Mario Garbuglia (1927-2010)

Too late, much too late. I discovered today that last year, March 2010, set designer Mario Garbuglia died.

In 1950 Garbuglia started his career with the film Donne senza nome by Geza von Radvanyi. For years he was the set designer of Luchino Visconti’s films and stage plays, and for this reason I interviewed him several times: well three times in 1984, as we ‘ clicked’ and went on and on, and again once in 2004, when I retook my Visconti research. Garbuglia designed the complete city set for White Nights/Le notti bianche (1957), for which he created the mist by kilometers of gauze. For Rocco and his Brothers/Rocco e i suoi fratelli (1960) he staged the various apartments of the family and the manager, the laundry, the bar and the boxing school in Milan. For Boccaccio ’70 (1961) he designed the luxurious apartments of the episode The Job/Il lavoro with Romy Schneider.

The Leopard/Il Gattopardo (1963) was Garbuglia’s tour de force. He fully restored a villa near Palermo for the opening scene of Il Gattopardo, the villa Boscogrande near Mondello; it had been a chicken farm and was in shambles. Today it is rented out for mariages, praising the decorations attached by Garbuglia’s aids, even if it is in need of repair. The blue tiled terrace on the first floor, but also the decorations in the corridor where Tancredi says goodbye to Concetta: restoration is needed. Unfortunately the long road of the beginning of the film is gone but Garbuglia’s opulent curved stairs are still there. With an army of masons and carpenters Garbuglia raised the enormous facade of palazzo Salina in the village of Ciminna, which represented the Donnafugata of the film’s story, and which covered a full row of existing houses. Garbuglia finally dressed the somptuous rooms of the ball of the last part of the film, shot at palazzo Gangi in Palermo. Garbuglia also designed the sets for il Gattopardo shot at the palazzo Chigi in Ariccia (the palazzo Salina in Donnafugata in the flm) and the attics where Alain Delon and Claudia Cardinale wander around (part at the palazzo Chigi, part at the palazzo Odescalchi at Bassano). It won him a Nastro d’Argento, one of the hightest awards in Italian cinema. When I was in Palermo in 2007, the visits to Palazzo Gangi and the villa Boscogrande were unforgettable experiences. In the same year critic Stefania Severi took me to the palazzo Chigi in Ariccia, where I saw the ‘ belle’ by my compatriot Ferdinand Voet. The attics of the – unfortunately hitherto unrestored – palazzo Odescalchi were another sensation in early 2009.


After Il Gattopardo Garbuglia’s interiors of Sandra/Vaghe stelle dell’Orsa (1965) followed, in which two palazzi of Volterra were combined in one in the film – one I visited as it is a museum now, an older employee enthusiastically talked me about the shootings. There were the sets of Silvana Mangano in The Witches/Le streghe (1967) too, where Helmut Berger had his first bit part in a Visconti film. In 1970 Garbuglia accompanied Visconti to France for the location hunting for Visconti’s adaptation of Proust. The Grand-Hotel of Cabourg was still intact at the time, just like the castles, the Parisian ‘passages’ etc. Garbuglia had so much visual material of this trip; we looked at it twice, in the ’80s and in 2004. Unfortunately the project was never realised. As Garbuglia was busy with the super-production of Bondarchuk’s Waterloo (1970, it won him a BAFTA), he couldn’t help Visconti for Death in Venice/Morte a Venezia (1971), so Ferdinando Scarfiotti replaced him, while his former tutor Mario Chiari replaced him for Visconti’s Ludwig (1972).


Garbuglia was back with Visconti for Conversation Piece/Gruppo di famiglia in un interno (1974), for which he designed the two apartments of the film, wich, actually, were shot in two different studios. Everybody thought that the idyllic views on Rome from the apartments were real, to Garbuglia’s great joy, but of course they were as fake as the rest. For Visconti’s last film The Innocent/L’Innocente (1976), he gave a complete make over to the Roman Villa Mirafiori, the former villa of king Victor Emanuel II’s mistress La Bella Rosina. The villa, now part of the university, still contains the lintel and door pantings from Garbuglia’s crew which were imitations of the original ones. They added copies of the glass-stained windows, even if these were not visible in the film. A complete stable was built for a scene with a dialogue between the brothers, but it was cut from the film. The son of the janitor, who is now the janitor himself, guided me around in 2004 and vividly remembered the work at the Villa and the overload on antiques stalled away there during the shootings. The two concerts at the beginning of the film were shot at palazzo Colonna, within the Gallery, but the old princess Colonna was not to be disturbed during the shootings. So the crew manoeuvred as silent as possible and afterwards the princess got an enormous bouquet with a card ‘ Grazie, Luchino’, not knowing what had happened. The scenes at the Tuscan villas were really shot there, near Lucca. I have been at the Villa La Badiola, the villa of the mother, which was hard to find, but we did. The local owner, a farmer, sold an excellent wine. I still have a bottle, ready to be opened when my book on Visconti is finished.

When in 2006 I organised my mini-conference at the palazzo Visconti in Milan, we wanted to have Mario Garbuglia there too, but he had a nasty flu and to his own dismay he couldn’t travel, but we showed a demo of a kind of ‘making of’-documentary he was preparing. For years he was already ill, partly as the result of a nasty fall from a ladder which had ruined his back. I am glad I took a picture of him in 2004, with the big sketches, or rather paintings, of the sets Garbuglia had made and which hung in his studio. I won’t forget his last words to me in 2004: ‘And this book of yours, when will it be ready?’ I am sorry you didn’t live to see it, Mario, and I am very grateful for all our talks. I promise that your set design will have an important part in my book.

~ by Ivo Blom on January 17, 2011.

4 Responses to “Mario Garbuglia (1927-2010)”

  1. I am thrilled to have found your post. I recently watched The Leopard, and was mesmermized by its beauty. Your post answered many questions I had about the film and sets. Thank you so much for sharing your experience and knowledge. I am so happy to know a little about Garbuglia, and I will be so happy to read your book about Visconti.

  2. Thank you very much for your kind words.

  3. Buonasera professor Blom,
    sono Daniela, la figlia maggiore di Mario Garbuglia
    ho letto solo oggi le sue belle parole di commemorazione e ne sono rimasta commossa.
    Ho visto la fotografia di mio padre davanti a uno dei dipinti ricordo di scenografie, che furono una sorta di sua autobiografia pittorica.
    La maggior parte di quei dipinti sono qui in casa con me, mentre il grande del suo lavoro lo abbiamo donato al Museo del cinema di Torino che lo sta archiviando, studiando e digitalizzando per metterlo a disposizione di chi lo voglia studiare e conoscere.
    In questi giorni ho avuto la proposta dal suo paese di origine Penne di organizzare una mostra per la prossima primavera, sarebbe bello e sarei onorata se Lei potesse intervenire e collaborare con noi.
    Un cordiale saluto
    Daniela Garbuglia

    • Gentile Daniela,

      Anzitutto: prego! Mario Garbuglia è sempre stato generoso e collaborativo con me per le mie ricerche su Visconti, cosí negli anni ’80 che nel 2004. E fu un peccato che lui fu malato quando facemmo il convegno a Palazzo Visconti nel 2006. Se mi vuol scrivere su email:

      Un cordiale saluto da Amsterdam,

      Ivo Blom

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