Aldo Buzzi, 99

Aldo Buzzi, 99; Italian Filmmaker and Writer

Aldo Buzzi worked in films alongside Federico Fellini and in his 70s became a writer.
Aldo Buzzi worked in films alongside Federico Fellini and in his 70s became a writer. (Nina Mehta)
  Enlarge Photo    
By Emily Langer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 17, 2009

Aldo Buzzi, 99, an Italian intellectual who began his career as an architect, then turned to filmmaking alongside directors including Federico Fellini, and in his 70s emerged as the charming writer whose works appeared in American publications including the New Yorker, died Oct. 9 in Milan of a cerebral hemorrhage, said his nephew Giovanni Cavedon.

Even as he approached his 100th birthday, Mr. Buzzi joked that he was a "young" writer, having arrived at literature when many of his contemporaries had been at it for decades.

He stocked his books -- collections of essays, travelogues, memoirs and even recipes -- with tiny details that revealed his insatiable curiosity: the fact that Tolstoy's chef made pastries rise by blowing into them "as if he were playing a flute"; that an Italian physicist grew out his hair to avoid wasting time at the barber shop; that in the backwoods of South Carolina there were "mailboxes on the edge of the forest where there are no houses."

When Mr. Buzzi told a friend that he had a weakness for scallops, the friend replied that Mr. Buzzi had "a weakness for almost everything." He later wrote a book translated into English as "A Weakness for Almost Everything: Notes on Life, Gastronomy and Travel."

A defining relationship in Mr. Buzzi's life was his friendship with Saul Steinberg, the Romanian-born artist who illustrated almost 90 covers of New Yorker magazine, including the iconic "View of the World from 9th Avenue," a parody of Manhattanite myopia that shows two New York City blocks hulking over the United States, the Pacific Ocean and the rest of the world.

Mr. Buzzi and Steinberg met as architecture students in Milan shortly before Steinberg, who was Jewish, fled to the United States after being arrested under Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini's anti-Semitic racial laws. The two friends exchanged weekly letters until Steinberg's death in 1999, correspondence now collected in the book "Letters to Aldo Buzzi." Their conversations are recorded in another volume, "Reflections and Shadows."

"He was the kind of writer who, as you read his books, you're developing a personal rapport in some way," said writer James Marcus, who worked as a translator for Mr. Buzzi and Steinberg.

Aldo Buzzi was born Aug. 10, 1910, in Como, the town near the lake in northern Italy by the same name. After graduating from architecture school in 1938, he began working in the film industry.

Throughout the war and until the mid-1960s, Mr. Buzzi was an assistant director and screenwriter, collaborating with directors such as Alberto Lattuada and a very young Fellini. Mr. Buzzi served as art director and costume designer of "Variety Lights" (1950), a collaboration by directors Lattuada and Fellini.

Lattuada's sister Bianca was Mr. Buzzi's companion for more than 50 years, until her death several years ago. His sister's two sons, Giovanni and Marco Cavedon, both of Milan, survive him.

Mr. Buzzi published his first book, a minor volume on filmmaking, in the 1940s but did not write the works that brought him greater literary renown until well after his 70th birthday. He made his American debut at 82 when his essay "Chekhov in Sondrio" was translated into English and published in the New Yorker. Mr. Buzzi once wrote that his name should be written "Bootsie" so his American readers would know how to pronounce it.

The New Yorker article later appeared with several other translated essays in the book "Journey to the Land of the Flies and Other Travels" -- the land of flies being Sicily. A book critic wrote in the Chicago Tribune that Mr. Buzzi was an "honorable companion" to Giuseppe di Lampedusa, the celebrated Sicilian author of the novel "The Leopard."

Yet, as Italian newspapers noted after his death, Mr. Buzzi was appreciated less at home than abroad. A reporter for the Rome-based La Repubblica recalled meeting Mr. Buzzi at the author's home in Milan and finding the 91-year-old Buzzi living in unexpectedly sparse surroundings.

"This is a house that has been emptied out a little at a time," he told the visitor, ". . . full of holes like the memory of an old man."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company