Still from Fellini’s movie Amarcord portraying the SS Rex (edited by author)

Hurray for the Rex! The greatest thing the regime ever built!”

In Fellini’s Oscar-winning 1973 movie Amarcord, the SS Rex comes out of the darkness, glistening with lights like a giant Christmas tree. The crowd awaiting her passage cheers wildly, claps, waves hats and handkerchiefs— some even shed a tear — at the sight of the elegant, almost mythical ship sailing through the summer night.

The SS Rex was impressive for several reasons: for one, she was the largest Italian ocean liner ever built up until 1991, when the Grand Classica stole the title. The Rex also held the westbound…


An act of spite turned two invaluable historical artifacts to ashes

Black and white photograph of a man standing in front of a giant wooden hull
Black and white photograph of a man standing in front of a giant wooden hull
The hull of one of the ships (Wikimedia Commons)

I guess that anything we manage to save from history is a miracle,” Donna Tartt wrote in her 2014 Pulitzer winning novel The Goldfinch.
I suppose it must be true, considering how many historical and artistic treasures we managed to destroy — out of malice, bad judgment, political or religious zeal, or simply plain, sheer stupidity.

The botched restoration of Martínez’s Ecce Homo and the 17th-century painting of the Virgin Mary irreparably damaged by an incompetent restorer are some examples of this, but at least those were done in…


CRIMES FROM THE PAST

A small wooden chest full of small bottles filled with green liquid
A small wooden chest full of small bottles filled with green liquid
Photo by Jan Ranft on Unsplash

Born in Paris in 1630, daughter of the filthy rich Antoine Dreux d’Aubray, Marie-Madeleine Marguerite was the eldest of five children: unfortunately, she could not inherit the immense family estate because she was — well, a girl.

Girls don’t acquire wealth, they marry into it.

And she did. At the age of 21 Marie-Madeleine was said to be “marvellously beautiful”: she had a slight figure, chestnut hair, piercing blue eyes and a pretty little face with a carefully sweet expression. She was married to a real catch: Antoine Gobelin, then Baron de Nourar and later Marquis de Brinvilliers. …


George Alexandrovich of Russia in 1982 (Wikimedia Commons)

It was late in the morning of July 10, 1899, and an elderly peasant woman was sobbing and crying for help on a desolate stretch of road in the Caucasian mountains. In her arms was a young man, his hands clenched into fists, his white uniform stained with blood.

The place was Abastumani, Georgia. The man was Grand Duke George Alexandrovich of Russia, the third of Emperor Alexander III’s sons: he was tall, fair, handsome, and dead.

As a kid, George was outgoing, good-looking, and full of fun. Born in 1871, he was always getting into mischief and cracking jokes…


A noose hanging from the gallows
A noose hanging from the gallows

If you are ever in Edinburgh, you may find yourself drinking a pint at the Maggie Dickson’s pub in the Old Town: the pub is named after Margaret “Half-Hangit Maggie” Dickson, a young fishwife from Musselburgh who was sentenced to death in 1724 for infanticide.

Maggie’s execution was nothing extraordinary: the 22-years-old girl was consigned to the gallows on Edinburgh’s historic Grassmarket, she was hanged by the neck and declared dead by a local doctor. Her body was put in a cheap wooden coffin and carted away for the funeral.

What’s a little more unusual is that Maggie lived for…


1934 cover of Italian magazine “La Tribuna Illustrata”

It’s March 1934 and Anna Monaro, a patient at Pirano hospital in Italy (now on Slovenian territory) is sound asleep. Nothing seems out of the ordinary until a fellow patient sees an intense blue flame-like light emanating from her body, strong enough to light up the entire room.

Several nurses and a doctor witness the bizarre event, and Anna is transferred to a much larger hospital in Rome, where the perplexing phenomenon can be studied. The story of the “luminous woman” is too juicy to remain a secret for long: soon the account of Anna’s strange glow is all over…


The nameless “Collegno amnesiac” (Wikimedia Commons)

If you often miss appointments, forget birthdays and anniversaries, or lose your car keys all the time, your Italian friends could jokingly ask you if you are the smemorato di Collegno.

The expression, meaning “the amnesiac man from Collegno” is still used in Italy to mean a muddle-headed, forgetful person or somebody who feigns ignorance about something: its origin dates all the way back to 1926, when a man who appeared to have lost all his memories spent nearly a year in the Collegno Asylum, near Turin, without a name.

Two very different women recognized him as their long-lost husband…


Lake Como — Photo by Bruce Meier on Unsplash

Mary Scott Castle was 39 and a divorcée when she met 21-years-old Porter Charlton in New York. Despite the age gap and different social backgrounds (she was a failed actress from the Bay Area, he the scion of an upper-middle-class Washington family), the attraction between them was mutual, immediate, and irresistible: in March 1910, just a month after they met, Porter and Mary took a train to Delaware, where they clandestinely got married.

Less than 90 days later, Mary’s lifeless body was found stuffed into a wooden trunk floating on the surface of Lake Como.


Napoleon Bonaparte on his horse holding a jar of Nutella
Napoleon Bonaparte on his horse holding a jar of Nutella
Picture by author

Have you ever decided to make yourself a bread-and-Nutella snack and ended up eating the thick, velvety cream straight off the spoon? And did you know that every 2.5 seconds, a jar of Nutella is sold somewhere in the world?

What you might not know is that Nutella’s predecessor, a chocolate-hazelnut cream named Gianduja, dates back to the early 1800s and its history intertwines with that of Napoleon Bonaparte.

By the early 1800s, Turin had established itself as Europe’s chocolate capital, and its confectionery products were known and appreciated across the continent.

Cocoa plants are not native to Europe, though…


Two women sit at a Parisian café tablein the 1920s
Two women sit at a Parisian café tablein the 1920s
Au Café — Solita Solano and Djuna Barnes (1922). Photo by Maurice Brange. Edited by author

“Thirty-year-old lady looking for a female travel companion.”

When Elisa Merclin reads this short advertisement in May 1930, she thinks: this is the chance of a lifetime.

She replies as fast as she can and soon finds herself sitting for a job interview with Maria Bonvecchiato, the woman who put the ad in the paper.
And Elisa is pleasantly surprised: Maria is not the frail old lady in knitted gloves she expected to be looking for a paid companion.

As it turns out, Maria is one year younger than Elisa: she tells her she is a very wealthy young widow…

Giulia Montanari

Thirty-something public registrar in Italy. Not the glamorous part of Italy, though. Top Writer in History

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