Audrey Hepburn, the epitome of la dolce vita, and her life in Rome
Timeless goddess of glamour and elegance, Audrey Hepburn spent more than just a holiday in Rome, staying for two decades. Icon of the Eternal City she mastered the Italian lifestyle and is the epitome of la dolce vita.
Audrey was born in Brussels at the end of the twenties to a noble Dutch family, and had a very close relationship with her mother, Ella. She grew up in the Netherlands under Nazi occupation and aided the efforts of the resistance by passing letters. As a child she aspired to become a classical ballerina, and when the war ended she had the opportunity to train in Amsterdam and England, her dance education no doubt contributing to her effortless grace and posture.
Her career began on Broadway, but she shot to fame in 1953 starring in Roman Holiday alongside Gregory Peck. For the many months of filming her address of choice was the stylish Hotel Hassler poised at the top of the Spanish Steps. From the intimate balcony, sipping cocktails under the stars, one can watch the hustle of lovers and shoppers emerging to catch their breath from Via dei Condotti.
The director of Roman Holiday, William Wyler, used the whole of the city for his film set and as you walk around Rome it is easy to transcend into the glamour of black and white Hollywood. The Princess dances the night away on the banks of the Tiber, directly under Castel Sant’Angelo, on summer nights there are sometimes still impromptu dance classes. The iconic Bocca della Verità, the wall that bites the hand of liars, can be found in Santa Maria in Cosmedin. In the film, Joey pretends to be bitten by the mouth, an unscripted prank which is so charming because of Audreys utter surprise. The dashing Joey Bradley lived in the cobblestoned Via Margutta 51, only a few doors up from Fellini’s Roman address. Famously, Audrey’s luxurious locks are snipped in favour of a pixie cut, and although the hairdresser is now a leather shop, the address remains Via della Stamperia 85. The facade of the palace from which she escapes is Palazzo Barberini, pop in to enjoy their extensive art collection. As the liberated Princess dashes around the city on her pistachio vespa we enjoy snap shots of the ancient and modern city, from the romantic Roman ruins to the brilliant white of the Vittorio Emanuele II Monument.
In the sixties Rome was known as “Hollywood on the Tiber” and Audrey returned, always staying at Hotel Hassler, to the illustrious Cinecittà for films such as War & Peace. During this period she grew friendly with co-star Henry Fonda and his Italian wife Afdera Franchetti, and they would enjoy long dinners at restaurant Corsetti in Trastevere. It was through Afdera and her sister Lorian that Audrey gained access into the exclusive società romana.
In 1969 she married the jet-setting Andrea Dotti, an Italian physiatrist and swapping the American spotlight for Roman family life. He was her second of three husbands, but much further down the list of lovers and finances. Her wedding dress was a pink cashmere dress with a matching headscarf. She has later confessed that he was controlling and the marriage was patriarchal. Her son Luca wrote a beautiful book, Audrey Mia Madre, a biography-come-cookbook which documents her domestic years from a somewhat alarming angle, one of her quotes reading:
I am a true housewife, exactly how I always hoped to be. Finally I have found a place where I feel truly at home.
The newlyweds began life in the picturesque centro storico, in a charming apartment nestled amidst the ivy of Via Giulia. Soon after the birth of their son, they moved to the chic suburb Parioli and under the watchful eye of her mother-in-law Nonna Paola, Audrey found a penthouse apartment on Via di San Valentino. Their terrazzo was to become the setting for the parties of the 1970s, where the bo-ho socialites mingled with the intelligentsia.
Audrey was famous for her affiliation with French couturier Givenchy, however, when she moved to Rome, in the spirit of supporting the local designers, she wore only Valentino. I have heard from my own nonna, who lived in Rome in the sixties, that Maison Valentino began as a single room in his house, divided by a large velvet curtain he would pop his head around, to monitor his customer’s progress. Audrey was, and remains, one of the only celebrities to insist on paying full price for her designer frocks, even though a photograph of her in wearing your label was priceless. Her shoes were bespoke, made by Tito Petrocchi, who’s calzoleria is still standing in the same location, Vicolo Delle Ceste, now run by the third generation of Petrocchis.
In her later life Audrey left Rome for Switzerland and went on to become a world changing philanthropist. As fellow icon and bombshell Brigitte Bardot once said “I gave my beauty and youth to men. I am going to give my wisdom and experience to [Unicef]”. The candid shots of Audrey the diva, once the jewel prize of the Roman paparazzi (named after Fellini’s character Paparazzo) still decorate the city’s kiosks, encouraging us all to go home and change into a better outfit.