Rome Recaptured

The capture of Rome, Italy’s capital, from Fascist hands was a long time in preparation. It could not be done by direct attack from the North. All previous assaults on Rome, dating back to the time of the Gauls, had come from there. But the German forces made that impossible. It was becoming clear, by 1943, that the burden of keeping the Allies out of Italy was going to fall, more and more, on the German rather than the Italian forces—and on the repulse, which ultimately proved impossible, of a sea-and-air invasion across the Mediterranean from North Africa.

Mussolini and Hitler, together, had committed Italy to full partnership with Germany in the world war. There is no doubt of the mutual fascination that existed between the two men. It had been in place, and strengthening, ever since Mussolini paid his state visit to Germany in 1937 and was confronted by the full strength of Nazi theatricals—no man as narcissistic as Il Duce was going to be unmoved by the sight of an avenue lined with likenesses of himself and of Roman emperors.

Yet there was no prospect that the partnership of Italy and Germany in a world war could be an equal one. The Italian economy could only support a tenth of Germany’s military expenditure (in 1938, $746 million, as against Germany’s $7.415 billion). Its production of war materiel was small compared with Germany’s, despite all the bluster Mussolini and his propagandists made about it. Italian immigration to the United States between 1918 and 1938 had been heavy, and the reduction of Italian manpower accordingly large—a problem which obviously could not be solved in the short term by any number of appeals to population growth. And the worst problem of all, from the Axis’s point of view, was the difficulty of getting ordinary Italians to hate Americans and the British. The Allies had fought the Italian army in North Africa in early 1943, and the results were not encouraging for Italy; by May 1943, according to John Keegan, the number of Italians who had become Allied prisoners in the African wars over Mussolini’s “empire” exceeded 350,000, more than the total garrison assigned to Africa at the beginning. The Allied victory in North Africa was now absolute and irreversible, and this meant that the whole Italian coast was faced, across an intervening sea, by hostile forces, deployed from Casablanca to Alexandria. What Churchill had memorably called “the soft underbelly of Europe” was now open to attack from sea and air as it had never been in previous history.

Moreover, the royal house of Italy, with most of its ruling aristocracy and officer class, was wavering in its loyalty to Il Duce. Hitler was well aware of this, and he felt, correctly, that “in Italy we can rely only on the Duce. There are strong fears that he may be got rid of or neutralized in some way.… Broad sectors of the civil service are hostile or negative toward us.… The broad masses are apathetic and lacking in leadership.” So they were, and they became more so after the unwelcome news of Operation Husky, the code name for the Allied landings in Sicily—the prelude to Operation Avalanche, a full assault on the Italian mainland. This was a crucial event for Italy’s ruling class. It persuaded them to change sides, without telling the Germans. The Italian troops facing the Allies crumbled, and Badoglio, their commander, had opened negotiations with the Allies, all the while declaring that, as prime minister—for Mussolini had now resigned his office—he was unshakably loyal to Hitler. After an uncomfortable meeting with King Victor Emmanuel, who had demanded his resignation, Mussolini was banished to an improvised succession of islands off Italy’s west coast, ending at a hotel atop the Gran Sasso peaks in the Apennines. From there, a few weeks later, he was “rescued” on Hitler’s orders by a formidable duel-scarred SS commando named Otto Skorzeny, who came winging in with a tiny Storch spotter plane, scooped up Il Duce, and flew him off to a reunion with Hitler, and refuge, of a sort, in the tiny town of Salò. Here, he was to reign briefly as head of a puppet regime, the Italian Social Republic. Such was the terminus of Il Duce’s political career.

The first stage of the Allies’ thrust into Italy was a success. The central target of the Allies’ enormous armada was the ancient port town of Gela—where, according to legend, the Attic playwright Aeschylus had been killed by a falling tortoise, dropped from the beak of an eagle. Much more than tortoises came hurtling down on Gela’s Axis defenders: waves of bombers, parachutist drops, and naval guns with which the three-pronged assault of Patton’s Seventh Army pressed home its attack, out of a limpidly clear July morning. It took the troops of Husky just thirty-eight days to win back ten thousand square miles of Sicily from the Axis, fighting with desperation uphill most of the way. By the end of it, half a million Germans were dead, and when the Allies reached Messina, the northeastern tip of Calypso’s blood-boltered island, the correspondent Alan Moorehead gazed over the narrow strait to the mainland and reflected, “One was hardly prepared for its nearness.… When one looked across at that other shore, the mainland of Europe, the vineyards and village houses were utterly quiet and all the coast seemed to be gripped in a sense of dread at what inevitably was going to happen.”

What happened, starting in early September 1943, was Avalanche, the Allies’ mass landing at Salerno. By now the Italian forces had caved in, and all the fighting devolved on the Germans, who held on with the grimmest determination—a determination matched only by that of the invading Allies.

After the hails of fire that had engulfed southern Italy during the Allied crossing from Sicily, after the bitter yard-by-yard struggle up the “boot” of Italy toward Rome, after the long and murderous transit through Salerno, the “bitchhead” (as the troops named it) of Anzio, and the terrors of the long assault and counterassault on the venerable fortress and Abbey of Monte Cassino, established in the sixth century by Saint Benedict, the actual fall of Rome, in June 1944, came almost as an anticlimax to the Allied army. As the army approached the city, few shots were fired. Rome was almost empty of Germans but full of Romans, all of whom miraculously ceased to be fascisti when the first American tanks came rolling over the Tiber bridges; the plug had been pulled, and the enemy was draining north, to make its stands above Rome, north of the Tiber.

If Allied bombers had been set loose to attack the city, they could have produced a devastation without limits. Given the Allies’ air superiority, it would not have been difficult to do to Rome what the British had already done to Dresden. But the American high command had to reckon with the reactions of the millions of American Catholics if the American forces were seen to be bombing the pope, even if their target was Mussolini. In late June of 1943, General Marshall had allowed that “it would be a tragedy if Saint Peter’s were destroyed,” but Rome still contained a target of high strategic importance: not only was it the capital of Fascism, but through its enormous Littorio marshaling yards passed most of the rail traffic headed south.

Accordingly, Roman Catholic pilots and bombardiers were given the option of not taking part in the planned raid on the yards. Navigation maps highlighted the Vatican and other historic sites. But there was a limit to what a huge bombing raid could avoid. Five hundred B-26 bombers carrying some thousand tons of high explosive headed for Rome from bases in North Africa. There was a kind of miracle in the fact that they nearly all hit their designated railway targets. Only one church of historical value was hit: San Lorenzo, a fourth-century structure, was virtually demolished by a single thousand-pound bomb, but has since been rebuilt.

Though thousands of men had been killed on their way to Rome, few Allied soldiers died in Rome itself. The Germans, or nearly all of them, had pulled out in front of the advancing troops. The Allies had suffered 44,000 casualties since the invasion of mainland Italy had begun on May 11: 18,000 Americans (including 3,000 killed), 12,000 British, 9,600 French, and nearly 4,000 Poles; German casualties were higher, estimated at 52,000. Now General Mark Clark, who had long been obsessed with the capture of Rome, found his conqueror’s way through the city to the foot of the Capitoline Hill, up Michelangelo’s Cordonata, to the doors of the Campidoglio. Relatively few Romans turned out in the streets to watch Clark’s progress through the open city on June 4—all were afraid (needlessly, as it turned out) of being caught in the crossfire of a last-ditch stand by the Nazis as they left. But there was no “last stand” by the Germans as they quit Rome.

Recovery from the Fascist occupation was slow and incomplete. The end of World War II also marked the end of all possibility of Rome’s recovery at the head of the static visual arts; culturally, if not dead, Rome was certainly crippled. It is depressing, but hardly unfair, to admit that, by the beginning of the 1960s, Rome, the city that had produced and fostered so many geniuses in the visual arts across the centuries, had none left—not, certainly, in the domains of painting, sculpture, or architecture. None of the painting or sculpture made in Rome since World War II even begins to measure up to the grandeur and energy of earlier work done by Roman artists or to work commissioned by Roman patrons. As for another Raphael or Michelangelo rising in Rome, or a Caravaggio, forget it: there are quite simply no candidates.

What caused this situation? It is impossible to say. Cultures do grow old, and sometimes one of the ominous signs of this can be their frustrated desire to look young. Why it happens may be long debated but remains a mystery. It happened with Roman architecture: one cannot point to a single architectural project built in the Eternal City in the last hundred years or more which could justify comparison to, for instance, the Spanish Steps, let alone Piazza Navona. The sorry truth is that whole cultures, like individual people, do run down; with age, their energies gutter out. They have a collective life, but that life depends entirely on the renewal of individual talent from decade to decade. The mere fact that they once produced extraordinary things guarantees nothing about their futures—otherwise, one could have expected something memorable from (say) Egypt or Mayan America over the last few hundred years.

This is what happened to Rome. The great city gradually ceased to be a place from which one could expect major painting or sculpture to emerge. And in fact no one was watching, because it was simply assumed that the resources of Rome could never be exhausted, and so could be taken for granted. This was not a sudden implosion, but a slow leakage. What Rome had to offer the artist was no longer what the artist necessarily wanted. Who was going to learn about abstract art, the orthodoxy of the postwar years, by looking at Canova and Bernini? The more Rome was visited, the more it was locked into the itinerary of mass tourist spectacle, the less useful it seemed to become to the artist. There had been no doubting the necessity of Rome to the artist in the seventeenth century. Certainly many nineteenth-century French artists could not define themselves or their work without the supreme example of Rome before them, whatever their differences might be among themselves: one need only think of painters who used to be treated as complete opposites, like Ingres on the one hand and Delacroix on the other. But the position of Rome became more debatable, and its strength corroded, as Paris took over as the center of Western art in the nineteenth century. There was, for instance, no Roman equivalent to Manet, and neither Rome nor the prototypes it offered played any significant role in the development of Impressionism or later forms of modernist art, except for Italian Futurism. Then came the twentieth century—and New York, with its even vaster imperial pretensions. In the process, as the Great Tradition of classicism faltered and died, the wonders of Rome slowly became culturally optional.

To a degree not imagined before, Rome had simply run out of major painters, and the artists it did have were running out of energy. Not much of the art made in Rome between the war and the present seems headed for survival.

Giorgio de Chirico may have been the best-known and (at least for his early work) the most esteemed Rome-based Italian painter of the twentieth century, but there is little doubt who was the most popular in Italy. He was Renato Guttuso (1911–87), a much younger man than de Chirico and his opposite in every way. De Chirico’s work showed not the least trace of contemporary social interest or awareness; he was entirely focused on nostalgia for a vanished antiquity. Outside the studio, he took no part at all in politics. Guttuso, on the other hand, was an ardent communist from his youth, defiantly joining the Fascist-banned PCI (Italian Communist Party) in 1940 and never deviating from his anti-Fascist beliefs. From 1943 on, he was an active anti-Nazi partisan, and the risks he ran from the occupying Germans were real. He saw his work as part of the Italian resistance to Nazism, and to the power of the Mafia. This put him in a good position to be seen as a culture hero, untainted by Fascist sympathy, in the eyes of younger leftists even before the Allied victory in the war and the fall of Mussolini. After 1945, when an artist’s wartime political allegiances were a big factor in his postwar reputation, Guttuso’s name became all but unassailable—any demurral from its pre-eminence was taken, in leftist circles, as a politically motivated assault from the nostalgic right. Guttuso was the only Western artist, other than Picasso himself, who was treated reverentially as an ally and model by official cultural circles behind the Iron Curtain, in the 1950s and after, so much so that he was given the Lenin Peace Prize in 1972, the Soviet equivalent of the Nobel (though never accorded such importance in the West). He shared this honor with La Pasionaria of Spanish Civil War fame (Dolores Ibárruri, 1964) and the Italian sculptorGiacomo Manzù (1965), whose specialty, other than lecturing anyone within earshot about the inequalities of the world, was making harmoniously conical effigies of cardinals and designing monumental doors (1964–67) for the Basilica of Saint Peter.

Guttuso constantly spoke of himself as a Sicilian peasant. “Sicilian peasants … hold the primary position in my heart, because I am one of them, whose faces come before my eyes no matter what I do.” This in fact was rather a stretch; he was indeed Sicilian (from the ruinously depressed, Mafia-ridden town of Bagheria, not far from Palermo), but he was from the middle class, was married to a Roman contessa, Mimise Bezzi Scala, and the sales of his paintings made him one of the richer men, and certainly the richest artist, in Italy. Nevertheless, no modern artist could claim to have done more to illustrate the harshly insular, stress-laden, and almost furiously vivid conditions of Sicilian peasant life, before, during, and after the Nazi occupation. Guttuso’s best paintings tended to carry a freight of desperation; very much under the influence of Goya, they commemorate revolt against intolerable human conditions. Sometimes they quote and imitate Goya directly, as in La Fucilazione in Campagna (Execution by Firing Squad in the Country,1938), provoked by the killing of the poet Federico García Lorca by Franco’s Falangists, which was based on that archetype of protest pictures, Goya’s Third of May. Guttuso painted the working class at work: fishermen, textile workers, sulfur miners. He did so with a fierce and disillusioned sympathy that many Italians, at the outset of his public career, found intolerable, but later came to expect, more or less as a trademark. When he won the Bergamo Prize in 1942 with his Crucifixion—which contains, along with bitter emblems of suffering and torment, indebted equally to Guernica and to the Isenheim Altarpiece, the figure of a naked woman—there were strident protests from members of the Catholic Church.

His best-known series of paintings inspired by the war, the massacres, was based on a slaughter that took place in a little-frequented suburb of Rome, the Fosse Ardeatine or Ardeatine Caves. These caverns had been used until then as a mine for pozzolana, the volcanic dust used in mixing concrete. On March 23, 1944, a squad of German policemen (Eleventh Company, Third Battalion, mostly German-speaking Italians who had served in Russia) was marching along Via Rasella in central Rome when it drew level with a steel trash cart which the Italian resistance, knowing their route, had packed with iron tubes filled with some eighteen kilos of TNT. The resulting explosion, faultlessly timed, killed twenty-eight police and a number of bystanders outright; others died soon after, bringing the death toll to forty-two.

This action—or atrocity, as the Germans saw it—threw the Nazis into a frenzy of vengeance. Reprisals were called for: ten Italians for every dead Nazi. (The sixteen resistance members who had actually planned and helped carry out the action were never caught.) There were difficulties in rounding up enough hostages, and many of those taken into custody not only had had nothing to do with the explosion but knew nothing about it, being already in jail when it happened. But finally, on March 25, a total of 355 Italians were forced into trucks, driven to the Ardeatine Caves, and shot in groups of five. It took all day and produced indescribable and horrible chaos, particularly since some of the Nazi executioners were themselves so horrified by their task that they had to get drunk on Cognac to finish the job, which did not improve their aim. When the last victim was pronounced dead, a corps of German engineers sealed the caves with dynamite. They would not be opened for a year, until after the Allies entered Rome. But word of the Ardeatine slaughter leaked out very fast, and it was on this that Guttuso based his melodramatically tragic series of massacre paintings, collectively entitled Gott mit UnsGod with Us, the slogan on the buckles of Nazi uniform belts—which could not be publicly exhibited before the liberation of Italy, for fear of German reprisals.

Probably Guttuso’s most ambitious painting was done several decades later—his enormous three-meter-square canvas La vucciria (1974), a panorama of the food market in central Palermo. The name of the place derives from the French boucherie, “butcher’s shop,” and that is essentially how it began: in Italian a macelleria, but a gigantic, encyclopedic one, where everything living or dead, from baby squid to whole hogs, from bunches of laurel to boxes of eggplant, as long as it was edible, was sold for consumption, twenty-four hours a day. Just as the old Les Halles was known as “le ventre de Paris,” “the belly of Paris,” so the Vucciria is and was the belly of Palermo, growling, grumbling, restlessly teeming, and always alive. “E balati ra Vucciria ’un s’asciucanu mai,”runs a common Sicilian saying, “The paving stones of the Vucciria are never dry,” meaning that the place is always in use, always being swilled and hosed down. Or, if you want to make a promise of delivery that neither you nor your hearer will believe, you can say, “When the stones of the Vucciria dry out.” Into this painting Guttuso packed his feelings and observations about Palermo; the city was, as he painted it, what the city ate, an enormous and phantasmal, chaotic slaughterhouse: dead lambs, tuna split open to disclose their ruby flesh, harsh contrasts of purple eggplant, tomatoes so red-ripe as to seem on the verge of explosion, sardines awaiting their transformation into pasta con le sarde, pyramids of shining lemon—a massive compost of life and death.

If Guttuso’s form of social realism—victims, big backsides, spaghetti-haired women, and all—proved popular with orthodox communists and rich Italians in and out of Rome, it failed to excite much imitation—and none of any quality—among Italian painters in the postwar years, and was looking decidedly tired by the 1960s.

The new rage was for abstract painting, and in particular for the work of Alberto Burri (1915–95) and Lucio Fontana (1899–1968). But Burri’s work now seems to have been overtaken by the more subtle paintings of the Spaniard Antoni Tàpies, and Fontana’s has come to look monotonous. (There are those who, remembering Fontana’s early enthusiasm for Mussolini and Fascism, to which he was a convinced adherent, would regard this as a just punishment.) How much mileage can an artist extract, and for how long, from ripped, paint-drenched, charred burlap? The work of these “informalist” painters only reminds us, decades later, that when paintings have little or no anchorage in the world as seen, they will end up looking pretty much the same; the “freedom” of so much abstract art actually leads to monotony. Nine times out of ten, the thing that underwrites variety is a certain degree of faithfulness to things as they appear, to a world whose enormous and constantly invigorating and challenging differences cannot be surpassed by the more limited experience of a painter.

Fontana was the kind of artist whose work passed through a phase of seeming radical almost to the point of aggression and alarm, and then slumped into a semi-decorative sameness. From early Cubism onward, artists had achieved certain effects by adding material to the canvas—collaged newsprint, glued-on objects. Fontana’s rhetorical device was to take material away from the canvas, leaving holes in it—either poked or slashed in its paint-burdened surface. These were christened, rather pretentiously, Concetti Spaziali (Spatial Concepts), because they showed emptiness behind the stretched canvas. Fontana’s admirers saw in this an invigorating sign of pent-up energy, though today this seems more a figure of art-speech than a physical reality. Looking back on it, how pointless it seems! The real surface of Italy was full of holes, craters, gashes, all inflicted on it by the bombs of the raiders and the shells of the panzers. It was one huge landscape of damage. Little could have been more gratuitous than to take canvases and punch holes in them, as though this could add some meaning to what the real world had undergone, whose traces were so much more eloquent than anything an “advanced” artist could do to surfaces in his studio. Fontana’s work could not escape the fate of novelty art which outlives its novelty.

In general, Italian painting in the 1960s seemed caught in an insoluble bind: anxious to escape the heavy, elegant burden of inherited culture, plagued by memories of its own glorious past, it could not invent a convincing way of looking brutal. In Rome it entered a phase of complacent, pseudo-radical mannerism which made the frigid exercises of such painters as the Cavaliere d’Arpino, three centuries before, seem positively exuberant. The Italian art world, seemingly disoriented by the war and by the rise of American art to prominence (and then to imperial glory in the fifties), tended to treat as “major figures” artists whose talent and achievements were quite nugatory. One example among many was Mario Schifano (1934–98), an “Italian Pop” artist who briefly enjoyed the reputation of being Italy’s answer to Andy Warhol—as if an answer were needed!—before wrecking his slender talent and eventually killing himself with massive intakes of cocaine. Schifano was the next-door neighbor of the great Italian aesthete and English scholar Mario Praz, author of The Romantic Agony, The House of Life (a long, meditative essay that circled around his enormous collection), and other works. Praz loathed Schifano, who was the noisiest of neighbors and, as a friend of the Rolling Stones and a devotee of rock-and-roll, represented everything Praz found most noxious and threatening in sixties culture. Schifano, on the other hand, worshipped Praz, and bombarded him with invitations to meet. He wanted, in particular, an inscribed copy of The House of Life.Eventually, one was left outside Schifano’s door, and it was indeed inscribed by the scholar. “A Mario Schifano,” the dedication ran. “Così vicino, ma così lontano”—“To Mario Schifano, so near but so far away.”

The 1960s and ’70s were a hospitable time for conceptual art in Rome, particularly given the Italian talent for obfuscatory theory. The most “radical” of these gestures—one whose sharpness is most unlikely ever to be surpassed, and which out-Duchamps Duchamp in a small way—was Piero Manzoni’s Merda d’artista, which is (or possibly is not) what it says it is: the artist’s shit, a small lump or turd weighing about thirty grams, sealed in a small tin can and forever invisible.

Manzoni was born near Cremona in 1933 but lived in Rome; he had no art training, and did not need it, since his work consisted entirely of ideas about art rather than the making of aesthetic objects. One part of this field was his Achromes (No Colors), white canvases covered with white gesso that was scratched or scored with parallel lines. (They did not have to be canvases; some Achromes were made of white cotton wool, or even bread rolls—white bread, naturally, rather than the grainier brown Italian pane integrale.) The chief influence hovering behind these was that of the French artist Yves Klein, whose show of monochrome canvases, all painted the same IKB or International Klein Blue, Manzoni had seen in Paris in 1957. Another was that of Robert Rauschenberg, who had done a group of all-white canvases as far back as 1951; and one should not forget the Russian Malevich’s White on White (1918).

Manzoni did single lines, drawn on a roll of paper of a precisely given length, such as a kilometer; these scrolls were rolled up and kept in polished metal drums. He designated friends (one of whom was the writer Umberto Eco) as living works of art, issuing them with certificates of authenticity. He exhibited red and white balloons which he had blown up himself and then tethered to wooden bases, under the title Artist’s Breath; these were intended as relics or souvenirs of “creativity,” though of course they did not last long; the rubber perished. In 1961, he installed an iron block in a Danish park; its title, Base of the World, was inscribed on it upside down, so that the viewer could imagine the whole world reposing on the block, rather than vice versa. Thus, before his early death from a heart attack in 1963, Manzoni had created a small, wry, sharp body of work; how things might have developed from there is of course unknowable. Probably, one suspects, not so very far…

But the little can of excrement was the signature of his career, as nobler things had been of Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s. Rumor insists that he got the idea from Salvador Dalì, but in any case it was a neat conceptual jeu d’esprit. Opening the can would, of course, destroy the value of the artwork. You cannot know that the shit is really inside, or that whatever may be inside is really shit. The obvious target of this object, or gesture, is the overvaluation of art as a fragment of the artist’s being—the idea that, in buying a work of art, one also comes to own not just a made object but a part of a creative personality. It is the kind of thought that tends to dissipate when explained, as good jokes do. It is also a point which can only be made once, which redoubles the “uniqueness” that Manzoni’s idea proposes. The edition size is ninety cans, and so far none has been opened; it seems unlikely that any will be, since the last can of Manzoni’s Merda d’artista to go on the market fetched the imposing sum of $80,000—no shit, one is tempted to add.

Other artists gathered under the umbrella of Arte Povera produced objects of some modest interest. Probably the best of them was Giuseppe Penone (b. 1947), who hit on the memorable idea of taking a wooden construction beam with knots showing and then, starting from the exposed knot ends, whittling back into the substance of the wood to disclose what had originally been the younger form of the tree, hidden inside—an intriguingly poetic reversal of time and growth.

There was, however, a limit to how much conceptual art the Italian market and its public could continue to absorb with interest. No matter how many art followers might admire such products of Arte Povera as Mario Merz’s igloo constructions of metal, glass, neon, and other mixed materials (praised at the time for their allusions to “nomadic” and “primitive” cultures), or Jannis Kounellis’ Twelve Horses (just that: twelve live horses—straw, bridles, horseshit, and all—displayed in Rome’s Galleria L’Attico in 1969, which one postmodernist art historian called “the model of prelinguistic experience, as well as … nondiscursive structures, and nontechnological, nonscientific, nonphenomenological artistic conventions”—enough dry jargon to choke any pony—people still seemed to want something to hang on their walls, which one could not easily do to a horse or an igloo. Enter, at this point, a brief temporary salvation in the form of the Transavanguardia.

This clunky neologism was coined by the Roman art historian Achille Bonito Oliva, who acted as ringmaster for a group of young painters, of whom the most prominent were Sandro Chia (b. 1946), Francesco Clemente (b. 1952), and Enzo Cucchi (b. 1949). It meant absolutely nothing definable but pointed to a mood of eclectic revivalism, of eager neophytes shoring fragments—of archaeology, of religion, of what you will—against their ruins. But at least it meant painting, for which a surfeit of conceptual art seldom fails to excite nostalgia, especially if the painting is of human figures. These, the Transavanguardisti supplied in some quantity. Their quality was a different matter. It produced interest in America—indeed, it was the only new Italian art to stimulate excitement on the American market. Nevertheless, this was quite short-lived.

The most dramatic painter of the three was Cucchi, who did large doom-laden panels of frantic chickens caught in what appeared to be mud slides in a cemetery, with shovelsful of brown and black paint two inches thick.

Chia, on the other hand, had a curiously revivalist flair. In the early 1980s, he appeared to be influenced by an almost forgotten figure, the Fascist painter Ottone Rosai (1895–1957), whose roly-poly figures—buttocks like blimps, ladylike coal-heaver arms—had been part of a conservative reaction against Futurism. Chia was running what appeared to be more lighthearted variations on Rosai’s fatness. In the same way, he alluded to de Chirico—not the early master of strange cityscapes, but the de Chirico of the 1930s, kitschy antiquities and all. If these padded boys and dropsical nymphs were to meet the demands of real classical art, it would seem a breach of etiquette. But in the stylistic context of Chia’s work, such demands could hardly be made. Everything looked so ebullient, juicy, and harmless that non-Italians thought it “typically Italian,” like a painted cart or a singing gondolier.

But at least it was less pretentious than the work of the third Transavanguardista, Francesco Clemente. Clemente spent part of each year in Madras, in southern India, and his work is a stew of European and Indian quotations, full of quasi-mystical teases. He acquired a reputation as a draftsman, quite undeserved: Clemente’s figures are boneless, and his conventions for the human face—he is fond of portraiture—are close to a joke, with their poached-egg eyes and strained, one-expression mouths. These effete masks suggest no ability to peruse a face and its particularities. They are nothing more than figuration cut adrift and stripped of its reason for being.

One can hardly blame Clemente for this—he clearly can’t do any better. And at least he isn’t quite the pseudo-classical pasticheur that other Italian postmodernist contemporaries are, with their slimy parodies of neoclassical profiles and flaccid musculature. But the blame, if any, should go to the mechanisms of late-modern taste, the flaccidity induced by the market acting in concert with the supposition that only the new can be the good. It is probably true that the person with a serious curiosity about contemporary art can bypass Rome on his or her travels. Anything of that kind there is seen, as it were, under license: it has come from other galleries in other countries of Europe, or from New York. An air of distinct secondhandedness and second-rateness prevails. Rome today originates nothing. If a pilgrimizing artist in the seventeenth century, when Rome was incontestably the school of the world and all works of art were certified by their relation to the great city, had been told that this would happen within fewer than three hundred years, he would have recoiled in disbelief. Time was when the opportunity to exhibit or do a commission in Rome would have been regarded, and rightly, as the climax of an artist’s career; today it hardly matters, because the Mandate of Heaven (in that expressive old Chinese phrase) has moved elsewhere, and did so many years ago.

No Italian painter or sculptor after (say) 1960 had anything like the same effect on other artists in his medium that Italian filmmakers did in theirs. Film was where the creative vitality of Italy, driven underground by World War II, re-emerged in force. First, it was visible in the neorealist movement. And by the end of the 1950s, it was crystallized in one splendidly imaginative figure.

That person, of course, was Federico Fellini, who may well have been the last completely articulate genius Italy produced in the domain of the visual arts. Fellini was not the only Italian moviemaker of exceptional talent working in Rome immediately after World War II. There were other, perhaps slightly less gifted figures: Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio De Sica come to mind. Others may yet appear, and one should never assume that the long history of Roman painting is permanently closed, deep as its hiatus now looks—though the “death of painting” is constantly announced, it never quite happens. But certainly they have not appeared yet, and even the most sanguine tour of the horizon does not reveal another talent of Fellini’s order in the art of film. Not yet. Perhaps not ever.

The most enduring gift Mussolini made to Italian culture had been the creation of Cinecittà, the studio complex erected in 1937 just outside Rome. As the Duce so correctly pointed out, “Cinema is the most powerful weapon” for propaganda purposes, including a people’s understanding of its own history. Within six years of the official opening of Cinecittà, a ninety-nine-acre spread which had large facilities for training, production and post-production—it was in effect Europe’s only full-service production center—almost three hundred films had been made there, partly government-financed. That number is now closer to three thousand; and of course these vary extremely in quality.

Because of the disruption of war, there was little security for Cinecittà. When Italy surrendered in 1943, the whole complex was intermittently bombed by the Allies, though not heavily enough to destroy its production capability altogether. The Germans, retreating, looted Cinecittà’s equipment and facilities. Immediately after the war, when it became clear that bombing the sets and sound stages was of little strategic use, the Allies converted Cinecittà into a camp for refugees and other displaced persons. It was, in effect, closed down; and Italian filmmakers, deprived of its facilities, took to the streets, using contemporary Rome as their setting and amateur actors as their players. The result was “neorealist” cinema, which amounted to a complete rebirth of the medium in Italy. One “classic” of this type was the film that made Roberto Rossellini’s reputation, Roma città aperta (Rome, Open City), starring Anna Magnani and coscripted by the as yet little-known Federico Fellini, and released in 1945; it was partly shot as documentary during the actual liberation of Rome, and created a sensation when it took the Grand Prize at the 1946 Cannes Film Festival. Another neorealist landmark was Vittorio De Sica’s Ladri di bicicletta (Bicycle Thieves). The masterpiece of the neorealist genre was, however, Rossellini’s film. As not infrequently happens in times of shortage, its moody newsreel style was partly an accident, due to a lack of film stock, so that its unexplained variations in image consistency are now agreed to have been produced by poor processing and insufficient fixing. Had it not been for the war, this belt-tightening would not have taken place, and Cinecittà would probably have kept turning out the inferior, anodyne telefono-bianco romances and comedies that had provided much of its staple fodder in the late 1930s and early ’40s. But as things stood after the triumph of Roma città aperta, a new form of hybrid cinema had been created, partly by design and partly by accident; quite suddenly, Italy—whose influence on movies had been slight, at best, before—was creating world standards for film from its local industry. The influence of Roma città aperta would be felt for more than twenty years, in such works as Ermanno Olmi’s Tree of Wooden Clogs (1978) and Michael Cimino’s much-underratedHeaven’s Gate (1980).

It would be quite wrong to suppose that most of the productions at Cinecittà followed suit. After a grittily realist start, the movies found their natural home in a ready-made ancient Rome touched up with plaster, among what one of their titles (1984) called Le calde notti di Caligola, The Hot Nights of Caligula. Certain historical figures kept cropping up. One of the earliest Rome-set features, long antedating Cinecittà, was Spartacus (1914). It was followed by Spartaco (1953), and Stanley Kubrick’s excellentSpartacus,starring Kirk Douglas (1960), followed by Son of Spartacus (played by that doughty American weightlifter Steve Reeves, effortlessly tossing huge chunks of foam plastic around the Forum) and, as further spin-offs from the gladiator mode, The Revenge of Spartacus (1965), Spartacus and the Ten Gladiators (1964), Triumph of the Ten Gladiators (1964), and, perhaps inevitably, Gladiatress (2004). Some sixteen features, between 1908 and 2003, bore the title of Julius Caesar, and Gérard Depardieu even played him in French (Asterix et Obelix: Mission Cléopâtre, 2002). The most famous and ruinously expensive of all the Rome reconstructions was Joseph Mankiewicz’s 1963 Cleopatra, the cheapest and sluttiest was the Warholish Cleopatra (1970), starring Viva and Gerard Malanga, and the silliest was the British Carry On Cleo (1964). The first of the Antony-and-Cleopatra movies was released in 1908, and it was followed by more than twenty bearing the lady’s name.

In the 1950s, thanks to the cheapness of Rome production and the attractions of the city itself—what American actor wasn’t going to prefer living in a grand Roman hotel to working in Hollywood?—giant international coproductions were filmed there, such asBen-Hur (1959), the 1951 Quo Vadis, and Spartacus (the fourth version, 1960). But the film director whose name is most strongly, indeed indissolubly, linked to the Via Vittorio Veneto was Federico Fellini, and the movie which provided the link was his best-known one, La dolce vita.

No film has ever fascinated me more. This really was Europe on celluloid. It seems odd that Rome would have been rendered more attractive to a writer in his hot-potato twenties by seeing a film as intensely pessimistic as La dolce vita, but it was, and for a double reason. First, I was a callow and inexperienced romantic, yearning for foreign parts; second, Fellini’s film was a real (if flawed) masterpiece about places and situations that seemed overwhelmingly exotic to me. There was no gainsaying either.

Shooting on La dolce vita had begun in March 1959, and the film was released in a storm of publicity and controversy early in 1960. It broke all box-office records; L’osservatore romano, the Vatican’s official paper, called for its censorship; crowds queued for hours to see it; and Fellini was physically attacked at a screening in Milan. For those who have not watched it, it is about the sexual and emotional experiences of a peripheral journalist, Marcello Rubini, played by the iconically handsome Marcello Mastroianni, who makes his living purveying trivial gossip about celebrities to the Italian press. (Originally, the producer, Dino De Laurentiis, had wanted Paul Newman to play Marcello, to guarantee his investment; Fellini adamantly insisted against it.) In order to gather the gossip he peddles, which is never of the least political or cultural significance, he hangs out around the bars and cafés of the Via Veneto. (At the time Fellini was making this movie, the Via Veneto was not yet the caricature of urban glamour La dolce vita turned it into. But it was getting there, and the success of the movie cemented the process in the sixties. Indeed, a stone plaque on one of the buildings acknowledges Fellini’s role in “creating” the Via Veneto as everyone came to know it.)

Marcello is a weakling, one of the class of people who create nothing substantial or even authentic but to whom things merely happen and create a brief, tinny resonance—the essence of voyeurism, which is how Fellini portrays journalism in general. His companion, the Sancho Panza to this ineffectual and passive Quixote—for all gossip papers need photos—is an irrepressibly cheery, fast-footed, and pea-brained photographer named Paparazzo (Walter Santesso)—whose name, such being the film’s enormous afterlife, was to become generic for gossip photographers from then to now. (The name came from the character Paparazzo in a long-disregarded novel set in Italy by the semi-bohemian English novelist George Gissing, By the Ionian Sea, but that title seems to have no bearing on the film. Gissing’s Paparazzo does not even have a camera.)

The atmosphere of fraudulence leaking from on high is set in the very first shots—a clatter of rotor blades that announce the coming of Christ. Not the real redeemer, of course, but a hideous and vulgar ten-foot-high effigy with its loving arms extended in blessing, being hauled across the skyline of Rome by a rented helicopter, ready to be lowered onto the top of some column or dome. The pervasiveness of phony religion is as much a theme of La dolce vita as that of manipulated emotion, and as a newly hatched ex-Catholic I loved every minute of it: it looked and felt like revenge, which indeed it was—Fellini’s own.

La dolce vita loosely unfolds through eight episodes, which are taken to typify the folly and emptiness of Roman life at the dawn of the 1960s. It shows the impulse to religious faith, of which Rome was the traditional center, becoming dried out and descending into the merest superstition. It shows family relationships—those between son and father—dying, more or less, on the branch. It shows Rome as a place given up to sterile and passing pleasure. It shows the death of fame—its descent into mere raucous celebrity. All in all, it sketches a city which can no longer nourish its human contents and yet exercises a magnetic fascination over them, so that they can no longer break from the orbits in which they hold one another.

Despite all its human oddity and theatrical décor, the weirdest moment of La dolce vita was, for me at least, the fish in the net at the end of the film. I have seen it three or four times and, although I am pretty good at identifying fish, I have no idea what this sea beast was: some kind of large ray, I suppose. One does not glimpse its whole body; only a glaucous eye, staring damply in close-up at the lens. Its gaze seems both judgmental and indifferent, as no doubt Fellini meant it to be. The partygoers cluster around it. What is this oddity? Where does it come from? “From Australia,” someone off-camera suggests. On hearing this, I felt mildly buoyed with semi-patriotic pride. My homeland’s tiny, whispered impact on Rome! It seemed like an omen of some kind. I identified with that fish in its strangeness, even though it looked so unappetizing, like a lump of mucus entangled in twine. Like me, it had come all the way from Australia to Italy, in quest of … something or other. Who could know or guess what (if anything) it had been expecting, as it blundered slowly and slimily about on the bed of the Tyrrhenian? Certainly it had been haunting Fellini’s imagination ever since, in 1934, he saw a huge, ugly fish stranded on a beach near Rimini.

Fellini went on to make several more movies which became classics of the Italian imagination; the most beautiful and complex of these were 8 1/2 (1963), his extraordinary meditation on the creative process itself—he wanted “to tell the story of a director who no longer knows what film he wants to make”—and Amarcord (1973), a convoluted essay on childhood memory. (“Amarcord” was Riminese dialect for “Io mi ricordo,” “I remember.”) But though these were loaded with honors from festivals and the industry,La dolce vita has a special place in film history which no Italian paintings of the period can conceivably rival, and no Italian movie made in the foreseeable future is likely to equal its wide cultural impact.

The vision Fellini released of Rome as a tragic playground, filled with the promise of sensuous delight but shadowed by the impossibility of true gratification, proved to be very haunting. It also played beautifully, and to a large extent truthfully, against the Rome the visitor came to know fifty years ago. The Eternal City was a far more agreeable place to be in the early 1960s than it is today.

Of course, this may have been (to some degree) an illusion, fostered then by my own ignorance of the Italian language, and by my excessively optimistic belief in the continuity of Italian culture. At the time, those decades ago, it seemed entirely promising and real. The past fifty years have yielded little of interest, culturally, politically, or especially artistically. But the fact that Berlusconi’s Rome, at the start of the twenty-first century, has been gutted by the huge and ruthless takeover of its imagination by mass tourism and mass media, does not mean that continuity didn’t exist—once upon a time, when the city was slightly younger.

People, Italians included, never run out of complaints about the decay of Roman culture, both high and popular. It is gross. It is pandering. You only need to turn on the TV in your Roman hotel room to see that. Do so and you will at once be immersed in what you might call the id of the owner, Silvio Berlusconi—a nightmare territory to you perhaps, but to most Italians a sort of paradise, filled with fictions of “knowing”—the ceaseless diet of gossip and chatter and scandal and unembarrassed glitz that passes for news, the relentless barrage of sports and commentary on sports, the diet of cushion-lipped, big-breasted blonde babes who serve as announcers, the wrestling matches, and all the rest of it. After all, it is only in Italy that a stripper named Cicciolina (briefly famous in the outside world as the spectacularly ill-treated wife of the artist Jeff Koons, and mother of their little son, Ludwig) could acquire a seat in Parliament. It is easy, after passing an idle evening with this stuff (one evening will suffice; it is pretty much all the same, whichever evening you pick), to assume that Italian popular culture has sunk below some IQ level it once occupied in the past. This is an illusion. Italian television—one is tempted to say Italian popular culture in general—is crap, always has been, and will never be anything else. It may not be the absolute worst in the world, but it is certainly way down there.

But, then, has Italian “popular” art ever been much better? We are inclined to sentimentalize about it, but should we? Reflecting on this, I sometimes find myself strolling in the galleries formerly occupied by mosaics from the Baths of Caracalla. In their heyday, these enormous thermae, whose stage was big enough to allow a four-horse chariot to be driven on it (this is still done in some productions there of Aida), were elaborately decorated with mosaics of the third century C.E. Many of these have now been transferred to the Pagan Museum of the Lateran and reapplied to its walls. Some are not without their archaeological and narrative interest, but what a vision of lumpish coarseness they present! They are gross musclemen, naked gladiators brandishing weapons that look like, and presumably were, heavy bronze knuckle-dusters with protruding flanges, the better to tear out an opponent’s eye or smash in his teeth. Watching a pair of these brutes belting away at each other might have slaked most of the pleasure in violence that was satisfied by more lethal encounters with sword and trident. But as studies in heroic nakedness, these stumpy mosaic figures have nothing going for them. They are pure demonstrations of the human body as weapon of meat. They have little in common with more gracefully formalized Greek pugilists or wrestlers. And this was what the Romans liked: violence without frills, just glaring and bashing. And rubbish, too. The floor of the dining chamber depicted is covered with rubbish. Not ordinary droppings, such as might be left after a banquet of extremely messy guests, but unswept kitchen filth: fruit skins, the bones of a fish, and suchlike. Walking on it (which you cannot do, since this is a museum), you would half-expect things to go squidge and crackle underfoot. Except that they cannot and will not do so, being a couple of thousand years old, or thereabouts.

When we talk about “classical” Roman art, the word “classical” does not really mean what it might mean in Greece. It tends to signify something heavier, more grossly human, and definitely less ideal.

We cannot make the mistake with Romans of supposing that they were refined, like the Greeks they envied and imitated. They tended to be brutes, arrivistes, nouveaux-riches. Naturally, that is why they continue to fascinate us—we imagine being like them, as we cannot imagine being like the ancient Greeks. And we know that what they liked best to do was astonish people—with spectacle, expense, violence, or a fusion of all three. As Belli put it, writing about the exultant firework display that rose each year above the cupola of Saint Peter’s at the pope’s behest:

      Chi ppopolo po’ èsse, e cchi sovrano,

      vChe cciàbbi a ccasa sua ’na cuppoletta,

      Com’ er nostro San Pietr’ in Vaticano?

      In qual antra scittà, in qual antro stato,

      C’è st’illuminazzione bbenedetta,

      Che tt’intontissce e tte fa pperde er fiato?

      What people, and what sovereign,

      Have in their home a little dome

      Like that of our Saint Peter in the Vatican?

      In what other city, in what other country,

      Is there this blessed light

      That stuns you and takes your breath away?

The answer is still essentially what it was back then, in 1834: Rome, and only Rome. So, too, “classical,” in the Roman sense, suggests something solider, more enduring, than the Greek. For all its glories, and for all the legacy it left in art, thought, and politics, Greek civilization did perish. That of Rome is still somewhat with us. One would need to be strangely indifferent not to appreciate what Ammianus Marcellinus (c. 330–95 C.E.), writing after the effective collapse of the great empire, had to say about Constantine’s arrival there in 357, for there is a little Constantine left in all our reactions, in our undying sense of astonishment at this city of prodigious and overweening ambition (italics my own):

Then, as he surveyed the sections of the city and the suburbs … he thought that whatever first met his gaze towered above all the rest; the sanctuaries of Tarpeian Jove so far surpassing as things divine excel those of earth; the baths built up in the manner of provinces; the huge bulk of the Amphitheater, strengthened by its framework of travertine, to whose top human eyesight barely ascends; the Pantheon like a round city-district, vaulted over in lofty beauty; and the exalted columns which rise like platforms to which one may mount, and bear the likeness of former emperors; the Temple of the City; the Forum of Peace; the Theater of Pompey, the Odeum, the Stadium, and in their midst the other adornments of the Eternal City. But when he came to the Forum of Trajan, a construction unique under heaven, as we believe, and admirable even in the unanimous opinion of the gods, he stood fast in amazement, turning his attention to the gigantic complex about him, beggaring description and never again to be imitated by mortal men.

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