The Dreamlike World of Cinecittà: Rome's Old Hollywood on the Tiber

Part of the Cinecittà complex is flanked by props from director Dario Argento’s film ‘The Stendhal Syndrome’ (1996) and the Venusia from Federico Fellini's 'Fellini's Casanova' (1976)
Part of the Cinecittà complex is flanked by props from director Dario Argento’s film ‘The Stendhal Syndrome’ (1996) and the Venusia from Federico Fellini's 'Fellini's Casanova' (1976) | © Max d'Orsogna / Culture Trip
Photo of Thea Hawlin
1 May 2020

In Rome, a cinematic world opens its doors – photographer Max D’Orsogna captures images of Old Hollywood at Italy’s greatest film studio.

Rome’s Cinecittà Studios have sculpted film as we know it | © Max d'Orsogna / Culture Trip

Have you ever wished you could step through the screen at the cinema to explore the scene laid out before you? A “Cinema City” in which you can walk in the footsteps of the stars might sound like the stuff of fantasy, and yet it is just a short drive away from the centre of Rome.

A bright yellow Rationalist facade emblazoned with the film studio’s name welcomes visitors to Cinecittà. Photographer Max D’Orsogna, who visited and photographed the studio in late 2019, described it as “a feast of visual paradoxes everywhere you turn”.

A bizarre clash of historical details populates the halls of Cinecittà | © Max d'Orsogna / Culture Trip

Cinecittà was founded in 1937 by Benito Mussolini with the slogan “Il cinema è l’arma più forte” (Cinema is the most powerful weapon), originally as a political move. Mussolini (along with his son Vittorio) put renewed energy into efforts to reinvigorate the floundering Italian film industry to create a rival to the holy ground of Hollywood and bolster a sense of national identity. Laws were passed to aid home-grown film production, and after just six years almost 300 films had been made in the studios. Yet, what began as a propaganda machine rapidly evolved to earn a life all of its own.

Today, Cinecittà is both a studio and a museum filled with permanent exhibitions | © Max d'Orsogna / Culture Trip

Though it was bombed heavily during the Second World War, and later served as a refugee camp, in the aftermath of the conflict during the 1950s and 1960s the studios set about reinventing Italy’s reputation on a global scale. Thanks to low production costs and its prime location, the Cinecittà’s popularity with Italian and foreign filmmakers flourished. With an array of successful films produced in Cinecittà’s spacious 99-acre (40ha) grounds, Rome even became known affectionately as “Old Hollywood on the Tiber.”

Unlike many sets, Cinecittà’s impressive recreation of the Roman Forum lives in the same city as the original | © Max d'Orsogna / Culture Trip

Large American productions like Roman Holiday (1953), brought international stars Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck to the streets of the Eternal City. Next it would be sweeping ‘sword and sandal’ epics such as Ben Hur (1959) and Cleopatra (1963), starring on-and-off screen lovers Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor.

One of the most iconic films shot at Cinecittà was Federico Fellini‘s La Dolce Vita (1960): a motion picture that captured the cult of celebrity that exploded in Rome during the 1950s. With the influx of film stars working in Cinecittà during the day, more and more Hollywood names were to be seen drinking and dancing by night in the Eternal City. Places like Via Veneto would become renowned for their star-filled clientele; in fact, the set designer for La Dolce Vita, Piero Gherardi, recreated Via Veneto and several nightclubs (as well as the dome of Saint Peter’s) in the safety of Cinecittà’s Studios for the cast to film in. The protagonist Marcello, played by Marcello Mastroianni, is a journalist covering the tabloid news of movie stars, embroiled in the same paparazzi-fuelled altercations that he and his co-star Anita Ekberg faced in real life (Ekberg was famously caught shooting a bow and arrow at photographers who followed her). In fact, the term paparazzi was itself coined in the film, through Fellini’s character of Paparazzo the photographer. Cinecittà was at the centre of it all.

The sunken Venusia statue from Federico Fellini’s eponymous ‘Fellini’s Casanova’ (1976) now serves as a fixture on the site and an iconic visual emblem for modern Italian cinema | © Max d'Orsogna / Culture Trip

When visiting Cinecittà, D’Orsogna says, “It’s hard not to feel like you’re walking in the footsteps of cinema giants”. Other notable directors who frequented the “city of cinema” are Liliana Cavalli, Roberto Rossellini, Bernardo Bertolucci, and Francis Ford Coppola. Sometimes these giants of cinema have left behind larger-than-life souvenirs. Today, several colossal marble statues and busts still stand within the grounds, leftovers from films by the likes of directors Roberto Benigni and Giallo auteur Dario Argento.

The studios are filled with endless curios and props | © Max d'Orsogna / Culture Trip

Through this expansive world on flagstoned pavements, the main pathway into Cinecittà, captured by D’Orsogna, leads to an open courtyard in which impressive facades of Roman temples compete for attention, each grander than the last. “It’s hallowed ground,” sayss D’Orsogna. “[It’s] a privilege to be able to make work somewhere as significant to your own heritage, as it is inextricable from the entire history of Italian cinema.”

Cinecittà’s studios are full of surprises, with oddities around every corner | © Max d'Orsogna / Culture Trip

For D’Orsogna, he’s talking about his grandfather, an Australian/Italian businessman who was living in Rome in the 1960s. He told a young D’Orsogna stories about visiting the studios “in a friend’s convertible after drinking a tad too much wine at lunch – which, no doubt, made them feel like they were movie stars, too!” D’Orsogna’s grandfather was not the first to feel the magnetic draw and power of Cinecittà. “Fellini used to call it his ‘dream factory’,” D’Orsogna explains, “claiming its effect on him was so profound that even if he arrived to set in ill health, once the cameras started rolling he would inevitably make a miraculous recovery!”

Walking through the studio’s expansive sets can feel calm, yet eerie: an otherworldly experience | © Max d'Orsogna / Culture Trip

It wasn’t only Fellini the studios inspired. More than 3,000 movies have been filmed at Cinecittà, and out of those 90 have received an Academy Award nomination. A permanent exhibition presents small shrines to some of these stars split into various sections: Director’s Room, Script Room, Sound Room, Costume Room, Fiction Room and the Green Scene Room. D’Orsogna’s photographs capture a collection of vintage small oval sunglasses next to a black and white photograph of director and screenwriter Lina Wertmüller, the first woman nominated for an Academy Award for Best Director for her film Seven Beauties in 1977. In another exhibit, old camera equipment sits against bright blue walls; cream compartments host rolls of film like fossils; heirlooms of an illustrious past.

Memorabilia exhibitions of film stars and directors honour the legends who once worked here | © Max d'Orsogna / Culture Trip

The real ruins of Rome’s Forum now sit as precious relics to honour an illustrious history. Admired by tourists in the day, at night they sit empty; a ghostly souvenir from the past. By contrast, at Cinecittà the life-size replica of the ancient city centre is frequently populated, and not just by admiring tourists: directors, producers, actors and extras still populate this historic ground. The studios don’t merely stand to honour the glamour of their past, they’re still alive, a vibrant centre for the present and future of filmmaking in Italy and around the world. Since their Hollywood heydays, the Studios have continued to support a rich tradition of filmmaking – award-winning films such as Anthony Minghella’s The English Patient (1996) were created here, along with titles by Martin Scorsese, Wes Anderson and most recently Paolo Sorrentino’s hit HBO series The New Pope. The studios remain the largest in Europe, and modern classics are still being shot within their hallowed halls: the doors remain open.

The iconic studios are still in use today | © Max d'Orsogna / Culture Trip

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