Portraitist Pietro Annigoni Feasted on Excess Until He Started His Last Supper

updated 04/02/1979 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 04/02/1979 AT 01:00 AM EST

Through much of the '50s and '60s Pietro Annigoni reveled in celebrity as the portrait painter of the Pope, the Shah, President Kennedy and the British royal family. He enjoyed the wages of success and excess—booze and beauties. "I had a badly misunderstood conception of freedom," he confesses. All of that changed, though, after the Italian master took up with a model 33 years younger, began to brood about posterity and focus his art on church frescoes.

His family was so staunchly anticlerical that Annigoni wasn't even baptized until 16, but he is now devoting his life to transforming the walls of a country church at Ponte Buggianese, 30 miles outside of Florence. He has already spent a dozen years on the masterwork, completing a 36-by-16-foot Last Supper, but he still has two years to go. "It's a big job," he smiles, "and I am not a young boy." He is 68.

When Annigoni began his sacred and sacrificial work—he receives only expenses—even the Vatican expressed surprise. "But I had become very, very tired of painting portraits," he says. Of course, though he was foregoing reward on earth, this was his last best chance at inclusion in the illustrious history of Florentine art.

He first made his name with a somber self-portrait at the 1949 Royal Academy summer exhibit in London. Four years later he was commissioned to do a portrait of Queen Elizabeth. The resulting raves led to sittings with Pope John XXIII (who kept dozing off sideways in the chair) and the shapers of the world. But a second portrait of Elizabeth II in 1969 was assailed by the critics as "nauseating...a lifeless spiritless smear of ugly mediocrity."

Shaken by that response, and by a car accident that killed his best friend and left Annigoni with a mutilated left ear, he was comforted by Rossella Segreto, a Neapolitan model he had met in 1966. Annigoni's estranged first wife, Anna, by whom he had two children, died in 1969, but he and Rossella did not marry until 1976 (a year after she divorced her lawyer husband). Rossella was dubious about the match—"for young people such an age difference means nothing; for him it could have been a psychological handicap."

"She is very honest and spontaneous, even rude and irritating," says Annigoni. Until he found her, he reflects, "I had a lot of contact with women and girls without being serious about any of them." Rossella, he admits with just a touch of macho, has kept him "more faithful."

After reigning as the world's prince of portraiture, Annigoni retrenched in Florence, where he was raised (his father managed the local phone company). His studio ("a stable," chides Rossella) and elegant apartment in a Medici palace are on different sides of the Arno, and he commutes by foot across the Ponte Vecchio. Until it is warmer, he will continue to do sketches and preparatory work before returning to the scaffold and frescoes.

Reflecting on his life, Annigoni says, "I wouldn't change anything." Old attitudes die hard, and he still won't attend Sunday services. "The Masses going on while I'm at the frescoes," he declares, "ought to be enough for my past and remaining life."

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