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The Real Thing

February 24, 2016

ISU Cinecitta' Visit

Two outings in two days have me thinking about authenticity and meaning. No answers, just observations.

Yesterday I accompanied a class I co-teach on a studio your to Cinecittà, Rome’s film studios. The five acres of backlots have twice been the center of a thriving film industry: once in the fascist era when Hollywood films were unwelcome in Italy, and again in the post-war, dolce vita years when the lots were bustling with everything from sword and sandal blockbusters to the masterpieces of Fellini. Today they are barely in business, but this actually makes it easier for the general public to visit without getting in the way.

Spending a lot of time as I do in real archaeological sites, walking out onto the sets built for HBO’s Rome series was a thrill. The historical accuracy didn’t interest me so much as the spatial quality; actually occupying this kind of urban space without the barriers, intrusive signage, vehicles, vendors and other 21st century intrusions made up for the poor quality of construction.  It was tempting to prefer the fake to the real.  The designers had done a very good job of replicating the “aura” of age that we all love in ruins, so that the sets seemed weathered but intact, not gaudy and new as they might have at the time of Augustus. And post-production did the rest.

Further spurring my reflections, I had just watched Spectre (especially the parts shot in Rome in which I had been marginally involved) and last night saw (again) the Truman Show, shot in the much-debated new urbanist experiment Seaside. Both set a fictional story in a real place, but the latter is a place designed as a stage set, while Rome has evolved as a de-facto stage set, representing nothing if not itself.



Rome from the Janiculum in Spectre


Bond’s Aston Martin being chased along the bike path (not the best use of Rome’s urban riverfront where Tevereterno is about to launch its next arts project)

Today, by contrast, my son and I drove to the town of Palestrina to visit the Palazzo Barberini museum in the ruins of the Temple of Fortuna Primigenia.  Like the studios at Cinecittà, the museum felt abandoned. The town of Palestrina seemed to have tried some years back to promote its treasures, but since given up.  One of three major ancient sanctuaries in Italy, the site was practically empty and, apart from the helpful custodians, we had the museum to ourselves. After lunch (Antica Palestrina, right off S. Maria degli Angeli, good food and atmosphere), we headed off to what (according to a publication picked up the museum) promised to be an interesting new archaeological park with Roman bridges and aqueducts. Ponte Amata on the ancient Via Prenestina was not easy to find, nor to enter (the gates locked with no signage). But we found a way in and upon entering the site were treated to a beautiful stretch of Roman road crossing an authentic Roman bridge.

I could help but compare this road to the sets I had visited the day before. The real ancient road was actually in better shape than the fake, which had been modeled I suppose on the heavily eroded streets of the Forum. But the context surrounding this and many other archaeological sites on the outskirts of Rome is sadly becoming uglier, less natural and less authentic as the years go by.  On the traffic-filled road between Rome and Palestrina we must have passed a dozen new roadside strip-mall Slot Machine joints, all trying to look like Las Vegas which in turn tries to look like ancient Rome trying to look like Egypt, all selling dreams of riches to people unaware of the very real treasures that are hiding behind the scenes.


Terracotta vtive statues at the museum in Palestrina


Entry to the Palazzo Barberini (aka Temple of Fortuna Primigenia



Finding Rome in the backlots at Cinecittà


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