Paolo Poli was, like so many gigantic Italian talents whose fame is based on their way with words, little known outside his own country. He was born in Florence and possessed that typically Tuscan eccentricity which informed both his writing and acting.
Poli was a handsome man with an elegant and aristocratic bearing, he possessed a brilliant wit and his vast cultural knowledge was frighteningly impressive, yet he was an eternal child with an impish expression and devilish eyes, he was provocative and courageous in his career choices and was one of the first Italian personalities to declare his homosexuality.
The formula of his stage shows with which he toured during the last decades of his life was essentially the same with a three-sided box containing variable painted cloths designed by Emanuele Luzzati, in which he would perform his own scripts with a side-kick and four ‘boys’. He would play men, women and children, but it was his female characters which remain etched in the mind. His delivery of the quick-fire dialogue left the audience, if not Poli, breathless, and his long monologues were virtuosic demonstrations of his acting skills. The dances and songs which peppered his plays were often gloriously silly, and his approach to singing was to imitate the vaudeville soubrettes of the pre-war years. He was capable of presenting the life of Rita of Cascia then, as an encore, astonish his sophisticated audience with his very earthy jokes, told with all the innocence of an altar boy.
Poli was a continual presence in television during the sixties but he was sometimes an inconvenient figure who wouldn’t auto-censor his manner or ideas and, for forty years, his career continued in the theatre until he returned to the small screen during the last years of his life. He loyal public was vast and supported him well into his eighties when the rhythm of his repartee wasn’t as precise as in his earlier years.
The fine Italian actor Ferruccio Soleri – the quintessential ‘Arlecchino’ in Goldoni’s Servant of Two Masters – the Italian director Beppe Menegatti, and Poli were all born in Florence in 1929, and often worked together in the early days. Menegatti, who is the husband of Italian ballerina Carla Fracci, directed Carlo Gozzi’s Turandot with Poli and Fracci in 1966, with the music of singer-songwriter Umberto Bindi who died in 2002.
Dear Paolo, dear Umberto, this is how I want to remember you… Carla.
Paolo Poli: born 23 May 1929, Florence – died 25 March 2016, Rome
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano’) about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman’s Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia’ column for Dancing Times magazine.