Francesco Leoni made everyone immortal in his shots: in Genoa the Hollywood in Riviera exhibition on stars passing through Liguria

Francesco Leoni made everyone immortal in his shots: in Genoa the Hollywood in Riviera exhibition on stars passing through Liguria
Francesco Leoni made everyone immortal in his shots: in Genoa the Hollywood in Riviera exhibition on stars passing through Liguria

Marlon Brando he hated being photographed outside the sets. “I’ll break your face,” he shouted at Ron Galella, ‘paparazzo-superstar’ as Andy Warhol had nicknamed him. Galella ended up wearing a full-face American football helmet with anti-stick function after Brando broke several of his teeth and the jaw on June 12, ’73 in NYC, outside a restaurant in Chinatown. However, Galella died in his bed, aged 91, in 2022.

Many years later, Brando was spotted by the paparazzi in Rome, already fat, at night, inside a car, in an intimate conversation with an Italian actress (whose name I won’t mention): he didn’t even notice and the photo was only published by a para-hard magazine and few of us remember it.

A completely different type of images are those of Francesco Leoni, great photographer (not paparazzo). Genoese, who died on 3 October 2000, Leoni documented the Ligurian transits of people often unattainable: “I take the photos and tell you how I think, you who are a writer, a journalist, interpret them”, he said. Her images are almost never stolen, but agreed with the character. How he managed to convince them no one knows…

Today we can review the results of his shots in a splendid exhibition (Genoa, Galata Museo del Mare, until 24 August), organized by the Paolo and Giuliana Clerici Foundation. And it seems incredible, still speaking of Brando, to see him, in this exhibition, pose young and smiling while getting on the train at Principe Station or in front of a tobacconist where he has just bought cigarettes.

His photos are part of an amazing archive reorganized by Francesco Leoni’s daughter-photographer, Paola, and curated, among others, by Anna Dentonias well as enriched by some acquisitions of photographic material from other funds.

The review, entitled Hollywood on the Rivierais divided into two parts (actors and directors on set and on holiday in Liguria) and contains around eighty images (the archive instead contains 4 million negatives, 200 glass plates and thousands of prints, slides and digital photos made from 1930 to the 1990s).

And here I am faced with Elizabeth Taylor with her then husband (the fourth) Eddy Fischer, imposed by her in the hated (by Liz) Venus in Mink which was released the following year (’60) directed by Daniel Mann, a few years before Cleopatra of Mankiewicz where the diva met her great love Richard Burton and who, in that film, handed down to us his legendary, in every sense, blooper: the bra hook which, in a fleeting shot, can be glimpsed on the Egyptian queen’s back, under her tunic.

And we find Burton himself in the photo with Taylor, a few years later, already as her husband. Orson Welles he appears with his third wife, Countess Paola Di Gerfalco, aka Paola Mori, and their little dog, all at Principe station. In the Ricordi music shop (no longer there today), in the center of Genoa, Leoni immortalized Anthony Quinn and the excited shop assistants. Not far away, in Piazza Dante, Tony Curtis who takes a walk in the city, while we see Perry Mason-Raymond Burr, celebrated by a swarm of children, in Portofino.

Already, Portofinowhich has always been a very popular destination for the star system and a real hunting ground for Leoni: he took photographs there Humphrey Bogart with his wife Lauren Bacall while Bogey was filming, in ’54, alongside Ava Gardner, The barefoot countess by Mankiewicz; Roberto Rossellini and Ingrid Bergman; John Wayne and his Peruvian wife Pilar Pallete, with their children; Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier; Rex Harrison (who also had a villa in Portofino) with his new wife Rachel Roberts. And again in the square Jane Mansfield, who shortly afterwards (in ’67) died in a road accident; among others, again Vivien Leigh (and, in another photo, Clark Gable with lady, Silvia Ashley, who he left shortly after for the blonde Kay Spreckels); inevitable in a swimming environment, Ester Williams. And Greta Garbo!

Then the Italians, among many and many, Claudia Cardinale, Gina Lollobrigida, Lorella De Luca, wife of the Genoese director Duccio Tessari. While, not far away, in Santa Margherita Ligure, Leoni photographed a smiling man Totò with his partner Franca Faldini. I can’t mention others for space reasons, but know that they are all here. Even Laurel and Hardy and Walt Disney…

A curiosity: Leoni also photographs the athletic Victor Mature with Anita Ekberg on the set of an absurd spy-movie, Pickup Alley by John Gilling, from ’57, shot almost entirely in a very recognizable Genoa, but set in NYC, London, Lisbon, Athens… productive follies. Paradoxically, the few set photos taken by Leoni are ‘stolen’, exactly the opposite of what happens to paparazzi.

Much amarcord and much nostalgia in this unmissable collection of images (in the archive, out of show, I saw a photo of Hemingway leaning on the balustrade of the deck of a ship anchored in the port with a look that already revealed how much tragedy would soon happen). Images that made me think, with a quick calculation, that the characters portrayed in the approximately 80 photos displayed are all dead, except for two, who fortunately enjoy excellent health: the 73-year-old Carlo Verdone and Marisa Allasio who is now 87 years old. Good thing Leoni made everyone immortal.

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