Home > An exclusive interview with Marisa d’Andrea
An exclusive interview with Marisa d’Andrea


Interviews by Laura Ceccarelli and Laura Pompei


Dear Marisa, will you tell us a little about your origins? 

I was born in Rome and as a child I lived in the Porta Pia area on Via Ancona. At the time you knew everyone in the neighbourhood almost as if it was a great extended family. When I was a child and they asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up, I answered – a concierge. That was my dream. My already fervid imagination was taken by the concierge of the building I lived in. The concierge’s room had a tiny window in it and when she was called she put her head out of this window and talked to everyone. She passed her afternoons sitting outside on a ‘Roman’ chair with a cat curled up on her knees. Then later another ambition replaced this. There was a man in the neighbourhood who went around with five or six stray dogs carrying a number of cardboard boxes over his shoulders. In the evening he took shelter in a doorway on Via Nomentana and made the boxes into kennels for each dog. That for me was the ideal, to live free and have six, seven dogs… But then life took me in another direction. I’ve had quite a few dogs though and every time I bought a chair it was a ‘Roman’ chair and there’s always been a cat on each chair…

And what was your family background? 

Mine was a family of small shopkeepers. My father had a butcher’s shop. So I don’t come from an artistic environment. But right from elementary school, I showed that I had a talent for design although later, during my years of adolescent rebellion I managed even to get a three out of ten in design one year!

My mother was absolutely against my continuing to study. At the time women’s ambitions were expected to be limited to being good wives and mothers and we were brought up to be excellent housewives. So each time I started a new course of study, she was against it. When I finished middle school I decided to go to an art school and, with my father’s help, in the end I managed to go to the Via Ripetta High School of Art… That was the high point, Renato Guttuso, Giuseppe Capogrossi… all the great names were there.

When I finished at the high school, despite my mother’s opposition, I signed up to the set design course at the Accademia di BelleArti. But I realised immediately that it wasn’t for me.

In the meantime I’d met Gianni Polidori. We met when we were at school…

Exactly at that time – it was the post-war period – the Centro Sperimentale reopened and Polidori went to sign up for it straightaway, took the selection and he said to me “You come as well, you can be a costume designer…”. I didn’t even know what the job was… And so I took the selection test and was accepted. Gino Sensani and Anna Salvatore were in the jury. Obviously I was terrified when I did this test and I was certain that I wouldn’t pass it. I presented some designs that I’d even done on wallpaper because that was all I had.

I remember Ugo Pericoli doing the selection too. He was a friend of mine from the neighbourhood. I went with him to speak toSensani to find out how the selection had gone and Sensani said to me that I’d been accepted and that he knew from my designs that I had something, not just technique… so he liked me. So I started attending the CSC but not long after Sensani died. He was replaced by Veniero Colasanti.

Do you remember your first job?

My first job was on a film produced by the CSC, Patto Col Diavolo by Luigi Chiarini (1949).

I went to the set in Calabria totally unprepared. It was Colasanti who gave the lessons and at that time he was working on Fabiola by Alessandro Blasetti (1949) and didn’t have time to give us lessons on technique. So the first thing I did when I got to the set in Aspromonte – remember that the tailor’s was low down and the set at the top – was to send the actor out dressed in a certain way without an overcoat but I had no idea that the scene was linked to an earlier one and that he had to wear an overcoat. I had absolutely no idea of the link!

But luckily they didn’t get rid of me. They kept me on. They’d sent me, Citto Maselli and Pasqualino De Santis.

What do you remember about your costume teacher, Veniero Colasanti? 

He was very erudite. Just think, I’ve still got some of the notes I took at his lessons. For example, he gave us a period to look at in more depth, I don’t know, the early twentieth century, and then he explained it to us in the smallest detail… I remember that we made miniature costumes which are still there in the glass cases of the costume classroom. One of them is mine, it’s a red eighteenth century costume… I worked on a Goldoni text. I did it with Colasanti himself…

When I taught at the centre I always went at the same speed as the work on the texts. We started with the script, I taught them how to do the draft, then I spoke about the links and then, on the basis of the script we started the documentary work. Then I took my students to the tailor’s.

The costume designer’s job is a complex one, part art and part craft… and then it has so much to dowith all the workshops, the wig, shoe and armour workshops…

What type of relationship did you develop with the other students on the course or on the other CSC courses? Was there the ‘added value’ of group work?

Yes, quite a lot to the extent that we all went to the projection room together. Then we went to the bar which was a meeting place where great debates took place. A lot of ‘fusions’ were created… it was the same atmosphere when I taught there too.

I do remember, though, that the CSC was a very lively school in the post-war years. When we could we all went to the cinema together. We also got a study grant. I think it was eighteen thousand lire.

Do you remember some fellow students who went on to do particularly well? 

I remember Nanni (Loy), Citto (Maselli), Pasqualino (De Santis) and the set designers Polidori, Bruno Brizzi, MarioGarbuglia….

What were your cultural passions at the time? 

Obviously the cinema and painting. I tried to go as often as I could to exhibitions. I loved researching documents for costumes. It wasn’t at all easy at the time to find books, photos, useful images…In later years lots of books were published many of which were English and it got easier to find photographs. I’ve still got a beautiful collection of documents which is a veritable library…

Tell us what happened immediately after you graduated from the CSC?

I went to work as Colasanti’s assistant on the film Romanzo d’Amoreby Giulio Coletti (1950) which turned out to be a positive experience for me as a young costume designer. I was part of the troupe of Gino Brosio, set designer, a very nice man. Brosio got me working on small set furnishings and I enjoyed it a great deal.

Later you also worked on War and Peace

Yes, I was introduced to Maria De Matteis during work on Patto col Diavolo. The CSC sent me to this costume designer who had huge prestige at the time. She looked at me doubtfully and sent me to prepare the documentation… It took me as long as 15 days to find out everything including votive columns, lights… When I’d finished I went to see her with all the material I’d gathered but in the meantime the film had already started. I must have made a good impression, though, because she then summoned me to work with her. So I was her assistant for more than three years and I must say that she ‘shaped’ me in a way and it was with her that I learnt how to manage the work. De Matteis was extremely important. With her I worked on King Vidor’s War and Peace (1956) and Luigi Zampa’s L’Arte di Arrangiarsion which De Matteis was Piero Tosi’s assistant (1954) and another three films directed by Carmine Gallone, Casa Ricordi (1954), Casta Diva (1954) and Tosca (1956).

What was your first film as principal?

One of the first films in which I was principal set designer that comes to mind was Noi Siamo le Colonne by Luigi Filippo D’Amico (1956). I have bad memories of that period though. That evening, as soon as I arrived in Florence, I got an unexpected telephone call. My sister told me that my brother had had a bad accident. In actual fact he was dead. I was totally shattered during that film, sad and lost. You should know that my brother was like a father to me as I’d lost the latter when I was very young…

In your work as costume designer, how important was the ability to get on with the director? 

It should be said that the ability to get on with the director is crucially important. If the relationship is good, everything is ‘fluid’ and easy. If you don’t communicate well or he asks you to do something which isn’t your way then you struggle, it’s difficult…

Can you give us a few examples? 

I had a great understanding with Giacomo Battiato for the Martin Edenscript (1979). We totally understood one another.
Lattuada and I also had a great experience… Lattuada knew how to ‘read’ the sketches.
There are many other directors that I’ve worked well with: Marco Leto, who I always had a good understanding with, and Dino Risi.
I had a good relationship with Andrea Frezza on the I Problemi di Don Isidoro (1978) script and withLeonardo Cortese on the L’Andreana (1982) script.

And your relationship with the actors? 

They are very focused on their own image and you, as costume designer, have to ”disassemble’ it. They don’t all accept it. But great actors don’t create problems. I worked with Gassman. You could put a wetsuit on him, strip him naked. He respected all your choices. It was your job…
Another great that I remember was Max von Sydow who showed great professionalism…

Who was your favourite actress, who do you remember with affection?

Stefania Sandrelli… what a lovely person… We worked together on the film D’Annunzioby Sergio Nasca (1987). Stefania is an amazingly nice woman, down-to-earth and ‘naughty’. She put lipstick on behind my back. I said “don’t put lipstick on, it doesn’t go with what you’re wearing” and she said, “no, no, my lips are too thin…” and I said, “go on, take it off!” and she took it off, put it in her pocket and as soon as my back was turned she passed it across her lips (she mimes the gesture) and then said “but I look good like this…”. Another person I thought was adorable was the actress Françoise Fabian.

Can you talk about the differences you found in your cinema, theatre and television work?

There aren’t many differences between cinema and television really. Particularly if filming is done with a film camera, TV is exactly like film. I think both languages place limits on the costume designer while theatre gives you more space for creativity, it gives you more creative freedom. There isn’t usually the rigour of philological reconstruction in the theatre. You work on interpreting a text and so costume designers can give free rein to their imaginations…

Another big difference is the fact that at the theatre you see the work you’ve done altogether during the dress rehearsal. There you get the chance, if you’re careful, to correct, change a few details which perhaps you’ve neglected. It’s not the same in the cinema where you only see fragments which you have to link together a little at a time. In this sense, it’s more difficult to get an overview…

Which theatre directors have you worked with?

I worked with Giancarlo Sbragia who founded the “Compagnia degli Associati” and he called me often. He also wanted me to join the company but I said no.

With them I worked, among other things, on the staging of Pietro Aretino’s La cortigianawhere Ididn’t create a philological reconstruction but tried to insert ‘echoes’, visual evocations into the creation of the costumes. For example, there’s a character who looks like he’s dressed like Gioacchino Belli, although the setting of the plot is actually much longer ago… I made this choice because Sbragia said to me “I want the various trades of Rome…”.

Citing another job I did with the Sbragia company, La Morte di Dantonby Georg Buchner (1976). I remember that I had to dress characters who had to ‘evoke’ the senators of ancient Rome. I decided not to design full-blown tunics but imagined them totally white like statues. When the public saw them they perceived this ancient Roman atmosphere… Moreover at the theatre costumes are used in relation to a character’s scenic movements and take on a greater symbolic value than in the cinema.

Have you got any regrets about the costumes you’ve designed? Some jobs that you would like to have done differently?

Overall, I’ve always done a good job. I remember the film Giovannino (1976) by Paolo Nuzzi as a complex task just like the television version of Cocktail Party (1982) from T.S. Eliot’s text directed by Enzo Muzii.

And some important satisfactions? 

When I made the L’Andreana series!

It’s important, however, to be aware of this. I’ve loved this job but it hasn’t been the centre of my life, certainly not. I’ve brought a great many other things into my life, perhaps ordinary things, but they are important to me – my family, my children, my handsome husband, a vegetable plot, my thirteen dogs, the sea. When I lived in the country, I chose a house from which I could get to the sea in ten minutes… there have been other important things in my life. So, yes, I worked because I really loved it, but there were always gaps between one job and another because I had to live, I wanted to live… I have no regrets, I’ve had a wonderful life.

You were married to a great set designer, Gianni Polidori. Can you tell us something about him? 

Polidori was a very great set designer but also painter. He painted a huge amount, but as he was never under the management of a gallery owner, he isn’t a recognised painter. He did exhibitions and sold too and there are a number of catalogues of his work but he never established himself as a painter.

Ours was a long partnership. We met when we were very young indeed, at eighteen years of age. We lived in the same neighbourhood. Then the war broke out and we lost touch. He disappeared. I even thought he might be dead… In the years that followed, while I was studying at the Accademia di Belle Arti, they organised an exhibition of the previous year’s set design students’ sketches and models. Two of them particularly caught my attention, a model of a Veneto villa and the one which had been designed for the staging of the L’Uomo dal Fiore in Bocca.One day I went to the Accademia and there was this young man with dishevelled hair there, Gianni Polidori, and I found out that those models which had made such an impression on me were his. So we recognised each other and remembered that we’d gone out many years earlier as teenagers… from this day to the day we separated twenty-seven years passed. We had two wonderful daughters, Silvia and Carlotta, who also work in set and costume design. Gianni was a very handsome man and very attractive. We did a lot together… we worked for a long time with Squarzina.

How important for a costume designer is the relationship with the set designer and the photography director? 

There has to be great harmony between all the components. Before, in the cinema, there was a lot of preparatory work. It was very important to meet with the set designer and the lighting manager. There was a long preliminary study phase during which the sketches were prepared and shown to the director with whom there was a fertile exchange of ideas, for example, on which lights to use…

Now let’s talk about some of the more technical details of your work, starting with the importance of the documentation phase…

Photography was born in the second half of the eighteenth century and before that there was painting… obviously a costume designer has to know how to find his or her way around the thousands of images of clothes and ornaments… the oldest volume in my private collection contains images of clothes, it is a fashion book from 1862, but there is also the interpretation of the design as compared to the actual making of the clothes. This is an enormous difference and the costume designer has to be aware of this, the difference between clothes designed and clothes made.

I’ve loved painting a great deal and some masters in particular such as Piero dellaFrancesca, for example, although I’ve never been able to ‘use’ him to make costumes.

How do you move on to the sketch phase? 

You make a series of preliminary studies before you get to the definitive sketch… Some of my sketches have caricature elements in them… and they are often ‘in movement’, dynamic, because I’m trying to get into the story…

And the techniques you use most? 

Tempera and china ink, sometimes pastels, never watercolours…

Can you tell us something about materials, the choice of fabric… 

The choice of cloth is of fundamental importance because you can get a costume right in terms of shape and cut but if you don’t use the right fabric, you can get it all wrong!

What does a costume designer do? He or she goes to a tailor’s and then goes to sample in the fabric shop… I often went to the Largo Argentina area or to other more central shops near Piazza di Spagna where there was a workshop which sold extremely precious fabrics…

As far as tailor’s are concerned, I’ve worked with Annamode, with S.A.F.A.S., with G.P. 11, with Peruzzi… But unfortunately I never worked with Tirelli. As I’ve already said, I worked a lot with Annamode, they have a magnificent collection of fabrics with original items which are unobtainable elsewhere… With them I also workedon the fitting out of an exhibition in Arezzo in the first years of the new millennium.

What is your opinion of philological reconstruction in clothes? 

I think that it can sometimes be a little wearisome but it is sometimes absolutely necessary. You work on fashion sketches, you have to find out exactly about the cut of the clothes because cuts change the physical attitude of the figure. For example, if we take the eighteenth century, there’s a cut on the shoulders which is done in a specific way… the costume designer has to make an in-depth study of the traces of the models, I spent hours and hours designing them, I enjoyed myself hugely, then I put them on the dummies…

It is certainly true that dress shapes are also influenced by body shapes which have changed over the centuries. How do you resolve the problem, then, that can be presented by a taller and sturdier body shape like that of today’s actresses required to act characters who lived in the eighteenth century who were much smaller sizes?

This is a very real problem… at the time women had small, ’rounded’ shoulders… when you reconstruct you have to use a few tricks to reduce the shapes a little. For example, if you have bigger shoulders, the solution is expertly rounded stitching on the shoulders, but it isn’t easy to do… I think that the essential element for this type of clothing is the use of the bust which changes the way the actress playing the part moves totally.

And makeup and hair styles?

If they get a head wrong it’s all ruined… Piero Tosi used to say “Cinema is a collar” and he was absolutely right…

The head needs to be of the right size. If it is a mechanical reproduction of the era’s hairstyles it can be wrong if it doesn’t respect the proportions of the face. It’s all a play of balances…if you’re dealing with a little face you need to get the size of the hairstyle just right, perfect.

I worked with Aldo Signoretti, I got on divinely with him, he is an exceptional hairdresser!

As make-up artists go, I got on very well with Otello Sisi. For example, we had to work with an actress who had one eye slightly different from the other and rather than correcting this he asked if he could retain this slight difference which gave her face ‘character’… now that is sensitivity…

What type of character analysis work do you do?

 In my role as costume designer I always tried to interpret the way in which characters might dress on a given occasion, on a given moment. I try, that is, to let them express themselves in what they wear.

Autant-Lara used to say that if nothing comes across to an audience when the actor enters the scene, it means that thecostume is wrong…

But this doesn’t happen anymore in today’s cinema. There are the sponsors and they are the ones who choose whatworks… my last film was in 1993.

I remember that I was called on to design the costumes for a TV Sandokan in those years. I made as many as 130 sketches, I went to India, but then nothing came of it.

I had also asked for Andrea Viotti as consultant for the weaponry documentation. I workeda whole summer on it, 130 sketches, I learnt everything about India, and it all came to nothing…

Would you like to tell us something about your Fantaghirò work?

I was responsible for both series, Fantaghirò I and II. It was actually a tiring task. The series were filmed in Slovakia and in the Czech Republic with local staff. Unfortunately I couldn’t call on Italian tailors but luckily I’d brought a very talented tailor, Romano Amidei, with me. I’d chosen the armour from Rancati but it turned out that it cost too much for the budget and so armour found directly in Czechoslovakia was chosen… However, it was work which was acclaimed years later, in 2009, when I was awarded the Premio Bandiera d’Argento in Cava de’ Tirreni.

Can you tell us something about your experience as costume professor at the CSC?

I worked at the CSC from 1980 to 2003, I started there in the Giovanni Grazzini era. I stayed at the CSC until 2003, first as full professor and then I held seminars. Some of my students went on to become important costume designers, I remember a few: Giuseppe Avallone, Luigi Bonanno, Marina Roberti, Massimo Cantini Parrini, Valentina Monticelli.

It was a wonderful experience which, unfortunately I feel the lack of, I miss it a great deal because contact with young people is so important, it really is a full blown reciprocal exchange.