Gina Lollobrigida obituary: Italian screen star and acclaimed photographer

Lollobrigida helped define mid-century Italian stardom, swerved a Hollywood career and later found acclaim on the other side of the lens.

23 January 2023

By Pasquale Iannone

Gina Lollobrigida at her home in Rome in 2008 © Marco Di Lauro/Getty Images

Toward the end of Alessandro Blasetti’s 1952 comic anthology film Times Gone By, we find ourselves in a courtroom in 19th-century Naples. A young woman named Maria Antonia (Gina Lollobrigida) is standing trial for the attempted poisoning of her husband and her mother in law. Her fiery lawyer (Vittorio De Sica) makes a passionate case for his client in front of a raucous crowd and finally gets her acquitted by convincing the court that Maria Antonia’s maggiorata fisica (her voluptuousness) should absolve her of responsibility. This eye-catching moment led to the term becoming widely used in Italy to describe full-figured female stars such as Sophia Loren and Silvana Mangano, but it was Lollobrigida – ‘La Lollo’ – who first blazed the international trail for the maggiorate in the 1950s.

Born in 1927 in Subiaco, a town around 45 miles east of Rome, Lollobrigida began studying art and singing at the capital’s Academy of Fine Arts in 1945. Her ambition at that point was to become an opera singer. A year later, despite her initial misgivings about the film industry, she appeared in a small role in Riccardo Freda’s The Black Eagle, a historical adventure which went on to become the biggest grossing film at the Italian box office in 1946. After a couple of years alternating minor film roles with beauty pageants and appearances in photo-romance magazines, her first starring role came as the adulterous Nedda in Mario Costa’s 1948 adaptation of Ruggero Leoncavallo’s opera Pagliacci. “Given that my early successes were down to my physical attributes,” she told Visto magazine in 1955, “all the parts I was being offered had me showing off my body and keeping my mouth shut […]”

Beat the Devil (1953)

In 1950, with only a couple of starring roles under her belt, Lollobrigida received an invitation to Hollywood from mogul Howard Hughes. On her arrival in Beverly Hills, she was given the full star treatment and was signed to a seven-year deal. It soon became clear, though, that the RKO boss was interested in more than a professional relationship with the (already married) Lollobrigida. She returned to Italy and did all she could to work around the strict terms of RKO contract by performing in European productions and in American pictures shot in Europe, such as John Huston’s Beat the Devil (1953) – her first major English-language role – and Carol Reed’s Trapeze (1956).

In 1952, French director Christian-Jacque cast her in 18th century adventure Fanfan la Tulipe opposite Gérard Philippe’s eponymous peasant soldier. As Reka Buckley has noted: “In contrast to a more genteel portrayal of womanhood, [Lollobrigida] was presented as down-to-earth and direct. She was sexually provocative but in an apparently innocent, natural way; she was often seen as the sexy siren with a heart of gold.” 

Another two important lead roles for Lollobrigida during this period were in the Alberto Moravia adaptation The Wayward Wife (Mario Soldati, 1953) and – reuniting with De Sica – Luigi Comencini’s Bread Love and Dreams (1953). Lollobrigida always spoke with great affection for De Sica, describing her meeting with the acclaimed writer-director of Bicycle Thieves (1948) as the key encounter of her career. “I trusted him completely and we really enjoyed ourselves,” she told Oggi magazine in 1977. “In Bread Love and Dreams, you have all of his spirit, his sense of humour, his heart.”

Lollobrigida with Tony Curtis in Carol Reed’s 1956 circus drama Trapeze

By the mid-1950s, Lollobrigida’s rivalry with fellow maggiorata Sophia Loren started to be hyped up in the international press, even though both stars were, of course, quick to deny it. Lollobrigida continued to make interesting films into the 1960s and 70s, collaborating with Basil Dearden, Frank Tashlin, Mauro Bolognini, Jerzy Skolimowski and others. Loren’s career – guided by her producer husband Carlo Ponti – took her further into Hollywood circles and indeed to Oscar glory for her performance in De Sica’s Two Women (1960).

In 1972, Lollobrigida was reunited with Comencini for a critically acclaimed six-part adaptation of Carlo Collodi’s The Adventures of Pinocchio. She played the fairy with the turquoise hair as part of a cast of veteran Italian stars including Nino Manfredi (Geppetto) and – who else – De Sica as the judge.

Lollobrigida’s renown as an artist extended far beyond her film and TV roles. She was also a sculptor and a documentarian as well as an acclaimed photographer. On the occasion of a Parisian exhibition of her work in 1980, Le Monde’s Hervé Guibert began his interview with Lollobrigida by comparing her to none other than Henri Cartier-Bresson. She went on to describe how her worldwide fame posed countless challenges for her as a photographer. No matter where she went around the globe, she would be recognised. It was even worse in Italy, where she was in the odd position of being a working photographer pursued by paparazzi. 

In 2018, Lollobrigida was presented with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, a long overdue recognition for a fiercely independent artist whose long and varied career proved she was far more than the mother of the maggiorate.

  • Gina Lollobrigida, 4 July 1927 to 16 January 2023
BFI Player logo

Stream hand-picked cinema

A free trial, then £4.99/month or £49/year.

Get 14 days free