Cinematic city (2): L’Eclisse and Rome
It is slightly strange to take your students to an ordinary apartment building from the late 1950s or, even more, a neutral zebra crossing at an ordinary crossroad in the empty outskirts of town, when they have come all the way to see Rome. However, these are the places where Michelangelo Antonioni shot his wonderful 1962 black-and-white drama L’Eclisse (1962). EUR, the quarter where most of the time evolves, was then – and still is – a zone for the well-to-do, but for the modern ones; not the conservative rich who cling to the historic center with its century-old palazzi and antiques, as we notice in other scenes.
Vittoria, played by Antonioni’s muse Monica Vitti, is finishing her relationshop with Riccardo when the film begins, in media res. She is suffocated and looks outside but instead of nature she sees the giant water tower, nicknamed ‘mushroom'(fungo), resembling the atomic bomb – when the film was shot, in 1961, the atomic arms race was a fact.
We also notice the enormous Palazzo dello Sport, built by the architects Piero Nervi and Marcello Piacentini, the latter the master architect of the whole quarter in the fascist era, when it was destined for the World Expo of 1942 or E42 (which never took place of course), hence EUR (Esposizione Universale di Roma). The Sport’s Palace was built for the 1960 Olympic Games – as so many modern buildings in Rome.
The house of Riccardo must have been on Viale dell’Antartide, near the big Via Cristoforo Colombo that circles around the Palazzo dello Sport. Leaving Riccardo’s house, Monica walks down to her own street, the serpentine-like Viale del Umanesimo, where she lives on the first floor of nr. 307 of a building designed around 1955 by architects Michele Valori, Leonardo Benevolo and Giampaolo Rotondi. During the film, we see Vittoria hanging over the balcony, saying hi to a drunk passing by and talking to her new friend Piero whose car is stolen by the same drunk. Nextdoors is the building at nr. 315 where Vittoria’s British – and very colonial – friend Martha lives on the upper floor. It is again a building by Valori, and Hilda Selem (designed 1955-1959).
Later on, Vittoria gets befriended with Piero, a stock exchange man, working at the Old Stock Exchange in the so-called Temple of Hadrian in Piazza di Pietra. The contrast with EUR cannot be bigger: the enormous noise of buyers and sellers at the stock exchange floor, the hysteria of Vittoria’s mother fixated on money, and the speedy young salesman Piero (Alain Delon), whith whom Vittoria starts an affair. They regularly meet in Vittoria’s quarter, at a crossroad near the Olympic Hippodrome (now torn down), at the corner of Viale della Tecnica and Viale del Ciclismo, near a house under construction. While they are there, Antonioni cherishes all the details of this location such as trees, sprinklers, a nurse with a pram, a bus passing by, water running from a tree to a sewer, streetlamps etc., this making it their personal location and monumentalizing this non-place, in the terms of Marc Augé. All these details also come back into the final scene of the film. At the same time, the place doesn’t give you a restful feeling. It is rather disturbing, as if to say: living here has got to make you unhappy. It is as empty as your heart. And still it is Vittoria’s place.
The film also shows the locations in town extensively: the Stock Exchange and the Piazza di Pietra in front of it, crowded, and with narrow streets giving entrance to it – nowadays the Tempio di Adriano is an exhibition space and has been radically restored (we looked in vain for the wooden telephone booths and fences, and other elements of the exchange). Antonioni also leads us through the apartment of Piero’s parents, near the Ghetto quarter, at the Palazzo Patrizi-Clementi-Ascarelli (12, via dei Delfini), overlooking the square of Santa Maria in Campitelli with the Baroque church by Carlo Rainaldi. The conservative taste and wealth of the apartment is connected with the historic surroundings; it is the ultimate other end of the modern and modernist apartments of Vittoria and Riccardo, rich leftist intellectuals (though one wonders how Vittoria manages to live there, as she only does some translation work once in a while).
In L’Eclisse, we notice the large lake in the center of EUR, called the Laghetto (small lake) in spite of its size, where Piero’s car is driven into by the drunk, who drowns. When car and corpse are lifted from the water, the materialist Piero thinks first of his car of course. But he has money enough to buy a new one at once. On the other end of the lake we notice the curtain-wall building of the ENI (1960), designed by Marco Bacigalupo and Ugo Ratti.
While Piero’s car is pulled out, we get a glimpse of the giant church nearby, the San Pietro e Paolo (1938-1955) by Arnaldo Foschini, It is built on an artificial hill and stands at the very end of one of the parade streets designed under Mussolini; coming into Rome by Fiumicino airport and taking the train, the church is also visible from a distance, a landmark. It was supposed to be a mirror image of the St. Peter’s cathedral, just like the nearby Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana, another landmark in EUR, mirrored the Colosseum; because of its shape it was nickcnamed the square Colosseum (Colosseo quadrato). There is a glimpse of it in Open City, when the resistance attacks the vans with the men deported by the Germans after the razzia in which Pina was killed; several escape, including Pina’s husband. The reference to the Colosseo quadrato was a practical joke by Rossellini, as in 1945 EUR stood symbol for Mussolini’s regime and its sheltered dreams. Only in the mid-1950s, the Italian government decided to continue building at EUR, even employing pre-war architects who had worked there, such as Piacentini.
(Source: Jacopo Benci, ‘Michelangelo’s Rome: Towards an Iconology of l’Eclisse’, in: Richard Wrigley ed., Cinematic Rome, 2008)