Piero Tosi, 'Death in Venice' Costume Designer, Dies at 92

Piero Tosi - Getty - H - 2019
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His five Oscar nominations included Luchino Visconti's 'The Leopard' and Franco Zeffirelli's 'La Traviata,' and he received an honorary Academy Award in 2013.

Piero Tosi, the majestic Italian costume designer who collaborated with director Luchino Visconti on The Leopard and Death in Venice and was the first of his craft to receive an honorary Oscar, has died. He was 92.

Tosi died Saturday at his residence in Rome after a long illness, a spokesperson for the Franco Zeffirelli Foundation told The Hollywood Reporter. He never married and had no children and is to be buried in the Zeffirelli family chapel at the Porte Sante Cemetery in Florence, Italy.

Across his 50-year-plus career, Tosi amassed five Oscar nominations — for Visconti's The Leopard (1963), Death in Venice (1971) and Ludwig (1973), Édouard Molinaro's comedy La Cage aux Folles (1978) and Zeffirelli's operatic La Traviata (1982) — and went home empty-handed each time.

But finally, on Nov. 16, 2013, the Academy bestowed on him an honorary Oscar — a first for a costume designer.

Legendary actress Claudia Cardinale, who collaborated with him on 10 films, beginning with Rocco and His Brothers (1960), accepted on his behalf.

"Piero Tosi wishes he could be here tonight," she said. "He actually has never traveled to the United States, a country he has above all known and loved through cinema."

Tosi's designs stand the test of time across international cinema's most famous historical sequences. His collaborations with famed Italian tailor Umberto Tirelli were legendary, and both were known for their commitment to historical authenticity.

In Death in Venice, Tosi created Silvana Mangano's white linen summer day dress (inspired by the stylings of his own mother), Björn Andrésen's horizontally striped skin-tight bathing suit and Dirk Bogarde's suits, scarves and hats.

In The Leopard, set in the 1860s, Tosi sought out fabric from that period to design the lavish costumes for Cardinale. It culminated with a sumptuous ballroom sequence of elaborate corseted ball gowns, each one unique.

"That ball gown had to last for five weeks in total," Tosi recalled in the 2007 documentary of his life, The Dress and the Face. "On the first day, when I saw how crowded the ballroom was and that actresses in crinolines were trying to push through the crowds, I said, 'We won't be able to shoot tomorrow.'"

Later in the documentary, he asks a group of fashion students, "Have you realized how many problems a dress can cause? Have you realized you must think of the cut? The cut's the most important thing, the cut is the structure, the architecture. A dress must be conceived like a building."

Cardinale remembered that her gowns were so tight she was unable to sit down properly in any scene, instead resting on her elbows.

Tosi also designed costumes for Liliana Cavani's erotic drama The Night Porter (1974), Mauro Bolognini's The Lady of Camelias (1981) and Vittorio De Sica's Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (1963), which included Sophia Loren's famous black negligee striptease scene. 

"He brought history back to life in every sense," Zeffirelli said in The Dress and the Face. "He also taught actors the correct gestures; he'd tell them what to avoid, what to do with their hands. His work resulted in a union of different elements that rounded out the character."

Born on April 10, 1927, in Florence, Tosi studied at the Accademia di Belle Arti in 1948, accepting an assignment as assistant to then set designer Zeffirelli on Visconti's stage production of Troilus and Cressida. Visconti and Tosi collaborated on no fewer than 10 films during their careers.

Tosi's first screen credit came on Visconti's Bellissima (1951), starring Anna Magnani.

By the end of his career, he had twice won the David di Donatello for best costume design, a special 50th anniversary award by the Italian Academy in 2006 and two BAFTA awards.

At his honorary Oscar ceremony, American costumer Ann Roth (who herself won for The English Patient) called Tosi "the greatest costume designer in the world."

Four-time Oscar winner Milena Canonero (Barry Lyndon, Chariots of Fire, Marie Antoinette, The Grand Budapest Hotel) said, "If you did not know what a maestro was and you looked at Piero's work, you then know the meaning of the word."

In The Dress and the Face, Charlotte Rampling spoke of working with Tosi on The Damned (1969), another Visconti collaboration, and how his attention to detail included not just the dresses itself, but what lay under them and on top. "It was the kind of revelation I needed, it was the type of cinema I wanted to work in," she said. 

When asked to explain his research process for a film, Tosi told Port Magazine in 2013 that he believes "an actor’s costume has to mirror the character wearing it, and also life. Therefore, it is especially important to know the historical period where the movie is set and to research into traditions."