Thursday, December 20, 2012

Eleanor of Toledo, Duchess of Florence

It is probably a debatable point, but Eleanor of Toledo, Duchess consort of Florence, is usually pointed to as woman who set the standard for “First Ladies” all the way up to the present day. Eleanor was born in 1522 in Alba de Tormes, Salamanca, the second daughter of Don Pedro Alvarez de Toledo, Marquis of Villafranca who was the Viceroy of Naples on behalf of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V aka King Carlos I of Spain. At the age of seventeen she was married to Cosimo I de’ Medici, Duke of Florence who, in 1569, would become the first Grand Duke of Tuscany. It was an arranged marriage with Eleanor’s father expecting his daughter to gain some of the Medici wealth (which was more apparent than real) and the Medici hoping to gain some status and security by marrying someone highly placed in the Spanish aristocracy and related to the Hapsburg Holy Roman Emperor. With Spain dominating Florence and much of the surrounding area in Italy at that time, being on good terms with the House of Hapsburg was a necessity. Part of the agreement for the marriage was that it would be a show of loyalty to the Hapsburg Emperor sufficient enough to allow for the removal of the Spanish garrison.

However, arranged or not, the marriage was certainly a success as far as what was most required of royal couples; ensuring the survival of the Medici family by producing heirs. There was certainly no problem in securing the succession and Duchess Eleanor gave her husband eleven children between 1540 and 1554, two of whom would succeed their father as Grand Dukes of Tuscany in the future. Given the less than ideal birth status of the previous leaders of the House of Medici, Duke Cosimo was intent to present a new public image of respectability, stability and traditional values. His own large family would be the centerpiece of this new look and Duchess Eleanor was the most important part of it. As far as her public image went, there could not have been a better choice. Not only was Eleanor quite the fertile myrtle, she also had a lovely but reserved appearance which gave the impression of strength and stability to those who saw her. She was also quite religious and a patron of the Society of Jesus, still relatively new at that time. At first the people were inclined to dislike her because of her Spanish origins, and given what so many Italians had been through, that is hardly surprising, but her patronage of the Church, the arts and charitable causes soon won everyone over.

Duchess Eleanor was as conscious as anyone of putting her best face forward and took great care about her appearance, which included sitting for portraits as the prim and proper consort (and later mother of an heir to the throne) as well as wearing lavish gowns. This cannot be dismissed as mere vanity. It was an effort to inspire confidence among the people and visiting dignitaries as to the wealth, stability and power of the Medici monarchy. Nor was it merely an act. Duchess Eleanor was a serious and intelligent lady who ruled Tuscany as regent on behalf of her husband when he was absent. She was also sincerely pious and her devotion to the Church inspired her many acts of charity as well as her donations that allowed for building a number of new churches and her encouragement in bringing the Jesuits into Florence. There was more to her than her public face though and in private she was known for her great (if sometimes low-brow) sense of humor, great personal determination and love for games of chance. And, of course, she was always the perfect hostess, gracious, charming as well as being a close unofficial advisor to her husband in his rule of the duchy and later grand duchy.

Only relatively recently have researchers discovered what a tremendously tough woman Duchess Eleanor was. Studies done on her remains have shown that she suffered from a severe calcium deficiency that must have caused her immense pain. From the results we can surmise that her teeth must have given her a great deal of trouble and that her bones would have caused her incredible agony (she may have even shrank quite a bit over her life). Given all that she was going through, in addition to giving birth to eleven children and still always remaining the ideal consort, public figure, national hostess and even running the government when necessary, Duchess Eleanor emerges as an extremely remarkable woman. Sadly, her life was cut all too short when, at the age of only 40, she died on December 17, 1562 in Pisa during a malaria epidemic that also took the lives of two of her sons.

Monday, December 10, 2012

The Strange Case of the Luigi Torelli

In the Italian submarine fleet, or most any naval force in the world, few ships had such an odd and colorful career as the Torelli, a Marconi class submarine (pennant number TI) launched on January 6, 1940. It was an extremely successful submarine, sinking seven enemy vessels for a total of 43,000 tons during her short career as a raider. The Torelli made one patrol in the Mediterranean and then slipped past the British at Gibraltar on September 8, 1940 to join the Italian submarine forces in the Atlantic operating out of Bordeaux, France. On her first patrol in the Atlantic, the Torelli sent four enemy ships to the bottom. The sub had no such luck on her second patrol but did add another ship to her score card on her third patrol. In December of 1941 the Torelli along with three Calvi class submarines aided in the rescue of 254 sailors from the German auxiliary cruiser Atlantis. During "Operation Neuland" the intrepid Italian sub sent two more enemy ships to the bottom but her closest call was to come from the air rather than the sea.

Because of their large size, most Italian submarines tended to be slower to submerge compared to some others and this made them particularly vulnerable to air attack. However, as a result, Italian submariners became very skilled anti-aircraft gunners. While most other subs would crash dive on spotting an enemy plane, since they most likely could not get underwater fast enough, Italian subs would stay on top and shoot it out with enemy aircraft. In the eastern Atlantic, while returning from hunting around the Bahamas the Torelli was attacked by a British flying-boat on June 5, 1942 and suffered heavy damage. Because of this, the submarine was unable to dive and had to try to make it back to Bordeaux only on the surface. Only two days later the Torelli was spotted by the British and quickly attacked by two Sunderlands. However, the Italian anti-aircraft fire was so fierce that their bombing runs were ruined, though they did manage to spray the sub with gunfire that killed Sergeant Flavio Pallucchini and wounding Captain Antonio de Giacomo and another officer. Still, one of the planes was hit and both were finally forced to retreat and the Torelli returned to port for repairs.

Once at sea again, the Torelli was on patrol off the coast of Brazil when she was attacked by three Catalina American torpedo planes and, because of a valve malfunction, was unable to submerge and again had to shoot it out on the surface. The Italian gunners shot down one of the Catalinas and forced the other two to retreat but took several casualties and suffered a lot of damage. The radio-man was killed, the chief engineer, an assistant engineer and the captain were all wounded and the captain was forced to turn command over to his first lieutenant. Still, they made it back in one piece but because of the extensive damage suffered, the days of the Torelli as a commerce raider were over. Her offensive weapons were removed and she was converted to a long-range transport with her torpedo tubes being converted into extra fuel tanks. On June 14, 1943 she left Bordeaux loaded with supplies as well as a German engineer, two civilian mechanics and Japanese Colonel Kinze Sateke, a telecommunications specialist who has just undergone training in Germany. These passengers were to be delivered to Singapore to help in modernizing the Japanese war effort.

The Allied code-breakers found out about this special voyage and had aircraft searching from Gibraltar to the Cape but they failed to locate the Torelli which made the passage through the Atlantic and Indian Oceans without incident to Japanese-held Singapore. However, by the time they arrived the King had dismissed Mussolini and taken Italy out of the war. After that time the Germans grabbed all Italian personnel and equipment they could get their hands on and that included the Torelli which was drafted into the German navy, as part of their Far East submarine flotilla (the 12th and later 33rd U-Boat Flotilla) and the crew were thrown into a POW camp. However, once Mussolini established his puppet regime in Salo the Italian crew were given the choice of joining the Italo-German navy of the Italian Social Republic. They decided to join Mussolini's navy, unfortunate, but not surprising given that their only other option was prison camp. So, the Torelli was joined by more Germans and renamed the UIT-25. However, the strange career of the Torelli did not end there. When the Salo Republic collapsed and Germany surrendered the sub was taken over by the Japanese and continued on as I-504 of the Imperial Japanese Navy, serving in the Pacific until the Japanese surrender with a German-Italian-Japanese crew. Communications onboard must have been rather complicated! They ended up scoring the last Axis victory of World War II when they were attacked by American bombers when the Italians on the 13.2mm Breda shot down one of the American planes in Kobe, Japan. After the Japanese surrender the submarine was scuttled by the U.S. Navy, ending a long and colorful career.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Our Prayers for Japan

A magnitude 7.4 earthquake has struck off the coast of Japan, 303 miles northeast of Tokyo and a tsunami warning has been issued. Details are still scarce at this point but hopefully it will not be as bad as the last such disaster, which Japan has still not recovered from. Our thoughts and prayers go out to the Japanese people at this difficult time.
God bless Japan.
Long live the Emperor.