Bertolucci died at his home in Rome early on Monday, his press office Punto e Virgola said in an email.
Considered one of the giants of Italian and world cinema, Bertolucci was the only Italian ever to win the Oscar for best film, snapping up the award in 1988 for “The Last Emperor.”
The biographical masterpiece about the last Chinese emperor won a total of nine Oscars, all of those for which it was nominated.
He acquired notoriety for his 1972 erotic drama “Last Tango In Paris” starring Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider which featured a controversial sex scene involving butter.
He had been wheelchair-bound for several years and won an honorary Palme d'Or for his life's work at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival.
Former festival president Gilles Jacob said he was saddened by the death of “the last emperor of Italian cinema, the lord of all epics and all escapades.”
“The party is over: it takes two to tango,” Jacob told AFP.
Born in Parma, northeastern Italy, in 1941, Bertolucci made films that were often highly politicised, dealing with workers' struggles in “1900” or the fate of left-wingers in fascist Italy in “The Conformist”.
In 2016 several Hollywood stars accused him and Brando of abusing Schneider by keeping her in the dark about how the notorious butter scene in “Last Tango” was to be shot.
READ ALSO: Bertolucci responds to Last Tango rape row
Bertolucci acknowledged Schneider was not aware that Brando's character would use butter as a lubricant during the scene in which the actor simulates anally penetrating his lover, played by then 19-year-old Schneider.
“The only new thing was the idea of the butter. It was this, I learned many years later, that upset Maria, and not the violence that was in the scene and was envisaged in the script of the film.
“It is both consoling and distressing that anyone could be so naive to believe that what happens on the cinema screen actually takes place,” he said of viewers.
Schneider, who suffered drug addiction and depression before her 2011 death, said four years earlier she had felt “a little raped” during the scene and was profoundly angry about it for years afterwards.
When asked in 2013 how he would like to be remembered, Bertolucci told AFP: “I don't care.”
“I think my movies are there, people can see them,” he said at a presentation of a 3D version of “The Last Emperor” to mark the 25th anniversary of its international release.
“And sometimes I laugh, thinking I will be remembered more as a talent scout of young girls than as a film director,” he said.
The list of starlets he discovered includes Dominique Sanda in “The Conformist” in 1970s, the passionate Schneider in “Last Tango in Paris” (1972), Liv Tyler in 1996's “Stealing Beauty” and Eva Green, who made her screen debut in “The Dreamers” in 2003.
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