Franco Zeffirelli, the film and opera director acclaimed for movies such as Romeo and Juliet, has died aged 96.

He died after a long illness that had grown worse in recent months, Italian media reported. He was the last of a generation of Italian film giants, including Federico Fellini, Luchino Visconti and Vittorio De Sica, who came of age after the Second World War. 

Famed for his opulent lyrical productions on the world’s major stages as well as for films, Zeffirelli worked with stars including Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Laurence Olivier, Alec Guinness, Faye Dunaway and Jon Voight.

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“Franco Zeffirelli, one of the world’s greatest men of culture, passed away this morning,” Dario Nardella, the mayor of Zeffirelli’s home city of Florence, announced on Twitter.

“Goodbye dear Maestro, Florence will never forget you.”

Zeffirelli was born out of wedlock on 12 February 1923 and raised in Florence, the son of fashion designer, Alaide Garosi Cipriani and wool merchant Ottorino Corsi, both of whom were married to other people. His mother died when he was six, and he was taken in by his aunt.

He wrote in his autobiography that his passion for theatre was sparked during childhood holidays to Tuscany, where he saw performers by travelling players. “I’ve never believed anything at the theatre as much as the fantasies those storytellers brought us,” he said.

He attended a Roman Catholic school in Florence, where he said he was sexually assaulted by a priest. When the Second World War broke out, Zeffirelli joined the partisan effort and escaped death by firing squad twice. After the war, he abandoned his plans to become an architect and began working as an actor on the radio instead.

In a career that spanned more than 60 years, he became celebrated for his prolific work in film, theatre and opera. His most notable on-screen success was a lavish version of Romeo and Juliet, which starred a young Judi Dench at the Old Vic in London. It was dismissed by most critics, but went onto become an Oscar-winning, box-office hit starring teenage actors Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey in the late Sixties.

Other Shakespeare adaptations made for more hit movies, including The Taming of the Shrew starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, and Hamlet with Mel Gibson and Glenn Close. He was celebrated as a populariser who brought classic works to a wider TV and film audience.

Later projects included the 1981 romantic drama Endless Love, starring Brooke Shields, and a 1996 adaptation of Jane Eyre with the title role split between a young Anna Paquin, and Charlotte Gainsbourg. He worked again with Dench in the semi-autobiographical Tea With Mussoliniwhich he co-wrote with John Mortimer.

The two-time Oscar nominee also served in the Italian senate for two terms as a member of Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party. In 2004, he was made a knight of the British empire.

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