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Monica Vitti (Rome, 3 November 1931 - Rome,  2 February 2022), actress, was a female landmark in Italian comedy. Here, an iconic portrait of her by Pierluigi Praturlon, 1969

text Cristina Borsatti

April 6, 2022

The life and career of Monica Vitti

The life and career of the popular Roman actress, Monica Vitti in her official biography, of which we publish an extract

From Rome to Sicily. From Sicily to Naples, and then back to Rome again. Due to the war and the premonition that the Americans would come ashore in Sicily.

Cover of the book Monica Vitti by Cristina Borsatti, Giunti, from which the text of this article was extracted

Monica was eight years old when she left Messina and the news, it seems, upset her because she was already head over heels in love with a nine-year-old blond-haired boy. She watched him from a terrace and swore her eternal love to him, as she did “two or three more times, no more than that”.

But it was wartime and there was the need to escape danger. Monica’s family moved from Messina to Naples, “in a beautiful house in Vomero, where you could see the sea”, which soon became another place they had to flee. “We spent every night in the shelter,” explained the actress on one of the few occasions she spoke about those years. “But Naples had become dangerous too, so my father took us to Rome, with a small case packed for a few days; the rest was supposed to follow in trunks.” But they never arrived because of a bomb that destroyed everything, erasing their home and her childhood things, all those memories.

Vitti wrote about it in her books.

That’s where, delving deep, we find details about her family and childhood, which wasn’t exactly a golden age, like for many perceptive children.

Are children always happy to be children?

“No, that’s not true. Children are almost always unhappy, apart from the dumb ones. No?”

These were the years in which she received her earliest nicknames.

At home, they called her “Bad Dreams”, as she was tormented by nightmares.

Monica Vitti (Rome, 3 November 1931 - Rome, 2 February 2022), actress, was a female landmark in Italian comedy. Here, an iconic portrait of her by Pierluigi Praturlon, 1969

But they also dubbed her “Seven Petticoats”, for her unusual vice of dressing too much. Of course, in Sicily, there was no heating in the winter and her mother made her wear “sweaters, undershirts, petticoats, dresses and overalls”, which didn’t bother her. “On the contrary [she later remembered, ed.], I was proud of it, and when somebody came to visit, I’d say, ‘Look, I’m wearing seven petticoats. One, two, three, four…’ My mother never let me reach the seventh one because she said it was a disgrace to lift up your skirts…”

Vitti wrote that things haven’t changed since then. She still dresses too much, like in her youth, and she continues to have the nightmares of her past, somewhere between dreams and reality.

An outtake from the set of 'Gli ordini sono ordini' by Franco Giraldi (1972), with Gigi Proietti (ph. ©Album / Collection KHARBINE-TAPABOR / Mondadori Portfolio)

“I still don’t know whether certain things from my early years, which I remember clearly and with terror, were real or whether they were bad dreams.”

“Scatterbrain” was the third affectionate nickname that her parents quickly gave her: oblivion, the opposite of memory.

She had two brothers, Giorgio and Franco, plus an early yearning for freedom and independence, which, unlike them, she felt the need to establish for herself. Perhaps through acting itself, a fantasy that wasn’t one of her family’s expectations.

Her family was against it: “What a nice idea becoming an actress is. Take the story you want, the characters you want, that way you can make the story end the way you want it to…”

At the 27th edition Cannes Film Festival, May 1974 (ph. ©Gilbert TOURTE / Gamma-Rapho / Getty Images)

During what she regarded to be the hardest time in her life, she ran away and immediately pretended to be somebody else, helped by her brother, Giorgio, staging her first show for the kids in the neighbourhood (six or seven children, the same age as her) as she read real or made-up poetry and sang from a window with a curtain.

What did the theatre mean to her?

She’d later reply: “…escape, rest, play, my home…”

As well as: “…imagination, the freedom always to change my story, always to feel something new…”

When she decided to attend the academy, her mother in particular was against it; she was concerned about the “dust on the stage that eats away at your body and soul”.

But Monica had made up her mind; she was willing to do whatever it would take to act. And so, she mustered up the courage and went to the exclusive place that the Academy already was in the early Fifties. It took her two attempts before she was accepted.

On the first try, it was Silvio D’Amico himself who examined her on an excerpt from Giocosa’s Come le foglie. “Too much passion, not enough detachment from the words,” D’Amico told her, inviting her to try again the following year, when D’Amico finally granted her admission: it was October 1951.

At this point, Monica had one final hurdle to overcome: her voice. “Her vocal cords did not allow her to take on the strain of a career in the theatre,” wrote one doctor, as he noted a negative verdict on a medical certificate. But she stood her ground.

On the set of 'L’eclisse' (1962) with Antonioni and Delon (ph. © Raymond et Robert Hakim Diltz / Bridgeman Images)

“Either you give me the green light or I’ll walk out that door, down the steps and throw myself under the first car I see,” were her convincing words. Practically a theatrical performance, equally irresistible for the doctor, who throw his initial opinion in the bin.

“At least teach her how to walk!” was what her mother said to Sergio Tofano, the actress’s first real tutor and thanks to whom she began acting.

Her first real theatre debut was in 1953, even though she had acted in Niccodemi’s La Nemica a few years before with a group of kids who were older than her. Yes, the enemy, the mother, not the daughter, on her request. She was 14 and a half, and she donned her first costume: a white wig belonging to an old gentlewoman and a dress from the period. “It was a big success,” the actress remembered. “Plenty of applause and lots of flowers, as well as a good write-up in ‘La fiera letteraria’, which spoke about me and made me blush.”

Still without her famous stage name and fresh from the academy, Marisa Ceciarelli trod the boards in Euripides’ Iphigenia in Aulis, appearing in the chorus. It was Sergio Tofano who suggested that she should adopt a stage name, which she found in her mother’s maiden name, Vittiglia, taking the first part. For us, from that day forth, she would always be Monica, which she invented by reassembling the syllables in Maria Luisa Ceciarelli.

Monica Vitti.

It sounded good on the playbill.

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