Gilles Jacob, the president of the Cannes film festival, was quoted as saying by Italy's Ansa news agency: "For the second time in 24 hours, the world of cinema feels orphaned."

He called Antonioni the "alchemist of intimacy, the architect of space and time in contemporary cinema".

'Explorer of expression'

Giorgio Napolitano, the Italian president, said Italy had "lost one of cinema's greatest protagonists and one of the greatest explorers of expression in the 20th century".

Antonioni's body will lie in state on Wednesday morning at Rome's city hall. His funeral is due to take place on Thursday in his native Ferrara.

His deliberately slow-moving and oblique films were not always crowd-pleasers, but films such as L'Avventura made Antonioni's work a touchstone for directors like Martin Scorsese, who has described him as a poet with a camera.

Born in 1912 in the northern Italian city of Ferrara, Antonioni studied business and economics at Bologna university and briefly even worked at a bank, before becoming a film critic in the 1930s.

His first real involvement in film-making came when he helped write the script of Roberto Rossellini's 1942 Una Pilota Ritorna.

He directed his first feature film, Cronaca di un amore, in 1950.

International success

He scored his first real international success in 1960 with L'Avventura, an exploration of the emotional sterility of modern society.

His second breakthrough picture came in 1966 with the English-language Blowup, set in "swinging 60s" London which turned him into a cult figure for film-goers and film-makers.

Many hailed him as a founding father of European avant-garde cinema although some audiences found his films, with their long, lingering shots, both plodding and pretentious.

Next came Zabriskie Point in 1970 and The Passenger, starring Jack Nicholson, in 1975.

Largely absent from filmmaking after a stroke in the 1980s, he returned to acclaim in 1995 with Al di la delle nuvole, based on his own short stories. The film was co-directed by Germany's Wim Wenders.