Born a Venetian aristocrat in 1934, granddaughter of one of Italy’s richest men, Countess Marina Cicogna Mozzoni Volpi di Misurata transcended her gilded background to become Europe’s first major female film producer, bringing to the screen such cinematic masterpieces as Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Teorema (1968), Franco Zeffirelli’s Brother Sun, Sister Moon (1972), and Elio Petri’s Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion, which won the Academy Award for best foreign-language film in 1971.
“Her intelligence is what distinguished her from other aristocrats,” notes Fran Lebowitz of Cicogna, who died last month after a long struggle with cancer. “She defied the conventions of her world, but she always stayed in it. Marina wasn’t a rebel. She was a dandy.”
“I used to laugh a lot with her,” recalls Georgina Brandolini. “She had an extremely sharp sense of humor, very quick. She was nasty when she didn’t like someone. She could be difficult. But I admired her.”
For Paloma Picasso, “It was exciting to be with her. She was definitely out of the ordinary. Anything but bourgeois. She knew about glamour. And she was very modern in her approach to life. She didn’t hide the fact that she was a lesbian.”
Nor was she shy about her flirtations with Alain Delon, George Hamilton, and Lex Barker, the actor who played Tarzan. As Marina explained to Diane von Furstenberg shortly after she married Prince Egon von Furstenberg, “All European aristocrats are bisexual.”
“An attractive person is an attractive person” is the way she put it in a 2009 W-magazine interview with James Reginato. In that same interview, she said she was born with a “golden spoon” in her mouth. And she was.
“She defied the conventions of her world, but she always stayed in it. Marina wasn’t a rebel. She was a dandy.”
Her father, Count Cesare Cicogna Mozzoni, a banker, was descended from a long line of Venetian nobles. Her mother, Countess Annamaria Volpi di Misurata, was the daughter of Count Giuseppe Volpi, who started electric companies in Northern Italy and the Balkans in the early 1900s and developed the industrial port of Marghera, outside Venice, in the 1920s.
From 1921 to 1925 he was governor of Libya, then an Italian colony, and subsequently served as finance minister in Mussolini’s government until 1928 (later breaking with Il Duce over his alliance with Hitler). In 1932, Volpi founded the Venice Film Festival, the world’s first.
Marina was born in the Palazzo Volpi, on the Via del Quirinale in Rome, facing the official residence of Italy’s presidents. Much of her childhood was spent between Venice in the summer and Cortina in the winter. There were also lavish weekend parties at the 18th-century palace, on the Mediterranean near Tripoli, that her family kept until the fall of the Libyan monarchy, in 1969.
Movies and movie people were a part of her life from an early age. She entertained David O. Selznick’s sons at the Venice Film Festival. Barbara Warner, daughter of the studio boss Jack Warner, was her roommate at Sarah Lawrence College.
In 1966, at age 32, she took charge of Euro International Films, a distribution company owned by her mother. The following year, one of her movies, Luis Buñuel’s Belle de Jour, starring Catherine Deneuve, won the Golden Lion, the Venice Film Festival’s top prize.
Marina celebrated with a white-and-gold party that has gone down in Italian social history. She dispatched a Learjet to Corsica to pick up Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, and another to Rome to fetch Roger Vadim and Jane Fonda. She also had a fling with Warren Beatty, there to promote Bonnie and Clyde.
She produced her first movie, The Young Tigers, a comedy about a gang of bad boys starring Helmut Berger, a year later. Around the same time, she began a decades-long relationship with Florinda Bolkan, a tempestuous Brazilian beauty who had moved to Italy to model, but soon started acting. Marina gave Florinda her first leading role, opposite Gian Maria Volonte in Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion.
Marina celebrated her first Golden Lion with a white-and-gold party that has gone down in Italian social history, dispatching a Learjet to pick up Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, and another to fetch Roger Vadim and Jane Fonda.
Marina and Florinda and I became friends in the 1970s, when they started making frequent trips to New York, often with Valentino and Giancarlo Giammetti, and eventually took an apartment on West 58th Street.
I thought they were one of the most glamorous couples I’d ever seen, right up there with Mick and Bianca Jagger—Marina in her Rive Gauche pantsuits and Valentino cocktail dresses, Florinda in plaid lumberjack shirts, Levi’s, and cowboy boots, turning heads at Le Jardin, Studio 54, Xenon, Area, and the Palladium, staying up late with Calvin Klein, David Geffen, and Barry Diller. The next day it was lunch at La Grenouille, Quo Vadis, or Mortimer’s with Babe Paley, Pat Buckley, or Françoise de la Renta.
“Marina was very sophisticated, even as a young woman,” says Reinaldo Herrera, her closest friend since the late 1940s, when they were teenagers. “And her friends, because of her, became sophisticated, which was not a quality admired by our parents at the time. She was a very controversial figure among us. She had opinions of her own, very strong opinions. And she didn’t make any effort to hide them.” He adds, “Marina had a reputation. She didn’t mind that people were discussing her.”
“She was a woman of great intellect, which is why all the intellectuals liked her,” Reinaldo continues. “I remember going to museums and churches with Marina and Bernard Berenson, the great art historian, who was a friend of her mother’s, but she became his friend, too. She was friends with all the older society people, like Marella and Gianni Agnelli, and important artists like Jean Cocteau and his great patron, Marie-Laure de Noailles. And the movie stars, the most famous ones—I remember meeting Rock Hudson in Rome with Marina.”
In her later years, Marina found a lasting love with Benedetta Gardona, a fervently Catholic model from Modena whom she legally adopted. And she began looking back at a life well lived. In 2010, she published a book of her photographs from the 1950s and 1960s, which was accompanied by an exhibition at the Villa Medici in Rome. The title, Scritti e Scatti (Writings and Clicks), was typically modest. The cast of subjects was pretty grand, from Ezra Pound to Marilyn Monroe.
A second photography book, La Mia Libia (My Libya), followed in 2012. A documentary, Marina Cicogna: Life and Everything Else, was released in 2021, and this year saw the publication of Marina’s autobiography, I Still Hope: A Story of Life and Cinema.
A few weeks before Countess Marina Cicogna Volpi di Misurata passed, she gave an interview to the Italian newspaper Il Corriere della Sera. When asked if she thought about death, she answered: “It’s a topic that, when you live on it, you have to frame it. You think about it all the time, and you wonder how to deal with it. I don’t have an answer.”
Countess Marina Cicogna Volpi di Misurata was born in Rome in 1934. She died on November 4
Bob Colacello is an Editor at Large at AIR MAIL