Cinema and Media Studies Luchino Visconti
by
Brendan Hennessey
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 April 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0330

Introduction

Luchino Visconti (b. 1906–d. 1976) was one of Italy’s foremost directors of cinema, theater, and opera. A cultural figurehead of the Italian Communist Party (PCI), Visconti was seen as a major cinematic interpreter of the Italian Hegelian-Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci. To this political affiliation, one can also attach his upbringing as a Milanese nobleman and background as a gay man that would also influence interpretations of his films. Following a tutelage under French director Jean Renoir on films Une partie de campagne (1936) and Tosca (1940), Visconti inaugurated his own career in cinema with Ossessione (1942), the presumptive first film of Italian neorealism when directors in Italy turned their attention to the plight of the commoner, struggling in the wake of the Fascist dictatorship and the Second World War. Ossessione was followed by neorealist landmarks La terra trema (1948) and Bellissima (1951), and a few years later, the neorealist-inspired Rocco e i suoi fratelli (1960). These films introduced the conflux of realism, formalism, and melodrama for which Visconti’s cinema would be subsequently associated. Such characteristics were also evident in his parallel career on the Italian stage, where Visconti established himself as one of the nation’s pre-eminent directors of prose theater and opera. This activity on stage would contribute to Visconti’s reputation for working across media. In his cinema, structures from and allusions to theater, painting, and literature abound. Twelve of his eighteen films were based on one or more literary works, with Morte a Venezia (1971) celebrated as a groundbreaking chapter in European literary adaptation. His 1967 film, Lo straniero (1967), on the other hand, was panned for its slavish illustration of Camus’s book. To these and other literary-inspired works, Visconti added a few documentaries and numerous films set in contemporary Italy (episodes of Anna Magnani [1953] and Il lavoro [1961]; Le notti bianche [1957]; Vaghe stelle dell’Orsa [1965]) together with some of the largest-scale historical films in postwar European cinema. Senso (1954) and Il Gattopardo (1963) instantiate historiographically-rich analyses of Italian independence in the late 19th century. The biopic Ludwig (1974) is set in Bavaria during the same period, while La caduta degli dei (1969) pictures the rise of Nazism in Germany of the 1930s. During the filming of Ludwig, Visconti suffered a stroke that would cast a pall over Gruppo di famiglia in un interno (1974) and the posthumous L’Innocente (1976), an ornate tragedy based on a novel by Gabriele D’Annunzio.

General Overviews

While a great number of books examine Visconti’s cinematic oeuvre, the most comprehensive works listed here also include considerations of his activity in theater and opera. For this, Rondolino 2003 is the standard model for a far-ranging and comprehensive overview. Despite its age (the first edition appeared in 1981), it explores Visconti’s artistic production from cradle to grave in an effective and illuminating fashion. Its historical approach integrates film and cultural theory that was relevant for interpretations of Visconti’s films during the director’s lifetime and, therefore, provides a broad portrayal of this truly polymathic artist. The condensed but extensive Micciché 2002 offers a similarly encompassing perspective on Visconti’s multifaceted career. It covers all of his film and stage works, includes a rather useful summary of the director’s principal thematic concerns (History, Defeat, Women, Sex, Melodrama, Music, Painting, Literature, Classicity), then a few of Visconti’s most famous articles and essays. Bacon 1998 is the best overview in English. Although mostly concerned with his cinema, the author organizes Visconti’s filmography along thematic lines to excellent results, exploring connections between film and Italian culture that includes clear and concise discussions of main theoretical schools of the era. Two recent volumes in Italian, Giori 2012 and Giori 2018, signal a revived era for the study of Visconti and are most promising for transporting Visconti studies into the 21st century. Surveying the landscape of Visconti’s work in its entirety, these two volumes review traditional approaches to his film and theater (realism, political cinema, decadence) in terms of masculinity, sexuality, and an enduring and much-debated interest in the erotic, indicating new pathways for scholarship to come.

  • Bacon, Henry. Visconti: Explorations of Beauty and Decay. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781139173094E-mail Citation »

    Extensive overview in English of Visconti’s cinema and the various critical prisms through which it was understood. Rather than the traditional chronological approach, Bacon separates Visconti’s films into categories: neorealism, the Risorgimento films, films about the family and modern society, Visconti and Germany, and Visconti and European literature. These enhance examinations that cross the director’s oeuvre and aid in understanding the overall culture of the artist.

  • Giori, Mauro. Poetica e prassi della trasgressione in Luchino Visconti 1935–1962. 2d ed. Milan: Libraccio, 2018.

    E-mail Citation »

    Absorbing overview of the first half of Visconti’s career and the scandals his films and stage works provoked. The book is organized around various “transgressions” that solidified the director’s reputation for pushing the limits of representation: the lead-up to and reception of Ossessione; the influence of his enduring interest in Tennessee Williams on his stage work and the film Senso; then the clash with Italian censors over Rocco e i suoi fratelli and his theatrical production of Giovanni Testori’s L’Arialda.

  • Giori, Mauro. Scandalo e banalità. Rappresentazioni dell’eros in Luchino Visconti (1963–1976). Milan: LED, 2012.

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    Comprehensive analysis of the second half of Visconti’s career, this book compares the director’s films to the radical changes to traditional moral codes and institutions of censorship that took place in Italy during the 1960s and 1970s. Beginning with Il Gattopardo (1963), Giori demonstrates how Visconti’s works reflected an evolution in society, where an increasingly straightforward approach to eroticism on film suggested a progressive loosening of attitudes toward sexuality in Italy.

  • Micciché, Lino. Visconti: Un profilo critic. Venice: Marsilio, 2002.

    E-mail Citation »

    This volume in Italian seeks to crystallize Visconti’s production in a short, dense book of less than two hundred pages. Its concision, appropriate for scholars, allows the author to explore and interconnect various “Viscontian” characteristics as they developed across the decades. Contains considerations of his extracinematic activities and the social and political context within which he worked. Especially useful are the thematic summaries, where diverse threads tie his films together.

  • Rondolino, Gianni. Luchino Visconti. Turin, Italy: UTET, 2003.

    E-mail Citation »

    Originally published in 1981, this book is a classic study of Visconti’s film, theater, and opera in a single volume in Italian. Rondolino frames his book of Visconti’s artistic development and contributions with the artist’s biography, featuring important sections about the director’s life and position in Italian culture, as well as a vast array of influences that would stimulate his subsequent production across the dramatic arts.

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