Making Italian cinema great again (and again): Founding ceremonies and inaugurations of Italy’s film studios (and their politics)

By Carla Mereu Keating

‘An unforgettable day’: The inauguration of the Cines-Pittaluga studios 

Showcasing state-of-the-art infrastructure and technology, the highly mediated re-opening of the historical Roman studios Cines by entrepreneur Stefano Pittaluga inaugurates not only the beginning of Italy’s sound film production but also a long-lasting entanglement between the film and media industries and the powers that be.

Advert for the newly converted studios (La vita cinematografica 1930: 62)

According to the print media – much of which gravitated around Pittaluga’s vertically integrated company Società Anonima Stefano Pittaluga (SASP) – the ‘solemn’ inauguration of the studios, held on the afternoon of Friday 23 May 1930, made for ‘an unforgettable day’ (La rivista cinematografica 1930: 13; Kinema 1930: 83). 

Only a few years earlier, in October 1926, the run-down film production facilities, the first of this kind to be founded in Italy, in 1905, by pioneer filmmaker Filoteo Alberini and business partner Dante Santoni, who owned a piece of land near Porta San Giovanni in Rome (Lasi 2015: 29), had been incorporated into SASP (Redi 2011: 87-90). The facilities had gradually been refurbished throughout 1929 and two of the three existing stages converted to kickstart ‘sound, singing and talking’ film production in Italy. 

In the picture below, Minister of Corporations Giuseppe Bottai and Stefano Pittaluga (in the centre, left and right) visit the Cines studios accompanied by other guests (La vita cinematografica 1930: 15). 

The re-opening of the studios was also the focus of the Rivista Cines N. 1 (directed by Carlo Campogalliani), the first of a newsreel programme offered by Cines-Pittaluga to accompany the screening of its main feature-length production. This inaugural rivista would be screened in theatres nationwide from October 1930, in conjunction with Italy’s long-awaited first talking film La canzone dell’amore (Redi 1986). The newsreel showcased Pittaluga’s ambitious new project while launching recently contracted actors Elio Steiner, also the male protagonist of La canzone dell’amore, and Grazia del Rio, who would star alongside Steiner in Stella del Cinema, another Cines-Pittaluga’s feature set in the studios and released in June 1931 (Bursi 2012).

Through crosscutting editing and temporal manipulation of the order in which the afternoon unfolded, the rivista moved towards its climax, the speech given by minister of Corporations Giuseppe Bottai in support of Pittaluga’s venture in particular and of the Italian film industry as a whole (see passage below). The camera-shy Pittaluga had spoken first, welcoming the fascist hierarchy in front of a distinguished crowd of guests (allegedly, some 700 people had been invited to the inauguration, but the evidence suggests a lower attendance). 

Stefano Pittaluga reads his speech (Il cinema italiano 1930: 3)

Stefano Pittaluga reads his speech (Il cinema italiano 1930: 3)

Pittaluga’s inaugural speech does not feature in the rivista. Here’s a short illustrative passage of his intervention, as quoted in the press: 

our aim is to release to the world, from the Cines studios, works capable of being expression of the new Italy, that is to say of a Nation that wants to live, to prosper and to affirm in front of everybody her magnificent possibilities which were perfected across many and long centuries of glorious civilization, and which today mean, to us Italians, having an exquisite artistic sensibility, determination and awareness of our race’s worth. (my italics)

Bottai’s confident speech was all for the silver screen. Let us remind ourselves here that this audiovisual document would have been, for many Italian moviegoers in October 1930, an early, if not their very first, experience of hearing and seeing someone speaking (Italian) on screen. Here’s a passage immortalised by the rivista:

‘Commendator Pittaluga, cinematographic activity interests at the same time the artistic order, the economic order and the political order of the nation insofar as it directs the strength of the nation towards manifestations destined to take around the world its reputation. For this reason, I am here, in your studios, to bear witness to the deep interest of the national government for this branch so interesting, so difficult and so important to the industrial and artistic activity of the country. I have readied a labour scheme, a funding scheme, a normative scheme that will help, I hope, to create better conditions for Italian filmmaking, politically, economically, financially. But alongside these norms, these funding schemes, these and all that the State is about to do, individuals are needed, entrepreneurs are needed, film industry leaders are needed to act with firm will and sure energy. We wait, and I say we mainly on behalf of my, of our chief, the Duce of fascism, for Italian film men, young and old, to give Italy, also in this field, new victories!’ (my italics)

The Roman minister’s political rhetoric (here articulated in a number of figures of speech including alliteration, prolexis and parataxis) would have offered a sound-on-picture-perfect illustration of the exciting possibilities of the new talking film technology (the RCA Photophone system, in the case of Cines).

Among the hyperbolic press propaganda which followed this inauguration, one entitled ‘Costruire’ [to build] is particularly interesting to our present work on the studios as it highlights the fast-growing infiltration of politics (in this case of fascism’s imperialist ideology) in the  material fabric of the film studios  ̶  a well-known example of which would be the building and inauguration of Cinecittà by Benito Mussolini in April 1937. Here the journalist draws both from construction terminology and military vocabulary (comparing Pittaluga’s studio venture to Julius Caesar’s legendary crossing of the norther Italian river!) to celebrate the historical creation of a future Italian Hollywood: 

‘To the vacuous propagating of chatters which oozed our misery of construction, finally today we contrast the full efficiency of a fascist verb: to build. […] and not only are actual buildings being built, those contingent and most modern to the making of the sound, talking and singing film; but already the vast and powerful Roman construction yard vibrates of a harmony of activity arranged aptly, distributed intelligently, and led daily by the new artisans of ‘our’ new italic film […] Stefano Pittaluga has crossed the Rubicon and marches to the conquest of a country that seemed inaccessible even in dreams and that may well tomorrow be named the true Italian Hollywood’ (La rivista cinematografica 1930: 1)

The foundation and inauguration, at the outskirts of Rome, of Cinecittà and of the national film school Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia in April 1937 and on January 1940 respectively are possibly the most obvious examples of the direct involvement of the state in film matters. There are, however, other, perhaps lesser known, symbolic episodes of political participation in the physical life of the studios. At least one example can be found in later years, during the post-fascist Christian Democrat administration.

‘A solid, lasting foundation’: De Laurentiis’ Dinocittà

On 15 January 1962 construction work officially began for producer Dino De Laurentiis’ new film studios, an ambitious $30 million project which would see the building of Europe’s most technologically advanced film studio complex on the via Pontina, 23 km outside of Rome (Kezich and Levantesi 2004: 150; 155). De Laurentiis’ costly venture was baptised by the national newspaper press as ‘the birth of a new Cinecittà’ (Corriere d’informazione 1962: 8). 

The founding ceremony was celebrated with ‘festive solemnity’ by a distinguished gaggle of well-known industrial, artistic and political figures. Guests included De Laurentiis’ close friends and collaborators such as popular actor Alberto Sordi and director Federico Fellini (who was later quoted to dub the studios ‘a space station’) (Kezich and Levantesi 2004: 114-15). Vittorio De Sica was invited to read from a parchment, which was then enclosed in a silver container and buried with the first stone by Amintore Fanfani, Christian Democrat Prime Minister of Italy.. 

Laying the first stone (Paese Sera 1962: 11)

As proclaimed by De Sica, the building of the studios symbolised De Laurentiis’ ongoing wish to give a solid, lasting foundation – industrial, social, moral and artistic – to the work he has already undertaken in the cinematographic field. This vast complex, whose construction commences with this very stone, will benefit the entire Italian film industry, which, since the beginning of the Twentieth century and particularly during the last fifteen years, has contributed so much to Italy’s image and prestige throughout the world. (2004: 154) (translation by James Marcus; my italics)

Before De Sica, the under-secretary of the Ministry of Performing Arts Renzo Helfer also shared some words to celebrate the occasion. Here’s a short extract published in Turin’s newspaper La Stampa:

We look with regard at the development of an industry as dynamic as cinema (…) but we surely cannot exempt ourselves from exercising control in order to secure respect for the State and its rules. (1962: 4)

The shutdown of the film studio complex after less than ten years of activity stirred a huge controversy because its construction had been partly funded with loans granted by the Cassa per il Mezzogiorno. This was a governmental scheme aimed to encourage economic growth in the South of Italy and which offered credit and tax incentives to promote public and infrastructural investments. Laid-off workers occupied the facilities and went on strike to protest against job losses. The closure also became subject of a parliamentary inquiry, the socialist party (and the communist press) accusing De Laurentiis of speculating with public money to build an ‘impractical white elephant’, only to try to sell it back to the state through a merger with the ‘obsolete’ Cinecittà (2004: 188-89; 195; Argentieri 1983: 11).  

Rites of Passage  

Leading ahead in the domestic conversion to sound, Pittaluga’s capitalist venture welcomes, in early 1930, the state’s commitment to support the longed-for rebirth of the Italian film industry. During the regime’s later years, the much-propagandised foundation-building-inauguration of Rome’s fascist city of cinema, Cinecittà, epitomizes the permeation of politics in the material life of the studios. In the early 1960s, the founding of De Laurentiis’ studios brings us to another industrial rite of passage , once again symbolised by the building of a film production complex equipped with the latest technology. Riding too late on the wave of the post-war production boom, however, the producer’s lavish new project (and the domestic film industry) will be destined to ill fortune.

References

Anon, ‘Costruire’, La rivista cinematografica, 11: 11, 15 June 1930, pp. 1-4.

Anon, ‘La solenne inaugurazione della Cines-Pittaluga’, La rivista cinematografica, 11: 11, 15 June 1930, pp. 13-19.

Anon, ‘La solenne inaugurazione dei teatri Cines-Pittaluga’, Il cinema italiano, 19, 1 June 1930, pp. 1-3.

Anon, ‘L’inaugurazione ufficiale degli stabilimenti Cines-Pittaluga a Roma’, Kinema, 2: 2, June 1930, pp. 83-86.

Anon, ‘La prima pietra al Centro De Laurentiis’, Paese Sera, 16-17 January 1962, p. 11.

Argentieri, Mino, ‘Quante mani su Dinocittà’, L’Unità, 16 December 1983, p. 11.

Bursi, Giulio, ‘Vano e’ cercare forme strane e nuove! “La stella del cinema” di Mario Almirante e la rappresentazione della tecnologia nel primo cinema sonoro italiano’, Immagine: note di storia del cinema, 5, 2012, pp. 105-37.

Kezich, Tullio and Alessandra Levantesi (2004), Dino. The Life and Films of Dino De Laurentiis (New York: Hyperion).

Lasi, Giovanni (2015), La presa di Roma. 20 settembre 1870 (Milano-Udine: Mimesis/CSC).

L. Z., ‘È nata la grande rivale di Cinecittà’, La Stampa, 16 January 1962, p. 4.

N. U., ‘Nasce una nuova Cinecitta’ per il film sulla Bibbia’, Corriere d’informazione, 13 January 1962, p. 8.

Redi, Riccardo (1986), Ti Parlero’ … d’amore. Cinema italiano fra muto e sonoro (Torino: ERI).

Redi, Riccardo (2011), La Cines. Storia di una casa di produzione italiana (Bologna: Paolo Emilio Persiani).

All translations from Italian language sources are by the author unless otherwise stated.

Many thanks to senior archivist Franca Farina and the Fondazione CSC – Cineteca Nazionale in Rome for providing remote study access to the Rivista N.1 during the lockdown.

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