The Paparazzi’s Proletarian Beginnings on the Fashionable Streets of Rome

“Paparazzo… suggests to me a buzzing insect, hovering, darting, stinging” - Federico Fellini

Stefania Sandrelli ignores a pack of paparazzi in Rome, 1960

As the opening of Fellini’s 1960 La Dolce Vita so memorably dramatizes, no one is safe from the prying eyes of the tabloid press, not even Jesus (or a statue of him, dangling from a helicopter). The modern age of mass media collapses the boundaries between sacred and profane, public and private. Celebrity glamourizes the phenomenon, and world-weary journalists like Mastroianni’s Marcello Rubini root out the decay behind the scenes.

One might argue that the real hero (and/or villain) of Fellini’s film is not the suave writer but his indefatigable photographer, Paparazzo, a character who lent his name, in the plural, to the predatory shutterbugs who swarm red carpets, fashionable restaurants, vacation spots, and every other place a star might set his or her foot.

The “roving news shark,” as The Herald describes him, was modeled on real photographer Tazio Secchiaroli, “the prototype of the brash snooper behind the Leica lens, prepared to resort to any kind of subterfuge to expose the guilty secrets of the stars.” (See Secchiaroli below in 1953, in the path of a charging Walter Chiari.) The name itself Fellini took from a dialect word for an annoying noise, telling  Time magazine in ’61, “Paparazzo… suggests to me a buzzing insect, hovering, darting, stinging.”

From the start, the game of photogs chasing down movie stars was driven by a kind of animus, a need to even the social score. “We photographers were all poor starving devils and they had it all—money, fame, posh hotels,” Secchaiaroli recalled in his retirement. “The doormen and porters in the grand hotels gave us information tips—you could call it the fellowship of the proletariat.” Like Antonio Ricci in Vittorio de Sica’s classic The Bicycle Thieves, Secchiaroli was typical of “thousands of Romans who have to live on their wits.”

He got his start at 19 as a scattini, a street photographer roaming the tourist spots, angling for a few coins to take a portrait of visitors to Rome. The gig could result in more loss than profit, given the cost of supplies and the number of customers who failed to show up later to pick up and pay for their prints. But by the 50s, Secchiaroli had set up his own agency, and had perfected the ruthless tactics of his new profession: stalking and ambushing movie stars.

Fellini celebrated the paparazzi even as he mocked them. Felice Quinto, later known as the ‘king of paparazzi,” was first offered the role of Paparazzo by the director. He turned it down, but appeared as an extra. Fellini hired Secchiaroli as an advisor on the film“a formative experience,” notes Aenigma, that proved to be “a turning point in Secchiaroli’s career” (he would go on to work on the set of nearly every subsequent Fellini production). “If it weren’t for Fellini,” he later said, “I might have remained a paparazzo. He opened the doors of Cinecittà to me, but more than that, he showed me things I never would have understood on my own. Watching him, I learned to see the world in a disenchanted and slightly amused way.”

Even as a target himself of the paparazzi himself, Fellini recognized their necessary role in the ecosystem of the film world. As Angelo Manganello puts it, “the entire pop culture has a huge debt to these humble laborers of the image, without which Anita Ekberg or Briatore would be just names, not icons.” Ekberg presents us with an especially ironic case.

As AnOther magazine points out, “in 1960 fact and fiction would collide” when the La Dolce Vita star was pursued by Quinto, who snapped her “kissing a married movie producer at a nightclub in Rome.” When he followed her home, she emerged “with a bow and arrow and shot him in the hand, an exchange that made headlines all on its own.” (She presses the the arguably justifiable attack below, her bow at her feet.)

The spectacle of photographers hounding celebrities, and of celebrities fighting back, gets replayed and reproduced so many times it’s almost akin to the ubiquitous medieval portraits of the Madonna and Child. And indeed, the relationship can sometimes become a nurturing one. Sophia Lauren (hiding her face below), Secchiaroli’s favorite subject, became a close friend. “I trusted Tazio Secchiaroli—my invaluable photographer—with my life,” she wrote in her autobiography. “He was completely free to do as he pleased because I was sure he’d do the right thing.”

Most of the photos here appear at a new gallery exhibit at the Palazzo Leoni Montanari in Vicenza. Learn more about the exhibition at AnOther.

Sophia Lauren in 1961

Lucien Benedetti confronts a paparazzo in Rome, 1965

Tazio Secchiaroli crouching behind a car in Rome, 1958