The inspiration for the original paparazzo, Tazio Secchiaroli, has died [24 July 1998] at the age of 73. The story of how the word came into the English language (almost always as the plural form paparazzi, for intrusive freelance photographers who pursue celebrities) encompasses not only Mr Secchiaroli’s career, but also the making of a classic film and a journal of travels by a nineteenth-century English author around southern Italy.
It began with the discovery by Tazio Secchiaroli and some young colleagues in the late 1950s, whose beat was the bars and clubs of the Via Veneto in Rome, that magazines were becoming bored with staged photographs of the famous, and were prepared to pay good money for candid or “surprise” shots. He became famous on a single night in 1958 when he snapped the enraged former King Farouk of Egypt overturning a restaurant table, and the actor Anthony Steele reacting in fury while Anita Ekberg waited for him in a car. The context is now hugely familiar, but at that time Secchiaroli and his comrades and rivals would have been known only as street photographers.
By chance, the Italian film producer Federico Fellini was at the time thinking about the plot of a film that would focus on Rome’s new status as a decadent haunt of high society, a film which was to become La Dolce Vita of 1960 (an Italian phrase that itself has become a catchphrase). Fellini got in touch with Secchiaroli, who gave him a lot of help in researching the story, and so the photographer in the film was modelled on him.
Several conflicting stories exist to explain how the character was given the name Paparazzo. Fellini said at one point that it was taken from an opera libretto and also that it had suggested to him “a buzzing insect, hovering, darting, stinging”.
On the other hand, there is evidence to suggest that the real source was a work by the English author George Gissing, a writer of the late nineteenth-century perhaps best remembered for New Grub Street and The Odd Women. He died young, in 1903, and his works sank into obscurity during the first half of the century, but in the late 1950s were beginning to be revived and appreciated. Gissing went on a tour of southern Italy at the end of the century, recording his impressions in a travel book called By the Ionian Sea, published in 1901. His descriptions are revealing of social conditions in this very poor area and remain valuable as a historical record.
At one point during the latter part of his journey, he stopped briefly at a hotel in Catanzaro, the Albergo Centrale, which was run by a man named Coriolano Paparazzo. (I’m told that this surname is largely restricted to this town. It may be of Greek origin, from papasaratsis, literally “priest-saddlemaker”.) A commemorative plaque on the building records Gissing’s stay and notes that it was due to a scriptwriter on Fellini’s film, Ennio Flaiano, that the name was borrowed from the book for the character. Flaiano recorded in his diary for June 1958, while he was working on the screenplay, that he had read Sulla riva dello Ionio, the Italian translation of Gissing’s book, and found the name. (Extracts from the diary were published in L’Europeo in 1962.)
The film was a considerable success, even notorious, though it would now be considered very tame (as well as rather long at three hours). The name of the photographer was a useful term for the new breed of intrusive snappers (who always seem to hunt in packs, which is why the plural paparazzi is so much more common than the singular paparazzo) and immediately became part of the language, with the OED having its first written citations in English the year the film came out. I can only wonder at what the late Signore Paparazzo, the keeper of that hotel in Catanzaro, would make of the coincidences that led through an English writer’s recording of a brief stay there, and the accidental encounter with it by an Italian scriptwriter, to the borrowing of his name as one of the more pejorative in the English language.
[This article has been revised to incorporate new details from the updated entry in the Oxford English Dictionary dated December 2007, and from information in private correspondence from John Marciano, to whom many thanks.]