When Michelangelo was Known as Nino

Written by  Gaetano Tumiati
Elegance, tennis matches with Bassani, contributions to 'Il Padano'. And a great love. A short history of Antonioni as a young man.
On his ninetieth birthday, Michelangelo Antonioni was celebrated in critical essays which highlighted his stature as a director, an innovator, a master of the cinema. But what is Michelangelo like as a person? In particular, I have been asked how Antonioni appeared to his contemporaries in Ferrara during the Thirties, in his university days.

First and foremost, no-one called him Michelangelo in those days; he was Nino to everybody. And it may be that the two sides of his character, both equally true, correspond to these two names. To his closest friends he was an outgoing, friendly companion, always ready for jokes, witty remarks in dialect, love affairs. In short, a typical hot-blooded native of Emilia Romagna. Everyone who has ever come into contact with him has always recognised him as a typical Emilian.

Everyone, that is, except the youngsters in Ferrara who, like me, were still at school when he was coming to the end of his time at university. We, judging him by his appearance and behaviour, would have taken him for an Englishman had it not been for his well-groomed black hair. Tall and slim, with a perfect profile, so pale as to appear almost bloodless; a low voice, with the perpetual hint of a smile, half ironic, half melancholy; for us he was already Michelangelo, even though we called him Nino. A restraint highlighted by his elegant dress.
Beneath this restraint, however, there was an ill-concealed muscular and nervous tension which would erupt every now and then in drastic announcements and abrupt refusals. In short, a character very like those of the characters in his films, from L'Avventura to Professione Reporter.

We youngsters admired his skill as a tennis player, and the fact that he was the film critic for the Ferrara daily newspaper, the Corriere padano, as well as the director of the little university theatre company.
I had the chance to watch him directing one of the few works which he staged during the period immediately before the outbreak of the war: Pirandello's O di uno o di nessuno, which also featured my brother Francesco.

Throughout rehearsals, he sat in one of the front rows of the stalls, calm and apparently remote but actually full of concentration. Occasionally we saw him leap to his feet and shout: "NO! That doesn't work!" Mostly he interrupted the actors with a mild gesture, explaining the character of the part, the scene, the more impassioned or relaxed tone which the actor should have adopted. And when my brother Francesco asked him why he did not demonstrate how the lines should be said, the gestures made, he objected, "Why should I? I'm the director. You're the actor." Many years later, he gave the same answer to Jeanne Moreau.
Restraint and lucidity were also the hallmarks of his cinema criticism in the Padano, which influenced the judgement of many during the golden age of American and French cinema.

Michelangelo also wrote some literary pieces for the Padano. I remember the descriptions of an almost deserted Ferrara. One in particular I remember very well: it described with sensitivity the kindling of his love for a fair-haired girl whose name he never mentioned, but who everyone in the town identified at once. I remember this piece with emotion, because the girl was my sister Caterina, who was not then twenty.

This love affair acquired something of an official character. Michelangelo began to visit our house, greeted by Caterina's blushes, my mother's Tuscan jokes and the kindness of my father, a stern university professor who, whilst expressing his regard, could not hide his bewilderment regarding the "chaotic AND untrustworthy" world of the cinema. Michelangelo stressed the that his intentions were serious, but added that, nevertheless, he would have to move to Rome to follow a career in the cinema. Which, soon after, he did.
Reduced to an exchange of letters, the relationship lasted a long time, until the war swept it away. These were long years in which I, first fighting in Libya and then a prisoner in Texas, received little news of my family.

In 1946, when I returned to Italy, Michelangelo was making his name as a director, and Caterina was in Ferrara, married to a doctor with a baby a few months old. They had not seen each other since the day of their separation, and were never to see each other again.

My other sister Roseda and I continued to see him, however. Rare but affectionate meetings, during which he always made it clear to us that he kept the memory of his time in Ferrara.
But more moving than any meeting was the telegram which we received on 13 October 1979, twenty four hours after Caterina's death in a car accident. It read: "My dear Roseda AND Gaetano, a piece OF my life has died WITH her. You can imagine WITH what sorrow I share your loss. I embrace you. Michelangelo." Forty years had gone by since their separation.