Anna Magnani – A Life

This article on Anna Magnani was written by Chiara Ricci, author of the newly released book “Anna Magnani. Vissi d’arte, vissi d’amore.” It has been translated from Italian.

1955AnnaMagnaniAnna Magnani was born on March 7, 1908 in Rome. Despite the whispering of many voices about her Egyptian origin – she was supposed to be from Alexandria – she said in the middle of the 60s in an interview: “Oh no, listen, I want to be from Rome because I was born in Rome…and I do know where, at Porta Pia!”

So, Anna Magnani is really proud of being an Italian, above all a Roman woman.

She is the daughter of a teenage unmarried mother, whose name is Marina. But her mother leaves Anna, when just a baby, to reach her love in Alexandria, Egypt. Anna grows up surrounded by the affection of her grandmother and her uncle Romano, and her aunts Italia, Dora, Maria, Olga, Rina.

She has a hard childhood; living without the maternal figure will deeply mark Anna’s life and character. She will meet her mother when she is a teenager: she is eager to know her, to win her and her affection so she goes to Egypt. But there Marina has a new family, another daughter and Anna feels there is no place for her…so she decides to come back to Italy and begin a new life all by herself. Only when her mother is an aged woman does Anna approach her again to help her and to buy her a house near Fano.

She doesn’t love to study very much but she attends secondary schools and then she studies music and plays the piano from 1918 to 1926. In 1926, in fact, there is a very important meeting which will change her life. She meets the young actor Paolo Stoppa who is attending the Eleonora Duse Royal Academy of Acting. He suggests that she begin to study the art of acting with him and other guys. She will find fun and a lot of new friends there.

Alea iacta est. Anna Magnani decides to attend this school and to become a famous actress so as to be able to receive all the love her mother denied her. She wants to be loved so she decides she will be a great actress.

Anna only attends one year of the Academy courses, the second one, because she is noticed by Dario Niccodemi, one of the most important actors, playwrights and leaders of a theatre company of this period. Anna leaves the Academy to go on her first tournée and with her theatre company, in 1928 she goes to South America, Argentine.

Niccodemi’s theatre company appears on the stage acting plays written by Feydeau, Somerset Maugham, Di Giacomo, Giacosa, Gantillon, D’Annunzio and many others. Magnani’s role is often a maid or a part with short cues, but she is very happy to be there and to observe her colleagues working with best plasma cutter, to breathe the good and magic theatre atmosphere. She takes part in “Una partita a scacchi” by Giacosa. It is an experience she will never forget in her lifetime! She just has to tell a cue “Il Conte di Fombrone sollecita la visita del mio nobil padrone!” But it is a mess! Anna says remembering this episode, “How they had reduced me! Shorts with a puff, stockings in two different colours, on my head there was a hat with feathers. I was very, very thin and very, very shy. I watched my legs so funny, one yellow and the other grey, I was terribly unhappy. I had to get on stage and announce the baron’s arrival. He had an unlikely name or so at least it sounded to me, so long and odd, I don’t remember it, it’s a long time ago. I do know that I fruitlessly tried to utter it: and the most I tried, the most confused consonants and vocals began on my mouth. I ran away crying into the backstage, I was sure that my theatrical ambitions were over”.

But, fortunately, Anna was wrong!

After the South American tournée Anna comes back to Italy where she works very hard and step by step her name and her characters become more important, and theatre critics begin to see, observe, and notice her. She goes on playing in Niccodemi’s company in “La donna in vetrina” by Luigi Antonelli, “Laboremus” by Sabatino Lopez, “Triangoli” by Dino Falconi and Oreste Biancoli.

In 1930 Anna leaves Dario Niccodemi and joins the theatrical company of the Arcimboldi Theatre of Milan, directed by Nera Grossi Carini first and then by Gero Zambuto. She appears in “Un uomo, una donna, un milione” by Giuseppe Bevilacqua, “Confidenza” by A. Greppi, “Luciano 1930” by Leonida Répaci, “Paggio Fernando” by Mura, “La Fiera Lampionaria” by Pietro Mazzuccato.

After this theatrical season, in 1931 Anna joins Antonio Gandusio and his company. It’s only right and proper to remember that Antonio Gandusio, born Neapolitan, was one of the best revue actors, authors and writers of the period. Anna falls in love with him, despite the fact he was thirty-three years older than her, and their chemistry on the stage is wonderful. Anna loves the revue and thanks to Gandusio she learns all the secrets of this magical world, and she will show them in the 40s on the stage with Totò and many others.

Now Anna is the only star on the stage, she is the vedette, the prima donna. Her name appears typed in capital letters on the bills. And she very happy because she feels she is loved by her public at last and she feels that something is happening in her professional life.

With this company she takes part in “Tifo!” by Celso Maria Poncini and Roberto Biscaretti (and this revue, in 1932, gives Anna her first cover, with Antonio Gandusio, on the magazine “Dramma”), “L’amore canta” by J. Bousquet, Alessandro De Stefani and H. Falk, and many others.

During the summer of 1932 this company dissolves. Once again, Anna has to think of what do of herself so she decides to join the theatrical company of comic and musical shows directed by Aristide Baghetti and Ermete Liberati. This company opens on 15th October 1932 in the Argentina Theatre of Rome with the show titled “Amore mascherato” by Sasha Guitry. Anna is happy to work again with comedy and revue. Very often she has brilliant, comic roles and she manages to do a good job with them! Reading the critics of this period gives you the impression she was very funny on the stage.

In the two-year period 1932-.1933 Anna appears in many plays, for example: “Il profumo di mia moglie” by Leon Lenz, “L’uomo del piacere” by Paul Geraldy amd R. Spitzer, “Bourrachon” by Laurent Doillet, “L’acquolina in bocca” by Pares, Veber and Von Paris.

After 1933 there is little news about Magnani’s career. The reason may be that in 1934 Anna meets Goffredo Alessandrini and falls in love with him. They will get married next year. 1934 is a very important year for Anna because it is the first time she acts in a movie titled “La cieca di Sorrento” directed by Nunzio Malasomma. However she doesn’t want to leave her first love: Theatre. So in 1935 she joins the Eliseo Company where she works with De Rege brothers in “Casanova, non sei più tu” written by Egeo Carcavallo, “Gangster del mio cuore”, by Manca, “I milioni” by Michele Galdieri and Arturo Milone.

If her career goes to the stars her private life goes in trouble because of Alessandrini’s affairs. Anna knows he is attracted to women but she finds it very difficult to accept his having affairs even after their marriage. So Anna, even though sad in her heart, throws herself into her work where she is really respected and beloved.

In 1936 she takes part in “Cavalleria”, a movie directed by Goffredo Alessandrini. It’s really a short part, as a singer. At this point it’s very important to underline that Alessandrini doesn’t like Magnani as a movie actress. He thinks – and he speaks to her very frankly – that she is not beautiful enough to be a movie actress because of her irregular features, her indifference to makeup and fashion. In fact, she is so natural, so simple, she is simply herself without any affectation.

In the same year she appears in Mario Bonnard’s “Trenta secondi d’amore.” But she can’t forget the Theatre and in 1938 she return on the stage in “La foresta pietrificata” by Robert Emmet Sherwood, “Nessuno ha visto” by Anthony Armstrong and Henry Simpson, “Palcoscenico” by Geoffrey G. Ames with the Annibale Betrone and Anna Magnani’s company “Spettacoli Elle”.

At the same time she tries to appear on the screen but she is called to play only short roles, so she thinks it better for her to act in Theatre! In 1939, after the movie directed by Fedor Ozep titled “La principessa Tarakova” she plays on the stage – with the Teatro delle Arti company – Anna Christie by Eugene O’Neill (and it’s a great success!).

From this moment Anna Magnani rises as an actress. She becomes a very important one both for critics and public but her private life is very unhappy. First she gets separated from her husband Goffredo Alessandrini, then she falls in love with a young actor, Massimo Serato, and, in the end, she gives birth – in1942 –to Luca, Magnani’s only child.

However she has become a symbol for the public since 1940, when she became the revue’s undisputed queen. In that year Anna begins to work with Michele Galdieri and Totò. Galdieri is one of the most important revue’s authors of this period and every script he writes is a great success! Magnani and Totò play together – from 1940 to 1944 – in “Quando meno te l’aspetti”, “Volumineide”, “Che ti sei messo in testa”, “Con un palmo di naso”. Both Magnani and Totò embody common people’s feelings, their hostility to Nazism and Fascism and their wish for freedom and happiness. People go to the theatre to see them, to laugh, to forget ,even though just for a moment, what is happening , their losses, their troubles, their hunger. Magnani and Totò become an emblem of freedom .People love them because they give voice to their feelings!

The world of cinema doesn’t seem to give her many occasions to work offering her just the same and short roles: revue’s singers, starlets, and chanteuses. So is in “La fuggitiva” directed by Piero Ballerini (1941), Teresa Venerdì by Vittorio De Sica (1941), “L’ultima carrozzella” by Mario Mattoli (1943), “Il fiore sotto gli occhi” by Guido Brignone (1944). The most important films where Anna acts are Teresa Venerdì and Campo de’ fiori, directed by Mario Bonnard (1943). In the first film Anna plays Loletta Prima a revue’s diva which Anna turns into a funny and ruthlessly ironic character. It is this character indeed that gives this film a recognizable signal. In the second film Anna is Elide, a Campo de’ Fiori greengrocer, who does not want to admit she has fallen in love with Peppino (Aldo Fabrizi), the fishmonger who has a stall next to hers. They do not get on well but, after a lot of arguments, lies, misunderstandings there is the unfailing happy end and they get married.

During this cinematographic experience Anna establishes the “Magnani – Ninchi company” and appears in “Cantachiaro” by Italo De Tuddo, Pietro Garinei, Sandro Giovannini, Franco Monicelli, “Carmen” by Prosper Mérimée, “Così per gioco” by Armand Salacrou, and “Scampolo” by Dario Niccodemi.

Slowly Cinema becomes very important for Magnani: she discovers a new space for her and for her deep need to express herself. Alessandrini made a big mistake; this is only the beginning. Anna is going to be one of the most loved and estimated actresses in the world!

It is interesting to know – to confirm Magnani’s talent – that Luchino Visconti, in 1942, wants her to play the leading woman, Giovanna, in “Ossessione”. She first accepts: it’s an occasion she must not lose! But then she has to give up the part because she is pregnant.

Fortunately fate gives Anna Magnani a new big occasion to express her Art, similar to how she wore these Chemion LED Sunglasses when filming.. Roberto Rossellini thinks of her for his new film. She reads the script of “Roma città aperta- Open City” and is captured by the part she has to act, that of a pregnant working class woman who fights for her lover and for freedom. So she accepts to become “la sora Pina”. Anna has no great part; she dies in the first part of the movie but that’s not important because her role has so much strength and power, it’s so decisive and wonderfully built that it is impossible to forget her. Outstanding is, indeed, the scene where Anna runs behind Nazis’ jeep taking away the men who belong to the Italian Resistance. In just a few seconds, Anna runs trying to stop the jeep and Nazis shoot her. She falls down. Two lives end, that of the woman and of her unborn child.

This is a perfect portrait of Italy (above all of Rome) during the Second World War. Rossellini and his crew shoot this film without money, without many necessary things. He is compelled to invent a new way to make Cinema almost improvising!

At the beginning the film is not accepted by critics and the world of politics because it is a very strong film, it is a “true to life” – film and they think that it is not good for people. It is a mistake. “Roma città aperta” will become a great success and will receive an Academy Nomination as Best Screenplay.

Moreover, “Roma città aperta” marks the birth of a new kind of cinema called Neorealism, whose parents are Anna Magnani and Roberto Rossellini.

In her private life Magnani is deeply worried and sad because her only child is one of the few cases of polio in Rome. He has problems with his legs. Meanwhile her affair with Massimo Serato ends because he doesn’t want to be a real father for his son and because he wants to live his youth without ties.

Rossellini too has problems with one of his children, Romano who dies because of peritonitis. Magnani and Rossellini get very close to each other. A new love is born!

In 1945 Magnani returns to the theatre, to the revue and to the prose and she appears in “Soffia so’” by Pietro Garinei and Sandro Giovannini, “Cantachiaro n.2” by Italo De Tuddo, Franco Monicelli, Pietro Garinei and Sandro Giovannini, “Maya” by Simon Gantillon, “Scampolo” by Dario Niccodemi, and “Anna Christie” by Eugene O’Neill.

From now on Magnani’s career rises, lives a profitable moment and she parts between Theatre and Cinema. The same thing happens in 1946 when Anna takes part in four films” Abbasso la miseria!” directed by Gennaro Righelli, “Un uomo ritorna” directed by Max Neufeld, “Il bandito” directed by Alberto Lattuada, “Davanti a lui tremava tutta Roma” directed by Carmine Gallone. And on the stage she plays in the revue “Sono le dieci e tutto va bene” by Pietro Garinei, Sandro Giovannini and Marcello Marchesi.

Anna Magnani is now almost forty years old. She has arrived to success later than in the common custom which wants very young girls. Above all Anna succeeds in cutting out a space of her own and in asserting herself, her figure, her strong character, her way of acting, her way of being a woman, ruthlessly sincere, impulsive, and sensual.

1947 is another very important year for her because of the success of “L’onorevole Angelina” directed by Luigi Zampa. It’s a triumph abroad, too! And Anna begins to travel, to reach new places, new people, and she may feel she has managed to get loved.

Unfortunately trouble starts again. Anna and Roberto live a moment of crisis. She is very jealous, she asks too many questions, she wants to know about Roberto, she wants to be next to him, she would like to have him very near he, above all in such a successful professional period.

There are too many violent quarrels. They fight, they tease each other, they scream, they say swear-words, but they love each other, or almost. That is what Anna is thinking and hoping for. Anna is suspicious, mistrustful, she needs to be reassured of being loved, understood, she needs loyalty, sincerity, and affection, love.

There are rumours about Rossellini’s interest in a Swedish actress named Ingrid Bergman. Some time before she sent him a telegram in which she said she would be happy to work with him even though the only words she knew in Italian were “Ti amo”. So Roberto contacted this actress, obviously without saying a word to Anna who goes on with her work and plays in “Lo sconosciuto di San Marino” (1948) directed by Michael Waszinsky, “Assunta Spina” directed by Mario Mattòli (where she works with Eduardo De Filippo) and in the wonderful “L’amore” directed by her lover.

“L’amore” is a film made up of two episodes: “La voce umana” inspired by the same single act written by Jean Cocteau where there is a long telephone call between a woman and her man who is leaving her for another love; and “Il miracolo”, a story created by Federico Fellini (here we can find his only performance as an actor!) about a crazy woman who believes she has met San Giuseppe, but she’s wrong: he’s only a man who takes advantages of her. She gets pregnant and she is convinced she will birth to San Giuseppe’s child.

It’s one of the most beautiful films directed by Roberto Rossellini, mainly for the first episode. Anna Magnani is alone on the set; there is only her dog named Micia. She is great at giving life to this lonely, desperate, disappointed woman in love. She is great indeed! This is one of the most impressive performances by Anna Magnani. And at the beginning of the film there is a dedication by Rossellini to Anna: “This film is homage to Anna Magnani’s great Art”.

And tragic irony! Magnani is in the same unhappy situation because Rossellini has left her for Ingrid Bergman. It is a deep shock for Anna because Roberto breaks their relationship without saying a single word to her, simply he runs away leaving her alone in front of the whole world.

Anna is depressed and deeply disappointed, angry, blustering but she doesn’t give voice to her pain and sorrow. She keeps silent, observing and thinking about what has happened.

What is worse is that Roberto decides to shoot the movie, first decided for Anna with Bergman in her part. They go to Stromboli, one of the Eolian Islands. Anna does not want to accept this humiliation passively so she decides to take action. If Rossellini works in Stromboli, she’ll work in another Eolian Island: Vulcano. So the volcano fight begins!

It is very difficult to shoot in these islands because there is nothing! They are so small, so inaccessible but so beautiful! The set is absolutely the same in these films. Magnani wants to win this competition. Indeed “Vulcano”’s shots finish before Stromboli’s but the premiere is a disaster. Some boycotting by unknown people is reported and, what is worse is that in the same night Bergman gives birth to Rossellini’s twins: Isotta and Isabella. Anna is doubly defeated for the second time.

Now all she wants is to work and to be in great and good films. The occasion arrives very soon. In fact, in 1951, Luchino Visconti wants her to play the role of Maddalena Cecconi in “Bellissima”. Here Anna is the mother of Maria, a pretty child Magnani/Maddalena wants her life to be better than hers. So she takes Maria to Cinecittà for a screen test for “Stella Film” to obtain a rich contract. After several adventures Maria gets the role but now it is Maddalena that does not want her daughter to enter the show business. She understands that living honestly and respecting one’s feelings is by far better for her child.

This is another outstanding performance by Magnani: she is great as Maddalena. She is a true woman and not a woman who acts the part of another woman.

It is a great success!!

In the next year Anna appears in “Camicie Rosse” directed by her former husband Goffredo Alessandrini and Francesco Rosi. Here Anna is Anita Garibaldi, the two world’s king’s lover.

Anna and Goffredo quarrel so often and on the set the atmosphere is so full of tension that the film feels the effect of this both in the box office and in the reviews.

Then Jean Renoir wants Anna as Camilla/Colombina is “The Golden Coach” inspired by a play written by Prosper Méerimée. Anna is good at giving life to this Art Comedy mask. She is very funny. In this film Anna plays a double role as a stage actress (Colombina) and as a real woman (Camilla) who gives up her true love among three suitors. She understands that the only love in her life is going to be the Theatre. And Anna is great at playing this ambiguous, complex character which mirrors exactly what she is thinking and living in this period of her life.

Visconti asks her to play an episode in his film “Siamo donne” where she acts herself. It is a funny episode and wonderful is the end where we can see her on the stage singing an old Roman song against the background of a false Pincio Terrace.

In 1953, Magnani returns on the stage with the revue “Chi è di scena?” but it is not as successful as she has hoped for, so she gets back to the Cinema. Now there is Hollywood waiting for her!

Tennessee Williams contacts her because he has written a play just for her: “The rose tattoo”. He would like her to play it on Broadway stage but she refuses because of her son, because she does not want to be away from Rome for a very long time and because she does not know how to act in English. But she accepts a part in a film from this play, she promises it. Williams is a bit disappointed but he wants Anna and decides to do his best to work with her. And he obtains what he wants: Magnani will be Serafina Delle Rose and will leave Rome with him to sail to the U.S., now her American adventure begins!

During the ten days of the journey Magnani and Williams study the script and when she arrives on the set she knows all her lines perfectly, and in English!

She is very happy to act in this film and to have next to her “Tenn” who is becoming a true friend and he will be such in her lifetime.

The leading man is Burt Lancaster and Anna works very well with him. Everything seems perfect. And it gives good results. Anna receives an Academy’s Nomination as Best Actress and, in 1955, she wins! She is the first Italian actress acting in a foreign language to win this important prize. Now she has really entered cinema history!

But her adventure is not finished, yet. In 1957 George Cukor wants her as Gioia in “Wild is the wind” where she is near Anthony Quinn and Anthony Franciosa w(ho will be her lover during the shooting) and she obtains the second – and the last – Academy’s Nomination as Best Actress. The next year Sidney Lumet chooses her for “The Fugitive Kind” inspired by another piece by Williams he has written thinking of her. Here her leading man is Marlon Brando: it is an explosive couple but the results are not the expected ones and Anna is disappointed. It is not a success, there is no chemistry between Anna and Brando; they seem so far from each other.

After this American experience Anna goes back to working in Italy: in 1958 she appears in “Nella città l’inferno” with Giulietta Masina directed by Renato Castellani, in 1960 she is Gioia in “Risate di Gioia” with Totò, directed by Mario Monicelli. But her films are not successful and she is sad. In this period in Italy there are new divas: Sophia Loren, Gina Lollobrigida, Silvana Mangano, Catherine Spaak, Stefania Sandrelli… and it seems there is no space for Anna and for her deeply set face.

In 1962 Pier Paolo Pasolini wants her to be Mamma Roma. Anna is very happy and enthusiastic of this project but both critics and public seem not to accept this film (maybe because of Pier Paolo Pasolini, his political tendencies and his homosexuality).

So Anna wants to return on the stage and between 1965 – 1966 she plays “La Lupa – She Wolf” written by Giovanni Verga and directed by Franco Zeffirelli and “Medea” witten by Jean Anouilh and directed by Giancarlo Menotti. The success is great, enormous! Anna gets back to her origins after more than ten years but she is still the wonderful Theatre’s Lady!

Cinema gives her just short roles she does not like; we can see her in an episode of “Made in Italy” directed by Nanni Loy in 1965 and in “The secret of Santa Vittoria” directed by Stanley Kramer in 1969 where she is for the second time Antony Quinn’s wife.

In this period Anna is sixty –one years old and she knows there is ever less space for her and for her way of acting, her way of being. So she has to surrender to the Television, even though in the past she refused to take part as guest star to the famous Italian programs of Saturday night.

Now she accepts to try but she wants to read all about the characters she has to play, she wants to read all the scripts before acting. The director Alfredo Giannetti asks her to play four portraits of women who in some ways have characterized Italy: from 1870 to the 70s.

Anna likes this project and accepts. So she is Flora Bertuccelli the chanteuse who goes to the front during the First World War to sing for soldiers and dies for one of them in “La sciantosa”; she is Jolanda, an aged, lonely woman who falls in love with a man met by chance and she follows him until he is captured by Nazis and deported in “1943: un incontro”; she is Anna, called the “Countess”, a prostitute who decides to buy a car with her lifetime savings in “L’automobile”; and, at the end, she is Teresa Parenti in “Correva l’anno di grazia 1870” where she plays with Marcello Mastroianni. Before being on TV this film first appeared in cinemas but it is ignored.

In 1972 Anna last acts in the film “Rome” directed by Federico Fellini. She appears just for about a minute but in this short dialogue once again we can see, understand, and find her soul and character.

She is a lady who is going back home in the dark. Fellini’s voice is heard and she says goodbye to him and to her public saying, “I don’t trust you…goodnight!”

Anna dies on 26th September 1973 from pancreatic cancer. Now she rests in her ‘paradise lost’, Circe’s land: San Felice Circeo a seaside resort, not so far from Rome, which she loved so much.

All of this is Anna Magnani – and much more!

She was and she is a great actress, but first of all she was a great woman: courageous, non conformist, autonomous, a free soul, an entrepreneur of herself. In her home she was both mother and father, she took care of a son all alone. Many people said and still say she was “strange”, lonely, that she had a bad character, nothing of this: she was a woman who had to defend herself and her affections, her family. She was not a tiger: she was a real and maybe more dangerous woman.

I would like to thank Chiara Ricci for the hard work that went into writing this article. Please take a moment to visit Chiara’s website at and purchase a copy of the book!