Carlo Levi’s name is synonymous with the novel and the film “Christ Stopped at Eboli”, but in Italy he was highly regarded as a visual artist, and one of his most famous paintings is ” Ritratto di Anna Magnani” (Portrait of Anna Magnani).

Created in 1954, the dramatic oil on canvas painting benefits from the close friendship between the two. Levi captured his intensity and spirit perfectly. Look her in the eyes and you will immediately see that she is deep, not very talkative, passionate and loves a lot. Levi painted it with a wavy brushstroke that was typical of the style he used to depict the peasants of Basilicata, where he was exiled by the Fascist government in 1935. There are so many things I like in this table. In my opinion, it doesn’t fit perfectly into a particular style of art. Maybe there’s a bit of idealization and naturalism with some abstract qualities, which suits Magnani just fine, because you can’t fit into a category either. I also like the Roman landscape behind it. She was and still is the embodiment of Roman, so it’s fitting that her background is the Eternal City. Quoted as saying, “Please don’t touch up my wrinkles. It took me so long to win them over,” she was a strong, unapologetic woman and this portrait embodies that by making her stand out so vigorously from the background.

One of Magnani’s most famous American films is Sidney Lumet’s 1960 “The Fugitive Kind,” adapted from Tennessee Williams’ 1957 play “Orpheus Descending.” She stars alongside Marlon Brando and gives an epic performance. Although the film was made six years after the portrait was made, it reminds me of her character, Lady Torrance, and her fiery personality. To view a video clip, Click here.

Despite a successful career, she had a difficult personal life and died at the age of 65 from pancreatic cancer. If you see her last film, “1870”, released on Italian television the day she died in 1973, you will see how radiant and full of life she was until the very end. To see the movie, Click here.

The portrait was recently exhibited at the Fondazione Ragghianti in Lucca as part of the exhibition “Un’amicizia tra pittura, politica e letteratura”, dedicated to Levi and his friends. The exhibit addressed Levi’s interest in film and his work as a screenwriter. He created a poster for the 1961 film “Accattone” by Pier Paolo Pasolini, who also spent time in Lucania. Pasolini filmed his 1964 “Gospel According to St. Matthew” there, so I can’t help but wonder if the two shared stories of their time in the area.

Younger generations of Italians greatly appreciate the legacy of the intellectuals and cultural giants who came before them, and these two icons, Carlo Levi and Anna Magnani, are among the greatest.


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