Somewhere for the weekend : La Dolce Vita

A new photo exhibition at the Estorick Collection reveals Italy’s golden age in the Fifties and Sixties was as dark as it was glorious, says Alastair Smart

The Italians have always been rather big on symbolism – and you don’t have to look as far back as the fruit in Renaissance paintings. To many, the arson attack this February on the Café de Paris, in Rome’s Via Veneto, felt like the end of a golden era.

Golden age: Carlo Ponti takes Sophia Loren and Vittorio De Sica for a ride through Rome in 1961
Golden age: Carlo Ponti takes Sophia Loren and Vittorio De Sica for a ride through Rome in 1961

Now a battleground between the authorities and ‘Ndrangheta money–launderers, the elegant café once served as a magnet for stars and socialites, and an inspiration for Federico Fellini when making his classic film, La Dolce Vita. In the late Fifties and early Sixties, Rome was the most stylish city on Earth. The economy was booming, renowned fashion designers such as Roberto Capucci imbued the city with glamour, and American film–makers flocked to Cinecittà Studios, that “Hollywood on the Tiber”.

For those keen to revel in nostalgia, the Estorick Collection, in north London, is about to open an exhibition of 80 photos from that sumptuous era. Raquel Welch is pictured dancing on a table while Marcello Mastroianni looks on; Brigitte Bardot sips champagne; Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor lounge on the deck of their yacht; and Mike Hargitay sweeps Jane Mansfield off her feet, and into a waiting limo.

This golden era was epitomised by Fellini’s film, featuring Mastroianni as the suave celebrity reporter Rubini, who’s in thrall to the age’s idols and employed to follow their every glitzy move: from exclusive nightclubs to aristocrats’ villas.

On the back of the film’s international success, the term “dolce vita” – literally “the sweet life” – found its way into English, and it’s easy to make the unflattering comparison between Italy in the Fellini era and Italy today, in the (post-)Berlusconi one.

Raquel Welch and Marcello Mastroianni on set of ‘Shoot Loud, Louder… I Don’t Understand’ (1966)

Even the stars back then were greater, distant to us not just in time but in the way they maintained a mystique and always kept something of themselves back – which is why there’s still a thrill to seeing them pictured here, off–guard and off–duty.

Yet, we must be wary of regarding Fellini’s Rome through rose–tinted spectacles, for that is to distort the director’s vision. The film wasn’t a celebration of the dolce vita so much as a critique of it, his use of the title highly ironic.

The opening scene features two helicopters – one flying a statue of Christ to St Peter’s, the other (with Rubini on) following it – only for the latter to get sidetracked by a bevy of bikini–clad beauties sunbathing on a penthouse roof. The implication? That this was a godless, pleasure–seeking age. As Evelyn Waugh put it, there were new barbarians at Rome’s gates.

And then, of course, there’s the character of Marcello’s sidekick, Paparazzo, whose name – in another gift to the English language – now serves for a whole breed of intrusive, celebrity snappers. The Estorick show is drawn largely from the archive of real–life paparazzo Marcello Geppetti, and many of his shots prove that the stars didn’t always ooze cool. Franco Nero is seen attacking one photographer with his fists, Anita Ekberg pursues another with a bow and arrow.

It was just one facet of Fellini’s genius that his world differed so markedly from our own, yet also at once foreshadowed it.

‘The Years of La Dolce Vita’, at Estorick Collection, London N1, to June 29; 020 7704 9522

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.