Luchino Visconti di Modrone was born in Milan on November 2, 1906, the fourth of seven children of Duke Giuseppe Visconti di Modrone (1879-1941) and Carla Erba (1880-1939), owner of Italy’s largest pharmaceutical house. He was the younger brother of Guido, Anna, and Luigi, and the elder of Edoardo, Ida Pace, and Uberta. His paternal grandfather, Guido Visconti di Modrone, and uncles Uberto and Guido Carlo were senators in the kingdom. He was also a collateral descendant of Francesco Bernardino Visconti, who, according to some philologists, inspired the character of the ‘Innominato’ in Alessandro Manzoni’s “The Betrothed”.
Visconti served in the military as a cavalry non-commissioned officer in Pinerolo and spent his youth in the luxury of one of Europe’s most important families. He attended the Berchet classical high school in Milan with mixed results and was expelled from gymnasium; he then transferred to the Dante Alighieri classical high school, managed by the Pollini family. Following his parents’ separation, Luchino lived with his mother.
At just 26, he led his own stable of horses, achieving notable success, including a victory in the Milan San Siro Grand Prix with Sanzio.
From a young age, he studied the cello under the guidance of cellist and composer Lorenzo de Paolis (1890-1965) and was influenced by the world of opera and melodrama. His father was a financier of Milan’s Teatro alla Scala, and the Visconti home salon was frequented by personalities including conductor Arturo Toscanini. Artists were also hosted at Villa Erba in Cernobbio on Lake Como, where Visconti occasionally spent summer holidays with his mother Carla. Visconti remembered Villa Erba fondly:
“Villa Erba is a house that we love very much. We will all gather there, brothers and sisters, and it will be like when we were children living under the shadow of our mother.”
Visconti’s film career began in 1936 in Paris, as an assistant director and costume designer for Jean Renoir, whom he met through fashion designer Coco Chanel, with whom Luchino had a relationship. It was the era of France’s ‘Popular Front’, which brought progressive parties to power. In this milieu, Visconti came into contact with Italian anti-fascist militants and intellectuals like Jean Cocteau. Through Renoir, a convinced communist, he gravitated towards leftist positions. Alongside Renoir, Visconti contributed to the making of “Life Dances On” (1936) and “A Day in the Country” (1936). Visconti would always acknowledge the influence of Renoir’s realism and 1930s French cinema on his directorial work. After a brief stay in Hollywood, he returned to Italy in 1939 following his mother’s death.
Invited again by Jean Renoir to work on an Italian-French co-production, a film adaptation of “Tosca”, Visconti began the project, but it was halted by the onset of war and Renoir’s forced departure, replaced by German Carl Koch.
After his mother’s death, Visconti permanently settled in Rome, where meeting young intellectuals from the “Cinema” magazine was crucial.
Through these intellectuals, Visconti grew closer to the then-illegal Italian Communist Party, a connection he maintained, albeit intermittently, until his death. From this group, a new cinema idea emerged, moving away from the syrupy comedies set in luxurious villas, to realistically depict the lives and daily dramas of ordinary people. On these foundations, along with Pietro Ingrao, Mario Alicata, and Giuseppe De Santis, in 1942 Visconti embarked on his first film: “Ossessione” (1943), inspired by James Cain’s novel “The Postman Always Rings Twice”. The film starred Clara Calamai, who replaced Anna Magnani, forced to abandon the project due to advanced pregnancy, and Massimo Girotti as the mechanic Gino, Juan de Landa as the cuckolded husband, and Elio Marcuzzo as “The Spaniard”.
The story begins in a tavern along a road in the Po Valley, then moves to Ancona and finally to Ferrara. This choice of filming locations was unconventional for the time and lent the film a tone of everyday reality that was both surprising then and remains so. With “Ossessione”, Visconti initiated the cinematic genre of neorealism. It was the film’s editor, Mario Serandrei, who first labeled the film ‘neorealist’, thus officially marking the birth of an expressive style that would gain immense popularity in the following years. The film had a disrupted and troubled distribution in a war-torn Italy.
Before 1943, and thus before the making of “Ossessione”, Visconti, along with Gianni Puccini, Giuseppe De Santis, and Mario Alicata, planned to produce a film based on a story by Giovanni Verga about a peasant who becomes a bandit at the end of the 19th century: “L’amante di Gramigna”. Despite the completed script, the Ministry of Popular Culture, through Alessandro Pavolini, who had appreciated “Ossessione”, refused to authorize it, instead writing on the script’s cover: “Enough with the bandits!”
After the armistice on September 8, Visconti joined the Resistance under the battle name Alfredo. Going into hiding, he invited actress María Denis, with whom he had a relationship, to offer hospitality in his villa to all anti-fascists who arrived with the password “on behalf of whom you know”. Uberta Visconti described the house in a letter to Martino Contu dated February 6, 1996:
“Luchino’s house quickly became the operational center and refuge for many fugitives… All windows were strictly barred and darkened so that from the outside the house appeared uninhabited, while inside it had been transformed into a sort of dormitory, dining room, and office, whose occupants entered and exited strictly at night.”
Among those who found shelter in his home was the Sardinian communist Sisinnio Mocci, officially employed as a butler but actually engaged in clandestine resistance against the Nazi-Fascist occupation of Rome; Mocci was arrested at Visconti’s villa and later executed at the Ardeatine Caves.
Captured in April 1944 and imprisoned in Rome for several days by the Koch Band during the German occupation, Visconti was saved from execution by María Denis, who interceded for him with the fascist police. Denis later recounted this experience in her memoirs, “The Game of Truth”. Pietro Koch, the leader of the group that had captured Visconti, was executed at Forte Bravetta in Rome on June 5, 1945; Visconti’s testimony played a significant role in the trial that led to the notorious fascist’s death sentence. Given the notoriety of the case, the authorities decided to film the execution, which was directed by Visconti himself.
After the conflict, Visconti collaborated on the collective direction of the documentary “Days of Glory” (1945), dedicated to the Resistance. Visconti filmed the lynching of Donato Carretta, the former director of the Regina Coeli prison, and directed the execution of Pietro Koch. Other sequences were shot by Gianni Puccini and Giuseppe De Santis.
At the same time, he dedicated himself to staging dramas with premiere performances (his company formed with Paolo Stoppa and Rina Morelli became legendary) and, in the 1950s, to directing operatic melodramas, having the opportunity to direct Maria Callas in 1955 with “La sonnambula” and “La traviata” at La Scala.
In 1948, Visconti returned behind the camera to create a controversial and raw film openly denouncing the social conditions of the poorer classes, “La terra trema” (The Earth Trembles), an adaptation of Giovanni Verga’s novel “I Malavoglia”, with an almost documentary style. It is one of the few Italian films entirely spoken in dialect. A second edition of the film, dubbed in Italian, was released in 1950.
“Bellissima” (1951), based on a story by Cesare Zavattini, with Anna Magnani and Walter Chiari, ruthlessly analyzes the ‘behind the scenes’ of the film world. “We Women” (1953), also based on a story by Zavattini, portrays an episode from the private lives of four famous actresses (Anna Magnani, Alida Valli, Ingrid Bergman, and Isa Miranda).
In 1954, Visconti made his first color film, “Senso“, inspired by a story by Camillo Boito, with Alida Valli and Farley Granger. Set in 1866, it tells the story of a Venetian noblewoman who falls in love with an officer of the Austrian army. Discovering the man’s betrayal, to whom she had donated money meant for a patriotic cause, she becomes an informant and has him sentenced to execution. This film marked a turning point in Visconti’s art; some would mistakenly call it a betrayal of neorealism: the attention to scenic detail is extreme.
Luchino Visconti di Modrone was born on November 2, 1906, in Milan. He was the fourth of seven siblings, with his father, Duke Giuseppe Visconti di Modrone (1879-1941), and mother, Carla Erba (1880-1939), the owner of Italy’s largest pharmaceutical company. His siblings included Guido, Anna, Luigi, Edoardo, Ida Pace, and Uberta. His grandfather, Guido Visconti di Modrone, and uncles Uberto and Guido Carlo were senators in the kingdom. He was also related to Francesco Bernardino Visconti, believed to have inspired a character in Alessandro Manzoni’s “The Betrothed”.
Visconti experienced a privileged upbringing, attending the Berchet classical high school in Milan. His military service was as a cavalry non-commissioned officer in Pinerolo. Post his parents’ separation, he lived with his mother. At the age of 26, he managed a successful stable of horses, winning the Milan San Siro Grand Prix with Sanzio.
He was musically inclined, studying cello under Lorenzo de Paolis (1890-1965). His father’s connection to Milan’s Teatro alla Scala and the family’s Villa Erba in Cernobbio were significant influences. He fondly recalled Villa Erba, describing it as a cherished family gathering place.
In 1936, Visconti’s film career began in Paris. He worked as an assistant director and costume designer for Jean Renoir, meeting through Coco Chanel. Influenced by the era’s political climate, he aligned with leftist ideologies. His collaboration with Renoir included “Life Dances On” and “A Day in the Country”. After a brief Hollywood stint, he returned to Italy in 1939, following his mother’s passing.
His collaboration with Renoir continued with a planned “Tosca” adaptation, disrupted by WWII. Settling in Rome, Visconti connected with intellectuals and the Italian Communist Party. His directorial debut, “Ossessione” (1943), marked the beginning of neorealism in cinema. The film was first labeled ‘neorealist’ by editor Mario Serandrei.
Visconti’s earlier project, “L’amante di Gramigna”, was scrapped by the Ministry of Popular Culture. During WWII, he joined the Resistance, using his villa as a refuge for anti-fascists. Captured but later released due to María Denis’s intervention, Visconti contributed to the trial of Pietro Koch, who was executed in 1945.
Post-war, Visconti directed the documentary “Days of Glory” (1945), celebrating the Resistance. He also ventured into drama and opera directing, working with Maria Callas in the 1950s. His filmography includes “La terra trema” (1948), a raw depiction of poor classes, and “Bellissima” (1951), a critical look at the film industry. His first color film, “Senso” (1954), diverged from neorealism, showcasing meticulous scenic detail.