At Italy On This Day you will read about events and festivals, about important moments in history, and about the people who have made Italy the country it is today, and where they came from. Italy is a country rich in art and music, fashion and design, food and wine, sporting achievement and political diversity. Italy On This Day provides fascinating insights to help you enjoy it all the more.

Sunday, 9 April 2017

Gian Maria Volonté – actor

Brilliant talent who played ‘spaghetti western’ parts for fun


Volonté in his role as the police chief in Elio Petri's Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion (1970)
Volonté in his role as the police chief in Elio Petri's
Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion (1970)
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 neo-realist director who directed in him in five movies, including the acclaimed The Mattei Affair (1972), in which he played an oil company executive whose death in a plane crash in Sicily aroused suspicion, and Lucky Luciano (1973), in which he portrayed the Sicilian-American Mafia boss controversially released from a 30-year prison sentence in the United States in return for helping the Allies with the 1943 invasion of Sicily.

Volonte played the writer Carlo Levi in Francesco Rosi's 1979 film Christ Stopped at Eboli
Volonté played the writer Carlo Levi in Francesco Rosi's
1979 film Christ Stopped at Eboli
Rosi also cast him as the Jewish-Italian anti-Fascist writer Carlo Levi in Christ Stopped at Eboli (1979)

Other famous roles included that of a television journalist in Swiss director Claude Goretta's Death of Mario Ricci (1983), which won him the him the Golden Palm at the Cannes International Film Festival.

Volonte also played the Italian-born anarchist Nicola Sacco in Sacco and Vanzetti, the 1971 film by Giuliano Montaldo, a courageous Sicilian judge in Fascist Italy in Gianni Amelio's 1990 movie Open Doors, which was chosen as European film of the year at Cannes, and played the Christian Democrat leader and former prime minister Aldo Moro, whose kidnapping and murder in 1978 at the hands of Red Brigade terrorists shook Italy, in Giuseppe Ferrara’s Il caso Moro (1986).

His films under Petri’s direction included  We Still Kill the Old Way (1967), which won the Grand Prix du Scenario at the Cannes Film Festival, and  Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion (1970), for which Volonte won one of his three Nastro d'Argento (Silver Ribbon) awards - the most prestigious acting award in Italy, and which won an Oscar for best foreign-language film.

The part of the kidnapped former prime minister Aldo Moro was played by Volonté in Giuseppe Ferrara's Il caso Moro
The part of the kidnapped former prime minister Aldo Moro
was played by Volonté in Giuseppe Ferrara's Il caso Moro
Volonté’s politics seemed to be rooted in his upbringing. Although born in Milan, he was brought up in Turin. His father, Mario, was a Fascist militiaman who was arrested for allegedly arranging the murder of some partisans. He died while awaiting trial, leaving his family facing poverty. Volonté hated the Fascists from that point onwards.

He left school at 14 to find work so that he could support his mother.  One of the jobs he took was with a travelling theatre company, initially as a wardrobe assistant and secretary, but eventually developing a desire to act, and being granted parts.

It was the realisation that he had some talent as an actor that persuaded him to move to Rome and enrol at the Silvio D’Amico Academy.  After graduating in 1957, he worked in the theatre and television, appearing in adaptations of Dostoyevski's Idiot, Chekhov's Uncle Vanya and Vittorio Alfieri's Saul.

He was soon recognised as one of the most promising of the new generation of actors and his movie debut followed in 1960.

Volonté made no apologies for his political leanings.  A member of the Italian Communist Party, he was arrested in 1971 during a demonstration by workers striking for higher wages and better working conditions and helped his friend and fellow Communist Oreste Scalzone to flee the country after he was sentenced to 16 years in jail on charges of terrorism Volonté believed were false.

He stood as a candidate for the Democratic Party of the Left in the 1992 general election.

Married twice, Volonté had a child, Giovanna, with the actress Carla Divina, his partner for 10 years, before spending the last years of his life with another actress, Angelica Ippolito, with whom he lived in Velletri, a town in the Colli Albani (Alban Hills), just south of Rome.

He died in 1994 of a heart attack while filming on location in Greece and was laid to rest at a small cemetery on the Sardinian island, Isola della Maddalena.

The Silvio D'Amico academy, where Volonté trained, is in Via Vincenzo Bellini in Rome's Municipio II district
The Silvio D'Amico academy, where Volonté trained, is in
Via Vincenzo Bellini in Rome's Municipio II district
Travel tip:

Rome’s National Academy of the Dramatic Arts was founded in 1936 by the writer and critic Silvio D’Amico, whose name was attached to the academy after his death. After occupying a number of premises, the academy settled in a building on Via Vincenzo Bellini in the Municipio II district, just beyond the Borghese Gardens and about 10 minutes’ drive from the centre of the city.

Velletri's Porta Napoletana formed part of the city walls
Velletri's Porta Napoletana formed part of the city walls
Travel tip:

Velletri is traditionally a walled city. Its original walls were demolished by the Romans in 338 BC but rebuilt in the Middle Ages, giving the town the appearance of a huge castle.  The walls had six gates, the best preserved of which is Porta Napoletana, built in 1511 and which is now home to a branch of the Italian Sommelier Association.


More reading:


How neo-realism and documentary style put Francesco Rosi among greats of Italian cinema

Sergio Leone - from 'spaghetti westerns' to gangster epic Once Upon a Time in America

The tragedy of Aldo Moro


Also on this day:


1948: The birth of veteran pop singer Patty Pravo


(Picture credits: Porta Napoletana by Deblu68 via Wikimedia Commons)










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