Franco Zeffirelli

Franco Zeffirelli is celebrated and honored with so many awards that made him one of the most distinguished Italians on the cultural and cinematic stage. He is the only Italian to have the title of "Sir", given in 2004 by Queen Elizabeth II for his exceptional contribution to the spread of the English theater in the world, staging Shakespeare's great works in a refined, faithful manner.
Franco Zeffirelli

Biography and Career

Zeffirelli was born Gianfranco Zeffirelli, on 12 February 1923, just outside Florence. Both his father, Ottorino Corsi (who was to recognize him many years later, when the name in the records became "Gianfranco Corsi Zeffirelli"), and mother, Alaide Garosi, were married to other partners, so his mother was unable to use her surname or Corsi's for her child. She chose "Zeffiretti", the "little breezes" mentioned in Mozart's opera Così fan tutte, but the surname was mis-spelled in the civil records office and became "Zeffirelli".

When he was six years old, his mother died and a group of English expatriate ladies, the "Scorpioni", looked after him. These ladies were subsequently taken to an internment camp, and Zeffirelli never saw them again (the Scorpioni ladies inspired Zeffirelli's semi-autobiographical 1999 film "Tea with Mussolini"). During his years with the Scorpioni, Zeffirelli learned to love Shakespeare. Decades later, Zeffirelli's 1968 Romeo and Juliet was to become the best ever movie adaptation of the play (both he and the film received Oscar nominations).

In 1941 he graduated from the Accademia di Belle Arti, Florence, and on his father's advice began to study art and architecture at the University of Florence. Fair-haired and handsome, Zeffirelli was working as a set designer when he met Luchino Visconti, starting a long cooperation and tormented love.

Between the '40s and '50s he became the assistant of famous directors such as Michelangelo Antonioni, Vittorio De Sica, Roberto Rossellini and Luchino Visconti himself. His activity ranged in various fields, from theater to film, opera and television, painting, politics, education, achieving critical acclaim and audience success.

In recent years (in an interview in January 2013 he claimed he has projects that will keep him busy to the end of the 21st century), in his house outside Rome, in the company of the two adopted sons, Pippo and Luciano, he is concentrating on his Fondazione Zeffirelli for a "Centro delle arti internazionali e dello spettacolo" which was born in May 2013.


His favourite themes came from Shakespeare and religion, fields were he produced movies of exceptional beauty and insight, among them:
  • The Taming of the Shrew (1967), starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, who helped fund the production and took a percentage of the profits rather than their normal salaries.
  • in 1968, he chose two unknown teenagers Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey (who will impersonate Maria in Jesus of Nazareth), for Romeo and Juliet, still today immensely popular and unsurpassed
  • Brother Sun, Sister Moon, about the life of St. Francis of Assisi, one of the great "heroes" in Franco Zeffirelli's own pantheon, with Jesus and Mother Theresa
  • an extended mini-series Jesus of Nazareth (1977) a co-production of Italian RAI and British ITC International Television Corporation, a major success in the ratings and frequently shown on TV, with Robert Powell as Jesus and an all-star cast including Plummer, Bancroft, Steiger, Olivier, Borgnine, Ustinov and Quinn.
  • The Champ (1979) a remake of the Academy Award-winning film of 1931 directed by King Vidor.
  • Endless Love (1981) adapted from Scott Spencer'a novel.
  • Hamlet, where he chose the then-action hero Mel Gibson for the lead role and Glenn Close as Queen Gertrude
  • An adaptation of Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre (1996), which was a critical success.


Franco Zeffirelli has also been a major opera director of productions since the 1950s.
  • La Traviata (1958), with Maria Callas, Dallas, Texas
  • Tosca (1964), with Maria Callas and Tito Gobbi, Royal Opera House.
  • Lucia di Lammermoor (1959), with Dame Joan Sutherland
  • Norma, Callas' last interpretation, Paris Opera. A great friend of Maria Callas, in 2002 Zeffirelli directed a movie in her honor, "Callas Forever".
  • several productions of La Bohème, Tosca, Turandot and Don Giovanni for the Metropolitan Opera, New York
  • Don Carlo (1992) with Luciano Pavarotti


  • "Per Firenze" (1966), on the occasion of the disastrous flood of 4 November 1966, narrating voice (in Italian) of Richard Burton, montage Amedeo Giomini, musical score Ennio Morricone, costumes Anna Anni. The documentary was of great importance in fund-raising to help the city recover from the emergency.
  • "Omaggio a Roma" (2009), a tour through thousands of years of history and art whose leit-motif is water and marble, photography Daniele Nannuzzi, montage Cecilia Zanuso, musical score Alessio Vlad, with Monica Bellucci, Andrea Bocelli, and historical clips with Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn, Marcello Mastroianni and Anita Ekberg, and Anna Magnani.

Suggested reading and links

Omaggio a Roma

The documentary in the YouTube video below (the last 10 minutes are shorter, promo versions) includes three musical pieces whose lyrics can be seen in the scrollbox below the video:
  • Anna Magnani's interpretation of "Com'è bello fa' l'amore quann' è sera" in the fifth episode (Fioraia del Pincio), directed by Luchino Visconti, of the 1953 movie "Siamo donne"
  • Andrea Bocelli in "E lucevan le stelle" ("And the stars were shining"), from the third act of Giacomo Puccini's Tosca, sung by Mario Cavaradossi, a painter in love with the singer Tosca, while he waits for his execution in a cell in Castel Sant'Angelo, Rome.
  • Andrea Bocelli in "Nessun dorma" (=None shall sleep), an aria from the final act of Giacomo Puccini's opera Turandot, sung by Calaf, the principe ignoto (=unknown prince), who fell in love at first sight with the beautiful, cold Princess Turandot, who likes to play a cruel game with her suitors: who wishes to marry her must first answer three riddles; if he fails, he will be beheaded. The background where Bocelli sings in the Coliseum by night.
The video is no more available in its complete version because of copyright issue. Small parts can be found searching for "Omaggio a Roma Zeffirelli". The transcript is maintained below for reference.

Nu scennevano le coppie innamorate
se ne stavano abbracciate a pomicià,
er barista je portava la guantiera
cò' la bira e cor caffè che allora c'era.
There came down loving couples
they were embraced cuddling each other,
the barman took them a tray
with the beer and cofeee they had at the time.
Ma che luna... ma che luna c'è stasera
vede er monno chi s'affaccia a 'sta ringhiera,
da San Pietro all'artre cupole laggiù
fino ar mare più lontano sempre più.
But what a moon... what a moon tonight
you see the world from these railings
from St Peter's to the other domes there
as far as the sea, farther and farther
Che m' importa se quassù
non c'è nessuno,
che m'importa
si nun trovo da scajà,
What I care if up here
there is no one
what I care
if I can't earn,
mo' sti fiori li regalo a Roma bella
che li porti ad un sordato in sentinella.
Now these flowers I'll give to beautiful Rome
so they'll be given to a sentry soldier.
E lucevan le stelle
e olezzava la terra
stridea l'uscio dell'orto
e un passo sfiorava la rena...
The stars were shining,
And the earth was scented.
The gate of the garden creaked
And a footstep grazed the sand...
Entrava ella fragrante,
mi cadea fra le braccia.
Fragrant, she entered
And fell into my arms.
O dolci baci, o languide carezze,
mentr'io fremente
le belle forme disciogliea dai veli!
Svanì per sempre il sogno mio d'amore.
Oh, sweet kisses and languorous caresses,
While feverishly I stripped
the beautiful form of its veils!
Forever, my dream of love has vanished.
L'ora è fuggita,
e muoio disperato!
E muoio disperato!
That moment has fled,
and I die in desperation.
And I die in desperation!
E non ho amato mai tanto la vita,
tanto la vita!
And I never before loved life so much,
Loved life so much!
Nessun dorma! Nessun dorma!
Tu pure, o Principessa,
nella tua fredda stanza
None shall sleep! None shall sleep!
Even you, O Princess,
in your cold bedroom,
guardi le stelle
che tremano d'amore e di speranza...
watch the stars that tremble
with love and with hope!
Ma il mio mistero è chiuso in me,
il nome mio nessun saprà!
But my secret is hidden within me;
none will know my name!
No, no, sulla tua bocca lo dirò,
quando la luce splenderà!
No, no! On your mouth I will say it
when the light shines!
Ed il mio bacio scioglierà
il silenzio che ti fa mia.
And my kiss will dissolve
the silence that makes you mine!
Voci di donne (le stelle)
Il nome suo nessun saprà...
E noi dovrem, ahimè, morir, morir!
Voci di donne (le stelle)
No one will know his name,
and we will have to, alas, die, die!
[Il principe ignoto]
Dilegua, o notte! Tramontate, stelle!
Tramontate, stelle!
All'alba vincerò!
Vincerò! Vincerò!
[Il principe ignoto]
Vanish, o night! Fade, you stars!
Fade, you stars!
At dawn, I will win!
I will win! I will win!