Totò in Rome
The story of Totò and his relationship with the Eternal City told in a new book
My grandfather Totò loved Rome deeply. Rome the capital, naturally. The Eternal City. For him Rome was professional life, it was acclaim and success, the dream and the everyday. Two parallel worlds. Because there was the public Totò. But there was also the private one. And the Totò Metà-Fisico, as we wrote in the book published by Gruppo Editoriale and illustrated by the photos of Massimo Sestini, the photo-journalist who shares with the legendary Rino Barillari the title of absolute master of the shot.
No, Gianluca isn’t Totò’s grandson. He’s his son, as my mother Liliana told him, because at the end of the day we’re all Totò’s children. In spite of everything. But back to his relationship with Rome.
When I was born, I made the peace between my grandfather and my mother, as I write in a book (also with Gianluca Tenti) entitled I tre nonni, which we’ll publish sooner or later. Because there are many unknown aspects of il Principe that deserve to be known.
I remember my grandfather at home in Via Parioli. My grandfather with film stars, directors, the small-but-great Court of Miracles who jostled to sit at his side. I could hardly believe the list of important names. I remember Alberto Sordi, Nino Manfredi, Walter Pidgeon, Steno, Monicelli. And women, so many women. Gorgeous women. And all in love with grandfather.
But dinnertime wasn’t easy at Totò’s. It required a mixture of respect and reverence. Although he did everything he could to limit such occasions, because really he liked his privacy. Darkness. And he’d have his films screened at home. As a child, I used to try and disturb him as little as possible; one day he said to me: “Remember you’re a count!” I didn’t understand then, but now I do.
Why do I write these things? Because I believe the public - the reader - has the right to know these less talked and written-about parts of his life too. Episodes that are apparently insignificant, but are actually full of merit and which perhaps help us to better understand who Totò was - and continues to be.
The first anecdote, which I repeat often to close friends, is about the days when I used to accompany my grandfather to Cinecittà. His trusty driver Carlo Cafiero would leave us at the entrance to the sound stage, and the Principe - who in later years had problems with his sight - always gave a generous tip to anyone who showed themselves worthy of respect. That particular day he pulled out a fresh and crisp ten thousand lire note, as he always did. And he handed it to a man who was overweight, to put it mildly. The man didn’t hang around, he opened the door of the lift and he was off. Wonder where he’s going, I thought. When we got to the second floor, the door opened as if by magic. Totò brought out another ten thousand note and, not without surprise, I saw the same man again, panting and sweating, his hand held out reverently. This says a lot about my grandfather’s legendary generosity.
As we write these words, Gianluca encourages me to remember other anecdotes. And undoubtedly the most delicious of all concerns my first decent mark at school where - like all normal children - I really didn’t want to go.
It was the time Totò was being savaged by the critics. The newspapers couldn’t forgive his popular success. He suffered from this, but in the end he felt the affection of audiences made up for it. To cut a long story short, when I was in the second year of middle school, for homework we were asked to describe our families. And you know… at a certain point I wrote that I was ashamed to be Totò’s grandson. I don’t know why I did it. The teacher liked my work and gave me 7 out of 10. When I told them my mark at home, nobody believed me. And when my mother phoned her father, unaware of the merit I’d gained to the detriment of our family, Totò was extremely happy. He invited me to his house, opened his wardrobe and asked me to choose a tie - my first tie.
These are my earliest memories. And Tenti - as ever - adds Totò’s poor opinion of the small screen. He respected TV, but he didn’t love it. He didn’t like TV work, so his appearances were widely spaced, although he did have a special relationship with the singer Mina, whom he admired deeply.
The more I write, the more memories emerge. To the point where I want to go back over all my memories of Rome. The card games with my grandmother Diana, who taught me to play, and made cards appear miraculously between my textbooks. The life lessons my other grandfather, Carlo Ludovico Bragaglia (who directed some of Totò’s films) taught me from the heights of his boundless knowledge. My constant battles with my father Gianni Buffardi, soon to be rediscovered in Italy, who was Totò’s last producer. After his re-evaluation as a great actor, thanks to Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Hawks and the Sparrows. After Totò carrying an umbrella for protection against the sun as he walked with Anna Magnani during breaks in the filming of The Passionate Thief, on the banks of the Tiber in a Rome of decadent and heartbreaking beauty.