GENEVA - Renowned as an award-winning actress, Gina Lollobrigida’s talents also encompass journalism, photography and sculpture. On the occasion of the sale of her jewellery collection in Geneva, I spoke with her about her varied career and her role as an ambassador for the United Nations.
Gina Lollobrigida, 1965.
Mario Tavella: First, I must admit that I feel slightly nervous interviewing such a famous personality. You have so many talents – you are known not only for your iconic status as an actress but also as a photojournalist and, more recently, as a successful sculptor. Perhaps, I should start by asking, who am I talking to today?
Gina Lollobrigida: I would say, quite simply, that you are speaking to a woman: a woman who has managed not one career, but three. And even more importantly, to me, the first female ambassador of the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations. It is the aim of the FAO to fight hunger throughout the world.
I understand hunger is something you’ve experienced first hand, during the war?
My family lost everything during the war. We had to leave our home, and everything behind. I remember at one point we travelled for twelve days to try to get to Florence to start a new life. We learned what war is on that journey, the suffering, the hunger, everything.
And from these humble beginnings you became the most famous European actress in the world.
Well, it didn’t happen quite so quickly. After the war, I came back to Rome and studied at the Academy of Fine Arts. My goal was always to become an artist. But then, as fate decided, I became an actress.
And then your career really took off?
Yes, it was incredible. The first time I went to Cinecittà [Cinema City in Rome] I was riding a bicycle, the next time they offered me a chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce.
Early in your career you chose to work on Italian films rather than move to Hollywood. Was this out of a loyalty you felt to your own country?
You know, Howard Hughes offered me the moon … but I was married and I wanted to return to Italy to be with my husband.
Gina Lollobrigida with Sir Laurence Olivier and Kirk Douglas in New York City, 1958. © Bettmann/CORBIS.
And during this time you were known affectionately the world over as ‘La Lollo.’ You were one of the first sex symbols of the 1950s, a real icon of beauty. What effect did this meteoric rise to fame have on you?
Well, I have always been strong, because I have always had dignity. What I lived through as a child taught me important lessons and when someone grows with strong roots, with strong family ties, you don’t lose your bearings in later life. I never lost my head.
Judging by the amazing wall of pictures in your hallway, it seems that anyone who was anyone wanted to have their photograph taken with you! Here are many of the most famous and important figures of the second half of the 20th century. You must have formed some interesting and lasting friendships over the years.
Yes, I made many good friends. Unfortunately, so many are now gone. Anthony Quinn, Humphrey Bogart, and, of course Marilyn. She and I became good friends. When I arrived in New York for the première of my film Bread, Love and Dreams, they whisked me away to a photoshoot with Marilyn Monroe. She was so shy. Do you know what she said? “Here, they call me the American Lollobrigida.”
Gina Lollobrigida with Marilyn Monroe, 1954. Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images.
Is it true that Maria Callas tried to persuade you to pursue a career in singing at the height of your fame in the 1950s?
Yes it is, but, you know, at the beginning of my career I had a beautiful voice…
Is there anything you can’t do? Artist, actress, singer…
Well, I always thought a beautiful woman should also have a brain, if she has talent she will find success in many areas.
There was great interest when Sotheby’s sold Maria Callas’ jewels in 2004, and I am sure the sale of your collection will draw similar crowds. Even in your choice of jewellery I can see a loyalty to Italian makers, Bulgari, in particular. Do you remember the first piece of jewellery you purchased?
Yes, it was a collier by Bulgari. At the time Howard Hughes kept asking me to marry him. But I said no every time. So he offered me jewels, until I finally lied and told him I hated them, so he would leave me alone – and then I bought it for myself!
What do you look for in jewellery?
I love the stones – the pearls and emeralds – because they are natural, the raw products of nature. Then there is the skill of the artist involved, the craftsmanship of turning these beautiful stones into works of art. Each one is like a sculpture.
And speaking of sculpture, you have had several very successful shows recently. Back in art school in Rome you were awarded a scholarship for your achievements. As well as being your first love, is sculpture also your true love?
Yes, along with photography. I have always wanted to create something lasting. Where my studio is in Pietrasanta, near Carrara, there is a long, rich history of sculpture.
The area has such a rich history and even contemporary artists such as Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons still get their white marble from there. Is this stone your preferred medium?
I do use marble, but at the moment I work mostly in bronze – from the initial idea to the clay modelling, to the wax, to the final casting.
Italian contemporary art has a reputation of being abstract, but you have remained consistently figurative in your work. What inspires your art?
Critics have called my sculpture dynamic, strong and expressive. It is a reflection of my own personality. I am interested in showing the interior dynamic of my subjects, and in creating movement in a static object. I have never followed trends, but I try to express the emotions that I feel, or have felt. My sculpture The World for the Children reflects my understanding of what it feels like to be hungry as a child. Through my art I try to help the causes I support, such as UNICEF and Doctors Without Borders.
Gina Lollobrigida in her role as a Goodwill Ambassador for the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations. ANDREAS SOLARO/AFP/Getty Images.
Is it correct that many of your sculptures also represent characters you have played?
Yes, quite recently I finished a monumental six metre tall Esmeralda, the character I played in The Hunchback of Notre Dame alongside Anthony Quinn in 1957. The day I held my first exhibition in Pietrasanta, when the people came to see my work, was one of the happiest of my life. It has not been an easy journey and it wasn’t easy to set up a studio in a place with such history.
And did you also have to struggle at first, to be taken seriously as a journalist, and a photographer?
Of course I did. It was a big struggle.
When you managed to get an interview with Fidel Castro in 1974, it must have been an opportunity other journalists were desperate for. Was that a turning point in your career?
Yes, that was a memorable time in my life.
And you have now also been recognised for your photography. In 1980 after your photographs were shown at the Musée Carnavalet, the French President Jacques Chirac awarded you the Médaille d’Or de la Ville de Paris.
Yes, that too was incredible, there I was in the same museum as Cartier-Bresson...
As someone who is constantly photographed, how does it feel to be behind the camera?
Well, I have never particularly enjoyed being photographed, so for me, it was a feeling of great freedom. But I have been taking photographs since the 1950s. I would bring my cameras with me while making movies, and, between shoots, I would travel to Qatar or India and take pictures. I’ve now taken photographs in 24 countries. I think my own difficult childhood has helped me to understand how others live. I try to photograph the feeling. A picture must move you emotionally.
Having seen so much of the world must feed into your work as a Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations. You can now use your fame for good causes.
Yes, I feel privileged to have been given this opportunity. I feel that I know what hunger is; it’s part of my experience.
I understand you were also given a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Italian-American Foundation. What is it that motivates you to keep working, when you already have so many awards and accolades?
I am still curious, and I still have something to say. I have always felt the need to make my mark – to leave something behind.
[This article originally appeared in Sotheby's at Auction. To subscribe click here.]