Ciao, Franco! Zeffirelli electrified audiences and threw crazy parties

The Zefferelli I knew was a conundrum and a consummate artist whose work sparkled with joy and invention

Franco Zeffirelli dies aged 96

It was hard to tell who looked more astonished – Her Majesty’s ambassador or the dog. They were both guests that night at Franco Zeffirelli’s gorgeous house near the Appian Way in Rome. The dog was one of four Zeffirelli had plucked from the streets of Bucharest when filming Callas Forever in 2002. They could roam wherever they liked in his home.

We were at a buffet dinner. Joan Plowright and I – it is impossible to write about parties at Franco’s place without name-dropping – were joined by the ambassador and his wife. And then by the dog, which surveyed the food till it was time for action. She leapt at the mahogany table, but being small and not very young, only got her paws on to the edge, where she swung for a seemingly endless couple of seconds, eyes wide in panic, before dropping untidily to the floor.

Another time, I saw an elegant Italian actor lower herself on to a sofa and then raise herself a great deal more quickly after realising she had just sat on the biggest of his dogs. Parties in the Zeffirelli household could be star-studded, but they were never formal. And that pretty much captures my experience of the man.

We first met when he wanted to have a go at Riccardo Muti. A mutual friend had signalled that Zeffirelli was appalled at the way the conductor was acquiring ever-greater power at La Scala and wanted to say so publicly. After the interview, in which he profusely denigrated his compatriot (“Drunk with himself, drugged by his own art”), we began chatting. Zeffirelli’s work as a director, in opera, theatre and film, was rooted in his work as a set designer. What is less well known is that he was a consummate visual artist.

Our interview had taken place in his studio. Zeffirelli was in the midst of designing characteristically flamboyant sets for his 2006 production of Aida and he seemed surprised that I (the son of an artist) knew enough to discuss the techniques he had used.

He invited me to stay for lunch and a few weeks later rang me out of the blue to invite my wife and me to a pool party the following Sunday. He had by then settled into a life of stable domesticity with his two adopted sons, Luciano and Pippo.

Franco Zeffirelli directing Romeo and Juliet in 1967.
Franco Zeffirelli directing Romeo and Juliet in 1967. Photograph: Rex/Shutterstock

His sexuality was always a conundrum. He belonged to that generation of homosexual men who were brought up to feel ashamed of their orientation. He detested the word gay, and opposed gay activism and gay marriage.

He once told me that as a teenager he had a string of heterosexual affairs. It was at about the same time as he had a sexual experience with a Roman Catholic priest. When I raised this at a subsequent interview, he was furious – not with me – but with those who depicted it as molestation. “Molestation suggests violence,” he said indignantly. “There was no violence at all.”

His conservatism became progressively more evident in his later years, during which he was also for a while a senator in Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party. His politics did him no good in an Italian arts world where most hearts beat on the left and tended to detract from his immense achievements.

His Shakespeare movies – The Taming of the Shrew in 1967 and Romeo and Juliet in 1968 – broke new ground by bringing alive for English-speaking audiences the Renaissance Italy in which the plays were set. The films electrified audiences and won new enthusiasts for Shakespeare’s work.

Zeffirelli was a populariser in opera too. His dazzling but usually traditional sets won more favour with the public than the critics. But across a period of more than 60 years he collaborated with most of the great names in opera, notably Maria Callas, whom he adored. His 1983 film of La Traviata is often cited as one of the greatest opera movies ever made. His output was phenomenal. In a single year – 1964 – he created 10 operas, and he was still directing in his late 80s.

Italians use titles profusely. Anyone with a university degree must be greeted as dottore or dottoressa. Those who go into the professions will feel positively slighted unless they are addressed as architetto, ingegnere or whatever. Franco was immensely proud of having been given an honorary British knighthood (the first Italian ever to be honoured in that way). But, though as a renowned artist he more than qualified for the title of maestro, he would cut you off with an “Oh, for goodness sake,” if you ever tried to use it.


John Hooper

The GuardianTramp

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