Research: Visconti & Visual Arts

Postdoctoral research and publication

In his 1954 film Senso, the Italian director Luchino Visconti explicitly refers to the famous romantic painting by Francesco Hayez, Il Bacio (The Kiss, 1859). Whilst much has been written about literary and theatrical influences upon Visconti’s work – as well as a film maker, he was also a leading theatre and opera director – there has been a lot of speculation about but little hard corroboration of pictorial influences in his films.

Theory on cinema has long ceased to address cinema alone, but nowadays also focuses upon its evident links with other art forms. For example, with theatre and visual art in terms of composition, perspective, lighting and performance. Rather than addressing the quintessentially cinematic craft of editing, the focus is now upon what happens within the image: the mise en scène, the framing and other qualities of the camerawork or photography. Such a comparison of film, theatre and visual art addresses ‘visual culture’ in the broadest sense of the term. This broadening of scope from ‘purely’ pictorial, theatrical and cinematic art to a more dynamic study of visual culture is extremely current in the field of media and art theory.

My own research into Luchino Visconti fits in well with this trend, yet also departs from it. This is because, in general, there is a tendency in the literature on visual culture towards simply pointing out comparisons between media or art forms, and to do so in quite an ahistorical way. One of the aspects which I am investigating in my cultural-history-based research on Visconti is how painted images are transformed, by their passage through time in various forms, from unique works of art into icons and clichés, and so they can be taken up by a popular medium like cinema. What I am researching is the ‘gap’ between the painted and the filmed image, to see what happens when pictorial depictions are removed from their original context. This is set within a larger research on set and costume design within Visconti’s filmic oeuvre, in relation to fine arts, photography and cinema. Also, I have been researching which aesthetical conventions from painting or cinema preceding the one by Visconti we can trace in his work. Here I am thinking foremost of the staging of depth, framing and mobile framing, and the use of mirrors. Finally I was challenged to find out in how far Visconti’s passive and active experiences in Paris in the 1930s have been fundamental for his work – particularly his early films.

This first of all required research into material from Visconti’s own estate, now housed at the Istituto Gramsci in Rome, but it also called for oral and written research into the contribution made by his collaborators: people like cameramen and set and costume designers. Eventually, such a comparison of cinema with theatre and visual art should casted significant light upon the ‘collective authorship’ of a film. After all, during the production process each of the technical specialisms involved transforms and interprets in its own way traditions and products from one of the other two art forms.

In 2004 and 2005 I did my archival research and interviews in Rome, Milan and elsewhere. Early 2007, I did archival research in Paris. From July 2007 to January 2008 I lived in Rome, thanks to a fellowship of the Royal Dutch Institute, and wrote several chapters in first version. April 2009, I did some small additional research in Paris. Between 2011 and 2015 I worked on revisions and drastic shortenings of the manuscript, so most of the Paris research fell out again. In 2016 I worked on gathering illustrations and establishing the index, with some external help.

In phase of production now is my forthcoming monograph Reframing Luchino Visconti: film and art (Sidestone Press 2018). This study deals with the ways in which Luchino Visconti appropriated visual art and the cinema of previous filmmakers in his own films. The book goes deeply into set and costume design and cinematography.

While the first part of the book relies on how visual arts (painting, sculpture, photography) served in set and costume design (e.g. as props and as sources of inspiration), the second part focuses on (deep) staging, framing, mobile framing and mirroring. The book is based on extensive archival research, interviews with Visconti’s collaborators and secondary literature and is richly illustrated with pictures obtained from museums, photo services and films. The book will be released as paperback, and on request as e-book as well. It will be downloadable for a very modest price, while the price of the paperback will be reasonable.


Additional lectures, publications and education

In 2006 I co-organised the conference ‘Visconti e le arti visive’ (28 October 2006), at which I gave a keynote myself. My co-producer of the conference, Olivares Edizioni, published my essay on the same topic of Visconti and Visual Arts. Both essay and conference were very helpful to me. In 2006 I also published on Francesco Hayez’ painting Il Bacio (The Kiss, 1859) and Visconti’s film Senso (1954) in the Dutch art journal Jong Holland. In November 2006, I gave a paper on the use of mirrors in Visconti’s films, at the Associazione italiana per le ricerche di storia del cinema (AIRSC) in Naples. The organisation promised to publish it in 2008, but this was never materialised. In May 2007, I presented my research within a larger presentation on Visual Culture within Higher Education, at the Royal Academy of Sciences, Amsterdam. At a workshop on Intermediality, organized by myself at the Royal Dutch Institute in Rome (17 December 2007), I framed my research within concepts & interpretations of intermediality. In 2007 I also published an article on Visconti’s pictorial sources for the costumes in his film Senso, in the Dutch art journal Kunstlicht.

In April 2008, I lectured on Visconti & mirrors at Dante Alighieri/University of Groningen, Netherlands. At the Certosa di Pontignano (University Siena), I gave a triple lecture on ‘intermedialities’, paintings in Visconti’s filmsets and framing & deep staging in Visconti’s films. I also gave a guest lecture on the last mentioned at the University of Terni, north of Rome. In June 2008, I lectured on my Visconti research at the NECS conference in Budapest, Hungary. Late August 2008, I gave a paper on a collection of pictures on the location scouting for Tosca (Jean Renoir/ Carl Koch 1940-41) for which Visconti was assistant-director. I discovered this collection myself. The lecture was held at Torre del Lago Puccini, Italy, in occasion of an exhibition and conference on Puccini & cinema, organised by Pier Marco De Santi (University of Pisa). In September-October 2008, I gave a seminar on ways of comparing art & cinema, related to my Visconti research, to the students of the MA Intermedialities in my department. In 2009 and 2010, I gave this course again, modifying and updating it each time.

Meanwhile, I contributed to volume 3 of the series biblioVisconti (vol. 3 was released late 2009) and I contributed in 2005 to a Dutch dvd-box of Visconti’s films, issued by Cinemien/ Homescreen.

In 2010 I published two articles on my research, one publicly in the journal Acta Sapientiae Universitatis. Film Studies, one privately in the Liber Amicorum for Egbert Barten. The first texts deals with framing in Visconti’s cinema (doors, windows etc.), the second with his use of mirrors. In both cases, the topic is contextualised and framed by a crossmedial comparison between painting and cinema. In November 2010 I also gave a paper on the production of Tosca by Renoir and Koch, at the Cinefest 2010 conference in Hamburg, dedicated to Italo-German relationships. I indicated that Visconti’s contribution to and appropriation of the film must have been bigger than presumed until now. Nice thing was that the Bundesarchiv restored a German version of the film, which I introduced as well. The lecture was published as ‘”Nur mit einem Blick perfide sein.” Carl Koch, Jean Renoir, Luchino Visconti und “Tosca”‘, in: Francesco Bono, Johannes Roschlau eds., Tenöre. Touristen, Gastarbeiter. Deutsch-italienische Filmbeziehungen (München: edition text + kritik, 2011). An English written, reworked and updated version of this article appeared as ‘Unaffectedness and Rare Eurythmics: Carl Koch, Jean Renoir, Luchino Visconti and the production of Tosca (1939/41)‘, The Italianist, 2, 2017 (Open Access).

In April 2011, at a Fellini symposium at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, I compared the use of paintings in the sets of Conversation Piece and Il Gattopardo by Visconti with Fellini’s use of the still-life in La dolce vita. In October 2011, at the conference Media Acts at the Norwegian University of Science & Technology in Trondheim, I gave a plenary lecture on Visconti’s use of mirrors, compared to previous filmmakers and compared to the use of mirrors in art. My publication ‘Morte a Venezia fra fotografia, pittura e cinema’, in: Francesco Bono, Luigi Cimmino, Giorgio Pangaro eds., Morte a Venezia. Thomas Mann/ Luchino Visconti: un confronto (Cosenza: Rubbettino, 2013), appeared in Spring 2014. The volume was widely discussed in the Italian and international press and had good reviews in the years 2014-2016 (see Reviews). November 2016 I lectured on Visconti’s use of deep staging and mirrors in relation to art and cinema, at the Università degli Studi “G. D’Annunzio” in Chieti, Italy.


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