Spying for Fellini

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The Independent Culture
His relentless pursuit of the rich and famous in Fifties Rome made Tazio Secchiaroli notorious. Then Fellini based the celebrity snapper Paparazzo in 'La Dolce Vita' on him - and invited him to become his own photographer. Richard Williams on the father of all paparazzi

ONE midsummer day in 1952 Tazio Secchiaroli, a young Roman photographer, and his partner, Luciano Mellace, decided to take pictures of an anti- American demonstration in the Piazza Colonna. Trying to make a name for themselves in an increasingly crowded market, they were after photographs that had some kind of special immediacy. Secchiaroli, who had graduated only a year earlier from taking snaps of tourists and American servicemen by the Spanish Steps, had a good idea. He jumped into the saddle of his Lambretta and ordered Mellace to sit behind him, carrying his Rolleiflex and flashgun. Riding close to the demonstrators, weaving to avoid the police who tried to shoo them away, Secchiaroli and Mellace obtained images that were splashed across the next day's edition of Paese Sera, a socialist daily.

A couple of years later, Secchiaroli was using the same technique to very different ends. He would park his Lambretta by the kerb of the glittering Via Veneto and wait for the clubs and restaurants to disgorge the stars whose after-hours doings were of such interest to the growing number of gossip and scandal sheets. Before long he was accompanied by a squadron of imitators, buzzing and snapping through the Roman night in search of the rich, the famous and the indiscreet.

Their tactics made use of deliberate provocation. A flashbulb popped in the face after a late-night chase through the streets could generate an angry physical confrontation, creating the kind of scene that multiplied the value of the pictures many times over. As early as 1949 another photographer, Pierluigi Praturlon, had received a gratifyingly irritable response from the film director Roberto Rossellini, whom he had spotted sharing an intimate dinner with Ingrid Bergman - the star of his new film but emphatically not his wife. Secchiaroli's own "victims" were to include Ava Gardner and Tony Franciosa, Anita Ekberg and Anthony Steel, and the portly King Farouk of Egypt, who tried to smash the photographer's camera after being caught spending the evening with a Neapolitan singer and her sister.

Eventually Secchiaroli's predatory activities earned him the nickname "the Wolf of the Via Veneto", a strange sobriquet for a man of such mild appearance that you'd cast John Casale, the weak brother Freddo Corleone in the Godfather series, to play the lead in his life story (if Casale were still alive, that is). He also attracted the attention of Federico Fellini, who was planning a film about the Roman demi-monde and based the important supporting role of a celebrity photographer on Secchiaroli. When the director gave the character the name Paparazzo - borrowed, according to one of Fellini's own accounts, from an obscure opera libretto, but also said to be inspired variously by the names of a old schoolfriend, a crew member, a character from a novel by George Gissing, and an insect - an entire slice of modern culture (a plague, some would say) had been identified.

The film was called La Dolce Vita, and Fellini even based some of its scenes and specific tableaux on images captured by Secchiaroli. The most famous was the improvised striptease performed at a party by a character called Nadia. This was borrowed from a famous sequence taken by Secchiaroli in 1958, when a Turkish actress-dancer called Aichi Nana writhed out of her frock, slip and brassiere under the fascinated eyes of Roman society at a party given for the American millionaire PH Vanderbilt at Rugantino, a popular nightclub in Trastevere. Fellini, a cheerful erotophile with a head full of mothers, madonnas and whores, inevitably put his own spin on the incident. Instead of finding an actress to replicate the frankly sluttish Nana, he cast the much more refined Russian-Romanian actress Nadia Gray - "not only because she had a good figure and was the right age, but because she was extremely sensual without being blatantly sexual. I could see her clinging to Victorian values while secretly responding to more primitive urges." When he asked Gray to wear white underwear for the scene, her insistence that no woman would wear such things under dark clothes was allowed to prevail - although he later claimed that he had to show her how to remove the bra without taking off her blouse first.

On its release the film created its own scandal, drawing shouts of outrage at the premiere (held, at the behest of Fellini's co-producer, the publishing magnate Angelo Rizzoli, in Milan, where the bourgeoisie were "in agony at seeing themselves in the mirror", according to Fellini) and condemnation by the Vatican, whose commissars vainly demanded its withdrawal. As for Secchiaroli, his reputation and future were secured. The builder's son from the working-class suburb of Centocelle, who during his early teens had regularly cycled the few miles to do odd jobs at the Cinecitta studios, and took his first photograph - of a local football match - with a friend's camera at the age of 16, had joined the glamour-world his pictures described.

For the next 30 years he worked on the inside, as Fellini's principal set photographer - on 8 12, Amarcord, Roma and the rest - and as personal photographer to Marcello Mastroianni and Sophia Loren, the sex god and goddess of post-war Italian cinema, whose own twilight tendresse would once have had him reaching for his flashgun and the keys to the Lambretta. He died last summer, shortly before the publication of his collected photographs, a record of a time and a place that now seems bathed in a kind of lusty innocence, his tungsten flare providing a sinner's halo.

! All photographs from 'Tazio Secchiaroli', edited by Diego Mormorio and published by Federico Motta Editore, Via Cardinal Branda Castiglioni 7, 20156 Milano (003902 38010012), price 118,000 lire (approx pounds 43).