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Piero Tosi RIP

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  • Piero Tosi RIP

    Piero Tosi, Italian costume designer who ‘brought history back to life’ with his opulent period clothing in films such as ‘Death in Venice’ and ‘The Leopard’ – obituary

    Piero Tosi, left, adjusts Dirk Bogarde's costume with the director Luchino Visconti on the set of Death in Venice, 1971
    14 AUGUST 2019
    ​​Piero Tosi, who has died aged 92, became the first costume designer to earn an honorary Oscar and was notable for his work with Luchino Visconti, designing the sumptuous costumes for The Leopard (1963) and Death in Venice (1971).

    Although Tosi never worked outside his native Italy – he was said to be afraid to travel and only ever attended one film festival – he worked with stars including Burt Lancaster, Claudia Cardinale, Dirk Bogarde, Marcello Mastroianni, Sophia Loren, Alain Delon and Jean-Paul Belmondo, and with many other leading directors, including dressing Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Medea (1969) and doing the hair and make-up for hundreds of actors and extras on Fellini’s Satyricon (1969).

    But Tosi, who from the late 1960s collaborated with the Italian tailor Umberto Tirelli, became most famous for his almost symbiotic relationship with Visconti, which began with his comedy Bellissima in 1951 and continued until the director’s last film, The Innocent, in 1976. He was first introduced to Visconti aged 22 by Franco Zeffirelli, a former schoolfriend of Tosi’s who was then working as a set designer on Visconti’s stage production of Troilus and Cressida.

    Tosi was taken on as an assistant, and he and the director soon hit it off with their shared attention to detail and their belief that historical dramas should strive for a high level of accuracy, with costumes and props from the period depicted.

    Tosi would go to immense lengths to achieve the results he wanted. For Medea, he had thin layers of cotton sewn together, boiled in vats of starch, pressed in huge sterilisers and tinted with a thin brush dipped in aniline dyes.

    ​For a coronation scene in Visconti’s Ludwig, about the life and death of King Ludwig II of Bavaria, robes, some of which took three months to make and cost more than a million lire each, were trimmed with real ermine and stitched in gold.

    Tosi interpreted his role much more broadly than simply designing costumes. Zeffirelli once said of him that he “brought history back to life in every sense. He also taught actors the correct gestures; he’d tell them what to avoid, what to do with their hands. His work resulted in a union of different elements that rounded out the character.”

    Tosi felt that if actors were to feel and move convincingly, period authenticity needed to extend to everything they wore, down to the undergarments, including, if necessary, whalebone corsets.

    Claudia Cardinale, displaying a tiny waist in a dazzling white gown in the extended ball-scene finale of The Leopard, emerged bruised from the experience, though somehow managing to smile through her pain. The actress recalled that her gowns had been so tight that she had been unable to sit down properly in any scene.

    Romy Schneider, who played the Empress Elisabeth in Ludwig, also suffered from the required tight-lacing, her pain exacerbated by many riding scenes. When, shooting The Lady of the Camellias (1981), the producer Manolo Bolognini took pity on his actresses, allowing them to loosen their stays in some scenes, Tosi was vehement in his protests.

    Burt Lancaster and Claudia Cardinale wearing Tosi's sumptuous costumes (including, if necessary for reasons of authenticity, whalebone corsets) in The Leopard, 1963 CREDIT: ALAMY

    Visconti and Tosi took their shared belief in authenticity to its logical conclusion in Death in Venice (1971), set in 1911, for which many of the costumes, including Silvana Mangano’s Belle Époque outfits and enormous hats, were original pieces.

    However, Tosi himself created Silvana Mangano’s white linen summer day dress, Björn Andrésen’s horizontal-striped bathing suit and Dirk Bogarde’s suits, scarves and hats, and it was impossible to tell the genuine from the imitation.

    Tosi’s insistence on accuracy was not confined to the luxurious. For Visconti’s Rocco and His Brothers (1960), he interpreted the experience of poor emigrants from southern Italy in post-war industrial Milan by buying costumes for the early scenes from the brothers’ native Lucania, and evoking the pathetic seediness of the life of the prostitute Nadia (played by Annie Girardot), who has a professional interest in seeming fashionable, with coats trimmed with cheap fur collars.

    For Vittorio De Sica’s Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (1963), he designed the black negligée in which Sophia Loren performed her famous striptease scene, though he was pulled up short when trying to make her seem less of a diva in De Sica’s Marriage Italian Style: “I was approached by her husband, Carlo Ponti, who was also the producer of the film and he told me: ‘Piero, remember the audience wants Sophia Loren!’ I then understood they were selling the movie based on her image.”

    Piero Tosi was born on April 10 1927 in Florence and recalled, as a child, trips to the cinema to see Busby Berkeley’s musicals which “made me dream, making me forget for a moment war and the misery Italy was going through.”

    After graduating from Florence’s Accademia di Belle Arti, he landed his first job as a costume assistant on a stage production of Alfred de Musset’s Le chandelier, before working as an assistant set designer on Visconti’s Florentine stage production of Troilus and Cressida, and moving to Rome shortly afterwards.

    Tosi’s first screen credit came on Visconti’s Bellissima (1951), starring Anna Magnani, though he first won critical praise with Visconti’s Senso (1954), a densely layered story set in the Garibaldi period of Italian nationalism, which competed for the Golden Lion in Venice.

    It was during the making of this film that Tosi learnt the full extent of Visconti’s mania for accurate detail. When male extras showed up for the opening opera scene wearing black top hats, Visconti blew his top, exclaiming that any ignoramus knew that in those days grey top hats were worn to the opera.

    In 1963 Tosi earned his first Oscar nomination, for The Leopard, followed by another for Death in Venice, for which he designed almost 700 period costumes. He was delighted when actors showed the same care as he did with their costumes. As the prince of Salina in The Leopard, he recalled, Burt Lancaster “spent a lot of time at the mirror dressed as his Sicilian character to find that pride and nonchalant royalty that made him ‘true’ on screen”.

    Altogether Tosi designed 10 films for Visconti, including The Damned (1969), set in 1930s Germany during the rise of the Nazis, and received a third Oscar
    nomination for Ludvig (1972).
    Piero Tosi, centre, with Silvana Mangano and Luchino Visconti during the making of Ludwig in 1972

    The Argentine-born writer-director Martin Donovan, who worked as an assistant to Visconti on Death in Venice and Ludwig, once observed that Visconti and Tosi “understood each other so well” that they worked in “code” and Tosi would always have “last shout on his extras and turning them down if they weren’t right.”

    Tosi also received Oscar nominations for his colourful costumes for Édouard Molinaro’s camp comedy La Cage Aux Folles (1979) and for Zeffirelli’s acclaimed film of La Traviata (1982), with Teresa Stratas and Plácido Domingo.

    His other costume design credits included Mario Monicelli’s The Organizer (1963), starring Marcello Mastroiani, Liliana Cavani’s erotic drama The Night Porter (1974), with Charlotte Rampling and Bogarde, and Zeffirelli’s Sparrow (1993), an adaptation of a Giovanni Verga novel set in 19th-century Sicily.

    In later life Tosi could be found teaching aspiring designers at Rome’s Experimental Cinema Centre at the Cinecitta studios. Last October he was featured in an exhibition at the Palazzo delle Esposizioni as part of the Rome Film Festival, “Piero​​ Tosi: Exercises in Beauty, The CSC Years, 1988-2016.”

    By the end of his career, Tosi had twice won the David di Donatello for best costume design (for The Lady of the Camellias and Sparrow), a special 50th anniversary award by the Italian Academy in 2006, and two Bafta awards (for Death in Venice and La Traviata), but had gone home empty-handed each time he was nominated for an Oscar.

    He expressed himself “very flattered” in 2013 when the Academy of Motion Pictures awarded him a career Oscar, “especially thinking they had given it to me and not to Doris Day, who was in the competition”. Claudia Cardinale, who collaborated with him on 10 films, beginning with Rocco and His Brothers, accepted on his behalf.

    Tosi was unmarried.

    Piero Tosi, born April 10 1927, died August 10 2019
    Last edited by Maurice; 14th August 2019, 11:27 PM.

  • #2

    Loved his costume designs for Visconti, especially on Il Gattopardo.


    • #3
      The Guardian obituary