‘Queen of Italian cinema’: Film icon Monica Vitti dies aged 90

Actress Monica Vitti, best known for her starring roles in films by Michelangelo Antonioni, has died aged 90, the Italian culture ministry said on Wednesday.

Monica Vitti (R) on the stage of Spanish director Luis Bunuel's 1974 film
Monica Vitti (R) on the stage of Spanish director Luis Bunuel's 1974 film "The Phantom of Liberty". Photo: STAFF / AFP

“Goodbye Monica Vitti, goodbye queen of Italian cinema. Today is a truly sad day, we have lost a great artist and a great Italian,” Culture Minister Dario Franceschini said in a statement.

 Vitti shot to international fame with the 1960 drama “L’Avventura” (“The Adventure”) in which she plays a tormented woman who dallies with the lover of her missing friend.

Born in Rome on November 3, 1931, Vitti, real name Maria Luisa Ceciarelli, discovered her passion for the theatre during World War Two when she entertained her family with puppets to relieve boredom.

“As the bombs fell, when we had to take refuge in the shelters, my little brother and I would improvise little plays to entertain those around us,” she later recounted.

After graduating from Rome’s National Academy of Dramatic Arts in 1953, she began her career in the theatre, revealing a natural comic talent.

Vitti – who stood out from Italian contemporaries such as Sophia Loren and Gina Lollobrigida for her freckles and mane of blond hair – was eventually spotted by Antonioni, with whom she quickly developed an artistic and sentimental relationship.

This file photograph taken in 1962 shows Italian actress Monica Vitti acting in a scene of the film L’Eclipse (L’Eclisse). Photo by AFP.

“I was lucky enough to start my career with a man of great talent”, but who was also “spiritual, full of life and enthusiasm”, Vitti said in an interview on Italian television in 1982 

Working in dozens of films throughout the 60s and 70s, Vitti’s output slowed the following decade, although she collaborated again with Antonioni in 1980 for “The Mystery of Oberwald”.

Former Italian culture minister Walter Veltroni broke the news of Vitti’s death with a tweet. He said he had been asked to do so by Roberto Russo, Vitti’s husband, and expressed his “pain, affection and regret”.

The actress, who had been suffering from a degenerative disease, had withdrawn from public life in recent years.

Vitti’s death drew accolades across the spectrum of Italian society, with Prime Minister Mario Draghi saying Vitti “made Italian cinema shine around the world”.

“An actress of great wit and extraordinary talent, she conquered generations of Italians with her spirit, her bravura, her beauty,” Draghi said in a statement.

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Why did Italy choose opera over espresso in its bid for Unesco status?

Italy has put another pillar of national culture forward for inclusion on the UN agency's list of intangible global heritage - but it's not the art of making coffee, as many had hoped.

Why did Italy choose opera over espresso in its bid for Unesco status?

Music or coffee? This was essentially the tough choice Italy’s National Committee for Unesco was faced with when deciding which treasured Italian art form to recommend for recognition this year.

In the end, the committee on Monday chose to put forward the art of opera singing as the country’s candidate – meaning the art of making espresso coffee will not be considered for addition to the list alongside Neapolitan pizza-making after all.

On announcing the decision, the committee did not give any reason for its selection though said the much-discussed and somewhat controversial application for the candidacy of espresso coffee had been “highly appreciated”.

“With the candidacy of the Italian opera to the world’s intangible heritage, Italy is aiming to get recognition for one of its most authentic and original cultural expressions,” said culture minister Dario Franceschini after the committee’s decision.

“Italian opera singing is an integral part of the world’s cultural patrimony, which provides light, strength and beauty in the darkest hours”.

A performance of Puccini’s 1900 opera ‘Tosca’ at the Teatro San Carlo in Naples. Photo by Andreas SOLARO / AFP.

The announcement came as a boost for those working in opera houses and theatres across Italy after the Italian arts an cultural sector was hit hard by pandemic-related closures.

Italy has around 60 opera houses – the most in the world.

“Opera was born in Italy,” said Stephane Lissner, the French director of the San Carlo theatre in Naples, which opened in 1737 and claims to be the world’s oldest opera house.

“In the 19th century, when you arrived in any Italian town, the entire population sang opera arias. It was normal,” he told AFP.

Compared to France or Germany, he said: “Italy is different, Italian theatres are different… and if you go into the villages, they’re not even towns, you find small theatres.”

In Italy, lyrical music “is not just reserved for the elite”, he added, although he said “the majority of the public cannot pay certain ticket prices and has been abandoned”, which he said was a “huge error”.

In contrast, Italian coffee is an everyday pleasure enjoyed by the majority of the population – and the price of an espresso is kept below the symbolic threshold of one euro at most local bars due to the widespread belief that the drink should be  accessible to all.

READ ALSO: Where, when and how to drink coffee like an Italian

In fact, it’s not unusual for people to avoid bars that charge more than one euro for un caffè normale, even if that’s for a better-quality cup – with some reports of customers even complaining to the police about being charged higher prices for artisanal or specialist coffees. 

But this focus on keeping the price of Italian coffee low may be part of the reason the Unesco bid was rejected, according to food writer Nunzia Clemente in Naples.

“90-cent coffee shouldn’t make us proud,” Clemente wrote in a post on Italian food blog Dissapore.

Pointing to examples of corner-cutting by bar owners struggling to make a profit, she said “the final result is, half the time, bad to say the least”.

Unesco’s ruling on the bid for recognition of opera is due at the end of the year.