Contraddictory Classic

Have you ever watched an old Kolossal from the fifties and sixties? Have you ever got caught up by the compelling stories of Ben Hur or Cleopatra? Perhaps you have never paid too much attention to the sets, the decorations, the costumes and the statues that in these long-standing historical films represent some of the most impactful elements. Well, most of these things are absolutely out of context, out of place, out of date.

An architectural order not too compliant with the classical canons or a Capitoline Venus that appears two centuries before it was carved. This kind of fakes are countless in the many blockbusters produced from the post-war period until the early seventies between Cinecittà and Hollywood.

It is natural to wonder why respectable world-famous screenwriters and directors may have allowed such “errors” or inattention? The answer is simple, it’s not a matter of inattention but a matter of necessity. The cinematographic productions of the historical genre were massive both in the number of films produced every year, and also about the quantity of scenographies made within the movie itself. Often the structures and the workers present in the studios could not bear the pressing of the productions and the work to be done. In Cinecittà, on the  making of the sets worked hundreds of workers of all kinds, such as tailors, costume designers, architects, set designers, sculptors, plasterers, mold makers, modelers, painters, wood workers, carpenters.

The quantity of decorations and sculptures to be made (all by hand) was enormous. Sets and scenography both indoor and outdoor were often gigantic, so many sculptures had to be placed in every shooting set.

Cinema as we know is based on the effect trying to suspend the spectator, involve him emotionally, making everything at the same time absolutely plausible and realistic. It didn’t matter then if the iconographies were not true or if the statues were placed in completely wrong contexts or according to a completely random associations. Furthermore, the films were intended for a mass audience, not so attentive and meticulous on the history and very often not yet fully literate.

Today, apart from some “errors” which are always quite common in historical movies, set designers are very attentive to truthfulness keeping attention to all details. Many designers for whom we work ask for very specific works to be placed inside the film sets, high quality sculptures, made with great care and attention. Not infrequently we create the works specifically according to the requests of the director and the set designer. Watching today the old colossal with more aware eyes could make us smile, but they remain absolute cine masterpieces of all time. The enormous work necessary for their making, the great quantity of actors and extras employed, the gigantic scenographies and the innumerable statues and decorations leave us still today amazed and fascinated. In investigating, with lightness and fun, “the fake” present regarding the statues present in films of that era, one inevitably enters an engaging and extremely amusing game. 

Here some examples:

Quo Vadis by E. Guazzoni 1912

In the background we see the Bust of Eros of Centocelle (discovered in 1772) which is actually not only the head but a complete statue up to the torso.

Scipione the African C. Gallone 1937

The Putto with the Goose, nowadays preserved in the Vatican Museums, is transformed into an unlikely fountain.

Quo Vadis? M. Leroy 1951

Emperor Nero stand in front of the model of the city of Rome. Indeed it is the plaster model by Italo Gismondi made by the mold maker Pierino di Carlo in 1937 (preserved at the Museo della Civiltà Romana), that depicts Rome at the time of its greatest expansion under the emperor Constantine, about two hundred fifty years later the Nero’s era.

Again on the set of Quo Vadis? the actors rest on the set during a break, a plaster cast of the neoclassical statue of Damosseno that Antonio Canova sculpted in 1794 was placed against the backdrop of the roman scenography.

Giulio Cesare by J. L. Mankiewicz 1953

Marlon Brando in the role of Marco Antonio stand in front of a copy of the Young Centaur, which however was sculpted (with the Centaur the Elder) about one hundred years later for the emperor Hadrian’s Villa in Tivoli.

Mio Figlio Nerone (Nero’s week) Steno 1956

Brigitte Bardot in the guise of Poppea poses near a cast of the Capitoline Venus that has been placed in an excessive inclination, not correct respecting to the original marble.

These kind of errors were quite frequent, very often the minor workers did not know the history, the origin and the characteristics of the original works represented. Often they did not even know the name of the subject.

Filming went on very frantically without having time to verify details or work more accurately. In the Roman artistic environment there is a term that says: ‘alla cinematografara‘, it’s means in the manner of cinema, that describing precisely this method of working in the cinematographic ambient, much less accurate than the sculptors and academic ambient.

The Agony and the Ecstasy  by C. Reed 1965

In a scene of the film we see Charlton Heston playing Michelangelo Buonarroti while he is sculpting the Dying Slave (today at the Louvre Museum in Paris), using a really unlikely technique. According the impeccable technique used by Michelangelo the sculpture was first sketched, creating the general volumes and then the sculptor proceeded to define the various parts of the body, in an organic way. Then he proceeded to sculpt and define the face and all other details. Here the left arm, raised on the head, was not even roughed out leaving behind an excessive mass of marble. Obviously these are details that the director prefers to ignore by virtue of a more effective and immediate visual effect.

Caligula et Messaline by B. Mattei, A. Passalia 1981

In a scene from the film, among the statues that decorate the roman baths, was placed the Ebe by the danish neoclassical sculptor Berthel Thorvaldsen who sculpted her in 1806.

For an exhaustive study read the catalog of the exhibition curated by my friend Tomas Lochman, Antike im Kino, Skulpturthalle Basel, 2008.