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Sunday, March 5, 2017

Anna Magnani, Rome Icon

Anna Magnani died in 1973 in Rome.  The story goes that a passer-by at a funeral observance in Piazza della Minerva, behind the Pantheon (above), impressed by the enormous crowd--much too large for the space--asked one of the participants: "What's going on?  Did the Pope die?"  "No," was the reply. "Much more important than that--Anna Magnani."

Almost a half century later, the actress who personified postwar Italian neo-realist cinema remains an iconic figure.  Images of Magnani--her face, especially, but her body, too--continue to appear on

Rome's walls and, recently, on a set of stairs at one of Rome's large public markets.

In 2013, the artist Biodpi explored Magnani imagery in an exhibition at one of Rome's alternative galleries, an ex-factory space known as the Lanificio

Front gate of the Lanificio (wool factory)

Part of the Biodpi show on Magnani

A chic Magnani walking a hip she-wolf.  Biodpi  

An unattractive rendering, Pigneto

Anna Magnani was born in Rome March 7, 1908, and not at Porta Pia (as some claim) but in a house at via Salaria 126.  Her mother, Marina, was 20 years old, unmarried, and Roman; her father, who had left the household for good before she was born, was Calabrese.  For reasons that remain unclear, Marina spent much of Anna's childhood in Egypt, leaving her daughter in Rome to be raised by her grandmother and five aunts.  As a young child, Anna lived briefly in an apartment in Piazza Costaguti, then for some time in a substantial 4th floor apartment on via di San Teodoro--in a neighborhood between the Campidoglio and Circo Massimo.  She recalled those years fondly: a large living room, an expansive terrace, and a pet hen.

When she was about 12 years old, Anna left elementary school and enrolled as a piano student (she took 6 years of lessons) at the Academy of Santa Cecilia in via Vittoria, not far from via del Corso (and still there).

At some point she discovered that the same building housed a well-known acting school--the Eleonora Duse Royal School of Acting--and at age 18 (1926), she began to study acting.  For several years she financed her lessons by singing in clubs while accompanying herself on the piano.  She was good enough to be known as the "Edith Piaf of Rome."  By 1930/31 she was traveling around Italy to take a variety of acting jobs.

Magnani married film director and script writer Goffredo Alessandrini in October 1935, in a civil ceremony at the Campidoglio, then took religious vows in December at the church of San Roberto Bellarmino in Piazza Ungheria (Parioli).  The couple lived for a time at viale Parioli 48. The marriage lasted until 1950.

Rome, Open City (1945).  Magnani as Pina, moments before her death.

Magnani became a star in 1945, in the now-classic film Rome, Open City.  She played Pina, the fiancée of Francesco, a resistance fighter.  With the Nazis occupying Rome, Francesco and others in the neighborhood are arrested in a Gestapo raid and put in a truck to be taken to a place of interrogation--or worse.  In one of the most famous scenes in all of Italian cinema, a distraught Pina runs after the truck, and is shot and killed.

In Mama Roma (1963), the Pier Paolo Pasolini film set in Rome, Magnani played a prostitute and mother.

Magnani, wearing the wolf.  Rome's Nomentana train station, 2016. LAC 68.
In both these films, and in many others, Magnani played a tough, no-nonsense, working-class woman, usually wearing a simple house dress.  Perhaps as a result, she is often identified with the Lupa (the mythic she-wolf that nourished Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome)--indeed, she was sometimes referred to as "La Lupa" or a "living she-wolf symbol."

Anna Magnani died in Rome in 1973.  She is buried in the Verano cemetery.