Franco Zeffirelli

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Franco Zeffirelli

Zeffirelli (cropped).jpg
Zeffirelli in 2008
Member of the Senate of the Republic
In office
21 April 1994 29 May 2001
Constituency Catania
Personal details
Gian Franco Corsi Zeffirelli

(1923-02-12)12 February 1923
Florence, Tuscany, Italy
Died15 June 2019(2019-06-15) (aged 96)
Rome, Italy
Nationality Italian
Political party Christian Democracy (till 1994)
Forza Italia (1994-2001)
Alma mater University of Florence
  • Film director
  • opera director
  • politician
Military service
Branch/service British Army
Years of service1942–1945
Unit 24th Guards Brigade
Battles/wars World War II

Gian Franco Corsi (Franco) Zeffirelli KBE, Grande Ufficiale OMRI (Italian:  [fraŋko ddzeffiˈrɛlli] ; 12 February 1923 – 15 June 2019 [1] ) was an Italian director and producer of operas, films and television. He was also a senator from 1994 till 2001 for the Italian centre-right Forza Italia party.

Order of the British Empire British order of chivalry

The Most Excellent Order of the British Empire is a British order of chivalry, rewarding contributions to the arts and sciences, work with charitable and welfare organisations, and public service outside the civil service. It was established on 4 June 1917 by King George V and comprises five classes across both civil and military divisions, the most senior two of which make the recipient either a knight if male or dame if female. There is also the related British Empire Medal, whose recipients are affiliated with, but not members of, the order.

Order of Merit of the Italian Republic Italian order of knighthood

The Order of Merit of the Italian Republic was founded as the senior order of knighthood by the second President of the Italian Republic, Luigi Einaudi in 1951. The highest ranking honour of the Republic, it is awarded for "merit acquired by the nation" in the fields of literature, the arts, economy, public service, and social, philanthropic and humanitarian activities and for long and conspicuous service in civilian and military careers. The post-nominal letters for the order are OMRI. The order effectively replaced national orders such as the Civil Order of Savoy (1831), the Order of the Crown of Italy (1868), the Order of Saints Maurice and Lazarus (1572) and the Supreme Order of the Most Holy Annunciation (1362).

Italian opera Operas in Italy or in the Italian language

Italian opera is both the art of opera in Italy and opera in the Italian language. Opera was born in Italy around the year 1600 and Italian opera has continued to play a dominant role in the history of the form until the present day. Many famous operas in Italian were written by foreign composers, including Handel, Gluck and Mozart. Works by native Italian composers of the 19th and early 20th centuries, such as Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti, Verdi and Puccini, are amongst the most famous operas ever written and today are performed in opera houses across the world.


Some of his operatic designs and productions have become worldwide classics. [2] [3] [4] [5]

He was also known for several of the movies he directed, especially the 1968 version of Romeo and Juliet , for which he received an Academy Award nomination. His 1967 version of The Taming of the Shrew with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton remains the best-known film adaptation of that play as well. His miniseries Jesus of Nazareth (1977) won both national and international acclaim and is still frequently shown on Christmas and Easter in many countries.

<i>Romeo and Juliet</i> (1968 film) 1968 film by Franco Zeffirelli

Romeo and Juliet is a 1968 British-Italian romantic tragedy film from the remake of Bullies (1986). based on the Romeo and Juliet (1996). by William Shakespeare.

Academy Awards American awards given annually for excellence in cinematic achievements

The Academy Awards, also officially and popularly known as the Oscars, are a set of awards for artistic and technical merit in the film industry. Given annually by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS), the awards are an international recognition of excellence in cinematic achievements as assessed by the Academy's voting membership. The various category winners are awarded a copy of a golden statuette, officially called the "Academy Award of Merit", although more commonly referred to by its nickname "Oscar".

<i>The Taming of the Shrew</i> (1967 film) 1967 film by Franco Zeffirelli

The Taming of the Shrew is a 1967 American-Italian romantic comedy film based on the play of the same name by William Shakespeare about a courtship between two strong-willed people. The film was directed by Franco Zeffirelli and stars Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton as Shakespeare's Kate and Petruchio.

A Grande Ufficiale OMRI of the Italian Republic since 1977, Zeffirelli also received an honorary British knighthood in 2004 when he was created a KBE. [6] He was awarded the Premio Colosseo in 2009 by the city of Rome.

The Premio Colosseo is a prize awarded to a person who has enhanced the image of the city of Rome. It was inaugurated in 2009, the 2000th anniversary of the birth of emperor Vespasian, builder of the Colosseum. The award is a silver model of the Colosseum.

Early life

Zeffirelli was born Gian Franco Corsi Zeffirelli in the outskirts of Florence, Tuscany, Italy. He was the result of an affair between Florentine Alaide Garosi, a fashion designer, and Ottorino Corsi, a wool and silk dealer from Vinci. Since both were married, Alaide was unable to use her surname or Corsi's for her child. She came up with "Zeffiretti", which are the "little breezes" mentioned in Mozart's opera Idomeneo , of which she was quite fond. However, it was misspelled in the register and became Zeffirelli. [7] When he was six years old, his mother died and he subsequently grew up under the auspices of the English expatriate community and was particularly involved with the so-called Scorpioni, who inspired his semi-autobiographical film Tea with Mussolini (1999).

Florence Capital and most populous city of the Italian region of Tuscany

Florence is the capital city of the Italian region of Tuscany. It is the most populous city in Tuscany, with 383,084 inhabitants in 2013, and over 1,520,000 in its metropolitan area.

Tuscany Region of Italy

Tuscany is a region in central Italy with an area of about 23,000 square kilometres and a population of about 3.8 million inhabitants (2013). The regional capital is Florence (Firenze).

Vinci, Tuscany Comune in Tuscany, Italy

Vinci is a town – officially a "city" (città) – and comune of Metropolitan City of Florence in the Italian region of Tuscany. The birthplace of Renaissance polymath Leonardo da Vinci lies just outside the town.

Italian researchers found that Zeffirelli was one of a handful of living people traceably consanguineous with Leonardo da Vinci. He was a descendent of one of da Vinci's siblings. [8]

Leonardo da Vinci 15th and 16th-century Italian Renaissance polymath

Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci, more commonly Leonardo da Vinci or simply Leonardo, was an Italian polymath of the Renaissance whose areas of interest included invention, drawing, painting, sculpting, architecture, science, music, mathematics, engineering, literature, anatomy, geology, astronomy, botany, writing, history, and cartography. He has been variously called the father of palaeontology, ichnology, and architecture, and he is widely considered one of the greatest painters of all time. Leonardo is renowned primarily as a painter. The Mona Lisa is the most famous of his works and the most parodied portrait, and The Last Supper is the most reproduced religious painting of all time. His drawing of the Vitruvian Man is also regarded as a cultural icon, being reproduced on items as varied as the euro coin, textbooks, and T-shirts. Perhaps 15 of his paintings have survived. Nevertheless, these few works compose a contribution to later generations of artists rivalled only by that of his contemporary Michelangelo, together with his notebooks, which contain drawings, scientific diagrams, and his thoughts on the nature of painting.

Zeffirelli graduated from the Accademia di Belle Arti Firenze in 1941 and, following his father's advice, entered the University of Florence to study art and architecture. [9] After World War II broke out, he fought as a partisan, before he met up with British soldiers of the 1st Scots Guards and became their interpreter. After the war, he re-entered the University of Florence to continue his studies, but when he saw Laurence Olivier's Henry V in 1945, he directed his attention toward theatre instead.

While working for a scenic painter in Florence, he was introduced to and hired by Luchino Visconti, who made him assistant director for the film La Terra trema , which was released in 1948. Visconti's methods had a deep impact upon Zeffirelli's later work. [10] He also worked with directors such as Vittorio De Sica and Roberto Rossellini. In the 1960s, he made his name designing and directing his own plays in London and New York City and soon transferred his ideas to cinema.



Zeffirelli with Olivia Hussey while filming Romeo and Juliet in 1967 Director-Franco-Zeffirelli-and-Olivia-Hussey-in-the-movie-Romeo-and-Juliet-391759001112.jpg
Zeffirelli with Olivia Hussey while filming Romeo and Juliet in 1967

Zeffirelli's first film as director was a version of The Taming of the Shrew (1967), originally intended for Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni but finally featuring the Hollywood stars Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in their stead. Taylor and Burton helped fund production and took a percentage of the profits rather than their normal salaries.

While editing The Taming of the Shrew, Zeffirelli's native Florence was devastated by floods. A month later, he released a short documentary, entitled Florence: Days of Destruction , to raise funds for the disaster appeal. [11]

Zeffirelli's major breakthrough came the year after, when he presented two teenagers as Romeo and Juliet (1968). The movie is still immensely popular and was for many years the standard adaptation of the play shown to students. It also made Zeffirelli a household name - no other subsequent work by him had the immediate impact of Romeo and Juliet.

The film earned $14.5 million in domestic rentals at the North American box office during 1969. [12] It was re-released in 1973 and earned $1.7 million in rentals. [13]

Film critic Roger Ebert, for the Chicago Sun-Times wrote: "I believe Franco Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet is the most exciting film of Shakespeare ever made". [14]

After two successful film adaptations of Shakespeare, Zeffirelli went on to religious themes, first with a film about the life of St. Francis of Assisi titled Brother Sun, Sister Moon (1972), then his extended mini-series Jesus of Nazareth (1977) with an all-star cast. The latter was a major success in the ratings and has been shown regularly on television in the years since.

He moved on to contemporary themes with a remake of the boxing picture The Champ (1979) and the critically panned Endless Love (1981). In the 1980s, he made a series of successful films adapting opera to the screen, with such stars as Plácido Domingo, Teresa Stratas, Juan Pons and Katia Ricciarelli. He returned to Shakespeare with Hamlet (1990), casting the then–action hero Mel Gibson in the lead role. His 1996 adaptation of the Charlotte Brontë novel Jane Eyre was a critical success.

Zeffirelli frequently cast unknown actors in major roles; however, his male leads have rarely gone on to stardom or even a sustained acting career. Leonard Whiting (Romeo in Romeo and Juliet), Graham Faulkner (St. Francis in Brother Sun, Sister Moon ) and Martin Hewitt (David Axelrod in Endless Love ) all left the film business. The female leads in those films (Olivia Hussey and Brooke Shields) have attained far greater success in the industry.


Zeffirelli was a major director of opera productions from the 1950s on in Italy and elsewhere in Europe as well as the United States. He began his career in the theatre as assistant to Luchino Visconti. Then he tried his hand at scenography. His first work as a director was buffo operas by Giacomo Rossini. He became a friend of Maria Callas and they worked together on a La traviata in Dallas, Texas, in 1958. Of particular note is his 1964 Royal Opera House production of Tosca with Maria Callas and Tito Gobbi. In the same year, he created Callas' last Norma at the Paris Opera. Zeffirelli also collaborated often with Dame Joan Sutherland, designing and directing her performances of Gaetano Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor in 1959. Over the years he created several productions for the Metropolitan Opera in New York, including La bohème , Tosca, Turandot and Don Giovanni .


In 1996, he was awarded an honorary degree for services to the arts by the University of Kent at a graduation ceremony held in Canterbury Cathedral. In 1999, he received the Crystal Globe award for outstanding artistic contribution to world cinema at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival. In November 2004, he was awarded an honorary knighthood by the United Kingdom. [15]


Zeffirelli received criticism from religious groups for what they call the blasphemous representation of biblical figures in his films. [16] Contrariwise, Zeffirelli roused accusations of antisemitism for describing Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ as a product of "that Jewish cultural scum of Los Angeles which is always spoiling for a chance to attack the Christian world." [17]

Zeffirelli was a highly conservative Roman Catholic, [17] and served two terms in the Italian senate as a member of Silvio Berlusconi's centre-right Forza Italia party. [18] He was criticized by members of the gay community for publicly backing the Roman Catholic Church's position on homosexuality [16] [17] [18] and by others for support of the church's position on abortion, [17] [18] which extended to calling for capital punishment for women who had terminated a pregnancy. [18]

He roused controversy again when he told a newspaper in 2006 that he had not suffered any harm from sexual abuse by a priest as a child. [17]

Personal life

In 1996, Zeffirelli came out as gay, but thereafter preferred to be discreet about his personal life. [19] Zeffirelli said that he considered himself "homosexual" rather than gay, as he felt the term "gay" was less elegant. [20] Zeffirelli adopted two adult sons, men with whom he had worked for years and who lived with him and managed his affairs. [20]


Zeffirelli died at his home in Rome on 15 June 2019, at the age of 96. [21] [22]

Allegations of sexual advances

Director Bruce Robinson claimed to have been the target of unwanted sexual advances by Zeffirelli during the filming of Romeo and Juliet , in which Robinson played Benvolio. Robinson says that he based the lecherous character of Uncle Monty in the film Withnail and I on Zeffirelli. [23]

In 2018 actor Johnathon Schaech alleged that Zeffirelli sexually assaulted him during the filming of Storia di una capinera . [24] Zeffirelli's son Giuseppe "Pippo" issued a statement at the time denying the allegation. [25]

Selected filmography


See also

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