The most knowledgeable of you will have noticed that La Donna Velata is a painting by Raphael and that the only illustrious Visconti of the world of arts was not a Renaissance painter, but last century’s great moviemaker, author of such masterpieces as Rocco and his brothers, Ludwig or The Damned. They’re right, of course.
However, I have given this title to my post, since I briefly became, during my career, the indirect incarnation of Luchino Visconti’s passion for this great master of Italian painting.
Oddly enough, I had never visited Florence. I spent most of my Italian career living in Rome or the Amalfi coast. I was glad to benefit of this long Ascension Day weekend to discover the prestigious city of the arts. On this Saturday, the 15th of march, the weather was quite unpredictable. No sweat ! I would cross Ponte Vecchio some other time.
I took advantage of the occasion to see the wonders of the Uffizi Gallery museum. The white marble antique sculptures, Quattro cento’s paintings, Botticelli’s Spring, the Birth of Venus, and the Renaissance masterpieces.
I secretly hoped to discover Raphael’s Donna Velata, of which I had only seen reproductions. That one held a particular place in my personal memories :
Some time before I joined Hammer studios in 1960, my agent John Mather organized a meeting with Luchino Visconti.
Among his many film projects, the great director was planning a documentary about past masters of Italian painting. A very particular documentary, since he intended to do photographic reconstructions of some major works. A dialog between art history and the plastic possibilities then available to photography and cinema ? Like most of his contemporaries (Rossellini, Fellini), Visconti was constantly inspired by the history of arts and paintings. He had thought of me to embody La Donna Velata.
Soon afterwards, he entrusted me to his team of dressers and make-up artists. The same crew who had already worked on his most beautiful pictures. They worked with great care, even refining details such as the right skin tone, and drape effects.
As for me, I tried to convey the grace emanating from La Donna’s face, rigorously observing the same attitude for the right hand and its bent fingers. A convention of the time, it seems, since Raphael reproduced it on numerous other paintings such as La Fornarina.
Sometime after these tests, I learned that the documentary’s production was postponed. Time went by, and it never came to be, but I always remembered these tests as a beautiful promise.
This passion for the portrait can be found in all of Visconti’s films. At a time when Cinemascope was merely a tool to shoot the wide open spaces, he was using it for close-ups of faces torn up in the torments of history. The faces he was filming became landscapes.
“La Donna Velata ?”, said again the guide of the Uffizi Gallery.
He shook his head and told me the painting was not there. I could find it in the Palazzo Pitti. I had to give it up. I did not have enough time to visit before going back to Pise.
It seems that La Donna Velata will forever remain a missed opportunity.
Right to left: Luchino Visconti and me during an award ceremony at Ischia.