Esteemed Italian director Franco Zeffirelli dies aged 96

Winner of many decorations for his film enterprises, Zeffirelli's legacy lives on as the most classic adaptations of William Shakespeare's plays

Franco Zeffirelli
Franco Zeffirelli

Franco Zeffirelli, one of Italy's most respected artistic figures, has died at the venerable age of 96. He died in his Rome home after a long drawn-out bout with illness the Italian media have said.

His legacy lives on however, as Zeffirelli's prolific career in theatre and the opera was often translated to the screen. His interpretation of Romeo and Juliet is especially celebrated as one of the best Shakespeare adaptations and was rightfully acknowledged by the Academy Awards.

Shakespeare was a constant inspiration for Zeffirelli as he produced The Taming of the Shrew, Hamlet and Otello. For this reason, Zeffirelli was considered one of the greatest popularisers of his time as even his filmed operas reached a significant audience.

Zeffirelli was born on 12 February 1923 and raised in Florence as the illegitimate son of fashion designer Alaide Garosi Cipriani and wool merchant Ottorino Corsi, both of whom were married to other people.

He was named by his mother after a line about zeffiretti (breezes) in a Mozart aria. Cipriani, whose career was damaged by the scandal, died when her son was six and he was taken in by his aunt.

His passion for theatre was sparked as a child during holidays spent in Tuscany where he saw performances by travelling players. “I’ve never believed anything at the theatre as much as the fantasies those storytellers brought us,” he wrote in his autobiography.

Franco Zeffirelli's 1968 adaptation of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet
Franco Zeffirelli's 1968 adaptation of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet

Later, when he attended a Roman Catholic school in Florence, he had famously said that he was sexually assaulted by a prient. When the second world war broke out, he joined the partisan effort, twice escaped death by firing squad and became an interpreter for the Scots Guards. In the postwar years he switched from plans to be an architect and began a career as an actor in radio productions, including a role alongside Anna Magnani in L’Onorevole Angelina. Many years later, he would direct Magnani’s return to the stage in the long-running show La Lupa.

Although anxious about directing Shakespeare in English and in England, Zeffirelli launched a youthful production of the bard's most famous tragedy, starring Judi Dench and John Stride.

The film made Zeffirelli wealthy after claiming for many years that he had been living off freelance director fees and selling off a series of Matisse drawings.

Zeffirelli grew accustomed to stepping from one grandly ambitious project to the next, juggling theatre, TV and opera productions.

Further film projects included the 1981 romance Endless Love and a 1996 adaptation of Jane Eyre.

In 1994 Zeffirelli became a member of the Italian senate, representing Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party for seven years. He was made a Knight of the British Empire in 2004.