Franco Zeffirelli (1923-2019)

We were sad to hear of the recent death of Franco Zeffirelli, one of the best known Italian directors and producers of film and opera of the 20th century. Hugely influential and iconic, he stood at the heart of Italian film for decades.

Born Gian Franco Corsi Zeffirelli, he was the illegitimate child of a fashion designer and Florentine wool and silk merchant. After the death of his mother when he was six, he was brought up by the English expatriate community in Florence, who took him under their wing – this part of his story was immortalised in his semi-autobiographical film Tea with Mussolini, set in the pre-war Florence of the “scorpioni” (the English community there, represented by the inspirational Maggie Smith, Judi Dench and Joan Plowright) and in the Tuscany of the war years as war took hold. He enrolled to study art at the University of Florence, and when war broke out he joined the partisans, later acting as translator to the occupying British forces. After the war he turned towards the theatre, inspired by seeing Laurence Olivier in Henry V, and it was whilst working as a scenic painter that he met Luchino Visconti who was to have a profound influence on him. He worked in London and New York, designing and directing plays, and then turned to film, directing Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in The Taming of the Shrew. In 1968 he directed Romeo and Juliet – hugely popular and a massive box-office hit. From Shakespeare he moved on to other themes, directing such films as Brother Sun, Sister Moon, about St Francis of Assisi and St Clare, and the mini-series Jesus of Nazareth.

Opera was a great love, and he was a very good friend of Maria Callas. One of his great successes was the 1964 production of Tosca at the Royal Opera House, with Maria Callas and Tito Gobbi.

He was also a politician and served two terms in the Italian Senate as a member of the Forza Italia party, having been a Christian Democrat up until 1994.

He was a designer-director who loved Florence and all that the Renaissance had to offer. His Florentine background permeated his art.

Public domain photo via Wikipedia

There is a powerful moment in his autobiography Autobiografia published by Mondadori in 2006 (415:3.c.200.864) where he describes his anguish on the morning of 4th November 1966 when his sister called him from Florence (he was away at the time) in a state of panic. Amidst the sound of pouring rain, she could hear the continuous deafening sound of car horns as the city was engulfed by water. The Arno had burst its banks and the city was flooded (see our earlier post on this here). I remember many years ago being told this story of the deafening sound of car horns by my mother who was never sure from whom she had heard it. To see it here corroborated by Zeffirelli made the image of Florence that dreadful night very real.

The Autobiografia is a fascinating read. There is also his earlier autobiography in English, Zefffirelli: the autobiography of Franco Zeffirelli (9000.c.1543). We have Franco Zeffirelli: complete works: theatre, opera, film edited by Caterina Napoleone with a preface by Franco Zeffirelli (

We hold several items on various aspects of his work:

On his work with Shakespeare texts:

  • Welles, Kozintsev, Kurosawa, Zeffirelli by Courtney Lehmann, Marguerite Rippy, Mark Thornton Burnett, Ramona Wray (724:5.c.201.31)
  • Studying Shakespeare in performance by John Russell Brown (724:5.c.201.84)
  • The Cambridge companion to Shakespeare on film edited by Russell Jackson (415:3.c.200.2061 and online)
  • Cinematic Hamlet: the films of Olivier, Zeffirelli, Branagh and Almereyda by Patrick J. Cook (415:3.c.201.251)
  • Romeo e Giulietta e altri drammi shakespeariani: musica, cinema e letteratura dale origini a Franco Zeffirelli a Nino Rota by Stefano Toffolo (C203.d.275)

On the religious themes in his film work:

  • Jesus of Nazareth by William Barclay ; based on the film directed by Franco Zeffirelli, from the script by Anthony Burgess, Suso Cecchi d’Amico and Franco Zeffirelli (9100.b.648)

And more generally on film, we have Valuing films: shifting perceptions of worth edited by Laura Hubner (415:3.c.201.239). Specifically on his work on theatre and design we have the exhibition catalogue of 2015, Zeffirelli: l’arte dello spettacolo edited by Caterina D’Amico (2015.10.2666).

Sometimes controversial, hugely inspirational, supremely talented, he was an exceptional man. He was awarded the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic and, in 2004, was awarded an honorary knighthood by the United Kingdom. He will be greatly missed.

Bettina Rex

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