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Totò: The Prince of Laughter
Totò: The Prince of Laughter



Totò in the 1930s (wikimedia)


The legend of Totò

Antonio De Curtis, better known as Totò, is not really popular outside of his home country, but here in Italy, he's a true legend. His name's largely associated with 1950's and 1960's comedy movies, however Totò marked with his talent also the evolution of theatre and was incredible also in dramatic roles. Totò's ubiquitous talent allowed him to put his hand also at singing, songwriting and writing: he was a truly multi-faceted artist. 

In Italy, however, he's largely known as Il Principe della Risata,  the prince of laughter, his face associated with black and white narratives of post war and, later, economic boom Italy. His comicality, made of slapstick and misunderstandings, but also of bittersweet considerations on Italy's social inequalities, is today classic: he embodies a quintessentially Italian type of comedy and acting, his movies the picture of a country that no longer exists today. 

Funnily enough, Totò's relevance as a complete, serious artist is today out of discussion, but it hasn't always been like this. In fact, critics of his time tended to neglect him and his works, preferring the aesthetics and the message of the much more "en vogue" neo realism. 

His popularity remains, even today, entirely unscated: if you happen to be in Rome, head to Piazza Navona and take a look at the work of the many portrait artists there: you'll certainly find a drawing of Totò among their pieces. 


His Life

Totò's real name was Antonio De Curtis,  and what a story his name has. He was the son of Anna Clemente and Marquis Giuseppe De Curtis. Born out of wedlock, Marquis De Curtis refused to recognize him. Antonio grew up with his mother in the working class Naples' neighbohood of Rione Sanità. In Naples, Totò discovered a passion for acting and theatre, managing to make a bit of a name for himself smaller artistic circles.

In 1922, he moved to Rome with his mother and tried his luck with theatre in the capital. Things didn't pan out quite as well as he expected, the capital. It was thanks to the eye and support of Giuseppe Jovinelli, a theatre manager and talent scout that Totò managed to find fame in Rome, too. 

In the 1930's, Totò entered the world of movies: it was the beginning of a career which was to span over 30 years and more than 100 movies.

 Also in the 1930's, Totò asked successfully Marquis Francesco Maria Gagliardi Focas to adopt him; few years later, his natural father, Marquis De Curtis recognized him as his legitimate son, making Totò the heir of two fortunes and two nobiliar titles. 


Totò at 20, in 1918, while enlisted to fight in
World War One (wikimedia)

Totò died in 1967 because of a heart attack. He had spent his later years with severe eyesight issues, but this didn't stop his verve and his desire of acting: his last works date from 1966 and 1967 and were realized with some of Italy most influential directors, including Dino Risi and Pierpaolo Pasolini. 

His funeral was attended by an enormous crowd, an image Totò had somehow predicted to his partner, Franca Faldini: "Il mio funerale sarà bello assai perché ci saranno parole, paroloni, elogi, mi scopriranno un grande attore: perché questo è un bellissimo paese, in cui però per venire riconosciuti qualcosa, bisogna morire." (“My funeral will be really beautiful because there will be words, more words, praise, people will recognize me as a great actor, because Italy's a very beautiful country, but here you get to be appreciated only when you're dead.")

His Women 

Totò's private life has been, in many ways, deign of his profession: filled with extreme emotions and joys, as well as tragedy. Nothing was bland, in Prince Antonio De Curtis' existence. 
His first widely publicized relationship was with genoese chanteuse and dancer Liliana Castagnola: a few years his senior, Castagnola was known all over Europe for her talent and had been courted by many powerful and famous men. A diva on stage, a diva in life, Castagnola was expelled from France when she suggested to two men, both in love with her, to face each other in a duel to win her heart: one of the two died.
Once in Italy, she was herself victim of an attack and ended up in hospital after an incredibly jealous lover shot her. Blinded by jealousy and desire, the man killed himself afterwards. She met Totò in 1929, while he was performing at the Teatro Nuovo. The two began a tumultuous relationship almost immediately, but Totò badly tolerated the stress, drama and jealousy of the situation and put an end to it a year later. Castagnola, distraught, killed herself. Totò, shocked and in pain, had her buried in the De Curtis family mausoleum in Naples. 
Liliana Castagnola (wikimedia)
Two years later, in 1932, he married Diana Rogliani, a beautiful 16 year old girl he met in Florence, when still dating Castagnola. Her mother didn't want the two to date because of the age difference, but Rogliani was in love and followed Totò to Naples. The relationship was rocky and only briefly found serenity in the birth of a daughter, called Liliana to honor Castagnola, in 1933. Their marr
iage was annulled in 1939, however the couple decided to keep living together without finding another partner until their child was an adult. It wasn't to be: Rogliani got married again in 1950 and Totò, deceived, wrote for her Malafemmena. The two remained close in spite of this, until the death of De Curtis, 17 years later. 
In 1952, Totò met the woman with whom he managed to find some happiness, actress Franca Faldini, who was only two years older than Liliana, Totò's own daughter. She appeared in many of Totò's 1950's movies, such as Totò all'Inferno, and Siamo Uomini e Caporali. Faldini remained side by side with the Principe della Risata until his death, in 1967. 
She passed away on the 22nd of July 2016, in Rome. 

His Legacy

  • Totò has made Italian theater history with trademarks like the burattino or “the puppet” (a way of walking and moving arms upside down in a mechanical way), and the themes introduced in his works, which were always interpreted from a comic perspective. 
  • One of the themes Totò dealt with very often was the importance of aristocratic titles, which he mocked constantly, and the hunger among poor people. The story goes that Totò was so good to evoke hunger in his stage performances because he wouldn’t eat before them.
  • Totò’s jokes and lines have also made history, working themselves into everyday Italian vernacular. One example of this is the saying signori ci si nasce or “you'r born a lord,” meaning that nobility is not linked to a title, but to the goodness of one's heart.


A portrait of Totò (wikimedia)


Suggested Totò Movies

I soliti ignoti (Totò has only a minor part in this movie, but it can be found in English), La banda degli onesti, Totò, Peppino e la malafemmina, Miseria e nobiltà, Toto' truffa 62, i Tartassati e Guardie e ladri.

If you are looking for movies from Totò just go on youtube and search for "Totò film completo"  or if you need subtitle ( but very few are available with subtitiles )  "Totò film completo sottotitoli" 


Francesca Bezzone

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