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Luchino Visconti di Modrone, Count of Lonate Pozzolo (2 November 1906 – 17 March 1976), was an Italian theatre, opera and cinema director, as well as a screenwriter. He is best known for his films Ossessione (1943), Senso (1954), Rocco and His Brothers (1960), The Leopard (1963) and Death in Venice (1971). The last King of Italy, Umberto II, is said to have numbered among his lovers Luchino Visconti, Jean Marais and the boxer Primo Carnera.
Luchino Visconti was born into a prominent noble family in Milan, one of seven children of Giuseppe Visconti di Modrone, Duke of Grazzano Visconti and Count of Lonate Pozzolo, and his wife Carla (née Erba, heiress to Erba Pharmaceuticals). He was formally known as Count don Luchino Visconti di Modrone, and his family is a branch of the House of Visconti. In his early years, he was exposed to art, music and theatre: he studied cello with the Italian cellist and composer Lorenzo de Paolis (1890–1965) and met the composer Giacomo Puccini, the conductor Arturo Toscanini and the writer Gabriele D'Annunzio.
At nineteen, for instance, in 1925, he met Sergei Diaghilev, who had called on Donna Carla Visconti with his new protégé Serge Lifar.
On 30 September 1929, he had an accident which would affect him permanently. He crashed his new Lancia Spider on the way to Monza to race it, killing the family chauffeur, who had been reluctant to go on the trip. Visconti did not drive again for twenty years, and he continued to support the chauffeur’s family for the rest of his own life. As an immediate reaction to the disaster, he went into retreat for two months in the Tassili mountains in the southern Sahara. When he re-emerged, he consciously tried to quicken his emotional recovery. Intending actively to change his life, he travelled to Paris. There he met Serge Lifar again, as well as, among others, Jean Cocteau and Marie-Laure, the vicomtesse de Noailles. Coco Chanel took a fancy to him and they had an affair – for thus far in his life his sexual interests had been shared equally between women and men – but, although he had fluent French, he tended to remain silent in the face of Chanel’s loquacity.
In Paris, Luchino Visconti made the reputation of an empor-ium selling smart luggage, when he bought all their suitcases stamped with the firm’s initials, LV – Louis Vuitton. He went down to the Riviera for a while to stay in Coco Chanel’s villa, La Pausa, between Roquebrune and Cap Martin. Here, at various times, other visitors included Cocteau, Lifar, Jean Marais and Francis Poulenc. But the affair with Chanel had ended, and in February 1935 he suddenly declared that he and a woman called Irma Windisch-Graetz had decided to get married. The urgency came from the less convenient fact that it was not his prospective wife he had fallen in love with, but (for the first time) a man: the German photographer Horst P. Horst, whom he had met when lunching with Marie-Laure de Noailles.
It was from this time that Visconti could be regarded as predominantly homosexual; presumably, the relationship with Horst enabled him to recognise and accept this. Before long, he had given up his fiancée and, although he was still hiding his love for Horst from his friends, to his own satisfaction he had rejected bourgeois convention once and for all. There was an aesthetic and (eventually) professional pay-off, too: Horst taught him about photography. At the time they met, as Horst later recalled, Visconti wandered around with two books in his pocket: Mann’s Death in Venice and one by Gide. He was still, by convention or habit, a fascist. Horst, though, had left Germany because of Nazism – he went to study architecture under Le Corbusier before turning to photography – and his personal influence soon began to change Visconti’s view on the matter. During World War II, Visconti joined the Italian Communist Party.
Visconti made no secret of his homosexuality. His last partner was the Austrian actor Helmut Berger, who played Martin in Visconti's film The Damned. Berger also appeared in Visconti's Ludwig in 1972 and Conversation Piece in 1974, along with Burt Lancaster. Other lovers included Franco Zeffirelli, who also worked as part of the crew in production design, as assistant director, and other roles in a number of Visconti's films, operas, and theatrical productions.
Visconti smoked 120 cigarettes a day. He suffered a stroke in 1972, but continued to smoke heavily. He died in Rome of another stroke at the age of 69. There is a museum dedicated to the director's work in Ischia.
He began his filmmaking career as an assistant director on Jean Renoir's Toni (1935) and Partie de campagne (1936) through the intercession of their common friend Coco Chanel . After a short tour of the United States, where he visited Hollywood, he returned to Italy to be Renoir's assistant again, this time for La Tosca (1941 film), a production that was interrupted and later completed by German director Karl Koch.
Together with Roberto Rossellini, Visconti joined the salotto of Vittorio Mussolini (the son of Benito, who was then the national arbitrator for cinema and other arts). Here he presumably also met Federico Fellini. With Gianni Puccini, Antonio Pietrangeli and Giuseppe De Santis, he wrote the screenplay for his first film as director: Ossessione (Obsession, 1943), the first neorealist movie and an unofficial adaptation of the novel The Postman Always Rings Twice .
In 1948, he wrote and directed La terra trema (The Earth Trembles), based on the novel I Malavoglia by Giovanni Verga. In the book by Silvia Iannello, Le immagini e le parole dei Malavoglia, the author selects some passages of the Verga novel, adds original comments and Acitrezza's photographic images, and devotes a chapter to the origins, remarks and frames taken from the movie.
Visconti continued working throughout the 1950s, but he veered away from the neorealist path with his 1954 film, Senso, shot in colour. Based on the novella by Camillo Boito, it is set in Austrian-occupied Venice in 1866. In this film, Visconti combines realism and romanticism as a way to break away from neorealism. However, as one biographer notes, "Visconti without neorealism is like Lang without expressionism and Eisenstein without formalism". He describes the film as the "most Viscontian" of all Visconti's films. Visconti returned to neorealism once more with Rocco e i suoi fratelli (Rocco and His Brothers, 1960), the story of Southern Italians who migrate to Milan hoping to find financial stability. In 1961, he was a member of the jury at the 2nd Moscow International Film Festival.
Throughout the 1960s, Visconti's films became more personal. Il Gattopardo (The Leopard, 1963) is based on Lampedusa's novel of the same name about the decline of the Sicilian aristocracy at the time of the Risorgimento. It starred American actor Burt Lancaster in the role of Prince Don Fabrizio. This film was distributed in America and Britain by Twentieth-Century Fox, which deleted important scenes. Visconti repudiated the Twentieth-Century Fox version.
It was not until The Damned (1969) that Visconti received a nomination for an Academy Award for Best Screenplay. The film, one of Visconti's better known works, concerns a German industrialist's family which begins to disintegrate during the Nazi consolidation of power in the 1930s. Its decadence and lavish beauty are characteristic of Visconti's aesthetic.
Visconti's final film was The Innocent (1976), in which he returns to his recurring interest in infidelity and betrayal.
Visconti was also a celebrated theatre and opera director. During the years 1946 to 1960 he directed many performances of the Rina Morelli-Paolo Stoppa Company with actor Vittorio Gassman as well as many celebrated productions of operas.
Visconti's love of opera is evident in the 1954 Senso, where the beginning of the film shows scenes from the fourth act of Il trovatore, which were filmed at the Teatro La Fenice in Venice. Beginning when he directed a production at Milan's Teatro alla Scala of La vestale in December 1954, his career included a famous revival of La traviata at La Scala in 1955 with Maria Callas and an equally famous Anna Bolena (also at La Scala) in 1957 with Callas. A significant 1958 Royal Opera House (London) production of Verdi's five-act Italian version of Don Carlos (with Jon Vickers) followed, along with a Macbeth in Spoleto in 1958 and a famous black-and-white Il trovatore with scenery and costumes by Filippo Sanjust at the Royal Opera House in 1964. In 1966 Visconti's luscious Falstaff for the Vienna State Opera conducted by Leonard Bernstein was critically acclaimed. On the other hand, his austere 1969 Simon Boccanegra with the singers clothed in geometrical costumes provoked controversy.
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