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.

28 August 2017

Lamberto Maggiorani - unlikely movie star

Factory worker who shot to fame in Bicycle Thieves

Maggiorani with Enzo Staiola, who played his son, Bruno, in Vittorio de Sica's Bicycle Thieves
Maggiorani with Enzo Staiola, who played his son, Bruno,
in Vittorio de Sica's Bicycle Thieves
Lamberto Maggiorani, who found overnight fame after starring in the neorealist classic Bicycle Thieves (1948), was born on this day in 1909 in Rome.

Maggiorani was cast in the role of Antonio Ricci, a father desperate for work to support his family in post-War Rome, who is offered a job pasting posters to advertising hoardings but can take it only on condition that he has a bicycle – essential for moving around the city carrying his ladder and bucket.

He has one, but it has been pawned.  To retrieve it, his wife, Marie, strips the bed of her dowry sheets, which the pawn shop takes in exchange for the bicycle. They are happy, because Antonio has a job which will support her, their son Bruno and their new baby.

However, on his first day in the job the bicycle is stolen, snatched by a thief who waits for Antonio to climb to the top of his ladder before seizing his moment.  The remainder of the film follows Antonio and Bruno as they try to find the bicycle.

As a portrait of life among the disadvantaged working class in Rome in the late 1940s, the film is hailed as a masterpiece, director Vittorio de Sica and his screenwriter Cesare Zavattini fêted by the critics for turning a little-known novel by Luigi Bartolini into a piece of cinema genius.

For Maggiorani, however, his participation was something of a bitter-sweet experience.

An original poster from the 1948 movie
An original poster from the 1948 movie
De Sica, who had won an Academy Award two years earlier with Shoeshine, attracted plenty of interest when news spread of his new project, with one American producer willing to offer a lucrative deal to cast Cary Grant in the lead role.

It did not interest De Sica, who was determined to be faithful to the principles of the burgeoning neorealist genre be picking actors who would infuse his characters with realism, regardless of whether they had any experience.

Maggiorani was not an actor at all, but a worker in a steel factory. He had himself experienced unemployment as Rome and De Sica saw him as perfect for the role of Antonio.

Delighted, Maggiorani accepted De Sica’s offer, taking time off work for the filming. He was paid $1,000 dollars, the equivalent of about $10,500 dollars (€8,800) today, with which he was able to give his family their first real holiday and buy new furniture for their home.

His performance was magnificent.  Sometimes, De Sica had to use another actor to dub Maggiorani’s dialogue because his strong Roman accent was occasionally hard to follow, but otherwise he was delighted with how his unlikely protégé understood the way he wanted his character to be portrayed. The critics hailed the arrival of a new star.

Yet once the fuss died down and his pay cheque was spent, Maggiorani found his life had changed. One thousand dollars might have been a large sum but it did not set him up for life.

The director Vittorio de Sica
The director Vittorio de Sica
He went back to the factory, but when orders fell away he was told he was no longer required, the perception being that he must be worth millions of lire after his movie success and that there were others whose need for work was greater.

Shunned by many of his friends, too, after failing to share his perceived wealth, he went back to the movie industry, assuming he would be offered more parts.

He was given some, but usually they were minor roles. Pier Paolo Pasolini gave him a bit part in Mamma Roma, a film about a prostitute trying to start a new life and starring Anna Magnani, but only because he thought his name in the credits would raise the movie’s profile.

De Sica was reluctant to use him at all as anything but an extra. Zavattini recognised and sympathised with his predicament and wrote a screenplay entitled ‘Tu, Maggiorani’ about how non-professional actors such as Maggiorani were sometimes used to execute one particular role and then cast aside.

Maggiorani made 16 movies, the last one a comedy entitled Ostia, directed by Sergio Citti and produced by Pier Paolo Pasolini, but none was particularly successful nor earned him much money.

He died at the San Giovanni Hospital in Rome in 1983 at the age of 73, having never regained the standing he enjoyed with Bicycle Thieves.  It is ironic that the film has recently been recognised as one of the greatest of all time.

The Basilica of San Lorenzo Fuori le Mura adjoins the Campo Verano cemetery
The Basilica of San Lorenzo Fuori le Mura adjoins
the Campo Verano cemetery
Travel tip:

Lamberto Maggiorani is buried at the Cimitero Comunale Monumentale Campo Verano, situated beside the Basilica of San Lorenzo Fuori le Mura, in the Tiburtino area of Rome. It is the city's largest cemetery, with some five million internments. The name 'Verano' is thought to date back to the Roman era, when the area was known as Campo dei Verani.

The San Giovanni Addolorata Hospital is built on top of Roman Ruins on Celio hill, south-east of the city centre
The San Giovanni Addolorata Hospital is built on top of
Roman Ruins on Celio hill, south-east of the city centre
Travel tip:

The hospital complex San Giovanni Addolorata, where Maggiorani died, is on the Celio hill, an area of ancient Roman urban settlements. Under the existing buildings are archaeological remains, including the Villa of Domitian Lucilla, mother of Emperor Marcus Aurelius.  Renovation work has also uncovered a villa belonging to the powerful Valerii family, great landowners, which contained historic mosaics preserved in perfect condition.

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