the most highly regarded singer in history. She earned nearly $5,000 a night and had her own railway carriage. Yet a minor comic singer would perform for the cost of his food and a pair of shoes to wear on stage. John Rosselli's wide-ranging study introduces all those singers, members of the chorus as well as stars, who have sung Italian opera from 1600 to the twentieth century. Singers are shown slowly emancipating themselves from dependence on great patrons and entering the dangerous freedom of the market. Rosselli also examines the sexist prejudices against the castrati of the eighteenth century and against women singers. Securely rooted in painstaking scholarship and sprinkled with amusing anecdote, Singers of Italian Opera: The History of a Profession is a book to fascinate and inform opera fans at all levels.

Giovanni 'John' Rosselli was a historian, musicologist, author and journalist, born in Florence in 1927. A former literary editor of the Guardian newspaper, he went on to teach political and cultural history at the University of Sussex, as well as writing a number of books, including several on opera. 

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5 April 2024

5 April

NEW
- Francesco Laparelli - architect and military engineer

Italian who designed Valletta, the fortified capital of Malta

The architect Francesco Laparelli da Cortona, who worked as assistant to Michelangelo Buonarroti at St Peter’s Basilica in Rome but is chiefly renowned for the design of Valletta, the fortified capital city of Malta, was born on this day in 1521 in the hilltop city of Cortona in what is now Tuscany.  Laparelli designed the bell tower for Cortona’s cathedral but turned his talents towards military engineering after serving as an officer under Cosimo de’ Medici during the battle for control of the Republic of Siena in the 1550s. He went on to serve on Cortona’s city council and worked with other engineers on the Fortezza del Girifalco above the city. The cost of the fortress and other work on the city walls eventually bankrupted the city but Laparelli’s reputation was established.  He was summoned to Rome by Pope Pius IV in 1560  on the recommendation of Gabrio Serbelloni, the pope’s cousin and a condottiero with whom Laparelli had worked in Cortona.  Pius IV commissioned him to restore the fortifications at Civitavecchia, Rome’s main port, to build defences for the mouth of the Tiber river and to direct the strengthening of fortifications around the Vatican and the new suburb of Borgo Pio.  Read more…

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Vincenzo Viviani – mathematician and scientist

Galileo follower's name lives on as moon crater

Forward-thinking scientist Vincenzo Viviani was born on this day in 1622 in Florence.  Viviani worked as an assistant to Galileo Galilei and after his mentor's death continued his experimental work in the field of mathematics and physics. This work was considered so important that Viviani has had a small crater on the moon named after him.  While at school in Florence, Viviani was given a scholarship to buy mathematical books by the Grand Duke Ferdinando II de' Medici. He later became a pupil of Evangelista Torricelli and worked with him on physics and geometry.  By the time he was 17 he was working as an assistant to Galileo Galilei. After Galileo’s death in 1642, Viviani edited the first edition of his teacher’s collected works.  Viviani was appointed to fill Torricelli’s position at the Accademia dell’Arte del Disegno in Florence after his death in 1647.  In 1660 Viviani conducted an experiment with another scientist, Giovanni Borelli, to determine the speed of sound by timing the difference between seeing the flash and hearing the noise of a cannon being fired from a distance.  As his reputation as a mathematician grew, Viviani started to receive job offers from abroad.  Read more…

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Giovanni dalle Bande Nere - condottiero

Medici soldier who fathered Cosimo I de' Medici

Giovanni dalle Bande Nere, the military leader regarded as the last of the great Italian condottieri, was born on this day in 1498 in Forlì, in what is now the Emilia-Romagna region.  The condottieri were professional soldiers, mercenaries who hired themselves out to lead the armies of the Italian city-states and the Papacy in the frequent wars that ensued from the Middle Ages through to the Renaissance.  Giovanni spent the greater part of his military career in the service of Pope Leo X, the Medici pope. Indeed, he was a Medici himself, albeit from a then secondary branch of the family. Baptised Ludovico, he was the son of Giovanni de’ Medici, also known as Il Popolano and a great-nephew of Cosimo the Elder, the founder of the dynasty.  It was his mother, Caterina Sforza, the powerful daughter of the Duke of Milan, who renamed him Giovanni in memory of his father, her fourth husband, who died when the boy was just five months old. He became Giovanni dalle Bande Nere much later, in 1521, when he added black stripes to his military insignia in a show of mourning for Pope Leo X.  His upbringing brought out the worst aspects of his character.  Read more…

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Vincenzo Gioberti - philosopher and politician

Writings helped bring about unification of Italy

Vincenzo Gioberti, a philosopher regarded as one of the key figures in the Italian unification, was born on this day in 1801 in Turin.  He became prime minister of Sardinia-Piedmont in December 1848, albeit for only two months.  Although he was an associate of the republican revolutionary Giuseppe Mazzini - and was arrested and then exiled as a result - he did not agree with Mazzini’s opposition to the monarchy and was not an advocate of violence.  However, he was staunchly in favour of a united Italy, particularly because of his conviction that Italians represented a superior race, intellectually and morally, and that by pulling together as one nation they could assert a profound influence on civilisation that would benefit the world.  Gioberti’s book Del Primato civile e morale degli Italiani (The civic and moral primacy of the Italians), which detailed examples from history to underline his theories about Italian supremacy, is said to have helped give momentum to the unification campaign.  Born into a family of modest means, Gioberti studied diligently, obtained the baccalaureate in theology and in 1825 was ordained a priest.  Read more…

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Book of the Day: DK Eyewitness Top 10 Malta and Gozo (Pocket Travel Guide)

Step back in time to explore the ancient cities of Mdina and Rabat, marvel at the splendid Grand Master's Palace in Valletta, explore the historic streets of Birgu (Vittoriosa), the charming bay in Marsaxlokk, or snorkel in the Mediterranean off the beautiful island of Gozo. From top 10 outdoor activities to top 10 walks and drives, discover the best of the Maltese archipelago with this easy-to-use travel guide. Inside DK Eyewitness Top 10 Malta and Gozo you will find: eight easy-to-follow itineraries, perfect for a day trip, a weekend, or a week; top 10 Lists showcasing the best attractions in Malta and Gozo, covering St John's Co-Cathedral, Mnajdra and Hagar Qimtemples, Comino, and more; a free laminated pull-out map of Malta and Gozo, plus six full-colour area maps; in-depth area guides that explore Malta and Gozo's most interesting neighbourhoods, with the best places for shopping, going out and sightseeing; colour-coded chapters divided by area making it easy to find information quickly and plan your day; and essential travel tips including where to stay, eat, shop and sightsee, plus useful transport, visa and health information. The guide covers Valletta, the area around Sliema, St Julian's and the Three Cities, Northern Malta, Central Malta, Southern Malta, Gozo and Comino.

DK Eyewitness travel guides have been helping travellers since 1993. Filled with expert advice, striking photography and detailed illustrations, the guides cover more than 200 destinations, from pocket-sized city guides to comprehensive country guides. 


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Francesco Laparelli - architect and military engineer

Italian who designed Valletta, the fortified capital of Malta

Francesco Laparelli found himself in demand as a military architect
Francesco Laparelli found himself
in demand as a military architect
The architect Francesco Laparelli da Cortona, who worked as assistant to Michelangelo Buonarroti at St Peter’s Basilica in Rome but is chiefly renowned for the design of Valletta, the fortified capital city of Malta, was born on this day in 1521 in the hilltop city of Cortona in what is now Tuscany.

Laparelli designed the campanile - bell tower - for Cortona’s duomo but turned his talents towards military engineering after serving as an officer under Cosimo de’ Medici during the battle for control of the Republic of Siena in the 1550s.

He went on to serve on Cortona’s city council and worked with other engineers on the Fortezza del Girifalco above the city. The cost of the fortress and other work on the city walls eventually bankrupted the city but Laparelli’s reputation was established.

He was summoned to Rome by Pope Pius IV in 1560  on the recommendation of Gabrio Serbelloni, the pope’s cousin and a condottiero with whom Laparelli had worked in Cortona.

Pius IV commissioned him to restore the fortifications at Civitavecchia, Rome’s main port, to build defences for the mouth of the Tiber river and to direct the strengthening of fortifications around the Vatican and the new suburb of Borgo Pio.

In 1565 he completed the reinforcement of the cylindrical Castel Sant'Angelo, now a familiar Rome landmark, and collaborated with Michelangelo on the huge dome of St Peter's Basilica, with particular focus on ensuring it was a stable structure.

Modern Valletta, capital of Malta, still resembles the fortress-city that was planned by Laparelli
Modern Valletta, capital of Malta, still resembles
the fortress-city that was planned by Laparelli
Laparelli was keen to take on further architectural projects in the capital but later in 1565 was asked by Pope Pius V to go to Malta, where the Knights of St John had finally defied a long siege of the island by the Ottoman Turks, who wanted it as a base from which to attack Italy, but at a cost of considerable destruction to the principal forts at Birgu, Senglea and St Elmo.

The Grand Knight, Jean Parisot de la Valette, favoured rebuilding the existing defences but Laparelli calculated that it would need 4,000 labourers working 24 hours a day just to make basic repairs and proposed that a new fortification on the Sciberras Peninsula could be built at a much cheaper cost. Such a fortification, he said, would enable Malta to be defended against any new incursion by the Turks with just 5,000 soldiers, far fewer than the 12,000 soldiers and 200 horses previously required to protect the island.

Laparelli’s design was for a city built on a grid plan with wide, straight streets, surrounded by ramparts and with the fort of St Elmo rebuilt at the tip of the peninsula. A ditch, later renamed the Ġnien Laparelli as a tribute to him, was added to protect the landward end of the peninsula.

The monument to Laparelli and his assistant, Girolamo Cassar, in Valletta
The monument to Laparelli and his
assistant, Girolamo Cassar, in Valletta
He left Malta in 1569 to help in the papal naval war against the Turks, at which point the major construction work on the city, to be called Valletta, was still to begin.

Born into one of Cortona’s wealthiest and most illustrious families, Laparelli would have one day hoped to return to his home city, where he still owned considerable land and estates, but met with an early death in Crete, where he was staying when he contracted plague at the age of 49 in 1570.

He was unable to see his designs reach fruition in Valletta, where his work was continued by his Maltese assistant, Girolamo Cassar. Both he and Cassar are commemorated with a monument between Valletta’s Parliament House and the ruins of its old Royal Opera House, sculpted by John Grima and unveiled in 2016.

Laparelli's campanile towers over the small hilltop city of Cortona, his place of birth
Laparelli's campanile towers over the small hilltop
city of Cortona, his place of birth
Travel tip:

Cortona, Laparelli’s home town, was founded by the Etruscans, making it one of the oldest cities in Tuscany. Its Etruscan Academy Museum displays a vast collection of bronze, ceramic and funerary items reflecting the town’s past. The museum also offers access to an archaeological park that includes city fortifications and stretches of Roman roads. Outside the museum, the houses in Via Janelli are some of the oldest houses still surviving in Italy. Powerful during the mediaeval period, Cortona was defeated by Naples in 1409 and then sold to Florence.  Characterised by its steep narrow streets, Cortona’s hilltop location - it has an elevation of 600 metres (2,000 ft) - offers sweeping views of the Valdichiana, including Lago Trasimeno, where Hannibal ambushed the Roman army in 217 BC during the Second Punic War.

Castel Sant'Angelo, which Laparelli reinforced before leaving for Malta, is a well-known Rome landmark
Castel Sant'Angelo, which Laparelli reinforced before
leaving for Malta, is a well-known Rome landmark

Travel tip:

Castel Sant’Angelo was originally built as a mausoleum for the Roman Emperor Hadrian and his family on the right bank of the Tiber between 134 and 139 AD. There is a legend that the Archangel Michael appeared on top of the mausoleum, sheathing his sword as a sign of the end of the plague of 590, which is how the castle acquired its present name. Pope Nicolas III commissioned a covered fortified corridor, the Passetto, to link it to the Vatican and Pope Clement VII was able to use it to escape from the Vatican during the siege of Rome by Charles V’s troops in 1527. Castel Sant’Angelo was used as the setting for the third act of Giacomo Puccini’s 1900 opera Tosca, during which the heroine leaps to her death from the ramparts.

Also on this day:

1498: The birth of soldier Giovanni dalle Bande Nere

1622: The birth of mathematician and scientist Vincenzo Viviani

1801: The birth of philosopher and politician Vincenzo Gioberti

(Picture credits: Valletta by MarcinCzerniawski, Castel Sant'Angelo by Rainhard2 via Pixabay; monument by No Swan So Fine, Cortona by Patrick Denker via Wikimedia Commons)


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