(ANSA) – Rome, June 17 – Senate Speaker Elisabetta Casellati
is one of the mourners set to pay tribute to Italian director
Franco Zeffirelli, whose body is being lain in State at
Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio after his death at the age of 96 at
Zeffirelli was born in Florence on February 12, 1923, the
illegitimate child of a cloth merchant and a dress-maker.
His mother, who died when he was six, was a pianist and
chose the name ‘zeffiretti’ or ‘little breezes’ from a Mozart
aria but it was misspelled in the birth register as Zeffirelli.
The director spent his early years in an orphanage, before
being adopted by a group of Englishwomen expats living in
Florence – experiences that Zeffirelli drew on for his
semiautobiographical 1999 film Tea with Mussolini.
The movie, starring Joan Plowright, Maggie Smith and
singing star Cher, is also a condemnation of Italy’s Fascist
years under dictator Benito Mussolini.
Zeffirelli started out as an actor, playing on stage in
productions directed by the man who was to become his mentor,
Visconti, a leftist aristocrat, went on to make Zeffirelli
his assistant director, using his emerging talents on three
films, including his 1954 masterpiece Senso played out against
the backdrop of the 1866 Italo-Austrian war. Zeffirelli was to
remain deeply influenced by the elder director’s work, in
particular his trademark attention to detail.
In the 1950s and 60s, Zeffirelli launched into a career
directing, designing and costuming theatre and opera
He also became a firm friend of opera diva Maria Callas,
guiding her through some of her greatest performances. In 1958,
he caused a sensation in the US with an unorthodox La Traviata
at the Dallas Civic Opera, staged in flashback and starring
His first major film was a screen version of Puccini’s La
Boheme. Although the movie was a critical success, it was his
1967 lusty adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew,
starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, that caught the
attention of the film world.
Another Shakespeare play, Romeo and Juliet, provided
inspiration for his next film, which introduced 15-year-old
Olivia Hussey to the screen as Juliet, playing opposite Leonard
Whiting’s Romeo. The inspired casting turned the Oscar-nominated
movie into a youth icon.
Zeffirelli returned to Shakespeare in 1990, with an
all-star version of Hamlet featuring Mel Gibson and Glenn Close,
while his 1996 adaptation of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre
reconfirmed his enduring passion for British themes.
But it is with opera that Zeffirelli’s name has become most
closely associated, thanks to lavish screen adaptations such as
La Traviata (1982), Turandot (1983), Tosca (1985), Otello (1986)
and I Pagliacci (1981), and larger-than-life productions staged
in some of the world’s most prestigious opera houses, including
New York’s the Met, Milan’s La Scala and London’s Convent
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