‘I was born to be a paparazzo’: Rino Barillari on royalty, the dolce vita era and his run-in with Depardieu

<span>Rino Barillari, at home. He has photographed popes, presidents and prime ministers.</span><span>Photograph: Victor Sokolowicz/The Guardian</span>
Rino Barillari, at home. He has photographed popes, presidents and prime ministers.Photograph: Victor Sokolowicz/The Guardian

Not for nothing is Rino Barillari known as “the king of paparazzi”. Over a career spanning more than six decades, he has masqueraded as priests, gardeners and bricklayers in his quest to capture up-close photos of the rich and famous, from Princess Margaret and Jackie Kennedy to the Beatles, Charlton Heston, Ava Gardner and Frank Sinatra.

But until Tuesday, it had been a long time since Barillari was involved in a contretemps with a celebrity.

The 79-year-old was covering a run-of-the-mill taxi drivers’ strike in Rome when he received a tip-off that the French actor Gérard Depardieu was dining outside Harry’s Bar on Via Veneto, a famous stomping ground for the glitterati and the paparazzi who trailed them during the legendary 1960s dolce vita period.

“So I walked to Via Veneto, and I could see from a distance that it was him,” Barillari said in an interview with the Guardian. “I waited for a bit, then attached my lens and started to shoot. He didn’t like it.”

Barillari claimed that Depardieu, who was with a companion, Magda Vavrusova, showed him the middle finger and threw an ice cube towards him. “I saw him getting angrier. But I didn’t expect what came next.”

Barillari alleged that as he left the bar, Vavrusova came after him. “She came right at me, I took a step back. But then he arrived. My goodness, he is big – he punched me three times, and then went off in a car. It’s a shame as I always thought he was a fabulous character.”

The couple then left Italy. Vavrusova’s lawyer, Delphine Meillet, said in a statement her client had been “violently pushed” by Barillari, and that Depardieu, 75, “fell and slid” on to the paparazzo after intervening. Vavrusova was taken to hospital and planned to sue, said Meillet.

On Thursday Depardieu told La Repubblica: “But what punches? It was him who pushed. I thought that in the era of selfies, the paparazzi didn’t exist any more.”

Depardieu faces a criminal trial in October over the alleged sexual assaults of two women on the set of a film in 2021. He denies any wrongdoing.

While mobile phones might have killed off the paparazzi golden age, in Rome, Barillari is still plying a decent trade. “I’m the only one left in the field. The rest are all dead,” he said. “And I’m called ‘the King’ because I’m always there, on the spot.”

No stranger to altercations, Barillari, who has a white bandage on his left cheek, is also known by some as “the photographer with the most fractures”. In fact, an exhibition in 2018 dedicated to his work highlighted 163 trips to hospital, 11 broken ribs and 76 smashed cameras.

“But it wasn’t just me, we all got into scraps,” he said.

In a photo taken on Via Veneto in the mid-1960s hanging on the wall of his home in central Rome, Barillari is seen scuffling with the US actor Mickey Hargitay as the model Vatussa Vitta wallops him with her handbag. Barillari needed stitches after a clash with Peter O’Toole, but his most memorable scrap was with the actor Sonia Romanoff, who in 1966 was snapped attacking him with an ice-cream after he took a photo of her.

Barillari left his home in Calabria at the age of 14 and headed to Rome, where he started out as a so-called scattino, a photographer who took photos of tourists at the key monuments before persuading them to buy the snaps. He said he learned the tricks of the trade by watching others.

His first celebrity photo was of the Austrian actor Romy Schneider in 1959. “I was born to be a paparazzo,” he said.

As the dolce vita period faded, his focus turned to the wave of political turbulence and terrorism that marked Italy in the 1970s and early 80s.

“The country was changing, and so I had to change topic,” he said.

He used a CB radio to eavesdrop on police so he knew exactly where the action was. “Terrorism was the riskiest work I’ve covered. There were bombs and people being shot everywhere.”

Over his career, Barillari has photographed popes, presidents and prime ministers. The late Silvio Berlusconi, whom he calls “Silvietto”, sent him one of the pictures with an autograph dedicated to “the King”.

He has also snapped several British royals, including Princess Margaret. “While she was drunk,” he claimed. Upon hearing the news of Princess Diana’s death in 1997, which triggered a widespread debate about the paparazzi, he said he put a black tape on his camera in tribute. “I was very sad,” he said.

But he spares no sympathy for the complaints of her sons, William and Harry, over paparazzi intrusion. “If they want their privacy, go and be peasants,” he said.

Depardieu aside, Barillari’s work nowadays is much less exciting. That said, he always has his camera at the ready, “even when I go to church”, and regularly hangs out on Via Veneto, just in case. “But it’s completely changed,” he said. “You don’t find the likes of Elizabeth Taylor or Ava Gardner any more. Now Via Veneto is more like the corner of a cemetery.”