Franco Zeffirelli (1923–2019) was an Italian director and producer of films, television, and opera, as well as a former senator in the Italian Republic. Known for his elaborate set designs and emotional storytelling, Zeffirelli gained international acclaim across multiple artistic mediums.
Franco Zeffirelli was born out of wedlock to Ottorino Corsi, a cloth merchant from Vinci, and Alaide Garosi Cipriani from Florence. Unable to bear either of his parents’ surnames due to the laws regarding children born out of wedlock at the time, his mother registered him with the invented surname “Zeffirelli,” inspired by the “zeffiretti” (gentle winds) sung by Ilia in Mozart’s Idomeneo. Later, he also adopted “in arte Zeffirelli” as his stage name. His early years were marked by a lack of paternal recognition, which only came when he was 19, and the premature death of his mother. He was educated under Giorgio La Pira at the San Marco convent school in Florence.
Early Career and Influences
After attending the Accademia di Belle Arti in Florence, Zeffirelli began his career as a set designer in the immediate post-war period, working on a staging of Troilus and Cressida directed by Luchino Visconti. His early cinematic experiences were as an assistant director to Visconti in films like La terra trema and Senso, as well as to Antonio Pietrangeli in Il sole negli occhi (1953). In 1953, he also designed sketches and costumes for L’italiana in Algeri at La Scala in Milan.
Theatre and Opera Directorial Debut
By the 1950s, Zeffirelli had branched out into directing both in theatre and film. At La Scala, he directed productions including La Cenerentola and L’elisir d’amore among others, also making his cinematic debut with Camping (1957).
International Recognition in Cinema
In the late 1960s, Zeffirelli gained international attention with Shakespearean film adaptations like The Taming of the Shrew (1967) and Romeo and Juliet (1968). During this period, he also directed notable Italian theatre productions, including Hamlet with Giorgio Albertazzi and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? with Enrico Maria Salerno and Sarah Ferrati.
Late 20th-Century Works
In 1977, Zeffirelli achieved great success with his TV film Jesus of Nazareth. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, he directed films like Endless Love (1981) and Hamlet (1990), among others. He also directed operas like Cavalleria rusticana and Pagliacci at La Scala and other prestigious opera houses like the Metropolitan Opera in New York.
From 1994 to 2001, Zeffirelli served as a Senator in the Italian Parliament, representing Forza Italia in the Catania district. He also unsuccessfully ran in the European elections of 1999.
Final Years and Legacy
In the later years, Zeffirelli continued to be active, directing operas at renowned venues like the Arena di Verona and the Metropolitan Opera. His final work, a production of Rigoletto, was posthumously staged at the Royal Opera House in Muscat, Oman, in January 2022. Zeffirelli died on June 15, 2019. His final production of La Traviata was posthumously broadcast on Rai 1 in the presence of the President of the Republic, Sergio Mattarella.
Honors and Awards
Zeffirelli was knighted Commander of the Order of the British Empire (KCBE) by Queen Elizabeth II on November 24, 2004. He was also recognized for his contributions to Italian and international culture through various other honors.
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