Tale of an hard work behind the scenes of Ben Hur

I believe that all of you knows the blockbuster film Ben Hur directed by William Wiler in 1959 and starring Charlton Heston, Stephen Boyd, Haya Harareet, Hugh Griffith, Martha Scott, Sam Jaffe, and many others. I wonder though, how many have ever imagined the huge work that was necessary for the making of the film and especially the scenographies. How many sculptors, factory workers, plasterers and ‘maestri’ have given their contribution to history in order to deliver this masterpiece of cinema made by more than 1,000,000 pounds (450,000 kg) of plaster.  A workshop employing 200 artists and workmen provided the hundreds of friezes and statues needed. My father, Maestro Romolo; was one of them; was nineteen at the time he worked in sculpture workshops at Cinecittà as skilled moldmaker.

Maestro Romolo Felice during the construction of the Ben Hur set.

Cinecittà, Roma, 1958

In the famous chariot race, one of the most exciting scenes of the film, the scenery is majestic, two large statues placed at the ends of the spine of the circus were made of plaster and wood as well asarchitectural reconstructions. Some famous masterpieces of classical art as the Apollo del Belvedere or the Amazzone Mattei are placedsomewhat randomly visible (read note at the bottom).

Until I was a child my father told me many exciting stories and anecdotes that happened during the making of this and otherkolossals at Cinecittà. Those stories sounded very interesting and fascinating than any book of adventure of children’s literature
Some time ago he told me the curious and entertaining story of the making of dolphins that during the ride were used to count the number of revolutions of the charriots:
‘The clay model was just completed by the sculptor, the work was frenetic and everything had to be done quickly. There was not much time available after some days we had to filming the scene. So we made a plaster mold on the clay modelof the big dolphin. The big problem was that these dolphins would turn on themselves and plaster would be too heavy otherwise, if made more light, would be too fragile.
We needed something like a good idea...
Next early morning a guy came into the workshop with some models and maquette made in a material unknown to us. It seemed to be something exceptional.
We needed to find that material at any cost, and that strange material was what we needed .
So, there was a man who could help us, he came from the United States, and his name was Glenn Randall Sr. 
Randall was the horse trainer on the film set. We asked to him to help us, he was leaving for the States in a couple of days. After very few days he returned with a cask of that precious material, the polyester resin.
Faster and stronger than plaster or anything else.  
A new material was just arrived directly from the States!
At that time all this was an exceptional event in our workshop, where nothing was known but plaster.
It was 1958, at Cinecittà we did not have any experience with resins or other chemical matrerials before. We did everything using plaster and other traditional materials, but perhaps it was time for new discoveries in our craft.  
We were changing…
So, we found the new resin, very fast, effective, unbreakable, lightweight, inert, durable, it was something of miraculous!
We approached the unknown material, we began to touch it with suspicion, as if it were an unknown animal. However, we were intrigued and wanted to know it in some way. 
Began to experiment but the result was not what we expected. We discovered that it was necessary to use  fiberglass with the resin, but Mr. Randallhad not brought it from America.
We tried to use burlap instead of fiberglass, but the result was disastrous.
We were downhearted, then at the end we were able to procure the fiberglass, I do not remember how.
Our foreman was holding the resin in a closed room where only he had access. Had confided the secret of the preparation of the resin with only one of us and asked him to keep silence, under swear. While working on the dolphins we had to ask him to prepare the mixture of resin each time we needed it
Then at the end the nine dolphins were done and the famous scene was filmed with big success.’
(Maestro Romolo Felice, 2012)

Impressed by this story I went to look for the original model of the dolphin in my collection. With a little work of restorationhas returned to show off its beautiful shape and patina. During the work of restoring was a pleasure to recall the magnificence of those works and the pioneering nature of those ‘maestri’ and workers that on the tales of my father I wasalways left to imagine.

A superb and interesting study on the use of classical sculptures in cinema was curated by my friend Tomas Lochman studious and director of the Skulpturhalle of Basel (one of oldest and beautiful casts collection in Europe) for the exhibition Antike im Kino from 16 April to 02 November 2008.