Stage and film director, producer, set designer, painter, wartime partisan, politician, and gourmet chef Gian Franco Corsi Zeffirelli was one of the world’s most significant opera and theater directors during the second half of the 20th century. Particularly renowned for his lavish stage sets and film adaptations of Christian biblical stories and literary–especially British–works, he was born in the outskirts of Florence on February 12, 1923 after an affair between Florentine Alaide Garosi, a fashion designer, and Ottorino Corsi, a wool and silk dealer from Vinci and descendant of Leonardo da Vinci. Since both were married to others, Alaide couldn’t transmit her surname or Corsi’s to Franco. She chose instead “Zefferetti”, meaning “little breezes” mentioned in her favorite opera, Mozart’s Idomeneo. Misspelt in the municipal birth register, it became Zeffirelli.
To commemorate the 100th birthday of its world-famous citizen, his beloved Florence has organized many events. These actually will begin a day early, on the 11th, at the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino with a symposium entitled E per castelli in aria—Franco Zeffirelli a cento anni dalla nascita, during which scholars and colleagues will talk about the various phases of the maestro’s career and passions like his anglophilism, his deep religious faith, love of opera and Maria Callas’ voice, cooking, painting and literature, especially Shakespeare. A guided tour of the Historical Archive of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino theater, which houses many of Zeffirelli’s preparatory works, will end the day.
The birthday morning ceremonies will begin at 9:30 with a benediction at his tomb in the cemetery of Porte Sante (Collodi, the author of Pinocchio, is also buried here; tours are available also in English during spring and summer). Soon-to-follow at 10 the mayor, Dario Nardella, will name a section of the Belvedere under the Piazziale Michelangelo for the maestro, who left the majority of his estate to Florence.
Immediately afterwards the Frecce Tricolori, Italy’s world-famous acrobatic pilots, will fly over the city. In the afternoon Italy’s Post Office is issuing a cancellation and a commemorative stamp, and at 3 PM a Zeffirelli-themed stamp exhibition, Franco Zeffirelli tra arte, fede e politica will open at the Fondazione Zeffirelli, Piazza di S. Firenze 5, just behind Piazza della Signoria open Tuesday-Sunday, 10 AM-6 PM, Closed Monday. The day’s commemoration will end with a concert at 5 PM also at the Fondazione. All the events are open to the public; reservations required.
The Florentine commemorations will end on February 14 with a performance also at the Fondazione by the tenor Massimo Giordano. The proceeds will be donated to Florence’s Ospedale Pediatrico Meyer.
Other commemorations in Italy will include musical performances and exhibitions: 8 performances of Zeffirelli’s 1963 production of La Bohème between March 4 and 26 at La Scala; 4 performances between February 12 and 19 at Verona’s Teatro Filarmonica of Aida, produced by Zeffirelli for Busseto’s Teatro Verdi in 2001; and his 2005 Pagliacci at Parma’s Teatro Reggio in April.
The exhibitions will be: Zeffirelli al Teatro dell’Opera opening in Rome on March 12; Zeffirelli all’Opera, also in March, at San Daniele del Friuli’s Palazzo Monte di Pietà and in June at Vieste’s Castel Svevo. Still in preparation is a documentary about Zeffirelli’s collaboration with Eduardo de Filippo to be held at the Fondazione de Filippo in Naples.
Outside Italy: 7 performances of Zeffirelli’s 1998 production of Aida at Tokyo’s New National Theater, but no dates are as yet available; also with no specific dates, an exhibition about his movie Gesù di Nazareth at Ribat di Monastir in Tunisia where the movie was filmed: and still under negotiations, performances at the Metropolitan Opera of La Bohème and an exhibition of Zeffirelli’s paintings (watercolors, pastels, and oil) of his opera sets. Contemporarily La Casa Italiana Zerilli Marimò, in collaboration with NYU, will organize a retrospective of Zeffirelli’s films.
To learn more about Zeffirelli’s life view, his semi-autobiographical film Tea with Mussolini (1999) and read his autobiography, Zeffirelli, first published in 1986 and updated in 2006, as well as Grace Russo Bullaro’s Franco Zeffirelli: Director of World Fame and Italian Aesthetic Sensibility, Dies at 96, published in La Voce, the same day Zeffirelli died on June 15, 2019.
However, if you want to see for yourself full-immersion, visit the Museum at the Fondazione. Its four sections: Luchino Visconti, his mentor, and Maria Callas, his inspiration; theater; opera; and cinema follows Zeffirelli’s career, each in chronological order. Its some 250 artifacts include a reconstruction of his studio, sketches, drawings, models, costumes, correspondence, photographs, film clips, awards, and posters. On the ground floor are the Archives of his personal and professional documents and his personal library, as well as Zeffirelli’s, Tearoom, Bar, and Restaurant serving his favorite Tuscan specialties.
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