ROME – Franco Zeffirelli, an Italian film and opera director known for his visual grandiosity, died on Saturday morning, the mayor of his home city of Florence said. He was 96.
A multi-faceted individual who rose to fame with his 1960s film versions of Shakespearean plays, Zeffirelli was “one of the world’s greatest men of culture,” Florence Mayor Dario Nardella said.
Perhaps best-loved outside his native Italy, Zeffirelli was granted the title “Sir” by Queen Elizabeth II and was nominated for an Oscar on two occasions – once for Best Director for his 1968 film “Romeo and Juliet” and a second time in the category of Best Art Direction for his 1983 film version of Giuseppe Verdi’s opera “La Traviata.”
Zeffirelli got his start in cinema as an apprentice to Luchino Visconti, serving as his assistant director on three of that Palme d’Or-winning filmmaker’s most acclaimed movies: “La terra trema” (The Earth Will Tremble), “Bellissima” and “Senso” (Senso or the Wanton Countess).
As director, Zeffirelli cultivated his love for the opera and the works of William Shakespeare.
One of his first films was a 1966 version of Shakespeare’s comedy “The Taming of the Shrew,” which starred Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in the lead roles.
In 1990, he also directed a film version of the Shakespearean tragedy “Hamlet” that starred Mel Gibson and Glenn Close and received two Academy Award nominations.
Other key works directed by Zeffirelli included the television mini-series “Jesus of Nazareth” that starred Robert Powell, Anne Bancroft, Ernest Borgnine and Laurence Olivier.
His final two movies as director were “Tea with Mussolini,” a semi-autobiographical film, and “Callas Forever,” a tribute to an opera diva – Maria Callas – whom he had directed on stage in three productions and described once as “the only woman he had ever been in love with.”
Zeffirelli came out as gay late in life, although he said he preferred the term homosexual, and revealed in a 2006 autobiography his great love for Visconti.
The director was a member of Italy’s Senate from 1994 to 2001 as a representative of Silvio Berlusconi’s center-right Forza Italia party and said he became a conservative due to his strong anti-communist leanings.
Zeffirelli was born on Feb. 12, 1923, in Florence, as a result of an extra-marital affair and therefore was not given the surname of either parent.
He only met his father after the death of his mother, Alaide Garosi, a classical music aficionado who wanted to give him the surname “Zeffiretti,” a word that means “little breezes” and which appears in an aria in Mozart’s Italian-language opera “Idomeneo.”
But an official mistakenly wrote down Zeffirelli.
Garosi died when Zeffirelli was a young boy and several women, including an aunt and members of the English expatriate community, helped to raise him.
One of those women, named Mary, taught him English and instilled in him a love of Shakespeare.