ROME — While Italy’s actors and directors have had erratic success in crossing over to work in the international arena, a distinguished list of the country’s key technical collaborators — visual artists in particular — has been consistently in demand on both European and Hollywood productions.
The work of cinematographers such as Vittorio Storaro, Dante Spinotti, Giuseppe Rotunno and Carlo Di Palma, and production designers like Gianni Quaranta, Ferdinando Scarfiotti and Dante Ferretti has earned them considerable international standing. But perhaps nowhere has Italian craftsmanship made such an impact than in the costume department.
Veteran designers like Danilo Donati and Piero Tosi, Oscar winners Milena Canonero, Gabriella Pescucci and Franca Squarciapino, and many others such as Enrico Sabbatini, Nana Cecchi and Maurizio Millenotti have established worldwide reputations, virtually cornering the market for dressing classy frock pieces.
Distinguished by an artisan’s approach to their work, Italy’s designers frequently were spawned from the rich training ground of theater, ballet and opera. Others were nourished by their apprenticeship during the golden years of Italian cinema, when directors like Luchino Visconti mounted opulently appointed costume dramas, and Hollywood epics like “Ben Hur” and “Quo Vadis” took up residence to shoot at Rome’s Cinecitta studios.
Designers like Tosi and Donati were among the first to earn admiration beyond Italian borders. Known for his painstaking perfectionism and the accuracy of his historical detail, six-time Oscar nominee Tosi initially made his mark designing for the opera and legit productions of Visconti and Mauro Bolognini, later working on films by the same directors, including Visconti’s lavishly costumed “The Leopard.”
Donati also cut his teeth on the stage productions of Visconti, along with those of Franco Zeffirelli. While his highly original, often over-the-top creations are indelibly associated with the films of Federico Fellini, he also worked extensively with Pier Paolo Pasolini. Donati won his first Oscar in 1968 for Zeffirelli’s “Romeo and Juliet” and his second in 1976 with his flamboyant costumes for “Fellini’s Casanova.”
These seasoned designers have been followed by a younger, equally accomplished generation. An assistant to Tosi on Visconti’s “Death in Venice” and “Ludwig,” Pescucci now is regarded as among the best in her field.
Since graduating to solo work and establishing her skills with films like Bolognini’s “The Ferramonti Inheritance” and Fellini’s “City of Women,” she has turned heads with her inventive, detail-laden designs for films like “Once Upon a Time in America,” “The Name of the Rose,” “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen,” “The Scarlet Letter” and “The Age of Innocence,” which won her an Academy Award.
Passing it on
Pescucci, in turn, contributed to the training of Millenotti, who served as her assistant after a stint in the workshop of film and theater costume-maker Umberto Tirelli, another key figure in the formation of many Italian designers.
Millenotti created costumes for Fellini’s “And the Ship Sails On” and “Voice of the Moon” and earned an Oscar nomination for his work on Zeffirelli’s “Hamlet.” More recently, he costumed “Immortal Beloved” and “Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.” He currently is dressing trans-Atlantic travelers from the turn of the century through World War II for Giuseppe Tornatore’s English-language feature “The Legend of the Pianist on the Ocean” with Tim Roth.
In her blood
Like Millenotti, who has worked successfully in film, ballet and opera, another designer that divides her attentions between stage and screen jobs is Cecchi, whose parents both were costumers. A former dancer herself, Cecchi is best known for her imaginative reworkings of medieval designs in films like “Ladyhawke” and “First Knight.”
Sabbatini’s experience runs from Biblical epics to the somber realist dramas of Francesco Rosi. He gained international recognition and an Oscar nomination for his work on “The Mission” and more recently designed swashbuckling pirate garb for “Cutthroat Island.”
Given the flair shown by most Italian costumers for ornate, stylish reinterpretations of historical models, their creativity often seems constrained by contemporary settings and is more often called upon to enhance period pics like Jean-Paul Rappeneau’s definitive screen version of “Cyrano de Bergerac,” which won Squarciapino an Oscar in 1990.
Perhaps the best-known of Italian designers and the one least confined to the period sphere is Canonero, who has won Academy Awards for “Barry Lyndon” and “Chariots of Fire.” Trained in Italy but based in England for many years, she has made distinctive contributions to a diverse range of films.
Canonero’s work runs from the style-setting safari attire of “Out of Africa” to the prison grunge of “Midnight Express,” from the sleek glamour of “The Hunger” to the boldly stylized cartoon outfits of “Dick Tracy.” In addition to “Barry Lyndon,” she designed costumes for director Stanley Kubrick on “A Clockwork Orange” and “The Shining,” and for Francis Ford Coppola on “The Cotton Club” and “Tucker.”
Being generally a very design-conscious culture in which attention to clothing, cut and style is a major part of the national zeitgeist, it is perhaps not surprising that Italy is one of the world’s most fertile territories for costume designers.
Second fiddle to fashion
But the achievements of the country’s leading costumers and their international success tends to be overshadowed by that of Milan’s fashion designers. New collections by style gurus like Armani, Versace, Dolce & Gabbana and Prada often appear to occupy as much space on Italy’s newscasts as world affairs.
But surprisingly, there is scant crossover between the country’s thriving fashion industry and the film costume sector. With the odd exception, like Armani’s gangster threads for Brian De Palma’s “The Untouchables,” Italy’s celebrated mode moguls rarely dabble in film designs.