Danilo Donati

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The Independent Online

Danilo Donati, costume and production designer: born Suzzara, Italy 1926; died Rome 1 December 2001.

A brilliant costume and set designer, Danilo Donati worked with Italy's greatest directors, including Franco Zeffirelli, Luchino Visconti, Federico Fellini and Pier Paolo Pasolini. He won the Oscar twice (one of only six designers to do so), first for Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet (1968) and second for Fellini's Casanova (1976). In 1997 he was nominated for his set designs for Roberto Benigni's Life is Beautiful, and at the time of his death he was working on Benigni's $40m production of Pinocchio. Donati also designed for theatre and opera, and last year wrote a novel, Il Coprifuoco ("The Curfew"), which was among the five finalists for Italy's most prestigious literary award, the Strega.

Born in Suzzara in northern Italy in 1926, Donati studied in Florence to become a muralist and fresco painter. In the mid-Forties he settled in Rome, living in a boarding house with other anti-Fascists. He took a diploma at the Academy of Fine Arts, and for several years he was supervising art director at Italy's national television network, RAI, before making his début as an assistant costume designer for Visconti's acclaimed La Scala productions of La Vestale (1954) and La Traviata (1955), both starring Maria Callas.

It was a time when Visconti's assistant, Franco Zeffirelli, was about to break away and become a solo director, and when Zeffirelli directed Callas in Il turco in Italia at La Scala in 1955, Donati became one of the director's acolytes. "We shared all we had," wrote Zeffirelli later of his bohemian friends.

One would bring pasta, another salad, another wine or bread; it was always possible to eat. We were an extraordinary group. Almost everyone was to make a name in the Italian theatre and cinema. We all dreamed about making films. It was all that really mattered to us.

By 1963, when he designed the costumes for Zeffirelli's production of La Traviata at La Scala starring Mirella Freni, Donati was one of the theatre's top designers, and the following year he fashioned his first clothes for the cinema with Pasolini's The Gospel According to St Matthew, filmed in black-and-white. It gained Donati his first Oscar nomination, and he received a second nomination the same year for the film Mandragola. When his strikingly original work for Pasolini's austere religious film lost to Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Donati commented that he had been beaten "by woolly jumpers".

Donati had his first opportunity to display his flair for colour and texture on screen when he designed the costumes for Zeffirelli's The Taming of the Shrew (1967), which featured his imaginative use of sequins and furs that rippled in special lighting and brought comparisons with the great Hollywood costume designers of the Thirties. Behind the scenes there had been friction as the film's stars Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton had arrived in Italy with their own favourite designer Irene Sharaff. Zeffirelli said,

Richard had a problem; he wasn't tall, had narrow shoulders and a large head. The only way to cope with this was to make everything larger than necessary, to give him loose, flowing costumes. Perversely, Sharaff dressed him in form-fitting dark outfits with tight vertical stripes and topped the lot with narrow shoulders and high pointed hats. He looked like Olivier in Richard III, an emaciated cripple. I called Danilo, and we summoned the seamstresses overnight and ran up five costumes for Richard in 36 hours.

Burton loved the result, but Sharaff was furious, and a compromise was eventually reached with Burton wearing Donati's costumes and Taylor wearing Sharaff's. Donati and Sharaff shared an Oscar nomination for their work.

After designing costumes for Pasolini's Oedipus Rex (1967), Donati won the Oscar for the first time for his breathtaking costumes for Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet (1968), beating such stiff competitors as Oliver!, The Lion in Winter and Planet of the Apes. There followed work on several of Italy's most prestigious movies, including Fellini's Satyricon (1969), Pasolini's The Decameron (1970) and The Canterbury Tales (1971), and Fellini's Roma (1972), Amacord (1974) and Casanova (1976), the latter winning Donati a second Academy Award. He worked on two lavish productions for Dino De Laurentiis, The Hurricane (1979) and Flash Gordon (1980), worked as art director fashioning the world of ancient Rome for Tinto Brass's controversial Caligula (1980) and had fun designing the costumes for Fellini's affectionate tribute to old-style musicals, Ginger and Fred (1986).

He also returned occasionally to the theatre, designing the sets for such opera productions as La Reginetta delle rose (1991) at the Teatro Massimo in Palermo, and most recently Verdi's Jerusalem (2000) at the Teatro Carlo Felice in Genoa, which featured 250 exotic costumes. The book he had published last year, Il Coprifuoco, dealt with young homosexuals hiding from Germans in the Florence of 1943. It was regarded as largely autobiographical, and is being considered for filming.

Donati first worked with the director Roberto Benigni on the film The Monster (1994) and at the time of his sudden death he was designing the elaborate sets for Benigni's Pinocchio.

Tom Vallance