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Bertolucci, 77, died at his home in Rome after a long illness, his publicist said. He had been in bad health for years and confined to a wheelchair since the early 2000s following a back operation.
"Last Tango", which starred Marlon Brando, was banned in several countries, including Italy, where it was not released for viewing until early 1987.
It won Bertolucci an Oscar nomination and burnished his international reputation, but his follow-up "1900", a five-hour historical epic starring Robert De Niro, Gerard Depardieu, Donald Sutherland and Burt Lancaster, marked the start of a lengthy period of commercial flops.
He burst back with “The Last Emperor" in 1987, beautifully shot by his long-time cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, which took all nine Oscars for which it was nominated, reasserting Bertolucci's position as a filmmaker with a distinct vision.
Born in Parma in central Italy, Bertolucci was the son of poet and film critic Attilio Bertolucci.
He began writing poetry as a child and had his work published in magazines before his teens, winning a national poetry prize as a student in Rome.
"It was a golden childhood. A big comfortable house, servants, understanding parents and a pursuit of intellectualism," he said.
"When I was 10 I would spend Saturdays and holidays at the movies, seeing one at two o'clock, another at four and maybe a third at six."
At 15 he borrowed a camera to make his first films - 16 mm silent shorts - and in 1961 he dropped out of college to become assistant director to the young Pier Paolo Pasolini on “Accattone".
"From the day I began work with Pasolini, I stopped writing poetry," he said. "Poetry was only a means of expressing myself until I could find the real way -- making movies."
His first feature, a thriller called "The Grim Reaper" (1962) that he made at the age of 22 about the murder of a prostitute, was a commercial flop.
He spent two years preparing his second, "Before the Revolution". The romantic exploration of turbulent youth after World War Two was hailed by critics.
But the turning point in his career came in 1970 when he turned out two outstanding films, "The Spider's Stratagem" and the intricate, ambivalent adaptation of Alberto Moravia's novel "The Conformist".
Bertolucci's early works were certainly far from sensationalist, however, notable for their passionate depictions of the effects of social evils, reflecting the director's strong left-wing views.
"Last Tango" aroused controversy because of its explicit sex - in particular an anal rape scene - and was condemned in the Italian courts as "obscene, indecent and catering to the lowest instincts of the libido".
The rape scene, infamously remembered for Brando's use of butter to penetrate his co-star, also traumatised its lead actress Maria Schneider, an unknown 19-year-old at the time.
"I felt humiliated and, to be honest, I felt a little raped, both by Marlon and by Bertolucci. After the scene, Marlon didn’t console me or apologise. Thankfully, there was just one take," she told Britain's Daily Mail before her death in 2011.
The controversy resurfaced in 2016 when a video emerged of Bertolucci telling a master class in Paris: "I had been, in a way, horrible to Maria because I didn't tell her what was going on."
Responding to a wave of outrage, the director said Schneider had known everything about the scene in advance, except the use of butter, which was an idea he had discussed with Marlon just before shooting.
"Somebody thought, and thinks, that Maria had not been informed about the violence on her. That is false," he said.
The period of subsequent flops weighed on the director, who looked east for the theme of “The Last Emperor" which chronicled the life of Pu Yi, China's last imperial ruler.
"I was so frustrated I wanted to go far away," he said.
The project took four years to film, using 19,000 extras and 9,000 costumes. It was the first Western feature on China, made in China since the 1949 Communist revolution. It was also the first film shot in Beijing's Forbidden City, the ancient home of China's rulers.
Bertolucci continued making films as recently as 2012, but never reached such critical and commercial highs again. He was honoured with lifetime awards from the Cannes and Venice film festivals.
In an interview with Reuters in 2013, Bertolucci said he was disappointed with the Hollywood that once inspired him and preferred television series such as “Mad Men”, saying they were better casted and better directed than big screen productions.
"My generation had an affair with American culture, there’s no doubt about it. A street lamp and a fire hydrant made me sing in the rain," he said.
"I saw 'Stagecoach' and for me (director) John Ford became Homer," he said of the classic American Western film made in 1939. "I was in front of a full-length mirror and what I was seeing at 12 wasn’t me, it was John Wayne."
"But the American films I like now do not come from Hollywood studios but from television series, like 'Mad Men', 'Breaking Bad', 'The Americans'," he said.
In 2012, Bertolucci made his first feature film in nearly a decade with "Me and You," about an introverted 14-year-old teenager who tells his mother he is going on a ski trip but spends a week in the family basement with his drug addicted half-sister.
Like "Last Tango in Paris," it was shot mostly indoors.