Biography of Count don Luchino Visconti di Modrone
by Sig. Nicola Giacomo Aluigi Giuseppe Linza IV
Luchino Visconti is already familiar to most Italians. His work exemplifies the highest level of Italian contribution to the high arts, including stage and cinema, presenting an extreme level of authentic quality rarely seen since the Renaissance. Visconti’s portfolio stands today as an elegant envelope drawing inspirations from the best of literature, opera, theatre, film, fine art, music and stage, all aesthetically merging, poetically and magically with a deft handling of classical creative license.
Visconti’s world, grounded with traditional Italian sophistication, drew many of its rules from late 19th and early 20th century principles of conduct. This period marks a time when elite people were either related by blood or intimately knew one another socially, and together this created extraordinary circumstances for entertainment and pleasure. In his time, both Visconti the man, his the family and friends held a great sensitivity to all things of quality and pursued with a passionate desire enjoyment of the very best the world had to offer of classical architecture, the fine arts, sportsmanship and hunting.
Beautiful languid days often turned into elegant evenings, and all those in Visconti’s exclusive world threw magnificent dinner parties. The luxury was all too real, where one ‘dressed’ for very formal dinners served by formally uniformed attendants under rock crystal chandeliers and candlelight surrounded by flowers, bronzes, Italian and French crystal stem ware, fine handmade linens, hand-painted bone china, and the finest sterling silver. Visconti, the man, held a strong personal sense of such a luxurious history and his place in this sort of world. A classic example of how this translated to film, one only needs to view either two of Visconti‘s films, Il Gattopardo aka The Leopard for its flawless dinner scenes or La caduta degli dei aka The Damned for its decadent dinner, with a classic performance by Helmut Berger.
Urbane and directorial, Visconti was accustomed to (and expected in return) the finest life had to offer. He was particular about what the average person would consider "minor" issues, such as the overt attention he paid to his personal selections and gift presentations, (he was known throughout his life for extraordinary gifts and for spending hours making personal set decisions, pondering each element to as near perfection as possible.) Blessed with a good looks and a renowned name, he was surrounded with a fine life, which included museum quality fine art, rare books, classical music, good friends and thoroughbred racing horses. This is the same man who one day, either out of artistic inspiration, or most likely out of sheer boredom, abruptly left this life in Italy and moved to Paris.
In Paris, Visconti soon met designer Coco Chanel, taken by his aristocratic haughty good looks and powerful personality they quickly became good friends. He was 30 years old and through her introduction, he met Jean Renoir. He would find himself in filmmaking, as a third assistant director, under Renoir during the making of his film, Une partie de campagne. Absorbed by the film making process Visconti visited the United States, in particular Hollywood, which he loathed. He quickly returned to Italy to work once again in 1939 with Jean Renoir on the troubled film of Puccini’s La Tosca (a film that due to the war would be completed by German director Karl Koch.) Packed with a suave confidence, (and an interest in Communism,) Visconti was determined to carve his own niche in the film field. He joined forces with Roberto Rossellini, and entered the circle known to Vittorio Mussolini (the son of Benito Mussolini, Vittorio controlled cinema under his father.) It has been suspected that it was there that he met another soon to be great Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini.
The breakthrough career moment for Visconti came around 1948 when he was commissioned by the Italian Communist Party to create an honest factual film of the conditions of the “real” people. On a research trip to Aci Trezza in Sicily, he dropped the original concept of straight documentary, and instead wrote and directed La terra trema: Episodio del mare (1948) ... aka The Earth Trembles or ... aka The Earth Will Tremble (USA) from the novel I Malavoglia by Giovanni Verga in its place. The unique aspect of this project is that he hired local residents, non-actors, to star in his film. The resulting work, a true masterwork, started a unique career oeuvre, inspired by concepts of tragedy, loss, memories, and politics. Considered that groundbreaking film that was one of the works that gave birth to the Neo-Realist movement in cinema, La terra trema set Visconti on a powerful path, one which made his future work focus on individual people and their real (or self-imposed imaginary) lives which includes some of the finest and most breathtaking moments ever captured for the large screen.
The arc of Luchino Visconti’s creative trajectory transcends the normal directorial career. As most directors can only imagine the world they attempt to create, Visconti lived his in reality. Visconti lived much of what he portrayed in his films from the childhood in a rich and powerful family to getting down to the ground level of impoverished fishermen in Sicily, compassionately filming their reality via a degree of cinéma vérité.
Visconti‘s films are not light weight works but intense stories looking at multi-leveled concepts of disintegration of government, country (ref. Visconti film La Caduta degli dei (1969) ... aka The Damned (USA,) family (ref. Visconti film L’Innocente (1976) ... aka The Innocent (USA,) and the psychological self (ref. Visconti films Gruppo di famiglia in un interno (1974).. aka Conversation Piece (USA) and Morte a Venezia (1971) ... aka Death in Venice (UK) (USA.) During the years through the mid-20th century, Visconti also directed many memorable yet not widely known performances including for the Rina Morelli-Paolo Stoppa Company with Vittorio Gassman. This period is famous for Visconti as he worked on the Donizetti work Anna Bolena at La Scala in 1957 where he famously directed the great Maria Callas. One does not simply view a Visconti work but more physically and psychologically experiences it. His work stands as a monument of a sublime level of artistic accomplishment that should make any member of Italian heritage proud.
Visconti the man is one whom leading lady Clara Calamai famously called, "a Medieval Lord with a whip." He was the creative genius behind many ground-breaking works during his career, starting with La terra trema. One classic film stands out like the star Sirius, Il Gattopardo (The Leopard) from the original work written by the 11th Prince di Lampedusa (1896–1957.) The acclaimed novel of the same title by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa as captured onto film by Visconti was recently released on DVD has been internationally renowned since its original release for its artistic, technical, and historical perfection. The dinner scene, in the uncut version, is pure unadulterated luxury to a level and degree few have attempted to draw from yet no one else has been able to capture properly.
Considering the grand accomplishments such as that of Il Gattopardo (The Leopard,) all of his films display a perfectly accurate cast and costume, ideal settings (as he was able like no other director before him, then or since to gain permission with open arms to access and use of authentic private estates to create the proper atmosphere and mood he sought for a given picture.) The atmospheres he created on film stem largely from personal knowledge of those he knew intimately, particular true for The Leopard. No other director but Visconti could have so precisely created for cinema the reality of the Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa novel masterpiece of Sicily during Piedmontese insurgency and the subsequent events of the the revival (Risorgimento) of Italy.
Luchino Visconti was an Italian nobleman who spent his childhood in Italy, and early adulthood in both Italy and France leading a privileged life. He easily mixed with famous creative people like Chanel, Jean Renoir, and family friends such as conductor Toscanini, composer Puccini, and the novelist Gabriele D’Annunzio. He held a deep and honest connection and concern for his fellow man (especially the underdogs.)
Visconti was considered arrogant by some most likely out of jealousy as he never lowered his lifestyle standards, even while positioning himself a Communist supporter. He never gave up his rarefied and extremely luxurious lifestyle. While working on the surface to fight for the underdog he has been unjustly criticized for simultaneously living in palaces filled with objects of museum quality.
This grand lifestyle found its way into both his films and sets. He was famous for being a wicked fanatic in his conduct as it regarded loyalty, set reality, and period perfection. A highly complex man of style, the great Luchino Visconti died in Rome at 69 years of age on March 17th 1976. Visconti's funeral was held on March 19th 1976 and was attended by many, including the American actor Burt Lancaster.
For more information on the great Luchino Visconti, a highly recommended biography is Visconti: explorations of beauty and decay by Henry Bacon. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998.