The King of Paparazzi is immaculately turned out as he welcomes me into his apartment: black suit with breast pocket handkerchief, black shiny shoes and white shirt, his usual attire as he prowls the streets of Rome looking for celebrities.

“I dress like this to show respect to the people I photograph,” says Rino Barillari, 79.

Many of his subjects might dispute this claim, including Gérard Depardieu, who allegedly punched Barillari three times this week when he snapped the French actor with a younger woman at Harry’s Bar on Rome’s fabled Via Veneto.

By the photographer’s count, it is the 164th time he has been put in hospital in the line of duty, resulting in 11 broken ribs and one stabbing. But Barillari is showing no signs of ending a career that has spanned seven decades and made him an Italian icon — honored with awards, documentaries and exhibitions. “I am not tired yet, thank God,” he says during a pause from work at his small apartment, crammed with clippings and mementos, in an alley behind Rome’s parliament.

Battered but not defeated: Barillari at home in Rome after his recent run-in with Gérard Depardieu.

Turning to his computer, he digs out the snaps of when he was first punched, by the British actor Peter O’Toole — an encounter Barillari dates to 1964, when he was 19.

“I was told O’Toole was in a club off Via Veneto, drunk, with a woman who was not his wife — which is why he split my ear open with a punch,” he recalls. “I reported it to the police, he paid damages, I bought flowers for his wife and we made peace,” he says.

Other confrontations did not have such happy endings, including being socked by Frank Sinatra’s bodyguard and the astronaut Buzz Aldrin. “Ava Gardner kicked me in the balls and Barbra Streisand’s gorillas broke my camera,” Barillari says. That would be one of the 76 cameras he has had smashed by irate A-listers. Injuries have occurred falling from motorbikes while following celebrities around the streets of Rome.

According to Gianni Riotta, a local journalist who witnessed the incident, Barillari upset Depardieu when he refused to stop taking photographs of him and a woman as they sat together at the bar. The Frenchman, who will stand trial in Paris in October over sexual assault allegations, then caught up with Barillari in the street and “hit him, hit him, hit him”, Riotta said last week. “There was a lot of blood.”

By the photographer’s count, it is the 164th time he has been put in hospital in the line of duty.

While he describes his career, Barillari is frequently interrupted by his phone, which instead of a ringtone plays a recording of a call to the police requesting an ambulance. “It is a call for help made when I was punched in Piazza Navona — the police gave me the recording,” he says.

As the last man standing from Rome’s glittering 1960s Dolce Vita era, when Hollywood stars patrolled Via Veneto in search of kicks, Barillari is now often more famous than his subjects, and certainly better-dressed.

If Depardieu had looked around him in Harry’s Bar, he would have noticed that the paparazzo waiting behind a car also appears in photos on the wall, hanging out with Audrey Hepburn and the Italian director Federico Fellini. Rino is a national institution.

Today, Barillari is a regular at the venerable watering hole, holding court at a pavement table where he addresses friends with a loud “I love you!” And in a world where many question the pressure placed on celebrities by intrusive photographers, he remains entirely unrepentant.

“If you are married and go out with a girlfriend, you don’t go where there are photographers — if you do, it’s a provocation,” he says, adding with a twinkle in his eye: “If you then get angry, the photo is worth more.”

Marcello Mastroianni and Sophia Loren in a photograph displayed at the contemporary-art museum MAXXI, in Rome, as part of a 2018 exhibition dedicated to Barillari’s career.

During the Dolce Vita years, he says the bottom line was: “If you didn’t want to be photographed, you didn’t go to Via Veneto.”

On the wall of his apartment is a large, framed poster for the film La Dolce Vita, Fellini’s epic 1960 portrayal of a gossip columnist working the bars and clubs on the tree-lined avenue when Hollywood was sending stars to make films at Rome’s Cinecittà studios.

Barillari arrived in Rome a year earlier, in 1959, aged 14, dispatched from his home in Calabria to find work. “My mother said I was too smart and if I stayed in Calabria I would end up in the Mafia,” he recalls.

Picking up coins flung by visitors into the Trevi Fountain, Barillari soon found work taking photos of tourists, before graduating to become a paparazzo — taken from the name of a photographer in Fellini’s film. “John Wayne was worth a lot, and a photo of Robert Kennedy with Rudolf Nureyev would go round the world,” he recalls of his early triumphs.

Rather than lashing out when they saw him, most celebrities knew how to play the game, he says, including Ringo Starr when the Beatles arrived in Rome in 1965. “I approach Starr, who is with a woman, he points to both his cheeks and then makes a sweeping gesture with his hand, meaning, ‘I’ll kiss her, you take your picture, then leave’, which is exactly what I did,” Barillari says.

“You would pose like a boxer when you saw Richard Burton, raising your fists,” he adds. “And he would do the same and you would have your picture.”

“My mother said I was too smart and if I stayed in Calabria I would end up in the Mafia.”

Tony Curtis, Peter Sellers, Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas were also willing subjects. “Sophia Loren was a real star, always available, so the photos of her were the best,” he says. The Italian actress Gina Lollobrigida even asked Barillari for lessons when she took up photography. “She wanted to know how to take pictures without being spotted,” he recalls.

Despite the frequent cooperation of actors, Barillari does not hide the subterfuge involved in his art, listing the times he dressed as a doctor and a priest to get a photo, or dated nurses to gain access to emergency wards. Pressed on where he draws the line — at what point privacy must be respected — Barillari is hesitant. “I know the law, but if someone is crying, the photo must be of the tears,” he says.

What about Diana, Princess of Wales, who died in a car crash in 1997 as she was being chased by paparazzi? “It was her bodyguards’ fault,” he says. “I cried when she died and tied a black ribbon around the lens of my camera.”

Gina Lollobrigida with Barillari, who gave the actress lessons when she took up photography.

Turning back to his computer, he searches for a photo of another British royal he rated. On the screen appears Princess Margaret at the legendary Jackie O’ nightclub in Rome, looking relaxed as she is snapped by Barillari in the company of an Italian socialite who appears aghast at being “papped”.

“Royals are not what they used to be, they are now politicians — they can’t show off their wealth and have put their Rolls-Royces away. Kate Middleton is told what to do, what to wear,” Barillari says.

The world is also a lot less glamorous than during the Dolce Vita era, which Barillari says died in 1972 or 1973, killed off as Italy veered into years of street protests and terrorism. He never stopped working, though, switching to taking photos of riot police and dead bodies left crumpled on Rome’s cobbles, which now sit alongside the celebrity snaps in his archive of 600,000 pictures.

The stars are also less interesting today, he says, not least because they are often taking selfies when he approaches. “I am trying to take a picture of them while they are taking a picture of themselves,” he laments.

With a phone in every pocket, he is often not the only person snapping a celebrity. “It has damaged the business: a picture worth $380 only earns $32 if someone else is there with a phone,” he says. But the irrepressible Barillari is not giving up. When asked about his favorite photo he insists: “I haven’t taken it yet.”

Jayne Mansfield’s husband, Mickey Hargitay, and the Italian model Vatussa Vitta pummel Barillari after he photographed them together on Via Veneto.

Opening his file of now-infamous shots of Depardieu lunching with his female partner at Harry’s Bar last week, Barillari comes across the moment when the French actor gave him the finger, just before hurling ice at him. “That’s a beautiful one. These photos will earn €2,000-€3,000 [$2,160-$3,250] because no one knew Depardieu was with this woman,” he says.

The job earned him a trip to hospital, dripping with blood from a head wound, but he took time to dispatch the photos to his employer, the Rome daily Il Messaggero, before he sought treatment.

“That’s my job,” he says. “If I didn’t do it properly, I may as well take up making salami.”

Tom Kington is a Rome-based journalist