10 April 2024

10 April

From Rome to the North Pole

Aeronautical history launched from Ciampino airport

On this day in 1926, an airship took off from Ciampino airport in Rome on the first leg of what would be an historic journey culminating in the first flight over the North Pole.  The expedition was the brainchild of the Norwegian polar explorer and expedition leader Roald Amundsen, but the pilot was the airship's designer, aeronautical engineer Umberto Nobile, who had an Italian crew.  They were joined in the project by millionaire American explorer Lincoln Ellsworth who, along with the Aero Club of Norway, financed the trip which was known as the Amundsen-Ellsworth 1926 Transpolar Flight.  Nobile - born in Lauro, near Avellino in Campania - designed the 160 metres long craft on behalf of the Italian State Airship factory, who sold it to Ellsworth for $75,000.  Amundsen named the airship Norge, which means Norway in his native tongue.  The first leg of the flight north was due to have left Rome on 6 April but was delayed due to strong winds until the 10th.  The first stop-off point was at the Pulham Airship Station in England, from where it took off again for Oslo on 12 April. Three days later Nobile, Amundsen, Ellsworth and the crew flew on to Gatchina, near Leningrad, the journey taking 17 hours because of dense fog.  Read more…

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Nilde Iotti – politician

The best President of the Republic that Italy never had

Leonilde Iotti, who was later known as Nilde Iotti and became Italy’s most important and respected female politician, was born on this day in 1920 in Reggio Emilia.  She was both the first female president of the Chamber of Deputies of the Italian parliament and the longest serving, occupying the position from 1979 to 1992.   Her father, Egidio, was a socialist trade unionist but he died when she was a teenager. Thanks to a scholarship, she was able to attend the Catholic University of Milan. She graduated in 1942 and joined the National Fascist Party, which she was obliged to do in order to become a teacher.  Iotti was an underground member of the Italian Communist Party (PCI) and during World War II she was an active member of the Resistance movement, setting up and leading women’s defence groups.  After the war, Iotti was elected to the Constituent Assembly and was one of the 75 members who drafted the Constitution in 1946.  It was at this time that she started her relationship with the PCI leader, Palmiro Togliatti, who was 27 years older than her. They stayed together until his death in 1964.  To begin with their relationship was kept secret but, after an attempt on his life in 1948, it became public knowledge.  Read more…

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Giovanni Aldini - physicist

Professor thought to given Mary Shelley the idea for Frankenstein

The physicist and professor Giovanni Aldini, whose experiment in trying to bring life to a human corpse is thought to have inspired Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein, was born on this day in 1762 in Bologna.  The nephew of Luigi Galvani, who discovered the phenomenon that became known as galvanism, one of Aldini’s goals in life was to build on his uncle’s work in the field of bioelectricity.  Galvani’s discovery that the limbs of a dead frog could be made to move by the stimulation of electricity sparked an intellectual argument with his rival physicist Alessandro Volta that he found uncomfortable. When he was then removed from his academic and public positions after Bologna became part of the French Cisalpine Republic in the late 18th century, Galvani was unable to progress his experiments as he would have liked.  Aldini essentially picked up his uncle’s mantle and was determined to discover whether the effect of an electrical impulse on the body of a frog could be reproduced in a human being.  His most famous experiment came in 1803, when he was given permission to test his electrical equipment on the corpse of George Forster shortly after he had been hanged at Newgate Prison in London.  Read more…

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Agostino Bertani – physician and politician

Compassionate doctor was Garibaldi’s friend and strategist

Agostino Bertani, who worked with Giuseppe Mazzini and Giuseppe Garibaldi to liberate Italy, died on this day in 1886 in Rome.  He had been a surgeon in Garibaldi’s corps in the Austro-Sardinian War of 1859 and personally treated Garibaldi’s wounds after the military leader lost the Battle of Aspromonte in 1862.  Bertani became a hero to the Italian people for his work organising ambulances and medical services during Garibaldi’s campaigns and he became a close friend and strategist to the military leader.  Born in Milan in 1812, Bertani's family had many friends with liberal ideals and his mother took part in anti-Austrian conspiracies.  At the age of 23, Bertani graduated from the faculty of medicine at the Borromeo College in Pavia and became an assistant to the professor of surgery there.  He took part in the 1848 uprising in Milan and directed a military hospital for Italian casualties. He organised an ambulance service for soldiers defending Rome in 1849 and distinguished himself by his service in Genoa with Mazzini during the cholera epidemic of 1854.  In 1860 Bertani was one of the strategists who planned the attack on Sicily and Naples known as the Expedition of the Thousand.  Read more…

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The Moby Prince disaster

Tragic toll of collision between ferry and tanker

The worst maritime catastrophe to occur in Italian waters in peacetime took place on this day in 1991 when a car ferry collided with an oil tanker near the harbour entrance at Livorno on the coast of Tuscany.  The collision sparked a fire that claimed the lives of 140 passengers and crew and left only one survivor.  The vessels involved were the MV Moby Prince, a car ferry en route from Livorno to Olbia, the coastal city in north-east Sardinia, and the 330-metres long oil tanker, Agip Abruzzo.  The ferry departed Livorno shortly after 22.00 for a journey scheduled to last eight and a half hours but had been under way for only a few minutes when it struck the Agip Abruzzo, which was at anchor near the harbour mouth.  The ferry’s prow sliced into one of the Agip Abruzzo's tanks, which contained 2,700 tonnes of crude oil.  The impact caused some oil to spill into the sea and a large amount to be sprayed over the ferry.  A fire broke out, which set light to the oil both on the surface of the water and on the ferry itself.  Within moments, the Moby Prince was engulfed in flames.  Although the loss of life was so tragically large the toll might have been much worse.  Read more…

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Jacopo Mazzoni – philosopher

Brilliant scholar could recite long passages from Dante

Jacopo Mazzoni, a University professor with a phenomenal memory who was a friend of Galileo Galilei, died on this day in 1598 in Ferrara in Emilia-Romagna.  Mazzoni, also sometimes referred to as Giacomo Mazzoni, was regarded as one of the most eminent scholars of his period. His excellent powers of recall made him adept at recalling passages from Dante, Lucretius, Virgil and other writers during his regular debates with prominent academics. He relished taking part in memory contests, which he usually won.  Mazzoni was born in Cesena in Emilia-Romagna in 1548 and was educated at Bologna in Hebrew, Greek, Latin, rhetoric and poetics. He later attended the University of Padua where he studied philosophy and jurisprudence.  He became an authority on ancient languages and philology and promoted the scientific study of the Italian language.  Although Mazzoni wrote a major work on philosophy, he became well known for his works on literary criticism, in particular for his writing in defence of Dante’s Divine Comedy - Discorso in Difesa Della Commedia della Divina Poeta Dante - published in 1572.  Read more…

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Book of the Day: Disaster at the Pole: The Tragedy of the Airship "Italia" and the 1921 Nobile Expedition to the North Pole, by Wilbur Cross

Shackleton. Scott. Amundsen. The great twentieth-century polar explorers. But others, too, were engaged in scrambles to the poles. One of the most bizarre and tragic took place in 1928.  Against the backdrop of Mussolini's rising power, one of Italy's premier aeronautical engineers, Umberto Nobile, gained acclaim by crossing the North Pole in a dirigible. With this success under his belt, Nobile decided in 1928 to raise the ante and take his newly designed airship to the North Pole, land it and then return to base. But what started in glory turned into a tale of disaster when the airship crashed some 300 miles from civilization.  With over 30 years of research and interviews with surviving participants, Wilbur Cross presents this terrifying tale of tragedy and survival. Here is the story of the airship's survivors stranded on an ice floe that begins to break apart. It is about an international team of rescuers' determination to find the missing Italians only to be lost themselves; the most famous to never return was Roald Amundsen. And it's about the controversy surrounding the rescue of Nobile while much of his crew perished in the icy wastelands of the Arctic.  Filled with political intrigue, heroics, and cruel twists of fate, Disaster at the Pole is the fascinating story of one of the greatest polar tragedies.

After receiving his degree from Yale University, Wilbur Cross served in the United States Navy and started a career as a copywriter in New York. He spent 10 years as an editor at Life magazine and contributed many articles to Time and Life. He is the author or co-author of more than 50 books on a wide range of subjects, including history, biography, culture, travel, and health.

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9 April 2024

9 April

Patty Pravo - pop singer of enduring fame

Venetian artist's career has spanned 50 years

The pop singer Patty Pravo was born Nicoletta Strambelli on this day in 1948. Her career spans more than 50 years since she took her first steps on the road to fame with the release of her first single, Ragazzo Triste.  Pravo has recorded 27 albums and 52 singles, selling more than 110 million records, making her the third biggest selling Italian artist of all time.  Her album, Eccomi, was released in February 2016 following her ninth appearance at the Sanremo Music Festival, and she promoted the album with a tour of Italy. Born in Venice, she grew up in an intellectual environment. Family friends included Cardinal Angelo Roncalli - the future Pope John XXIII - the actor Cesco Baseggio, the soprano Toti dal Monte and the American poet Ezra Pound, who lived in Venice and would take the young Nicoletta for walks and buy her ice cream.  She would spend time too at the house of Peggy Guggenheim, the American socialite and art collector.  Read more…

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Gian Maria Volonté – actor

Brilliant talent who played ‘spaghetti western’ parts for fun

Gian Maria Volonté, recognised as one of the finest character actors Italy has produced, was born on this day in 1933 in Milan.  Trained at the Silvio D’Amico National Academy of the Dramatic Arts in Rome, Volonté became famous outside Italy for playing the villain to Clint Eastwood’s hero in two movies in Sergio Leone’s western trilogy that were part of a genre dubbed the ‘spaghetti westerns’.  However, he insisted he accepted the chance to appear in A Fistful of Dollars (1964) – in which he appeared under the pseudonym John Wells - and For a Few Dollars More (1964) simply to earn some money and did not regard the parts of Ramon and El Indio as serious.  In Italy, it was for the much heavier roles given to him by respected directors such as Elio Petri and Francesco Rosi that he won huge critical acclaim.  A person known for a tempestuous private life, he was very strong playing complex and neurotic characters, while his left-wing political leanings attracted him to roles in which he had to portray individuals from real life.  He was a particular favourite of Rosi, the neorealist director who directed him in five movies.  Read more…

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Treaty of Lodi

When the battles stopped (briefly) in northern Italy

The Treaty of Lodi, which brought peace between rival states in the north of Italy for 40 years, was signed on this day in 1454 at Lodi in Lombardy.  Also known as the Peace of Lodi, it established a balance of power among Venice, Milan, Naples, Florence and the Papal States.  Venice had been faced with a threat to its commercial empire from the Ottoman Turks and was eager for peace and Francesco Sforza, who had been proclaimed Duke by the people of Milan, was also keen for an end to the costly battles.  By the terms of the peace, Sforza was recognised as ruler of Milan and Venice regained its territory in northern Italy, including Bergamo and Brescia in Lombardy.  The treaty was signed at the Convent of San Domenico in Via Tito Fanfulla in Lodi, where a plaque today marks the building, no longer a convent.  Milan’s allies, Florence, Mantua and Genoa, and Venice’s allies, Naples, Savoy and Montferrat, had no choice but to agree.  A 25-year mutual defensive pact was agreed to maintain existing boundaries and an Italian league, Lega Italica, was set up.  The states promised to defend one another in the event of an attack.  Read more…

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Book of the Day: Italian Cultural Studies: An Introduction, edited by David Forgacs and Robert Lumley

This illustrated introduction to the study of modern Italian culture brings together specialists in the fields of language; politics; religious, ethnic, and gender identities; the mass media; cultural policy; and movie stars. In four thematic sections, the contributors elucidate their own slice of Italian culture. 'Geographies' questions received notions of the Italian nation, the family, the "South" and corruption; it also looks at anthropological approaches to culture and at Italy's linguistic pluralism. 'Identities' examines gender, religion, politics, and ethnicity as a means by which people define themselves and others. 'Media' explores the press, literature, television, and cinema. 'Culture and Society' brings together historical analyses of cultural policy, stars and style, and popular music. Italian Cultural Studies: An Introduction includes guidance for further reading and a chronology of political and cultural events since 1900.

David Forgacs is a Professor of Contemporary Italian Studies at New York University, where he was previously Chair of the Department of Italian Studies. He formerly was Professor of Italian at the University College London. He has written several books on Italian history, culture and cinema. Robert Lumley is Professor of Italian Cultural History at University College London.

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8 April 2024

8 April

NEW
- Giuseppe Tartini – composer and violinist

Baroque musician also contributed to science

Giuseppe Tartini, who was influential in the development of music by establishing the modern style of violin bowing, was born on this day in 1692 in Pirano in the Republic of Venice.  A violinist, baroque composer, and theorist, Tartini also formulated the principles of musical ornamentation and harmony.  His birthplace of Pirano was part of Venetian territory in the 17th century but is now named Piran and is part of Slovenia.  Tartini spent most of his career in Padua, where he went to study divinity and law and became an expert at fencing. Before he reached the age of 20, he had secretly married a protegee of the archbishop of Padua, but this led to him being arrested. He disguised himself as a monk and fled the city, taking refuge in a monastery in Assisi.  Later, he was allowed to return to his wife by the archbishop of Padua after news that his violin playing had attracted favourable attention had reached him.  Tartini became principal violinist and maestro di cappella at the Basilica of Sant’Antonio in 1721 and he was invited to Prague in 1723 to direct the orchestra of the Chancellor of Bohemia.  Read more…

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Lorenzo the Magnificent - Renaissance ruler

Patron of the arts who sponsored Michelangelo and Botticelli

Lorenzo de’ Medici, the ruler of Florence usually known as Lorenzo the Magnificent, died on this day in 1492 in the Medici villa at Careggi, just to the north of the city.  He was only 43 and is thought to have developed gangrene as a result of an inherited genetic condition.  He had survived an assassination attempt 14 years earlier in what became known as the Pazzi Conspiracy, in which his brother, Giuliano, was killed.  The grandson of Cosimo de’ Medici, Lorenzo was a strict ruler but history has judged him as a benevolent despot, whose reign coincided with a period of stability and peace in relations between the Italian states.  He helped maintain the Peace of Lodi, a treaty agreed in 1454 between Milan, Naples and Florence which was signed by his grandfather.  However, he is most remembered as an enthusiastic patron of Renaissance culture, providing support for poets, scholars and artists, notably Michelangelo and Botticelli.  He contributed more than anyone to the flowering of Florentine genius during the second half of the 15th century.  Read more…

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Federico Caprilli - equestrian pioneer

Study of horses revolutionised jumping techniques

Federico Caprilli, the Italian cavalry officer who revolutionised the way horse riders jump fences, was born on this day in 1868 in Livorno.  One of four children born to Enrico Caprilli and his wife, Elvira, Federico was bent on an army career from an early age. He enrolled as a cadet at military college in Florence at 13 years old, subsequently transferring to Rome and then Modena. He had no riding experience at the start, and when he graduated with the rank of lieutenant, though an excellent gymnast and proficient fencer, his horsemanship was marked as ‘poor’.  Nonetheless, he was assigned to the Royal Piedmont cavalry regiment, where his job, at a time when the introduction of weapons such as the Gatling Gun was negating any battlefield advantage a soldier had from being mounted, was to train horses for new combat roles, such as springing surprise attacks in difficult terrain.  It was there that he observed the way horses jumped obstacles and concluded that conventional beliefs about the way a horse should be ridden over jumps were entirely wrong.  Until Caprilli came along, it was accepted that the rider should use long stirrups and approach a fence leaning back in the saddle.  Read more…

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Gaetano Donizetti - operatic genius

The day the music died

A prolific composer of operas in the first half of the 19th century, Gaetano Donizetti died on this day in 1848 in Bergamo in Lombardy.  Donizetti had returned to his native city after a brilliant international career to spend his last days in the Palazzo Scotti in the Città Alta, the upper town.  By then seriously ill, he was looked after by friends in the gracious surroundings of the palazzo until his death. His tomb is in the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, where it is marked by a white, marble monument.  Donizetti has since become acknowledged as the greatest composer of lyrical opera of all time. He was a major influence on Verdi, Puccini and other composers who came after him.  His best and most famous operas are considered to be Lucia di Lammermoor, Don Pasquale and L’elisir d’amore.  In Via Sentierone in Bergamo’s lower town there is an elaborate white marble monument to the composer next to Teatro Donizetti, which was renamed in his honour in 1897 on the centenary of his birth.  Donizetti’s casa natale (birthplace), is in Via Borgo Canale just outside the walls of the upper town. It has now been declared a national monument and is open free to visitors every weekend.  Read more…

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Renzo De Felice - historian

Mussolini biographer whose views on fascism aroused anger

The controversial historian Renzo De Felice, best known for his 6,000-word four-volume biography of Benito Mussolini, was born on this day in 1929 in Rieti, the northernmost city in Lazio.  Although De Felice was Jewish and his other major work described in detail the persecution of Jews in Italy under Mussolini’s rule, he sparked considerable anger by arguing that the postwar world view of fascism should be revised to recognise that the ideology in itself was not inherently evil.  De Felice contended that fascism as a political movement in Italy was not the same as Fascism as a regime, arguing that the former was a revolutionary middle-class ideology that had its roots in the progressive thinking of the Age of Enlightenment.  He argued that the ideology was effectively hijacked by Mussolini to provide the superstructure for his dictatorship and personal ambition and that fascism itself, as distinct from Mussolini’s interpretation, was a valid political concept, not just something to be demonised and dismissed in simplistic terms.  It was an argument that was respected by many intellectuals, even some who were staunchly anti-Fascist.  Read more…

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Book of the Day: Music in the Renaissance (Western Music in Context), by Richard Freedman

Richard Freedman's Music in the Renaissance shows how music and other forms of expression were adapted to changing tastes and ideals in Renaissance courts and churches. Giving due weight to sacred, secular, and instrumental genres, Freedman invites readers to consider who made music, who sponsored and listened to it, who preserved and owned it, and what social and aesthetic purposes it served. While focusing on broad themes such as music and the literary imagination and the art of improvisation, he also describes Europeans' musical encounters with other cultures and places. Western Music in Context comprises six volumes of moderate length, each written in an engaging style by a recognized expert. Authoritative and current, the series examines music in the broadest sense―as sounds notated, performed, and heard―focusing not only on composers and works, but also on broader social and intellectual currents.

Richard Freedman is John C Whitehead Professor of Humanities at Haverford College. His writings include a book, The Chansons of Orlando di Lasso and Their Protestant Listeners: Music, Piety, and Print in 16th-Century France, as well as articles in numerous publications.

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Giuseppe Tartini – composer and violinist

Baroque musician also contributed to science

As well as composing for violin, Tartini
established a new technique for playing
Giuseppe Tartini, who was influential in the development of music by establishing the modern style of violin bowing, was born on this day in 1692 in Pirano in the Republic of Venice.

A violinist, baroque composer, and theorist, Tartini also formulated the principles of musical ornamentation and harmony.

His birthplace of Pirano was part of Venetian territory in the 17th century but is now named Piran and is part of Slovenia.

Tartini spent most of his career in Padua, where he went to study divinity and law and became an expert at fencing. Before he reached the age of 20, he had secretly married Elisabetta Premazore, a protégée of the Archbishop of Padua, but this led to him being arrested on charges of  abduction. He disguised himself as a monk and fled the city, taking refuge in a monastery in Assisi.

Later, Tartini was allowed to return to his wife by the archbishop after news that his violin playing had attracted favourable attention had reached him.

Tartini became principal violinist and maestro di cappella at the Basilica of Sant’Antonio in 1721 and he was invited to Prague in 1723 to direct the orchestra of the Chancellor of Bohemia.

After his return to Padua in 1728 he founded a school of violin playing and composition there.

Tartini composed more than 100 violin concertos and many sonatas, including the Trillo del Diavolo (Devil’s Trill). He also composed music for trios and quartets and religious works.

His playing was said to be remarkable because of its combination of technical and poetic qualities, and his bowing technique became a model for later violinists. He was invited to go on a concert tour of Italy in 1740.

Tartini contributed to the science of acoustics with his discovery of the Tartini tone, which was a third note, heard when two notes are played steadily and with intensity.

He wrote a treatise on music, Trattato di musica, in 1754 as well as a dissertation on the principles of music harmony and a treatise on ornamentation in music.

Tartini died in Padua in 1770 at the age of 77.

Giotto's frescoes lining the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua considered among the world's great artworks
Giotto's frescoes lining the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua
considered among the world's great artworks
Travel tip:

The elegant city of Padua, where Tartini was principal violinist and maestro di cappella at the Basilica di Sant'Antonio, is an important centre for pilgrims. The Scrovegni Chapel contains frescoes by Giotto, considered to be among the greatest works of art in the world. Dedicated to Santa Maria della Carita (Saint Mary of the Charity), the chapel was decorated with frescoes by Giotto between 1303 and 1305. He was commissioned to paint the frescoes by Enrico degli Scrovegni, who was hoping to atone for the sins of usury committed by himself and his dead father. The frescoes narrate events in the lives of the Virgin Mary and Christ and the stunning scenes cover the interior walls of the chapel. On the wall opposite the altar is Giotto’s magnificent Universal Judgment, which tells the story of human salvation and includes the figure of Enrico degli Scrovegni offering up a model of the chapel to the Virgin Mary in a desperate bid to save his father from hell. For more information visit www.cappelladegliscrovegni.it

The Basilica di Sant'Antonio in Padua is
visited by some five million pilgrims each year
Travel tip:

The enormous Basilica di Sant’Antonio di Padova, sometimes known as the Basilica del Santo, where Tartini was principal violinist and maestro di cappella, is one of the most important places of Christian worship in the world. An estimated five million pilgrims visit the basilica every year to file past and touch the tomb of their beloved Sant’Antonio, a Franciscan monk who became famous for his miracles. The magnificent church, in Piazza del Santo, is an architectural masterpiece created between the 13th and 14th centuries, but it was later enriched with works of art by masters such as Titian, Tiepolo and the sculptor Donatello. 

Also on this day:

1492: The death of Medici ruler Lorenzo the Magnificent

1848: The death of composer Gaetano Donizetti

1868: The birth of equestrian pioneer Federico Caprilli

1929: The birth of historian Renzo De Felice

(The portrait of Giuseppe Tartini, by an anonymous artist, is housed in the Museo del Castello Sforzesco in Milan)


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