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).
We needed to find that material at any cost, and that strange material was what we needed .
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!
So, we found the new resin, very fast, effective, unbreakable, lightweight, inert, durable, it was something of miraculous!
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.
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.