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Alberto Sordi with a friend, Rome 1964

text Teresa Favi
photo Rino Barillari

October 17, 2018

Rino Barillari, The roman King of Paparazzi, tells his story

of adventures, strokes of genius and wisdom. A legend of gossip

164 hospital stays, 11 broken ribs and more than 70 smashed cameras. Rino Barillari is a living legend, the world’s most famous ‘paparazzo’, and he’s still working. With a vast photographic archive of more than 600,000 images, from the 1950s to the present day and constantly growing, because his spirit is so feisty, his love of the profession so strong, that even now the King - as Federico Fellini called him - continues to hunt exclusives for Rome’s daily paper Il Messaggero. An exhibition at the MAXXI organised by the Istituto Luce (until 28 October), a book and a documentary written and directed by Giancarlo Scarchilli and Massimo Spano and entitled Rino Barillari. The King of Paparazzi give a comprehensive overview of his incredible career, from the Dolce Vita years to events that shaped the course of Italian history.

How did your career as a photographer begin?

I left Vibo Valentia, my hometown in Calabria, when I was 14. I wanted to discover the world, and I found it in the magical city of Rome, along with photography. It was a chance encounter. At the Trevi Fountain there were the so-called ‘scattini’, photographers who took pictures of tourists and persuaded them to buy them as  souvenirs, while kids like me made a note of their hotel and went to deliver the envelopes in the evening. That’s how I got started.

But you don’t get to be the King of Paparazzi by chance…

One day one of the photographers lent me his camera, and, well, that day I earned more than he did, and soon I found myself taking photos too. In those days international celebrities used to come, especially in the evenings, so I started taking photos of them. After a while I realised you can earn more with VIPs than you can with tourists.

Do you remember your first photo?

My first important job was an American with a rubber dinghy and two top models. The photographer he’d hired hadn’t arrived, he saw me hanging around with my camera and asked me to take the photos. I handed over the roll of film and he gave me the money. 

How were the Dolce Vita years from a photographer’s point of view?

Exciting, by any measure. One night I was in tears listening to Frank Sinatra singing in the street outside Harry’s Bar. The actresses would go to the hairdresser, put their best dresses on and go out at the required time - six o’clock - to spend the evening in Via Veneto, in the hope that sooner or later a paparazzo would photograph them in one of the hot night spots - the 84, the Pipistrello, Jackie O’ or, best of all, Harry’s Bar.

What if someone didn’t want to be photographed?

There were scuffles and punch-ups. 

War is war, that was your motto…

When you run after someone and take their photo, what do you do with the photo? You need the story. Getting into a fight was the moment of provocation: if the person refused, you got the very best shots when you made them angry. 

Who were the most violent actors you came across?

Peter O’Toole - he cost me two stitches in the face; I’d caught him with Barbara Steele, and he was married. Then there was Brigitte Bardot, who didn’t want to be photographed with Gunter Sachs. The actress Sonia Romanoff once shoved an ice cream in my face.

And the most friendly?

Best of all was Alberto Sordi, and the actress Virna Lisa. But it was also great dealing with Vittorio Gassman, Amedeo Nazzari, Sophia Loren, Claudia Cardinale and Anna Magnani. 

What was your relationship with Federico Fellini?

Every time I met him he’d say to me: “A Barilla’ ti fai mena’”; I’d look the other way when I saw him with women… He started calling me the King because I was everywhere, even at crime scenes, and he often used to ask me strange things about car crashes, like what happens when the injured person’s lying on the road, how long it takes for the ambulance to arrive, what they say at the hospital… 

Is there a piece of advice you’ve always followed?

Have respect for people, never get to the point of ruining them. Celebrities and paparazzi are close relatives. 

The popularity of the former is the other’s source of work, so if the photographer destroys that it’s an own goal. 

What are your best hunting-grounds in Rome today?

Piazza Navona, Campo dei Fiori, San Lorenzo, Via Veneto and sometimes, on Sundays, the Vatican; there’s always someone interesting to photograph in the crowd.

Coffee breaks?

Harry’s Bar in Via Veneto at 10 for a good strong one, then later at the Dolce Vita in Piazza Navona. After that, around 11.30 at Ciampini, and at Rosario’s in Piazza del Popolo. 

And the best aperitifs?

Are you kidding? I work until 4 in the morning, no aperitifs for me! 

So, Barillari, what have you been searching for through the lens all your life?

The unique shot, the one nobody else can get. 

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