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Thursday, 2 November 2017

Luchino Visconti – director and writer

The aristocrat of Italian cinema


Luchino Visconti came from a family that once ruled Milan
Luchino Visconti came from a family
that once ruled Milan
Luchino Visconti, who most aficionados of Italian cinema would place among the top five directors of all time, was born in Milan on this day in 1906.

Visconti’s movies include Ossessione, Rocco and His Brothers, The Leopard, Death in Venice and The Innocent.

One of the pioneers of neorealism – arguably the first to make a movie that could be so defined – Visconti was also known as the aristocrat of Italian cinema, figuratively but also literally. 

He was born Count don Luchino Visconti di Modrone, the seventh child of a family descendant from a branch of the House of Visconti, the family that ruled Milan from the late 13th century until the early Renaissance.

Paradoxically, although he maintained a lavish lifestyle, Visconti’s politics were of the left. During the First World War he joined the Italian Communist Party, and many of his films reflected his political leanings, featuring poor or working class people struggling for their rights.

He enraged Mussolini with his grim portrayal of Italy's poverty in Ossessione (1943), based on James M Cain’s novel The Postman Always Rings Twice. His first movie as a director, and the film that spawned the neorealist genre that would be the hallmark of post-War Italian cinema, depicted Fascist Italy as a destitute, windblown country, robbed of its dignity. Visconti found himself for several months hounded by the Fascist regime.

The movie poster for the Visconti classic Rocco and His Brothers
The movie poster for the Visconti classic
Rocco and His Brothers
Visconti, who had not helped himself by allowing Communist agitators to hold clandestine meetings in the family palazzo in Milan, was arrested more than once and believed he would have been executed as a subversive had the Allied invasion not driven Mussolini from power.

He continued to explore neorealism in his 1948 movie La Terra Trema – The Earth Trembles – set in the post-War poverty of Sicily, and to an extent in Rocco and His Brothers (1960), a story of the brutal life of Southern Italians trying to better themselves in Milan, said to have influenced Martin Scorsese in his making of Mean Streets and Raging Bull and Francis Ford Coppola’s interpretation of Mario Puzo’s narrative in The Godfather.

Other Visconti films looked at social change as it affected the wealthy, but with a sense of empathy. The Leopard (1963), based on Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s novel of the same name, was about the decline of the Sicilian aristocracy at the time of the Renaissance, while The Damned (1969) focussed on a wealthy German industrialist, whose lavish and decadent lifestyle collapses as the Nazis consolidate their grip on power in the 1930s.

Death in Venice (1971), the film for which he is most well known along with as Rocco and His Brothers and The Leopard, was largely concerned with the homosexual obsession of Dirk Bogarde’s character with a teenage boy, played by Bjorn Andresen.

Visconti with the actors Sergio Garfagnoli and Bjorn Andresen (right) on the set of Death in Venice
Visconti with the actors Sergio Garfagnoli and Bjorn
Andresen (right) on the set of Death in Venice
Visconti himself was openly gay and had relationships with the Austrian actor Helmut Berger, who appeared in a number of his films, and his fellow Italian director Franco Zeffirelli, who worked with Visconti in the theatre.

Away from the big screen, Visconti was a huge fan of opera and directed productions at La Scala in Milan, several of which featured the great soprano Maria Callas, the Royal Opera House in London and the Vienna State Opera.

A heavy smoker, said to have worked his way through up to 120 cigarettes a day, he suffered a stroke in 1972 but continued to smoke and died in Rome from complications following another stroke on 1976.

From the 1950s, Visconti would frequently retreat to his villa on the island of Ischia, La Colombaia, built to have the look of a French medieval castle, which he had purchased from a baron and renovated to an impeccably high standard.

The villa now houses a foundation in his name and a museum dedicated to his life.

Visconti's villa on the island of Ischia
Visconti's villa on the island of Ischia
Travel tip:

Ischia is a volcanic island in the Bay of Naples, less famous than its neighbour, Capri, but some would argue to be more beautiful. Famous for its thermal springs and its mineral-rich mud, Ischia has been used as the backdrop for many films.  It has an impressive Aragonese castle, built on a rock near the island in 474 and accessed by a stone bridge.

The Visconti palace in Via Cina del Duca in Milan
The Visconti palace in Via Cina del Duca in Milan
Travel tip:

Visconti grew up in the Palazzo Visconti di Modrone, a 16th century palace that can be found in Via Cino del Duca, about one kilometre from the centre of Milan.  It came into the possession of the modern Visconti family in the 19th century, when it changed hands for 750,000 lire Milanese.  The building, spread over three floors, is one of the richest examples of Milanese rococo.


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