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I met Zeffirelli in Venice during the spring of 1990. He was there to launch the first Moro di Venezia, which Raoul Gardini was planning to race in America’s Cup competition. I was among the directorial staff who served as a liaison and in general coordination with Zeffirelli, who led the festival. Located at the Zattere, in the area of ​​the Magazzini del Sale and of the Remiera San Marco, event headquarters were equipped with a non-stop catering service provided by the owner of Harry’s Bar Arrigo Cipriani, who was related to Gardini by marriage.

We sipped Bellini and dined on fish on the Giudecca Canal and had dinner and lunch on the terrace of the Hotel Danieli, listening to the brass instruments of Verona intoning Gabrieli, as they did in the sixteenth century. There was a dinner place for a hundred guests in the tapestry room of the Renaissance Palazzo Dario, overlooking the Grand Canal next to the Guggenheim. It felt like a thousand years ago. The country had not yet been hit by the Tangentopoli scandal and for a decade had been enjoying a cheerful post-modern apocalypse.

Ennio Morricone wrote a musical piece for the moment the boat slipped into the waters between the Lagoon and the Lido, after it was built in secret in the Montedison yards of Port Marghera. Franco Zeffirelli managed the event well, combining moments of sweetness with sudden sarcasm. We watched him keep everything under control, following the gaze of his inquiring clear blue eyes. At one point a tanned Gianni Agnelli wearing a faded denim shirt and jeans appeared on the management pontoon accompanied by Jas Gawronski, and he began to talk to Zeffirelli. Just fifteen minutes later the lawyer left without saying goodbye to anyone. The offspring of aristocratic families had been recruited to take care of the illustrious guests.

A few years ago in Rome I visited the residence of Franco Zeffirelli between the ancient Appia and the Appia Pignatelli. The rooms were water green coloured in the Parioli 50s style, from English elegance to winter garden romantic. A scene of organized disorder, it featured white stucco symphonies and windows overlooking the park, latticework and consoles loaded with drawings by Lila De Nobili, and a constellation of framed photographs depicting stars and personalities. The dedications were affectionate, including one by Queen Elizabeth, one of the Zeffirelli’s admirers (he was named Knight Commander of the Order of British Empire for artistic merit and for his Shakespearean experience, the only Italian to obtain this honor). Dogs that had been rescued by kennels lay around on sofas. The pool looked a bit Sunset Boulevard, while typical Roman pines had a “de Chirico” effect on the place. Zeffirelli took center stage in his own private sphere, sitting in an armchair surrounded by books and magazines. He was full of energy and designs. Until his final breath, he played a determined leading role, rooted in his own convictions even as he became less lucid.

Franco Zeffirelli hated political correctness – the only American invention he didn’t like. New York’s Metropolitan Theater was his fiefdom. Unpopular with the Italian left since his breakup with Luchino Visconti, for whom he had worked as assistant director on Senso, he spent a lifetime defending a polemic worthy of the communal Italy and the Tuscan brand. Born in Florence in 1923 with the real name Gianfranco Corsi, he spent a tormented childhood as an illegitimate child, losing his mother at the age of six and then becoming a victim of abuse by a priest. In his theatre and cinema career, he debuted as an actor in the company of Paolo Stoppa, then became costume designer, set designer and director. By the 1960s his artistry had attracted international attention. Later he became a senator for Forza Italia led by Berlusconi, as he was a Catholic who took more conservative theoretical positions, influenced by the conciliarism of Giorgio La Pira who he met during his youth in Florence. Franco Zeffirelli was a Manichean, all his opinions were absolute.

In the Italian newspaper Fatto Quotidiano, the Neapolitan musicologist and writer Paolo Isotta accused him of institutional opportunism, vilifying him as fake, underhanded and ‘recchia’. “It’s strange – says a member the director’s inner circle – on the occasion of his death, Franco’s homosexuality seemed almost irrelevant in his journey as a man and artist, indeed, almost an embarrassment. He had never tried to hide it, despite his right-wing political ideas and conservative religious beliefs. This conceptual quarrel lived naturally. His two adopted sons, Pippo and Luciano, were his life companions, everyone knows that”.

Franco Zeffirelli with Cher, 1999. Photo: Alamy

“It is almost surreal”–says the same commentator –“that after the condemnation suffered by his opulent, and in my opinion, only apparently superficial aesthetics, suddenly there’s was a miracle. When Zeffirelli came to the defense of Oriana Fallaci, like him a Florentine and a counter-current thinker, he was assaulted by the media as a traditionalist and nostalgic fascist. Now leading institutions are shouting about the return of their prodigal son to his hometown Florence, with which he often had a stormy relationship. A turning point typical of the double standard in this country, a kind of catholic-communist post-mortem catharsis. Zeffirelli cannot be defined as a fascist, he has an anarchic vein which is intolerant of cliche and opposed to orthodoxy. He was an anti-communist. You see it in some of the futurist personalities, lashing out against any homologation of modernity, expressed in the violent tones that were common to it. Now we will see how the Foundation which bears his name in Florence will continue his work. His final version of the Verdi’s Traviata was staged at the Arena of Verona”.

There are those who recall an evening at his house in 1981 in New York, as his guests watched Ronald Reagan be elected as President of the United States on television. “Zeffirelli was a host, he always made you feel at ease, whoever you were.” That evening his guests included Diana Ross, Jon Voight and Brooke Shields, who had just shot Endless Love. “At one point, in that seaport full of celebrities, producers and beautiful people, Franco disappeared with some Adonis – the same source observes – and everyone winked as if it were an often rehearsed script. I do not agree with Paolo Isotta, that he was a hypocrite or a “whitewashed sepulcher”. He accepted himself with his own contradictions and was stronger for it. He was capable of unsettling jokes, with a fierce salacity that sometimes left even him dumbfounded. Whether one likes it or not, he managed to become a global phenomenon. He was also generous and welcoming, curious about existence, enthusiastic and full of humor. His work remains to tell the truth”.

His Jesus of Nazareth was not loved by the Vatican, who preferred the scarce narration of Pasolini’s The Gospel According to Matthew. His Catholic faith was sincere, like a love of animals. He was disappointed when, now an old man, he was not allowed to equip Villa Treville – his waterfront residence between Praiano and Positano, which later became a luxury hotel – an elevator which could offset the unevenness of his property, which clung to a steep stretch of the coastline. A former set designer gave him a hand, Renzo Mongiardino, who did Tosca Callas-Gobbi-Bergonzi at Covent Garden in 1964, up to Brother Sun, Sister Moon, the Franciscan epic filmed in 1972. Zeffirelli had contributed to the fame of Positano, hosting Liz Taylor and Richard Burton, Jeremy Irons and Leonard Bernstein, even Princess Margaret of England. Nureyev stood in front of him, island lord of the Gauls. He was forced to deprive himself of it.

Translated from the original Italian by Philippa Nicole Barr