Rome Past & Present: my new book brings back old memories of my (hi)story with Rome and its Dutch Institute

Finally, after many, many years my book Reframing Luchino Visconti: Film and Art will appear this March with Sidestone Press. It is the result of a project that took more time than my PhD and my first monography together. It also partly retakes an old research of mine.

On 20 March I will present the book at the Royal Dutch Institute in Rome, with a round table with Francesco Bono (Università di Perugia), Veronica Pravadelli (Roma3), Stefania Parigi (Roma3), and Matteo Lafranconi (Scuderie del Quirinale). Discussion leader will be Dr. Arno Witte, staff member of the Dutch Institute and expert in art and culture. Afterwards I will present the book in homage to Caterina D’Amico, keeper of Visconti’s film heritage, Head of the Roman Scuola del Cinema (Centro Sperimentale), and daughter of Visconti’s regular screenwriter Suso Cecchi D’Amico. She will also accept the book for the three men to whom my book is dedicated: costume designer Piero Tosi, the late art decorator Mario Garbuglia, and Giuseppe Rotunno.

Rome en Chieti 2016 002.JPG

I am very happy with the location, as I have a long history with this Institute, and thus with Rome. I first came here in 1982, when Johan Offerhaus was the Institute’s managing director. It was during an excursion within my studies of art history at the University of Utrecht. Our group stayed at Pensione Mimosa near the Pantheon while another one was hosted at the Institute. But one night we had a merry get-together there with drinks on the balcony and piano playing. I was enchanted with this place, its stylish garden, the nearby Villa Borghese park. 1982 was also the year I did an intense course language course at the Università per Stranieri in Perugia. It enabled me to discover the splendors of Umbria, but also enjoy old Italian films in the nighttime, among which Il Gattopardo. I was immediately hooked. To the Dutch Institute in Rome I came back in 1984 for my MA thesis research at the University of Leiden, which was already on Visconti and painting, and supervised by the late Nico Brederoo. Another thriving force in those years was Laura Schram-Pighi, who was Mrs. Network – her book with names and addresses was legendary – and introduced me to various Italian experts. For one course of her, I wrote an essay on the adaptation of Tomasi di Lampedusa’s novel Il Gattopardo, comparing it to the published script and the film itself. Video was in its infant state, so the only way to be able to analyze the film was to personally bring two giant 35 mm reels (the film is over 3 hours) on loan from the Istituto di Cultura in Amsterdam to the Utrecht University lab to convert it to video, probably UMatic. From there I could do a shot by shot analysis.

I still cherish friends from those years, fellow MA researchers like myself such as Guus van den Hout, Tanja Ledoux, and the late Marie-José Schunck. It was Caterina D’Amico who in 1984 generously introduced me to Visconti’s former collaborators. So in addition to professors such as Mario Verdone and Lino Miccichè, I could also interview many former collaborators of Visconti, some of whom, such as Mario Garbuglia, I met even a few times. Others were e.g. Piero Tosi (whom I met at the famous Caffè Greco), Vera Marzot, Suso Cecchi D’Amico, Nicola Badalucco, Mario Chiari and Giuseppe Rotunno, some of whom I remet a few years after for a series of interviews for VPRO television, done by Marion Derksen but with my help as liaison and translator. I also became friends with Visconti’s former set photographer Paul Ronald and his wife Huguette, whose apartment in the Flaminia neighbourhood I often visited. Staying two months at the Dutch Institute in Rome made me aware of the nearby zoo, as lions roared sometimes at night, while early in the morning the squeaking trams would start their travels underneath the Institute. In 1986, while living in a rented room in an apartment, near Ottaviano (convenient with the then new metro line A), and run by a most remarkable landlady, I was extraneus at the Centro Sperimentale at the sections of directing and scriptwriting. Not being a regular enabled me to follow cinematography and editing lessons too. It brought me into contact with co-students such as Heidrun Schleef, Doriana Leondeff, Paolo Virzí, Massimo Martella, Roberta Canepa, André Prass, Claudio Antonucci, and many others. I recall auditoriums blue with smoke within an hour, students on strike, capable and incapable teachers, visits to Cinecittà across the street, and the documentary teacher adopting me as I came from the land of Joris Ivens.

But life for a penniless youngster in Rome wasn’t easy – the extranei were often begging regular students for mensa tickets. My film career wasn’t really taking off, despite some efforts here and there, such as a one minute film shot at the Casina Valadier, part of an amateur film course with Silvano Agosti, with future novelist and filmmaker Luigi Sardiello as my ‘scriptwriter’ and an amateur actress friend of him in the lead: Wanda. Because of art history I was thinking in symbols, metaphors, iconology, but because of Visconti also of style, architecture, decadence, decay and death. Old Europe Dies. So poor Wanda elegantly enters the frame, climbs the stairs, has a heart attack, slowly bends, falls and dies. One minute. Wanda didn’t have the Viscontian physique I wanted to turn her into, but she bravely fell down. We only had to clean her hands after every take. I had learned my lessons of reverse shots, so the editing looked good – even if we had to edit in the camera, not afterwards. Luckily I had my super-8 with me to do tests beforehand. Nasty we never got from Agosti the real 16 mm film I paid him for; he only showed it to us. The images were very atmospheric, I recall, with light filtered through the foliage. I remember endless wanderings through Rome in search of the perfect staircase I wanted, thus discovering the many faces of Rome, thanks to my Roman friends. At least that one I finished, as I also started another film project at the Centro, which collapsed as soon as it took off – promises by others unkept, lack of funds, and let’s face it: over-ambition. Trying to film a period piece within the old slaughterhouse – then a junkie paradise, now a fancy entertainment area – where we thought we could borrow one of the tourist coaches, and trying to hide our lacks by very close filming, wasn’t really a good idea.

Hartstocht en heldendom.jpg

Instead at the Centro one day, I met a former fellow student from Utrecht University, Nelly Voorhuis, and we decided that work wasn’t waiting for us after our graduation – the 1980s were a poor decade to find jobs – so we should simply create it, by raising an Italian film manifestation in the Netherlands. So I did not publish my MA research then, but instead discovered the attractions of Italian silent cinema during a Dutch manifestation Il primo cinema italiano 1905-1945, organized by Nelly Voorhuis and me for the Foundation Mecano, and resulting in a book (gorgeous design), a travelling film programme, and a modest exhibition of blow-ups of diva postcards (my actual film star postcard mania may have had its prologue then). The preparation for this brought me back to the Institute in 1987-1988, and also in 1992 when Nelly and I, intrigued by the Italian divas, were trying to raise an exhibition, book and retrospective on Lyda Borelli. At that time Ted Meijer was director at the Dutch Institute. I remember him as a very encouraging, friendly man, who was eager to know about our recent visit to an opera at the Scala in Milan (my first there), as Queen Beatrix was planning to go there.

(to be continued)

~ by Ivo Blom on February 27, 2018.

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