Benedetta Barzini: Young Warhol & Dali Muse, Then And Now

Icons | December 20, 2019

Vogue, 1970: Model Benedetta Barzini walks in profile wearing a Forquet brown and white wool houndstooth check ensemble; Hair by Sergio Valente. (Photo by Franco Rubartelli/Conde Nast via Getty Images)

Benadetta Barzini isn’t just another pretty face. As an Italian heiress she enjoyed a childhood that few people experience before moving to New York to try her hand at modeling. In the 1960s she was photographed by everyone from Irving Penn to Richard Avedon and Henry Clarke. She was a cover girl for Vogue, and she hung out with Andy Warhol and Salvador Dalí during her stay in New York.

Barzini spent five years in New York City before becoming disillusioned with the whole scene and going back to Italy to work as a teacher in a Marxist commune. Rather than shy away from her past, Barzini is outspoken about her life and makes no bones about leaving her life as a cover girl behind. 

She Moved From School To School As A Child

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Born to political journalist Luigi Barzini, Jr. in Grosseto, in 1943, Barzini didn’t get to have the idyllic childhood that the rest of the children of Italy enjoyed. Instead, when she was seven years old she was sent off to New York City to study until she was 12. While studying in New York, she developed an eating disorder, and once she was back in Italy her family moved her among a series of institutions across Europe. She says that she drove the women who were charged with taking care of her up the wall:

All my governesses (once I counted 17 of them) were constantly fired. The people who belonged to my so-called family did not exist. I was a very unwanted child. I consider my anorexia as the beginning of coming to sanity because it’s insane not to be sick if you have a really broken up life.

Anorexia Ruled Her Early Life

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Barzini says that she developed an eating disorder during her first trip to New York City, and that it grew into full blown anorexia by the time she was back in Europe. Anorexia is a horrible thing to deal with at any age, but Barzini says that it’s the only way she could feel control. She explained:

I had a sense of calm and tranquility in the idea that my body was vanishing, that there was no body. When you’re deeply anorexic, you don’t feel anymore: not pleasure or pain. No needs, no hunger, no emotions. That was restful for me… Not eating or refusing to eat is a political protest against some form of establishment and I slipped into this rebellion. I don’t think one is ever really cured of anorexia.

Her eating disorder continued until she was back in New York City working as a model, and she credits Eileen Ford (co-founder of the famous Ford Modeling Agency) with making sure she ate regularly and put on some weight. 

She Hated Being A Model

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Discovered on the street by Consuelo Crespi in 1963, Barzini’s exotic features immediately made her an in-demand model. But she says that the fashion world and its inherent misogyny never appealed to her, so when the jobs stopped coming she didn’t really care. She said:

I resent the word ‘shoot.’ My feeling is that it is exactly what it means — a sort of sexual thing, also. The hunter has to get the prize. ‘GIVE ME THE LOOK.’ My feeling was that I had been shot all day long. Of course I got along with everybody. I was gentle. I learned how to behave professionally. I would walk in the studio and concentrate on how to convey in the photo the shape of the dress I had on. No matter what they did with my hair or my make-up or shoes or accessories, what was important was how I could portray the style and the significance.

Barzini Didn’t Realize How Important Andy Warhol Was

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One of Barzini’s few refuges from the fashion world was The Factory, Andy Warhol’s art studio/never ending social gathering that played host to musicians, artists, and junkies. Her time at The Factory didn’t cross over with Andy Warhol’s foray into filmmaking, but she did spend quite a lot of time with the Velvet Underground even if she didn’t realize who they were. She explained:

The factory was a bit like a medieval piazza and maybe that reminded me of home. There was a group working with music in one corner, another group of poets in another corner, people shooting up in another corner. Everything was happening simultaneously in one, flat huge loft: minstrels, mad people, strange, drug addicts and Andy would be in one corner… All my students now tell me: 'Oh my God, you used to hang out with Lou Reed!' But at the time I didn’t know he was 'Lou Reed.' At the time he was just a scruffy-looking guy.

Salvador Dalí Was A Kind Of Father Figure To Barzini

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Her job title may have been “model” but she was more at home in the art world. When she wasn’t at Warhol’s Factory she was walking arm in arm with Dalí through Central Park. To Barzini, Dalí was a father figure whom she could count on for a cup of tea and good conversation. Although she admits that she didn’t really understand why he was so outlandish. She said:

I think he understood my uneasiness about life and I understood his paraphernalia and excess baggage. Once we were sitting in the Saint Regis having tea and he was going on with his imperious, loud tone, and I said: ‘Why don’t you stop? Tone it down.’ He grabbed my hand and said dramatically: ‘You know Benedetta, if you had had a brother who died when he was nine and they called you like him, and everything you did, he had done better, you too would have invented things that your brother would not have done.’

The New York Lifestyle Didn’t Appeal To Her

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Having two incredibly influential friends in New York City wasn’t enough for Barzini. She hated the idea that all there was for her in the fashion world was to marry a wealthy American and settle down until it was time to get a divorce. She studied at the Actor’s Studio but found that even that was simply a way for women to meet men, something she had no interest in. She told People that to her New York was like a “meat market.” She explained: 

At parties the girls would be dancing, and an art director would say ‘Yeh, yeh, what about that one over there? She looks awright, doncha think? Hey baby, come on over here.’

In 2018 she expounded on how she felt like she was a passenger in her own life while she was living in the Big Apple:

I never really felt like an active participant in my own life in New York, merely a witness to the spectacle. In those days, the job of a model was to be a pretty face -- no more, no less -- and there were many girls in my orbit who lived purely to be seen, whether on set or off.

After Returning To Italy Barzini Started A Family

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Barzini could have continued down the path she was on and worked as a model until she was no longer seen as a viable visual commodity, but she didn’t want to do that to herself. Instead, she removed herself from the fashion world and returned to Italy where she married film director Roberto Faenza in 1969. She quickly became pregnant with twins, and on the night she gave birth Faenza walked out of her life. The situation left her in total shock, although while speaking with People after the fact she said that she didn’t think that Faenza was ready to be a father. But once he was gone she knew that things wouldn’t be easy. 

She Left The Spotlight In The 1970s And Started Teaching

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By 1973, Barzini was out of the modeling world all together. She joined the Italian Communist Party and became a feminist organizer. In 2000, she started teaching at the University of Urbino as well as at the University of Milan. When she’s not teaching, Barzini spends her time with the Unione Donne Italiane, a militant feminist group.

Even though she swore off modeling in the ‘70s she stepped back in front of the camera at the age of 73 to appear in ad campaigns for Gap and Burberry. No matter where Barzini finds herself, she endures and she does it in style. 

Tags: Andy Warhol | Anorexia | Benedetta Barzini | Ladies | Models | Salvador Dali | Then And Now | What Did She Do?...

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Jacob Shelton


Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.