Photographer Gianni Bozzacchi had a front-row seat to Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton's famous romance

By Liz McNeil and Dave Quinn
Updated January 13, 2017 03:30 PM

Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton had one of the most famous romances in the history of the 20th century, and one man had a front row to it all: Gianni Bozzacchi.

The Italian photographer spent years traveling the globe with the couple, after meeting them on the set of 1967’s The Comedians. And while promoting his new memoir, My Life in Focus: A Photographer’s Journey with Elizabeth Taylor and the Hollywood Jet Set, the celebrity shutterbug shared rare photos with PEOPLE of the Hollywood legends from the ’60s and ’70s — and revealed secrets of their legendary romance.

Taylor and Burton’s love story had the makings of a Hollywood movie. The two fell in love on the set of 1963’s Cleopatra — though both were married to other people at the time. The scandalous infidelity sent shockwaves through Hollywood, with even the Pope condemning their “erotic vagrancy.”

For more rare behind-the-scenes shots of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE — on newsstands Friday

Over the next 14 years, Taylor and Burton’s relationship took more twists and turns than a soap opera. They divorced their previous spouses and married one another in March 1964 — then divorced in 1974. They renewed their love and remarried in 1975 — only to split again a year later.

They made 11 films together along the way, but their off-screen turbulence really made them tabloid fodder. It was whispered at the time that they were much like the drunken, cheating couple in their hit film Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Gianni Bozzacchi

In his book, Bozzacchi admitted that Taylor and Burton had their tough moments. Yet he rarely saw the couple arguing in real life — “though living in the same house made that inevitable at times.” When they did, he wrote, “Elizabeth’s voice would become shrill and fast and she wouldn’t stop talking; Richard would slip a word in here or there whenever he could.”

Mostly, he remembered the laughs. “She had a great sense of humor, was very affectionate, and loved having fun,” Bozzacchi wrote. “She was always relaxed, tremendously … very simple.”

There was a 1969 boat trip in Portofino, Italy — where Taylor turned a camera Bozzacchi bought her on Burton. “She was pretending she was a paparazzo,” Bozzacchi told PEOPLE. “She was really very demanding to Richard, like ‘stay like this, put your hand there.’ She was doing the composition and everything! She really enjoyed taking pictures.”

Gianni Bozzacchi

Among the many fun stories in Bozzachi’s book is a tale about Taylor’s pear-shaped, sixty-nine-carat diamond — the world’s first million-dollar diamond that became known as “the Taylor-Burton Cartier diamond.” Burton bought the piece in 1969 from Cartier owner Robert Kenmore after losing it at auction — and posed with the piece the day after its delivery, just before he and Taylor attended Princess Grace Kelly’s 40th birthday party.

Burton is holding the diamond carefully in his hand — though the previous day, he was far more negligent with the piece, accidentally dropping it into the ocean during a drunken rant.

He was lucky. Given the huge publicity the sale had generated, Cartier had sent two fake diamonds over to their yacht alongside the real necklace. The one that fell into ocean? Merely a piece of glass.

Gianni Bozzacchi

Like most couples, Bozzachi said Taylor and Burton were two people who cherished their alone time. “They were giggling, fun, kissing each other — the two together, they became one person,” he said.

But alone time — like a moment he captured of the two while kissing on a dock — was sometimes hard to find. “It was very difficult to be alone. In 24 hours, their privacy was very little. They would be under pressure everywhere they went,” he explained. “I would never think of my life to be in that position alone. How do you live like that, you know?”

“They were workaholics,” he added. “Worked all the time.”

Gianni Bozzacchi

Burton died in 1984 of a cerebral hemorrhage. He was 58.

Though they weren’t married at the time, his death greatly affected Taylor, Bozzachi said. “When Richard died, she really suffered a lot, a lot, a lot,” he recounted. “She thought life was over when Richard died. If you think about it — she retired, she didn’t want to work anymore, she really become secluded for a while, she didn’t want to see anybody.”

“I can tell you the love of her life was Richard: no question, the big love of her life,” he continued. “Because there were all the ingredients — passion, love, communication.”

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As for the “tumultuous” label often placed upon their relationship, Bozzachi recalled that it was a word she didn’t shy away from.

One day, he was asked by an interviewer how “tumultuous” Taylor and Burton’s life was. He didn’t have an answer. “I thought tumultuous in a positive way,” he said. “Tumultuous when you are in bed. Tumultuous can be fun. Not in a negative way but a positive way.”

Taylor loved Bozzachi’s answer. ‘You know, you’re right,” she told him. “It was wonderful. It was tumultuous — in a beautiful way.”