People sometimes think that because Rome was declared an open city during World War II it was safe from attacks. That is very far from the truth. First of all, the open city status didn’t come off until an awful lot of damage had already been inflicted. After Mussolini’s downfall, the government that replaced him — led by the craven Pietro Badoglio — announced that Rome was a demilitarized zone, hoping to safeguard all of its precious treasures. The Allies didn’t necessarily agree and continued to lob bombs at the city until mid-August 1943 when they agreed to lighten up (probably because they were already in surrender talks with the Italian government). Bombs continued to fall from time to time even after the open city declaration was confirmed (including on the Vatican, twice, although Germany was responsible for one of those). All told, the Allies dropped 60 000 bombs on Rome during World War II.
On September 3, Badoglio surrendered to the Allies, who had already landed on the toe of Italy’s boot and, sensing that Hitler would not be pleased by this development (he was not, although he had been expecting it), he buggered off (at dawn) to Brindisi with his buddy King Victor Emmanuel III. Hitler promptly took control of most of Italy, including Rome, disarmed tens of thousands of Italian troops (so the Germans wouldn’t have to fight them), busted Mussolini out of jail and set him up in a puppet regime known as the Repubblica di Salò on Lake Garda, near Brescia.
You might wonder what any of this has to do with the largest film studio in Europe. I’ll be getting to that. But first let’s talk some more about Mussolini. It is no secret that he was massively vainglorious and blustery and that he loved to hear himself speak. So naturally, he went into the movies. In 1937, Il Duce inaugurated Cinecittà, handing the reins to Luigi Freddi, who had previously been the vice secretary of Fasci Italiani all’Estero, an organization that sought to convert expatriate Italians to fascism. So, lots of film experience there. Not. But experience probably mattered less to Mussolini than Freddi’s fascist loyalty since a major purpose (but not the only one — he also wanted to boost Italy’s feature film industry) of Cinecittà was to roll out propaganda films disguised as cinema. For example, Scipione l’africano wasn’t actually about Scipio’s defeat of Hannibal at the Battle of Zama in 202 B.C.E. It was about the Italian military victory in Ethiopia in 1936. Meanwhile, the Istituto Luce was producing hundreds of newsreels a year showing Mussolini striding around in the snow bare-chested or fulminating from his office balcony in Piazza Venezia. Starting in 1926, every one of Italy’s 2 500 movie theatres was obligated to show one Luce newsreel a week. In 1929, an estimated 13 million viewers attended 1.2 million screenings. That’s some pretty powerful propaganda right there. BTW, Google has put 30 000 of the Luce newsreels on YouTube. They are pretty entertaining.
In the summer of 1943, Allied bombs hit Cinecittà, destroying three of the studios. Yes, that’s what that long meandering introduction about the open city was leading up to. Italy’s movie studios were bombed. Kinda anticlimactic, but the open city stuff is interesting I think.
Looters and the Germans did even more damage than the bombs. According to film historian Mario Verdone, “In the days that followed (the armistice), Cinecittà was ruthlessly sacked for its technical apparatus. The anonymous looters even made off with the faucets in the bathrooms, while the Germans confiscated all the film equipment and carted it off to Germany.”
Starting in 1943 and until 1947, the Cinecittà opened its doors to about 3 000 war refugees, both Italians as well as displaced people from colonized Libya and Dalmatia. There was also an international camp, where the refugees ranged from Yugoslavia, Poland, Egypt, Iran and China. When the studios reopened after the war, the refugees sometimes worked as movie extras, receiving a token payment for their trouble.
Neorealism and the Hollywood on the Tiber phases of Cinecittà’s existence are worthy of their own blog posts so consider this to be part one. The reason that I am writing about Cinecittà in the first place (apart from my WW2 in Italy obsession) is that I visited the place not too long ago and it was fun and interesting. You should go if you have the chance. There are two exhibitions, one permanent and one ‘current,’ which I suppose means temporary. The permanent exhibit tells the story of the building of Cinecittà and its history. Here are some fun facts to know and tell: Cinecittà consists of 73 buildings spread over 59 hectares. It was built by 1 500 workers in 475 days. It has produced over 4 000 films since 1937.
Another room is dedicated to Federico Fellini and contains photos, drawings, costumes and footage of the Maestro. The temporary exhibit, ‘Backstage,’ is all about filmaking’s main elements: direction, screenplay, sound, costume and fiction. The best was the costume room, which had touch screen tables to let you dress up virtual actors in costumes from famous movies. Paper dolls for the digital age!
The best part is the outdoor sets: Broadway (created for Gangs of New York) and Ancient Rome (created for the TV series, Rome). There is also Florence in 1400 (created for the Italian miniseries, Francesco) but we couldn’t get in there for some reason. The sets are frequently adapted for reuse. The day we were there they were ‘directing’ a ‘movie’ set in Ancient Rome using some of the visitors as extras. Here’s Julius Caesar following his unfortunate incident in the Curia of Pompey.
Cinecittà has a nice bar and restaurant and a very acceptable book shop. If you are in Rome, you could do worse than to pay the studio a visit on a sunny afternoon.
Cinecittà, Via Tuscolana 1055
BOX OFFICE – open Monday through Sunday 09.30 to 19.00
EXHIBITION – open Monday through Sunday 09.30 to 20.00
10.00 (In Italian)
11.30 (in Italian and English)
13.00 (in Italian)
16.00 (in Italian and English)
17.30 (in Italian)
19.00 (in Italian)
Closed on Tuesdays